He was the first to climb out of the valley.
He was given no aid in his climb, his fellows having been lost, and the Guardian not being willing to help a stranger invade Paradise. The Guardian stood at the top of the cliff, staring at the spot where the filthy creature was emerging. First came the hand, the once-taut flesh hanging from a skeletal claw. It scraped at the stone, its fingers digging in to the cracks, forcing the tenons deep, shattering their weakened shells. The Guardian heard his calls, yet did not move from his post, knowing as he did that each man must pass his test alone. The newcomer's blood would be his toll to paradise.
The Guardian merely observed the stranger's progress, taking note as he did of the specimen's height, weight, physical condition et cetera. He did not attempt, as some lesser creature might, to fathom what horrors the man had been through, or for how long he had wandered the wasteland below. That was the province of those who relied on imagination to think, not those who employed pure logic. His observations were interrupted by an unprecedented event, the man reached the plateau in earnest, throwing his chest onto the ledge, then swinging his legs up.
The Guardian hesitated for a moment. He was accustomed to his post, and found these new directives disturbing. he could not, however, disobey. He took the first step, or tried to. The ground over the aeons had buried his feet in the earth, encasing his feet in the clay. In irritation, he brought his staff down between his toes, shattering the moccasins. He stepped out of the earth, to fulfill the directive.
The man did not stir as the Guardian's strong arms gathered his body up from the cliff's edge. He gave no indication that he heard the rustle of leaves, nor the snap of twigs as the Guardian bore him through the forest. The only indication he gave of the life within him was to grab the front of the Guardian's robe as he was lowered to the bed, leaving a bloody handprint on the angel's grey robes. Whatever dream had been triggered immediately subsided upon his contact with the bed.
For weeks the Guardian tended him, looking in on him early in the morning, then again in the evening. Every second day, the Guardian carried him to the stream and scrubbed his body, removing the sweat of terror which threatened to overpower the perfume of the roses which surrounded the hostel.
Having bathed, the man would be clothed in a simple loincloth, then returned to his bed, to be hidden once more in the tangle of sheets he would create. The Guardian did not wonder at the state of the bedclothes, not deigning to deal in matters of imagination and speculation. Many would be the times in the future he would look back and wish he had stooped to such tactics. His wish of the future, however, did not affect his actions in the present despite his power.
With rest, the man grew back to strength. His starved frame fleshed out, relieving the sunken look of his cheeks. His hands began to heal, the skin reclaiming its right to cover the bone and muscle. Yet, though his body healed, the ferocity of his dreams did not abate, he would lie, delirious, on the bed at nights, recalling the horrors of the passage, occasionally calling out the names of those he had lost, of those who had been doomed to wander the shadow land forever. His cries went unheeded by the Guardian, having only the walls to offer them sympathy.
Eventually he was strong enough to wander through the garden, at first on the arm of the Guardian, then, finally, by himself. After this time, the Guardian saw little of his charge, as the man would spend days alone in the gardens, his face pensive, occasionally wracked by spasms of remembered pain and terror.
The Guardian sought him out during one of these sabbaticals. He approached the man as he sat, staring, transfixed by the wonders of a fire which he had built. The Guardian had already seated himself before the man was able to pull his attention away from the flickering light. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, almost choked, as if the emotions which couldn't find expression in his face had stopped up his voice in protest. The Guardian took no note of his tone, it not occurring to him as being important until many years later.
The man talked through the night, and though the Guardian listened, he heard nothing, dismissing as he did most of the man's speech as sentimental gibberish.
The man asked the Guardian of his companions, the ones he had left behind in the valley. The Guardian, blind as he was, did not see the danger. He confirmed the man's nightmares. He told him of the fate of those who were doomed to wander the valley. He blindly lumbered on, completely overlooking the deepening horror which re-etched his audience's face.
After that conversation, the man's sojourns stretched to months. The Guardian did not worry, though he would have been better to have done so, after all, there was nothing in Paradise which could harm its only resident. The Guardian returned to his former post, allowing the earth to once more close about him, as he stared across the valley to the world of men. He did not know of the man's endeavors until the first pilgrims began arriving.
He heard them from his post, holding a victory celebration in the heart of the garden. Their songs reached him, and drew him from his post, not out of love for the music, but out of curiosity. There were five of them, holding goblets filled with the eternal waters which sprung from the center of the garden, and in their other hands, they held the fruits of the trees.
The Guardian had, as his duty demanded, tried to destroy the intruders, but had been prevented from carrying through the stroke.
The man was not among the revelers, so the Guardian decided to seek him out, to ensure that he was safe, and to warn him of the intruders. The man was not to be found within the garden, nor the forest which surrounded it.
It was only when he searched the cliffs that the Guardian found the man, and the explanation for the presence of the intruders. On the side of the plateau opposite the Guardian's post stood a bridge, makeshift, true, but strong enough to support one strong of heart. Beside this bridge sat the man, shouting encouragement to those who were crossing, occasionally helping those who could not make the passage themselves.
The Guardian drew his sword, preparing to destroy the bridge and its creator with a single swipe. He was not given a chance. The man turned, and with a look, prevented that stroke as surely as if he had plucked the sword from the angel's hand.
The angel stood, sheepishly holding his sword, staring at this man who, with impudence, was destroying the Guardian's life work. He could not act against a citizen of Paradise. He returned to his post, indulging himself in a small, fit of anger.
Through the years, that indulgence became an addiction, as he hurled curses at the image of the man sitting beside his bridge, greeting each person whom he smuggled into Paradise.
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This work is Copyright (c) Mike Fletcher 1992