Flickers a Mile Away

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THE RAIN STARTED AS a trickle less than an hour into my journey. Now the forest drips and thunder claps above the trees. I hug Faithful even tighter with my legs, the saddle horn in my hands, determined to keep up my speed even with the dangerous ride. So far I've managed to follow the river bank just like the map on the table had said but now, with so much rain, the bank is getting too slick and I'm working my way through higher ground. I constantly look down at the bank and stop far too often to be sure I'm heading the right way.
     Papa had taught me to navigate my direction with the stars, but ever since the storm got heavy, the dark skies now hide my normal glittery guides. Squinting through water droplets, I open my mouth, drinking in as much rain water as I can. I filled my canteen earlier when the downpour first started. As the canvas of the forest grows dark and thick, sight of the river dims. I listen for the rushing river above the pounding rain and cracking thunder, but it slowly becomes dim too. I squint my eyes, leaning forward, standing in the slippery stirrups. The mud splashes as Faithful stomps through puddles, bitter cold rain falling onto us both. My eyes drift left and right, and I focus back on the path Papa and his men probably took. Thunder shakes my body, striking in my ears. I look straight ahead, willing the dark to leave and the thunder to subside, shaking wet strands of hair out of my face.
     Panic quickly begins to settle in my throat.
I lay forward onto Faithful's neck, stroking and petting her, not sure if I am reassuring her or she is me. I press my thick, sticky hair into my face, anything for warmth, and dare to keep moving forward, even as darkness makes every step of Faithful more treacherous. But like her name, she remains faithful to obey my every command, whether from the nudge of my knee into her side or the slight twist of the reins to the left or right. We move as one and keep forging ahead one hoof at a time.
     Am I even going the right way?
    With the forest so dark, I've lost my sense of direction, and terror settles deep in my bones, desperate for a breath of bravery. I grunt, Faithful slipping slightly in the mud and almost tumbling before regaining her balance. A sudden crack of lightning illuminates before me two paths, one on the left and one on the right.
     Papa and the soldiers could have taken either one.
     Frightened by the reality of being completely and utterly lost, I open my mouth to call out Papa's name, but let it close with a whimper. Hot tears burn on my skin in contrast with the cold rain. If I call out, it could give away our position to the British, and therefore, harm Michael. I don't know how close I am to the Dragoon camp and cannot risk it. I've lost track of time, but I know it's been hours. I have to be getting close. Didn't Liam say two hours by horseback? Yet that was in good weather. Still, I will do anything to prevent Michael from being hurt. Even if It means shivering through a wet, darkened forest alone for hours.
     Suddenly I feel as though a covering drapes across my back. A blanket of peace. A veil of direction. I frown and look behind me, though no one follows and there's still not a sign in sight of where to go. Yet all of a sudden, it becomes clear to me as I look up higher, feeling lighter, that I'm not completely alone.
     I'm not alone at all.
     I let my heavy eyelids fall, lifting a prayer to the heavens I can't see but only feel, above the jumbling of sagging branches. In the rain, the thunder shouts as if desperate to be a proclamation of God's power, and I drop again to Faithful's strong neck.
     "Father. I'm lost," I cry. "More than I've ever been. You are powerful, completely able. Please, God," my whisper kisses Faithful's mane, "light the way."
     I lift a wavering chin, accepting that I am lost. But a new confidence works its way through me, giving me faith to keep going, though I've no idea in which direction I'm heading. Blinking tired eyes, I swipe my forehead, believing God will lead me somewhere for my best, where He wants me for whatever reason. Perhaps He'll use me to help Michael. Even as the thunder booms and lighting strikes, I remember God is the God of the storm, and lift my head to the rain as I ride.
     The trees grow thicker to the right. I pause, studying the mass of limbs and blowing leaves. A branch flies in my direction without warning, flinging by my head as I duck and squeeze tight to Faithful. I quickly decide on the path to the left, rushing away from the dark thicket. Changing to a trot, I stare ahead and emerge into the slimmer part of the forest. I stop short, panting, cold fingers gripping the saddle horn and reins.
    Where to go . . .
     Instincts numb from the bitter chill of North Carolina's stormy winds, I wait. For anything, any sign, any sense of direction to come. But I feel utterly void of guidance.
     Then, for the first time in years, Faithful begins to tug against my reins. I feel my face light in excitement as I loosen my grip, feeling the reins barely slip from my fingers as she moves. She starts off towards the lighter thicket of trees, and I decide to let her lead. Letting go of my instincts and giving up any trust in my own abilities, I ride with a pounding heart. Lightning illuminates the forest on my side, revealing a crow haunched in black. I squint, moving on, picking up speed. A crack sounds, near to the side as lighting strikes like a stick hitting a rock.
     I scream, arms shaking. A shiver running down my spine to my legs, eyes darting back and forth above the soaked skin underneath. As if being chased by a black cloud, I kick Faithful with the stirrups, trusting the direction she leads, and we do not stop for what seems like nearly an hour of hard riding in the storm. Wind howls like a coyote at night, my heart pounds wildly from our frantic pace. Fire runs though my legs from holding onto Faithful with all my might. I turn to the side where I've finally come upon an opening in the forest. An open field lies ahead of me, and as the rain is slowing down to a drizzle, I'm able to see a little further. I stop Faithful, catching a breath and staring into open space. The fields are not comforting but only offer more traveling in the wet night. My head clears as I blink away rain and fearful thoughts take up residence inside, thoughts of where I could be and how many ways this night could now go wrong.
     No. I won't give in to the worst of thoughts. Momma's words ring true, especially now. "Maddie, if Peter was right, then God did not give you a spirit of fear. Never give in to fearful thoughts. Think with power, love, and a sound mind, just like Peter said."
     My eyelids grow heavy as I think of Momma, except a flicker of something faintly bright tells them to open. I jerk my head up, almost ready to slap my cheek to awake, and settle a watery gaze on a light not near but also not too far. My eyes focus with great strain and I nearly fall out of the saddle, leaning so far forward, intently trying to make out the image.
     That . . . that can't be.
     I hear the heartbeat in my chest resound in my ears. Hope flickers in my heart as a flicker of several fires light the horizon a mile ahead. My feet nudge Faithful and I pop the reins. "Let's go girl. That can only be one thing."

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