Preface: This is Chapter 1 in a full-length novel. If you are interested in reading the book in its entirety, please feel free to email me at the address at the bottom of the home page.
It was a weird day – the day that I realized I had forgotten the voices of my parents. They had brought me here, to the temple by the ocean, when I was twelve. I had come down with a severe illness, and they had hoped that the good folk that resided there could cure my fever. The woman here had been successful, but my brush with death had come so close that it had left me blind.
“We’ll be right back, honey.”
“See you soon.”
Those were the last things my parents had said to me. Though I remembered the words, I had lost memory of the voices that had spoken them.
I often dwelt on what could possibly have stopped them from coming back to get me, to take me home, away from this temple, kind as Dem was. Part of me wished that they were dead, killed by the ongoing war that separated east from west far more than the canyon ever did. Death would at least give them an excuse for abandoning me. Then the familiar guilt washed over me at the thought. Wishing death on my only family? They were right to abandon me, if I was determined to be that cruel to them. But the war was the only conclusion I could come to that would allow me to forgive them, so that was what I had chosen to believe.
Since my fever had been cured, Dem had taken care of me. She was the sole occupant at the temple until my residence here, joining her, and an herbalist and a fair doctor in her own right. She had determined that this be a place of obstinate neutrality in the war. Even though the building was technically on the west side of the canyon, and therefore in Hemeni territory, Dem opened the humbled doors to any who sought our help, including those who had crossed the bridge from the west. My parents and I had been among those refugees. Like Dem, though, I had chosen a role of passive helpfulness, though I could do little to aid either side.
I had been studying under Dem for eight years when Moce had come to us. He had been a farmer in the west when the Tenhaji, to the east, had flooded over, raiding the man’s homestead and destroying the land that had been in his family’s name for as long as they could remember. His story broke my heart as he told how the Tenhaji had killed his son and taken his wife before stabbing Moce and leaving him to die. He nearly had. Finally, a day later, he had been able to make it to our doorstep, though the distance would have taken him an hour before the Tenhaji had come.
The raiders had apparently done quite a bit of damage, attacking the village not far from the farm, and we were quickly flooded with more people seeking our help than Dem and I could handle on our own. Moce was my charge, while Dem had flitted about, more brisk than her age might imply, doing what she could for each of the villagers. I had to go by feel to set the broken upper arm of the farmer. The scream of pain was simply one of many in the halls that night, but it was personal to me. I had tended to his stabs, too, going by smell to determine which herbs to use in hopes of saving the man’s life.
I was successful in the task Dem had given me, and though she had been able to help more people, three had died under the roof of the temple that night, and another two in the weeks to come. In the end Moce had thanked me for my care and had been able to walk away.
“Where will you go?” I dared to ask, hearing his feet pause by the door at my words. If his farm was destroyed, would he try to rebuild? The memories of that place would haunt him for years.
“I will bury my son.” The man’s voice was coarse and emotional.
Feeling I had overstepped my bounds, I didn’t press further. He took another step and paused again, but I was determined to collect the herbs I had brought to his room so that he might continue his treatments on his own.
“I will follow the river, to the mountains, and train there.” There was a very different kind of temple there, it was well rumored. It was a heartless place, carved from the cold stone of the mountain, where people went to die or train to kill. Few survived the frigid and harsh training, and, in his current condition, I knew Moce was bound to die. From the tone in his voice, he knew that too.
I heard Dem’s gentle footsteps approach moments before her soothing voice answered him. “Violence only begets violence, my child.”
Determination laced his every word. “I am the effect in that statement, then, Dem, not the cause.”
“They are one in the same, dear. Violence begins and ends here -” I heard her wrinkled hand pound his chest with vigor – “and here -” an open slap this time, higher up. It must have been the forehead. “Before it ever reaches here.” A third strike, this time lower and accompanied by a small gasp from Moce. She had thumped his hurt arm.
“And when the Tenhaji come here, Dem? What will you do when you cannot stop the wave of terror that they bring?” Pain laced his every word now, and I could detect guilt at being unable to protect his family as well as fear for our well-being.
“Tenhaji, Hemeni, we are all just people.”
“Lofty words, but they don’t see it that way.”
I picked up the herbs and brought them to Moce, holding them out in a little satchel for him to find and accept. “We will trust that those whom we’ve helped will outnumber those who wish to destroy us, from any direction,” I said. Hemeni had threatened us before, not just the Tenhaji. “And we will help anyone we can after they are done.”
“It’s naive,” he answered me, taking the pouch from my hand. He had seen me use them on him and would be able to replicate the process himself, I was sure. He had proven to be a keen and observant patient. In my time caring for him, I had grown attached, as if he was a brother I never had. He was a good man, determined to learn to do great violence. There was little I could do to reconcile the sides in my imagination.
“It’s all we have,” I answered him.
He sighed and stepped away. “I wish you both well.”
“Safe journeys,” Dem said in farewell.
Moce paused – was he going to say more? – then continued walking down the hall and away from the room I had tended him in. The man was strong, and I only hoped he would survive all he was determined to put himself through. It was out of my hands now, though.
“He’s cute!” Dem said to me once he was out of earshot.
“Dem!” I chastised, surprised. She was old enough to be his mother. Or grandmother.
That was four years ago.
Footsteps out my open window woke me. The breeze still moved from the land toward the sea – it must not be past midnight yet. I kept very still in my bed, trying to determine all I could from the sounds of the footfall. They were light, but stable, swiftly moving through the small garden I had started outside. I could smell it moments after the stranger had trod on the oregano. The footsteps were too agile to be Dem, and the temple had no other visitors right now.
“Imn.” The voice that called my name surprised me – it was male. The lighter footsteps had led me to assume female.
I sat up in bed to face him. “Who is it?” I asked, stifling the aggression in my voice. Dem and I had taken a vow of chastity, and strangers at the window in the middle of the night would lead to the wrong idea, deed or no deed. Dem would not be proud of my defensive manner if someone had come to seek help, though.
“It’s me, Moce.” Then his voice and the memory of our weeks together came back to me. “You need to get Dem and get out of here.” He had survived the school? Excelled, even, if the change in how he moved was any indicator.
Then his words sank in. “What? Why?”
“Please!” he begged, suddenly urgent. “They’ll be here any minute.”
I decided then I would obey now and try to understand later. I stepped out of bed and grabbed my shawl, wrapping myself in it to protect the exposed arms from the damp night air.
“Do you have a horse?” he asked hurriedly.
Dem had always walked to town. “No.” We had no need.
He then climbed smoothly through the window into my room and joined me as I started down the hall. “You’ll take mine, then,” he said.
I didn’t argue, but instead ran down the hall, keeping my path straight by tracing my fingers along the wall. The second doorway on the right. I found it, and knocked on the door. It was early enough in the night that she might still be awake. “Dem?”
Moce was far less proper. I felt the door fall away from my knuckles as he opened it, clearly determined. “Dem!”
“Whatever’s the matter?” Dem asked. It was hard to tell if she had woken by the intrusion or was simply getting older, but she was on her bed. Quickly I heard her scramble to uncover the candle she kept lit during the nights.
As she moved, so did Moce. In three steps, he crossed the room and blew out the flame. “We need to be invisible now.” The smell of the smoke was far more telling than any light it may have emitted, at least to me. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, but I trusted him. “Let’s go. You two can take my horse. Go to town and wait for me there.”
Dem put her foot down then. “No. Not until you tell me what’s going on. What’s all this fuss about?”
Moce’s demeanor changed from urgent to stubborn, echoing Dem. “The Tenhaji are at your doorstep. They’re sweeping across the canyon and killing anyone who opposes them. If they find you, you will not survive, mark my words.”
Concern flooded me then, but Dem’s cool head was ready with a response. “We don’t oppose them. They’ve no cause to harm anyone within our walls. Unless we fight back.” The last words were clearly pointed at Moce.
“They don’t care about your opinions!” Moce responded, clearly frustrated. “They will not give you the chance to voice them.”
Dem’s voice was firm. “Then this refuge will be needed more than ever soon.”
Moce spun in place, standing between myself and Dem. “Imn?” he asked.
I wanted to go with him, but couldn’t leave my mentor behind. “My place is here, with Dem.”
His feet scraped the floor as he spun back to her. “You would sentence Imn to death because of your stubbornness?” Moce asked, accusation lacing his words now. “Make no mistake, they will kill you.”
Silence reigned in the room for a moment, and I could hear clamor of hooves not far from the front door of the temple. They were not sounds of people seeking help, but powerful and insistent, seeking conquest.
“Take her,” Dem said after a moment. “I will stay, but Imn, you need to go with him.”
“But -” I protested.
“Promise me, Imn, if what he says is true, you will not let this violence corrupt you. Return here, protect the people.” That was when the fear Moce was emanating finally struck home for me. Dem was behaving as if she had come to this decision years ago and had been merely waiting for the impending doom to come to her door.
“I will be back for you,” I promised. Moce snatched my hand as he ran past me, out and down the hall. Pounding echoed on the front door behind me now, which only served to fuel my racing heart.
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” I could hear Dem’s voice, seemingly annoyed, from her doorway as Moce and I bolted back into what must have been my room.
“Are there any secret ways out?” he asked as I caught my breath.
The building had not been designed that way. Easy in, easy out. “No,” I managed.
“Out the window then,” he said. Before I understood what he was doing, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulders, already moving toward where my window would be. I barely managed to cling to my shawl as he dumped me, following me into the garden. I could smell the trampled herbs. What was once just oregano was now nearly every plant within. Yarrow, mint, lemon balm all clashed on the breeze. Even the jasmine, which always clung close to the temple walls, was detectable, even though it had not been in any footpath. Disgust at the rage that had destroyed the plants overwhelmed me. How could someone do something like this? Dem and I had spent so much time and care tending it. “Imn. Let’s go.” Moce grabbed me by the shoulders, but I couldn’t convince myself to move. “Imn!”
Then a shrill scream split the air. It had come from inside, and could have only come from Dem. No! What had they done to her?
“Imn!” Moce picked me up again and carried me to the other side of the garden. The sound of the horse was only preceded by the smell. With some effort, Moce hoisted me up and dumped me unceremoniously across the saddle. “Can you ride?”
I could barely breathe! A clatter behind us told me that our pursuers had found their way into my room. Moce slapped my face from beside the horse, focusing me on his words with a sting.
“Imn. Sit up straight and ride.” Panicked, and with no competing ideas, I obeyed. It wasn’t until he had given the rear of the animal a mighty smack that I realized he hadn’t intended on joining me. I wanted to beg him to come with me, to not abandon me to the wilds, but it was too late. So instead, I clutched to the muscular neck of the powerful beast, trusting it to guide me safely away and not off the edge into the river at the bottom of the canyon.
Renewed shouting, this time from my left, greeted me as the horse’s hooves hit solid road. They had spotted me! I held on for dear life, disregarding my shawl as it decided now was the time to abandon me too. Cold ocean air whipped my loose braid into a frenzy as it washed over my skin. The shouts were getting closer.
The first arrow whistled overhead and to my left. As if in response, the horse jolted violently right. Where it was headed, I had no idea. Two more shafts greeted the animal to the right, and the beast bucked wildly left once more.
The forth arrow struck home. I could feel the animal quake, shaking from the haunch, a split second before its pained cry split the air. It reared up, neighing wildly, and it was all I could do to simply hold on. A fifth landed between my fingers, into the beast’s neck. The arrow was so full of energy that the force of the strike forced the horse to lean sideways, then over onto its side. I lost my grip then, pulling clumps of hair from the mane as I fell.
My breath left me as we landed. The hard-packed road was mercilessly cold. A sixth and final arrow thumped into my only remaining companion, silencing the pained braying. I couldn’t even beg for help or mercy – I just coughed, trying to kick the animal from off my foot and clawing away from the frantic horrors.
Solid, strong boots landed about two feet in front of me. A moment later, wet metal touched the underside of my chin, forcing my head up to face the sword’s wielder. “Uh uh, missy,” the hardhearted voice chastised.
Finally, when I thought my voice had abandoned me too, it returned. I screamed.