Men stepped back as Nadab grabbed father’s arm, his eyes wild.
“Our brothers…” he breathed heavily, swallowing hard, “they come.” He motioned southward and all heads turned.
I hid my alarm and the sudden drop of my heart. My mouth became dry as chaff as murmurs rose and I watched my father. The set of his jaw quickly overpowered the fear in his eyes. He flicked a glance in my direction, but addressed the men.
“Go, to your families. Keep them close. There will be no one left alone.” He put his hands on Nadab’s shoulders. “Tell Aaron and the king.”
I saw the shudder beneath the sweat on Nadab’s brow. His run was not over.
“Go with God.” The depth of my father’s voice hit its mark. Nadab blinked, nodded, and was gone. My father turned to the other men, the murmurs beginning again. “Do not waste a moment. We will keep our covenant,” his hand reached for my arm and his eyes met mine, steadying there, though his voice cracked when he added, “in faith.”
Every color, every sound seemed sharp, almost painful, and I could not tune it out, did not try. I watched every movement as we crossed the village. The word had spread quickly. Shouts bringing embraces, frantic searching for someone small I could picture in my mind, quiet mouths moving next to ears and tear-lined cheeks, wrinkled hands reaching. I was nearly eighteen years of age and my stride matched my father’s. It was a recent thing; a target I had been aiming for since I could walk, I am told. I wondered in disbelief how many more steps I would take with his. We passed the grain piled newly harvested in baskets next to fruit and cheese. Who would eat it? I thought of Gib.
I looked around. “Father, my friends.”
“There is no time.”
Still, I searched among the faces, achingly familiar, as much a part of me as the sun rising each morning.
“Niram!” My mother ran to us and embraced my father, fighting tears, I knew. She breathed them away as her hands came to my face. “Mathoni, my son.” She pressed a smile and I let her hold me instead of pulling away. I wanted to rest into her shoulder, cling to her garment and hear the song she still sang to Shanai. Her braid was soft under my hand. I furrowed my brow, fighting the tightening of my chest.
“Mother, can you not run?” I blew out a breath, shaking my head. “Can you not take Shanai and run?” I turned toward my father. “Would that be so wrong?”
Pain surfaced in my father’s face, and he shook his head. “No. It would not be wrong. The others know this.” He lifted my mother’s face. “Dahra, if you wish to go, to take Shanai—“
“We have discussed this.” A tear ran down her face. My mother’s whisper was fierce. “I will not leave you.” She drew in a painful breath. “And the Lord will not leave us.” She turned back to me, pulling my face to meet her golden eyes. “He will not leave us.”
I could only nod.
“Your sister is in the house.”
I swept the linen aside, struck by the scent of drying herbs and crushed grain. A plucked bird hung upside-down and I looked away. “Shanai, come.”
Two little feet stuck out from under the low table, the cushions pushed aside. “I had to find Sebel.” She pushed herself out from underneath and I took her by the waist, hoisting her up over my shoulder. She squealed. There were eleven years between my sister and I, and though she was often underfoot, following my friends and I around during our free time, asking endless questions and sharing endless observations, often pulling at my patience, I would lay the world flat for her. I was her protector. I felt it even now. As I lowered her to the ground, allowing a smile, my heart was torn by another sound, another squeal.
“Mathoni.” Shanai scrambled into my legs, clinging to her doll.
“Shh.” My heart pounded at the unwanted reality invading the borders of our lives here. “We must go.” The words hurt. “Mother and father are waiting.”
“But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go, please, Mati.”
Another distant scream ripped me and I picked up this little girl I had taught to walk. “I will be with you.” Her hand gripped my neck and I rushed outside to the noise and motion. My father’s face was a smooth stone in a tumult of crashing waves. He ran his hand over Shanai’s hair and she let go of me, clinging to him instead.
The action made a wrench of my heart, but my mother’s hand wrapped around mine.
“Let us meet them.”
We walked southward. I blinked, unable to swallow the blade in my throat. Ironic, that I should feel a weapon on the inside. The noise, the heat in my ears, the wetness in my eyes burning, it was disorienting and I blinked again.
But, as my sight cleared, it was not chaos I saw. The cries I heard were not frantic. Those were only inside me with the blade caught in my throat. As I pressed the heat away from my eyelids, as I matched my father’s footsteps, felt my mother’s hand, we joined a procession, and I heard the sound of prayer.
My father spoke. “They will come to our border soon.”
I knew. I knew they would already have come through Shimnalom, making their way to Middoni and the new king. Making their way through their brothers. Families split and made enemies. My father’s family. I looked at my father’s arms. When I was a child I was fearful of their strength as he readied for battle, his axe a thing of terror and awe. Now, he cradled Shanai, and pulled my mother closer. I knew a man from Shimnalom. Would I see him trading spices again?
I blinked and breathed.
All was suspended at the soft sound behind me. I turned, feeling my mother’s grip tighten. Not far off, my friend Rel and her family walked. Her sad, dark eyes bore into mine. I could not speak. Slowly, a smile touched her mouth, then left too soon. I should have given her a kiss when Gib left us alone by the river. I wished I had been brave enough.
I swallowed the sharp edge in my throat and lifted my chin. Rel lifted hers in answer, but her eyes betrayed her. She turned away before her tears fell. I would keep a sense of her whereabouts.
The fields in this portion of our boundaries were not yet harvested, the stalks tall and full, heavy with grain. We had been blessed with an abundant harvest, not only of the grain, but in the hunt, and our trade as well. As we gave thanks to God, I remembered my father’s cautious words.
This will not sit well with our brothers.
What was a peaceful place to toil and reflect on the changes that had taken place in our lives, was now an ominous, golden swath of waiting. Several older couples made their way to the front edge of the field. People reached out to pull them to a stop, but they would not, only shake their heads, tighten their links on one another’s arms, and continue. An elderly widower pulled away from his family through their quiet protests, nodding reassurance, joining the others of his generation.
They would put themselves first.
I spied Gib farther up, more than halfway, his hulking figure easy to spot. Three years my senior, and my best friend. I took another step, but was pulled to a stop.
“Here, son.” I turned to my father. Shanai clung tightly to him, her face buried in his neck, crying silently. “We need go no further.”
My mother pulled in a quick breath and covered her mouth, her eyes glued south. I looked where she did as I heard them. The faint pounding of feet, the brush of legs past fern and rush, the crazed call of certain attack, shaking any steadiness from under me, piercing my soul.
And then they fell. Like a breeze through the stalks rippling outward, my people bowed. Gib looked back, found me, gave a nod, and was lost just below the heads of grain. I searched for Rel, her tears streaming now, her chin up, her shoulders strong as she held her hand out to me. My fingers opened across distance and people between us.
“Mati.” I blinked and Rel disappeared. “Mati I want to hold you.”
My father passed Shanai to me and she brushed her finger tips down my face. “Don’t cry, Mati. It will be all right.” She hiccupped and waited for me to tell her she was right. I nodded as my father pressed my shoulder and I knelt to the ground, sucking in my breath as my knee hit a rock on edge. Distracted from our waking dream, I remembered clearing this field, removing rocks such as this, angry at missing one. My hand dug the earth around it and I pulled to toss it aside—
I paused at the hush. The whispered prayers stilled. No one was left standing. Someone behind us broke the silence.
“They are here.”
Shanai whimpered and I bowed myself over her, still watching the front, peering through the grain…
A lone scream of rage and fury cut us through, then the line of trees erupted in a mass of arms and blades and more cries of hatred. I must have moved because my father’s hand pressed heavy on my shoulder again.
I looked back to shake him off, I would not run, but different sounds brought me around again, soft cries amid the harsh, gasps all around us, and voices rising. Rising to God.
“Our Father, remember us.”
“Oh God, have mercy on our souls.”
“Protect us, oh Lord.”
“We thank thee, for sending thy servants to teach us. Protect them.”
The swish of blade sang through air, the moan of death. Gib’s cry. My legs pushed and I stood, my hand gripping the rock so it hurt.“Gib!”
Shanai clung to my hip. “Mati!”
I looked down at the terror on Shanai’s face. When I looked back up, it was to meet the hard stare of the one who had just cut Gib, even across this field. I heard Shanai draw in her whimpered breath as his stare moved to her.
“No.” Regret rushed through me. “NO!” In a movement, Shanai was behind me and I heard my mother’s sounds, but my feet were already shoving me forward. “NO!” I could not bear this. I could not be still and watch my people slaughtered like lambs, like fish in a net. I would fight. I would do something. Hands grabbed for me as my fingers turned the rock in my hand, finding the jagged edge. Across the closing distance, I saw the smile of my friend’s attacker as he lifted his sword to another, as Gib groaned.
“Mmmph.” I came down hard, my shoulder hitting the ground.
“Son, if you would run… then run. Take Shanai and Rel and run… but do not do this. Do not break your covenant with God.”
I lay still, breathing the soil, feeling the earth and stalk, my father stronger than I. Stronger than I. Emotions whirled and I wanted to yell, to scream, Why? Why are we nothing? To them? To God? A sob clawed its way out. “Why do they win?”
More cries sounded and our heads came up. I shook off my father’s grip and he let me go. And I remembered. I remembered our swords, our axes and cimeters thrown into the hole dug deep, a promise to never again take up weapons against our brethren. The peace, the heft of the cool dirt in our spades and picks as the ground covered the bright war blades in that secret place, never to be dulled with blood again. The earth swallowed them up as an offering to the God who created all things above and below, now and hereafter. A God who kept His promises. I remembered Gib’s smile, his relief, his firm pat on my back as the last mound of dirt was smoothed over. My breathing deepened. Slowly, I stood.
“God, our Father,” a voice carried across the field above the killing sounds, clear. I swallowed and faced my enemies, then raised my eyes. My voice. “Thou dost know us. Thou dost know our flesh and blood, these brothers. We will not shed their blood. Our blood. Let them see.” I sucked in air as I stood tall, “Let them remember.” My throat closed.
I lowered my eyes to one who stared, and met others. The rock slipped from my fingers and I dropped to my knees, shaking now. I choked. “Let them know Thee, also.” I bowed my head to the earth, succumbing to my sorrow.
The sounds of slaughter slowly continued. Exclamations were followed by curses. Arguing ensued, and then the sound of blade… against blade.
“We will not do this.”
“We have our orders!”
“I’m the captain. Look around you!”
“This is our enemy!”
“This is our family!”
I raised my head, as others were doing. Already, a number of our attackers stood, their weapons dropped, their heads bowed in shame, our people gripping their legs, calling them by name. Cries of confusion came from behind them as the attack slowed… like sun resting on the horizon. Dazed, I got to my feet.
“Fall back. We are done.” The captain turned his eyes to me.
I took in my breath, staggering. “Barak.” I thought I would never see him again. Years had separated us, as well as choice. But there was no mistaking it.
He gave me a somber nod. “Cousin.” He lowered his eyes, then fell to his knees. “Please—“
The other soldier made a quick movement, a flash of metal as Gib shoved me aside with a grunt. The blade was ice and fire to my flesh. A scream sounded from my mother somewhere, and Barak’s weapon sliced cleanly through the soldier who had bested me and my dropped rock. The ground moved, and I steadied myself as the soldier fell in a heap. Gib was falling, too.
He clung to my waist, sliding down. I knelt with his weight, biting my teeth at the sting so near my chest. His arms released me, and my own blood met the stain he left on my tunic. He was still. Edges blurred around me, darkness taking over my sight. What was sharp before softened.
Hands held me, and murmurs hushed, hair brushed across my arm, with the scent of tea leaves… Rel.
“Oh, Lord, remember us.” My father’s voice ached. “Please, in this dark hour, remember our son and brother.”
My mother’s song, gentle, halting, faded.
“Mati…” a bit of weight in the crook of my good arm, “Mati, it will be all right.” Tiny fingers along my cheek.
“Shh, Shanai.” A smile touched my mouth. “I know.” All became whiter than sun on the sand.
And I saw them. A thousand souls, holding hands, arms linked, children on shoulders raising their hands high, bright faces in the light. One, strong, who turned to me, gave me a nod.
I nodded in return. Gib. Thank you.
He waved me away and continued into the light, embraced by his family. But I stayed.
Mathoni. I raised my eyes to the whiteness, to the voice reverberating through my sinews. Go, Mathoni, and raise up a valiant nation unto me. They will remember. All is well.
My heart beat strong in my chest and my ears filled with cries of sorrow mixed with wonder. The white faded and I blinked. Like a man coming up out of the water, I breathed, savoring the golden air, scanning the blue sky. “I will.”
Alma 24:15 “…if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.”