by Emily M.
I did not fidget in the meeting. Much. Besides twirling my hair and tapping my toes, I barely moved at all. It was a long meeting, and I hated having to hush and sit in the back next to Mother, while Ammah was treated as though he were a man. He was fifteen, and a boy, and allowed to participate. I was fourteen, and a girl, so I had to hold my tongue and try to stay still. At least Mother waited with me. We were both too anxious to be at home.
It was Father’s turn to speak. “I cannot allow more Nephites to die without doing something to help,” he said. “I will go and fight the Lamanites. It is time to take up arms again.”
All around him men murmured their support. “They all feel useless,” my mother whispered. “Your father still hates letting others fight his battles.”
Helaman spoke next.“You cannot do this, Kish” he said. “You took a sacred oath.”
“Is the oath more important than watching Nephites die to protect our families?” said Father. “When I took that oath I was alone, not yet married. I want my family to live.”
“You will lose your souls,” Helaman said. He walked up to my father. My father was a large man, who had to duck to enter doorways. Helaman was much shorter. But Helaman grasped him by the shoulders, and looked up into his eyes. “You will lose your souls,” he repeated. “I cannot deny that we need more men to fight, and yet I will not accept your help.”
My father held his gaze for a minute, challenging him, and then nodded. Helaman was the prophet.
“I’ll go,” Ammah said, rising. His voice squeaked at the end. It was changing. I smirked and Mother gave me a look.
“You?” Father said. “You?” He stared at Ammah.
“I made no oath,” Ammah said. “I can fight.” He straightened up, trying to be tall like Father.
Helaman eyed him. Ammah was small for his age, and skinny. I still beat him when Father trained us in sword fighting. Every time. “You?” Helaman said, echoing Father. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen, sir,” Ammah said. His voice changed again, going deep. “Fifteen, but Father has taught me how to fight, and I know God will protect me. I have made no oath. I can fight.”
Across the room the other boys raised their hands, too. “I’ll go,” said Shem. And Morianton. And Lamanonhi. All the ones from our village.
Father could not speak for a minute. He looked so proud. “You have restored our honor,” he said finally, his voice breaking like Ammah’s.
Helaman seemed less confident. “How many are there?” he asked. “Where will they get weapons? How can I send a fifteen-year-old boy to fight? Who will lead them?”
“From all the Ammonites, there are around two thousand,” Father said. “We will find weapons somehow. And they are young, but they want to go. Please accept their offering.”
“And you can be our leader,” Ammah said. “Please?”
Helaman looked around at Ammah and all his friends, and at their proud fathers, and said, “How can I refuse?” Ammah cheered, and all his friends did too. Helaman smiled, a pained smile. I felt sorry for him. He hadn’t wanted any Ammonites to fight at all, and now he was the leader of all our sons.
Beside me, Mother wept. “You will be losing Ammah,” I said. “Ammah will die out there. I’m so sorry, Mother. He’s a terrible swordsman. Only the power of God can save him, really.”
“Not that,” she said. “I’m proud of Ammah, and I think he will do well.”
It was my turn to give Mother a look. She looked back. “You always underestimate your brother,” she said. “No, I’m crying because I am grateful to God that your father did not fight again. That is all.”
“Would it be so bad if he did?” I asked. I only knew the Father who worked in our fields, who helped the sheep at lambing time. The one who caught fireflies and released them inside for our private show. I had heard echoes of who he was before, the fierce Lamanite captain, but I had never seen that side of him.
“It would be terrible,” Mother said. “You may not realize that, but it’s true. God will protect Ammah, as He has kept your father from fighting again. God is good to us.”
She still cried. I handed her a bit of cloth for her dripping nose. “Let’s go home,” Mother said. She rose, and held out her hand to lift me up. “They will be all night talking, and there is much to do to get Ammah ready. We should start now.”
We walked home. The corn fields lay still, the fireflies winked at us, and behind us in the meeting the men prepared the boys to go to war. I wondered if God would protect me, a girl, if I went to war. It bothered me to see my younger brother go off to battle clothed in my father’s pride, while I received nothing. If they needed Ammah, I decided, they would surely need me too. I would find a way to join Helaman’s army. Two thousand sons, and one daughter.
If Mother noticed that I prepared Ammah as though he were two people, packing twice the dried fruit, two times the flatbread, she said nothing. She was distracted herself, and went about her day whispering prayers under her breath. Father did not notice either, spending all his time instructing Ammah’s friends on basic fighting skills, because most of their fathers had chosen not to train their sons. Father refused to touch a sword; he used sticks to demonstrate as he taught.
“I should see if Aunt Tia needs anything,” I said loudly while working. “I haven’t been to visit for a while.” Mother’s sister lived in the next village over. If I disappeared, Mother would think I had gone there first, and not come looking until it was too late.
“I think Tia is well,” Mother said. “She only has daughters, no sons to get ready. But she will want to see you and hear our news.”
“I’ll go visit soon,” I said. Mother nodded.
After we prepared Ammah’s food we began getting his clothing ready. Mother took thick leather and stitched it into armor. I did the same, cobbling together castoff bits into something that might, if I was lucky, protect me from the Lamanites.
“What is that you’re doing?” she asked me. We sat outside in the late afternoon, working together. “Ammah will be wearing the armor I make. Whatever you’re making is full of holes. Scraps don’t work well when it comes to armor.”
“It’s better than nothing,” I said. “They may be scraps, but the leather is thick. Some people would be glad to have it.”
“Some people have metal,” Ammah said, walking up to us. Mother raised an eyebrow at him.
“I’m not complaining,” he said quickly. “Just saying, some people have metal, that’s all.”
“And some people have nothing,” she said. “Mariah, put down that armor and go practice with Ammah. He needs to be brought down to size.”
“Go practice with one of the boys,” I told him. “That’s who you’ll be fighting with.”
“Don’t be sulky because you can’t come,” Ammah said. “You’re the only one who can really give me a good fight.”
Ammah knew how to persuade me, and it worked. “All right,” I said. I set down my ragged armor. The turkeys crowded me, but I shooed them away. I found my practice sword, weighted like a real one, strong enough to bruise but not sharp enough to kill.
Ammah pulled out his practice sword and held it ready, fighting stance. He blocked me, and blocked me again, and began to parry with a speed I had never seen from him, until my sword clattered to the ground, landing on my toes.
“Ow,” I yelled, but then I laughed, from the surprise of it. Ammah beat me. He fought as though all the lessons Father had taught him over the years finally sank in. He had never been a natural, until now.
I wanted to be happy for him. Part of me was. Another part, though, was jealous. Not only did Ammah get to go to war, but he now had some divine strength that enabled him to do the impossible: beat me at swordfighting.
Ammah grinned, wiped the sweat from his face, and said, “Two out of three?” But he saw my face and said, “Mariah! Don’t be sad when you don’t win for the first time! Take some lessons in losing well. I never made you feel bad for winning all these years.”
It was true. I shook his damp hand. It felt strong. “Well fought,” I said. “Well done.” I began to doubt, a little, my resolve to join them. God had made Ammah into someone stronger and quicker than he really was. Would he make me into something more too, because I was also engaged in a noble cause? Or would the protection Ammah enjoyed not extend to me? Because I had not been invited to the war, but I went anyway.
Ammah and the other boys left two days later. Father and Mother and I waved goodbye, standing in the doorway, watching Ammah and our village boys till they disappeared.
I had everything ready to follow, stashed high up in my favorite tree: food, armor, sword, and a set of Ammah’s old clothes. I gave them three days, enough time to get ahead of me, not too much for me to catch up to. Surely one person walking alone would make better time than two thousand, even if they went quickly. One person, even laden as I would be.
I left early in the morning, while the light was still gray. I crept out, not wanting to wake either of my parents. Mother stirred a little, and Father gave a great snore just as I reached the doorway. I laughed, which nearly woke Mother, but she settled down and I snuck outside. I climbed my tree and found my stash. I tossed it down, settled it around myself, and began walking to join Ammah and the rest of Helaman’s army.
They were heading towards Judea, and I followed the path easily. In the early morning the birds twittered and called around me, and the air smelled sweet. It felt very good to be alive, and leaving to join Ammah and the sons of Helaman.
The first day I half expected my father to come running after me, dragging me back home. In my imagination I even thought I heard footsteps behind me. Mother and Father must have believed that I was at Aunt Tia’s. I passed no one, saw nothing but trees and animals and, at night, the stars hanging low. I looked up at them for a long time before I fell asleep. Mother taught that God dwelled in the heavens and watched over us, His children. I prayed that He would look down on me in mercy. Let me show everyone what I can do, I begged God. Let me be an instrument in thy hands like Ammah and all his friends, to help do a great work.
I waited a long time. The silence around me heard my prayer and approved of it, and finally I slept.
In the morning I was creaky and cold, but I began walking anyway. I wondered how long the leather on my sandals would last. Long enough to reach Judea, or see Ammah again, or fight my first battle?
I stopped at a stream to fill my water skin, and knelt down beside a great boulder. Fish darted through the water. I wanted to catch one. I still had plenty of food, but fresh fish was always welcome. I picked out a slow fish, but I did not have long to meditate on catching him, because ahead of me I heard voices. I hid behind the boulder and listened.
“Report for the general on the new reinforcements going to Judea,” one of them said. “Only two thousand, beardless and scrawny. Not worth the bother of returning to report.”
The other one laughed. “We won’t be fighting anytime soon,” he said. “We’ll lose Antiparah if we leave it. Let them have Judea.”
“It’s not for us to make that decision,” the first one said.
They were returning from spying on Helaman and his army. I tried to melt into the ground, so they wouldn’t notice me or look behind the boulder. I reached for my sword, slowly, hoping they would not catch the movement. I should not be scared of Lamanites, I told myself, because if things had gone differently I would be one of them. I could be a Lamanite girl right now, watching my father and brother go off to fight against the Nephites. If Father had not had a change of heart, I could be their younger sister.
Their voices died away and I relaxed. They had left. I stood up from the boulder, still holding the sword, still feeling the rush of fear. Then I heard one call, “Ho, Oreb! My water skin is empty. Wait for me, I’ll catch up with you.”
I ducked down again too late, and he saw me.
“Who are you?” he called, running towards me. “Another beardless Nephite boy. Off to join your friends? Did they leave you behind?”
I held my sword out, ready to fight. “I’m not a boy,” I began, but then realized that it would be better if they thought I was. “I’m not a Nephite, I’m an Ammonite,” I said.
“You mean a traitor,” he answered. “Doesn’t matter anyway. You’ll be coming with us.”
“I’m g-going to join the army,” I said. I stuttered a little. The tip of my sword wavered.
He looked at my drawn sword and laughed at it. “Is that how you want it?” he said. “You really want to fight?”
“I am ready,” I said. And saying made me feel confident, ready, able.
He drew his sword, annoyed, as though he intended to knock mine down and grab me instead. But I blocked him, again and again, as Ammah had done to me. I had him sweating, dancing about me, never able to reach me.
“Boy, you are a much better fighter than I thought,” he said. “But you should know that–“
“Thus we see how the Lord protects those who fight for him!” I interrupted. I almost had him, I could tell. He was getting fatigued. “Thus we see–“ I said-- and then I felt a rock smash into my gut, and the Lamanite spy’s companion appeared.
“I have to rescue you from him, Pekah?” the companion said. “You’re getting old and soft, spying instead of fighting.”
“Shut up and tie him, Oreb,” said Pekah. He panted from the exertion of the fight. “We can’t have another traitor joining Helaman, even a kid like him.”
He held my wrists tightly as he tied them up. I felt stunned. This was how God defended me? Allowing me to get captured by the Lamanites on my second day away from home? Was not my purpose as noble as Ammah’s? Did I not deserve divine help too?
“If you’ll let me on my way,” I said, “I would like to be going now.”
They both laughed. Pekah was bald and paunchy, and much older than the other one called Oreb, He was tall and gangly, with bad teeth. “Too late for that,” Oreb said. “You’re a prisoner, and if you don’t behave we’ll just kill you.”
Pekah pulled me around so I faced him. His bald head still glistened with sweat from our fight. He spat in my face. “You’re the son of a traitor,” he said. “I hate the traitors. Who was your father? Which one was he?”
He pulled back on my wrists. Hard. I refused to speak or say anything. Until he pulled even harder, and then I could stand no more. “Kish,” I said.
He dropped my wrists. “Kish? Your father was Kish?”
I nodded. “Did you know him?” I said.
Pekah seemed uncertain for a moment, but then glared at me. “He was a filthy traitor like the rest of them,” he said. “Now march.”
He led us off the main road, to a narrow winding track. I walked in front of them and listened to Pekah. He spoke loudly, as though he wanted to make sure I heard everything he said.
“Twenty years ago I fought with the traitors. They were leaders, they were strong men, they were fighters. And they left us to join the Nephites.”
Oreb said, “You’ve told me all of this before.”
“Shut up,” Pekah said. “I’m telling you again. I hate the traitors. Because of them we became weak. Because of them thousands of people left. Because they refused to fight I killed fifty of them in one day.” He paused for a minute. “I’ve never killed so many people in one day before,” he said.
He surprised me. I expected him to say it as a boast, but he was not boasting. Wistful, sad, but not proud.
“Didn’t she say her father was Kish?” Oreb said. “The one who swore to drink the blood and eat the hearts of his enemies. And he always did.”
“That’s right,” Pekah said. “He was fierce, strong. When he turned traitor it devastated the army.”
“Drink blood?” I whispered. “Eat hearts?” I had always imagined my father like a Lamanite Captain Moroni. I didn’t know how to let go of that image.
My wrists hurt. My feet stumbled, kicking up dust clouds that blinded me, and made my eyes water. But I could not indulge in tears right now, in spite of aching wrists and awful truths. If I did, these Lamanites might discover who I really was. Not Kish’s son, but his daughter.
“Didn’t Kish take you in after your father died?” Oreb asked Pekah. “I swear you told me that once. That you grew up in the band of Captain Kish?”
“You remember wrong,” Pekah said. “Kish was a traitor. That’s all you need to know.”
They fell silent. We walked. I imagined more footsteps behind me, but there was no one, only me and two Lamanite spies. I began to pray. I have gotten myself in a terrible mess, I told God. No one knows I’m here. No one has any idea the path the Lamanites have taken me. My parents may guess I’m with Helaman and his army, but they will follow the path of the army trail, not this small track for spies. I need a miracle.
But nothing happened. Dusk fell and they loosened my arms enough for me to feed myself. And then, in spite of the pain in my wrists, I fell asleep, exhausted from walking and fighting and being abandoned by God.
In the morning Pekah jerked me awake. “We’re heading for Antiparah,” he said. “They are waiting for my report. Time to get moving.” He let me eat.
Oreb had gone scouting ahead, so it was just me and Pekah. “How is your father?” he asked, almost friendly. “Does he talk about his captain days?”
“He’s quiet,” I said. “He farms the fields and tends the flocks. We have turkeys and sheep.”
“But does he never talk about the people he left behind when he became an Ammonite?”
Father had never said anything to me. “Father only talks to me when he tells me how to fight,” I said. “But he doesn’t use a sword anymore. After the great battle when he killed so many people, he took all his weapons and buried them in the pit with the other ones.”
Pekah sniffed. “He should know better,” he said. “Kish should not have left the Lamanites to become a Nephite. He abandoned us.”
Pekah seemed to care more about my father than he would admit. “Were you and my father friends?” I asked.
“Shut up,” he said, and we finished eating in silence.
Oreb returned. “No one ahead for the next mile,” he said, “and we’ll reach the stream soon.”
So we resumed walking. This time I was almost sure I heard someone behind us. That extra rustling was not my imagination. Perhaps it was an animal?
We stopped for water when we met the stream. Oreb went off to relieve himself. Pekah untied my wrists but fastened my ankles. “You do your business,” he said, “I’m going to rest for a minute.”
He lay down on the bank and closed his eyes. “I’m listening to you,” he said. “Don’t try anything funny.”
I bent to fill my waterskin and felt someone watching me. I turned around and there he was, the source of the footsteps. He stood on the path, five feet away. My father: Lamanite captain, blood-drinker, traitor, swordfighting teacher, firefly gatherer, farmer. And now the one to find me.
“How did you find me?” I said, mouthing out the words so that Pekah wouldn’t stir. “How did you know where to go?”
“I’ve been following you since you left,” he said. “Did you think we hadn’t noticed you were planning to leave? Did you think I would let my only daughter go fight alone?”
I wanted to be angry at him for not trusting me to go by myself, but I was too relieved to be mad. “You let me think I was alone,” I said.
“You wanted to be,” he said. “But you were never alone.” He walked over and loosened my ropes completely, and gathered my bag and sword. Then he glanced at Pekah, and went pale. “Who is that?” he said.
Pekah woke up. He stared for a minute, dazed. “Kish!” he said.
“It’s me, Pekah,” Father said. “How have you been?” He sounded shy and uncertain. My father had always spoken with confidence. I had never heard him like this.
Pekah shrugged. “Spying,” he said. “You taught me well.”
“I have thought of you every single day,” Father said. He reached out his hand to Pekah, to help him up from the ground. “Every day I have wished that I could have gone back to find you.”
Pekah took his hand and stood. He looked small next to Father. “You didn’t mean to leave me?” he said.
“Never,” said Father. “You were like my son. I would never have left you.”
Pekah’s chin began to tremble, but he did not cry.
“On the day we fought the Ammonites I killed one, then two, then five, five people,” Father said to Pekah. “They lay down before my sword, and as I looked at the sixth man, who offered his chest open for striking, I became dizzy and ill. I knew that God did not want me to kill any longer. And when I lay down my sword, I felt peace, a lightness I had never known in all the blood.”
I hadn’t heard Father tell this story before. I only knew bits and pieces, but never the horror of what he had done, or the joy of his conversion.
“I fell down in a faint,” Father said. “The Ammonites carried me off the field as though I were dead. By the time I could go back for you, you and all the others were gone.”
“I killed fifty people that day,” Pekah said. “And with every one, I thought, Kish will be so proud. Kish will be glad to know I have killed the traitors so well. This is what I thought, until someone told me you had joined them.”
“I am sorry,” Father said. “I am so sorry.”
In the stillness they looked at each other and finally embraced. I saw them, and the winding path, and the clear stream, and I felt like this was a good place to be. We were all in the right place.
“So, what happens now, Father?” I asked. “You escort me to Helaman’s army, and then return home?”
“You still want that, after all that has happened?” my father said. “Really?”
“That was your plan,” said Oreb’s voice behind us, “but not anymore.” He stepped out from behind a tree. “This scene has been touching,” he said. “So Pekah, you looked to Kish as a father after all. Doesn’t matter now, though, because we are all going back to Antiparah.”
“Please,” my father said, “she’s a girl, and she needs to come home. Just let us walk away.”
Oreb snorted. “You’re not leaving,” he said. “Pekah, come help me tie them both.”
Pekah shook his head. “I can’t do that, Oreb,” he said.
Oreb grew angry. “I’ll get rid of them, then,” he said. He drew his sword.
Pekah handed his own weapon to Father. “I don’t want to fight anymore,” he said. “I have wanted let go of my sword since the day I killed fifty men, but I was too scared. Too angry at you.”
“I can’t fight either,” Father said. “I am not afraid to die. I had hoped Mariah would live longer, but I cannot fight.” Father refused Pekah’s weapon and stood in front of Oreb, palms open, face bright. “I am ready to die,” he said.
I reached for my sword. “I’m not,” I said. “I don’t want my father to die. I don’t want to die either.”
Oreb laughed. His bad teeth showed. “You are a girl,” he said. “And now that I realize it, you’re not bad-looking. Even if I kill your father, I can surely find some use for you.”
He attacked. This time I felt invincible. I could see where his sword was going seconds before, and block it. When our swords clashed some power beyond my own absorbed the impact. This time, fighting to defend my father, who it seemed like I had just met again, I knew that God was with me to the end.
And soon Oreb’s sword fell to the ground. I would not have killed him if he had not said, “I will take my revenge on you as soon as you walk back down that road. I’ll kill you and your father and Pekah, the new-minted traitor.”
I did not want to do it, but I didn’t want all of us to die either. So I stabbed him, and turned away from the blood that rushed out as he died. And I vomited, and cried.
Father pulled out the sword. It was the first time he had touched a sword in twenty years. He wiped the sword clean. “Is this what you want?” he said. “This is your taste of war. Do you want more?”
I shook my head. Now I knew. Even with God with me, as I knew He had been, it was a terrible thing to kill a man. “Why did you teach me to fight?” I asked. “You made this possible. You knew what it was really like. Why did you train me, your daughter?”
Father dipped a cloth in the stream and wiped blood from Oreb’s chest. “I trained you because I knew I would never be able to defend you myself, and I wanted you to have that strength,” he said. “But only when you needed to. I never wanted you to go looking for it. When I watched you fighting Oreb, it was all I could do to keep still and not jump to your aid.”
“It was the strength of God,” I said. “He protected me too. That’s the only reason we are still alive.”
I bent to help Father clean Oreb’s body. It was still warm, his face relaxed in death, no longer fierce and full of contempt. Pekah and Father and I each found a good sharp digging rock. We dug a grave for Oreb, and set him gently in. Then, looking at Father, Pekah set his own sword upon Oreb’s body.
I made to put mine there as well, but Father held my arm and restrained me. “Do not bury it,” he said. “We may need you to defend us on the way back.”
And so I kept it. We covered the body, and Father blessed the grave. And the three of us walked home, to the land of Jershon, where Mother waited, praying.