by Karlene Browning
“Liamnihah, return home now!” Liam’s father looked like a tiny figure in the distance, but his voice carried through the air all the way from their home to the pond.
“Liam, was that your father bellowing for you?” asked Sheresh, leaning over to bump Yoran in the side.
Liam shrugged at his two best friends. Lately, his father was always yelling for him. Liam roused himself from the tall summer grass where he and his friends were lounging, watching Zera and the other girls doing laundry in the pond. The three friends were discussing the rumors that were flying about the war with the Lamanites, having already filled their water skins from the spring that fed into the pond. Watching the girls and talking about war had become part of their morning routine since the Lamanites had stolen their sheep and forced them to pasture what was left of their herds nearer to their homes.
Squatting, Liam picked up the leather strap of his water yoke and draped it over his left shoulder. Then he picked up the strap of the other yoke and draped it over his right shoulder. He seldom made it back to the farm with all four water skins full of water, but he generally made it with enough that he did not have to make a second trip. Liam hated making a second trip. It was such a waste of time.
Still squatting, Liam put one foot behind the other, feeling it sink into the soft dirt beneath the damp grass. Legs shaking like a newborn lamb, he pushed himself up, balancing the overly full buckets on either side of his body.
“Yeh, Liam,” said Yoran, a sneer on his face. “Your father sounds very angry. What did you do this time? Leave the sheep pen open again?”
Liam ignored Yoran. Friend or no, Yoran had a sharp tongue. It did no good to argue with him. One more backward step, careful not to overbalance. Then Liam turned to the right, facing the one gap in the rock wall ringing the pond that was wide enough for him to get his four buckets through. Easy. Except for the lock of hair that fell down into his eyes. Late for his chores, Liam had run out of the house, grabbed up the water yokes and tore down to the pond. He was halfway there before he realized he had forgotten to push his hair back in a headband. Typical. He was always forgetting. And always paying for it, usually by tripping over a clump of grass he did not notice through the strings of hair in his face.
“Here, sheepy, sheepy. Liam wants his sheepy back,” Yoran teased, his voice an octave higher. Again, Liam ignored him, stepping toward the gap in the rock wall with care.
Liam had been the last to get to the pond this morning. As usual. Sheresh and Yoran had already made one trip to the pond before he arrived. Liam was even later than usual today because he had slept in. He had worked late into the night on a stool for his mother. It was his own design, with a small, raised back for his mother to lean against while she did her embroidery work, and a flat bar connecting two of the legs in front, where she could rest her feet. The intricately carved back was taking some time but he wanted to get it perfect. Not only would it be a great surprise for his mother but it would show his father that he was ready for the apprenticeship. He would not be a sheep boy forever.
“Let it go, Yoran,” said Sheresh.
“Shut it, Sheresh. If you know what is good for you,” said Yoran, glaring at Sheresh. “It is Liam who let those stupid Lamanite thieves get our sheep.”
“Stars above, Yoran! What was he supposed to do? Fight all of them by himself? And where were you, anyway? You were supposed to be helping him, not sweet talking Zera over at the marketplace.” Sheresh reached out and gave Yoran a shove, causing some of the water in one of Yoran’s pails to slosh over the top.
“I said shut up before I punch you in the—”
“Never mind, Sheresh,” said Liam, stopping for a moment to look back at his friends. “Yoran is right. It was my fault. I will see you tomorrow.” Liam cared less about Yoran’s comments than he did about getting the four water skins safely back to the sheep pen.
# # #
The evening meal was Liam’s favorite—lamb stew so thick you could scoop it up with flattened corn cakes. Liam loved his mother’s corn cakes. She added a pinch of dried red pepper to give them a slight bite that tasted wondrous combined with the savory stew. He had eaten too much and now his stomach was groaning in pain. He had thought once to stay and laze in the house but his determination to finish the stool before harvest time pushed him out the door to the makeshift stall where his secret project waited.
Liam was struggling with the groove of a jasmine blossom. The wood grain in this one spot on the backrest was being defiant. There must have been a gnarl hidden just below the surface of the capirona wood. A groove had split and now he was trying to turn it into a curl, to make it look like an intentional part of the design. Joseph, the woodworker he hoped to apprentice with, had shown him this trick a few weeks ago but Liam had not yet got the hang of it.
Liam stood slowly, shaking the tightness from his legs and rubbing his lower back. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and wiped the sweat from his brow as he exLiamed his night’s work. Not bad. He had fixed the groove and added three more jasmine blooms to the cluster. His scrutiny was interrupted by a cough behind him. Liam turned to see his father leaning against a corner pole of the stall, his muscled frame nearly filling the entire opening, the edge of the thatched roof brushing the top of his head. Had his father been watching him as he carved? He never came to watch Liam work the wood. He said all that fancy work was a waste of time and good wood. What was he doing out here tonight?
More importantly, how long had he been there? Had he heard Liam say that word that was not really a swearing, but that his father frowned upon? Probably not. His father was not reprimanding him. But then, he had heard his father say that word just this morning. Maybe he was being unusually forgiving tonight.
Liam’s father interrupted the moment of awkward silence with another cough.
“Liamnihah, sorry to interrupt your work.” Sorry? Liam could count on one finger the number of times his father had said he was sorry for something. Except to his mother. Father always apologized to Mother, even when he was not at fault.
Liam stood, placing his awl carefully on the seat of the stool. Something had to be wrong if his father was acting this much out of character. “What is it? Is Mama hurt? Baby Anna?”
“No, your mother and sister are fine. We need to go to the marketplace.”
“Now? This late in the day? All the stalls will be closed.”
“Not to barter. For a meeting. A chasqui came with a summons—all men and boys above twelve years are to meet at the council hall in the temple yard.”
The rumors were right, then. The time had come. As Liam and his father made the walk from their home at the far edge of town to the temple yard, he worried about what might happen. For most of his life, war had been threatening between the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Lamanites were angry because the Nephites had given Liam’s people refuge.
“Liamnihah, stop that.” His father interrupted Liam’s thoughts. He had been unconsciously kicking a rock down the dirt road as they walked and the last kick had sent the rock flying into his father’s ankle. Oops.
The sun was setting on the road behind them, casting their long shadows into the soft glow ahead of them. Liam stepped forward a few paces so that his shadow’s head was just above that of his father’s. I am bigger than you, he had taunted when he was a child. Even though he no longer said the words, his father knew full well what Liam meant by the move. It was juvenile but he liked doing it anyway. Besides he was only thirteen. He could get away with it. For a few minutes.
Liam awaited his father’s usual comment that would put him back in his place. When it did not come, he dropped back by his father’s side. Father must be more unsettled about this meeting than he had realized.
To say the Lamanites were angry was like calling an enraged puma a hairless palace cat. Their anger had simmered for a while but now it was a rolling boil. The thought made Liam’s stomach churn. Lately, the Lamanites had stepped up their advances and attacks. They were burning crops, stealing sheep, attacking small communities, and butchering women and children right along with the men at arms. Captain Moroni and his armies were doing their best to meet the Lamanites, but they were stretched thin protecting Liam’s people—the People of Ammon. Rumor said it was only a matter of time before the entire countryside was embroiled in a war.
Liam knew his father was caught between two hands. On the one hand, he, like all the People of Ammon, had buried his weapons of war. He had covenanted with the Lord never to take up the sword again—not even to defend his own life. Liam was sure his father was at peace with that part of it. In fact, he had lectured Liam on the evils of war and physical violence all his days. But defending the lives of his wife and children? Defending the Nephites who had been so generous? That was the other hand.
Father chafed at having the Nephites fight his battles. His people were the reason for this war. His people were a weak link. His people required Nephite armies, Nephite lives, to protect them from the Lamanite advances. Although they supported the troops with food and supplies, the blood of the Nephites was being spilt for his people and he could not stop it. He could not help.
More than once, Liam had listened from the shadows while his father and the other men in the village had discussed their convictions, their desire to do something more. He had heard the arguments for breaking the covenant and taking up arms to fight alongside Captain Moroni, Helaman and the other Nephite warriors. None of them liked the idea but they did not know what else to do. Father had argued against it, but some of them, particularly Yaron’s father, had argued quite convincingly for it. This meeting would likely settle that argument, once and for all.
# # #
“You know what this is about?” asked Sheresh. The adult men were gathered in the limestone council hall at the edge of the temple yard where they held their community meetings. The young men waited in the outer garden, clustered in small groups, pretending not to be worried or concerned about the raised voices that occasionally drifted out through the open windows into the gathering darkness.
Liam took a deep breath. The scent of garden citrus and night-blooming jasmine that flooded his nose seemed to calm his troubled stomach. He nodded. “The war.”
“My dad says it is time to take a stand,” said Yaron. “We have got to fight or the Lamanites will kill most of us and make slaves of the rest.”
“But what about the covenant?” asked Liam.
“It is not for our sake that we would take up the sword. Not really,” replied Yaron. “It is for the Nephites, for the women and children. Moroni needs more men. We would not fight only to save ourselves.”
“Oh, right,” said Sheresh. “You just keep telling yourself that.”
Liam had to chuckle, despite the nervous cramping in his stomach. Yaron seemed just a bit too eager for war and Sheresh enjoyed ‘correcting’ him.
“Me? I think I will keep the covenant,” Sheresh continued. “Not that I personally made it. I was not born yet. But my father made the covenant and I will stand beside him. Or die beside him.”
“You are such a sheep-tailed know-it-all, Sheresh.” Yaron had to have the last word. “What about you, Liam? Sword up or sword down?”
“Uh, I…” Liam wondered. What would he do? Here in the relative calm of his community, it was easy to say that he would keep the covenant he had come to believe in with all his heart. But in the moment of challenge? If a Lamanite came into his home, threatened his mother and sister, what would he do? Would he have the strength to stand firm in the covenant and let them die? Or would he pick up his mother’s chopping knife and defend them with all his might? And if he fought for his own family, should he not also be willing to fight for the families of his friends?
“I do not know,” Liam said, his voice soft with emotion.
Sheresh and Yaron looked at him, for once their own honest emotion exposed in their faces. They were as conflicted and confused as he was.
The moment was interrupted as Yaron’s father called the young men inside the council hall. As the boys searched for their fathers, Liam guessed there were nearly five hundred men and boys in the room. He could smell the unpleasant tang of nervous sweat. There was a low hum of dissatisfied voices. Had the men not come to an agreement?
Liam and Sheresh joined a small group of men near the front of the room that included their fathers and Sheresh’s older brothers. A few moments later, Yaron and his father came to stand with them. Liam felt his shoulders tighten as he waited, knowing that what came next would change their lives forever. He could sense that same knowledge settle on his friends.
There was a stirring in the crowd, then a gasp from the young men as Helaman, a favored leader in Captain Moroni’s army, walked purposefully to the front of the gathering. He stepped up on a wooden box so that all could see and hear him. Liam stole a glance at Sheresh and Yaron, who both looked as astonished as he felt. None of them had heard a whisper that Helaman was coming here.
“My dear brothers in the Lord,” said Helaman, “for you are indeed my brothers now, although once, in the beginning, you were Lamanites. But by the power and the word of God, as taught to you by Ammon and his brethren, you were converted unto the Lord. You were brought down to the land of Zarahemla, and given a place amongst us, and have become our brethren.”
A chorus of amens went through the room. It was clear the older men felt an abiding brotherhood with this man and with the Nephites who had granted them asylum.
“I understand the sorrows of your hearts,” Helaman continued. “You have been protected by the Nephites for lo, these many years. And because of your oath to the Lord, your covenant to never more shed the blood of your fellowman, you have been kept from taking up arms against the Lamanites. I know that you are strong in your faith and that you would suffer yourselves to be slain rather than to take up arms.
“I also know that because of the many afflictions and tribulations and dangers that the Nephites bear for your sakes, you are moved with compassion. I know that you are desirous to defend your country, to fight for our lives, to once again take up weapons of war for our sakes.”
Once again a chorus of amens and yeses echoed through the room. Several men, Liam’s father included, brushed at their eyes. It was unnerving to see this strong, gruff man so undone by emotion, his breathing quick and shallow and his lip trembling. For the first time, Liam realized how heart-deep his father’s struggle with this issue truly was.
“But I say to you, do not. Do not break your oath, for I fear that by doing so, you shall lose your souls. Captain Moroni and I and many others have spent much time in fasting and prayer on this subject and we know the Lord will answer our prayers with a solution. But please, I beg of you from the depths of my heart, do not break your covenant.”
Helaman looked about the gathered men, as if he expected an answer to burst forth at any moment. The silence in the room was as heavy as wet alpaca fur. Liam was looking down, noticing the hardness of the limestone floor as it pressed against his sandaled feet, when he felt Sheresh stirring beside him. He turned to face his friend. Sheresh’s mouth formed an oval, his brows arched high above shining eyes. His cheeks were flushed, almost fevered with excitement.
“I did not,” said Sheresh, in a quiet voice that could only be heard by those standing close by.
“Did not what?” Liam asked, noticing as he said it that Yaron had a strange smile on his face, as if he were part of a secret joke that only he and Sheresh knew.
“I did not make the oath!” said Sheresh, this time speaking loud enough that his voice carried through the otherwise silent room.
All eyes turned their direction, shock mirrored on every face, including Helaman’s. Lines too deep for a man of his young age creased his brow. The corners of his mouth turned down and he shook his head from side to side. He closed his eyes for a moment, bowing his head as if in prayer. The hall remained silent—everyone too stunned to speak. Then Helaman groaned, lifting his head and opening his eyes.
“That is not the answer I expected,” said Helaman. He looked out over the group, studying them, perhaps looking for another answer, another solution. None was offered.
“Fathers, it is true. You have many good and strong sons who have been raised in the faith of the Lord. These sons were too young to enter into the covenant with you. Some of them had not yet been born.”
A low murmur began. This time there were no amens offered. Fathers and sons moved closer together as the meaning of Helaman’s words began to dawn on them. Helaman waited a beat for the whispering to die down.
Helaman’s voice rang out. “Let your sons, if they are willing, enter into a new covenant to take up arms, to fight for the liberty of our people, to protect their land and their families, even unto the laying down of their lives.”
Once again Helaman surveyed the group, searching out the faces of the younger men.
“I promise you,” he continued, his voice softer. “I promise you, this group of young men will become my own sons, my own army of warriors. I will teach them and train them, guide them into battle, succor them, and return as many of them to you as I am able.”
“Dear fathers. My young sons. My future stripling warriors. Return to your homes and make this a matter of prayer within your families. If you are willing to do this, to enter into this covenant, then I bid you meet here again at dawn, ready to march.”
The murmuring within the crowd became a rumble as Helaman stepped down from the wooden box and left the room. Some of the fathers were clearly angry. Others had tears streLiamg down their cheeks. Most, however, were silent as they filed out of the hall and began to return to their homes.
# # #
Liam tossed on his pallet, pulling the blankets up to his chin. There was no way he would sleep this night. He had stolen glances at his father during the silent walk home. It had been too dark to see his father’s face but he could hear an occasional sniff and cough, signs that his father was working through strong emotions.
Liam was too stunned for emotion. He had never expected this. Not in his wildest imagination. Not really. Although he and his friends had talked about fighting, they were stories fueled by boasting and bluff. Liam had never really expected he would be called upon to go to war. He had been prepared to say goodbye to his father, to shoulder the extra responsibility to keep the farm running in his father’s absence. But to leave himself? To fight? To kill?
Liam tossed again in the darkness. What was he to do? He had prayed until his throat ached and tears flowed, begging for direction, pleading with the Lord to let him stay home with his family—but the heavens were silent tonight. He stretched his arms above his head, gently pulling the too tight muscles of his back. Then he put his hands to his pounding temples. This was no good.
Maybe he should get up and work on the stool. He needed only to add one more cluster of jasmine, some ivy leaves and a few swirls to the design on the backrest. No. He would never finish it in one night. If he went with Helaman, the stool would have to wait until the war was over—just one more of a hundred reasons for him not to go.
The blanket hanging over the doorway to his bedchamber slid sideways and a pale light from an oil lamp peeked through the gap. Liam’s mother slipped in silently, letting the blanket fall back in place behind her. She sat on the floor beside his pallet, putting her head down next to his, her long dark hair spilling against Liam’s shoulder. For a moment, Liam breathed in the slight scent of jasmine that always accompanied his mother. Her favorite flower.
“Mamaí, what should I do?” he asked.
There was no answer, although he could feel her arms tighten up as she lay next to him. After several long minutes, she spoke.
“Liam, you have been taught all your life to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before Him. You are strong in the faith, valiant, and courageous. Do what the Lord tells you to do in this matter.”
She snuggled closer to Liam for a moment, then kissed his cheek and stood up. “Your father and I will honor your decision.”
As she paused at the doorway, she said, “If you choose to go, you will be in the Lord’s hands. I know it.” Then she was gone and the room was once again in darkness.
Liam rolled onto his side, then knelt on his pallet. He prayed more powerfully and sincerely than he had ever prayed in his life. No more tears. No more begging and pleading. He asked for clear direction, praying only to know God’s will and for the courage to carry it out.
It was nearly dawn before Liam had his answer, but when it came, he was sure of it.
# # #
The sky was the silver gray of pre-dawn as Liam walked back to the council hall. Mamaí walked beside him with her arm around his waist. Father carried Anna on his shoulders. They had all risen early that morning to help him prepare to leave. Liam carried a small goatskin bag slung over his shoulder containing a change of clothing and enough bread, cheese, dried meat, guavas and pears to last four days. A filled water skin hung from a belt tied around his waist. He had no weapon yet but father had given him a sturdy walking stick that could act as a defense in a pinch.
Liam tried to memorize every sensation on the way to town—from the scent of jasmine in his mother’s hair, to Anna’s giggle, to his father’s heavy tread on the dirt road. He noticed a flash of emerald green as a hummingbird swooped past him on its way to some bright yellow lilies that were not yet fully opened.
“It is early in the day for hummingbirds,” said Mamaí and squeezed his arm.
As they neared the marketplace at the center of town, Liam heard an orange-headed tunki chirrup. It serenaded them from an avocado tree. Anna clapped her hands. Liam wanted to share in her delight but his stomach was churning even more than the night before. All he could think of was how ill prepared he was. Other than wrestling with his friends, he had no fighting skills. Helaman would surely be disappointed.
The marketplace was filled to overflowing with families saying their goodbyes. There were people in the council hall, in the temple yard, and in the garden. Helaman was by the council hall, overseeing the loading of a number of alpacas and carts with supplies. It looked like they were nearly done. Liam had never seen so many people gathered here all at one time.
Liam’s father handed Anna down off his shoulders to Mamaí. “Liamnihah—Liam. I am proud of you, son.” For the first time in months, his father gathered him in his arms, giving him a hug that squeezed the breath out of his lungs. Liam was not complaining. He hugged him back.
Mamaí took a turn as well, her eyes filled with tears. After a long embrace, she stepped back and pushed Liam’s hair out of his eyes. Then she drew his favorite headband from her pocket and slipped it over his brow, smoothing his hair flat. Any other day, Liam would feel like a baby letting his mother fix his hair in the marketplace, but today he did not mind.
“About time you got here, llama-spit,” said a voice behind Liam, accompanied by a smack on the back of his head. Sheresh was in high spirits.
“Are we ready then?” asked Liam.
“Almost. We are supposed to meet in the council hall for a few words from Helaman.”
The two boys walked into the hall together, followed by their families. The young men were gathered in the center of the hall, while parents, siblings and others lined the walls. It was crowded and noisy. Liam spotted Yoran in a corner talking with Zera. Her face was tipped up toward his, so close their noses almost touched. Liam wondered if Yoran would steal a kiss before he left.
Helaman entered the hall bringing silence with him. The only sound was the shuffling of bodies as he made his way to the front. Yaron joined Liam and Sheresh near the middle of the group.
“So did you kiss her?” Liam whispered. It was a stupid thing to say, but it broke the silence as some of the young men around them overheard and laughed nervously.
Yaron mustered a grin and moved his eyebrows up and down.
“Alpaca-breath,” Sheresh muttered.
Helaman stepped up on the wooden box where he had stood the night before.
“I thank the Lord that so many of you have come to fight for your country, your people. Although our stripling army is small, I know we will add to our numbers as we pass through other towns on our way to aid Judea. Those of faith will join us because we uphold the cause of freedom and God is on our side. I promise that if you are true to your faith, you will be a great aide in this battle to keep us free.”
Helaman looked into the faces of the young men. “May God bless you,” he said. He raised his fist into the air. “To liberty?”
“To liberty!” echoed through the room as the young men punched their fists into the air, determined resolve on every face.
Liam did not know what the future held for him. None of them did. He might never see his town again, or his family. He might be injured. He most likely would be killed. But he could not deny the feeling of peace that had come to him in the early hours before dawn. This was what God wanted him to do.
Liam looked at Sheresh, then at Yaron. The three friends smiled, then stepped forward to follow Helaman out of the hall.