“This way,” Sarai whispered, pulling my hand.
“Are you sure?” I leaned up against the stone wall. I didn’t want to move. My heart was racing, and I was forgetting to breath.
“No. But we have to go. They’re going to find us.”
I took measure of her eyes. “The jungle?”
We crouched low and walked, balancing with our hands, toward an opening. The annona trees that marked the jungle’s border were over sixty yards away.
“We’ll never make it.” I grabbed Sarai’s hand and pulled.
She yanked free. “It’s the only chance we’ve got.”
Sarai gave my hand a squeeze and peered around the edge. She motioned with her finger, creeping forward on her knees. I inched up beside her. We clasped our trembling hands together and ran.
Half way to the trees we heard someone yell. “Stop!” We ran harder.
I glanced quickly over my shoulder. Two Lamanite soldiers were running after us. One with a spear raised over his head, the other with a sword.
“Essa. We’ve got to split up.” Sarai let go of my hand and ran to the east. I ran the opposite direction, taking one last look at her before the trees enveloped us.
The terrain was too rugged. My bare feet were cut and bleeding and he was gaining on me. In the distance I could see a cluster of trees and thick bushes. They were my only hope.
I ducked into the undergrowth, parting the limbs with my hands so I wouldn’t leave any tracks. I dropped to my knees and crawled to the center of the thick foliage and laid down, my face against the spongy dirt.
I could hear the heavy thumping of his feet. It grew louder and suddenly stopped. I held my breath.
“Run! Get out of here!” The scream came from somewhere behind me. In front of me, a laugh.
“Go ahead. Run.” I looked up through the bushes and found a dark face smiling at me.
I sunk farther into the ground, his face disappearing behind the leaves.
He walked closer, feeding his sword through the branches and pushing the tip into my neck. “To your feet!”
I sat up and pressed my trembling hands against my thighs. The edge of his sword on my throat raised me to my feet, followed by a sharp pinch and a warm trickle of blood running down my chest.
I had never seen a Lamanite this close before. My mother called them blood thirsty heathens. Evil creatures who took pleasure in murder. The sight of him sent a chill tingling through my body. His cold eyes were distinct against his dark skin. He had no hair and the only clothing he wore was a loin cloth that was stained with the same blood that covered his sword.
“Give me your hands.” He stabbed his sword into the ground and pulled a thin strand of rope from his belt.
I groaned in pain when he pinched my wrists together and I tried to pull away.
“Would you prefer I kill you?” His grip tightened.
I winced and relinquished my arms. He cinched the rope around my wrists, the stiff hairs from the cord burning and digging into my flesh.
He pulled his weapon from the ground and placed it back on my throat. “Are you going to give me any trouble?”
I shook my head.
“Good.” He grabbed my braid and tore me free of the bushes.
My foot caught in a thick root that snaked above the ground and I fell, the force jarring me free of him. I scrambled to my knees and tried to crawl.
“Move!” He kicked me in the back, slamming my head into the ground.
He clamped his hand around the base of my neck and squeezed. “Maybe I should kill you.” He hissed into my ear.
“No.” I shook my head. But I wasn’t sure if I meant it.
“That way.” He pointed with his sword. “If you slow me down. You’re dead.”
I was led to a small clearing where a handful of soldiers stood guard around four Nephite women. My captor spit in my face and shoved me in their direction.
“Just kill us and get it over with!” One of the woman screamed.
“Shut up!” A soldier said and lobbed a rock at her face. It hit its mark.
She pressed her bleeding eyebrow into her shoulder.
I looked away from her shuddering body and seated myself on the opposite side.
We sat like that for hours. The sun, unobstructed by clouds or any trees overhead, drained us of the ability to sweat, then baked our clothing to our parched skin. A constant flow of warriors and captives continued through the day and by dusk there were fifteen of us: women, children, even babies.
Night moved in quickly, following on the heels of a small host of soldiers from the main Lamanite army who bore news that the city had fallen and the Nephite army had fled to the northern lands.
There was no escape. We were flanked to the east and west by dense jungle and mountains. To the north laid the sea and our besieged city of Teancum. To the south, Lamanite territory.
There was really no question in my mind whether or not I was going to die. I somehow knew the answer and strangely felt at peace with it.
If I dwelt on the how to that question I could feel my stomach burn and panic threaten to take hold. I retreated into my memories, trying to relive a moment from a year ago. The day Moriancum asked me to be his wife.
The river felt good. Cooling my bare legs, but not making them any wetter. It was the hottest summer I could remember. Even my grandmother said she had never seen the heat like this. Though I wasn’t certain I trusted her eighty-year-old memory to retain anything before breakfast.
It rained all the time. Not heavy drops, just a constant sheet of mist that soaked everything, indoors or out. Clothing didn’t hang from your shoulders, it clung to your skin. It felt like I was constantly sweating. I smelled like it to.
I sat down on the rocky bank and dipped my toes into the clear water. I lifted my dress above my knees then slid my bare legs below the surface.
“Don’t you have work to do?” A voice called from behind me.
I looked over my shoulder and watched Moriancum jump down from a large boulder. “No. But I’m sure you have.” I smiled at the sight of his him, his hair soaked with sweat and pasted to his head.
“Always do.” Moriancum plopped down beside me and unlaced his sandals.
“I wasn’t sure you were going to make it today.”
“Almost didn’t.” He was chewing on the edge of a wheat stalk.
I dropped my hand to the ground between us, my heart skipping more than one beat.
Moriancum looked down and smiled then grabbed my hand and squeezed. “I joined.”
The elation over his touch disappeared. I took a deep breath. “Really?”
“Yeah.” He nodded his head and threw the wheat stalk into the water. “The pay is good.”
It felt like he was hinting at something but I was too angry to care.
“Aren’t you happy about that?”
“Sure,” I said, watching the wheat stalk float away.
He ripped his hand away from mine and stood. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
I couldn’t look at him. “I am happy…for you.”
Moriancum bent over and picked up a large rock then threw it into the river just beyond my feet. Water splashed all over me.
I jumped up. “What was that for?”
“Because you deserve it.”
“I deserve it? What did I do?” I was angry at him. I had never been angry at him before.
“You don’t care! I joined the army so that I could earn more money so that I could,” his voice fell to a whisper. “marry you.”
“You joined the army because…” I couldn’t finish.
“Because,” his voice filled with conviction. “I want to marry you.”
Blood curdling cries filled the darkness, sending every bird in the jungle canopy screeching into the sky. The noise made my skin crawl. The little girl next to me whimpered and buried her face in her mother’s chest. Slowly, the sound faded into menacing chuckles and then silence. Several of the guards stepped forward, holding short handled torches that lit one side of their face, leaving the other deep in shadow.
A large man appeared from the blackness beyond the trees. He passed in front of the torchbearers, the light from their flames reflected off a gold medallion that hung from his neck. An emerald jaguar stood in relief against the yellow medal, the symbol of their king.
He stopped between his men and us, his face stained with blood and hatred. He raised his arms to the heavens, “Victory!”
The Lamanite warriors behind him lifted their arms in unison and repeated his cry.
He glared at us. “You are Nephites. Our blood enemies.” He paced back and forth.
“You must pay a price for what your people have done to us!” He paused, allowing his men to shout their agreements. “Your men have run like cowards and left you behind. You mean nothing to them! Nothing!” His voice grew louder as he spoke. “They offer you as a sacrifice for their own lives. Now we,” he stopped and scowled, “will offer you as a sacrifice for ours!”
A cheer arose. Their shrill cries gradually mixing with a deep rumble of voices that grew louder and louder. Soon every man was marching in place, thumping the ground with spears and swords and chanting sac-ri-fice.
My heart faltered and questions assaulted me. Was everyone else in the city dead? What happened to my family? Did Sarai get away? My mind stuck on the last question: Did Moriancum make it out alive?
“Go! Find some place to hide!” Moriancum grabbed my wrist and pulled me out the door. “Go get my sister and get out of here!”
“Where?” I ran behind him.
“Anywhere. I don’t know. Just get Sarai and hide.” He looked around frantically. Things were worse than I realized.
“Moriancum. What’s happened?” I pulled on his arm. He stopped, his shoulders raising with exaggerated breaths.
“We’re going to fall.” He faced me. “There are too many of them. We’re going to lose the city.”
It wasn’t just his words that stunned me. Nephite men were strong. They didn’t show fear. When they marched to battle their faces were painted with courage and assurance. Riding back from war, the bodies of their comrades buried in the battlefield, their faces were filled with triumph. Our army was strong and brave. Moriancum was strong and brave. But I saw a fear, like nothing I had ever seen before, seared on his face.
“What do I do?” There had to be another plan.
“Hide until you can get out of the city.” He hugged me and kissed my brow. “We will go north for help. Follow the river to Jordan. I will come find you.”
I watched him back out of the door. “What about my family.”
“You can’t reach the other end of the city in time. You must hide.” He took my hands in his and pressed his forehead into mine. “Essa, you are my wife. I must know that you are safe.”
I nodded. “I’ll hide.”
We had been led below ground, through a tunnel that opened up in the middle of the jungle floor. The pop and sizzle of water dripping onto the Lamanite’s torches echoed around the stone chamber and off the knee deep pool of water we were forced to stand in.
I rubbed my arms, trying to ward off the cold and brittle air. Below the knees the only sensation I had left was numb.
One at a time prisoners were led away. The women could barely walk, their stiff legs didn’t even have the strength to hesitate. Children were carried out, shivering instead of whimpering, over the warrior’s shoulders.
“What do you think it’s like? Dying?” The woman next to me asked, her teeth chattering.
I shrugged my shoulders and forced myself to answer. “We’ll soon find out.”
“Mmm.” She hugged herself and stared blankly at the ceiling.
I had been ignoring that question. At hearing her words I felt as if all the blood had been drained out of my body, leaving the burden of a deep ache that was quickly overwhelmed by a clarity of thought. The image came to me of Moriancum’s teacher leaning up against a tree as he spoke to us of a Savior. The last words I heard him preach filled my heart: And whoso taketh his name upon them, and endureth to the end, the same shall be saved at the last day.
The sound of water sloshing near the doorway brought my head around. The guard walking toward us was looking at me.
“You’re turn.” He grabbed my bound hands and pulled me toward the door.
Outside of the chamber a cloth was tied around my eyes. An already dark world retreated into sound. Splashing water, flickering torches, heavy breathing, and blade on stone.
I was guided through the tunnel and forced to lay down onto something hard and cold. My hands were pulled above my head and held in place. I felt someone grab my ankles and push down. My mind was screaming I’m about to die. My breathing grew rapid and shallow.
Above me I heard a quiet chanting that began to swell until I could understand. “…sacrifice…”
I pushed my mind back to the first time someone had spoken to me about sacrifice. The first time that Moriancum shared his beliefs with me.
Thunder reverberated through the sky and a static charge lit the air.
“Hurry!” Moriancum called as he ran faster.
I squealed with pleasure and followed. Another clap of thunder sounded, opening the heavens.
“Come on.” Running sideways through the downpour he looked back at me and smiled.
“I am!” I screamed.
We laughed and ran harder toward the small hut that I could see in the distance.
“What are we doing here?” I asked Moriancum as we came to a stop in front of the door.
He knocked. “You’ll see.”
The door opened and a young boy peered up at us.
“Let them in,” someone called from inside.
The door was pulled open just wide enough for us to squeeze through.
Water dripped from our clothes, forming a puddle on the dirt floor. The dark room was lit by two candles that sputtered in the humid air. Behind them sat a man I did not recognize.
“Welcome.” He stood and shook our hands then gestured toward the two chairs opposite him.
“Thank you.” Moriancum nodded in greeting and sat down.
I was confused. I looked from Moriancum’s broad smile to the stranger. “Why are we here?”
The man looked up at me and smiled. “Because of our Lord’s sacrifice.”
And whoso taketh upon him my name, and endureth to the end,
the same shall be saved at the last day.