Seepa Village, MFDT Branch 4, Ward 5 of the United Republic of Provinces
Tribal Reservation of Urnah
Nasai, White Moon 3303 – September
“I do not have a good feeling about this,” Emi Ansara protested as she climbed from one of the school’s land transport vehicles behind Rebecca and into the cold, pelting rain. “And you know how I feel about travelling at night.”
Sister Rebecca glanced briefly at her friend before ducking her head into her cloak’s hood and responding, “How many instances in our lifetime do you think we will have like this?”
She and Emi trudged down the muddy path that led towards a small square building acting as the MFDT Branch 4 field office.
“I don’t know about you, but I refuse to sit idle this time and allow another tragedy to occur,” Rebecca stated.
Emi remained silent for a moment, remembering the deaths on the Wards fourteen years ago and although Emi did not agree with Rebecca’s tactics, neither could she sit by if her testimony before the clans could prevent more violence against the Urnahi but she did not want to see Safiya go through anymore heartache than the young woman had already endured.
“Fine. But I do not want to be brought in any further than necessary,” Emi conceded ungraciously. “And I refuse to call them the MFDT. What is that? They’re a militia, let’s be plain. If Amere were alive, may he be at peace, I’m sure that he would not approve of clouding the pond. They’re the Militia for the Defense of Tribes, period. Why attempt to sugar-coat their motives with an absurd acronym?”
Rebecca smiled despite her own nervousness at Emi’s misplaced irritation and silently agreed with her friend although she would never admit it to her. She and Emi had endured much together and Rebecca couldn’t imagine embarking upon something like this with anyone else, but unlike Rebecca, Emi had grown cautious with age. The MFDT had approached Rebecca for help and she had recognized immediately that it was her responsibility to give it to them, no matter the consequences. Yes, they were a militia, and yes, the Urnahi tribe was traditionally the keepers of the peace upon Sahyun, but The Histories could not be denied.
“And also, I must say: the whole idea of Al Sahifah arising and a Reckoning being near frightens me, quite frankly,” Emi complained. “There. I said it. Now I can enter this building with a clear conscience.”
“It frightens us all,” Rebecca confessed to her friend. “But the Creator is Just. We cannot allow fear to overcome us.”
Rebecca was afraid too, but it would be unwise to loose heart now. Even in the pelting rain Rebecca could see that Seepa Village was prospering and that was primarily because of the MFDT and the courage of the villagers. Many of the small square houses now had fenced gardens with vegetables and tree saplings growing within them, and Rebecca could sense the increase in the life vibrations as soon as they had reached the outskirts of the village: people were happier now. Kula Street had been cleaned and paved with whitestone since her previous visit just five months ago, and at least a dozen tall, slender solar lamps had lit the road as she and Emi had driven into the Ward. The improvements had begun following the MFDT’s establishment of a chapter here and it was encouraging to know that they had started re-teaching the ways of working the land to the villagers.
Rebecca reached the building first and climbed up the three wooden steps to the door where she and Emi huddled beneath the undersized canopy attached to keep dry. A lone lantern with a low burning flame swung precariously in the wind above their heads and cast dim light upon the front stoop just bright enough for identifying visitors. Rebecca could hear the murmur of voices from behind the door and gave Emi’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before knocking firmly. A burly MFDT officer identifiable by the black and blue bandanna tied around his neck and the black slacks with dark blue tunic shirt that he wore opened the door.
“Greetings, Sisters,” the man stated formally. “Welcome. The Commander is waiting for you.”
They entered upon an open area with four round wooden tables and wooden stools that was separated by a partition to the right that concealed the washroom and indoor privy. A roaring fire burned within a stone fireplace in the wall to their immediate left and chased away the cold dampness from outside and a clean, but threadbare, woven brown carpet for congregational prayer covered the floor in the center of the room beyond the tables. A short bookcase containing an empty incense holder, three tall white candles and a copy of the Holy Scriptures upon the top shelf was pushed against the wall beneath the only window and Rebecca noticed a small, ancient looking chest upon the lower shelf before Commander Ku’sai addressed her.
“The greeting of peace be with you, sisters, and welcome. It is a pleasure to have you here. Please, sit,” Ahmed Ku’sai said and stood from his seat behind the table closest to the fire.
He was dressed in a black tunic suit with a traditional braided belt of blue and black about his waist and his straight black hair, streaked with silver, was pulled back into a single braid that hung down his back. His dark brown eyes seemed to be perpetually frowning and his square jaw was covered by a closely cropped beard that was also peppered with gray. Beside him sat his son Yaqub and several others. The burly officer secured the door closed behind Rebecca and Emi before resuming his place on a stool beside it.
“Greetings of peace be unto you, Commander, and thank you for having us,” Rebecca replied as she sat upon one of the empty stools while Emi sat upon the other.
She glanced at the faces around the table and recognized the kindly, wrinkled features of Rabia Masoud, Urnah’s sole remaining Sahyun Master. In addition to Yaqub Ku’sai, Ahmed’s only son, there were two other men that Rebecca did not know but who were dressed in the same blue and black colors of the MFDT. Ahmed was about to begin the introductions when the rear door beside the fireplace opened and a tall, cloaked figure entered. The figure removed his hood and came to stand behind Ahmed and Rebecca was momentarily stunned as she looked at his features. Yahya? She asked herself incredulously before recognizing the man.
“Greetings,” the man said to everyone around the table as he pulled up a stool from the nearest table to sit beside Yaqub.
“Greetings, Zakai,” Ahmed replied. “I’m thankful that you have been able to make the meeting. The sisters from the Spirit school have only just arrived. I’ll make the introductions now.”
Rebecca let out a slow, deep breath and glanced at Emi who had noticed Rebecca’s reaction but who hid her concern. Rebecca would have to explain later that she’d thought she was seeing the ghost of her late husband when in fact it was his younger brother who had joined them. Zakai looked almost exactly as Yahya had when he had been his age with the same piercing grey eyes and square, bearded jaw. His black hair was worn long but pulled away from his face by a leather thong at the base of his neck and Rebecca had to tear her eyes away from him as Ahmed began the introductions.
“Beside you, Sister Rebecca, as you know, is our Eseere Master and village Healer, Rabia Masoud, whom you have both met,” Ahmed stated and placed his hand upon his son’s shoulder where he sat at his right to introduce him. “This is Yaqub Ku’sai, my son and one of our Militia Captains.”
Rebecca had heard whispers around the village that a former security officer from the Republic had joined the militia but she never would have guessed that it was Zakai. Sekel was not going to be happy about this.
Ahmed gestured towards Zakai and continued, “This is Zakai El Simha, whom you also know, Sister Rebecca, our newly acquired Master at Arms, and across from him is our Recruiting Manager, Aalem Elyon, our Financial Manager Hosni Ampshad and our resident Imam, Inam Algayni. These are the elected members of our clan Council.”
Rebecca nodded and smiled in greeting but internally berated herself for not having thought her actions through a little better. If Zakai was involved with the MFDT then the suspicions that got him terminated from Sekel’s security detail were likely true and she may have gotten herself into something that she shouldn’t have after all. She shot a tentative glance over at Emi but she was too engrossed in her own uneasiness to notice Rebecca’s.
Ahmed gestured towards Rebecca and Emi respectively to complete the introductions and said, “This is the Reverend Sister Rebecca El Amra, Eseere Master and Spirit Teacher from the Academy of Psychic Sciences, and her colleague Emi Ansara, a professor at the Spirit school and Master of the Ancient Tongues. Seeing how late the hour is, let us begin.”
Yaqub produced a compu pad from a travelling case at his feet beneath the table and powered up the console for recording the meeting. Rebecca’s headscarf suddenly felt too tight and her hands became damp with nerves.
“First, allow me to express our gratitude for all of your assistance, dear sister,” Ahmed continued to Rebecca. “We may not have otherwise been able to secure the defensive shields had it not been for your intervention with the Yarnasi architects. May the Creator reward you generously. With that said, I’d like to begin with your recent conversation concerning the young healer, Safiya.”
He paused and looked to Rabia for clarification.
“Safiya bint Amere Al Akhad,” Rabia volunteered with a small smile at Rebecca.
Ahmed nodded and proceeded, “Safiya bint Amere Al Akhad. Uma Rabia has informed us that she has received a vision concerning bint Amere and your testimony, combined with her own, has led her to believe that Safiya may be the prophesized Sahifah. Um Rabia has proposed as much to the Council but this claim requires both spiritual and physical proof before we can agree to pursue an inquiry; especially if we are expected to bring the claim before the Sovereign Chiefs and the Governor. If you will share with the Council that which you have shared with me, dear sister, it would be very helpful.”
There was no turning back now. Rebecca cleared her throat before speaking.
“Yes, Commander,” Rebecca began and averted her gaze from Zakai when his eyes shifted towards her. “Safiya Al Akhad is a direct descendant of High Chief Pasha ibn Tarek Al Akhad and daughter of the late Amere ibn Samir and Naiya Al Akhad. For her safety, the child and her younger brother have been hidden these fourteen moon cycles past. It has been discovered that Amere and Naiya feared for their lives prior to the missile attacks so they arranged for their two children to be protected under the guardianship of trusted friends. The contracts can be produced to confirm what I say if necessary and although the death of her parents is a separate matter, it is related to the current situations unfolding among the Wards because of Safiya’s relation to Amere and the line of the Chiefs.”
“And the Sovereign Chiefs do not know that she and her brother have survived?” Aalem Elyon asked dubiously.
“No, sirrah,” Rebecca answered. “Well, none except for the Chief who is in close contact with the brother’s guardian.”
“And why is it that you believe the girl to be Al Sahifah and not the boy?” Inam Algayni inquired before Rebecca could continue.
“Well, for starters, shortly following the death of her parents, Safiya began to exhibit gifts of Eseere which prompted her guardian to enroll her at our school. She is a first rank healer at the age of only 21 summers and she has already begun learning the language of Wind. Professor Ansara has accompanied me today to attest to her mastery of Amharic and the lesser ancient languages, one of the signs of Al Sahifah according to the Codex, and I have seen for myself the sacred mark upon her. I’m certain that we are all aware of the scriptures that state, ‘Al Sahifah shall speak the ancient tongue and shall be gifted in the arts of healing. Al Sahifah shall be master of the Elementals and the child of a Chief bearing the mark of the Holy Ones’ and I would like to formally assert that this child, Safiya Al Akhad, may be the Al Sahifah that is spoken of in the prophecy. I have witnessed these signs in the girl and I am not saying that the boy is not Al Sahifah, I am only saying that I believe the girl is.”
A short, loaded silence followed Rebecca’s declaration and her eyes inadvertently fell upon Zakai to find him watching her closely.
“You say that she is a first rank healer but you have said nothing of her being an Elemental Master,” Zakai observed. “Does she also have mastery of the elements?”
Rebecca sensed his doubts but answered honestly, “Not as of yet, but as I have already stated, she is well versed in the language of Wind, nearly fluent, and only has need of a Teacher to refine her in the levels of 2 and 3.”
Zakai did not press the subject but it was obvious that he had concerns. Uma Rabia nodded solemnly and broke the silence to address Emi.
“And you, sister, you say that the child has mastered the ancient languages?” Rabia asked Emi.
“Yes, Uma,” Emi responded nervously, her voice a pitch higher than usual.
Emi reached into the shoulder bag that she wore slung across her chest and resting upon her lap beneath her cloak to produce a copy of Safiya’s last examination. She cleared her throat and continued.
“Safiya has mastered Amharic independently from her studies and, after having read the entire Codex as an out-of-class assignment, has surpassed her fellow students in mastering the lesser ancient tongues, requiring that I provide her with separate and advanced lessons. She has already completed the class curriculum for this year and at her current rate, she’ll be fluent in each of the ancient vernaculars, including Majani, by the beginning of Orange Moon. This is a copy of her final semester examination from last year’s session,” Emi said and slid the copy of the hand written exam across the table to Uma Rabia.
Ahmed openly smiled, his eyes crinkling with delight, as he looked about the table excitedly. The other men’s emotions were mixed: from the still, reserved expression upon Yaqub’s stern features to the shock upon the faces of the recruiter and financial manager and the restrained, dubious expression upon Zakai’s chiseled features: features so much like Yahya’s that Rebecca’s chest ached when she looked at him.
“This is quite a development,” Ahmed announced merrily. “It would appear that our people have been chosen to house the Sahifah this time around, may the Creator be praised.”
Rebecca sensed Zakai’s objections before he began to give voice to them.
“She is just a child; and a female,” Zakai stated to Ahmed before turning to Rebecca and holding her gaze. “There is no indication in the prophecy that Al Sahifah will be female.”
Rebecca did not back down and countered, “But there is also no indication that Al Sahifah will not be.”
Zakai’s lips turned up at the corners in a slight smile before patronizingly responding, “This is not solely about her being female –“
Rebecca cut him off angrily.
“Isn’t it?” Rebecca demanded. “I have dreamt that she is Al Sahifah. And I am willing to offer my testimony before the Sovereign Chiefs. We have produced our proofs. I, as an Eseere Master, will be able to obtain an audience to state my claims. Have you dreamed similarly that she is not Al Sahifah and are you willing to testify as much?”
She clenched her jaw to keep her emotions in check but held his gaze, silently challenging him. He stared back at her as a small smile formed upon his lips and lit his eyes with amusement.
“I can see that the years have not changed you,” Zakai responded, his tone quiet and affectionate while gently shaking his head at her.
Rebecca was disarmed by his candor and had not expected that type of response, especially after his cold initial reception, and did not know what to say.
“Are you truly objecting?” Ahmed asked Zakai as he glanced between him and Rebecca with a puzzled expression. “We cannot move forward without your consent. Too much is at stake.”
Rebecca held her breath as Zakai stared back at her, the faint smile still playing about his lips, but his eyes were thoughtful. Several moments passed before he finally responded.
“No. I am not objecting. I’m not convinced that the girl is Al Sahifah, but I’m not objecting,” Zakai said, breaking their gaze and turning towards Ahmed. “If the plan is to have our testimony brought before the Chiefs then I support the will of the Council. It is obviously Time for Al Sahifah to arise, the signs are clear. Whether this child is Al Sahifah remains to be seen. But I am willing to seek the truth.”
“Does everyone agree, then?” Ahmed asked as he peered at each man in succession before looking to Um Rabia for her approval; they all nodded their consent.
“Very good,” Rabia stated and stood from her seat.
She pushed away from the table and ambled over to the low book shelf where she retrieved the chest that Rebecca had glimpsed upon their entrance and carried it back to the table, her leathery face crinkled with a delighted smile, before extending the dusty, wooden chest to Rebecca. The box was not very large, perhaps one cubit long and half that in width, and was carved from the dark red wood of the Geya tree with delicate gold embellishments in Amharic lettering that glistened in the firelight despite the dust.
“We shall entrust you with the Cipher Key,” Rabia announced to Rebecca and released the chest into Rebecca’s accepting hands.
Rebecca exchanged a wide-eyed look of shock with Emi as she accepted the chest; the Cipher Key was thought to have been lost.
“We do not have a safe enough place for it here and we cannot inform Maja just yet of our discovery without first determining what Qasim has been doing in his plotting with the off-worlders,” Rabia explained.
Rebecca understood. The Majani were the keepers of the Holy Histories and the Cipher Key belonged in their possession, but it had been lost for over a hundred years. It was believed that one of the monks of the Holy Order had hidden the Cipher Key after the off-worlders had arrived on Sahyun, but that had never been confirmed and the fact that it had been discovered here in Nasai could either help or hurt the Urnahi because they were currently without the guidance of a Chief. The Cipher Key held the final message of last Sahifah and was believed to be protection for the people of Sahyun during the Trial Times but Qasim ibn Samir, the current Custodian and Governor of the Wards, was known for the deals that he made with the off-worlders and his loyalty to his people had been in question since Amere’s death. If Qasim knew that the Cipher Key had been found on Urnahi land he would undoubtedly sell it to the highest bidder.
“I will guard it with my life, Uma,” Rebecca answered and noticed the stricken look upon Emi’s face before her friend averted her gaze and pretended to adjust her headscarf.
“Very good,” Ahmed stated and his dark eyes sparkled with restrained delight. “And where is the girl now? When can we meet the daughter of Amere Al Akhad?”
Rebecca exchanged a nervous glance with Emi as he asked the question that she had hoped he wouldn’t ask for the time being. The truth of the matter was that they did not know where Safiya was at the moment. Rebecca’s stomach began to churn with uneasiness but she forced herself to reply calmly.
“Unfortunately, we do not currently know where she is, although every effort is being made to locate her,” Rebecca announced as authoritatively as she could muster but her statement sobered Ahmed’s good humor.
“Do you mean that you have lost her?” Ahmed demanded with incredulous aggression.
The men around the table stiffened and stared directly at her without blinking.
“No, sirrah,” Rebecca replied and swallowed in a dry throat before explaining. “You see, she has had a hard time adjusting to the loss of her family and is a bit of a . . . well, shall we say, independent soul. She has run away from where she stays with her guardian and this time we were late in beginning the searching for her.”
Zakai laughed dryly with disbelief and questioned, “Do you mean that she has run away and that she has done this before?”
Rebecca was at a loss. Safiya had become much like the daughter that Rebecca had never been blessed to have over the years but no matter how hard she tried, she could not fill the void that the girl carried in her heart since the loss of her parents. Maryam and Sarai had also done all that they could to protect Safiya but Safiya seemed to be set upon finding the answers that no one had yet been able to give to her and this had recently begun to land her in dangerous situations.
“She truly has been through a lot,” Emi defended Safiya to the grim faced men at the table. “To be completely honest, I was reluctant to come here tonight and to testify because I do not want to see her go through any more hardship. She may possibly be Al Sahifah, but she is still only human.”
That seemed to appease Ahmed a bit and he asked, “Who is looking for her? Do you need any assistance in finding her?”
“I’ve petitioned the Waliyun for assistance and they have sent a unit of trackers out for her,” Rebecca answered, but kept to herself that she had personally asked Mikal for help.
“But she’s a Ward of the Republic, and Am’maah is a sovereign tribe; the Waliyun are prohibited from getting involved with the affairs of the Republic,” Zakai countered with a worried frown.
“Not where the Holy Histories are implicated,” Rebecca answered. “If necessary, I am prepared to invoke the Sovereign Laws of Sahyun.”
Imam Inam, who had been seated with an impartial expression upon his face throughout the meeting, even when he had posed his question, smiled kindly at Rebecca but there was a hint of sadness in his voice when he declared, “May the Creator assist you in your efforts, sister. Regardless of the child’s destiny, she will need your help; and she will need a friend.”
Rebecca was filled with a sense of foreboding at the Imam’s quiet words and offered a silent prayer of protection for her as the other men nodded their heads solemnly in agreement with him. Rabia sat calmly upon her stool, sipping tea from a chipped teacup, and seemingly unalarmed.
“It would appear that we will have to wait before we can see this young healer for ourselves, but in the meantime, we shall begin preparations,” Ahmed declared. “Once Qasim is made aware of the children’s survival he will do everything in his power to gain control over them and we cannot let that happen.”