The Upper Council Room, Sisters of Mercy Convent, Natar Village Compound, Ward 7
Nasai, White Moon 3303- December
The Neutral Zone
Safiya trudged tiredly up the stairs of the rectory’s stone tower to the upper council room on the top floor with a nervous ache in her stomach. It was well past the middle of the night, again, and there she was for the second night in a row, being called upon by the sisters. She loved Maryam and Sarai dearly but she wasn’t sure if she could go much further without sleep. The day had turned out far worse than she had thought it would. First the close encounter with the grifter and then the attacks against the Wards. She swallowed hard against the lump that formed in her throat as the violence and chaos of the day flashed across her mind.
After informing Rinah about the attacks against the Academy that morning, she had run to tell Sarai who had immediately begun evacuating the orphans for transportation to the convent’s underground bomb shelter. The nuns and the orphans had spent the entire day within the shelter only to emerge and discover that the Academy and Ward 3 had been struck by missiles. It was hard to believe that so much destruction had occurred so close; Ward 3 was just across the bridge from the Silent Gardens and many of the orphans attended day school in Igwani Village there. Safiya had overhead some of the Reverend Sisters whispering that the only reason why the convent had not been hit was because of the missile shields.
Safiya reached the glass doors to the council room and stifled a yawn behind the back of her hand before entering. Snow fell quietly outside of the brightly colored stained glass windows and misca scented candles, used both for their light and warmth, burned softly in the windowsill filling the room with the comforting aroma of cinnamon and myrrh. The tower room was of modest size and constructed completely of white hardstone so the walls had been covered by thick, colorful tapestries depicting scenes from the Histories of Sahyun to insulate against the cold; the wooden floor was blanketed by thick, hand-woven Urnahi rugs.
Mother Maryam sat at the head of the long wooden table with Sister Sarai to her right, Sister Rebecca to her left, the Ambassador to the right of Sister Rebecca and a man that looked somehow familiar seated to the right of the Ambassador. Sister Sarai pulled out the chair beside her and gestured for Safiya to sit.
“Greetings, child,” Maryam stated as Safiya sat. “You know everyone here around the table except for Mikal El-Amra, he is the Commander of the Waliyun and kin to Sister Rebecca and Ambassador Sekel.”
Maryam gestured to the stern-faced man seated beside the Ambassador as she spoke and Safiya immediately recognized the resemblance between him and Sister Rebecca, as well as with the Ambassador. There was a pot of tea and a platter of pita crackers upon the tabletop and Sister Sarai prepared a cup for Safiya as she sat down.
“Greetings,” Safiya replied nervously to everyone at the table and accepted the teacup.
“We are sorry to have called for you so late, but there are matters that we must discuss with you prior to your departure with the Ambassador in the morning,” Maryam stated.
Safiya glanced over at the Ambassador before returning her attention to Maryam.
“You have been persistently asking about your parents these past few months and up until today Sarai and I have refused to answer you, but only because we have feared for your safety. It would seem, however, that the very possibility that we have feared most has manifest itself and so we must reveal the truth of why you have been sent here to us,” Maryam explained.
Safiya’s heartbeat quickened in her chest.
“Your mother came to me many years ago, soon after you were born, and beseeched me to act as a guardian for you should anything ever happen to her. Your mother was the closest friend that I had ever had,” Maryam declared and her eyes stared past Safiya for a few moments as she remembered her friendship with Safiya’s mother before she continued. “She begged me to give my oath before the monks that I would do everything in my power to keep you safe, but her pleading was not necessary. I would have done anything for her. She and your father sought special protectors for you and your brother when it had become clear to them that the two of you may be in danger. Your brother has been across the sea to the north under the protection of the U’mteki High Chief these past fourteen years.”
Safiya suddenly felt as if a crushing weight had been lifted from her shoulders and she had an urge to weep. All these months, for the past year really, she had been burning to know what had happened to her parents and why she could not be in contact with her brother or her remaining kin. She had so many questions and hoped that Maryam and Sarai could answer them for her now. Her chest was tight with emotion and her hands began to tremble when she spoke.
“How were we in danger, Uma?” Safiya asked urgently.
“It is very complicated, child,” Maryam began cautiously. “And I am afraid that I cannot divulge too much right now, but what I can tell you is that it appears that you may still be in danger. Your parents were very wise to have kept the two of you hidden. There were things happening on the Wards when your parents were alive – during the years before your parents’ deaths – that were daunting to some of the Urnahi and to the off-worlders in control of Urnahi land; things that involved your father and in extension through marriage, your mother as well. The two of them were very passionate about ending the suffering of the Urnahi people but unfortunately, not everyone in the clans shared their sentiment or views.”
Safiya thought back to her memories before the bombings. She remembered the meetings during the night at the café from time to time and how she and Ami were put to bed early during them. She also recalled that there were times when Baba traveled for weeks at a time and how Umi seldom smiled when Baba was gone. She could also remember how refugees from other reservations would come to the café and that Umi would give them food and water, but Safiya had just thought that it was Umi’s way of being kind to them.
“But why did they send us away?” Safiya urged. “Why didn’t they want us to be with our kin? To be with each other, at least?”
Maryam’s eyes were compassionate when she responded, “Your father was very worried. He and your Uncle Qasim were at odds at the time about the future of the tribe. As you know, the Chief hood has not been active in Urnah since the death of your great-great grandfather and there are some clansmen who sided with your uncle in their desire to keep it that way while others sided with your father and sought for the Chief hood to be re-established. Your father feared that the disagreement may turn violent and thought it best to keep you away from your kin and separate from your brother to make it more difficult for anyone to find either of you because of your direct lineage in the Chief hood. Your father was not trained in the holy way and therefore was not officially a holy man, but he could have been. He too had gifts and although I am not sure of what your father saw concerning your future, I am certain that he saw something that alerted him to danger. Instead of taking the chance that you and Amir would be safe within your tribe or with your mother’s people in Am’maah, he made arrangements with Brother Nakar of the Waliyun while Naiya made arrangements with me.”
Safiya was partially satisfied with Maryam’s answer, but there was one more question that burned within her heart.
“Uma – what exactly happened to my parents?” she asked and had to push the words through her tightening throat.
Maryam’s eyes filled tears but she met Safiya’s gaze directly when she replied.
“In truth, we cannot be sure exactly what happened, dear heart. Sarai and I were here in Natar at the time and there are none who survived that were with them. Nakar El Amra, Amir’s guardian, was the last to see them alive and they were together at that time. Nakar left them in the care of Yahya El Simha, one of the Captains of the Waliyun, who was escorting them across the border to Am’maah to witness before Chief Amel, the High Chief. All communication with them was lost when the road and surrounding meadow near their route was hit with missiles, and although their land transport vehicle was completely destroyed, their bodies were never found,” Maryam answered.
Tears formed in Safiya’s eyes as well and the sense of loss that had been with her since she was a girl tightened its grasp upon heart. She wanted to understand how this could have happened to her parents, wanted to know who was responsible for their deaths. She clung to the hope that perhaps they were still alive somewhere, despite the fact that she sensed through her eseeri that she would only be deluding herself to do so. She lowered her head and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“We know that this is difficult for you, habibti,” Sarai consoled from beside Safiya and gently stroked her arm. “But there is more. As discussed with the Ambassador this morning, it will be safer for you to travel to Am’maah now that the Republic is searching for you, but you must understand why. We at this table believe that the reason they are searching for you is because they desire to terminate the line of the Urnahi Chief hood so that they can maintain control of Urnahi land.”
Sister Rebecca was next to speak to Safiya, but her speech was slow, as if it was painful to talk and there was a bandage wrapped around her head that covered her right eye.
“We cannot neglect to mention, however, your abilities as a factor in all of this,” Sister Rebecca explained quietly. “The gifts that you possess have made you both an asset and a target. It is not known if the off-worlders are aware of the prophecies of Al Sahifah, but we are almost certain that they have been plotting with Marduk who is well aware and eager to delay the Reckoning. We believe that you may be Al Sahifah, Sofi.”
Safiya was stunned and looked over at Maryam and Sari with disbelief etched across her features.
“All that you have read concerning Al Sahifah and concerning the ancient ways is not only true, but very important, Sofi, especially now,” Sarai stated in response to Safiya’s incredulous express. “The last Sahifah, Musa El-Khabani, was of the tribe of Am’maah, and walked upon Sahyun over four hundred years ago. El-Khabani prophesied that there would be a final Reckoning on Sahyun before the end of the trial times and that one of the signs would be the arrival of an alien people to our world. The histories state that during that time there will be violence and vice in the land and that a new Sahifah would arise as a mercy to the righteous.”
Maryam picked up where Sarai had left off and stated, “El-Khabani left behind a book of guidance, The Guidebook, and a cipher key to be decoded for identifying the Sahifah to come. We believe that you may be the Sahifah spoken of, Sofi.”
Safiya was rendered speechless, but her mind nonetheless raced to connect what she had just been told to everything that had happened. She was shocked to her core at hearing such words spoken aloud to her, but deep inside she felt still and very much aware.
“So if this is true, I’ll need to be trained or something, right? I have no idea what all of this really means or will require of me – I’ll need to be taught what to do,” Safiya insisted almost frantically as the pressure of the potential responsibility descended upon her.
She didn’t know much about the Sahifah’s of old, but what she did know was intimidating and she could not imagine being able to accomplish any of the things that they were said to have done without some kind of guidance or divine intervention.
“Yes and no, my child,” Sarai had responded. “You cannot be taught to be al Sahifah. It is a role that you have to be selected for, and only the Creator can assign such a task. What you can be taught are the truths and precedents that have been established by previous Sahifah. Brother Mikal has agreed to train you in this should you decide to seek this path.”
Safiya met the man Mikal’s gaze for the first time and his eyes were kind when he spoke to her.
“There has not been a Sahifah upon Sahyun for over four hundred years, yet we have reason to believe that you may be one. I shall do all that I can to ensure your safety and to help you along this path,” Mikal stated and allowed her a moment for his words to sink in before continuing. “I extend to you an invitation to become my apprentice in Wind Mastery, but before you make your final decision, you must be aware of the rites that must be adhered to. You will not only be required to learn the ways of combat and defense as taught by the Waliyun at Wi’shaw Temple, but you will also need to pass through the Elemental levels of Wind, Earth, Water and Fire mastery. The rites are different for each Elemental. You have already mastered most of the levels of Earth and some of Wind, but each Elemental must be completed fully in order for you to be given access to the Cipher Key and to the Book Of Guidance. Any potential Sahifah must be able to decode the key if he or she is to witness the Book. If you agree to these terms, you cannot change your mind during the process, even if it is revealed that you are not Al Sahifah. You must complete the process, pass or fail, and it is possible that failing may take your life. I am duty bound to make sure that you understand that there can be no turning back.”
Safiya bit the inside of her lip and considered all that he had said carefully. She’d dropped out of the Academy because the teachings had become too much for her to handle easily, and now she was hearing that she would have to go so far as learning the ways of combat and that of the Elementals if she were to accept this. If the dark force that caused her night terrors remained around her, then it would be all the more challenging for her to progress and she certainly didn’t want to fail, especially if she could lose her life. Her gaze was pulled towards the Ambassador and she noticed that he was frowning. She sensed that he did not approve.
“I understand your reservations, Sister,” Mikal stated gently. “I will finish by saying that your father was a friend; a man of skill, grit and courage. I may not have known you before this moment, but I can see you and I believe that you are, in more ways that you know, you father’s daughter. You can do this. I believe in you.”
Safiya’s eyes darted back to the Ambassador who was now pursing his lips and looking down at the tabletop.
“I believe in you as well,” Sarai agreed encouragingly.
“Me too,” Maryam responded with a smile.
“As do I,” Sister Rebecca stated.
Everyone at the table had indicated that they thought she could do this, except for the Ambassador. Safiya could not help but look at him again. Somehow she felt as if his support mattered most, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. He stared back at her, frowning at first, before exhaling deeply and smoothing out his features as if he had been backed into a corner. His gaze was steady and direct when he responded.
“I believe in you. If you could survive alone in the Republic for two days then it is undeniable that there is strength in you, but is that strength enough? Will belief be enough? Will you be able to believe in yourself when the time comes?” Sekel asked.
Safiya sensed that he was worried about her safety, but at the same time, his words shook her to her core. She really wasn’t sure of the answers to those questions. She’d survived this long after her parents’ deaths, but mostly because she had faith that Ami was safe somewhere and because Una wouldn’t let her feel sorry for herself. The Elementals were a difficult training. Maryam had only achieved two levels of the Elementals – Eseere and Sahyun mastery – so far in her lifetime and she was a Reverend Mother Superior. Safiya had no idea of the difficulties that she might face. She turned back at Maryam.
“Why me? How do you know that I’m the one for this? Is this the only option for me?” Safiya asked, feeling afraid for the first time.
Maryam calmly replied, “We do not know why, my child. You could take the Vow and enter into the Holy Order of the Reverend Sisters, but that is the only other path for you if we are to keep you safe. As to how we have come to think that you are Al Sahifah, the Guidebook says that the next Sahifah will carry a mark – a mark that appears as the sun and moon at convergence – and you carry this mark upon the back of your neck. Sister Rebecca was the first to recognize it as a sign. Your gifts of eseeri and healing also identify you as a candidate. There is also the prophecy that the next Sahifah will be descended from the line of a Chief and you carry that lineage. In truth, it is not something that we are able to explain, this why that you ask. Only the Creator knows why. We, as believers, are obliged to submit and it is the ability to submit with peace and with ease that defines the righteous. This training will not make you al Sahifah; it will only help to prepare you should that truly be revealed as your path. And no one intends to force you into this, my Sofi. It is entirely a decision that is up to you.”
Safiya weighed Maryam’s words carefully and realized that learning the skills and truths necessary for this would only help her, even if she was not the one prophesized about. She’d been lost for so long, wandering around with no true direction or purpose since the loss of her family, and maybe this was what she needed to find herself. She couldn’t deny that she was feeling something – a pull to do this – and that she wanted to learn more. If the Reckoning was really coming and if she truly wanted to do something to make things better for her people, this could be the way.
“Unfortunately, there is not much time, beloved. We need your response now, before you leave for Am’maah. There are many preparations that need to be made,” Maryam pressed gently.
Safiya sensed that this situation saddened the kind-hearted nuns, Sarai especially. Safiya felt a little sad too, but she had made up her mind.
“I accept your invitation, sirrah,” Safiya managed to announce breathlessly.
Sarai dabbed at the corners of her eyes discreetly at Safiya’s declaration but Maryam nodded in approval and Sister Rebecca sighed with relief as a wide smile spread across her features. The Ambassador looked both resigned and determined, and although she could sense his concern for her, she could not read his thoughts. He met her gaze but said nothing and it was Mikal who spoke to her next.
“Then you can begin by calling me Rabbi. It is late, and we all have a very early morning. Sekel will escort you to Am’maah as planned and you will remain under his protection at the Chief’s palace until I return to Wi’shaw Temple,” Mikal replied and stood from his seat at the table.
Sekel followed his lead and helped Sister Rebecca up from her chair.
“You have made the right decision, my Sofi. I am very proud of you,” Sarai sniffed and hugged Safiya tightly before she was completely standing.
Maryam was next to embrace Safiya for several emotional moments and her eyes were shining brightly with tears as well when she pulled away.
“We will miss you terribly, but you will always have this sisterhood as a place to call home. Always,” Maryam declared softly.
Sister Rebecca walked around the table with the help of a wooden cane and she too hugged Safiya warmly.
“I will see you again at Wi’shaw, habibti. There is more that we will discuss,” Sister Rebecca said pleasantly before grasping onto Sekel’s arm for support.
The Ambassador addressed Safiya brusquely and stated, “We depart immediately following the pre-dawn prayer. Peace and blessings be with you, sister.”
Safiya tried not to be hurt by his coolness, but for some reason it wasn’t easy.
“She will be safe within the walls of Wi’shaw Temple and I will not allow any harm to come to her,” Mikal said to Maryam as Sekel and Sister Rebecca left the room. “Have faith, old girl. I know that you have seen what I have seen. She is gifted, Mary; she can do this.”
He looked directly into Safiya’s eyes and she just hoped that he was right.