Chapter Ten: The Soldier and His Servant
Messenger found Asan in his bedchamber, barking in a frightened manner that instilled instant worry. Asan jumped to his feet and trotted downstairs, swinging into Elder Hassad's bedchamber in a flurry.
"Elder?" he asked cautiously before darting forward to light the bedside lamp. Elder Hassad was watching him, but his face was eerily pale in the moonlight. Panic began to blossom in Asan's throat.
"Raheed," Elder Hassad said.
Raheed is not here, Asan said, kneeling at Elder Hassad's side and clutching his cold hand in his. I told him, but he would not come. He is already gone.
Elder Hassad closed his eyes with a sigh. Asan feared that perhaps those eyes would not open again, but after several terrifying moments they did, and Elder Hassad gestured to a scroll and pen sitting on the windowsill.
"Write this down," he said, so Asan gathered the supplies and a writing board before sitting back beside Elder Hassad and moving the lamp close enough so that he could see what he was doing.
"Tell Raheed . . ." Elder Hassad took a deep breath. Asan feared he might start coughing, but he only turned his head to face Asan. "Write that I regret we were not able to speak earlier. I had many things to tell him, but above all I want him to remember not to forget himself. I do not want him to lose sight of that . . ." Elder Hassad paused to take another breath, " . . . young, curious boy I taught to read and write. I fear he is slowly losing his way, and I want him to know that God will always show him the road home should he be open to God's word."
Asan wrote furiously. By the time he had finished, Elder Hassad had turned back to face the ceiling.
"Get me some water, Asan, for I am thirsty."
Asan jumped up and grabbed the ewer of water sitting nearby, then filled a glass for Elder Hassad. He noticed his hands were shaking as he did so.
After a small sip, Elder Hassad waved the glass away and then took Asan's hand. His grip was weak and damp with sweat, but Asan held the knobby fingers with as much strength as he could manage without breaking them.
"Tell him," Elder Hassad continued, and Asan reached for his pen again. But Elder Hassad shook his head. "Tell him that you, Asan . . . you will show him the way. You know God more than anyone." He twisted his hand in Asan's grip so that he was holding Asan's hand instead. "I see a greatness in you that does not fade in the sun. It is not the greatness of kings or generals, but it is a greatness God can see, one that God will reward in heaven. And heaven, Asan . . ." A slow, peaceful smile stretched across Elder Hassad's face, one of the few Asan had ever seen, " . . . heaven is where I will see you again."
Asan felt tears gather in his eyes. He lifted Elder Hassad's hand to his mouth and pressed a firm kiss to the swollen knuckles. When he opened his eyes and gazed back down upon Elder Hassad, he saw that the color in the cleric's face had drained and that his eyes had grown glassy with death. But a small touch of a smile remained.
Asan bent over Elder Hassad's chest and sobbed, still clutching Elder Hassad's slack hand in a powerful grip. Asan felt his throat swell with wails he could not hear, but he did not care if his cries woke the neighbors or the whole city.
Nearby, Messenger began to howl, and dog and servant mourned their master together.
The sky had lightened and the celebratory sounds of the Moon Festival had died. Now all was quiet, save the occasional crow of a rooster or bray of a donkey.
The ground swayed, and Raheed bent over his horse with a groan. He hadn't even been paying attention to their direction, but perhaps Ahmbra knew better than he. When he looked up, they were standing outside Elder Hassad's front gate.
Raheed took his canteen from his waist and took another swig. The burn lit his tongue and throat on fire as the liquid dribbled down. He didn't think he'd ever been this drunk before, so drunk that even vomiting took too much coordination to complete. He was shocked he was still on his horse, or that had even manged to climb on.
"Asan!" he shouted, trying to get his foot out of his stirrup. It stuck to the sole of his boot, and by the time it came loose, he was already leaning too far to the right. With a cry of alarm, Raheed crumpled to the ground, his right foot still stuck in the stirrup. Normally such a fall would spook Ahmbra, but today she merely stood there and ignored his prone body. He decided yelling again might bring Asan to him.
"Assaaaaaaan!" he bellowed, then swore as he tried to reach up and remove his foot from the stirrup. But his arm was not functioning properly, and his whole body collapsed to the ground. Ahmbra took a few steps forward, dragging him along behind her.
"Ahmbra, you stupid bitch!" he snarled as she started walking faster now. "Aargh, stop!"
The gate opened, but Raheed was too far down the alley to see who it admitted. Finally he caught sight of Asan trotting over and taking Ahmbra's bridle to stop her. She finally halted, and Raheed moaned in pain. His head felt as if it had been dragged along behind a horse, but of course it did.
"Get my foot out of this stirrup," Raheed said, though it came out as something much different. Asan bent over and pulled Raheed's boot from the stirrup, and Raheed let out a grunt of approval. Then Asan took Ahmbra and began to walk her back to the gate.
"Asan! Where are you going? Asan!"
Asan ignored him and led Ahmbra through the gate and into the yard out of sight. Raheed rolled over and began crawling forward, though the position made his gut clench. If he moved a hair further, he'd vomit. He knew he would. So he remained there on his hands and knees, focusing all his energy on keeping his stomach under control.
The gate creaked, and Raheed looked up. Asan was standing in the alley, watching him. His expression was missing, as if he couldn't care less about Raheed's state one way or another.
"What are you doing standing there?" Raheed snapped. "Help me up."
Asan didn't obey immediately, but he finally strode forward and held out two hands for Raheed to grab. When he pulled Raheed to a stand, the sudden change in altitude made the threatening vomit finally rise, and Raheed turned to throw up. He barely missed Asan's bare feet as he did so. He hadn't eaten anything for hours, so only spittle and some pale yellow stomach juice emerged, not even substantial enough to splatter. Some of it hung from his mouth in a long string of viscous liquid.
Asan reached up with a sleeve and wiped Raheed's mouth. Raheed whined as his stomach rippled with pain, and he grasped Asan to keep himself from stumbling. Slowly, they made their way to the front gate and into the yard.
Asan lowered Raheed to the porch steps, and Raheed's hand searched for the canteen at his waist. Asan's fingers moved faster than his, and he pulled it from Raheed's grasp.
"Give me that," Raheed snarled.
Asan wound back his arm and threw it over the dividing wall. It landed with a thump in the neighbor's yard.
"Asan!" Raheed barked, whipping around so fast that he lost his balance and collapsed to the steps with a groan. "You . . . bastard."
Only with his head on the step did he realize that Nutmeg was lying in front of him, her back burdened with several boxes and rolls of bedding. Messenger was sitting at her side, tied to her saddle with a long thin piece of twine.
"What the hell . . .?" Raheed straightened, looking over his shoulder at Asan. "Where are you going?"
Asan looked down at Raheed with nothing but contempt. Slowly and with emphasis he signed, Elder Hassad is dead.
Raheed blinked at him, trying to process such a statement with a very sluggish brain. But it wasn't possible. He hadn't been that sick, had he?
He died about an hour after you left. To go to battle is what you said. Asan peered over at Ahmbra, who was nibbling some barren weeds in the corner of the yard. You are a liar.
"I'm not a liar." Raheed squinted, then lowered his head to his hands. "I'm too drunk for this."
Asan grabbed Raheed's shoulder and jerked him to face him. His eyes were livid. Elder Hassad is dead! Does that mean anything to you?
"It will," Raheed replied, "when I am sober."
Asan jumped to a stand and dug beneath the neckline of his caftan. Raheed watched him with mild interest as Asan pulled what looked like a pendant from around his neck and threw it at Raheed. It hit Raheed's chest and then fell into his lap. When Raheed grabbed it and looked closer, it was the Hahnar pin he'd given Asan.
Keep it, Asan said. I don't want it anymore!
"Asan," Raheed groaned as Asan marched forward, grabbing Nutmeg's lead line and a nearby stick to tap the ground with. At Asan's signal, she pushed her back legs beneath her, then her front. She was already bigger than Raheed remembered. "Asan! Where are you going?"
To my new home, Asan replied.
"Where is Elder Hassad?"
I already told the Elders at the temple. They took his body just before you returned.
"But—wait! Ach. Asan, help me up. Asan!"
Asan ignored him and led Nutmeg to the front gate, Messenger trotting in tow. Raheed tried standing, but the world swirled around him and his stomach threatened to empty itself again. He had to sit back down if he didn't want to collapse. But Asan was already heading to the front gate.
"Wait, Asan!" Raheed called, even though he knew Asan could not see him with his back turned. "Don't go, please."
Just as Asan touched the gate handle, someone knocked. Asan had no way of knowing this until he swung the gate open.
There was a soldier standing there in uniform, wearing the mark of a corporal. He and Asan both seemed shocked by their near collision.
"I am Corporal Waqas. I was told Captain Raheed could be found here?"
"Oh fuck,"Raheed groaned, dropping his head between his knees.
"Is he here?" Corporal Waqas asked.
Asan stepped aside, pushing against Nutmeg so that she would do the same. Corporal Waqas looked further into the yard, his eyes finally resting upon a miserable and very drunk Raheed.
"Yes, hello, Corporal," Raheed muttered. "Forgive me if I'm not in my best form."
"We are heading out this morning, sir. They sent me to retrieve you."
"Of course they did. First I will have to stand. Asan. Asan!" He made a "come here" motion with his hand at Asan. In the presence of soldier, Asan had to swallow his pride and stride forward to help Raheed stand. Raheed swayed but used Asan to keep himself steady.
"Waqas, get my horse."
With both Asan and Waqas's help, Raheed was able to swing himself into Ahmbra's saddle. Luckily he was already packed and ready for departure, something that almost struck him as amusing. Almost.
Raheed nudged Ahmbra forward and out the gate onto the street. Corporal Waqas had come on foot, as only officers were allowed horses. So Raheed waited until Waqas joined him in the alley.
"Are we ready to go then sir?" Waqas asked. He seemed like a timid young man, but Raheed supposed that would change. It had changed for Raheed.
"No, not yet. Asan. Waqas, get Asan for me. He is hard of hearing."
Waqas saluted and did as he was bid. Asan walked out into the alley, Nutmeg and Messenger trailing behind. He looked cautious, as if unsure to why Raheed would need him.
"You will be coming as well, of course," Raheed said with as much authority as he could muster.
I have another home to serve, Asan said. Elder Hassad made arrangements.
"Elder Hassad is dead." The words felt wrong in Raheed's mouth, but he was just inebriated enough to feel only dull pain. "That means you're my servant now, and I say you're coming with me."
Asan stared at Raheed for a few long moments, incredulous. But when Raheed's gaze did not waver, Asan bowed his head and nodded.
"Good. Waqas, this is my servant, Asan. Asan, this is Corporal Waqas. Now let's go before I throw up again."
Raheed gripped the pommel of his saddle tightly as he nudged Ahmbra into a walk. He heard the soft padding of camel strides behind him, as well as the shuffle of feet. No one spoke, but of course nothing needed to be said. They were leaving Ayllamal behind.
There was nothing left for them here now.
END OF BOOK ONE
A/N: And so ends book one. :) I already have parts of the second one written, so it should go up at about the same time I would put up another chapter. Make sure to check back so that you can follow/fav/ignore it. The second one is a much happier installment with more romance for ya'll lovebugs out there, so . . . HEADS UP!
Also, thank you for your reviews. :) It's nice to know that there are more people than I think reading this thing. XD