Only a few torches were lit in the town, and absolutely nobody was outside. It was quiet as a graveyard. There were plenty of boulders and outcrops to hide behind, and so I easily made my way to the mouth of the canyon, keeping to the deepest shadows. I was confident that nobody either inside or outside could have seen me. So far, so good.
I clung to the base of the cliff as I made my way out from the shelter of the canyon, feeling dreadfully exposed. Beyond the irrigated fields I could see small campfires dotting the open ground. It was dark out here, but not as dark as I might have wished. There was no moon, but the stars seemed to burn with an intensity I was not accustomed to. I inhaled deeply. I could smell plenty of things; smoke and camels, mostly, as well as other scents which I could not put a name to.
I had absolutely no clue how the enemy’s camp was laid out, but I was operating on the wild speculation that their leaders would be somewhere near the very center. I hurried across the open ground beyond the base of the cliffs, trying my best to conceal myself amongst the scrawny and malnourished plants which the Nass Jandal relied upon for sustenance. I could soon tell, however, that getting anywhere near the center of the camp would be easier said than done.
The Faransi had set up a sort of tent city around the oasis. I couldn’t even tell how far it stretched, but from the warm orange glow of campfires and torches I could tell that they were making sure no one from the canyon could escape.
I crept slowly closer, keeping low and skirting the perimeter of the camp. I couldn’t see anyone outside, so perhaps I was in luck and most of the Faransi were asleep… I knew there had to a watch posted somewhere, though. I just wished that I had some kind of inside information to help me avoid danger. I might as well be walking in blindfolded.
At last I decided that I would gain nothing by sitting and waiting, and so I ventured among the tents, which were spaced just closely enough that I didn’t have to cross open ground for more than a second or two as I darted from one shadowy area to the next, but it was still nerve wracking. At any moment I might be spotted, so I tried to take it slow and assure myself that it was safe before I made a move. I didn’t trust my superficial disguise enough to proceed with anything resembling confidence… although subconsciously I knew that if I were caught sneaking around in this costume suspicions would be automatically aroused and that would be the end of things.
Until now it had not really occurred to me that I might not be able to tell exactly <i>which</i> tent belonged to the so-called Khair, even if I should make it that far. All of the tents were very much like one another, a plain sort of desert-brown, and mostly quite small. I began to worry that I might have passed by the one I sought when suddenly quite by chance I came upon a cluster of three somewhat larger tents close to what I judged to be the center of the camp. A stroke of luck, indeed.
On the ground by one of the tents was a camel saddle and a large pile of what must have been supplies and equipment and tied up securely and neatly stacked. I crouched behind this conveniently-placed barrier while I considered what to do next.
Assuming that these three tents belonged to Khair and the two Generals who had accompanied him earlier, it would seem that I was going to have to either discern or guess which was which. I didn’t fancy the idea of tangling with either of those hardened military officials (or anyone else, for that matter), so if I was going to quietly slip in and murder my uncanny double in his sleep I would have to be sure to pick the right door. Er, tent flap, that is.
Another thing I had (quite deliberately) avoided worrying about up to this point was the moral and ethical ramifications of my “mission”. Now that I was pretty close to actually doing the thing, my conscience reared its ugly head. It wasn’t that I was worried I was fighting for the wrong side or anything like that. It was… well, the fact that unless I could come up with a better plan I was supposed to kill somebody in cold blood – and in their sleep, even! There was no comfortable way to justify it. If there was ever a case of something that seemed to be ethically right but morally wrong this was it, and I couldn’t deny the conviction no matter how hard I tried to put it out of my head.
My hands were shaking so I shoved them into my armpits and sat miserably in the sand, huddled in a tiny pool of shadow. I had to act before I lost my nerve completely. I thought seriously about giving up on the whole thing, but then I thought of Ajul. I didn't want to leave her and and her people at the mercy of these marauders.
I held my breath and slunk over to the tent across from me, moving with surprising ease and silence. It almost felt like a dream. I lifted the corner of the fabric which covered the tent’s opening. Once my head was inside I wouldn’t be able to see anyone coming up behind me, so I had to get inside quickly.
The interior of the tent was dark, and I couldn't make out the features of the person who lay at my feet, although I could hear him breathing evenly, fast asleep. The only light in here was the glow of starlight and campfires which filtered through the sides of the tent. I sat, not daring to move or breathe. My eyes began to adjust to the dimness and I could make out the body of my intended victim – or at least I hoped it was him. It could have been anybody lying there, really.
With excruciating slowness I crept closer to the sleeper, straining to see his face. My uncertainty was swept aside when moments later somebody outside walked close by the tent carrying a torch. The light that came through the wall was just enough to confirm that it was, in fact, Khair that I was staring at.
I waited for a tense moment for whoever was outside to move well away. The light receded and all was still again. Carefully, I pulled out the 9mm Beretta from the holster which hung from my belt, concealed by the outer robe I was wearing. I had heard Twapa say once that a person’s head makes a very effective silencer if the barrel is in contact with the skull at the time of firing. I really hoped that she was right.
I swallowed hard, and raised the gun against Khair’s temple…
The quavering cry which came from just inches away from my face startled me so badly that I fell backwards onto the ground, rigid with terror.
Khair was sitting up now. “Who are you? What are you doing in my tent?” he demanded in a half-whisper.
<i>Dammit</i>, I thought to myself, <i>that’s it then, I am completely, utterly screwed</i>. I didn’t respond to his question. Somehow I was still hoping that I could just become invisible and melt into the darkness.
“Come on, I can see you there… Wait, you’re that guy… who was pretending to be me, aren’t you!” Khair hissed. “Listen to me, you have to get me out of here!”
I sat up. Wait a minute. This wasn’t right. This guy was supposed to be a traitor or at the very least an impostor and I was supposed to kill him mercilessly. Things were not going at all as planned.
“Please, the Faransi Generals will kill us both,” Khair pleaded.
In a matter of seconds the situation had changed completely. For the first time I dared to cautiously hope that my profound moral dilemma had been solved for me. Was it possible that all my agonizing had been in vain?
“What are you saying? Are you trying to tell me that you really <i>are</i> Minzar Khair?” I asked.
“Yes!” he answered in an emphatic squeak.
“Hang on a second,” I whispered, determined to get to the bottom of things. “I came here to kill you because Rabeen thought it might stop the Faransi from attacking if we took out their leader.”
Khair recoiled. “Kill me? How could they-”
“They believe you’re a traitor.”
“B-but I’m not! It’s the Generals – you saw them today, they made me say those things! I don’t want to betray my own people!”
I could have been mistaken, but it sounded almost as though Khair was choking back tears.
“What do you mean they <i>made</i> you say it?” I asked, skeptically.
“They threatened to kill me and destroy the village if I didn’t help them trick the Nass Jandal leaders. I didn’t have a choice!” Khair moaned quietly.
I sat and thought for a moment. Khair certainly sounded sincere and desperate. Could I trust him? Should I abandon my mission so readily? If Khair was merely a pawn then killing him was useless, but it left me with an even bigger problem: I still had to take out the <i>actual</i> leaders. The relief I felt over not having to kill somebody who could have been my identical twin (a concept which had creeped me out all along) was diminished by the fact that now I had to eliminate two seasoned warriors without being caught.
“I suppose I had better ask, do you think it would do us any good to assassinate the Generals?” I inquired.
“Y-you can’t be thinking of that!” he exclaimed.
“Just answer the question. Would it stop the army from attacking?”
Khair pondered this briefly. “Well, yes, it could… probably. Maybe. See, yesterday morning a runner from the Faransi settlement in the north came with a message that there was a big raid going down on one of the rival towns to the east. However, the Generals said that they weren’t going all the way back there before they finished with the Nass Jandal. If the Generals changed their minds then I suppose the rest of the army would be free to go and follow the new orders. To be honest, I get the feeling that many of the soldiers don’t completely respect the Generals. I’ve heard some of them complaining about going so far out of their way just to raid a small desert town.”
This was just what I wanted to hear. “Alright, I’ll tell you what. I’ll help you escape, but you gotta help me kill those two Generals of yours. I’m trying to save <i>your</i> home from these guys, it’s only fair.”
Khair sat silently for a minute or two, apparently distraught. I realized now that our initial meeting the previous day had been nothing but a show after all. Khair was just a frightened kid who apparently lacked the courage to take his fate into his own hands. Admittedly I could sympathize with him, but somehow it made me feel a little better about myself knowing that I was the more competent of the two of us.
“I-I’ll try,” whispered Khair, finally. “But how can we possibly do anything? General Ukan and General Ukant are dangerous. They sleep with their hands on their sword hilts. You can’t sneak up on them, and even if you managed to get into their tents what could you do? They would kill you before you had a chance to lay a hand on them.”
“I have better weapons, for one thing,” I assured him. “But I can’t get them both at the same time. You’re going to have to take out one of them on your own.”
Khair shook his head sadly. “I can’t do that, I’m useless at fighting. There must be some other way!”
I felt a little frustrated with Khair’s negative outlook. I could tell he was scared out of his mind, but still… If he thought he was going to be killed anyway he could at least show a little spirit.
The problem of convincing Khair to assist me was forgotten in the next moment, however, as a sudden commotion in the camp drew our attention. From inside Khair’s tent we could hear voices of Faransi soldiers shouting and see the flickering shifting of the ambient light as people grabbed torches and scurried amongst the tents.
I listened intently, trying to work out what was going on. I didn’t have to wait long, however, as somewhere out in the camp a gunshot cut through the night like a thunderclap, followed immediately by a lot more yelling, above which rose a shrill voice which I knew very well. Twapa. She must have been set free (or possibly escaped) after I left the canyon and was now fighting her way through the Faransi camp to find me…
“Oh no…” I groaned. Scrambling to my feet I made for the exit. Before I could dash outside, however I felt a tug on the back of my sleeve.
“What are you doing?” asked Khair, fearfully, “We could escape while everyone is distracted!”
“It’s too late for that, now. My friend is out there and it sounds like she’s got herself into trouble trying to come and help me!” I pulled away and ran outside.
There was no sign yet of the Generals, who were sure to be awakened by the commotion and would become a serious problem for me all too soon – to say nothing of the fact that there was now no hope of catching them asleep and disposing of them. I wasn’t focused on these facts at the moment, however. My concern was for Twapa’s safety.
I stood by Khair’s tent, scanning the chaotic scene for any sign of Twapa. I was certain I had heard her shouting, but I wasn’t sure how far away she was or how well the Faransi had her surrounded. I held my breath, waiting for a sign…
More gunshots and Twapa broke through the disorganized ranks of startled Faransi, a pistol in one hand and what appeared to be a Faransi sword in the other, which she was using rather awkwardly to fend off her assailants. She looked somewhat the worse for wear.
“Keer! You’re alive!” Twapa yelled across the camp when she finally spotted me.
“What the <i>hell</i> are you doing?” I called, half relieved to see that she was alright and half annoyed at her for blowing my cover.
Twapa’s words were a little unclear, as she was still a few hundred feet away from where I stood, but I thought I heard her yell something to the effect of: “They told me you went out on a suicide mission. I wasn’t- Keer, behind you!”
Those last three words were clear as a bell. Twapa had broken free of the mob of confused and angry Faransi who had been trying to detain her, but she was too far away to help me.
I turned, almost too slowly, to see one of the two Generals bearing down on me with a curved sword in his hands and a grim, murderous expression set into his scarred face. I barely had time to react, but somehow I had the presence of mind to raise my pistol and squeeze the trigger. Then I squeezed it again, and a third time, before my attacker collapsed, clutching his chest, at my feet. With a disorienting sense that the world was moving in slow motion I watched the tip of his sword hit the ground, at which point a shadow fell over the scene and I looked up again to see another blade coming towards me with alarming speed. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t lift my gun in time. I gaped, the question flashing through my mind: would I survive the imminent impact or be killed outright...?
But the sword didn’t strike me. The second General suddenly arched his back with a loud cry of pain and the arc of the blade dissolved harmlessly into the air in front of me. I stumbled backwards.
While the first general lay facedown in the dust bleeding profusely from the bullet holes in his chest, the second wrestled frantically with whoever was clinging desperately to his back. To my surprise I realized that it was Khair, wielding a long knife. With a ferocity I would not have guessed possible he drove the dagger into the General’s back and yanked it out again frantically, then plunged it back into a different spot.
I wasn’t sure how I could help Khair, who seemed to be doing all right until the General at last managed to shake his grip and hurl the young kangaroo rat roughly to the ground. The warrior pounced brutally, his sword ready to off the impudent youth, but perhaps his aim was just slightly off or perhaps Khair was quicker and more skilled than I had thought, for the attack went awry and before anyone knew what was happening the second General slumped to the ground, Khair’s knife lodged between his ribs. Khair, meanwhile, scrambled out of the way and snatched the first General’s sword from the gloved hand which still gripped it tightly. With a series of furious swings Khair more or less successfully beheaded his mortally wounded adversary.
I was more than a little shocked by Khair’s sudden display of (presumably) uncharacteristic savagery. He stood over the bodies of his fallen captors, panting and trembling. He dropped the sword and tried to wipe his shaking and bloodied hands on the edge of his robe.
“Never mind,” I told her “We need to get out of here.” I glanced nervously at the assembled Faransi, who watched us with suspicion and alarm.
Khair staggered over, looking dazed and terrified. A spatter of blood was smeared across his cheek. “It’s no use, they’ll kill us, now…” he muttered.
“If we make a break for it now we might be able to charge through their ranks right over there and reach the fields before they can cut us completely to shreds… I dunno about your friend here, though,” whispered Twapa, eyeing the Faransi with a calculating glare.
“Let’s do it,” I nodded, tightening my grip on the pistol.
Twapa and I kept Khair, who was unarmed, between us and rushed forward purposefully, trying to keep our eyes on the Faransi who circled warily around us. The Faransi weren’t stupid, and most of them had seen what our weapons were capable of. Nevertheless as we approached the edge of the camp they closed ranks in front of us, blocking our path. I began to worry that we wouldn't make it out of this, after all, but then, quite suddenly, Khair did something else that was quite unexpected.
“All of you Faransi listen to me!” Khair called out, loudly, “Your Generals are dead. As you can see my people possess superior weaponry that even great warriors like those two could not stand against, and the same fate will befall the rest of you if you don’t leave the Nass Jandal lands im-mediately!”
Khair’s voice faltered at little at the end of his pronouncement, but it must have sounded convincing, as the Faransi who stood in our path gave up and allowed us to pass. We hurried through the fields and didn’t slow down until we were safely concealed amongst the rocks at the foot of the cliff.
The three of us rested a moment, catching our breath as we watched the campfires from our hiding place. I couldn’t relax. I was running on adrenaline and though I felt a vague sense of relief, I couldn’t yet accept that we were truly out of danger. After a few minutes I urged the others that we should get back into the village lest the Faransi changed their minds and decided to pursue us.
I wasn’t sure what I should say to Twapa. On the one hand, she’d very nearly made a huge mess of things, but on the other she had done it while trying to help me. I couldn't really be angry with her for that.
The canyon was eerily dark and our going was somewhat difficult. I felt Twapa leaning heavily on my arm.
“Twapa, are you alright?” I asked her, concerned.
Twapa straightened her posture and limped on. “Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, stolidly.
It was too dark to see her face, but I could hear her breathing heavily. Alarmed, I grasped her hand, which was disturbingly slippery.
“You’re hurt,” I whispered.
“I’ve been worse,” she replied.
I didn’t want to think about what that statement implied, but the images came unbidden to my mind in horrific, vivid detail of that day (so long ago, it seemed) when she threw herself under an oncoming car…
But Twapa was tough, to be sure. She had survived plenty of bad situations in the time I had known her, and there was no reason to think she wouldn’t pull through this one with her customary bravado.
Not certain where else I could go at the moment, I led the way to Adiya’s house, which was as dark and unwelcoming as the rest of the landscape. Still, once inside I felt a little safer. I quickly lit a lamp in the living room and, after instructing Khair to sit down on a cushion and stay there, tried to get a good look at Twapa’s injuries.
Twapa, for her part, was as uncooperative as ever. “I told you I’m fine, Keer, can’t you leave well enough alone?” she protested.
“Just let me see!” I grumbled.
“It’s only a little cut,” Twapa relented, holding out her arm for me to examine. I gingerly rolled up her torn sleeve, revealing fur matted and sticky with blood. I felt queasy and began to tremble.
“You call that a little cut?” I exclaimed in dismay. I rushed into my room where I knew our first-aid kit was stashed and quickly returned and began preparing to treat the wound.
“You know, before you go to the trouble of dealing with that little slice you might want to take a look at this one…” Twapa muttered, wincing.
I looked up. “Huh?”
Twapa moved her other hand to reveal a dark red bloom which was growing out from the side of her shirt.
“Oh Lord no…” I groaned, starting to shake again. Desperately, I looked to Khair.
“Do you know where the secret tunnels are?” I asked.
“Um, sure… Unless they’ve changed them since I left.”
“I need you to run and find help. Quick!”
Wide-eyed, Khair scrambled unsteadily to his feet and ran out into the darkness obediently, leaving me and Twapa alone in the living room.
“Don’t worry,” I told Twapa, “You’ll be okay. Let's, um, keep pressure on that.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she sighed, shifting her position painfully. “Oh, they got me in my bad leg, too.” She remarked.
I had to block out my emotions and focus on trying to clean up the mess with the meager supplies we had brought along with us. I hoped desperately that the Nass Jandal knew enough about treating injuries to be of help to us.
“Hey Keer, I learned something today,” Twapa said as I fumbled with a roll of gauze.
“What is it?” I asked tremulously.
“As it turns out, I’m not very good at sword-fighting.”
Adiya and a few others arrived to help patch Twapa up, though, thankfully, the wound on her side turned out to be fairly superficial, just as Twapa had insisted. She probably could have used a few stitches, but there wasn't much help for that.
I was exhausted, but I couldn't sleep for worrying about Twapa's injuries. I insisted that she should take the bed I had been using, while I slumped against the rock wall near her feet. It was morning before weariness finally overcame me and I passed out on the floor using my robe as a pillow.
When I awoke several hours later in the early afternoon, I panicked upon finding Twapa missing. Hurrying to the living room, however, I found her, wrapped in bandages and hunched over the inter-dimensional traveling device, concentrating hard.
“What are you doing up?!” I demanded groggily, noticing for the first time the headache which pounded at my temples.
Twapa looked up at me, annoyed. “Honestly, Keer. After all of this, aren’t you <i>ready</i> to go home?”
I didn’t answer, but watched her work. She was tired and weakened from losing so much blood but clearly that was not going to deter her. I had to admire such tenacity, even as I fretted over her health.
“I just don't want you to make your injuries worse, okay,” I said at last. “But I see they coughed up the capacitors, huh?”
“How long do you think it’ll take, now?” I asked.
“A lot longer than it should if you don’t quit buggin’ me,” Twapa muttered.
I could take a hint, and I did so, leaving her to her work. Feeling that some fresh air might help my head, I quickly put on my boots and went outside for a final stroll through the town.
“Oh! Ka- Kee-eer-an… Oh dear, what should I call you?” Adiya asked, uncomfortably.
“Keer is fine,” I answered.
“Kee-eer, I’m so glad you’re all right. Here, would you like some bread?” Adiya pulled the cover from her basket revealing a stack of small, flat loaves.
I accepted the offer, taking one of the cakes and thanking Adiya politely.
“I was so upset when I heard they were sending you off to the enemy camp like that. I would have tried to help you more if I hadn’t been needed in the tunnels… I hope you understand," Adiya hesitated a moment. “And… I do forgive you for lying to us. I think I can understand why you did it.”
I hung my head. “I’m sorry, Adiya. I shouldn’t have done it, anyway.”
“It was a misunderstanding from the beginning,” Adiya asserted. Clearly her inclination to show me kindness outweighed the slight she must surely have felt at being deceived.
I felt guilty. I certainly didn’t see myself as deserving of Adiya’s forgiveness, though I was nonetheless relieved that she wasn’t holding it against me.
“If there’s anything I can do to help…” I began, hoping to show my sincerity.
“You’ve done quite enough!” Adiya interjected “There’s nothing more to be said or done about it!”
I scuffled my toe in the dirt and quickly changed the subject. “Um, so what happened with the Faransi? Are they going to leave the village alone?”
“They all left early this morning! The lookouts reported that they seemed in quite a hurry.”
“I suppose they’re off to pillage some other town,” I said, wryly.
Adiya sighed. “Such is the way of things, I’m afraid. Now I have a few things to do in the house, but I think Minzar Khair – the… real one, that is - wants to see you. You’ll probably find him down at the elders’ cave. And don't worry about your friend Twapa, I will look after her while you're gone.”
“Oh, alright, thank you, Adiya,” I said, bowing my head in gratitude.
I ate the bread on my way to the cave, rehearsing in my head what I should say. I still felt tense and on-edge and my headache wasn’t helping matters.
I did find Khair at the elders’ cave, as well as an assemblage of other people who I was even less enthusiastic about seeing… namely, the elders, as well as Rabeen.
If I was afraid I was in for a tongue-lashing, however, I was mistaken, for when I entered the room I was met with a low chorus of polite greeting. Asfar was seated in his customary place at the table, surrounded by the other elders, who all appeared to be in a genial mood.
“Well, here is the hero, Keer-an,” announced Asfar as I approached the elders.
“Hero?” I squeaked, surprised.
“You set out to stop the Faransi army from attacking and you succeeded. If that isn’t a bit heroic than I don’t know what is,” muttered Rabeen, gruffly. He was seated off to one side of the table and didn’t make eye contact with me when he spoke. I could tell that he was ashamed of his earlier words and actions, though I couldn’t really blame him for those.
“But Khair helped as much as I did,” I protested. “And I did lie to everybody here, after all…” It probably wasn’t smart to bring that up, but I felt terribly guilty about the whole thing, regardless of whether or not it had been ‘necessary’.
Khair scratched the back of his head shyly, an uncertain smile on his face. “I would not have had the courage to act alone, Keer-an, and the Faransi would have surely finished me off if you and Twah-pah had not helped me escape.”
Asfar nodded solemnly, extending his hand in a sort of ceremonial gesture. “We are thankful for the service you have performed for us, and we offer you our forgiveness and the forgiveness of all the Nass Jandal.”
The other elders all nodded and voiced their agreement.
I was amazed and slightly embarrassed. Could it be this easy? I had half expected some form of banishment or something to that effect, but instead the elders were <i>thanking</i> me? Admittedly, I almost wasn’t sure whether I should trust them or not, even though they had lived up to everything they had promised when I agreed to go on that mission last night…
I couldn’t ponder the matter too deeply at the moment, however, as my head was killing me on the one hand, and various people, on the other, seemed all too eager to explain just how pleased they were with how things had worked out.
“…Cannot express how grateful we are, also, that you have restored the true Minzar Khair to us,” one of the other elders was adding to the sentiment. “We were quite devastated yesterday when we heard that he was riding with the Faransi as a traitor, so much more our joy at learning the truth of the matter.”
“I’m sure!” I said, trying to pay attention.
Khair saved me from potentially making a further fool of myself or worse in front of everyone by insisting that he wished to speak with me, privately. The elders granted his request and Khair escorted me outside.
“You don’t look so well, friend,” Khair remarked, once we were out of earshot of the cave.
“I’ve got a bad headache,” I admitted, clutching my forehead.
"Maybe you are hungry or dehydrated," Khair suggested.
I thought back over the past twenty four hours and realized that he was right. Aside from the bread Adiya had given me I hadn’t had much of anything to eat or drink since the previous day.
“Come on, we’ll go to one of the kitchens,” said Khair, helpfully.
I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that.
We walked up the canyon to the outdoor cooking shelter which I knew Adiya normally used. She was not there, at the moment, but I did see another familiar face.
“You’re alive!” Exclaimed Ajul, abandoning the pile of shriveled tubers she had been engaged in peeling when Khair and I arrived.
“So I hear,” I grinned wanly.
“Were you injured? You look rather ill… here, I’ll get you some broth…” Ajul produced an earthenware bowl which she filled with the “broth” which was already simmering over the cooking fire. To this she added a handful of crumbs (bread, I hoped) and handed me the dish.
The soup was thin and tasted strongly of herbs, but I was hungry and wasn’t about to complain. I sat on a rock by the kitchen wall and slurped away.
Khair and Ajul waited politely until I had finished eating before resuming the conversation.
“Your friend, Twah-pah, is she… is she doing any better?” Ajul inquired, her hands clasped tightly in front of her as though she were awaiting some momentous news.
“She’s doing all right, yes. Twapa’s nothing if not resilient.”
Ajul looked greatly relieved. “Thank heaven for that. People were whispering that she might not make it. Did you see the elders, already?” she asked, taking my empty bowl.
“Yes,” I answered, leaning carefully against the thin wall of the enclosure. “And you’re not going to believe this, but they're calling me a hero, now!”
Ajul smiled. “Our elders don’t like to punish anyone needlessly. You notice they let your friend out of the pit before her three days were up!”
“Well, I asked them to release her, it was part of the agreement,” I said, “But yes, and they gave her the parts she needed, too.”
“I made sure of it, just like you asked, and I helped her find the… the ‘device’, too,” Ajul nodded fervently, “But I couldn’t stop her from running off to find you. She was very upset when she found out what happened. She was worried about you.”
I began to realize that the previous night must have been nearly as stressful for Ajul as it had been for me.
While Ajul and I conversed, Khair had been standing rather awkwardly to one side, listening with a rather mystified expression on his face.
“I’m sorry, Keer-an, I don’t know what has been going on, entirely, except for the basic facts… what is this ‘device’ your friend wanted?” Khair asked, shyly.
“It’s… it’s rather hard to explain,” I cringed. I had been deliberately avoiding the subject ever since we arrived. “It’s a device for… traveling. It will take us back to our home.”
Ajul looked confused. “How could one travel with that little box? It hasn’t got any wheels or anything…”
“It’s really complicated, and Twapa is the only one who understands it,” I was chagrined, although it <i>was</i> the honest truth.
“When I was in the lands of the Faransi," mused Khair, "I occasionally saw strange mechanisms that they claimed belonged to their ancestors. They even had an entire wagon made of metal parts that, according to legend, was able to move under its own power - but no one alive now knew how to make it work. They had a lot of things like that. I wish I could have learned more," he hung his head.
“That’s all right, Khair,” Ajul reassured him, “Everyone is just glad you’ve finally come home… for real this time!” She giggled, tentatively patting Khair on his shoulder.
Khair stiffened and laughed nervously. “I-I’m glad to be home, too…” He looked at Ajul, smiling nervously.
It was then the thought occurred to me: Ajul had been right, that night we first met. Khair <i>was</i> secretly fond of her… I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Part of me almost wanted to feel like he wasn’t good enough for her… Sure, he had shown plenty of courage last night, but in general it seemed like he was a bigger chicken than I was.
Then again, it wasn’t like I was jealous. I had no right to be. I had already made my choice, and… well, there wasn’t any sense in even feeling wistful about Ajul...
I did feel wistful, though.
“But wait,” Ajul’s expression suddenly changed to one of concern. “Keer-an, if the traveling-device is put back together, then does that mean you’re going to… leave?” Her voice wavered slightly.
“Well… yes, Twapa and I are going home,” I nodded, sadly.
“Oh… I see,” Ajul’s face fell.
Khair didn’t look happy, either. “But… after what you did… I mean… you don’t have to go! The elders forgave you, and I’m sure you’d fit in here just fine…"
I shook my head, slowly. “I can’t stay. Even if everyone likes me I simply don’t belong here. And Twapa <i>really</i> doesn’t belong here. And I can’t leave her, whatever I do.”
Ajul grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. “That’s right. You love her, and that’s more important,” Her voice was choked and she looked away from me, hiding the tears which welled in her eyes.
There was an emotion-laden pause in our conversation, at that point, and I was just about to break the silence when I heard Twapa’s voice calling me.
“Keer! Hey, Keer! I’ve repaired the device!” Twapa yelled from a distance as she limped toward the kitchen. Behind her Adiya followed in close pursuit, protesting that Twapa was sure to come to harm running about like this.
“I… I take it you want to leave now, huh?” I asked, a tad morosely.
Twapa stopped in front of me and tilted her head, raising one eyebrow. “Well, yeah… haven’t you had enough of this place?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t say that. But we need to get you back home so you can relax and heal up. Mind if I say goodbye first?"
Twapa’s expression softened. “Of course you can say goodbye, Ciaran. And… take as long as you need. I'll be fine.”
My heart ached a little saying goodbye to those I had come to think of as friends, especially knowing that I might never return. I embraced each of them in turn, and asked Ajul to send my greetings to her father and the rest of her family. I wanted to admonish Khair to take good care of Ajul, but decided that might be inappropriate.
At last I felt that I couldn’t bear to prolong the sad scene any longer, and shuffled over to where Twapa had been waiting patiently for me. Together we walked back down the canyon to Adiya’s house where we retrieved the rest of our belongings (I returned the borrowed clothes to Adiya, despite her protests). Then we made our way down the canyon toward the desert.
We stood near the fields, where several people were busily cleaning up and repairing damage caused by the Faransi (who were, by this time, long out of sight). As Twapa dialed in the spatial and geographical coordinates on her device I looked back one last time at Ajul, Khair, and Adiya, who stood at the mouth of the canyon waving farewell. I wondered how they would react to my sudden disappearance.
Twapa took hold of my left hand. “You ready, Keer?” she asked, looking up expectantly.
I raised my right hand and waved back at the others. “Yes, I’m ready,” I said quietly.
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