Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another Winning Entry

This is the "beginning of book" entry that won first place in historical fiction category at the American Night Writers Association conference in Phoenix in February. Enjoy. Would love to get feedback.

Journey to Mormon
by Pamela Williams

Chapter 1
About 149 BC, on the battlefield

            Alma splashed his face in the basin of water at the washstand. He’d shave later, after morning maneuvers. Some of the men didn’t shave at all, but he hated the itch of a beard. Maybe his head would stop pounding by then and he wouldn’t be in danger of cutting his own throat.
Malachi, his aide, came into the tent with a fresh, clean tunic. “Good morning,” he chirped, making Alma wonder again how this man could smile at this time of day.
“That’s debatable,” he mumbled into the towel. Of course, Malachi wasn’t troubled with nightmares, so naturally he’d be cheerful. A clear conscience, Alma thought. That’s what does it.  “How goes it in the camp? Has the supply wagon arrived?”
            “Yes, sir. Lots of excitement,” Malachi replied, placing the tunic on the cot. “It’s the king as well.”
            “We only expected a shipment of arms today.” Alma shook his head and frowned.
            “But we got much more than that.”
            “Noah usually avoids coming near the battlefield.” Alma had been around the king for many years and thought him to be a very ordinary man who didn’t inspire awe. “It’s dangerous.”
            Malachi shrugged. “I’ve heard he's not always a predictable man, in some ways.”
“I assume that means Captain Gideon’s command meeting will be delayed.” He sat on the cot, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes and the tiresome, repeating nightmare from his brain. Overhead, the fragment of a moon was always a menacing smile as the deserted street gaped, becoming a chasm he couldn’t step across. He teetered on the edge as grotesque writhing demons with bony hands and long fingernails rose up, seizing his ankles, pulling him down. He’d clutch at the side to keep from falling and kick to free himself, but their grip only tightened. Gasping, grasping, losing his hold, he’d weaken, then fall, tumbling over and over, but always waking before he hit bottom, whatever that might have been.
“That’s correct, sir, but the king’s visit will probably be short.”
            Regrouping his thoughts, Alma raked his fingers through the curly blond hair he sometimes pulled back with a clasp. “Well, we can hope so. Find some food while I dress.”
            “Right away, sir.” He turned to go but stopped. “Oh. And your uncle is here, as well as all the other priests. Makes you wonder…”
            “…what’s going on in Shilom.” Alma frowned. “Yes. Maybe it won’t be such a dull day after all. Send in Uncle Reuben.”
            Alma stood to pull the tunic over his head and fasten the sash around his waist. These nightmares always left an ache behind his eyes. Malachi was sure dreams had some deep spiritual meaning, but Alma had no patience with that kind of hazy speculation. They’d begun when the Nephite army was forced to stay put and hold their place in the battle line to protect the ground they’d won. It was not the way Alma would have preferred to spend a long rainy season. Instead of marrying Jerusha and going on with the life they’d planned, he’d been detained. It might have been different if Captain Gideon had only listened to me.
            “What a dreadful place,” Uncle Reuben sneered as he entered the tent. “How can you live like this?”
            Alma eyed his uncle with disdain and bit back the sharp sarcasm that jumped into his mouth. “Good morning to you, too, Uncle. What’s going on? We had no idea anyone was leaving the comfort of the city today to come all the way out here in the mud.”
“Unfortunately, the priests have to meet together. Pressing business.”
“Then maybe you don’t want to wait…”
            “But I do.” He sat on the cot and patted the space beside him. “You have to tell me what happened. Things were going so well we thought the war was over, and then we got word that it wasn’t.”
            Alma sat beside his uncle. “Worst day of my life.”
“When I didn’t get a letter from you explaining things, I knew it must have been something you couldn’t put in writing.”
“Correct assumption.”
“Smart boy.” Reuben waited. “Well?”
 “After we got reports from the spies, we met together to plan the strategy for the next campaign. Even as a principal sub-commander, I still have to fight for my proposals before the real battle begins. Then Gideon presents two or three options to Laban and Haman, and they decide what we’re going to do.”
“Yes,” Reuben said. “They know what the king would prefer.”
“Frankly, I wish we had military men making the decisions instead of two of the king’s priests trying to pretend they know something about making war.”
“What was your role in it?”
Alma sighed. “I told them Berechiah’s plan was the wrong risk at the wrong time in the wrong place. Strong words, but I knew we’d be walking straight into an ambush, and it would cost us too many men. I showed them on the map why it was too risky. I read them the spies reports.”
“What did Gideon say?”
“Nothing. He sat there looking thoughtful, alternately rubbing his forehead and pulling on his lower lip the way he does when he’s deep in pensive deliberation. Berechiah insisted that we could find a way to distract and confuse the Lamanites. That pass is the most direct way into Shemlon and we had to take it.”
            “But the Lamanites would know that,” Reuben said. “They’ll be waiting for you with their best marksmen aiming at your necks.”
            “Exactly. And there wasn’t another way to avoid the pass, except in my plan. Granted, it was risky, too, but this is a war. We do have to take chances occasionally, but if we’re careful we can control the outcome.”
            “And Gideon wouldn’t listen?”
            “Malachi and I stayed up half the night revising the plan, working out the possible problems, but the next morning Laban and Haman chose Berechiah’s recommendation and began planning to carry it out.”
            “Sorry, lad.”
            “I can still feel that lump of disappointment in my chest, in addition to the dread for the disaster I knew it would be. Two weeks later, the maneuver went forward, and then Captain Gideon recognized the flaws in the plan, but it was too late to change.”
Reuben clicked his tongue. “And the loss meant sitting on the battle lines for the entire rainy season…”
“…enduring the copious downpours and impossible mud that makes combat treacherous.”
Reuben sighed. “And it gave you plenty of time to contemplate your miscalculations.”
            Alma nodded. “To his credit, Gideon called me into his tent and acknowledged the regrettable results. When he apologized, he made a very interesting observation, Uncle. He said he’d learned the hard way that I’m not here just because of your wealth. He said he realized now that I understand what we’re doing.”
            Reuben snorted. “Small consolation.”
            Alma smiled at the irony of Gideon’s apology. “At heart I know I’m a privileged young man acting a part to execute a war I despise. In fact, everyone knows you used your influence with the king to obtain this advisory position for me, but I’ve still had to prove my worth.”
            “You knew that before you joined the army, didn’t you?”
            “Oh, yes. I didn’t go into it blindly. To the others, especially the careful captain, I appeared to be some presumptuous rich boy simply playing at war, and though I hated the fighting, I knew I had a gift for strategy. I pushed every day to validate it, just to prove their assumptions wrong.”
            “Is there anything I can do? What does the king need to know? Should the others be punished?”
            Alma chuckled. “No, Uncle. We play nicely together most days. Besides, this war isn’t a permanent condition. Although we lost that battle, it simply made the men more alert, quicker to obey commands and keep their skills sharp so that when the war resumes at the end of the rainy season we can make short work of it and go home.”
“Speaking of home, I brought you a letter from Jerusha.”
            Alma took it like a thirsty man reaches for water. “How is she?”
            “Lovely as ever. You're a lucky man. Everyone says so.”
            Alma grinned. “Thank you. I know it.” He caressed the letter in his hand. “They'll be waiting for you. Let's see what Malachi has found…”
            Reuben rolled his eyes. “Oh, go ahead and read it. I’ll just sit here in awe of your complete silliness.”
            “Thank you.” He untied the letter. “You’re right. I’m completely irrational when it comes to Jerusha.” He held it up. “You see? It isn’t very long. It won’t take…”
            “Just read,” Reuben snapped.
            Alma read quickly. “Dearest Alma, when your uncle volunteered to carry a letter to you, every logical thought flew out of my head, so this probably won’t make much sense. He’s waiting and I’m writing quickly. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to tell you that I’m well and happy and hoping you are, too. I spend a lot of time with my cousin Miriamne, of course, and her husband Helam. They treat me like their own daughter. Last month one of my neighbors asked me to help his children with their school lessons, so I’ve begun tutoring them. It’s very fulfilling to help them understand reading, writing, and sums. It helps me pass the time, but it’s also enlightening. I never thought about it before but perhaps this will prepare me to teach our children. Oh, please hurry home, my love, and we’ll go on with our lives just the way we planned. Sending all my best hopes and wishes for a safe return, your loving Jerusha.” He sighed and glanced through the letter again. Children. She wanted children. They’d never discussed that before. He rolled up the letter and slipped it under the flat pillow on the cot, still lost in the nearness he felt as he read her words.
            Reuben cleared his throat to draw Alma’s attention. “Ready to go on with your life?”
            Alma smiled when Uncle Reuben’s words echoed Jerusha’s sentiments. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure the others are waiting.”
            Reuben paused. “Alma, you can probably guess that the priests are divided. Only that could constrain the king to risk coming out here today.”
            Alma fought to get his mind out of the letter and into the conversation. “A healthy debate brings out all the best ideas, whether it’s on the battlefield or in the palace. Do they usually agree on everything?”
            “Ordinarily someone is willing to be persuaded, but this is an unstable situation.” Reuben paced as he spoke. “A religious preacher named Abinadi is causing an uproar in Shilom, and it's dividing the citizenry. We thought we’d seen the last of these partisans when Noah put Zeniff's cronies out of office, but this man is going around Shilom proclaiming that corrupt, sinful men lead the city, men who will suffer dire consequences if they do not change.”
            “Corrupt, sinful men? He used those words?”
            Reuben nodded. “That's what he calls the priests.”
            Alma chuckled at this petty absurdity. “Well, what's the question?”
            “Some of them think we should arrest him, and others think we should find some way to… uh… eliminate him.”
            “But there's no legal way you can do either.”
            Reuben shrugged. You know how it is, Alma. Make a decision and you’re responsible for it, so no one wants to make a decision like this, but it’s a direct affront to all of us.”
            Alma secured the sandals on his feet. “What courageous leaders we have in Shilom.
            If we were to change a few laws, the decision would be made for us.
            “Then you wouldn’t be culpable.
            Reuben shrugged. “We could do that if we had to, but…”
            “Our laws are based on long-standing Nephite tradition Zeniff brought when he came here a generation ago. You can't change them on a whim. Are they really considering it?”
            “No one wants to, but this old fellow is stirring up the people more and more, making us look like villains. We have to take some kind of decisive action to protect ourselves.”
            Alma tied his tunic at the waist. “Don't you have legal counsel?”
            Reuben shrugged. “We've never needed it before. Unfortunately, citizens are beginning to pay more attention to government matters.”
            “It seems obvious to me—find someone who knows the law to advise you, maybe the governor at the academy of law. He carries lots of clout.”
            Reuben smiled. “I thought of that, but instead, I found you.”
            Alma put up his hands in a defensive gesture. “I don't want to get involved in anything that has to do with religion. People take it seriously.” He shook his head. “No, it’s too volatile.”
            Malachi came in, bringing bread, cheese, and wine. “Excuse me, sir.”
            “Thank you, Malachi,” Alma said, gesturing to the table.
            Reuben smiled and coaxed, “Come to this meeting with me, Alma, just this once.”
            Alma sat on a stool next to the table and wrapped a chunk of cheese in a slab of bread. “But I'm not…”
            “It doesn't matter. I'll say I brought you in as a legal adviser. You shouldn’t miss this chance to impress Noah. You could use his influence. After this meeting, he’ll go back to Shilom but he’ll remember you and your good advice. Do this for me and I promise I won’t ask you to get involved again.”
            Alma frowned and gulped the wine. “All right. Let’s go.”
            Reuben paused. “Why don’t you… uh… wear your armor? It gives the air of authority.” Alma looked skeptical. “Come on. For the king’s sake.”
            He rolled his eyes and chewed more bread and cheese while standing with his arms out to accommodate the armor Malachi buckled onto his upper body. He could make a small concession to please Reuben if possible, but he vowed to stay out of that religious business. He took the sword Malachi handed him and fastened it in place. “All right. Let’s go.”
            He grabbed more cheese and bread to eat as they walked to the command tent.
            When they arrived, members of the kind’s guard stood aside to let them enter. Most of the other priests had assembled, but Reuben went straight to the king. “You remember my nephew Alma, don’t you, sir? He finished just last year at the academy of law.”
            “Oh yes.” Noah nodded his recognition of the younger man. “From a distance I’ve watched you grow up, and now you’re someone to help me keep the peace. Very good.”
            Alma started to protest; keeping the peace isn’t what lawyers do. He saw Reuben’s slight shake of his head and merely smiled. “I’ve only recently finished my studies, sir, and haven’t had a real chance to practice my profession yet, but I look forward to serving Shilom in some capacity when the war is over.”
            Noah regarded him. “Your uncle tells me you were a superior student.”
            “He tells that to anyone who’ll listen.” Alma raised an eyebrow at his uncle.
            “I asked him to come to this meeting in case we need legal advice,” Reuben explained.
            “Excellent idea,” Noah said with a pleasant smile at Reuben. “I expect we will.” Grasping Alma’s shoulder, the king lowered his voice. “When we’re finished with this unpleasant little involvement here with the Lamanites, I want you to come to me, and I’ll make sure you find a position suitable for the nephew of my friend Reuben.”
            “I certainly will do that, sir,” Alma replied as Reuben cooed his delight. “Thank you for that generous offer.” Noah moved on to speak with another priest, and Alma sat with Reuben apart from the others.
            “You see,” Reuben murmured. “What did I tell you?”
            “You don’t think he means that, do you. He’s a man who does things to make himself look good, not because he has generous inclinations.”
            “We can find a way to help him remember and ensure that he keeps his word.”
            “Nonsense.” Alma snorted. “He doesn’t mean it. And he’s had too much wine already this morning to remember anything he said to me.
            “Just watch for an opportunity.”
            Laban, Gideon's fellow captain, also a priest, came into the tent a moment later. Here’s some food, if you’re hungry. He handed a basket to the king and another one to the priests before he sat next to his kinsman Amulon, the chief high priest. They were business partners and married to sisters from a prominent family in Shilom.
            “We’re all here now,” Amulon told the king. “You can begin, sir.”
Noah smiled, and as his priests turned their attention to the meeting, he cleared his throat and paced among them. “As you know, we’re here to discuss a problem in Shilom that needs immediate attention.”
Looking around at all these powerful men who determined Shilom’s destiny, Alma remembered the times, years ago, when he accompanied Reuben to council meetings, no more than a boy they usually ignored. Watching their deliberations had become his preparation for the academy of law. Quiet and perceptive, he learned more than anyone imagined. But that was before the academy, he mused, before the war, before Jerusha, before I had ambition. He observed again now, noting how these men had changed in the years he'd known them, but their attitude toward him would still be the same—he was just a boy.
Noah summarized the issue, the problem of this preacher condemning them, predicting dire consequences for their behavior, and insulting them with talk of repentance. As the debate went back and forth, some minimized the threat while others exaggerated it.
Jasher took a piece of fruit from the basket and passed it on. “He’s speaking of us,” he reminded them, as if no one understood the implications. “He says our enemies will have power over us unless we repent in sackcloth and ashes. I’ve never seen such brazen accusations.”
 “He’s saying these things about all of us?” Haman asked.
Every one,” Jasher answered. “This old fellow has charged us all.”
“He must be mad,” Noah said.
“One person’s madness is another person’s common sense,” Reuben observed.
“Religious madness is the worst of all,” Jasher responded.
“We must do something to stop him,” Noah sputtered in his outrage.
“What choices do we have?” Laban asked.
“Those of us in the city aren’t unanimous,” Noah replied, “so we need the entire council of priests to make the decision.”
Or maybe he’s trying to spread the blame around, Alma guessed.
“We have two choices,” Jasher explained. “We can banish, or we can arrest, convict, and publicly execute. I say execute. End this thing before it grows too slippery. There’s really no other logical choice.”
Alma cleared his throat and spoke. “Convict on what charge?”
Jasher regarded Alma and asked, “Your nephew has some business here, Reuben?”
“Only to answer our legal questions,” Reuben replied. Alma shrugged and gave the rotund priest a vapid smile.
Noah intervened. “He has my permission, Jasher. Is that good enough?
Jasher raised his eyebrows in surprise. “But sir, I would have advised against it.”
“That’s why I didn’t consult you.”
Refocusing attention, Laban crystallized the issue for everyone. “As I understand it, we can’t arrest a man for saying irritating things. Tiresome as it is, everyone in Shilom still has a right to an opinion and a right to speak it in public.”
Yes, even if what he says makes us uncomfortable, Alma thought.
“We have to be careful,” Esrom reminded his colleagues. “Think how the execution of a religious leader, even a fanatical one, would look to the people who follow him.”
“How many really believe him, anyway?” Amulon prowled the space. “Isn’t this something that will pass with time, like a fever, or a carbuncle?”
Reuben frowned. “We can’t count on that.”
“You can’t kill him either,” Pahor said with a sigh. “Everyone will think you’re afraid of him. That would destroy public confidence.”
Esrom snorted derisively. “Well, I am afraid. Let’s be honest. Men like this have a gift for stirring up others, and then we might lose control of the people, and their confidence as well.”
Haman took the food basket from Esrom and chose a piece of bread. “That’s right. Our safest course would be to banish him. People have short memories.”
Reuben glanced around at his colleagues. “Then write up the banishment order and carry it out. This doesn’t have to be such a hard decision.”
“But what law did he break?” Laban asked.
“We can find something,” Amulon answered.
Alma cleared his throat again. “There's no law, you know, against being a sliver in the toe of government.”
“There's always something,” Amulon insisted.
“I agree.” Pahor pulled off a bit of his bread and stuck it in his mouth. “I was in favor of execution before, but I’ve softened my view.”
Esrom nodded. “I say banish.”
“I’ll go along if that’s what you decide.” Amulon smiled from the corner where he still paced. “As chief priest, I think this body should declare that in addition to the banishment, it will be illegal to subscribe to this man’s religion.”
Pahor scratched his head. “Can we do that? Aren’t people supposed to be able to choose for themselves? We don’t want to be accused of breaking our own…”
“Freedom of religion is established law,” Alma reminded them. “You can’t force anyone to be religious, but you can make it uncomfortable for them if they go to extremes.”
“Glad of that,” Pahor muttered.
Laban, stifling a yawn, said, But I think we can discourage his followers. Isn't that right, Alma? We can banish the old man with just an order signed by the king, and that’s sure to make them think before they act to defend him.”
Alma nodded. “Yes, there is a statute that supports banishing a public menace. Its only restrictions are vague, with multiple interpretations.”
“Don’t we have to have public complaints before we can banish?” Pahor asked.
“I'll give you one right now,” Amulon volunteered, “and it wouldn’t be hard to arrange for a few more from other prominent citizens.”
Laban stood and reached for a piece of fruit. “Look, I enjoy a public execution as much as the next man. His associates chuckled with him.But it would be safer for us as a group, in this case, to banish the old fellow. Then we won’t have to be concerned about the subtleties of the law, and we wouldn’t risk public opinion going against us.”
“If you banish, he disappears,” Alma told them. “If you execute, you first need to charge and arrest him. Do you even know where he is? Then you need incontrovertible evidence and a trial. With that you risk drawing unwanted attention, which might make him a martyr, and then the event becomes memorable.”
Breaking the brief silence that followed, Jasher clicked his tongue and shook his head.
“Well, Jasher,” Haman demanded, “speak up if you have something to say.”
“I think safety lies in resolute action,” Jasher stated.
Haman snorted. “It isn’t weakness to take resolute action based on prudence. I agree with Alma. We don’t want to give those religious people a rallying point.”
“I think the rest of the people would thank us for sending this man away,” Reuben said. “All this commotion would die down if he’s not there to keep it going.”
Amulon tucked his thumbs into the tie around his waist and stood in front of Noah. There you have it, sir—banish or execute. What shall we do?
Noah smiled a tight little smile. “What would I ever do without your help to make this very difficult decision?” He looked around. “Banishment?” All the others nodded their agreement. He sighed. It wasn’t what he wanted, but clearly it was the safer course of action. “All right. Banishment it is.”
Amulon patted Noah’s shoulder. “I’ll draw up the papers for you as soon as we return to the city. My pleasure.”
“May I just say,” Jasher added, “that it will be so much better when the council of priests isn’t separated this way. Making these dangerous journeys into the battlefield is a hardship on us all.” Several priests nodded agreement.
Does he think it’s a restful recess for the men on the battle lines? Alma thought.
Laban looked around at the group. “Well, Haman and I can’t leave the battlefield when we’re in charge here. Thanks for making things easier on us.”
“Yes,” Noah agreed. “We all hope the war will be over soon, and you can…”
A commotion outside drew their attention as Gideon burst into the tent with Berechiah and Malachi. “Lamanites!” the chief captain shouted. “They’re attacking!”

1 comment:

jww said...

Feedback?? It won!!! :) I wouldn't change a thing.