_________________________________________________________________________________

Please call 801-870-2070 to order

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Drums" Full Chapter 2/ Last Pre-Order Notice

Greetings Tennis Shoes readers and fans!

Okay, this is the last chapter I'll post before the book is released in October. Many have pre-ordered a signed copy directly and are surprised that I'm the one who answers the phone. Trust me, LDS artists aren't that famous. We do our own legwork, and it's fun to talk to fans. The free item offered along with a pre-order of Tennis Shoes 12: Drums of Desolation as a book or audio book is still available until the end of August. Those free items include a DVD of Passage to Zarahemla, the book of Passage to Zarahemla, or the book of Escape from Zarahemla (which are now part of the Tennis Shoes universe and pre-cursors to Drums of Desolation.) I 'spose I could also offer a free music CD of Whispered Visions (songs from the movie Passage to Zarahemla) to those who would prefer this. There is an additional $3.00 in shipping for a free item. You can also get the audio book for Escape From Zarahemla for $10.00.

You can call me directly at 801-870-2070 or pre-order the book or audio book from Amazon. If I don't answer my phone right away, send a text and I'll call back ASAP. By the way, all other Tennis Shoes books and audios and gift sets (1-5 and 6-10) are on sale as well. 

I hope this chapter keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

Chapter Two

Joshua

Hamira lunged forward, away from the stone where she’d been sitting. She was grabbing the back of her thigh, just above the knee joint, as she spun around to look for the thing that had attacked her.

I heard the telltale sound before I saw what was causing it. Oddly, the sound reminded me of the peaceful, musical hum of a tropical rainstick. This illusion was accentuated by the cavern’s echo. Then all sounds were drowned out by the echo of Hamira’s shriek.

I peered into the shadows between the stones where Hamira had been sitting. Something slithered into a tight crevice that my torchlight couldn’t illuminate. But I caught a glimpse of the black rattle, vibrating like a child’s toy. The snake was gone, although the rattling sound persisted.

“It bit me!” Hamira screeched. “It burns!” She spun around again, as if she might move those boulders with a superhuman surge of adrenaline and strangle that scrawny reptile. She staggered, and I caught her in my arms.

“Calm!” I said. “Be calm!”

I helped her lie softly upon the ground and turned her onto her side so I could see the wound. There were two punctures, about an inch apart, blood red and swelling before my eyes. Fury raged inside me. I felt angry at nature. Wasn’t a rattlesnake supposed to warn you with its rattle before it struck? This creature had offered no warning. It just sank its fangs into her flesh and slithered off. I wanted to follow through on Hamira’s impulse and gouge the blunt end of my torch—or even the flaming end!—into the narrow space where it had disappeared in hopes of exacting revenge, but I couldn’t leave Hamira’s side.

“Cut it!” she commanded. “Bleed it. Drain out the poison.”

I used my dagger. My hands were shaking as I tried to cut two small X’s into the back of her thigh, one for each puncture. You’d think living in ancient times for so long I’d have heard some kind of official instructions for how to deal with a snake bite. I’d learned no such procedures. The general consensus among the Nephites was that anyone bitten by a serpent was dead. It was God’s will. Somewhere in the distant memory of my youth, I’d heard that one should suck the poison and spit. As Hamira clenched her jaw to stop wailing in pain, I set my lips against the places where I’d cut the X’s and sucked her wounds like a vampire. I tasted blood and immediately spat it away. I sucked and spit again, and then again.

Finally, I did what I should’ve been doing all along. I prayed for help. I prayed as I worked, sucking and spitting. I paused and looked again at the wound. Hamira was writhing in anguish. She bit the collar of her mantle for all she was worth, trying to squelch her sobs. The wound was turning purple. If I received any inspiration at all, it was to stop what I was doing. These actions weren’t helping one little bit.

Another consequence came from all my sucking and spitting. My mouth was tingling. I felt like an imbecile. Over the last several days I’d been punched, thrown, beaten, and bruised over virtually every inch of my body. There was a cut on my lip and several cuts inside my mouth that had turned into canker sores. I was feeling nauseous. It occurred to me that in my effort to save Hamira, I’d envenomated myself!.

“What should I do?” I asked aloud. I couldn’t say if it was a prayer or if I was asking Hamira for advice. Tears were streaming down her face. If she’d understood the question, she wasn’t willing to stop biting her mantle long enough to answer.

I heard voices. Hamira’s screams hadn’t gone unnoticed. Our presence had been revealed, undoubtedly to the forces of Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath. The echo of scrambling footsteps and shouts was drawing closer. What was happening? I didn’t understand. We’d been following the directions provided by the Liahona. Why was this happening to us?

And then I heard the laughter. Surprise, surprise. It was the sword of Akish.

 

Poor Joshua. Poor, naive, silly, ignorant Joshua. I tried to warn you, and what did you do? Nothing! You ignored me. You ignored everything I tried to tell you. Now my advice is spent. I have nothing more to offer. This is the price you must pay. The cost of misguided faith. All I can now advise is that you sit and wait for your enemies. Any other action is futile and will not change your fate. And it certainly won’t change the fate of your sweetheart.

 

“Shut up!” I said aloud. “Heavenly Father, make it shut up!”

Despite my prayer, I swore I could still hear the sword’s laughter. Hamira’s wound looked worse. The flesh around the twin punctures was darkening, the swelling increased. I wasted no more time.

“We have to keep moving,” I told Hamira. “I’ll carry you.”

She shook her head, as if nobly refusing my offer. It was insanity. I ignored the gesture. Hamira had dropped her torch as soon as she was bitten. The flame would have to be abandoned. I set down my own torch momentarily and heaved Hamira over both shoulders, careful not to skewer her with the sword of Akish. She was trembling, eyes pinched shut, jaw still clamped. Honestly, she felt as light as a feather; I had no trouble bending down to raise my torch again. I did have some difficulty seeing the top of the Liahona. I maneuvered her body out of way. The pointers still indicated a clear direction. I drew a deep breath, shaking off my own nausea and lightheadedness, and tromped toward a passage beyond the dusty shafts of sunlight, at the far end of the room.

The voices may not have been as close as I thought. Or they may have entered the chamber with shafts of light seconds after Hamira and I departed. The sores burned inside my mouth; I wasn’t thinking as straight as I should’ve been. I ignored this and fought my way through the passages. Instead of fading into the background, the voices seemed closer than ever. Was I carrying Hamira in a circle? No, that couldn’t happen. I was following the Liahona! I was on the correct path.

I staggered once and had to lean against the wall to catch my breath.

“Joshua,” said Hamira. “What’s wrong?”

She could tell I wasn’t operating at full capacity. Still, I denied it.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just needed to catch my wind.”

“I’m s-so cold,” she half-whispered. “Water. I need t-to drink.”

I untied the water skin from her belt and set it against her lips. I caught another glimpse of her bitten leg. Holy mackerel! It had swollen to almost twice its normal size. Panic engulfed me. What should I do? What would my father do? He’d use the Priesthood. He’d anoint her and bless her. I didn’t have the Priesthood. I’d never been worthy to receive the Priesthood. I could only pray. So pray I did, with all my might. The sword interrupted.

 

Leave her, it said. With her you have zero chance. Without her your chances remain slim. But with her you’re a dead man for certain.

 

“You’re a liar,” I said under my breath. I repeated the word like it was a chant. “You lie and you lie. You lie and you lie again. A moment ago it was futile. I had no chance at all.”

 

You’ll have to pardon me. I was gloating. I was angry that you felt I had nothing to offer. The truth is . . . I do. I have far more to offer than that cold metallic sphere on your hip. Your God has abandoned Hamira, Captain Josh—just as I told you He would. Yet He still wants you to rescue that obscene sack of Gold Plates. That’s the irony. He cares more about those plates than He cares about you. And I think you already know that He cares nothing for Hamira. I tried to tell you.

 

“I told you to shut up! Why aren’t you shutting up?”

 

Ask yourself that question? Maybe I don’t have to shut up. Maybe I never had to. Consider your own state of mind. You’re desperate, Captain Josh. You’d do anything to save Hamira. Anything to save yourself. And . . . curiously . . . anything to save that sack of metal. Why, I think you’d finally accept a bit of advice from me.

 

“Not on your life. Heavenly Father, please! Please shut it up!”

The cavern opened up again into a larger room. The voices still seemed to be moving toward us. I’d thought the Liahona was leading me down original pathways—tunnels that my pursuers wouldn’t normally choose. Yet the army of Nimrah, Elam, and Hathrom was drawing relentlessly closer. It was time to admit to myself: Hamira was becoming heavier and heavier. Was my adrenaline wearing thin? She was starting to feel like a sack of granite. Movies I’d seen as a kid . . . they always showed the hero carrying the wounded heroine mile after endless mile on their shoulders, across mountains and deserts and finally to safety. They were fairy tales. The human body had its limits. Besides, the rescuer wasn’t normally fighting snake venom that had penetrated cuts inside his mouth.

I laid Hamira down. I had to rest my shoulders. She was shaking like a leaf. I raised the torch to see her face. She was having difficulty holding up her lids, squaring her pupils. Her eyes rolled up and back, side to side, and her breathing was becoming ragged. The second I laid her on the ground, she vomited up all of the water I’d given her as well as the food inside her stomach.

“Dear God,” I prayed. “Help us! Help me to know what to do!”

I was sure the warriors of Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath would appear behind us at any second. I briefly stepped away from Hamira and strode twenty paces toward a passage at the far end of the room. It didn’t seem to me that this was the main tunnel. The primary passage went toward the left, climbing higher. I studied the pointers on the Liahona. My eyes weren’t cooperating. It was difficult to focus. Somehow I verified that the Liahona approved of the idea of taking this more obscure passage. With God’s support, maybe this route would finally throw off our pursuers.

I walked back to Hamira. I won’t say “staggered” because my wits were still about me. Nevertheless, I almost tripped several times as my focus continued to give me fits. She was barely conscious when I reached her, just conscious enough to beg for more water, despite having just vomited a third of our supply. I helped her to drain the remaining liquid from her pouch. When she asked for more, I untied my own water skin and set it to her lips.

“It’s time to get moving again,” I told her.

“Yes,” she agreed.

I looked at the Liahona.

What in—? What was happening?! The pointers weren’t together. The Liahona was suddenly on the fritz.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. The question was directed toward heaven. “What did I do wrong?

I abandoned Hamira again and stepped back toward the tunnel that the Liahona confirmed that I should take just a moment ago. I fought again to focus my eyes and read the tiny pointers. I shook my head violently, as if jogging my head to force my eyes to focus. It seemed to work. Again I perceived the pointers, but the message baffled me to the core.

It was working again. The Liahona was functioning properly. I wasn’t wrong about the direction. So what was the dilemma a moment ago? I walked back toward Hamira. Just to be sure, I glanced at the Liahona one more time. I shuddered, horrified, as I confirmed that the pointers were again indicating separate directions. Once more the Liahona was kaput. Non-functioning. Just the act the walking back toward Hamira had thrown the compass out of whack.

 

You have to face the truth, Joshua. You must go on without her. You have to let her go!

 

“NO!” I cried. I didn’t care if my voice was loud enough to alert my enemies. “I left my sister. I let Becky die. I won’t let Hamira die.”

 

Noble sentiments. Even admirable. But you didn’t leave your sister, Joshua. She was already dead. Don’t you remember? God didn’t give a lick about your sister. And He cares even less about Hamira. Hamira: the daughter of Asherah. The offspring of my maker. Did you really think your God would ever support you in saving her life?

 

“Yes!” I said bitterly, grinding my teeth. “She’s good. She’s not one of them.”

 

The apple never falls far from the tree. But you’re good, Joshua. Yes, your wonderful God might yet support you. Try allocating your devotion strictly to the plates of Mahonri Moriancumr. Then watch and learn. Your God will always favor these bloodless, inanimate sheets of gold over human life. You see that now, am I right? Do you finally believe me?

 

“I can’t leave her. I won’t leave her!”

 

They’ll enter this chamber in the next thirty seconds. So you’d better decide hastily. If you try to carry her, you’re a dead man. If you leave her, only Hamira will die. You will live to fight another day. That I can promise. Yes, me, another hunk of inanimate, breathless metal. I can promise that you will live to wield me against your enemies another day. Just leave!

 

“I’ll never touch you again.”

 

Fine! But leave her! You must go! Look once more at your oracle. Do you doubt what it’s telling you?

 

“God, please,” I prayed. “Shut it up. Shut it up! Talk to me!”

 

He is talking to you. He speaks through the oracle on your hip. And you have only seconds to accept His instructions. Haven’t I made myself clear? I agree with its instructions!

 

Was this sarcasm? Was the sword being sincere? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t make sense of anything. “I can’t do this.”

 

Yes, you can! Rise up. Stand tall!

 

I stood up straight.

 

Walk toward the tunnel.

 

I studied Hamira’s sweet face, drenched in perspiration, eyes sealed shut, breathing shallowly. She was dying. A snakebite! After all that we’d been through together. Would it really end here? Would I really lose the only girl I’d ever kissed—ever loved—because of something as senseless and horrid as a snakebite? “God why? WHY?!”

 

Move! Move! Save His precious plates!

 

And then I heard Nimrah’s voice. “Over there! Kill them!”

His men were entering the chamber. Swords rasped from scabbards. Arrows were being loaded into bows. I turned and bolted. My vision remained blurry, but not with snake venom. Just tears. Tears of anguish and failure. An arrow whipped over my head as I ran toward the tunnel indicated by the Liahona. My thoughts were jumbled; my legs were powered purely by the instinct of survival. All the while, as my feet were moving, I fought the urge to return. I wanted to remain with her. I wanted to die by her side. Yet I was running. I was doing what the Liahona seemed to want—what God seemed to want. I was saving the book of the brother of Jared. And I was saving my own skin.

Except for the arrow that whistled overhead, no other arrow came close. The last thing I heard—or thought I heard—before I fled down the tunnel was, “It’s my sister!”

The words gave me a pebble’s worth of hope. Nimrah wouldn’t slay his sister.

What was I saying? Hamira was already dead. Any mercy that Nimrah might show would be rendered null and void by the venom of the rattlesnake. I was sick inside. I was delirious. I wanted to blame it on the poison, but I was no longer having trouble focusing my eyes. The tingling in my mouth never became the kind of gut-wrenching agony that afflicted Hamira. Whatever venom I’d received, the effects were not worsening. If I felt any nausea or delirium, I decided it had nothing to do with the rattlesnake. It was because of what I’d done. Because, for the second time in my life, I’d abandoned someone that I loved.

I’d told myself that I was a different person than I was on the day I’d left my sister on that windy hill near the city of Salem in an ancient year I couldn’t have named. I’d told myself that I was a better soul. My father said I was better. The Prophet Mormon said I was better. It wasn’t true. I was still a weak, warped, cowering vessel. I was still a servant of selfishness. I was never a servant of God, and I felt ashamed for ever believing that I could become one.

 

Shame is not necessary. I hope you finally understand. He is cruel. Your God is unspeakably cruel and single-minded. I am generous and kind. I never would have demanded such a heartless sacrifice. I would have saved you both, if only you had asked me. You didn’t kill Hamira. And you didn’t kill your sister. He killed them. You know it’s true. He killed them.

 

I paused. Footsteps continued to reverberate through the tunnel. Would-be assassins were still on my trail. I paused as something registered in my brain. It was a keen desire to defend history. Not to allow it to be rewritten.

The sword thought I’d forgotten. I think it literally thought that I no longer remembered the details of that dark, rainy night in the land of Israel so long ago. The fiery blue lightning bolts that delivered death.

“You’re right,” I said. “I didn’t kill my sister. But neither did He. You killed Becky.”

Each of those jagged lightning bolts that had blasted into the chests of a dozen horsemen, blowing them out of their saddles and driving their animals into the trees, had been discharged from the silver sword. Yes, I’d been holding the sword that day, but I didn’t call down the lightning. Becky had been a victim of one of those bolts. The sword had controlled the destiny of each white, fiery blast. It had been the sword all along.

 

Now who’s rewriting history? She asked you to drop me. Don’t you remember? You refused to let me go. You controlled the destiny of each of those lightning bolts. You were the author of destruction that night. Just as you are the author of today’s tragedy—and all because you refused to listen. All because—

 

I dropped my torch. I reached back and yanked the sword of Akish from behind my shoulder. With all my might I threw it, two-handed, into the throat of the tunnel. It spun once, clashed with the stones of the ceiling, emitted a few sparks, and then ricocheted into the left wall. I swore that I saw one of the rubies embedded in its hilt fly away before the sword finally came to rest, nearly thirty feet away, spinning once or twice on the tunnel floor, and then rotating slowly to a halt.

I was trembling. The nausea in my stomach had become unbearable. Whether the poison of the rattlesnake or the surge of emotion that had finally—once and for all—divorced me from the silver sword, I wasn’t sure. The contents of my stomach lurched into my throat. I leaned against the side of the cave and vomited. I remained there several moments, throwing up until only dry heaves remained. I wiped my mouth, leaned down, and clenched my fist around the handle of the torch. I shined it one final time back toward the sword of Akish. I saw the crimson reflection of its surface.

There were no more voices in my head. Why had I brought it? It actually took a moment to remember that I had brought it to bargain for the Gold Plates of Mormon. I’d brought it in hopes of making an exchange with Akish. What was I thinking? What kind of insanity had possessed me? Did I really believe that sword would bring about an honorable exchange? Nothing about that sword was honorable. Nothing about Akish was honorable. So what had I been expecting? Why did I put myself through—?

A man stepped into the torchlight. He’d wandered almost aimlessly into view, as if in no particular hurry, as if he wasn’t trying to catch up with me or anyone else. I knew right away that it wasn’t Nimrah. Nor was it Elam or Hathrom.

The figure wore a battle mask. This mask had narrow eye slits. He wore a black mantle with black arm band and rings of black tattoos around his legs, his arms, and even his fingers. There were spikes atop his helmet. I perceived that these spikes ran behind the helmet and down his back, like spikes on the back of a reptile.

He paused about thirty feet away, at the foot of the sword. He seemed to study it by the light of his own torch. Then he crouched, slowly, collectedly, and raised the faceplate of his helmet. It was the face of Akish.

The sorcerer wasn’t looking at me. He was still staring at the sword. He carried another sword in his free hand. Calmly, he slipped this second sword back into a sheath at his hip. Before he took the silver sword into his grip, he raised his eyes and looked at me. He grinned. Or at least the corners of his mouth turned up. It was neither a grin nor a smile—just an adjustment of his face muscles. Those eyes remained fixed on mine as he curled his fingers around the silver sword’s hilt. He straightened again into a full stand.

“Captain Josh,” he said, drawing out the “sh” sound in my name.

Other warriors started arriving behind Akish. They wore black armor like their leader. I didn’t recognize them. Was this an entirely different company of soldiers than the one led by Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath? Had Hamira’s cries alerted more than one army?

“You brought it back to me,” said Akish, taking several steps closer.

His skin was no less pale than it had ever been, his eyes no less beady. He still wore a short red beard, but the creases in his face had deepened substantially. Akish had aged. He seemed to have aged more than his years, although only a week had passed since I’d last laid eyes on him. Was it a week? Maybe a day or two longer. Nevertheless he’d aged a decade. Maybe two.

He stopped ten feet short of where I leaned against the cavern wall for support. He handed his torch back to one of his men; then he stroked the blade of the silver sword. I realized there were tears in his eyes. “You brought it back to me,” he repeated. “My glorious sword. Oh, my glorious sword! How I’ve missed you!”

He wasn’t speaking to me now. He was talking to his wretched blade. His fingers stopped stroking the silver momentarily as he noticed the space in the hilt where a jewel was missing.

“A ruby is missing. Have you been abused? Has Joshua abused you?” He wrenched his gaze back toward me. “It says you have abused it. It says you have treated it despicably. Is that true?”

I let go of the wall and stood upright. I was a fool, but I decided to test him and see if somewhere in Akish’s black heart there was some shred of honor.

“I have kept my bargain,” I said. “Now keep yours. Give me back the plates of Mormon.”

Akish didn’t really have visible eyebrows, but whatever eyebrows he had were drawn together in a pretense of confusion. “Plates of Mormon? Oh, oh, oh, oh. You mean the gold plates that I took from you atop the Hill Ramah. I’m afraid they’re not here.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”

Akish drew a little closer. “But they’re close. Yes, Joshua, they’re not very far away at all. They’re secure at my encampment on the beaches of Ablom. You’re almost there. A few steps farther and you’ll begin to hear the surf crashing against the cliffs. Come. I’ll let you lead the way.”

I glared down the tunnel and promptly felt something hit the back of my head.

I never went entirely unconscious. I remember being dragged over stones and boulders, inflicting many additional bruises to my legs. I remember smelling fishy, salty air, and hearing the screeches of seabirds. I’m not sure if it was attributable to the snake venom, but I also saw hallucinations. It seemed to me that Akish’s henchmen all had hairy, misshapen faces, like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. These faces smeared, dissolved, and then reformed. Despite the bruises being inflicted on my knees, I’d have sworn that I was flying.

I remember when I saw the orb of the sun through thick, gray clouds and heard the roar of the surf. There were rugged, mossy cliff walls around us and a rock formation with a gaping hole, like Delicate Arch near Moab, but the eyelet was considerably smaller. It was also upside down. Or more accurately, it leaned sideways. It hung from the mossy ceiling like a large tree root and then curved back, connecting into the face of the rocky cliff. Seaweed hung limply from the stone in several places.

I remember Akish’s vibrating words as he commanded, “Make a noose!”

I was lying on the ground, but the soldiers weren’t taking any chances. Two hairy gorillas pinned my arms and torso in case I resisted. I realized the plates of Mahroni Moriancumr were gone. So was the Liahona. I’d lost it all. Just as I’d sourly prophesied, I’d lost everything important that the Lord had ever entrusted to me. But how? I was merely following the course indicated by the Liahona. Was it because I’d spoken to the sword? It didn’t seem just. I’d prayed that it would shut up. It hadn’t shut up. Not the second time. Was all of this because I’d paused to heave the sword down the tunnel? It didn’t make sense. I’d been faithful. I’d been obedient. Dear God—I’d abandoned Hamira! I’d left her because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. None of this should’ve been happening!

A moment later there was a stir among the men of Akish. Fresh warriors had arrived. I heard the names of the new arrivals.

“Elam! Hathrom!”

“Where’s my son?” inquired Akish. “Where is Nimrah?”

“Behind us,” said Elam. “He’ll be along soon.”

“You left him alone?” asked Akish sharply.

“No,” said Elam. “He’s with Jugal and Kentor.”

“He found his sister in the cavern,” added Hathrom. “She was sick.”

Which sister?” Akish demanded.

“The youngest one,” said Hathrom. “Hamira.”

Akish seemed disappointed by this news. I think he’d have rather heard the name of one of his older daughters. Finally, he said, “What about King Omer? Where are Asherah, Teshebel, and Uguleth?”

Elam shook his head. “No sign of them. But Nimrah believes he and his followers are inside the cavern.”

“Omer and his warriors might already be ahead of us,” said Hathrom.

“No one is ahead of us,” Akish insisted. “When I cut the throats of Esrom and Coriantumr, the rest of King Omer’s fighters fled into the cavern to find their king. No other Jaredites have come back to Ablom since that moment.”

Hathrom and Elam nodded. They weren’t about to argue with their father.

“You said Hamira was sick?” said Akish.

“Snakebite,” said Elam. “There are poisonous serpents at the place where sunlight penetrates the ceiling. Nimrah felt certain of her fate. He said that she will die.”

“Then why did he remain behind?” asked Akish peevishly.

“I assure you, Lord King, he’s not far behind us,” said Elam. “They are carrying her body. They should arrive at any moment.”

“Then we shall wait for them,” said Akish.

One of the soldiers of Akish, a thin man who retained his apish features, even as my hallucinations were fading away, started to protest. “But your majesty, the tide. It’s coming in swiftly.”

“We will wait for my son!” Akish snarled. He straightened himself and seemed to address all of the warriors present, an army that only numbered about two hundred. “We will wait for my son and heir! If anything happens to me, Nimrah shall be your king. Not these two rebellious and simpering sons who returned to the true fold only two days ago. The offspring of my concubine, Mizerath, shall never rule among the Jaredites! It is only by an act of the most benevolent mercy that I spare their lives even now!”

Elam and Hathrom looked cowed and ashamed. Even their own warriors, wearing red breastplates and red tattoos gazed upon the sons of Mizerath with disdain, as if the loyalty of those who’d marched with Elam and Hathrom had always been with Akish, as if the only real traitors were these two brothers. I knew this wasn’t true, but in treacherous times like these, every man was looking after his own skin.

The skinny soldier who’d mentioned the incoming tide looked nervously toward the narrow canyon with high cliffs that meandered for a quarter mile or so out toward the open ocean. Every crashing wave seeped farther up the canyon, closer to the mouth of the cave. Closer to us.

King Omer had once told us that the cavern at the edge of the Great Eastern Sea was only revealed for short periods of time, when the tide was at its lowest ebb. He’d lost a beloved nephew and some other relatives because the water had rushed back with unpredictable swiftness, inundating the cave’s entrance. It had drowned his loved ones before they could reach higher ground.

“King Akish,” said the jittery soldier, “if we don’t depart soon, we will have to flee back inside the cavern.”

“Are you blind? Do you not see the weapon I am wielding?” Akish held aloft the silver sword. “With this blade I can conquer any enemy. I can destroy any force that stands against me. I can stay the tide of the Great Sea. Only those who lack courage and loyalty are vulnerable to the elements or to our adversaries. Are you a coward, Gothan?”

The nervous warrior shook his head. “I am eternally loyal to you, mighty King.”

“You’re still a coward!” snapped Akish. “If you’re so afraid, go back into the cavern and find my son!”

Gothan looked visibly relieved. With no hesitation, he crossed behind me and reentered the cave to search for Nimrah.

“Now,” Akish began again, “what shall we do until the Prince arrives?” His eyes seared into mine. “Where is the rope?”

Several men brought forward a ragged rope with a hangmen’s noose tied at one end. The men’s faces still occasionally transformed from humans to monkeys, but the noose was no hallucination. The murderous intention of Akish and his warriors was unmistakable.

“Toss it through,” he ordered, pointing at the eyelet in the rock formation above us.

He might have tossed the noose through this hole himself, but it seemed that his long lost sword was now a permanent part of his appendage. He wasn’t going to put it down.

After the rope was pulled tautly through the hole, Akish grinned at me again with yellow, broken teeth. “Well?” he said to his men impatiently. “Put it around his neck.”

“Do you want us to tie his hands?” asked a soldier with black tattoos striped across his face.

“No,” said Akish thoughtfully. “No need to rush. Let’s allow the Captain to savor his death. Just make the knot tight. Gravity will do the rest.”

Gravity. I wouldn’t have thought that such a word was even in the Jaredite vocabulary. It didn’t matter. Akish the time traveler knew it. His men looped the noose around my neck and yanked the knot until it bit into my Adam’s apple. I gasped for breath and tried to grab at the rope, but the warriors continued to pin my arms.

Akish pointed at a sea-worn log that the tide had brought in. It had several branches slick with moss and sea water. “Tie it off there. Hoist him high. Do it quickly! Now!”

Those Jaredites who’d forced me to the ground released me simultaneously. The rope tautened. I was yanked into the air by the neck. My fingers groped at the noose, but it was no use. There was no loosening the knot. The world started spinning: the turquoise-colored sea; the jagged, dark-stoned cliffs; the warriors of Akish; the gray-clouded sky.

I fought to draw air into my lungs. I managed to breathe a little, but I was dangling and jerking like a fish at the end of a line. The knot was tight—so tight that the weight of my body couldn’t draw it any tighter. I managed to dig my fingers between the rope and my throat. Still, the tension didn’t slacken. I reached around to the knot behind my head, but this didn’t help either. I was strangling, ever so slowly. Akish was right. No need to tie my hands. Gravity was doing the work. Gravity would end my life, here on the shores of the Great Eastern Sea.

I could hear gurgling in my own larynx as I fought to breathe. The men of Akish were taunting and applauding.

I heard the voice of the soulless sorcerer: “Farewell, Joshua Plimpton! Farewell, O Captain of the Nephites!” But was it Akish’s voice? Or was it the voice of the sword? I couldn’t make the distinction. Maybe the voices had always been one and the same.

The pressure inside my head was unbearable. I fought to close my eyes fearing my eyeballs would pop out of my skull. The hallucinations returned with a vengeance. The laughter became the snarls and cackles of hell. I was weakening. I still didn’t understand. Why God? How was it that I had lost? How was it that Heavenly Father would let me die? Where had I failed? How perfect did a man have to be to receive the protecting hand of the Almighty? Clearly, more righteous than me.
 
I was mildly aware that the laughter had ceased and that some sort of ruckus was occurring beneath me, but I hardly felt the need to be concerned about that. It was strenuous to even close my eyes. The pressure of the noose seemed to force them open. As I pinched them shut, the light of day transformed into a redness, like lava. Soon, all I could hear was the wheezing of my futile efforts to draw breath, reverberating inside my head as all other sounds faded.

The red changed to black.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Full "Drums of Desolation" Chapter/ Pre-Order Reminder

Hello Tennis Shoes Fans!

I had a couple of readers mention that I'd promised to post ALL of Chapter Two of Tennis Shoes Book 12: Drums of Desolation. Then I realized I'd never posted all of Chapter ONE! I'll post Chapter Two in a couple days. For now here is all of Chapter One, along with a reminder and encouragement for fans to pre-order directly from me a copy of Drums (as it has come to be called) as a book ($17.95) or audio ($39.95) by calling, 801 870 2070. If, for some bizarre reason, I don't answer, send a text to this number (voicemail is not set up) and I will call you back at my earliest convenience. Stuff will be mailed in October. You may also pre-order an autographed copy of the Book or Audio CD through Amazon. 

Ordering directly from me helps my family. So for those who call me personally to order Tennis Shoes 12 book or CDs until the end of August, I'll provide one free item:

--Passage to Zarahemla Book (2003 Edition) ($14.95 value)
--Escape from Zarahemla Book ($16.95 value)
--Passage to Zarahemla DVD ($15.95 value)

--Pre-Order customers may also get the Audio CD of Escape from Zarahemla for an additional $10.00. ($27.95 value). Free items will be charged an additional $3.00 for shipping.


Perhaps I should also mention that readers can currently order my other book release of the summer, Extraordinary Comfort. This book is $14.95 and tells the true account of a mother who visited heaven during a coma and met her stillborn son and stillborn grandson. Cool story! For more details, go here.

Here's Drums of Desolation, Chapter One. It should be in its typeset form, so if you see errors, let me know.

 
           
CHAPTER ONE
Joshua

“Watch for snakes,” said Hamira, the youngest daughter of Akish the sorcerer, and great-granddaughter of Omer, king of the Jaredites. “They like to slip inside these caves during the heat of the day.”
            I barely remember this statement. Mostly I remember the enticing tone of her voice. There was a flirtatious quality to it. That might not make sense considering the nature of the statement. But it was true.
            I'm ready to admit one idea . . . men are indeed the weaker species. As a matter of fact, when under the spell of a female, we are little more than blithering hand puppets.
            She led the way into the shadowy cavern entrance beside the river. The floor of the outer corridor had numerous broken stones that slipped and crunched beneath our feet. The torchlight revealed a wall and ceiling with multicolored layers of jagged stone that had dark striations of minerals.
It looked like a squared-off board game of checkers or mahjong, perhaps shattered after being dropped.
            Hamira led me to the base of the wall, which curled inward. She pulled away a few stones and other debris to reveal a nook where she’d hidden everything we needed. Most of her camouflage had been torn down previously so she could recover the clay vials of dye and other tools that she’d used to carve and paint her mural above the cavern’s entrance—a message that she’d intended for King Omer’s eyes alone. Her message, she told me, would confirm that we had passed by, warn him of potential
enemies, and offer further instructions. After handing me her torch, she shimmied through the small opening and then beckoned for me to hand the torch back. I hesitated.
            She snapped her fingers. “Come on! Give me your torch and follow.”
            I shook myself. My thoughts were blurred. Not only was I still shuddering from the disturbing message that the sword of Akish had just whispered in my brain—a warning about Hamira’s safety—but I was also distracted by . . . well . . . by Hamira herself. If I wasn’t gawking at her, I was deliberately not gawking at her, which only made me hyperfocused on her every movement in a different way. I watched her squeeze into the hole. I watched her turn around to face me. I locked onto her chocolate brown
eyes in the torchlight. Not just her eyes. Her lips.
            Her lips.
            This wasn’t normal behavior for me. It was dangerous. Dangerous! I was a Nephite Captain. I commanded ten thousand men. Yet all of my five senses were wrapped up in Hamira. After returning the torch and handing her mine, I crawled after her into the chamber. As I came to my
feet, I noted a selection of waterproof jars, some upright, some laid flat.
            My attention was then riveted back on Hamira.
            Not moments ago, just outside the cavern entrance, this hypnotically beautiful girl—the daughter of two of the most despicable people I’d ever met—and I had shared a kiss. A deep kiss. A kiss that had lasted . . . a minute? Who knows? Maybe it was only a quarter that long. But for me
it was forever.
           Why am I talking about this? It’s embarrassing. I was off my game. My military senses, my instincts for self-preservation carefully honed for several uninterrupted years were on the fritz. Unsteady. Undependable. Because of a kiss? A single kiss? What kind of a man was I? What kind of
a warrior?
            Well, admittedly, I was a warrior who’d never been kissed. But if I’d revealed that fact to any of my comrades in the Fox Division, I’d have faced such stinging ridicule that my prestige and repute would’ve suffered irreparably. Certainly there were some of my officers and orderlies who’d
noticed that I did not participate in bawdy jokes or spend leisure time with those women who always seemed to attach themselves to the back of a division’s column like flies to a carcass—women that no man would take home to anyone’s mother. If any warrior had ever broached the subject or snickered behind my back or questioned my manhood, I’d have quickly turned the subject against him, reminding him that if a soldier couldn’t maintain his focus as a warrior, he didn’t deserve to call himself a warrior.
I’d even told the leader of my Jaguar Knights, Kigron, that a woman—any woman—could muddle a battle commander’s strategies. I directed him to keep such females out of my sight.
            Some, like Nompak, my Snake Seeker—who served as my bodyguard/anti-witchcraft advisor—once told my officers that I had the “mantle of Mormon.” He believed that I practiced the same morality as our illustrious commander when he took over the Nephite forces at the tender
age of fifteen. Since Mormon’s prowess as a young military genius was legendary, not a single soul after that questioned my conduct or scoffed at my behavior. Most would have defended my celibacy, threatening with death any woman who approached my tent to offer “favors” from a fellow commander or baggage merchant. They believed with unwavering superstition that my refusal to fraternize with the “honey women” (as they were called) would preserve in me a supernatural ability to win battles.
           Not all of it was exaggerated. I really did believe that a woman could distract a commander. Still, the truth was I was more terrified of women than I was of the most battle-hardened Lightning Warrior. I mentioned something before about my mother’s voice haunting my thoughts and how I’d have regretted to my innermost soul any action that betrayed this voice—this face—in my conscience. In reality, I had no idea how to even behave around females.
            Let me say that differently. I could talk to girls just fine, especially when I sensed that they might be an adversary. What I found a complete mystery was how to behave around a girl that I liked. That is to say, a girl I liked and who, potentially, liked me back. “Potentially” is the key word here, because after our kiss, Hamira adopted the insufferable attitude that the gesture had meant practically nothing. It hadn’t changed our relationship in the least.
            As we crouched inside the space where all the sacred records of the Jaredites had been hidden for the last several years, she began a lecture about the chamber’s contents as if I were a stranger.
            “Many of the records in these jars,” she began, “are very old and fragile. They are the records of the first fathers of the earth—Adam, Noah, Shem, and others who lived on the far shores of the Great Waters, before the arrival of Jared and his family. Some scrolls have been copied by scribes, but others
were destroyed by Akish and other wicked men. We don’t know for certain if certain records exist outside of this room. These jars contain the writings of Jared, Jared’s brother, and many of the first kings of my people. You and I can’t carry them all. King Omer’s company will have to carry most of them.
We need to be selective and . . . Joshua, are you listening to me?”
            Admittedly, I was watching her lips. “Yes,” I mumbled. “We need to be selective.”
            She frowned. “I need you to understand my mission, Joshua. This quest was given to me by my great-grandfather, King Omer.”
            “I’m not the first, am I?” I asked.
            “The first what?”
            “You’re very good at it. I can’t be the very first man you’ve ever kissed.
How many came before me?”
            She cracked a vague smile, but also with a hint of irritation. “The way I kissed you? None.”
            “Then how many . . . in general.”
            She raised her chin stiffly. “I don’t think about such things in general ways. If it makes you feel better, no one you’ve met. And no one twice on the same day.”
            I scrunched my forehead, confused. “Twice? We haven’t kissed twice.”
Her smile was both seductive and mischievous. I realized almost too late that she was leaning toward me again, her eyes closed to slits, lips puckered. Finally, I got it.
            This time I relished the kiss—every particle. The impact. The moisture. The taste. Every sensation. Her hand cupped itself around the back of my head and moved down the back of my neck. Her other arm sort of pressed against my shoulder, as if drawing me into an embrace. It wasn’t quite
possible to hug while she held a torch. The ceiling was low. The flames licked the overhead stone. I smelled the vague scent of singed hair. My own hair!
            I yelped—still kissing—and it made a sound deep in her lungs. I broke off the kiss and swatted at the hair over my left ear, where her torch’s flames had fanned out on the ceiling, scorching an unknown number of strands.
            She laughed hysterically. “I’m so sorry! I forgot about the low ceiling. Are you all right?”
            “Fine,” I replied, embarrassed that the mood was shattered so completely. “I didn’t need those hairs anyway. I was thinking of shaving myself bald.”
            She laughed again. I laughed too. She ran her fingers through my scalp where there seemed to be little damage. Curled, crispy wisps fluttered away. The smell of singed hair lingered. Hamira smiled warmly. I realized I was grinning like a toddler after his first taste of chocolate. I was aware of my breathing. I was aware of her breathing. Then insecure thoughts entered my mind.
            Like a typical small-minded male, I began a new barrage of stupid questions. “How many that I’ve never met? How many men have you kissed on one day and then on some other day?”
            Her smile didn’t completely run away. Thus far my prying hadn’t really offended her. She turned her attention back to the clay jars and said coolly, “Well, now, let me think. It’s difficult to count. There are so many.”
            I suddenly recalled one of her former statements. “Didn’t you say a few minutes ago that you’d never had a man in ‘any way’?”
            “True,” she said, the smile less perceptible. “Do you consider a kiss to be one of the ways that a woman can have a man?”
            “Yes,” I said. “I specifically asked if you’d ever been kissed. You shook your head. You even looked a little sickened by the idea.”
            She pinched her eyes shut and appeared befuddled. “You were firing multiple questions at once. I was responding to your question as to whether I’d ever fallen in love.”
            “So it wasn’t quite the truth?”
            At last, her gleaming smile was gone. “Joshua, son of Plimpton—”
            “Son of Garth,” I corrected.
            She was perceptibly peeved. “Son of Garth. I’ve never lied to you. Perhaps I shouldn’t have admitted anything. My mother tried to vigilantly teach her daughters that a woman should never tell a man the truth. Or atleast never the whole truth.”           
            “Asherah is a lying traitor,” I said.
            She stiffened. After all, I was speaking of her mother. Still, Asherah was a villain. A sorceress. She’d have slit her own mother’s throat without a second thought just to get ahead. For all I knew, she had slit her mother’s throat. She’d been part of the plot to murder her father. What was the extent of Asherah’s crimes? I wasn’t backing down. If Hamira held any opinion of her mother—or father—that wasn’t completely forthcoming and honest, this conversation hardly seemed worth continuing.
            Hamira said, “I know my mother is a lying traitor. That’s why I’ve rejected virtually every word of her advice. But maybe if I’d uttered a tiny lie about who I have and haven’t kissed, you wouldn’t be wearing such a brutish scowl on your face.”
            I softened my expression. “I apologize. I’m just . . . not used to this.”
            “To what?”
            I shifted uncomfortably. “Caring about someone. I mean . . . in that way.”
            “What way?”
            “In a way where you . . . really care about them!” Boy, my advice to Kigron about women was dead on. They could turn a commander’s brain into mush.
            Hamira said demurely, “I care about you too.”
            It didn’t help. I felt as though my tactical prowess had been compromised. I couldn’t possibly make the sharpest decisions in this state of mind. It wasn’t just Hamira. It was the sword of Akish on my back. The “voice” would surely take advantage of this weakness at its first opportunity. How could I fight it? What did I have left?
            The Liahona.
            I quickly glanced at the pointers. They directed my eyes toward the wall behind Hamira. There was no tunnel there. It wasn’t pointing out a way for us to travel. It indicated something else.
            Hamira leaned closer to the wall with its Scrabble board of broken, multicolored rocks. She gripped a rectangular-shaped chunk and started to pull. The stone moved. It filled the cavern with a scraping echo as she hoisted it free. The stone’s height and width were about a foot and a half, but its thickness was only a few inches. As Hamira set the stone on the ground, a hidden niche was revealed. Who’d have guessed it? The “door” had been shaped with such precision that it made a perfect camouflage.
            The stone had likely been part of the original wall, removed and broken at the back so that a cavity was created behind it.
            Inside the space was a shiny, bronze-colored bag of material that I couldn’t identify. Silk? I wondered. Or just fine-twined cotton. She hefted the bag and held it forward. She carefully, reverently pulled away the flap to reveal its contents. I gawked in puzzlement. They were gold plates. At first I thought they were the very plates stolen from me by Akish atop Cumorah, but as Hamira revealed a little more and held the record closer, it was plain to see that they were not Mormon’s plates. The manuscript was thinner. Not as many leaves. And its weight appeared considerably less.
             “This,” Hamira began, “is the most sacred record of my people. As my great-grandfather told you before, no one has ever read it. It’s a history of the world from its very inception—from the creation of mankind until the very end of times, when the heavens and the earth shall melt in a fervent heat and be rolled up as a scroll. It’s the book of Mahonri Moriancumr.”
               Impressive description. Her speech almost seemed out of character. I’d pegged Hamira as a rebellious teenager, too “cool” to follow the religion of her youth. Perhaps not so different from the way I’d felt a while ago.
            “You memorized those words?” I asked.
            She screwed up her face, self-conscious. “It’s not a precise quote. And one doesn’t so easily forget the repetitions of youth.”
            I remained astonished how closely these plates resembled Mormon’s record. The golden sheaves were made from a similar—if not identical—alloy. Maybe this was the model and blueprint that Mormon had used to create his own record. Why not? It was my understanding that Mahonri Moriancumr’s book would be around for many centuries before any Nephite got his hands on it. Since Mormon had intended his abridgement to survive a similar amount of time, it seemed practical that he would replicate the brother of Jared’s technique.
            There was a thin, golden “sheet” encasing the top that hid the actual engravings, much like a seal, I supposed, that would protect the record centuries later, after it was translated into Nephite characters and comprised two-thirds of Mormon’s plates. Images from Raiders of the Lost Ark flashed in my head. I highly doubted if this movie’s climax was based on any kind of doctrine, but I couldn’t help but imagine that anybody who removed that golden top layer to see the engravings would experience the same fate
as the evil Nazis who’d peeked inside the Ark of the Covenant. Their faces would melt away, revealing white skulls. Afterwards, every part of them would disintegrate and blow away as dust. Hollywood, I scoffed. But the image was unforgettable and intimidating.
            I rechecked the Liahona. The spindles still pointed at the brother of Jared’s book. Hamira refolded the shiny material over the plates and handed it to me. I took it, still baffled because I wasn’t sure what she expected me to do with it. I realized she was also studying the Liahona.
            I turned to see what she was seeing. The pointers changed before our eyes. Now that I was firmly holding the book of Mahonri Moriancumr, the Lord was ready to reveal new instructions. The spindles directed us northward, deeper into the tunnel.
            “This appears to be the only record we must worry about for now,” said Hamira.
            “What are we supposed to do with it?”
            She shrugged. “Take it with us on our journey. That’s what your oracle seems to be saying. We’ll leave the rest of the records for King Omer and the others.”
            “You believe we’re supposed to carry this through the cavern?”
            She glanced once more at the Liahona. “Do you interpret the message differently?”
            I lowered my voice and said morosely, “I’ve already lost one sacred book, Hamira. You think I can be trusted not to lose another?”
            “I don’t think anyone can be trusted.” She indicated the pointers. “But your God seems to trust you.”
            I let this sink in. Would it be blasphemous to admit that it crossed my mind that God was wrong—that He was making a mistake?
            I made one correction to Hamira’s word-choice. “Our God.”
            She smiled resignedly. “Our God.”
            She leaned in and kissed me again. This time soft and brief. This was becoming a hazardous habit. How could I maintain any concentration if she kept ambushing me like that?
            She retrieved her torch, along with another sack that I presumed contained food. I had to wonder what could possibly be stored down here without spoiling, rotting, or decomposing.
            “Are you ready to go?” she asked.
            I nodded. “Let’s move.”
            I hoisted the bag over my shoulder, where it sat against the sword of Akish, separated only by the bronze-colored material. Suddenly I paused. There was something else in the bag. Hamira watched as I set down the book on the cavern floor. I reopened the bag and found a second, smaller bag of the same material. As I raised it, I heard something knock together. The shape inside the pouch suggested something with a wire frame and perhaps a thin chain.
            “Don’t open it,” Hamira warned.
            “What is it?”
            “Interpreters,” she said, her tone hushed. “Leave them where they are. They must never be separated from the plates. One day they will be used to translate the record.”
            “Seerstones?” I set down my torch, prepared to open the pouch. She quickly placed her hand on top of mine. “You must not see them. No one has ever seen them. Not even my great-grandfather. They are sacred, like the record itself.”
            I almost defied her. Hamira and King Omer may not have laid eyes on these Interpreters, but I felt sure I had seen them—when I was younger. My sister, Becky, had found two seerstones somewhere close to the entrance of Frost Cave. She’d assumed that Todd Finlay had dropped them there. Rebecca had carried them around her neck. We lost one of the stones near that whirling pillar of energy, but Rebecca had kept the other one. Ah, maybe they weren’t the same stones. I couldn’t know for sure unless I opened that pouch. Hamira’s eyes were pleading. I thought again of Raiders of the Lost Ark and melting faces. I decided it didn’t much matter if I saw them or not. The Liahona’s spindles were directing us to continue our journey. God was in control, I reminded myself. As long as we followed the Liahona and stuck to God’s instructions, all would be fine.
            I expected the sword of Akish to make some obnoxious comment right then and there. Only moments earlier it had proclaimed that God would betray me. It had said that if I followed Hamira into the cavern, something terrible would happen. It had said God didn’t care about what happened to Hamira, only about the “bigger picture.” Hamira was expendable. The sword had warned that if I followed her, she would be sacrificed. I knew this was a lie. God wouldn’t let this happen. That’s when
I prayed that God would make the sword “shut up”—force it to stop haunting my thoughts. So far my prayer seemed to be holding.
             Still, I felt as if it was stirring, breathing raggedly. “Hissing” might have been a better word. The sword, or whatever controlled it, plainly did not like the record of the brother of Jared or the Interpreters.
            Hamira led the way, navigating a series of passages deeper into the mountain, always double-checking the Liahona. My thoughts still lingered on Hamira’s kisses. And on any glimpse I got of her face, her chocolate-colored eyes, or her perfectly shaped lips. They formed into a slight pout, but it certainly wasn’t unappealing. Where the two rounded halves of her upper lip came together there was a space. Maybe this was just the result of them becoming chapped in the sun once too often, but it gave the illusion that her lips were always puckered, ready to be perpetually kissed.
              I shuddered and scolded myself again. Hamira seemed to be doing her best not to look at me or acknowledge my twitterpation in any way. Her concentration was calibrated on making forward progress through the narrow passage. Or maybe her disregard was only in my imagination. I hated my imagination right now. How could the passions of war and the emotions of love coexist in the same brain?
            I thought about my army of nearly ten thousand men. What were they doing right now? Surely they’d been recalled to the city of Zenephi at the Hill Cumorah. They’d marched back to defend Mormon’s fortifications. I knew several of my fellow warriors, including my Snake Seeker, Nompak,
suspected the betrayal of my Banner Chief, Ammonchi. In light of this, I suspected my Fox troopers were presently being led by my second-in-command, Kigron. I liked Kigron. He was very capable. He was older than I was, but he’d never treated me with resentment or jealousy like other officers. He was a true believer that I was “Mormon reborn”—a commander with the same gifts as our illustrious Chief Captain. Like others, he believed I was protected and guided by Almighty God. Still, I’d never thought of Kigron as a strategist. He was a good officer, but did he have a talent for assembling and reassembling troops? Could he coordinate archers, slingers, dart throwers, and regular infantry in the heat of combat? I wasn’t sure. Shoot, I wasn’t sure if I had these gifts.
            Yet, untested or not, I sensed strongly that I did. They were a part of me. Instinct. And I confess, I loved the game. I loved every moment. I looked forward to my first major battle the way a tiger looked forward to flushing out prey in the wilderness swiping its claws.
            My infatuation for Hamira was discombobulating those instincts. How did other officers make it work? Captains with wives and families? How did Mormon do it? Or Moroni? Warfare was about audacity. About courage. About example. It was about not being afraid to die. Somehow I had to suffocate this intruding infatuation. My method was a little bizarre. My intent wasn’t exactly clear in my mind. I don’t think I realized that I was deliberately pushing Hamira away. But how else could my newest salvo of stupid questions be explained?
            I said to Hamira, “I want to ask you something.”
            Her guard seemed to spring up right away. “What?”
            “You told me,” I began, “that you’d decided long ago that you could never be with a man who was not your equal or superior in all things—‘physical, mental, and spiritual.’ So who else fit the bill of being your equal or superior in those categories?”
            I heard a long sigh. “I guess I should have been more specific. I should have identified ‘long ago’ as the time when I separated from the other Jaredites to travel with King Omer through the caverns at Ablom and build our hidden encampment.”
            “You mean when you separated from the men?
            “Yes,” she snipped. “I should have explained that my decision never to be with someone who was not my equal or superior occurred about a year and a half ago, when I bid farewell to my brother.”
            “A year and a half,” I repeated. “That’s what you meant by ‘long ago’?”
            “Yes,” she repeated.
            “Your brother Nimrah?”
            “I only have one full brother,” she said. “That is, only one full brother still alive.”
            “Seems convenient,” I noted, “swearing off those who aren’t equals or superiors when there’re no additional men to be found.”
            She ignored me and kept trudging forward.
            I was relentless. “So this first kisser—this man you later decided wasn’t your equal or superior—was he one of your brother’s companions?”
           Hamira scowled. But she’d decided she wasn’t going to lie to me, no matter the consequences. “He was one of his lieutenants. One of his friends.”
            “Does this friend have a name?”
            She hesitated then replied, “Kentor. And to repeat, he is my brother’s friend, not mine.”
            “Ken,” I said with a harrumph. Made sense. Hamira was like a chocolate-eyed Barbie. Why shouldn’t my competition be named Ken?
            We journeyed in silence for a while, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending. I asked myself why I felt the need to be such a jerk, but again the answer was foggy.
            “So this Ken,” I finally said. “Did you love him?”
            She turned on me. “I told you that I have loved no one. And I do not wish to speak of these matters any further.”
            “Did he love you?
            “I prefer silence,” she insisted, turning away. “No more questions.”
            A moment later I said, “A man has a right to know.”
            She turned on me harshly. “You have no right. I am guilty of nothing that your questions imply. Why are you doing this, Joshua? Why are you spoiling the feeling between us?”
            “Because you said you’d never been kissed. Then suddenly you admit that you have been kissed. I want to know what to believe.”
            “This kiss was far shorter in duration than even my last kiss to you. It might even be said that Kentor stole this kiss. I did not ‘give’ it to him.”
            “So he’s a lecher. I see. Did you fight him off?”
            “Joshua, son of . . . son of Garth, you are being ludicrous! Obviously kissing you was a mistake. I misjudged you in every possible way. You are no less petty and shallow than other men. Leave me alone!” Her voice reverberated through the chambers, forcing me to hear those last three words about seven times before her voice finally dissipated.
            She kept meandering through the passage. She couldn’t even admit to misleading me. And deliberate or not, she had misled me. If she couldn’t confess or apologize, the silence between us was just fine.
            At last we reached a place where the tunnel seemed to have collapsed. The wall was splintered across its face, and several massive boulders barred our passage.
            “This is the spot,” said Hamira, her tone still curt, “where the earthquake demolished the tunnel. We must examine your oracle.” She refused to make eye contact as she spoke. I realized her cheeks were moist. The guilt I felt settled in hard. I’d not only kissed a girl today for the first time. I’d made her cry. I looked down at the Liahona. To my surprise, the spindles were separated. They directed us nowhere. A chill gripped me. This was my fault. I’d made the Liahona stop working. As if to confirm the reality of my rudeness—my loss of spiritual aid—I heard the sword laughing softly.
 
            Don’t be hard on yourself, Joshua. You have a perfectly valid point. She lied to you. And as is the case with all conniving women, she’ll never apologize. No, she is not for you, Captain Josh. But what does it matter? I told you before,
she will soon be dead.
 
            I raised my eyes to meet Hamira. She looked alarmed. Who could blame her? We had lost our compass—our guidance. I didn’t think twice. I knew exactly who needed to apologize, and it wasn’t Hamira.
            “I’m sorry,” I said.
            “What?” Hamira asked, confused. She didn’t know I was addressing the problem of the disabled Liahona. Who cared about our trivial arguments when we might be lost in the underworld or blocked from making further progress?
            “You’re right,” I confessed. “I’m neither your equal nor your superior. I’m a jerk. I might as well confess . . . you are the first girl I ever kissed, Hamira. And I don’t think . . . I’m handling these emotions very well. I’m very, very sorry.”
            There was the flicker of a smile; then her features hardened again. Her tears seemed to dry up instantly. I even wondered if there had been tears. A trick of the torchlight. Maybe I was flattering myself. It could have just been perspiration.
            “It’s fine, Joshua,” she said, drawing a drink from her leather canteen. After she dried her mouth, she said, “Forget it. I was wrong to let it happen. Forget that it even happened.”
            I said nothing. I think I might’ve nodded. In any case, I didn’t feel any better. This irritated me. Shouldn’t I have felt relieved? I still felt unsettled.
           Hamira glanced back at the Liahona. Incredibly, the spindles had come together. Whatever I’d done—whatever I’d said—it was enough. The Liahona was working again, directing us to the right. I looked to the right but saw no passage.
            “There,” said Hamira softly.
            She pointed upward. The torchlight betrayed a shadowed space in the ceiling, nearly hidden by blocks of stone. We started to climb.
             Just beneath the ceiling, Hamira handed me her torch and pushed herself over a boulder. She peered ahead. “It’s thin, but I think we can fit.”
             I watched in silence. I’d said nothing since she’d told me to forget our kiss. What was I supposed to say in reply?
            She squeezed into the cleft and disappeared. I waited long enough that I started feeling foolish.
            She reemerged. “Help me make an arrow.” She found a flat place at the base of a boulder and began gathering small stones. “The shaft is wide enough. King Omer will know we left this sign for them. He will follow.”
           Her idea of an arrow was not one that had been shot from a bow. It was a triangular arrangement of stones, pointing right. After we’d finished, she climbed the boulder again and crawled into the passageway. She reached back. “Hand up the torch.”
            I leaned closer and held it forward. She balanced the torch horizontally and crawled deeper. Carefully maneuvering my own torch and supplies, I pulled myself into the niche after her.
            The space was narrow. I thought of the feeble King Omer and his young, pregnant wife, Queen Elorah. I shuddered to think of the difficulties they’d face here. I hauled myself forward with one hand, dragging the plates, the sword, and the Liahona while trying not to burn myself with drizzles of pitch. Hamira had scrambled far ahead. She’d gone around a sloping corner, and her feet were no longer visible. I only perceived the mild glow of her torch flame.
            I thought about calling out for her to wait. Thankfully, I didn’t. A moment later I realized she’d stopped crawling. She was perfectly still, leaning close to a ledge, peeking over the side into a large chamber. I realized quickly what had made her pause. Our torches were not the only sources of light.
            The vast room was caked in white and pink crystal. Forty feet below and some distance to the right of our perch marched an army of several dozen men, possibly more. They moved in an orderly manner from one end of the room to what appeared to be a tight passage at the far left. I could see the head of the column but not the rear. Warriors appeared from a tunnel at the right like carpenter ants. Every fourth or fifth warrior held a torch. The reflections shone against the crystals, making the room oddly similar to the interior of a Celestial Room inside a temple—one whose open house I’d attended as a kid.
            The warrior’s uniforms were red. That is, their breastplates, head plates, and greaves were red. The shields on their backs shone like metal, as did the tips of their weapons. Several of the men near the front of the column wore different uniforms, bronze in color. One man wore a black helmet with copper gilding and a breastplate with a furry black sash interlaced with jade. He also carried a five-sided shield, also glinting with jade and copper. This shield had a menacing downward spike. Hamira saw this figure and made a terrible gasp. I waited for her to explain, but she was so overcome with shock that she couldn’t speak.
            “What?” I whispered impatiently.
            “My brother,” she said mournfully.
            Her grief was deep, and I perceived tears in her eyes.
            “Which brother?” I had to ask. After all, the sons of Mizerath were her half-brothers. But the name she whispered was that of her full brother, the son of Akish and Asherah: “Nimrah.”
            I concentrated, trying to grasp the significance. Wasn’t Nimrah the good brother? Wasn’t he our ally? Based on Hamira’s expression, this was no longer true. She continued to crouch with no intention of revealing our presence.
            “I don’t understand,” I said. “What does that mean?”
            “It means,” said Hamira gravely, “that my great-grandfather is betrayed.”
            I gaped, still not comprehending. Prior to this moment, I’d understood that there were two armies at each other’s throats among the Jaredites—the armies of Akish and the armies of his sons, Hathrom and Elam, born to his second wife, Mizerath. King Omer, Asherah, Hamira, and the two
hundred or so women from Omer’s encampment were a separate entity from both of these armies. They’d been hiding for almost two years in hopes that these two forces might wipe each other out. Supposedly Nimrah had supported his great-grandfather alongside two other sons of King Omer.
            I asked Hamira, “Do you see Prince Coriantumr or Prince Esrom?”
            She shook her head, her grief palpable. “I see enemies. My brother marches with Hathrom and Elam, the sons of Mizerath.”
            The warriors at the front of the column were almost directly below us—two men with red head plates and breastplates and scarlet tattoos on every limb and a good portion of their faces and necks. It seemed odd—I perceived a family resemblance to Akish, but not Hamira.
            I examined Nimrah, the man with the five-sided shield and copper helmet. Despite his impressive weapons and armor, he was a bizarre-looking man. If I’d thought Akish was ugly, Nimrah and these other sons were not far behind. Nimrah was easily the most revolting to the eyes. He was also the most fearsome, with tiny, shifting eyes and an enormous, jutting forehead, visible even beneath the rim of his helmet. His whole body was misshapen—squat legs with massive, muscled shoulders. He appeared so unbalanced that I wondered, if he fell over, would he be able to stand up again? All the genes of Akish and Asherah that determined attractiveness had been lavishly spent on Hamira and wasted elsewhere.
These were three of the strangest-looking men I’d ever seen. Ghoulish, primeval, something between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon.
            I tried to digest this information—the sight of Nimrah marching with his younger half-brothers. I wasn’t sure what it meant. “If that’s Elam and Hathrom,” I whispered to Hamira, “then where’re Coriantumr and Esrom?”
            I could barely hear her reply. “If Nimrah marches with the sons of Mizerath, then Coriantumr and Esrom are dead.” A pair of tears coursed her cheeks.
            I studied her face then tried to comfort her with an alternative.
            “Maybe Nimrah is a captive.”
            Hamira shook her head. Nimrah had weapons, and he was attentive to the nooks and crannies of the cavern, as if he feared an ambush. A captive wouldn’t have carried a shield and looked around for opponents. He had to be allied with those around him. The other soldiers were also wary. We shrank further back. I hoped the chamber’s temple-like reflections would somehow hide the glow of our torches.
            I remembered a tidbit of conversation from a few days earlier in the tent of King Omer. Hamira and her sister, Uguleth, had claimed that spies had once infiltrated their camp. Two of the spies were killed, but a third escaped. The slain men were identified as cousins of Akish, allies of the warriors in black. But Hamira claimed the man who’d escaped was the son of Mizerath named Hathrom. No one had believed Hamira. Uguleth said she’d made up the story of a third spy because she’d fallen asleep on
her watch.
            If Hamira’s story was true and the escaped spy was, indeed, Hathrom, then I was confused. The sons of Mizerath were outfitted in red uniforms, like most of those below us. Anyone associated with Akish, however, wore black. So why would Hathrom have been mixed up with Akish’s cousins at the river canyon? Who was allied with whom? Based on the evidence I was seeing, there were really only two factions at war: Akish and his sons (whether of Asherah or Mizerath) and the followers of King Omer.
            I said to Hamira, “Maybe your uncles escaped. Maybe they’re hiding—”
            She grabbed the lip of my Fox Division breastplate and yanked me down hard. The warriors below us had stopped. They held their torches high, everyone’s attention riveted toward our shelf. So stupid. Yes, I’d kept my voice low, but I’d forgotten that the cavern could amplify a whisper and make it resound like a trumpet. We crouched low, trying to breathe softly. I knew that even the scrape of my sandal would betray our presence. Our torches lay on the ground, but the glow they emitted was surely
distinctive. The enemy knew we were here.
            “Who’s up there?” hollered a voice, echoing numerous times through the chamber. “Reveal yourselves!”
            We didn’t budge. Hamira looked at me and mouthed the name, “Hathrom.”
            Another voice proclaimed, “We see your torches! Reveal yourselves!”
            We didn’t move. I heard the snap of bowstrings. The fragile shale above and below us spit tiny eruptions of stone. Pebbles sprinkled down on us. They were hoping these projectiles would flush us out. Eight or ten more arrows were wasted before the second voice bellowed, “Who is your king? Akish or Omer?”
            Hamira looked at me and mouthed the identity of the speaker.
            “Nimrah.”
            How should we answer? Which answer made us allies and which made us adversaries? Maybe neither answer would earn a positive response. I studied Hamira, wondering if she’d rise up and declare her loyalty to Omer. She remained silent, grabbed up her torch, and hoisted herself forward. Five yards up the ledge, she disappeared into another tunnel, still high above Nimrah and his comrades. I followed her, drawing additional arrow-fire. Once more the iron-tipped missiles harmlessly flecked the stone. The closest call was an arrowhead that whisked through my torch flame, nearly spearing my wrist. Seconds later Hamira and I had slipped safely into the tunnel beyond the ledge.
            “Find them!” we heard a voice cry from the chamber behind us.
            The echo of the warriors’ feet scattering in multiple directions sounded like a herd of mustangs. They hoped to discover a passage that would take them to our position and corner us like sheep. Moments later our tunnel branched into three separate forks. I looked at the Liahona.
            “This way,” I called to Hamira.
            Our route took us farther away from the ruckus of Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath.
            “I don’t get it,” I said. “Why would Nimrah betray Prince Esrom and Prince Coriantumr?”
            Hamira’s voice exuded her emotional trauma. “For the same reason that Asherah and my sisters betrayed them. They want my brother to be king.”
            “I thought the sons of Mizerath wanted to be king,” I said. “Why are they now supporting Nimrah?”
            Hamira pinched her eyes shut, trying to think. Obviously this new alliance wasn’t entirely comprehensible. It confused her as much as me.
           “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said in frustration. “Our loyalty is to King Omer.”
            She took the lead and continued up the inclining tunnel. I followed, pondering the situation. It was a curious question: Why would Hamira choose her great-grandfather over her brother? Seemed to me this was one very screwed up family. Maybe her choice was based on emotion. Or the Holy Spirit. Whatever the case, Hamira’s commitment to King Omer was firm.
            All other disturbances and echoes in the cavern disappeared. It appeared that we’d lost our pursuers. The path continued ever higher. I continually checked and re-checked the Liahona. Our lungs were heaving, and our pores were sweating buckets. It was time to rest.
            The tunnel widened into a very unusual room. Shafts of sunlight pierced holes in the ceiling of various sizes and shapes. The shafts were slanted, indicating that the sun above was in midmorning or late afternoon. The openings were fifty feet or more overhead, impossible to reach without a ladder from a fire truck. The knowledge that daylight still existed comforted any feelings of claustrophobia lurking inside me.
             Hamira dodged the stones and boulders that littered the floor. She wandered into one of the light shafts and shut her eyes, breathing deeply, basking like a lizard. I found my own slanted pillar of dusty sunlight and sat upon a stone to rest.
            “We can’t stay long,” said Hamira, more to herself. She reached into her shoulder pack and shared several hard corn biscuits and wild onions. “We don’t know when Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath will catch up to us.”
            “They may be headed in an entirely different direction,” I said, guzzling from my water skin and pouring some liquid onto my face to wash away the sweat.
            “If, like us, they are searching for a way to Ablom and a route that takes them back to the lands of our inheritance, they will arrive here eventually,” said Hamira.
            “Do you recognize this room?” I asked. “Did King Omer and his company pass this way before?”
            She nodded hesitantly. “I believe so. It may have been night. There was no sunlight shining through openings above.”
            “What,” I asked prudently, “will happen if your brother finds us?”
            She said soberly, “He will kill us both.”
            “You’re his sister,” I said, wondering if this would change her answer.
            She pondered this. “He will kill you,” she corrected. “As for me—” She sat heavily on a broken stone across from me. “I suppose I’m not exactly sure.”
            Something fell from above. Something small. I watched it drop through a shaft of light. Since the light shone at an angle, the object disappeared in shadow near the floor. I heard it squeal as it hit, so I presumed it was a field mouse or a chipmunk. It was a fifty-foot drop, but such animals didn’t weigh much to begin with, so I supposed it survived.
            It always seemed odd to me when animals made a mistake. I mean, such creatures are made up of instinct, right? They didn’t normally have “accidents.” A thought struck me, fleeting and seemingly inconsequential. I wondered if other types of creatures might have fallen into this pit.
            Suddenly I heard Hamira cry out.

Drums of Desolation, Chapter One. Copyright@ July 2014, Chris Heimerdinger