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Chapter 19: Massenqa
Qwella – Beneath the Temple of Qalita: Qemassen
Everything was ready, but Qwella couldn’t stop her heart from racing through every tiny detail of the plan: what if one of the fires in the tunnels caught too soon or not at all? What if one of her Ashenqa was trapped along with the Lora? What if the soldiers reached the temple and slaughtered them all?
What if what if what if?
What if everything was as it should be and it was all about to go exactly as planned?
Qira had gathered the women in the tunnels to greet the Lora at the base of the cliff. The other temples with tunnel access had sent word that their Ashenqa were in place. The wooden supports lining the unblocked lower tunnels had been weakened. The ropes, the bitumen—it had been checked and checked again. Dour servants of Molot and whorish priestesses of Ashtet alike awaited the opportunity to bury the Lora beneath the very shore they meant to conquer. Today the people of Qemassen would show their invaders what price was to be paid for Zimrida, and what vengeance reaped for Qorban’s death and the Anata betrayal.
Qwella stared across the command room she’d established in Qalita’s secret chamber and tried to let the sight of Eshant issuing orders calm her. When their eyes met, she blushed the way she might have months ago, the first time she’d lain in her lover’s arms and delighted in how simple, how beautiful, such moments could be.
Skin could be struck, but it could also be caressed, and a woman who’d cowered at the thud of her husband’s footsteps mounting the stairs could command an army of women to defend their home. All that, Eshant had given her.
No, not given. Inspired in her.
Eshant ended their stare, attention pulled away by two younger acolytes seeking reassurance.
They were afraid, and Qwella couldn’t blame them.
With the increased earthquakes over the last few days, there was real cause for worry that the Lora wouldn’t be the only ones crushed underground. Eshant had thrown herself into the role of helping with contingencies in case of disaster. She had a magic about her that left everyone around her in high spirits.
If only she could turn that power inwards.
After a quick explanation that left the frightened young women smiling and laughing, Eshant sent them on their way. She wove toward Qwella past the crates and tables filled with candles, rope, chisels, and other supplies.
Up close, her eyes were hollows in her face. Neither of them had been allowed a moment of peace since the Lora had first been sighted off the coast, and hardly any before that, with all the labour that had required their oversight. At least this time, Eshant’s exhaustion was something she should be proud of. It wasn’t born of her father’s abuses.
Three more Ashqata entered the room, but they didn’t call out or interrupt, content to find what they needed themselves.
“We’ve become so important.” Qwella laughed and stroked her fingers along Eshant’s neck. “When I first saw you, you were scrubbing floors.”
Eshant offered up a smile, but it disguised something murky Qwella couldn’t place. “I wish I was still scrubbing floors. Things were simpler then.”
Qwella tugged the arms of Eshant’s robe, leaned up, and kissed her. “But you didn’t have me.”
“No.” Eshant pulled her close, ignoring, as they had taken to doing, the women bustling around them.
In Eshant’s arms it was almost possible to forget they dealt in life and death today, that Qemassen’s fate was still uncertain, and that they might all be dead or imprisoned in but days’ time.
Eshant coughed, a punctuating statement rather than a natural reaction. “We should do another patrol of the tunnel. Make sure the ropes are in place. I don’t want to lose one woman if I can help it.”
Of course Eshant would be worried about the others. She was a good person that way.
Qwella looked up at Eshant, feeling at last her equal, like she was as strong as Eshant and perhaps even as beautiful. No one whispered any longer that she was no Massenqat. No one dared call her the daughter of a foreign bitch. She felt proud finally, to be Moniqa’s daughter, and to be the woman Eshant claimed she always had been.
“Okay. One more time.” Qwella lowered her hand from Eshant’s neck, ready to turn away, when Eshant stopped her with a look.
“Don’t. Not yet. I mean,” Eshant paused, glancing right as though she might find the source of her worries on the wall. “There’s something I have to tell you, before we go.”
Such a serious tone. It was a match for the darkness lurking behind Eshant’s eyes. Qwella didn’t like the feel of it.
Fatty smoke filled the room as another candle sputtered and died and an acolyte rushed to relight it. Eshant began to cough in truth this time.
Once she’d recovered, Qwella pressed her finger to Eshant’s lips. “No. I forbid it. We’ll talk when all this is done, I promise. And it will be done soon. Thanks to you and the tunnels, there won’t be a lengthy siege. The Lora think they’ve won already.”
Qira burst into the room. The lantern she gripped so tightly in her hands swung violently, its beams arcing across the walls. “Sese! Tumno’s sent word. The Lora are inside the western tunnels!”
Qwella broke away from Eshant and rushed to Qira’s side in the tunnel outside Qalita’s room. Eshant’s leaden footsteps followed, but Qwella didn’t have time to ease Eshant’s anxious mind right now. She had to be focused. She had to be the heq-Ashqat.
“What about our entrance?” Qwella asked.
Qira stilled her swaying lantern with a hand. “No, but it won’t be long. Boats were seen being lowered onto the water.”
A fire burned in Qwella’s breast, her limbs tingling. It was like being drunk.
Would that she had wine now, to give her courage.
Instead of wine, she grabbed one of the candles on the table and lit it from a brazier.
“Eshant and I will check the supports.” Qwella brushed past Qira and into the narrow passage. “You stay here to help the others.”
“Sese.” Qira bowed her head and bustled inside Qalita’s room.
Qwella immediately started the treacherous march downhill. The way ought to be clear—it was clearer than it would have been—but every minor earthquake dislodged sandy rock onto the path and a thin carpet of small stones had reformed.
The air was hot, thick, and evil.
From behind Qwella, Eshant’s coughing worsened. She was a silly thing to have followed Qwella down here. Qwella could have checked the supports herself, leaving Eshant where the air was more pure. But if Qwella had argued with her, Eshant would have insisted anyway.
When all this was over, they’d have to find a way to dispel Eshant’s gloom. It was a heavy burden for the two of them alone.
The divine reliefs Eshant had shown Qwella flew by in her haste, but as they passed Molot’s door, the earth began to shake. It was just a small tremor compared with what they’d endured in the past, but Eshant rushed forward to help steady her. The feeling of Eshant’s strong arms around Qwella’s waist gave her strength.
“I’m fine. You can let go.” Qwella offered her lover a smile and a light touch, but stood up and continued walking on her own.
“Qwella, please.” Eshant peered back over her shoulder at the path uphill. “Maybe we should go back. I’m sure the beams are fine. You shouldn’t put yourself at risk.”
Qwella frowned. “Why not? Because I’m the heq-Ashqat?”
Eshant heaved her shoulders, letting out an exasperated huff. “Yes?”
“Come on. We’re almost there.” Qwella hurried on. She didn’t immediately hear Eshant follow. Was she afraid? It didn’t seem like her.
Over time, the crash of the waves that always echoed off the walls down here had become familiar, and Qwella was no longer the trembling little thing Eshant had forced to walk these paths. Today though, the roar and hiss of the ocean pressed inwards from every angle. It was as though the sea were possessed.
Uphill, a lantern rattled—the sound of Eshant following at last.
Qwella chewed her lip. The gods could well be speaking through the ocean, expressing their rage at Lorar’s hubris. Surely, such anger couldn’t be directed at the Massenqa.
Unless it was Isir’s curse.
Even a king couldn’t command the ocean. If Qwella and Ashtaroth and the rest of their family were cursed, it seemed evil to damn the city along with them. But then, in Qwella’s vision, Isir had seemed a very evil man.
Another earthquake shook the path, and one of the frail wooden supports twisted at one of its joins. The screech of the wood was so startling that Qwella pressed herself flat against the wall.
Gradually, her heart stilled, and she carefully tiptoed to the weakened beam. “We have to fix it.”
“There’s no time!” Eshant called, having to catch up. “It doesn’t matter now. This whole tunnel will collapse. So a few Lora sailors live to die outside our walls, what difference will it make?”
With the water and the shifting walls thundering around them, Qwella had to shout to be heard. “Maybe none, but if that’s the case we have to warn the women at the bottom. We have to get them out.”
“Eshant!” screamed a woman from below.
Why was Dansila calling for Eshant? Why Eshant over all the others? The sprig of jealousy that pricked at Qwella’s breast withered as quick as it had grown. It was because Eshant had been the one to explain their contingency plans.
Terror laced Dansila’s plea. The scream that followed reverberated along the walls, along with a dull thudding as of a struggle. The harsh bray of men’s voices echoed after.
The Lora were here. Qalita had sent them to Qwella’s doorstep.
Eshant grasped for Qwella’s robes as though to pull her back and out of danger, but Qwella wasn’t going to abandon her women—not even Dansila. She knelt and grabbed a large, heavy stone, struggling to lift it and carry her candle.
“I won’t abandon them!” Qwella heaved away from Eshant.
“Qwella! No. Don’t. It’s a trap.” Eshant padded after her, to the sound of Dansila wailing in the distance and gruff voices shouting obscenities. “Listen to me.”
What did Eshant mean, a trap? Who was trapping them? Had the Lora brought women with them to call Eshant’s name?
Eshant didn’t try to follow. “My father! Qwella he made me. He asked me to. You have to come back. He knows what you did. We’ve always known.”
What had she done? Qwella didn’t look back, kept moving—one foot in front of the other—every step threatening to topple her as the walls shuddered.
“Qalita made me her prophet,” Qwella yelled back past the maelstrom of sound filling the tunnel—the roll of the waves split by Dansila’s screams and whimpers. “I have to serve her now.”
Sweat beaded on Qwella’s forehead from the effort of heaving the stone in the stagnant air of the tunnel. Her feet seemed to run ahead of her as she ambled downhill. There was no time for Eshant’s confessions, whatever they meant.
“Eshant!” Dansila cried.
Protectiveness swelled in Qwella’s chest. The desperation in that scream was no trick. Dansila had hurt Qwella, yes, but she was young and foolish, and she was Qwella’s responsibility. Every Ashqat in the temple was Qwella’s daughter, even her.
Eshant cried after her, but she sounded so distant now. “Qwella! Stop! None of it’s real. None of it. Qalita’s not watching you—she’s not here. It was me, and my sister, and my father. He wants to kill you, for killing my uncle. All the flowers—he bought them. We carried them into the tunnels from his storeroom. He made me, Qwella. He asked me to kill you.”
A father. An uncle.
There was something in Eshant’s words—a sharp sliver of pain like a splinter notched in the crook of her eye—that threatened to knock Qwella to her feet. If she thought even a little on the words, they would strike her down and she wouldn’t be able to get back up again. She had to concentrate. She had to save Dansila. Whatever was tormenting Eshant, they’d fix it together, once everyone was safe. If Eshant truly meant to . . . to kill her, she could have. And she hadn’t.
Let that truth be Qwella’s strength.
The sheen of sweat coating her palms caused the stone to slip in her grasp, but she steadied it before it could fall and crush her feet. Her candle tumbled free and rolled across the stones, dousing Qwella’s face in darkness.
“Qwella,” Eshant sobbed, her voice so distant, like she was speaking only to herself now. “Qanmi eq-Sabaal is my father. He ordered me to kill you for refusing him, and for killing his brother. He didn’t know I’d love you.”
Stop. Be quiet.
Qwella let the roar of the waves drown out whatever else Eshant had to say. They’d talk when she returned. They’d have all the time then, for confessions, for truth.
Tears brimmed at her eyes. Her heart was on fire.
Qanmi’s daughter. Qanmi’s vengeance, reaching all the way downhill to the Shedi-Qalana, where Qwella had believed herself safe.
Qwella shook off her tears.
Well, when she returned to Eshant, they’d go to Hima and Aurelius with everything Eshant had just confessed. They’d tell Hima and Aurelius what injustices Qanmi eq-Sabaal visited about his women.
She rounded a corner.
Dansila was pinned against a wall, face bloody and broken and afraid. A Loran gripped her by the neck, his dirty hands tightening around her skinny throat. A second man was behind the first, struggling to stand.
They hadn’t seen Qwella.
The Loran squeezed his fingers viciously into Dansila’s skin, shouting his threats at her, beating her down with his cruelty. In Dansila’s eyes, a sudden surety—she was already dead. No one was coming to save her.
Qwella remembered that feeling. Oh yes. She remembered that girl. She remembered the stifling clench of her husband’s fingers tightening around her neck. She remembered how every breath taken inside that house felt like air stolen through the lungs of a drowning woman. She remembered believing the only escape was to throw herself onto the stones of the riad. She remembered realizing there was another way out.
“Show us,” spit the Loran. “Or you’re a dead woman.”
Suddenly, the stone felt light as a feather in her hands.
Qwella took a few steps into the light, raised the stone as high as she could, and slammed it into the side of the soldier’s face. “No, she isn’t.”
Both Dansila and the Loran collapsed to the ground. The Loran groaned, struggling to stand, but Dansila hobbled toward Qwella and tucked herself behind Qwella’s back, sniffling and coughing.
Qwella gripped the stone tighter. She had to finish the soldier, or she and Dansila were dead. And there was the second man—
The tunnel heaved, a terrifying cracking sound that rattled every bone in Qwella’s body. Dansila grabbed Qwella’s shoulders for balance and the stone fell from Qwella’s hands and rolled against the second soldier’s feet.
She was about to scramble for it, when she saw the torch flickering against the wall between herself and the soldiers. She craned her neck, and yes, one of their bitumen soaked ropes danced above them to the rhythm of the earthquake.
Better and easier to block the way as they had planned.
Qwella snatched the torch, its heat blazing across her skin as she rose. She drew it up, ready to set the tunnel ablaze, when a sharp pain shot through her, starting at her back and spreading outwards. She looked down, feeling a strange release as though something had pierced her and been removed. She wobbled on her feet, and with trembling fingers pressed her hand to her stomach, feeling a frightening dampness, glimpsing a deathly red.
Light it. Kill him. Go back to Eshant. Why had Dansila . . . ? Why had Dansila been calling for Eshant? Why was she—
Dansila’s warmth disappeared from her back.
Qwella tottered, alone all of a sudden in the blackness. Alone, but for the Lora men. She raised her flame to the swaying rope.
The soldier Qwella had struck raised his sword, ready to slice her from shoulder to stomach. He brought it down and—
She stared at the clean cut where her fingers had been for what seemed an eternity. Those fingers that had brushed a lover’s cheek, stroked Eshant’s hair, tugged her mother’s skirts.
Qwella dropped to her knees as the sputtering flame overhead erupted into a blazing fire.
The soldier was trying to run to the surface. If he reached the temple, he would kill Eshant. He’d kill all of them. But Eshant had . . . Dansila had . . . .
Qwella had promised, in the end, to remember that Eshant had loved her.
She grabbed the soldier’s leg and pulled him down with her into the dark.