Dying to Live

[The Seventh Miss Hatfield Competition] The man moved closer, so that his lips were at her ear as he whispered the last words of her short little life. “Then die.” Cover done by the incredible River_Summers!


5. Ninety.

    Asha Owusu crouched down, plucking an herb gently from where it grew sandwiched in between two rocks. She slid it into the small leather pouch that hung at her waist and straightened. Asha shielded her eyes with a dark skinned hand as she squinted at the sun. It was sinking over the horizon - her cue to head back to the village.

    With long, elegant strides, Asha started back the way she had come, her bare feet pounding on the hot, dry dirt. The past few months had been hard on her people; there had been even less rain than usual, and the blazing sun caused many of their crops to wither and die. Money and food were a little hard to come by, but they would pull through; they always did.

    The modest straw huts in which her people lived appeared small on the horizon, growing larger with each step she took. As she approached, Asha could see people moving about, gathering the children and lighting fires for the night.

    “Asha!” her sister called, running up to her. Nyarai was four years younger than Asha, but just as much of a beautiful young woman. For her part, Asha’s twenty four hard years had worn her down, made her hardened in the way that the elders of the village were. “Mosi’s gotten worse. Did you get what you needed?”

    “Yes,” Asha replied. “Or at least I hope so. Where is he?”

    “Come,” Nyarai said, taking her hand and leading her in a winding path through the huts. 

    In moments, they arrived at the hut belonging to Mirembe, the local midwife. She welcomed them inside, then stepped out of the way as Asha kneeled beside the cot on which Mosi lay sleeping. 

    “How long has he been out this time?” she asked, laying a hand on his hot, dark forehead. He was small, thin and fragile. The recent famine had been hard on the children whose bodies were trying to grow, but without the extra food to sustain the changes. In this case, Mosi’s malnourishment had developed into illness.

    “Half the day,” Mirembe answered. “His fever has gotten worse.”

    “Wet a cloth,” Asha told Nyarai without looking up. In just a moment, a cloth was pressed into her hand. Asha set it gently on Mosi’s forehead and then withdrew a mortar and pestle from her pouch. She took out the various herbs she had gathered throughout the day and ripped the leaves into tiny little pieces. Dropping them in the stone bowl, she began to crush them into a fine pulp, extracting all of the juice.

    “A pot, Nyarai, to boil water,” Asha said, but Nyarai already had it prepared.

    She shot Asha a smile. “I did pay attention to what father taught us, you know.”

    “I know,” Asha replied. “Soon you will be as good as me.”

    “I think not,” she scoffed. 

    As Asha scooped the herb mixture into the water and set it over the fire to boil, she remembered what her father, the village’s last medicine man, had told her. Heat is healing. Fevers were a good indication, an indication of the body fighting back. Now all Asha needed was for Mosi’s to break. It had been going on long enough. Her father had also taught her that boiling would release the essence of the herbs, making her medicine more potent. Asha hoped it worked; Mosi was nearing the end of his window of recovery.

    As the water and herb mixture boiled, Asha moved to the doorway, looking out at the night. It had gotten dark quickly, she noticed, but the moon shone brightly upon the land. Stars glittered in the sky, forming constellations such as Anansi. Asha traced the lines of the spider with her eyes, hearing the storyteller’s voice in her mind. But Anansi was not as smart as all the wisdom on his back. He did not tie the jar down and it fell! Crash! And the wisdom washed out, into the rivers and on, stretching to every corner of the earth so that everyone has a little wisdom. But, children, I think that the the West Africans have gotten the largest portion.

    Then, the children would laugh and beg for another story, so happy and carefree. But tonight, there was no story telling, no laughter. Asha looked out of the hut and frowned. The village was so quiet. It was hardly ever this quiet; there was usually dancing, singing and laughter in the early hours of the night. 

    Asha turned around with a frown. “Does it seem quie- What is it?”

    Mirembe and Nyarai were frozen in place, eyes wide and staring at Asha. Or something behind Asha. 

    A hand clamped down hard over her mouth. Asha tried to scream, but it came out as a muffled squeal. Asha could see her sister’s horrified face, right about to scream, when a cold blade was pressed to her throat.

    “Do not make a sound,” a gruff voice told her sister. At some signal that Asha missed, two other men broke into the room, tying gags over Mirembe’s and Nyarai’s mouthes. They  wrapped their hands in rope and led them from the room.

    Asha felt sick. She bit down hard on the man’s hand over her mouth and he let go with a grunt. He let his knife fall, casually slicing her forearm. Asha let out a little cry, then immediately berated herself. She didn’t want to show weakness now, not in front of him.

    “Feisty,” he muttered. “What is wrong with the boy?”

    “He is sick,” Asha replied with biting venom.

    “How sick?”

    Asha’s heart pounded against her ribcage so hard that she was certain it could be heard. Whatever happened to her, she couldn’t let them take Mori. “Too sick to travel. Please, leave him,” she begged.

    The man looked down with a cold glint in his eye. “I will leave him.”

    For a moment, Asha’s breathing eased. At least Mori would have a chance of recovering on his own if he could manage to fight the sickness. Then her hopes were suddenly shattered when her captor casually raised the hand holding the knife and threw it with deadly accuracy. 

    A sound of despair escaped Asha’s lips as she squeezed her eyes shut. A tear ran down her cheek as the man chuckled and tied her up like they had done to her sister. Bound and gagged, she was led from the hut to the center of the village where her family and friends were gathered against their will. It was a horribly disheartening sight, to see the great warriors of her village brought so low.

    Uduak, the village leader, strained against his bonds, hissing and growling at the nearest man, and all at once it became clear what was happening.

    They were being kidnapped and sold as slaves.

    Asha had heard rumors of the Asante capturing their enemy tribes and doing the very same thing, but she had never considered that it would happen to her people. They were peaceful, for the most part. Their last encounter with the Asante had been over five years ago, in the year 1769, and though it had not ended well, she thought it had been forgotten.

    Apparently not. And now she would be taken away from her family, sold as a slave. It simply was not right. There was no way she would let it happen to her. Or to her sister. Asha scooted closer to Nyarai so that their backs were almost touching. She reached for her sister’s hand and gripped it tight. She would get her sister out of this, even if it meant sacrificing herself in the process.




    It took several long, hard days of walking, but at last they were nearing the ship that was to take them who knew where. As she walked, Asha worked the gag out of her mouth enough that she could talk, at least a little bit. Their captors were watching their every move, but Asha managed to sidle up next to her sister.

    “Nyarai,” she whispered. Nyarai looked over with wide, fearful eyes. “I will cause a distraction. You run. Go hide behind those boulders until we are out of sight. Then leave.”

    Nyarai’s eyes were filled with protest. Asha could see what she was asking. What about you? 

    “I will be fine. Please, Nyarai. Do this for me.” There was still hesitation in her eyes. “Promise me.”

    After a moment, she nodded once. Asha looked at her grimly. “I love you,” she whispered before pulling away and running straight for the edge of the group, out towards freedom.

    Almost instantly, every one of their captors had swarmed and tackled her and several knives were pressed to her back. The side of Asha’s face pressed into the hard ground, but she didn’t mind as she could see Nyarai silently sneaking around the back of the group, headed for the cluster of protective boulders on silent feet.

    “Going to escape, were you?” one of the men barked.

    “Maybe we should make an example out of her,” another proposed.

    Please, Asha thought, Please kill me. I would rather that than be a slave.

    “No,” the one in command said. “For every one we kill, the less gold we get. Come, keep moving. Just keep a watch on her.”

    “Get up,” someone urged, holding a knife to the small of Asha’s back. She stood and pressed on, looking around with a quick jerk of the head. Nyarai was gone. That knowledge alone was enough to allow her to press on.

    The ship was not much farther. When they arrived, they were loaded on board, marched on deck and led to the hatch that opened to the bowels of the ship. Asha glanced down the hole and saw people inside, packed so tightly there seemed hardly room to breath. Asha looked around. There were guards on either side of the stairway, pushing people in. She was almost to the opening, but Asha wasn’t going down there. Not if she could help it.

    Pulling the same trick from earlier, Asha suddenly took off at a sprint, breaking out of line and heading for the edge of the deck.

    “Stop her!” one of the guards shouted. They pounded towards her, shouting for her to stop, but Asha already had one leg over the railing. As the guards closed in, she plummeted the rest of the way to the water.

    Asha hit the lukewarm water with a splash and bobbed to the surface, the cut on her arm stinging with the salt. The shore was near enough that guards were preparing to jump in after her from the pier, but she was not going to let herself be captured yet again. No, she wouldn’t let them win. As several Asante guards splashed into the water, Asha dove down deep, following one of the ship’s anchor chains. They dove after her, ready to pull her up - after all, her very life was gold to them - but Asha had twisted herself up inexorably in the chain.

    The guards grabbed her arms and tugged at her, but she was trapped. They ran out of breath rather quickly and surfaced, leaving Asha where she was, underneath the water. Asha gave a small smile of triumph and let her last breath escape in a cascade of bubbles, rising to the surface and straining towards freedom.

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