“Sheesh.” I groaned as Mema soaked my cuts. My back throbbed, and the soaking was only making it sting more. That malicious elder had happily allowed me to be whipped in mother’s place. I considered that the cruel man was glad, even excited, to whip me.
“I hope this hasn’t hurt you too much, Al.” Mema smiled, a faded smile.
“Oh no, it’s fine Mema. He went easier on me then he did on you. Only eight lashes, remember?”
“No, child, I didn’t mean you were hurting in that way. You are young, and this won’t hold you back long. I know I’ll be unable to walk about for quite a while. I am speaking of your injured pride, my swallow.”
I stopped. Mema was propped against the wall, using her one unflogged hand to tenderly bathe the cuts on my back. “Mema, you will be fine, you will!”
But Mema continued, forgetting her pain as she talked, “I feel that your pride is injured, and as our future leader, you must not forget our people. Why, Hum stopped by, and you ignored him. After all, I was fifteen when I met your father… ”
“Mema…” I groaned. Matchmaking me, and her unable to walk a few steps without falling!
A tremor of pain travelled through her weakened body, and the former, fleeting smile was replaced by a shiver of silent agony. “Swallow, listen to me…I may not have much longer…Allow me to finish cleaning your wounds…”
My voice tightened with fear. “I can finish the rest of the cuts.” I jerked away.
“My Swallow, please let me-”
“NO, Mema. You are in great pain, and should not do such work. The clan elders will force you to return to your work tomorrow. And three days is hardly enough time for you to heal. I hate those rough men. Surely, surely the woods cannot be much worse.”
Mema sighed. “They have warned us to avoid the woods all our lives, remember the saying, “Danger lurks among forest Huns, great trees again darken the suns –””
I interrupted her yet again. “Mema. You must understand! I know you have kin here, and that Chief Falcon is your brother, but true family would never allow kin to be whipped. We must flee, as soon as you are able. Life here will only get worse.”
Mema’s hand fell limply from my back to the ground. She closed her eyes.
“Mema! You must understand. How could you have lived here all your life, and not noticed the evil around us?”
“Evil has increased during these past few years…” Mema protested weakly.
“Mema, your words only make my determination to leave more resolute. My mind is set. I shall go to the woods, Huns or no Huns. During these past few days – have you noticed the increase of cries of terror? The wails of sorrow? The deaths? The bodies, thrown over the stockade? New leaders have come to power, I am sure, and the elders wish none to know. Chief Fal – I am assured that he could not possibly be behind the frequent whippings.”
“Swallow, tis not too recent – when you were but a child of eleven, that disobedient members of our clan began to be punished by whippings, sometimes one was being punished every other week!”
I straightened my back, and winced with pain. The cold night air had caused my wounds to stiffen, and they cracked when I moved. “Mema, as soon as you are in better health, we shall flee to the woods together. We are not wanted here.”
“But Swallow,” Mema tried one last time, “Your Da told you that you must lead your people, and how can one lead if they are not with their comrades?”
“I shall return, and bring to safety the loyal and rebellious generation my Da raised up – and we shall overcome the elders, and the clannies, and I shall lead them. We will fight until all seems lost, and we will champion over the oppressors. Though they reject me at first, I shall continue. We shall continue. We shall overcome. We must.”
Courage filled my mind as I said these prophetic words. Mema smiled at me.
“My brave girl.” she said, and those were the last words I heard her say for a long, long time.