I watched the soldiers of the Rebel Alliance prepare for battle, once. It was in the midst of the last great battle here, and the Handmaidens of the Divine had been called upon to bless them. They trudged through the mud in our rain-sopped tent, picking up their blaster rifles and rations. Their armor, though made only of animal hide and heavy mails of rusted metal ringlets, was all they had left from the pillaging of our once great villages. Our pristine robes were torn, and blood and dirt had crusted about the edges, but they seemed all the more thankful that one of us would place our palm to their young foreheads and say a prayer for safe delivery.
As a Handmaiden, I found it difficult to speak the falsehoods to those men - boys, really - when I said that they would surely come back home to tuck their children into bed that night. They had been grossly out-numbered by the new, self-deemed Emperor, and his task force was as swift as it was merciless; their savage murders had even then spread across the galaxy.
It was then I realized that not all who fight are soldiers. Even now, whilst the few remaining soldiers are preparing for their futile resistance, so are the Handmaidens of the Divine readying themselves for another journey into the demon pit.
We are not great in numbers, and, like the decrepit and sick villagers below, are too old and weary to be considered much of warriors any longer, but were they ever considered as such?
I would think not.
While they dig through the cold dirt of their built and rebuilt and burned out cabins to finally grasp the cold metal of their hidden blasters, we slip bone-weary fingers into worn grooves of stone to pry open hidden compartments carved in the earth. They sling packs of food and water across their scarred and thinning chests while we wrap our heaviest robes about our own bodies in preparation for the miles of walking that have yet to stiffen our feet.
The young orphans ask us why we go out into the danger that lurks all around the planet; in the shadows, in the trees, in the land that was once good and filled with fruiting life, but is now only ash-scarred and gray. I never answer them, because I simply do not have the answer.
Oh, I could give them false platitudes of it being the will of the Divine Gods. There are certainly enough of them to call upon. Nearly three hundred, each with their own duty, if my withering memory serves me right. They could have called upon us, asking us to help our fellow people, but in all truth, it is not an easy task for me, trying to put all of my feelings into words.
I have never been a very articulate woman, and my bumbling attempts at comforting gestures have always fallen in the eyes of the hungry young ones around me. All the little ones run and whisper amongst themselves, saying that I am just a woman of stone, that I never speak, and that I'm probably a likely candidate for an old spell-maker that lives alone in the woods. Ah, but only if they could know. In truth, I feel too much to put into mere words, and so I rarely try; and more prudently, I feel too much than what is proper for a Sister of my stature in a religion where the level headed and serene are rulers.
I have seen the devastation these plagues have wrought on our planet. For uncounted millennia, the Handmaidens of the Divine have lived and worshipped throughout this planet, about these same hills, and never in our records have we seen such devastation. We may be simple and secluded in our archaic castle, but our towers are far from being ivory. We have traveled the worn paths between cities, seeing the battlefields and death with our own eyes. We pluck children, women, and the occasional, rare man out of the arms of death while all around us is the electric silence and stench that can only be found on the ground where destinies have been made.
And these images; the images that will always taint the edges of my eyes and the backs of my eyelids when I close them to sleep forever; they are reason enough to do what I do with my Sisters.
Not a soul knows the purpose of our many travels, besides some of the Handmaidens who have been chosen to know our secrets, and even then, many close to us remain blissfully unaware of our passive defense against the growing darkness. It is better this way. You cannot be bloodied and beaten to tell what you know nothing about.
I find the grooves in the walls easily, now, though it was troublesome the first times that I did this alone. The block slides out smoothly and my hand delves into the darkness to find the data cards. They are carried here by others like us, though none with such an easy alibi, and we ask not where they came from. That is the policy that we all abide by: there are no questions. We trust only in our hearts and each other to get us through our missions for freedom.
The data cards house information; that of which we never dare read or lose, for the fate of an entire Rebel Alliance may rest on our ability to deliver it safely to the next destination. The Rebels knew long ago, I think, that they would never win their war here - but it is a commonly used stopping point in the galaxy, and an easy route for those who don't want to be found to take when other passages are blocked. This is why we receive so many disks to chauffeur to the next city and perhaps the next; we are an all-too-convenient source of transportation of their secrets.
So now, I roll the data card over in my hand and push the data disk deep into a pouch that can barely hold it. I slip off my white slippers and stand in front of the mirror. The reflection has changed a little, though I know I should not be a vain woman in my servitude to the Divine. But I was not so old, months ago. I had not so many lines and whitening hairs amongst the others, tightly plaited against my head, as they had to fit beneath the formal headdress. My eyes were not so hollow.
I heave the great, heavy lump of a cloak across my shoulders and curse the dreadful thing as I adjust the weight, though I will soon be thankful when I step outside into the bitter chill. Leaning down, I slip the pouch into my shoe and pat it down hard against the bottom before covering it with another layer of cloth. I must admit, it is a rather clever idea. After all, who would stop a holy woman on a sacred path to give a dying man his last rites? And even further, who would search a shoe so thoroughly?
The kitchen is full, as it always is, when I arrive there. They all look to the door as the old hinges protest movement and I enter. It's not easy feeding dozens of orphan children and widows while trying to slip a little into your own mouth, but we do what we can. Our land was one of the few plots left untouched when the raiders came. It was high up in the hills, and it was more trouble than it was worth to climb the jagged paths through hills and woods only to burn our grounds. I suppose a small bit of reverence for our servitude to the same gods helped a little.
"Are you going out alone?" One of the Handmaidens asks softly, and I nod. The woman that usually makes these trips with me has taken ill and I dare not selfishly ask her to get out of her sick bed to walk hundreds of miles through rough grounds just to keep me company.
I pull the hood of my cloak up over the headdress and wrap my arms within the sleeves. One of the Sisters looks frightfully close to tears and she goes back to dipping pieces of parchment paper into a bowl of sugar water. I'd done the same myself many times, but my heart ached for the little children that would eat them, thinking they were a sweet treat. They had no real nutritional value, but it would stop their precious bellies from rumbling so much tonight.
In many ways, I see myself in those young children, as I was brought to the Handmaidens when I was not nearly their age; a child of a young mother who had no means to raise me, and of whom I have no recollection of at all in my memories. After being raised by the Handmaidens, there really are few choices other than to become one of them in the eyes of Our Divine. But being the bastard child of a girl who sold herself, I have always been rather an outcast within my own Sisters. And it is only now that I realize it is probably the reason that I volunteered so readily for the privilege of carrying information from town to town, and even more the reason why they accepted my offer so readily.
"You just be careful now, y'hear? We don't need another Sister gone missin'." Another pokes in and I lower my head. Before I can dwell on our losses, I move on, as I know I must.
"I will be careful. I'll be back before sundown on the fifth night." They nod and I say no more, only close the door and walk through the courtyard, where the children play with their sticks and rocks, the only toys they have left. They all stare at me in my robes as I drift past them, seemingly floating with all the layers of cloth flapping about me. Some of the boys whisper to each other and the girls run ahead of me, glancing back and motioning for me to come and play with them. I smile and regretfully shake my head. The boys are ahead, sprawled lazily across the chilled grass. I'd tell them that they should go inside, but they'd only sigh and remind me they know what's best. They see me and roll onto their bellies as I walk past. They look at my shoes and whisper to each other, oblivious in their youth that I can still hear them.
"Did you see anything?"
"No, did you?"
They are looking for the secrets that they have heard follow the Handmaidens of the Divine, clinging to their shoes and whispering to those that will hear them. I shake my head and must remember to tell them not to speak of their little game to anyone. They may think it is a harmless fairy tale, but it is one that is deadly if heard by the wrong ears.
I am outside the gates before I truly look around me. This very well could be the last sunrise that my eyes greet, but I breathe a great sigh and begin my walking. It will be sundown before I meet the next town's gates and the next traveler in our place. I begin the recitation of prayers to one of those three hundred Mothers, Fathers, Ladies, and Lords that I have known since childhood to keep me alert and focused on my long road ahead. "Our Divine Mother of Guidance and Mercy, watch over me now and in my darkest hour as I walk in shadow with secrets in my shoes."
Original cover by obaona and Tess. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.