The starry image of the Lady gazed emotionlessly down on the flickering lights of a small encampment. Several strides away from the fires stood an emancipated childlike figure whose eyes were wells of an ancient sorrow. The winds whipped her gray robe, tearing at the ragged scarf covering her face and ringing the copper bells of the staff held in her left hand.
Another shape, taller than the first, approached from the direction of the tents. “Laia, are you certain you should do this?” His voice was filled with love and compassion—emotions scarcer then water in this arid land.
She turned towards him, her eyes wet with unshed tears. “David, you have asked me this many times. My answer has not changed. I will do this.”
“They may hurt you.”
A breeze tugged at Laia’s robe, revealing a flash of silver.
“They may kill you,” David’s voice contained a hint of terror. “I don’t want to dig your grave.”
Laia closed her eyes. Pain filled her words. “I have buried too many. Like blossoms wilting in the cool morning, they died too soon.” She still remembered each of their faces. Aria. Nuri. And Dalai.
“Aria was stoned for attempting to drink from the village well. They pelted me with rocks as I tried to rescue her. That night, it rained. The drops mocked me as they pelted her cold body.
“The infection ate Nuri’s flesh, yet he felt no pain. When he died, what remained was barely recognizable as a body. There was very little to bury.”
“Jamal found his sister Dalai with the shards of her radona in her throat. The last thing she said was ‘It would be better to never been born then to be one of the Lady’s Children.’”
Laia slipped her hand under the veil, touching the emblem burned into her tender cheek. “We died when they branded us with the Lady’s Emblem. Sakuntala; the name of Her mark and the title of Her children. Like ghouls we wandered the desert, for our hearts were already dead. Slavers thought to exhibit me as a freak.
“The Lady gave only death and despair to Her children. But your god, the true god, is a god of mercy and love. He gave me hope and a new family. I must stand up for them.” The veil could not hide the determination on her face. “I am willing to die.”
David sighed. “You have learned well, daughter. Perhaps too well.”
Laia’s reply was interrupted by the arrival of a young boy whose eyes were big as dates “Jamal, what is it?”
“Abba David, the elders have summoned Laia. They insist she come now!”
“Then it is time.” Laia said. She squeezed David’s hand. “Pray for me, Abba. Pray that Adonai will open the elders’ eyes.” Suddenly all strength left her legs, and she sank into the sand. “What was I thinking? I can’t do this!”
David ran his fingers through her dark hair. “Peace. Do you believe God gave you this plan?”
“Then he will give the strength to carry it out.”
Laia tightened her grip on the radona and rose to her feet. “No goodbyes. I will see you both again. If not here, then in the crystal city above.” The copper bells tolled faintly as she vanished into the night.
Jamal turned to David. “I’m scared. They might…” The boy broke off, trying not to cry.
“Yes, they might kill her.” David answered softly.
Jamal clenched his fists. “I wish there was something I could do!”
“There is. Pray for her. Tell everyone to pray that Adonai will guide Laia’s steps tonight.” David closed his eyes. “Jamal…I need to be alone.”
Jamal had barely vanished from sight when David let out a strangled cry. “Lord, what am I doing? Who am I to ask her—“
Peace, my son.
David’s tears slowed. Lord, is that you?
Do you trust me?
Not as much as I should. David admitted.
I know that you love Laia. But you do not know how much I love her. I have plans for her, plans to prosper her and not harm her, plans to give her hope and a future. And for your sake, so that you can trust Me more, I will show you My love for Laia.
A raging tide engulfed David; a blazing fire roared hungrily about him. But the tide did not drown him, not did the fire burn him. Instead, he was engulfed in an emotion so strong and pure that the simple word ‘love’ was inadequate, as if one shade of paint could depict a rainbow.
How great is your love! David’s soul cried out in worship. It is higher than the mountains, deeper than the seas, wider than the heavens, longer then time. He no longer was aware of himself, yet at the same time was more alive then he’d ever been before or would be again.
This is my love.
The gentle words pierced David like a shaft of sunlight after a fierce storm. All thoughts are plunged from his mind. Slowly he became aware of his body again; his eyes crusted with sand, his limbs cramped and sore, his arms limp at his sides.
David gasped, reeling from the absence of emotion. The night sky, blanketed with clouds, seemed darker than before. Lord, Lord…
Peace. A shaft of moonlight pierced the clouds, illuminating a path over the sand. Come. See what I will do.David dreamily rose to his feet. Like water running to the sea, his bare feet instinctively took the correct turns.
Laia strode briskly towards the distant flames. A dozen pillars of rough-hewed sandstone, each twice the height of a man, ringed the council fire. On an orange-red boulder sat a copper bell, worn smooth by the desert winds. Laia approached and rapped the bell thrice.
“Who comes to speak with the elders?” A deep voice demanded.
“One who would have words with you,” Laia replied.
“Who dares approach the council of the elders?”
“One whose message is great than her fear.”
“Who dares stand before the Lady’s chosen?’
“One whom she has cursed!” Laia shook her radona thrice, echoing the great bell. Closing her eyes, she entered stepped between two of the pillars. The smell of smoke wafted through her hair.
“Why have you come?” A harsh voice demanded.
Daughter. The voice did not come from above or below, behind or before, within or without. Though Laia had never heard it before, she knew the speaker instantly. Adonai.
She gasped as images flashed before her eyes. Once again, she was a little girl, trying not to hear the elders’ judgment, a single word that stung like the brand on her cheek. Sakuntala!
My daughter. The memory died instantly, like a candle snuffed by a mighty hand. You have died to sin. Why fear them any longer?An image formed in her mind; her unveiled face, marred by the sakuntala. It shimmered like a mirage, re-forming to show both cheeks smooth as an infant’s. Am I not greater than they? Laia slipped her hand under the rough scarf.
The scar was gone.
Go. I will give you the words to say.
“Why have you come?” he repeated.
Laia straightened her shoulders and stood tall. “For centuries, the elders have ruled in the Lady’s name, ruthlessly judging all. Those deemed Sakuntala have been driven out to die of disease, despair, and deprivation. Their bones cry out as witnesses of the Lady’s cruelty.” The bold words came easily from Laia’s lips, but they weren’t her own.
“I am one of those cursed. When I was no more than five, white patches appeared on my legs and arms. After an examination, the elders determined that I was cursed by the Lady. You took from me my clothes, my toys, my family, even my name. While my cheeks were still damp with tears, you burned the sakuntala onto my cheek and thrust a radona into my hand. For many years I wandered hopelessly in the desert.
“Then I was captured by a slaver and taken to a distant land. I wept for my homeland, but good came from that evil. It was there that David and I met. He bought me, took me to his home, and cared for me, washing my filthy body and rubbing ointment on my gaping sores. Once I was well, he gave me my freedom. We returned together to care for the others.”
Laia inhaled deeply. “Elders, the Sakuntala are not cursed.”
Every man leapt to his feet, screaming wildly.
“Curse the foreigner!”
“Kill the Anista.”
Laia spread her arms. Miraculously, the crowd quieted. “The Sakuntala are not demons, witches, warlocks, or sorcerers. We are people. Men. Women. Boys. Girls. We are just like you. Each of us has fears. Dreams. Sorrows. The only difference is that the Lady stole our futures, leaving us with no one to trust. But there is still hope for those who believe.”
Laia shook her head, letting the scarf fall from her face. In one swift motion, she rent her garb of gray sackcloth, releasing it onto the sand. Underneath was a dazzling sapphire robe woven with sparkling streams of silver thread. “I do not need to mourn any longer.”
The elders’ jaws dropped. For a moment, they stood there, stunned. Then their shouts burst upon the land like a mighty storm.
“They are cursed!”
“The Lady’s wrath be upon you!”
One incredulous voice cut through the uproar. “Her cheek! See! The sakuntala is gone!”
Laia held her head high, unflinching as a few bold men approached. One spat on his hand, then cautiously touched her cheek. No dye stained his finger.
“Is this the foreigner’s work?” he demanded.
Laia’s voice echoed across the sands. “No. David is a skilled healer, but this is the work of another. He who erased the sakuntala from my cheek and healed my skin also soothed my weary soul.”
Gripping the radona with both hands, Laia raised it above her head. “I am no longer Anista, the Cursed, or Sakuntala, one of the Lady’s Children. I am Laia, daughter of Adonai, the only true god!”
Before the final syllable passed her lips, Laia brought the radona down upon her knees. The staff splintered in rough shards that slipped into the silent sand. The copper bells tolled mournfully, then fell silent forever.
The sound transformed the elders into a raging mob. Whitened knuckles gripped the hilts of scimitars. A metallic ring echoed as the elders drew their swords in unison.
“You shall die.”
Laia did not move as the elders surged towards her, undaunted by the murderous rage burning in their dark eyes. She had done as Adonai commanded; the outcome was in His hands alone.
David had seen it all from his spot behind a pillar. The scene had fanned the fire of love within him, a fire that leapt into a mighty storm as Laia broke the radona. Now, as the scimitars closed in about her, he bowed his head and prayed. Lord, save her.
“Any last words, Anista?” an elder snarled.
Laia raised her eyes to heaven.
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.”
Laia’s sweet song surprised the elders. David was struck anew by her beauty. The robe, beautiful as the night sky, was outshone by her face, which glowed with love. A scimitar flashed, and David cried out in fear. Only Laia heard him. “Do not weep for me, David. I see the crystal city, and it is beautiful.”
Lord, not yet. David pleaded. Don’t call her home yet.
Laia continued singing.
“Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.”
The mournful tolling of copper bells wove itself into Laia’s sweet melody. David turned and saw Jamal standing beside him. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard a voice speaking to me. It said, Go, Jamal. See the wonders I will do.” The boy gazed at Laia. “But now…”
“Because you are my helper,
I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.”
Suddenly Laia’s thin alto was joined by other voices in a vast chorus.
I cling to you;
your strong right hand holds me securely.”
David turned. Behind him stood a crowd numerous as the desert sands: the Sakuntala. The skin of some bore the white patches of the first stage, while others’ trembling limbs and gapping sores revealed the disease’s progress. The crippled leaned on and led the blind, while those too weak to walk were carried. Slowly, the elders turned to face them.
“Be gone, Sakuntala.” they demanded.
The Sakuntala did not speak, but lifted their radonas to the sky. In unison, they broke the staffs upon their knees. The cracking staffs echoed like thunder, and the bells tolled like falling rain.
But those plotting to destroy me will come to ruin.
They will go down into the depths of the earth.
They will die by the sword
and become the food of jackals.”Scimitars fell blade first into the sand as the elders fled in terror. David ran to Laia and embraced her. He wept as he choked out the words, “Well done, daughter… well done.”
David turned to the Sakuntala. “You who were once cursed, today you have broken the bonds of fear and despair. Do you recognize Adonai as the one true God, and acknowledge his son Jesus as the sacrifice for your sins. Do you claim his blood to redeem you from your curse and set you free?”
“We claim Adonai, the one true god, as our god, and accept his son Jesus as our savior.” They answered, hundreds of voices blending into one great voice rising from the earth itself.
“Once they called you Sakuntala, the Lady’s Children. But you have rejected Her ways and Her name. I now name you the Anaamaya, the Redeemed. And now, praise Him who saved you. Worship him who made you.”
Laia raised her arms in worship.
“I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
You kept me from falling into the pit of death.”
The Anaamaya repeated each line, like a thousand echoes returning the melody sevenfold.
You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! The song echoed across the land as the Lady’s image faded in the bright joy of dawn.