"I told him not to lay down his life," replied the lama. He commanded the monastery. He had expected the walls to be breached in a few minutes one way or another. "Come on, this way."
Together, the lama and his assistant trotted through the stone-walled courtyard. They walked under an arch built with grey marble blocks and turned into the now-empty halls of the monastery. As they progressed, they passed tapestries on either side. They saw plaster cracked where someone had removed a piece of artwork during an earlier evacuation.
At an intersection between hallways, the lama came to a fallen table. He sighed when he saw the playing cards strewn next to the table top. Card games were against monastery rules. He knew which monk had been caught with them before.
"All have left," his assistant observed as they kept moving. "Why must you be the last?"
"Because the army comes for me," said the lama.
"Why? No one said."
"That is because they do not know. I am not sure, myself. The monastery was until a few days ago at peace with the local warlords."
"Do you have a guess?"
"I'm told that members of the court convinced a warlord that I have conspired against him."
He shook his head no. "Only in his imagination. He has grown old and afraid, perhaps, and he indulges his passions for jewels and drugs. Now he lashes out against the monastery and its lack of drugs, its lack of attachments, and its lack of fear."
"Is he against the monastery or just you?"
"By the reports we received, I'm the one he wants to kill."
"What insanity could make him want to commit murder?"
"Beneath violence lies fear, usually, and perhaps a touch of insanity. I knew the warlord when he was a young man, tortured and abused by the previous lord. He led a rebellion. Now, perhaps, he dreads that he will be overthrown in his turn."
The lama turned the final corner in the last hallway on this side. He stepped left into the northeast corner meeting hall.
"There is no exit from this room, master," said his assistant. A note of worry crept into his voice. They could hear shouts from the invaders in the courtyard. A voice deeper than the others rang out. The warlord himself had come. He ordered his men to search for the lama. He ordered a search for treasures, too, although he should have known better.
"There is a way." The lama bent to the fireplace in the east wall. "Help me move the wood."
"Why are these logs here?" his assistant asked. He accepted an armful of sticks. "We won't use the fireplace for another month."
"I brought them in yesterday." As the wood was set aside, the lama placed most of the pieces into an iron hearth. That, he pulled aside to get to the grate. Beneath the grate, he revealed a steel door. "They better hide the tunnel. See?"
"Ah." His assistant relaxed for a moment, relieved.
"I was not able to crawl all the way through this path yesterday. But it looks like it still exists. If it does, our escape route should come out in the forest."
The tunnel was more than two hundred years old. It had been created under the direction of the original lama of the monastery. Unfortunately, no one had tested it even in idle curiosity for twenty years. When they had last done so, the lone explorer noted that part of its ceiling had fallen in. The lama was aware there might be no escape. The last man had dug his way around the obstacle. The path he'd cleared might hold. But there might have been another collapse, too.
The lama stepped down into the tunnel. He ushered his assistant to one side, replaced the grate, reached through the bars with a stick, and pulled the hearth of fireplace logs back over the grate.
"There." He smiled for his assistant, who again seemed nervous. He closed the door beneath the fireplace grate.
The solid door cut them off from what little light had remained. They were cast into complete darkness. The lama reached out and found that his friend was trembling.
"Come," he said. "Although we can't see, there is only one way to go. I will lead you."
He turned and preceded his assistant through the blackness. For a few steps, he could shuffle forward with a hand to the wall. Soon, the ceiling lowered. He stooped. A moment later, he bent further. Finally, he scraped his head. He crawled on his hands and knees.
After a few minutes, he found piles of rubble on the floor. They were composed of rocks and loose dirt. The mounds grew larger, filled with heavier stones, and joined in an upwards slope. The rising floor reduced him to worming along on his belly. The man behind him whimpered. After a while, the floor fell away by a few inches. Two body lengths later, it sloped downwards by another foot. The lama found that he could crawl again. They'd made it through the collapsed part of the tunnel.
A few minutes after the worst section, the lama glanced forward from his crouched position. He could see the shape of the walls around him. Light was coming into the tunnel from someplace ahead.
He reached back to touch his friend. His hand landed in the right place, near the shoulder.
"I can see the outline of you," he announced.
"Well, I can see the hand in front of my face," his friend said. "It's getting better."
"Not much farther to go."
The path, at its end, opened into a hole in wall of a vertical shaft. They had made it to an old well that sat at the center of a clearing. The clearing was deep in the woods. This, at last, was their exit from the monastery grounds. But they would have to climb up the side of the well.
"Is that water below us?"
"Yes," the lama answered. He glanced down at the faint shimmer. "Let's keep conversation to a whisper. I know where we are. Sound will carry upwards."
"Right." The other man's voice grew low and soft. "I'd always thought that, at this depth, the well was in shadow even at noon. But it is bright here compared to the cavern-blackness of our escape."
"Had you ever wondered about the raised tiles on the inside of this well? They lead from here all the way to the top."
"I thought they formed a pattern."
"Then I considered them to be a decoration. But it was hidden beauty, subtle and and spiritual. No one could see the design except for those who made it."
"We are seeing it now." The lama smiled and began his climb.
The brick pattern became a set of handholds and footholds for them. The lama took two minutes to reach the top. His arms trembled by the end. If he were older, he realized, the climb would have posed a serious risk. As it was, the only danger came from outside the well. He heard the noise of someone pacing back and forth.
Above him, over the stone rim, he glimpsed the top of a person's head. He paused to be sure. As he did, the person turned. She leaned over and proved to be, as he'd hoped, the senior nun from the convent. Her grey hairs shone in the sun of the clearing, even with most of them tucked under her hood.
"Thank you, sister," the lama said as he accepted her hand. She helped him over the lip of the well. He rolled down to let his feet touch the grass. He bowed.
She put a finger over her lips and pointed in the direction of the monastery. He nodded, understanding. There were soldiers in the woods. Together, he and the nun helped his assistant from the well. Then, as quietly as they could, they marched through the forest. Once they had to hide to let a pair of soldiers pass. Soon after, they found an animal trail. When they left that, they exited the cover of the trees. They discovered a footpath to take into town. Only when they'd reached the edge of town did any of them feel safe to speak.
"The abbess says there have been about forty men killed, perhaps twenty women raped," the nun announced.
The lama paused. He scanned the town below and noticed the burnt remains of a house to the south.
"Town leaders expected the troops would refrain," he said.
"The warlord led the murders. He shouted to anyone who could hear that he blames you. He said he was killing your village supporters to hurt you."
"Did I have supporters? Or were they simply good people?"
"He says you molested children. Did you?"
"Of course not." He studied the nun's face and reminded himself not to be insulted. "Haven't you known me for almost forty years?"
"But I don't know you well. You are the lama, after all."
He sighed. "If you find it believable, then others must. There are always some who believe a thing simply because it has been said."
The lama bowed his head and marched on. The journey across town took him longer than he'd planned. Soldiers stalked the streets. He had to avoid them. The nuns and the monks from his temple, together, had arranged for a safe path. Nevertheless, it was difficult because many of the streets were empty. The lama and his assistant felt conspicuous in their robes.
Where ordinary citizens worked in the alleys, they pretended not to see the lama as he passed. They turned away. Before they did, their eyes widened in recognition. The looks they gave him, in those brief moments, were usually loving and reassuring. But sometimes their expressions turned suspicious. The warlord's campaign against the lama had already taken effect. A few of the younger faces seemed resentful. They couldn't blame the warlord, not without being beaten, so they blamed the lama. The lama nodded to himself. He knew that people worked this way.
"Over here." The nun crooked her finger to him. He followed her through the doorway of a house as they dodged the eyes of more soldiers.
In the house, his eyes adjusted to the dim light. The lama noticed the inhabitants, a mother and her son. Like the other residents of the town, they recognized him in a second. Then, with a sad look, the mother turned away. The boy took a moment longer.
"Is this one of the safe houses?" his assistant asked the nun.
"Yes. Ssh." The nun put a hand over her mouth.
The three of them remained silent until a pair of infantrymen outside passed the shuttered window. After the footsteps faded, the lama approached the mother of the house.
"May I ask a question?" he said. She nodded. "Thank you. Have you heard the warlord's slanders against the monastery and against me?"
She nodded again. "Yes."
"Do you not believe them?" He gestured to her son. "Are you not afraid of my behavior towards your son?"
"We were told that you molested girls."
"Ah. I have not been fully informed. But the campaign against the monastery is likely to continue for some time. The army will say many more things, especially if they discover what people are willing to believe. Do you think your friends will be persuaded?"
She thought about this for a long time. "Some of them."
"Why do you care?" the nun asked.
"I'm not sure," said the lama. "But the monastery relies on the good will of the town. Should that be lost ..."
"We will fight," his assistant volunteered. "We have truth on our side."
The nun made a disparaging noise.
"The lama is possessed by demons and abuses children," she said. "All monks are possessed by demons. The monastery is rich but keeps the warlord poor. The monastery is in a league with the warlord's enemies. The monastery is poisoning the town wells. The monastery is poisoning the warlord and making his hair fall out. Those are all things that the warlord's men have said."
"That's quite a lot." The lama raised his eyebrows.
"Getting old makes hair fall out," his assistant responded.
"Careful." The nun narrowed her eyes. "Men were killed for saying those words this morning."
The lama bowed to their host. He bowed to her young son. He was feeling flustered by his confrontations with violence and insanity. Nevertheless, he was not so confused as to fail to realize that he must continue on his way.
The journey across town took two days. What was normally a stroll of a few hours was constantly interrupted and re-routed by soldiers on patrol. The lama saw the insides of many homes, some rich, some poor. The nun knew which were safe. No matter whether the house was great or small, the people who lived inside were hardly ever home. When they were, they failed to notice the presence of uninvited guests. Sometimes they had to go into other rooms in order to not notice.
"This is very wise," said the lama when they were inside the garden shed of a rich man's estate.
"I know," said the nun. She caressed the clay jars on a low shelf against the wall. "This fellow is an ally of yours. Yesterday, he stored clean water in these pots."
"But no food," complained the lama's assistant.
"Food would be hard to explain," said the nun, "if anyone else should have walked in."
"Let's call this an evening of fasting," said the lama to his friend. "Anyway, we should rest."
"Good idea. This is the best spot to spend the night." The nun pointed to the closed shed door and beyond, to the border of the estate. "There is a curfew in town. We saw the soldiers lighting torches at intersections. We can't travel while the torches are burning."
"Let's wait until just before dawn," suggested the lama. "In the weak light, we will appear to be early-rising citizens. Very few people will be inclined to look closely. At the least, the villagers will be able to plausibly deny that they noticed us or gave us shelter."
"That is good." The nun smiled. "If we are lucky, we can make it to the bridge above the river before the light grows strong. That is a hard path, I know. But if there are no soldiers on it, it works to our advantage. No one uses those stairs but the trail goes up to the mesa and the convent."
"Are the stone steps still hidden by bushes near the bottom?"
"Somewhat," she allowed. "Even if we are spotted as we reach the bridge, the people below will need half an hour to climb up the winding path to reach us."
During the night, the lama's assistant awoke several times. He kept a heavy shovel by his side and clutched it when he stirred. He had been troubled by the signs of murder and torture during the day. At the last safe house, he had stepped in a pool of blood outside the back door. During their long night, he rubbed his foot. He shivered in his sleep. Groans escaped him each time he awoke.
The lama sat in meditation for a while. He held his friend's hand and wished for him to have peaceful dreams.
Only once did the nun cry out in her sleep. The sound seemed to the lama like the weeping they'd heard behind closed shutters as they passed houses in town.
In the morning, on little rest, the lama roused his companions. Together the three strolled out into the twilight before dawn as if they were trudging to work. The lama's assistant insisted on carrying a shovel. He said it helped disguise them. Perhaps it did. There were few tradesmen out but the farm laborers dared to go to work. The lama passed soldiers without drawing attention. In only half an hour, he and his friends reached the southeast edge of town. They crossed the stream and clambered up into the bushes that hid the mountain staircase. No one stopped them.
It was only when they stepped out onto the great bridge at the top of the stairs that they were spotted. The winding path was long but it didn't take them very high in the end, really, just above the buildings and trees. The lama's assistant leaned against the rail to take in the view. He gazed over the town and pointed out signs of the occupying army. He gestured to a pair of soldiers. As they noticed the motion, the soldiers raised their heads. They pointed to the lama.
The bridge was not so high that they couldn't hear the voices below. The lama felt that he had been recognized because the soldiers shouted something about hills. They didn't seem to know if the monastery was to the west or the east. Nor did they seem aware of the convent in any way. A moment later, the two guards spotted a group of officers and hailed them over to look at the bridge and the people on it. The officers ambled forward. The lama and the nun did not try to hide.
After a moment, the nun gasped. The pointed to the center of the group below.
"That is the warlord."
The lama narrowed his eyes. He studied the uniforms and saw that, yes, with bright medals on his chest and armor on his head and legs, it was the warlord himself. He was the leader of the officers.
"Laborers!" the warlord shouted. His men parted for him to be seen better. "How did you get up there?"
"We climbed," said the nun, but she did not raise her voice. She gave the lama a sidelong glance. Her expression told him how humorous she found their situation. But her quiet voice let him know that she didn't not want to be well understood by the men on the road.
"Do you not recognize me?" called the lama down to the warlord.
"You are a peasant." A guffaw shook his chest. The men around him dared to smile.
"Am I not the man you are looking for?"
"No, I seek the lama." Again, he shook with a derisive laugh. "You are not he, you worthless farmer. You are not even a pretender. The lama travels in rich robes."
The lama looked at his assistant. His assistant shrugged. Neither of them had ever worn other than plain robes.
"But I have a message for the lama," bellowed the warlord, "should you happen to see him. You may catch up with him on some back trail, laden with his jewels, money, and drugs."
"He has drugs?" the lama cried in disbelief.
"All of the poppies they grew in the monastery. Just because those monks carted them away doesn't mean I don't know about them!" The warlord wagged his finger. "That's my message for the mighty lama. We will find him. We will take away his opium. We will make him suffer before he dies."
The lama slowly nodded.
"But ..." The assistant turned to him, confused. "But master, this man was in our monastery. He knows there was nothing. He admits it. How can he not see the truth?"
"We will carry your message!" the lama shouted down to the officers.
The men below chuckled. They cried out rude names to the peasants. These same people had been polite visitors in the town only a few months before. Now their warlord spurred them to acts of cruelty. They had killed villagers for pointing out baldness. They had searched for drugs that they knew didn't exist. They met the object of their hatred but didn't understand it because they were so mislead by their master's expectations. Only one of the men in the group seemed to hesitate. Instead of shouting, he leaned forward as if trying to see the lama better. He shook his head.
As they walked through the farms on top of the mesa, taking the best path to the convent, the lama's assistant complained that the warlord's men did not rebel against him.
"He is insane," the man breathed. Their travels seemed to have winded him although he was full of anger. His arms swept the air. "You could see it. From the way they moved, you could tell that his men have doubts about his behavior."
"Did not your own teacher, the lama, tell you exactly this?" The nun stopped. She put her fists on hips for a moment.
"I had not seen it for myself," the fellow explained.
"We have not given him the response that he wants," the lama mused. "I wonder if that is a problem. He attacks us in the hope of provoking a hatred similar to his."
"Should we hate him, then?" asked the nun. "It would not be hard."
"I don't know that I can. Well, I suppose I could pretend. But then there is the fact of my presence. While I live, everyone is at risk."
"You could raise an army to oppose the warlord," said his assistant.
The nun gave the lama and his assistant a skeptical look.
"That is one way," the lama admitted. "But I was thinking that once I've seen you to safety, I will turn back and give myself up. That should prove there was never a conspiracy."
"Bah. Don't bother," the nun said. "It won't stop the beatings. They'll just kill you and move on to more torture and more beatings."
"What else, then?"
The nun shrugged. "Am I a lama that I should offer a lama advice?"
"Are you without confidence in your own wisdom that you can't bestow it on someone who asks?"
For a moment, the nun blushed.
"That's not been said of me in years," she said as she nodded to herself. "My reputation is for impudence."
"Or determination," he offered. He knew her from many conversations.
"I will consider the situation, worthy lama."
"That is all that I ask." He raised the walking stick he'd picked up after his ascent to the bridge. He gestured to the fields. "Tomorrow, I am scheduled to teach the precepts in town. Instead, I feel that I should teach the farm children here. They must work but I can toil alongside them as I speak."
"Lama," said his assistant. "This is not a time for lessons."
The lama did not even bother to reply.
At noon, the men arrived at the convent and were promptly denied entry. The nun stepped inside to converse with her peers. She raised her voice once or twice. Soon, the abbess came out to greet them. She escorted them to a small chapel where male visitors could stay.
"Teaching tomorrow seems like a good plan," she nodded. "However, I can see that it worries one of you. Should I arrange for you to visit with the most trusted families and the most gentle children? That is a sort of compromise."
The lama gestured polite refusal.
"My assistant should stay inside tomorrow," he said. "For two years, he has been promising you translation work. He knows the old languages. Get him your ancient manuscripts. Give him tools to write."
"Any children, any fields."
The abbess blessed him with a smile. She vowed to make the area as secure as she could. Her attendants came to feed them. Others came with bedding, drinks, and guests from the village, a few people who had seen the lama and wished to speak with him.
That night, the lama slept in peace, content in his heart. His assistant kicked and cried out in his dreams.
At dawn the next day, the mesa swarmed with soldiers. The warlord's officers had discovered the convent and the fields. Although the military men bore weapons, they did not seem to have a goal beyond exploring the area. They did not stop the farm children from working. They saw the lama from a distance and did not rush forward to arrest him.
The lama knelt in a field and began to speak about the second precept, which is that no one should take what is not freely given. It was, as usual, an attractive lesson for children. Several of boys and girls began interrupting with questions. Another offered an example of her older brother taking something without asking her. The lama offered his own examples and stories.
Thus the conversation proceeded for most of the morning. Two children showed him how to separate the two-row barley and six-row barley spikelets. In the two-row barley, an old crop that their parents grew for malt, only the central spikelet was deemed important. The six-row barley had been introduced recently by a large farming organization. Its spikelets were all big. It was superior to the old crop as a cereal or for animal feed.
One boy asked for math lessons, so the lama taught that subject for an hour. Even the children who at first weren't interested had questions.
"Such earnestness," said a stranger's voice. It was the nun who had guided him up the path to the mesa. Today, a fine hat hid most of her silver hair. It could not hide the lines in her face. Her smile seemed forced. "Your time is almost up, lama. The soldiers know who you are. They have been watching you in rotation."
"Like those two over there?" He let his gaze drift to the main road.
"If my time is up, then it is." He rose from his knees. His hands brushed the dirt from the front of his robe.
"Are you at peace?"
"Well, I suppose. But a quiet life does not always grant one a peaceful death."
"I always wondered if your inner calm was an illusion caused by your isolation from evil people."
"Perhaps." He laughed. "But not entirely, I find. When you speak to the peace of my heart, you go straight to the issue. This is when my understanding of the way of life is shown. In this moment, I feel that my path is good. Will you guard the children for me?"
"Must you leave them?"
His spirit felt as wholesome as ever but it would not protect him from death. It had not even protected him from the confusion of dealing with insanity. That would be a hard lesson, however, for his students. It seemed wise to spare them too close a look.
"This is the middle way, I think."
With that, he strode across the fields towards the soldiers in the dirt road. They saw him coming. Immediately, one of them turned his back. Such an odd gesture, the lama thought. He kept on. It wasn't far. Soon, he looked the nearest soldier in the eye. To his surprise, he recognized the young man. This fellow had grown up in the village. He had received lessons from the monks, including the lama.
It answered any doubts about being recognized.
"My friend," he said as he grew close. "I have come to make this easier. I give myself up to you."
The soldier turned slightly. He watched the children at work in the fields, some of whom had stopped to regard the meeting in the road. He considered the farmers nearby. He gazed at the nun, who kept her arms around two of the girls as they observed the soldier. He studied everything except the lama himself.
"I want to help," the lama continued. "But I cannot make things right for you. I can't undo a general's madness. I can only do what one person can do."
For a moment, the soldier glanced in his direction. An instant later, he looked away, down the road toward the convent. A crow landed in the road. He studied it.
The lama walked over to the other soldier, the one who had turned his back. He didn't recognize this man. That didn't mean the man didn't know the lama, however. As the lama started to speak, the stranger turned his back again. He wanted to pretend not to see.
"Ah," said the lama. It was funny, he thought, how he had realized that his inner peace did not protect him from violence or confusion. Here he was again, in another moment of confusion, hesitating between the soldiers.
He turned and saw a figure farther down the road, not in the direction of the convent but back towards the village. It seemed likely to be another soldier. With a sigh, he headed that direction.