Chapter 2: Found
I was still breathing.
I felt the dryness of my throat first before I realized that I couldn’t move a muscle. My body felt as if a story building had crashed on it. My shoulders hurt. I felt piercing pain all over my neck while my back bone felt as if I had been to the coalmine. It felt difficult to flutter my eyelids open too, and after catching a few breaths first, I was finally able to do that.
My vision was blurry at first, but I was able to make out a clear morning sky above me. I could also faintly hear the chirping of forest birds. When my sight finally cleared, I noticed the soft animal skin blankets that had been spread over the area that I slept on. Short wooden walls surrounded me too, like the wagons of my captors. Frightened, I totally forgot about the piercing pain I felt over my entire body and jerked up. A blinding ache filled my head immediately, but I paid no attention to it.
My eyes flew around me first, looking for the familiar cages…hopefully looking for the familiar faces of Od, Jullian and the rest. I couldn’t see anyone nearby, but my ears had begun to catch on the voices of humans…of men. They were getting closer too and my heart had begun to beat faster in my chest. In the split second, I thought about running again but I felt exhausted and thirsty. I wouldn’t last three seconds on my feet before I fell back to the ground.
So, I chose to lie back on the blankets and pretended as if I was still unconscious. It took almost forever before the approaching voices felt so near, I could conclude that the men were beside me already. I was anxious. They were no longer speaking. It was as if the men stood and stared down at me, confused. Eventually, I heard a few whispers and then a soft thud as if one of the men was climbing onto the carriage that I slept on.
“We know you are awake already, child.”
My eyes fluttered open immediately. I couldn’t help it, partly because I was anxious and curious about how they had figured out my pretense.
“We saw you sitting up from afar. It is why I have come with a cup of water while my partner has brought some food.”
I was wrong. I hadn’t heard the voices of men but rather, the voices of a man and woman. The woman was the one that climbed the carriage to sit only a few inches from me. She had brown skin and long black hair that she tied to the back into a ribbon. Her smile also looked friendly and genuine, making her look oddly beautiful, despite the faint wrinkles beside her eyes and on her forehead.
“Drink.” She said, passing over the cup in her hand to me.
I didn’t have a choice. I would care about my safety later, I told myself. I was extremely thirsty and lightheaded; so, I downed the entire liquid down my throat immediately the cup was in my hand. I then passed the cup back to her and blinked twice, expecting her to know that I needed more.
The woman chuckled. She glanced back at her partner who I finally found time to observe. He was a bit taller than her and had full beards that hid almost half of his face. He glanced at me briefly and scornfully, passed the food in his hands to his partner and left with the cup to get me more water.
“You shouldn’t mind him, little one.” His partner said to me as soon as he left. “He is always like that to everyone.” She said.
I hadn’t found my voice, but my mind was back to normal now. I only nodded my head at her, various images of the previous night already filling my head. Where was I? Where are Od and the sisters that had escaped with us? What about Jullian and the others that had stayed back? Was I back with the gang that had kidnapped us? Wasn’t I supposed to be dead after I was shot?
The last question almost made me choke. My hands flew to my body immediately, checking for wounds as the imagination of gunshots filled my mind.
“You are okay. You are safe. Whatever happened to you, little one?”
Tears welled up in my eyes as the woman in front of me moved closer, knelt in front of me and held my hand. She was only trying to console me, but the result was a pool of water running down my cheeks. I couldn’t control the sadness creeping into my heart. I still felt fear too since I was aware that whatever new place I was, it wasn’t the town Od had spoken of.
“Where am I, please?” I finally muttered, hating the coarse child-like whisper of my voice.
“The outskirt of Noyon.”
“Noyon?” I asked, seemingly lost.
“Yes.” I was told. “We are in Southern Mongolia, dear. Noyon is one of the districts of the Omnogovi Province here.”
Oh Mongolia, I thought. I was still home. Thinking about it a second time though, my eyes trailing the edges of the barren land that surrounded where we were, I knew I wasn’t home. I was far away from home. Omnogovi Province; Noyon, I had never heard of either of them before.
“How did I get here, uh…?”
“Tuya.” The woman provided when she noticed I was having a problem with addressing her. “You can call me Tuya and my partner, who is already coming with a full jug of water for you by the way, is Xanadu.”
Xanadu arrived just in time and passed the jug to me, along with the food he had left earlier which Tuna had dropped beside her when she moved closer to console me.
“She should eat and drink.” Xanadu said. “She looks like she had been through a lot.”
They were kind; I had to acknowledge that. Tuya had also mentioned it earlier that I was safe, and I felt the urge to believe her. Staring at both, I finally dug my hand into the food and took my first bite along with a new gulp of water.
“Regarding your previous question,” I heard Tuya mutter, “we found you this morning underneath a heavy heap of sands. You were completely covered above except for your fingers. When we dug you out, you were slightly breathing and only had a few bruises on your legs and the sides of your head. We thought you couldn’t be the only one since we assumed you were traveling and involved in an accident or….”
“I wasn’t.” I interrupted, still hating my voice. It used to be better and happier.
“Oh.” Tuya said. “What happened then?”
I was rushing the food down my throat and seldom had a chance to breathe or talk. It took a few seconds before I could stop chewing and decide to tell both Tuya and Xanadu how I had been kidnapped in front of my home and thrown into a cage to be sold off. When I was through recounting my escape, I noticed the ensuing silence that took over the carriage. It was as if both had expected an entirely different tale.
“Where are the men now?” Xanadu asked.
I shook my head, having no care in the world for them. They weren’t with me now and that made me happier than the food that I ate did.
“What about home?” Tuya asked. “Do you know where it is?”
Again, I shook my head. Briefly, I let my eyes trail around the vast dessert land around me and towards the traces of grassland that surrounded it and then shook my head again.
“You are lost then and have nowhere to go?” Tuya asked again.
This time around, I nodded. I paused and downed a few gulps of water from the jug, noticing the exchange of confused glances between Tuya and Xanadu.
“It’s okay then.” Tuya finally said. “You have nothing to worry. You finish your food and join us on our journey.”
Whatever the concluding clause of her last sentence meant, I wasn’t sure I understood it. But I didn’t worry much about what I wanted now. I was just glad I was safe and wouldn’t die of thirst or hunger.
Tuya patted my feet and slowly dropped from the carriage. It was while she did that I noticed for the first time that the carriage was fixed to two horses like a cart. Someone obviously rode the horses and there were barrels on the carriage as well, probably filled to the brim with oil or coal.
Having no reason to be wary of what I saw, I went back to the rest of my food and ate it quietly. When Xanadu and Tuya noticed that I wasn’t saying anything else, they left me alone and walked away, whispering to each other.
“Wait!” I suddenly groaned, remembering what Tuya had said earlier.
“Yes, little one.” Tuya stopped walking and turned to face me.
“You said you thought I couldn’t be the only one when you found me.” I said. “Did you search around for anyone else?”
“No.” Tuya whispered. “We spent minutes seeing if we could find anyone you might be traveling with. We found no one.”
It felt as if a dagger had been dug into my heart. I nodded, watching as Tuya and Xanadu turned and left me alone finally. Od, Altantsetseg, Chinua and Khulan were probably caught or worse, dead, I thought. I never knew what really happened to them till date.
I had been lucky. I had the desert sands to thank. My captors probably couldn’t find me because of the darkness at the time and because I was buried beneath sands. I meant nothing to them. They probably thought I was going to die lonely without water or food.
I was alive nonetheless. I had been found.
My fate was still undetermined, but I had a glint of hope. A smile plastered across my face just when I realized that Tuya and Xanadu hadn’t even asked for my name.
Tuya and Xanadu weren’t traveling alone.
They came back to the carriage ten minutes later, Tuya asking if I needed more food or water. When I told her I was okay, she smiled and urged me out of the carriage. She then placed her arm over my shoulder and told me I would be having girls like me become my sisters soon.
“We are all traveling together.” She told me. “All twelve of us. Some of the girls are just like you. You will like them once you meet them.”
I had an odd feeling wash over me when Tuya said that the girls were like me twice. I wanted to ask if they were found underneath a heap of sand like I was, or if they were lost children, without any iota of idea how to return to their families.
I didn’t mention either of this to Tuya though. I kept them to myself as I always did and only nodded my head to show my interest in meeting the other children. The sun was rising to the middle of the sky already, indicating that it was afternoon. The breeze and atmosphere were hot and the sweat running down my skin reminded me that I hadn’t had a bath since I was taken away from my home.
Eventually, after walking around the carriage, Tuya guided me towards a large boulder where I was astonished to find eleven other people as Tuya had counted, siting in circles. I hadn’t thought she was lying but I hadn’t expected that apart from Xanadu and another man who were middle-aged men, the rest of the group would be young girls between the ages of seven and ten.
Everyone glanced up to stare at me as Tuya and I approached them. Xanadu and the other middle-aged man stood briefly and sat back when Tuya urged them to with a wave. She seemed to be the one in charge. The girls oddly cower before her and fixed their gazes to the floor. Once again, I felt Tuya’s arm on my shoulder as she addressed everyone.
“Little one, meet the girls.” She said. “Everyone, meet….”
“Yuna.” I said, wondering for the umpteenth time why she hadn’t asked for my name the entire time.
“Yes. Yuna.” Tuya iterated. “She will be joining us the rest of the journey.”
“Welcome Yuna.” I heard some of the girl’s whisper.
“You will get to know each person as soon as you mix with them.” Tuya giggled beside me.
I was already busy with my own assessment of each girl. Three of the girls wore gowns with tattered hems as if they had been in far worse hell than I had been. Or perhaps the clothes were given to them instead of being thrown away as an act of kindness, I corrected myself. These three kept their gaze to the floor, the soft breeze plastering their black hair to the sides of their faces. I concluded at the time that like me, they probably have a story or two to tell.
Four out of the other five girls should be older than I was. They were a bit bolder and kept their gaze between a stare at the ground and a long glance at me and Tuya. If I guessed correctly, they didn’t like Tuya one bit or perhaps it was my inclusion in the group that displeased them.
The last girl I noticed looked as young as I was. She was slender, petite and had a smile fixed on her face. I felt some sort of happiness smiling back at her. In all honesty, she made me think of Saran. They both had that distinct cheerfulness on their faces which made them loveable, no matter how demanding or irritable they could be.
Eventually, forming an opinion about each girl within split seconds, I let Tuya lead me towards Xanadu and the other man.
“You know Xanadu already.” Tuya said. “Meet his brother, Hulagu.”
Hulagu was burly and taller than Xanadu. He had a sterner face and only nodded when I smiled anxiously at him.
“The truck would be here anytime.” Hulagu said, his attention, fixed on only Tuya.
“Good. Tuya said. I guess we all have to start preparing for the rest of the journey….at least, with better means of transportation.”
I let my gaze go over my shoulder to the horses that had their entire body fixed to the carriage. It was indeed a terrible means of transportation.
“Where are we going from here in a truck?” I asked when I turned back to stare at all three of them – Tuya, Xanadu and Hulagu.
“Chang Rai.” Tuya gritted her teeth. “Chang Rai Thailand.”