A short story about Seth Raedwald from the Chronicles of Terra Saint Edmunds.
Year Of The Survivor 230, New East Anglia, Terra Saint Edmunds
In his two hundred years, all of the many brides and grooms Seth had seen were beautiful. The couple waltzing in the center of the room was no exception. The bride was a younger princess from the neighboring country of Midhe Nua while the groom was the son and heir of Leo Raedwald, the wealthy Duke of Finchworth.
Seth could sense the scrutiny of his host’s eyes from across the room. The Duke stood in silhouette with his back to one of the twelve bay windows ringing the hall. For the celebration, the window’s heavy draperies had been replaced with panels of white, airy lace so the room was flooded with light from the suns. The Duke nursed a draft beer while sharing stories with the wedding guests. Earlier between songs, two giggling, teenage girls had approached Seth with glittery eyes. When he smiled and leaned down to speak with them, the Duke set his mug aside and started toward him. Seth signaled his fellow musicians to launch into a tune that delighted the girls so much they twirled across the dance floor together. The Duke nodded to himself, the Duke retrieved his mug, and rejoined his guests’ conversation. However, whenever he sipped, the Duke glowered over his mug at the bandstand.
As the waltz drew to a close, Seth moistened his lips, pressed his bone flower flute against them, and sent his solo soaring over the music. His father had taught him how to make and play bone flower flutes. The two of them would perform music together for his mother whose eyes always misted over when they did. Despite the romantic beginning of his career, he found being an itinerant musician a practical way to hide in plain sight. As he reached the end of his solo, from the corner of his eyes he caught the whish and flurry of a farming couple arriving late with a painted oval-shaped box tied with ribbon. The farmer’s wife set it on the newlywed couple’s table as the farmer ordered a draft beer from a waiter and then headed to where the Duke and his friends talked.
Southwold was one of Seth’s favorite regions of New East Anglia. Most of the country, even the mountainous north, was covered in forests and woodlands. However, the open rolling hills and flat vistas of Southwold served as the center of agriculture and food production. The city itself was a major port for ships from all of Terra Saint Edmunds. The people were unpretentious, working folk who held simple values and were slow to panic. That last characteristic was especially important for Seth’s masquerade. He could journey elsewhere and then return years later and be accepted as the son or the grandson of the blond-haired, blue-eyed youth they’d met previously. To Southwold people life was straightforward, and since no one lives forever, who else would he be?
Applause resonated through the room and prodded Seth from his thoughts. The blushing, happy newlyweds were being shepherded across the marble floor on the arm of the farmer’s wife. When they reached their table, the farmer’s wife pulled out two of the elegant chairs for them, retrieved the oval-shaped gift box, and set it on the bride’s lap. The groom tugged unsuccessfully at the tightly knotted ribbon, causing the roomful of guests to laugh and his friends to chide him good-naturedly about how he might not be successful unwrapping things later that night. Finally, he drew out a pen knife and with great determination, sliced through the ribbon. His friends cheered. The bride gingerly removed the lid of the gift box and folded back the soft cloth lining the interior. Reaching in she lifted a large, opaque orb with a shadowy center and held it up for everyone to see.
“There’s something else in the box,” she told the groom. He pushed back more of the lining and retrieved an ornate stand made of gold. He set it on the table beside them, took the bulbous orb from his bride, and balanced it on the stand. She smiled graciously and asked, “What is it?”
“A precious stone from the far north mountains,” the farmer’s wife answered proudly. “They’re very rare.”
“They’re very strange,” the bride said, squinting at it.
“It’s an egg,” Seth interjected with concern. He had leaped down from the bandstand and was next to the bride and groom. “It is from the far north, but it is a living being, not a stone.”
The surprised groom stammered, “You say it’s an egg?”
The farmer’s wife rested her hands on her hips and pursed her lips in disbelief. Noting his wife’s unsettled expression, the farmer set down his mug and strode over to her side.
“Yes. The shadow inside of it is a neonate,” Seth explained. “It seems to be close to hatching.”
“Is it cute?” the bride asked, her face radiant with hope. “Can we keep it as a pet?”
“Well, some people think it’s cute,” Seth replied hesitantly. “It’s a wiggly worm-type thing that eventually grows so large that this entire room couldn’t hold it, and it can fly.”
The bride scrunched up her face in disgust as the farmer objected loudly, “That can’t be true. The peddler said it was called a veil stone. It mimics that…thing…that half-birds worship.”
Seth turned to the bride and groom, pressed the palms of his hands together pleadingly, and beseeched, “Please. Let me have it and take it somewhere it can hatch safely.”
“Those half-birds are ridiculous. It’s sacrilegious to even suggest the things they do —those creatures are not what crossing through the veil means,” the groom countered with revulsion. He studied the gift and then looked at Seth and shook his head. “The stand alone is worth a fortune.”
“I don’t want the stand. I only want to help the creature inside the egg. I don’t have much money on me, but I will give you everything I have, and send you more. I have friends who will happily contribute if you would please just give me time to contact them,” Seth promised. “Please.”
“I don’t think —” the groom began.
“It’s moving!” the bride cut him off as the egg wobbled in the stand. “The musician is right. It’s starting to hatch!”
The egg split and the tiny nose and antennae of a slug-type neonate worked their way out. The bride shrieked and smacked the flat of her hand against the side of the egg, sending it spinning to the floor. Seth grabbed for the falling egg, missed, and then dropped to his hands and knees to crawl after it.
The groom stepped toward Seth as if to intervene, but the bride collapsed against him in a faint. Sweeping her in his arms, the groom conveyed his bride from the grand hall and up the stairs to their private quarters. However, by then her hysterics had engulfed the room, and people anxious to vacate grabbed onto family and friends.
“Don’t move,” Seth cried loudly. “Please, don’t move. It’s small. You might step on it and hurt it.”
“That’s the point,” the farmer said harshly. “To flatten the creepy thing.”
“Here it is,” a man shouted. Everyone turned.
The tiny neonate flexed, squirmed, and rippled slowly toward one of the doors. The farmer darted toward it. Seth dove at the Baby Veil. Just as his right hand scooted it sideways, the heel of one of the farmer’s hard, dress shoes stomped down. Seth screamed. The farmer smashed Seth’s hand two more times before the Duke of Finchworth and three of the guests grabbed his arms to haul him from the room.
Seth cradled his broken hand against his chest, and frantically searched the floor, crying desperately, “Where is it? Where did it go?”
“I have it right here,” the farmer’s wife said as she straightened from a crouching position. She walked toward Seth and gestured with her cupped hand. Seth stumbled, got his balance, then approached her cautiously. The terrified Baby Veil was curled into a tight ball. “Take it and leave, before the others come back. They’ll crush it and hang you as a heretic. There’s no time to fix your hand. You’ll have to make the best of it on the road somewhere. Hold out your left hand so that I can tip it into your palm.”
“Thank you,” Seth muttered as he clutched the Baby Veil protectively.
“You need to know that the peddler has more of them,” the farmer’s wife said. “A basket full. She said that she had already been to Loystott and was going to follow the coast up to Pemberley-on-the Sea.”
“How long ago?” Seth questioned. The pain in his hand made it difficult to think clearly.
“We bought it two days ago,” she replied. She waved her hand toward the exit. “She’s at Brightonbrim by now, showing her merchandise to people vacationing on the ocean.”
Seth thanked her again, surveyed the room for threats, and then raced from the hall, down the drive, and onto the road. He paused to check the locations of the two suns so he could determine which direction was north and then broke into a run.
He kept going until his leg muscles burned. Seeing a small grove of trees and a brook, he veered off. Finding a circle of rocks and boulders arranged as if for travelers to rest, he tucked the neonate underneath a small ledge that jutted out from one of the boulders, then grabbed handfuls of grass and leaves that he piled next to the baby. Finally, he carried water from the stream in his left hand, allowed the neonate to drink, and then sprinkled it across the neonate so that it wouldn’t dry out from the ordeal it had suffered.
Once the baby was cared for, he exhaled slowly, closed his eyes, pulled his feet up onto the boulder where he sat, and dropped his forehead against his knees. He hurt so much and wished that Giric would come help. Giric always knew when Seth needed him, seemingly with nothing more than a thought on Seth’s part, but since most of the time, Seth was not conscious, he was not certain how the Veil knew to come to his rescue. He wondered how far away Giric was and whether he could come right away.
After a moment, he dismissed his thoughts, lowered himself to the ground, shuddering from pain as he did, and then sang softly, “The sky is open, tiny child —”
“Raedwald,” the Duke of Finchworth called, interrupting the prayer.
Seth’s head sprung up at the sound of his name. Seeing Finchworth’s hulking frame looming, he scooped up the Baby Veil, secured it in a pocket, and lunged to his feet.
“I should have recognized you. Seth, right?” Finchworth continued. “Your hair and eyes are pure Raedwald, and you don’t look a day over sixteen. That’s how old you were when it all started, isn’t it?” He tipped his head as if expecting an answer, but went on talking without waiting for one. “Do you have feathers, too? Mine are across my lower back and abdomen, and very pale like our Eolian ancestor,” the Duke said as he pulled an ornamental, yet very sharp, dagger and ominously strode forward.
He backed away as Finchworth continued talking. He wondered how he could get away. Open fields are difficult to hide in and Finchworth would be familiar with any spots that might offer concealment. He dipped his head in a slight, polite bow and responded, “Your Grace.”
“We’re what? Cousins?” the Duke asked.
“Several times removed.” Seth stepped backward, scanning the area worriedly for a means of escape.
“Well, cousin, or as King Noah was fond of calling you, Spawn of Ciph,” Finchworth said, feigning nonchalance. “You made a mistake coming to Southwold. We don’t coddle people who are traitors to the rightful king.”
“I am not and have never been a traitor,” Seth objected, stepping backward. “I never raised my voice, let alone arms, against my brother or any king since. Noah was too full of hatred and greed to be honest about the succession or about my lack of aggression toward him. It seems as if those attitudes have been handed down to you. We are all family. We are all Raedwalds.”
“That may be so,” the Duke conceded. “However, every generation in my line of descent from King Noah has been warned against you from the moment we’re born:
He has the Survivor’s blessing and control over death. Be forewarned and take care of our brother Seth.
I admit it does not speak well to poetics, but it achieves its goal of being memorable. Let me be straightforward. You’re not welcome here. These are simple people who would find it hard to comprehend a son of the Survivor who never dies. You’re a myth. I’m going to be sure you stay that way.”
“I’ll go,” Seth agreed. He supported the wrist of his broken hand with his healthy one. “I was already leaving, I simply needed to rest while I thought about where I could find a healer to set my hand. I don’t want to lose the use of it.”
“Oh, you’ll lose the use of it,” Finchworth sneered and then laughed as he came closer. “And your other hand and both legs and anything else I can think of on the way to revealing the truth about your resurrection. No reason I can’t have a little fun since no one else will know, is there?”
Seth clasped his good hand across the pocket holding the Baby Veil, spun away from the Duke, and took off running. Behind him, Finchworth roared with amusement.
After several meters, Seth heard a horse’s hooves and the Duke’s laughter growing closer. He glanced behind him. As he did, his left foot wedged in a hole camouflaged by vegetation and sent him crashing to the ground. He turned sideways as he fell and yanked his shirt forward so the pocket with the Baby Veil would be cushioned against his chest. The snapping of the bones in his leg was audible. His shoulder smashed into the dirt and his temple and forehead struck a cluster of rocks. He lay still, his eyes unblinking. The blood that had seeped from his nostrils pooled on his upper lip and stopped.
The Duke of Finchworth slowed his dun mare and rode the horse in a careful circle around Seth. Finally, he dismounted, walked to the injured man, and felt for a pulse. Shaking his head in disappointment, he kicked Seth’s ribs and stomach in frustration. As he swung back into his saddle to ride home, he told the horse, “So much for nursery rhymes. He’s definitely dead.”
Several minutes passed and then the Baby Veil wiggled out of the pocket, squeezed between the fingers of Seth’s unresponsive hand, and rose up on its tail. A vibrating sound emerged from the neonate. Thunder rumbled in the distance and streaks of lightning flashed through the sky. The baby danced more eagerly when Giric the Veil landed in the open field and made his way to Seth. Giric dipped his antennae toward the Baby Veil and waited while it wiggled up the stem.
After the neonate was on board, the muscles on Giric’s side twitched, quivered, and bulged outward. A pair of hands protruded, and then with a popping noise, the Ghost of Seth’s father Ciph stepped from the Veil. Even though Ciph was no longer corporeal, he paused to shake out his feathers and flex his wings. As he did, the Ghost of Seth’s father-in-law Wells Gainor emerged next to him, and the Ghost of Ciph lamented, “I will never get used to seeing him this way. Did you know I was there the first time? When Noah stabbed him in the back? He died in my arms.”
“That was when he went back to visit his mother when she was so ill. My daughter Erin was beside herself with grief,” The Ghost of Wells replied. “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you. Let’s get him ready.”
The two ghosts hurried to the mangled youth. While the Ghost of Ciph removed Seth’s boots, the Ghost of Wells retrieved his belt, his knife, and all the personal effects he could find. They arranged them in a pile a few meters away. The Ghost of Ciph took a last look at his son and then, with a nod to the Ghost of Wells Gainor, they walked through Giric’s side, were absorbed, and the side of the Veil closed.
Giric crawled across Seth and allowed the ooze along his outer membrane to slather and enclose his friend. When he released Seth, the broken bones were knit together, the contusions and lacerations healed, and the brain injury mended.
Seth sat up, coughing and choking, then whispered, “Thank you, Giric.”
They were Brothers of the Dance, having bonded when the gastropod was a neonate and Seth a fetus in the Survivor’s womb. Seth leaned forward, hugged the gastropod, and embraced him. “Will the baby be all right?”
“That is my fervent wish,” Giric responded inside Seth’s mind. “Prepare yourself and climb on.”
Seth stripped down to his bare skin. Kneeling by the pile of personal effects, he wrapped his belt, his knife, his boots, and everything else first with his trousers and then with his shirt. Satisfied nothing was uncovered that might rub against the membrane of Giric’s skin and injure the Veil, Seth rested the pack on his shoulder and then climbed carefully up on Giric’s head so that he could hold onto one of the Veil’s antennae. Spotting the Baby Veil, Seth scooped it into the palm of his hand.
Giric widened and flattened. A humming sound surrounded them, and then they were airborne.
Seth started the prayer again:
The sky is open, tiny child The sky is beckoning, tiny babe Open your heart Spread out into the air Rise and rejoice, holy newborn, Wonderous Veil!”
He repeated the prayer twice. When a tendril of cloud unrolled across the sky, Seth opened his hand so the neonate could spread itself wider and thinner. The wisp embraced the Baby Veil and nestled it inside the cloud. Seth watched as the baby’s cloud moved away from the other clouds and headed toward the Veils’ mountain home.
“You need to go after that peddler and get the rest of the eggs. If she’s sold them, they could be all over New East Anglia by now,” Giric commented.
“I know,” Seth replied softly.
___________________________________________ Thank you for reading my story. xo This tale is a companion story based on my books in Chronicles of New East Anglia: The Second-Best King, The Wronged Prince, and The Dying Hero. All three are available at Amazon, B&N, and Kobo.
A story about The Survivor marooned in New East Anglia from the Chronicles of Terra Saint Edmunds.
Two Dimmings Before Year of The Survivor 1
“99437958!” A gaoler bellowed. “Report to Director Brenhus.”
As the other prisoners filed into the dining hall, prisoner 99437958 stepped out of line, brushed the palms of his hands against the side of his shirt, squinted at the two suns descending toward the horizon, then shuffled across the barren dirt, past stark cells to the office building with his hands held open and out to the sides so that the gaolers could see that they were empty at all times. He paused outside the door, shuffled his feet noisily, then lowered his gaze to the ground to wait. After several minutes, Director Brenhus appeared.
“Ah, Mr. Gainer, come in,” Brenhus invited. Wells Gainor’s eyes widened in surprise before immediately narrowing in suspicion. He had not been allowed to go by his own name since the day he regained consciousness in this New East Anglia prison. There was no reason for the prison director to use it now. Brenhus held open the door and repeated, “Come in.”
Wells reacted cautiously, accessing his surroundings as he moved into the interior of the building. Brenhus steered him to a chair in front of the enormous mahogany deskimported from Earth, then the director settled behind it. Opening a log book in the center of the desktop, Brenhus read aloud, “Wellington Gainor, unmarried, entrepreneur, trillionaire.” He chuckled, “I’ll just amend that last one to say former trillionaire, for accuracy’s sake.” He cleared his throat then continued reading, “Apprehended by force while enroute to your residence after touring a plant that manufactured suspended animation process equipment for space travel.” Brenhus laughed as he admitted, “One that should have been yours, eh? You had the winning bid. Then again, Raedwald has never been someone to trifle with. How was that process, by the way? We don’t use the old technology anymore, but I’ve always wondered how it made someone feel and whether or not there were aftereffects?”
Wells shrugged, confused about what he was hearing.
“Ah, no doubt you have memory loss from the process. I’ve heard that happened frequently,” Brenhus remarked. “It states that you are to be detained indefinitely, but I’ll just note here that you were released on your own recognizance and in good health.”
“You’ve destroyed my health,” Wells objected hesitantly as he struggled to keep his voice even to minimize the risk of being put in the Nuisance Cage.
Wells’ eyes darted around the room then settled on the log book in front of the director. Heat rose in his voice as added, “I was a healthy 35-year-old before you got a hold of me. Too little food and most of it bad, hard labor regardless of ability, no medical care, both physical and psychological torture.”
“Surely you didn’t expect prison to be a vacation, Mr. Gainor. That would neutralize its purpose,” Director Brenhus countered. He made a note in the log book and then shut it with a loud thump. Chuckling again, he said, “Don’t be so serious, Mr. Gainor. You’re a free man. You’ve completed your sentence and can leave. In fact, you must leave.”
Wells Gainor shifted in the chair, cleared his throat uneasily, and said, “I can return to Earth?”
“No,” Brenhus stated impersonally. “You are forbidden to set foot on Earth or any planet or moon in its vicinity.”
“As a kindness to your family, an official certificate was issued. The vehicle you were in burned to ashes, so your body was unable to be recovered. It was ruled an accident. No one cares about you anymore, Mr. Gainor.”
“Why will I go?”
“Make yourself a life on Terra Saint Edmunds somewhere. Anywhere. Our budget at the prison demands that we cut out all waste. Since you are no longer a prisoner, you are that waste. Leave immediately.”
Wells stumbled to his feet and turned toward the door. He paused and asked quietly, “Where are my personal effects? My money. My father’s ring. My watch. My communications pod. My civilian clothes.”
“You forfeited those.”
“I did not. I did nothing illegal, and you’ve never had the right to keep me a prisoner.”
“You’ll need to take that up with the Universal Criminal Court. As of right now, you are trespassing, Mr. Gainor.”
“Dinner? I haven’t eaten yet today.”
“Leave, Mr. Gainor. Now.”
Two armed gaolers appeared in the hallway to the rooms at the rear of the office building. Wells strode out the door with the armed gaolers following.
He paused as his eyes swept over the prison looking for someone to notice his departure, however, his fellow prisoners were all in the dining hall so he couldn’t say goodbye to any of them. For their sakes more than his, he dared not approach the prisoners on display in the Nuisance Cages. Wells sighed and trudged down the center of the road toward town.
His first priority would be to find shelter before Second Sun sets.
One Dimming before the Year of the Survivor 1
Wells’ fear of starvation proved unfounded. Fruit, nuts, and fresh stream water were plentiful and easy to access. He ate better than he ever had while incarcerated. For shelter, he had built a lean-to about halfway between the prison and the town and spent the first dimming simply resting inside it, only going out to forage or for his personal needs.
Twelve days later, the middle of the next dimming, he felt he had recuperated enough to hike the rest of the way into town to see if he could find employment of some sort. No sentries challenged him when he passed through the town gates. None of the shops were open. No one crowded the sidewalks or hurried along the roads.
Gaolertown was empty.
He secured a midday meal in the marketplace by simply walking along and choosing whatever he wanted. The booths were heaped with food and merchandise, but no one watched them or asked for payment. As he was finishing a hearty, rolled patty, he discovered a display of knives and daggers on a table outside a weapons supplier’s shop. He glanced around to be he was alone and then selected one of each and their matching sheaths. He secured them under his waistband and continued exploring.
After a couple hours of solitude, he heard the whine of idling engines and distant, agitated voices. He quickened his pace to follow the sound. Eventually, he reached several long lines of people waiting to board shuttles.
“What’s going on?” he asked a middle-aged woman with two teenagers.
“You haven’t heard?” She asked, incredulous.
“Mum, you shouldn’t talk to strange-looking men,” one of the teenagers admonished.
“I’ve been…away,” he replied, instinctively stepping back at the teenager’s criticism.
The woman scrutinized him questioningly, but then recognized his worn shoes, ragged clothes, and unkempt appearance. She nodded in understanding and stated, “You were a prisoner.”
“Yes, until 12 days ago.”
“These are shuttles to take all of us back to Earth,” she explained. “The prisons have all lost their lease, and have to be shut down. The military is here to evacuate us. Raedwald has ordered everyone from Earth to go back. They came for us mid-morning today and we’re only allowed to bring what we could carry. We have to leave. We don’t have a choice.”
“How long have you known about this?”
“Several dimmings. The notices didn’t tell us the exact day they would come for us, but we began receiving them a while ago,” she replied. Pointing at a pair of military officers a few meters away, she added, “They can tell you what you need to do.”
He thanked her and approached the officers. After a brief conversation, one of them activated a list and asked, “What’s your name? I’ll check for your boarding documents.”
“Gainor, Gainor. There is no Gainor here,” the officer said flatly.
“99437958,” Wells reluctantly mumbled.
“Ah, yes, here you are,” the officer acknowledged. “I’m sorry prisoners are not being accommodated. Those orders come straight from Raedwald.”
“Sorry. Step away please.” The second officer drew his hand-held blast thrower and waver dismissively.
Wells paced several meters from the officers and then stood drinking in the sight of the people, the shuttles, and the general commotion. Finally, he headed toward the town gates with his shoulders drooped and his head down. When he reached the marketplace again, he chose another knife from the weapons display and then commandeered a reed basket which he loaded up with food to take with him. Just as the town gates came into view, he heard the officer with the boarding list call out, “Gainor. Gainor, wait up.”
Wells paused to allow the officer to catch up and asked, “What do you want now? Isn’t it enough that you won’t let me go home?”
“That’s the thing,” the officer replied. After glancing around to be sure their conversation wasn’t overheard, the officer continued, “There’s going to be a couple of shuttles landing outside of town. Nearer to the prison. Watch for them. They’ll take you. They aren’t supposed to. None of us are, but she’s doing some trips on her own. If you can get on one of those, you’ll be fine.”
With that, the officer turned and ran back to the shuttle boarding area.
It took Wells the remainder of the day to reach his lean-to. By then he was tired and needed nourishment. He sat at the opening of his tiny home to watch the sky and consider his options as he savored his evening meal. Director Brenhus would have known about the evacuation, and if the director stayed true to form, he would find some way to keep the prisoners from reaching the two extra shuttles.
Damn Raedwald’s lack of human decency, Wells thought. He had to go back.
The next day Wells tucked fruit, and another rolled patty in his shirt pocket, scattered the rest of the food from the marketplace for animals to scavenge, and placed the basket inside the lean-to. He pulled the rough door of the lean-to shut, gauged the time by the location of the suns, and then trekked to the prison. Rather than walk in through the front entrance, he found a vantage point in the trees where he could observe the prison without being detected.
A military shuttle loomed overhead on the docking tower. A soldier examined boxes and luggage and two more loaded the ones he approved. Disturbingly, no one was on work details. Instead, all of the prisoners stood shackled to the front of their cells while gaolers and soldiers checked each thoroughly. Once the soldiers indicated their satisfaction, the gaolers released the prisoners from the shackles long enough to lock them in the cells.
A detail of soldiers and two gaolers broke off from the others and headed toward the prison’s dirt cellars. They came running back a few minutes later and leaned against the wall of the dining hall. Two loud explosions flung dirt and chunks of produce from the cellars into the air and shook the ground so violently that Wells had to tighten his grip on the branch.
When the dirt settled, the soldiers lined up the gaolers so that each one could be inspected and approved for boarding. Two soldiers disappeared into the office for several minutes. When they came back out they locked the door and tossed the key into the brush at the edge of the trees.
Marching to the senior military officer in charge, one of the soldiers from the office reported, “Director Brenhus is not here, sir. Nor is the woman he asked to have boarded with him.”
“Let’s go. We have our orders, and no more time,” the senior officer responded.
Wells watched in amazement as the soldiers assisted the goalers into the shuttle, sealed the door, and powered up the engines. He remained hidden in the tree until after the shuttle lifted off and disappeared into the sky, then lowered himself off the branch and dropped to the ground. Wiping his mouth nervously, he double-checked his surroundings, and once assured that the soldiers and gaolers were gone, raced to the cells. Stopping at each cell, Wells called through the heavy door to learn if the person inside was all right and explained, “I’ll try to get into the office for the keys.”
When he failed to get beyond the locked window shutters and doors, he stood for long moments reviewing possible ways to proceed. A lone figure, dirty and bruised, appeared from beyond the dining hall where the dirt cellars had been. After a moment Wells realized that it was another prisoner, Myrtle Madoc, and he hurried to her to help her to a log where she could sit.
“Are you all right? What happened?” he asked. She shook her head and then shrugged. He repeated the question as he rested one hand on her shoulder in concern, but she slapped it away. He tossed a look toward the cells and then said, “All the gaolers are gone. We’ve got to free the others, so they don’t die in their cells.”
He held up one hand in reluctant acceptance and then strode across the packed dirt yard and behind the office to the tool shed.
Since that building was used by so many people, the door was held in place by a simple lock that Wells wrest off with his knife. Soon he was prying the cell door hasps with the head of a mattock. As he freed them, the prisoners took up tools and worked on the other cell doors. Once everyone else was free, they took turns resting, preparing a meal, and then scraping, prying, and banging at the iron bars of the Nuisance Cages. Two of the freed prisoners scoured through the tool shed and returned with a wood chopping axe, and a hacksaw. Since the iron bars of the cages were too close together to swing an axe, the freed prisoners brought it down on the gurygum hoping to chip away enough that the bars could be loosened and removed. Instead, the hard gurygum split pieces off the axe head and then broke it from the handle. Setting it aside, one of them began pushing the hacksaw blade back and forth over an iron bar. It left a slight groove in the metal and hopes were lifted until several hours later, when they were all too exhausted to keep going, and the mark left by the hacksaw was insubstantial.
“We can’t leave them there to starve.” one of the freed prisoners objected as he looked at Wells expectantly.
Wells covered his face with his hands and exhaled slowly. Lifting his head he turned his gaze to the tree line and said, “Do whatever you have to catch them and get the masks off. They won’t survive otherwise. Once you do, you’ll be able to feed them through the bars. That will buy them more time. And then, keep trying different tools from the shed to create an opening to crawl through.”
The freed prisoners nodded, and another one asked, “What are you going to do?”
First Dimming, Year of the Survivor 1
It was supposed to be simple. Straightforward. The contracts had expired and given the situation on Earth, there would be no renewals. Olivia Raedwald’s uncle assigned her the responsibility of evacuating all official, important, and essential personnel from the planet regardless of their financial ability or willingness to leave. Others would be transported back to Earth as accommodations allowed, and only if they could afford to buy a ticket. He would not absorb the cost of flying back former prisoners, deadbeats, or anyone else unimportant.
Still, she had use of the Shuttle Commander’s vehicle. She would bring home however many she could squeeze in, damn it. They’d make room on the ship even if refugees had to sleep in the corridors. Her uncle would be displeased, and she would suffer harsh consequences, but the people would be home.
The shuttle rocked, leveled, then dipped into a wide turn. The pilot shouted back, “Missed the tower, Ma’am. We’re going to need to swing around for another try.”
Ma’am. The ridiculous honorific made her uncomfortable. People ought to use her name, she thought. That’s why she had one. Although she had to admit she understood the deference since she owned the entire planet. The deed to the planet was in a protective case which she kept taped securely to her abdomen and a digitized copy of it was embedded in her left iris.
“How could you miss the tower?” she complained lightheartedly to her military escorts and the flight attendant. They laughed. She and the others sat on the floor rather than seats because they had removed everything possible to maximize room for the return trip. She clamored to her feet to head to the front cabin for an explanation. Without warning the craft flipped belly-up. She crashed to the ceiling and flailed out of control the length of the cargo bay. Just as abruptly the craft rolled right side up, catapulting her to the floor. She scrambled helplessly for something solid to grasp until the flight attendant grabbed one of her arms and a soldier latched onto the other. The shuttle slammed right then left then right again.
“Hold on, Ma’am. Hold on,” the flight attendant begged. “It’s a rough landing. Hold on.”
Abruptly, they were propelled toward the front cabin as the craft crashed into something larger and harder than itself. The mountains! Oh, God, she thought, the mountains. The vehicle crumpled like an accordion, then the fuselage split apart. Three soldiers slid past her, out the break, and into the sky. She heard their screams but couldn’t help, couldn’t even rearrange her position to be a witness to the end of their lives. Her feet dangled in the open air and the flight attendant held onto her arms. The final soldier scraped by, latched desperately onto the jagged edge of the shuttle wall then kicked her legs up trying to climb back into the damaged craft. She missed, but her boots caught the flight attendant in the temple knocking him unconscious. The flight attendant’s hands opened. He tumbled out and then they were both in freefall.
Fourth Dimming, Year of the Survivor 1
Olivia sheltered from the brilliance of First and Second Sun under a spreading Cushy Soft tree. Her back lounged against the pillowy, yielding bark that was so comfortable it seemed to hug her. Her hands rested in her lap. Her legs stretched out comfortably. She’d been there over an hour, closer to two, and the umbrella-shaped leaves of a vining plant had sagged against her ankles. It was seeking relief from the afternoon suns, too, she thought. She had not yet sorted out all the new varieties of plants and animals she’d found on this planet which seemed so much like Earth but yet was not. From time to time she tried to clear her thoughts and would shut her eyes attempting to nap, but inevitably they snapped back open and combed the sky between the puffs of clouds.
Why hadn’t they come back for her?
The Shuttle Commander’s vehicle was destroyed, but they had several others that they utilized to transport scientists and officials. Dispatching a search party would have been easy, and, frankly, doing so was their duty. She would have sent a detachment to rescue any of them. Her trip was to have been the final one and although it had been unsanctioned by the military, her authority outweighed theirs and she had been well within her rights to order it. Not that it mattered now. The deadline had passed a dimming ago, eight days. The military and their human cargo were on their way back to Earth without her.
She flexed her left knee intending to shift her leg so that the limb would stop tingling, but it wouldn’t move. Looking down, she realized that the vines had twined completely around both of her ankles and were slinking up her calves. She reached forward to use her hands to free her legs, but the Cushy Soft tree had curved around her shoulders and upper arms. She was trapped, being swallowed by the indigenous flora of Terra Saint Edmunds.
“Ciph!” she yelled desperately. When she decided to go for a walk, he had been in a conversation with his brother Callof, the leader of the Eolian family, so she hadn’t interrupted to tell him where she was going. She could only hope that he could hear her. “Ciph, help! I can’t move.”
In the thirty-two days, four dimmings, since he had plucked her from the sky after the shuttle crash, her feelings toward the blond-haired young man with such light-colored wings had grown to the point where she could no longer imagine a life without him close. She found it hard to imagine practical, decisive Olivia mooning over a man. Mooning, she laughed at herself. This planet didn’t even have a moon, only orbiting chunks of gargantuan boulders. Shuttle pilots needed extreme skill and excellent timing to avoid them. She must have been unconscious when Ciph caught her because she didn’t remember it. Neither could she recall anyone else being saved although Ciph assured her that his family had tried without success to keep the soldiers with her from plunging to their deaths.
“Ciph!” she yelled again as she threw her weight forward hoping to release her shoulder and upper arms only to be brought to tears by the pain. The tree held her fast. If she tugged any harder the skin and tissue on her shoulders, back, and upper arms would rip off. The tree would flay her alive. When she’d caught her breath, she tried again to kick her legs, but a red substance squirted from the veins in one of the umbrella leaves and instantly scorched her skin. She squeezed her eyes at the discomfort and shouted, “Ciph! Help!”
She kept yelling until her throat was too raw for speech. Afraid to tip her head back against the tree, she dropped her chin and waited, wondering if she had lived through the crash only to die a few days later strangled by indigenous vegetation.
The voice startled her. She opened her eyes to discover both suns had traveled across the sky and First Sun was close to setting. She’d been asleep for hours and, to her dismay, the vines had grown over her knees. Hurrying toward her was a gaunt, ramshackle man wearing threadbare, ragged clothing. His hands were dirty. A fringe of gray hair circled his head, and a long, disorderly beard disguised his face. She thought he must be a saint. Once beside her, he dropped to his knees and chopped cautiously at the Blood Umbrella Vine with a knife he carried in his waistband.
“Don’t morris yet,” he cautioned when she instinctively pulled it back as the vines loosen around her right leg. He was close enough for her to realize that not only were his eyes tired and strained, but also he was missing several teeth. He adjusted his weight and continued slicing at the vine. “I have to do this carefully, so the Redrot doesn’t get all over you.”
“Where’s Ciph?” she asked, trying to not sound desperate.
“I don’t know who that is,” the man responded without breaking his concentration to look at her. “The name sounds Eolian.”
“Ah. If he comes to help you, then maybe he can help me, too. I’ve hiked for days searching for anyone who could help us. The handful of people left in Gaolertown couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help. The forge and the farrier were empty and cold. I tried a farm that I’d seen once, but it was deserted. I tried everywhere I could think of. I got the idea to ask the Eolians for help when that focused blast thrower hit that shuttle and Eolians came from everywhere trying to save the occupants. I hope they’ll help us. Raedwald’s hired thugs didn’t even bother to open the figgict doors. They just left people to die. Human beings left to starve.”
“Prisoners are still in their cells?” she questioned incredulously. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
This time he raised his head and glared directly into her eyes. “How would you know what was supposed to happen?”
“I’m Olivia Raedwald,” she replied, casting her gaze sideways to delay confronting his judgment. “This is my planet.”
The man stopped cutting and rested back on his heels. After several long seconds, he swore and resumed releasing her. “I should leave you here for your planet to devour.”
“Please help me,” she responded softly.
“Oh, I ain’t like you Raedwalds. I wouldn’t leave anybody to die the way these things are trying to kill you,” he said, indignantly. “When Cushy-Softs and Blood Umbrellas grow in the same spot, they work together. The tree holds the victim in one spot until the vines grow over their mouth and nose to suffocate whoever has been captured. I’m going to need help to get you out of this. I don’t have the right tools to chop through the wood, and… you’ll soon enough about the other. Where’s this boyfriend of yours?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t answer when I yelled.”
“Did you whistle?”
“I didn’t know that there was a whistle.”
“Okay, your legs are free. Pull them as close to your hands as best you can and start brushing them,” he instructed as he rose to his feet. “I’ll whistle, and then look for barbs.” He walked two or three meters out from under the tree and scanned the horizon. “Twuu-twee-twee-Twuu.” As he returned to her, he explained, “The whistle means come quickly, there’s danger, or I need urgent help. They’ll answer. It’s a matter of honor for them. If you’re going to live with Eolians, you need to learn to communicate with them.”
He crouched down beside her again, took her left leg in one hand, and dropped his face close to her leg to examine the skin. Olivia wondered if he were near-sighted but had never had the surgery to correct it, although she reasoned if he had been a prisoner his access to medical care would have been callously restricted. After a moment he briskly rubbed her foot and ankle. His touch made Olivia nervous, but he seemed sincere, and frankly, as long as she was pinned down as she was, there was no way to refuse. Soon she had to admit that she could feel the barbs coming out of her skin. She examined the top of his bald head for a minute and then tried to whistle, “Twue, twuue.”
“It’s a low tone, two high ones, and then another low tone,” he corrected without pausing. “Twuu”
“Twuu-” she copied.
“Twuu,” he finished.
“Twuu,” she repeated, as Ciph and a dozen Eolians appeared in the sky in front of them. “Ciph! Help!”
The man stood up and greeted the newcomers with a respectful bow, “Thank you for coming. She’s in real trouble.”
Ciph waved one hand to acknowledge Wells as he stepped around him and bent to examine Olivia. “Oh, Ol, what happened?”
“I don’t know,” she began. “I was watching the sky and thinking about everything and the next thing I knew I was sinking into the tree.”
“I should have warned you that Cushy Soft trees are dangerous,” Ciph said, as he combed Olivia’s blond hair from her face with his fingers. He undid the tie in his long hair so he could use it to wrap hers in a queue that he pulled forward and draped over her shoulder. He tramped down the vegetation next to her, sat down, and took one of her hands.
“I was just telling her that myself,” Wells chimed in. “Obviously, she got tangled up in Blood Umbrella Vine, too.”
“Who are you?” Ciph inquired as he used his thumb to brush tears of frustration from Olivia’s cheeks.
“My name’s Gainor, Wellington Gainor. Most folks call me Wells. I was on my way to find some Eolians to see if they’d help us,” Wells shoved his hands nervously into what was left of his trouser pockets. He avoided looking at Olivia as he added, “Um, listen some of the Redrot got her, too. I think you’d be the better person to explain to her what has to happen next.”
Ciph stood and stared at Wells. Ciph’s friend, Sanbbey, and one other Eolian came forward and knelt beside Olivia. Sanbbey asked, “Your right hand is dominant, yes?” She nodded. “Then we’ll chop away the bark and wood on your left. You’ll be cut. We’ll be careful, but it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be hurt, Survivor. At least if it’s your left arm then you’ll continue to be able to do most things while you heal.” The other Eolian gently moved Olivia’s face away from where they were going to work as Sanbbey cautioned, “Keep your head turned and your eyes closed as much as possible.”
Olivia did as requested. She could hear and feel the hacking and chopping against the wood and her curiosity urged her to see what they were doing, but when she gave in and decided to peek, the Eolian kept her face still and Sanbbey said, “Not yet, Survivor. Not yet. Ciph is going to help with the Redrot. We can already see where it’s eaten into your skin so we can’t wait, you need to be treated immediately. Don’t be afraid.”
Warm liquid splashed against her calf and ankle. The odor of urine filled her nostrils.
“That’s piss! Who’s pissing on me, you dirty —,” she shouted as she jerked to one side trying to move her leg and free herself from the Cushy Soft tree. A sharp pain pierced her arm and then a tearing sensation brought agony to her shoulders.
“Sorry,” Sanbbey said contritely as he hacked at the tree. “You moved so fast I couldn’t stop. I’m sorry.”
“Dearest, please, stay as still as you can,” Ciph pleaded.
“You pissed on me, didn’t you?” She responded angrily. The grip on her face tightened, so all Olivia could do was squint sideways at him.
“I had to. It will eat completely through your leg, and you’ll lose your entire foot,” he said woefully. “The Blood Umbrella plant kills its victims and sprays them with Redrot to make the bodies decay quickly. Their seedlings feed off them.”
“Pissing stops that?” she asked in disbelief.
“Yes, I don’t know why. I know about music, bone flower flutes,” he responded with a grin. He knelt beside her and took over holding her face. “A healer might be able to explain it. Or an Earth Scientist if there are any left. I think it’s because something in the p…piss satisfies the decay-producing chemicals enough that they shut down. We can wash you off when we get home. We’d do that anyway, but I will personally scrub your feet and legs where…well…where I…”
She leaned her head forward and curled as best she could into his hands and murmured, “Ciph.”
“Olivia,” he replied softly.
“We’re ready,” Sanbbey interjected.
“This is going to hurt,” Ciph said as he rubbed her cheek with his fingers. “We have to work your left side out and then we’ll be able to tilt you and pull you out from under the ridge holding your right side in place. Ready?”
“Ready!” she responded bravely. Ciph was right. The pain was more than anything else she’d experienced. Not even being slammed around in the shuttle as it crashed into the face of that mountain physically hurt as much as being freed from the Cushy Soft tree. She tried not to scream but did. She tried not to swear, but she did. As soon as she was finally free, she collapsed against Ciph who embraced her until her breathing evened out. Once it did, he stood, lifted her in his arms, then leapt into the air to take her to a healer. When they landed, she was grateful to see that the other Eolians had brought Wells Gainor with them.
While the healer tended to Olivia, Ciph’s family found better clothing for Wells and brought him water to bathe, and produced a straight taxer so he could treat himself to a shave. When that was done, they tended to his bruises and scrapes. During the community meal, however, Wells stood abruptly and said, “We need your help. We have very little food and no clothing beyond the rags on our backs. Some of us are trapped. Please help us.”
Before Callof could respond, Jaicn, a young Eolian widow with a small child sitting next to her, asked angrily, “Why should any of us help the Earth humans? They kill any of us who get near them. They killed my One when all he was doing was gathering fruit for us.”
“Not the prisoners,” Wells argued. “The people who need help are prisoners.”
Jaicn narrowed her eyes, but Callof waved a restraining hand at her and said, “What has happened? Earth humans collected more food than they needed and kept it in what they called cellars that they dug into the ground. Why not use that food?”
“It’s gone. When the gaolers and rich mongrels left, they completely abandoned us,” Wells replied. He strode to where Olivia sat with Ciph. Her left arm was in a sling and her legs and feet were swollen from the healer’s treatment. He narrowed his eyes and added, “Mongrels like her.”
Ciph rose and stepped in front of Olivia. He clenched his teeth and snarled, “Back away.”
“Why should I, you insignificant flute blower,” Wells said, raising his fists. “She’s no different from a murderer.”
A stone pelted the side of Wells’ head, knocking him to the ground. He landed unsteadily on one knee and shook his head to clear his thoughts before cradling his bruised face in both his hands.
“We gave you food and clothing. We tended your wounds, and still, you threaten us,” Callof declared indignantly as he marched to Wells’ side.
“Not you,” Wells mumbled. “Her. Raedwald.”
“She is my brother’s One,” Callof corrected. “She is our family. You will speak to her respectfully.”
“Why are you so angry with me?” Olivia asked, peering around Ciph’s legs. “What have I done to you?”
“You set off explosives to bury the entrances to the food stores,” Wells cried out, his anger having faded to despair. “You couldn’t take it with you, but wouldn’t let the people left behind have it either.”
“I didn’t bury anyone’s food,” she objected. “I encountered one such situation far south of here and arrested the gaolers who did it. We used surface-to-air blast throwers to reopen the cellar. Contrary to my uncle’s instructions, I accepted everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. If there was room, I took them. I even had the military prepare the flagship’s corridors so people would at least have places to sleep. Anyone else whom I couldn’t physically transport was to be left with provisions and shelter. We were on the last shuttle trip I could possibly make when we crashed.”
“You are a Raedwald,” Wells said as he leaned back to rest on the ground and removed his hands from his face. He shook his head and winced. “That makes it your responsibility.”
“Tell us what happened,” Callof demanded. “From the beginning. Clearly and simply.”
“I was a prisoner for years,” Wells said, emphasizing each word. “I…I didn’t do anything wrong. What happened is I got the winning bid against Raedwald to purchase a company that had developed a better, easier suspended animation for space travel.”
“Raedwald Suspension,” Olivia muttered. Ciph sat back down beside her and draped an arm around her shoulders in support. “I remember when that company was launched. I was seven years old. It was my first formal ceremony, and I wore my first designer dress. They expected me to break a bottle of champagne against the wall of the suspension terminal before its first customers entered, like the christening of a ship, but I wasn’t strong enough. The crowd laughed at me. My uncle waved at them to wait, then as they cheered, he stepped up behind me and helped me smash the bottle.” She paused to think about the past, before adding, “During his speech, my uncle claimed he bought the company not only to help the desperate developers but also to honor you. He said that he knew you would have done the same had he been the one in the accident.”
“You were seven years old? How long ago was that?” Wells asked.
“Sixteen years,” Olivia replied reluctantly.
“Sixteen years. Why didn’t Raedwald just kill me?” Wells remarked despondently. He rubbed his face again and continued, “All of us are prisoners of conscience where I was held. None of us are criminals. Strangely, six dimmings ago Director Wyatt Brenhus said I’d served my time and was free. Free. What is freedom when there’s no way to get home?”
“Back to Earth?” Callof asked.
“Yes, the only ones ever able to go home could afford to purchase expensive boarding tickets or have enough money to bribe the shuttle commanders,” Wells answered. “I had neither. I’m still angry that we weren’t seen as worthwhile enough to save. Raedwald arranged for them to take the bosses, gaolers, scientists, rich people, landowners —”
“There aren’t any landowners,” Olivia objected. “My uncle believes everyone deserves shelter and that land can’t be owned.”
“Humph,” Wells reacted. “Maybe he told you that.”
“Be respectful. Olivia did not cause your problem,” Callof warned, as he conspicuously swung his empty sling launcher. Wells blinked. Callof directed, “Continue.”
“They left people locked in the cages and Even with all of us working together we can’t get them open,” Wells concluded. “When I headed out again two days ago, they were still alive. Please help us.”
Callof turned his back to Wells and paced for several meters. When he met Olivia’s eyes inquiringly, she nodded. When he looked at his brother, Ciph shook his head. Olivia took Ciph’s hand in hers and squeezed it. He sighed and beseeched, “Ol, this doesn’t sound safe. You’ll be in danger. Please don’t go.”
“I have to,” she replied. He titled his head pensively. “Callof is right when he says that I didn’t cause any of this, but Wells is also right. You read the documents when you were caring for me. It’s my planet.” He pursed his lips, so she repeated, “I have to.” She pulled her injured arm into her lap and dropped her head before she added as if in defeat, “Why did I have to live and not the others? Why didn’t I die, too? I thought this was my opportunity to show what I could do for the Raedwald businesses. My big chance to prove to my uncle how capable I am. I had no idea how cruel this mission would turn out to be.”
“The Survivor needs to rest,” The healer said directly to Callof as she narrowed her eyes. “She cannot rescue anyone else when she is so badly hurt herself.”
Olivia raised her head and insisted, “I have to.”
She leaned against Ciph, hoping for his warmth and support. He draped his arm around her shoulder.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” the healer relented. “Let me see how you are at First Sun.”
“No one needs to go if they don’t wish to,” Callof said with a glance at Jaicn. “This is not a problem we created, and it is not ours to fix. We will help if we can, but that is all.” Callof caught Ciph’s eye and added, “I’ll help you carry her in a sling chair if you want to go. There is no reason for us to help any of the Earth humans, but I will go with you if that’s what you decide.”
As Second Sun dropped below the tree line, Callof and two other Eolians led Wells Gainor to a different area of the clearing where Callof explained, “Our homes are in the trees where it is safer for us. We have constructed floors and built roofs that protect us from the rains. We sleep by leaning forward into our soft, upright bolsters and letting our wings fall loosely. For human visitors, we have wide sleeping mats enclosed in netting that we tie between branches in one of our rooms so that they can rest without fear of falling.” Callof waved at the two Eolians with him. “They will set up one for you. It can be difficult to crawl in and out of the net, so we will help you. If you should wake during the night,” Callof paused and looked Wells directly in the eyes “Do not wander around. For your own safety. There are predators everywhere, including me. If you harm anyone in my family I will not be peaceful toward you.”
“Yes, sir,” Wells acquiesced as he proffered a slight bow. “I will harm no one. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long to get started.”
“We’ll leave before Second Sun,” Callof reassured him. “And as close to First Sun as we can. They’ve got the sleeping mat and net ready. I’ll fly you up to it.”
A few trees apart from the others, Olivia curled her long, lean frame in her sleeping net and struggled with a kaleidoscope of emotions reeling from anger to despondency to her undeniable love for the Eolian at her side preparing to serenade her on his flute. Instead of leaning into his soft, upright bolster, Ciph had tucked his wings in tightly so that he could lay with Olivia, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead. She used the tips of her hand to smooth the feathers on the top portion of Ciph’s face.
Usually, Eolian facial feathers were dark to help protect their eyes from the brightness of the two suns, but Ciph’s wings, shoulder fan, and facial feathers were the same pale, platinum blond as his hair. His feathers ran from his neck, down his spine between his wings, and tapered to a fine tail at the small of his back. Although still blond, the feathers that wrapped around his hips to the front of his lower stomach were darker. His arms, legs, and the rest of his body had smooth, bronze skin. Callof was diminutive like Ciph and also had pale feathers, but the ones on his face and abdomen were a deep brown.
Thinking of him brought questions to Olivia’s mind. She asked quietly, “What did Callof mean when he said I am your One?”
“Spouse. Earth humans would consider us married.”
“Are we married? Do Eolians marry?”
“Yes, but not exactly like humans. We Become One,” Ciph explained. “There’s a ceremony at First Sun that entangles our spiritual beings and marks our physical ones for the rest of our lives. I want to stand with you at First Sun and Become One with you, Olivia.”
“Yes, I have since I found you tumbling through the sky.”
“You stayed by my side all the time I was unconscious, caring for me. You’re still caring for me.”
“Will you Become One with me?”
“Why? I mean, why would you want to be stuck with me for the rest of your life? I’ve destroyed everything.”
“I’m serious,” she insisted. “Coming down for that last trip killed everyone who was with me. Now I learn that despite all my efforts and the directive I gave, people from Earth were permanently left behind with nothing, not even enough to sustain themselves. I know that we didn’t have room for every single person on Terra Saint Edmunds, but I thought that somehow I could make a second trip. Come back for those left behind. After listening to Wells today, I don’t think that would have ever happened. And I have to wonder about my uncle’s actions. Why did he give me the planet? He said it was so that I would have the final say when any issues arose, but I would have had as much power as his agent as the owner. I never questioned his motivation at the time, but now wonder if he ordered the Commander of the Fleet to leave me behind.”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Ciph replied, his voice serious. “I am sorry that you’ve been through so much that has been painful for you. At the same time, I am very happy that you are here, with me, and that we can always be together, forever.”
He leaned forward and traced her cheek with his nose and nibbled gentle kisses along her jawline.
“When would we get married?” she asked.
“Are you agreeing to Become One with me?”
“As soon as we can. The ceremony is always at First Sun. You promised to go with Wells Gainor tomorrow, and I won’t ask you to go back on your word, but the moment we can afterward,” he responded tenderly. She moved her swollen legs restlessly, then moved closer to him. He placed his bone flower flute to his lips and played a melody that filled the night air, wove through the singing of the birds, and warmed Olivia’s dreams.
They reached the prison before Second Sunrise and landed half a kilometer from the complex. Ciph, Callof, Sanbbey, and three other Eolians with them decided to hang back and remain safely hidden while Olivia and Wells approached alone. The healer had provided Olivia with a walking stick fashioned from the branch of a purple-leafed moth tree, so although her speed was restricted, she had no difficulty covering the remaining distance to the complex.
The first building they passed was a square, squat building with the prison number on the door and a residential garden behind it. Olivia paused but Wells strode forward, so she continued beside him. When they had walked farther, Olivia was stunned to see three long, low, buildings constructed in a U-shape using stones and common gurygum wood that was initially soft and moldable but then hardened into a concrete-like substance. The thick doors were made from the heavy planks of Broad-leafed rain trees. All the doors stood open.
The Nuisance Cages loomed in the middle of a hard dirt courtyard bordered by the three buildings and were designed to house prisoners designated as troublemakers by the prison director. The walls and ceiling of these cages were iron bars while the floor was gurygum. Prisoners locked in the cages had their clothing removed, and wore only rough sacks. The gaolers then covered the prisoners’ faces with wooden masks that prevented them from seeing, hearing, or speaking. They remained isolated in the cages at the mercy of the elements and the torment of other people until the director decided that their stubbornness was broken and that they would be obedient. Or until they were no longer alive.
Beside the farthest cage, a lifeless, elderly woman sprawled on the ground with a knitting needle clutched in hand. Inside the cage, a female prisoner hardly older than a child had collapsed against the iron bars and been left to die there. The gurygum floor nearest the prisoner was deeply scratched as if the old woman had worked at it fruitlessly over and over with the knitting needle.
“Hey!” Wells shouted when they got close to the group of freed prisoners who were scraping at the gurygum of the other two cages using shovels, the mattock, and miscellaneous objects that they used as tools. In answer to his greeting, several of them raised their hands in greeting and walked over to him.
A woman leaned against the outside wall of one of the cells rather than helping the others. Olivia noticed that while the woman was not dressed in the latest fashions from Earth, her outfit was newer, cleaner, and in far better shape than that of the other prisoners. The woman straightened and said lazily, “Welcome back, 99437958. I didn’t think we’d ever see you again.”
“Use my name, Myrtle,” Wells responded. He placed one hand on the back of Olivia’s shoulder and said, “I told you I was going for help.”
“And you found it?” Myrtle asked suspiciously. “Her? She can’t even walk without a stick. How can she help?”
“You’ll see,” he replied. Looking toward the farthest cage he remarked, “Granny didn’t make it. That’s sad. Still, I didn’t think she would live long enough to free her great-granddaughter. Brenhus should have left her alone if he didn’t want babies, rather than do this.”
He sighed as he circled the closest cage, inspected the workers’ progress, and then spoke to the prisoner inside. “How are you? Your face looks like it hurts from that mask. I’m glad that you’ve finally gotten it off.”
“It wasn’t easy, I’ll tell you,” Myrtle remarked before the prisoner could respond. “We had to set a snare to catch him so that we could pin him against the bars and cut through the ties. He fought like crazy and left bruises on more than one of us.”
“I thought you were going to kill me,” the prisoner interjected miserably. “I couldn’t tell who you were, and anytime anyone’s grabbed me like that, they’ve hurt me.”
Olivia’s jaw dropped as she listened to the emaciated young man. Although the wooden mask lay discarded on the floor of the cage, the young man’s face was raw with abrasions. His dark hair and untamed beard were both missing chunks as if someone had ripped the hair out by the roots. His hands trembled, and he couldn’t put weight on his fractured and twisted left leg. The prisoner returned her stare, then diverted his eyes guiltily and asked, “Who are you?”
Before Olivia could introduce herself, Wells declared, “She’s called the Survivor.”
“Survivor? What kind of name is that?” Myrtle derided with a laugh.
Ignoring the outburst, Wells continued, “She was on that shuttle. Remember? A focused blast thrower ripped —” The prisoner shook his head and Wells added hurriedly, “Oh, well, of course, you wouldn’t know about it. You had the mask on. The Eolians managed to save her.”
“He was trapped in the cage with the horrid mask on for four dimmings!” Olivia exclaimed in disbelief. “That’s inhumane. How did he eat?”
“If Director Brenhus felt merciful, he would disconnect the bit in a prisoner’s mouth so the prisoner could eat. Otherwise, soup is about the only thing, and that has to be poured slowly from the side of the mask toward his mouth. If it’s done too quickly it could drown him,” Wells explained. Turning back to the prisoner he said, “How are you feeling? Are you in pain? Is there anything we can do for you?”
“Do…do you have any food?” the prisoner pleaded hopefully.
Myrtle fisted her hands and placed them on her hips and snapped, “I told you. We are not sharing with the likes of you.”
Olivia glared at the obnoxious woman as she slid her backpack off and set it on the ground in front of her. She rummaged through it and retrieved a small container of beet nut paste, some fresh fruit, a miniature loaf of bread, and a water bag. Olivia smiled kindly as she stepped forward and pushed the items between the bars to the prisoner.
“You should have given that to us, Survivor,” Myrtle complained. “It’s wasted on him. He’s not going to live. At least with us, there’s hope.”
Olivia tossed another glare over her shoulder at the woman but quickly returned her focus to the prisoner and asked soothingly, “What’s your name?”
“23578931,” the prisoner answered as he shoved globs of beet nut paste into his mouth with his fingers. He cast his eyes down warily, afraid of offending her by making eye contact.
“Take it easy, 2-3,” Olivia said gently. “You need to give your body a chance to accustom itself to the food, otherwise you’ll get sick. Go easy.”
“Please don’t take it away,” 23578931 said desperately. “I’m so hungry.”
“I won’t take it away,” Olivia reassured him. “All of that is for you. Sit back and enjoy it while we figure out how to get you free.” She picked up her backpack and carried it by the shoulder straps as she walked to the next cage. When she got close, she realized that the prisoner laying prone in the center of the cage was a pregnant female and Olivia couldn’t tell whether or not the prisoner was breathing. Olivia drew in her lips in annoyance, then asked, “Why is she still wearing a mask?”
“What!” Wells barked, storming over to the cage where Olivia stood. “Why is she in a cage? And why is she wearing a mask?”
“She ate more than her share,” Myrtle said dismissively. “That isn’t fair to the rest of us. We did try to get that mask off her at the end of the first part of the sentence we gave her, but we couldn’t pin her down. She should be grateful that she was allowed to keep her own clothes. No one else in the cages ever was.”
“Why you —” Wells growled.
“If you had been here, you’d be in there with her, don’t worry about that,” Myrtle taunted.
“We didn’t sentence her, you did,” one of the other freed prisoners objected hotly. “You aren’t even a prisoner, Myrtle.”
“I used to be,” Myrtle said with disgust.
“Twenty years ago,” the freed prisoner retorted. “You shouldn’t even be here anymore, except that you’ve been Brenhus’ lover since then. Well, until her.” The freed prisoner jutted his jaw at the woman inside the cage. “We didn’t sentence her to that cage. You did.”
“So What? I’m the boss here now,” Myrtle replied. She waved her hands in exasperation.
“You are not. And if you are so important, why did you get left behind like the rest of us?” the freed prisoner disagreed. As he went to move forward, another freed prisoner put his hand on the man’s arm and shook his head trying to keep the peace.
“That wasn’t his fault,” Myrtle objected. “That was Raedwald’s fault. That niece of his who was in charge of it all. She should have planned better and taken care of everyone. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of you should be listening to me. I’m in charge.”
“You are not,” several of the freed prisoners chorused back at her. “Wells is.”
“Wells Gainor pointed directly at Olivia and corrected, “The Survivor is.”
“This prisoner must be set free,” Olivia demanded. “Immediately.”
“You think you can do better than we did, go ahead,” Myrtle scoffed. She stepped closer to Olivia and reached her hand toward the backpack. “I’ll just hang on to your supplies while you try.”
Olivia pulled her lips back furiously, pointed a finger at the woods just beyond the prison complex, and snarled, “There are fruit trees not half a kilometer that way. And nuts. And beck water a few steps farther. Get off your lazy ass and fend for yourself.”
Myrtle fisted her hands and challenged, “Make me.”
From the side pocket of her backpack, Olivia slipped out a telescoping truncheon. Springing it open she said, “If I have to.”
The peacekeeping prisoner who had stopped his friend’s advance stepped partway between Myrtle and Olivia and interrupted, “There are robbers out that way. We’re defenseless.”
Robbers?” Olivia asked, resisting the urge to direct her question to Wells since she was not willing to take her eyes off Myrtle.
“Ex-convicts, townspeople, transients wanting to steal food,” Wells explained. “The guards went up against them a couple times even before the exodus. They have weapons. We don’t.”
“Use teams,” Olivia said. “Some of you collect food, some of you keep watch, the rest of you stay here to work on getting 2-3 and this other prisoner free. Does anyone know her name?”
“You can get it back when you’re released,” Myrtle commented as Olivia shook her head and sighed. “Not that they had any intention of letting 23578931 out this time. I wouldn’t either.”
“What?” Olivia sputtered.
“It serves him right for thinking he’s more important than we are,” Myrtle continued. She raised her voice to admonish 2-3. “You need to learn that goalers can take what they want, whenever they want and you have to do what you have to do to stay alive, just like any of the rest of us.”
“This time,” Olivia muttered, her eyes downcast. She lifted her face, rose onto her toes, and slid one hand through the bars. 2-3 flinched as her hand neared him and then tentatively moved his fingertips toward her. Abruptly, he jerked them back and wrapped his arms around his midsection. Olivia’s eyes misted with sympathetic tears.
The peacekeeping prisoner interjected, “When we go to pick fruit, what will we carry it in? All we have is the clothes on our backs.”
“Don’t you have any bags or sacks? Nothing anywhere?” Olivia asked.
“Maybe in the office somewhere,” Myrtle replied, relaxing her fists. “But we can’t get in.”
Olivia waved a hand and directed, “Let me see.”
Wells stepped up to Myrtle and walked beside her as they led Olivia toward the first building she had seen when they arrived. Behind them, 2-3 called out, “Are you coming back? Please, don’t leave me. Please. They’ll hurt me.”
“I’m not going far,” Olivia reassured him. “I won’t leave you behind.” She paused and looked again at where the freed prisoners had been scraping at the gurygum. “What’s under the cages? Under the gurygum that makes them so high off the ground?”
“Just dirt,” Wells answered. “I was one of the people who had to build them. We piled dirt up and then laid the gurygum planks into place while they were soft so that they would harden in place.”
“Dig in the dirt,” Olivia directed, gesturing toward the freed prisoners. “If you remove enough of the dirt, there won’t be a foundation under the gurygum to keep it stable. We should be able to break it off once the dirt is gone, and hopefully, that will loosen a bar or two so 2-3 can get out.”
The freed prisoners looked at one another and then attacked the dirt under the 2-3’s cage.
When they reached the office building, Wells cupped his hands around his eyes and tried to peer in through the window shutters as he asked, “Did you try to break in, Myrtle?”
“I didn’t,” she answered. She rattled the door handle and pulled on it fiercely. It rattled but didn’t open. “The others wanted to, but I stopped them. Nothing inside the offices is theirs to have.”
“Hmmm,” Olivia said thoughtfully. She paced the front of the office slowly, inspecting the windows, looking under the eaves, then returning to the door. Stopping immediately in front of it, she waved a finger at Wells so that he stepped closer, and she turned to face him. After placing her good hand on one of his shoulders, she gestured to Myrtle and said, “Support my left side.”
“Okay,” Myrtle said, confused. She moved close enough that Olivia could rest her injured arm on her shoulder, and Myrtle put one hand on Olivia’s side and the other under the arm. Olivia inhaled and exhaled deeply several times, then donkey-kicked her foot back against the lower portion of the door. It splintered. She let go of her comrades, snapped her truncheon open again, and used it against the broken wood. When enough was removed she tried to reach in and up to turn the knob, but couldn’t locate it.
“Let me,” Wells said. “I’m skin and bones. I can probably work my way through that opening.”
The others stepped aside and observed as he twisted and turned and finally pushed through sideways. He drew in a noisy breath, then was silent. Olivia was about to call to him when he swung the door wide and announced, “I think we’ve hit the jackpot.”
To the right was the office with the enormous mahogany desk with two chairs, a bookcase with an old-fashioned, leather-bound unabridged dictionary still on display, and the dusty strikes left by the edges of books that had been there recently. Behind the desk was a wooden peg with a large ring of iron keys. Olivia grabbed them eagerly and ran toward the door. She paused at the threshold, and said, “Keep searching. Find out what’s here, what’s useful. I hope there are at least clothes for everyone. See if you can find baskets or bags or something to collect food. Don’t touch any records. I want to read them for myself.”
With that, she raced back to 2-3’s cage to try the keys. The cages were so high off the ground, however, that even on her tiptoes, however, she couldn’t reach the lock.
“The gaolers used wooden steps, but they destroyed them with the cellars. We could try to hoist you up,” a freed prisoner suggested. “None of us are very strong, but we could do it together, maybe.”
She sized up the freed prisoner making the offer and ran her eyes across the others. Reaching a decision, she turned and shouted, “Ciph! Callof! Twuu. Twuu. Twuu.”
Ciph and Callof appeared at the edge of the prison complex with the other four Eolians. As they flew closer, the freed prisoners huddled together and moved back. She smiled and said reassuringly, “It’s okay. They’re with me. They came to help.”
The freed prisoners moved back farther.
Ciph and Callof landed next to Olivia and Ciph asked, “What do you need, Ol? How can we help?”
“Can you fly up and see if any of these keys fit his cage?” Olivia requested. “And then that one with the other prisoner inside. Once we get them out, they’ll need to be taken to a healer.”
Ciph took the keys and rose to the cage door. He hovered in the air as he tried each key in the lock. Inside 23578931 waited on his knees with his hands clasped in front of him. His eyes marked Ciph’s every move eagerly, but he didn’t speak.
Ciph continued to try keys until the tumbler reacted and the door popped open. Ciph pushed it wide, tossed the ring of keys to his brother, and flew inside. He spoke softly to 23578931 who agreed and quickly picked up the last bit of food and the water bag. He clutched them to his chest as Ciph cautiously lifted the prisoner, flew him to freedom, and gingerly set him on the ground next to Olivia.
Callof flew to the door of the cage with the woman lying in the center and hovered as he tried each key. None of them unlocked it. He landed next to Olivia so he could hand her the keys and then walked around the cage scrutinizing its construction. He flew in a spiral around the cage, examining the bars, and then flew to the very top where he grabbed one of the top bars and started shaking. It wiggled. He paused and called to the others, “Come up. The bars are thinner up here. I think we might be able to work them apart enough for one of us to go in and get her.”
All the Eolians except Ciph joined him at the top of the cage. A cheer rose from the Eolians when their combined strength succeeded in bending the loose iron bar to one side. Ciph folded his wings tightly and then squeezed through the narrow opening. He lifted the woman and rose to the top of the cage where another Eolian reached through to take her by the shoulders and pull her out of the cage. Callof followed and the two of them set her gently on the ground beside 23578931. Callof produced a knife from his waistband and cut the ties holding the mask over her face which was bruised and had swollen tightly against the wood. He bent his ear close to her mouth and announced, “She’s breathing. Not strongly, but she is breathing.”
“Can you take her to the healer?” Olivia asked. “Can you take both of them? You can use the sling chair.”
The Eolian who had helped free the woman answered, “She’s very light. I can take her on my own. As long as she doesn’t struggle in the air, I can get her back easily.”
As they discussed how to proceed Wells and Myrtle appeared holding armloads of clothing. The freed prisoners hurried forward and snatched at the outfits frenziedly. Two of them walked over to Olivia and sheepishly handed trousers and shirts for 23578931 and the female prisoner, then hurried back hoping to find clothes for themselves.
Wells held up a large shirt and said, “This is way too big for her, but if we put this on her over her other clothes and tie the arms together that should help keep her calm. You can undo it the moment you arrive. Do you think a healer can still help her?”
“Only a healer will know that,” the Eolian said as he accepted the shirt and helped Olivia tug it over the woman’s head. The woman didn’t react to their efforts so as soon as she was prepared, the Eolian held her against him and leaped into the air.
“Now it’s your turn 2-3,” Olivia said gently. She knelt on the ground beside him and took one of his hands. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid of flying,” 23578931 answered. He turned his head back and forth looking at everything around him.
“We won’t drop you,” Callof said kindly. “If you wish, I’ll carry you myself. I will be very careful.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening. I’m tired,” 23578931 replied. He forced himself to meet Olivia’s eyes “You freed me, Survivor. You said you wouldn’t leave me behind and you didn’t. You got me free. I, I guess it’s okay to fly. If you promise not to let go of me.”
“I won’t let go until you are safely on solid ground again,” Callof responded as he knelt and took the man’s other hand.
“Before you go, here’s something you might appreciate,” Wells said, stepping forward. He produced a page from a logbook that he had torn out and then tucked into his waistband. He handed it to Olivia and explained, “This is the list of current prisoners at this complex. My name is near the bottom, and my offense. You’ll notice that what I told you about myself was truthful. The lad’s entry is just above mine.”
Olivia snapped the page so that it stayed open and read aloud, “Philip MacDonald. 23578931.” She leaned closer to 2-3 and repeated, “That’s your name, Philip MacDonald.”
“Philip MacDonald,” 2-3 repeated the unfamiliar words awkwardly. “My mother called me Philip, or maybe it was Philly. I’m so thirsty. May I have a bit of water, please? Does it say why I’m here? I don’t remember.”
As Callof helped him with the water bag, Olivia scanned the paper again and then shook her head in astonishment. “It says you were 12-years-old and that you had been accepted into the First Universe Academy, so my uncle ordered you kidnapped and brought here with the directive that you were to remain without furlough or parole. It openly says that you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Your uncle,” Philip whimpered.
His eyes scrunched up, but whether from memories or the glare of the two suns Olivia couldn’t tell. She glanced up at Ciph who patted the flat of his hand against various pockets and then pulled out a pair of protective eye covers with dark glass. He handed them to Olivia who put them on Philip’s face tenderly. She cradled his face in her hands for a moment, and then pulled her hands away and gestured to Ciph to sit down. When he had, she leaned forward so Philip had to look at her and said, “This is my husband. His name is Ciph. You can talk to him about anything at all. Your thoughts. Your fears. If you’re hungry. Where it hurts. Anything you need. Anything at all. He is a strong, kind person.”
Ciph took one of Philip’s frail hands in one of his strong ones and held it comfortingly. When Philip didn’t acknowledge him, Ciph shook it lightly until Philip looked at him, and then he said, “I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Callof took Philip’s other hand. He and Ciph raised their hands so that everyone would see, and together they declared, “From this moment forward you are our brother, Philip. Forever.”
The feeble man looked confused, but then sniffed and squeezed their hands.
Hoping she would find the best words, the right words, Olivia swallowed and said, “Philip, I’m sorry. This is what I think happened, and I’m deeply and truly sorry.” Everyone shifted their gaze to her face which reddened with embarrassment. She swallowed again and explained, “Like you, I was meant to go to First Universe Academy. When their letter came rejecting my application because all of the available openings for new students were taken, I was devastated. Then, a few days later, we received a second letter notifying us that due to an unexpected tragedy a student who had been accepted would be unable to attend so my application was reconsidered. You must have been the student who couldn’t attend.”
“You sent me here deliberately?” Philip asked, his brow furrowing.
“Not me,” she answered hurriedly. She smoothed the wrinkles from his forehead but pulled back her fingers when she felt him tense. “I would never have hurt you like that, never. However, it is clear that my uncle did, and I am so sorry.”
Philip eyed her with a blank face then mumbled, “How long have I been here?”
“Eleven years,” Olivia whispered.
Philip moaned, so Ciph squeezed his hand and repeated, “You are my brother. You will always have a home and will always be loved and cared for.”
Seeing that the conversation had reached a stopping point, Callof stood, shook his wings loose as if preparing for flight, and asked, “Are you ready?”
“Can I put on clothes?” Philip said dejectedly as if he already knew the request would be refused.
“Certainly, if you’d like,” Callof agreed. Olivia patted Philip’s shoulder, stood, and walked several meters away to allow him privacy while Ciph and Callof helped him to dress.
Myrtle approached Olivia and jeered, “I always thought that boy had been treated poorly. You Raedwalds are all alike.”
“Are we?” Olivia responded.
“Before we start arguing and get off track, you need to know, Survivor, that there are weapons locked in the office,” Wells said quickly. “Several bludgeons. The whip that they used on us. There’s a display case with a dagger and two flintlock pistols.”
“Flintlock?” Olivia said in surprise. “They’re ancient. At least, I know how to use them if that’s all we have. ”
“Raedwald Faire reenactments. I enjoyed several of them,” Wells acknowledged and then continued. “They are probably souvenirs or family heirlooms, brought here, no doubt, by Wyatt Brenhus.”
“While you’re skipping down memory lane, would you mind explaining what you intend to do with the rest of us? We can’t all fly off with the Eolians,” Myrtle groused. “Can you get us to town? Wyatt had a big, nice house. Maybe we could live there while we figure out what to do next.”
“That’s promising,” Wells commented. “There are dungeons in Gaolertown, too. We need to be sure no one is still locked inside them. When convicted folks first arrive, they are kept in those dungeons until they are transferred to their permanent place of incarceration. There are prisons throughout New East Anglia.”
“It looks as if I am going to need to travel through the entire country to be sure everyone is free,” Olivia admitted.
“Start in Gaolertown,” Wells advised.
“Gaolertown? That place needs a better name than that,” Olivia remarked.
Wells laughed and explained, “There may be people there willing to help or weapons we can use or more complete documentation that would give us a better idea of what we’re facing. They might even have better modes of transportation besides walking. I’ve also heard that there are caves in that area where escaped prisoners live. Besides, you need a home base beyond an Eolian treehouse.”
“I like treehouses,” Olivia said with a laugh.
Callof called across the complex to her, “Survivor, we’re leaving.”
She hurried over to discover that while Philip was wearing an intact shirt, the trousers were missing one leg and the body had been slit then wrapped around him. She smiled and spoke with deliberate tenderness. “Eolian healers are amazing. Don’t be worried. They will help you recover. In the meantime, eat, rest, and try to find peace of mind. Ciph and I will come to see you as soon as we get home.”
“Thank you,” Philip said softly, then nodded to Callof who lifted him and held him securely against his chest. Olivia watched the two of them as they soared over the prison complex and then disappeared behind the trees.
When Callof landed, the healer and Jaicn were bent over the young woman from the farthest Nuisance Cage. Jaicn’s toddler was giggling and competing with an older child to see who could fly the fastest from a log to a boulder and then back. The older child was obviously allowing the toddler to win. Seeing the healer, Callof strode over to her rather than force Philip to reach her by hopping on his one good leg. A couple who were tying sling launchers set their work aside and ran to assist. They each took one of Philip’s arms to steady him as Callof put him on his feet.
The healer looked up to quickly determine Philip’s needs. Turning to Jaicn she said, “The baby is safe, and the father is on his way, but I need to stay with the mother for a while. Please get this new one washed and see what care you can give him until I can join you.”
Jaicn’s eyes raked across Philip and then settled on Callof. Scorn dripped from her voice as she asked, “Are you bringing all their mistakes to us? A mother with an unborn deserves help. He does not. How can you expect me to care for him after what the Earth humans did?”
“I’m sorry,” Philip muttered. “They almost killed me, too. You don’t have to help. I’ll go somewhere else.”
“You cannot go somewhere else, Philip,” Callof interjected. “You have been starved and are badly hurt. If Jaicn will not tend to your wounds, then I will do so myself.”
“I’ll get a blanket for him to sit on and some water,” the woman who had been making sling launches offered and set about her tasks. She came back almost immediately. After setting a fresh bucket of water on the ground, she handed Philip water in a lightweight wooden mug and then spread the blanket she’d thrown over her shoulder next to him. Her partner and Callof lowered Philp onto the blanket, causing Philip to press the palm of his hand across his lips to silence the scream of pain welling up in his throat. When the pain eased, he wrapped both hands around the wooden mug and drank.
Callof stood, straightened his shoulders, and announced, “Ciph and I have declared that Philip MacDonald is our brother, forever. I ask that you give him the courtesy and respect that you would give to one of our family.”
Members of the Eolian family glanced at each other and then murmured their acknowledgement.
Callof knelt down, swished a cloth in the water bucket, and then began tenderly washing the abrasions of Philip’s face. As soon as he was satisfied that the wounds were clean, he moved the bucket to Philip’s leg and assessed the damage to determine where to start. Glancing up, he asked, “What did they do to you?”
Trembling, Philip took another sip of water, fixed his eyes on the ground, and answered softly, “Stomped on it. They didn’t take off the mask, so I don’t know how many, just that it was more than one.”
“You were already in the cage, and the gaolers punished you more?” Callof said, stunned.
“Or Myrtle Madoc. I couldn’t tell who,” Philip answered. “I was never going to be let out again so they knew there would never be a reckoning.”
“If I could get you that reckoning, Brother, I would,” Callof insisted.
Staring into the distance trying to clear his mind of excruciating memories, Philip added, “Thank you, Callof. I appreciate your help.”
As he spoke he saw a tiny hand appear in the corner of his eye. When he turned his head, Jaicn’s toddler stood there opening and closing her fingers and saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Philip looked at her questioningly, held out the mug of water, and asked the child, “Do you want a sip of water?”
She accepted the mug with both of her small hands and tipped it toward her mouth. Water splashed over the front of the child’s shirt, so Philip took the bottom of the mug and held it for her. When she was satisfied, she let him take it back, grinned, and repeated happily, “Thank you. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Philip said, then squeezed his eyes tightly against the pain shooting up from his leg where Callof was cleaning it. When he opened his eyes the child had sat down to study a small insect traversing the corner edge of the blanket and the healer was examining his leg instead of Callof.
The healer clucked empathetically and explained to Philip, “I can only do the first steps to repair your leg today. I need to apply medication from the Veil for several days so you must remain with us. I am sorry to hurt you by keeping you from your family and friends, in addition to the physical pain.”
“That’s fine, thank you,” Philip muttered. “No one will miss me.”
The healer used a small brush to gently spread a jelly-like substance over the wounds on his leg. Even her delicate touch was agony and caused Philip to black out. When he opened his eyes, everyone around him had returned to their normal tasks.
The couple had resumed measuring and typing sling launches. Jaicn waited cross-legged next to him with a bowl of soup for him in her hands. Callof and the healer stood beside the young female prisoner talking with an Earth human about how to proceed.
As his eyes focused he realized that they were talking to Director Wyatt Brenhus who held a newborn baby in his hand. The former prison director’s gaze slid past Callof and settled on Philip who screamed in fear and begged, “No! No, don’t let him hurt me. Please. The Survivor promised. Please!”
Without any hesitation, Jaicn set the bowl of soup aside, rose to her feet, and tugged a sling launcher from her pocket. She stepped boldly across Philip to position herself between him and Brenhus. The couple making sling launchers placed themselves next to her. Several others hurried over and joined Jaicn. Callof’s steely eyes drilled into Brenhus as he gestured with an open palm.
The former prison director’s eyes met Philip’s. He bobbed his head once in recognition and then turned so that his back was to Philip. Only a few minutes later, four Eolians gently moved the young woman onto a rescue sling and lifted her into the air. Still holding the baby in his arms, Brenhus settled into a sling chair and was carried after the others. He never spoke or looked at Philip again.
Callof relaxed. The healer patted Callof’s arm and then flew up to her level in the treehouse. The barricade of Eolians went about their way.
Jaicn stuffed her sling launcher into her pocket and sat on the blanket again. Philip stiffened despite knowing that she had just defended him. Her harsh words from earlier filled his thoughts, and he shrank back in fear, causing him to bump into someone else. He turned to see that Jaicn’s little girl had trustingly curled up next to him and fallen asleep.
“She likes you,” Jaicn said gently. “Do you think you could eat a bit of soup?”
“I sure don’t want them flying me anywhere,” Myrtle spat out. She had been standing beside Olivia as they observed how carefully Callof transported Philip. “They could drop me and kill me anytime they want to. They’re not human and I don’t want them anywhere near me.”
“That isn’t an option,” Olivia said. “Callof, the man carrying Philip to the healer, is my brother-in-law and the leader of the family. The other man who helped him is my husband, Ciph.”
“Excuse me! You disgusting heretic,” Myrtle barked. As she moved forward angrily an iron key on a simple chain around her neck popped out from underneath her collar.
Wells Gainor’s arm came up and stopped her momentum. A tirade started to explode from her mouth, but Wells halted her in mid-syllable. “The Survivor is Olivia Raedwald. She owns this entire planet and can do as she pleases. For instance, if she decides to lock you back up in a cell, no one can stop her.” Myrtle’s eyes went from Wells to Ciph and then to Olivia. Her jaw sagged open, but she didn’t speak. Wells deliberately raised his voice so that the entire complex could hear him and declared, “My best suggestion, Myrtle, is that you go down on one knee and apologize to the person who for all intents and purposes is King Raedwald.”
Myrtle pursed her lips and moved back silently. She continued to stare at Olivia for several seconds and then strode away. When she reached the row of gurygum cells, instead of marching past, she turned and disappeared behind them.
Ciph and Sanbbey looked up from examining the cages, but when they ascertained that disagreement had ended, they began discussing the two dead women. Olivia gestured to the last two Eolians. As they walked over she pulled the truncheon from the backpack’s side pocket once more, then retrieved a knife and a few other small items. She held out her backpack to them, and said, “Go ahead and distribute what’s left of this food. Also, would you be willing to go with them to gather fruit so that you can keep an eye out for trouble, the robbers they mentioned, or whatever else might happen?”
They bowed to her as they accepted the backpack and one said, “We’ll be happy to, Survivor. If they’ve been imprisoned for very long, they might not know how to gather fruit.”
“We’ll be happy to teach them,” the other contributed.
“Great, then while you’re handing out the food we already have, I’ll see if there is anything in the office that the prisoners can use for containers. I would like to use the backpack for documents and weapons and things from the office if that’s possible.”
The office building consisted of two rooms in the front, a short hall that opened into a large living space with bunk beds, seating, and a long, narrow linen closet. Beyond that were the kitchen, pantry, and the back door. One of the front rooms was the office. The other held a large table suitable for dining or meetings, the weapons cabinet, and a display of antiquated weaponry on the wall.
Wells offered to search the building for containers so she could investigate the documents stored in the desk. When he got to the linen closet, he collected pillowcases for each member of the group gathering food and then returned to update Olivia. “I didn’t go all the way into the kitchen. I just opened that door a few centimeters and saw that it’s stark and very basic. Someone else can look through it later. The pillowcases are all we need, and I want to go with the others to collect fruit.”
The two Eolians in charge of the food appeared at the door with her emptied backpack. She smiled at them and said, “You can take a desk drawer with you, too. I’ve emptied this one already.”
She wiggled one of the deeper drawers off its track, handed it to the Eolians, and retrieved her backpack. Wells tossed her a casual salute and the three darted out the door.
Olivia settled back down at the office desk, propped her backpack open on the floor beside her, and meticulously sorted through all the daily receipts, payroll records, and miscellaneous paperwork. All of that she took outside and stacked into a large pile. In the tray of the center desk drawer was a single silver-color key that she tucked into her pocket. Next, she looked over the logbooks detailing all the prisoners since the prison’s inception before putting them into the backpack. She would study them to learn who those prisoners were, how long they were here, where they were transferred to, or more sadly, the dates of their deaths and where they were buried. She would track down anyone still alive to be sure that they were healthy, and their needs were being met.
Ciph and Sanbbey came in as she was finishing with the last drawer of the desk and Ciph inquired, “Find anything?”
“A set of log books that I absolutely must go over in-depth. however,” she answered with a smile. “Nothing else of importance. Wells didn’t get a chance to look at the kitchen yet.”
I’ll do that,” Sanbbey volunteered, then left Ciph and Olivia alone so that they could speak in confidence.
“Ol, Olivia,” Ciph began tentatively. She set everything in her hands on the desk and gave him her full attention. “I’m not comfortable taking all of these people home with us. We can’t watch them all. We don’t know anything about them.”
“They’ve been hurt. They need care,” she responded.
“Philip did, certainly, and the young woman in the other cage,” he agreed. “But these folks are already self-sufficient. We need to honor that. Plus, well, I don’t trust Myrtle.”
Before Olivia could respond, Sanbbey walked into the front office and interjected, “Two things. Happily, although the kitchen is small, the panty has food in it. Less happily, the kitchen has a back door and it’s standing wide open.”
Olivia stared at him in astonishment. “It’s open! I had to break in the front door, and all the time they knew that the back door was open.”
“Wells and Myrtle were the only people who had the freedom of movement to even know about the backdoor,” Ciph pointed out. “Wells did mention that both the doors were locked. If he was being truthful.”
“Wells helped me break in through the front door, and he didn’t seem familiar with the office,” Olivia said thoughtfully. “Philip and the young woman were locked up. Everyone else, though, was walking around unrestrained when we arrived.”
“We shouldn’t hang around here much longer,” Ciph declared. “Have you found all you need in here?”
“We need to pack up the weapons,” Olivia replied. “There aren’t many and so far nothing modern.”
“What are you doing with the pile of papers outside?” Sanbbey asked.
“Burning them,” Olivia responded as crossed the room to the weapons cabinet.
“I’ll start that,” Sanbbey suggested.
“Great, thank you. Please take the handful of documents on top of the desk, too,” Olivia agreed. “They are just some old receipts.”
Sanbbey scooped them up and went outside, so Olivia focused on inspecting the contents of the weapons cabinet on the far wall. She retrieved the small, silver key from her pocket and found that it fit the locked doors of the cabinet. She opened it carefully, then exclaimed, “Look at this! Someone must certainly be sorry that these got left behind!”
She turned toward Ciph and held up a finely crafted rapier with a hand-tooled scabbard and baldric. She stood, dropped the ensemble across her shoulder, and adjusted the baldric. As she did she explained, “This is where they kept their hand blasters. There are specialized shelves here to hold them and cleaning tools that were simply tossed in rather than being put away properly. It looks as if they had a surface-to-air one at some point, too. I haven’t looked in that bottom drawer yet but that’s next.”
“You are a beautiful warrior,” Ciph commented as he pulled her close to him. She nuzzled against his neck and their kiss was long and lingering. When she reluctantly broke away, he laughed and said, “We have work to do, don’t we?.”
He pointed to an empty set of hooks and commented, “I wonder what belonged there.”
He shrugged and then laid all the weapons on the dining table before loading them into the backpack. The pistols fit nicely in the large pocket of the backpack, while the lead balls and gunpowder filled up the roomy front pocket. Holding up the dagger he commented, “You mentioned that these are all valuable antiques. Why would anyone leave them behind? They don’t take up all that much space.”
“Transporting weapons entails paying a hefty fee,” Olivia elucidated as she dug through the bottom drawer of the weapons cabinet. “If they were crated in the cargo hold that would have been far less costly. So you’re right, it doesn’t make sense to have left something that’s probably been in a family for hundreds of years.”
“I don’t like this, Ol. Too much doesn’t add up.”
“Aha!” Olivia said triumphantly as he tucked the dagger in beside the pistols and then closed the backpack. She held up two packages. One held a lengthy coil of fuse, the other a tiny, sealed bag of black powder. “This is a powerful explosive. It was tucked way down along the side of that bottom drawer as if it had fallen there without anyone knowing. There isn’t much, but if we put what’s here toward the center of the cages we should be able to destroy them enough that we can pull them the rest of the way down. I’m not sure there is sufficient fuse to run from all three cages. Is there a way you can throw a lighted fuse with a sling launcher?”
“Not me,” Ciph said with a laugh. “I can’t use a sling launcher without tangling myself up in it. Sanbbey will be able to. Can we pour the powder around candles and let them detonate the powder when they burn down? That I can do.”
“That’s an idea,” Olivia said as she stood up and dusted off her clothes. She slung the backpack over one shoulder and smiled at him. “Let’s go outside and talk with Sanbbey. Bring the bludgeons and that whip. We’ll toss them into the fire.”
Olivia stacked the bludgeons up and threw the whip into the flames as Ciph tried to explain to his friend what was needed. Sanbbey guffawed loudly, wiped tears from the corner of his eyes, and said, “Don’t worry, Ciph. I’ve never been a champion of self-immolation and I would hate to see that happen to you, even unintentionally. I’ll handle igniting the powder.”
While Ciph and Sanbbey moved the bodies of Granny and her great-granddaughter several meters away from the cages, Olivia divided the powder into three even piles on top of old, not yet burned receipts that she folded and carried over to the Nuisance Cages. Sanbbey unwound the fuse from the edge of the farthest cage where Granny had died, into the center of the middle cage that had held the young woman Myrtle had punished. The fuse would not run farther so he twisted paper into a long rope, then stretched that from the center cage to the final one. Ciph flew up and placed each packet of explosives in the center of each cage across the fuse. He and Olivia retreated all the way back to the office building. Sanbbey lit the fuse dangling from the farthest cage, and once he was certain it was burning steadily, he flew upward and raced to get a safe distance away.
The powder sizzled and burned into the gurygum planks erupting with an ear-splitting explosion and an intense burst of light. The cages shook, the gurygum crumbled, while the iron bars twisted and broke apart.
As the smoke cleared, Sanbbey gestured that he was joining the group gathering food, then disappeared into the woods. Ciph seized on the privacy and turned Olivia to face him as he reiterated, “Olivia, I’m not comfortable inviting the freed prisoners back to our home. The bunks are ready to sleep in. There’s the food in the kitchen pantry, plus whatever they bring back. Would you be upset if we go home without them?”
Olivia squeezed his hand gently, pulled him to her, and replied, “I don’t want to put our family in danger either. We don’t need to even suggest that they come back. They can’t accept what isn’t offered. Gaolertown is about ten kilometers away. We can offer to guide them there tomorrow.”
Ciph responded by nuzzling his nose under the hair draped across her neck. They parted when they heard Sanbbey and the others tramping closer.
When he entered the courtyard, Wells leaned his hands on his legs to draw in several deep breaths as he ogled the destroyed cages and stammered in disbelief, “Praise the Lord. They’re really gone.”
Ciph held up his hands for everyone’s attention, and said, “There is a dining room table in the office building, and plenty of furniture, so you can use it as your home for the time being without any problem. It’s bound to be more comfortable than your old cells. If you would put everything you’ve gathered on the table for now, and return here, that would be great. You can transfer it to the kitchen in a few minutes. First, though, we would like to talk with everyone, so as soon as you’ve emptied your hands, please come back and have a seat in our luxurious meeting hall.” He laughed as he waved his hand toward the ground at their feet.
Wells and the freed prisoners laughed and headed into the old office that was now their home. He returned only a couple of minutes later and paced nervously back and forth in front of Olivia and Ciph while he waited for everyone else to assemble. Spying the stack of bludgeons near the bonfire, he asked, “Would you leave those for us? We need something to defend ourselves.”
By the time Ciph and Wells had piled them against the wall of the office building, the others had returned. Olivia scanned the group and asked, “Where’s Myrtle?”
The free prisoners murmured to each other, then shrugged their shoulders. One of them answered, “We haven’t seen her since she argued with you. We have no idea where she is.”
Wells looked around anxiously, bowed slightly to Olivia and Ciph, and said, “We came to a consensus while we were gathering food. If you don’t mind, I would like to stay with you and Olivia, but the others want to stay here rather than go back to the Eolians’s home. They’re not comfortable sleeping in a tree with half birds. You know how it is.”
Olivia narrowed her eyes at the insult and ran her gaze disapprovingly over the freed prisoners.
“I apologize,” Wells said when he saw her reaction. He turned to Ciph and held out his hand. “I am very sorry, very sorry, that they’ve used that term. It is not one which I would use.”
Olivia grabbed Ciph’s wrist before he could take the man’s hand, and then said to everyone, “As the Survivor, I order all of you to never use the term half bird again. I will not tolerate such disrespect toward Ciph or any Eolian. I will not. They saved your lives. They transported your injured to a healer. I demand that you apologize immediately, all of you.”
“Forgive me,” Wells muttered as he slowly sank to one knee and bowed his head. He lifted a palm toward the other freed prisoners. They whispered to each other, then they also bent a knee to Olivia and bowed their heads. Ciph shuffled his feet uncomfortably and then held his hands out wide to Olivia, encouraging her to respond.
“Thank you,” she said. “Let’s talk about what happens next.”
Wells rose and replied, “They are thinking, rightly so, that if they stay here they will be closer to town for those that want to relocate there. It’s a long walk.”
“That’s sensible,” Ciph agreed. “Wells, you will be the most useful to everyone by staying here where you can keep an eye on everything. You’ll be in charge when the Survivor and I can’t be here. We can rendezvous tomorrow. ” He waited until Wells acquiesced and then turned to the freed prisoners and added, “Why don’t you go ahead and unpack your food, choose your beds, and generally relax.”
Olivia cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. When they turned to her she explained, “Granny and her great-granddaughter need to be laid to rest. Are any of you strong enough to dig graves?”
The freed prisoners talked among themselves and then one of them answered, “We are. We can take turns. Since we knew them, one of us will say something about them and lead the prayer. We would like you to be there, Survivor.”
“Of course,” Olivia replied.
Sanbbey and the Eolians assisted while the freed prisoners traded off between digging and unpacking the food so that no one became dangerously tired. While they were doing that, Olivia brought empty buckets from the tool shed to the pump where Ciph filled them with water. They had filled the last available bucket and lined up in the kitchen when Wells Gainor approached them and quietly entreated, “I’ve come to ask you to reconsider and allow me to go home with you. Please. I don’t feel safe here.”
Ciph straightened. He glanced at Olivia to gauge her opinion but was unable to read the look on her face, so he asked, “Why not?”
Before Wells could answer, Callof landed beside them. Placing one hand on Olivia’s shoulder consolingly, he said, “The healer is concerned because the female had been badly beaten in addition to not being allowed food for at least two days. Despite what was said, other prisoners must have been involved. The healer could see that at least two, and more likely three, people would have been involved. Taking that into consideration, I will not allow them in our home.”
“Ciph has already told them as much,” Olivia agreed, dropping her head.
Callof considered her remark and then continued, “Nor will I risk any of us staying in this building with them. However, my conscience nags at me, so Sanbbey will put together a team to stand guard during the night, but in the trees where they will remain hidden unless something urgent happens.”
“Thank you, Callof. I share your concerns and appreciate your help,” Olivia replied, a hint of sadness edging her voice
Ciph rubbed her upper arm affectionately, as he said, “Wells, get together anything you want to bring with you, possessions, extra clothes. We’ll leave after the burial.”
Everyone came together again for the brief funeral ceremony. Once it was complete, Wells assisted Olivia into the sling chair, but before he could climb in beside her, Ciph got their attention and pointed for Olivia to look behind her. When she turned she saw all of the prisoners had dropped to one knee and bowed their heads to her.
As the earliest glow of First Sun tendrilled over the horizon, Ciph’s family gathered to honor Ciph and Olivia. Callof, Sanbbey, and Wells held Philip MacDonald in a sitting position as everyone lingered close enough to be witnesses but not so close that they would see what was meant to stay private between the couple.
Ciph and Olivia bowed to the rising sun. Ciph opened his robe, lifted Olivia’s hand, and placed it over his heart. Following his example, she opened the front of her shirt so that he could place his hand over hers. Together they spoke to the First Sun:
I, Ciph, Become One with Olivia.
I, Olivia, Become One with Ciph.
As First Sun opens the day for Second Sun, so your love, Olivia, opens my life to new possibilities, to completeness.
As First Sun opens the day for Second Sun, so your love, Ciph, opens my life to new possibilities, to completeness.
As First Sun prepares the world for morning, so your love, Olivia, smooths the paths at my feet, moving us ever onward by way of each other.
As First Sun prepares the world for morning, so your love, Ciph, smooths the paths at my feet, moving us ever onward by way of each other.
As First Sun moves across the sky always accompanied by Second Sun, so my love moves by your side, Olivia, through all of our todays and all of our tomorrows.
As First Sun moves across the sky always accompanied by Second Sun, so my love moves by your side, Ciph, through all of our todays and all of our tomorrows.
The skin under their hands sizzled, then cooled just as rapidly. When they pulled their hands away, they were indelibly marked with a mrilge declaring their love.
Afterward, the delegation that had been chosen to assist the freed prisoners swiftly flew to the prison complex. They found it eerily silent. The front and back doors of the office building stood open, and the windows shutters were thrown wide. Two of their group flew the perimeter of the complex checking for danger while another pair walked through the dining hall and each cell searching for the freed prisoners. Ciph, Olivia, and Callof approached the office building.
Myrtle emerged from the front door with the flat of the short, heavy sword missing from the wall display propped boldly against one shoulder. Behind her paced four of the freed prisoners, each holding a bludgeon.
“You’re not welcome here, Survivor,” Myrtle yelled to them.
“Where are the others?” Olivia demanded. “If you’re done something with them, hurt them in any way, you will answer for it.”
“So like a Raedwald to assume the worst. We discussed it like mature adults,” Myrtle scoffed. “We own the former prison and the land around it. They are all relocating to Gaolertown. Now get off my land.”
“It isn’t your land,” Olivia corrected. “It’s mine. I own the entire planet and every inch of soil or sea on it.”
“She does,” Wells agreed. “The planet is hers. She’s the Raedwald.”
Myrtle pointed toward Olivia with the sword. “Get off my land.”
“I will allow you a certificate of residence,” Olivia replied. “Come to town in the next couple of weeks and we’ll fix you right up. But you do not own this land. I will never allow you to own any land, Myrtle Madoc. And if you continue your hostile actions toward others, you will lose the privilege of residing anywhere on Terra Saint Edmunds.”
The freed prisoners behind Myrtle shifted their weight, and one of them concurred, “The Raedwalds own everything. I know that for a fact. I worked for him long enough. We need to back off and focus on ourselves.”
Olivia repeated, “Where are the others?”
“On the road to Gaolertown,” the freed prisoner answered. He set the palm of his hand on Myrtle’s shoulder and pulled her lightly toward the door. “Come on. They’re not interested in us. Let them go after the others in peace. I’ll stay outside and make certain that they leave.”
Myrtle strode forward several paces, lifted the sword from her shoulder, put both hands on the hilt, and drove it into the dirt between Olivia and herself. She stepped back and promised, “There will be another time, Survivor.”
They caught up with the others where Wells had built his lean-to. It was obvious that the free prisoners were unaccustomed to long hikes and nearing a state of exhaustion. Their feet were dragging. Many of them were panting. Wells invited everyone to come to the lean-to where they could rest. He passed around fruit and nuts from the supply the Eolians brought along while Callof and Ciph collected fresh water from the stream he had used.
Once they relaxed and began to talk and laugh contentedly, Wells explained for the sake of those who had never been there. “The town is far nicer than where we’ve been living. The streets are finished and not left as hard packed dirt. The sidewalks are raised and usually made of gurygum but sometimes hardwood. When I was this last time, almost all of the houses were empty, so whether we stay in Brenhus’ manor or on our own, there will be plenty of room. Most of the shops and businesses were left open when the owners evacuated, so we should be able to obtain supplies. I don’t know how long all this will last, but that’s where the town stands right now. One of the wonderful things is that the Old Castle —— people call it that because of its architecture, but it’s the docking tower where incoming prisoners arrive —is right on the sea. It’s an easy and pleasant evening’s stroll to the shore.”
As he talked, a couple of the freed prisoners dozed off, so everyone sat quietly enjoying the radiance of the suns, the gentle breeze blowing across them, and especially simply being free.
One of them rummaged in the pillowcase that held the clothing he’d brought along. He brought out a book that he offered to Olivia, and said, “I found this underneath my bunk. Are you familiar with the story?”
“Pride and Prejudice,” Olivia said with a wide smile. “Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors.”
“I can’t read. I learned some when I was young, but I was imprisoned so long that I’ve forgotten it. Would you mind reading this to us?” he asked.
“I’d be happy to read a chapter or two. Maybe another couple later or tomorrow, depending on how busy we are,” Olivia responded. She tipped her head a bit, waved the book in the air decisively, and observed, “Wells, Gaolertown is such an ugly name. What if we named the town after Mr. Darcy’s home? You say it’s close to the ocean, so we could call it Pemberley-on-the-Sea.”
___________________________________ Thank you for reading my story. xo This short story is based on the my books in Chronicles of New East Anglia: The Second-Best King, The Wronged Prince, and The Dying Hero. All three are available at Amazon, B&N, and Kobo. Original mrilge designed by Tim Peters.
It used to be more than his job. It was a career. It was his profession, his identity. No, it used to be even more…it was art. As surely as Picasso swished a brush or Michelangelo altered stone. A twist of experience, a dash of street sense. Don’t speak. Put the deal on the table and wait. He did it well. He did it easily. He thought he would do it forever. Rake in money. Toss crumbs to the cold and hungry gathered outside that fancy house he lived in. Put the deal on the table and wait. If old folks want to sell out, their house too cumbersome, their children caught up putting their children through school, make friends with the wives. Visit after all the lunch meetings when she’s just put the beef steak on the counter to thaw, covered with a bit of tin to keep the cat off. She’ll have time to talk then. Keep a ready supply of ink pens and contracts ready. Put the deal on the table and wait. Now, his Buick is parked in a great nephew’s unheated garage, and he can’t make it beyond the front stoop without his cane. From the senior van he eyeballs the value of houses on the way to buy groceries. In this market he’d be able to put in a second swimming pool, shallow enough for the babies to play in, like Margaret always wanted. He’d could take her to Belize. But he couldn’t take Margaret anywhere anymore; she lies in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. She doesn’t remember who he is. He plays cards with friends he’s made at the senior center. They bet straws and coffee stirrers. He does well. Puts the deal on the table and waits.
Most people who were in the mood for looking, kept their gaze on his shoulders. He knew it. He’d known it for years, and focused on it. He practiced in front of two mirrors to learn the exact way to flex them for attention, spent hours with his tailor draping fabrics across his back and arms to see whether the cloth would ripple or cling, and at the last faire, colleagues taught him a dehydration technique that thinned his skin across the shape of his muscles. Beyond all that, he made certain to exercise. His career warranted it, of course, but he put in extra, because of the stares he garnered.
He’d fathered several children, on both sides of the blanket, because of his shoulders. He’d wed twice, both times to women, although there were some fine young men in the world, and he never turned away what they offered. Neither marriage lasted. None of his relationships did. They were intense and flattering, but invariably short-lived. It wasn’t because of him. He never did anything wrong. He took care to be polite, gentle, and supportive. No, it wasn’t him. It was them. They couldn’t accept his line of work. He was successful, in fact, renowned — as renowned as someone deliberately anonymous could be. He owned a large house, ate well, and kept a smart team of fast horses. Yet, every single lover he ever had abandoned him once they discovered his line of work. He supposed, since it was so small of a city, it was inevitable that they all knew someone he’d handled professionally. Someone whose head ended up on a spike outside the city gate.
He wondered what more they wanted. After all, it was swinging the axe that kept his shoulders so strong.
He perched on the back steps, his long legs stretched awkwardly, his thin, shoulder-length hair tumbled into his face, his afternoon cannabis rolled in new papers and pinched between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. As he sat there alone, he watched their dogs bouncing in circles while tugging back and forth at the same tree branch. In the nearby shade, unsightly moss crept along the edge of the patio stones, and he supposed he would scrub the patio clean of it one day.
He had run out of words. The task was so simply. Wash the blue jeans. Put them into the dryer. Take them out of the dryer and fold them neatly with the seams apart so that the bellbottoms flared right to left when worn. How hard could that be? Folding the seams together so that the bottoms flared front to back was ridiculous. Nobody wore hip huggers that way.
He’d tried to explain the first time she did his laundry when they’d been married only a couple days. The wedding had been easy. They’d call their friends on the phone and said, “Getting married in the park on Saturday. Pizza at the house afterwards.” A good thirty people made it. It had been spontaneous. It had been fun despite the rain.
He’d tried to explain it again the next time she did his laundry a week later. She’d peered over her eyeglasses at him and continued what she was doing. It was a reaction he’d admired when he’d seen her target others with it.
When he’d tried to explain it two days ago, she opened her hands and let his jeans drop to the floor in front of the dryer.
Just five minutes ago he’d said loudly, “I guess I’ll have to pick my own jeans up off the floor.”
She simply answered, “Yes.”
He wished they could go back to that moment, before the phone calls had been made and the pizzas were ordered. When it was still fun. Before it was like this. Sighing, he pressed his left hand against the wooden step and pushed off to rise to his feet. The hemostat was in the living room and he’d need it if he were going to keep smoking. He’d picked the jeans up and put them away as he went by.
The young mother, clearly overworked, wore a thin, ill-fitting jacket and blue jeans. On her right shoulder hung her purse, a diaper bag and three plastic grocery sacks. In her left arm slept a baby bundled in a white snowsuit and pink blanket. There was one empty seat on the bus, so she told her three-year-old son to sit there.
The boy obeyed, but squinted suspiciously at the fortyish woman in layered work clothes and a reflective safety vest sitting next to him. He squirmed. He glanced over his shoulder to see out the window behind him. He turned his face the other direction and eyed the overweight, old lady with a gray, metal cane propped against her knees. The boy stared at her challengingly.
She smiled at him.
He dropped his head, squirmed again, leapt to feet, and darted to his mother. Flinging his arms around her legs, he buried his face against her knees.
“Mikey,” she said uncomfortably. “Mikey, go back and sit down.”
“No,” the toddler whispered.
She shrugged her purse and the diaper bag higher onto her shoulder, leaned forward awkwardly, and placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go. Sit. Down.”
Mikey shook his head defiantly, looked into her eyes, and started to cry.
Other passengers on the bus pressed against each other, some pointed, others jerked their chins in Mikey’s direction, and all of them snickered. The driver’s angry glare bounced off the rear view mirror and slammed into the harried mother.
“Mikey,” she said pleadingly.
The old woman canted her head as she measured the exchange between the boy and his mother. Finally, she called out cheerily, “Mikey.”
The child twisted around to look at her.
“Mikey, come back and sit next to your Aunties,” the old woman suggested.
The woman in the reflective vest nodded toward the boy, then patted the empty plastic bus seat invitingly.
The boy glanced at his mother, who smiled with desperate frustration and repeated, “Go sit down.”
Realizing that he had been saved by his “Aunties,” the boy raced back, and the woman in the reflective vest helped him climb onto the seat. The boy knelt with his nose and one hand pressed to the window. He used the other hand to gesture at all the wonderful things outside the bus window: the overhead train, another bus, a truck from the south side delivering produce. Tapping his hand on the glass enthusiastically, he grinned and cried out at the truck’s logo, “Let us!”
The old lady thought of the three-story walk up and the twice used tea bag waiting for her at the end of the bus ride. The string from the tea bag would be dangling down the side of the cup and beside it, along the edge of the saucer, would be the half-slice of cold toast she’d set aside for her lunch. She tightened her grip on her utilitarian cane.
“Lettuce,” she agreed feigning excitement. “And tomatoes.”