Rings of Saturn: Part 4 – Aug. 11-12, 79

Rings of SaturnTraveling with Marcus made Evie feel like her feet might fall off at the end of the day. He roused everyone before dawn and got them into a marching file, and they walked until the sun reached its zenith. They’d stop for a bit of wine, bread, and cheese, and then march some more. Marcus might not be an actual soldier, but Evie sure felt like she was in the army. Whenever they passed villages or other cities, Marcus would send a man or two ahead to scout the area and buy more provisions when necessary.

“I have to admit,” Evie said as they approached Naples, “he’s efficient.”

Tatius had not enjoyed the last four days. Despite his lanky build, he was slow on the road. He liked to say it was the mule slowing him down, that the beast was stubborn, but that excuse was dashed to bits when one of Marcus’s men took the rope and the mule matched the man’s pace. Since then, Marcus had taken to prodding Tatius verbally and physically. He walked by now, jabbing the farmhand in the back with the butt of his spear. “I’m going as fast as I can,” Tatius said.

“Not fast enough. Something tells me those symbols won’t last forever.”

“What does that mean?” Evie asked. Marcus didn’t answer, but set his jaw and stared forward. She stopped. “What do you mean by that? That I won’t be able to get back home?”

Marcus stopped and looked back at them. “Keep moving.”

“Not until you answer me. I didn’t know these things,” Evie held up my arm, “have an expiration date.”

“I don’t know how long they’ll last. But quests aren’t meant to be delayed. I don’t know why you even let this boy stay with us; he’s slowing us down. Slowing you down. Campania is still another day away–two if he doesn’t pick up his feet.”

“I’ve been traveling ten days already,” Tatius said.

Evie shifted her weight. “I keep him around because it’s his master’s mule. Besides, neither of us are used to walking so much in a day. Where I come from, we have–” She stopped, because she didn’t know how to describe subways and taxicabs to a Roman bandit dressed as a soldier. “This isn’t your quest, Marcus. It’s mine. I’ve hired you and the coin I gave you should be enough to pay for an extra day. Quit giving Tatius a hard time.”

Marcus shook his head. “The priestesses. Far as I’m taking you.”

“Right. Just like we agreed.”

The rest of the day, and half of the next, passed with more marching, though Marcus was gentler to Tatius. He only told him to walk faster instead of happing at him with the blunt end of his weapon. As they approached the city, Evie quieted.

“Are you frightened?” Tatius asked.

“I don’t know. I’m sure if there is some quest to fulfill, it’ll require more than walking from north of Rome to Campania. What if–what if I can’t do it, and I never get to go home again?”

“That may happen, but the gods will perhaps take into account that you tried. Well, Saturn probably wouldn’t.”

“Tatius.”

“I’m only mean that he’s rather stern, isn’t he?”

“Tatius! That’s not helping.”

“Sorry. Will you–” He adjusted his grip on the mule’s rope. “Will you send word to Publius Sepunius Columella either way?”

Evie stopped and turned toward him, mouth hanging open. “Tatius, are you worried about me?”

Tatius stopped too and looked up at the sky. Not a single cloud drifted by to distract him. “I–only because my master was concerned. And setting off as we did without the time to make a sacrifice or consult the augurs…”

Evie placed her hand on Tatius’s forearm. “I will send word if I can but I probably won’t be able to. I don’t know what’s coming and if given the opportunity to go home, I have to take it. Tatius, I don’t belong here. You didn’t see–didn’t see what I looked like when I arrived.”

“I know my master had to bring you clothes. You only know about some of our gods. Your accent is all wrong and you don’t know where some of the small villages are between the larger cities. I know you’re an outsider, but I don’t know from where.”

Or when, Evie thought. “Right. So I have to go back the moment the priestesses give me the chance–or I might lose it.”

Tatius hung his head. “I understand. Publius Sepunius Calumella will be disappointed.”

“And you?”

Tatius lifted one corner of his mouth to smile. “I haven’t got much of a choice. Just bring the mule here, bring the mule back. Probably won’t even make it back alive.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard you tell a joke. You shouldn’t. It’s weird, Tatius.” Evie smiled to him though.

“Are you two finished? The priestesses won’t wait forever,” Marcus said.

After Tatius left with the mule, Evie followed Marcus into Campania proper. It was more beautiful than anything she’d ever imagined, but somehow she knew it fulfilled every part of a Mediterranean dream, even though it was on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Turquoise water, sailboats, and villas carved into cliffs were accompanied by the calls of gulls overhead, and a chorus of voices. Some advertised the catch of the day, others wares from all over the region. Wheat from Egypt. Pottery from Greece. Spanish leather.

“This way,” Marcus closed his hand around Evie’s elbow and led her through a maze of streets. Each time she was certain they’d hit a dead end, he turned into an alleyway that was so narrow it seemed to appear out of nowhere. It would widen and then lead to other alleyways that worked like capillaries, arteries, and veins carrying people, animals, and goods to and from the port. Evie imagined a great heart there, beneath the docks, pulsing. Marcus turned with her so many times that she lost track of which direction they’d come from, until they finally stopped before an archway over a door twice her height. “The priestesses are inside. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain.”

“So you’re just going to abandon me here?”

He shook his head, lips pressed into a thin line. “It is no abandonment. You paid me to take you to the priestesses.”

“You said you knew them. You have to at least make an introduction.”

Marcus sighed and approached the door, raising his fist and pounding on the wood with his whole forearm. For a moment, nothing happened, and Evie wasn’t sure if she would be happy about that or not. Would it be easier to just go back to Publius Sepunius Columella and try to find a job she could do for him? The door swung open and her wrist burned. Evie hissed and covered the marks with her other hand. Marcus turned toward her. “What is it?”

She uncovered her wrist, which looked red and angry, like the symbols had just been branded mere moments ago. “It hurts.”

“It would, wouldn’t it?”

Evie narrowed her eyes at him. “Why? Why should it hurt?”

“Means you’re on the right path, I bet. Come on.”

Evie didn’t consider herself a wimp but she wouldn’t have minded getting some sympathy from Marcus. Tatius would have shown empathy, she thought–but then, Marcus was a cruel mercenary, probably. Or brigand. She shouldn’t expect such kindness from him. She followed him through the archway, her cheeks heating up as she looked up at the barrel-vaulted expanse before her. The walls were frescoed with scenes of the gods. Evie couldn’t help but think how much Pete would love to get a team in here. If she ever made it home, she’d have to make sure that the museum got someone to come check this place out. Maybe she’d get to come back in two thousand years or so and see it with an archeologist’s eye.

“Marcus,” a woman in a dark blue dress walked up to them and regarded him. “You weren’t going to ever return here. On pain of death.”

Evie turned her head toward him so fast that her neck spasmed. “You–you said they owed you.”

The woman laughed. “We do! We owe him death. But,” she turned toward Evie, trailing cool fingertips down Evie’s arm to clasp her wrist. She pried Evie’s fingers away from the symbols and held them up close to her face. Evie examined the paint around the woman’s eyes. Tiny Roman numerals–just numerals here, I suppose–lined her brow. “But maybe we can find a way for him to settle this debt between us. Marcus, you will both stay the night.” She smiled to Evie, releasing her wrist. “I am Aelia, and you and I have much to discuss. You come with the gods’ blessing, on a quest that…” Aelia closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath that shuddered her torso, “that will either save or doom you.”

Evie couldn’t look away from Aelia. Her low, soft voice, her painted amber eyes, her soft black curls that framed her face and rested weightless on her shoulders, entranced Evie. “Can you help me? Tell me what I’m supposed to do? And how to get back home?”

Aelia smiled. “There is only one way to go home. You must do as the gods ask, and you must have faith in them. I must consult with them–you will both dine and sleep in this temple tonight.”

“But–” Marcus said, but silenced himself when Aelia held up her hand, palm facing him. He nodded and Aelia waved that hand, beckoning three more young women. They kept their gazes down, but two of them led Marcus one way, and one of them led Evie down another corridor.

“You must bathe, then sup, then sleep,” the woman told Evie.

Despite how much she wanted to get home, Evie agreed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real bath. Food sounded great, and sleep in what she hoped would be a bed would be divine. Then in the morning, she could find out from Aelia exactly what she had to do to get back home where she belonged.

Pathogen: Jana – 3

PathogenThe next morning, at least she figured it was morning, the heavy door to the room opened once more. Two women stood on the other side, and behind them, the man with the gun. “You’re to come with us then, to get cleaned up.”

“What if I would rather just leave?” Jana stood from her corner.

“Then I’ll kill you,” the man answered.

Jana didn’t think he’d shoot her for not going with the other women. She crossed her legs at the ankle, leaned back, and said, “You know, threatening to kill people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to do what you want.”

He shrugged. “I don’t care. It’s effective, isn’t it? Now, on your feet. Go and get cleaned up.”

Jana reluctantly followed the two women. Not that she had much of a choice with the man with the gun walking behind her, so close that she could hear him breathing. “Do you all have names,” she asked idly.

“Yes.” He didn’t tell her his name, nor the names of the women who led her into the bathrooms.

“Is this a cult?” Jana was alone with the two women now. They didn’t speak, but just shook their heads as they gently stripped her of her clothing. Beneath her coat she wore a pair of spandex shorts and a tank top–far more appropriate for a Manhattan summer than Ryan’s coat. “Take it easy with that,” she instructed the woman who dumped the coat into a wash bin. The coat was a faded parka, and the women looked at her like she was crazy for wanting them to take such care.

The water they dumped over her head was room temperature, so that she stood shivering and dripping. They scrubbed at her hair and body with a sharp-scented soap. One of them stopped and pointed to the small black cat on her upper arm. “Oh, that?” Jana asked. “Ryan and I got tattoos together about four years ago. We were separated.” Again, the women said nothing, but resumed washing her. “You know,” Jana offered, “I’m capable of doing this myself.” They merely shook their heads and continued working. They dumped another bucket of water over her head to rinse away the suds and then came at her with towels and clothing.

Outside the room, the man with the gun waited. “At least you don’t stink anymore,” he offered, placing one hand on her shoulder to direct her further down the corridor.

Jana watched the door to the room where they’d imprisoned her. They passed it, but she figured it was pointless to ask where they were going as she’d find out soon enough. “There are better places to live, you know. Brighter places. Even my apartment is nicer.”

“We can keep this secure.”

“Figures you’d say something like that.”

“I don’t want to be your friend thief. I wanted to kill you. Don’t forget that.”

Jana said nothing else to him as he steered her around the corner and into another room. A wooden conference table sat in the middle, surrounded by a semi-circle of chairs. White paint was chipping off of the walls and she wondered how this place could look like it was abandoned decades ago when the riots only started earlier in the year.

“Sit there,” the man pointed to a chair at one end of the table. He and the women left the room.

Jana sat where indicated and waited. An older man she’d not seen before strolled in and sat across from her, laying his palms on the faded table. He was balding, but it seemed like all the hair that had fled the top of his head took up residence on his eyebrows. For a moment, he sat, back rigid, staring at her. She stared right back, reclining in the over-sized chair, arms folded over her chest.

“You are obviously skilled at stealth.”

Jana shrugged. “Not skilled enough it seems.”

The man waved his hand dismissively. He wore a gold wedding band a gold watch. Jana could see from here that the watch face was frosted white and cracked. “Do not undervalue your abilities. No one gets past them–they were CIA, you know.”

“I didn’t know. What’s your point?”

“Everyone must pull their weight. We have a lot of people here. The group who determined your judgment…they were just the first thirty or so in line.”

“Great legal system you have here.”

The man’s mouth quirked up at one corner, but it didn’t put Jana at ease. “You have three choices. You can either work for us willingly, work for us unwillingly, or suffer the ultimate consequences.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

The man rose to his feet deliberately, as though testing the reliability of his legs beneath him. “Well, if you work for us willingly, you’d be finding information. Finding food. Supplies. That sort of thing. If you work for us unwillingly, you stay here and…and we take something from you. The final choice is to forfeit your life.”

“What’s to stop me from just leaving if I work with you?”

“Every mission you’ll be with the two men who tracked you.”

“You really know how to sweeten a deal, hm? What do you take from me if I choose to be uncooperative? Obviously I’m not going to just let you kill me.”

“Well, that would be your choice. Your hand, your ear, your eye, your nose, or your tongue. The women who bathed you…they chose that route. Plus, if you don’t cooperate, then you will never leave this place.”

“Ah, that’s why they were so silent. Well, as fun as that sounds, I think I will keep all of my body parts. I guess I have no choice but to work with you. Though I’m not too keen on spending my days with those two idiots.”

“They are not idiots. Quite intelligent actually. And what you are keen on…does not really matter. You must be hungry; I will have someone show you to your permanent quarters, and tomorrow, you will begin.”

Behind the Scenes: Deleted Scene

This is part of a scene from an old version of a chapter of my novel. I like the conflict between James and Zaddock, but after this semester’s experiments with my tone, style, voice, and structure, the writing feels so stiff to me. I might grab a few descriptions to reuse, but for the most part, this scene will likely remain deleted.

Two days later, the bell rang from the lookout again. I was in the stables when I heard the chimes fill the air. The horses here were majestic creatures. Abner’s own reminded me of Katherine for they were both Thoroughbreds, but Abner’s horse—called Barnaby—was different from the mild-mannered mare of my childhood. He was younger, and far more spirited. But he had the same white star pattern between his eyes that Katherine had. My father had said it reminded him of a jewel, so that’s why he named her after the queen of one hundred years ago.

Barnaby nuzzled my palm and I pat that star before leaving the stables. The lookout was on the armory, which made sense as the two long guns were perched on the lookout deck. I wasn’t technically supposed to be in the armory without permission, but my curiosity got the better of me; I wanted to see what the bell was for. I slipped inside, spotting a trio of soldiers in the midst of the room. At the moment, all of their backs were turned so I took the stairs two at a time, and almost ran into Gibbons at the top. 

“Oh, pardon me.”

“Mr. Stanworth,” he greeted with a tilt of his head. “Weren’t you supposed to stay out of the armory?” He was smiling. I was certain he recalled giving me a brief overview of the fort and it’d been he who issued that decree.

“Was I? My apologies if that’s so. You can search me if you must.”

Gibbons cocked his head to the side, and it looked like he was chewing on his cheek. “No,” he decided finally. “I trust you. I imagine you’re looking for the Lieutenant?”

I nodded. Gibbons pointed toward the door across the landing. “He’s out on the lookout with the Captain.”

I thanked him and walked past him but then stopped. “Mr. Gibbons?” When he turned from the top step, I asked, “What do you think of the Captain?”

His smile fell from his face. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? What I think? He outranks me, so I do as told, Mr. Stanworth, sir.”

“I see. Thank you.” 

Gibbons nodded and went on his way. I pulled open the door to the lookout and stepped outside. Up here, the wind curled up from the river and smacked my face. The cold made my nose tingle for a moment until it started to feel stiff and numb, even when I tried to wiggle it. I watched the tip, but what I saw didn’t connect to what I felt.

“What’re you doing up here?” Zadock demanded. 

Not my captain. “I heard the bells.”

“You are not a military man. You shouldn’t be up here.” 

Abner shook his head. “It’s alright, James. See that?” He pointed toward the river. 

“Damn Dutch,” Zadock grumbled.

“Is there no one you don’t hate?” I asked the Captain, who turned and thrust his stubby fingers into my chest. 

“I don’t hate the English. Our own kind.”

“All evidence to the contrary,” I answered, pushing his hand away.

The Stowaway

Tommy felt someone haul him out of the waves that slapped his face and rushed down his throat. He coughed, sputtered. Someone said, “hold on boy, you’ll live.” He clutched the side of the row boat as hard as he could. The oar smacked his leg right before the rower pulled it out of the water again. By the time the rocking stopped, Tommy slept.

When he woke, he felt the warmth of fire on one side of his body and turned to ease the chill on the other. He opened his eyes. The walls of a cottage and a hearth surrounded him. Above, he could just make out the underbelly of the thatched roof. He wasn’t rocking anymore but lay on a straw bed before the fire. A deer skin rug stretched the short distance between the straw bed and the hearth. A black kettle hung in the orange and red flames.

He pushed himself to his elbows. Tommy’s arms shook. “What happened?”

“Shipwreck,” a male voice answered, and then the man came into view. He was short with wide shoulders and sand caked on his breeches and boots. “We got most of you out of the water.”

“Most of us?”

“Aye. You’re lucky to be alive.”

Tommy sat up all the way and winced, pressing a hand to his sore side. “The captain—of the Content—did he make it?”

The man shrugged. “Wouldn’t know. I pulled you and two others out of the water. The others are upstairs. Neither looked like a captain though.”

Tommy nodded. “Thank you for saving me.” He stood.

“Whoa, where’re you going?”

“I have to leave.” He’d been a stowaway on the Content, and the captain had just discovered him before the storm hit.

“You’ll stay. You’re hurt and the sky’s open.”

Yet another I might turn into a longer story. I kind of want to see what becomes of Tommy, find out why he stowed away, etcetera. This is in response to Sunday’s writing prompt though, so I had to cap it at 300 words.

Rings of Saturn: Part 3 – Aug. 7, 79

Rings of SaturnFor the last two days, Evie and Tatius were not on speaking terms. That is, they spoke whenever they needed to, in order to make the journey to Campania, but after several days of arguing about which road they should take, whether they should detour to Rome–Tatius wanted to, or who was actually in charge of this journey, they’d fallen into silence.

“I think I should lead the mule,” Tatius spoke up, his hand outstretched for the rope. He was a lean man with stringy muscles that looked more like tendons than anything else. His features could be called classically Roman, ideal even, if not for his long, ski-slope nose that looked like it might jump off his face.

Evie sidestepped to keep him from taking the rope. The mule whimpered. “I have him.”

“You don’t know how to walk him. You’re scaring him.”

“No, I’m not. He’s fine. I wouldn’t have lurched away if you weren’t grabby.”

“How do I know you won’t steal him? And our supplies?”

Evie narrowed her eyes at Tatius. “Because Publius Sepunius Columella entrusted me with this mule. He was going to give it to me even if you didn’t come along. So far, you’re just one more person to feed.”

“You don’t feel safer with me than alone?”

“Not really, no.”

Tatius harrumphed. “Maybe I should go home.”

“Then who would take the mule back?”

He opened his mouth and then clamped it shut again. No wisecrack answer this time. Evie smirked. They shuffled to the side of the road to make way for a wagon. It was pulled by four black horses and driven by two soldiers. About a dozen soldiers marched behind the wagon, spears on their shoulders, sandals kicking up dust.

“I think you should ask them.”

“I won’t.”

“They will settle it. Excuse me!” Evie started after the soldiers, but the mule wouldn’t have anything of it. Reluctantly, she tossed the rope to Tatius and ran after the marching men. “Excuse me.” Evie fell into step with them. “Can you tell us the fastest way to Campania?”

The soldiers didn’t slow or turn. “If you’ve got money,” one behind her said, “we’ll help.” A burst of laughter sounded around Evie.

She reached into the pouch at her hip. “Very well, I have–” Before she could count out what rested in her palm, a spear was at her throat. The men stopped marching. The wagon stopped rolling. The metal sliced the air fast enough to sing.

“We’ll take it all,” the man from before said. He had gray stubble, more than his fair share of scars, and too-tight armor. It dug into his shoulders.

“Who are you?” Evie asked, tipping the coins back into the purse. She didn’t see Tatius come over, but she heard one of the soldiers yell at him to stay back.

“We’re the men who are happy to relieve you of your coin. And take your mule.”

“Mule’s not for sale. You said you’d give us directions for money.” All Evie could think about right now was the self-defense class she took when she first moved to the city. If you’re ever robbed and they just want money, stay calm and give it to them. Money could be replaced, even if with some difficulty. Life and limb could not.

The stubbled-and-scarred man snatched the coin purse from Evie’s hands. “Follow this road. It’ll take you straight to Campania.” He tossed the purse in the air and caught it; the coins inside jingled like miniature bells.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” Evie asked.

“You’ll just have to trust us.”

“But you’re all dressed as soldiers. Clearly you’re not soldiers. That makes you untrustworthy.”

The man grinned. He was missing several teeth, their gaps creating dark caverns in his mouth. “Too bad for you, eh?”

“I tell you what. One of you comes with us to Campania and you can have everything in the saddlebags on our mule. You can’t have the mule.”

One of the men from the back yelled, “Can we have him?” Another man cuffed him upside the head for shouting out.

“He’s not a slave. I can’t give him away–believe me, if I could, I would have awhile ago. He’s annoying.”

The man who’d stolen her purse scratched at his chin. He seemed to be their leader, which struck her as odd because he was walking on the ground instead of driving the wagon. “What’s in the saddle bags?”

“Food, supplies. But that’s not all–we’re going to Campania for a special reason.” Evie dropped her voice into a grave tone, and pulled her sleeve up to reveal the markings on her wrist. “See that? I’m on a mission. A quest. For the gods.” Maybe. Maybe it’s all a load of hooey. Maybe I hit my head and I’m laying on the floor, or maybe Pete had me loaded into an ambulance.

The men gathered around to view her wrist. The leader looked at them, then at Evie again. “Half of you, continue forward.” He pointed out a half dozen men. “You men with me. We’ll escort them the rest of the way to Campania.”

Four of them walked ahead, and three behind, with Evie, Tatius, and the mule in the middle. “What were you thinking? Are you mad?” Tatius asked.

“Not at all. After I saw how poorly you protected me from them, I decided I needed to hire someone more capable to see to my safe transport. Besides…it seems like they know something about these symbols. Maybe they’re from Campania. Maybe they know the temple Publius Sepunius Columella talked about.”

“I don’t trust them, Evie.”

“Yes, well, you don’t have a choice. My quest. I give you leave to go back to the farm, but the mule,” she snatched the rope back, “stays with me.”

Tatius decided he wasn’t going to leave the mule. He grumbled about how certain he was that he’d never see it again if he returned to the farm now. He also told Evie that if these men killed her, and Publius found out, the fault would rest on his shoulders. Evie didn’t think much of that problem, since not only did Publius Sepunius seem like a decent human being, but it didn’t seem to her that Tatius’ shoulders could hold much of anything, let alone fault. This whole journey, nothing was his fault, including why it was so warm out.

That night, the nine of them and the mule made camp just off the road. Evie sought out the leader of the fake soldiers and sat next to him before a small fire. “You’ve seen these symbols before.”

“She that wears the bracelet bearing them is either blessed or cursed. If you’re blessed, then I want some of that blessing too. If you’re cursed…not helping you could anger the gods and then I might be cursed too. Besides…the priestesses of Campania owe me.”

“What do they owe you? And how do I know if I’m blessed or cursed?”

“That’s between them and me. And you’ll know from the priestesses. They’ll tell you when we get there.”

“What’s your name?”

“My men call me Marcus.”

Evie suppressed a laugh. It seemed so cliche to her, a Roman named Marcus. But then, she supposed the name did suit him, especially in a soldier’s uniform. “Warlike,” she said, “after Mars, the god of war.”

“Obvious.”

“Who do the priestesses in Campania worship?

“Saturnus and Lua.”

Evie had never heard of Lua, but she knew who Saturnus, or Saturn, was. The god of seed, of time. She decided that his priestesses would be able to get her back to her own time, when she could just imagine this sort of thing instead of living it. “Why’re you all dressed like soldiers?”

“Too many questions. Go and sleep.”

“But I–”

He turned, a burning stick pointed at her. “Go and sleep. I am not your friend. We are not your friends. We’re guiding you because it’s convenient and I don’t want to anger the gods.”

Evie’s eyes locked on the fire right in front of her face. Perspiration gathered on her upper lip. She licked it away, tasting salt. “Very well,” she held her hands up in surrender. “But remember that if you kill me, you might anger the gods.” She stood and left him by the fire, to seek out Tatius and the mule.

Tatius had already set up a sleep space for them and tied the mule to a tree nearby. He tied another rope from the mule’s to his wrist. “So I know if they try to steal,” he told Evie when she cocked her head to the side. “We should sleep in turns,” he added.

Evie agreed, even though she didn’t think Marcus and his men would attack them–not with the gods on her side. Potentially on my side. But she knew that Tatius would just wake her anyway if she said she didn’t want to take turns guarding. “I’ll take the first shift. I’m not sleepy.” Tatius nodded and he was asleep within minutes.

Pathogen: Jana – 2

Pathogen

Theft and assault–that’s what they were accusing her of.

Stealing was technically a crime, but she’d stolen food so often in the past months that it didn’t feel like one anymore. She was hungry and the only way to keep going was to eat when she could, and Jana didn’t trust anyone else enough to form or join a group. Groups ultimately turned on one another when resources ran out or someone disagreed about how things were run. Or worse–she could get close to someone and then they could die.

As for assault, she only kicked the other man because he was trying to drag her out of her hiding spot. How could she know if they would try to hurt her or not? How could she know they weren’t sick? That she never got sick from living with Ryan was a miracle; Jana wasn’t eager to tempt fate if she could avoid it.

Eventually she made her way to the center of the room. She didn’t want them returning to find her hiding in the corner. She sat again, crossing her legs and resting her hands on her knees. She waited, mentally tracking the doors and corridors that led from the street to this room. The door opened with a squeal of protest and men and women of all ages–along with some children–filed into the room, lining the walls. They held slender candles that dripped wax of all different colors onto their skin. They didn’t even flinch.

“Rise, thief.” The man who’d led her here spoke clearly, forcing each word out with bitter distaste. “You may speak for yourself before we lay judgment upon you.” He was clean-shaven, his angular face shadowed in the flickering light so that his nose, jaw, and cheekbones looked sharpened.

Jana got to her feet. “I did steal from you, yes. Because I was hungry. I only kicked your brother to protect myself.” She wasn’t going to rationalize beyond that. Everyone had a sob story and whether or not they wanted hers, she wasn’t going to provide it. Jana didn’t want their pity–she just wanted to get out of here alive.

“You broke his nose. And the bread you stole, you might as well have taken from the mouths of these children.” The man slowly waved his paddle of a hand through the air, indicating the four or five children pressed between adults along the walls. They didn’t budge. “Cast your vote,” the man ordered. The soft rush of forced breath echoed around her as the room began to darken, followed by a moment or two of silence. “Wait here.” The man led everyone else out of the room and Jana heard the door latch in their wake.

“As though I have any choice,” she answered the now-empty room. Were they going to kill her? What did blowing out a candle signify–to snuff out her life? Did one third of the room want her dead, and, what would happen to her if they decided to let her live? She remained standing until her knees began to ache, and Jana realized she’d stood with them locked since the vote. She let her legs buckle beneath her, ignoring the dull wave of pain that radiated into her knee caps from the cement floor. Jana sat back on her heels and stared into the darkness.

When the door opened again, she lifted her head. How much time had passed, she didn’t know, but she’d ended up curled up on her side, her cheek resting on the back of her hand. A child walked forward and placed a bowl about four feet away from her. “Wait,” she called out as he retreated. “What do the candles–” The door slammed again before she could get her question out.

Jana scooted over to the bowl and sniffed at it. She didn’t know how to tell if something was poisoned or not. Maybe this was their way of executing someone who wronged them. Frowning, she kicked the bowl over and wished they’d not taken back the bread she stole. She was so hungry that she only had the memory of hunger, the way her stomach would grumble and feel like it might fold on itself.

Jana had to do something to distract herself, so she stood and walked to the door. She tried the handle; it turned but the door wouldn’t open. It was barred, not locked, which was unfortunate because she’d become deft at picking locks over the last months–or maybe a year–since everything went wrong. She turned to lean back against the wall and sank to the hard floor once more.

The next time the door opened, the man with the broken nose entered. He stepped in front of her. “Here’s the deal. Two-thirds of our group voted to spare your life. A majority of those decided you’re going to join us. However,” he reached down to drive his fingers into her short hair, tilting her head back so that she was forced to look up into his face, “if you take one misstep against us, I will kill you. Or my brother will kill you. Do you understand?”

She clamped her hand down on his so that he couldn’t pull her hair. “What do you count as a misstep, then?”

“Get some sleep. In the morning you will be taken for a shower. You smell, thief. Then the rules will be laid out for you.” He released her hair and peeled her hand off of his. Before opening the door, he kicked at her, knocking her onto her side.

Jana stifled a cry when his foot connected with her arm. She heard the bar slide into place again. A yellow light flickered to life in the corner and a voice filtered through the door. It wasn’t either of the men who caught her in the bank.

“The generator won’t be on forever. There is a closet there on the other side of the room, where you can relieve yourself.”

“Who are you?” Jana scrambled to the door, pressing her ear against it.

The voice didn’t reply right away. “Two more minutes, thief. Then it’ll be dark again until the morning.”

Jana sighed and crossed the room. The door to the closet was coming off of its hinges, and it wobbled as she pulled it open. Inside the closet sat a single bucket.

Behind the Scenes: Ivy & Trees Snippet

This is from an older version of a chapter, though I might take pieces of it for the draft I’m working on now.

I tug at the collar of my doublet and glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. The carvings that encase the clock look like swirls of ivy. The only problem with that is that ivy doesn’t really swirl. It crawls. Its leaves lie flat, though sometimes the plant itself will wind its way around a tree and choke the life out of it, sending tendrils of roots seeking any available entrance to the trunk through scales of bark. Floorboards creak from the next room, beyond a door that sweeps open. 

My father’s home was filled with ornately-carved clocks, mantelpieces, and doorways. It’d been built one hundred years before I was born. Around my father’s property stood a forest: tall and sturdy like a colonnade. The forest was off-limits. Not because there might be criminals or because I might have fallen out of a tree, but because of evil. My father was convinced, and my brother with him, that evil lurked beyond the sentries of sessile oaks and conifers.