The faint sounds of their shoes hitting the dirt accompanied my heart, pounding in my ears. They were gaining ground. I pushed myself harder, my lungs begging for every breath. Something dripped into my eyes, blurring the countryside and I wiped furiously at them. I glimpsed the edge of salvation; it didn’t look like I was going to make it.
At the vast and unyielding wall of darkened verdant foliage, I stumbled. There wasn’t enough air left in me to cry out. The only sound I made was a muffled ‘oomph’ and there was a pop as I hit the ground, followed by excruciating pain. I tried to stand, but the pain lanced up my arm as I put weight on it. This time when I fell, I tasted dirt, mixed with the salty tang of tears and a trace of copper. I couldn’t feel it, but I was bleeding from somewhere. I rolled to my back as they reached me, their feet kicking up dust as I gulped for clean air.
I couldn’t see them, but I knew who they were; friends, family – people I knew my whole life. One grabbed my left shoulder roughly and yanked me to my feet. It hurt like hell, but I clenched my teeth and refused to make a sound – out loud, at least. Inside I was screaming and not just from the pain. My whole world was upside down and I knew how life strayed this far from normal.
I should have been scared, but instead all I felt was a creeping numbness, starting in my head. These were people I loved and who I thought loved me, but here we were, in the middle of nowhere and anywhere, with me being half-dragged, half-carried back to a place I no longer accepted as home.
A sneeze worked its way out and to my right, one of my captors twitched with surprise. Ah. Marcus Barton. My… what was he now? Before he was one of my closest friends. He always looked out for me, not that it mattered now. It surprised me he was out here; he wasn’t exactly daring. A homebody, maybe; a scholar, absolutely. How much of a person’s true character can really be faked? After all I had learned in the past few weeks, I could only assume no one was who they pretended to be.
With the darkness of a new moon upon us, I smelled rather than saw our continued progress across the compound. This year’s harvest had been plentiful and the land was still being cultivated in preparation for the winter ahead. My olfactory was overwhelmed with the earthy aroma of freshly cut wheat, nutty chicory, and crispy sweet apples. Based off what my nose was telling me, we were headed for the stables.
Kerosene-fueled light flickered as we entered the barn, lined on each side with eight stalls. After a hard day’s work, the plow horses whickered tiredly after being brushed, fed, and blanketed. On a normal day, I would have sat amongst the hay bales, listening to their contented mutterings and whispered conversation through the night undisturbed, but this time I would be denied.
Frustrated, I pulled back against my captors, despite the intense pain in my left arm. With a sudden halt, I was rewarded with a backhanded slap across my face. My eyes rolled dangerously for a moment before the world was righted. I tasted fresh blood. My tongue worried at the split in my lip and my left eye was starting to twitch, but I ascertained the identity of another attacker – that pompous ass, Quincey.
It was the gaudy Hartell heirloom ring he wore on his pinky that gave him away. He was vying for acceptance as a member on the Council, though he had not finished his training yet. If he ever ascended the ranks to Elder, the commune would be condemned to self-righteous rule under an iron thumb of martial law and harsher punishments. His ostentatious behavior went against everything the Council presumed to stand for, though I had doubts.
With Marcus to my right and Quincey to my left, they guided me roughly into a rustic, armed chair and backed away, but didn’t leave. Having a moment to rest, oxygen was beginning to fill my lungs after what seemed like hours holding my breath. Though the situation I was in was dire, my heart regained a semblance of regular rhythm. I took a quick mental calculation of my bodily injuries – a dislocated shoulder, I supposed; the beginnings of a black eye, and drying blood on my chin from the gash on my lip. Whatever they planned, it was going to be a long night.
As the men stood sentry, I studied them. Marcus looked uncomfortable, but Quincey looked smug standing rigidly a short distance before me. I was not restrained, but with no plausible exit strategies, I took the time to assess the situation. The men who guarded me outnumbered me five to one. In the limited light afforded by gas lanterns, the remainder of our outfit was established – the Paulson brothers, Robert and Daniel, and… Weston.
My heart broke off its last piece. Smooth bronze skin, russet eyes, and a crooked nose from when I kicked him during a roll about – I longed to tousle his licorice mane in spite of the fire burning in my shoulder. My baby brother, standing strong and proud in the face of my adversity, refusing to meet my eye. I had practically raised him after our mother died. Did he know the truth? My guess was no. He was here, after all. Then again, I had known these men my whole life. Why would my only sibling be free from the influential grasp of the Council? A single tear rolled unchecked down my dirt-streaked face.
After everything this night contained, the silence of this room was crushing. I could barely hear the faint whapping of a fan turning lazily overhead. Water trickled from a crack in the mortar of a brick wall, ultimately plinking into a small puddle. I could no longer hear the horses, though the journey from the stalls was short and we had passed through no swinging doors.
Where was I? This room wasn’t a part of any piece of property I had seen in the complex. Weston and I had explored so much of the land as children, I was shocked to find something unfamiliar. Although, after mother… we were not as playful with each other then. Even at twelve, he had started on the path to Eldership, like many young men aspired to on the compound. At age fifteen and feeling like a woman grown, I endeavored to learn the truth of my heritage – which was motive for my being here, mentally cursing myself for not being more careful.
The suffocating silence was starting to fray my nerves. I fidgeted in an attempt to find an elusive comfortable spot in my hard backed seat. My head felt heavy and there was a kink forming in my neck, so I rolled my head in small circles to relieve the stiffness. It was the only movement in the chamber. I am not sure my guards bothered to blink.
Just as my mind was beginning to drift, new sounds echoed through the barren room – heavy footfalls accompanied by the hollow sound of metal on metal and the squeak of poorly oiled wheels. I closed my eyes and willed the noise to go away, for it could only bring worse things to this night.
Gideon seemed to materialize from the outer ring of darkness, carrying another chair while someone – Lincoln Bone, I thought – wheeled a covered metal cart behind him. Great. The Head Honcho, the Big Dick… the Elder of the Elder Council was here. He approached me and I glared up at him, wetting my swollen lips. If one person were to blame for my being here, it was Gideon Knox. Not just here in this room, but here in the commune.
He placed his chair facing me and sat down casually, draping his arm over the back as if this was an everyday situation. Perhaps it was for him, but I sincerely hoped not. In all my poking and prodding, our current position was one I had not come across. Other disturbing events, but not this – until now. How nice for me, being the pioneer for future generations of torture.
Slouched down in my chair, hands resting limply between my knees, I stared stolidly into Gideon’s attentive gaze. A slight smile played at the corner of his lip, but shone bright in his eyes. He was relishing my awkwardness. I suppose it was his nature; I still remember hearing the hushed words the first time – the night before my sixteenth birthday.
“Now is not the time to discuss this,” my father said. I had crept to the edge of the loft, unable to sleep. My mother, Eleanor, was walking worried circles on the woven rug in front of the blazing fireplace. “The children are just upstairs.”
Mother stopped for a moment to look at him, a crease forming on his forehead. “When, Caleb? Tomorrow it will be too late.” Her coffee skin was flushed and spittle flew from her mouth as she said, “We need to do something now!”
It was Father’s turn to look distressed, his thin mouth frowning. This was the first time I had heard them argue. His dark chocolate eyes lit up and his nostrils flared suddenly. “What can we do, Eleanor? Defy the Council? Defy Elder Gideon? The gods’ wrath would have nothing on the retribution he would serve upon this family if we got in his way.” He took a deep breath, then his shoulders sagged. “It was always meant to be this way. Eden was never ours to keep.” My eyes widened, hearing my name. I leaned closer to the rail, wanting to know more.
“She is our daughter!” Mother spat, physically struggling to keep her voice from rising.
He shook his head despondently. “No, Eleanor. Our daughter never drew breath in this world. Eden was a proxy; a proffering to keep you complacent. You sully the memory of our own flesh claiming that… that imposter as a daughter.”
The slap came swift, its crack echoing in the still room. I held my breath, waiting for the repercussion, but it never came. Without a word, he turned on his heel and walked out the door into the night. It was the last time I saw the man I knew as Father.
Mother collapsed into the rocking chair Father had carved and built, gently sobbing into the skirt of her gingham pinafore. I slid slowly away from the balustrade and onto my straw mattress before daring to breathe again. It was close to dawn before I fell into a fitful sleep, Father’s face emerging from a fog, admonishing me in my dreams for supplanting myself in his daughter’s place. I awoke in a cold sweat, late beginning my morning chores.
Gideon was still staring at me, a sour grimace replacing his contented smile, as if he could read my thoughts. I held my chin up and gave him a tiny smirk. His eyes widened angrily. I could see he still thought he owned me, the narcissistic prick, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“Your move,” I said.
Stacy sewing up nightmares with her Scary Dreams Pillowcase tutorial:
It’s time to scare up some candy with these DIY Trick or Treat Bags from Rabia:
Death gotcha down? Lydia’s easy Undead Make-up tutorial will liven you up w/o killing your wallet:
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
In the End ©Robin Allen 2015; a re-imagining and re-naming of At the End ©Robin Allen 2015
All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, photocopying, offset, or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author, except by reviewers who may quote brief passages to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.