The three of them can barely fit into the small potting shed. Full of tools and a dirt-covered table: empty sacks, pots shards, and cobwebs. Alaya tries to examine the tools by the dim light from vents cut into the top of the walls, If she’s nervous, maybe having a weapon won’t go amiss. The scent of earth is strong here.
With one step, the boy grasps at these wooden slats and pulls down with a grunt. The apparent tool holder splits open, revealing a dim deep recessed second room, dug right out of a hillside. The small roots of some bush reach for them as they stand there in the sudden quiet.
After a quick peek, Henrietta strides in first, armed and ready, with Alaya following. Johnny comes last, closing the door and latching it from the inside. Light reaches them from somewhere, but Alaya is beyond bothering to look and find out from where.
The walls seem to be packed dirt, Alaya keeps her hands to her sides. The sliver of light falls from straight above. Ah, a hole. Open to the sky.Branches criss-cross it high above, partially blocking the afternoon light. Alaya puzzles over a device in the corner, studying the tubes running out of it. The ground beneath it lays fingers deep with dry ashes.
“A still.” Henrietta winks at Alaya. Really? The Vashon had banned distilled drinks when they took over. Looks dangerous, was that why they did it?
The boy’s face twists. “Mama needed money, when papa went away last year.”
“Where’s your papa now?” Crouching down, Alaya puts a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Henrietta lowers herself into a cross-legged seat on the dirt floor. “A rebel?” It’s asked with a soft voice, and Alaya wonders at this side of her guard. “We want to thank your mother, for helping us.”
Struggling with a large jug, Johnny pours a clear liquid into a tin cup. He sniffs at it and hands it to Henrietta. “I don’t know,” is all he’ll allow. Not very convincing,
“Better not,” Henrietta warns, but Alaya reaches for the cup.
She’ll make her father proud. “They need to know we won’t turn them in.”
Taking a sip, the liquid burns going down. Makes her choke. Henrietta’s smiling broadly. Alaya feels like she’s turning red. She’s sure the rent in her sleeve is piping out steam. And it’s an effort to keep her coughs quiet. The enemy’s out there.
Later, the sound of tramping boots, in the small outer room, comes to their ears. Afraid to move, she focuses on judging how much room Henrietta has to swing.
“See—” The voice comes from outside. Johnny’s mother. “Told you. What do you want? You gonna use my potting shed and drying racks?” Henrietta’s moved to a crouch, but the sword’s still not drawn. How can she be so calm? Johnny’s still as well, arms at his side. Only his shoulders held just so, give away concern.
Alaya startles, but only her insides jump, outwardly, for Johnny, the calmness is clear.They’d tapped the false door. Johnny’s mouthed, Rebels. The tapping’s echoed hollowness ignored, only guessing cheap walls? They stay quiet as the boots move out. Now from off to the left, the hidden trio hears, “They have to’ve come through one of these houses.” A man’s voice. “Rodrigo was stationed on the roof, Reported that no one’s slipped past us. All horses accounted for in the stables.”
“Enough. Let’s check the next house,” comes a still more gruff tone. Absent of caring. Bored.
After what feels like an eternity, Henrietta whispers. “Alaya.” Examining what they can make out in the dim light. “If we’re taken, let them know you are the Librarian’s daughter.” Henrietta shows her teeth. “They’ll use you to bargain.”
Johnny whispers, “What about my Ma? What if the rebels be wrong? The Horde comes?”
Now, in near darkness, Alaya’s sensitive to every move Henrietta and the boy make. It feels safer touching each other. They have plenty of room, but, no one has moved away or shifted.
It remains quiet outside.
“How is your arm?” Henrietta whispers in Alaya ear. Reaching over, her fingers seem dry.
“Stopped bleeding, I think. Was it an arrow?”
“Yes, I saw it.” Slouching a bit, Henrietta pokes at the little wound. “Mostly missed. Johnny, get me a little drink. I’ma put it on her cut.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Quickly the boy kneels, reaches, and retrieves a sloshing cup from the still, with the rebels moved onto other houses, she’s willing to let the corporal take the risk.
“How will you find a partner, you being the Librarian’s daughter?” Alaya feels the breath of these words on her neck. Henrietta speaks barely above a whisper, “Will the Vashon pick someone for you.”
Alaya’s withering expression is wasted in the dark. With Johnny leaning against them, she stops the cuss words she’d prefer using. But then a splash and burn touches her arm, and all vows are forgotten. Though they all speak in the lowest tones. “Marriage? My father talked to me about that when I was sixteen.” She grasps the fabric of Henrietta’s uniform in frustration, only the smallest of squeaks escapes.
“They'll want you for making an alliance through marriage.”
Alaya spies Johnny’s head bouncing back and forth between their exchange.
“He said there’s been pressure to return to the old ways. But, he promised me I’d be free to choose.”
Henrietta’s voice softens. “How will you choose?”
Glad, now for the dimness, Alaya fights back emotion. “It’s not easy.” She trusts this woman she’s just met. “I can never know if someone courting me might really be interested.” A soft cough comes from Henrietta. She better not be laughing.Johnny’s small voice come up, “You have to test people?”
Alaya smiles at that, nodding. “Push people so hard, they’ll break if they’re not really with you.”
“Have you tried that?” he asks.
Giving a soft laugh, Henrietta huffs out “Yes, she has.” She’s getting to expect Henrietta to jump in with both feet. Guess that makes a good soldier. Lifting Alaya’s hand, she transfers it from its grip on her uniform to Johnny’s hair. “We both make it hard to stay close.” And another soft huff. “If they try, maybe they’re worthy.”
At that, Alaya can’t help but smile.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish