Welcome back for the last part to this week’s story. I don’t usually post stories this long, however, when I asked if reader’s wanted more to a story I posted last month, they responded yes. (Beauty) If you missed the post on Tuesday or the story from last month, here’s the cliff note’s version:
Lila Dean’s a young girl who lost her mother in a fire and was horribly scarred, both physically and mentally, as a result. Now people just don’t look at her, so when a stranger approaches and asks her to steal the Roy’s ruby to help him save his daughter, she takes the chance to do something good.
But Billy Roy catches her in the theft. To her surprise, he doesn’t stop her, instead he trusts she’s doing it for a good reason. So when Lila Dean goes to give the ruby to the stranger, Michael, she questions his story and it falls apart. She realizes she’s been taken for a fool and runs away. Now she’s determined to return the ruby and make things right.
Now for Chapter Two. Thanks for stoping by and I hope you enjoy.
Beauty Chapter Two
Lila Dean refused to look at her nightstand but the deep red of the ruby glared in the corner of her eye. Her room wasn’t big enough to get away from it.
Outside her door came the muffled steps of her father preparing for work. She waited until they disappeared and the latch on the door clicked before emerging into the empty cabin.
During the night she’d made a plan. She’d return the ruby while everyone was away at the mine. The other kids would be at the field again playing ball. If she didn’t show up until later, it wasn’t likely they’d notice.
With any luck, Marcus Roy wouldn’t notice the ruby’s absence for a single morning. Then only she and Billy Roy would ever know. The thought lifted the knot in Lila Dean’s stomach.
Then she remembered she still had to return the gem and the knot came back in full force.
Unlike the night before, it’d be light out when she crawled through the pantry window. The chances of someone seeing her would be much greater.
Lila Dean closed her fingers hard around the ruby she’d stuffed in her pocket. She had to return it.
Letting go, she slung her cloak over her shoulders and left the house.
Most people would walk the main road but Lila Dean never did. People refused to look at her and, in an odd way, it made her feel all the more conspicuous.
She took to the path behind the cabin. It added another fifteen minutes to her walk but no one but hunters tended to use it. There were no averted eyes, no one to remind her of her scars.
As she walked the ruby weighed heavy where is hit her thigh. She wanted to be rid of it and the reminder of Michael’s trick. He’d spotted her for vulnerable and naive and she’d proved him right.
A whiff of smoke caught Lila Dean’s attention. She loved wood smoke, even after the fire. Wood smoke reminded her of home, of a time when her mother held her and rocked her to sleep.
This smoke wasn’t wood smoke. This was burned linens and tar, foundation rock heated too hot and thatch turned to ash.
Lila Dean’s breath stopped. She didn’t want to smell it. Her scars pulled tight, almost painful, as she tensed to run away but her legs wouldn’t move.
A plume of black smoke drifted above the trees, confirming her fears.
The town was on fire and her father was there.
As terrifying as the smoke was, she couldn’t run when her father was in danger. Mother would have tried to help but mother wasn’t alive.
Her legs still wouldn’t move under her. More smoke, heavier this time with the stench of burning house, drifted her way. The wind was shifting.
The trees filled with fine black grit that drifted on the air. With the wind came screams and the clank of something unfamiliar.
It was a moment before Lila Dean placed the sound. Weapons. She’d never heard them used in earnest, only heard the precise clack as the other kids practiced with wooden swords.
This sound was more deadly and less precise. A shiver shook Lila Dean. Lots of weapons.
Finally her legs moved as she gasped in the gritty air. Her vision swam and sparked with the breath.
Already the trees were turning black from the ash. Lila Dean passed through them, refusing to look at their darkened bark, until she spotted the back of the Roy’s house. It no longer resembled a house. There was no hint of the pantry window she crawled through the night before. The stone chimney rose above the flickering remains, all that was left to attest to the house’s prior existence.
Lila Dean could see through to Main Street. Men scattered everywhere but they were all unfamiliar in armor the color of blood.
They hemmed in a group Lila Dean did recognize. Mary Mae and Andre Mel sat clutching each other’s hands. Billy Roy darted between two men only to be caught and hauled back by a third.
“-Roy!” Lila Dean started forward. There was no plan, just the need to do something.
Hands grabbed her around the middle. Before she could scream, a hand clamped down over her mouth and she was pulled back into the trees.
When she was spun around, she found herself face to face with Sheldon Lea, her father’s friend.
He gestured for her silence with a finger on his lips.
Lila Dean nodded and he released her but the moment his support disappeared, her legs collapsed.
“Get up,” Sheldon Lea grasped her arm and hauled her to her feet. She vaguely registered the tug on her scars as the old spinster pulled her back father into the forest.
He kept moving until the sight of burning buildings disappeared. Lila Dean collapsed on the trail as soon as he let her go. All her blind courage seemed to have seeped out of her at the first resistance.
Tears streamed from her eyes but she kept them silent. It was habit.
“That won’t help,” Sheldon Lea scolded.
“They have Father?”
He hesitated before giving a jerky nod. He was always honest with her.
“Power, possibly greed.” He scrubbed his face with his hands. Sheldon Lea had been wrinkled for as long as she’d known him but today he looked old, tired. “It’s strategy. Seize a nation’s mines and you cut off its wealth.”
Lila Dean shivered. Her hands shook as she clasped them together. “But why fire?”
“Control.” It was simple but Sheldon Lea’s tone indicated so much more. Lila Dean tried to ask but the look on his face cut her off. She’d never seen him so cold.
“We can’t stay here. Let’s go.”
Lila Dean didn’t follow when he started down the trail. He did a double take when he looked back.
“I won’t wait, girl.”
Lila Dean never argued, never disagreed with an adult but she couldn’t just leave her father behind.
“We can’t leave them,” she protested, still sitting on the ground.
“We can’t help them!”
Lila Dean cringed away as Sheldon Lea clenched his hands into fists at his sides.
She watched him clench and unclench his fingers, realizing she didn’t know this man, not really. The lift of his chin like her countering him was unexpected, the way he always widened his stance when he was surprised. None of these things were from the mines.
Lila Dean would know. She always observed since no one included her. She’d chalked Sheldon Lea’s oddities up to him being a stubborn old man but now she suspected it was more than that.
“We’ll see what they’re doing with everyone,” he finally agreed. “But only then will I decide if there’s anything we can do.”
Lila Dean nodded, pushing to her feet to follow. It wasn’t full agreement but she’d take what she could get for now.
The remains of the town looked like a giant smudge in the road heading east to west. A few out lying houses, such as Lila Dean’s cabin and Sheldon Lea’s shack, still stood, forgotten by the attackers simply because they were out of sight from the main town.
Lila Dean lay on her stomach next to the old spinster. He’d taken them to a small ridge west of town. They’d climbed it in silence and then Sheldon Lea had indicated they were to crawl up to the ridgeline.
Lila Dean had crawled without a comment although the motion pulled and rubbed against her scars, setting her entire right side on fire.
Now, stretched out as she was, she focused on the sight below instead of the burn.
Sheldon Lea had pulled out a glass from the pack he always carried for work. It was an oddity for a mineworker to regularly carry a looking glass but Lila Dean didn’t ask.
Without the glass she could only see the smudge, the small remaining buildings and the movement of people but she couldn’t say what they were doing.
Sheldon Lea lowered the glass with a frown wrinkling his already lined face.
He handed the glass over. Lila Dean cradled it in her hands as gratitude flushed through her. He didn’t even think about including her, he just did it. Not even her father was like that.
A rare smile pulled her lips upward. It pulled her right lip away from her teeth and sent a flare of protest through her skin. She dropped the smile, realizing how grotesque it must look but Sheldon Lea just continued to look at the town. She’d never really thought about it but the old man never had treated her scars as anything disturbing.
Setting the glass to her eye, she focused it and stifled a gasp.
Her father sat on the ground in the confines of a cage big enough for him to stand in but not walk.
Panning out, Lila Dean saw multiple cages in neat rows, all holding people she knew.
“Why cage them?” she wondered aloud.
“Security. They want something and need everyone alive to get it.”
Sheldon Lea held his hand out and she passed the glass back to him. He took his time scanning the scene below.
“They probably want whatever comes out of the mine. That’d explain keeping the workers.”
“We could collapse the mine,” Lila Dean suggested.
“They’d kill the workers then.”
She shuddered. He was always so blunt.
“We might be able to free your father, maybe the Roy’s, but that’s about it.”
“Why only them?” Lila Dean couldn’t get the picture of Andre Mel and Mary Mae clutching hands as everything burned out of her head. They’d always ignored her but they didn’t deserved being caged.
“Your father and the Roy’s cages are on the end farthest from the camp. With a distraction, we might have enough time for those three cages. Plus, if the distraction’s there,” he pointed, “then no one can see the front of their cages.”
Lila Dean nodded although she still couldn’t get the other kids out of her head. How could she leave them? Maybe with more people they could plan a second escape. It’s what she told herself although a part of her knew, without the element of surprise, another escape attempt wouldn’t be possible.
Sheldon Lea pocketed his glass and pushed back from the ridge.
Lila Dean moved to follow. The motion jammed the ruby into her thigh. She wished that was all she had to worry about. It seemed small, almost silly now.
Moving the ruby to the side of her pocket, she continued back crawling until she reached where Sheldon Lea stood up.
“We need some supplies from my shack,” Sheldon Lea said. “Let’s find our distraction.”
Lila Dean clutched the small bag in her hand like it was a priceless treasure. In a way, it was. The black powder inside was her key to the cages. Sheldon Lea had made a comment about no time for lock picking school and then he’s set her down to show her how to put the powder into the locks, then spark it for a small explosion. Enough to bust the locks but not enough to draw attention. There was more finesse to it than Lila Dean would’ve guessed.
She waited in the trees, covered by darkness and the general noise of the invader camp. She asked Sheldon Lea who he thought they were. He shook his head and replied a cryptic, “a lot of trouble.”
Now she wondered if she should’ve pressed for a more specific answer. Sheldon Lea insisted there would be a guard change during his distraction. Lila Dean hadn’t even asked what his distraction was going to be. Now she wished she’d been more bold with the old spinster instead of taking everything at face value like she always did.
Lila Dean ducked at the shout but she needn’t have. At the other side of camp several men stoop up, staring at something beyond them.
A wobbly Sheldon Lea stumbled between two of the men, a bottle in hand.
“Coulda—“ He tripped and almost fell, “coulda sworn it’s time for dinner. Where’d the inn go?” He spun in a wobbly circle.
The guard at the cages still stood at his post but he craned his neck around her father’s cage to see what was happening as someone tried to catch Sheldon Lea’s arm and he pulled the man down into a crumbled heap. A nasal laugh erupted from him and he rolled on the ground, sloshing ale over himself and narrowly missing another man grabbing at him.
The cage guard stepped forward, trying to see between his comrades.
Keep going, keep going.
As if on cue, Sheldon Lea knocked another man down by rolling into him. The man gave a surprised cry and the cage guard started forward to join the others.
Lila Dean darted out of the trees with the bag of powder clutched tight.
She tried to give her father a smile but stopped as she met his eyes. They slipped away from her face, then came back only to slide away again like he couldn’t stand but a moment.
Lila Dean blinked at the tears that threatened behind her eyes.
What’d you expect?
With trembling fingers, she grasped the lock to pour powder into it. Her hand shook and more of the powder hit the ground than the lock.
“Lila Dean, get out of here.” Her father’s feet appeared in front of her through the bars. She refused to look up at him as she poured a bit more powder.
Twisting the bag closed, she shoved it into her pocket and pulled out her flint.
“Stand back,” she warned.
His feet didn’t move for a second but then they retreated without another word.
Lila Dean sparked the flint but missed the lock. Sheldon Lea’s voice rang in her ears. Not like that, angle it or it’ll blow up in your face.
She tried again and cried out as the sparks hit.
A look over her shoulder shielded her face from the blast and confirmed no one noticed her startled cry.
“Give me the bag and go.” Her father held his hand out.
Lila Dean’s fingers closed around the bag. With unfamiliar defiance, she poured a palm full into her hand before handing the rest over. Then, instead of leaving, she headed to Billy Roy’s cage as her father moved to Marcus’.
He shot her a reproving glance but, again, didn’t fully look at her.
Fumbling with the lock, Lila Dean didn’t see him approach. Billy Roy’s hand came through the bars to grasp her wrist.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered.
She glanced up to meet his eyes and he didn’t look away. A dull ache constricted her throat.
“Stand back,” she whispered, almost crying when he listened and released her wrist.
Her hands were steady this time. She sparked her flint and with a hiss, the lock exploded.
Lila Dean pulled the door open.
Her father and Marcus Roy stood by the tree line, waiting. When they saw her free Billy Roy, they retreated into the forest’s shadows, satisfied the kids were right behind them.
“What about the others?” Billy Roy caught her arm.
“No time,” she pulled away with a wave at where Sheldon Lea had been. So close to the cages she couldn’t see the exact spot but Sheldon Lea’s nasal laugh could no longer be heard.
She spun back, surprised he’d shorten her name again, and froze.
“Fancy meeting you again,” Michael flashed a grin. He held Billy Roy with a knife to his throat.
Lila Dean glanced around. Her father and Marcus Roy must have moved farther into the trees where they couldn’t be seen because they didn’t come back.
And the cages still shielded them from the invader’s camp. Not that that would matter since Michael wore the same blood red uniform as the others.
“You’re one of them?” she asked.
“Who do you think I gamble with?”
Lila Dean swallowed. The knife had cut into Billy Roy’s neck and blood trickled down into the hollow of his throat.
“Let him go,” she begged. The words were supposed to be firm but Lila Dena rarely spoke. She wasn’t used to controlling her tone.
“Why should I?”
“He’s too young to work the mine,” Lila Dean knew as soon as she said the words that Michael didn’t care. He wanted something else.
“None of you are too young. Even you’re familiar with the tunnels, little escape artist.”
Confusion warred with fright on Billy Roy’s face. Lila Dean met his brown eyes, just for a moment, to savor the feel of being seen, to experience the flush of finding something other than revulsion in another’s eyes. Even if he never acknowledged her again, she’d always owe him for the trust she saw there now.
Looking away in shame, Lila Dean pulled the ruby from her pocket. She’d never get to return it now.
Michael’s eyes fixed on it. A half grin, ugly on his handsome face, pulled at the corners of his lips.
“I’ll set this down and step away,” Lila Dean whispered, “then you let him go. He and I will run and you can have the ruby.”
The gem clinked softly as she set it on the cross bar of the cage.
“You have no idea what that ruby will pay for, do you?” Michael asked as she stepped away.
Lila Dean shook her head. She didn’t want to know.
Michael chuckled as he shoved Billy Roy toward her.
“In war, when you don’t make the small sacrifices, a lot of people get hurt.” Michael’s grin said just how much he enjoyed her shock.
“What do you think this is?” he gestured around. “Now go!”
Billy Roy grabbed her hand and pulled her into the trees. After a moment, she stopped resisting and followed but not before seeing Michael grasp the ruby. A chill ran her spine at the sight.
She’d failed to make it right. Sheldon Lea, Marcus Roy and her father sat eating cold soup. They had no campfire or even a camp, nothing to give their position away.
Lila Dean wasn’t sure how Sheldon Lea had gotten away from the invaders after his ‘drunken’ spectacle. She didn’t ask, either. Now the adults were talking and none of them acknowledged her again.
Maybe Sheldon Lea did it because her father did but no matter his reasons, it hurt.
Lila Dean huddled against a large pine, just outside the small clearing the men sat in, and hugged her knees.
Billy Roy flopped down beside her. She jumped and then looked away, ashamed of her nerves and her foolishness.
“You’re not going to tell me how you knew him?” he asked, his voice pitched low so the adults couldn’t hear.
Tell him how foolish she’d been? She remained silent and he let it go.
“What do you think the ruby will pay for?” he asked instead.
Lila Dean shook her head. “Don’t know.”
His lips pinched in. He didn’t like the answer any more than she did.
“We’ll make it right,” he said after a brief pause.
Lila Dean turned her head to look at him. He was so hopeful, so sure they could fix things.
She gave him a half smile, leaving the right side of her face shielded against her knees to keep the expression from being grotesque.
She hoped he was right but making things right was harder than it sounded. Even just returning the ruby spiraled out of control.
Lila Dean hugged her knees, enjoying for the moment the silence with someone beside her for once.
She really hoped he was right.