Some stories have a will of their own and continue to write themselves in your head even when you’re trying to move onto something else. Well, at least that happens to me sometimes=)
That’s what happened with this story. Although I meant to let it sit for a bit, it continued to run through my head, so hopefully readers don’t mind a new installment with Lila Dean.
For those who may not have read the first two chapters, here’s a brief summary:
Cliff Notes Ch. 1: 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.
Cliff Notes Ch. 2: When Lila Dean tries to return the ruby, she arrives to find the town burning and the people taken captive. With the help of her father’s friend, Sheldon Lea, she helps her father and the Roy’s escape but must give up the ruby to the soldiers in the process. (If you’d like to read these in full, they can be found here: Chapter One and Chapter Two.)
Now on to Chapter Three. I hope you enjoy=)
The soldiers started the fire but couldn’t contain it. They didn’t care as long as the flames moved eastward with the wind.
Lila Dean’s eyes burned with unshed tears. She wanted to yell, scream a warning to the villages in the fire’s path but she could do nothing but watch the orange glow from the ridgeline above town.
Over the angry orange and red hung a black so thick it blotted out any definition of the horizon, which should be glowing with the sunrise but wasn’t. Lila Dean shuddered and looked away from the mass of smoke.
Below her in the town, the soldiers were moving the town’s folk toward the mine in a single file line.
Sheldon Lea had been right, the soldiers were going to use the miners to keep the mine running and would take anything of worth that came from it. What they needed the wealth for she couldn’t guess. Didn’t want to guess.
Michael’s mention of war turned her insides like she needed to hurl.
Lila Dean jerked. She hadn’t heard Billy Roy’s approach.
He settled on his stomach beside her and lifted Sheldon Lea’s looking glass to his eye.
Lila Dean looked away. She hadn’t been bold enough to ask to borrow the glass. Especially since the old spinster refused to look at her again.
But Billy Roy was the golden child. He probably didn’t even hesitate.
She stole a glance at him while he still looked below. His brown hair moved with the wind but everything else about him was still.
As he lowered the glass, she turned away, he’d settled on her right, her scarred side.
“They don’t have tools,” he muttered.
Lila Dean lifted her head. Without the glass, she hadn’t picked up on that small detail. She held out her hand and Billy Roy passed it over.
He was right. The tools lay lined up next to the mine’s entrance but the miners were not picking them up as they entered.
“Why take everyone below without tools?” she asked.
Billy Roy shook his head.
Lila Dean panned out to view not just the mine but the camp and it’s cages below. There seemed to be fewer soldiers than the night before.
Those that were present carried boxes up toward the mine. Focusing in on the open boxes, Lila Dean’s stomach clenched so hard he fought bile in her throat.
“Explosives,” she backed away form the ridge, tearing into her arms.
“Dean?” Billy Roy followed, confusion pulling his dark brows together.
“Explosives, Roy!” she called over her shoulder, “they aren’t going to work the mine, they’re going to bury it.”
Billy Roy caught up to her and grasped her hand to pull her along faster. Lila Dean stretched her legs as far as she could to keep up but the burn in her scars made her stumble. She pulled her hand away.
“Go, I’ll catch up at camp.”
He nodded and soon disappeared between the trees. Lila Dean braced against her knees, gasping air.
What could they do?
Her heart beat against her ribs, both in fright and from exertion. She was coming to think more exercise would do her well even if the other kids never let her play.
If they ever played again.
Lila Dean fought to control her breath. When it was bearable, she took off at a run again and found herself heaving within seconds. When she finally reached the camp, she was puffing like a black smith’s billows.
“They won’t bury the mine.”
She sucked in air and held it. Had Sheldon Lea just contradicted them?
“They need the wealth from it. It’s basic strategy,” Sheldon Lea continued, not even acknowledging Lila Dean’s arrival. She let out her breath. It was supposed to be quiet but the air whistled through her throat. It prevented her from voicing her objection before Billy Roy spoke up.
“They’ve got explosives and they aren’t taking tools in!”
“I’ll take a look.” Her father held out his hand for the glass Billy Roy borrowed.
Lila Dean pulled it from her pocket.
“Here,” she said.
Her father took the glass as he passed her. No eye contact, no touch.
Lila Dean grabbed his arm. “It’ll take too long,” she said.
He still refused to turn his head. A muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw.
Lila Dean let go feeling as if her fingers burned. Tears threatened as Sheldon Lea followed her father into the trees.
She couldn’t let them see. Turning away from the Roys, Lila Dean blinked furiously. Now was not the time. Swiping the back of her hands across her eyes, she felt childish for still caring.
“She’s right,” Billy Roy said behind her, “we don’t have much time.”
Lila Dean gathered her skinning knife while she listened to them.
“They won’t bury the mine,” Marcus Roy repeated Sheldon Lea like a puppet.
“They will,” Billy Roy insisted. “They don’t need the money now.”
“Doesn’t matter. They don’t need the mine.”
Billy Roy stood close to his father in height and with them toe to toe at the moment, Lila Dean couldn’t help but feel they were mirror images.
Lila Dean started from the clearing. There was no time for this debate either.
Her heart stuttered. Why did her father’s friends find it okay to acknowledge her when he wasn’t around? She considered walking away but the part of her mother she remembered wouldn’t allow it.
“Mr. Roy,” she responded and looked back at him over her shoulder, giving him full view of her scars if he chose to make eye contact.
He did. He had eyes like Billy’s but fringed with more lines and a shade lighter.
“Your father would never forgive me for letting you get captured. “
He was serious.
“My father doesn’t even know the color of my eyes.” She responded before walking away. The feeling of their eyes on her back made her skin itch.
He caught up to her with his own knife hanging from his belt. It was all they had in way of weapons.
“We better hurry,” Billy Roy grasped her hand to pull her along but this time he didn’t push her to falling.
Behind them his father’s shouting still echoed in the trees.
“Why didn’t he stop you?” she asked. She’d never known Marcus Roy to be docile.
“Can’t catch me,” Billy Roy shrugged. “Old mine injury left him with a bad knee.”
Lila Dean didn’t ask more. She was puffing again and couldn’t get words past her dry throat.
“All right,” Billy Roy dropped her hand and turned to face her, “what’s your plan?”
“I know it’s unstable but the soldiers won’t know—“
“The escape tunnel’s safer.”
Lila Dean was already shaking her head.
“Michael knows about it.”
She glanced at Billy Roy’s throat where the knife had cut his skin. The wound was covered by his collar now but Billy Roy caught the hint. He touched his neck.
“Back entrance then.”
Unlike the escape tunnel, Lila Dean had never been to the back entrance. It was the mine’s original opening but when it became obvious the tunnel couldn’t be made stable, it’d been abandoned for another way.
Billy Roy didn’t hesitate in heading straight to it, though. Lila Dean thought about asking him about it but let it go.
“It’s a ways down before this meets up with the main shaft,” Billy Roy said.
Just inside the entrance they found several lanterns. It was the miners way to leave things behind but even still, the existence of the lanterns make Lila Dean glance around every so often just in case someone was following.
“An explosion might collapse this entire tunnel,” Billy Roy said ahead of her.
“We’ll have to move fast,” Lila Dean shrugged. She couldn’t think of another way and apparently neither could he because he didn’t voice any other options.
“Shutter your lantern.”
Lila Dean complied and they were plunged into darkness. With the lack of sight came the hyper aware hearing she always associated with miners.
The walls echoed with the scrape of hard boot soles on stone. Words like whispers mixed in, too faint to understand.
Lila Dean jerked as Billy Roy found her arm. Thankfully it didn’t make any noise.
“Soldiers,” he whispered. The word fanned his breath across her ear.
Lila Dean accepted that. Billy Roy had been down here with his father a few times. He’d know better than she.
They waited. Lila Dean’s body hummed like a bowstring pulled tight. Billy Roy kept his hand on her arm and she clung to the contact to stay still. Her skin barely registered the touch. It was just pressure on her scars, but it was contact and he wasn’t shying away from what must feel very warped to his fingers.
She could hug him for not noticing, not pulling away.
“There they go,” Billy Roy released her arm.
Lila Dean strained to hear what he did and then she caught it, the movement ahead was fading.
“This way,” Roy’s voice drifted to her, pulling her back to their need to hurry.
She un-shuttered her lantern and rushed to catch up and had to side step to keep from running into him when he stopped suddenly.
“Fuse line,” he said, holding his lantern higher to show the lines bundled together at his feet.
“They are buying the mine.” Up till that point Lila Dean hoped Sheldon Lea was right.
“The ruby bought their deaths,” Roy sounded sick.
“Maybe not,” Lila Dean crouched and cut the lines, throwing the first half back up the tunnel to keep sparks from catching the second half.
She headed forward only to look back to find Roy not moving.
He started. “Right.”
They kept going for another few minutes before other sounds started to reach them. Crying. Lila Dean picked up on the sobs.
“That’s Mary Mae,” she said.
“She hiccups when she cries.”
Roy raised brow. Lila Dean shrugged. What else was she supposed to do when she couldn’t play with the others?
In the light of their lanterns, eyes reflected back, then groups of huddled people tied together.
Billy Roy rushed forward to release the first two miners. Lila Dean moved to the next ones.
Surprise lit their eyes, and then they looked away while she cut their cords. She paused. Still they wouldn’t look at her?
Biting her tongue, she cut their feet free. Her hands shook as she moved on to the next person but whether it was nervousness or fury, she couldn’t tell beyond the flush coloring her face.
“Men!” One miner called out. He was free of his ropes and stood at the edge of the lantern light. Lila Dean recognized him as a shift
supervisor but she couldn’t recall his name.
“Escape tunnel. Let’s go.”
Lila Dean froze.
“Wait. It’s not safe. Use the back entrance,” Roy called over the general noise.
The man scanned everyone but couldn’t place who’d spoken.
“Back entrance is unstable. Escape tunnel’s safer.” He called, and took off, leading ten or so people behind him.
Lila Dean’s shout mixed with Roy’s but the word was lost as those still tied up yelled at those leaving ahead of them.
A touch to the back of her hand pulled Lila Dean’s attention back to the person in front of her. She’d stopped looking at them, just cutting ropes and moving on.
Her eyes met those of Mary Mae. The girl pulled her hand back like she’d been stung.
Lila Dean sliced her feet free and moved on.
“Thank you,” Mary Mae hiccupped.
Lila Dean’s heart skipped. Her throat tightened as she looked back at the girl. Mary Mae was beautiful. She was that girl, the one all the boys had eyes for.
At the moment her blue eyes were lined with red, her cheeks puffy from crying and her hair mussed, sticking up on one side.
She was still beautiful but the mess transformed her into someone approachable.
Lila Dean gave her a nod and pointed to where Billy Roy was explaining to the next miner about the back entrance. Mary Mae smiled, her lips quivering, and moved to join him.
Lila Dean moved down the line of people, her thoughts on those first ten that were now walking straight into the soldier’s explosion.
Her skin pricked, waiting for the concussion to the air of the first charges going off. She’d never been in the mine when explosives were being used and she didn’t want to be now.
Roy went back to cutting people free as the miner took over explaining the escape route to everyone. Lila Dean sighed relief. It was good Roy was with her because she doubted anyone would have listened if she’d tried to explain herself.
What had Roy told them about the escape tunnel? She couldn’t hear the miner’s words but whatever he was saying, no one was arguing.
They only had the two lanterns, so the miners formed groups to lead the town’s people by touch. They instructed the people to hold hands in a line with one miner in front, one in back and then the front man would lead them with his free hand on the left wall.
Lila Dean cut the last person free, marveling at the miner’s courage. The system wasn’t fast but it got everyone moving.
“We’ll take the last group,” Roy informed the miner directing everyone. He nodded and headed out.
Lila Dean joined the last group, wanting to yell at them when they glanced at her and then pointedly looked away.
“They won’t follow me,” she told Roy. She handed him his lantern and moved to the back with her own.
The woman in front of her hesitated to offer her hand. Lila Dean grabbed her right hand with her left, unscarred one.
“I’m not catching,” she muttered. Instead of hearing the woman’s answer, her ears rang and the ground jerked beneath her feet.
“Run!” Roy pulled them forward.
Lila Dean stumbled over rocks and the ground shook again but every one was stumbling, so she doggedly kept on.
They took the tunnel to the back entrance and the walls became less formed. Dirt rained on their heads.
There was a crack and the beam ahead sagged in the middle. They ducked it. Another crack and a whoosh of air and dust caught at Lila Dean’s back as the beam gave behind them. Light appeared ahead through the dust and dirt. They raced from tunnel to open daylight as another explosion shook the ground.
The woman dropped Lila Dean’s hand and turned away.
Roy led them away from the mine, catching up with several other groups along the way.
Lila Dean trailed behind. Their rejection burned at her throat. Before she’d always expected it but somehow she’d thought saving them would earn her some notice, some respect. It made it all the worse instead.
Lila Dean leaned against a tree as her tears escaped. Not even saving them made her acceptable.
I never will be.
Lila Dean’s head pivoted. The cry was faint but then it came again and she was sure she wasn’t mistaken.
Following the sound, she came into view of the escape tunnel—or what was left of it.
She crept closer, bracing herself for blood or amputation or-
Rubble filled the tunnel’s entrance and from it protruded Marcus Roy’s head and torso. His legs disappeared into the mass of rock.
“I heard people down there,” he said, “but the charges blew before I made it to them. The soldiers knew about this tunnel. How could they…” He rambled on, pushing feebly at the rocks on top of him.
Lila Dean didn’t answer. She let him ramble as she pulled rocks away from him.
The other people couldn’t have survived. But Marcus Roy had tried to help even after he’d argued with his son. Lila Dean’s mind rolled almost as much as her stomach.
“Mr. Roy, I need you to push up on this one,” she interrupted him.
His words stopped and he really looked at her.
“Why are you helping?”
Lila Dean frowned. “Push up.” She repeated instead of answering. Did he really think she’d leave him half buried? Did scars somehow make her a monster inside too?
He pushed as she levered under the rock with a stick. It finally rolled free, revealing a broken leg but miraculously nothing worse.
“I think Doc made it,” she said. “Let’s get you to camp.”
Lila Dean settled his arm over her shoulders and groaned as she took his weight to help him stand. He screamed when his broken leg dragged across the ground.
“Why are you helping me?” he repeated through gritted teeth.
It was going to be a long walk back to camp but Lila Dean didn’t know how to answer. She was saved from having to by several men who found them.
“Heard your scream,” one explained as they took over carrying Marcus Roy. He kept his eyes on Lila Dean like he was demanding an answer. When he passed out from pain a few minutes later, she felt a sense of relief she never thought possible when she’d always wanted to be seen.
Lila Dean followed them back to camp where everyone was following Sheldon Lea’s direction. They were moving farther from the town to avoid the soldiers.
She couldn’t place her father among the chaos. Roy passed with the Doc close at his heels. His eyes slid past her like she wasn’t there. She snapped her mouth closed on her question. She’d been about to ask if he’d seen her father.
He’s just worried about his own.
Her heart didn’t believe it.
Moving camp took most of the day with so many people.
Lila Dean huddled against a tree in the dark, listening to people settle behind her.
“How’d they get the ruby?”
Lila Dean cringed, not for the first time. Someone saw the soldiers with the ruby and now the question was going around. The soldiers had been intending to work the mine but with the appearance of the ruby, they’d had enough to buy whatever it was they needed so they changed tactics and buried it instead.
A total of thirteen people were caught in the escape tunnel when it blew. Thirteen dead because of her. Why Billy Roy kept quiet she couldn’t say. She was the monster Marcus Roy expected.
Lila Dean shifted. It was Andre Mel sitting with Billy Roy and Mary Mae. They’d set up their sleeping pads, a collection of long grass collected from the area, off to her left. They hadn’t noticed she sat so close but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. They’d pointedly ignored her all day, even Billy Roy.
“Don’t know,” Billy Roy admitted.
“Was saving us really her idea?” Mary Mae’s soft voice asked a moment later.
Lila Dean’s chest ached. Why would she care.
“She would’ve tried even if I didn’t help her,” Billy Roy answered.
“Perhaps we’re wrong about her.”
Andre Mel snorted. “Right, because her father would lie.”
No one responded and Lila Dean huddled closer to the tree, glad they couldn’t see her.
What now indeed. What did Andre Mel mean? None of it made sense but after being seen, after interacting normally with Roy, she wasn’t sure she could go back to how it was before.
Something touched her cheek and Lila Dean brushed it away. Her fingers came away smudged black. Ash. The wind had changed. Tilting her head back, Lila Dean watched it rain ash in fine flakes. She never could get away from the fire, it seemed.