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Naomi's Soul-Chapter-1

Prologue

 

I cling to the side of the mountain, take a deep breath and release it slowly. I am doing the one thing I enjoy more than anything else, in the place that makes me the happiest. At twelve years old, I have been climbing more than half my life.

 

My fingers and toes are nimble on the crimps and small footholds. I move up the rock face. My hands grip the jugs—the much larger holds that allow me to use my entire hand.

 

Ma petite chèvre,” my father calls to me from far below. “Little goat, don’t go too far.”

 

I glance down at him and smile. I am his little goat. My father is a stocky man with a wiry beard, big chest, and jovially booming voice. He is not built to climb, not like my mother and my uncle who have taught me every move I know.

 

Father teaches me how to be strong, how to hold my head up high, how to work hard.

 

It is not enough to know the mountain, my uncle and mother have taught me. It’s also necessary for me to plan my route up. I know this near-vertical rock face quite well, but things can change. It would be foolish for me to blindly grab for a handhold just to realize, too late, it had been sheared off or weakened by a rock slide.

 

I look over my shoulder and scan the vastness of New America. The further up I climb, the more my village will be a mere dot on the landscape, the garden rows no longer distinct, and the people no longer identifiable individuals.

 

I love the farm, the horses, and especially the people. And I love the mountain, even more so when I am one with it.

 

I know to maintain most of my body weight over my feet to keep my hands and arms from tiring too quickly. The goal is to push with my legs against footholds and pull with my fingers or hands against the handholds. Climbing is about balance and equilibrium, about mental strength and physical ability.

 

I look up and assess the vertical face, planning my route, allowing my movements to be fluid, as if dancing with the mountainside. Deciding to travel to my right, I head toward a mantel where I will edge to a nice, wide shelf.

 

The move is interrupted when something in the corner of my eye catches my attention. From around a nearby stand of trees, a group of ferals is stealthily sneaking up on my people.

 

“Ferals,” I yell. “Ferals!”

 

Below my father waves at me. I don’t hear what he says; he’s probably calling me his little goat and laughing at my antics.

 

“Ferals!” I try again.

 

The band of warriors is upon my people and a blood curdling scream jars me. I falter for a second, then regain my grip. I look under my arm to see my family and the other villagers; they are under attack!

 

Mother swings a hoe at a warrior but her tool is useless against his sword.

 

I edge sideways on shaky legs, to the outcropping of rocks, and crouch on the narrow ledge.

 

Below, out of my reach, everyone I know and love is being slaughtered by a clan of ferals. I hear cries of pain and devastation flying up to me on the light breeze.

 

I frantically glance around, looking for the fastest way down. I must help them! Realization strikes a blow and knocks the air from my lungs. I face the truth that I am unarmed, too far away, and way too inexperienced to fight against these ferals after so many of my people have fallen.

 

Squeezing my eyes shut, I send up a quiet prayer to the Goddess to bless my people. I finish my utterance and the silence is deafening. I open my eyes and look down. My entire village is defeated, bloodied, and pillaged.

 

The ferals, seemingly unaware that I am perched above, take all that is of any value. They linger about the bodies of my people, appearing to use knives to further maim the fallen.

 

I remain crouched on the rock ledge throughout the night. Smoke from the burning of my village wafts past me, its heat long depleted by the time it is upon me. It is cold up here, but not as cold as the fissure now in my heart.

 

I know when I descend the mountain; it will be without my faith, and without my soul.

 

 

Chapter One

 

Light flickers off the sides and ceiling of the cave. I look across the fire at this woman who is the closest I have to family and who, at this moment, is furious with me.

 

Neither of us eats from our plates of boiled kudzu root.

 

“It took us both, you know,” I say.

 

“I know.” Breanne Brodie’s expression tells me she may know that but doesn’t put much stock in it.

 

“But,” I prompt her.

 

“But I am not invested in Char, emotionally or otherwise. I don’t care about her beyond her being the life partner of one of our own.”

 

“It was poor judgement, I agree.” I glance down into the flames.

 

“Poor judgement? For Goddess’ sake, this goes so far beyond that. You know better than to shit where you eat.”

 

I wince. She is angry with me for having sex with Roger’s partner. Worse than her anger is the disappointment her eyes stab at me.

 

“We’ve worked too hard to have your libido undermine the Peace Movement now,” she says.

 

I do not need to be reminded of how hard we’ve worked. I was there—libido and all—through every step of the daunting task of defeating the Resistance soldiers and the countless aggressive feral clans.

 

“Listen,” she says, pausing until I look into her eyes. “I want you to go to Karst. Escort Kai and Rachel to Grover, then to McNally.”

 

Heat floods my face. I have been by this woman’s side in battle for the entire life of the Peace Movement. Even when we were fighting separate, simultaneous battles, I was with her in spirit. I have killed for her—for her, not for peace, but for her. Peace is but a word, an abstract. She is flesh and blood, family when all blood relatives of mine are long gone.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I say through gritted teeth.

 

“Do this for me. Please.”

 

“Anyone can escort them. Hell, Kai doesn’t need an escort, even with this new interest in Rachel Hart’s DNA.”

 

“Kai is an exceptional warrior and scout, yes. But she is all but blinded by her love for Rachel.”

 

“Not to be confused with being blinded by lust?” I ask, recalling her words to me when she first chastised me over my indiscretion with Roger’s partner.

 

“You are almost thirty years old. Perhaps it is time for you to—”

 

“Stop. Just stop right there.” It doesn’t matter how much I care about Breanne, she is not going to dictate how I live the personal side of my life.

 

“I am asking you to do this for me as my friend. You are the best warrior I know, the one I most trust with the security of my family. Please. Do this for me.”

 

I push my dinner mindlessly around my plate. No matter what she says, this is not a request from a friend but an order from the leader of the Peace Movement. How can I refuse her? Yet, how can I save face in accepting this menial mission that feels so much like punishment?

 

“You ask as if I have a choice,” I say in a low voice. I stare at her and try to fight down the anger wanting to bubble up from inside me. I am being punished with an insignificant, rookie mission. The disappointment on her face, since my indiscretion came to light, hurts me in a way I cannot begin to comprehend.

 

“You always have a choice,” she responds.

 

 

I ride in the lead with Geoffrey, Nancy, Richard, and Daniel behind me. Even if I believe this mission to be below my ability and status, I will never say so to my contingent. I sit tall on Cinders. When I square my shoulders, I notice the others within my peripheral vision do the same.

 

Cinders, my prized gray mare, jerks her head toward the coywolf, Ajax, her way of reminding me that she’s not thrilled with having the canine so close. I do, however, give Cinders credit for acclimating so quickly to the company of the beast.

 

The sun lowers in the sky, and I calculate that by midday tomorrow we will be at Karst. I raise my left hand in the air, as I bring Cinders around sideways.

 

“We will stop here for the night,” I say.

 

I remain astride Cinders as the others dismount. They fall into a routine that covers settling the horses, starting the fire, food prep, and securing the perimeter.

 

“Perimeter secured.” Geoffrey wanders to the center of the clearing with some firewood to help Nancy strategically stack the downed wood. I dismount and take stock of my contingent.

 

Geoffrey is tall and lean, with a full head of hair accented by graying streaks that make him look older than his forty years. He has the thickest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man. Of all the members of my contingent, he is the one I have spent the most time around. I am pleased to have him out here with me.

 

Nancy is a big-boned woman who is easy to be around, always levelheaded, and smoothly wields a sword. Although not to the extent as with Geoffrey, I have spent quite a bit of time with Nancy and am pleased by her presence here with me as well.

 

Richard has started a pot of water to boil over the fire. He is oblivious to my scrutiny as I watch him. He is wiry. His dark eyes are small and piercing in their stare. I know the least about him, but he has been personable and capable so far on this journey.

 

I look then at Daniel, who habitually runs his hand over his bald head. He has joined Geoffrey in setting up around the fire pit. They have an easy comradery, work well together, and have both proven to be talented warriors. Daniel’s short, stocky build is the opposite of Geoffrey’s.

 

“Oatmeal with dried fruit and meat okay with you, Naomi?” Richard asks.

 

“That is fine.” I bring my sweeping gaze back to him. “Let’s ration out the rest of the cheese as well.”

 

He nods and reaches for the food bag.

 

“Include the coywolf in the splitting of the cheese,” I tell him.

 

He gives an exasperated sigh and shake of his head.

 

“You don’t want him hungry enough to sniff around your bedding during the night, do you?” I tease.

 

“No, ma’am, I don’t,” he says with a shudder.

 

He is fiddling in his bag, and I see a jar hidden among the food stores. For his sake, it better be for the down time, while they wait for me outside of Karst, and not consumed while we are still on our journey to the cave city. For now, I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

Geoffrey and Daniel have pulled logs up around the fire, and we all sit by the flames to eat our small evening meal.

 

“Richard, you have first shift on watch. Pick your second. The remaining two will take second watch, and I will cover the last. Be prepared for an early morning, I want to be at Karst by midday.”

 

I stand and grab my bedroll on my way to the side of camp that is closest to the wooded area where Ajax rests. I throw him a strip of dried venison before settling down.

 

I close my eyes and feel my cheeks heat up when an image comes to me, unbidden, of Breanne’s expression when she learned of my indiscretion with Char. I hope to never have her look at me like that again. As I drift off, I vow to do better, to not be sexual with partnered women, no matter how much they justify their actions. I’ll not disappoint my friend and leader like that again.

 

 

I open one eye and see it is still dark. I concentrate on the sounds around me. There are sounds of snoring, which I expect. The hair stands up on my arms, as I also register a low growl. Ajax.

 

I am deathly still as the air around me stirs. I grab an arm as it reaches across me and almost touches my canteen. I roll onto my back, tighten my grip on a bony wrist, then swing the person over me and roll to pin him to the ground. The knife from under my bedding is in my hand and pressed against a dirty, stubbled neck.

 

Geoffrey stands over us within seconds, his sword drawn and inches from the man’s chest.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the man chants.

 

Everyone is awake now, all up and ready to fight, except Richard, who flails about in his bedding as if trapped within a cocoon.

 

“Who are you?” I ask the man through gritted teeth.

 

“I’m—I’m nobody,” he says.

 

I stand up and glare down at him. He shrinks into a fetal position and starts sobbing. I kick his leg with my foot.

 

“Quit blubbering and get up,” I command.

 

He is slow to get to his feet, so I assist by yanking him up. I have the collar of his ragged coat in my fists, and I lean close to his foul-smelling face.

 

“How many of you are there?” I ask.

 

“How many? How many what?” he sounds confused.

 

“How many raiders are in your party?” I growl out.

 

“It’s no party. It’s just me.”

 

“Perimeter,” I tell the others.

 

They all begin checking the perimeter of the camp.

 

“Where’s Ajax?” I ask.

 

“Over here,” Daniel answers.

 

“Is he still agitated?” I ask, my gaze locked on the intruder.

 

“Not particularly.”

 

“What are you doing lurking about our camp?” I loosen my hold just slightly.

 

“I’m sorry. I was hungry.”

 

I glance at the canteen he was going for.

 

“Well, actually I was thirsty, since I ate some dried meat from the bag over there.” He looks down. “I’m sorry,” he repeats.

 

“Sorry you got caught.” Nancy comes back over. I stand with my hands off the man, my people watching expectantly.

 

“We could feed him to the coywolf,” Daniel mutters.

 

I glance up and note the position of the moon. It is still first watch.

 

“Richard, who was your second?”

 

Everyone looks around, unsure of themselves.

 

“Did you not name one?”

 

“I—I thought I’d let everyone else sleep,” he says, looking down at the ground.

 

“You will look at me when you address me.” My words are well-modulated.

 

He looks up. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

“How did this man manage to get to my bed on your watch?” I ask.

 

“He must have knocked me out somehow.” Richard’s expression shows he has way too much pride in himself for coming up with such a clever answer.

 

“By dumping shine down your throat?” Geoffrey asks.

 

“Silence!” I am angry enough to run my sword through both Richard and this trespasser but know that how I handle the situation will color the entire mission.

 

All eyes are on me now.

 

“What’s your name?” I ask the stranger.

 

“I am Peter,” he whispers.

 

“Where are you from, Peter?”

 

“The hills south of Franklin.”

 

“You are quite a distance from home. Are you running away from someone, or perhaps something?”

 

“No, I am just trying to find my own way.”

 

I study his gaunt features. The hunger in his eyes reminds me of my old need, when the lack of food and companionship was at its worst. When my family and village were gone and the cache of food depleted, I would have resorted to stealing if I hadn’t met Frederick and Amanda when I did.

 

“Richard,” I call out.

 

Richard steps forward and holds up a length of rope, as if to bind the man.

 

I glare at him. “Richard, make a plate of oatmeal and dried fruit for Peter.”

 

I send everyone else off to bed and sit up with Richard and Peter. Once Peter has finished eating, I tell Richard to give him his canteen.

 

“I can’t give him my—”

 

“Richard, will you really choose this moment to refuse a direct order?” I ask.

 

“No, ma’am.”

 

Richard hands his canteen to the man, who takes it hesitantly. “Thanks,” Peter whispers.

 

I turn my attention back to Richard. “Now, tell me how someone came into our camp and stole from us while you were on watch.” He lowers his head and begins to sob. I feel a flash of anger toward Breanne for sending me off with this contingent. I would have been much better off alone, and surely Breanne knows this.

 

“Go to bed, Richard.”

 

He scampers off like a rat. I level my gaze at Peter.

 

He looks me in the eyes. “I know who you are.”

 

I laugh. “You do, do you?”

 

“You are the warrior they call Naomi. You are part of the Peace Movement.”

 

“You knew this, yet you still came into my camp to steal from me.”

 

“No, I didn’t realize it until a moment ago.”

 

“Tell me what has brought you to this point where you risk your life to steal from me.”

 

He looks into the fire, which has mostly burned down to coals. “My village has been overrun with refugees. Please do not take this wrong. I do believe in the Peace Movement, in theory, but…” He’s quiet for a long time.

 

“Go ahead, Peter, you may speak freely.”

 

“After the defeat of the Resistance and the liberation of so many from the detention centers, smaller villages such as mine were overrun with people. Too many free people and not enough resources.” He gives me a small shrug. “Instead of begging for what little there was at home, I thought I would come out here with my family and find a place to settle.”

 

“But you have not.”

 

“Most of the ferals have been defeated, but the ones who are left are quite hostile.”

 

“Where is your family now?” I ask.

 

“Gone. Mother and Father succumbed to illness. My cousins were killed when our camp was raided by ferals.”

 

“I am very sorry to hear this.” I sit back and cross my feet at the ankles. I study him for a long moment. “You do understand that I cannot just let you leave here after stealing from us.”

 

“I do,” he says, looking down into the fire. “And I accept whatever punishment you feel applies.”

 

“You will be taken into custody and delivered to McNally.”

 

“Ah, the prison there is quite large.” He gives a slight nod.

 

“You are to be brought to the rehab center there. It too is quite large.”

 

He cocks his head, and his eyes narrow slightly. “I don’t understand.”

 

“You will be taught the skills necessary to work in this new, peaceful, country of ours.”

 

His chin begins to quiver.

 

“Please do not cry.” I am tired and do not wish to deal with displays of emotion. “And please do not go spreading around any rumors about me being soft.”

 

He laughs.

 

“I’m serious.” I stand. “Do not even speak of this to your escorts tomorrow.”

 

He nods his understanding.

 

“You are welcome to take your rest near the fire. I do not have any extra bedding to offer you, but—”

 

“Thank you, you’ve been so very generous,” he says with a bow.

 

“Sleep. Tomorrow will begin a long journey for you.” I go to my travel bag near my bedding to get some supplies. I write two letters, much like the ones Breanne gave me when I set off on this mission, and seal them with wax.

 

Then I force myself to steer clear of the memories of the early days on my own that are flirting with my subconscious now in response to Peter’s plight. I need to keep my head about me; I need to stay awake to stand guard for the rest of the night; and I need to push the memories away, out of my mind.

 

Nancy is the first to stir. After she relieves herself she joins me around the now cold fire pit. “Were you up all night?” she asks.

 

I nod.

 

“Shall I get some chicory for you?”

 

“Sure.” I glance up at her. “Make it strong, please. Make yours that way as well.”

 

She lifts her eyebrow but doesn’t ask the question lurking in her eyes.

 

Nearby, Peter’s breathing tells me he is still sleeping.

 

When Nancy sits beside me and hands me my drink, I pull out the two sealed letters. I have chosen her for this new mission, because besides Geoffrey, she is the one I know and therefore trust the most.

 

“I am changing your mission,” I begin in a low voice. “You will take Richard and Peter with you and go first to McNally, then back to base. In McNally, you will give this letter”—I hold up the first—“to the temporary director of the rehab center. It is a letter of introduction for Peter. You leave him and the letter there. Then you take the second letter to Breanne. It is a letter of reprimand for Richard.”

 

“Ma’am, please know that I mean no disrespect, but do you wish for me to travel with a thief and someone derelict of duty?” she asks.

 

“Actually, you and Richard will be delivering a thief to McNally, then returning to base.”

 

I see by her expression that she now understands her mission and that Richard will not be privy to any of the details.

 

“Do you accept this mission?” I ask, knowing she knows it is not a request, but an order.

 

She gives a slight bow. “I do accept this mission.” She holds my gaze for a moment before adding, “And I am honored for the trust you are placing in me.”

 

“Thank you,” I say, sincerely.

 

Geoffrey is the next to awake.

 

“It’s a good morning?” he asks.

 

“Yes. It is.” His face twists in thought but he says nothing.

 

“Say what is on your mind,” I tell him.

 

“You would have been well within your right to punish the thief with a beating—or worse.”

 

“And?” I prompt him.

 

“I was just surprised by how you handled the situation.” He looks away now.

 

“And would you have slit the man’s throat for stealing food?”

 

“No, I would not have.” He swallows. “I am only pointing out that you showed mercy when you need not have. I know you don’t want to be out here on this particular mission, and—”

 

“And you worried I would take my frustration out on the thief.”

 

“Not worried—”

 

“Geoffrey, just say whatever it is you are beating around.” I’m growing impatient.

 

“I have always admired you, and this admiration is what brought me to the Peace Movement to begin with. I guess I just wanted you to know that.”

 

I shake my head. It appears everyone is getting soft on this journey. I will need to make a point to curb my own softer side moving forward.

 

The others all come to the unlit fire. I call for a morning meal of cold bread and egg, and include Peter in the meal.

 

“We have a change in plans,” I say to the group as soon as the meal is consumed. “Richard and Nancy will deliver the prisoner to McNally. Geoffrey, you and Daniel will continue the journey with me.”

 

“As you wish,” Nancy says, suggesting this is the first she has heard of the change in plans.

 

 

The Brodies are quite fond of the cave city, Karst. I can see the entrance from where we now ride. What we don’t see yet, but have been forewarned about, are the heavily armed guards.

 

For years I’ve heard Breanne and her twin brother, Gotham, talk about the beloved community hidden inside the mountain. I’ve always thought to see it, briefly, to satisfy my curiosity, but not like this, not as punishment for my personal indiscretions.

 

As we ride closer, I finally see the short, muscular man Breanne has told me is named Andre. Beside him is a taller, lean man I believe to be Jackson. Now I see the guns. Firearms are fascinating, but so unpredictable. I prefer my sword.

 

The men both raise their guns at our approach. I turn Cinders sideways and hold up both hands to chest level, displaying Cinders’ reins, and the fact that no arms are in my grasp.

 

“We come on Breanne Brodie’s orders.” I dismount and hold out an envelope for the closer of the two, the tall one. “And you are Jackson?”

 

He takes the letter sent from Breanne and reads it before answering. “Yes, I am Jackson.”

 

He gives the letter to the other man.

 

“Andre?” I ask.

 

He reads the letter, nods, then hands it back to me. I place it back into the inside pocket of my longcoat, with the one I still have for Dr. Bradshaw.

 

“Jackson, you can let the doctor know of her visitors.”

 

“It will just be me going in,” I say. “My men will remain out here with our horses.”

 

I look over to where Geoffrey and Daniel have begun to set up camp.

 

“As you wish,” Andre says. “While Jackson is delivering the message, I can be taking your arms.”

 

“Excuse me?” I ask.

 

“You will need to be unarmed when you go inside Karst,” he says.

 

I am angry that Breanne failed to tell me this detail.

 

“Or you can stay outside and I will have Kai come out to you. It is your choice.”

 

I hear the murmuring from Daniel and Geoffrey behind me.

 

I step closer to Andre and square my shoulders, causing myself to tower over him. He keeps his gaze steady, and I know he is accustomed to being shorter than most. When he doesn’t break eye contact, I respect his unflinching gaze.

 

I give Andre a slight bow. When I pull my sword from the sheath at my waist, he steps back and raises his gun. “How am I to give you my weapons without removing them from my body?” I ask with a smirk.

 

I can tell he struggles to control his nervousness and it makes me wonder what he might have heard about me. I return the sword to its sheath and remove both from my side. I hold up the sword, the pommeled end in one hand, the tip of the covered blade in the other.

 

“I give to you my sword, the battle tested centerpiece of my commitment to the Peace Movement. I trust you to handle her with the utmost care. I pray for your sake that she is kept properly and returned to me in her current condition upon the completion of my business inside.”

 

“Of course,” he says with a nod.

 

Next, I remove the knife and its sheath strapped to my left thigh.

 

“I give to you my knife, the most personal piece of battle gear I own. I trust you to take the utmost care with her as well.”

 

He takes the knife from me and gently places it next to the sword he has carefully leaned against the side of a boulder. I go to Cinders while I await Jackson’s return. I run my fingers through the nearly black mane of the gray mare and whisper, “Good girl.”

 

Geoffrey takes the reins I offer to him.

 

“Need I say how I expect my girl here to be well taken care of?” I ask.

 

“That is understood,” Geoffrey says.

 

I hold Geoffrey’s gaze for a long moment. He is a fierce warrior with the enemy, but a gentle soul with animals. I’ve seen his softer side enough to trust him completely with my beloved horse.

 

“Very good,” I say. “I will be back out in a day or two. Do you have all that you will need?”

 

“Yes,” Daniel confirms.

 

“If you need something, ask our new friends.” I cock my head in the direction where Andre still stands at the entrance. “Please be respectful in how you carry yourselves while out here,” I add, thinking about Richard getting drunk and passing out on his watch.

 

If they are offended, they hide it well.

 

“All will be fine,” Geoffrey says.

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