“You sure about that?” Susan asked, “You saw them?”
“I heard them say that,” Orenda answered with narrowed eyes, “Are we hiding slaves? Is that what this is?” Without waiting for an answer she continued, “Because if so, we need a better hiding place than out in plain sight. You’ll need to get into the wardrobes or-”
“Don’t you panic,” Susan said with a calmness to her voice that did not match her eyes. She was gathering all the dishes quickly and efficiently, stacking them and moving them from the table to the sink. “Orenda, help Charlie.”
“It’s in Orenda’s room,” Charles said as he marched down the hall, “Rendy, get them books.”
His tone left no room for argument and Orenda thought that she liked the nickname, but now was not the time to bring it up. She gathered the storybooks and walked quickly after Charles. The woman had picked up the baby and followed after them, but the father went into the guest room- and came quickly out with his children in tow. Orenda was not sure how he had gotten Johnny to unlock it so quickly, or how Jill had gotten in there, but she was thankful for it.
“Help me,” Charles said to the father and motioned for him to move to the other side of Orenda’s bed. The man went to scoot it and Charles chided, “Pick it up! Are you trying to make noise?”
Together they lifted it and moved it to the far wall. Charles quickly dropped to his knees and rolled up the braided run to reveal a door cut into the floor. He opened it and Orenda could see a shaft going down, but not much beyond.
“Go!” Charles commanded, and the man climbed down the ladder. The woman handed him the baby, then the girl, quickly motioning for her son to climb. He did so without argument, though he looked frightened. His mother followed on as closely as she could.
“What’s down there?” Orenda asked.
“Not a lot,” Charles said, “We dug it out ourselves. It’s just a little dirt hovel with shit ventilation. I don’t reckon anybody could survive down there real long. But they won’t be there that long.” He closed the door, rolled the rug back out over it, and said, “Help me move the bed back.”
“What does ‘shit ventilation’ mean?” Orenda asked, struggling just a little with the heavy bed frame, but unwilling to mention it.
“I shouldn’t’a said that,” he admitted, “Don’t say ‘shit’. I just mean… there ain’t a lot of air down there. People can’t stay down there real long.”
“Are humans often slaves?” Orenda asked as she opened her wardrobe and placed the books inside.
“Yes,” Charles answered, and tugged the collar of his shirt up.
“To elves?” Orenda asked.
“I wasn’t going to tell you,” Charles said, “We wouldn’t… not until you was bigger, or we figured out-”
“Just my personal apartments,” Ellie’s voice was so much louder than it normally was, coming from the direction of the living room.
“Go to your desk,” Charles said, “Pretend to be reading. Act casual.”
He opened the door slowly, silently, then went to the bed and began to strip the bedding.
“We really hate to intrude,” came the voice of the soldier who had rung the bell, “We’ll be in and out. We hate to bother you.”
“It’s no bother,” Ellie assured him, “There’s not much to it, really.”
“How many humans do you have?” The guard asked.
“Oh, only the two,” Ellie said conversationally, “Just to help with housework and the like. My work keeps me quite busy. I told you that I’ve been chronicling the precolonial history of the region. And now that I’ve taken on a child, things have gotten a bit more hectic.”
Orenda heard the door to Ellie’s room opening and someone walking around in there.
“Seems like a rather plain set of apartments for such a lovely lady,” he said, and Orenda began to absentmindedly copy a section from the text on fire elves.
“I’ve often found that excess can easily become a distraction,” Ellie said, and Orenda heard the other doors open.
“Oh,” Charles stuck his head out of the doorway, “Sir, you may not want to go in there- it does not reflect well on me. I’m changing the bedding and some of the rooms are unkempt.”
“There’s a human in here,” came the voice of someone Orenda had not heard speak, but she assumed it was one of the guards.
“Yes, his name is Charles,” Ellie said chipperly, “He’s quite helpful.”
“Is he?” The guard in the guest room asked in disgust, “He’s half-assed one room and moved on to the next.”
“I suppose he has a system,” Ellie laughed, and Orenda did not like how unlike herself she was being, “I don’t question it as long as the work gets done.”
The man who had rung the bell pushed past Charles and walked into Orenda’s room. His eyes widened and he froze in his tracks when he saw her.
“This is your ward?” He asked.
“Oh, yes,” Ellie came in behind him, “She’s quite helpful.”
Charles stepped to the side, just to her left, with his back against the wall near the doorway. He fisted one hand in the small of his back and the other over his heart in a pose that seemed as if it meant something, but Orenda didn’t know what.
“She’s a fire elf,” The man said with a tone that Orenda could not place- he was not angry, not in awe- perhaps a little curious.
“Yes,” Orenda said to him, “I am.”
“You… see so few of them,” The man said.
“Thank you,” Orenda said, because she didn’t know what else to say. “Can I help you?”
“Where did you find her?” The man asked Ellie.
“She was on the street, poor thing,” Ellie explained.
“Ms Ellie has taken me in,” Orenda said, “I’m grateful to her. She’s very kind to me.”
“She seems to have many virtues,” The man smiled at Ellie in a way that made Orenda’s flesh crawl.
“Thank you, mam, for your help,” He said.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like something to drink?” Ellie asked, “Or to eat?”
“No, well…” The man paused, “Not today. Perhaps I will take you up on your kind offer later. But for now, I do, unfortunately, have quite a few places to get through.”
“Well, I wish you luck,” Ellie smiled at him, “I suppose I’ll walk you out, since I need to return to work.”
“That sounds lovely,” The man agreed and stepped into the hall with her.
Orenda’s ears had pricked up by her head and she did not realize exactly how tense she was until she heard the door to the apartment latch closed. She had not realized that she was not breathing until she began again and took in too much air too quickly, so much that she was drowning in it, which was not something she knew to be possible. Charles rushed to her side, knelt to be on her level, wrapped one arm around her shoulders, and used the other to cradle her face.
“Come on, Rendy, slow down,” he instructed, “It’s fine. They’re gone.”
“We have to let them out,” Orenda said as soon as she could breath, and she did not understand why there were tears in her eyes.
“No, not until we’re right sure they’re gone,” Charles told her.
“They came here, like you did, didn’t they?” Orenda asked, “You’re a slave, too? You’re all running from something?”
“Keep your voice down,” He told her, and continued in a whisper, “Yeah. I am. I came here because even though that, right there, was scary- things are much better here, Rendy. And out past that mountain range, they say no elf has traveled since the colonization. Out there? We don’t know what there is, but we know that it’s free.”
“Beyond the… that’s the Sacred Mountain,” Orenda said, “The geography books says it’s all desert. They’ll die.”
“Them geography books might be wrong,” Charles told her, “I’ve studied them and if you trace the sources they ain’t that good. When I was studying with the Brigaddons, they taught me to ‘follow the money’. If you look at who funds the research sometimes you see biases. Xandra ain’t never sent an expedition what come back. We don’t know what’s out there.”
“But what if it is nothing but desert?” Orenda asked, “What if there’s nothing there? They’ll die!”
“Some folks…” Charles sighed and stood, “Some people would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.”
“What were you talking about before?” Orenda asked, “What is on your neck? Everyone’s necks?”
Charles rubbed the back of his neck and glanced away, in thought.
“I… I don’t want to scare you, Rendy.” He said.
“They left the library,” Susan rushed through the door, “All of them. I thought sure they was going to say something about the breakfast dishes. I washed them- stuck them in the cabinets still wet, but I couldn’t get through all of them and if they had seen them they woulda knowed more than four people ate here today.”
“Did they say anything?” Charles asked.
“No… no I reckon… they didn’t notice. I don’t know how. Small miracles.” She put a hand on her chest and took a deep breath.
“Help me move the bed back,” Charles asked her, and together they picked it up and moved it out of the way. Then he rolled up the rug and opened the door.
“We should probably wash the bedding,” he said, “What if they come by and don’t see it on the line?”
The man appeared first and hauled himself up, shaking so badly that he nearly fell back into the hole. Charles pulled him to his feet, and he instantly went to sit back on the bed.
“You want you a cup of tea?” Susan asked him.
“Please,” he begged, and began to cry.
Orenda was unaccustomed to watching grown men cry and it unnerved her. She watched the rest of the family climb out from her position where she still sat at the desk. Charles had to reach in and take the baby, who began to cry, as if on cue, when he touched it. The boy was the last to come out, and he surprised Orenda by stepping toward her, not towards his father. His face was expressionless and she did not know what to make of it.
“She was gonna sell daddy,” Johnny said.
“Oh,” Orenda said, because she had no response to that.
“And me, when I got old enough,” Johnny said.
“Why?” Orenda asked, because she felt that he wanted to tell her something.
“Because boys can’t have babies, I think?” Johnny answered, “I don’t really understand. But the place they was gonna send him was real mean. He didn’t want to go.”
“How old are you?” Orenda asked him, but he only shrugged.
“I’ve never met my father,” Orenda told him. “I think he may be a king.”
The boy shook his head. “No gods. No kings. No masters. Follow the white rabbit.”