When I manage to pry my eyes open (through sheer force of will) I realize that the explosion in the distance isn’t the sound of more capillaries in my brain bursting. Zel! I want to shout but I keep silent. Huddled under the cot, I hope that if the building breaks, it does so in such a way that I don’t wind up pancaked. Another explosion and I start counting, One…Two…Three…Four…Eight-teen…BKOOOM! My window flashes with light again and I smile. The thunder is getting closer.
“UP!” someone shouts as the door to my cell flies open. For a moment he doesn’t see me but then he spots me underneath. “Get UP!” he commands, grabbing my arm and wrenching me out from under cover.
“What’s happening?” I cry in my best helpless-little-girl voice and his eyes blaze fire through the gloom. It’s the dark man from dinner, and he wastes no time hauling me through the basement. We pass two doors other than the bathroom before he shoves me up the stairs, in front of him.
Mistake, I think just before I last back with the ball of my foot, catching him—but not in the temple, as I’d hoped—in the shoulder and forcing him to drop his weapon. I leap up the rest of the stairs and fling myself against the door to lock him in, but he’s too fast, and too canny, as his arm shoots through the door and so I wind up trying to close it on the meat of his bicep.
So I flee, the dining room is now dark, but there’s a flickering glow roaring outside the windows and I cross my arms over my face, crash through the window, roll through some prickly shrubs and keep running. I run across cracked tennis courts, and barely miss a net that’s still strung up. Looking toward the horizon, I see a faint glow and between that, the cold, and the north star I realize that’s east. Pre-dawn attack, huh Zel? A feral smile curls my lips as another explosion shakes the ground beneath my feet. What are you exploding? Nothing that this encampment doesn’t need, and the thought adds speed to my feet.
It’s not enough. A shadow emerges from the bushes ahead and tackles me to the ground. Snarling, kicking, punching and biting I manage to work my way free, but the shadow swings around and captures my leg. Oh god, I’m going to be bitten, a scream rises up in my throat but as the arms stop scrabbling at me and instead lock around my knee I realize the danger’s even worse.
“NO!” I scream, beating on the boy clutching my leg, “NO!” the youth’s grip loosens but does not slip. There’s another shadow bearing down on us in the darkness, his face a wash of soot and silent anger, and I desperately scan the trees and bushes looking for a flash of ice in the ravages of the fire.
“You’re lucky it’s not broken,” the dark man growls as he grabs me by my arm. He punches me in the bicep—same place as where I shut the door on him—and I cry out as my arm goes numb. It’s not a breaking blow, but it’s near enough, and I hate the angry tears that pour down my face as he and the boy roughly drag me back to the building they’d been holding me in.
“You shouldn’t have run,” he whispers and I snap,
“I had to try,”
“It will be worse for you now!” and I suck back the retort, What? Like it was going to be great for me, anyway?
BKOW! Resounds over landscape and I’m thrown, roughly to the ground.
BKOW! It sounds again, precisely 5 seconds after the first shot. 7 seconds later, BKOW! Retorts and I count…four…five…BKOW! Then it is silent. The boy draped over my legs and the man practically smothering me by pushing my head into the dirt don’t see me smile, but as they drag me back to my feet I can’t wipe the grin off my face.
Okay, Zel, I say to myself I’ll wait. 5-7-5 is our code for, “Wait, and I’ll be back,” and I know he’s neither lost nor abandoned me.
“Get her inside,” the leader growls and as we start up the stairs he slaps me—slaps me so hard I slip from the dark man’s grasp and tumble back down the stairs—before turning and going back into the building. It’s not a house, I note as the boy helps the dark man drag me inside. This time I’m thrown into a basement room with a sliver for a window and no cot and, even as my cheek swells up over my eye, I am smiling. My anger might not be something they need to fear at this point, but Zel’s anger certainly is.
I don’t see Hannah again, but I do see Stephen. “Fool,” he mutters under his breath as he applies some astringent to my multitude of cuts and scrapes. Future note: don’t crash through glass unless you have to. “What were you thinking, running off like that?”
I was thinking, I hiss inside my mind, allowing none of my anger to seep out, that you all abducted me, stripped me of my gear (although Zel took all my really good things aside from my boots) and are planning to use me as a breeder, prostitute, slave or all of the above.
“Zombies,” I grunted as he lifted my arm up. My bicep had swollen up fiercely, but I could move my fingers if I wanted and after a torturous exploration Stephen proclaimed that,
“Most likely, it’s not broke.” Genius assessment, but I nod my thanks and then turn my back on him. “If you know what’s good for you girl, you’ll obey,” he says just before the door shuts and the sound of multiple deadbolts slide home.
This time, they don’t feed me. Not much anyway, not after the lavish feast they presented on my first night here. After three days my stomach stops protesting and so does my bladder, they’re both so empty that I don’t need to worry about them. It’s been six days since Zel’s attack and my aborted escape attempt, and I only know that because of the color of my bruises as they fade through purple, to blue, to green, followed by three days of sickly yellow. It might be taking longer, however, since they’re not feeding me regularly and I’m getting a pittance of water daily.
On the seventh day, I have my first non-medical visitor. The leader is preceded by what I assume must be his enforcer; a huge, burly man with close-cropped hair and no distinguishable personality who sits a folding chair in the exact center of my cell. After a moment, the leader sweeps (he does not enter, he does not stride, he sweeps as majestically as Scarlett O’Hara descending a staircase) into the room and sits gently on the chair, crossing his legs as he pulls out a nail file to work at his fingertips.
“That was very foolish of you, child,” the man says and I do not let it rile me. He wants me to act as a beast so he can punish me further, and it is not in my best interest. “There was no call for you to hurt my associate.”
“I suppose not,” I concede, “I apologize.” The leader laughs, a deep, hearty guffaw and allows his nail implement to dangle enticingly close to me. Its sharp tip would make it a decent shiv, but it’s lack of length and weak construction makes it a non-viable option. That and the way the enforcer’s eyes dart across me, looking for the slightest twitch of aggression.
“It’s going to take more than that,” the leader says and I don’t ask the obvious question. Instead I ask,
“Why bother keeping me?” The leader looks off-put, as if he can’t believe what he’s heard.
“Why, my dear,” he says, ‘fatherly’ creeping into his tone, “a strong, capable young woman such as yourself…why wouldn’t we want to keep you?” I think he’s trying to put me at ease, but if I could push back any further into the wall I would.
“I told you, I’m not young,”
“Not so young as many, no,” he agrees, turning his hazel eyes from me back to the task of his hands, “but capable none the less. How did you wind up in that wash, anyway?” the leader asks it casually, as if the question has no real importance but we both know the truth.
“Heading south before winter,” I say. It’s what I would have been doing, if I had been on my own and still traveling the wilds by myself. I wintered once at an old resort that had been overgrown for years, and it was very nice, even if I did get tired of avocados and fish.
“And who was your companion?” he drawls, digging under his nail at a speck of imagined grit.
“Who?” I ask, trying my best not to think of Zel. I was heading back to my camp, I was heading back to my camp. I was looking for food and I was heading back to my camp.
“Don’t play dumb,” the leader snaps, all pretense of being a kindly father-figure melting away in a few seconds. “The man who was with you, who grabbed your pack and melted away in to the scrub, the same man who attacked our settlement, who is he?”
“What are you talking about?” I manage a decent impression of disbelief, a kind of innocence that I thought burned away with the remains of my former life, and my teeth rattle around in my head as the leader slaps me again.
“Play coy with me and I’ll end you!” he roars in my face, grabbing me by my shoulders and shaking me furiously. My ears are still ringing and I hear insane laughter coming from somewhere before the ringing stops with a pop! and I realize that I’m the one laughing like a lunatic. “Silence her,” the leader says, disgusted as he tosses me back to the floor. The enforcer takes two steps toward me and suddenly my stomach explodes as the force of his kick launches me into the wall. I stop laughing, coughing instead as red washes over my vision and I feel my hands curl into claws. I manage to wrap my arms around my legs and get my breathing back under control as the enforcer pushes me back into a sitting and tilts my head back so the leader can stare at me more menacingly. Really? I feel my eyebrow curling into the question and I have to squish my forehead up into a frown cover it.
“Now,” the leader asks again, leaning back in his chair and filing at a nail. “Who was that man you were with?”
“I didn’t know,” I cough, spitting blood onto the floor beside me, “that someone was following me.” The enforcer leans forward again and the leader taps his heel, just once, and the burly man stops immediately.
“Fine,” he says, standing up and pushing his chair back until it clatters against the floor. “Keep your secrets. I’ll keep the water, and we’ll see who gives up first.” The enforcer scoops up the chair as he follows his master out of the room.
“Shit,” I growl, spitting more blood and poking gingerly at my teeth with my tongue. All intact, I think, grateful for that small miracle as my head lolls back and konks against the cement wall. I think I fucked up, Zel…I spit again and try to lift up my shirt to check the damage, but it’s too painful…I think I made the situation much, much worse.
No shit, Sherlock, that deep, gruff voice chides from the back of my head and I smile as I slump to lay on the floor. When I stop feeling the cold seeping into my body I worry, but only for a moment before unconsciousness claims me for its own.
“Get up,” a harsh voice grates in my ears, “come on, get up!” Opening my eyes, I see the red-haired man from dinner with a worried expression stretched across his freckled features.
“Nope,” I grin wickedly, feeling weightless, feeling like I’m floating.
“If you don’t get moving you’ll die!” the man shouts and I start that crazy laughing again.
“I’m not a horse,” I giggle, and his fingers bite into my thighs, “oww!” I protest as his hands slide up to my armpits. Hoisting me easily—those surprisingly burly arms flexing enticingly (crazy thoughts, that secret voice inside me whispers, you must be almost ready to go) “No,” I groan and the red-haired man manages to look even more confused. I push my feet under me and put weight on them. He slings my right-arm over his shoulders and starts walking me around the cell. For the first time in a long time I notice that light is streaming through the slit of a window and—all at once—color floods back into the world. My blood on the floor has dried a dirty brown, but where it has freely dripped onto my tunic it’s a bright, vibrant red. My arm is back to a healthy pinkish, if a bit pale, hue; but when my tunic gapes open and I see my stomach I cry out in dismay.
“What is WRONG with you people?” I ask and the man meets me, glare for glare.
“We’re NOT all the same, damnit,” he mutters through gritted teeth. Sweat beads on my forehead as I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, balancing, and repeating. “Gerrald rules this place through fear and coercion, and if you don’t want to wind up in the wastes, you do what he says, when he says, how he says, and faster than he can say it.”
“And you’re helping him?”
“My wife was here,”
“Was?” The pained look that flashes across his face and lodges in his eyes gives it away. “Child too?”
“No,” the red-head replies, “but she might as well be. Gerrald doesn’t let anyone keep their children anymore, ‘They’re too precious to be dependent on only one or two people for their protection,’ he says. But he keeps them hostage so the rest of us will work for him, help him build and maintain this little kingdom of his…”
“You should shut the hell up,” I gasp through gritted teeth, “if he doesn’t have this cell wired he’s an idiot as well as a maniac.” The man smiles, showing pointed eye-teeth that makes him look more than a little wild, and continues,
“Your friend destroyed the generators. ALL the generators. And holed the fuel tanks. Gerrald’s grip grows weaker; now’s the time to make a move.”
“I’m not moving,” I say, knowing that if I attempt another escape in this condition the first lurker that comes across me will delight in its easy meal.
“You are,” the man says, slipping out from under my arm and forcing me to stand under my own weight. I take a few stuttering steps before I collapse against his chest. The pain in my midsection is intense, I’m dripping with sweat, but I do not fall. “When your buddy comes back, be sure to take us with you.” He leaves, and only then do I notice the five gallon container of water he’s left by the door.
I may survive this yet, I think as I pour water, a handful at a time, into my hand and bring it up to my parched and split lips.
This time it’s the screams that wake me and I groan mentally. End, and end again, I think, how many times is destruction going to serve as a bookend to the story of my life? The door flies open and it’s their Leader—Gerrald—wild-eyed and blood-streaked looking at me.
“How?” he shouts, charging toward me. I dance away from him and we fall to circling each other. “How does ONE MAN take down my entire operation?”
“Martzel isn’t a man, Gerry,” I taunt as the older man visibly ages in front of me. Stripped of his power, the edifice of his luxurious lifestyle, Gerrald ages a year for every minute he wastes torturing me.
“Martzel?” the man stops in his tracks, with his back to the door, and I freeze as well. “Martzel the mauler? The man raiders won’t name and pirates won’t fight? Locked in a warehouse with 200 walkers he came out with no wound more significant than a scraped elbow?”
“I don’ t know about all that,” I say, backing into the natural shadow of the room as other shadows start stumbling through the hallway behind him, “but I have heard him called Martzel the myth, the stone-fisted, and The Brick that Will Not Crumble.”