Leah Frakes had risked it all… and failed.
She gritted her teeth. Her whole body screamed at her. The motorcycle ride, the capture… She smoothed a hand over her jaw. The beating… She had to keep going. There was no other option. She had to come up with a new plan.
If she sat up, Eglon hadn’t won. She bit her bottom lip and pressed her cheek to the floor, wishing she could close her eyes. Sit up. Sit up.
Defeat threatened to swallow her up.
Six-year-old Benjamin remained with Eglon, and Leah had been captured in the rescue attempt, betrayed by the one man she thought she could trust.
She’d lost it all—her farm, her freedom, her son…
Now she was trapped in Eglon’s compound because she knew which herbs healed what ailments and because she knew how to make soap. She’d been reduced to an existence as a survival encyclopedia.
She caught her breath and clamped her mouth, willing the sob to stay trapped inside. She wouldn’t break. She refused to reward the guards outside with her tears.
Laying on the floor of a bedroom she didn’t recognize, Leah swiped the moisture from her cheeks. She wouldn’t weep. Eglon would pounce on any weakness the moment he saw it. She’d lost everything she loved by trusting a “blur man.”
The man she thought she had known had been a myth, and Benjamin had paid the price for her trust, for her foolishness in allowing a stranger to live with them for five months. Righteous men didn’t exist. They were as mythical as the Boogeyman, Santa Claus, and Zeus himself. The last good man on Earth had died with her father’s murder.
Leah’s hands closed to fists. She had been been too terrified to ask questions, and her loneliness had gotten the better of her. Too afraid that Samuel would leave them behind if she pried, and she would lose the only other grown-up she’d had to talk to for years.
I will kill you for this, Samuel. She pictured his face, and her hands on a shotgun. Vengeance would be sweet. But wallowing got her nowhere.
Leah groaned and sat up, her shoulder still sore from the unceremonious dumping. Two men had tossed her on the woven rug and then marched out without another word. She didn’t know how long she’d been there, but the light had changed. It had to be at least mid-morning.
She scanned the room. There had to be a way out. Sooner or later, she would find it.
She climbed to her feet, standing carefully, her hand clamped around a bedpost until her equilibrium adjusted. They must have hit her hard.
She made a quick lap around the unfamiliar room. Scented of lilacs, the bed had been dressed in silks and lace. Strangers smiled from picture frames placed upon the center of star-shaped doilies. An armoire rested in the corner, and dried flowers graced the top of the dresser beside it. A roll-top desk sat against the wall opposite the large bed. She spun slowly, scanning the path she had taken. She’d never seen a room with so many frills.
Wrought iron latticework covered each of the four windows; the truth behind an otherwise friendly room. A woman had lived there but not voluntarily. The details created a billboard. Whoever had stayed there lived with daily abuse wrapped in a façade of happiness. Who had resided in the luxurious surroundings?
I do now. The thought meant to fell her again, but she pushed it away and made another circuit.
Leah stopped at a window and peered through. Men crisscrossed the compound, weapons strapped to their waists or slung over their shoulders. Even if she made it out, the inhabitants of the place wouldn’t betray the man who clothed and fed them.
She shivered and bumped a small table beside her, upsetting a picture frame on it. As she righted the frame, the face caught her eye, and she stared at the woman therein. The stranger resembled Benjamin more than a little, and that could mean only one thing.
The room had belonged to Eglon’s wife, Samuel’s lover… Benjamin’s mother.
Leah’s mouth dried and dread filled her. What had Eglon planned for her?
She stumbled back as the earlier capture replayed in her mind. What had he said? He couldn’t possibly have meant… No. No. No.
Eglon’s sickly words circled in her thoughts.
You will learn to live as my wife… or you will never see Benjamin again.
The implications turned Leah’s stomach, and she sank to her knees, retching and spewing watery bile over the rug. She kicked a chair, the small table, and screamed at the injustice of what she’d been dealt. The picture frame fell to the ground, sending glass shards across the floor.
The thick door rattled. “Be quiet in there.”
“Then tell me why I‘m in here,” she yelled.
Two men laughed. At least two men were out there.
“You’re the boss’s wife,” one of them answered. “Where else would you be?”
Her mouth spoke of her disgust. “His wife,” she repeated. “His captive,” she whispered. “His whore.”
A different man guffawed. “Don’t get a big head. You’re the fourth. Every single one of them started out talking just like you.”
Leah gasped. “The fourth?”
“High turnover rate,” the first one said.
“He’s a monster,” she yelled.
Something hard slammed against the exterior. “Shut up. You hear me?”
Leah crawled to the frilly bed and took a seat on the corner, working through her options.
Heavy footsteps announced an approach. The guards didn’t sound that way when they came and went, and the house seemed to strain beneath the weight.
Eglon… the fat and greasy.
Leah dashed around the far side of the bed, putting it between herself and the entrance. She peeled her lips back from her teeth and scrunched her nose as the door burst open.
She crouched and put her hands out in front of her. “I will bite off whatever you try to put near me.”
Eglon snorted. “Brave words from a woman without options.” He tilted his head. “Do you think Benjamin likes his… ears?”
Leah straightened. The man had no idea
Then Eglon pointed at her with two fingers, and the guards scurried inside to corner Leah next to the bed. “I wanted you to meet your students.”
“Students?” The word came out a screech. He spoke as though she were a teacher.
“Indeed,” he said. “You will have more purpose here than childbearing.”
“And if I don’t go?”
Eglon waved once more and the guards rushed her. She slapped and scratched, but to no avail. One of the guards landed a fist to her temple, and she went limp over the bed. The two pounced then, their fingers bruised her upper arms. Her, against two men, crammed in a corner. She could never win in a head-on match.
Fight smarter, not harder, Leah. She heard her father’s voice in her head. Her chest heaving, she stopped struggling.
“Seeing some reason?” Eglon gave a satisfied nod.
The guards lifted her by her elbows and lugged her across the room.
As they came past, Eglon bent down toward her. “Thank Maria, Caleb’s widow, won’t you?”
Leah scowled. “For what?”
“For comforting me when I had to deliver the news that Caleb had been killed during his service to the cause.” He moved close to her ear, and the guards forced her against Eglon. His sticky, hot breath fanned over her face. “Maria’s company will serve my needs until our wedding night.”
Leah didn’t have the strength to spit in his face.
Eglon expected a wedding night. Insanity.
The twisting of something beautiful into something ugly.
Leah scowled as her head jostled back and forth between the two guards. They took her out through the house and across the compound.
She squinted into the bright light. Still staggering from the fist to her face, her feet left lines in the ground behind them, and the world spun around them. Her temple throbbed and the headache had already begun.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Eglon would never understand what being married meant, and she would never give in willingly.
A burst of cool wind brought her back to the present, and she opened her eyes. The gust made a dirt devil in the middle of the main thoroughfare. Inhabitants stopped to watch as they dragged her across the dirt toward a long, low building. Windows lined each side. They entered through double doors.
Once inside, Leah’s eyes took a moment to adjust, and she nearly fell when her captors pushed her into a chair. One of the guards caught her shirt, and the fabric tore from the collar down, the rip exposing the tops of her breasts. She leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees, fighting a wave of dizziness.
Eglon entered directly after them. “This is the community commons. All public functions happen here, including teachings, trials, funerals, even… weddings.”
The structure had been filled with a dozen long tables. Two had proper chairs. Still others had large logs, upended buckets, and any other trash that could be used for seating. A dusty kitchen took up one end. A fireplace was at the other.
When she looked back to him, Eglon stared at the tear in her shirt, his face awash in an expression that brought that night in the barn hurtling back to her mind. She leaned back, clamping her hand over her the rip in her shirt.
She took a deep breath in and blew out, trying to keep the flashback at bay. It wasn’t the barn. It wasn’t the night her father died saving her from the three men that had attacked her.
Another wave of dizziness crashed over her, and nausea came with it, but she didn’t lean forward that time.
Eglon grunted. “I’ve changed my mind.” A grin spread over his face. “Our wedding happens tonight.”
Leah didn’t answer. The situation had gone from horrible to hellish. Perhaps she could make a plea. “When will I see Benjamin?”
Eglon considered her. He adjusted his pants, his hands deep in his pockets. “Tonight,” he answered, finally, “at the wedding.”
Leah’s shoulders sagged in resignation. How much worse could it get before she broke? Maybe she already had.
Eglon moved to a double door and opened one side. “Now, let me introduce you to your students.”
A group of two-dozen women with matted hair and ripped clothes shuffled inside, their chins pointed to the floor. None of them bothered with eye contact. They formed three rows along the wall in front of Leah. They behaved like prisoners, their captivity had seeped into their bones and made them into Eglon’s image, practicers of the cult of Eglon. The truth twisted her stomach.
“Welcome, daughters.” Eglon spread his arms, and Leah fought a gag.
He waved toward Leah. “I’ve brought this woman to teach you how to heal your men when they are injured in their duties. You will learn to make soaps and all manner of useful tasks.”
The sounds of approval rippled through the brainwashed women.
“Today is for introductions. The real work begins next week.” Leah flinched at the look Eglon gave her. “Now I must check on important matters, but I will return to collect my bride-to-be shortly. The guards will be just outside.”
At that, one blond-headed woman gasped, and her head came up, her countenance stricken. Her mouth opened slightly, but she did not speak.
Eglon smiled at her. “Ah, Maria, meet Leah.”
Leah’s eyes widened at the murderous expression that settled on Maria’s face, her look so dark that Leah wanted to take a step backwards.
Maria detested Leah.
But Leah couldn’t decide if it was because Caleb had died or because Eglon meant for Leah to take Maria’s temporary place. Perhaps Maria had designs on the permanent position herself.
“Enjoy your time, ladies.” Eglon swept out.
As soon as the door closed behind Eglon, Maria cut through the rows of women. Without stopping, she advanced.
Leah lifted her hands, her gaze darting toward the double door. “Guards?”
Maria still approached.
Leah ran toward the fireplace, searching for something to defend herself. Finding the fire poker, she raised it over her shoulder like a bat.
Maria didn’t slow.
Leah took a breath.
Maria screeched and then sprinted the last six feet. A blade glinted in her upraised hand.
The wrought iron hook lodged in Maria’s cheek.
Leah whirled once and then let go, flinging Maria away.
The weight of the fire poker threw Maria off-balance. With a scream, she fell forward and slammed the handle into the ground, ripping her cheek in two and shattering several teeth.
At that moment, the guards charged through the doors with Eglon close behind.
“What is this?” he roared.
Leah pointed to Maria, still on the floor. “She attacked me.”
“Arrest Maria,” Eglon instructed the guards, and they carried her out, kicking and screaming.
Eglon gave Leah a tiny shrug and then the rest of the women flocked around him, soaking in his adoration.
“I’ll come for you later,” he said to Leah. Then he left as quickly as he had come, with the women close behind him.
“It is not unexpected,” another woman murmured nearby.
Leah spun toward her. “What?”
The woman didn’t look up. “We would all take your place happily.”
“Why? Why would you want to be locked in a room?”
“A beautiful room to sleep in. No bugs and enough food to fill you belly.” The woman moved away.
The words rooted Leah to the ground, her mouth agape. She glanced from woman to woman. Did any of the others have knives in their hands? Who else meant to murder her the first chance they got?
I have to get out. I have to leave. I can’t stay here.
If Leah stayed, she would die. But, without Leah, Eglon would have no reason to keep Benjamin around. Eglon didn’t know Benjamin was the baby he sought. He couldn’t see it. He hadn’t loved Benjamin’s mother enough.
The weight of her circumstances pressed in, and Leah darted to the double doors, dodging the remaining women as she went. She yanked them open and dashed out into the twilight.
Someone shouted. Another answered.
And then Leah was tackled from behind.
With a curse, one of the guards shoved Leah back into her new home, her jail cell.
With everyone against her, how could Leah survive?
Eglon. Maria. The whole blasted compound hated her. How had Benjamin’s mother found the strength to continue?
Leah crossed to the roll-top desk. There had to be something there.
She lifted the slatted cover but the workspace offered only dust. Frantic, she stuck her hand in each of the shelves, peering into them. She needed an answer, a bit of hope.
Leah yanked hard on the drawer to her left and a palm-size piece of blue catapulted out. Like a cat, she chased it across the floor, drawing it out from under the dresser. She took a seat on the floor, turning the enameled locket over and over in her hands.
On the front, a woman held a stake to the temple of a man who rested on the floor. With her other hand, she held a mallet over the circus tent peg. The woman wore a determined look on her face.
Leah flipped it over for some clue to what the image was. A scrap of thin paper had been wedged inside. Using her fingernails, she scratched it out.
It read To Eglon’s New Wife at the top. The rest contained a vaguely familiar story written in a woman’s flowing cursive.
At the bottom, Don’t Give Up had been underlined three times. Love, Lily
Leah flipped the image over and read through the story once more before slipping the pendant into her pocket.
Leah closed her eyes. Rocking back and forth, she pressed her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming aloud. She put her fingers in her ears and hummed the lullaby she used to sing to Benjamin. She imagined she held him in her arms while they watched their goat, Sweet Pea, play with her new babies. The little red hen darted across the yard. Wings flapping, the guineas started a ruckus over a leaf that dared blow across their yard.
They had to get back home. Sweet Pea, Dog, the little red hen…
They all needed her as much as she needed them.
Leah climbed to her feet and put her hands on her hips. No more wallowing.
Escape was only a matter of time.
Standing beside a large bell that had been fastened to the top of a fence post, Eglon held the rope that bound Leah’s arms behind her back. The women had dressed her in a satin wedding gown and braided flowers and ribbons into her hair. Inwardly, she seethed at the cruel man, but kept her face a mask of indifference, her gaze focused on her feet.
She had only ever shown one man the visible remains of the night her father died, and now Samuel himself had betrayed her and disappeared.
Her legs trembled. When Eglon forced himself on her, what would he do when he discovered the scars that striped her chest? Would he demand to add his own?
Every few minutes, he tugged on her binds, sending pain shooting through her arms. Her hands were already numb.
The silence stretched as he studied the horizon, a hush spreading over the compound. Finally, he grasped the cord that hung from the belly of the bell and slammed the clapper against the bowl.
In a blink, sallow inhabitants appeared, the majority clothed in rags made of mostly holes, their expressions drawn. They were skeletons walking and further proof of Eglon’s cruelty.
“Welcome, welcome,” Eglon bellowed. “The blessed time has come.”
He tugged on the rope, and Leah followed him into the community commons that had been cleared and decorated, probably by her “students.” He dragged her to the front of the room and positioned her beside him.
Unwashed men dragged women and children behind them, forcing them onto the floor while the men took the makeshift seats. Each one made up of broken buckets, oversized logs, and trash. More men trooped in and filled two rows of chairs that waited at the front. The whole compound pressed into the building.
At the front of the room, a gap-toothed man stood in the place a preacher would have, dressed in dark coats, his face contorted by a leer.
At the rear, a man who Leah didn’t recognize entered through the double doors. When the growing crowd parted, Leah caught a glimpse of Benjamin in the stranger’s arms.
“Benjamin,” she cried.
The boy squirmed and twisted. “Mama?” He scanned the crowd.
Leah stepped forward, but Eglon jerked her back to her place.
She raised a hand, blinking rapidly to clear her eyes. “I’m here, Benjamin. I’m here.”
He carried Benjamin to the front, and Benjamin held her gaze the whole way.
It was just the two of them. No evil, no horror. Nothing. The dull roar of the throng receded until it was only a buzz in the background.
“I love you. I love you,” Leah mouthed over and over.
Benjamin nodded at each one.
“Where should I put him?”
The gruff voice broke the trance between them, and Leah’s head swiveled, trying to take in the room all at once. Where had Samuel gone? Surely, he could be persuaded to take Benjamin away. He loved the boy, even if he hadn’t loved her.
“Here.” Eglon pointed to the space on the other side of him, making it clear that Leah had to go through him to get to Benjamin.
Benjamin stared at the rope that tied her arms behind her back and the end of it that snaked to Eglon’s meaty hand. “Mama?” he whimpered.
Leah smiled, the most normal smile that she could, her chin quivering. “I’m fine, sweetie. Everything’s fine,” she lied. “I need you to be still and be good, okay?”
Benjamin searched her face for long moments, finally nodding. Without flinching, Benjamin waited beside them, his eyes wide as he studied the malicious crowd.
Leah’s heart broke for the ugly the boy had endured. Her son had seen so much in so little time. Whenever they did escape, he would carry the wounds for the rest of his life.
“Quiet, now,” Eglon yelled. He grasped Leah’s shoulder and turned her toward the leering man at the front. “Are you ready?”
Leah shook her head, and one knee buckled, tipping her into Eglon’s hand. “I can’t.”
Eglon raised an eyebrow and then sniffed. “As you wish.” He pointed to the man who had carried Benjamin into the meeting hall.
The man stepped forward and took two black leather gloves from his back pocket. Carefully, he slipped his hands inside and then moved to the place Benjamin stood at the front of the room.
He bowed to the boy with a slight smile on his face. Then, in one smooth motion, the man grabbed Benjamin by the ear and lifted him off the ground. Then, with the other hand, he pulled a long, curved blade from the sheath at his belt.
In one smooth motion, he drew the blade across the base of Benjamin’s ear, leaving a bit of skin at the end. In slow motion, it seemed, the skin stretched and ripped as blood gushed from the place Benjamin’s ear had been.
Benjamin dropped to the floor, screaming, his ear still in the gloved hand of his attacker.
“Not your best work,” Eglon said, taking the removed appendage from the man.
“No, sir. I apologize.”
“As you were.”
The man bowed once more. “I’ll continue to perfect my skills in service of the cause.” He stepped back to his place in the line of Eglon’s zealots.
Eglon tossed the detached body part at Leah’s feet. Blood splattered over her toes, the curves of the cartilage contorted by the force of the landing.
Leah slipped to her knees, leaning as far as she could toward her son. “No, please no. Don’t hurt him.”
“Then you will do as I say.”
Leah nodded. “Just don’t hurt him anymore.”
He watched her, unmoved by the unfolding drama. He jerked on the rope that bound Leah’s hands behind her back. Sharp pain shot through her shoulders and down into her arms.
“Next time, I’ll take his hand,” he growled. “The time after that, I’ll take his foot.” He yanked her back against him. Close to her ear, he whispered, “I will carve him up, bit by bit, until there’s nothing left.”
Hot tears coursed down her cheeks. “Please don’t hurt my baby.”
Eglon turned to the leering man. “Go ahead, Preacher.”
In a nasally voice, he began, “We are gathered here today…”
At the back of the hall, a commotion began, people shifting this way and that until a man broke through. “He’s gone.”
Eglon spun, pulling the rope with him and nearly dragging Leah off her feet. “What?”
“You let him get away?”
“He busted me in the face with a skillet, boss. What was I supposed to do?”
The muscles worked in Eglon’s cheeks.
“What was I supposed to do, boss?”
Eglon raised a brow. “Die.”
The man took a step back. “What?”
Eglon dropped Leah’s rope on the floor, and, faster than she thought he could move, he pulled a small derringer from beneath his beer belly. He aimed and sent two bullets flying toward the messenger.
The projectiles slammed into him before he could flee, and the man dropped to the ground, bright red spreading across him.
Eglon gestured toward the dying man. “Never trust a traitor to do anything but betray,” he bellowed. He turned to the men in the first two rows. “Find Samuel.”
Two dozen men scrambled away.
Leah’s eyes widened and she took a step forward. That’s why Samuel wasn’t at the wedding. That’s why she hadn’t seen him since the day before.
The sound of shattering glass filled the air and a large rock crashed through the nearest window. Samuel followed. The moment his feet hit the ground, he ran toward Benjamin, scooping him up from the ground.
Eglon snatched the closest woman and tried to use her as a human shield while he made his escape, but the woman slipped from his grasp, leaving Eglon exposed.
Then the fat man looked down at his empty hands and then at the end of Leah’s rope on the ground. Yet before he could dive for it, Leah jerked her arms back, dragging it out of his reach.
“Go, Leah, go,” Samuel commanded. “Out the window.”
She darted that way, but one of the other men caught her rope.
Samuel leapt out the broken window with the wounded child in his arms.
“Save him, Samuel. Save him,” she wailed.
Samuel appeared a moment later, but instead of Benjamin, he wielded a shotgun. “Duck!”
Leah dropped flat to the floor as two rounds exploded from the barrel of Samuel’s shotgun. Both slugs slammed into Eglon, and he went down, his round belly jiggling from the impact. Women and children fled, screaming, from the meeting hall.
When Samuel ran out of ammo, he tossed the weapon aside, raised his fists, and took on the few remaining men.
Still tied, Leah couldn’t get to her feet.
When the last man dropped, Samuel scooped Leah into his arms and leapt out the window. Under cover of dark, he set her on her feet, cut her bindings, and recovered Benjamin from his hiding place.
The trio fled into the night.
One Week Later
Seated on a quilt made from fabric scraps, they sat in front of the fire, holding hands, relishing the peace. Outside, the tank sat in the yard, the barrel of its largest weapon pointed directly at anything the Blur might lob at them.
Nearby, Benjamin snored lightly in their bed, his face pressed into Dog’s fur, a bandage wrapped around his head. Benjamin had already woken up from two nightmares, screaming. Nightmares would be a part of his life for years, his leftovers from surviving.
As an escape vehicle, the tank had been cramped. As long-term protection, it had been ingenious. Leah smiled into the dark. Samuel had some crazy ideas sometimes.
In the farthest corner, tucked in the fabric scrap crate behind a hope chest, the little red hen sat on another clutch of eggs. Somehow, she’d found a way into the cabin while they’d been gone, scratched out a nest, and laid ten oval promises that life could—and would—go on.
Leah handed Samuel the shotgun, and he climbed to his feet.
He considered the weapon he held and then placed it on the hooks over the mantel. “There was a time when you wouldn’t have handed me a weapon.”
“Times change,” Leah said, patting the rug beside her. “There was a time when I didn’t allow you in the house.”
Samuel sat down again, and they stared at the flames that danced over the logs. After a time he turned toward her, “Why the Blur? Why did your father call it that?”
Leah laughed. “I don’t know. He said people got lost in it. That things were simple at home and being out in the world blurred the edges between right and wrong.” She shrugged. “I don’t know anymore. The Blur brought us you. Our very own Blur man.”
She smoothed her hand over his cheek. “You never betrayed us, Samuel,” Leah said. “Not really.”
She was glad he was there and thankful that he had brought them home and that he had been the man she had needed him to be, even when she doubted. Samuel might be the last good man on Earth.
He caught her hand and laced his fingers with hers. “Not really. I knew one of us had to remain free. I knew he’d put you in that room, and you wouldn’t be able to get out. He still didn’t trust me, but it was easier for me to get away from confines than it was for you to get away from yours.”
“What was Benjamin’s mother’s name?” Leah pulled her knees to her chest. “In all that time, Eglon never called her by her name.”
Samuel grimaced. “Eglon believed he owned her, and he wanted her to know it. He used her frequently, but rarely called her by name. She was something to be used.” His expression softened. “Lily. Her name was Lily.”
Of course. The note. Lily had written the note in the locket. Lily had left the clue that had given her strength to keep fighting.
Leah sighed. “Would she have been happy with the name Benjamin?”
“I know she would, and she would have been happy that you are his teacher—his mother,” Samuel gestured around them, “and she would have been happy with this place.”
Even mothers went to war.
Leah’s eyes watered. Lily had given up everything to save Benjamin, and Leah would have given everything to get him back.
Samuel sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “She never named him, you know. She said she couldn’t. She had read something about how people long ago didn’t name their children. In case they died. She’d sit by the window, stroke his face, put him to her breast, and weep. A big part of her believed Benjamin would die.”
A chill moved over Leah, and she scooted closer to Samuel. “Why?”
“Because Eglon butchered the things she loved. That’s how he controlled her.”
“That’s horrible.” Leah closed her eyes, trying to hide from the truth. He had threatened to do the same to her. He had cut off one of Benjamin’s ears.
“Eglon was an evil, evil man, and I was blinded to it for a long time. Lily helped me see. Loving Benjamin gave Lily the strength to leave and loving Lily gave me the strength to stand up to Eglon.”
“Why did you show up?”
Samuel pulled her close. “That first day?”
Leah leaned into him, nodding. His nearness eased the anxiety that plagued her since their return.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly, as though blowing away everything that had come before. “I loved Eglon’s wife. I was a dead man as soon as he found out, and I knew he would make her watch me die.”
His breath shuddered. “So, we ran away. We got as far as the edge of the city, and I told her to stay behind, to watch Benjamin while I tried to find a place to hide or a fast way out of Eglon’s territory.”
“When I came back, Eglon had already found her and her baby was gone.” He shuddered. “Eglon lodged a knife in her chest. Then he made me hold her as she died. It wasn’t the outcome either of us expected.”
Tears flooded Leah’s eyes.
“Her blood spilled over me, spread all over the ground, and I couldn’t put it back. I watched as the woman I loved faded from existence.” His throat worked. “With her dying breath, she begged me to find her baby, to keep him safe. But when I escaped again and found the car that she said she’d left him in, he was gone.”
Leah wrapped her arms around Samuel. “Because I found him.”
“After that, I went away. I went into the mountains, determined to die.” He paused for long moments, the fire crackling and snapping beside them. “The wilds nearly destroyed me, but I came out a different man than the one who went in, and I had to know what happened to Lily’s baby.”
Leah splayed her hand over Samuel’s heart, relishing the slow thud-thud-thud beneath her fingers. “Why did you come back?”
“To find Benjamin. I promised to take care of Lily’s baby. I wanted to find him—dead or alive. He wouldn’t be the first child left to the mercy of whatever God there is. I finally gave in to that need.”
“But how did you find me?”
“The day I found the bodies by the tree, somebody attacked me from behind. When I woke up, they were gone… probably to tell Eglon where I’d been found.”
He grimaced. “I had blood all over me, but I wanted to find that baby. I wandered past the car that I knew she’d left him in… and I wandered until I found the trail that led to your place. The moment I saw Benjamin on the porch… I knew.” Samuel’s voice broke. “It was as if Lily had led me to you.”
Leah waited. It was as though a dam had broken in Samuel, and she didn’t want to interrupt what he needed to say.
Samuel removed his arm and shifted away. “Then I led Eglon to you.”
She followed, refusing to let him put space between them. “Then you helped us escape and now you’re here.”
Quiet grew between them.
“If he hasn’t figured it out, I won’t tell Benjamin that his mother was Eglon’s wife.” She glanced over her shoulder. “It would make the nightmares worse to know his own father did those things to him.”
Samuel stiffened. “Lily never told me who she thought Benjamin’s father was.”
Leah scowled, studying Samuel’s profile. There was something he wasn’t saying, something… She gasped. “Are you his father?”
Samuel turned tortured eyes toward her. “I don’t know. It’s possible.”
“Was there anyone else that it could be?”
Samuel shook his head. “I was the only man Eglon trusted enough to let that close to her.”
She pulled back, a new plan forming. “Then Benjamin could be your son. You could be his father.”
He captured her hands between his, staring deep into her eyes. “And you’re his mother now.”
Leah smiled then. “I’m pretty good with a shotgun when my hands aren’t tied behind my back. Almost as good as you.” She winked. “I’d shoot you if you tried to take him away.”
He chuckled. “I believe you.”
She laid her head on his shoulder. “But I don’t want to take him from you either.”
Samuel didn’t answer, but he put his arm around her.
“Will you stay? Here?” she whispered. “With us?”
“As long as you’ll have me.”
Bokerah Brumley is a speculative fiction writer, making stuff up on a trampoline in West Texas. She lives on ten permaculture acres with sheep, goats, turkeys, pea-fowl, guineas, geese, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats, five home-educated children, and one husband.