Authors: Lori Dillon
Out of the Ashes
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organization, or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 Lori Dillon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
“Just As Though You Were Here”
, John Benson Brooks
@ Notice: @ Copyright 1942, Renewed 1970. Nothing Music Co./ASCAP/Scarsdale Music Corporation/
. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
JUST AS THOUGH YOU WERE HERE
Written by Eddie
and John Brooke
Used by Permission of Scarsdale Music Corp.
All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured.
SOMETHING TO REMEMBER YOU BY
HOWARD DIETZ ARTHUR SCHWARTZ
Copyright © 1930 WARNER BROS. INC. (Renewed)
Rights for the Extended Renewal Term in the United States controlled by
WARNER BROS. INC. and ARTHUR SCHWARTZ MUSIC
This arrangement © WARNER BROS. INC. and ARTHUR SCHWARTZ MUSIC
All Rights Reserved
Used by Permission
For my husband, Knox, who dared me to try.
* * *
I’d like to thank my wonderful critique partners, Donna Dalton, Liz Lincoln Steiner and Mary Ann Clark who helped me brainstorm and revise Ashes from beginning to end. I’d also like to thank the tremendously supportive and innovative authors at IndieRomanceInk who gave me the courage and knowledge to send this novel out into the world. You rock!
Marsha looked in dismay at the cards before her—five Bingo forms, four with only one space left to fill. She glanced over her shoulder and glared at the excited woman bouncing up and down in her chair, clapping her hands in glee.
“Drat that Clarice. She always wins.”
“There now, dear.” Hershel patted her hand. “You know you’ve won plenty of times, too.”
“She wins more,” Marsha grumbled. “I think she cheats.”
“Cheating’s not allowed up here, and you know it.” Hershel glanced at the cloud ceiling over his head. “
.” Marsha tossed her marked-up sheets onto the growing discard stack in front of her. She pulled out five fresh ones and spread them out on the table for the next game.
A loud, crackling sound startled her so badly, she dropped her Day-Glo orange marker, leaving a vivid fluorescent streak across the top of the table.
“Paging Hershel and Marsha Baker. You’re wanted in the Senior Guardian’s chambers at once.”
“Oh, my.” Marsha glanced at Hershel and tried to slow the rapid beating of her heart. “We’ve never been paged before. I wonder what he wants?”
Hershel shrugged and scooted back his metal folding chair.
“How should I know? Maybe it’s standard practice. After all, we are new to this position.” He cupped Marsha’s elbow, helping her to stand. “Come along, dear. We’d best not keep the man waiting.”
Almost instantly, Marsha and Hershel found themselves standing in the waiting room outside the Senior Guardian’s office.
“Hershel and Marsha Baker?” the secretary asked in an overly cheerful voice. Her wide smile revealed bright pink lipstick coating her two front teeth. “He’s been expecting you. You can go right in.”
They stepped up to the wooden door floating suspended in the clouds. The words
Senior Guardian Angel
were emblazoned in shining gold letters on the frosted glass window.
Marsha gave Hershel’s arm a nudge, indicating with a nod for him to knock on the door.
“Enter,” said a deep voice from the other side.
Hershel opened the door, allowing Marsha to go in before him. For once, she wished he weren’t so darn polite.
, a very intimidating man with snow-white hair and a crisp pinstriped suit, sat behind a massive wooden desk. He thumbed through a stack of papers, reading over them with amazing speed.
“Sit,” he said, without looking up.
Like trained dogs, Hershel and Marsha plopped down on the two leather chairs positioned in front of his desk.
Marsha glanced around the large office. Thick, puffy clouds made up the walls, floor, and ceiling. Diplomas and certificates in heavy frames decorated the room, each hovering in mid-air. The frames floated up and down as the clouds billowed, making her already unsteady stomach churn a bit more.
A life-sized nude statue of Apollo stood sentinel in the corner behind
desk. She gazed at the intricately carved face, so realistic that even a woman of her years could not help but admire his beauty. Her eyes traveled down the well-sculpted torso, each muscle defined to near perfection. Her appreciative gaze continued lower, passing slightly cocked hips to his…
Marsha shifted uncomfortably in her chair, forcing herself to tear her eyes away from the accurately carved anatomy pointing directly at her. Tugging her gray cardigan sweater tight over her frail chest, she dared a second peek, as if her tiny, grandmotherly body might tempt the stone Apollo to come to life and ravish her on the spot.
She glanced in Hershel’s direction. His balding head bobbed on his chest as he fought off the effects of missing his afternoon nap. In all their mortal years together, she could only recall seeing him in the altogether on very rare occasions, and in her faded memory, he certainly hadn’t been as well en—
The scrape of metal on metal drew Marsha’s attention back to her boss. An open file cabinet drawer had appeared beside
desk, although there was no file cabinet to be seen. He extracted a folder from it. Just as quickly, the drawer slammed shut, and disappeared back into the clouds.
gravelly voice startled her when he finally addressed them.
“You two are in charge of mortals Female 5923 and Male 2028, correct?”
Hershel’s head popped up, and he glanced at Marsha.
She cleared her throat.
“Yes, we are.”
eyed them, a bushy white brow arched in question.
“And how are they doing?”
Marsha grinned, relief relaxing her rigid pose. Obviously, the meeting was just for a status report. She waved her hand in the air, as if brushing away the anxiety brought on by this sudden summons.
“Oh, they’re doing just fine. Why, they just met not too long ago. Had to do a little intervening there for a bit—thought the poor dear was going to faint dead away before she’d had a chance even to notice him. But our girl did as I thought she would, and everything is just fine.”
clasped his hands on his desk, eyeing both of them with avid interest.
“Oh, yes. Why, there were sparks right away between the two of them. I could tell. Weren’t there, Hershel? Hershel!”
Hershel jumped in his seat, the sudden question startling him back from another attempt at his nap.
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Sparks. Definitely sparks.”
“Sparks, you say?”
nodded, appearing satisfied. “Well, let’s review the situation, shall we?”
With a click of the small remote that suddenly appeared in his hand, a white screen dropped down out of the air. The clouds on the screen parted, and Mount Vesuvius spewing a tower of ash and rock high into the air nearly blinded them all.
As the scene played out, Marsha and Hershel looked nervously at each other.
They were in big trouble.
I stood within the city disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls
Of spirits passing through the streets; and heard
The Mountain’s slumberous voice at intervals
Thrill the roofless halls;
The oracular thunder penetrating shook
The listening soul in my suspended blood;
I felt the Earth out of her deep heart spoke…
Ode to Naples
August, A. D. 79
He was afraid. So very afraid.
Sweat beaded on his neck, running in tiny streams down his bare back. He shivered, not from the damp walls closing in on him, but from the fear. The fear of dying.
A roar rose from the crowd in the arena above, signaling the end of another contest. The joyous Romans cheered for the victory of one man and the death of another.
looked up at the grated hole in the ceiling of his tiny stone cell, the meager light filtering in a teasing reminder of a life that might be out of his reach this day.
His hands clutched his bare knees, making the leather covering on his right arm and shoulder creak in protest. Today he would have to kill or be killed.
The lots had been drawn. Who would be his opponent? Would it be a stranger, or would he face a friend across the field? Would he be forced to kill someone he’d trained with, or would his own life end this day? The decision was one he didn’t want to have to make.
The bolt slid free outside the heavy wooden door. It swung open, and two Roman guards stood sentinel outside.
“Rise and follow. Your match is next.”
stood and surveyed the cramped confines of the cell once more. Perhaps this would be the last time he saw it. The thought gave him little comfort.
The guard led him down a darkened corridor and shoved him into a cramped holding pen already crowded with several other gladiators. The sandy floor reeked of urine where those before him had relieved themselves on the ground, either in preparation for the fight to come or from the fear of their impending death.
One of the soldiers handed him a round shield and a
. This was the only time he was allowed to have a real weapon, and the steel blade felt heavy in his hand.
He gazed down at the weapon, realizing that in holding the short sword, he held his own life in his hands. The blade seemed incredibly small for such an important task, almost as useless as the wooden one he practiced with while training.
The door behind him closed with a thud, cutting off any hope of escape. Putting on the golden helmet with a fish embossed on either side to signify his role as a
took a deep breath and waited for the portal in front of him to open and reveal his fate.
Moments later, grating chains raised the heavy wooden door. The bright light of the sun nearly blinded him through the slits in the visor covering his face. As he stepped into the arena, he could not help but take note of the battles going on as the crowd of thousands cheered from the stands.
fell to a Thracian. In a distant area of the arena, two
fought valiantly, each tied to the other with a leather strap so they could never move completely out of harm’s way. To the side, a man dressed as
, the underworld ferryman, dragged a defeated gladiator through a portal by sharp metal hooks impaled in the dead man’s chest. Young African slave boys rushed behind them, raking up the trail of blood left behind in the sand.
turned away, feeling the piercing hooks imbedding in his flesh as surely as if he had already lost his own battle.
Walking to the center of the arena,
faced his opponent, a
holding a trident in one hand and a large casting net in the other. The net fighter’s only other protection was a leather shoulder piece similar to his own and wide leather straps around his legs. The dark-skinned man was large and intimidating.
He was also
said in greeting.
?” Genuine surprise registered on the man’s face. “Is that you?”
“Yes, it is I.”
nodded. “It seems the lots have drawn an even match today.”
“That they have.”
grinned, his teeth a blinding white in his black face. “I cannot recall which one of us has won more matches on the training field.”
“It does not matter. Only one of us can win this day, I am afraid.”
The cheerful smile vanished from
face. “You speak the truth. I will do you proud,
, but I do not intend to lose today.”
“Neither do I, my friend. May the gods be with you.”
The trainer standing nearby motioned for the contest to begin.
crouched into fighting position, slowly circling one another.
made the first move, tossing out the net with expert aim. Only through sheer speed did
avoid getting entangled in its web.
lashed out with his sword, leaving a shallow cut on
jabbed with the trident, poking
in the ribs. Glancing down at his injury,
was more surprised than hurt. It was obvious they were both trying to spare the other unnecessary pain.
A sharp crack filled the air, followed by a searing pain lashing across
back. He shot a swift look to the side to see the trainer grinning smugly, a slave holding a leather strap standing obediently by his side.
“You will have to put on a better show than that, or you will both be food for the lions tomorrow.”
looked up in time to see
receive a jab in the side with a hot metal iron brandished by another slave. The crowd hissed, voicing their displeasure with the poor display.
“They want blood.”
gathered up his net in preparation of resuming the battle. “We must give it to them. One of us will die either way.”
“Then so be it.”
growled low in his throat, damning every Pompeian who stood ready to watch him die.
Lashing out, his sword sliced into
unprotected shoulder and sent blood racing down the man’s arm. A cheer rose from the crowd.
They continued to circle each other, slashing and jabbing, blood mingling with the sweat and sand that covered their bodies. The crowd in the stands went wild, their shouts roaring in
ears, nearly drowning out the drumming of his own heart.
The match went on for what seemed an eternity, both men fighting with everything they had, each coming close to the point of victory, but neither willing to land the killing blow.
was tiring fast. He felt it in every muscle, heard it in his own labored breathing. The sword that had once looked so small now felt too heavy to lift. The shield that protected him dragged his weary arm down lower and lower, opening his body to danger. The sun beat down mercilessly on his sweat-soaked body, baking his own blood onto his skin.
It was a match well fought, but one that somebody eventually had to lose.
could defeat. He wouldn’t care if a stranger lived or died. But this was his friend.
had told him stories of his childhood, whispered in the dark of night between their cells when the guards were asleep. He spoke of parents long gone and a sister sold into slavery at the tender age of seven. He told
of the woman he loved and the child who waited for a father to return.
had no such ties, no one to miss him when he was gone.
And with that single thought, he made his choice.
tossed out the net, and
dodged, but not far enough. His feet tangled in the netting, and he crumbled to the ground.
Let the end be quick, my friend
, he thought as his tired body thumped onto the packed sand.
At least I will not have to fight any more
rolled over, his body tensing for the last time, and stared up into the face of death.
* * *
Sabina swallowed back the bile rising in her throat.
The August sun was unbearable. The awnings drawn over the arena to shield the crowd of twenty thousand
from the glaring sun did little to abate the heat. If she had to watch one more gladiator die, she might very well lose what little food she had in her stomach.
Try as she might, she could never find much enjoyment in the games. Even though most of the gladiators were criminals or slaves, it still made her uneasy watching their blood spill onto the sand.
Startled, Sabina glanced behind her, wondering who could have spoken. The crowd cheered in their seats, entranced with the contest below. Turning back around, she rubbed at her aching temples. The sun was truly getting to her today, making her hear voices that were not there.
Sabina felt a sudden chill, as though a cold wind had swept down through the arena and wrapped itself around her exposed shoulders. The voice whispered inside her head, a faint teasing sound she could barely make out over the thunderous shouts of the crowd.
The scene in the arena below drew her attention. The
sprawled on the ground, defeated, his proud body slick with sweat and blood, the sand sticking to his skin. The victorious
stood over him, the point of his trident poised over the fallen man’s heart, awaiting judgment from her uncle, the Giver of the Games. The
chest rose and fell rapidly, as if each beat of his heart would be its last.
Save him now!
She jumped to her feet.
Silence fell over the spectators near her as they turned to gawk at her.
Sabina pushed her way in front of her father to kneel before her uncle, her hands gripping his plump knees as she used to do as a child.
“Dearest Uncle, as Giver of the Games, I beg you to spare the
Gallus gaped at her with a puzzled look on his pudgy face, his arm suspended in midair, the thumb pointing neither up nor down.
“He lost the match.”
“Yes,” she conceded, “but he fought well.”
“The crowd wants to see blood. That is what they came for.”
Sabina gazed around them. The crowd no longer placed wagers on the combatants, but on whether her uncle would allow the loser to live or die. Half the people were hissing and booing, their thumbs pointing to the ground, blood lust evident in their dispassionate eyes.
“Only some. Look around you.” The other half waved white pieces of cloth, their thumbs raised skyward in judgment of mercy. “The
fought well for you this day. Spare him that he might fight again and bring victory to your name.”
“Show the citizens of Pompeii you are a man of wisdom and mercy,” she pushed on. “There has been much blood drawn today, and there will yet be more. What is one man’s life? Prove to the people—your people—that you are not as heartless as Caligula of Rome once was.”
Gallus frowned, his forehead creasing in deep furrows, and Sabina knew she would have to use her position as his favorite niece in the final thrust to win him over. She opened her eyes as wide as they could go and pouted in the way she knew he couldn’t resist.
“Please? For me?”
He visibly melted at her plea. Shaking his head in admission of defeat, he raised his thumb in the air and spared the gladiator’s life. The stands shook under her feet as the crowd went wild.
Her shoulders sagged in relief.
“Thank you. You will not regret your decision.”
“I hope not, Sabina. I would not want the people to think I am too lenient. It could cost me the elections next year.”
She chuckled. “It will not, Uncle, and you know it. If anything, your show of mercy has just earned you a thousand more votes.”
“I certainly hope you are right.” Gallus rubbed the first of his two chins and winked at her. “Perhaps I should make you my campaign advisor?”
Sabina grinned. “Perhaps you should.”
She stood, ready to make her way back to her seat, when movement in the arena below caught her eye. The fallen gladiator rose on unsteady feet, and the crowd around her fell silent once more, anticipation thickening the air.
Sabina stood frozen, unable to tear her eyes away from the
. Although his face was shielded from view by his helmet, she sensed him staring at her, his gaze boring deep into her soul.
A shiver rippled over her skin. Though he stood far below, she felt as if the gladiator had reached up and touched her.
Thumping his sword on his sweaty chest, the
raised it high in the air and pointed it at her, breaking custom by saluting Sabina and not the Giver of the Games.