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Chapter One ~ Strange Night
Chella shivered as a cold draught seeped down her neck. She pulled her cloak closer round her shoulders, tucked in her hair, and tried to get comfortable on the hard floor. At least she wasn’t alone. Amma was curled up a short distance away, her African hair bound up tightly in her nightcap. Mikiah, Amma’s grandson, was asleep in his pramcot. And Chella only had to turn her head slightly to see Jedan, fast asleep and snoring gently.
Jedan! Chella’s heart beat faster as she caressed her fiancé’s sleeping form with her eyes. Even in sleep, stretched out on the floor, Jedan looked serene. He should be the worried one, having just escaped from prison, but that was Jedan all over – nothing seemed to faze him.
Chella shifted again. Her arm throbbed where the Correctioner had twisted and pinched it so hard, and her legs ached from walking. She was desperately tired, but it was all too strange, dark and cold to truly relax. She stared at the big window, wondering who had last looked out of it.
This house must have been the height of fashion and luxury when it had been built, Chella decided. This one room was almost as big as her whole apartment! Earlier, when they arrived, she had walked around the empty rooms in the darkness and marvelled at the size of the house, and its fading grandeur. The peeling paper on the walls and the ragged drapes at the windows were a sad shadow of what they had once been, but the quality still shone through.
As she lay there, Chella wondered what it must have been like to live there in the times of the Old Order. She knew about the lifestyle of people who lived in houses like these from history books, of course, but now, being here and seeing it for herself, brought it all to life. Things were so different now.
Chella’s heart lurched as she remembered the apartment she had so recently left, filled with so many precious memories, and a lump came to her throat at the thought of everything and everyone she had left behind. She forced her mind back to the familiar evening prayer.
“Shine your light into our darkness, Lord,” Chella prayed silently in the empty, deep silence, “and by your grace protect and deliver us from all evil this night; in the name of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, we pray.” She had already prayed it once that evening, with Amma and Jedan, but felt reassured as she prayed it again. She needed to be strong. She remembered the people she had left back in the Area had promised to pray for them, and as she thought of them, was reminded of a chorus the church sometimes whispered together:
Although we often stumble,
He will not let us fall,
For underneath His mighty arms
Are there for those who call.
He lifts those who are bowed down,
Gives grace to all in need;
The darkness may seem close right now
But God is here indeed.
Chella let the words and the tune go over in her mind, trying to forget where she was, but remember God was with her, until she fell asleep.
The moon was lower in the western sky and the first light of dawn was breaking when Chella was woken by the screech of an owl. She sat up quickly. Through the murky glass, she saw the bird’s ghostly outline fly away, its wings gliding smoothly in the crisp, clear air.
Chella lay back down. Mice pattered overhead and behind the walls – she was used to mice, they were just a part of life, but when she turned round and something larger appeared, staring at her with big moon eyes, she gasped in shock.
“It’s only a cat,” said Jedan softly. The cat turned to look at Jedan, then with a swish of its long black tail, jumped noiselessly out through the open window.
Chella nodded. “Gave me a fright!” she whispered. “Must be a descendant of a pet from round here. I didn’t know you were awake,” she added, glancing at Amma to make sure she wasn’t disturbing her or the baby.
“I wasn’t, but I am now – it’s cold.”
“It is,” agreed Chella. Amma stirred and opened her eyes, then closed them again. Mikiah snored gently in his pramcot.
In a louder voice, Jedan suggested that they prepare to set off. “The sun is rising. We can get warm by walking.”
Amma sat slowly up, yawned and smiled. “Whatever you say, dear,” she agreed with a nod. She took off her nightcap and ran her fingers through her tight black curls, flecked with silver. Chella nodded too, and then smiled, in spite of the tiredness and the strangeness. For the first day ever in her life, she wasn’t going to hear a loudspeaker.