Excerpt: Valeria & The Enemy of Time

I was starting to change my mind about wanting to find a horse. At first I had been afraid we would get a fiery colt that would kick and bite, but by now I just wanted something, anything that we could set Lukesa on to keep her off of Theo’s back. Then we spied a lone horse munching on a patch of early summer grass in a ramshackle corral. It looked old and swaybacked.

We approached the rundown house; it seemed deserted. No one was working the garden patch or making any noise. Too quiet, it was too quiet. And ominous, with the one window shuttered, but the door slightly ajar.

“Lukesa, stay here. Get behind these bushes,” I ordered. I waited with her near the corral while Theo stepped under the shadow of the eave, listening, sniffing. A cold shiver went down my back, and Theo lightly rapped on the door. No one answered. He knocked louder, and there was still no answer, so he pushed at the door. It moved a few inches. All was quiet, so he dragged open the ramshackle door across the dirt threshold. He looked inside, then turned and motioned me to come. Holding my breath, I followed him inside. We disturbed the air, sending dust motes swirling, lit by cracks of light. Everything was stuffy and dim, and it was hard to see much at first. Things were hanging on cords from the low beams, things that might be hams. I made out a hearth, piled with cold black ashes, a wooden table with benches, and a shelf with everything on it a tumbled mess. It all smelled bad. A narrow door near the table was shut, and I didn’t go near it. Maybe that was where the bad smell was coming from.

“I think we should look for some food, to add to our packs,” Theo said. “You can see no one is left here.” I was less sure about that.

“I don’t know. It feels weird in here. Spooky and quiet. But something else, I don’t know, maybe you’re just breathing too loud.”

The sun must have gone behind a cloud because suddenly it was much darker inside. The front door was more shut than I remembered it. “Open it! Open it, Theo!” I said, feeling panic rise. He ran to open it, knocking his head against one of the hams. I thought he had knocked it down on him because something fell across his head and shoulders. Oh, Glory! It was moving! He slapped at himself and yelped. Rats! It had to be rats, leaping from the ham onto Theo, and then onto the floor and through a hole in the little door by the table. Were they normal rats, or the Enemy’s rats?

Lukesa! I left her out there! How could I have forgotten about her? My heart pounded and I pushed through the door. I almost ran her over. She had left the hiding place and came to the house. I didn’t want her to see inside, but I couldn’t leave her alone again, and I had to help Theo. I held her close against my side, pulling my tunic partly over her face and went back inside. Theo was acting strangely. He was just standing there, staring into the dark corner of the room over my shoulder, not moving. I shivered and turned around, and then fell back. The rays of the sun lit up the black eyes of a man sitting there in front of me in a rocking chair.

“Have you come for me? Are you angels? Or are you here to nurse me? It’s too late for them, you know,” and he weakly gestured at the closed door. Now I could see that his eyes were feverish, and he had the red swollen armpit glands that marked the plague.

“You can’t have the blankets!” he suddenly snapped, irritated. “It was salvage, fairly done. After all, there was no one left alive on the ship. We rowed out to it; there were others there for salvage too. We only took our fair share! We are no thieves.” He stroked the blanket draped across his lap and over his shoulder. “Such fine wool! Soft, and such a brilliant red color, see?” And he held a fold of the blanket up to the light to show us. Even in the dimness, I could see fleas jumping up and down on the blanket, desperate for their next meal. I took more steps back. The man let his head drop, exhausted by the speech.

“Uh, Sir? We would like to buy your horse. Is that okay?” Theo asked. We waited. If it wasn’t okay, I didn’t know what our next move would be. To wait? Finally he lifted his head again.

“Old Dino, you want Old Dino? Well, he’s a nag, but he has a noble heart. Do you have good coin?” the man asked.

“Yes,” said Theo. “How much do you want for him?”

“What is fair,” the man said, his head dropping down again. Now I noticed that the blanket was red from more than just the dye that had colored it.

“He’s a goner,” Theo said.

“We still need to pay,” I said.

“We don’t know how much money we’ll need for the journey.”

“I know, but we still have to pay. We made a bargain with him.”

We argued over how much was fair and decided to leave a couple of the smaller coins that didn’t look like gold. I knew it wasn’t quite enough, but he was probably going to die soon, and neither a horse nor coins would do him any good. I gave the money to Theo, who plunked it on the table. At the sound, the man jerked his head back up and said, “You’ll be glad of the stink of Old Dino on you. Fleas don’t bite ‘em. Horses, you know. You let enough of his lather coat your skin and they might leave you alone too.”

I was surprised; I’d never heard that. If it were true, we might not get flea bit. But it would mean touching and possibly riding the horse, which might be okay for Theo, but I didn’t know if I could make myself do that. At least the other two would benefit.

The man didn’t rouse again.