Rebecca opened her eyes to find herself in a familiar room. At first, she was convinced it had to be a nightmare. This scene had invaded her dreams more than a few times over the last decade. However, the memory of meeting Bailey and the note they had given her attested to the fact that this was all too real.
She wanted to sink into the bed and jump out of it all at once. The room looked very much like it had when she had last been here, when she was preparing to become the Elder’s vessel. It was quiet and clean, as though the place had been kept ready for her return. There were no restraints, so she was able to sit up. That’s when she discovered her clothes were gone, replaced with a simple white shift. Her first and only goal was to get out before anyone could arrive. Halfway to the door, however, the sound of the handle turning sent her diving back under the sheets. The person who came through shut the door immediately and walked over the bed before sitting at the foot.
She knew the voice better than her own. Peeking out from the covers, she saw Marie staring at her.
“Rebecca? Are you okay?”
“Marie? What is going on?”
“You’re home. Finally. I’m so relieved to see you again.”
“Don’t worry about that right now. I’m just glad you’re back. I don’t know why you left.”
“Peter . . . He . . .”
“Peter is gone. As soon as we found out that he had threatened you, he was expelled from the community. If only we could have found you sooner and cleared all of this up. You didn’t need to be alone for so long.”
Rebecca looked at Marie with uncertainty. Had it all been a mistake? “So when Peter came to take me . . .”
“We didn’t send him. We didn’t know where you were. Or where he was. Now that you’re back with us, we can protect you from him.”
Marie sighed. “Phillip’s betrayal couldn’t be ignored. We don’t know why he frightened you into leaving. He remains, unspeaking and disgraced. Rest assured, he also poses no threat to you.”
“But . . .”
“I know you have many questions. A lot of time has passed. Still, you are back and safe. I thought this room might make you feel a little more comfortable.” Marie stood and walked closer to her before bending down to embrace her tightly. Rebecca froze at her touch, but the other seemed not to notice. “I have missed you. Get some rest. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
Before she could respond, Marie turned and walked out of the room. Except it wasn’t Marie. No matter how much time had passed, Rebecca didn’t think she could ever forget the Elder’s touch.
* * *
When Rebecca became conscious again, she kept her eyes closed for a little while. The thought that she might really be back in her old room frightened her, though refusing to look wasn’t accomplishing anything. Eventually, opening her eyes confirmed that it hadn’t been just a horrible nightmare. The Elder now inhabited the body of her oldest friend and had gotten Rebecca back.
Thoughts of escape flitted through her mind, but she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to leave again. The only thing she could do was to find out what the Elder wanted from her. Whatever it was, she expected to hate it.
Quietly getting out of the bed, she made certain that her shift was on straight and walked over to the door. To her surprise, the handle moved easily under her touch, and the door opened without a sound. Any glimmer of hope that the unlocked door might have given her evaporated as soon as a figure stepped in front of her from the side.
“Mistress. The Matron is otherwise occupied at present and will visit you later. She asked me to look after you in the meantime and provide anything you might need.”
The man’s face and voice seemed familiar, and after a few moments, a name rose to the surface.
“The Mistress honors me.” He bowed his head slightly.
“Marcus, knock it off. We used to play together as children. There is no reason to be so formal.”
His look gave the impression that he was trying to decide if she was serious. After coming to some sort of conclusion, he replied.
“Mistress, you’ve been gone a long time. Perhaps you have forgotten your importance, but we have not. You will have to forgive us if we treat you with the deference you deserve.”
Less formal, but clearly uncomfortable, he stood quietly. She didn’t have the energy for this fight on top of all her other worries.
“Fine. But when it’s just the two of us, keep it to a minimum. Please?”
“I will try.” He smiled, but it felt uneasy.
“So did Marie tell you to keep me here? Or can I go for a walk?” Before she could do anything else, she needed to figure out how short her leash was.
“The Matron thought it might be best if you rested, but she did not order it.”
“Why do you call her ‘Matron’? Why not ‘Elder’?”
That question took him by surprise.
“Mistress . . . Rebecca, you are to be the Elder. For now, she is merely filling in until you can take your position.”
“Oh.” That was unsettling. Was this really the plan? Or did Marcus just assume she would join with the Elder now that she had come back? Panic began to well up, but she forced it back down. “Well, some fresh air would be nice, so I think I will go for a walk.”
The shift was a little less clothing than she was accustomed to wearing, but she thought it might help her fit in with the rest of the community. As she headed downstairs, Marcus fell in step behind her. She was free, as long as she had a chaperone.
Outside, a few people were standing and chatting with one another while others walked with purpose on some errand or other. The faces may be different, but the village seemed largely unchanged. Any time they walked near any of the groups socializing, the talking stopped as the people stared at her. She smiled and nodded, but the feelings of awe – maybe even adoration – that emanated from them made her want to flee. That was impossible as long as Marcus was hovering over her. So she began trying to ignore the others as much as possible. Any feelings of belonging that she once had were gone; she had been away too long.
The walk was making her feel worse, so she decided to go back to her room. As she was turning around, a figure that she recognized disappeared around a corner. Without thinking, she ran after it. Marcus gave a surprised shout, and she could hear him chasing her. Upon turning the corner, she collided with Phillip. His head was shaved, and he wore a plain brown robe, but there was no mistaking him.
It must have been the years, but he no longer seemed as large and imposing as he once had. His face couldn’t hide his shock, and he seemed to be looking for some place to run. She grabbed ahold of his arms.
“Phillip! It’s me. Rebecca. I need your help.”
Still looking like he desperately wanted to be anywhere else, Phillip shook his head. Marcus caught up to them, and Rebecca turned toward him. Phillip took the opportunity to begin running away. She tried to chase him again, but Marcus prevented her.
“Stop. Let him go. If anyone catches him with you, he is likely to be punished again.”
“Because he made you leave and kept you hidden. I’m actually surprised they didn’t drive him away like his brother. Don’t make it worse for him.” Marcus sounded like he felt sorry for the older man.
Phillip was already out of sight. “Okay. Let’s go back.”
“Good idea. I wouldn’t want the Matron to think I had run off with you.” It sounded like it should have been a joke, but there was real terror in his voice. Rebecca began to wonder just how much had changed during her absence.