• ERIC BUTLER

Ephraim Godwin Chronicles - The Early Years: Zona Whitlock

This is a stand alone story that takes a look back at a preexisting character from the Ephraim Godwin Chronicles serial.

Winter of 1856...


Zona Whitlock stepped from the carriage. Glancing back, she nodded her approval to the driver who was busy helping her governess, Ms. Bicker, down. The bustling crowd flowed around her as she waited for the man to unload their belongings as well. Issuing a sigh, Zona frowned at the train sitting in front of her. She'd spent too many hours inside such steel beasts since leaving but soon she'd be home.


She wondered why the thought offered no comfort. In a little over a day, Zona wouldn't need to ride on a train for a very long time...or, so she hoped. She last graced those halls as an eight-year-old child, but she was returning a child no more. Five years since Father banished me for desiring a true education. His harsh words echoed in her thoughts as her cheeks flushed with anger.


Zona recalled trembling in her nightgown as she stood near his overstuffed chair by the fire. Her father, still bitter and angry at her mother's recent death from consumption, roared at her audacity. Zachariah sat quietly, aware any input from him would be more than frowned upon.


He gave her an out, a chance to reconsider...to choose a more traditional path. When she held steadfast...well he made the cost quite clear. Not a cost as much as a punishment in his mind.


"And so we are at the final leg of this journey," her governess whispered into her ear.


Zona turned her head and smiled. She patted the old woman's hand which now rested on Zona's bicep. Her father's punishment had backfired in a way. Oh, Zona missed her brother terribly but these last five years had been eye-opening. Honestly, Zona learned more than she ever had thought possible when they left those cold halls.


"True, but I hope there is still time for more lessons dear Ms. Bicker," she said with laughter on her lips.


The old woman returned the smile, "Of course...of course, but first we need to board that awful contraption. These old bones will be quite content to never travel again."


The women pressed forward, locked together arm in arm as the driver followed behind dragging their luggage.


***

"Well what do we have here?" a slightly overweight man said to Zona as she stepped toward the train car.


He wore the latest styles from Paris, but in the rumpled manner of one who drank too much. He leaned in close and his breath confirmed her first impression.


"Excuse me sir," she offered in as polite a manner as she could muster. This was not the first gentleman to try to stop her progress this past year; just the first one to meet her at the entrance of a train. With her thirteenth year, Zona's body began to mature in a rush to catch up with her mind. Or as Ms. Bicker liked to say, her womanhood was blossoming.


The man snorted, a tiny belch slipping out as he held up his card. Zona stared at the rectangle and wondered if it was her age or her newly found bosom that was attracting such men. She glanced back to his face, startled at the open flash of desire she witnessed in his gaze.


"Thank you," she whispered, taking the card and moving to slip past. Ms. Bicker's hand offering reassurance as it pressed against her back. The man shifted so he blocked most of the space, forcing Zona to slide against his mass. His eyes blazed as he chuckled, and Zona shifted so her umbrella handle struck the man below the belt. He barked out a cry and crumpled into himself as the women passed.


"Terribly sorry," Zona said her voice sweet and even as she stepped up into her car.


"Serves you right," Ms. Bicker hissed as she shuffled by. He glared at them but said nothing as he turned to find his seat in second class. Once he sat he stared at Zona's car with fiery anger as he attempted to ignore the snickers of the few close passengers.


***

Zona stared out the window as the train moved through the countryside. Ms. Bicker snored softly across from her. The gray sky grew darker as nighttime approached and butterflies reappeared in Zona's stomach; even though her father was gone, the thought of returning home...returning to such an oppressive environment, worried her to no end. She only hoped her memories of her brother leaned closer to the truth than to the colored ideals of a child.


A loud screech sounded from underneath as Zona lurched forward into Ms. Bicker.


"Wha...?" the woman murmured her eyes wide in confusion.


"Begging your pardon," Zona said with a forced smile as she settled back to her seat, "I was unprepared for the sudden change in speed."


"But why have we stopped?"


Zona bit her bottom lip, forcing her mouth to stay closed. A sharp retort would help neither woman and most likely would come back heavily on Zona. If the past is any indication; which of course Zona knew was the case. While Ms. Bicker was the employee in the sense of the word, she was more of a parent to Zona than either her mother or father had ever been. So while they traveled alone, Zona quickly learned that treating their relationship any other way was disastrous. Instead of answering, Zona decided a question would better serve the situation.


"Would you like me to step out and see?"


Ms. Bicker studied the girl for a moment before issuing a tentative nod. Zona smiled in excitement, grabbed her umbrella, and sprang from the carriage before Ms. Bicker could change her mind.


***

"Bloody hell," the conductor said as he spat a wad of tobacco off to the side.

He stood at the front of the train but glanced back as the engineer hopped down. The fireman stuck his head out but after a moment seemed to decide leaving the engine was a bad idea.


"Dumb luck that was," the engineer said as he stalked up to the conductor. "Any darker and I woulda missed it."


The conductor nodded as he turned his attention back to the felled tree across the track. He didn't need to say it out loud or need the confirmation of any other train employee. What they were looking at wasn't an accident. It was deliberate. The only question was why?


***

As Zona stepped down to the ground she paused as a shimmering energy shot towards her from the wooded area to the train's left. It passed through her with a tingle and for a second her body went numb. Zona stumbled to her knees and slumped down to the ground in a daze. Ms. Bicker's cries of distress barely registered to the young woman as darkness overtook her.


***

Ms. Bicker stared down at her pupil's young face with a sad smile. She had hoped they would return home before it happened. There would have been more opportunity for her or Zachariah to control the variables but now the girl would be on her own. Maybe this is for the best...to face these spirits on her own with no guidance and only her wits to succeed.


"Ma'am, can I offer some assistance?" a voice called out. Ms. Bicker stood, turning towards the voice's location and smiled. A young man, in his early twenties she guessed, strolled towards her. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with close-cropped hair under a simple workman's cap. His clothes, while clean, showed the wear and tear of numerous restorations.


"Yes please, kind sir," she said as the man pulled up and swept the cap from his head while offering a stilted bow. "She's just fainted but I can't seem to revive her and I'm too old to lift her unaided."


He offered a friendly smile as he squatted next to Zona, pausing only long enough to study her face a moment before scooping her up. Ms. Bicker held open the car door so he could carry her aboard and set her gently on the seat. The man looked around at the car with a flash of envy. As he turned to step out he noticed Ms. Bicker's outstretched hand.


"Oh no," he said, his smile returning, "I couldn't accept that. It was my pleasure to help."


He stepped around Ms. Bicker after offering a nod and made his way back to the end of the train. She slipped the coins back into her purse and stepped aboard, closing the door with a click.


***

Zona stood next to Ms. Bicker as they both stared at Zona's body on the ground. She glanced at her governess before returning her attention to her body. What is going on? Raising her right hand in front of her face, she poked it with her left. There was resistance, but she somehow understood if she pushed harder, her finger would go through. She gasped as she looked closer at her hands; not only could she see inside the flesh but with some effort, she could see through them.


A handsome man appeared and scooped up her body. He took it back into the cart and Ms. Bicker followed. The whole time Zona stood still, watching her body moved about like a sack of wheat. The man stepped back out of the car and walked past Ms. Bicker. Zona let out a sharp squawk as the man stepped through her.


Zona's essence floated apart for a moment but sprang back together as the man moved passed her. A sharp pain stabbed her forehead, and she pressed her palms against the spot. It all reminded her of blowing on a dandelion except instead of floating away, the seeds reformed.


"Whatever is going on!" she cried out, stamping her foot in frustration. No one acknowledged her, and she turned to storm onto the car when a flash of light caught her attention.


Zona followed the floating light as it danced back and forth by the trees in the distance. Letting loose the breath she held, she glanced back at the car before shrugging and stomping off toward the light.


***

As she got closer to the light, Zona slowed and began to take careful, quiet steps. It wouldn't do to stomp into something she knew nothing about. Years of traveling with Ms. Bicker had taught her that. Yes, a cool head was what was needed at this juncture.


The light was lazily floating back and forth, sweeping in a figure-eight motion but never farther than a few feet apart. Zona glanced back and saw a pile of forest debris in front of the train. Ah, so that was why we stopped so suddenly. The thought gave her a moment of peace until she realized there was nothing normal about her current situation.


"Well what did you expect...you're a Whitlock," a tiny voice said from the forest.


"Pardon?" Zona asked wondering who might know her name. The light slowed until it simply hung in the air at the edge of the forest. It pulsed blue, then red in a pattern that Zona did not recognize.


"You're a Whitlock," the voice replied. "Nothing will be normal from now on."


The light floated closer to her, staying a solid blue no longer flashing back and forth. Zona reached out, tentative at first, only stopping with her fingers an inch from the light.


"I wouldn't do that unless you are ready to go back," the voice said with a snicker.


Zona pulled her hand away. Go back? She realized she wasn't ready just yet; she needed to know what this was all about. Zona searched the edge of the forest for the source of the voice, but as the sky darkened she saw only shadows. Glancing at the ball of light, Zona bit her bottom lip. It could help if I knew how to direct it.


"Just tell it what you want," the voice called out. Zona's eyes closed to slits as she glared at the shadowy forest.


"How are you doing that?" she asked, her voice full of frustration. It took all she had to not stamp her foot. The voice's only response was more giggles. "Fine, please light the edge."

The ball pulled closer to her for a moment, and Zona almost thought she caught a glimpse of a person before it zoomed to the forest edge and ran back and forth. The soft blue light illuminated the trees, but nothing near the ground. Zona stepped closer only stopping when a sense of dread filled her belly.


"If you wouldn't mind," Zona called out, "could you go lower?"


The light pulsed a light blue, and then dipped down as it continued to move back and forth. The forest floor's edge appeared and after the third pass, Zona pointed at a tiny human shape.


"There you are," she said, clapping her hands together in excitement.


The voice's owner stepped out of the shadows and took a bow. Zona smiled in triumph as she studied the little man in front of her. He stood no higher than six inches. His clothes were simple, and all in various shades of brown. His long hair hung loose and past his shoulders, with flowers and vines weaving throughout until they came together at the top to form a pointed hat.


"Hello my dear," he said as he straightened up, "My name is Eidhar and you are in danger."


"Whatever do you mean?"


Eidhar moved closer, the ball of light hovering over him with each step. Zona knelt so she would be closer to the little man. He offered her a nod of thanks and reached out his hand. She hesitated a moment, unclear what to do, then mimicked his action. He grabbed her pointer finger and shook it before turning her hand over.


"You see here," he said as he ran his finger across her palm. "This line tells me you are in immediate and grave danger."


Eidhar glanced up and offered a toothy grin. Zona studied the little man holding her hand. The longer she held his gaze, the more his smile retreated until it was replaced with straight, pressed lips. She sighed and pointed to the line his finger still touched.


"That's my love line...it has nothing to do with predicting danger," she said, her eyes piercing through the tiny man. "More importantly, rarely will a palm give the reader that information."


Eidhar lifted his finger clapping his hands together and whooped a laugh as he spun around under the light.


"What did I tell you Abeyance, she's a bright one...almost as bright as you," he said with glee. The ball of light blazed as if to challenge his assertion. Zona watched the silly little man continue to spin, until she felt her stomach begin to lurch forcing her to shut her eyes.


"Deep breaths," she whispered as she attempted to settle her senses.


"You're right of course my lady," Eidhar said. Zona opened her eyes and smiled as he deeply bowed. "Your palm told me nothing. It was the shallow grave in those trees that hinted danger was here. That and Fotz the hobgoblin complaining about his tree being cut down by a bloke looking to bury a Whitlock."


Zona rocked back as if struck in the chest, and landed on her fanny. The cold instantly seeped from the ground into her skin and then to her bones. As if touched by the chill hand of death?


"Whatever do you mean?" she said her voice hollow and empty. Eidhar pranced forward, like a dancer searching for a partner, and pointed toward her.


"Well it seems obvious to me," he said as he began to dance side to side as the light above pulsed to an unheard rhythm. "Whoever cut down the tree to stop the train is going to kill you and stick you in that shallow grave yonder." He nodded his head towards the forest and then began to clap to the same silent tune.


"I mean why?" Zona asked as she started to shiver uncontrollably, from fear or the simple cold she could not say.


"Because of your brother of course," Eidhar sang his voice a countertenor and almost approaching that of a soprano. "He has breached the other side, he is becoming quite a menace to those who wish such things to stay hidden in the shadows. You must be made a message before you join him in his duty."


Nothing the tiny dancing man said made any sense. Zona shook her head and struggled to rise. She needed to get off the ground and away from the cold. Its icy fingers traveled slowly up her spine freezing everything in its path, making movement difficult and her mind foggy.


Zona wanted to leave, to turn and run back to the train car. Except she didn't move, instead she found herself planted to the ground and staring at the spinning dancing tiny man. Her eyes grew heavy as the light's pulsing increased and varied in brightness. Zona's body swayed, and she fought to keep her impossibly heavy body from tipping over. Her vision blurred, and she opened her mouth to beg Eidhar for help but no words came out.


Instead, the tiny man said, "Your salvation will be in your hand if only you check your pocket." His words dragged out as if slurred and heard through a long tube. The light shot forward striking her on the forehead. Zona bent back and with a cry began to fall. She passed through the earth and fell through a seemingly unending hole. She took a breath to scream but darkness claimed her, ending the terrifying tumble as quickly as it started.


***

Zona wondered if the train was moving once again as she experienced a gentle sway. Her eyes fluttered open, and she found herself in the arms of the man who helped Ms. Bicker earlier. The moon wasn't yet full but there was enough light for her to recognize the man as he carried her across the field and towards the forest.


"Help," she murmured before closing her eyes as sleep threatened to rush over her once again.


"Ah that time has passed little missy," the man said with a chuckle.


Zona wondered what that meant when the train whistle sounded loud and clear. The blaring noise pushed past her exhaustion and drew her towards a memory; specifically of standing near the forest and speaking to a tiny man in brown.


"Eidhar?" she asked out loud. The man stopped and when she opened her eyes, she found him staring down at her face.


"What did you say?" he asked as anger flooded his voice. "WHAT DID YOU SAY?"


A wind began to blow through the trees, gaining strength and power as it blew towards the two. The man shivered in the cold, but on the wind Zona heard a voice, "Your pocket."


The train whistle sounded again, and the loud grind of metal on rail filled the night air. Zona reached into the special pocket Ms. Bicker had sewed on her jacket. Her fingers wrapped around the cold metal of her favorite writing pen. Covered with carvings of fairies and flowers, it was the last thing Zachariah gifted her before her banishment began.


Zona pulled the pen out and drove it up towards the man's face. His cry of agony drowned out the sound of the pen piercing his left eye. He dropped her to the ground as he reached for the wrecked socket. The whistle sounded a third time and Zona knew time was short.


She crawled forward and as her momentum built, she used it to spring up and run towards the now departing train. Zona locked her eyes on the car she once shared with Ms. Bicker and suddenly wondered why the woman wasn't stopping them from leaving without her. She waved her hands and cried out, but as the train gained speed, it drowned out all surrounding noise.


"You'll pay for that," the man howled.


Zona glanced back and yelped as he was rushing towards her. The moonlight hid the worst of the injury, but Zona could see the dark gore staining his left cheek and collar. She picked up her speed, praying for some unknown strength to get her there before her assailant.

"Please, please, please," she cried out, the word gaining volume with each utterance and somehow giving her legs much-needed energy.


The train was pulling away, but Zona sprang towards her car and gripped the handle with both hands. Her pursuer's fingers grazed the back of her dress before slipping away. She glanced back to witness the man stumble and fall. He lay quite still on the ground and Zona sighed in relief. After a moment's struggle, she forced the door open enough to slip into the car.


"Oh Ms. Bicker," she said, anguish in her voice as she stared at her governess slumped back in her seat. A gash marked her forehead and dried blood informed Zona why she hadn't stopped the abduction or the train. She reached out tentatively, pausing only for a moment before gently touching her skin with her fingertips.


Ms. Bicker's eyes opened and with a cry of relief, the old woman wrapped Zona up in a fierce hug.


"Dear girl, I thought you lost forever."


Zona nodded, unable to speak as the tears finally came.


***

The train came to a stop and after a moment's hesitation, Ms. Bicker opened the car door. The conductor let out a curse as she barreled out of the car, dragging Zona behind. Waiving the man off, she hurried towards the excessively tall man standing just off to the side of the crowd. When he spotted them, he nodded and moved to meet them halfway.


"Thank God," Zachariah Whitlock said in the subdued voice Zona remembered. "I was worried something had happened."


Zona stepped up and wrapped her arms around her brother, holding him until he cleared his throat in discomfort. She leaned back and smiled, looking up at the giant of a man her sibling had become. He's always been tall and gangly, but he's something out of a fairy tale now. The thought struck her as funny and a giggle slipped out.


A man appeared with their bags and Zachariah instructed his carriage driver to load them up so they could get moving. Zona glanced back one last time before boarding the carriage. She hoped to not see another train for quite a while.



© 2020 Naked Cat Press. All Rights Reserved

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©2020 by Naked Cat Press. All Rights Reserved.