The Darkest Dawn

A little over two thousand years ago, Aquila is cleaning the Master’s villa in Pompeii when ash and heated pumice stones begin spewing from the summit of Mt Vesuvius and raining down on the city.

Born a slave, Aquila has never been able to choose anything in her fourteen years.

Now her survival – and the lives of two infants – will depend on the choices she makes…

Formats: ebook $2.99

Genre/s: urban fantasy

Series: Wayfarers

Audience: general, young adult

Length: short story

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Aquila was cleaning the frescoes in the corner of the atrium when the ground trembled beneath her knees.

She glanced up at the roof above, supported by a series of thick stone pillars, then reached out to grasp the rim of the wooden bucket beside her to steady it. It was shivering against the tiles, the clack of wood on ceramic drowning out the faint rumbling that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. The water within the bucket sloshed back and forth.

Aquila wasn’t afraid, not really. The ground shakes had been happening for nearly a year now, but during most of them she had been outside, working in the fields of the Master’s huge farm on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius. Being beneath a roof, even one whose centre opened out to the sky to allow the rainwater to fill the long shallow basin of the impluvium and the cistern below it, was a little unnerving.

What if the shake was enough to send the roof crashing down?

And then a thin cry sounded, scaling upwards, between sobbing breaths, into a shriek.

Aquila winced. Julia. The baby had been restless for almost a week, crying for hours and falling asleep exhausted, only to wake hours later, unsettled. Mistress had tried to soothe her for two days on her own, had even taken her to the physician, but none of his remedies had worked. The Mistress had been at her wits’ end, and had looked even more haunted than usual after the Master had compared her child-rearing duties loudly and unfavourably to his first wife. The Master’s first wife had died two years before, leaving two strapping sons who had since joined the army.

After that incident Ursa and Aquila had unobtrusively stepped in to help. They might have been lowly house-servants – Ursa was the cook’s apprentice who had also been pressed into service as the Mistress’s wet nurse, and Aquila had been brought in from the farm a month ago to be trained as a house servant – but they could see how exhausted and lost the Mistress was as she tried to settle a screaming Julia. The Mistress was only seventeen, three years older than Aquila and two years younger than Ursa, whose own child was still sleeping peacefully in a basket a few steps away from where Aquila knelt. The Mistress’s family lived in Rome, and she had no one else to turn to here.

And, unlike the Master, she always had a kind word for all her servants.

The thud of running feet sounded beyond the atrium, and Ursa appeared from the kitchen. Her dark skin was dusted with flour. ‘Ai, the gods jest, causing the earth to shake while I am making the bread for dinner!’

Aquila stifled a grin as Ursa disappeared through the narrow doorway into the Mistress’s cubiculum. She appeared a few seconds later, Julia cradled in one arm.

‘Ah, she is so hot with crying,’ the wet nurse said as she hurried across to where Aquila was rising to her feet and drying her hands on the hem of her tunic. ‘Walk with her please, while I finish the loaves.’ She thrust the howling little bundle at Aquila and rushed back to the kitchen.