Courage and Retribution - a Kidnapped prequel available free from Desert Breeze Publishing.
The wooden staircase creaked under William's feet. He squinted into the basement's complete darkness, remembered the flashlight in his hand, and made his way to a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Its light didn't reach all the way into the corners of the room, and it sent strange shadows crawling over the walls.
He kept his head bent; he was too tall to stand straight in the confined space. "It's not elegant, but should be safe enough for now."
Three dirty faces turned toward him with faith shining from their eyes, and he swallowed hard. What if he couldn't live up to their trust? No, he couldn't afford to think like that. He started down this road. There was no going back.
A female hand clutched his. It was small and cold and made him want to protect her. "Thank you. I don't know what we'd do without you."
He cupped his hands around hers. "I have to go. The congregation will be here soon. You just stay put down here, okay?"
Taking a glance around the bare room, he exhaled through his teeth. There had to be a better place to hide the family than this dank cellar, but he couldn't think of anything. "I'm sorry it's not nicer."
The woman made a dismissive gesture. "We're alive."
She was right. Their insurrection might have been a minor one, but they were still refugees from the Alliance. Having the biggest war machine of the galaxy on their heels, feeling safe even for a moment must be a luxury. "I'll bring you some food as soon as I can."
Back in the large meeting hall, he closed the trapdoor and rolled the carpet back into place just in the nick of time; people were already banging on the doors. He opened with a warm smile on his face. "I'm sorry, I ran a little late this morning. Come in, come in!"
It would take a few minutes for everyone to come inside and sit down, and he stepped into a back room for a sip of water. The first refugees they'd seen for a decade arriving on the day of the yearly town meeting seemed more than a coincidence. Maybe it was fate.
He still wasn't sure how to help the refugees. They would need new identity chips, maybe even new faces. Surely, there had to be a way for them to disappear...
The murmur of the crowd drifted in through the closed door. He needed to stop brooding and go meet them. He took a deep breath, brushed his hands over his clothes, and stepped back into the large hall. "Friends, neighbors, I am pleased you've allowed me to serve you yet another full turn around the sun."
They applauded and he smiled. Standing in the limelight relaxed him, even though a part of his mind still wondered about the people hidden under his feet. He held up his hands and the crowd hushed. "As your preacher..."
Someone called out, "and ma-yor" and the crowd laughed. William laughed too. "And mayor, I have the pleasure to look after both your homes and your souls."
A sparsely clad woman stood up and hollered, "Well, you didn't want mine!"
The crowd roared with laughter and William had to raise his voice to make himself heard, "Bernie, you are precious to me, but my faith does not allow me to pay for services such as yours."
The village held Bernie's establishment in high regard, but he still almost turned down this assignment because of it. Now, he was glad he accepted. He knew the name of every person in the room, knew their virtues and vices, their joys and their problems. "You are my family!"
He wasn't aware of saying those words aloud until he heard people clapping and cheering with approval. Honesty was a good approach, and the meeting was going better than his wildest expectations. Everyone seemed in such a good mood, the time might be right to get serious. "We have a challenge ahead of us, something we need to discuss."
His feet took on a life of their own, leading him across the floor, closer to the audience. "The Alliance tightens their hold on all systems, and the fallout is coming our way. I say it's our duty to stand up against oppression and care for those who are weaker. We cannot cower in fear. Are you with me?"
For a moment, he thought he might have misjudged the situation. No one moved, not a chair creaked, and he could hear a bird sing outside. Then, the crowd roared its approval.