The stars up above are unchanging. Reliable. Beautiful. Unsympathetic.
Cassia watches them, not daring to move. Hardly daring to breathe. Wishing she could force her heart to stop pumping. Anything is too loud.
She closes her eyes. The starlight will glint off them and make her more visible. Life is more valuable than sight. Hearing is still accessible. Grasses rustle somewhere to her left. Where her mother is. There is a gasp. A scuffle. A man’s voice. A man who is not her father. Her father is dead already, by the hands of his comrades. The same ones who hunt them now. A tear escapes her eyelid.
The noises slowly die away. Her mother will soon be dead as well. Awful images fill her mind. Being burned alive. Being nailed to a cross and left to suffocate or bleed out. Whichever comes first. Being torn apart by wild animals in the middle of an arena with thousands of spectators. The list of possibilities is quite long. No option is pleasant for those like them.
The tear trickles down her cheek, but she can not afford to wipe it away. The soldiers are still nearby. The tear inches down the side of her face, working its way into her hairline. Cassia can feel her body tensing at this annoyance. She hates that such a small thing is taking such precedence. He mother is going to die. Another tear follows the first.
The stars slowly rotate. They make way for their superior. By the time the sun is up, Cassia has crawled on her knees and elbows for hours. There is a stream ahead. She can hear it. Smell it. The soldiers are far behind. She reaches the grassy bank and slips into the water. It is cool and soothing. Her muscles are sore but she forces them to move. Stroke. Kick. Stroke. Kick. Stroke.
Her muscles can go no further. Cassia manages to pull herself out on the bank. There is a house nearby. The white building stands out against the green. It looks beautiful, but it is not a refuge. She drags herself to a nearby bush. Here the sun can not burn her. Here she should be safe. For now.
She knows that safety is an illusion. Her soul is safe, but that is it. They will catch her body any day now. If she doesn’t starve first. But what could be the purpose in that?
Cassia stands up. She knows that trying to survive on her own is a ridiculous notion. Her tunic is dry now, but dirty from lying on the ground. Cleaner than it was yesterday because of the swim. She tries to dust herself off and heads to the house. She reaches a field. There are already slaves in the field. Perhaps she can go unnoticed.
She joins them. It is easy to mimic their movements. Soon the sweat that begins to run down her body in the hot sun. Noontime comes, and food is laid out. They pass the bowl to her. She takes a piece of fruit and bites into it. The most delicious thing she has ever had. The sweet juices flood her mouth. There is bread too. But no time to eat it.
They return to the field and continue to work. The overseer stops near Cassia twice, but she does not dare to look up. He passes on. A whip does not touch her back. She is one of the few fortunate. Her body is still strong from the food she used to have. The sun sets. The stars return. The overseer leaves. More food is offered, and still no one questions her. She does not say a word. They will know she is not a slave.
“With us, child.”
Cassia glances up for the first time. A woman makes a tiny motion with her wrist. She follows her to the barracks. The woman points out an empty space. On the floor. Cassia lies down and curls into a ball. She is exhausted. The floor is hard. Her body is tight. An overseer is back before the morning begins.
The day is hard again. Cassia is getting better at it, but she begins to wonder. This work will not let her survive for long. She will die soon. What is her purpose anyhow?
She begins to speak to the others when the overseer is not nearby. She tells them about the man her father met while he was in the army. The man who her father claimed rose from the dead. He did not make up stories. That tale cost him his life.
She tells them about the One who created the stars, and the sun, and the moon, and the earth. The One who created them. The perfect One, who required justice. The One who sent his own Son, who paid the price for mortals, and then rose from the dead. The man her father met.
Some scoff. They do not care. All they want is to survive the day. Perhaps tomorrow too. Some weep. They want this hope. But they are scared. They only work faster. Some believe. They know their fates are sealed now. Death will come, but now they have hope. Some are too frightened to listen. Anyone could tell the overseer.
The day ends. The overseer comes for her. She knew he would. She knows that one can not go around telling stories like that without expecting repercussion. The others go back into the barracks. No one looks back. Not even the woman. The overseer has her alone.
“You have been spreading nonsense.”
Cassia stays quiet. Her name means hollow. She feels hollow.
“Would you worship Jupiter?”
She shakes her head.
“What about Diana?”
She shakes her head again.
“Pity. You were a good worker. Lie down.”
She does, flat on her back. He unsheathes the curved scimitar at his side. She does not flinch. There are the stars.
The whole sky is full of them, bright and glittering and far away. Somewhere beyond them is the One who created them. The One that fills her hollowness and makes her full, running over. Cassia takes a breath. One more. One more. Some stars seem to move, but it is just a reflection on the blade as it comes down.
Cassia is going to meet the One who created the stars.