One Minute

To

Midnight

By Jackson O'Connor

Chapter One

The Circle Goes South

It was inevitable, thought Dani as she walked through the starlit square. Crumbling stone and broken wood was her only company. It was inevitable that war would consume our race. Greed has always been a part of our nature. Walking through the ruined town's square she looked up at the church, the only building not falling to shambles. Its clock still functioned, and its pale hands showed it was 11:59PM. How apt, thought Dani, It was midnight on a cold November night when the bombs fell. When our world died in the fires of wrath. Now we reap the seeds of a war with no victor. Dani remembered the newscast, though she spoke little German, on the day the vaunted United States sent its armies washing over the world. Not sated with annexing Canada and taking all of South America they wanted the world, and everything in it. Pity that the Chinese and Russians didn't waste America to cinders before the damage was done. Twenty years and all that was left were radioactive cinders.

Dani thought back to the days huddling in a concrete bunker, a radio with failing batteries chirping about battles lost and won. They cheered a bit when it was said that the Americans had been defeated in China, but there was nothing left in Europe but the dead. Those who didn't perish instantly died a slow and painful death from radiation. Those who avoided the radioactive clouds were butchered by the American soldiers. Soldiers who didn't discriminate. They ran babies over with their tanks, shot mothers and children. Raped innocent girls and cut their throats leaving them to die broken and unmourned by the wayside. It made Dani sick to think of any of this. The horror and the pain of a pointless war, a war with no victory or defeat. Only death, so much death that numbers ceased to matter. Dani had trouble sleeping at night, trying to put the horrific bodies she'd seen on her travels. She pulled her overly long overcoat around herself and kept moving. She was cold and rubbed her arms and hands to get feeling back in them again. She had grown used to hunger but she would never get use to the cold.

Dani had, since she crawled up out of the bomb shelter she had gotten into, become a sort of mythical figure among the wandering folk. The survivors who told stories as they wandered looking for food and medicine. She and twelve others wandered alone though the wilds of a dead civilization. She called her group The Circle, for no adequate reason other than whimsy. People who met her called her the Scarlet Shadow, and looked at her like someone out of song and story. She despised being made into a piece of myth. I'm only one woman she would tell herself, one woman trying to keep her band of survivors alive.

Approaching her from out of the darkness was one of the members of the Circle. His name was Cloak, because he had no real name. Except for herself, Cloak was the only one who had a gun. That made him her second-in-command almost. He had burns all over his face and arms, though she didn't know why. Picked up on the wayside as she traveled. He waved and led a horse with him, Dani's horse. "The rest are right behind me. Do we stay here for the night?" but Dani shook her head and petted the horse's nose.

"No." she said flatly "We go south still. We have one last town to go through." And Cloak nodded to her and kept walking with her. In her meager party there were only a handful of men. The rest were women and two young children. A girl of eight and a box of six. She worked hard to feed them all and though she usually had to go hungry she felt better knowing they were fed.

It was sunrise by the time Dani finally had them all stop. They had exited the city hours ago and were now in hilly countryside. Sheltering from the wind in a depression between hills she had a few people go out for wood to make a fire and some others to snare a hare or two for stewing. Dani didn't have much to work with but the one thing she loved to do for her band was to cook. She had been a baker before. In Dublin she had her own bakery, before she fell on hard times. Before the economy collapsed and she was forced to steal the bread she used to bake for herself. She was labeled a criminal and she fled using money she stole. Then she ended up in Germany, a foreign place, to watch the end of the world happen around her. It wasn't long before Cloak came back with three hares slung over his cloaked shoulders. Cloak had taught Dani how to skin the animals but she still did better cutting it into strips to boil. It wasn't long before she was able to serve food to the rest of the Circle. They always thanked her profusely for being there for them. She felt so happy inside when they did, she felt like a mother to the folks she cared for. She saved a little for herself as she usually did. Opening the plastic cooler Cloak showed her all they had procured from the town.

"Pills, pills, pills." Said Cloak pawing through the stuff. "That hospital there had enough to keep us going for a long time. Painkillers especially, so I'm happy." He also picked a white box out and extracted a pair of binoculars. "Fresh too, best find in a long time." Said Dani cradling them delicately. "Anything else?" she asked.

"Uhm…well I found a few books. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the kids, a book about horse care and this map." He said laying it out and pulling out the stub of a pencil he had, using his knife to carve out some lead to write with. Drawing on the map, he put a dot on the map after measuring with a ruler they had found a few towns ago.

"This is where the radio message is sending us." Said Cloak. Dani nodded, they had found an old working radio and when tuning it caught a snatch of Morse code. It was co-ordinates of something, and it was very much worth following. "Where are we?" she asked Cloak, studying the map. He drew a dot where they were, near the town of Leibreika. Looking at the map closely, Dani sighed and said "The Circle goes south then. Let the folks get some sleep. We move by night, the Knives are getting active again."

Dani kept the Circle moving by dusk and they were ambling across the hills at a good pace. Everyone took turns on the horse, named Witchcraft for the stallion's black color, and it was Dani's turn. James walked net to her, the father of Desmond the little boy. He was a descent doctor, so she kept him with them even though he was timid. Allie, his wife, had sheltered with her in the bomb shelter those long 10 months. Now it was 3 years after the war and they all had grown older, even Dani was older. I wonder if it's my birthday today she thought to herself. She had been 21 the day the first bomb fell, so she thought she was 24. Dani, though still tired and hungry, kept moving and scanning the horizon. They were heading south for sure and they had almost 12 miles to go. Twelve miles and twelve people, how apt she thought to herself. Then she shook her head, she must be going mad with boredom. The same old pattern. Countryside then town then more countryside. My brains are going to melt. She was truly getting bored, but she would never leave her band behind. They were her only friends in a lonely world. Well, everyone except Torri the teenager. She nicknamed her handsy because of how much she liked to touch Will the teenage boy. "We do need babies" she thought aloud then shook her head. James looked up at her and asked "What was that?"

"Nothing." Said Dani "Nothing at all." She needed a switch, new people and hopefully a place to settle where they could get a decent meal. Dani slowed down and got off the horse and let James get up. Dani maneuvered herself to walk next to Allie, a short woman with dirty blonde hair of medium length. She was always pale, and in the moonlight she looked paler. Desmond tugged on Dani's coat and whispered "How much longer." Dani looked down and smiled a motherly smile and said,

"A few more days. There's another town up ahead, and then we'll be across some little mountains. Then we'll be there, and you'll never have to eat a rabbit ever again." This last part always made Desmond smile, and she didn't blame him. She was getting sick of rabbit meat too. It wasn't very nutritious, and she had been popping iron pills daily to keep herself from suffering from any deficiencies. Can't afford to be sick, sickness out here means death she thought, it was how they lost Min, the pretty young college student, who had caught a cold and died shivering in the night.

The next day Dani did not stop as they usually did. Instead she got the Circle together to explain a plan she had thought up days ago. "Alright folks, in order to keep you from being hit by the Knives we are going into this town alone. Me and Cloak, that's it." Said Dani, standing before the rest of her band.

"Look you will go around the town and meet up with us on the other side. Move as fast as you can and try to keep quiet. With luck there aren't any knives here." And looked to Cloak as she got into the saddle. Dani and Cloak rode ahead while the rest of the group started to trudge their way around the town ahead. It was a medium sized town nestled among the sloping hills. The last piece of civilization and where they would try to stock up on as much as they could carry. Dani had the horse go slow as it followed the road into the town. It was eerily quiet except for the errant scraps of paper floating around. The first place Dani hit within the town after they were within its confines was the market. Bread, water, and any foodstuffs that were left. The windows were already smashed in and there was a considerable amount of dust inside. Packing it all into the large cooler, Dani swung back up onto the horse behind Cloak who spurred it on ahead. "Hey, a gun shop." Said Cloak as he slowed the horse down outside of a rundown shop on one of the main streets.

"We could use with more ammunition to hunt with." Commented Dani, swinging off the horse and hitching it to a pole. She hefted a brick and smashed a window. If there had been an alarm, its batteries had drained long ago because there was no a peep as she went inside. Walking behind the counter she pulled an SPAS 12 semi-automatic shotgun off the wall. Turning it over, admiring its pristine condition she saw a price tag. "Three thousand? For this? Good thing it's on sale." And she threw the gun over to Cloak who grabbed the strap on it and slung it over his shoulder. Using the same brick to smash open the ammo case she emptied it of 9mm ammunition and 12 gage buckshot. Looking around she picked up a nice looking Single Action Army revolver, still in nice condition. She put it in her left pocket and started sifting for .357 ammo when she heard it. Footsteps outside. In the eerie silence, her senses alert, she listened and she heard it again. Slower steps but clearly footfalls. Signaling silently to Cloak she flicked the safety off of her glock and peeked outside. If there were any Knives around she needed to know. As Cloak opened his mouth to say something she heard the sound of muffled sobs coming from across the street. Crouching down and scanning she saw something in an alleyway opposite of them. Dani walked out slowly and quietly as possible while Cloak untied Witchcraft. Approaching the dark alleyway, set with slanted sunlight from the midday sun, she could see someone. A woman, maybe a girl she looked young, was huddled in the fetal position sobbing and shaking. Listening to the girl whispering something to herself Dani said clearly "You OK?" the girl immediately started scrabbling back of all fours saying in a voice full of begging "Please! Don't hurt me! Stay away!"

"I'm not here to hurt you, I'm a friend. I'm a part of the Circle." Said Dani holding out her hand to help the girl up. She whimpered and said

"Wh…what's the Circle? Are you like them? Are you going to eat me too?" Dani shook her head and said

"No, we aren't going to eat you. Now come on, it isn't safe." And helped the girl up. She helped the girl walk towards the Horse and Cloak was scanning the area with squinted eyes, searching for any Knife hunters. Cloak was turning to say something to Dani when a hissing noise cam whizzing past her ear. By her feet a metallic dart pinged off the ground. "KNIVES!" shouted Dani raising her gun. Out of the alleyways, people began to flood. These weren't ordinary people. They were mutilated, scarred and looked very hungry. Their clothes were bloodstained, if they had any, and they all had their teeth bared in a slavering grin showing sharpened teeth. Slinging the girl up over her shoulder Dani mounted Witchcraft and Cloak hopped up behind her, firing as she spurred the horse to a gallop. "Dammit, Dani, I can't fire this thing I need two hands!" shouted Cloak, slinging the gun over his other shoulder and reaching for her right pocket where her glock was. "Hold on, lemme use your pistol." And he drew the gun out and fired at the crowd of Knives as they ran after them brandishing knives and cudgels. Dani had a hard time holding on to the girl and the horse but they eventually outdistanced the Knives. Her heart pounding, Dani slowed the horse down and gently set the girl into the saddle with Cloak as she walked astride the horse. She kept a wary eye on the buildings as she slowly left them behind.

Dani had the girl they had snatched up in their only tent wrapped up in a blanket. She was still incoherent after a few hours, and now the sun was beginning to set. Cloak had given her a sedative to help her sleep, and mercifully the girl was snoring quietly. Dani relieved the person on watch on the rise overlooking camp and the town that was behind them. "Anything?" asked Dani. Little One was standing on watch, called this nickname because he was much shorter than everyone else, and took a toothpick out of his mouth and said "Quiet as a tomb. The girl lookin' any better?" Dani shook her head and Little One marched off saying,

"I'm 'a get some grub." With his heavy German accent. The sun was painting a pretty red and gold picture on the horizon. Dani remembered the sunsets where she used to live. She used to live in good old Ireland of all places. A Dubliner, she used to run a family bakery passed down the generations. Her passion was baking, and she remembered every regular customer and the way they liked their baked goods. Especially the old sea captain who liked his loaves extra crusty. With the economic downturn and the death of the Celtic Tiger, however, things went downhill. Dani was soon out of business and was forced to find another job but found she had no skills with which to get a job. So she started stealing the money she needed, hoping to get enough petty cash to make it out of the country. In the end she ended up robbing a bank and fleeing overseas to Germany to be with relatives. They hid her with friends, and it was the same day she arrived there that the bombs dropped and World War Three began. Dani saw herself as bad luck and it took three people to drag her into the fallout shelter. She'd spent two whole years in a small concrete room, and then walked herself from Munich to the border of Austria. Now here she was, in the middle of no and where, searching for a probably imaginary place. Dani was relieved a few hours later by Cloak who said simply "She's awake, but be gentle with her…"

Dani poked her head into the tent where the girl was curled up on her side. The fire made enough light to see the shape of her overly slim build and the way her hair fell on her face. "Hey…you OK?" asked Dani in what she hoped was a friendly voice. The girl nodded but didn't look at her. "Can you tell me what happened?" asked Dani moving close enough to look at the girl's face which she tried to bury in the blankets. "It's OK." said Dani placing a hand on the girl's shoulder "If you don't want to that's OK." The girl turned over and looked up at her. She moved into an upright position and told her story in a shaky monotone. "We'd been wandering around town trying to find a way out. Me, daddy, mommy and my little brother. Well, that's when they found us. I had to watch as they cut daddy's throat when he kicked one of them in the teeth. Then they ate into his belly and tied me to a pole with his own guts." She broke off a moment to shudder as she remembered. "You don't have to say any more if you don't want to…I know this can wait until later." But the girl shook her head. "Then….then they boiled what was left of daddy and they were going to roast me over a fire but mommy was begging them to let me go. So they threw HER in the fire. I can still remember her screaming as they held her in there, even though they burned themselves. They didn't even eat her; just let her turn to cinders." Now she was rocking back and forth scared. "Poor little Joey, they tied him on another pole opposite me. They started carving his skin off like he was a suckling pig, frying the strips. He was…screaming at me to help. I just wiggled my….bindings off…then I ran away. I think Joey's dead too." Then she screamed "THEY KILLED ALL OF THEM! WHY?!" and started sobbing. Dani held the girl against her shoulder and let her cry. Knives were cannibals and sadists, people driven mad by the end of the world that now had to feeling. She knew how terrible the Knives were, she'd seen their handiwork. Their sedative-laced darts, their dull blades and skinning knives. When they killed someone they usually used the person's blood to trace an upside down cross somewhere nearby. These symbols looked like a knife, that's why Dani called them that at least. "It's OK." Sid Dani, rocking the girl "The Circle will protect you." I sincerely hope we can she added to herself.

It took three very long days to reach the border between Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Three long days of ascending the mountain slopes. As the group crossed over a rise they saw below them another town. This town was different though, nestled between two peaks. It looked fresh and different from other modern towns. She could not tell from the distance but it was definitely different. "That's it." Said Cloak walking up to stand beside Dani.

"I guess that's the place." Replied Dani, she turned to the rest of the group and said "Just a little further." Just ahead a few shapes were approaching, human shapes. It was a tall man with short brown hair and a stubbly beard, a short blonde man and a tall girl with a ponytail. They all had rifles slung over their shoulders and walked with authority. Must have stumbled on some survivors thought Dani as they stopped in front of them.

"You are in the territory of the Water Queen. State your business and be on your way." Said the man with the beard. Dani walked foreword and said back to them,

"We are The Circle. We followed a radio signal here for shelter." The man nodded,

"The Circle, huh?"

"Yes. The Circle. You've heard of us?"

"Tales get jumbled around. You're a good story to tell the children here. Looks like you have a few too." And he gestured to Desmond and Lilley. Hank, the one with only one eye, stepped foreword and put a protective arm around Lilley. His wife Shannon was on the horse and was slumped forward a little bit, her back had started hurting again from riding. "Can you help us?" asked Dani stepping toe to toe with the man with the beard.

"I think I can help all of you. Follow us." He said in return "My name is David von Gammon. Yours?"

"Dani O'Leary."

He held out a hand to shake and said "Nice to meet you, Dani." And he said it with a slight German accent. Torri put her hands on her hips and said "I ain't walking another step till I get the horse."

"Then stay here then," said Dani as she walked away.

"Well don't just leave me here!"

But Dani was already out of earshot and she knew Torri would follow them no matter how much she complained. Besides, she needed her ability to sew to keep their clothes mended.

Chapter Two

In The Company of Royalty

David knew the stories of the Circle well. A vagabond woman from the north traveling with her companions. Cloak, the mysterious man who didn't say much but had a good soul. Little One a short, rowdy guy with fiery red hair. One-Eye the half blind father who protected all the children they had in toe. Handsy the hormonal girl, whose delicate fingers were made for both doing fine needlework and touching any boy she met. David had to laugh, remembering the over-exaggerated stories. Dani was real to him now, and it was hard to believe the Circle existed. Living by their own rules wandering from place to place having adventures. It sounded like an idyllic life. Here where the water from the mountains ran cold in a river, the realm of the Water Queen whose benevolence was known by all, life was almost dull. The same repeated motions every day. Even if you were the Captain of the Guard, always the same things. With Dani, thighs were looking up. She's good looking too thought David to himself never imagined the leader of the Circle could be so attractive. Then again, what heroine of children's tales wasn't? It took not an especially long time to walk over the sloping side of the valley into the city build into a small hill. Its streets were well trodden dirt with cart ruts down the main paths. Houses and shops were built tidily from lumber from the mountainsides and from more than a few carefully laid clay brick chimneys smoke was issuing fourth. The Circle walked amazed at the rustic feel of the place, ad David sometimes caught himself looking at the charming place they had carved out for themselves and smiling. At the center of the city was the castle, a stone edifice which looked exactly like a medieval European castle out of a book. Four round turrets, thick walls, a portcullis and gate, even a tall tower in the center where the Water Queen herself lived. "The Water Queen will want to meet with you individually to hear your stories. She's quite fond of them actually." Said David to the group. Dani walked astride David, matching him step for step with a determined look that said I've come this far, all I need to do is walk a little farther. David secretly wondered who she was and where she came from, answers he would likely get if he could befriend her. As the tales went she was a prickly sort who needed a gentle touch to open up, but he doubted that. A woman like her doesn't need to be babied, she's not fragile. But all the same, I best tread carefully.

The Water Queen's throne room was expansive and filled with eggshell blue tapestries with black stenciled shapes of rolling waves. The Water Queen, Madame Rochelle LeBlanc, has staunchly resisted the dark blue tapestries that they were going to put up and they had to re-dye them at the last minute. The Water Queen was a fussy decorator and the large stainted glass indows let in dappled colored light into the room. The Water Queen herself was lounging in her throne sideways reading a book, looking relaxed. When David coughed she dropped the book and straightened herself. She was middle-aged but still young at heart, and sat with a smile pretending she wasn't just caught off-guard. "Milady, I bring before you The Circle, in the flesh." Said David in a royal sounding overture, the Water Queen liked it when he talked like that. The Water Queen perused the faces of those before her and locked eyes with Dani. "State your name." she said flatly, lifting up her gold painted metal scepter. "Dani O'Leary, ma'am." She said in return in the same flat tone. The Water Queen smirked and stood up, advancing across the room towards Dani as she spoke, "I am The Water Queen, my constituency here is of the snowmelt from the mountains that feeds the lowlands. I am, yes, a benevolent leader but you should know your anarchic tendencies stop here. In my territory, my rule is law, and you will follow these laws. Do I make myself clear to you?" and she jabbed Dani in the chest with the scepter. Dani didn't eve blink when she said "Crystal clear, ma'am. The Circle needs a home and out there, there's no time for following rules. But now that we are safe, we can give up our lawlessness. We all have our uses, should you wish to interview us." But the Water Queen waved her hand dismissively and walked away saying over her shoulder "David will take care of that in due time. Find them rooms within the castle and keep an eye on them."

"Two eyes, milady. As often as I can spare the time to look." Replied David turning around, "Follow me please."