I have written a fantasy adventure story.
The Tale of the Unravelling Certainties of Arianne Damaska, is a fantasy adventure set in a timeless Mediterranean Ilyria.
I was fed up with the usual cardboard characters in fantasy fiction – teenage boy fights evil baddie. So I created The Tale of the Unravelling Certainties of Arianne Damaska, a fantasy adventure with strong leading women. The book has a contemporary feel, threading issues of displaced people and family responsibilities into a story of magic and intrigue.
Arianne Damaska, an artist living in the busy port town of Vasnar, finds her comfortable family routine shattered by a stranger’s determination to force himself menacingly into their lives. Sarcon de Medeiros, a Mariel Thread Adept and the charismatic leader of a rebel group from the island of Kytos, has returned from years of banishment in the Aridian desert, seeking revenge on those whom he believes betrayed him. Arianne is compelled to embrace her latent powers to resist the growing danger.
Here is the prologue and the first two chapters, (please excuse any typos.) If you would like to read more please e-mail me and I will send you the rest. (I have a device version if you would prefer that.)
The Tale of the Unravelling Certainties of Arianne Damaska
By Annabel Mednick
© Annabel Mednick June 2015
A hot parched land of endless sands and towering dunes that shift with the night winds
The stranger stood inert. His youth, his shaved scalp and chin, and his strong body were at odds with his drooping jaw and the incomprehension in his eyes. Inside he was burning with anger as hot as the desert sand under his feet.
Some of the nomadic tribe gathered around him, intrigued. Some kept themselves apart, primed, wary and defensive, watching him; the unknown young man from far across the sea, who they had agreed to keep, in fulfilment of the ancient contract.
An older woman approached him. She spoke to him in a language full of clicks and long vowels; it could have been the cicadas talking, for all he understood. He passively allowed her to take his arm and begin to rub a lotion onto his exposed, blistering skin. His thin, torn clothing was little protection from the scorching sun.
An elder of the tribe followed her and roughly pulled her away. They shouted and gesticulated; she pointed at the stranger, at the sun. The elder conceded and walked away with a shrug of his shoulders.
Again the woman approached the stranger. She spoke to him once more but to him, the words were still as perplexing. She smiled and gave him a leaf containing the lotion. He took it and stared at it uncomprehendingly. Rub it on your arms, she mimed. She rubbed some on her own arms, took his other hand and gently placed it in the lotion. The stranger looked at her, at the stuff in the leaf in his hand, and he felt a rage, such a fury. He threw the leaf to the ground and snarled under his breath as he turned away.
It was dark now and the stranger sat alone, away from the group. He remembered nothing of his past. There was emptiness; a gaping void and a dull pain where memory should have been.
He dozed for a while and dreamt.
He dreamt he was deep in the darkness and infinity of space. He was comfortable here, in this dream place. In his dream he turned slowly. Up, down, near, far; all was the same. There was no sound; all was calm. Far away energy crackled. He instantly knew what to do. At the speed of light he crossed a vast distance. His interest was piqued. Below him an intersecting ball of myriad strands spun; every strand a living thing. One reached out, further than the rest. Easily, skilfully and with no effort, he caught it in his consciousness. They intertwined; he slid downwards, spiralling, absorbing, being absorbed. He was sucked in.
Suddenly the stranger awoke, alert. A young man and woman had moved away from the group sleeping by the fire and stopped near him.
He was invisible in the dark. No moon shone that night, just a thousand stars piercing a sky as black as ink.
He sat there listening to their fumbles. They began to kiss. The stranger thought about moving away, but that could have alarmed the couple, so he just sat there, trapped by the night, an unwilling and unseen eavesdropper on an intimate exchange.
The man said something, low and guttural. The woman protested and the stranger understood; no in any language is no. The young man became more forceful and the woman pushed him away. The clear night emphasised the sounds of their wordless fight. The man held her down; his lust the most important thing to him now. She cried out but the sound was instantly muffled by his hand over her mouth. They struggled. The ravager was thrusting hard as the woman whimpered.
The stranger listened to their struggle and felt a fury rise up in him until he could take no more. Instinctively he focused his mind and tried to draw on his energy. Nothing happened. He was not sure what should happen, what he expected to happen. Again he tried to push out with his will; a blank, a wall.
The stranger rose up, he roared, he raged, as he pulled the man away. He punched the man again and again. He remembered feelings; feeling desperate, feeling anger, urgency, guilt. He remembered feelings ... but not his name.
Kiron Barreto’s cottage
At the hamlet of Karevo, amid the green hills of Northern Illyria,
Kiron Barreto was pottering about in his vegetable garden. He felt the soil; it was bone dry. That summer had been even hotter than usual and he was looking forward to resting in the shade of his old olive trees. An old straw hat was thrust on his head, over his thatch of thick, greying hair. He dusted his hands on his already filthy leather jerkin and peered over his glasses, as he carefully filled a tin can with water from a barrel. He had been away for weeks and his plants had suffered. Kiron Barreto watered his neglected tomatoes and roses, hardly concentrating on the job in hand as he recalled the details of the last few weeks.
The Union of Councils for the Mariel Thread had convened on the beautiful, lush island of Kytos, for a crisis; the trial of a renegade Mariel Thread Adept. Kiron Barreto had long been one of the members of the Inner Council for the Republic of Illyria. He had been chosen to represent his country and make the long voyage across the ocean to the island. He was fluent in the languages that they spoke on the free islands of the Geanian Sea.
The Mariel Thread Centre on the island was in a secluded valley. The accommodation was comfortable, lavish even. The centre itself was spacious, with large, airy communal spaces, quiet cloisters and serene rooms for meditation and practise. If the reason for being there hadn’t been so serious it would have been very pleasant to wander through the olive groves and vineyards that surrounded the compound.
There were twelve countries represented. Lots had been drawn and he had found himself to be one of three council members charged with sitting in judgement. For a week he had donned the long, vermilion robes and tall red hat of office; stifling in the heat of the Kytos summer. He had filed into the large council chamber with the others. In unison, the red robed judges had sat, removed their hats and placed them to one side in front of them. They had lowered their heads, and with hands clasped and eyes shut, intoned the four laws:
· Treat all things on earth as equal.
· Each creature behaves according to its nature.
· The Thread is to be used only with benign intent.
· If used to destroy there will be consequences.
They were no longer themselves, no longer individuals with emotions and prejudices, but were all now representatives of the Mariel Thread statute.
For a week Kiron Barreto sat behind the long table placed at one end of the hall, had looked out at the tiered seating opposite him, filled with angry people; at the seating to one side where the other nine Mariel Thread Adepts sat, calm and impartial ready to lend their strength giving Thread to the five should the need arise, at the raised dais where the stern and arrogant General Nestor had strutted as he made his charge,
“This gangster has broken one of the basic laws; it’s up to you to bloody do something about it.”
Where the frightened witnesses for the prosecution had cowered to whisper their statements, where the accused had stood, proud, silent.
Day after day they had heard the evidence and then talked, deep into the night. It had been a long week. The issues were complex, the charges serious. What had been the intent, of the malpractice of the Thread, by an Adept turned criminal, that had resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people?
“If used to destroy there will be consequences…The rules of the council.” General Nestor insisted, “An example has to be made.”
On the last day they had, once again, slowly filed in; three red-robed judges. The hall was hushed. In unison the judgement was proclaimed: guilty.
The jubilant citizens of Kytos, even the smug General were escorted out. Only Mariel Thread Adepts were to be present, to witness and deliver the punishment, and the accused was brought in once more.
Kiron Barreto was jolted back to the present moment by a sharp pain. He had nicked his thumb on a thorn. He sucked at the blood and tied a bit of rag he found in his pocket, around the wound. He slowly retrieved some canes from his shed, thrust them deep into the earth and began to tie the wilting cucumber and melons to them.
He could still see that fiery young man with a shaven head - so vital, so passionate, so resolute - standing defiantly in the centre of the chamber, waiting for the twelve Mariel Thread Adepts to totally decimate him; to strip him of his memories, his power and his mind. Kiron Barreto could still see the crumpled, dribbling creature they’d reduced the young man to. Kiron Barreto had felt the incredible potential, the charisma of the man; a man who people could follow, love, die for.
“The crime was terrible, yes, but was it deliberate? Could it have been an appalling coincidence? Were we justified?” It had bothered him since he returned to Illyria. He couldn’t help but feel he had been somehow manipulated. Something else was going on below the surface. What if they were wrong?
After the midwinter Dark Tide meal at Figgia, a small fishing village on the west coast of Illyria
“Oh Kurat!” Arianne Damaska cursed as she spilt gravy down the front of her favourite dress. She had found the fabric; soft linen in a deep shade of russet, in a bazaar back in Vasnar, where she lived. It looked good with her short, bright, hennaed hair.
“I’ve ruined another one.’’ She had been pleased with the dress too. It had taken her hours to make, she’d only had to unpick the seams a couple of times; sewing wasn’t her forte.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” She rubbed at the spill, which only made it worse.
It was midwinter’s eve. Arianne Damaska, the ‘sensible wife' of Theo Damaska and mother of two; previously known as Arianne Valenta, an ‘exciting artist’ with potential… was finally alone in her sister-in-law’s kitchen about to wash up after the Dark Tide festival meal.
She could hear the children thudding across the floor in the room above as they were put to bed. She and Theo were to sleep downstairs on a bedroll in front of the fire.
‘If they don’t shut up soon I shall explode! I’ll never get used to these family get-togethers, and to think I used to yearn for brothers and sisters to play with. Well, at least it wasn’t the whole clan this year, that’s something to be thankful for!’ Her husband Theo had two brothers as well as a sister, and with their wives and children festival gatherings were a noisy affair.
Arianne Damaska was thirty-three; she had clear, light eyes and a face that showed every emotion. She thought she looked boring and so kept her hair cropped and tinted red, a tenuous link with her old self. Although it wasn’t as if that old self had been particularly wild… Arianne would have loved to have experimented with drink, drugs and all the other stuff artists are supposed to explore. But too much wine made her sick and her eagle-eyed mother would have known instantly if she’d taken any kariya leaf.
Arianne hated washing up, but at this moment it was exactly what was needed. She always became prickly if surrounded by people for too long. As an only child she was used to solitude. She would shut herself in her room, away from the activity and noise in the street below.
‘Come out Arianne, you’ve been up there for hours!’ her mother would plead. It fell on deaf ears; she needed quiet and calm to paint.
Arianne plunged the dishes into the warm water.
“Ahhh!” She sighed loudly with the release of pent up tension and looked at the night sky through the window. A pale yellow moon weakly gleamed through grey speeding clouds that swept across a deep, deep, ultramarine; it would make a good painting. She hadn’t made any new work since Natalia had been born fourteen months ago. She felt she had turned into a child-centred, food-smeared, podgy Mama.
‘Maybe I’ll never pick up a paintbrush again?’ she felt a panic rising, ‘I need to be by myself for more than five minutes if I’m going to paint… I’d love to live here, in a lonely cottage on the top of a cliff, lucky, lucky Flora.’
Arianne looked around the kitchen. It reflected her sister-in-law’s personality perfectly. Flora’s friendly exterior disguising a will of iron, was echoed by the whitewashed plaster hiding the hunks of stone with which the cottage was built.
She gave her temples a rub; it had been a long day.
Arianne had awoken very early that morning. She, her husband Theo and their two small children had taken the night train for their journey to Figgia; a small fishing village on the west coast of Illyria, to visit Theo’s sister Flora and her family for this year’s Dark Tide celebrations.
Arianne had stared out at the dawn mist as the landscape unravelled. The bare trees, stark against the winter fields had a raw quality she longed to capture, but her unused sketch book was stuffed somewhere at the bottom of their luggage. She was relieved they didn’t have to make the trip too often from their home in the port town of Vasnar. The steam train rumbled along. Arianne shivered and wrapped her shawl closer, careful not to disturb her baby daughter sleeping on her lap. Theo was dead to the world; his head resting on his carefully folded new jacket, their three year old son Alexander curled up beside him, warm under a woollen coat. Theo was in his early thirties. His dark clothes and closely cropped black hair belied a sense of humour and a smile that lit up his bony face. As soon as they had settled down in the carriage, he had kept his family amused with funny comments and imitations of all the characters they’d encountered.
“Now, for one last one before bed… our noble ticket inspector!”
“Stop it, the man might come in and see,” Arianne said, as Theo pulled his famous sea monster look; neck tendons flayed, lips pulled back. “The wind will change and you’ll be left with the head of an eel, and you’ll have to sleep on the sofa for the rest of your life.” Theo Damaska just grinned.
They had arrived at the hilltop cottage soon after ten that morning. Nicander and Flora Trevino opened the door and their three young daughters flew out to greet the guests.
In no time they were trooping along the cliff path, to get to the festival down in the village. The morning breeze had a nip to it but it was not too cold yet. Nicander Trevino led the way, striding on long legs, his youngest daughter riding high on his shoulders. Theo, with Natalia wrapped against his back, walked with him.
Arianne and Flora brought up the rear. Flora’s eldest daughter dashed through the low shrubby bushes to stand on the edge of the overhang and look down at the crashing waves beneath. Her middle girl marched along beside them on sturdy legs. Alexander was with them too, checking every interesting stone that drew his attention.
Arianne was comfortable with her fiery sister sister-in- law. As always, Flora’s dark hair was escaping from a hair clasp, one hand pushing it out of her eyes as she exuberantly gesticulated with the other. She was a short woman, bossy and demanding, - but somehow she got away with it.
When the women had first met years ago now, they’d clicked instantly. They hadn’t stopped talking all morning, their voices; the accompaniment to the gestural ballet their hands performed, grew louder and louder as they caught up on the news.
“Tell me about Rhea?” Flora said. “Has she found another choir yet?”
“Finally, and they’re not too bad, if you like that kind of thing,” Arianne said. “We heard them sing last month.” Arianne had known Rhea d’Silva; a good friend of her parents, all her life. It was through Rhea that she and Theo had met five years before, at an opening of an art exhibition. Rhea had invited Flora and Flora had dragged Theo along as well.
Rhea was a Mariel Thread Adept, and had been Flora’s teacher when she was training to use her skills. Arianne was sceptical about the Mariel Thread; she thought it superstitious, mystical nonsense, but if they all wanted to believe in it, that was fine by her. She and the rest of the world got on perfectly well without it.
“Perhaps we can catch one of Rhea’s concerts next time we come to Vasnar,” Flora said. “We want to come for the spring equinox, though that’s when she’ll be taking her novices to the Retreat for their initiation tests.”
“Huh! They’re a bloody dopey lot. They’ve no chance.” Arianne replied. “Rhea roped me in to giving them a drawing class. They may be strong in their sixth sense, but they haven’t an ounce of common sense between them. It’s going to be an uphill struggle teaching them, I can tell you.”
“Poor Rhea,” Flora laughed, “She must be glad they’ve all gone home for the midwinter break. I’m sure she’ll knock them into shape in time.”
“I expect she has a few magic tricks up her sleeve... Oh no, what’s Alexi’s found this time!”
Alexander had suddenly halted in the middle of the path to examine another stick. Arianne, yet again, had to try to cajole him to walk on. Actually, she wanted to pinch him, but it was an impulse she suppressed.
Arriving at the edge of the village, they went past the scrubby olive groves, down through the steep, cobbled streets, past the tightly packed, white houses, to the central Plaza near the quay. It was buzzing with activity. The staging for the theatrical show that evening was already erected; it was to be a traditional piece about the midwinter darkness. The mummers were putting the finishing touches to their costumes and masks. At one side of the square, food was being prepared, braziers glowed red and barrows decked with greenery were piled high with fresh fish and spicy sausages. Small booths and tables lined the other two edges; tawdry junk glittered in the winter sunlight.
The Plaza filled quickly and there was a festive air. Hawkers passed with trays around their necks, loudly calling out their wares, ‘Amulets and love potions,’ ‘Sweet cakes and sticky dates!’ The older children were given coins and they dashed off to spend them.
“Come on Arianne, let’s go and visit the fortune teller.” Flora said. She began to drag her towards a tiny tent, the scent of incense wafting out. ‘Madam Metis the Mariel Mystic’ was painted in purple curling script over the entrance.
“You must be crazy!” Arianne said, “I’m not wasting an obol on that rubbish.” She peered round the curtain as they passed. A scrawny woman was sitting in a shabby chair, napping. She lifted her head when she heard Arianne, opened one eye and beckoned her closer.
“Read your future with my painted pack of cards my darling?” Eager for another gullible customer, her wrinkled neck stretched forward.
“Sorry, you got the wrong one here,” Arianne said.
The two women stopped to watch a conjurer produce a flock of silver sparrows from a tiny box on the table in front of him. Bird after bird flew into the air with a chorus of song.
“He is amazing!” Arianne exclaimed. “How does he do it?”
“Hmmm, if you listen you can hear him murmuring… he is using the Thread.” Flora said.
“Oh it’s a trick Flora. It’s all sleight of hand and mirrors.”
“If you say so… “
The man clapped his hands and the birds disappeared.
“Well… where did they go to then?” Flora demanded with a twinkle in her eye.
“I don’t know the trick but I’m sure there is one.” The cynical Arianne replied.
Flora and Theo’s parents and their sprightly grandmother had also come to Figgia to celebrate the Dark Tide festival. They were staying at an Inn, just off the central plaza.
“Ah, there you are, we’ve been waiting a while, your grandmother can’t stand up all day you know.” Cornelia Damaska’s voice called out.
“We’re not late yet Ma.” Flora said.
Flora’s mother was fifty-four, with a gritty way about her. She bit back the words of rebuke. She was a town governor, a position she had held for years and had no intention of relinquishing in the near future; but she knew when to hold her tongue. Her daughter Flora was the most difficult of her four offspring, impetuous and hot-headed. Galen Damaska rolled his eyes heavenwards. A calm and tranquil Dark Tide was all that he desired. If his wife and daughter could grant him that he would be a happy man.
The children were soon squashed tight in Grandma Valeria’s scented bosom. Lunch was eaten at crowded trestle tables. Flora and Nicander were well liked in the town and Arianne knew she would never remember all the names of the people they were introduced to. The children’s cheeks were red from all the kissing and pinching.
Finally, the time for the show was upon them. The crowd was friendly and there was a murmur of anticipation in the gathering dusk. Arianne Damaska felt rather excited; she liked mummer’s shows and they had found a good spot near the front.
Old Man Winter, clothed in washed-out rags, entered the stage. His mask a map of wrinkles; his grey hair stuck out like a faded crown. He clowned about, lurching towards the audience. Alexander hid behind Arianne, squealing with pleasure.
Of course there was the usual jeering from the drunken louts at back of the crowd.
Suddenly, almost invisible in his dark clothing, Mischief appeared. He darted in and out the audience, clonking the drunks with his phallus baton as he passed them, he jumped up onto the platform to tease Old Man Winter. Mischief was a magician; long ribbons appeared as if from nowhere, which twisted and spun around Winter’s ancient body and head until he was tightly bound.
The mood changed. Exhausted and blind, Old Man Winter crumpled into a heap on the floor. Mischief became menacing, raising a large ceremonial knife he pulled back Winter’s head, and slashed his throat, sacrificing him to the Dark Tide God; the blood spilling, stark and red.
The crowd gasped and Alexander started to cry. Arianne bent down to comfort him.
“How horrible, that is taking things too far.” Cornelia said.
The dusk turned to night. The glass balls of Carnon, suspended about the stage, cast an eerie glow. Mischief ran off with a scream. There was a hush.
Now a light wove through the audience. The last performer, Glorious Moon, tall and dignified in her long silver gown, headed towards the collapsed and bleeding figure on the stage. Mischief solemnly following behind her, handing out lit paper lanterns.
Alexander took one and smiled, the panic of the moment before, forgotten.
Glorious Moon reached the dying, fading body and circled about him. She began to hum, a low, cadenced tune as she cut the ribbons binding Old Man Winter, setting him free.
The crowd, knowing what came next, chanted a surging, rhythmic sound.
Winter parted his bloody costume, revealing a shimmering pale green shift. He stood up, vigorous, emerging as the New Spring. Glorious Moon grabbed the ribbons the New Spring held aloft, and she wound them round them both until they were very close. The couple danced together, slow, sensual, his hips gyrating, thrusting. Her humming became stronger, a vibrating, energizing throb.
The thrilled crowd urged the performers on, clapping in time, stamping, calling, “'Hi Hi Hi!'”
The rotating, twirling pair left the ground. They spun faster, their clothing merging, a blur of silver and jade. The ribbons streamed out as they flew even higher.
The crowd craned their necks upwards watching the impossible aerial acrobatics. The audience gasped, they hadn’t expected anything like this.
The music climaxed and the spinning couple slowly sank back down to stage where they shivered with bliss.
“What do you say to that,” Flora whispered to Arianne, “I didn’t see any wires!”
“It’s got me stumped” Arianne whispered back. “It’s incredible however they achieved it.”
There was loud applause, as the performers took their bows, mulled wine was passed around and everyone, slightly drunk, dispersed back to their homes to have the festival meal.
Arianne and her family took the direct route home. The lanterns they held high to light the stony path, cast strange and eerie shadows amongst the pine trees that lined the lane. Grandma Valeria walked slowly, a great-grandchild holding each hand so that she didn’t miss her footing.
Flora had prepared a feast, stuffed vine leaves, lamb stew, sticky pastries. They ate with an appetite; bread mopped the bowls clean and dates packed with sweet cheese filled any space left. Galen told the story of the beginning of time, as the woven basket, with a branch of an evergreen for hope, a stone to represent hard times, and honey to sweeten the future was passed around. Songs were sung, an exchange of gifts, and then the children went off to play together while the adults finished off the jug of mead.
“Good show this evening,” Arianne said. “The acrobatics were astonishing. The dance was a bit near the edge, I expect it in Vasnar, but out here in the sticks…”
“Oh, I hate the bit when he has his throat cut,” Cornelia grimaced, “I don’t think it’s necessary to have quite so much blood.”
“Oh Ma, that’s the point; it has to be gory or there’s no drama.” Flora said.
“Well I don’t agree. I think it encourages the young people to behave badly. There used to be a ribbon to symbolise the blood; we all got the idea.”
“In some places they still have a real sacrifice.”
“Of course they don’t Flora. That practice stopped hundreds of years ago.”
“Well, actually Ma, I’ve been looking into current customs and rituals lately,” she waved at her cluttered desk, piled high with papers and reference books. “There’s plenty to indicate it still goes on, and with the priests in the outlying regions able to do whatever they like, I’m not surprised at anything that happens.”
Her mother raised her eyebrows.
Flora pushed a stray dark lock of hair from her eyes and breathed deeply. She could feel an argument creeping up her spine and along the hairs on her neck. She flung a glance at Nicander, indicating: ‘back me up on this one, please.’
“There’s definitely something going on,” Nicander said, getting the hint. “Last year four bloodstained altar stones were found at different places along the coast. They were brought into me at the museum and the bloodstains on them looked recent.”
“Now that’s appalling! I had no idea,” Cornelia said. “Do tell me anything more you hear, Nicander, and I can bring it up at a Senate meeting if it starts to look serious.” As a town governor Cornelia would meet up regularly with the other governors and members of the senate.
‘Typical,’ thought Flora, ‘Nicci mentions something and she’s all ears.’
A loud snore came from Grandma Valeria in the chair by the fire. Galen yawned and patted Cornelia’s arm. Once engaged his wife could go on all night. She patted his hand back.
“It’s late now,” she said smiling, “and enjoyable as this is everyone, our bed beckons.”
Flora laughed, that was the way with her family, tension one moment, and the next second everything was fine again.
“Won’t be a mo’,” Nicander jumped up. “I’ll just get the pony and trap ready.”
“And I’ll go and root out a couple of blankets for you all,” Flora added kissing her mother’s cheek, “It’ll be chilly.”
The meal had broken up after that. It was well past ten. Flora and Theo put the exhausted children to bed, while Nicander took his in-laws back to the inn.
Arianne had started on the washing up. She wallowed in her thirty minutes of tranquillity and solitude until there were only the big pans left to do.
Across country to the east, at the Villa of Mistwold on the edge of a thick forest near Elgar, the capital city of Illyria
That same night, in a cold, dark room in the crumbling Villa of Mistwold, an adolescent girl was forlornly waiting. Her thin, dirty frock fell loosely over her skinny body and her arms were hanging at her side. Her head was turned to the window and she looked out over the trees, towards an invisible point. She shuddered and scraped back a curtain of lank hair from her face, trying to salvage what was left of her will. But she was too weak, too tired.
The room was finely furnished, sumptuous even, with an ebony bed, a silk rug and a large, ornately carved chest. When they had first taken her there, days ago now, she had been so excited; she had never seen such grandeur in her life. The girl had bounced on the bed and felt like a queen, but when she looked around she had noticed there was a thick layer of dust over everything and a faint smell of mould. The slop bucket in the corner stank, and when she lifted the lid of the chest it was full of rotting old gowns. She had tried to open the door to leave but it was locked. Although tired, she was too scared to sleep in the bed and had curled up on the floor and lay there shivering, eyes open staring into the dark, listening to the engulfing silence.
The door opened; the candlelight from the landing outside spilled in. A thickset man in his mid thirties entered.
“Where are you?” he said; although still a relatively young man, his mouth was already a grim line in the pockmarked surface of his face.
Spying the girl he grabbed her arm roughly.
“Trying to hide, eh? Can’t get away from the mistress that way, you bit of skin and bone. Even the dogs wouldn’t want you. Come on.” He pushed the exhausted girl before him, out onto the landing and down the narrow stairs. She stumbled, the cold stone floor numbing her bare feet even further, and fell, collapsing into a heap at the bottom. The man prodded her inert body with his boot and almost tenderly lifted her up and carried her in his arms.
“Poor little thing,” he mumbled. “What have they done to you, eh? You can’t be more than thirteen, you poor little thing.”
Arriving at a large oak door, he stood her up and gently shook her awake. She started in surprise when she saw him. Then, remembering where she was, she hung her head in misery. The man crouched down beside her.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Tamara Delacrúz," she whispered.
He squeezed her thin hand with his large rough one.
“Have strength, Tamara Delacrúz. It is midwinter’s eve; perhaps the goddess is watching you.” Straightening up, he opened the door and led her in. “The girl, Ma’am” he said.
His mistress was languishing on a divan in her dark, smoky chamber; stoned out of her mind on kariya leaf. By the light from the fire that was blazing in the large stone fireplace she looked beautiful, the flickering shadows disguising her hollow cheeks; too hollow for her thirty years. Her green velvet embroidered gown that had fitted snugly last year was loose now. Her scrawny, old lover lay sprawled across his chair, his eyes half closed.
“Very good, you can go, Grauchus,” Elena Romano’s slurred drawl commanded him.
The stocky man left, and after closing the door behind him, leant up against it for a moment to control his temper.
“How many more?” he grunted, through gritted teeth. How many people had he brought to this room since his mistress had arrived with the first one, a skinny boy of twelve, Timo, the first ‘helper’, as she called them? “Must be oh, almost twenty…” Grauchus Pérez had liked the lad; he had grown fond of him. .
“Do they think I have no feelings? That I am so stupid I can’t see what’s going on?”
He had watched and listened. He knew how his mistress had persuaded that mystery man she had found to test his Mariel Thread skills, and use the boy’s vigour to take her flying. Didn’t the kariya leaf take her flying enough? They used so much of the boy’s energy that he lost his mind; sweet, happy Timo, just an empty husk. His mistress had instructed him to take Timo away to Elgar, that large, sprawling, dusty city, and leave him there. He had argued, he had protested, and then he had done as she had asked, as always.
Over the next year or so, it had not been hard for her to find more ‘helpers’; usually kariya users or orphans, one or two a month.
“They must have become better at using the Thread,” Grauchus mused, “’cus now when they’re finished with them they’re not all totally hopeless”. Some had even stayed on to work. Dromio Longoria helped in the stables and a couple of women, Celina Muro and Velia Contreras, were now working in the kitchens.
“They don’t dislike Mgeni, so whatever he does to them can’t be that bad. Ha, they’re not too keen on my lovely mistress though. Well, good luck Tamara; you’ll need it.” He said. Then, as he was not a brave man, he quickly walked away.