Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Root and the Way - Prologue - Part I

Rafella was a child again.

It was her eighth birthday, the day of her first Binding, the sun spring-bright through the windows of the Hall of Monir, dust motes lazily playing in the golden shafts of light. Monir was the smallest of the Audience Halls - though it could still easily hold seventy-five or more - but it was the way the sunlight fell through the tall windows in the long, narrow room that had caused Rafella to choose this place for her first Binding Day celebration. She had always loved the sun, and Monir was the brightest room in the Keep, especially on spring afternoons when the promise of summer could be felt in the air and the gloom rains of winter were starting to become a memory. Mother had given her the choice, and Monir it was.

She sat now on the steps leading up to the dais at the north end of Monir, watching as Granil and Stepan pretended at swords. The tables and chairs had been cleared out of the hall after the meal, and her two younger brothers raced up and down the room on the elegant Baramundi rug, waving their wooden blades at one another, occasionally stopping long enough to exchange a few glancing strokes. Father and Mother sat, uncharacteristically, on the steps just above her, Father’s arm casually draped around Mother’s shoulders in a show of affection never witnessed by the rest of the world. At the far end of the steps, below and to the right of Rafella, sat the wet nurse with baby Reice. There was no one else. The other members of the Court had been dismissed after the meal and the initial presentation of gifts. It was considered … unusual, and there were sure to be whispers about it among the noble wives for weeks to come, but Mother had allowed it without hesitation.

For that, Rafella was grateful. This was, truly, as she’d wanted it. It was her first Binding Day, the first of three. She was to be Queen one day.

She turned now to her parents. “This has been a perfect day,” she said to them, her smile radiant, a band of sunlight falling across her auburn hair and seemingly setting it aflame. “Thank you.”

“It has been perfect, or near enough as to make no difference,” her father said in his smooth, even baritone. His gray eyes were bright with contentment as he leaned over and gently kissed the top of his wife’s head. “We DarClamants know how to throw a party, don’t we, love?”

“That we do, my dear,” her mother said, reaching up without looking to idly scratch at Father’s slightly-unkempt beard. The beard was starting to get more gray in it, Rafella noticed.

[Odd. She didn’t remember noticing that.]

“Have you enjoyed your first Binding Day, Rafella?” Mother asked her now, and she realized she’d been staring at her father’s beard distractedly. She looked to her mother, but she couldn’t see her face because of the way the sunlight was falling through the window in the east wall. Her mother was backlit, the sun streaming all round her head, and the auburn hair from whence Rafella’s own locks came were haloed by a corona of light. So much so that Mother’s face was cast entirely in shadow.

“Yes, Mother,” she answered, squinting, trying to see past the glare. “Thank you for letting me do this. I wanted there to be some time for just the family.”

“Of course, dear. A Princess should be allowed to celebrate her Day in some semblance of privacy.

“Though you won’t be Queen for long, I fear.”

Rafella nearly stopped breathing. Had she just heard Mother correctly?

[No. Mother never said that.]

“Mother,” Rafella said slowly, climbing up a step. “I can’t see you. Could you come out of the light?”

“Out of the light!” Granil called from halfway down the Hall, in between parrying blows from Stepan’s wooden sword. “No light here, sister!”

“No light here, sister!” Stepan parroted, as he was wont to do.

Rafella spun on her heel. “Shut it, Granil!”

“Language, Rafella,” her father cautioned from behind her. “A Queen does not use such words, even in private.”

“Even in the dark,” her mother chimed in.

A cold dread was forming in Rafella’s belly, and she suddenly wanted nothing more than to leave Monir and go back to her rooms. Things had gotten strange suddenly, and she didn’t know why. She did know that she didn’t like it.

[She also knew that it didn’t happen this way.]

“Look at me, Rafella.” Mother, from behind her still.

It was the last thing she wanted to do now, and she had no idea why. “I’m watching the boys.”

“The boys can wait. Look at me.”

Rafella shook her head.

“Do not make me say it again, Rafella. I am you Mother, and your Queen.”

There was an ominous tone creeping into Mother’s voice, a distance that she’d never heard before and was beginning to truly frighten her. “I want to go to my rooms now,” she said, hating the petulant sound of her own voice and powerless to stop it. She was afraid, she didn’t want to be here anymore, and she most certainly did not want to look at her mother.

“Rafella Doann, do as your mother says,” Father intoned. His voice had dropped half an octave, the tone that which he used when attempting to strike the fear of the God into a subject. “The Voice of Doom”, he called it.

He rarely used it on her.

“I can’t, Papa,” she said, and to her horror realized she was starting to cry. “I’m scared.”

“We’re all scared, my daughter,” her mother answered, and Rafella heard her stand and come down the steps until she was standing right beside her. “It is natural, to be afraid of the dark. Look at me.”

“Please don’t make me,” she said in a tiny voice. She suddenly felt cold, and noticed that all the sunlight had somehow been leeched from the room. Rafella squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to deny the fear that was gripping her. “Please, Mama. Please don’t make me. It’s not supposed to be this way, it doesn’t happen this way, please, Mama. It doesn’t happen this way.”

“Of course it does, Rafella,” she heard her mother say, her voice gone steely and hard, not the soft, rich contralto that Rafella knew. Roughly, she felt her mother grip her chin and physically turn Rafella’s head to face her. Then, against her will, she felt her eyelids begin to part.

“Mama, please, don’t!” Rafella screamed, fighting and failing to keep her eyes closed. “It doesn’t happen this way!

It was no use. Her eyes were open. And the dread she’d felt in the pit of her belly was nothing compared to the utter terror seizing her now.

Her mother’s face was gone. Where there should have been deep, green, almond-shaped eyes and aquiline features and smile that made Rafella feel as if she were the only girl in all the world, now was nothing. Black emptiness, perfectly, obscenely framed by her mother’s auburn tresses. And from within this void came her mother’s voice again. Rafella thought she could hear a cold, dead smile in that voice.

“Of course it happens this way, my daughter,” the thing that was her mother said. “This is what happens in the dark.”

Without warning, the thing that was her mother and was not her mother grabbed a handful of Rafella’s hair in its free hand and yanked. Sickeningly, she heard the locks rip free from her scalp, but this was immediately drowned out by the howling pain in her head. Rafella let out an involuntary, wordless cry, and began to sink to her knees, only to find herself propped up by the hand of her mother/not-mother under her chin.

Mother…” Rafella croaked.

This is what happens in the dark,” her mother/not-mother repeated coldly, and with sudden, demon strength, the thing lifted Rafella off the ground by her chin and brought her close to the gaping maw was its face. A deep, terrible cold washed over Rafella in waves.

“And the dark is what happens to us all, my dear.”

Rafella screamed --

(To be continued...)

The Root and the Way copyright © 2005 by JP Brassard. You may use any part of this text freely, so long as you do not use it in a commercial enterprise, and do not intend to rip me off.

1 comment:

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