Chapter 2: Behind the Veil
Ephraim awoke to a warmth he’d never experienced before. The smell of upturned earth mixed with the sweet aroma that could only have come from newly-budding flowers. As he opened his eyes, Ephraim heard birds chirping and felt a sudden breeze cool his face. He was not in his bed, nor his private chambers. In fact, he wasn’t indoors at all; he was lying underneath a tree! The warmth he’d felt emanated from a ray of sunlight cutting through the branches.
“Ah, you’re awake,” came a voice so pleasantly melodious that it nearly lulled Ephraim back asleep. However, this voice was an unfamiliar one. That alone made the prince immediately shoot up and reach for his scabbard, which was not there.
“No need to panic, child. I mean you no harm.” The voice seemed oddly jovial, as if amused by the prince’s alarm.
“Where are you?” he said. Try as he might, Ephraim could not locate the stranger. His brow hardened, and the edges of his face fell in a frown.
“Why, right here.” This time the voice came from behind him. Ephraim turned quickly around, but what he saw made him stagger backwards more in awe than fear. The stranger was a very tall woman—at least two heads above Ephraim—dressed in a green gown that shone like an emerald even in the shade. Her eyes were of similar color, but her hair was a deep red and flowed past her shoulders. Crowning her head were the antlers of a mighty stag, further raising her already intimidating stature. Yet, her features appeared young, and as she smiled her cheeks and skin looked as rosy and delicate as a peach.
“W-Who are you?” Ephraim asked as firmly as he could, despite the way the woman’s smile put him at ease. The woman laughed softly, then grasped the edges of her gown in a curtsey.
“I am called Adelinda,” she said, with a voice that surpassed the birdsong in melody. “And I believe you are Ephraim.” The prince’s suspicions melted away; he suddenly felt as though he’d known this Adelinda, or at least her voice, all of his life.
“Yes, that is correct,” Ephraim said. Another ray of sunlight passed through the branches just as Adelinda gave another warm grin, and her hair caught the light so that it glowed.
“Come, I’ve much to show you,” she said, each syllable like the verse of a song. “And we can’t keep him waiting.”
“We can’t keep who waiting?” At this moment, Ephraim thought he heard a faint whimpering in the distance. As he turned to see what it was, the whimpers grew in intensity.
“Ah! What’s the meaning of this, Adelinda?”
Adelinda was gone. The whimpers became panicked cries, so loud that Ephraim fell to his knees and had to cover his ears. Just as soon as he thought he could no longer bear it, the cries ceased entirely.
“Adelinda! Where have you gone?” Ephraim cried out. No answer. Irritated, Ephraim stood back to his feet, only to pause with great astonishment. A path, which he’d either ignored or simply hadn’t been there before, loomed like an agape maw. The path was strewn with all sorts of thorns and briars, while hosting a myriad of dead branches bent like a series of arches. It reeked of death, making every sensible muscle in the prince’s body tense with foreboding.
Ephraim peered down the path with great caution, and for the first time in his life wished he was back in his private chambers. True, they were a prison into which light could never intrude, but never had Ephraim felt such an instinctive sense of fear; never had he wanted anything more than his current and extreme desire to not walk forward. Yet, he could not tear his gaze from the path’s vicious maw. Its long, endless road pulled him forward even as its eerie atmosphere drove him backwards. Soon enough, he’d stridden down the path until it led him, thankfully, into a lush, green wood.
Suddenly, the loud cries returned in force. But this time, though his ears burned and his vision blurred, Ephraim could discern the direction from which they came: behind the brush to his left. He passed through the vegetation at once, which led him to a clearing where the wood’s canopy opened up completely. There, in the middle of the clearing, knelt Adelinda. Before her was what looked like a cradle woven out of grass. It was from this cradle that the cries erupted without end.
“I demand to know what’s going on!” Ephraim shouted. His brow had softened, but was now back in its irritated angle. Adelinda paid little attention to him, choosing instead to caress and coddle the child in the grass cradle. The cries died down once more, but Adelinda still did not look at Ephraim.
“It’s a shame really,” she said. “I had hoped to get to you before you became unclean.”
“What nonsense!” Ephraim roared, clenching his fists. “I am not—” Ephraim’s nostrils flared in disgust, and he felt a sticky substance on his hands. He looked down to see that a thick, dark liquid caked his fingers.
“It really is a shame.”
“Is this…blood? I tire of your games; you will tell me what’s going on, at once!”
The baby wailed so loudly that Ephraim felt he could no longer stand. The clearing whirled and swayed with dizzying frequency; the cradle and Adelinda drifted further and further away with every twist and turn. In another moment they, and even the clearing itself were gone entirely. In their place stood a single marble pillar surrounded by nothing but a black void. A figure was hunched against the pillar, crumpled in the odd contortions of death. But instead of being covered with a black cloak, its face was clearly visible, with features frozen in absolute terror. Ephraim gasped, just realizing he stood over the corpse with a bloodied shortsword in his hand.
“No…I-I was just defending myself! I’ve done nothing wrong!” The infant’s horrible cries returned, forcing Ephraim to cover his ears with both hands. “I’ve done nothing—wait…both hands? Both hands…”
Just like that, Ephraim awoke in his own bed. A single candle was lit at his bedside, and by its light he surveyed his surroundings: a dark space with no windows. With a sigh, Ephraim confirmed that he was indeed back in his private chambers. The prince then scrambled frantically to his feet, grabbed the candlestick, and rushed to the mirror mounted on the room’s corner wall.
The candlelight glanced off the mirror, so that Ephraim could see his reflection on its polished metal surface. Sure enough, his left sleeve was empty, tied into a knot where his left elbow would’ve been. He exhaled a deep breath, noticing he’d sweat through his garments.
“Just a dream,” he said.
As he found it nearly impossible to go back to sleep, Ephraim set about pacing his chambers by candlelight. He went around in circles in his bedroom, pausing occasionally to spy his face in the mirror. It was during one of these solemn pauses that the prince set down his candlestick, and lifted up the right side of his hair—revealing a small horn right above his ear.
‘It’s gotten bigger,’ he thought. A look of dismay came over Ephraim’s features before he stalked away, sans candlestick.
The prince paced restlessly through the darkness, eventually venturing into his bath and disrobing unconsciously. He’d always liked to sit in the marble tub when it was empty, especially since there would not be any servants scrubbing away at his extremities.
Ephraim sat with his lone arm hugging his knees, the stone cold and firm against his bare skin. Soon enough, he was off to the Realm of Dreams once more, but this time there would be no tall antlered women, nor horrid visions of slain assassins. Instead, the prince found himself engrossed in the very same dream which had always both confused and comforted him: he drifted through a familiarly formless, empty void, which nonetheless swirled with all sorts of colors that melded in dark, cold pulses. It was as if he were tossed adrift in a tumultuous sea made of starlight. He felt completely numb, save a constant feeling like he was falling, like something was dragging him beneath the luminous waves.
When next he awoke, it was to the sound of water pouring onto stone, and a feeling of wetness and warmth coating his feet. Candles, set on fixtures lining the walls lit the bath, so that an old woman dressed as a maidservant was clearly visible as she poured water from a large wooden tub.
“You’re early, Merrah,” Ephraim said. Of course she was. Who else among his servants had the pluck to not only wake the prince, but also prepare the bath with him already in it? He curled into an even tighter ball. Who else would’ve known to find him huddled here after a particularly awful night?
“’Course I am, your Highness” chuckled the old maid. “Only way to do things, ’far as I’m concerned.” Ephraim smiled at Merrah’s frankness as she continued to fill the bath. Merrah didn’t need to know what was bothering the prince. All she needed was to be here with him when he needed her most. After all, the starlight dream wasn’t the only thing Ephraim had known for as long as he could remember.
Ephraim stared at the bath’s marble bottom while Merrah continued to raise the water level, thinking that he would have preferred things to remain just as they were now. Just him and the stern, yet compassionate woman whose strong, yet gentle hands all-but raised him. Yet, he knew every time Merrah left the bath to get more heated water, she may return with additional help. Almost as soon as he thought this, three young manservants entered, each with his own torture device: one carried a wooden tub filled with a foamy, aromatic brew of herbs and other such things; the other a large brush and accompanying comb; the final, three towels wrapped about his arms.
“So it begins again,” Ephraim said, letting out a sigh. “Shall we, gentlemen?” The manservants took hold of Ephraim as soon he gave his permission. The first added most of his herbal concoction to the water, while the second took his large brush to Ephraim’s pale skin. Though the brush possessed rather soft bristles, the manservant wielding it lacked any semblance of gentility. All the areas of the prince’s body were scrubbed vigorously, except the nub below his left shoulder—which was treated as if it would break at the slightest touch—and his horns. Those, the servants scarcely seemed to notice.
When the prince was thoroughly scrubbed, the remainder of the cleansing liquid was first poured over, then combed through Ephraim’s hair. The third manservant handed two of his towels to the others, and the three set about drying the prince’s body almost as vigorously as they’d scrubbed it clean. With that, they departed as swiftly as they’d come. Merrah entered the bath soon after, trailing a group of two other maids, who carried various pieces of Ephraim’s outfit for the day: white linen undergarments, a tunic stained with a dark, nearly brown hue of magenta, and finally his crimson robes with golden trim.
“Now then, let’s get ya dressed,” Merrah said, rather cheerfully. “’Tis not every day you’re invited to the Temple.”
“Ugh. You’re lucky I’m in a good mood” Ephraim retorted. In truth, they both knew morning baths were about the last thing to put him in any sort of mood resembling a good one. Nevertheless, the prince resigned himself to Merrah’s will, as he always did. At least she possessed some measure of gentleness in her touch.
A newly dressed Ephraim walked down the hall to his bedchamber in an agitated manner. It was now time for his least favorite activity: the styling of his hair. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so very bad if the stylist weren’t so prudish concerning her profession. But as things were, she’d probably twist his snowy locks into another braid—which took far too long and hurt much too much to justify the haughty look.
Ephraim’s annoyed musing was interrupted by a sharp pain in his chest.
“No, not now!” It burned, so hot he was driven to his knees. The heat travelled up from his chest and gathered in his throat, growing greater and greater until Ephraim felt like he’d swallowed a ball of fire.
“Get the jar!” was all Ephraim could make out with the chaos working in his members. He felt someone leading him somewhere, but all he could see was a red haze. His other senses had become useless, as if scared into inaction by the intense pain gathering in his throat. The mass of heat continued to travel upwards, until it swelled so painfully that Ephraim began to cough up bile and blood. The coughs were so long, so guttural that even he heard them through the ringing in his ears. After a torturously long moment, Ephraim felt the heat enter, then leave his mouth in a hot, molten mass. He continued to cough terribly until someone patted him firmly on the back.
“That’s it, that’s it,” cooed Merrah’s soothing voice. Ephraim felt the old maid walk him somewhere, then lay him on a cushioned surface as gingerly as she could. It took no short amount of time for Ephraim to open his eyes slightly.
“Let me see it,” he said, his voice rasping and hoarse. Merrah briefly wore a look of rebuke on her wrinkled features. Nevertheless, she gave a stern look to a servant-boy, who held a jar swathed in a cloth. The boy quickly stepped forward and removed the top layer of cloth, revealing a glowing chunk of rock. Ephraim stared long and hard at the jar’s smoldering contents, then closed his eyes with a snarl.
“Put it with the rest,” he growled, slipping back into unconsciousness.