Chapter 2: The Cross
~ Four days later ~
The man in the carriage hopped down as a footman rushed to assist the Lady Mother and Lady Mihaela.
“Well, after an arduous journey, we have arrived!” the earl proclaimed as he loftily gazed around the village.
The passer-by’s gave him furtive glances as they hurried past, each with their head hung low. In the distance the sound of rushing water from a fall could be heard, but in the village not even a babe cried out. It was as quiet as the most uninhabited corner of the world so that if the family did not see it was a village with their own eyes they would not have believed it.
“I say, it is a rather grim place, is it not?” he observed huffily. Most of what the earl did was done huffily.
“Husband, let’s find the inn. It has been a tedious journey for all of us and I think we all could do with some rest.”
“Where do you think the castle is?” he continued, ignoring his wife, who he considered to be quite the nag, as usual.
“Does it matter at this moment?” the countess countered peevishly as only a lady could- her voice never raised, her tone never yielding any indication of her boiling disdain, but her haughty eyes imparting a world of seething criticism. Mihaela raised her head towards the sky as her parents parried words of sugar that were sharpened into daggers back and forth.
As she raised her head the wind brushed past her hair softly, carrying with it the delicious smell of freshly baked bread from a nearby bakery. Mihaela could not help but think that the one moment she had experienced of warmth in those soft winds was the only gentle thing the land around her had to offer, for it seemed to have a cruel shadow over it that touched every living thing, dragging out all the purity and kindness that had surely once managed to survive there. Life was drained from the land, of that there was no doubt. Not only was there an absence of any noise that was usually so normal for a village- dogs barking, children laughing- but there was also no color. Everything was dull, lackluster, as if someone had come and paint over it with thick layers of gray until every hidden blade of grass and every fortified heart dropped from the oppressiveness of it. The artist had been effective- nothing was left untarnished.
Mihaela came to from her dark musings as her mother approached.
“Mihaela, darling, your handkerchief. You mustn’t breathe in this miasma.”
“Yes, Mother,” Mihaela replied demurely as she delicately raised the handkerchief she kept on her person to her gracefully upturned nose.
“The air these poor put off is much too dangerous for ones such as ourselves to breathe.”
“I do think the land is much more toxic,” Mihaela softly rejoined, not appreciating her mother’s words, but her mother had already turned away, her attention drawn by what she considered to be a much more pressing matter.
“Whatever do you mean there is no inn?” Mihaela’s mother demanded as she marched towards the unfortunate footman who had been forced to deliver the upsetting news.
“I say, how is that possible?” the earl huffed.
“I’m terribly sorry, my lord and lady,” the footman said quickly as he bowed his head, as if he were somehow to blame for the minor inconvenience.
“We shall have to continue onto the castle tonight. It is a grievous discourtesy, to appear unannounced in such a fashion, but I am afraid circumstances render it unavoidable,” the countess sighed as she tugged her silky, tea green gloves into place.
“I am sorry, my lady, but I already requested a guide to the castle. Apparently there was a blizzard a few short days ago. The road to the castle is impassable.”
“Do you really mean to tell me we are stuck in this village for the night?” the countess demanded shrilly. It was a voice she had never before used and had never dreamed of using, yet the horror of residing in one of the village cottages for even a second proved too much for her delicate sensibilities. One of the maids that had accompanied the family on the long journey quickly placed an arm around the countess to support her as she swooned.
The footman wrung his hands. “I’m sorry to say it could be for more than a night, my lady.”
“This is unacceptable!” the earl insisted stubbornly as a look of horror overcame the face of the countess.
“Wherever will we sleep? In one of these shacks?” the countess moaned bitterly as she placed her face into her hands, as though if she blocked out everything it would all become untrue.
“I have secured lodging in what the villagers assure me is the most comfortable cottage.”
“Oh, good heavens!” the countess cried out weakly.
“You are absolutely certain that there is no way to the castle?” the earl persisted.
“Quite, my lord.”
The earl sighed hopelessly as he gazed off into the distance, as though he could spot a path to the castle nobody yet knew of.
“Very well, then. We have no choice other than to graciously accept whatever abode this village has to offer. But I want it seen to that it is properly cleaned first!”
“As you wish, my lord. I’ll see to it,” the footman replied, and Mihaela was impressed at how he retained his composure. Her mother, on the other hand, was anything but calm, still too distracted by what was nothing less than her worst nightmare come true.
“You cannot seriously think that I will spend even one second in one of these decrepit buildings! They are a grievance to simply behold,” the countess stiffly protested, suddenly able to collect herself enough to object to what was happening.
The earl bestowed his wife with a doting smile as he grasped her hand in his, leaning down to place a tender yet mocking kiss on a silken back.
“Come now, dear, you are finally receiving all that you deserve. Why do you spurn it?”
Leaving his wife momentarily speechless, though with sputter aplenty, the earl spun on his heel and strode off to see what there was in way of entertainment in the town, his portly belly jiggling along the way.
Two hours later (and many dusty attendants) the cottage was cleaned from top to bottom and made as comfortable as possible for the earl’s occupancy. It wasn’t terrible, as far as lodging went- it was a two story affair with light juniper wood walls and darker wood paneling. Inside was a stone fireplace where a fire crackled, sending warmth seeping throughout the well-furnished house. There was a parlor which contained a threadbare tapestry, remnant of times long past when knights and God roamed the lands freely. On the second floor were the bedrooms whose walls held the cherished memories of life; they had seen love, birth, stolen kisses, sacred bonds, moments of true weakness, and exposures of deepest strength. Each moment had left its mark on the very fabric of the house so they were etched in eternity, and there were many moments for those who cared to look... and for unwelcome intruders.
“Good heavens, there must be so much miasma here!” the countess griped as she frantically fanned her face. “Mihaela, do make sure you keep your handkerchief on you, I don’t want you breathing in too much of it.”
“Yes, Mother,” Mihaela murmured softly as struggled to find the strength to not give her mother a scathing retort.
Attendants flocked about the royal pair, offering them refreshments. Even though they weren’t back at their mansion they were still being attended to as though they were.
“My lady, may I escort you to a seat and give you a cool compress? You look as though you need to sit down for a moment,” one of the maids, who had seen many years under the earl’s employ, offered the countess.
“Yes, that would be agreeable,” the countess breathed airily as she allowed the maid to guide her towards a cushioned couch.
Mihaela gazed around the house appraisingly, taking in the high ceiling and plush rugs.
“Countess Mihaela, I could show yew to yer room, if that is to yer liking,” a woman, lined with the passage of time and with hair that of spun silver, offered. Quite along with her years she was still stacked like a bull. Mihaela immediately had the sense that the woman who stood before her, aged though she was, was no weakling.
“Please do,” Mihaela told the woman with a tiny yet radiant smile. It lit up her face, and for a moment graced her with an alluring serenity. As a plain looking girl she never had a claim to that, except for when she smiled; her inner beauty escaped her in those moments. That smile had often enraptured those around her and was perhaps her one escape from ordinary.
“Right this way then, m’ lady.”
“Of course,” Mihaela said graciously before following the woman up the stairs. She watched the woman’s quilted skirt sway as she walked up the steps. Her leather heeled boots that were as cracked as her peeked out at Mihaela as they walked.
“Your dress is very beautiful, though quite unusual. I wasn’t aware people still wore that style of dress. Everyone in this town wears clothes just like that. It’s quite...”
“Old-fashioned?” the woman replied with a wheezing, laughing cough.
“Well, yes,” Mihaela blushed, “but that isn’t to be taken as a bad thing.”
“Nobody ever leaves this town, an’ not many people come. We’re cut off from the outside world. We don’t really know how fashion has changed.”
“Oh, you can consider yourselves fortunate, then! The newest fashion requires woman not to breathe. Though it is peculiar that not many people pass through here. You’d think that this town would be ideally situated, given that places where one can rest and replenish supplies before continuing their grueling journey around the mountains are very infrequent. Strange, that...”
As Mihaela mused over such an oddity the woman gave out a frail gasp and stumbled before managing to grasp ahold of the stairway railing for support.
“My my, these stairs are- are getting too much fer the... these old bones,” she wheezed as she leaned against an aged wall, trying to catch her breath.
“Are you alright?” Mihaela asked as she stood uncertainly by, wringing her hands.
“Ju- just an old lady. Nothin’ to be consernin’ yerself with, now. Come on, yer room is just around the corner.”
Mihaela followed the woman obligingly. They came to a stop in front of a bare, wooden door in the middle of the hallway.
“This is yer room.”
The lady pushed open a door to reveal a mid-sized room. It had already been prepared by the servants that had journeyed with the earl’s family, and so was as comfy as could be hoped.
The white comforter that had hints of blue around the ruffled edges and yellow and orange birds sewn on had been freshly cleaned. There was a sturdy dresser in the corner that was made of the same walnut wood as the bed. It shone bright from the intense scrubbing it had received earlier that day. It had a middle chest with two towers rising up on either side that were topped with cream stone. On the dresser sat a crystal vase filled with beautiful purple flowers. The three windows in the room had been thrown open earlier to air out the room. They were now closed and shuttered against the dark that hovered right outside, and their light blue curtains were drawn tightly shut. It smelled faintly of lilacs and roses.
Mihaela wondered how she had gone from the grim gray of the world outside to a place so full of color and light it sent visions dancing before her eyes of sisters sharing secrets and laughs, and a happy family crowding around a robust baby newly born into the world. It was as if all the life that had once been in the village had fled to the tiny corner of the world she was now in.
Mihaela smiled as she looked around, taking everything in. “It’s quaint,” she quietly told the woman, not meaning for it to be condescending in any way. There was not an insincere bone in her body. She couldn’t help but think that the simplicity of this room was the only way people needed to live. Her fingers wandered to her cross as she thought of the vice she had lived her whole life; in the midst of immense wealth she had watched from safety as the world crumbled around her, surrendering itself to death and hell all over the petty affairs of man. She would have devoted herself to God if not for her parents; they always reminded her of her duty to her family, forcing Mihaela to place her relations on earth before her one true Father.
“I know it’s not what yer used to...”
“No, really. It’s all I’ve ever needed,” Mihaela assured the woman sweetly as she admired an elaborate piece of embroidery.
The woman looked at Mihaela skeptically. She may not have been around many royals in her life, but she was certain that wasn’t how they behaved.
“What is that yew have on yer neck?” the lady abruptly asked with a clarity Mihaela had yet to hear from her.
“Do- do you mean my cross?”
Mihaela stopped fidgeting with her necklace and held it up for the woman to see.
“Yes. I’ve only heard of ‘em. I was beginnin’ to think they were only a myth, like mermaids, or fair rulers,” the woman opined as she examined the cross closely, squinting her eyes to better see the minute details.
“You’ve never seen a cross?” Mihaela gasped in shock.
“How is that possible?”
The lady slowly released the cross, returning it gently to Mihaela’s chest and giving it a last pat before hesitantly withdrawing her hand. “I think you’ll find God has turned his eye from us- so we have turned our eyes from God.”
Mihaela’s heart broke. In this woman she saw a lost sheep, much as she herself had once been. Reaching out she grabbed the woman’s hand and held it close. “I know this war feels like it has broken us, but those times when God tests our will is just him providing us with the opportunity to prove the true strength of our faith. In so doing we secure our place in the heavenly kingdom alongside those we love.”
The woman looked at her quizzically upon that speech, her softened lips that pulled down into a frown only serving to add more wrinkles to her aged face. “War?”
At Mihaela’s puzzled expression the woman quickly collected herself. “Right, the war. Well- I’m afraid wars aren’t always so apparent.”
“Uh- uh, yes. I suppose not...” Mihaela mumbled as she wondered what form of dementia the woman was inflicted with.
The woman looked at her as though she were trying to decide something. That’s when she said it. The words that made Mihaela’s blood run cold.
“There is no God here.”
Startled, Mihaela slowly backed up. “What?”
“There is no God here. Yew’ll see. Yew, yer mother, yer father... all of ye will see soon enough.”
Mihaela’s face turned red and her breathing quickened as her distress rose. “I don’t want to hear this.”
She started for the door, but the woman grabbed her arm. Her nails pierced into Mihaela’s skin.
“Listen to my words while you can- faith will do ye no good here. He controls everything, and he has no soul.”
“Let me go!”
“He gave up the thing which shackled him to the laws of this world and has killed God!”
The old woman began to cackle maniacally as Mihaela jerked her arm from her iron grip and backed away slowly. She was transfixed by the vision before her. The woman’s head was thrown back, her eyes squeezed shut from the force of her laughter. Her mouth gaped wide as the blood-curdling sound kept pouring fourth. Mihaela could feel her blood run cold at the sight but didn’t want to take her eyes off of the woman for fear she would be attacked.
A maid, who had been on her way to check on Mihaela at her mother’s behest, heard the laughter and poked her head into the room. She saw the tears that had begun coursing down Mihaela’s face.
“Lady Mihaela, what is it? Is this woman bothering you? I can fetch someone to remove her.”
“No, please, take her yourself.”
The maid went up to the old woman and, grabbing her by the arm, began leading her from the room.
Even after the old woman had left the dreadful sound of her cackling rang in Mihaela’s ears, as though she were still there. Shaking, she raised her hands up and rubbed her head, trying to erase the grisly sound from her memory.
The maid came back to check on Mihaela after she had safely escorted the woman away.
“Are you alright, my lady?”
“Yes, I’m fine, just a little... disconcerted.”
Mihaela leaned closer to the maid. “She was a heretic- a deranged heretic. When she saw my cross she just became so...” Mihaela swallowed. “It doesn’t matter now. I just want her to stay away from me. If you know what’s best you will keep away from her as well.”
The maid, who had been with Mihaela for three years and was as comfortable with her mistress as a servant could be, placed a hand soothingly on her arm.
“It is alright, my lady. She is gone now, and the others and I will make sure she keeps a wide berth from you.”
Mihaela nodded her thanks before wiping away the tears that still hung like diamonds from her eyes.
Uncomfortable with the display of emotion from Mihaela, who was usually so reserved, the maid desperately searched for something to say. “I had almost forgotten; the Countess sent me to make sure you were breathing through your handkerchief, my lady.”
Mihaela gave a taciturn smile and whipped out her handkerchief obligingly. “If the Lady Mother requests it then I shall. I am bound by God to love and respect my parents, after all, as I do him.”
She said all of that with an indecipherable expression, but her words and tone were so sickly sweet as to be sardonic. She had never been forced to breathe through the handkerchief as often as she had that day, having only ever passed quickly through the poorer parts of town her mother deemed unsafe, and she chafed at the thought of using it. The maid turned to leave, but before she could go Mihaela cried out to her. In that moment, all she wanted was for someone to understand her.
“You know I don’t buy into all of this miasma foolishness?” she asked the maid almost pleadingly.
The maid gave Mihaela a tender smile as she considered how fortunate she was to retain a post that allowed her the chance to watch as Mihaela bloomed into such a gracious young woman. In that gentle smile Mihaela found everything she had sought- understanding, sympathy... forgiveness.
“I know you would never think so lowly of another, my lady. You are well above that. God may love all of his creations, but I should think you especially have done him proud with your pure heart.”
Mihaela blushed red at the commendation. She watched as the maid left and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of remorse. She had fooled everyone. Purity had no claim to a soul that held even a drop of poison, and though she managed to stow her sins away in the most hidden corner of her heart the touch of darkness still remained. It resided within her, buried deep inside but hanging onto the edge of the cage, waiting for that moment to escape. And inside it rose, and rose...
~ At the castle ~
“My lord, visitors have arrived in the town,” a woman, as beautiful as a setting sun with just as much radiance as one rising, curtsied deeply before a darkened man sitting beside an open window as she delivered the news. He turned his head and a raven lock of hair fell across his empty eyes, momentarily masking the startling blue. The movement brought his eyes into the glow cast by the sparse light of a nearby candle. They twinkled, and whether the twinkle was from the clash of fire and ice, or some unknown reservoir of happiness hidden deep inside can never be known.
“Is that so? So soon after the first one? How unusual. Do they appear to have any connection or interest in the man whose presence we so enjoyed before?”
“No, my lord- they are a royal family. They would have no affiliation with such a base deserter.”
“Wonderful. Send someone to collect them immediately. Have them sent over as soon as the pass is clear.”
“Shall we invite them to dinner?”
“Of course. We are not barbarians, that is only the polite thing to do. How many shall I be expecting?”
“Three, and plenty of servants.”
“How very grand,” he said smugly as a small, derisive smile crossed his face. “It is a pity, though, that our last guest had to be so uncivil and shatter the window. We had to get rid of him too quickly. I am afraid my appetite has been quite ruined now.”
“So does that mean...?”
He turned towards her, his eyes flashing with a new kind of light which was strangely piercing. It was a look that made even the tenacious woman before him shiver. “Prepare the castle.”