A boy, no older than five years old, ran happily along the beach. He was an inquisitive child, as they all are at that age.
"Mamma, look what I found." He held the sea-weathered bottle up as evidence.
His brown eyes rounded with curiosity. After all, he was pretending to be a pirate and he had just found treasure.
"Be careful, Cody, let me see that. You can't just pick up random objects that have washed up on the beach. Honey, show it to me," his mother urged.
She was a beautiful Spanish woman of barely twenty-five. She took the battered-looking bottle from her son and inspected the contents with caution.
Little Cody bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet, anxious to see what it contained. "What's inside, Mamma?"
His mother, who was just about ready to discard the bottle as litter, gasped in realization. She looked beyond the scuffed glass with keen intrigue.
"You've found a message in a bottle," she exclaimed. "Give me a second, I'm going to try to pull out the stopper."
The wax seal had set hard over the years, but she managed to prise away the obstruction using her nails. She twisted the cork stopper until it popped free.
"Read it, Mamma!" Cody squealed with excitement.
His mother used her slender fingers to pull the faded parchment from inside the bottle, then carefully uncurled it so that she could study the inked message.
"Here we go. It's a little faded but I'll try to read it," she told her impatient son.
Her brown eyes scanned back and forth across the slanted lettering, relieved that it was written in her native language.
"My name is Carina Perez. If you are reading this message, please send word to my Papa, Emilio Perez, from the village Balaeter. Tell him that I'm safe and well. Tell him not to worry about me, and tell him, please, please, please, do not try to find me. Tell Mama and Maria to be strong. I will love them always."
The young mother's expression tensed, realizing at once what this letter meant. Balaeter wasn't far from here. She knew that she had to do everything within her power to deliver this heartfelt message.
50 years earlier..............
"Maria! Carina! Don't wander too far ahead," Papa called out to us.
My long, dark curls billowed behind me as I raced my sister along the beach. The muscles in my legs burned as they flexed with each impact my bare feet made against the coarse shale. The dark, volcanic grains retained heat from the blistering sun, mimicking the sensation of running on hot coals.
Almeria rarely saw much rainfall within the year. Our small, fishing village was right along the outskirts, overshadowed by steep, rocky mountains and an active volcano. Desert terrain stretched for miles, and our natural water source came from deep wells that contained fossil water. Our surface rivers had run dry many years ago, and we had to stockpile our resources so that we could nourish the crops. Balaeter was all I had ever known. I was a fisherman's daughter, destined to become a fisherman's wife.
"I won!" Maria exclaimed, raising both her arms in triumph.
The Mediterranean breeze was warm, caressing my clammy skin with dry heat.
I finished four steps behind her, slumping forward to clutch my abdomen in defeat.
"That's not fair, your legs are longer than mine," I complained.
Her brown eyes sparkled with delight. "That's because I'm the eldest," she chorused, jovially.
As sisters, we were always very competitive. We played games together; we quarrelled with one another; sometimes quite frequently, but most importantly, we loved one another completely.
We were similar in looks; deemed beautiful by many. Despite Maria being a few inches taller, we shared similar features of our mother: caramel skin, high cheekbones, and soft womanly curves.
However, I was closer to my father. He often took me fishing with him on his boat. I was an enthusiastic child, keen to learn and as sharp as a whip he would say. I was resilient, resourceful, as well as able to keep a clear head in a time of crisis. Those were great advantages when you were out on a fishing boat, on the choppy waters.
"You could have let me win, considering today is my birthday," I grumbled like a sore loser.
Maria rolled her eyes with amusement. "I can't just let you win," she added emphasis on the word 'let'. "How would that inspire improvement?" She mentored.
She was right. I may be the youngest but that didn't mean that she could baby me forever. I had to beat her fair and square.
"Come on," she murmured, gently nudging my arm. "Let's collect some shells."
Our weekly trips to the beach often resulted in us collecting shells. We would gather them in the skirts of our cotton dresses, and walk the short distance home. Maria and I would wash them thoroughly, and then we would sit by the fire and craft them into necklaces. It was a skill that we both learned from our mother. Each Thursday, we would take our creations to the market, where we would sell them as souvenirs and trinkets.
I spotted a Calilla that was perfectly intact. I hurried over to where it was protruding from the shale and crouched low to retrieve it. The warm tide lapped languidly at my feet, soaking the hem of my dress.
"What's that you've found?" Maria asked, her eyes narrowing with curiosity.
I held the spikey, marbled shell up as evidence. "A hermit house," I joked, using the name we gave to those types of shells.
Maria and I giggled, chatting merrily while we collected the neighbouring shells. Papa rested his chin on Mamma's head as he embraced her from behind, both enjoying the view of the orange sun as it made its lazy descent into the glittering horizon. We only had an hour, maybe two, before we had to seek temporary refuge in the mountain caves. The end of summer was upon us, and it was customary for the women to spend tonight in the safety of the mountains. Mamma used to tell us stories about hunters who travelled from a far away, distant land. They would search the lands to the end of the earth, seeking out women to take. I didn't believe it in all honesty. There was never any proof in the old wives tales to hold any validity.
"I'll make you a wind chime as a wedding gift," I offered. "I expect people often forget about giving gifts for the garden," I mentioned, thinking how nice her future cottage would look with one of my creations hanging from the canopy.
My sister's failure to respond brought a frown to my face. "Maria?" I lifted my questioning gaze to hers as she raised to her feet.
"What is that?" Her voice held caution as she spoke. "It doesn't look like any of the fishing boats."
Instinctively, we turned our attention to where the fishing boats were all moored in the port, then glanced back out to the open sea. The breeze was calm, yet the foreign ship was slicing through the waters at an alarming speed.
"What a peculiar vessel?" I commented as the black hull and dark sails became clearer.
Our parents had noticed this too and were hurrying towards us. "Girls, come away quickly," Papa urged us to obey.
As it sailed past the setting sun like a ghostly silhouette, it cast a dark, ominous, shadow across the beach. The hairs along my arms raised, causing me to shudder.
"Papa, is it them?" Maria asked our worried father.
We witnessed the ship come to rest before the fishing port and saw hooded figures begin to lower the rowing boats from the side of the helm, down onto the water.
"Run!" Papa cried, after taking this as confirmation.
The four of us ran back to the village as fast as we could. We had taken today for granted, just like always. A foolish mistake that we were never likely to repeat again.
Our village was far from deserted, much to our dismay. Many of the local women relied on the assumption that the hunters only arrive during the night. I remembered that it had something to do with the end of summer moon, and that could be why the facts had become twisted over time. Nightfall may not hold any significance at all.
"The hunters are here!" Papa bellowed as we raced through the streets.
People poured from their dwellings, flooding the streets with mass panic and earth-shattering screams.
"Girls, quickly. We need to hurry home!" Papa instructed.
My father was a proud man; he was the provider and protector of our family, and right now, the defeated expression that had etched across his face was horrifying. This was a man that feared for the safety of his family. This was a man who was afraid that he would fail to fulfil his duty. This was a peaceful village; we were not equipped to defend ourselves in the event of an attack.
"We don't have much time," he hurried us. "Bring only food and water, leave the rest behind. Hurry now!" Papa ordered.
Mama sobbed while we ran, muttering in Spanish about demons and devils, "Demonio! Diablo! Estan aqui!"
We reached the cottage and darted inside, hurrying towards the pantry.
Maria grabbed a woven basket and we both began piling fruit, bread and smoked fish and cured meat into it. My heart was racing and my body was trembling. Maria stopped what she was doing and covered her hands over mine.
"It'll be fine, Carina, just breathe," she soothed.
My petrified gaze lifted to hers and saw reassurance blaze through her own fear. She managed a weak smile, one that couldn't quite reach her downturned eyes.
I gave a chaste nod. "I'm fine," I replied as if trying to convince myself.
The sound of the screaming intensified beyond the walls, startling us. I snatched in a sharp gasp as I braced myself against the spice shelves. Maria's eyes flared wide with terror.
A loud guttural roar reverberated around our ears and Maria spun around to face me, snatching my hand and pulling me out of the pantry.
I dropped the basket of food, hesitating to retrieve it. "Carina, leave it!" Maria whimpered.
She was right, I decided to leave it be and save myself instead. We both took to the stairs at a run.
Our mother ran from the kitchen, clambering behind us.
The door burst open with a sickening thud and rained splinters of wood over Papa. Pain crushed my heart, knowing that he had placed himself between the hunters and us.
"Hide," Mama begged.
She ushered us into her and Papa's room and began barricading the door with furniture.
Immediately, Maria and I began to help, desperate to keep whoever it was from entering.
Despair sliced through me, fearful that Pappa would be killed. "Papa," I whimpered, allowing the tears to fall.
Maria and Mama pulled back from the barricade, huddling either side of me.
"How did they get here so quickly? No ship could sail that fast," Maria's voice was a frightened whisper.
"Devils!" Mama spat, hatefully. "Unholy creatures with their dark magic!"
Mama's hand gestured the sign of the cross. She finished by kissing the rosary beads that she carried with her, everywhere.
Tremors rocked through my body, upon hearing the crashing sounds of splintering wood below us. My teeth chattered in my mouth, feeling as if my heart would burst free from my chest at any second.
"I don't have daughters, only sons!" Papa cried. "I don't want gold, I want you to leave!"
"He's telling them that he has no daughters, only sons," Maria whispered, trying desperately to keep the quiver from her voice. "It's true then. They only capture women, not men."
The argument continued to vibrate through the walls, shaking the foundations of the cottage.
"I scent females in this house. He's lying! One is worthy. The youngest. The other two have been spoiled," I heard a man growl in a deep raspy voice. "You're defying the will of the Goddess buy refusing to comply."
Mama held us close as she began to whisper, "Remember the story that I told you when you were little? They seek out women of childbearing age, no younger than sixteen. They only accept the purest of maidens. None that have ever laid with a man by choice would be chosen."
My sister turned her guilt-stricken gaze to our mother. "Pablo and I have been intimate, but what does it matter? We will be married in a matter of weeks."
Maria and Pablo had recently become engaged. They had loved one another from a young age and everyone knew that they would marry eventually. Intimacy amongst un-wed couples in our strict Catholic religion was prohibited. It was considered a sin. Maria had confided in me, and I had kept her secret. Were the hunters sent to serve me punishment? Today is my sixteenth birthday, they were here for me!
Mama exhaled an exhausted sigh. In any other circumstance, she would have reprimanded Maria, but our current situation had taken precedence over all else.
"It matters not. Pray that the door holds and that those savage beasts do not lay claim on your sister," she spoke solemnly.
It was the sound of my papa's pleading voice that held my nerves on a knife's edge. I recoiled from the barricaded doorway as the rumbling sound of boots filled the cottage. Without a moment to spare, I scampered across the room and crawled on my belly, in the space beneath my parent's bed.
The vibrations from the hunter's heavy footsteps seeped into my body as I lay with my cheek pressed to the floor. I had a sideways view of the room, too terrified to close my eyes.
"Please, no...I beg you...please...I'll do anything you ask...just spare my little Carina!" My papa begged, desperately.
A gulp forced its way down my dry throat as the first attempt to kick down the door was a success. Mama and Maria's shrieks lifted the heavens as the furniture hurtled across the room. They huddled together, backing against the wall as the hunter forced his way inside. I watched with petrified eyes as his leather-skin boots came to a stop, inches away from my face. My frail, shallow breath ghosted from my lips, lifting a few particles of dust.
My vision distorted with another fresh spill of tears. He inhaled, sucking in a deep intake of air that made Mama and Maria whimper. Neither of them allowed their eyes to betray my location. Although, by the devastating expressions upon their faces, my heart boomed with defeat, knowing full-well that he anticipated my hiding place. The tear that spilt from my eye landed on the floor with the faintest splat, and it was enough to seal my fate.
My pulse echoed through my eardrums and I was sure my pounding heart could be heard against the wood.
Just when I thought I couldn't hold my breath any longer, a gloved hand plunged towards me, pulling me out by my thin, cotton dress.
"No!" My scream tore its way through my throat, my nails scratching shallow grooves in the beeswaxed wood.
The hunter held me up so that my feet dangled an inch from the floor. I could scarcely make out the strange, analysing eyes that observed me from beneath his dark hood. His arm never once faltered, as if I weighed nothing at all.
"There you are, Princess. You cannot hide from us, little one. We followed your scent all the way from the shore. It is what led us here," he spoke in a strange, exotic accent.
Beneath his long, black cloak, his lower half was covered with animal skins that stopped half-way down his bare, muscular thighs, and a dark-blue sash covered his bare chest. I was in the company of a giant, fierce, powerful and deadly. His shovel-sized hands could easily snap me like a twig if he wanted to.
"Let her go!" Maria raged.
My mother and sister raced to my aid, but their attempt to free me from my captor proved futile. He didn't so much as flinch as their tiny fists pounded against his gargantuan torso. Screams ravaged my throat as I desperately fought to free myself. Then out of my peripheral vision, I could see more hunters entering the room.
Mama's hysterical cries pierced the air, begging and screaming for them to not take her baby. "Por favor no mi bebe!" She sobbed after all else had failed.
We reached for each other, both extending an arm with splayed fingers, but only managing to graze the other's skin.
"No!" Maria screamed as she was restrained back. Her body fell limp in the arms of the savage stranger.
"Mama!" I wailed an agonizing plea, upon witnessing one of the men drag my mother from the room.
My feet touched the ground and I surged forward in an attempt to run. Pain shot through my wrist as my captor seized me in an iron hold. His almighty roar blanched me rigid, almost stopping my heart from beating. The hood slipped back from his face, allowing me a glimpse of the creature beneath.
Fear shackled me to the spot, robbing my ability to scream. The sound of footsteps grew closer, and someone restrained me from behind. A foul-smelling rag was then clamped over my airways, leaving me with no choice but to inhale the pungent chemicals.
Darkness snatched me into the abyss, taking me to a place where even the anguished cries of my loved ones, and those haunting yellow eyes could not follow.