Queens Never Die

Chapter One

 

“Breathe, Ceska.”

My mother was unable to hide the fear in her voice and it caused dread to swell in my chest.

The darkness had been our shelter, the moonlight our guidance, yet here I felt hunted. In this enclosed place where my lungs rejected the dust soaked air, I waited.

Only her eyes were visible now, through the tiny space that would soon be filled by the last stone. The green of her iris dull in the light of the candle she asked me to hold.

The flame trembled, casting creeping shadows across the dirt of the undercroft, the ghosts of firelight shivering as they stretched over the makeshift wall my mother had constructed. Her hands were made for fire, not ash. They were made to comfort me, not to conceal me behind stone in a place that smelled like a forgotten forest; the earth dry, the roots rotting, their search for water failed.

Our own search for sanctuary led us to this holy place. A small chapel surrounded by the graves of those worthy of burial, unlike the unworthy who would be buried in the remnants of fire. We were the unworthy, but we had evaded our fate yet.

“Do not trust silence, silence means danger,” my mother whispered. Her hand reaching through the gap towards me. I took hers in my own and felt the coarse, damp skin of her palm.

“Speak for no one.”

“Where will you hide?”

“Above, in the attics.”

I nodded my head, my hair sticky against sweat. I opened my mouth to speak, to say the words we’d always say before we parted under threat.

“I’ll see you again.”

This was wrong. I knew the rules, we were to submit to the queen before risk of death.

“The queen’s oath?” I asked desperately. My mother had loosened her grip on my hand and quickly I scrambled for her wrist.

“There is no time, Ceska.”

“We have to!” If I hadn’t known the danger that was approaching I would have shrieked the words, but instead my insistence was a whisper.

Her arm was soon pulled free and my fingers grazed the stone of the wall that she had built up beside me.

“Silence,” she said once more, before the last stone was fitted in place.

She retreated from my hiding place and I listened as she rushed up the stairs. I waited to hear her flee further upwards and into the attic but the sound of her footsteps ceased.

Above me, I could see cracks between the wooden floorboards, but even on my tiptoes I failed to reach them. No light slipped through from the room where a large fire would have once been lit.

It seemed as empty as my holding place.

I waited for some time longer, my head craned upwards for any glimpse of movement.

Then I saw it. It had to be my mother, her feet moving lightly across the creaking floorboards. She rushed to one side of the room and I listened as the cupboard doors were pulled open. Quickly, she moved to where the fireplace stood and a clattering noise soon reached my ears. A sudden spark of light appeared, but just as suddenly it was gone.

Somewhere in the distance I could hear the leaves that covered the graveyard floor being shifted by heavy thuds. I imagined them being torn up beneath hooves and buckled boots, but I could not conjure the faces of those who were coming for us.

Hearing that she was still close made breathing even more difficult, the air already clogging my throat. I should have felt calmer knowing that she was there, but that calmness was buried beneath my fear upon the same knowledge.

I sank back down to the cold stone floor and made myself believe that it was her I was holding and not my knees against my chest.

The march of thudding feet grew louder with their approach. My mother’s footsteps quieted, and with them, the flame of the candle I held went out.

A hushed curse left my lips, believing that the shaking of my hands had caused its light to cease.

When I next looked up a new light was visible, and a heat that caused my brow to dampen further. Not so much time had passed for it to be the sun and the way that it appeared to flicker reminded me of my candle. As I realized this, the smell of smoke crept into the cellar.

I pushed my hand across my mouth and breathed through my fingers, their positioning shielding me from a small amount of dirt and smoke.

“Open the door!”

The voice that called was coarse, but it carried easily to the cellar and I knew that my mother heard it too. “Now, witch, before we tear it down.” It hissed like a snake and slithered around my mind as I imagined a serpent would my neck.

The earlier thudding seemed to grow louder again with the beating of a fist against the door. A final crash bore down upon the wood. They were inside.

Instinctively I pushed my back further against the dirt. In the sudden flood of light above I could see my own surroundings a little clearer, the stones beside me instead of darkness.

Voices that I hadn’t heard before were now echoing against the stone walls, chanting words that meant nothing to me, each syllable sounding to be spat not spoken.

“Brave enough to sit in wait of us but not enough courage to open the door.”

It was a male voice, the one that spoke above the rest. I knew with sudden terror that the only person he could be speaking to was my mother. Every part of me wanted to stand up and bang against the floor, to distract them so that she could flee. But, if she hadn’t yet, I had to believe she was planning something that would save us both. Her lie of the attic one of necessity.

“Where’s the child?”

I had listened to the crunching down of feet on the floorboards above me. I had wondered if they were in search of something, only now did I realize it was for me.

“She’s gone.”

It was the first my mother had spoken, her voice was low, but I could hear it above even the chanting that droned on tirelessly.

“There are bones in the fireplace, Joseph.” It was another voice that spoke, still male, but this man’s words silenced all.

I heard the now familiar sound of footsteps across the wooden boards, they moved so heavily I couldn’t help but flinch thinking the entire room would fall down. Instead, a gasp caught in my throat when I saw that it was the wall beside me that was beginning to crumble. The ash and stone that formed it cracking noisily.

“Whose bones are these?”

I recognized the voice to be the same that had been speaking to my mother. This man, Joseph, he knew nothing of us, yet his hatred was clear.

“Her bones.”

I gripped the flameless candle tighter and turned my ear towards the room above.

“‘Her’ means nothing to me. Give me a name.”

“Ceska.”

“Ceska?”

“The girl, Sir. The child we were supposed to find tonight.”

“You are a crone, woman? You’d take of your own daughter?”

Joseph’s words made no sense, my mother was no crone, she was no killer of our own kind, but from them the chanting began again. I became desperate to know what scene was unfolding above.

“Her eyes are not white, Sir. She is one of fire, and a trickster. She does not take the ailments of other sinners.”

I rose from my position, my legs aching as I stretched them. Through the cracks I could make out little more than moving shadows.

“Bind her.”

Joseph’s words were followed by a thud, and soon I was in darkness again, a large silhouette blocking all but a few streaks of light that still crept through.

“Where should we make the incision? Her wrist?”

My body drew in on itself, my shoulders hunching forward with the realization it was my mother that had hit the floor.

“Her throat.”

I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came from it; only the cry that emanated from my mother was heard.

“This isn’t happening, it isn’t real. She has escaped.” I fell back to the ground and pushed my hands against my ears, repeating this in half choked whispers.

My fingers gripped the sides of my head so roughly that when the first of the warm liquid began to drip on to them I didn’t notice how it matted my dark hair and seeped on to my hands. It wasn’t until it ran down my face, mingling with my tears, and spattered into my mouth that I realized what was falling upon me.

I leapt from where I sat and scurried until my back was against the wall. I wiped my hands down the pleats of my dress yet no matter how aggressively I did this I couldn’t escape the blood on my skin, nor the sensation that it was somehow slithering across my wrists, wrapping itself around one and then the other. I tore at them, my nails scratching deeply, but still the presence remained.

“Search the house.”

Joseph’s voice pounded through my ears, matching the desperate beating of my heart as I spat on the ground and clawed at my lips. I knew they may find me, yet I was more worried that something else already had.

The sound of flesh moved across the ground, slushing through the blood that still spilled down in front of me. It was only now that I became aware that the writhing across my wrists had ceased.

I shook violently, my hands pulled tightly across my stomach, an animalistic instinct to protect what I felt was most vulnerable.

I was aware that along with the movement inside my hiding place there was another sound close by. They had found their way into the cellar and I could hear them slapping their hands against the walls. Distant, until more quickly than I had anticipated, they were brushing against the wall that protected me.

“No, no…” I began to whisper to myself. I wanted to shield my ears again, I wanted to close my eyes even when I could see so little as it was.

Instead, I was soon straining to open them wider. In that dim light, a silhouette reared in front of me. A tail flicked to the left of its coiled body, its neck raised high until its two almond shaped white eyes were parallel with mine. The creature looked to be made of mist and it stared at me as I did it. Until, much more quickly than it had weaved itself through my wrists, it seemed to disappear into its own shadow along the already crumbling wall.

For a few seconds I caught my breath, before my attention was turned to what stood on the other side. The sound of their hands sweeping across the cold stone soon became that of scratching, and then knocking, until it felt as though it came from all around me.

“Have you found anything?” Joseph’s voice carried from the room above.

“No, nothing.”

I should have felt relief, but there was no time. Where the snake had moved across the wall slight cracks had begun to appear. I believed they would be more obvious to me than to those on the other side, their torches causing it to look like streaks of lightning sparking through stone, but I needed an escape.

The wall of dirt to my right was dry and pulled apart in giant clumps. I threw them behind me as I dug into it. The feeling of my nails being tugged from the tips of my fingers causing my stomach to turn further, but I tore away at the earth. The next clump of dirt came away far too easily, my hand reaching through to an empty space. Despite the heat of the place my body felt cold with the sudden shock, and I tried to quickly remove my hand, but another had taken hold of it before I could.

I could feel flesh, the stickiness of it, but it felt to be wrapped over bones that were about to burst forth from it. Here, in this sleeping place for the dead, my mind flooded with images of what I might have disturbed.

Without care of the crumbling wall behind me, I wanted to jump backwards and pull my hand free. Instead, another pushed through from the dirt and reached out towards me.

“Let go,” I whispered, more to myself than to any I thought might hear.

The hand that had failed to reach me disappeared back into the ground, and soon I was released. I shuffled backwards as a mound of dirt fell to the floor.

“Hurry, child,” it rasped through the roots and earth, “Your death will not be mine.”

The woman reached her hands into the gap and pulled down against the dirt until the hole was wide enough for me to crawl through.

My only other option being an attempt at escape through the crumbling wall, I lifted on to my tiptoes and pushed my hands through the hole. They were taken in the skeletal grip of the woman and as I kicked at the dirt to help push myself up she pulled until I tumbled through. More dirt fell with the effort it took for me to climb but I had no sooner glanced back than I was dragged forward.

Although the light provided by the torches had been dim, it had offered some comfort knowing that I could see. I now fled through darkness, my wrist in the hand of a stranger. The woman’s other hand I could hear being pushed across the soil to my right. No more than a minute must have passed before we came to a sudden stop. She released me and soon I could hear her scrambling for something in the soil. An almost inaudible click sounded and once again my hand was in hers.

I was pulled to the right and, expecting to run again, I found myself confused at another sudden stop and a second click. This time followed by the sound of a latch being placed down.

“The wall that concealed you will have all but crumbled soon. If they were around long enough to see it fall, they’ll soon be continuing their hunt down the tunnel. We go this way, they go that. Our path is older.”

Her voice was stern yet soothing, and the certainty after all that had unfolded so far that night, all the unknowing, calmed me.

“I am Ivy,” the woman spoke again. Perhaps under different circumstances I would have thought to ask, but although my heart slowed my mind raced.

“My mother…”

“She is dead,” Ivy replied, that same voice that comforted me moments before now harsh and uncaring.

No tears fell down my cheeks, but in my chest I felt heaviness, as though that is where they dwelt, the sorrow dripping from the slow beats of my heart.

“What will they do with her?”

Ivy took my hand, the bones of her fingers gripping more tightly for a brief moment. “They will burn her. They will make an example of her, as they would have you if she had not sent for me.”

“She knew she was going to die?”

“She knew they would not stop hunting you.”

We walked on in silence, my feet sinking down into an earth much damper than beneath the church.

Ahead, I could see the warm glow of torch light and my steps quickened along with Ivy’s. Through the lifting of darkness I began to make out the appearance of the woman who led me. Her hair appeared long, tangled but full, and swung near her hips. She was of slight frame, almost childlike, yet taller than me, and clothed in a variety of materials that draped down to different lengths.

“What ails you?”

“Ails me?” I replied dumbly, my eyes still straining to see what more of this woman I could.

“Yes, ails you.” Ivy stopped before an iron barred gate and reached into a pocket of her skirt. She pulled a key from it and inserted it into a padlock.

“Oh,” her meaning dawned on me and I felt my cheeks redden, “rain and thunder,” I said with some pride restored.

“A child of storms,” she said with interest, “and your mother?”

“Born of fire.”

A wave of her hand was Ivy’s small acknowledgement to this.

“What of you?” I asked in kind.

The padlock removed, Ivy pulled the gate towards us and stepped aside for me to enter. It was the first time she had turned to me, and with that I was finally able to see her face.

“The light bears your answer.”

The white of her iris was iridescent in the warm glow of the torches and the black of her pupil watched me keenly.

“No,” I whispered, taking a step back from her. “You’re a crone.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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