Novel: Scarlett's Garden by Shea Ryhai (c) 2010
Prologue: Waking Nightmare
A small fire crackled and sparked in the darkness, smoke rising up into the dimly lit late summer sky. The crescent moon hid itself playfully behind gray and black clouds, offering little light to those who walked about in the darkness below.
Celeste knelt weeping and shaking, her hands tied painfully behind her back, a blindfold damped by her tears knotted through her disheveled red hair. Her knees ached against the hard but damp grass below, she was in a field but she didn't know where. The smoke chocked her senses as she was dragged closer to the fire and dropped onto her face. Her tormentors laughed in dark humor, one of them gripped a fist full of hair to help her back onto her knees. She tried to calm her breathing, desperate to hear, becoming slowly aware of the sound of the fire moving as they picked up lit logs and came closer to her.
"No," she begged, pleading even as she tried to crawl away on her knees. "Please let me go." The flames came close and she shrank away with a small scream. They enjoyed her tears and her cries, she knew this but fear gripped her to tight. So she became their toy, desperately flinging herself from side to side as the heat of the fire came closer. She moved to soon into another and it caught the sleeve of her dresses burning through it hungrily to scorch her skin. She dropped down on her side chocking back the pain and tears as she smothered it out in the damp earth.
Summer rain cooled her check as she lay their sobbing, her breathing to rapid it was drowned out only by the pounding of her heart in her ears.
How many girls had gone missing that summer? She had heard the rumors in town as she sold her summer garlands, made from the wild flowers she collect in the fields close to home. Eight, or was it more? And now she would join the missing, she tried not to cry again as the faces of her parents and her younger sister flashed into her mind.
She eventually stopped moving all together laying still as if hoping they would think her dead. A boot to her gut was punishment for ruining their fun. She threw up promptly, they had forced some kind of alcohol down her throat, she could also smell it on their breath whenever they came close to whisper promises of pain and abuse. The mingled scent of the fire, smoke, ale, sweat, and the contents of her stomach made regaining her breath even more laborious.
But it didn't drown out the pungent smell of roses that appeared with the sudden silence that quickly surrounded her. She knew this smell, but from where? A spark of hope ignited weakly within as the uneasy silence continued. Then came the cold sharp sound of a blade being drawn from its sheath. Celeste stiffened, all her fear returning, and flinched as the cool metal bit her heated skin under her throat grazing her neck and leaving a thin red line in its wake. Her heart was hammering so loudly she almost didn't hear him speak.
"I grow tired of this game, this prey isn't even worthy of our attention." The sword moved down a few inches, leaving a paper cut trail on her skin before it moved away. Sweat moved down her face and neck into the cut, the sharp pain seemed to pull her mind back from the bottomless despair she was facing. She tried to focus on that voice and the others around her.
"My Prince the summer is nearly over, soon you will have the prey you seek," came another voice, with the same aristocratic accent.
Prince?! Celeste's heart stopped. The smell, that second voice? The polite gentleman from earlier that day who had inquired where she had found her wild violets. And the other...he was royalty? She accepted her death bitterly, they would never let her live after hearing this.
"Perhaps this one might entertain you more than you think," continued the second gentleman, his tone confident. The shouting and laughter emerged again followed by a muffled scream from another girl. Bright lights seemed to appear all around Celeste, a revving engine easily helped her identify them as headlights. What was happening? She was not alone, she could hear the other girl's angry and fearful protests as she was brought closer. Celeste swallowed, she had never heard of more than one girl going missing in the same week, perhaps this was not the evil she feared.
The blindfold was removed suddenly from her eyes only to be thrust roughly down her throat, she fought against them feebly her eyes moving widely from one face to the next. But they all wore masks, horrible painted masks that took on the resemblance of animals.
The monkey and crow were dragging the other girl closer. She was of low birth like Celeste but better dressed, under different circumstance Celeste would have not even tried speaking to her. Now she could only shout muffled protests against the gag that filled her mouth with the taste of her own sweat.
"My date is a little shy," cooed the bull, the gentleman from earlier. He moved towards the other girl brushing aside the pale blonde hair from her damp face. The lion cleared his throat impatiently. Celeste's gaze focused in on him, his garments were the same as the other gentleman's, an exact match almost. But his mask that glittered with gold, and the way the others watched him respectfully, almost fearfully only confirmed her fears. "Patience," the bull assured. The other girl was blindfolded but not bound, he gripped her arm strong enough to make her wince in pain as he guided her towards Celeste.
"My dear Lucy," he spoke gently, almost loving but the girl was too afraid to be soothed. "It pains me to see you this way," he moved as if to kiss her but she felt him and jerked away, he stroked her face instead as if soothing an impatient child. "But as I told you before, I can be most gracious." He turned and signaled to someone behind him, a masked rooster emerged carrying a sword. Even from a distance it was familiar to Celeste, the average blade of a Calvary rider. The bull took it and continued speaking to Lucy. "You see my dear, you are part of a very important game, one we nobles are quite good at, but you can be one of the lucky ones." He laughed a little while placing the blade in her hand. "You'll be our Lucky Lucy, how does that sound?" Lucy tried to pull away, Celeste wasn't sure if she was trying to use the sword or drop it, either way the bull's strong grip kept the sword and Lucy in place.
A Game? Celeste could feel herself shaking as she watched Lucy and the blade come closer. This was more than just a game, and she was fairly certain she wouldn't survive it.
"You see Lucy there is another girl here with us. She isn't as beautiful as you my dear, one of the other nobles brought her here tonight," the bull stopped a few feet away from Celeste, passing his gaze over her in a look of bored discontentment. Celeste lowered her eyes that were already tearing up in fear, it seemed so strange that this insult could still hurt even though she was about to die. "When I give you the order you will use this sword to kill her and free her from her pain Lucy."
"No..stop this. I'm not killing anyone," Lucy protested her voice shaking. Bull shushed her and pushed her down on her knees before kneeling beside her.
"Listen, listen to me first," he continued his voice more harsh now as he gripped Lucy's neck silencing her protests as she gasped in pain. "If you do not kill her you will both die tonight." Lucy began to cry, her free hand trying to release his grip on her neck as she struggled to still fight against him. Celeste felt the last of her strength fading and she wobbled almost falling, but a hand gripped her shoulders tightly holding her in place. She didn't even look to see who it was, just stared at the smothered summer field grass and a passing black beetle that quickly disappeared into the blackness.
"If you do as we ask we will let you go Lucy, we will even take you back to your little town." Lucy still shook her head in protest, the blindfold now a brighter color of red as she continued to cry quietly. "We won't even remove the blindfold, so you won't have to see her," bull added as if this would comfort either of them. Celeste wanted to run, to crawl away like the beetle, she wished widely that god would turn her into one so she could escape this madness, but the hands that held her only tightened.
"I'm going to count to nine. If you haven't killed her by the time I reach ten you will be dead as well," he leaned in to kiss Lucy's cheek. "And we will pay your little sister Annie a long visit."
"No, please don't," Lucy sobbed, her composure breaking as he raised both of their hands around the hilt of the blade.
"One," he began mercilessly as the masked shadows around them moved closer eager to see the outcome of this game.
"Two." Lucy shook her head again, clearly at war inside even as she struggled against his hand that held hers around the weapon.
"Three." Celeste closed her eyes, tried not to picture her mother's face when they discovered her missing. Instead she thought of the summer garlands she had spent all summer collecting for this week to celebrate the Queen's birthday.
"Four." Picking flowers was so peaceful. Standing alone in a field far away from everyone and everything.
"Five." Why had she been born so ordinary, she had struggled all her life trying to be pretty and skinny like the ladies of nobility. If only she had been born different maybe Lucy would be in her place instead. Then again if she had been uglier, maybe she wouldn't be here at all. She laughed inwardly at her fate.
"Six." Celeste started to cry again. Or was it Lucy, her mind seemed to jumbled up in thoughts and fear. She didn't even see the bull finally let go of Lucy's hand holding the sword.
"Seven." Of course Lucy was more beautiful. That slender image similar to the statues of goddesses in town, golden hair and a pale complexion. For a moment Celeste hated her for being beautiful. Resented their roles in this game. Clearly Lucy had chosen to come even if she hadn't know the outcome. Hadn't the bull called her his 'date'.
"Eight." No thoughts came, just an empty nothingness that filled Celeste's mind as she drew in a shaking breath.
"Nine." Her heart continued to pound as time stretched out, the fire crackled close but did not remove the cold grip that held Celeste. Slowly the bull's lips moved to form the next number. The flashed started Celeste from her daze as the blade cut easily through her modest blue dress, entering just below her heart.
"I'm so sorry," Lucy sobbed dropping the blade and burying her hands into her stomach. Celeste weakly raised her head, she wanted to speak, to tell this girl it really wasn't her fault, but her voice was gone. Instead she slowly fell to her side, no longer hindered by those cruel hands, the cool grass welcomed her once again and like the beetle she finally escaped into the blackness.
"I didn't think she would do it," murmured the Lion in the silence. The bull stood walking away from his toys his stride relaxed as he joined the lion.
"Humans will do anything to survive my Prince," he explained simply sliding his hands into his trousers and locking eyes with his companion.
"Another one of your lessons Duke?" the lion asked his tone amused.
"One of life's many lessons my Prince, and it is better this way after all don't you think. There is really no need to dirty the hands of our future King." Bull signaled to the monkey and crow who dragged Lucy back towards the waiting car. The lion walked over to Celeste, his eyes hidden by the shadows of his mask in the firelight as he reached down to pulled the sword from her body.
"Give my complements to your date, it was quite entertaining," the Prince ordered handing the sword to the Duke before walking off to his waiting car.
"As you wish my Prince," the bull bowed respectfully, waiting until the Prince was a safe distance away before turning and walking quickly to the other car.
They dropped her off as promised at the out skirts of her home town just as day was breaking. Bull placed the bloody sword in her hand after they removed the blindfold, and gave his last instructions.
"Tell no one of this or you will be hanged for murder as you rightfully deserve. Keep this sword under your bed as a reminder, we will be watching you and your dear family."
Lucy stumbled down the street, her face numb with the overflowing cold emotions that filled her. She didn't look down at the sword but felt its presence the long walk home. Listless feet guided her forward, she wasn't even aware of the many flower garlands that decorated the homes she passed, celebrating the birth of royalty.
The silk red ribbon that had once been her blindfold now fluttered around her neck in the wind. The sun rose slowly as rain clouds moved in, summer was ending and the coldness of fall was on its way.
* * * *
The Queen knew well she had married a monster. Even more disastrous was that his passion for blood and violence had passed along to their elder son Erick. Their second born son, William, was a lunatic; yet another trait from his father's side of the family. She took solace in her third son, Edmund, who was blessed with both her keen mind and sense of honor. Not that she could still claim honor, her own hands had been bloodied in her many attempts to see to it that Edmund, and not her other monsters, would take the throne. For the moment William had been privately locked away for his own safety, but Erick was constantly at her heals for what he viewed as a betrayal to their bloodline.
Recently the King had discovered her intentions through his spies, and worse yet had revealed her plans to her older sons. It was not the first morning she had awoken to find a woman's hand placed on a platter at her bedroom table, a letter wrapped in red ribbon attached to it.
Just another reminder of the nightmares she had brought into this world. She no longer took refuge in any religion, any god who might have once smiled on her would turn away now. If the devil was human, then she was his unwilling mother, and what was worse she couldn't raise a hand against him. If only the doctor's hadn't saved Erick when the cord had almost chocked him at birth. If only she had poisoned William instead of locking him away like another secret.
She sat before the vanity mirror brushing through her dark hair, her face emotionless as one of the servants quietly removed the limb. Her maids gathered around her in silence, five women she trusted with the secrets of her heart. One of them offered the bloody letter but she waved it away, her mind in turmoil. Edmund would be starting school soon enough, back among the sons and daughters of the hungry nobility who would do anything to gain the pleasure of their king, even if it meant selling their souls. That meant he would be leaving the safety of the mansion she had filled with people loyal to herself and his future. She feared now more than ever that his brothers would act against him in an attempt to stop her ambitions. The hand holding the brush shook slightly as she slowly lowered it. One of her maids moved forward to kneel beside her, taking the shaking hand and kissing the ring that rested there.
"My Queen, please do not hesitate any longer. We but wait for your command, even if you will not act against your blood, at least let us move forward with the protection of our beloved Edmund," the maid spoke passionately bowing down at the level of the queen's foot aware that she had over stepped her place.
"We can little afford to sit back and do nothing. You are right," the Queen conceded laying her hand on the maids braided brown hair. "I will not yield Edmund, who is most precious to me, to the corrupted offspring of the devil himself. We must make haste, or we will lose him and the only hope this kingdom holds." Slowly she opened one of the vanity draws, drawing from it her royal seal. "Use this for any means to provide my son, Edmund's, safety." The maid accepted it rising and bowing again.
"In the name of the queen," the maid murmured before leaving followed by two of the remaining maids.