The Hunter's Daughter, Book 1: The Amulet of Spirits

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 5 (v.1) - Chapter Four: The Memorial

Submitted: October 06, 2010

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Submitted: October 06, 2010

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Chapter Four: The Memorial

It was nearing nightfall, and a cold breeze chased the dry leaves lying on the ground with a low whisper. Lord Fagan was dressed in a black suit, his unseeing gray eyes facing the darkening sky. Airlea held her breath in her chest, where it began to burn like a ball of fire, and groped blindly at the gleaming mahogany lid of the casket, lowering it over her father's body. When she could no longer see him, she finally released her breath, and heard it stutter out of her lips. Her eyes stung, but for some reason she couldn't weep.

As if to compensate for that, from behind her she could hear Ms Liker's broken sobs. She had returned that morning from her visit, and had taken the news badly. It didn't seem to matter how many times Airlea insisted that it wasn't her fault – she still blamed herself.

Except for Ms Liker's whimpers, and the incessant chirps of invisible cicadas that seemed to ignore what was taking place, the Fagan burying plot was completely silent. If Airlea hadn't known that Prince Fordon and his boy were there, she would have mistaken herself and her tutor to be alone. The prince and his boy stood at a respectful distance, out of her line of vision. It was Prince Fordon who had paid the best craftsman in Visca for the casket in which her father had been laid. Airlea couldn't understand why the prince would be so nice to her, but nonetheless she was grateful.

Not only did Prince Fordon organize her father's funeral, that afternoon he had also voiced a shocking proposal: He had asked Airlea to come with him and live at the palace. Airlea had been too surprised to reply, but Ms Liker had immediately stated her refusal.

"Airlea should stay here," she'd said, her eyes red and puffy from weeping, "This is her father's home. This is where she belongs."

"I'm aware of that," Prince Fordon had replied evenly. "However, I believe it would be better for her to live in the palace." He'd stopped for a brief moment, continuing just when Ms Liker's protest was already trembling on the tip of her tongue, "Temporarily. I'm not asking Airlea to leave this house forever. I know it must be important to her. But until she grows up…"

Just then, a piece had peeled off the ceiling and dropped to the floor with a short stream of dust. Prince Fordon and Ms Liker had both eyed it. That had put an end to the argument.

As for Airlea, the prospect of living in the palace was both frightening and exciting at the same time. Her main fear was living far away from her parents' graves. If she lived at the palace, she wouldn't be able to visit them every time she felt a need to. Prince Fordon had promised that whenever she wanted to, he would arrange a carriage to take her back to Fagan Manor to visit her parents. Although it wasn't a perfect plan, it had put Airlea a little more at ease.

As to what Doctor Curar had told her the day before, she refused to dwell on that any more. She had thought about it all through the night, and frankly, she just couldn't make herself believe that someone would ever want to hurt her father. He had been a good man. Everyone who knew him loved him and respected him. The same could be said about your mother, noted an insistent little voice. But Airlea pushed it aside and ignored the niggling feeling in her chest. She wouldn't think about it any longer. Prince Fordon might have informed Ms Liker of the news, but either way, none of them mentioned the circumstances of her father's death. It lurked like a heavy shadow in the back of their mind.

Standing by her father's casket, Airlea breathed in deeply again, savoring the flavor of the cold autumn air. Her throat was coarse. She swallowed. "All right," she said quietly, in a slightly raspy voice, sensing as her companions tensed. "I think I'm ready to leave now."

Ms Liker's sobs stopped all at once, and Airlea heard her sniff indignantly.

The servants that Prince Fordon had summoned from the palace, who were standing in a respectful half-circle a few feet away, came to life at his signal, each of them gripping a shovel. They moved forward as one, and when the first shovelful of earth spilled over the coffin, Airlea averted her eyes, and began to walk slowly to the dark manor house.

***

The gleaming royal carriage lurched over the uneven ground, and Airlea jerked awake. She peeled her cheek off the glassy windowpane and blinked away the sleep from her eyes. She sat up. Her strained muscled groaned from the lengthy sleep huddled on the carriage seat. The air was filled with the smell of leather, and the rhythmical snores emerging from the shadowed seat in front of her.

"Airlea," Prince Fordon said in an undertone, "I apologize if my boy woke you."

Airlea squinted, and the boy sitting in front of her gradually took shape: his head was lolling on his shoulder, his mouth hanging wide open. A loud snore whistled out of his nose.

The prince cleared his throat. "The sun is rising," he told her quietly. "We should arrive at Visca very soon."

Airlea turned her torso and pressed her palms and then her nose to the window. The world was still mostly dark, except for a thin, very pale ribbon that outlined the black mountains in the horizon, slowly lighting up the sky like a spreading fire. The barren view which had raced outside the window at the beginning of their travel was replaced by the white-bricked parapet of a low bridge, and beyond it the sparkling blue expanse of a wide river. The tip of a distorted yellow sun danced across the surface of the calm water.

"It's so beautiful," Airlea exclaimed in a whisper.

The carriage pitched and tossed across the bridge, then passed beneath a tall stone archway.

"There we are," the Prince said, calmly smiling.

The carriage slowed considerably. They were now passing through what Airlea imagined was the market-square. Her nose was flooded with the tantalizing scents of freshly-baked bread and flowers. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the abundant scenery. Although it was barely morning, the small stores packed along both sides of the road already displayed a colorful, eye-catching variety of merchandize. Most of the things she saw there now, Airlea had never encountered before: gleaming beads, pins and bracelets; an assortment of flowers of all kinds and hues; scones, cupcakes and buns; juicy fruits, fancy gowns, polished weaponry, and much-much more.

By the time the carriage rounded the large marble fountain in the middle of the square, Airlea was breathless. "Oh," was all she managed to utter.

Ms Liker, who sat beside her and had woken up a few moments before, didn't reply. She seemed lost in thought. The boy, however, opened his eyes and looked about in confusion.

Out of the window, Airlea could now see sprawling, manicured, emerald-green lawns and broad white mansions far more ravishing than Fagan Manor. Misery pinched her heart, but was soon forced aside when the carriage stopped abruptly. A broad-chested man in a golden armor and helmet, holding a long spear parallel to his body, neared the carriage and peered inside. Prince Fordon leaned toward the window so that the guard would see his face.

"It’s His Highness the Prince," the guard bellowed. "Open the gate."

Airlea's fingers began to tingle. Were they already there? The palace?

She could hear metal chafing, and saw the latticed shade cast by the towering gate retreating to the sides along with the gate itself. Their coachmen urged the horses forward and again they moved. The excitement burned in Airlea's stomach, fiercer than ever. The paved drive led them between glossy lawns whose end could not be seen as the carriage neared the palace. Airlea glued her face to the window, but all she could see was the rounded top of a tower. The carriage turned and stopped again with a small lurch, and Airlea couldn't help but gape at the marvelous structure in front of her.

The walls were white and smooth, punctured by long elliptic windows which deflected the sunlight in a breathtaking kaleidoscope. The light also shimmered across the dome of the main edifice, making it look like a large sphere covered with iridescent scales. Spilling masses of flowers decorated delicate arches and balconies, while thick carved pillars stood at the entrance, in front of wide copper doors.

Airlea was so absorbed, that she didn't notice the silver-haired butler who approached the carriage and opened the door with a faint click. Airlea fell forward with a muffled scream and they both crumpled to the floor.

"That's certainly a new way to be helped out of the carriage," Prince Fordon remarked good-naturedly.

The butler grunted.

The Prince took hold of Airlea's arm and helped her stand up. The butler rose on his own, brushing dust off his waistcoat with gloved fingers. His expression wasn't pleased.

"I'm so sorry," Airlea said, flustered.

The butler stiffened, eyed her coldly, and then turned to aide Ms Liker down. She immediately turned to Airlea, wondering if she was all right. After Airlea assured her that everything was fine a couple of times, she finally calmed down. Prince Fordon ordered the boy to go to the kitchen and tell the cook that they had arrived. He nodded curtly and disappeared.

The butler took the lead promptly, stepping onto the gleaming alabaster veranda. He shoved one of the doors inside, waiting stiffly while they crowded in through the opening. There was a marvelous chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and two staircases railed with carved golden leaves that led to the upper floor.

"Shall I take your cloaks?" The butler frowned at the shabby state of Airlea's cloak, but said nothing. He turned to the Prince, bowed, and said in a hushed tone, "Her Majesty the Queen wants to see you. She's in the drawing room."

The Prince grimaced and scratched his chin. Then he sighed. "Well," he said to Airlea and Ms Liker, apologetic, "Are you ready to meet my mother?"

Ms Liker looked worried. Airlea tried to smile, but inside, her heart fluttered. She'd never seen Queen Augusta, but she remembered that whenever her father used to mention her, there was always a shadow of a frown on his face. She was a very… determined ruler, were the words he had most often used. Now, they didn't seem quite so positive.

The Prince led them behind the stairs, to a wide corridor richly lit, with a thick red carpet and framed portraits glaring at them from the walls. They passed a few closed doors, before the Prince finally halted in front of one. It was made of oak, and had a knob shaped like a lion. The Prince hesitated briefly and then knocked.

"If it's not Fordon, don't come in – I'm busy and I certainly don't have time for you!"

Airlea felt her heart stop. Prince Fordon squared his shoulders and opened the door. "It's me, Mother. I'm back." He stepped inside. "Lady Fagan and Ms Liker are with me."

Airlea clasped her hands tightly and peered behind Prince Fordon's slender back, to see a cozy room, with upholstered red armchairs set in a circle around a glassy table, rose-patterned silk curtains, a thick carpet and a gold chandelier. One of the armchairs was occupied by a small, fragile old woman who was scanning a book open in her lap through thick half-moon eyeglasses. Behind her back, there was an unlit marble fireplace. She didn't raise her head, or showed any sign at all of acknowledging them. Perhaps she was deaf. She was the queen's personal maid; the queen herself must be standing in the part of the room Airlea couldn't see as of yet.

Prince Fordon advanced towards the middle of the room, gesturing behind his back urgently for them to step inside as well. All of a sudden, the frail old lady lifted her wrinkled face, as if something had caught her attention unexpectedly, and revealed two bright emerald eyes that were as out of place in her gentle face as a chrysanthemum in a bouquet of red roses. "It's time you were back," she said, and her voice rang out like steel.

Airlea simply stared. The old lady's gaze shifted to her.

"Why are you standing there like an oaf?" she demanded. "Come here."

Warily, Airlea did as she was told, her hackles rising at the assertive tone the woman used.

"Is that Cressida's daughter?" The old lady, who must be Queen Augusta after all, discussed Airlea as if she wasn't standing right there. She directed her question at her son, and in her sharp green eyes there was obvious contempt. "She doesn't look at all like her mother. As a matter of fact, she looks quite… mmm, sly. Like a witch." At the word, Airlea immediately turned cold. Her heart began to gallop in her chest. "Are you a witch?"

"Of course she's not a witch!" Ms Liker's voice was shrill, as it always was whenever she became furious. Unfortunately, Airlea knew that from experience. Unlike her, Queen Augusta didn't seem too pleased at the outburst. There was a moment of awkward silence. Airlea could hear Ms Liker's heavy breathing. Then she blurted, quite belatedly, "Your Majesty."

Queen Augusta's eyebrows arched. "You may take your seats," she instructed. Airlea felt a load being removed from her heart. When they were seated, the queen gave the prince a pointed glare. "I already began to worry that you won't be back until tomorrow."

Prince Fordon straightened his back. "I sent you a message, Mother. I understand that you read it, since you knew I was bringing Lady Airlea with me. I wrote you that I was helping her with her father's funeral, Lord Fagan. That's why I got delayed."

"Indeed you did." Queen Augusta pursed her lips. "That's why I arranged for the ceremony to take place in the evening – so that you wouldn't miss it. Still, I was afraid that despite everything you would."

Airlea peeked at the prince questioningly, but his expression was blank too. "What ceremony?"

"The memorial for Lord Fagan, of course."

It took a moment for Airlea to realize the queen was serious. "What… memorial?"

"I've agreed to hold a memorial ceremony for your father," the queen said generously. "There's no need to thank me."

"A memorial ceremony," Airlea echoed, puzzled. "But… what for?"

The queen looked indignant. "What on earth do you mean? I'm doing you an extraordinary favor. Do you really want your father to be forgotten?"

Airlea knitted her eyebrows. "He won't be. I'll remember him."

"Pfft! Such nonsense! You should be grateful to me, young lady! Anyone else in your position would have kissed my feet for the kindness I have shown you!"

Airlea glanced down at Queen Augusta's feet. They were bare, and her shriveled toes peeped out from beneath the rim of her gown. Her toenails were painted a vivid purple. The very thought of kissing them made her skin crawl. She looked up.

"Why would anyone else want to remember my father?"

"I'll tell them what a great person he had been," the queen clarified.

"You didn't know him," Airlea pointed out reasonably.

The queen snorted. "Of course I didn't. But no-one cares about that. And neither should you."

When Airlea opened her mouth to speak again, she suddenly felt a grip tightening around her wrist. She glanced aside, and saw Ms Liker's distressed expression. Her lips were pursed shut, but she was moving her head from side to side subtly, the message in her round blue eyes as clear as if she had spoken it out loud: Be quiet. It'll do no good, and just annoy her. So, despite her better judgment, Airlea shut up.

***

The memorial ceremony, as the queen had promised, took place as the sun began its descent towards the mountains, in an enormous room Airlea had heard Prince Fordon refer to as the Grand Hall. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, from which hang a number of dazzling chandeliers that were reflected in the carefully waxed floor. Long tables covered with embroidered white cloths were lined up against the walls, featuring an opulent arrangement of foods and drinks. On a slightly elevated dais at the front of the room, the royal family – Queen Augusta and Prince Fordon – were seated. Airlea had been appointed a place of honor by their side. Ms Liker, however, was decreed to spend the evening in the company of a couple of tutors that lived in the palace as well.

Despite Airlea's misgivings, as soon as the gates were opened, a gush of guests, dressed in gowns and cloaks in a wide scale of colors, filled the Grand Hall to the brim. Airlea was astonished that so many people would come for the sole purpose of remembering her father. She knew for certain that most of the crowd of aristocrats that came pouring through the doors hadn't known him in the least. She wasn't sure what she should feel, so she merely stood quietly by Prince Fordon's side as his mother greeted the unwavering stream of visitors.

Soon, however, Airlea noted that most of them probably didn't even remember why they were there for. When they passed her by, they nodded their head at her vaguely, proceeding to rush into the hall to greet their acquaintances, while some of them didn't even bother to look in her direction. She began to have a niggling feeling that they didn't care at all about her father. After a few minutes of standing in the same spot, stretching her lips to form a fake smile, she began to lose feeling in her mouth, and her legs started to itch. To make matters worse, for lack of appropriate clothes to wear to such an occasion, Queen Augusta had taken it on herself personally to make sure Airlea was well-dressed. In her generosity, she had insisted Airlea wear a dress that had apparently belonged to her when she'd been fifteen. It was a horrible composition of pink frills, puffed sleeves, and a flamboyant bodice that had to be filled up with cotton-wool so it wouldn't slip.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the worst part, as Airlea soon found out. After all the guests were finally welcomed and ushered inside, Queen Augusta, followed by Prince Fordon and Airlea, took her place on the dais, raising her arms so that the big crowd would all be able to see her. The hall quieted down almost instantly, and all eyes shifted to the dais. Airlea had to endure the humiliating ordeal of being stared at and scrutinized by countless pairs of curious, inquisitive eyes.

And then Queen Augusta began to speak. "Last night our kingdom suffered the loss of a beloved, loyal, decent and respectable nobleman. Lord Aubrey Fagan, to those of you who need a reminder, had been the caring husband of the brave Lady Cressida, who by…"

That was when Airlea stopped listening. The crowd was rapt, all of them gulping the queen's every word with steadfast attention. Airlea looked at their engrossed expressions and experienced a sudden, overwhelming urge to burst out laughing. Her father – a loyal, decent, respectable nobleman? That could probably be said about half the population of the kingdom, but that was certainly not her father. What was the point of this memorial ceremony if her father was being remembered as someone else entirely? Airlea just couldn't understand. She soon lost any interest in Queen Augusta's reverberating speech, and let her eyes wander over the crowd in boredom. She felt as if she had gone out of her body, and was surveying the crowd from above, detached from the whole occasion.

Most of the guests were engaged in what the queen was saying, or at least pretending to be. But there were several that didn't even bother to disguise their utter disinterest: a young man with a shaved ginger beard and snapping green eyes was murmuring something in the ear of a beautiful lady, who was smiling broadly and looked like a very satisfied cat; another couple was kissing secretly by a pillar; one formidable woman with what looked like a fruit salad on her wide-brimmed purple hat was using her manicured pinkie to dig in her left nostril and excavate extremely unique finds. Airlea stared at her in disgusted fascination, until the woman looked up, dislodged her finger quickly and glared at her furiously from beneath the brim of her hat, an ugly red blush spreading across her high cheekbones. Airlea suppressed a giggle and looked away.

Her attention was caught by a subtle movement in the corner of her eye. She turned her head, and saw the long, heavy drapes hanging over a large window fluttering about in an unnatural way. The windowpane was closed; there was no gust of wind to make the fabric move. Yet, it did.

Airlea narrowed her eyes, and watched as the drapes parted in the middle and a lanky figure in a pressed shirt emerged from behind them, holding a ball of sandy fur in his outstretched hand. The boy immersed himself in the shadows cast by a nearby pillar, and Airlea had to lean forward slightly in order to see what he was doing. He lifted Smidgen and with his other hand untied something from Smidgen's tail. Then the small creature quickly climbed up his arm and disappeared in his breast pocket. As she watched, Airlea realized that she hadn't seen Smidgen all day until now. Her curiosity perked. What was the boy doing?

His golden eyes gleamed in the semi darkness. He looked about, as if to make sure no-one was watching him. It probably never occurred to him to look at the dais. Airlea's excitement grew. He unrolled the small piece of parchment he had untied from Smidgen's tail a moment ago, and his eyes skimmed over it fleetingly. Then he rolled it and thrust it into his breast pocket as well. When he looked up, towards the tall entrance doors, he was frowning. He gave another cursory look over the crowd; no-one one looking in his direction. Then, with admirable stealth, he slipped behind a pillar, and disappeared.

For a brief moment, Airlea panicked. She was sure she'd lost him, and felt a strong prick of disappointment. She already resigned herself to another hour of boredom, when she saw an unmistakable mop of honey-brown curls head through a side door reserved to the servants. Her heart lifted. She already knew what she was going to do.

She leaned to her right and tapped Prince Fordon's arm. "I need to use the bathroom," she told him in a whisper when he looked over.

"Oh," he said, looking momentarily confused. Then he beckoned a young maid over. "Escort Lady Airlea to the ladies' room, will you, Melissa?"

Melissa nodded. She helped Airlea climb down from the dais.

"Is it all right with you if we go through the servant's entrance, my lady? The other doors are locked." Melissa gestured at the side door through which the boy had vanished.

Airlea masked her smirk. "Of course."

A few heads turned when they passed through the crowd, but Queen Augusta managed to attract their attention again with a cry of: "…It is my DUTY, my OBLIGATION, as a queen, to welcome with open arms the orphan child of…"

Melissa pushed open the door just as cheers erupted, and Airlea found herself in a long, narrow corridor.

"Through here," Melissa said, leading Airlea along the corridor and up a flight of stone stairs. A few servants hurried in the opposite direction. One of them was another young maid laden down with an awry pile of china plates.

"Melissa," she chirped in relief, barely balancing the tower. "Could you help me?" Then her eyes fell on Airlea. She looked puzzled for a moment; then her eyes widened. "Oh, I apologize."

"That's all right," Airlea interjected hastily, glad for the interruption. "Melissa, maybe you should help her." She wasn't used to issuing orders to girls that were obviously older than her, and the command sounded uncertain. "You should," she repeated, for good measure.

The other maid looked grateful, but Melissa's merry brown eyes clouded with doubt. "The Prince said – "

"I know, but it's all right. Just tell me where the bathroom is, and I'll find my way." Please, please, please… If Melissa didn't leave now, Airlea began to fear that she would never find what the boy was up to. She looked at the other maid, and bit her lower lip. "I think the prince will be angrier if you break those plates. They look expensive," she improvised.

Melissa still looked worried, but Airlea had the feeling that she'd won. "You'll be all right?" She sighed. "Fine, then. The bathroom is that way. Liza, bring me some of those before you drop them."

Liza happily transferred some of her load. "Thank you so much, my lady," she said to Airlea. Then she and Melissa hurried off.

Airlea waited until she couldn't see them anymore, or hear their hushed conversation. Then she climbed up another flight of stairs, and found herself in a dark hallway. To her right, there was a door. When she opened it, she saw a carpeted floor and bright lights. She closed it. To her left, the hallway stretched on into darkness, displaying a line of closed simple wooden doors. There was one torch flickering dimly on the wall. Where should she go?

Just then, one of the doors opened, and the golden-eyed boy slipped outside, wearing a cloak. Airlea pressed against the wall and held her breath. The boy didn't see her; he turned his back on her and began to march in the opposite direction from which she came. With very little debate, Airlea followed him, silently treading in his step.

The boy was acting so mysteriously. He had intrigued her from the start, and now she had the feeling that she was about to discover one of his secrets. A delicious chill slid up her spine.


© Copyright 2019 UDT. All rights reserved.

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