Yes. I FINALLY finished Chapter Nine. *ahem* =P
Chapter Summary: Ada throws away the brooch. She dreams again, and discovers something…something terrifyingly true.
Now that they were at last arrived in Mandor, the raiders kept a closer watch on their prisoners. Each morning they were chained together in an empty stall in the stable behind the tavern, guarded in shifts by one of the bandits. Each afternoon they were brought out and escorted, or dragged, to the small square in the center of town. There, Morald and his band, along with many other small raiding caravans, displayed their wares, obtained with varying degrees of honesty. Anything from jewelry and finely crafted items from the neighboring realm, to traveling supplies and slaves such as Ada and Lora could be seen crammed into the small space, each man hawking his wares as loudly as possible. After standing in the cold, wintry air being examined, prodded, and poked until nightfall, Ada and Lora were brought back to the relative warmth of the stable, where they were chained again. Morald stationed another of his men to watch them during the night. In a town filled with thieves, outlaws, and cutthroats, nothing was safe.
The increased watch wore upon Ada’s already taut nerves. Everywhere, wherever she turned, stood a grimacing raider. Gloating, hideous faces seemed to close upon her, even as she sat sleepless in the hay, fingering feverishly the golden brooch that so often absorbed her mind. The stable walls seemed oppressive, closing in upon her with sulfury breath, reminding her of the ever-burning stable in her dreams.
As the night wore on, her fingers’ rhythmic motion over the brooch slowed. Ada stood, taking care that the chain clasped to her ankle did not scrape against the rough floor. Moving slowly, she crept to the knothole in the wall through which golden sunlight had spilled that morning, lighting the brooch. Now it let in a trickle of blue light from the rising moon in the cloud-brushed sky. The moonbeam lit the brooch, causing it to sparkle in a cold, unearthly glow. The portrait inside seemed to leap up into Ada’s eyes. She brushed her fingers over the smooth glass, then drew them back quickly as the face of the brooch grew hot in her grasp. Flames flickered up behind the girl’s face, brushing her hair and engulfing her in their smoke. Her black painted eyes stared back into Ada’s real ones, no longer lit with a warm, carefree light. They snapped in fear, growing orange and red with reflected firelight.
Ada stood quickly up, dropping the brooch again as it burned her. It fell beside the patch of moonlight, in the darkness. Bending down again, Ada reached out to touch it. The frigid coldness of the metal caused her to draw her hand quickly back again in surprise. No fire lit the small portrait, and the young girl smiled back at Ada’s confused face. Picking up the brooch again, she turned back from the moonlight, head bent and eyes struggling to draw a cold veil of nothingness across their revealing depths.
Suddenly, straightening up, Ada drew back her arm and threw the brooch viciously away, into a corner of the loft, out of reach of her chain. Gasping with fear, she stumbled back to where she had lain earlier, awake and dreamless. The brooch…her obsession turned to cold, horrible fear. She hated it. She could not look at it. It frightened her…and so she had thrown it away. Thrown away the thing that had so absorbed and engulfed her over the past weeks. She almost could not believe it…and yet she had done it. Now, maybe, the awful dreams would stop. Maybe she could sleep in peace at last…
~ ~ ~
She was ripped suddenly out of the dark of sleep into the bright orange glare of wakefulness surrounded by fire. Again, she saw the inn yard, smoking in the heat from the double blaze of the stable and the inn, which now burned slowly to the ground as well. Flames licked languidly out the windows of the building, reaching slowly higher and higher up the walls, leaving streaks of black soot over the blistering white paint.
Ada stood immobile in the center of the courtyard, behind where the woman and the shadow child lay tossed to the ground. One of the men, larger and even more menacing than the others, stood stooped over the sacks on the ground that had been filled with stolen valuables from the inn. Standing up, he growled at his men, motioning for the packs to be tied to the backs of a small string of frightened ponies who cowered a ways off, struggling to free their lines from the grasp of yet another dark man. Then, turning slowly, he advanced upon the woman and the shadow child, chuckling quietly.
The woman cringed back on the ground. The huge man stood over her, pulling a thick knife out of his belt. It was clean and cruel, not a drop of blood on the silver blade. The woman on the ground screamed, clasping her hands, pleading. She did not look to the man standing over her. She did not cry out for mercy from him. She seemed to know it would not come. Her eyes, wide and black, fixed unshakably on the sky. Her trembling hands reached out to something, someone, greater than the barbarity that surrounded her and her child.
Ada trembled. She knew the woman would be safe. Nothing could happen to her, she was invincible, unshakeable. The woman turned on the ground, reaching a shaking hand out to the shadow child. Her lips moved, whispering four words to the girl. Ada caught the first three, but did not hear the rest through the roar of the flames. I love you… The shadow child shook her head, slowly at first, then harder and faster. Looking frantically from her mother to the laughing man above them, she threw herself upon the woman, mouth open in a silent scream. I love you. Tears slid fast and furious down her cheeks, falling to the ground, evaporating into steam. The woman smiled, a smile so full of grief Ada had to look away. Gently she pushed her daughter off, back to the ground by her side. Calmly staring up at the man above her, smiling slightly through her tears, the woman waited.
As the man raised his knife, something flashed on the collar of the woman’s dress, catching in the firelight. Ada stepped closer despite her fear. The small flash of light had caught the huge man’s attention as well. He reached down, dragging the woman up by her hair. Flipping his knife in his grasp, he slashed out, cutting through the cloth of the dress and freeing the shining objects. Slamming the woman back to the ground, broken and bleeding from where his knife blade had scratched her skin, the man held up the objects.
There was a brooch. Golden and thick, with scalloped edges and a clear glass cover. Behind the glass, Ada caught a glimpse of black hair and red, smiling lips. Dangling from the man’s fingers as well was a necklace. The gold chain shimmered slightly as the air stirred it. A teardrop pendant hung upon the chain, suspended in jewel-covered flight.
~ ~ ~
The knife blade flashed as it moved, a silver blur in the air, turning red in an instant. The woman fell back. Her blood, scarlet as trampled rose petals, soaked into the ground, pouring in thick rivulets, sliding through the burnt grass. The very air stained blood red. Ada fell back, collapsing to the ground beside the shadow child, who lay, coughing violently, tears streaming down her white cheeks. Suddenly the man loomed above them again, fingers outstretched. He reached down, roughly pushing the child over, looking for more valuables. A thin, dainty comb adorned with small jewels was tucked carefully into her hair, holding it back from her face. The man pulled it roughly from her hair, tossed it in the air and caught it again, gloating over his prize.
Ada jumped up, anger ringing in her ears, and reached out after the man as if to stop him. He did not notice her. Turning back to where his men tied the sacks to the ponies, he called out, holding up the jewelry. One of the men opened a sack, filled with coins, and the three golden objects were dropped inside with the silver. It was nearly finished.
The man turned back to the shadow child. Laughing hideously, he reached out yet again. Ada could hear his voice in her head, demanding for the child to come, saying she was now his slave. As the man’s giant hands descended over the child, grasping her shoulders and forcing her to her feet, Ada screamed out in agony. She felt his grip upon her own shoulders, burning like ice, hard, strong, unbreakable. Binding her, forever. She felt him drag her up although he was nowhere near her, felt the chains close around her wrists, felt the lash of the whip that fell upon the shadow child’s back. Felt the raider’s hot breath in her hair, heard the cruel mock of his voice. She writhed, anguish filling her heart and mind for a moment.
Then suddenly it was gone. All she felt was cold, hard resolve. She would not give them the pleasure of seeing her hurt. As she stood alone in the inn yard, the caravan of raiders moved past her, their work finished. The shadow child walked at the end, chained and defiant. Her head would not bow in fear of these men.
A mirror, large and gilt-framed, that had once hung over the mantelpiece in the inn’s common room, lay cracked on the ground near Ada. As the shadow child passed she looked down, and her face was caught, reflected perfectly in the glass. Ada stepped forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of her features again. Her own reflection stared back at her beside that of the girl.
The reflections were identical.
~ ~ ~
Ada awoke. One thought gripped her mind, so powerfully she could not move. The four words the woman had spoken. She had heard the first three clearly in her dream. Now, the fourth, the one cut off by the flames, seemed to echo in the air around her. The fourth word. I love you…Ada.