This project was born out of a challenge I gave myself to write a 1000 word story inspired by five random images. Its turned out to be one of my favorite stories, but is so far over 3,000 words with the climax and finale yet to come!
I hope you enjoy:
“But what if he looks like an absolute dog?” The girl in the frame giggled and laughed as she chattered.
“He’s not I assure you,” replied the young woman, as she continued combing her long dark hair.
“But Amaleia! You’ve never even seen him!”
“It doesn’t matter, I am the daughter of the duke and it is my duty to protect our estate. Father would have wanted it this way. And besides, I have it on good authority that I shan’t be disappointed.”
A chime sounded in time with a pulsing light on the ornate frame of the live moving screen. Amaleia nearly jumped from her cushioned seat.
“Oh, its him! It’s almost time, I’ll see you at the ceremony!”
With the touch of a button the image changed to a black and white jumble of shapes through which the outline of a man’s head could just barely be discerned. It was the custom on Primenary for new brides not to see their mates before their wedding.
“Hello my darling,” came a man’s voice through the looking glass. “We’ll be arriving soon, is everything well?”
“Well as can be expected,” she flushed slightly and was glad that he could see no more of her at that moment that she could of him. “But between you and me I can’t wait for all of this business to be settled.”
It was something of a lie, but it was a white one. It wouldn’t do to have her betrothed thinking she had reveled planning the extravagance that had occupied her the few last days.
“I feel the same my dear. But I must go and make my own preparations. Tonight my darling, tonight the charades will be over and everything will be finished.”
The screen changed suddenly and Amelia found herself looking at her own reflection. Her wedding dress graced the mannequin behind her. Seeing it filled her mind with thoughts of the day’s excitement. The next several hours would be a flurry of flowers, perfumes, dances and dinners.
She would have sat in her fantasy for an hour had there not been a gently knock and the familiar shuffle of bare feet entering the room.
“Nan,” called Amaleia warmly as the old woman approached. “I’m so terribly happy.”
She embraced her old nurse, feeling the familiar coarse texture of her sand colored robe against her bare arms and the cool smoothness of the red silk which trimmed her hood.
Nan looked unusually solemn. She looked deep into Amaleia’s eyes.
“Child,” she said softly in her crackled voice, “give me your ear.”
Amaleia felt the delicate touch Nan’s soft knobby fingers on her ear, a sign that she had learned in her youth meant Nan had something important to say.
“You have not walked in a long time, and the future is never clear.”
“Oh Nan,” corrected Amaleia, “I shan’t be gone long. We will return once the honeymoon is over.”
“Walk today child, your friend misses you. You cannot tell how things will change.”
Amaleia started. Did Nan know that secret from her childhood? Her long walks in the wild parts of the estate were no secret to the servants of the household. They had begun when her father died. She found solace in the solitude of the wilderness, but that was not all she had found. How could Nan have known?
She stared blankly at the woman who had been her comfort and counsel for so many years. If Nan said it, there must be something to it. Against the cries of her mind about her next appointments and all there was to do to prepare for the wedding, something in Nan’s dark eyes surfaced a deeper yearning in her heart. It was a yearning she had suppressed for quite some time, years perhaps, to feel the wind on her face, and the warmth of the sun on her skin, to smell the freshness of the earth at her feet, and smell the wild grasses of Preminary.
Nan was a woman of few words, and no more words were needed here. Amaleia simply nodded and turned to her wardrobe where her outing skirt hung. She changed quickly, there would be little time. The florists would arrive before noon and she had to be there to oversee them. She hoped her secret friend would be there.
Breaking from the lush tree line her footsteps crunched in the dry scrub grass releasing their sweet dusty aroma with each step. She approached the field of scarps. Rocky mounds of earth dotted the plain like the round noses of a hundred giant faces staring skyward.
She wasted no time passing between and through them. She knew the subtle landmarks well, she had passed them a hundred times in her youth. After nearly twenty minutes she found it. This scarp looked just like the others. She passed around its northern slope and approached the steep face on the opposite side. The cavern entrance lay hidden exactly as she remembered it.
The mouth of the cave was hot and dry, like the plain, but further inside it grew cooler as it opened into a large cavern. Despite being nearly invisible, the entrance to the cave was large and let in a stream of morning sunshine that lit the soft sand colored walls. The light reflected off the surface of the still pool of water that filled the lower part of the cavern.
Unable to resist Amaleia slipped off her shoes and dipped her feet into the water. The stoic walls came to life as the ripples of reflected light danced and played across them, illuminating the vaulted roof.
Amaleia’s eyes danced along with the shimmering patterns all across the cave until something broke her abruptly from her revelry. There, standing still and solemn on the opposite bank of the pool stood her childhood secret.
The horse, if it could be called that, was just as she remembered. Tall and muscular, red as blood and streaked with white. It most like a stallion, wild and fierce, but its ears and nose were smaller, and its dark eyes, which spoke of affection and comfort, were larger. Its hooves also, were different, being separated into one large centered hoof between two smaller.
Splashing through the shallows she rounded the pool and wrapped her arms around her long time friend. As always he was silent, but by the nudge of his nose and the feel of his sweet breath on her neck she knew he was likewise glad to see her.
She had spent hours riding among the scarps and exploring these caves with the red stallion. They had become fast friends from the first day she had found him in the secret cavern.
“I’m so sorry I’ve been away,” Amaleia sobbed into the creatures neck. “Everything just gets so different when you grow up.”
The horse snorted in comfort and began to lead her away from the pool. She followed with her hand on his back walking silently through the caves. The lantern she brought cast a warm light on the walls and made the shadows sway as it dangled by her side.
At first she merely enjoyed the presence of her friend as they walked in silence. But soon she found that they were in an unfamiliar part of the cave. Amaleia had thought that they had explored every nook and cranny of the expansive tunnels together. She slowed with caution, but the red horse continued its steadfast pace. Was he leading her somewhere? With a brief jog Amaleia rejoined her friends side.
Moments later they yellow lamplight shone on the flat wall of a dead end. But there was something different here. It was not a wall of rock, but a perfectly smooth bare wall of plaster. She stepped forward and brought her lamp closer. More than a wall, it was a wall with a door. There was a little brass handle on her right, and a peep hole at just about eye level.
Unable to resist Amaleia peered through the hole. Instantly she jumped back, there were people on the other side of that door! Overcoming her initial surprise she looked again and found that she could not only see them, but hear them as well.
Why there was Uncle Talbot! Her care taker and adoptive father, was hunched over a table shuffling and signing papers. Oh wait, that was the library, HER library in her own home! How could there be a secret passage in her own home that she had never known about? All the childhood fantasies of adventure and intrigue rushed over her and she forgot for one moment that she was a duchess betrothed to be wed on that very day.
“It’s all in order you see,” Uncle Talbot was saying, “just a few more signatures and the estate will be yours. Well, after the wedding of course.”
“Of course,” replied a familiar voice from out of sight. Amaleia’s heart leapt, could it be!
“I’m sure you will find the property to be quite amenable, as you can see we’ve maintained the mansion in her fathers absence. Even made a few improvements, if I do say..”
“Thank you, Mr. Talbot, but we won’t be staying here,” her jaw dropped.
“I beg your pardon?” Uncle Talbot seemed as surprised as she did.
“The estate has already been sold, it was never a part of the plan.”
“No offense, Mr. Talbot, but I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m sure you will understand.”
Before she knew what was happening Amaleia’s hand had pushed the door handle and she stood wild-eyed in the library.
Uncle Talbot’s monocle dropped from his face, across from him stood a tall man, with dark hair, strong features and piercing blue eyes. Amaleia flushed briefly at the sight of him before being distracted by what appeared to be a guard standing by his side. The blue garbed guard was armed with a large rifle and wore a mask that covered his face. His finger moved toward the trigger.
But nothing could dissuade her fury.
“Sell the property! How dare you! Who do you think you are!”
“Amaleia!” cried her uncle in surprise, “What are you doing here! And un-covered!”
A moment ago Amaleia cared nothing about custom or decency. But face to face with her suitor, Duke Baragen, her inhibitions began to undermine the rage that impassioned her.
“I- I’m sorry Uncle,” she replied making some attempt to conceal her face with the wide brim of her hat. Her fiancé likewise looked away and covered his face with his hand.
“I’m sorry- but I demand to know what this business is about selling my estate, my home!”
“Amaleia, my dear, it, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I -” an electric whine interrupted the duke, as the rifle in the armed man’s hands was suddenly primed to fire.
Baragen looked suddenly at his escort, then at Amaleia. Uncle Talbot too was looking at her, or was it behind her?
The stallion! How could she have been so foolish as to leave him for all to see!
Whirling around she was shocked to find see quite the opposite of what she expected. Instead of an open door and a red stallion in the secret passage, there was only the solemn bookcase where it had always stood and there, to her surprise, was the diminutive form of her dear Nan, looking equally somber and quiet.
A commotion behind her diverted her attention yet again. She turned just in time to see her suitor forcing the weapon’s aim back to the floor and to hear stern words spoken under his breath.
He half turned to her, again covering his face.
“Forgive me, but I’m afraid the only way to resolve this uncomfortable situation is to end it.”
“Much agreed!” Huffed Uncle Talbot.
With that the duke and his companion left, although it was difficult to tell who was leading whom. The door closed and Amaleia immediately turned to her Uncle.
“Oh Uncle, I’m so sorry.”
“Always the impetuous child. How the devil did you get in here anyway?”
“He won’t really take me away from here will he? Will he take me at all now? Oh, have I ruined everything?”
“Time will tell child, but truthfully there is little to be done about the matter,” the plump man gave a sigh that billowed his full mustache. “You know as well as I do by now that these things are more about money than about passion, or even decent manners for that matter.”
He looked at her sternly, but affectionately.
“Your inheritance is tied up in this property, but your father’s foolishness in the days before his disappearance has made it such that we can no longer maintain it on our own. You simply must marry the duke if you wish to preserve your fortune. From the sound of it, if your duke has an offer substantial to sell the property so quickly, he will likely see no option but to overlook your little display as well.”
Amaleia’s eyes turned to the floor, and she felt the brush of Nan’s robe against her hand as she came to her side.
“Oh bother me, harping on such unpleasentries on your special day,” his eyes also seemed to look anywhere but at hers. “Here. I found something that may strengthen you.”
From the bottom of the stack of papers Uncle Talbot produced a parchment on which a letter had been scrawled many years in the past.
“I found it with the estate documents that had been locked up the night your father was… After he was gone.”
With a shaking hand Amaleia took the paper from her uncle. He didn’t wait for her to read it but turned and silently left the room, leaving her alone with the documents, the letter and her nurse.
My Dearest Amaleia,
As your father I want you to know that you have grown to be nothing less that the living visage of your departed mother. How I loved her, and how I have always loved you. Over the next weeks I may be coming and going a lot, my business keeps me from you at times but do not think that I ever stop thinking about you. I’ve hired a nurse to be with you through this time of coming and going. Her name is Nan, and I expect her to arrive any day. Please make her welcome and obey her like the good little girl I know you are. I will return from Marosea soon, and we will have a picnic among the scarps as soon as I return, I promise.
With all my Love,
Amaleia turned to Nan with glistening eyes, barely noticing the wide eyed expression of on her nurse’s face.
“It was the letter that was to introduce us. It must have arrived just after they found his shuttle. Oh, I’m so glad he sent you Nan,” she began to sob, “I could never have made it without you.”
But Nan seemed not to hear her. With tremulous wrinkled hands she gently took the letter from Amaleia.
“We have been looking for this for years…” she muttered as she shuffled across the room.
“Nan, what are you doing?”
The nurse ignored her and proceeded to the fireplace.
“Nan? Nan STOP!”
But it was too late, without a hesitation Nan threw the parchment into the fireplace where it landed on a log and was instantly engulfed in flame.
“NAN!” Amaleia screamed, racing over the fire.
An aged but firm hand blocked her arm from reaching into the flames. She paused, bewildered and overwhelmed. That’s when she heard it.
It was a voice. It was THE voice. The voice she had longed to hear for so many years. The voice she heard only in her dreams now spoke to her out of the flames.
“And I just speak into it and it will record me?” her father was saying.
Amaleia approached the fire cautiously and saw that the parchment was not being consumed by the flames, but instead glowed brilliantly. Slowly an image took shape on the page. Her hand leapt to her mouth as though to keep her heart from spilling out when she saw him.
“Amaleia. Amaleia, I hope you receive this. I hope you find my message. The future is never clear.”
Her father looked tired and worn, but every bit as kind and loving as she remembered him.
“Amaleia, I haven’t much time. I worry for your safety. They will tell you lies about me, but do not believe them. I have found some… some people that need my help. That need our help. It is dangerous I know, and I would never want to endanger you, but without us they will go extinct. They will all die. Amaleia, I am sending Nan to you, she is the only one who knows. You can trust her, but you must tell no one. And above all else, if anything ever happens to me do not let them have the property. We are their refuge, there is nowhere else for them to go.”
“This is a lot to ask of a little girl, I know. But I promise I will return as soon as I can. I love you ‘Leia. Please, be safe.”
The image faded and the parchment turned to darkness. Amaleia didn’t look up from the blackened parchment until a poker carefully pulled it from the flames. Nan stooped and picked up the precious document and looked up at Amaleia with deep watery eyes.
“He was a good man,” she whispered, “He tried to save us.”
Epic climax coming soon!