The breath of the dead

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Ameka stalked out of the manor, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. She’d had another fight with her stepmother. She was tired of Lady Raylene and her constant belittling. Ameka’s father did nothing to stop it. It seemed he encouraged it at times. It frustrated her to no end and she wondered what she’d done to earn both of their scorn.

She followed the garden paths without looking. Her body knew the way to her favorite spot even though her mind was far from her surroundings. The strong scent of spice and citrus drew her out of her thoughts for a moment and a smile flitted across her face. Her mother’s rose garden was her favorite place on the estate. It reminded her of Lady Kiran, a gentle and compassionate woman who’d died when Amika was a child.

Ameka sat down on the ornate padded wooden bench and returned to her ruminations. Her brothers didn’t come in for the same harassment she did from their stepmother, and her two half sisters were favored above her. She supposed it was because they were Raylene’s daughters, which didn’t surprise her. True born daughters of stepparents were often treated better than the stepchildren. Or so her best friend Oisin had told her before her father sent him away.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. Her mother, Oisin, her older sister Hella. Everyone who’d ever cared about her was gone. She stared down at her hands, noticing the clear drops as they fell.

She reached out and picked one of the red roses hanging near her hand. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the scent. It reminded her of her mother’s perfume. She curled in on herself as she remembered the smell of it burning, when her father destroyed everything that had belonged to her mother on the eve of his marriage to Lady Raylene.

Dosia, one of Ameka’s half sisters, found her in the rose garden a few hours later. “Our father wishes to speak to you,” she said, smirking. “Perhaps it is due to your disrespect for my mother.”

“I showed her no disrespect, though she deserves all she gets,” Ameka said. She brushed past the younger girl, who gaped at her, and returned to the manor.

Her father was in his study. “Ameka, when I summon you I expect you to come immediately,” Lord Ulises said, glaring at her.

“Considering I just received word of the summons, Father, I can hardly be tardy,” Ameka said.

“I required your presence two hours ago,” Lord Ulises said.

“Then blame Dosia, or whoever else you sent to look for me. You should know by now that after speaking to that woman I retreat to mother’s garden,” Ameka said.

“That’s one thing you and I need to discuss,” Lord Ulises said. “Or rather, you will listen and I will tell you what I’ve decided.” A cold lump settled in the pit of Ameka’s stomach. “Your mother’s rose garden will be uprooted so Raylene can put in an orchard. She enjoys peaches and plums, and you know how expensive they are. The mages will see to it that they produce immediately, and will keep them producing so we always have them.”

“You bastard,” Ameka snarled. Lord Ulises looked at her in shock. “You’d steal from me the last thing I have of her? You destroyed her belongings, even though as her daughters Hella and I should have gotten them. You took down her pictures and refused to let us keep the lockets she’d given us so we could remember her. It’s as if you wish to erase her very existence, though you swore to her on her deathbed that you wouldn’t do that. You’d let her memory live on with us.”

“Yes, well, I only said that to give your mother the peace she needed to pass into the next world and not come back to haunt us as a vengeful spirit,” Lord Ulises said. “Now, you will curb your attitude and hold your tongue. I should have done this long ago, but I’ve been holding off to give you some time to change your position with Raylene. Since you haven’t, I’m sending you away.”

“Where?” Ameka asked.

“To the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Lord Ulises said. “Since you and Oisin were so close, I’m sure the Sisters there will understand.”

“You’re saying I’m not a virgin? Call in one of your mages. They’ll confirm Oisin and I never did what you’re accusing us of,” Ameka said.

“Oh, it’s not what you and Oisin did,” Lord Ulises said. “It’s the fact that the two of you are closer than you imagine.” Ameka stared at him. “You and Oisin are brother and sister. Well, half brother and half sister.”

“What do you mean?” Ameka asked.

“Kiran was not a faithful wife at all,” Lord Ulises said. “Both you and Hella were sired by the Horsemaster.”

“Squire Gerulf is our father?” Ameka asked.

“So your mother claimed, once she learned she was dying,” Lord Ulises said.

“So why not send me to him?” Ameka asked.

“Because I don’t want him to know,” Lord Ulises said. “Kiran said she didn’t tell him, and I have no intention of doing that either. So, you will go to the Temple. I’ve already found a husband for Hella, so she’ll be well out of my hair.”

“If you send me away, I’ll use the powers of the Goddess and call mother’s spirit back. I’ll tell her what you’ve done. Her vengeful spirit will kill Lady Raylene and her daughters by the year’s end,” Ameka said.

“You can try,” Lord Ulises said. “I doubt you have the willpower to do that.”

Ameka turned and ran from the room, sobbing as she went. She dashed into the small chapel and slammed the door behind her. The entrance to the crypt was locked, but she slid the bolt out of its housing and descended into the darkness.

She knew where her mother’s stone coffin was. She’d spent a lot of time sitting at its feet when she was a child. She threw herself against it now, weeping and begging her mother for help. “Mother, he’s betrayed us all,” she sobbed. “Please, bring your curse on this house. Destroy his happiness as he has taken mine and Hella’s away from us.”

There was a cold breeze against her face and the smell of decaying roses filled the air. “It shall be as you wish, my lovely daughter.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it was her mother’s voice. “His new wife and their children will be dead within the week. Your brothers will die before the harvest. He will die before Midwinter.”

“Why my brothers?” Ameka asked. “They have done nothing to harm me.”

“I was not the only one to seek solace in the arms of another,” Lady Kiran said. A faint glow surrounded her coffin. “Your brothers are the sons of the Horsemaster’s first wife. Ulises killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the secret to me, but I already knew. I claimed them as mine and raised them, but chose to have daughters with the Horsemaster because I knew he was a better father than Ulises.”

“What am I to do now? He would send me to the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Ameka said.

A ghostly caress brushed across her cheek. “Run to the stables. Speak to your true father. He knows who you are. He will help you.” The light faded and the smell was gone. Ameka didn’t stop to think. She ran for the stables, and her real father. She hoped heĀ could help her. The thought of spending even one day in a place where torture was the routine of the day frightened her even more than death.

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