Authors: Vanessa Fewings
Tags: #General Fiction
“Go to bed.” He dropped the book and it landed silently on the straw-covered ground.
I went to express my disapproval of treating a book like that, but my tongue found itself wedged between my teeth. I wondered where he’d gotten that book from. Miguel’s quiet forced me to return to my make-shift bed.
The smell of the animals was fading.
* * * *
At dawn, my stare lingered on the maple out tray, as though Roelle’s forged will would magically reappear if I gazed at it long enough. Heart pounding, taking three stairs at a time, I headed up the stairs.
Roelle was still in bed, sitting with his back against the headboard. A servant girl laid his breakfast tray by his side - an assortment of breads, eggs, and a small pot of milk.
With my hands behind my back, I hid their tremor. One hint from Roelle that he knew what I’d done and I’d bolt.
I blamed my reckless behavior on the liquor I’d consumed last night, foolish to have thought I could get away with it.
“Can’t the chef be more imaginative?” Roelle glanced at the food and then his irritated frown settled on me. “What?”
“Alicia?” My voice was quiet.
Roelle’s expression turned to confusion. “I have no idea who you are talking about.” He rubbed his neck as he watched the maid draw the curtains, allowing the sun to flood in, casting white rays that quickly banished even the sneakiest of shadows.
I was amazed he’d forgotten Sunaria so soon, but reasoned he just didn’t want to talk, not with me, anyway.
Roelle’s fumbling fingers clumsily stroked his hairy thigh. “My skin’s crawling.” He scratched, digging his nails into his flesh, throwing off the bed sheets and kicking at them. His head slumped back onto the pillow, his body jerking, spasming. His jaw slackened and his contorted lips formed into a cry, out of which came a terrible throaty gurgling, and then a screech escaped his over stretched mouth, spittle bursting out and trickling, wetting his chin.
The maid, pale now and shaking, reached for the milk pot as it tipped, its contents pouring onto the floor, leaving a trail of creamy-white liquid snaking its way beneath the bed, as though fleeing in terror.
Roelle’s skin blistered, and his eyes bulged. He fell off the bed and the tray crashed with him, spilling the rest of its contents. A flash of flames, his hair alight, his flesh melting, as he crawled along, his crazed stare searching, as he lurched for me, arms flailing.
I grabbed the water jug and threw it over him, ready to jump out of his way if he turned. Roelle rose up and bashed against the window frame, catching the curtain on fire. I seized the maid’s hand and yanked her out of her horrified trance, and out the door, leaving behind that dreadful wailing. We scurried along the corridor and ran for the stairs.
The breath left my lungs when I saw Roelle staggering behind us, his arms outstretched as he almost caught up, a monstrous human inferno trailing close. The girl tripped and I yanked her up and pulled her with me down the steps. Several of the staff, their faces full of fright, stared past us and up at Roelle, who crashed against the velvet backdrop hanging from the ceiling. Dancing flames leaped from him and onto the drapes, raging ever skyward, spreading wildly.
The heat pushed us back.
Roelle’s face was dissolving, unrecognizable. With that awful glow of yellow, orange, and fleeting red, quivering and clinging to him, he tumbled toward us, his grotesque scream now a primal cry.
THE SMOKE HAD FORCED us out.
Only when the last horse had been secured did I allow myself the indulgence of looking back. My throat felt scratchy and dry. A member of the staff handed out water, but looking at my empty cup, I couldn’t remember drinking mine.
That painting with my brother’s face had gone. As only fire can, it gutted the house, leaving mounds of grey ash in its wake. As I stared up at where the estate had once stood, I felt free.
Although I’d hoped God had in some way intercepted, something told me Sunaria held the answer. I searched for her face in the crowd, but saw only tired workers, their worried expressions fading into exhaustion. Although everyone but Roelle had survived, their livelihood had gone up in smoke along with their master.
Rumors circulated that a candle had fallen onto the bed and caused the fire. The maid’s incomprehensible ramblings didn’t help, either. With Miguel’s testament that I’d slept in the stables and the girl as witness to my innocence, I avoided any blame. With no house to run, the staff disbursed, though the horses still needed tending.
Miguel persuaded me to assist. “At least until the animals are sold,” he said.
The stables had been left intact. After cleaning the ashes that had blown into their stalls, it was safe for the horses to return. They grazed on the estate’s grassy fields so we could ration the leftover hay.
Taking my time grooming one of the more startled horses, trying to calm him, I knew that I delayed the inevitable. Nothing stopped me from going home now. Yet, as the days rolled by, one after another, I tried to push from mind the reality that since my arrival here, I’d never set foot off the ranch.
Miguel lay on the grassy bank, his hat covering his face, taking his usual afternoon siesta. Making sure I was out of his line of sight, I dug up the coins I’d previously buried.
I then saddled the fastest horse, which seemed to take longer than usual. The stallion sensed something was wrong and acted skittishly.
Only one way to do it, gallop out of the ranch so fast that turning back would risk me falling off.
* * * *
Where there had once been vast areas of land, cottages were now lined here and there along the route, the church tower off in the distance the only landmark. A busy marketplace had sprung up in the old town.
No one recognized me and I recognized no one.
Upon arrival at the place I’d once called home, I dismounted. There, up high to the left of the house, was an open bedroom window that had been mine. The property had been maintained well, so much so that time seemed to have stood still. I wondered how much the house had changed inside. I’d run out of this front door more times than I could count, taken for granted the warm meals and my mother’s hugs that I’d squirmed my way out of, the bedroom where my brother Ricardo had sat beside me, recounting tales of his adventures, inspiring the most daring of dreams, that one day I too might hear the cheer of the crowds, as I entered the bullring as a matador.
Full of excitement, I’d climbed down those vines that still straddled the house.
I wanted to tell that small, naïve boy that was me to go back. I pushed such thoughts away and knocked on the front door. A young girl answered, her weary-looking mother soon came up behind her. Agitated, my mind tried to keep up with the words the woman spoke, that the Veldes had all passed away, other than their daughter Alicia, who’d moved, her forwarding address unknown.
My past had been stolen from me.
The happiest memories were bullied out by the worst ones. Freedom had arrived too late. I mounted my horse and galloped off, tears streaming. Facing my fears, with jaw clenched and motivated by hunger, I headed back into town.
TURN BACK BEFORE it’s too late.
Head high, I entered the law office. The front reception seemed surprisingly disorganized, papers scattered here and there, and piles of documents stacked high. On one of the heaps of files lay a curled up tabby cat. Upon the mantle, a candle dripped wax. It trickled to the edge and poured over, plopping onto the floor, its red splashes hardening into shiny circles. A seeming inability to keep up with the client’s affairs presented an advantage.
Señor Teofilo, Roelle’s solicitor, greeted me. As the minutes unfolded, so did his eagerness to rid himself of all dealings with the house of Bastillion. Teofilo had once had his share of disagreements with Roelle, it seemed.
We headed to his private office and settled at an old bay table. I studied his expression for any sign that would indicate his suspicion of a tampered will. He recited in monotone Roelle’s wishes. His methodical demeanor almost made up for the disarray.
During the reading, I feigned surprise that I’d inherited the estate. Although the property had been destroyed, his fortune, banked with the house of Refair, had been substantial. Certainly more than I’d anticipated. Roelle’s penchant for wearing tatty suits had fooled everyone.
I could only wonder how Felipe would react when he learned of the fortune being handed down to Ricardo’s youngest brother. Grenaldi had been bequeathed in the old will, but removed completely from the new. With a flicker of the fountain pen, I signed the official papers and the name Bastillion changed to Velde on the legal possessorship. Although no amount of money could ever make up for all that I’d lost, it did offer some comfort that I would never know hunger again.
The cat’s gaze stayed on me as I headed out.
With the large advance, petty cash from the estate, I purchased new clothes for both Miguel and myself. I also returned with fresh food purchased from the expensive stalls that I’d stuck my nose up against as a boy, peering eagerly at the delicious assortments, though denied a taste.
Riding home, I scoffed thick pieces of bread, closely followed by a large chunk of cheese, then chomped on the largest piece of ham I’d ever seen, followed by several sweet cakes, hardly tasting them. Relief came when my stomach ache wore off and I marveled at my ability not to throw up.
When I’d fully recovered from my gorge, I kicked my horse and galloped the rest of the way home.
I’d pulled it off. The real challenge would be when I told Miguel. I found him in the paddock, exercising a young mare.
“It’s time you took a day off,” I said.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
Miguel pulled on the horse’s reins. “You can’t handle them on your own, and besides I don’t consider this work.”
“We can hire staff.”
He let the mare loose, allowing her to have the run of the paddock and she flicked her long, grey-white mane, cantering free. He climbed over the gate.
“Hungry?” I said.
His hand disappeared into the linen bag that I’d tied to the saddle. “Where did you get the money?”
“It was left to me by Roelle.”
“That’s where you’ve been?”
“With Roelle’s lawyer?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was last minute.”
Miguel pulled out a piece of ham and bit into it. “How much?”
“More than enough food to last a week.”
“I meant how much money?”
“Quite a sum.”
His bushy eyebrows rose in surprise.
“Life is fluid, it frequently changes,” I quoted him.
“Just chatted with Roelle’s lawyer.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I stared off.
“What happened that night?” Miguel asked. “How did the fire start?”
The breakfast delivered but uneaten, the maid tending to her duties. Roelle thrashing.
“Before he died, I’d considered running away,” I said.
“No one blames you for his death,” Miguel said. “We just want to know how it happened.”
A lump caught in my throat. What happened that night would remain a mystery, like Aaron’s disappearance.
Miguel patted my back. “His reasons for leaving you something are taken with him to the grave.”
“You disapprove of his decision?”
“He cared about you, but considering you enough in this manner, it does surprise me, yes.”
“I was a loyal servant.”
His eyes glistened. “Roelle has influential friends.”
“What if they come looking for you wanting answers?”
“Are you telling me not to accept the money?”
“Just give it some thought, that’s all.”
“We’re on the verge of starvation.”
Miguel peeked back into the linen bag and reached in. “Perhaps I should stop asking questions?”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I’m taking back my life. And in the process, I plan on clearing my name.”
“Daumia, no one remembers that now—”
“Then you’re destined to be like Roelle.”
“I want people to know that I’m innocent.”
“Your inability to forgive—”
“This is forgiveness.” I pointed to where the house had stood. “This is retribution. The house of Velde will pale the house of Bastillion.”
“Exactly how much did you inherit?”
He stared off at the mounds of ash. “It just goes to prove that people often do things out of character.”
“Do you mean him or me?”
Miguel raised his arms up in exasperation.
I leaned against the gate. “We start rebuilding tomorrow.”