Here’s an excerpt from PRESERVING HOPE, the second novel in the Aliomenti Saga. The novel will soon be available from Amazon.com.
WARNING: Contains spoilers from A QUESTION OF WILL!
Will Stark watched the villagers seal the lid of Elizabeth Lowell’s coffin.
She had been the daughter of Genevieve and Arthur Lowell. Genevieve wasn’t here to watch as the simple pine box holding her only child was lowered into the grave. Genevieve wasn’t able to cry until there were no more tears to cry, nor was she able to curse her every breath as one stolen from the young woman buried that day. Genevieve had found her eternal rest three years earlier, and she now waited in silence as Elizabeth became her eternal companion.
Arthur, though, had to live through this event, not shielded from every parent’s worst nightmare, the nightmare of burying your own child. For Arthur, the experience was far more profound, for deep down, he knew that his only child was dead before her twentieth birthday because of his own greed and selfishness.
At least, he should have known that.
Arthur had been part of a group of slaves who had escaped into the wilds of medieval northern England, revolting against a return to a life of servitude. The group had been forced to serve as human test subjects for a baron desirous of getting his slaves to live longer and work harder by freeing them of the diseases and ill health that lessened his return on his investment in human capital. If the experiments worked, they’d be healthy; if the experiments failed – as they had with earlier groups – then the slaves would die. The experiments with Arthur’s group had succeeded, but had the curious side-effect of giving that group of slaves a thirst for freedom that could not be quenched. Arthur and the others had escaped, built up modest wealth, and had constructed a thriving village. There, they’d conducted experiments of their own choosing, seeking a far greater payoff than mere good health. The experiments were all conducted by a single “volunteer,” a young girl “hired” each day to test out every possible “magical” substance reputed to provide a payoff of mythical proportions. Though she worked against her will and received none of the money paid for her services, the young girl – Elizabeth – was expected to freely share any breakthroughs with those who enslaved her.
In the end, though, the experiments had led only to the early and violent death of that girl. Earlier protests of her treatment by two women – Genevieve, and the woman who had come to be a second mother to Elizabeth – had led to those women preceding Elizabeth in death. For Arthur, these three deaths were a small price to pay to gain the knowledge and power he sought above all else.
Several of the men of the village pounded nails into the wood, sealing the box for eternity, just after Will caught a final glimpse of Elizabeth. Her hair was a flaming-red color like that of Will’s daughter, Angel, but in death it lacked the same vibrancy. Elizabeth’s hair now looked like the dying embers remaining from a once-great fire, the dirty hair matted against her head by blood and sweat. The bruises still marred her face, never having had the chance to heal before her bodily functions ceased. Her blue eyes, a window into the sadness of her life, were hidden behind eyelids sealed shut from the beating she’d endured. Her neighbors, aroused to a fearful passion aided by Elizabeth’s own father, had exacted their final toll. After a decade of physical trauma and emotional neglect, Arthur had disowned his own daughter in her time of greatest need and peril, delivering Elizabeth to her early grave rather than standing up for the daughter he’d long ceased to show any fondness. Instead, the former slave had discarded his own child when she no longer served him any purpose.
Will bent to the ground and grasped one of the three long, wooden poles used to lift and carry the coffin. At a count of three, he joined the two women and three men in standing up, lifting the pine box off the ground for transport to the gravesite. They walked in silence, pausing as Will momentarily lost his balance. There were no tears shed during this solemn time, for outside of one of the men carrying the coffin, they all bore a share of the guilt for the young woman’s demise, a fatality that seemed predestined. No priest presided over the ceremony, for none of them wanted to be reminded of the terrible guilt they all shared.
The earth had already been removed from Elizabeth’s final resting place. The dirt sat in a large pile atop Genevieve’s grave, lest anyone step on the ground of the older woman already buried. The pallbearers placed the pine box atop the open grave, where the wooden poles allowed the coffin to remain above ground. Will and two other men unrolled three coils of sturdy rope, which were fed under the coffin. The pallbearers lifted the box a few inches off the ground using the ropes, and one of the villagers removed the three poles from beneath the coffin. Inch by inch, the six lowered the box down into the grave, until it reached the bottom with a finality fitting for the end of a young life. They dropped the lengths of rope into the hole and stepped back.
Arthur Lowell stepped forward. As the father of the deceased, it was his duty to speak. “We have suffered a great loss. Elizabeth was a young woman of beauty, possessing a generosity of spirit rare among any I’ve ever met. She has uniquely contributed to the success of this community, and we mourn that she will be unable to continue share in that success. In her memory, we must continue to move forward along the path she cleared, to see the sights she made available for all of us. In many ways, she epitomizes what we strive to be, ever seeking to push the boundaries of human development. We will not let her death be in vain.” There were murmurs of agreement and appreciation at his words.
Will looked around at the small assembly, incredulous. “That was a beautiful speech, Arthur. Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think her death was of her own choosing. Let me offer my eulogy. Today, this young woman is laid to rest as a human sacrifice on the altar of greed and laziness and cowardice. She is mourned by those gathered here, not because they truly sorrow at her loss, but because they do not know where the next sacrificial victim will be found. They cry not because she is gone, but because they fear they’ll be the next chosen to join her, the next innocent bludgeoned to death by so-called neighbors. None of you has any right to be standing on this ground; you all bear the guilt of her demise, regardless of the number of blows you delivered.”
Most of the eyes in the gathering fell to the ground, their silence speaking volumes to the guilt they bore and the truth of his words. Arthur’s eyes blazed in anger. “How dare you!” he hissed. “How dare you belittle her in such a fashion! My daughter worked harder than anyone here to unlock the secrets we know wait just beyond our grasp, teasing us with their potential, and you tarnish her memory before the dirt is in her grave?”
Will marched straight to Arthur, until he could lean down and stare directly into the shorter man’s terrified eyes. “Get out of here now, Arthur.” Will turned around, his gaze taking in all of those assembled. “All of you. Leave this place. You gave this woman no peace during her life. You failed to give her a childhood full of fun and play and laughter. You never gave her the love all children so desperately need. You feign interest in her now, as if you expect that to atone for the crimes you’ve committed against her. Her life is over; it’s too late to seek forgiveness now. Leave, so that her final burial is performed by hands that didn’t drive her into that grave.”
Will turned back to Arthur and again stared down the shorter man, who finally withered under his gaze. Arthur turned and left the clearing, followed by the rest of the villagers, leaving Will alone with the coffin and the empty grave. Silence followed their departure, suggesting that he was alone, but Will knew that Arthur had not gone all the way back to the village with the others.
After a few moments of quiet contemplation kneeling by the grave, Will stood and seized a shovel. He began pushing the dirt back into the open grave, covering the coffin and filling the hole. He worked without stopping, ignoring the sweat beading on his forehead and dampening his clothes. Once the grave was filled with dirt, Will located a small piece of rope on the ground nearby, and used it to fashion a small cross from two tree branches. He pushed the marker into the ground, and knelt down. He allowed the tears to flow, weeping over the tortuous life the young woman had lived. He wept at the love she’d so desperately sought from her father, love that the man had never reciprocated. He wept at her horror at the realization that that same man had permitted and encouraged her final end.
Will rose to his feet and marched into the trees, where Arthur stood, watching the entire scene.
“You loved her, didn’t you?” It wasn’t a question that Arthur directed at Will. It was an accusation, one designed to twist the emotional knife just a bit deeper, and perhaps locate a weak point for future exploitation.
Will fixed Arthur with a steady gaze, his eyes bright with malice toward the shorter man. “I will love her until the end of my days.”
And then he punched Arthur square in the face, turned, and headed away from the village, ignoring Arthur’s cries of pain.
He needed to get as far from this spot as possible. Only then could he determine if the woman lying in the box was still alive, or if he’d accidentally killed his future wife.
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Copyright (c) 2012 by Alex Albrinck. All Rights Reserved.