Chapter Nine: The Castillo

     Taking leave of that somber abode and the even grimmer hosts, I left the convent and began my way up a wending road.  Three sisters I had spoken with told me I would find transport but a half mile from here.  A wagon they said, often crossed the path, and for a few coins its owner would be glad to take me; however, I noticed that when I mentioned where I was going, they all but fled.  One gave me her cross to wear. “Take this dear girl, and keep it close to your heart . . .”   They said or would say nothing more.
     The path to the clearing mentioned by the sisters was quite rocky, and hard.  The stones were rounded white pebbles and the air seemed heavier here, as if dripping with the salt of the sea.  Yes, heavy.
     I was about to take a rest from this journey when I heard a whistle. I thought that it sounded like my strange new friend, Raven, but no, it was sadly not so.
     A horse’s silhouette appeared against the sunlight, black, and a rider tipped his black hat to me.
     “Hello young lady, and may I inquire why do you travel alone, and to where?  You are dressed not like the smart but sassy women of our coast — you come from across the seas?  Have you far to go now?”
     He asked far too many questions, some which I did not care to answer.
     “My family lives beyond that mountain crag, or so I am told.  I am visiting.  I’ve a call.”
     He smiled, but the red glow of the sun on his brow seemed sinister now.
     “Your family?”
     “Yes. Their castle, I have heard, is not too far away. I may travel by foot, or . . .”
     The man’s dark eyes now swam in shadows, glimmered, blazed. He seemed . . . pensive.
     “Oh no, oh no, my young lady, you should not go up there . . . have you not heard?  Oh, you are not from here, how silly of me.”
     “What have I not . . . heard?”
     He did not smile this time.
     “Are you . . . you are one of them?  Oh no, no, it cannot be!”
     With this, he sped away on the gallant black steed, the sparks of flint against horseshoes leaving me to wonder if this was a joke; one would have though I’d just stepped into the most backward country of all time from the ridiculous reactions, the over dramatic reactions of these overly dramatic people who I assume drink far too much of red wine!
     And so, the young dandy left me there, and reminded me of the remnants of their superstitious past.  Hundreds of years could not change even that.
     I was left with nothing to do but walk on my own, for no wagon came, nor any horseman, or man, or woman, or even a child or beast of any kind.
     Only the wind seemed to whip the silks of my dress, now moist under the heat of the sun, as it did the pale rider who left me all alone.  And now I grew tired, weary, but I could no go back now — I’d come thus far.
     The mountains grew deeper and encircled me as a chamber now.  Vultures, not ravens, loomed here.  The air was stagnant, the earth red, as if teeming blood.
     The cries of a strange bird haunted me as I spotted the first grim towers of a great black castle.  Its windows were bolted shut.  Its doors framed by heavy ironwork.
     I did not know if I wanted to come nearer to this place now.  The gardens were overgrown with filth and leaves; weeds grew in place of a labyrinthine garden hedge that one must have been quite impressive.  Jagged spikes tore at the heavens and the sky seemed to answer with great thundering and a plummet of rain.  This was the home of this ancestral family — the great and the seemingly terrible and feared — this?  I shuddered.  The cold seeped into veins.
     Tentatively, I knocked, three times; held my own breath.  A pale servant with a thin white mustache bid me enter when I told him who I was. He seemed quietly uneasy, and led me to the main hallway from the once gallant staircase.  A room was there, to the right.  Dinner at eight.  They will surely be glad for this company, he mentioned, as company is so very rare these days.
     In my room I found many rich clothes that I could wear, despite some mottled with dust and moth-eaten.   must hurry, dinner at eight, he said. Are you hungry? “Yes,” I said, and how many will be attending dinner?”
     “Ah, there are but a few of the family left now but . . . they are so different from their predecessors . . .” he stopped then as if checking his own speech.
     “You may meet them if you wish; they are in the common room.”
     What I saw then unnerved me.
     First, I was introduced to Lisbetta. Her eyes betrayed some mockery I did not yet understand.  She petted a brightly-plumed peacock, the same bird that echoed the odd cry I had heard earlier.
     “Bartolemo, he is my pet” she said, and fanned herself with a fan made out of, what else, peacock feathers.
     A young man with pasty skin and extremely bright blue, narrowed eyes, sat on a balcony.  He seemed either to smirk or to be annoyed.  Josuel, he said, unsmiling, and went back to his stance.
     And laying in a chaise in a black dress, a woman with great dark eyes.
     “Esmeralda.  Pleased to meet you my dear.”  She puffed on a long hookah, the odours of an opium perfume clouding the air around her. Her black eyes smiled.
     “Would you like some?”
     I shook my head. She laughed.
     “I thought . . . not.”
     The servant, Rosarios, turned to me.
     “Master Esteban is gone right now, but he will be here.  Later.”
     “Rosarios, I . . . I think I would like to retire to my room for a while, as I feel greatly fatigued.”
     He nodded and led me back upstairs.
     “As you wish.”
     He stumbled a bit as he walked.  I did not notice until later he always wore an agony of expression that I mistook for nobility of manner; his words seemed literally forced . . . not his own.

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