SEPTEMBER CHALLENGE - Topic: The Beginning
©2012 AP Castell
‘Come Jaya, we must keep walking.’ Maisen urged his betrothed, taking her hand as he returned to the front of the crowd. She, like many of the tribe were struggling to continue, they were all suffering fatigue and dehydration. Several of the sick and elderly had already perished. No man, woman or child had eaten for more than two sun revolutions.
Fragten and his men had been responsible for that, burning their village to the ground and destroying everything, grain, cured meats, preserves and other provisions they had collected over months, in preparation for this journey. Thankfully, most of the women and children had been at worship. The few that had remained, had been brutally slain, his mother amongst them. When he and the hunting party had returned it had been too late. His anger flared anew consuming his grief. He would avenge each and every one, if it was the last thing he did.
‘It is not much further, my heart,’ he put a hand under her elbow, the endearment familiar to his lips. She was petite. Her flame hair was coming unravelled from her braid.
‘I am fine, do not bother with me, there are many who need help far more. Go, be with your people.’ Jaya smiled gently up at him, her fathomless green eyes large in her small, pale face. Stretching up, she brushed his hair off his cheek and newly acquired scar. The eye-patch concealed the worst of it. Sadness entered her gaze.
Taking her hand in his, he pressed his lips to her knuckles. She was a brushfire that brightened his darkness. After a moment’s hesitation he walked away to tend to his people.
He and his men moved amongst them, assisting where they could, though his strength now waned. For the safety of the migrating populace they must push on. They were exposed like this and under threat of discovery from Fragten’s troops. They did not have man power, nor stamina, to battle Fragten.
The tribe had declined in recent years, its numbers only reaching in excess of a hundred, half of which accounted for the hunting part. They were not soldiers, but husbands, fathers and sons. A peaceable people, before Fragten had begun his campaign of terror. As hunters they were skilled with their weapons, but never had they turned them on another human being. Now however they did what must be done to defend their own.
The woman beside him stumbled. Reaching out a hand he stopped her fall, she was with child. She smiled.
‘Not much further.’ He assured, guiding her to the edge of the crowd he lifted her onto a horse, behind a child.
In an attempt to lift the tribe’s spirits Jaya had suggested he walk alongside them. Sitting before him on the stallion at the time, she had insisting on walking also. Ignoring his words, she had dismounted, offering his stallion to a man with five children, four now sat astride, while the eldest lead the beast. He had instructed his men to do likewise, apart from the hunting party, few others had horses. Fragten’s men had stolen the ones stabled.
‘Look the pinnacle of Asalon, it beckons us.’ A voice in the crowd cried.
As he reached the summit the great stone pillars came into view at the base of the hill. The crowd surged forward as one, eager for the sanctuary of the promised land.
Weaving between bodies he searched for Jaya. When he made the front striding ahead of the mass, he panicked. She was nowhere. Fear rose from within, don’t let her be trampled by the crush.
Relief flooded him, she sat atop a rubble of rocks. He made his way to her, the crowd veered allowing their chief to pass.
‘Jaya, why do you stop when we are so close?’
‘It is my ankle.’ Tears shimmered in her eyes.
He lifted her into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck, resting her head against his shoulder. Turning he marched down the hill, quickly closing the distance to the stone gateway.
His people gathered there, waiting for him to lead them into Asalon. He waited until they were all present before he spoke, ‘For too many years we have lived in fear, enduring much turmoil and suffering. Today is the beginning of a better life. Here we shall live in peace, raising our families in harmony, our children will flourish. Let us enter as one.’ Turning, Jaya held against his chest, he lead the way. The view took his breath, lush green hills and valleys interrupted by a sapphire ribbon that wove its way to the sea.
Looking down at Jaya, she smiled back at him. Tears of joy dampened her cheeks.
‘Our new beginning, Jaya.’
The Beginning by Carolyn Wren
Insistent, continuous ringing in his head.
Stifling a groan Sebastian reached across and thumped the alarm clock before realising the sound was the doorbell.
Who the heck thought it had been a good idea to have a party the night before his birthday, therefore consigning the anniversary of his birth to hangover territory?
Oh yes, that would be his brothers. The moment he laid eyes on them again they were toast.
“Coming,” he growled and staggered downstairs.
“What?” he yanked open the door. Bright sunlight burned his retinas with stunning accuracy but haloed within it was a kitten. Or more accurately a woman dressed as a kitten, with a black leotard clinging to killer curves, furry ears pinned to light blond curls and whiskers drawn on porcelain pale cheeks. Bright blue eyes looked at him startled for a few seconds and blinked rapidly.
To add to the surreal image, she started singing.
“I’m a tiger, I’m a tiger…”
The voice was throaty and low, a sexy hum of sound that tingled along his spine. Intrigued but confused Sebastian held up his hand. “I think you have the wrong house.”
“No I don’t,” she took a deep breath, “I’m a tiger, I’m a…”
She paused when his hand rose again.
“I’m sorry, either I am still asleep or…?” he left the question open.
A soft but stubborn chin kicked upwards, “I’m a singing telegram.”
“Who on earth…?” He didn’t even finish the sentence. His damn brothers were definitely toast.
“Alright, I’ll play along, why a cat?”
“You love cats.”
Sebastian would have argued but at that precise moment Tubby, one of his feline housemates curled around his ankles, demanding attention. He picked her up and she purred like a freight train against his face.
The other kitten, the human one, raised a brow. “May I continue?”
Inclining his head he encouraged her.
“I’m a tiger…”
This time when his hand rose she huffed out a breath and looked at him with exasperation. “What now?”
“Tigers have stripes.”
Small dainty hands settled on her hips, “your point?”
“You,” he gestured to her outfit, “don’t.”
When she spoke it was through gritted teeth, “They didn’t have a striped leotard costume at the office.”
His little kitten had claws, Sebastian resisted the urge to smile. “Then why are you singing about a tiger?”
“I-did-not-choose-the-song,” each word was succinct.
“Aah it’s because I like cats.”
“You love cats,” she corrected.
“And you know this how?”
“It’s written all over your face,” her tone was sugar sweet with a cheeky edge.
Something about it alerted him and he glanced at the hallway mirror. The words, ‘I Love Cats’ were written in marker across his forehead, and if he knew his matchmaking brothers, it was permanent marker.
He nodded ruefully, “It seems you have me at a disadvantage, I’m Seb, and you are?”
She grinned, “Kat.”
Sebastian grinned back, “Hi Kat, tell me, do you happen to know a couple of mischief making young university students called Jason and Adam?”
She nodded, “The twins? They come into the coffee shop where I work part time on campus.”
“And do these matchmaking do-gooders happen to know about your singing work?”
Giving him a wary look she nodded, “We got talking one day. Do you think that…?”
“Oh yes, I definitely think that. My brothers have a romantic soul and a strong desire to find me someone special.”
A flush of pink highlighted her cheeks. “Do you want me to just go?”
No he didn’t, he really didn’t.
“It’s my birthday Kat, would you like to join me in a coffee?”
Her lips tilted in a half smile, “Do I get to finish my song?”
“Then yes, I would like a coffee. Oh by the way, this singing telegram is COD.”
Sebastian threw back his head and burst out laughing before realising that did nothing for his hangover and winced.
Her laughter echoed his. “Are you alright?”
“I will be after coffee.” He stepped aside to allow her entry. “Come in and sing for me Kat, tell me all about yourself and then we will plan revenge on my brothers, what do you think?”
“I think that’s an excellent idea.” The moment she crossed his threshold, bending to pick up a second feline housemate, something inside Sebastian clicked into place.
Like the beginning of something special.
The song that insipired this piece can be found at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgCnywMOY9I
©Jennie Jones 2012
‘You grab a hat on your way out, Miss Marianna. I haven’t got time to chase after you with a first-aid kit and a bucket of water.’
Marianna Praskovya Sebastian, great granddaughter of Count Pyotr Alexandrovich Sevastyan, scrunched her eyes and stared through the opened cedar doors of the homestead to the vastness beyond. There was no beginning to the vista, not even a middle, just ethereal endlessness, blemished with little more than the struggle to breathe in the heat.
She’d never seen Russia, but she could say with confidence that outback Queensland was nothing like Wimbledon.
‘A moment without a hat is a moment too long out here,’ Rosa said, her mouth set at a no-nonsense angle in her dark skinned face.
‘Yes,’ Marianna answered as she stepped out to the veranda. ‘I’ll get one in a moment.’ She inhaled the suffocating heaviness in the air. A month ago she’d been trapped by convention, then adventure had stepped on her heart and left a deep footprint.
‘You’re going to ruin another pair of fine cotton trousers if you go walkabout dressed in those,’ drawled a lazy, born-on-the-land voice.
Marianna turned. Coralie MacKintosh sat astride her horse, the reins held loosely in her hands. The woman’s ancestors might have hailed from Scotland, but Coralie had wiped out all traces of bonny Highland grace from her line, apart from her nickname, Mac. And she lived up to the maleness of that with pride that seeped from her long, work-firmed limbs. Even the flies didn’t stay on Mac for too long.
‘Thank you, Coralie,’ Marianna said. ‘Good advice.’ After two weeks on the station she’d learned to take advice on the chin. There wasn’t an option.
‘I keep telling you, it’s Mac.’ Mac swung off her horse with the vigour of a young warrior. ‘You’re not kitted out properly.’
‘I didn’t need a stockwhip in London. I’d have stood out in the crowd - and you know how shy I am.’
Mac grumbled a laugh. ‘Retiring isn’t the expression hovering on my lips.’
‘You don’t think I can hack it out here, do you?’
‘You won’t be here long enough for me to worry about it.’
Marianna smiled. ‘Parsimonious response there, Mac.’
‘Illiberal is my middle name, duchess.’
‘It’s Marianna. I don’t have a title.’ Marianna kept her mouth curved but her brain was busting to know how Mac knew so much. Somewhere, somehow, Coralie Mackintosh had had a thorough academic schooling. ‘You swallowed a dictionary again, Mac?’
‘Yeah - and you better hide yours.’ Mac looped the reins over the veranda railing. ‘Boss’s back. He doesn’t like classy females stuttering fancy words at him.’
A prickle ran down Marianna’s spine. So he was here at last. Had he brought the little girl, Natalie, with him? ‘I can hold my own.’
‘Yeah …’ Mac crossed in front of Marianna and headed for the far end of the veranda.
‘She’s got a hat,’ Rosa was saying. ‘She just don’t think about wearing it, but she ain’t too stupid to walk far.’
Mac laughed. ‘She’s got a stubborn streak in her. You better get used to it, Nate. Or wise up. We call her The Duchess.’
‘But she don’t like it,’ Rosa added.
‘Well,’ rumbled another born-on-the-land brogue, thoroughly masculine this time. ‘Let’s just remember that around here, I’m the only one with a title.’
‘Right-oh, boss,’ Rosa said.
The man she’d been waiting for had an arm rested over the opened door of a dirt-battered 4WD and a booted foot on the running board. He was rangy enough to be comfortable on a horse seventeen hands high, his lean-muscled length capable of sitting in the saddle a whole week without need of a softer seat.
He turned his gaze to Marianna. He looked hot, restless and thirsty; as though he had a hundred miles ahead of him and two hours sleep behind him. Nathaniel Milligan. The boss feller.
‘Marianna Praskovya Sebastian,’ he said, enunciating her Russian middle name correctly. ‘Great granddaughter of a count.’
‘That’s not something that’s on my résumé.’
He stepped forwards and tilted his stockman’s hat but didn’t remove it from his head. ‘Honours degree in European history. Archivist employed by numerous stately homes in Britain. Author of “Artefacts Lost with our Emigrating Ancestors”.’
She nodded. ‘Now that is on my résumé.’ And the supposed reason she was here on his station.
‘Your education doesn’t count for much out here.’
‘It was enough for the lawyer in Cairns to employ me.’
‘He didn’t choose you. I did.’
It was the first Marianna had heard about that.
He pulled his near black eyebrows together over eyes darkened with tenacity. His nose and mouth were made more prominent by the wide brow and the square set of his jaw. ‘So.’ He smiled, bowed slightly. ‘Where is your hat, your highness?’
She’d have to deal with his arrogance in order to get to the little girl, and if the secret she’d carried with her from England turned out to be true, her life would never be the same. She’d have to stay in Australia.
She drew a breath. It wasn’t only this land that had no beginning. She’d been thrust into the middle of a journey. All she had to do now was conquer the end.