2012 © Sonia Bartlett

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Part Six

     Creeping down the windowless stone hallway, Arabella kept glancing over her shoulder. Where was everyone? It seemed as if the entire manor was empty! But how could that be? Where were Mrs. Scott and the grumpy old Conn? Or even the man whose voice she’d heard pleading with the beast? After walking through passageways and encountering locked doors and darkened rooms, Arabella almost wished even the monster would show up.

     At least then he would scare away the lingering sensation that something was watching her.

     The air began getting cooler as Arabella made her way farther and farther into the enormous estate. When she turned a corner and saw a dark cloak hanging by it, she knew it was a door. Looking over her shoulder yet again, she found no one there. Quickly she threw on the oversized cloak and pulled the door open with some effort.

     She was greeted by a chilly blast of air that made her breath show before her. Latching the door after her she strode quickly outside lest someone catch her. Looking left and right she decided to survey the grounds.

     Nature had always held a certain appeal for Arabella. There was something about the guileless beauty of trees and flowers that drew her like a bee to a rose. Its thrall was only muted by that of books and stories of faraway lands and kingdoms that prospered as Riderscroft never had.

     Perhaps it was blind faith that made her think something good could come out of her life. But, she mused, her eyes going over the darkened grounds, if she had no hope, then she had nothing left.

     Searching her surroundings, Arabella noted more than a few dark and forbidding stone forms that hulked over the overgrown gardens. They were fearsome things covered with dead vines and ivy that had been left unkempt for many years. In fact, all of the grass and trees looked disheveled from years of neglect.

     As she passed what used to be an assortment of roses, she leaned over to cup what might have been a red or yellow bloom.

     “You must have been gorgeous,” she murmured. Just then a branch of a cherry tree shuddered under a small weight.  Gasping, Arabella turned quickly only to find the same strange creature from her room with its head cocked to the side in curiosity.  

     “Are you following me?” Arabella asked with suspicion before shaking her head. How could it possibly have been following her?

     But she was proved wrong as she moved from place to place as the hours wore on. The estate gardens were huge, if neglected, and every stop she made to wistfully admire what might have been, the funny little creature stopped not far behind her.

      From branch to branch it jumped, sometimes taking flight on its wide, leathery wings. Eventually she began talking to it, commenting about how lovely something must have looked before. Before what, she didn’t know, but the creature looked at her as if it understood and that was enough for Arabella.

    And so the day wore on like that, the two of them exploring together. Soon Arabella began thinking of it not as a creature but as a friend, just like she would Mrs. Scott.

     “Now I have two allies in this place,” she told it at one point.

     As Arabella continued wandering, she came upon a building, the first she’d seen since she’d left the main manor. Curious, she quickened her pace toward it, but just then the creature did something strange.

     Before it had been contented to just fly beside her, or swoop around her, but now it dove for her. Making a sort of chattering noise it flew in front of her, forcing her to take a step and then two away from the building.

     “Shoo! You crazy little thing,” Arabella waved it away from her face and began running toward the building with haste. This only seemed to agitate it more and its movements became more frantic.

     As she finally reached the building she shut the door quickly, leaving the crazed thing outside where it chattered pitifully.

     “Good riddance,” she huffed.

     And then she looked around her. Open spaces between wooden slats made it easy for Arabella to see the tall, proud bearings of the two gated animals inside.

     Mouth open in admiration, Arabella walked toward the closer of the two, a stocky gray work horse with regal bearing that strangely reminded her of Conn.

      Reaching it, she stroked down its long nose, murmuring her appreciation of his beauty. Just then a dark shadow swooped in and landed on the edge of the gate with what seemed like a disapproving glare.

     Hugging the gray’s neck, Arabella whispered almost resentfully, “What? Are you behaving now?” Its expression was almost of resignation.

     The little creature didn’t move so she turned to the other horse. It was midnight black, nearly as tall as the work horse, and yet it was built with fine, elegant lines that would have made him a choice mount for the King of Negly himself!

     “You know,” she said, talking aloud to herself, “I could leave now.” The horse whiffled in disapproval and backed away into his stall as if it new she was looking to ride it. Sighing, she held tighter to the gray. “I could run, and never come back. The villagers wouldn’t know…my body would never be returned so another girl wouldn’t be sent…” The last words drained whatever hope she’d had.

     Arabella chanced a look up at the little creature to find certain sadness in its obsidian eyes.

     She sighed heavily. “I can’t though. The beast would surely come for the village. He’d destroy everything. And even if he didn’t…”

     The gray’s ears perked and he nudged her hand. “The leaders made it very clear, you know,” she whispered. “If my mother carries a girl, she’s free but when the child is of age she will be offered.” Arabella shuddered. “And if she carries a boy, she shall be offered next.”

     “How could she survive that?” she begged, her eyes locked with the small creature’s. “She would be the oldest Aukoti ever offered. My brother – the baby – couldn’t survive.”

     Arabella put a hand to her face as silent sobs racked her body. “So you see,” she whispered, “I can’t leave. I must stay – stay for as long as I can.”

     Wiping her tears, she refused to meet the black gleam of the creature’s eyes, or the soft chocolate of either horse. With a stroke down the gray’s nose, she ran from the stables heading back to the manor, only now aware by the rumbling of her stomach of the lateness of hour.

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I start college Tuesday! If there's a slow-down in updates I'm sorry ahead of time, but it's unavoidable! However, I'll do my best to ensure that doesn't happen! =)

Please check out my new stort Toria. It's about a girl just coming back to her hometown after six years.

~ Sonia

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