Saint’s Grove, Virginia, October 24th, 1875
“Another round if you will, Thomas.” I raise my empty glass.
“You have drunk quite enough, lad. It’s high time you go home.”
“Home.” The word tastes bitter in my mouth. “That is the last place I want to be.”
The establishment’s patron makes a scratching sound with the back of his throat and leans his thick forearms on the polished-to-splendid-shine mahogany counter.
“All right, lad. I will take the bait. What happened to make you act like a whiny baby?”
I take a deep breath and let my shoulders hunch forward. “My father lied to me.”
Thomas raises his bushy eyebrows, creating multiple lines on his weathered forehead in the process. “That is the reason for your ill disposition? Let me tell you a hard truth, boy. All fathers lie. It is the way of the world. I am certain he is only doing what he thinks is right.”
I shake my head. Thomas will never understand the level of betrayal and deception my father was capable of. He deliberately lied to me, faked a terminal illness so that I would board the first ship back to America. We had made a deal. I was to graduate from Oxford and then I would come home. But the man had gotten it into his stupid head that I was not going to keep my end of the bargain. And maybe, his suspicions had not been quite unfounded. Many nights I had lain awake in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering what my life would be like if I could remain in England after graduation. No doubt my father would disown me.
Those restless nights were just dreams, though. I could not break my word. I could not turn my back on my family, on the role my father expected me to play. Maybe that is why I had sought out friendship with the most notorious rebels in my class, Charles and Nathaniel. Maybe that is why those illegal boxing fights held so much appeal to me. If my deep sense of loyalty prevented me from rebelling against my shackles, then I had to find another way to let out the searing rage I kept concealed most of the time.
Without my friends and the fights, the next best thing was to drown my sorrows in cheap whiskey, pursue the sweet oblivion that only alcohol can provide. Here, in this dark saloon where the smell of polished wood, beer, and stale sweat mingle, where the grime on the windows is so thick one cannot see the outside world, I am able to smother my inner turmoil, forget I am back in this God forsaken town.
“Just please fill up my glass, Thomas.” I push the empty cup toward him.
He shakes his head in resignation before he retrieves the bottle of whisky he keeps hidden from view. It is the best thing he has in the house, and he charges accordingly. To me, it tastes like liquid fire. Considering the wicked stuff is made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and perhaps a little chewing tobacco, it is not a surprise the taste is unpleasant.
I pull the stone amulet from inside my shirt and stare at it, thinking of the person who gave it to me. Alice. A little warmth spreads through my cold heart, as if there is a small ember there that refuses to extinguish.
“What is that?” Thomas places a full glass of whiskey in front of me.
“Nothing.” I hide the amulet from view once more, not wanting to share the only piece I have left of Alice.
“That looks like a lady’s piece of jewelry. Why in the world are you wearing it?”
“It reminds me of someone.”
“Ah, I see. So that is what this moping is all about. You are pining over a young lady.”
“I’m not pining.”
No. Pining is not the right word to describe the swirling emotion in my chest. Pining would mean some kind of affection that pales in comparison to my true feelings for her. I miss her. More than I ever thought possible. She was my dear friend, the speck of true happiness in my life. And now, she is miles and miles away, and the vast ocean that separates us seems like a dark void, uncrossable.
Thomas scratches his beard and narrows his beady eyes. “It looks like pining to me. What is the matter? She strung you along and then married another?”
He guffaws, laughing at this own stupid joke.
“It was a gift from a dear friend. Nothing more, Thomas. Now let me be.”
I cannot bring myself to talk about Alice in this vile, listless place. I should have not touched her amulet either, but sometimes, I needed to ascertain that it was still there. For some reason, the amber stone gives me strength when I cannot bring forth my own.
I pick up the glass and put it to my lips, throwing my head back as I drink the disgusting spirit in one single gulp. The whiskey shoots straight to my head, dulling my senses. It is easier to breathe now, the constant pressure on my chest lessens a bit, or I am so out of sorts that I can no longer notice the merciless vise of misery. I am hit by a spell of dizziness and I brace my hands against the counter to wait for the moment to pass.
Suddenly, I feel a cold whisper on the back of my neck, an out of place sensation that has me turning on my seat to look around Thomas’s establishment. At this hour, the place is almost deserted. I see Mr. Silverthorne, the town’s librarian, sitting alone at a table and surrounded by books and stacks of paper. His unkempt hair and wrinkled clothes mirror my own. But while my lack of personal grooming has to do with my overall lack of motivation, his unkempt appearance is most likely caused by too much motivation to whatever he is doing. Too engrossed in his task, he is unaware of his surroundings, probably did not even notice that had I been sitting by the bar for the last hour.
My eyes travel past the scholar and they spot a hunched figure sitting in a dark corner farther away from us. His chin is dipped low and his long hair covers half of his face. A mug of beer sits in front of him. The stranger rests his forearms on the table, while his left hand curls around the mug. I do not recognize the man, but I easily dismiss him as no one of importance. Probably a trader of some sort.
The uneasiness passes as soon as it comes. Nobody is spying on me, I realize. I must be imagining things, which means it is time for me to trudge back to Saint’s manor.
I stand on unsteady legs and hold on to the back of the chair until I regain my balance.
“Are you okay there, boy?” Thomas asks with an eyebrow raised and a smirk on his lips.
“I am fine,” I hiss.
With wobbly steps, I manage to exit Thomas’s saloon without falling flat on my face, even if I bumped once or twice into the few tables and chairs that were in my path. The cold night air hits my cheeks, the sharp bite similar to an open palmed slap. Unpleasant, but enough to clear some of the fog from my brain, some of the dizziness.
The town square is deserted this late in the evening, all proper folks have gone to bed hours ago. I look up at the starry sky, having memorized the view, where every single constellation adorns the midnight blue canvas.
I am taken over by a sudden impulse. Instead of veering toward the road that will take me to my father’s house, my feet drag me to the grassy square, more specifically, to the statue of Peter Saint, my great, great, great-grandfather, and founder of this dreadful town, Saint’s Grove. I am not sure what I plan to do yet, but the simmering in the pit of my stomach is an indication that nothing good will come out of it.
I stop in front of the bronze statue, sitting tall and proud on that stone slab. A distinguished plaque tells the wonderful tale of Peter Saint, how his bravery and persistence brought him to this piece of forgotten land. My first thought is how much my ancestors paid to commission it. Then I look up and stare at Peter Saint’s face. Arrogance and pride are etched into every angle, every crease. The low simmer in my guts turns into something more, a loud and hot explosion that erupts through my veins, boiling my blood.
“You damned cad! This is all your fault. Why did you have to come here?”
I bend down and grab a hand full of dirt, pulling my arm back and hurling it at the statue. It hits dear Grandpa Peter square in his proud, stuffed chest, leaving a dark smear in its wake. Tomorrow, the busybodies will stand in front of the statue and wonder who was responsible for such desecration and lack of respect.
The rage subsides, leaving me absolutely hollow. Such a foolish act, so childish and immature. No wonder my father can still so easily manipulate me. I feel weak, ashamed. It has been a week since I returned home to find out that my father was not on the brink of death. I could say hell to family duties and expectations if I truly wanted, and board the next ship back to England. Alice once said that a person who stands for nothing falls for everything. At the time, I did not think much of it, but now I wonder if she was talking about me.
With heaviness in my heart, I turn around and finally take the path that will lead me back to Saint’s manor, a glorious house modelled after the great Bostonian mansions. A symbol of status and luxury that feels more like a prison than a home to me.
The walk will take longer than usual. Of that I am certain. I am finding it difficult to keep my balance, and if I keep tripping over nothing, the odds are I will fall into a ditch and pass out.
A few minutes after I leave the town square, the odd sensation at the back of my neck returns in full force. My shoulders tense as I stop breathing for a second. And then I hear it, the clear sound of soft footsteps close behind me. I keep on walking, maintaining the same drunken pace as before. I flip the lap of my jacket up and I try to look over my shoulder without being too conspicuous. I see the shape of a man taller than me and wiry. He resembles a wraith, not a person. Deep in my gut sits the knowledge that I should not underestimate him. My instincts are telling me he is deadly. Alice’s amulet becomes hot against my skin, as if it is trying to warn me to flee.
I think about the irony of this situation. The evening some outlaw decides to rob me is when I am as drunk as a skunk. I increase my pace as my brain tries to find a way out of this unfortunate circumstance. The only way I can hope to escape is to try to get lost in the forest up ahead. With the level of alcohol running through my veins, my fighting skills are reduced to those of a small child’s.
Resisting the temptation to look back once more and risk letting my pursuer know that I am aware of him, I prepare to sprint, hoping that the danger will give me enough stamina to rinse some of the effects of the alcohol that lingers in my blood.
As soon as I turn the bend, I break into a run and pray not to collapse before I can find a place to hide. I pump my legs as hard as I can and behind me, the previous soft steps become louder as they stomp on the ground.
The dark forest is eerier than usual tonight, not that it is ever an inviting place at this hour. I plunge through, the urgency to remove myself from sight erasing any fear of what may lurk in the deep shadows ahead. Branches scratch my face, but I pay them little heed. I swing my arms left and right, trying to create a path through the heavy sticks that feel more like sharp claws against my skin. The moonlight beams that manage to break through the thick canopy of trees bathe parts of the forest with a silvery glow. It is that bit of faded light that allows me to see the oak tree in my path. The lowest branch is high enough to make it difficult for anyone to reach it, but I can make the jump. My plan seems foolproof and I allow myself a moment of blind hope.
I never make it.
Something hits my back with enough force to send me sprawling onto the damp soil. Dried up leaves and pieces of wood scrape my face and I eat a mouth full of dirt. I lean on my elbows, spewing soil before I gag on it.
My heart keeps on pumping and the rushing in my ears is almost deafening. I attempt to get up, only to be pushed back and pinned to the ground. My fighting instincts come to life and I thrash violently against the weight on my back. I brace my hands against the ground and using all of my strength, I push against it with enough force to dislodge the man on top of me. I roll over swiftly, but the man comes back. My eyesight has adapted to the darkness and it is for that reason alone that I can see his arm raised high above his head, and in his hand, the clear shape of a dagger. I raise my arms to block the fatal downward trust of that sharp object. The dagger pierces one of my forearms and the pain is sharp and immediate. There is no time to recover though, I must get him off of me if I am to survive this night.
I strain the muscles on my arms, putting as much pressure as I can upward, not only to try to keep the man from thrusting that dagger again at me, but also to dislodge him. With a grunt, I shove him as hard as I can, and by some miracle, he falls to the side. I stand up, holding my wounded arm to my chest, the sleeve of my jacket already soaked through with blood.
Sudden lethargy begins to seep my strength and I am only able to put a small gap between me and the dark man who is slowly standing up. The dagger is still firmly in his grasp. Instead of coming at me once more, he takes a step to the side, and so our fighting dance begins. We circle each other and I know it is only a matter of time before he makes his move.
“Who are you?” I demand, trying to buy time.
“Give me the amulet and I promise to kill you fast.”
His mention of Alice’s amulet almost makes me pause, almost makes me vulnerable to another attack. How does he know about it?
“It is worthless. Definitely not worth going to the gallows for.”
“You have no notion of the value of what you carry. And neither had that foolish girl, otherwise, she would have not given the stone to you.”
A lump of fear lodges itself in my throat as my stomach drops through the earth. “How do you know about Alice?”
“Ah, Alice. That was her name. Such a pretty girl, I enjoyed tremendously my time with her.” He laughs.
His amusement and the implication of his words make the blood boil in my veins. A potent rage I have never known erupts in my guts and red clouds my vision. I forget caution, I forget that the man in front of me has a dagger in his possession whereas I only have my fists. I charge in his direction, aiming a left hook at his jaw. He anticipates my move and dodges out of the way with ease. He is quick to follow my attack with one of his own, and the steely dagger nicks me just below the ribcage. I barely feel the burn this time.
“What have you done to her?” I yell.
The desperation in my voice is clear. The vicious man gives me a maniac smile that churns my stomach and makes something vital in me wither and die.
“Ah, so you do feel something for her. I find it extremely amusing that you just stood there like a statue while she poured her heart out to you. Pity that you will never have the chance to tell her how much you cared.”
How does this infuriating man know everything that transpired between Alice and me on the fatidic night I boarded the ship to America? I have not told a soul she came to the docks to beg me to remain in Britain. The evening she told me she…I cannot even think about it without feeling regret and shame. Shame I could not say the words she wanted, deserved to hear.
The man slows his movements down and waits patiently until I connect the dots. It does not take long for me to conclude that he must have been at the docks when Alice came to speak to me.
“Tell me what you have done to her. Tell me or I swear I will kill you!”
“You cannot kill me for I am already dead.”
He raises his dagger bearing arm once again, swift as cobra ready to strike. But the fury coursing through my veins propels me into action. I stop his limb before the dagger can connect with my chest and I aim a powerful kick at his midsection. Wicked satisfaction makes me smile when the man doubles over. I punch his jaw next and follow the assault with another kick aimed at his hand. The dagger flies out of his grasp, landing into the distance and out of sight. I have every intention to torture this man until he tells me what he did to Alice, when my vision becomes blurry. The lethargy from before returns ten times worse.
“What is the matter, lad? Cannot hold your liquor?” He laughs again, a cackling sound that I can feel in my bones. “Or could it be the poison running through your veins, slowly killing you?”
The truth of his words finally penetrate my addled brain. The dagger that pierced my skin must have been laced with poison. I cannot die here in this forgotten forest without knowing if Alice still lives or not. My soul will never find peace. I must escape. Alice’s amulet becomes hot once more, as if agreeing with my conclusion. I can almost hear her sweet voice telling me to run, run, run.
The amulet begins to glow, casting a faint yellow circle around me. The sudden light reveals my attacker’s face, and I stare at him, committing every detail to memory. The jagged scar that runs from the corner of his right eye to his chin will be impossible to forget. The glow only lasts a few seconds, but it is enough for me to recognize the surprise in his gaze. My ears begin to ring, as if thousands of voices are shouting all at once, telling me to flee, run from this forest and this man. I cannot ignore those voices. I pick a random direction and I break into a run.
The poison continues to spread through my body, slowly draining my energy, but somehow, I still possess stamina to keep going. I do not know if the strength is my own or the amulet’s. In that moment, I do not care.
I recognize my bearings and thank all the saints that I have chosen the direction back to the main road. Hope surges within my chest, only to be smashed in the next moment when I trip over an exposed tree root. As I am propelled forward by the motion, I manage to hold Alice’s amulet in the palm of my hand. I am not sure what possessed me to do so in that precise moment, but when my bloody hand closes around the amber stone, there is an explosion of light all around me. It only lasts a second and then I hit the ground hard, my left shoulder taking the brunt of it. After that, darkness takes over everything.
Read Chapter Three here.
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