The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 06

His comment finally wiped the sadness from her face. Her brow wrinkled in disapproval, her mouth twisted like Aliceia’s when she scolded him. “You should not think such of yourself. Peto considered you a great friend. He always said how you cared about your friends, how you were always willing to help them. And that you never seemed to want the kind of power or influence your father has, or your brother. You have always seemed like the townsfolk to me, not part of this.” She waved scornfully at the Meeting house, and he knew her antipathy was for the landowner elite that supported the church, not the building.

Davin digested that. “You know, I rarely felt when I was younger that I merited any sort of regard at all. But Peto was always special. I’m glad he thought I was a good friend.”

A small smile curved her lips. Bittersweet, but a smile, nonetheless. Then it faded and she looked back to the horizon.

“I’m leaving,” she said. “Not just to be by myself, but to get as far away as I can from those mealy-mouthed priests, with their pretensions of holiness and their foolish ways.”

Davin’s brow knitted as her tirade proceeded. Away? Other than Cliff, there was not another village for more than twenty kilometers. Besides, Deos only knew how many malitos, though by now surely weakened, still roamed the escarpment.

All he could think to ask was “When?”

“Now. Tonight. My saddle-bags have food for days; I rode my horse to meeting instead of coming in the family coach. We usually had lunch, Peto and I,” her voice caught. “Usually at the home of one of our friends.” She swallowed once, cleared her throat. “I have a little money, and I always bring a change of clothes and a spare long-coat in my pack. Peto and I sometimes spend — spent — Meeting Day afternoon together. Now, there is nothing here for me. I will be a burden to my family in the mourning ritual and then a great deal of trouble for my father as he tries to arrange another match for me. And I . . . I don’t want another match. I cannot have another match. So I am leaving.”

Davin moved a step closer. “Tonight? Donaia, there might be a dozen malitos within a kilometer!”

She stared wistfully at the horizon. “It does not matter. I leave tonight.”

Davin was at a loss on how to stop her. Although physically larger, he was not particularly strong or muscular enough to simply throw her over his shoulder and forcibly take her into the Meeting House. Finally, he said, “You saw what those malitos did today. Do you want them to do that to you?”

She shivered, pulling the wrap tightly around her, but leaving her longcoat over her arm. “No. I saw . . . what they did to my Peto. But they will not harm me. This I know.”

She turned to him, her eyes large and dark. She was very beautiful. Davin found himself thinking how lucky a man Peto had been — until today. She stepped a little closer.

“They will not harm me. I know this. I know. I have never told anyone this, except one of the priests, many years ago. Not even my parents. And I don’t think the priest believed me. He never took any action on what I told him. I have a minor Gift. One that has not often manifested, but a Gift.”

Davin’s eyes widened as she spoke. He realized that she was standing near him, looking up into his eyes, and he was not sure whether he had moved or Donaia had. Her stare was so open and wide that suddenly he knew her mind, whether by premonition or simply by inference. “Sometimes you can see the future.”

She smiled, the first genuine smile he had seen from her this long and terrible day. “You see? Peto said you were more talented than you knew. Yes, sometimes I see. Not clearly, but when I know a thing will happen, it will. I knew from the start that my love for Peto would not end well. I fought it, I ignored it, but you cannot deflect fate. Today proves that.”

She turned away from him, toward the horizon, and Davin realized suddenly that she was leaning against him. Reflexively, he put an arm around her, and she grasped it desperately and hugged it to her bosom. She went on almost as if talking to the sky, or the horizon, rather than him. “I suddenly felt it in the chapel, in the Meeting house. I must go West. It is said that the Chanche have a corps of sages, like our priests, that study God’s Power. They are rumored to have the greatest Gifts of all. Perhaps even greater than our most Talented priests.” She paused, almost as if reluctant to go on. Finally, as though she had to drag out the words, she continued. “I felt it today, as I sat there in the chapel and mourned the death of all that has been dear to me. They wait. Now. They wait for me.”

Suddenly she twisted, facing him and grabbing both his arms. Her gaze into his face was as fierce as that of an eagle.

“And I saw something else, Davin. Something wondrous and terrifying. It’s you. I knew you would follow me out of the Meeting Hall, knew you would talk to me. You have a great future, one so great that I can scarcely believe it. And your future lies to the West as well, with mine.

“I wanted to ask you to come with me, but you won’t. There are things you must do here and, I think, you still have a little fear of telling your father the truth. But you know about yourself, even though you won’t admit it. And you will come. And you will find me there.” Suddenly she blushed. “I must sound like a fool, talking about our futures, when my betrothed lies dead within those walls. But it is true. It will happen. You will come.”

I will come? Davin took one of her hands, holding it tightly, whether to keep her from leaving or simply to feel the softness of her flesh another moment, he was not sure. He held her gaze. “Donaia, you can’t ride to the Montas like an afternoon outing! It’s a thousand kilometers to the valleys of the Chanches and bad weather coming on before dark. Besides, even assuming that an unaccompanied young lady such as yourself could make such a trip, you know the reputation of the Chanches! They would probably turn you away at the gates of Akzo, if it has gates, and then where do you go?”

She smiled. “No, they will welcome me. They will. This I know. And you, when you come, for I will tell them about you.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. I was just expelled from Academy, and now I have to explain to the Gen . . . To my father just how I can justify the life Deos lent me. No, I may not stray off Aldronne property for the next forty years.”

She looked up at him and shook her head slightly, that bittersweet look on her face once more. “So unsure of yourself. Like Peto when he was younger.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “That will change. It will have changed when we meet again.”

She pulled free, walking toward the distant hitching posts, where a coterie of the General’s men tended the horses. After a few steps, she turned back again, and held his eyes, as she struggled into her longcoat. “And one more thing: Your Gift is, maybe, the greatest of all. Not just a Gift, a mighty Talent. I do not know what it is, but it is something the Chanches must train. Only the Chanches. So you will come, whether I ask it or not.” Then she turned and fled.

Her rush took her to the nearby corral. The guards ignored her at first — she could, after all, be coming to retrieve food or medicine from saddle-bags. All the horses had remained saddled, so she merely checked the cinch, unwrapped the reins from the hitching post, and mounted. The men turned and looked at her, too late. In a burst of motion, she spurred her horse out the open gate, pounding down the road before they could react.

Galvanized into motion, Davin followed in time to see Donaia, horse at full gallop, already on the descending trail. In a moment she was out of sight.

In shock, Davin stared after her. The men in the corral, after some discussion, elected not to go after her — let the crazy woman get herself killed if she wanted. Turning, Davin started back into the churchyard, his head awhirl with Donaia’s words, and her actions. First the GranMalo, and now . . . No, he refused to think about that right now. Best to do something, anything, rather than think. Turning, he entered the courtyard, ignoring one of the men who called to him, asking why the young lady had ridden away.

Entering the chapel, Davin found his father at the rear of the church, talking with recently returned scouts. He joined the group quietly. “I don’t like it,” the General was saying, “That’s half a score and more of malitos unaccounted for, and perhaps even more came through the hellhole in the confusion.” Tomas Villerel was beside him, ashen and quiet. He was one of the leaders of the Sudos and a frequent business associate of the General, but his loss had rendered him mute. Several other ranchers and town leaders were also gathered.

Bayn also stood near the General, speaking up as Davin joined the group. “The good news is that hours have passed and the malitos must be greatly weakened. Devilspawn cannot live long in our world and will be dead a day or two hence. If we stay the night here, our return tomorrow should not be troubled.”

That brought a storm of protest from some of those who had accompanied them to Meeting. Besides the fact that a storm was coming, there was much to do on the ranches in the early spring. Many had left their spreads undermanned to attend Meeting.

A commotion behind him caused Davin and the others to turn. A final scout contingent had returned, accompanied by one of the horse guards, who made a beeline for Donaia’s father, sitting in a rear pew with one of his sons and his wife.

Davin decided to follow the guard. Better to get the truth told and let Mataro send men after her if he wished. As he approached Mataro said, “And you just let her ride off?”

Before the guard could answer, Davin spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen to me. She said she had to get away for a while.”

Mataro turned to Davin. His voice went up a half-octave. “You let her get on her horse?”

“I thought she was just going to get something from her saddlebags. Then she got on her horse and rode away.”

“Where is she going?”

Davin stuttered. How could he tell Donaia’s father that she might be planning a journey to the Chanches? There wasn’t any way, he decided. “I’m not sure, sir. But she headed west as she left.”

With an oath, Mataro whirled and called to his men nearby. Shouting commands, he rushed out the door of the Meeting House, his men in close pursuit.

Davin returned to his father’s side just as the scouts reported finding and killing five malitos, with another half-dozen found dead from wounds received during the fighting. After more discussion, the group seemed to think that the road would be safe for an afternoon or evening journey home for the ranch community. The General finally nodded agreement.

“Do not attempt to return to the outlying villages tonight. Malitos cannot survive much more than a day, so all roads should be safe tomorrow. The roads to the south and west past Aldronne, towards Hijamia and Bolt Run, should not be traveled after dark, since the smaller parties going home by those routes would be more vulnerable. My home is open to those of you from the more distant communities this evening.”

No one disagreed. Most of the ranches were several kilometers to the west and south of the Aldronne, and travel much past the General’s ranche would have to be made in the dark, not a pleasant prospect with malitos still on the loose. Spending the night at Aldronne and departing at first light would get most ranchers home with the day still before them, assuming that the anticipated snow storm was not too heavy.

The loading of bodies in wagons was tearful once again, if more subdued. Gathering in the Iglesa after that solemn and painful task, the senior priest rose at the front to bless his congregation.

Davin surveyed the crowd with an uncharacteristic lack of reverence as the priest intoned his final prayer. Mind abuzz, he watched as the priest spread blessings as a farmer spreading seed on a divine wind. He wanted to pray, wanted to feel close to Deos, wanted to feel His Holy Presence, to feel blessed and protected as they began their homeward journey. But he didn’t. Instead, he felt only sad and resentful toward a deity that could not or would not protect the innocent. Turning, he ignored the ending of the prayer, and walked into the cold, dim afternoon.