Authors: Aiden James,Michelle Wright
It seemed like hours passed before we reached the bottom of the mountain. Encompassed by the night sky, we discovered an old broken down hut to shelter in. Exhausted and unlike the time before, we struggled to light a fire in the dampness. In spite of the bitter cold, I managed to sleep a few fitful hours only to wake the next morning to a snowfall. Juan managed to get a healthy fire going and we ate the remaining chicken for breakfast. Rachel was irritable; it showed as she scratched her head incessantly.
“Explain to me,” I demanded. “Why you only have stigmatic episodes in your bed, not out here in the harshness of the mountains? This proves to me you control what happens. It isn’t real.”
“Only Christ tells me when to bleed. Not something you’d ever understand seeing as you betrayed him without a second thought.”
“What did you say?”
“Ah… I think you heard me.”
I decided not to be the one to begin an argument, lest I’d be no better than Isaac. Fighting the temptation to react with anger, I began to pack everything and prepare the horses. I had awoken in a darkened mood, whether it was due to Rachel or my circumstances, I didn’t know. My surroundings did nothing to help. Bleak mountaintops as far as the eye could see, some heavy with the first fall of snow. The clouds dark and laden with more yet to come, an ominous sign of winter arriving early along with biting cold temperatures. We needed to get moving as soon as possible, in spite of the threat of being caught lessened by the challenge of the weather. There was no room for complacency. I was optimistic, once over the border I’d secure comfortable lodgings with good food, wine, and a soft pillow to lay my head.
A far cry from the deteriorating conditions I was in now. As if God heard my complaint and decided to punish me. Snow began to fall in earnest.
“Are you alright?” Juan asked. He was wise to the ways of the mountains and, in spite of his soft demeanor, was tough as old boots. “We can take shelter if you want.”
“No Juan. I want to keep going, we’re too close to stop now.”
“I want to. It’s difficult to guide the horse through the snow. I’m going to freeze.
!” Rachel pleaded.
“Quiet,” I said. “Just a little further.”
To my dismay, the path became narrower, the ravine more treacherous. We were already in single file, leading the horses on foot and forced to go even slower. Rachel began to panic.
“I can’t do this, I fear my horse will slip and take me with it… I can’t.”
“Stay where you are,” Juan replied. “I will guide you through, give me the reins.”
She complied, gratefully giving Juan her hand. Passing the reins of her horse to me, he expertly guided Rachel on foot around the dangerous corner. I was told to stay back and wait with two horses I hoped wouldn’t rear up. If even one decided to do so, it would be a disaster. Juan returned a moment later.
“Apparently she has a problem with heights,” he explained.
His chivalry was beyond my comprehension. Not only did Juan do his best to alleviate any over-reactive discomfort she had, he did it with genuine intentions. I said nothing, relieved to be handing him the reins to her horse. I carried on up and over the perilous path, trying to ignore the conditions deteriorating rapidly. We needed shelter.
Rachel tugged more and more on Juan’s heart strings, I could see it in his eyes as he gallantly helped her back on the horse, reassuring and promising we were looking for shelter.
“Thank God you’ve seen sense,” she told. “Unlike
Within minutes, the perilous conditions trapped us in a snowstorm. The path became impossible to negotiate. Rachel was riding with Juan whose arms were tightly wrapped protectively around her.
“You’re a fine horseman Juan,” I overheard her say with a tinge of resentment in her tone. “Teach me to be the same?”
We struggled at a snail’s pace as the path leveled out the further down we came. I carefully observed the landscape looking for somewhere to take shelter. An abandoned cabin or cave, maybe even a residence. But we were still in France. I was hesitant to take shelter with strangers; we would need a good story to allay any suspicions. It was as if I’d had a sixth sense, straight ahead stood a farmhouse, its chimney burning, a sign someone was home.
“We can knock and ask them to let us shelter until the snow storm calms. I will pay them if needs be. Rachel, you’re my niece, we’ve been visiting Juan’s relatives and are on our way to Pheasant Island to return you to your family,” I suggested.
“Why Pheasant Island? It’s a no man’s land, only a handful of people and lots of sheep,” she replied.
I was in no mood for her ignorance, nor the childish pleasure she gained from disagreeing with everything I said.
“Do as I tell you. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Your words are damning.”
Having clearly made my point, we made our way to the door that opened before I had the chance to knock.
“Who goes there? What do you want?” demanded a man with an axe firmly in his grip.
“It’s three strangers caught in the storm hoping for shelter. I’m praying on your kindness, good sir. Please, allow us to warm by your fire a short while,” I announced, hoping it sounded real enough.
“Then I open my door to you. Tether the horses in the barn and come in out of the cold.”
Hearing this, Rachel immediately disappeared inside, leaving us to shelter her horse.
“That girl has no sense of responsibility,” I remarked to Juan. “Hopefully she’ll bleed all over his floor, then I can put her in the barn alongside the cows.”
“Even though I’m laughing at your sarcasm, it isn’t good to draw unwanted attention. A stigmatic episode right now could spell disaster. Once we’re gone, the word would spread like wildfire. Pray Rachel keeps herself under control as long as this storm lasts, long enough for us to reach the damn border.”
On that note, I hastily tied the horse and hurried to see what she was up to. Fortunately, all was calm. Rachel sat by the fire warming her hands and had already made herself welcome.
“This is Francois, he’s a widower with one son who is away in Spain seeking work,” she told, giving us the message he was alone.
With greetings over, I did the polite thing and offered a small remuneration for food. Francois roughly declined; he was a man of few words.
“I need nothing from no one, and it’s God’s will I feed you,” was his reply, as he ladled lamb stew into bowls from a large cauldron hooked over the fire. It smelled delicious and I unashamedly devoured it in minutes.
“This is wonderful Francois, you’re an excellent cook,” I remarked.
“I take no credit, this recipe was from my dear departed wife,” he advised.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“She died of the fever last year. It took many lives, at least twenty I knew of in a short distance.”
Sometimes, I forget how easily mortals die. A sniff of the nose, a sore throat leading often to high fever, coma and death. Sitting by the fire, I tried not to think too deeply on it, preferring to relax with Juan, and enjoy the wine and the company of a pleasant stranger. Meanwhile, Rachel slept close to me on the floor. Unfortunately, Francois had come to the wrong conclusion.
“Would you not prefer for your wife to sleep on a bed?”
“Rachel is my niece. My brother’s daughter. He died last year leaving the poor girl orphaned,” I replied, hoping he believed me.
“I thought you were close.”
I cringed at his remark. Close? I preferred her to be a million miles away from me if possible. Juan and I were anxious to leave, but the storm raged on, snow piling thick on the ground as the night sky rapidly closed in. Reluctantly, I accepted circumstances and time had gone against us. There was little choice but to spend another night on French soil.
Juan and I took the mattresses leaving Rachel where she was. Why wake her?
“If the storm is over by morning, I expect we’ll be on our way,” said Juan, optimistically.
“Without a doubt,” I whispered in agreement. “Francois is a gracious host, but we really must get across the border. I expect Dario already has a search party out looking for us.”
“It would be hard for them to catch up, now that the weather’s turned.”
“How much would it take to bribe them if they caught up? Better to avoid bloodshed, don’t you agree?” I replied.
“Everything in your existence comes down to either payments or bribes. I used to be like you, and I’ve been immortal for a shorter period. When are you ever going to learn,
everyone can be bought?”
“Are you really sure, my friend? Everyone has a price.”
It was the very thing I had learned long ago, when I handed Jesus over to Caiaphas. Thirty pieces of silver to satisfy my greed.
With the thought of bribes weighing heavily upon my mind, I slept little. Strange sounds came from outside, the rustle of bushes in the wind, the sound of a dog howling in the distance, and the house creaking. Juan and I spent most of the night talking quietly about our plans once we were in Spain. He insisted I stay with him in Santander, to take in the local pleasures. But sadly, he had also invited Rachel.
“The idea of faraway travel appeals, but without her,” I said firmly.
“Uncharted territory would suit my curiosity, who knows?”
At dawn, the sound of a cock crowing stirred me from a light sleep. Rachel was awake and snapped at me immediately.
“Why did you leave me to sleep on a hard floor when you have the luxury of a straw filled bed to lie on? How selfish can you both be?”
“I’m in no mood for your whining rhetoric, so be quiet!” I chided.
Juan peered through the window and reported it stopped snowing, nor was it as thick on the ground as I expected. Thanking Francois for his kindness, and without him seeing, I left a few coins on the table, for his trouble. This would be the final leg of our journey. By the end of the day with God’s help, we would be in Spain.
I was pleased to be saddling up the horses and on my way with renewed vigor. We rode off carefully, so as to avoid icy patches that could bring a horse down. The sound of something breaking startled me. “What was that?” I enquired, turning round to look.
“Nothing,” Rachel replied. Juan stopped his horse right beside scattered pieces of a broken chalice.
“Rachel, this looks like the remains of the one Francois had on his shelf, the one he told of belonging to his dead wife. Given to her by her mother,” Juan said.
“I know nothing of a stupid chalice. Why on earth would I want such a hideous thing? Its colors are ugly.”
I knew she had stolen it by the look of guilt on her face, coupled with the fact its remains lay by her feet. I was angry she’d dare to think us foolish enough to believe her denial.
“Why, Rachel?” I flew off my horse and with rapid speed hurtled wildly towards her. “You’re a thief for sure! All we need is for Francois to notice it missing before we reach safety. We’ve been gone such a short time; it wouldn’t be so difficult for him to find us now would it?”
“We’d best remove the evidence. Rachel, pick up every broken piece you can find. I don’t care that it’s cold, keep searching until you find every piece.” Juan demanded.
Her stealing caught him by surprise, as it did me. Something else also took me by surprise, the sight of Francois thundering towards us on his horse, his face wild with anger. He soon caught up and, dismounted with musket in hand hurried over to Rachel, grabbing her roughly by the neck.
“Why did you take advantage of my hospitality and steal the chalice?” he demanded holding up a broken fragment of evidence.
“Let go of her,” I replied, hating that I was forced to defend her honor. “Your musket against my sword or fighting skills is unequalled. As I’m unable to challenge you to a duel, we need to discuss some kind of payment for goods lost. How does that sound?” Having blood on my hands so recently, I wanted to avoid further destruction at all costs.
“There’s no amount of money to compensate my loss,” he replied.
Francois built up such an accumulation of rage he was unable to accept my offer. Throwing Rachel wildly to the ground and pushing Juan out of the way, it took only a split second for him to fire a round of buck shot straight in my direction. Hitting me in the chest full force, I couldn’t help but fall backwards.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Francois, you missed my heart!’ I joked.
“In God’s name, I shot you clean in the chest. Why is there no blood? Why are you not dead or dying, as you should be? What kind of trickery is this? Who
He staggered away, and tripped over himself trying to get back to his horse.
Rachel stood still in guilty silence, while Juan took the opportunity to come behind Francois and disarm him with rapid speed, the musket thrown over the ravine.
I was far from happy. He’d intended to kill me over a chalice I hadn’t stolen. I came toward him, sword at the ready.
“Please Emmanuel, don’t do it. He’s distraught with anger, wouldn’t you be? It’s all her doing,” Juan pleaded with me, pointing an accusing finger in Rachel’s direction.
“Why are you not dead? I don’t understand…,” Francois muttered.
“You tried to kill me, for that you should die,” I replied sternly.
“I-I was upset… upset at how I’d been treated when I showed you kindness, and in return you stole! But… if you think my attempt to shoot you deserves the taking of my life then go ahead and do it. I’m a man alone, no one will miss me.”
I was too proud to point the finger at Rachel, like a child accusing another for a misdeed hoping to be believed. In fact, if anyone deserved to die it was she, her evilness knowing no bounds. Every bone in my body screamed to leave her behind, to perish in the snow, and die an agonizingly slow death as her body temperature fell. I
her to freeze to death. She deserved it.
“Let down your sword,” Juan said and I grudgingly complied.
In truth, killing Francois served me no purpose even though he had attempted to kill me. I only wanted to cross the border, which was turning out to be an almost impossible task. My patience with Rachel had been tested to the limit. As far as I was concerned, she was in very real trouble.