CHAPTER 17: THE TOWER
Mariana stared at the spot where Thomas had been standing only moments before. There was nothing, no charred bones, no smouldering teeth. The lightning had melted the weather vane to black, dripping slag, and the thatch had caught fire and was hissing in the pelting rain.
Mariana crouched down, desperately searching the burning thatch for any trace of the Thief’s son. The flames died. And then there was nothing. Gone. He was gone.
“Oh no.” The old woman said under her breath “Oh no, no, please no…”
From the shelter of the shack, Marie and Isabella watched as Mariana appeared on the ground as if from nowhere and began walking off towards the road. For a second Isabella thought she had forgotten all about them. Then she stopped and began to speak, apparently to no one.
“Who’s she talking to?” Isabella whispered.
Marie watched as Mariana engaged in heated conversation with the angel and the shade. The angel occasionally nodding grimly, the shade waving it’s arms and hissing in fury. Finally, Mariana nodded to both of them, and they were gone, as quickly as if they had never been. The door of the cottage creaked open and Mariana stood framed in the doorway.
She stopped, simply standing there as if lost in her own mind.
“Madame?” Isabella asked quietly.
She started a little and said “Yes?” a little absently.
“Are…are you alright? He didn’t hurt you?”
Mariana let fly a bitter, manic laugh and Marie saw something in her face that made her shudder. She wondered for the first time if Mariana wasn’t mad. And this thought disturbed her very much, because she could already feel a kinship with this woman. Was it because she was her “aunt”? Or was it because she too could speak with angels, and seemed to move through time as if outside it? Whatever Mariana was, Marie herself was as well. So if she was mad, then what did that make Marie.
“Hurt me?” Mariana said “My God girl. I pray you never know a tenth the pain. I pray you never know a hundredth of what I suffered…” she stopped, and realisation spread across her face.
“You mean your brother. Of course. Forgive me. I was somewhere else.”
She lapsed into silence again.
“Madame?” Isabella tried again.
Marie looked questioningly at her.
“She gets like this sometimes.” Isabella whispered.
“Yes she does.” said Mariana “But even when she does, her hearing remains excellent.”
“Memories get stronger with age. Did you know that?”
“No Madame. I always thought it was the opposite.”
“Memory weakens, that is true. But memories. They come running at you from the past, and the longer they have to run the harder they hit when they land. And when you have reached my age they land with the force of hammer blows. And sometimes they leave me dazed. Where is the man I hired to drive you to St Anne?”
“At your brother’s hand?”
“I thought as much. You must show me where he left the body.”
“Is he dead?”
“Is my brother dead Madame?”
“And if I said he was, would you be saddened or relieved…”
Isabella cut across her savagely.
“Is he dead!?” she hissed.
“Madame?” she added, as an afterthought.
“He is.” said Mariana quietly.
Isabella sighed until it seemed she must deflate and crumple to the ground.
Mariana’s gaze now turned to Marie. And Marie saw the look in her face that Isabella had described: A mixture of horror, and bottomless pity. And…what? Love? Yes, she had seen the faces of people who loved her, and knew that Mariana was one of them. Why, she couldn’t say, but it was there.
“Hello child.” she said “Did your father tell you about me?”
“No.” Marie whispered.
“No, I suppose he wouldn’t have. They never do. It‘s enough to make you feel that one is an embarrassment. Are you wet?”
Marie nodded again.
“And quite shaken I should imagine. We have two choices. We can walk the three miles to my home in the pouring rain, or I can simply take your hand now and we will be there in the blink of an eye. Would you be very frightened if I did that?”
Marie shook her head.
“Are you sure?”
“I trust you.” she said simply.
And with that, she took them both by the hand and suddenly they were no longer standing outside a shack in the pouring rain but were in a magnificently furnished study with wooden bookshelves and tables and chairs and a great roaring fire.
Isabella immediately dropped to her knees and was sick on the floor.
Mariana laid her hand on her shoulder “Are you alright?”
“Yes…yes…Madame.” Isabella gasped “I just don’t…like it…very much…”
“When you’ve caught your breath you may go to bed. Marie and I need to talk.”
Isabella simply nodded, and got to her feet, and with a parting glance to Marie she made her way a little unsteadily out the door.
Marie, for her part, was so dizzy she felt that she was floating an inch off the ground.
“Marie?” she heard the voice as if she was on top of a mountain and Mariana was calling from the valley below. And then the floor gave way beneath her and she fell.
“There, there, steady as you go…” said Mariana catching her effortlessly and laying her down on the sofa before the great fire. “It’s only natural to be a little disoriented. You’ll be right as rain in a few minutes.”
“I thought I’d be ready. When you said what was going to happen I believed you, but I was still…”
“Knowing something is going to happen doesn’t always make it easier to take. Feeling a little clearer in your head?”
“Well then. I imagine you have a great many questions.”
She sat down opposite Marie and they studied each other. The fire light, for all it’s determined searching, could find no wrinkles on her face. And yet she was clearly a very old woman.
“Are you really my aunt?” Marie asked her.
Mariana shifted a little uncomfortably “Well it’s not quite that simple. You may call me your aunt simply because our actual relationship is very distant, and quite complicated.”
“But we are related?”
“Oh yes. Would you like some tea?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t if you’d like some tea?”
“I don’t know what tea is.”
“Ah. Well then. If this is your first time you may have it hot and sweet, although personally I think that defeats the point. You might as well mix milk and sugar with hot water and have done with it.” She rose and went to a table where strange silver vessels glinted in the firelight. Marie watched her pour the hot brown fluid into a delicate cup from a thing that looked a little like a silver swan, and then began spooning sugar into it.
The sight of so many strange things she did not recognise made her a little dizzy again, so she looked away.
There was a picture hanging on the wall. It was unlike any she had ever seen before, it was as if the artist had taken a great mass of grey and cut a million little white scars into it to form the picture. She didn’t like it. The lines were so harsh, nasty hard whites stark against the gloomy grey. In the picture a crowd of people were huddled in the bottom right corner. They seemed to be crying, one had his back turned to her, another had buried her face in her hands. But one…one man stood in the centre of the picture, a more brilliant white than then others, almost a beacon in the murk. He had his hands up stretched to heaven in a Y, his head thrown back so far she couldn’t see his face. And behind him, in the distance, looming ominously like a storm cloud on the horizon, was a great tower. It was so vast that the dwellings beside it were no bigger than ants, and it’s top was obscured by clouds. It went up and up, in curving, zigzagging levels, looking almost like a giant python wrapped around a mountain. The whole thing, the pitiful crowd of people, the terrible ominous tower, and most of all that single figure with his arms begging Heaven, a little dab of white hot agony in the middle of the darkness…Marie shuddered and looked away.
“Isabella hates it as well. I think all children do.” said Mariana, passing her a cup of tea.
“Did you draw it?” Marie asked eyeing the steaming cup a little suspiciously.
“No. And it wasn’t drawn, it was engraved.”
“By a man named Gustav Doré. He has not yet been born.”
Marie slowly took a sip of tea and found it was not bad at all.
“Are you mad?” she asked politely.
Mariana shook her head “Not at the moment. I have been, at various times. But not now.”
“As sure as I can be.”
“Am I mad then?”
“You’re too young to be mad.”
“Then what am I?” Marie asked.
“Well,” said Mariana “As near as I can tell, you are a young girl of about ten years of age.”
“Nine.” said Marie “You know what I mean”.
“If you mean “What am I that I can see angels and devils, and can control time?” then the answer is, you are what is called a Temporal Adept.”
“What’s a Temprol…?”
“A Temporal Adept. A Temporal Adept, Marie, is someone like you or me who can…well, try and picture it like this: I want you to imagine that time is like a river. Up in the mountains, at the source, is the very beginning of everything. And at the place where the river runs into the sea, is the end. The very end, do you understand?”
“The end of everything?”
“That’s right. Now, most people are like twigs being swept along by the river. They fall into the river, and further down they get washed up on the bank, but they have no control over how far they go, or what direction, you see? They start at the time when they were born, and they travel forward in time, at a speed of one second per second and then they stop at the time of their death. You and I are not like that Marie.”
“You and I, Marie, are fish.”
“We are fish. We can swim upstream or downstream. We can choose how fast we go. We can even swim against the current so that we stay in roughly the same place. We are one of a very small group of people throughout history who can do this. There are less than a hundred Temporal Adepts in all of space and time. That we know of at least. You have a wonderful gift, Marie. What you have seen is only the slightest hint of what you are capable of. If you are willing, I can teach you to travel far into the past, or far, far into the future. I can teach you to slow time down around you so it will seem to others that you’re moving faster than the eye can see. And when you’re much older, you’ll even learn to travel through space as well as time. like we did tonight. There is an incredible world of experience waiting for you Marie, and I must say I envy you.”
Marie said nothing. She was fast asleep.
Mariana smiled. Well, who could blame the child?
She gathered her up in her arms and carried out and up the long staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms. Halfway up the stairs she stopped as she sensed a presence behind her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m insulted.” came a voice “You didn’t introduce me.”
“She was very tired, and quite frankly I think she’s enough been through enough today already, don’t you?”
“I think I could only have improved matters.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“But I’m so charming.”
“You’re also dead, Virgil” she replied and turned to look at him.
He was a tall youth of around seventeen with curly blonde hair and grey eyes that could shift to blue if the light was right. The eyes were sympathetic and quite beautiful. But the mouth was cruel. He looked, Mariana had always thought, like a perfect porcelain doll. And then, because it always disturbed her to think of him as being a person, she held onto Marie with one arm and passed her hand through him and felt nothing. He was as insubstantial as air.
“Don’t do that.” he said quietly.
“I was making a point.” she said “You are not to make yourself known to her until I’ve prepared her.”
“Fine.” said the ghost.
It was strange, she thought. He was dead to all but two of her senses. She could see him and hear him, but everything else, touch, taste, smell and most importantly that strange, nameless sense of when another human being was nearby…to them Virgil was simply a void.
“So, she really is one of us?” he asked.
“Oh yes. I have no doubt about that.”
“What about the boy?”
“He…I still don’t think he’s a Temporal, Virgil.”
“I was with you, remember. I saw the way he moved. He has to be.”
“He didn’t shift time. I would have felt it.”
“Then what is he?”
“Something else.” she said simply.
“Don’t feel guilty. We always knew he was too far gone. He killed her father for God’s sake. How awkward would that have been if he’d come with us? Breakfasts would have been a nightmare. My only worry now is that now that Ma…”
Mariana silenced him with a look so terrible he would have felt it pass through him even if he had been alive and solid.
“Now that…the enemy has Thomas.” he rephrased “Thomas will be telling stories about a little red-haired girl who can bend time and the woman who came to rescue him. Someone’s bound to put two and two together…”
“And come here? Let him try.” she whispered savagely “If he can come here. If he can face me. If he has the courage to do that then I will applaud him before I crush his skull beneath my foot and break every last bone in his body with my bare hands for what he has done to me.”
And with that she turned and stalked up the stairway. In the torchlight she cast a tall and terrible shadow, black and sharp as a winter tree, while in her arms the small red-haired child dreamed