When she finally came back to reality she found herself lying on a cold stone floor. The room was dim with the faint flicker of candlelight. Her body was aching and her eyes were bleary. Her brain felt so hampered that she found it difficult to comprehend her surroundings. She blinked to try and focus but wasn’t able to raise herself up or turn her head. For once her head was vacant. She stared at the nearby wall until she heard a voice.
“Heulwen? Are you finally awake?” It was a man’s voice, a low monotonous tone. She couldn’t see the face though and she wasn’t about to move her head to find it. “You’ve been asleep for a while now.”
“Is that you, Lord Karayan?” she heard herself say.
“Yes. Your father was in a terrible state Heulwen. Do you know why?”
“Of course, he is mad because I ran away,” she stated indignantly and with that she decided to drag herself up to face Lord Karayan. The effort made her muscles quiver with agony and her whole body seemed to be resisting her control. With as much force as she could muster Heulwen finally managed to heave herself up. Her body wavered for a moment and her eyes felt watery but she managed to stay upright. When she saw his dark figure slumped in his throne she wondered how long he had sat there for. The shadows fell onto his face and his skeletal features were partially obscured by the overhanging hood he wore. All she could see were the sunken caves that were his eyes and his robes which spilled onto the floor. As he flexed his hands she noticed the glistening jewels which decorated his thin fingers. He ignored her comment and continued his enquiry as she studied him.
“And how were you punished my dear?”
“I was beaten,” she croaked.
“Well, at least that is one thing less I have to do.”
She was unaware that her hand instinctively drifted to where the pain was still residing but he, of course, noticed.
“May I ask where? Where did he beat you?” with a voice that was bare of any emotion. She wavered for a moment, realising where her hand was floating, but complied. She pointed to where there was a slash in her jeans. He nodded. “Very good.”
“What are you going to do then, if you are not going to punish me?” she queried.
He sighed heavily and his bony fingers caressed his temple. “I take it you haven’t fully grasped the entirety of your situation?”
“No... I do. I do.”
“Oh, then you must have realised that your ceremony has not yet been completed? Or where you hoping to negate it altogether?” he asked with a harsh and patronising tone.
Heulwen was confused for a moment. Her head was starting to hurt and it took a while for the information to sink in. Lord Karayan smiled, revealing his ghostly teeth. She had forgotten she had run out half-way through her ceremony, she was too panicked to realise what was happening at the time. However, now, she was slightly relieved.
“Ah I knew you had forgotten something. I do wonder... I mean, admittedly I am curious, could you tell me why you ran in the first place?” His undertones were truly inquisitive but to what end she could not tell. “They tell me something must have scared you, could you elaborate?”
“I was just overwhelmed, my Lord. Something just didn’t feel right. I knew at the time I was doing wrong but I couldn’t stop my feet. It was like I was in a trance, they just led me away,” she lied.
“Maybe we should do something then? Chop them off perhaps?” His cackle crawled over the room and caused Heulwen to flinch. With swift delicate movements he rose from his seat and knelt in front of her.
“Dear, I was only joking. But we must find some way to curb that evil that gives fire to your feet. You must repent and cleanse yourself. This is part of the last stages of the ceremony. You are lucky that we have given you this second chance. I believe any woman can get rid of her flaws. That is why I persuaded your father to hand you over to me instead of, well... anyway.” He pulled her box from the lining of his robes and placed it in front of her.
“Hand me over? I don’t understand.”
He crackled again. “As in you will be my student for a while. Don’t worry dear child. It just means I will personally help you to rid yourself of this devil.” He looked down at her feet and gave her a mischievous wink. He proceeded to light some candles and quickly unlocked the door beckoning other priests to enter. With the room a sudden flurry of bodies she decided to leave her questions till later. They undressed her and put a new plaster on the cut. They then wrapped her up in a white cloth, using it to bind her arms and legs to her body encasing her in a tight cocoon. All that could be seen was her face, hands and her hair; which tumbled down behind her back and overflowed onto her shoulders. The other priests skirted around the edges and were wafting a strange smelling smoke into the room.
“This time you won’t get away. Maybe we should have bound you at the beginning of the ceremony instead?” His eyebrows rose and his lips curled. She replied with a weak chuckle.
She listened as his droning voice filled the room with his prayers and she watched as his face contorted. His words, she noticed, were in harmony with the humming and the smoke was making her feel drowsy. This stage was, according to what she was told, her ‘Metamorphosis’. Now that she was encased in this white catalyst she would have to leave her childhood behind. Once the ceremony was complete she would be free of her bonds and would finally be a woman ready to surrender her innocence — such an unreassuringly definitive sentiment, she thought. The cloth was coarse against her skin and she found it hard to expand her chest. She sighed as she tried to shift into a comfortable position as her right arm was beginning to go numb. They continued, despite her obvious discomfort, to chant. It soon wouldn’t be long ‘til it was her turn to recite and repent into her box. Lord Karayan held it up to her face in preparation and she began to hum. She was astonished by how calm she felt. With a nod of consent from the high priest she began to recite their prayers. The words fell out of her mouth effortlessly and landed neatly in her box. It all suddenly became surreal. She could tell that Lord Karayan was staring intensely at her but all she could focus on was the blue lining of the box. It seemed so deep and the words were spiralling like a whirlpool. She couldn’t stop herself from blinking over and over. The silky lining was at first a clear blue ocean but as more and more words spilled into it she watched as they polluted the water turning it a dark grey. Her eyes widened.
“Now, Heulwen, concentrate and repeat after me. The heresy that I committed shall never be spoken of again. I shall honour my family and uphold the traditions of my heritage. No longer shall I disobey my father and dishonour him with my devilish ways. I will be the perfect woman and soon the perfect wife. This chest shall be my guide. I won’t bother anyone with my problems for I trust my chest never to lead me astray and in return I will feed it with my insecurities. All my anger and hurt shall go into the chest. We are now as one, a couple, which can never be torn apart. Never failing, ever loyal. Amen.”
His mouth opened and closed mimicking Heulwen’s as she repeated the prayer. The words felt nothing but hollow and empty in her mouth, for although they were of great consequence, to her it was just a performance. As it continued she realised she couldn’t grasp what was going on anymore. Her eyelids kept closing and each time it felt harder and harder to open them again. All the words were suddenly overlapping. The ancient language the priests were chanting was turning foggy, lost and distorted in the smoke. Even the words she was speaking seemed to turn into another language. For a long while she remained in this trance until, like an explosion, the cloth was torn away from her body and she collapsed into the arms Lord Karayan. Windows flew open and the smoke quickly diminished. Lord Karayan gave Heulwen his cloak and she concealed her body swiftly. She couldn’t clearly recollect if she had delivered the whole statement but at least, as it seemed, it was all over. She wilted beside him as the room emptied. His voice became excitable as he gathered together the pieces of cloth that lay scattered around him.
“Now you are finally ready! This white cloth, as you well know, shall be transformed into your wedding dress. You must work on it and make it as beautiful as possible for your husband. Your endurance and toil will prove to him of your devotion.” He handed over the material and she tucked it carelessly under her arm. He noticed. “I am quite proud of you, you know. Just a little bit disappointed it took a second attempt... but all the same. You just needed a little convincing.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“You need to go home and share your glad tidings. Your father and I shall discuss your coming here for confession. It will happen at least twice a week. Now dress yourself and take your precious chest home with you.”
He watched as she gathered together her other belongings. She turned away from him, dressing demurely and quickly, with her eyes constantly shifting over to the door and windows. When she was fully dressed she gave him a bow and rushed out of the room. He noticed a tiny scrap of cloth left derelict on the floor and bent to pick it up. He rubbed the coarse material between his fingers before tucking it into his pocket. He moved leisurely back into his throne whilst taking out a cigarette from his robe and with a pensive expression proceeded to fill the room with smoke once more.
Heulwen raced through the maze of corridors as fast as her legs could endure. Her head had resumed its pounding and her body, though able to hold her upright, was feeling weak. Her eagerness to leave was her only motivation to keep herself from drooping against the cool walls. The passageways leading down to the lower cloisters were uncomfortably narrow and the fact that she had yet to meet anyone on the way was thoroughly daunting. The lanterns that hung from the ceiling lit up the corridors with an eerie white light, giving off a sterile effect, the kind that could make anyone feel unsanitary. The higher rooms and corridors, in comparison to these, were embellished with a mixture of paintings, photographs and tapestries. They concealed all the stone walls and made the place a little less grey, even if all the pictures were depictions of wizened old men. She wasn’t sure which one she preferred.
Once she had descended a few spiralling staircases she soon found herself in the lower cloisters of the Monastery, which led through the catacombs to the back exit. This door was strictly for the women only and it wasn’t often that it was used, so the path, unlike all the other higher corridors, was suffering from severe negligence. Her eyes lingered on the dusty tombstones that littered the chambers of the catacombs. Each one bared a bold engraving of the owner’s name. Most of the priests spent their entire lives here. She was somewhat unsure as to why because their legacy was kept a secret, but she guessed it was something to do with their unyielding devotion. The grand tombstones, however old and decrepit, stood in row upon row as stark reminders of their endurance. Heulwen persevered with her aching body and made her way past the burials quickly.
Walking with a throbbing pain, as it turned out, was the least of her problems. The wooden door had swollen in the frame and it was a tough job for her to force the blasted thing open. By the time she managed to push the back door open she realised that the box and cloth were being cradled by her arm. She looked down at the objects and it finally sunk in what had just taken place. She sat down on the stone steps, leant against the door and deliberated her thoughts before the journey home.
Now she would have to marry. The ceremony was over, there was no longer any leeway, no more waiting. These past few days were all about revelations. Her eyelids closed and a hopeless sigh was released. The chaos she had caused was over, at any rate, and for a while her life could return somewhat to normal. Regardless of her father’s ongoing endeavours to hunt for the perfect husband. The door was cool on her back and she felt a wispy breeze brush past her face and, like cotton, smooth over the tiny gaps of bare skin. Her rest could only last a few more moments but she lingered. She studied the high walls that barred the way for civilisation, the walls that supposedly held great secrets and impenetrable truths were a weathered and unsightly grey. They were hostile and intimidating, much like its occupants. To be on the outside, she thought, seemed much safer. The slits for windows were far too small lending to the stuffy and musty atmosphere that dwelled within. Moss and thorns were creeping up through the crevasses, clinging to the stones like parasites. This monastery could be seen from the city, towering above the forest. Being surrounded by these trees certainly added to its mystical illusion. It was a fine monument, she would hear the men say and the little ones in turn would regard its appearance as frightening. To her, it just looked like another tombstone. This fervently irritated her because it was spoiling the view with its sheer dominance.
The irritation swept over her like a rash and as a result she decided it was time to focus on a far more pressing matter. The box. The thing she had vowed never to use. It was now like a broken-in pair of ugly shoes. The painful stage of wearing them in was over but now she would have to endure wearing the hideous things every day. She felt utterly disappointed in herself, even if there wasn’t anything she could have done to prevent it. If she had run away again or argued she would have ended up in even worse trouble; the kind that could never be rectified. Having to be linked with such a thing felt beneath her, it already felt like it was draining away her thoughts, feasting on her failure.
The hazy sun suspended in the sky caught her attention and encouraged her to return home before it disappeared. She had lost a whole day, she thought, inside a cement block. Mustering up the remainder of her strength she got back onto her feet determined not to waste anymore time within its proximity. The path back home was blanketed in a thick layer of snow but her boots were more than capable to take on such a challenge. She began filling the innards of her jacket with the white cloth in order to contain and protect the material. She zipped it up tight and tucked the box into the crook of her arm enabling her to shove her blue hands into the soft lining of her pockets and with a deep intake of breath she carried on home.
By the time she reached the house, the light of the sun had all but dwindled and a strong wind had sprung up. Throwing open the front door, the wind practically swept her into the grand hall. No one was there to greet her. It was a gradual process as she unwillingly fought against the wind to close the door. The howling and the sharp gusts of wind stirred up a disturbance upstairs and she heard hurried footsteps through the ceiling. Her father’s face emerged from the upstairs balcony and for a moment she noticed a glimmer of a smile.
“Well, well you have returned,” he hollered.
“Yes sir. I am now no longer a disgrace. Well, according to Lord Karayan...”
“And his opinion is all that matters. Come my dear, come up here.” He beckoned to her with an overly dramatic hand gesture which she followed obediently.
As she clambered up the stairs she noticed he was waiting for her at the top. Her foot barely touched the last step before she was engulfed in a bear-like hug, this rare embrace left her stunned in his arms. She clung to him tightly.
“Father...” she queried quietly.
“Don’t ever disappoint me again, understand?” he whispered into her ear.
“Yes father. I promise and I truly am sorry for what I did.” For the first time that day, she actually did feel remorseful. She rubbed her face into his chest, resting against the cavities of his lungs whilst listening as they expanded and retracted in time with the beating of his heart. A hug of such calibre would not be given by her father again anytime soon, so she soaked up as much of the memory as she could; the pungent smell of his cologne, the feel of his sweaty dressing gown between her hands and the hold he had of her body that for once seemed so secure and tender.
“How come you feel so bulky?” he suddenly asked and just as quickly as the embrace began he pushed her away. Stepping back to inspect her body, his eyes intensely studied the bulge of her jacket drawing it to her attention.
“Oh!” she giggled as she placed her box on a nearby table. “I had to keep it from being spoiled by the snow.” She quickly unzipped her jacket and pulled out all of the strands of white cloth. His face bore his astonishment until all the pieces of the material were on the floor in front of him. He began to bellow with laughter slapping her jovially on the arm. He half expected her to just dump the cloth in the forest. Heulwen laughed along whilst rubbing her wounded arm just as Sylvia appeared around the corner with bleary eyes. She had a pale complexion and dark circles under her eyes. Like an excited child Alistair danced around the tired woman presenting her with the cloth. Despite his enthusiasm her expression didn’t seem to change, she seemed to be refusing to smile. Instead she gave her daughter a stern stare which drained away all the warmth from that moment.
“You are late,” Sylvia stated. “Do you know what time it is? Where have you been all day? What makes you think you can just stroll in on us like this?”
The muscles in Heulwen’s fists tightened. She failed to understand why her mother could be so cold and apprehensive. Never before had she appeared so distant and cruel. Of course her delay must have prevented them from settling down for an early night and her arrival obviously caused an unwanted disturbance but surely she could see it was not her fault? This time at least. Sylvia’s suspicious tone only increased her sudden irritation. She could not help but retaliate.
“You’re blaming me? You’re honestly holding me responsible? I practically ran all the way here. Do you know what it is like running in the freezing cold with this?” She pointed again to the rip in her jeans. “It was Karayan...”
“Lord Karayan,” Sylvia interrupted.
Heulwen’s eyes narrowed. “It was Lord Karayan who kept me there for such a long time. You think I wanted to stay there all day, really? Plus the fact...”
“Blaming Lord Karayan, I see. Typical. Why can’t you just admit that you wandered off into the forest again? Always have to find someone else to pin the blame on don’t you? It’s never your fault is it?” Sylvia had a talent at provoking. Although her voice remained level it still had a goading edge. Her accusations were pushing Heulwen’s frustration to breaking point.
But before Heulwen could defend herself against them Alistair spoke up. “I am fed up with this. Dear, do you realise that for the first time today I have been able to breathe a sigh of relief? I have had seizures of anxiety and rage all day and now that they have finally gone you cause a petty argument. Our daughter is finally out of serious trouble and is actually behaving, so do you really think I give a damn about how late it is? It’s only just gone sunset so do us a favour, go back to bed and keep your pathetic thoughts to yourself. I don’t want to hear another word out of you.” He waved Sylvia away and summoned Heulwen to follow him. Heulwen obeyed, collecting the box from the table as she did so, giving her an opportunity to look back at her mother. She glanced in time to see her infuriated face before she stormed back into her room. She felt guilty but at the same time ecstatic that her father had taken her side. He led the way to her bedroom and she hurried to catch up. When he stopped outside of her door he stood for a moment in silence. As she waited behind him, her excitement quickly turned into unease. She began to fidget as he continued to face the door, ignoring her presence behind him.
“I want you to sleep well tonight because I have a treat for you tomorrow,” he said, speaking to the door. “You’re getting more than you deserve but I think sometimes these methods help keep a woman on the right path. Luckily, one of the priests spoke on your behalf at Mass today so you don’t have to say anything about this... mishap ever again. Consider it blown over.”
Again the mixture of excitement and unease riddled her. Mostly unease; she wondered what the Priest had mentioned and why it was being glossed over so easily. However, presents were never unwelcome and she was glad to forgo discussions about what happened. So she kept her questions to herself. He unlocked the door and steered her in, keeping himself close to the edge of the doorway.
“Bet you can’t guess,” he teased.
Her mind began to shift actively through all of the ideas that were pouring in and cluttering up her mind. They all seemed either too unbelievable or just overly optimistic. She dared not mention anything and he revelled in her silence. He walked around the room to give her more time, poking at her belongings to further his pretence of distraction. In the end she never uttered a word. Instead she just looked imploringly at him. He found that he relished the suspense too much to give it up so readily. The tease was too empowering. He could imagine the torturous effect of sleeping on such an unanswered surprise would have on her. He shook his head and stood in silence for a few moments longer whilst her expectant eyes darted all around the room, obviously searching for inspiration. He chuckled in delight as finally she shrugged her shoulders, exasperated, as a sign of conceding defeat. She was like a rabbit and he a farmer, dangling a carrot inches from reach, in order to trick the little creature into a cage.
“I give up. Are you going to tell me?” Heulwen finally asked.
“Oh no, my little girly, if you can’t guess then I can’t tell,” he mocked. “You’ll just have to find out in the morning. Sleep on it, maybe it will come to you.” With a roguish grin he walked in the direction of the door. He decided to pause and turned to look at her two very disappointed eyes.
He shook his head and left her with a guarantee that the gift would be even more wonderful if he kept it a surprise, and without another word he quickly departed from the room. She rolled her eyes as she heard the key turn in the lock and listened as he walked away whistling a happy tune. She collapsed in her bed with a heavy sigh, crossed her arms behind her head and forcefully closed her eyes. She found herself pondering back over her previous ideas and found that this time around they seemed much more plausible, probably because there was no longer the flurry of panic which had earlier rendered them idiotic. Maybe he was going to buy her a new outfit? Or take her out somewhere? He could even be planning to have her nose pierced, she thought, with childlike abandon. She soon forgot all about the day’s events, especially of the box and the cloth. Instead she drifted off dreaming about the endless possibilities that tomorrow would bring.