The Conscience Chest

By Hannah Jamieson

Chapter 1

It had been a couple of years since her last visit to the Pier. At that time her legs could barely reach the surface of the ice. However, as she flung her legs over the side she found to her astonishment and disappointment that her boots were able to scrape across the crust. Her eyes darted to the object in her lap to make sure it hadn’t been disturbed by her startled movements. It was safe. Whether she was relieved or not was another matter. She diverted her attention and found sanctuary in the eerie reflection of the moon shimmering on the ice. She was miserable. The last time she had come to the river was when her dear sister got married. Now back, she was trying to ignore the burden that was weighing down on her thighs. The air was freezing around her body, engulfing her in a tight embrace. Something about this cold world, when it was accompanied by the beautiful night sky, could always manage to calm her frantic heart. When her breathing slowed, and her hairs no longer felt the need to stand on end, she was able to just relax and enjoy the stark landscape lying before her.

She adored how the white stars could be outshone by the glistening snow. Flecks of the moon’s reflected light were sprinkled over the wide river, giving it a ghostly sheen. On a foggy day this river could easily deceive a stranger. It would encourage you to believe it to be a lake or even a giant ocean. However, you could just see a hint of wilderness tracing across the edge of the horizon, bordering your imagination. A rim of trees and a crest of mountains lay, happily situated, on the other side of the wide river. She once tried to walk across it, which happened the last time she was here. The adventure had ended in bitter disappointment. The same thoughts that had made her want to cross it suddenly flooded her mind. She managed to restrain the instinct to run. She knew she would never make it over to the other side in time. Her father would give chase. He would catch her and she would be dragged back in disgrace. She could feel her cheeks being burned by the memory and wished the crisp wind would veil the redness that was creeping up her neck.

The moon loomed overhead, slowly moving itself across the sky. Time was passing far too quickly. She took a deep breath and finally looked down at it. A box. A cage meant for her thoughts and feelings; to contain them, keep them safe and most importantly of all, to prevent them from being said or shared. She had brought it here with the intention of smashing it onto the ice but, yet again, she had to suppress the ferocious impulse. Her parents had given her sister a similar chest a week before she was to be wedded and bedded. Hers was a gush of red flames and was embroidered with gold. The one Heulwen had on her lap was encrusted with silver and the wood had been painted blue. It was a delicate design. The metal was made to swirl around the lid like ribbons of smoke and the intricate lock had an outline of a heart. It was beautiful but inferior in comparison to her sister’s. She had to look away again. Her pure hatred for this box would have to be the first impurity to go in it. It wasn’t resentment for her sister that made her lips contort with disgust; far from it. It was the fact that she knew what her father and even, sometimes, her mother thought of her. This chest said it all.

Suddenly the boards of the pier began to creak. A breath escaped from her lips and for a moment she was still. Someone had found her. She focused on the approaching footsteps and to her surprise they weren’t rushed or hurried steps. They were deliberate and painfully slow. To her relief, she knew who it was.

Elaine knew exactly where her little sister would be and had managed to persuade their father that she, and only she, could bring her back without a fight. She was right, of course, and inevitably made herself comfortable beside the motionless individual that just sat staring into the night. Even though she was so determined to retrieve Heulwen, admittedly, she had not considered how she should approach her. So for a long while she resisted speaking until she found the right words of comfort. Heulwen was such an odd little person; even now she could only hazard a guess as to what was making her so distressed.

“I know it’s weird the first time.” Her voice was soft. Her arm coiled around her sister’s tense shoulders and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “You knew this was going to happen, Heulwen. You’ve had a whole week to adjust yourself to the idea... I was surprised you bolted the way you did.”

She did not respond. Elaine embraced the silence and decided to change the subject, for the time being. Maybe she had taken the wrong approach.

“It’s been a long time since you were here eh? My, it hasn’t changed... has it?” Again she was met with nothing; but she did not despair. “You always did like coming here didn’t you? What is it about this place that draws you here? The ice? The moon? The mount..?”

“I don’t want this.” Heulwen interrupted, resolute to avoid small talk. Her hands were gripped tightly around the box and her nails were digging at the paintwork, indicating what ‘this’ was. Elaine watched her.

“Think of it as a coming-of-age present. It can be just a box you know.” Her voice was soothing.

“Do you use yours?” she queried. Their eyes, for a moment, finally met but Elaine pulled away, mortified. Heulwen sighed. “I’m not ready for this.”

“Heulwen, you are a woman. You have a woman’s body and now you have a woman’s treasure.”

“Curse. You mean.” She spat out her words.

Elaine had to remain patient. “Call it what you want... I know you are having trouble coming to terms with this change, but we all have to go through it. No one likes to grow up. I sure don’t.” She smiled with nostalgia brimming in her eyes.

Heulwen looked down at her feet. The fact that they were able to touch the ice was just another unfortunate reminder that she was now a woman. She disliked it very much.

“Please leave me alone,” she retorted.

With a sigh Elaine persisted, “If I do then you know what will happen.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh Heulwen! Just come home with me!” Elaine took her by the hand and dragged her onto her feet to cuddle her. Taken by surprise Heulwen didn’t have chance to resist. “If I leave you then he will come and then what will become of you? Please be sensible. I am here because they have given you a chance.”

Heulwen was limp in her embrace. “I just can’t bear to face them. Everyone will still be there... ” The burning sensation had returned and was itching across her face. She couldn’t leave, not yet. “They all looked so mad. What were they like after I left?” Heulwen enquired shyly.

“Well father was... hysterical, at first, you know how he can be, but the priest and I managed to calm him down. Mother knew better, of course. She was able to distract the guests.” A smile spread across Elaine’s face. “He almost sent the Sibaltaicas out on you again! Worried you would try and walk out on the ice! I was sent to confession before I was allowed to come and retrieve you.”

Heulwen gasped. “You didn’t?! You spoke back at him?” her sister’s eyes lit up with mischief and she proceeded to giggle. It was contagious and Heulwen was forced to join in the scandal. After the giggling stopped, Heulwen became thoughtful. Even though Elaine could sense her anxiety, she forced herself to wait, allowing Heulwen time to ponder. Heulwen shifted her feet to and fro, to and fro, mimicking the pendulum that was oscillating between her thoughts. Elaine’s eyes glanced over the lake. She had felt the same lure that stirred Heulwen’s soul many a time. She forced her gaze away from the temptation and turned to the small chest on Heulwen’s lap. It seemed so clean and innocent, nothing like hers now. For a second she too felt the urge to obliterate it. She didn’t know where to look. So she concentrated on Heulwen and after a fairly long, uncomfortable silence she was finally faced by her sister’s expectant eyes.

“Elaine, promise I can speak to you! Please promise you will always let me share with you as well? I know it will be hard but...” Heulwen couldn’t help but plead, her eyes now glistening with the threat of tears.

Elaine, pleased that it wasn’t worse, cupped Heulwens’ face into her hands and kissed her softly on the nose. “Sweetie, I promise. You don’t have to use it when you are with me. Deal?”

Heulwen breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into Elaine’s arms. “Deal,” she whispered. The burden for a while didn’t seem too heavy. She knew she would be facing hell when she got back but with Elaine by her side she was sure she would cope. Well, she hoped at least. They stood together looking out to the land that lay beyond the river. One just as cold and as white as theirs but which had managed to capture their fascination.

“Shall we go back now then?” asked Elaine; uncertainty edging her voice.

“I guess we should... I think I can handle what is coming to me.” She made light of it with a chuckle but this time Elaine did not join in.

When their hands were firmly clasped together, and the box was tucked safely underneath her arm, Elaine finally led Heulwen back through the forest. Their feet were already sodden and cold from the onset. They began to make the slow lumbering trudge back through the layer of snow. The wind ruffled Heulwen’s fur and played with the wild untameable hair that tussled behind her. She pulled her layers in closer and buried her face in the pelt that lined her coat all the while feeling reassured by Elaine’s warm hand in hers.

“If everyone is still there... what should I say?”

“Sorry would be a good start... but I’m sure father has already said that a million times already. Maybe say you just needed a moment to compose yourself?”

“A couple of hours are many, many moments...”

“You got lost in your thoughts. It happens,” she teased.

Heulwen smiled. “Often,” she replied.

“I do wonder what you dream about all day long. How a girl can have her head in the clouds for such a long time. Doesn’t your head ever get tired?”

Heulwen’s smile faded. “Often... very tired.”

***

When the guests had finally left, Alistair was able to reveal his anger. He paced the empty room and muttered under his breath. His wife, Sylvia, returned after escorting the guests out and perched on the window sill. She said nothing. She was used to his tantrums and so ignored his childish expostulating. He noticed, immediately walked up behind her and looked out of the window. Still nothing.

“Can you believe her? How dare she humiliate me in such a way,” he bellowed. “When she returns I shall never let her out of my sight again.”

“Who knows what was going on in her mind?” Sylvia replied mildly. She quickly slithered away from the window and poured her husband a glass of wine. Her hands shivering. “Perhaps something scared her?”

“What nonsense!” he said, snatching the glass from her hands. “Scared? Scared of what? Her friends and family? Total rubbish.” He took a swig of wine and wiped away the wasted droplets around his mouth. “It’s all that day-dreaming and wandering off that she does. How could you have allowed her to be this way? What an absolutely disobedient child you’ve raised.”

“She is uncontrollable,” she interjected. His eyebrows raised and her hands quickly clamped over her mouth. She spoke again this time more softly.

“I swear everything I say just turns to dust in her head. I cannot help that she does not listen to me.”

“You let her off too easy. How on earth will we find a husband for her? No man wants an uncontrollable wife. Thank God the High Priest was here. He’ll know how to sort her out.”

“I try...” she whispered.

She dropped into a pile of cushions on the floor and burrowed her face into the folds of silk and fur. He too collapsed into his throne and sighed heavily. In silence they waited for their daughters to return. All that could be heard were Alistair’s fingers drumming into the arm rests. His eyes gazed upon his room which was bright with colours and rich with expensive furniture. His throne was positioned in the heart of the room and was surrounded by beautiful wooden coffee tables, mounds upon mounds of cushions, all a variety of colours and textures. Draperies hung delicately from the ceiling and, like a waterfall, cascaded down to the floor. The room was framed by white stone pillars which all had been painstakingly painted to look like they were wrapped with gold lace. Each archway that joined these pillars together had a lantern suspended in the middle, giving each walkway its own coloured hue. It was the ideal room for a large gathering; women could mingle together on the cushions, the men could sit together on their thrones for drinking and debate whilst the children played their games around the pillars. The pillars also created a nice passageway around the whole room so any solitary persons could keep an eye on the proceedings without having to interact.

That was exactly how the High Priest, known to all as Lord Karayan, had behaved during the entire course of the evening. His prowling had thoroughly unsettled Alistair, yet pleased him at the same time. As the High Priest, he was a reliable presence, as it so proved tonight, but despite his best intentions he left all the guests feeling dreadfully anxious. His astounding ability to conceal his true emotions, to the point where you could never be too sure what he was feeling, left everyone on edge. You could never relax or feel free to speak your mind in front of him. It was a manner that not many people were accustomed to, especially Alistair. He was truly grateful for his help when Heulwen ran away but he also despised his nonchalant approach to the situation. He felt patronised and embarrassed, feelings he wasn’t used to at all. Another wave of anger welled up inside him as he beat his fist down onto the armrest, battering out his frustration onto his throne. Sylvia remained motionless on the cushions but began gnawing at her lip.

Alistair thought it best to suppress as much of his emotions as he could ‘til his daughters returned. As he turned his attention back to the window he could just about see two dark figures making their way up the path towards the house. He became very still. When the door finally opened Alistair shot out of his throne. Sylvia raised her head and watched as he dragged Heulwen into the room and threw her brutally down to the floor.

“Please father,” Elaine pleaded.

“Be quiet. Now you, you little brat. You have a lot of explaining to do.” He towered over her crouching body and breathed heavily. “Well?”

With no immediate reply he brought his face uncomfortably close to hers, close enough to feel his hot breath as he asked again, “Well? What have you to say?”

“I panicked father,” she answered feebly.

“PANICKED?!”

“It was just all too much,” she added.

“Was it? Oh, well, then I am sorry. I am terribly sorry that this evening was designed around you, that it was intended to honour and celebrate your womanhood. I’m sorry it cost your mother and I a fortune. It is certainly clear that you do not care for such things. I had to suffer the humiliation of having to explain to our guests why you felt it necessary to abandon them and treat them with such disrespect.”

“I was overwhelmed.”

“Well, you can explain that to them tomorrow at Mass,” Sylvia responded.

“More than that! I will have you knocking on each and every one of their doors,” Alistair bellowed. “Overwhelmed indeed! Don’t think I don’t see right through you. Such indecorous behaviour... I have made arrangements for you to go with lord Karayan and repent. That is, after I am through with you... Sylvia, make sure Elaine is escorted home. Braeden has also been left waiting because of you.”

Sylvia ushered Elaine away quickly, careful to prevent Elaine saying her farewells to Heulwen. Alistair stared at his little girl. Her eyes were deliberately looking at her feet whilst her hands were fidgeting with the collar of her jacket.

“Do you even know what you have done?”

“Yes. I do and I am very sorry.” She continued to stare at her feet. “For a moment I didn’t know myself.”

“I just knew you would find a way to spoil this day. Deep down, I just knew it. Do I have to chain you up to be able to keep you still? Must I watch your every move?” He circled her slouching body. “What is wrong with you?”

“Father, honestly, I wasn’t thinking.”

“You never are! That’s the problem!” he sighed and fervently rubbed his hand across his forehead. “You really do bring this on yourself, just bend over and let’s get this over with.”

He removed his belt as she bent down. She could hear the leather cracking as he folded his belt in two. Swallowing her fear she braced herself for the first blow. She was no stranger to this form of punishment, but even though it happened regularly, it still could never prepare her for the first blow. Anticipation was a useless barrier. She staggered as the buckle struck her. She could already feel the blood begin trickling down her trousers. He pulled her back and placed her into position. The tears fell effortlessly from her eyes and a scream was expelled from lungs as he hit her again. Trying to stay still was the hardest part. He struck her several times in the same place; each time more agonising than the last. Her body stiffened. The pain was becoming unbearable and with each excruciating blow she could feel herself slipping into oblivion. Suddenly she heard him speak, but his words didn’t reach her as she collapsed into obscurity.