by Maria Dean
Read more about the author HERE.
“Was you followed?” the creature asks in crooked English. Mariam can see the tip of his long, hooked nose protruding from the hem of his dark hood and the glint of sharpened teeth as he speaks. She is relieved that the rest of his body lies hidden beneath the confines of a thick brown cloak.
Mariam has never felt more human.
She clings to her long cobalt veil and wonders if she has been seen. Her presence would not be questioned if she were upon one of the many rambling paths that snake the foot of the Great Hills. But Mariam has strayed from the sunlit trail. She is hiding in the crevices of the hills and consorting with the darkness.
“I don’t think so,” Mariam shivers.
“Thinks so?” his voice curls off his forked tongue, “Thinks so ain’t good enough. Needs to be knows so.”
“No,” Mariam snaps, “no, I wasn’t followed.”
The creature shuffles his feet upon the floor, the noise reminding her of her old mule scraping his hooves across the dry earth. “Then I is ready if you is?” Mariam nods, her resolve the only thing stopping her from fleeing. “It is your arm that I is needing.” Mariam slowly pulls her arm from the confines of her cloak, her pale, creamy skin luminescent in the gloom.
Her breath catches in the back of her throat as the blackened withered hand slides from beneath his robe. She screws her eyes shut. She begins to sway as if the breeze has caught the hem of her gown and is whispering its wise words to pull her from this wretched place.
She feels a heat in her arm followed by a searing pain that weakens her knees.
“Ow!” she gasps. The grip on her arm holds her firm.
“Did these expects this to be painless? Silly fools she is,” the creature titters. The pain tears up her arm, drenching her in a heat that threatens to choke her. She is sure that there will be nothing left of her arm by the time he is done.
To her relief, he drops her arm.
Mariam prises open her eyes.
The creature has moved back, his cloak pulled tighter around his body, his demonic red eyes blinking in unison.
Mariam gulps as she looks at her once untainted arm and finds three rings burned into her flesh, scorching her skin, and binding her fate.
“And it will definitely work?” she asks, looking up from her charred arm.
“Is too late nows,” he hacks. “What’s done is done.”
“You have done others,” Mariam pushes, “And they worked.”
“Is you telling me ors asking?”
“I…” Mariam begins, but she stops, not sure if she wants to hear his answer.
“Just as I thought,” he laughs. “But I needs payment for I has done what yous asked.”
Mariam pulls the heavy bag from her belt, the weight of it being more than coins. It is all she has and some she does not.
The creature exudes a torturous laugh as Mariam’s hand begins to shake.
“And what use would I have for these silly metal things?” he chokes.
Mariam stares at the blackness of his hood, snatches of his face coming into view as he speaks.
“Then what do you want?” she asks, eager to leave this place now she has what she came for.
“I will gets what I wants when the time is right,” he sneers. “Until then…” The blackened hand darts from the cloak and waggles its fingers in a sinister wave before spinning on its haunches and trampling off into the darkness, its tail trailing from underneath its cloak like an obedient serpent.
Mariam’s shoulders drop as she clutches her weary body. Her arm burns, the mark still eating away at her flesh. The squawk of some hungry creature rings through the trees like an alarm, the leaves rustling as if they are gossiping about what they have just witnessed.
She gathers up the folds of her dress. She must hurry if she is to be home by nightfall; this place is dark enough already.
As she wades through the bracken, she can’t help but recall when she had first learned of the Chosen Ones. Her mother’s soft voice fills her ears, the smell of lavender rousing memories of youth and folly.
“God chooses only the most devoted of his followers to cross over into The Promised Land,” she had told Mariam whilst they had been grinding grain at the millstone.
“How do you know if you are a Chosen One?” Mariam had pounded the grain with her small hands, her eagerness for knowledge as strong as her pummel.
“God will send down three angels, and, whilst you sleep, they will use their halos to mark three rings on your arm,” her mother had told her.
Mariam thinks of Zebulun’s toned arm embellished with the three rings. Like always, they had met in secret, revealing his fate as he’d rolled up his sleeve. At first, he had been radiant with joy. But then he had looked at her, realising what it meant.
“I won’t go,” he had said, marching over to her and covering his arm.
“You know that that isn’t how it works,” she had told him. “You don’t get to choose.”
“But I don’t want it,” he’d told her.
“Don’t be silly. God has selected you to go to The Promised Land. It is an honour and a privilege. And who would not want to go to a land that is so rich and fruitful? We can only imagine. But you, my love, can experience it for yourself. Others would give their soul for this.”
And she had smiled and held him, knowing that she had said all the right things and that she had given him her blessing. But inside she was broken, shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, her soul condemned.
It had been three nights after Zebulun had received his mark that she had overheard the conversation in the fields.
“I heard that Elijah faked it,” Abel remarked in a throaty cough whilst pulling at his wiry beard.
“Can’t have done,” Caleb interrupted. “He’d have been caught by the Truthseeker. Everyone knows that you can’t fool one of them, otherwise we’d all be faking the marks and trying to cross over.”
“I’m telling you he did. You seen him lately?”
“Maybe that’s because he got caught,” Caleb guessed.
“No, he got in alright,” Abel insisted before leaning in towards his companion and lowering his voice. “I heard that he used The Diabolos.”
“Hold your tongue, damn fool,” Caleb interjected, glancing up nervously.
“I was only telling you.”
“A man’s got to be senseless to seek the help of that thing.” Caleb shook his head.
“Or desperate,” Abel added.
It is the day of The Crossing and Mariam stands in the crowd at the foot of the Temple, the air hot and dry as if there is no air left to breathe. The streets are paved with people who have abandoned their chores to watch the ceremony. The atmosphere is a jumble of joy, jubilation, and fevered expectation. Mariam has always been confused by the hysteria over The Crossing ceremony; she has always felt nothing but sadness for those left behind.
The sleeve of her dress rubs against her arm like sandpaper and the heat of the day radiates off the dry sand.
She can see Zebulun. He is waiting in line with the other Chosen Ones. There are women and men, uncertainty, hope, and excitement clouding their beautiful faces. They will enter the Temple one at a time, the crowd waving them off. They are the Chosen Ones, their lives about to be changed forever.
The rumours about The Promised Land are legend. God’s gift to his faithful followers. A place where natural resources are in abundance. A land flowing with milk and honey. A place of peace and rest. A dream come true.
“I’m next,” Zebulun finds Mariam in the crowd, his eyes damp.
She pushes her way to the front and looks at him, wishing she could reach out and touch him.
“Good luck brother,” Mariam’s husband-to-be reaches his hand out to Zebulun. He wears nothing but pride for his brother.
Zebulun nods to them both then looks at Mariam one last time before he begins his ascent up the stone steps to the Temple.
As soon as Zebulun has entered the Temple, Mariam drops her partner’s hand and darts under the rope that holds back the spectators. She leaps up the steps, two at a time. She can hear her betrothed’s confused cries from below, the gasps from the onlookers, but she doesn’t stop until she is face to face with the sharpened spear of a centaur.
His male half is beautiful, with sharp eyes, a strong jaw, and glossy black hair. His body is that of a stallion, his coat a shiny bronze that shimmers in the light.
“I am next,” she tells him as she rolls up her sleeve. The centaur looks down suspiciously at the mark. The centaurs are not there to judge. That is the job of the Truthseeker.
The centaur raises his spear.
Mariam enters the cold shadow of the temple’s high domed ceiling. She has always wondered what lies behind the giant doors, but now that she is here, she feels cold and empty, the sparsity of the poorly lit chamber being nothing like she expected.
She sees a girl who looks no more than ten years old, but Mariam knows that the girl is older than the Temple itself. She looks pale and underfed, with white hair that is almost transparent and eyes like moonstones. She is sitting in a high-back wooden chair, like the poorest ruler of a forgotten kingdom.
“Come,” the Truthseeker beckons in a fragile voice that could shatter at any moment. Mariam steps forward. “Hold out your arm,” she whispers, her voice as delicate as a silkworm’s thread. Mariam does as she is told. She holds her arm with her other hand to disguise the quiver.
“It is a fake,” the Truthseeker declares after looking at her arm for several seconds.
“It is not,” Mariam protests. The Truthseeker looks at her, her youth hiding her wisdom. She places a slender hand on Mariam’s arm and holds it. Mariam feels nothing as the mark begins to disappear.
“You consulted The Diabolos,” the Truthseeker says. Mariam closes her eyes as her head sinks to her chest. “Why would a woman such as yourself seek the help of the fallen?”
Mariam hides behind her silence.
“I see love, but it is more than that.” The Truthseeker glances down at Mariam’s stomach. “You are with child.” Mariam nods, tears free-falling down her cheeks.
“You must let me follow. Please, I beg of you. I want my child to have a father.”
“I don’t have that sort of power,” the Truthseeker says.
“But I must,” Mariam sobs.
“It’s not how it works,” The Truthseeker says, her eyes misting over. “I see that you are promised to a man, but he is not the father of your child.”
Mariam’s limbs begin to bow.
“That is why I must follow. My intended will know that the baby is not his as we have never shared a bed.”
“It’s impossible,” the Truthseeker replies.
Mariam sways, the room feeling larger by the second.
“What will happen to me now? Will I be killed for my treachery?”
“We would never kill a woman who is with child,” The Truthseeker explains. “You will return.”
“What about my intended? When he finds out about the child, he will banish me.”
“You will find a way,” The Truthseeker says before lifting her dainty hand and signalling for a Centaur.
Mariam is relieved when she is ushered out of the back of the Temple by the Centaur. She can’t face the crowds just yet. But her relief is short-lived when she steps into a dank alley that is cold and unforgiving. She turns to ask the Centaur which way she should go when the door is closed firmly in her face. She pulls her robe around her and looks ahead. The alley feels narrow, the steep walls leaning in on her. She breathes in deeply and prepares herself to leave this place when she sees a familiar figure galloping towards her. She turns to run but is met by the door to the Temple which remains firmly closed. She runs her hands up the high walls but the stone is solid, no secret panels or hidden crevices. She closes her eyes, hoping the figure might disappear but his voice reminds her that he is very much present.
“We meets again,” he titters, “And you owes me.”
“It didn’t work,” Mariam opens her eyes and hisses at him.
“Nots for you, maybe.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I says. It’s a game you sees. A game that I wants to play.”
“What game? What are you talking about?”
“It’s a fun game, see. It will be the biggest lies of them all. The whole world will be deceived. You and I will fools them all for years to come. Our story will be the ones they tell and sings their songs about and I will laugh at thems all, the fools.”
Mariam looks on in horror as the creature tells her his plan.
Tears roll down her face.
“What will you gain from this?” Mariam demands.
“Gain? I wills revel in the deception, I wills laugh at the deceit. For it is just a games to mes and I so likes games.”
“And what if I don’t agree?” Mariam sniffs, almost afraid to ask.
“Then I will takes the child and feed its to the wolves.”
Mariam shudders. She knows this is no idle threat.
“Just remembers what I tells thee. You must not forgets the story,” he warns before turning heavily and trotting away down the alley, his cackling laugh trailing in his wake. Mariam waits until he is gone before stumbling drunkenly out of the alley. She steps onto the barren earth and lays down, exhausted and afraid.
She closes her eyes and prays.
“Mariam!” a voice cries as a man comes running over to her. He grabs hold of her shoulders and rolls her onto her back, his eyes running wildly over her face.
“Where have you been? Why did you run into the Temple?”
“Who are you?” she asks, her eyes wide with curiosity.
“What are you talking about?” the man says, “It is me, Joseph. I am to be your husband.” Mariam looks at him with a searing pain in her chest.
“What happened in the Temple?”
She waits, hoping that somehow this will all turn out to be a dream, but when he continues to stare at her, she knows that she has no choice. She hears the Diabolo’s rancid voice cackling in her ears, his instructions clear and precise.
She clears her throat in preparation for her script.
“I have been talking with an angel. He gave me the most wonderful news,” she forces a smile, but the tears are real.
Joseph looks at her then takes her arm.
“Come, let’s get you home and you can tell me all about it,” he says as he leads her away.