Strange Conversation“How do you believe spirits feel after being bound to an item?” It was the older female's voice again. Spirits? Mariska frowned, more confused then before. Doubt crept into her mind – had she really heard her name earlier? If so, they may have moved onto a different topic. But… Spirits? A Council? Finding “her”? These were not things she associated with one another.
“I… I don't know.” Her father sighed in resignation, the response stammered and uncertain in tone. “All I know is that Denise said...”
“Denise is not a spirit-speaker is she?” The voice of the older woman cut him off again, her tone superior, foul-tempered, and sarcastic. There was a deep resonance in it, almost growl-like. Mariska tilted her head slightly to one side.
What was going on?
“Ma'am, I meant no disrespect.” His hands came up as if to ward the other person off. Fear clearly colored his voice. It wavered. “With how both Marton and Violeta proved...” Again her father was cut off by the older woman.
“I know how Denise's line has twice proved true.” Footsteps again, this time moving away from her father. Hearing her mother’s name in that high-handed tone of voice ran a line of cold down her back. Her mother was a very dominate woman that accepted no denials and got her way every time. This woman had the audacity to act as if Mariska’s mother were beneath her? Who was this person?
Mariska peered around the corner as far as she dared and attempted to get a look at this snotty, inconsiderate, rude, and presumptuous woman. Her dislike for this ‘visitor’ sprouted. She was so disrespectful and stuck-up. Who the heck was she? Why was her father cowed just by her tone of voice? Why did he seem to fear her?
“It runs in her bloodline.” The old woman continued dismissively, as if this were an obvious fact. As she spoke she moved to the far side of the living room. “It is expected of her... and of you.”
Mariska's neck prickled in response to that comment. ‘Proved true’? ‘Expected of’ her mother and father? She leaned a bit more to her right, risked being seen, and was rewarded with a glimpse of this snotty old woman. The details were limited as she moved out of Mariska’s line of sight. Her father’s back obscured the view. However, she could tell the woman was taller, had long black hair streaked with gray, and walked with a royal air.
He leaned so heavily against the arm of the couch her father was half sitting on it. Her mother wouldn’t like that at all. His body faced the fireplace, but his head was turned to watch the older woman. Empathy welled up inside the teen. She hated seeing her dad like this, so worn down and beaten by life. Her father sighed, looked at his hands, and slumped his shoulders. He looked up in the old woman's direction twice as if he considered saying something again and opted not to speaking. His right hand gripped and relaxed repeatedly on the couch back. His pause for thought lengthened. The clock in the kitchen ticked loudly in the silence.
Where Mariska hid, she couldn't see much of the living room beyond her father and the couch - not unless she increased her risk of being caught. With that thought she ducked back behind the laundry basket, suddenly very wary. Her instincts proved true as the woman walked past where he father stood blocking her view, and towards the kitchen area.
“Well?” The old woman's voice prompted, but it held a strange encouraging note. It was as if she waited for some argument her father held but did not speak.
“Yes, Elder. I know. That's why we were paired as mates.” His shoulders sagged a bit as if defeated. A long intake of breath followed by a sigh indicated he sat on the verge of giving up. Both of his hands rose to his face and he scrubbed it in frustration. Footsteps sounded again as the old woman continued to walk towards the kitchen. Mariska cringed behind the laundry basket as the old woman turned to look at her father, her eyes passing over Mariska’s hiding spot.
Mariska's heart ached. It was bad enough her overbearing, arrogant, worthless mother treated her father like this too. But to hear her father talked down to by some old bat angered the teen. A surge of hatred bloomed and dangerous, violent thoughts surfaced. Mariska bit the side of her tongue as she attempted to keep her mouth shut and her hiding spot undiscovered.
A quick flash of memory rose. The comparison between this woman’s behavior and her mother’s were exceptional. The same air of authority, the act of looking down their long noses at others, and the attitude that they were so much better sickened Mariska. Her mother’s constant outings, business trips, and sudden disappearances had damaged the mother-daughter bond between them. Her constant pushing of all the kids to ‘be better’ and the disapproval of anything not utterly perfect created an insurmountable wall they all climbed - including her father. She often treated these “imperfections” as if they were his fault, and punished him as much as she might the children. When Violetta, her older sister and first born of the siblings came of age, suddenly the world revolved around her, and their father and the other children were forgotten. He was treated like a common babysitter from that point on, and never since then did Mariska see them laugh together, cuddle, or show any real affection to each other. When Marton grew up this cold distance increased and deepened. She didn’t seem to care that he was an amazing father, or a caring human being with thoughts and feelings of his own. Now here was another snot-nosed… Mariska cut the thought off before she was tempted to mutter the foul words which sprang to mind just then.
As she looked at this… old… piece of… woman… thing, she sneered. At this point Mariska picked up more details of what this woman looked like. She was was exceptionally old. Although she stood tall and proud with a straight posture like that of a younger woman's and a graceful, stable stride, Mariska noted that the flesh of her face, arms, hands, and legs bore the marks of a long and active life. Veins showed here and there on the backs of her hands and down her legs. Her facial skin wrinkled and sagged around the eyes and mouth. Although fit and thin, her skin was loose around the jaw and neck. Moles and freckles adorned her all over the areas of exposed skin. Her eyes were slightly sunken, and her hair thinner and a bit wispy around the temples.
“Yes. Indeed.” The words were drawn out carefully, thoughtfully, as if the pairing weren't as good as this old woman wanted and wished it was something better. The hairs along Mariska’s neck stood on end. Her father shied, suddenly very concerned. The woman’s eyes flitted across the room, touched lightly and briefly on various items in the house as if she assessed their value.
“I'm sorry, Elder. I'm just concerned with the influx of demon-dog attacks on the Clans and...” The words caught in his throat. ‘Elder’? What was this about an Elder? Okay so she had some kind of authority, but it wasn’t a lower-case “e”. The tone in her father’s voice reflected more then just a respect for her age. It was more like how one might address a judge or police officer when caught in their disapproving gaze.
Mariska didn’t have time to digest this. The hesitation quickly caught the Elder's attention. She turned to look at Mariska's father, her eyes passing over the hallway again. This time they paused, narrowed in consideration, and Mariska's heart skipped a beat again. She was caught! She was sure the old bat saw her!
A soft, humorless smile touched the corner of this woman's lips. She didn’t make eye contact with Mariska, but Mariska was certain now that she’d been seen. But rather then act, the woman’s gaze moved on to look at her father instead. There was a coldness in the gaze she laid on him that the teen did not fully understand. Oh… No. Was her father about to get into trouble over her? Fear and anger raged inside her.
“Although you've performed honorably,” a sneer on the woman’s face lifted the upper lip just enough to show a glint of teeth, “it may be time to make some changes.“
Her father startled and stared in shocked horror at the ‘Elder’. Mariska’s anger and fear subsided with her own shock. Was the Elder suggesting… No. She wouldn’t replace her father… She couldn’t! Could she? His mouth opened to answer, but her words kept spilling out.
“We may not be of the North-Sea Clan who act as if fear were a beast to subdue. We understand fear for what it is worth. Even so it is a dangerous thing. If these are your feelings, you will infect the children still in your care. We cannot have that.”
Mariska shoved her fist into her mouth and plugged the horrid scream of rage that wanted to spill out. Her father stood, no longer on the couch arm, and stared at the Elder. He stammered at first, then his emotions welled up and tightened his voice.
“No. Elder, please. They are not just my charges, they are...” The words finally spilled out in a slurry of extreme emotion. The Elder held up her hand and sneered down at him from over an upturned nose. Her left lip curled even more into a small snarl that showed a flash of bright white teeth. His voice cut off, silenced by her feral gaze.
“Mind your place. You were lucky to even be paired as high as you were. Denise holds great status and rank within the Clan while your brother barely received notice before he died.” A pained expression wrinkled the skin around the eye Mariska was able to see on her father's face. Then he frowned. His fists balled up as if he wanted to swing.
“He loved the Clan, and sacrificed himself to save our secrets…” The words came through clenched teeth. The Elder took two, long, swift steps towards him and stopped a full arm’s length away. Her body posture and facial expression was full of pure malice. He put one foot back and ducked his head to avoid her gaze.
“Yes. Indeed. However,” she continued with a cold voice and clipped tone, “his sacrifice marked you,” she pointed at him, “as a potential excellent mate.”
With this said, she turned and walked back to the other side of the room, haughty and arrogantly scornful. But as fast as her anger had risen, she quelled it. At least outwardly her demeanor shifted to one of cold detachment. While Mariska’s father stood cowed once more, the teen wanted to tear the Elder’s eyes out. She was treating him like some kind of animal, only good for breeding! What was wrong with this woman, this… this… Several curse words came to mind, but none of them perfect enough to express Mariska’s indignant disgust.
“His weakness ended up his greatest strength in the end, and we hope to breed that into the bloodline. Seeing that you share this same -” The old woman waved a hand back in forth in a dismissive gesture as she spoke, a slight pause highlighted her unimpressed feelings. “- quirk… of character, well, we figured you'd be at least a good brood-keeper.”
Mariska saw her father's eyes narrow, but he kept his peace. She was baffled. Quirk? What quirk? Brood-keeper? Bloodline? Oh no… that sounded like arranged marriages!
“As it is, the only reason we haven't replaced you is because you've done an admirable job so far. Denise will be pleased to know this, I'm sure. However, your production rate is lower then expected. That needs to be corrected and soon. There should have been at least three more children.” The Elder crossed her arms over her chest and looked down her nose at Mariska’s father. He paled.
Mariska's mind reeled. Replaced?! But… Arranged marriages were something from the past, especially here in the U.S. However, this treatment was far worse. He was a thinking, feeling, human being, and not just some stud paired up with a mate to produce the best offspring! A sick feeling rose inside of her gut. If her parent’s marriage was arranged… Then wouldn’t her siblings… and… Oh No. She would… No. Just no.
“I understand,” a false sense of kindness and lackluster compassion grated on both Mariska's and her father's nerves, and they both flinched slightly, “that you have some minor performance issues. That your emotions get in the way and cause you to falter.”
He blushed bright red, his fists bunched until white showed on his knuckles. Mariska took a moment to realize what was meant, and she flushed with her own mixed embarrassment. This time he took a step forward towards the Elder, then thought better of it. The Elder looked at him a bit amused. She wasn’t as upset before, because she baited him with that line. It was painfully obvious to Mariska that she was toying with him now. His breathing was ragged and angry as he struggled to control his temper.
“It's no business of mine if you love her or not.” Again that false, almost sarcastic sweetness to her tone grated. Her father slowly forced himself to take a step back, distancing himself from the Elder. Mariska clutched at the fabric of her nightgown by her knees. Her mind drew back at the thought that her parents maybe didn't love each other, even as anger raged in her own heart. She had hoped that maybe, just maybe, there was something more between her parents. There had to be some reason why her father stayed on and kept suffering. Something worthwhile had to exist, didn’t it, to make sense of everything? Right?
“But, if you cannot perform your duties as her mate, it becomes a concern of the Clan. So...” A sly smile spread across the Elder's features. “A favor for a favor?”
Mariska gaped. Her father paled again. The Elder grinned with a feral intent. That… piece of… She set him up!
The Elder and her father locked eyes and stared hard at each other. The Elder continued to grin while her father frowned in anger. The battle of wills lasted about a minute or so, during which the Elder's grin broadened as a look of horror bloomed across her dad's features. The Elder’s grin was like that of a Cheshire Cat. Her dad shook his head ‘No’. The Elder shrugged and looked on as if her trade of favors were the only way out of this mess.
Some kind of understanding passed between them. Mariska wasn’t sure what this “favor” might be, but she saw the struggle in her dad’s eye. Then he broke first and looked to the floor crossing his arms over his chest.
“If it is what I think you want,” His voice was tight, hurt, angry, embarrassed.
“It’s for the good of the Clan and it’s bloodlines. You do understand?” Silky, sweet, and false, the Elder’s voice purred over those words.
“I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand. If it means that I get to stay here…” He wouldn’t look at the Elder now. He turned to face the fireplace instead.
“Good!” The Elder bubbled with enthusiasm. “I’m sure you’ll make the right arrangements? He doesn’t have to live here but, they’d need a room to themselves.”
“Yes.” He stated flatly. Then added with a worried tone in his voice, “is it someone I know?”
Mariska was floored. She glanced between the Elder and her father. He overwhelmed mind finally caught up with the conversation. Her mother was getting a new… partner. In exchange her father could stay on to care for his kids. She suddenly felt her gut tremble and roll. Bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t listen to anymore.
Mariska crept backwards down the hallway, mindful of the floorboards. With quick glances behind her now and again took care not to be caught now. Even with Plausible deny-ability on her side, the thought of facing down that Elder brought murderous thoughts to the surface. She picked up other snippets of the continued conversation, but ignored them. She wanted to help her dad, extract him from that terrible confrontation. But, she was at a loss.
Carefully she pushed back into her room and shut the door as far as it would go without the latch clicking into place. Then back into bed with a delicate touch so the bed barely creaked. She strained to hear the conversation, but it had stopped. A bubble of anxiety rose, but she was too overwhelmed to care if she got caught now. She just wanted to go back to sleep and forget this whole night.
Her stomach rolled again, bubbled, and threatened to push up the remnants of dinner. She laid as still as possible and struggled to keep from vomiting. Then a thought occurred to her. She could use being sick as a ruse to break the conversation and hopefully rescue her dad.
She started to get up from bed more obviously this time, when footsteps sounded in the hallway. She hesitated, her stomach churned. Then determined to continue she got up and walked back towards her door. A tired-sleepy facade added to her already ‘I’m going to be sick’ look was painted across her face. As she reached for the door calling out to her father, it was pushed open. She startled.
The Elder stood there with a strange look on her face. Mariska stood transfixed. Behind the Elder her father stood on tip-toes to see past the imposing shoulders.
“What is your favorite animal, child?” The question startled the teen, and all pretense dropped away to nothing. A powerful presence, like some kind of aura, emanated from the old woman. She felt compelled to answer.
“Ah… Wolves, and ravens.” The old woman seemed very pleased at this answer. Mariska quirked her left eyebrow.
“What time of day do you prefer?” Suddenly light-headed, a sense of surreality filtered in past her nausea. What was going on here? What did this nutty old bat want to know about her favorite time of day?
“Well, child? I don't like asking questions twice, it's unseemly.” Why was she being interrogated? Mariska pulled back as she frowned at the Elder. Her confusion and discomfort plain onf her face.
“Uh, uhmn…. Night.” The old woman's smile spread widen and a soft gleam seemed to light inside her eyes. What ever Mariska said apparently was the right thing. The woman stepped farther into the room and forced Mariska to retreat. A mix of horror and a sense of invasion made the hairs along her neck, spine, and arms prickle.
“Favorite Color?” Mariska blinked. The woman snapped her fingers and waved a hand to hurry the answers. Mariska took another step back and her frown deepened.
“Purple.” Mariska’s answer elicited a wider smile from the Elder.
“Food?” Food, food?! What was this? The Elder raised both eyebrows as if the answer to her questions was both important and interesting. She was insane! Mariska didn't hesitate as long this time.
“Steak, rare.” Mariska’s stomach lurched at the thought of food, even as she said it. The Elder’s gaze now swept over Mariska’s bedroom and ignored the teen’s discomfort. Her eyes landed on the bookshelf filled with books of various shapes and sizes.
“Books?” The question was touched with real curiosity, as if this woman actually cared.Books?! Mariska's mind couldn't fathom what was happening. The comparison between what Mariska saw before of this woman and how she acted now was so confusing. But Mariaka’s answer came faster now, more rapid fire.
“All kinds, especially histories.”
“Really?” The Elder turned her attention back on Mariska. She seemed pleased and throughly fascinated. “What kind of histories?”
“Uhmn… Old histories, battle tactics, Machiavelli’s the Prince is a current read though it's a bit dry. Uhmn.. I'm also reading Shakespeare too for English class.”
“But that’s not a History.”
It was a question wrapped as a comment. Her teachers used that tactic. Mariska smirked. “No, but it does give insight into the society of the time period in a way strict historical accounts don’t.”
“Fascinating, no tech?”
Mariska shook her head. She was about done with this interrogation. “I have some computer classes in school, but it's not that interesting.”
“Ever notice strange things that cannot be explained?”
Mariska tilted her head to one side and stared at the woman. Her sarcasm burst out before she could control it. “You mean like having some nutty old woman walk into my bedroom in the middle of the night and start popping off questions at me? That’s pretty strange.”
She heard her dad gasp behind the nut-job “Elder”. The Elder stared at her long and hard, as if trying to decide how she felt about that answer. She took a deep breath, cleared her throat, and just smiled. It was that Cheshire Cat look again!
The smile of the old woman’s face broadened as she spoke. “What do you dream?”
Mariska put her fisted hands on her hips and glared at the woman. Dreams?! She stammered in frustration. “I… I don't remember my dreams.”
The old woman frowned at this response, looked thoughtful, then gave a curt nod to herself. “I'll fix that shortly. Dreams are powerful things. They can show us paths and wisdom we normally wouldn't see or understand when awake.”
Mariska pulled back, turning her face away to look over the Elder's shoulder. She spotted her father. Concern was etched in his staring beading eyes. He ever so slightly shook his head “no” and motioned with his well manicured hands for Mariska to pay attention to the Elder. She raised her other eyebrow, then looked back at the Elder.
“One last question… Have you bled yet?” That was her limit. Embarrassed and enraged Mariska rose up to her full height and looked the old woman deep in the eyes. Her fists clenched into tight balls, shoulders rounded and she rose to her toes. A deep, low growling answer rose from Mariska's throat. The Elder seemed a bit shocked, then thoughtful, then interested as the teen spoke up in a rush of angry emotions.
“I'll have you know that is no business of anyone's but my parents. That is an extremely personal question. I don't even know who you are, why you are here, or why you are in my family home.” It was all Mariska could do to keep her tongue civil and not revert to very foul language. Her father cringed in the background, and watched the Elder's back as if she were some kind of viper.
“Well,” the Elder seemed amused and not insulted, “I am a Clan Elder of your bloodline child. Although you don't understand what that means now, you will. You will. Soon enough you will. When you do, you shall also know my names and titles, what they mean, and why you must heed them. Until then, whelp...”
The Elder left a sputtering Mariska to stew. She turned towards Mariska’s father. “Well? Has she?”
With a sad look in his eyes, he nodded once then added, “Just last month. Middle of the month… Uhmn, under the crescent moon I believe. I’d have to check the,” he glanced to a horrified Mariska and gave her a wane, appologetic smile,” the uh… the family calendar.”
“Dad!” Mariska's horror and embarrassment grew. She felt a little bit betrayed. That was personal and private information. It was bad enough that she had to go to her father in the first place when it happened, since her so-called mom was out on some business at the time. But then, he kept track of it?! On a calendar?! What was this nonsense about a moon-phase?! His words and actions confounded the teen.
She looked back a the woman. Who in the world was this nutty old bat?! Why was she so important that her father treated her like royalty in their house?! And share private information with her?!
The Elder seemed inordinately pleased and didn't notice the Mariska’s outburst. Her father on the other hand flinched. Considering the conversation he had with this Elder, she understood he was sensitive. But the look in his eyes spoke of something else. Somewhere at some point during the conversation in her room, something had significantly changed. She wasn’t sure what changed, but he seemed fearful of her now too. He feared his own daughter? Denial. How could her fear her?
Mariska settled, now more concerned by her father's reactions and stared at him in confusion. He looked at her with a touch of sadness, a hint of an apology, and… fear. Yes, she was sure of it now. He feared her. Before Mariska could ask, move, or respond, the Elder turned with a swift motion, put one finger to the middle of Mariska's forehead, and then all was dark.
The Next MorningHer father came and woke her the next morning. It was still early and her body felt beat up. He looked tired. He smiled, but the brightness of it was faded as if forced himself to smile. It was wane, and false.
He sat on the foot of her bed with a small box in his hands. She propped herself up and then rubbed her eyes. Mariska was slightly confused and bleary-eyed. Half-remembered images swam in her mind. Last night was a blur, the memories faded into the dream-scapes, mixed with them, and became somewhat forgotten. She frowned. Was it all just a dream?
Without a word he handed her the box. Her eyes flickered between the box and him, then she took it. Slowly she opened it and looked inside. A soft-colored moonstone sat in a cage of silvery wire. It was attached to a thong of braided black leather. He reached into the box, took the necklace out, and put it over her head.
“Wear it always. It will save your life.” With that he rose and left her room before she was able to respond. She stared after him, silent, curious, and worried. What did it all mean?