A Touch of Truth Book one: Raven, Fire & Ice
LUCINDA RAVENSBURGH SAT at her desk and stared at the items she’d dumped on the leather writing surface. Money, a lot of it, spilled over several sheets of paper folded and sealed with wax. She selected one, broke the seal, and glanced at the writing inside. “Pish,” she grumbled, and discarded it.
A flash of pale metal in the shape of a hummingbird brooch caught her attention. She didn’t touch it though, she just stared at the thumb-nail sized work of art. Crafted in silver, and made with such skill and attention to detail, the hummingbird could have flitted its wings and flown away. Lucinda wondered whom it belonged to, or rather who it had belonged to. She waited for inspiration, or something to come to mind, nothing did. She would have to touch it for that.
Since inspiration failed her, she reached into the top left drawer of her desk and took out a leather wrapped pouch no longer than the length and thickness of her hand. Inside lay three cylinders the length of her index finger, each bar clipped in place with leather strapping. Lucinda selected one of these slender bars and tested the bone insert and brown rubber covering for blemishes. Satisfied of the integrity of the bar, she placed the cylinder between her teeth. She ground her jaws together until bone and rubber sat comfortably in her mouth. Lucinda hated the bite bar, but better something she disliked rather than risk breaking a tooth or shredding her tongue.
She took a deep breath and snatched at the silver brooch from the desk as though she feared it would burn. Her fingers closed around the little bird and her grip tightened into a fist. The muscles in her back stiffened. Her perspective changed, and her place in her chamber ceased to exist. Reality, for Lucinda, shifted elsewhere. Her room, the tower in which it lay, and all of her world vanished. Other images, memories not her own, assailed her mind.
Blood. Blood everywhere. Fresh blood.
Once white walls, smeared from floor to ceiling with shades of wine and scarlet. Blood, and bandages.
Red on white.
More details rose to her mind in little bubbles of vision.
Eight little shower heads, standing in a row.
Drip, drip, drip. Blood fell in tiny noisy drops.
Copper pipes, wrapped in slimy strings of gore shone with reflected light.
Blood dripped into the pool of blood with a steady plink, plink.
At her feet, ripples spread out like a single drop of rain on a still and silent pool.
Above her head, globules of slimy red and black clung to the ceiling with the tenacity of a barnacle, and once released, landed in the sea of blood with a solid blup.
She saw movement then. Neither a drip nor a splash this time. It rose from the flooded floor in a surge of red to stand, dripping, on two legs. A man. Wide-eyed and staring, his pupil-less eyes glowed with the colours of a deep shadow, and he opened a pus-filled mouth to reveal teeth pointed and ragged. He reached out with a claw-like hand and swiped with force and need. “Hungry.” The words roared through her mind along with pain, and need. Hunger most of all, and the hunger grew so great it tore at her insides. “Feed me.”
The creature swiped for her again. A hand, hers and not hers, pushed out to fend off the attacker. He reached out, and this time a flash of silver fell from his long, yellowed talons. A silver bird, tiny and perfect, glinted as it flipped over and over in a slow-motion somersault.
She screamed, or she thought she heard a scream. In this place of memories her truth seemed hard to separate from the memories, the truth of others.
When the screaming stopped, darkness came and she sank into the welcome embrace of oblivion.
LUCINDA OPENED HER eyes. She lay on the floor, cradled in the arms of her assistant, Amelia Woostenhead, and her nose a mere two inches away from a rather well-endowed bosom.
With such a distraction, the nightmare began to fade from her thoughts.
“Lucinda? Are you all right?” Amelia asked.
Her jaw ached, her eyes stung, and she wanted to be sick. “Bad token,” she admitted. The distraction of Amelia’s proximity was already fading.
“What?” Amelia asked.
“The token, it’s a bad one.”
“What do you mean bad?”
“It’s been marked by two people, or a thing. I’m not certain what it means.” She paused to put her thoughts into order. “The victim, and the perpetrator, I think. But it felt like something different.”
“More? Never mind the token, are you all right? Lucinda, please answer.”
“Yes fine,” she mumbled, although in truth she couldn’t be at all sure. “Am I bleeding?” she asked.
“No, you’re not. At least I can’t see any marks or damage on you.”
Lucinda didn’t respond, at first. Yet the pain of the nightmare persisted, and the sensation of burning claws ripping across her chest almost took her breath away. This really did feel like something more.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” Amelia asked.
“How many fingers, Lucinda? You know the drill.”
Lucinda took a moment to focus. “Four,” she answered.
“All right, are you sure you’re okay? You don’t look well. You’re pale, even for you.”
“Yes, now help me up. It’s neither comfortable nor dignified on the floor, although I have to say I’m rather distracted by the close proximity between your cleavage and my nose. I think I’d be happy to lie here and stare at the view if you don’t mind.”
“For goodness sake, grow up, Lucinda.”
“I am all grown up. Or haven’t you noticed?”
“You’re a twelve-year-old boy in the body of a thirty-year-old woman.” “I’m so glad you noticed my body.” Amelia snorted, but said no more.
Lucinda straightened her skirts as she got to her feet. “I hate these long, full things,” she grumbled. “I think the corset near broke my ribs.”
“Why the hell didn’t you loosen it before you started?”
“I didn’t expect this reaction.”
“You expected enough of a response to put in the bite bar.”
Lucinda grimaced. “Didn’t say I had to be consistent, did I?”
“Good thing I did, too. Without it I’m sure I’d have shredded my tongue.”
“That’s bad, Lucinda, you should take better precautions.”
“How can I? I don’t know what I’ll see until I look.”
Amelia’s expression softened. “You’re a fool.”
“Yes,” Lucinda agreed and straightened her shoulders. As she did, she almost over balanced.
“Lucinda!” Amelia cried out.
“I’m fine,” Lucinda said. “The ground shook. Did you notice?”
“I felt a slight shudder, but not enough to make me, or you, overbalance. You should sit down.”
Lucinda took one glance at Amelia’s obvious disapproval. “I’m fine,” she countered. “It took me by surprise that’s all,” Lucinda said.
“If you say so.”
“I do,” Lucinda said. She made her way across the room using different pieces of furniture to ensure she made it. At the wall, she placed her bare hand upon the stone and felt the tremble persist. She closed her eyes to concentrate. “I understand,” she said, as her mind filled with an image of a soldier standing to attention at their gates, and then again inside her chambers. Once she had seen the message, the stone of the tower ceased to move any more.
“Amelia, we have things to do. There is a soldier at the gate seeking entry.” She frowned at her instructions. “The tower believes we should let this particular soldier inside.” “Let him in?”
“We do not permit soldiers in the tower, Lucinda. Never have.”
Lucinda stroked the stone of the tower wall. “This is required, Amelia. The tower demands it.”
“If the tower wishes it, who am I to argue?” Amelia narrowed her eyes. “But you expected him, didn’t you?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” She pointed to her desk in the middle of the room. “Look at the package there. I had an inkling something would happen.”
“Good grief, have you seen how much money there is?”
“Of course I’ve seen, there’s enough cash to pay the day-to-day expenses of this tower for a month at least.”
Lucinda sighed as she sat behind her mahogany desk and rested her arms on the warm wood. She considered the envelope with the bright and official looking stamp. The contents strewn across her desk were easy to identify. A letter, more of a note, asked her to advise on the token, and the token, the silver brooch in the shape of a hummingbird, sat in the middle of the chaos on her desk. Without the blood it all looked innocent and pretty.
“But there is more.” She held up an official looking sheet of paper, with seals and signatures.
“Looks rather official.”
“Yes, a promissory note to pay us more money.”
“They want to give you more money? And what do they want you to do, to earn more money? Run naked through the city?”
Lucinda snorted. “I would pay good money to see you run through the city naked. What a grand idea that would be.”
“Very well. The note wishes us to allow a Captain Stoner to come to the tower to discuss several issues of vital importance.”
“Were you aware of this development, Lucinda?”
“I’ve had the package only today, but yes, I felt sure someone would come.”
“I suppose it’s the reason you insisted we wear the right clothing? Clothes the rest of the world would judge most appropriate?”
“We are an anomaly, Amelia, and we mustn’t draw too much attention to ourselves when we are in public.”
“This is supposed to be a haven for women and you want us to conform for those outside?
For the military?”
“Yes Amelia, just this once.”
Amelia snorted her disgust. “Once indeed.”
“Yes, this once.”
“Very well, if conforming is important then you should at least make an effort to appear decent,” she said. Amelia pulled a silver hand mirror from the sideboard to the left of the fireplace, and handed it to Lucinda. “Take a peek for yourself.”
Lucinda looked in the mirror. Her copper coloured hair, pulled into a sharp bun, had escaped the confines of clips and headband in far too many places to count. Wisps of red hair fell over the side of her face and she pushed them away with something akin to irritation. She wondered, and not for the first time, whether she should chop it all off and be done with it.
Her skin, always too pale, looked off-white, and her freckles stood out more than usual. Most noticeable of all were her eyes. No longer were they the bright green she expected, but streaked with red, the colour of blood, and in her pale face they stood out as far too bright. “Damn,” she said.
“You need to settle yourself. I’ll organise a pot of tea for you whilst I arrange for the captain to be admitted.” She couldn’t hide the distaste in her voice. “Some food might be a good idea, too. I’m not sure when you last ate anything.”
Lucinda shook her head. She couldn’t recall her last meal either. “I know I forget sometimes, but a nice slice of fruitcake would be wonderful, and be a dear and fetch my shotgun at the same time please?”
“What on earth for?”
“I need to be ready for the soldier.”
“Well you don’t want him here either.”
“That’s no reason to shoot someone.”
Lucinda snorted. “Calm down, I’m not going to shoot anyone, not in here. It’d ruin the rug for a start. No, I want to wave the gun around in a threatening manner.” “Right,” Amelia said as she left.
As the door closed Lucinda leaned back in her chair and stared at the bare walls over the book cases. There were three quotes etched into the wall, and Lucinda recalled reading them over and over again. “Wise birds whisper,” she read, “Rage of fire,” on another part. Finally,
“Strength of ice.” The words didn’t mean anything, yet they gave her a kind of comfort. No one knew why the words had appeared, but it had been in the early days of the tower’s formation. Other than Ascrani Ravensburgh, one of her ancestors mentioning it, no one else did.
She sighed and turned her attention to the little hummingbird brooch in the middle of her desk. Its silver surface shone in the light from the windows, and for a moment, the silver shimmered with red.