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The Scarletti Curse
By Christine Feehan
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2001 Christine Feehan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe raven winged its way along the edge of the cliffs. Below, the waves crashed and foamed against the rocks, each one rising higher and higher, reaching almost angrily toward the black bird. The raven changed course, circling inland across fields of wildflowers, above bare slopes, flying until it reached the timberline. It appeared to be meandering, slowly gliding across the sky, the waning rays of sunlight glistening off its back. Patches of clouds began to drift across the horizon, almost in its wake, as if the bird was drawing a gray shadow over the land below it.
Once in the stand of trees, the bird changed speed, swooped quickly, maneuvering through leafy branches and around tree trunks as if racing the setting sun. It flew as straight as possible up the hillside into the grove on the far slope of the mountain. It made its way unerringly to a thick, twisted branch. Settling there, it folded its wings rather majestically, its round, shiny eyes fixed intently on the small woman below.
Nicoletta carefully packed rich soil around the small fern she had recently moved. The earth here was more fertile than that closer to home and would enable her much-needed and rarer forms of flora to flourish. She used extracts from the plants as medicaments for thepeople in the surrounding villaggi and farms. What had started as a small hillside garden had grown into an enormous undertaking-transplanting all the herbs and flowers she required for various remedies and physics. Her bare hands were buried deep in the soil, the rich fragrances of the herbage enveloping her, a riot of color from the vegetation she had sown scattered all around her.
She shivered suddenly as a gray shadow obscured the last warming rays of the sun, leaving an ominous portent of disaster in her mind. Very slowly Nicoletta stood, dusting the damp soil from her hands and then her long, wide skirt before she tilted her head to look up at the bird sitting so still above her in the tree.
"So you have come to summon me," she said aloud, her voice soft and husky in the silence of the grove. "You never bring me good news, but I forgive you."
The bird stared straight at her, its small round eyes shiny and bright. A lingering beam of light hit the feathers on its back, making them almost iridescent, before the graying clouds obscured the sun completely.
Nicoletta sighed and shoved at the wild mass of long, tangled hair flowing like a waterfall down her back well below her small waist, a few twigs caught in the silken strands. She looked as mysterious and mystical a creature as the silent raven, wild and untamed with her bare feet, dark eyes, and delicate sun-gilded features. A young, beautiful witch, perhaps, weaving spells amidst her lavish, exotic garden.
The bird opened its beak and emitted a loud squawk, the note jarring in the hush of the grove. For a moment the insects ceased their incessant humming, and the earth itself seemed to be holding its breath.
"I am coming, I am coming," Nicoletta said, catching up a thin leather pouch. She raised her head to the sky above her, then turned in a slow circle, pausing her arms outstretched, as she faced each of the four directions, north, south, east, and west. The wind tugged at her clothing and whipped her hair around her like a cloak. Hastily she began gathering leaves and seeds from various plants, adding them to the dried, crushed herbs and berries already in her pouch of medicaments.
Nicoletta began to run along a well-worn path leading down the hillside. Bushes caught at her full skirt, the wind tugged at her hair, but she made her way easily through the brambles and thick vegetation. Not once did her small feet falter on a stone or branch lying in wait on the ground. As she approached a stream, she simply hiked her long skirt up her bare legs and raced across smooth, exposed stones, occasionally kicking up a spray of water, like a shower of glistening diamonds.
Timber gave way to meadows and then barren rock as she neared the ocean. She could hear the sea thundering against the cliffs, continually seeking to erode the massive peaks. She paused before completing her descent to look upon the enormous palazzo that hulked forbiddingly on the next cliff above the raging sea. The castle was large and beautiful, yet dark and foreboding, rising out of the shadows. It was whispered that the great halls held many secrets and that hidden passageways could lead one directly to the sea should there be need.
The palazzo was many stories high, with gables, turrets, lofty terraces, and the infamous tower, rumored to be a prison of sorts. The tracery overlooking the cliff was carved of slender, intersecting stone segments that formed unusual intricate patterns, seeming to signify something rather than simply dividing the stone walls with large windows. Those portals and their unusual patterns always caught her attention-and also made her feel as if she were being watched. Sculpted into the castle's eaves, gables, turrets, and even the tower were silent sentinels, frightening gargoyles watching the surrounding countryside with hollow, staring eyes and outstretched wings.
Nicoletta shook her head, not daring to linger any longer. She felt an urgency in her; the need to keep moving must be great. She turned her back on the palazzo and began to walk quickly along the path winding away from the sea back toward the interior countryside. The first houses came into sight, small, neat farms and dwellings scattered among the hills. She loved the sight of those homes. She loved the people.
An elderly woman met her as she entered the settlement's main square. "Nicoletta! Look at you! Where are your shoes? Hurry, piccola, you must hurry!" The woman calling her "little one" sounded scolding, as she often did, but already she was gently pulling the twigs and leaves from Nicoletta's long hair. "Quickly, piccola, your shoes. You must fix your hair as we go."
Nicoletta smiled and leaned toward the woman to press a kiss on her lined cheek. "Maria Pia, you are the light of my life. But I have no idea where I left my sandals." She didn't, either. Somewhere on the trail, perhaps by the stream.
Maria Pia Sigmora sighed softly. "Bambina, though you are our healer, you will be the death of us all."
Nicoletta was the joy of the villaggio, its lifeblood, its secret. She was impossible to tame, like trying to hold water or the wind in their hands. The older woman lifted an arm and waved toward the nearest hut. At once they heard the sound of laughter, and a small child raced out carrying a pair of thin leather sandals, the thongs dragging on the ground.
Giggling, the dark-haired little girl thrust the shoes at Nicoletta. "We knew you would lose them," she said.
Nicoletta laughed, the sound as soft and melodious as that of the clear running water in the nearby streams. "Ketsia, you little imp, skip along now and stop tormenting me."
Maria Pia was already starting down the narrow path back toward the cliffs. "Come quickly, Nicoletta, and plait your hair. A scarf, bambina-you must cover your head. And take my shawl. You cannot draw attention to yourself." She was clucking the orders over her shoulder as she walked briskly. She was old, but she moved as one still young, well accustomed as she was to traveling the steep hillsides.
Nicoletta easily kept pace, her sandals slung around her neck by the thongs while she deftly bound her hair into a long, thick braid. She then wound it carefully and covered her head with a thin scarf. "We are going to the Palazzo della Morte?" she guessed.
Maria Pia swung around, scowling fiercely, emitting a slow hiss of disapproval. "Do not say such a thing, piccola. It is bad luck."
Nicoletta laughed softly. "You think everything is bad luck." She wrapped the tattered black shawl around her shoulders to cover her bare arms.
"Everything is bad luck," Maria Pia scolded. "You cannot say such things. If he should hear of it ..."
"It isn't bad luck," Nicoletta insisted. "And who is going to tell him what I said? It isn't bad luck that kills the women who go to work in that place. It is something else."
Maria Pia crossed herself as she looked around carefully. "Take care, Nicoletta. The hills have ears. Everything gets back to him, and without his good will our people would be homeless and without protection."
"So we must deal with Il Demonio and pray the price isn't too high." For the first time Nicoletta sounded bitter.
Maria Pia paused for a moment, reaching out to take the young woman's arm. "Do not harbor such thoughts, piccola, it is said he can read minds," she cautioned gently, lovingly, with sorrow and pity in her eyes.
"How many more of our women and children will that place swallow before it is done?" Nicoletta demanded, her dark eyes flashing like flames with anger. "Must we pay our debts with our lives?"
"Hush," Maria Pia insisted. "You go back to the villaggio. With this attitude, you should not accompany me."
Nicoletta marched past the older woman, her back stiff, her slender shoulders squared, outrage in her every step. "As if I would leave you to face Signore Morte alone. You cannot save this one without me. I feel it, Maria Pia. I must go if she is to live." Nicoletta ignored Maria Pia's outraged gasp at her openly admitting to knowing something not yet revealed to them. She tried not to smile as Maria Pia solemnly made the sign of the cross, first on herself and then over Nicoletta.
Mist was swirling up from the foaming sea, fine, sifted droplets of salt water curling around their ankles and clinging to their clothing. The wind was savage now, rising up off the ocean waves to slam into their small frames as if trying to drive them back. They were forced to slow their pace and choose their way carefully over the little-used path to the hulking palazzo. As they rounded the narrow, steep cliff jutting up from the sea, and the palazzo came into sight, the setting sun finally slipped below the horizon of water, thrusting a bloodred stain across the sky above.
Maria Pia cried out, halting as the vivid color swept across the heavens, a portent of disaster and death. She moaned softly, trembling as she rocked back and forth, clutching at the cross she wore around her neck. "We go to our doom."
Nicoletta put an arm protectively around the older woman's shoulders, her young face passionate and fierce. "No, we do not. I will not lose you, Maria Pia. I will not. He cannot swallow you as he has the others! I shall prove too strong for him and his terrible curses."
The wind howled and tore at their clothes, raging against her challenge.
"Do not say such things, bambina. It is dangerous to speak such words aloud." Maria Pia straightened her shoulders. "I am an old woman; better that I go alone. I have lived my life, Nicoletta, while yours is just beginning."
"The Palazzo della Morte has taken mia madre and mia zia. It will not swallow you, too. I will not allow it!" Nicoletta vowed fiercely, hurtling the words back at the wild wind, refusing to bow down before its savage intensity. "I am going with you as always, and he can go to hell!"
Maria Pia gasped her shock and blessed Nicoletta three times before proceeding along the path. The wind shrieked its outrage of Nicoletta's defiance, roaring through the pass, and dislodged pebbles that trickled down from above them, pelting the two women as they hurried between the two cliffs. Nicoletta circled the older woman's head protectively with one arm, trying to shelter her from the shower of stones cascading down around them as they ran.
"Does he command the very mountains?" Maria Pia cried. Her words were whipped away from her and taken out to sea by the fury of the wind.
"Are you hurt?" Nicoletta demanded, running her hands over the older woman, looking for injuries, her anger and defiance swirling together like the mist. She was gentle, however, her touch light and soothing despite the emotions seething within her.
"No, I am not hurt at all," Maria Pia assured her. "What about you?"
Nicoletta shrugged. Her left arm felt numb, but the rock that had hit her hadn't been particularly large, and she felt lucky to have escaped with only a bruise. They were on the palazzo grounds now, and overhead the clouds darkened and roiled like a witch's cauldron. Long, dark shadows sprawled everywhere, shading each bush and tree and statue as the mansion loomed up before them. It rose right out of the cliff, a glistening castle with its enormous tower reaching toward the heavens. Huge, heavy sculptures and smaller, more delicate ones dotted the grounds, which also boasted great stones carved into impressive barricades around the maze and gardens. Two huge marble fountains with gilded edges and heavily laced with winged pagan deities rose up in the centers of the rounded courts.
Nicoletta and Maria Pia now made their way up an immaculate path to the castle door, the statues glaring at them and the wind continually battering them. The door was massive and intricately carved. Nicoletta studied the carvings for a moment while Maria Pia fussed over her, making certain she was properly covered. "Your shoes, bambina," the older woman hissed.
They were both shivering in the unrelenting wind. It was dark and gloomy before the great hulk of the door, which seemed to stare unpleasantly at them. Nicoletta thought the carvings were of lost souls shrieking in flames, but then, her imagination always got the better of her when she was near this place. Maria Pia took hold of the heavy knocker and allowed it to drop. It boomed cavernously, the sound hollow and mournful in the gathering fog and darkness.
Hastily Nicoletta slipped on the offending sandals, tying the thongs around her ankles as the door swung silently open. Rows of tapered candles burned in sconces in the lofty entrance hall, flickering and dancing along the high walls, shrouding the long corridor and vaulted ceilings in grotesque shadows. The man standing in the doorway was tall and thin with gaunt cheeks and silver-peppered hair. His dark eyes moved over the two women with a hint of disdain, but his face remained expressionless. "This way."
For a moment neither woman moved. Then Nicoletta stepped into the palazzo. At once the earth shifted. The movement seemed but the slightest of tremors, barely felt, yet the candles in the hall swayed, the flames leapt high as if in warning, and wax splattered onto the floor. Maria Pia and Nicoletta looked at one another. The older woman quickly made the sign of the cross toward the interior of the house and then back behind them into the darkness and the howling wind.
The manservant turned back to look at the women. At once, Maria Pia followed him, but not before altering her entire demeanor. She stood taller, appeared confident, a quiet dignity clinging to her. Nicoletta assumed the opposite stance. Shoulders stooped, she slunk along the great hall, casting nervous glances this way and that, her head bowed low, her eyes on the floor. She scooted along the wall, hoping to blend into the shadows, her thin sandals silent on the marble-tiled floor, drawing no attention to herself in her attempt to masquerade as the "healer's" lowly apprentice.
Excerpted from The Scarletti Curse by Christine Feehan Copyright © 2001 by Christine Feehan. Excerpted by permission.
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