I woke in a cold sweat. It was always like that the morning after a visitation. The dead had an air about them, a soft wintry chill that nestled into your bones and remained long after they had left.
I coughed. Soot still tickled the back of my throat.
I was convinced now that the girl with the ruined face had something to do with the curse. The uttering of Aibhileen’s name had such an effect on her spirit that she was unable to hold me captive any longer. And she wanted to speak to me, I was sure of it. She wanted to tell me something. Something important.
I ate my breakfast quickly. Through the inn window I could see women bustling about with their chores, their faces covered with black handkerchiefs. The children had handkerchiefs too – their entire faces were covered save for two small holes to see through. When I smiled at them they did not smile back.
Jacob was to take me to Oldfield Manor that day, but I wasn’t about to waste time waiting for him. The village had a small library in the main square and I wanted to do some research.
The librarian was an elderly fellow whose wary eyes followed me from shelf to shelf. I doubt he would have let me in if I hadn’t been Jacob’s guest.
There was a plethora of information on the goddess Aibhileen. Stories, legends, accounts, pictures, even newspaper clippings. The lore books matched what Jacob had told me – that Aibhileen had an unusual affection for humankind. Her nightly descents made her stand out from other gods of old, who preferred to be worshipped from a distance.
There were numerous accounts of the goddess’s kindness and gentle nature.
There were pictures too. The most striking was an oil painting titled Dancing with Aibhileen. It showed a woman with billowing skirts and tendril-like hair that was neither fair nor dark, dancing in the midst of a cloud of children. Her cheeks were flushed with pleasure and her eyes twinkled a cornflower blue.
The other pictures were much the same, kaleidoscopes of starlit waters, twinkling eyes and buttermead dripping from children’s lips.
But one was different. It was a chalk drawing, hardly more than a scribble, tucked into the pages of a lore book. The Aibhileen in this drawing didn’t twinkle. She had large eyes, too large for her elfin face, and limbs that were too elongated to belong to any human. Her skirts billowed against the clouds as she watched humans dancing in a starlit meadow far below. One twiglike arm was reaching through the clouds, reaching for them…
“Do you mind if I borrow this?” I asked.
The librarian looked over his shoulder and grunted. “Keep it,” he said. “Never liked that one.”
I slipped the picture into my pocket.
Rubbing my eyebrows, I forced myself to think. I thought of the fire, the ghost, the curse and the ancient hatred that I felt haunting this village. I was missing something, and I felt as if it was right there before me.
Think, Alex, think…
A beefy hand clamped down on my shoulder.
“Wake up, Harding,” Jacob grunted. “I’m not paying you to sleep on the job.”
I opened my mouth to argue but he was too fast.
“Get your things. Storytime’s over. It’s time for us to go to that godforsaken place.”
To be continued…