Scorched: Origin of Love Book 2
All Psyche could think about was her warm woolen cloak hanging by the hearth she may never see again. She looked down at the edge of the cliff, her red silk garment whipping furiously with the wind, rippling like blood-soaked water. Her beautiful clothes were designed by the most skilled tailor in Pella and elaborately embroidered with pure gold thread. The thin material could not protect her from the chilly gales, but the brown, homespun woolen cloak she longed for would not be appropriate garb for a wedding.
What a farce of a wedding it was. Her family was dressed in black, weeping as if it were her funeral. The priest stood mumbling chants that she could scarcely hear above the howling wind. Psyche peered again at the edge of the cliff, so very close to her toes.
Would they even care if I simply fell off? Psyche wondered numbly.
Some might have considered it a better fate. Death, at least, was final. Being sacrificed to marry some unknown creature for offending the gods was much more petrifying. Psyche remembered the sheep they had brought to the temple of Aphrodite when they visited the Oracle just a week before. Psyche felt no different than the sheep being led to slaughter with the singing and the ceremony serving only to mask the brutal murder that was about to occur.
The wind died down for a moment, allowing Psyche to hear the priest’s shrill voice increasing in volume as he spoke.
“And so, we give to you, Mighty Olympus, this vile offender, who boasted of her beauty as being greater than those of the mighty and sublime Olympians. Who offended, most of all, goddess of beauty, most fair of all goddesses, Aphrodite. May this heathen suffer for her arrogance, her audacity, her unforgiveable blasphemy. May she know true pain and understand the evil of her ways.”
For the first time since the announcement of her impending sacrifice, Psyche felt a familiar stir. It was subtle at first, like a distant rainstorm. Then it grew as the priest continued to accuse her. The anger warmed her as if she had gotten her woolen cloak at last.
Anger, however, quickly turned into fury as the priest continued to speak. Psyche had tried to withhold her frustration all week, knowing that there was no way to avoid her fate. Not only would her sacrifice spare the village more death and destruction, but her family’s lives were at stake. However, as the priest continued to slice her character with one false accusation after another, blaming her single-handedly for all the misfortunes that the village endured, she felt as if a firebrand had seared her, waking her from her passive trance. She did not realize she had taken a step forward until a guard pressed a spear against her stomach. She could feel the cold sharpness through the flimsy material. The young guard sneered down at her and raised his eyebrows, challenging her to continue.
Without warning, Psyche grabbed the shaft of the spear and angrily pushed it back towards the guard. The combination of Psyche’s rage giving her superhuman strength and the element of surprise that she was actually attacking him caused the unsuspecting guard to sprawl back and fall hard on the grassy hill. Two other guards immediately jumped forward and gripped her upper arms. Psyche tried not to wince at the painful force. Within an instant, another spear was back against her stomach.
“Such courageous, strong men,” Psyche taunted, “fearing an unarmed woman! Perhaps, I will impale you with my silk scarf?”
Psyche’s mother, Hermena, moved forward, but another warning spear held her back.
“Let her go,” Hermena cried out. “The child is on edge, she meant no offense! Can you blame the poor thing?”
The priest glared coldly at her mother, then at his enraged captive. He took his time making a decision. His empty, gray eyes boldly moved up and down Psyche’s form, making her feel instantly repulsed. There was no way to straighten her disheveled gown or hide the skin that had caught the man’s indecent attention. The guards held her tightly and the priest knew there was no real threat to him in this party. Only Psyche’s mother and her two sisters would defend her, and they were frail little women.
Psyche’s father could not attend the ceremony. She was glad of this, for she doubted he would have withstood such words or such treatment of her. When the guards had come to collect Psyche that morning, her father had tried to stop them. Three guards pushed him away with overzealous force. He immediately grew pale and clutched his chest. Psyche helped her mother put him to bed and refused to leave until color returned to his face. Lucius, a village leader and at one time, a friend and previous suitor for Psyche’s hand, managed to convince the guards to allow her time to say good-bye to her father in peace.
At least, she could be grateful for that. But not even the sage and well-regarded Lucius could save her from this current humiliation. Her old friend stood not too far behind the priest, a stoic and unfeeling statue, unable or unwilling to help her.
A hot, sweaty finger touched Psyche’s face and ran down her neck. She tried to pull away, but the guards held her firmly.
“You have much spirit for a poor farm girl,” the priest noted with upturned lip. “No doubt your new husband will enjoy breaking it. But if you try anything like that again, my guards and I will be happy to assist him.”
Finally, the priest signaled and the guards slowly released her arms. Immediately, Psyche wrapped her clothes more closely to her, feeling unclean. She forced herself to bite her tongue and stop the angry words she longed to say. Her chance of escape would only come after they left.
The wedding ceremony on the hill proceeded like a dream, but her groom never made his appearance. The mournful wind was the only response to the wedding chant repeated over and over again by the priestesses behind her. Pink flower petals, sadly thrown by her sisters, soared into the gloomy, gray sky.
The priest of Hera, goddess of marriage, sanctified the union and bade Psyche to drink strange nectar in an ornate chalice. It was spicy and sweet, but Psyche only took a tiny sip for fear she’d gag. She was supposed to share the drink with her groom, but as he was not present, the chalice was tipped and the brew fell to the ground. Psyche thought the earth swallowed it like a ravenous beast. She shuddered. It must have been her imagination.
Psyche was made to repeat the vows to honor and obey her absent husband and by doing so, honoring and obeying Hera, queen of the gods. The priest reminded her that to try to run or escape her fate would bring dishonor to herself, her family, and the village. It would also desecrate the name of Hera. It would be the greatest offense to Olympus and a curse would befall all those she loved.
As if she needed more threats.
Psyche tried not to weep when she said good-bye to her family. She didn’t want to weep before her enemies and if she started, she didn’t think she could ever stop. Instead, she let the cold wind numb her heart again.
Her sisters, Elisa and Claudia, took turns kissing her cheeks, their lips and tears providing momentary warmth from the frigid air. Just before Psyche thought her quaking legs might fail her, her mother leaned in to say her farewell, her strong hands firm on Psyche’s shoulders, her breath mercifully warm against her daughter’s cheek. But when Hermena’s words registered in Psyche’s mind, an icy chill ran down her spine, colder than ever.
“No one can hurt you in the afterlife,” her mother murmured. “And no one would blame you. There is no shame if you jump. No shame at all.”
When the congregation was gone, Psyche was left alone to fidget by herself on the windy mountaintop. The oracle had said that she must be left alone, for the sight of her groom could send everyone to their deaths. What did that even mean? No one wanted to stay to find out. Psyche knew that the guards were not far. With the cliffs on three sides of her and the guards lining the forest behind her, escape was not very likely.
Her mother was right. There was no other way to run. No one in the village would help her. They blamed her for the plague that devastated the town and the floods that destroyed their land. If she went back to her family, she would put them in danger as well. Besides, where could she run? The gods wanted their sacrifice. And there was no escaping the gods. She did not know what they looked like, but their power was unmistakable, especially after that terrifying visit to the Oracle. Psyche could still remember the bull that charged her and the statue of Aphrodite that screamed at her.
The gods were upset. And the gods were everywhere and knew everything. There was no escape, not with her mortal body weighing her down.
Trembling, Psyche moved towards the edge of the cliff again. She felt her body tingling at the closeness of death. Unable to look down anymore, she moved away
Curse it! She couldn’t give up so soon. As long as she still had her wits about her, she could get out of this. Hope leaked into her surprisingly still thriving heart, a slow, vague trickle, but it was there nonetheless. Despite the fact that the gods meant to punish her, despite the fact that Erik, a young man who at one time personified happiness had abandoned her to her tragic fate, and that her family and her village did not want her near them, Psyche could not give up.
She began to pace. There was no escape here, but perhaps her future husband, fearful creature that the Oracle claimed he was, would be tolerable. He might even care for her, for who would go through so much trouble to have her for his wife? Perhaps, he would be easy to outsmart and somehow, some day, she could make her escape.
Yet, as Psyche continued to wait on the cliff, cold and alone, she felt the slim thread of hope slipping farther and farther away. She was waiting to be collected. Like a package, a burden to a groom who did not even bother to show up to their wedding. Care for her? He may even have forgotten about her. And here she was, about to die from the elements. Hope was dying with each gust of cold wind. The Oracle said her groom was a creature. A monster.
Would he devour her right there, just a few miles from her home, leaving her entrails for the villagers to find tomorrow? Or would he take her to his cave somewhere and enjoy her slowly, piece by piece?
Psyche shuddered. No, she could not allow it to happen!
Psyche looked towards the forest where she knew guards stood watch beyond the plateau. On three sides of her, the ground jutted down. She scanned the sharp drop and got dizzy at the plunging view beneath her. There had to be a way to escape! The guards couldn’t wait forever. Perhaps, if she hid somewhere, they would think she had been collected, or committed suicide, and would go on their way.
But there was nowhere to hide, not unless she could cling to the edge of the cliff.
Realizing that it was a possibility, Psyche began walking around the perimeter of the plateau with renewed hope. All she could see was smooth rock and loose limestone. Psyche rubbed her hands together. She had to survive. She couldn’t just let some creature take her or let herself die of the freezing cold.
Finally, she spotted it. At the left edge of the cliff, she saw a jutting ledge that might withstand her weight. It was just far down enough that anyone who looked would not be able to see her. If she gathered some grass and dropped it down, she might be able to hide under it. But she did not have rope, and she did not know if she would be able to get back up again if she did manage to get on the ridge. There was no point in going down if she could not climb back up. She would die before sunrise from the freezing wind.
Looking around, Psyche spied some fallen branches near the forest. Perhaps, she could make a crude ladder? She approached the trees cautiously. A guard suddenly appeared, then another. They stood with their hands on their spears, a grim and intimidating line looking, cold and detached.
Psyche backed away and returned to her clearing, trying not to let the panic overwhelm her. Something caught her foot and she fell forward. Tears streamed down her face as she clutched her ankles. Then she saw what it was she had tripped on. It was a rock. Psyche picked one up as an idea formed in her mind. She could gather some rocks and hammer them into the dirt to create footholds. It was a slim chance, but at least it was a chance.
Shaking with anticipation, Psyche returned to the edge of the cliff where a small slope blocked the guards’ view of her. She began collecting sharp stones and carried them to the edge of the cliff just above the ledge. She let the stones fall until several landed on the ledge. After that, she tore armfuls of grass and also dropped them. The ledge fell a distance beneath her. If she lowered herself slowly, she may be able to hide there when the soldiers checked on her. Her hands were still numb with cold and difficult to trust. She needed to warm them before she attempted such a climb.
Psyche began jumping in place while blowing into her cupped palms. She needed to think of something warm. Something that could make her angry again. Her thoughts wandered to a young shepherd named Erik who had once been the center of her world. Was it only a few weeks ago that she waited for him to meet her on a lonely hill very similar to this one? How different life had been then. The toughest decision she had was whether to marry the charming, wealthy, if a little dull, Prince Lagan, or run away with the poor, illiterate, but devastatingly charming shepherd, Erik. Psyche was a different person then. And when Erik abandoned her, never to be seen again, her spirit ran off with him. Where was Erik now, she wondered? Perhaps, the rumors were true, that he was merely a charlatan, a womanizer, who moved from town to town to sate his lusts. But how could lust be his motive when she had offered herself to him? He had refused, saying that only a marriage bed would satisfy him.
Psyche blushed when she remembered how shamelessly she had acted. But, he stopped her. Why? It was not the act of a charlatan. Perhaps, all he really wanted was her heart. Perhaps, all he wanted was the chase. Perhaps, he was already married to someone else. Perhaps. All of it was just lies.
There was no end to the possibilities when it came to the mysterious disappearance of Erik. He left her a single note and nothing more. Psyche blinked back the angry tears that were threatening to unravel her. At least the pain and hot resentment she felt when she thought of Erik served its purpose. She felt warm and angry all over.
She would not let them win. Not Erik, not the priest, not even Aphrodite.
Psyche crept to the edge and looked again at the ledge that was now her only refuge. Rubbing her hands together, she tested the tall weeds that fell over the cliff like an unruly fringe. They were surprisingly sturdy. Taking a deep breath, she sat down with her legs dangling perilously over the cliff. Her heart jumped violently in her chest, making it hard for her to breathe.
Swallowing hard, Psyche turned onto her stomach and wrapped the thick grass around her wrists and grasped firmly. Saying a quiet prayer to whatever gods still held her in favor, she began to lower herself bit by bit. She could not see where the ledge was, but she estimated that it wouldn’t be too far from her feet. Psyche continued to let herself sink slowly down, trying to get as low as possible. Her shoulders shook with the effort, but she bid herself to continue her slow descent. There was no point in escaping if she had a broken leg.
Right when she was certain her arms would give way, she heard a voice. For a moment, she thought it was the wind playing tricks on her. Or was it the rumble of her stomach from hunger? She should have drunk more of that sweet drink offered by the priest.
The sound came again, forming words so clearly, she found herself looking around for the source. Had someone come to check on her?
“Father?” she called out.
She could see no one.
Again, there was only the baleful wind. Psyche could not see much, but she was certain the voice was coming from behind her where nothing but grey sky loomed. Psyche’s arms were starting to ache, the grass wrapped around her wrist cutting off her blood flow. Still, she held on tightly, and somehow, the weeds continued to hold her weight.
A cold thought entered her mind. Was she finally being collected?
Her already pounding heart began to beat even more furiously. How could she escape from a winged harpy, a two-headed dragon, or a rock golem waiting to devour her?
Another frantic look around revealed nothing except thick fog. The only change was that the wind seemed to slightly increase in speed.
Finally, Psyche thought she deciphered a phrase.
“Let go?” she repeated out loud.
What prankster was this? But the voice came again, and Psyche really did start to wonder if she was going mad. Then, she heard a sickening crunching sound. The weeds her hands were gripping were starting to tear apart. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to go, except down.
“No!” she cried out. “I want to live!”
She struggled to climb back up and get away from the strange voice that was clouding her mind.
“You will not die,” assured the voice. “I shall catch you. Never fear.”
Now, these were words that she could not have made up, and she suddenly realized that it was the wind that was speaking to her. It was circling, and circling in such a way that made her feel suddenly lightheaded. Her hair whipped around her, momentarily blocking her sight. The cool, whipping air dried the tears that had been streaming down her face. She did not even realize that she had been crying. Psyche was being pulled, not down towards the ledge, but farther out towards the bleak, gray sky.
She gasped and tried to struggle away from the invisible force that was pulling her back. She clawed at the edge, grabbing onto more grass, all of which ripped from her fingers.
She was not ready for her death.
“I cannot! Please, don’t!”
This time, the wind was more insistent and Psyche found herself slipping, even as her nails dug frantically deep into the dirt. “No.... Please!” But there was nothing more to grab. She made a feeble attempt to grasp the ledge that had once provided so much hope, but it only struck her fingers, causing a sharp pain.
She screamed. And then she was falling.