Cherry blossoms drifted, floating and fluttering to the hard-packed land. They cover the ground like pink snow in spring, building up a fortress, setting a backdrop for the girl lying in the centre of the field. When she wakes, it’s with a kiss on her lips. Fury and desire burn through her. She needs the warmth that draws her upwards with need in her veins. Her fingers run through his hair, and her thin arms cling to his body. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t let go. Falling apart, she felt, would be inevitable if she did. Sensing her need, this warm body did not let her go. And she is saved. In her head, she asks herself, “What am I doing?” She knows this is the question she should be asking. But unlike before, she did not know the answer this time.
“Orianna!” Her mother called. “Come darling, come.” The little girl dropped her makeshift sword one that was a essentially a stick cut from the rose bush, plucked of its thorns, by her, and transformed purely for the purpose of poking and prodding her nurse. She was sometimes, such a wicked child, yet the Queen Mother, would have her transformed, when the time came, into her darling beautiful Princess.
“Mother has a new dress for you.” The Queen’s voice was listless, and seeming cold, she pulled her dark cloak around herself. Orianna didn’t complain about wearing the dress her mother gave her, hardly feeling cold at all, and absolutely dying to go back to playing, but she did wonder what she was doing sitting there while her mother hardly paid attention to her.
Orianna followed the man in green. She walked where he walked, and watched as he grew. By some power, he coaxed the growth of the land. There was not a rose that would not bloom for him. There was not a seedling that couldn’t be found. There was nothing that would not heed his deepest wish. He was a man with power, honesty, kindness and spirit but mostly, Orianna noticed, he had love. Had he ever loved anyone? She wondered if he was ever loved before, cherished to the point where he was constrained by the very bonds he had accepted, by nature or by choice.
She knew nothing of this man. And he knew nothing of her, except that he had taken her along in his stride, like a chick and its mother, clucking around, not really looking for anything in particular except for maybe something tasty. But it seemed only he found the food. Orianna looked everywhere, but she could never find what he could. Perhaps it was because she was human.
Mother dressed her hair. It was clumsy and untamed, but no one within the vicinity dared to breathe a word. Pinned up, Orianna’s dark curls cascaded down her back, showcasing beauty, length and its dark richness. She patted Orianna’s head when she was done, smiling wistfully to herself before turning away. She fanned herself as though she’d been working hard and she even wore a peaceful ‘I’m satisfied’ look on her face. The servants though, clamoured around Orianna the moment the Queen left, sticking pins in her hair to hold the shape. They did no more however for fear of facing the ferocity of the Queen.
For the festival, Orianna was dressed in a pink, purple and violet confection with her arms wrapped in gold and her torso in gold chain. It seemed heavy for her ten year old frame. Around her forehead, they draped the lamb headdress, weighed down with sapphires and gold, and clipped it tightly. They told her again how fine her hands were, how beautiful her bone structure was, how slender her neck would become. They never said she had strong knees. It was moments like that when Orianna would stare out the window zoning out their gossiping voices. She would remember, when she was barely old enough to speak, her mother had told her about the spaces outside, and the spaces inside. There was a world out there, that mother said, only monsters lived. So Orianna never stepped out, though, once, just once, she’d put a toe out, to test the space on the balcony. She’d regretted it ever since. But she discovered that nothing happened to her at all.
Earth never stopped walking. He was forever, endlessly guided like a river. He had no direction. He had no plan. He was a child, moving with the wind, adapting, growing, but like Peter Pan, he never grew up completely.
Next to him, Orianna felt peace.
When Orianna was fifteen, her mother dressed her in white. Orianna was the centre of the festival. So she must look beautiful. Her dress was long, thin, well cut and held together with gold. Once again her forehead donned the lamb headdress.
At the height of the festival her mother joined her. Her tyrian dress was enviously embellished with the same gold that edged Orianna’s skirts. But the difference, her mother’s beautiful cloth blended into aubergine at the edges. Orianna was jealous, she hated the shade of white.
The Queen turned to smile at her, it was a dazzling, beautiful wide lipped, full teeth smile. Orianna smiled in return, but somehow, her face muscles couldn’t replicate her mother’s smile. Yet her mother still smiled. In fact, she even took Orianna’s hand, holding it up, for everyone to see. Especially for the King to see. Orianna remembered the sizzling bright light that blinded her from seeing the crowd. They were there. She didn’t need the cheering to know just what illusion had shattered at that very moment.
Earth took her hand. It was the first time he’d touched her since waking her. When he’d changed her clothes, he’d commanded the vines to hide her, remove her armour and dress her. It had been unusual, and as a man of his kind, he could feel more than she could. Everything he touched, touched her and vice versa. For him, it must have been excruciating. Yet he stood back, and gave her privacy, lending her the earth woven gown of anemone. Strangely Orianna had revelled in the power she seemed to hold over him.
Now he took her hand, and brought it to his lips. That moment when her mother had taken her hand, she’d felt the arrow in her heart. Her mother’s smile had stained her vision. And then it’d blurred, faded, dissipated into nothingness. When she woke next, Orianna was on a sacrificial bed, with a lamb’s head on her stomach, and her hands covered in blood. She remembered the fear in her blood, the chill that set on her skin and then the acknowledgement of her mother’s smiles. They were too beautiful indeed.
“What did you see, Princess?” Asked Earth.
“I saw my mother,” Orianna said looking into his molten amber eyes.
“Ah,” he sighed pulling away. His smile was very ugly. It was the kind that stayed with her. She was afraid but he didn’t heed her even though she cried, “wait!” He disappeared. Only her echo was kind to her. Around her, the last of the blossoms fell to the ground.
For time, she wandered from the green grasslands that Earth favoured to the lands beyond where grass turned to dead twigs and a forest cast a taunting shadow. She did not recognise when the seasons had changed. Only that it had. It was no longer spring, but winter. Her anemone gown began wilting away as though they’d lost their lover. Slow and slowly, they fell – peeling away, crumbling – dropping away like snow. She didn’t recognise the trees. She didn’t see the chestnut, or oak, pear or poplar of her homeland anywhere in sight. It was so dark in the forest, if all of the flowers fell completely away from her skin, she wouldn’t know. Nor would she be afraid that she was baring her all.
Yet, it seems nature forbid her. As the last flower fell away, something cold, clasped her wrist, crawled up her arms, padded her back, and wrapped around her legs locking her in. She moved her arms, and they moved with ease. The tiny sound of metal against metal chimed in her ears. Once before she’d donned something like this; once before, it had weighed heavier and felt stiffer than the one she wore now.
Her father, dressed in purple, made her bow at his feet. He loved his daughter. And his daughter loved him. But Orianna loved him as she loved her country. On that day, she’d chosen to don a knight’s armour and carry a sword. She’d knelt before her beloved father and pledged as a knight would pledge her love and honour to protect.
“Why?” He’d asked. At that time, Orianna did not understand the question that had been so plainly put to her. When she thought back over it, she realised how obvious the answer was. But she was just a girl, seven months ago, she’d just been a girl, shaken that her mother could engineer her death. And that her father presumed Orianna had agreed, Orianna felt fury for the first time in her life. Finest amongst fine wines, she’d worn armour and fought for her country in secret for no other reason but to appease her own strong desires, that is until the King found out.
When he looked at his daughter, her dark hair had been cut and tied back, and her skin a little darker he had planned to scold her, possibly disgrace her a little as punishment. Yet, she was still the Kingdom’s most beautiful maidens. Only her eyes had change.
Her father saw the frightening determination, the fear, in her eyes that he’d only seen once before. He knew that the string was already drawing her down another path in the labyrinth. Whatever the punishment he served, she would not be swayed. Her path was not the one farthest from the minotaur. It was the one leading to it.
“Who are you?” Orianna asked the shadow-clothed woman standing behind her. But the woman didn’t answer. Like the darkness, she was silent. There was something malignant about the forest and about the woman, what—she could not yet place. But she did not want to find out. So Orianna stretched her arms, testing the amour, and flexed her fingers, feeling the metal press against her wrist. Accustomed and at ease again, she began walking.
“I’m searching for something. Why am I here?” She asked, turning, looking, but barely catching the tail end of the cobweb and lace dress. The woman never answered Orianna’s questions. She merely paced around her like Orianna paced around the shadow. Every moment she glimpsed something of the thin other being.
“Why are you running from me?” Orianna said provokingly, spinning sharply, hoping to catch the other.
“Why can’t I see you?”
“Why do you chase me?”
“What have I done wrong?” Ah, time froze then. How words can remember.
A sword crashed down on her armour. She felt it buckle ever so slightly. What had she done wrong? Where had she gone wrong? She pushed her sword up, and braced. She could hear the water rushing in the stream behind her. It was rushing against the rocks, pounding the cliff edge. The rapids were strong enough to kill a man just by merely slamming him into the cliff face or the many rocks that sat jaggedly beneath the water surface, but Orianna didn’t care. At that point she didn’t. All she wanted was to be free. With a furious kick off her adversary, she launched herself into the torrent of water below oblivious to the fact that she could die.
A cold hand rested on Orianna’s chest. Beneath, her metal casing shimmered in the darkness reacting to her touch. She saw the face before her, pale under a black veil, she could not stare. Like Earth before, Death was much more unbearable.
“What did I do?” Orianna whispered. But the woman merely looked. The woman in black was nothing. She breathed nothing. She felt nothing compared to Earth. Death was unmoved. And Orianna was at her mercy. As her hand grew hotter on Orianna’s chest, the world shifted around them, the sound of rapids crashing against the rocks filled her ears, the smell of the sea, salty and fresh filled her every breath. There was nowhere to go except down.
“What did I do?” She whispered.
Death pushed her. It was merciless, but no different from a choice Orianna had made once before. Coldness embraced her skin as she hurtled through the air towards the water, towards what seemed like a painful death. She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the armour falling away. It was almost unbearable.
The water hurt when she crashed into it.
The metal seemed to crush her body.
She couldn’t breathe.
The sand felt wet and cold under her hands. She hadn’t realised where she’d crawled ashore. Looking up she faced him and his famous blood sword. No one lived after meeting him. Not even her.
The water hurt when she crashed into it. But naked and exposed, the water caressed, rather than maimed. It wrapped itself around her body like a shield that encased warmth and life. It pulsed as it washed her down the rapids along a stream of time that never ended. She touched stone and pushed away in a rhythmic serenade, back and forth, gently rocking, until she was washed upon a shore.
On the shore a silk robe, the colour of gold, sat neatly folded on the hot sand as though it had been prepared for her. She wrapped it around her feeling the silk slide along skin. It was unmarked except for the scar along her neck. A scar of sacrifice. She touched it lightly.
The light dazzled her as she looked out onto the horizon. For kilometres on end, there was nothing for her to see. To her left there was a beach. To her right, there was only endless water, stretching further than the eye could see. It looked welcoming, she remembered the way it caressed her holding her close. She wanted to feel it again. She wanted that pulse again.
“You can’t do that.”
Orianna turned. It was a woman dressed in gold. Lips painted gold and draping gold lace for a dress that hardly cover her, yet, was on every centimetre of her body. She sat, languishing, almost bored, in her chair, a golden throne made just for her. Orianna was caught by the Lady’s gold-edged molten gold eyes. They were lovelier and more intoxicating than Earth’s had been.
“Do you see the shells?”
“I see them,” replied Orianna cautiously.
“If you tried to count every one of them, you would be here for longer than eternity.”
“Longer than eternity?” Orianna stepped closer. “There can’t be that many.”
“I don’t know how many there are.” The Lady stood. She was undeniably beautiful, with pale caramel skin and long dark hair that rivalled Orianna’s. Orianna watched as the Lady walked over the golden tiled floor to hourglass. She must always be bored, Orianna thought looking around at the gold pillars that towered around all sides of her.
“The Hourglass of Time.” She grabbed the golden handles of the towering glass time keeper. “Must be turned when time ends, so time starts again.”
Orianna frowned, she was never a cryptic person, she preferred straight lines and curves, but not zigzags and knots. The Lady’s words were simply presented, yet to Orianna they sounded complex. Just like the hourglass in front of her.
“Time, flows left, flows right. Goes up, goes down. But it never fully ends. It just,” she pulled the upper half of the hourglass down, “keeps,” without the presence of using much energy at all, “on going. Time never stops. It is endless. Constant. Present.”
Orianna watched as the sand shifted in the glass, sifting, turning, spiralling slowly and timelessly from top to bottom. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, all gold, yet Orianna did not understand what the Lady was saying.
“You asked a question, did you not?” The Lady half-turned to look at me, her gown, shimmering with her every movement. She was such a petite creature next to the hourglass that was half a palace high. “Would you like to see the answer?”
She gestured for Orianna to stand next to her. Orianna understood now, why the Lady had looked small next to the hourglass. It was immense, towering over her, with swirling gold, glowing lightly. How could the Lady be bored?
She looked into the sand in the hourglass as directed and saw something unimaginable. Inside she had become a legend. One told again and again in the present, and the future. The story of a girl. And then she saw something that if it were her future, she wouldn’t be afraid to pass on through the gold sand of time. If it was her past, she wouldn’t be afraid to say hello to her former self. Looking into that glass, she had no regrets, not one at all.
“I have been here for longer than eternity,” said Time as Orianna considered her. “There are over a thousand shells on the beach and counting. They come, go, taken by the sea, and returned when they have aged beyond their time. I do not know how you feel. I am Time. I am like Earth and Death before you, I am immortal. Earth is love, growth and youth, Death is the cold end, and I am chance and rebirth.”
Time held her hand out to Orianna. “What did you do that was so wrong? You’re just a girl. What has past, shall not repeat again.”
Orianna, knowing her fate took the Lady’s hand and stepped into the hourglass. Returned to time’s flow she would live again.
The Lady of Time
The Woman In Black