Friday, May 20, 2011

Novel Excerpt: Cantadora Chapter One

Original Work by Annie Dameron copyright 2011 All rights reserved.

Chapter One

1. Isabel
Song of Darkness

The roads to Santo Tomas held surprises to the weary traveler. For one, the hard-packed dirt felt stable underfoot, and for another, there were no vagabonds or highwaymen lurking in the shadows. During the Festival of the Sun Lady, pilgrims walked two and three abreast on the road or alongside their wagons. Traveling cantadores sang hymns from atop their donkeys and horses. The more popular ones attracted admirers who threw coins into their hats.
Isabel Morales-Diego lingered behind one of these singers. His clear tenor voice rang over the clopping of horses’ hooves and the creaking of wagon wheels. She closed her eyes and savored the purity of his tone.
Her mare whinnied in agreement and turned her head to look back at Isabel. The deep emerald eyes were remarkably human-looking, and even the mare’s mouth moved into a slight smile.
The cantadores possessed a Talent to soothe restless souls; Isabel felt this in action, while the others did not. She drew her power from the Earth Elemental, asking its permission for her use. It agreed, and flowed into her with a rush of cinnamon-golden warmth. She opened her eyes and Looked at the auras of her fellow travelers.
Most of those auras quivered with anticipation of the Festival, others were leaden with exhaustion, some were strumming in time to the cantador’s song. The spectrum of colors ranged from a sunny yellow to a murky gray, but none of the auras radiated an evil darkness. She sighed in relief, but she knew it was only temporary.
Isabel Morales-Diego, Senior Healer of the Southern Circle, Mystic and Elemental Mistress of Earth, needed help from her kinsmen in Santo Tomas, and the sooner the better.
And speaking of family... It wasn’t often she was able to mix business with pleasure. Her mother’s clan came from Santo Tomas; she looked forward to seeing her cousin, Magdalena. Isabel had chosen her costume with great care: a multicolored skirt of red and green, crimson bodice and shirt. Her hair was twisted into a complicated knot-and-braid, anchored it with a golden pin and adorned with a dark emerald, with matching pendant around her neck another emerald ring around her left ring finger.
She opened her eyes as she sensed a change in scenery. The path sloped gently downwards, then leveled off as they reached the valley floor. The baked desert land became the wide expanse of green fields that bordered Santo Tomas. Suddenly, the path expanded into the beginning of a wide boulevard, the Via Soledad, and the toll collector materialized out of a nearby watch-house. The weary travelers grumbled under their breaths as they pulled bronze and copper coins from their belt-pouches.
Bienvenudo, Senhora,” greeted the toll collector. “I hope you have had a good journey.”
Isabel's smile was strained as she replied, “It was an interesting journey, for sure, Senhor.”
He inclined his head in askance, but did not voice the question. Instead, he pulled out a wooden tablet and a wand of burned hardwood. “As you say, Senhora. Your name, profession, and reason for coming?”
My name is Senhora Isabel Morales-Diego, Senior Healer of the Southern Circle, and I come for Festival and to visit my family.”
The toll collector started at her name. He glanced at her dress, then stared at the emerald on her left ring finger; Eduardo, her fiancé, had given it to her only last month.
His smile widened. “Ah, it’s so good to have you back with us, Senhora! I won’t delay you any more—“
She overheard another rumble in the line of people behind her. These travelers were tired, hungry and impatient, and the last thing they wanted to see was a noblewoman singled out as a favorite. She reached into her saddlebag, pulled out two silver coins and pressed them into his hand. “Please, take this, as a donation to the town. I am no greater than any other, so please do not treat me as such.”
He was about to protest, but closed his mouth as the sunlight sparkled on the coins. “Te de Gracio, Senhora, for your generosity. Please, enjoy your homecoming.”
Isabel stifled a sigh as she guided Morena onto the Via Soledad. Inns and hostels were filled with visitors. Heavenly smells came out of the taquerias and made her mouth water. The songs of the cantadores mixed with other street musicians. Prayer flags of yellow, white, green and blue fluttered on laundry lines that stretched across the boulevard.
Great prosperity brings great ego, Morena,” Isabel murmured to the mare. “This is one time when I long for the old village, quierida.
Morena threw back her head and neighed. Her whole body quivered with unspoken mirth, as if she was saying, Really? Do you really want that?
Isabel snorted, “You have a point. Those were horrid days, indeed.”
She scanned the various taquerias and saw one that fit the bill: The Bright Lady’s Apron. It sat in a quiet corner, so she could eat her meal in peace. She rode up to a hitching post and tied the reins; a young boy rushed forward and bowed to her.
Que desidera, Senhora?” the boy asked, his voice eager to please.
Give her a good grain ration and plenty of water, chico; she’s come a long way,” she instructed him and placed a copper coin in his palm.
Si, Senhora.” He rushed to the Stables as if the demons were at his heels, and in no time, he returned with several other boys in tow. They carried buckets of grain, a curry comb, rags and polish for her tack. Isabel nodded in approval and the boys set to work.
She smiled and headed into the taqueria with a light step. Her smile widened as the familiar burnt-orange adobe walls surrounded her and the fragrance of cheese chiladas filled the air.
The proprietor managed a smile of welcome, but Isabel saw the pale cheeks and the dark hollows under his eyes. Skin hung on his small frame, as if he had lost a great amount of weight in a short time. The Healer within her asserted itself and she quickly approached him.
Forgive my forthrightness, Senhor, but are you well? I am a Healer and I couldn’t help but notice—“
He shook his head. “Today is the first day I’m out of bed, Senhora. A sour stomach and an angry liver, at least that is what the local Healer says. I feel well enough to mind my taqueria, but not much more than that.”
May I have a look, Senhor, if that is acceptable?”
Of course, Senhora, though I’m not sure if you can do more than what the local Healers have already done.”
Isabel gently laid her fingers on his wrist and Looked within him. His steady, reliable presence had expanded itself beyond the walls of his body; it extended to his taqueria and all within it. His deep devotion anchored him like tree roots into the ground.
She saw the remnants of a dark flow in his blood, a sluggish mass of bubbles gathering at energy points in his body, like caramelized sap. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Golden-green Healing light flowed through her touch and entered those points. To her surprise, the bubbles gathered together and blocked the Healing.
Nostra Senhora, it’s as if they are alive and fighting for their existence! She felt a definite resistance to her power; she prodded a little more and broke through that resistance. Once she was successful, the Healing passed through without any problem. The blockages dissolved into nothing, allowing the energy to bathe the raw, sore tissues.
The taqueria owner sighed in genuine relief. “Senhora, you are a wonder. Thank you. I feel so much better.”
She smiled and withdrew her hand. “Don’t exhaust yourself, Senhor, or the Healing will not remain and you’ll be back where you started.”
He bowed to her and said, “I promise I will heed your words, Senhora. After staying confined to bed for so long, I do not care to repeat the experience. So promises Senhor Ricardo to his miracle curandera.”
Isabel shook her head at the title. “I am not a curandera.”
You should be one.”
She sighed and changed the subject. “My stomach has wrapped itself around my backbone, Senhor Ricardo. Healing is hungry work.”
He grinned and brought out his tablet. “And what do you desire for noonmeal?”
Isabel chuckled as she answered, “Childa filled with vegetables and drizzled with tomato sauce, with cream on the side.”
A sua ordene.” Senhor Ricardo turned and relayed her order in the rapid-fire Santo Tomas dialect. As she waited for the chilada, she engaged in polite conversation with Senhor Ricardo. Even as she laughed at hometown news, her soul became unsettled again.
I must consult with the Master Healers. This is a disturbing incident that must be addressed. The decision lifted a burden from her shoulders and she was able to eat her chilada in relative peace.
After she finished, Senhor Ricardo insisted that the meal was free of charge after the Healing session. She accepted graciously, but gave him a generous tip. By the time she bade him farewell, the stable boys had just finished grooming Morena. Isabel paid them as well, then remounted the mare and continued down Via Soledad, towards the Healing Temple.
A strange flutter brushed past Isabel’s mind, startling her out of her thoughts. The touch held no evil intent, but only intense curiosity. Isabel pretended to read the various signs and banners on the roadside until she found the source of the probe.
All she saw was two eyes under a dark-gray hood. Their gazes locked for a long moment; the probe met Isabel’s mental shields, and those eyes widened in surprise and consternation.
Isabel thought, Who are you, and why are you probing my mind? The woman—Isabel knew it was a woman, for the mind-tone was distinct—gave her a wordless apology, then hastily withdrew the probe. With a swish of her gray robes, the intruder melted into the alleyway.
Curandera. A Mystic from the Sun Lady’s Temple. Isabel frowned. The curandera served the High Priestess of the Sun Lady in the Temple. They had Healing powers, but were not considered true Healers.
Gently, Isabel steered her off the Via Soledad. The mare made her way through the narrower streets of Santo Tomas, past the brightly-decorated shops and the heavenly smells of the eateries. Tumblers and acrobats practiced their routines for the afternoon festivities and street musicians filled the air with music. Isabel waved at the wide-eyed children who paused in their games to look at her.
There, just around the corner, a glimpse of a gray robe edged with scarlet. Isabel spurred Morena onward as the buildings huddled closer together and the alleyways grew narrower. The shadows blocked the bright light and cloaked it in gloom. Isabel shivered, but pressed on.
The street ended in a cul-de-sac. Isabel frowned as she stopped Morena and slipped off her back. Tendrils of rose-colored smoke drifted in the air, but the cul-de-sac was empty. She reached out and “grabbed” one of those wisps and examined it. It vibrated with Earth energy; its signature went beyond the alleyway, but when it touched the Via Soledad, it was lost among the other bursts of energy from the townspeople and visitors.
Wait a moment, this mist is strange...Isabel reached out again with her physical hands and touched it with her fingers. Her fingers vanished within it, as if she has placed it into a rip into the sky. Startled, she pulled her hand back and examined it. Then she tried again, but this time she extended her senses outward. A dark tremor tingled her fingers; Isabel tried to trace it to its source, but the smoke was already fading away. Morena whinnied in concern and she withdrew her hand.
Nothing,” Isabel murmured as the last of the smoke dissipated. “Nothing to tell us where she went. She must have activated some sort of Portal, but it would have taken an extreme amount of power to so. I would be surprised if she had enough strength to stand when she appeared at her destination.”
Morena whinned what sounded like a question. Isabel shook her head. “The Darkness didn’t Feel the same, Morena, but obviously it is here in Santo Tomas.” Isabel shivered at the thought. The curandera served the High Priestess as Her eyes and ears, but could they be doing more than just that?
There was one way to find out.
To the Healing Temple, Morena, quickly.” The mare neighed in agreement, and they backtracked their way back to the Via Soledad.

Forward to Chapter Two

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