Wedding Bell

The Wedding Bell: Chapter One

by Roxana Arama

Time Breaks Sometimes
Summary
First century CE. Rome is marching. Cities and temples are falling. In a fictitious kingdom by the Black Sea named Dhawosia, Princess Andrada, sole heir to the throne, wants to help her father unite his infighting chieftains against the growing Roman threat. But when she fails the trials they demanded of her, her father marries her off to a neighboring king who knows half as much about the art of governing as she does. Still hoping to be a ruler one day, Andrada moves to a new country and begins making her mark there, while also making new enemies. A crystal bell found in an abandoned temple prompts her to investigate the existence of a supreme god. Everything comes to a halt when she falls in love with a medicine woman, and soon stands accused of murder by poison. Yet fighting for her life also brings her closer to her life’s dream of ruling Dhawosia, and in the process, she uproots the faith of her ancestors and brings her belief in an only god to the northern borders of the Roman Empire.
Chapter One

Summer 63 CE, Dhawosia. Andrada let go of her nurse’s hand and ran to the balcony. On tiptoes, she surveyed the sunny square, but her father wasn’t standing outside the King’s House, or heading toward the Great Hall, or drinking water at the fountain of Mount Kogalan.

A few tears blurred the snowy peaks surrounding the fortress. Maybe he was busy preparing for war with the Romans. She wiped her eyes and twirled a ringlet about her finger. Tomorrow, then. He wouldn’t miss her birthday, her eighth birthday, not after missing all the others—

There was someone else on the balcony, a man, his hair red and wild under the bright sun. Had he been waiting in the corner? He didn’t wear a cloak like a traveler, or the bent-forward felt cap of a chieftain.

The nurse nudged Andrada toward him.

“I’m the Cartographer, princess.” He was speaking her native Panistern, but his words had an unfamiliar sound to them. “I’m from a land beyond the Stonedrum Mountains.”

Andrada squeezed the nurse’s hand and said nothing.

“People call me the Cartographer because I reveal the hidden face of the earth goddess Ea. I take places too large for the naked eye to see—watersheds and mountains and seashores—and I capture their likeness on my maps. Would you like to see a map, princess?”

She already had a map in her room, a map of the five Panistern kingdoms. She didn’t need his. She turned back to the main hall.

“Princess?” He motioned to a table where lidded clay jars marked with colored brushstrokes sat next to sheets of parchment and sticks of charcoal.

“He’s here to capture your likeness,” the nurse whispered in Andrada’s ear. “King Cothelas sent him.”

Her father had sent him? Hands trembling, Andrada parted her tangled hair, brought it over her shoulders.

“It needs combing,” she told the nurse.

“Your hair looks fine, child.”

“No, it doesn’t. Bring me my comb. It’s in my horse-box.”

The nurse sighed. “Cartographer, watch over the princess, will you?” The scar on the nurse’s right cheek, a scar that cut down from eyelid to jawbone, made her look like she was shedding tears. Andrada watched her disappear into the dimness of the main hall.

She approached the Cartographer. He’d already drawn a few black marks on a sheet of parchment held flat on the table with large pebbles.

“My father wants my portrait?” she said.

“In a way, yes.” His breath smelled strange when he spoke. Strange, but nice.

“Where is he now?”

“In his highness’s chambers.”

“Doing... what?”

“Drawing, just like I do now.”

“Drawing what?”

“Something he lost years ago.”

“What did he lose?”

The Cartographer laughed. “You ask a lot of questions, princess.” He dug into one of his belt pouches, took out a few green leaves, and tossed them in his mouth. “You remind me of a little girl back home.” As he chewed, she caught that scent again. “Her name is Una.”

“What kind of leaves are those?” Andrada said.

“Mint. When you travel as much as I do, you want something to remind you of home.” He swallowed. “The medicine women of Twin Willows tell me it’s good for my stomach, too.”

“Can you draw my father’s portrait for—”

Just then, the nurse stepped back on the balcony holding the horse-box. Fast as a night-demon she was.

“Ah, let me look at that,” the Cartographer said. “Beautiful carving. Whitewood from the northern forests. Good for pigments.”

Andrada didn’t dare ask again for her father’s portrait, not in front of the nurse. “Can you make the horse’s hair blue? With a golden harness?”

“As soon as we finish our work here.” He gave her the box and went on sketching.

She took the box—always hard to hold in her small hands because of its shape, with legs and a head and a tail—and dug through her treasures, looking for the comb, bracing herself for another rough raking of her unruly hair. A round thing came under her fingers: the gold coin stamped with her father’s profile. She couldn’t quite tell what he looked like in real life, but she was sure to recognize that shaved head tomorrow. It had to be tomorrow.

The nurse took the comb, separated a lock, and forced the wide bone teeth through. Andrada stiffened her neck. The nurse tugged, and the comb snapped off a few hairs. At the next pass, it caught in Andrada’s earring. A long, twisted dark hair fell on her embroidered skirt.

She groaned. “One day, nurse, I’ll hurt you back.”

“I know, child,” the nurse said, “there’ll come a day, but it’s not today. Or tomorrow.”

With her hair tamed and pinned up, Andrada put on the only piece of jewelry she had in her horse-box, a gold necklace with a crystal pendant.

“Queen Pegrina would’ve liked you to wear it for your portrait,” the nurse said.

Queen Pegrina? The woman who’d chosen god Azemel’s gilded throne in the Underworld over Andrada and her father eight years before?

“She left it for you,” the nurse said. “On the day she put you in my arms—no, don’t take it off …”

Andrada dropped the necklace back in the box and climbed onto one of the three-legged stools at the Cartographer’s table to pose for her father.

From her high seat, she could now see all of Sehuldava. She looked this way and that. No royal suite passing through any of the terraces below, just a few people idling in the afternoon sun around the fountain in front of the King’s House. Tomorrow then. She listened to the water and the echoing voices and felt warm and sleepy after a while.

“We’ll do colors now.” The Cartographer picked up a small jar. “Let’s start with the goddess Enoz’s favorite color, malachite green.” He scraped a good amount of pigment on a wooden plate, while from other clay jars he took small daubs of yellow, blue, and brown. He mixed and added and smeared the result on parchment. He stared into her eyes, squinted, frowned, and mixed some more.

“Will you see my father again today?” she whispered to him.

“Yes,” the Cartographer whispered back.

“Tell him … not to forget tomorrow is my birthday. I can’t wait to meet him.”

The Cartographer made a face as if he didn’t understand. “You’ve never met your father?”

“Never …” And before she knew it, she was in tears.

The nurse rubbed Andrada’s shoulder. “Tomorrow, child … tomorrow.”

###

The next morning, Andrada could swallow only a few bites of bread and cheese. She climbed into the warm washtub without her usual splash, and in the next breath her head was pushed underwater. The nurse helped her sit back up and dry her face, then rubbed scented oils in her hair.

“Keep still now.” The nurse wrapped Andrada’s wet hair around her fist. “May the gods forgive me.”

Andrada felt something cool and thin on the nape of her neck. She pulled away with nowhere to go, heard the hiss, and her forehead slammed against her knees. Her head felt … lighter. Her hair was gone.

“What have you done?” Andrada cried. “Why?”

“King Cothelas’s orders,” the nurse said, “may the gods forgive him.” She covered the dark hair with the fine linen meant for sacred offerings and carried it behind a screen that hid the washtub from the rest of the room.

“What orders?” In the warm tub, Andrada felt her chest tight with sobs. “Why?”

The nurse brought a damp cloth for cleaning teeth, and Andrada wiped her eyes with it instead.

“Your mother,” the nurse said, “may Azemel have mercy on her, she made your father promise you’d be like a son to him. She spoke those words with her last breath. Now he thinks he must cut your hair short and dress you in boy’s clothes. I tried to tell him—”

“Then it’s all her fault.”

“No, child, it’s not.” She helped Andrada out of the water, draped a towel around her trembling shoulders, and walked her to the edge of the screen.

The Greek physician, a man with hairy fingers, was waiting just outside the wooden frame to inspect each limb Andrada extended to him. He touched the skin on her legs and arms, counted her fingers and toes, and listened to her chest and back through a twisted horn, all while she kept touching the bare skin on the back of her neck. No hair. No ringlet long enough to loop around her finger.

Her father always shaved his head … now she’d be more like him.

Still, she couldn’t stop crying.

“The princess has no bodily flaws,” the physician said, “and, by the grace of the Three Divine Light Brothers, can enter an apprenticeship. She’ll be expected at the Lecture Hall at midday.” He left.

“What kind … of apprentice … ship?” Andrada said through sniffles.

“I don’t know, child. King Cothelas didn’t tell me.” The nurse tucked Andrada’s short hair behind her ears. “He just ordered me to get you ready.”

She brought new clothes. First, a linen tunic with fitted sleeves. Andrada raised her arms and the garment fell over her shoulders. It only covered part of her legs, just above her knees. Then woolen trousers and tall leather boots, and a leather belt with pouches sewn on it.

Andrada was now dressed in boy’s clothes. That was why the Cartographer had drawn her portrait the day before, while her hair was still long and she wore a dress.

The nurse shook her head. “The end of time must indeed be upon us.”

The end of time—when history would end and the gods would live among people in a divine kingdom on a renewed earth—always sounded good to Andrada. She’d be together with her father, and the nurse would be together with her dead baby.

“Here’s the apprentice’s apron …” The nurse held up a long, dark shawl with a hole in the center for the head, and a tasseled rope made of red and white thread to tie around the waist. She held Andrada’s earlobes and took off her gold loops. “You won’t be needing these either.”

Andrada wiped another tear off her cheek. The nurse wrapped her in a warm embrace and the familiar, bittersweet scent of sage.

“What you need now is a friend,” the nurse said, “someone your own age.”

Andrada shrugged. No need for that. She’d have her father now.

###

After a blur of narrow streets lined with gawking people, Andrada and her royal suite arrived at the Lecture Hall on a lower terrace of the city. Around the square, boys of all ages in aprons just like hers filled the air with shouts and laughter. With no ringlet to twirl, she took the nurse’s hand and squeezed it.

She was going to meet her father now.

From the middle of the crowd, a wolf-snake standard rose against the sky. The brass tongues of the hollow wolf-head rang in the wind, while its linen bag swelled—the body of a snake adorned with flapping ribbons. At its call, the boys in the square headed for the heavy doors of the Lecture Hall.

“You may leave now,” a man told the nurse.

Andrada wouldn’t let go.

“I’ll be here to pick you up,” the nurse said. “I’ll make honey cakes with walnuts.”

Through new tears, Andrada watched her nurse disappear, followed by the other servants. She reached for a ringlet but touched only the skin below her ear. Her hand smelled of sage now.

The man nudged her through the leftmost door. She wiped her eyes, for she was going to see her father and that was all that mattered.

She saw no one at first, just a clean round hearth and, beyond it, ascending rows of benches carved in stone. On the back wall, there were nooks filled with scrolls. She took another step, the scratchy wool of her trousers rubbing the inside of her thighs.

“Sit,” a voice boomed under high ceilings. It belonged to a man behind a table. He was not her father because his head was not shaved clean of hair. He had a gray beard. He was a tutor, then.

She sat down in the lowest row of stone benches, next to a small wooden frame with strings of colored-glass beads and a folded pair of wax tablets topped with an iron stylus.

“When is my father coming?” she said.

“Don’t speak unless spoken to, apprentice.”

“What kind of apprentice am I?”

“Quiet, or you’ll be sorry.”

No, he’d be sorry when her father learned how he’d spoken to a princess. And on her birthday, no less.

For now, she set her eyes on the map of Panister on the far wall. Everything was big and drawn in vivid colors, unlike the small map she’d studied for moons in her chambers so she could show her father how much she already knew about the world. The Stonedrum Mountains, in the center of the map, curled like a brown snake powdered with snow. Everything to the left of the mountains, all the way to the green fields at the edge of the map, was Dhawosia, her country. On the right side of the mountains were the kingdoms of Kerta and Steppewynd, with the Pyretus River splitting them above the Black Sea. Kerta was the smallest of the three countries, painted in light and dark green, and the largest was Steppewynd, in shades of yellow and brown.

“What lies on top of Kerta and Steppewynd?” she said.

The tutor didn’t raise his eyes from his work. “Thick forests … full of wild bees and beasts.” He shook his head. “By the Three, I’ve just told you to keep quiet.” But as he opened his mouth for further scolding, a messenger walked in.

While the men were talking, Andrada went to the map. The Hister River flowed through six blue mouths into the Black Sea. One day, she’d travel as far east as Kerta and even Steppewynd. She’d meet the legendary friends who’d kept the Panistern Alliance strong.

She smiled and bowed her head first to King Anartus in Zalmodava, then to King Thiaper in the White Fortress. They bowed to her in return. Queen of Dhawosia, they called her.

South of the Hister, the kingdoms of Moesia and Ripa, cursed in the past with unwise kings, were marked with small pins, mostly along streams and lakes. What were those pins for? After a moment, she knew the answer: Roman forts, cropping up everywhere since the other two Panistern kingdoms became imperial provinces.

She looked for the tutor to tell him of her discovery.

A gold chain with a large crystal swung against his dark robes as he approached. He was holding a wooden rod. “King Cothelas sends word that we are to begin at once.”

He sent word? She clasped her clammy hands together. Her father was not coming.

The tutor stopped in front of her. “Name.”

“Andrada of the Andori tribe, Princess of Dhawosia.”

“High-priest Avezinas, your tutor in everything from numbers to sacred formulas to weapons.” He frowned. “By the Three, what’s this? Tears? Tears won’t keep you safe from the Romans.” He held up the rod. “Palm up.”

Andrada closed her eyes just as the rod hit the flesh and sank into the bones of her fingers. She shrieked and pulled away.

“The other one,” Avezinas said.

She put her left palm up, shaking. The rod burned a bright line of pain across her hand. She wiped her face with the back of her burning fists as new tears sprang up. She scraped them away with a vengeance.

“That’s for crying like a little girl,” Avezinas said. “Now tell me why.”

She tried to sound calm but her voice wavered. “I want… to see my father.”

“The king will make time for you some day, apprentice, just not this day.”

He laid a hand on Andrada’s head. She stood still, afraid to breathe.

“Andrada of the Andori tribe,” he said, “today you begin your journey from ignorance to wisdom. Today, I, Avezinas, high-priest of the sun god Sehul and first councilor of King Cothelas of Dhawosia, take custody of your heart and mind, in the name of the Great Mother goddess Ea and Her divine children.”

About the Author

Roxana Arama

Website

Roxana Arama holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She received an honorable mention in the 2018 San Antonio Writers’ Guild Annual Writing Contest, and was a finalist in the 2017 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest and the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has appeared in European Weekly, SIFF’s Reel News, and Goddard’s The Pitkin Review, where she later served as an associate editor. She maintains a nonfiction website called Rewriting History: How writers turn history into story, and story into history.