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Feehan, Christine - The Scarletti Curse

BOOK: Feehan, Christine - The Scarletti Curse
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THE SCARLETTI CURSE
Christine Feehan

 

Contents

 

 

Publisher:
Love Spell

Date of Publishing:
March
2001

Language:
English

ISBN:
050552421X

 

 

Chapter One

The raven winged its way along the edge of the cliffs. Below, the waves
crashed and foamed against the rocks, each one rising higher and higher,
reaching almost angrily toward the black bird. The raven changed course, circling
inland across fields of wildflowers, above bare slopes, flying until it reached
the timberline. It appeared to be meandering, slowly gliding across the sky,
the waning rays of sunlight glistening off its back. Patches of clouds began to
drift across the horizon, almost in its wake, as if the bird was drawing a gray
shadow over the land below it. Once in the stand of trees, the bird changed
speed, swooped quickly, maneuvering through leafy branches and around tree
trunks as if racing the setting sun. It flew as straight as possible up the
hillside into the grove on the far slope of the mountain. It made its way
unerringly to a thick, twisted branch. Settling there, it folded its wings
rather majestically, its round, shiny eyes fixed intently on the small woman
below.

Nicoletta carefully packed rich soil around the small fern she had recently
moved. The earth here was more fertile than that closer to home and would
enable her much-needed and rarer forms of flora to flourish. She used extracts
from the plants as medicaments for the people in the surrounding
villaggi
and farms. What had started as a small hillside garden had grown into an
enormous undertaking—transplanting all the herbs and flowers she required for
various remedies and physics. Her bare hands were buried deep in the soil, the
rich fragrances of the herbage enveloping her, a riot of color from the
vegetation she had sown scattered all around her.

She shivered suddenly as a gray shadow obscured the last warming rays of the
sun, leaving an ominous portent of disaster in her mind. Very slowly Nicoletta
stood, dusting the damp soil from her hands and then her long, wide skirt
before she tilted her head to look up at the bird sitting so still above her in
the tree.

"So you have come to summon me," she said aloud, her voice soft
and husky in the silence of the grove. "You never bring me good news, but
I forgive you."

The bird stared straight at her, its small round eyes shiny and bright. A
lingering beam of light hit the feathers on its back, making them almost
iridescent, before the graying clouds obscured the sun completely.

Nicoletta sighed and shoved at the wild mass of long, tangled hair flowing
like a waterfall down her back well below her small waist, a few twigs caught
in the silken strands. She looked as mysterious and mystical a creature as the
silent raven, wild and untamed with her bare feet, dark eyes, and delicate
sun-gilded features. A young, beautiful witch, perhaps, weaving spells amidst
her lavish, exotic garden.

The bird opened its beak and emitted a loud squawk, the note jarring in the
hush of the grove. For a moment the insects ceased their incessant humming, and
the earth itself seemed to be holding its breath.

"I am coming, I am coming," Nicoletta said, catching up a thin
leather pouch. She raised her head to the sky above her, then turned in a slow
circle, pausing her arms outstretched, as she faced each of the four
directions, north, south, east, and west. The wind tugged at her clothing and
whipped her hair around her like a cloak. Hastily she began gathering leaves
and seeds from various plants, adding them to the dried, crushed herbs and
berries already in her pouch of medicaments.

Nicoletta began to run along a well-worn path leading down the hillside.
Bushes caught at her full skirt, the wind tugged at her hair, but she made her
way easily through the brambles and thick vegetation. Not once did her small
feet falter on a stone or branch lying in wait on the ground. As she approached
a stream, she simply hiked her long skirt up her bare legs and raced across
smooth, exposed stones, occasionally kicking up a spray of water, like a shower
of glistening diamonds.

Timber gave way to meadows and then barren rock as she neared the ocean. She
could hear the sea thundering against the cliffs, continually seeking to erode
the massive peaks. She paused before completing her descent to look upon the
enormous palazzo that hulked forbiddingly on the next cliff above the raging
sea. The castle was large and beautiful, yet dark and foreboding, rising out of
the shadows. It was whispered that the great halls held many secrets and that
hidden passageways could lead one directly to the sea should there be need.

The palazzo was many stories high, with gables, turrets, lofty terraces, and
the infamous tower, rumored to be a prison of sorts. The tracery overlooking
the cliff was carved of slender, intersecting stone segments that formed
unusual intricate patterns, seeming to signify something rather than simply
dividing the stone walls with large windows. Those portals and their unusual
patterns always caught her attention—and also made her feel as if she were
being watched. Sculpted into the castle's eaves, gables, turrets, and even the
tower were silent sentinels, frightening gargoyles watching the surrounding
countryside with hollow, staring eyes and outstretched wings.

Nicoletta shook her head, not daring to linger any longer. She felt an
urgency in her; the need to keep moving must be great. She turned her back on
the palazzo and began to walk quickly along the path winding away from the sea
back toward the interior countryside. The first houses came into sight, small,
neat farms and dwellings scattered among the hills. She loved the sight of
those homes. She loved the people.

An elderly woman met her as she entered the settlement's main square.
"Nicoletta! Look at you! Where are your shoes? Hurry,
piccola,
you
must hurry!" The woman calling her "little one" sounded
scolding, as she often did, but already she was gently pulling the twigs and
leaves from Nicoletta's long hair. "Quickly,
piccola,
your shoes.
You must fix your hair as we go."

Nicoletta smiled and leaned toward the woman to press a kiss on her lined
cheek. "Maria Pia, you are the light of my life. But I have no idea where
I left my sandals." She didn't, either. Somewhere on the trail, perhaps by
the stream.

Maria Pia Sigmora sighed softly.
"Bambino,
though you are our healer, you will be the death of us all."

Nicoletta was the joy of the
villaggio,
its lifeblood, its secret.
She was impossible to tame, like trying to hold water or the wind in their
hands. The older woman lifted an arm and waved toward the nearest hut. At once
they heard the sound of laughter, and a small child raced out carrying a pair
of thin leather sandals, the thongs dragging on the ground.

Giggling, the dark-haired little girl thrust the shoes at Nicoletta.
"We knew you would lose them," she said.

Nicoletta laughed, the sound as soft and melodious as that of the clear
running water in the nearby streams. "Ketsia, you little imp, skip along
now and stop tormenting me."

Maria Pia was already starting down the narrow path back toward the cliffs.
"Come quickly, Nicoletta, and plait your hair. A scarf,
bambina
—you
must cover your head. And take my shawl. You cannot draw attention to
yourself." She was clucking the orders over her shoulder as she walked
briskly. She was old, but she moved as one still young, well accustomed as she
was to traveling the steep hillsides.

Nicoletta easily kept pace, her sandals slung around her neck by the thongs
while she deftly bound her hair into a long, thick braid. She then wound it
carefully and covered her head with a thin scarf. "We are going to the
Palazzo
Della Morte?"
she guessed.

Maria Pia swung around, scowling fiercely, emitting a slow hiss of
disapproval. "Do not say such a thing,
piccola.
It is bad
luck."

Nicoletta laughed softly. "You think everything is bad luck." She
wrapped the tattered black shawl around her shoulders to cover her bare arms.

"Everything
is
bad luck," Maria Pia scolded. "You
cannot say such things. If
he
should hear of it…"

"It isn't bad luck," Nicoletta insisted. "And who is going to
tell him what I said? It isn't bad luck that kills the women who go to work in
that place. It is something else."

Maria Pia crossed herself as she looked around carefully. "Take care,
Nicoletta. The hills have ears. Everything gets back to him, and without his
good will our people would be homeless and without protection."

"So we must deal with
Il Demonio
and pray the price isn't too high."
For the first time Nicoletta sounded bitter.

Maria Pia paused for a moment, reaching out to take the young woman's arm.
"Do not harbor such thoughts,
piccola,
it is said he can read
minds," she cautioned gently, lovingly, with sorrow and pity in her eyes.

"How many more of our women and children will that place swallow before
it is done?" Nicoletta demanded, her dark eyes flashing like flames with
anger. "Must we pay our debts with our lives?"

"Hush," Maria Pia insisted. "You go back to the
villaggio.
With this attitude, you should not accompany me."

Nicoletta marched past the older woman, her back stiff, her slender
shoulders squared, outrage in her every step. "As if I would leave you to
face
Signore Morte
alone. You cannot save this one without me. I feel
it, Maria Pia. I must go if she is to live." Nicoletta ignored Maria Pia's
outraged gasp at her openly admitting to knowing something not yet revealed to
them. She tried not to smile as Maria Pia solemnly made the sign of the cross,
first on herself and then over Nicoletta.

Mist was swirling up from the foaming sea, fine, sifted droplets of salt
water curling around their ankles and clinging to their clothing. The wind was
savage now, rising up off the ocean waves to slam into their small frames as if
trying to drive them back. They were forced to slow their pace and choose their
way carefully over the little-used path to the hulking palazzo. As they rounded
the narrow, steep cliff jutting up from the sea, and the palazzo came into
sight, the setting sun finally slipped below the horizon of water, thrusting a
bloodred stain across the sky above.

Maria Pia cried out, halting as the vivid color swept across the heavens, a
portent of disaster and death. She moaned softly, trembling as she rocked back
and forth, clutching at the cross she wore around her neck. "We go to our
doom."

Nicoletta put an arm protectively around the older woman's shoulders, her
young face passionate and fierce. "No, we do not. I will not lose you,
Maria Pia. I will not.
He
cannot swallow you as he has the others! I
shall prove too strong for him and his terrible curses."

The wind howled and tore at their clothes, raging against her challenge.

"Do not say such things,
bambino..
It is dangerous to speak such
words aloud." Maria Pia straightened her shoulders. "I am an old
woman; better that I go alone. I have lived my life, Nicoletta, while yours is
just beginning."

"The
Palazzo Delia Morte
has taken
mia madre
and
mia zia.
It will not swallow you,
too. I will not allow it!" Nicoletta vowed fiercely, hurtling the words
back at the wild wind, refusing to bow down before its savage intensity.
"I am going with you as always, and
he
can go to hell!"

Maria Pia gasped her shock and blessed Nicoletta three times before
proceeding along the path. The wind shrieked its outrage of Nicoletta's
defiance, roaring through the pass, and dislodged pebbles that trickled down
from above them, pelting the two women as they hurried between the two cliffs.
Nicoletta circled the older woman's head protectively with one arm, trying to
shelter her from the shower of stones cascading down around them as they ran.

"Does he command the very mountains?" Maria Pia cried. Her words
were whipped away from her and taken out to sea by the fury of the wind.

"Are you hurt?" Nicoletta demanded, running her hands over the
older woman, looking for injuries, her anger and defiance swirling together
like the mist. She was gentle, however, her touch light and soothing despite
the emotions seething within her.

BOOK: Feehan, Christine - The Scarletti Curse
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