The Last Regret - Preview
Nestled peacefully in the cold dark landscape, was a small country cottage, surrounded by frozen fields. The dying winter still lingered. Smoke drifted slowly from the chimney, showing that there was still life in the small house. The wind shook the ice-covered windows, one still wide open.
A hooded figure stood on the dirt path, fixated on the cottage. Beside the upstairs open window, grew a thick large tree. The cold had stolen its green leaves, leaving it bare and threatening.
Lying in her bed, Elena was deep in slumber. Her long blond curls fell over her face. Turning from left to right as if trying to avoid something in her nightmare, she rustled the straw mattress in her torment.
Moonlight entered the window as the curtains flew in the soft breeze, creating a shadow that drifted along the floor. The cold air lifted her hair slightly. The chill reddened her cheeks.
Elena frowned. She struggled with her tangled blankets.
“Fire . . .” she whispered. “They’re coming . . .”
A woman appeared at Elena's door. Silently, she crossed the room and closed the window. She looked out to the dirt path that was now empty. Wearing a cotton nightgown beneath her robe, she tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, before leaning over to kiss Elena on the forehead. Kneeling beside her daughter’s bed, she started humming a lullaby while stroking the young girl’s hair. Elena kept tossing back and forth as her mother's voice softened her face, then her body relaxed and she drifted deeper into sleep.
Chapter One - The Glowing Pocket
Elena had never seen the village so full of joy. She dodged busy people and smelly horses as she made her way through the main street trying to keep up with her mother.
The butcher and fishmonger yelled out sales for the day. Wearing a dirty, brown leather apron that went right down to his feet, the butcher rang a cow bell.
"Half a lamb," he yelled over the bonging noise. "Two sou!"
The noise hurt Elena's ear, so she turned her head the other way, quickly noticing that the Blacksmith’s smithy wasn't open yet.
The shoemaker’s store, further up the road, was already alive with customers.
Two women walked towards Elena.
“We haven’t had a wedding in quite a few years!” the one on the right said. She held a basket full of leafy greens, sprawling over the edges.
“I heard,” the other lady said, flickering her curly hair over her shoulder, “that the bride is not from around here. Mr Martin must be desperate if he can’t find a Frenchwoman.”
They both giggled.
Elena watched them as they passed.
“Keep up, Elena.”
She twisted around and noticed her mother glaring. Running to keep up, she saw something that peaked her interest. Plenty of children were gathered in front of the toymaker’s shop, some even pressing their faces against the glass.
It was her favourite part of shopping with her mother. Just one glimpse into the window would leave her happy for the rest of the day. She only ever had a doll and it was made out of straw and old fabric, but it was her most prized possession. Her eleventh birthday wasn’t for another six months, and although her family wasn’t overly poor, toys were a luxury they often avoided.
The toymaker came out and shooed away the children. They ran laughing, but Elena knew that they would be back tomorrow, and every day after that, like they always were.
Once the owner went back inside, Elena ran straight to the window. The Toymaker had set a wedding-theme, with the most beautiful ceramic doll wearing a wedding dress and long veil.
A cold breeze pushed through the streets, making Elena shudder. She grabbed her old itchy shawl and tightened it better. Her dress was too small, pinching her in different places. Her parents kept all of her clothes in order to sew a couple of pieces into one dress, and a coat if she was lucky. She looked down at her shoes that were already covered in mud. It had been a humid winter full of snow and the ice had already melted from the previous night. She was growing so fast, it was cheaper just to extend the shoes with patchwork rather than buy new ones every few months.
Elena felt a gentle push on her back.
“That bread won’t buy itself.” Her mother smiled at her. “Come on!”
Her mother seemed to always catch her in a daydream. Nestled in her mother's arms was her baby sister, Julie. In her other hand, she held out a basket for Elena to take. Grabbing the basket, Elena was guided by her nose, down the road, to the baker. The wonderful smell of warm bread and pastries made her mouth water and seemed to warm up her body. She could taste the sweetness in the scent.
She stepped into the store and wiped her shoes along the rug, cleaning off the mud. Other customers hadn’t been so thoughtful as the floor was already covered with footprints. She quickly stood aside as an angry-looking man rushed out.
“Good morning, Mr Martin,” Elena said.
He looked sideways at her and grumbled back, “Not much of a good morning. We’ll all freeze to death by tonight.” The deep thick line indented right across his forehead. It brought out the lines around his eyes which made him look far older than his actual age of forty.
Mr Martin turned his back and marched out into the busy street, still muttering but Elena couldn’t quite catch the rest. Her mother walked in right after, shaking her head.
“Mr Martin is such a rude man!” Elena’s mother said.
“Morning, dear,” the baker’s wife said.
“You’d think that getting married today would brighten his mood,” Mother added.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to live next to him,” the baker’s wife said. “Does he cause you much trouble?”
“Only during harvest,” Mother explained. “He always seems to forget where the boundary between both lands is. If he wasn’t the only blacksmith, I would have crossed that family out of our acquaintances!”
A tight feeling spread in Elena’s chest.
“But, Mother!” she blurted out. “What about Lucas?”
Her mother looked down at her and frowned. “Yes, well, Lucas is a good egg,” Mother said. “I’m glad he’s your friend, and I do hope that this new woman will bring some peace to that family. Poor Lucas definitely deserves a good role model in his life.”
Elena placed the coins on the counter.
“One loaf of bread, please!” she said.
Usually it was her mother who bought the bread but ever since baby Julie came along, Elena helped where she could.
"Elena,” the baker’s wife beamed. “You're growing so big now!"
"Her legs are getting too long," Elena's mother added. "I'm making her new dresses nearly every season. I’m glad I know how to sew!"
"Oh my, must be all of those extra goods I've been giving you. How about this?" The baker's wife turned her back and retrieved something from the top shelf. She heaved as she cradled her bulging stomach, ready to have another child at any moment. Elena knew she always had a soft spot for all the children in the village.
She twisted back around and added something to the basket, hiding it under the cloth. "I hear apricot tarts will make your arms grow long too!" she whispered.
Mother took the basket off the counter and handed it to Elena.
“Take this back home,” Mother said. “Once I finish the ballroom, I'll come home and join you.”
Elena exited the store and the sun hit her face. It only warmed her slightly against the cold wind. The village was in a happy atmosphere that seemed excited for the early spring.
Elena's eyes drifted along the rooftops where the mason was fixing a roof that had caved in because of the heavy snow a few weeks back.
A woman poked her head out of the window and reached out to him, handing him a piece of cloth he used to wipe the sweat on his brow.
Before she could look in front of her once more, someone opened a door in her way, slamming it against the wall. Elena jumped and started as the stained windows rattled as though the man didn't know what he had done. He had tried to catch the door but wasn’t quick enough and winced as he heard a woman yell from inside.
“What have I told you about banging the doors?” she shouted, forcing the man to close the door with his head held down in shame.
A dog on the far end of the house, cocked its leg and peed on the pebbled wall.
The houses were very small and huddled next to one another. They seemed to have been built by the sweat and hard work of those who lived in them as was common for small french villages in the area.
As she passed the busiest section of the village, she entered the road leading to the farms in the surrounding countryside. The soft welcoming sound of a river could be heard. The gentle, constant flow of the water slowly broke the thin ice that imprisoned it. Nature was struggling to bring back the green beauty of spring. Elena couldn't wait for the warm wind to rustle the leaves and the summer days to brighten the sky. She felt like she was living in an icy prison. The long winter months had killed the tall grass that used to hide the river Elena could now see.
Just behind it, Elena could see the outline of the little cottage nestled in the greenery. Home. It wasn’t much, but they were proud of what they had, even if they had to pay taxes to their lord. They sold the wheat at the village market, but prices had to be competitive as they lived in a farming village. Their home was very small, even with an additional floor. The top level had a room that Elena shared with Julie. On the ground floor was the main room where Elena’s parents lived during the day and slept at night. The fields behind the house still had the winter crops, not yet ready for harvest.
As Elena headed home, the unmistakable sound of a coach approaching echoed in the countryside. She stepped aside, standing in the tall wet grass and turned to face it. The wooden wheels rolled across the dirt path, dipping deep into a puddle right at Elena's feet. A wide slick of mud projected up and covered her from face to toe.
A high pitched scream escaped her throat as her hands went out to her sides and shook. She didn’t dare move, her muscles locked in place, arms slightly held up. She looked down in horror at the bread. She closed her eyes and let go of a sigh of relief. The bread had been covered by a cloth, and thankfully the basket took the brunt of it.
The coach stopped abruptly. The most beautiful long red wavy hair appeared from the window.
Elena stared as the woman came out, holding her dress up slightly to avoid the mud herself, and rushed to Elena.
“Are you alright?” the woman asked, in a heavy Scottish accent. She took out a handkerchief and carefully removed most of the mud from Elena’s face.
“Yer quite the pretty lass, aren’t ya?” She smiled, exposing her dimples.
The woman’s eyes widened and she put a hand against her hip. She moved her eyes around as though in thought. She put her hand in her pocket and pulled out something that fit in her palm.
“O mo chreach!” she said in a language Elena did not recognise. “He was right . . .”
Taking a step back, Elena tried to see what was in the woman’s hand. It glowed. Her own hands started to feel warm.
“What is yer name, child?”
Elena’s eyes narrowed. “Elena.”
“Where are ye headed lass?”
Elena chose her words carefully. “Home. My father is the wheat farmer. He’ll be expecting me!”
“O’ course.” She sideways glanced in the direction of Elena’s farm. Then she smiled. It made Elena shake. “Looks like we’ll be neighbours.”
The woman retrieved her hand and shoved whatever was glowing back into her dress pocket. She held out the handkerchief.
“You best keep it. I have others,” she told Elena.
The woman headed back to the coach, climbed in, and gave Elena one last wave before signalling the driver to go.
Elena looked down at her dress and groaned. She’d have to wash it herself before the wedding tonight, and there was no way it would dry on time.
Elena waddled slightly the rest of the way, walking straight past the house to the shed. It was empty and ready for spring harvest. She found her father cutting wood.
“Father!” she said, waving at him.
“Good morning, Elena!” He turned around to face her. “Or should I say little piglet? What on earth have you gotten up to? Don’t let your mother see you like this.” He laughed and his long beard jiggled up and down.
“I’ll go and wash it now so it can be ready for tonight!” she said.
“I don’t think it will dry by then, little piglet,” Father said.
“That’s alright, I’ll wear it wet!”
“You’ll just risk catching a cold,” he said. “You may as well wear it muddy. I think it suits you!”
Elena frowned and lowered her eyes.
“They won’t let me work tonight if I wear it muddy,” she said. “And then I won’t get paid!”
“What were you thinking anyway?” Father asked. “And this close to the wedding?”
“It wasn’t my fault, I was on my way home,” she grumbled. “And then this carriage came and splashed me!”
“It’s not funny!” She stormed off.
“I’m only teasing! Come back!” He rushed to her side and ruffled her mud covered hair. “I’m sure your Mother has another she can spare. You’ve grown too big for this one anyway.”
She smiled. A new dress?
Her father suddenly started sniffing the air.
“What do you have in that basket?” he asked. “It smells delicious!”
Elena handed him the basket. “Bread from the baker.”
He lifted the cloth that covered the bread.
“Aha!” He exclaimed as he picked up the apricot tart, split it in two and handed half to Elena. “If we tell anyone, we’ll have to share!” He chuckled, winked at his daughter, and hastily ate his half.
Her mother hated apricots anyway. Elena knew he would have kept his half to give it to his wife if it was something she liked.
“Are you going to tell Mother?” she asked shyly. “She’ll say it was my fault for not standing further away from the road.”
“About the dress?” He shook his head. “Remember that time you found out you were about to become a big sister?”
Elena groaned. “Not this story!”
“It came from a good heart, even though it wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said. “We didn’t have enough money to buy wood for the crib and you stole some wood.”
She bit her lip.
“Did I tell your Mother then?” he asked her.
“No . . .” she moped. “You made me take it back.”
“Here’s what we will do now,” he said. “I’ll tell her I got you to help me carry some of the wood inside, and you slipped. That way, you won’t get in trouble for not being careful!”
“So . . .” Elena spoke slowly, looking up at her father with sappy eyes. “Because I’m already muddy, can I go and play?”
Laughing, he nodded.
“Off you go then. But be sure to be back by noon!” He had to yell that last part, as Elena had already started running towards the wheat field.
She raced to Lucas' farm, just behind her father’s field. It had been planted several weeks ago. Elena was barely taller than the plants and it only took her a few minutes to cross the field. As she approached the house, she saw no one in the garden but knew exactly where to find Lucas. A thud sounded from the stables and confirmed her thoughts.
She laughed silently, wondering what Lucas had done to cause such a bang.
Lucas cursed loudly. The blacksmith's tools were turned upside down and scattered across the floor.
"Good for nothing child!” Lucas’ father shouted.
Elena stopped just before the door.
“Can't even get my hammer without destroying half of the barn!” Lucas’ father continued. “Hurry and pick everything up.”
Elena breathed heavily. She hated it when Lucas was treated like that. She covered her ears.
“And bring me my hammer before dusk falls!" Lucas’ father screamed.
Elena sucked in a deep breath and peaked around the stable door. Lucas was on the floor, frantically picking up the tools.
She heard him mumble under his breath as he slammed the tools back into the box. She bit her knuckle to stop herself from laughing.
Someone entered the barn from the other entrance. She quickly hid behind the barn door and looked through the slit that was left ajar.
“Itty bitty Locust . . .” a teasing voice started.
Elena sighed. Lucas’ older brother was much worse than his angry father.
“Can’t do as he’s told, eh?” The brother slapped Lucas across the back of his head.
“Shove off, Henry,” Lucas retorted. “Don’t you have to comb your hair some more for the wedding?”
Another loud slap resounded in the stable. The horse reared up and stomped hard on the ground.
She gasped, as something clamped down on her shoulder.
“I found a spy out here!” a voice yelled just above her.