by Cynthia Varady
Aradia sat hunched over a large dusty tome. The scuffed and worn leather cover overhung the modest writing desk it rested upon. There had to be an overlooked spell hidden within its pages. She had been searching the ornate calligraphy tightly bunched on the wormed vellum for days with no luck. Sitting back, Aradia pressed the heels of her hands into her book-strained eyes and tried to organize her thoughts. If she could just see past what the book was saying to what it was trying to tell her. . . Oh, who was she kidding? Like the thousands of other books lining the walls of her small room, Aradia knew this book’s secrets would be just as hard to access as the door she’d been trying to open for the last five hundred years.
Five hundred, had it really been that long? No, Aradia thought, wearily rolling her neck to loosen a gathering knot, it had been much longer. Six or seven hundred was a conservative estimate. She turned her cold, green gaze to the door at the opposite end of the room. The impassable ingress to freedom appeared to regard her coolly, challenging her.
Stretching, Aradia stood and walked slowly over to the door. She wound her way through precarious stacks of books and untidy heaps of scrolls. Her long black hair fell in unkempt waves past her slim waist. The ancient beauty ran her slender hand over the door’s pocked oaken surface. Several times she’d lost her temper and hacked away at it with whatever she could find, but the enchantment holding it firmly shut made it practically impenetrable to brute force. She’d even tried to set fire to it once, but only the candles would remain lit. He’d thought of everything.
Anger suddenly spiked through Aradia, edging the gentle throb behind her eyes to a hammering force. “Erius,” she whispered. The name melted and spread over her mouth like a bitter drink. Forming a fist, she hit the sturdy wooden door and cursed.
Her thoughts hadn’t gathered towards Erius in a long while. Actually, she thought surprised, I had almost forgotten him: Erius, with his wild black hair, dark brown eyes, and full lips. A wicked smile danced across Aradia’s mouth, but it didn’t dare go near the vengeful spark igniting in her eyes. With all his beauty, intelligence, and talent, he had been very easy to seduce. Just like all men Aradia had used in the past, he had fallen prey to flattery and a seductive figure. Within a matter of days Aradia had Erius so deeply entangled, he would have done anything to please her. If only she’d been able to keep her emotions in check. She squeezed her eyes shut against the memory. A year into her ruse, she had fallen in love with him, guiltily confessing in a moment of emotional weakness how she’d used him to gain magical power, stolen his spells, and fed off his energy to increase her own.
His anger had been unprecedented and complete. While the name Erius was renowned throughout Europe as a wizard of great talent and ability, he was not known for violence. He instead prided himself on being a just person, and more than once Aradia had watched him dole out justifiable verdicts to deserving members of society. These judgments were never unnecessarily cruel, and always invariable matched the level of the crime.
Upon hearing her confession of deceit, quickly followed by professions of love, Erius had grabbed Aradia by the throat and slammed her against the plaster covered wall of the bedroom they shared. Unable to breath, panic flashed in a little used part of Aradia’s brain as the oxygen in her blood was quickly used up. Panic was not something Aradia had experienced often. She usually had control, using her guile to manipulate those around her. Now she feared that Erius’ morally just nature had been badly compromised and she might be the first to passionately die by his enraged hand. If she’d been able to breath, she just might have laughed at the absurdity of the situation.
Aradia placed a trembling hand defensively to her throat remembering Erius’ hot grip as it threatened to snap her slender neck. Her head had hit the wall with a teeth rattling force, causing the plaster to crack and crumble, leaving a white residue in her dark wavy hair.
Aradia pleaded with Erius, telling him it was all a mistake, that unlike the other men, she had fallen in love with him, but this only stoked his fiery rage. He dragged her through the streets of Florence, cursing anyone who tried to come to her aid. Knowing of Erius’ reputation for powerful sorcery, the few citizens in the street that night thought better than to get in the middle of this lover’s quarrel. Instead, they watched with pity and wariness in their eyes as Erius and Aradia passed, superstitiously making the sign for the evil eye.
Only after the powerful lovers were free of the city and deep in the Appenine Mountains did he finally release his hold on her, throwing her to the ground in a terrified heap. Aradia knew escape was impossible, so she stayed where she had landed, watching Erius warily. Her bare feet were bloodied from the hour long hike into the mountains.
Erius turned away from where Aradia lay huddled, and faced the smooth mountainside. Throwing his hands out wide, he began to chant. In front of him, a slender crack appeared in the rock face. With a quick motion, Erius bought his hands together and flung them wide once more. Like a puppeteer with a marionette, he forced the mountain face to split wide creating a passageway into its depths.
Without turning, Erius held a hand out to Aradia. Hesitating only a moment, Aradia weakly took his hand and slowly stood with his help. When her feet were steady beneath her, Erius led her into the mountain.
He made no eye contact with her, but continued to cast his spell while holding her hand firmly. With his free hand, he waved it over the walls of the newly formed cave. Before Aradia’s eyes, long, rectangular depressions began to form at regular intervals along the cave’s straightly carved walls, creating a series of shelves. Interspersed with these were smaller, half circle alcoves where lit candles grew out of the rock, as if burning in reverse. With another wave of his wizardly hand, books of every shape and size began to populate the larger depressions. In the far corner the writing desk where Aradia would spend most of her time brooding appeared. A few feet from it, a four poster bed identical to the one she had shared, up until an hour ago, with Erius materialized.
They stood together silently looking about this newly created room. Erius, feeling the furnishings complete, finally released Aradia’s hand. “Everything you need to unlock the door is here, you only need to discover the key.” The sorrow in his voice was unmistakable.
Aradia didn’t respond immediately, but instead studied her surroundings, questioning what she had just witnessed. “Door?” she asked finally, turning to Erius, but he no longer stood at her side. Instead she found him exiting the cave. The realization that he meant to leave her here speared through her, making her breath catch. Hastily she reached for the front of her long skirts in order to run after him, but found she couldn’t move. A strangled scream bubbled up from her throat. Aradia stood statute-still, completely frozen in place.
“You deceived me.” Eruis’ voice started softly, but began to pick up volume until it echoed off the Apennines with a resonance Aradia knew carried all the way back to the town below. “You confessed that you seduced me in order to steal my powers. And confessed that this was not the first time you had beguiled someone in order to increase your own immoral and twisted abilities. For the crimes you have admitted to, I stand as both judge and jury, sentencing you to dwell in this cell of my own making. The only way out is through the door I will place between you and freedom. As long as you stay, you shall live forever, never aging, alone with no one to keep you company save your conscience. If you manage to free yourself, you will begin to age from where I now leave you. Everything you need to open the door is here; all you need to do is find the key.”
Erius stopped, and shook his head sadly, “I loved you, Aradia,” he said softly. “I would have done anything for you.” The image of Erius standing outside the quickly dwindling fracture in the wall, his body outlined by millions of stars dusting the night sky, and his face illuminated by the hundreds of candles glowing from within Aradia’s newly formed prison would be seared into her memory. In the place he had once been, there now stood an ordinary oak door. A very locked and impassable door.
Feeling suddenly exhausted, Aradia crumpled in a heap at the foot of the door. The raven haired enchantress leaned her sweaty forehead against its cool, waxed surface and willed it to open. She imagined it suddenly springing inward, the force knocking her to the floor. Fresh mountain air would come rushing in, drying the perspiration on her brow. But just like every other time she had envisioned the door opening, nothing happened.
Anger flooded her chest with heat. How dare he lock her in here! She had loved him, and this was the thanks she received? Why wouldn’t he listen to her? She had explained it all. She was a changed woman. Being with him had changed her for the better. Erius had only laughed at this. “More manipulation, more falsehoods!” he’d spit venomously, barely checked rage in his voice. Had she no shame?
Deep down she knew he was right. She’d spent her life conning meals, beds, and magical powers from anyone who possessed what they desired. It had not only been a way of life for her, it had been her life philosophy. She believed she was right, that she was better, smarter, and more deserving of what she took from others.
It hadn’t taken long for her heartache to turn to spite. Aradia moped for a week in her prison. She discovered needed neither sleep nor sustenance, giving her plenty of time to think about Erius, and how he had wronged her with this punishment.
Now hundreds of years later, sitting in the same small room, reading the same useless books, still unable to open the door standing between her and death, she was starting to think that maybe the books were all a ruse. Perhaps they didn’t hold the key.
This thought wasn’t new, but for some reason it excited her. Maybe she didn’t need a spell. Maybe all she needed was. . . was what? A really big axe! She giggled a little too much at this, scaring herself a bit, quickly turning her laughter to tears. “Oh, Erius, I’m so sorry. I was horrible to you. You were completely right. I hadn’t changed, mostly because I didn’t want to change.”
Grief for everything she’d lost, for everything she could have had with Erius overtook Aradia startling her. Wasted, everything was wasted.
A soft click pulled Aradia away from her tears. Looking up, she could see the door had changed. Its hard appearance had shifted, softened, as if it empathized with her. As if it understood the sadness and regret she had finally allowed herself to own.
Slowly, cautiously, Aradia reached for the cast iron ring serving as the door’s handle. The old glint of greedy superiority flashed in her emerald eyes. Really, Erius! This was the answer for opening the door? Regret, forgiveness? How trite. Just as her hand wrapped around the large, iron ring, another click sounded from somewhere outside the oaken barrier. Aradia pulled with all her strength, but the door wouldn’t budge. Enraged that it had sensed her pride, Aradia flew into a blinding rage, throwing whatever she could find at the hated barrier.
When she finally calmed some hours later, Aradia resolutely returned to her books, determined to find a spell that would open the door.
Originally published on DuelingLibrarins.net Jan 19, 2015.