(Book excerpt) Heretics: A Love Story by Mary Saracino

Chapter 1

The Dream

Shardana woke with a start. The chilling dirge of a howling wolf rang in her ears. Her heart raced. She rubbed her eyes, but was unable to erase the face of the animal that had haunted her dream. In the murky residue that lingered from her night vision, Shardana could still feel the anger that radiated from the wolf’s bloody stare. His fangs, sharp as the blade of a shepherd’s knife, glinted in the moonlight that bathed the deck of the sea-going vessel. His thick coat bristled along the bony ridge of his spine as he prowled the squeaking wooden planks.

HereticsFCwebShardana stared into the darkness of her bedroom, allowing the blackness to calm her. “Dea Madre!” she called out. She kicked off her blankets and reached across the mattress to where her husband Basilio should have been—and would have been—had he not spent the night at his shepherd’s hut outside the village on this early February night, tending his herd of birthing ewes.

Sweat bathed Shardana’s brow, though she didn’t wipe away the dampness. She grabbed a shawl to chase away the cold before walking to the kitchen to boil some water to make a medicinal remedy to calm her mind.

She stepped softly through the quiet rooms of the house she shared with her husband, her son-in-law Giovanni, and her granddaughter, Martina, hoping she wouldn’t disturb her granddaughter, fast asleep in the second bedroom. The terrible dream wouldn’t relinquish the woman, even though she’d left the world of visions and returned to the more solid realm of the living, a realm that contained walls and a roof, a room with tables and chairs, a stone hearth and the embers of a dying fire.

She shivered and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. The image of the wolf remained vivid in her mind. She saw his cocked, mangy head baying at the moon. She felt the sea waters swell and the boat rock roughly against the onslaught of stony waves. She smelled the salty sea air even though she was hundreds of miles from the sea, living as she did in the hills and upland plateaus of Sardinia’s Gennargentu Mountains.

She lit a candle and made her way toward the hearth. Stooping low, she tried to coax the embers into a small flame to boil some water. She gently blew to encourage the fire. A flicker of red took hold. As she poured water into a pot, snippets of the dream revisited her: the wolf’s loose tongue hanging from his gaping mouth; his saliva dripping onto the wooden boards of the sea-worn deck; the animal foraging dark corners in search of prey.

Shardana’s hands trembled. Her legs shook. She reached for a chair. More images rushed at her: the wolf, baring his teeth, lunging at a pile of coiled rope; the rope spinning and twisting, struggling against the sharp edges of the animal’s fangs; the fibrous cord transformed into a snake.

“Madonna!” Shardana prayed, her heart pounding. “How can I make this vision stop?”

The images refused to dissipate. The hissing snake spat at the wolf; the snake writhed and shook her flexed body, then spun twice before muscle and bone evaporated into molting skin. The wolf gnashed and tore at the empty membrane. He raised his snout, narrowed his eyes, opened his jaw and wailed at the dark sky.

Shardana shook her head, trying to jostle the lingering images, hoping to send them back into the nether-realms from which they’d come. She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest, rocking back and forth, back and forth as the frightening images faded. She sighed and rubbed her face, her eyes, the back of her sweaty neck. She considered crossing the small lane that separated her house from her twin sister Sarda’s house. She wanted to tell Sarda about the wolf and the snake, ask her for help in deciphering the meaning of the dream, but she decided it was best to wait until later, after the sun had risen and Sarda had begun her day. No need to wake her now.

Shardana focused on finishing her task of making a medicinal infusion. As she placed the pot on a hook over the fire, someone knocked on her door. She cocked her head, listening for a voice at the threshold, hoping the caller would identify himself. Perhaps a villager’s child had taken sick or a searing inflammation had disturbed the sleep of some over-worked farmer. Countless times before, Shardana had been awakened in the dead of night to ply her trade. The knock sounded again, more loudly.

An insistent whisper called out, “Shardana! Open up!”

Recognizing her twin sister’s voice, Shardana smiled. Of course Sarda would have sensed her discomfort. Hadn’t they always been connected in that way, one feeling the other’s deepest emotions—pleasant or painful? It had been like this since their childhood, perhaps even before, when they had shared their mother’s womb. Others thought it uncanny, the way one twin always knew the other’s thoughts, always sensed the other’s needs. But this second-sense knowing was second-nature to the sisters. Often there was no need to speak or explain. Words were rarely necessary. Somehow, they just knew.

Shardana reached for the lit candle and walked toward the entryway. With her free hand, she opened the door. Sarda stood before her, wrapped in a shawl to shut out the cold air.

“The wolf and the snake?” Shardana asked.

Her twin sister nodded. “I dreamt it, too.”

In the early hours before dawn, Shardana and Sarda discussed the many possible meanings of their shared dream. Perhaps all the newborn lambs would die soon or the ewes’ milk would run sour. Perhaps a plague would strike the village, causing their husbands, their children, and their neighbors to become grievously ill—maybe even die. Perhaps the wheat would rot in the fields and the villagers would starve next winter. Or perhaps something else was about to occur in their small hamlet, something dire for which they had neither name nor antidote.

“We have to send Martina up to the sheepfold,” Shardana said. “She’s got to tell Basilio and the others. Warn them to pour a pail of milk on the ground. They’ve got to give thanks, return that liquid’s blessing to the Earth. If they do, we might be able to prevent any curse from taking hold.”

Sarda agreed. “Yes, we’ll send her as soon as the sun comes up. We can’t be too cautious. Something grave is about to happen. I can feel it in my bones.”

“What do you make of the sea?” Shardana asked.

“It could be many things,” her sister replied. “Since we live in the mountains far from the shore, maybe it’s the watery realms of worry. So many are fretting about the harvest. They fear it’ll be meager this year. Hunger is a powerful force. Or maybe the choppy water in the dream is the unsettled soul of a villager, or two. I can think of several who are battling anger and a couple of others whose hearts are cracked open with grief. But the iciness of the seawater and the ferocity of the wolf signal something more ominous.”

Furat chi benit dae su mare,” Shardana said. She covered her heart with her hand.

“He who comes from across the sea is a thief,” Sarda replied, echoing her sister’s concern.

“The serpent in the dream is strong medicine,” Shardana said.

“It’s a good sign, but we shouldn’t be overly optimistic,” her sister replied.

“Should we tell the villagers?” Shardana asked.

“Yes,” Sarda said. “But we can’t be sure just when the wolf will arrive.”

“Or under what sort of guise he’ll appear,” Shardana added.

“We better prepare,” Sarda insisted. “We’re majarzas. It’s our sacred duty to protect our people.”

Shardana nodded. Much work lay ahead. The wolf’s bite would be fierce—perhaps even rabid. And the twins’ magic had to be equally potent to counterbalance whatever terrible circumstances were about to unfold.

For more information about Heretics: A Love Story, or to purchase a copy, visit: www.marysaracino.com or http://www.pearlsong.com/heretics.htm

Meet Mago Contributor Mary Saracino.