Excerpt from The English Witch
It was called the “City of a Thousand Stairs.” From a distance, the white stone houses with their elaborate red roof appeared to be carved out of the mountainside itself. They were white fairy stairs, zigzagging their way up to the medieval citadel. Veiled by the early dawn mist, Gjirokastra seemed exactly the sort of place where evil sorcerers held fair princesses captive.
On closer view the houses—windowless on the first floor, bay-windowed and ornate on the upper stories — were miniature fortresses themselves, clustered about their majestic parent. And at this hour of morning there were no fair princesses, nor evil sorcerers. There were instead a few women, most of them dressed in black, soberly going about their chores.
The town was founded, according to folk legend, by the princess named Argjiro; but Sir Charles believed that its name came from the Illyrian tribe of Argyres that had settled nearby. Gjirokastra’s recent history was less mysterious: like every other town and hamlet of Albania, it had known only rare intervals of peace since its founding. Just four years ago, in 1811, Ali Pasha Tepelena had bombarded the rebellion town with artillery.
In time, it could expect to be bombarded again by somebody, for some reason, but now in the misty dawn of what promised to be another sweltering June day, the place was quiet.
Occasionally the women of Gjirokastra spoke to one another, but mainly they attended to their work. Certainly they had better things to do than watch the departure of the small caravan. The English were leaving, they knew. They also knew why.
The women of Gjirokastra did not approve of “Skandara” Ashmore. Women were supposed to go about their back-breaking labor quietly, troubling nobody, but this English witch troubled everybody. Too many yearning songs had been composed in tribute to her green, sorceress eyes and gleaming dark curls. She made the young men restless, and that was bad.
Meanwhile, the small caravan descending to the valley was not quite so subdued as the sleepy town it had just left. Alexandra Ashmore had not given up trying to sidetrack her father. This endeavour had grown increasingly difficult, because he’d finally made up his mind to go home, and once he made up his mind to something, he tended to apply all the concentration he normally focused on ancient inscriptions. At present his course was fixed. A certain Albanian family’s apologetic warning the previous day had merely hastened a departure planned months before.
“But Papa,” Alexandra was saying, as calmly as she could, “surely we cannot come so close to Butrint and not spend time there.”
“I can go later, after you and Randolph are married.”
“But think of the expense. To go all the way back to England and then return all the way here again.”
“We’ve delayed long enough. You must be married. In a few more years, you’ll be too old to have children. Randolph will want a family.”
Glancing ahead at the young man who rode with their ragged guard, Stefan, and their slightly less ragged dragoman, Gjergi, Alexandra privately took leave to differ with her father. Randolph’s beloved family existed already, in the remnants of ancient times. Her fiancé lusted for scraps of buildings and fragments of sculpture as another man might lust for women. He was blind to her charms. And she, while not vain, was not stupid either. She knew that most men found her very attractive.
Randolph had agreed to marry her because he was dimly aware that he had to marry somebody. His father obligingly had found him a bride, thereby saving Randolph the trouble of looking for one, so he was content. Actually, oblivious was more like it. But aloud she said only, “Why, we can be married next year. Four-and-twenty is not the very brink of senility. And Randolph wouldn’t mind. He, too, wishes to explore Butrint.”
“No. There’ll always be trouble until you’re married. Today we leave Gjirokastra because Dhimitri Musolja’s besotted with you. In another place, it’ll be someone else. With these men chasing you and upsetting their families, we accomplish nothing.”
That much was true. This was the fifth town they’d been forced to leave because of amorous young men. At any rate, it was futile to argue when those stubborn lines settled into Papa’s forehead. Later she’d try again. She’d tempt him with Butrint once more.
Gjirokastra, nestled in the mountains of southern Albania, was mainly medieval, although pieces of ancient rubble formed part of the material of which the citadel was built, and there were traces of ancient settlements nearby. Butrint was another story. Marcus Tullius Cicero had written of it, and according to the Aeneid, it was founded by the Trojans on their way from Troy to Italy. Though Papa said that was mere legend, he was dying to explore the place, as was Randolph. Surely there must be some way to convince them to stay — just a while longer. And perhaps, while they investigated antiquities, she might have an answer to the letter she’d written so many months ago.
But what could Aunt Clem do, after all? Mama had adamantly objected to the match with Randolph; but as soon as she passed away, Papa had settled everything with George Burnham. While Papa had arranged the marriage as a means of paying off his long-standing debt to the wool merchant, he honestly believed he was looking out for his daughter’s best interests. Her dowry was insignificant, and he had nothing to leave her after his death. Without a husband, her future would be a grim one.
Awake to the need for a husband, she’d convinced her parents to scrape together enough money for a Season. Unfortunately, though she attracted many suitors, her lack of fortune as well as her papa’s eccentricity had a dampening effect on Honorable Intentions. The few London bachelors whose sensibilities were not thus dampened were unendurable. Alexandra did not think herself, as Mama complained, excessively fastidious, but it was quite impossible to accept Mr. Courtland, who was sixty, or Sir Alfred, who was short and fat and practically illiterate, or Mr. Porter, a Pink of the Ton whose only real passion was his tailor.
In short, when, near the Season’s end, her mama had contracted a fever and died, Alexandra remained unclaimed. George Burnham was on the spot immediately, urging that the match go forward at once. Alexandra had responded by reminding her father that she was in mourning and convincing him to let her spend the time with him in Greece. Once they were abroad, it hadn’t been difficult to stretch one year into another until six had passed. Papa forgot everything else when he was working.
Meanwhile, she’d occupied herself by helping him keep his sketches and notes in order. She had also learned how to say what was expected of her while her mind wandered elsewhere. Since the two men were generally unaware of her existence, this was no great feat. It was not the most stimulating existence, and she did not see how being married to Randolph would improve it. She would like one day to talk of something besides the Peloponnesian War. With Randolph Burnham, such a day would never come.
While she pondered her past and wondered sadly about her future, the group pressed on in relative silence, broken only by Gjergi’s dropping into a soft song about the bravery of the Shqiptar — the Sons of Eagles. The mists that had enshrouded Gjirokastra were giving way to the bright morning sun, when the valley’s peace was broken by the thundering of horses’ hooves.
Good God. Bandits.
Alexandra had scarcely formulated the thought when she saw Stefan and Gjergi reach for the long guns slung across their saddles. Even as they were taking aim, the marauders thundered into their midst, stirring up a choking, blinding storm of dust. Her throat and eyes burning, Alexandra straggled to control her panicked horse with one hand while she rambled with the other for the pistol tucked into her waistband. In the next instant, she was dragged from her mount and flung onto another. Strong arms gripped her, and she stared up into a laughing, triumphant face.
“Dhimitri!” she gasped.
Furious, she pounded and clawed, screaming at him to let her go. The huge Albanian only laughed and grasped her more tightly.
A single, curt command to his men, and Dhimitri Musolja galloped off with Sir Charles Ashmore’s daughter.
Basil Trevelyan glared at the breathtaking prospect beyond the narrow window: green and yellow valley below and majestic peaks beyond. The faint, sweet mountain breeze that cooled the early evening air only made him wish desperately to be home again. After two interminable years in India and another, equally dreary, in Greece, he was as tired of picturesque views as he was tired of business and politics. Now, when he should be on a ship bound for England, he was in Albania, in a wretched mountain village, whose suspicious inhabitants would tell him nothing.
He turned angrily to the letters on the rough table before him. They’d come to him, one folded over the other, in Greece, and had plagued him ever since. His aunt, of course, habitually ordered him about. That was her character, just as it was his to ignore her. Since she was at least partially responsible for his three-year exile from England, it would have served her right had he torn the cursed things to bits. The trouble was, she knew what she was about. She’d enclosed Miss Ashmore’s letter and let that do the business for her. Aunt Clem knew him too well — devious woman.
Basil Trevelyan enjoyed drama. He enjoyed intrigue. And he enjoyed women. He especially enjoyed women, partly for their own sake and partly because relations with them so often involved drama and intrigue — not to mention the obvious pleasures. Because he had excellent taste, he particularly enjoyed beautiful women.
Now here was a “good-looking girl,” according to his usually critical aunt, who was attempting to conduct some sort of intrigue of her own. Alexandra Ashmore wrote coolly and humorously, yet movingly, of a typical maiden’s plight: her father was making her marry a man she didn’t love. The bridegroom had the Money. The bride had the Status — the usual trade.
He’d tried one like it himself, three years ago, and had even gone so far as to try to blackmail Isabella Latham into marrying him. He’d failed because not only her relatives but also his own had thwarted him. They’d even had him drugged and abducted to make absolutely certain he couldn’t interfere with her marriage to his cousin Edward, Earl of Hartleigh.
Basil was still a bit ashamed of the way he’d behaved. He might not have been quite so ashamed, might even have nursed a grudge, had not Isabella, now Countess of Hartleigh, been the only one to write faithfully to him. Well, she’d always rather liked him. She simply hadn’t loved him.
How she’d laugh if she could see him now: dirty, unshaven, uncombed, his borrowed clothes ragged and filthy. He was a far cry from the elegant man-about-town she’d known. That sophisticated fellow had been deeply sunk in debt three years ago. Now, thanks to Henry Latham, Basil was rich and even rather a hero — business, as Henry liked to say, being inextricably tied to politics. Having persuaded Basil to work for him, Latham was bound to put the younger man’s talent for intrigue to profitable use. Mr. Trevelyan succeeded where even skilled diplomats had failed. For his efforts, he received some modest rewards and generous praise from the Crown. Less modest rewards and fewer words had come from the divers British businessmen and Indian princes to whom Basil had proved himself equally invaluable.
Now when he returned to England, he’d be welcome everywhere. Proper mamas would push their innocent daughters at him. All kinds of respectable young ladies —pretty ones and plain, poor and wealthy and every variety in between — would pursue him. He doubted whether their virginal charms could compete with the more practiced arts of the Fashionable Imputes he was accustomed to. Still, never loathe to be the center of attention, he looked forward to making the comparison firsthand.
One cleverly written letter had held him back from all that bliss. And why? He had a whim to meet the authoress. If her writing was any sample, she must be a very interesting young woman.
That was what had brought him to this wretched place. He’d had a hot, miserable journey ending in a miserable town whose sullen folk refused to understand his guide’s northern dialect. The name Ashmore evoked nothing but stubborn incomprehension.
Basil ran his fingers through his tangled hair. The tawny, sun-bleached mane badly wanted cutting. His amber eyes were dull with exhaustion, and as he thought of more days wasted in search of the missing Ashmores, his head began throbbing horribly.
Blast them! And blast his aunt as well. He wanted to be home in his own clothes and clean again. He wanted a familiar bed and familiar food. He thought longingly of London’s cooling drizzles, forgetting that the city would soon be hot and odoriferous. He yearned for the quiet, cool comfort of his club. He even recalled wistfully the rustic peace of Hartleigh Hall.
While he was in the midst of tormenting himself with these reflections, Gregor crept into the room.
“Zotir Basil,” he whispered.
Basil awoke from his reverie and gazed stupidly at his dragoman. “What? What is it?”
“We have found Zotir Ashmore. A local boy, Dhimitri Musolja, has taken the girl.”
“Taken her? Where?”
“Here, in the town, to his father’s house. We must go quickly. There is big trouble now and soon, maybe worse.”
Alexandra’s Albanian was not very fluent, but then, it was a difficult language. Papa theorized that it was traceable to the ancient Illyrian tongue, preserved, despite repeated foreign conquests, out of sheer obstinacy. For instance, while the Turks had held the country in an undependable state of submission since the death of the great Albanian patriot Skanderbeg, in the fifteenth century, only a handful of Turkish words had been absorbed. Albanian was Albanian still, and its inflections were Alexandra’s despair. Nonetheless, though her speech could send her woman-servant, the jovial Lefka, into fits of laughter, Alexandra’s understanding was quite good. Certainly she comprehended enough to follow the arguments going on in the room above.
The debate had continued all day, and their voices carried easily down to the shed where she waited, because they hadn’t troubled to lower them. The father demanded that the English girl be returned to her father. The brothers shouted about shame and disgrace. Even the mother pleaded with her favorite, her youngest son, while the other women of the household complained that the English girl was a witch. Had she not been forced to leave Tepelena because she made the young men crazy?
So the battle had raged while the English witch sat on the dirt floor of a shed that smelled strongly of goats, and tried to understand why men were so pig-headed. There was her normally logical Papa forcing two incompatible and unenthusiastic persons into marriage. Here was Dhimitri trying to force her to marry him. How on earth had she imagined Aunt Clem could help her out of such a pickle?
Morning heated up into afternoon, and afternoon darkened into dusk while the family battled on. The odds were against Dhimitri, but he was spoiled and headstrong. A while ago, he’d raved that if his family would not accept Skandara as his wife, he’d go away with her to live among strangers. He’d go, he shouted, to Pogradeç, and make his living by fishing in the lake. His mother shrieked. His father screamed at him to go and be damned, and the others made a deafening chorus. Then, suddenly, everything was still. She heard new voices break the silence. Her spirits rose, only to sink again. They were not familiar voices.
What if Papa and Randolph had been hurt...or killed, all because of a young man she’d thought was content to gaze adoringly at her as he sang his mournful little love songs? Who’d have guessed he’d dare abduct the daughter of Ali Pasha’s honored guest?
Evidently he respected the great Pasha as little as he did the mourning Alexandra still wore. Lefka had promised that would keep the men at a respectful distance, but it hadn’t.
Now nothing short of a miracle could save Alexandra from marrying the hot-headed youth. She’d be treated as a servant, a pack animal. She’d have to submit to his hot, eager embraces—and have his children! God help her, she’d kill herself first. She’d throw herself from a ledge. In Gjirokastra, after all, there were ledges aplenty.
A more delicate female than Alexandra Ashmore might have given way to tears. Certainly she had reason enough, but she refused to cry despite the horrible ache in her throat. She was wishing for her pistol — shooting herself was preferable to hurtling down from a precipice — when the door creaked open.
It was one of Dhimitri’s brothers. She didn’t know which, there being seven plus innumerable sisters, all of whom looked alike. Dhimitri stood out mainly because he was the giant of the family and understood a little English.
This brother was ordering her to follow him.
He led her up into the house proper and on to the large, sparsely furnished room where the family was accustomed to gather and were all gathered now: parents, siblings, spouses, and divers aunts and uncles. There was, moreover, another Albanian she didn’t know, speaking in the dialect of the north, and another man whose hair was sun-bleached gold. He must also come from the north, where so much of the population was fair, though his costume resembled nothing she’d seen before, north or south. For a moment, in the room’s dim light, he seemed a golden Macedonian, like those who centuries ago had swept down from the mountains. As he turned his tanned, beautifully sculpted face towards her, she noted that his eyes were very unusual. Amber, with a slight upward slant, they reminded her of the eyes of a cat.
They were watchful, too, like a cat’s eyes. As they lit upon her, the expression turned to one of joyful recognition, and she was astonished to hear him cry in cultured British accents, “Alexandra, my love, you are safe.”
Before she had time to think how to react, he crossed the room, threw his arms around her, and crushed her to him. The suddenness of the onslaught made her gasp, but sensing quickly the role she was to play, she took her lead from him and returned his hug with feigned enthusiasm. His ironic smile made her blush as he drew away from her to gesture towards their suspicious audience.
“My darling, I have been trying to explain to these good people that I am your own Basil, your betrothed, come at last to take you home to be my wife. The trouble is Gregor cannot make himself understood, and that angry young man over there”—he indicated an enraged Dhimitri, now being held back by three brothers—”seems to think that you are his intended bride. Would you, my sweet, be kind enough to explain to them how it is with us?”
Though it was a tad daunting to have what seemed like a hundred pairs of suspicious eyes fixed upon her, she began, in Albanian even more halting than usual. She was not quite sure what she said—nor were the members of the clan, as they tried to puzzle out her bizarre grammatical constructions—but it was something about being promised to each other for years.
Though the others appeared satisfied with this incoherent babble, a red-faced Dhimitri demanded to know why her father claimed she was promised to that other one. He meant, of course, Mr. Burnham. In response, Alexandra promptly invented some nonsense about Basil’s early poverty, and how he’d gone to seek his fortune. Basil smiled as his dragoman translated this with some difficulty, for she told the truth, all unwittingly. She went on to explain how she’d promised to wait for him. Her Papa wanted her to marry Mr. Burnham, but she didn’t want Mr. Burnham. Now, she told them, as she gazed up at Basil with what she hoped was a look of adoration, her own true love had come for her as he’d promised. There was more murmuring, as the assembled audience struggled with her garbled prose, and then there were sounds of agreement.
Her would-be fiancé now turned to her with a look of such passionate longing that she was momentarily breathless.
“I think, my love,” he said softly, “that the parents are happy to believe in our star-crossed love. But Dhimitri wants convincing.” As though unable to contain his feelings another moment, Basil wrapped his arms around her and kissed her.
It was not the make-believe kiss Alexandra was expecting, but a long, deep, dizzyingly thorough kiss that, when he’d finally done, left her stunned, overwarm, and breathing very hard.
Basil, meanwhile, was persuading himself that Dhimitri was still skeptical. Miss Ashmore was an uncommonly attractive young woman, surprisingly curvaceous under that shapeless black rag she wore. Though her chestnut curls were matted and her face was smudged with dirt and she did smell faintly of goats, he tightened his arms around her, preparatory to supplying more conclusive evidence.
Dhimitri’s anguished cry stopped him. “Mjaft!” the young man wailed. “Mjaft! Merre dhe largoju prej meje!”
Basil looked at Alexandra questioningly.
“He says, ‘Enough,’ and tells you to take me and go.”
“That’s a mercy,” was the muttered reply.
With one arm still about Miss Ashmore’s lovely shoulders, Basil hurried her out of the house.