Baccarin felt for the daggers beneath his cloak, unsure of the welcome he might receive. The gate was raised, yawning like the jaws of a stone-toothed giant. No one stepped out to greet him. He led his donkey inside, aware of the clip of her hooves on cobbles and the muted strength of the wind.
‘A little further, Eleanor, then you shall have shelter and all the hay your fat belly can take.’
Baccarin’s beard itched beneath the scarf which muffled his face. He gave it a scratch for luck. Ice crystals met his touch; how often had men travelled this high into the mountains? He sucked in his breath then let out a long exhale. At last he’d found it, Bem Magdorum, The Well of Emeralds, his own private El Dorado. But it wasn’t what he’d expected. Here was no ancient ruin.
Houses rose all around, shackled to the sheer of the cliffs. Three stories high with black beams jutted among the plastered stones and mortar. Crafted from the same quarry as the wall which imprisoned them, their doors were barred tight, their windows bound by shutters. Baccarin stood in the centre of the lifeless square and looked around. Every door had a cross, daubed in yellow paint, as tall as a kneeling monk, as short as him. He reached up and rubbed behind Eleanor’s ear.
All about him he could see words: warnings plastered like incantations over stone walls.
‘Work, don’t play’. ‘Never cry’. ‘Laughter is forbidden’.
He shivered as he read the largest notice. In lettering as wide as a man’s thigh it read:
‘Children must be watched’.