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Brittany, December 1488
For most, the bleak dark months when the black storms come howling out of the north is a time of grimness and sorrow as people await the arrival of winter, which brings death, hunger, and bitter cold in its wake. But we at the convent of Saint Mortain welcome winter with open arms and hearts, for it is Mortain’s own season, when He is full upon us. In such a way does the Wheel of Life turn, with every ending but a new beginning; that is the promise Mortain has made us.
So while most people bar their doors and shut their windows tight, we have cause for celebration and go traipsing through the wood, gathering the sacred yew branches and collecting holly with its bright red berries that remind us of the three drops of blood spilled when Mortain was pierced by love and Arduinna’s own arrow.
And while Mortain is a far more gentle god than most people give Him credit for, I do not think He would look kindly upon His youngest handmaidens jousting with the sacred branches that are intended for His holy fire.
“Audri! Aveline! Stop that!”
“She started it,” Aveline says, peering out from under the pale red hair that has fallen across her eyes.
“No, I didn’t! You did. You always do. Because you’re good with swords and knives and fighting, you always want to fight.”
“Girls!” I clap my hands, wincing at how very much I remind myself of Sister Beatriz when she loses control of the womanly-charms lessons. “Enough. Audri, go help Florette. Aveline, you come over here with me.”
Thinking the other girl in trouble, Audri sticks her tongue out at Aveline, then hurries over to help Florette. Instead of scolding Aveline, I take her hand, lead her to a holly bush, and give her a knife. “You will fill that basket, and I will fill this one.”
Pleased at being given a blade, something normally reserved for older girls or the training yard, Aveline turns to the bush and begins cutting.
I keep my eyes on the leaves in front of me as I speak to her. “You are the oldest of the group, Aveline. There is no honor in besting those younger than you.”
She stops her cutting and turns her strange, solemn gaze on me. “Are you saying I should pretend to be weak so they can feel strong? Is that not telling a lie?” Before I can untangle her knotted logic, she shrugs. “Besides, she is nearly as old as I am and likes to show off by going without her cloak and shoes.”
I hide a smile, for it is true that Audri is quite proud of her ability to withstand cold. Not only does she not feel the wintry chill, but she does not suffer chilblains or deadened limbs when exposed to it. That is her gift for being pulled from the womb of a woman who had frozen to death in one of winter’s most savage storms. She is as impervious to the cold as one of the great white bears of the far north, and proud of it. “That may be true,” I concede, “but you have gifts every bit as glorious as hers and you constantly pick fights so that you may show them off.”
For a moment, the old familiar wave of loss and longing rears up and I catch my breath at the pain of it. Among the handmaidens of Death our birth stories are our most treasured possessions, marking us as they do as Death’s true daughters. But on the day that I was born, no cuckolded husband paced nearby, no herbwitch pulled me from a cold, dead womb, nor did any hedge priest administer the last rites to a dying mother while I rooted futilely at her breast.
Or at least, I think not, for the truth is that I do not even know the day on which I was born. I do not know the manner of my birth, the name of my mother, or even if she still lives, although we think she must not, else I would not have ended up on the convent’s doorstep when I was less than a week old. Of all the women whose feet have pattered along these stone floors, I am the only one to have no inkling of the circumstances of my own birth.
It is like an itching, festering wound I have trained myself not to scratch. But some days the pain and burn of it are nearly beyond bearing. Especially when I am confronted with a cocksure nine-year-old who is blessed with reflexes so fast she has been known to snatch arrows from their flight.
Aveline keeps her attention on the holly but watches me from the corner of her eye. “Does that mean you will let me fight you sometime?”
I cannot help it—I laugh. “You think you can best me?”
She lifts one shoulder. “I think I would like to know if I could or could not.”
At her words, my smile wobbles and it is all I can do to keep from throwing my knife down in defeat. Even this child thinks I am no longer a match for her. I carefully avoid looking out at the ocean, just beyond the trees. It is too painful a reminder that both Ismae and Sybella have been sent to places I have not, have begun to fulfill their destinies while I am stuck here playing nursemaid to a gaggle of budding assassins.
I feel a tug at the corner of my gown and look down to find Florette standing there with wide eyes. “We did not mean to make you sad, Annith.”
“Oh, you didn’t, sweeting. I am just”—what? Feeling sorry for myself? Pining for my friends? Wishing fate had dealt me a different hand?—“eager to finish up with these branches so we can begin decorating.”
Her small face clears and she goes back to her own work while I move on to the next branch. It is hard—so hard—not to feel wasted, like a new sword that has been allowed to rust before it has ever been used. I tighten my grip on my blade, reminding myself that the abbess has assured me it is just one of Mortain’s many mysteries, why He has called the others first. If I ever come face to face with Him again, I shall ask why.
Politely, of course.
“Annith?” Aveline says.
“Are we supposed to chop at our branches like that?”
I look down, appalled to see the gouges and scars where I have hacked my knife, again and again, against the pale silver bark of the yew. Saints! “No! Of course not. It is simply that this knife needs to be sharpened.”
She arches one of her pale red brows at me, looking far older than her nine years.
“Annith! Look!” At the sound of Florette’s shouting, I turn around to find her pointing through the small copse of trees. Is it a crow? For I have promised to pay Florette if she alerts me whenever she sees one approaching. It is our little secret. In exchange, I change the sheets on her bed when she wets it and I tell no one, although I think many of the others suspect.
I hurry to the trees, my eyes scanning the sky, but I see nothing.
“No, not in the sky, in the water. It’s a boat.”
I jerk my gaze down to the horizon, where I see that Florette is correct: a boat is making its way to the island. There is a quick, sharp stab of fear in my gut until I see that the boat does not bear one of the ominous black sails that portend death. “Aveline, go find Sister Thomine and Sister Widona. Tell them a night rower has arrived. Audri, you stay here with the other girls and continue gathering the greenery.”
I slip my knife into the sheath at my waist, lift my skirts, and hurry across the rocky beach to the landing. There are two men in the boat, the rower and one other—a hedge priest, I presume. A girl sits between them. She is small, small enough that I do not think she can be older than Audri or Florette. As the boat comes steadily closer, I see that her hands are tied, and a rope is around her waist, securing her to the boat.
The night rower meets my furious gaze. “You can quit yer glaring, missy. We tied ’er up only so she wouldn’t jump into the water. Thinks she’s a fish, she does.” I blink in surprise and turn to the hedge priest for an explanation.
He nods in greeting. “It’s true. The locals sent her to Saint Mer at first, thinking she was one of theirs. But the abbess took one look at her and knew she wasn’t. Turns out, her mother drowned, but they found her in time to cut the child from her womb. Except then the father wanted nothing to do with her. Thought she’d caused the mother’s death.”
Her story, like most of the girls’ stories, twists my heart. So many mothers dead, so many daughters blamed. It is almost enough to make me glad I do not know the circumstances of my own birth. What sort of death did my mother suffer? What sins were blamed on me for daring to come into this world?
“Well, you’re ashore now, so untie her at once. What’s her name?”
The hedge priest shoots an uneasy glance at the rower as he unties her. “Melusine,” he says. The sailor lifts the sacred conch shell he wears around his neck to his lips.
When I roll my eyes, it is his turn to glare at me. “’Tis a bad-luck name, miss. Especially for us sailors.”
“It is a foolish name,” the hedge priest mutters.
Ignoring them both, I turn my attention to Melusine herself. “What do you think of your name?”
She looks up at me with eyes the exact color of the sea, and nearly as fathomless. “I like my name. I picked it myself.”
I smile. “Then I like it too. The names we give ourselves are always the best. Now, come.” I hold out my hand to her. The hedge priest carefully helps her to the bow, then over the side and onto the beach. The girl glances longingly over her shoulder to the sparkling blue water. I quickly grab her hand and pull her toward me. “You can go swimming later,” I tell her. “When it is not so cold.”
When I turn to escort Melusine back to the convent, I find a small knot of three girls watching us with large, curious eyes. Aveline arrives just then, breathless from her running. “Sister Thomine is teaching the others right now, and Sister Widona is tending to a mare who is foaling. They said you can see to the new arrival. You’ve done it often enough.”
And so I have.
I shoo the younger girls on to their next lesson a little early—comportment with Sister Beatriz. She will be annoyed, but her petty annoyances are a lesser concern than getting this newest girl settled. I do not think Melusine is injured or ill, but it is customary to have new arrivals thoroughly examined, for many come to us malnourished, beaten, or in other ways physically abused.
As I lead her down the hall, I try not to think of all the other novitiates I have escorted this way, novitiates who are even now serving Mortain in a much more glorious manner than I. I try not to think of Ismae, ensconced at court with her finery and weapons, doing the work she was born to do. I push away thoughts of Sybella, currently on her fourth assignment, with no word for well over six months. Although I did not escort Sybella down the hall—it took four full-grown nuns, two on either side of her, to be certain she did not injure herself or bolt.
No, I will not think of that now. I will not indulge in the weakness of doubt and self-pity. Even though the infirmary door is open, I rap softly on it so that our presence will not startle Sister Serafina. She often becomes so absorbed in her work that she forgets to eat or sleep or even, sometimes, where she is. “Sister? We have a new arrival today.”
Sister Serafina looks up from a long, complex series of tubing and flasks, a contraption of her own design she built in order to streamline her making of simples and tinctures. She peers over a coil of copper tube at us.
“Her name is Melusine, and she was mistakenly sent to the convent of Saint Mer. Apparently, she has an affinity for water.” I smile down at the girl so she will know this is meant without judgment.
Sister Serafina sets down a glass flask, wipes her hands on a linen towel, and studies Melusine. “Fond of the sea, are you?”
Once I have placed the girl in Sister Serafina’s capable hands, I leave the infirmary to inform the abbess of our new addition.
As I draw near her chambers, I hear voices coming from within. Hoping they have gotten word of Sybella or, better yet, word of some new assignment for me, I stand near the door as if merely waiting my turn to see the abbess, then lean my ear close.
“That is dire news indeed.” It is Sister Eonette who is speaking.
“It is most unwelcome,” the abbess agrees. “And could not come at a worse time.”
“Does it not worry you for other reasons?” Sister Eonette puts an odd emphasis on the word other, an emphasis that has me pressing my ear closer to the door.
“You mean other than Sister Vereda’s illness leaving us Sightless at a time when our young duchess is fending off angry suitors and trying to keep the French from sweeping in and claiming our duchy as their own? When our country is threatened by civil war and risking outright invasion?” The reverend mother’s voice is drier than the week-old bread we feed the pigs. My thoughts fly immediately to Ismae and Sybella and countless others out in the world. Without a seeress, how will we guide their hands? This will leave them exposed and instructionless when they can least afford to be.
“I should not have to point out to you that it is rare enough for one of Mortain’s handmaidens to take ill, even one as old as Sister Vereda. Does that not hint at some—”
“Enough!” The abbess’s voice slices through the air, cutting short the words I was so breathlessly waiting to hear. “You are not to share your doubts or concerns with anyone. Have Sister Thomine sent to my office immediately.”
There is a long, heavy pause that is finally broken by Sister Eonette. “But of course, Reverend Mother.” Her voice drips with sarcasm so sharp it is almost mockery. I expect the abbess to take her to task for it, to slap her or order her to do penance for showing such disrespect, but she does not.
The soft tread of Sister Eonette’s footsteps approaching the chamber door spurs me to action. Quickly, before she exits, I scamper down the hall, then begin walking toward the office so I am a good six paces away when Sister Eonette steps out. She glances at me. “She has a meeting with Sister Thomine,” she tells me.
“Is Sister Thomine in there already?” I ask innocently.
“No, I am to fetch her.”
“I will only take a minute.” I give her a quick, cheerful smile meant to appease her, but she simply jerks one shoulder in an annoyed shrug. “Very well, but I warn you, she is not in good humor this morning.”
“Thank you for the warning, Sister.”
She nods curtly, then brushes past me to fetch Sister Thomine. With my head swirling full of questions, I rap softly on the abbess’s door.
It has taken me well over five years to be able to enter this office without my heart racing in fear. I am pleased that today all I must fear is that the abbess will sense my curiosity.
“Annith!” The abbess puts down her quill. Even though she smiles, it does not reach her eyes, and her skin is pulled tight with worry. “What a lovely surprise. Have we a meeting today that I forgot?”
“No, Reverend Mother,” I say as I curtsy. “I just came to inform you that a new girl has arrived, sent from the abbess at Saint Mer.”
“Ah, yes. The abbess had written to me of her.” She reaches for a small pile of correspondence and removes a letter from the top. “Her father thought her cursed and wanted nothing to do with her, so she was raised by her mother’s sister, until that woman died giving birth to her own child. Her name is Melusine.” The abbess wrinkles her nose at that. “An altogether frivolous and silly name.”
“The child chose it herself,” I explain. “Perhaps an attempt to grasp the very things that others feared her for and remake them as something lovely and mysterious.”
The abbess looks up at me. “You are most likely correct, and very kind to have thought of that. She may keep it, then.” She leans back in her chair. “You have such a deft touch with newly arrived girls, I wonder if we should have you serve as our novice mistress. At least until you are called by Mortain.”
We have not had a novice mistress in years, not since the abbess herself—then known as Sister Etienne—held that position under the former abbess, whom we called the Dragonette.
She arches her brow, her mouth quirking in rare humor. “Since you look as if you have just swallowed a cup full of verjuice, I gather that you are not much pleased by that idea.”
“While I do enjoy helping with the new girls, I fear that if I were to focus solely on that, my other skills and reflexes could easily grow dull so that I would not be ready when Mortain’s call did come.”
It was the abbess who kept me from despair when Ismae was sent out and I was once more left behind. She assured me it could have nothing to do with my skills or dedication, for who was more skilled or dedicated than I? Clearly, it was some whim of the god. She was certain He was saving me for something extraordinary.
“Very well, then. But from what I hear, you have surpassed many of your teachers in their fields.”
I cannot help but savor her praise. Not because she is stingy with it—she is not—but because I so desperately need it to fill the hole that opened up inside me the day Ismae was chosen over me.
Perhaps fearing the praise will go to my head, the abbess changes the subject. “And how are preparations for midwinter coming along?”
“Aveline and Loisse have both grown so much that they need new white cloaks, but Sister Beatriz is taking care of that. She has assured me they will be ready by the midwinter ceremony.”
“And how does young Audri fare?”
“She is fine. The fumes from the mandrake root only made her sick. Sister Serafina says she will fully recover. Her appetite is good, her bodily humors are in balance, and she sleeps deeply, with no nightmares or other problems. She should be ready to join the others for lessons as soon as this afternoon, if you wish.”
“Make it so, then. There is no reason to keep her idle. And Lisabet? How is she?”
I smile. “Also fine. Indeed, she has found a new way to mimic death and is much pleased with herself.”
The abbess sighs, as if bracing for the worst. “And Loisse’s arm?”
“As you suspected, the fall from her horse did not break her wrist, merely sprained it. She also will be well enough for the midwinter ceremony, although she will have to carry her torch with her left hand.”
“That will ruin the symmetry.”
I try to keep the surprise out of my voice. “You would rather she did not participate?”
She waves her hand. “No, no. It is just a minor annoyance, an imperfection that cannot be helped.”
“She will not try riding her horse while standing up again, I assure you.” I do not tell her that Loisse was doing it in an attempt to match my own skills, as there is no legitimate reason for an assassin to ride in that position, and I fear the abbess will recognize it as sinful pride.
“Very well. Thank you, Annith.” She picks up her quill, my sign that I am dismissed. I curtsy once more, then turn to leave the chamber, but pause when I reach the door. A question hovers on my lips, but before I can ask it, the abbess speaks. “I will save you a trip to the rookery,” she says without looking up from her work. “There has been no word from either Ismae or Sybella.”
“Thank you, Reverend Mother,” I say as I close the door behind me. I am touched by how well she knows me, that even with her own problems weighing so heavily upon her, she takes the time to reassure me. For her problems do weigh heavily upon her, I realize. It was clear in the tightness around her eyes, and the grim set to her mouth. She has always been the strongest among us. Even when the great tragedy struck our convent seven years ago, she was the one to keep her head and move us forward when others were wont to wail and wring their hands.
Sister Eonette’s veiled insinuations have plucked at my long-held vigilance, and seeing the abbess’s distress causes every muscle in my body to grow tight. The need to know what is afoot is like a small hungry creature yapping at my heels.
I quickly check the hallway to be certain no one is coming, then dart into the short corridor hidden behind a tapestry of Saint Arduinna pointing her silver arrow at the dark, cloaked figure of Mortain. It leads to the small, private chapel that opens into the abbess’s office. Few know about it, and I only learned of it because once, when I was five years old and locked in the wine cellar as punishment, I had overheard Sister Appollonia and Sister Magdelena discussing it, neither of them realizing my big ears were merely one thick door away.
It is a habit I developed when young, collecting secrets like a miser collects coins. I would never have survived my years with the Dragonette if I had not read every scrap of paper that crossed my path, listened at every door, and peered through every keyhole, trying to determine what she expected of me so I could meet those expectations as soon as possible and avoid the painful consequences of disappointing her.
Even though the Dragonette has been dead these last seven years, I have not been able to cast the habit aside. But, just like a miser with his coins, I have no intention of ever parting with any of these secrets. Instead, I use them to soothe the raw and chafed places of my soul and remind myself that others at the convent, others with skills more remarkable than my own, also possess human flaws.
I push aside the tapestry that hides the chapel door, then carefully lift the latch and let myself in. I settle into position just as a sharp rap sounds on the abbess’s office door. “Come in.” The abbess’s voice is faint but distinct.
Both Ismae and Sybella possess the ability to sense the presence of others, even when a door or a wall stands between them. It is yet one more gift that I lack. However, I have learned to compensate by growing adept at recognizing the nuns without seeing them. Sister Beatriz has a light tread, as if dancing on the balls of her feet, while Sister Widona moves so silently, one almost feels her movement rather than hears it. Sister Serafina drags her left foot every so slightly, and Sister Thomine is a great stomper, with loud, sturdy steps that can be heard four rooms away. Unless she is fighting—then she is as silent as the wind and as deadly as an arrow.
“You sent for me, Reverend Mother?” I hear Sister Thomine say.
“Close the door, please.”
A faint click of the latch as it is closed, then quiet. “How are Matelaine and Sarra coming along in their training?”
There is a long pause that makes me think that whatever Sister Thomine was expecting, this was not it. “Well enough,” she says at last. “Sarra is skilled and competent, but also lazy and unwilling to push herself. Matelaine has less natural talent, but is far more committed. Unfortunately, her unique skills do not aid her in her tasks. Why do you ask? They are young yet. Surely the next one to be sent out is Annith?” I wish to hug Sister Thomine for giving voice to the thoughts in my head.
“Sister Vereda has taken ill.” The abbess’s words are clipped. “She is too ill to See for us anymore. I think Annith may be called upon to take the seeress’s place.”
At first, the words do not make sense to me—it is as if the abbess has begun speaking in some foreign tongue I have never heard. Or as if the thick wall between us has inexplicably distorted her words. But a faint trembling begins in my gut and spreads throughout my limbs, as if my body understands the words before my mind does.
“But Annith is our most skilled novitiate in years. Frankly, I am surprised you sent Ismae out before her, as Ismae had been here only three years and Annith has trained her entire life. Why would we waste those skills by having her be seeress?”
I hold my breath, waiting to hear the answer.
“I do not remember putting you in charge of such decisions.” The abbess’s voice is as tight as a newly stretched drum skin. “Annith has excelled in every task we have set before her. There is no reason to think that augury will be any different.”
There is a short pause before Sister Thomine speaks again, this time so softly I can barely make out the words. “But will she welcome that fate? Again, she has trained since she was a babe to be an instrument of Death. Indeed, I believe that is what allowed her to survive her years with the Dragonette—”
“Enough!” The abbess’s voice cracks across the room like a whip. “She is obedient and accommodating and always has the convent’s best interests at heart. She will do as she is told. See to it that Matelaine’s and Sarra’s training is increased so they will be ready if we must send them out. For too long we have focused on training the eldest novitiates and have not spent enough time training the others.”
My heart pounds so loudly that I can scarce hear the abbess’s dismissal of Sister Thomine, and the sound of the office door closing feels so distant it could have come from the bottom of the sea. I grasp for the solid wall behind me, then slowly lower myself to the ground. What does she mean? How can she possibly—I put my hands over my face and scrub it, trying to restore my wits.
In all my seventeen years at the convent, it has never occurred to me that being seeress was a path open to any of us. Although, thinking upon it now, I realize the seeresses must come from somewhere. But I’d always assumed it was a position given to a nun when she was too old to perform other duties. Or—well, the truth is, I have not thought about it much at all.
And why would I? I have never shown any skill or affinity for scrying or augury. Nor have I ever been taught such things. I look down at my hands, surprised to find that they are still shaking. I clench them into fists.
The abbess cannot be serious. She herself said that I was one of the most skilled novitiates ever to have walked the convent’s halls. It cannot possibly be Mortain’s will, for if so, why would He have given me these talents? These skills?
For the first time in over seven years, I find myself wondering what the Dragonette would think of this if she were still alive. No, I do not need to wonder. I know—she would never have considered such a thing. It would be like fashioning a weapon and using it to stir a pot.
I do not even know if the abbess means this to be a great honor or a punishment.
No, not a punishment, but a tempering. That is what the Dragonette would have called it, her voice ripe with her palpable desire to create of me a perfect weapon, one whose existence would glorify Mortain.
Only now it appears this weapon is to be locked away, never to be used for the purpose for which she was intended.
I slip out of the chapel and being walking down the hall. I must come up with a plan. Find some way to dissuade the abbess from acting on this notion of hers. As I turn the corner, I stumble upon a small clutch of the older girls huddling and whispering among themselves. At my approach, their gazes fix on me like hungry crows on a gobbet of meat.
Merde, but I do not wish to speak with them now. Not with the abbess’s threat still buzzing in my head like angry hornets, for this news has upended me as thoroughly as one of the lay sisters empties a bucket of wash water.
My long years of training rise up and take over, and I shove my distress and confusion behind a veil of piety and obedience. “Girls,” I murmur in a near perfect imitation of the abbess.
Sarra grits her teeth; she hates me most when I act thus, but Matelaine and Loisse greet me warmly.
“Do you know what all the furtive meetings with the abbess were about?” Matelaine asks as she and Sarra fall into step beside me.
It galls me to have to pretend that they know something I do not, but I smile brightly at her. “No, I missed the fuss. What was it about?”
Sarra lifts one eyebrow and places a mocking hand upon her chest. “Do not tell me that we know something that Saint Annith does not?”
In a movement that shocks me, my hand snakes out and grabs her wrist. “Call me saint again and you will see just how saintly I am not.” My voice is low and filled with anger that has little to do with her.
The begrudging admiration I see in her eyes surprises me almost as much as my own actions. I let go of her hand and take a deep breath. Everyone thinks that my goodness comes easily to me, that it hardly counts because I do not struggle with it, but I do. Just like rosary beads run through a priest’s fingers, so does a litany of goodness run constantly through my head: Be strong, be certain all your actions glorify Mortain, show no weakness, allow your will to bend before others’.
It is especially appalling to be called a saint when I fear that my being so obedient is the very trait that threatens to alter the entire course of my life. I force my voice back to cheerfulness. “Now, you’d best fill me in so that I may know it too.”
Sarra’s smugness disappears and is replaced by sullenness. “I do not know what it was about, only that there was a fuss. I was hoping you would have the details.”
“No, but give me a day or two and I am certain I can ferret them out.” And with that, we reach the refectory, where we put our spat aside lest the nuns notice it and get involved.