I stare stupidly at the flask. The nun looks at Annith. "Was her hearing affected, do you think?”
“No, Sister.” Annith’s face is solemn, the picture of dutiful respect, and yet I am sure I can sense a faint spark of humor.
Sister Serafina turns back to me. “Piss,” she says, a little loudly in case Annith is wrong about my hearing. “I need you to piss into the flask so I can tell if you have any internal injuries.”
Mortification fills me at this request, but Annith gives me an encouraging nudge. I hurry over to the privacy of the screen and find a chamber pot. I lift my skirts, position myself, and pray I will hit the flask.
The nun speaks again. Her voice is low, but my hearing is sharp from so many years spent listening for my father’s moods.
“Did the reverend mother test her?”
“Yes,” Annith tells her. "With the wine.”
“Praise Mortain!” She sounds well and truly grateful, and I cannot for a moment imagine why. when I emerge from behind the screen, there is a look of exultation on her plain face. As she takes the flask from me, admiration shines in her eyes, as if she’s just discovered I am not simply a plow horse, but a finely blooded mare. “Annith will settle you in one of the beds while I mix a tisane to hasten your healing.” She is still smiling as she turns back to her worktable.
“Over here.” Annith’s hand is gentle on my elbow as she guides me to one of the beds. It is covered in clean white linen, and I am terrified of sullying it. “Take off your clothes,” Annith orders. “I’ll get you a clean shift.”
I remember the reverend mother’s command for obedience, but I find I cannot bring myself to do what she asks. Just as the dust from my ragged gown will mar the clean linens, I am sure the sight of my hideous scar will mar Annith’s view of me. I have known her for mere minutes, but already I am afraid to lose her affection.
She returns to my side holding a shift that bears the clean, crisp scent of lavender. Seeing me still clothed, her face softens. “Do you need help?”
“No.” I wrap my arms around myself. “It is just . . . I . . . my flesh is scarred and ugly and I don’t wish to offend.”
“Nonsense,” she says, and pats my arm. “Here at the convent of St. Mortain, we all have scars.” As she turns away to give me a moment of privacy, I cannot help but wonder what her scars might be.
I slip out of my old, torn chemise, certain I can still smell the reek of pigs where Guillo touched it.
“Matrona’s curse, was it?”
I flinch at Sister Serafina’s voice. Desperate to cover myself, I yank the new shift over my head so quickly that I become dizzy. I wait for the sensation to pass before turning to the nun. “Pardon me?”
She gestures to my back. "What your mother used, child. when you were in her womb.”
“I do not know the name of the herbwitch’s poison.”
“I do.” Her eyes are full of compassion. “Only Matrona’s curse would leave such a scar. Now, into bed with you.”
Annith hovers as I climb into bed, then leans over and tucks the covers around me. when she is done, Sister Serafina hands me a small cup of foul liquid she swears will make me feel better. I drink the tisane — which tastes of rotten berries and old hay — then hand the cup back. This feeling of being fussed over is new and I cannot tell if I like it or not.
Annith settles herself on the stool next to my bed, then glances over her shoulder to assure herself the nun has returned to her worktable. “You may not be able to tell,” she says in a low voice. “But Sister Serafina is delighted by your arrival. Other than herself, no one here is immune to the effects of poison, and she can scarce keep up with supplying the convent. It will most likely be one of your primary duties when you are healed, helping her in the workroom.”
"With poisons?” I ask, not sure I understand her correctly.
Annith nods, and I glance back at the nun, who is busy once again at the worktable. My head is full of more questions, but as I turn back to ask one, I realize that the bed against the farthest window is occupied.
At first, I am glad, glad I’m not the only one for them to fret over. And then I see that the other girl’s wrists are tied to the bed.
Panic rises in my chest, sharp and hot. It must show on my face because Annith turns and follows my gaze. “It is only so she won’t hurt herself,” she hurries to explain. “She was brought here three nights ago, thrashing and screaming. It took four nuns to restrain her.”
My eyes are drawn back to the girl. “Is she mad?”
“Mayhap. Certainly those that brought her here thought so.”
"Was she given the same test as I was?”
“She isn’t well enough to be tested yet, but she will be once she is better.”
When I look back at the girl, I see her eyes are open and she is staring at us. Slowly, she smiles. It is even more disturbing than her bound wrists.
I awake sometime later to a hand stroking my hair. The touch is gentle and comforting and I marvel at the sensation, a touch that doesn’t hurt. Clearly the tisane has worked.
“Poor poppet,” a low, throaty voice croons. Because I am half asleep, it takes me a moment to realize the voice is not Annith’s nor even Sister Serafina’s. I come fully awake then. The far bed is empty, the wrist ties dangling loose to the floor.
“Poor poppet,” the girl kneeling by my bed murmurs again, and fear stirs in my breast.
"Who are you?” I whisper.
She leans in closer. “Your sister,” she whispers back. Her words sear away the last dregs of sleep. Her hair is a wild tangle of midnight black falling down her back and shoulders. The faint moonlight reveals a bruise high on her cheek and a cut on her lip. I wonder if she got those from the nuns or if she had them when she arrived.
“Do you mean you were sired by Saint Mortain as well?”
She laughs softly, a terrifying sound that sends goose bumps scuttling across my skin. “No, I mean we have been sired by the very devil himself. So says my lord father.”
It is exactly what the villagers have claimed about me all my life, but I find the words no longer ring true. The reverend mother’s revelation has altered something deep inside me, awakened some hope that slumbered hidden all these years. Suddenly, I am eager to convince the girl that she is wrong, just as the reverend mother has convinced me. I push myself up so that I am sitting rather than lying. Her hand falls from my hair.
“Your lord father is wrong.” My whisper is so fierce it scratches my throat. "We have been sired by Mortain. Chosen by Him to do His bidding. Your father, the Church, they all lied.” As I stare into her haunted, broken face, I grow desperate to convince her, to take this small flame of promise from my chest and light it in hers.
A spark of interest flares in her eyes, then is quickly quenched. She cocks her head toward the door. “They are making the rounds. Farewell.” She jumps to her feet, then onto the bed next to me, and begins leaping her way down the row.
“Stop!” Sister Serafina cries from the doorway. The note of command freezes the blood in my veins, but the girl does not even pause. She leaps gracefully as a young deer, making her way to the open window, an almost playful glint in her eye. Two more nuns appear behind Sister Serafina, all of their attention focused on the escaping girl. “Stop, Sybella,” the tallest one calls out. Her voice is low and musical and as soothing as I imagine a mother’s caress would be. The fey girl falters, as if that voice has some power over her. with an effort, she leaps to the next bed, but her movements are slower, clumsier.
“If you stay,” the lovely voice continues, "We will find a way to give you back your life.”
The girl turns and anger flares in her eyes. “You lie!” She takes the last three beds in as many leaps and arrives at the window. without knowing why, I am afraid for her. I am certain that if she goes out that window, her madness will burn her up and leave nothing but bitter ashes behind.
"Wait!” I add my voice to the others. She stops, and the nuns grow still. everyone holds her breath. “Don’t you wish to learn the arts of Mortain?” I ask. “How to kill those who have done this to you?” I do not know why I am so certain someone has caused this insanity in her, but I am.
She is quiet so long I am afraid she will not answer, and then she does. "What are you talking about?”
“She has not yet spoken to the abbess,” the musical-voiced nun says. “She was too wild when she first arrived.”
“May I tell her then? If it will keep her here?”
The nuns glance among themselves, an unspoken conversation in which options are weighed. Finally, one nods. I turn to the girl. “Are you so eager to go back to where you came from? To your lord father?”
In the darkness of the bedchamber, the shadows on her face seem to deepen. “No,” she whispers. “But I will not be held prisoner by a clucking passel of busybodies who pry and poke.”
I glance uneasily at the nuns, but they are unperturbed by her assessment of them. “They mean well,” I assure her.
Her quiet laughter is so full of scorn it nearly curdles the air between us. “Good intentions are only lies the weak tell themselves. I will not be caged.”
But where else will she go? “They have promised to teach me of poison,” I say, hoping I am not getting Annith in trouble by revealing this. “And other ways to kill a man.” I share what the abbess told me, her words still bright in my mind. “They will train us in stealth and cunning and give us such skills that no man will ever be a threat to us again.”
Sybella turns toward me, a glint of interest in her eyes, but that is all I know of this new life I’ve been promised. I look helplessly at the nuns.
Annith steps easily into the opening I have made. “They will teach you of all manner of weapons,” she says, coming more fully into the room. “They will show you how to wield a dagger and a stiletto. How to shoot an arrow and draw a sword.”
“That is a lie,” Sybella says. “No one would teach a woman such deadly skills.” But I can see how much she wants to believe.
“It is not a lie,” Annith swears.
It is working. with her eyes on Annith, Sybella steps down from the bed. “Tell me more,” she demands.
“They will teach you how to caress a man’s throat with a garrote so that when he expects your soft lips, he will feel the deadly bite of wire instead.”
Sister Serafina speaks next. "We will teach you to make poisons.” Her voice is as gentle as the lulling waves. “Poisons that grip the gut and force a man’s life to dribble from him into a slop pail. Poisons to stop the heart or squeeze the humors from the body. Bloodwort to congeal the blood so it can no longer move through the veins. we will show you subtle poisons that take days to fell a man, and those that kill within seconds. And that is just to start.”
There is a long pause and we all hold our breath, wondering what Sybella will choose. when she speaks, her voice is so faint I have to lean forward to hear it. “Is there a poison that will make a man’s member shrivel and fall off?” she asks.
When Sister Serafina answers, her voice is full of a grim determination that makes me love her. "We will create one, you and I. Now, come. Get back into bed and we will tell you of all this and more.”
Sybella studies us for a long moment, then shrugs, as if staying here is of no consequence to her one way or the other. But we are not fooled. She comes to stand next to my cot. “Scoot over,” she orders.
Surprised, I look at Sister Serafina, who indicates it is up to me. I glance back at Sybella. Our hold on her is so fragile, I cannot say no. Besides, the convent bed is finer than any pallet I have ever slept on, and it is almost wide enough for two. I make room for her, and she crawls under my covers to lie down next to me. As we lie together in the narrow bed, the nuns lull us to sleep with gentle voices, singing their song of darkness and death.
When I wake, there is pale golden sunlight streaming into the room. I sit up, surprised to find I am alone. Not only is Sybella gone, but there is no nun clucking at the worktable or fussing with the beds.
Just as I am wondering what I am supposed to do next, Annith appears, as bright and lovely as the morning itself. She smiles when she sees I am awake and sets the tray she is carrying on the worktable. “How do you feel?” she asks.
I flex my arms, my toes, raise my shoulders against the soft linen of my shift. “Fine,” I reply, surprised that this is true. The healing tisane of Sister Serafina’s is indeed a small miracle.
"Would you like to break your fast?”
I find that I am starving. “Yes,” I say, and she brings the tray over to me. She hands me a tankard of small ale and a loaf of bread fresh from the convent ovens. There is even a pot of goat cheese. I spread the cheese on the bread and take my first bite. It is the most delicious food I have ever eaten. My hunger, which has been asleep for my entire trip across the kingdom, rises up now, and I devour the breakfast in a matter of seconds. Annith looks at me in concern. “Do you want more?”
I start to say yes, for I have learned never to say no to food, then realize I am already full. “No,” I say, pleased when I remember to add “thank you.”
Annith smiles and lowers herself onto a stool by my bed. As she smoothes her skirts around her knees, I long to ask her about Sybella, but I am afraid. Afraid of what might have become of her during the night. I feel a pang of guilt at my own peaceful slumber.
“Once you are feeling up to it,” Annith says, “you are to join Sister Serafina in her poisons workshop.”