Page 10

“Mother of Christ,” the nun continued.

“Pray for us…”

Lenobia repeated the phrase, but she was unable to quiet her spirit enough to close her eyes and bow her head, as were the other girls. Instead her gaze and her mind wandered.

“Pray for us…”

Three days left in the voyage, and Marie Madeleine says I cannot go to the cargo hold again.

“Mother of divine grace.”

“Pray for us…”

Martin! How am I going to get word to him? I must see him again, even if it means I chance another encounter with the Bishop.

“Mother most pure.”

“Pray for us…”

Lenobia’s gaze flitted to the group of men and the man in purple robes who knelt before them. Her eyes widened in shock. He did not have his head bowed and his eyes closed. He was staring at the statue, in front of which the nun was on her knees in prayer. His hands were not folded. Instead, one hand was stroking the shining ruby crucifix that hung in the middle of his chest. The other was making a slight but odd motion, just a flutter of his fingers, almost as if he were beckoning movement from something before him.

“Mother most chaste.”

“Pray for us…”

Confused, Lenobia followed the Bishop’s gaze and realized the priest was staring not at the statue but at the single thick pillar candle lit at the feet of Mary, directly in front of the nun. It was at that moment that the flame intensified, blazing with such a fierce intensity that wax seemed to weep from it. Then wax and flame joined as sparks, and fire exploded from the taper and cascaded onto Marie Madeleine’s linen habit.

“Sister! The fire!” Lenobia cried, getting to her feet to run toward Marie Madeleine.

But the strange fire had already become a terrible blaze. The nun cried out and tried to stand, but she was obviously disoriented by the flames that were consuming her. Instead of moving away from the wildly burning pillar, Marie Madeleine lurched forward, directly into the pool of burning wax.

Girls all around Lenobia were screaming and bumping into her, keeping her from reaching the nun.

“Get back! I will save her!” the Bishop yelled as he ran forward, purple robes billowing like flame behind him, with a bucket in his hands.

“No!” Lenobia screamed, remembering the lessons she had learned in the kitchen about wax and grease and water. “Get a blanket, not water! Smother it!”

The Bishop threw the bucket of water on the burning nun, and the fire exploded, raining flaming hot wax into the crowd of girls and creating panic and hysteria.

The world became fire and heat. Still, Lenobia tried to get to Marie Madeleine, but strong hands entrapped her waist and pulled her back.

“No!” she screamed, fighting to get away.

“Cherie! You cannot help her!”

Martin’s voice was an oasis of calm in chaos, and Lenobia’s body went limp. She let him pull her back out of range of the burning aft deck. But in the midst of the flames Lenobia saw Marie Madeleine stop struggling. Completely engulfed in flame, the nun walked to the railing, turned, and for an instant her gaze met Lenobia’s.

Lenobia would never forget that moment. What she saw in Marie Madeleine’s eyes was not pain or terror or fear. She saw peace. And within her mind echoed the nun’s voice, mixed with another that was stronger, clearer, and otherworldly in its beauty. Follow your heart, child. The Mother shall always protect you …

Then the nun stepped over the railing and purposely leaped overboard into the cool, welcoming arms of the sea.

The next thing Lenobia remembered was Martin ripping off his shirt and using it to beat out the flames that had been licking at her skirt.

“You stay here!” he shouted at her when the fire was out. “Don’ move, you!” Lenobia nodded woodenly, and then Martin joined the other crew members as they used clothes and pieces of sails and rigging to pound out the fire. Commodore Cornwallis was there, shouting orders and using his blue dress jacket to beat out pockets of fire, which now seemed to extinguish with an unnatural ease.

“I was trying to help! I did not know!” Lenobia’s gaze was drawn by the Bishop’s cries. He was standing at the railing, looking over into the sea.

“Charles! Are you burned? Are you injured?” Lenobia watched the Commodore hurry over to him just as the priest swayed and almost fell overboard. The Commodore caught him in time. “Come away from the railing, man!”

“No, no.” The Bishop shook him off. “I must do this. I must.” He lifted his arm, made the sign of the cross, and then Lenobia heard him begin the last rites prayer. “Domine sancte…”

Lenobia had never loathed anyone so much in her life.

Simonette lurched into her arms, pink and singed and sobbing. “What do we do now? What do we do now?”

Lenobia clung to Simonette, but she could not answer the girl.

“Mademoiselles! Are any of you injured?” The Commodore’s voice boomed as he waded through the group of weeping girls, pulling out those who had been closest to the flames and directing the ship’s surgeon to them. “If you are uninjured, go below. Clean yourselves. Change your clothes. Rest, mademoiselles, rest. The fire is out. The ship is sound. You are safe.”

Martin was lost in the smoke and confusion, and Lenobia had no choice but to go below with Simonette still holding tightly to her hand.

“Did you hear her, too?” Lenobia whispered as they made their way, trembling and crying, down the narrow hallway.

“I heard the Sister scream. It was terrible.” Simonette sobbed.

“Nothing else? You did not hear what she said?” Lenobia persisted.

“She said nothing. She only screamed.” Simonette gazed at her with wide, tear-filled eyes. “Have you gone mad, Lenobia?”

“No, no,” Lenobia said quickly, putting a reassuring arm around her shoulders. “I almost wish I was mad, though, so I would not have to remember what just happened.”

Simonette sobbed anew. “Oui, oui—I will not leave the room until we have reached land. Not even to go to dinner. They cannot force me!”

Lenobia hugged her tightly and said nothing more.

* * *

Lenobia did not leave her quarters for the next two days. Simonette needn’t have worried about being forced to the Commodore’s room for the evening meals. Food was brought to them instead. Sister Marie Madeleine’s death had cast a spell over them all, and the normal fabric of shipboard life had unraveled. The loud and sometimes bawdy songs the crew had been singing for weeks were no more. There was no laughter. No shouting. The ship itself seemed to have gone silent. Within hours of the nun’s death a fierce wind came up from behind them, caught the sails, and propelled them forward as if the breath of God were blowing them from the site of violence.

In their quarters, the girls were in shock. Simonette and a few others still wept on and off. Mostly they huddled on their pallets, talked in hushed voices, or prayed.

The galley servants who brought them food assured them all was well and that they would make land soon. The pronuncement evoked nothing but somber looks and silent tears.

All the while Lenobia thought and remembered.

She remembered Marie Madeleine’s kindness. She remembered the nun’s faith and strength. She remembered the peace she’d seen in her dying eyes and the words that had echoed magickally through her mind.

Follow your heart, child. The Mother shall always protect you.

Lenobia remembered Sister Marie Madeleine, but she thought about Martin. She also thought about the future. It was just before dawn of the third day that Lenobia made her decision, and she crept silently from the room that had begun to feel like a mausoleum.

She did not watch the dawn. She went directly to the cargo hold. Odysseus, the black and white giant of a cat, was rubbing against her legs as she got close to the stall. The horses saw her first, and both grays trumpeted greetings, which had Martin whirling around, closing the space between them in three long strides, and pulling her into his arms, hugging her close. She could feel his body trembling as he spoke.

“You came, cherie! I don’ think you would. I think I never see you again.”

Lenobia rested her head against his chest and breathed in the scent of him: horses, hay, and the honest sweat of a man who worked hard every day.

“I had to think before I came to see you, Martin. I had to decide.”

“What is it you decide, cherie?”

She lifted her head and looked up at him, loving the light olive of his eyes and the brown flecks that sparkled like amber within them. “First, I have to ask you something—did you see her jump into the ocean?”

Martin nodded solemnly. “I did, cherie. It was a terrible thing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Only her screams.”

Lenobia drew a deep breath. “Just before she leaped overboard she looked at me, Martin. Her eyes were full of peace, not fear or pain. And I did not hear her screams. Instead I heard her voice, mixed with another’s, telling me to follow my heart—that the Mother shall always protect me.”

“The nun, she was a very holy woman—one of much faith and goodness. Her spirit strong. It might have been speaking to you. Maybe her Mary she love so much speaking to you, too.”

Lenobia felt weak with relief. “Then you believe me!”

“Oui, cherie. I know there more to the world than what we can see and touch.”

“I believe that, too.” She drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders and, in a voice that surprised even herself by how grown-up she sounded, she declared, “At least now I do. So what I want to say to you is this: I love you, Martin, and I want to be with you. Always. I do not care how. I do not care where. But seeing Marie Madeleine die has changed me. If the worst that can happen to me for choosing to live by your side is that I die in peace loving you, then I choose whatever happiness we can find in this world.”

“Cherie, I—”

“No. Do not answer me now. Take two days after we dock, just like I took two days. You have to know for sure either way, Martin. If you say no, then I do not want to see you again—ever. If you choose yes, I will live by your side and bear your children. I will love you until the day I die—only you, Martin. Always only you; I vow it.”

Then, before she could weaken and beg him and hold him and weep, she walked away from him and picked up the familiar curry brush and entered the Percherons’ stall, caressing the big horses and murmuring endearments in greeting.

Martin followed her slowly. Not speaking to her or looking at her, he moved to the second of the two geldings and began working his way through the tangle of the horse’s mane. Thus he was hidden from the Bishop’s view when the priest entered the cargo hold.

“Grooming beasts—not a job for a lady. But then you are no lady are you, ma petite de bas?”

Lenobia felt sickness slick through her stomach, but she turned to face the priest whom she thought of as more monster than man.

“I told you not to call me that,” Lenobia said, proud that her voice did not shake.

“And I told you I like a fight.” His smile was reptilian. “But fight or no fight, when I am finished with you, you will be anything I desire you to be—bastard, whore, lover, daughter. Anything.” He moved forward, the light in the ruby cross on his chest glowing as if it were a living thing. “Who will protect you now that your shielding nun has been consumed?” He reached the edge of the stall, and Lenobia cringed, pressing herself against the gelding. “Time is short, ma petite de bas. I will claim you as mine today, before we get to New Orleans, and then there will be no reason for you to keep up this virginal charade and cower with the Ursulines in their convent.” The priest put his hand on the half door of the stall to open it.

Martin stepped from the shadow of the horses to stand between Lenobia and the Bishop. He spoke calmly, but he was brandishing a hoof pick in his hand. The lantern light caught it and it glistened, knifelike.

“I think you not be claiming this lady. She don’ want you, Loa. Go now, and leave her be.”

The Bishop’s eyes narrowed dangerously and his fingers began to stroke the ruby stones of his crucifix. “You dare speak to me, boy? You should understand who I am. I am not this loa you have mistaken me for. I am a Bishop—a man of God. Leave now and I will forget you ever attempted to question me.”

“Loa is spirit. I see you. I know you. The bakas has turned on you, man. You evil. You dark. And you not wanted here.”

“You dare stand against me!” the priest roared. As his anger grew, so too did the flames in the lanterns that hung around the stalls.

“Martin! The flames!” Lenobia whispered frantically to him.

The priest began to move forward, as if he would attack Martin with his bare hands, and two things happened very quickly. First, Martin lifted the hoof pick, but he didn’t strike the priest. Instead he wielded it against himself. Lenobia gasped as Martin slashed his own palm and then, as the priest was almost on him, he flung the handful of blood at him, striking him in the middle of his chest, covering the red jewels with living scarlet. And in a voice that was deep and filled with power, Martin intoned:

“She belong to me—and hers I be!

“Of loyalty and truth,

“This blood be my proof!

“What you do to her you do in vain.

“What you cast come back on you tenfold the pain!”

The priest staggered to the side, as if the blood had been a blow, and the geldings laid their ears back flat on their enormous heads and, with squeals of rage, struck out at him with their great, square teeth.

Charles de Beaumont lurched back, stumbling out of the stall, clutching his chest. He bent over and stared at Martin.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***