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Authors: Philippa Gregory

Tags: #Fantasy, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Historical, #Chick-Lit, #Adult

The Wise Woman

BOOK: The Wise Woman
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Chapter 1

In my dream I smelled the dark sulphurous stink of a passing witch and I pulled up the coarse blanket over my head and whispered, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us” to shield me from my nightmare of terror. Then I heard shouting and the terrifying crackle of hungry flames and I came awake in a rush of panic and sat up on my pallet and looked fearfully around the lime-washed cell
.

The walls were orange and scarlet with the bobbing light of reflected flames, and I could hear yells of angry rioting men. I knew at once that the worst thing had happened. Lord Hugo had come to wreck us, Lord Hugo had come for the abbey, as we had feared he might come, since King Henry’s visitors had found us wealthy and pretended that we were corrupt. I flung on my gown and snatched my rosary, and my cape, crammed my feet into my boots, tore open the door of my cell, and peered into the smoke-filled corridor of the novitiate dormitory
.

The abbey was stone-built, but the rafters would burn, the beams, and the wooden floors. Even now the flames might be licking upward, under my feet. I heard a little whimper of fear and it was my own craven voice. On my left were the slits of open windows, and red smoke swirled in through them like the tongues of hungry serpents licking toward my face. I peered out with watering eyes and saw, black against the fire, the figures of men crossing and re-crossing the cloister green with their arms full of treasures, our treasures, holy treasures from the church. Before them was a bonfire, and while I watched incredulously these Satan’s soldiers ripped off the jeweled covers and threw the fluttering pages of our books into the flames. Beyond them was a man on a big roan horse—black as death against the firelight, with his head thrown back, laughing like the devil: Lord Hugo
.

I turned with a sob of fear and coughed on the smoke. Behind me were the single cells where the young novitiates, my sisters in Christ, were still sleeping. I took two steps down the corridor to bang on the doors and scream at them to awake and save themselves from this devil inside our gates and his fiery death of burning. I put my hand out to the first door, but the smoke was in my throat and no sound came. I choked on my scream, I swallowed and tried to scream again. But I was trapped in this dream, voiceless and powerless, my feet wading through brimstone, my eyes filled with smoke, my ears clogged with the shouts of heretics wrecking their way to damnation. I tapped on one door with a light hand. I made no sound
.

No sound at all
.

I gave a little moan of despair and then I picked up my skirts and I fled from my sisters, from my duty and from the life I had chosen. I scuttered down the breakneck spiral staircase like a rat from a burning hayrick
.

The door at the foot of the stairs was barred; beside it was the cell where my mother in Christ, the abbess Hildebrande, slept. I paused. For her above them all, I should have risked my life. For all of my young sisters I should have screamed a warning: but to save Mother Hildebrande I should have burned alive and it would have been no more than her due. I should have banged her door off its hinges, I should have screamed out her name, I should never, never have left without her. She was my guardian, she was my mother, she was my savior. Without her I would have been nothing. I paused for a moment—a bare half second I gave her—then I smelled smoke spilling under the refectory door and I flew at the bolts on the back door, rattled them open, and I was out in the west garden with the herb-beds around me cool and pale in the darkness
.

I could hear the shouts from the heart of the abbey but out here in the gardens all was clear. I raced down the formal garden paths and flung myself into the slim shadow of the door in the outer wall and paused for one moment. Over the rapid thudding of my pulse I heard the noise of the colored windows cracking in the heat and then the great crash as they were smashed by a thrown candlestick or silver plate. On the far side of the door I could hear the river flowing, splashing over the stones, showing me my way back to the outside world like the pointing finger of my own especial devil
.

It was not too late, I was not yet through the door. For a second, for half a breath, I paused, tested my courage to go back—pictured myself hammering on the doors, breaking the windows, yelling for my mother, Mother Hildebrande, and my sisters, and facing whatever was to come at her side, with her hand in mine, and my sisters all around me
.

I waited for no more than a moment
.

I fled out of the little garden door, and slammed it shut behind me
.

No one saw me go
.

Only the eyes of God and His Blessed Mother were on me. I felt their gaze burning into my back, as I kilted up my skirts and ran. Ran from the wrecked chapel and the burning abbey, ran with the speed of a traitor and a coward. And as I ran, I heard behind me a single thin scream—cut off short. A cry for help from someone who had woken too late
.

It did not make me pause—not even for a second. I ran as if the very gates of hell were opening at my heels, and as I ran, leaving my mother and my sisters to die, I thought of Cain the brother-killer. And I believed that by the time I came to Bowes village the branches of the trees and the tendrils of the ivy would have slashed at me as I ran—laid their stripes upon me—so that I would be marked forever as Cain, with the curse of the Lord
.

Morach was ready for her bed when she heard the noise at the door of the hovel. A pitiful scratch and a little wail like a whipped dog. She waited for long moments before she even stepped toward the threshold. Morach was a wise woman, a seer; many came to her door for dark gifts and none went away disappointed. Their disappointment came later.

Morach waited for clues as to her visitor. A child? That single cry had been weakly, like an ailing bairn. But no sick child, not even a traveling tinker’s brat, would find the courage to tap on Morach’s door during the hours of darkness. A girl thickening in the waist, slipped out while her heavy-handed father slept? A visitor from the darker world, disguised as a cat? A wolf? Some misshapen, moist horror?

“Who’s there?” Morach asked, her old voice sharp.

There was silence. Not the silence of absence, but the silence of one who has no name.

“What do they call you?” Morach asked, her wit quickened by fear.

“Sister Ann,” came the reply, as low as a sigh from a deathbed.

Morach stepped forward and opened the door and Sister Ann slumped into the room, her shaven head glinting obscenely in the guttering candle’s light, her eyes black with horror, her face stained and striped with smuts.

“Saints!” Morach said coolly. “What have they done to you now?”

The girl swayed against the door-frame and put out a hand to steady herself. “They’re gone,” she said. “Mother Hildebrande, the sisters, the abbey, the church. All gone. Burned out by the young lord.”

Morach nodded slowly, her eyes raking the white, stained face.

“And you?” she asked. “Not taken for treason or heresy? Not seized by the soldiers, by the young Lord Hugo?”

“No,” she said softly, her breath like a sigh.

“You ran,” Morach said flatly, without sympathy.

“Yes.”

“Anyone see you? Anyone follow you here? Anyone coming behind to burn
me
out, as well as you and your saintly sisters?”

“No.”

Morach laughed as if the news gave her especial, malicious, pleasure. “Ran too fast for them, did you? Too fleet of foot for the fat soldiers to follow? Faster than your sisters, I’ll be bound. Left them to burn, did you? While you hitched up your skirts and took to your heels? That won’t get you into the sacred calendar, my little martyr! You’ve lost your chance now!”

The girl bowed her head at the mockery. “May I come in?” she asked humbly.

Morach stepped back, eyed her brightly. “To stay?” she asked conversationally—as if the world were not black as pitch outside her door and a wind with rain at the back of it howling down the valley, gathering speed in the darkness.

Sister Ann nodded, dumb with weariness.

“For long?” Morach jibed.

She nodded again. The dark smears on her bare head and face gave her the look of an old striped plow ox.

“Coming back to live here?” Morach asked, covering old ground again for the pleasure of reviewing the landscape.

Ann raised her head. “Will you take me back?” she asked. “My vows are broken—I was not obedient. I ran when the soldiers came—I am a traitor and a coward. My house is broken up and my sisters are dead or worse. I am nothing. I am nothing.”

She paused for a moment. “My mother is dead,” she said very low. “Mother Hildebrande, the abbess. She will be in paradise this night, in paradise with all her daughters, with all her true daughters.” Sister Ann shook her head dully. “This is the only home I have ever known except the nunnery. Will you take me back, Morach?”

Morach paused a moment. The girl was coming back, she had known it the moment she let her cross the threshold. But Morach was a woman whose skills led her to savor each moment.

“I might,” she said, consideringly. “You’re young and strong, and you have the Sight. You were my changeling child, left on my doorstep in the darkness of the night. I trained you as my apprentice, and I would have made you the next wise woman after me, but you chose the nuns. I’ve not replaced you. You could come back.” She stared at the pale sullen face, the clear shape of the bones. “You’re lovely enough to send a man mad,” she said. “You could be wed. Or we could sell you to a lover.”

Sister Ann kept her gaze down, her eyes on her muddy boots and the filthy rushes on the earth floor. Then she looked at Morach. Her eyes were not black but a dark, measureless blue. “I am the bride of Christ,” she said bluntly. “I can wed no man. I can use no dark arts. There is nowhere for me to go, and I have broke my vows; but I was made a bride of Christ for life, and I am a bride of Christ still. I will be His until the day I die. I will never have any man. I will never use the skills of the devil. I am your apprentice no more.”

She turned her face from the smoking light and took one step toward the door. A sharp scud of rain rattled through the open door and into her face. She did not even blink.

“Come in!” said Morach irritably. “Away inside! We’ll speak of this more. We’ll speak of this later. But you can go no further tonight.”

She let Morach take her by the arm, lead her to the little fire in the center of the room where the banked-down embers glowed under the peat.

“Sleep here,” Morach said. “Are you hungry? There’s porridge in the pot.”

She shook her head and, without another word, sank to her knees before the fire, her hand fumbling in her gown for her beads.

“Sleep, then,” Morach said again, and took herself up a rickety ladder to the loft which spanned half of the room.

From that little aerie she could watch the girl who did not sleep for a good hour, but knelt before the cooling fire and prayed very earnestly, moving her lips and telling her beads. Morach stared down at her, noting the clear, lovely profile of the girl against the dying fire. Morach pursed her lips. She had been a pretty baby, a lovely girl. Pity for her stirred in Morach and was instantly suppressed. She remembered Alys as a toddler laboring up the hill with a wooden pail of water from the river, her hands blue with cold, her face strained. At the threshold of the cottage she had stumbled and fallen, spilling all the water that she had lugged so painfully up the hill. Morach had instantly cuffed her hard on one side of her face and then the other.

She had not wept like a little girl. She had stared back at Morach with her dark blue eyes bright with anger and the mark of fingerprints starting to show on her white cheeks. Morach had smiled at her then, acknowledging the power of her. But she had sent her back for another pail of water nonetheless.

It was a hard world in Morach’s view, she served no one by indulging the child, and besides, Morach’s nature was never tender. Any sweetness in her had been scoured out long ago. She had no gentle love for Alys—but she taught her all she knew, the bad with the good. Morach’s knowledge of herbs, her half-learned, half-invented spells, her powers of hypnotism, the skill to read a person’s mind—she taught them all to Alys, her child-servant, her apprentice. Magic, bitterness, anger, and the old female power—Alys had them all from Morach, when perhaps all she had ever wanted was love.

In the shelter of a dirty nest of torn blankets, Morach pulled out a bag of carved white bones, and in the light of the smoking tallow candle spilled out three of them and summoned what powers she possessed to see what would become of Sister Ann the nun, now that she was Sister Ann no more.

BOOK: The Wise Woman
10.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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