Catherine Fox retired to her wagon. She had been travelling now, under armed guard and the watchful eyes of Dame Mella Kalsten, for five days. The only concession to the tattered remnants of her status and the privilege to which she had been born, was that she had a private wagon in which to rest each night. Tomorrow they would arrive at Osterlin Abbey, a religious sanctuary which was ancient even before the Duchy of Astan had declared its independence from Menkalin, nine hundred years ago. There, Catherine was to be taught piety, honesty, sacrifice and humility, in pennance for the wantonness of her sinful afternoon with Erik van Barden and the shame it had brought upon her family.
Catherine lay back on the hard wooden boards of the wagon's floor with her hands behind her head on the makeshift pillow. A poorly-patched hole in the canvas cover allowed some starlight to filter into her wagon. Was that Lyris? she wondered, as she gazed at the star named for the Goddess of the lost and dispossessed, whose faint light was supposed to bring hope to those who needed it most.
“I am Lady Catherine Fox,” she whispered, in a weak attempt to fan the remains of her pride, “rightful heiress to the Duchy of Astan. Hope has fled me, Lyris, as it has fled the people I have failed. I pray not for myself, but for them. Grant them the hope they need at this darkest time in the land's history.”
She raised her left hand and drew some delight from the delicate tinkling sound her bracelet made. The light of Lyris sparkled on the silvery metal and seemed to trace the runes which were engraved into each of the links. Under the starlight the metal itself seemed to take on a faint blue sheen. This is certainly not silver, Catherine thought, but what could it be? She laid her hand on her stomach and heaved a sigh. Even the origin of the bracelet was outside her knowledge. One thing was certain. The Abbess of Osterlin would not allow her to keep this bracelet as such personal possessions were forbidden within the Sisterhood. Catherine must keep this small treasure secret.
Catherine closed her eyes and totally failed to sleep.
Thick fog swirled around the small caravan as they broke camp. Catherine shivered as the cold dampness seemed to seep through her fur-trimmed cloak and into her bones. Into her heart.
"Good morning, Catherine," Dame Mella said, more pleasantly than she had on the previous few mornings.
Perhaps she knows that she'll finally be rid of me today, Catherine thought glumly. But she answered with as much fake lightness as she could muster. "Good morning, Dame Mella. I trust you slept well."
The Dame, who usually had a sharp instinct for when Catherine was lying, seemed not to notice the forced jolity in the younger woman's tone. "I did," she replied, "until this mist arose in the night. It fair chills the blood." The Dame looked around, trying to peer through the fog, and abjectly failed to keep her eyes from meeting Catherine's. Finally, Dame Mella said, "I am sorry it has come to this pass, Catherine."
"You have nothing to apologise for, Dame Mella," Catherine replied, her voice gentle, though she could feel a sob scrabbling at the back of her throat. "My own wantonness and stupidity have brought me here. I ignored every one of your warnings and lessons. This is the punishment my father has decreed. It is what I deserve for having failed him, my mother, my people and," Catherine paused and just managed to prevent her voice breaking completely, "and you, Dame Mella."
The women gazed at each other for a long moment and, almost together, smiled sadly. Both would lose a great deal of their lives today. The Dame could remember the feeling of loss she experienced when her son had marched to war. What she felt now was like losing a daughter she never had. Catherine remembered all those times when Dame Mella had been like a sister to her.
The silence was broken as the sergeant heading the small detachment escorting Catherine to Osterlin called out "Mount up!" Catherine watched the soldiers swing into their saddles and the front of her wagon lurched as the driver climbed into the seat.
"May I ...?" Mella began, at the same moment Catherine said "Would you care ...?"
The women stopped mid-sentence and both stifled their embarrassed laughs.
"Please," said Catherine, "after you, Dame Mella."
"May I join you this morning, Catherine?" Mella asked, politely. "I think my poor horse needs a rest after five days of carrying me." She finished with a slight giggle and a look over her shoulder to where the sergeant was holding her horse's reins.
"Of course," Catherine replied. She held out her hand and helped the Dame climb up over the tailgate of her wagon.
The Dame turned to the sergeant. "I shall be travelling with Catherine this morning, Sergeant."
"As you wish, Dame Kalsten." The sergeant saluted and rode to the front of the column. One of his men gathered the horse's reins and, within moments, the party began travelling through the foggy morning.
Catherine and Mella managed a polite, if stilted, conversation for the first mile or so of the journey but gradually lapsed into a strained, uncomfortable silence, punctuated with occasional weak smiles between the two.
The caravan broke for lunch, to rest and water the horses and to allow the soldiers to ease the cramps from their muscles. The fog had not dissipated, if anything it had thickened and Catherine covered her nose and mouth with a silk handkerchief to prevent the cold dampness sidling into her lungs. She ate sparingly but gratefully accepted, with mannerly thanks, a goblet of cold spring water from a nearby stream.
Mella chose not to ride with Catherine when the caravan set off again. While she loved the girl as she would her own daughter, that love could not ease the anger in her heart for the ruin Catherine's recklessness had brought upon her family. Dame Mella mounted her horse and sat, side-saddle as a woman of her station should, and gazed at Catherine. The girl bit her lower lip and stifled the sob before closing the flap over the wagon's tailgate. Mella nudged her mount forward and joined the sergeant at the front of the small column.
Their arrival at Osterlin, perhaps an hour before darkness fell, was unheralded. Catherine felt the wagon creak to a halt and the horses let out a snort as they were finally allowed to rest. There was a polite knock on the tailgate.
“Catherine?” Mella asked.
“One moment, please, Dame Mella.” Catherine composed herself, smoothed the creases from her dress, and pulled open the flap from the rear of the wagon. One of the soldiers unbolted the tailgate and placed a short ladder firmly against the wagon. Catherine took Mella's hand and stepped carefully to the ground.
The fog not had eased during the afternoon and the air was still cold and damp. Catherine looked around. The walls of Osterlin Abbey rose sheer in front of her, the vast expanse of sandstone broken only by one huge gate. She wished for all the world that those walls could have been the walls of her castle, her home. But these were the walls of her prison. The gate creaked open and two black robed figures emerged and stood, waiting, with their heads bowed and hands clasped in front of their chests.
Let them wait! Catherine thought. She turned to the sergeant. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said. “You have been courteous, patient and dedicated to your task, as onerous as it must have been dealing with someone like me. I hope your men follow your example.” The sergeant lowered his head in a brief bow. Catherine looked at her lady in waiting. Former lady in waiting, she corrected herself. “Dame Mella Kalsten,” Catherine, though she had rehearsed, revised and planned her farewell speech, suddenly found herself at a loss for words. “Goodbye, my dearest friend,” she finished simply. With that, Catherine turned and walked, head high and straight-backed, towards the gate.
As she neared the gate, Catherine could see that the black robed figures were both women. They looked up as she approached. The shorter of the two smiled wanly, moved slightly to one side and gestured for Catherine to pass through the gate. Catherine took one faltering step forward and was brought up short by a cry from behind her.
“Catherine!” Mella called. She ran the short distance to her former charge and threw her arms about the girl in a strong, heartfelt embrace. A sob shook the older woman as Catherine returned the hug. Mella quickly recovered her composure and withdrew from Catherine, her right hand resting on her chest as she struggled to control her breathing. “I ...” Mella began, hesitantly, “I could not let you go with such a terse goodbye, Catherine.” Tears stained Mella's cheeks now and her voice was shaking as she continued. “Forgive me for my presumption, Catherine. I wish only to tell you that I shall do my best to care for your mother and father in the years that come. I shall miss you terribly.” Mella's courtly manners returned in a heartbeat and she was, once again, the paragon of decorum she had always been.
Catherine found it difficult to tear her gaze away from Mella's eyes and she looked slowly at the gate and up at the walls of Osterlin Abbey. “Worry not for me, Dame Mella. It takes a weight from my heart to know that you will be my mother's companion, now, after you wasted so many years looking after me.” Try as she might, Catherine could not find it in herself to ease her contempt for her father.
Mella made one last, long, low curtesy, the form she used for a woman of much higher status than her own. The form she used to a woman of higher status than Catherine's own former rank. Within the complex etiquette of courtly life, such a curtsey was used only to the Duchess of Astan herself. Mella straightened and, with great dignity, backed away from Catherine to rejoin the soldiers who formed an honour guard around her. She noted the look of bewilderment on the girl's face but betrayed no clue as to why she had used that curtsey.
A polite cough from behind Catherine interrupted the silence. The young woman turned to the two black robed figures, the shorter still gesturing through the gate, but now she could sense a faint impatience. The taller woman entered the gate first and Catherine suppressed a most unladylike shrug of resignation and walked through the gate. The shorter woman, who had almost waved Catherine through, followed behind.
“Farewell, Your Grace,” Mella whispered, as the heavy gates of Osterlin Abbey thudded shut.
The gates slammed shut behind her and the trio walked through the silent cloisters of the Abbey. Catherine could feel something scratch lightly against her back. She squirmed slightly and felt the object, flat and oblong, which had been tucked into the blue sash about her waist. Mella had hidden something there during their embrace. Catherine beat down the insatiable curiosity to find out what the object was.
They halted in a small antechamber, lit by delicately wrought brass lanterns and tall wax candles. “We are to wait here until we are summoned,” said the shorter of the two women. Her accent was not that of Astan, neither, thought Catherine, did it resemble Erik's northern accent. Was this woman from Mindas, to the west, past the Startop Hills, she wondered?
“Who are you?” asked Catherine, her voice almost pitifully weak. How much did these women know of why she was here?
“I am Sister Anna,” replied the shorter woman. “I took my vows to Our Lord Ahren last Summer. My companion,” she nodded slightly towards the taller woman, “is Sister Clara.”
Catherine turned to Sister Clara who smiled and said, quietly, “I have been in service here for seven years.” Clara sighed. “My duties to Our Lord Ahren have been labours of dedication, for which I ask no reward.”
Seven years! thought Catherine, bleakly. Though she had been born and raised in a castle that had stood seige and war for over nine centuries, Catherine could almost feel the oppressive weight of Osterlin's ancient stonework about her. Despair assailed her thoughts. I can never last seven years! I should go mad.
A bell tinkled gently from the next room. Sister Clara said, “The Mother Abbess is ready to see us now.” Anna pushed the door which swung open smoothly, without a hint of the creaks and grinding Catherine was accustomed to in the castle. Then Anna gestured, as before, that Catherine should step forward.
Catherine took a deep breath and walked through the door. There was only one place to go and, with as much confidence as she could muster, Catherine headed at a stately pace, towards the desk, behind which sat another black-robed woman. The two Sisters flanked Catherine, as if to prevent her bolting for the door, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
The Mother Abbess did not look up from her work. She was writing with a long white quill pen and the only sound in the room came from the light scratching of the quill over parchment.
Catherine glanced nervously to her left and right. The Sisters stood calmly, their hands pressed together as they had at the gate, as they waited patiently for the Abbess' orders. The silence was unbearable. Catherine struggled to hold her tongue as the Abbess continued writing. To calm her nerves, Catherine tried to read what the Abbess was writing, but the letters were somewhat obscure and she could make no sense of the words. Her heart was beating faster now, she felt she must say something, anything, to break the oppressive silence. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Thank you, Sisters. You may wait outside.” The Abbess' voice was rich and smooth and tugged at Catherine's memory. Where had she heard that tone, that inflection before? The Sisters to her left and right bowed slightly, turned and left the room. The door swung silently shut behind them.
Finally, the Abbess looked up from her writings and regarded Catherine with a coolness that made the girl's racing heart slow to its normal pace. Catherine shuddered as her breathing and pulse became controlled again. “I ...” she began.
“You will speak when you are spoken to and not before.” There was no anger in the Abbess' voice, though the richness had vanished and a coldness underscored her words.
Shocked, Catherine closed her mouth. A week ago, the Abbess would not have dared speak to Catherine like that. Her station had commanded respect then. Now, however, with her family in ruins and her status trampled into the mud, Catherine realised that her former status counted for nothing here. With a supreme effort of will, Catherine brought her fears under control and waited for the Abbess to speak again.
“Osterlin Abbey has stood for over fifteen hundred years,” began the Abbess. “In that time it has withstood war, rebellion and heresy. Faith in Our Lord Ahren has preserved Osterlin through every such trial and will do so for the next fifteen centuries.” She paused and looked the young woman in the eyes. “You, girl, are here to relearn that faith which seems to have deserted you.”
Unsure whether she should speak, Catherine merely nodded. But her spirit was screaming: My faith did not desert me. It was trampled into the bloody battlefield where my father, in Ahren's name, surrendered to Gastar d'Alcene.
“Your life here will be one of labour, dedication and worship,” continued the Abbess, “but it will not be without reward. Our orchards overflow with fruit, grain is carefully stored against the winter, and our bread fills the bellies of many of Astan's people.”
Liar! thought Catherine. Osterlin's bread fills the bellies of Gastar d'Alcene's men while our own troops fight his wars on empty stomachs. She carefully composed herself and hoped her rage would not betray her thoughts.
“These things, and many more, are the product of our labours here. We strive for the betterment of all those who worship Lord Ahren, those who have strayed from him and would return, and those who have never had his light shine upon them. When your faith is renewed and the warmth fills your heart as it should, you will know that your labours here have not been in vain. Such is your reward.”
There was a long silence between the two women. Finally, the Abbess said: “You may speak now, if you wish.”
Catherine took her time to answer. When she spoke, her voice was clear and calm as she told the most brazen lie of her life. “Mother Abbess, I am here to atone for my folly, my overweening pride, and the lust which heaped shame upon my family. I wish for nothing but to repair the damage I have inflicted upon innocent people. But I have not the strength to do so. You are right, Mother Abbess.” Catherine hesitated, deliberately, and faked a barely restrained sob. “My faith has been shattered these last five years. It seems I must rebuild my faith before I repair the damage I have caused.” Catherine looked down at the floor as she had during her father's many tirades in the castle's audience chamber.
“You have a long and arduous road ahead, I see. As with all journeys, the first step is often the most difficult. Can you take that step?”
Without looking up, Catherine whispered, “Yes, Mother Abbess.”
The Abbess' voice was almost chilling as she spoke. “You must renounce all names, titles, ranks and responsibilities you may have had before you came here. They are as nothing now. Your only repsonsibility is to Our Lord Ahren. You will follow his teachings, dedicate yourself to the duties set before you and thus rebuild your faith.” The Abbess paused. The girl still did not look up. “Your name is now Mary. You hold the position of Novice. Study, work and worship well, take your vows, and you will join the Sisterhood, to be one with Our Lord Ahren forevermore.”
At last, Catherine looked up and forced a weak smile. She assumed she was still forbidden to speak and so kept silent and gazed levelly at the Mother Abbess.
A bell rang, the same gentle, silvery tinkle that had summoned her into the room. But there was no bell on the Abbess' desk and neither had the woman's hands moved. Catherine was not surprised when, seconds later, Sisters Anna and Clara had entered the room and stood to either side.
“These Sisters are to be your guides for your first few days here, Mary,” said the Abbess. “They will see you are suitably accommodated, dressed and groomed.” There was a faint note of distaste in the Abbess' voice now, as she noted Catherine's waist-length blonde hair which had been tied into a rather unruly pony tail.
The Sisters bowed and Catherine sketched a hasty copy, while part of her hoped that it would not offend the Abbess too deeply and another, larger, part of her spirit hoped the Abbess would be insulted. With that, the three women retreated from the chamber and the door swung silently shut behind them.
Catherine was still unsure whether she should speak. The Sisters, it seemed, out-ranked her here and her years of courtly training dictated that, even in an unfamiliar place such as Osterlin, she should defer to her betters. They walked in silence for a few moments, following the corridors which were lit by chandeliers fitted with a dozen candles each. Occasionally they passed other women who were busily replacing the spent candles. All wore the same black robes but some had black wimples, while others, the Sisters among them, wore white. Anna and Clara almost swept past those women in black wimples, seemingly without noticing them, but nodded, bowed or even smiled at those in white.
They stopped outside a heavy wooden door, set with a small hatch at eye level and studded with dozens of verdegrised bronze nails. “Your cell, Novice Mary,” said Sister Clara.
“I beg your pardon?” Catherine said, shocked so much that she forgot she should not speak.
Sister Anna, behind Catherine, said, “Ah. We are sorry, Novice Mary. Our terms are perhaps still unfamiliar to you.” Catherine turned to the shorter woman, who continued. “Within the sanctuary of the Abbey, we each have our own sanctuary, for private prayer, study and meditation. While, I must admit, the word cell carries an ugly meaning in the world outside the Abbey, I am sure that, once you are settled here, you will come to see your cell as a source of comfort.”
Catherine turned from Anna back to Clara who had pushed open the cell door. The room was lit with a single lantern. It had bare stone walls and floor, a single hard wooden bed and a lectern with a leather stool. Spread on the bed was a black robe and the accompanying black headdress.
“You may take a few moments to dress, Novice Mary,” said Clara, “then we will help you with your grooming.”
Catherine stepped into her cell and pushed the door closed behind her. It swung shut with the same silence as had the Abbess' chamber door. For all of Anna's attempt at kindness and reassurance, cell was certainly a fitting term. She had seen the castle's dungeons once or twice and the only difference between this room and the prison cells was the lack of bars. Laid out on the small bed were her new black robe and matching wimple which she could see were woven coarsely from heavy wool. They looked to be intensely uncomfortable.
Catherine removed her cloak and hung it over the cell door, covering the hatch lest her guides may also be her spies. Then she set to work concealing her secrets. First, she removed the bracelet and took a moment to remember the afternoon she had spent with Erik. The pleasure and excitement were matched by the shame and guilt she felt. She hid the sparkling metal jewellery at the head of the bed beneath the thin mattress.
She fidgeted slightly and worked free the oblong package Dame Mella had tucked into the sash about her waist. A letter. A heavy seal of red wax held the letter closed. It was embossed with the head of a doe surrounded by a laurel of roses. Catherine had seen this symbol countless times on the ring her mother wore. The signet of the Duchess of Astan. Catherine realised she lacked the time to read the letter so she turned to the lectern, on which lay a leather-bound book, the Catechism of Ahren. She looked up at the lantern which dimly lit her room. “Thank you, Lady Lyris,” she whispered, “for this spark of hope unlooked for.” She smiled with a hint of girlish naughtiness then hid the letter in the Catechism.
After this, Catherine shed her dress and folded it neatly before slipping into the black robe of the Sisterhood of Ahren. It was not as uncomfortable as she had first feared as it was lined with softer cotton. What was beyond doubt, however, was that the robe was hardwearing and woven to withstand much hard labour. This robe was quite unlike that worn by the Mother Abbess, which had been much finer, and almost certainly, to Catherine's rather experienced eye for the quality of clothing, made of silk with heavier velvet on the cuffs of each sleeve. Rank within the Sisterhood, as well as within the nobility into which Catherine had been born, obviously had its privilege.
A knock on the door made Catherine spin on the spot.
“Novice Mary,” the voice, though muffled somewhat by the heavy oaken door, was unmistakeably that of Sister Anna, “may we enter?”
“Of course,” Catherine replied as she fumbled with the wimple.
The two sisters entered the room. “We can help with that, Novice Mary,” said Anna, as Sister Clara produced a pair of scissors from behind her back.
“Our Lord Ahren values purity of thought and spirit among his followers,” Clara said, almost apologetically as Catherine tried to stifle a gasp of horror. “To wear your hair in such a way is to appear to the Lord Ahren as nought but a common harlot. Hardly the ideal we aspire to.” Sister Clara paused, before continuing in her gentlest tone. “Please, Mary. Kneel at the lectern and read the first page of the Catechism. It will be done in no time.”
Catherine did as she was told. There was nothing she could do to prevent this, short of fighting her way out of the Abbey and fleeing into the countryside. How would she survive then? She knelt and opened the heavy book. Much of the Catechism had already been instilled in her over years of education and indoctrination. While her studies in her land's history, society, traditions and politics had been the most important of Dame Mella's lessons, her lady in waiting had always made time for Lord Ahren's teachings and legends.
Catherine opened the book and read aloud, though quietly. She concentrated on each word and carefully pronounced each syllable. The reading helped her ignore, if not banish, the sound of the scissors cutting away her waves of blonde hair. At the end, Sister Anna placed the wimple gently on Catherine's head and fastened the button under her chin.
“Perfect,” lied Catherine. Her hair had been cut short, to the nape of her neck. She had been but six months old when her hair had last been that short.
“We shall leave you now, Novice Mary. You should be aware that you are required to keep your cell clean and tidy at all times.” Clara gestured towards the floor, at the soft curls of Catherine's hair that lay there, gold against the dark stone. “We shall see you for first prayers in the morning.” With that, the two Sisters left Catherine alone in her cell and closed the door silently behind them.
It took Catherine a long time to master the despair she felt. Her heart raced, her breath was short and ragged and she could feel tears welling in her eyes. She blinked them back and turned to the back of the Catechism of Ahren, where she had hidden the letter.
Gingerly, Catherine turned the letter over in her hands and felt something slip within its folds. She stared at the seal and thought, with misery, of the home she had left behind. Catherine opened the letter and something heavy dropped onto the lectern. Her breathing quickened as she picked up her mother's ring, whose engraving matched the seal she had just broken. She read her mother's graceful, flowing script:
I write with heavy heart on this, the day I have learned of Gastar d'Alcene's plans for you and our family. He has plotted our humiliation for many years, spurred on by his ancestral hatred for Duke Stephan and all his descendents, the last of whom is you, Catherine. Gastar sought not only to brutalise you, to hurt and ruin you, but to have you bear his son's children and poison our line with his.
Your actions today have ruined Gastar d'Alcene's plans. Now he cannot have what he wants the most, a legitimate heir to the Duchy of Astan. Any mongrel or bastard he puts on our throne, his own son included, will not have that claim. Sadly, the new Duke will rule here through fear, oppression and the needless deaths of innocent people. He will not grind our people into the mud. They are brave, resourceful and determined and they will not surrender to his cruelty.
The power to reverse this injustice is within you, as you so ably demonstrated today. I am proud of you, Catherine. You seem to have listened very well during our late lessons. You must not forget what you swore on your birthday. Protect our innocents. No vow, no pledge, no prayer can supplant your oath. You are their hope, Catherine. Do not fail them.
I beg you, dear daughter, do not act rashly. Learn by whatever means you can. Test yourself to your limits. Better your skills for the betterment of your people. When the time is right, you will know and you will act without fear and fulfil your oath.
This ring is yours now, Catherine. You are the last true Duchess of Astan and your father's rightful heiress. But with that right comes responsibility. The fate of the Duchy is now your responsibility to bear. Do not fail us.
Your father and I will love you forever, Duchess Catherine Fox.
Lydea Fox, Seventeenth Duchess of Astan”
She read the letter again, this time with her vision misted by tears. Her oath came unbidden to her mind and she whispered, “I am Lady Catherine Fox, last Duchess of Astan. I value honesty, generosity and valour. I will seek to improve my skills and learning and strive to pass on that knowledge to the rest of my people. I prize justice and the protection of the innocent.” She calmed a little and finished the oath. “I, Duchess Catherine Fox, swear to carry out these duties for the betterment of my family and the people of my land.”
Catherine folded the letter and slipped the ring onto her finger. The gold glinted in the lantern's light. “I will not fail you again,” she whispered. Then the pent-up grief, rage and shame she had restrained for the last week finally burst over Catherine. She collapsed onto her hard bed and cried floods of tears and howling sobs.
The morning's first service began before dawn. Sisters Anna and Clara roused Catherine even earlier still, addressing her as Mary and inquiring if she had slept well. It amazed Catherine that the Sisters appeared so fresh, even sprightly, so early in the morning. Her stomach rumbled in a most unladylike way. Catherine had not eaten since the caravan's halt at midday the previous day. She bore the hunger as well as she could.
Clearly, Sister Anna heard this and she said, “We break our fast in the Refectory after morning service and after our first tasks are completed.”
“May I speak, Sister?” Catherine asked, hesitantly. She still was not certain she was permitted to speak.
“Of course, Mary,” replied Anna. “Only those of higher rank than we Sisters may compel your silence. You may speak freely, if you wish.”
“However,” put in Clara, quite sternly, “we do frown upon needless chatter and empty words. It is our tradition to think before we speak as did our Lord Ahren countless years ago, when he stood in front of the gods accused of a crime he did not commit. I would urge you, Novice Mary, to heed that tradition.”
Catherine nodded and pretended to compose her thoughts before asking, as simply and as directly as she could manage, “The Mother Abbess named you as my guides here. Will you also be setting my tasks?” And judging the quality of my work? she thought.
“Our guidance, Mary, will simply concern the daily functioning of the Abbey.” The sternness vanished from Clara's voice. “When the services are held, the areas you may or may not enter and, yes, when meal times are set. Your instruction, study and tasks will be set by members of the Abbey's college, whose wisdom far surpasses my own.” Clara smiled kindly. “Your transition from the world outside to your life here may seem daunting but it will not be as harsh as you may fear.”
A deep bell tolled in the distance. Clara straightened. “Come, Mary. It is time.”
The Sisters led Catherine through corridors and cloisters, wide halls and antechambers. The crowds around them grew steadily more dense, black robed figures moving at a sedate pace to the central chapel of Osterlin Abbey.
Chapel, however, was a term far too lowly to describe the sight that greeted Catherine. Cathedral was more fitting. Rank upon rank of pews flanked a central aisle and faced the altar, over which loomed a huge stained glass window, depicting Lord Ahren holding a sword and shield, in his guise as Protector. The light of hundreds of candles blazed from the walls and a series of crystal chandeliers ran the length of the aisle. Scores of her fellow Novices and Sisters of Ahren were taking their places in the pews and choir stalls. The breath caught in Catherine's throat and she stood, awestruck, at the chapel's threshold.
A hand, laid gently on her shoulder, brought Catherine back to her senses. She turned to Sister Anna who smiled and indicated the direction Catherine should go. Rather numbly, she followed her guides and took a pew near the back of the chapel.
The Lord Ahren had been the patron deity of Astan since the Duchy's secession from Menkalin. It was felt by Duke Stephan that Ahren, who embodied valour, honesty and protection, was a more appropriate spiritual leader for the fledgling nation than that of Menkalin, a country whose rulers had none of these qualities. The service, then, was not totally unfamiliar to Catherine. She knew most of the prayers, readings and hymns by heart and for those she did not, Catherine followed the lead of Anna and Clara.
The sermon, delivered by the Mother Abbess, was mercifully short, though Catherine sensed she had been sorely tempted into launching a tirade against lax morals and dishonesty. Catherine carefully kept her expression pensive during the sermon and noted the same look on the faces of Anna and Clara. What she had done with Erik was, in the eyes of Lord Ahren, dissolute, and the lies she had told afterwards would blacken her soul for years to come. The magic-working she had made the night before her tryst with Erik, however, bordered on paganism and, should that secret ever come out, Catherine could find herself on trial here for witchcraft. It was clear that she would have to tread extremely carefully or heap still more shame upon her family and, worse, ruin her chances of revenge against Gastar d'Alcene.
“You have not yet been taken to the college,” Sister Clara said, quietly, as the trio walked the cloisters back to Catherine's cell, “so your studies will not begin until after breakfast. It seems, then, that you have an hour for your own study and contemplation.” They stopped outside the door. “Anna and I have our own duties to attend to. We will return shortly and escort you to the Refectory where, it seems, a much needed breakfast will await you.” Clara smiled kindly. The Sisters clasped their palms together and bowed slightly, to which Catherine responded in kind and then retired to her cell.
Catherine swept the floor of her cell with great thoroughness. The love-spell she had worked on Erik was supposed to have used a hair from his head. Many such ancient spells and rituals, described in her mother's library, used such tokens from the intended recipient. Though, Catherine corrected herself, the library's rough translation of the word “recipient” could also have meant “target” or even “victim”. She would be damned in more ways than one if a trace of herself might be left behind for others to use or abuse in that way.
She sat on the edge of her bed and played with the silvery bracelet Erik had allowed her to wear on that fateful afternoon. Memories came flooding back and Catherine struggled against the pleasure she could feel deep within her. Perhaps the lack of a strand of Erik's hair and her own reluctance to add a drop of her own blood to the spell had caused it to go awry. She also remembered the thought that had risen in her mind as the spell was completed: poison his whore's heart. Her spell may not have gone merely awry but the envy that had burned in Catherine's heart may have cost an innocent woman, common doxy or not, her life.
It was then that Catherine finally realised the cause of her downfall. Intense pleasure and searing guilt over her liaison with Erik. The anger that burned within her from the day of her father's surrender to Gastar d'Alcene. Overwhelming pride in her status and position. All these childish emotions had clouded her mind, impaired her judgement, ruined her family and, ultimately, may have killed an innocent woman.
Never again, Catherine swore.
To follow the path her mother had shown, she must learn to concentrate and not deviate from the rituals laid down in ancient times. Learn by whatever means you can, read her mother's words from the secret letter. Lord Ahren's tradition of thought before speech, as Clara had said.
Something nagged at the back of her mind. Catherine stood at her lectern and paged through the Catechism of Ahren. There, she thought, her finger resting on the passage she remembered reading as a girl. Thought before action, was the correct interpretation, though speech was itself an action and could have a greater impact than sending an army into battle. Whether Clara had been mistaken or deliberately mis-stated the teaching Catherine could not be sure. She resolved at that moment, not just to tread warily here at Osterlin but to pay special attention to those lessons which would help discipline her mind from the restlessness which had already brought ruin around her.
There was a knock at her cell door. Rather than being startled from her train of thought and driven to answer promptly, Catherine allowed herself a moment to reflect on the promise she had just made to herself. She realised she had set herself a difficult task but if she did not try there would be no hope of justice for the people she had failed. Satisfied, for now at least, she rested her hand on the page of the Catechism and called out “Enter.”
Sister Anna entered the cell while Clara waited in the corridor. The Sister noted with some pleasure that Novice Mary had been studying the Catechism of Ahren on her own time and this she took to be a good sign. The Sisters escorted Mary to the Refectory, a huge dining hall which was second in size only to the Chapel. Mary, with great dignity and manners for one who was plainly so hungry, took her breakfast of thick oatmeal porridge, sweetened with a spoonful of honey from the Abbey's beehives, and a large slice of toasted bread, again with honey. The Refectory being one of the few places where idle chatter was not so severely frowned upon, Mary joined in with the polite, informal conversation around her. Again, thought Anna, that was good. It showed Novice Mary to be at least comfortable in her new surroundings. Sister Anna's report to the Mother Abbess would contain at least guarded praise for the Abbey's newest Novice.
After the breakfast and after-meal graces led by the Mother Abbess, the Sisters escorted Catherine to the college wing of the Abbey. There the Sisters introduced her as Novice Mary to the class teacher, Sister Superior Bethra, a stern-looking woman of perhaps fifty years. She joined a class of a dozen other new Novices, most of whom had joined the Abbey within the last few months. Of these, most were several years younger than Catherine herself.
The lessons that morning were learning by rote the Catechism of Ahren, most of which Catherine had already learned as a young girl. Catherine, however, feigned that she was learning from scratch and even asked some pointedly simple questions of the Sister Superior and the other Novices. In this way she managed to avoid questions of her background and her reasons for being at Osterlin.
As the noon-day bells tolled, their deep chimes echoing around the Abbey, Sisters Clara and Anna returned to the college and escorted Catherine back to the Refectory for a simple, though filling, lunch of fresh-baked bread, cheese and fruit. Over the lunch they enquired politely as to Catherine's wellbeing and how her lessons had progressed that morning. She answered as pleasantly and honestly as she could and it seemed the Sisters were satisfied with her responses.
Her afternoon lessons dragged by in much the same way as the morning, though this time attention was turned to making written copies of the scriptures. Catherine, who had been taught her handwriting by Dame Mella, excelled in these lessons and was even able to make time to aid some of her younger classmates. So engrossed was Catherine by these activities that it took her some time to notice that Sister Superior Bethra was watching her closely. She darted a glance at the Sister Superior who merely hardened her gaze so intensely it made Catherine wilt and return to her studies.
At the end of the afternoon lessons, and the Abbey's bells pealed to herald the start of evening worship, Catherine was standing in front of Sister Superior Bethra's desk. She held her hands, palms together, in front of her and listened to what passed as faint praise from her teacher. “You still have a lot to learn, Mary,” she said, “but have shown great facility for writing and copying the Lord Ahren's scriptures. Perhaps, over time, we will induct you into the Library here at Osterlin, which contains many unique ancient texts of our Lord's teachings and legends. We strive to copy these texts so that their knowledge may be preserved and even passed on to future generations.” Bethra saw that Mary was waiting, expectantly, to answer and said, “You may speak, if you wish.”
“If ...,” stammered Catherine, as hope stirred in her heart, “If you think me worthy of such a task, Sister Superior, then I would of course be honoured to preserve our Lord's scriptures in such a way.”
“Novice Mary,” said Bethra, sternly but not without a certain kindness, “it could be many years before the Library accepts you as a new member. Between now and then your tasks will be many, varied, and set by myself. I am not the gentlest taskmistress here in the Abbey. But if you do as I order, and do it well, I may sponsor your application to the Library.”
Moments later, as Anna and Clara escorted Catherine to the Chapel for the evening service, her mind was in a whirl. Osterlin had a library! While the laborious copying of texts was not in her interest the mere thought of gaining access to centuries of knowledge excited her. What secrets could she find there? It would not all be Lord Ahren's religious tracts and legendry. Going back to many years before Astan's secession from Menkalin, maybe there would be information there she could use against Gastar d'Alcene? Perhaps she could even begin to trace the origins of her bracelet?
Thought before action, she chastised herself. I cannot let myself appear too keen to take such a position within the Abbey as it may raise questions about me that I cannot answer. I will, therefore, take the Sister Superior's tasks without complaint and perform them to the best of my ability. With that thought, Catherine strove to bury her curiosity and the desire for revenge that still burned in her heart.
The evening service was followed by the last meal of the day, this time a hearty broth and more of the fresh-baked bread. While Catherine was accustomed to finer foods, she found the meal both filling and tasty. She found the conversation between the Novices and Sisters to be strangely refreshing; it was certainly different to the idle courtly chatter, political rumour-mongering and often salacious gossip which had bored her rigid on many nights in the castle.
Clara and Anna escorted her back to her cell and bade her goodnight, saying only that they would see her for first service the following morning.
Catherine performed her ablutions with the chillingly cold water she had brought, at Sister Clara's advice, from the Refectory, then prepared for her evening prayers. She knelt at her lectern and performed an act of considered blasphemy: Catherine slipped on the signet ring of the Duchess of Astan and clipped the silvery bracelet about her left wrist. “I am Lady Catherine Fox, last Duchess of Astan,” she began. “I value honesty, generosity and valour. I will seek to improve my skills and learning and strive to pass on that knowledge to the rest of my people. I prize justice and the protection of the innocent. I, Duchess Catherine Fox, swear to carry out these duties for the betterment of my family and the people of my land.”
Thus began Catherine's life as Novice Mary within the confines of Osterlin Abbey.
Guided by her teacher, Sister Superior Bethra, aided with decreasing frequency by Sisters Anna and Clara, and forever mindful of the Lord Ahren's tradition of thought before action, Catherine settled into her new life. She worked long and hard in the Abbey's kitchens and served the meals in the Refectory. She climbed to dizzying heights to change the candles that lit the dark places of the Abbey. She sang in the choir of each evening service, loud and clear until she thought her heart would burst. In the Abbey's Infirmary, Catherine learned to treat the injuries of Sisters and Novices, from bee-stings to the broken arm sustained in a fall from a rickety ladder. Long days and hard tasks strengthened her body. Disciplined study strengthened her mind.
Never once, however, did she forget the course that had brought her to the Abbey. Never once did she forget her true name and the destiny she was determined to meet. Each night as she made her last prayers, Duchess Catherine Fox repeated her family's oath while gazing at her signet ring.
Catherine worked through the depths of Winter and as Spring began to blossom she was summoned to the chamber of the Mother Abbess, behind whom stood Sister Superior Bethra. As on her first and only visit to this chamber, the Mother Abbess did not look up from her writing. Sister Superior Bethra, however, directed her stern gaze at Catherine, who bowed her head and clasped her hands, as she should. Novice Mary had, at least, learned that lesson, and Catherine held her tongue while one of the prayers of Lord Ahren echoed around her mind. What to the younger Catherine would have seemed interminable seconds of silence passed in the blink of an eye.
“Novice Mary,” began the Mother Abbess, in that same, rich voice in which she delivered her sermons, while Catherine kept her gaze fixed on the floor just in front of the Abbess' desk, “you have been with us now nearly seven months.”
Seven months! Had it really been so long? Her train of thought broke and Catherine almost gasped in shock and looked up at the Abbess. She must concentrate harder now. This was a test, she realised. The Abbess was looking for any sign that she had failed in her lessons and that her mind was as ill-disciplined as it had been on the day she arrived. Catherine would not give the Abbess that satisfaction. I am Lady Catherine Fox, last Duchess of Astan. The thought became a mantra, repeated endlessly through her mind and spirit.
“In a few days, Mary,” continued the Mother Abbess, her tone a little lighter now, but still the Novice did not look up, “we will be inducting you fully into the Sisterhood of Ahren. You have done well, Novice Mary. You may speak, if you wish.”
Catherine raised her head slightly but knew it would still be forbidden to look directly at the Abbess. Instead, she concentrated on the white quill pen which lay on the desk. “Am I really worthy of such an honour, Mother Abbess? Surely the other Novices who have studied here longer than I would deserve this more?”
“You have excelled, Mary,” said Sister Superior Bethra. “You have completed every task I have set without qualms or objections. Your knowledge of Lord Ahren's scripture and legends surpasses that of many of our long serving Sisters. Further, you have made time to help the younger Novices in their tasks. Many of them speak very highly of you.”
I seek to improve my skills and learning and strive to pass on that knowledge to the rest of my people, thought Catherine.
“The Ceremony of Belonging will be in one week, Mary. In that time, I will have several other tasks and preparatory work for you. I suggest, therefore, that you order your thoughts and prayers for the vows that await you. You may leave us, now, Novice Mary.”
Catherine bowed, turned and walked slowly to the door. With her back to the two other women, a small smile spread slowly on her lips. Then the Mother Abbess' voice struck her like a crossbow bolt in the back. She halted mid-stride.
“Beware pride, Novice Mary,” said the Abbess. “Our Lord Ahren stood trial in front of the other gods who, in their selfish pride, had accused him of a crime he did not commit. Only by conquering his own pride was Our Lord able to acquit himself. If pride can ruin a god, it can destroy a mortal.”
The smile faded from Catherine's face. Pride, in part, had led her to this pass, she knew. “I am sorry, Mother Abbess,” she whispered.
“Go now, Novice Mary,” said Sister Superior Bethra. “I would read Chapter Seven of the Canon to reacqaint yourself with Lord Ahren's false crime and how he conquered his own pride.”
“Of course, Sister Superior,” Catherine said, then left the chamber and headed for her cell.
A week later, Catherine was initiated into the Sisterhood of Ahren, becoming Sister Mary. She discarded her black wimple and wore, with some honour, the white headdress of her Sisters. Pride, sinful though it was, glowed in her heart. With all the privilege, wealth and status she had been born to, Catherine had never really worked, nor wanted, for anything in her life. This she had worked for. Seven months of toil and self denial had culminated in this moment.
Perhaps now she could begin to right the wrongs she had caused, for she remembered her mother's letter. No vow, no pledge, no prayer can supplant your oath.
Catherine straightened from the laborious work of weeding the new vegetable patch in the Abbey's extensive gardens. She felt something creak in the small of her back and winced as she looked around at the half-dozen Novices who were her charges in this task. All were kneeling in the soft, loamy soil, methodically pulling weeds which threatened the crop of carrots growing there. These were destined not only for the Abbey's kitchens but to local farmers markets and the district's poorer families. Catherine was determined this crop would not be strangled by weeds. It was a small step, she knew, towards righting the wrongs her actions had caused but, as the Mother Abbess had said, often the first step of a journey was the most difficult.
“Sister Mary,” called out one of the Novices, and Catherine snapped back to the reality of the garden from the evil image of Gastar d'Alcene's head on a spike which had risen in her mind, “someone's coming.” The Novice, Winifrid, a girl of perhaps fourteen, sounded nervous.
An old man, dressed in tattered grey and brown clothes and supported with a long staff, was hobbling towards the small group. Catherine could hear him coughing and wheezing as he drew nearer. The Novices clustered behind their Sister. More than one was looking fearfully over their shoulders towards the rear gate of the Abbey itself. Catherine herself was nervous. This old man was the first outsider she had seen in the eight months of her time at Osterlin.
“Good morning, Sir,” Catherine called. “You are welcome here at Osterlin Abbey, though I would thank you, Sir, if you would walk along our paths, rather than tread on our vegetables.” She said this with a certain humour and lightness of tone that drew an embarrassed laugh from the old man.
“Good day, Sisters,” he said, as he took a few steps to the right, onto the path Catherine had indicated. He stood and rested, leaning on his staff, as he slowly regained his breath. “I have come to request alms and perhaps rest and comfort, if you could be so kind to an old man.”
“We cannot offer you alms, Sir. We of the Sisterhood of Ahren practice thrift in all things and we are penniless.” Catherine opened her hands, palms up, to show she carried no money. Deep inside, part of the old Catherine's spirit screamed Thrift? Penury is more fitting! She mastered her emotions and smiled at the old man. “Food, however, we can offer.” Catherine bent and pulled up a carrot, dusted off the soil, and held it out to the old man.
“You are as thrifty with your kindness as with your coppers, Sister,” the old man said with a hint of mischief. He laughed heartily for a moment but his laughter broke into a fit of harsh, chesty coughs which left him bent double, clutching to his staff for support.
Catherine dashed the short distance to the old man and helped until his coughs eased. While she was not fully trained as a physician – such learning would take years – Catherine could still feel the old man's spasms and hear the faint rattle of fluid on his lungs. “You should rest, Sir,” she said gently and helped him sit. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot and Catherine could feel that his heartbeat was both weak and erratic. He was terribly ill, she realised.
Catherine turned to the Novices, who were still clustered nervously a short distance away. She spoke clearly. “Novice Joane and Novice Elena, report to the Infirmary and request help. We may need a stretcher.” The Novices did as she bade and ran back towards the Abbey's rear gate. “Win ...” Catherine broke off her next order as she watched the young Novice Winifrid run to the nearby water jug and bring it towards the fallen old man. “Thank you,” Catherine said. She would have to remember Winifrid's prompt and unrequested aid. Sister Superior Bethra would be impressed. She helped the old man drink and he smiled weakly.
Something mewled from the man's tattered robes. A small black cat peeked its head out from his pocket and blinked in the sun. The man scratched the cat behind its ear and said “We're safe, now.” The cat meowed again and nuzzled at the man's fingers.
Safe from what? Catherine wondered, her curiosity piqued. The man's accent was Astan, plain spoken but unmistakeable. Could he be running from d'Alcene's soldiers? Tentatively she tickled the cat under its chin. The cat spat and hissed at her then hid within the pocket again. “What an adorable creature,” she said, without a hint of malice.
“Doesn't really like strangers,” said the old man, apologetically. He coughed again and lines of pain creased his face. Blood tinged the drool of saliva that dribbled down his chin. He drank more water. “At least he doesn't have to beg for his food. When he's hungry, he just goes out and eats the local wildlife.” He chuckled but even that made him wince, so he just smiled at Catherine. “Thank you for your help, Sister.”
“Mary,” Catherine said.
“Mary. Nice name. Suits you.” The man's speech was slurring now and Catherine realised he was lapsing towards unconsciousness.
“And you, Sir?” she asked, in an attempt to keep him awake a little longer. Her curiosity had gotten the better of her and she wanted to know what he thought he was now safe from.
“Harald.” His voice was now barely a whisper.
“Well, Master Harald. I cannot promise you copper, silver or gold, but I can promise you the best rest, food and comfort until you are well.”
The wait was short. Novices Joane and Elena hurried back with a stretcher and one of the Sisters from the Infirmary. Catherine, with the Novices in tow, accompanied Harald to the Abbey's Infirmary.
Sister Superior Cecily, who ran the Infirmary with a rod of iron, deemed it “not fitting” to have a man share the wider ward where the patients were all women. Thus he was sequestered in a small room to the side of the main ward. The sad fact, however, was that these rooms were often reserved for those Sisters who, through illness, infirmity or age, were dying and would soon be joining the Lord Ahren in the heavens. Sadder still, to Catherine, was the Sister Superior's considered medical opinion that Harald would also be judged by the Lord Ahren and, in her ecclesiastical opinion, would be found wanting and cast down.
Catherine did not share either of the Sister Superior's opinions. She kept her own beliefs on this matter firmly to herself. Harald, Catherine thought, was not destined to die in this way, as some wasting disease wrecked his body from within. She almost begged Sister Superior Cecily's permission to care for Harald in his last days. At the same time, Catherine requested, of Sister Superior Bethra, Novice Winifrid's aid. “It will teach us both that even labours such as these are not without their reward. To make Harald's last days as gentle as possible and thus ease the poor man into Lord Ahren's eternal care.”
Harald had been unconscious for nearly two days. The small room stank of sweat, urine and worse, where his body had been fighting a losing battle. His breathing was shallow and rattled in his chest. Catherine checked his pulse which was erratic and faint. The gentlest sound in the room came from the cat, which was curled on Harald's chest, purring faintly.
Catherine knelt by Harald's bunk with her hands clasped about the string of prayer beads. She offered the traditional prayers for health and purity of spirit and finished with her own plea. “Lord Ahren, I beg you to hear my prayer. This man is good. He does not deserve to die in this way.”
Suddenly, Harald drew a shuddering breath and his right hand flailed and caught Catherine's hands and prayer beads in a vice-like grip. Despite all her training and exercises in mental discipline, Catherine found herself shocked from her prayers as Harald dragged her closer. The cat hissed and fled to the corner of the room. His lips moved spasmodically and the faint hiss of his breath made just one word: “Water.”
Catherine broke from the old man's grasp and quickly poured a wooden cup full of water from the nearby jug. She helped Harald drink. Though most of the water spilled over his unshaven chin and down his neck, Catherine could see he had swallowed a small mouthful. He coughed, spluttered, retched and almost vomitted the water back up over Catherine. She helped him sit and drink a little more. The old man sighed deeply, smiled, and sank back onto his bunk.
“Thank you, Sister,” he whispered. He closed his eyes and sleep took him almost instantly.
Catherine felt the old man's pulse again and now, while still faint, it beat with a steady, regular rhythm. The cat jumped back onto the bed and nuzzled at Catherine's hand, the first time in two days it had shown any affection or friendliness towards her. She tickled the animal under its chin, smiled and said, “I'll bring you a little milk.”
The following day, when Catherine visited after morning service, Harald was sitting, propped up in bed, teasing the cat with a small slice of beef. The little animal let out what was almost a growl, leapt at the old man's hand and tore a bloody scratch on his fingers. Harald cursed, the most filthy language that had been heard within Osterlin's walls for several centuries, and dropped the beef, which the cat snatched in its jaws then jumped off the bed and devoured on the floor.
Harald sucked the scratch on his fingers and looked up at Catherine. “Not many mice around here, Sister,” he mumbled around his fingers. “Your matron keeps things clean.”
“Everything except your language, Master Harald,” Catherine replied, sternly. The old man looked embarrassed. After a moment, Catherine relented. “You're looking a little better this morning.” He was still deathly pale but his skin had at least lost the waxy greyness it had taken on in the depths of his sickness. “However,” she sniffed and wrinkled her nose in distaste, “after two days of blood, sweat and vomit, Sister Superior Cecily has ordered that you wash and change while we fumigate this room.”
Now dressed in clean white cotton and smothered in equally clean linen sheets, Harald relaxed back in his new bunk in a different room. He could smell steam from boiling water in the room next door and the scent of lavender pervaded the air. Novice Winifrid sat on the edge of his bunk and helped him spoon thick beef broth from a wooden bowl. After a few spoonfuls, Harald held up his hand and gently pushed the bowl away.
“Can't,” he said weakly. “Full.”
“Oh,” said Winifrid. “Are you sure? Perhaps one more?” Before joining the Abbey, Winifrid had fed her two younger twin brothers in this way. “It is rather a waste.”
Harald shook his head weakly. “Too much and I'll be sick. That would be a bigger waste, would it not?”
“As you wish, sir,” the girl said, looking disappointedly at the half-full bowl. Unschooled in medicine, Winifrid did not realise just how big a step on the road to reecovery Harald had just taken. “Now, it is traditional to offer thanks after a meal. Please?” She clasped her hands and recited the grace after meals prayer, which Harald joined, haltingly.
“I'm sorry, Novice Winifrid,” he apologised. “I'm not so familiar with your Lord's prayers and legends.”
The girl, a wide-eyed innocent, almost blurted, “Sister Mary can help you, Sir. She knows far more of the prayers than I. She even has a place in the Library now. I'm sure she will read to you.”
After evening service, Catherine visited the old man again, this time with the copy of the Catechism of Ahren from her cell. She sat next to the bunk. He still had an unhealthy pallor to his skin but his eyes gleamed with a little of the humour he had shown in the gardens. “How are you feeling now, Master Harald?”
“Tired, Sister,” he murmured.
“I'm not surprised, Sir. Whatever assailed your body was one of the worst afflictions Sister Superior Cecily has ever treated. I believe it taxed even her considerable learning.”
“Lucky to be alive, eh?” Harald said.
“Lucky? No, I don't think so, Sir. The Sister Superior's medicines first slowed the wasting disease then gave you the energy to fight it off.”
Harald held the Sister's gaze for a long moment. “You don't believe that, though, do you?”
Catherine took a deep breath but did not glance away from the old man. “Not totally, Sir, I must admit. I have remembered you in every one of my prayers since the day you arrived. Perhaps you were saved through the grace of Lord Ahren.”
Harald's gaze hardened. “You don't really believe that, either, Sister.”
“I don't believe you were destined to die in such pain and squalor, Sir,” Catherine replied, suddenly uneasy.
“I thought our destinies were laid down by the gods and could not be changed. Did the grace of your Lord change the fate set for me by Terys, Baliro or even Aladaar?” There was a hint of wickedness in Harald's voice now.
Catherine blanched at the old man's mention of three deities who were worshipped beyond Astan's borders. Baliro, so Erik had told her, was venerated in Kal-Pyrra because of his strength in battle and Aladaar was accorded the same respect and worship in Mindas as Lord Ahren was in Astan. Terys was an unfamiliar name. “You should be careful, Sir,” Catherine warned. “Such names border on blasphemy within the Abbey.” She said this despite her own blasphemous prayers to the Lady Lyris but if this conversation was overheard and she had not chastised Harald in such a way, her own faith might be called into question by Sister Superior Cecily. Harald looked a little guilty and Catherine relented when she realised she sounded like Dame Mella. “I believe that the gods may influence, aid or hinder us, sometimes in ways so subtle we do not realise it is happening.”
“But?” Harald pressed.
“Ultimately, Sir, we make our own decisions and choose our own path. I do not believe that our lives are set in stone from the moment of our birth.”
“So why am I still here, Sister?” Harald's voice was gentle, almost soothing, after his earlier rougher tone.
“You chose not to die, Sir.” Catherine said simply. She paused and looked Harald in his deep grey eyes. “Perhaps that choice was made easier for you by the medicines and herbs you were treated with. Freed from pain and sickness, your mind cleared and you chose not to surrender to death.” When Harald smiled, Catherine went on, “In a way, the Lord Ahren did influence your decision. Without the wisdom he has passed on to us, Sister Superior Cecily would never have been able to make your medicines.”
Harald lay back in bed. Smiling, he said, “You could just be right, Sister.”
Catherine returned the smile and began reading from the Catechism of Ahren. After a few moments of reading in the dim lamp light, Harald closed his eyes and drifted into sleep. Catherine continued reading, however, until she reached the end of the section she had begun. Perhaps, even through the veil of sleep, Catherine's words would reach the old man, for she had read of honesty, one of the Lord Ahren's signal virtues. She hoped that Harald would value that honesty and confide in her his reason for thinking he, and the cat, were safe in the Abbey.
As she gathered herself to leave, Catherine noticed a small mark on Harald's upper arm. It was half hidden by the short sleeve of his white cotton smock. Tentatively, Catherine reached out and gently pushed the sleeve further up his arm. A tattoo. An inch across, it was a red square in which was drawn a small, angular glyph which looked like stylised claws or perhaps fangs. In the room's dim light Catherine could not be sure exactly what the picture represented. Of one thing she was certain. She had seen characters just like this in one other place: on the silver bracelet hidden in her cell.
The cat watched Sister Mary leave. It arched its back, stretched, yawned and clawed at Harald's blankets, making itself comfortable for a night's sleep. The old man neither opened his eyes nor stirred. He did not need to. He had seen and heard everything Sister Mary had said and done through the cat's sharp hearing and slitted, glass-green eyes.
Catherine rushed to her cell. Frantically she reached for her quill and ink and scrawled a copy of the tattoo onto a scrap of heavy paper which she herself had helped make at the Abbey's press. She could not be sure if her sketch was an accurate copy of Harald's tattoo. Catherine chewed nervously on her lower lip as she compared her sketch with the bracelet. The engraving of each link of her bracelet was different from her sketch but this, combined with her vivid memory of the actual tattoo, convinced Catherine beyond doubt that the glyph on Harald's arm was of the same alphabet, if not the same language, as those on her bracelet.
She thought back to her discussion with Erik on this. The glyphs were not Elven script, they had at least agreed upon that.
Over the coming days, Catherine saw less of Harald due to her other duties, in the gardens, Refectory and kitchen. She spent several hours in the Library, poring over ancient scrolls and books, looking for something, anything, which resembled the glyphs on her bracelet and Harald's arm.
Novice Winifrid kept Catherine informed as to Harald's progress. The old man was getting better, slowly but surely, and had frankly astounded Sister Superior Cecily with his recovery. Each day he was able to eat a little more, stay awake for longer, and slur less as he spoke. He was growing more restless and cantankerous, too, and Winifrid had blushed fiercely when she had described Harald's language. Catherine feared the old man's impatience would make him flee the Abbey and then her only source of news from Astan would be gone with him.
Catherine emerged from her nightly prayers and contemplation in her cell and gazed at her signet ring. “Lady Lyris,” she whispered, “you have shown me this glimmer of hope. I will not ignore it.” With that, she gathered herself, slipped out of her cell, and made her way to the kitchen and then the Infirmary.
“Sister Martha,” Catherine whispered, as she approached the Infirmary's desk, “I have brought a little food for Master Harald's cat.” She shrugged and smiled lightly. “It's my way of atoning for my neglect of the poor creature.”
“No amount of chicken can comfort that animal, for it suffers just being in the same room as that old goat.” Sister Martha had been the butt of several of Harald's cruel jibes and outbursts. “Still, it speaks highly of you that you can bring some kindness to the cat, if not its owner.” Martha returned Catherine's smile. “Please be quiet in there, Mary. Try not to wake him. This is the first peace we have had all day and our other patients sorely need their rest.”
Catherine bowed to her Sister and went to Harald's room. As she closed the door behind her the cat rubbed up against her legs. It mewed and purred happily but all its pretence at manners and friendship vanished as Catherine set the wooden bowl of chicken scraps in front of it. The cat devoured the chicken in moments, then sauntered to the bunk and leapt up to lie on Harald's stomach.
“Your pet's manners are almost as bad as yours, sir.” Catherine tried to sound cross but her whisper failed to carry the annoyance to the old man. “At least I can excuse the cat its behaviour but not its owner.” Harald grinned guiltily as Catherine walked over to his bunk. She drew herself to her full height and, head raised and shoulders back, regarded the old man with a look of regal disapproval, the sort of pose and expression her mother had used on men of Menkalin. “Your language and unseemly conduct towards my Sisters and Novices has at times bordered on the reprehensible, Master Harald.”
The old man's grin faded but the guilt did not. “I am sorry, Sister Mary,” he said gently. “I should make amends in some way.”
“You could start by apologising to poor Sister Martha. To insult her the way you did,” Catherine trailed off, lost for words that could describe her disgust, but quickly rallied. “Why, sir, it was simply not fitting that a man of Astan could possibly think, let alone say, such things to a kind and wise woman. The menfolk of our land do not hold their women in such low regard.” She held Harald's gaze for a long moment.
Eventually, he nodded and replied. “Of course, you are right, Sister. I am ashamed of myself. Truly. It's just ...” Harald mumbled something.
“Just?” Catherine asked, as gently as she could.
Harald took a deep breath. “Your Sisters here are kind, honest and hard working. It's just that none of them are quite as kind, honest or hard working as my own wife used to be.”
Catherine could almost sense what Harald said next before it even passed his lips. Her heart skipped a beat.
“We had a farm not far from Willowdale. It wasn't much, I admit, but we produced enough for ourselves and bartered the rest at Willowdale market. We even made a couple of silvers in a good season.”
Catherine nodded. Willowdale was a village about two days travel from Osterlin. She had never been there but had seen some of the Duchy's troops despatched there to stand guard against malevolent threats emerging from the Witch Wood, which formed Astan's northern border.
“The old lady was a great cook, tended our animals while I worked the fields, and helped the other local women with,” he coughed, rather embarrassed, “well, you know, problems that only other women really know about. Everything was fine until the other troops arrived.” The distaste he put into the word other was plain enough to Catherine that he was referring to the Menkalinan army. Harald looked away from the Sister and screwed up his courage to continue. “She delivered a baby for the lieutenant's wife. The poor lad was sickly from the moment he was born. Try as she might she couldn't save the boy.”
Tears began to trickle over Harald's cheeks now. “They hung the old dear for witchcraft. Said she was in league with Maomedri or some sort of unclean demon from south of the Sea of Rhyn.” The tears were falling harder now. “How they could accuse her of that I don't know, Sister. They said she had promised the boy's soul to this demon and deliberately failed to save the child to damn him to the blackest hell.”
A howl of anguish broke from Harald's mouth and his sobs echoed around the ward.
Catherine stood before Sister Superior Cecily. The older woman had been scathing in her condemnation of Harald and Catherine was the only sister who stood to the old man's defense.
“Master Harald has apologised unreservedly for the disruption his actions have caused, Sister Superior,” Catherine said, mildly.
“He was uncouth, insulting and even lecherous, Mary,” Cecily replied, icily. “And his blasphemous mention of Terys within the holy walls of this Abbey is a sin even he cannot atone for.”
“His behaviour disgusted me, Sister Superior,” Catherine agreed, “and I do not think it can be excused.” She took a deep breath as what she was to say next would not be welcomed by the Sister Superior. “Your plan to cast him from the Abbey before he is fully well in his body and mind goes beyond mere penance for his misdeeds. Our Lord Ahren decrees we must offer protection to the innocent. And, for all his misdeeds, Harald is innocent, Sister Superior.”
“You need not quote scripture to me, Mary,” Cecily replied, her voice tinged with displeasure at the upstart young Sister. “I have to protect our own innocents, too. What he said to Novice Winifrid was both threatening and deeply distressing to that young Novice.”
“He was in a state of delirium. Master Harald says he has no memory of what he said to Winfrid. Nor of where his hands wandered.” Catherine finished a little uncertainly. In other circumstances, Harald could have been tried for molestation and flogged if found guilty.
Cecily, untutored in the laws of Astan while Catherine had had years of instruction from Dame Mella, ignored the legal implications of Harald's actions. Instead, she continued the argument on medical grounds. “Delirium, you say? When I examined him after the incident, he seemed perfectly lucid.”
“Harald had been drifting in and out of consciousness all that day. Novice Winifrid told me of the hunted look in his eyes when he touched her.” Catherine had rallied well and was close to driving her point home. “His illness, compounded by the grief over the unjust execution of his wife and the fear of Menkalinan soldiers hunting him down, drove Harald to the edge of madness.” Catherine paused as she saw Cecily's hard gaze soften, if only slightly, and she continued, a weary plea for fairness. “Let him recover before he leaves Osterlin. I will take full responsibility for his treatment and his actions. None of our Sisters and Novices need go into his room if they feel they are at risk.”
“And if his behaviour worsens, Sister Mary? You will be exposing yourself alone to that risk.”
“I am willing to take that risk,” Catherine replied, firmly. “Harald is a good man, Sister Superior. When he is well, I pray he will find a way to right the injustice done to him and his wife.”
Cecily smiled at the young Sister. “I will join you in that prayer, Sister. Go with Our Lord Ahren's blessing.”
Catherine bowed and left the Sister Superior's chamber.
Catherine paused in front of the door to Harald's room. Despite the old man's assurances that he had not meant Novice Winifrid any harm, she felt a flutter of nerves. Could she be so wrong about him? What if he was just an old man with wandering hands and a filthy mind? Catherine suppressed a shudder and knocked politely on Harald's door.
"Come in, Sister Mary," he said.
She pushed the door and it swung silently open. Harald was propped up in bed, playing with the cat.
Catherine closed the door behind her and leaned against it. "Well, Master Harald," she said lightly, though she was rather confused how he had known it was her outside the door, "Sister Superior Cecily has relented. She will not be casting you from the Abbey, at least not until you are well enough to travel and fend for yourself. Or," she paused and looked sternly at the old man, "until you prove yourself to be the foul-mouthed, lecherous, untrustworthy pig she believes you to be."
"Do you believe that, Sister?" he asked plaintively.
"No, sir, I don't. I don't think even Novice Winifrid believes you could be so base." Catherine sighed. "To be honest, you haven't made many friends here, sir."
"The only friend I ever truly needed, Sister, was hung from a tree a couple of weeks ago," Harald tried to sound bitter but failed when he saw Sister Mary's gentle smile. She walked over and knelt by his bunk.
"And that, sir, is why I defended you against Cecily. I cannot excuse your behaviour, I think it was filthy quite honestly, but I spoke up for you because I understood the pain the loss of your wife and the illness you were suffering must have caused. I saw how it must have clouded your reason."
"You stood up for me, Sister?" Harald's voice was tinged with surprise. When Sister Mary nodded, he said, "So because of you, I'll have the chance to get well and not be chucked out into the tipping down rain, to die when my lungs pack in? From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, Sister."
Catherine nodded again and there was silence between the two for a while.
The deep toll of the bells for evening service broke the silence. Catherine stood. "I must go now, Master Harald. After the service, I will bring you some supper and your evening medicines." The old man pulled a face. "As unpleasant as they may taste, sir," Catherine said, "you can't deny they have done you some good." She bowed to Harald. "I will remember you in my prayers tonight."
As Catherine reached the door, Harald called out, "I knew from the moment I met you that there was something special about you." She turned and looked back. The old man was smiling faintly. "You have a sort of glow around you, Sister," he said.
"Touched by the light of Our Lord Ahren," Catherine replied, if somewhat uncertainly, "such a glow comes from all my Sisters."
"Then you must be the best and the brightest, Mary," his smile broadened.
Catherine beat down the glow of pride in her heart. That would be sinful, she thought. "May Lord Ahren bless you, Master Harald," she said, and turned to go.
Catherine opened the door and was about to step through, when Harald said softly, "I don't suppose you could bring something a bit more interesting to read for our bedtime story tonight, could you, Sister?"
Catherine halted suddenly at the half-open door. She took one moment to think of her response. This is Lady Lyris' gift, she thought. One glimmer of hope, one chance. She closed the door gently and turned back to Harald. "You find Our Lord Ahren's stories and legends tedious then, sir?"
"Well, not tedious, as such, Sister Mary," Harald said, slightly embarrassed, now. "It's just that you've read so well and so clearly these last few nights, you have given me some of that clarity, too." He looked up at the Sister. "Something to build on what you have taught me, perhaps?"
"You mean poetry, philosophy or history? Our Lord has been generous in his teachings in those subjects." Catherine stifled a wicked grin. She knew she had touched a raw nerve in the old man and he was barely controlling his temper with her. "Or perhaps we could look at languages? Maybe ancient tongues? Our Lord has helped us all through many centuries and I am sure his wisdom has been imparted in many languages."
"Yes," smiled Harald. "That sounds like it would be a challenge for us both, Sister."
Catherine returned the smile. "I will see what I can find." With that, she opened the door and went to evening service.
After evening service, with a very uplifting sermon from the Mother Abbess, Catherine said polite goodnights to Sisters Anna and Clara before departing for her cell.
Once safely in her sanctuary, Catherine paced nervously back and forth across her room. Harald had requested new books for their reading sessions and she could hardly refuse. She needed news from the outside world, she was desperate to know how her people were bearing the invaders' brutality. The way to get that news, or at least some taste of it, was to bargain with Harald. She halted in the middle of her room, closed her eyes, exhaled sharply, then drew a deep breath which she held for several seconds. Finally, Catherine breathed slowly out and opened her eyes.
A little calmer now, Catherine retrieved her bracelet - she thought of it as her own now, despite the fact that she had not paid Erik's asking price, nor been gifted with it by her lover - and clipped it around her left wrist. She took another moment to inspect each of the glyphs on the individual links. Compared to the smooth, rounded characters used in most Northern languages and the flowing Elven script she had seen when those graceful people had visited her home town, each glyph was angular, sharply defined and even crude. But there was something else. Each glyph seemed to tug at her heart, mind, stomach and even her womb, and left her with a definite tingle running through her body. Power. Catherine's heart set on one direction. This was the path her mother had shown and this was the one she should take to free her people. And Harald, who wore a tattoo of such striking similarity to the glyphs on her bracelet, may help her take another step along that path. The sleeve of her black robe covered the bracelet so it could not be seen unless she raised her hand. It was not the best concealment she could contrive, so Catherine had to trust to Lady Lyris to keep that small spark of hope alive.
Next, Catherine shifted a small stone block in the floor. She had used a spoon, stolen from the kitchen, to prise the stone loose and dig out a small niche below. From this, she took the signet ring, which was unquestionably hers, and dusted off the dirt smeared across the gold. She tucked the ring into a fold of her robe, then composed herself, smoothed the front of her robe, and slipped out of her cell.
She made her way to the Library which was deserted at this time of night, thankfully. In her times of despair and loneliness, Catherine had sought refuge in the silence of the Library, rather than the confinement of her cell. The silence was a comfort to her and, surrounded by books, scrolls and ancient clay tablets, Catherine was reminded of her mother's own library, the one concealed behind a secret door with an intricate lock to which there was only one key.
Her fingers skipped along the leather spines of a dozen books until she found the one she sought: a small volume which contained legends of how the Lord Ahren had answered the prayers of Duke Stephan of Astan, nine-hundred years ago. The book, as with all its companions on the shelves of the Library, was chained to the shelf. A brass ring had been fixed to the spine and an iron chain passed through the loop. The chain was long enough to allow the book to be taken to a nearby lectern - several were stationed throughout the Library for this purpose - for reading and study.
These books were destined never to leave the Library. Sister Superior Bethra had claimed that the books were to be preserved and copied for future generations. But how could such knowledge be shared when it was chained to a shelf? Catherine remembered fighting down the wave of anger she had felt on her first visit here. She had promised herself that, when the time came, she would release these books for the betterment of her people.
She followed the chain a few feet along the shelves and came to a small, somewhat rusted, iron padlock. With a deftness she had learned over the months, Catherine used a small iron wire to pick the lock, which opened with a quiet click. She fed the chain back through the brass ring and released the book, then carefully rearranged the other books on the shelf so that, at first glance, the history book would not be missed.
The book opened with the dry crackle of ancient parchment, preserved for hundreds of years with lacquers, varnishes and other solutions, the making of which was now lost. Catherine paged through the book for a few moments. The language was the distant ancestor of the language she and her people spoke and also the neighbouring lands of Mindas, Imer and the hated Menkalin. She immediately recognised a few of the words which had remained unchanged over the centuries and some others were familiar though she could not quite fathom their meaning. One word seemed to leap from the page: sorcery. Catherine's heart skipped a beat. Yes, she thought, this would be a challenge for herself and Harald.
"Your Sister is sorry, Lord Ahren," Catherine whispered, "but the knowledge you have given us must be shared so we may better protect the innocents we cherish."
Catherine left the Library and headed for the kitchen. Here she prepared a supper for Harald, a thick, warm soup with a hearty wedge of soft bread. She placed the history book on a tray, set the soup bowl and bread beside it, and covered the whole with a white cotton towel.
When she reached the Infirmary, Catherine walked to Sister Martha's station.
"You are being very brave, Sister Mary," said the older woman as Catherine approached.
Catherine was shocked. "He hasn't?" Dread surged through her that Harald might have broken his earlier promise and he had been vulgar or dangerous again.
"No, not at all, Mary," Martha replied gently. "In fact, Harald has been very kind and well mannered this evening. Sister Superior Cecily told me you have taken on Harald as your own responsibility. Given his earlier behaviour, your courage is exceptional, Sister."
"I merely want to do my duty, Martha," Catherine replied, easily. "With the grace of Lord Ahren, I shall do it, and help him get well again. That is all I wish for." Catherine took the small bottle of green glass containing Harald's medicine for the night and bade Sister Martha good night before crossing to the old man's room.
She paused outside the old man's door and balanced the tray on one hand before knocking gently on the dark oak. She was not surprised when Harald's voice said "Come in, Sister Mary." Catherine did not notice, however, the cat crouched in the shadows just outside the door. The little creature slunk through the door behind her and settled in another dark corner of the room.
Catherine plumped up Harald's pillows and set the tray on his lap. He tucked the white towel into the front of his nightshirt and was about to start on his supper when he noticed the book. His eyes widened in surprise.
"Lord Ahren be praised," he whispered. He ran his fingertips over the chestnut leather and traced the embossed lettering which had been picked out in, now faded, gold leaf.
Catherine raised her eyebrows. "You are pleased with tonight's selection, then, Master Harald?"
"I am indeed, Sister. Why, I haven't seen lettering like this for many a year."
He is familiar with it, then, Catherine noted with some satisfaction. "It is a record of how the Lord Ahren heard the prayers of Duke Stephan nine centuries ago. It was through his intercession that our people were freed from the tyranny of Menkalin." Catherine carefully underlined the word our, and Harald looked up into her eyes.
He held her gaze as he said, "If he saved us then, why has he failed us now?" His voice deepened and Catherine could sense his grief, which buried another, deeper feeling. Rage. "He looked the other way and my wife died, Mary."
Locked in this battle of wills with the old man, Catherine would not look away. She tried to organise her thoughts. How could she answer him? What could she possibly say that would ease his grief? She recognised his anger which burned in her own heart. Anger that had brought about her own downfall. Catherine drew on the qualities her family most valued, those she had lost that fateful afternoon and then strove to regain in her time at Osterlin.
"Some among us forgot his teachings and qualities, Master Harald," she said simply, as her own guilt roiled in her stomach. "We became complacent, lazy, even. Pride, never before a weakness in our people, grew and became our downfall. Some of us looked with sneering pity on the serfs of our southern neighbour and we thought that will never happen to us. It did. The invasion of five years ago taught us all a harsh lesson, Harald."
The old man looked away, uncomfortable under the young Sister's gaze. He toyed with the wooden spoon and listlessly stirred the now-cold soup. "So you are saying that this is some sort of punishment? The size of our own failure to live up to the Lord Ahren's gift of freedom dictates the severity of the punishment he metes out?"
He sat back with a heavy sigh and nearly toppled the tray from his lap. Catherine caught it just in time.
"What did I do so wrong that it cost me the only person I ever valued in the world?" Harald asked.
"I am not your confessor, Master Harald," Catherine said gently. "Though perhaps you have just answered your own question." When he looked up, she continued. "Loving, respecting and caring for your wife alone, while noble, may have been your sin, in the eyes of Lord Ahren. He teaches that you should care for all."
"And because of that, those Menkalinan dogs hung her from a tree." Harald's eyes began to brim with tears, which Catherine gently dried with the corner of the towel.
"Everyone lost something or someone during the invasion and the years which followed. Some lost more than others, sir. Think of those mothers whose sons marched to war and were never seen again." A stab of grief lanced into her own heart at the thought of Dame Mella. "Daughters, brutalised by rampaging soldiers who were never brought to trial for their crimes."
Harald looked up. Tears sparkled in the Sister's eyes now and he had a sudden realisation. "What did you lose, Sister Mary?" he inquired gently.
"More than you can possibly imagine," she whispered. Catherine reached into her robe and drew out the signet ring. Harald gasped when he saw the shining gold and an insignia he recognised. She slipped it onto her finger and said: “I am Lady Catherine Fox, last Duchess of Astan,” she began. “I value honesty, generosity and valour. I will seek to improve my skills and learning and strive to pass on that knowledge to the rest of my people. I prize justice and the protection of the innocent. I, Duchess Catherine Fox, swear to carry out these duties for the betterment of my family and the people of my land.”
Awestruck, Harald stared at Catherine. The young woman raised her head and fixed him with a look of regal authority. Her eyes still glistened with tears.
“Your Grace,” he stammered.
“Hush, sir,” Catherine whispered. “You must not call me that lest anyone hear. I am an exile within my own land.” Her voice trailed off and sadness settled in her heart at the enormity of what she had just admitted. “I am Sister Mary, hard working, honest and dedicated. I serve Our Lord Ahren. It is my duty and my honour to aid in your recovery.”
“I am your servant,” Harald said quietly.
Catherine sighed heavily. Her shoulders drooped and she felt a wave of tiredness flow through her body. She removed her ring. “No, sir. I failed you all and now I am paying the price until I can atone for my folly and bring justice to my people. You are not my servant, Harald.”
There was a long silence between the two which was broken only by the cat leaping up onto the bunk and curling up to sleep on Harald's chest. Its purring seemed to echo around the room.
Finally, Catherine said, "I have to find a way to free the people I have failed from Menkalin's tyranny." She tried hard to keep the edge of pleading from her voice as she went on. "I think you may be able to help, Harald."
"In what way?" he asked, suspiciously.
Wordlessly, Catherine pushed back the sleeve of Harald's nightshirt and indicated the tattoo. "What is this? What does it mean?" She could tell from the old man's eyes that he was was about to make a glib answer, a casual lie. "It is not just a tattoo. Be honest with me, sir," she said firmly, "or I will scream this place down and say you were inappropriate with me. I willsee that you are cast from the abbey before sunrise."
Harald was taken aback by the Sister's forcefulness and he could tell she meant every word. He was still weak and would have great difficulty making the trek to safety, if not in Willowdale but anywhere else, before the illness returned and killed him. It would be a most unpleasant way to die.
"You are wrong, Sister. It is just a tattoo, a simple picture." The woman's face did not fall in disappointment. She expected more. "But you are right that it carries some meaning. It is an ancient sigil, dating from the times of the God Wars."
Catherine gasped in surprise. "That is but the time of myth and legend," she almost hissed at the old man as she scarcely controlled her temper. "I asked you for the truth, Harald."
"The God Wars were not myth, Sister," Harald said, somewhat nervously as he could see the anger in the young woman's eyes. "The Gods warred for dominance over this world and all its peoples. Men, Elves, Dwarfs even the Orcs and their kin suffered and died on those ancient battlefields." After a pause, when he saw the look of acceptance on Mary's face, he went on. "Five thousand years, maybe ten, maybe more, noone really knows how long has passed since the God Wars ended. This," he pointed at the tattoo on his arm, "is a symbol of those times. A symbol of what was left behind."
"Magic," Catherine managed in a strained whisper.
"Correct, Sister. I was right. You do have something special about you. None of your Sisters here would have recognised that. Not many other people would."
Hesitantly, Catherine murmured, "I was shown a little when I was a child." She deliberately kept her mother's name secret. "It started as fragments of lessons, nothing more, told as if they were fairytales. Wicked witches, beautiful princesses, bold knights. Stories which enchanted me when I was a girl." She smiled as she remembered a sweeter, more innocent time in her life. She looked up at Harald. "They seemed so real. And they were, weren't they?"
"No, Sister, they were just fairytales." Again, the woman did not look disappointed at his answer. "They are what we remember from the stories our ancestors told and which their ancestors lived."
"The magic is real, Harald. I have felt it." He raised his eyebrows and Catherine side-stepped the unspoken question. She could not mention the love-spell she had worked on Erik. "Here." She held out her left hand and pulled back the cuff of her sleeve. The bracelet glimmered with its faint bluish light. "It strikes a chord in my heart and leaves me quivering like a bowstring."
Now it was Harald's turn to gasp. He sat up sharply and reached for her hand. "Where did you get this?" he asked hoarsely.
Catherine pulled her hand back. "An heirloom," she lied, "centuries old, from before the time of the secession."
"It harks back to a time well before that, Sister," Harald said, "I promise you that. Thousands of years."
With some difficulty, Catherine managed to stop her mouth opening wide in surprise. She was wearing a treasure of great antiquity and she had derided it as being cheap tin. How could she have been so stupid? Clearly, even after her time at Osterlin and all her years with Dame Mella, her learning still fell far short of where she wished it to be.
"Can you tell me what these glyphs mean?" Catherine stretched her arm a little further and Harald took her hand. With great gentleness, perhaps even respect for such an ancient treasure, Harald ran his finger over the silvery metal and examined each glyph. She found his touch surprisingly soft for a man who had worked all his life on a farm.
"This," he said, indicating a glyph shaped like a warped star, "means, I think, struggle, or maybe war." He shrugged and looked a little embarrassed. "To tell the truth, some of these glyphs have many meanings and many of those are lost to us."
"Your knowledge surpasses mine then, Harald," Catherine said, ashamed of her ignorance in such matters, "even if it is clouded by thousands of years of loss".
"You are right, Sister. This thing has some power but I cannot tell you what it is, nor how it might be used."
"The Library," Catherine said. When Harald looked quizzically at her, she went on. "Osterlin has stood for fifteen centuries. The volumes in the Library go back to being on ancient clay tablets. Perhaps what we seek is hidden there?" Her pulse was racing, now. Lady Lyris had blessed her with this spark of hope and now she wanted to fan it into flames.
"And what do we seek, Sister?"
"I seek the means to free my people from the Menkalinan animals who have subjugated us for far too long." Catherine realised she was as angry now as she had been when her father had surrendered to Gastar d'Alcene. She closed her eyes and forced herself to calm down. When she finally opened her eyes and looked at Harald, her tone was gentler. "And you, sir, seek justice for your wife's murder." When Harald did not deny this, Catherine finished in a quiet but determined tone. "I failed all my people with my folly, you and your poor wife among them. If I may help you, I will, Master Harald."
"You are suggesting a path completely at odds with your life here at Osterlin, Mary," Harald said. "It's a path my wife was falsely accused of taking and those falsehoods cost her her life. Is that a path you wish to take?"
"I have grown used to my life here. It is hard work but can be both rewarding and comforting," Catherine admitted. "It is not the life I would have chosen for myself. I know now that my life belongs with and to the people I swore to protect. It is my duty."
"Your Sisters will see it as blasphemy of the worst sort."
"I know," she replied as she recalled some of the lies, petty thefts and secrecy she had maintained since her arrival. Catherine deeply regretted the pain her betrayal would cause to Anna and Clara and even young Novice Winifrid. "I have sinned more than once in my time here. But I must follow this path, sir." She looked the old man squarely in his eyes. "And you can show me the way," she said with absolute certainty in her voice.
Harald looked distinctly uncomfortable and turned his gaze away from the young Sister. Did she suspect? "I'm just an old man, Sister. I can't show you the way to anything."
Catherine's instinct told her the man was lying. Months before, she would have had the power, by birthright, to compel Harald to tell the truth. Now she had to tread even more carefully to avoid alienating him and thus extinguish the spark of hope. "Now that your illness has abated," she began gently, "your reason has returned and your language is less filthy, it is quite clear to me that you are a man of considerable learning. And your tattoo marks you as a man whose knowledge runs down stranger paths than the most learned physicians, professors and sages our land has ever known." Catherine held her breath and waited for the man to deny her. When he did not, she knew the gauntlet must be thrown down. "Either that, or you are the basest man I have ever met, a vulgar liar with wandering hands and a mind like a sewer." She finished a little savagely, then, before Harald could speak, she lightened her tone and said, "Which is it to be, sir?"
Harald knew now that the time for word games was over. The Sister, his ruler by heritage, had in some way beaten him at his own game. He held out his right hand, palm upwards, and whispered a single word. At that, a small blue light, a sphere the length of Catherine's finger in diameter, popped into existence, hovering about an inch over his palm. It spread a pale blue glow over his hand and lit up the short distance between the two. Harald held the light for a few seconds and looked at the Sister as she watched, speechless with awe. With another single word from Harald, the light blinked out and was gone.
Harald settled back against his pillows. Even a small enchantment like that had sapped his strength. “Not everyone can perform even simple magics like that, Sister. It takes skill, training and a natural ability that, some say, runs in families. My wife, Lord Ahren rest her soul, could not do it. She was executed not only for a crime she did not commit, but one she could never have committed.”
“But you can do it, Sister,” Harald said, his voice shaking with a mixture of grief and anger. “You can help me get the justice she deserves.”
“I can gain access to the Library, Harald, if that is what you need,” Catherine said faintly. She was still trying to regain her composure after Harald's magic-working. Was the room really colder now than it had been just a moment ago? She shivered. “Only I haven't the faintest idea what you might need.”
“Then we'll have to go together, Sister. Won't we?”
“Are you well enough, sir?” she asked. “You are still weak from your illness.”
“I am well enough if it means justice for my wife.”
Harald looked up into Catherine's eyes and she could see nothing but determination in his gaze. He would give his life for the memory of his wife, to see justice done before he died. Justice that Catherine must help him achieve. The royal blood of Astan flowed through her veins. Duty called and she could not ignore its demands.
“I need a moment, please, Harald,” she said weakly. She stood and walked to the small, candlelit statue of Lord Ahren which stood watch over the room. She knelt, clasped her hands together, and prayed.
Lord Ahren, forgive me, please, for what I am about to do. I cannot deny this man his right to justice. Your Sister will carry the guilt of her actions for the rest of her life. I will suffer the pennance you decree and bear the sorrow of my sin for eternity.
When Catherine opened her eyes, her vision was misted by tears but she looked at Harald with the same determination he had shown her. The prayers had cleared her mind. The first step of any journey was often the most difficult and now Catherine was ready to take that step.
“Shall we?” She looked over her shoulder to the door which led back to the main Infirmary ward.
Catherine opened the small chest at the foot of Harald's bed and took out the clothes he had worn on the day he arrived. She smiled weakly and handed the garments to the old man. “I washed and repaired them as best I could, Harald.” He took the clothes and Catherine demurely turned her back as he dressed. “We kept your walking staff in the room while you were still unconscious but when you woke and became aggressive, Sister Superior Cecily thought it too dangerous to keep near you. I believe it is now stowed behind the Matron's station in the ward.”
Then realisation hit her. “Oh! Martha. We shall never be able to sneak past her.”
Harald chuckled and Catherine turned to find him decently dressed. He had even thoughtfully folded his nightshirt and laid it on his bunk. “I think Martha will be asleep, Sister Mary.”
“Martha never sleeps on duty, sir,” Catherine replied, as she began to feel panic rising in her heart. This whole venture would end in ruin before it had even begun. Oh! How could she have been so stupid to suggest the mere idea?
Harald cocked his head on one side and regarded the Sister. “Are you so sure, Mary?” he asked, calmly.
Catherine opened the door a crack and peeped quickly out into the main ward. None of the half-dozen patients, all Sisters and Novices she had met, worked with and even treated in the Infirmary, stirred and the sound of their breathing was interrupted only by Sister Agatha's rumbling snores. She pulled the door open a little further and glanced towards the Matron's station where, it seemed, Sister Martha was engrossed in the Canon of Ahren, the most sacred of the Lord's books.
Studied as she was in the teachings of Lord Ahren, Catherine spent a moment watching her Sister and was glad she had taken to heart the lesson of "thought before action", for she saw that Sister Martha was asleep at her post. The lies Catherine had formulated in her head, the deception she felt she would have to weave and the panic she had felt that her plan was ruined disappeared from her. She looked back over her shoulder at Harald, who shrugged nonchalantly, with an "I told you so" expression on his face. When Catherine frowned crossly at the old man, his grin widened further.
Catherine buried her temper and turned to the task in hand, which was to stroll out of the Infirmary as if escorting a sick old man to the Library was something which happened every day. She took a deep breath, opened the door wider, and stepped through into the main ward. Heart hammering, she walked slowly, almost sedately, to the Matron's station. Sister Martha was soundly asleep, her head propped up on her left hand, while her right rested on a page of the Canon as if she had fallen asleep mid-sentence.
She looked back towards Harald's old room and could see the old man's head peering around the door frame. Catherine beckoned for him to follow and he set out towards her, hobbling slowly but quietly down the hallway, past the sleeping Sisters.
As he reached her, he reeled dizzily and grabbed at her shoulder. Catherine gasped and supported Harald under his arms. His breathing was shallow and somewhat ragged. Perhaps the exertion of walking even this short distance was too much for one who was plainly still sick. She looked at the old man, her face full of concern. He smiled back, faintly. Sorry, he mouthed.
In a brief panic, lest Harald's stumble had woken anyone, Catherine shot a glance around the ward then back at Sister Martha. Her gasp was even sharper as she saw the small black cat sitting on the corner of Martha's desk. It was regarding the Sister with its usual air of disdain then turned the same expression on Catherine. Shoo! Catherine mimed and waved her free hand as if she was brushing the cat onto the floor. The little beast turned its back on her, flicked its tail and jumped soundlessly from the desk to the ground.
Catherine helped Harald to the Infirmary's main double door and left him propped against the wall. His breathing had gotten more steady and he looked a little better. She crept behind Martha's desk and found his walking staff tucked in a corner. This she took and headed back to the old man. He smiled gratefully and steadied himself on the stout wooden staff. She swung the doors open, glad of the silent hinges which were common to every door in the Abbey, and the pair slipped through, the doors closing silently behind them.
Catherine helped Harald through the candlelit corridors and cloisters which led to the Library. Her heartbeat was slowly returning to normal after the panic of their close escape from the Infirmary. And, she thought, as they reached the Library, where is that little beast? It had disappeared again, probably hunting for mice which occasionally found their way into the Abbey.
She helped Harald into a high-backed chair and they rested a moment to regain their breath, regarding each other quietly across the Library's central table. Even Harald looked over-awed by the collection of books, scrolls and clay tablets that crowded the shelves around them.
"We're surrounded by centuries of knowledge here, sir," Catherine began quietly. "I am the youngest Sister ever to have been allowed in here. I can find anything you want, within reason, but I haven't the faintest idea of where to start looking to help you."
Harald looked back at Catherine, though it took some effort of will to tear his gaze from the shelves. The secret is in there somewhere, he thought, then turned his attention to the Sister.
Harald scrutinised the young Sister. He had not lied nor attempted flattery those few nights ago when he had claimed she had a glow about her. The reading of auras was an art long lost to him but he could tell that Mary's early lessons had left their mark, if not on her aura but in her spirit and strength of belief in the power that was left flowing through the world after the God Wars.
"Your Lord has no real patience with the likes of me," he said. With the likes of us, he thought. "What know you of other gods and goddesses?" he asked.
"Our Lord Ahren has been patron of Astan for nine hundred years. Beyond our borders, Aladaar is patron of Mindas and Alora the Goddess of Imer, both nations who are cousins of ours. Baliro, whom you mentioned a few nights ago, is the Kal-Pyrran Lord of Battles who seems to be little more than a wenching, roistering, axe-wielding hooligan." Much like their menfolk, Catherine thought with a smile, though with one important exception. "And Lady Lyris, of course, to whom I have prayed fervently to grant the hope my people need."
Interested, Harald leaned forward. "And has she answered your prayers, Sister?"
"I did not pray for myself, Harald, for I have learned some of the humility I had lost. The people I failed need hope more than do I and I prayed that each and every family would find some small spark to warm and comfort them at this dark time." Catherine fought against the grim feeling which surged through her and struggled to lighten her tone. "And then you arrived. I knew you immediately as one of my countrymen and saw it as my duty to help and treat your sickness. I felt I could repay you, personally, for the failure I heaped upon you." She held the old man's gaze. "It was when I saw your tattoo that I realised Lady Lyris had granted me the one spark of hope which I could not ignore." Catherine looked around at the books, scrolls and tablets on the shelves. "Lady Lyris, in her way, has brought us here."
"Through the subtle guidance and aid the gods may provide? Your words, of course, Sister."
"I see nothing wrong with that interpretation, Harald, despite your sarcasm. Lady Lyris granted me this small favour but I chose to take it, when I could have let fear and guilt rule me and reject her gift of hope. You did the same when you chose not to die from the illness that wracked your body. The gift of Lord Ahren's wisdom, with which Sister Superior Cecily made your medicines, was offered to you and you accepted." Catherine paused and smiled slightly. "We are of a kind, Harald. You cannot deny that."
Harald returned the smile, a little sadly. He had to offer the Sister one last chance to turn away from the path he trod. "You would make a fine Abbess here, one day, Sister. The youngest ever Sister to be allowed in the Library, perhaps the youngest ever Mother Abbess?"
The vision blossomed in Catherine's mind's eye. She stood at the pulpit of the Chapel, preaching to the assembled Sisters and Novices. She could see the faces beaming back at her as her words moved their hearts and minds in the service of Lord Ahren. Then her Sisters would leave the Abbey and take her words to the people of Astan who, inspired by the remembered teachings of the Lord who had freed them nine centuries ago, would revolt against their Menkalinan overlords and drive the hated invaders away.
Catherine banished that terribly seductive vision of leading a holy crusade against their overlords and blinked back tears. As she came to her senses she realised Harald was watching her closely. She wondered if he had seen the same vision. "No, Harald. It cannot be that way. The holy order of Mother Abbess is not a position to be abused to wreak vengeance on our invaders. The vows I would have to take as Mother Abbess could not be broken. Our Lord Ahren would punish me for eternity for such a sin." Catherine shook her head to clear the last of the vision from her mind.
Harald managed to conceal his satisfaction at the Sister's response. She was strong willed and a worthy student. He nodded slowly. "I understand, Sister. I merely described what could be a safe choice for you. It takes great courage to walk away from that safety."
"Valour has ever been a quality of my family, sir," Catherine said, with feeling. "Justice and the protection of the innocent have been our goals since the secession. I can hide behind Osterlin's walls no longer while my people, our people, Harald, suffer. Will you show me the way forward, along the path of magic you follow? Together we can find justice for your wife and the rest of our people."
The silence between the two was broken when the little black cat appeared as if from nowhere and jumped up onto the table in front of Catherine. It was purring loudly and squirmed under her hand as if begging for her to scratch its ears and stroke its belly. Catherine smiled as she did so.
"There is a Lord who takes special interest in our path," Harald said.
Catherine stiffened and accidentally jabbed a finger into the cat's belly. The animal hissed and scratched at the finger, forcing a yelp from the Sister. Catherine sucked her finger tip and watched as the cat leapt from the table onto a nearby lectern and regarded her with feline loathing.
"Take care with what you are about to say, Master Harald," Catherine warned. "Your last outburst of blasphemy nearly had you cast from the Abbey." She could see that the old man was weighing her words carefully. "I checked, incidentally, for that other one you mentioned." She could not bring herself to say the name Terys. "Suffice to say that Sister Superior Cecily thought the name unclean and I could find no mention of that name in here."
Catherine thought for a moment longer as she glanced around the Library. "Though now I come to think of it, I find that missing name rather odd." She stood and walked away from the table, past the books to a rack of scroll cases. In doing so, she missed the intent stare of the old man as he followed her progress. "Master Harald," she said, "you may want to see this."
The old man hobbled over as Catherine unrolled a scroll of ancient parchment. "This is over one thousand years old," Catherine informed him, "written while Astan was still a subject province of Menkalin."
Harald peered at the scroll, its crabbed letters faded in many places. "The language is familiar but I can barely make it out. Your eyes are sharper than mine, Sister, if you can make anything of it."
"It took rather a lot of effort to understand its meaning, I admit. It is a genealogy, of sorts, of the gods worshipped in the Northlands and even some of those in the lands South of the Sea of Rhyn. And while it mentions many of the Lords and Ladies of the Heavens and the Hells, some of whom, legend tells, have an evil reputation, there is not one mention of T ...," Catherine brought herself short before she spoke that name. "It seems to have been stricken from this record," she finished, quite definitely.
Harald looked doubtful, so Catherine pressed on. "I know this scroll is ancient and has not been as well preserved as some of the others but please, look here." She indicated two patches where the surface of the scroll was more worn than the rest of the parchment. "It is as if they have been scrubbed with wire wool."
Harald brushed his fingers across the parchment and it became clear that the Sister was right. Her powers of observation and research were astonishing and he decided to push her a little further. "How do you know they are hiding the name of that Lord?"
"I managed a translation of the text before and after these worn passages," Catherine replied. "Here," she rested her index finger on the parchment and scanned along the line, "it says 'The Lord of the Beyond demands fealty from his servants'. Then we have this blank spot before it resumes with 'deception and murder are his tools, the spilling of innocent blood his greatest joy, and he treasures the suffering of those who fail him'."
Catherine looked up from her work with a faintly disgusted expression. "If this refers to the one you mentioned, sir, then it is plainly the foulest daemon-god the Northlands have ever seen." She could see she had touched a raw nerve in the old man. “It's him, isn't it?”
Harald looked sheepish, nervous, scared. “Lord of the Beyond. Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “That is a name I have heard in connection with Terys, though the name was not Terys as spoken in our language. In the tongue of ancient Sythia, Magra-Tirsys was his name.” He stopped when he saw Mary's questioning expression. “Our language, and those of Mindas, Imer and our Northlands cousins, are all in some way derived from much older tongues. Centuries of war, invasion and isolation have changed the languages but their roots can still be divined, if, like you yourself, Sister, know how.” He paused for a moment and saw the look of anger in Mary's eyes but he had to make his point. “Terys. Tirsys. It matters not what name you call him, the power of the Lord of the Beyond is the same.”
Her voice lowered to an almost savage growl. "If you are even suggesting that I follow this daemon down your path then I am bound to refuse. I will not shed the blood of innocents to save my own people!"
"Then you should rest easy, Sister," Harald replied gently, wanting to calm the young woman and avoid an angry altercation which would cause them both great harm. In fact, he saw from Mary's reaction a way of strengthening her committment to the path she so desperately wanted to follow, but which her training at Osterlin and her noble bloodline forced her to reject. "Please, come sit again."
They returned to the Library's central table and sat closer together this time. "The Lord I spoke of is Calazus, a name I am also sure does not appear in the scroll. Perhaps another name stricken from the record?"
Catherine shrugged weakly. She felt lost, as if Lady Lyris's spark of hope had been brutally extinguished by a daemon-god from the distant past. Her eyes misted over as she stared blankly at the table top. The cat seemed to relent in its loathing of the young Sister and jumped up onto her knee. Absently, she stroked the cat's back until it settled in her lap, purring gently.
"Lord Calazus is not a bloodthirsty killer," Harald continued calmly. "He does not force his followers into servitude. He does not even demand worshipful services of the type your Sisterhood dedicate to Lord Ahren." He saw the Sister bridle at that and placed his right hand on hers, a terribly forward and unseemly gesture but one which made her look up into his eyes. "Sister Mary, Lord Calazus treats each spell, each ritual, each enchantment as an act of worship. He merely demands wisdom in the use of those powers."
He sat back a little and his hand slipped from hers. Catherine made to reach for his hand again then stopped herself abruptly. "I cannot turn to the worship of another god, Harald. The Lord Ahren has been patron of my land and people for centuries."
"Worship of Lord Ahren is not at odds with studying the arts of Lord Calazus, Mary," he said kindly. "Neither is praying to the Lady Lyris as you well know. You are young but you have the wisdom and the strength of will to become a great student of Lord Calazus's teachings. And if you can use those magics wisely, your Lord Ahren will not be angered when you set our people free."
Harald, of course, was right. She was guilty of the sin of blasphemy with her prayers to Lady Lyris. She struggled to reconcile that sin, committed in the belief that hope could be granted to her people, against this greater wickedness which could stain her soul forever. "Then answer me but one more question, Master Harald." He nodded. "Why did you mention this other, the unclean one from beyond?"
"Because I saw his symbol stitched into the clothing of the man who executed my wife. A Menkalinan army captain. I believe our invaders are in league with the Lord of the Beyond. Sorcery gives their army strength."
Startled, Catherine bit hard into the knuckles of her right hand and stifled a scream. The cat leapt from her lap and sat on the Library's central table. The little animal watched her intently.
The guilt welled up inside her. For five years and more, Catherine had despised her father for his act of cowardice on the field of battle. The contempt in which she had held her father had driven her to rebel against his authority, to turn her back on the traditions of her family and, ultimately, to betray her own people through her folly and sinful lust. Duke Anton's surrender to Gastar d'Alcene's forces, which she had seen as his way of maintaining a tenuous grip on power in Astan, seemed now to have been his only way of avoiding a bloody reign of sorcerous terror in the land. A reign which now seemed to be taking root.
And it was her fault.
She lowered her hand from her mouth. Her teeth had left deep, stinging indentations in her normally soft, smooth skin.
"Oh, Lord Ahren," Catherine whispered as despair crashed over her. She rubbed her hands together gently to soothe the pain, then clasped them together and prayed to her Lord.
Harald had watched the conflicting emotions show on the Sister's face, ruining her natural beauty with guilt, fear and self-loathing. He wanted to help but could not. The next decision had to be hers and hers alone.
Catherine was silent for a long time as she prayed. Unlike her previous moments of despair, when her prayers had brought comfort to her soul and calmness to her mind, this time Catherine felt nothing. The words were meaningless, the thoughts they should have evoked did not rise in her mind, and she was left desolate and alone. I have been abandoned by my Lord Ahren and I deserve nothing less for being tempted to the path of blasphemy and evil, she thought.
She remembered, then, her mother's words, which she had read countless times in the secret letter. They seemed to echo around her mind in her mother's own voice, as clear as if the Duchess was standing next to her.
“You must not forget what you swore on your birthday. Protect our innocents. No vow, no pledge, no prayer can supplant your oath. You are their hope, Catherine. Do not fail them.
“I beg you, dear daughter, do not act rashly. Learn by whatever means you can. Test yourself to your limits. Better your skills for the betterment of your people. When the time is right, you will know and you will act without fear and fulfil your oath.”
Defiance now replaced despair in her heart. Then so be it! I must carry the fight to Gastar d'Alcene using the weapons he used against my father and our people.
She looked up at the old man. "You can teach me? These arts?" Her voice was quiet, strained almost to breaking point by the grief she felt. She felt tired, almost as if she had aged twenty years in the last few moments.
"I can, Sister."
"Then should my first lesson be helping you to find that which you seek here?" Catherine gestured to the shelves of the Library. "You are looking for something, are you not?"
Harald chuckled gently, with amusement showing in his grey eyes. "You are right, Sister. We are of a kind, you and I, and yes, there may be something here we can use to right the wrongs done to us."
"I have not read every tome, scroll or clay tablet here, Harald, though I do know how most subjects are organised." She stood quickly, with her shoulders back and head held high. Her first step was taken, now she must press forward. "Where shall I start?"
"History, Sister, is what we need. The roots of this invasion and the evils Menkalin perpetrated go back to the time of the secession, if not before." When the Sister looked puzzled, he tried to explain. "Sometimes what we need now lies buried in the past."
Catherine walked between the rows of shelves, her fingers skipping lightly along the spines of heavy, leather bound tomes. Quickly but carefully, she unchained each of the volumes she thought were relevant and returned a few moments later with three books and a scroll case, the last nearly two feet wide and tightly curled around an oaken pole tipped with brass.
Harald smiled up at her, the wrinkles around his eyes no longer making him seem old and frail, but wise and sincere. The smile, however, was brief as Harald found his gaze drawn to the books. He knew the Sister to be a wealthy woman, if she could but regain her birthright, but the wealth of knowledge held in this library made the wealth of a nation seem paltry to him. He slid the first book across the table to the Sister and opened the second.
Catherine inspected the front cover of her book. It was made of heavy sheets of wood, hinged with brass at the spine and covered in thick cloth. She thought wistfully back to her life before Osterlin, when the heaviest thing she would have picked up might have been a hairbrush or perhaps a rainproofed riding cape. This book outweighed both those objects.
After a few moments reading, she said, "This is a military treatise which documents the weapons, armour and tactics used by Menkalin's forces and our own during the secession. It may not be what we need, sir."
Harald looked up from his reading. "It may list the noble families who warred against the King at that time and then turned on Duke Stephan. The family lines from then may still be in league with the Beyond."
Catherine closed the book and pushed it away. "Then I have no need to read further. I know the families who besieged Duke Stephan," she pressed the tip of her index finger against her right temple, "from years of history lessons. I was taught they were power-hungry, arrogant and cruel, but not that they had leagued themselves with devils." She thought for a moment longer, weighing up what she had learned from Dame Mella, the news she had heard from Menkalin before the invasion, and Harald's own story of his wife's execution. "Perhaps that is why Menkalin, and Gastar d'Alcene in particular, treat witchcraft with such brutality? They want such arts to be controlled by themselves alone and will murder anyone who follows this path." Her determination hardened still further in her heart.
She turned her attention to the scroll, unfurling it slowly as she read down the parchment. The writing was uncommonly clear for such an old document, though the language taxed her skills and she had to go back and reread several passages until she made sense of the text. At last she was satisfied. "This may be of use, sir. It describes a service in the Menkalinan army camp, as reported by one of Astan's scouts." Catherine turned to the old man, a nauseated expression on her face. "A soldier who had made his first kill in battle was blooded by his officer. 'Surrounded by his regiment, the soldier was stripped to the waist and slathered with the blood of the nobleman he had killed'," Catherine translated. "'Then he knelt and swore an oath, in a tongue the scout could not understand'. There is a line of gibberish which I cannot translate, before it says 'A girl was led into the circle of jeering men, stripped and brutalised first by the soldier who had sworn the oath and then by the rest of the regiment. Her body was cast into a pit a mile from the camp.'"
Catherine looked up with horror on her face and tears in her eyes. "We have to stop this, Harald. They are doing the same now. I heard stories that many of our women had been raped by enemy soldiers and this account makes that crime worse still. I cannot let this continue."
"May I see that, please, Sister?" Harald asked gently. He could see Mary was shaking with barely restrained fury as she passed the scroll to him. He read what she had flawlessly translated for him and looked more closely at the line she viewed as gibberish. It was not gibberish, at least not to him. "Yes," he said after a moment, "It is quite clear that their brutality knows no bounds, Sister. I suppose my old dear got off lightly, rather than being treated like this."
Disbelief tinged Catherine's voice as she said, "I fail to see how you can draw even a small morsel of comfort from these accounts of such savagery."
"By your own account, because I cared only for my wife and no other, my sin runs deep, Sister. Even stories like this are a mercy that she died as clean and pure as the day we married."
Catherine sighed heavily. It seemed that the path she was treading now would not be the path she dreamed of following from her mother's lessons. It would instead be long, arduous and littered with horrors such as these. She vowed to herself that she would not perpetrate acts of violence and degradation, even against her enemies. She felt she would rather die than become as foul as they.
"So, what of this last book?" Catherine asked, trying to force some lightness into her voice. She watched as Harald paged through the book, his fingers scanning quickly over the text.
"Interesting," he murmured, then passed the book to her, his finger resting on a passage of untidily scrawled text which was wholly at odds with the beautiful copperplate hand which adorned the page and, indeed, the rest of the book.
Her curiosity piqued again, Catherine read the passage quickly and then more slowly. She picked out some of the words quite easily but then had to go back to the neater passages to understand the context of the scrawl. "It is all written by the same person, I can tell from the grammar, but this section was written in a hurry. This part here," she underlined some of the words with her fingertip, "speaks of chanting and trance. A ritual, perhaps?"
Harald sat back with a satisfied smile. His student was making rapid progress. "A summoning," he said. "It is likely that the hastily scrawled section was written while the ritual was in progress." Though, Harald admitted inwardly, it was also possible that it was written as something was going wrong.
"Astan won the war of secession. Perhaps this book was captured from one of the enemy?" Then locked up and forgotten, she thought miserably. The weapon of the enemy in the very heart of her nation's beliefs.
"And it is incomplete, Sister," said Harald. "The actual incantations used are not written down. Still, there are many useful clues here. Very interesting."
"If it is incomplete, is it still of use?" Disappointment again surged through Catherine.
"Your predecessors and seniors in the Library have already gone to great lengths to excise some records. I never expected to find a complete grimiore here, Sister. Something so powerful, so obscene and blasphemous in the eyes of Lord Ahren, would surely have been destroyed centuries ago."
"So what happens if we misunderstand these clues?" Catherine tried hard to disguise the fear and guilt she felt from her voice.
"A good question. At best, we will waste time and energy. Time our people may not have and energy we need to keep our faculties sharp to do what needs to be done."
Catherine nodded. She well remembered the tiredness she felt after working her love-spell on Erik. A ritual like the one described in the book could leave them at death's door. "And at worst?" she asked.
"The Lord of the Beyond may take us and torment us for eternity."
Icy fear crawled down her spine. While her father's life had been at stake on the battlefield, she was sure that his soul, at least, would have been taken by Lord Ahren, guarded and held for eternity. Her very soul would be forfeit now if she failed.
In a way, her family line embodied the very soul of her country. Her actions had blackened that spirit and she must make amends. To risk her life was one thing. To risk her soul for the good of every soul in her land seemed somehow fitting.
She smiled at Harald. "Then let us be gone from Osterlin, sir. We cannot study these rituals here. I would be tried for heresy, witchcraft and blasphemy and cast from the Sisterhood. You, I fear, would be arrested and turned over to Gastar d'Alcene's men for torture and execution. Secrecy must be our watchword, I feel.” Catherine finished as she recalled her mother's secret library and their midnight lessons.
"Indeed, Sister Mary." Harald returned the Sister's smile.
Catherine replaced the military text on the shelves and fastened the padlock. She looked around her, sighed heavily, then walked back to the table. Despite Harald's attempt at reassurance, Catherine felt in her heart that the Lord Ahren would never forgive her for this act of wickedness. She was unsure if she could forgive herself.
The old man had rerolled the scroll and stacked the two books they were stealing from the Library. The cat was watching with wide green eyes, the tip of its tail flicking back and forth.
“We still have time before your Sisters rise and prepare for morning service,” Harald replied. He could tell that Mary's morale was low and she needed gentle encouragement to regain her confidence. Such self-belief was key to many of the lessons he would teach her. “Are you ready, Mary?”
Catherine nodded and opened the Library door, her heart in her mouth as she expected the Mother Abbess and a cadre of Sisters Superior to be waiting outside. The corridor, of course, was deserted. Together, she, Harald and the cat made their way through the silent halls of Osterlin Abbey. They halted in front of her cell.
“I have one stop to make before we go, Harald. There is something I must retrieve from my cell.” Catherine shrugged, rather embarrassed that she had not brought her mother's letter with her. But then, she thought, how could I have foreseen that my talk with Harald would lead to fleeing like a thief in the night? She pushed open the door. Even though her room was in pitch darkness, she knew well where she had hidden the letter, and quickly recovered it. At least her mother would understand, if not condone, her actions this night.
Catherine and Harald, the cat stalking ahead, walked the corridors and cloisters of Osterlin Abbey, until the Garden Gate closed silently behind them.