I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.
I am told my father flew into a rage and raised his hand to my mother even as she lay weak and bleeding on the birthing bed. Until the herbwitch pointed out to him that if my mother had lain with the god of death, surely He would not stand idly by while my father beat her.
I risk a glance up at my husband-to-be, Guillo, and wonder if my father has told him of my lineage. I am guessing not, for who would pay three silver coins for what I am? Besides, Guillo looks far too placid to know of my true nature. If my father has tricked him, it will not bode well for our union. That we are being married in Guillo’s cottage rather than a church further adds to my unease.
I feel my father’s heavy gaze upon me and look up. The triumph in his eyes frightens me, for if he has triumphed, then I have surely lost in some way I do not yet understand. Even so, I smile, wanting to convince him I am happy—for there is nothing that upsets him more than my happiness.
But while I can easily lie to my father, it is harder to lie to myself. I am afraid, sorely afraid of this man to whom I will now belong. I look down at his big, wide hands. Just like my father, he has dirt caked under his fingernails and stains in the creases of his skin. Will the semblance end there? Or will he, too, wield those hands like a cudgel?
It is a new beginning, I remind myself, and in spite of all my trepidations, I cannot extinguish a tiny spark of hope. Guillo wants me enough to pay three silver coins. Surely where there is want, there is room for kindness? It is the one thing that keeps my knees from knocking and my hands from trembling. That and the priest who has come to officiate, for while he is naught but a hedge priest, the furtive glance he sends me over his prayer book causes me to believe he knows who and what I am.
As he mutters the ceremony’s final words, I stare at the rough hempen prayer cord with the nine wooden beads that proclaim him a follower of the old ways. Even when he ties the cord around our hands and lays the blessings of God and the nine old saints upon our union, I keep my gaze downcast, afraid to see the smugness in my father’s eyes or what my husband’s face might reveal.
When the priest is done, he pads away on dirty feet, his rough leather sandals flapping noisily. He does not even pause long enough to raise a tankard to our union. Nor does my father. Before the dust from my father’s departing cart has settled, my new husband swats my rump and grunts toward the upstairs loft.
I clench my fists to hide their trembling and cross to the rickety stairs. While Guillo fortifies himself with one last tankard of ale, I climb up to the loft and to the bed I will now share with him. I sorely miss my mother, for even though she was afraid of me, surely she would have given me a woman’s counsel on my wedding night. But both she and my sister fled long ago, one back into the arms of death, and the other into the arms of a passing tinker.
I know, of course, what goes on between a man and a woman. Our cottage is small and my father loud. There was many a night when urgent movement accompanied by groans filled our dark cottage. The next day my father always looked slightly less bad tempered, and my mother more so. I try to convince myself that no matter how distasteful the marriage bed is, surely it cannot be any worse than my father’s raw temper and meaty fists.
The loft is a close, musty place that smells as if the rough shutters on the far wall have never been opened. A timber-and-rope bed frame holds a mattress of straw. Other than that, there are only a few pegs to hang clothes on and a plain chest at the foot of the bed.
I sit on the edge of the chest and wait. It does not take long. A heavy creak from the stairs warns me that Guillo is on his way. My mouth turns dry and my stomach sour. Not wanting to give him the advantage of height, I stand.
When he reaches the room, I finally force myself to look at his face. His piggish eyes gorge themselves on my body, going from the top of my head down to my ankles, then back up to my breasts. My father’s insistence on lacing my gown so tight has worked, as Guillo can look at little else. He gestures with his tankard toward my bodice, slopping ale over the sides so that it dribbles to the floor. "Remove it." Desire thickens his voice.
I stare at the wall behind him, my fingers trembling as I raise them to my laces. But not fast enough. Never fast enough. He takes three giant strides toward me and strikes me hard across the cheek. "Now!" he roars as my head snaps back.
Bile rises in my throat and I fear I will be sick. So this is how it will be between us. This is why he was willing to pay three silver coins.
My laces are finally undone, and I remove my bodice so that I stand before him in my skirt and shift. The stale air, which only moments before was too warm, is now cold as it presses against my skin.
"Your skirt," he barks, breathing heavily.
I untie the strings and step out of my skirt. As I turn to lay it on the nearby bench, Guillo reaches for me. He is surprisingly quick for one so large and stupid, but I am quicker. I have had long years of practice escaping my father’s rages.
I jerk away, spinning out of his reach, infuriating him. In truth, I give no thought to where I will run, wishing only to hold off the inevitable a little longer.
There is a loud crash as his half-empty tankard hits the wall behind me, sending a shower of ale into the room. He snarls and lunges, but something inside me will not—cannot—make this easy for him. I leap out of his reach.
But not far enough. I feel a tug, then hear a rip of cloth as he tears my thin, worn chemise.
Silence fills the loft—a silence so thick with shock that even his coarse breathing has stopped. I feel his eyes rake down my back, take in the ugly red welts and scars the poison left behind. I look over my shoulder to see his face has gone white as new cheese, his eyes wide. When our glances meet, he knows—knows—that he has been duped. He bellows then, a long, deep note of rage that holds equal parts fury and fear.
Then his rough hand cracks against my skull and sends me to my knees. The pain of hope dying is worse than his fists and boots.
When Guillo’s rage is spent, he reaches down and grabs me by the hair. "I will go for a real priest this time. He will burn you or drown you. Maybe both." He drags me down the steps, my knees bumping painfully against each one. He continues dragging me through the kitchen, then shoves me into a small root cellar, slams the door, and locks it.
Bruised and possibly broken, I lie on the floor with my battered cheek pressed into the cool dirt. Unable to stop myself, I smile.
I have avoided the fate my father had planned for me. Surely it is I who have won, not he.
The sound of the bolt lifting jerks me awake. I shove myself to a sitting position and clutch the tattered remains of my chemise around me. When the door opens, I am stunned to see the hedge priest, the same small rabbit of a man who’d blessed our marriage only hours before. Guillo is not with him, and any moment that does not contain my father or Guillo is a happy one by my reckoning.
The priest looks over his shoulder, then motions for me to follow.
I rise to my feet, and the root cellar spins dizzily. I put a hand to the wall and wait for the feeling to pass. The priest motions again, more urgently. "We’ve not much time before he returns."
His words clear my head as nothing else can. If he is acting without Guillo’s knowledge, then he is most assuredly helping me. "I’m coming." I push away from the wall, step carefully over a sack of onions, and follow the hedge priest into the kitchen. It is dark; the only light comes from the banked embers in the hearth. I should wonder how the priest found me, why he is helping me, but I do not care. All I can think is that he is not Guillo and not my father. The rest does not matter.
He leads me to the back door, and in a day full of surprises, I find one more as I recognize the old herbwitch from our village hovering nearby. If I did not need to concentrate so hard on putting one foot in front of the other, I would ask her what she is doing here, but it is all I can do to stay upright and keep from falling on my face in the dirt.
As I step into the night, a sigh of relief escapes me. It is dark out, and darkness has always been my friend. A cart waits nearby. Touching me as little as possible, the hedge priest helps me into the back of it before hurrying around to the driver’s bench and climbing in. The priest glances over his shoulder at me, then averts his eyes as if he’s been burned. "There’s a blanket back there," he mutters as he steers the nag out onto the cobbled lane. "Cover yourself."
The unyielding wood of the cart presses painfully into my bruised bones, and the meager blanket scratches and reeks of donkey. Even so, I wish they’d brought a second one for padding. "Where are you taking me?"
"To the boat."
A boat means water, and crossing water means I will be far from the reach of my father and Guillo and the Church. "And where is this boat taking me?" I ask, but the priest says nothing. Exhaustion overwhelms me. I do not have the strength; plucking answers from him is like pulling meager berries from a thorny bush. I lie down in the cart and give myself over to the horse’s jolting gait.
And so my journey across Brittany begins. I am smuggled like some forbidden cargo, hidden among turnips or in hay in the back of carts, awakened by furtive voices and fumbling hands as I am passed from hedge priest to herbwife, a hidden chain of those who live in accordance with the old saints and are determined to keep me from the Church. The hedge priests, with their awkward movements and musty, stale robes, are kind enough, but their fingers are unschooled in tenderness or compassion. It is the herbwitches I like most;, their chapped, raw hands are gentle as lamb’s wool, and the sharp, pungent smell of a hundred different herbs clings to them like a fragrant shadow. Often as not, they give me a tincture of poppy for my injuries, while the priests merely give me their sympathy, and some begrudgingly at that.
When I awake on what I reckon to be the fifth night of my journey, I smell the salty tang of the sea and remember the promise of a boat. I struggle to sit up, pleased to find my bruises pain me less and my ribs do not burn. We are passing through a small fishing village. I pull the blanket close against the chill and wonder what will happen next.
At the very edge of the village sits a stone church. It is to this that the latest hedge priest steers our cart and I am relieved to see the door bears the sacred anchor of Saint Mer, one of the old saints. The priest reins his horse to a stop. "Get out."
I cannot tell if it is fatigue or disdain I hear in his voice, but either way, my journey is almost done, so I ignore it and clamber out of the cart, keeping the blanket clutched tight around me lest I offend his modesty.
Once he secures the horse, he leads me toward the beach, where a lone boat waits. The inky black ocean spreads out as far and wide as my eye can see, making the vessel seem very small.
An old sailor sits hunched in the prow. A shell bleached white as bone hangs from a cord at his neck, marking him as a worshiper of Saint Mer. I wonder what he thinks of being woken in the middle of the night and made to row strangers out into the dark sea.
The sailor’s faded blue eyes skim over me. He nods. "Climb in. We en’t got all night." He thrusts an oar at me, and I grasp it to steady myself as I get into the boat.
The small vessel dips and rocks and for a moment I am afraid it will tip me into the icy water. But it rights itself and then the priest steps in, causing the hull to sink even lower.
The old sailor grunts, then returns the oar to its pin and begins rowing.
We reach the small island just as dawn pinkens the eastern horizon. It looks barren in the early, spare light. As we draw closer, I see a standing stone next to a church and realize we’ve come to one of the old places of worship.
Gravel crunches under the hull of the boat as the old sailor rows right up onto the beach. He jerks his head toward the stone fortress. "Get out then. The abbess of St. Mortain be expectin’ ye."
Saint Mortain? The patron saint of death. A tremor of unease washes through me. I look at the priest, who averts his eyes, as if looking at me is too great a mortal temptation.
Clutching the blanket close around me, I climb awkwardly from the boat and step into the shallows. Torn between gratitude and annoyance, I curtsy slightly, careful to let the blanket slip from my shoulder for the merest of seconds.
I t is enough. Satisfied at the priest’s gasp and the old sailor’s cluck of his tongue, I turn and slog through the cold water to the beach. In truth, I have never flashed so much as an ankle before, but I am sorely vexed at being treated like a temptress when all I feel is bruised and broken.
When I reach the patchy grass that grows between the rocks, I look back toward the boat, but it has already put out to sea. I turn and begin making my way to the convent, eager to see what those who worship Death want of me.