Only because the old Forum is long dead and no longer open to comments, because life was a sucky thing that got in the way,because some of you might remember this and might still Wonder what would happen NeXT, because one of my Muses suddenly sprang back to life and has held my Bachelor paper hostage all day... I present to you my Grab Bag for, yes, August waaay back in 2010.
Yay. I've been working on it for... *checks calendar* yup, four and a half years and it's been sitting on my harddrive since Autumn 2011ish. I've had bursts of inspiration from time to time, opened it then to read through to refresh my memory, only for the inspiration to wither and die and I'd leave the story be once more. Period.
That's the way it's been for... a long time. But, as I said, one of my Muses decided to return from the dead today
, in the middle of preparations for exams and what-nots. So, while I was supposed
to be working on my Bachelor paper *glares daggers at evil Muse* this is what I've been doing instead.
Because of the time it has taken to write it, you might notice drastic changes in my style of writing from paragraph to paragraph. That's just how my style has evolved in the last years and at the moment, as I just want to get back to my paper so I can cram it down the examiner's throat and be free of political science for ever
, I also just want to kick this story out from my harddrive so it won't bother me any longer. Seriously, though I love to Write and I love ElfQuest and I love history and I love the medieval universe I've created, I'm sick of this story.
So, enough chatter! If you want to be reminded of what happened in the last installment (and why I'm evil and you should all hate me and I deserve to be stabbed with a pitchfork and grilled over the trolls' fire), it can be found here: http://elfquest.com/forums/discussion/6916/july-2010-grab-bag-writings-and-art/p2
The Elements for August 2010 were:
"Don't be afraid"
A new life
A bright sunAll works must be related to Elfquest, whether canon-based, original character, alternate universe, or whatever. Writings must contain all the above elements. Art can either contain all the elements, or illustrate one of the writings.
And yatta yatta yatta. So, I present you... *drum rolls*Behind The Cloister's Walls – part 2
The dungeons were rarely used, she had been told upon her arrival. The nuns had been showing her around when she first found the door leading down to the vault containing the dungeons. Mrs. Winnowill was a strict and firm leader of the cloister, but held a clear distaste for the rooms underneath the stone building. During her time as a young novice in the cloister, at least one cellar would be occupied at every time of the day, the novices whispered. Under her reign as the abbess, the cellars had been as empty as the former main well in town now was.
At cold nights when they all had finished their duties, the novices would gather in the fire room and share blankets and stories of different kinds. Some told of their lives before Blue Mountain nun cloister, others recounted tales told to them as small children. A few had chosen gossip from the castle as the basis for their stories, and it was in one of those tales Aroree had first heard of the dungeons’ true purpose; a prison where people were legally committed as a punishment for a crime.
Mostly men filled up these dungeons. Men that had committed the worst of crimes and in their wake left nothing but pain and terror behind. Child snatchers and murderers, traitors and thieves, outlaws and rapists. They were held in such cells, true, but there were always those who escaped. And what happened to those that stood in their way… Redmark would softly cry out at this and hug Aroree hard, who had to pry his desperate arms from her neck as the storyteller was admonished by the rest of the group.
A pang of grief forced Aroree to pause in her work as she righted herself and blinked to clear her eyes of stinging tears. Redmark…
What wrong had he done to deserve ending up in such a place? Every story she was told spoke of horrible conditions, of criminals dying from sickness, hunger or mistreatment before their trials. Of maids bringing food down, only to disappear and never be seen again. Of people wrongly accused and death sentence fulfilled before truth was uncovered. Of the sanity slowly slipping away as one was surrounded by nothing but darkness at all times of day.
But none of these stories was as bad as the thought of leaving Redmark alone in the clutches of darkness. Tears spilled down her face. Redmark. The young boy who would snuggle up to her at night when scared. Redmark, sweet, little, innocent Redmark. Her sad, skinny ‘little brother’, whom she had promised would always be by her side, whom she had promised never to abandon.
Only now she had.
A trembling intake of breath later found her out the door and heading towards somewhere she knew not. Prioress or no prioress, she could not
abandon Redmark to a fate such as this.
Sounds and smells returned to him as Redmark regained consciousness with a gentle frown upon his little brow. What had woken him? The distant sound of a door opening and closing. His ears perked at the faint sound of movement, of breathing. Someone else was in the dungeon. If the prioress was back for another beating… but no. The hair on his neck stood not on end. Whoever was there bore no promise of pain.
He opened his eyes to darkness, choked on a trembling sigh and coughed. The tip of his tongue flicked out, wet his dry and cracked lips. He coughed again. More movement, somewhere to his left. He jerked as his shoulder was touched, cried softly out in pain and tried to pull away. The hand, small and calloused, yet strangely soft, held him back.
“Don’t be afraid.” A faint whisper. “Lie still.”
The slight pressure on his shoulder removed itself and echoes of pain dissipated as Redmark fought to obey the gentle command. More sounds came from his side, but he cared not for them. He was not alone anymore – why? This someone was not hurting him, the reasons became clear as something cold and smooth was applied to his wounds. Help. He was receiving help. Why?
Chubby fingers, hard yet soft, worked the coldness into his skin with only the slightest of pinches. He would have pulled away as he was already cold, but found not the strength to do so, and instead remained still as this tingling new sensation slowly registered. He could feel again. He felt the coldness of the smooth something, colder than his own skin, felt the warmth of the other’s fingers as they gently massaged his aching limbs. A whimper of protest escaped as blood found its way into his arms and legs, hands and feet yet again, the hand drew away and he whimpered again.
More rustling movement, something swiped off the ground and dropped somewhere else. A pouch? Someone standing, faint footsteps moving towards where he suspected the door would be. Silence. Then another whisper. “I’m sorry.” The loud creak of the door, even louder as it slid shut and Redmark was left alone in the darkness again.
Ekuar peeked around the corner and glanced down the hall, a worried frown and dark lines marring his usually cheerful face. “I pray we are doing the right thing,” he mumbled. A tug on his sleeve tore his gaze away from the corridor and had him look down into the clear blue eyes of the child behind.
“The High Ones would not want Redmark to suffer,” Aroree softly whispered, though she did not sound as convinced as she had hoped. “They will understand.”
Ekuar only had time to offer her a brief smile when the sound of footsteps reached them and he peeked around the corner again. Aroree watched as he stiffened, and froze herself upon his whispers of warning. “Here she comes. You know what to do.” The old priest rounded the corner and Aroree tiptoed to peek around it, catching sight of the brown fabric of sira Ekuar’s robes. And further down the corridor, the prioress walked straight past him only to halt upon the priest’s gentle call. She turned to face him and not long after the two were engaged in conversation. Aroree swallowed. Now it was her turn.
When she was sure the prioress was busy explaining something to sira Ekuar, she snuck around the corner and slipped across the floor on her toes. She nearly dared not breathe, terrified of being discovered. High Ones, what were they doing? If they were caught, who knew what punishment awaited them? Redmark had been imprisoned because he did not finish his chores fast enough, a minor violation of the cloister laws if there even was such a law. What she and Ekuar were about to do was a whole lot worse, she thought as she came up behind the black clad woman.
If tardiness led to imprisonment, then what would become of her if someone were to discover what she was about to do? Let alone sira Ekuar! He had already stood up against the prioress, resulting in bloody welts and aching bones. He would not survive another round of such treatment, not at his age. She lifted her hand, reached out for the glimmer of metal that hid in dark fabric. And if they found out the reason for their violation of the law… Redmark!
A sob built in her throat and her hand flew to her mouth, too late. Her breath hitched, the poor sound too loud in the silence that graced the corridor.
Ekuar froze the second Aroree’s mouth opened. The woman before him stiffened and her gaze left his, frown upon her face as black eyes narrowed and she turned around.
When Redmark next woke, he was again alone in his cell. Curled up on the floor in a dark corner, he lazily moved unfocused eyes to and fro without actually looking. It mattered not if he kept his eyes closed or open, he was still as blind as the newborn rats in the corner opposite to his. He had not seen them, but he had heard someone scurry across the floor, and the tiny squeaks that had come from across the room since yesterday morn were not to be mistaken.
And he knew they were rats for he had known their bite before, and again he felt the stinging sensation of sharp teeth nibbling on his feet. He weakly kicked out rabbit-like, felt his foot connect with something soft and heard the indignant squeak of a mother rat scorn.
“Pardon,” he tried to say, tried to whisper, but his unused voice was rough against his throat, and it was cracked and dry and it hurt, so he let out a soft whimper instead and hoped the rat would excuse him. Apparently it was enough to satisfy the rodent, for he heard it scuttle across the floor and claw its way into a small hole in the wall, probably in search of food for her young ones.
He only knew of the hole because he had stumbled when the prioress once struck him down here and his hand got stuck and was twisted when he tried to deflect a kick aimed at his head. The wrist throbbed painfully for the first day or so and it had hurt when he moved it, but for two days it had been strangely numb and he could no longer move it. With his other hand he could feel it was cold, colder than the cell and colder than the rest of his body.
He hunched his shoulders and tried to curl into himself again, listening to the faint squeaks from the baby rats as they called for their mother. And he found a strange comfort in the sound, not because someone was there with him, but because the young ones meant life. Though his young mind could not fathom how the helpless little bundles could survive in this dark, cold and dreary cell, it could wrap itself around the fact the baby rats lived. And if they lived even when their mother was not there to protect them, he could also manage without his Mama.At least for a while
, a voice whispered from inside as he slipped away yet again.
The corridor behind her was empty. The prioress looked to and fro, already small eyes narrowed even more in search of the source of the strange sound. It had been a sob, she knew. She had heard enough of them to be sure, to even tell them apart, and this had been a sob of terror. It was a sound she was used to hear, but not one she could say she liked, especially not when she knew not who or what was the reason for it.
She looked about once more, but found nothing worth her attention. She turned back around just as sira Ekuar tore his goggling gaze from the ceiling, but cared not to see what had shaken him so. Had she bothered to do just that, she would have found the lithe body of young Aroree several feet up in the air, levitating just under the stone ceiling with a look of pure panic on her face.High ones
! That had been close, too close. When the sob escaped her, she was sure the end was here. The prioress would see her and immediately understand what they had in mind, and punish them both severely. She had acted on pure instinct, terrified beyond belief when the black clad woman moved to turn around, and had out of panic simply fled.
Up, up, towards the ceiling, she had flown, to where she met sira Ekuar’s shocked eyes, from where she watched the prioress search the corridor where she had stood only moments before. It had been too close.
A sudden chill seeped down her neck and spine, and it had nothing to do with the bracing wind outside or the cold dreariness of the corridor. Something had just occurred to her. Something that suddenly made this entire situation all the more dangerous. For if the not-so-minor-in-fact violation of the law they were just about to commit would bring down on them the wrath of the prioress…
… then what would befall them were she to discover that Aroree was a magical child?
A pearl of sweat appeared by her hairline, slowly trickled down her forehead, her temple, her cheek, coming to rest on her chin as she forced the magic that held her up, to keep the droplet in place. She dared not challenge destiny once again.What do I do? What Do I Do?
The answer came in form of the feeling of weariness, of fatigue, of pain. Of sinking. For she had never used her gift this way before, had never strained her body and mind this much, never forced herself to keep still and silent high above ground for long. Her lessons with sira Ekuar and Mrs. Winnowill were gentle, lasted only long enough for her to collect the will and power needed to float a few feet above ground for shorter periods of time.
The only thing she would be doing, Mrs. Winnowill had once said, for her powers were a gift, but seemed not strong enough to extend beyond floating.If only Mrs. Winnowill knew
, Aroree thought with a twitch of her lips, the closest to a smile in many days, as she let herself slowly, carefully, silently sink to the ground. The moment her clothed feet touched stone, a pale trembling hand shot out and swiftly, nimbly snatched the metal from the prioress. A shared look of horrified joy with the priest later, she was scurrying down the corridor on silent feet she swore were not touching the floor.
Aroree raced through the corridors, keys in her hand and heart in her throat. What had she done? High Ones, what had she done? She had stolen the keys from the prioress. Stolen
! She, who was not to own anything that was not necessary, but to serve the High Ones and live her life as dutifully as only a nobleman’s daughter could, had stolen. And from the prioress
! Oh, what would they do if they caught her?
She knew she had a head start, even if the prioress had discovered her theft by now, but she also knew it would not take the woman long to find out where she was heading. They would all soon be after her. And when she had Redmark with her, most likely far from safe and sound, they would need as much of a head start as possible. Young Redmark was not fast and could probably not even run in the state he now was in. Four-year-olds were not known for their speed, especially compared to grown people.
Tears welled in her eyes as she ran up to the heavy door leading to the dungeons and pulled at the metal handle. Blood ran cold in her veins at the lack of movement and she pulled again. It did not open. High Ones, no
! Was this her punishment for being disobedient, for doing wrong in trying to do right? She made a strangled, guttural sound as she laid both hands on the door and pushed, pushed with all her might. She cared not what happened to her if only she could get to Redmark. He had to get out of the dungeons and to somewhere he could be safe, where he could not be hurt again. High Ones, she had promised him before and she had failed. Were she now to fail again?
She slipped on the floor and banged her head on the wooden surface, also dropping the keys in the process, and she nearly wailed. This would never work! She would be caught and sira Ekuar would be so thoroughly punished he could no longer be priest, and she would be banished from the cloister and never get her home back, and Redmark would never get to leave the dungeons because she was so stupid and useless that she could not even open a door! Sobs built in her throat and she nearly collapsed against the last obstacle in her quest. She probably would have, had not Redmark’s sad face flashed before her eyes and reminded her of why it was so important for that stupid door to open. And she found new strength to lean her entire, slim frame against the woodwork, and push, push, push.
After the longest time, the door creaked open an inch and Aroree, terrified that someone would hear, pushed even harder as her feet again slipped on the floor. Again it creaked and again it moved, and she pushed. Another creak, another inch. Push
. And with a last exertion, she gave the final push that sent the door slamming against the stone wall behind it and Aroree instantly followed, snatching the keys from the ground and stumbling down the stairs to the unknown darkness. The sound had been deafening, someone was bound to have heard and that gave her even less time.
Only when she reached the bottom of the stairs and a few tens of doors were illuminated by the weak light from the floor above, did she come to a quick stop. She had no idea which cell held her precious ‘brother’, nor if someone was already here. What if the prioress had somehow gotten here before her, and was now waiting behind one of the doors? The thought was unreasonable, she knew – there was only one set of keys and she had them now, and sira Ekuar would keep the prioress occupied long enough for Aroree to find and get Redmark out of the dungeons. The only one she would find behind one of the doors would be her ‘little brother’, but the thought gave little comfort as she knew not of his current state. What if he was too weak to make the escape?Then I shall carry him
, she thought. I owe him that much.
The doors before her were large and many, though she saw only little more than ten in the scarce light. The corridor was long, dark and narrow, the dungeons probably likewise but immensely small. She stared hard at the first door, a little terrified at the size of it. She had to save her energy for the probable wild flight later, and she was still tired after the last door. Resting was not an option, but there were too many doors for her to open at once and time was not on her hand. If she were to search each and every room…
With a look of determination on her face, she crossed the floor and briefly touched the doors on the right as she walked by. She felt nothing, no warmth and no bond. Redmark was not there. When she came to the door where she could see no more, she dared not go any further and instead turned to go back while touching the doors on the left. It was when she neared the third last door that she paused and stared intently at the wooden object, hand hovering in the air.
Something was different about it, but she knew not what it was. Hesitantly, she reached out. The door was warm beneath her fingers. Life was on the other side. Joy swelled in her chest and she quickly inserted the keys in the lock, but had to make many attempts as her hands trembled so much that she missed several times. When the lock gave way she gently tried the door, and was surprised when it easily opened without protest.
The stench slammed against her. Aroree gagged and stumbled backwards, desperately swallowing to keep the bile from leaving her throat. No. High Ones, no! Not now, not when she was so close! She had smelled death before and though the odor that leaked from the room was not the same, it reminded her of the choking infant Mrs. Winnowill had saved a year back, during the great fire in town. She had saved the child at the last possible moment, the father later told his friends and family. He did not know it was not the truth, but Aroree knew. The tiny girl had been dead when the abbess got to her. What Aroree knew not was what Mrs. Winnowill had done to bring her back to life, but the gift was in her hands and she had made Redmark better the first time he was ill as an infant. Why should she not be able to do so now?
Aroree took a step forward and looked about, but the room was so dark she could not even see the floor inside. If only she had more light… And as if the High Ones now saw her fit to receive her punishment, or could read her thoughts and conspired against her, the open door on top of the stairs suddenly slammed closed, and she jumped as intense darkness swamped the corridor. She immediately looked for her hands, but they were concealed by the lack of light and she saw not a thing in front of her.High Ones, no!
What was she going to do now? The thought was stupid, she already knew what she had to do, she even wasted time just thinking about it. She had to go forward, despite her fear of the darkness, of being discovered. Redmark depended on her, and she had gotten so far. The door closed on its own accord, she had not heard anyone in the stairs or on top of them. Still no one knew she was there and still she had a chance to succeed. If only she could will her feet to move.
She knew nothing bad awaited her inside the room, but her breath still quickened as her eyes searched the shadows in front of her. No one is there, she told herself. Only Redmark, possibly. And with a deep, trembling breath, she took a single step into the blackness. Nothing grabbed her. She took another step. And another. Her foot caught in her dress, she stumbled a bit, but managed to catch herself. She stopped, heart in her throat, and whispered “Redmark?” in the softest voice.
She stood still for a long moment, but there was no answer for her. “Redmark?” she whispered, eyes darting to and fro, trying to settle onto something other than darkness. Faint sounds of movement to her left had her stiffen, a small whine brought her hopes up and she took a tentative step forward. “Redmark?”
Something parted from the darkness, something small that scurried across the floor and just past her feet with a squeak. She shrieked, jumped backwards and slammed into the wall behind her, heart in her throat and beating rapidly as she fought to keep her breath under control. A rat, it was only a rat. When this finally sunk in, she just wanted to cry. It was a rat
! She had felt a rat
, freed a rat
and wasted her time on a rat!
She was wrong and she had failed, again. Tears welled in her eyes and silently leaked down her cheeks.
What should she do now? The rodent had disappeared and nothing more could be heard. It was the wrong dungeon, she knew it. Else her arms would have been full of young Redmark by now, even with the little boy being weak. Slightly relieved he had not shared room with a rat, and very disappointed she had failed to find him, she turned around to leave when the faint sound of a sob reached her. She turned again, eyes trailing the darkness as her hopes rose yet again. “Redmark?” she whispered.
Another sob. She stepped forward. “Redmark, are you there? It is me, Aroree.”
There was a sudden explosion of movement and a small form launched from the darkness, hit her mid-thigh and wrapped thin arms around her legs. A sob burst around her. Aroree choked back a cry of surprise, for she recognized the sob and the failing strength in the skinny body in front of her. “Oh, Redmark!” she gasped as she fell to her knees and flung her arms around him, and little Redmark collapsed in her embrace as he burst into tears and cried his eyes out. “Shhh,” she brokenly whispered and soothingly rubbed his chilly back. “I am here. Hush now, Redmark, I am here.”
A door creaked in the distance and Aroree’s eyes shot up to the passage behind them just as Redmark let out another sob. She gently pushed his head into the hollow of her neck, tried to muffle the sounds of his anguish and listen for the dreaded sounds of someone coming. There was nothing, only to be heard was her own trembling breath and Redmark’s hysterical sobs. It did not mean they were alone in the cellar. High Ones, if only they had a little light! “You have to be quiet, Redmark,” she whispered and gave him a strong hug, then proceeded to loosen his arms from her and silence his weak protests.
And as if the High Ones finally took pity on her, or little Redmark, faint light from above was allowed entrance to the room and lit up enough for her to see the contours of the child. She gently took his face in her hands and tried to lock eyes with him, but found it still too dark. “Are you okay?” she asked, again in a voice as soft as summer rain. “Did they hurt you?”
“Yes,” Redmark sobbed, a small hand clutching at the hem of her dress. “They scared me, Aroree. They hurt me.” His voice was hoarse – he had been crying a long time.
Despite feeling weak with fear of being discovered, and discovering herself exactly what had befallen Redmark, instant fury flared up inside her. This was the prioress’ fault! The High Ones allowed not thoughts of vengeance, but no more did they allow their children to be hurt. Redmark was hurt, and so was she. The prioress had done this horrible thing to them both. She deserved her anger!
A gentle touch to her cheek brought her attention back to the child in front of her, and she blinked as she felt his gaze pierce her, even through the darkness. “Aroree, I am scared,” he whispered. “What will they do?” His voice was still thick with tears, but he sounded slightly calmer now that he was sure Aroree would not leave him. Her presence was making him feel safe.
Aroree took a deep breath as she closed her eyes to clear them of unshed tears. Redmark was already hurt, he did not need her anguish, did not need to see her anger. He needed help, one person in his life he could count on, one person to be strong and dependable. She would be that person. She would not fail him again. “I do not know what they will do.” Her eyes opened again and she gently kissed his forehead, aware of his tense body softening even more. “But I know what we will do.” Again she tried to locate his eyes, felt warm as she succeeded and looked into their forest-colored depths. “We are going to get out of here and put an end to all of this.”
“I promise,” she answered him, fervently. She had never meant anything more in her life. But time was short, they could not linger here any longer. She moved to take the child in her arms, but found him resisting as the touch brought him pain, and instead pulled him to his feet. The light from above seemed to grow even stronger and she allowed herself a quick glance across the room.
Blood was splattered across the ground in a wild pattern, but the drops were smeared. Aroree winced as she imagined the struggles of her young friend, his little hands clutching at the wall to try and pull himself up. “Come,” she said. She turned away from the red stains, instead taking Redmark’s small hand in hers and gently, but forcefully dragging him out of the room. His limb was cold, coated with sticky blood, but still firmly clutched hers as he did his best to follow her longer strides up the steep stairs.
A priest’s role was that of the consoler, of the guide and of the father. A priest was to lead the nuns and novices through mass, to confidentially listen to their confessions and to help the unsure to understand the gift it was to serve the High Ones. A priest was to be silent, invisible when not needed, the humble and faithful servant of the High Ones, to always respect his superiors.
But, as much as Ekuar tried, he could not find it in him to respect the woman facing him.
A woman who was ranked below only the abbess herself, the woman who was supposed to assist her superiors and guide her inferiors, who was to be another source of comfort for the young ones when the priest or even the High Ones failed.
A woman who was anything but that, and as far from a humble servant as Ekuar was a shamed tavern girl.
Ekuar could not respect the woman who coolly ordered young girls away from their chores to do penance for some crime they had supposedly committed. They were so confused as they were taken away and when they reappeared at meal time they were pale, shaken and close to tears, their innocence ripped to shreds. Some went away for only an hour, others were gone for several days, but they all returned changed in some way. They came back with aching thumbs, wet hair and backs a mess, eyes red and sore from crying, voices raw and hoarse from overuse. Barely a week had passed before everyone knew and every time a girl was taken away, the others would pray for her health and her sanity – and silently thank the High Ones it had not been their turn.
He could not respect the woman who demanded absolute silence at all times. They were not allowed to chat during meals, they were not allowed to speak whilst working, they were not even allowed to whisper amongst themselves at night once lights were out. One of the girls had been cleaning the kitchen when another walked up behind her and touched her shoulder – as no sound was to be passed between them – and the poor girl was so startled she let out a small scream. She was not seen for three days and then stayed in bed for two.
He could not respect the woman who withdrew the midday meal for no reason and then demanded they arrived on the second for the two remaining meals, which barely lived up to their names. When they woke they only had five minutes to wash, dress and go down to the hall and find their seats. One of the girls who was prone to colds had caught one during the night and had been only half a minute late to the morning meal, but there was no mercy with the prioress. She had had to ask the oldest nun for her tin cup and plate and then go to each nun and novice and plead for just a tiny scrap of their already meager meal. Kind Aroree had given her half her plate, young Redmark all of his – as the youngest they would always receive extras from the older, once the prioress was looking another way. The poor girl never did the same mistake.
He could not respect the woman who took him to a chamber where a handful of novices stood trembling and crying in only their night clothes, and told him to pick one. The first time he had looked at her in revolt and sent the girls away, and she had regarded him with ice cold fury. When he was let out of the dungeons nine days later and taken to the same room with another handful of girls, he chose the girl who cried the loudest – and consoled her through the next hour, assuring her that he was not going to touch her, this was not what the High Ones expected of them, that they were not weak and bad for not wanting this, and promising the abbess would soon return and put an end to it all.
He could not respect the woman who separated the children with a smirk and demanded they work just as hard as those thrice as old and strong as them. The new young girl had seen Aroree suffer alone and had gone to the prioress with an infected finger, cut on an uncleaned knife three days prior, to request she and Aroree might switch chores for a few days so her finger would not trouble her, and Aroree would be closer to little Redmark. She had returned in tears, clutching a bloody hand, and only when Ekuar gently pressured her did she break down and admit through choking sobs that the prioress had taken a meat cleaver and cut her finger clean off.
A priest was to be pacifistic and not partly to thoughts of revenge, but at the moment Ekuar had to admit with cold dread that he longed to take the meat cleaver and cut that satisfied smirk right off her face, longed to lose just a tiny bit of control and let the rocks surrounding them squeeze the evil life out of her, to let her know the pain she inflicted on so many innocents.
With even more dread, Ekuar had to admit he did not even feel wrong to have such thoughts.
The look on the prioress’ face would make the entire ordeal almost worth it. Almost
Abrupt movement caught his attention and he flicked a brief glance over the prioress’ shoulder, and almost did a double take when Aroree’s pale head peeked around the corner. She was making frantic gestures with one hand and he had to blink a few times. Then he caught sight of a flash of red by her side and nearly choked on air.
Had she really…?
His eyes snapped back to the prioress, but she did not appear to be aware of his waning attention. Better finish up before she did, then. “I thank you for your time, Mother Prioress.” He inclined his head dutifully, as only a humble servant of the High Ones could. “I shall not keep you away from your duties any longer.”
If she took any notice of his abrupt end to their conversion, she showed no signs other than a slight tightening at the corner of her eyes, but that could just as well be relief. She gave him a curt nod and walked briskly past him and down the corridor and he hurried the other way, then caught himself and forced himself to slow down and walk[/; it would not do to get [i]so close
only to be caught because he could not restrain himself. But then the prioress’ footsteps faded away and Ekuar all but ran
towards the children.
. For next to Aroree, hidden behind her skirts, stood little Redmark with wide timid eyes staring up at him. They had done it, they really had. Oh, thank the High Ones!
He didn’t dare to look too closely at Redmark – the prioress was too close, he might still lose what little self-restraint he had left – but he still felt the painful surge of sorrow at what little he saw. The shadows not quite visible on his scraped arms and legs might not be anything other than dirt, but the same discoloring on his face sadly implied otherwise. Dull green eyes staring out from behind red streaks of hair dark with what he hoped was sweat, but in the darkness it was difficult to tell. He looked away from that forlorn gaze, but not fast enough to avoid seeing those youthful eyes brimming.
“Quick, quick,” he whispered and grabbed their hands, and it broke his heart to pretend not to see Redmark… twitch
was the only word for the strange jerk, even as gentle as he tried to be when he took the cold little hand in his and tugged.
Redmark was favoring him with a distant and fearful expression, an odd cross between horrified and confused, his eyes still glittering with unshed tears as he struggled to keep up without stumbling.
The soft footfalls of the children rushing alongside him rang too loud in his ears and he had to fight the impulse to turn and see if the prioress had discovered them, to check once more that the children were not about to be stolen from him again, that they might really pull this through.
When Winnowill woke that afternoon, the first thing she had noticed was the lack of pain. She was used to the constant ache in her head and the burning in her limbs whenever she only thought
of moving. Not feeling so was strange
. But it didn’t mean all was well.
She had tried to sit up only to slam back down with a groan as the second thing she noticed was that nothing hurt only when nothing moved. Too abruptly, that was. Funny thing that, about a body. If you did not listen to the signs it sent, it would eventually make you listen.
She had eased herself painfully up into a sitting position, wincing as she pulled sore muscles, but at least she still had muscles that could go sore. Even breathing hurt, slightly, and if it wasn’t so important she wouldn’t do it again.
She had woken less than an hour before and was already well acquainted with her aches and disables. Her vision was still slightly misty and her throat achingly dry, but it felt no worse than a really bad cold. She might even be able to heal it herself a little later on. She stretched slowly, carefully, relieved to find it really did hurt less than before. She would have to thank the monks thoroughly, if what the few nuns who had been to see her had said was true. And if any of them dared ask her how she felt one more time, she would assign them to kitchen duty for a moon.
It actually made her wonder a little. Not that the monks would help, for they were the kindest of souls and wholeheartedly devoted to serving the High Ones, but it struck her as odd that the mixtures she had been given had not been made by Sira Ekuar.
The old priest was no healer, but his herbal mixtures could work wonders on minor injuries and aches. On the few occasions she could not heal herself, either because the injury or illness was so great it would seem suspicious or because she really could not, like this time, she had always preferred him to the folk healers in town. He had always had a little healthy respect for her, even though they had had their disagreements, and there were few secrets she had that he did not know about, so she did not risk as much by going to him.
And he was really the only one she could trust not to try and kill her, it seemed.
Yes, she was very well aware of the threat hanging over her, there was a reason why she had been appointed the position as abbess, other than that she had devoted her entire life to serving the High Ones. She knew this illness was not normal, she had lived long enough and seen enough to know her illnesses and how she had been suffering was not normal.
You did not fight for every breath because your head hurt, you were not shiny with sweat because you could not move your limbs. She knew she had not suffered from a common infection, knew she had not gotten ill at all. It had been the goblet, with the bitter, burning mixture. She knew
it. Knew someone had left it there for her on purpose, to scare her, to let her know; someone was unhappy with her and if they wanted to be rid of her, they could
It had been foolish of her to drink from the goblet. Sira Ekuar never entered her chambers uninvited and certainly not when she was not there. He always gave her the mixtures personally or left them in a hidden space in the herbal room. He would never have left it in her chambers and she should have known this, berated herself for it now.
Her eyes drifted to the window, narrowing slightly. That was another thing she could not wrap her foggy mind around. When had the leaves on the trees turned so green
? When had they bloomed from the small buds she had taken between her fingers last time she went outside? How long had she been ill?
It was at that moment the door opened and for the fraction of a second, Winnowill wished she had never woken up.
There would never be doubt that the next hour was the most agonizing in her life. From the door burst open and a flustered Sira Ekuar lead her two panicky children inside, through the priest’s grim report of the last months – months!
– and Aroree’s stuttered affirmations, to Redmark weeping in her arms as she had never seen anyone weep. Aroree was still upset and staring at the abbess with a broken, yet ever so hopeful and pleading expression that nearly undid her. The child was still strong in her belief that the abbess would find a way to solve this, to repair this unrepairable mess, to save what had been lost.
Winnowill had longed to tear Redmark away from them and take him in her arms, but fought against it and instead reached gently out. At first the boy flinched away, fear and mistrust in his small earnest face, and it nearly broke her heart to see her little boy like this. She gently caught his shoulder with a soft healing touch and when he did not resist, she pulled him onto the bed and into the shelter of her healing embrace, opening all of her channels and letting the magic flow freely through her and into the damaged child. He trembled in her grasp, hot tears streaming down his cheeks, his warm fist never letting go of her robe.
Her eyes roamed all over him, taking in every hurt and every mark and everything that was out of place. Stones fell on her shoulders at each new wound she found, bile rose in her throat as truth was slowly uncovered. Tears flowed down her face at the boy’s heartbreaking cry of pain, as her delicate hand moved to his numb one. And it was the bittersweet joy of a parent to see that under all that grime, hurt and tears was still her child, her little Redmark.
His hair was caked and curled with his own blood. Flamy locks fell on his forehead and large green eyes were filled with terror as he stared mutely up and she stared down at his pale, pinched face, dulled with days of lost endeavor. His mouth was still trembling as he fought not to cry, and his arms and legs still firmly locked around her. And Winnowill found she wanted to shriek in outrage and despair, for she could do no more to help the child. She had healed the hurts and the wounds he had, but only those the eye could see. For Redmark was still badly hurt and he would always carry with him hidden wounds that no kiss or warm hand could make better.
For Winnowill, this was her greatest battle lost. She had failed to protect the one her heart was lost to, and had in turn lost him as well. She was left to pick up the pieces of a broken child, forced to watch as the last shards of his innocence fell away.
He was crying now; subdued, exhausted wails. “Mama! Mama!”
At the back of her mind a bitter voice whispered, his mother would never have let something like this happen to him. She was hard pressed not to agree. But Redmark had no mother. Winnowill had filled that spot in his heart and her own ached and cried along with him, with this child she had chosen
, with this child who had chosen her
There were some who said that no words could describe a mother’s sorrow. It made her wonder, what was then her own face tinged with tears?
Ekuar just turned away, his face grim and overbearingly unmasked. Silence descended and the only sounds to break it were Redmark’s gasping breath inbetween harsh sobs and Aroree’s pitiful smothered cries. To Winnowill it was a broken sound.
And for a moment, she allowed herself to believe it was the sound of her mother heart breaking forever.
They stood outside the gates, overlooking the ripe yellow fields on either side of the path leading down to the village. Redmark had flinched the moment they stepped into the light, the sun too bright for his still sore eyes, and he hid his face in the soft fabric of Mrs. Winnowill’s dark robes. His eyes were still adjusting to any light at all and the glaring rays of the sun, welcome though it was, only made them sting with tears.
Winnowill was rubbing soothing circles on his back as he burrowed deeper into her embrace, hiding from the sun’s glaring rays, and Aroree, once she got over the wondrous sight of outside
and the shock of understanding how everything had went on as always while their lives were on hold, reached up to pat his foot comfortingly. The foot tensed marginally before it relaxed once more and Aroree’s shoulders sagged in sadness for a short moment. Then she lit up like a sun and ran off, skipping over to the yellow field and stopping for a moment before she came rushing back, stopping next to them and tapping Redmark’s foot.
Green eyes peeked out from dark folds and the red head turned very slowly to glance down as Aroree proudly presented him with a straw full of grain. He watched it curiously for a few seconds, then slowly reached out to pluck it from Aroree’s outstretched hand. He turned the straw over in his small palm, studying it and feeling the rough texture of it. Aroree waited patiently for the straw to work its wonders, smile growing as it did. Redmark’s lips twitched into a hesitant sort of smile and he closed his fist around the grain, then closed his eyes and retreated to the darkness of Winnowill’s robe. Not willing to remember the last time he had held such a straw, but all too welcoming of the new feeling that came along with it.
New… yes. They would have to make the most of this. They would just make do. It was the way the world went about. The past, though gruesome it was, was in the past and nothing more could be done about it. The future lay ahead of them and they would have to form it the way they wanted to. And they could
, Winnowill was sure of it. Though they had all changed in ways, though Redmark might no longer be the same innocent child he was were, he was still her
little Redmark. He would always be. And though he could not enjoy the sight of his surroundings just yet, he could at least feel the mild breeze in his hair and the warmth of the sun on his skin.
About his skin… Winnowill glanced down at the boy in her arms, at the smooth alabaster skin on his arms as he held onto her. The scrapes and not-quite-visible shadows were no longer there, evaporated under her touch like morning dew under the sun, but she did not need to see them to know their history. Nor to know that they had been treated. By inexperienced, but good hands.
“You have many friends,” she whispered as she gently stroked his hair.
She did not expect him to answer, but Redmark shifted slightly in her arms. “Kindling helped too,” he mumbled and then he burrowed deeper in her robes.
Winnowill looked down with raised eyebrows. “Kindling?”
Redmark nodded sleepily. “In dungeon. Came, helped. Left.”
“Do you mean sister Aroree?”
A marginal shake of his head. He was slipping away. “Kind voice. Little,” he mumbled and then he drifted off.
Winnowill shifted her hold on him, feeling a sudden surge of dizziness. It couldn’t be… She pretended not to see Aroree’s confused look and Ekuar suddenly looking at her sharply as she raised hesitant eyes to the building behind them. It couldn’t be…
… could it?
Some time later found them all basking in the sun in Redmark’s secret spot with Winnowill propped up against the tree and Redmark curled into her lap, the tenseness fading from him as greenage coiled delicately around his bruised limbs. The boy had a connection with nature like no other and Winnowill could feel
the raw magic pour from him in waves as he breathed. Aroree was curled up on her other side, lightly dozing in the shade of the tree with closed eyes and a calm look on her face as Winnowill gently stroked her hair and Redmark’s back.
There was, of course, the subject of Aroree – and partly Sira Ekuar – having broken one of the High Ones’ most important laws – she had stolen, from a fellow sister, and one ranked above her at that. But, Winnowill had reasoned when Aroree unflinchingly asked for a fit punishment, it had not been an action of greed, but of self-sacrifice; she had been willing to commit the greatest sin in order to save another. Self sacrificial was what the High Ones were all about. So even if Aroree had
committed a sin, she had also fulfilled a great task in doing so.
“But,” she had argued, confused, “but I stole
! I sinned
“It is true that theft of any kind is the greatest sin,” Winnowill had answered, “but would you not say the prioress’ theft was greater?” At Aroree’s confused look she had tried to explain, that theft was not just about stealing things
, but of stealing in itself. “When you took those keys, you stole a thing
. But the prioress was willing to steal Redmark’s life
. Which sin is greater, would you say?”
It was also the matter that Aroree was aware
of the wrongness of her actions. And she was apologizing, willing to undertake any punishment the abbess saw fit. For the greatest sin, it was sure to be harsh.
What would anyone have her do?
“The High Ones are proud of you,” she had simply said as she rested a hand on Aroree’s shoulder. “I
am proud of you.”
These were hard times, after all.
She was lost in her adoring contemplation of her chosen children, watching over them with a faint smile hovering over her face when a shadow fell on the grass before her.
She looked up from her vigil over the sleeping Redmark, her expression bland other than slightly lifted eyebrows.
Sira Ekuar was looking down at her. “What of the prioress?”
She glanced briefly at him out the corner of her eyes before she looked away. She only said, “The punishment fits the crime”, and when she said no more, Ekuar knew that was all he was ever going to get.
But it was more than enough, in the end.