I crept down the abbey path, my footfalls covered by the women’s voices raised in song—the nuns practicing for Vespers. At my back, the red sun sank below the stone wall.
As I climbed the stairs to the covered walkway, a flash of movement caught my eye. Normally, I wouldn’t venture to look beyond the abbey walls; the abbey had been my home since I was an orphaned babe, and everything I knew was here. But this afternoon something made me look further. Craning my neck, I went on tiptoe, leaning against a pillar to see over the wall.
A large bearded man stood on the edge of the field, just inside the shade of woods. He stood so still, I almost mistook him for a tree. Another figure slipped out beside him, a creature with thick brown and grey fur. A dog—but it looked too large and wild. Not a hound, then. A wolf.
I drew back and slipped behind a column, hoping the watching warrior hadn’t seen me. The wall around the abbey grounds used to be enough to keep frightening outsiders away, but in the past year tall, thin men had visited often. They stood like soldiers and barely spoke. My fellow orphans and I guessed the friar had hired them to guard the abbey.
The bearded man looked nothing like those grey-skinned guards. He stood with feet planted, muscles stretching the leather jerkin he wore, his hand on an axe at his belt. A warrior, the likes of which I’d never seen.
When I ventured to look again, both warrior and wolf were gone.
Unnerved, I scurried down the walkway and ducked into the kitchen. A shriek made me freeze.
“Oh, Sage, you gave me a fright.”
A young woman about my age stood over a giant vat of stew, her face red from steam. Her hand fluttered over her ample chest.
“Forgive me, Laurel.” I relaxed.
“You’re so quiet,” the dark-haired girl exclaimed, a smile lighting her lovely face. I answered it with one of my own until she said, “Are you trying to avoid the friar?”
“Is he looking for me?” I forced my tone to remain light.
“He was shouting for you a while ago.” She grimaced in sympathy. Most of the girls knew I was the friar’s favorite, but they did not know what I had to do to earn that title. I’d told my friend Willow the truth, but she wouldn’t share it with anyone. Laurel must have guessed.
“I’ll go to him, then.”
“Are you sure?” She lowered her voice. “It might be better if you hid. You can stay in here—I’m boiling cabbage and he hates the smell.”
“It’s best if I seek him out.” I couldn’t change his mood, but I absorbed as much of his ire as I could, to protect the other girls. Rather than face Laurel’s pitying look, I changed the subject. “Does the abbess know you stripped down to your shift to make the evening meal?”
The young cook’s impressive bosom strained the thin fabric. “It’s too hot in here to wear so many clothes.” She tossed her head with a confidence she didn’t have outside her realm of the kitchen.
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” I would’ve smiled if my worry wasn’t so real. “But be careful.”
“The nuns won’t punish me and risk the friar getting his meals late. They might try to make me fast again,” Laurel rolled her eyes. “But it hasn’t worked so far, has it?” She indicated her beautiful body, the curves that set men staring whenever she made trips to the village to barter herbs for her coveted spices. Rumor was all the men of the village had proclaimed Laurel the most beautiful woman in the parish. Well, all men but the grey-faced guards, who didn’t speak at all. But they seemed less men than scarecrows, stuffed with straw and expressionless.
“Which reminds me,” Laurel sashayed to the pantry and drew out a parcel. “I set aside some oatcakes for you.”
I waved it away and she pursed her lips. “I see how you and Rosalind give up your food whenever the friar punishes the younger orphans with no dinner. And he’s been punishing a lot lately.” She raised a brow, daring me to disagree. “Especially since Hazel disappeared.”
“Hush,” I whispered, and took the parcel to placate her. “Please, do not speak of that.”
“But—” She must have seen me blink back sudden tears because she nodded. “All right. All right.” We’d all suffered punishment for Hazel’s sins—but worse than the beatings was the fact that she was gone, and no one would tell us where or for how long. “I miss her too.”
“I know.” I wanted to tell her more, but I didn’t risk saying something that might be overheard. The hall beyond the kitchen led to the friar’s office and quarters. Under my own gunna, I bore the bruises of his anger. I didn’t know what happened to Hazel, but the abbey was no longer a safe place. Maybe it never had been.
“Give the food to whomever you wish. And you eat one, as well,” she said in a motherly voice, even though she was not much older than me.
“I’ll give it to Willow. She went to market today, and tonight is almost the full moon…it is her time.” My voice dropped off, but Laurel knew what I meant. All the older girls in the abbey watched the waxing and waning of the moon, as fishermen watched the tides, as if our life and livelihood depended on it.
“Fine, Willow may have most of the oatcakes, but not all. Promise me, Sage, promise you’ll eat.”
I gave her a faint smile but did not promise. My stomach churned at the thought of what the night might bring. The silent guards had lurked about the abbey right about the time Hazel came and told us of a strange girl who’d been locked in the tower. Then both Hazel, the guards, and the girl disappeared. The events set the friar raging, and as his favorite orphan, I became his target.
“Sage,” Laurel planted her hands on her hips, and did an impressive imitation of our stern abbess.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Laurel,” bellowed the friar from the hall beyond the kitchen, “Is Willow with you?”
Laurel pushed me into the pantry before hollering back, “She’s at the market, sir, remember?”
“Huh,” I heard him grunt. “Should be back before now. Send her to me when she returns.”
“Of course, Father,” Laurel trilled, and made a face at me. I gestured at her to put on her gunna, but she shook her head. My hands tightened on the food parcel. If he caught her half-dressed… I choked back a half laugh, half sob. The only orphan he cared to see half-dressed was me. Laurel had nothing to fear.
For a moment I hated her, and then I felt ashamed.
“Cabbage tonight, again?” the friar’s steps retreated.
“Yes, sir. But I have meat for you. And mead.”
“All right then. Send Sage with it.”
“Yes, sir,” Laurel said, and then stuck out her tongue at the closed door.
The friar’s heavy tread went the other way.
“See, I told you. He hates cabbage.”
“Thank you.” I pressed my hand against my stomach as it lurched.
“Go find Willow. He’s right, she should be back by now, but if you tell him she was back before dark, he’ll believe you.”
I nodded and hastened away. At first I tiptoed in case I might meet someone, but no one hung about the only entrance or exit to the abbey. The nuns had no reason to, and the orphans weren’t allowed.
I thought of the man and wolf standing on the edge of the forest, just beyond the road to the village. He seemed to be waiting for something… or someone. Willow would go right past the place where the warrior had stood.
I had to warn her.
I ran, my footsteps echoing in the great hall, and found Willow inside the sanctuary, staring at the statue of the Mother Mary.
“Willow,” I called to her and she blinked and stepped back as if coming awake. Willow often fell into a daze. Sister Juliet called them trances.
Willow swayed a little as I approached, blinking as if coming awake. Her cheeks were flushed and her arms empty.
“Did you finish the errand?” I asked and relaxed when she pointed to the basket. The friar would want to see proof of payment. The orphans did the labor, but he kept a tight fist on the money.
Willow looked a little pale, but for two bright spots on her cheeks. I wanted to ask if she’d seen the warrior, but she already seemed shaken and I didn’t want to cause her more distress. We were all on edge since Hazel’s disappearance. “Are you coming to Vespers?”
“No, I cannot. It is almost a full moon.” Willow’s gaze dropped to her feet. The fever came upon her regularly. Hazel and I had begun to suffer them every once in a while, but Willow’s timed itself perfectly to the round moon.
“Here.” I went to her and gave her the oatcakes wrapped in Laurel’s linen.
She took the bundle without a word, and, I thought, any intention of eating. When the fever came, food would be the last thing on her mind.
“I still must visit the friar.”
“I will do it.” I picked the basket up.
“He has been angry ever since Hazel disappeared.”
“I'll be all right.” I pretended to be brave.
Willow took the end of my sleeve and raised it up. I didn’t look down; I knew what bruises lay there. I couldn’t do anything about it.
The friar chose a favorite every few years. He preferred blonde hair and a childish face. First he’d enjoyed Sari, then Rosalind, and then me. He’d already cast his eye over the younger ones, including little Aspen, a blond and blue eyed cherub. Rosalind and I had a plan to stop him before he moved his attentions to her sister Aspen. If we didn’t disappear before then.
To my relief, Willow didn’t comment on the marks.
She dropped my sleeve and said, “The shopkeeper gave us a fair price for the herbs. He wants more of the tincture you made for backaches.”
“I’ll tell him.” The money might be enough to placate the friar. “Thank you, Willow.”
But her mind had already drifted, her eyes on the statue with a faraway expression. I slipped away, leaving her with her thoughts.
* * *
I found the friar in his office, door shut tightly against the smell of cabbage. Laurel had just delivered his dinner, and he barely glanced up from it.
I placed the basket close to him. I hadn’t looked inside.
“What is this?” he grunted.
“Willow has returned,” I told him. “I sent her on to finish her work and brought you the earnings.”
He plunged a fat hand inside the purse and wasted no time spreading out the coins and counting them.
“Expected her back earlier,” he grunted. “Did she waste time flirting like some slut?”
I didn’t reply.
“Have you nothing to say to that?” he chuckled. I relaxed a little at the sound. Perhaps he’d be pleasant to me tonight. Perhaps he would not be upset.
“Calm yourself girl, I will not beat you tonight. All is well.”
The gold must have pleased him. Still, I backed away, searching for a reason to leave.
“Do you want more ale?” I nodded to the jug.
“No, not tonight. But come to me later, Sage.”
I dipped a curtsey and left. My stomach flipped over a few times, and I was glad I hadn’t eaten.