Brittany, December 1488
For most, the bleak dark months when the black storms come howling out of the north is a time of grimness and sorrow as people await the arrival of winter, which brings death, hunger, and bitter cold in its wake. But we at the convent of Saint Mortain welcome winter with open arms and hearts, for it is Mortain’s own season, when He is full upon us. In such a way does the Wheel of Life turn, with every ending but a new beginning; that is the promise Mortain has made us.
So while most people bar their doors and shut their windows tight, we have cause for celebration and go traipsing through the wood, gathering the sacred yew branches and collecting holly with its bright red berries that remind us of the three drops of blood spilled when Mortain was pierced by love and Arduinna’s own arrow.
And while Mortain is a far more gentle god than most people give Him credit for, I do not think He would look kindly upon His youngest handmaidens jousting with the sacred branches that are intended for His holy fire.
“Audri! Aveline! Stop that!”
“She started it,” Aveline says, peering out from under the pale red hair that has fallen across her eyes.
“No, I didn’t! You did. You always do. Because you’re good with swords and knives and fighting, you always want to fight.”
“Girls!” I clap my hands, wincing at how very much I remind myself of Sister Beatriz when she loses control of the womanly-charms lessons. “Enough. Audri, go help Florette. Aveline, you come over here with me.”
Thinking the other girl in trouble, Audri sticks her tongue out at Aveline, then hurries over to help Florette. Instead of scolding Aveline, I take her hand, lead her to a holly bush, and give her a knife. “You will fill that basket, and I will fill this one.”
Pleased at being given a blade, something normally reserved for older girls or the training yard, Aveline turns to the bush and begins cutting.
I keep my eyes on the leaves in front of me as I speak to her. “You are the oldest of the group, Aveline. There is no honor in besting those younger than you.”
She stops her cutting and turns her strange, solemn gaze on me. “Are you saying I should pretend to be weak so they can feel strong? Is that not telling a lie?” Before I can untangle her knotted logic, she shrugs. “Besides, she is nearly as old as I am and likes to show off by going without her cloak and shoes.”
I hide a smile, for it is true that Audri is quite proud of her ability to withstand cold. Not only does she not feel the wintry chill, but she does not suffer chilblains or deadened limbs when exposed to it. That is her gift for being pulled from the womb of a woman who had frozen to death in one of winter’s most savage storms. She is as impervious to the cold as one of the great white bears of the far north, and proud of it. “That may be true,” I concede, “but you have gifts every bit as glorious as hers and you constantly pick fights so that you may show them off.”
For a moment, the old familiar wave of loss and longing rears up and I catch my breath at the pain of it. Among the handmaidens of Death our birth stories are our most treasured possessions, marking us as they do as Death’s true daughters. But on the day that I was born, no cuckolded husband paced nearby, no herbwitch pulled me from a cold, dead womb, nor did any hedge priest administer the last rites to a dying mother while I rooted futilely at her breast.
Or at least, I think not, for the truth is that I do not even know the day on which I was born. I do not know the manner of my birth, the name of my mother, or even if she still lives, although we think she must not, else I would not have ended up on the convent’s doorstep when I was less than a week old. Of all the women whose feet have pattered along these stone floors, I am the only one to have no inkling of the circumstances of my own birth.
It is like an itching, festering wound I have trained myself not to scratch. But some days the pain and burn of it are nearly beyond bearing. Especially when I am confronted with a cocksure nine-year-old who is blessed with reflexes so fast she has been known to snatch arrows from their flight.
Aveline keeps her attention on the holly but watches me from the corner of her eye. “Does that mean you will let me fight you sometime?”
I cannot help it—I laugh. “You think you can best me?”
She lifts one shoulder. “I think I would like to know if I could or could not.”
At her words, my smile wobbles and it is all I can do to keep from throwing my knife down in defeat. Even this child thinks I am no longer a match for her. I carefully avoid looking out at the ocean, just beyond the trees. It is too painful a reminder that both Ismae and Sybella have been sent to places I have not, have begun to fulfill their destinies while I am stuck here playing nursemaid to a gaggle of budding assassins.
I feel a tug at the corner of my gown and look down to find Florette standing there with wide eyes. “We did not mean to make you sad, Annith.”
“Oh, you didn’t, sweeting. I am just”—what? Feeling sorry for myself? Pining for my friends? Wishing fate had dealt me a different hand?—“eager to finish up with these branches so we can begin decorating.”
Her small face clears and she goes back to her own work while I move on to the next branch. It is hard—so hard—not to feel wasted, like a new sword that has been allowed to rust before it has ever been used. I tighten my grip on my blade, reminding myself that the abbess has assured me it is just one of Mortain’s many mysteries, why He has called the others first. If I ever come face to face with Him again, I shall ask why.
Politely, of course.
“Annith?” Aveline says.
“Are we supposed to chop at our branches like that?”
I look down, appalled to see the gouges and scars where I have hacked my knife, again and again, against the pale silver bark of the yew. Saints! “No! Of course not. It is simply that this knife needs to be sharpened.”
She arches one of her pale red brows at me, looking far older than her nine years.
“Annith! Look!” At the sound of Florette’s shouting, I turn around to find her pointing through the small copse of trees. Is it a crow? For I have promised to pay Florette if she alerts me whenever she sees one approaching. It is our little secret. In exchange, I change the sheets on her bed when she wets it and I tell no one, although I think many of the others suspect.
I hurry to the trees, my eyes scanning the sky, but I see nothing.
“No, not in the sky, in the water. It’s a boat.”
I jerk my gaze down to the horizon, where I see that Florette is correct: a boat is making its way to the island. There is