“May the One Creator forgive me… I sinned again.”
A throat cleared and a voice resonated in the small wooden space on the other side of the grate. “Our Creator is patient. He will hear your confession and award his forgiveness.”
“I did a bad deed… Well, it was good, I believe, but bad.” Her voice choked off. Words whirled around in her head.
“Is that you, Kalea?”
“What will you confess?”
Twittering birds sang outside the thick walls. A cool spring breeze gusted through the open lattice window above her confession booth, flushing out the musty smell with fresh spring air.
Kalea cleared her throat. “I…” She twisted her canvas apron between her sweaty hands. “I’m sorry about one thing I did. Not the other.”
She cleared her throat again. “I went to the market in Tintilly. They sent me for a bag of wool. But when I arrived, I stopped to look at books, hoping for one of the Lehomis books.”
“The Questionable Tales of Lehomis Lockheirhen is forbidden.”
“I know. And I’m sorry, but that’s not what I have to confess…” She twisted her apron tighter. Better get it over with…
Kalea scanned over the vendor’s collection for the telltale gilded arrow stamped on the spine. People rushed behind her, going both ways. On any trip to the market, she fought the temptation to look for one of those books. Her family owned one of the installments. Her father used to read to her most nights before bed about the handsome and funny elf named Lehomis who got himself into strings of hilarious mishaps and adventures. Her family only owned the first volume, so she had never found out if he lived happily-ever-after. She never got tired of hearing his early adventures, though, until her parents put her in the convent by Hallowill Forest after her tenth birthday. Since it was a banned title, she could never take one of those books back to the convent, but how could a few moments’ reading hurt if she found one right now?
“Ah ha!” a man’s voice roared.
“I’m sorry!” She dropped the book she’d picked up. Novices were required to wear their allotted tabard and blue cloak when outside of the convent. Any superior clergy member could catch her looking at non-religious books out here.
“‘Bout what, dame?” the bookseller asked, peering up from the book he’d been engrossed in.
Sighing, she twisted around. People were clustering in tight across the road, shouting and pointing. She pushed through the crowd to get closer.
One of the farmers working a table stacked with leafy green vegetables held a stranger by the wrist. Dressed plainly in a dark blue tabard, brown hood and mantle, and brown and grey leggings with worn shoes, the stranger stood about a hand taller than Kalea. He was long-legged and thin. Sweaty brown hair hung over his face, half-obscuring it. His teeth were clenched shut under his tight lips. Without cocking his head, he watched the towering farmer next to him. Bystanders were asking what had happened.
“A thief!” the farmer said. “Not only a thief, but a Norr elf.”
Kalea put a hand over her mouth. In this town, numerous elves had been bound and dragged off to the jailhouse simply for entering town. Kalea hated it when these things happened.
“Ye know what happens to thievin’ Norr elves bringin’ their wicked sorcererin’ here? Do ya?”
The elf squirmed and tried to pull away. The crowd swarmed in closer.
“Where did he come from?” someone asked.
“He’s been walkin’ around invisible,” the farmer said, “using none other than sorcery right here in our decent town, until I caught his shadow disturbin’ the look of the air. Not to mention he’s a thief trying to steal my peas. And bad at his trade, to boot.” The farmer swatted the thief’s head, swishing his hair aside.
He was an elf! Pointed ears and all. Kalea had never seen one so close before. His smooth face glistened in the morning sun. His cheekbones were chiseled high; he was beautiful.
The townspeople shouted for the nearest guard. Kalea squeezed a little closer, reaching for her coin purse. If she could pay for the food he had tried to steal, the farmer might relax. The elf would still be arrested, but no one should get hurt because of this!
A rock whistled over Kalea’s head and cracked against the wall behind the elf. He’d bent over to avoid it. When he lifted his head back up, his large eyes were glazed. The sweat on his cheeks sparkled and his eyes flashed a color no human could flaunt. He was young. Maybe he hadn’t known how poorly he’d be treated here. Kalea’s stomach knotted like a length of beads. The Kingdom of Sharr didn’t get along well with the Sovereign State of Norr, and stray elves were prohibited in most places. They were usually imprisoned and ransomed back to their country, but this one might die before the guard could catch him if these people struck him hard enough.
Another rock flew. Kalea winced. She didn’t see if it hit, but the crowd roared and raised their hands high. The elf squirmed, his eyes darting, unsure where to settle them. Another rock.
Kalea balled her fists. This shouldn’t be happening. This could be one of the Creator’s messengers in disguise, a hungry stranger. How could they do this? Yes, stealing was wrong, but they had regulated punishments for such crimes, like the pillory. She’d never witnessed this type of violence before; she’d heard about it in other places, but not here in Tintilly.
Working her way backward through the crowd, she retreated to a shady alley and tied her handkerchief around her mouth to hide her identity. She pulled her hood down tight. Keeping her head low, she traversed the crowded street again, unfastening her washing bat from her belt, which was used to wash the convent’s linens. Good thing she had forgotten to leave it at the convent this morning. She gripped the old wood, smoothed and worn from generations of use. Inching closer, she settled her fingers into the grip grooves worked into the handle over the years.
A streak of blood trailed down the side of the elf’s face from a nick on his scalp. Barking deep belly laughs, the towering farmer held the elf in place, inviting more rocks.
Kalea’s teeth gnashed hard. She sprang. Yelling, she raised the bat and swung it. It crunched across the farmer’s nose bone.
Her limbs moved before her brain could direct them. The elf leaned away from the bat’s arc. Kalea teetered on one foot during the follow-through.
The farmer dropped the elf’s hand, roaring with vibrato. Rocks stopped flying. Voices stopped shouting. The elf’s mouth dropped open; his eyes met hers.
She grabbed his hand. “Hurry!” she said, and pulled him through the throng. He agreed, gripping her hand in return.
A jolt through her arm stopped her progression. The crowd had latched onto the elf, and he swiped back at them. When he jerked free, they ran through the rest of the market area, dodging many grabbing hands. One of the guards’ voices thundered over the shouting crowd, alerting other guards to their direction.
Kalea and the elf made it to the next square, where folk walked around with their water buckets and handcarts. A swarm of children laughed, chasing a young dog who was determined not to let them have the stick in its jaws. She and the elf ran across this relaxed area, darting into an alley behind a hanging straw rug an old lady was beating.
To confuse the guards, Kalea picked the alleys she knew the best and took detours through cool, shady gaps between walls. They leaped over homeless beggars, ducked under soggy clothes strung between buildings, and broke through clouds of pipe smoke drifting from the mouths of layabouts. The guards’ voices grew fainter.
They drew near the edge of the small town where the buildings thinned out, and the river became visible over a hill after a sprint across a grassy patch. Kalea located a shallow rocky section, and they traversed across, their hands still linked. They stepped into the river and the elf pushed past her to take the lead; both of them were ankle-deep. The icy water flooded her leather shoes and bit into her feet. Water seeped into the fibers of her skirt hem and slowed her down.
She glanced over her shoulder for possible pursuers. The waving grass in the field showed their footprints, which the guards might find as a clue later.
A barking dog jumped out from one of the tight spaces between the buildings. Kalea jumped and shrieked, causing the elf to lurch as well.
The dog stayed by the building, barking at them. Someone could show up at any moment.
The elf tugged at her hand. “Don’t stop.” If they ran fast enough, they might make it across the field to the forest’s cover. The dog remained, barking, and Kalea glanced over her shoulder in panic.
He gripped her hand tighter and guided her over the entire rocky riverbed. Near the opposite bank, her foot slipped off a stone and she fell. He caught her with a strong arm scooped around her middle.
After the shock of falling wore off, she found his fingers pressing into her breast. In the next beat, he released her and continued to the bank. In such urgency, maybe he hadn’t noticed what he’d done. And he had saved her from a sprained ankle or worse.
“Um, thanks,” she said, wading after him, her dress soaking up more heavy water.
“Concentrate,” he said.
They made it to the forest and kept running deeper into its fragrant pine atmosphere. Though he could’ve easily outrun and lost her, he matched her pace. She glanced back several times. The bright field glowing behind the dark layers of tree trunks faded.
Deep in the pines, a mile or so, they slowed and finally stopped. She collapsed to the ground, panting. The elf remained standing, surveying the area as if they weren’t alone yet. They were. They were alone together in the forest.
Kalea threw off her hood and fumbled with the kerchief she’d tied over her nose, ripping it free and stuffing it back into her belt pouch. She removed her short novice’s veil too, letting her hair out and savoring the cool air against her sweaty face.
The elf stopped pacing, and his eyes lingered on her.
She stood and tied her washing bat back to her belt. Through all that, she’d managed not to drop it. He didn’t offer a word. He wasn’t panting as hard either. The blood from his scalp trailed a line all the way to his jaw.
She met his soft eyes. “Did they hurt you back there?”
He shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”
She pointed to the glistening red trail along his face. “You’re bleeding.”
He wiped at the side of his face, his fingers trailing through the blood, and examined his hand. His expression didn’t change.
She took her handkerchief out again and dabbed its corner on her tongue.
“May I?” She stepped toward him. He winced before allowing her to wipe the blood away. Afterward, a new red stain shimmered on the cloth’s corner. Elven blood sparkled gold in the light, apparently.
“Um, that’s better.”
Her knees wobbled under his gaze. She stared back until the pine needles rustling in the breeze no longer offered enough noise for her comfort. “What were you doing?” Her words burst out as if on their own. “Don’t you know how dangerous it is for elves in these parts?”
“I do now… I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days and I got desperate. Arius Medallus will punish me again for such a mistake.” He lowered his eyes to the ground.
“Do you live in these woods?”
He shook his head. As her stomach knots vibrated with all sorts of new bubbles she’d never experienced before, she reached toward him again. Her fingertips grazed the wiry design stitched on his collar. He lurched backward. “That’s pretty. Did your mother make it?”
“My mama used to make my clothes. She did needlework a lot. Joy and some other vestals taught me about sewing, but I don’t get to do it much. I wash the clothes mostly.”
“What are vestals?”
“You don’t know what a vestal is? How many towns have you visited? Surely Tintilly wasn’t your first. I mean, Norr has got to be weeks of travel away—though I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there. But I’ve studied maps. Vestals can be found anywhere close to a convent. We humans are very religious.”
When she stopped talking, he didn’t offer any words in return. He stared, as if still waiting for his answer.
“Oh, well, I mean, vestals are servants of the Creator. They’re kind of like His brides.” Kalea grasped her belt pouch, which jingled with the coins she’d been sent out with. “Oh no, I never got the wool they sent me to buy. You’d better leave. I have to go back to town—no, wait. I can’t go back there, they might recognize me. I’ll have to make up a story when I get back home. Please forget you saw me. I shouldn’t be in the woods this deep. I’m not supposed to be alone with a man either.”
“Agreed,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been seen by you either.” He canceled his decision to turn away. “Can I ask your name, though? I promise I’ll forget it right after.”
Kalea put her hands on her hips. “Well, aren’t you bold?”
“I never thought so before. Sorry.” His head sank as he turned.
“Wait.” Kalea stepped forward, opening her belt pouch, and pulled out a biscuit folded into another handkerchief she’d been saving for later. She unwrapped it and held it out to him. “My name is Kalea Thridmill.”
He looked at the biscuit and then lingered on her eyes for quite a while. He took the biscuit.
“Kalea. Like a bell?”
“Your name is the sound of a bell ringing.”
She crossed her arms. “My name means ‘life-giving waters.’”
He shook his head. “Ka-lee-ah, see? It’s a merry little bell.”
“You haven’t told me your name.”
“It’s Dorhen Sufferborn.” He bit into the biscuit and winced at its hardness.
“What kind of name is Sufferborn?”
“I don’t know,” he said as he chewed. “Arius Medallus has been calling me that since…”
“If my name is a bell, what’s Dorhen? Something that swings on a hinge?”
His smile dropped as he swallowed his current bite. “My name is something that rolls downhill into a valley.”
Kalea cocked her head.
“But I like your name,” he continued. “I’ll not think of it whenever I hear a bell chiming.”
“Good.” She took in the sight of his face in one more visual swallow. His throat apple worked up and down as he finished the biscuit.
“Thank you for the food. And for helping me back there.”
“You’d better get away from here, or they’ll be coming with dogs through these woods. They hate your kind in these parts.”
He drew his mouth tight and turned. She also turned to walk away, squaring her shoulders. She stole one more glance over her shoulder on the first step and caught him doing the same.
“Hurry now.” She swiped her arm at him before walking briskly away.
“An interesting confession, Kalea.”
“What is it?”
She breathed deep and easy now that her story was finished. “I’m confused.”
“About what, child?”
“The whole thing. I committed a sin. I assaulted someone. I freed a thief… I saved an elf. I’m not sorry about it, and I feel guilty about not feeling sorry. I guess not being sorry is my second confession.”
The dark silhouette of his head bowed. “You saved an innocent person who didn’t deserve death.”
Kalea swallowed. Her constricted throat held back her voice.
“How did you know he didn’t deserve death?”
“Exactly.” The shadowy form on the other side of the grate leaned in closer. “The Creator’s intentions are not told to us. We toss around a saying: He is mysterious. It’s an easier solution to turn to than trying to puzzle it out. However, I don’t condone what you did.”
Kalea dabbed her eyes on a corner of her handkerchief. A dot of blood caught her eye, shimmering in the speckles of light through the grated ceiling of the little booth.
Father Liam continued, “It’s no mystery that you will do penance, Kalea. But you may be experiencing some hint of the Creator’s will. If this is the case, everything you did today was ordained, good and bad. Perhaps the elf would’ve died. I know how easily it happens. The Creator uses us to do His work—and not just clergy members like us. He uses everyone else too. Anyone He damn well pleases. We’re doing his work, but no one said it would be easy or fun.”
“So that means…”
“I don’t know what it means. I assume you were wearing your novice tabard?”
“Yes, Father. I also wore my cloak.” The novices wore regular peasant kirtles brought from home, as long as they met the dress requirements of modesty and simplicity. Kalea owned a light blue kirtle, and her chemise was made for housework. Strings had been sewn into the sleeves so they could be tied up high on her arms. Over their regular kirtles, the novices wore the signature woolen grey tabard with the “Creator’s flower” stitched on the front. They would soon graduate to wearing the full habit with a long veil instead of a short one.
“Since many would’ve known one of our novices did this, I’ll assure you that you’re under the protection of the Sanctity of Creation. I’ll send a letter to the bishop about the incident. Your identity will be kept secret nonetheless.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Now I’ll assign your penance. Take it faithfully as you always have. Say seventy Sovereign Creators tonight before you go to bed and another seventy in the morning. You’ll do a shift volunteering at the hospital for a few days—”
“Oh, thank you!”
“I’m not finished… Tonight, you’ll receive twenty lashes to your back.”
“And don’t look for that book anymore.”
“I won’t, Father. Thank you.”
“May the Creator utilize you in His vast network of plans, and may you accomplish your tasks. In the name of the Creator, our Friend, our God, you are dismissed.”
Kalea stepped out of the confession booth, stifling a smile under her bloodied handkerchief, and began to sprint toward the stairway.
“Walk!” Father Liam said as he also stepped out, and she obeyed. Running wasn’t allowed, except in the case of emergency situations. Otherwise, the vestals and novices were expected to go about their day with patience, full of prayer and contemplation.
On the way to the stairs, she passed the only door in the building painted red, Father Superior’s office. It was a splash of color in an otherwise somber stone house. It sat recessed into the floor by a few steps.
The next floor up housed the personnel cells. Kalea tapped on the door belonging to Sister Scupley, the Mistress of Novices.
The Mistress of Novices came from a rich family and kept a lot of nice things in her cell. A large book collection sat crammed onto the shelves. A landscape painting hung above the mantel and a copper kettle dangled over the crackling fire. She owned a proper bed too, with a down mattress on taut ropes. The novices all slept on straw-stuffed floor mattresses in a large room.
The middle-aged vestal sat at her desk engrossed in an open book, the feather part of her quill waving above her hand. A fine porcelain cup of lavender and honey tea waited beside her with steam swirling into the air.
She didn’t bother looking up from her work. “What is it, Kalea?”
“I have to do a penance when you have time.”
She dropped the quill and cracked her knuckles before rubbing her baggy eyes. “Again, girl?”
Kalea lowered her head and spread her hands out by her sides. “It’s worse than all my previous penances. Twenty lashes. To my back.”
“Hmm.” The sister’s mouth drew thin as she eyed Kalea. She was under no obligation to tell how she had earned the lashes after going through the confession process, but some sisters in this convent could barely contain their curiosity—a downfall they, for the most part, kept in check.
“Well, I’ve been hunched over and smelling those ink fumes for the last four hours. Now is good.”
The two walked through the corridor, their soft shoes and sweeping hems the loudest sound for a long distance until they passed a prayer room with a bell chiming in rhythm, followed by a murmur of recited prayer. One chime sounded at a time—not enough to spell out her name.
“Ka-lee-ah.” Her own name slid through her lips with the air from her lungs.
Sister Scupley’s eyes snapped her way. “What are you doing over there, saying your own name?”
“Sorry, Sister.” Kalea dipped her head low and walked on with her lips clamped shut.
Lashings and self-flagellation took place in the basement where the thick walls were surrounded by earth and the heavy doors shielded the inevitable sounds from the peace and serenity of the world upstairs.
Kalea had never been one to shy away from doing her penance, at least after the age of twelve, but her heart rate did increase as she descended into the cold, silent underground. When Sister Scupley opened the heaviest door in the convent, its hinges groaned with each movement.
Ooooh-ren-boom! Kalea blew out a deep breath when it closed behind her. She’d try not to scream, but if it happened, no one upstairs would be bothered.
“You know the procedure,” Sister Scupley said.
Yes. She’d been lashed before, but no more than groups of five. Some of them had been light switches to her arms or hands. This would be a new experience.
First, she knelt at the altar at the basement’s heart. Bowing her head over her folded hands, she murmured, “Sin is inevitable.” She reached for the little silver hammer on the table and tapped the bell once. “From Your generosity”—ding—“I humbly ask forgiveness.” She tapped a third chime, bowed deeper, and rose. The prayer usually worked in calming her nerves, but this time it couldn’t suppress the clamminess creeping across her flesh.
The groin-vaulted ceiling in this place bowed low overhead, sectioning off the basement into a series of tunnels with nooks set up for private prayer and penance. Kalea went into a larger wing with storage cupboards and ropes hanging from the ceiling.
She took off her veil and placed it on the bench, followed by her belt and her novice tabard. She unlaced the front of her kirtle and removed it. She folded it and placed it on the bench. Her chemise came off last, which she also neatly placed on the bench. Wearing nothing but her braies, she divided her hair and moved it away from her back as she approached the ropes dangling from the ceiling and put her wrists through their loops to help her stay in place.
The cupboard where they stored the various types of whips necessary for penance and flagellation creaked open. Kalea always averted her eyes from the selected penance tool, but this time she stole a glance at the thin leather whip with fringe at the end when Sister Scupley moved around to her back.
Trembling all over, she bit her lip. Who cares about momentary pain against the life of an innocent? Throughout this ordeal, I’ll thank the Creator again and again for having rescued him.
Kalea closed her eyes and awaited the first lash…
She gasped and her eyes sprang open again. The sting burst across her lower back and ran through all four limbs. A few seconds elapsed before the next one.
Pain roared through her like waves of evil spirits invading her body. By about the fifth lash, she forgot about thanking the Creator and cried instead. Thoughts of the elf dissipated too. She cried louder between each progressive crack of the switch.
Ten hits. She shrank away, attempting to tug one of her hands out of the loop.
“Stand your ground!”
Kalea planted her feet in a wide stance. Her body became heavy, and her knees buckled. She returned to slouching as the lashes continued. Soon she’d be hanging from the ropes. All her senses were smothered under a blanket of shredding waves. She whimpered between shrieks and her arms trembled, desperate to keep herself upright because her legs would soon give out. Tickling blood ran down the back of one of them. At the seventeenth lash, Kalea wailed, “Please stop!”
Sister Scupley delivered the eighteenth.
She sobbed. “I did it for the Creator!”
“Keep standing!” the sister shouted.
The air stopped moving into Kalea’s lungs. Her head lolled. Her vision darkened.
A familiar ceiling with huge, bowing cruck beams hovered over her. Everything between now and the twentieth lash blurred in the pulsing rage of pain dominating her memory. Bandages had been wrapped around her torso. Someone had tucked her into bed. Her eyes focused on the serene, enveloping darkness in the big dorm room where all the novices slept. The usual rhythm of many girls breathing filled the air. A sting ripped through her back as she attempted to move; she accomplished only a whimper.
She had done it. A smile spread on her face. She had saved a life and paid the price. Fighting to move her heavy arms, she wiped her eyes and put her hands together.
My dear, dear Creator. Thank You, thank You, for granting me the opportunity to save the life of an elf today. Or perhaps You wanted to test my bravery. If so, I accept Your test and any other challenge You want to send me. And I want the elves to have Your blessing, because I know they’re Your children too. Thank You for setting me on my path—the path I’m meant to walk.
When she pictured Dorhen’s face, sincere and smiling, her smile broadened. Her eyes fell closed of their own accord. Her thoughts drifted beyond her control. She had to recite seventy Sovereign Creators before falling asleep. Drowsiness pressed upon her eyelids, but she tried to say her prayers anyway.
Our Sovereign Creator, it is You who…almighty…in our lives… Your blessings…and in Your name…may there be… And please, I want to…see that elf again…