Disclaimer: Stephanie Meyer & Little Brown Publishing own all rights
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed when I woke, but it was immediately obvious my circumstances had changed. When my eyes opened, I found myself in a little room devoid of comfort and sunlight. I had no idea when I’d been moved here or why. The room they put me in was damp and cold and I suspected I was deep below the abbey, near the church’s wine cellar perhaps. Rats ran everywhere; their scurrying could be heard constantly in the dark. And it was so very dark. I was used to that, however, and its inky blackness offered a familiar comfort. I still wore the nightclothes I’d been given when I first came to the abbey but the thin linen did little to warm me. A flat, musty pillow and small straw palette served as my bed; I spent most of the time huddled under the wool blanket trying not to think, which was useless. It was impossible to when the hours carried me from day to night and back again.
Sister Isabella never came. I prayed that she would; I needed her to explain what had happened, to tell me why I was being treated like a criminal.
It would seem I’d been left.
They sent the groundskeeper down with food and water for me. I never touched the bread and apples he left as I had no appetite. While I lay shivering on my straw pallet, I couldn’t help but replay the last memorable event in my mind. I fought it, pushed it away, refused to face it until her blue eyes and loving look made me wretch for the loss of her. Her death – a reality I would never willingly believe – continually forced itself on me, insisting that I acknowledge it. My grief consumed me and death would have been a welcome reprieve from this new reality.
Once, only once, I caught myself whisper her name under my breath. At the sound, I immediately felt the cost of my mistake; my soul couldn’t take it. I retreated to the dark.
Bound in shackles, I was finally led out of my cell and up to the church. The same groundskeeper put me in a wood paneled room with hard benches to wait. He gave a me parting look as he left me, one full of fear and suspicion, crossing himself repeatedly as he departed. The room had two doors opposite each other, the one I had come in and another larger one. I could hear voices speaking in low, serious tones as I moved closer. I stooped to look through the keyhole and saw Jane.
I realized what was happening then; she was on trial. My hands began to shake with fear, and the clink of my iron chains reminded me that I must be accused of something too. I pressed my face harder against the door, anxious to discover the crimes we’d been wrongfully accused of. I focused on my sister, hoping her countenance would help me understand.
Jane stood stiffly on a raised podium in front of the room, the accustomed place of the accused. She held her head high and proud; her expression revealed nothing to the court…or to me It had been some time since I’d seen her, and my critical brotherly eye took in all the details. She was dressed in rags and looked pale and thin which I attributed to a lack of decent food. But, for all her slight, seemingly fragile stature, Jane looked composed.
But what was she accused of?
“Sister, you say there is a witness to this girl’s acts of malice?” the Bishop, seated at a raised desk in the middle of the room, asked Sister Isabella.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Will the witness come forward?” the Bishop requested. A man whom I didn’t recognize stood and removed his hat.
“You can give testimony that this girl has committed a crime against God?” the Bisop questioned the witness.
“What did you observe, Signore?”
“If it pleases your Grace, I saw her,” he pointed at Jane, “Hit her father with a stone.” He glared, full of judgment and disgust. There was a collective gasp of shock from the spectators. Sister Isabella’s head dropped. Jane’s expression remained unchanged; her face angelic. It was difficult to keep my countenance, however. I pressed my face harder into the door, eager to hear more and terrified of the truth, simultaneously. I refused to believe it could be true. Jane couldn’t hurt anyone. It wasn’t in her. She’d never shown herself to be cruel or vindictive to me.
Not to me.
“Continue,” the Bishop requested with a critical eye, giving the man his full attention.
“I was gathering kindling near the river’s edge when I saw them. She was following behind him when he slipped and fell in the water.”
I nodded; I’d been told that’s what happened. I turned my head and put my ear to the keyhole; my heart was pounding so hard I was having trouble hearing what was happening.
“Did she attempt to assist him?” the Bishop asked.
“No,” the man answered.
“No?” The Bishop’s eyes flew to Jane with piercing accusation. “What did she do?” he asked again.
“She kicked him, and when he put out his hand in need of her help…” the man faltered for a moment, visibly disturbed as he spoke. “…She struck him in the skull with the stone.”
“Struck him once?” the Bishop pressed.
“No, more than once. She kept on until he stopped fighting her. And then she… she bent over and… tasted the blood.” Shock rippled through the people in attendance. The Bishop’s eyes turned on Jane and looked on her with a new revulsion. Sister Isabella covered her mouth with her handkerchief, her eyes cast up to Heaven.
I fought the bile that rose in my throat at the repulsive thought of Jane doing any of the things which the man had accused, My mind fought the words it was processing and my ears felt as though they were burning in their effort to block out what they were hearing. Through a fog of disbelief I heard the Bishop ask the man to be seated and requested Sister Isabella to rise and give her testimony.
“This girl and her brother have been in your charge since their father’s death, is that correct?”
“Yes, your Grace,” she answered solemnly.
“The girl claims that their father beat them. She says she was fearful for her and her brother’s life. Can you verify these claims?”
“Yes, your Grace. When they arrived at the abbey, Alec was badly beaten. He had many bruises and some broken bones.”
“Did he tell you it was his father who had beaten him?”
“Errr…No, he didn’t, your Grace.” The Bishop’s brow furrowed as his quill scratched across the parchment before him.
“What cause do you have to suspect witchcraft where these children are concerned?” he continued.
“They act…unnaturally,” she said as she fidgeted with her handkerchief.
He leaned forward in his seat. “In what manner do they act unnaturally, Sister?” She had his full attention, as well as mine.
The Sister glanced briefly at Jane before starting. “On two occasions, I’ve caught Jane torturing animals. Upon one instance, she intended on throwing a kitten into the abbey well. On the second, I caught her burning rats and mice alive. I know not any young girl who could be so cruel and heartless unless she’d been bewitched.”
“And her brother? What of his unnatural acts?”
I stopped breathing and strained to listen, unable to tear my eye away from the keyhole. The Sister shifted her weight, dabbing at her forehead with her handkerchief and paused for a moment as if she were reflecting.
“He goes into trances, my Grace, for days at a time.”
“It’s as if he is dead, yet, his eyes do not close and his breath does not cease. He doesn’t speak, nor does he sleep and he refuses his food. He cannot be roused from it, for we have tried every device we know of.” Her words tumbled out quickly and I would have been suspicious of her motive if not for the subtle current of genuine fear in her wavering voice. She avoided looking at Jane again.
“He refuses food? How so, Sister? If he is incapacitated…”
“He pushes our hands away when we try to feed him. He becomes rather…agitated…” she answered.
“How do you mean, Sister? You must tell God the truth, therefore, I advise you to be forthcoming,” he reminded sternly.
“He fights us off swinging his arms as if striking at us. However, if it pleases your Grace, I always felt he did this to protect himself because he was accustomed to be beaten. Perhaps defense has become his first instinct.” Her eyes became soft as she said this, and her contradictory actions confused me. If she felt sorry for me, why was she accusing me of such horrible sins?
The Bishop, however was not as understanding. “Sister Isabella, that is absurd. His ‘trances’ are an act of diabolism. Otherwise how could one refuse food and sleep and still remain strong enough to resist you? His strength comes from the evil that fills his soul. Just as it does his sister’s.”
I heard his words, spoken with absolute conviction, and terror gripped me. This man, this person the church decided to give authority to, held my life in his hands. Hands which were clumsy and big and ignorant as he pointed at Sister Isabella to stress his ridiculous argument. I started to sink then. To fall. Willingly. To not care anymore. Perhaps all the days I had spent in that damp cell praying to die would release me from this life without her. Maybe God would be merciful. I thought of her round cheeks, her sweet, soft lips and hoped the end would come swiftly so that we’d be reunited in Heaven. I was positive that’s where I’d go, no matter what any of the supposedly pious people around me thought my fate should be.
Faintly, I heard the Bishop order Sister Isabella to return to her seat. Even more faintly, I heard the shuffling of feet and Jane’s shackles clinking as she was taken from the room. The door opened. I was pushed through it and toward the stand. The room was bright; sunlight poured in, magnifying reality with its harshness. Everything my eyes fell upon seemed to blur despite the light. My mind, already so tired and fatigued, was unable to process much more. It was seeking its refuge, wanting to go and hide. How I dearly wanted to let it.
“Boy, your sister says you were both beaten by your father regularly. Is it so?” the Bishop asked.
“Yes.” My eyes stayed determinedly fixed on the knot in the wooden floorboard beneath my feet. I tried to concentrate on it instead of allowing the blackness to come.
“There is no law against raising a child with a firm hand.” The Bishop’s statement was confirmed by a murmur of approval from the small crowd present. I had a vague urge to argue that broken ribs don’t constitute “raising” but I thought better of it.
“Sister Isabella has testified that when you came to the abbey, you had some injuries. How did you get them?”
I couldn’t help my reply.”My father was raising me, your Grace.”
He was unaffected. “What did you do that made him act so?”
My stomach dropped. I didn’t want to mention anything whatsoever about Cesca. She was gone, and I’d take our secret to my death, which, wasn’t far off. I remained silent and sullen.
“Answer me, boy! Why was your father so angry?”
I met his piercing gaze but still I said nothing. The Bishop huffed in annoyance then a small smile lit his wrinkled old face.
“Were you aware that on the morning of his death, your father visited the home of Francesca Marino?”
Frozen, I could not answer. Of course, I didn’t know this. I was recovering from his beating; I was in my safe place. I couldn’t say that, of course. The haze was getting thicker, the blackness coming closer. I wanted it, yearned for it to take me away from what I was hearing. All I could do was answer no. My lips made the proper movement but no sound came out. I was fading and the Bishop was ruthless.
“The day after that visit, Francesca was found dead. She’d hung herself. Do you know anything about that? How are you connected to her?”
Suicide? Impossible! Damn his black heart, and mine too. I should never risked her in such a foolish way.
“Answer me, boy!” The Bishop demanded.
I barely heard him. Quickly, my mind made its own conclusions. My father had gone to Cesca’s house and told her parents our secret. With her virtue and chastity in question, she took her life to preserve her family’s honor. Her blood was on his hands, and mine too. For a moment, I was glad that Jane had killed him, if that was indeed the truth. If our death was the punishment of that act, so be it. I was ready. I had no care anymore for where I was or what was happening; I allowed myself to surrender to the comfort of the dark.