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Philippa Gregory

The Wise Woman

© 1992


In my dream I smelled the dark sulphurous stink of a passing witch and I pulled up the coarse blanket over my head and whispered 'Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us', to shield me from my nightmare of terror. Then I heard shouting and the terrifying crackle of hungry flames and I came awake in a rush of panic and sat up on my pallet and looked fearfully around the limewashed cell.

The walls were orange and scarlet, with the bobbing light of reflected flames, and I could hear yells of angry rioting men. I knew at once that the worst thing had happened. Lord Hugo had come to wreck us, Lord Hugo had come for the abbey, as we had feared he might come, since King Henry's Visitors had found us wealthy and pretended that we were corrupt. I flung on my gown and snatched my rosary, and my cape, crammed my feet into my boots, tore open the door of my cell and peered into the smoke-filled corridor of the novitiate dormitory.

The abbey was stone-built, but the rafters would burn, the beams, and the wooden floors. Even now the flames might be licking upwards, under my feet. I heard a little whimper of fear and it was my own craven voice. On my left were the slits of open windows and red smoke swirled in through them like the tongues of hungry serpents licking towards my face. I peered out with watering eyes and saw, black against the fire, the figures of men crossing and re crossing the cloister green with their arms full of treasures, our treasures, holy treasures from the church. Before them was a bonfire and while I watched incredulously these Satan's soldiers ripped off the jewelled covers and threw the fluttering pages of our books into the flames. Beyond them was a man on a big roan horse – black as death against the firelight, with his head thrown back, laughing like the deviclass="underline" Lord Hugo.

I turned with a sob of fear and coughed on the smoke. Behind me were the single cells where the young novitiates, my sisters in Christ, were still sleeping. I took two steps down the corridor to bang on the doors and scream at them to awake and save themselves from this devil inside our gates and his fiery death of burning. I put my hand out to the first door, but the smoke was in my throat and no sound came. I choked on my scream, I swallowed and tried to scream again. But I was trapped in this dream, voiceless and powerless, my feet wading through brimstone, my eyes filled with smoke, my ears clogged with the shouts of heretics wrecking their way to damnation. I tapped on one door with a light hand. I made no sound. No sound at all.

I gave a little moan of despair and then I picked up my skirts and I fled from my sisters, from my duty and from the life I had chosen. I scuttered down the breakneck spiral staircase like a rat from a burning hayrick.

The door at the foot of the stairs was barred, beside it was the cell where my mother in Christ, the Abbess Hildebrande slept. I paused. For her above them all, I should have risked my life. For all of my young sisters I should have screamed a warning: but to save Mother Hildebrande I should have burned alive and it would have been no more than her due. I should have banged her door off its hinges, I should have screamed out her name, I should never, never have left without her. She was my guardian, she was my mother, she was my saviour. Without her I would have been nothing. I paused for a moment – a bare half second I gave her – then I smelled smoke spilling under the refectory door and I flew at the bolts on the back door, rattled them open, and I was out in the west garden with the herb-beds around me cool and pale in the darkness.

I could hear the shouts from the heart of the abbey but out here in the gardens all was clear. I raced down the formal garden paths and flung myself into the slim shadow of the door in the outer wall and paused for one moment. Over the rapid thudding of my pulse I heard the noise of the coloured windows cracking in the heat and then the great crash as they were smashed by a thrown candlestick or silver plate. On the far side of the door I could hear the river flowing, splashing over the stones, showing me my way back to the outside world like the pointing finger of my own especial devil.

It was not too late, I was not yet through the door. For a second, for half a breath, I paused, tested my courage to go back -pictured myself hammering on the doors, breaking the windows, yelling for my mother, Mother Hildebrande, and my sisters, and facing whatever was to come at her side, with her hand in mine, and my sisters all around me.

I waited for no more than a moment. I fled out of the little garden door, and slammed it shut behind me.

No one saw me go.

Only the eyes of God and His Blessed Mother were on me. I felt their gaze burning into my back, as I kilted up my skirts and ran. Ran from the wrecked chapel and the burning abbey, ran with the speed of a traitor and a coward. And as I ran, I heard behind me a single thin scream – cut off short. A cry for help from someone who had woken too late. It did not make me pause – not even for a second. I ran as if the very gates of hell were opening at my heels, and as I ran, leaving my mother and my sisters to die, I thought of Cain the brother-killer. And I believed that by the time I came to Bowes village the branches of the trees and the tendrils of the ivy would have slashed at me as I ran – laid their stripes upon me – so that I would be marked forever, as Cain, with the curse of the Lord.

Morach was ready for her bed when she heard the noise at the door of the hovel. A pitiful scratch and a little wail like a whipped dog. She waited for long moments before she even stepped towards the threshold. Morach was a wise woman, a seer; many came to her door for dark gifts and none went away disappointed. Their disappointment came later.

Morach waited for clues as to her visitor. A child? That single cry had been weakly, like an ailing bairn. But no sick child, not even a travelling tinker's brat, would find the courage to tap on Morach's door during the hours of darkness. A girl thickening in the waist, slipped out while her heavy-handed father slept? A visitor from the darker world, disguised as a cat? A wolf? Some misshapen, moist horror?

'Who's there?' Morach asked, her old voice sharp. There was silence. Not the silence of absence; but the silence of one who has no name.

'What do they call you?' Morach asked, her wit quickened by fear.

'Sister Ann,' came the reply, as low as a sigh from a deathbed.

Morach stepped forward and opened the door and Sister Ann slumped into the room, her shaven head glinting obscenely in the guttering candle's light, her eyes black with horror, her face stained and striped with smuts.

'Saints!' Morach said coolly. 'What have they done to you now?'

The girl swayed against the door-frame and put out a hand to steady herself. 'They're gone,' she said. 'Mother Hildebrande, the sisters, the abbey, the church. All gone. Burned out by the young lord.'

Morach nodded slowly, her eyes raking the white, stained face.

'And you?' she asked. 'Not taken for treason or heresy? Not seized by the soldiers, by the young Lord Hugo?' 'No,' she said softly, her breath like a sigh. 'You ran,' Morach said flatly, without sympathy. 'Yes.'

'Anyone see you? Anyone follow you here? Anyone coming behind to burn me out, as well as you and your saintly sisters?' 'No.'

Morach laughed as if the news gave her especial, malicious, pleasure. 'Ran too fast for them, did you? Too fleet of foot for the fat soldiers to follow? Faster than your sisters, I'll be bound. Left them to burn, did you? While you hitched up your skirts and took to your heels? That won't get you into the sacred calendar, my little martyr! You've lost your chance now!'