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The Life and Times of Septa Mordane

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Paul's breath was hot and moist on her neck, gasping as he was to lift her body above his enough to pull her dress off completely. He slapped her scrawny rump but she squealed instead of moved and he shushed her sternly before joining her in gales of poorly muffled laughter.

 

His face, dark hair tousled, eyes squinting with laughter, mouth wide and cheeks tight, was what Shella Mordane considered the last memory of her carefree youth. An instant later the disapproving cough of her father ended the excitement of her clandestine meeting by the pond with her lover - had ended her life, as far as she'd been concerned then.

 

A short time later, properly attired and more nervous than she'd thought she'd be, Shella stood with her back to her father's fire as he gazed at her from behind his desk. She'd stood there many, many times in her sixteen years. It was always her father who dealt with her.

 

"Shella," her father began, his determination getting the better of his weariness and frustration. "I can no longer ignore your libidinous behavior. You'll ruin yourself, child, to say nothing of this family. Have you no regard for us?"

 

Us? Shella wanted to ask. It was just the two of them. Her mother had died during Shella's birth and there had been no other children yet her father strove as though he were providing for ten and was constantly working to expand their tiny holding. Shella couldn't imagine why. Perhaps her future husband would be grateful to have an extra stand of trees on their land. It made no difference to her. More land just meant more work and more mouths to feed.

 

Work was one thing that didn't interest her. Wine. Wine was of interest. Handsome men were of interest. Pleasures of the flesh were of interest. Fine food and fancy clothes would have been of interest if she'd had more coin of her own. Her father allowed her to dress well but not with extravagance. Fine food was a rarity in their small village anyway and, besides, as Shella was often reminded, money was best invested and worst wasted. So, while Shella fussed over friends and finery, her father worried over crops and costs. She supposed she'd have to care about those things, too, one day, in the distant future, but, for now, she intended to enjoy herself.

 

Not that she wasn't thinking about the future at all. On the contrary, she congratulated herself on her recent conquest. Paul's family owned the local inn. His mother presided over it like a swan in a barnyard. She poured drinks and talked with the people and ruled over the serving girls. Her hands were soft, free of callouses, and adorned with rings. Her husband stepped in to settle any trouble among the guests leaving her to charm their coins from them. Mingling and mirth seemed to Shella the perfect way to pass the time.

 

More practically, she knew her plain features weren't going to bring the boys running. She could hardly explain to her father that, while he was laboring over his ledger, she was doing her part, too. There didn't seem to be a reason not to cast her net wide. Might as well see how big her catch could be. Her father wasn't a cruel man. If she could attract a suitable suitor, she felt certain she could bend her father's will to match her own. But that was for the future. She'd only just solidified Paul's interest. If her father intended her to marry, he was anticipating her by at least two years. Two years that she planned to fill with excitement.

 

As it turned out, he had no such intentions.

 

"Tomorrow you'll be going to the motherhouse near Seagard-" He held up his hand when he saw she was about to protest. "Yes, you'll go. I've allowed far more of your willful behavior than is meet. l was unable to secure a husband of the caliber I'd hoped for you because - the young men in the village - well, there was talk." Her father, to her very great surprise, flushed. "I intend you to have as much respect as can be managed now. The sisters at the motherhouse may well succeed where I've failed."

 

Shella's heart clenched at those words. She hadn't known her father considered her actions a failure of his. She wanted to assure him that that was not the case. She was only enjoying herself and sampling what life could offer a young woman with a lust for fun. Those protests would not sway her father, she knew, and so she grasped at the only argument she felt might help her. "What about our land? I'm your only child. A septa can't inherit. The Faith would claim it for themselves."

 

"I've decided to settle my estate on my cousin's son, Mychael."

 

"You barely know him!"

 

"I know he's married to a woman of good reputation and that their three small children are said to be bright and well behaved."

 

Shella's mind twisted around that news. If she had nothing to inherit, she had even less with which to attract a suitable husband. "My children could be bright and well behaved," she said in a feeble voice.

 

"Of course they could," he said kindly, "though I don't think motherhood would suit you. Mychael wrote to me last year expressing an interest in learning my trade. I put him off in case you . . . Well, I've reconsidered his interest."

 

"But Paul's family owns the inn." Shella didn't know why she said it. It didn't signify anything other than her own interest in having access to whatever rotation of faces came through their small village.

 

For a moment her father just looked at her. It was almost a look of pity and that was even worse. "Do you and Paul wish to marry?"

 

Shella's thoughts scattered. She didn't know if she wanted to marry Paul. She didn't want to marry him right now but maybe she would one day, when she was sure she'd exhausted her options. For Paul's part, he hadn't mentioned marriage. She didn't want to tell her father that, either, not after what he'd just witnessed. Heat crept into her cheeks. That seemed to decide him.

 

Her father stood and came around the desk. He laid a hand on her shoulder and waited until she met his eyes before speaking. "I hope you will allow the Faith to shape you where I couldn't." Her lower lip trembled. "Please pack your things tonight. We'll leave at first light."

 

Hot tears streaked down her cheeks as she left the room. She kept her back straight and her head up, as her father had endlessly instructed her, but she gave way the instant she was alone in her room, sobbing into her pillow for the better part of an hour. She considered sneaking off to find Paul but had no taste for further disappointing her father tonight, or for admitting to Paul the shaming punishment that awaited her on the morrow. No, she would much rather disappear and not endure the smirks and snickers of her luckier friends, the girls who would soon fill Paul's arms while she withered among the desiccated sisters of the motherhouse.

 

*

 

The motherhouse sat on a terraced hill facing the Cape of Eagles. The hill was covered with some scrubby-looking fields, dotted here and there by sisters in their dun robes, stooped over picking berries and the gods knew whatever else. They look like aurochs, Shella thought dully as she shifted her numb rear on the seat. There was a sept, of course there was a sept, and it was on the top of the hill.

"Look! There's the Booming Tower!" her father said. "The bell warns folks of reavers from the Iron Islands."

 

Shella had not argued with her father that morning. She did not want to admit how hurt she was and knew lashing out would simply make her pain clear. Instead, she smothered her feelings and was polite but distant. "When did the Iron Born last attack Seagard, Father?" Shella asked innocently, thinking she'd rather be a salt wife than a septa.

 

"Oh, you have nothing to fear, my dear. Lord Mallister has the area well in hand. That bell has only rung once in the last three hundred years."

 

A pity. Shella knew her father was trying to make her feel better and she suspected he even harbored some guilt over his decision to dump her off with these godsworn bores. She loved him a little for trying to portray this as an adventure but she would not make the destruction of all her hopes easy on him.

 

Their horse dragged them to the first terrace where there were a stable and some outer buildings that Shella cared nothing about. From there they took the winding track up to the motherhouse. It was just steep enough to make breaths short and thighs burn. They were nearly to the porch when the Crone herself stepped out and looked down a hatchet-like nose at them.

"Mother Stoutwall!" her father began, introducing himself and Shella. The mother looked upon Shella like one would contemplate a slug infestation. Shella turned away and took in the view. There was a market near the water, just south of the docks. The market, at least, was promising. She could always catch a ship if things grew dire.

 

"Young lady!" the mother's voice cracked like the dawn of doomsday.

 

"Shella, dear," her father prompted softly, indicating she should attend the mother with a small nod of his head in her direction.

 

"I asked you a question!"

 

"Please repeat it."

 

The mother drew herself up. "I asked if there was a particular order that interested you."

 

"No."

 

"No, mother."

 

"No, mother." Shella was already tired of this.

 

The mother eyed her with contempt for a long moment before turning back to Shella's father. "By the Seven, I wish I'd known you were going to arrive today. Another young woman arrived just two days prior and I'm afraid we are very limited on space . . ."

 

Shella turned away again, more than ready to trot down the hill to the wagon.

 

"Perhaps an additional donation might make it easier to find a spare cot . . ."

 

Shella turned, her mouth open. The septa's greed did not surprise her but she was shamed by her father's determination to be rid of her.

 

When they parted, her father pressed some money into her palm as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. "For emergencies only, you understand."

 

"Yes, Father," she murmured in response, curling her fingers around the warm coins. She counted them quickly as her father took his leave of Mother Stoutwall. She did not know how much a ship's passage cost but she was certain it was more than what she had, even with the small sum she'd brought of her own.

 

She stood rooted to the spot, feeling numb as she watched her father's wagon pull away.

 

"Septa Gale will attend you."

 

Shella had barely started to turn toward Mother Stoutwall when the old hag turned on her heel and stalked back inside. Shella turned back toward the water without really seeing it. She could just leave. Who was to stop her? She could go back, find Paul, and convince him to run off with her. Her father would be mortified, of course he would, and rightly so, but she was a woman grown. He would survive the gossip.

 

Shella never knew why she didn't take that first step. Perhaps it was the gods' will after all. While her eyes were trained on the cape and her mind was on the road out of town, a sister waited patiently behind her and eventually gave a gentle cough. Startled, Shella spun around.

 

"It is a lovely view, isn't it? I'm sure I could gaze upon the water forever. The gods have favored Seagard."

Shella would have agreed until the sister shared that last sentiment. "Oh, you like it here then?"

 

"Oh, yes. I feel called to be here."

 

Shella stifled the desire to scream. "I'm Shella Mordane."

 

"I'm Septa Enna Gale."

 

"A pleasure," Shella responded.

 

"My own," Septa Gale replied. "Would you like to see your new home now?"

 

Shella picked up her bags in response. The piety aside, Septa Gale seemed nice and was perhaps nearing thirty though she had a round, youthful face and sparkling blue eyes.

 

They followed a well-worn path to the rear of the hill, Septa Gale talking all the while, Shella feeling a stitch starting to nag at her ribs. The sisters' quarters faced the city. "New members are generally housed near the top of the hill if space allows," Septa Gale explained.

 

"So they don't run off?" Shella asked, looking down at the roofs cascading along the terraces toward the city. The huts were yellow and cream-colored with tile roofs. Here and there some rangy-looking flowers grew in the stubborn soil. Some huts were plain but some boasted window boxes with trailing vines and blooms, a few had pots of green plants, others had been decorated with seashells.

 

Septa Gale laughed. "Why would they want to do that? In truth, it has happened once or twice but we are a snug bunch here."

 

Shella doubted that.

 

"It is not to trap anyone," Septa Gale continued with a laugh, "we just like to keep our new members as close to the Seven as we can. As you move down the hill, you get closer to the community that you will serve. It's symbolic!"


Shella stifled a groan. Was this septry humor? Was she supposed to laugh or look pious or . . . what? "These are generous accommodations," she said by way of diversion, thinking at that least the huts looked a decent size.

 

Septa Gale's face lit up. "They are! Seven sisters to a house. I'm sure you'll like your roommates. You'll be just over here." They walked past a few more huts to a plain one in the middle of the terrace.

 

Seven? Shella's hopes deflated. She was to be surrounded at all hours. She stood aside as Septa Gale rapped on the door and then opened it upon not receiving a response.

 

"Who are my roommates?"

 

"Septa Hanlon, she's been here for almost twenty years. She enjoys working with new sisters. We like to have a more senior sister with our new members to offer support and guidance. Also, the hill is hard on her knees so she prefers to live near the top. Most of her duties are confined to the sept now. Sister Greenleaf is the newest member in this hut and comes to us from near Rosby. Sister Mallin has been here three years and she's requested to move down to the next terrace soon but that's for Mother Stoutwall to decide. And then there are Sisters Marche, Darry, Blackney, and Bell. Sweet girls, all. They are from Maidenpool and joined our motherhouse together coming on two years ago." The septa stepped inside and turned to smile at Shella. "Here we are now."

 

The inside of the hut was stark white. With the sunlight coming in through the windows, it was bright and airy inside. Shella saw three alcoves with two bunks in each and one alcove with a stand-alone bed. Each alcove had two trunks and two small chests of drawers. In the center of the room was a round wooden table with seven chairs. Against the far wall was a fireplace. Small bookshelves were on either side. A half barrel, a basin, and a curtained alcove that Shella presumed hid the privy were between the cots on the left. A few personal items adorned the walls and the requisite religious articles were about.

 

"There's a bed already here," Shella said, gesturing toward the only unmade bunk.

 

"Well, yes, of course there is."

 

Shella pressed her lips together and vowed to write her father a letter as soon as she could, not to complain, just to let him know he'd been swindled. Of course, on the other hand, he'd been more than ready to pay. The letter would wait.

 

"I'll have linens brought to you. You may wear what you have for today."

 

"When am I given . . ." Shella waved her hand up and down to indicate Septa Gale's garb.

 

"Oh, not until you become a septa. The sisters wear simple dresses and aprons with a loose head-covering. You'll receive your coif, crown, veil, and wimple once you've taken orders."

 

"And when will that be?"

 

"It takes most sisters three years to complete their studies and service."

 

Shella stared at her. Three years?

 

"Forgive me, but is this new to you?"

 

"Yes -" Shella's chest constricted. She suddenly felt ashamed. She did not want to admit her presence there was a punishment, that her father dumped her off for licentiousness. She cleared her throat. "Yes, it's new to me. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the process. Would you please be so good as to explain?"

 

The septa smiled kindly. "Of course. Why don't we be seated?"

 

Shella took a seat at the table with Septa Gale and listened as the many steps to septahood were delineated for her. A thorough knowledge of the holy books, The Seven-Pointed Star and The Book of Holy Prayer, was expected at a minimum. Sisters often studied together, helping one another memorize names, dates, deeds, and passages.

 

"I imagine there may be spirited debates during study sessions," Shella said, depressed that this seemed the most likely source of entertainment.

 

Septa Gale's brows drew together for just an instant. "Oh, no. The text is clear enough. There's no need for interpretation." She smiled.

 

Service to the community was a requirement that could be achieved any number of ways. Seagard had as many indigent people as any other harbor town. "The children are the ones who need us most, it seems," the septa said sadly. "Seafarers are . . . Wanderlust, I suppose, is what it comes down to. A desire to never be settled. There are two orphanages in town and we minister to them faithfully. Do you like children, Sister Shella?"

 

The appellation came as a shock. The soft voice, the two syllables in "sister" whispered and clicked together like a manacle. "No!" she blurted. "No, I don't. I mean, I don't have any experience with children. I . . . I am my father's only child. My mother died giving birth to me," she added clumsily.

 

"Mother grant her rest," Septa Gale said sympathetically. "You may enjoy being with the children. They're so lively!" She smiled at some memory. "Of course there are the sick and lame -"

 

"I thought the silent sisters attended them."

 

"Once they've passed into the Stranger's care, yes. White septas see to the needs of the suffering."

 

Shella stifled a grimace. "Mother Stoutwall mentioned something about orders."

 

Septa Gale nodded. "I should have explained. There are four orders, though we only train two here. White septas, as you now know, focus on healing arts. Silent sisters, who are not regarded as septas, prepare the deceased for delivery into the Stranger's arms. They take vows of chastity and silence and wear gray, exposing only their eyes. We do not train for that specifically; you'd have to go to Oldtown, should that interest you . . ."

 

Shella shook her head.

 

"Silent sisterhood is truly a calling indeed. Nevertheless, brown septas concentrate their attention on doctrine, including law. Such sisters may be called to sit on trials and the holiest and most devout may even assist the High Septon! We offer a basic education for those sisters but those who wish to ascend to the highest levels of service must also go to Oldtown. Last but not least are the blue septas. This is the largest order. Blue septas, of which I am one, carry out the gods' work through community engagement. We assist the head mother and local septons in leading worship services. We tend the garden for the white sisters' medicinal herbs and plants. We grow and deliver food to the sick and poor. We sew clothing. We serve as tutors for young ladies and new sisters. We collect goods for the indigent. Oh, there's so much one can do as a blue septa!"

 

"Being a blue septa sounds nice," Shella said, thinking she looked best in that color and that nothing could entice her to be cooped up with the ill and infirm.

 

"In truth, we do not make much fuss over the particular orders. It all comes down to how you're called to serve. When did you receive your calling?"

 

Shella thought if Septa Gale didn't already know her background, she soon would so there was little to be gained by lying. "Yesterday."

 

Septa Gale's eyebrows shot up but, before she could reply, the door opened and admitted three sisters. The first one in was rather tall with a strong jaw and a scowl. She was followed by an older woman who clung to the arm of a girl near Shella's age.

 

"Who is this, Septa Gale?" inquired the tall one, who was peering at Shella with unrestrained interest.

 

"Sister Mallin, please meet Sister Mordane. She's just arrived today."

 

Shella latched on to the only thing she seemed to have in common with this starer. "Sister Mallin? So you haven't completed your studies yet." She knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words left her mouth. She'd only meant that they had something in common but Sister Mallin's head drew back and her upper lip curled in distaste.

 

"I expect to take orders very, very soon, Sister Mordane."

 

Shella tried to smile to smooth things over. "I suppose I'll have to find someone else to study with then," she said, not quite believing she'd ever be in Seagard that long.

 

"Sister Greenleaf," Sister Mallin snapped without looking away from Shella, "It seems the gods have witnessed your struggle after all. Sister Mordane, this is Sister Agnes Greenleaf. She's a new member as well and would benefit from your combined efforts."

 

Shella looked at Sister Greenleaf, whose face was passive. "I would be pleased to study with you," Shella said, worrying she'd not have a single friend within the walls of the hut.

 

"It would be my pleasure, Sheila."

 

"Shella."

 

"Sister," intoned Sister Mallin.

 

For a moment no one said anything. Then Septa Gale took the arm of the older woman who had been heretofore ignored. "Sister Shella, may I introduce Septa Hanlon?"

 

Shella nodded. "A pleasure," she said, thought she felt none. None at all. And the expectation of any future pleasure was evaporating with each passing moment.

 

Several minutes of uncomfortable conversation followed. Shella struggled to appear engaged but a weariness was seeping into her bones that felt permanent. She had been wary of Septa Gale at first but, when the time came, Shella found she did not want her to leave.

 

Shella stepped outside with her, though she was out of things to say. She raggedly inhaled the salty air.

 

Septa Gale touched her arm and it was all Shella could do not to burst into tears. "The Seven have a plan for us all. Sometimes it seems to run contrary to our own plans but have faith, Sister Shella, and all will be well."

 

*

 

All was not well. The girls from Maidenpool were an iron-clad, impenetrable clique. Shella had hoped to befriend them, seeing as they appeared to be having a good time, but they only peered at her as though she were a simple yet mildly amusing curiosity and then turned back to chattering amongst themselves. When Sister Darry asked about her home life, Shella might have embroidered things a bit but what did they know? They weren't maesters on her life or her village. Whether they'd sensed her disingenuousness or were simply unimpressed with her background the result was the same: they were not interested in admitting her as a fifth to their party. Shella was stung by this. She was not used to being unpopular.

 

Sister Mallin was clearly no fun and Septa Hanlon was clearly too old. That left Sister Greenleaf. Shella wondered if Sister Greenleaf would shun her, too, out of pure pride, since Shella had turned to the others first but, to Shella's relief, she didn't. Agnes had plain features and unremarkable light brown hair but she also had a sharp eye and a sharper sense of humor. She'd dubbed their four roommates from Maidenpool "the Maidens." It was so apt, given their penchant for (Shella believed, staged) wide-eyed enthusiasm over nothing and everything, that Shella was sorry she hadn't thought of it first.

 

Agnes also had a head start on in-house relations. The evening conversation would typically begin with Sister Mallin noting something lacking in one indigent family or another. "It seems things have not improved for the Marshalls," she might observe. Sister Darry would rush to add, eyelashes fluttering, "But their little boy is sweet." Sister Bell would chime in, "So sweet!" Sister Blackney would chirrup, "The sweetest!" and Sister Marche would bring up the rear with, "And smart!" which would signal a chorus of "So smart!" and "The smartest!" Shella thought she would grind her teeth down to stumps having to listen to this but Sister Greenleaf would eventually use something they said as a segue to ask Septa Hanlon about her past. The older woman would turn away and wave a hand like her past was hardly anything interesting and that she'd been embarrassed by the attention but then, without fail, she'd say, "Well, back in my day . . ." and it would be at least an hour until whatever yarn she told concluded. Listening to her rambling stories was, for Shella and Agnes, a welcome respite from attending their lessons.

 

Lessons were the worst. There were daily lectures on religious doctrine and religious theory and religious history and various passages from The Book of Holy Prayer and The Seven-Pointed Star and on and on and Shella wished she could teach herself how to sleep with her eyes open. Worse still were the discussion and study periods. Here, she was expected to participate. These sessions were for sisters and were intended to prepare them for their septas' exams. Shella knew good and well that the others were irritated by her lack of participation. Sister Greenleaf didn't add much, either, but she, at least, would make the occasional joke so at least her presence was somewhat welcomed by the others.

 

When they weren't being bored to death at lessons, they were being worked to death. New members of the motherhouse were required to rotate through a seemingly endless series of tasks: scrubbing laundry, cooking meals, menial kitchen labor, gardening, septry cleaning and service preparation, shelving books in the library, each chore more soul-crushingly dull than the last. White septas-in-training also did time in the infirmary and it was a small comfort to Shella that she did not have to learn about her sisters' bunions, cankers, rashes, and myriad other revolting conditions. It was all enough to make her want to throw herself from the Booming Tower. Between the less-than-half-a-mind she paid to her religious instruction and the tasks she completed half-heartedly, the days were long, slow, and excruciating.

 

Griping with Sister Greenleaf was her sole source of comfort. Agnes was as disenchanted with everything as Shella was but had the wit to make light of it. When Shella grumbled that they were slaves, Agnes said, "No, my dear, we are sell-souls," and Shella couldn't help but laugh.

 

Of course, any enjoyment would not be tolerated. They were the subjects of many a pointed look during services and talkings-to by their various task leaders. After an "unseemly and inappropriate" giggling fit while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, Shella muttered to Agnes, "What I wouldn't give for a drink."

 

Agnes raised her eyebrows. "Why didn't you say so?" She reached down into the neckline of her dress and fished out a key on a chain.

 

"What's that?" Shella asked. She tried not to sound accusatory but she did feel as though her friend had been holding out on her.

 

"A spare key. Sometimes a lady wants something better than the peasant swill they give us."

 

Shella wondered how long Agnes had had the key and how she'd gotten it but wouldn't allow herself to ask for fear of sounding petulant.

 

"What else can you get?"

 

"Not moon tea."

 

As Shella stumbled over a response Agnes grabbed her elbow and hauled her into the pantry. "Cough if anyone comes," she instructed Shella before she moved to a cabinet off in the corner of the room. She deftly opened it and reached in to grab a flagon without having to search. Shella pressed her lips together. She's obviously done this before.

 

Later, after the meal and the interminable prayers, they took a walk. Agnes seemed to know which sisters worked the evening shift and, so, which huts would be empty and without a lot of nuisance foot traffic outside. She's certainly learned a lot since she's been here, Shella thought, a little aggrieved. Shella's thoughts mainly revolved around how bored she was all the time. She refused to recognize the resentment she felt toward her father.

 

Agnes had grabbed some summer wine and they drank it together as the sun set. The sweet liquid soaked into Shella and she felt her body relax as her mind became pleasantly fogged. A little more would have had her in her cups and she thought sadly how long it had been since she'd had good wine and not the substandard ale they were usually served. It irked her that she was at Agnes's mercy for more but it was better than nothing. She thought about how to suggest they make this a regular thing when Agnes anticipated her.

 

"They don't restock often. Septa Whiting has to keep a certain amount of the good stuff on hand in case Mother Stoutwall has guests."

 

"Won't they notice a whole missing flagon?" Shella almost hoped they would but didn't make a big effort not to feel petty about it.

 

“I’ll put it back when we’re done.”

 

“How will you get more wine to fill it?”

 

Agnes snorted. "I’ll fill it with water."

 

"Water?"

 

"Septa Whiting would know if they were empty, wouldn't she? She's not going to break the seal of the head mother's finest wines just to make sure the flagons contain what she thinks they contain." Agnes laughed then raised her glass in a mock toast. "So don't get greedy."

 

Shella bristled. To prevent saying something that might lose her access to whatever decent wine Agnes could get for them, she took a dainty sip from her own glass and ignored it when her friend reached for the flagon again.


"What brought you to the motherhouse?" she asked instead. She'd already decided she would say she was fulfilling her father's dearest wish if the question was returned to her.

 

"An inconvenient marriage," Agnes said, squinting out toward the harbor.

 

"You were married?" Shella was surprised. "How could you be a sister if . . ."

 

Agnes darted her eyes toward Shella with the briefest look of irritated impatience. "No, I was avoiding a marriage. He was old. His breath smelt like burnt cheese." She grimaced. "My father insisted but . . . so did I." She shrugged.

 

Shella thought that over. She was not sure she would have made the same choice. "He might have died," she suggested after a few minutes' silence. "You said he was old. You're only seventeen. To give up, I mean, devote yourself to a lifetime of service to the Seven just to avoid one man . . ."

 

Agnes chuckled. "I'm serving them for now. I haven't taken vows. I probably won't, either."

 

Shella turned to gape at her. "But . . . but what will you do? How will you leave? Where will you go?" And how can I do the same?


"I don't know yet. But something will happen. It always does."

 

*

Several weeks after she'd been abandoned, Shella received a letter from her father. Mychael had arrived and was very industrious. The extended family was well. The crops were healthy. One of the cows had given birth. Shella read the cheerful missive with annoyance. She'd not found the desire to send her father a single word. She knew his wishes for her health and happiness were sincere, as was his wish that she was applying herself to her lessons. Her mind wandered briefly to Paul. There'd been no mention of him, of course, nor of any of her friends. Not that it mattered. She wasn't going back there. That was one thing of which she was certain.

 

She cast the letter aside with frustration. It occurred to her that she'd been wallowing. Agnes had found ways to make her stay at the motherhouse tolerable. She knew a lot of sisters Shella didn't. Useful ones, apparently. She'd figured out who was working when, and where. She'd somehow gotten that damn key. Loathe though she was to admit it, Shella knew her situation was not going to improve unless she did something to improve it.

 

One night Agnes returned from mission work in town practically whistling.

 

"What are you so happy about?" Shella asked under her breath. Septa Hanlon was snoring quietly in her bed. Sister Mallin was at the library looking up something she thought she’d missed on her septas' exam and the Maidens had just left to prepare the septry for the early morning services.

 

"I was in town."

 

"I know that."

 

"You should really volunteer more."

 

"And why -"

 

"Shella, by the Seven, you really are thick sometimes."

 

Shella drew back, stung and angry but too surprised to make an immediate comeback.

 

Agnes went on as though she was explaining something very simple to someone very slow. “Volunteering to bring food and clothing to the local poor puts one in the path of men, some of whom recognize that not every sister is a walking prayer book. You need not consign your body and soul to the Stranger just yet."