VII. Tarnished Coins.
It snowed on the day Henry brought the traps from the village. The knights set them strategically encircling the cottage. They chained them to big trees, covered everything with snow; and then they brushed them with a branch. In three spots, the knights built blinds so that they could conceal themselves and wait with their crossbows loaded with silver-tipped bolts. Roxanne and I were prisoners: we didn't want to go to the village, but now we couldn't go too far from the cottage because of the traps. Only Henry's men knew where they were. There was no way I could contact Peter to warn him about the traps without the knights knowing. Roxanne and I were trapped too. Like prisoners who accept their sentence with stoicism, we waited.
With help from one of my Grandmother's concoctions, that night I slept; but was woken when Roxanne sat up in bed. The cold air rushed in when the covers pulled away from me.
"What is it?" I asked drowsily.
"It's Peter." Roxanne replied.
A howl cut the air.
I sat up too.
"Peter," I said, "go away. You're in danger."
But only Roxanne could hear my words.
"I wish Peter would kill them," Roxanne declared, her voice edged with hatred that I had never heard before. "I wish he would tear them open and rip out their guts while they're still alive."
"I saw that knight look at you today when you went for water before the traps were set," Roxanne continued. "He looked at you as if you were a lamb. He looked at you like the drunken slobs in the tavern used to look at me. Then they would hold out a few kreuzer."
In the total darkness, I could tell tears were running down Roxanne's face.
"I knew I shouldn't, but I would always take the coins. Every time, I would take the coins."
"Sometimes," I said, "the coin is shiny, sometimes the coin is tarnished; but we always want them."
There was silence for a long while—the seventh seal had been broken.
"Henry still loves you, Valerie," Roxanne said. "He would forsake God for you."
"I know," I replied. "Henry is a good man, but I am his weakness—his mortal fascination."
"If you told him about Peter, Henry would save him for you—he would figure out a way. If you offered yourself to Henry, he would save Peter for you."
"But it's a trap," I said. "Henry would hate himself for it. I would hate myself for it. What is life without love? If I entice Henry to do it, I destroy him. He couldn't love me if I did that; and afterwards, how could I love Peter? I don't want to do the Devil's work. The Devil destroys love."
"Then Peter is going to die."
Another doleful howl blasted through the winter's night.
"Or I for him," I said. "My Grandmother used to say that the heart of love is sacrifice."
Kicking the covers off, I put my feet on the cold floor, and began to pull my dress on over my head.
"Valerie," Roxanne said anxiously, "what are you doing?"
I didn't answer her. Instead, grabbing my cloak, I headed for the door.
The moon was full, the snow was fresh, and the night was almost as bright as day. Wrapped in my red riding hood, I went out on the porch, waiting not for my lover to sing for me, but dreading a calamity.
Roxanne stepped out of the cottage after me.
"It's freezing, Valerie, come inside," she pleaded.
Just then, a sharp agonizing yowl blasted through the cold motionless air. Peter was caught in one of Henry's traps!
Instantly, I ran toward the cry. I knew exactly from where it had come. By the brook where I had often seen large paw prints when fetching water.
"No, Valerie! Come back!" Roxanne shouted to me, but I raced on.
As I reached the open space by the brook, I heard soldiers coming through the trees, while I knelt by Peter, who was struggling piteously in the snow stained with blood. His left front paw was clamped into the iron jaws of Henry's trap. But before I could do anything, a knight with his crossbow ready appeared on the opposite bank. He took aim.
"No!" I screamed, and threw myself over Peter.
Suddenly, Roxanne dashed like a deer out of the forest and threw herself in front of us, shielding us just as the knight fired.
The sound of the bolt from the crossbow tearing through her body will haunt me for ever.
Rage, fear, and love gave me the strength to open the jaws of the trap. The other soldiers, struggling through the deep snow, where emerging from the trees.
"Run, Peter!" I screamed. "Run before it's too late!"
Peter ran into the forest.
I heard another bolt fly over my head.
Roxanne was lying face down in the snow, an enormous blood stain growing all around her. I rolled her over. Blood gushed from her mouth. Her opened eyes gazed past me at the black winter sky. I took hold of her cold hand, but she was already dead.
I heard Henry call my name; but as if in a trance, I stood up, took a few steps, and fell down.
Whatever I recall after that, I do not know if I remembered it on my own, or if someone told it to me. The wolves of the village, exacerbated, burnt Grandmother's cottage down and with it her tome of herbal cures. Because Roxanne had protected Peter, a werewolf, the villagers assumed she had been a witch and threw her body into the fire. She is completely gone now, unable to rest beside her beloved brother.
I'm sure that Henry brought me to the Lazar house—an asylum for lepers, but I haven't seen him since Roxanne died. This place is a prison on a mountain top even more remote than Daggerhorn. A provost of the Order of St. Lazarus governs a monastery for men and a convent for women that share a central chapel. All of the residents are lepers—scarred and deformed by the disease that renders them unclean in the eyes of God and society. They live in the Lazar house praying for salvation, protected by the Knights of St. Lazarus. The nun in charge of the convent says that I'm possessed by a demon. I'm woken in the middle of the night by a beating with a cane. The nuns and monks here wear rough gray frocks like the fur of wolves, but they are more beastly than any wolf in the forest. After the beating, I slave baking bread in a kitchen hot as one of the chambers of hell. After three hours, I go to mass in the icy chapel with the wretched souls who live here; but I don't sing. A sure sign, I'm told, that I'm possessed. After mass, I'm beaten again by a rota of inmates. Bellowing in Latin, the priest, hands twisted by leprosy, stands over me as I'm beaten. He's reciting the exorcism ritual.
When they're done exorcizing me, two leprous sisters drag me back to my cell. It's a tiny, dank room with dark stone walls and a heavy wooden door. It is an actual prison cell, for I'm locked inside it. There is a small window, high above my head, from which I'm blessed with a modicum of sunlight and the occasional whiff of fresh air. Last night, through this little window, I heard the howl of a wolf. I'm sure it was Peter. He'll free me from this dungeon.
Thanks to everyone for reading this far—not too many. :(
Thanks to anonymous of 5/30 for the comment. [This plot was conceived long before you read.]
Special thanks to hankthefluuphiwaffle for commenting on every chapter!