Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sister Hannah

After she blew out the candle, the stars were her only light, so Hannah had to wait for her eyes to adjust. She set the candleholder on the closed trapdoor, and turned. By memory, she slowly felt her way out to the wall of the roof, aiming for one of gaps. The sisters told her the gaps had a name, but she could never remember stuff like that. Crennallons? Once there, she leaned out, feeling the breeze intensify and blow her hair back and up from below.

Slowly, the world came back. She saw the silhouette of the forest, beyond the outer wall. Just being up here made Hannah feel better. Her world was larger. She peered down and smiled at the rough stonework of the keep wall. She checked herself again, made sure the long sleeves of her novice's habit were well secured, and swung herself over. She set her feet carefully, and began her descent.

It wasn't too hard. She'd climbed these walls ever since she was a child, and the stone bulbed out, rough with ridges perfect to set the edge of a foot upon. She locked her fingers into gaps in the mortar, or spread her hand over a bulge in the stone, leaving as much weight as possible on her feet. Occasionally she'd look up, and see the glow of the moonless sky, the stars sharp points in a field of deep blue.

It was taking longer than she expected. She'd never climbed down from such a height before - the elder sisters had always pulled her down before she could get above their heads. Hannah smiled, and shifted her weight over onto one foot, lowering herself until she was sitting on her ankle. She sent her other foot out, questing for a ridge to set it against. Well, not always. There was that one time she'd made it up to top of the great gate. She'd climbed her way around the archway, and had sat on the jutting edge of the capstone, barely six inches deep. She'd been two scared to climb down. Valerie had had to convince her to jump down into a sheet, stretched out tight by a team of sisters. The fall had been pretty fun, actually. Once down, Val had grabbed her and hugged her, holding her so tight. Val had started crying, which made Hannah start crying, and they had just sat there, locked in a hug until one of the nuns had pried her sister off her and had taken Hannah off to see the Mother Superior.

Hannah had spent most of the next two weeks confined to her cell. She had been let out for meals and classes, but they hadn't let her out in the courtyard, and she hadn't been allowed to speak to Valerie. Val had still sat next to her in the great hall at meals and held her hand. "You scared me, Hannah. Promise me you won't do that again," and Valerie had glared at her to show that she meant it. "Don't climb so high you can't climb down again." Hannah had squeezed her hand to show Val she understood. The rest of Hannah's two weeks had been spent practicing climbing the stone walls of her cell. Up and down, left and right.

Hannah reached the base of the wall, and sat. She wasn't tired yet, but there was still the outer wall to go. No reason to rush.

By the time Hannah had turned twelve, Val no longer held her hand. At eighteen, Valerie'd sworn the vows to become a full sister of the order, and somehow that seemed to mean she could no longer be as much of a sister to Hannah. She'd starting carrying a perpetual frown, and whenever Hannah tried to make a joke, or play with her, Valerie would pull away. "You've got to be more serious, Hannah." And so Hannah had been left alone. Even now there was only one other novice, and, at the time, she had been four. All the nuns had kept to themselves except for Hannah's lessons.

Those were no relief. The sisters had tried to impress upon her the importance of history, of ciphers, of their great work, watching the gods, waiting for them to... something or other. Screw up most likely. That's how Hannah had felt whenever they were watching her. She had far preferred her chores - tending the trees in the inner orchard, or weeding in the fields outside the outer wall. Every once in a while, if she had whined enough to the cook, she'd gotten to go gather mushrooms from the woods. The sister enjoyed the taste, but it had been hard work to convince her to leave her kitchen. And no one was allowed in the woods alone, and certainly not a novice.

Hannah got up, and snuck over to the outer wall. She took a glance behind her. The keep was completely dark - lights out had been hours before. Even the window for the Mother Superior's office was dark. Valerie must have finished her work for the night. Hopefully she hadn't come by to check on Hannah before heading back to her cell. She wouldn't normally, but they had had that argument. Hannah turned back around, and found her first holds. Well, if so, time was wasting.

There had been one of the lessons that Hannah loved. The forms. Each dawn and sunset, the sisters all gathered in front of the keep and, in unison, performed one of the forms. Graceful, elegant motion, flowing at times with long slow movements that switched to quick and small without stutter. Some of Hannah's first memories were of Valerie standing behind her, holding her arms in her hands and helping her move with the sisters.

Every day, a different sister had come and trained her for an hour. She would request that Hannah do a specific form, the Spring Dawn Awakens The Slumbering Bear, for example, and critique her movements. Then she would approach Hannah, and show how the form could be used in combat, to disarm an opponent, or restrain, or cause so much pain that the opponent would be unable to respond. Originally, Hannah had not understood.

"But they're so pretty! Why do you want to hurt people?" The lessons had started at age six. Valerie had not been allowed to attend Hannah's, much like Hannah had not been allowed to attend Valerie's.

"I do not want to hurt anyone," Sister Christine had explained. "The world is a dangerous place, full of people who want to hurt us. Even the gods," and she paused, pointing up, "have their enemies, as you should know. There is no one that is safe, there is nowhere that is safe."

"But we're safe here, right?"

Sister Christine had crouched next to her. "No, young one, we are not. We may prepare, and wait behind our stone walls, but someday our enemies may find us. And we must prepare."

Near the top of the wall, Hannah encountered some loose mortar. Her hand jerked out of the stone and threw her off balance. She flailed around, hand swimming through the open air, until she managed to bring her shoulder back tight to the wall. Her other hand ached from holding her weight in. She resumed her climb, and crawled over the top a few moments later. She laid down, both to rest and to present a smaller profile, should anyone be looking out towards the wall.

When she could get them talk to her, Hannah had asked the sisters questions about the outside world. Where did other people live? What were they like? Where do nails come from? The stories she'd heard in response were horrible. There was nothing but death and villany beyond the walls of the convent. People warred, and killed. Stole, raped and maimed - left their fellow beings to starve or die alone of sickness. None were to be trusted. This was the only safe place, these people the only good people. Their duties here were holy, and if the world knew what they were doing, even the convent would not be safe.

Also, nails came from a tinker, who visited once or twice a year. Two sisters would meet him outside the wall and trade for nails or pots or whatever else they needed but could not make themselves. They never spoke to the tinker, only communicating by gesture. In return, they'd reveal some gift, all wrapped in rough linen, which the tinker would peek at, then hide hastily among his wares.

Hannah knew all this because she'd been peeking from the tallest branches of one of the trees in the orchard just that afternoon, its limbs poking just above the line of the outer wall, letting her see the trade going on outside. She'd climbed down, and leaned down to grab her basket of apples back off the lawn when she'd felt a hand on her shoulder, pulling her around. It was Valerie.

"What in the name of our Founder were you doing?"

"Just watching. Sisters Reynault and Patience met with a man! He had a beard and a huge carriage full of bits of bronze and iron. I think they got more nails!"

Valerie scowled at her. "You should not be watching such things. Reynault and Patience have been prepared by the order, are experienced with dealing with the outside world. They know how to present a front that will not draw the attention of the world. But you, with your hair flapping and your eyes wide, you threaten our safety!"

"Our safety? He's just one man, Valerie. And shorter than Reynault. She could have had him on the ground in half an instant with Mockingbird Flees A Storm from the way she was standing." Hannah moved through the first part of the form, her hand wending a path from her hip towards Valerie's neck.

Valerie batted her hand away. "Yes? What if he went away and brought back more men? What if he saw your face, and decided to come and bring an army, to carry you away from us, to burn our home to the ground!" Valerie was near shouting. "We are none of us safe, Hannah, none of us. You must be careful!"

"I must be careful?" Hannah scowled at her. "Why? Because I'm in danger? Or because I'm endangering you, and your precious role as the Mother's assistant? You're not worried that he saw me watching them, you're worried that one of the sisters did." Hannah picked up her basket and stomped a few steps away before stopping and turning around. "You think that everything I do reflects badly on you, that I'm holding you back. You leave me alone for three years, and then you try to control everything I do so that I don't threaten your career!" She chucked an apple at Valerie.

Valerie didn't even try to duck. The apple hit her right in the eye. "You've assaulted a full sister, novice. The penalty is two weeks confinement. You should think on your role here, and how you should respect your betters." Hannah squalked, but Valerie grabbed her by the arm, and marched her inside the keep to her cell. "Stay here, until you are summoned for the evening meal." As Valerie turned away, Hannah was sure she could see a look of satisfaction on her face.

Hannah had had enough. She knew the world was bigger than this. The world was better than this. It had to be. She couldn't spend another day hiding from it. Not another day of her sister trying to pound her into the mold of a proper nun. She had made up her mind. She would leave. Tonight.

After getting down the outer wall, Hannah's forearms were kaput. She couldn't have picked up a feather. Her calves and feet were sore too, but she kept moving. She circled around the wall toward the gate. She walked up to it, and laid her palm on its smooth wood surface. The outside of the gate. She'd never gotten to touch it before. Her arm ached. She smiled.

She turned around, and started to jog down the tracks of the Tinker's cart. Maybe he would give her a ride.

Hannah is an optimist, who, up until now, has lived in a world of pessimists. Orphaned as a newborn, her six year old sister Valerie brought them to an isolated convent in the mountains. Hannah's never managed to learn how. There, they were raised by an order consumed with their life of isolation. Valerie grew into her role, and after making full sister, started to scale the hierarchy.

Hannah, despite having no memories of the outside world, believes it to be a good place. And, after having fled her only home, she is determined not to be proven wrong, even if she has to make it so. Neither very experienced nor the brightest, Hannah has some strange ideas of how the world outside works, which may lead to some humor. She's fascinated by people, and may err on the side of too trusting.

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