Lips folded into a tight, unforgiving line, Alba maintained her silence.
‘Very well,’ Helewise said. ‘You will go from here into the church, where you will prostrate yourself in prayer. You will ask God to forgive your sins against your sister and against this community, and you will remain there until the arrival of our confessor . . .’
Sister Alba had been listening carefully to the Abbess’s pronouncement. Watching her, Helewise had the growing feeling that something was amiss . . . Alba’s face had gone from its hectic flush to a deadly pallor.
And, out of nowhere, Helewise suddenly felt a dreadful sense of threat.
Also by Alys Clare
Fortune like the Moon
Ashes of the Elements
The Tavern in the Morning
THE CHATTER OF THE MAIDENS
First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton
An Hachette UK Company
Copyright © Alys Clare, 2001
The right of Alys Clare to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Epub ISBN: 9781444726749
Book ISBN: 9780340793282
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
with my heartfelt thanks for all their love and support.
And the chatter of the maidens
The fire took hold quickly.
At first, no more than a few whispers of pale smoke issued out of the isolated cottage. Lifted up on the slight breeze, the smoke broke into several tiny plumes, one of which was carried off across the steeply sloping field behind the dwelling. An old horse stood there, half asleep, eyelids drooping. He was disturbed by the smell of smoke, which penetrated even his comatose state; roused to action by the first stirrings of alarm, he shambled off up the slope, only stopping when he reached his favourite shady spot beneath the giant oak tree.
In the small time it had taken for the horse to move away to his place of safety, the fire had grown.
Grown at an alarming rate, as the tiny sparks of flame took hold of the dry material all around, licking along the pieces of straw and brittle hay, eating into the piles of tinder-dry leaves and the handfuls of soft thistledown. Then, the fire’s appetite, no longer satisfied by such small offerings, leapt faster than the blink of an eye to the neatly chopped pieces of small kindling.
After that, there was no turning back. Putting out the blaze, even had there been anybody around who wanted or was able to do so, was rapidly becoming an impossible task. The fire had overrun the hearth; what now roared and whooped within the lonely dwelling was like some terribly altered, monstrous form of the quiet, docile domestic fire that usually burned there.
For these giant flames had not been kindled to heat food in a pot or water in a pan. They had been brought into existence for a very different and far darker purpose.
Outside, in the thicket of undergrowth surrounding the little cottage, something moved. A strand of bramble was pushed gently aside, and a stealthy footfall came down gingerly on a stand of nettles. A saw-edged leaf stroked against the back of a hand, and there was a softly muttered oath as the stung flesh was whipped away from the nettle’s sharp attack.
The unseen watcher inched forward. Neck craned in the effort to see into the burning cottage without emerging from the hiding-place, the figure soon forgot the small pain of the stung hand as the full power of the fire became evident.
Tension seemed to grip the heavily cloaked figure.
Then, suddenly, there came the sound of a distinct sniff.
Then another. And, as the fleeting hint of the smell of roasting meat grew until it was all but overpowering, the unseen watcher gave a short, unpleasant laugh.
But this was no gleeful expectation of a good dinner. It was not beef, or lamb, or pork that crackled and spat in the roaring flames.
It was human flesh.
The figure had now emerged from hiding, as if well aware that there was no longer any possibility that anybody could be witness to its movements. Creeping slowly forward, one arm raised to protect the face from the fierce heat, the head once more strained to see.
The watcher moved nearer and nearer to the entrance to the cottage. Progress was jerky, as though the desire to see was fighting with the urgent message to flee away from the heat and the pain. The urge to see appeared to be winning: pulling the hood of the cloak right over face and head, leaving the smallest gap for the eyes, the figure inched right up to the gaping hole where the cottage’s wooden door had once stood.
For a brief instant, the figure leaned forward and stared into the blazing interior.
Then, relief evident in the sudden lowering of the shoulders as the built-up tension dissipated, the figure turned and walked swiftly away.
The fire took a long time to die down.
The flames consumed everything that was combustible within the cottage, and gradually their intensity diminished. As the sun set and evening came on, the brilliant fire faded to a reddish-orange glow. From time to time, another small part of the wooden beams which had once held up the roof would fall into the fire’s remains, causing a brief flare-up. And, as the darkness outside grew deeper, a chilly wind blew up, which, for a while, fanned the flames into an echo of their former ferocity.
On the floor of the cottage lay a body. Clad when it had been placed there, now scarcely a trace of any cloth garment remained. The leather boots, too, were ruined, and a heavy buckle, which had once fastened a belt, was now blackened, the belt burned through in places.
The victim lay across what had once been the central hearth. It seemed not to have made any attempt to get away from the fire; helpless to prevent the terrible onslaught of the flames, unable to escape from the conflagration, what had once been human and alive was now blackened and contorted, hair and garments flared to mere remnants, flesh burned from the bones.
As the heat had begun to destroy the corpse, the muscles had stiffened and contracted. And, in a dreadful parody of someone raising their fists to defend themself – as if fists were any use against fire – the body’s arms were bent at the elbow and held up in front of the remains of the face.
With a little sigh, a heap of ash and charred wood close to the heart of the dying fire suddenly collapsed in on itself. Even that sound seemed loud, for the night was advanced now and, outside, all was still and silent. Within the burned corpse, however, something continued its work; the fire’s energy was still smouldering on, continuing to eat away at bone, fat and marrow.
By first light, there was little left to show of the fire’s victim. Most of the bones of the skeleton had detached from each other; all that remained that was instantly recognisable as human was the arch formed by a part of the rib cage.
And the bare, smoke-darkened skull, its empty eye sockets black and staring.
Next to the ribs, something else stuck up out of the floor of the cottage. It was a spike, made of iron, and the end protruding out of the floor had been wrought into a hoop. It had once been hammered into a wall as a tethering-ring for horses.
In the depths of the crevice where the end of the hoop joined the upright section, a fragment of material had escaped the flames. It was tiny, and looked at a glance like the frayed end of a piece of twine.
It was not material. Nor was it twine. It was all that was left of the rope that had bound the victim securely to the spot where he was to die and be cremated.