h3=. Blood Trust
Copyright 2005 Roderick Gladwish
Published by Roderick Gladwish at Shakespir
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The praying never stopped at St Barbara’s convent and Mary couldn’t stand it any more. She had joined the convent in February and now during an oppressive August night the rhythmic verses were boring into her mind releasing all she had been suppressing.
Waking Mary wanted to dash her throbbing head on the rough brick walls of her cell. Staggering into the corridor she groped in the half-light toward the nearest barred window. Beyond the bars were the industrial shadows of London’s East End. For all her need to escape the relentless pressure, Mary couldn’t face what awaited her in the outside world.
Resting her head on the cool bars eased the pulsating pain. Rubbing her forehead on the coarse metal distracted her enough for a moment’s peace. Maybe she was going down with the fever that had been afflicting the nuns. Each day there was another woman missing. The thinning numbers had become noticeable, even to someone new like Mary.
A candle glow appeared at the end of the corridor. Mary flopped to the ground hoping her white nightgown wouldn’t be seen.
The candle bearer passed.
The novice wondered why she had hidden. Guilt probably, a legacy of her past life, like the slight trembling of her hands. It made Mary follow the light.
Three nuns shared the candle. They walked in silence descending from the dormitory floors through the living spaces and into the cellar. A Victorian pile St Barbara’s sat on a huge cellar; a vaulted area of heavy columns divided with brick walls into rooms. The party stopped near the stairs by some disused cells.
Hiding by a column, Mary could finally see enough to identify the women.
Sister Rachel, doctor for the convent’s clinic for ‘fallen women’, pulled a heavy bolt on one of the cells. Sister Beatrice, the mother superior, was revealed by the light coming from the cell. She rested her hand on Rebecca; the only person Mary would call a friend.
An innocent girl of twenty, Rebecca had seen none of the world and didn’t want to, unlike the thirty-year-old novice. She’d found her calling early seizing it with a single-minded focus Mary was jealous of. Rebecca who took it upon herself to help novices. She and Mary always breakfasted together. Sister Beatrice ushered her into the cell. The bolt was thrown, padlocked in place and the remaining women left.
Mary held herself tightly to the shadows allowing the others to pass before creeping to the cell door. Ear pressed to the door Mary thought she could make out Rebecca praying, then there was a gasp.
Mary sat in Sister Beatrice’s office opposite the full authority of the mother superior. She had been summoned the next morning after breakfast, which Rebecca had missed.
Sister Beatrice was in her early forties with clean striking features. There was cunning in her eyes and a thin smile as if she knew what life could offer and had enjoyed experiencing it all.
“You left this behind,” the mother superior stated holding up the tip of a broken knife. “Before you deny it, I had your cell searched during breakfast. This was found.” The remainder of the knife appeared in her hands. “I would prefer a confession Victoria.”
When the cutlery broke in the lock on the cell the novice knew she was caught, but how had Sister Beatrice found out who she was?
“You know who I am?” Victoria alias Mary replied.
“Do you think when a woman goes missing the police don’t contact us? They know we collect girls who need help.”
“You haven’t told my parents? Not about the baby.”
“Of course I haven’t, but the police know you are safe and they will have passed the news on to your parents. You can contact them if you want to or not. Nothing has been said about the abortion. That is for your conscience. Now, Mary or Victoria, are you going to confess?”
“I’d prefer Mary, I’m not proud of who I was.”
“Victoria still seems to be present. Was it her who was breaking into the drugs store?”
“It’s the drugs store?”
“Are you denying your actions? I had so hoped you had freed yourself from the addiction to intoxicants.”
“I haven’t touched any drugs since I came here. Not even the communion wine. I’m certain I saw you lock Sister Rebecca in that cell.”
“Why would I do that?”
Victoria was aware the older woman looked straight at her hands which she held tightly to stop them disobeying her.
“Are you still having the nightmares? I remember the delusions you suffered when we first found you.” Sister Beatrice asked.
“No I’m not delusional, I saw a light, I followed you and I saw you lock Rebecca in that cell.”
“I’m not sure she’d fit in the store, it’s full of shelves. Delirium tremens produces vivid hallucinations. Perhaps you’re not clear yet. How many nights did I sit with you screaming about demons and murder?”
Victoria’s hands began shaking for a different reason. The eternal chanting coming from the chapel was hammering into her skull like nails. “I’ve never said anything about demons. I’m sure I didn’t say anything about demons.”
“You are troubled Victoria. You are still not at peace. I forgive you. Go and pray in the chapel, take time to organise your thoughts to know what is real and what isn’t.”
Victoria left without a word. Not to the chapel, but to search for Rebecca.
Lying on her bed fully clothed Victoria waited for darkness to cover her escape. She had decided to leave before she too vanished. Evading Sister Beatrice’s lieutenants as she searched Victoria had failed to find her friend. Victoria knew she had to be in the cellar. It remained the only place yet to be examined. Victoria did find more empty cells than she expected. Each one like Rebecca’s, Spartan and clean readied for the nun’s return except some had dust thick enough to grey what it covered.
Victoria decided she would search the cellars and escape by them, through the coal cellar’s hatch. It was a matter of waiting for the convent to sleep.
While dusk turned to night, and the river traffic of the world’s greatest port quietened, Victoria tried to remember every night in the clinic’s wards. Victoria was sure in all the nightmares, all the pain, she had said nothing about the night that had left her lying in an ally. Perhaps she had called her best friend’s name. Maybe she repeated the pleading in her fever. Never would she have mentioned demons.
Ceaseless Latin verse cycled through the fabric of the convent. Voices rebounding in her head, steady and unending grew clearer as all other sounds faded. An oppressive heat rose with the night, she sweated and feared until finally she acted.
Along the empty corridors Victoria travelled quietly. All the while there was an urge to run, dash wildly and keep running until she was as far from the echoing halls and sounds in her mind.
At the top of the stairs to the cellar Victoria stopped.
Fearful of bringing a light the windowless void below was as black as blindness. Her hands were shaking again. Memories of another cellar and a gunshot. Perhaps she could save a friend this time.
Into the cellar Victoria felt for every tread the memory of the layout turning in her mind as she approached the locked cell like it was the edge of a cliff.
“Victoria,” Sister Beatrice’s voice softly rang.
An oil lamp was uncovered its dazzling light froze Victoria.
The mother superior and Sister Rachel were blocking the stairs. She must have walked between them.
“Victoria,” Sister Beatrice began.
“No!” Victoria shouted and a second knife stolen for attacking the padlock was in her hand. “Get back.”
“Victoria, we want to help.”
“Rachel, if you’d be so kind,” Beatrice said.
With practiced skill the doctor lunged catching and twisting Victoria’s wrist. A thumb in the correct joint and shooting pain forced Victoria to drop the blade. Rachel continued to twist the arm forcing it behind Victoria’s back.
Victoria screamed defiance and dived for the floor pulling free almost dislocating her limb in the process. Scrambling up Victoria bolted for the coal store door, shouldering it open she stopped.
Lying on pallets hands crossed over their chests were nuns. There were at least thirty women with spaces ready for a dozen more. A lighted candle at the head of each made their cold white skin glow.
Sister Rachel grabbed Victoria from behind.
Victoria threw herself backward arms flaying.
Rachel lost her grip.
Victoria snatched up a brass candlestick ignoring the hot wax spilling on her hand. Rachel recovered and came for Victoria again. Wheeling Victoria hit Rachel with all her weight. She felt and heard Rachel’s skull crack. The nun crumpled. On the floor a thin line of blood, black in the poor light, flowed lazily from her head.
Staring at what she had done for once Victoria’s thoughts were louder than the praying.
Sister Beatrice arrived.
“Get back,” Victoria warned, preparing for another strike.
Ignoring the blunt instrument wavering above her, Sister Beatrice bent down to check for pulse and breathing. “Her breath is regular; the bleeding is not as bad as it looks.” With a handkerchief she made up a pad for the wound. “She’ll survive, but she’ll be of no use tonight.”
“I want out of here,” Victoria demanded. It was happening again. Violence seemed to be part of her soul, bubbling up with tragic uncontrollability. To survive she had to escape and to do that she would have to brain another victim. Hands shaking as if eager to move in a fatal downward arc she gripped the candlestick with two hands holding it back.
“I cannot let you leave here, you are too dangerous.” Sister Beatrice said standing.
“Me? I am too dangerous? What about these women you’ve killed?”
“I’ve hurt no one. I will never hurt a living soul.”
“What about them?” Victoria’s wild eyes flicked about the room yet her impromptu weapon stayed ready to strike again.
“The sisters here are in coma. They will recover, but will sleep for several weeks. It is the penalty for donating more blood than is safe to do so, but the cause is vital.” Sister Beatrice edged closer, “You have killed. I know of two, but there are more.”
“The praying still hurts you doesn’t it? It burns in your head, getting worse each day?”
“Let me out. Please let me out,” Victoria begged, her grip on the candlestick wilting.
“I had hoped we could help you because this convent is a protected place. Evil cannot enter here, but you are cursed and bound to it. You are doomed.”
“It’s not true.”
“Cursed by the friend you killed and too quick to violence to stay here.”
“I’m not damned,” Victoria whispered, after months of repression, a tear finally escaped.
“The incantations of faith bring peace, but not to those who are already lost.” Beatrice took the candlestick and placed it on the floor. “While you live you can still do good.”
“I’m cursed. I bring death,” Victoria said. “Not even my own child was safe.”
“Change that tonight,” Beatrice urged. “We shelter those who work against the darkness. One was tracking a new evil to the city. He was trapped in the open when dawn came. One of my patrols found him like they found you. For once I offer you a chance to save a life.”
The mother superior took Victoria’s hand and led her to the locked cell.
Sister Beatrice unlocked and opened the door.
An oil lamp filled the room with light.
On the bed was a man. His once handsome face had been burned with a terrible heat, a shadow of his hand held up to shield him from the fire was clearly visible. Those hands lay outside the bed fingers charred stubs.
Victoria was drawn to the man. She sat on the stool by his bed.
His eyes bandaged, mole-like he turned to Victoria, sniffing.
“Why’s he sniffing?”
“It’s the tiny droplets of Rachel’s blood on your habit. It’s exciting his baser nature.”
“One can’t smell blood.”
“That poor wretch can,” the Mother Superior said. “He needs it to survive. Normally he can live on substitutes, but if he is to recover from these injuries he has to take human blood and the essence of our souls it contains.”
Victoria felt her world shifting from the reality. She wondered if this was a trick of her drug-damaged brain. Was she in fact lying in some gutter her mind spinning stories as life finally ebbed away?
“What are you saying?”
“The truth.” Beatrice paused before sighing. “His Christian name is Paul. Given to him by St Martin of Tours. Paul has fought evil ever since, but his own crimes fill centuries. He has no soul yet works for redemption.”
“What is he?”
“Someone in need of help. In need of your help.”
Paul’s deformed fingers were reaching for Victoria. She stood up backing away.
“I can’t help anyone I destroy everything I touch.”
“Here is where that can change. No one else is ready. I need you to help him. You simply have to stay with him and let him feed.”
Victoria looked back. Paul was growing in activity. Although bandaged, his eyes tracked her.
Sister Beatrice continued. “He will only take what he needs, but don’t struggle. His animal hunger is close to the surface and behaving like prey would not be safe. He could kill you or worse.”
“He is waking will you do it?”
Victoria thought of her disintegrating life and how death was always in her hands. She sat down. Victoria took Paul’s nearest hand. Corpse-cold it tightened on her fingers.
“Perhaps I might do good for once. Perhaps this is all a lie and this is my end. Perhaps for one night I won’t fight.”
Sister Beatrice shut the door and threw the bolt home.
Roderick is an aerospace engineer whose day job is designing spacecraft structures. When he loses self-control he writes stories. In 2008 he won the British Science Fiction Association 50th Anniversary Short Story Competition. He also illustrates his own work.
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There is a convent full of secrets in the East End of London. Novice nun Mary is tormented by her past and a mystery that is seeing her sisters disappear one every night. The praying never stops and its driving nails into her head. It may she can save the convent, yet all she has ever done is kill. Can she trust anyone, including herself, to do the right thing - whatever the right thing is.