Maddy faced the Mother Superior, proud that the filth of the city had not ruined the only goodness she had left; her silk shoes and lace hemmed dress. She was surprised that she had made it this far, and if she were completely honest with herself, she was also suppressing quite a great deal of guilt.
"God's forgiveness comes with a price," the stern woman gave the introductory letter on her desk a quick once over before fixing Maddy with an all-knowing stare. "As you are already wise to the world, you will begin your penance by running the convent's deliveries around the city. Your predecessor, dear Sister Helga, has finally succumbed to age."
Whatever the letter contained was clearly not the truth. Maddy's ledger dripped red. A lifetime of errands wouldn't even come close to soaking up the trail she left behind.
So she didn't complain, not when her finery was replaced for a scratchy, black habit. Not when an enthusiastic young sister drew the gold pins from her dark blonde hair.
"These look dangerous," the sister said as pin after pin clattered on the dressing table. They were sleek and filed to needle-sharp points.
Maddy smiled ruefully as she examined one. The Sisterhood of St Jude did not allow individual possessions. The hairpins were destined to be melted down and added to the convent's coffers, leaving no physical trace of her trade. With a single stroke from a sharp pair of shears, Maddy felt the weight of her past fall from her shoulders. What hair that remain on her head was swept and pinned under a simple black scarf, rendering her transformation into anonymity complete.
The sister directed her to the cellarium where she was loaded with satchels like a pack mule. Each contained herbs and remedies made by the sisters. These provided a steady source of income when charity was slim, as it was now that the fighting had started in earnest. It was war between the Bastard Prince and Duke Amethy of Lilydale to see who would absorb the vacuum of power left by King Truden's sudden death. Precium City, perched on hills by the sunny northern coast, was one of the few that could afford to claim neutrality. Already the city was swelling with refugees from the south-east.
Maddy's errands started in the eastern quadrant of the city where the rich and vain received their elderflowers elixirs and aloe balm. She turned west to the markets and down through the slums where hollow eyed peasants shuffled after her hoping for salvation. She found herself unable to look upon them at all. Two in every three had seen better days before the fighting. The best she could do was ignore them. Comforting the collaterals of war was not her ministry.
Her deliveries took her to a neat little store built into the wall of the city. Over its door was a round sign that read: Materia Medica. The doors were closed but not locked. Upon entering, it became clear that this was an apothecary's shop. The walls were lined with labelled drawers and shelves clustered with dark bottles. A great counter blocked customers from the store's treasures, though it was unmanned at this time.
"Hello?" Maddy called tentatively. She had never failed an assignment before and she loathed to return on her first day with a task unfulfilled.
There was another door at the rear of the shop. It was ajar, and she could see no movement, but her ears picked up a faint moan of pain.
"This is no business of mine," she muttered to herself as she dumped the packages on the table. Loudly, she announced, "The herbs you ordered are just on the counter. Good day and fair well!"
There came the scuffing of hurried footsteps from above and a loud creak as someone descended a set of stairs hidden from view. A moment later, a gangly man appeared in the doorway with a scowl marring what should have been a handsome, intelligent face. His sleeves were rolled carelessly to his elbows and he wiped his hands with a wet cloth. Maddy was unimpressed. She had seen prettier men.
"Who are you?" he snapped without so much as a greeting as he slammed the door behind him. "And where has Sister Helga been?"
"She's dead," Maddy matched his discourtesy. She was already turning. "Good day to you, mister."
Too late. Maddy was out the door and stomping her way back to the convent. Surrounded by the bustle of the street, she was no longer sure of her hearing back in the shop. The ghost sounds and sights of her past had a way of creeping up on her in strange, still moments. Whatever the case, the reminder had fouled her mood enough that she had no patience left to be spoken to like that!
Luckily, the city folk seemed to mind a nun more than a young woman in a traveller's cloak. Carriages slowed. People gave way. Street urchins didn't dart at her. A small measure of comfort was reclaimed when she made it back to her new home with clean hems and dry shoes.
The evening was spent in the tapestry room busying her mind with sorting out the coloured threads that the stoic older sisters used to advance the creeping line of epic embroidery. Needlework was popular enough here that with any luck, Maddy would never touch another one of those cold, sharp slivers again. She found that she could retire easily into the drudgery of convent life, away from the machinations of men. Within these walls, the rude apothecary and the city's pain were all but forgotten.
The shock of seeing him at the cellarium, conversing with Sister Norma as if the two were friendly, was like a slap in the face. Maddy tried to get away, but it was too late – he had seen her.
"You! You left before I could place my next order," he accused her right in front of her supervisor.
Maddy's anger was a flash flood covered with a sweet, lying smile. "I'm terribly sorry, mister." She offered no excuse. Excuses were for the weak, and she certainly wasn't. She wasn't sorry either actually, but she had to say something.
"Sister Maddy, this is Mister Lester Callow," Sister Norma said. "He's a busy man and likes to order and pay upon delivery. Lester, this is the new girl."
Maddy turned to Lester with a bright coat of admiration painted over her true feeling of apathy for any knowledge of this man. "Thank you for take time out of your busy day to collect your orders in person."
"No, I have my own errands to run today, so you will be dropping off my order," Lester said, refusing to take the hint. He smoothed back his dark hair, his mind already on other things. "But I should be at the shop when you arrive."
Maddy inclined her head and reminded herself that dealing with this man was only a very small part of her day. "As you wish."
Sister Helga may have known the city like the back of her wrinkled hand, but Maddy was driven to even greater speeds of delivery by her desire to spend the least amount of time in the city as possible. Soon, she found the familiar sign of the apothecary's shop looming over her again.
"Let's get this over with," she muttered to herself. The only way out was through.
But when she tried the door, she found that it was locked.
"Oh, for God's sake!" she cursed, kicking the door. The pedestrians around her gave her a wide berth after that.
Maddy took a breath and composed herself. Was this deliberate? Was this Lester's petty payback? She couldn't go back to the convent with half a satchel of herbs. It was just not within her to give up. During a gap in foot traffic, she applied some skills learnt in a previous life. After a moment of discrete and deft manoeuvring with the clip of her scarf, the door opened miraculously.
"Oh, it was just stuck!" she said loudly with a giggle in case anyone thought her behaviour suspicious. "Mister Callow? It is I from the Sisterhood of St Jude!"
Maddy eased herself in and closed the door quickly behind her. The shop was still and empty. Lester had lied! He was setting her up to fail! She looked around, wondering how best to reap her revenge. A source of blackmail would give her the upper hand. Determinedly, she hitched up her habit and climbed over the counter. The door at the other end of the shop was closed and locked, but that was no great obstacle. Beyond it lay modest living quarters. There was nothing incriminating there, but she spied the stairs that led up to a second floor.
Maddy crept up the stairs like a mouse, wincing when the last step creaked unabashedly, ruining her attempt at stealth. Even worse, she quickly realised she wasn't alone.
A blade swung down, dangerously close to cutting off her nose. Her reflexes saved her and her attacker staggered, giving her the opportunity to seize his weapon. But before Maddy could even land an attack, the man was already on his knees. Even then, he looked precariously close to toppling over. She dropped the sword and caught him before he landed on his already broken nose. Her hands came away with old blood. Clearly, he was in a bad way.
The man grunted with pain as she dragged him behind a wall of boxes where she was dismayed to find four others in the same or worse condition. From their injuries and build, it was clear these weren't refugees, but soldiers.
Maddy groaned when she realized what she had stumbled upon. Precium City was a neutral city, which meant that no soldiers were allowed within its walls. And yet, here treacherous Lester was risking it all.
Despite her disapproval, she did right by the injured man before her and laid him back on his pallet.
"Water," he rasped.
"What do I look like, a nun?" Maddy snapped back before she remembered herself. She was a nun. There was a pitcher atop some crates along with a scattering of medical implements. Fetching the man a cup to drink gave her enough time to hide her embarrassment. She helped the man take his first sip. The ungrateful bastard choked on it. The convulsions tore open more of his wounds.
"God damn it!" Maddy unwrapped the bandages to what she thought were the worst of the wounds. He was going to bleed out!
She raced over to the crate and spotted a handful of needles. The next thing she knew, she was piecing the base of the man's neck with precision, targeting the pressure point that lay in the clot of muscle. It rendered him instantly limp. She rolled him on his side so that the rest of the water would trickle out of his lungs as she roughly stitched him back up. She had never been good at sewing and the healed wound would never look anything like a tapestry of St Jude. When she had done all she could, she rolled the man back on his pallet and withdrew the needle from his neck. She checked his pulse. Steady. Before long, he was snoring.
"That's the first time he's slept in days."
Maddy looked up, startled, to see one of the soldier's comrades looking over at her. The man's face was burnt and his remaining hand was in a splint.
"Nothing worked, not even poppy," the soldier said. "Say, can you do the same for me?"
It was a shocking request. Maddy had only ever used her craft to hurt, weaken, incapacitate, and kill. Never had her victims been willing.
"The apothecary will take care of you," she said.
He shook his head. "He's already been. Done what he can. Good man."
Maddy disagreed with the soldier's assessment of Lester, but that was neither here nor there. She looked down at the needles in her hand. "You want to pain to stop," she said softly.
She walked over to kneel beside him.
"Close your eyes," she instructed. It unnerved her to have a victim looking at her so placidly. As soon as his eyes were closed, she stuck him. Once he was prone, she took a closer look at his face and wiggled more needles in place amongst the burns. Muscle shifted and relaxed and his face took on the peaceful look that many of Maddy's victims had when they died.
Tears trickled down her face. She threw the remaining needles on the floor and fled before she was tempted to finish the job.
On the way back, she spotted Lester before he saw her, which gave her time to duck into an alley to avoid him. The gutter muck was up to her ankles and the hem of her habit was caked in filth.
He was at the cellarium. Waiting. For her. He held her satchels in his hands. Sister Norma was nowhere in sight.
"Walk with me," Lester said.
"I have work to do," Maddy began, though she wasn't given a choice. He grabbed her arm and steered, seeming to know more about the ins and outs of the convent that the sisters themselves.
Once out of the convent, Maddy wrenched her arm from his grasp, but continued to match his brisk pace. They made their way in a tense silence through the markets and down to where the slums transitioned seamlessly into the refugees' shanty town of misery.
Finally, he spun. He had chosen the battlefield well.
"I've heard a hundred versions of how the king died, but all of them agree on two facts." Lester's eyes bore into her while he spoke. "One was that his lovely young mistress, Madeline, was nowhere to be found the next day."
Maddy returned his gaze coldly. A lump in her throat was making it difficult for her to swallow.
He went on. "The second was that his body was unmarred except for a single spot of blood on his chest."
He knew. He had gone back to his shop and he had put two and two together. Smart man.
"I've asked around. You arrived with an introductory letter from Lord Amethy himself."
Maddy thrust her chin up and hid her trembling hands behind her back. Lester could prove nothing on his own, but that might not stop him from making her life hell. Had she been a fool to think that she would ever escape her past? Lord Amethy's offer seemed too good at the time, but he delivered on his end of the deal and for a moment Maddy thought that she really did have a chance.
Lester leaned in, his voice full of anger. "Do you think that what you did yesterday was enough to atone for what you have done to the kingdom? Do you think two lives will balance your scales? There are hundreds more rotting in the fields because of what you have done."
"What will you do about it?" she asked numbly.
He hesitated. Had he expected a different response? Anger? Fear? Confession? Maddy had nothing to offer. An excuse seemed weak and an explanation was more than he deserved. Truth was, she didn't know why she had helped the men in the shop. In fact, she wasn't quite sure why she did not kill Lester now.
"Nothing. I will do not a thing," he said finally, shaking his head. He was almost as afraid to look at her as she was to look at him. "Your judgement lies in God's hands, not mine."
He almost left it at that, but at the last moment added, "... but... perhaps... you should visit again tomorrow." Each word was laboured as if it hurt for him to speak them. "Whatever the reasons, whatever the methods, and whatever the costs, you have eased the suffering of two men."
With those words, he turned and left her on the border between poverty and despair. She watched him go, anchored to the ground by the water weight of uncertainty. In some ways, she would rather God's wrath or even Lester's anger. A part of her welcomed the end. Each day that she lived was a day when she risked messing everything up. There were definitely times when she thought that living this sort of life was a fate worse than death. But Maddy had never failed an assignment before. It was just not within her to give up.
This was written for the August Labyrinth Writing Contest. No, the contest is not named in my honour, it just so happens that I share a name with the month the contest is run. I'm not sure which prompt I chose (getting away with murder or starting a war). In fact, I'm not sure about a lot of things in this story. In many ways, this is a very ambiguous tale. I wanted to write something that drew and re-drew the lines of 'good' and 'bad' until they blurred together into something more realistic; something in between. I realize that this is not conducive to clear and easy storytelling, but I think of it as an experimental piece.
The psychology fans might recognise some 'stuff' sprinkled through - resilience, perfectionism, social deficit, and post traumatic stress to name a few. Maddy has a lot of traits that can be considered disordered in some ways, but protective in others; the same perfectionism that drives her to achieve also makes it hard for her to face each new day knowing that it brings with it the potential of failure.
As always, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you liked it and want to read some great stories, head on over to the Writing Contest thread of the Labyrinth Forum where Liz will post links to the entries (and you can vote for your favourite).