Biographies & Memoirs


NO, NO, no.” Aesculapius’s voice was edged with impatience. “You must make your letters much smaller. See how your sister pens her lesson?” He tapped Joan’s paper. “You must learn a greater respect for your parchment, my boy—there’s a whole sheep gone to make just one folio. If the monks of Andernach sprawled their words across the page in that manner, the herds of Austrasia would be wiped out in a month!”

John cast a resentful glance at Joan. “It’s too hard; I can’t do it.”

Aesculapius sighed. “Very well; return to practicing on your tablet. When you have achieved a better control, we will try the parchment again.” He asked Joan, “Have you finished the De inventione?”

“Yes, sir,” Joan replied.

“Name the six evidentiary questions used to determine the circumstances of human acts.”

Joan was ready. “Quis, quid, quomodo, ubi, quando, cur?”— “Who, what, how, where, when, why?”

“Good. Now identify the rhetorical constitutiones.”

“Cicero specifies four different constitutiones: dispute about fact, dispute about definition, dispute about the nature of the act, and—”

There was a thud as Gudrun kicked the door open and entered, stooping from the weight of the heavy wooden water buckets she carried, one in each clenched hand. Joan rose to help her, but Aesculapius put a hand on her shoulder, returning her to her seat.


Joan hesitated, her eyes still on her mother.

“Child, continue.” Aesculapius’s tone indicated that he would tolerate no disobedience.

Joan hastened to reply. “Dispute about jurisdiction or procedure.”

Aesculapius nodded, satisfied. “Provide an illustration of the third status. Write it out on your parchment, and make sure it will be worth the keeping.”

Gudrun bustled about, blowing up the fire, bringing the pot to boil, laying the table in preparation for the afternoon meal. Once or twice she looked over her shoulder resentfully.

Joan felt a stab of guilt but forced her attention back to her work. This time was precious—Aesculapius came only once a week—and her studies mattered more than anything else.

But it was hard, working under the weight of her mother’s displeasure. Aesculapius obviously noticed it too, though he attributed it to the fact that the lessons took Joan away from household chores. Joan knew the real cause. Her studies were a betrayal, a violation of the private world she shared with her mother, a world of Saxon gods and Saxon secrets. By learning Latin and studying Christian texts, Joan aligned herself with the things her mother most detested—with the Christian God who had destroyed Gudrun’s homeland and, more to the point, with the canon, her husband.

The truth was that Joan worked mostly with pre-Christian, classical texts. Aesculapius revered the “pagan” texts of Cicero, Seneca, Lucan, and Ovid, regarded as anathema by most scholars of the day. He was teaching Joan to read Greek using the ancient texts of Menander and Homer, whose poetry the canon regarded as nothing less than pagan blasphemy. Taught by Aesculapius to appreciate clarity and style, Joan never considered the question of whether Homer’s poetry was acceptable in terms of Christian doctrine; God was in it, because it was beautiful.

She would have liked to explain this to her mother but knew it would make no difference. Homer or Bede, Cicero or St. Augustine— to Gudrun it was all one: it was not Saxon; nothing else mattered.

Joan’s concentration had wandered; she blundered and made an ugly blotch on her parchment. She looked up to see Aesculapius regarding her with penetrating dark eyes.

“Never mind, child.” His voice was unexpectedly gentle; usually he was harsh with careless errors. “It is no matter. Begin again here.”

THE townspeople of Ingelheim were gathered round the village pond, chattering animatedly. A witch was to be tried today, an event sure to inspire horror, pity, and delight—welcome respite from the daily drudgery of their lives.

“Benedictus.” The canon began the blessing of the water.

Hrotrud tried to run, but two men seized her and dragged her back to where the canon stood, his dark brows meeting in frowning disapproval. Hrotrud cursed and struggled as her captors wrested her clawed hands behind her and tied them together with strips of linen cloth, causing her to cry out in pain.

“Maleficia,” someone muttered, close to where Joan and Aesculapius were standing among the crowd of witnesses. “St. Barnabas, preserve us from the evil eye.”

Aesculapius said nothing but shook his head sadly.

He had arrived at Ingelheim that morning for the weekly lesson, but the canon had refused to let the children receive instruction, insisting they first attend the trial of Hrotrud, formerly the village midwife.

“For you will learn more about the ways of God from observing this holy trial than you will from any heathen writing,” the canon had said, looking pointedly at Aesculapius.

Joan did not like delaying her lesson, but she was curious about the trial. She wondered what it would be like; she had never seen anyone tried for witchcraft. She was sorry that it was Hrotrud, however. Joan liked Hrotrud, who was an honest woman and no hypocrite. She had always spoken fairly to Joan, treating her kindly and not ridiculing her as so many of the villagers did. Gudrun had told Joan how Hrotrud had assisted at her birthing—a grueling ordeal, according to her mother, who credited Hrotrud with saving her life and Joan’s that day. As Joan stared at the crowd of villagers, the thought came to her that Hrotrud had doubtless helped to birth almost everyone gathered there—those, at least, who had reached six winters or more. One would never know it from the way they gawked at her now. She had become an annoyance to them, a goad to their Christian charity, for ever since the wasting pain had crooked her hands, destroying her usefulness as a midwife, she had lived off the alms of her neighbors—that, and what little she could earn from selling medicinal herbs and philters of her own devising.

Her skill in this last had proved to be her undoing, for her ability to work cures for sleeplessness and pains of the tooth, stomach, and head appeared to the simple villagers to be nothing less than sorcery.

Finishing with the blessing of the water, the canon turned to Hrotrud. “Woman! You know the crime of which you are accused. Will you now freely confess your sins in order to ensure the salvation of your immortal soul?”

Hrotrud regarded him consideringly from the corners of her eyes. “If I confess, you will let me go free?”

The canon shook his head. “It is expressly forbidden in the Holy Book: ‘You shall not permit a sorceress to live.’” He added, for authority, “Exodus, chapter twenty-two, verse eighteen. But you will die a consecrated death, and a swift one, and through it gain the immeasurable rewards of Heaven.”

“No!” Hrotrud retorted defiantly. “I am a Christian woman, and no witch, and anyone who says otherwise is a foul liar!”

“Sorceress! You will suffer the fires of Hell for all eternity! Can you deny the evidence of your own eyes?” From behind his back the canon pulled a soiled linen belt, mutilated by a series of crude knots. He thrust it accusingly at Hrotrud, who started and stepped back.

“See how she shrinks from it?” someone whispered close to Joan. “She is guilty, sure, and should be burned!”

Anyone would be startled by so sudden a move, Joan thought. Surely that is no proof of guilt.

The canon held the belt up for the crowd to observe. “This belongs to Ebo, the miller. It went missing a fortnight ago. Immediately thereafter he took to his bed, afflicted with a terrible pain in the bowels.”

The faces in the crowd looked solemn. They did not especially like Ebo, who was widely suspected of cheating with his weights. “What is the boldest thing in the world?” began a riddle that they loved to repeat. “Ebo’s shirt, for it clasps a thief by the throat every day!” Nevertheless, the illness of their miller was of grave concern to the entire community. Without him, none of their grain could be turned into flour, for by law no villager could mill his own harvest.

“Two days ago”—the canon’s voice was dark with accusation— “this belt was discovered in the woods near Hrotrud’s cottage.”

There was an awed murmur from the crowd, punctuated by scattered cries: “Witch!” “Sorceress!” “Burn her!”

The canon said to Hrotrud, “You stole the belt and made the knots in it to aid your evil incantations, which have brought Ebo to the very brink of death.”

“Never!” Hrotrud shouted indignantly, struggling against the bonds that held her. “I did no such thing! I’ve never seen that belt before! I never—”

Impatiently, the canon signaled to the men, who hoisted Hrotrud like a sack of oats, swung her back and forth several times, then released her at the height of the last swing. Hrotrud cried out in fear and anger as she sailed through the air and dropped with a splash directly into the center of the pond.

Joan and Aesculapius were jostled as people strained forward, trying to see. If Hrotrud rose to the surface of the pond and floated, that meant the priest-blessed waters had rejected her; she would be revealed as a sorceress and a witch and burned at the stake. If she sank, her innocence was proved and she was saved.

In tense silence, all eyes remained fixed on the surface of the pond. Ripples circled slowly outward from the spot where Hrotrud had entered the water; otherwise the surface was still.

The canon grunted and signaled the men, who immediately dashed into the water and dived down to search for Hrotrud.

“She is innocent of the charges against her,” the canon pronounced. “God be praised.”

Was it only Joan’s imagination, or did he look disappointed?

The men kept diving and surfacing with no result. At last one of them broke the surface holding Hrotrud. She lay limp in his arms, her face swollen and discolored. He carried her to the edge of the pond and put her down. She did not stir. He bent over her, listening for a heartbeat.

After a moment he sat up. “She is dead,” he announced.

A murmur went up from the crowd.

“Most unfortunate,” the canon said. “But she died innocent of the crime of which she was accused. God knows His own; He will give recompense and rest to her soul.”

The villagers dispersed, some making their way over to where Hrotrud’s body lay, examining it curiously, some breaking into little groups that murmured and chattered in low tones.

Joan and Aesculapius walked back to the grubenhaus in silence. Joan was deeply disturbed by Hrotrud’s death. She was ashamed of the excitement she had felt beforehand about witnessing the trial. But then she had not expected Hrotrud to die. Surely Hrotrud was not a witch; therefore Joan had believed God would prove her innocence.

And He had.

But then why did He let her die?

SHE didn’t speak about it until later, after she had resumed her lesson back at the grubenhaus. She lowered her stylus in the middle of writing and asked suddenly, “Why would God do it?”

“Perhaps He didn’t,” Aesculapius responded, taking her meaning at once.

Joan stared at him. “Are you saying that such a thing could have happened in spite of His will?”

“Perhaps not. But the fault may lie in the nature of the trial rather than in the nature of God’s will.”

Joan considered that. “My father would say that this is how witches have been tried for hundreds of years.”

“True enough.”

“But that doesn’t necessarily make it right.” Joan looked at Aesculapius. “What would be a better way?”

“That,” he said, “is for you to tell me.”

Joan sighed. Aesculapius was so different from her father, or even Matthew. He refused to tell her things, insisting instead that she reason her own way to the answer. Joan tugged gently on the tip of her nose as she often did when thinking out a problem.

Of course. She had been blind not to see it at once. Cicero and the De inventione—until now, it had been merely an abstraction, a rhetorical ornament, an exercise for the mind.

“The evidentiary questions,” Joan said. “Why couldn’t they be brought to apply in this case?”

“Explain,” Aesculapius said.

“Quid: there is the fact of the knotted belt—that is indisputable. But surely there is an argument about what it means. Quis: Who put the knots in the belt and placed it in the woods? Quomodo: How was it taken from Ebo? Quando, Ubi: When and where was it taken? Did anyone actually see Hrotrud with it? Cur: Why should Hrotrud wish harm to Ebo?” Joan spoke rapidly, excited by the possibilities of the idea. “Witnesses could be brought forward and questioned. And Hrotrud and Ebo too—they could be questioned. Their answers might have determined Hrotrud’s innocence. And”—Joan concluded ruefully—“she would not have had to die to prove it!”

They were on dangerous ground, and they knew it. They sat together in silence. Joan was overwhelmed by the enormity of the concept that had burst upon her: the application of logic to divine revelation, the possibility of an earthly justice in which the assumptions of faith were governed by rational inquiry, and belief was supported by the powers of reason.

Aesculapius said, “It would probably be wise not to mention this conversation to your father.”

THE Feast of St. Bertin was just past, the days were growing shorter, and so, of necessity, were the children’s lessons. The sun was low in the sky when Aesculapius finally stood up.

“That, children, is enough for today.”

“May I go now?” John asked. Aesculapius waved in dismissal, and John bounded from his seat and hurried outdoors.

Joan smiled ruefully at Aesculapius. John’s obvious dislike for their studies embarrassed her. Aesculapius was frequently impatient, even sharp, with John. But her brother was a slow and unwilling student. “I can’t do it!” he would wail the moment he met some new difficulty. There were times when Joan would have liked to shake him and shout, “Try! Try! How do you know you can’t do it unless you try!”

Afterward, Joan reproached herself for such thoughts. John could not help being slow. Without John there would have been no lessons at all these past two years—and life without lessons had become unthinkable.

As soon as John had gone, Aesculapius said seriously, “I have something to tell you. I have been informed that my services are no longer needed at the schola. Another scholar, a Frankishman, has applied to be teaching master, and the bishop finds him more suitable for the position than I.”

Joan was bewildered. “How can this be? Who is the man? He cannot possibly know as much as you!”

Aesculapius smiled. “That statement shows loyalty, if not wisdom. I have met the man; he is an excellent scholar, whose interests are better suited to the teachings of the schola than mine.” Seeing that Joan did not take his meaning, he added, “There is a place for the kind of knowledge you and I have pursued together, Joan, and it is not within the walls of a cathedral. Remember what I tell you, and be careful: some ideas are dangerous.”

“I understand,” Joan said, though she didn’t, completely. “But— what will you do now? How will you live?”

“I have a friend in Athens, a countryman who has achieved success as a merchant. He wants me to tutor his children.”

“You are leaving?” Joan was unable to believe what he was telling her.

“He is prosperous; his offer is generous. I have little choice but to accept.”

“You mean to go to Athens?” It was so far away. “When will you go?”

“In a month. I would have gone by now save for the pleasure I have taken in our work together.”

“But—” Joan’s mind raced, trying to think of something, anything to prevent this awful thing from happening. “You could live here, with us. You could be our tutor, John’s and mine, and we could have lessons every day!”

“That is impossible, my dear. Your father has barely enough to sustain your family through the winter as it is. There is no room at your hearth or at your table for a stranger. Besides, I must go where I can continue my own work. The cathedral library will no longer be permitted me.”

“Don’t go.” Grief rose within her like a palpable substance, forming a hard knot at the base of her throat. “Please don’t go.”

“My dear girl, I must. Though truly I wish it were not so.” He stroked Joan’s white-gold hair fondly. “I have learned much from teaching you; I do not look to have so apt a pupil again. You have a rare intelligence; it is God-given, and you must not deny it”—he glanced meaningfully at her—“whatever the cost.”

Joan was afraid to speak lest her voice betray her emotions.

Aesculapius took her hand in his. “You must not worry. You will be able to continue your studies. I will make arrangements. I do not know exactly where, as yet, or how, but I will. Yours is too promising an intellect to lie fallow. We will find the seeds with which to sow it, I promise.” He grasped her hand tightly. “Trust me in this.”

After he had gone, Joan did not move from her little desk. She sat alone in the gathering darkness until her mother returned, carrying logs for the hearth.

“Ah, so you are finished?” said Gudrun. “Good! Now come help me build the fire.”

AESCULAPIUS came to see her the day he left, dressed in his long blue traveling cloak. In his hands he carried a package wrapped in cloth.

“For you.” He placed the package in her hands.

Joan unwrapped the strips of linen, then gasped as she saw what they had concealed. It was a book, bound in the Eastern fashion with leather-covered wooden boards.

“It is my own,” said Aesculapius. “I made it myself, some years ago. It is an edition of Homer—the original Greek in the front half of the book, and a Latin translation in the back. It will help you keep your knowledge of the language fresh until the time you can begin your studies again.”

Joan was speechless. A book of her own! Such a privilege was enjoyed only by monks and scholars of the highest rank. She opened it, looking at line after line of Aesculapius’s neat uncial letters, filling the pages with words of inexpressible beauty. Aesculapius watched her, his eyes filled with tender sadness.

“Do not forget, Joan. Do not ever forget.”

He opened his arms to her. She went to him, and for the first time they embraced. For a long while they clung to each other, Aesculapius’s tall, broad form cradling Joan’s small one. When at last they parted, his blue cloak was wet with Joan’s tears.

She did not watch as he rode away. She stayed inside where he had left her, holding on to the book, grasping it so tightly that her hands ached.

JOAN knew her father would not permit her to keep the book. He had never approved of her studies, and now, with Aesculapius gone, there was no one to stop him from enforcing his will. So she hid the book, rewrapping it carefully in its cloth and burying it under the thick straw on her side of the bed.

She was on fire to read it, to see the words, to hear again in her mind the joyous beauty of the poetry. But it was too dangerous; someone was usually in or near the cottage, and she feared discovery. Her only opportunity was at night. After everyone was asleep, she could read without risk of sudden interruption. But she needed some light— a candle, or at least some oil. The family got only two dozen candles a year—the canon was loath to take them from the sanctuary—and these were carefully conserved; she could not use one unnoticed. But the church storehouse had a huge stockpile of wax—the coloni of Ingelheim were required to supply the sanctuary with a hundred pounds a year. If she could get hold of some, she could fashion her own candle.

It wasn’t easy, but in the end she managed to pilfer enough wax to make a small candle, using a piece of linen cord for a wick. It was a makeshift job—the flame was scarcely more than a flicker—but it was enough to provide light for study.

The first night she was cautious. She waited until long after her parents had retired to their bed behind the partition and she could hear the canon’s snoring before daring to move. Finally she slid out of bed, silent and watchful as a fawn, careful not to disturb John, who lay beside her. He slept soundly, his head burrowed beneath the covers. Gently Joan removed the book from its hiding place in the straw and carried it to the small pine desk in the far corner of the room. She took her candle to the hearth and lit it in the glowing embers.

Returning to the desk, she held the candle close to the book. The light was faint and unsteady, but with an effort she could make out the lines of dark black ink. The neat letters danced in the flickering light, beckoning, inviting. Briefly Joan paused, savoring the moment. Then she turned the page and began.

THE warm days and cool nights of Windumemanoth, the wine harvest month, passed swiftly. The harsh nordostroni winds arrived earlier than usual, blowing in from the northeast in strong, bone-chilling gusts. Once again the window of the grubenhaus was boarded up, but the frigid winds penetrated every crevice; to keep warm, they had to leave the hearth fire burning all day long, filling the place with sooty smoke.

Every night after her family slept, Joan rose and studied for hours in the darkness. She exhausted her candle and was forced to wait impatiently till she had pilfered some more wax from the church storehouse. When at last she was able to resume work, she drove herself relentlessly. She finished the book and then returned to the beginning, this time studying the complicated verb forms and copying them painstakingly onto her tablet until she knew them by heart. Her eyes were red and her head ached from the strain of working in the bad light, but it never occurred to her to stop. She was happy.

The Feast of St. Columban came and went, and there was still no word, no news of any arrangements for formal tutoring. Nevertheless, Joan kept faith with Aesculapius’s promise. As long as she had his book, there was no cause for despair. She was continuing to learn, to make progress. Surely, surely something would happen soon. A tutor would arrive in the village, asking for her by name, or she would be summoned by the bishop and told of her acceptance into a schola.

Joan started work a little earlier each night. Sometimes she did not even wait till she heard her father’s snoring. When she spilled some hot wax on the desk, she did not even notice.

One night she was working out a particularly difficult and interesting problem of syntax. Impatient to get started, she settled in at the desk not long after her parents had retired. She had been working only a few minutes when she heard a muffled sound from behind the partition.

She snuffed the candle flame and sat like a stone in the darkness, listening, feeling the leap of her pulse in her throat.

Several moments passed. There was no further sound. It must have been her imagination. Relief washed through her like a warm current. Still, she let a long time pass before she rose from the desk, went to the hearth to relight the wick, and returned with the glowing taper. The spark flared brightly, creating a little circle of light around the desk. At the edge of the circle, where the light met the shadows, was a pair of feet.

Her father’s feet.

The canon stepped out of the darkness. Instinctively, Joan moved to hide the book from him, but it was too late.

His face, lit from below by the unsteady flame, was ghastly, terrifying.

“What wickedness is this?”

Joan’s voice was a whisper. “A book.”

“A book!” He stared at it as if he could scarcely believe the evidence of his eyes. “How do you come by this? What are you doing with it?”

“Reading it. It—it’s mine, it was given to me by Aesculapius. It’s mine.”

The force of her father’s blow caught her by surprise, knocking her off the stool. She lay on the ground in a heap, the earthen floor cool against her cheek.

“Yours! Insolent child! I am master in this house!”

Joan raised herself on one elbow and watched helplessly as her father bent over the book, squinting to make out the words in the uncertain light. After a few moments he jerked upright, making the sign of the cross in the air above the desk. “Christ Jesus, protect us.” Without taking his gaze from the book, he beckoned to Joan. “Come here.”

Joan got up from the floor. She was dizzy, and there was a painful ringing in one ear. Slowly she walked over to her father.

“This is not the language of Holy Mother Church.” He pointed to the open page before him. “What is the meaning of these marks? Answer me truly, child, as you value your immortal soul!”

“It is poetry, Father.” Despite her fear, Joan felt a swell of pride in the knowledge. She did not dare add that the poetry was by Homer, whom her father regarded as a godless heathen. The canon knew no Greek. If he did not look at the Latin translation in the back, perhaps he would not realize what she had done.

Her father placed both hands on Joan’s head, his broad peasant’s fingers encircling her head just above the brow. “Exorcizo te, immundissime spiritus, omnis incursio adversarii, omne phantasma …” His hands tightened, squeezing so hard that Joan cried out in fear and pain.

Gudrun appeared in the doorway. “By all that’s holy, Husband, what is the matter? Be careful with the child!”

“Silence!” the canon barked. “The child is possessed! Her demon must be exorcised.” The pressure of his hands increased until Joan thought her eyes would burst.

Gudrun seized his arm. “Stop! She is just a child! Husband, stop! Would you kill her in your madness?”

The excruciating pressure ceased abruptly as the canon released his grip. He wheeled and with a single blow propelled Gudrun to the other side of the room. “Begone!” he roared. “This is no time for woman’s weakness! I found the girl practicing magic in the night! With a witch’s book! She is possessed!”

“No, Father, no!” Joan shrieked. “It is not witchcraft! It is poetry! Poetry written in Greek, that is all! I swear it!” He reached for her, but she ducked under his arm and circled behind him. He turned and advanced on her, eyes dark with menace.

He was going to kill her.

“Father! Turn to the back! The back of the book! It is written in Latin! You will see it! It is in Latin!”

The canon hesitated. Hurriedly Gudrun brought him the book. He did not look at it. He stared at Joan, considering.

“Please, Father. Only look at the back of the book. You can read it for yourself. It is not witchcraft!”

He took the book from Gudrun. She ran to get the candle and held it close to the page so he could see. He bent to examine the book, his thick, dark brows knitted in concentration.

Joan could not stop talking. “I was studying. I read by night so no one would know. I knew you would not approve.” She would say anything, confess anything to make him believe. “It is Homer. The book of the Iliad. Homer’s poem. It is not witchcraft, Father.” She started to sob. “Not witchcraft.”

The canon paid no attention. He read intently, his eyes close to the page, his mouth silently forming the words. After a moment he looked up.

“God be praised. It is not witchcraft. But it is the work of a godless heathen, and therefore an offense against the Lord.” He turned to Gudrun. “Build up the fire. This abomination must be destroyed.”

Joan gasped. Burn the book! Aesculapius’s beautiful book, which he had given to her in trust!

“Father, the book is valuable! It is worth money; we could fetch a good price for it or”—her mind raced—“you could present it to the bishop as a gift for the cathedral library.”

“Wicked child, you are so far sunk in sin it is a wonder you have not drowned in it. This is no fit gift for the bishop, nor for any Godfearing soul.”

Gudrun went to the corner where the wood was stored and selected a few small logs. Joan watched numbly. She had to find some way to keep this from happening. If only the pain in her head would stop, she could think.

Gudrun stoked the embers, preparing the hearth for the fresh wood.

“Hold a moment.” Abruptly, the canon addressed Gudrun. “Leave the fire be.” He fingered the pages of the book appraisingly. “It is true that the parchment is valuable and might be put to good use.” He placed the book on the desk and vanished into the next room.

What did it mean? Joan looked at her mother, who shrugged in bewilderment. Directly to her left, John sat upright in the bed. Awakened by the noise, he stared at Joan with large, round eyes.

The canon returned, carrying something long and shiny. It was his bone-handled hunting knife. As always, the sight of it filled Joan with a strong and bewildering sense of dread. The dim play of forgotten memory teased the edges of her awareness. Then it was gone, before she could remember what it was.

Her father sat at the desk. Turning the knife at an oblique angle so the sharp edge lay flat against the page, he scraped at the vellum. One of the letters on the page disappeared. He gave a little grunt of satisfaction.

“It works. I saw it done, once, at the monastery of Corbie. It leaves the pages clean so they can be used again. Now”—he motioned peremptorily to Joan—“you do it.”

This, then, was to be her punishment. Her hand would be the one to destroy the book, to obliterate the forbidden knowledge and with it all her hopes.

Her father’s eyes glittered with malevolent expectation.

Woodenly, she took the knife and sat at the desk. For a long moment she stared at the page. Then, holding the knife as she had seen her father do it, she moved the blade slowly over the surface of the page.

Nothing happened.

“It doesn’t work.” She looked up hopefully.

“Like this.” The canon placed his hand over hers, applying pressure with a small lateral movement of the blade. Another letter disappeared. “Try again.”

She thought of Aesculapius, of his long hours of labor making this book, of the faith he had shown in her when he entrusted it to her. The page blurred as tears rose to her eyes.

“Please. Don’t make me. Please, Father.”

“Daughter, you have offended God with your disobedience. In penance, you will work day and night until these pages are wholly cleansed of their ungodly contents. You will take nothing but bread and water until the task is complete. I will pray for God to have mercy upon you for your grievous sin.” He pointed to the book. “Begin.”

Joan placed the knife on the page and scraped as her father had shown her. One of the letters flaked, paled, and then disappeared. She moved the knife; another letter was obliterated. Then another. And another. Soon an entire word was gone, leaving only the rough, abraded surface of the parchment.

She moved the knife to begin on the next word. A’λήθεια. Aletheia. Truth. Joan stopped, her hand poised over the word.

“Continue.” Her father’s voice was stern, commanding.

Truth. The round lines of the uncial letters stood out boldly against the pale parchment.

A fierce denial rose within her. All the fear and misery of the night gave way before one overwhelming conviction: This must not be!

She put down the knife. Slowly she looked up to meet her father’s eyes. What she saw there made her draw her breath in sharply.

“Take up the knife.” The menace in his voice was unmistakable.

Joan tried to speak, but her throat constricted and no words came. She shook her head no.

“Daughter of Eve, I will teach you to fear the tortures of Hell. Bring me the switch.”

Joan went to the corner and retrieved the long, black stick which her father used on such occasions.

“Prepare yourself,” the canon said.

She knelt on the floor in front of the hearth. Slowly, for her hands were shaking, she unclasped her gray woolen mantle and pulled off her linen tunic, exposing the bare flesh of her back.

“Begin the paternoster.” Her father’s voice was a low rumble behind her.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven—”

The first lash struck cleanly between the shoulders, parting the flesh, sending a piercing shaft of pain up her neck into her skull.

“Hallowed be thy Name—”

The second lash was harder. Joan bit her arm to keep from crying out. She had been beaten before, but never like this, never with such relentless, implacable force.

“Thy Kingdom come—”

The third lash bit deep into her torn flesh, drawing blood. The warm wetness trickled down her sides.

“Thy will be done—” The shock of the fourth lash jolted Joan’s head upwards. She saw her brother watching intently from the bed. There was an odd expression on his face. Was it fear? Curiosity? Pity?

“On earth as it is—” The lash descended again. In the flash of a second before pain forced her eyes shut, Joan recognized the look on her brother’s face. It was exultation.

“In Heaven. Give us this day—” The lash struck heavily. How many was it? Joan’s senses reeled. She had never had to endure more than five.

Lash. Distantly, she heard someone screaming.

“Our daily bread. And forgive us … forgive—” Her mouth moved, but she could not form the words.


With what power of thought was left her, Joan suddenly understood. This time it would not end. This time her father would not stop. This time he would continue until she was dead.


The ringing in her ears built to a deafening crescendo. Then there was nothing but silence, and merciful darkness.

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