Fire Under the Skin

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Chapter 3

3

Rona

My dear Torre,

It was lovely to hear from you. We are well here, the problems I spoke of in my last letter are to a large extent resolved, and things are much more peaceful. Thank you for the mittens. They are so warm, with all the colours woven in together, and of course having my fingers free gives me the flexibility to continue my work. As you can imagine, I spend long hours hunched over my books and anything to keep my poor fingers from freezing is very gratefully received. I am sending you a packet of tea. It’s very strong, and packed tightly, so you’ll only need a pinch in the pot. I hope you find it refreshing and strengthening. I think of my parcel arriving with you in the early stages of winter, bringing the taste of our summer into your white wilderness as the long dark begins The one who brings it will stay with you a while; she has much to offer. I hope to receive many more letters in the future, and that you will see your people thrive again.

The sisters of the Moon held the tables tonight. They were serving their speciality: Six Mushroom Pie. Their grey and blue robes swished as they moved between the trestles, laying out the full-moon shaped pies with their intricately pieced and woven pastry lids, the steam making its way out and wreathing itself about the cutlery and plates. The Moon sisters were a close lot: they rarely coupled outside their own ranks, and there were rumours of private rituals not shared by the rest of the community. They were the acknowledged experts on fungi, both the edible and medicinal kinds, with the exception of the micro-fungi, whose secrets were shared with the Brewsters’ and Bakers’ Guild which crossed sisterhood boundaries. Food was too important a matter to restrict to one sisterhood alone.

Rona wondered if there really were six kinds of mushroom in the pie, and how one could tell the difference once they were all cooked together. Behind their backs, the Moon sisters were referred to as the Toadstool Tarts, and there were rumours about past feasts where mistakes had been made, and sisters had died from eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. Or perhaps they were not mistakes? The sisters of the Moon were proud of their knowledge, and slow to admit failings. Perhaps deaths occurred as a result of deliberate policy, but were passed off as mistakes? There had been no such deaths in Rona’s lifetime, so the rumours remained just that: no worse than those spread about other sororities, other times. No worse than had been said about Rona herself, in dark corners almost out of earshot. Almost, but not quite.

The Moon’s Abbess rose to ask Grace of the Mother on the food they were about to share. Her words were brief and her voice quiet, and she had hardly begun to seat herself again at the high table when the sisters fell upon the pies and devoured them. These days everyone was always hungry, and it didn’t do to be slow in taking your share: holding back and showing courtesy to others were likely to see you leave table as empty as when you arrived. Rona ate as hurriedly as anyone, but she hardly tasted the mouthfuls she shovelled into her mouth. Food had no savour any more, and she ate only out of a sense of bodily need.

Even while she ate, she wondered why she bothered. It would hardly matter to her sisters if there was one less body laying claim to the food they shared. Rona’s own contribution to the whole was nothing out of the ordinary. She had no special skills that were not possessed by others, nor was she ever likely to do so unless she chose to take the opportunity that was being held out to her: held out like a slice of sweet cake on an open palm, or, perhaps, a bitter medicine laced with sweetness to make it more palatable. Rona was no more likely to say yes today that she had been on any day in the past three months. But the tempting morsel was always before her now; all she had to do was to reach out and take it, and the rest of her days would be mapped out in security and comfort, certainly more comfort than most of her sisters would know for many years to come. But the price was too high.

Rona rose and wrapped her rust-coloured woollen skirts around herself, moving between seated figures to place her plate and utensils in the basin provided at the edge of the refectory. She moved onwards, in the direction of the kitchens, rolling up her sleeves as she went. It was the turn of the Day sisters to perform the cleaning duties today, and by arriving at the kitchen in time to join the other fast eaters in cleaning the food preparation area and scouring the great cooking dishes with sand, she could avoid being assigned less desirable duties, such as cleaning the latrines. In addition, finishing her work early would see her free of duty and hence free to wander where she would until the dusk bell rang. Plenty of freedom, to roam and to think. She sighed as her elbow bent and moved automatically, scouring out the bottom of the mushroom pan. As if she needed any more time to think.

A figure nudged her as it passed, knocking her slightly off balance, and Rona looked round to see Peri pushing past her to reach the steaming basins of hot water readied for cleaning the cutlery and crockery of their meal. Peri wore a smirk on her pretty face that gave it an ugly twist. No need to doubt whether the nudge had been on purpose. Toni, on her other side, pretended not to notice Rona as they passed. Rona’s eyes were drawn against her will to Toni’s midriff, where the red of her robes was pressed against her swollen stomach as she moved through the growing crowd of Day sisters. Well into second semester. No need to fear that she wouldn’t take this one to term. Toni’s first successful pregnancy: her first with the smug and self-satisfied Peri; her first attempt since leaving Rona at the beginning of the last quarter. Rona wished she could find it in herself to speak to Toni, to give blessing to the new union, and the new life that had resulted from it. But Peri had made it clear that such an approach would be unwelcome. ‘Keep your ill wishes to yourself, sister dear. You have nothing to say to us anymore.’

The sun was just sinking behind the western hills as Rona left the refectory kitchen, letting the door close behind her. The babble of voices and clash of crockery faded as she strode away. The ashes of last night’s needfire were blowing across the meeting ground, and knots of sisters were scattered across the open area, chatting and gossiping. It must have been her imagination that talk died away as she came near, and rose up again after she had passed. What was big news in Rona’s life was surely of little interest to anyone outside her circle of acquaintances.

Ahead of her stood the slim figure of Bereke. Hands clasped piously in front of her she stood alone, viewing the vista of mountains as the setting sun coated them with pink. Rona’s shadow stretched out before her, almost reaching the other woman’s feet. Bereke was by far the youngest of the Crones. It still felt strange to Rona to use the word of her. What must it be like, to be chosen from amongst the Maidens, even before puberty, and to move straight into the company of the Elders? Bereke would never know what it meant to bear a child, would never have a young one of her own or her partner’s playing at her feet. She had saved herself a world of work: that slender figure would remain youthful and unbowed for many decades, fed well at the Elders’ table and with access to all the medical and cosmetic knowledge that the sisters had accumulated.

It was rumoured that her ambition was to become First, and Rona could well believe it. From the cradle she had shown an aptness with elements that was far ahead of her years, and she was quick to learn. So quick that she soon outstripped her nursery mates and was taken into special tutelage by the First herself and others of the Council of Elders. The usual process of growing took one from childhood to first initiation, as Maiden. Sisters would live as maidens until sometime after menarche. The body would change first: bleeding, breasts, the widening of hips and all the other changes that heralded coming womanhood. But the step from Maiden to Mother would not take place until the young girl was emotionally ready: and could prove that she held enough talent to manipulate matter and energy, and demonstrate bodily control over her own reproductive functions.

Then, if one was fortunate, a like-minded companion would be found. Two would become one, and the nightly joining of minds and bodies would forge a partnership that, at its best, would promote a flowering of creativity and magical ability, and, for the very lucky ones, successful procreation. Not all could bear a child for the sisters. Not all could achieve the deep meditation necessary to control release of a matched pair of ova, and their subsequent development. But all the sisters wished to do so. All, that is, except Bereke.

Rona wondered whether it had been easy to go straight from Maiden to Crone without all the emotional entanglements of Motherhood. Even now, her slim figure was more girl than woman. Did she know what she had missed? Had it even felt like a sacrifice? Now Rona was faced with the same choice, but she had known the joy and hope of entering the ranks of Mothers. She had experienced love and companionship, had lain face-to-face and breast-to-breast with Toni, legs tangled as minds journeyed together through the mysteries of shared bodies. She had known the first stirrings of life within her body, and the joy on Toni’s face as they locked eyes and shared awareness, right down to the cellular level. And the terrible grief at loss of the child. A grief that had been repeated, again and again.

Rona bowed her head, clenching her fists around the ache within her. She fought to control her face and the old, familiar litany went through her mind, the same tale that she still could not accept: we were good together. Our work was good, in the healing rooms and in our meditations. Physically and emotionally we were utterly compatible. Over and over again we achieved conception. One or other of us would begin to blossom, and we would share the joyous news. But over and over again the pregnancy would fail, as simply and easily as it had begun. Neither of us could carry to term.

Slowly, step by step, the life partners began to fall out of sync with one another. When one conceived, both knew. But they ceased to speak of it. They did not share their joy with the sisters. The pregnant one would coil herself around the dark secret, shutting out the other, as if by doing so they could keep the child safe, keep it growing. As if by refusing to tell the news, the body itself could somehow be kept unaware of the fragile entity growing within it. To no avail: always the pregnancy would end, never more than a few weeks into the first semester. It began to affect all their work. Rona could always heal - hat strength never left her, even at the worst times - but Toni ceased to offer herself at the healing rooms. She turned in on herself, hiding her body’s changes even from her companion, and she refused to talk to anyone.

One day Rona came back from the healing rooms to find the shared space empty. Toni had been taken to the healers herself: she had lost another babe. This one was harder than most. She was very ill during the miscarriage and weak afterwards. Too many attempts too quickly; her body had worn itself out, and her psyche was too bruised to cope with any more grief. She spent some weeks there, refusing visits from Rona, although she allowed others to come to her. When she left the infirmary she went back into the dormitories, and thence to Peri’s bed. To Peri’s arms and Peri’s power, and now to the successful outcome of which she had always dreamed. Somebody else’s touch had kindled her child into life, and this time she was going to term. There had been nothing wrong with Toni. It was all wrong with Rona.

Bereke turned just before Rona’s shadow touched her feet: her face remained impassive but she crooked her arm slightly. Rona obeyed the request. Why not? She had nothing better to do. As Rona came abreast of the young woman, Bereke inclined her head in greeting and began to glide silently toward the Elders’ house. The black of her Crone’s gown suited her perfect ivory complexion and glossy black hair, which fell smoothly down her back as far as her waist. Not for Bereke the complex knots and braided patterns of women’s hair, nor yet the short crops that so many of the old women chose once their greying hair began to thin with age. Not for the first time, Rona wondered whether Bereke’s vanity was so great that she would choose Cronehood merely to look unique among the sisters. She snorted aloud and Bereke glanced askance at her, but made no comment. Great power was available to those who achieve Cronehood. Rona was quite sure that had been a factor at least as critical in Bereke’s decision as the desire to look good.

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