| But she was doubtful as to whether she believed in that hell any longer; she had learned, bitterly and abruptly, of the lies and darkness that shrouded the church she had been raised to follow.
SHE HAD PRECIOUS little time.
They would discover her missing before very long, she knew, although they would not think immediately to look for a gently bred young lady on the hazardous slopes of the moss-slick roof. The nuns would first assume that she was with the priest, and the priest would assume that she had returned to the quiet confines of her room, to pray or more likely to weep—as surely she would have done, only days ago. She felt, however, that she had already spent all the tears she had been allotted for her lifetime, which was perhaps fitting, given what she was going to do.
She knew full well the terrible consequences of her dire intention. There would be pain, though hopefully only briefly, when her body struck—and greater pain still, when she was consigned to that deepest pit of hell reserved for the sinful souls of suicides. But she was doubtful as to whether she believed in that hell any longer; she had learned, bitterly and abruptly, of the lies and darkness that shrouded the church she had been raised to follow.
When she was younger—several years and several lifetimes younger, she felt now—she had believed that angels watched over her; one angel, at least, in particular, the mother whose unremembered visage was conveniently obscured in her mind's eye by the brilliant halo of divine illumination. What else was there to explain how blessed she had always been? Wealthy and cherished enough to receive all that she wanted and much that she had never even thought to want; lovely enough to attract the admiration of all the males of her acquaintance; sweet-natured enough to remain friends with the women she knew, in spite of it. She had never, in her small span of years, had reason to suspect that anything might ever change, that her life might not always be so sanctified, that her angel might ever fail or abandon her.
There were no angels, she knew that now—except perhaps for the angel of death, whose slow-beating wings she almost imagined she could hear, preparing to enfold her in a moment, a sinister whisper troubling the stillness of the night sky.
If there was, truly, no hell, then perhaps she would simply cease to be, which would not be unwelcome, compared to the life she was now living. Or perhaps she would be punished in another way, doomed to eternity as an earthly demon, one of the night terrors her aunt had used to frighten her into obedience when she was a child. The church denied that such creatures existed, of course, while the old folk of the land furtively but determinedly insisted that the night terrors were responsible for the abduction of children, simpletons, and other innocents who mysteriously vanished.
| He had brought her gifts of jewelry, fine cloth, and the terrifying, tantalizing dream of previously unimagined, unlooked-for possibility.
She had never believed in such things. But she had not known then that the priests were vile, and treacherous; if all that they preached was a lie, would it not follow that everything they so vehemently condemned might well be true?
She was unaccustomed to thinking of such complicated things in such a complex manner. Indeed, she was not accustomed to having to think of very much at all beyond what attire she should wear when going to church, what sort of hot chocolate she should serve when guests arrived to visit her father, what saints' names she should give her children when she and her fiancé married at last, as had been arranged nearly since the day of her birth.
When she had met him again for the first time since childhood, following his many years of study abroad, she had been flustered and confused by the penetrating questions he asked her in cordial conversation—questions which could not be answered by simply echoing the adages of her teachers, her father, her aunt, or the clergy. He had returned home a grown man with curious customs and strange ideas, which seemed to include the eccentric notion that women might be capable of more than managing a kitchen, or accomplishing intricate needlework, or birthing children. He had brought her gifts of jewelry, fine cloth, and the terrifying, tantalizing dream of previously unimagined, unlooked-for possibility.
They had taken that dream away from her. They had taken nearly everything from her—her love, her father, her home, her hope, her innocence, her sense of place and worth in the world. And finally—after this evening, after this priest—she had decided to take the one thing they had left to her, while it yet remained hers to take.
She wondered if, as she had overheard from the gossip of her father's compatriots, her life might flash before her eyes as she fell. It had not been a very long life, or a full one; there would be ample time for regret before she struck the ground.
LESS TIME, SO much less than she had imagined; a few scant storeys from roof to ground, and her body—so often praised for lightness and grace!—drawn down with blinding swiftness beneath the pressing weight of her despair. There was no time to do anything, think anything, regret anything; barely time between her first gasp at the sense of falling and the desperate, irresistible struggle to breathe just one more time.
| Upon realizing that she was once again in the clutching arms of a man who was neither her father nor her fiancé, she fully expected to faint...
When she felt—more than saw—a man's hands catch hold of her and halt her descent in midair, she thought at first, impossibly, that it must be her betrothed, miraculously escaped from the traps they had laid and the warrants they had levied against him as a heretic and filibuster. It seemed only slightly more miraculous to her, in comparison, that her love should somehow have learned how to fly.
But then she saw that he was winged—not at all like a churchly angel but like a bat, sharp spars and ragged leathery hide—and most indecently attired in the merest tatters of clothing, wild of hair and eye and mien, unspeaking, unreasoning. Upon realizing that she was once again in the clutching arms of a man who was neither her father nor her fiancé, she fully expected to faint; she had always been prone to fainting, easily overborne by surprise or strong emotion.
She screamed instead—certainly without intending to, surprising even herself with the sound and her sudden, surging rage at this creature for stealing away the one choice that had been left for her to make. She understood, even as her voice still rang in her ears, that it was over now; that the nuns would quickly find her; that they would either somehow deal with the creature or he with them; that, in either case, she would never again hold her own life in her own hands.
She saw that he was flying her back, wings rustling as they beat strongly, to the convent roof. He needed leverage, she understood. Trees were few and far between on the vast and meticulously manicured convent grounds, and he sought some sort of perch, a solid surface underfoot, the better to do what he would with her. She had no illusions, after countless nightmares borne of countless nighttime stories in her youth, as to what he wanted, what manner of being he was. He would kill her, or make her into a thing like himself—something other than human, something monstrous, something damned.
As they landed upon the roof, she glimpsed the faint lights of many candles flickering rapidly through the narrow windows on the upper floor of the convent. They would come onto the roof soon, then; in that moment of distraction, she might struggle free. It would be precarious on the slippery shingles, but it was not as though she needed to fear making a fatal misstep.
She might yet steal her death away from all of them.
| ...she made herself lift a tremulous hand to the man-creature's harsh and unlovely face, drawing his attention back to her as his gaunt shoulders tensed in response to the approaching noise.
Or—the thought occurred to her with the alien, irrefutable suddenness of unwelcome truth—she might allow herself to become something else, something perhaps more than merely her father's daughter, her fiancé's beloved, one priest's object of lust, and another's evidence of sin. Something damned, possibly; but something other, certainly.
She was unaccustomed to having to make decisions quickly; she was barely accustomed to deciding anything for herself at all. A person could learn, she discovered. A lifetime of watching, waiting, and wondering could somehow prepare a woman for one single, first and final act of will.
As many hurrying footsteps resounded hollowly on the narrow wooden stair leading up to the roof, she made herself lift a tremulous hand to the man-creature's harsh and unlovely face, drawing his attention back to her as his gaunt shoulders tensed in response to the approaching noise. "Goodbye," she whispered, certain he did not understand, and not at all certain whether she meant the farewell for her lost love or her lost life.
When the night terror sank its teeth deep into her flesh, she was surprised to find that she did, after all, have some tears left, at the end—or the beginning—of everything.
© Nikki Alfar
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