Here’s a bit of a teaser for the new project. I read it at ArmadilloCon (ooh, check it out — they have next year’s site up!) last month, and was pleased by the response from the audience. People were asking questions afterwards, always a good sign.
As many of you know, I’ve been reading and researching Joan of Arc for many years. My short story, “A Prayer for Captain La Hire,” is based on Joan and the general Etienne de Vignolles, nicknamed La Hire, and her two faithful knights, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy.
This snippet from my WiP is based on Joan’s trials and her testimony at her second trial.
“What is your name?”
“Ephenia Lydia Almericia Suerta Dellarocca.”
“Who are your parents?”
“My parents were good people of noble birth.”
“What were their names?”
“Pass over that.”
“Where are your parents?”
“My mother died when I was an infant.”
“Evil child! You killed her with your birth. Such is the devil in you. Have you repented of your first murder?”
“It would be false witness to lie to God. I did not kill my mother; I will not repent of her death.”
“Did you love your mother?”
“I must have done; all children love their mothers.”
“Then why do you not mourn her death?”
“I mourn it every day.” With a shock, I realized suddenly that was true.
“Does your father yet live?”
“Who is he?”
“My father in Heaven is God.”
“Who is your father on Earth?”
“Pass over that.”
And so it went, on and on for hours. I was brought out of my cell and examined by a tribunal of learned men, the silent scribes in the balconies scribbling furiously over their desks, the scratching of their pens like the scrabbling of the rats in my prison walls. The courtroom smelled of candles, iron, and blood and tears. I sat below the men in a pool of light from a ring of lanterns overhead. My interlocutors were in shadow, only their stentorious voices revealing them.
They asked me in as many ways as they could if I claimed myself as the daughter of King Feodoro. I knew better than to answer it, because once I did, they could behead me at once for making a claim on the throne. Despite my thirst and hunger and fear, I knew my only hope was to think one step ahead of my enemies, resist at every step, and turn their questions around on them.
“Where were you raised?”
“In a small village in the heart of this country.”
“Who raised you?”
“What were their occupations?”
“Farmer-priest and farm-wife.”
“What are their given names?”
“The names their parents gave them; the names they took to honor the saints; and the names that denote their family.”
“Insolent girl! Give us their names!”
“Let me go home to them and they can tell you themselves.”
I could hear discussion from the bench. They knew that if they tortured me they could get the names — or at the least, I would give them some names. I had no intention of giving up Rothaire and Serene. I prayed for them nightly, and hoped they were well and that my homey village went about its business as it always did, with little thought for its wayward daughter.
“What is your purpose in traveling?”
“To achieve my destination.”
“What is your destination?”
“Why do you wish to go to Castilia, a young girl like you?” This was a different interrogator. His voice was soft, insinuating. Sneering.”Do you wish to sell yourself to different men?”
I refused to dignify that accusation with a reply. There was another conference on the bench, a hissed reprimand, and then my usual questioner continued.
“Why do you go to Castilia?”
“I have never seen it before; therefore I wished to go there and see the capital of my country.”
“And you have no other aim than to see the capital?”
I remained silent.
“What is your purpose in going to Castilia?”
“Pass over that.”
“Is it an evil purpose?”
I thought a long time before answering. When I did, my words were reflective.”In this imperfect world, even those of us with the best of intentions can do evil. I do not intend evil, but I am human, and cannot claim perfection, as neither can you gentlemen.”
There was a gasp from the clerks in the balconies. The judges were struck dumb. Then –“You are very clever. You must have suckled at the she-devil’s tit to have learned to answer with such cunning. Was that your mother or your guardian?”
“I rose to my feet with a roar of fury, my chains rattling.”DON’T SPEAK OF HER SO!”
A guard yanked me forward onto my kneeling bench, my knees hitting the stone with a painful crack. A light was brought to my face, blinding me, as I sniffled away my tears, and turned my head to protect my eyes. I couldn’t see who was holding the lantern. There was only a deeper shadow behind the lamp, so close that I felt the heat and oil hissed and ran down sides of the lamp onto my lap. I jerked away in pain.
“Oh, you will feel far more pain than this little prick,” came the voice in the darkness.”Your fate is to taste the eternal damnation of hellfire in your last moments on earth.” The lamp was pulled away.”Take her back to her cell.”
The days passed in a blur of interrogation, cell, interrogation, cell. I had lost track of time, and no longer called out for Adessio and Giona. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive, if they had already been executed. I struggled to say my prayers, but all I could think of was Serene and Rothaire and how disappointed they would be in me. I no longer hoped that Marsroi would rescue me.
One day when they dragged me before the tribunal, I was made to kneel on the stone penitent’s bench, but I promptly fell over in a faint, so weak was I with hunger and thirst. I had gone beyond even hunger pangs.
When I woke, I was disoriented, thinking at first that I was home in my village, and Serene was ministering to me. I muttered her name, sobbing in relief. I was home, though my bed was hard and I smelled piss and sweat and blood.
“What did she say? What name was that?” It was a sharp male voice.
“I didn’t catch it. Make her say it again. What was that name, witch! Tell us the name!”
I was shaken roughly by the shoulders and mewled a cry of fear, and woke up to my eternal nightmare. Someone threw a bucket of water at me, and I was hoisted to my knees and propped back up onto the kneeling stone. This time my guards held me by my chains to keep me upright, and the interrogation began anew.
“Did you turn Mistress Laurina into an ass?”
“If I did, I am very sorry for it.” But she was entirely behaving like one, I wanted to add.
“Are you a witch?”
“If I am, I am very sorry for it.” A giggle rose to my lips, and I tried to suppress it. I knew how it sounded. I knew that I must have sounded entirely like I was possessed by an evil spirit. But I was broken and could not help myself.
“Are you a pretender to the throne of REALM?”
“Only my father can determine that.”
And then back to the other voice, triumphant in its accents, as if the speaker knew he had me:
“Are you in God’s grace?”
And I remembered, with sudden clarity, the catechism that Serene had taught me, the prayer she had made me memorize from the time I was a little child, lisping at her knee:
“If I am, may God keep me there; If I am not, may He put me there.”
The courtroom erupted in shouting and arguing, and I knelt there in the middle as chaos swirled around me, focused only on one thought. She had known. Serene had known I would be asked that. She had prepared me for this moment for years, just in case I ever found myself in this position. For this was the ultimate trap — if I had said yes, it was blasphemy, for it would have meant I would presume to know God’s will. And if I had said no…I lifted my eyes. Thank you, I whispered, and I felt my words travel up through the ceiling and out into the air, all the way to VILLAGE and to Serene’s ear.
I was dragged back to my cell again and thrown to the stone floor, the shouting and epithets ringing in my ears, but I couldn’t help but exult, even as I curled up around myself, a broken, dirty, small creature.
Whatever happened next, I knew I was loved.