The voices of the island called to her and the rapping of long-dead fingers on the window pane drew her out from the warmth of her bed. Pushing the quilt aside, she stood and walked across the room. Her coat lay when she had carelessly discarded it, across the back of a chair and she was unaware when the surface beneath her bare feet changed from the soft wool of carpet to the cold floorboards. The storm, which was threatening all day, tonight flew in on blackened wings that darkened the water and carried within its roars the voices of a thousand souls in torment. Power lines were flung aside in its fury and trees bereft of spring foliage, bent gnarled claws towards the earth. Bymidnightall was quiet within the small hotel. The only sound came from the padding of her bare feet as she tip-toed down the stairs, aware of those around her whose sleep remained calm and dreams undisturbed. The wind tried to tear the front door from her grasp and she had to battle with its strength, sure that at any moment the knob would be wrenched from her hands and the sound of splintering wood and glass against the wall would be enough to wake the dead; the irony of this was lost on her. A force stronger than the wind had called her to the island. It promised an end to her quest for fulfilment and a release from the pills and alcohol that marred her life, she was powerless to resist.
The island lay enveloped in night. The moon hid behind leaden clouds and not a single light showed the way, but she knew that somewhere within that blanket of darkness a figure beckoned. A gust caught at her coat and powerful, invisible hands tried to pull her back, but she broke free and ran as fast as the wind allowed. She gathered the wool tighter around her hoping to find some warmth within its folds, but the very cold seemed to emanate from within her.
The gates of the Nunnery slammed shut as she passed and the well-worn latch clicked into place as she was once again denied sanctuary. She had lived this rejection before, not once, but a thousand times. Cowled figures, blacker than the night, stood watching from within, their eyes dark hallows in ashen faces. She no longer feared them, for she had known them in another time. Still, she felt in her heart their sorrow and loneliness, as raw as the earth under which their earthly bodies now lay. She could have turned back, but chose instead to follow the path of so many of her Sisters before her. Twice she slipped on the wet earth as she climbed the hill leading to the Abbey and she was breathless and shivering from cold and fear as she began the ascent to the Tor. When she reached the top, a single flame from a candle shone through the window of the writing room and she knew at once what was about to pass. She had heard such things whispered about late at night and thought the tales of missing Sisters, nothing more than pranks to frighten the other novices. As she walked, she relived their cries and gasps of horror until Mother Abbess’s stern words sent them running to their beds. She licked at the salty sweat on her upper lip and moved towards the door. The wound in the earth lay open and bleeding and she tried not to look into its black chasm. A leaf flew against her face, its touch on her cheek the slap of a cold, dead hand and she hurried inside. Her entrance was greeted by a scowl from the figure hunched over the writing desk as he cupped his hand around the candle flame to protect if from the wind.
“You’re late, Sister,” he said, pointing to a bench beside him.
She slipped down on to the hard oak and watched in silence as he went about his work, tracing delicate scrolls onto a sheet of vellum. Small, earthenware pots littered the work surface and their contents of, reds, blues, greens and gold, dripped down their sides and stained the wood beneath them.
“The colour is still not right,” he threw down the feathered nib and rubbed his forehead in irritation. “It has to be precise and such work demands sacrifice.”
He turned to her as though just remembering her presence.
“Hold out your arm, little Sister.”
She did as he asked, but her heart beat painfully against her chest as he picked up the dagger. Its cruel blade caught the candle light and its sting was sharp and deep when he brought it down on her wrist. The metal of the great goblet he used to harvest her life’s blood, felt cold against her fevered skin. When he was finished, she watched through dying eyes as powders were mixed with her blood. She saw his smile of satisfaction as he retook his seat, dipped the nib into the unholy brew and traced the red onto the serpent’s tongue.