Excerpt of The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
(Page 3 of 10)
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"In gold, if you please, my lord," the assassin said, still cheerful. "And
similarly with the hundred when the job's done."
"Very well," the client said, and told his servant to hand over the purse
containing the fee.
And in doing so made a mistake which neither he nor the servant noticed but
which the assassin found informative. "Give Master Sicarius the purse, my son,"
the client said.
In fact, the clink of gold from the purse as it passed was hardly less
satisfactory than that the assassin now knew his client's occupation.
And was surprised.
The woman on the bed had lost the capacity to scream.
Apart from the drumming of her feet and the thump of
her fists against the sheets, her gyrations were silent, as if
she were miming agony.
The three nuns, too, kneeling at either side, might have been aping
intercession; their mouths moved soundlessly, because any noise, even the
sibilance of a whispered prayer, set off another convulsion in the patient. They
had their eyes closed so as not to see her suffering. Only the woman standing at
the end of the bed watched it, showing no expression.
On the walls, Adam and Eve skipped in innocent tapestried health among the flora
and fauna of the Garden while the Serpent, in a tree, and God, on a cloud,
looked on with amiability. It was a circular room, its beauty now mocking the
ghastliness of its owner: the fair hair that had turned black and straggled with
sweat, the corded veins in the once-white neck, lips stretched in the terrible
What could be done had been done. Candles and burning incense holders heated a
room where the lattices and shutters had been stuffed closed so as not to
Mother Edyve had stripped Godstow, her convent, of its reliquaries in order to
send the saints' aid to this stricken woman. Too old to come herself, she had
told Sister Havis, Godstow's prioress, what to do. Accordingly, the tibia of
Saint Scholastica had been tied to the flailing arm, droplets from the phial
containing Saint Mary's milk poured on the poor head, and a splinter of the True
Cross placed into the woman's hand, though it had been jerked across the room
during a spasm.
Carefully, so as not to make a noise, Sister Havis got up and left the room. The
woman who had been standing at the end of the bed followed her. "Where you
"To fetch Father Pol. I sent for him; he's waiting in the kitchen."
Like the stern but well-born Christian she was, Havis showed patience to the
afflicted, though this particular female always made her flesh creep. She said,
"It is time, Dakers. She must receive the viaticum."
"I'll kill you. She ain't going to die. I'll kill the priest if he comes
It was spoken without force or apparent emotion, but the prioress believed it of
this woman; every servant in the place had already run away for fear of what she
might do if their mistress died.
"Dakers, Dakers," she saidalways name the mad when speaking to them so as to
remind them of themselves"we cannot deny the rite of holy unction's comfort to
a soul about to begin its journey. Look . . ." She caught hold of the
housekeeper's arm and turned her so that both women faced into the room where
their muttered voices had caused the body on the bed to arch again. Only its
heels and the top of its head rested on the bed, forming a tortured bridge.
"No human frame can withstand such torment," Sister Havis said. "She is dying."
With that, she began to go down the stairs.
Footsteps followed her, causing her to hold fast to the banister in case she
received a push in the back. She kept on, but it was a relief to gain the ground
and go into white-cold fresh air as she crossed to the kitchen that had been
modeled on that of Fontevrault, with its chimneys, and stood like a giant pepper
pot some yards away from the tower.
Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.