In the dream, death is as far off as the mountains. It's a cold, blue winter morning, and she is riding her horse very fast over a field of snow toward a high pine forest, still dim with shadow. Her armor glints in the early light, the steel giant's hands flashing on either side of her horse's mane, but the metal is strangely weightless in the dream. She does not feel it. What she feels instead is the still and brilliant morning, the snow and the speed and the cold air on her cheeks, and inside of her a violent, holy joy that makes her eyes very bright and propels her wildly over the fields toward the enemy forest, snow spraying and glittering beneath her horse's hooves.
Behind the girl rides her army of ten thousand men, all of them eager as she is, united by the same strange and feverish joy as they crash across the winter fields, across a black icy river that winds, shining like a ribbon, through the white land and toward the shadowed stillness of the pines. She can hear them thundering behind her, and hearing them, she knows that they are riding together toward a mad and glorious victory. And she knows too that they are riding toward death. But there is no fear in her this morning. She is seventeen, a peasant, unschooled, simple as a thumb. Fear has no place in her heart yet, though soon enough it will. Soon enough she will be caged, tortured, branded a witch, a whore, a limb of Satan. But on this morning she is simply God's arrow, shot across the winterland, brilliant and savage and divine. Unstoppable.
She awakes in darkness, curled on the cold stone floor of the tower. The stink of urine and rotted straw burning her nostrils. Iron cuffs biting at the sores on her wrists. Quickly she grabs at the receding dream, hoping to pull it back, to wrap herself up once more in its fierce joy. But no, it's too late. The last tendrils slip through her fingers, and she is left in the dark with her guards - three of them inside the cell with her, two out in the hall.
They are all asleep now, in this dim, lonesome hour. Propped in the shadows like dolls with their heads fallen forward and their mouths open, snoring. But soon enough, she knows, they'll be awake. Soon enough the big one, the one they call Berwoit, will grin with his square blue teeth and start in with his taunts. "Lift up your skirts for us, witch. Show us what you got under there. Is it a cock or is it a pussy?"
It's clear that she'll die soon. She sees this too in her dreams. The enormous, crackling yellow fire in the square, the grinning Bishop, the appalled, delighted crowds. The priest Massieu says it's not true. "You're safe now," he whispers. Now that she's repented, she's safe.
Soon, he says, they'll transfer her to a church prison, and there will be no more beatings and no more trial, and eventually, the Goddons will forget about her. The war will end, and she'll be set free. "Be patient, child," he says. "Give them time to forget."
She feels sorry for Massieu. Knows he's half in love with her. Even with her shaved head and the rough burlap dress the Bishop makes her wear, even with her ribs jutting out like a starved dog's, he looks at her with shining eyes, sneaks her bits of bread and extra cups of water, brings her wormwood salve for her bruises. She'd like to believe him, but she knows it isn't true. They hate her too much, the English. They will not be happy until they dance on her bones.
Often in the night, when she can't sleep, Massieu comes and sits with her. He waits until the guards are snoring, then drags his low wooden stool over to her cell and sits beside her in the darkness. Holds the bars with his big pink hands, gazes at her. Sometimes he reads from the Bible. Other times he sings, jokes, tries to make her laugh. Occasionally he grows daring, asks questions: "Is it true what they say? Are you a saint?"
Excerpted from The Maid by Kimberly Cutter. Copyright © 2011 by Kimberly Cutter. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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