Excerpt from The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Serpent's Tale

by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson

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Print Excerpt


"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.

 

 

ONE

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 grin.

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 rattle.

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 going?"

"To fetch Father Pol. I sent for him; he's waiting in the kitchen."

"No."

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 upstairs."

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 said—always 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.

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