Here is a sample chapter of The Soldier's Cross, which I hope you will enjoy.
The wind ran along the muddy-grey banks of the river, kicking up those bits of snow that had not fully melted and flinging them into Fiona’s mouth. She paused to spit them out and squinted up at the black sky to catch the first scent of rain, and a slight mizzle began as she struggled onward again. It was not enough to be hampering and just enough to be vexing; she slapped her arms and rubbed them and blew into her palms as she walked, but still the colour sapped from her hands and left them a ghostly white, thinly veined in blue, and she could barely feel the presence of her chapped lips. Were those her own feet going up, down, up, and down on the turf in front of her? The only thing that she knew to be her own was her head, seated like a boulder upon her shoulders, and that she thought soon to fall off.
Night was coming on and the wind was picking up, though after having soaked through Fiona’s clothes to her skin, the rain stopped. There were no stars and no moon: only clouds. Soon the Marne River disappeared into the blackness on her right; she got down on her hands and knees and ventured toward where it ought to have been, reaching out blindly to feel the slippery embankment or the water itself, but somehow she had lost it. She sat for a little while in the snow, clutching her small, metal cross for fear the wind would take it, until she began to feel drowsy.
Getting back to her feet, she shuffled along—in circles, for all she knew—for minutes or hours, and her hands began to come into contact with hard, rough things in her way. It was some time before her cold-slowed mind and numb fingers realized that she was walking among trees and her heart, already in her belly, gave a despairing thump. She must have wandered far from the Marne; she was lost in a wood, and even with the morning light she was not likely to find her way back again.
Fiona stood still and gazed about her; overhead, above the branching, witch-like trees, there was a stretch of dark blue several shades lighter than the darkness around her and a pale quarter moon now floated in and out of the clouds. It did not illumine her surroundings, but only created a halo about itself and left the world below in gloom. The wind whistled around her, howling as it rushed between the oaks and yews and old, old elms; branches creaked and groaned like sailing ships. Now that she was not concentrating on the next step and keeping herself on the path, the night became frightening and full of evils that she would rather not face on her own. She kept on, her footsteps jarring her head and her already-aching shoulder.
The next moment—or perhaps it was the next hour, or the next but one—her body contacted cold stone. She had walked into a wall much taller than her head and which stretched out on either side of her, and when she began tremulously to feel her way down the length of it, her fingers digging into the cracks and the moss and taking comfort in the presence of something manmade, she found something iron. Upon further investigation she discovered it to be a gate, but beyond it, inside the stone walled enclosure, she could see nothing. On the right side of the gateway her hands encountered what felt like a short rope dangling from an outcropping of stone, just about at the level of her nose, and she tugged on it experimentally.
A loud clanging immediately began above her head and she released the rope, but to no purpose. It continued to swing and the bell sounded over and over; she shrank back against the wall, but did not run. She watched as candles flared within the courtyard and light seeped out from under the door that she saw in the big, stone building inside, and soon three women were crossing the enclosure and coming to greet her through the gate. “Good evening, traveler,” one smiled, as though it was nothing out of the ordinary to be called out of bed in the middle of the night to welcome a stranger. “Do you seek lodging here?”
“I—I—I—” stuttered Fiona through her blue lips, bewildered by the firelight in her face. “If it would not be too much trouble.”
“It is no trouble,” the nun assured her, swinging open the iron gate and reaching out to take Fiona’s arm. Fiona sucked in a breath as the grip broke the numbness and sent pain all up and down her right side in spider-webbed patterns; the nun drew her fingers back and looked at them, finding them sticky with blood. “Saints,” she murmured. “Come inside directly, my dear—what has happened to you? Come into the dining hall. Call Sister Marguerite, Annette, and quickly!”
Fiona was hurried into the convent and through a foyer and corridor to the narrow room that she took to be their dining hall. She had time to observe it as the nuns talked among themselves; it was decorated after the fashion of chapels, and Fiona felt the hundred pairs of eyes watching her from their lofty positions on the high walls as she came in. There was a great, black fireplace at the opposite end of the room as well, however, so she supposed this was not the sanctuary—or, if it was, it had not always been one.
Her guide seated her at a place close to the fire and called for another one of the sisters to light it. How warm it felt! Fiona thought she had never experienced such comfort, but the nun would not let her enjoy it in peace. She came and unfastened the pin that held Fiona’s wet cloak to her shoulders and took it off, showing the red zigzag on the girl’s right shoulder as well as her short, lopsided haircut. The nun gave another exclamation at that, and touched Fiona’s shorn head as if it were the most extraordinary phenomenon she had ever seen in her entire life, as well it might have been. “Well!” she said; it seemed the only thing she could think of to say.
After a moment she cleared her throat and returned to her brisk ordering of things, beginning to peel the cloth back from Fiona’s right shoulder as she spoke. “What happened here? Were you attacked?”
“Only that I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fiona replied ruefully, wincing at the woman’s touch. “I was caught in a kind of brawl. I do not think it is very bad.”
“No, the wound does not seem deep, but we will wait for Sister Marguerite before we decide. Here now, here comes Sister Catherine with some hot broth for you; you must be very hungry. How long have you been walking?”
Fiona could not clearly remember, but it seemed to her that this was the end of her first day. Time was not very important when one was concentrating on putting one foot after the other and thinking about how cold it was. She said so and the nun chuckled, setting the bowl of soup into Fiona’s frozen paws.
“What is your name, girl? I am Sister Elisabeth, but there are so many nuns here that it will be of no consequence if you forget about me. If you stay here for any length of time, you may come to know us all. But now, your name?”
“Fiona, ma’am. It’s very kind of you to take me in.”
Sister Elisabeth waved her off. “As I said, it is no trouble whatsoever. Drink up your broth before Marguerite returns. Ah, does your shoulder pain you?” She watched as Fiona flinched in raising the bowl to her lips, the girl’s hands shaking with exhaustion and a torrent of other sensations.
Fiona thrust her chin up and shook her head. “No, ma’am, I’m quite well. It’s nothing very much.”
“Well, here is Sister Marguerite now. Our guest has a wound in the shoulder, Marguerite; can you clean it?”
Marguerite was a thin, old woman, though still upright and with the appearance of a great deal of strength in her body. She did not touch Fiona’s wound at first, but only looked; presently she nodded. “Easily,” she said, clearly and shortly. “I will go and bring my things while you finish your supper.”
All the nuns but Elisabeth, Marguerite, and the young Annette, who seemed only necessary in that she fetched and carried what the older women wanted, left the room and returned to their beds. The other three worked at boiling herbs and binding them against the cut to prevent more bleeding, and though it stung, Fiona found that she could bear it without too much trial if she thought about the heat of the fire or the cold outside. They had just finished passing the bandage over her right shoulder and under her left arm for the last time and tying it off when another woman entered the room from a door half concealed on one side of the hearth; the nuns curtsied to her, and Fiona looked at her curiously. She was about Marguerite’s age, but neither as wrinkled nor as obviously strong; she was small, though not hunched, and only her eyes and the straight line of her mouth had any power in them.
“Who is this?” she asked, nodding to Fiona. Sister Elisabeth explained the situation as clearly as she knew it herself, and the Reverend Mother—for such Fiona took her to be—nodded. “Has her wound been treated, then? Good. You and Sister Marguerite may go back to bed now, but you should stay, Annette.”
The two older nuns obediently left, and Annette retired to a place farther down the table where she could listen but not be in the way. All became quiet for a long, long time and Fiona thought she would doze off before the woman spoke. At last the Reverend Mother looked straight at Fiona and asked mildly, “What is your purpose, my daughter, in walking through the night in the cold, and alone? You seem too young to be a woman of the world.”
Fiona felt a flicker of indignation, though her mind, which was working again after having been thawed, told her that it was a reasonable question. She looked into the fire and presently said, “I am not a woman of the world. But I would rather not tell anyone—just now—about my life. Please, let me stay and do not question me.”
The woman continued to look at her. Her mouth continued in its stern, immovable line for a minute, but at last it softened slightly and she nodded. “You may stay, my dear. I will not turn you out in the middle of winter. Perhaps in time you will be more willing.”
Fiona did not contradict; she was too tired. “May I go to bed now?” she asked.
“Yes, you may go to bed now. Annette, show her to a guest room.”
Annette stood and Fiona, stiff in every limb, did the same. She did not remember to thank the Reverend Mother, but the nun did not comment; she was watching the silver cross that swung from Fiona’s fist as she walked, thinking.
Fiona followed the nun, who she thought was about her own age underneath the starkly black and white dress, through several corridors to where the guest rooms were. She looked about her as Annette led her into one, commenting under her breath, “It seems more like a room at Gallandon than a convent bedchamber.”
“What was that?” Annette asked. “Did you say something?”
Fiona shook her head, dropping her gaze from the high ceiling again. “No. I was only thinking out loud.”
“Ah. Well, here is your room; I will leave you to yourself for now and you can think aloud all you like. Do you need anything? Good-night, then. I will wake you in the morning.” She went out and shut the door carefully, leaving Fiona warm, full, and alone. Crawling up into the high bed, which, she later noticed, was harder than it looked, the girl put her head down and was asleep in minutes—the cross still in her hand.
She awoke not much later, when it was still very dark and without the slightest appearance of lightening soon. She was very much alert, though, and from the quick pounding of her heart she knew it had been a bad dream that had awakened her; sitting up, she looked about at the block-shaped shadows in the room and wondered for a half second where she was and what had occurred to get her there. The necklace and cross reminded her and she sat back, somewhat more at ease, but still not ready to sleep again.
Presently she put her legs out of bed and stretched her feet to reach the floor, dropping onto it. The convent was still; she crossed to the door and opened it like a sneaking child, looking first one way and then the other down the hallway. Which way had she and Annette come? She forgot now, but turned hopefully to the left and walked along the corridor and past a dozen or more doors, all shut, on either side. After a great many twists and turns through the convent, too many to keep track of, she stumbled into a large, rectangular room that could be nothing but the sanctuary. The ceiling was rounded and smooth high overhead and there were archways to the right and left, separated by pillars with unlit candles mounted on each; there were windows up near the roof and one at the end of the room, letting in a little silvery light.
Hesitant lest someone catch her, Fiona took a few more steps down the middle of the room and paused. Nothing happened and no one appeared, for her footsteps were muffled by the carpet rolled down the aisle. She continued to one of the benches and sat down on it to rest and think, staring sightlessly before her and thinking, not about the chapel or the convent, but about the world outside and the little ornament she held. Then she stretched out on the wooden surface, cradled her head in her arm, and closed her eyes.