Emily clutched her shawl tight around her shoulders and shivered. The cold stare of the high castle walls enticed her flesh to ripple and crawl across her body, as if the grey stones were making direct contact with her tender skin. She stepped lightly into the corridor of the great hall, her coat having just been taken by a silent nun who retreated into the dark depths of the unseen cloakroom. Emily, a meek girl of seventeen from the Sussex village of Dorset, was cautiously anxious as she stood in the vestibule of St. Agatha's. She had traveled nigh three days to arrive at the correct time today, and she didn't want to displease Mother Superior by showing a tendency for tardiness. Although Emily was quite happy serving as a milk maid on her family's little farm in Dorset, her father was adamant that his youngest daughter pursue a life of holy repose at the convent near the coast. Emily, never one to question the wishes of her father, had immediately agreed to the decision. And here she was on this cool November morning in a strange ancient cathedral, awaiting the approval of Mother Superior.
The silent nun reappeared and motioned for Emily to follow her through an archway, across a courtyard, and into the convent that sat adjacent to the towering cathedral. This stone structure seemed even colder than the previous. Now without her coat, Emily felt the chill penetrate her every pore. Her nipples began to show through the white cotton of her dress that clung snuggly to her bosom. She blushed deeply and crossed her arms in front of her chest, hoping that Mother Superior would not see such an impure sight on an innocent little farm girl.
She was led into a small chapel where the nun motioned for her to sit on one of the stiff wooden pews. The nun, silent to his point, spoke her first and only words to the girl--"Mother Superior will see you shortly"--before disappearing once again into the dark recesses of the building. Emily sat patiently for a few minutes, rubbing her goosebump-covered flesh in a vain effort to warm her body. After a few moments, the sharp voice of a woman startled her.
Emily turned to see a tall, pale nun standing deep in the shadows of the chapel. The woman stepped forward, gliding like an apparition between the pews. Her face was expressionless; her voice, flat.
"You've traveled a long way, yes?"
Emily found her voice and replied meekly, "Yes, ma'am."
"You must be tired. Have you no satchel?"
"No ma'am. Father said I should bring only the clothes on my back."
"Good. We have robes for you. I'm sure you're anxious to get to your living quarters." For the first time it struck Emily that she would be LIVING in this building. She had no clothes, no possessions, no friends, and no family. Her closest relatives were a three days journey away. "I have a surprise for you, Missy," Mother Superior continued. Emily did not like being called "Missy," but what choice did she have?
"Yes, Mother Superior?"
"Abbot Helmfrey, our parish's envoy to the Archbishop, has just arrived last night from Devonshire. We told him of the arrival of our new lay sister and he insisted that he greet you upon your arrival."
"Oh, that's very nice of him."
"It is a rare treat, my dear. The abbot is a very important man. I will take you to see him immediately. Please follow me."
Emily was really in no position to resist. She wanted desperately to go to her quarters, change, and bathe. She was weary from travel. However, this was a minor inconvenience. What could be the harm?
She followed Mother Superior through another stone archway and up a torch-lit, winding stairway to the tower of the convent. The stairway ended in a short hall with a single door.
The Abbess stopped and turned to face the girl. "Through that door, Missy."
Emily stepped forward and placed her hand on the cool wooden door. She thought of knocking, turned to ask the Abbess, and was surprised to see only a dark passageway behind her. Emily's little heart raced as she tried to decide whether or not to knock. The Abbess had said she was expected...so she took and deep breath and pushed open the door. A warm blast of stale air struck her face. The room was lit by a flicking fire, giving the stone room a surreal orange glow. At the far and of the room sat a stout, silent monk. He was hunched over a manuscript, writing furiously amid the flicking fire and candlelight.
The monk continued writing as if he did not hear her.
"Abott Helmfrey?" she said hesitantly. "I'm Em--"
"Step forward," he commanded, still hunched over his manuscript.