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Molly picked the last of the dirt from her shortened stubs of nails. They were red raw from scrubbing the cloisters, and she winced at the peeling skin. “God does not like filth!” Sister Francis had said, “And neither do I… especially not on our Lord’s day of birth!” She had looked down her nose at Molly and the other orphan holding the bucket of almost freezing water. Molly was unsure what disgusted the sister more – the dirt on the flagged floor, or having to waste the abbey’s scarce food supply on her and the other girls.
They were finished now, and had been allowed to clean up with more cold water from the well. When the sisters hadn't been looking she'd dropped a large stone from a collapsed cornice to shatter the ice. The top of the well had been frozen that morning, just like it had for the last month.
The low afternoon sun hung just above the horizon, its cool rays glinting off the seemingly permanent frost of the hibernating gardens. She looked around with a half smile. It was a peaceful little place, and she wondered if she’d ever see it again… for it wouldn’t be long now…
The other girl stood nearby, shivering in her thin robes. “Are you finished Agnes?” Molly asked of her.
Agnes dipped her head, placing her fingers beneath her armpits in an effort to keep warm. She didn’t talk much, and hadn’t since the death of their friend Theresa… which it was forbidden to talk of.
“She’s in the arms of the angels now,” Sister Francis had said. Which was a good thing, Molly reckoned, because in life she’d been in the arms of the devil.
In the cellar, her body lifeless, Molly had seen the black blood from Theresa’s torn anus, seen the misshapen swellings of her broken face, and she knew exactly who had put her there… But it was nearly time to end all of this…
“Will we go to Hell?” Agnes asked meekly.
Molly looked the younger girl over. It was the first thing she’d said all day. “You think it could be worse than here?”
“You could have left at any time…”
That was true. The abbey was hardly a prison. Over the walls and away. She’d lived on the streets before. She’d known hunger and cruelty without the sisters creating more of it. So what was keeping her?
Sister Francis was always telling them how lucky they were to have been given a second chance in the abbey, as if it was the orphans’ wicked sins that had led to their parents’ deaths. In summer she’d sort of believed it. Her belly full of rich broth, working the gardens, singing out loud in a tongue she didn’t know. She had almost felt like she belonged…
But now it was winter. Food was hard to come by, the weather was cold, and after the murder of their fellow, Molly didn’t quite feel so lucky. Staring at Theresa’s abused body had strengthened her resolve though. She couldn’t let those responsible repeat the evil act…
The bells began to ring, summoning them to evening prayer. They both attended with the other orphans and sisters. Their guest, Bishop Micheal, led the Christmas service, with the Abbess beside him in attendance.
Molly didn’t hear his words, she only saw him standing on the steps above them, thinking he was the master of them all – thinking that he was their god!
A few times she thought she saw his wide eyes looking over the orphans hungrily. Had the same eyes feasted on Theresa’s flesh before he’d committed those unspeakable deeds?
After was the Christmas feast. As usual the orphans sat at the crooked table furthest away from the small warmth of a peat fire in the open hearth. Their little wooden bowls held the thin gravy it usually did – they’d be lucky to have any morsels of meat. It was not as though the sisters fared much better, not in these times, but at least they had barley bread and cups of ale.
Half a boiled cockerel – their best food – stood proudly in Bishop Micheal’s bowl, but the man still picked at it ungratefully, wiping his greasy fingers on his robes between tearing the stringy flesh apart.
“He makes me sick,” Veronica scowled, “how long now Molly?”
“Shush,” Molly glared in her direction, and aimed a kick for her fellow orphan’s shin, “we aren’t talking about it. Look away and don’t draw attention to anything.”
As the small barrel of ale was tapped at the high table, Molly tried really hard not to watch. It had been given by one of the pilgrims– a potent herbal brew for Christmas, aged for several years.
Molly had sampled some earlier that week after carefully removing the shive. Despite the aging it still had the sour twang of a young ale. She detected the familiar notes of yarrow, mugwort, and other brewing herbs in its smell and flavour – all strong enough to mask an addition of her own choosing…
“They are drinking—” Veronica started.
“Shush!” Molly growled again.
But it was true, they were drinking the dark liquid. Bishop Micheal had already downed his first cup and was asking one of the orphans on serving duty for more.
Usually serving the tables was an honour that allowed the subtle snatching of a gulp of wine or something stronger, or a broken crust of bread to be stashed away on their person. Molly had ensured that all of the orphans knew not to drink the ale though… She hoped they would keep their mouths shut a lot firmer than Veronica apparently could.
How long now, Veronica had asked, but truthfully Molly didn’t know. She supposed it would depend on the concentration, on the amount taken, and perhaps the size of the person. She looked up at the Bishop. He was a large man.
He caught her looking, pausing with the cup halfway to his grease-dripping lips. He winked.
With a disgusted shiver she turned back to her bowl of thin gravy.
It seemed to take an age before their poor Christmas feast finished, and the orphan girls were allowed to take the used crockery to begin the evening tasks of cleaning, and making the refectory ready for the morning breaking of fast. As of yet, no one had clutched their stomach, no one had coughed up blood, and no one had fallen dead. She could see the nervousness in the other orphans’ eyes. Perhaps they doubted her. Perhaps she doubted herself…
If there was one thing her mother had known, it had been plants. Molly liked to think she had listened well. She had recognised the dropwort growing by the stream – one foot always in water – just like her mother had said. The leaves could be used in moderation to ease pain in childbirth, but just a few spoons of the juice from the stem was enough to kill someone. For a month she had carefully collected it at night, pressing the stems between smooth stones, and filling a stone jar with the slick liquid.
“Margaret!” Sister Francis called into the kitchens.
Molly jumped, at first thinking she had been found out. Had one of the orphans said about the ale?
“Margaret!” Sister Francis repeated, pushing Agnes out of the way. “Follow me girl!”
Molly did as she was told, following the sister through the cloisters. Had she missed a patch of dirt perhaps?
Sister Francis stopped abruptly, and thrust her hand onto Molly’s chin. “Let’s have a look at you!” She twisted Molly’s head sharply side to side, scrutinising her features. She spat onto her sleeve, and scrubbed viciously at a spot on her left cheek. “Hmm… you’ll do.”
Do for what? Molly wanted to say, but she knew better than to ask questions of Sister Francis.
“The bishop has requested your attendance, to pray with him. Isn’t that wonderful? He even has charity for a wretched girl like you on our saviour’s day of birth. His Lordship is truly a pious man…”
Molly felt the blood drain from her face. How long would the poison take? Should she turn and run now?
“Now Margaret. I suggest you do everything his Lordship asks of you… we don’t want another unfortunate accident like Theresa do we?”
Molly gave the sister a dark look. The mention of her dead friend strengthened her resolve. She would see this through to the end. She would watch them die, and then she’d be on the road.
The door to Bishop Micheal’s rooms was opened. A figure in the flickering candlelight turned towards them. “Put her there sister,” Bishop Micheal clicked, “and leave us alone.”
Sister Francis shoved her forcefully from the lower back. Molly couldn’t help but feel like an animal sacrifice from the Old Testament. Before she could protest, or turn and run, the door was closed.
From the looming shadows the fat man closed on her. “I saw you looking at me at dinner girl… but it’s only natural, a poor little thing like you… and a powerful man like me.”
Molly said nothing. Soon his large greasy fingers were stroking at the loose strands of miscoloured hair she had been born with.
She could feel his breath on her face, and through the ale and chicken she thought she detected the faintest whiff of bitter dropwort.
“That feast was bloody dismal… don’t you think girl? Come… share a cup with me, have some real meat.”
His hand lay on her shoulder, and he directed her through to his sleeping chamber. Between two guttering candles was a plate of dried sausage, a thin knife poking through its flesh, and a large pitcher of ale… her ale. “Sit down girl.”
It wasn’t like she had much choice, he forced her onto the bed. She watched as he sliced a wedge of sausage, stuffed it into his mouth, and washed it down with a glug of ale. He refilled the cup, pressing it into her hands. “Drink. You are my guest.”
“No-no thank you Lord.”
“Nonsense!” The bishop’s face turned almost animalistic, “I said drink, so you’ll damn well drink!”
She hesitantly raised the cup to her lips and pretended to sip.
“More,” Bishop Micheal said, looking her over hungrily.
She repeated the motion, but he remained unconvinced. With a lunge he opened her mouth, tipping the cup down her gullet.
“No!” She spluttered, coughing some down her chin, but she felt far too much of the sour ale flow down her throat.
The bishop laughed at her protest, and when she struggled more, he slapped her about the face. The heavy gold rings on his fingers struck her high cheekbone, and she was sure her flesh split open.
He grabbed hold of her face again, bearing down upon her. “Listen carefully. When an important godly man decides to offer you something, you take it. Do you understand?”
Despite his clutch, she managed to mumble a yes. She couldn’t help but wonder if he had treated Theresa the same… Her poor body had been broken so…
“Now, let’s try again shall we? Christmas is about being pious… So on your knees girl.”
Once more she had no option, his fat hands dragged her from the bed, crashing her knees painfully upon the straw-covered flagged floor. She winced at the sting, regretting that she hadn’t decided to run. What had possessed her to think she could resist the evils of this beast before her?
He was fumbling with his robes now, holding her head back. “You little sinning whore, open up for God’s mercy!”
She would take it… she would take it all, she would be pliant and let him use her, and after, she would walk away free, and he would no doubt be dead.
One last evil she would take from the abbey, one last test before the end…
Bishop Micheal reeled forward suddenly, and no longer fumbling for his robes, he reached for his stomach instead. His face screwed up in sudden pain. “That’s the bloody cockerel… God awful food.” His eyes flashed at Molly, “You, you little whore, wait right there!” He stumbled around the chamber for his bedpan.
At last… it had started. “Are you well your Lordship?” She asked with all the innocence she could muster.
“Well enough to give you a good—” He paused, retching several times into the bedpan. “Holy Mary,” he spat, wiping vomit on his long sleeve. He clutched for his belly again, writhing on the spot. “Girl, pass the ale!”
She stood slowly, filling the cup from the pitcher.
With three steps she was offering him his wish. He snatched it from her hands, downing it in one.
“What?” He looked confused for a moment, but then he stood to his full height, towering over her. “I’ll wipe that from your face.”
He came closer, and still smiling, she held out her hand to intercept him. The thin knife that had been next to the sausage pierced his ecclesiastical robes, puncturing his gut.
“Fuck!” He cried, stumbling backwards, clutching for his belly again.
With barely a pause she struck again – two, three, four times – each in different parts of his body. He collapsed, squealing like a hog about to be slaughtered.
She stopped, watching as he tried to stand, tried to ward her off, but fell pathetically to the stone floor instead. “Fuck…” he kept mumbling, just as dark blood began to bubble from his mouth.
“I wonder what will kill you first,” she said coldly, “the stabbings, or the poison. It will be interesting to find out, don’t you agree?”
“Fucking little devil’s whore!” He cried, spitting more blood.
She watched curiously. There was no fight left in the man. She had expected him to lash out more, to try inflicting some pain, but he just curled up into a ball, holding his wounds, his face twisted in agony, and he started to cry.
The bells were ringing now too. No doubt the others had started to die, or show the early symptoms of sickness.
“Please!” he said between his cries.
“Did Theresa ask you please as well your Lordship? Did she beg you to stop?”
At her words he started to pray instead.
“Oh no, there’ll be no last rites for you.” She strode forward, and with a swift cut, slashed at his already bloody mouth.
His prayer turned into a pitiful scream.
It was time to leave.
Firstly she induced her own vomiting to lessen the effects of the poison. She hoped it would be enough, and then she hauled the door open to the rest of the abbey.
Agnes was waiting for her in the very cloisters they’d scrubbed that morning. “They are dying! They are all dying!”
Molly nodded her head. “Are you ready?”
“I am,” Agnes said, handing her a satchel of their few belongings, “but the sisters – they are all grinning too.”
“They do that, just before they die… it’s the poison. Are the others ready?”
“Most have gone, or are sat watching Sister Francis cough up blood. Do you want to watch with them?”
“No,” Molly frowned. She had never killed anyone before, but now she was the murderer of a whole abbey and a high-ranking bishop. There would be survivors no doubt, and when the truth was found out, she planned to be far away. “It’s time to leave Agnes, it’s time to leave right now.”
Agnes seemed to hesitate before nodding in agreement. Molly took her by the hand, and together they crossed the frozen gardens to the gap in the wall. They paused once, looking back at the stone abbey, listening to the screams of pain from the various chambers, and finally to the small graveyard nearby where their friend Theresa was buried.
Someone had once said Christmas was about giving, and she liked to think she’d given Theresa the best gift she could.
As Molly’s story came to an end, Jacob felt a flush of adoration for her. What she had done in her youth scared him, but she’d been through such a lot, how could he blame her? And how could he even begin to compare the love of his mother, her wonderful cooking, their little cottage on the Campbell’s estate, to Molly’s displaced world of being a desperate orphan? No wonder she’d fallen so easily into this life of piracy.
He wanted nothing more than to reach out for her, to touch her creamy Irish flesh… They shared a soft look, and he was about to say something. Anything meaningful.
“And that is why you can’t trust a woman to do the cooking!” Roy declared, placing the plantain and spiced fish onto a large palm leaf. “Now come on, eat up – it’s Christmas!”
They each laughed at the poor joke from their one-legged cook. They ate the meal he’d prepared, and carried on passing the rum around until it was empty. No one spoke much; probably they were all contemplating each other’s words.
It was night now. The Caribbean sun had long ago melted below the horizon, and the bright lights of a thousand stars glittered in the sky.
When they finished, Roy suggested Molly help him go for a walk. She eagerly agreed, linking arms, and promising him a Christmas gift to remember.
It wasn’t long before Jacob could hear her squeals of lovemaking just beyond their firelight, much to the amusement and cheering to some of the other buccaneers from one of the other fires nearby.
“Go on Molly!” A buccaneer cried out, having recognised her cries of pleasure.
Jacob felt a pang of longing for Molly himself, and a jealous frown must have covered his face.
“You and bloody women,” his cousin Bart gave a rare smile.
“I don’t know what you are on about matey,” Jacob forced a grin to his face.
“Aye, if you say so…”
They were quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of the fire, and the more excited noises from Molly and Roy.
Jacob lay back on the sands, staring at the stars above. Some were streaking across the sky, leaving a fiery trail of orange and white.
Christmas. What was Christmas about but sharing stories around the warmth of the fire, about good company, and good food?
Roy, Bart, and Molly he trusted with his life, and Roy could always be counted upon to knock up a feast despite the scarcity of good ingredients.
Somewhere nearby a few buccaneers began a chorus of the Three Ships carol, which was aptly chosen given their three pirate sloops in the gentle coral bay below.
It was an unusual Christmas, but in many ways, it was a Christmas like any other… And even though he was jealous of Molly’s activities, he couldn’t help but grin genuinely to the sky above. He couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be… “Bart?”
“Jacob?” His cousin stirred from the other side of the fire.
“Merry Christmas Bart.”
“Merry Christmas Jacob.”
Thanks for reading the final part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it, because I really enjoyed writing it.
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This work was written primarily as a result of the fantastic Google+ group SaturdayScenes. Look for the work of new and exciting authors every weekend under that hashtag.
If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NEST, GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...