Chapter 3: AscentEarly that morning, as Ileana rode her horse on the road towards Vallaya at a moderate canter, she passed Lucian’s coach galloping out of town. She waved to Lucian, who was seated in the back with Beniamin sitting opposite. He saw her and returned the wave before continuing the apparently heated diatribe he was engaged in. She watched him disappear as the coach drove on by in a cloud of dust.
Upon steering her horse into their stable in the back of Andrei’s apothecary shop, she left it with their groom and entered her and Andrei’s residence from the back. Andrei was, as expected, behind the counter of the apothecary shop, and she greeted him from behind with a warm hug and a kiss.
Ileana was a vigorous and energetic wife, some two decades Andrei’s junior, whom he’d been married to for several years now. Andrei had, for most of his life, considered himself to be an affirmed bachelor, wedded to his business, with no time for domestic cares. Ileana had been the one woman capable of persuading him otherwise. She had become his partner in love and in business.
Andrei asked her, after their greeting: “No troubles on the roads? Didn’t encounter any danger? And was it a lucrative trip?”
She shook her head at the first questions and nodded at the last.
“I really don’t like you risking your life on these dangerous roads. With all the thieves and highwaymen out there, a lone woman is vulnerable,” Andrei said.
“But we need to travel for our business and you have no skill with people,” she laughed, “If we put you on the road and had you negotiate with these people, our business would flounder.”
Even though she didn’t have the aptitude (or the stomach) for the messier parts of his business—namely the butchering of vampires and the preparation of the vampire medicines—she was an invaluable asset on the sales side of their operation. She had always been the better salesperson. With her insouciant frankness, her endless supply of conversation and her pleasing appearance she could forge an almost instant rapport with anyone. After only brief conversations, she could make a client feel like he was the most charming man she’d ever met, make him feel like it was his wit and charisma that was conniving her into a ridiculously generous discount, while she imperceptibly persuaded him to buy a few more units at the fantastic prices he was getting.
She told him some of the details of her trip. She’d made deliveries, contacted buyers, established new connections and so on. Then she said, “And when I was just arriving here, I saw Lucian heading out of here in a hurry with Beniamin.”
“Ah yes,” Andrei nodded, “He’s visiting all the nearby villages, in the hopes of selling them on his vampire peace accord. He’s an ambitious man and is probably looking to ride this treaty to a more prestigious appointment. The vampires have a fairly large hunting ground, so far as I know. That means he’s going to have to make a number of stops. He’ll probably be gone for weeks.” Andrei then explained what’d happened while she was away: Lucian’s discussion with the vampires, Vasile’s latest kill, and his own progress with processing it.
He ended by telling her about Vasile’s interest in an apprentice: “I’ve told everyone, and the word has spread. It’s now common knowledge in town, but, so far, no one’s expressed any interest. Maybe someone from a nearby town will hear of it and volunteer.”
“Who would want to take on such a job? What parent would want to let their child do it?” Ileana said, shaking her head, “We pay Vasile a generous ransom and he has a king’s hoard of gold stashed away, but when will he get to spend it? The job is dangerous. I don’t know how many vampire hunters have disappeared into the bellies of the vampires over the years. It can only be a matter of time before they finally get Vasile and whatever apprentice he takes on.”
“Nonetheless, someone will eventually step forward,” Andrei said, “The money’s just too tantalizing.”
“Do you want to bet?” Ileana asked, “I’ll bet you that he won’t get any takers. The winner gets an hour of involuntary servitude from the loser, redeemable for any task. I’ll give you a week before I can redeem my prize.”
“A month,” Andrei replied.
“Eighteen days!” Ileana conceded.
“You’re on,” Andrei replied.
“Though, for our sake, I really do hope I lose,” Ileana said, “Whatever it is that has kept Vasile alive for so long, he needs to teach it to someone before he’s dead.”
To both Ileana’s and Andrei astonishment it was before the end of that day that the bet was concluded in Andrei’s favor.
As the morning passed over into noon and Ileana reclined in her room, the shop received a visit from Anton, a boy in his late teens. He reached the front of the shop, approaching with caution and circumspection. The building stood in front of him, with its stone walls, the “Apothecary and Vampire Wares” sign swinging on its perch and the heavy front door, built of thick beams of wood and reinforced with iron to withstand the impact of any potential vampire invader. He knocked on the door of the shop, and Andrei opened it, recognizing Anton. He was a sturdy boy, inured to the hard physical labor of his father’s farm. When he entered, he wore the ragged clothes of a tenant farmer’s son and wiped the fresh dirt on his calloused hands off onto his shirt.
There was a well-dressed customer in the shop when Anton entered, and Anton sat down on one of the stuffed chairs, hiding his face. He waited for the man to leave before he approached Andrei.
“Can I help you Anton?” Andrei asked.
Anton leaned over the counter and said confidentially to Andrei, “I need to speak of something private with you.”
Andrei was a bit surprised, since he only knew Anton by face—not at all on a personal level—and had he never really talked with him. “We’re alone right now,” Andrei said, looking around, “You can tell me anything in complete confidence.”
After a deep breath and a quick look around to see if they truly were alone, Anton said, “I want to be Vasile’s apprentice. I’ve heard he needs one, and I’ve thought about it. I’m the best huntsman for a hundred leagues, and he’d be a damn fool to reject me.”
“He’ll be pleased to hear it,” Andrei said nodding with approval. “But why all the secrecy?” Anton didn’t answer the question, and Andrei suggested, “You want to keep this a secret from your father, don’t you? A hard man. Not the most understanding person.”
Anton nodded in agreement. Andrei cautioned, “You can’t keep this a secret forever, though. You’re going to be out every night with Vasile. Surely you don’t think you can sneak out and hunt every night and work during the day? You’ll need rest.”
“I never get tired,” Anton boasted, “Just ask Vasile if he’ll take me. If he says ‘yes’ then I can broach telling my father. If he says ‘no,’ then this will be a secret between you and me. Can you do that for me?”
“Easily and eagerly,” Andrei nodded. Anton then hastily said his goodbye and left the shop, hustling to return to his father’s farm.
After Anton was departed, Andrei yelled into the house so Ileana could hear him, gloating, “You were so wrong today! So very wrong! So, what work should I put you to, my little slave?”
That same morning, as light slowly entered the crypt via a small air vent high up on the wall, Madalina woke from an uncomfortable sleep with aches all over her body.
Almost immediately upon opening her eyes, she started to meditate on her situation. The dilemma was simple: if she refused to tell the sisters that she had left the monastery the night before, she would remain locked up for at least long enough that she wouldn’t be able to leave to meet with the vampire the night following; if she did tell them that she had left the monastery and how she’d done so, then they’d probably assure that that exit was closed to her permanently. The only choices that appeared were to claim that she’d left the monastery by some other means or to convincingly claim that she was hidden somewhere else that Sister Oana may have missed. Unfortunately, she didn’t know any other way to leave and return back into the monastery undetected at night and she knew of no hiding place that might have escaped Sister Oana’s detection.
In the middle of these meditations, the door from above was opened and a pair of feet walked down the stairs into the crypt. Madalina saw with delight that it was Sister Elisabeta. Elisabeta was Madalina’s favorite of all the Sisters. She was in fact all of the young novices’, and perhaps everyone’s, favorite monastic. Elisabeta was a young, beautiful woman, freshly blossomed into adulthood, who had taken the veil at a young age, had been tonsured when she was only eighteen and had now already lived for many years in monastic service. She was sweet and pleasant and took great pleasure in generosity and service.
Elisabeta smiled warmly as she opened the gate and placed a bowl of porridge and a bit of bread in front of Madalina, saying, “Here’s your breakfast Madalina.”
As Madalina ate, Elisabeta said, in her warm and delicate way, “You’ve been a very bad girl Madalina. And I’m afraid that, though God may forgive all things, Sister Oana does not.”
“So, does this mean, you’ll let me out?” Madalina asked.
“No, we can’t do that,” Elisabeta admitted with disappointment, “Sister Oana has talked to the Abbess, and she is as concerned as her that there may be something you’re hiding. I don’t know what they suspect, but it is serious. You could assuage their fears if you simply told us the truth, and we could let you out of this awful place. Why don’t you simply tell me what happened?”
Madalina nodded her head and said, “Alright Sister Elisabeta. I’ll tell you. Or, maybe you should go get Sister Oana, and while you’re away I’ll finish here. I’m terribly hungry.”
Sister Elisabeta was pleased to hear this. She smiled and lighted to her feet, saying, “I’ll leave you a few minutes, but I’ll be back with Sister Oana soon. Then we can get you out of here.”
Once Elisabeta left, Madalina doubled the intensity of her cogitations. She’d bought herself a few minutes, but she still didn’t know what to say. She sat on the floor with her head between her knees, in an attempt to concentrate her thinking, but her mind was stubbornly uncooperative as the minutes passed.
After an altogether insufficient amount of time, the sound of footsteps moving down the stairs could be heard. She looked up, and the two women in their black habits and apostolniks walked towards her.
Sister Elisabeta cheerily told Oana, “I’m sure this’ll end all suspicion.” Then she turned to Madalina, “Isn’t that right, dear?”
“Yes,” Madalina said, with her faux-innocent smile, “I’m rather embarrassed that I wasn’t more forthright from the beginning.” Madalina lowered her eyes and blushed with apparent sheepishness.
“What is it then?” Sister Oana asked, impatient and unaffected.
“Well, you see, Sister, it started about two or three weeks ago,” Madalina explained, “I started sneaking out at night when I discovered that I could watch the stars from the roof of the novitiate. The first time, I remember, was one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking of my dear parents and wondering about where they are and how they’re doing. I wanted to see the stars, and got the idea that the view would be phenomenal from the roof. So, I attempted the climb up there and discovered that it was truly beautiful. And so I did it a few more times when I was troubled at night.”
The mention of Madalina’s family made Sister Elisabeta’s brow furrow with sadness, “I never realized you thought about your family. I just assumed, since they left you here when you were so young and you never really knew them, that you wouldn’t concern yourself with them.”
“Yes,” Madalina admitted dolefully and again lowered her eyes sheepishly, “As for last night, I was also on the roof. I guess I may have passed out from fatigue because I didn’t really notice the passage of time and didn’t hear the call for Midnight Office.”
“Oh, my dear! I’m so glad you told us. I knew it was something quite innocent that had been blown out of proportion,” Sister Elisabeta said with pathos and sensitivity. She shifted to a sterner voice and added, “But you know we can’t allow you to do this or go unpunished. This is dangerous and it is against the rules to be out at night. We shall have to remind you that our rules are not to be treated lightly.”
Sister Oana though scrutinized Madalina’s face, imagining that perhaps, if she stared hard enough, she could find some twitch or movement therein that would give away the deceit. Sister Oana asked, “So, if you’ve climbed up on this roof several times, you must be quite adept, right? So you wouldn’t mind demonstrating for us how you performed this climb?”
“Certainly Not!” Sister Elisabeta burst out in shock, “She’s already risked herself enough! We don’t need her to risk breaking her neck one more time!”
Sister Oana silenced Elisabeta by raising her hand. “You’ve done it easily enough, some few times. You can do it again. It’ll prove you aren’t lying. I can’t just take you at your word. You’ve lied to me before.”
“I’ll swear by the bible, and by my faith in Jesus that I am telling the truth,” Madalina said.
“I won’t have you profaning the bible or your faith,” Sister Oana said, “Come now. This’ll prove it quite adequately.”
Sister Oana pulled Madalina up off the ground with two hands and led her up the stairs out of the crypt.
As they stepped out of the church, Madalina gazed across the courtyard at the novitiate and saw the task ahead of her. From where she stood, she could see why Sister Oana was having a hard time believing Madalina: ascending from her window to the roof would make for a difficult climb.
Madalina’s room was on the left side of the building, facing the wall. The roof of the novitiate was pitched, with the sloped edges on the left and right and a gable in the front. The edge of the roof had a slight overhang, which Madalina would have to reach from her window. It was too high to reach standing on the window’s ledge, which meant she would have to stand on top of something.
“Go find another Sister who’s not busy and I want you two to stand underneath the window’s ledge to catch her if she falls,” Sister Oana instructed, “Find a blanket or something and then you two can stretch it out below her. It’ll be just like catching fruit from a shaken tree. Alright?”
Sister Elisabeta nodded her head and walked in the direction of the nun’s quarters.
Madalina and Sister Oana entered the novitiate, walked down the hall and entered Madalina’s room.
Madalina’s roommates—Dorina, Mirela and Nicoleta—were in the room, reading and gossiping in turns. When they saw Sister Oana entering, they all abruptly ended their conversation and stood up, saying obediently, “Yes, Sister?”
“I don’t need your help at the moment girls,” Sister Oana said, “This concerns your roommate, Madalina. She’s going to demonstrate how she has been climbing out of her room onto the roof at night while you were asleep.”
The girls looked at each other surprised.
“You haven’t noticed, have you?” Sister Oana asked.
“We would always tell you if we saw anyone breaking any of the rules,” Mirela said, obediently.
“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t hide anything about Madalina,” Sister Oana said quietly to herself.
The girls looked at Madalina warily, but Madalina averted her eyes.
When the wall was built around the convent, in order to reduce costs, it was made with as small a circumference as possible and ended up being located so close as to almost touch several buildings of the convent. The novitiate was located so close to the wall that the view through all the windows on this side of the convent consisted solely of a close-up of the wall’s stones and mortar.
Sister Oana opened the window, pulling the two casements, which swung inwards toward her, and pushing the two shutters, which swung outwards, towards the wall. She looked out of it downward, waiting for Sister Elisabeta to arrive. Within a few minutes Sister Elisabeta and Sister Juliana arrived, holding a blanket. They stretched out the blanket and signaled to Sister Oana that they were ready.
Sister Oana told Madalina, “You may proceed,” gesturing for Madalina to step up to the window.
As Madalina stood up on the ledge, she looked down. The dirt ground, where Sisters Elisabeta and Juliana waited with their outstretched sheets, was some twelve palms below her. It was a fall she could safely make, but it was still intimidating for the small girl. When she had first tried to sneak out of the convent, she had opted against climbing out the window precisely because it was too high to climb back in that way.
Standing on the window’s ledge, Madalina stretched out her foot, which just reached the exterior wall, and she used the seem between the stones as a foothold to push herself up, so that she could place her other foot atop the shutter. With one foot on the wall and one foot on the shutter, she slowly extended herself, straightening her legs and standing up. She transferred all her weight to the shutter and balanced herself with her hands touching the wall and the novitiate. She quivered precariously as she stood. She had assumed that the shutter would hold her weight, but she could not be certain until she was fully extended and it was still attached. At that point, she could just reach the overhanging eave of the roof, but it was too much of a stretch to pull herself up entirely that way. So, she had to wedge her two feet between the wall of the novitiate and the exterior wall and slowly walk herself upward while pressing against these two walls. After several steps of this slow walk, she could finally pull her whole torso on top of the wood roof, and finally pull her legs up behind her.
She relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief at this completion. Her climb had been tentative and awkward, but she had proven her point and trusted that Sister Oana would finally drop her accusations.
She walked up the steep side of the pitched roof onto the other side where she lay down and looked up to the sky as if she were watching the stars. It was certainly not a comfortable place to lie and look up at stars nor a safe place to fall asleep, but it made her story seem plausible enough.
Sister Oana had already walked out into the courtyard and was looking at Madalina lying on the roof with suspicion. She was considering if it were possible that she could pass through the courtyard and not notice a person lying on the roof of the novitiate.
Madalina stood up and deliberated how to descend. The wall walk atop the wall was still above her and not easy to reach, and climbing down would be difficult and risky. She instead walked down to the edge of the roof, where she could see Sisters Elisabeta and Juliana still waiting. Deciding to take the leap, she dropped into the outstretched blanket, and the Sisters expertly cushioned her fall, such that she pillowed gently to the ground.
Sister Elisabeta hastily picked up Madalina off the ground and hugged her so tightly, saying, “Are you unhurt my dear? Oh, you frightened me dreadfully. I’m glad you’re not hurt.”
As they turned, though, they saw Sister Oana standing in the distance looking on.
“You’ve proven yourself then,” Sister Oana said, “But there’s still the issue of your punishment.”
Sister Oana led Madalina from the courtyard into the nun’s quarters. From the entrance, the hallways splayed out into two separate wings lined with the separate rooms of all the nuns. Between the two wings, a large outdoor garden of irises and plum trees was tucked away.
Sister Oana led Madalina down one of the halls and knocked on a door at the end. A weak, crackly voice called for them to enter, and they stepped into a spacious room. Two windows looked out onto the beautiful garden where sunlight flowed in, and the room was decorated with oil paintings and an Ottoman carpet. On one end was a bed where an aged woman, the abbess, sank deeply into a capacious and amply stuffed feather bed. She was beneath several sheets, topped by a colorful silk bedspread, and was dressed in the basic garb of a nun, with her black habit and apostolnik.
Madalina saw in the old abbess an aloof, pensive face, which looked distracted and absent-minded while it stared off into the distance. When Sister Oana shouted at the abbess, “Mother Alina?” the abbess seemed to only just notice that Sister Oana was there.
“Yes?” Abbess Alina said.
“This novice has a confession for you, to deliver personally,” Sister Oana explained.
“Oh?” Abbess Alina reacted with some surprise, “By all means.”
Sister Oana nudged Madalina forward and said, “Go ahead. Tell her.”
Madalina had only met the abbess a few times, delivering food to her occasionally and sometimes having to make other deliveries to the room. She had never seen her anywhere but in this room in this bed, and she always felt uncomfortable to be around the old woman.
Madalina spoke up: “Mother Abbess, I am afraid that I have been sneaking out of my room at night and climbing onto the roof of the novitiate to look at the stars.” Sister Oana cleared her throat. When Madalina looked behind her, the Sister was mouthing “and.” Madalina added, “And I lied to Sister Oana about this when she caught me out of my room.”
“Oh?” Abbess Alina asked again, “I should wonder how a little girl could get all the way up there. It must have been a long time since I was nimble enough to do such a climb, and I don’t know if I could’ve done it then.”
“What punishment would you recommend for her?” Sister Oana interjected.
“Oh, yes,” the abbess reacted, “What would you recommend Sister?”
“I think that she should be required to pray by reciting the Jesus and Lord’s prayers 100 times each, and then she should be required to sweep the courtyard and spend two nights in solitary confinement in the crypt.”
Madalina panicked when she heard Sister Oana suggest two nights in the crypt, since she had to meet the vampire tomorrow night. “Not another night in the crypt!” Madalina forcefully objected, “It’s cold and dark and scary down there. I’ve already spent a night down there.”
“Oh, I quite agree” the abbess replied with a nod, “I had to be put down there a few times when I was young. And I was always so frightened of ghosts in the shadows, not to mention how cold it is. Obviously, I and you both know, there’s nothing to be scared of down there, but young girls have such vivid imagination.”
“Are you sure Mother Alina?” Sister Oana asked with some emphasis on “sure.”
“It doesn’t seem so much, what she’s done,” the abbess said, “When I was a little girl you couldn’t imagine what trouble we got into. One time we snuck into the barn at night, and upon seeing the cows we realized we’d never tasted milk straight from the udders and&helip;”
“So then a hundred of each prayer, sweeping the courtyards and cleaning the church floors?” Sister Oana cut in.
“What’s that,” the abbess asked, somewhat confused.
“Is that alright Mother?” the Sister asked.
The abbess looked confused but abruptly answered, “Yes, yes. “I trust your judgment. Thank you.” And she smiled as if she hoped everyone would be satisfied with her decision.
“God bless you Mother,” Sister Oana bowed and retreated with Madalina.
“Bye, bye,” the abbess said, waiving and smiling pleasantly, clearly pleased to have company.
Once out in the hall, Sister Oana looked down at Madalina and said, “You heard the abbess. No time for dalliance. You have things to do.”
Madalina entered the church first and began to pray the Jesus Prayer, reciting, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” counting off each iteration with a small prayer rope. After completing that, she transitioned to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name&helip;” and so on, counting the iterations again with her prayer rope.
She worked through all of the morning and much of the afternoon on the cleaning, pausing only for the third and sixth hour services.
She was exhausted after she finished it all and collapsed into bed with sore arms and bruised knees. All she knew was that she needed to rest that evening since she would again be sneaking out to see the vampire the night after and it would require the full extent of her strength and acumen.