A/N: My entry for the 2006 National Novel Writing Month. Honest feedback appreciated.
The seasons were changing. Leaves were giving their last valiant displays of color before falling to the ground. Ducks and geese were making their plans to fly south. Even a bright shining sun could not get rid of the cold chill in the air.
Inside the Convent of the Terra Forest, the sisters were making their preparations for the coming winter months: fruits and vegetables were being canned for storage, provisions were being stocked for the small flock of hens they kept, blankets were being taken out of closets and chests so the moth damage could be assessed and repaired. As the amount of daylight became less and less, the candles that went mostly unused during the summer were being relit.
For the novices of the order, the winter months were the busiest for this was the time when the nomadic families of the area would take their flocks south to feed. It had a long been a tradition that children were not to travel south with their families if they had not yet reached their fifteenth year. Thus, these younger children were sheltered in the convent until their families returned in the spring. And it was the responsibility of the novices to care for these children. A few of the novices and sisters themselves had been part of nomadic families but chosen a stationary lifestyle in the convent. It was a peaceful existence.
On a particularly chilly October morning, just after morning devotions and silent prayer, the first children began to arrive. The Reverend Mother had designated two of the more playful novices to look after the children as three of the novices assisted families with getting their children settled in the nursery. Another two novices were there to accept the donations from the families to the convent; there were gifts of goat cheese and fresh milk, wool and furs, as well as presents for the children to receive later in the year. Because she knew her novices so well, the Reverend Mother had been sure to place one particularly quiet novice, Grace, in the pantry to take stock of the larder from the families. Grace, a young woman in her early twenties, had been at the convent for over a year but observed her vow of silence long past the required three month period. And though the sisters and other novices made every effort to include her in the various activities of the convent, she still remained isolated a majority of the time by choice. The Reverend Mother simply waited with the utmost patience knowing that, when she was ready, Grace would join the order. Her devotion was absolute.
It was while Grace was in the pantry that a child arrived without his family. This was most unusual. The boy appeared to be thirteen or fourteen years of age. He came bearing his own satchel of clothing as well as several sprigs of dried herbs. He said nothing in response to the sisters' greetings but merely entered the convent and walked straight to the nursery. There, he selected a cot in the corner right next to the window overlooking the garden behind the convent. He sat on the cot facing the window as if it was all he had ever wanted to concentrate on. A few of the novices approached him to try and engage him in the activities with the other children but their administrations were ignored. Eventually Sister Ann, after being alerted of his unresponsiveness, approached the boy to inquire after his name and family, but her questions fell on deaf ears. She took the herbs, which had been on top of the boy's satchel, and instructed the novices to just let him alone until he felt ready to communicate with them.
Meanwhile, the boy's gift of dried herbs made its way down to the pantry by way of a novice named Teresa. Grace was sitting at a small table sharpening the quill she used to record the gifts in a small book as she entered. "We just received these herbs, though I am not sure what they are." Teresa said to her. Grace looked up from her quill as the herbs were placed on the table before her. She glanced at the herbs quickly before giving a brief nod to Teresa in acknowledgment of the donation and returning to the quill sharpening. But it was after Teresa turned her back to leave that she heard a sharp gasp from behind her. Turning back, she found Grace trying to stop the bleeding from the cut on her finger, which had made contact with the small penknife. She tried her best to keep the blood from dripping onto the record book and her clothing but, in the process, a few drops fell on the dried herbs. "Are you hurt badly?" Teresa asked as she approached the table again. The only response she got was a headshake as Grace rushed from the room. Knowing that following Grace would not assist her in any way, Teresa carefully picked up the bloodied sprigs of the mysterious herb. She took them outside to the garden and tossed them over the back wall. Unbeknownst to her, the silent boy on his cot near the window saw her actions.
Later that evening, the sisters, novices, and children gathered for supper. The Reverend Mother sat at the head of the table as the children were ushered to their seats by the novices. When everyone was seated, with a novice near every child to help them eat, the Reverend Mother began grace. "O Heavenly Father, look down on us, your humble servants, with the," Everyone distinctly heard the slurp of soup. One of the children, the silent boy, had begun to eat before the prayer was finished! The Reverend Mother, a generally kind and gentle woman, gave the boy a stern glare as she cleared her throat. But he continued to eat! The novice nearest the boy reached over to remove his bowl of soup but he hit her hand with his spoon and continued to eat. Appalled by such rude behaviour, the Reverend Mother asked that one of the novices return with the boy to the nursery. When none volunteered, she selected the novice who was not sitting next to any of the children: Grace. Grace stood from her place and circled around the table to the boy. Surprisingly enough, the boy sat perfectly still and allowed her to remove the spoon from his hand, wipe away the soup that had dribbled down his chin, then take his hand and lead him out of the room. An incredulous look passed between the Reverend Mother and Sister Ann.
The walk back to the nursery was a silent one. The halls were quiet and dimly lit by flickering candles. Arriving at the nursery, Grace found that all the candles had been extinguished. She released the boy's hand and returned to the hallway for a lit candle. Upon reentering the room, she found the boy standing at the window near his cot staring out into the darkness. Grace lit the several candles around the room before returning the original candle to the hallway. She then went to sit on a cot near the boy. After several moments, the boy broke his gaze with the darkness outside and turned to face her. Grace could barely contain a shudder as she saw that the pupils of his eyes had grown very large. But within a few seconds, they had returned to normal size. His irises were pale gray in color. They examined each other in the intense silence. Grace's gaze softened as a single tear rolled down the boy's cheek. She stood and enveloped him in a hug. And he hugged her back. She could feel him shaking as his tears flowed freely. A small sigh escaped her lips. They stayed there until the boy's cries slowed to quiet sniffs. When he finally pulled away, the front of her dress was slightly damp from his tears. "My name is Shea." he said quietly, wiping his eyes and nose with the back of his sleeve. Grace simply nodded her head. "You're not like any of the other novices." he observed. Grace sadly shook her head. "Do you talk?" In response to this, Grace removed a small leather bound book from her pocket, opened it to a page, and pointed to the only word there. It said No. "Can you talk?" was the boy's next question. Again, Grace turned a page in her book and pointed to another word. Yes. "Why don't you talk?" But Grace just closed her book and shook her head. "I don't talk very much either." Grace nodded. "I was supposed to have traveled with my family to the south this year. I become fifteen in two days." Grace gave him a puzzled look. "We've had some problems recently: My mother died." The boy was once again gazing out into the darkness, frowning intensely. "It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Had she been alive, my father would have been proud to take me with him. But as it was, he thought me too much of a baby to accompany him and my older brothers. I am the youngest." Shea kicked out angrily at the cot. Grace gave him a few moments to regain his composure. "Your name is Grace?" he asked, sitting on the cot. She nodded. "Are you from this area? Did you grow up here?" She shook her head. "Where are you from?" Again, Grace just shook her head. It seemed that, each time he approached a personal question, she would become less responsive and more elusive in her quiet ways. "I don't want to stay here, Grace. As soon as I get the chance, I am going to leave and follow my family south." She gave him a concerned look. "It will be fine; I know exactly where they are going. And I can travel much faster by myself than they can travel in a group. I will catch up with them quickly." This talk of leaving the convent and traveling alone frightened Grace. The land was not safe for one so young. Things of great evil lurked in the forests to the south, the type of things you would use to scare a child into going to bed at night. The growling of Shea's stomach interrupted her thoughts. He looked sheepishly down at the floor. "My father is not a good cook. I have not had a good meal for weeks." Grace gave him a small smile and held up an index finger, the one she had cut earlier, to indicate that he should wait. She left the nursery and returned to the kitchen.
No one was present since the rest of the sisters were still eating their supper with the children. She looked around quickly for any portable food. A wedge of cheese had been left on one of the wooden tables as well as a basket of small rolls. Grace carefully sliced off a hunk of the cheese then wrapped it and two of the rolls in a cloth. She placed the small bundle in her inner pocket and returned to the nursery.
Shea was, once again, standing at the window, his hands clasped behind his back. Upon hearing Grace enter, he turned and gratefully accepted the small bundle of food. She watched him as he sat on the cot eating his meager rations. It wasn't until he had finished half the cheese and one of the rolls that he said, "Do you know what happened to the herbs I brought with me?" Grace nodded. "Will I get them back?" Grace pulled her small book from her pocket, opened to a page and pointed to a word. Why? "My father told me to always keep them with me. I didn't notice when that nun took them earlier and now I want them back." Grace furrowed her brow. "I saw one of the other novices toss something over the back garden wall. It may have been my herbs." All Grace could do was shrug. She remembered that some blood had dripped onto them when she had cut her finger before. She held up her injured finger, pointing at the cut which had since sealed slightly. "What did you do to your finger?" She made a gesture to show how she had cut it. She then illustrated that the blood had dripped onto his herbs. Somehow her crude signed language got the point across. "Do you think the novice threw them all away?" his voice was tense. Again, Grace shrugged. His food forgotten, Shea stood, "I need to find out." He began to walk towards the door but Grace stood in his way shaking her head. "I need to find out where my herbs are!" he demanded. Secretly, Grace was used to such displays of anger and she firmly stood her ground. Knowing that there was no way he could possibly think of hurting this kind girl, Shea stomped his foot in frustration. "Why won't you just let me go check?" he pleaded. But Grace just shook her head with a sincere look of concern on her face. It was at that moment that they both heard the sounds of the children returning from their supper to get into bed. Grace quickly rewrapped the leftover food and placed inside Shea's satchel. Shea went back to standing at the window observing the darkness. As the children entered the room with the other novices, Grace was just beginning to turn down the bed sheets on the little cots. There was a slightly longer cot placed at the end of one of the rows near the door for a novice to use. They would take turns sleeping there so the children weren't alone should they need anything.
It took a considerable amount of time to get all the children settled in their beds. No sooner had all of the children gotten into bed; two of them realized that they needed to go to the bathroom, another wanted a drink of water, and yet another said she couldn't sleep because she needed her parents to tuck her in. After the two had gone to the bathroom, and the one had their drink of water, and the novices had Sister Ann come speak to the little girl about her parents traveling south, everyone was ready to fall asleep. Because the novices were taking turns sleeping in the nursery, Teresa had been assigned the first three nights. When all the children were in their beds and all the candles but one had been extinguished, Teresa was just beginning to drift off to sleep when she heard the soft padding of feet across the floor. Opening her eyes to the very dim room, she saw the boy that had been excused from dinner making his way across the room to the door. Sitting up in her bed, she whispered quietly, "Where are you going?" Shea stopped in the darkness, the anguish of being caught written all over his face. "I…" his voice faltered. "Back to bed with you. There'll be no wandering around in the night." Shea turned back to his cot, defeated in his attempt to retrieve his precious herbs from the outside. He lay on his cot gazing dejectedly out the window until sleep came.