Hrenna did not trust herself to steal the black vestments in advance. The women’s coarse white gowns offered no place to conceal the dark bulk of the priests robes. She would have been found out. So she had no choice but to wait until the last possible moment, after the priests left the vestry, dowsing the wax candles as they went, to slip into the dark on silent bare feet and snatch one.
Quietly she padded down the stone-flagged halls, sticking to the shadows, as the Vatr Heorot put the lights and checked the dormitories. The Sweostren should all be dressed for bed, kneeling at their wooden mattresses in prayer. There were dire penalties for any who were not.
Hrenna’s safety in the shadows, then, was temporary. Sooner or later Vatr Heorot would come to her dormitory and find her missing. She had to get past him.
Hrenna turned down a passage and hurried to the refectory, now black and silent. The north door led to the convent’s only warm room, reserved for Ecclesian High Priests. This was the one room that was never dark and never empty. She avoided it.
Instead, she exited through the west door, sheen a passage leading to the male dormitories. This path was almost as dangerous as the warm room. Contact between male and female acolytes was forbidden. Only High Priests had access to the sisters. But the parallel passage through the male dorms would lead, eventually, to another perpendicular hall connecting the two wings of the convent, but further up, allowing her to sneak back into her dorm before Vatr Heorot reached it.
There were two dangers with this plan. The first was that the male dorm inspection might be late or slow: the hallway might still be lit, or she could run right into the priest inspecting it.
The second danger was that the rest of the hallway leading to the Sweostor dorms would still be lit. She would have to wait for Vatr Heorot to enter a room to inspect it, then sprint to her own dorm, hide the robes, undress, and assume the prayer position.
If any of the sisters who shared her room informed on her, she would be dead.
She crept down the passage and peaked around the corner. Fate smiled on her: the hall was completely dark. The inspection of the male wing was over.
She was tempted to run, but could not risk the sound her feet would make. Finally she reached the end of the hall and peaked around another corner. Dark as well. Only one more stroke of luck required.
She peaked into the hall that led to her dorm.
The good news was that Vatr Heorot had not reached her room. The bad news was that he saw her peaking around the corner.
That is, he saw *someone* peaking. Hrenna pulled her head back with almost preternatural speed. Even the near-black brown of her hair, so unusual for a Norguma, was not clear enough to give her away.
Nonetheless, Vatr Heorot was now thumping down the hall towards her. There was no way she could double back and make it through the rectory and to her room before he caught up with her or raised the alarm. Nor could she kill him, not unarmed, not without making enough noise to wake the whole convent. And Heorot was not a particularly cruel priest, though she did not trust him to be reasonable at a time like this.
Thump-thump-thump-thump: his quick steps getting nearer. She looked up: the wooden candelabrum, its wax cylinders extinguished. She clutched the black robes to her and jumped.
Vatr Heorot rounded the corner. Granted, it was dark, but in the dim light from the adjoining hall he ought to have been able to see *something*: a fleeing shape to pursue; a cowering figure awaiting his doom. But there was nothing, not even the sound of someone’s desperate attempt to escape.
It did not occur to him to look up, where Hrenna was clutching the round wooden frame, wondering how much weight the black iron chain could bear. Below her, Vatr Heorot stood still, pondering the mystery. She couldn’t leave until he moved, but if he returned to his inspection, he would still cut off her escape.
Slowly she loosened one of the candles from its base. She was in an awkward position to throw it, hanging with her back to the floor, her head pointed down the hall into the darkness, grabbing the candelabrum with all four limbs. As quietly as she could (and she was amazed at how quiet she actually was), she let go with her arms and let her upper body hang upside down just enough to give her a clear view of the hall. She was inches from Heorot now; if he turned his head, he would see her hair forming a curtain.
Vatr Heorot did not turn around. He stroked his chin and looked down at his feet.
Hrenna flung the candle sheen the hall. She nearly dropped the robes and could not suppress the muffled sound of gathering cloth as she scrambled to catch them. But Vatr Heorot did not hear. He was tearing down the hall in pursuit of his phantom quarry.
When she heard him turn the far corner, Hrenna dropped to the ground and padded of to her dormitory.
Inside, Ásmódh and Cynfleda were kneeling at prayers. Hrenna stuffed the black robes under Freathuwebbe’s empty wooden mattress, clenching against the still raw emotion at her absence, and hurried to change into her night dress. She answered her cellmates’ stares with a stony grimace. Ásmódh was about to rise, presumably to seek a priest, but Cynfleda warned her to mind her prayers.
It was a long time before a distracted Vatr Heorot returned to finish inspection. Ásmódh tried to get his attention, despite Cynfleda’s scarcely concealed gesticulations, but Heorot’s mind was elsewhere. He had not found the candle, or any culprit, and had informed Alvatr Josua of his suspicions. They were to hold council in his private chambers immediately following inspection.
Heorot snuffed the tallow candles before the Sweostren were even off their knees and left the room.
Hrenna waited in the dark until the sound of footfalls ceased; then she counted to one hundred.
She rose from her wooden mattress, snatched up her rough cotton robes, threw the black vestments over her night dress, and left the room. Whatever Cynfleda had to say to convince Ásmóð to keep quiet, for of course neither of them was sleeping, she never knew.
Hrenna had no intention of fighting the priests, but she was not going to leave empty-handed either. She crept through the black, silent halls to the chapel. Only a faint moonlight penetrated the stained glass, but she was able to find the reliquary in the room behind the altar where the priests dress for mass.
She picked the luck with ivory teeth from Ásmóð’s comb and grabbed as many holy artefacts as she could carry, wrapping them in her rough cotton robe. Two chalices - one gold, one silver - touched and struck a note pure and resonating, and Hrenna held her breath.
When no one came she left the chapel and headed for the stairs.
The doors on the ground floor had locks she could not pick with comb teeth, the windows on the upper floors only had latches. A great beech tree grew outside the window in the Bookroom, on the male side of the convent. Hrenna set the bundle of stolen good on the floor and pushed the window open. It was painfully slow, trying not to release an ear-splitting screech, but finally the window stood wide open, with the great beech about ten feet away, lit by the full moon.
She clutched the bundle under her left arm, backed up, and took a running jump out the window.
Unfortunately she cleared just over half the distance to the trunk. Her right hand flew out to grab the nearest branch and gripped it tight. She swung toward the trunk for a moment before the branch snapped and she fell the rest of the way to the soft, damp earth.
The branch had slowed her fall; she was lightly bruised, but nothing broken. She jumped up and ran into the woods.
Hrenna knew the woods near her settlement well. She had wandered them throughout her childhood, escaping her father’s drunken rages, learning creep quietly among the wild beasts and forage for food when their was none at home, carving hey own toys and dolls out of sticks and branches.
She counted on the woods to give her cover now. It would not be long before the High Priests returned in the dark to the women’s quarters to begin the night of horror. She did not have until morning before she was missed.
Hrenna ran south, away from her people’s home. When she tired, she kept running. When she cramped, she kept running. When her body was exhausted, she paused to retch, spit, and catch her breath. Then she kept running.
She could hear the dogs now in the distance. She cut through streams to evade them. She ran in false directions, grand loops and spirals, and doubled back, but still they gained on her. She could not bring herself to think of what would happen if they caught her.
As the their baying and barking grew louder, Hrenna ran recklessly, desperate to escape. Any skill she had in stealth or survival vanished. She narrowly avoided colliding with an oak and fell down an embankment, her stolen relics clattering around her.
When she lifted her head, she knew she was going to die. A huge brown bear stood growling at her, not five feet away.
For a moment Hrenna could only stare. Then the bear stood up on its back legs and roared.
Hrenna could not fight a bear, and no one could fight Fate. Hrenna lowered her eyes, stopped trying to suppress her shaking, and lay back down. She curled up on the ground, visibly helpless like a child, and waited with eyes closed.
The bear stopped growling. Hrenna heard a thump as it put its front legs back on the ground. It stalked towards her. Then she heard it sniffing. She felt its black nose against her.
Then barking: the dogs! The bear reared up again, moved past her, roaring.
Hrenna opened her eyes. Where the bear had been standing she saw the mouth of a cave. From within came the whimpering of cubs. It was a she-bear protecting her young!
Behind her, Hrenna heard humans screaming, canines howling, and shivering ursid rage. She had no idea if her trackers had seen her. They would have to survive the bear to follow her now.
She ran, leaving the horror-sounds behind her. She ran again through thirst and hunger and exhaustion, until finally she collapsed into darkness.
She awoke to daylight, picked herself up, and continued south, walking this time.
She foraged, drunk from streams, hid from clumsy hunters and gatherers.
She walked for many days, until the trees were unfamiliar, and the occasional voices she hid from were strange. Then she left the woods and sought the nearest town.
It was a large town. She did not ask the name. She did not heed the scorn or suspicion in the people’s stares. She merely produced her bundle of artefacts and announced in the Lingua Franca she had learned from the Ecclesians that she had goods to sell.
The bemused silence that followed was so long Hrenna thought they hadn’t understood her. Then a thin man in black approached her, smiling with round open eyes.
"Perhaps I can be of assistance. My name is Mirk Rijksbergen."