Whatsoever Ye Shall Ask

by Joanna Michal Hoyt

Where Two or Three Are Gathered: August 12, 1179. The Anchorhold, near Altney Village.

Edytha crouched in the corner of Royse’s cell, the clean linens she should have left there before the service still bundled in her arms. She swallowed hard, tried not to cough, not even to breathe too loudly, lest the sound should carry through the thin walls into the chapel where Royse, Ibb, Stace and the priests were gathered to make God do their will.

No, that wasn’t how a woman of faith should think of what was supposed to happen in there. Although Edytha didn’t think she wanted the kind of faith that had elevated and imprisoned the three girls.

She’d chosen to wait and listen in the cell of Royse, who had been the witch-girl, because it felt at once safer and less confining than the others, though the cells and their windows were all equally small, and each cell opened only into the chapel, and Edytha was not permitted to be in any of them while the miracle happened. Scrupulous Ibb, who had been the killer, might protest at finding Edytha in her clean bare cell. Kindly Stace, who had been the child saint, would say nothing to get Edytha into trouble, but in her cell, there was nowhere to escape from the bruised eyes of the crucified Christ. Royse wasn’t going to give her fellow conspirator away, and in her cell, with its collection of feathers and evergreen twigs, Edytha could breathe freely—or could have, if not for her fear of making a noise.

She wondered if the presence of a doubter, even on the other side of the wall, would hinder the girls’ prayers, prevent God’s granting them.

She wondered, too, if that was what she wanted.

In the Beginning: November 1178. Altney Village.

Father Tancred, alone in the rectory, was trying to pray instead of fretting over the latest ugly gossip when he heard the first knock on the door. His mind dropped the effort of prayer eagerly, but his knees were less willing to change position. By the time he had unlocked them and started for the door, the knocking had become a desperate pounding, and he’d had time to think of several parishioners who might urgently need him.

He had not thought of Ibb. She fell at his feet like a shot sparrow when he opened the door, Ibb who for all her thirteen years had carried herself straight and proud. She wasn’t tall, but her presence filled a room; she wasn’t pretty—though that might change in a few more years, especially if by some miracle she got enough to eat—but people looked at her twice. They were drawn, Tancred thought, by her self-possession. Though she might have assumed they were staring at the daughter of the tosspot woman and the man killed for poaching; that might have explained the stiffness in her spine.

But here at his door her back was bent. She knelt, her thick nut-brown hair tangled around her face, her dry sobs blurring and scattering her words.

“Breathe, child,” he said steadily. “What do you need?”

Ibb breathed. She stayed on her knees, but her spine straightened, and her eyes rose to meet his. “Sanctuary.”

“Who’s after you? How close are they? Can we reach the church before they reach you?” Tancred did not protest that Ibb could not have committed a crime requiring sanctuary. He suspected there was very little Ibb could not have done.

“They’ll not follow me yet, I think.” Ibb’s voice had leveled, but it sounded dead. “And I couldn’t go to the church. Couldn’t be alone with God. I’m dangerous enough out here. I don’t want anyone else to die.”

“Anyone else?”

“I killed Otto,” she said. “Or God did, but I asked God to, so the sin is mine.”

Tancred laid a hand on her forehead. She didn’t feel feverish, and she wasn’t in the habit of lying. “What are you saying, child?”

“They were taunting Daft Joan again.”

Tancred winced. Daft Joan was one of the poor unfortunates who should be under God’s protection, but her muttered blessings, her shouted imprecations, and the fact that she might at any time decide to take off her clothes for the angels made her an object of derision more often than charity. While her parents lived, they had kept her too closely confined to embarrass her neighbors more than once a fortnight. Now…

“Geoff told her the angels were watching,” Ibb said. “And when she started to take her clothes off, Geoff told her she was beautiful. And when I told her not to listen to them, Otto grabbed me and covered my mouth. And when she was all naked they laughed at her and called her foul names, and Otto let go of me so he could throw things at her, and when I grabbed his arm he just laughed at me and pushed me away, and I fell, and I couldn’t stop him, so I said, ‘May God strike you dead.’” Ibb extended her left arm suddenly.

Tancred was glad that she had not pointed at him. “And?”

“And God did.”


“God moved through me, and Otto fell down, and when I ran to him and tried to pick him up, he didn’t move. Geoff yelled for him not to be a fool, and he just kept lying there. So then Geoff tried to pick him up, and he just hung there in Geoff’s arms.”

“Geoff didn’t harm you?” Tancred looked again at Ibb’s muddy face and tangled hair. He didn’t see blood.

Ibb laughed, a short hard bark like an old soldier’s. “He didn’t dare. He knows it should have been him dead instead of Otto. Or maybe both of them dead, but Geoff mostly, because he started it.”

“Did you…?”

“I didn’t kill Geoff. He should have been dead, but I… I didn’t want to kill him. And I wish I hadn’t killed Otto, mostly, but…”

“Daughter, be reasonable.” It was not what Tancred would have said to most other parishioners needing comfort, but he knew Ibb. She would rather be reasoned with than comforted. “If you truly had the power you think you have, then surely you could have prayed him alive again.”

“Any wight can kill,” Ibb said reasonably, “and only Jesus makes men live again. And I wasn’t main sure I wanted Otto alive. I had time to think, and I thought maybe he was better being dead and not making life a misery to Joan or anyone else who was any way afflicted. I didn’t have time before—I was so angry, and just for that moment I willed him dead and I didn’t doubt at all.”

“Are you so sure he is dead?” Tancred asked. “Perhaps he swooned. It might do him a bit of good, at that.”

“I am sure,” Ibb said. “I didn’t say, may God make you swoon, I said, may God strike you dead, and God did.”

“All right. But let me go and make certain.”

“I told you, it is certain! You taught us all about praying and not doubting! You taught us how our Lord Jesus cursed the fig tree! You taught us about how anyone with faith the size of a mustard seed could make mountains fall into the sea! You read it to us from Holy Writ! Why don’t you believe me?”

Tancred bit off several unhelpful answers.

Ibb bored into him with her eyes. “Don’t leave me!”

“Of course. You need to be somewhere safe if… if Otto is dead, and if Otto’s family and friends come after you…”

“Joan needs to be safe that way,” Ibb said, pulled out of her own nightmare for a moment. “If they blame her, if they’re afraid of me and blame her instead… Yes, go make sure she’s safe. I don’t think they’d try to hurt me. I don’t think they’d dare. But when Joan’s safe, come back, and take me somewhere safe where I can’t kill anyone else.”

Where Two or Three Are Gathered: August 12, 1179. The Anchorhold.

While the Latin words of the Mass slipped over her head, lovely and incomprehensible as birdsong, Edytha went back in her mind over the conversation she’d overheard the day before back at the manor house where she’d gone to fetch more linen. Two of the voices had been the same ones she heard now: Father Amaury, rector of all the churches in Lord Estienne’s gift, who was leading the Mass; and Father Tancred, Father Amaury’s vicar in Altney Village, who was murmuring the responses. The third man she’d listened in on, Lord Estienne, had not come to the chapel—his own chapel built with his own monies for the holy women, as he had reminded the priests—for the praying.

Lord Estienne’s absence was partly due to the urgent entreaties of Father Tancred. Father Tancred might be the lowest-ranking person in the room, but he was the one who had first brought the killer Ibb under the protection of the lord and the Lord, and he had been sent when the other miracle-working children were reported. Sent, Edytha thought, because he was slightly less afraid of them than either his rector or his lord were.

That fear was most of what had kept Lord Estienne away from the praying. It was all very well to have three miracle-workers praying for what he wanted, but if they did not want to see him, as Father Tancred had assured him they did not; and if the one who had killed once already would not approve of some of his requests, as even Father Amaury had agreed she would not if they were presented honestly; and if he insisted on appearing before them in a holy place to make his demands—who could be sure they would not strike him dead by the hand of God?

The Mass was ending, the words of blessing and dismissal spoken. But there was no dismissal yet. It was time for the prayer that God could not deny.

Father Amaury still spoke in Latin, but there was a different tension in his voice, and he waited for Father Tancred to put the words into English. For the holy women, the miracle-workers, were not learned in Latin.

At first Edytha had thought this strange. Could they not pray to learn that and more besides? She had wondered, and had asked, despite the rule forbidding light talk between the holy women and their lay servant.

“Why would I want to know Latin?” Royse had asked, laughing her fey laugh and returning Edytha’s attention to her request for more feathers.

Ibb, austere as ever, had kept the rule of silence, shaking her head.

“We must not pray for ourselves,” Stace had explained earnestly when Edytha dropped the question into her explanation of her nephew’s broken leg and her hope—not for an obvious miracle cure, no, that wouldn’t do at all, but for the leg to set clean and the flesh not to fester. “We must not. Saint James said, ‘You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’”

“If you can’t get the wrong thing by asking for it,” Edytha asked, “why worry? Why not just ask for everything, and know you’ll get what’s right and won’t get the rest?”

“What if asking wrongly once means you are never to receive again?”

Edytha considered that. If the power to receive in prayer came from perfect faith, and if the person with perfect faith failed to receive and began to doubt, would that break the spell? No, of course it was a blessing of the Holy Ghost, not a spell—but in any case, was it so easily broken?

That was what Edytha thought. Who could say what Stace thought behind that dark still face, those wide-set eyes?

In the Beginning: January 1179. Bainford Village.

“Why did you do that? Have you forgotten everything I ever told you? How stupid can you be?” Stace’s mother Aldith demanded furiously.

“I remembered you told me not to show off in front of the lord’s folk,” Stace answered. She had folded her hands in front of her almost demurely, but now they were clenched tightly together, straining. “I wasn’t showing off! It wasn’t vanity! The bailiff was hurt, I tell you! Bad hurt! The horse fell on him! I was making him better, that’s all!”

“Oh, that’s all, is it? And when they cry you for a witch, and me too, like as not, for that I had the raising of you, is that still what you’ll say?”

Stace didn’t answer. Her face had gone bloodless under its summer bronze. Her lips moved. No sound came out, but Aldith thought she traced the words, “A witch?”

Aldith opened her mouth, closed it again. She hadn’t spoken her fear to her daughter before. Hadn’t wanted to frighten the girl, put burdens on her too great for a child of eleven to bear. Hadn’t wanted, either, to rob her of that radiant certainty that pulled the power down to heal. And that, Aldith thought, had been selfish on her part. She had wanted to keep the protection that Stace’s prayers had brought to her and her breech-born babe—that was the first time she’d understood the miracles of which her eager, earnest younger daughter was capable—and to the bloody flux that had nearly killed Eda, Stace’s older sister. Aldith had meant to keep them all safe. What had she done to them?

Three days later, when Lord Estienne’s horsemen came, with their full-fed faces and their furred cloaks and their swords, Stace stared with wide surprise, having forgotten her fear. Aldith, who had forgotten nothing, sent Stace out behind the byre with instructions, if she heard her mother cry out, to run through the dyer’s yard and into the fallow field and on into the forest. Aldith closed the cottage door behind her and planted herself in front of it as though the one she wished to save were still inside. When a skinny old priest—not their own Father Amaury—slid from the saddle of an undistinguished cob and walked to meet her a few paces from his armed escort, Aldith was not in the least reassured. When he introduced himself as Father Tancred, the rector of the village of Altney just over the hill, and asked her—in very good English, not Norman-French—for the child who prayed, she answered, wooden-faced, that they were all good Christian praying folk.

“You know what I mean,” Father Tancred insisted.

“How do you know what I know?” Aldith’s hands were on her hips, her voice rising, so she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her. The first thing she heard and understood was Stace’s voice.

“You can’t hurt my mother,” Stace said. For a moment Aldith was proud of the self-control that let her daughter breathe defiance in such a calm voice, even as she wished she could silence the child. Then, with a cold shudder, she realized that Stace had not intended defiance, but only a statement of fact. The horsemen seemed to understand that as well. They shifted uneasily, and one made the sign of the cross.

Father Tancred stood his ground. “We haven’t come to hurt anyone,” he said, slow and quiet. “Child, you have a gift. You’ve used it for the good, haven’t you?”

“For sick people, mostly,” Stace said. “Or people who other people hurt.” That was closer to defiance; Stace was looking from her mother to the horsemen.

“How many?”

“I’m not supposed to boast.”

“It’s not boasting,” Father Tancred said. “Our Lord commanded his followers not to hide their lights under bushels. How many?”

“Eleven,” Stace said. “It should have been more, but I didn’t know I could, at first.”

“Eleven,” Father Tancred said gravely. “You have done great things for your village. But there are many more who need your gift. Come with me, and you can help them all.”

Aldith looked at her daughter’s face, saw the conflict there. Seemingly Father Tancred saw it too. “Are you afraid to leave your home?”

“Afraid of helping all those people,” Stace said in a small choked voice. “Every time… it hurts.”

Father Tancred looked at her with sympathy, spoke gently. “I think that with time and training, and the company of a very faithful sister in prayer, the pain may become less.”

“A sister? Our Eda’s promised already, and anyway she doesn’t have―”

“There is another young woman with a gift like yours, from Altney Village, who is already under Lord Estienne’s protection,” Father Tancred said, still speaking to Stace as though she were the only one who mattered. “She would be glad of some company.”

That was all it took to win Stace. Aldith, carrying a double burden of doubt as usual, insisted on going to see the place where her daughter would be kept. Father Tancred argued in French, which Aldith didn’t understand, with the horsemen, but his nod toward Stace and the fear in their faces made the main thrust of his argument clear.

So Aldith rode unhappily before an unhappy man-at-arms, and Aldith saw the neat stone chapel and the whitewashed timber enclosure on the east side where they said the sister in prayer lived, and saw the newly erected enclosure on the west side that would be Stace’s and the garden where the girls could walk and work together when the lay servant or a priest were free to watch them. It wasn’t what Aldith wanted for her daughter, but it was what she could get, and anyway it was better than having Stace hanged for a witch. As Aldith had expected, her muddled, muddied angry prayers did not stir God to change their minds and let Stace come back home. Perhaps they would not have done so even if Aldith had been sure that she could keep Stace safe there.

Where Two or Three Are Gathered: August 12, 1179. The Anchorhold.

Father Amaury spoke the petition in Latin. Father Tancred repeated it in English. The girls repeated it and added the fixed words at the end. Did they wonder, as Edytha did, whether the priests refrained from making their own words into full prayers lest any doubts of theirs should impair the girls’ radiant certainty?

“That God may comfort the sick in all Lord Estienne’s lands, both in body and in spirit.”

“That God may comfort the sick in all Lord Estienne’s lands, both in body and in spirit, we ask of our Lord through His dear Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

That prayer, Stace had told her, was the same every week. Clearly it was Stace’s favorite prayer. She had wanted to add “And heal them all,” but Father Tancred had managed to persuade her that people were meant to be mortal, and that there were gentle sicknesses that took the aged. In the months since the girls were enclosed, people in Edytha’s village had still died from sickness, but not, mostly, in agonizing pain or delirious terror, and that was a mercy, as far as it went. Edytha secretly brought particular requests for healing to Stace, who prayed about them despite the fact that this was forbidden. The ban did not seem to impede the efficacy of the prayers, and Stace, good girl that she was, had apparently remembered to pray that the healings should be gradual and unspectacular enough so that word of her trespass would not get back to the priests or Lord Estienne—or out to anyone else who might be more of a danger to the girls and to the men who had protected, or guided, or used them.

“That Lord Estienne may be blessed with good health of mind and body.”

The lord was young enough that Stace would not yet see any conflict between this petition and Father Tancred’s explanation for why universal prayers of healing were not allowed. Edytha expected another set of smooth responses. But instead she heard Royse beginning to cough, a terrible racking sound that went on and on. Edytha began to fear that Royse had prayed herself into a true sickness.

For a time, there was no sound but the terrible coughing. Then Father Amaury said something Latin that included the word Satanas. Edytha hoped the priest was just banishing Satan in a general sort of way, not accusing him of working through anyone in particular.

Father Tancred said urgently, “Pray for your sister!”

“You did tell us that we must not pray for ourselves,” Ibb said.

“You may pray for each other!” Father Tancred insisted, then translated the exchange to Father Amaury, who said something else in French. “In this case, you may pray for each other,” Father Tancred amended.

Stace’s voice, soft and urgent, took up a prayer. Ibb said, “Just what may we pray?”

“That she may be well,” Father Tancred said, in English then (Edytha thought) in French. This time he didn’t translate Father Amaury’s reply.

“That Royse may be well, et fiat volunta tua,” Ibb said in a low and resounding voice. Even Edytha knew that much Latin, though she wasn’t sure why anyone had to ask God to let God’s will be done. Surely God could do that much unprompted.

Royse kept coughing.

“Get her out of the chapel and let her lie down,” Father Tancred said. Edytha cursed herself for a fool. They’d find her, they’d…

“Stace,” Royse said through her coughs. “Stace, take me.”

In the Beginning: March 1179. Altney Village.

“Behave yourself, Royse!” Amice said again, trying not to snarl. Amice always felt bad afterward if she snarled at her little sister or slapped her. Royse was so golden and smiling, so surprised by any chastisement. But Royse was ten, old enough to know something about how a woman should comport herself, and Amice, who hadn’t Royse’s golden ways, would get the rough side of her mother’s tongue and her mother’s hand if Royse got herself into trouble again. Most of all if Royse got herself into trouble in some way that was impossible to properly explain. It was bad enough when she turned up overhead in the elm tree, higher than the boldest, tallest, lightest boys could climb. It was worse when the bailiff’s horse began to bow and dance in front of Royse. Oh, Royse was always happy to explain—“I just told God what I wanted, and it happened”—but the explanation was as bad as anything Royse might do to require it.

“I am behaving!” Royse laughed.

“No, you’re not! You’re supposed to be planting the peas, not dancing around as if you were four years old.”

“They’re already planted.” Royse took another twirling leap into the air.

“Don’t lie, Royse. I’ve been making holes for the seeds since we came out, and all you’ve done is—”

“Look in the holes and see.”

Amice glowered at her sister and stepped back to the last row of holes she’d poked. Only they weren’t there.

“You filled them in? When?”

“I told God, and God put the peas in and covered them up,” Royse said. “So I had time to dance.”

“Those peas had better be in there,” Amice began uncomfortably. “And don’t talk about God in front of everybody!”

“I’ll show you!” Royse sang. She opened her arms wide, looked up, and moved her lips soundlessly.

Amice lowered her eyes from her sister’s face, stared at the ground. Green tendrils rose up through the soil, swaying a little in time with Royse’s dancing feet. Then stems and leaves. The pea vines were growing in rows before her, as though a month could pass in the space of three breaths. And the plants were dancing, and the dance…

“Make it stop!” Amice screamed. She regretted the scream as soon as it was out of her. Heads turned toward her, and other people began to cry out, to hurry closer. “Royse, it’s not safe, they’ll see! You know what they’ll think!”

Royse laughed aloud, then whispered something, and a thick wall of fog swirled between the other villagers and the pea vines which had begun to set blossoms.

“Make it stop! You can’t do that! It’s—” Amice didn’t even want to say the word witchcraft. “It’s bad!”

“No.” The voice spoke firmly behind Amice. “It is a gift of God, but it must be rightly trained and rightly used.”

Amice whipped around. Father Tancred was looking at Royse with troubled eyes. “Father…” she said awkwardly.

“You came,” Royse half-said, half-sang to him. “You came to take me where there are people like me and where nobody will yell stop, stop!”

“I did.” He looked at least as frightened as Amice felt. “But you can’t leave the plants like this; it will make talk.”

Royse nodded serenely. “They’re almost done.”

Indeed, the peas were heavy with fat pods. As Amice and Father Tancred stared, the plants turned brown and sere. A few pods plucked themselves from the plants and split, dropping their seed at Amice’s feet. The rest of the plants shriveled, faded to dust, and vanished along with the blanketing fog.

“They’re gone, and I can go,” Royse said, laughing.

“You’re leaving?” Amice said bleakly. “What will I tell Mother?”

Royse didn’t answer. She took the old priest’s hand and they walked away. Amice stared after them. She didn’t look around to see her neighbors back at their tasks, or look down to resume her own, until her sister and the priest were long gone from her sight.

Where Two or Three Are Gathered: August 12, 1179. The Anchorhold.

Stace, obedient as ever, supported Royse back into her cell, knelt worriedly over her. It was only when Royse gave over coughing and smiled her most conspiratorial smile that Stace looked up and saw Edytha. She opened her mouth, then closed it again soundlessly.

“I’m better now,” Royse whispered. “But I can’t go back to the chapel and pray now. I can’t.”

Stace nodded, rose, and walked back into the chapel.

“Perhaps we should wait, and pray for God to reveal His will to us before we pray for anything else,” Stace said. Her voice was mild as ever.

“Indeed we should,” Ibb answered, low and rough. Stace had been suggesting, but Ibb was pronouncing. There was an awkward silence that swelled and grew. This was perhaps the first time that any of the ones who were bound either by vow or by enclosure had stopped to think who truly held authority.

“Very well,” Father Tancred said at length. “Father Amaury and I will speak and pray about this outside. Do you wait patiently.” He paused, listening to Father Amaury, and said, “Wait patiently for the Lord’s will to be revealed, and do not pray lightly.”

Royse, invisible to all but Edytha, grinned broadly.

Stace said nothing.

Ibb’s voice came low as a sob. “Father, have you forgotten why I came here? Do you think I would do anything lightly?”

“The sick girl shouldn’t be alone,” Father Tancred said after another awkward pause.

“I’ll look after her,” Stace said.

“I’ll send for the lay servant,” Father Tancred said. “There should be someone who is free to go out and call for help if she takes a turn for the worse.”

“Edytha planned to be here after prayers in any case,” Stace said carefully. It was not exactly a lie.

“She already brought the linens…”

“Sometimes there is need for something more, for one of us,” Stace said with equal care, glancing briefly at Ibb and then looking down with her most demure expression. Edytha grinned this time. Let the priests think Stace was delicately alluding to Ibb’s monthly courses, which naturally neither one of them would want to discuss. Ibb hadn’t actually started them yet, but she was old enough.

“Well, so be it,” Father Tancred said. “We’ll return soon to see if… if all is well.”

Edytha heard the priests leaving by the door to the open world, the door the girls never passed through. Then she heard Ibb walking quickly and evenly back into her cell. Ibb would be able to hear something even of a whispered conversation from there, but she was no tattletale.

Stace didn’t come back into Royse’s cell. Instead she followed Ibb.

“Come see Royse with me,” she said. “I think she needs you.”

“The rules are—”

“I think it will do more harm if you keep them,” Stace said firmly.

Ibb settled herself just outside the doorway of Royse’s cell. She raised her eyebrows when she saw Edytha but said nothing.

“What’s wrong?” Stace asked Royse.

“I don’t know yet,” Royse said. “But Edytha told me to do something to stop the prayers before saying Amen when they prayed for… what? Something about the truth was what she said they’d say. I didn’t remember the right words, so I started to cough early.”

“You trust her more than the priests?” Stace asked.

“I wanted to see what would happen.” Royse smiled.

“The prayer was that the truth might be revealed to all men when Lord Estienne held his hallmote,” Edytha said.

“And why should we want the truth concealed?” Ibb asked from the doorway.

Edytha licked her lips and tried to steady her breath.

Ibb’s face changed, watching her. “The truth about what?”

“About offenses against the vert and the venison, though they weren’t going to say that out loud at the prayers,” Edytha said.

Royse looked puzzled. “What?”

“Stealing from the lord’s forest,” Ibb explained. She had cause to know about that. “It’s Lord Estienne’s forest, not the king’s, so he judges, but the punishments are the same as if it was the king’s. What did they steal? What would happen to them?”

Edytha noted gratefully that Ibb did not ask who ‘they’ were. Then remembered that Ibb didn’t have to ask her, she could just ask God.

“All last winter people stole wood, but it was so cold that nobody tried very hard to find out who took it, not even Heriger Woodward. But now they’ve found a fresh-killed deer.” And failed to find two others, Edytha did not say. “And they say the lord was too lenient, so the law is held in contempt, and now anyone who took anything from the forest must pay for it.”

“And they would pay…”

“For the wood, they’d be amerced money, but I tell you half the village stole wood last winter, and most have no money to spare. But for the deer…”

“They’d be hanged,” Ibb said.

“But why?” Stace asked. “Why did they kill the deer? We prayed for a good harvest.”

“Well and good for them that have their own land,” Ibb said harshly. Her father had not.

“Why didn’t they tell us to pray for no one to be hungry?” Stace persisted. “Why didn’t we think to pray it ourselves?”

“How would the prayer have been answered?” Ibb shot back. “The dead don’t hunger; that would have been the easiest answer.”

“Well then, for God to put food into every home.”

Edytha knew the answer to that. “If that happened, the word would spread far and wide. And if the Pope knew what you can do, or the King…”

Stace caught her breath, nodded. “I see. They’d take us away to Rome, or anyway to one of the King’s castles, and who would be left to pray for our villages?”

“They’d make us pray to kill their enemies,” Ibb said, staring blindly.

“Maybe they’d just be scared of us and kill us,” Royse said. “If they could. If God let them.”

A very uncomfortable silence was broken by the opening of the outside door. Ibb rose, turned and made a wide gesture with her arms, largely blocking the door into the cell. Stace stood in front of Edytha. Royse prayed quietly but clearly, “Dear God, don’t let them see Edytha in my cell, or hear her, and don’t let them be mad at her for anything we say, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Father Tancred came in alone, his face drawn with worry.

“Royse will be all right now,” Stace said, edging out the door and into the chapel.

“We are not all right,” Ibb said, setting her hands on her hips. “I told you I wanted to be where I could not kill again. I said that for cause. I meant it. No more killing. Not poachers. Not anyone.”

“Who told you…?” Father Tancred began. Then he bit his lip.

“We were to pray that the truth would prevail, yes?” Ibb was relentless. “Well, now we know the truth. I thought, once, that you would tell me the truth, but God has other ways to tell me, since you will not. Since you lied to me. You!”

Edytha bit her lips. She’d been thinking of Ibb as a miracle-worker, not as a maid of fourteen who had trusted this man like a father. Christ aid, she prayed silently, bleakly, without confidence. Don’t let her kill him.

“I have not lied to you,” Father Tancred said in a rather small voice.

“You would have deceived me into getting a man hanged.”

“Would you rather let an innocent man be hanged for an offense he never committed?”

“Would Lord Estienne hang someone who was not proven to be guilty? Knowing God would requite him?”

“He believes God will show him the truth,” Father Tancred said, growing quieter and steadier as Ibb’s voice rose. “He trusts God. He trusts you. Well, and he trusted me to tell you what to pray, knowing that otherwise he would proceed against the likeliest man.”

There was an ugly little silence. Then, “Christ God,” Ibb said, and Edytha could not tell whether it was oath or prayer. Father Tancred flinched.

Stace turned away from them both, knelt facing the altar, raised her hands before her. “Christ God,” she echoed, “I need to know what will happen because of what we pray. And because of what people think we are praying. This isn’t praying for me, it’s so we can help people and not hurt them. So let it be, Amen.”

Edytha braced herself, waiting for a wind, a flame, an earthquake, a trumpet blast. There was nothing. Nothing. And then a very small sound like a sob.

Stace stood up. Her face… It was not right for a young girl’s face to look that way. She looked worse even than Michael Stotte that time he came back from the raid into Wales murmuring about dead children whose voices were never out of his ears, whose faces were never out of his eyes, who wouldn’t let him sleep.

Stace turned her back to Edytha and the altar, turned to face Father Tancred, who groaned, took a step toward her, and then stopped, arms hanging limp at his sides.

Ibb half-turned, looked Stace in the face.

“So, it’s like that,” she said. She turned back to Father Tancred. “I asked you to let me do no more harm,” she said. Her voice was low and broken. “I shouldn’t have trusted you.”

“He did the best he knew,” Stace said. “Any way you choose—”

Ibb nodded. “Well. If I live, then I will do harm.” She raised her arms. “God,” she began, “in your dear Son’s name—”

“No!” Stace caught at her arms. “No! If you ask God to strike you dead, that does harm too. Think! They’ll blame him, they’ll blame us, the fear will spread. And I won’t be able to pray you back. I won’t be able to stop it. I know too much, now, to be able to pray like that. Ibb, don’t!”

The two girls stood staring at each other. Edytha stared at them, too afraid to pray for anything. She heard Royse whisper behind her. Then she heard the sound of wings.

A small brown bird flew over Edytha’s shoulder, out the cell door, close by where Ibb and Stace stood as though they were wrestling or embracing, and out the other door, into the open world. Stace, Ibb and the priest followed its flight with their eyes.

Royse walked past Edytha, stood beside her sisters in prayer.

“God showed us,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Ibb pulled her left arm away from Stace, took Royse’s hand. Stace looked her in the face, nodded, and turned to face the door, lightly holding Ibb’s right hand.

Ibb gave Father Tancred a long look.

“Do not follow us,” she told him.

He nodded, and Edytha ached for the plain human pain in his face.

The girls were still holding hands as they walked together out the door into the world. Edytha rose and called after them, but Royse’s prayer had been granted. No one heard Edytha.

Father Tancred knelt slowly, stiffly, facing the door the girls had passed through, not the altar. He raised his hands and spoke in English.

“Help them,” he said. “Protect them. Please. I couldn’t, but you…”

He made a small sound as though he’d had the wind knocked out of him. His hands dropped to his sides. At last he said, hollow-voiced and still in English, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

Joanna Michal Hoyt lives with her family on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate NY where she worships in the Quaker way with people from various faith traditions. She spends her days tending goats, gardens and guests and her evenings reading and writing odd stories. Links to her published tales can be found on her website, joannamichalhoyt.com.

About this story, she says:

“I’ve always been alarmed as much as attracted by the idea of God being compelled to grant requests made in prayer with faith. I grew up among praying folks with very different ideas about what was good, I read Mark Twain’s The War Prayer as a child, and I remember a Quaker friend interrupting my tirade about injustice with, ‘If you were God and had power to change this, what would you do? What would that solve? What other problems would that cause?’

“Rebecca Birch’s story ‘A Relic Most Rare,’ which appeared on Mysterion in November 2018, delighted and moved me. It also sparked many what-abouts and what-ifs. Ibb and Stace dealt with some of my questions in a moral framework I mostly understood. Royse came along unexpectedly to complete the trinity; she unnerved me, but she obviously belonged.”

“Whatsoever Ye Shall Ask” by Joanna Michal Hoyt. Copyright © 2019 by Joanna Michal Hoyt.

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