"Wait a minute." The first voice again, and close enough that I could feel warm breath on my cheek. "I think she's awake. Hey, girl. Are you awake?"
Then came a none-too-gentle push—almost a shove, really—to my shoulder, and I brought my arms up protectively.
"Not so rough, Therese. She's little."
"Well, she's never going to get any bigger if she sleeps through breakfast. I'm going to go tell Sister Gerda she wouldn't wake up. In fact—" the voice was so close now, I tried to push my head deeper into the wooden bench to escape the words—"I'll tell her that the little thing just died in the night. And we can drag her out to the rubbish heap and have her portions for ourselves."
"Stop that." There was a sound of a scuffle, the girl Therese being yanked away, and feeling as though a protector had been established, I opened my eyes.
"Well, it's about time."
I knew from the voice that this was Therese—the same girl who had been speaking so menacingly close, but who proved herself too beautiful to inspire further fear. She looked like she'd been assembled from new, fresh snow. White-blonde hair framed a porcelain face; ice-blue eyes held a steady gaze above a pointed nose. Her mouth hid behind a pretty hand, one finger touched to her lips, warning me to silence.
"Good morning, sleepyhead." This from the other voice, Girt, and I pulled my gaze away from Therese to see a vision of pure, warm joy. Both girls wore plain dresses of homespun wool, with stiff aprons, thick black socks, and sturdy wooden shoes. While Therese somehow managed to look like a fairy princess trapped in a peasant's dress, Girt looked like a sturdy, milk-fed farmer's daughter, complete with full cheeks and wide brown eyes. Just looking at her made me think of gingerbread, my mother's gingerbread, straight from the oven. Sweet and peppery. I fought an overwhelming urge to reach out to take a pinch of Girt's freckled flesh.
"Your name's Katharina," Therese said, as if making a proclamation. "And you're six years old, but you're small. I would have said you were four, but they don't like to take in girls that little. Sometimes they wet the bed, and then everything smells awful for days. You don't wet the bed, do you?"
"No," I said, though I would have lied in the moment and refused sleep for the rest of my life if I did.
"Good. Because we haven't time for babies here. You'll start lessons with the rest of us and just have to keep up. Can you read at all?"
"A little." This was not so much a lie as an exaggeration. I knew my letters and could write my name and the names of everyone in my family. I'd been working a sampler with Mama and had covered the hearth with charcoal renderings of my practice until the new mama made me wash it all away.
"We're learning Latin," Girt said, beaming with pride. "And if we practice and study very hard, someday we'll be able to read the Scriptures as easily as the priests can."
"That's Sister Odile's doing," Therese said, her nose wrinkled. "I think it's a giant waste of time."
I regarded Therese closely, trying to guess the girl's age. She had the stature and features of a child, but everything else about her seemed like a grown-up stuffed into a little girl's body. Her eyes held both wisdom and sadness, and her words came out with a snap of authority. Like at this moment, when she pointed directly at me and said, "What is that? Give it to me."
My hand went to my throat and touched the familiar gold chain. "It's my mother's." I drew out the locket attached to the chain, but would not open it. Not in front of these girls, because inside were tiny, braided strands of hair. Mine and my mother's, intertwined, no thicker than the width of embroidery silk. I would cry if I looked at them right now, and in just these few moments, I knew I never wanted to cry in front of Therese. Girt, maybe. She seemed softer, like a mother in training, but Therese would have no patience for tears.
"Give it," Therese said, reaching, but I took the necklace off, wadded it in my fist, and hid it behind my back. I knew it was a losing battle, the two of them against me, each outmatching me in size and strength, but I'd put up a fight if I had to. Growing up with three older brothers had taught me to use my size to an advantage. I could kick hard and low and bite into the soft flesh above the wrist. I bared my teeth in preparation and sat back on the bench, feet straight out in defense.
"It's all right." Girt moved to sit beside me and positioned herself as a barrier. "You can trust her with it, or give it to me if you'd rather. We'll keep it safe, I promise. The sisters will take it away, and you won't see it again. We're not allowed to keep anything personal."
"Or valuable," Therese interjected. "Not if they can swap it for a few more coins in the coffer."
"Here." Girt held out her hand, and the softness of the gesture beckoned mine. I remembered Sister Odile's admonition. Nothing. Tightening my fingers around the chain, I offered a silent thanks to God for the darkness that had kept this treasure hidden. Until now, of course, when the glint of gold had caught Therese's eye. Better Therese than one of the sisters, though? According to these girls, yes, and Girt at least seemed deserving of my trust. With the last bit of hesitation, I loosened my grip and watched the chain and locket fall into Girt's waiting hand.
This excerpt ends on page 19 of the paperback edition.