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  • Published: 13 August 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761346989
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $34.99

Winter of the Wolf

Extract

Chapter 1

October 1572

The day Sidonie Montot buried her uncle was never going to be a good day. She stood at the door of Monsieur Segal’s home on the Rue des Orfèvres. Every building on the street of goldsmiths stood alike, sentinels made of wood and cement, with matching facades of half-timbered vertical stripes. The only way to tell them apart was to look for the sign jutting out from the building that marked a particular dwelling as distinct from the others. Monsieur Segal’s mark was a gold fleur-de-lis, with his name carved and painted over the top for good measure.

Sidonie knocked on the door three times before taking a step back. She raised a hand to her face, feeling for any stray strands escaping from under her cap. Not a hair out of place. There was a small smudge of dirt – or what she hoped was dirt – on her shoe. Looking around to be sure no one was watching, she rubbed the mark against the back of her stockings. Satisfied, she clasped her gloved hands together demurely and waited.

What added peat to the fire today was that she had to practically beggar herself to respect her imperfectly pious uncle’s wishes. Death was a costly business, and Sidonie had had no choice but to adhere to her uncle’s funerary demands as expressly stated in his will. But one high and five low masses on the day of his death, and on each anniversary of his death, and an additional low mass every day for one year was excessive for a physician. There would be no drinking ritual now; Uncle Claude’s extensive network of acquaintances would need to drink themselves into oblivion on someone else’s livre. Sidonie embraced her irritation, foolish as it was, for it kept the guilt at bay. She was skilled at managing her guilt – trapping those intrusive thoughts deep inside herself. For if she allowed them to surface, she would succumb to despair. And little good that would do her.

To survive beyond the week, she urgently needed coin. And the most expedient way of getting coin was by collecting overdue payments from her uncle’s patients – former patients – such as Monsieur Segal. Uncle Claude had professed to disliking all things pecuniary, so Sidonie was familiar with this task. Although she’d never before undertaken it when the scent of frankincense and freshly turned grave dirt still lingered in her hair.

This time when she knocked on the door, a window opened above and a voice called out, ‘The door is open. Come upstairs, and hurry!’

‘Monsieur Segal?’ she called back. ‘It is Mademoiselle Sidonie Montot, come on business.’

‘Hurry!’

Monsieur Segal had been one of her uncle’s final patients. The goldsmith had fallen down the stairs, breaking the bone in his forearm and puncturing the skin. Despite his own failing health, Uncle Claude had set the bone and then stayed with Monsieur Segal for two days to monitor for signs of foulness in the blood or putrescence in the wound. He had been devoted to his profession – a single-minded devotion that came at the expense of everything else in his life.

Hearing the urgency in Monsieur Segal’s voice, Sidonie worried that the injury had worsened. If that were the case, she could be of little use. It would be better to fetch another physician. She hesitated for a moment before pushing open the unlocked door, lifting her skirts above her ankles and hurrying up the darkened stairs, following the sounds coming from one of the rooms.

A wall of heat assaulted her when she opened the door. It emanated from a fire blazing in the hearth, flames climbing high up the chimney. Smoke hung thick and heavy in the air, and she pulled out a handkerchief to fan the air before her. A man stood by an open window, one arm in a stained linen sling, the other trying to encourage the smoke to exit the bedchamber. Sidonie coughed as the smoke stung her eyes and throat, and the man spun to face her.

‘Praise be to God you arrived,’ Monsieur Segal said. ‘My wife has been labouring long.’

A bed was visible from beneath a cloud of smoke. On it lay a woman wearing only a chemise with the hem rucked up to expose her bare legs. Her face was an alarming shade of red and her sweat-soaked hair clung to her face and neck.

The woman groaned as a wave of pain overtook her, curling her body around her protruding stomach. ‘Husband, is it the midwife? Send her here.’

Sidonie froze, her eyes darting around the room while she kept the open doorway at her back. ‘I am not a midwife,’ she stammered.

‘What did she say?’ Madame Segal panted.

Monsieur Segal examined Sidonie properly. ‘She looks like the physician’s daughter.’

‘Niece. It is not important,’ Sidonie apologised. ‘I came to collect an overdue payment. I was unaware Madame Segal was labouring. This is not a good time; I should go.’

‘I sent for the midwife many hours ago, but she has not come. You must stay, you must help my wife!’

Sidonie had never witnessed let alone participated in childbirth. Birth was the domain of women, and it was midwives, not physicians, to whom they turned. Even Uncle Claude would have been unwelcomed in a birthing room, for if a physician were called, it meant little hope of survival for either the mother or the babe. Or both. What happened now, before her eyes, was something she was not equipped to handle. ‘I would not know what to do.’

The woman moaned, a low sound filled with pain. She opened her eyes and reached towards Sidonie. ‘Help me.’

Sidonie glanced between man and wife. She could not in good conscience leave them to suffer. Years of living with a physician had taught her a thing or two, and she had spent months keeping Uncle Claude comfortable as he fought the disease that would rob him first of his dignity and then his life. And besides, the midwife would be here soon.

Despite the open window, the heat was still stifling. Removing her cloak, Sidonie approached Madame Segal and placed a gloved hand on her head. Nothing would bring her to remove her gloves in the presence of others. The woman’s head burned with heat. Uncle Claude had shared little of his knowledge when it came to herbal medicine, but when Sidonie herself had come down with a fever, she had taken note of the treatment given to her.

‘Do you have feverfew, monsieur?’ she asked.

He stammered his words. ‘The housekeeper would know.’

‘Ask her to prepare a tisane by boiling the herb in water for madame to drink. It will help cool her blood. Bank the fire before you go; this chamber is too hot.’

He dashed from the room – to follow her instructions, Sidonie hoped.

She placed her hands on the woman’s distended belly but quickly pulled them back when the woman cried out and the babe beneath began to move. A sharp, metallic odour filled the air and a red stain appeared between the woman’s legs, soaking the bedding. Sidonie grabbed handfuls of the linen and pushed it between her legs, trying to stop the bleeding. Thanks be to God, it seemed to work. By the time Monsieur Segal returned with the tisane, Sidonie had bundled the stained cloth out of sight. Taking the cup from Monsieur Segal, she dipped a finger inside to ensure the liquid was not too hot and then lifted the cup to the woman’s lips, holding her up as she took in several mouthfuls. Whether from the effects of the tisane or loss of blood, Madame Segal did seem calmer.

Until her body twisted with another spasm.

Sidonie glanced between Madame Segal’s knees but could see nothing to suggest the babe was ready to be born.

‘What can I do?’ Monsieur Segal asked with tears in his eyes.

He despaired, he suffered. He was turning to Sidonie for advice, but what could she do? She was only a physician’s niece, an orphan, a young woman alone. His wife could be dying and taking the babe with her, and Sidonie felt so worthless she could scream.

‘Midwife!’ shouted a voice from outside the house. ‘Midwife here!’

Sidonie stumbled to her feet, ignoring the cramping in her legs as she hurried to the open window, the coolness of the air a shock to her skin, the sky blacker than pitch, lit only by a waxing crescent moon shining weakly through a cloud. ‘Come quickly!’

The midwife could not be much older than Sidonie, yet she entered the bedchamber with a reassuring brusqueness, questions spilling forth from her lips as she examined Madame Segal.

‘Move aside,’ the midwife said, pushing Monsieur Segal out of the way. ‘How long has she been labouring?’

She addressed this question to Sidonie, who did her best to answer. ‘I arrived late in the afternoon, not long before the vesper bells, and madame had been like this since—’

‘That same morning,’ Monsieur Segal finished. ‘Before the sun rose.’

A flicker of concern marred the midwife’s smooth brow as she put her hands on Madame Segal’s belly, pressing and kneading as if shaping dough.

Monsieur Segal’s face was drawn and haggard. ‘Where were you?’ he rasped.

The midwife did not look up as she answered. ‘Attending another birth. This is a large arrondissement and there is only one of me.’ She leaned forward and sniffed Madame Segal’s mouth. ‘What did you give her?’ she said sharply.

‘The mademoiselle ordered a tisane of feverfew,’ Monsieur Segal replied.

Sidonie shrank from the midwife’s critical gaze. She felt like a child playing at adult games. ‘I did not know what else to do. What more could I do?’ she finished under her breath.

‘Stand away now while I do my work. And fetch some wine.’

After a day and night of labour, and after hours of pain, the end came quickly. Three strong pushes saw the babe delivered before Madame Segal collapsed on the bed, her face drained of colour.

‘Wine!’ the midwife called.

Monsieur Segal handed her the bottle, and she ripped the cork out with her teeth and took some of the liquid into her mouth. Using one finger to pry open the still and silent babe’s lips, she blew wine into its mouth. When that produced no effect, she placed her mouth over the babe’s and began to suck and spit. Finally, her shoulders slumped, she wrapped the small body in cloth, careful to leave its head exposed, and placed the babe on its mother’s breast.

‘You had a son,’ the midwife told Monsieur Segal. ‘With your permission, I shall send him to the arms of God.’

‘A son,’ Monsieur Segal repeated, blinking away tears. ‘What of my wife?’

‘She will recover. In time.’

With consent given, the midwife performed the rite of baptism over the dead boy. Her hands moved quickly and efficiently over the body. She was well-practised in this, the business of life and death. Once she had tended to the immortal soul of the babe, the midwife returned to the mother. ‘Monsieur, if you could wait outside while I see to your wife.’

‘Of course,’ he said, casting a lingering look over his shoulder before he left the room.

Sidonie waited until the bedchamber door closed before asking the question that would weigh on her conscience for the rest of her life if she did not know the answer. ‘Could I have saved him?’

The midwife spoke quietly, her eyes flicking to Madame Segal. ‘Whether he was dead before labour began or during, I cannot say. Do not hold yourself to blame. It is not for us to know God’s will.’

With nothing more to do, Sidonie collected her cloak, shaking it to remove any dust that had attached itself to the fabric before wrapping it tightly around her shoulders. Her once-white gloves were stained in shades of rust and carried the faint sweet scent of birthing fluid. She had never considered removing them, not once. Laying her scarred hand on bare skin was something she couldn’t contemplate. She did not carry a spare pair and had not thought it would be needed when she left the house that morning to attend her uncle’s funeral. Two deaths, two losses, and she had witnessed them both. Her fists clenched in an attempt to hide the stains.

Before taking her leave, Sidonie bid her condolences to Monsieur Segal. To her surprise, he pressed a heavy pouch into her hand. He sighed deeply. ‘For what I owed to your uncle, and for your work here today.’

She could tell from the weight that there was more coin than owed. A great deal more. She would not argue, though, for she needed it more than he did. What Monsieur Segal needed, Sidonie could not give. Had been unable to give. Even when she had been standing right there, with someone begging her for help. The midwife had spoken of God’s will, but what of ignorance that led to pain and death? Was this but another moment to be washed away, to be locked in the darkest part of her mind where it could no longer hurt her, where she would force herself to forget her memories – both good and bad? No. She would remember her anger, her frustration, and her complete and utter sense of helplessness. She would not let it happen again. This feeling, she would hold onto it. In this swirling mess of grief, pain, exhaustion, fear and desperation, this was something she could control, something she could do. Never again, she promised herself. Never again.


Winter of the Wolf Amanda Willimott

Inspired by a notorious werewolf trial, blending history with paranormal and feminist themes, and with a moving queer romance at its core, this is an unmissable Australian debut.

Buy now
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