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Chambers of Death
By Priscilla Royal
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2009 Priscilla Royal
All right reserved.
Chapter One The tree limbs arched with the weight of ice-kissed rain, then dropped their burden with a loud crack like a bursting dam.
Prioress Eleanor flinched when the torrent hit and clutched the feverish young woman in her arms even closer. "We shall find warm lodging soon," she whispered into Mariota's ear and prayed her words sounded more confident than she felt.
Shivering, the girl groaned and muttered incoherently.
If a fire and dry shelter were not found quickly, the chill autumn's fierce storm would surely kill this young woman who had known only fifteen summers. As the numbing damp soaked through her own cloak, Eleanor began to shake. Is there any comfort for us, she wondered, and began to fall victim to gray despair.
Even her donkey now issued a low complaint. Hope must be a very feeble thing indeed, she thought bleakly, if this patient of all creatures has grown anxious.
"My lady, take this." Brother Thomas eased his horse closer to the trembling women. With a swift, efficient gesture, he lifted off his own cloak and draped it gently around them. "I erred when I suggested you seek the dry spot under the tree. I thought you would be better protected from the storm. I beg pardon for my poor judgment."
Eleanor pulled the rough, dry wool closer. Her monk was a tall, broad-shouldered man, and the cloak easily covered two small women from the lashing rain. "All err is mine, Brother, and it is I who should beg pardon for taking this ill-advised journey. You are kind, but I should not deprive you of this warmth. Two must not fall gravely ill for my own foolishness."
"Fear not," Thomas grinned. "I have this blanket for cover." He buried his nose in the thick cloth he now tossed over his head and shoulders. "It reeks of horse sweat, but that is an honest enough thing. I have never found any sin in the company of horses."
His words chased gloom some small distance from her. Eleanor laughed, covering her own nose with the monk's cloak. It held a somewhat peppery odor as if his deep red hair were made of some spice from Outremer. "Truly, this has no scent of horse," she answered, then winced with horror at the flirtatious tone in her words. Had he noted it as well? Her cheeks burned, but the heat was born of shame, not fever.
Either the storm had muted her wicked meaning or he had mercifully disregarded it. Instead of replying, the monk turned away and stared into the growing darkness of the early night as if his thoughts had slipped away from the world and back into his own soul.
"What is he thinking?" she caught herself whispering aloud, then quickly glanced at the girl in her arms. Although she feared Mariota had overheard, the girl was so ill that she was unaware of much around her. Nonetheless, Eleanor continued her thoughts in silence.
During this ill-conceived journey, Brother Thomas had proven that his soul was made of greater mettle than her own. At Tyndal Priory, when she had demanded his attendance, she knew her order was selfish and that he had obeyed with profound reluctance. Whatever his disinclination, he had repaid her unconscionable stubbornness with courtesy, humor, and kindness throughout this entire venture, a journey cursed with one problem snapping at the heels of another.
"How does the girl?" he suddenly asked, looking back over his shoulder.
"Not well. I fear for her life."
"My healing skills are so poor. I grieve for that."
"You have done what you could, Brother, and bear no fault. Had I waited on this minor matter of property, Sister Anne might have accompanied us."
"The season has been bad for fevers, and the hospital was full of the suffering. The lay brothers and sisters needed the wisdom and guidance of their sub-infirmarian."
She could not see his expression well in the failing light but no criticism of her resonated in that remark. "And the dying needed a priest's comfort as their souls prepared to face God. I took you away from those duties. For that I shall do penance."
"Any priest can hear confessions and bring forgiveness," he replied, bowing his head. "The one you assigned will serve as God demands."
But Brother Thomas soothed the weary with special comfort, and the villagers had quickly discovered this skill. His touch on the brows of the frail was soft as lamb's wool. His words often spread honey on the most bitter of souls. These had been the stories brought to her ears. So why had she allowed Satan to blind her that day with such selfishness? She knew the answer and grieved over her shame.
"My lady, you had little choice. Prior Andrew himself was recovering from the vile fever and could not travel. You needed a monk skilled in boundary disputes and the language of contracts, one who could investigate matters when modesty and rank prohibited you from doing so—or to give rarely needed counsel."
The monk's quick smile suggested that he had found pleasure in the process, whatever her misgivings and his initial lack of enthusiasm for this task. She might have reason to doubt his absolute fealty to her, but she could not dispute how often he had loyally served her with unquestioned competence.
Eleanor's lips twisted into a sour smile. His courtesy in now repeating what she had argued, that day back at Tyndal, also pleased her more than it should. Although her body might sometimes wish it otherwise, her soul had always demanded that she vow her whole being to God's service, frailties as well as strengths. That oath required she see both with sometimes painful clarity. Thus she dare not pretend that bringing Brother Thomas with her on this journey had much to do with proving his ultimate fealty to her as his prioress or with her need of his knowledge in matters of property.
"I have lost all sense of time, Brother," she said, chasing troubling thoughts as far away as possible. "How long ago was it that you sent one of our company to find us shelter?"
"An hour, perhaps more, I would judge. There was light enough to see the road when he left."
A powerful gust of wind sent a sharp-toothed sheet of rain into the small party. Brother Thomas urged his horse in front of the two women to protect them from the full force of the gale.
"Thank you, Brother," Eleanor murmured. "I shall not forget your kindness this day."
"If the man does not return soon, we must seek shelter in the forest, my lady. Even if lawless men hide nearby, surely they will leave us in peace. Either they will be seeking safe haven from this weather as well or will honor our vocation for the good of their souls."
Eleanor rested her cheek on top of Mariota's burning head. "She'll not survive the night if we cannot find better protection from the cold and wind."
"Had I recognized the signs of illness earlier, we might have stopped at an inn this morning or sent word ahead for a cart from a monastery to meet us on the road."
"And I share in that blame, but Mariota hid her illness well. I fear she did not want to slow us down and hoped she could ride well enough until we reached our own priory. Although the fever was stronger than her will, I cannot find fault with her. Her mistake in judgment was founded in concern for others." Eleanor bent forward to listen more closely to the girl's breathing. It was ragged and labored. The prioress began to pray.
The donkey, on which she and the girl rode, suddenly brayed and twitched its ears.
Thomas' horse snorted. "My lady," the monk shouted. "I hear horsemen!"
A dripping rider, followed by a small company, now rounded the bend. "Lodging has been found, my lady," the man shouted through the wind gusts. "Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, has land here. His steward begs you honor him by taking shelter at the manor."
Chapter Two Eleanor tenderly released Mariota into the outstretched arms of waiting servants. "Carry her gently. She is so very weak," she whispered as she watched them lift their light burden up the rain-slick steps toward the brightness of the open door.
"They will take her to a fire's comfort, my lady," another servant assured her, raising a hand to help the prioress from her donkey. "The mistress was told of the illness and ordered preparations for her care."
Murmuring her gratitude, Eleanor stood for a moment in the cascading rain until her legs regained enough feeling to walk. Had she ever felt so numb? The dark, rough exterior of this manor house might look forbidding to unwelcome strangers in the night, but stone walls meant there would be fireplaces enough inside to add warmth to the sweetness of charity. When she herself stepped across the threshold, Eleanor closed her weary eyes and thanked God for granting her party this dry sanctuary from the storm.
Eleanor blinked at the intensity of the greeting.
A woman rushed forward, hands open as if to seize her.
The prioress jumped back from the assault.
The dark-clad woman fell to her knees in front of the dripping prioress.
All Eleanor could do was nod. Fatigue, added to the shock of this peculiar welcome, had chased all speech away.
The woman's narrow-set eyes glittered like small beads of jet in the flickering firelight. "Are you not the Prioress of Tyndal?"
Eleanor took a deep breath and found voice enough to confirm her identity.
"God, in His mercy, has blessed us by sending you when we need you most!"
Although she was owed reverent courtesy based on her rank as a baron's daughter and as head of Tyndal Priory, Eleanor had never been greeted as if she were one of God's own angels. As she looked down at this sharp-angled face and unblinking eyes, she wondered if the woman were suffering from some great distress—or might she be quite simply mad?
Quelling her apprehension, the prioress replied: "He has granted us mercy. We were in dire need of shelter from this dreadful storm." To herself, she expressed hope that this woman's strange greeting was born of that awkward nervousness found in many pious folk when faced with another mortal who has dedicated her life to God's service. "Are you the mistress of this manor, the one who has obeyed Our Lord's commandment to offer a safe haven to those in need?"
"The famous Prioress of Tyndal!" was the woman's sole and muttered reply.
Eleanor tried another approach. "May I ask your name?"
"She is Mistress Constance."
Startled by this new voice, the prioress spun around.
A square-bodied woman, perhaps no taller than the prioress herself, stood in an open doorway some feet to the right of the fireplace. When the prioress saw her, the woman offered the obeisance due Eleanor's rank before continuing. "She is daughter-in-law to Master Stevyn, the steward in residence here. Am I correct in believing that at least one member of your company is grievously ill?"
Eleanor glanced down at the now-identified woman still kneeling at her feet. Unmoving, Mistress Constance stared up at her, mouth open and eyes wide as if she had fallen into a trance.
"The poor shivering child near the fire suffers from a high fever and has lost all reason," the prioress replied, gesturing. Although she feared she must address the cause behind Mistress Constance's extreme reaction to her arrival, Mariota's grave condition demanded immediate attention.
The older woman hurried toward the fireplace where Mariota lay on a thick straw pallet. Eleanor was close behind. Servants might have loosely wrapped Mariota in a heavy blanket but she was still lying in wet clothing. A fine mist of steam rose from her shivering body. "Wine!" the woman ordered, and a servant instantly disappeared behind a screen at the back of the hall.
"I now believe she has been ill since morning at the start of our journey but said nothing of it. When we stopped to let the horses rest and take refreshment ourselves, she refused all but a bite of food. I noticed her pallor, but she claimed to be well when I asked. At midday, Brother Thomas caught her as she began to slide from her mount. It was then we discovered that she suffered a very high fever. Now she has been severely chilled by this storm. I fear for her life."
"We must pray for God's mercy on this young soul, my lady." The woman shook her head.
If Mariota dies, I am much to blame, Eleanor thought. Is there penance enough ...? She knelt at the side of her charge and rested the back of her hand against the young woman's burning cheek. Suddenly there was an abrupt tug at the back of her robe, and Eleanor turned her head, annoyance coloring her cheeks.
"This house is full of sin, my lady! As Prioress of Tyndal, you have the power to keep it from me. I must have your blessing!" Mistress Constance was still on her knees but now knelt behind the prioress and was clutching her soaked garment.
Eleanor's patience cracked. Filled with worry over Mariota and shivering herself from the storm's drenching rain, Eleanor grew angry at the rude handling and opened her mouth to admonish the woman. But the servant arrived with the wine, and the prioress' attention was drawn back to her sick charge.
"I shall make sure the poor child is settled in a warm bed and receives all the care we have available here, my lady," the older woman said, her voice soft as she took the wine from the servant's hands and raised Mariota's head so she might sip it.
The calm authority in the woman's voice cooled Eleanor's temper. At least Mariota would be cared for even if she herself must remain here, drenched and chilled to the bone, because Mistress Constance was either awe-struck or obsessed. She turned back to the impertinent woman.
"You are in error if you think I have any special power against evil, Mistress. I am not a saint ..." she began.
Constance shook her head so violently, her very teeth seemed to rattle—until Eleanor realized that the sound came from the ring of keys the woman clutched in one hand. Reaching out with the other to seize Eleanor's hands, she hissed: "I'll pay for the blessing. As for the evil here, you must find a way to purge ..."
"Mistress, I beg you to let me attend my sick charge this night. In the morning, we shall speak more on this. As for a blessing, I give that freely enough, but you must talk to your priest if you believe the Devil is in residence."
"Bless me now!"
Knowing that blessings were never amiss, Eleanor granted the request, although she doubted the plea was born of any need for peace in a longing soul. Sadly, she suspected a more worldly purpose, such as pride in obtaining such a thing from a religious of some rank.
Once the requested act had been done, Mistress Constance stared at Eleanor's hands for some time, then pulled herself to her feet and scurried away without uttering any word, even of thanks.
Eleanor suffered another flash of anger. Did the woman hope to find signs of the stigmata so she could gain even greater admiration from any companions? When the irritation faded, however, she felt the full power of deep fatigue and longed for sleep. Forcing her eyes to remain open, she turned back to the fireplace where the sick woman lay.
Mariota had disappeared.
An instant later, the older woman reappeared from the entryway behind which the prioress could now see stone stairs leading upward.
"She has been carried to a room in the solar with a good fire," the woman said. "The servants have beaten the mattress to soften it and warmed the sheets near the hearth to give her further ease."
"You are most kind. As for my men ..."
"There is enough comfortable, dry space for them in the barn where a servant has already taken them. The horses will be cared for in the stable."
"And Brother Thomas?"
The woman's eyes began to twinkle. A smile brightened her broad face.
Had she not been so weary, Eleanor might have taken offence at this obvious sign of yet another woman charmed by her monk.
"He said he would be happy to sleep near the kitchen hearth, my lady. The manor cook chases away most who enter there, but that includes the mice, so he should be comfortable enough on a thick straw pallet. I do suspect, however, that Hilda will find joy in his holy company. I do not fear he will be made to feel unwelcome."
Eleanor's thoughts darkened as she wondered just how old this cook might be.
Excerpted from Chambers of Death by Priscilla Royal Copyright © 2009 by Priscilla Royal. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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