By Priscilla Royal
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2014 Priscilla Royal
All rights reserved.
"I do not wish to cast aspersions on Sister Juliana's virtue, my lady."
A hope you most ardently pray I shall reject, Prioress Eleanor concluded, noting that Sister Ruth's complexion had deepened from its usual ruddy hue into that nobler color oft favored by God's anointed rulers. She willed herself to maintain an expression devoid of all but civil concern.
"Yet I am sure you agree that those virtuous people of the village, who have expressed apprehension in this matter, may not be ignored."
The effort to retain a suitably grave bearing grew more difficult. The youthful leader of Tyndal, a Fontevraudine priory on the East Anglian coast, nodded with visible impatience.
Sister Ruth stiffened her back. "Without question, an anchoress may accept visitors at her window and dispense humble advice. To do so only at night, when Satan lewdly disports himself with his imps, is distressing. Many say that advice given at such unholy hours must be hissed in Sister Juliana's ears by the Prince of Darkness, not by God." Sister Ruth tucked in her chin, hoping to emphasize her stern demeanor, but her effort managed only to double her jowls.
"You were correct to bring this problem to my attention," Eleanor conceded.
"Nor is that all!"
I feared not, thought the prioress.
"None of the worthy women I have found to serve her can bear to do so."
"What complaint could these women possibly have?" Eleanor snapped. "A bishop carefully questioned Sister Juliana, when she requested this entombment, and found her calling to be a true one." She instantly regretted that tone of voice. It suggested she had lost command over this exchange.
The middle-aged nun smiled at her younger leader with naked disdain. "Were our anchoress to levitate in prayer, these women would stand in awe. Had her eyes grown raw with unrelenting tears over mortal sins, they would sing her praises. When she howls at them like a wild beast and screams abuse, they see the handmaid of Satan."
"Perhaps there is a reason ..."
"These good women agree that laments are most suitable for any wicked daughter of Eve and rejoice when the anchoress moans and cries out in prayer. Nevertheless, like any person of reason, they grow frightened when she beats her head against the stones until she bleeds or writhes on the floor like one possessed."
Eleanor's eyes widened.
The sub-prioress bent forward as if conveying a confidence. "One woman was certain she glimpsed a dark shadow lurking in a corner of the anchorage. It laughed most wickedly, she said." Sister Ruth resumed her erect posture. "She is but one witness who fears our anchoress is possessed."
Eleanor nodded, but her frown suggested that any perceived concurrence was both hesitant and skeptical.
A loud creak broke the palpable tension in the room.
Sister Ruth spun around, her face a chalky white.
The chamber door was opening very slowly. No hand was visible.
Sister Ruth crossed herself with trembling fingers against the onslaught of Evil.
A large, red tabby slid through the small opening and into the room. When he saw the square-bodied sub-prioress, he sneezed, and then shook himself with vigor.
Sister Ruth drew back her robes.
"We should be grateful Arthur did not honor us with a rat from the kitchens," Eleanor said, smiling down with fondness at the creature now circling her feet.
"Which is where the beast should stay," Sister Ruth muttered as a most brilliant pink colored her neck and cheeks.
"What other witnesses have complaint against our new anchoress?" Eleanor continued, ignoring the remark. Even though Sister Ruth routinely saw the darkest sin in anything of which she personally disapproved, much to the prioress' annoyance, the woman's ideas found company enough in others of like mind. Although Eleanor believed that fear or ignorance were often the basis for such opinions, she also knew how much Satan delighted in the mischief they caused. For that reason, she never ignored what was said, but, in this instance, she found herself troubled as well by the accusations against Sister Juliana.
"What more need you hear? Surely the report that righteous souls fear the anchoress consorts with the Devil and may be possessed is sufficient to take action."
"Allegations are worthy of consideration, but truth demands details and evidence. As Our Lord has taught us, Sister, what lies inside any vessel may be disguised by its exterior."
Sister Ruth blinked.
"Be assured that I will investigate these concerns."
The nun stepped back at the prioress' implied rebuke, then realized she had just been dismissed. With ill grace and only token respect, Sister Ruth bent her head and turned to leave.
All dignity in retreat was thwarted when she ran straight into the sub-infirmarian standing outside the chamber door.
Sister Anne stepped aside to let her superior pass.
Eleanor wondered if her dear friend had barely stifled an outburst of laughter. As she watched the middle-aged sub-prioress march away, arms and legs pumping with purposeful effort, she herself was reminded of a hungry ox, loosed at last from the plow and aware that the evening feed was but a short distance away. She glanced toward the window. The sun's position might indicate that the mid-day meal was nigh.
"Your visit was well-timed!" Eleanor gestured for the tall nun to enter.
Anne put a woven basket down on the table. The delicate scent of cut herbs drifted through the room in the soft summer air. "Then the tale I bear has twice-good purpose."
"According to Brother Beorn, our crowner has returned from court."
Eleanor's eyes glowed with undisguised pleasure. "After the crusader was murdered and Ralf left to stay with his brother, the sheriff, I feared our friend would not return. Has he come back to us for good? His sergeant might be as honest as our crowner but never as clever."
"I believe he has, but I bear sad news as well."
The prioress' hand flew to her heart.
"Ralf is well enough," Anne added quickly, "but the woman he took to wife during that absence died giving birth. Now he is both a widower and a father to a baby girl."
Eleanor closed her eyes, sending a quick prayer heavenward that God might grant comfort to a good man. "Is the child strong?"
"Brother Beorn confirmed that the child resembled her father in health, although I confess his description was not quite complimentary." Anne smiled, but a mist of sadness drifted across her face.
Although they rarely spoke of the death of Anne's own child, Eleanor squeezed her friend's hand with silent understanding. "Those two men have been like oil and water since boyhood," she said to distract the sub-infirmarian. "Might I be right in concluding that our lay brother made some reference to oxen?"
The tall nun laughed as she bent to stroke the cat stretching up against her leg and purring for attention.
"What name did Ralf bestow on this wee babe of his?"
"Brother Beorn did not say."
"We shall learn it." Eleanor began to pace, her mind racing to consider what this tiny new arrival might need. "I am delighted with this news! Ralf must have brought a wet-nurse back with him, but surely she would not wish to stay so far from the comforts and worldly advantages of the king's court. The little one will need a nurse from the village as well as a good woman to care for her after weaning." She gestured at the sub-infirmarian. "If Ralf resumes his work of ferreting out the lawless, he will have little time to seek such a woman, let alone watch over a motherless child. We must find someone reliable to replace the woman he brought."
"Perhaps Gytha knows a suitable person?"
Eleanor nodded. Her maid, now a full-grown woman of seventeen summers, knew everyone in Tyndal village. "And the priory must also show our pleasure at his return. Prior Andrew will invite him to share a humble meal with us."
"Sister Matilda's meals may be simple but never humble," Anne replied.
Nodding with amused agreement, Eleanor peered into the herb basket lying on the table. "What have you harvested?"
The sub-infirmarian picked up a handful of fleshy green leaves with sharp maroon tips. "Houseleek will serve to ease any insect bites our monks and nuns have suffered with the coming of the warm weather, I think." Replacing that, she fingered some white flowers. A strong fragrance filled the room. "An ointment from this Madonna lily may ease Sister's Ruth's corns." A glee untinged by suitably pious benevolence teased at the corners of her mouth.
Eleanor turned to stare out the window as if something unusual had just caught her attention. "How fares Brother Thomas?" she asked, her tongue stumbling on the monk's name.
"I want to try an infusion of chamomile flowers for easier sleep and a mix of crushed, sweetened rosemary to chase his melancholia away."
"He has grown so thin and pale since our return from Amesbury. I would believe he was a ghost if I did not know otherwise."
"Sleep, even when it comes, rarely refreshes him."
"Brother John has found no solution? Can he offer no comfort?"
Anne hesitated as she considered how to phrase her response. Eleanor might know that the sub-infirmarian still spoke with the man she would always call husband, but the nun wished to protect the prioress from the details of how often they did meet or the particulars of these otherwise chaste encounters. "So far he has failed, much to his sorrow."
"I thought the festering wound was caused by his father's death, but surely there must be something else troubling Brother Thomas."
"Brother John fears that Satan has infected our brother's soul with some foul pestilence. If prayer, fasting, and self-mortification fail to cure him, he believes we must take more severe measures and use exorcism to cauterize the decay brought by the Evil One."
The prioress shuddered. "May God be merciful and chase the imp away! Yet I hear a note of disagreement in your words. Does exorcism not find favor with you?"
The nun shook her head. "Brother Thomas continues to give most godly comfort to the sick and dying in our hospital. How can such a man be owned by the Devil?"
"Still, the Evil One is a clever creature," Eleanor replied, "and Brother John does not often suggest such a remedy. For those reasons, I am disposed to take his recommendation; although it is drastic I would agree."
"I beg you to let me try other methods first! I did persuade Brother John to wait before he came to you for permission to perform exorcism."
"You are very much the child of your physician father."
"I do not deny the strength of evil or of God's grace, but I have also learned that skullcap is often useful in these matters and vervain may chase malevolent spirits away should rosemary and chamomile fail."
"God shows grace in many ways. For this reason, I have never denied the power of the healing arts when used with His direction." Eleanor hesitated. "I agree that a man, who continues to offer a gentle touch to the dying and spends his days in kind acts, is not likely to have given his soul into the Devil's hand. Yet, if he has not, what could be the cause of our brother's torment?"
Anne shook her head with frustration. "I wish I knew. When I begged him to confide his grief, he said only that his dreams were indescribable and the source inexplicable."
"Has there been any improvement after he began this latest task?"
"I believe so. He told me that carrying medicines at night to the sick and aged in Tyndal village has brightened his spirit. If sleep fails him, he would rather help those who cannot come to our hospital, yet need the ease our herbs can offer. Bringing mercy is far better, he said, than pacing the monks' cloister garth, which does little to chase away his own suffering."
Eleanor did not reply, nor did her expression betray her thoughts.
"Before an exorcism is done, I would try other remedies that wise men say will chase feverish dreams away while our brother continues his nightly mercies. These methods will take time to brighten the dark shade of his humors, but they are far kinder than exorcism."
"Your advice is always worthy. Of course, you have my permission, and I pray daily that our brother's melancholia will be cured. Along with your herbs, his extra acts of kindness may be enough to strike Satan's hot hand from his heart."
"God has smiled on us for many months now. May He do so in this matter as well."
"Aye, except for Brother Thomas' suffering, we have been blessed with peace. I must believe that God saw how greatly we have suffered from worldly violence and mercifully blessed us with a long reprieve from so many mortal woes."
"With one exception, I fear." Anne grinned as she gestured toward the now firmly shut door.
"Sister Ruth may think murderous thoughts on occasion," the prioress laughed, "but our sub-prioress loves God too much to ever act upon them."
The summer night air had never felt so thick, Brother Thomas thought as he trudged along the path to Tyndal village. Each muscle in his body ached with the effort. Had he ever loved the summer season? Perhaps in the years before he became a monk. As a boy?
How long ago that seemed. He struggled to recall something of the time but could only see a fleeting image, albeit one of flashing color. Indeed he no longer expended much effort to recapture such memories. What sickening man wants to remember pleasures he had in life?
"Sinful musing," he muttered to himself. Brother John had told him to concentrate on the joys awaiting him in Heaven when earthly troubles bore down with crushing weight. Were he a true monk, Thomas thought, such thoughts should make his heart rejoice. Instead, they only ground a sharper edge on his anguish.
Thomas cursed the humid thickness of the still night air. His burning eyes longed for the soothing cool of autumn weather. Surely he would suffer less if he got more sleep. How many nights had it been since he had slept longer than an hour or two?
With so little rest, he had begun to see and hear strange things: naked, rampant imps dancing in the cloister garth; disembodied voices calling his name with such sweetness that he wept with longing; faces of people, some long dead, whom he had once loved.
If he did not believe that his soul would tumble into Hell, he would welcome death. But the Devil would rejoice if he committed self-murder, and Thomas was in no mood to give the fiend any more satisfaction than the creature already enjoyed with him.
At least he now had these nightly distractions. When Sister Anne suggested a new task to fill his sleepless hours, he accepted with eager gratitude. By providing aid to those who suffered far more than he, the monk found some relief. He might be the most wicked of men, but at least he could ease pain, bring comfort, and hold the hands of the dying. In addition, the walks into the village fatigued him enough to blunt the sharpness of tortured dreams when he did sleep.
Thomas exhaled a deep sigh. Poor Brother John was grieving over his failure to cure the melancholia. His confessor was a man of compassion and faith, but nothing John had suggested eased the feverish dreams, the taunting visions, or the coal-dark burden in his heart.
John himself believed in self-flagellation, but Thomas had stopped the practice when he found it gave him a troubling pleasure, a feeling he distrusted and disliked. On occasion, he found some spiritual ease when he lay face down on the stone floor of the chapel, but the moment he began repeating prayers, his soul filled with noise and peace took flight. God must flee the chapel at the very sight of me, Thomas had decided.
Nay, Brother John was innocent of failure. He could not staunch a hidden bleeding when Thomas was incapable of pointing out the lesion from which it flowed. Lust, especially for another man, was sinful. That simple thing he might have confessed, as he had done once. What he could not explain was the sweet tenderness woven into his physical longing for both Giles and the man at Amesbury. Wise men knew that God drew battered souls with tender gentleness while Satan lured a man's soul with glittering lust. For this reason, the combination of purity and transgression in his heart confused him.
His shoulders fell with despair's cruel weight. Maybe his confessor was right about the cauterizing effect of exorcism. As matters stood now, Thomas' soul was dying of putrefying wounds. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Forsaken Soul by Priscilla Royal. Copyright © 2014 Priscilla Royal. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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