Read an Excerpt
Wine of Violence
By Priscilla Royal
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2003 Priscilla Royal
All rights reserved.
During the dark morning hours of a winter day in the year 1270, an aged prioress realized she was dying.
To her surprise the dying was much easier than she had ever imagined. The crushing pain in her chest was gone and she felt herself drifting upward with an extraordinary lightness. She was floating above the rush-covered floor, over which a dusting of sweet-scented petals had been scattered, and away from that narrow convent cot where her earthly remains lay so still. Indeed, she wasn't frightened. She was very much at peace.
Below her, a semi-circle of nuns continued to chant with haunting harmony, their warm breath circling around her in the bitterly cold air. Many had tears in their eyes at her death, she noted, especially Sister Christina, whose grief meant the most to the old prioress. She could not have loved the nun more if she had been a child of her own body, but Christina had become the child of her soul instead, and, knowing the young woman would remain in the world, the old prioress could leave it with an easier spirit. She smiled.
Still sitting by the convent bed was Sister Anne. The sub-infirmarian to the priory was pale with fatigue and her shoulders hunched as she bent over the hollow body that the prioress had just quitted. The old prioress shook her head. No, good sister, she thought, now is the time for prayer, not your concoctions. How often had she told the nun that when God wanted a soul, all those earthly herbs and potions would be useless? Yet the kind sister had been able to ease the mortal pain of her passing. For that I am grateful, the old prioress thought, and as she watched the nun lean over, testing for breath from the quiet body, she hoped Sister Anne would, as she should, find a comfort in having given that relief.
Against the wall stood Brother Rupert, in front of her favorite tapestry of St. Mary Magdalene sitting at the feet of Our Lord. The good brother's eyes were red from weeping, his head bowed in grief. How she wished to comfort him! He looked so frail to her now, his monk's habit far too big for his diminished frame. Maybe he would join her soon?
She mustn't hope. Earthly associations should have no place in Heaven, but she was insufficiently distanced from the world not to believe Heaven would be a happier place with Brother Rupert by her side, as he had been for more years than either could truly remember.
Heaven? Was she really going to Heaven, she wondered. A cold gust of doubt cut through the warm breath of the nuns and chilled her. Was that invisible hand lifting her young soul from her age-ravaged body really the hand of an angel of God?
She shivered. She had always tried to be worthy of God's grace, serving Him to the best of her ability. She had tried to be humble, dutiful, and she thought she had confessed all her sins to Brother Rupert just before falling into the strange sleep that had preceded this freeing of her soul.
An icy uncertainty nipped at her. Had she remembered all her sins? Might the Prince of Darkness have blinded her, making her forget some critical imperfection? Some sin of omission perhaps? Was her soul truly cleansed or was there some small rotting spot that would fling her into a purgatorial pit where pain was as sharp as the agonies of hell?
An unformed impression, a memory, something nagged at her.
It wasn't too late, she thought. Brother Rupert was standing near. Surely she could still reach him if she could just think of ...
Then it came to her. Oh, but the mercy of God was indeed great! He had granted her the understanding to see the tragic error both she and Brother Rupert had made. Now she must get the message to the good priest. She must!
She struggled to reach her confessor, willing her soul toward the weeping man.
"Brother! Brother!" she cried. "I must tell you one thing more!"
She stretched out her hand, struggling to grasp him, reaching for the crude wooden cross he wore on a thin leather strap around his neck.
But something seemed to hold her back; some black force scrabbled to keep her soul from deliverance.
The priest had not heard her cry. He did not see her fighting to reach him.
She must tell him. She must! After all her years devoted to God, Satan should not win her soul over such a misunderstanding, a judgement she'd made with imperfect knowledge and mortal blindness. An innocent person would be hurt, even die, if she did not. She could not have that fouling her conscience.
She fought harder to reach her confessor, twisting, crying, moaning for help.
Suddenly a hand materialized from the tapestry. It grasped the old prioress firmly and pulled her back to the ground. It was a woman's hand, and the touch was warm.
The old prioress looked up and saw St. Mary Magdalene smiling.
"Tell me, my child," the saintly voice said. "I will tell Our Lord." She gestured to the glowing man at whose feet she sat. "And He will forgive all as He always has."
The old prioress wanted to weep for joy.
"Please tell him that I accused wrongly. It was not the one we feared, but rather the other!" she gasped.
And with that, the world turned black.
His heart pounded. His lungs hurt as he gulped cold ocean air through his open and toothless mouth. Stinging sweat trickled down his reddened, unevenly shaven face, and Brother Rupert rubbed the sleeve of his rough robe across his age-dulled eyes.
Once he could have walked the familiar path between town and priory with ease. Now his legs ached with the effort of climbing and he had to will himself to the top of the sandy, scrub-grass covered hill.
"I'm getting old. I am getting old," he muttered, as the moist wind stabbed each one of his joints.
At the hilltop, he stopped to rest and looked back into the distance. The morning sun of early spring had burned off the thickest fog, but the walls of Tyndal Priory, a double house of priests and nuns in the French Order of Fontevraud, were mere shadows in the drifting haze.
It didn't matter. He could have shut his eyes and seen each stone of every building clearly. Since the winter of 1236, when Eleanor of Provence had come to England as the now aging King Henry's wife, Brother Rupert had been chaplain, scribe, and administrating secretary to the recently deceased Felicia, Prioress of Tyndal. He had lived at the priory long before that, however, indeed from a day in his thirteenth summer when his rich merchant father proudly dedicated him to this woman-ruled Order so favored by kings, queens, and other elite of the realm. His father might have given him to the religious life as an oblate, but the boy came as a willing and eager offering. The monastic walls provided a secure refuge from a world he found frightening, a world filled with violence and lust.
Suddenly his eyes overflowed with tears, and he wiped his gnarled fingers across them hurriedly. "Ah, but I loved you, I did, and I miss you," he said, watching as a swirling gust of mist seemed to lift his words into the sky and scatter them. "And for the sake of all our souls I will put the matter right, my lady. I promise you that."
His words were fervent with an almost prayerful intensity.
Then he sighed, stretched the stiffness from his legs and started down the hill, tentatively at first, unsure in his footing. Once protected from the sea breeze, he could feel the warmth of the sun, and his steps quickened.
His mood improved and he smiled. Indeed, in the warmth he now felt he could almost sense that the eyes of God were upon him.
They were not. They were human.CHAPTER 2
"Sister Christina will be here in due course, my lady." A scowling nun, of middle years and pockmarked face, bowed with perfunctory courtesy in Eleanor's direction. Despite the warmth in the crowded chapter house, Sister Ruth's words fell with a chill on the prioress's ear.
Eleanor of Wynethorpe, recently named the new head of Tyndal Priory, sat with stiff spine in her high-backed chair, looked down at the forty-odd wimple-encircled faces in front of her, and knew she was not welcome.
Nor could she blame them. Her appointment to the position of prioress had nothing to do with competence. It had all to do with her father's unwavering loyalty to King Henry III during Simon de Montfort's recent rebellion, her oldest brother's close friendship with Prince Edward, and her mother's devoted support of the queen during a crucial time in the royal marriage. As each one of the nuns sitting in front of her well knew, none of these things meant Eleanor was personally qualified for the high office she now held, only that her family was in favor at court.
After the recent peace settlements, King Henry had had little spare land and even less free coin, thanks to Prince Edward's recent departure on a crusade. Thus the genuinely pious, increasingly ill king had decided that the prayers of many nuns at Eleanor's behest would be of greater benefit to her father than worldly wealth, a conclusion with which the good Baron Adam might have disagreed but which he accepted with appropriate gratitude on his daughter's behalf. In short, her appointment had been convenient and the wishes of the priory itself were set aside.
Although it was not uncommon for kings to honor priories by placing their own choices in superior positions, the royal selections usually carried some important benefit besides the king's fickle favor to sweeten the decision. Sweetening was certainly needed here. Each house in the powerful Order of Fontevraud had always had the absolute right to name its own head. Tyndal had been uniquely thwarted.
"Is Sister Christina habitually late to chapter or is there a special reason she is not here?" Eleanor asked the nun at her side. Perhaps by deferring to this older woman's experience and seeking her advice she might begin to dispel her obvious bitterness.
"She is our infirmarian," the elder nun replied after a silence so cold it felt like ice pressed against Eleanor's heart.
Eleanor swallowed a sharp retort. Last night, at her first private dinner in her new chambers, Brother Rupert had told her that Sister Ruth had been elected to succeed Prioress Felicia, albeit not by an overwhelming vote. This sour-faced nun had been in charge of Tyndal from the death of the former prioress until the announcement of Eleanor's appointment early in the summer. Of course, the woman's disappointment at being so unexpectedly supplanted had been profound, and the elderly monk had also suggested, with the understandable hesitation of one religious telling tales on a fellow, that Sister Ruth's current thoughts about Eleanor might be less than charitable.
"I am aware of Sister Christina's responsibility to the sick," Eleanor replied. "However, she must often absent herself from them for good and proper reasons. Surely she has some reliable lay sister or brother she can leave in charge when her other duties require her attendance?" Eleanor hoped she had succeeded in keeping her voice devoid of the anger she felt at Sister Ruth's insolent manner.
"She is never late for prayer, my lady."
Eleanor bit the inside of her cheek, regretting that there had been nothing, or at least nothing obvious, offered to sweeten her arrival at Tyndal. Indeed, she could list two more good reasons for her charges not to accept her. Having been raised at Amesbury Priory since the age of six, she lacked the secular world experience required of most Fontevraud prioresses; moreover, she was only twenty, very young compared to most of the other nuns here. Each shortcoming, indeed all three, might mean little to a king giving gifts to a loyal lord, but to the women who were quietly studying her, none were trivial. With sharp pain, she felt each one of her deficiencies. Compared to the woman who might have sat in this prioress' seat, but for the grace of kings, Eleanor knew she fell far short in the eyes of those sitting before her.
"I see," Eleanor, said, though in truth she did not. Nor would she. Although tempted, she would not explain to Sister Ruth the need to balance God's work with prayers to God, nor would she chastise her in public for rude and arrogant behavior to a religious superior. It was Christina who needed counseling on maintaining balance and Ruth who required delicate diplomacy if Eleanor was ever going to win her allegiance. Embarrassing this woman in front of the other nuns, as appealing as that course was now, would not accomplish that.
Eleanor glanced up at the rough beam rafters above her. I may not be your elected choice, she thought as she looked back at the nuns sitting on the stone seats surrounding the chapter house wall, but chosen I was and there is naught any of us can do about that. Let us only pray that God will grant me sufficient wit to guide you well despite all the misgivings we share.
"We shall delay the start of Chapter for a few minutes more." Eleanor nodded at her charges, then took a deep breath.
There were over forty women to whom she must attach names and a few salient facts about familial background as well as position within the priory. While they waited for the absent sister, she could use the time to put faces to names. That would keep her temper cool. To call a sister by her name without hesitation and ask after her kin helped create an aura of authority she desperately needed. Brother Rupert had given her a succinct summary and description of most of the nuns last night. She had quickly memorized it, but if she did not apply that information to the actual person, she would soon forget the details. She looked to the woman on her far right and began a mental recitation.
The nun on the last seat was easy to remember. She was the tallest in the convent. Sister Anne had come to Tyndal in her late twenties after several years of marriage, Eleanor recited in her head. She and her husband had left their apothecary shop and the world together, he to the Fontevraud brothers at Tyndal and she to the sisters here.
Now which brother was he? She hesitated. No, Brother Rupert hadn't mentioned his name, but then he hadn't had time to tell her about all her charges at the priory. She made a mental note to ask him later.
Eleanor glanced up at the nun, then quickly lowered her eyes to avoid the discourtesy of staring. According to Brother Rupert, Sister Anne seemed content enough in her vocation and served competently as assistant to the infirmarian. There was, however, a sadness about the woman, evident in her bent shoulders and in the manner she held her bowed head. The observation was, she felt, worth further thought.
The seat next to Sister Anne was empty. That would belong to Sister Christina, the infirmarian, a plump and youthful nun who spent much of her time in chapel praying while Anne actually ran the hospital. Eleanor was beginning to suspect that habitual tardiness to everything except prayer, and perhaps meals, was another salient fact about this young woman.
Eleanor heard a muffled cough and looked at the door, hoping to see the tardy nun arrive. She hadn't. Eleanor closed her eyes and offered a quick prayer for patience in dealing with Sister Christina, but in truth, she had never felt charitable toward the unreliable.
With a suppressed groan, she opened her eyes. The nuns were sitting with great patience, hands tucked into their sleeves and eyes demurely lowered as if continuing their prayers from chapel. Indeed some were thinking godly thoughts. And some were not. Two of the latter were on the left of Christina's seat.
Sister Edith and Sister Matilda were actually blood sisters, children of a minor lord, who had come to the convent together because they apparently could not bear to live apart. Yet the two bickered constantly. Even now the thinner sister jostled the stouter one for space while muttering what Eleanor suspected were less than Christian sentiments.
Sister Edith, lean, pale and restless, was in charge of the kitchen, a position for which she had neither interest nor talent if last night's anonymous food was any indication. Sister Matilda, on the other hand, was red-faced, rotund and in charge of the kitchen garden. From the drooping state of its few pallid vegetables, little had survived her less than tender care over the summer growing months.
Excerpted from Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal. Copyright © 2003 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.