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“Heaven save me from that wretched girl!”
The abbess threw down her quill and slid from the tall stool at her writing table. As she kicked aside the voluminous skirt of her black woolen habit and headed for the door of her solar with both her elderly assistant and her informant in tow, she glanced skyward and issued Heaven yet another command.
“And while you’re at it, you’d best save her from me.”
Tension spread in an expanding wave across the enclosed green and through the open doors that faced the peaceful garden heart of the convent. The sisters of the order and their young female charges heard the scrape of feet on gravel and the muffled whispers rising in the abbess’s wake, and a number left their stitchery, looms, and tutoring to join a growing tide of curiosity at her back. A storm was brewing, and in a restrained and tautly run community of women there was nothing so fascinating as a vehement discharge of passion.
It was well past midday, not long until the bells would ring None, but the long wooden dining tables were bare and the chapter dining hall was deserted. Wisps of smoke hung in the air near the kitchen steps and grew steadily thicker as the abbess and her party descended through the passage. Smells of burned onions and fish and charred flour, overlaid by something like a tincture of “wet dog,” caused her curious followers to hesitate, wince, and clutch their noses. The abbess, however, charged through the stench with veil billowing and determination hardening. There was no question now that dinner would be late, and the abbess had no doubt about who was to blame for it.
Baskets of turnips, bags of flour and oats, and willow ricks of vegetables were stacked everywhere, some still bearing aromatic traces of damp earth from the underground cellars. The three long worktables in the center of the great stone chamber were cluttered with crocks, pails, wooden trenchers, and the ash-covered remains of what was once edible fish. Both the tables and the floor were covered with flour, and at the far end of the chamber, plumes of gray smoke boiled from various parts of the great stone hearth.
Sister Boniface, the convent’s head cook, stood to one side with her wimple wilted and sooty, her eyes stony, and her brawny arms crossed over her bosom. Clustered behind her, eyes wide with expectation, were her kitchen staff: a pair of aged nuns, two novices assigned to the kitchens, and half a dozen orphaned scullery maids and pot boys from the nearby village.
Through the haze, the abbess’s piercing gaze fixed on the singular soot-covered figure standing between the worktables and the roaring, overheated hearth. It was a young woman in a worn novice’s habit. As she turned in response to the gasps and whispers in the doorway, her gaze locked with the abbess’s and she froze.
“What in the blessed name of Heaven do you think you are doing?” the abbess roared.
Eloise of Argent shoved behind her back the iron skimmer she had been using to rescue some charred fish from the coals, and she felt her blood draining to her feet. She had seen that look in the abbess’s eye before ... when she improved the well and they had that little cave-in and the convent had to go without water for a day or two...
“Helping Sister Boniface,” she answered, her throat tightening the way it most certainly would if the abbess could get her fingers around it.
“Helping her to do what?” the abbess roared, flinging a finger at the smoking hearth. “Burn down the kitchens?”
“No, Reverend Mother, I was only showing her how to fit a few more things on the ... to improve her use of the...”
“Improve?” The notion stopped the abbess’s breath. “You’ve scorched, toppled, and collapsed your way through every corner of this convent in the name of improvement.”
“But if people would only listen to what I suggest — ”
“Listen? To your harebrained ideas? And bring yet more disaster down upon our heads? As if we don’t suffer enough during Lent!”
The abbess lurched for the aisle between the tables, and if her aged assistant hadn’t been standing on her long skirt, Eloise would have felt her wrath firsthand. By the time the head of the convent wheeled and set the old sister off her garment, Eloise had dropped the skimmer and backed out of reach.
“I’ll clean it all, Reverend Mother, I promise.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” The abbess advanced around the table and Eloise found herself backed against a huge stack of grain barrels she had insisted would be more accessible beside the tables and would save the kitchen sisters steps. She glanced between the glowering kitchen sisters and the curious faces in the doorway. Fully half of the convent was present to witness her fate.
There was no escaping it. Doomed now, she braced to meet whatever punishment the abbess would see fit to inflict. A true leader, she told herself, always took responsibility for her actions ... be they successes or failures.
“Reverend Mother!” a frantic voice called from the throng clogging the stairs and doorway. “Riders — men-at-arms!” A rotund little nun barreled her way through the crowd and headed straight for the abbess’s side. She was panting from her run and the smoke and stench caused her to gasp and sway against one of the burdened tables. “In — inside the gates — inside the court!” she managed to get out between coughs.
The news galvanized everyone in the kitchens.
“An armed force?” The abbess wheeled on the messenger. “Dearest Lord, in the Holy Season? Have they breached the cloister gate?”
The little nun shook her head vigorously as she clutched her side and struggled for breath. “Still ... in the court ... demanding to ... see you!”
Faced with the potential for far worse than a late dinner or a sooty kitchen, the abbess tossed a fierce glare at Eloise.
“You — go to your chamber and stay there until I send for you! See she gets there, Sister Archibald,” she ordered her assistant. Then she headed for the stairs, sweeping the air with her arms like an agitated mother hawk urging her nestlings into flight. “The rest of you — into the chapel and onto your knees. Go! Now!”
The scramble that followed was rescued from the throes of panic by the determined example of the older and more experienced nuns. When the sisters and their female charges reached the cloister walk leading to the chapel, the elders slowed and began to pray loudly and emphatically. The clamor of scuffing feet and the girls’ cries of distress were slowly engulfed in a measured drone: “Hail Mary, full of grace...”
Next to rampaging plague, armed men at the gates — inside the gates — were the most serious threat a cloistered community of women could face. Church lands and holdings, particularly wealthy ones like the Convent of the Brides of Virtue, too often became contested prizes in the bloody power struggles between noble houses. And once the gates of a convent had been breached, the appetites of war frequently reduced its occupants from Heaven’s handmaidens to the spoils of battle.
Eloise felt Sister Archibald’s hand on her elbow, tugging. “Come away, girl. We must hurry. Kitchens are the first place they raid.”
Eloise jolted into motion, but not toward the door leading to the secondary residence, where the novices were housed. Sister Archibald, who refused to release her, was dragged along in the abbess’s wake.
“Eloise, ye cannot do this,” the venerable Archibald declared, alternately teetering along and bracing to resist, trying in vain to prevent their progress. “The abbess — ”
“May need help,” Eloise said, undeterred by the certainty that the abbess would welcome help from the Devil himself before accepting it from her. Behind her she could hear Sister Archibald groan.
“Don’t interfere, Eloise. She has enough trouble on her hands.”
“I’ve got to see.” Eloise paused to allow the old lady to catch her breath. “How will I ever learn to be abbess if she won’t let me see how she does things?”
Another groan. “Ye’ll never live to be even a full nun, if ye don’t stop this madness and go straight to yer chamber and down onto yer knees to ask for forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness? For wanting to help?” Eloise peered around the corner of the chapter house and looked toward the chapel, from which wafted the sound of female voices in unified and fervent prayer. No one was left in the court or cloister. Freed from the fear of discovery, she took a deep breath and pulled Sister Archibald toward the steps at the end of the main residence and then down the upstairs hallway.
“Forgiveness for being headstrong and disobedient,” the old sister said, scowling at her. “Ye’re proud and stubborn and ye lack much in the grace of sufferance.”
“I am not disobedient,” Eloise protested.
“Look at ye ... disobeying right now!”
“I’m doing as the reverend mother says.” Eloise took the old nun’s hand and pulled her along. “I’m just doing it slowly.”
Even as she spoke, they reached the gallery that ringed the upper range of the convent’s reception hall, and Eloise pulled her aged superior along toward the narrow, leaded window overlooking the courtyard. Pressing against the wall, one on either side of the window, they could make out the sounds of voices outside and the occasional snort of a horse. With a finger pressed to her lips for silence, Eloise reached for the handle of the window latch and turned it. The creak of rusted iron hinges and the appearance of two heads peering over the sill went unnoticed by those participating in the drama unfolding below.
The abbess stood before the cloister gate, drawn up to her full imperious height, with Bendick the stable hand, armed with a shovel, and Old Rupert the gardener, brandishing a wooden rake, at her back. Before the abbess, filling the dusty courtyard with horseflesh, heat, and an air of menace, were more than a score of seasoned knights and men-at-arms arrayed in a rank behind a nobleman dressed in light armor.
The nobleman dismounted and strode forward to face the abbess. She was not a small woman but this lord, in his great leather boots, battle-scarred breastplate, and forbidding hawk-shaped helm, towered well above her.
“I’ve come for a woman,” he declared, his powerful voice reverberating through the stone-walled court like the report of a cannon.
Then something caused him to twitch with irritation and shoot a dark look over his shoulder. After a pause and a tightening of the sun-creased eyes visible inside his polished helm, the lord flexed his gauntlet-clad hands in irritation. Behind him, at the center of his cordon of men, the silk pennant bearing his coat of arms snapped sharply in the breeze.
“A wife. I’ve come for a wife.” he amended his demand.
That word, even intoned in the lord’s booming voice, sent a trickle of relief through Eloise and Sister Archibald, who had been holding their breaths as they stared at the battle-hardened force invading their home.
“A wife?” The abbess’s voice was oddly choked. But a moment later, she slid her arms up into her sleeves in a gesture of resolve that Eloise and Sister Archibald instantly recognized. She openly assessed the scarred and hot-eyed soldiers behind the glowering monolith who stood with his legs spread and braced and his fists propped on his hips.
“Who are you, sir, and what do you mean by riding into our convent with an armed force? I warn you — our order and this holy establishment are under the protection of the Bishop of Rheims and His Highness the Duke of Avalon.”
There was a pause as the lord assessed the authority and the demeanor of the woman who administered the property and affairs of the abbey.
“I am Peril, earl of Whitmore, loyal subject of Edward of England. I’ve come to secure a wife.”
She flung a finger at his armed contingent. “In the holiest of seasons ... with swords and axes and men-at-arms?”
“The axes are not raised, the swords are not drawn.” He sounded somewhat indignant at her objection. “I have journeyed a long way through perilous precincts, and when I am done here, I must return on the same path bearing a bride. My intentions are honorable and peaceable ... else I would not have a priest in company.”
He turned, grabbed the priest hiding behind him, and dragged him around to face the abbess.
The abbess studied the man, the wincing priest, and the situation.
“A priest is no assurance,” the abbess declared. “Many lords raid and make war with the church hard by their side.”
The priest, who shrank like frying bacon under the heat of the abbess’s suspicion, turned to the earl and spoke in quiet, anxious tones. The lord didn’t seem to like what he heard and they argued in whispers. Then the earl drew back with a snarl, unsheathed his sword with one hand and his dagger with the other, and took two long strides toward the abbess.
Sister Archibald’s knobby hand clamped over Eloise’s mouth as she rose to cry out. Together, they stood upright in the window, watching him hurl the dagger into the packed earth of the court, near the abbess’s feet, and then plant his sword, point first, beside it.
“There they will stay,” the earl declared, “until you return them to me yourself.”
The action clearly had an impact on the abbess.
“Then you have indeed come to acquire a wife.” Her voice seemed abnormally thin and high. He nodded sharply and after another moment of silence, the abbess announced her decision. “You and your priest will be welcome to enter our gates and partake of our hospitality” — she raked his men with a resentful eye — ”as soon as your men have withdrawn to the village.”
The earl looked none too pleased by this final obstacle, but soon turned to his second in command and nodded. The knight turned his horse and raised an arm in a silent order for the others to follow him. As the sound of their hoofbeats faded, the abbess took a deep breath, ordered the stableman and the gardener to close the outer gates, and beckoned the earl and his priest inside.
Eloise stood for a moment, transfixed by the sight of the dagger and sword. The gleam of the polished metal in the early spring sun sent a chill up her spine.
As the sound of the three entering the reception hall drifted up from below, Sister Archibald grabbed Eloise’s wrist and gestured frantically toward the side hall. Eloise delayed just long enough to glimpse over the railing the abbess leading the earl and his cleric into her private reception chamber.