Read an Excerpt
Novice Cecily was on her knees in St Anne's chapel when the shouting began outside. According to the candle clock it was almost noon, and Cecilywho in her former life had been called Lady Cecily Fulfordwas in retreat. She had sworn not to speak a word to anyone till after the nuns had broken their fasts the next morning. A small figure in a threadbare grey habit and veil, alone at her prie-dieu, Cecily had about eighteen hours of silence to go, and was determined that this time her retreat would not be broken.
Lamps glowed softly in wall sconces, and above the altar a little November daylight was filtering through the narrow unshuttered window. Ignoring the chill seeping up from the stone flags, Cecily bent her veiled head over her prayer beads. "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is"
A thud on the chapel door had her swinging round. Another harder one had the thick oak door bouncing on its hinges.
"Cecily! Cecily! Are you in there? You must let me speak to you! It's"
The woman's voice was cut off abruptly, but Cecily's prayers were quite forgotten. For though the voice did not belong to any of the nuns, it seemed vaguely familiar. She strained to hear more.
Two voices, arguing, and none too quietly. One belonged to Sister Judith, the convent portress. The other voice, the outsider's, went up a notch in pitch, touched on hysteria
Part curious, part anxious, Cecily scrambled to her feet. Not more bad news, surely? Hadn't the loss of both her father and brother at Hastings been enough
She was halfway up the aisle when the door burst open. Lamps flickered, and her blood sister, the Lady Emma Fulford, threw off the restraining arms of the portress and hurtled into the chapel.
One year Cecily's senior, seventeen-year-old Emma was a vision in flowing pink robes and a burgundy velvet cloak. Dropping a riding crop and a pair of cream kid gloves onto the flagstones, she flung herself at Cecily.
"Cecily! Oh, Cecily, you must speak to me. You must!" Finding herself enveloped in a fierce embrace that bordered on the desperate, Cecily fought free of silks and velvets and the scent of roses so that she could study her sister's face. One look had her abandoning her vow of silence.
"Of course I'll speak to you."
Emma gave an unladylike sniff. "She" a jerk of her head at Sister Judith set her long silken veil aquiver "said you were in retreat, not to be disturbed. That you may at last be going to take your vows."
"That is so." Emma had been crying, and not just in the past few minutes either, for her fine complexion was blotched and puffy and her eyes were rimmed with shadows. In the four years since Cecily had been brought to the convent she and her elder sister had become strangers, but her sister's delicate beauty had lived on in her mind. This distraught, haggard Emma made her blood run cold.
Sister Judith shut the chapel door with a thump and stood just inside the threshold. Folding her arms, she shook her head at Cecily, the novice who once again had failed to keep her retreat.
Cecily took Emma's hand. Her fingers were like ice. "Something else has happened, hasn't it? Something dreadful."
Emma's eyes filled and she gave a shuddering sob. "Oh, Cecily, it's Maman
"Maman? What? What's happened to Maman?" But Cecily had no need to wait for an answer, for she could read it in Emma's expression.
Their mother was dead.
Knees buckling, Cecily gripped Emma's arms and the sisters clung to each other.
"Not Maman," Cecily choked. "Emma, please, not Maman too
" Emma nodded, tears flooding openly down her cheeks. "Wh
"Three days since."
"How? Was it
was it the babe?" It had to be that. Their mother, Philippa of Fulford, had been thirty-sevennot youngand she had been seven months pregnant at the time of the battle at Hastings. Of Norman extraction herself, she had found the great battle especially hard to cope with. Cecily knew her mother would have taken great pains to hide her emotions, but the deaths of her Anglo Saxon husband and her firstborn son would have been too much to bear.
Many women died in childbed, and at her mother's age, and in her state of grief
Emma dashed away her tears and nodded. "Aye. Her time came early, her labour was long and hard, and afterwards
Oh, Cecily, there was so much blood. We could do nothing to stem the flow. Would that you had been there. Your time at Sister Mathilda's elbow has taught you so much about healing, whereas I
" Her voice trailed off.
Cecily shook her head. It was true that she had greedily taken in all that Sister Mathilda had chosen to teach her, but she also knew that not everyone could be saved. "Emma, listen. Maman's death was not your fault. Once bleeding starts inside it's nigh impossible to stop
and besides, it's possible she simply lost the will to live after father and Cenwulf were killed."
Emma sniffed. "Aye. We were going to send for you. Wilf was ready to mount up. But by the time we realised the dangers it
it was too late." Emma gripped Cecily's hands.
"It was not your fault." after the messenger came from Hastings. She could not eat or sleep. She wandered round the Hall like a ghost. It was as though, with Father dead, a light went out within her. Father was not an easy man, and Maman was not one to wear her affections openly"
"Displays of sentiment are vulgar, and not suited to a lady," Cecily murmured, repeating a well-worn phrase of her mother's.
"Quite so. But she loved him. If any doubted that"Emma gave Cecily a penetrating look, knowing that Cecily and her father, Thane Edgar, had crossed swords on more matters than the delaying of her profession. "If any doubted that, this last month would have set them right. And Cenwulf." Emma's gaze brimmed with sympathy. "I realise you did adore him, too."
"Maman's heart was broken."
Emma gulped. "Aye. And twisted."
"Because her own countrymen were the invaders?"
Emma squeezed Cecily's hand. "I knew you'd understand."
"Sister Judith's voice cut in, reminding the girls of the portress's presence by the chapel door.
It was Sister Judith's duty to give or deny permission for outsiders to enter the convent. Since the order was not an enclosed one, permission was granted more often than not, but never when a nun or novice was on retreat. Hands folded at her girdle, silver cross winking at her breast, the nun regarded Emma sternly, but not unkindly. She had been moved, Cecily saw, by what she had heard.
"Lady Emma, since you have seen fit to break your sister's retreat by this conference, may I suggest that you continue in the portress's lodge? The Angelus bell is about to strike, and the rest of the community will be needing the chapel."
"Of course, Sister Judith. Our apologies," Cecily said. Bending to retrieve Emma's riding crop and gloves, Cecily took her sister's hand and led her out of the chapel.
A chill winter wind was tossing straw about the yard. Woodsmoke gusted out of the cookhouse, and their breath made white vapour which was no sooner formed than it was snatched away.
Emma drew the burgundy velvet cloak more tightly about her shoulders.
Cecily, who had not touched a cloak of such quality since entering the convent, and in any case was not wearing even a thin one since she was within the confines of the convent, shivered, and ushered her sister swiftly across the yard towards the south gate.
The portress's lodge, a thatched wooden hut, sagged against the palisade. Abutting the lodge at its eastern end was the convent's guest house, a slightly larger, marginally more inviting building; Cecily led her sister inside.
Even though the door was thrown wide the room was full of shadows, for the wooden walls were planked tight, with only a shuttered slit or two to let in the light. Since no guests had been looked for, there was no fire in the central hearth, only a pile of dead ashes. November marked the beginning of the dark months, but Cecily knew better than to incur Mother Aethelflaeda's wrath by lighting a precious candle. If she added the sin of wasting a candle in daylight to the sin of her broken retreat, she'd be doing penance till Christmas ten years hence.
Dropping Emma's riding crop and gloves on the trestle along with her rosary, Cecily wrenched the shutters open. The cold and ensuing draughts would have to be borne. Emma paced up and down. Her pink gown, Cecily now had time to notice, was liberally spattered with mud about the hem, her silken veil was awry, and the chaplet that secured it was crooked.
"You rode fast to bring me this sad news," Cecily said slowly, as her sister strode back and forth. Now that the first shock was passing, her mind was beginning to work, and she had questions. "And yet
if Maman died three days since, you must have delayed your ride to me. There is more, isn't there?"
Emma stopped her pacing. "Yes. The babe lives. A boy." Cecily gaped. "A boy? And he lives? Oh, it's a miraclenew life after so much death!" Her face fell. "But so early? Emma, he cannot survive."
"So I thought. He is small. I took the liberty of having him christened Philip, in case
Emma broke off with a choking sound, but she had no need to add more. Having lived in the convent for four years, Cecily knew the Church's view as well as any. If the babe did die, better that he died christened into the faith. For if he died outside it, he would be for eternity a lost soul.
"Philip," Cecily murmured. "Maman would have liked that."
"Aye. And it's not a Saxon name, so if he survives
I thought his chances better if he bore a Norman name."
"It is a good thought to stress Maman's lineage rather than Father's," Cecily replied. The son of a Saxon thane could not thrive if in truth England was to become Norman, but the son of a Norman lady
Emma drew close, touched Cecily's arm, and again Cecily became conscious of the incongruous fragrance of roses in November, of the softness of her sister's gown, of the whiteness of her hands, of her unbroken lady's nails. All the mud in England couldn't obscure either the quality of Emma's clothing or her high status.
She brushed awkwardly at her own coarse skirts in a vain attempt to shake out some dust and creases, and hide the hole at the knee where she'd torn the fabric grubbing up fennel roots in the herb garden. There were so many holes in the cloth it was nigh impossible to darn. "I would have come at once to tell you, Cecily, if I had not had my hands full caring for our new brother."
"You were right to put Philip first. Do you think he may thrive?"
"I pray so. I left him with Gudrun. She was brought to bed a few months since herself, with a girl, and she is acting at his wet nurse." The restless pacing resumed. "He would not feed at first, but Gudrun persevered, and now
" A faint smile lit Emma's eyes. "I think he may thrive, after all."
"That at least is good news."
"Aye." Emma turned, picked up her riding crop from the trestle and tapped it against her side. She stood with her back to Cecily, facing the door, and stared at the cookhouse smoke swirling in the yard. "Cecily
I confess I didn't really come to tell you about Philip
"No? What, then?" Cecily made as if to move towards Emma, but a sharp hand movement from her sister stilled her. "Emma?"
I've come to bid you farewell."
Thinking she had not heard properly, Cecily frowned. "What?"
"I'm going north." Emma began to speak quickly, her back unyielding. "More messengers came, after Maman
after Philip was born. Messengers from Duke William."
"Normans? At Fulford Hall?"
A jerky nod. "They'll be there by now."
Cecily touched Emma's arm to make her turn, but Emma resisted Cecily's urging and kept staring at the door. "The carrion crows are come already," Emma said bitterly. "They are efficient, at least, and have not wasted any time seizing our lands. The Duke knows that our father and Cenwulf are dead. In a convoluted message that spoke of King Harold's perfidy as an oath-breaker, I was informed that I, Thane Edgar's daughter, have been made a ward of Duke William, and I am to be given in marriage to one of his knights. And not even a man with proper Norman blood in him, like Maman, but some Breton clod with no breeding at all!"
Emma swung round. Her eyes were wild and hard, and the riding crop smacked against her thigh. "Cecily, I won't. I can't I won't do it!"
Cecily caught Emma's hands between hers. "Have you met him?" Emma heaved in a shuddering breath. "The Breton? No. Duke William's messenger said he would follow shortly, so I left as soon as I might. Cecily, I can't marry him, so don't talk to me of duty!"
"Who am I to do that when I have delayed committing myself to God for so many years?" Cecily said gently.
Emma's expression softened. "I know. You never asked to be a nun. You follow our father's will in that. I have often thought it unfair that simply because I was born first I should be the one expected to marry while you, the younger girl, were sacrificed to the Church and a life of contemplation even though you had no vocation."
"We both know it was a matter of riches. The Church accepted me with a far smaller dower than any thane or knight ever would. Father could not afford to marry us both well."
Emma brightened. "Think, Cecily. Father is gone; the Church has had your dower, such as it waswhat is to prevent your leaving?"
"You were not made to be a nun. I know Father promised you to the Church, but what promise did you ever make?"
"I swore to try and do his will."
"Yes, and that you have done. Four years mewed up in a convent. And look at you." Emma's lip curled as she plucked at the stuff of Cecily's habit. "This grey sackcloth does not become you. I'll warrant it itches like a plague of lice
"It does, but mortification of the flesh encourages humility"
"Rot! You don't believe that! And look at the state of your hands. Peasant hands"
"From gardening." Cecily lifted her chin. "I work in the herb garden. It's useful and I enjoy it."
"Peasant hands, as I said." Emma lowered her voice. "Cecily, be bold. You can leave this place."
Cecily made an exasperated sound. "Where would I go? Back to Fulford, to your Breton knight? Be realistic, Emma, what use has this world for a dowerless novice?" She smiled. "Besides, I'm wise to you. You only suggest this as a sop to your conscience."
Emma stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"Like it or not, Emma, your duty is at Fulford. You are, as you say, the eldest daughter, born to wed. The people at Fulford need you. Who else will speak for them? And what of our new brother? I'll warrant Duke William doesn't even know of his existence. How do you think his knight will react when he finds that Fulford has a male heir after all? No, Emma, your duty is plain and you cannot shirk it. You must return to Fulford and wait for the knight Duke William has chosen for you."
Emma was very pale; her mouth became a thin line. "No."