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.”