He stood in the shadows, watching men enter and leave the inn. It was a respectable place, one he knew well, and close by the holy shrines of Walsingham, but the promising warmth of the hearth fire and boisterous voices of men did not gladden his heart. Leaning back against the rough wall of some merchant’s house, he squeezed his eyes shut against the light from the inn that assailed him with rude persistence.
How often had he sworn that he would cease this work and return fully to the vocation he claimed? But he knew he would not and mocked himself for holding on to such a delusion so long. The rewards were high, and he took them willingly enough, but the extra coin meant little to him. He put most of it into a damaged pot and buried it in the garden near the privy. This choice of hiding place was deliberate. Every time he added to the hoard, he dug within the stench of his own excrement. That was a small penance, very small, for what he did.
So he did not accept these undertakings for coin, a jewel, or even praise. His masters were grateful when he succeeded, as they prayed he would, but his efforts would never be praised by all men. Some would laud him and others denounce. He chose to set aside such debates. On the day of his death, he would care about the fine definitions of good and evil because eternity mattered. Until that hour, he believed these grave questions were best left to saints and popes.
In truth, his reasons were out of the ordinary. He took on these tasks because he could live in the shadows for awhile. Others longed for the sun, reaching out for the warmth and praising the bright hours as belonging to God. For him, day was a time of falsehood when his speech became the model of trickery, his body the temple of deception, and everything he did a practiced lie. Only in obscurity could he be honest, even if that truth was an evil thing. Only in the velvet embrace of darkness could he find comfort and peace.
A man walked past, then hesitated and turned to look at him. He shook his head.
The man went on his way.
He watched until the figure disappeared into the black maw of narrow streets.
It was not yet time to allow himself that indulgence, a sin he would confess when God reached out for his soul but not before, a transgression most would say was worse than the one he committed for coin.
A priest always forgave him for all crimes required to satisfy his masters’ will, but that priest was chosen to do it. Thus his penance was light, and absolution granted with a smile. God might not be so kind when he faced final judgment on crimes regretted only out of fear.
With effort, he willed himself to step away from the wall. The moment had come to face the light.
Clenching his teeth, he strode toward the inn.
Trying not to fidget, Sister Roysia pressed her back against the sharp stone wall of the audience chamber wall. Impatience lingered despite the rock stabbing through her habit. This meeting had lasted since the midday meal. Would Prioress Ursell never bring it to an end?
Outside, the ashen daylight of early spring was swiftly retreating before night’s determined assault. This was the Lenten season, and gloom was appropriate. It inspired penitential ardor in the hearts of those who would soon arrive in great numbers to visit the shrines of Walsingham during the favorite pilgrimage season of Easter week. Now was the time to order the badges the crowds would long to buy, making this lengthy discussion necessary.
Although Sister Roysia knew this, she wished it had been otherwise. She usually did not mind standing here for long hours. As the prioress’ chosen attendant, she overheard much that amused, now and then thrilled, and occasionally proved useful to her. The moment she folded her hands and lowered her pale eyes, she faded into the gray walls, and visitors forgot the presence of the preternaturally thin nun with a wan face. They would start confiding in Prioress Ursell of Ryehill Priory whatever transgressions had brought them to this holy site, the latest news, or other matters hidden in their hearts, some of which might give even the Devil momentary pause.
And so, had it been any other day, Sister Roysia would not have regretted the time lost to prayer or other duties. But this discussion was strictly a matter of business. The negotiations between her prioress and Master Larcher, craftsman of pilgrimage badges, were always wearisome. Today’s had become interminable.
The relics for which this pilgrimage site was famous were the responsibility of the Augustinian canons of Walsingham Priory, but the nuns of Ryehill Priory had been given the privilege of selling badges to support themselves and Father Vincent, the priest assigned to them. This trafficking was managed by Prioress Ursell, a task for which she was well-suited.
Perhaps too well-suited, Sister Roysia thought, as she kept her eyes focused on the stone floor to prevent anyone from reading her thoughts. Her prioress had the reputation, both within and outside this priory, for being firm in her principles. When it came to acquiring coin, her resolve hardened into indestructibility.
As sharp-witted as she was sharp-featured, the prioress could match wits with any merchant. Few men were as resolute as she when it came to paying the least for the best quality badges and other tokens eagerly sought by penitents.
The objects sold by the priory all came from the local shop of Master Larcher, a man skilled in their design but especially the quantity of production. Since he was also the only craftsman in Walsingham so talented, Ryehill Priory was fortunate to engage him. The quality of badges from Canterbury might be better, but even that popular site could not match the volume or the variety made by Larcher of Walsingham.
Each time the merchant and the prioress met to negotiate the purchases, the craftsman arrived determined to win the better deal. Inevitably, Prioress Ursell ground him into a coarse powder like seeds with a pestle. Their disputes were brutal. Had this priory not been dedicated to God, Sister Roysia might have concluded that the negotiations were taking place in Hell itself.
There was a loud rustling amongst the assembled group. With restrained hope, the nun glanced up through her eyelashes.
The men were rising.
Prioress Ursell remained seated in her oaken chair.
Father Vincent stood beside her, a bone-thin cleric with yellowish skin and glittering blue eyes. Most people would not recognize that twitching of his lips as a smile, but Sister Roysia did. She had nothing in common with him, a man she disliked, but suspected that they shared relief that these negotiations were finally concluded. The priest would be eager to return to his altar, where he could resume prayer in front of the small relic he had obtained and obsessively count the number of pilgrims who joined him. At his insistence, the relic had been acquired for the priory’s main chapel, but few came to worship Father Vincent’s beloved acquisition.
Sister Roysia’s greatest reason for gratitude was different from his but equally compelling. Increasingly nervous as well as impatient, she began to sweat. She must speak with Master Larcher, yet was fearful about doing so. In the past, she had been able to plan for their occasional meetings. This time, she could not. But considering what she must tell him, perhaps it did not matter. She would not have to see him again.
Master Larcher bowed to Prioress Ursell. A rotund man of ruddy complexion, the craftsman enjoyed great esteem in the town for his skills. He was equally well known for his love of red wine, fine cuts of red meat, and the red tresses of his favorite leman. Fortunately, his clever business tricks kept his pale-haired wife content with fine garments and the occasional jewel. Only with this prioress did he lose the bargain game.
Many would tell him that his soul was the richer for the defeat, Sister Roysia thought, but the worldly profit from the volume of sold badges was quite satisfactory. He forfeited little except pride when Prioress Ursell bested him, yet his expression seemed unusually glum today. That troubled Sister Roysia. Something besides this deal must have soured for him.
“I shall deliver the requested badges in the number, time, and quality requested,” the merchant said, properly confirming what had been agreed upon.
“The design will include a clear image of the Virgin, separated from the Archangel Gabriel by a potted lily, and all this shall be set within the top story of the Holy House.” The prioress’ voice was strong despite the hours of discussion.
“I have sworn it earlier and shall promise it again,” Larcher replied, weariness evident in his voice.
“And also vow not to forget the smaller badges showing a lock of hair, depicting the strands from the Virgin’s head which we keep in our own chapel.” Father Vincent’s voice rasped, but he always suffered from catarrh between autumn and spring.
These badges were a new addition to the usual order. Sister Roysia suspected the priest had begged for them, hoping that the sales would bring more income to the struggling convent at Ryehill.
Larcher shot him an annoyed look and grunted.
Prioress Ursell’s face cracked into an unaccustomed smile. “We have settled on the price as well.”
Master Larcher nodded with a restrained sigh.
Prioress Ursell beckoned to Father Vincent, who bent down so she might speak more privately with him.
The craftsman looked at Sister Roysia and quickly raised a questioning eyebrow.
Catching his signal, she raised her head, abruptly nodded, and lowered her gaze before either prioress or priest noticed the interchange.
Larcher’s face had now grown pale, and beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. Shivering with unease over the cause, the nun wondered if he guessed what she must tell him and feared it. Courage was a virtue she had long suspected he lacked. Against her better judgment, she chanced another glance at him, praying she conveyed reassurance.
Prioress Ursell caught her look and rose, her eyes sparkling with fury.
Ashen-faced, Master Larcher now faced the leader of Ryehill Priory. His lips were visibly trembling.
“We have finished here, but I shall expect prompt delivery,” Prioress Ursell snapped. “Timeliness is essential with the anticipated arrival of the king. Many more will visit Walsingham, longing to cheer him on in his endeavors against the barbarous Welsh and hoping to emulate his admirable piety. Purchase of a badge from us will have even greater worth to our eager pilgrims. They may wish more than one. You must return to your workshop immediately, Master Larcher.”
Master Larcher mumbled something inaudible.
Father Vincent eyed him, and then bent to whisper something to the prioress.
Ursell nodded and again focused on the craftsman. “It is also crucial that you speed completion of that pewter medal of your best quality for the prioress of Tyndal.” Ursell’s mouth pursed as if she had just tasted something foul. “I promised her a gift. Without it, she might delay the completion of her pilgrimage vow.”
The craftsman nodded and wiped his glistening forehead.
Perhaps his reaction has nothing to do with me, Sister Roysia thought. She had not listened to the discussion over badges. Prioress Ursell might have said something that troubled him.
“King Edward counts her brother as one of his favored men. Were the king to enter the town while Prioress Eleanor was still here,” the prioress continued, “her presence would surely distract him, leaving him less time to appreciate the glory of our own shrine and new relic.” Her mouth twisted into a mockery of a smile. “Your share of the sales profits was increased on the assumption that our earthly king would favor us with gifts as well as Walsingham Priory. Let that inspire you to swiftly craft the piece for the prioress from Tyndal.”
Father Vincent nodded with enthusiasm.
Although this discussion of ridding Ryehill of a bothersome guest had seemed to calm Prioress Ursell’s anger, Sister Roysia grew more anxious for the priest and Master Larcher to depart. The merchant was so pale she did fear he was ill.
Prioress Ursell shattered the nun’s musing with a brusque command.
Rushing to the chamber door as ordered, Sister Roysia opened it and stepped modestly to one side.
Father Vincent was the first to depart. As was his habit, he drew his robes closer around him to avoid any contact with the nun as he passed by.
When the merchant approached, he stopped and gave her a feeble smile. “The bells did not ring for Compline last night,” he said, chewing his lower lip.
Sister Roysia took in a deep breath, then replied with the planned response. “I thought they had, Master Larcher, but I will most certainly make sure they are rung tonight.”
“Perhaps I slept through them.” He bowed again to the prioress and strode out. “I shall carefully listen for them,” he murmured, passing by the nun. The words faintly echoed as he sped down the long hall.
Trembling with relief that she had conveyed her message, Sister Roysia dutifully shut the door and turned to ask her prioress what further tasks she might have for her.
Prioress Ursell glared at her with white-hot rage.
Staggering back as if slapped, Sister Roysia put a hand to her throat and suppressed a cry of fear.
“I noted what passed between you and the merchant.” Prioress Ursell’s sharp gaze stung like a dagger point. “Had he been troubled by the bells not ringing, he ought to have addressed his concern to Father Vincent or to me. He had no reason to speak to you at all.”
Instinctively, the nun wrapped her arms around herself. “Or did his words convey a special meaning, significant only to you both?”
“Absolutely not, my lady!”
“It is not the first time he has had some communication with you. I am not a fool, Sister.”
“I do not grasp your meaning.” The nun shook her head, hoping to suggest complete innocence. “I remember nothing improper said or done in the past by Master Larcher. As for today, I was surprised by his pallor. Did you not see how ill he looked? If I responded inappropriately to what he said, my reply came from relief that he seemed well and not possessed of a fever.”
She was babbling and tried to calm herself. “His humors must have been…” Seeing the naked contempt in her prioress’ face, she knew she had failed to deceive.
“Do not speak further, Sister, for your mouth only spews Satan’s lies. You are as shameless as the whore of Babylon.” Prioress Ursell’s eyes narrowed like those of a cat about to pounce on a rodent. “Leave my chambers, and take the stench of evil with you, but do not think this incident will be forgotten.” An executioner facing a traitor on the scaffold could not have looked grimmer. “The punishment for the sin you have committed shall be a harsh one.”
Sister Roysia fled from the room.