This early May morning in 1272, near the feast of Saint Melor, dawned with such sweetness that the Fontevraudine monks and nuns of Amesbury Priory rushed from Chapter with far more eagerness to their assigned tasks than they had felt heretofore.
Although a few were laggard, those for whom early rising would always be akin to the wearing of hair shirts, none regretted this coming of soft spring. The fog from the River Avon swirled like thick smoke through their cloister garth, but it came with a pleasing scent, suggestive of tender, bright flowers and the coming warmth of lengthening days.
Indeed, there was such happiness amongst the monastics of the ancient priory that some began to sing, their voices so filled with reverent joy that the force of their fervent celebration must have breached the surrounding stone walls and surged into the secular land beyond.
As Prioress Eleanor of Tyndal walked slowly out of the Chapter House and into the tranquility of the nuns’ cloister, the cheerful voices of her fellow religious began to grow faint in her ears. She hesitated, leaned against a pillar, and glanced up at the wooden roof over the walkway. Although the stone felt cold through her woolen habit, she found comfort in the familiarity of its gouged and pitted surface. She shut her eyes and slowly breathed in the sharp river scent that clung to the twisting wisps of fog drifting through the shrubs and walkways of the gardens before her.
“Home,” she sighed and lowered herself with unsteady care onto a bench so worn that the stone looked polished in the soft light.
Although she had been head of her own priory for almost two years, learning to love the storm-battered East Anglian coast where she now lived, Eleanor had spent most of her twenty-two years in the midst of this gentle place of rolling fields, a land enriched as much by ancient myths and rumors as it was from the silt left by the meandering Avon. It was here at Amesbury Priory that a six-year-old Eleanor had arrived, grieving with the silence of those whose mothers have died too soon.
She glanced down at the cloister walk itself. The sight of the hollowed-out paving stones brought back the memory of the day she had joined other little girls who were hopping from one worn depression to another and making a game of it. She smiled, acknowledging the spot with a nod. Was it not just there that she had balanced herself on one foot, surrounded by her new friends, and laughed for the first time since her mother’s death?
Fragments of other memories began to march through her mind like some liturgical play performed on a holy day. There were images that brought sadness: a friend’s eyes turning dull as she died from some mortal fever; another waving before leaving the priory forever, taken away by her family for an arranged and profitable marriage.
Grief there was, but there was far more joy in these unvoiced thoughts. Hadn’t they loved frightening each other with stories about the pagan spirits which surely haunted the ancient fort across the river? Some claimed it was Roman, others that King Arthur had built it as a defense to the lands of Camelot. Whatever the truth, the place was rife with mystery enough to spark their young imaginations like flint.
And there was the time she had tumbled from that tree, age-gnarled even then, and had found comfort in the arms of the novice mistress. Sister Beatrice, her father’s elder sister who had dedicated herself to God, had folded her close that day and kissed the bruises to make them well, kisses that never failed to ease whatever pain she felt.
It was here at Amesbury that Eleanor had begun her woman’s courses and found her own religious vocation. No matter how fond she might grow of Tyndal, this would remain that irreplaceable spot where the world had been mostly joyous, safe, and full of love.
Women’s courses? Eleanor winced as a severe cramp stabbed her lower belly. She shifted to ease her aching back. Why must she suffer the return of this affliction brought to women by their Mother Eve? Had she not endured enough with that near-fatal ague she contracted in late winter?
“Apparently not,” Eleanor groaned. “I should have known my monthly bleeding would arrive now.” This must have been her particular torment, inherited from the mother of all women, for her courses always seemed to come whenever she undertook a long journey. Despite the short remission granted from this pain after her illness, she had come at least prepared for the return of her bleedings. After all, she concluded with wry amusement, curses only gained in power when they were unexpected.
Another sharp spasm hit her with such force that she bent forward. As the cramp eased, she remembered that she and her aunt were in agreement on this matter. Neither of them doubted that Eve’s grave sin was cause enough for God to scourge women with painful courses, but they did conclude that Eve herself would never have passed this down to her daughters if she had had her say about it. In fact, Sister Beatrice had once added that God had surely exempted the Virgin Mary from this monthly woe. In spite of her pain, Eleanor smiled.
Slowly the prioress straightened. The potion brewed from willow bark that Sister Anne had given her was beginning to take effect, but the cramps had exhausted what little strength she had possessed upon rising for prayer earlier this morning. She closed her eyes again, the need for sleep rushing through her with almost irresistible force. Clutching the rough edge of the cold stone bench, she forced herself to look at the earth around her.
Delicate but determined shoots of young flowers, some with tiny blue buds or lovage-green leaves, were escaping the freezing prison winter had made of the earth. “My spirit must take courage from this sight,” she said, but her body was unmoved by her determined pronouncement.
Whether or not her soul greeted this eager life with joy, a deep weariness had taken residence within her, an indifference that suggested God might be easing her toward death. Was she ready for her soul to part from its casing of dust? Did it even matter whether or not she was? Her eyelids heavy with fatigue, Eleanor bent her head, and her spirit began to slip into a pool of black humor as if weighted with an iron chain.
Before it had sunk far, however, her ears caught the sound of familiar and cherished voices. Her spirit brightened.
Two women, deep in conversation, were coming toward her. Both were unusually tall for their gender, but it was the younger that looked up at the elder. The former, Sister Anne, was a most talented healer as well as Eleanor’s dearest friend at Tyndal. The latter might hold no higher title than novice mistress at Amesbury Priory, but all who knew Sister Beatrice had learned that she was servant only to God.
“You look pale, child,” the elder woman said as she stopped in front of her niece. “You must eat meat to regain your strength. Sister Anne agrees.”
Although Sister Beatrice had spent six decades on earth, her soft skin retained an almost youthful hint of rose. The creases of age might be shallow in her high forehead, around her sea-blue eyes and the corners of her thin mouth; nonetheless, two dark furrows formed a deep V between her gray eyebrows, lines that had been there since infancy. While the frown warned lesser mortals that she was possessed of a mind whetted by reason, it also hid her very warm heart, a mixed blessing to a woman who understood the nature of love more than most and considered rational thought a weapon to be used only against fear or evil. “I took a vow,” Eleanor replied. “Meat overheats the blood.” Beatrice raised one eyebrow. “Overheats the blood, you say?
Neither Sister Anne nor I think so. After all these weeks, you are still too frail. Meat should bring the warmth you need and restore balance to your humors.”
Years ago, the Baron Adam had jested that God must have branded his elder sister with her perpetual scowl because she showed ill grace by frowning at their suffering mother who had just given her birth. This remark aside, he valued his sister and taught Eleanor that the wise rightly knew they should fear her aunt and fools would soon learn the price of thwarting her. As the niece now noted her aunt’s deepening frown, she reminded herself that her father had rarely been proven wrong.
“With respect, dearest Aunt, I must decline.” While others might see this woman as both frightening and formidable, Eleanor found only warmth in her. Beatrice had reared her niece with as much sweet love as if she had been the child of her own body, yet neither had ever pretended that the devotion of an aunt could replace that of a dead mother. Nevertheless, the love between them was profound.
“Meat is allowed under The Rule,” Beatrice replied. Her tone suggested that further argument would be pointless.
“Might you not compromise with a beef broth, my lady?” Sister Anne interjected, her eyes twinkling with a mischievous look. “Should you choose not to do so, I believe you and your donkey would be of the same mind.”
The two women, who had been looking at each other with a certain familial stubbornness, blinked and turned wide-eyed toward the sub-infirmarian of Tyndal.
Eleanor laughed with a merriment few had heard since her illness.
Beatrice’s expression changed into one of confusion. “Donkey?” she asked. “An ass that speaks? Or, if such a miracle did occur, how could the beast talk with any reason?”
With affection, Eleanor squeezed her aunt’s hand. “I’m afraid I have disobeyed one of the Commandments and shown disrespect toward a parent. I named my fine mount after my father. When Sister Anne wishes to tell me that I am being obstinate beyond reason, she reminds me that the donkey would agree with the position I have taken.”
The novice mistress put a hand over her mouth.
It was a gesture Sister Anne had seen her own prioress use, but one that rarely succeeded in disguising the underlying laughter. “Irreverence,” Beatrice said, “but not disrespect. I know how much you love your father.” She turned to Anne. “There is truth in the donkey’s naming. As you may have noticed the winter you were at Wynethorpe Castle, my brother possesses a fair share of mortal obstinacy, a quality which I most certainly lack!” The sparkle in her eyes betrayed the jest hiding in her words, but her look now shifted to concern as she looked down at Eleanor.
“You will agree to the broth?”
“I shall willingly concede on that but would not eat meat otherwise.”
The sub-infirmarian of Tyndal and the novice mistress of Amesbury looked at each other in silent conference, and then replied in unison: “Agreed.”
“Your failure to eat much of anything since your arrival has troubled me, child. I fear you have not recovered any of the health you lost.”
“Health is difficult to regain after such a hard fever, my lady,” Anne replied. The words may have been intended as an explanation, but the tone expressed her own ongoing worry.
“Not my lady, rather sister. I hold no high rank at Amesbury,” Beatrice said absently, still scrutinizing her niece.
“You are the temporary head of this priory now,” Eleanor replied, nodding approval of Anne’s courteous use of title.
“Only because our sub-prioress died just before Prioress Ida was obliged to travel abroad for some weeks on priory business.” The novice mistress flicked her hand, as if the responsibility had landed on her like a pesky fly, and continued the study of her niece.
Eleanor shifted uneasily. Under Sister Beatrice’s careful examination, she felt like a little girl again, one who could hide nothing from this aunt. Of course, she had felt as weak as a babe after her illness and needed her aunt’s strength and comfort. Why else had she returned to Amesbury Priory if not to be pampered like a child, regain her woman’s strength, and seek advice on a sin that deeply troubled her?
“Prioress Ida will name a successor when she returns,” Beatrice was saying to Anne.
“Might you not…” Anne’s gesture suggested an advancement in position.
“Never. I was quite clear that I would only take on these duties because there was no other reasonable choice. When our leader returns, someone else must be named sub-prioress, and I shall remain novice mistress, a position I have held for more years that our prioress has stood upright upon this earth.” Beatrice’s thin lips twitched with amusement at some private thought.
Her aunt’s words suggested an admirable monastic humility, but whatever she willed had the force of a king’s edict. Perhaps more so, Eleanor thought, now that the current occupant of the throne was rumored to be dying. In any case, her aunt had not grown meeker since Eleanor had left for Tyndal. For all she knew, Sister Beatrice had arranged for the election of the current prioress to head Amesbury after the death of Prioress Joan. That would not surprise her at all.
“Enough said on temporal matters.” Beatrice caressed her niece’s cheek. “Sister Anne and I have decided that your diet should not only include this broth to restore your humors to their accustomed balance but also a tonic. Your sub-infirmarian has mixed a most interesting one with lichens…”
The sound of running feet interrupted the conversation. As the three women looked toward the Chapter House, they saw the face of a very young novice appear at the doorway.
The girl glanced around in evident distress. When she saw the threesome, her eyes grew round with relief. “Sister Beatrice!” she shouted, raised the hem of her woolen robe up around her knobby knees, and bounded toward the novice mistress.
Just before the girl skidded to a halt in front of her, Beatrice straightened herself into a model of proper sternness. “Soft!” she said. “You are no longer in a castle filled with warriors and hounds. This is a priory, dedicated to God, a God that loves hushed speech…”
The girl’s manner instantly grew solemn as befitted the gravity of a messenger. “I ask forgiveness, Sister, but Brother Porter is very upset. He said I must beg you come to the gates with due haste.” The child stopped, gulping air as if she had been holding her breath along with the message from the moment she had been sent to find the acting prioress.
Beatrice laid a calming hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Slowly, now. Tell me what has happened.”
“The ghost! Last night he saw it!” “Brother Porter?”
“Nay! Wulfstan has come!”
Astonished, Eleanor stared at her aunt. “Ghost?”
“Satan, it seems, has given our founder leave to trouble us.” Beatrice hid her hands in the sleeves of her robe. “Queen Elfrida’s spirit has returned from Purgatory.”