Two women knelt in silence before Prioress Eleanor, heads bowed. One wore a diaphanous veil that obscured her face. The other suffered a ragged scar that cut through her lips.
The prioress gave her blessing and bid them rise.
“To what do we owe the honor of this visit, my lady?” Anchor- ess Juliana raised her veil as she stood. Although her cheeks were hollowed by habitual fasting, the wounds from the time when she beat her head against the stones of her enclosure walls were long healed.
The other woman remained kneeling while a heavily pregnant cat rubbed against her legs. Reaching out, she stroked the purring creature.
“I see that my Arthur has visited once again,” Eleanor said, looking at the cat’s rounded belly.
“Or one of his sons,” the anchoress replied. “The females come here so Eda can ease their birthing.” She turned and gently touched the woman’s shoulder.
Eda blushed but said nothing.
“I have come to seek your advice,” the prioress said to the anchoress, a woman whom many called holy.
Juliana tilted her head and waited, her expression warm with affection. Although their journeys to their chosen vocations had taken very different paths, she and Prioress Eleanor had been friends since childhood.
“It is about Gracia. The time has come for her to decide whether to stay in our priory and take vows, or to seek the secular life. She has not yet spoken to me of her choice, or requested my advice, but the moment for either will come soon.”
The anchoress concurred.
“Before it arrives, I need your counsel and beg for wisdom to guide me in helping Gracia make the best decision. You would have a better understanding of her needs and wishes, for I can think only with my selfish heart in this matter.”
Eda glanced up, first at the prioress and next at the woman she served. Her eyes asked a question she otherwise left unspoken.
Eleanor saw her expression and read its meaning.
Sitting back on her heels, Eda waited and held the rumbling cat close to her chest.
“I have no wish to pry into confidences between friends,” Eleanor said to the anchoress’ maid. “I only seek to understand what Gracia truly longs for. It is her happiness I care most about and not my own desires.”
Gazing with fondness on her servant, Juliana’s eyes asked permission to share some of what she had told her about Gracia. Eda hesitated, then nodded and rose, releasing the cat from her arms. Walking a short distance, she stood by the heavy wooden door that opened into a world she still visited but which her mistress had utterly rejected.
The cat saw a fleeing shadow on the floor and with a rumble of joy gave awkward chase into the shadows of the simple altar. “Come with me,” Juliana said to the prioress and gestured toward a smaller door that led beyond the small quarters in which she and Eda lived.
# # #
The garden outside was surrounded by a high stone wall, glistening with rills of ice. The ground was covered with fresh snow. Although the plot grew many vegetables and herbs in the warm seasons, the wintering earth was as hard as a devil’s heart. The soft whiteness masked its current barrenness; a few mounds suggested that the garden was simply hiding while it patiently waited for its imminent resurrection.
In the far corner, there was a small stone bench, but the two women chose to walk.
The air was bitter cold.
Eleanor looked up. The grey sky was fading into a mist that threatened to shatter into snowflakes. Although the late afternoon light was growing pale, it shone with weak determination on a tiny part of the wall and gave a fragile beauty to those rivulets frozen in place before they could escape the chill.
“Does Eda ever speak?” Eleanor asked.
“Once or twice she has tried, and I welcome it when she does. The effort shows a regained trust, but I never demand she speak.” Juliana scowled with a rare anger. “I pray daily to God that He will forgive her parents for the agony they inflicted on their daughter. In truth, I believe they did so out of love and sought only to cure her of her faltering speech.”
Eleanor winced. How could a child endure the pain of a burning iron pressed against her lips? A respected physician advised that remedy for Eda’s stuttering, but her parents could only bear her screams so long before her father snatched the iron from the doctor’s hands and flung both it and the tormenter from the house. After that day, however, Eda refused to utter any words. “I pray for her cure as well, but until God chooses the time for that mercy, she and I converse in gestures. For other needs that suit our life in the anchorage, we continue to develop special signs.”
“And Gracia has learned this hand speech,” Eleanor said. “She told me.”
“Each loves the other with the devotion of a sister, my lady.” Juliana looked up at the vanishing sky and held out a hand to catch any tiny flakes.
There were no harbingers.
“Gracia and Eda have suffered profoundly from the cruelty of life,” the anchoress added softly, “but have found comfort for their pain in each other and at the priory.”
Eleanor did not question her observation or conclusion. Anchoress Juliana had had come to her vocation suffering deep wounds inflicted by the world and understood the anguish well. In silence, they continued on their circular path, now blackened where their pacing had melted the snow and exposed the soil beneath. The earth remained unyielding and crunched in protest under their light weight. The sharp air had whipped their faces into a pink glow, even the anchoress’ sallow cheeks. “You say that Eda has found peace at Tyndal, yet she has not taken vows.” Might Gytha follow that path? Eleanor wondered. “She has no wish to go back to her family,” Juliana replied.
“I remain patient and trust God to guide her.”
“Her family aside, has she ever expressed a desire to leave our priory for a worldly life?”
The anchoress shook her head. “What has the world to offer her? No man would marry her. The fearful have always mocked her. She has no siblings or other kin. After her parents die, she would be alone, reduced to begging on the road to Norwich or even whoring.”
The prioress shivered, but the cold was not the reason. “After Gracia’s family died of a fever, she was left to beg in Walsingham and raped before she had even reached womanhood. Eda must know this tale and have learned from it. Do you think the two have discussed the future and their choices?”
“I do not know, my lady, but it is likely. Indeed, I wonder if they could bear to be parted. Perhaps their mutual confidences and experiences are leading them…” Juliana stopped and looked toward the door to the anchorage.
Eda stepped into the garden and raised a hand to catch the anchoress’ attention. Lifting both hands over her head, she acted as if she were ringing a church bell, then put one hand to her mouth. With the other, she extended her hand, palm up, toward the prioress as if begging a mercy.
“Eda says that a messenger has come for you and waits in the chapel outside the anchorage door,” Juliana said. “I fear it is a matter of some urgency.”
Concerned, Eleanor hurried inside. When she reached the solid oaken door that was the only entrance from the world to the walled-in anchorage, she waited for the maid to unlock the barrier. As Prioress of Tyndal, she had a key to this place but chose to honor the terms of Juliana’s entombment and never used it. Only Eda possessed the other key to allow her entrance and egress so she might provide whatever was needed to serve her holy mistress.
The maid inserted the key and opened the door.
Eleanor quickly slipped through and into the Lady Chapel outside.
The door slammed shut behind her with a purposeful thud and a loud click as the key was turned.
Brother Beorn, a lay brother, stepped into sight, his face pale with worry. “My lady, you must come immediately! A party of seven abbots has arrived, and one is gravely ill. Prior Andrew is with them.”
Seven abbots, one sick? Eleanor felt a foreboding, an unease she had not suffered in a long time. “Summon Sister Anne and one of the healing brothers from the hospital to attend the sick man,” she said. “Next, gather some of the lay brothers and swiftly prepare the new guest quarters for our visitors. Since the attached kitchen must also be made ready to serve its first meal, send word to Sister Matilda that she will be required to perform one of her miracles and increase the amount of our own supper tonight to feed the abbots and their servants.”
Brother Beorn inclined his head, then swiftly left to do her bidding.
As she hurried to the courtyard, Prioress Eleanor prayed for the sick abbot’s recovery and caught herself begging God not to bring her priory more than it could bear. But an ominous chill had settled into her soul, and she feared her plea would be denied.