The north wind bit with the sharpness of an angry dog’s teeth. The afternoon sun, weary of its summer reign, had grown pale. Although winter would soon besiege this East Anglian coast with glittering ice and deceptively soft snow, all knew that the Prince of Darkness could chill hearts in ways deadlier than a bitter hoarfrost.
# # #
Gracia, Prioress Eleanor’s young maid, hurried down the path toward the courtyard near the open gate to Tyndal Priory.
The entire religious community, both men and women in this daughter house of the Order of Fontevraud, had assembled there in separate groups. A sea of tan in their clean robes of unbleached cloth, their silence was unsettling.
On the south side near the hospital, Prior Andrew stood in front of his small assembly of monks, their tonsures freshly shaven. Behind them gathered the many lay brothers who did the physical work, freeing the monks to pray.
Opposite the prior, in the northern part of the courtyard, Prioress Eleanor, leader of this double house, held her crosier. The sunbeams struck the silver of the crook and made the color dance with demure grace. Her veiled nuns, no longer accustomed to the world beyond their cloister, lowered their eyes as if confused by the sharp brightness outside a chapel. Clustered at the back, the lay sisters modestly bowed their heads and thought of the tasks they had left unfinished.
Only a few had been excused from this event. Anchoress Juliana and her servant were not expected to leave the enclosure of their anchorage. The sick were allowed to remain in their beds. Gracia, a child who had taken no vows, was exempt as well.
But she was curious.
At a turn in the path, Gracia got down on her knees and wiggled through a small opening she had made in the shrubbery some months ago. This was the place she came when life within the priory overwhelmed her with new experiences and she needed to hide until the fog of her bewilderment lifted. Only Brother Thomas knew of this secret spot. Although she loved her mistress, Prioress Eleanor, she adored this gentle monk who had taught her that not all men were like the one who had raped her. Settling down on the soft mat of leaves, she reached into her robe and retrieved the portion of mushroom tart that Sister Matilda, the nun who ruled the kitchen, had insisted she take. Most girls her age looked to be on the cusp of womanhood. She still resembled a child, despite eyes that shone with an understanding far exceeding her years. An orphan who had survived on the streets of Walsingham, Gracia might not have yet learned her letters, but she had become skilled in reading the character of most mortals.
Many thought she was so young because of her extreme thinness. When she had first arrived, Sister Matilda cried out in horror. Ever since, the nun had been pressing extra food into the girl’s hands, a gesture that Gracia argued against, protesting that she was taking food away from those who prayed for the souls in Purgatory.
Pushing the food back into the girl’s hands, Sister Matilda told her that all got pittances in addition to the meals, and Gracia would get neither more nor less than anyone else. The girl suspected otherwise, but even Brother Thomas took Sister Matilda’s side and said she would hurt the nun’s feelings if she didn’t eat the food. “Very well,” Gracia had replied. “I shall get fat.”
She did not, but her teeth no longer hurt as they had in Walsingham when she ate. She now bit into her tart with undiluted pleasure.
Like the monastics, Gracia had been given a woolen robe to protect her against the coming winter. With the wind blowing today, she was especially grateful for the gift and fell to musing over what she had learned about this unusual gathering of the entire priory. An especially buttery mushroom momentarily distracted her from her thoughts.
It was then she heard shouting and bent forward to peer through the branches. Just outside the gate, a band of armed riders had gathered. Instead of entering the priory, they parted and let a black-clad man ride through. Two wagons filled with more men followed.
Prioress Eleanor and Prior Andrew stepped forward.
Even though spoken words were muffled by the wind, Gracia knew that this visitor must be Father Etienne Davoir, priest and youngest brother of Abbess Isabeau Davoir of Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. She had sent him to review all aspects of Tyndal Priory from roof maintenance to fish ponds, as well as the method of recording income and debts. Even the details of obedience to the Benedictine Rule, under which this Order lived, would be scrutinized by this man of God and his many clerks.
Such visitations were common practice in other Orders, Prioress Eleanor had told Gracia, but the abbess in Anjou rarely ordered them for her far-flung daughter houses. Tyndal had not experienced one in the eight years of Eleanor’s rule, even in the early days when she was struggling to lift the priory finances out of their ruinous state.
As far as Gracia knew, there had been little in the message sent by Abbess Isabeau to explain this sudden decision. Such reviews properly included all aspects of priory life, which her mistress knew, but the prioress had found it strange that the abbess had mentioned that her brother would look into whether any impropriety had occurred amongst the religious. According to the prioress’ aunt at Amesbury, the few reviews ordered by the abbess in England had concentrated solely on accounting rolls.
If her mistress was concerned, Gracia thought, then she should be as well.
Lay brothers had helped the priest dismount and were leading his horse to the stable. Two other men had ridden in after the priest. One climbed down from his horse with no assistance but some grace. The other slid off but slipped to his knees beside his mount. As that clerk brushed at the dust on his black robe, Gracia was certain that his horse stared at his former rider with an expression of equine amusement.
Father Etienne spoke briefly with Prior Andrew.
The prior turned away and led his charges back to their Chapter House in the monk’s side of the priory.
The priest walked over to Prioress Eleanor.
Was it not odd that this priest had chosen to speak first to Prior Andrew, a subordinate to Prioress Eleanor as leader here? Gracia wondered what was happening.
Neither prioress nor priest seemed to greet each other in any expected way, whether by lowered heads or bended knee. Her mistress’ face betrayed no emotion, nor could the maid see her lips move.
Suddenly, Prioress Eleanor spun around and led her nuns and lay sisters toward their own Chapter House on the other side of the priory. As a double house, the monks and nuns might live within the same walls, but they remained carefully separated by barriers of stone.
Gracia swallowed the last of her tart. Having known starvation, she never wasted the smallest morsel and carefully licked each bit from her fingers. But the final crumb tasted bitter on her tongue. Slowly squirming through the opening and back onto the path, she leapt to her feet and ran toward the prioress’ residence. She always took pride in serving her beloved mistress well, but, when this priest came to Prioress Eleanor’s audience chamber after his formal greetings to the rest of the Tyndal community, Gracia was determined to make sure everything was perfect.
She was convinced that this man had only come to find fault, and she swore she would not be the one to give him any cause to do so. Indeed, she saw the abbess’ brother as the snake in Eden, and she feared he would not just harm those she had come to love but also destroy the safety and peace she had found here.