Where was he? He rubbed his face, then stared at his hand. It was wet. Had he been weeping?
The man from Acre looked up, narrowing his eyes as the sky dissolved into a gray, pelting downpour. It must be God shedding the tears.
As he watched the dark trees, he shivered. Their branches bent like the bows of archers. This rain was unlike anything he remembered. The drops stung his face like grit from a dust storm in Outremer. Was England not a Christian land? He should not feel so much pain so close to home.
Just before he rounded a bend in the road, a gust of wind howled about his ears. Was that the cry of some hell-bound soul? He looked behind, then, seeing nothing, turned again. If that sound had risen from one soul in Satan’s claws, perhaps another would soon be added.
The soldier was not far ahead of him, alone, walking slowly and hunched against the force of the blinding rain.
Had the time come at last? He swallowed, savoring the possibility. How often he had hoped for this moment from the day the soldier had decided to join the same large company travelling toward Norwich from the coast. Eventually, he knew that he and the man would have to take the same route homeward, even if few others were travelling in that direction. Thus he had not grown impatient, believing that either God or Satan would give the soldier into his hands when the time was right.
From the day he had boarded that ship from Acre, he had taken care never to let anyone see his features, wrapping a cloth around his face to hide all but his eyes. No one knew that he was the man who should have died in Outremer. Indeed, he looked much like an infidel, or even a leper not yet forced to carry the warning clapper. Many had avoided him out of fear. This had pleased him. He did not want their company.
By the time they had reached the village inn at Tyndal, the crowd of fellow travelers had thinned, many taking the road to Norwich and the shrine of Saint William. A few, the soldier and he among them, had stopped to rest a day or so. To avoid curious eyes, he had kept to his room, yet watched from his window lest the man leave without his notice.
He had followed him yesterday when, despite the chill squalls, the soldier had gone to the village market day. He knew the man would. With the bad weather, there were few customers and many merchants eager to sell at cost. Like any good predator, this soldier had always known when the prey was most vulnerable.
Having no desire to harm an innocent man, he had also wanted to make sure the soldier should be his target. Memory was ever a faithless whore, but he no longer had any doubt. Other crusaders might bear the red cross. No one else could have that face.
He had slipped from the inn to follow the soldier, taking some small pleasure in stalking him like he might a wild boar. He could see the man’s brown teeth poking at odd angles through thin lips that could not quite close, his face framed by sparse, pale hair. As he stared at those close-set eyes and the flattened nose, he had begun to sweat despite the chilling dampness of the East Anglian autumn. He might have been the hunter in this mortal game, but he also felt the numbing terror of a condemned man facing the hangman.
As he stood on a small rise overlooking Tyndal’s market booths, he had crossed himself. “Haven’t I suffered enough for my sins?” he had whispered into the wind, but a heavy cloak of silence descended upon him. God, it seemed, had turned His back on his yelping prayers.
Even then he might have turned aside from his purpose, he thought. He could have left the man alone, hoping that someday God would kick this man’s soul like a boy would a rock. He might have, that is, until the soldier laughed.
That laugh! He stopped suddenly, pressing his white-knuckled fists against his closed eyes until he saw sparks of sharp light. In dreams that sound had flowed over him, drenching him in burning sweat even on nights when the frosty air turned his eyebrows brittle white. Nor had he been safe from it when he had knelt, moaning to God for respite. Even then, the man’s mocking laugh would besiege him like a flock of cawing ravens, leaving him to twitch on the ground, a lunatic in the full face of the cold moon.
He swallowed to keep from choking, then began walking once more against the wind while he clutched at the hilt of his knife. Perhaps he should no longer care why God had chosen, not to honor him for his acts of faith in Outremer, but to burn his soul into charcoal, shattering it into countless specks of dying ash. The only thing that mattered, after all, was what lay in those ashes with his soul.
Even with his eyes tightly shut, the vision was seared into the black curtain of his lids. The woman lay on her back, her naked body streaked with glittering dust from Acre’s hot earth. Was he still looking down at her, her legs splayed obscenely as if begging a lover to pleasure her? When she had seen him, she had screamed and reached out, eyes black with animal fear. Coward that he was, he had stood as immobile as if chained with iron, at the edge of that circle of men.
Gall now burned in his mouth and he swallowed the searing acid. How could he have stood in silence that day as the soldier rose, adjusting the drawstring of his stained linen braies? Then it was that the soldier had laughed, picked up his sword and laughed, before slowly skewering the glistening blade into the softness between the woman’s legs.
“This infidel whore gave little pleasure, my lord,” the man had said to him with a grin, then spat on the twitching corpse. “Maybe Satan will teach her how to pleasure his minions in Hell.”
Although he might now be standing in the middle of an English road, his eyes could only see the mutilated body of his wife, her staring, dead eyes cursing him for his cowardice and lies. He looked toward the streaming heavens and screamed at God like a man burning at the stake.
The soldier spun around.
The crusader drew his dagger and attacked.
“Sheep! The future of England lies in sheep, my lady. So should Tyndal’s.” Brother Andrew, a short monk with head so bald there was no need for the tonsure, shrugged and shot a glance of weary appeal toward his prioress.
Brother Matthew, his body composed of an impressive variety of angles, waved one bony hand in a dismissive gesture. “Nay, good brother. I’ll grant there is merit in wool, but I’ve been told that the beasts bearing it are prone to hoof rot. What Tyndal must have for an assured and profitable future is the odor of sanctity, not the stench of wet sheep.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “We should acquire the body of a saint, or some suitable part thereof. A relic would bring a stream of pilgrims eager to part with their coin…” He hesitated, then poked one long finger heavenward. “And a greater reputation for holiness.”
Brother Andrew shook his head with patent disbelief. “Consider but a moment, Brother! You are surely familiar with the popular shrine of Saint William of Norwich? Not only are Norwich inns quite dear, the number of miracles at the site has diminished. If we had our own relic, we would surely attract those thrifty pilgrims travelling some distance and keep the local ones as well. The coins they saved might well be left with us out of gratitude. So I do believe.” In his enthusiasm, Brother Matthew danced from foot to foot with all the grace of a ghostly skeleton freed for All Hallows Eve.
Eleanor, the youthful prioress of this Fontevrauldine daughter house of Tyndal, took a sip from her cup of monastic ale. “Indeed, good brothers,” she said at last, “you have both contributed praiseworthy ideas for increasing priory profits.”
“And, my lady,” Brother Matthew continued, his gaze charged with that focused look common to both cats and merchants about to pounce on a chosen victim, “I have just learned of a reliable source for the thigh bone, with kneecap attached, of a confirmed saint.” He paused, then leaned forward, a swordsman delivering his coup. “The price is quite reasonable.” Smiling with triumph, he stood back and folded his arms.
“And I am sure Brother Andrew can recommend a good sheep merchant as well.” Eleanor rose from her chair, the signal for an end to further discussion. “We are not obliged to make a choice today. The election of our new prior will take place soon, and I do believe whoever is chosen should have his say in this vital decision.” She hesitated briefly, then added, “After his selection has been confirmed by our abbess in Anjou, of course.”
A wise proviso always, Eleanor thought. The delay would most certainly give her time to bend divergent opinions to whatever course she would prefer, but she was quite aware that no priory selection was ever guaranteed. In the summer of the year just passed, King Henry III had appointed her as prioress, overruling this priory’s own elected choice. Few would have forgotten this recent proof that any priory’s right to select its own leaders was honored only in the absence of the king’s wish to choose otherwise.
“My lady, I abide by your will with joy as always.” Brother Andrew’s eyes twinkled, either with gratitude that she had put a stop to the seemingly endless discussion or else with amusement at her blunt silencing of his talkative fellow monk. Then he bowed, wincing as he did.
His old war wound must be troubling him in this damp chill, Eleanor thought as she watched him limp from her chambers. Not for the first time she admired how this former soldier turned monk bore his pain with patience and little complaint.
Brother Matthew chose not to follow his fellow monastic. Instead, he turned back to the prioress, raising his finger once more to command Heaven’s attention. “The kneecap and thigh bone…”
Eleanor gestured toward her door with courteous but indisputable meaning. “Brother Matthew, I have heard your well-argued views on this matter. When more details are needed, I shall surely call on you.”
Eleanor walked to her chamber entrance. As she rested her hand on the rough wood of the open door, she looked up at the monk, and her eyes now matched the color of the gray storm clouds outside. “Please leave us, Brother. There is another matter that requires our immediate attention.”
The tall monk bowed with grace enough, but each loud slap of his soft shoes on the floor, as he strode away, expressed a protest he dared not otherwise voice to his religious superior.
# # #
Eleanor closed the door, sighed with exasperation, and left her public chambers for the more private room just beyond. The effort to keep the sharp arguments productive between the two monks had wearied her. Before she proceeded to the next item on her mental list of tasks for the day, she knew she needed a moment to refresh her spirit.
Her private quarters were simple. She would have them no other way. The only ornament was an old tapestry of fine embroidery that depicted Mary Magdalene at the feet of Jesus. This she had inherited from her most immediate predecessor, and it hung on the stone wall at the foot of her narrow convent cot. Near that bed was a plainly carved prie-dieu, the wood polished to a warm glow from the touch of each woman who had lived in this room from the time of Tyndal’s first prioress. It was there Eleanor went, knelt, and bent her head.
“May it please God,” she murmured, “that a wise man be chosen as our next prior, and,” she sighed, “that the election be confirmed without delay.”
She had tried not to sway this election in any direction, but it was becoming more difficult for her to remain objective. When the news that Prior Theobald was dying became common knowledge, many of the monks had aspired to replace him.
Although Eleanor might have spent most of her twenty-one years in the cloister, she was neither naïve nor unskilled in politics. Perhaps the fires of worldly ambition should die when mortals take the cowl or veil, she thought, but the embers of those flames invariably flared when the chance for advancement in the Church added dry wood to burn. Church leaders might publicly turn their backs on these episodes of human frailty, but their silence did not mean lack of interest. Someone would be watching to see who won the contest and perhaps how skillfully she herself determined the outcome.
It was that final result that troubled her. Most often, when priors were finally elected, the gap between factions required little effort to bridge. At Tyndal, as the weaker candidates had joined the ranks of the two strongest, the debate had grown more strident and very divisive. A religious life required cooperation and selflessness to function efficiently. Political competition promoted neither.
Fortunately, one of the two major candidates was Brother Andrew, a man whom Eleanor respected and whose views were complementary to her own. Unfortunately, he was also the quieter contender. A modest man of thoughtful ways, he could not match the eloquence of his primary rival, Brother Matthew. Matthew was not only persuasive in his attempts to gather support, he already commanded a most fervent following. As her lack of patience with today’s discussion had shown, Brother Matthew’s approach to priory administration did not accord with hers.
In contention was the direction Tyndal should take as a house dedicated to God’s service. Should they keep the hospital that offered cures to the sick and comfort to the dying? Or should they turn away from mortal cures and acquire a relic, thus making the priory a center for healing based solely in faith and the grace of a saint? These were passionate positions and, sadly, mutually exclusive.
Eleanor might argue that faith alone did cure many at Tyndal. The prayers of Sister Christina, the infirmarian, had proven that. For others, the priory also had Sister Anne, the sub-infirmarian, who honored God by using the talent with herbs and potions He had given her. Until Brother Matthew arrived, this reasoning had been accepted with more success than not, even amongst those who thought sickness was God’s punishment on the evil-doer or that cures should be left solely to God’s grace. With the monk’s arrival, the latter had found their voice.
Apart from debate on what form faith should take in healing, the choice of hospital over relic had worldly consequences. The priory could not afford both. Although the hospital was often profitable, thanks to the fine skills and growing reputation of Sister Anne and her well-taught monastics, it was still a charitable institution and earned only what the grateful and more affluent chose to donate. Thus Tyndal’s wealth, and resultant influence in the affairs of the Order, depended much on the skillful use of other land resources.
Housing a relic, on the other hand, was more reliably profitable. Floods of pilgrims came to shrines, leaving the silt of coin behind them out of gratitude or hope. In this, Brother Matthew was quite right. However, Tyndal encompassed a finite number of monastics, as well as lay people. Thus the priory could not care for the sick at a hospital while also sheltering pilgrims, guarding any relic from theft, and examining the validity of all cures. A choice must be made. Brother Andrew spoke for those who wished to keep the hospital. Brother Matthew wanted to rid Tyndal of worldly cures and buy a relic.
Although Eleanor knew no one could ever bribe God, she sometimes found herself reminding Him that He had allowed Abraham to bargain over saving Sodom and Gomorrah. Might He not allow Brother Andrew to win the election, thus keeping the hospital for the godly work it did? Surely the priory could find some other project to do solely for His glory, she argued prayerfully.
No matter which monk won the election, she would remain the head of Tyndal in this daughter house of the Order of Fontevraud, but her role as leader of both men and women was unique in a world that saw Eve as the lesser vessel. If Brother Matthew were elected prior, an eloquent man of strong opinions in direct opposition to hers, she would be hard-pressed to maintain her actual authority. She had little doubt she would succeed but resented the energy and thought the struggle would require when both could be put to better use in more profitable activities.
She sighed. Whatever the final result, the election must take place soon. The prior had a significant role in the daily running of the priory, especially amongst the monks and lay brothers. The anxiety of not knowing who would direct them and how their lives would be affected had fractured their usual peace.
She also needed the position to be filled by someone of competence. Problems cried out for immediate attention and she could not do everything. She had appointed a series of acting priors, who did provide some direction while avoiding any hint of partiality on her part, but temporary appointments did nothing for continuing efficiency.
Once the election was over, she would quickly decide how to handle whatever choice God gave her, but the current uncertainty was not beneficial to her priory. She might well prefer Brother Andrew, a man generally respected by all, but Brother Matthew had also demonstrated his ability to lead others. She might dislike the man, but she had to concede he was capable.
As she made the sign of the cross, Eleanor rose from her prie-dieu and listened to the rain’s rhythmic tapping against her wooden shutters. Tyndal’s lack of ease about its future direction was much the same as England’s, she realized. The rumors that King Henry III was gravely ill were growing apace, and his eldest son, Prince Edward, had yet to return from the Holy Land where he had gone on crusade.
In his last missive from Wales, her father had reported that the current mood at court was calm, but, he said with his characteristic sarcasm, only old fools like himself tried to predict the future. The heir had not yet safely returned to England, and, were he to do so before his father’s death, there were questions about Edward’s final position on the demands for baronial reforms when he became the anointed king. The prince had shifted between both sides of that issue with dizzying frequency. Nonetheless, Baron Adam wrote, Edward was a clever man and, although much like his dying father, unlikely to make the same mistakes. So the powerful were poised to leap whichever way would keep them in control; the powerless would remain frozen like prey in the fox’s path; and those on England’s borders would watch for the new twists emerging in the diplomatic games of thrust and parry. “As you must have learned as well as I, my beloved daughter,” the baron wrote in conclusion, “someone will shed blood when men joust for power.”
Thus Eleanor did wonder what the future would bring, not just to her small priory but to England itself.