A fat sun sat on the earth’s wide edge, weary of the long summer hours and yearning to surrender to the reluctant darkness.
For the midges, it was frenzy time. They swarmed low over the mill pond where sharp-winged swallows swooped to dine in the insect cloud. Nearer the rising ground, massive black flies slowly gathered. Thanks to the carnage of midges, the flies were left in peace, using their freedom to seek a rotted fish or drowned creature upon which to feast and lay their eggs in the safety of the muddy bank.
They were soon to be rewarded.
In the slow-growing shadows, the mill wheel at Tyndal Priory turned with a deep groan, the great paddles squealing to a brief halt, then juddering forward to drop glistening water into the pond below. There the water grew dull and flowed lazily into the uneven patches of deep shade along the banks edged with thick rushes.
Pushed by the gentle current, a dark object floated toward the rank greenery. Bumping against the dense vegetation, it twisted to the side and an arm rose out of the water. The gesture might have been a greeting or perhaps a plea for help.
Neither gesture was intended. As the body turned in the rippling water, a man’s head emerged. His eyes, clouded with death, stared at the unseen sky. A deep gash exposed raw flesh inside his neck.
The flies quickly settled on the wound in such number that the cruel injury was covered by their churning blackness.
Thus does nature look after the defenseless dead.
A cool breeze from the North Sea wafted through the open window and sweetened the audience chamber with the apple-honey scent of chamomile and a hint of overripe apricot from the fading, but still yellow woodland oxlips.
Prioress Eleanor was grateful for it. As she sat, straight- backed in her carved chair, she breathed deeply of the refreshing fragrance. Her pleasure would remain unspoken, but the brief respite from the summer heat sharpened her attention to the words of the pair before her.
Prior Andrew and her sub-prioress, Sister Ruth, were having a most unusual debate.
At stake was the admission of a young man who had begged entry to Tyndal Priory as a novice, a rare occurrence for this Fontevraudine priory on the remote East Anglian coast. In such matters, Prior Andrew was usually the cautious one. In contrast, Sister Ruth grew eager if the supplicant carried either wealth in his beseeching hands or exuded that sweet perfume of noble birth, a scent that invariably brought joy to her heart.
This morning’s discussion presented an uncommon reversal. “We know the family,” the prior said. “Master Oseberne is a well-regarded baker in the village. There is no reason to suspect he will not honor his promise of a gold candlestick and a gift of bread for the hospital on one day each month.” He frowned, an odd gesture of perturbation from this kind-hearted man.
Sister Ruth’s glare was more in character. “The family is worthy enough for village folk. It is their son that I like not.”
“He’s a pious lad from all I’ve heard.”
“I have lived in Tyndal longer than you, Prior. I remember when he was a wee boy and slipped into our grounds to throw rocks at our nuns on their way to prayer.”
“And how old was this child?”
“Old enough to stand on two feet, be draped with a seamless garment to cover his nakedness, and find his way through the mill gate.” Folding her arms, Sister Ruth settled into obstinacy.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow and turned to await her prior’s response.
Sister Ruth’s eyes narrowed.
The prioress molded her expression into one of expectant benevolence, then gently tapped her staff of office on the ground to remind both that she was waiting for further elaboration of positions.
“We are bound to forgive and obliged to show charity.” Prior Andrew studied Sister Ruth as if searching for signs of these virtues in her face. Quickly he looked away, sadness in his eyes as he failed to discover any trace. “Young Adelard is no longer a babe,” he said with a gentle tone. “I think he has grown into a wiser youth who now longs to serve God.”
“Is a gold candlestick payment enough for the scar left on the cheek of the nun he struck?”
Eleanor rarely felt kinship with this woman, who often opposed her, but that remark touched her heart.
“Two candlesticks, perhaps?” The moment the words escaped his lips, Andrew knew the comment was better left unspoken. It sounded like a mockery of Sister Ruth. His face flushed with regret. Oblivious to any insult, the sub-prioress turned thoughtful and jabbed a finger against her thin lower lip. “His father could not pay for so many. Indeed, I wonder that he can afford the one. I remember when his roof leaked and only the poorest ate his gritty bread.”
“Which, not long ago, would have been most of those living nearby.” Andrew swept his hand around the room, suggesting inclusion of all lands belonging to both village and priory. “God has smiled on us in recent years. The baker and his family now live in a finer house, and he even sells his bread to Mistress Signy when her own stores at the inn run short. As more people travel to our priory, many in the village have prospered as have we who are in God’s service.”
“In no small measure because our hospital infirmarian, Sister Christina, has wrought many miracles with her prayers for the sick and dying.” The sub-prioress’ arrogant expression faded as she glanced uneasily at Eleanor. “Although many questioned the sanctity of our anchoress after she was first entombed, sinners now journey here from all over England to consult with her.”
Since the sub-prioress had been one of those detractors, Eleanor greeted this subtle concession with a gracious nod. As for the efficacy of priory medical treatment, Eleanor never ignored Sister Christina’s pleas to God, she being a woman surely bound for the name of blessed, if not saint. But Eleanor also knew that both the renown and prosperity of the hospital owed much to the more worldly healing skills of Sister Anne, apothecary and sub-infirmarian.
An olive-brown bird flew through the open window and over the heads of the trio. Landing on a nearby table, the small chiffchaff chirped with bright song as if eager to add his opinion.
Sister Ruth eyed the bird with suspicion.
Prior Andrew also glanced at the creature and without thinking ran his hand over his bald head. “Do you have cause to believe Adelard has not changed his ways since the last rock was thrown?”
“No.” Her reply was hesitant, and she began to twitch.
Suspecting an attack of fleas, Eleanor restrained herself from offering one of her linen pouches of lavender as an antidote.
“He spends much time in prayer at the priory church. Brother John says that he begs answers on questions of scripture and faith.”
“His father’s prosperity is recent. Dare we conclude that he will always be able to provide the bread promised, even if he does present us with the promised candlestick? Men of such birth…” The sub-prioress sniffed.
“Surely your objection is not based solely on his low worldly rank,” Andrew said with annoyance. “In the village, that means little. Other than the crowner, no one there is of noble birth.” Eleanor was also growing impatient. “The baker’s offer of one candlestick is adequate to brighten any altar,” she said, “and his gift of bread to feed our sick honors charity. As for lasting affluence, we must never assume that prosperity shall continue beyond this moment, and that caution includes our priory. We would do well to recall the lesson of Job.”
With a sharp twitter, the chiffchaff took wing, circled the room, and fled the chambers. Eleanor wondered if it had grown bored with the concerns of those God chose to rule the earth and all its beasts. Then she noticed a small white drop on the sub-prioress’ shoulder, and amusement briefly pulled her thoughts down to a less celestial plane.
Sister Ruth’s face was deepening to the color of a fine wine from the Aquitaine.
“Nor does our Order turn aside any with a true calling to serve God,” Andrew said.
Eleanor nodded. “The mother house in Anjou serves as our model by taking not only the children of craftsmen but repentant prostitutes as well. All souls are equal in God’s eyes.”
“Surely we need not follow their practices in every respect!” Sister Ruth’s forehead began to glisten, and the sour odor of fear wafted from her square body. “The abbey is large, and our small priory does not have the space or resources to imitate their singular benevolence.”
Eleanor took mercy on the woman. “To our grief, you are correct. Even though our village is poor in magdalenes, we may at least follow the mother house’s example and accept novices of lowlier parentage.”
Andrew gestured with enthusiasm. “And we have done so already, much to the benefit of our priory and hospital. Sister Anne’s father was a physician. Brother John was an apothecary when he lived in the world…”
The sub-prioress waved his observation aside. “The charity of our hospital is ultimately under the guidance of the infirmarian, Sister Christina, who is not only a woman of inestimable virtue but is also the daughter of…”
Eleanor thudded her staff on the floor. “We are drifting from the purpose of this discussion. The question before us is whether or not to admit Adelard, son of Oseberne the baker, as a novice to our priory.”
The prior swatted at a fly. “I believe we should.”
“I disagree.” Sister Ruth sat upright with an implacable rigidity. Her thick body probably resembled the unyielding curtain wall of her noble brother’s Norman fortress.
Shutting her eyes, the prioress knew she had lost patience. Her two subordinates had failed to compromise and seemed unwilling ever to do so. Could this meeting grow any more difficult?
When she heard a soft knock on the chamber door, Eleanor gratefully gave permission to enter.
As she stepped into the room, Gytha, the prioress’ maid, looked uncommonly pale. “I beg pardon for the interruption, my lady.”
Exuding rank displeasure at the intrusion, Sister Ruth eloquently turned her head away and muttered something incomprehensible.
“You surely have cause,” Eleanor replied with especial gentleness. Her usually cheerful maid was uncommonly subdued.
Gytha bit her lip. “Brother Gwydo has found a man’s body in the mill pond. He prays that you may come as soon as possible.”
There was a collective gasp in the room.
“Send Brother Beorn to inform Crowner Ralf,” the prioress replied as she rose from her chair and firmly gripped her staff of office. Then she gestured to her prior and sub-prioress. “We shall meet him at the site.”
Although Eleanor knew no one could hear it, she could feel her heart pounding as if the Devil himself was beating a drum within her breast.