The late afternoon heat settled heavily on Prioress Eleanor. Sweat wiggled down her spine, making her itch as if some impudent crawling thing were caught beneath her habit. Now her arm grew numb from holding her staff of office.
Surely it should not take this long for the party from Edward’s queen to enter the priory gates. Their messenger had arrived just after the last Office. Was it not almost time for the bells to announce the next?
Beside her, Prior Andrew eased his weight to his other foot.
Her glance caught his brief grimace. “Does your leg trouble you?”
“It is nothing more than a man’s impatience to be busy, my lady. I am not accustomed to standing still this long.”
She nodded in response, knowing he had lied but letting him keep his pride. Her prior was a good man. His attempt at deception was innocent enough.
“Queen Eleanor honors Tyndal Priory by suggesting she might stop here on her pilgrimage route.” The prior clasped his hands in a prayerful gesture. The whiteness of his knuckles betrayed the pain he was suffering.
“We received the news of her great favor with much joy.” Eleanor chose to reply as if this visit were a certainty, although she knew there was a possibility that the event might never come to pass. Even if it did, Edward’s wife could have some troubling reason for coming here. Honor never came without cost. Since the prioress could think of no reason why Tyndal might already have earned the boon, she concluded that any price must be paid in the future.
A shout from a lay brother, standing at the open gates, interrupted her worries before they became weightier.
Great clouds of tan dust billowed above the grey stones of the priory walls. The neighing of horses and rumble of carts on the rutted road from the west were unmistakable.
At last, Eleanor thought, and gripped her crosier more firmly.
Her hand slipped, and she almost dropped the staff.
That was not a good omen. She clenched her teeth, and her heart pounded with apprehension. Then she looked at those clustered nearby. From their expressions, she suspected any misgivings were hers alone.
Standing to her left, Sister Ruth was red-faced and sweating from the heat while her square face bore an especially beatific expression. Such a worshipful look would be greeted with favor by those accustomed to the ways of a king’s court. Although the sub-prioress often tried Eleanor’s patience, the woman was far more capable than she of conveying heart-felt flattery, a skill that sometimes allowed the prioress to avoid attempting her own, less convincing performance.
Next to the sub-prioress stood Sister Christina, infirmarian of Tyndal’s well-regarded hospital. The nun had prayerfully bowed her head, a sincere gesture as well as wise since her weak eyes often made her seem oblivious to anything around her. Even those of high secular rank, who might otherwise demand rapt attention, would never dare to find insult in such splendid faith. “The envoys arrive,” Eleanor said. With grim resolve, she tried to emulate the calm of those surrounding her.
The religious grew quiet with anticipation.
“They are accompanied by a large armed guard.” Prior Andrew shaded his eyes and stared at the dust clouds.
“Let us hope they are not too numerous to accommodate.” The prioress glanced at his tensed features and hoped she might find cause to release him from further attendance. During this very long wait, they had all suffered from the oppressive summer heat. When the ritual courtesies were finished, Eleanor planned to dismiss the majority so they could find refuge in the relative cool of the priory buildings.
“I have prepared for that likelihood,” Sister Ruth hissed. “Nor did I doubt that you had,” Eleanor replied. Whatever faults her sub-prioress possessed, the failure to plan carefully for the comfort of high-ranking guests was not one of them.
The prioress looked again at her prior and regretfully concluded that he must stay a while longer than the others. Although she was the unquestioned leader of both monks and nuns in this Fontevraudine priory, the presence of masculine authority was expected and more reassuring to those outside the Order.
Nonetheless, Eleanor was solely responsible for assuring hospitality balanced between the monastic simplicity appropriate to a pilgrimage and the comfort to which a king’s wife was accustomed. It was also the prioress who must convince these courtiers that Tyndal was prepared in all respects to welcome a queen.
Eleanor closed her eyes and prayed that Edward’s wife would quite soon forget she had ever mentioned making this journey. Should God grant this plea, the prioress vowed she would not resent all the wasted effort put into planning. At least Tyndal would be ready for the burden of such an honor if the queen did arrive at the priory gates.
The first of the armed escort rode through the gates.
Eleanor squinted through the dirty haze, anxious to catch sight of the man she had learned would be leading the party.
Although she had never met Sir Fulke, she knew he was the eldest brother of Crowner Ralf, a man she called friend. The courtier was sheriff for this region but rarely appeared, preferring Winchester to any land populated with flickering lights known as corpse candles, stinking fens, and screeching mews.
Ralf had assured her that she had little to fear from Fulke who would be as eager to leave Tyndal as she would be to see him go. And she had no reason to believe any member of this party had a quarrel with her family or with this remote and insignificant priory.
Her apprehension diminished.
After the long journey, they surely would be grateful enough for a cool drink, a decent meal, and rest. Perhaps they all would prove as keen as she to confirm without delay that the queen’s needs would be met here. Then they could make swift return to the comforts of court, and Eleanor could go back to balancing accounting rolls and estimating the wool profit from priory sheep.
She stifled a hopeful sigh.
The horsemen now drew to a halt, parted, and the lead rider approached. At last she would meet Sir Fulke.
Furtively drying her sweating hand on her robe, Eleanor clutched the crosier with determination, arranged her features into an expression of serene dignity, and reminded herself that Tyndal might gain land or some other fine gift if she handled this matter of the queen’s visit with skill.
Then she recognized the priest riding behind the sheriff. All hope of tranquility fled.
Baron Otes was a very happy man.
As he rode with the sheriff through the gates of Tyndal Priory, he raised his eyes heavenward and, with an abrupt nod, thanked God for the satisfactory way in which He had answered all his prayers on this journey. Otes was wise enough to show gratitude when He did as requested, not that God often failed to grant his wishes.
The baron’s only grievance today was the unrelenting heat. As he had grown older, he had gained weight in direct proportion to his increasing affluence. Now he suffered more in summer and found traveling in warmer seasons difficult. For this reason, he chose well-tempered horses large enough to comfortably carry a man of his girth without complaint over long journeys. Or so he had always done.
Otes glared down at this particular beast. Was it his imagi- nation or had the creature given him an evil look this morning when he approached to mount? He shook his head and concluded that the heat had unbalanced his humors. After all, these animals were incapable of reason and could not foresee a fatiguing ride. Unlike Adam and Eve, horses had never eaten an apple from the Tree of Knowledge.
Suddenly he had a horrifying thought. Might Adam have fed an apple to this animal’s forbearer before he himself had taken that forbidden bite?
With a grimace, Otes dismissed the blasphemous thought and forced his mind to more practical matters. He also decided that he must find shelter from this sun.
It had been a long day, and he would be glad when the inevitable courtesies were over. Sweat stung his eyes, and his fingers were so swollen that he had difficulty holding the reins. He feared that this remote priory might not possess palatable enough wine to wash the dust from his throat. Then he recalled that the prioress was a baron’s daughter and grew confident. A woman of high birth would never tolerate inferior or austere food and drink.
As the delegation approached the large gathering of monks and nuns waiting to honor the queen’s representatives, Otes eyed those of greatest interest to him. He smiled with delight, his spirits rose, and he grew increasingly confident that his plans would be successful.
He had been right to demand that the party delay entrance to priory grounds until he had taken time to pray. Especially after his recent and most generous donations to the Church, God should not fail to recognize his piety. A small reminder that He owed the baron a great deal had clearly not been wasted, however. Although he knew her father, Baron Adam of Wynethorpe, this prioress was younger than he had believed. Before Otes left the court, he learned the late king had appointed her to this position because her kin had been loyal during the de Montfort rebellion. That detail meant her fellow religious had not chosen her for any demonstrated competence.
Since she had been raised at Amesbury Priory from childhood, she would also be a naïve about worldly matters. That, plus her youth, meant she could be manipulated with even greater ease than he had assumed. Oh, he had heard rumors of things she had done here and there. Those, he discounted. Any alleged accomplishments were surely the work of some monk on her behalf. In this Order of Fontevrault, a woman might hold the title of leader, but he knew at least one man must direct her.
Perhaps that man was her prior, the one standing beside her. In this, God had doubly blessed Otes, and he was eager for the moment when Prior Andrew saw him. Perhaps Andrew would not recognize the baron immediately, for they had both changed in the years since their last meeting. The prior had grown as gaunt as Otes had grown fat, and all men knew which physical state proved His favor. The baron was confident of his superior standing in God’s eyes.
The dust slowly settled from the stamping of so many hooves. Otes wiped a hand across his forehead and looked with distaste at the smeared dirt. Then he chuckled. How he would savor the sight of Andrew’s eyes widening in proportion to the dread growing in the wretched prior’s heart. That moment was worth all the gritty dust caught in the baron’s sweat.
Otes stretched his aching shoulders back. After all my generosity to the Church, he said to himself, I should not have to beg that my soul be granted but a brief moment in Purgatory. Since it seems I must, according to my wretched confessor, someone ought to pay the price for the injustice. This prior is a despicable man, one who can be cast aside and forgotten, and Andrew surely deserved to suffer for having dared to live this long.
Otes caught himself smiling at the back of Sir Fulke, the sheriff.
Now there was a fool, neither corrupt enough to succeed through fear nor so honest that he basked in the warm esteem of others. Although Otes had learned something useful about the man, the baron had found no particular reason to exact a price for his knowledge. Until now, the way the man twitched every time they met, like a mouse facing a cat, was good enough. Soon, he might have to demand something more from Sir Fulke. Others had always paid well for the baron’s silence, and he took pride in getting full value for secrets. No man should ever die before gathering in everything owed him.
Pulling on his reins, Otes groaned with increasing discomfort and shifted in the saddle to ease his back. As he did, he saw Kenard walking next to the Lady Avelina.
At that moment, the servant also looked up. He met the baron’s glance with a bold stare.
Otes turned away so quickly his neck hurt. The very sight of that man with hooded eyes like some malevolent hawk always made him uneasy. Why had the Lady Avelina kept him in her service? The man was mute. Perhaps he earned his keep by spying on her imprudent son, Simon.
Otes shuddered. Had Kenard been lurking the other night when the baron whispered a few words in Simon’s ear and the young man almost pissed himself with terror? The baron assumed not. He had ever been careful to avoid witnesses to his tactics.
In any case, he found the servant loathsome and concluded the man needed to be reminded of his rank. Otes chose to meet the man’s gaze again, then spat in Kenard’s direction. The creature would not dare respond to the insult.
The servant turned his back and strode away.
Although this man might cause Otes discomfort, he knew Kenard could be punished if the baron chose to complain about some real or imagined offense. It was another member of this party who caused Otes real concern: the priest, Father Eliduc. While his voice was as soft as the cloth of his black robes, his very presence in a room made men break out in a sweat as if they suffered from a mortal fever.
Otes was not at all happy that this particular churchman was made a member of the company sent to Tyndal. A priest might be an obligatory part of the group, since the queen had proclaimed her journey a pilgrimage, but Eliduc was not the representative of God Otes wanted. The man was the one person who shouldn’t learn just yet of Otes’ purpose here, and the priest had a fine reputation for ferreting out secrets, a skill the baron conceded might well match his own.
“Foxes may be outwitted by clever hounds,” he reminded himself, believing that his wits were surely up to the mark. God was also showing too many signs of His favor. There could be nothing except triumph for Otes’ cause.
Exhaling with relief, he forced a smile. The sheriff was speaking with the prioress. Soon he could escape this heat and sit back in a chair with a goblet of cool wine to strengthen him. He sighed with pleasure at the very thought.
His horse snorted as if concurring with the sentiment.