Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Spring in East Anglia was a troubling time, in particular for the poor who had barely survived the dark season. Daylight hours held the promise of a warming earth, but long nights retained winter’s icy cold. For a girl on the threshold of womanhood, with neither parents nor kin, survival thus far would be thought a miracle. To believe she had any hope of living much longer went beyond all reason.
Gracia huddled into a small space between two houses to escape the wind. Like a wary animal, she peered down the dark road leading to the major shrines. Her eyes half shut against the biting wind, she took her time before concluding she was safe.
She longed to eat.
Earlier today, she had been fortunate. A red-haired monk walking to the chapel had discovered her. When he learned she was hungry, he had begged a portion of bread and even a mouthful of fish and cheese from the nearby inn. Were it not for pilgrims, she would starve. Since they were strangers, many living in Walsingham distrusted those who came to see the shrines, but she survived on the mercy of these penitents, their souls tender with the pain of sin and fearful of how greatly they had offended God.
She was also lucky that the monk had given her the food before Father Vincent caught her near the chapel. If the priest had seen her, he would have chased her off, hurling rocks and screaming that she was Satan’s creature who polluted God’s shrines.
Not long ago, he had caught her in his chapel as a merchant was swyving her. The man swore she had enchanted him, and, when he promised a donation to the priest’s shrine, the priest’s eyes grew blind to the fact that a bone-thin child had little protection against a man who was three times her weight. Father Vincent would deny that the gift affected his judgment, but Gracia knew better. When her parents died, she lost the privilege of innocence.
On reflection, she knew she would have been wiser had she swallowed her anger and claimed demonic possession when he accused her of being the instrument of the Devil. Making an enemy of a man who owned the means to offer charity was ill-advised, and she had few ways of keeping herself alive. Had she been a boy with no kin she might have joined others who formed packs like dogs, stealing what they could use or sell. Girls, whatever their age, were left to whore.
Gracia had been determined to do otherwise. After the death of her parents, she had learned to become as efficient as a feral cat. With keen senses and clever wits, unusual in one so young, she had survived.
She had also been lucky.
Glancing around again, the girl still saw no threat and concluded she might allow herself the distraction of eating. She lowered her head and began to gnaw carefully and slowly at the monk’s gift. Hunger demanded she gorge herself. Her wits advised her to save some for the morrow. One meal was never a promise of another.
The bread was fresher than she usually ate, containing no mold or bugs and still soft enough for her loose teeth and tender gums. The cheese was pale but pungent. The fish was filled with bones. She tore the latter into tiny bits and sucked on them, spitting out sharp fragments before swallowing.
This was a king’s feast.
Gracia again paused to peer about, her eyes searching for any hint of danger in the narrow street overhung with looming buildings. Nothing alarmed her, so she went back to her meal, reflecting on a tale she had overheard.
If it were true that King Edward was coming here to worship the relics at Walsingham Priory, might she not hope to enjoy a tiny bit of a king’s bounty?
Being short and thin, she was able to slip around adults or between their legs. They would be distracted as they cheered the king’s entry into Walsingham. If she crept close enough when his minions tossed coins, she might snatch one or even two.
That was a dream, and fancy was a luxury only full bellies could afford, but she decided she was not foolish to expect to reap some benefit.
As soon as word spread about King Edward’s visit, additional pilgrims would travel to this famous religious site. Shrines drew those who longed for God’s grace, but kings lured men who hoped for an earthly lord’s favor. Between the crowds who came for God and those who came for the king, there would be more people to toss her scraps, bits too small to interest a dog but enough, perhaps, to keep her alive a while longer. Extra coin might even get her through another winter…
There had been movement in the shadows down the road.
Pulling the rag of a hood over her head to keep the pallor of her face from betraying her in the darker shadows, she pressed the food to her chest and listened.
Footsteps echoed in the silence of the streets.
They came closer, slowed, and stopped.
Too close, Gracia thought, and shivered in terror. She had been a fool to let hunger overrule caution and eat without first finding a better place to hide. A howl of dread filled her throat, but she swallowed it. Any sound from her might bring a beating, another rape, or even prove fatal.
She bit her lip. If God were kind, she would remain unnoticed in the gloom. If He were not, rape was surely more likely than death. She reminded herself that she had survived abuse once. She could endure it again. Those were brave words, but her trembling belied her belief in them.
The footsteps began again, slower but increasingly distant.
The girl peeked out through a hole in her hood.
That shadow belonged to a man, she decided, but he was not the one who had made her bleed. She would never forget his stoutness. This shape owned a leaner form.
Holding her breath, she waited until the man’s shadow slipped past the inn and merged into the deeper darkness beyond.
Then she rose from her corner, looked down the road in both directions, and escaped toward the Augustinian priory.
The wind muted all sound of her flight.
Thomas lay on his back and stared at the indistinct outlines where two dark beams braced the ceiling of his small chamber.
He shifted onto his side.
The stone floor was hard, and his thin straw mattress scratched his face. Although he could ignore those annoyances, sleep’s mockery he could not. For once it was not his familiar attack of melancholia that kept him awake. The unbalanced humor, from which he suffered tonight, was choler.
With a sigh, he surrendered to the futility of trying to sleep and sat up. After rubbing grit from his aching eyes, he glanced behind him and saw that the narrow bed in which Father Vincent should be sleeping was vacant. Above the priest’s bed a large wooden cross hung on the wall, a vague shape made clearer by weak candlelight that flickered through the partially open door. The priest must have gone into the chapel to pray, he thought.
“As well he ought,” he muttered in a low tone that betrayed dislike for his host. But it was not the priest’s evident displeasure at having to share his tiny room that drew Thomas’ ire. It was the man’s lack of compassion.
Earlier in the day, Thomas had noticed a skeletal child in the street sitting against a urine-stained wall. Although he had seen other beggar children, this girl had caught his particular attention.
Her clothing possessed more holes than cloth, and she stank of the filth she slept in. When she opened her mouth, her breath was foul from rotted teeth. But there was something about her eyes that drew him to her. From one angle, they were ice blue, from another a warm gray. In either case, they revealed an intelligence rarely seen in one so young and worn by hunger.
“Have you eaten?” he had asked. The answer was obvious, but he wanted to hear her voice and hoped to gain her trust.
She had tilted her head to look up at him, and then murmured a reply. There was no guile in her expression, only a straightforward longing for bread.
And so he had gone to the inn to ask for scraps, failing to mention the exact mouth to be fed. If the innkeeper thought the food was for a monk, the man might choose a greater charity. Taking the offering, Thomas bowed his thanks and left to pass the still warm nourishment on to the child.
As he feared, she had snatched the food and fled. What he did not foresee was her whispered word of gratitude as she rushed by, a courtesy unusual amongst small beggars who rarely lived as long as she.
Like a burr, the troubling image of this girl buried itself into his heart, and Thomas decided to mention her to Father Vincent, priest of Ryehill Priory and guardian of a minor relic some distance from those of Walsingham Priory. Surely, the monk said, a warm corner in which to sleep and regular food from the nuns’ kitchen could be provided the unfortunate child.
Father Vincent’s face had become apoplectic at the very mention of the tiny beggar. “An imp from Hell,” he shouted, pointing a trembling finger at his feet. “You have fed Satan’s whore who dares to use the name
! Is it not blasphemy for a demon to call itself
“Nay, Father, a child, not a woman. This one is a little girl.”
“I caught her some weeks ago with a merchant. She had dragged him into this chapel to sate her unnatural lust.” Father Vincent shook like the last leaf clinging to a barren tree. “Into this sacred place! She dared—”
“Weeks ago? You are confused about the beggar I mean. This one bears no signs of a woman’s body. She cannot be the whore of which you speak.”
Father Vincent’s nostrils flared with contempt. “You are sadly ignorant of the Evil One’s cleverness, Brother. After I had found them coupling like dogs, the merchant wept in contrition and confessed the Devil’s dark hand had covered his eyes and blinded him. He swore he did not know what he was doing until I awoke him from the terrible enchantment. This man is generous to the shrine and well-respected here. I have good cause to believe that he had been put under a spell by an imp in Eve’s form.”
Thomas was horrified, but the priest had not finished.
“She, on the other hand, claimed she had committed no willful sin and was innocent of any wrong. When I later caught her in the street, she showed no remorse for the sacrilege she had committed. Instead, she swore it was the good merchant who forced himself upon her. Nor has she come to me since for confession and penance.”
“And why did you not believe her? She is a tiny thing and starving. The merchant, you say, is a grown man and surely well-fed. Which was more likely to force the other to sin?”
Holding his hands out as if they were balances, Father Vincent nodded at his right hand. “Here we have a man of proven charity who grieves over his crime.” Then he indicated his left. “There we have a whore who blames another for her wickedness.” Raising the left hand to suggest the proper answer, he glared at Thomas like a master with a dull pupil. “Her brazen refusal to confess her guilt in the wickedness proves she is Satan’s creature. As the merchant claimed, she bewitched him.”
Thomas squeezed his eyes shut. “Perhaps she was telling the truth,” he replied through clenched teeth. In prison, he had felt no culpability when his jailor raped him, and he had been a grown man. Surely a child must bear no blame at all.
Father Vincent stared at the monk in disbelief. “An honest Christian confesses his transgressions. The Devil’s handmaid denies all sin. Surely you see the difference.”
At that moment, the only thing Thomas could see was blind rage. He did not understand how this priest could casually dismiss the terror this girl must have felt, but he saw no point in arguing further. Before he forgot his vocation and struck the priest, he willed himself to deliver a curt nod, and escaped into the street.
Once there, he looked for the child, but she had disappeared. With sorrow, he realized that he could do too little for her. He was both a stranger and a visitor to this place. When tears slipped down his cheeks, he did nothing to stop them.
Hours later, the anger had still not diminished, and it was the sparks of renewed fury that chased away all hope of sleep. There was no help for his misery except to walk until exhaustion forced him into uneasy dreams. At least, Thomas thought, the priest was not in his bed. He was not sure he could remain courteous if the man were to awaken and speak to him.
The monk adjusted his robes, then walked through the opened door into the empty chapel, his soft footsteps disturbing the profound stillness of night.
A few cresset lamps flickered in niches along the stone walls, causing shadows to dance with eerie grace.
The whoosh of wings rippled through the silence. Thomas looked up. Some flying thing had been disturbed in its resting spot near the roof.
As he approached the altar, he paused and knelt to pay homage to the small box containing a few hairs from the Virgin’s head.
He was surprised that Father Vincent was not here either, since he was known to revere this relic he had worked so hard to obtain, but Thomas remained grateful that he need not meet the man. Muttering his complaints to God about the priest, Thomas had little doubt He might share this outrage. Whatever quarrels he had with God, the monk never doubted that He expected compassion from the creatures He had made in His image.
Rising, Thomas looked around in the uneven light but still failed to see the priest anywhere. Perhaps Vincent wished to avoid him as much as he did the priest. If I were charitable, Thomas thought, I would conclude that the priest suffers remorse over what he said about the beggar child and cannot bear to face me after his cruel words.
His mind insisted the supposition was possible. His heart dismissed it.
Thomas walked toward the chapel door and emerged onto the road. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm himself. The chill night air did begin to soothe him.
He would be wiser to set aside this anger, he decided, and devote his wits to bringing succor to this girl. As he watched his breath grow white in the darkness, he acknowledged that fury was as useless as it was consuming. “Let God deal with Father Vincent,” he muttered and leaned back against the chapel wall.
For a pilgrimage route that attracted many faithful from abroad as well as England, this road grew surprisingly quiet once the sun had set. Noise came from the nearby inn, but the massive stone priory lay between this chapel and the inn, dulling the sound. The major shrines of Walsingham were also located at the other end of this road. Pilgrims, so burdened by sins that they must seek powerful relics after dark, would walk away from Ryehill Priory and the chapel attended by Father Vincent, leaving this part of the road empty.
The night air nips like the taste of a tart apple, Thomas thought, and then chuckled at that image coming to him so quickly. When he had first arrived at Tyndal, he disparaged the coastal reek of fish and other earthy smells. His upbringing had been in towns, castles, and with soldiers. Swords and battlements came to mind sooner than fruit, but rural things were now his life. That was a good change, he thought.
Stretching, he felt a little peace slipping into him.
A woman’s scream shattered his newborn calm.
It seemed to come from the other side of the priory, near the bell tower. Thomas ran in that direction, fearing the woman had been attacked by a band of ruffians or drunken men from the inn.
The street between chapel and priory was narrow, as was the one that led to its bell tower. The darkness was almost palpable, and the houses were so close that only two men might walk side by side. But he met no one on the way.
When he reached the base of the bell tower, he spun around, seeking a glimpse of a fleeing shadow and listening for running footsteps. He saw nothing. The only sounds, apart from the inn’s muted joy, came from water dripping out of the mouth of a stone gargoyle high above him and the sigh of an intermittent breeze.
Then he noticed something on the ground.
He knelt and reached out. His hand touched warm flesh. As his eyes grew used to this gloom, Thomas knew he had found what he feared most. He bent closer.
It was the body of a woman.
He checked for breath but felt none. Quickly, he searched for wounds. Her skull was soft, likely shattered, and her neck was certainly broken. If he could do nothing to aid a living woman, he could at least give ease to her soul, and he whispered God’s mercy into her ear.
Suddenly, he felt the hair on his neck prickle. He looked up, thinking he had heard a sound.
Near the far corner of the priory, the inn’s light outlined the edge of an extended shadow, and he thought he saw movement. “Father Vincent!” he shouted. But there was no reply and no further suggestion that a mortal stood there.
“I was mistaken,” he whispered to the corpse. His eyes, now more accustomed to the darkness, focused on the body. It was a young woman, and, if Thomas was not mistaken, she was the nun who had announced their arrival to Prioress Ursell. He looked straight up. From her injuries and the position of the body, he guessed she had fallen from the priory bell tower. Was this death an accident, a self-killing, or…
It was not his place to question and he began to rise, but something caught his eye and he slid back onto his knees. Reaching out, he tugged at an item clutched in the woman’s hand. It was a piece of cloth, soft and finely woven. Bending closer, he decided the color must be brown or black. A brighter or light shade would have been clearer in this darkness. Feeling it, he noted that the edges were uneven, torn as if the dead woman had grasped something in a futile attempt to save herself from falling. That suggested another person might have been with her in the tower, yet he heard no second voice crying out in dismay.
He tucked the cloth back into the corpse’s fist and placed her hand under her body to keep the item safe. Then he left to seek help. As sad as it was, this death and its cause were not his responsibility. Someone else must look at the evidence and decide what had occurred.
Thomas hurried toward the priory entrance with the news. Rounding the corner of the building, he collided with Father Vincent. Before the priest could express outrage at the unintentional assault, the monk told him he had found the body of a woman, one he feared was a nun, under the bell tower.
The man gasped. “Go back to the chapel and pray for the creature’s soul, Brother Thomas,” he said. “I will alert Prioress Ursell. This tragedy is our grief.” Then he spun around and ran back the way he had come.
Thomas watched the priest disappear into the priory. If he had seen someone in the shadows, might it have been Father Vincent?
He shook his head. He had called out his name, when a shadow seemed to move, but no one had replied. As much as he disliked the man, Thomas was sure the priest had more important tasks than to lurk in the darkness near the inn. A more logical explanation for Father Vincent’s absence from his bed and chapel was an errand of mercy somewhere nearby or in the priory itself.
Thomas walked back along the narrow street to wait by the dead woman until the priory could retrieve her corpse. Although Father Vincent had told him to go back to the chapel, he thought it cruel to let her hovering soul fear her body had been abandoned to foraging animals in the night. He could pray beside her corpse just as well as if he knelt in front of the altar.
Rain had begun to fall. The drops felt sharp as ice against his face. If God were grieving, Thomas thought, surely His tears would feel like this. As deep fatigue seeped through him, he knew sleep would come once he returned to his bed.
It was a prospect he did not welcome. Too many troubling things had happened this day. Any dreams would slay all hope of rest.