Authors: Priscilla Royal
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Prioress Eleanor struggled to remain within that sweet embrace of sleep. She was about to hear something important, an answer she desperately needed to learn.
“Please, my lady, awaken!”
Why did this rude and annoying voice not cease? She opened her mouth to protest, but no sound came forth.
A hand gently shook her shoulder.
Her dream fled like a stag before a hunter and with it all hope for the peace of revelation.
Feeling a bitter cold, she reached for her blanket, but the covering she grasped was thin and rough. When she sought the comforting softness of her orange cat, he was missing from his usual spot on her bed.
All was not as it should be. The chill was now joined by ill-defined foreboding. Apprehension dragged her with merciless persistence toward raw consciousness.
“You must awaken.” The voice spoke close to her ear, its sound both familiar and troubling.
Eleanor opened her eyes.
The gray light revealed bare stone walls. The beloved tapestry that hung in front of her bed was missing; the air was heavy with damp. Taking a deep breath, she winced at the pervasive reek of unwashed bodies. Had she drifted into a cruel nightmare? This was not her chamber at Tyndal Priory. She rubbed her fingers to bring back feeling.
“You must rise.”
The woman kneeling next to her looked more like a wraith in the dull light than anything earthbound, but Eleanor recognized her as mortal. She was a fellow pilgrim, a merchant’s widow called Mistress Emelyne, who shared this room and their straw pallet. As part of her penance, Eleanor had rejected the offer of chambers suited to her rank and instead asked to stay in the quarters assigned to women of lower status. In this moment, that choice felt very austere indeed.
“Is it time again for prayer?” The prioress was sure she had just fallen asleep, but perhaps the journey from Tyndal had wearied her more than she realized. Or else this damp cold had sapped her strength. What weak faith I own, she thought, if these minor discomforts are greater than I can bear.
“It is not, my lady.” The woman nervously wrung her hands together and bowed her head. “Prioress Ursell has summoned you.”
Eleanor blinked in confusion. What cause had Ryehill’s prioress to ask for her at such a strange hour? Had a dire tragedy struck Tyndal? Her sub-prioress would never beg her to come back for anything less.
She struggled to rise, but every part of her ached. When she finally stood, she bit her lip but could not prevent a small cry of pain. The soles of her feet felt as if they had been beaten raw. What a fool she had been.
Insisting on this thin straw mat laid over a stone floor might have been acceptable as atonement for her sins, but walking bare-footed along the pilgrim’s road for that last mile had been imprudent. Penitential humility often masked pride. Now she feared she had fallen victim to the vice. In any case, she was too soft a creature to have removed her shoes and walked that far over the rutted, stone-littered road. Meant as a singular act of piety, she had only confirmed her foolishness.
Reaching out to brace herself against the wall, she implored God to forgive her for the luxuries she allowed herself in her own priory. And if this absolution was not too much to ask, she also begged Him to accept her pain as atonement.
Now she grimly attempted to ignore her tender feet. The effort was more than she could manage, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
The widow braced Eleanor’s elbow to help her stay upright. “Shall I bring some shoes for you, my lady? I own a soft pair that might fit.” Glancing down at her own feet, she added, “We are much the same size.”
The offer was kind, but the prioress did not welcome the charity. Gritting her teeth, she brusquely refused the offer, then the woman’s assistance in walking, and stubbornly limped toward the chest provided by the nuns for those pilgrims who had worldly possessions to store.
As she reached the chest, she bent over and braced her hands against it for support. “Pride,” she muttered. “Pride is sin.” A hand lightly grasped her shoulder. Annoyed, the prioress looked around, sharp words ready to punish such impertinence.
“Forgive me, my lady, but I anticipated your wishes and found the ones you had brought.” The merchant’s widow pointed to a pair of shoes on the ground. “I do have others that might be softer. Yours are sturdy, meant for mud or snow.”
Eleanor closed her eyes in defeat, murmured gratitude, and sat down on the chest. One of her feet had left a bloody mark on the floor.
The merchant’s widow knelt and wrapped the wounded foot in a white cloth before easing on the shoes.
Eleanor looked around. The only other person in the room was another pilgrim who lay snoring in the far corner, her child clutched in her arms. Other straw beds were empty. No one stood waiting, and the chamber door was shut. “Did Prioress Ursell send a messenger, Mistress Emelyne?”
“She sent one of her nuns, but I told her to wait outside while I awakened you. I feared a strange voice would alarm you, and mine is familiar from our travels together.”
“You were kind to think of that.” The prioress struggled to rise, then reluctantly accepted the widow’s proffered hand until she was able to stand without support.
She was not unappreciative of the woman’s thoughtfulness, nor had she taken for granted the compassion the widow had shown by helping her on with the shoes. But Eleanor had had more than she wished of the woman’s companionship on the road from Tyndal. As ungrateful as it seemed to her now, she still found the widow’s company annoying.
I am just out of sorts, Eleanor decided on swift reflection, and taking my ill humor out on a good woman. Wincing with the pain from her abused feet, the prioress forced a grimace into a stiff smile. “Now, Mistress Emelyne, if you will call the nun to me?”
Nodding, the widow walked to the door. As she swung it open, the ill-fitting wooden slats creaked ominously on rusting hinges. Peering around the corner, Mistress Emelyne waved at a hidden figure in the hall.
The hollow cheeks of the young woman who entered were paler than the weak light would explain. When she saw the prioress of Tyndal, she bowed with courtesy. “Prioress Ursell requests your presence in her chambers, my lady,” she stammered. “Your monk waits there as well.”
“Brother Thomas?” Eleanor willed herself to walk with stiff-legged dignity toward the nun. “Has disturbing news come from Tyndal?”
The nun’s eyes glistened with restrained tears. “Nay, my lady, but he has discovered a corpse lying beneath our bell tower. We fear it is one of our sisters.”
Eleanor glanced upward with dismay. She had come on this pilgrimage as penance for her sins, to seek answers for troubling questions, and find peace in the worship of the holy relics. Why, she now asked God, could He not send that grim reaper of souls to accompany another for a change? Death’s fondness for involving her in his more violent acts was always wearisome, but she had long tolerated it as part of her service to God. On this one journey, however, she begged for a respite from the vile creature.
Her silent protest ceased when she saw tears flowing from the nun’s deep-set eyes. “I grieve to hear this news,” she said, “and pray that God sends comfort to the hearts of all in this community.”
Murmuring gratitude, the messenger swiftly brushed her hands over her face.
With no further hesitation, Eleanor followed the mournful sister to meet with Prioress Ursell and hear what Brother Thomas had discovered. Whatever dismay she felt over this interruption in her pilgrimage, she was still God’s servant and would follow Him no matter where He led her. And, she reminded herself, I owe Him joy in the performance of my duty, not resentment.
As she carefully walked along the narrow hall, she concluded that the dead nun must have been well-loved to cause such grief in this sister. Shamed by her pettiness, Eleanor acknowledged that this sorrow was of far greater import than any minor complaint she might have about enjoying an undisturbed pilgrimage.
Thomas disliked Prioress Ursell almost as much as he did Father Vincent. Although he tried to hide the evidence of his disdain, he had gotten no sleep, his temper was short, and his willingness to remain polite was growing feeble.
The woman was tall for her gender, he noted, and as long in the face as a horse. Had she chosen marriage as her duty, men would have called her plain as a kindness and ill-cast if they had no cause for courtesy. But she had entered the religious life, and thus such criticism was muted. This prioress should be granted all respect appropriate to her rank, he thought, but horses owned more grace.
Thomas knew he was being petty but could not quite repent this failing. When some claimed that God could only create beauty, and thus it was the Devil who crafted unsightly things, Thomas reminded them that Satan himself had been a splendid creature. Like all men, he responded to beauty, but even in the days before he took vows, he thought it cruel to mock uncomely women. Today he had lost the battle to remain charitable. Prioress Ursell had deeply offended him.
A knock at the door disrupted his thoughts. He was grateful.
A nun escorted Prioress Eleanor into the chambers, bowed to the leader of Ryehill Priory, and left without a sound.
Prioress Eleanor, hands folded and eyes lowered, stood quite still in front of the seated Prioress Ursell.
Nearby, a hearth fire snapped, then bravely flared, but gave forth only a little warmth.
The silence grew oppressive, and Brother Thomas became impatient. The leader of Ryehill Priory had yet to offer his prioress a chair, a rank discourtesy. There was no reason why Prioress Ursell should treat a woman, her equal in worldly rank and surely her superior in God’s service, like a wayward nun called to confront her sins and be rebuked. He knew it was not his place to express outrage, but his self-control was rapidly weakening.
“Please sit,” the prioress of Ryehill said at last, her tone as icy as the air. She pointed to a stool in a corner.
Thomas looked around.
The maid servant had been dismissed, and the nun by the door did not move. Father Vincent stared at the crucifix on the wall as if in deep conversation with God.
Furious at the insult, the monk started to walk to the stool, intending to bring it to his prioress.
“I prefer to stand,” Tyndal’s leader replied.
Thomas stepped back. The firmness in her voice delighted him for the quiet rebuke it suggested, but he grew concerned when he saw her tensed jaw and narrowed eyes. Some might conclude she was angry, but he knew better. His prioress was in pain, and he knew the cause.
On the day of their arrival, and against his counsel, she had dismounted from her donkey, removed her shoes, and walked the last sacred mile into Walsingham. Seeing a prioress of high birth humble herself so, several of her fellow travelers emulated her, a gesture that proved quite agonizing to some. His prioress had suffered most.
Her choice of penance was admirable, but he feared the results. Sister Anne had not accompanied them, and, by the time they reached Ryehill’s entrance, he had seen blood on one of her feet. He hoped this priory had healers more skilled in their arts than Prioress Ursell was in courtesy.
“Your monk has disrupted the peace of this priory by bringing us very disagreeable news,” the prioress of Ryehill said, glancing at him with open disapproval.
Thomas bit his tongue at the implied rebuke. Surely that dead nun would have chosen not to suffer a cruel death, and he knew he would have preferred not to have found her broken body. Neither of them had wanted this tragedy to happen. Of the three, he concluded that this priory had suffered the least.
Ursell cleared her throat. “He has said—”
“I would hear Brother Thomas speak for himself.”
Ursell’s eyes narrowed.
Eleanor’s gray eyes took on the hue of storm clouds.
“As you will, but all speculation is unwarranted. I insist he keep to the facts of what he found. Those are grievous enough.”
Prioress Eleanor raised an eyebrow, then gave her monk permission to speak.
“As Father Vincent’s guest, I sleep in his chambers attached to the chapel next door to this priory.”
The priest turned away from his contemplation of the wall and scowled at the monk. “The Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock. Call it by its proper name, Brother.”
Thomas bowed with intended courtesy but suspected his eyes betrayed a contrary attitude.
Father Vincent swiftly renewed his contemplation of the crucifix.
“While it was still dark, I awoke and, unable to fall back asleep, walked outside.”
The priest muttered. His words may have been inaudible, but his pursed lips made his censure plain.
Thomas felt anger spark. Did this man find all mortals worthy of frequent rebuke, or just him? His mouth suddenly dry with indignation, he longed for wine or ale to moisten his throat but suspected a man could beg for succor in this room and Death would arrive faster than charity.
Calming himself, he continued. “The street was quiet, empty of men, and the only light came from the nearby inn. A moment later, I heard a woman’s scream from the direction of the priory bell tower. Fearing she had been attacked, I rushed down the road, hoping to prevent a theft being committed or other great injury.”
Father Vincent inclined his head to Prioress Ursell. “A questionable act for a tonsured man. Had he come upon armed thieves, he could not have committed violence against them. His vocation prohibits it.” His eyes narrowed with scorn. “But surely he meant well, and so I conclude his dubious act was less blameworthy than ill-considered.”
This priest is insufferable with his endless, critical commentary, Thomas thought. I should have learned to expect that, but now the man is daring to suggest in public that I have acted with impropriety.
He inhaled sharply and turned to Prioress Eleanor to plead his case. No one but his own prioress had the right to reproach him or decide if his behavior was unseemly.
She shook her head, her look soft with understanding.
That soothed him, and he was able to swallow his angry retort and keep a wiser counsel. To retain his calm, he vowed himself to silence until she, and only she, gave him permission to speak further.
Prioress Ursell waved impatiently at him to go on.
Pointedly, he looked to Eleanor.
She allowed him to continue.
“When I reached the base of the tower, I found a woman’s body. From her simple dress, I feared she was a nun, and then I recognized her as the one who welcomed us here. The injuries and position of the corpse suggested she must have fallen from the bell tower, although I reflected on whether she might also have…”
“That will be conjecture enough, Brother. I forbid more.”
“Indeed?” Eleanor’s eyes widened in mild surprise.
Prioress Ursell stiffened as if some novice had dared to speak without permission.
A lesser woman might have quailed. Eleanor smiled, her expression changing into one of patient expectation.
“To be brief,” Ryehill’s prioress said, “your monk found Father Vincent close at hand. Our priest alerted me to the tragedy. The body now lies in our chapel. I have seen the corpse and identified the nun as Sister Roysia. That is all there is to this tale. It was a dreadful accident.”
Eleanor looked over at her monk.
His sideways glance conveyed his disagreement.
“If that is all,” Eleanor said, her expression growing less amiable, “I do not understand why I was told that that our cooperation was so necessary that I must be brought here at such an early hour.”
From the tower outside, the priory bell rang for the early Office.
Ursell murmured something, then fell silent and turned her attention to the several tapestries covering the walls of her audience chamber. As if seeing them for the first time, her study took some time.
Thomas noted the embroidery was ill-crafted, but was not surprised that they pleased this insensitive woman. He glanced at his prioress.
Eleanor’s eyes were half closed like a cat in deceptive sleep.
“As the leader of a priory yourself,” Ursell finally said to the head of Tyndal, “you know how fragile our reputations are. Nuns are often suspected of committing sinful acts. If our priory were tainted with even a hint of ignominy, the faithful would shun us and take their coin elsewhere. I have nuns to feed and clothe, women devoted to prayer for souls in Purgatory. We are not richly endowed and have suffered a decrease in donations of late. We survive on the sale of pilgrimage badges and the hope that penitents will leave gifts when they visit the small shrine in the chapel across the way. I cannot afford scandal.”
Eleanor expressed sympathy.
Despite this woman’s disagreeable manner and troubling arrogance, Thomas conceded that Prioress Ursell was right. The concern she expressed for the welfare of her nuns was frank enough to be sincere. Were any to find cause to suspect that this nun’s death might be self-murder, for instance, the entire priory would be blamed.
“I would therefore ask that you forgo any idle speculation on what might have happened here. After observing the body, I have concluded that our dear sister lost her footing and fell over the edge. There is absolutely no reason to believe otherwise.” Ursell motioned to Father Vincent. “Do you not remember? Only yesterday, someone complained that our bell had not rung for Compline.”
He blinked as if confused, then nodded with enthusiasm.
She looked back at Eleanor. “Sister Roysia overheard the criticism. I am certain she was in the bell tower to make sure the bell-ringer had not fallen victim again to self-indulgent sleep. Her death is unfortunate, but nothing other than an accident should be concluded from the facts.”
Thomas wanted to ask whether the bell-ringer had been in the tower when the accident occurred, but he knew he would be rebuked rather than given a satisfactory answer.
“We are disinclined to chatter,” Eleanor replied in an even tone. “Surely you did not mean to suggest otherwise.”
The monk noticed that Prioress Ursell’s lips now began to tremble. Perhaps she had just recalled that Prioress Eleanor’s eldest brother stood high in the king’s favor? Offending such a woman would not be prudent if Ursell cared about the future prosperity of Ryehill Priory. Thomas suppressed a smile. His prioress was gaining the edge in this unpleasant encounter.
“Of course, I did not,” Ursell replied, her speech hoarse with emotion. “I merely ask that you not speak of this sad event when others are near enough to hear.”
Eleanor shook her head as if amazed that the prioress had even given voice to such a peculiar request. “Is that all?” The words may have been spoken as a question, but there was no doubt that the prioress of Tyndal had just concluded this audience.
Ursell opened her mouth as if to say more, then seemed to reconsider and simply murmured assent.
“Brother Thomas and I shall go to the chapel next door and dedicate our time to praying for Sister Roysia’s soul.”
The priest spun around and stared. “That is most compassionate, my lady! Your charity on behalf of our dear sister is commendable, but do not further delay your journey back to Tyndal. Your own flock must long for your prompt return. Spend the little time you have left here contemplating the glory of the great shrines.” He cleared his throat. “Our Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock is, of course, worthy of your favor.”
Thomas was surprised that Father Vincent had finally torn himself away from his profound reflection, not to criticize but to express an ardent concern for the needs of those in a distant priory. The anomaly was quite inexplicable.
“A few hours on our knees, pleading with God to treat her with mercy, is insignificant compared to the time she must suffer in Purgatory. As guests here, we believe it our unquestioned duty to do so. The act is such a small mercy.” Eleanor smiled.
“Since she was not one of your nuns, you are very kind.” Ursell looked at the priest, her eyes glittering with desperation. “Perhaps Father Vincent can guide you through the remaining hours of your intended penance to include this particular charity. Our sister’s soul will benefit, and you need not remain here longer than you had wished.”
“You speak of
, Prioress Ursell. I thought to be here for several
“From the tales I have heard told, I am sure you do not own enough sins for such a long penance! Please confer with Father Vincent. He can advise you.”
“Brother Thomas, and he alone, directs my penance,” Eleanor replied, her smile turned frosty. With those words, she abruptly nodded to her fellow prioress and the priest, then glided with great dignity out of the audience chamber.
The nun near the door almost tripped as she rushed to open it in time for the prioress to depart.
Brother Thomas, hands tucked into his sleeves, swiftly followed.
Except for the hissing flames from the dying fire, Prioress Ursell of Ryehill Priory and Father Vincent were left with silence and an uneasy sense of defeat.