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Authors: Priscilla Royal

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical

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BOOK: Covenant With Hell
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“If God wishes us to do more, He will make it impossible to do otherwise,” she replied in a whisper. “Keep your eyes open, your ears as acute as always, and report to me if you discover anything of interest.”

Thomas bowed and tried hard not to show his delight at her words.

“In the meantime, I am here to do penance, Brother.” She motioned toward the door of the chapel. “Let us find the shrine where the vial containing the Virgin’s milk is kept.”

***

After they had left the chapel, a skeletal figure slipped from the safety of a pillar’s shadow. Father Vincent’s heart still pounded from his near discovery by Prioress Eleanor. If she had walked only a few steps further…

He trembled so his knees knocked together.

Then he knelt for a brief prayer in front of his beloved Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock. As soon as he was done, he raced from the chapel to the chambers of Prioress Ursell.

Chapter Nine

After visiting the one shrine, Eleanor chose to return to the priory gardens rather than continue on to other holy places for contemplation.

Restless, she paced along the paths, ignoring the decaying plants, blackened by winter frost, and the paucity of emerging green tendrils. The bleakness suited her mood. It was not the rudeness of the prioress here that gnawed at her. It was the dark image of a child condemned by Father Vincent as if she had no right to a decent meal or a gently cleansed soul.

Only with great effort could she swallow her anger over the cruelty to the little vagrant and not go in outrage to Prioress Ursell. This was not her priory, she kept reminding herself, but that argument failed to win her heart. Like Brother Thomas, she was determined to do something for the child. And despite her profound longing to concentrate on her penance here, the soul of the nun, whose suspicious death was being ignored, begged for justice with compelling urgency.

“My lady!”

Fearing another tragedy had occurred, Eleanor froze and looked over her shoulder with foreboding.

Mistress Emelyne stood just behind her, hands fluttering like uneasy birds hesitant to land. But her eyes sparkled with unmistakable eagerness.

The prioress tried hard to disguise her annoyance. She wanted to be alone and resolve her dilemmas. Looking down at her fingers, Eleanor decided she had too few on which to count her conflicting priorities.

“How fortunate that I have discovered you here!”

With forced benevolence, she flashed a smile at this pert widow and swallowed her impatience. Anyone on pilgrimage should not succumb to even the pettiest of transgressions, she reminded herself, and tried to cast aside this unseemly intolerance. The attempt was short-lived. Eleanor could feign only so much virtue without committing the greater sin of hypocrisy.

“I have heard such amazing tales!” The widow raised her hands as if awed by the immensity of what she had learned.

The prioress shut her eyes. On the brief journey here, this woman had tried to amuse her with innumerable stories of misdeeds, great and trifling, committed by the widow’s neighbors in Norwich. Eleanor had often bitten her tongue, resisting the temptation to chastise Mistress Emelyne for bringing worldly matters on a pilgrimage intended to escape them.

Normally a decisive woman, she was therefore puzzled when she could not choose between ordering the woman to be silent or letting her talk. Concluding now that the former was based in arrogance, a sin she feared she owned, she once more chose the latter as a lesser evil.

“To what could you possibly refer?” She began to walk briskly down the path, hoping her clipped speech lacked the warmth of encouragement. With God’s kindness, the widow might take the hint and leave her in peace.

Mistress Emelyne broke into a trot, just keeping pace by the prioress’ side. “To the death of Sister Roysia,” she puffed. “Have you not heard the news?”

Eleanor avoided the temptation to lie and had to agree that she knew. Why was God testing her with so many forms of sin?

The widow bent as close to her companion’s ear as she could and murmured, “She was seeing her lover in the bell tower. Everyone knew she met him there.”

Stopping abruptly, Eleanor stared at the woman in astonishment. This time, her reaction was genuine.

“Oh, I may be a stranger here, my lady, but my late husband always said that the wise must keep ears open for any news. One never knows when there may be value in it.” Her expression grew suitably solemn. “Of course I would never spread this tale to others, but you are a woman devoted to God. Telling you can be no sin.”

That was a new concept to Eleanor, but she did not want to discourage this important confidence. She was eager to hear what Mistress Emelyne had to say, yet still feared the woman would think she welcomed such stories. Deciding the widow was inclined to believe she welcomed them no matter what she did, the prioress told her conscience that any virtue in rejecting gossip had long been lost.

“Surely this is but idle tale-telling on the part of the unkind,” the prioress said. Realizing her tone suggested censure, she quickly smiled to prove her interest in learning more.

“I heard it from several sources as I wandered through the shops today.” Emelyne took a deep breath, girding herself for a longer exposition. “It grieved most that Sister Roysia had been bringing such shame to her priory.” For a moment she hesitated, studying the prioress’ face for any clue that she had taken offense. “From the way the story was told, I believed that the tellers were God-fearing and well-meaning folk.”

“How could Prioress Ursell knowingly tolerate a nun in her flock to remain unchaste and unrepentant?” Eleanor returned the steady gaze.

“As I heard the story, she could do little about it.”

Eleanor raised an eyebrow. This conversation was proving to be very interesting.

“The nun’s lover may be Master Larcher, a man who contributes to the priory income by making pilgrimage badges sold by Ryehill. Without the income from his work, the priory would become impoverished beyond any hope of recovery.” With a troubled expression, she lowered her voice and confessed, “I did buy one.”


May be
is not proof of anything.” Eleanor scowled. Prioress Ursell had the right to punish Sister Roysia’s unchaste behavior, and the craftsman should fear Hell for coupling with a nun. If anything, Master Larcher ought to donate badges to the priory as penance for his terrible wickedness.

“Or,” the widow continued as if the prioress had said nothing, “her lover is the priest, Father Vincent.” She bowed her head. “The priest’s name was spoken in a whisper, my lady, but both men were mentioned with equal certainty.”

Eleanor stiffened, then calmed herself. When two rumors are of equal weight, the likelihood is that neither is accurate, she thought. Yet these stories proved that Prioress Ursell’s fear of scandal had greater cause than she and Brother Thomas first thought. If there was a lover, this detail would also add strength to Brother Thomas’ suspicion that Sister Roysia’s death was not accidental and that someone was with the nun in the tower.

“You seem perplexed, my lady. Had you heard none of this, apart from the death?”

“I would not have heard that much if Brother Thomas had not found the nun’s corpse under the bell tower. It was he who alerted Father Vincent, and the priest took the news to Prioress Ursell.”

Mistress Emelyne’s face glowed with delight.

Presumably he was happy at the prospect of being able to add a detail to the gossip already spreading, Eleanor thought. She regretted abetting the widow like this, but the information given would soon be learned by others anyway. Surely Prioress Ursell would have no justification for outrage at this confirmation of a harmless fact.

The widow’s expression became solemn, and her lips lost all suggestion of worldly merriment. “But we are here for a higher purpose, are we not? And I should refrain from prattling on about mortal frailties.”

Eleanor was surprised by the sudden change. Trying not to betray this, she nodded gravely. “We should.”

The widow sighed and put a hand to her heart as if suffering profound remorse. “Will you join me in a walk to the healing wells on the great priory’s grounds? Have you visited them already? If so, perhaps you would like to visit the chapel containing the knuckle bone of St. Peter?”

Eleanor admitted she had not seen either.

“If I could see the miraculous wells at your side, I would be honored.” Mistress Emelyne motioned hopefully toward the door leading into the priory. “According to what I have heard from other pilgrims, the wells are noted for curing stomach ailments, an affliction from which I suffer, but drinking the chill water helps those suffering headaches as well. I wanted to buy a small container of the water to take back to Norwich.”

Finding no good excuse to avoid this woman’s company, Eleanor agreed. Perhaps a sip of the blessed water would cure her headaches. Sister Anne’s feverfew remedy had helped for a long time, but the headaches were growing more virulent. Last summer they had caused her to see something that many called a vision. For her, the story had become a curse, not a blessing, and had been one reason for traveling here to the shrines of Our Lady of Walsingham.

“I’ve been told that the wells are perfectly round and always filled with pure water, even when the earth becomes dry,” the widow said, her voice rising with fervor. “It was Our Lady of Walsingham who struck the ground and brought the water forth! Of course, nothing earthly could…”

But Eleanor had ceased listening. Following Mistress Emelyne out of the gardens, she prepared herself for the holy sites by reflecting on the goodness of the Queen of Heaven. Before all thoughts moved heavenward, however, Eleanor concluded she had been wise to suffer one more tale from the irritating widow. The information was important and must be passed on to Brother Thomas.

Chapter Ten

A light mist fell as Thomas trudged back to the chapel. After he had accompanied his prioress to the shrine containing the Virgin’s milk and back to Ryehill, he sought Gracia but failed to find her. Hoping she had found shelter from this weather, he pulled the hood over his head and buried his hands in his sleeves for warmth. The rain itself was soft and sweet, but the chill air stung his flesh.

A man passed him in the road, then suddenly spun around to face him, a surprised but delighted expression on his face.

Perplexed, the monk stopped and waited for the stranger to speak.

“Are you Brother Thomas of Tyndal Priory?”

The monk did not remember having met him, although he felt he should. A boyish charm belied the gray dusting in the stranger’s brown wavy locks. His hazel eyes glowed with comforting warmth on this cold day. But the man’s features overall were not memorable. Were he to walk by him later in the day, Thomas wondered if he would recognize the man again, unless he saw his eyes. Concluding he had forgotten a prior meeting, something for which no blame was due, he opted for honesty. “Do we know each other?”

“Nay, we do not,” the man replied with a pleasant smile, “but I know your reputation. I visited the hospital at Tyndal Priory and stayed in the guest quarters there while my sick wife sought treatment. Men know me as Durant of Norwich, a wine merchant in that town.” The crisp air was turning his smooth cheeks a bright pink.

Despite the smile, Thomas thought he saw a hint of sadness in the man’s eyes. “I grieve if we were unsuccessful in curing her,” he said gently.

Master Durant blinked, then instantly brightened. “On the contrary! She returned home with renewed health and remains vigorous. Her cure is the reason for my current pilgrimage here. She wanted to accompany me, but when I am absent, our business only flourishes if she remains to tend it.” He laughed with evident fondness. “I told her I would bring her a badge. Even if she is not by my side, her heart most assuredly journeyed with me.”

“I am grateful that God was kind to you both. He has blessed Sister Anne, and those she has trained, with skill and knowledge. Being mortal, however, we cannot always prevail if God wishes a soul to come to judgment.”

“God allows more to live within the walls of your hospital, Brother. Tyndal’s reputation for healing has spread throughout the kingdom.” Durant smiled. “But your deeds are legendary as well. A man from Amesbury, who sought a cure for the stone, stayed with us in those guest quarters and pointed you out. With awe, he told us how you had chased a foul murderer up a steep roof at the priory there so God might more easily strike him down.” His face glowed with enthusiasm.

Thomas gritted his teeth. Would that tale never die? “As you see, my function was minor. It was God who rendered justice.”

The merchant protested that the monk was too modest and then gestured toward the inn. “Will you join me for a jack of ale? The inn is respectable, and pilgrims of all vocations, including clerks with tonsures, find lodging there.”

Thomas began to refuse.

“Please, Brother. I would take little of your time and would profit from speaking with you.” He pulled a battered pilgrimage badge of older design from his pouch. “As you see, I come here from time to time to worship Our Lady of Walsingham and donate coin to the Holy House of her Annunciation. When I do, I seek edifying conversation with men vowed to God’s service. Will you not aid me in this endeavor to grow wiser?”

Thomas’ mouth was dry. He longed for good ale after the unfortunate meeting with Prioress Ursell and Father Vincent, followed by prayers and conference with his prioress at the Shrine of the Virgin’s Lock.

Although he felt ill-qualified to offer the wisdom requested by this merchant, he did not want to suggest the man speak with Father Vincent. His own dislike of the priest aside, Thomas assumed Durant must have met him before and would have gone to him if he had wished to do so. Perhaps Master Durant did not consider Father Vincent any better qualified to offer godly advice than Thomas judged himself.

Surrendering to his need for ale and not wishing to be discourteous, Thomas nodded consent and followed the wine merchant into the nearby inn.

The rushes on the floor were freshly laid, and the smell of roasting fish for the Lenten meal filled the air with the pleasing aroma of warmed spices. The scent made Thomas long for Tyndal. Sister Matilda’s simple Lenten meals were worthy of Eden and brought all who ate them closer to an appreciation of God’s generosity to mortals. He wondered what she was planning for the monks and nuns today, then suddenly realized he was getting hungry.

As the monk looked around, he concluded that the wine merchant had been correct about the nature of the inn. Those who served were modest in dress and brought food or drink promptly. Although the men sitting at the tables were jovial, no one was drunk. The tables were quickly cleared and wiped down. Unlike some at other pilgrimage sites, this innkeeper seemed to keep an honest house and gave fair value for the coin he received.

A bench in a corner was quickly found, jacks placed near to hand, and the two men drank deeply. Nodding to each other with mutual appreciation of the refreshment, they fell into that companionable silence common between friends but seldom found with strangers.

Durant of Norwich was pleasant company, Thomas decided. He rarely felt such ease with another and should have welcomed the moment, but this was a man about whom he knew nothing. Studying the merchant seated across from him, the monk chose to be cautious. Despite the merchant’s friendliness, Thomas found him puzzling. Perhaps, he thought, that ought to trouble me.

Had Master Durant not been dressed in a robe of finely woven cloth that proved affluence, Thomas would have doubted that such a man could be a successful merchant as he claimed. Perhaps his wine business was so flourishing that a bold manner was not needed, but Durant’s demeanor was quiet, almost shy. He did not advertise his wealth, and his clothes were modest in color and design. Were he to guess the man’s vocation, he would have said Durant was most likely a scholar or a pious landowner of comfortable means.

While he was regretting his lack of familiarity with the ways of commerce, Thomas realized that the man was gazing at him with a questioning look. Had he asked something for which he expected an answer, or, as the monk feared, was he perplexed at being under such close scrutiny?

Thomas felt his face grow warm with embarrassment. “I beg pardon, Master Durant. I did not hear what you said.”

The merchant bowed his head. “It is I who must beg forgiveness for indulging in idle matters. I had heard that you found the body of a Ryehill Priory nun near the bell tower. What a sad experience that must have been!”

“I did so only this morning, before dawn in fact, and already the tale has spread?” Thomas shook his head.

“This inn is close to the priory, Brother. I assume some from here may have been asked to carry the body away.”

“I alerted Father Vincent, and he took charge of finding someone from Ryehill Priory to do so.”

“Of course. Father Vincent! He must have been praying in the chapel when the nun fell to her death. Perhaps that was why he did not hear her.”

Thomas blinked. “Hear her?”

“Scream. I assume she did unless she was dead before she fell.” Durant’s look suggested he thought it obvious that she must have been alive.

“She did cry out. That is why I rushed to the bell tower.”

“And yet Father Vincent heard nothing. His piety is an example to us all. Few leave the world behind so completely when they pray. I am sure you had difficulty drawing him back from his prayers to handle the problems involved in such a tragic death.”

“I met him on my way to Ryehill.” Apparently, the wine merchant did not share his opinion of the priest, but Thomas was more concerned about something else Master Durant had said. If the priest was known for such devotion, why was he not kneeling at the altar? He was certainly not asleep in his bed. When he met Father Vincent, he assumed he was coming from the priory, but he had no proof of that. Where had the priest been?

“God must have alerted him.” Durant took a moment to drink more ale, but his eyes never left Thomas. “There are rumors about the nun’s death. Have you heard them?”

Thomas shook his head. He wanted to hear the tales but did not want to appear too eager.

“The story is that Satan pushed the nun from the tower.” The man’s hazel eyes took on a green cast as he put his jack down on the table.

The changing color of the merchant’s eyes disquieted Thomas, and he shivered. Concealing his discomfort with a shrug, he said, “I saw no evidence of the Evil One. The ground was moist, and the exposed floor of the tower must have been as well. As I was told, she was in the bell tower for a good purpose. The cause of this tragedy remains a simple thing. She fell by accident.”

“I am most grateful to you for telling me that, Brother. If I hear this slander again, I shall counter it. More ale?” He looked over his shoulder and waved to the serving girl.

“A kind offer, but I must refuse.” Thomas rose. “Prioress Eleanor wished me to accompany her to another of the shrines. I must not keep her waiting any longer.” A forgivable lie, he hoped, since he intended to visit the priory kitchen and beg food for the street child.

Master Durant thanked the monk for his company, then asked a blessing.

As the man slipped off the bench and knelt before him, Thomas gave him both a blessing and a prayer for the continued health of his wife. They parted after a few courteous words and just as the girl arrived with a small pitcher of ale.

Thomas had only gone a little distance from the inn when he suddenly realized that he and the merchant never once discussed God. Durant of Norwich was interested only in Sister Roysia’s death.

How strange, the monk thought, and frowned.

He walked back and looked inside the door at the bench he had shared with the merchant.

The pitcher remained.

The man had vanished.

BOOK: Covenant With Hell
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