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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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He carefully duplicated her smile.

“While this worrisome monk contemplates the implications of your words, you must suggest the wisdom of ending their pilgrimage here. Outside his priory walls, Brother Thomas is too exposed to earthly temptations, and his weakness might even infect his prioress with sin. You would do well to remind him of this as well, and that obedience is a virtue.”

Father Vincent watched her eyes glitter. He had seen this before and knew he had little influence over her at such times. “How far do you wish me to go in this matter of intimidation?” He began to tremble and could not stop.

“As far as you must to protect the reputation of Ryehill Priory.” She sat back. “Now let us return to the question of what we should do with Master Larcher after the prioress and her monk have left Walsingham.”

Chapter Twelve

Prioress Eleanor knelt in the chapel, close to the exact copy of the Holy House of Nazareth where the Annunciation took place, and contemplated the meaning of what she had just seen. As she prayed, she began to weep.

After she had left the sacred site and the moment she approached this altar, she was filled with peace. It was the tranquility that caused the tears to flow. Like a woman recovering from a ravaging illness, her body was exhausted, but fresh hope lightened her spirit. The malignant guilt she had suffered since last summer was gone. So was the fear that she had somehow encouraged others to believe she had had received one of God’s singular gifts, a vision she was convinced she was unworthy to receive.

When she begged permission from her abbess to go on this pilgrimage, she had specifically intended to worship at this Holy House on the grounds of Walsingham Priory but had rejected the kind offer of Prior William to receive a private viewing. Instead, she chose to wait with other pilgrims, clustered outside the blessed shrine in the chill air, so she might share with them that trembling dread all mortals feel, standing so close to the holiest sites.

When the shrine keeper opened the door and beckoned a certain number to follow him, she was humbled by the anticipation of what she would soon see. He led them at a slow but steady pace past the small wooden statue of the crowned Virgin with a lily scepter, holding her child, and through the upper story of the simple wooden house. Even during this season, when pilgrims traveled less, there were so many longing to view the sacred place that no one was allowed to stop during the passage through.

Compared to the usual bejeweled caskets and relics encased in gold or crystal, this site was as humble as a peasant’s hut. The Holy House was meant to be a crude structure, a two-story building created by local carpenters under the direction of Richelde of Fervaques, a woman to whom the Virgin had appeared many lifetimes ago.

According to the legend, the Queen of Heaven came to the widow in a dream and took her spirit to the place in Nazareth where the Annunciation had occurred. During this vision, the Virgin made sure the widow learned the exact appearance and dimensions of the house so well that Richelde could instruct the craftsmen on how to duplicate it. And when the Walsingham carpenters failed to place the structure exactly where the Virgin wished it, they awoke one morning to discover that the completed house had been moved to a different location.

This last detail delighted Eleanor, but it was the plainness of the copy that made the shrine so important to her. This was the home of a simple young woman, a girl chosen to give birth to one who would offer the balm of compassion and peace to a world replete with violence, greed, and hate.

Now that the brief tour was over and she knelt in this nearby chapel, she imagined the Archangel Gabriel with his fearsome expanse of wings. He must have terrified the young Mary, Eleanor thought. Perhaps he was gentler at the Annunciation, hiding his blinding glory that reflected his nearness to God, because he knew the profound grief she would face in the future.

A sharp pain stabbed her heart. Although Eleanor had never borne children, she knew women whose infants had died in their arms. It was a sorrow like no other, and one for which there was little solace. Again the prioress wept, this time for the woman who stood at the foot of the cross and helplessly watched as her son in his agony cried out to God, asking why he had been forsaken. No matter how strong her faith, Mary was still a woman, a mother, and Eleanor knew of nothing that said she had found that moment less than horrible.

Realizing that the chapel was growing crowded, Eleanor rose to her feet and surrendered her place to another pilgrim. As she looked around, she failed to see Mistress Emelyne anywhere. Perhaps the merchant’s widow had not yet gone through the shrine, or maybe she was at the springs she had wished to visit.

Walking outside toward the holy wells, Eleanor immediately saw the woman kneeling on the stones in front of the perfectly round pools of water. After her experience at the Holy House, she was disinclined to revive her aversion for this widow. The sentiment had so little cause, she decided, and she tried to understand why she had felt such a thing.

When she and Brother Thomas had joined the company of pilgrims from Norwich, she immediately noticed the widow. In a crowd of humbler penitents, no one could miss the finely dressed woman or her exceptionally well-bred palfrey. The moment the prioress set eyes on Mistress Emelyne, she wanted to avoid her. The woman herself caused no offense, but each thread she wore, every bauble she dangled, and her merry tales of men’s foibles bellowed of worldly matters.

Eleanor longed to escape from earthly concerns on this pilgrimage. Not only was she uneasy about the vision some claimed she had seen, but her successful stewardship of Tyndal Priory, deemed admirable and pious by bishop and abbess alike, demanded that she spend more time with accounting rolls than in prayer. This pilgrimage was her time to concentrate on matters of the spirit. The company of this merchant’s widow, with her fur-trimmed robe bedecked with a glittering jewel or two, distracted her.

None of this was the widow’s fault, and Eleanor was bound by courtesy to speak with Mistress Emelyne when the widow approached her for company. Perhaps, the prioress thought, the woman’s companionship had had been forced upon her by God to teach her patience and humility as well as to give her a message about condescending pride. If this was true, Eleanor feared she had not been the quickest of students to understand the lesson.

But soon after they arrived at Ryehill Priory, Mistress Emelyne had shed her thick cloak and fine robe, set aside all jewelry, and draped herself in a plain linen smock. The stitching might have been done with a skilled hand, a bit of embroidery around the square neck, but the garment’s cut was simple. From this deed, Eleanor should have concluded that the widow had come to Walsingham bearing a true pilgrim’s heart, but she still found the woman too verbose for her taste. Despite the often troubling passion Eleanor felt for her monk, she found greater peace in the quiet company of the gentle Brother Thomas.

For a long moment, Eleanor watched the widow kneeling by the sacred wells, hands clasped over her face and head bowed in ardent prayer. Mistress Emelyne had spoken of an ailment she hoped to heal by drinking the waters. The prioress prayed she had found the cure she sought.

Feeling more compassion, Eleanor joined the widow, lowering herself to the hard stones that were rendered smooth and shiny from the many who had knelt there for years beyond reckoning.

The keeper of the wells came up to her with a cup of the healing water. She accepted it and drank deeply, the icy water chilling her throat. Quickly, she slipped back into prayer. She might have asked that the waters cure her of the often blinding headaches she endured. Instead she begged that the child, Gracia, be granted a dwelling place where loving arms would hold her and there was enough food to sustain her in health.

As she prayed, Eleanor grew more ashamed of her uncharitable feelings toward Mistress Emelyne, whose only sins were worldly wealth and an abundance of friendliness. Ashamed, she squeezed her eyes shut. How great was her need to purge herself of arrogance and unkind judgments!

The widow now slowly rose, her gaze still lowered. Her hands remained folded.

The prioress stood as well and faced the woman with a more sincere smile than she had been previously wont to grant.

Mistress Emelyne looked over her shoulder, and then leaned closer to the prioress. “Is it true,” she whispered, “that our beloved king plans to visit Walsingham soon before he, himself, invades Wales?”

Eleanor turned her face away so the widow would not see her disappointment. Did this woman really have a more devout nature, or was she so bound by worldly interests that news of kings and wars could distract her even in these sacred places?

But the woman’s question pricked at Eleanor. Her father, Baron Adam, had said nothing of this in his last missive from the Welsh border, but, unaware that his daughter planned a journey to Walsingham, he might have omitted the news. On the other hand, she had received no message that the king would visit Tyndal Priory as part of any tour of East Anglian religious sites. If King Edward was planning to visit a shrine so close to her own priory, and she remained ignorant of it, his main purpose was likely quite secular. A stop at any holy site would be brief.

Of course she knew that King Edward had sent an army across the Welsh border. Her eldest brother, Sir Hugh, was currently with Mortimer’s troops at Llywelyn’s new castle at Dolforwyn. In charge of supplies, Baron Adam was worried about having adequate crossbow bolts, war horses, and carts.

Eleanor looked back at Mistress Emelyne with what she hoped was an innocent expression. “I know nothing about that,” she said. “Where did you hear this news?”

The widow’s eyes widened with surprise. “The rumors are rife in Norwich, my lady. Since I heard that your brother stood at the king’s right hand, I assumed he told you all.” Her lips puckered as if she had bitten a sour cherry. “It is time the Welsh barbarians were taught a lesson about their rebellious ways!”

“Sir Hugh would never tell me any details about such an endeavor.” Eleanor lowered her eyes with feminine meekness. Her reply was truthful. Her brother had said nothing. It was her father, but she would remain silent about anything he had told her.

Mistress Emelyne nodded and then gazed back at the holy wells. “I care little about wars, battles, and the other affairs of men, events often deemed
great,
unless the actions are taken against heretics and unbelievers. Even the Welsh are Christians, I’ve been told. Yet it speaks well of our noble king that he might travel to these holy places so favored by his father. Surely God will now favor him on this solemn endeavor.” She nodded gravely. “Like King Henry, our present king is a most Christian prince! Did he not go on pilgrimage to wrest Jerusalem back from the bloody hands of the Infidel?”

Certainly his father had been imbued with great faith, Eleanor thought. Although she had not known King Henry III until after he had begun to fail in health and mental strength, her father had told favorable tales of him. Yet Baron Adam, quick-witted though he remained, was still a man who looked wistfully over his shoulder to a time before his beloved wife died in childbirth and his heir returned from Outremer divested of joy. Eleanor suspected that his views of the dead king were deeply colored by those things they shared in more youthful and happier days.

As she considered this further, she wondered if she, too, would have preferred that less bellicose king to the current ruler, no matter how devout Edward was and in spite of King Henry’s many faults.

“His father did spend much time here and donated to the upkeep of many shrines,” the prioress said at last. “This was one, I believe.”

“Then our current king will most certainly visit Walsingham!” The widow’s hands fluttered with excitement. “I wonder when he is expected. I did not see any preparations in the town for his arrival. Usually the streets are cleansed until the very earth shines, so that the hooves of his steed may remain unsullied by the excrement of common beasts.” Suddenly, she stretched her hand out as if to beg something of the prioress. “I would like to remain if he is to come. Do you not long to do so as well?”

The prioress bowed her head, allowing Mistress Emelyne to conclude that she had responded in any way the widow wished.

Had she to choose, she would prefer not to remain here for any royal visit. Although King Edward and her brother remained friends, Queen Eleanor did not favor the prioress’ eldest brother quite so highly. Sir Hugh was inclined to an unseemly reluctance when it came to doing all the queen wished of her husband’s courtiers. The most glaring example was Sir Hugh’s recent refusal to marry one of her ladies-in-waiting. This refusal by Sir Hugh to comply had caused a quarrel between king and queen, and the king did not like such upsets. Were he to meet with Eleanor, she was sure he would firmly urge her to persuade her brother to honor the queen’s desire. That was a request she ardently wished to avoid.

“Oh, do say that you are planning to stay!” The widow’s voice intruded on the prioress’ thoughts. “I would consider it an honor to serve you if you did.”

Whatever your talents, they do not include subtlety, Eleanor thought with annoyance. “You are most kind, Mistress Emelyne, and I am grateful for your offer, but I do not know when King Edward plans to arrive. As you noted, his visit does not seem imminent if Walsingham has prepared nothing in expectation of it. I shall leave as soon as my penance is done. There is much demanding my attention at Tyndal Priory.”

The widow grasped her hands together with evident regret. “I grieve to hear that, my lady. May I ask how much longer I may enjoy your edifying company? I feel so fortunate to have met you on this pilgrimage.”

Eleanor was stung by a spark of outrage. This woman’s tenacity bordered on the perverse, and she resented the way this woman treated her. I am not a saint, whose company gives the devout a taste of Heaven, the prioress thought, nor am I a conduit to the powerful of this realm. If the widow hopes for a meeting with the king as an attendant to this prioress of Tyndal, she will be sadly disappointed.

Eleanor glanced heavenward and hoped God would agree that she ought not encourage this woman with false and worldly hopes. And, she prayed with fervor, I should not remain in her company if, in so doing, she turns her thoughts so quickly to less devout matters.

The prioress cleared her throat. “I do not know the date of my departure. That is up to Brother Thomas and my sub-prioress, who is under instruction to send word if my presence is needed.” Eleanor bit her tongue over the last remark which bordered on a lie. Sister Ruth had been given that directive, but the sub-prioress would do anything, short of selling her soul to the Prince of Darkness, to avoid sending for the prioress who had replaced her years ago as head of the priory.

BOOK: Covenant With Hell
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