Authors: Lindsay Townsend
Blush sensuality level: This is a sensual romance (may have explicit love scenes, but not erotic in frequency or type).
The 1300s are a time of pestilence and unease, plagued not just by disease but by demons and the restless dead. Yolande wanders England and Wales, armed with her blessed bow and sacred herbs, laying the spirits to rest and driving the demons away. She’s bound to serve for a time of seven—though she knows not what that means.
Geraint the Welshman travels the countryside, juggling and tumbling to earn his keep. When he meets Yolande, he’s caught by her fierce yet sweet nature and vows to stay by her side. As they journey closer to Yolande’s final trial and face foes ever more cunning and dangerous, Geraint and Yolande have only their mutual love and trust to help them survive.
Yolande and Geraint live in a medieval world dominated by Catholicism and mistrust for an interracial couple—Geraint is Welsh and Yolande is half Ethiopian.
from Ellora’s Cave
England, the North, summer 1350
She could smell the spirits of the restless dead. It was not the sickly sweet rot of the fleshy body, nor the whiff of lavender and violets of the saints. Demons, being fallen angels, did not stink of sulfur, but the angry dead were ripe with it.
Yolande crouched behind the bathtub with her bow, hunting by waiting. She heard the murmur of distant prayers in the summer twilight as the nuns and novices performed another sacred office. With her right shoulder snug against the tub, she flexed her legs and toes within her man’s leggings and boots, grateful she was not yet numb. She did not think her task would take too long.
The novice Mary-Joanna should have been bathing tonight to ease her aching joints. She was a comely young woman but powerfully afflicted by pain. Yolande, a head taller and blessed with vigorous health, pitied the girl. She did not know if Mary-Joanna had a true vocation but she agreed with the abbess that the novice should not be beleaguered by an evil imp when she was semi-naked within this tiny bathhouse.
was how the abbess described the apparition. After listening to the older woman’s account of its habits, Yolande had her own suspicions. She had agreed willingly to pretend to bathe in Mary-Joanna’s place.
The bow and its arrows had been blessed by the abbess and dipped in holy water to cover all possibilities.
She breathed in slowly, sensing her own balance, feeling the sacred herbs she always wore about her throat brush dryly against her skin. She saw no movement, but her ears, thank the saints, were good and she heard a slight shuffling outside.
Yolande braced herself, chanting the great prayer of Saint Patrick, known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, within her mind. As if in answer to her prayer, the door to the narrow lean-to yawned open.
A figure loomed across the threshold, faceless, soundless and black, even as the abbess had said. It slithered inside and closed the door again.
The spirit torments our novices, manifesting to them within the bathhouse, seeking to steal their immortal souls
, the abbess had said.
“Sneak a peep, more likely.” Yolande’s heart was as steady as a slow drum inside her chest. “No spirit stops to shut a door.” She set and released an arrow all in one smooth, practiced movement.
The arrow flew, hissing across the bathhouse tiles. The “spirit” howled as its cloak was pinned to the door, and tugged desperately at the caught cloth with a spindly human hand.
Dropping her bow, Yolande sprinted and lunged, knocking the man hard against the solid wood, jamming her elbow across his scrawny throat.
“You…bitch…black…bitch,” the fellow wheezed as she pulled off his hood.
“But no restless dead,” Yolande countered. She stripped him of his eating dagger then yanked him ’round while he was still shocked and tied his hands behind his back with his own hood.
“Could not see you…” The man was still grumbling. “You are so black.”
“Not as black as my father, nor as white as my mother,” Yolande replied. “You should be considering how you can plead with the sisters instead of wondering about me.”
She put her hand firmly on his shoulder to “guide” him to the abbess. From his faint stench of fear—urine, sweat and manure—she knew he was utterly human. Her skills as an exorcist had not been needed, not against this gawping lecher, who liked to watch the pretty novices as they bathed.
Would that all my trials were so easy. At least there is no more here than this, Mother be thanked. It is not my final contest, not yet.
* * * * *
The convent was small and poor but the abbess invited Yolande to stay for the night. She accepted gratefully, asking only if she might pray in church before the shrine of the Virgin Mary.
“All penitents are welcome, daughter,” said the abbess, her wrinkled face pinched with curiosity. She took in Yolande’s outlandish attire with rapid, considering glances. “Let me guide you.”
Resigned, Yolande nodded thanks, matched her long, loose stride to her companion’s trip-trotting gait and waited for the first question.
Sure enough, as they entered the dimmed church of the convent, the abbess asked, “You are not a religious? You belong to no order?”
Beside her, the shorter woman pursed her lips. “You are still of the world?”
The abbess crossed herself. “So how are you an exorcist if you have no vocation?”
Yolande had been asked this often and each time she gave the same answer. “I have a duty, Mother, as my father did before me.”
“In these times, when so many religious are falling to the pestilence, God calls others.” Wishing to say no more, especially concerning her parents, she asked simply, “May I pray, Mother?”
The abbess did not refuse her request. Instead, as if Yolande herself had developed the pestilence, she waddled hastily away, her habit flying.
Yolande chuckled softly and turned to the painted statue of the Virgin, ready to begin her vigil.
* * * * *
Geraint the Welshman unwrapped the wooden crucifix and set it on the trestle between him and the lanky-haired pardoner. Around them, men continued to haggle over deals and drinking games, their faces shrouded by the sooty torches and smoky fire. A pardoner in an alehouse at any hour, especially this early in the morning, should have been worthy of remark, but these days no one said or saw anything. With plague stalking every town and village street in England, men stayed home with their families or made themselves drunk, falling-down-blind drunk, in the alehouses.
Few wanted to watch or pay for his juggling these days so when this pardoner had sidled across, clutching a rough cloth bag and wheedling for a moment of his time, Geraint had let the fellow buy him a cup of wine.
“You trust me to deliver this?” He tapped the crucifix. “I could take it for firewood.”
“Not if you know what is wise for you, my son.”
Geraint stiffened slightly but told himself the pardoner could not know his past. Yes, he had been a novice in a monastery and yes, at age ten he had punched the novice master and been expelled, but had he the time again he would do the same. Old crook-nose, as he was now, would be less eager to fondle the boys under his charge.
“Your threat does not impress,
,” he replied.
“Forgive me. I am the messenger only. But if this is not delivered to Yolande, she will have your skin.”
Geraint drained his cup, chewing on the lees, and made to leave.
“Listen.” The pardoner was so earnest his face had gone as red as his script. “She is at the convent of the Holy Sisters of Fealty beyond the old Roman fort, ridding them of an evil imp, or so I have been told. You could walk there in less than two hours and win her gratitude.”
Geraint picked up the crucifix. It was plain and heavy and he had a sense it was very old. “Why not go yourself? Or is there sickness at the convent?”
“Not at all, not at all.” The older man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Let me say only that Yolande is less
of men such as myself.”
“You tried to trick her once,” Geraint translated. “Has she a husband, father or brother that you are so terrified?”
“None, none, but she needs none. She expels devils. She carries the bow of Saint Sebastian.”
Geraint was intrigued. He was wandering nowhere in particular so he could visit the convent. The nuns would feed him too. “Is there a message?”
The pardoner inclined his head toward the cross. “That is the message, I was told. Not for the likes of me to question, I was told.”
“And how shall I know her?”
“Very tall for a woman, slim, pretty if you admire dark girls, and with her bow usually slung across her back. She wears men’s clothes.”
“Aping men? The church has not moved against her for that? Or the sheriff?”
“Not in these times, with so many dying of the pestilence and the whole world preparing for the last days. Let any judgment of her be the final one, before God, I say.” The pardoner shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “Will you take it?”
Geraint glanced at his long fingers wrapped around the feet of the wooden Christ and ignored the warning prickle at the back of his neck. “Seems I already have.”
* * * * *
The following morning, passing the bread and cheese the sisters had generously given her to a beggar outside the convent walls, Yolande sensed someone watching. She turned, forced to take a rapid backward step as a stranger trod on her shadow. She had not heard his approach.
“You have the advantage, mister. You know my name.” She smiled to take any sting from her words. “May I know yours?”
Greetings and courtesy were important to her. Each gave clues as to character and wishes. She had once known a demon, beautifully polite, who would have ripped the flesh from her bones had she not bound him by his own rules of manners.
The stranger bowed, a good sign. He muttered something in a language she did not know, which was not good. She moved a little closer, ready to boot him in the balls if he did anything unsavory.
“Geraint Welshman, at your service.” He crouched then looked straight at her. “I am just taking something from my pack, if it please you.”
She grinned at him to prove she was unafraid, her body heavy and languid as she itched to go onto the balls of her feet, ready to scrap. A quick stab to those astonishing black-blue eyes, a swipe at his knee and Geraint the Welshman would be groveling in the hard-packed mud.
Which would be a shame for such a glorious face. He bent his head, showing his trust of her, to rummage in his pack. He was a good-looking brute, not too muscled but as lean and wiry as she. There was a soft jangle of bells within his patched shoulder pack, revealing him as a wandering entertainer, a less deadly mirror of herself. They were even about the same height.
I entertain the restless dead before I send them on. What must it be like to work for living laughter?
, she guessed, noting his less-than-clean black hair, the scars on his knuckles, his drab motley missing bits of ribbons and coins. He was darker that she was, tanned by many suns, and with excellent teeth.
Strong, rangy and in no hurry to stick to one place but a honeyman all the same.
She felt a flicker of interest, a few youthful, girlish hopes. She was ten-and-eight these days, young for an exorcist but ripe for marriage. Her father, a remarkable man, had managed both. She missed him but her time would surely come—maybe with this Welshman.
“The pardoner said you would understand the message with this.” Geraint interrupted her reverie as he laid a crucifix down on the rutted road, on top of his pack to keep it from the dirt.