Authors: Margaret Frazer
Tags: #Historical Detective, #Female sleuth, #Medieval
THE NOVICE’S TALE
THE SERVANT’S TALE
THE OUTLAW’S TALE
THE BISHOP’S TALE
THE BOY’S TALE
THE MURDERER’S TALE
THE PRIORESS’ TALE
THE MAIDEN’S TALE
THE REEVE’S TALE
THE SQUIRE’S TALE
THE CLERK’S TALE
THE BASTARD’S TALE
THE HUNTER’S TALE
THE WIDOW’S TALE
THE SEMPSTER’S TALE
THE TRAITOR’S TALE
THE APOSTATE’S TALE
Also by Margaret Frazer
A PLAY OF ISAAC
A PLAY OF DUX MORAUD
A PLAY OF KNAVES
A PLAY OF LORDS
BERKLEY PRIME CRIME, NEW YORK
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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Copyright © 2007 by Gail Frazer.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The apostate’s tale / Margaret Frazer.—1st ed.
1. Frevisse, Sister (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Great Britain—History—Lancaster and York, 1399–1485—Fiction. 3. Great Britain—History—Henry VI, 1422–1461—Fiction. 4. Women detectives—England—Fiction. 5. Nuns—Fiction. I. Title.
with love, admiration, and gratitude
…for ye han falle in freletee,
And knowen wel ynough the olde daunce,
And han forsaken fully swich meschaunce
The Physician’s Tale
s they rode under the gateway’s broad arch, the horses’ hoofs were suddenly loud on the cobbles and the rain briefly ceased to batter at Cecely’s cloaked shoulders and head. Her dearest wish had been never to see this place any more, never to be here ever again, but now no matter that the rain-grayed walls under the dismal, drizzling sky looked even more a grim prison’s than she remembered them, she was as thankful to be finally here as she had ever been for anything.
Ahead of her, Dame Perpetua said at the backs of the two men leading them, “We’ll ride straight on to the cloister door, not to the guesthall at all,” and one of the men answered, “Yes, my lady.”
Cecely felt as if she had been “riding on” since forever, and if the cloister door was the only way out of this cursed rain and to a chance of dry clothing, a fire, and a warm drink, then she was ready to be even there, despite of everything and no matter what.
Tented under her cloak in front of her in the saddle, Neddie stirred, making a small sound of weariness and probably complaint. Cecely said down at him, “Almost there, little love. Almost done. Don’t start whimpering now. You’re not a puppy,” and prodded him a little to be sure he heard her.
The horses plodded out of the gateway’s far side and into the rain again and the nunnery’s guesthall yard with its close surround of buildings and the church looming over all, its tall front blurred beyond the rain but not blurred enough. Cecely could feel what lay waiting for her beyond that front, and her shudder had nothing to do with the day’s rain-chill. But there was no going back now. The men had already drawn rein at the cloister door on the yard’s far side and were quickly dismounting, one of them going to knock loudly at the cloister door, the other coming to help Dame Perpetua from her horse, while their fellow, who had been bringing up the rear, dismounted, too, and went past Cecely to help the other nun, the one who had not been here in Cecely’s time.
Cecely waited. Of course, being the nuns’ servants, the men would see to both of them first, and then probably to the other woman, the older one who anyone could see was not well, but the nuns might have—should have—ordered them to see to Neddie first, he was just a little boy. Then she could have got down, too. Why wasn’t someone answering the door?
As if to her thought, the cloister door opened, and now both nuns, awkward in their long skirts and rain-heavy cloaks, were on either side of the older woman, helping her toward the door, while two of the men were gathering the horses’ reins to lead them away, and only finally was the third man coming toward her. Impatiently, pulling her cloak away from Neddie, she said, “Here we go, lamb. We’ll be inside in just a moment. Let the man lift you down.”
Neddie, poor little thing, leaned sideways into the man’s hands and let himself be dragged from the saddle. Cecely expected the man to set him down and turn to help her then, but instead he carried Neddie away toward the cloister door, leaving her, stiff with cold and riding though she was—surely just as cold and stiff as the other women had been, if not worse—to get herself to the ground.
Thinking bitterly that everything here was just as stupid as it had ever been, she dragged her rain-soaked skirts, sodden cloak, and weary legs clear of the saddle and eased herself to the ground. One of the men made to take her horse’s reins but she snapped, “At least give me my saddle bags. Do that much for me.”
As grudging to help her as everyone else was, he untied the bags without a word, lifted them off, and handed them to her. She did not bother to thank him, just stood clutching her bags, and when he had taken her horse and followed the other men and horses away, she went on standing there, suddenly unwilling to go where she had to go next. Behind her, everything her life had been was gone. Ahead of her the black emptiness of the open cloister doorway waited for her. The women and even Neddie were already disappeared into that darkness. Now she had to go, too. There was nowhere else. There was there, through that doorway—or there was here, standing in the rain. Those were her only bitter, bitter choices, and slowly she went forward. Because what else could she do? What else and where else were there for her?
of this year of God’s grace 1452 had been fretful, with days of cold sunshine broken by days of cold rain. When Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett would return had been as uncertain as the weather, with the first expectation being they would be back by Palm Sunday; but that had passed without them and so every day in Holy Week thus far they had been expected, because surely they would be here before Maundy Thursday, surely before the Easter Triduum, and now, on Wednesday, here they were, and drawn by Dame Amicia’s glad cry of, “They’ve come!” St. Frideswide priory’s other nuns were hurrying from wherever they had been at work around the cloister to where Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett stood in the cloister walk, dripping onto the paving stones at the end of the passage from the outer door.
Dame Perpetua was trying to greet everyone at once, but Dame Margrett was saying past everyone to Dame Claire, “Please. My mother. If she could be put to bed as soon as might be…”
Mistress Petham, huddled shivering and shriveled in the curve of her daughter’s arm, did indeed look more in need of care than greetings, Dame Frevisse thought, and Dame Claire, the priory’s infirmarian, must have thought the same because she went instantly to put an arm around Mistress Petham’s waist, taking her from Dame Margrett while saying, “I’ll see to her. You finish your greetings and see to getting yourself dry. You can come to her afterward. Dame Frevisse?”
“Everything is ready,” Frevisse said, coming to Mistress Petham’s other side. “The fire was laid and lighted a while ago, on the chance they’d come today.”
Presently St. Frideswide’s hosteler, Frevisse’s duty was the care of guests, but care for Mistress Petham went beyond plain duty. In these ten years since Dame Margrett had taken her vows in St. Frideswide’s, her family had been good to the priory, both with money and gifts of food. St. Frideswide’s was neither large nor rich. The widow who had founded it over a hundred years ago had died before fully endowing it, leaving it to lean times. It was presently, for one reason and another, doing well enough that Lent’s fasting had been a willing choice rather than the dire necessity of some years not very long past. Still, gifts were always gratefully welcomed and repaid with prayers, those being the only thing the nuns had in abundance, and when word had come a few weeks back that Mistress Petham had been ailing through the winter and wanted her daughter’s company on a Lenten pilgrimage to St. Alban’s shrine in Hertfordshire, Domina Elisabeth had ruled that Dame Margrett could go, and because no nun should go out of the cloister unaccompanied by another nun, the prioress had added, “And Dame Perpetua will go with her.”
Dame Juliana, being presently sacristan and precentor, with the church and the Offices of prayer her duty and worry, had protested, “But the Offices! There’ll be only seven of us! With Easter coming!”
“We’re eight with Sister Helen,” Domina Elisabeth had answered. And added flatly in the way that meant talk about a matter was finished, “Besides that, it’s our prayers, not our numbers, that matter.”
!” Dame Amicia had wailed, probably not least because Sister Helen, presently St. Frideswide’s only novice, while lovely of voice, was still uncertain at the Offices, and those for Holy Week and Easter and Easter Week were demanding beyond even the ordinary.
But Domina Elisabeth had said back at her, “Mistress Petham has asked she be permitted to spend Easter among us. Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett will be here when they’re most wanted,” firmly quelling any more protest.
And here they indeed were, with Mistress Petham openly in need of every care and comfort the priory could give her; and Frevisse and Dame Claire between them helped her along the cloister walk and up the stairs and into the chamber there, where—just as Frevisse had said—everything was ready, even to a nun’s undergown hung, warming, over the chair’s back near the hearth and the bedcovers turned down to air.
Mistress Petham laughed, began to cough, laughed despite it, and said as she caught her breath, “You meant it when you said everything was ready.”
“Of course,” Frevisse said, pleased she was pleased but more concerned to have her into the dry, warm gown.
So was Dame Claire, and they made short work of it, helping Mistress Petham take off her headkerchief and wimple, then quickly having her cloak, gown, and undergown off of her and the warmed one onto her. She was a little woman, much Dame Claire’s height and maybe close to Dame Claire’s age, but Dame Claire wore her years with a determined vigor, while Mistress Petham’s years were telling on her, along with whatever was ailing her. She had once been a plump little woman. Now she was tired flesh on bones, and when she sat down on the edge of the bed, it cost Frevisse no effort worth the mention to lift her legs and swing them up and around for her so she could lie back.
Mistress Petham settled against the pillows with a long sigh, closing her eyes and saying while Dame Claire pulled the covers over her, “Even a warm stone at the bedfoot. Bless you, my ladies.” She opened her eyes and smiled at them. “Now, is it warmed, spiced wine I get next, or some brew of yours, Dame Claire?”
Mistress Petham had stayed at the nunnery more than once since her youngest daughter became a nun there; she knew something of Dame Claire’s medicinal brews. This time, though, Dame Claire said, “Just now I think warmed, spiced wine
the brew best for you, to counter the cold humour of the day. My bidding is that you’re to drink it down as soon as it’s fetched to you.”
Mistress Petham closed her eyes again with another satisfied sigh and said, smiling, “Whatever you bid, my lady.”
That sent Frevisse and Dame Claire from the chamber with smiles of their own that lasted to the foot of the stairs, but they came out into the cloister walk again to find the other nuns still gathered there, clotted together in an odd, stiff silence, a few of the cloister servants around the edges, and all of them facing a woman standing as if at bay just where the passage from the outer door came into the cloister walk, her hand tight on the shoulder of a small boy clutching a pair of saddlebags to his chest with both arms.
Frevisse’s first thought was to wonder why the woman and boy were there instead of sent to the guesthall across the yard. She was just starting to wonder why everyone was standing there staring at each other like dumb-struck statues, when Dame Claire said, sounding half in disbelief, “Sister Cecely?”
And then Frevisse knew her, too.
Gone these past nine years from the nunnery. Gone and never found. Fled, all her vows to Christ forsworn.
And now—God and his saints help them all—she was come back. With a child.
“Has anyone told Domina Elisabeth?” Dame Claire demanded.
The nuns scattered confused looks at each other, but Dame Claire could see as plainly as Frevisse did that they were all there and she ordered, “Dame Juliana, best you go.”
With a flurry of black skirts and veil, looking glad of reason to be away, Sister Juliana hurried past Sister Cecely and disappeared up the stairs to the prioress’ rooms while Dame Claire said sharply at Dame Perpetua, “Did she come with you? Where did you find her?”
“We came on her yesterday,” Dame Perpetua said in a tired rush. “At the monastery where we stopped for the night. I might not have known her but she knew me, came to me after supper.” As if crumpling under the weight of remembering that, Dame Perpetua sat down on the low wall between the walk and the cloister garth, still under the roof that kept the walk a dry place in wet weather, although the stone surely made cold sitting. “She said she wanted to come back here. I didn’t know what else to do with her. I simply…” She made a helpless gesture with one hand. “…didn’t know.”
Frevisse would not have known either, was thankful the trouble of decision had not been hers, and was more than willing to leave it now to Dame Claire who said, “Before anything, you and Dame Margrett need to be out of your wet clothes. Does someone have your bags? Go to your cells to change, then to the kitchen to warm yourselves right through. Shouldn’t the rest of you be at your work? You, Sister Cecely, and your…” For the first time, Dame Claire faltered, looking at the little boy, who had not moved at all and now only blinked, his face otherwise dead-still as Dame Claire’s gaze fell on him. A little more gently she said, “The two of you can wait in the guest parlor until Domina Elisabeth will see you.” She turned to Frevisse, starting, “Dame Frevisse…”
Sister Cecely broke in, “We need food and to change and be warm, too. Neddie does,” she amended as Dame Claire’s look came sharply back to her.
Sharp to match her look, Dame Claire said, “Dame Frevisse will see to whatever is needful.”
Which was only right, Frevisse supposed, since she was hosteler and the boy at least was in some measure a guest. So as the other nuns and the cloister servants, reminded they had other duties, began to draw away to them, Dame Margrett helped Dame Perpetua to her feet and away toward the stairs to the dorter on the far side of the cloister walk, Dame Perpetua at a slow, stiff shuffle, Dame Margrett keeping a hand under her elbow as if to steady her. Dame Claire looked after them with a worried frown that Frevisse would have matched except she was left looking at Sister Cecely and the boy, both of them looking back at her.