With that, he turned and walked away
and the Sister’s hand pulled hard on my sleeve so that I had little choice but to follow. Any disquiet at Guy’s reticence would have to be shelved in the back of my mind as the door in the wall closed behind me. A dulcet quiet drifted over us – bees, birds, water trickling somewhere and silence. Whilst Guy had ensconced me in a number of religious houses, this one felt different. There were similarities to be sure, but the preciously small nature of this place made me feel as if Mary had taken me upon Her palm and lifted me to some place beyond strife. The thought I could become a religieuse floated through my mind once again.
I envied these Sisters their horarium, each day evenly and regularly divided into ecclesiastical duties in perpetuity. The Sisters prayed for God’s grace but expected none and were grateful for everything. They were safe within their cloistered and silent community and I envied them with a passion. But Ysabel, you could never be silent. Not if your life depended on it. My heart twisted sharply as the words ‘Not if your life depended on it’ resonated. As if some sort of prophecy had crept in the door as the Sister turned to lock it. I watched her heavy brown serge robe swing, the cream corded girdle echoing the movement. The sun caught on the plain ring on her left hand and I could see her toes spread across leather sandals beneath her hems.
The woman’s feet made a crunching sound as we moved from the stone flags of the cloister to a graveled path that cut through the neatly trimmed, central herb garden. Only twenty or so steps and we reached another heavy door. The Sister knocked, waited and then knocked twice again before swinging the door open, indicating that I should enter. I walked inside curiously, conscious of my dirty clothes and that I may be less than fragrant.
The space was larger than a cell to be sure, but austere. A cot, folded blankets, a straw-stuffed mattress, a stool with a woven rush top, an aged crucifix. A tallow candle and taper. And a tall thin woman whose face was the image of a heavenly being – ageless and with the purity of implied sainthood imprinted on the features.
‘God be with you,’ she said by way of preamble. ‘You will be taken to your room by Sister Thea where you will find a tub and things you may need. They were organized by Master Gisborne. Are you familiar with the horarium?’
I nodded. The Prioress was perfunctory and to the point and I could see she would invite no comment or question.
‘Then you will understand how we divide our day. You will eat with us. We do not know who you are as I required Master Gisborne not to tell us and I would ask that you refrain from engaging with our Sisters. St. Eadgyth’s Priory has taken a vow of silence and I would hope that you observe the same rule in your short time with us. You may walk in our garden and orchard but unless you are accompanied by a Sister, I would ask that you do not wander elsewhere in our domain. God keep you.’
She picked up a small hand-bell. Her hands were long and slim, white and heavily veined with blue. The spider’s web of her delicate bone structure moved as her fingers rattled the bell gently. In response, Sister Thea opened the door and stood back for me to pass. But something made me turn back and I caught a glimpse of the Prioress’s clear, guileless eyes gazing at me. I smiled and before I could stop myself, my voice, as alien as a man’s in that place, drifted over my turned shoulder. ‘Thank you.’ I said and followed in Sister Thea’s determined footsteps.
We proceeded at a measure pace and because the remains of the earlier mists had dissolved, I had time to observe that the walls continued further than I had thought. There was a hedge across the end of the herb garden and through a clipped gateway I could see the ordered rows of a vegetable garden and the longer pasture and wildflowers that underlay an orchard of trees. It looked a pleasant place and I resolved to walk through it afterward.
Everything around me was touched with an odd luminescence; I would thereafter call it God’s Light as it was gentle, soft as light touching a pearl. The fragrance of herb and the sounds of bees again stirred the embers of envy in my troubled soul.
We progressed through the cloister
and on its west-facing end it was hung with roses that had finished their flowering and were laden with hips turning a ruby red. I was so busy looking at everything, at the carved pillars, at the Roman numerals above various entrances, that I hadn’t realized good Sister Thea had led me through a narrow door. Only the change in the ambience, the diminished sounds of the ever-present bees and birds, made me look up. My cell wrapped around us, more sparsely furnished even than the Prioress’s. A narrow cot, as though it were a child’s, sacking tied like a sea-hammock. A brown woven blanket, a crucifix of God’s son in His perpetual agony hanging on the whitewashed walls. But my eyes rested longest on a cut-down wine-barrel lined with a piece of fine linen and from which steam eddied.
Sister Thea backed out of the room and the door barely clicked, leaving me to walk to the tub to trail my fingers through the hot water. I looked around to the bed and noticed a small pile of goods that I had thought might be an extra blanket but on examination proved to more of Guy’s thoughtful largesse. Linen undergarments were neatly folded and I wondered what the Sisters had thought. But surely they must wear something similar. Although I had heard of an abbess who wore rough woven wool flush against her skin as a form of penance on a daily basis. Not for me scratchy wool and God’s forgiveness, I thought as I fingered the fine linen. There were also clean men’s hose and a chemise, a clean tunic, a leather belt and a chaperon of wool that would cover my head and shoulders admirably. And there was a small pile of folded cloths.
My courses had not appeared in all the time we travelled, a factor due entirely to the tension of the journey, I was sure. But over the last few days, a vague ache had spread from my lower back and settled in the lowest part of my stomach and something about the presence of those cloths made me realize just how prescient Guy was and I blushed. In a fever as I remembered our night together, I ripped off the filthy clothes from my body and threw them into the corner of the cell.
The water had some sort of fragrant oil in it, perhaps rose-geranium. And there lay a piece of soap, rough to be sure, but smelling sweet and with flower petals embedded deep in the impure block. That such a small place as St. Eadgyth’s could provide me with such a luxury was worth a prayer and as I sank below the surface, hair and all, I thanked God. The water lapped around me, its perfumed oils doing more to lift my spirits than the thought that in a short time I would be clean. The old adage ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ whispered around the sparse walls of the cell and I smiled. I lathered my hair and scrabbled fingers back and forth and then sank again below the surface to rinse it, running hands through until it squeaked. My skin demanded the same treatment and I took the bar of soap and slipped it over every part of me, stripping away at the sweat and grime and then I lay back to enjoy the last of the water’s warmth, twisting my hair and flipping it out over the edge of the tub. But the bar of soap I kept in my palm as if its fragrance was a comfort. So valuable a thing, that little sliver of soap.
Valuable. The word pierced my mind. Value. The scales began to fall away from my eyes in much the same manner as the dirt had just sloughed off my skin. How valuable? I could see Guy backing away from my questions.
And no wonder.
Guy of Gisborne was a spy.
A self-serving spy who traded information for wealth. That was surely how he survived when neither Gelis nor my father had given him money. But Ysabel, he provided not just for your safety but for your every need. Does it matter?
I wondered if it did. But then I remembered the constant appearance of his cousin, Vasey, and suddenly it did matter. Because if information went to Vasey, there was no doubt it was used for ill. I could not see the tawdry knight using it to push King Richard’s cause. Of course not. It would be used to feather Vasey’s nest and lift him to a position of status in the eyes of the King until he himself had the position of power that he craved. And Guy wove in and out of that like a masterful gameplayer. What information is he selling? What does he barter? I shivered. They are all the same…
The water had chilled and the grime sat on the surface in a murky slurry. I grabbed a spare strip of linen and stood, wiping my goose-pimpled skin, wringing my hair out and wrapping it in the strip. The tub lining had an unsightly tidemark and I suffered guilt at what the St.Eadgyth’s Sisters would need to do to return the linen to its pristine state. The pain in my lower back persisted despite the bath, but was infinitely preferable to an ache in my head and I was glad as I pulled on the men’s clothing. Underneath it all lay a wooden comb, an honest little tool, carved with simple fingers for a modest fee I was sure.
Honesty. I took up the comb and dragged it through the knots as the sweet bell above the Priory rang for Sext, my belly rumbling a base descant.
On leaving the cell, I expected to see the Sisters weaving from the garden or the scriptorium to their refectory but all was still except for the trailing echoes of the bell. I trod the gravel path in the direction of I thought the refectory lay, damp hair heavy on my shoulder. But as I looked at the clean edges of my fingernails, I sighed. I should be indulging in this new purged state, stripped of dirt and sweat and grime but instead the cleanliness jarred with my awakening of earlier. As I began to dwell on likely perfidies, a movement to my side caught my eye and good Sister Thea drifted into view, smiling benevolently and indicating I follow.
We moved to the wall on the other side of the garden where the Prioress’s room stood under the protection of the colonnaded cloister. As we walked, our footsteps echoed in the pristine silence of the place, Sister Thea’s leather soles a hard tap, my own boots a softer sound. I glimpsed an open door and saw four desks in rows of two underneath a tall window.
Sheets of parchment lay on each surface and pots of colour and quills and I longed to divert, to stay a moment, to gaze at the richness of the illumination and the skill of the copying. The smell of the inks that were mixed drifted out but Thea urged me on and within two more paces we reached the kitchen refectory from which a pleasant fragrance of new baked bread eddied. Thea stood back and I entered and seven veiled and whimpled heads lifted.
They were curious, have no doubt, but in less than a blink, six of the seven resumed eating, the Prioress’s presence enough for them to observe the rule. I sat next to the Prioress and she passed me a thick crust of the warm bread and a bowl of the potage which appeared to have chunks of poultry therein. I ate in the curious atmosphere of the room where the only sounds were of fabric rustling as an arm moved, or a muffled cough from an irritated throat, a scrape of a sandal on the stone blocks of the floor. Plates, rough wooden ones, were shifted occasionally and wooden beakers filled with water, the sound of the chuckling stream from pitcher to mug like the sound of the purest voice in the choir.
Odd and intrusive then, when the Prioress said to me, ‘Speech can disturb us in our devotions and exercises our resistance to temptation far more than is necessary. I thank you for observing our rule. When you are finished, you may leave us. Our Sisters will work in the gardens or in the scriptorium until None when we would see you in the Chapel.’
The Sisters’ heads had lifted at the sound of the Prioress’s voice and I watched their eyes swivel from her to me, almost as if they anticipated Tempation at its most virulent. When I merely nodded and smiled my acknowledgement of what had passed, I swear there was almost a tangible sigh of regret in the room. The Prioress stood and the Sisters followed, leaving the room in single file like a mother duck and her babies. I moved in their wake but headed to the garden paths and thence to the orchard, where life seemed less constrained and I could breathe and even sigh audibly.
The orchard was heaven on earth. Thick pasture and wild flowers dragged at my feet and the trees bent toward me, heavy with autumnal fruits. I dared not pick anything, even the windfalls, and instead enjoyed the fragrance of the place as I searched for a quiet place to sit and sift through my thoughts. At the end of the orchard I could see the gleam of pale headstones and headed toward them as if the Departed may shed light on my confused state.
There were not many tombs and they were simply carved. Here a Sister’s name and a date. There a Prioress’s with a little more sculpted flourish. But the last drew me to it like a beacon and my heart stopped and I dropped to my knees, my fingers tracing the letters one by one.
‘Ghislaine of Gisborne,’ it read and the tears sprang to my eyes.