In the end, it was Thibault who arrived at Un Noveautie. "Have you tired of piety, sweeting?" he asked Aungelique when he came upon her in the garden.
"I have been many things in my life," she said with a toss of her head, "but never pious."
"Perhaps; there are many sorts of piety, are there not?" He was dressed in light blue, as before, but the clothes he wore now were brighter and of better cut than the first time she had seen him. He hoisted himself onto the lip of the fountain and looked down at Aungelique. "Well, little fledgling, are you still afraid to try your wings, or have you learned to soar without me?"
Aungelique was at once flattered and disturbed by the beautiful young man, and she tried to conceal this with banter. "What is that to you? What do you care?"
"Well, in the course of the world, I do not care. But here, in this place, with your face rosy and your eyes dancing, wouldn't I be a fool to turn away from you?" He reached down and tweaked one short, loose strand of her hair. "A delicious morsel like you would tempt more than me, sweeting."
"Only tempt?" she inquired audaciously. She was enjoying herself as much for the risk of her words as for the attention of Thibault Col, Chevalier de Bruges. She was glad to see that he could not entirely maintain his composure, for that gave her a sense of advantage she had lacked the first time they met.
"What more would you have me do? Should I ravish you? Fall at your feet and kiss the hem of your houppelande? Sing songs in your honor? Tell me: what do you want of me?" He favored her with his charming, equivocal smile. "Or shall I tell you?"
"You don't know what I want!" His confidence stung her.
"Do I not? Do you think I do not know of the hours you spend alone, your thoughts harking back to the time we have spent together. But that isn't enough, is it? You burn, and your burning only feeds the fire - isn't that so?" He held out his hand and Aungelique surprised herself by putting her own into his. "Your veins are alive with desires you cannot name. Aren't they? And your flesh reels and aches as if you had been beaten, though no one has touched you. Do you deny it?"
Aungelique's eyes had grown large. "How do you know these things? Who told you?"
"No one needed to tell me; it's writ in your glance, in the way you walk. Haven't you wanted someone to see this in you? When you pray for God to aid you, do you not imagine a lover, not a father or brother?" He let go of her hand. "Or cousin?"
"You!" Aungelique flushed deeply and turned away.
"Will you leave me, sweeting?" His voice was still light and teasing, but under it there was something more, a power that caught and held Aungelique as surely as if the fragrant garden were the deepest pit.
"You've ... said - "
"Have I been cruel? But lovers are cruel, aren't they? Isn't that what the troubadours sang, all those years ago? What lover has not suffered for love?" In a supple, feline movement, he came down from the fountain and sauntered toward her. "Isn't that what you wish to do, to suffer for love and cause others to suffer?"
"Not ... only that." She stared at him, caught by his insinuating force.
"What more then?" He came up to her, mockery in his light-colored eyes. "Or shall I guess again?"
She put out her hand as if to fend him off. "No. Don't guess." She no longer wanted to match wits with him, for she knew he would toy with her mercilessly. "You ... you know too much already."
He cupped her chin in his long, slender hand. "Does it hurt so much to admit it? Sweeting, I am willing to gratify your desires; you have only to ask." Quickly he bent, brushing her lips with his own, then released her and stepped back. "Or do you prefer your convent, after all, and your cell, where you may have your dreams and not be bothered with awkward bodies that grunt and sweat at Venus' work?"
"I do not wish to be a nun!" she shouted at him.
"Have I said that you did? I have only suggested that you would rather have your dreams, fledgling."
"That's not so," she said, not looking at him.
"Isn't it? When you sleep alone here? When you leap like a startled hare at my touch? Would it be otherwise if I were le Duc Pierre? Or is he only another dream you keep?"
"You are wrong! I will have lovers and they will ... they will adore me." Her jaw was set and she wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
Her tormentor smiled again. "Adore you? Like a monk before the plaster statues of the Saints, no doubt. Ah, little fledgling, that is not how men and women live, or love. But if it is adoration you seek, then so be it." He bowed deeply and started away from her.
"Wait!" she cried, to her own amazement.
He slowed a little. "Why?"
"Yes?" He was still now, gazing at her with disconcerting intensity.
"I do not want to be a nun. I want to live my life as Comtesse Orienne lives hers."
Thibault's smile was almost a sneer. "Why?"
"Because ... because she is free!" Aungelique declared.
"Free." Thibault laughed. "Do you think her life is less constrained than yours? Poor Aungelique! You think that because this cloister has silken cushions and scarlet robes that it is less a prison than your convent? Comtesse Orienne has her Order and her Officers, just as you have. You are deceived by the trappings, little one."
"But I want ... I want..." She floundered helplessly.
"What - other than rapturous dreams?" He waited, saying nothing more.
"Oh, you don't know what it's like!" She took a few steps toward him, then hung back. "I want..."
"To matter?" he suggested. "To be important? To be desired? To be possessed?"
"Yes; to be possessed. I want you ... to desire me to madness." She liked the sound of that. "Yes. To madness. And I want you to be obsessed with me, and to think only of me."
"And you? You have said what you want of me. But what of you, sweeting? You say you wish to be possessed. How?" One long hand rested negligently on his hip, the other made graceful gestures in the air.
"You already - Let me..." Her cheeks grew bright at her thoughts.
"Very pretty. It's a shame to waste you on the convent. All those faceless, bodiless nuns. Do you feel faceless, little one? When you keep your vigil with your flesh against cold stone, do you feel bodiless?"
She stared at him. "Yes," she said when she had thought about it. "I feel that I am nothing, that I am fading away. But..."
"But there is your desire, isn't there? And it is still yours, is it not? As long as the desire is there you are not quite gone, are you?" This teasing manner of his made her more frightened than a serious approach might. She stared down at her hands.
"There were heretics, Flagellants, who tried to break into the convent. We fought them." Her hands twisted around each other.
"Did you? And how did you feel? Were you frightened? Were you pleased?" With each question he came nearer, stopping just two steps from her.
"Yes. Frightened, pleased, all of it. Excited. They didn't get in." She giggled abruptly. "It was ... wonderful, pouring scalding water on them and seeing them run. I wanted more of them to be there."
"And would you want to do it again?" Thibault's smile had changed, becoming not quite as attractive as it had been, but more genuine, revealing a trace of the sort of creature he was.
"Yes. Perhaps no. I would want them to know who I am, if ever they came again. I would shout my name at them, and the name of my House, so they would know who it was that bested them."
"Such ferocious thoughts, sweeting."
"Well, my father is Michau d'Ybert. We are a fierce breed." She was feeling better now, and was starting to enjoy herself once more. "Think, if those heretics had been suitors, what fun it would have been, to see them run and to watch for the one who would not mind the scalding water."
"And what do you do with him after he reached you?" Thibault asked, more seriously than he had before. "A scalded man might be angry with you. He might be a poor lover, as well."
"Does that matter? If he were angry, then I would know how strong his passion was. Let him take me, subdue me. Let his burns press against me, let him howl with pain as he takes me."
There were birds in the trees beyond the garden and their calls drifted in, adding their magic to the scents of herbs and flowers. Sunlight, warm and potent as an alchemist's elixir, flowed over them, nearly palpable in its intensity.
"And then what?" he inquired, offering her his wrist to lead her indoors.
"Oh, doubtless I would wake up." Her eyes danced and she achieved a charming smile as they went in out of the light.
* * * *
Furiously Pierre flung the half-full goblet across the room where it broke, leaving a stain like the splash of blood against the stones. "By the brass balls of God, what has come over you, cousin!" he demanded as she came into the small reception room where Comtesse Orienne had made him wait.
Aungelique, dressed provocatively, her short hair dressed with wreaths of fresh flowers, opened her eyes wide in deceptive innocence. "Have I offended you, cousin?"
"Yes!" he thundered. "You know you have offended me. And your father. And your House, and your Order. What haven't you offended?" The scar on his face was livid with his emotion.
"All that?" she asked, finding the meeting far more interesting than she had feared it would be. "For such a little thing?"
"You ran away from the convent, you came here - here - where there is nothing but license and dissipation, you flaunt yourself to the men who come here to be entertained by Comtesse Orienne - "
"As she has entertained you, cousin?" Aungelique reminded him pleasantly.
"That is nothing to you," he shouted. "You're a disgrace! Your father would be justified in sending you to prison or to an anchorite. He may still do one of those things, if you do not return to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion immediately. Do you understand me? Do you?" His voice was growing even louder and he glared at her impatiently.
"I am not minded to do so," she told him with a sly smile. "If I must live at the convent with my father's blessing or live here without it, then I will pray for him and remain here." She found Pierre's rage stimulating, the more so because she sensed that it masked a desire he could not admit.
Pierre could not bring himself to touch her, or he might have shaken her like an ill-behaved puppy. There was, he knew, an awakening desire for her, to put an end to her taunting by bedding her. The honor of his House forbade that; he took refuge in wrath. "What are you, a whore? Do you know what women do here?"
"Certainly," she said, running her finger over the little lace ruff of her houppelande. "I do the things that women do here, don't I?"
"Do you!" He rounded on her, this time making her fear him. "Are you saying that you are not intact? If you are no longer a maiden, your father will disown you. As well he should." He lowered his voice. "Have you truly done the act?"
She gave him a blithe smile. "Of course, cousin. You would not have me, and I have said all along I have not the vocation to be a nun. What am I to do, then, if there is no succor for me? At least here, there are men who find me pleasant." She gave an adept imitation of Comtesse Orienne's throaty laugh. "I have appetites, cousin. I have desires. God made me a thing of passions - and not the passions of the spirit, but the flesh."
"Your father should have married you off when your first blood came," he muttered.
"But he didn't, and so I have had to do as best I may. It is wrong of my father to insist that I live in a convent or as a brood mare for some aging, gross stallion with more care for his wine than tupping." She folded her arms.
"Your father could imprison you." It was said quietly. Both of them knew it was a fact.
"But he won't, not if I'm the only one he can use to barter to a husband." It was her only power against her father and she was determined to use it to her best advantage. "Other women have had lovers before they were wives, and their husbands have married them with pride. Why shouldn't I have the same fortune? Am I so ugly or so ancient that no man could regard me with favor?"
"That's not in question," Pierre admitted, his anger reasserting itself.
"Then what is? If I am not a nun, if I were a lady-in-waiting instead, the woman I served would set the tone of my morals; and cousin, no matter what my nature, I would abide by what my mistress wished. But situated as I am now, I cannot think how I am to live, let alone retain my soul as my father would wish it." This was a more dangerous ploy, for it might be all the impetus Pierre needed to recommend to Michau d'Ybert that his daughter be placed in confinement.
"You don't realize what you are saying," Pierre protested. "You're still a child. You play at games you do not understand."
Aungelique moved closer to him. "Then teach me, cousin. Do not fight with me, or tell me that I am a rebellious child without duty or gratitude; teach me what I must know, or let me be wanton as God made me." She put her hand on his shoulder and was not dissatisfied when he brushed it away.
"You must stop this ... nonsense," Pierre ordered her, but without real conviction. "You must school yourself to be obedient and biddable."
"But why?" She waited and when he did not speak, she went on. "I have said that I will be obedient at court. I have said that I would marry a suitable man. I wish for lovers, many lovers, but I will forgo that if my father will get a dispensation - surely his vidame has some merit - that would permit us to marry." She saw the confusion in his eyes and pressed on. "You do not burn for me. Not yet. But there are those who do, and if you do not want me, they do, and I will be satisfied with them."
"Aungelique, you're not thinking clearly."
She brought up her chin. "Nor are you. Oh, for le Bon Dieu, do not try me too far, or I will run away to Rome and sate myself with those servants of the Devil who rule there."
He knew her well enough to realize that she was capable of such a monumental disgrace, and so he responded cautiously to her threat. "That would be unwise, Aungelique. And once done, there would be no turning back. No matter what Baron Michau wished in his heart to do, he would have to cast you out of it, for the honor of his House. And once he had cast you out, you would have no recourse left but to be the playing toy of those Romans, and your end would not be kind." He felt compassion for Aungelique as he explained this, but he could not be open with her; his honor as much as his desire made it impossible.
"He has cast me out of his heart already," Aungelique countered. "He takes no pride in me, he treats me as if I were less than a slave to him. He is a stern man, and they tell me he is just, but I do not see justice in what he has done to me."
"You're his daughter, and a willful one at that. You would not think he was just unless he married you to the Emperor of the East or Prester John." He set his feet apart, his thick legs like tree trunks holding up the mass of his torso. "You think you know what it is to be filled with passion, but you do not recognize it in your father, who has more passion for the glory of his House than half the Kings in Spain. You are ready to throw away every chance for an honorable life for the whim of your vanity. It is not passion that consumes you, Aungelique, it is lust and pride, and for that alone, you will suffer in Hell unless you purge them from your soul."
"If I am those things," she said, not bothering to check her anger, "then Heaven has given them to me."
"The Devil has given them to you!" he shouted.
"The Devil then. What is it to me?" She turned on her heel and was about to leave the room when she decided to make one more offer. "I have thought of something. Let me propose this: that my father disown me entirely, and declare that I am without family, and then I will not be a shame for him."
Pierre stared at her in disbelief. "What are you saying?"
"I could live as I wish, then, and my father would not have to bear with what I do or how I do it." She shrugged. "It's simple, isn't it?"
"You've run mad," Pierre said with conviction. "You are not some peasant's bitch that can be turned out in the fields to run wild. You're well-born, and that is not the same as the rest of the world." He pointed at her. "I'll make a bargain with you, girl."
"I am not a merchant: you've just reminded me." Her color was up again and she glared at him with a fierceness to match his own.
"You will return to that convent and you will remain there for the next three months. I will speak to your father and I will do my utmost to persuade him to reconsider. If he will not, then I will speak to the Cardinal and ask that he find a suitable court for you to enter. My oath upon it."
"But you won't ask for a dispensation to marry me, will you?" She flung this at him like a gauntlet. "You'd rather see me lost to the Devil entirely than your wife."
"God's Nails, will you let be? Even if I wished to, I could not obtain that dispensation. Your father has had two already and the Pope cannot indulge his vidames forever." He fell silent, studying her. "Well? Will you accept my offer?"
She considered it. "What is to keep my father from ordering me into prison while I wait at the convent? What is to stop him from deciding that he need not abide by what you promised?"
"Oh, come, Aungelique," he said, almost losing his patience with her again. "Your father does not want bad blood with me. He will accept my oath as his own or he will lose my men-at-arms, and he knows it. Your father is stern, but that does not mean he will throw away everything he has obtained." He hesitated. "It is not a very long time, Aungelique. At the end of it, you will be free, one way or the other. Won't you accept that, in exchange for the life you say you are made for?"
Aungelique wanted to give him a sharp reply, but that would not permit her to gain his favor again. She rubbed her chin in unthinking imitation of her father. "For three months. If there is any attempt to deny me at the end of that time, I will run away to Rome, I swear it on the Blood of God."
Pierre nodded, shocked by the depth of her feeling. "Three months. That is all."
"Yes; all." She offered her hand for him to touch. "My word is as binding as yours. Remember that, Pierre." Then she added a last proviso. "Since I am doing this at your behest, I want proper escort back to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. Three men-at-arms and a driver for the wagon."
"As you wish," he agreed, thankful she had asked for so little.
It was tempting to ask for something more, but for once she held back. With a little discretion, she would be able to please him, and that would be enough to keep him minded to discharge his oath quickly. "I will want another two days here. I have told la Comtesse that I will attend her entertainment tomorrow night. It is not fitting that I decline her invitation, as she has housed me."
"That is reasonable," he said, being careful to say nothing that might cause her to do something capricious. "I will inform Orienne I will be here, as well."
That made Aungelique frown, but she said nothing more than, "It will be her choice if you do attend."
"I understand that," he said, knowing full well that Orienne would not refuse him as long as he was obligated to ask about men from Rome. "If she declines, I will find other hosts near here."
Aungelique shrugged, thinking she must find Thibault and persuade him to dance attention on her while Pierre was about. It was time her cousin saw that other men did not find her as repugnant as he appeared to. "Then it is settled," she said to him, and to herself.
"It is settled." He touched her hand properly, inclined his head but did not kneel, then almost swaggered from the room more relieved than he had been in days.
* * * *
Pere Guibert looked at Seur Philomine in amazement. "How is it that Mere Leonie has given such instruction?"
"She was so cast down by Seur Aungelique's leaving," Seur Philomine explained carefully, "that she has spent her time in her cell, in prayer and meditation. None of us has seen her since Seur Aungelique disappeared." She folded her hands and looked down at them, concentrating on the way her fingers interlaced. "She had said that she is to blame, and for that she must seek to make amends for her sin, and for her failure to be the mother to us that she has promised to be. She has chastised herself for dereliction. She says that Our Lord does not wish to have his nest unguarded."
"Commendable," Pere Guibert muttered, wanting to know more. He dared not enter Mere Leonie's cell to question her, for that would be exceeding his authority to an inexcusable degree. He paced through the courtyard, paying no attention to the mule he had ridden to the convent. "It may be," he said when he had given the matter some thought, "that in caring so much for the one, she is neglecting the many, and for that, she will have more sins upon her head."
Seur Philomine knew that she could neither agree nor disagree without offending the priest. "Mere Leonie mentioned the Prodigal Son before she closed her door."
"That's entirely different. If that difficult child were not the daughter of Michau d'Ybert, I should have recommended that she be released from her vows more than a year ago." It was wrong of him to say this, but his temper was growing short. "Mere Leonie has not been a Superior long enough to judge these things as she ought. God teaches us wisdom, in time, if we permit it and have not hardened our hearts to His Words."
"Amen, mon Pere." Seur Philomine went and took the reins of the mule. "I will put him in the stable and see that he is fed. Unless you require something more of me?"
"No; no, you're right, Seur Philomine." He started toward the inner door, then turned back to her. "How does Seur Lucille do?"
"Alas, her hurts were too grievous. God called her and ended her suffering." Inwardly, Seur Philomine could not bring herself to grieve, not after she had tended the nun, whose pain could not be stanched even with syrup of poppies and whose flesh had been mortified beyond all healing.
"God is good," Pere Guibert said, crossing himself. "We will have special prayers for her tonight." He paused. "Did Mere Leonie..."
Seur Philomine guessed his meaning. "No, she did not come out of her cell. Seur Tiennette made the preparations and Seur Elvire led the Mass for her soul."
It was not proper that any nun should do this, but after the Plague had taken so enormous a toll, the Church had become lax in these matters. "I will say another Mass," Pere Guibert informed her.
"Deo gratias," Seur Philomine murmured, and led the mule away.
Pere Guibert shook his head as he entered the corridor leading to the chapel. He had thought there would be trouble with Seur Aungelique again, and had been confident that Mere Leonie was resigned to problems, as well. Now he discovered that the Superior was secluded from guilt and the convent had been left to tend to itself. He would have to speak to Mere Leonie as soon as possible, and do what he might to remedy the situation. He paused at the entrance to the chapel, looking down at the prostate form of Seur Marguerite.
The nun was praying, but at the sound of approaching steps, she paused. Without turning, she said, "For the love of God, my Seur, let me finish before you begin your devotions. My children are dying, and God does not save them."
"Dying?" Pere Guibert asked, uncertain what Seur Marguerite meant.
"They come to their hives, and then fall around them. The orchards are empty, and my children ... God must hear me. I am God to them, and I cannot save them. It is cruel and wrong to do this, for they are harmless, my children, and they do nothing that is evil or harmful. I've tried to save them, for they plead with me to help, but it doesn't work, nothing works." She made the sign of the cross and wept bitterly.
Pere Guibert stood still, feeling slightly foolish and inadequate. His expression was harsh because of his confusion, which caused Seur Victoire to think that the priest was angry with Seur Marguerite when she came to the chapel a few moments later.
"Mon Pere," Seur Victoire said when she decided it was all right to speak.
He was grateful for the interruption. "Yes, ma Fille?"
"Seur Tiennette has been told of your arrival and begs a few words with you as soon as you are free to speak with her."
"I will come at once," he said, hoping that he would learn more of what had caused Mere Leonie to shut herself away from her Sisters in this fashion.
"We have been ... puzzled," Seur Victoire admitted to Pere Guibert as they hurried toward the refectory. "Mere Leonie has not been this way. She is new, of course, but there has been so much bustle here since she came to us that..." Seur Victoire withdrew her hands from the sleeves of her habit to give a gesture of helplessness.
Pere Guibert gave a terse answer. "She is still unknown." It was not appropriate for him to speak in this way of the Superior to one of her nuns, but his aggravation had been increasing steadily and it helped him to speak of it.
"Well, certainly to some of the Sisters. She isn't French, and that troubles a few of us." She paused, then said, "All of us are worried for Seur Aungelique. Mere Leonie is not the only one who prays for her."
They had reached the refectory door. "I am sure that each of you knows her duty," Pere Guibert said, not eager to hear of this woman's piety.
"Seur Tiennette is waiting," Seur Victoire announced, standing away from the door so the Pere Guibert could enter on his own.
"My thanks," Pere Guibert said as he went into the large, whitewashed room, wishing he had never left Mou Courbet or Forlebene.
* * * *
His kisses were quick and eager, but light, and when she reached to hold him, he stepped out of range and laughed. "Oh, sweeting, are you always so impetuous?"
Two bladder pipes and a hurdy-gurdy thrummed and bleated in the room beyond their retreat, and there was an occasional outburst of laughter.
"Speak softly," Aungelique ordered, with a swift glance back toward the brightness of the great hall at Un Noveautie.
"They are listening to the music and watching the mummers. They would not notice if ten naked satyrs pranced down the halls." Thibault looked around the cozy withdrawing room. "No one will find us. And if they should, what matter?"
Aungelique thought of Pierre, who had been glowering at her throughout the evening, and she shuddered at the thoughts his presence conjured. "Let us only be silent."
"And what else?" Thibault inquired, coming toward her again. "Are you still in search of possession, fledgling? Or are you simply amusing yourself until the hour of departure arrives?"
"I'm not amusing myself," she answered with asperity. "Do you think that is all I care about?"
"You have said that it is. You have said Our Lord makes you wanton," he reminded her.
"He did," she agreed. "And until it should please Him to change me, wanton I must be." She reached out and seized his hand. "Thibault, there will be three long months when all I will do is pray and fast and keep vigils. I would rather feast and love, but it will not happen in the convent. Cannot you help me to have something to remember that will comfort me while I lie on the cold stones and recite prayers?"
His long, slender hands slid over her breasts and cupped them through the beautiful damask of her surcote. "Something like this, perhaps?" His thumbs rubbed her nipples quickly, lightly. "Well?"
Aungelique breathed faster as she felt her nipples harden and grow taut. At the base of her spine something quivered, something like an itch but warmer.
"There are things I could do to you, sweeting, if your cousin were not here. I could take off your clothing, until you were bare as a nymph. Would that please you? Would it please you to give me kiss for kiss and touch for touch?" In the darkness, his ice-blue eyes shone, lit by the distant scented braziers.
"Ah ... more," Seur Aungelique moaned, fascinated by his voice as much as the intent of his words. "Go on."
His kissed her again, still without passion. "What would you want then? The act, hastily performed and swiftly ended? Or would you prefer more sturdy use? You are not a ewe to be covered by a ram for three heartbeats and released, are you?" His teeth nipped the lobe of her ear.
"N-no." She leaned against him, hoping that the pressure of her body would banish his light-handed control.
"Then what would you wish? Hours of caresses that the Turks have learned for their luxury?" He had moved his hands and now they slid down her sides to the top of her thighs and back up, hardly touching her but inflaming her as they went.
"Turks," she whispered, not knowing what she said.
"Or is your desire greater than that? Sweeting? Can you tell me?" He kissed her deeply once, then stepped back, taking hold of her wrists. "Come. The mummers are nearly finished and Pierre is going to start searching for you."
"No. Not yet!" she wailed softly. She could barely bring herself to move; her excitement was intolerable.
"Later, sweeting? In three months, perhaps?" He flicked her cheek with one finger. "Think about me while you are away, will you not, sweeting?" Without waiting for an answer, he led her back into the great hall just as the mummers presented their last tableau.
* * * *
Pale, her icy eyes intense, her habit impeccably clean, Mere Leonie emerged from her self-imposed isolation the morning after Pere Guibert arrived. She entered the refectory where the Sisters had gathered to break their fasts after morning prayers, taking her place at the center of the central table as if nothing had happened.
The nuns stared, and one or two of them murmured to others, but for the most part they were silent as Pere Guibert intoned the blessing.
"Seur Adalin will read from the Scriptures today," Mere Leonie announced when the prayers were finished. "She reads very well, and it is to the Glory of God that the words are given to us." She looked around the room. "You will all rejoice with me; I know that Seur Aungelique will return to us soon."
This time there was a buzz of conversation which Pere Guibert halted as he stared hard at Mere Leonie.
"Have you had a message? Why was I not informed of it?" His voice was too high and he knew he ought not to be curt, but he had more than enough to cope with in the last day, and was not minded to tolerate any more from these Sisters.
"The messenger was from Our Lord," Mere Leonie said serenely. "It has been given to me to see her return, and for that I am especially grateful, for her return gives strength to Our Lord." She crossed herself and smiled at Pere Guibert.
"You do not know it was a true vision. If it is not, you stand in great danger of heresy and apostasy, ma Fille," Pere Guibert informed her testily.
"It is the truth. I am sure of it. The other time when Seur Aungelique was gone, I kept to my cell and prayed and she came back." She had already picked up the portion of cheese that was part of the breakfast.
"And if she does not return, then what?" Pere Guibert asked, unwilling to give up his objections.
"Then I will pray again, until she is with us once more." She turned to Seur Adalin. "Read, ma Seur, from the Book of Ruth and do not stop until you are instructed to do so."
Pere Guibert did not like having his authority usurped in this way, but he was reluctant to challenge Mere Leonie with her emergence causing such excitement among the Sisters. As soon as it was apparent that Seur Aungelique was not coming back, he would be able to warn her about zealotry. "It is beneficial to hear Holy Words," he contented himself with announcing, and the other nuns prepared to listen while they ate their bread and cheese in silence.
* * * *
One of the fat-tailed ewes had stopped suckling her lamb, so Seur Philomine had taken it upon herself to try and save the baby sheep. Twice a day she would venture into the field where the flock grazed and would present the lamb with a rag protruding from an old wine crock that had been filled with milk. Most of the time she was able to get the lamb to nurse and so far it seemed he would live.
So it was that she was the first to see the escorted wagon turn away from the main road and approach Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. She faltered in her task, almost dropping the wine crock, then, in response to the lamb's demanding bleat, once again held the crock at the proper angle.
The little cavalcade drew up at the main gates and one of the knights dismounted so that he could approach the grille and speak to the warder Sister. Seur Philomine narrowed her eyes, trying to see more clearly. The figures were too distant for her to recognize the devices on the cotes that covered their armor, but it was plain enough that the wagon belonged to the Church, for the arms of Avignon and the Pope were emblazoned on the hangings that concealed the passenger from prying eyes of ordinary folk, or curious travelers. As Seur Philomine watched, the doors, newly repaired and refitted and glistening with wax, were opened and the mounted men passed inside, the wagon following them.
At her side, the lamb butted her hip, eager for more of the milk. Dutifully, Seur Philomine finished her feeding of the lamb before she started back to the convent, her thoughts caught up in speculation about the new arrival.
Many of the Sisters had left their chores and come to the courtyard, all wondering what the occasion of the visit might be.
"It is Seur Aungelique," Seur Catant said, without much enthusiasm. "Mere Leonie said she'd be back. It must be her."
"But why?" Seur Elvire asked. "There are others who might choose to come here. It is not only Seur Aungelique who has reason to - "
"And under escort. It is her Baron-and-Vidame father, you may be sure of that," Seur Catant announced.
Seur Morgance shook her head slowly. "It is wrong to make too much of this," she told the others, who paid her no heed.
"They bring the Devil," Seur Marguerite warned them all. "The Devil is here, but he is sleeping. Now he will be roused and will walk among us. My children are dying because the Devil has breathed upon them, as he breathed upon others and they fell from the Plague. My children are too small for me to see the Tokens."
"By la Virge Marie!" Seur Catant warned, reaching over and pinching Seur Marguerite's upper arm. "Let it wait!"
"But by then you will all be lost," Seur Marguerite said with vague sympathy. "The Devil will have you."
Pere Guibert was late, coming into the courtyard after most of the Sisters had already got there, and he had to elbow his way through the nuns to reach the men-at-arms. "I give you welcome; my God give you His blessings."
"And to you, mon Pere," said the officer who had been the first to dismount. "We are men-at-arms to le Duc de Parcignonne, and he has mandated us on his authority and the authority of the Cardinal Belroche to deliver one of your Sisters to you." He touched his visor, then knelt for a benediction.
In an abstracted way, Pere Guibert pronounced the phrases expected of him, though his mind was more taken up by the wagon, which had still not been opened. "Mon Chevalier, will you tell me who it is you bring to us in this way?"
"The cousin of le Duc, who is one of this Order," he answered properly as he rose from his knee. "I have been given the honor or providing her escort." He indicated the other two men-at-arms. "We were all selected for this task by le Duc and approved by the Cardinal."
"Excellent," Pere Guibert said faintly. He was startled to realize he had not expected Mere Leonie's prophecy to be correct, and yet, here was Seur Aungelique, back once more to the convent she claimed to hate.
The nuns were conversing quite openly now that it had been confirmed that their Superior had been correct after all. Seur Victoire shook her head and said pointedly that it might be better if Seur Aungelique were to go away again, and a few of the others agreed with her. Only Seur Adalin objected. "She kept her vigils and fasts, and she was determined in the defense of the convent. We should thank God that she had been delivered to us safely."
"If she has," Seur Catant sneered. "That remains to be seen. Pere Guibert has not heard her confession."
"Would the Cardinal provide her this wagon if she had lost her chastity?" Seur Elvire asked, addressing no one in particular.
"What matter chastity when your father is a Baron?" Seur Catant countered.
"You will beg your bread for that malice," Seur Adalin told her, and moved away from the older nun toward Seur Ranegonde, who was looking faint in the crush.
"If it is she," Seur Ranegonde said, pleased that someone had taken notice of her, "then Mere Leonie will have much to take pride in. But she is not proud, of course." Her confusion made Seur Adalin laugh.
"No, she is not proud in that way."
The curtain was drawn back, and Seur Aungelique, in an enveloping and demure houppelande of dark grey wool, stepped out, her eyes lowered and her manner restrained.
Pere Guibert helped her down, and lifted his brows in surprise when she knelt for his blessing. "You are welcome, ma Fille."
"Deo gratias, mon Pere," she responded softly. She was enjoying her little charade but knew it would pall soon.
"There have been prayers for you, and your Sisters have worried," Pere Guibert informed her with a little more severity.
"I am not worthy of their concern, but for their charity I thank them." She rose gracefully and looked around the courtyard.
There was another flurry of disruption as Mere Leonie came from the convent. Her handsome features were unusually cheerful as she caught sight of Seur Aungelique. "Ah. You are back."
"Mere Leonie said she knew you would return," Seur Elvire offered. "We did not know it ... would be so soon." This lame ending was not what she had had in mind to say, but prudence dictated modification.
"Did you?" Seur Aungelique asked, looking at Mere Leonie in some surprise.
"Yes. Our Lord revealed this to me." She indicated the nuns in the courtyard. "You see; they doubted and now they know there is no reason to doubt."
At the back of the courtyard, near the passageway to the stables, Seur Philomine hung back as she stared at the gathering. It was not her Sisters that held her attention, nor the wagon, nor Seur Aungelique, but one of the men-at-arms. She took hold of the crucifix that hung from her belt as if it would lend her support.
He was standing on the lowered step of the wagon, reaching for the small chest Seur Aungelique had brought with her. Then, as he held out the chest to one of the other men-at-arms, he stopped, staring hard, as if he had heard his name called. He scanned the faces of the nuns, seeing little more than wimples, gorgets and coifs. And then his eyes met Seur Philomine's, and held with the strength of Damascus steel. Distractedly he released the chest and climbed slowly down from the wagon.
Seur Philomine remained where she was, knowing that he would come to her now that he had found her. She held back the laughter that trembled in her. How absurd that they should meet again, he in his armor, she in her habit, each disguised from the other. She wanted to tear off the restrictive headgear and remove the habit: don scarlet and samite and run with him through the fields, away from the convent and his battles, so they might live as they wished to live.
Mere Leonie was inviting Seur Aungelique to enter the convent again, and as the nuns gathered around her, Pere Guibert indicated to the leader of the men-at-arms that their horses should be taken to the stables.
Never had Seur Philomine been pleased to tend the animals more than she was as she heard those words. She swung around and all but ran to the stables, knowing that in a moment, Tristan Courtenay, Sieur de Giraut, would follow her, and they would be together once more.
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