Guards flanked the door of Georges, Cardinal Belroche, their swords properly sheathed, but braced before them. Pere Guibert and Padre Bartolimieu glanced at them uneasily as the Papal page opened the door and stood aside to admit them.
The Cardinal, a squat, sour-eyed man, sat at his writing table, a sheet of vellum spread before him. He looked up, squinting at the newcomers, and called out in his high, metallic voice, "Who's there?"
"It is Padre Bartolimieu, Swiss, and Pere Guibert, French," the page said, knowing that the Cardinal's eyesight was falling and that the Prince of the Church did not like to be reminded of it.
"Illustrissimi," Pere Guibert said, kneeling before the table, his head bowed. Beside him, Padre Bartolimieu did the same.
"Oh. You're the ones with the convent. Yes. I recall the names." The Cardinal snapped out his words, looking in the direction of his page. "Have I time to speak to them now, or..."
The page shifted his stance. "There are services for the men killed in Italy, Illustrissimi."
"When is that?" He had not yet given the blessing to the two priests and was satisfied to keep them on their knees before him.
"In an hour, Illustrissimi," the page said.
"You will summon me in time." He waved his hand to dismiss his page, then made the sign of the cross over his visitors. "You have until he comes to explain your report. What is this nonsense about demons?"
"I fear greatly that it is not nonsense," Pere Guibert said, his head still bent as much with shame as with respect to the Cardinal. "There is something that is wrong at the convent, and if it is not demons, we do not know what it is."
"I have seen nuns in the grip of those ... forces," Padre Bartolimieu declared, his voice high with emotion.
The Cardinal said nothing. One of his large sandaled feet tapped in irritation.
"We are in need of aid," Pere Guibert ventured in the uneasy quiet.
"You say in your message that le Duc de Parcignonne has brought men-at-arms to your nuns. Surely he can aid you." His tone was becoming more terse and impatient. "You should know better than to petition for another priest at a time like this."
"I..." Pere Gilbert began, chastened and perplexed. "I did not think that there would be difficulties."
"You circuit priests!" the Cardinal scoffed. "All you think about are those few religious and peasants you hear confess. You believe that they are the Church. Mon Fils, we are the Church, we of the Papal Court. The rest are the flock we lead, as we must, but it is not they but we who are the Church." He slapped the flat of his palm on the table, a sharp explosion of sound. "And we are under assault as surely as if there were an army at the gates of Avignon."
Padre Bartolimieu coughed. "The Devil sends his minions in many forms, Illustrissimi," he said awkwardly. "Roman spies to you and, it may be, demons to the good Sisters of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion."
"Hardly the same thing," the Cardinal said. "What has happened? You report that there are those who are abused with fleshly dreams and others who fall into fits. There was much of that when the Plague was visited on us before, and most of them died who were afflicted in such wise. Is there Plague in your valley, perhaps, or has there been Plague recently?" He drummed his fingers on the table. "If there is Plague, it is a sin not to inform me of it."
"There is no Plague, not as you mean," Pere Guibert said, thinking over his answer carefully. "There are demons, but there has been no Plague."
"There were heretics not long ago," Padre Bartolimieu interjected, as if confessing a secret vice.
"Those were the ones the Sisters fought off, weren't they?" Cardinal Belroche asked. "There was mention of it in your report."
"Yes," Pere Guibert answered, startled that the Cardinal should be familiar with what he had said. "They defended themselves and their convent until le Duc de Parcignonne and his men arrived. They were valiant, the Sisters. Only one of them died from her wounds."
"A worthy death, and one that doubtless gained her a martyr's crown," the Cardinal said, disinterested beyond his own remark. "She was an older Sister, I believe."
"Yes, and from a good House," Pere Guibert said, then cleared his throat. "I saw her shortly before she died. She suffered much and there was little that could be done to relieve her pain. Her Sisters took good care of her, but she failed in spite of that."
"Unfortunate," the Cardinal said in a crushing manner. "Tell me of these demons you fear: how long has the convent been infested with them - if it is infested at all?"
"For seven weeks, perhaps more," Pere Guibert answered, stung that the Cardinal should care so little for Seur Lucille. "There is one Sister, Seur Aungelique, who does not have a vocation and has been compelled to enter the convent by the will of her father, who hopes to teach her obedience through this ruse. She has been a ... disruption."
"Ah. And who is this nun?" The Cardinal folded his arms and belatedly motioned for the two priests to rise.
"The daughter of Baron Michau d'Ybert," Pere Guibert said with sudden trepidation.
"The new vidame?" the Cardinal asked with sharper attention than he had shown before. "Why did you not mention this?"
"It ... it was part of the report. I informed you, Illustrissimi, that Seur Aungelique is the cousin of le Duc de Parcignonne," Pere Guibert answered, his discomfort increasing unpleasantly. "I did not intend to ... to misrepresent her to you, Illustrissimi. But her father has shown no interest in her beyond placing her at the convent and le Duc is often present, and thus, as you may expect, I assume that she had been made his ward, or some similar arrangement. Mere Jacinthe, the old Superior who died last winter, she made no disposal either way to me, and it was natural that I ... that I..." He forced himself to stop babbling. "Of course I should have made it clear that Seur Aungelique is d'Ybert's daughter."
"Indeed you should," the Cardinal agreed, not as dauntingly as Pere Guibert feared he might. "And you, Swiss?"
Padre Bartolimieu coughed once. "I have only recently attended the nuns, at the request of Pere Guibert. I do not know them well." He disliked his cringing answer, but could not change it. The Cardinal terrified him more the longer they were in his presence.
"The Swiss always equivocate," Cardinal Belroche declared, leaning back and pointing to two low benches not far from his writing table. "Sit down, priests. I will hear you out."
"May God bless you for this," Padre Bartolimieu said and intercepted a critical glance from Pere Guibert.
"Naturally," Cardinal Belroche said. "I would prefer He eliminate the Romans, but God does not always bless us in the way we choose."
Pere Guibert stopped the rebuke before he uttered it; he was shocked to hear a Prince of the Church speak with such blatant cynicism. Instead he said, "It is not for us to question God's Will."
"Sadly not," said the Cardinal. "And in the meantime, there are these demons, or Romans, or other agents of the Devil."
"And we must be rid of them," Padre Bartolimieu said, the depth of his loathing in his voice. "They are worse than anything. The nuns are lost to all propriety and decency."
"The demons cause them to be wild and lascivious, your message indicates." Cardinal Belroche sighed.
"That is so," Pere Guibert said, doing his best to keep a properly respectful attitude toward the Cardinal. He was already convinced that their errand had been in vain. "We have seen the distress it causes the nuns and we wish to do all that we may to rid them of this terrible affliction."
"Yes, that's clear enough," the Cardinal said. "But you must understand my predicament, good Pere. You have a few souls to concern you, while we in Avignon have the fate of the world in our laps. If this were a case of Roman intervention, then it might be that we could spare you assistance, but as it is..." He shrugged.
Padre Bartolimieu at last voiced his deepest fears. "But you've warned us that the Romans are the servants and tools of the Devil. So it may be that they have called the Devil and sent his demons and imps to torment worthy and dedicated Christians so that they may lose faith and turn away from God." He was breathing more unevenly when he finished, but he felt a degree of satisfaction. "God will not permit us to do nothing and then seek the rewards of Paradise."
Cardinal Belroche raised his shaggy eyebrows. "You've had some schooling, haven't you, Padre? And you believe that you may challenge Avignon in this way? You are not very wise, for all your learning."
"I did not ... mean to challenge you, Illustrissimi." He looked toward the floor, smarting with acute embarrassment.
The Cardinal snorted, then went on. "Still, it may be that you have discovered some new incursion, and it would not be proper for us to ignore it entirely. That way lies defeat."
"Yes, that is what I feared," Pere Guibert seconded him, glad to find an opportunity to take advantage of the Cardinal's good will.
"Not as I have feared it, but in your way, you have some little concept of what threatens us, I suppose." The Cardinal lifted up the vellum and peered at it. "I cannot spare you much. If it were possible to give you more aid, then it would be done, but you realize that we are cautious men here." He crossed himself. "God guides our hand, and we are His servants."
The two priests made the sign of the cross, waiting to hear what the Cardinal had decided.
"There is a bishop, recently elevated to his office, whose town was most harshly treated by the heretics not so long ago. He is dedicated to the eradication of the evil Rome has visited on us, and will be able, perhaps, to assist you in dealing with the Sisters." He cleared his throat. "The man is eveque Amalrie Tordrer, and I will send my page to him this evening, so that arrangements may be made to begin this ... investigation. If a full Process is warranted, it will be for eveque Amalrie to decide."
Pere Guibert was on his feet before Cardinal Belroche had finished. "Oh, a thousand thanks, Illustrissimi. We are grateful to you, more than you will know, for it is what we had hoped for." He fell to his knees, crossed himself, and began to pray.
"My page will show you to the chapel, where you may return thanks to God more properly," Cardinal Belroche said hastily. "It is commendable that you display your humility, but your words are for God."
As he looked up, Pere Guibert had tears in his eyes. "You are His instrument, Illustrissimi, and it is fitting that you should know how indebted we are to you."
"It is for the Church that this is being done," Cardinal Belroche said impatiently. "Both of you are aware of that." He gestured for them to depart, and endured the ritual of his ring being kissed with ill humor. "Be on guard for men from Rome, good priests. They trouble me far more than a few nuns who scream in the night."
"Yes. Of course," Padre Bartolimieu promised, adding to Pere Guibert as they left the Cardinal's apartments and passed the armed guards, "It may be that he is correct in his assessment. You and I, mon Pere, have been so close that we cannot see all that the Church must contend with. We may have permitted ourselves to act precipitously."
Pere Guibert frowned at the other man. "It hardly matters now, does it, since it will be for eveque Amalrie to determine if there is a demon." He walked a little faster, annoyed at himself for being irritated by the Cardinal. It was impossible for him to believe that Belroche was truly indifferent, no matter how he had behaved. "Whatever problems beset the Church," he said, hoping to convince himself, "they must be grave; otherwise our message would have been given more attention."
Behind him, Padre Bartolimieu shuddered. "Be grateful for our insignificance, mon Pere. It has saved us as surely as la Virge died chaste."
* * * *
eveque Amalrie was younger than Pere Guibert had expected him to be - hardly more than thirty, with a smooth, moon face that was marred by high, disdainful eyebrows and an arch of his small lips that hinted at unsatisfied appetites. He met Pere Guibert and Padre Bartolimieu the day after they had spoken to Cardinal Belroche, in the ambulatory of la Eglise de Saunt Antoine not far from the Papal palace.
"I will bring a page with me, and Frere Renaut to record what we learn. There will be a wagon ready to take my suite the day after tomorrow, if that is soon enough for you?" The brows rose even higher.
"We will accommodate you as we may, mon eveque," Padre Bartolimieu assured him without looking at Pere Guibert. "It is an honor that a man of your high rank should condescend to aid us in your travail. The Sisters, I know, will extend grateful prayers upon arrival."
The Bishop pouted. "I had hoped to aid Avignon here, where there is so much intrigue and turmoil. But Cardinal Belroche and Pope Clement have ruled otherwise and I am obedient to their wishes." He paused for a moment. "I have read the message you sent to the Cardinal concerning the troubles at the convent."
"We are sad to have caused you any distress," Padre Bartolimieu said, wishing there were a way he could stop his tongue from such betrayal; he did not like the young Bishop, but he still deferred to him.
"Any fall from the grace of God must cause me distress," he said, and turned to Pere Guibert. "You are silent, mon Pere. Is there anything you wish to tell me, or have you fallen into reverie, as the heroes of old were said to do?"
Pere Guibert shook his head. "Your forgiveness, mon eveque. I was concerned for the nuns. We have been gone several days and it troubles me that they should be left alone for so long when they have endured so much already."
"Very wise. Women are subject to visitations of the spirit more than men, and they are not strong in reason. You have doubtless encountered much difficulty because of their natures. You must not forget that when in sin, they are subtle and sly, indulging their vices because they delight in repeating the errors of Mother Eve." He folded his hands in front of him. "The wise man remembers this when dealing with women."
"These are sincere nuns, most of them," Pere Guibert said, wanting to defend them without contradicting eveque Amalrie.
"It is for the shame of their sex that they become religious. We must be very careful not to deter them from their devotions, for it is the only way a woman may bring her soul to bliss. They must cast off their sex for the sake of Christ and Paradise." He walked on in silence, letting the two priests trail behind him. "Young as I am, I have learned something of the nature of woman, and I am prepared to counter any wrongs I find."
"They wish to live in accord with their Order," Pere Guibert said, watching Padre Bartolimieu and waiting to hear the Swiss priest attempt to curry favor with eveque Amalrie.
"We will encourage them in this and we will root out the Devil, if Devil there is." The Bishop was satisfied at that pronouncement, and turned back to the priests. "I will want to consult with you every evening, so that we may compare all we have heard and seen, and know that we are not being caught in the wiles of the Devil through enchantment and glamour."
"As you wish," Pere Guibert said at his most neutral.
"It will be great instruction to hear you, mon eveque," Padre Bartolimieu said with an emotion similar to fervor. "I know your learning and piety will guide us in our investigations, and for that we are truly and humbly thankful that God has seen fit to send you to us." He came a step closer. "There are those who think we are too apprehensive and too severe on the women of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, but you will see when we arrive how much has occurred and what it has done to the Sisters. They are unfortunates and we have not the vision to cast out the Devil and reprimand the sinner as you will do."
"Yes," eveque Amalrie said, beaming at Padre Bartolimieu. "Doubtless that is why Cardinal Belroche and Pope Clement selected me for this work. Not every man in Orders is capable of an investigation. Some of us are gifted in these matters, and the burden of such inquiries falls upon them." He lowered his head. "Be sure, good Fathers, that I will be vigilant and stern, for all my youth. There is no one at the convent who will escape my notice, and no vice that will go undiscovered. For that, God be blessed and praised, for He gives the victory to those who are His most humble servants and devoted children."
"Amen," Padre Bartolimieu said, crossing himself along with the Bishop.
Pere Guibert made the sign of the cross in silence.
* * * *
Seur Odile was warder Sister when the priests with the young Bishop and his two attendants returned from Avignon. She watched them approach the convent with curiosity and doubt, fearing that she might be wrong in what she saw. Her mind was weary from lack of sleep, and there had been another disturbance when the nuns had gathered in the refectory to break their fasts.
"God be with you, ma Fille," Pere Guibert said as he left the wagon and came to the grille.
"And with your spirit, mon Pere," she said in a rush. "I will tell Mere Leonie that you are here. She will be grateful that you have returned." She caught a sob and attempted to turn it into a cough.
"What troubles you, ma Fille? Is there more difficulty?" He knew this woman and was certain she would not invent problems where they did not exist.
"Yes, mon Pere," she whispered. "Since you left, it has been worse." She paused, aware she had exceeded her authority in saying so much, but not willing to keep silent. "I will pray for an end to my sins, mon Pere."
"May God grant your prayers, ma Fille. Inform Mere Leonie that we have brought aid. eveque Amalrie, from Flanders, has been sent by Cardinal Belroche and Pope Clement to help us." He was able to say this without much feeling, though the time he had passed with eveque Amalrie had convinced him that the young man was more committed to his political ambitions within the Church than to the well being of a small convent and its nuns.
"God shows us grace at last," Seur Odile exclaimed. "A Bishop to help us. Mere Leonie will be filled with joy to learn this."
"Excellent," Padre Bartolimieu exclaimed. "It is well when nuns accommodate the superior understanding of men in Orders." He turned toward Pere Guibert. "Is that not so, mon Pere?"
Padre Bartolimieu's sycophancy toward eveque Amalrie had become increasingly irritating to Pere Guibert, so that it was difficult for him to give the briefest of answers without being uncivil. "It is the teaching of the Church," he said in an emotionless voice.
"And for that we must thank God," Padre Bartolimieu said, growing more enthusiastic, "for it was God and the Savior who founded the Church and gave authority to the Popes to rule in Their Holy Names." He had not looked at the Bishop, but now he could not contain himself. He smiled at the round-faced young man. "God has shown wonders in His works, has He not?"
"And so has the Devil," was eveque Amalrie's answer. "That is why we are here, and we must be on guard against all the lies and subterfuge that the Devil has given to his servants to use against the servants of God." He stood in the wagon, the curtains pulled aside, and he glared at the doors of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. "It is for us to determine what evil has been done here, and to bring it to an end, so that the nuns will no longer be troubled and God will be served as He wishes to be."
The two priests nodded, but not with the same motive. Pere Guibert wanted only to be left alone with the Sisters he had been given charge of and was now in danger of losing. "I will be pleased when this is resolved," he remarked.
"As will we all," eveque Amalrie said, his mouth turning down, making him look like a baby about to have a tantrum. "And we will determine who is responsible for this outrage. That is essential. For then the Holy Father in Avignon will know how it is that the Devil works against him, and who has given the Enemy of God aid and refuge." His eyes raked over the two priests. "And if nothing has occurred that warrants this attention, then those who have distracted the Church from its duties will feel the wrath of the Church: be sure of that."
He had been making such grim pronouncements since they left Avignon, and Pere Guibert had stopped listening to them. Padre Bartolimieu, however, had taken to echoing them, as he did now. "Yes; when Pere Guibert came to me, I did not wish to have this known, for it would take men from the Church who would better be serving her in her battle against Rome. My concern was that this, too, might be linked to Rome, and so I consented to aid him."
"So you have said," eveque Amalrie responded in quelling tones.
Padre Bartolimieu might have gone on, but there was the sound of the bolt being lifted, and the huge doors swung open.
Instead of the usual dozen or more Sisters that greeted new arrivals, this time there were a mere four, and one of them was the Superior.
Mere Leonie appeared to be haggard and elated at once; her handsome features were sharpened, as if with fasting, and she moved with her accustomed vigor, but not as quickly as before. "Be welcome in the name of Our Lord," she said as she came up to the wagon. "Things ... have gone poorly here, good Fathers, and many of us are tired from our labors."
"Is it bad, ma Fille?" Pere Guibert asked, for once grateful for her strength of character.
"There are times when Our Lord is mightily tried," she answered, and turned to kneel to the Bishop. "We are honored that one of your station should be willing to come to the aid of such insignificant women as we are."
eveque Amalrie leaned down from the wagon, extending his hand with his Episcopal ring to her. "It is my responsibility, ma Mere, to serve where God and the Pope send me to magnify the Glory of God." His bland features were set in a disapproving expression as he permitted her lips to brush the ring.
Padre Bartolimieu got down from the wagon and signaled to the recording monk and the page to prepare steps for eveque Amalrie. "If the Devil has caused more depravity, then it must be ended at once," he announced, with a covert look at the Bishop.
"We have striven to keep order here. Our Rule does not permit chastisement with rods, or the most obstinate would have felt them by now," Mere Leonie said, watching the Bishop preparing to get down.
"And le Duc?" Pere Guibert asked. "Are he and his men still here?"
"They are." Her satisfaction was not entirely disguised from the priests. "Le Duc has said he will remain as long as there is need." She stepped back to give eveque Amalrie plenty of room to step down. "With such guards as all these, what will become of the demons?"
"They will be sent to Hell," eveque Amalrie said, halting on the second step that had been lowered for him. He had folded his hands under his scapular, refusing the steadying hand that Frere Renaut offered.
"Where they belong," Padre Bartolimieu seconded him. "And if it is caprice, the Sisters will suffer for it."
"My Sisters have been much put upon already, mon Padre," Mere Leonie said, and though she averted her eyes, there was a challenge in what she said. "I would not want them to suffer unnecessarily."
"As any Superior would not; it would cast a bad light on her leadership," eveque Amalrie declared as he reached the ground. He was not quite as tall as Mere Leonie, and this distressed him. He glared at her. "Pride is the greatest sin of all, ma Fille, even when it is for the honor of one's Order."
Mere Leonie turned toward him. "Pride is a great sin. But protection is not, is it, mon Berger?" She used his pastoral title submissively but deliberately. "We who are given the souls of others into our care must guide them in the Name of Our Lord so that they are not disgraced or maligned."
"There may be demons here," eveque Amalrie said in his most disapproving tone.
"And if there are, I must do all that is demanded of me to see that they are routed," Padre Bartolimieu interrupted, coming along side of the Bishop. "You have fired me with zeal, mon eveque," he went on, deliberately ignoring the tug on his sleeve that Pere Guibert gave as a warning. "When I thought of returning here, I was faint of heart, but your homilies and lessons as we traveled showed to me the strength of the Church and the wisdom of Cardinal Belroche who sent you, and I have regained my courage from you."
Mere Leonie had signaled to Seur Philomine, who went to the heads of the mules that pulled the wagon. "She will see they are stabled, fed, and watered. Harness and tack should be put in the antechamber to the vestibule. If you need help, Seur Elvire or Seur Tiennette may be asked for it. They are still relatively able to work."
Seur Ranegonde, who had watched all this in awed silence, suddenly dropped to her knees, turning her face up toward eveque Amalrie. Her thin cheeks were stained with fever and her sunken eyes were glazed to brightness. "Praise God that you are here, to give us your protection," she said as she seized the Bishop's hand and kissed his ring.
"You overstep yourself, ma Fille," he said stiffly.
"In another instance, I know that, mon Sieur. I know that you are above me in all things, but for that I look to you to banish the evil that has come here." She waited, and when there was no further rebuke, went on. "I believe you are the one who will show us how to escape from the clutches of the dreadful thing that has come here. You are graced and advanced, and we must heed you, no matter what foulness has entered our hearts, and in hearing you, we will be saved." She kissed his ring once more.
"Seur Ranegonde," Mere Leonie said when she could safely interrupt the frail nun in her outpouring. "You may retire to the chapel to pray until Vespers summons you to join us in our devotions."
Seur Ranegonde lowered her head. "I ... I hasten to obey you, ma Mere," she whispered, then got awkwardly to her feet and retreated rapidly, rushing almost eagerly into the corridor that led to the chapel.
"Are they all so ... distraught?" eveque Amalrie asked once Seur Ranegonde was gone.
"Some are affected in different ways," Mere Leonie answered with unusual caution. "A few do not appear to be under the influence of any demon or derangement of mind. Most, however, have fallen to the spell of ... whatever has cast it." She looked at Pere Guibert. "Since you have been gone, it has been much worse. While you were here, many of the Sisters were able to fight the feeling that this ... thing engenders, but now, well, I have done what I can."
"Ma Fille," Pere Guibert said with genuine concern, "you must not hold yourself to blame. If there are demons here - "
"If there are demons here," eveque Amalrie declared loudly, "then it is for us to cast them out, as the Savior cast out demons when He walked among us, for He has given to His Church the rights and powers to work His miracles. If you are simply foolish women, in the toils of the deception natural to your sex, then you will be treated in other ways, but until that is proven, it must be assumed that the Devil has come here to plague you." This grudging admission was spat out, and eveque Amalrie pointedly turned away from Mere Leonie to his recording monk, Frere Renaut, saying more easily, "I will begin to hear confessions after Vespers. You will be with me, to write down all that you hear. If we discover any true demonic influence, you must aid me in exorcism."
Frere Renaut bowed his head. "As you wish, mon eveque."
"You are bound by the rule of the confessional, unless it is revealed that the Devil is at work here, and then it will be required of you to reveal to Cardinal Belroche what you heard and recorded." He looked back once at Mere Leonie. "If I decide that it is prudent, you will hear confessions with me, ma Fille."
Everyone in the courtyard knew how irregular these orders were, but all of them acquiesced. "If you require that of me, mon Berger, I will accommodate you." She made another sign to Seur Philomine, who had finished unharnessing the mules from the wagon. "You have heard the words of the Bishop, Seur Philomine, and my answer."
Startled, Seur Philomine looked up. "Yes, ma Mere?"
"Remember what you heard, Seur Philomine, and testify to it, if Cardinal Belroche or Cardinal Seulfleuve demands it." The smile she gave the priests and eveque Amalrie was all sweetness. "There. Now we all have made adequate preparation."
eveque Amalrie's mouth pursed more tightly. "Very wise, ma Fille. You are most circumspect."
"In these times, I must be, if I am to serve Our Lord." She genuflected to the young Bishop, then rose, indicating the corridor Seur Ranegonde had used. "Will you not enter, good prelates, and give us the benefit of your succor and wisdom?"
"You are insolent, ma Fille," eveque Amalrie accused her.
"I? Toward you? What sort of nun would I be if that were so?" She stood aside so that the two priests, the Bishop, the monk and the page could precede her out of the sunlight.
* * * *
As he put down his earthenware cup, eveque Amalrie said, "I am shamed, shamed by what I have heard. There is such debauchery and concupiscence among these nuns that it is a discredit to the Church and the Pope that this convent exists." He rubbed his hands together, then reached for the subtiltie that Seur Tiennette had made for him. He picked one of the juniper berries off it and pressed it between thumb and forefinger so the its sharp scent was released. "I have heard over twenty confessions, each more disgusting than the last."
Pere Guibert watched the Bishop carefully. "It is a dreadful thing that these Sisters should be made the victims of demons."
"Made the victim of? Rather invited, if what I have heard is the truth. They revel in their degradation and beg for more." He licked his lips slowly, then had another draught of the acidic wine made in Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur.
"That may be the case with Seur Aungelique," Pere Guibert said slowly. "I cannot believe it of the others, who have resisted the demon with all their mights until they have become so worn down and discouraged that they have been subjected to the forces of the Devil in their defeat."
eveque Amalrie nodded, licking his fingers as he did. "It is well that you defend them, mon Pere. You have been their confessor for so long that you may have not seen how much their piety has been replaced by the lasciviousness that marks them now. I heard Seur ... Catant? Yes, that was her name, Catant, who is filled with strictures against her Sisters, reveal that when she has retired for the night, a great, shapeless being like an enormous black bird comes to her and gouges her flesh with his talons before ravishing her with utmost brutality." He finished his wine, and licked his lips.
"Seur Catant is ... a difficult woman, mon eveque. She has faced many disappointments in her life and I fear that the convent is one of them. Her father was a scholar of some repute who had taken her with him to Paris and to Genoa while she was a child, and she was used to the company of learned men. Then the Plague came, and she was sent to her aunt in Anjou, who had no use for another girl, and so left her to her own devices. The only man who offered for her was a merchant, and her aunt decided it would be best if she gave one of her own daughters to the merchant instead of her niece. Seur Catant came to the convent shortly after that, and said once that she wished to study. It has not been possible, and she has been at a disadvantage ever since." He looked at eveque Amalrie, hoping to see some touch of sympathy in the young man's demeanor. None appeared.
"It is not for women with a true vocation to question what the Order requires of them. It is for the Church to determine how nuns are to spend their days. It is presumptuous and improper for a nun to behave as she has; I am not surprised that the Devil has found her a vessel for his purposes." The Bishop gave a satisfied smile. "I have not heard all the confessions yet, but when I do, I am certain it will be plain that you were right, and that demons have come here. Cardinal Belroche will be informed, and Frere Renaut will send messages for us as we progress." He made the sign of the cross over the remains of his meal. "For the time being, we will order the hospice closed, and send warning to the taverns and inns along the way to tell travelers that they must not come here, for there is great danger."
Pere Guibert hesitated before he responded to this new order. "If you believe that is best, then..."
eveque Amalrie nodded again. "And I have told Duc Pierre that it would be best if he and his men-at-arms leave. With the women here so given to the lusts of the flesh, it would be best if there are no more men to tempt them. The men-at-arms are constant lures to them, and we cannot permit the women to indulge themselves in such fancies, for it gives access to the Devil." He stood up, smiling complacently. "We have much to do here."
"Yes, mon eveque," Pere Guibert murmured, thinking that although it was contrary to the regular conduct of such an investigation, he had better warn Mere Leonie of eveque Amalrie's plans.
"I will need to speak to Padre Bartolimieu. An admirable man, though limited, of course. He depends on the leadership of others, which is as it should be, but he is not willing to exercise his own judgment without supervision, which is regrettable. Still, he is preferable to a priest who cannot see the dangers here, and is more devoted to the nuns than to God."
Pere Guibert bowed his head in acceptance of his undisguised criticism. "I have done the duty the Church has given me. If I have erred, it is not for lack of faith, but for care of my flock."
"Naturally. But it has made you shortsighted. You have heard the confessions of the nuns and have yet to see how debased they have become. It is because you have spent so long with them that you have not seen for yourself how much they have altered from the good Sisters they were. Now that you have others to guide you, no doubt you will be more alert." He started toward the door, then paused. "I do not think it would be wise to explain too much to le Duc. You know how the nobility can be: he will want reasons that a soldier may understand and we cannot provide that. He knows the hazards of desire, I would think. That will suffice."
"As you think best, mon eveque," Pere Guibert said, feeling very tired.
"There are those who would try to leave here as soon as might be, and abandon the nuns to their fate. But they are in need of correction, much in need of it, and the man who can lead them again to the grace of God will have much to recommend him in the Church." He blessed Pere Guibert in a casual way. "Be certain, mon Fils, that I will be thorough in my examination."
"I did not think otherwise, eveque," Pere Guibert said, not entirely able to hide his disgust of the man.
eveque Amalrie chose to believe it was the plight of the nuns that caused him to show such an expression. "If it is too repugnant to you, you are excused from the proceedings, Pere Guibert."
It was tempting to accept this offer, but he knew if he did that the nuns would be entirely at the mercy of this ambitious and ruthless young man. "No. They have been my responsibility and they continue to be. I will listen to what they say and hear your evaluations."
"If that is what you wish ... I intended only to spare you pain." The Bishop folded his arms.
"I did not think God or the Church existed to spare us pain," Pere Guibert countered, his annoyance mildly expressed so that eveque Amalrie could not challenge him. "I will pray for guidance and for clear vision."
"God and His Angels send you good council," eveque Amalrie said brusquely. Without waiting for Pere Guibert's "Amen", he left the refectory, walking more quickly than usual.
Pere Guibert sat alone, his appetite gone and his heart constricted within him, as if held in a mailed fist.
* * * *
With a faint whistle, the lash fell, striking the pale flesh with a slap that was loud in the chapel. Seur Odile gasped and steeled herself to endure the next nine blows.
"You must understand, ma Fille," Padre Bartolimieu told her softly, "that this is not to punish you, but to drive the demons from your body so that you will not have to suffer greater pains in this world, or the next. If the demons can be driven out, there will be no Process, and no burnings."
"Deo gratias," Seur Odile whimpered as the next blow struck. She felt tears on her face and wished her hands were free so that she could wipe them away. But eveque Amalrie's page held them firmly, a constant reminder that her struggles would be noted and would be construed as resistance to this correction. She wanted to faint.
"You have permitted demons to enter your flesh, haven't you?" Padre Bartolimieu asked as the lash bit for the third time.
"I ... I did not mean for it to happen." She was panting now, and her words came out in a rush so that she would not scream.
"No one means for such calamity to happen to them, ma Fille," Padre Bartolimieu said sternly. "That is why we must be vigilant and examine the state of our souls at all times. You do not expect the Devil to announce himself, do you? What good Christian would accept his advance? The Devil is subtle, and he changes you in ways that you cannot see or feel, except that you turn from grace and seek vice."
"I did not seek vice," Seur Odile insisted. There were six more stripes to go. She could feel the sweat on the page's hands as he held her.
"But you allowed it to use you," Padre Bartolimieu reminded her. "Think of the sins you have indulged in, and what they have done to you. You confessed that you felt a monstrous man possess you."
"I took no pleasure," she objected.
"Do you hear yourself? You are defending your lapses; the Devil has turned you away from humility and made you stiff-necked. Be grateful that we do not add more days to your fasting or blows to your chastisements."
She could not keep the wail from her voice now, nor did she try. "Pere Guibert never required fasting and lashes of us."
"For which he was seriously lax. Had he been more demanding of you, this would not be necessary." Padre Bartolimieu turned his head quickly at the sound of a step in the door. "Mon eveque!"
"Padre Bartolimieu," the young Bishop said, staring down at Seur Odile naked and prone on the stone floor. "What progress?"
"This is the third one today, and she is not as submissive as the first two. I have three more blows to deliver before the allotted ten have been administered. Still she maintains that the Devil came to her without her knowledge."
"Is that so, ma Fille?" eveque Amalrie asked, coming closer to Seur Odile.
"I have prayed to God to show me how I fell, and there has been nothing to guide me, mon Berger." She stopped, letting the sobs come.
"Then you must be doubly grateful for your chastisement that will cleanse your soul and show you your error at last." He cleared his throat. "Another five lashes, beyond the ten, should assist her. I will watch, to see what happens and to listen to her. It may be that the Devil will speak through her."
Padre Bartolimieu delivered the next two blows in silence, paying no attention to the muffled shrieks that Seur Odile gave. "There are nine given, and you see that she has started to bleed. Shall it be one more, mon eveque, or six?"
"Six, I think. If we falter now, God will see that we lack purpose." He folded his hands and observed her. "Strange that there are no postulants here. Where there are demons, there are usually postulants."
"The Plague was very bad, and there are not many young women left to enter Orders. A convent as remote as this one does not attract those from any distance. This is not like Avignon, where the daughters of noblemen come for the privilege of serving in any convent." He lifted the lash and brought it down with more force than before and was rewarded with a scream.
"That is better, mon Fils. You must not be lenient, or the Devil will have the victory." eveque Amalrie bent over slightly. "Ma Fille, do you still persist in your error?"
It was almost impossible for Seur Odile to speak. Her words were slurred and came in breathless clusters. "I am ... thankful that this ... is my reward and ... not the fires of Hell ... mon Berger."
"Ah. You are learning wisdom. When the next five blows are over, you will be prepared to make a full confession. Forget no nastiness, ma Fille. You must reveal all that the demon did and said, all the indignities he heaped on your flesh. It was a male, was it not?"
"Yes. Yes!" she cried out.
"Not a female, to wrest all your chastity from you in forbidden ways?" He sounded more disappointed than curious. "Have you been spared that, or do you seek to deny the whole of your debauchery?"
"No women," Seur Odile protested. "What could a woman do?"
"That is something," eveque Amalrie said to Padre Bartolimieu. "We have reason to be grateful to la Virge, it would seem. The next five blows, mon Padre? Not too gently, I think."
"Yes, mon eveque," Padre Bartolimieu said, not quite smiling.
* * * *
Pierre scowled at the sealed letter Pere Guibert held out to him. "Why do you not present it yourself, mon Pere?"
"I am afraid of what might happen here if I leave," the priest answered nervously. "eveque Amalrie and Padre Bartolimieu are very ... strict in their reprimands and their methods. I ... I wish Cardinal Seulfleuve to know of it."
"Not Cardinal Belroche?" Pierre demanded, his hands braced on his hips. "It is not my wish to leave at all, mon Pere, and still less my desire to be embroiled in the feuds of clerics."
"This is not a feud!" Pere Guibert snapped, hoping that he was telling the truth. "The nuns here are being treated harshly. You know that. You saw how they've used Seur Aungelique, and you know that no matter what she has done, she does not deserve that." He held the letter more emphatically. "She is your kinswoman, she is without vocation, and she has been made to suffer."
"That's true enough," Pierre said with a sigh. "This is a strange place, mon Pere." He looked at the high, white walls. "You believe that this is going too far, even if there are demons?" He shuddered at last.
"Does a fighting man like yourself fear demons?" Pere Guibert chided him.
"Not before, but now ... There are demons here, or so I have come to think. They should be got rid of. They should be driven ... driven..." He did not finish his thought.
"But not at the cost of all the nuns, surely," Pere Guibert said, striving to keep a reasonable tone. He knew it would not be a credit to his vocation if he showed himself to be distraught before this nobleman. "They are helpless creatures, women, without the means to save themselves from the predations of Hell. That has been the teaching we have followed since the founding of the Church, and the wisdom of it is all around us, where we see how women may be influenced by others more easily than men, to whom God gave His guidance from the first. But we who have been given the task of caring for them may do things as harmful as neglect or punishment if we do not use them as they ought to be used."
"Use them. Well, if they are subject to demons, they are used, and in ways that are far from God's guidance. Anyone who has dealt with demons knows that." Pierre shook his head, the scar becoming a ragged shadow across his face. "What do you ask of Cardinal Seulfleuve?"
"That he take time to discover what eveque Amalrie has ordered, and how he has proceeded here. If the Cardinal agrees, I will accept the whipping and fastings and I will listen to confession with a calm heart. I do not accuse anyone of anything wrong or abusive. I express only my doubts at the force of the methods employed to obtain the confessions. Where there are demons and the nuns desire them, then racking is most certainly proper, but there is yet no proof that the nuns called up the demons to love them. I know this place, mon Duc. I know that it is a place of fears and dreams, and it may be that these nuns, more the slaves of their humors than men, have become confused in their dreams. Even I, upon occasion, have had such dreams here as would make me tremble if such things were truly happening to me. Such an angelic youth has come to me, and abused himself and me that the grace that shone from his features was turned to the lurid flames of Hell. If I, a priest, may be so disordered, what may we think of the nuns, whose reason is not strong and who have come to look upon themselves as under the attack of hellish messengers?" He paused, looking closely at Pierre. "Do you believe they have called up demons?"
"Not ... not that, no." He coughed. "Any man does dream here..." He was able to speak more firmly as he reached out for the letter. "But demons will come, if they find your weakness, won't they, mon Pere? They know where we are troubled and weak and open to them, and they will come."
"But to confess their intervention where it is lacking is a grave sin," Pere Guibert reminded him. "It is wrong to abuse the grace of God in such a way."
As Pierre took the letter, he flushed. "I will deliver this, mon Pere, but I will say nothing; this is a matter for clerics, not fighting men."
Pere Guibert frowned, sensing more than the usual reluctance in his warning. "Mon Fils, are you troubled? Is something the matter?"
"Nothing that concerns you, mon Pere." Pierre straightened up, tugging at his belt as he did. "Dreams are only that, and what we see in them are naught but the fumes of the brain. Visions are sent by God, and demons rend the flesh as proof of their lusts." He repeated his old lessons with confidence, reassured by the words themselves. "I will give your letter to Cardinal Seulfleuve, my word upon it. And when it is permitted, I will return again. There are matters that must be decided here, and they are of importance to my House as well as to the Church. As you say, they are not treating my kinswoman well, and that demands my attention."
"I am grateful and will remember your act in my prayers, Sieur le Duc." He tried to find a better way to express his appreciation, but there was nothing he could do or say that would be correct in such a situation as this one.
"I am grateful, as well. It will be done as you wish, but I will not interfere with what others have done, not without the authority of the Cardinal to guide me, for God did not make me to serve Him, but His Church and le Roi."
"That is acceptable to me, mon Fils," Pere Guibert said, thinking that it was less than he had hoped but more than he had expected. "I will pray for you and ask that God grant you a swift journey."
"My thanks for that, mon Pere," Pierre said as he tucked the letter into his belt. "No one shall take this without my knowing of it."
"Good." There should have been something more he might say, but Pere Guibert could think of nothing. He made the sign of the cross and went back toward Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion.
"Must we leave?" Tristan asked as he came up behind Pierre.
Le Duc jumped, as though he had been wakened from a dream. "Ah! You. What was it you asked?"
"I asked if we must leave," Tristan repeated.
Pierre fidgeted. "I fear we have been told to go, and there is no reason to dispute the orders. What is wrong here ... " - he shuddered as he searched for words - "does not need force of arms, but something else. I will not let the priest keep us ... waiting on their pleasure."
Tristan did not speak at once. "And the matter I mentioned to you?"
"The woman?" Pierre asked quickly.
"Yes. Philomine." Tristan did not press further while Pierre glowered down at his boots.
"I know why you want to take her away from here. I don't blame you for it, Courtenay. But if you took her now, while that eveque Amalrie is still in charge here, it would be the worse for the both of you. It would appear that she was carrying the demon with her, and that you were its servant." He strode toward his horse, glad to move, to have the illusion of action if not the reality. "You would bring suspicion on her."
Tristan nodded, though Pierre did not see him. "I will need a little time to tell her. She had hoped to be gone from here by this evening." He did not bother to argue further with le Duc, for he had seen that expression in his eyes before and knew it brooked no dispute.
"You may have a little time. We will wait for you," Pierre called back to him as he prepared to mount.
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