Comtesse Orienne held out her gauntleted hand and offered the hooded-and-jessed gyrfalcon to Pierre. "See. Isn't he a pretty darling?"
"Very nice. When do you fly him?" Pierre was tiring of the banter which Comtesse Orienne had indulged in since his arrival the night before. "Are you hawking today?"
"No, I don't think so. It's windy, and that makes the birds so wild." She let her eyes rove over him, not quite caressing him. "Another time, Sieur le Duc?"
"Another time," he said, shifting in the saddle. "I have to speak to you seriously, Orienne." His tone had become heavy with his words. "I am charged to speak with you."
She laughed. "Oh? By whom? Have I offended one of your fellow Ducs, or have the powers that be in Avignon decided to put me out of sight again for a while?"
"It is not so simple as that." He stared at the gyrfalcon.
"Not your tiresome little cousin, surely?" She pretended to be weary of the matter and kept her tone bantering, but under her words were the first stirrings of apprehension. It was not like Pierre to be distant with her.
"No. She is once again at the convent, and her father is determined she should stay there ... Unless she cooperates." He knew that he should not discuss Aungelique with Orienne, but prudence gave way to his inner sense of failure. "I have tried to convince, well, both of them to bend a little - "
"You? Suing for moderation? Pierre!" She laughed again, deep in her throat like a purr. "A new experience for you."
"Not as new as you might think. I have that office with you now, and not because you sheltered Aungelique."
"I should hardly call it sheltering." She nudged her horse to move forward, shifting in the saddle so that her skirts would continue to cover her legs, though she wore leggings to keep the leather from chafing.
Pierre followed her, since they were on her land. "I am charged by Cardinal Belroche to ask you certain questions."
"Par Dieu! You sound so dire, Pierre." She held her mount to a walk so that the gyrfalcon would not be disturbed on his perch. "He is in a temper today, my pretty Cupid here. He sulks."
"You will listen to me!" Pierre shouted at her. "Stop dallying with that infernal bird and listen to me, Orienne!" If he had not been on horseback, he would have stridden to her and shaken her well for her obstinate refusal to be somber.
"You seem to be sulky, too, Pierre," she called over her shoulder. "Wait until we are back at my chateau, and then you may rail at me all you wish. Once I've taken Cupid to the mews, that is." She tossed her head and began to sing, sounding like a carefree girl while her thoughts turned toward the trouble she might be embroiled in.
Behind her, Pierre accepted her demands for the moment, letting her horse set the pace for them both, while he tried to marshal his arguments for their confrontation - for confrontation it would surely be, he told himself grimly.
Two grooms hurried out of the stable at their approach, and waited to help Orienne and Pierre to dismount. They steadied the horses and held the massive stirrups for the pair, and then led the horses away.
Walking toward the garden where her bath was located, Orienne at last gave some of her attention to Pierre. "As soon as Jaques takes Cupid, I will hear you out. But tell me what we are to argue about, Pierre." She had considered many possibilities, and none of them pleased her.
"First be rid of that bird," he responded brusquely. "Then cast your mind back to your more recent ... entertainments."
"Very well." It was not as bad as her worst fears, then. Her heart steadied. "To any particular event or person, or simply the entertainments themselves?"
They entered the garden and were met by a page who held out his gauntleted hand for the gyrfalcon to bear him away to the mews.
"Take good care of him. He is not very sweet today," Orienne cautioned the boy. "One of my pages got careless and treated another of my falcons roughly. The bird took one of his eyes out before we could help the poor lad." She laughed merrily. "It was amusing to watch him flailing about with his arms and screaming as loud as the bird while the talons were at his face."
"Don't think you will distract me with anecdotes," Pierre said, his attitude bordering on surly now. He recognized his need and weakness for this woman and he resented it as intensely as he reveled in their lovemaking when she granted him access to her body.
The garden shimmered with sunlight and the wild orchards beyond were spangled with blossoms. The fresh breeze was filled with their fragrance and the rich smells of newly-turned earth. Bees and butterflies drowsed among the flowers, and in the far corner of the garden near the wall, one of Orienne's ferrets was killing a field mouse.
Orienne indicated a bench near her shell-shaped bath. "Come. Let us at least be comfortable while you tell me whatever it is you are required to tell me." She spread out her long skirts so that the damask blue-and-lavender brocade outshone the flowers. "What dreadful thing has Cardinal Belroche decided I have done?"
"Don't make light of it, Orienne," Pierre said, declining her gesture to sit, but putting one foot on the bench beside her and bracing his forearms on his raised knee. "It is not a time to be light with Avignon. His Holiness is a man at war."
"Then the more reason to turn his mind to strategies and leave me and those like me alone." She pulled off her gauntlet in an absent-minded way and set it on the bench beside her. "I am not at war with anyone."
"That is precisely why I must speak to you." Pierre could smell the sandalwood with which Orienne perfumed her hair, and the saffron in which her fragile underclothes were rinsed. It was difficult to keep his mind on his duty.
She tilted her head up to him. "Well? Are you going to ask me your questions, then? And tell me what this is all about at least? Or must I guess?"
"You know what I must ask you. You know that there have been men from Rome, coming into Avignon to spread doubt and dissension, and not all of them are priests."
"I've heard that," she said, deliberately negligent in her attitude. "I've also heard that the Devil himself has sent his lieutenants to disrupt the entire court of Avignon. It is possible, I suppose, and there are those who believe it, but I ... I believe very little, after all."
"Don't mock, Orienne," Pierre said harshly. "You endanger yourself if you do."
She concealed her new burst of terror with a light-hearted shrug. "What do you want of me, Pierre? Other than what all men want of me; I will do what I can on behalf of Avignon, of course, but it is unlikely that I will know of anything or anyone that presents a threat to the Pope." She was petulantly flirtatious as a means to disguise the increasing fear. "Isn't it enough that the Devil sends the Plague? Must he also send Romans?"
Pierre saw the fleeting shadow of her apprehension pass over her face before she smiled, and it told him more than he wished to know about her thoughts.
Orienne got up from the bench and wandered over to her bath, where she ran her hand over the scalloped marble rim. "I am faithful to the true Pope Clement, but I am French. I don't know what will become of me: they say that's in the hands of God. I want to live here, in this pleasant place, and enjoy my life while I may. Why is it that there are those who will not permit me such a little thing? I am only a woman, and a widow, and I do not seek to rule through a husband or gain wealth through sons I do not have. I am ... harmless. Why do this to me, Pierre?"
"It is not I who wants..." He stopped abruptly, hating himself for being evasive. "I am sorry, Orienne, that you are placed in this predicament. It is nothing that we wish to do to you, not directly. It is ... the circumstance. You are in a position to learn and hear and see much. Those who come to Un Noveautie are seeking respite from their lives, from their duty and their anguish, and when they are here, they do not guard themselves as they might in another place. In passion a man says many things, and some of those things might bear on the hazards that - "
"And did it never occur to you that I might be one who does not wish to remember too much? It does not please me to think that my pleasures might be taken from me." She shook her head in anger. "What a man says when he is in my arms has little to do with his duty, Sieur le Duc, unless it is his duty to please me. The rest is nothing to concern you; a compliment to my cooks or my cellar, a kind word on my falcons. No one speaks of matters of state, not here. There is no reason. The Pope and his court are the targets of these Romans. Let them be on guard, then, and leave me in peace."
Pierre glowered. "I am not permitted to do that. I regret..." He stopped, studying her, waiting for her to say something. "You are angry with me."
"Of course I am. I would like to see you run through. But that would only make my position here more dangerous than it is now, and so I will bide my - Give me a moment to collect myself, Pierre, and then you might as well say the rest. What does it avail me to refuse?"
He knew better than to assume she had truly capitulated, and he wisely held his tongue while he watched her pace down the weed-tangled path, then come back toward him with a fixed and artificial smile on her mouth. "Are you ready?"
"No. I will never be ready. But that means nothing to His Holiness." She crossed her arms under her breasts. "I am not sensible to do this, but I am going to warn you that I will do you an ill turn when I may."
Pierre nodded. "I understand. In your situation, I would do the same. But in return, I will caution you: I am well-guarded and it would be foolish of you to make me openly your enemy." He cocked his head toward the door. "Do you wish to go in now?"
"Yes," she said with due consideration. "I believe I am cold." Her eyes glared at his, but she did not flinch as he took her elbow to guide her out of the sun.
* * * *
Seur Aungelique blinked and shook herself as she stood up to face the figure who approached her from the bank of the stream. The grafting twigs she held in her hands fell unheeded and were lost in the tall grass. Her mind was in turmoil as she squinted at the figure in pale blue who came toward her out of the brightness of the afternoon sunlight. "You," she breathed, wondering if he were more than a vision conjured up by her loneliness and misery.
Thibault Col smiled as he approached her, one corner of his mouth lifting before the other. "So this is where you fled, my fledgling," he said as he held out his hand to her.
"I..." She looked around in panic, terrified that someone might overhear them.
"There is only the Sister who tends the hives," Thibault said, smiling more insistently. "I did not want to be ... interrupted." His icy eyes were flatteringly insolent as they traveled over her habit.
"How did you..." Again she could not finish her thoughts.
"It was not difficult. Didn't you want to be found, sweeting?" He was very near, his voice light and persuasive, tantalizing. "Would you prefer I go away?"
Seur Aungelique shook her head vigorously. "No!" Impulsively she seized his velvet sleeve, her fingers crushing the fabric. "It's just ... Where did you come from?"
"Does it matter, so long as I am here?" He looked pointedly at her hand. "Well?"
Her fingers were shaking when she opened them. "You ... have surprised me."
"I have? But I had thought you dreamed of me, sweeting." There were cloves and cinnamon in his laughter.
Seur Aungelique flushed deeply but she could not turn away from him. "I have ... thought of you."
"And remembered me in your prayers?" There was no mistaking the mockery in his tone, or the force he exerted over her through it. "But what prayers? What did you pray for?"
"Stop," she whispered.
He took a step back. "If that is what you wish." He looked around the orchards. "What is behind the brambles?"
"Nothing. An open field," she said, confused by his question and still distracted by his presence. It was too much like a dream; she was half-afraid he would vanish if she turned away from him.
"Very convenient," he chuckled.
She frowned toward him, wanting time to sort out her feelings. Confusion was uppermost in her mind, and she could find no means to end it. "You are..."
"Impertinent?" he suggested. "I am more than that, sweeting, if you desire. Would you not prefer me to be insolent?"
"Insolent?" she repeated, as if she did not know the word at all. "Why would ... you puzzle me, Chevalier."
"Do I? A strange thing." He made no attempt to explain his remarks. "You did want to see me?"
"Yes," she admitted. "I wanted to see you."
"Shamed, my fledgling?" He came to stand beside her, still not touching her, but close enough that he seemed to press against her. "How should you be shamed?"
"I ... I ... am made to do penance for what I have done." She sounded like a chastened child who was resentful of her correction. "I fast, and I ... keep vigils and I pray and ... then I confess."
"And do you repent?" He lifted his long, narrow hand to touch her, but did not.
"I ... no." She stared down at the grass.
"Does that trouble you?"
This time there was more force in her reply. "No."
"A-a-ah." His fingers trailed down her cheek. "Do you miss Un Noveautie?"
She swallowed. "Yes."
"Most of all?"
Thibault touched the linen of her wimple. "More than your Pierre?"
Seur Aungelique's eyes grew round with shock. "How did you ... Did Orienne tell you about..."
He ran his forefinger over her chin. "Do not blame Orienne, sweeting. She said nothing to me."
"Then..." She stopped her next question before the words burst from her; she had been humbled enough already.
"I learned it from Pierre, if that is that you want to know. It is what you were going to ask me, isn't it?"
She tried to avert her eyes, but they were locked on his. How could Pierre have betrayed her so, and to this stranger? It was bad enough that he had come to the convent as her father's agent, but to have told Thibault Col of what was between them, that was beyond anything she could endure. She let out a little cry and clutched her hands together as if in prayer. "Oh, Bon Dieu."
"Do not curse him, sweeting," Thibault chided her softly. "He did not know what he did. And I ... what would it benefit me to speak of it to anyone but you?" He bent and kissed her lightly on the mouth, then stepped back. "Could you not come to desire me instead, sweeting?"
Once more she felt the color mount in her face. "I..."
"Desire me already?" he prompted. "Do you want me to embrace you? Haven't you thought of that when you should have been at prayers?"
Seur Aungelique crossed herself and spun away from him, not heeding her steps or the hem of her grey habit. "Don't."
He caught her as she stumbled and held her tightly against him, imprisoning her hands in his own. "Take care, little fledgling; you may fall."
"No." She squirmed in his grasp, though she did not kick out at his legs or scream for help. Her breath came more quickly and she looked away, refusing to see his mocking face so near her. "You mustn't."
"Why not? When it is what you desire? Isn't it your desire that I hold you? Have you not longed for me to embrace you and caress you? Then why do you treat me thus?" He kissed her again, as lightly and briefly as before. "Why do you deny me?"
She had no answer for him, and that disheartened her. She took one shuddering gasp and then started to weep, her overwrought feelings finding no other release. "You ... you are not..."
Thibault held her but offered her no comfort beyond the strength of his arms. His light eyes turned even colder. "There is someone coming," he said at last, and released her, stepping back as he did.
"But..." Seur Aungelique protested, reaching out for him, heedless of his warning.
"Later, sweeting. It is what you wish, then? You will not deny me? You desire me?" His scimitar smile flashed once, and he made her a mocking reverence. "Is it what you wish?"
"Yes!" she cried. "Yes, yes." With a quick, wild glance over her shoulder, she thought she saw a nun approaching. "Can you wait!"
"I can always wait." He ambled away from her toward the bramble patch. "But can you?"
She wanted to say no, to demand that he let her come to him at once, now, here, but though she had high-running passion, she was without courage, and this lack halted her as wholly and efficiently as if a poisoned moat lay between them.
"Seur Aungelique!" came a voice through the trees. "Where are you! Seur Aungelique!"
She wrenched her eyes away from the place she had seen Thibault stand last, turning now toward the caller. "A moment. A moment, ma Seur," she called, trying to gain a better hold of herself and regulate her thoughts. Her eyes still were wet and she could feel the streaks of tears on her face. She would have to think of a reason for them. Perhaps she could say she had been praying, or was filled with sorrow for all she had done that offended Heaven. Such a lie, she knew, would stick in her throat and would eventually be found out. Then there would be more vigils and fasts and prayers, and she might never be allowed into the orchard again, and would not see Thibault, who would grow bored with waiting, and leave, so that she would be even more alone than before, abandoned by all the world, and trapped inside the walls of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion until....
"Seur Aungelique, is anything wrong?" asked Seur Odile as she touched the other nun on the shoulder. "You seem so ... distant."
"Why, no, nothing's wrong," Seur Aungelique answered in a distracted way. "I have been ... thinking of my father's offer. You must have heard that he has proposed another marriage." This last was not entirely free from malice; the convent thrived on gossip.
"Yes," Seur Odile said quietly, "so I have been told. Word was brought to you not long ago, and Mere Leonie has been asked to notify your father when you have made up your mind."
Seur Aungelique sighed, not wanting to be angry with the inoffensive little woman beside her. "Yes. And I have been trying to come to a decision. But I do not know who the bridegroom is to be, nor where he lives, and ... I don't know if I can do it. My family will be disappointed. I do not want to be undutiful, but..." It was a clumsy fabrication, but apparently Seur Odile accepted it, because she shook her head in commiseration and tried to provide a little sympathy.
"Well, at least your father gives you the chance to accept or refuse. Think of all the women married without such consideration. My mother knew nothing of my father until they went to church to marry. You ... can be spared that." She made the sign of the cross. "Come. Pere Guibert has arrived and it is time for confession."
"Confession?" Seur Aungelique repeated. "I ... thought it was tomorrow."
"He is early; aren't we fortunate?"
Try as she would, Seur Aungelique could detect no sarcasm in Seur Odile's demeanor. She mumbled a few words and fell into step beside the other woman while she turned her thoughts to finding a way to see Thibault again.
* * * *
Seur Philomine rose from the floor and crossed herself. It was still early and she knew that she would not be permitted to dawdle in the chapel with travelers in her hospice. She tidied her habit and pushed a few stray wisps of hair back under her coif. There was food to serve, and later in the day, she would have to clean out the stable. It was wrong of her to be resentful of that task, she knew, and yet she could not free herself from that sin entirely. She looked up at the sound of a cough and saw Seur Catant staring at her from the door.
"God give you good day, Sister," Seur Philomine said in a perfunctory way.
"And be with your spirit," Seur Catant responded. "Is Seur Elvire about? Have you seen her?"
"Not since prayers," Seur Philomine answered. "Is there some trouble?"
"One of the travelers is ill. We have need of her herbs." She made a nervous gesture.
"Ill? How?" Seur Philomine answered. "Is there some trouble?"
"He awakened with bloody flux. Bon Dieu, Seur Philomine! It might be ... anything." She crossed herself. "And I pray, oh, I pray la Virge that it is not the Plague. It is wrong to wish misfortune on others at the price of my own safety, I know, I know, but Plague ... I have seen it before. I would rather face starving wolves than that." She pressed her hands to her mouth, aghast at what she had said.
"God forgives you, Seur Catant," Seur Philomine assured her, going toward her at once. "He surely knows how you have suffered with the Plague. As He knows what it was that turned Seur Marguerite's mind. He brings nothing that we cannot bear, and all He asks is that we give our sins to Him, for His forgiveness and our redemption." She had heard this said so often that she could repeat it without thought.
"But Plague ... It must not be the Plague. Why goes God permit the Devil thus to walk among us, unchallenged, and garner souls fro the fires of Hell?" She crossed herself again and stared at the altar. "Here we are supposed to be safe. This is the one true refuge. That is what I have always believed."
"Then you have nothing to fear," Seur Philomine said a bit more sharply; some part of Seur Catant's dread was attaching itself to her and it disturbed her more than she wished to admit.
"But Mere Leonie has already warned us that we must ... be cautious. We must take care." She looked about, distraught. "She has said that we cannot let such contamination come to us. She has said that we must observe charity, but that we cannot expose others to so great a danger as Plague is. She told us that the travelers must be protected as well, and not permitted to enter a place where there may be sickness." She clenched her hands and took a few hasty steps toward the altar, then dropped to her knees. "O God, Who has the sun and the moon in His hands and set the world in place in the void, spare us, your sin-ridden children, though we are unworthy of Your care. Do not bring the Plague among us, not again. Haven't we suffered enough, or do You demand that we all be sacrifices as Your Son was sacrificed? Wasn't that enough? You said it was, then, but now there is Plague, and ... Do You demand more of us now?"
"Seur Catant!" Seur Philomine protested, shocked at the other nun's accusation. "You're distraught. You're not considering what you say, for this you bring sorrow to la Virge, who will intercede for us in our need."
The look that Seur Catant shot over her shoulder was as venomous as it was vulnerable. "If you want to die for a stranger, you go tend him, and remember that you will bring Plague to half the world through your folly. We must keep the travelers away, from the convent and the valley. Then it might be that we will be touched but a little. But do not forget that if you minister to one who carries the Plague, you will have the Tokens and you may sweat and thirst and fill your flesh with pustules before you die, and see the same happen to your Sisters. But I won't!" She turned back to the altar and continued her prayers in silence over her white knuckles.
Seur Philomine looked about helplessly, and wished she were back home, away from this enclosed place, with her family around her and her heart free from fear. Better yet, she would want to be in Brittany with Tristan, with no more objections to their marriage. As always, when she thought of Tristan, she felt the warm flutter of her love, a sensation that began in her chest and spread through her veins in a subtle tide. "I must ... ask you to excuse me, Seur Catant," she said, and left without waiting to hear if the other woman had anything more she wished to say.
* * * *
"I have ... not freed myself of the lascivious thoughts that have possessed me all my life, and though I beg God for His aid and guidance, I am what He made me, and the thoughts persist." The sound of Seur Aungelique's voice in the screened confessional was unearthly to Pere Guibert, though he sat with only a stone pillar between them.
"Have you kept the vigils Mere Leonie gave you? Have you recited the prayers?" He doubted that such methods would make much difference, for he had seen other cases where no vocation existed and the lure of the world was far stronger than the promise of Heaven.
"I have tried, mon Pere, but when I lie on the stones, they press me like a lover, and the lusts of the body are binding." She felt her forehead become moist, and she licked her upper lip. "Mon Pere ... uh ... I cannot say this easily. I have ... been met by a man, who ... desires me."
This time Pere Guibert could not turn from her. "A man? How is this, ma Fille?"
"He ... had met me before." Her breathing was fast and shallow, as if she suffered from a sudden fever. "He came here. To find me."
Pere Guibert felt himself grow cold. "You knew him from your family?" He doubted that was the case, but needed to ask, to delay as long as possible the moment of actual revelation. "He is known to your family?"
"I ... don't know," Seur Aungelique answered, trying to be honest with her confessor. Yet she could not bring herself to admit that Pierre knew Thibault; the betrayal she felt would cut too deeply if she did.
"Then you met him..." He cleared his throat. "You met him where I found you?"
"Yes, mon Pere." She lowered her head, wishing she could feel true shame, but unable to summon up any more demanding emotion than a general hunger for the life she had tasted so fleetingly at Un Noveautie.
"I see." Pere Guibert wanted to shake the girl he listened to. He had hoped that her wildness would be better contained, but that was apparently not the case, and her episode of rebellion might well be repeated. "This man; what did you do with him while you were ... there?"
"I talked with him. He was a guest." She sensed Pere Guibert's discomfort and it gave her surprising satisfaction. "He told Comtesse Orienne that he wanted me. I was pleased that he did."
"Seur ... ma Fille, do not say so, or you place yourself in gravest peril."
"But he was pleasant to me, and did not insult me." That was openly a lie, and she did not care if he recognized it as one. She wanted to flaunt all she had done, to retain some of the satisfaction she had felt while away from the convent. "I have prayed for the aid of my good angel, mon Pere, and this man comes to me. What am I to think of that?"
"Some of us are more tested in our lives than are others, and it may be that you are one such, ma Fille. In any case, you must not lose faith that your soul is as precious to God as any soul, and that He will rejoice that you come purely to Him." He doubted that his words had much meaning for Seur Aungelique, and no matter what he had been taught and had preached for so long, he felt his inner certainty erode a little more.
"But what am I to do? I do not know if this man will try to see me again, and if he does, I do not know what will become of me. He stirs me, mon Pere, as no one has before." She thought that it was partly accurate, but not wholly, not candidly. She wanted Thibault to pursue her, as much for the chagrin it would bring Pierre if he ever learned of it - as undoubtedly he would - as for the smoldering desire within her that she sought to slake in Thibault's passion.
"Ma Fille, did you hear me?" Pere Guibert inquired brusquely, and repeated, "Where did this man come upon you, and why did you permit him to speak to you?"
"I was ... grafting the trees. I was in the tree," she lied. "He came to the tree, and I could not ... well, it was not possible to descend modestly."
"You did not call for help?" He was suspicious of Seur Aungelique, and though he wanted to believe that she would not deceive him during confession, he was not entirely convinced that she would tell him the truth. "God reads your heart and will judge lies told before Him with severity and grieving for your sin."
"No!" Seur Aungelique shrieked, striking out at the screen with her hand. "No! If God wishes me to be chaste, then He should not torment me with my flesh. He should give me the courage to resist. He should show His Will to me so that I need not be ... what I am." Her anger satisfied her in a way that contrition could not. "I don't care if this means more penance and more vigils. It is not right that I should have to suffer this way because I try to live as my soul demands. It is not right for man to contravene the Will of God, and that is what you are doing, in forcing me to be a nun!"
Pere Guibert had risen to his feet, and now, against all canon, he wanted to confront Seur Aungelique as a woman, not a nun, to castigate her properly for all the trouble she had caused at a whim, an inability to turn her mind from the gross demands of the body to the more enduring merits of the soul. He was impatient, but strove to speak with calm. "You will not say such things. Who are you, a woman not yet seventeen, to question the way of God? What pride in your heart shows you more wisdom than the judgment of Heaven? What have you learned that is sufficient to challenge the omniscience of Our Lord?"
"I am a creature of God, and I know how He made me," she insisted, her wrath-pale face showing around the pillar. "I belong to the world, and it is there I will be."
"The world is the province of the Devil," Pere Guibert reminded her, very soberly. "And you are likely to fall victim to him if you persist in these dangerous caprices. You put eternity at risk for an afternoon of idle luxury."
"Then I welcome Hell. I am eager for it, so that I may sooner end this travesty that you and my father have brought upon me. I have said that I cannot be a nun, and everything that I have endured here reveals the truth of it. And I will not be a pawn, but you conspire to make me one or the other."
"You are a woman, and you have a woman's weakness and a woman's place," Pere Guibert said. "God has given you the burden of Eve, but Saunt Marie has saved you from it, if you will remain chaste." He sensed that she would accept nothing he said now, and for that reason, he despaired as he watched her.
Seur Aungelique set her hands on her hips. "I have seen what has become of other women, and I want no part of it. I want to live as Comtesse Orienne lives, not as someone's broodwife, to bear children and keep accounts. I want to live as the women the troubadours sing of and poets celebrate."
"Those women lived long ago," Pere Guibert pointed out.
"Then in me they will live again. Did Heloise turn nun, shut herself up from the world while Abelard was yet a man? Who is so foolish to think she was beset by the Devil?"
"She died in holiness, an Abbesse, repentant of her lust."
Seur Aungelique laughed. "They do not remember her as a nun, but a lover. Who has said that Iseult was anything damned? And do not remind me of her love potion, or the death of her knight, for that is what makes her so splendid. The world hears her tale and says, 'O that there may be another like her, that we may love her,' and for that they are called wise."
"No, Seur Aungelique, you do not understand - "
"I wish for one little chance to be what those women were, to leave my name and my loves on the songs of France, and I am warned that the Devil is about to snare me like a hare in a trap." She pulled at the neck of her habit.
Pere Guibert moved back from Seur Aungelique. "You are not yourself, ma Fille. You have been ... too much indulged. Your father has permitted you great liberty, and you abuse it. He seeks now to restore you to your family and your duty as the daughter he honors and does honor to him."
"My father is nothing like that. He is punishing me!" Seur Aungelique stamped her feet and very nearly tore off her coif.
"You must stop this at once. I will speak to Mere Leonie and ask her to give you a new penance and more contemplative exercise." He knew it was inadequate, but there was nothing he could think of that would deal well with so rebellious a nun. If her father did not still intend her to marry, Pere Guibert would have requested permission to beat her, but so far Michau d'Ybert had been adamant - no marks on his daughter unless her husband put them there. Scars, he had ordered Mere Jacinthe, detracted from a girl's beauty and made it appear she was unbiddable. "Your father must be consulted." He would find a way to convince le Baron that Seur Aungelique should be chastised.
"Go ahead! Do anything, it doesn't matter. I am not a nun. I will never be a nun. Nothing you or Mere Leonie can do will make me a nun!"
Pere Guibert tried to find a way to calm her. "But ma Fille, we wish that God would come to you, Mere Leonie and I, and all your Sisters. You must not turn away from God."
"Has He not turned away from me? Many of the Sisters here are truly devout, and see what has happened to them - they are set upon by disaster, and you tell them that God tests those He loves. Why does He not send a lion to raven here, and be done with it?" She tossed her head. "For all that God has given to us for our faith, we might as well have fallen to the Devil and worshipped him instead!"
"No, no," Pere Guibert protested, holding out his hand as if it could stop what she said. "You are in error, ma Fille."
"I am? Then what do you see around you? Disaster has been invited here!" She looked away from him, ignoring his determined attempts to speak more to her. "I will leave here and ... and - " She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth - "What I do then is no concern of yours."
"What you do must always concern me," Pere Guibert said sadly as he blessed her. "I am your confessor and your soul is in my keeping."
"Then I reclaim it," she said, and rushed out of the chapel, leaving him to sit in worried silence.
* * * *
Not long before sunset, Seur Marguerite paid a last visit before Vespers to her hives. She pottered between them, crooning to the bees, showing no alarm when they lit on her hands and face. "They are your kisses, aren't they?" she asked, and was content with the answer she heard in her mind. The smell of honey was dense on the air and she breathed it in, smiling to herself. "All the babies are in the house, and the Elfin King will guard you all." She bent down to put a bit of honeycomb on a broken plank of wood. "I have paid the price and he will guard you."
"Leaving treats for the Devil?" inquired a light, pleasantly insulting voice.
Seur Marguerite turned, but in no particular haste or surprise. She saw a figure approaching out of the setting sun, a man of middle height, slender and graceful, whose clothes and features she could not distinguish without squinting. "God give you good day, stranger," she said mildly. "Have a care that my little ones do not hurt you."
Thibault paid not attention to the bees. "You threat them like children."
"And so I might; they are mine. They are good to me and care for me, as I care for them." She crossed herself and said a brief prayer. "God must remember the bees while I sleep."
"If He treats them as He treats His human children, you might desire other aid," he suggested.
"One must find aid where they may," Seur Marguerite answered after a moment. "Otherwise, you will be lost. You will be worse than the wild creatures, and will know no sleep but death."
The unmelodic clang of the convent bell caught the attention of both Seur Marguerite and Thibault Col. "There, ma Seur," Thibault said. "Like the bells on cows, it leads you home."
Seur Marguerite laughed vaguely. "Home? No, not to my home. That is not my home. I can never come home, for that would be worst of all. I would be prey to worse than you, far worse." She was wholly unaware of insulting the beautiful young man, for she smiled at him. "It isn't you I seek. It isn't you I run from. There are others. You would not know them, no matter what you know. You would not find out from the bees, if they knew. No one will discover it." There were sudden tears in her eyes. "You are not like them, but I do remember the others, some of the time. I know what they are. There are men in the mists, filled with Plague, and they are worst of all."
"I have heard you have Plague here," Thibault said, casually insolent.
"No, no," Seur Marguerite responded at once. "It is pox. Bad enough for the likes of you, but there has been no mist, and the others have not come." She touched the side of one of the hives. "You have come here before. I think you have come here before."
"You are like the ones in the mists, and have many guises. I have seen those in the trees, too, making the bark move when they are hungry. They strangle the birds in their branches and eat them when they fall. You should not stand too near the trees, it makes them hungry."
"I will take care, ma Seur," Thibault said. "I will be here tomorrow. I would prefer you are not."
"My bees wait for me. You do not." She lifted up her skirts and started away from him toward the convent. "It is Vespers. La Virge opens to the Holy Spirit and labors all the night. I have seen her, sometimes, when she is about to be delivered. Once she birthed monsters." Her voice was slightly raised so that it would carry back to Thibault, who watched her from his place beside the hives. "You have seen the monsters."
Thibault gave her no answer but an equivocal smile, which Seur Marguerite could not see.
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