Chapter Fourteen

Long shadows from the looming walls of the Papal palace threw the chapter house of Saunt-Chrodegang into darkness at mid-afternoon. The small, octagonal building was dark, even now at the height of summer, and the two men who met there were chilled as if they had come to a tomb.

"You have had no word, then?" Padre Bartolimieu asked of eveque Amalrie. "Since the Cardinal sent for you, there have been no inquiries that I know of."

eveque Amalrie, very much thinner than he had been, plucked nervously at his lower lip. "No. I have heard nothing. Nothing at all."

"Have they abandoned the matter?" Padre Bartolimieu asked, frowning at the other man. "Is nothing to be done? Could you not persuade them that there is great danger at the convent?" He was growing impatient with the Bishop. "You are a man of zeal, mon eveque, and you have defended the Church against her enemies. Surely it is known that you have been foremost in the battle against the forces of Hell?" His voice echoed around the little stone room, the words more and more distorted.

"I asked the Cardinal ... Belroche, it was, to continue the investigation, to authorize a Process, but ... he has not done so." The Bishop looked up into the gloom. "I do not know if he understands what happened there."

"He cannot, if he will not continue," Padre Bartolimieu said. "What manner of man is this Cardinal, that he refuses to act where God must be defended?"

It was a short while before eveque Amalrie answered. "I do not know what manner of man he is. He is a Cardinal. That is enough." He walked away from Padre Bartolimieu. "There is great sin all around us, mon Padre, and none of us can escape it. We are doomed, and it is fitting that we bow our heads to the punishment meted out to us by a just God, for we have failed Him and are not worthy of salvation." He touched his hair, as if to try to keep it on his head. "We are not worthy," he repeated.

Padre Bartolimieu was too surprised to upbraid le eveque, but he stared at the man. "I do not know you."

"No one knows anyone," eveque Amalrie said in the most forlorn tone Padre Bartolimieu had ever heard. "We are all strangers, and the heart is the greatest stranger of all, for no one reads it right. God, perhaps, will, but no man can see the heart, not even his own."

Padre Bartolimieu stood in dumbfounded silence. He had been expecting many things from this meeting, but not the quiet misery eveque Amalrie offered him. "Then why did you call me here?"

eveque Amalrie shrugged. "I am not certain why. I had heard you had come to request that the investigation be continued, and I thought I might be able to stop you from taking so disastrous an action." He wandered across the cold floor. "I once thought it was essential we uphold the honor of God and the Church and that all measures were acceptable if they were used in that cause, and that so long as the cause benefited God and the Church, it made a man proof against the errors and sins of the world. But that is not so."

"Has God touched your heart, mon eveque?" Padre Bartolimieu asked, trying to follow what the Bishop was telling him, but with little success.

"It may be that He has. I cannot know what is in my heart. No man is able to do that; I have told you that already. Why do you bother me with these foolish questions when I have given you the answer already?" He sighed. "No. It is not fitting that I rebuke you, when I am steeped in the transgressions of the world."

"What has happened?" Padre Bartolimieu demanded.

"Very little has happened, but that does not matter. I was proud and for that I have been cast down, which God promised He would do to the proud. I believe my vocation protected me, but it does not. I believed that the Cardinals were determined on the preservation of the Church, but this may not be so." He made an aimless little gesture. "It is all for naught. We walk in darkness, as the Bible says, and that light we have been promised shines in the darkness more faintly than a candle. There may be those who have seen it, but if they have, it has made them blind." Now he looked at Padre Bartolimieu with some of his old fervor. "It is not for us to ask. If we pray, it is for our benefit, not for God, Who has made us as He wishes us to be, and we are His servants, His slaves."

"And for that, we must persevere in our efforts," Padre Bartolimieu said forcefully, pleased to be on familiar ground once again. "Whatever you have been told, think of the message of the Scriptures, and know that it is the work of the Apostles that we continue."

eveque Amalrie took another turn about the chapter house. "It may be that you have the right of this, but ... Hear me out, Padre Bartolimieu. I have been myself afflicted, and I know it was for one unguarded moment that my soul was tainted. Yet no one cares that it happened; in time I may not care myself. God permitted it to happen, the Church does not mind that it happened, and all that I have learned from it is how a good man is the servant of his flesh." He regarded Padre Bartolimieu unhappily. "Now it must be that I have lost the grace that was mine, though I have confessed and done penance and I am assured that I am once again restored to grace because I have repented. But the sin is still there and I am never free of it, and nothing I do is unaffected by it."

He was confused again, but Padre Bartolimieu decided to humor the Bishop in the hope that he would gain the other man's support for his efforts. "Then let the sin be purged; do the work that God commands us to do."

"And what work is that?" eveque Amalrie asked softly.

"To cleanse our flocks, to bring them away from error into virtue. We must strive to end the evil that has brought such misfortune to us."

"But what if the misfortune came because it came? What if God would not have stopped it if no one sinned for a generation?" He crossed himself. "What if the demons are kind to the nuns? I have no more surety, mon Padre. My sin has taken that from me."

"But the demons!" Padre Bartolimieu blurted out. "Think of what they are doing to the nuns!"

"And the nuns to the demons, perhaps," eveque Amalrie said, his eyes fixing vaguely on the bas-relief frieze of the story of Samson.

"But you have shown that the demons are there! If you turn away, you will let the demons triumph!" He wanted to take the man and shake him, to convince him that his course was wrong.

"If they triumph, then it is God's Will; what we do is as nothing. God will choose who shall come to him and who shall not. We are vain, puny men, caught in toils we know nothing of. And what we do here is of little moment." He knelt abruptly and began to pray.

Padre Bartolimieu came over to him. "You are praying. You are seeking guidance. You know what your duty is, what you must do, but you resist it for fear of the forces of Hell and the wiles of the men from Rome. It is a failing that each of us must face once." He cleared his throat, and commenced his expostulation. "I have had a similar trial, and I failed it. I let my people suffer and die because I was a coward, but no more. God has shown me His courage, and I can do no less than follow it. You will come to this in time, mon eveque, but for the benefit of the Sisters who are wretched, troubled women, you must not tarry. You must rise up." The stones reverberated to his oratory. "You must recall your faith and your devotion, and you must drive out the demons that have tortured those nuns, and show the Devil and the Church that you are staunch in your calling!"

eveque Amalrie looked up over his clasped hands. "Padre Bartolimieu? Leave me alone."

Taken aback, Padre Bartolimieu faltered in his speech. "You ... you are not thinking clearly, mon eveque. You have forgotten what transpired, and you have been convinced that there is no reason to be determined in this. You do not recall how the nuns wept when they were lashed and the demons were driven from them."

"They may have wept in pain. We do not know." He lowered his head again, and for the next hour, no matter what Padre Bartolimieu said, no matter how he accused or exhorted, eveque Amalrie remained on his knees, his head bent over his folded hands.

* * * *

It was the last day that Pere Guibert would be at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion for almost a month and he was hearing confession before he left; after two hours of listening to the sins of the nuns, his mind was reeling. He had heard more in that short time than he had ever encountered at any convent. Most of it was, he knew from long experience, fanciful conjecture, tidbits gleaned from the torments of the Sisters truly possessed. A few of the experiences related were debatable, having elements of fancy as well as deviltry in them. The demonic presence was still at work at the convent and he could not put his thoughts at rest for the welfare of the Sisters. It distressed him to think what might occur now that the women were wholly unguarded. He crossed himself and tried to compose his mind for the next Sister. "Who is ready?" he called out through the chapel door.

Seur Adalin, who had been serving as his page, answered. "It was to have been Seur Tiennette, but she is still busy in the kitchen. A barrel of salt pork has gone off, and she must dispose of it quickly."

"That is unfortunate. Assure her for me that I will come to her before I leave, so that she need not cease her efforts." There was little enough meat in those barrels as it was, and to lose one augured badly for the convent. "I will give her my blessing, as well, for the kitchen."

"I thank you for her, mon Pere," Seur Adalin responded with proper deference.

"Then who will take her place? Is one of the Sisters ready to confess now?" He hoped it was not Seur Aungelique; that young woman had turned increasingly sullen with her advancing pregnancy.

"Seur Catant would like to speak to you," Seur Adalin informed him.

"Speak to me? - this is time for confession, and it would be well that she rid herself of her sins." He was aware that Seur Catant would be willing to repeat all the slights, real and imagined, she had endured over the last few weeks, and praise her own forbearance in dealing with her catty Sisters. He could feel her bristle with indignation as she came to stand in the door. With a deep breath that just missed being a sigh, he motioned her to come forward. "Enter, ma Fille. I will hear your confession in the name of the Trinity."

Seur Catant's face was drawn. "It is not a confession for myself, mon Pere, except that I believe that if I say nothing, I will sin as much as my Sister has, if not more, and I will expose the rest of the convent to diabolical hazards." She came up to him, but did not kneel. Her voice was higher than usual today, and the rasping edge of it more pronounced.

"It is for your Sister to confess her sins, not for you to report her in this way," he pointed out, hoping to avert her latest recitation of abuses.

"She would, if her soul were her own and she could speak openly, but she cannot. She is in the thrall of the demon. I tell you, the demon is here, it has been here from the first. Nothing you nor Padre Bartolimieu nor that eveque Amalrie has done has changed it. I know that the demon is here and that he possesses the nuns who live and serve here as his own concubines, and they protect him and guard him as they once guarded their chastity. Now they are caught up in the toils of the flesh and if I love them as my Sisters, I must speak. Mustn't I?" At last she sank to her knees and waited for him to answer.

Reluctantly, Pere Guibert blessed her. "What is it that troubles you, ma Fille?"

"It has happened for several nights, and each time, I have resolved to tell you, and each time I have relented. Now, you are about to leave, and if I say nothing, it will be the worse for all of us."

"Yes; yes. You've made that plain to me," he assured her. "What have you seen that causes you this distress? Is it something that you have heard the other nuns discuss, or have you more ... certainty than that?"

Seur Catant hesitated once more, her breath coming more quickly. "It is always late when this happens. It is always very late, so that no one can know of it. I sleep poorly because of the pains in my shoulders, and because my cell is across the corridor, I have heard what has transpired."

"Across the corridor?" Pere Guibert inquired, expecting to hear other names than Seur Ranegonde's.

"Yes, my Sister who suffers terribly with fever has another, more terrible complaint. I pity her so for her failing health, and now this, that a demon should rob her of her tranquility in these days..." She paused to shake her head to show how great her sympathy was for Seur Ranegonde. "This demon has taken her and used her; he continues to use her, and she to suffer the damnable embraces of the hellish thing."

Pere Guibert could not keep from wondering how long Seur Catant had thought about her revelation, and how carefully she might have planned this talk, so eloquent were her words. "But you say that this continues, late at night?"

"Yes, it continues. The demon comes, and although she protests, she does not deny him once he has gained access to her cell." She almost smiled, but was able to contain herself sufficiently to appear cast down.

"Then you have seen this ... demon?" He watched her closely. "You have actually seen the demon enter her cell? How could you be sure it was not a lover?" He hoped it was simply that; he would not fault Seur Ranegonde for finding a little pleasure with death hovering so near her in the fever that continued to weaken her. It would be a sin, and one that he would need to require her to confess and repent, but that was minor, compared to being the consort of a demon.

"If he is a lover, he is most strange, for there is no one in Saunt-Vitre or in Mou Courbet who resembles him. I asked the cowherd if he has seen such a man, and he said he had not." This was announced with satisfaction. "I am not one to be deceived by village youths looking for an idle hour's entertainment. I know that such men must find access to the convent through various doors, and that the doors may be watched. I have taken it upon myself," she went on with real pride, "to follow this demon when he has left, to see which door he used. He has never left the convent. Yet no one has found him."

"Perhaps he has hidden in the hospice?" Pere Guibert suggested. "There are many rooms there that remain empty, and it would be an easy thing for an enterprising lad to find a way in and not take the risk of leaving."

"But what of food and water? What does the creature live upon?" She flung back her head, her coif slipping precariously. "Unless there are other nuns here who are taking what little food we have and giving it to him? Do you think they would do such a thing?"

"It is not impossible, but no, I do not think they have done so. I doubt very much that there is anyone in the hospice, but I will order the whole building searched, to end such suspicions at last." He would have been glad to be able to do that at once, but Seur Catant was not finished with him. "I have heard such things from their trysts that I am ashamed to hear, or to admit I have heard." She crossed herself, licking her thin lips as she did. "There are such things said and done that my shame at hearing them has kept me awake until the dawn, when my prayers have banished them from my mind until later, when they occur again." Her eyes grew brighter. "I am ashamed now to tell you of it."

"You need not speak, ma Fille," Pere Guibert ventured, trusting that she would not persist, but knowing he would be disappointed.

"It is disgusting what they say and do, to hear her cry aloud for his touch and his organ, saying she has no will to keep him away." She rocked back and forth on her knees, teetering occasionally when she moved too far. Her coif bounced on her head, flapping as if a wounded bird had settled there.

"Seur Catant ... ma Fille - " He was cut off before he could find the suitable phrases to calm her.

"She welcomes him, and her soul is made foul with his touches. She takes him and he possesses her!" With a strange gurgling shout, she hurled herself on her side, kicking out so that her habit bunched around her waist. "It is me he wants, me me ME! But he takes her because I have resisted him. It is my faith that has saved me, no matter how he longs for me."

Pere Guibert rose, very much alarmed. "Seur Catant! You must not behave in this way! Take heart and courage, ma Fille! Do not succumb to this possession. You may entreat le Virge to give you her aid, and you will be yourself again." He was already backing away from her, too perplexed to do more than talk. He blessed her and said a hurried prayer in an undervoice.

"What is this?" Seur Adalin cried out as she came through the door. At the sight of Seur Catant, she halted. "Again? What has come over this woman?"

Pere Guibert looked down at her. "eveque Amalrie would say it was a demon entering her and turning her from God." He had not been able to believe that, not after watching her. "He wishes to find demons everywhere, eveque Amalrie. He wants to discover them in all things."

"What should I do, mon Pere?" Seur Adalin asked as she stared down at Seur Catant who twitched and writhed on the floor. A thin line of foam had come to her lips and her tongue protruded.

"You had best send for Seur Morgance. She knows the Falling Sickness; her father and brother suffer from it. Also find Seur Odile to sing to her, so that she will not be harmed by any malignant things that hover in the air waiting to seize the afflicted and do them harm." He sighed, thinking that the burden was growing too great. He would be wholly soured on his work in another year or so it if showed so little improvement in his flock. "I will stay with her until Seur Morgance arrives. The Falling Sickness is very ancient, Seur Adalin. In time, she will be herself again."

"If you say it is so, mon Pere..." She started away, then said to him over her shoulder, "While Seur Catant is being attended to, would you wish to hear Seur Tiennette's confession in the refectory?"

Grateful for this opportunity to get away, he agreed at once, adding, "And I must speak to Mere Leonie. Seur Catant must be placed in another cell for a time. She has convinced herself that Seur Ranegonde has taken the demon for a lover, and one with the Falling Sickness must not be ... encouraged to such notions." He moved a bit nearer Seur Catant, noticing that the froth on her mouth was tinged pink from where she had bitten her tongue. Her thrashings increased and her eyes had rolled up in her head. Gingerly he knelt beside her and made the sign of the cross. "God and la Virge protect this unfortunate, who languishes in the throes of the Falling Sickness, and has seen visions sent to her by the Devil to torment her to fits." As he continued, he hoped ardently that Seur Morgance would come quickly.

* * * *

The old sow had littered in the night; before Seur Philomine found her shortly after morning prayers, she had eaten most of three of her piglets and the two that remained were not sucking as they should. Seur Philomine gazed at the pigs in mounting dismay: the convent was counting on having enough pork to see them through the early winter. Even if they slaughtered the sow as well as the remaining piglets, they would fall far short of what was needed. After putting other food in for the sow and removing the pitiful bodies of the piglets, she hurried away to find Mere Leonie.

The Superior was just coming from the storerooms under the refectory. "I know," she was saying to Seur Victoire, "that new habits are in short supply, and there are not enough to issue on to all the Sisters on the Feast of Saunt Bavon. There is not enough new wool to make sufficient habits for all of us by then, but we must try, ma Seur. You will choose three other Sisters, who are adept at the loom and the needle, and you will set to work to make the habits as soon as may be. That will mean that only one or two of us need go without for next year." She gave such a determined smile that Seur Victoire did her best to return it.

"I will speak to the others at once," she assured her Superior, then added, "Seur Marguerite is adept with the needle, but during the day she will not leave her bees. If I entrust work to her for the evening, she will not have time to keep vigil."

Mere Leonie shook her head slightly. "Poor Seur Marguerite. Her whole world is the hive, now. Well, she harms no one and we need the honey. I think Our Lord would permit me to stretch a point and consider her hours at the hive her vigil, for she keeps it with a devotion I could wish the others demonstrated." She had motioned Seur Philomine to wait when the tertiary Sister approached, but now she gave her a nod. "What is it, Seur Philomine? You may be about your tasks, Seur Victoire."

Seur Victoire gave Seur Philomine a terse greeting as she passed. Her habit brushed the floor, disturbing the dust and causing Seur Philomine to sneeze as she began to speak.

"May Our Lord guard you," Mere Leonie said automatically. "You appear concerned, ma Seur. What is it that troubles you, will you tell me here, or must it be discussed in private?"

"It is about the sow," Seur Philomine answered. "You may discuss it wherever it suits you."

"Then you will accompany me. I must go to Seur Catant and see how she is faring today. It is a pity about her tongue, but Seur Morgance could not stop her from biting it off, no matter how she tried." She walked more swiftly, her long-legged, clean stride making Seur Philomine trot beside her to keep up. "I suppose that eveque Amalrie, or Padre Bartolimieu for that matter, would say that it was fit punishment for a woman who spread slanders and gossip, but..." She did not finish her thoughts.

Seur Philomine could think of nothing to say. "The piglets ... there are two left, and they are weaklings. This litter may not be all we had hoped it would. I would like to speak with the swineherd in Mou Courbet about getting two or three piglets, so that we will have pork in the autumn."

Mere Leonie turned her head and regarded Seur Philomine curiously. "What have we to give the swineherd for his piglets? We have had no travelers here, and there are no donations. We have very little cloth because we have so little wool, and we may not trade that, since we need it here. There are fewer trees bearing in the orchard, you know for yourself that the herbs and vegetables are not doing well, and our fields do not thrive."

"He might give us one or two for a dispensation of some sort. Pere Guibert could arrange it, couldn't he?" She was troubled by the attitude of the Superior, who appeared to her to be pleased with the situation. "Do you want us all to starve come Christmas, ma Mere?"

"What a question!" Mere Leonie said with an angry titter. "No, I do not wish to see you or anyone starve. You have been too much in the heat today, ma Seur, and would do well to retire to your cell until you are calmer." She had reached the narrow stairs that led to the second level where Seur Catant was now kept. "Do you come with me, or do you go to pray?"

"I will see Seur Catant later, when I have had time to compose myself," Seur Philomine answered in her most demure attitude. "I beg your pardon, ma Mere, if you believe that I offended you. I am distressed by what I see here, and I wish to remedy it in whatever way I can. This may cause me to speak in a way that is not becoming in an Assumptionist Sister, but for that I may only offer my concern as an excuse." She knew it was the proper thing to say, and if Mere Leonie accepted her apology, she would be unusually fortunate.

"Pray for the afternoon, ma Seur, and we will speak again of this." She started up the stairs, then said to Seur Philomine. "You are not like the rest, you know. They have strong feelings about me, all of them. Except you. Why is that?"

Seur Philomine modified her reply, not wishing to add to her difficulties with her Superior. "I am a tertiary Sister, ma Mere, and my vocation is not established. It may be that because of this, I am not as much at one with the others and you as the rest of the Sisters."

"Perhaps," Mere Leonie said, resuming her climb.

* * * *

For the last month Pierre had slept badly; he had lost flesh and his face was grey but for the scar which had become more bruise-like. He paced through his house in Avignon like a caged animal. "NO!" he shouted at his visitor. "I have no reason to go there. I do not wish to go there!" The sweep of his hand knocked the filled goblet he had offered the other man off the table, and the wine ran red as blood in the rushes.

Pere Guibert bowed his head. "I know: every time I leave the convent, I feel I have been released from a dungeon. While I am there, it is an eternity." This confession weighed heavily on him, and he looked up at le Duc again. "That is why I come to you for aid, mon Duc. Whatever evil lurks there, it is more than I can fight alone."

"Then arm yourself with more priests!" Pierre growled. "Surely one of the Cardinals would lend you another eveque for an investigation." He wiped his forehead, trusting it was the sultry weather and not mention of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion that had caused him to sweat.

"Both Cardinal Belroche and Cardinal Seulfleuve have refused to do anything more. They have heard what eveque Amalrie and Frere Renaut have said, and they do not wish to have a Process now." He stopped, then went on in a different voice. "They are afraid the Romans will take advantage of the Process and use it to make it seem the Devil is confounding the Church, and then they will gain the support of more of the faithful. They are more worried about Romans than the Devil himself." He started to make the sign of the cross, then his hand dropped. "If these Sisters are lost, then I am lost with them, for I am the one who was entrusted to guide their souls."

Pierre had listened with a scowl deepening on his face. "My cousin is pregnant and says she wants nothing more of me. Her father will not remove her, no matter what she wishes to believe. He will discard her rather than bring the child of an unknown man into his House." Then he considered. "She claims that the demon gave it to her, or perhaps that fop Thibault Col. She had the opportunity, certainly, while she was at Un Noveautie." Bitterness made his voice ragged; he signaled the nearest servant to bring more wine. "That Mere Leonie, though," he went on when the servant left the room. "That one would make Saunt Paul lust for her."

Pere Guibert blinked at that, startled. "She is a most ... admirable woman."

"Admirable? Admirable?" Pierre barked, not daring to laugh. "That woman is a canker in the flesh. She fires you and eats at you until there is nothing in your heart and mind other than her slender body, and the degradation she brings with it." He knew he had said too much to this priest, that he must not continue, but the words had been dammed within him too long and now that he had given them release, he could not stop them. "Do you know she came to my tent while we were there? She sought me out and did such things to me that in the morning I had barely the strength to rise and not courage enough to tell my men or my confessor what had passed between us." He saw the servant enter the room, and he hurried to take the two goblets from him. "Leave us alone," he ordered, then came across the room to hand one of the goblets to Pere Guibert. "She was with me early in the night, and for the rest of the night, I could not sleep. My mind was - "

"Possessed?" Pere Guibert interjected.

This time he was able to laugh but the sound of it was wrong, verging on an angry sob. "Yes! No Devil could have done more."

"Perhaps ... it may have been the demon. They assume such shapes as will draw us all into sin. If you ... if you were filled with desire for Mere Leonie, the demon would ... take the shape that ... that most ... pleased you." Pere Guibert stared down into the wine, then quickly took a draught of it. "I have had dreams there, such dreams as should make me unfit to hear confession, but ... who is there to take my place? And so I have committed a terrible sin, listening to the Sisters with lust on my own soul."

Now Pierre's laughter was a roar, not genial but not ferocious. "And what does that make your absolution? By Saunt Gabriel's Horn, we are all in the Pit, mon Pere." He dropped into one of the three chairs in the room and hooked his knee over the arm of it. "Those poor nuns, thinking you were their salvation, and you already lost!" He drank off almost all the wine at once.

"I have listened in humility and the knowledge that God pardons those who are truly contrite." It sounded as thin to him as it did to Pierre. "I asked Padre Bartolimieu to hear them, but he would not, and once he was gone, what could I do?"

"You might have told the Cardinal you were unfit. But that was too much to ask, perhaps. You want to have the nuns around you, no matter what you say, and the convent is as much a lure as a prison to you." Pierre shouted suddenly. "More wine! Bring the jug!" He winked at Pere Guibert and said more quietly, "The servants want to listen, you know, but they are beaten if they are caught at it, so they stay just out of earshot, hoping to catch a word or two. Then they start the rumors, and it is no wonder that they are as garbled as they are."

Pere Guibert found all this hard to follow, but he nodded in an obedient manner. "Padre Bartolimieu asked that there be measures taken. He offered to be the one to conduct the investigation, but there has been no decision made."

"And there will not be. I have seen what it is they are doing to Avignon, and you may be certain that no one will make a decision until Clement decides that he wishes action to be taken. They are all watching him closely." He gestured to the servant who appeared in the door. "Mine first, then leave the jug on the table. When we are through, you can take it away again."

The servant, a young man with expressionless eyes, did as he had been ordered, putting the jug down with a bit more force than necessary before leaving the chamber.

"Now we may speak more freely," Pierre said, drinking impulsively. "So Padre Bartolimieu wishes to advance in the Church and plans to climb up on the rubble of the convent, does he? He's had a taste of power and he wants more? Well, God makes most men greedy, and they do not know it."

"Greed is a Capital Sin," Pere Guibert said, as if by rote. "God creates us without sin."

"Except Original Sin, which makes way for all the others," Pierre said with a belch. "We are made in Sin, everyone knows that."

Pere Guibert nodded before drinking. "Padre Bartolimieu is ambitious, but he is a good priest."

"If you say so," Pierre responded. "He looks craven to me, and they are always the most ambitious: it makes them forget their cowardice." He emptied his goblet and got unsteadily to his feet to refill it. "What about eveque Amalrie? Those two would go far if they could agree long enough who was to be the leader."

"eveque Amalrie has petitioned Cardinal Belroche to permit him to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land," Pere Guibert said slowly. "He has refused to be drawn into the investigation in any way. He insists that he is tainted and must make the pilgrimage to be free of his sin."

"Why? I would have thought his pride would carry him through anything," Pierre said, making no effort to guard his slurring tongue.

"He claims he has been used by a demon and that his soul is no longer pure." Pere Guibert looked at the wine jug, a lugubrious expression on his worn features. "He confessed to the Cardinal, and the Cardinal ... would not give him absolution."

"What kind of a Cardinal is that? He has absolved murderers in his day!" The indignation her felt was short-lived. "Well, which of the nuns did he futter, do you know?"

It took more concentration than earlier for Pere Guibert to gather his wits. "No," he said, enunciating carefully. "No, it was not one of the nuns. Or, indeed, anything at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, it was something that happened later. He told the Cardinal that a demon in the form of a woman had driven him to madness and to debauchery." He looked up blearily as he heard Pierre howl with mirth and slap his thigh. "What is amusing in a man's degradation?"

"Degradation be damned! That was no demon!" His laughter turned to giggles. "She'll be delighted to hear this. It will please her so much!"

"What?" Pere Guibert poured himself a little more wine, muzzily hoping that it would make him more sober. "On a warm day," he announced to the room at large, "a man must take something for his thirst."

"Never mind your thirst! Orienne will be pleased! She'll be overjoyed. No one has ever thought her a demon before. Occasionally, they call her Angel, but never a demon." Pierre swilled down a fourth goblet of wine, then reeled to his feet. "Poor sod doesn't know what he had. Best leman in all of France. That woman knows more about love than all the Saints in the calendar."

"Who is this? What are you talking about?" The wine had failed to revive him, but it had given him the curious detachment that sometimes came upon him when he was drinking. "What do you know of this, mon Duc?"

"I took him there!" Pierre shook all over with the force of his guffaw. "I wanted to take him down a peg, with his manner what it is. We had to break the journey for the night in any case, so I decided we would stop at Un Noveautie. You do know the place, don't you, mon Pere?" He chuckled at the dawning shock in Pere Guibert's eyes. "I asked Orienne if she would amuse our eveque in the manner she knew best, so she went to his bed. She told me afterward that he was worse than a twelve-year-old peasant."

"Comtesse Orienne slept with him?" Pere Guibert asked, needing to be sure he understood what he was being told.

"Hardly slept. She came to me afterward, and we frolicked most of the night, so that we wold not be forced to think of eveque Amalrie any more." He settled back in his chair. "So he thinks he met with a demon, does he? And now he is off to the Holy Land because of it! Marvelous!"

"This is most unfortunate," Pere Guibert said, misery coming over him like a damp cloth.

"Why? The Cardinal knows all about it. No one is upset but eveque Amalrie who needs merely spend half an hour in confession to be free of the sin. Still, a walk to Jerusalem would show him a bit more humility."

"Where does that leave the Sisters, then? Can you find a way to comfort them in their distress? They will suffer because no one will defend them." Pere Guibert could feel tears form in his eyes and spill down his face. It surprised him in a mild way, but he did nothing to stop them or to call attention to them. "I do not want to go back there, because of the dreams. You do not want to go back there because of your lust. What shall happen to the Sisters, if everyone turns away from them?"

"They will manage: they have thus far." Pierre shifted restlessly in his chair. "What do we say to explain it, if the Church asks? That you and Padre Bartolimieu were mistaken? Or do you put the blame on eveque Amalrie, off in the Holy Land to purge himself?" He had another tot. "I don't like it. I don't like what it could mean. If we are held to be lacking in this, it might go badly for us and for the Church. Rome could say we did not take care of our own, and there are priests who would be swayed by that argument."

Pere Guibert was startled to hear le Duc defend the Church's position. "I did not realize you were aware of what is at stake here."

"Oh, there is a vidamie I have been offered; I have been listening to more Churchmen than I have heard before in my life. I know what they think. They want to go to war, but no one has enough men. They want to challenge Rome, but there is no legitimate way to do it without leaving many of the flock exposed to needless danger." He emptied the last of the jug into his goblet. "I tell you what, mon Pere. I do not want to go back to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, that is true enough. But if you can bring me good reason for such action, I will find my men and we will return."

"How will you justify this to your Cardinal? He will wish to know why you are resuming your guardianship there."

Pierre stared hard at Pere Guibert, his bleary eyes narrowing. "I have a cousin there, and no matter what her father does, we are of the same House, and I cannot have a question of diabolism hanging over my becoming vidame." He nodded several times. "Might as well clear it up once and for all."

Slowly Pere Guibert got to his feet. He swayed, but only a little, and that gave him a great satisfaction. He had not become completely drunk. "I ... I will inform the Cardinal. And I will speak to Padre Bartolimieu."

"Oh? Is that pious old swine here?" He rubbed his face briskly. "Your pardon, mon Pere. It is not proper for you to hear me speak this way."

With great dignity, Pere Guibert informed Pierre that Padre Bartolimieu was indeed in Avignon. "He has been trying to get another investigation under way, as I have. He thought eveque Amalrie would aid him, but I have told you what has transpired there."

"The Holy Land? Yes, that was it." Pierre lurched erect. "You leave Padre Bartolimieu out of this if you want my help, is all I can say."

"Very well, but I should let him know something is being done. He will then turn his attention elsewhere." Pere Guibert heard himself and was astonished at how grand he sounded. He might be an equal of le Duc's, so magnificently did he express himself. Delighted by this, he continued with enthusiasm. "You must see, mon Duc, there can be no deception now. All must be open and clear, so that the demon cannot distort or erase what we do."

"Since you are certain it is the demon's work, well and good." He cast his goblet against the wall, the silver clanging as it dented. "We are in agreement, are we not? We will go back there, and the Devil be damned for a dog's turd."

A coldness washed through Pere Guibert and the light-heartedness of the wine faded like dew in sunlight. "Yes. Yes, mon Duc. We will go back to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion."

* * * *

Seur Tiennette looked with dismay at the barrels in the pantry. She had opened three of the eight, and so far all had been infested with strange insects like water striders, making their way through the flour and the dried peas. She was sufficiently shocked that she could feel her heart race within her. She had been concerned earlier with the loss of cheese and vegetables and piglets, but now it appeared there would be a shortage of bread as well as everything else. Her eyes stung, and she dashed her tears away with the back of her wrists. "There is no time for such nonsense," she said aloud, as if to convince herself that she had to maintain her composure for another Sister, one more worried that she.

At final count, she had four of the barrels infested. She knew it meant she would have to remove the barrels themselves if the insects were to be contained in those barrels they had already reached. But the barrels were heavy, and she doubted she could move them herself. "Someone must be prepared to help me. Saunt Virge, how am I to tell them?" At that thought, her dread increased, for she knew with the convent already in the grip of fear, there was little she could do that would not increase the fears around her. If one of the Sisters discovered the loss of flour and grains and peas, they would all learn of it, and the despair that had been kept at bay would raven through them like a marauding beast.

She left the pantry and made her way back toward the refectory. If only Pere Guibert were here, she thought, she might be able to confide in him and be guided by what he said to her. Properly she must inform Mere Leonie, but that was a step she wished to avoid. She braced her elbows on the table and sank her chin into her hands, her face filled with anguish as she tried to decide what was best for her to do. She felt her cheek and realized it was flushed. As she thought, she reached for the end of her tattered apron and flapped it, trying to fan herself. It was slightly cooler than it had been two weeks ago, but the room was still uncomfortably warm, which annoyed her. In a more prosperous year, she would relieve herself by sipping the juice of crushed apples mixed with honey and water, but with her supplies so precariously low, she knew she must not indulge herself in even so minor a fashion. Her mouth was parched, her throat dry, which she knew was as much from her distress as any actual thirst, yet admitting this only made it worse. She doubted she would be able to move the barrels without something to drink; no amount of prayers would make up for her thirst. She got up again, trying to decide how best to go about the work.

It took her a little while to mark the barrels that needed to go out, and another short time to determine the best order in which to move them. She shoved the others aside, grunting with the effort, and doggedly striving to pay no heed to her keen and increasing desire for water.

Finally, when she had placed the four barrels in order, she blundered out of the pantry and made her way to the garden, where the well waited, the bucket dangling just out of reach. She grabbed the handle and released the rope and listened with satisfaction as the bucket splashed into the water. She wound the handle, panting with her need and effort, shutting out the guilt that nagged at her for taking such an action.

When she was satisfied, she went back to the refectory. Her head ached fiercely, and her eyes were almost blinded by the difference between the glare in the garden where the sun struck the whitewashed walls, and this shadowed interior. Her steps were unsteady. "This is foolishness," she said, not noticing how oddly the words came out. "I know this place."

A corner of the room lifted and she reached out, puzzled by what she sensed around her. There was no pain other than the headache that gripped her with increasing severity. Her lips drew back in a terrible grimace, and she attempted to get back onto her feet - she was able to flap her left hand, but nothing else responded no matter how urgently she commanded her limbs to move. Her eyes fluttered and she prepared to make a more valiant effort. Now even breathing was difficult, and it was almost impossible to fill her lungs enough so that she would not feel she was drowning. She had a vague notion that this was punishment for her sin of taking the water she was not entitled to have, and that God would release her as soon as she acknowledged the error.

She tried to form the words of a prayer, but none of them came to her lips; there was not air enough for her to speak them, had she thought of them. Her little movements were more erratic. The pain boiled and burned in her skull, and she could do nothing, think of nothing to stop it. As it overwhelmed her, she gave a feeble sigh, knowing that she was damned, her sins unadmitted and unforgiven.

Seur Odile found her shortly before sunset, as she came in out of the garden with an old basket over her arm. "Oh, Seur Tiennette," she called out, "I have found berries growing wild on that fallow rye field. There are not many of them, but I have picked the ones that are ripe, and we may have them - " Her basket fell to the floor and the berries scattered across it. Slowly, numbly, Seur Odile crossed herself. "Oh, dear Mere Marie, what ...?"

Most of Seur Tiennette's face was engorged with blood, making it appear a ghastly mask that a malicious child might wear at Carnival. The room smelled of death, a penetrating ripeness that hung on the air. Seur Tiennette's habit was in disarray from her dying attempts to rise, and her vast white thighs were splayed against the grey of her habit. Flies had begun to settle on the corpse.

"Mere Leonie! Mere Leonie!" Seur Odile shrieked as she bolted from the refectory. "Mere Leonie, you must come! You must!" In her headlong flight, she nearly ran into Seur Adalin, who had just come in from the courtyard. "LET ME GO!"

Seur Adalin stumbled out of the way, irritated and troubled that Seur Odile should act in such a way. "What is wrong?" she called after the running nun.

"Terrible!" Seur Odile shouted back, continuing her run, uncaring that she was attracting the attention of the entire convent and that the whispers were starting already.

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