Six of the nuns were injured by the time the sun went down. One of the company of Flagellants had been able to start a fire in the stables and so far it had not spread, though no one had been able to stop it; the screams of the animals trapped there were pitiful to hear over the cries and rumble of the fighting.
Seur Adalin, at the top of one of the ladders, had been struck by rocks; she would not quit her post, but it was apparent that she could not continue much longer without falling, as much from exhaustion as from bruises. Seur Elvire had come down to help prepare the boiling water and for the time being, Seur Philomine took her place, working coolly to drench the Flagellants in scalding water. There were a number of minor burns on her hands, but she paid them little notice. Later they would hurt, and she would have them treated with herbs and salves, but now they were unimportant compared to the presence of the heretics below.
On the farthest ladder, Seur Catant struggled with the largest of the enormous pots. The hoist, usually employed to aid the harvest of fruit in the orchard, wobbled precariously as raised the cauldron up a few more precious inches. "Seur Victoire," she called down hoarsely, "more. I need more!"
"They aren't ready yet," Seur Victoire answered. "Mere Leonie has..." She tried to explain, but she could not pull the ropes and talk at the same time. There were rope burns on her palms already and this effort distressed her.
"I fear they may try to come in through the stables, once the fire has caught hold," Mere Leonie said with formidable presence of mind while she strove to stoke the fires with the scraps of wood taken from the orchard. "We will have to prepare for that." There was an ugly bruise spreading beneath her injured brow, and the lid was swollen enough to droop badly, giving the Superior a raffish look.
"Oh, no!" Seur Lucille objected. "We haven't enough to keep us..." She clapped her hands. "I need more water. Seur Morgance, fetch it!"
"At once," Seur Morgance said cheerfully, and though her blighted joints were twisted and painful, she hobbled to the well and began to draw up more buckets. "It will take time!"
"Hurry!" was the answer from Mere Leonie.
Another volley of rocks landed in the courtyard, one of them striking Seur Lucille in the back, so that she staggered forward. The hem of her habit brushed the flames, and in the next instant had started to smolder.
"Someone!" Mere Leonie ordered, pointing to Seur Lucille, who gazed in stupefaction at the fire. "Overturn the cauldron!"
One of the younger nuns rushed to do as instructed, and the largest of the vats, near boiling, was upset on Seur Lucille, who shrieked once in all-consuming pain and then fell unconscious in the steaming water.
The fire hissed, sputtered and started to go out.
"More wood!" Mere Leonie shouted, and this time she caught the attention of the nuns on the ladders. Seur Philomine, seeing the chaos below her, almost decided to climb down to aid the others, but she saw that the attackers were aware that something had gone amiss and were pressing their assault. Resolutely, she hung on, waiting for more hot water.
Seur Elvire, recovering herself, reached to keep the wood fueling the flames under the cauldron. She wanted to get away from the courtyard, from the burning smell and the distress and the constant reminder that hideous agony awaited her if the Flagellants should break through the door.
"A few of them have gone around to the hospice door!" Seur Fanchon shouted, bursting in from the hospice. "They have already broken one of the window-boards with their whips! They will climb in!"
Mere Leonie signaled to Seur Elvire. "Leave her. Go to the chapel and tell the nuns there that we need more than their prayers now. Tell them to get knives from the kitchen and anything else that they can use. Ladles, forks, anything that might hurt them."
Seur Elvire gave a garbled answer and fled, unable to bear the sight of Seur Lucille any longer. She had tried to pull back her habit to see how badly the nun was burned and had found patches of skin clinging to the fabric. "At once!" she sobbed, and slammed the inner door as she got through it.
"Seur Catant! What do you see?" Mere Leonie shouted up at her. "How many of them are there now?"
"More," Seur Catant replied in despair. "There is another company, just approaching from the road, about the same number - between forty and fifty. I don't know what we may..." She stopped to cross herself and to signal for another pot of water. "As much as you have, even if it's a little."
"How many of them are still fighting, of the first lot?" Mere Leonie asked, giving no sign that this new information distressed her.
"Most of them, though some of them are badly burned. They don't ... care," Seur Catant remarked, taking a moment to master the dread that revelation gave her. "You would think that they have nothing more to do but to stay here and die, so long as we are killed."
"That is the Devil, who cares nothing for their lives, or ours. God cares for our lives," Pere Guibert cried out as he heard this. He had been tending to one of the nuns whose arm had been broken by one of the rocks heaved over the wall. Now he felt himself spurred to action. "They are all that God is against. Dispatch them to the last, and la Virge and le Bon Dieu will sing your praises on high!"
The nuns nearest him turned toward him in surprise, as if they had forgotten he was with them at all. One or two of them crossed themselves and returned to their work, but Seur Tiennette, laboring to fill another enormous pot, glared at him. "You are not in chapel now, mon Pere, and we need more than your assurances to give us strength. Rather than tell us of God's love, bring your arms over here and help fill this pot!"
At any other time, Pere Guibert would have been affronted, but now he did not say a word against her. "If you will forgive me," he excused himself from the injured nun and went to do as Seur Tiennette bade him.
Night was coming on, and it was increasingly difficult to see clearly in the courtyard. The fire, rekindling, cast wavering shadows along the walls but provided little steady light. Seur Lucille, dragged away from the fire to rest against the most protected wall, was scarcely more than a mound in darkness now that the long shadows fell over her.
"I will need someone to keep guard," Mere Leonie announced. "And someone must tend to the stables. Seur Philomine! Come down from there. Another will take your place. Go to the stables and stop the fires. Seur Catant! Come down. Another will take your place. Go into the hospice and help them there!" Her light-blue eyes were hot as little sparks, and she went decisively from one ladder to another. "Quickly!"
The women moved to obey her, but she did not linger. "Mere Leonie," Seur Catant began, and was waved away. "I do not want to die."
"Nor shall you," Mere Leonie promised her. "Not here, not for these deluded men." She hurried into the hall and went to the chapel. She had not been told how dreadful her face had become since the whip cut her, and so when the nuns saw her and once of them shrieked, she was perturbed by the reaction. "Come, my Sisters. Do not be cast down, not now. Darkness is coming, and we are the ones with the torches and lamps. I want all of them to shine brightly in our courtyard, so that we may fight on while the heretics wear themselves to tatters in the night."
Seur Aungelique was the first who moved. "What are we to do?"
"I want you on a ladder, ma Seur, pouring water on the men. I want you to burn all of them that come near. Seur Marguerite, I want you to help Pere Guibert, who is too busy to tend to those of us who have been hurt. You see, none of us can expect to come through this ... unscathed." She touched the flesh near her eye. "Seur Lucille has fared worst of all. She is in the greatest ... need. She must be given spirits for now, and later, it will be for us to tend her with medicament and prayers so that she may once again be ... whole." The Superior paced toward the altar. "Those heretics thought that we would fall, as the church in Saunt-Vitre did, without opposition; they are not prepared to wait for their victory. That is an advantage for us, and every one of you must seize it. Our Lord has sent us this respite so that we may have a sweeter triumph in His Name when we are delivered from their hands."
"Ma Mere," Seur Marguerite spoke up. "How have our Sisters come to be hurt at all, when we fight for the Glory of God? They are not true injuries in their flesh, are they? The Devil sends lies to us, to make us think that some are dead when they are not. If the wounds are suffered for God, how can such wounds give pain? If the death is the bosom of the Lord, it is not death at all, or so Our Lord has said. No one is dead, but waiting. Isn't that so?"
"So we are taught, Seur. You may do all that you can to remember that when you keep the nightwatches with your Sisters." Mere Leonie stopped in front of the altar and swung around to address her nuns. "Each of you must set aside her fears and commend your souls and bodies to the Will of God."
"But how?" Seur Ranegonde wailed. Her head was throbbing already, and she knew that the weakness that was slowly claiming her would not let up its grip in exchange for a prayer or two.
"Through faith, ma Seur," Mere Leonie reminded her. "You cannot falter now, for it is now all that you have to keep you from worse than the sickness that you endure so nobly."
"Anything to get them to fight, ma Mere?" Seur Aungelique taunted her. "Where is this ladder you want me to climb?" She sauntered up to Mere Leonie and smiled at her. "Show me. I will climb for you. Perhaps I will jump off it."
"If you wish to throw yourself to those monsters outside the walls, you may do it and know that you have given yourself to the Devil." Mere Leonie became more stern with each word.
"The Devil is welcome to me, then, if he frees me," Seur Aungelique mocked, but left the chapel more quickly than the others.
* * * *
Pere Guibert found Seur Catant huddled near Seur Lucille, her eyes staring hard at the flagging where the firelight was reflected in pools of standing water. "Ma Fille," he said, attempting to discover what was wrong with her. He had found many of the nuns had been wounded without realizing the extent of their injuries, and it had impressed and repelled him to see them carry on their battle while flesh was swollen and blood ran.
"Stay back," she warned him. "There are Devils in the land. They seek us. They find us."
One of the planks of the heavy door had broken near the top when an especially heavy rock had struck it a glancing blow, and now splintered wood lay all over the courtyard. Pere Guibert brushed it away without thinking and knelt beside the terrified nun. "Come, Seur Catant. We will pray together and then God will give you the strength to go on in His Name."
"And what if the Devil comes instead? What if God does not hear, or does not answer in time? It is the Devil outside. He is nearer, and nothing can change that. We are not saved, no matter what we do."
"Then beg la Virge Saunt Marie to come to your rescue and pardon your sins, so that you may come innocent to God." He heard another rock crash through the gaping hole in the door, taking more of the wood with it and causing several of the nuns to cry out in anger and despair. "You cannot remain here, ma Fille. It is too dangerous."
"But Seur Lucille is here. She is the oldest of us all, and she is a good Sister. Her burns are - Someone ought to be with her. Someone must take care of her. The wounds ... she is not able to - Someone has to watch over her." She explained this with exaggerated precision, as if there had been an argument and she was eager to set her position out as clearly as possible. "I have to guard her. She is without any other protection. You see that."
Pere Guibert did not attempt to contradict her. "Come into the chapel, ma Fille, and someone will attend to you there." He strove to get the nun to her feet, but failed.
"I cannot leave her." Seur Catant was weeping now. "It is as if she is dead."
"No, no, ma Fille," Pere Guibert said quickly. "She is alive. She breathes. Listen to her. You have to get yourself to safety. Then others will tend Seur Lucille." He could think of nothing else to say. "Mere Leonie has ordered it."
Seur Catant sneered. "She is the one who brought us to this. She is the one who has lured the Devil here, and if she were not here, we would be living in peace, as God intended."
"But Seur Catant..." Pere Guibert protested, trying to distract her from this tirade and to get her attention once again.
"She is the Devil, or his servant. She came to us to lead us into sin and bring ruin to the convent. She is ... she is vile and filled with wickedness."
"It is your Superior you call vile," Pere Guibert said shortly, and all but dragged Seur Catant away from Seur Lucille.
She made little resistance, but her very listlessness, coming so quickly on her ire, troubled Pere Guibert, who could think of no reason that Seur Catant should make such accusations, but that she herself was the victim of the Devil. "And small wonder," he said aloud as the next volley of stones struck the door.
"Come, Seur Catant," Pere Guibert said as he urged her on toward the corridor that would protect her until she could gather her wits.
"We are marked, that is what has happened. God has given us the Devil, as He has given so many before. We will be in his power and nothing will deliver us from that complete damnation, but the Last Judgment." She made a strangled sob and permitted Pere Guibert to leave her in the corridor where, once again, she sank down and huddled against the wall.
* * * *
Since the upper part of the courtyard doors had started to splinter and break, few of the Flagellants had come around to the stables, and Seur Philomine worked as quickly as she could to release those animals that had not been too badly hurt. "There, there," she said to one of the ewes that crouched, petrified with terror, in the far side of the sheepfold. "Come, pretty thing. I will get you out." She sank her hands into the soft, curling wool and tugged, prodding the sheep with the toe of her wooden shoe as she did. The ewe bleated, then bolted for the gate, leading the last of the sheep out of the stable. All that remained now that she could reach were two donkeys, and they were in the farthest pen. They had stopped their braying when the battle began, as if too frightened to make a sound. They milled together, walking restlessly, their long ears laid flat back when they were not swiveling to catch the sounds of the battle or the crackle of fire. Seur Philomine knew that it was not safe to approach them directly, for they might lash out with their hooves and teeth; a sharp blow from a donkey's hoof could dash out her brains.
The fire was spreading in a slow, sullen way, eating its way through the wood and straw Seur Philomine had soaked with water when she first came into the stables. There was more smoke, and it grew thicker with each passing instant.
"Calmly, calmly," Seur Philomine said as she tried to think of a way to get the donkeys out of the stable. Her eyes stung and her throat was sore; she coughed when she moved too quickly.
One of the donkeys laid back his ears and let out a long, high squeal.
"No, no, little one. I am not the enemy. It is the fire your fear, and I do not burn." She realized that God had not endowed these creatures with understanding, not of the sort that He had given to His children, and for that reason, she must not blame them for their stubbornness. At the same time, she thought that in this situation, she wished she had one of the Flagellants' whips to drive the donkeys with.
There were shouts from the courtyard, echoing along the high walls and becoming strange, like drowned bells.
Seur Philomine could not let herself be distracted, she insisted inwardly. If there was more danger, then she must work swiftly. She searched about the stables, her eyes watering now, and her nose running. Vaguely she could see the charred perches where the chickens roosted at night. Hoping that they were still not hot, she reached up and grabbed the nearest, putting all her weight behind the action. Her hands grew hot, but she hung on, and was rewarded when the perch broke into a long, serviceable club. Gripping this with desperation, Seur Philomine went back to the donkeys and struck them on the rumps and flanks, forcing them toward the gate in their enclosure. When they were near enough, she pulled the gate open, then stood aside as the two animals bolted, tails up, eyes a maddened white, to the field beyond the smoke-filled door.
Flames were sneaking along the floorboards, running like small, bright mice past her feet. Seur Philomine stared at them, fascinated, amazed that something so dangerous could have such charm.
Then she realized what had happened, and with a falling scream, she stumbled out of the stables, still clinging to the perch she had brought down.
It was twilight, soft and tender, like the petals of violets and lilacs. Seur Philomine stopped her headlong plunge to blink her sore eyes and look about her in wonder. The orchard was still, the trees dark, with blossom-crowned and enormous heads rising out of the earth. She could hear the animals moving through the dusk, their fear still upon them, but she felt her apprehension leave as she gazed at the sky.
She was still in rapt contemplation when she felt a hand seize her, and in the next instant was spun around to see two Flagellants, one bringing back his whip to strike her, the other about to strengthen his grip so that she could not escape.
"No!" she shouted, revulsion filling her. That her beautiful evening should be contaminated in this way! She brought her club up and swung it with the full force of her emotion against the man with the whip. The wood shuddered as it struck and she was jarred by the impact.
"What...?" the man who held her began, then yelled as she kicked backwards, her sabot smashing against his shin with a loud report. The man screamed blasphemously, falling away from her. "My leg! Balls of the Saints!" He lay on his side, his leg doubled up, his hands over the injury.
The other man was starting to get to his feet, but he moved in a dazed way, and he drew each breath in a long, rasping sob.
Seur Philomine flung her club away and fled into the orchard, following her animals.
* * * *
Two of the hospice windows had been breached and there were now Flagellants within that building. The nuns had retreated, leaving locked doors between themselves and the invading heretics.
"I want torches," Mere Leonie announced to the women gathered around her in the courtyard. "I want each of you to have a torch, and if these creatures come through the door, set their clothes afire."
"But ma Mere," Seur Odile asked faintly, "what of our clothes? Won't they be afire, too?"
Mere Leonie answered at once, and with great conviction. "There is always risk. There is risk if you cut a finger or eat tainted food. But you do not cease to do your labor or to eat, for all that. You must think of what is worse; to have a little burn, or to die at the hands of the heretics, knowing that more has fallen than this building. And what of the convent? Cannot we defend it as we defend our honor and our lives?" She saw dread in the Sisters' faces. "As this building fares, so do we. Saunt Francesco prayed to the fire, made it his friend, and he was given protection."
"I wish God would send us protection," Seur Adalin said in the most plaintive way. "My faith has always been strong, even at the worse time of the Plague. What can't - "
"Ma Seur!" Mere Leonie snapped. "You will ask God to pardon that thought, when we have ended the battle. It is wrong in you to excuse yourself in that way." She stared up at the ladder. "Seur Aungelique! What do you see?"
"They are still here," she answered with a hint of a giggle. "It's too dark to count them, and they will not speak to us."
"Then tell me if they are as near our walls as before, or has night driven them back?" Mere Leonie ordered.
"I don't think they are fewer, or farther away." Seur Aungelique was the only woman still on a ladder, and it pleased her. The hazard meant nothing to her; she had come to enjoy it. "I will need more water, ma Mere."
"You shall have it," Mere Leonie promised her. "At once. Seur ... " - she looked around quickly - "Seur Tiennette, can you still tend the fires for me?"
"Yes, ma Mere," the steadfast nun said flatly. "With God's help."
At this several of the Sisters crossed themselves and one of them began to cry. A few of the others hushed her.
"Come," Mere Leonie said in her most bracing tone. "Let us get our torches."
"What if we have no help? What if no one comes? What if these men break thought and we do not live because of them? What then?" Seur Odile demanded, her tone high and terribly strained.
"Then we will live in Our Lord," Mere Leonie answered at once. "Remember that, if you fear you will falter. Our Lord is wherever He is needed."
There was a general but unenthusiastic agreement, and Seur Aungelique laughed. "Beg the Devil for aid; only he rules here."
"That's blasphemy!" Seur Tiennette shouted at her.
"What is that to me?" Seur Aungelique challenged.
"Stop, the both of you!" Mere Leonie ordered. "We have better things to do than wrangle among ourselves."
"I only - " Seur Aungelique started, but was not allowed to go on.
"Keep watch, as you have been told!" Mere Leonie cut her short. "And do not let yourself be lulled into thinking that because you can see little, there is nothing to see!" She rounded on the others. "To your tasks, and at once. I do not want those heretics breaching any more of our defenses."
"What if we cannot stop them?" Seur Adalin asked, more from curiosity than from fear, for she had gone beyond that now.
"Then commend your soul to God and ask the Saints to listen to your prayers," Mere Leonie said, which was the only correct answer the Church would accept. "Our Lord will see to us."
One of the nuns sighed heavily just as a pounding became more apparent.
"They have broken one of the doors," Seur Odile cried out. "Oh, God!"
"Get torches!" Mere Leonie said at her most tense. "At once!"
Seur Tiennette was the first to respond; she went to the fading bonfire and pulled two of the half-burnt brands from the stack and held them out. "Start with these."
For the most part the women worked in silence, taking the torches as they were handed them and finding vantage points that would permit them to inflict the most damage on the Flagellants when they broke through into the courtyard. All of them listened to the doors, anticipating that one rending blow that would mean their last defenses had fallen.
On her ladder, Seur Aungelique began to sing, tossing her head the way she had seen Comtesse Orienne do while she flirted in her great hall with the men gathered there. The song was worldly, and more than one of the nuns looked at her with anger and consternation for her impiety. This served only to make her singing more emphatic as she prepared to pour more water on the Flagellants still waiting at the courtyard doors, their whips held ready for the flogging to come. She thought that her father should see her at her post; surely this would convince him that she was made for the brave life and not hours on her knees before an empty altar.
* * * *
Seur Philomine's feet were bruised and her palms were nearly raw, but she found herself a position of safety on the far side of the brambles, where she paused to catch her breath. What ought she to do, she wondered. The other nuns were still inside the convent and their danger increased with every passing heartbeat. But she could think of nothing she could do that would lessen their travail, and she remained where she was.
When Seur Aungelique started singing, Seur Philomine heard it, faintly at first, and then in a stirring countermelody to the rattle of blows on the walls and doors of the convent. She listened in fascination, thinking that it was so like Seur Aungelique to be so defiant.
She saw the fire in the stable grow, first as a bit of brightness in the smoke, then as a wavering flag in the gloom. Shortly the walls of the convent would begin to heat as the wooden support beams charred and smoldered, then smoke would seep from every crack and fissure in the walls. She had seen fires of that sort before, long ago, when the city elders had ordered the pest houses burned at the height of the Plague. It had been almost ten years since that terrible event, but the memory was still with her and would doubtless follow her into the grave. She sank down behind the brambles so that she would not have to look, either at the convent or her memories.
She was half-dozing, her chafed hands limp in her lap, when she heard a new sound, a clanking, jingling accompaniment to the drum of trotting horses. She looked up, thinking the donkeys must have returned, yet aware that they never made such a noise.
Around the bend in the road from Mou Courbet came a company of men-at-arms, more than thirty of them, led by torch-bearing outriders in heralds' tabards.
"There!" the leader shouted, pointing his weapon - a mace or a maul; at this distance it was hard for Seur Philomine to see it clearly - toward the walls of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. "At the charge!"
His lieutenant bawled out the order, and the horses were pressed to a canter.
Seur Philomine found herself on her feet, running once again toward the convent.
* * * *
From her vantage point on the ladder, Seur Aungelique interrupted her song to shout down to the courtyard, "There are armed men coming, I think!"
The endless rain of blows on the doors made it difficult for the other nuns to hear her, and she had to shout more loudly before any of them gave heed to what she said.
"Bon Dieu!" Seur Tiennette cried out, her indomitable calm shattered in tears.
"Not yet, not yet, ma Seur," Mere Leonie commanded her. "They are not here and the heretics are!"
Seur Odile had already put down her torch, but at this grim warning, she gave a scream and ran from the courtyard.
"Let none of you flee," Mere Leonie warned her Sisters in a genial way. "To fly now with aid at hand is worse than blasphemy. You have prayed for this, and now you will not do that little more that God requires for you to accept it."
This stern correction brought some of the nuns back to themselves, and they renewed their dedication to their duty, returning to their tasks with hardly more than a breath to revive them. Mere Leonie encouraged them with occasional words of commendation as she went from one woman to the next, cheering them on, advising and assuring them their deliverance was truly at hand, if only they did not falter now. The nuns listened, some with keen attention, others with guarded responses, a few with no feeling at all.
Seur Adalin dragged her sooty palm over her grimy forehead and pointed toward the inner door to the hospice. "They're almost through, ma Mere. It will not take them long."
"The chevaliers are nearly here. They have men outside to attend to, and then we will open the gates and allow them to deal with the heretics within the walls."
"You don't doubt the outcome?" Seur Adalin asked, not prepared to be as optimistic.
"Of course not. What are heretics with whips compared to armored men on horseback, with swords and maces?" Suddenly Mere Leonie was lighthearted and curiously frisky. "Come, my Sisters, preserve the Name of Our Lord and enter into His kingdom for your efforts."
On the ladder, Seur Aungelique crowed with delight as she watched the men-at-arms close with the Flagellants for the battle.
* * * *
The first rush of the men-at-arms caused havoc in the ranks of the Flagellants, who broke, scattering in every direction to escape the hooves and steel of the riders bearing down on them. The horses neighed and snorted with excited fear, the men shouted or screamed; then there were the first thuds and blows of combat.
Seur Philomine stopped running as she saw this, stood swaying with fatigue as she tried to make out what was happening not far ahead of her in the dark. It was difficult to breathe, for fear that she would reveal herself. She heard moans and curses and the soft song of steel cutting through the air before striking home. The sound that followed brought bile to the back of her throat; she knew and rejoiced that the Flagellants were being cut down, but the pulpy impact, the splatter of bone and blood, turned her vitals into cold, hard fists. Her pulse beat heavily in her temples, and she moved back involuntarily, as if to remove herself from the battle, and not out of self-protection alone. The fire in the stables did not give enough smoke to wholly obscure the light of the flames, but she could not see clearly, and she dreaded what she could make out.
One man broke and started to run, his hands pressed hard against his belly. He whimpered as he went, not looking before or behind him, only running to get away. He came near Seur Philomine, stumbled and righted himself. "You Godless scum!" he spat at her. "You poisonous well." He went a few uneven steps more, still calling her increasingly vile things, then he fell, twitched in the long grass, and lay still.
Charity required that Seur Philomine render aid to those in need, and the man was certainly that. Or, if he was dead, there were prayers for his soul that she ought to say. She could not bring herself to move. The man lying so close to her was a Flagellant. He carried a whip in his left hand. Though he was injured, though he had fainted, he might harm her if she came near him. He had cursed her, and declared himself her enemy. But he was a man and a creature of God who was hurt and in peril for his soul. She managed to take two hesitant steps toward him, then she heard the heavy pounding of a horse behind her, and she turned to see one of the men-at-arms bearing down on her.
"Hold there!" the man shouted in short, choppy breaths, the words muffled by the helm he wore. "Stop!"
Seur Philomine remained quite still, grateful to have this excuse not to tend to the fallen heretic. She would have to confess the fault, she knew it, and would have to do penance for her moral failure, but that she could bear, would bear with patience. At the moment, she felt nothing but abiding thanks for her deliverance. "Good chevalier ... I am..." she said, addressing the rider.
The man-at-arms paid no attention. He went to the Flagellant and leaned down in the saddle to drive his broadsword through the man's back. That done, he looked toward Seur Philomine, who gazed in horror at the prone figure. "Did he harm you, Sister?"
"What?" Seur Philomine asked stupidly, her voice girlishly high. "You ... I don't understand."
Very carefully, he repeated his question. "If he has harmed you, I will have to inform your Superior."
"He ... no. He did not touch me ... There were curses, but ... no." She could not say anything more to the man, afraid that she would give herself away if she did.
"Good. These ... damned Flagellants" - he modified what he had intended to say with embarrassed haste - "have done unspeakable things to some they have chanced upon." He dismounted. "Are there any others outside the walls, Sister?"
Seur Philomine pressed her hands to her cheeks, forcing her mind to be calm so that she might provide reasonable answers to the man-at-arms. "I do not think there are any others," she responded. "I have not seen any."
"That's something," he said, beginning to sound tired. "I can't escort you back to the convent. Not yet. A little while, and all will be clear, but for the time being..." His shrug was more audible than visible, his armor clanking as he lifted his shoulders. "Is there a place we might sit? And I'll need some water for my horse. He's dry."
"There is a stream, just off there," she said, pointing away through the orchard. "Be careful. The ground is uneven." She wanted to laugh at the ordinariness of what they were saying. Neither of them looked at the convent.
"Thanks. I will return shortly. You remain there unless more of those ... vermin come this way. Then you run and hide, Sister. No use giving them a chance to harm you." He chuckled, sounding very young. "They've ruined old ladies; a morsel like you would delight them."
As the man-at-arms rode off, Seur Philomine sank to her knees beside the dead Flagellant and folded her hands in prayer.
* * * *
As the ponderous doors to the courtyard were pulled open at last, the remaining Flagellants were driven inside by the men-at-arms. A few could not avoid being forced into the dying bonfire, and their screams were louder than the trampling hooves and the ringing of blows. In the little space, the heretics and the chevaliers milled, each trying for enough space to strike back at the others.
The nuns retreated to their corridors, and huddled there, between the courtyard and the chapel, their whispers unheard by anyone but themselves as they alternately thanked God for their deliverance and begged la Virge Marie to intercede for them in Heaven.
Mere Leonie remained nearest the courtyard, her striking features unreadable in the dark. Only the glint in her icy eyes was noticeable, like the shine on the edge of a sword. She moved her lips silently and as the battle progressed, she smiled.
"Oh, Mere Leonie, what are we to do?" Seur Odile yelled at her when two of the Flagellants nearly succeeded in entering the corridor.
"Patience, ma Seur. Patience and faith," Mere Leonie said in a loud voice. "We are in the hands of Our Lord."
Seur Odile crossed herself as she moved farther back toward the chapel.
A bit later, while one of the men-at-arms dragged a Flagellant over the flagstones by his heels, ignoring the screams of the man, Seur Adalin shrieked out a protest.
"Be silent, good Sister," Mere Leonie admonished her. "You would have fared worse than that if those heretics had succeeded here."
The Sisters became restless when they heard this; it was one thing to have that prospect in their thoughts, another to be so curtly reminded of it. Seur Tiennette pressed her lips together, determined to show no emotion. Across from her, Seur Aungelique giggled.
There was a sudden increase in the rhythm of the fighting, a scurrying of men, quicker, more abrupt cries and orders. While it lasted, it was unendurable, but it ended with awesome speed. Then the men-at-arms herded the remaining Flagellants into the center of the courtyard and brought their panting horses around them. Shortly after, a gravelly, deep voice called out, "It's over, good Sisters."
Before the nuns could emerge from their shock at this announcement, Mere Leonie turned to them. "Thank Our Lord for what He has done for you, my Sisters; let la Virge know you are grateful for her protection."
The nuns took only a moment to respond to this familiar requirement. There was solace in prayer, and for that, most of them sought the chapel.
"You enjoyed this," Seur Aungelique accused Mere Leonie as she prepared to follow the rest of the women.
"I enjoy the triumph of faith, Seur Aungelique," Mere Leonie said mildly.
"It's more than that," Seur Aungelique insisted.
Mere Leonie pretended not to have heard her. "I must speak to the captain of the men-at-arms. I will be with you as soon as it is possible. Pere Guibert is still in the refectory, and he must be informed.
Seur Aungelique shook her head, but accepted her dismissal with more fatigue than meekness.
* * * *
Pierre Fornault de Parcignonne dismounted, his sword already wiped clean and returned to its sheath, when Mere Leonie came across the devastation of the courtyard toward him. He could not see her countenance clearly in the low, ruddy glow of the dying bonfire, but he thought for an instant that he saw the flicker of a smile in her handsome features. "We've done what we can, Mere Leonie," he said, by way of beginning his report to her.
"I see that you have, Sieur le Duc, and I am more than grateful for your deliverance." She let him come to her, those last few steps. "Do you know yet how much damage they did?"
"No, and I will not be able to assess it for you until morning. I've assigned three of my men to put the fire in the stable out and to keep watch through the night to be sure that the fire does not start again, or spread." His hand was sore where one of the Flagellants' whips had struck him, and he could feel the stiff welt forming. It troubled him to think he would not be able to wield his sword with ease until the wound healed.
"Are any of your men hurt, mon Sieur?" Mere Leonie asked, cutting into his thoughts with her solicitous inquiry.
"A few. Nothing to speak of. We're in armor and carry swords. Those madmen had nothing but their whips to protect them." He paused, thinking of what they had found in the rubble of the church in Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur. "Still, that was enough."
"You must bring them to us for help," Mere Leonie said with warmth. "It is little enough for all you have done. There will be nuns to aid them, to tend their hurts and see them fed. We will need little more than half an hour to prepare." She looked around the courtyard. "This will be tended to later."
"There will be those to work for you," Pierre told her, wondering why her assurance of aid for his men made him feel so uncomfortable.
Mere Leonie sensed that there was something he was holding back from her, and she pressed him for information. "Did they do much harm before you stopped them?"
"Yes," he said brusquely. "They have done more than many another might do. They are worse than invading English, and I have seen my share of them in my time." He sighed deeply. "Rome might pray for such agents as these, for all they have done."
"Do you believe that Rome sent them, then?" Mere Leonie inquired, looking toward the few pitiful men who were all that remained of the heretics that had besieged the convent and wrought such suffering among the nuns.
"I think that they are possessed of the Devil, for the Pope has said that they are. I think that they are the servants of Satan and dedicated to the destruction of the Church. And the Pope has said that the Romans are wedded to the Devil and are deep in his clutches. So, whether Rome sent them or they came of their own accord, they serve the same master, the heretics and the Romans." He turned abruptly to shout at one of his men. "Get them outside the walls and tie them up. The trees in the orchard should serve!"
"At once," came the exhausted reply, and the mounted men-at-arms began to do as their Duc had ordered them.
"What will become of them?" Mere Leonie asked, a trifle unsteadily. She did not look at the heretics or Pierre's men.
"The Church demands that they be put to death. That is required. It is not for me to decide or change." He recalled again what he had seen before, and knew that Avignon would not permit the heretics to live, and would not let them leave their flesh quickly. "Whatever the Pope decrees, I will ... execute." He coughed, his throat gone dry with a desire that stifled him; Mere Leonie was a step closer.
"Where will you take them, Sieur le Duc?" Her voice was low.
"Wherever I am told." He forced himself to move his attention from her. "Where are your Sisters, ma Mere?"
"They are safe. Be sure of that."
"But where?" His demand was sharper than he had intended, but he did not excuse it, for fear of bringing attention to his reaction to her.
"They are in the chapel, most of them," she replied with a trace of hauteur. "A few are in the refectory, a few are in the hospice, and there may be one or two outside the walls. Seur Marguerite has said that she wants to give the heretics a little of the honey from her hives, because her bees are God's creatures and holy."
She lowered her head. "Seur Marguerite has been much afflicted. Yet there is charity in her, Sieur le Duc."
"Madness is not charity," Pierre corrected her.
"Still, hers is a worthy example, is it not?" She shook her head. "I should learn of her. I am entrusted with the well-being of all these women, and I have failed the mandate of Our Lord in these hours."
"Nonsense! How failed?" Pierre demanded, coming a little closer to her. It was not wise to approach a nun in this way, but she fascinated him and he did not want to keep off from her. He could confess his desire later, when he had dealt with the heretics and his men.
"You may ask that, mon Duc, for you must fight in the world, and in the world there are simple defeats and victories. But I battle for souls with a great enemy and there is no quarter offered or given, and no ransom that can be made either way. God might promise redemption, but not for those who turn their backs on Him." She raised her head, directing her pale blue eyes directly at him, fixing him with their light as with the little blue flame in the heart of an oil-lamp. "You do not have the same issues I do to contend with. You will admit the truth of that, won't you? Or do you think that God is the same as the King or the Pope?"
"The Pope is the voice of God on earth," Pierre said stiffly, looking down at his hand and flexing the fingers experimentally. "For that, our war is the same war."
"But fought in different ways," she pressed. "Is that not so?"
"It ... may be," he allowed. "Well." He broke free of the spell of her eyes. "I must see to these heretics and the setting up of camp. You must attend to your Sisters. I was wrong to keep you so long." He turned on his heel and strode toward his horse, wishing that he might delegate someone else to speak with her later, and all the while looking forward to the next time he would have occasion to be in her presence.
Mere Leonie watched Pierre mount and ride out the ruined gates of the convent. There was something in her face - not quite like greed, but close to it - that was unlike her usual expression. Then it was gone, and she went back into the corridor that led toward the chapel where the nuns were waiting.
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