Chapter Seventeen

The hall did open into the kitchen area, which was a huge room, immaculately clean and lively. Hanging from the low-beamed ceiling were dozens of different types of herbs, many of which CC was pleased that she recognized. The walls of the kitchen were lined with hearths, both big and small. Isabel and three women whom CC had not seen before were busy preparing what would probably be the midmorning meal. None of them noticed CC in the shadowed doorway, and she took the opportunity to study them. It was easy to see a trend in the women chosen to be servants at the monastery. Each of them was old and in some way disfigured. The right side of the face of the woman kneading an impressive mound of bread dough was drooped and slack, giving her a partially melted appearance. The woman who was chopping potatoes and onions did so with one hand, holding her uselessly curled left hand tightly against her body. The third woman, who was plucking the feathers from a fat hen, did so hunched at an awkward angle caused by a large hump on her back.

CC felt the slow burn of anger in the back of her throat. The abbot might as well have had a huge sign hung around each woman's neck which read: I'm allowed here be-cause men don't find me attractive. No wonder Isabel had disliked her on sight.

Over one low-burning fire was suspended a huge blackened kettle in which Isabel, her back to CC, was slowly adding crushed garlic and leaves of basil.

"It smells wonderful," CC said. Each woman jumped in surprise at the sound of her voice. CC smiled warmly at Isabel. "I didn't know you made the stew. If I had, I would have told you sooner how delicious it is. You're a magnificent cook."

CC couldn't be sure, but she thought the sudden flush on Isabel's shriveled cheeks might have been from pleasure at the unexpected compliment. She turned and included the other women in her smile.

"Good morning! It's sure nice to see female faces. I've felt kind of outnumbered lately." She nodded her head back toward the rest of the monastery. When the women didn't speak, but continued to stare, she just widened her smile. "My name is Undine."

This seemed to thaw them to action, and the three women dropped quick, awkward curtseys and mumbled hellos in her general direction. Isabel limped to her side.

"Princess, are you lost?"

"No, I came looking for the kitchen."

"I did not think you would awaken this early or I would have been there to help you dress."

"Oh, that's not why I was looking for the kitchen. I need to get some cleaning supplies to take to the chapel. I thought the kitchen would be a good place to find a bucket and some rags, as well as soap and water. Did I guess right?"

"Yes, Princess, but all you need do is to tell me what you wish cleaned; you need not supervise the details." The shock of CC's sudden appearance had passed and Isabel's tone had returned to being edged with thinly veiled sarcasm.

"Oh, I don't want you to do the cleaning—I will." CC was pleased when Isabel's eyes widened in surprise. "All I need is for you to show me where I can get the supplies." She looked at each woman as she continued speaking. "Did you know that there is a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mother in the chapel?" All of the women remained silent, but CC nodded her head at the group as if they had answered her. "Apparently, no one knew about it. It's such a tragedy. It's obviously been ignored and neglected for years. I found it yesterday during mass and I pledged to the Mother that I would restore it." She turned her smile back on Isabel, who was staring at her like she had totally lost her mind.

"You will clean it yourself?" Isabel asked, unsure she had heard CC correctly.

"Yes. I'm not afraid to get my hands wet," CC said, loving her own little private joke. "So, if you'll just point me to a bucket and some soap, I'll get to work."

Numbly, Isabel pointed to an area next to the humpbacked woman who had been plucking the chicken.

"Thank you!" CC said. Purposefully, she walked across the room and picked up an empty bucket.

"There is water in the barrel and rags and soap there, Princess." The humpbacked woman pointed to a cupboard near one of the smaller, oven-looking hearths.

CC smiled her thanks and grabbed a bucket. There was a large ladle hanging from the side of the freshwater barrel, and CC quickly filled her bucket, then she picked several clean rags and a crude bar of pungent-smelling soap from the cupboard.

"Which way to the chapel?" she asked Isabel.

"That hallway will take you to the gardens. Can you find your way from there, Princess?"

CC nodded. The bucket was heavy, and she was glad that Undine's body was tall and strong. Before she left the room she turned, speaking to all four women.

"I appreciate your help. And, please, you don't need to call me Princess. My name is Undine—and I'm just another woman in a place filled with men."

Pleased with her parting comment, her smile didn't waver even as she struggled her way across the perfect gardens, occasionally sloshing water onto her robes and pointedly ignoring the shocked stares from monks already busy with their morning chores.

"They act like they've never seen a woman work before," she mumbled. Climbing the steps up to the chapel she tried not to look at the horrific renditions of hell carved around the entrance, but her eyes couldn't help lingering on them. For some reason they were even more disturbing the second time she saw them, even though this time she was ready for them. She hesitated, searching the stone for some glimpse of hope or salvation, but every scene mirrored only desperation and despair—eternal damnation and pain.

"It's like an awful car wreck I can't look away from," she whispered. Shaking herself, she forced her eyes away from the macabre artwork and entered the dim, incense-saturated building. Even the soft gray light of dawn was bright compared to the darkness within, and CC stood still for a moment, blinking to accustom herself to the gloom.

The chapel was deserted except for two monks who knelt before the mound of flickering candles that were to the right of the nave. When they glanced back at her, she smiled a greeting to them. They acknowledged her with brief nods before returning to their monotonous chanting.

As if a magnet was drawing her, CC made her way along the rear of the chapel to the deeply shadowed left side. Two brightly burning candles beckoned her back to the forgotten statue. She paused in front of it, taking a moment after setting down the bucket to catch her breath. She hadn't been wrong. The lovely statue had Gaea's unmistakable face.

First, she thought, she must have more light. Without hesitation she strode to the table at the front of the nave. It was laden with unlit candles and long, dry pieces of twig that were obviously used for lighting them. Gathering as many as her voluminous robe could hold, she clanked her way back to the statue. Then she worked at placing the candles all around the statue and lighting them. As her little corner of the chapel blazed with light, she felt the eyes of the monks on her back. Glancing quickly over her shoulder she caught them looking at her.

"Brothers, please add to your prayers those for the renovation of the Virgin's statue. It is long overdue." Without waiting for their answer she turned back to the job before her.

It was worse than she had realized the day before. The statue was flaky and filthy, but that wasn't all. That entire side of the chapel appeared to have been ignored. Filth and spiders ruled supreme. When CC dipped the first cloth into the bucket she was sure she heard something slither into the shadows.

Gritting her teeth, she swiped the bar of soap against the damp cloth, telling herself over and over again that crawly things were more afraid of her than she was of them—even though she sincerely didn't know how that could possibly be true.

While she worked she thought and prayed. She asked Gaea for guidance and tried to sort through the tangle of her own feelings. It didn't take long for her to realize that understanding she was in love wasn't the answer to everything—instead it was the beginning of many more questions.

Soon she fell into a cleaning rhythm. She had always been fond of keeping things neat and in their proper places—that was one of the reasons the air force had been such a nice fit for her. Military clean was a good thing, not passionless and contrived like the gardens of the monastery; just everything in the place in which it belonged and everything in the best shape possible. CC tore one of the rags in half horizontally and used it to tie her thick hair back out of her way. Three times she made the trek through the garden to the kitchen for clean water. The women still didn't speak to her unless she spoke to them first, but Isabel had a mug of herbal tea and a hunk of bread ready for her after the second trip, and on her last trip the woman with the shriveled hand smiled shyly at her.

She did notice that the sun was well overhead and that the day was pleasantly warm, but she was too busy cleaning to pay attention to much else—until she straightened up, groaning and rubbing at a kink in her back. Stretching, she stepped back and studied her work.

"Oh!" she gasped, struck by the sudden beauty of the statue. The newly cleansed Virgin seemed to glow with life. The warm light of the many candles illuminated the blue of her dress and the deep gold of her hair, and it seemed like she was surrounded with a halo of soft color.

"You are doing a wonderful job. Daughter." Gaea's voice came from behind her, and CC turned to find the goddess perched on the edge of a nearby pew. Today she was wearing a gown made of silk so white and ethereal that it looked like the goddess had found a way to capture a cloud and wrap herself within it.

CC glanced around the chapel. She had no idea when the two monks had left, but she was relieved to see that the building was deserted.

"I'm glad you think so." She wiped her wet hands on the dirt-smudged robe and walked over to Gaea. With a sigh she sank down to the floor at the goddess's feet. Leaning against the pew, she smiled up at Gaea. "It's tiring work, cleaning all that gunk away."

Gaea's eyes drifted back to the statue. "She has been forgotten for years. I want you to know that you are washing away more than simple dirt. You are washing away hatred and neglect."

"How could I do that? I don't understand."

"You will, Daughter. You will." The goddess reached out and smoothed a strand of hair back from CC's face. At her touch, CC felt some of the weariness leave her. "Now, I sense that you have come to a decision. Are you ready to tell me?"

CC nodded. Looking into the goddess's eyes she said, "I'm in love with Dylan, and I want to spend my life with him."

For an instant CC thought she saw an incredible sadness pass over Gaea's face, but the emotion was gone so quickly that she wondered if it had just been her imagination.

"Dylan is a wise choice," Gaea said, touching CC's cheek in a motherly caress.

"You mean except for the fact that I can't live in the sea without Sarpedon killing him and raping me?" CC put her chin in her hands and rested her elbows on her drawn-up knees.

"I must simply petition Lir on your behalf."

CC glanced sideways at her, not fooled by the lightness in the goddess's voice.

"If it was really that simple you would have done it before now," CC said.

"You did not know you loved Dylan until now," Gaea countered.

"Do you think Lir will listen to you?" CC asked tentatively, almost afraid to hope.

Gaea's smile was one of a seductress. "He has before. You are proof of that."

CC almost rolled her eyes and said she didn't want to hear the details, but she caught herself in time. Then she looked up to see the goddess watching her with sparkling eyes, and they both began to laugh.

"There are some things all daughters do not want to know," Gaea said, wiping mirthful tears from her eyes.

"You're right about that," CC said, then added, "Actually, you're right about most things. So, I'd like to know, do you think I'm making the right decision in choosing Dylan?"

"Before I answer you, I would like you to answer one question for me, Daughter. And do not ponder your answer; I want to know the first thought that comes to your mind." The question shot out. "What do you love most about the merman?"

Without hesitation CC answered, "His kindness."

"Ah," the goddess breathed. "I see. Then, yes, I believe you have made a wise choice, for when the thrill of his body fades or changes, and the difficulties of pledging yourself to only one person surface, kindness will be the balm that soothes the wounds of life."

"Thank you, Mother," CC said softly, her eyes filled with tears.

Unexpectedly, Gaea found that she, too, had to blink back tears, and she cleared her throat delicately before she could speak again.

"I will call to Lir tonight. Perhaps I will have news for you as soon as tomorrow night."

CC felt her heart skip. "Then maybe I won't have to change back into human form at all!"

Gaea returned the young woman's smile, careful to keep any sadness from showing on her face. "Perhaps," she repeated. "But remember, child, the immortals have their own timetable, and gods, particularly, do not like to be rushed. Lir may take some persuading." Gaea waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

CC pulled a face at her, and they sat together in compatible silence, each woman lost in dreams of the future, as the goddess slowly stroked her daughter's hair.

After several minutes CC said, "You know, it's not just the statue that is in bad shape over here." With a flick of her wrist she gestured, encompassing that entire side of the chapel. "This whole area is a mess. It's like someone purposely wanted this part of the chapel to repel people. You wouldn't believe all the filth I've found, and all I've focused on so far has been the statue." She pointed into the thickly shadowed corners. "I haven't started cleaning over there, yet, but it smells like some animal has used this place as a toilet. It's disgusting."

Gaea shook her head sadly. "It is what William has allowed, even encouraged. Having the statue of the Mother forgotten was not enough for him. He wanted it fouled and desecrated."

"Why? What's wrong with him?" CC asked.

"William is a complicated soul, and an excellent example of what happens to a man when he embraces all the negative aspects of power. He controls through fear and manipulation, preying on the weakness of others so that his own weaknesses will not be discovered. That is a particularly dangerous path for a man who has chosen the priesthood. Instead of embracing love, he encourages his followers to turn to fear and denial for salvation. In truth, he is a very passionate man, who at one time had a great deal of love to give." Gaea sighed. "Now he is a sad, twisted man. I pity him, but I am relieved that you will not have to stay near him for much longer." The goddess shook back her hair like she was flinging away a bad habit. "Enough of such morose thoughts! I must ready myself to call Lir, but first I believe I should give my hardworking daughter a little aid with her task."

The goddess approached the statue. Surprised, CC stood and followed her. Gaea stopped in front of the newly cleaned Virgin.

"Yes, I remember well that the devoted young sculptor wanted to add a little something to the hair, but the abbot who commissioned the work could not afford it…" Gaea's words faded as she smiled secretly to herself.

"You knew the man who sculpted this?" CC asked, intrigued with the idea.

"Of course! How do you think he copied my features so well?" She smiled mischievously at CC. "I pretended to be a shepherdess who just happened to cross his path as he was praying for inspiration for the Virgin's statue. It was a pleasure to grant the prayers of such a talented artist." Her playful smile widened. "I have always believed art should not be controlled by one's purse. Do you agree, Daughter?"

Grinning, CC nodded.

"Good! Then I shall complete the sculptor's work."

CC watched as the goddess held open her left hand, palm up. With her right hand she swirled the air above her palm until CC could clearly see a little tornado of sparkles that looked like floating gold dust. Speaking to the swirling dust, the goddess intoned, "Complete what the artist began. So have I spoken; so shall it be. " Then she blew gently on the little spiral and it burst apart. In a shower of golden waterfall, it rained down on the statue, settling like a fairy cloud into Mary's hair. For an instant more it twinkled and glistened magically, then Gaea made a little clucking sound, tongue against teeth.

"Not so brightly, beautiful ones," she said, and the twinkling died to the more earthly shine of plain, pressed gold.

"It's so lovely!" CC exclaimed, then she sobered. "But won't this cause Abbot William to ask me a lot of difficult-to-answer questions, like 'How did you cast a spell on the statue, Princess?'" CC scowled, imitating the abbot's simpering tone.

Gaea laughed lightly. "No, child, then he would have to admit that he knew what the holy statue looked like in its glory, thus proving that he purposefully allowed it to be forgotten and misused." She shook her head. "That would open too many difficult-to-answer questions for him. There are still good people left at Caldei, people who would be upset by the intentional desecration of the Virgin's image. William does not want to do anything to awaken them from their apathy." She took her daughter's hand. "But know that even though he will not mention its gilding, he will recognize that it has been added to the statue, and he will know that you are responsible. Beware of him, especially tonight and tomorrow when I may be otherwise occupied and unable to come quickly if you have need of me."

"I'll be care—" she started to say, but the sound of someone entering the chapel interrupted them.

CC glanced at the doors to see the distinctive shape of Isabel's limping body framed against the outside light. Suddenly the goddess was gone. CC sighed, but put on a happy face as Isabel approached.

Isabel looked around the sanctuary. "I thought I heard you talking to someone, Princess."

"I was just talking to the Holy Mother, telling her how wonderful she looks."

The old woman turned her questioning gaze to the statue and her eyes widened, instantly filling with tears. Trembling, she approached the Virgin and dropped to her knees in front of her with a grace that surprised CC.

"Look at her! I have never seen anything so beautiful. It is as if the Holy Mother glows with life." Isabel bowed her head and clasped her hands. When she was finished praying she genuflected and rose unsteadily to her feet. Then she turned to face CC.

"You did this. You brought her back to life. Thank you," Isabel said simply.

"There's no need to thank me, Isabel. And anyway, in a place filled with men, women need to stick together. Don't you think so?"

"Yes, Princess."

This time when Isabel used the title she did so with a smile, changing it from a formality to a term of endearment. CC could hardly believe how that genuine smile transformed the old woman's face. For the first time CC

glimpsed the more youthful Isabel that hid behind the old woman's mask of bitterness.

"You must be hungry, Undine. You have worked through the day. It is almost time for vespers."

CC was surprised that so much time had passed. "It seems like it shouldn't even be midday yet." She looked down at her grimy robe. "Much as I would like to stay and watch the monks' reactions when they first see our statue, I don't think I'm dressed appropriately for vespers."

Isabel's face had split into another happy grin when CC used the word our, to describe the statue, and CC felt a rush of pleasure at the old woman's obvious joy.

"Let us change this soiled robe for clean clothes," Isabel said.

"Clean clothes sound wonderful," CC said.

She emptied the bucket of filthy water outside, and she and Isabel walked slowly through the garden, chattering about what cleaning supplies CC would need the next morning to continue the renovation.

They took a little turn in the path and walked through an area of the gardens that CC didn't recognize. That part of the gardens lacked flowers, but on either side of the path were sectioned off row after row of small, neat-looking plants. CC paused to take a closer look at the greenery.

"Oh!" she said with a delighted gasp. "Herbs! Isabel, look." CC tiptoed carefully between the rows, then she bent and brushed her hand over the nearest plant. It had dark green leaves with slightly jagged edges. She inhaled deeply the wonderful scent. "Mint." Her gaze shifted and she caressed other leaves. "And basil, cilantro and parsley." She laughed. "No, I mean parsley and cilantro. It's easy to get the two mixed up." She smiled up at Isabel who was staring at her in open surprise.

"You have knowledge of herbs?"

CC nodded. "Not as much as I wish I did, but I've always grown things. I love digging in the dirt and knowing that it was from my own efforts that the mint in my tea tastes so wonderful. Actually," she paused, choosing her words carefully so that she wouldn't offend the old woman.

"Have you ever thought about adding mint to your amazing stew? I think it would compliment the mutton very well."

The old woman blinked owlishly.

"I didn't mean to offend you," CC said quickly, worried at Isabel's silence. "Your stew is already the best I've ever tasted."

"You have not offended me. You have surprised me. I believe I have been mistaken in my judgment of you, Undine, and when I am mistaken I do not dawdle about making corrections. I must ask that you forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive." CC's smile reflected her pleasure at the old woman's words. "You didn't know me, and I didn't know you. Let's just call it a misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding," the old woman repeated. "I like that. I also like your idea for adding mint to my stew. Shall we harvest some?"

"Together." CC grinned.

"Yes. Together." Isabel returned the grin and the two women began breaking off the tops of the fragrant herb.

Isabel's apron was filled with mint, and she and CC were talking amiably about the many uses of cilantro when they entered the kitchen. The other three women looked up, surprise clearly showing on their aged faces.

Isabel dumped the mint on the nearest counter. Several tendrils of silver hair had escaped from her bun and they curled wildly around her face. She pushed them behind her ears and grinned, suddenly reminding CC of a young girl.

"Undine has given me a wonderful idea for the evening stew." Isabel looked at each of the other women. "The princess is wise in the way of herbs."

"Well, I wouldn't call it wise. I just like working with plants, and I like to use them in my own cooking," CC said, a little embarrassed at Isabel's unexpectedly effusive praise.

"It is a wise woman who understands the ways of herbs," the humpbacked lady spoke softly.

CC smiled at the old woman. "I like to work with my hands. It makes me feel good when I've finished something, and I know that it's a job well done."

"Oh, you must see the Holy Mother!" Isabel exclaimed. "It is a miracle!"

"It is not a miracle," the woman with the shriveled hand grumped. "It is plain to see that the princess simply took the filth from the Mother and placed it on herself!" Then she cackled uproariously at her own joke.

The other women were silent, looking at CC to see if she took offense.

"I still think it can still be classified as a miracle," CC said seriously. "Have you even known any reason for a princess to get this dirty, I mean, unless she was terribly clumsy and she fell off her knight's charger as he was whisking her away to their golden castle." She placed the back of her mint-stained hand against her smudged forehead and attempted her own rendition of a princessly swoon.

Isabel chuckled. "Princess, I think you need to practice your swoon. It does not seem very…" She searched for a word.

"… believable." The slack-faced woman finished for her, slurring the word slightly.

"Not believable!" CC pretended offense, pressing her hand against her heart. "You've wounded me!"

"Oh, posh," the woman with the shriveled hand said. "You are too tough to be wounded so easily."

CC smiled at them. "Well, perhaps the four of you would care to demonstrate for me a believable swoon?"

Four pairs of sparkling eyes looked at her, then at one another. Then mayhem broke loose as each old woman, amidst much laughter and sighing, staggered around the kitchen, demonstrating her own version of a believable swoon.

CC couldn't remember when she'd laughed so hard. She'd just fallen into a chair, holding her side and begging the women to stop, when a monk CC recognized as Brother Peter burst into the kitchen.

"What is happening in this room?" he yelled. Then he came to an abrupt halt when he noticed CC.

The women sobered instantly, and CC clearly saw fear flash in their eyes.

She stood quickly, addressing the monk in what she hoped was the snotty, imperious tone of royal command. "You are Brother Peter, aren't you?"

The monk nodded. "Yes, Princess."

"As you can see by the filthy state of my garment, I have been cleaning the Virgin Mother's statue all day. It is tiresome, tedious work, and I needed some levity. Of course I didn't want to trouble any of the Holy Brothers, so I came looking for Isabel. I commanded that she and these other servants amuse me." She wafted her hand absently in the direction of the frozen women. "I am finished being amused now." She smiled graciously at the confused-looking monk. "Thank you for coming to check on me. Please give the abbot my regrets that I must miss mass this evening, but as you can see I am not dressed for vespers." She turned her back on him dismissively.

"Yes, Princess," he said and hurried from the room.

When she was sure he was gone she said to the women. "The monks don't have much fun, do they?"

The women slowly thawed, making scoffing sounds in their throats.

"It doesn't mean we can't," CC said. The women threw her doubtful looks.

"Abbot William says mirth is sinful," Isabel said, only this time her voice didn't sound smug, as it had the other times she had repeated the abbot's dictums to CC; this time she sounded tired and sad.

"How about what Jesus said?" CC asked, and all four pairs of eyes were instantly attentive. "He said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.' Well, children, especially little children, laugh and play and have fun all the time. You'd think if happiness was some big sin, then Christ would have said something like, 'Suffer the little children to shut up or I'll beat them and oppress them into heaven.' Wouldn't he?"

"You make an excellent point, Undine," the woman with the shriveled handed said.

"What is your name?" Undine asked her.

"Lynelle," she answered with a bright smile, showing lots of big, yellow teeth.

"And yours?" Undine asked the woman with the partially paralyzed face.

"Bronwyn," she slurred.

"My name is Gwenyth," the lady with the humpback volunteered before CC could ask.

"Ladies, it is a great honor to meet you. I am the Princess Undine Who Can't Remember Anymore Than Her Name," CC said in her best imitation of a British queen. Her audience cackled appreciatively. Then she dropped into the bow of a prima ballerina—and almost fell face first onto the floor when her back foot caught in the hem of her robe.

Laughing, Isabel caught her. "Perhaps I should help you out of this robe."

CC smiled at her. "And into something more queenly?"

"Of course," Isabel said, mimicking CC's royal imitation. "After you, my lady."

Both of them backed from the kitchen, waving royally at their laughing "subjects."

"Is there any possible way I could take a bath?" CC asked as they made their way through the deserted dining room.

Isabel patted her hand. "Go to your room. I will get the tub. If you stand in it, I will pour the water over you."

"Can I be naked?"

Isabel tried unsuccessfully to stifle a smile. "If you insist."

"I insist," CC said firmly.

"I do not actually leave my chemise on while I bathe," the old woman admitted.

"I knew that," CC said.

Isabel wrinkled her heavily lined forehead in surprise. "How did you know?"

CC sniffed in her direction. "You don't smell bad."

CC could hear the old woman's chuckles long after she disappeared to fetch the tub.

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