Lanercost Priory 1276
Upon hearing a pitiful scream near the altar, Mary Rose stuffed a fist in her mouth. Then, she silently dropped her herb basket, hugged the walls, and ducked into the first of three alcoves. A shaft of blue light from the colored window above the altar shone onto a small, whimpering body, curled up on the floor.
By all things blessed and holy, it’s Sister Cecilia.
Christ on his cross gazed down at the new mother abbess holding a knife high. With wild, crazed eyes, blood dripped dark spots onto her white tunic.
Dear God, I’m too late.
Horrified, Mary Rose dashed across the open expanse while the blade plunged into her friend’s chest.
“Oh, no. Prithee. Stop!” She knelt in front of Cecilia’s lifeless body, once again the knife came down, and Rose jumped back.
Had she not moved so fast, the sharp edge would’ve sliced her neck instead of ripping her head-scarf.
With heart pounding in her ears, Rose scrambled to her feet, grabbed a tall candle holder, and held it like a pike. “Stay back. I’m warning ye.”
“Scottish whores. It’s time to be rid of the lot of you.”
Soulless eyes stared back at Mary Rose as she prayed and poked the makeshift weapon forward. “I’ll not be murdered this day. Not by the likes of ye.”
The old woman’s cackle echoed in the cavernous church. “Would you rather watch your flesh burn as you scream in agony? You look confused, child. Let me explain. I came into the church and found the two of you arguing. I barely escaped with my life and could not prevent the untimely death of dear Sister Cecilia. It was you who murdered her, not me.”
Perhaps it was the reflection of light off the altar’s ruby chalice but Rose would never again doubt that the devil lived here on earth.
She hissed, “I did no such thing.”
“Who will the canons of the priory believe? The great Abbess of Lanercost or a simple lay-sister, who never even took her vows.”
This cannae be happening.
Mary Rose’s arms shook but she held on tight, using the heavy candlestick to keep distance between them. “Why? What did Sister Cecilia ever do to you?”
“Her Scottish heathen presence in this holy place is an affront to the Almighty.”
“Ye dare murder a nun right under the nose of our savior?”
“Mine is the religion of the righteous, girl.”
Mary Rose glanced down at her leather shoes, wet with Cecilia’s blood, and moaned. Her best friend was gone and if she didn’t want to join her at St. Peter’s gate, she’d need to act quickly.
Praying God would forgive her, she lifted the heavy iron stick and with all her might, bashed the base down on the head of the abbess. Then, without a glance back, grabbed her basket, shoved a shoulder to the oak door, and exited.
Outside, everything seemed oddly normal. Some canons jested on their way from their opulent dwellings to the church and waved. None would think it odd that she walked away alone. Alas, not until they saw the two dead bodies lying by the altar. No doubt after that, she’d be burned at the stake.
Knees shaking, she dashed under the arch in the priory wall, crossed the meadows, and dared not stop until she reached Inglewood forest. Panting, she rested upon a great stone and let her head drop back to stare up at the blue sky between the many green leaves.
Mother, if you’re looking down from heaven, tell me what to do.
Rose remembered the last time they spoke, the day she found that small box wrapped in wax.
“This is why I never allowed ye to say yer vows.” Mother Abbess stopped to cough and wheeze, every word a great labor. “Yer bound for more than a life within these walls. Forgive me for not telling ye sooner but I promised yer mother I wouldn’t.”
“My mother? I thought I was left in the church hatch?”
“Aye but there’s more. She gave me enough gold to take care of ye until ye reached maturity but forgive me lass, after she died, I loved ye too much to send ye away.”
The coughing grew so hard that Rose feared this was the end. “Prithee, dear abbess, say no more. We can speak, later. Sleep.”
However, after that, many nuns gathered to pray and Rose had no more time alone with the abbess. The woman who’d cared for her since infancy never again opened her eyes, other than vacantly, as if already wandering in the heavenly realm.
Now, sitting on a cold stone at the edge of the forest, Rose reached into her purse and fingered the brooch. The heavy gold was aged, almost green, and yet the red gem sparkled. The coat of arms etched into the back looked familiar but she hadn’t yet discovered the name associated with the crest.
Mayhap, the piece was stolen.
But then why was it left with me?
She must find out. Otherwise, her choices were slim. She could either return to the priory to be executed for murder or become a woman who spreads her legs for money. Honestly, neither suited.
I have to find a way to survive outside the priory walls.
Rose slipped the jewelry back into her purse and grabbed the handle of her herb basket. With a little good fortune, she’d pick some mushrooms and barter for food as she made her way to Londontowne. Once there, perhaps she’d earn some coin by selling her potions to the rich and infirmed.
Pondering how to make that happen, she walked deep into the forest until tree limbs grasped hands overhead. It soon grew dark and her footsteps muffled.
Every few minutes she stopped to listen for horse hooves on the road, prepared to hide. By now, the canons must’ve discovered the bodies and would send knights to find her.
The sudden clash of swords made her jump into the pines with her heart racing. Had this been any other day, she would’ve turned tail and run back home but that was no longer a possibility.
She wallowed in self-pity for only a moment until an incredible notion came to her.
God is giving me a perfect opportunity to do penance!
That must be it. Why else would she still have her flesh needle and thread in her purse? She’d fully intended to put those precious objects in a trunk that she shared with the sisters but had forgotten when Mother Abbess had taken ill.
With no other thought in mind, she ran toward the noise until she found huge men atop destriers pummeling each other with shields and swords. Metal scraped against metal, horses screamed, and men shouted out directives. She stood in the middle of the road, frozen in fear and awe.
Mayhap, this is not a verra good notion after all.
Coming to her senses, she dashed back into the scratchy brambles to get a better view of who battled.
What this? A group of foreigners dared carry the banner of King Edward?
Their well-armed opponents wore the green, checkered wool of the arrogant Douglas clan. With lands just north of the priory, they felt entitled to everything on either side of the great wall. Rose had spent many hours stitching flesh because of their greed but had never seen an actual battle.
Clearly, today, the Scots had met their match.
“God’s Blood, stand down or die. I will take yer women and rape them all.” A red-headed Douglas sat atop a dark charger and pointed his sword at a bearded foreigner.
The lighter-haired man wore a long braid that ran down the center of his back over a strange leather tunic covered in small steel plates. He wielded a curved sword and his skills were so ominous that none in green dared approach.
Despite the Scot’s arrogant claim, many of his men lay upon the ground dead or injured.
The foreigner’s brows furrowed as he waved his blade at the Douglas clan leader. “Tell your men to drop their weapons. We have no quarrel.”
The Scot sneered, motioned to a man with a goat’s horn and Rose covered her ears at the loud, terrifying bleat. When it stopped, the men in green wool placed their weapons on the forest floor.
She fully expected the infidels to begin a bloody slaughter but the foreign leader held one fist high. After that, swords hissed against leather as they were placed inside sheaths.
Never had Rose witnessed a more extraordinary exchange but then again, when had she ever stumbled upon a battle? She shifted uncomfortably when a man writhed in agony nearby.
Unable to hold back, she rushed forward and held up her basket. “Prithee, m’lord. Can I be of assistance?”
The huge leader with the brown braid dismounted, ignored her plea, and strode off.
However, a dark-skinned infidel with a fur cap jumped off his black stallion and approached her. “Can you sew flesh, good sister?”
This was a first as well. She was breathing the same ether as an infidel, devil-worshiper. Heart pumping, her mouth dropped open.
“For the love of Allah, can you speak? Do you have the skill or not?” He knelt beside the injured warrior and unbuckled the bloody leather vest.
Shaking, she nodded, showed him her basket of herbs, and opened her purse. “I have bark to stop the bleeding, and a fine bone needle, and thread.”
“Well, get at it. I’ll start a fire to cauterize the wounds.”
Most often, she would’ve looked to the leader before stitching but the man seemed to have vanished. However, from his shouting, she surmised he was more than just a little vexed with the Scots who attacked.
His English was perfect but his cursing? Dear lord, she blushed as she cleaned wounds with wine and sewed.
As soon as she bit off thread, the brown man placed a hot iron on the deepest of the cuts to stay the bleeding. That stench made her swallow back the contents of her stomach and she was glad she hadn’t had an appetite this morning.
They repeated the process with two other injured men. The rest had less deep cuts and were tended by women with long beaded headdresses and brightly colored tunics.
Suddenly, one of those women rushed up to the brown man, tears in her eyes, speaking rapidly in a language so strange, Rose wondered how the sounds were made.
Then, the two motioned her to follow them to the back of a wagon where a young boy, perhaps only five years old, lay as if dead. A red-nosed woman sat beside him, holding a dirty rag to his face, rocking on her heels and wailing.
Rose put her palm on the child’s forehead. Should his body heat not be released immediately, indeed, the child might die.
“Quickly, there’s frigid water nearby.” She started to pick up the lad but the giant with the braid appeared as if out of the ether.
The frowning man gave no sign of helping, so Rose shoved at his muscled arm, picked up the boy and set off.
“Stop. I gave you no permission.”
Running even faster, Rose said over her shoulder, “There’s a spring nearby. I need to immerse the laddie to bring down his fever.”
Spurs clanked as he drew his sword and kept pace with great strides. “The woods are full of Scots. Stay close.”
“The people of Inglewood know me and would not harm me. Who’d birth their wee bairns? Heal their sick?”
The leader grunted as if not believing but she cared not one whit. It was more important to get this child cold. When they arrived at the spring, she shed her cloak and lowered into the frigid water. Meanwhile, the warrior stood guard at her side, eyes darting, weapon pointing.
When he turned, their eyes met, and her heart pounded. The place between her legs twitched in a most unholy manner and her throat went dry.
He was no doubt the most enchanting man she’d ever seen. Teeth chattering, Rose found it impossible to tear her gaze away. This strange knight had tempting hazel eyes over a straight and noble nose. Thick lips pursed between his short brown mustache and beard. Tight leather covered the top half of a deep blue tunic with a slit so high, she could see a bit of hair on his naked thigh.
“How is the boy?” His eyes rested on the child within her arms.
“He is c-c-cooling, m’lord.” Her feet were numb and her wet tunic weighed her down.
When the child moaned and stirred, Rose stood and handed off the boy. “Here, ye take him now, m’lord. I must make a recipe.”
The knight nodded, cradled the lad, and she slogged away to find willow. Then, she mashed the bark with a rock, added some herbs, and a few drops of water. When she returned, the lad was laying down undressed and wrapped in the leader’s cloak.
After she got the child to swallow, the man squatted, smiled at the lad and kissed him on the forehead. The gesture, coming from this powerful knight, made her want to weep and it further saddened her to think he might be the boy’s father, the lady in the cart, his wife.
Not that it truly mattered. Rose had no station in life, not even as a nun. She had no business thinking of base, carnal matters.
She knelt and when she placed another bit of mixture on the child’s tongue, the knight grabbed her wrist, twisted her arm, and sniffed.
“What was that you gave him?” His strong grasp did odd things to her insides and his gaze pierced like an arrow.
“Willow. Surely, ye know it can stay a fever?” She tried to keep her voice steady while the drumming in her chest beat out of control.
Worse yet, he pulled her closer and with lips almost touching, said in a voice soft as fleece, “I never studied the healing arts.”
“W-Were ye never in England before, m’lord?”
“Actually, I was born nearby.”
“Who is your sire? M-Mayhap I know of him.” Her eyes lifted, snared by deep dark pools that went on forever and when he tucked a loose curl into her head-scarf, she shivered.
Will I have a first kiss?
A bitter laugh followed. “Even if you knew him, he does not claim me. I’m his bastard first born.”
So, like me, he is an unwanted child?
“Oh.” Blushing, she muttered an apology and for some strange reason that bit of knowledge endeared the warrior to her so much that she placed her hand upon his. “I understand more than you know.”
His eyes lowered to where she touched him and moved up her body, stopping just below her neck. She followed his gaze and nearly died of embarrassment when she understood why he stared with mouth dropped open.
Oh, dear God.
Wet linens clung to her form so tightly that the outline of her nipples showed. Her first sinful thought was to drop her clothes so he could see more. Her next was to cover her breasts, scramble to her feet, and dash behind a tree.
Chuckling, he removed his armor and his tunic. In just boots and a thin under-shift, his very large manhood swelled.
Is he going to have his way with her?
In fear or perhaps, in anticipation, she almost fainted. She’d never lain with a man before and the thought of him being her first made her giddy.
I’m going straight to hell.
She closed her eyes and waited.
“M’lady?” His voice was close.
“Yes?” Lips pursed, body ready, she opened a lid halfway but instead of seeing his wonderfully naked body, a blue tunic floated in front of her face.
Not only that, he averted his gaze. “Take off your wet clothes and don mine. I wouldn’t want you to take ill. That’d be no payment for your kindness.”
“Oh. Of course. Thank ye.” Face heated and totally mortified at how low her thoughts had sunk, she quickly dressed in his tunic.
Of course, it smelled of woods, leather, and another scent that set her inner loins aflame. It wasn’t until she came out from behind the tree that she realized what a big mistake she’d made.
With furrowed brows, he cleared his throat and his jaw ticked. Clearly, he was unhappy with her for being such a loose woman. When he pulled out a gold coin she had no idea what to say. Did he still expect her to perform some physical coupling?
What a confusing man.
“Is that not enough?” His eyes searched her face and she was somehow disappointed that they no longer rested upon her breasts.
“No. I mean yes. I mean, no! I’m not like that.”
“You healed the child. Did you not? Surely, I should pay.”
God in heaven, I’m too much a fool.
“It’s way too generous, m’lord.” She took the coin, squatted by the spring, and splashed cool water on her over-heated face.
When she stood, the boy stirred, and the man tussled his hair. “Good lad. Soon you’ll be at my side, wielding your sword in battle.”
“Yes, m’lord. I’m forever your faithful servant.” The child pounded a fist to his little chest and grinned, showing a gap in his front teeth.
“We should go.” The warrior glanced her way, donned his leather armor, and buckled his sword around his waist.
“Is the boy yours?” Rose huffed, running to keep up with his long gait.
When the man turned, his eyes were still dark, his tone sharp and angry. “They’re all mine. The knights, warriors, their wives, families, and the children. I’m their lord.”
He tossed the boy high, giggles filled the forest, and Rose smiled. Clearly, she’d passed the first of God’s trials. Mayhap, He would soon again listen to her prayers and she’d be able to return home.
With the wee lad bouncing on his shoulder, the knight smiled at her for the first time since seeing her near-naked. “Tell me. Why were you walking alone and unguarded? A beauty like you should take more care.”
No one had ever said or even alluded to such a thing and it stunned her mute. When she thought back on it later, that’s the only reason she could give for not telling him all the trouble she was in. Instead, she lifted her tunic so as to walk faster and followed him back to the camp.
“Are you from the priory?” he asked.
“Ah, no. I mean, yes, but I cannae return right now.” She stared down at the muddy path filled with roots and trampled leaves.
God have mercy. Telling falsehoods is difficult.
He frowned, no doubt quite aware that something was amiss. “Well, I won’t have you wandering about. You can sort it all out with your masters.”
“I insist.” He grabbed her wrist making it impossible to run as they made their way back to the road.
Upon arriving, she gaped at the long line of wagons and horses. She’d been so busy attending to the wounded that she hadn’t noticed how many traveled in the man’s company.
There must be over two hundred souls.
When the leader placed the child in his mother’s arms, the woman wept openly and others gathered. They beckoned Rose to join them so she did, albeit with some hesitancy.
I should not be here. I should be running for my life.
The pooling of Cecilia’s blood and the horror of the morning flashed in her mind’s eye. Surely, the bishop wouldn’t burn her at the stake without getting to the truth? However, she recalled the last words of the abbess and shuddered. No matter what, a servant would never be believed over nobility.
I’ll be ashes by dawn if I don’t put distance between me and the priory.
While she stayed with the women, the leader mounted his charger and spoke with the brown-skinned healer in their strange language. By the way their horses whinnied and tossed their manes, Rose surmised they were about to depart so she shuffled off the path, eyeing the brambles.
A sudden shout made her jump. “Stay with the wagon, nun. Don’t wander off.”
“Wait, I’m not a nu—”
The leader’s dark eyes met hers, then pointed at a mounted warrior. “Doğan, see to it she comes to no harm.”
She was about to explain how a lay-sister was much different than a nun but it already was too late. The lord’s eyes faced forward and this Doğan person positioned his charger directly behind where she stood. Clearly, escape would not be possible anytime soon.
Then, the leader raised a powerful fist in the air and the cart’s wheels made deep tracks in the forest path but in the wrong direction.
She was heading back to the priory!
Rose meandered over to the sick boy’s mother and tugged on her sleeve. “When we stop, will ye hide me?”
“Sorry. No English.” The beads on her forehead rattled as she shook her head and pointed at another, about Rose’s age, wearing the same foreign clothes.
The girl took her hand and spoke softly so as the man riding behind would not hear. “Why hide? What’ve you done?”
Sighing, Rose clasped her hands and hoped that God would start to pay more attention.
“I know this may be hard to believe, but ye must. This morning, I heard the most awful screams coming from my church. When I entered, I saw the newly made abbess kill my dear friend, Cecilia. Had I not defended myself, I too, would be dead.”
“How horrible. Why didn’t you tell Hugh, our leader?”
“Do ye really think he’d believe me over her? I’m nothing but a servant.” Rose considered approaching the man but the many weapons on his person changed her mind. Best to stay with the caravan and run as soon as possible.
“Where is your home?” Rose turned her gaze back to the brown-skinned woman with the thick black lashes.
She shrugged, “No one knows, save Aliyar and m’lord Hugh.”
“Azzah?” An older woman walking behind them called out and her new friend turned to leave but Rose grasped her upper arm.
“Wait. Will ye hide me when we get to the priory? Prithee. For just a little time?”
White teeth showed bright against dark skin as she bobbed her head. “You healed my nephew. For that, we will always be indebted.”