A Mortal Glamour
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Shortly before noon the next day, a priest on a lathered mule was admitted to the courtyard of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. Before he was out of the saddle, he was calling for Pere Guibert in a high, terrified voice that sent nuns scurrying to find their confessor. The newcomer paced distractedly while he waited for Pere Guibert, only speaking to grant one of the nuns permission to lead the mule away to the stables. He stared about as he roamed, moving like a beast in a cage, too unpredictable to approach.
By the time Pere Guibert came into the courtyard, he was seriously alarmed by the various descriptions he had heard of this new arrival. He feared that he would be confronted with a madman or worse; he doubted he would be able to subdue such a creature. "God be with you, friend," he said cautiously.
"And with your soul," Padre Bartolimieu responded, rushing toward the other priest.
"Bon Dieu!" Pere Guibert cried, recognizing the Augustinian. "What has happened, good Padre, that you come here?"
"We have had word..." He looked about at the nuns gathering in the courtyard. "Not here. There must be a place more private."
"Of course," Pere Guibert said, understanding at once his hesitation. "Of course. There is a cell we may use where we will not be disturbed. You may tell me there." He signaled to Seur Elvire. "I pray you, inform Mere Leonie where I have gone, and that I will need to speak with her shortly. I do not want to alarm the convent further, and so I caution you to speak circumspectly."
Seur Elvire, pleased at being singled out for this errand, despite the implied rebuke, ducked her head to conceal her satisfaction as she hurried out of the courtyard. There would be opportunity later on to whisper to her Sisters of Mere Leonie's response.
Padre Bartolimieu had grabbed Pere Guibert by the elbow and was attempting to shove him through the main door. "We must not delay. God on the Cross! It is ... it is..." Again he forced himself to be silent, gulping air as he glanced over his shoulder. "That matter we spoke of? Do you recall? Do you remember what I said about my church? What became of it? Do you remember that? Do you?"
The urgency of these questions distressed Pere Guibert. "We spoke of many things," he said in an effort to soothe the other man. "This way, good Padre. There are steps, just there, and at the top of them, turn ... have a care."
"Hurry!" Padre Bartolimieu, heedless of this warning, lurched up the stairs, all but dragging Pere Guibert after him. "There is so little time. You do not know how they can move, when they want. Who knows what might ... You must warn your village, here, and the others in the valley, if you can. Word must be sent at once. They will have to find arms and..." He took a deep breath and reached out to steady himself against the wall. "I left as soon as the messenger arrived, and still, I don't know if I am far enough ahead of them."
Pere Guibert indicated a door on the left, then reached to push it open before Padre Bartolimieu fell through it. "Who is this you speak of? What danger? Romans?" He pointed to the pallet under the crucifix. "Rest, Padre. You are exhausted."
"I can't rest. I must not rest," Padre Bartolimieu protested as he dropped onto the blankets. "There is not time to rest. Dear God, if I fail now, I will know without doubt I am to burn in Hell forever and ever, with all my sins still fresh on my soul and my repentance worthless as perfume on a nun."
Pere Guibert had a fleeting, unhappy memory of finding Seur Aungelique at Un Noveautie. He bit his lower lip. "What is the danger, Padre? Is it Plague?" He did not wait for Padre Bartolimieu to answer. "Because if it is, your fears are unfounded, at least here. We have had pox here, but not Plague."
"That is bad enough," Padre Bartolimieu said, crossing himself for protection. "No, this is not Plague, or pox, or anything of that sort. I could almost pray that it were. There are men coming to kill us and ruin our church, this chapel, the convent, all of it. The village churches are the most in danger, but these places are not spared, not when the Flagellants come. They seek to bring an end to the Church, for they believe that the Church has ... deserted them, and that God has shown His Wrath with Plague, and therefore, they must destroy all before God Himself brings about the end of the world." He lowered his head. "I have prayed and prayed, and found no solace, but if I can save one church, one convent, any true believer from these terrible men, then it may be that I will not be forgotten in Heaven or cast into Hell or outer darkness at the Last Judgment."
The pathetic expression in Padre Bartolimieu's voice, the wholly downcast posture, touched Pere Guibert deeply, and he had to control himself to keep from weeping. "How did you learn of these Flagellants? Are you sure they are coming this way?"
"They cannot go through the passes, yet; therefore they must come here. It is the only way the road will take them, toward Avignon. It is where they wish to go. To Avignon, to kill the Pope and destroy the Church. Is it not enough that we have Romans to contend with? Must we be subjected to this as well?" This last outburst was directed at the ceiling, as if he hoped for God to answer him.
"When did you learn of this?" Pere Guibert asked, hoping he would be able to find out enough to protect Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion as well as Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur from attack.
"I left ... yesterday. I stopped after sunset to sleep and was in the saddle before dawn. The damnable mule is a strengthy beast, but he has no speed."
Pere Guibert nodded, agreeing about mules. "And your messenger - how far ahead of the Flagellants was he?"
"A day at the most, he said. He had been in the saddle for more than a day, and had not slept. His horse was spent and he was worn as a ghost." Padre Bartolimieu set his jaw. "I must face them, Padre ... Pere Guibert. I owe that much to le Bon Dieu, for my cowardice before."
"If you think it is necessary," Pere Guibert said dubiously. "But for the moment rest. I will speak with Mere Leonie and we will determine how best to proceed."
Padre Bartolimieu looked up at Pere Guibert in hopeless resignation. "It is the Devil; he is winning at last. He has been the Foe of God since the beginning of the world, and he has power in the world. He is the one who brings Plague upon us, and for the weakness of our faith and the depth of our sins, we are permitted to succumb to it, and the Devil triumphs. And the Flagellants, they are also in the ranks of the Devil, filled with his evil spirits as were the swine into which Our Lord cast the demons. They are already in Hell, and they bring it through the land, and more fall into error and are lost to God. If we do not fight them, then we are more despicable than Pilate or Judas, who both surrendered Our Lord to His enemies and His death."
"We will not fail, Padre. I will send messengers at once." Pere Guibert did not feel as resolute as he sounded, but that did not keep him from speaking with conviction. "Word will go out today, and Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur will have time to prepare, as will we."
"And if they do not? What messengers have you? Who will you send?" He stared around the cell. "There are only nuns here."
"Some of whom know how to ride a horse," Pere Guibert reminded him. "And if they are devoted to their calling, they will not balk at such a task. In times such as these, it is not fitting for nuns to keep to their cloisters, but instead to come to the defense of their Church and their faith." He wondered how difficult it would be to convince Mere Leonie of that. "I know that the Cardinal would not approve of such a plan if we were to ask him, but there is not time for such a message to be sent - and who would carry it? - and so I must do as my conscience prompts me, and ask the Sisters to aid us in this time of need."
"I will pray it will succeed," Padre Bartolimieu said with more fervor than Pere Guibert had ever heard from him.
* * * *
Mere Leonie heard the priest out in silence. "You may have two nuns to ride for you," she said when he had finished. "The rest are to keep here, where we may do what we may to prepare for the coming dangers, if they are coming at all."
"But Padre Bartolimieu..." Pere Guibert began, then trailed off.
"Very true. And it is most certain that he believes the gravity of the situation and that his warning is genuine, but, mon Pere, you know as well as I that when word is sent, it is often magnified, so that what was a group of old men from Hungary becomes an army of sages from the Khan before the Lord's Day comes twice. We must have care, for to be caught up in the fear of danger is as great a sin as doing nothing. God has promised His protection and salvation, and to do those things which increase doubt and terror only leads to greater sin."
Pere Guibert nodded, knowing that Mere Leonie was well within her authority to speak to him in this way. "I have heard enough of the Flagellants to believe we must at least take measures to insure the safety of the convent and the village."
"Of course. I in no way disagree. God would not be pleased if we waited like sacrificial goats for the Devil to descend on us." She rose and walked down her study. "I will see that the message is carried through the valley and on toward Avignon, but I will not send one of my Sisters to the Papal city; that would be incorrect in every particular, and the Pope would surely rebuke us sternly for such actions. I will, however, see that a messenger is sent to the Pope, and one to that Duc ... Seur Aungelique's cousin, who came here on her father's behest. He is not far from here and he has armed men to follow him. That will be of use if the Flagellants come here. And if for some reason they do not, the men-at-arms may still ride in pursuit of them."
It shamed Pere Guibert to admit he had not thought of so practical an approach to the problem, and he was quick to acknowledge his failing. "You are right, ma Fille. You are seeing this more clearly than I am."
"Well, coming from Dalmatia, we learn to anticipate such things," she said, turning his praise aside. "We have Turks and heathen alike to deal with there, and we know from youth how to protect ourselves."
"I had forgotten you were from there," Pere Guibert admitted, grateful to have that excuse for his lack of preparedness. "Yes, naturally you are more familiar with the fate of those who do not plan to defend themselves." He paused. "Who will you send?"
"I think that it must be women of some rank - a pity that it cannot be Seur Aungelique, but it would be folly to permit her outside the walls - women who have names that bring respect. Seur Fleurette and Seur Lucille are the most likely choices, though only Seur Fleurette is of a noble House. She must be the one to ride to the Duc, I think. She is not as strong as I would like, but the good angel will see that she arrives safely. We have a plow horse and she may have that for her mount. Seur Lucille ... she is known in the villages of the valley, and there are many who will heed what she says no matter what they may think of her message. That is a factor, mon Pere; who will they listen to, once the word is spread? Those two are not flighty nuns, and they may be trusted to serve God with their lives."
The last of Mere Leonie's words startled Pere Guibert, who had not considered until then there could be so great a risk to the women. "They should not ride without protection. It is not proper that they ride alone."
"Yes, of course they should have escort, and ride in wagons with curtains so that men may not look upon them. And there should be four or six armed men with them. But it is not possible. Even I arrived here with no escort other than the monk who drove the wagon. In plump and happy times, we may wait for such formalities, but this is not the case, and our lives and souls are forfeit if we fail."
Simply hearing these words brought the full weight of their danger home to Pere Guibert. He crossed himself. "As you say, ma Fille. We are in the Hands of God."
"But in the realm of the Devil," she reminded him with a somber nod. "In the realm of the Devil."
* * * *
Barrels were filled with water and kegs with sap. The nuns were set to cleaning away all the loose branches that had fallen in the orchard, and anything that might serve for fuel for a fire was brought into the courtyard and stacked. Stones were gathered up, and three enormous planks were brought from Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur to reinforce the courtyard door. Mothers with small children were sent from the village to occupy the upper floors of the convent, in the vacant cells. Cattle and sheep were driven into the distant fields and left with their shepherds and cowherds to remain there until all danger was past. Villagers and nuns alike took strength from Mere Leonie's calm assurance that they would come through it all with the help of God. Watching her, Pere Guibert felt his guilt grow with his own profound doubt.
The two nuns, Seur Lucille and Seur Fleurette, had accepted their instructions with proper humility, and had left the convent within the hour of Mere Leonie's request that they ride to warn others of the approaching Flagellants. Seur Lucille still had leather riding leggings, but Seur Fleurette had not, and it caused some little upset until a pair could be found. Both nuns accepted letters to deliver as well as memorizing Pere Guibert's instructions and information.
Activity continued at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion for the better part of a day. Even those nuns usually not active took part, and though all felt harried, they also felt they were doing important and essential work, and most of the time camaraderie prevailed at the convent. Mere Leonie supervised with her usual efficiency that left Pere Guibert a little envious for her abilities and foresight.
"You have done well, my Sisters," she told them after the evening meal, which had been served late. "You have been brave and industrious, which is much to your credit and will stand in your favor when you answer to Our Lord. You have also been of steady and tranquil minds, showing the surety of your faith. There is no doubt here." She turned to address the mothers with their children who sat on the far side of the refectory, warily regarding the nuns. "You, too, have shown your faith by seeking refuge here, and God will demonstrate His love for you with His protection. There are enemies and we must defeat them, but our Ally is greater." She nodded toward Pere Guibert. "Our prayers will be heard, I am certain. And Pere Guibert and Padre Bartolimieu will hear your confession, if you feel the need of shriving before tomorrow."
All those gathered to hear her felt grateful and pleased that they had done so well.
Yet the Flagellants did not come then, nor the next day, nor the next, and the goodwill that had been created and nurtured began to give way under the strain of crowding and waiting. Pere Guibert could see the courage of the nuns erode, turning spiteful and angry.
He pleaded with them to have a care and think of the danger that waited for them, and at first this was enough to stop the mutters of discontent, but as the hours turned into days, the nuns were not so easily silenced.
"Seur Elvire," he admonished her when he found her arguing with one of the women from Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur, "you must have patience with her; she does not know the ways of your Order, and she meant no harm when she took that piece of bread for her child."
"She's capable of making her own bread," Seur Elvire sulked.
"In her own house, yes, but here she must take what you offer her, and charity given in pride is no charity at all. Let her have the bread and forget the rest."
Seur Elvire glared at him. "As you insist, mon Pere," she said.
"Deo gratias," he said, reluctantly blessing her.
Mere Leonie continued cheerful, untouched by the discord that grew around her in dissonant voices.
"You are all dedicated nuns," she reminded her Sisters. "You have taken vows and those vows were never more important than they are now. You must not be distracted by the inconvenience of our predicament, for that is where the Devil finds a foothold. You must be on guard against acrimony. Those of you who cannot curb their tongues must come to me or Pere Guibert to confess your error."
This instruction was met with silence and averted eyes. Seur Odile coughed delicately and gave a long, pointed stare to Seur Aungelique, who had resumed her night-long vigils in spite of the suggestion that she should not.
"I do not wish to criticize any of you," Mere Leonie went on. "I would want to think that all of you are too firm in your faith to bring disruption and despair to this convent. But there are those of you who are caught up in considerations of the world and the body, and for that you lead your Sisters into error and grief. You will not be so ready to complain when you face the Throne of Mercy. And you may be everlastingly thankful that God is merciful, for He knows better than any man alive what agonies of fear each of you must suffer with in the dark of the soul, where melancholy and fancy lay their snares. Those of you who try to sleep, imagining the ravages of the Flagellants, buildings falling around all of us, bodies ripped and broken, all in ruins, you must learn instead to call to God for the airy heights of Paradise to comfort you. When the horror of our coming battle is too great, the hosts of angels should occupy your thoughts."
Pere Guibert listened to this with some apprehension, for he could see more worry come into the nuns' faces at the dreadful visions Mere Leonie described. He himself had often painted such pictures of Hell, but what they faced now was not the everlasting fires but the immediate threat of pain and death. He decided to speak with Mere Leonie later about her warnings.
"When you say your prayers tonight, let each of you solicit la Virge to extend her aid to us, helpless women that we are in this world of armed men. Let each of you beg her to remember your devotion and service and beseech her to keep you from harm. She is our way to salvation and to the joys of Heaven in the life hereafter. She alone can protect us." She crossed herself and waited while the nuns did the same.
The meal was even more silent than usual; the women from the village did not speak and their children had been threatened into silence. Pere Guibert ate slowly, finding the simple food hard to chew, as if the flour had become as obdurate as the tempers of the nuns around him.
* * * *
At midday the next day a swineherd came from Mou Courbet with word that there had been troops of men on the road, men in robes who carried lashes which they used on themselves and others. "There aren't so many of them, not as many as we feared. They aren't going very fast. They march along but with the whips and all..."
Seur Odile, who was warden for the day, nodded inwardly, congratulating herself on her wisdom which had convinced her that no Flagellants would come to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. "God be kind to you for your service," she said in her most condescending tone.
"Thank you, ma Seur," he answered, tugging his forelock and bowing toward the grille. "It might be just as well to send the women home. We're driving the stock in from the fields, in Mou Courbet."
"I will inform our priest of that." She had no intention of agreeing to the plans of a swineherd.
Mere Leonie heard the news with relief. "Well, God is good to us, is He not? He has shown His care in keeping us from harm."
If she was satisfied, many of the others were not. Seur Adalin, who rarely said anything, either to the bad or the good, for once let it be known that she was disappointed.
"We have been in readiness, we have shown ourselves willing, and God will not test us!" she declared.
Several of the Sisters agreed; Seur Ranegonde added, "We have been tested, ma Seur, by those insufferable women from the village. Have you seen the state the upper floor is in, thanks to them and their children? We will have to whitewash all the walls again and we'll be cleaning privies for the rest of the week."
Pere Guibert heard some of these mutterings, and though he understood the frustration behind them, he was worried at the vehemence the nuns showed now that they were convinced they were safe. "You must not assume all danger is past," he cautioned them, and was politely but deliberately ignored. When he taxed Mere Leonie with his concerns, she chided him for his lack of faith.
"Mon Pere, I know that there was much to fear, but it is past now and we must return to our Order, grateful for the guidance and protection God has shown us. We should not doubt our deliverance, and yet that is what you propose to do."
"Have the women stay for one more night. Take that much of a precaution, ma Fille. Otherwise we may all have cause to grieve."
"But they do not wish to stay, mon Pere," she countered. "They have already said that they wish to leave. What am I to do? Lock them in the chapel and set my Sisters to guarding them? How could I justify it? Think of what these women have suffered already, and ask yourself if I am wrong to let them take their children and go home."
Pere Guibert had no answer for her, and so he offered no argument. "They are in danger, Mere Leonie. The Flagellants are like mad dogs, everywhere attacking the faithful and spreading their madness as they go. Even now, though we think otherwise, there is danger, and they will face it here in safety or there in vulnerability." He looked away from her. "May God forgive us for deserting them in this terrible hour."
"If you believe it is terrible, why do you not try to convince them? Tell them what the Flagellants have done to other villages. Padre Bartolimieu has seen them for himself, and he can bear witness to the ferocity of those servants of the Devil. Surely that would be enough for God, and your conscience." She said this kindly and Pere Guibert was annoyed that he imagined malice in her concern. "Mon Pere?"
"It is nothing," he said, giving her his attention once again. "I want so to aid these families, and it causes me much ... travail."
"It is to your credit that you are conscientious, but you have admonished me for the depth of my fervor before. It may be that you, too, should think of what you are saying and how you have said it." She bowed her head. "Forgive me for the impertinence, mon Pere. I have been much worried to think of our predicament and it has led me to speak in a way not becoming of one in my position. I will confess my error and beg God's understanding. He knows what is in my heart."
"Ma Fille..." Pere Guibert began, but she would not let him continue.
"Who here is unscathed by danger? These Flagellants are like Plague, aren't they? A thing that is capable of laying the whole world to waste, but wholly unseen and unknown. I feel I am helpless now, and ... I do not know what else to do, but permit the village women to depart."
This burst of confidence was welcome to Pere Guibert, who listened with indulgence. He reminded himself that Mere Leonie, for all her abilities, was a young woman who often expected more of herself than God had given her to do, and he had been concerned that she might have the seeds of pride planted deep within her. It had caused him to pray for wisdom in his dealings with her, and here he felt the first touch of reward for his devotions. Now he could understand where her questions came from, and he knew that there was a reason to hope for her, to recognize the strengths that were manifested so that her virtues would shine all the brighter. "I think we would both benefit from an hour of meditation, ma Fille. You have shown a stalwart attitude that must be helpful to your Sisters, but is ultimately difficult for you. Let me suggest that you go to chapel now, while I spend some time with the women from the village. Your mind will then be once more at rest and we may discuss the predicament again, when we both have given our fears into the keeping of Heaven and la Virge."
"I will beseech Our Lord," she said submissively. "It is not fitting that I should subject the convent to my concerns and frailties, for each must carry the burden that Our Lord sends to us in the manner that we are made to carry it. That is the way of the world, isn't it, mon Pere?" She crossed herself. "I would appreciate it if you would take a little time to speak to Seur Aungelique. She has imposed more vigils on herself, and this, I am afraid, is evidence of defiance, not acquiescence."
"It may be," Pere Guibert said, feeling his heart heavy within him at the need to talk to the difficult young nun again. "I will hear her out, if she will confess."
"Yes. You told me the last time she was not very willing to surrender to the Will of God." Mere Leonie paused, then continued. "She keeps her own counsel now and will not entertain questions or ... well, you know how revels draw her and contemplation does not."
"Yes." He blessed the Superior with an old sense of dissatisfaction which he decided was apprehension from all they had dreaded as they waited for the Flagellants to come. He nodded gravely. "You have done well, ma Fille. You are not to think you have erred or ... or done anything displeasing to la Virge."
"Deo gratias," she said. "I hope with all my heart that it is true. Our Lord is precious to me." She rose from her knees and accompanied Pere Guibert along the hall to leave him at the chapel door with a low bow and a gentle smile.
That smile remained flickering at the back of Pere Guibert's mind while he tried to convince the village women - without success - to remain at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion for another day. He thanked God that Mere Leonie was dedicated to the Church, for such a smile on a worldly woman would be as devastating as the wiles of Comtesse Orienne. The smile was haunting him still as he stood in the door of the convent courtyard and watched the small group of women and children trudge back to their houses. He was sad for them, knowing how they had come to resent the convent and its Sisters. He would have to make a gesture of sorts to them, through their priest. He determined that the next day he would go into Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur and arrange for something with Pere Foutin. He did not know what these peasants would find acceptable, or what he would be able to provide them. In times of difficulties, it seemed that instead of drawing closer together as God had often admonished His children to do, they remained apart and angry with one another. This stay had been such a case, with the village women coming to dislike the Sisters more with every passing hour, and the Sisters reaching not with the compassion they should give, but with contempt. How unfortunate it was, he thought, when all they had wanted to do was protect the village from danger.
During the night, the Flagellants came.
* * * *
It was near the middle of the night when the first men appeared on the road from Mou Courbet. They walked with steady determination, silent and inexorable. All of them carried whips. Some had short-handled whips with braided lashes tipped with metal, the scourges used by monks to beat the Devil from their flesh. Some carried carter's whips, great long strands of leather knotted for strength and weight. A few had bullock's whips, the heaviest and most punishing of them all, tight-braided horsehide that cut to the bone in a single blow. Some of the men showed weals and scars where they had been struck by their own weapons, but others were untouched, their stony faces without any sign of human feeling.
There were about fifty men in the first group, nowhere near the number Pere Guibert or Padre Bartolimieu had feared, and they showed none of the frenzy that was said to be the mark of their damned fellowship. Soldiers were more rowdy, even on forced march, than these men. Monks made more sounds with their chanting, merchants with their conversation. These were not like other men, and for that alone, they were frightening.
Pere Foutin and his sour-faced sacristan were the first to see the men approaching.
"What do you think...?" the sacristan muttered.
"I don't know," Pere Foutin answered, much troubled. "The village ... they should be roused. Who knows what manner of ... The bell. Ring the bell, Frere Loys. Do that." He stepped back into his old, drafty church and closed the door. He would open it again, once the bell had been rung, but until he knew who was coming, and at such an hour, he could not bring himself to keep the church unprotected.
Frere Loys bustled toward the stairs leading to the squat bell tower when he heard the first sound the strange men made - an eerie rumble, like a growl, deep in the chest, no louder than the purring of a large cat. He stopped in mid-stride and nearly fell for the utter terror that coursed through him. Then he bolted, reaching out for the rope to the bell as he might grasp for the hand of an angel.
Pere Foutin was appalled at the sound, and knew that he did not need more warning than that to rouse the village. The hair on his neck prickled and he could hardly bring himself to breathe. His hand moved in a blessing, but he was not aware of it. "For all that I have done to offend Thee, I beg You will forgive me now," he muttered as he pressed his forehead against the thick wooden doors that now seemed woefully inadequate to keep them safe. "I repent my sins and despise myself that I committed them, knowing that they were..." His voice dropped to nothing as he heard the rough clamor of the bell. "Let it be enough," he prayed. "O Bon Dieu, let it be enough."
The purring sound grew louder, angrier, deeper. The men gathered in front of the church, spreading out to bar the way to any who might seek to enter or leave the church.
The bell sounded again, more emphatically, as Frere Loys tugged and cursed.
Suddenly the men fell silent once again, and this was more awful than the droning they had made mere pulse-beats ago.
"Virge Saunt Marie," Pere Foutin whispered, "You who care for us at the hour of our death, intercede for me; tell them that I did not mean all the venal things I've done, that I did not intend to desert my brother when the Plague came. I have tried to undo the wrong I have done. You know that I have. If I am weak, God must know it. You will remind Him, Supreme Virge, that He gave me little bravery. I did all I could with what I have." He crossed himself. "You may stop, Frere Loys," he called out with a calm that was more surprising to him than his companion.
"But..." the sacristan shouted, clanging the bell again.
"Stop," Pere Foutin said, feeling weary to the marrow of his bones.
The bell was stilled; Pere Foutin and Frere Loys waited in the darkness for the men to act.
* * * *
By the time the swineherd reached Le Tres Saunt Annunciation, he was panting so much that he could not speak at all. He gasped through the grille to the warder Sister in a few incoherent syllables and was admitted at once by Seur Philomine, who had heard the bell of Saunt-Vitre ring in the distance. She escorted him quickly through the halls, knowing that it was improper for a man to be in that part of the convent without the express permission of Pere Guibert and Mere Leonie. She was prepared to deal with the reprimand she would undoubtedly receive later, but for now she realized that Mere Leonie must know at once what had happened.
"Come," said the Superior when Seur Philomine rapped on her cell door.
"It is Seur Philomine, ma Mere. There is a swineherd come from - "
"Where is he?" Mere Leonie interrupted her.
"He is with me, ma Mere." She knew better than to offer apology for this; later more than a simple apology would be required.
"I see." The door opened. Mere Leonie, fully habited, stepped into the hall. "And?"
Seur Philomine was about to answer, but the swineherd took a deep breath and said, "Men. In the village. Around the church."
"I see," Mere Leonie responded with difficult composure. "Those unfortunate women."
"Ma Mere!" Seur Philomine protested, turning pale.
"The women? But..." the swineherd began, and left unfinished.
"We must prepare," Mere Leonie went on. "If this is like the others have been, we will have much to do to ensure..." She did not finish her thoughts. Turning to the swineherd, she stared hard at him. "How long did it take you to reach here?"
"Not long," he answered in an intimidated way. "I ran."
"I should imagine. There will be something for you in the kitchen. Seur Philomine, go along with him and see that he has some broth before he leaves."
"Leaves?" Seur Philomine repeated. "But Mere Leonie, if those are Flagellants ... Mere Leonie, they will ... He should not..."
"I do not mean to send him back to the village, ma Seur. But he cannot properly remain here, and we will have much to do to prepare for what ... may come." With that, she swept away from them down the hall toward the chapel, her grey habit billowing with the speed of her pace.
"What...?" the swineherd asked, trying to sort out what had happened.
"Mere Leonie must inform the others of ... your news." Seur Philomine started in the direction of the kitchens, hoping that she could think of a plausible reason for her Superior's actions before she poured out broth for the swineherd.
* * * *
Pere Guibert saw smoke rising over the village of Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur and he bowed his head in prayer. He looked around the courtyard of the convent, thinking that he had rarely seen so bleak a dawn. His eyes stung, and he told himself it was from the smell of smoke drifting across the sky. He heard the nuns' voices from the chapel where the chants for protection were being sung. "I could ask that I have their faith," he mused, afraid to address his doubts to Heaven. "I have asked for aid before." If he were alive by the end of the day, he would have to go to Saunt-Vitre and see what remained of the place, a thing so intolerable to him that he very nearly wished that he might not survive.
"Pere Guibert," said Mere Leonie as she came into the courtyard. "My Sisters will be ready to carry out your instructions as soon as possible. Seur Lucille returned yesterday, and she will inform you of what she had learned. When you wish her to do so, of course." This last afterthought was said in so offhanded a fashion that Pere Guibert knew Mere Leonie had her mind on other matters.
"Thank you. We will need aid by the end of the day, I fear."
"It would appear so," she said carefully. "But I ask you not to speak so where the others may hear you; they are frightened children now, every one of them, and it would be cruel and contrary to our faith to increase their apprehension now."
Pere Guibert did his best to take this rebuke as the nervous concern he knew it was. "You will have to inform them sometime, ma Fille."
"I hope not," she answered. "Forgive me. I am not quite myself." She began to pace, her long, boyish stride setting the skirts of her habit swinging in a distracting way. "I wonder if it might be possible for us to ask His Holiness for one or two of his vidames to guard us."
"There are many convents that would wish the same, and the vidames cannot send away all their men-at-arms." He gave the chiding as gently as he knew how. "I, too, would take comfort in the presence of men in armor." He studied her to see what reaction his words evoked, but there was little he could learn from her demeanor. "Do you want to pray with me?"
"I want to do something. I want to strike back, so that we are not just so many virgin sacrifices for the Glory of God." She stopped, her hands coming to her face before Pere Guibert could express his shock at her outburst. "I did not mean..."
"It is difficult," Pere Guibert agreed, wishing that he might give vent to his feelings as she had done.
"There is not time enough for us to flee." She was much more composed now. "I wish I had sent the older nuns to safety."
"Sadly, we do not know how many more of the Flagellants are on the road, or where they are bound. It might have endangered more to send them away."
"Nevertheless," Mere Leonie persisted. "I wish I had done it."
"It was a missed opportunity," Pere Guibert said, annoyed at himself for letting so obvious a precaution escape him.
"There isn't time enough now, I suppose," Mere Leonie sighed. "Well, we will do as we must. That and trust to Our Lord to bring us safely through."
"Deo gratias," Mere Leonie said softly. "I will say it again with greater fervor if at the end of the day these walls are still standing and the Sisters unharmed."
"Do not treat God as a bargaining merchant, to barter for the preservation of your life and the salvation of your soul," Pere Guibert admonished her as he tried to match her stride about the courtyard. "You risk more than ... an unpleasant death if you do. Rather ask la Virge to remember you and beg that your sins be set aside."
"I have done as much praying as I can in good conscience. The lives of my Sisters, and their honor, are in my hands, and they are a great charge upon me. I will lose more than my own soul if this goes badly."
Pere Guibert sighed in sympathy. "Then it might be better if your Sisters did not see you in such distress, and learn fear from you."
She stopped, her eyes filling with tears. "I ... I will do ... Yes, mon Pere. You are right, and you correct me most properly."
"It is natural that you would be worried," he said, glad for the excuse to talk and to deceive himself with his own authority, to take courage from the illusion that he could influence Mere Leonie. "You wish to see your Sisters preserved by the Might of God, as we all hope to be saved. Yet you know that God does not defend those who are heedlessly reckless any more than He condones those who do nothing but await the axe and abandon His children. Where does the line fall between the two?"
"We will know that tonight, I think," Mere Leonie said, exerting herself more sternly to an outward tranquility. "The Sisters will be out of chapel shortly. You will have to tell them what to do, for they have forgotten much of their former preparedness, and the sight of that smoke..."
"And you, Mere Leonie, ma Fille? Do you need any reminder?" He wanted her to open her heart to him, to reveal her fears so that he could console her, and through that consolation, gain some echo of it for himself.
"I fear that ... I fear that no matter what I may do, it will fail Our Lord, and we will be lost. She crossed herself. "If it were possible for me to be a man now, then I might face those irreligious creatures with their whips and their fires and believe myself able to fend them off with my sword and my wits. But as I am, well, what woman can endure what those men wish to do?" She had begun to pace again, this time not so rapidly or frenetically as before. "I want strength in my arm, as God gave to Adam and His champions. Samson, even chained and blind, was more than enough for those heretics. But we are a community of women, dedicated to the service of travelers, recalling the parable of those who entertain angels unawares. What means have we to defend ourselves from such as those?" She turned toward the smoke over Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur. "They are more than we have ever intended to know."
"Everywhere we see that God has come to the aid of the weak," Pere Guibert reminded her unwisely.
"And we see where He has not, where the Plague has been, and war." She paused to stare at the smoke again. "What had those few women done that deserved that? What had God required of them?"
"Do not blame God, but the Devil, who has inspired those men to do his evil works." He felt more confident saying these words, as if the questions he might have posed could be erased by his affirmation of the work of the Devil.
"Then how should we ward him off? If we may not bargain with God, may we not bargain with the Devil?" She shook her head. "You need not remind me, mon Pere: to bargain with the Devil is to insult God, and is a greater sin than falling to the hosts of the fallen angels."
"Yes," Pere Guibert said, and was about to go on when he saw the other nuns coming out into the courtyard. "We will speak later," he said to Mere Leonie, and faced the other women, trying to find the phrases that would lend them the faith to get through their coming ordeal.
* * * *
It was late in the afternoon before they heard the low humming growl that had so terrified Pere Foutin and Frere Loys. The nuns, gathered in the courtyard for hours, looked about with expressions ranging from dismay to panic. Seur Odile nearly fainted and was held up by the sturdy bulk of Seur Theodosie, who milked the nannies and ewes to make the convent's cheese. She gave Seur Odile a hearty pat and shook her head at the sound. Seur Ranegonde almost had to be taken back to her cell when it was noticed how pale she had become.
"There is burning in the village," Seur Marguerite announced, as if it had just been discovered. "There was a shepherd by my hives today, and he said that the church was burning. He is a simple boy, that shepherd, and has visions."
"When were you at the hives?" Mere Leonie asked with more sharpness than usual.
"Why, during the morning," Seur Marguerite answered. "My children were calling to me, and sure as God watched His children, so He has entrusted me to watch mine. They sang today, my little darlings, and they swore that they would be true to us. They have their Saints and Virgin, too, my children, and they exalt them." Her face was dreamy now, and distant. "They are singing loudly today, aren't they? I have heard them many times, but never so loudly." She took a step toward the door. "They will sing for all of us, if we let them in. Do not worry for their stings, for they will do no harm if you sing with them."
Two of the nuns grabbed Seur Marguerite by the arms and held her back. She looked at her captors in bewilderment, more disappointed than alarmed. Seur Tiennette tightened her hold as she looked to her Superior for guidance.
"Seur Marguerite," Mere Leonie said, making her voice loud enough so that the other nuns would hear her. "That your bees are devout no one questions, for they are examples of humility and industry to the world. But as the Devil sends evil in many disguises, so that the most virtuous and fair may be a sink of vicious iniquity, so there are those who emulate your bees and serve not God but the Devil with their wiles. Those who have come here are followers of the Devil, and they do his work with the same dedication that your bees show to the Will of God. You must not let your love of your bees render your judgment faulty. It is a task for us all." She looked around her. "You must heat the kettles and set up the ladders. I want us to have hot water to throw upon those heretics. It is no sin if they are warned first of what we will do. You need not fear to see them scalded, for the fires of Hell will do worse than scald them." She folded her arms. "You have been told your duties. You know what we must do. Those who are not able to defend with their strength must go to the chapel and pray for God's Aid. It may be that men-at-arms have been dispatched, but we must not assume this is so. If God has marked this convent for destruction, then nothing will save it, nor should it be saved. If God has determined that we will come through unharmed, then we are in the Palm of His Hand, and what petty actions we take mean little. Still, we must take them, for to do otherwise would show that we are not prepared to defend our faith with the same purpose as Our Lord, which disgraces the habits we wear." She had to speak louder, for the noise beyond the walls was increasing. "My Sisters, each of you must go to her task. You have been shriven and need not think of death with horror."
There was a loud report as the Flagellants threw a large rock at the convent door. The wood reverberated with the impact, and for a moment those gathered on both sides of the wall were still.
"God will be with you. Be sure of that." Mere Leonie turned to Pere Guibert. "If you will give us your blessing, mon Pere." And she knelt to receive it.
The benediction was hastily given and the nuns dispersed from it with unseemly haste. Another volley of stones rattled on the door, sending all the women scurrying to their tasks.
Outside the humming stopped.
"God save us," Seur Odile murmured as she went toward the refectory, where it had been decided that injuries would be treated.
"God will do as He pleases," Seur Aungelique told her. "It does not matter what they say, or what they do. God does what He pleases and we are less than ants in the path of an armed knight." She leaned on the wall, her emaciated face framed by gorget and wimple and coif. "Listen to them. They talk. Talk and talk and talk, and it means nothing. God does not care what we do or we say or we think. God does not hear us. God does not listen. God does not see." She met the terrified eyes of the nuns around her. "We are fools to talk and reason and pray. The words are gone. We are nothing for them, and we have lost the time when we might have taken some measure of pleasure for ourselves."
"Seur Aungelique..." Seur Philomine said as she pushed her way through the other nuns. "You are to join the others in prayer."
"In prayer?" Seur Aungelique demanded, laughing in an immoderate way. "Have you heard nothing? It will not save us to pray. We should have run when we had the chance. We should have gathered stones and barrels and weapons to kill these men, rather than think God will find a way to save us. They tell us that the Devil is the father of lies, but even God lies - He told Adam that if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge, he would die. That was not true, was it? Adam did not die. Then why should we believe that God will keep His promise to save us, when we know He has lied from the first?" She let herself be taken in hand and led into the hall leading to the chapel. "If those men put this place to the torch, it will mean nothing. If they rape and gut us, it will mean nothing. Nothing."
Seur Philomine could see the others begin to waver, and she decided to take the matter into her own hands rather than wait for the Superior to learn of this harangue. She approached Seur Aungelique with a determined set to her face. "It will matter to me if any of those things occur, Seur Aungelique. It will matter to each of us if we must suffer. Whether it is for true martyrdom or for nothing, the suffering is real. And I care how I conduct myself. If it matters to no one but myself it is enough." She could see that the others were listening to her. "We do talk, and it means little. Now there are duties we must perform, and yours, whether you like it or not, Seur Aungelique, is to pray." She shoved the other woman through the chapel door, then turned to the nun near her. "If she is unreasonable, ask Pere Guibert to take her in hand."
The nun was mildly shocked, but she nodded, saying nothing to the tertiary Sister as much from respect as surprise at her behavior.
When Seur Philomine got back to the courtyard, she could see that the ladders were already in place and Seur Lucille and Seur Tiennette were supervising the heating of cauldrons of water in the middle of the flagging.
"It is most important," Seur Lucille was saying to the nun beside her, "that you continue to brush cinders back into the fires, else they would bring fire to the whole building and the heretics' work would be done for them."
Mere Leonie was by the door, studying it as the rocks thudded and rang on it from the other side. "It will hold a while. They have nothing heavy enough to break it, but if they continue for a time, it will weaken. That must not happen." She turned toward the nearest ladder. "We will start with the scalding water first. Be careful that you use the quilted gauntlets so that you do not burn yourself."
"Yes, ma Mere," Seur Elvire answered, looking more determined than Seur Philomine had ever seen her. "I will do all that I may."
"Excellent." Now that she was actually setting the nuns to defending Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, Mere Leonie appeared for the first time to be truly in her element. As Pere Guibert watched her, he was reminded of those battle maids of the north who led men in battle. Demons, of course, and heathenish, but if they were like Mere Leonie, he could understand how it was that a man might follow them, though they led to death.
"I will inform the heretics of what we are prepared to do," Mere Leonie declared loudly, and started toward the nearest ladder. All the nuns turned toward her as she gathered up her habit and went up the rungs. At the top, she braced herself against the wall and leaned over. "You!" she shouted in a voice, that though light, might have satisfied a herald. "You came here without provocation to do us grievous ill. It is our intention to defend ourselves. Nothing you can say now will change that. We have boiling water and we have lengths of wood that we will hurl at you, burning, if you persist in this attack."
One of the men with the long bullock's whip uncoiled it from his shoulder and swaggered toward the wall. In silence, he prepared, and there was only the slice of the lash though the air to disturb the fading afternoon.
Mere Leonie almost fell from the ladder when the end of the whip touched her face. Blood appeared over her right eye from a puckered cut. She steadied herself. "You will pay for this, craven," she said in a manner that was almost amiable. Then, taking care not to lose her balance, she went back down the ladder.
The blows of the rocks on the door increased, and a few now were hurled over the wall, striking where they might in the courtyard.
"Ma Fille..." Pere Guibert said as he approached the Superior. He saw the blood welling, running down her face, obscuring the vision of her right eye.
"I need only a cloth," she said curtly. "My Sisters!" she shouted. "Commence!"