A Mortal Glamour
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Padre Bartolimieu listened to Pere Guibert with somber attention. "And does this demon continue to ... sport with her?" he asked when his fellow-priest was finished with his tale.
"So she claims. One of the other Sisters has also claimed that she has been visited by a creature of the night, a strange, dark creature that does things to her that she cannot describe for revulsion. She is a frail woman, and I fear that such predations will harm her more than she knows."
"It will harm them all more than they know," Padre Bartolimieu declared as he paced the garden. "It was wrong of me to run from the confrontation of evil. I see now that my failure is more total than ever I thought. It is not enough that I retire from the world, but I must aid those in need of guidance, who are in peril of their lives and souls." He lowered his head. "Tell me about this second nun: what has become of her since the demon assaulted her?"
"She ... she is very bright in the eye and her cheeks flame for the wrongs she has permitted this creature to do her. Seur Ranegonde is not strong, and when she is made to suffer in this way, her constitution fails her and nothing provides her succor, not even prayers." Pere Guibert was distressed to say this, and when he was finished, he stared away across the garden. "Mere Leonie prays for her Sisters and has said that she does not want a Process unless it is necessary. She has asked that you and I keep watch with her over her convent until it is sure the Devil is there."
"She is wise, this Mere Leonie? Or is she subtle?" Padre Bartolimieu put his head to one side. "I recall her with favor; it may be that God has given her more wisdom than He provides most of her sex. They are cunning, women are, and those who embrace virtue are few. They must guard themselves, even in chastity, for it is their nature to yield to the flesh, as Eve did." He stopped by one of the stone benches and raised a foot onto it. "What do you think, Pere Guibert? Do you think it is the Devil or the weakness of women that is to blame here?"
Pere Guibert shook his head. "I pray that it is only the perfidy of women that must be corrected and not the incursion of Hell. The Pope has recently warned that the forces of Rome are growing stronger and seek to undermine the proper authority of Avignon and the French throne. To have demons present would weaken his assertion that it is Avignon that is right. It might be thought that these nuns were acting on behalf of Roman interests, that the women entertain Roman lovers and for that seek to cast doubt upon the sanctity of Avignon." He could not admit it, but this consideration was not his own; Mere Leonie had spoken to him on this subject shortly before he left to seek out Padre Bartolimieu.
"It may be so," Padre Bartolimieu allowed after thinking over what he had heard. "Rome is capable of such deceit, and we know that woman is a source of lies. It might be best if we observe these ... traces and learn more."
A flight of swallows raced over the walled garden and both men looked up briefly. Finally Pere Guibert resumed their conversation. "Then you will come with me, back to Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion? Someone must advise me, before I report to the Cardinal and bring the attention of the Church to this."
"It may be the wisest course," Padre Bartolimieu said after considering it. "I ... I do not wish this burden. I have asked God to take His cup from me many times, but to no avail. I suppose that He is testing me again, giving me another opportunity to find His strength, for surely I have none of my own." He crossed himself slowly. "The women there are ... worried, with good reason."
"If there is a demon - "
"No, that is not their main concern. They worry that they may starve next winter. They have not enough food and there has been trouble with their plantings and their lambs and their orchards. At the moment they manage well enough, and they are able to give charity to those travelers who come to them. But in the autumn, it may no longer be so, and they may be driven to fast for long days." He shook his head. "Mere Leonie has borne up well thus far, but she has not yet faced hunger such as they may know in the dark of the year."
"They must plan." Pere Guibert folded his hands into his sleeves.
"It is well that they fast. Perhaps even now, they should accustom themselves to the practice, so that if later they must deny themselves, they will do so happily, and with glad hearts, knowing that it will strengthen their souls," Padre Bartolimieu concurred.
Pere Guibert frowned. "I will recommend it to Mere Leonie. She will decide as she must."
"You are her priest. It is fitting that she follow your instructions." Padre Bartolimieu took his foot off the bench. "Think of her awesome responsibilities and you will see that she must turn to you if she is to accomplish her tasks as she ought. You have become used to letting her decide for herself, but that is not proper. She is too forward a young woman, mannish in her ways and proud in her carriage. It is wrong for her to behave thus, and it sets a poor example to her Sisters, who should seek to model their behavior on that of la Virge Marie, who was meek and obedient to the will of God." He began to walk toward the monastery. "Come, Pere Guibert. I will inform the Abbot that I must depart with you."
"I may require your presence some little time," Pere Guibert said, wanting to be certain the other priest understood this.
"No matter. Should it become necessary, I will petition the Cardinal for leave to minister with you. No doubt he would be pleased to have another priest with you, after all the ... heretics did." He walked more quickly, as if reminding himself of his failure spurred him to new action.
* * * *
Seur Catant sat carding wool, but her eyes were distant. Her fingers moved as if they were not part of her, efficiently selecting wool, placing it on the toothed paddle, drawing them together until the wool was untangled and fairly smooth, then dropping that hank into the basket at her side and picking up another bit to repeat the process. "He put his hand on my breast. I felt him do that," she muttered for the hundredth or the thousandth time. "I felt it. His hand. His fingers were long and cold. He put his hand on my breast."
Sitting apart from her, Seur Morgance could not hear what Seur Catant was saying to herself and assumed it must be prayers, for Seur Catant often made a show of her piety. She was occupied with darning old habits, repairing ripped sleeves and worn skirts where kneeling in the garden had worn the fabric thin. Her hands were stiff this morning, in spite of the warm spring weather, and she wielded the needle with difficulty. A little conversation might have helped pass the time, but Mere Leonie had enjoined all the Sisters to keep silent because of the gossip that had been spreading about Seur Aungelique and the demon that was said to seduce her each night. There were other things to talk about, Seur Morgance insisted inwardly. There had been travelers the day before who had said that they had encountered men from Rome on the road who had boasted that Pope Urban would emerge the victor in the dispute with Avignon. That was worthy of a word or two, and it was not precisely gossip. She felt justified, but said nothing.
Without warning, the carding paddles fell from Seur Catant's hands. She let out a long, wailing shriek and clutched her elbows. "He touched me! He put his hand on my breast!"
"God protect us!" Seur Morgance said, looking up in baffled surprise.
"Oh, God; oh, God! He touched me!" Seur Catant dropped to her knees, rocking and sobbing.
Seur Morgance put her darning aside and got up from her stool, then hesitated. She did not especially like the other nun - it was a sin, but she had felt Seur Catant's sharp tongue once too often to be fond of her - and this change in her frightened Seur Morgance more than she wished to admit to herself. She took a step forward. "Seur Catant, are you ill?"
"He touched me, touched me touched me touched me touchedmetouchedme," she repeated, running the words together until they were only a babble.
This astonished Seur Morgance, who drew back. "I ... Do you need aid, ma Seur?" It was a foolish question, but she could think of nothing else to say.
Seur Catant moaned and rocked more quickly.
"Seur Catant?" Seur Morgance said tentatively, and when there was no response, she said, "I am going to ... get help. You need ... someone. Mere Leonie or Seur Tiennette." As she bolted for the door, another name came to her - Seur Marguerite.
* * * *
"And who else has been afflicted?" Padre Bartolimieu demanded of Mere Leonie as he stared at her where she knelt before him.
"I told you of Seur Aungelique, Seur Ranegonde, Seur Fleurette, and Seur Catant."
"And the others? Have there been others?" His voice grew louder with each word, his hands clenched tightly at his sides, as if he were containing a need to do battle with her.
"Perhaps Seur Victoire and Seur Adalin, but we cannot be sure. They have had dreams that disturb them and have come to me to tell me of them. It may be that they, too, have been visited by a demon, or it may be that with the screams and great turmoil in the night, they have had bad dreams only." She lowered her head. "I have listened to them and I ask Our Lord to give them His help."
Padre Bartolimieu stepped back, mollified by her attitude as much as her words. "You did well, ma Fille. It is not for women to decide these matters, but for men to act. Pere Guibert and I will hear the confessions of your Sisters and pray for divine guidance in our quest."
"May Our Lord assist you," Mere Leonie said humbly, not looking up at him. "You are a good priest, Padre."
"That remains to be seen," he said, but stood a little straighter at this praise. "I must show the strength of God to those who are in doubt."
Staring down at the worn stones, Mere Leonie smiled.
* * * *
Pierre came out of the saddle impatiently and tramped over to the warder Sister's grilled window. "Le Duc de Parcignonne!" he snapped without exchanging proper greetings with the nun waiting there.
"God be with you, Sieur le Duc," said Seur Elvire in her most imposing voice.
"And with your spirit, Sister. Now give entrance to me and my men. This is urgent." He was in no mind to visit the convent again, but he had been enough disturbed by what he had heard at Un Noveautie that he had decided to find out for himself if the rumors were true. He had been regretting his impetuosity for more than an hour and now he was determined to make his stay as brief as possible.
"Mere Leonie must first be informed of your arrival. Be good enough to wait in the..." she paused, realizing that she could not send a titled man and his armed escort into the hospice. "There is shade in the orchard, Sieur le Duc, and you and your men may wish to go there."
"We'll remain here at the gate, if you please." He twisted around. "Tristan! What's the name of your - "
Before Pierre's unruly tongue could compromise her, Tristan Courtenay answered, "My friend here is Seur Philomine. She's a tertiary Sister."
"Yes. Well," he said, addressing Seur Elvire once more, "you might mention our arrival to that Seur Philomine as well. Anything to get us inside more quickly."
Seur Elvire was affronted by his manner, but grateful that he had come. Now there would be something else to talk about than demons and possession, and of the ways those creatures offended God's Brides with their importunities. It was better that they have le Duc there, so the Sisters could direct their attentions to the men. "I will return as quickly as possible," Seur Elvire said to Pierre before leaving her post at the grille.
"Those doors are well made," Pierre said as he came back to his men-at-arms. "Did any of you work on them?"
Two of the men spoke up. "I didn't," Tristan said.
"Christ on the Cross, why did I bother to come here? Like as not they have been frightened by children stealing green fruit." He had thought this from the first and now he let his men share his feelings. "The sooner we are through with this, the better it will be for all of us."
"You don't think there is any real trouble here?" Tristan asked and heard Ivo snort his derision.
"I think that Aungelique is up to mischief again. She was far too tractable when she returned here, and now I think she is trying to find another way to leave the convent without waiting for her father's permission to do so." He clapped his hands to his belt, hooking his thumbs over the thick leather. "When I heard that they're saying the nuns are bedeviled here..." He broke off, knowing that he should not say so much to his men. "We will see what she has done, and if her behavior warrants it, we will remove her and return her to her father, no matter what he says. I will not have the disruption of a convent laid at my door, or the door of my House."
Ivo laughed and nudged Choce. "There are many ways to disrupt a convent, wouldn't you say?"
The other man-at-arms winked and was about to add his own comment when Tristan cut them short.
"These are dedicated women, most of them, and have good reason to retire from the world."
"Listen to Le Durand," Ivo said. "He cannot have his woman out of here, so he must make saints of all of them."
"Stop it," Pierre ordered the men, and glared at them as they fell silent. "I don't want to give them any reason to complain of us. Is that understood?"
His men agreed that it was.
A short while later the doors were drawn open and the men were bade enter the courtyard, not by Mere Leonie or one of the other Sisters, but by Pere Guibert, who regarded Pierre soberly.
"I am grateful that you are here, Sieur le Duc, though I confess you were not expected. Mere Leonie has retired to her cell for meditation while this ... investigation is under way. It is more fitting that I welcome you in any case."
Pierre heard this out with growing consternation. "By the Brass Balls of ... Pardon, mon Pere." He cleared his throat. "I have heard certain disturbing rumors. I came to find out if they are true." He looked about for one of the nuns to take the reins of his horse and was startled to find that only Seur Elvire was present.
"I regret that you will have to stable your beasts," Pere Guibert said with embarrassment. "Most of the Sisters are in their cells, meditating."
"Ivo, see to it," was Pierre's brusque order. "Make sure they get enough water."
"As you wish," Ivo said, dismounting quickly. "What of Choce and Courtenay?"
"They'll have work to do, never fear, "Pierre told him. "What has been going on, mon Pere," he went on to the priest, "that the nuns stay in their cells during the day? Is it true there are demons here?" He could not keep the skepticism out of his tone.
"There is something, mon Fils," Pere Guibert told him. "Padre Bartolimieu and I are attempting to determine what it is." He belatedly made a blessing for Pierre and the three men-at-arms. "You are most welcome here, for it may be that these Sisters will need your protection before we are finished."
Pierre wanted to protest, but knew that he could not. "My men will not torture women, mon Pere, not even for the Church. If that is what you need, send for one of your own to do it."
"You say this, after the two women you raped in Huy demanded recompense from you?"
"They were not nuns, and well you know it, mon Pere. Merchant daughters, that's all they were." He shrugged. "There are many who do not balk at having a man of my rank in their beds."
Pere Guibert did not want to make an issue of it. "We do not intend to use such methods unless it is absolutely necessary. There is no hint of witchcraft here, and perhaps nothing Diabolical. If that is the case, then no Sister need fear Padre Bartolimieu or me. Or you," he added with less certainty.
"As long as that's acceptable," Pierre said firmly, then turned to Tristan and Choce. "We'd better make camp in the orchard. See to it at once."
Both men complied without comment, leaving the courtyard through the passage to the stable. Tristan looked back once, but Choce only grumbled and followed le Duc's orders.
Pere Guibert watched the men depart, then faced Pierre squarely. "What have you heard, Sieur le Duc, and from whom?"
Pierre fixed his gaze on the top of the courtyard wall, squinting at the sun. "I was at ... well, you know the place: Un Noveautie. That fair-haired courtier from Bruges was there, paying attention to Comtesse Orienne. He made a point of speaking to me, telling me that he had heard from travelers that this convent was not available to them because there were demons here who were ravishing the nuns. He laughed at that, and said that as far as he was concerned, Aungelique had enough of the Devil in her to make every nun in France forget her vows." He coughed once. "I assumed he was making light of Aungelique's desire to leave the Order, and told him that it was no service to her to speak in that way. But he said that he believed that there might be some truth to it. He said something more, and it caused me a little worry; he said that if ever there was a convent that begged for a demon, it was this one." Finally he looked at Pere Guibert. "Pardon, mon Pere, but that is what the man said to me."
"Yes, pardon; naturally," Pere Guibert said in a distracted way; he was still trying to make sense of what he had been told. "I did not know they had turned any travelers away."
"Perhaps it was before you arrived," Pierre suggested, not wanting to get distracted with such minor questions. "Col learned of it somehow, and he is not the sort to make pilgrimages."
"No," Pere Guibert said, his tone still vague. He gave himself a shake and put his mind on his unexpected visitor. "Doubtless you are right, and Mere Leonie did not mention it to me. When she emerges from her seclusion, I will ask her about it." He indicated the door into the convent. "Come. We must discuss what has been going on."
"Demons and all?" Pierre asked, falling into step behind the priest.
"I think it is more likely that we will find Romans behind this, not demons. But that is for later." He entered the corridor half a step ahead of Pierre. "This man you spoke of - do you think he might have been suborned by the Romans? It would explain why he would spread such a rumor."
"He's not a Roman, mon Pere, just one of those parasites that thrive at court. They long for gossip and rumor as a peasant longs for butter." He chuckled at his own humor, but did not fail to notice now distressed Pere Guibert was.
* * * *
Pere Guibert was still closeted with Pierre and Padre Bartolimieu when a second unexpected visitor appeared. It was nearing sunset and he rode in from the west, so that Seur Elvire saw him as a dark blot on the road that swelled as it came nearer.
"We are not permitted to have travelers here, stranger," she called out in a quivering voice.
"What?" came the light, taunting reply as Thibault Col dismounted and sauntered over to the grille. "When I have come all this way, ma Seur? How can you admit le Duc de Parcignonne and deny me?"
"I ... I do not know that, stranger." She leaned forward, peering at him.
"Come; I am not an adventurer to make demands of you." He leaned close to the grille, smiling with half of his mouth. "I am Thibault Col, Chevalier de Bruges."
"Le Duc did not say that there would be others." For some reason she did not understand, she was breathing faster.
"There are no others, ma Seur. There is only myself. And my horse," he amended with a flick of the reins he held in his hand.
Seur Elvire crossed herself. "I will have to speak to Pere Guibert."
"By all means. I will await you here." He braced his shoulder against the wall and gave her his most affable smile. "Go at once, ma Seur. Night is coming on and I do not want to be abroad after dark."
"Yes," she said, not at all confidently. "I will return. Shortly."
"Fine," he said. "God be with you, ma Seur."
Chagrined that she had not greeted him with this phrase, Seur Elvire blurted our the response, "And with your spirit," and then hurried away into the convent to see out Pere Guibert.
The priest took rather longer to answer this summons than he had the last. When he did arrive at the gate, it had grown noticeably darker. "Seur Elvire said that you wished to stay here."
"That's not exactly what I told her, mon Pere, but let it pass," Thibault said in answer. "I have come here because I saw that le Duc was coming here, and I am, I admit it, curious about everything I was told." He smiled at Pere Guibert. "I am somewhat connected with your Mere Leonie."
Pere Guibert drew back, not entirely pleased with this revelation. "A relative, Chevalier?"
"In a manner of speaking," Thibault said, winking once.
"Your manner is insolent," Pere Guibert rebuked him, disliking the beautiful young man more intensely with every passing moment.
"I cultivate it," Thibault confessed. "Anything less will not serve at court, not for one such as I am." He held out his hand to Pere Guibert in common greeting, his light blue eyes alight with some unreadable emotion. "Look at me, good priest. There is a resemblance between me and Mere Leonie, or so we have always been told."
Grudgingly Pere Guibert did as he asked. "Yes, you have something of the look of Mere Leonie," he said with a sigh. "Very well. Until Mere Leonie comes from her meditations, you may remain in the hospice."
This offer was deliberately insulting, but Thibault accepted it with a grin, "Would you not prefer to keep me in a rabbit hutch?"
Pere Guibert did not dignify the question with an answer. "The door to the hospice is there. Once you have stabled your horse, you may seek out Seur Tiennette for a meal. She is in the refectory."
"May Our Lord reward you, mon Pere," Thibault said, and strolled away without waiting for a proper blessing.
* * * *
It was a dream, Pierre thought as he saw the tent flap draw back. It had to be a dream, for it was inconceivable that Mere Leonie would come to him in the night in a shift of linen so fine it was nearly transparent. He gazed at her, fascinated, as she came nearer, her pale eyes fixed on his face, her body, glimpsed through the linen as strong and lithe as a boy.
"Sieur le Duc?" she said, now less than an arm's length from where he lay. "Am I welcome? Did you want me?"
"Christ!" he burst out, thinking he was shouting instead of whispering.
"Not exactly," she responded.
He wanted to grab her, to plunder her body until his passion for her was gone, but he dared not. "You're a dream," he said.
"If that is what you want. How do your dreams go?" She touched the scar on his face with her long, lean fingers. "Do you dream of battle, then? Do you dream of love? Tell me, Sieur le Duc."
He grabbed her hand, pressing it to his face. "You're convincing, I'll say that for you. When I wake I'll - "
"You doubt your senses? You hold my hand; isn't it solid enough for you? Or would you rather I came at you with steel so that you might be more ... comfortable with me?" The linen of her shift brushed against his arm. "Well?"
Pierre pressed her hand to his face, biting her fingers lightly. "I like this so much. Teton de Marie, this is sweet."
Mere Leonie made a sound between purring and laughter. "My breasts are sweeter than la Mere Marie's," she said. "Taste them. See for yourself."
"Oh, God," he groaned, seizing her shift in both hands and tugging at it with all the strength he could muster. The fabric held, then was rent from her neck to her ankles. His fingers brushed her leg. "Jesu, Marie!"
"Do you want me, Sieur le Duc? Though it is a sin and may cost you your soul, do you want me?" She tangled her hand in his hair. "Is there a nobleman in France who does not have lice on his head?"
"Bald ones," he growled, reaching for her, wrapping his arms around her hips and pulling her down to him. "Dream or no dream, I will have you."
"Though it cost you your soul," she repeated, holding him off.
"My soul, my title, my patrimony, for so sweet a dream, I will give anything." His blunt fingers sank into her hip and he thought with satisfaction that if she were real, she would have marks to remember him by. "Be rid of that shift; it's ruined anyway."
"In a moment, a little moment." She seemed to mock him now as she let him touch her. "You will have to do a few things more, first." She bent and kissed his face, just to the side of the scar. "You want me?"
"Christ, yes!" He stared up into her hot, pale eyes. "Must I say it again? Come here, woman, and I will show you how I want you."
"Enough to serve me, Sieur le Duc? Enough to get on your knees to me as you have to your sovereign?" She braced her arm against his shoulder and to his amazement kept him from drawing her any nearer. "Answer me, Sieur le Duc: would you get on your knees to me?"
"Certainly," he said, hardly paying any attention to what he said, so great was his desire for her. "Anything. Once I possess you."
"Ah, no," she taunted. "First, mon Duc. First you will get on your knees and you will crawl to me."
He half-rose at that. "I crawl to no man!"
"But I am a woman. Crawl." She stepped back from him, avoiding his hands as they grasped at her. "I am waiting, mon Duc. I am waiting for you to crawl to me." She stood just beyond the end of his camp bed, holding her torn shift open so that he could see her body. "I have no lice. My flesh does not stink of sweat. I will open my legs to you if you will crawl."
Desire and rage coursed through him as he stared at her, and a fever like the passion of battle took hold of him. He flung his blankets away and yanked his chemise over his head, casting it aside. "Crawl, you say? To a Duc of France?"
Her movements were like dancing. She escaped his first lunge and his second. "You will not have me that way, mon Duc. If you crawl, then you will have me." She stood out of reach, deliberately cupping one small, high breast with his long fingers. "Don't you long to do this? Wouldn't you like to put your lips here? Wouldn't you like to kiss me?"
"Don't goad me, woman!" he shouted at her, striving to get hold of her once more.
"Crawl, mon Duc. On your knees, if you want me."
He had no answer but the determination to catch her, and the more she eluded him, the more determined he was to have his vengeance on her. Yet he quickly found himself tiring while she continued to tantalize him with the sight of her flesh and with her jeers. Finally he stopped and stood, panting heavily, his body wet from his exertions. Each beat of his pulse felt like an explosion behind his eyes. His lust had not diminished; if anything, it had grown as he pursued her.
"You need only crawl, Pierre," she said softly. "I will be so pleased to see you crawl that I will let you have me."
"If I reach you, I'll throttle you!" he threatened.
"You will reach me when I want, mon Duc, and not an instant before. You will touch me when it pleases me to have you touch me. That will be after you crawl to me." This time when she smiled, her face was predatory. "Think, Pierre, what it will be like to lie atop me - you wish to be on top, don't you? - so that you can crush me. That would satisfy you, wouldn't it? My thighs against your legs, my arms around your neck, my lips under yours - that is what you crave, isn't it?"
"Damn you! DAMN you!" he bellowed at her as she slipped out of reach once more.
"Why don't you crawl, Pierre?" She was close enough for him to put his hands on her, but he was not able to, for as soon as he moved, she danced away from him. "You could be inside me, Pierre, if you will crawl."
He threw himself at her, arms flailing out toward her, then fell, his breath tearing through him. "I will have you," he vowed between clenched teeth.
"Yes; when you crawl." She came up behind him and lay down on his back, her body cool against his. "Tell me you will crawl and I will let you feel my thighs, Pierre."
"You're a devil!"
"Not a demon?" she teased him. "Poor Pere Guibert; he must be looking for the wrong thing. So I am a devil, am I?" She kissed the nape of his neck, then moved lightly away as he wrenched himself around.
"Stop!" he ordered her.
"No, Pierre. I am not one of your men-at-arms to bow to your will. I do as I wish." She stopped and the hot light of her eyes licked over him like fire. "You are the one who has desired me. You are the one who seeks me. So be it, Pierre. I am the thing you seek. Now; crawl!"
He dropped to his knees. "Oh, no."
"Yes. Yes, Pierre. Crawl, Pierre." Her voice captivated him, so low and ripe it was, the very note he had imagined so many times before and never heard. "You will crawl."
"I will," he mumbled, and reveling in his disgrace, he did as she ordered, his head down so that he could not see her. He felt wonderfully despicable, loathsome and marvelous at once. When he reached her, he pressed his lips to her knee.
"Kiss my foot, Pierre." She raised her heel so that the arch was presented to him.
In a rapture of misery he obeyed, taking her foot in his hands and holding it like a revered object, a holy treasure that the Church would defend with force of arms. He was so base, so foul that there was nothing he could not do, for he could not dishonor himself further. "Now I will have you."
She bent down, taking his head in her hands. She turned his face upward and kissed his mouth avidly. "Now you will have me. You have groveled; you've earned the right."
Ordinarily he would have been stung by what she said, but not now. He grasped her by the waist and forced her to come down onto the earth with him, under him. He went into her heedlessly, hammering at her until he was spent, his seed wrung from him so thoroughly that he could not believe he would be able to father children for a year.
Mere Leonie rolled him off her with contemptuous ease. "Next time you will crawl without such fuss," she whispered as she held the lobe of his ear between her teeth. "Then you will discover what you most desire."
He had hardly breath enough to answer her. "I will never crawl again. Not to you; not to anyone."
"Won't you?" She was on her feet now, watching him flounder in an attempt to rise.
"God's Prick, woman, what did you do to me?" he groaned. He felt a quiver of fear run through him at his uncanny weakness. He could not remember a time when fucking had left him so enervated.
"Only what you wanted, beau Pierre." She gathered up her shift.
"You're monstrous," he accused her as he sank back down on the earth.
She lifted the tent flap. "You are not the only one who has said so," she told him, very softly, then stepped back into the night.
Pierre stared at the place she had been. "It was ... a dream? A dream." He rolled onto his side. It had to be a dream. Mere Leonie would not come to him, more debauched than he had thought possible. He felt hollow, used. He ought to confess his desires and cleanse his soul. And perhaps he would do that, when he had tired of the dream.
* * * *
As the Sisters chanted Vespers, Padre Bartolimieu hovered outside the door of Mere Leonie's cell. It had been six days since she secluded herself, subsisting only on bread and water left for her at midnight at her order. He wanted to open the door, to insist that she come forth and aid in the examination of her Sisters, but he dared not. Should the Church begin a Process, his actions would mean a severe reprimand at the least.
"Troubled, Padre?" Thibault asked as he came down the hall.
"You are not supposed to leave the hospice," he said by way of an answer.
"It is a dreary place, the hospice. The Sisters are in the chapel at prayer. Do you fear I will assault them before the altar?" Thibault's smile flickered and was gone.
"You make light of evil."
"Are you so certain it is evil?" Thibault fingered the slashing of his blue silken sleeve. "Nuns have so little to entertain them, haven't they? Can you blame them for preferring a demon to boredom? If there is a demon?"
"If Mere Leonie were not your kinswoman..." Padre Bartolimieu began, then caught himself.
"No doubt you would have le Duc and his men remove me under escort." Thibault made a gesture of contempt. "Is it true that two more Sisters have been visited in the night?"
"Of course not," Padre Bartolimieu said, much too quickly.
"That makes seven now, doesn't it?" He nodded as he saw the priest's face darken. "Pity the poor demon, with so much to do." With mock humility, he crossed himself. "Our Lord protect us."
"Amen to that, little as you ... or any of us deserve it." Padre Bartolimieu said. He curbed the impulse to castigate the fair Chevalier, reserving that pleasure for later, when his worst fears had been vindicated.
Thibault snickered. "You priests, with your abasements and denials, you are the worst of all - thinking that you have access to God. You cower in fear at your own shadows and you fill your flocks with dread, and then you hold out the prospect of Heaven and the threat of Hell to invest yourselves with authority. You are usurpers, every one of you." He winked at Padre Bartolimieu, whose face had gone ruddy with wrath. "It takes so little to annoy you, doesn't it?"
"You are speaking heresy!" Padre Bartolimieu accused him.
"And blasphemy, too, I should think. Pay no attention. I will confess it and make an act of contrition." With this flippant assurance, Thibault bowed slightly to the priest and strolled away down the hall. "If you wish to harangue me, I will be in the refectory," he called over his shoulder.
It took every bit of will he possessed for Padre Bartolimieu to let Thibault depart without railing at him. "He will be with the goats," he muttered, and was satisfied with the thought. As all priests did, he knew all the tortures and torments of Hell, and he spent a while in the satisfying contemplation of them, imagining Thibault to be the sufferer. This restored him and he once again gave his thoughts to finding a way to call Mere Leonie from her cell.
"Padre Bartolimieu!" Seur Adalin cried out to him as she rounded the corner.
He started at the sound of her voice. "What is it, ma Seur?"
"In the chapel! Come quickly, I beg you." She was breathless and on the verge of tears. "Please!"
"Yes, yes," he said, responding at last. "What has happened now?"
Seur Adalin put her hands to her face. "Seur Fleurette - she has fallen into a fit. She says that there are demons in her flesh. She says ... O Saunt Marie! Listen."
A high, delirious voice filled the hall, keening. "What it does!" Seur Fleurette cried over and over again.
Padre Bartolimieu crossed himself and restrained Seur Adalin for a moment. "When did this begin?"
"We ... noticed it just now. But we have been chatting. She might have started before, and none of us noticed - " She stopped abruptly. "May we be forgiven for that lapse."
Padre Bartolimieu moved once more, wondering where Pere Guibert was. He entered the chapel and saw the nuns in the twilight, their grey habits making them look like old candles or pillars of smoke. He pushed his way through the disorder to where Seur Fleurette lay huddled on the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest, her face in a rictus of terror. "God fortify me," he whispered as he knelt beside the nun.
"What must we do, Padre?" the nearest Sister asked in faint accents.
"Pray for her," he answered without thinking. "She needs your prayers." As he said this, he reached out to Seur Fleurette.
She screamed as if she had been touched by a hot iron. "NO!"
Padre Bartolimieu hesitated. "What ...?"
"She said that the Devil sent imps to her," Seur Morgance volunteered. "She said they are inside her."
"She tried to scratch, but when she drew blood, then she started screaming," Seur Elvire told him. "What is to become of us, mon Padre?"
"We are in the hands of God," Padre Bartolimieu said, and felt his words were inadequate. He could not forget what had happened to those who trusted him before. Now it had begun again, and once again he was failing God's test.
"Is it demons?" Seur Odile asked, afraid to hear the answer.
"It may be. It may be madness or tainted bread." He moved back, resting on his heels. "Is Pere Guibert close at hand? Should he be called?"
"You are a priest," Seur Victoire reminded him, sounding shocked that he could speak in this way.
"But Pere Guibert is her confessor." It was an excuse: he knew it in the depths of his soul. Yet the nuns accepted it. "She knows him. I am a stranger."
"I'll find him," Seur Adalin offered, hurrying out of the chapel once again.
Seur Fleurette continued to shriek in the steady, methodical way of an angry infant. Her eyes were screwed shut and her lips had drawn back from her teeth.
"She does not weep," Seur Morgance observed. "The others have wept."
"Poor Sister," Seur Ranegonde said to the air, making futile motions with her hands. "What are we to do?"
"We need Mere Leonie," Seur Odile said, and the others agreed with conviction.
"She has secluded herself, good Sisters," Padre Bartolimieu reminded them, speaking loudly enough to be heard over Seur Fleurette's noise.
"Then we must ask her to come out of seclusion," Seur Tiennette declared. "She is a good and pious Superior, but now she must attend to us. That is what the Pope requires of nuns, that they submit themselves to the good of their communities."
"But she is helping my children," Seur Marguerite objected. "Without her, the last of them will die. Imps have been at them, too. Mere Leonie has saved them and she must - "
"This is not the same as a few dead bees," Seur Catant snapped. She was huddled against the edge of the altar, staring at Seur Fleurette as if she were an adder.
"She kept the Flagellants away from us; she must help us again," Seur Odile demanded. "Make her help us, mon Padre."
"I..." He faltered. "Yes. Very well. I will speak to her. I will try to convince her to come to your assistance." It would get him out of the chapel, away from the hysterical Seur Fleurette. He stood up, feeling dizzy. When he had steadied himself he hurried out of the chapel, the screams pursuing him, driving him like a heretic's lash.
* * * *
Off in the dusk the stream gurgled softly; frogs and crickets creaked and chirped, an owl hooted, the grasses whisked against the wind.
"You mustn't remain here," Tristan said to Philomine as they walked through the fields. "I fear for you, off in this demented place."
She could not dispute with him, nor did she want to. "Will your Duc allow you to take me with you when you leave?"
A week ago, Tristan would have said yes without hesitation. Now he considered the question carefully. "I don't know. I wish I did. Parcignonne has not been like himself of late. He sleeps poorly. There are times you would think he had been cursed." He held her hand more tightly in his. "If he will not permit it, then I will leave his service."
"You have an oath of honor," she said, not looking at him. "You have bent the knee to him and you wear his badge."
"But he has his obligation to me as well." He paused, looking at her with unwonted intensity. "If he will not defend me and mine, then he is not worthy, and I am not bound to him."
"You would bring shame on your House," Philomine said sadly.
"Just as well, if we are to go together," he said, chuckling. "I will speak to le Duc as soon as I may."
"Tonight?" The question was not meant to press him, but she held his hand more tightly. "You must do it when you wish."
He let go of her hand in order to put his arm around her shoulder. "It will be soon; it must be." They walked in companionable silence for a little while, enjoying the sounds of the night and their nearness. "Parcignonne troubles me. When we first arrived, he was eager to be gone, and sought only to find out the truth of the rumors he had heard, and to remove his cousin, if that were necessary. Now, he goes through the days with his eyes haunted and his mind ... distracted. He has said that he cannot leave yet. Then he says that he must leave at once for the good of his soul."
Philomine listened to this sympathetically. "He is as unfortunate as the Sisters, then." She stood still, turning toward him. "If he stays here, so must you."
His smile was slow, deeply content. "That is so. And for that I am grateful to my lord. While I am here, I can be with you."
She leaned her head on his shoulder, glad that she wore none of her required head gear. "I wish you might stay with me forever."
"For all my life, Philomine," he whispered. "There is nothing that will separate us but death."
"Hush, Tristan." She kissed him. "If there are demons here, they will hear you and..."
"And what?" he asked when she did not go on. "They cannot harm me. Not while you and I are together."
Philomine trembled. "Don't speak that way, Tristan. I..." She had no way to tell him how much she dreaded becoming like the other nuns, subsisting on their dreams and their nightmares. "Le me be with you, and the whole world is real. If you are lost to me, then even I am ... nothing, and the rest is less than nothing."
He held her more closely. "Be with me now, Philomine, and we will both be real." Their kiss was long, their need was shared. "Is there time?"
She laughed. "Yes. Not much, but enough time." As she said it, a frisson passed through her, for she felt she was speaking not of making love but life itself.
"Do you mind that it must be ... quick?" He tilted her face up to him. "If you mind, we will wait."
"Of course I mind," she answered. "I want to lie in your arms all night long and wake to you. I want to see you as you sleep. I want to bear the weight of you." She put her arms around his waist so she could feel his body through her clothes. "I will not forgo this chance simply because it is not ideal."
He stepped back, but only far enough to be able to strip off his surcote. "Do you need help with your habit?"
"Oh, Bon Dieu!" For the first time she felt merry. "Of course not. I have got in and out of it every day for three years."
His answering smile was strangely shy. "I am sorry it has been so long."
She stopped undressing and touched his arm. "It has been what it has been. It is past and gone. Now we are here and this is the time we have."
He looked steadily at her. "Yes. Oh, Philomine, yes."
Half-dressed, shivering in the cool of the evening, they clung together, seeking one another with ardor. They finished undressing slowly, caressing each other as their garments fell into the long whispering grasses beside the stream.