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Nudging one of his slaves with the toe of his boot, Bishop Freculf waited for him to bring a stool so he could dismount with the dignity of his station. He was dressed for summer hunting, his russet gonelle of heavy linen just now wrinkled, pulling out of his girdle, torn at the shoulder, and stained with the blood of deer. His femoralia were covered with tibialia over which the broad bands of his high brodequins were laced, and all were spattered with mud. His only sign of rank was his massive pectoral crucifix on a collar of crosslets, which he had wiped clean of dust and mire. He rose in his stirrups and looked at the Priora of the convent. "What was it you wanted me to see?" he asked, his aristocratic accent giving him added authority beyond his powerful position. "I have left my escort outside. They will wait for me."
The slave put a mounting stool in place and knelt, holding it in position, while Bishop Freculf came out of his saddle.
Priora Iditha dropped to her knees before the Bishop. "You cannot imagine, Sublime, what has been put upon us."
Bishop Freculf laid his hand on the Priora's head. "Then you must show me, Sorra. That is why you summoned me." He motioned her to rise, and added to his slave, "Hold my horse. And better harm should come to you than to him."
The Wendish slave nodded to show his devotion, got to his feet, and took the big roan gelding's reins in his hands. He did not look directly at the Bishop, for that affront would earn him a beating.
The convent of Santa Albegunda was a relatively small establishment on the road between Stavelot and Reims, housing 118 nuns, their 149 servants, and 175 slaves. Famous for its miraculous cures of bodily malformations, it was handsomely endowed and maintained a fisc larger than many other similar establishments. It was comprised of eleven buildings, including a barn and a stable, in addition to an herb garden, two orchards, four fields, a vineyard, and a pond, all enclosed within its stout outer walls. The Abba, Sunifred, was the daughter of the local Potente, a petty noble called Hilduin, and as such was able to command more support from the people of the region.
The Priora led the Bishop through the courtyard toward the smaller chapel, saying as she went, "We have had no guidance in this situation. We must rely on you to tell us how to proceed."
"Of course," said Bishop Freculf, tapping his short whip against his thigh as he walked. It had been a hot afternoon that was now turning to a warm night, and he was still sweating freely. "Do you think this will take long?"
"I cannot tell," said Priora Iditha, and stepped into the narthex of the chapel. "Look for yourself."
"What am I to see?" asked the Bishop, crossing himself as he glanced along the narrow aisle toward the altar.
"She is praying," said the Priora, lowering her voice slightly.
"Prostrate?" The Bishop was mildly surprised. "Is she a penitent?"
"That isn't for me to say," Priora Iditha answered. "We are in something of a quandary about her. Abba Sunifred has not been able to determine what to do about her. She has proven a difficult case, as you can understand she might. Her fathera tanner and seller of hidesbrought her to us when their village priest said he could not deal with her any longer."
"Is she willful?" Bishop Freculf asked, perplexed by this continued evasion.
"Not that we can discover. Come speak to her; determine her demeanor for yourself," said the Priora, motioning to the Bishop to follow her.
The Bishop hesitated. "Should we interrupt her praying?"
"If we wait for her to finish, we may be here well past nightfall, and you will not have the banquet that your cooks are preparing for you even now," said the Priora, who knew enough about the Bishop to be certain of his evening plans. "You have musicians and jugglers at your villa, have you not?"
Bishop Freculf smiled. "I am a most fortunate man."
"May God be thanked," said the Priora.
"I do thank Him, Sorra, every morning and every night in my prayers." He smiled wolfishly. "Come, then. Let us see what has caused such an uproar in this holy place."
The Priora led him down the aisle, her attention on the figure lying prone with arms outstretched before the altar. "Gynethe Mehaut," she called. "Rise. Bishop Freculf is here."
For a moment nothing happened, and then a figure materialized in the swath of a dust-colored linen stolla belted with rope. She was pale as new curds, thin to the point of gauntness, and somewhat less than average height. Her hair was the color of ivory in a single braid down her back. She might have been a ten-year-old child if not for the rise of her breasts. As she looked up, Bishop Freculf gasped, for her eyes were red as garnets. "Sublime," she said.
Bishop Freculf stared at the young woman, then turned to the Priora. "This is most . . . unusual." He contemplated the young woman, assessing her oddities and trying to determine what they might portend. "Most unusual," he added. He stroked his beard and stared at her. "Are you ill?"
"Not that I am aware of, Sublime," said Gynethe Mehaut.
"This is not the whole of it. Gynethe Mehaut, hold out your hands," the Priora said.
Turning her red eyes away, she lifted her hands, palms up, her manner suggesting distress and shame. There, against the white flesh, was blood in the center of both palms, sluggishly wet.
The Bishop stared. "What have you done?" he demanded, his face flushing with outrage. "How dare you do this?"
"I have done nothing," said Gynethe Mehaut, her voice just above a whisper. "I pray and this happens."
"How?" he demanded. "What do you do to yourself?"
"Nothing," she insisted. "I do nothing. I pray."
"Then why should you have hurts like that? They are blasphemous!" The Bishop strove to contain his growing sense of outrage.
"I don't know how I come to have the marks, Sublime, and I have prayed deeply in the hope of learning the reason for them," Gynethe Mehaut whispered, about to hide her hands in the capacious sleeves of her stolla. "God has not revealed that to me, no matter how I supplicate."
"They began when she achieved womanhood," said the Priora. "She bleeds, and not just woman's blood."
He caught her hands in his own. "You have cut yourself."
"I haven't," she murmured.
"You must have," the Bishop insisted. He glared at her, then averted his gaze, his brow knit; he was badly shaken.
"We have watched her, Sublime," said the Priora. "She has not cut herself that we have seen, and yet she bleeds."
The Bishop shook his head vehemently. "No. No. Those wounds are only found in Christ Jesus. No other may have them."
"Unless they are inflicted as a punishment, when the hands are nailed so that sins may be expiated," said Priora Iditha. "But this woman has not been punished."
"Perhaps she was punished before she came here," suggested the Bishop, his indignation barely controlled.
"She has been here for many months. The marks haven't changed in all that time," said the Priora. "Tell him, Gynethe Mehaut."
"I have had them for more than five years," said the pale young woman. "I was sent here to be cured of them. I have prayed I would be cured."
Bishop Freculf shook his head. "There is something very wrong here. The prayers of the Sorrae and the water from the well should have salved your . . . injuries." His eyes narrowed. "Unless you are not a child of the Church, but are sworn to old gods or to the Devil Himself."
Gynethe Mehaut drew back in horror. "No, no, Sublime. Nothing like that. I have lived within the care of the Church all my life. I have always been faithful to Christ and the King."
"It's true," said Priora Iditha. "She was taken by the Sorrae at Sant' Osmer in Rennes, just a babe. They cared for her until she was a woman, and then the Sorrae sent her back to her parents and the care of their priest. I have the account from the Abba, Serilda of Nerithe, if you wish to review it. She has a most excellent reputation for piety, and she gives a good account of Gynethe Mehaut."
"Indeed I do want to see this," said Bishop Freculf. "I will examine it at once."
"It will be given to you, along with what Patre Ermold wrote about her. We have both to show you," said Priora Iditha. "And a letter from the Bishop of Rennes, telling of his agreement in sending her here."
"And I will look at them closely, never fear," said the Bishop. "Where is Abba Sunifred? I would like to have a word with her."
"She is out hunting, Sublime, as I told you," said the Priora apologetically. "I do not expect her until sunset."
"She's with her father, no doubt," said the Bishop. "Very well. I will see these accounts; then, when the Abba is back, she and I must talk." He let go of Gynethe Mehaut. "I should have been told about this before now. Why did you wait so long?"
"We were praying for a cure for her, Sublime. That's why Patre Ermold sent her here, with his blessing, the blessings of her parents, and her Bishop. Abba Sunifred said we could not stop our prayers"
"She wanted the glory for this convent," said the Bishop. "As well she might. Santa Albegunda is a most puissant patroness."
"I am grateful that you understand," said the Priora, turning her back on Gynethe Mehaut, who had prostrated herself before the altar once again. "Remain here. If we need you, we will summon you."
"Yes, Priora," said Gynethe Mehaut, her voice muffled by the sleeve of her stolla.
"She seems obedient," said the Bishop as he and the Priora left Gynethe Mehaut alone in the chapel.
"That she is. And devout as well. I have no doubt that she is sincere in her faith. She fasts on Sunday and Wednesday, and attends Vigil faithfully. She keeps herself before the altar for most of the night and half of the day. She claims that she has to do this for the sins of the world." Priora Iditha shook her head vehemently. "It is most troublesome to see her hands as they are."
"She is a woman, and as such, heir to all the sins of the flesh in this sinful world. It is not fitting that she should have the marks of Our Savior on her flesh, but that she does so to profane the wounds. What woman can have this honor?" The Bishop entered the largest building, the one that housed the nuns and their servants. "Where are these records?"
"If you will go to the church, I will bring them to you there. Or you may remain here, Sublime. The Sorrae are preparing for the evening meal, and so it would not be fitting for you to come any deeper into the convent." Although the Priora said it subserviently enough, it was clear that she would require the Bishop to stay in the public portions of the building.
"Perhaps I should await you in the courtyard," the Bishop murmured. "The Sorrae are not to be compromised, particularly not by a Bishop."
"No, most surely not," said the Priora with feeling.
With a gesture of dismissal, Bishop Freculf returned to the courtyard, where he ordered one of the convent's slaves to bring him a cup of wine. "Use one of those from your own kitchen," he added. "My cup is packed in my saddlebag and I do not wish to get it out."
The slave abased herself and went to do as he ordered.
Left to his own devices, Bishop Freculf drew a knife from the scabbard on his belt and began to pare his fingernails, taking care to collect all the bits when he was done so that no one could use the parings against him. He was just finishing up when the slave returned with a cup of wine, which she held up to him as she knelt before him. He dropped the bits of his nails into the wine and took the cup from her, swirling the wine in the cup and gesturing to her to leave him. He was half-finished with the wine when Priora Iditha returned, three rolled scrolls in her hand.
"Here. You may read them now, if you wish, Sublime. The Superiora would not like these reports to leave the convent, in case she may have use for them in days to come." This was more emphatic than it was proper for a nun to be, but the Priora was used to exercising her authority and did so now.
"Would the Abba allow me to take these?" Bishop Freculf asked. He knew the answer would be yes, for Sunifred was his second cousin and was bound to help her kinsman who was also her most immediate Church authority.
"No doubt she would," said Priora Iditha. "If you care to wait to ask her, I will have the slaves bring you bread and cheese. It is not as fine as what you will have at your banquet, but it will be what the Sorrae are having." It was an obvious ploy, yet it worked.
"No. I do not want to wait so long, or to impose upon you." He did not have to add that he much preferred the banquet awaiting him at his villa than the simple fare of the nuns.
"As you wish, Sublime. I will have a brazier brought, to give you better light," she said, and clapped to summon a slave. "The Bishop would like some light."
The slave pulled at her forelock and hurried away.
"Do you have to beat her much? She's very obedient," said the Bishop.
"Not too much. She is devoted," said the Priora. "Why would we keep a disobedient slave?"
There was a silence between them; then the Bishop said, "You have been diligent in maintaining the convent. I hope the Superiora is as careful in supervising the nuns."
"With God's Grace," said the Priora. She prepared to leave, but she stopped. "How long will you need to read?"
"I'll summon you when I am finished. It will not be long," said the Bishop, and sat down on the widest bench along the wall. When the slave brought a brazier, set it near him, and lit it, he unrolled the largest scroll and scanned its contents, murmuring as he read.
The Vespers bell was ringing when Bishop Freculf rolled the second scroll closed and called for a slave. "Bring the Priora," he ordered, and paced the courtyard until Priora Iditha returned. "I have read two of these," he told her, holding out the scrolls to her. "A most interesting account, both of them. One day I will read the third. I will consider what they say, and I'll let you know my judgment on this matter." He put his empty cup aside.
"I will tell the Abba when she returns," said the Priora. "And we will pray for you."
Knowing he was entitled to this, the Bishop merely nodded. "I'll address her on the matter shortly. No more than a week." He held out his hand so that the Priora could kiss his episcopal ring.
"Very good, Sublime," said Priora Iditha, kneeling to kiss the ring, then rose. "We will guard her."
Bishop Freculf knew that she meant Gynethe Mehaut. "Do so. But bear in mind, you may have a ravening wolf in your midst. Keep her close, and do not hesitate to confine her if she requires it. It would not be prudent to have such a one as she walking abroad."
"We will take care of her, Sublime," said the Priora, moving away from the Bishop to answer the bell's summons to prayer.
The Bishop left the courtyard, going toward the stable, calling for his horse. He waited while a slave led the animal out to him, brought a mounting stool, and knelt to hold it in position. He swung up into the saddle and started his strawberry roan toward the door. "I am leaving," he announced, and watched the servants scurry to pull the brace from the brackets. The gates creaked open; the Bishop rode through to the opening and signaled his armed escort to fall in around him. Behind him, the gates closed. The Bishop glanced back over his shoulder, pleased at how well he had handled this most difficult situation.
Inside the convent the Superiora and Priora met in the narthex of the chapel while the gathered nuns began to chant the salutation of the Angel to the Blessed Virgin. "What did he say?" Superiora Gundrada whispered.
"He will consider the reports," said Priora Iditha.
"But he has made no decision?" Superiora Gundrada persisted.
"Not that he imparted to me." The Priora frowned. "I don't know what we'll say to the Abba when she returns."
The Superiora shook her head. "She will not be pleased."
"Then let her pursue the matterhe is her kinsman." The Priora was annoyed. "If he will not tell her what he thinks, then we will have to continue to house her, and who knows what that may do. Once word gets out about her"
"Will that happen?" the Superiora asked.
"The servants talk, the slaves talk. How are we to deal with that?" Priora Iditha looked long and steadily at the Superiora. "I haven't satisfied myself that we should keep her here. There must be somewhere she can be sent, where she will be away from danger, and we need not fear her."
"You do fear her, then?" the Superiora inquired distantly, as if none of this had anything to do with her. "She is such a submissive child."
"Anyone would, seeing her. Her eyes alone are enough to set sensible men into a frenzy." Priora Iditha folded her arms. "I cannot think that the Abba would want us to have the risk Gynethe Mehaut entails for us."
"That's as may be," said the Superiora. "The Bishop will decide." She held up her hands, extending them in prayer.
"Your piety is beyond question," said Priora Iditha rather dryly. "But not all the Sorrae are as diligent as you are. Some are not here in the full flower of faith, but for other reasons."
"True. And we keep safe custody of them," said the Superiora with a touch of unpious pride.
Priora Iditha decided not to pursue the matter. She moved away from the Superiora, going into the chapel to join in the chants of the nuns; after a dozen heartbeats, Superiora Gundrada followed after her.
Midway through the next morning Abba Sunifred returned to the convent, escorted by six of her father's mounted comrades, who led two mules carrying two boars and three deer ready for the spits in the kitchens. The soldiers saw her into the outer courtyard, handed the mules over to the convent slaves, and departed without dismounting. The Abba watched them leave with a wistful look in her ruddy face. Then she signaled to the slaves. "We will have venison tonight. The pork will go into salt and smoke, against lean times."
"Yes, Abba," said the head slave, having the right to speak to her.
"And summon the Priora to me. I will be in my apartments." She strode off, her step energetic, her meaty cheeks flushed, and not from the warmth of the day but from the fading exhilaration of the hunt. She hummed as she went, the melody one she had heard the soldiers sing.
One of the slaves hurried off to do her bidding, while three others took the fresh-killed game from the baskets on the mules, and a remaining slave led the mules into the stable; four novices bearing short sticks followed the slaves to be sure they did their work as they should.
A short while later, Priora Iditha stood outside Abba Sunifred's door, asking humbly to be admitted; the Abba's maidservant opened the door for her. "She is in her reception room."
"Very good," said Priora Iditha, knowing the Abba's apartments had only three rooms and the Abba only received visitors in the reception room. She followed the maidservant into that chamber and knelt to the Abba. "May God show you favor."
"And you, Priora," said the Abba. "Take a seat and tell me what has happened since I have been gone."
Although this report was customary, Priora Iditha hesitated before giving it. "One of the slaves ran off," she began when she had gathered her thoughts. "Sorra Atula has put more hives in the apple orchard. Sorrae Eldalinda and Richilda have taken over the milking of the ewes since Sorrae Madelgard and Ercangarea have taken fevers and are laid in their cells to recover; Superiora Gundrada will report to you on their condition. And your kinsman, Bishop Freculf, came to see Gynethe Mehaut. He read two of the accounts we have of her and said he will make a decision about her in the next days."
"Good, good," said Abba Sunifred. "May God guide him aright."
"Amen," said Priora Iditha. She knelt and kissed the Abba's hand. "May God keep you to be our male mother, as the Apostles proclaim."
"Amen," said Abba Sunifred, then added, "And the sooner we are shut of her, the better."
Priora Iditha was shocked. "She came to us for succor and the protection of her soul."
"Perhaps. My kinsman shall decide that." Abba Sunifred crossed her arms. "She is too . . . too perplexing a presence. She should be with those who are better prepared to deal with her than we are."
"If the Bishop decides she must remain here, what will you do?" the Priora asked, an edge in her voice as she rose to her feet.
"I will obey him, of course, as a dutiful Abba must." There was a glint in her blue eyes that suggested the Bishop would be wise to order Gynethe Mehaut removed from Santa Albegunda. "We have already had pilgrims ask to see her, and this is not beneficial for this convent or for the maid herself."
"That is true," the Priora agreed, for she had been troubled by the rumors that were already flying about the white-skinned, red-eyed woman who had been taken into the convent; in time this would only get worse.
"Then you will speak with my kinsman when he comes again, to remind him of the danger we may face in regard to this woman," said Abba Sunifred. "He will deal with her for her good, and for ours." This time she signaled to Priora Iditha to leave her.
The Priora abased herself and left the apartments, apprehension growing with every step on behalf of Gynethe Mehaut, who had come to them for their guardianship and was becoming a piece in a game. She turned toward the chapel, gathering her thoughts and praying for the wisdom to tell the young woman to prepare for changes in her life without causing her distress; the nearer she got to the chapel, the more futile her prayers became, so that, in the end, she dared not speak with Gynethe Mehaut at all, postponing the conversation until Compline, after which Gynethe Mehaut would walk in the herb garden, among the night-blooming flowers, where Priora Iditha could meet her and be assured of their privacy.
TEXT OF A LETTER FROM THE SCRIBE ARDULF ON BEHALF OF HARTGAR, GRAV OF SOLIGNAC, TO BISHOP WOLVINUS AT BOURGES, CARRIED BY COURIER UNDER ARMED ESCORT
To the most puissant, most pious Bishop Wolvinus at Bourges, the greetings of the Grav of Solignac, Hartgar by name, advanced by the mandate of Karl-lo-Magne to the position left vacant by the death of Rihwin from fever. I take leave to address myself to the missive you had carried to Rihwin on behalf of the people of Bourges.
I regret to tell you that although the famine that has struck so much of Karl-lo-Magne's lands is passing at last, in this region, at least, it is not yet over. Farmsteads stand abandoned, and many fields lie fallow out of their season. Pigs and cattle are scattered in the woods, and sheep are gathered into flocks by anyone with purpose enough to venture into the deep meadows and higher peaks. I say this in preparation for my necessary denial of the aid you request of this region. Perhaps one of the Abbotts will have food to spare from monastery fields, but I must tell you, though I take no pleasure in it, that we, here, do not have enough to feed ourselves, let alone your people.
Further, I must ask you for your prayers on behalf of those still living. The fields will not support us again for at least a year, and in the meantime, fever has come into the region, scything down those that famine has spared. Every day the funeral bells toll, and families are consumed with new grief. Surely your supplication to Heaven will bring us surcease of the suffering we have endured. This may appear a poor exchange, for we ask prayers of you when we cannot do anything to relieve your hunger, but I fear that without the prayers of such mighty men as you, Heaven will remain deaf to our cries and this region will be lost to the King and the Church. Since neither of us wants that, I beseech you to do your utmost to petition God for an end to our plight.
It is no easy thing, Sublime Bishop, for a Grav to admit so much to anyone but the King Himself, and in doing this, I rely upon you to guard what I have said from the eyes of the world, as I would do for you, should you make such a request of me. It is mete that you and I share confidences, as is the Right of our place in life, but few are entitled to know these things, and we must be mindful of this at all times. There are enemies of the King who would use this against his rule, inciting the farmers and artisans to rise up against travelers and the Potenti who govern them, which you can desire no more than I do.
Until such time as our hardships are lessened, I must continue to withhold aid to you, for we cannot give what we do not have. In time, as the conditions here improve, I will strive to see that you are provided with grain and wine and oil. Once the flocks are flourishing again, I will order that you be provided with cheese, salt-meat, and leather, but that is at least a year away, if God is good to us once more. I swear on my sword, Greytooth, that I will do this in spite of all Hell has to throw at me.
The courier who carries this and his escort will return to me when they have presented this to you. I have told them to wait upon you for no more than two days, so if you wish to send a response with them, you must attend to it promptly or entrust it to another courier. If you decide to postpone your answer to me, I ask that you tell my courier so that he may depart without failing in his duty to me. I await your reply in the full certainty that you will uphold my decision and will support our labors with your prayers.
At midsummer, the Feast of Apostle Thomas, in the Pope's Year 796.
Hartgar de Solignac
By the hand of Ardulf, scribe, monk of Sant'