The Apostate's Tale
Book 17 in the Sister Frevisse series
As they rode under the gateway’s broad arch, the horses’ hoofs were suddenly loud on the cobbles and the rain briefly ceased to batter at Cecely’s cloaked shoulders and head. Her dearest wish had been never to see this place any more, never to be here ever again, but now no matter that the rain-grayed walls under the dismal, drizzling sky looked even more a grim prison’s than she remembered them, she was as thankful to be finally here as she had ever been for anything.
Ahead of her, Dame Perpetua said at the backs of the two men leading them, “We’ll ride straight on to the cloister door, not to the guesthall at all,” and one of the men answered, “Yes, my lady.”
Cecely felt as if she had been “riding on” since forever, and if the cloister door was the only way out of this cursed rain and to a chance of dry clothing, a fire, and a warm drink, then she was ready to be even there, despite of everything and no matter what.
Tented under her cloak in front of her in the saddle, Neddie stirred, making a small sound of weariness and probably complaint. Cecely said down at him, “Almost there, little love. Almost done. Don’t start whimpering now. You’re not a puppy,” and prodded him a little to be sure he heard her.
The horses plodded out of the gateway’s far side and into the rain again and the nunnery’s guesthall yard with its close surround of buildings and the church looming over all, its tall front blurred beyond the rain but not blurred enough. Cecely could feel what lay waiting for her beyond that front, and her shudder had nothing to do with the day’s rain-chill. But there was no going back now. The men had already drawn rein at the cloister door on the yard’s far side and were quickly dismounting, one of them going to knock loudly at the cloister door, the other coming to help Dame Perpetua from her horse, while their fellow, who had been bringing up the rear, dismounted, too, and went past Cecely to help the other nun, the one who had not been here in Cecely’s time.
Cecely waited. Of course, being the nuns’ servants, the men would see to both of them first, and then probably to the other woman, the older one who anyone could see was not well, but the nuns might have-should have-ordered them to see to Neddie first, he was just a little boy. Then she could have got down, too. Why wasn’t someone answering the door?
As if to her thought, the cloister door opened, and now both nuns, awkward in their long skirts and rain-heavy cloaks, were on either side of the older woman, helping her toward the door, while two of the men were gathering the horses’ reins to lead them away, and only finally was the third man coming toward her. Impatiently, pulling her cloak away from Neddie, she said, “Here we go, lamb. We’ll be inside in just a moment. Let the man lift you down.”
Neddie, poor little thing, leaned sideways into the man’s hands and let himself be dragged from the saddle. Cecely expected the man to set him down and turn to help her then, but instead he carried Neddie away toward the cloister door, leaving her, stiff with cold and riding though she was-surely just as cold and stiff as the other women had been, if not worse-to get herself to the ground.
Thinking bitterly that everything here was just as stupid as it had ever been, she dragged her rain-soaked skirts, sodden cloak, and weary legs clear of the saddle and eased herself to the ground. One of the men made to take her horse’s reins but she snapped, “At least give me my saddle bags. Do that much for me.”
As grudging to help her as everyone else was, he untied the bags without a word, lifted them off, and handed them to her. She did not bother to thank him, just stood clutching her bags, and when he had taken her horse and followed the other men and horses away, she went on standing there, suddenly unwilling to go where she had to go next. Behind her, everything her life had been was gone. Ahead of her the black emptiness of the open cloister doorway waited for her. The women and even Neddie were already disappeared into that darkness. Now she had to go, too. There was nowhere else. There was there, through that doorway-or there was here, standing in the rain. Those were her only bitter, bitter choices, and slowly she went forward. Because what else could she do? What else and where else were there for her?
Spring of this year of God’s grace 1452 had been fretful, with days of cold sunshine broken by days of cold rain. When Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett would return had been as uncertain as the weather, with the first expectation being they would be back by Palm Sunday; but that had passed without them and so every day in Holy Week thus far they had been expected, because surely they would be here before Maundy Thursday, surely before the Easter Triduum, and now, on Wednesday, here they were, and drawn by Dame Amicia’s glad cry of, “They’ve come!” St. Frideswide priory’s other nuns were hurrying from wherever they had been at work around the cloister to where Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett stood in the cloister walk, dripping onto the paving stones at the end of the passage from the outer door.
Dame Perpetua was trying to greet everyone at once, but Dame Margrett was saying past everyone to Dame Claire, “Please. My mother. If she could be put to bed as soon as might be…”
Mistress Petham, huddled shivering and shriveled in the curve of her daughter’s arm, did indeed look more in need of care than greetings, Dame Frevisse thought, and Dame Claire, the priory’s infirmarian, must have thought the same because she went instantly to put an arm around Mistress Petham’s waist, taking her from Dame Margrett while saying, “I’ll see to her. You finish your greetings and see to getting yourself dry. You can come to her afterward. Dame Frevisse?”
“Everything is ready,” Frevisse said, coming to Mistress Petham’s other side. “The fire was laid and lighted a while ago, on the chance they’d come today.”
Presently St. Frideswide’s hosteler, Frevisse’s duty was the care of guests, but care for Mistress Petham went beyond plain duty. In these ten years since Dame Margrett had taken her vows in St. Frideswide’s, her family had been good to the priory, both with money and gifts of food. St. Frideswide’s was neither large nor rich. The widow who had founded it over a hundred years ago had died before fully endowing it, leaving it to lean times. It was presently, for one reason and another, doing well enough that Lent’s fasting had been a willing choice rather than the dire necessity of some years not very long past. Still, gifts were always gratefully welcomed and repaid with prayers, those being the only thing the nuns had in abundance, and when word had come a few weeks back that Mistress Petham had been ailing through the winter and wanted her daughter’s company on a Lenten pilgrimage to St. Alban’s shrine in Hertfordshire, Domina Elisabeth had ruled that Dame Margrett could go, and because no nun should go out of the cloister unaccompanied by another nun, the prioress had added, “And Dame Perpetua will go with her.”
Dame Juliana, being presently sacristan and precentor, with the church and the Offices of prayer her duty and worry, had protested, “But the Offices! There’ll be only seven of us! With Easter coming!”
“We’re eight with Sister Helen,” Domina Elisabeth had answered. And added flatly in the way that meant talk about a matter was finished, “Besides that, it’s our prayers, not our numbers, that matter.”
But Domina Elisabeth had said back at her, “Mistress Petham has asked she be permitted to spend Easter among us. Dame Perpetua and Dame Margrett will be here when they’re most wanted,” firmly quelling any more protest.
And here they indeed were, with Mistress Petham openly in need of every care and comfort the priory could give her; and Frevisse and Dame Claire between them helped her along the cloister walk and up the stairs and into the chamber there, where-just as Frevisse had said-everything was ready, even to a nun’s undergown hung, warming, over the chair’s back near the hearth and the bedcovers turned down to air.
Mistress Petham laughed, began to cough, laughed despite it, and said as she caught her breath, “You meant it when you said everything was ready.”
“Of course,” Frevisse said, pleased she was pleased but more concerned to have her into the dry, warm gown.
So was Dame Claire, and they made short work of it, helping Mistress Petham take off her headkerchief and wimple, then quickly having her cloak, gown, a ...