Some days before this, in the deep peace of a summer morning, Hildegard was lifting skeps in the lower meadow at Deepdale. She wore a white mesh veil and padded gauntlets and worked to the sound of contented bees murmuring within the hives.
Three years had passed since King Richard and Mayor Walworth had outfaced Wat Tyler’s shocked and betrayed countrymen at Smithfield. In fact the third anniversay of Tyler’s murder fell on the Feast of Corpus Christi in scarcely a fortnight’s time.
And it was two years since Archbishop Courtenay had received the pallium from Pope Urban VI in Rome and had emerged from Canterbury with new powers, stamping hard on the Oxford dissidents and scattering them like ants about the realm.
But it was only one year since Hildegard had been given leave to move into the grange at Deepdale in the north of the county and turn it into a minor cell of her mother house at Swyne.
It had been a hard year but now the fruits of their endeavours were beginning to show.
As she worked in the drowsy heat she was sharply aware that it was also a year since the Abbot of Meaux, Hubert de Courcy, had abruptly left on pilgrimage, putting the running of the abbey in the hands of his cellarer, Brother Alcuin.
The honeybees flew serenely in and out of the hives, their king royally at ease inside his straw-stitched palace. Their skeps were upended baskets of woven blackberry briars placed on wooden stands as protection against predators. Conical reed tents called hackles kept them from rain and the heat of the sun. During the previous week several frames of wax had been taken out for delivery to a chandler in York, leaving some skeps empty, but the rest, today, were buzzing with life.
Hildegard was busy hefting the remainder of the skeps so that she could judge how much honey was in them. She worked alone while the two other sisters who had joined her at Deepdale busied themselves around the house and kitchen garden.
It was a sad thing, she thought with a glance at the empty skeps, that the bees had to be destroyed in order to remove the honeycomb. She pondered the possibility of trying a method she had observed in the abbey hives at Meaux. There a straw cap was put on top of the skep and the bees were encouraged to take up residence in this new place. It allowed the honeycomb to be removed from below without killing the bees themselves. That would be worth trying, she decided, as she finished her task and began to walk slowly back up the meadow.
The sisters at Deepdale were lucky to have received a request for beeswax from a chandler in York. He had been tearing his hair because an expected consignment from the Baltic was delayed in the Humber estuary by a dispute over port taxes. It was his privilege to supply the guilds with their Corpus Christi candles and his reputation would be in tatters, as well as his hair, if he couldn’t deliver. A call had gone out to all the local beekeepers to spare what they could. Deepdale made an offer at once. They could use the income.
At a safe distance she took off her protective veil and removed her gauntlets. A year ago the grange had been nothing but a wilderness of nettles and ground elder. It had taken six nuns seconded from the priory at Swyne together with Hildegard, a lay sister called Agnetha and a couple of strong Dalesmen, to bring some order to the place. Now they were almost self-sufficient.
As she made her way through the long grass she gazed up towards the scar at the dale head where the sheep were being rounded up.
The high-pitched whistle of Dunstan, the shepherd, and the bleating protests of the sheep themselves floated down in the hot silence of mid-morning. The shearmen must have finished their work. Soon the shorn flock would be brought down to start the long journey to summer pasture on the banks of the Humber. The wool clip meant more vital income. There might even be a profit by the end of the summer if the crops didn’t fail in the present drought. It was hard work, trying to survive in the wilds, but it would be worth every blistered palm and cricked back for the harvest that must surely follow.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a man’s voice hailing her from the orchard. Assuming it was the shepherd’s lad, she lifted her head. But it was a monk in the familiar white robes of a Cistercian who had called out, and now he came striding energetically through the grass towards her.
“Brother Thomas!” she exclaimed with pleasure. “How good to see you. But what brings you over to Deepdale so soon? Surely it’s not time to hear our confessions again?”
Based at the Abbey of Meaux, he was the newly ordained monk given the light task of attending to the community’s spiritual needs. Tall and broad-shouldered and no more than twenty-five, he now removed a wide-brimmed straw hat to reveal a bony, intelligent face, lightly tanned by the weeks of unending sunshine.
He greeted her with a somewhat apologetic expression. To her surprise she saw two young women standing at the gate. In fact, on closer inspection, she realised they were little more than children. One of them wore a battered straw hat with a stylish tilt to the brim and a chain of daisies round the crown, while the smaller of the two had a hood pulled over, almost concealing her face. Both looked dusty and dishevelled from their journey.
“Come into the kitchen and have a beaker of ale,” she invited, leading the way through the trees towards the house. Two ponies and an old ambler were already being installed in the cool of the barn by the stable lad.
“This heat seems endless,” Thomas said as he fell into step beside her. “The wells are dry as far as Beverley.”
“How about Swyne? Are they coping?”
“Doesn’t your prioress always cope? I think she’s conjuring water out of the sun itself.” He chuckled. “But I have something to tell you.” He glanced back at the two girls who were trailing at their heels and lowered his voice. “You have your first guests.”
Hildegard gave him a startled glance. “Guests?”
“Your prioress sends them with her kind regards.”
“For how long?”
“She didn’t say. There was some haste in her decision.”
“Whatever possessed her to send them here?”
Thomas shook his head.
“What else did she say to you?”
“Nothing … other than to make sure they arrived safely.”
She gave him a sharp glance. “So what’s their story?”
“Can we talk somewhere in private?”
By now Agnetha, the lay sister, had appeared from the dairy. After greeting the girls, Hildegard turned to her. “I wonder if you’d give our guests something to eat and drink, Agnetha? I’m going to whisk Brother Thomas away so I can catch up on news from Swyne.” She led the way into the house.
* * *
The young monk sat down on the bench opposite Hildegard. They were in the small chamber off the main hall where she did the accounts. It was scarcely big enough to swing a cat in, but it gave some privacy during the daily comings and goings in the rest of the house, and now too it was a refuge from the blazing sun. She offered Thomas a mazer of ale from their brew-house.
“This is good stuff,” he observed after taking a long drink. “Almost as good as ours at Meaux!” he teased as she refilled the vessel.
“It’s Agnetha’s latest project.” She smiled. “If she ever leaves here she’d make a good ale-wife. In fact, there’s nothing practical she can’t turn her hand to. I don’t know what we’d do without her.”
“And the two nuns?”
“Marianne, solid and sensible, and Cecilia thankfully given to poetic flights that transform the mundane into something beautiful, with a voice that makes us feel we’re in heaven already!”
“And all three the perfect helpers to establish a grange like this. You’ve worked hard this last year. The brothers at Meaux are impressed. Every time I visit I see changes for the better.”
“We’re so fortunate. Soon we’ll be able to take in our first orphans.” Hildegard gave him a straight look. “Or are these they? From what you’ve hinted there’s obviously more to them.”
“It’s as I told you. I really know nothing else. The prioress came to me as soon as I’d said mass and instructed me to escort them here at once. She was in a hurry. She said, ‘See what Hildegard can make of ’em.’” He lowered his voice. “I believe her haste came from the need for one of them to be hustled out of the clutches of some horsemen who had just ridden onto the garth. The talkative girl, Petronilla, tells me she’s an heiress and was about to be married off to an old man she hates. In fact, she wants to become a nun, or so she says.” He gave a small jerk of his head as if to show his scepticism. “Maybe the prioress fears her guardian will try to snatch her back before the child has had time to decide matters for herself?”
“She’s a pretty child.” When the straw hat had been swept off, Hildegard had caught a glimpse of a pert face under a cloud of dark hair. She looked about sixteen or a little younger. There had been a delicate silver pin nestling in the curls. If she wanted to be a nun, she thought, that would have to go. She gave a smile to indicate she shared Thomas’s scepticism and asked, “So she’s an heiress, is she? And the one in the hood?”
“Not a word could we get out of her.”
“Is she dumb?”
“No. She made an ill remark about her pony before we set off, but that was it all the way here, mile after silent mile. Of course,” he added with a long-suffering shrug, “it would have been hard to get a word in edgeways with Petronilla present, as you’ll shortly discover.”
The conversation moved briefly onto other issues. Thomas asked if she had heard anything of the Scots since the truce ended at Candlemas, but she shook her head. “Just that assault on Annandale, taking back what was taken from them, to be taken and retaken for generations to come no doubt, unless everybody changes their attitude.”
“I hear Lord Percy has introduced the death penalty for breaking the truce—a turnabout in his thinking that’s had us all open-mouthed at Meaux. He must be worried about this renewed alliance with the French. He could lose everything if the Scots and French make a concerted attack.”
“That’s what we feared last year, but luckily it came to nothing. But it’s not only the Duke of Northumberland who could lose everything. If the north’s taken, those in the south are going to suffer as well. The Londoners would do well to remember that.”
Thomas nodded in agreement. “It’s high time we got some action from those in Westminster. They’re too busy feathering their own nests to rule the country properly. The barons should be defending the realm, not bickering over who gets the biggest slice of its wealth. We need proper leadership. Gaunt should step aside and let King Richard get on with the job. He’s seventeen now. Of age. But Gaunt must rule the roost, mustn’t he?”
Hildegard had never heard Thomas so incensed.
He was frowning. “All that aside,” he went on, “we brothers at Meaux are worried about the safety of our outlying granges should the Scots reappear. We worry about you nuns, Hildegard. This is such an isolated part of the county.”
“We’re safe enough as long as the Scots don’t call Northumberland’s bluff and start raiding right down into Yorkshire again. Besides, nobody knows we’re here, it’s so remote!” She leaned forward, “But tell me, any news from Meaux, Thomas?”
He understood instantly what she meant. “He’s absent still.”
There was silence.
Eventually Hildegard said, “Safe, one trusts?”
Thomas was quick to reply. “Be assured, we would hear if there was anything to hear, and so would you. He is our abbot. The name Hubert de Courcy is constantly in our prayers.” He gave her a soft look. He was her confessor and guessed whose name lay deep in her heart.
She poured them both another beaker of ale. “Are you having anything to eat before you leave?”
“I’d like to get back before vespers if I can.”
“Take a pack of bread and cheese with you then. I’ll get Agnetha to make one up.”
He leaned forward. “I know you haven’t been out of Deepdale since moving in here last summer. That’s almost a year. I said as much when I was over at Swyne.”
“Your prioress mentioned Archbishop Neville and the possibility that you might have to seek an audience with him in York.”
She gave him a hurried glance. “Is that all she said?”
“I expect she’ll be more explicit when it suits her.”
Thomas knew about the quest to fetch back the cross of Constantine, which had sent Hildegard to Tuscany over a year ago. Perhaps, he suspected, the prioress had yet another mission for her along the same lines, but if he did he was tactful enough not to probe any further.
He could not help adding one thing, however: “If you feel you need an escort at any time, Brother Alcuin will give me permission. I’d be glad to accompany you.” A disarming smile lit up his features. “Alcuin is less troubled by the strictures of the Rule than Abbot de Courcy. He lacks the abbot’s ruthless sense of purpose. We’re enjoying his easygoing rule while we can, expecting to pay for it a hundredfold when the abbot returns from Jerusalem. Meanwhile,” he looked hopeful, “if I can be of any assistance, I am yours to command.”
“You missed your vocation, Thomas. You’d make an admirable knight. I may yet call on you. If the prioress really does have some errand for me, I shall be glad of your presence.” They exchanged warm smiles, but just then Hildegard happened to glance out the window to where the newcomers had appeared.
They had gone to sit on a bench in the yard and were turned slightly away from each other, the silent one staring at the ground from under her hood while kicking at a stone with the toe of her boot. Her companion, hair shaken free to catch the sunlight, had broken off one of the briar roses and was holding it to her nostrils with evident pleasure at the scent.
Hildegard stood up. “No doubt I shall discover in good time why the prioress has seen fit to send me a couple of guests without warning! I’d best attend them.”
* * *
When Thomas left he was carrying a bundle wrapped in cheesecloth for his brothers and something for himself to eat on the ride back and had strung the two ponies together the better to lead them. Hildegard, accompanied by her hounds, Duchess and Bermonda, walked with him as far as the domain gate. A few yards after starting down the lane he turned in the saddle to raise a hand in farewell and was soon out of sight.
By now the sun hung like a bloodied orange behind the topmost branches of the trees. When Hildegard turned back she could see the grange at the head of the dale. The jumbled buildings shimmered as the sun’s rays sparkled on the shards of feldspar within the stones. From the kitchen chimney a thread of smoke crawled into the luminous sky. She paused with one hand on the gate as a figure clothed in white drifted outside and knelt among the herbs. The frail and yearning cries of the sheep floated from the upper pasture.
Unexpectedly she was moved by a feeling of happiness.
After everything that had happened since her knight-at-arms husband had gone missing in the French wars nearly ten years ago, she suddenly realised she had managed to find a haven and a purpose at last.
This is home, she thought with a start of joy. Peace, beauty, order. A refuge in a world gone mad with violence, with schism and with blood feud.
She made her way back at a leisurely pace towards the house with her hounds ghosting through the arching stems of barley grass beside her. Languidly content she followed them along the bank of the stream where glistening buds of anemones and wild garlic grew. She would go back to the house now and see what more she could do for her guests.
Copyright © 2011 by Cassandra Clark