Strong as Death

Catherine LeVendeur (Volume 4 of 10)

Sharan Newman

Forge Books

Strong as Death
One
Vézelay, the shrine of Saint Marie Madeleine, March 12, 1142; The Feast of Saint Gregory the Great, pope.
 
In hiis autem que dicturus sum nichil auctore Deo scribam, nisi quod visu et auditu verum esse cognovero, vel quod probabilium virorum scriptis fuerit et auctoritate subnixum.
 
In this which I intend to tell, with the aid of God, I will write nothing except that which I have seen and heard and know to be the truth, or that which was written by men of good character and supported by authority.
--John of Salisbury Historia Pontificalis Book I, Prologue
 
 
Throughout the bone-chilling night, the four men knelt motionless before the altar of Mary Magdalene. The lamplight reflected off three bald heads and glistened on that of Gaucher of Macon, whose hair had gone from blond to white at the siege of Antioch, it was said, but was still thick and full, with a streak of gold down the left side. They all wore pilgrim-grey mantles, but underneath, at least one of them still wore the mail shirt he had lived in for forty years. All of them had daggers hidden and even in this holy place, not one of them could have surrendered his weapon and felt secure.
Dawn was drifting down from the high clerestory windows to the nave far below before they finally rose. All of them were stiff from the vigil, and Norbert of Bussieres, the eldest of the four, had to be helped to his feet by the others.
The church was beginning to fill with pilgrims as they left. Norbert walked slowly in the rear, cursing his aging knees. At the entrance, he tripped on an uneven stone, fell forward and was caught by a young woman on her way in.
In the grey light, the blue of her eyes startled him almost as much as the fall. Not really pretty, he thought--too dark, her chin and nose too definite. He had always liked his women small and pale, with yielding features. Whoever had charge of this one would need a firm hand, he guessed. All the same, there was something about her that made him wish he were thirty instead of seventy and that they were not in the doorway of a church.
"Are you hurt, my lord?" she asked, all daughterly concern.
He pulled away from her supporting arm. "No, of coursenot," he said huffily. "The parvis of this church is very badly maintained. Some poor, infirm pilgrim could be seriously hurt. I shall speak to the abbot about it the next time I see him."
She released him at once and backed away in embarrassment, bumping into the man who had come up behind her.
Norbert assumed that the man was with her from the way he caught the stumbling woman, as if used to doing it. The old knight grunted the minimal greeting required as he limped away from them. The woman's companion was as odd-looking as she, he thought--tall and thin with hair almost as white as Gaucher's even though the man was obviously still in his twenties. The old knight shivered, pulled his cloak closer and tried to move quickly enough to catch up with his friends. In another moment, he had forgotten the couple entirely.
 
Catherine stood at the church door for a moment, watching him go. "A very proud old man," she commented to her husband, Edgar. "Look at how straight his back is."
"And how bowed his legs," Edgar answered. "He must have spent his life on horseback."
"I wonder if he fought in the Holy Land," Catherine said.
Edgar shrugged. Most of the knights of that age claimed to have followed Godfrey of Boullion and his brothers to Jerusalem. Now, almost fifty years later, how many were left to prove them wrong?
Edgar had other things to think about.
"We should be returning to Paris soon, leoffaest," he said as they entered the church. "We've prayed here every day for a week. Our candles have all burnt down to stubs. Saint Marie must have heard us by now. We can only wait to see if she is able to intercede for us in heaven."
Catherine knew he was right. Edgar had been more than patient with her determination to come to Vézelay to ask the help of Saint Mary Magdalene with their problem. But she had felt no sense of fulfillment during their visit, no sudden descent of grace.
Perhaps after all, Mary wasn't the right one to ask this special favor of. The Magdalene had renounced carnal activitiesand come to France to be a hermit after the Resurrection of Our Lord. Catherine and Edgar had renounced their plans for the cloister and the priesthood for a life of carnal activity. Not something this saint could be expected to approve of.
Catherine could feel the color rising to her face. What a thing to be thinking of at a holy place! She sighed. No wonder their prayers and offerings had been ignored.
"One more day, Edgar," she begged. "Just one. It's such a little miracle we ask for."
Edgar looked down at her and smiled sadly. He had given up his patrimony in Scotland, his family's plans to make him a bishop, and settled in France to live out of his country and his station--all for this woman. He had done it gladly. Perhaps being allowed Catherine was all that heaven planned to bestow on him. Even a little miracle might be too much more to expect.
 
Norbert of Bussières reached the inn at the bottom of the hill not long after his companions. They hadn't waited for him, knowing how he hated them condescending to his age. He grunted as he pushed the door open. They weren't all that much younger than he, but recently his years seemed to weigh more heavily. He could feel the icy breath of eternity on the back of his neck tonight, even through the fur lining of his hood.
There wasn't much time left. They must go back to Spain this spring or never. Norbert had convinced the other three of that. But he hadn't yet told all of them his real reason for making the trip.
Rufus of Arcy looked up from his bowl as Norbert entered. He shook his head slightly, then returned to his beer. The old man would never survive the journey, Rufus worried. If Norbert fell ill on the way, one of them would have to stay to care for him, then take his possessions back to his grandchildren. It would be better for them all if Norbert stayed behind.
But Norbert would never trust them to take care of this endeavor on their own. He had known all of them far too long for that.
Rufus was only sixty-one himself, and still felt capable ofhunting all day and occupying himself with a serving maid half the night. Once it would have been all night, but some concessions had to be made to time. He moved over on the bench to allow Norbert to sit.
The fourth man, Hugh of Grignon, poured a bowl of beer for Norbert and another for himself.
"So," Hugh said. "We are resolved to begin our journey at last. We shall place our faith in the Lord and trust to the saints to protect us in our final great adventure."
The other three stared at him in disdain. Hugh's wife had been fond of wandering storytellers--too fond, some said. Over the years, Hugh had picked up their way of saying the obvious as if it were a new directive from Rome.
"I don't know about you, Hugh," said Gaucher, "but I have never trusted anyone but the saints. And even some of them can be duplicitous."
"At this point in life," Rufus added, "even a trip to the outhouse in winter could be my final adventure."
Norbert simply glared.
Hugh ignored them. They had known each other all their lives. So well that sometimes he thought they only bothered to speak to each other to prove they were still breathing. He signaled the boy to bring more bread. It would be a great adventure, he told himself, and more than likely, the last for at least one of them.
 
Catherine stood outside the church, looking out over the fields far below to the dark forest beyond. Clusters of huts huddled together, the tilled land stretching behind, the vines in their tidy rows just beginning to bud. As she watched, she could make out a few pigs snuffling in the brush where the cleared area met the trees. A woman was going out to milk her goat, tethered in a field along with the others of the village. She swung the bucket at her side with a rhythm that made Catherine think she might be singing. Behind her followed a child of three or four. He stopped now and then to examine something that caught his eye, then ran to pull at his mother's skirts. She lifted him to her hip with one arm and kissed him as she walked.
Catherine turned away, her eyes suddenly blurred.
Had she sinned so terribly? Master Abelard and Mother Héloïse said not. Neither she nor Edgar had taken final vows; there had been no canonical impediment to their marriage. There are many roads to heaven. Everyone told them that.
But then why were they given the promise of a child, only to have it taken away? First a stillbirth, then two miscarriages even before the babies quickened. It preyed on her mind. People reminded her that the queen of France, Eleanor, had been married longer than she and not conceived at all. That was little comfort to Catherine. The hope and then the disappointment, not to mention the pain and fear of her own death in childbed, were more than she could bear. Added to the rest was the guilt she felt for having taken Edgar away from his land, his family, his place in life, only for a wife who could give him no living children.
Someone touched her arm. Catherine jumped and nearly went over the edge of the low stone wall.
"Were you pondering the words of Saint Augustine?" the young man laughed. "Didn't you hear me calling you?"
"Astrolabe!" Catherine hugged him in surprise. She had known the son of Abelard and Héloïse since her days in the convent, but hadn't seen him for nearly two years. "I'm sorry. My thoughts were all too secular. I'm glad to be rescued from them. What are you doing in Vézelay?"
"Carrying messages, as usual," Astrolabe explained. "The abbot of Cluny sends greetings to his brother, the abbot of Vézelay, and I am the one chosen to deliver them."
"But I thought you had gone back to Brittany," Catherine said.
Astrolabe nodded, his expression more serious. "The venerable Abbot Peter sent me a message as well, suggesting that I return as soon as possible," he said. "I arrived at Cluny last month."
"Is it your father?" Catherine knew the answer already. Peter Abelard had not been well the last time she had seen him, just after the condemnation of his work at Sens. "Is he ..."
"Father has been moved to the priory of Saint-Marcellusat Chalon," Astrolabe answered. "After coming to Cluny and then reconciling with Bernard of Clairvaux, his health seemed to improve, but in the last month he has suddenly become much weaker. Abbot Peter felt that Cluny was too stressful for him. The priory is quiet, and the monks there care for him well."
He took a deep breath, fighting to control his voice. "My father has made his peace with God and Abbot Bernard," he said at last. "Perhaps that was a mistake. He was never one to tolerate peace for long."
Catherine nodded. She took his arm and they started walking down the hill to the guest house where she and Edgar were staying.
"It will be very difficult for your mother," she said.
That was a feeble statement for what Catherine feared Abelard's death would do to Abbess Héloïse. It was only since she had met Edgar that Catherine had begun to understand the passion that Héloïse had felt for her former lover and husband. Twenty years in the convent had not, could not, diminish it.
"It will be," Astrolabe answered. "But her daughters in Christ and her faith will help her."
"And you?" Catherine asked. "What will you do after he is gone?"
"I don't know," he said. "Perhaps I'll become a priest and spend my life saying Masses for his soul. Mother would like that."
There was a trace of bitterness in his voice that Catherine chose to ignore. "Will you dine with us tonight?" she asked.
"Yes," he smiled. "You can tell me all the news from Paris. Is Edgar's friend, John, still studying? When does he intend to stop learning and start teaching?"
"I believe he prefers the role of gadfly," Catherine laughed. "He has said something about trying to get a position that will take him back to England so he can visit his family."
They continued chatting of old friends and recent events. Peter Abelard was not mentioned again, but Catherine felt an emptiness opening inside her at the thought of the world withoutthe opinionated, arrogant, quarrelsome master, who had taught her logic with the patience of a father during her time at the convent he had founded.
 
After dinner, Catherine decided to return to the church.
"Just one more candle, Edgar," she promised. "One more prayer. Tomorrow we'll go home. You don't need to come with me. I'll walk up with the people from Orléans. Come fetch me when the bells ring for Compline."
She had scarcely left when Edgar turned to Astrolabe. "I'm afraid for her," he said.
Astrolabe nodded. He had seen the change in Catherine himself. She had always been thin, but now she was gaunt, her cheekbones pushing sharply against her skin. She moved too quickly, with random gestures. Astrolabe remembered that Catherine's mother had driven herself mad with worry over sin and punishment. She was in a convent now, not far from the priory where his own father lived, totally unaware of anything but her own misery.
He looked at Edgar. "What about you?" he asked. "Are you regretting having returned to France to marry Catherine?"
Edgar slumped forward on his bench. His pale hair hung limply on his shoulders. His hands were scarred from various attempts at manual labor over the last two years. His clothes were in the somber tones of a penitent, made of thick wool but without design, and grimy from days of travel.
"I doo't believe our marriage was a sin," he told Astrolabe. "Nor even a mistake, as some have suggested. I thought Catherine had recovered fairly well after we lost the first child. But when no others came ... Her brother's wife, Marie, says it's starting them and losing them that's hardest. I know it happened to Marie, before their son was born. Perhaps she behaved like this, too."
He emptied his cup and stared at the dregs. "I don't know what to do to help her," he said. "We can't spend our days wandering from shrine to shrine in the hope of a miracle."
"There are people who do," Astrolabe observed.
Edgar banged the cup on the table. A sleepy serving boy jumped up and refilled it. Edgar drained it in one gulp.
"If I were dying, I might seek the aid of relics," he admitted, "but I don't think so. It seems a waste of the life we've been given to pass it constantly begging for something else. In any case, how can one ever be sure which saint will intercede for him, which relic is genuine?"
Astrolabe, used to conversations with his father, knew the question was rhetorical.
Edgar went on. "Perhaps the fault is mine. My faith isn't strong enough. I would go to the antipodes if I truly believed it would help Catherine."
"And you?" Astrolabe asked. "Don't tell me this hasn't worried you."
Edgar was silent for a long moment. Then he sighed. "I grieve as well," he said. "The first child was a girl, you know, perfectly formed. I never knew they could be that small and still have each finger and toe in place. Burying her was the hardest thing I ever did. How many times can we go through that? And don't tell me that everyone does. I know that. It brings me no comfort. Obviously, the only answer is to be celibate."
"I don't believe that would be an attainable goal for you at the moment," Astrolabe observed.
Edgar smiled ruefully. "Mea culpa," he said.
The bells began for Compline and the two men went up to the church to get Catherine. There, Astrolabe bid them good night.
"If you can, come see Father," he told them. "His old students don't seem comfortable visiting him now and he says he doesn't mind, but I think he would like to see you."
On the walk back, Catherine was unusually quiet.
Edgar took her hand. She mustn't continue brooding in this way. "Home," he said. "Tomorrow."
"Yes," Catherine agreed. "We've been gone too long. But first we must go to Saint-Marcellus and say good-bye to our master."
"Yes," Edgar said, "we must."
In spite of his sadness at the reason for the journey, Edgar felt a flicker of hope. This was the first time in weeks that Catherine had taken notice of anything outside her own despair.
They were both so wrapped up in each other that neither one noticed the figure in the black cloak moving silently in the shadows behind them. It followed almost to the door of the guest house, then slipped away noiselessly.
 
Gaucher of Macon got up from the table and said good night to his companions. They didn't notice. Norbert was either dead or meditating. The others had drifted into blurred renditions of tavern songs and parodies of hymns. Rufus was stuck on the bibits, muttering "bibit ille, bibit illa" over and over in a hoarse croak. He had sunk cross-legged to the floor, resembling nothing so much as an ancient toad pontificating on its lily pad. Gaucher patted his smooth head fondly before heading up to the sleeping loft.
Gaucher and Rufus were exactly the same age, but Gaucher had always felt that keeping his hair made him the younger. His teeth were mostly accounted for as well. Therefore, he not only thought Hugh was being pompous in his declamations about this being their last great adventure, but also premature. Gaucher had a number of plans for the future of which this pilgrimage was only the beginning. And a profitable beginning as well, he believed.
He was humming along with the drone below when he entered the chamber. There were already a few men rolled up on the straw pallets on one side of the room. Gaucher fumbled in the darkness for his blanket and pack, left with the others in the corner. He put his hand into the bag, rummaging for his second-best tunic. Instead, he touched something cold and sticky. He recoiled, dropping the bag.
Resisting the impulse to shake whatever it was out the nearest window, Gaucher carefully picked up his bag and carried it downstairs. He set it next to the fire and slowly pulled on the string to open it.
"Whassa matter, Gaucher?" Rufus peered up from the floor. "Someone steal your jewels?"
Gaucher paid him no mind. Hugh and Norbert stared over their bowls at him with a stupefied lack of interest. Slowly Gaucher inverted the bag. Two bloody gobbets squelched onto the hearth.
Rufus leaned back, wrinkling his nose at the smell. Hugh peered at the lumps in confusion, then suddenly realized what they were. Automatically, he checked between his legs and sighed in relief. At his age, he feared he might not notice they were gone.
"Looks like Gaucher's the one with the jewels," Rufus laughed. "Not yours, I presume? A gift from a friend?"
Gaucher wasn't laughing. With his boot, he scraped the things into the coals, where they sizzled horrifyingly.
"The same fate awaits us all," Hugh intoned, "if we do not repent our sins on this earth."
Norbert blinked and came to life. "What are you talking about?" he asked sharply. "What have you put in the fire, Gaucher, that makes such a stink?"
Gaucher turned on all of them. "Which one of you did it?" he roared. "This is no joke!"
Hugh covered his ears with his hands. "None of us did it," he told Gaucher. "We haven't been apart all the last night and day. You know that."
Gaucher did know, but he was too angry to wait to find someone else to blame. He took the rest of his things from the bag and held up the tunic. "Look at this!" he shouted. "It's ruined!
"Will someone tell me what you're talking about?" Norbert repeated. He sniffed. "Is someone cooking bacon?"
Rufus started laughing, then put his hand over his mouth. He crawled toward the doorway, but got only halfway there before he vomited. In the corner, the serving boy groaned, knowing who would have to mop up after him.
Hugh leaned over to his friend and said in what he thought was a whisper, "Pig's testicles, Norbert. Someone's left a pair with Gaucher. Can't imagine why. He always insists his own still function just fine."
Gaucher saw that he would get no sense or sympathy fromhis friends. In a fury, he threw the bloody tunic on the fire as well, then stomped out into the night.
The serving boy waited for a few minutes, then retrieved the tunic, barely scorched. Only a madman would waste good wool.
In their curtained corner of the room above, Catherine and Edgar heard nothing.
The swelling moon shone down on the town and into the tiny window over Catherine's head. She twitched in her sleep and cried out once. Edgar pulled her closer without waking.
Eventually all four of the knights slept, Rufus stretched out under the table, still reeking of vomit.
 
Catherine woke up shaking.
"Edgar ..." She nudged him partially awake and curled herself against his body, drawing his warmth to her in the early morning chill. "I've had a dream, Edgar. A dream inside a dream, actually."
Edgar opened one eye, rolled to his side to face her and wrapped his free arm around her. He smiled and brushed an errant black curl back behind her ear. At that moment he had no trouble remembering why he had abandoned home and family for marriage in a foreign land.
"I need to tell you about it." Catherine tilted her head so that she could see his eyes. "It was a true dream, I think, but I don't understand it."
She stopped. His hand cupped her cheek, his little finger vibrating against the rapid pulse in her neck. With the ease of habit, he traced her collarbone and the curve of her breast.
"So tell me," he said, still smiling. "What about it has upset you?"
"I can't tell you if you keep moving your hand like that," she scolded. "This is serious."
"I'm seriously listening," he promised, leaving his hand where it was. "What was your dream?"
"Very well." She took a deep breath. "Please, Edgar, pay attention. It was vague at first, then suddenly very clear, as if I were watching from somewhere far above. I was walking on anarrow road, a cliff on one side and a chasm on the other. The wind was cold and cut through my cloak. The only one with me was our son."
She could feel him go abruptly still, his fingers tightening painfully. "How did you know it was ours?" he asked. There was no trace of teasing in his voice now.
Catherine didn't answer, but continued her story. "The road was steep but not difficult at first. Then we went around a bend and came to a place where there was no more road, only a wooden board stretched between two rocks. It was as narrow as the span of my hands and rattled in the wind. We had to cross it. We couldn't go back."
Edgar put his arms around her, holding her so tightly that she could barely breathe. She pressed against him, wishing that they could merge somehow and be truly one flesh, Eve returned to Adam's side. She turned her face so he could hear her.
"On the other side there was an old man, a holy man," she said. "He was watching us, waiting for us to cross. He wouldn't come to us."
"What was his name?" Edgar asked. "Did you recognize him?"
"No," Catherine answered. "But in the dream, I knew him. I put our child on the bridge before me. I was afraid I couldn't keep my balance if I carried him. I stepped onto the bridge, holding the boy's shoulders to guide him. But halfway across, something went wrong. The wind or our weight--something--made the board shake and bend. The end on the other side slipped away from its mooring and we began to fall."
"No!" Edgar was becoming more unsettled by this dream.
Catherine went on. "I screamed and caught hold of a crevice in the cliff with one hand and reached out for our son with the other, but he fell away from me. As I was about to let go and follow him into the chasm, the old man reached out and caught the boy. I saw him gather the child up and put him on his shoulders.
"So I knew our son was safe on the other side, but I was still hanging onto the side of the cliff. My fingers were slipping.I could see there was a way to edge over and return to the road I had come up, but between me and the other side there were only tiny fingerholds. I reached out for one and almost grasped it. My hand scraped the rock. I can feel the roughness even now. But I couldn't hold on. I screamed over and over as I fell. I thought I would fall forever. Then I woke up."
She shivered.
Edgar kissed the top of her head. "That is frightening. But you're safe now," he said shakily. "It was only a bad dream. Nothing more."
"No, Edgar." Catherine pushed away. "That wasn't the end. That was only the inner dream. I woke up within the dream; my arms stretched out and you were there. You were with me," she repeated more softly. "You held me and swore that you would always be there. And I believed you. But I knew that our son was still on the other side of the bridge ... and I knew we would have to go find him."
She exhaled. "And then I did wake up. But, Edgar, it was a true dream. I believe it. There was a message in it."
"But what does it mean?" Edgar asked. "Why couldn't you reach the other side? Are we doomed never to have a living child? We came all the way here to Vézelay to ask the blessed Marie Madeleine to help us. What else can we do? What more could be expected of us? And have you considered that only part of the dream was a sending? Are you sure the boy with you wasn't created from your own desire?"
"I'm not sure of anything, Edgar," she answered, "but I know we've been told to go somewhere, to do something together. And if we don't, the child I saw will never be born."
Copyright © 1996 by Sharan Newman