Power of some sort or other
Duncan Ross was always astounded that the old abbess never seemed to age a day. For years he had been an occasional visitor. They would share a glass of wine in return for advice about stained glass and occasional shared reminiscences.
Today they met after Vespers. The only reason Ross could fathom was that Abbess Hilda did not want his visit to be common knowledge. She reached over to pour wine from a jug. Ross took the proffered goblet and sipped tentatively. It was very good. He nodded approvingly. The abbess motioned for him to sit with her. He did so and the abbess clinked her glass against his.
"Fifteen years." she began "fifteen years since we first met. Have you any regrets?" Ross took another drink and thought carefully before replying.
"There are always regrets," he said, but only the circumstance, not my decisions, or yours. I know full well that the bowl and all it meant, all it means, was important to them. But sometimes, in the night, I wonder if they were scared, there, at the end."
"We cannot know that, of course. I believe that they were not. But I also believe that even if they were, they would have counted it worthwhile."
"And the crew, and the Scots lords? What of them?"
"Them, I regret every day of my life. All I can do is to pray for them, and trust that She will take care of them. As I trust She cares for all who have died at the hands of the inquisition," she added.
And there, of course, was the rub. In the ten years since the inquisition had approved the use of torture in the defence of mortal souls, many many innocents had died. The stories reaching Scotland - even those in public circulation - were becoming increasingly disturbing, increasingly gruesome.
That had been the point of it all. The abbess and her network had had advance information of the way Rome was changing, the pope threatened by loss of revenues to the "heretic" movements. Who could know how matters would have turned out if drastic measures had not been taken? The thought of the inquisition in Scotland was enough to chill his stomach. He shivered and took another mouthful of wine.
"Sad times indeed, Duncan. And sadder still to come, I think." The abbess sensed his line of thinking "And that, my friend, is the reason for asking you here. That and friendship, and a shared love of good wine."
"Those years ago, when you saw the cup pass, you became part of the mystery. I said then, that no one knew where that would lead. Now, if you wish, you can be a greater part. We have need to calm a storm brewing in Flanders and you, my friend, I would have a part of it. Would you wish that?"
"That, Duncan, and your part in it, you may know only if you agree"
"Then I do so wholeheartedly" Ross replied.
"Very well." the abbess shifted in her chair to get a third goblet from the shelf, filled it and rang a small bell. Almost instantly, a young woman appeared, wearing a blue and silver cope over her plain white robe.
The woman took the proffered goblet and held it out in a silent toast.
"Moina, meet Duncan Ross. Duncan, Moina, who will travel with you to Brugge. You know the place?"
"I know of it. A free port. Dyestuffs and Stained Glass. I've never been there, although I supplied some silverware for a church, once."
"Brugge is also home to part of a lay religious order that has need of Moina's skills. The journey is arduous at this time of year, but the matter is pressing. Word has come that the inquisition in the Rhineland has taken several women of the order. You will, to all intents and purposes, be Moina's guard."
The woman stood impassive as Ross appraised her. Finally, he spoke.
"I doubt you have need of a guard."
"True enough," her accent was a lilting Irish brogue "but on this journey, unlike my coming here from Cashel, a woman travelling alone would be strange, and we must attract no undue attention. Don't worry," she laughed, a healthy, whole-hearted laugh "I promise to treat you gently."
"Also, we may need someone we trust to take messages on from Brugge." For years, Ross had known of the unseen web that linked the cups and cupbearers. It appeared now that, unwittingly, he had been a part of it all along. And other privileges went with membership:
"Now," said the abbess gently "we should give thanks, and ask blessings for the journey." His stomach lurched, a sweet memory of that one night, of the cup passing.
Moina offered a hand to help the abbess rise and the three moved together along the corridor to the familiar Lady Chapel. As it had all those years ago, it looked different. Rushes and herbs, sand and candles in a circle, with the statue of the Lady looking down. Moina poured wine into a blue and silver bowl.
"The wine is from Aix, the final destination of your cup," said the abbess quietly, answering an unspoken question fifteen years old. He stood, once again enthralled. Somehow, almost un-noticed, the women were naked now; young and old bodies both beautiful, almost glowing in the candlelight. Ross was anxious as he stripped, knowing that too much wine and good food had left him with a paunch.
He felt comfortable, though, as Moina held the bowl for him to drink, and Hilda's lips met his in a surprisingly sensual kiss.
Then they held his hands and, slowly and perhaps a little stiffly at first, they began to circle. This was no portentous initiation, simply a thanksgiving, but Ross understood the rapture as the dance went on regardless.
Duncan Ross was no traveller, but he had contacts and coupling these with the power of the abbey meant that arranging passage on a merchant vessel was no real chore. He asked only that she be clean and with a separate cabin. Moina had made it clear that they would share, so he ignored the conspiratorial look in the eyes of the master of the "Carite", who would, he said, give up his own cabin "if the bunk be wide enough." They would be three days loading; a cargo of hides and salt for Brugge, returning with wine and brightly dyed cloth. This would probably be the last trip of the year, so the extra income was welcome.
On the night of the full moon on the banks of the Rhine, mercenary troops dismounted from their horses and surrounded a small chapel. When all was secure, they opened the door. Inside were six men and six women, all naked, in the middle of a very unorthodox form of worship. Roped together, feeling little because of the copious quantities of alcohol they had consumed, they were led, still naked, to the town gaol, where they were woken every hour until Matins.
There would be no leniency. Heresy had already been found in Cologne, where the inquisitor had been censured for releasing some of the perpetrators, who vanished long before confessions started to implicate them. It was worrying that such vileness remained abroad to infect this beautiful area. After Matins, the prisoners were taken to the great hall, where the inquisition sat in judgement. Tired, hungry and dishevelled, they nonetheless declined to confess heresy, until the youngest, a pert young woman no more than sixteen years of age, was put to the trial.
After her fingernails had been removed, they started on her teeth. She confessed to everything they asked. The aim of the meeting had been to defame the name of Christ by committing sin in a dreadful parody of His Holy Writ. Adultery was a necessary part of this defamation - only by such work could a soul be joined in union with the devil.
Others quickly added further details. Yes, they had indeed supped the blood of a stillborn babe from a chalice. No, not stillborn - the child had been conceived in an earlier service deliberately for the sacrifice. There was a great contest to confess, for the more they confessed, the shorter would be their days in purgatory. Consistency of testimony was not a requirement of the inquisitors. The eleven who confessed were granted the mercy of death by the sword.
The twelfth was a man of about forty. To the end he denied the charges, all save that of intercourse in the chapel, which had been witnessed. They were gay on wine, and the chapel was far enough away from town not to attract attention. There had been no chalice, no blood, and no babe. He maintained his story until the flames reached him and he started to scream incoherently.
The Flemish captain of mercenaries watched impassive.
There had indeed been a tip-off, but to the inquisition and from a jealous husband. Even then, no action would have been taken had the entire group been poor. Two, however, were rich and the possessions of confessed heretics were forfeit. No need to tell the town that the chapel had been under observation since before the first person had entered.
A thorough search had failed to find the chalice and the conclusion of the town was that the heretics had received a warning and spirited the precious item to safety. His men didn't care a fig for the truth of the event. They did, however, care that they would be paid to go wherever they liked in pursuit of the chalice and the heretic carrying it. An expenses-paid trip home to the Flemish coast seemed in order. Soon, the weather would close in. It might well be impossible to return until spring.
Three evenings later, Ross and the two women met at the abbey once again for a friendly glass of wine. By Hilda's side were three leather packets impressed with the abbey seal of four lilies in a diamond. Two she handed to Moina - "you know what these are" - and one to Duncan Ross - "it will be demanded of you". This time, he noticed the stiffness and the second wine flask. He recalled the dance and the taste of the kiss. A great deal fell into place. At the end, they exchanged pleasantries.
"The Lady give you safe passage, and a warm welcome." Hilda ventured.
"And so may it be for us all." replied Ross. He arranged to meet Moina at the gate after evensong, with their travel bags.
They walked through the quiet streets to the dock. Eventually, Moina spoke.
"I swore not to tell you until after we sail, but you may have need. Abbess Hilda..." Ross cut across her.
"...is dying. No need to break your oath. Wine laced with poppy; though it took me long enough to notice."
"Stones of the gut and an excess of black bile. She would not have it affect your judgement of the situation. I have a small flask of wine from Aix, to be used, she said, for a final toast. 'Would we take all and give nothing?' she said, and said you would understand."
"That's one of the things I love about her. Her own woman to the end and, thankfully, the opportunity to be so. We are, of course, cut form the same cloth - she would not burden me and I could not let her know I had guessed. But, at the end, we said our farewells, and I left a letter for her, should she have need of it when her time comes. I think, though, that she will know she made her final peace with me many years ago.
The mercenaries rode west and camped at a farm on the outskirts of Ulm, paying well over the going rate for the privilege. The tactic was deliberate - publicity was cheap. Hennen, the captain, sought out the chief inquisitor, whilst his men made enquiries at every household.
There was no word of a chalice. The men rode on, towards home.
After they had gone, an argument sprang up between a visiting merchant from the Rhineland and a local prostitute he had failed to pay. He and his party were accused and taken by the inquisition. Their souls were saved by their confessions. Their battered bodies were garrotted, then, still living, thrown into the flames.
The sea journey was uneventful, but extremely unpleasant. Ross turned green almost before the ship untied. Struggling to make it to the rail, he vomited a mixture of oatmeal, vegetables and fine red wine until there was nothing left in his stomach. Moina helped him below, then, and gently stripped and bathed him, laying him on the bed where he dozed fitfully. He woke later to see her naked and unconcerned, washing herself. She persuaded him to take a little water, but it came back up immediately.
Later, he was told that Moina had eaten her meals on deck with the men, rather than disturb his stomach further. Later, he learned that he was a guardian provided by her father's executors. Her father had died with little money and, too old to marry without funds, she was coming to Brugge to join other women of similar circumstance in the hermitage there. He was, she had told the men contemptuously, the best that anyone could be bothered to provide.
The steersman had suggested an alternative arrangement. In public, she had gently rebuffed him with a laugh. That night, for some reason, he tripped and fell hard against the steering oar, breaking his arm badly. Moina set it for him. The pain was excruciating, but at the end he thanked her for her efforts.
Ross' own abiding memory of the trip was that Moina was there whenever he woke, to gentle and hold him. He felt better once the oarsmen had taken the ship in tow, down the canal to the port. He was ravenous by the time Moina helped him down the gang-plank, her strength making it look as if he were leading her.
Moina already knew where they were going, but finding the hermitage would have been easy in any case. Brugge was proud of it. Women who had played an active part in commerce and other functions of the town retired there for a life of contemplation. They supported themselves by weaving fine cloth - or so it appeared.
"If we never sold another yard of cloth," the abbess laughed. "we would still be rich. But it helps us to remain part of the town, and makes us special to them. Everyone here was once a wife, a mother, a lover. Now we give comfort to the town in other ways. There's no shortage of brightly dyed wool and flax. The women like bright facings to their dresses and the weaving helps us to remain part of the town."
"You have something that will speak for you?" the abbess' tone made it clear that in some fashion, Moina was already spoken for.
"I believe so." Ross handed over the leather pouch, its contents unknown to him. She broke it open and removed the oiled linen, within which was a single sheet in the familiar, neat hand of Hilda's assistant. The abbess took in the contents and her eyebrows rose as she did so.
"The maker of the cup at Aix, indeed. Your reputation precedes you. Yet I am to use you as I will. I assume that you were aware of that?"
"I agreed to what would be, before I knew the task. There is little difference."
"Then, you must find a room at the port. Quite public, if you take my meaning. For some reason, the inquisition seeks a chalice. The seekers have left Ulm for Antwerpen..."
"...and a merchant in bright livery, a stranger in town, may prove a useful distraction." Ross completed for her. "Only the crew of the Carite know that I arrived accompanied by my young charge, and they will be gone tomorrow. I will leave after dark. Asking for lodgings unanounced at night should draw attention rather nicely."
The hermitage buildings were relatively new - a small church of simple construction in a walled enclosure and surrounded by tiny two-roomed buildings - little more than huts, and a communal refectory. It was to the latter they headed after paying their respects to the abbess. A serving-woman fetched bread and thin ale. Ross ate so greedily that he began to feel ill once again. Moina sat with him until the nausea passed and made him eat the remainder more slowly.
Afterwards, warm and fed for the first time for days, he drowsed. She left him for a while, until it was fully dark.
"Time to go," she said, gently, holding out a dark woolen cloak, which she helped him to fasten over the bright jerkin and hose. "But," she added "someone in a plain cloak, hooded, would attract no attention at all coming to our gate. No need to deny ourselves companionship and worship. Full moon it may be, but we will hold a special service tomorrow after dark."
Ross slipped out of the gate in the direction of the port once again. After a few hundred yards, he dcked into the shadows, folding the cloak and putting it in his pack. This he shouldered once again, and it was a merchant in a fine red and green jerkin who appeared on the quayside looking for lodgings. Even at that time of night, someone who was prepared to pay well above the going rate - and to pay for three nights in advance - had little trouble finding a comfortable room. His exhaustion was unfeigned and he slept soundly, then spent the next day making well-publicsed enquiries about glass and silver.
That night, the merchant ate early and went up to his room. He would, he said, break his fast late. Minutes later, a stooped and cowled figure with a walking staff presented himself at the door of the hermitage and was given space in the abbess' cell. The service, in the newly whitewashed chapel, was quite beautiful and, as the now-familiar sense of awe arose within him, Ross finally realised why Moina's presence here must be protected at all costs.
The old abbess lay back in her bed, a candle clasped comfortably in her hands. As was the custom, she was making her peace with those she had wronged, though they were few enough, and arranging for the disbursement of her possessions, though they, too, were few. At the finish, the candlelight grew brighter and the ring of people round the bed parted.
From the shadows, familiar faces moved into the light. Madeleine, blonde ringlets sparkling in the light, hand in hand with Sir Patrick. They smiled and after all the years, Hilda knew that all was well. Then they kissed her, one on each cheek, placed a strong arm under each shoulder to help her rise, and walked with her from the circle of candlelight.
In a hut at the hermitage, Duncan Ross came instantly awake in the middle of the night. Confused, the last thing he recalled was Hilda thanking him for his thoughtful letter. Then he realised where he was, and was unsurprised when he recognised the shape of Moina standing over his mattress, holding a small flask of wine.
From Antwerpen, the mercenaries finally rode to Brugge. Anxious to show their diligence, they made enquiries about any newcomers who might be bearing the chalice. Their plans for a speedy return to Antwerpen and protracted stay with good wine and food and a port full of willing whores were dashed when they learned of the merchant staying down on the quay.
Word had reached the hermitage an hour before Prime, and long before the the troop arrived. Plans were made and the cowled figure slipped out in the direction of the port. If he returned, there would be time to mourn Hilda properly. If not, others would, he hoped, mourn. Or perhaps not. What would be, would be.
The wealthy merchant changed his plans, set out early and paid a brief visit to the hermitage to collect a horse that was tethered behind the chapel. Then he rode out of the gate, south for Namur. The watch-keeper especially remembered the big black horse with a distinctive white blaze.
The hermitage was immediately suspect, of course. Hennen and his men wanted to bring the abbess for interrogation. The inquisitor, however, knew when he was beaten. The abbess was a Van der Voort, and no amount of forfeit silver would make it worthwhile offending the family who paid for the town watch. Besides, virtually every woman in town had intricately woven facings to their finest gowns. The hermitage was popular. The mercenaries stayed for the office of None with the nuns and then hastily rode south to find the merchant.
The Flemming troop rode fast to Namur, but the single rider had a half-day's start. When Hennen's band arrived in mid-afternoon, they easily discovered that a man on a dark horse with a white blaze had taken a room near the basilica. He had left early in the morning, heading into France. Disgruntled to be heading away from home, the band rode south with a will. They were fit and trained: the merchant must tire soon.
They lost the trail somewhere south of Dinant, and back-tracked wearily, but there was no sign. They found a young man who had bought a large horse at the fair in Dinant, but it was all black, without the distinctive blaze. Of the merchant, there was no sign. Confident that they had not missed him on the track by the river, they reasoned that in desperation he had cut east or west across the hills. Even the inquisition did not pay enough to make that journey worthwhile this late in the year, so they agreed between them that when cornered the man had put up a fight and had unfortunately been killed. Hennen sent one of the men into Dinant to purchase a glass cup, which they broke into two to add flavour to the tale.
The inquisitor in Antwerpen had the cup sent east, with word that the gallant band would return in the spring. The good folk of Antwerpen welcomed the men with, sometimes literally, open arms. And the good folk of Brugge breathed a sigh of relief. A shame that the merchant had died unconfessed, but in many ways better than the alternative.
Just before Vespers, a stooped figure in a plain cloak slipped in through the gate of the hermitage. Homesick, he had briefly considered returning to Scotland, but there was nothing there for him, now. Under the cloak he carried a flask of sweet wine from Dinant, a present, he said, for the abbess. Not quite as good as that from Aix, in his opinion, but the best he could acquire. He hoped to be able to stay for a few days.
At Vespers, the chapel windows gave scant light that was augmented by candles. The familiar Latin chant drew him in and he focused on the statue of the Lady, prayed, finally, for the soul of Hilda, and thought of home.
When he emerged from his reverie the chapel was empty except for Moina and the abbess. The bowl was on the altar and he could taste the sweetness of the wine, although he did not remember drinking from it. Then a sense of well-being washed over him and he realised that he was home, amongst these people, and always would be.
copyright ©2001 Pithukuf