The Abbey

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[Warehouse 13 / Bering & Wells Über (AU)]
[written as Daphne]
***

Notes:

I apologize to all historians specialized in the Middle Ages upfront. I tried my best to research a bit, but of course my knowledge of period customs and attitude remains meager (and not my main focus of interest here). In case of doubt, please blame the mushrooms.

Banner woven at/with Bildwirkerey von Bayeux. (http://bayeux.datensalat.net/) — I realize that, while Norman, the style is not fully correct as illustration here since the Bayeux Tapestry was crafted in the second half of the 11th century (after the Battle of Hastings in 1066) and the Third Crusade, which is the starting point for this story, began over a century later, in 1189.

1189 is also the year Richard Lionheart was crowned King of England (and then immediately set upon planning the Third Crusade). The Crusades referred to in this story are the Third (1189-1192), Fourth(1202-1204) and Fifth (Damiette; 1217-1221) Crusades, which back then were not referred to as Crusades, but more generally as Iter terram sanctam (among other things).

I’ve used the Vulgate (orthography modernized) for the Bible quotes, meaning that the psalm quotes (I went with current numbering) need to be counted down a number, e.g. psalm 102 of modern editions is psalm 101 of the Vulgate, etc.

At the end, I’ve included English translations for all quotes, after Douay-Rheims (more precise than King James, IMHO), which is a direct translation from the Vulgate (for the nerds among you: parallel reading is available at http://www.drbo.org/drl/index.htm). I’ve also given the chapter/verse number in case you prefer to look up a different or modern English translation (the Vulgate does have some glitches, though, so the newer versions that go back to the Greek documents don’t always reflect the Vulgate).

Naming customs: Mica as as derivate of Micaiah (“Who is like God?”) would be historically possible (though not probable), just as well as Mica/Micah as a derivate of Michal (possibly Hebrew for “brook”), daughter of Saul. Helena for Saint Helena (the actual Saint, not the island of powermonger exile) is plausible, too, although the common English version for the Middle Ages was apparently “Ellen”.

***


1

Omnes tenentes gladios, et ad bella doctissimi:
uniuscujusque ensis super femur suum propter timores nocturnos.

(Sg 3:8)

The walls are high, granite washed white by the wind and the years. They keep out the world and its noise. Here, at the feet of the wall at the end of the yard, the abbesses rest.

She kneels among pebbles and grass, thick cloth rough against her shins. She is weeding and tending to the herbs, here, where the sun falls in gleaming squares during summer days like this one. The sexta has passed and she needs to be done before the nona. There is sweat on her brow and as she reaches up to wipe it away, she sees the pads of her fingers, darkened with earth and with ink.

Alchemilla, achillea, juniperus.

Usually, her place is not down here. It is up in the tower, where the hours of daylight are longer and the chill invades sooner in the winter and cracks the skin of her hands. And she writes.

She paints letter after letter, curves and lines, and sometimes, she spends an entire day over an intricate initial. She writes.

But when the Abbess sends her to the garden, she does so, and spends the hours between prayers among weeds and cabbage and herbs.

The world outside is quiet up here. On gray days when the clouds chase each other above the courtyard, she believes she can almost smell the sea.

At the sea, further North still, is her father’s fief. When her sister marries, it will fall back to the King. But she chose the veil, and she will say her vows soon.

It is quiet here, away from the larger roads where prouder convents lay – in the South, in the West. The abbey is small. Still, most Sisters come from families more important than hers, but she knows how to write and the Abbess sends her up into the tower, to paint letter after letter among parchment and tomes.

The commotion outside startles her. It’s not pilgrims’ chants that carry above the heavy stone walls and her grip on the hoe in her hand tightens. She knows that no wall is insurmountable.

There are voices of men and the whinny of horses, the rhythm of hooves and the singing scrape of metal. After long minutes, she hears the heavy doors being drawn open, the Abbess must have ordered it. A lost search party, perhaps. Or an envoy, flanked by armed me.

During vesperae, she sees them. She sits in the small church, away from those who have already taken the final vow, and there they are. The ambassador of England to the French crown and his entourage, knights and squires and pages, squeezing into the modest pews.

She finds herself staring at vibrant reds and violets, at smooth silk and stiff brocade, at intricate stitching in swirls of colors that remind her of the initials she draws. Her fingers brush against the rough seam of her sleeves before she can still them.

From the corner of her eye, she studies the faces of the men, sword-callused hands awkwardly folded and resting on trained thighs. Whispers are already running among the Sisters that some of them are heading for the Holy Land, to free Jerusalem once more, and she tries to decide who is among them – the two sturdy knights in the first pew, their beards streaked with gray, or perhaps the slender young man next to them, with a wave of black hair and a proud curve of jaw, looking barely old enough for knighthood, with a sliver of a boy at his side.

Just then, the knight looks up as if sensing the scrutiny and suddenly, she finds herself pinned by intense dark eyes. For the rest of the service, she looks down at the seams of her sleeves.

She is working in the yard again before nightfall, their guests need to be accommodated, and pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land must not be refused.

“It is beautiful here.” She whirls around, nearly tripping over the hems of her habit. Leaning against the well in the middle of the yard, arms crossed over his chest, is the young knight with the fall of black hair. It curls against his collar and there is amusement in his gaze before he looks past her and up above the walls. “Full of peace.”

She cannot believe his audacity. “You cannot be here.”

He points at the pathway to the surrounding cloister without regret. Behind that, there are quarters where they house and heal pilgrims at times, far away from the Sisters.

“I must have gotten lost, then,” the knight suggests guilelessly and he doesn’t sound regretful at all.

She straightens in her habit, standing as tall as he does. “Please take your leave.”

“You would deny a pilgrim to the Holy Land your blessing, Sister?” He is still leaning against the well and there is challenge in his gaze. She guesses that he is not used to being denied his wishes. His robes bespeak money.

“It is not my place to bless,” she replies coolly. She shouldn’t be talking to him at all. “I am no Sister yet.”

He looks at the different color of her veil as if only realizing that little detail now. Then he smiles and gives a little bow. “And I am George of Wells.”

He walks closer and she stops him with an outstretched hand. “I am of God.”

She has to admit that his moves are graceful as he bows yet again and reaches for her hand. His face is suddenly close to hers.

“So if I will slay Moors in the name of God, then I slay them in your name, too?”

And before she can sputter a response at being treated like a lady at court, he has brought his lips to the back of her hand and kissed it.

She tears it away as if his mouth is on fire and the flames of hell are licking at her flesh.

“You only do that with the Abbess,” she manages, her expression severe. If one of the Sisters sees them and tells the Abbess, she will be scrubbing the cloister floors and go to bed hungry for weeks.

Sir George is unfazed. “Then I hope you’ll become Abbess one day.” He smiles cockily, but then steps away from her. “Do you want me to bring you something back from the Holy Land in penitence?” She isn’t sure whether his smile is merely teasing. “They say there are jewels as large as doves’ eggs, and walls made of gold…”

“Worldly goods have no standing here.” Her gaze is scathing, and so is her tone when she adds, “Sir George.” She has seen knights like him before, more warrior than pilgrim, seeking adventure instead of redemption.

He retreats further, his gait less confident faced with her ire, until he collides with the well at his back. Reaching out with a hand to steady himself, he nicks his wrist on one of the nails of the roofing and they both look on dumbfounded as a fine spray of blood shoots up between them and refuses to stop.

She reacts first, remembering the Abbess treating a similar wound, and tears off one of her sleeve seams. “Press this to the cut.”

He obeys without protest. “You are a healer.” It is more of an observation than a question, and she shakes her head. She paints letter after letter, that is her way of worship.

His eyes follow the line of her exposed hand, her knuckles, the darkened pads of her fingers. “You know how to write.”

She is not supposed to take pride in the sudden respect in his voice, so she reaches out and ties the bit of cloth firmly around his wrist instead. His hand is slender and smooth for a man, more that of a courtier than a warrior. At this close distance, without his chainmail and helmet and sword, he looks very young.

A line of blood drops now dots the embroidery of his tunic and his eyes follow hers. “Some knight I make, if I nearly bleed out before making even it out of France,” he tries to joke.

She realizes she still has her fingers wrapped around his and pulls back hastily. If Sister Radegonde sees any of this and tells the Abbess –

“God will protect you on your holy quest,” she tries to reassure him and in his dark eyes, she can see a flicker of fear lingering behind the bravery and he looks younger still, perhaps her own age. “You are riding into battle for Him.”

“I’d also ride into battle for a lady.” There is that brazen smirk again, and she resists the urge to roll her eyes.

“There is a better price than worldly love waiting for you,” she chastises him, though there is no sting to her tone this time. And for a moment, she doesn’t know what to say at all when he looks at her as if he is seeing something more precious than heavenly redemption.

“God with you, Sir George,” she says, stepping away from him and she finds herself wishing that he will return safely to his fief and his king.

Once again, his face is close to hers. “This blessing, I will take with me.” He leans in, and for a fleeting moment, a smooth check brushes against hers. “Sister.” His voice is but a whisper.

“My Lord!” A voice hisses from the pathway and she jerks around to find the scrawny sliver of a boy that was seated next to Sir George during the vespers. He looks barely strong enough to carry a shield. “What are you doing here, my Lord?” Strands of tousled red hair are falling into his eyes and from his strained expression, she gathers that this isn’t the first time he has had to traipse after his wayward knight.

“I merely asked for a blessing, Claudius,” Sir George says evenly as steps away with a final bow in her direction. “Our journey will be long and dangerous.”

“Not as dangerous as this!” Claudius’ whisper carries over to her. “A nun, my Lord? Do you want to send us to the fiery pits of hell?”

She pretends not to listen as they walk away.

“She’s not yet a nun,” Sir George points out.

Claudius gives him a stern look. “She belongs to God.”

“Good,” Sir George replies. “You keep telling me that I should get closer to God, don’t you?”

They have reached the pathway now and she doesn’t turn around. She can hear Claudius groan as they disappear, and she can hear the energy in Sir George’s steps that make his walk seem more like a prowl. She doesn’t envy the Moors that will get in the way of his sword.

~~~

They leave early the next morning, after the prima, when she is already up in the tower, a quill in her hand. They ride quickly, chainmail lining their shoulders, swords at their sides. She pauses in her work to look on for a minute, taking in early sunlight reflecting off the metal and the bright colors of their banners.

One of the riders turns to look back for a moment, nothing but a speck of white framed by the darkness of his hair, and raises his hand, in greeting or in farewell. The back of her hand is tingling and she has to smile, and she resolves that she will volunteer to scrub the floors for a week in penitence.

~


2

Quæ est ista quæ progreditur quasi aurora consurgens,
pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata ?

(Sg 6:9)

Vestes et calceamenta quibus induimur, et quæ habemus in pedibus,
ob longitudinem longioris viæ trita sunt, et pene consumpta.

(Jo 9:13)

When they meet again, three summers have passed. Autumn storms are chasing the last stubborn leaves off the trees when she gets called in by the Abbess after the tertia. She is wiping her hands on her skirts as she hurries along the cloister, wondering whether she has failed in her chores. The Abbess is just, but she also is strict.

She rounds the last corner, wondering whether Sister Radegonde will be present as well, and winces. The Abbess is growing older, and Radegonde is helping out more and more. But those thoughts disappear when she catches sight of tousled red hair and a boy – a young man now, really – leaning against the wall.

He straightens when she walks closer and then recognition shines in his eyes. “Sister, God bless.”

He smiles at her, broadly, and she dips her head in reply.

“Claudius.” She echoes his smile even though it is unbecoming of her standing. “God bless.”

He nods at the door and her heart is beating faster all of a sudden. She has think of how she now wears her hair shorn underneath the veil, and she stills for a moment with her hand on the handle before she knocks and asks for permission to enter.

The Abbess is sitting in her high chair, Sister Radegonde hovering her shoulder. And across the room, one hand on the hilt of his sword, stands the knight with the wave of black hair who once spoke to her in the garden and it seems longer ago than three years, and it seems like it was yesterday.

“Sir George of Wells,” she breathes and she hasn’t known until now how much she wanted him to come back from his quest safe and sound.

The Abbess’ eyes are sharp, and so are Radegonde’s. “You are acquainted?”

She hesitates. She must not lie, but Sir George speaks up.

“Of course not.” He lies so easily that she wonders what other commandments he might have broken on his quest. “But my crest is well known in the North.”

“That it is,” the Abbess allows. “But you also passed through here on your way to the Holy Land.”

“He was our guest before,” she agrees. It is not a lie.

The Abbess looks at her intently. “You seem to have a good memory of our pilgrims.”

“I hope that anyone would remember the Ambassador to the throne.” Sir George stands tall, and he sounds like a knight coming to the gallant defense of his lady.

“Worldly titles and goods hold no weight here,” the Abbess replies coolly, but Sir George is unfazed by her displeasure.

“Nevertheless, I have returned to give thanks.” He gives a very curt bow. “For your hospitality. And your blessing.”

God with you, Sir George.

She remembers.

And she casts down her gaze and waits for the Abbess to speak, absently rubbing her thumb across the back of her hand. She doesn’t dare to look at him right then, but from underneath her lashes, she takes in his dusty, worn boots and the chinks in the chainmail that covers his shoulders. The colors of his doublet are faded and she can see the remnants of awkward needlework where tears had to be fixed.

“I am glad the Lord has guided you on your quest,” the Abbess says politely even as she eyes the large satchel at his feet. “You asked for the Sister in charge of the library. This is Sister Myka.”

“Sister Myka,” Sir George tries on the name in a way that sends a blush to Myka’s cheeks. He takes a step towards the room and towards her, and when she finally looks up to receive the satchel form his hands, his eyes are as dark and as warm as she remembers them, obliterating the autumn cold that drafts through the thick walls. He has taken off his gloves and even though winter is coming, his hands are burnt from a sun far more Southern than the one she knows.

“I promised I would bring something back from the Holy Land,” he says and his stance is more tempered than she remembers. There is a scar above the arch of his brow that wasn’t there before and still his features are elegant like those of a lady. Myka’s hand brushes against his as she accepts the gift and she is still so focused on the warmth of callused fingers that she looks at the scrolls unseeing at first.

Only when the Abbess asks, “What do you make of them?”, she blinks and begins to read.

Painted letter after letter, some of it in Latin, some of it in Greek. Knowledge of kingdoms gone by preserved on parchment cracked with age. Some is written in languages she does not know, boldly swung lines and dots, and the letters are interspersed with drawings of the stars, of bodies and of flowers.

“I hope they are of some use.” Sir George sounds hesitant and Myka looks up, startled. For a few minutes, she had forgotten that he is there, that anyone else is there.

Her fingers hover reverently above an intricate initial. “These are priceless.” She traces a curve of ink with the pad of her thumb. “Medicine, botany, astronomy…”

Sir George’s smile is radiant and it burns Myka like a sun far more Southern.

The Abbess clears her throat. “What makes you leave these with us? We are not Cluny or St. Denis, Sir George.”

“I have not been there,” Sir George says, as if that is all, and Myka hopes that it is not all. Men have never held her eye. She has never understood her sister’s giggling and blushing, but right now, it is hard to look away from the knight in front of her.

The damp November morning still clings to his coat, and she can see the subtle rise and fall of his shoulders with every breath, and the veins across the back of his hands. “And I brought this.” He holds a small pouch in his palm. “Lily seeds. For a small bit of Jerusalem in your yard.”

Myka feels a blush crawl up her cheeks.

“How considerate, Sir George,” the Abbess cuts through the moment and Myka hastily puts a bit more distance between Sir George and herself. She feels Radegonde’s eyes on her and fights the urge to fidget.

“As a benefactor of the abbey, you are our guest,” the Abbess continues. “Sister, prepare quarters for tonight for Sir George and his squire.” When Myka moves to fulfill the order, the Abbess shakes her head. “Sister Radegonde.”

Sir George looks as if he wants to protest, but he doesn’t get a chance to speak because the Abbess continues. “Sister Myka, you escort the squire.”

“Yes, Mother.”

And not to glance back and look at Sir George once more, the arch of his brow and the gentle curve to his lips, seems the hardest thing Myka has ever had to do. She holds onto the pouch of seeds as she walks out of the room.

“How have you been?” she asks Claudius when she shows him to his quarters. “Is the Holy Land as they say?”

“It is hot and dusty, Sister.” Claudius does not mince his words. His eyes are serious, shadowed by things they have witnessed over the past three summers. “But my Lord was always convinced that we would prevail.” He glances at the pouch that she still carries in her hand. “He said he needed to get closer to God.”

“I am sure he achieved that,” Myka says.

Claudius’ wary smile is lost on her. “He might have, Sister.”

~~~

They leave in the morning, after the tertia, when she is already up in the tower, assessing the writings Sir George of Wells has brought. Her eyes follow the twin figures on horseback for long minutes as they ride out into a pale day smelling of winter. Her heart picks up a beat when the taller of the figures turns around once more, raising his hand in greeting. She stands by the small window opening until both figures are nothing but tiny specks on the horizon.

Then she returns to her work. She blows breath onto her ink-stained fingers against the cold that is seeping through the walls, but she doesn’t feel the cold as much today. She is reading.

~


3

Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum ; dico ego opera mea regi.
Lingua mea calamus scribæ velociter scribentis.
Speciosus forma præ filiis hominum, diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis ;
propterea benedixit te Deus in æternum.
Accingere gladio tuo super femur tuum, potentissime.

(Ps 45:2-4)

The summers go by.

She sees the seasons follow each other from the window in the tower, the green of the fields, the pale blue of the horizon, the white of the apple blossoms in the orchards outside. The world is small and quiet up here, and the pilgrims are few and far between, despite the new pilgrims’ wing she can see from her window and where they take care of the sick.

Abbess Radegonde isn’t too keen on the patients, despite the donations and the prestige they bring. Myka only sees the coming and going from above; the new Abbess has seen it fit to keep her confined to the grounds inside, away from the pilgrims. She cherishes the hours she is allowed in the yard. In front of the wall where the abbesses rest – one of the heavy stone plates still free of moss – grows a small bunch of lilies.

Her worship and office lie in the tower, in letter after painted letter, steep lines and dense curves. In winter, the damp cold seeps into the bones of her hands, slowing her fingers with pain, and she reads and studies. The world she can see ends with her line of sight from the window, yet within far-traveled parchments from times gone by, it is merely where it begins.

And every day, when she looks out of the window, her thoughts travel North, to the sea and beyond, to the island and a fief she imagines. She looks at the lilies in the yard and feels heavy rolls of parchment in her grasp, and she wonders how someone whom she has barely known seems to know her better than anyone else.

All the Sisters have orders to include the benefactors of the abbey in their prayers and it is a duty she fulfills happily.

News travel slow and sparsely up here, but there have been several knights traveling through, warriors who have taken up the cross since the Holy Father called for another pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And there is a thought that she doesn’t allow herself to think.

This time, she sees him approach. She has looked out of the window every day, every hour, for the past nine summers, even though she knows that he has no reason to return, and that she herself has many reasons to pray that he will never come back at all.

But she sees him as soon as his entourage rolls over the horizon, a tumble of dots in the distance, surrounded by the dust their horses are kicking up. It will be long minutes yet until she can make out any of the banners that blend into the colors of early autumn as they spill forward into the landscape and into her world.

She cannot know that it is him yet, and yet she does know, because every rider that appears on the horizon is Sir George because he could be, until she recognizes the banners and crest as those of another.

This time it is him, at last.

He must have gained in standing during the past years as he is riding front and center, flanked by a group of warriors, squires and pages. Long before she can actually make it out, she conjures up the wave of black hair framing the chiseled pale face she is not supposed to think of. At his side, she imagines Claudius, carrying the banner of the cross. He is the first one to raise his hand in greeting as they draw closer and she looks on, still not quite sure that the image is not merely a figment drawn up by her mind that has not been quieted enough by prayer and work.

The window is small and Myka knows that it is impossible for any of the men to see her from below, but yet there is warmth tugging at her when she sees Sir George look up at the walls of the abbey as he stills his steed in front of the heavy portal. She cannot see his eyes at the distance, but the flash of pale skin as he turns up his face and stares at the tower. She tries not to wish for that gaze to mean her.

The Abbess will not call for her.

Myka continues to work on her translation of Greek botany, from a leather-bound volume that has traveled with Sir George of Wells distances far greater than the one between the abbey’s tower and its entry gate. Disappointment and rancor are feelings she isn’t entitled to.

He is sitting in one of the pews of the chapel during vesperae, with Claudius at his side. Myka is seated with the Sisters, the chants falling from her lips without conscious thought. And likewise, her eyes take in the party of knights headed for Palestine of their own volition.

Sir George is still just as slender, his face clean-shaven and smooth under the arch of slim brows. Myka finds herself thinking that he looks angelic. The only sign that time has passed is a certain weariness to his posture, something that projects dignity rather than the reckless ardor that she remembers with fondness.

Perhaps it is Abbess Radegonde who makes sure that there is the greatest possible distance between Sir George and Myka at all times. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. As a guest of honor, he sits with the Abbess during dinner, while Myka is ordered to hand out the stew to the squires.

“Sister Myka, God bless.” Claudius’ smile lights up the room as he holds out his bowl and he still looks just as youthful. “It is good to see you again.”

There are eyes on her, and Myka casts down her own gaze. “Indeed.” She can see that Claudius is carrying a sword belt now. “As the Lord has seen fit that we shall meet again.”

The Lord, or my Lord,” Claudius mutters and Myka fervently hopes that nobody has heard his remark. She can hear her own pulse rush through her body and the eyes on her are perhaps not just the eyes of her fellow Sisters.

“So you are returning to the Holy Land,” she continues. “Blessed be.”

“We’ll try our darnedest, Sister.” He winks at her before he walks away, and even then, his step is lingering.

It is rare that someone travels twice to the Holy Land. One pilgrimage is enough to earn redemption.

And to return once from there is luck already, but twice?

The motions of her hands and the prayers in her mind calm her fears as she tends to the yard before the completorium.

“You succeeded in growing the lilies.”

Myka jumps at the voice from the dark cloister, even though its tone is warm and friendly, or possibly she is frightened because of that.

“The Lord saw to it,” she replies demurely as she turns around without haste.

“And he led me back here,” Sir George says. In the evening light, she can only make out the pale features of his face.

“And he is leading you back to the Holy Land.” It is supposed to be an observation, but she can hear the worry in her own tone. “A brave quest.”

“Perhaps not so brave,” Sir George replies ruefully. He takes half a step out of the archway but doesn’t come any closer.

He has changed, Myka thinks, and she wonders what has tempered his recklessness, other than the years. “You have already gained redemption,” she reminds him. “So a second pilgrimage is an act of bravery indeed.” She allows herself to look into his eyes. “And of devotion.”

“Perhaps I still seek redemption,” he offers, his expression unreadable.

“What is your sin?” Myka asks before she can stop herself. She cannot imagine what he could have done to forsake the redemption gained.

For a luxurious moment, he meets her eyes again, torment swirling among the warmth that makes her feel choked in her habit. “Are we not all sinners?”

“We are,” she agrees after a moment and inclines her head. “But God forgives, if you truly regret.”

His smile is rueful. “Some things are hard to regret.”

She cannot ask him what he means. “Travel safely, Sir George.” It is the closest she can say to what is actually on her lips. “And God bless you and your quest.”

“Thank you, Sister.” He is still smiling, both brighter and sadder than before. “I am blessed already.”

He doesn’t sound happy, but there is a bit of the old recklessness shining through his stance.

Before Myka can say anything else, various sets of steps come closer and Sir George ducks back into the archway, even though nothing either of them has said is out of line.

Myka continues with her chores, but when she turns around again, she finds herself alone.

~~~

They leave at dawn and Sir George rides in front. Myka is watching from above, wondering how many of the men will make it to the Holy Land, and how many of them will make it back. She knows it is up to God alone, but when Sir George turns around once more and raises his hand in farewell, tears sting at the back of her eyes. Her own arm echoes the movement before she can stop herself, even though nobody can see it.

 ~


4

Ego dormio, et cor meum vigilat. Vox dilecti mei pulsantis:
Aperi mihi, soror mea, amica mea, columba mea, immaculata mea,
quia caput meum plenum est rore, et cincinni mei guttis noctium.

(Sg 5:2)

Facta est super me manus Domini, et eduxit me in spiritu Domini,
et dimisit me in medio campi, qui erat plenus ossibus.

(Ez 37:1)

The winters come and go.

She doesn’t expect him to return, even though she still looks out of her window and feels along the line of the horizon with her eyes, no matter the season. She has taken to think of the years in winters rather than summers.

How many prayers it takes to forget a glimpse of another life, she does not know. Even all her days of prayer have not chased away the ghost of dark eyes and slender hands on the hilt of a sword.

Abbess Radegonde has tried to declare Sir George’s parchments as work of the devil, but since the knowledge they preserve has helped the abbey grow better crops and take care more effectively of the sick, she has given up on it, at least for the time being. Besides, Myka muses as she scrubs the stone floor of the cloister – a task usually doled out to younger Sisters who have not yet learned to quiet themselves and their thoughts in obedience and prayer – that would mean that the Abbess herself would have to pluck the tomes in question from the shelves, and Myka doubts that she is able recognize a single one of them.

The stone floor has only so many plates, and afterwards, she returns to her writing, letter after letter. She looks out the window with inquietude these days. It has been two months since a small party of English knights traveled through, the flag with the cross held high. That’s how she knows that the call to the Holy Land has ended and that the armies have turned elsewhere in the end. Bejeweled gold on the knights’ armor and hands were proof of that, the delicate Byzantine ornaments at odds with worn chainmail made of a rougher cut.

Myka wanted to ask about Sir George of Wells, but before she could find a way to do so, the Abbess had already gone ahead, eyeing the gold and calling Sir Georg an important benefactor of the abbey.

Myka averted her gaze, but now she looks from her window with worry. The quest has been over for many months, the foreign knights long gone. None of them knew of Sir George.

He has no reason to travel through here – the route home by sea is far more comfortable – and Myka is well aware of it. She is also well aware of her vain belief that he would travel through here if he were able to travel at all.

She can only hope that he has found peace, carried home by the winds across the waters or having gained redemption in death on a holy battlefield. But still she looks out of the window.

These days, she is asked to be vigilant, even. The winter is approaching fast, and hunger and despair are growing after a cold summer. Word has traveled of pillaged abbeys further in the West and the Abbess has ordered an enclosure, not even patients are admitted.

The figures that peel out of the fog one day after the nona are indiscernible at first and Myka blinks, believing them a shadow of the ink she has stared at for the better part of the morning. Two horses, moving at a slow trot. One of them seems to be without a rider. It isn’t until they are well in view that Myka sees the gurney. She looks for a banner that is bearing the cross, but can’t find any, just a figure in dark robes atop his horse, bundled up against the cold, with a dark blue headdress covering his hair and face.

She hears hooves in the courtyard and then there are hasty steps up the tower.

“Sister Myka!”

She has already cleaned away her quills and is on her way down the stairs in an instant.

“It’s an enclosure,” she hears Radegonde declare.

“You would cast a wounded Christian knight from your door?” The rider asks brusquely.

“I cannot let men in here, what if they were to do anything untoward?” The Abbess sounds every inch a secular ruler.

The lone rider slides from his horse and stand protectively by the gurney of his companion. “Mother, I doubt my Lord is in shape to do anything untoward.” He yanks the dark blue scarf away from his face in impatience and Myka glimpses a familiar flash of red.

“Claudius!”

“Sister Myka!” She can see the relief flood his features. “Please help him.” He glances in between her and at the Abbess. “Your infirmary is well-known, so we came here. It’s Sir George of Wells.”

“Sir George…?” Radegonde eyes the figure on the gurney warily, but Myka doesn’t see it. It takes all that she has not to rush over and assess his wounds. Her gaze flies over his prone form and still Radegonde is blocking the entrance gate.

“Here…” Claudius rummages through a saddle bag, and the golden candlesticks he holds out bear jewels and ornaments that Myka has seen once before this summer. “Take it! Just please help my lord!” He all but pushes the loot at Radegonde.

“He is an important benefactor of our abbey,” the Abbess allows, and no sooner has she nodded for the gate to be opened when Myka is already calling out orders to the sisters who usually tend to the sick.

“You too, Sister Myka,” Radegonde orders and she eyes the saddlebags on Claudius’ horse.

“I am no healer,” Myka protests. She clenches her hands into fists until her nails embed themselves deeply into her palms. If she reaches for Sir George now, she will not let go of him again. Her strength has a limit not even God can stretch further.

“You read the books,” the Abbess reminds her. She turns the heavy pair of golden candlesticks in her grasp. “You know better than anyone.”

Myka should be more surprised at the admission, but she has no time to dwell on it. Her hands are on the gurney already, gingerly probing at soaked bindings and wet wool. When they head over to the infirmary, Claudius bearing the brunt of the weight, her fingers brush against a cold, slender hand.

“Put him on the table.” Myka pulls at the foreign headdress, revealing Sir George’s face. He is pale and his eyes are closed, his breaths shallow. “We need to remove the wet clothes.”

She props him up, fumbles for the clasp of chainmail and pulls off a heavy gauntlet, and then she is startled by how slight the body that sags against her chest feels. Next to her, Claudius shifts nervously and glances at the two younger Sisters who set out to remove Sir George’s tunic.

“It’s… – He has a rash, all over his body. Let me do it.”

The Sisters step back immediately and Myka cuts in. “Get some of the juniper ointment from the cellar,” she orders and hers is a voice now that others listen to.

“But the rash…” Claudius protests when Myka reaches for Sir George once they are alone.

Myka gives him a pointed look. “Why would you worry about a rash when your lord’s life is in danger?”

“It’s…” Claudius hesitates, and Myka is surprised to see fear in his eyes as she pulls down the collar and then peels back layers of cloth soaked with yellow. The shoulder she bares is sinewy and slim, marred only by faint scars and one angry wound that looks like it both has clawed its way inside the body and burst out of it, refusing to scar and fade.

“A lance,” Claudius explains. “An ambush, leaving Ashkelon… There was no time to let it heal properly.”

Myka looks at her hands, seeing them streaked with blood where she has tried to move the rain-soaked tunic further out of the way. “And this?” she asks sharply. Her hands feel along Sir George’s side.

“We got in a skirmish last night.” Claudius looks at his tattered boots for a moment. “Some lost souls thought it a good idea to pillage a convent. Sir George made sure they gave up in it, but he took a knife to his side. I –“ He shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know how bad it is, I just got us out of there —”

He stops talking when Myka pulls the tunic down further to assess the damage and reveals pale breasts that rise and fall with breaths far too weak.

“A woman…” Myka looks up at Claudius, surprised, but in some way, she isn’t surprised at all.

Claudius looks at her imploringly, the weight of the uncovered secret hanging between them. “Please help her,” he whispers.

And Myka doesn’t even need to think. “I will.”

She does it as if she has never done anything else.

It is different than the parchments. She has never had this before, a whole body laid out before her eyes: muscular thighs and lean arms, tendons covered by soft skin where neck meets shoulder, the smooth plane of an abdomen, the outline of ribs.

Sir George’s chest is covered and he is wrapped in a dry and clean tunic by the time the Sisters return. His side – a slender waist above a treacherous curve of hip – is wrapped in salve-soaked bandages and Myka prays, prays more fervently than she has in months, that it will be enough to save him. To save her.

She directs the younger Sisters and Claudius through reopening the seeping shoulder wound and cleaning it out, recalling the medical drawings in the parchments while her gaze keeps returning to Sir George’s – Lady George’s – features. She hasn’t come to even once. Myka takes in long lashes and finely curved lips and wonders how she hasn’t seen it before. Only in afterthought, she looks at Claudius’ beardless cheeks and nods to herself.

It takes another day and a half until Lady George regains consciousness. She is running a fever, black hair matted to her neck. It brushes against the back of Myka’s hand when she changes the dressings on the shoulder wound at night, and she pauses, struck by how often she has looked from her window, searching for a pale face framed by black hair, and now she would only have to to stretch out her fingers to touch it.

She refrains herself, but suddenly there is a callused palm covering her hand, holding on tightly.

“Claudius…”

It is more of a rasp.

“Sshh.” Myka leans over the knight, her movements gentle. “You must rest.”

Dark eyes blink open, glossy and slow with fever, but Myka still feels like crying at the sight of them. “Did I die?” Lady George whispers after a second of stunned silence.

A slight smile of relief tugs at Myka’s lips. “Not quite yet.”

“But surely this is heaven.” There it is, a bit of the reckless glint.

“Not yet.” Myka pulls her hand away when Claudius stirs on his cot across the room. “You will get there in due time.”

“That remains to be seen.” Lady’s George’s expression turns pained and Myka can’t tell whether it is due to the wound, or something else. “There is sin on my name.”

“And I do not believe that it will keep you out of heaven.” Myka’s voice is a whisper as she leans over to fix a bandage in place. “I’ve seen your sin,” she adds gently.

For a moment, Lady George seems startled, but then there is a dark fire in her gaze that makes Myka step back. “No, you haven’t.”

Her eyes are already closing again when Claudius jumps to his feet. “My Lord!”

It takes another day until the fever breaks.

“Why don’t you ride under the banner of the cross?” Lady George is still weak and Myka spends her scant time between prayers talking to Claudius who won’t leave the bedside of his knight. Abbess Radegonde does nothing to prohibit it. Myka suspects it has to do with the gold that Claudius keeps under his cot.

“We lost the banner in the desert, somewhere in Egypt.” Claudius shrugs without remorse. “We got lost. A group of riders saved us, desert people.”

“Egypt?” Myka has only ever seen the name drawn on maps. “But didn’t you go to Constantinople?” She glances at the cot where he keeps his bags.

“He…” Claudius catches her gaze and lowers his voice. “She didn’t want any of the loot. But I – We still had to travel…”

Myka nods in silent understanding. She has seen more than golden candlesticks in the Abbess’ office and she knows that without the riches, Claudius and his knight would have received a different treatment, or none at all. She looks at the other cot across the room where Lady George is sleeping. “She never wanted to move against Constantinople,” Claudius admits. “But she had pledged herself to the quest. We returned to the Holy Land as soon as we could. Sir George worked on the truce treaty for Amaury of Cyprus and Jerusalem.”

“With the Moors?” Myka asked. “And the ambush?”

“On our way back.” Claudius sighed. “We had left the court of Al-Adir and traveled back to Christian lands to catch a passage to Genoa. It wasn’t in battle, just an ambush of bandits.” He chews at his lip. “I managed to keep us out of trouble after that, until three nights ago. She went berserk when she caught those pillagers.”

Myka’s eyes travel once more over to the cot of the sleeping knight and imagines her with her sword drawn despite her shoulder wound, fighting like a lioness against a hungry mob ready to storm a convent. “Why didn’t you travel home by sea? You could have made it to England before the autumn storms.”

For a moment, Claudius doesn’t say anything and when he answers, he doesn’t meet her eyes. “She wanted to come here.”

The silence that follows is heavy. The travel up here is a detour at best; with the wound Myka has tended to, it is life-threatening.

“She shouldn’t say that,” Myka finally pleads, even though her heart is soaring at the words.

“I know,” Claudius admits with a sigh. “She knows.”

And Myka can’t look away even though she should. They will be gone soon enough, she tells herself, and she has waited so long. But the winter is approaching fast and Lady George is still weak. The Abbess invites them to stay until the storms up in the channel pass, claiming that the knight is too weak to travel yet. Myka, even though she shouldn’t think that, suspects it has more to do with the Byzantine booty that Claudius keeps.

They stay. It is safer for Lady George, Myka tries to convince herself. She has never sung the laudes with such fervor, and she knows that it is not safer for herself. She is reminded of it every time she tends to Lady George, whose dark eyes are clear again, simmering with warmth. The wounds are healing well and Lady George is full of thanks.

“You should thank the Lord,” Myka admonishes her. “I’m just doing His work.” She is well aware though that staring at Lady George’s hair – she now ties it back from her face like desert brothers Claudius speaks of so highly – is not part of that work. Neither is praying for Moorish desert tribes whom their God has ordered to show mercy and save a foreign Christian knight and his squire. She does it anyway.

It is one of the harshest winters she has lived through in the abbey, ridden with frost and hunger, and yet it is the happiest she has ever known. Lady George can sit up on her own now and on one of the rare occasions where they are alone – no Claudius, no other Sister – Myka cannot refrain herself from asking.

“What is your name, then?”

There is surprise in Lady George’s eyes, as if that is a question she hasn’t expected, followed by trepidation. Finally, there is nothing but trust, as she says, “Helena.”

“Lady Helena,” Myka repeats softly and the name rolls off her tongue like a potent drink. Being able to give a name to the danger that rolls along her veins is unlocking yet another door within her, but she is unable to close it, especially when Helena looks at her as if she has just passed through the gates of celestial Jerusalem.

Of the other Jerusalem, Lady Helena begins to speak. Claudius fills in a few details, and soon it is not just Myka who listens to tales of the Holy Land. Lady Helena turns out to be a wonderful storyteller and the winter darkness outside fades away when she speaks of the flowers in spring in Jerusalem, of sunbeams dappling the surface of the Lake of Gennesaret and of the hundred different colors of the desert sand. She speaks of knights and banners, of the gentry of Akkon, and the temples and streets of Constantinople. When it is just Myka, she also speaks of the heat and the dust of the battlefields, of the weight of her armor under the burning sun, of the greed and the fear among the warriors. And Myka is there, right along with her.

Sometimes, Helena’s eyes will meet hers across the crowded refectory and she has to remind herself that it is caritas that is part of her vows, caritas, and not amor.

“I think it is twice as brave of you, traveling to the Holy Land as a woman.” It is a quiet remark when Myka changes the dressings on the shoulder wound that is healing nicely.

“No, that wasn’t brave.” Helena shakes her head. “The brave women were those who I saw dying trying to protect their children.” Something creeps into her expression that gives Myka a chill. “That was not the work of God. I refuse to believe it.”

Myka instinctively wants to cower, so close are the words to heresy. “The Holy Father called for the quest…”

Helena laughs, and it is a bitter sound. “Even he forbade the move against Constantinople. He didn’t want Christian bloodshed by Christians.” Her eyes are still bitter when she looks at Myka. “The move was never about God, or the Moors. It was about the Venice fighting Constantinople for power at sea, and they willingly sacrificed the city.”

“But God –“

“I saw no God there, Sister Myka.” Now, her eyes are empty and they are the most frightening Myka has ever seen. “I left. I headed for Jerusalem with another few, far too few, who did want no part in that bloodshed. We were bound by oath, and King Amaury sent us to negotiate the renewed truce with Al-Adil.” Her gaze searches for Myka’s, still lost. “We nearly died in the desert, and we were saved by Moors. We owe them our lives. And Al-Adil treated us as respected guests.” Helena shakes her head again. “He was honorable enough do that, and our own army marched against Constantinople! – And I refuse to believe there is anything heroic about slaughtering women and children, be they Christian or Moors.”

And Myka can’t argue with that. She does not want to.

Lady Helena is recovering well. There are glances and fluttering smiles among the Sisters – something Radegonde tries to prevent, and Myka can empathize – when the spring slowly returns to her step. She won’t wear weapons inside the abbey, but she goes outside in the snow and the storm to spar with Claudius as soon as she can.

Once, Myka is in the courtyard when she enters again, drops of melted snow clinging to her brow, her cheeks reddened and with her whole body brimming with energy. She is laughing at something Claudius has said and Myka can’t tear her eyes away. And Helena notices. Sometimes, she still seems surprised that Myka isn’t shocked by her being a woman, but the uncertainty in her expression gives way to a smoldering gaze that has Myka’s cheeks reddening, as well. The ground beneath her feet seems to open up and she has to realize that she is a lot less strong than she thought. There are moments where Myka wonders whether Lady George is married and whether there is a family waiting for her in England. But Myka never asks, and Helena never tells.

She tells her other things, though, when Myka barely has to check the wounds any longer and Myka’s attention isn’t held by worry of the knight’s survival and more by how the tunic falls away from Lady Helena’s trained shoulders.

“I was never as close to God as I was in the desert, about to die.” Helena’s eyes are bottomless.

“I am glad you found Him,” Myka concedes. Once this winter is over, she will spend her years praying for peace.

Helena is still looking at her, “I saw you,” she whispers. “Before I fell, I saw you.”

Her mouth is so very close to Myka’s now, and Myka does not step back for long moments.

“My vows…” she finally manages.

Helena looks away. “I know.”

Any Myka knows that she absolutely cannot feel like this. But she does.

And then Helena cleans her chainmail one day in January, while storms rage outside, and Myka finds her gauntlet on the floor. She only means to pick it up, but she cannot help seeing the piece of cloth carefully pinned to its inside.

And she recognizes it. It’s the simple sleeve seam she once tore off her habit without second thought to stop the bleeding where Sir George – Lady Helena – had nicked herself at the well in the yard. She has pulled it out of its hiding place before she can stop herself, her heart racing.

Once, a lifetime ago, Myka lived in a fortress and the knights carried a glove or a tissue of their lady into tournament – on their helmet, against their chest, or inside their gauntlet. The heady realization that Helena has chosen to fight in her name like this hits her at the same time as the knowledge that it’s blasphemy to ride into battle wearing the token of a Bride of Christ.

“I’ve always carried you with me.” Helena stands in the door, her tone both defiant and frightened.

With all the tenderness she mustn’t feel, Myka folds up the piece of cloth and pins it back in its place within the worn gauntlet. When she looks up again, tears cloud her vision.

“You have to leave.”

Helena bows her head. “If you ask me to, I will.” When she looks up again, her eyes are full of impossible hope, so bright that Myka feels blinded. “I would take you with me.”

She should yell at this. She should run. Myka knows this, yet instead, she whispers,” “And I would go with you.” Outside, the bell for vesperae is ringing. Myka’s voice is desperate. “Which is why you have to leave.”
Lady Helena was raised to be a knight. She doesn’t say another word. She bows and takes a step back, then she call for Claudius.

They leave in the morning, the storms and the snow notwithstanding.

Myka isn’t looking from the window this time. She is in the chapel, her hands clasped in prayer so tightly that her knuckles are standing out in white. And she cannot stop crying.

~


 5

In lectulo meo, per noctes, quæsivi quem diligit anima mea : quæsivi illum, et non inveni.

 (Sg 3:1)

She doesn’t think she will ever see Lady Helena again.

In dreams, sometimes her face appears to Myka, but her features have begun to fade with the summers that pass. Prayer remains, and she prays more when she has dreamed, until she manages to silence that lingering voice that still suggests the lost chance of another, impossible life.

Back then, her vows kept her upright. Now, they are the only thing she has left. She is startled at times by how brittle it feels.

God’s name has been on her lips so often that she fears she has worn it thin like a threadbare cloth, with her doubts beginning to shine through. For a long time, she has wondered whether Lady Helena was sent by the Devil or by the Lord to test her faith, but she has accepted that it does not make a difference. She has won, after all. Even it does not feel like much of a victory at times.

She may have stayed, but she had wanted to leave. For one breathless moment, she had wanted, and it is something she can never atone for, not even in a dozen years, or in all the years she has left. On the rare occasion where she catches sight of herself without her veil in a mirror, she sees short hair streaked with gray and a deepening crease between her brows. She notices it absently. Sometimes, she wonders whether she still is the woman that Helena once thought her to be, or whether she has ever been her. Sometimes, she wonders whether Helena still carries a piece of rough shirtsleeve to battle in her gauntlet.

She is not angry at Helena any longer. She never was.

Out in the yard, the lilies are still growing and in front of the wall, there is a new stone plate.

Myka does not have much time to write these days and less time to look out the window. The duties of an abbess are plenty and the staircase to the tower room seems steeper every year. She has accepted the office and the burden of it, although she is not sure any longer whether it was God’s calling.

She takes care of the Sisters entrusted to her care as well as she can, and she keeps the things she sees when she has to deal with the bishop to herself – the bribes, the greed and the broken vows. She has seen men and women of the cloth turn the other way when it suited them and passing out absolution in exchange for gold and favors. It is not up to her to judge, and during one year of drought, she herself accepted a donation she wanted to cast from the abbey’s door, but it got her Sisters through into the next spring.

The Sisters respect her. There are no golden candlesticks in the rooms of Mother Myka. She is stricter with herself than she is with anyone else.

There is less time for writing, and the letters come slower now. Her fingers have begun to knot with the years and the winters, but the pain lessens in spring and she looks out onto the apple trees in the orchard outside the wall. The new infirmary wing blocks her view of the blossoms, but she does not mind. The God of her prayers may feel more and more absent with the years, but there is God in the eyes of every pilgrim and patient that recovers, just like Lady Helena recovered many winters ago.

Today, a soft breeze of spring enters through her window, moving the seam of her veil. Her heartbeat picks up before she hears the sound of hooves that match it in the distance.

Ink spills as she rushes to put down her quill and hurries over to the window. The banner of the cross flutters in the wind as four riders gallop closer. She sees a dark blue headdress to the right, and in the center, a pale face framed by a wave of black hair.

She will do penitence for flying down the staircase like young girl in love, but not right now. Her aging bones are protesting her speed, but she laughs at them.

The laugh is mirrored in Lady Helena’s eyes, not haunted for once, as she meets them at the gate. “Sister Myka!”

Helena looks at Myka, but not at her veil. Claudius discreetly clears his throat next to his knight, having caught onto the different color.

“Mother Myka?” Claudius bows his head as he slides off his horse and bares his face. “We are pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land and seek blessing for our weapons and our quest.”

There is still no sign of a beard on his face, much like with his knight. Helena wears her hair a little shorter again, falling onto her collar and shoulders, perhaps in what is court fashion in England at the moment. Myka suppresses an untoward spark of jealousy.

“Sir George of Wells,” she remembers to say. “We welcome you and your men.”

Things have changed since Myka has been made Abbess.

“Mother.”

Helena bows when she comes to stand in front of her, her movements a little slower than Myka remembers, but no less graceful. She bends down to kiss the back of Myka’s hand in greeting, and Myka swears that she sees Helena wink as she looks up again. “We thank you for your hospitality.”

And the knight is her guest, since she is the Abbess now. She would be allowed to close the door behind just the two of them, but her conscience makes her leave it wide open. Claudius stands next to doorway, his hands linked behind his back.

“So you became Abbess after all,” Helena observes, and she is not really standing at the expected respectful distance.

Myka nods demurely.“God has seen to it.”

“Or the Bishop has made a wise choice for once,” Helena states and as always, Myka is a bit at unease with how easily words close to blasphemy seem to come for Helena. Perhaps it is because she recognizes her own doubts within them.

“I’ve seen that you expanded the infirmary,” Helena adds and her eyes roam over Myka’s face as if she were a relic to be revered. Myka wouldn’t be surprised if Helena still has not realized that she is wearing a different veil now.

“People speak highly of the abbey in the surrounding villages.” Helena’s fingers curl around the sheath on her belt where her sword usually hangs. “All the way up to the coast, even.”

“We do see a fair share of pilgrims these days,” Myka allows, and that reminds her of other matters. “And you are heading to the Holy Land? Again?” She doesn’t manage to keep the worry out of her voice.

There are sharp creases around Lady Helena’s lips and along her brow, and at the closer distance, Myka sees a plentitude of white strands in Helena’s hair.

At their age, knights should settle on fiefs or ambassadors’ chairs, but there’s a sparkle in Helena’s eyes that takes the years away.“I am sure I can find something to do I will need redemption for…” Her smile has grown bolder with age. “…Mother,” she tacks on, so late that it is clear that she didn’t really mean to say it. “I know the land,” she adds on a more serious note. “I have negotiated treaties before, and my word has gained weight among the ranks. I can prevent useless bloodshed.”

“A noble goal,” Myka admits, even though she would prefer to know him safe. “But don’t you believe it is tempting the Lord’s patience to hope for a third return from His country?”

Restlessness flits across Helena’s features. “They say that it is the bigger honor to fall on holy soil.”

Myka cannot argue with that, much as she wants to.

“But your blessing has kept me safe before,” Helena adds, and the smile is back.

“Any blessing is God’s work,” Myka reminds her.

Helena shrugs. “But you are mine.”

Now, Myka does close the door. Claudius remains outside with a nod, his eyes free of any judgment.

“Aren’t you afraid to forfeit your immortal soul with your words?” Myka doesn’t mean to, but her gaze drops down to Helena’s gauntlet.

“What use is an immortal soul to me if I had to rip out its brightest part to gain it?” Helena is frank; years of battles that Myka can only guess at have taught her that time is a precious good.

Myka knows that she should not ask, but she is so tired of restraining herself. “Which part?”

Helena shifts her sword arm on her belt, making the gauntlet shimmer in the fading daylight. “You.”

Lightning should strike them both at this, and the flames of hell should consume then. But Helena’s eyes shine brighter than any lightning, and the only flames Myka can feel lick at her soul are not of hell. They cannot be.

“I have traveled so far for the promise of peace, and all I found was blood,” Helena says wearily. “I am not afraid of losing my soul. All I seek is rest. And the only peace I have known, I must not –“

She never gets to finish her confession because Myka’s fingers cover her lips, their tips ever-stained in dark ink. They don’t pull away again. Instead, they travel across a smooth plane of cheek, over an arched brow, and gently push a few strands of black and white behind Helena’s ear.

It is Myka who moves first and Helena’s lips are benediction and condemnation at once. Never in all her years of prayer has she been this close to God with her entire being and she is vaguely thinks that this must be what it feels like to stand on the hill of celestial Jerusalem. Her mind screams blasphemy, but everything else that she is is begging for more.

And Helena responds. Long minutes pass with no sound but the stutter of breaths and the rasp of metal where the gauntlet stumbles into their embrace.

Myka leads the matutinum with haste this night. And when she returns to the chapel for laudes, her heart is not full of penitence, but gratitude.

The gauntlet rests on the stool in her cell when she reaches for her veil. She is not used to courtly manners and she does not know how to respond to Helena’s adoring gaze.

She tries not to think of all the women with whom Helena might have lain. She has heard enough stories of traveling knights. For a moment of unbecoming vanity, she fears Helena’s reaction, but if anything, the fervor in Helena’s expression increases when the veil falls away Myka self-consciously runs a hand through her cropped locks. “I will not stop you,” she says simply, and there is trepidation in her tone even though she is the one who reaches for Helena again.

“I will.” Helena’s hands, worn from years of swordfight, cover her own in warm tenderness. “Years ago, I would not have hesitated,” she admits ruefully. “But I will not blemish your soul or your vows. You are destined for celestial Jerusalem.” She glances down at their linked hands. “This is already more than I ever could ask for.”

And the night is theirs.

Their bodies are past the carelessness of youth, marked by scars and age, but still they fall into each other effortlessly. Helena keeps her word where Myka cannot trust herself to do so. Her kisses are reverent, and Myka feels the calluses on her palms when Helena’s arms wrap around her waist. It is enough to hold her, and to be held by her.

Myka marvels at the sudden youth of her blood that pushes through her veins, and at the way her body so easily fits against another without pudency. She has never been so wide awake and everything she is trembles before the beatific smile on Helena’s lips when she pillows her head on Myka’s chest, her breaths matching Myka’s heartbeat.

Claudius’ eyes are still without judgment in the morning.

They leave after the prima.

“You cannot ever come back,” Myka says as they stand at the gate, even as her eyes are pleading with Helena not to leave her. Their kisses still burn on her skin beneath the heavy habit.

“As you wish,” Helena promises, and the set to her jaw makes it clear that she will do anything to return. Claudius and the other riders are already seated on their horses, cross banners catching in the light wind.

And Helena kneels and bends over Myka’s hand to kiss it in formal goodbye, but instead to the back of it, she presses the kiss to her palm.
For the briefest of moments, Myka’s fingertips curl against hers.

“Ride with God’s blessing,” Myka decrees when Helena stands, and her eyes are clear. “With my blessing,” she adds softly before she steps back and she hopes she will never forget the serenity in Helena’s gaze that echoes her wish.

They gallop away without turning around.

When Myka returns to the tower window, they are but dots in thedistance, the banners blowing above their heads.

~


6

Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis ; factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.
Vigilavi, et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.

(Ps 102:7-8)

Three summers have passed, and a fourth.

She does not graze the horizon with her eyes in impatience this time. She ascends and descends the stairs slower; a bad fall two winters ago has made her cautious. She knows that Jerusalem remains lost and that the quest is over once more. As an abbess, she hears more of the world outside. She has heard of Egypt, and she wonders whether Lady Helena has once more negotiated with the Moors, crossing deserts as vast as the sea, with her gauntlet gleaming underneath a scorching sun, Claudius at her side.

It is a place Myka could never take. She should not ask herself whether Helena thinks of her, thinks of her as she rides into battle under a different sun, on a soil Myka will never step upon.

She does not expect Helena to return.

Hope has grown tamer with the years, although Myka knows she will continue to hold on as long as she has a window to look from and an horizon to search. A spark remains that she is unable to quench. It shines brighter in spring, and it is spring again as she writes, up in the tower. Apple blossom has passed already, but the ground is still covered in white petals, soft in wilting. They are roused from their resting place by a gallop that reverberates through the earth.

Myka has to shield her eyes from the light to make out the figure on top of a horse, although the horse catches her attention first. Its limbs look more delicate than those of any mare or destrier Myka has ever seen, and yet it seems deadlier. Rider and horse draw closer, mane flying about unbound, and behind the racing horse’s neck, Myka believes she can make out a dark blue headdress.

When the rider sprints through the orchard with a whirl of white and dust around him, Myka turns to descend the stairs. Her heartbeat is quicker than her feet.

Down by the gate, the beautiful horse is restlessly moving its hooves, as if the confines of the abbey’s courtyard are too small of a space for him. Myka watches a slender figure in dark blue robes slide out of the saddle and hope blazes brightly in the brief moment that it takes until a pair of eyes – the only thing not covered by the headdress – meets her own.

“Mother Myka!”

Claudius reaches up to unveil his face, even as Myka’s gaze moves past him with anxiousness. But there is no one else.

“…Sir George of Wells?” she finally asks. They are not alone in the courtyard, and she wishes they were when Claudius shakes his head.

“I am sorry, Mother,” he says and his gentle tone makes it even harder to suppress the tears.

Her expression hardens as she nods. “Redemption lies in falling on holy soil.” And while it should be said with certainty, she sounds as if she is trying to convince herself. She knows that Helena did not care about being redeemed by a God whom she could not see any longer among the bloodshed, and Claudius knows it, too.

“How did she die?” she asks later, softly, as they are alone. They are out in the yard and her voice is so low that it does not travel far enough to impact on the high walls around them.

“In my arms.” Claudius takes a step back as something flares up in Myka’s eyes. “She asked about you, though,” he adds. “She was so tired of fighting.”

“Did she die in battle?” Myka insists. Even if Helena did not care, perhaps for Myka, at least this will give her a measure of peace: to know that Helena has gained redemption.

Claudius seems to recognize her desire and he hesitates, long enough for Myka to realize that he is debating whether he should lie.

“She died cast out by her fellow knights, and by the Cardinal,” he finally admits. “She tried for a treaty, without orders…”

His eyes are full of sympathy as Myka tries to cover the gasp she cannot prevent from escaping with a hand.

“Negotiations went well, even after al-Adil died,” Claudius continues and his face is a blur through Myka’s tears. “The Sultan al-Kamil was willing to rescind Jerusalem, the Holy Cross, prisoners… and the Cardinal didn’t listen.” For a moment, Myka thinks that Claudius will spit out in contempt, but he respects the abbey around him as Myka’s space and refrains from doing so. “He said he would not negotiate with Moors. – And what for? Three more years of hunger and blood, and nothing gained.”

“Nothing,” Myka echoes, and she does not think of the Christian armies, but of one single knight.

“She may not have died a knight of the quest or gained your God’s redemption,” Claudius says. “But she did die a hero to me.” When Myka looks at him questioningly, he nods. “She warded off an attack on a village in Egypt, saving women, children and elders alike.” The defiance in his expression makes it clear that he is not speaking about a Christian village. “May she rest in peace.”

“She will,” Myka says with conviction. If she cannot believe in this, she will not believe in anything any longer. She is surprised to find a small smile tugging at her lips when she realizes that Helena would have been content to go like this.

They stand in silence, united in their grief. When she looks at Claudius again, she notices the signs inked into his face and she pauses to take in the wide pants that draw close at the ankles, the dark coat and the artfully wrapped headdress.

“It’s not Claudius any longer, is it?” she asks quietly.

“Mas’ud Ibn Jurayi, Mother,” Claudius replies with a small bow, and he looks at peace. “I have come to fulfill her last wish.”

Myka accepts the satchel he holds out to her, but her hand stills when she sees what is inside.

A battered gauntlet, dotted with stains. Only when she sees the blood that has soaked through the simple piece of torn shirt sleeve pinned to its inside, she realizes that the stains are not rust. She holds onto the piece of armor so tightly that the metal breaks her own skin, but it does nothing to chase away the emptiness that suddenly surrounds her.

Claudius shifts uncomfortably. “All the other warriors wished to be buried in the Holy Land,” he says. “But her Holy Land was always here.”

At that, she finally looks up again, still holding tightly onto the gauntlet. “Thank you… Mas’ud.”

Claudius – Mas’ud – smiles at that and Myka sees the wrinkles around his eyes and has to think how he has grown into a man of stature, even with his beardless cheeks.

“She rode into battle with you until her last day,” he says, very quietly.

“As did you,” Myka points out, and perhaps there is a twinge of jealousy in her tone and she tries to push it away. “Can I offer you hospitality?”

“Just for a night.” Mas’ud places a hand on his belt. “Then I have to return.”

“To England?”

He shakes his head. “Home.”

“And where is home?” Myka asks.

“With my brethren of the desert,” he answers and Myka envies his conviction. A shy smile curves his lips. “I found a wife among them, too.”

Myka looks at his slim, beardless figure and pictures another woman next to it, and for one bittersweet moment, she allows herself to imagine herself and Helena under a sun far away, with a desert as endless as the sea at the hooves of their horses.

“My home is there, just as hers was with you,” Mas’ud says, and Myka allows herself to nod at that, in the yard of her abbey with just the breeze of late spring around them. It still carries some apple blossom petals on its breath.

Mas’ud leaves after the prima in the morning. The wind has cooled and it tears at his robes just as his impatient horse dances next to him, urging him home. Myka smiles at him fondly. “God bless.”

When he bows to her in goodbye, his last word is “Salam.”

 ~~~

The walls are high, granite washed white by the wind and the years. They keep out the world and its noise. Here, at the feet of the wall at the end of the yard, the abbesses rest.

The youngest of the heavy stone plates still has a sharp outline, not yet softened by moss and the years, but over one of its corners bend leaves of lily in a gentle touch.

In paradisum deducant te angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.


Translations of the Bible verses cited throughout this story:

Chapter 1
All holding swords, and most expert in war: every man’ s sword upon his thigh, because of fears in the night. (Song of Solomon, Chapter 3, Verse 8)

Chapter 2
Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? (Song of Solomon, Ch. 6, V.9)

These garments we have on, and the shoes we have on our feet, by reason of the very long journey are worn out, and almost consumed. (Joshua Ch. 9, V.13)

Chapter 3
My heart hath uttered a good word I speak my works to the king; My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly. Thou art beautiful above the sons of men: grace is poured abroad in thy lips; therefore hath God blessed thee for ever. Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O thou most mighty. (Psalm 45(44), V.2-4)

Chapter 4
I sleep, and my heart watcheth; the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights. (Song of Solomon, Ch. 5, V.2)

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. (Ezekiel, Ch. 37, V.1)

Chapter 5
In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, and found him not. (Song of Solomon, Ch. 3, V.1)

Chapter 6
I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house. I have watched, and am become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop. (Psalm 102(101), V.7-8)

“In paradisum” is a Latin antiphon dating back the 7th century. Originally, it belonged to the rites of dying and later became part of the exsequiae (funeral rites). It is included in some requiem compositions (most famously probably by Gabriel Fauré), though not traditionally a part of it. Translation of the beginning cited here: “May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.”

[While the logical conclusion to this story is the posted Chapter 6, there was an alternative final chapter that I toyed with for a while, but ultimately didn’t find that it worked. – Still, I am posting it here as an epilogue of sorts for those who would have preferred a none-tragic ending.]

~

6 (alternate)

Quæ te terra morientem susceperit, in ea moriar :
ibique locum accipiam sepulturæ.

(Ru 1:17)

Three summers have passed, and a fourth.

She does not graze the horizon with her eyes in impatience this time. She ascends and descends the stairs slower; a bad fall two winters ago has made her cautious. She knows that Jerusalem remains lost and that the quest is over once more. As an abbess, she hears more of the world outside. She has heard of Egypt, and she wonders whether Lady Helena has once more negotiated with the Moors, crossing deserts as vast as the sea, with her gauntlet gleaming underneath a scorching sun, Claudius at her side.

It is a place Myka could never take. She should not ask herself whether Helena thinks of her, thinks of her as she rides into battle under a different sun, on a soil Myka will never step upon.

She does not expect Helena to return, even though there is a small spark of hope that she is unable to quench. It shines brighter in spring, and it is spring again as she looks out of her window in the tower. Apple blossom has passed already, but the ground is still covered in petals, soft in wilting. And just like their white starts to blur into the ground two off-white horses melt out of the horizon.

Myka squints against the light and has to shield her eyes to make out two figures. They move without haste, but with determination. When the riders draw closer, she can see that one of them rides side saddle. A woman has to be of stature, Myka assumes, though not of high nobility, or she would be riding with a full escort, and not just one companion.

She follows their approach for a while and then squints again when she means to recognize a dark blue headdress. And even before the party arrives at the orchard, Myka awaits by the gate.

“Mother Myka!”

Claudius bares his face and bows in greeting, but Myka’s gaze flits past him, to the veiled woman atop the other horse. There is something familiar about the set of her shoulders, and the strip of skin she is able to see in between glove and sleeve has been bronzed by the sun. Behind her, a heavy trunk is fixed to the saddle.

“Claudius,” Myka remembers to greet him and she closes her hand. “Welcome and God bless.” She looks at the veiled woman again. “Are you not riding with Sir George of Wells any longer?”

Other Sisters file into the courtyard, and Claudius addresses them all when he speaks again. “My knight, Sir George of Wells, died on his quest in the Holy Land.” He gestures at the woman next to him. “He left behind his unmarried sister. Since her brother’s fief has fallen back to the King, she has no more place to live, and wishes to take up the veil.” Into Myka’s breathless silence, he adds, “Here, at your abbey.”

The woman nods, tugging down her veil, and Myka falls head first into a pair of dark eyes who still hold the same youthful recklessness she remembers.

“Lady Helena of Wells,” Claudius says formally. “She is bringing her dowry and hopes to be admitted to your order.” He moves to help Helena down to the ground, but the ease of Helena’s movements bespeaks the lack of necessity for that gesture.

“Why with us?” Myka asks when Helena is standing before her, for the sake of the Sisters around them as much as for her own.

Finally, Helena speaks. “My brother always spoke highly of your abbey.” Her gestures are more spacious than those of a proper lady when she points at the courtyard and the buildings beyond. “He said it felt like a home to him.” Her eyes are on Myka again while she strips off her gloves. “I think I understand his sentiment, Mother.”

Next to her, Claudius does his best not to grin.

“I see,” Myka manages, and then Helena bends down and presses the customary kiss to the back of her hand.

Two fingers graze Myka’s palm and for the briefest of moments, Myka tightens her fingers in silent reply. Those hands, callused and gentle, she would recognize anywhere just by their touch.

Then she straightens. “Be our guests for now,” she offers. “There is much to talk about, Lady Helena. We will consider your request.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Helena replies demurely, but the sparkle in her gaze is still there. She falls into step next to Myka effortlessly, at a dignified pace already measured with age.

And they both know she will fall into step with her like this, in the cloister, in the yard, in the chapel, every day until her last day.

~~~

Bible Quote:

The land that shall receive thee dying, in the same will I die: and there will I be buried.
(Ruth, Ch. 1, V. 17)

6 thoughts on “The Abbey”

  1. I don’t know if you still receive the comments on this, but here are some thoughts, because, while I enjoyed your fiction in general (and have made it though most of it by now), this one somehow stood out to me. I always tend to react strongly to stories of „wasted possibilities“, and would usually rather have the main characters die then wasting their lifes. Was “The Abbey” maybe inspired by „The nun’s story“ with Audrey Hepburn? It might be kitsch but it’s definately among the saddest films I have ever seen (and have only seen it once for that reason). Another film fitting into this scheme would be „Brokeback Mountain“ (or even , and sorry for naming these two in the same sentence „Black Beauty“). I just absolutely hate to have to helplessly witness as the reader/audience how the characters’ hopes and desires are disappointed again and again until they grow old and die.
    Thadieu recently wrote something about being angry about all wasted possibilities of relationships between women and I agree, although I would see it in a more general way. I’m very angry about all possibilities, be it unfulfilled love or career choices or any other dream of leading a different kind of life and prevented by external or -worse- internal restrictions.
    In case I haven’t really said so, I do like your story (and isn’t it usually the writer’s intention to move their readers?) but next time, please rather let them die young….

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    1. I have all comments on all post on email alert. Thank you for this one!

      All my fiction? Oh dear… I am often getting impatient with the older work (everything pre-Timeless) because it is so guilty of overkill wordiness.

      In writing “The Abbey”, I think my motivation was exactly the opposite kind of framing. Not seeing the black at the center, but the white at the outlines as the shape? I wanted to see how I could turn even a minimum of contact into a life-long love story, proving wrong the direction WH13 took in the end. A kind of obstinate “I’ll turn nothing into epic (and make it all about their romance, too)”

      But on a wider plane, I am interested in the “loving as a life worth living, even if you cannot live with the person you love” dynamic: I find it important to value the ability to feel, even if nothing comes of it. (only on romance, not in pursuing other dreams, like you mentioned) So for me, “The Abbey” is not really about wasting life, or giving up on dreams, but about celebrating a love story, or connection, that has such an impact on their lives that despite being granted very little time together, it turns into a defining tale for their lives, and their senses of self: “You can take a way the person, but you cannot take away the love”. Even if a love story is not lived out, or not lived out in a regular shared life, it can still be a love story that has worth, and that can shape or center a life, and even if entails much hurt, and loneliness, and yearning: all that is like a reverse painting that also makes the love (however denied) at its center visible. Something I really (personally) dislike is the idea that romantic love is only worth something when two people end up together. (I’m probably not expressing this very well, I’m sorry)

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  2. Yes, I do get your point, and I rather think I haven’t expressed myself very well here (or rather not thought it through in detail), because I think what bothers me here is not the concept of two lovers not ending up together but rather the fact that Myka’s life in the cloister seems so very sad to me. She has her studies, yes, but she does not seem to have any real friends amongst the other nuns (did she have one in the beginning who then left?, or was this another story, sorry for mixing it up). While I am actually quite a realist and sceptical towards the concept of neverending romantic love in general (but of course it’s crucial in opera and literature) I just cannot imagine a life in solitude or surrounded by people you can’t connect to. The fact that she has to hide her forbidden love may even exaggerate feelings of alienation within a „society“ which would most likely condemn her for it. But I may be overinterpreting and merely reflecting my own claustrophobic fears of cloisters here. For „Sir George“ it seems much easier, she has freedom and she has her friend, I really like this Claudia character (and I absolutely like both characters of Brangäne and Kurvenal in Tristan).
    By the way, I have not much of a clue of the original TV series (or most of your other templates, apart from West side story of course) mainly because I’m not so much into SciFi (but have to watch some from time to time with my husband) but did not find it really necessary to understand your fiction. I did look up some of warehouse 13 on YT though and, OK, I get the point about HG’s accent, that is damn attractive.

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    1. you are right, that is another point.
      My idea – which may not tranport well – was that of a space where Myka was free to study and read, and find happiness in that, outside the confines of a marriage. I did not think about friends within the clouser community.
      (the one where Claudia is an early friend who later leaves the sanctum is the Diana/Ephesos story, Big Dipper)

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  3. There probably are people who really find fullfillment in studying alone, and probably many people who made careers within the curch in former times did that because it was the only allowed and respectable form of intellectual occupation rather then for real spiritual reasons,. But, still it’s unthinkable for me to not be able to exchange ones thoughts with others (but maybe Myka had such people amongst the nuns?). Oh, and now I should really go on with my “lonely” occupation of data analysis although I would much rather continue this discussion 🙂

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    1. I did not give this much thought then, but I would like to imagine Myka having had her contacts, and especially improving the climate in the convent overall after being made Abbess. (in the short stories, so much backstory falls to the wayside)
      Back to work, up in the tower, for me, as well!

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