Dark Maiden: Part One.
England, the North, summer 1350.
She could smell the spirits of the restless dead. It was not the sickly sweet rot of the fleshy body, nor the whiff of lavender and violets of the saints. Demons, being fallen angels, did not stink of sulfur, but the angry dead were ripe with it.
Yolande crouched behind the bathtub with her bow, hunting by waiting. She heard the murmur of distant prayers in the summer twilight as the nuns and novices performed another sacred office. With her right shoulder snug against the tub, she flexed her legs and toes within her man’s leggings and boots, grateful she was not yet numb. She did not think her task would take too long.
The novice Mary-Joanna should have been bathing tonight, to ease her aching joints. She was a comely young woman, but powerfully afflicted by pain. Yolande, a head taller and blessed with vigorous health, pitied the girl. She did not know if Mary-Joanna had a true vocation, but she agreed with the abbess that the novice should not be beleaguered by an evil imp when she was semi naked within this tiny bathhouse.
Evil imp was how the abbess described the apparition. After listening to the older woman’s account of its habits, Yolande had her own suspicions. She had agreed willingly to pretend to bathe in Mary-Joanna’s place.
The bow and its arrows had been blessed by the abbess and dipped in holy water, to cover all possibilities.
She breathed in slowly, sensing her own balance, feeling the sacred herbs she always wore about her throat brush dryly against her skin. She saw no movement but her ears , thank the saints, were good and she heard a slight shuffling outside.
Yolande braced herself, chanting the great prayer of Saint Patrick, known as Saint Patrick’s breastplate, within her mind. As if in answer to her prayer, the door to the narrow lean-to yawned open.
A figure loomed across the threshold, faceless, soundless and black, even as the abbess had said. It slithered inside and closed the door again.
The spirit torments our novices, manifesting to them within the bathhouse, seeking to steal their immortal souls, the abbess had said.
“Sneak a peek, more likely.” Yolande’s heart was as steady as a slow drum inside her chest. “No spirit stops to shut a door.” She set and released an arrow all in one, smooth, practiced movement.
The arrow flew, hissing across the bathhouse tiles. The “spirit” howled as its cloak was pinned to the door, and tugged desperately at the caught cloth with a spindly human hand.
Dropping her bow, Yolande sprinted and lunged, knocking the man hard against the solid wood, jamming her elbow across his scrawny throat.
“You… bitch…black…bitch,” the fellow wheezed as she pulled off his hood.
“But no restless dead,” Yolande countered. She stripped him of his eating dagger then yanked him round while he was still shocked and tied his hands behind his back with his own hood.
“Could not see you…” The man was still grumbling. “You are so black.”
“Not as black as my father, nor as white as my mother,” Yolande replied. “You should be considering how you can plead with the sisters, instead of wondering about me.”
She put her hand firmly on his shoulder to “guide” him to the abbess. From his faint stench of fear— urine, sweat and manure, she knew he was utterly human. Her skills as an exorcist had not been needed, not against this gawping lecher, who liked to watch the pretty novices as they bathed.
Would that all my trials were so easy. At least there is no more here than this, Mother be thanked. It is not my final contest, not yet.
The convent was small and poor but the abbess invited Yolande to stay for the night. She accepted gratefully, asking only if she might pray in church before the shrine of the Virgin Mary.
“All penitents are welcome, daughter,” said the abbess, her wrinkled face pinched with curiosity. She took in Yolande’s outlandish attire with rapid, considering glances. “Let me guide you.”
Resigned, Yolande nodded thanks, matched her long, loose stride to her companion’s trip-trotting gait and waited for the first question.
Sure enough, as they entered the dimmed church of the convent the abbess asked, “You are not a religious? You belong to no order?”
Beside her, the shorter woman pursed her lips. “You are still of the world?”
The abbess crossed herself. “So how are you an exorcist, if you have no vocation?”
Yolande had been asked this often and each time she gave the same answer. “I have a duty, Mother, as my father did before me.”
“In these times, when so many religious are falling to the pestilence, God calls others.” Wishing to say no more, especially concerning her parents, she asked simply, “May I pray, Mother?”
The abbess did not refuse her request. Instead, as if Yolande herself had developed the pestilence, she waddled hastily away, her habit flying.
Yolande chuckled softly and turned to the painted statue of the Virgin, ready to begin her vigil.
* * * * *
Geraint the Welshman unwrapped the wooden crucifix and set it on the trestle between him and the lanky-haired pardoner. Around them, men continued to haggle over deals and drinking games, their faces shrouded by the sooty torches and smoky fire. A pardoner in an alehouse at any hour, especially this early in the morning, should have been worthy of remark, but these days no one said or saw anything. With plague stalking every town and village street in England, men stayed home with their families or made themselves drunk, falling-down-blind drunk, in the alehouses.
Few wanted to watch or pay for his juggling these days, so when this pardoner had sidled across, clutching a rough cloth bag and wheedling for a moment of his time, Geraint had let the fellow buy him a cup of wine.
“You trust me to deliver this?” He tapped the crucifix. “I could take it for firewood.”
“Not if you know what is wise for you, my son.”
Geraint stiffened slightly but told himself that the pardoner could not know his past. Yes, he had been a novice in a monastery and yes, at age ten he had punched the novice-master and been expelled, but had he the time again he would do the same. Old crook-nose, as he was now, would be less eager to fondle the boys under his charge.
“Your threat does not impress, brother,” he replied.
“Forgive me. I am the messenger only. But if this is not delivered to Yolande, she will have your skin.”
Geraint drained his cup, chewing on the lees, and made to leave.
“Listen.” The pardoner was so earnest that his face had gone as red as his script. “She is at the convent of the Holy Sisters of Fealty beyond the old Roman fort, ridding them of an evil imp, or so I have been told. You could walk there in less than two hours and win her gratitude.”
Geraint picked up the crucifix. It was plain and heavy and he had a sense that it was very old. “Why not go yourself? Or is there sickness at the convent?”
“Not at all, not at all.” The older man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Let me say only that Yolande is less tolerant of men such as myself.”
“You tried to trick her once,” Geraint translated. “Has she a husband, father or brother that you are so terrified?”
“None, none, but she needs none. She expels devils. She carries the bow of Saint Sebastian.”
Geraint was intrigued. He was wandering nowhere in particular so he could visit the convent. The nuns would feed him too. “Is there a message?”
The pardoner inclined his head toward the cross. “That is the message, I was told. Not for the likes of me to question, I was told.”
“And how shall I know her?”
“Very tall for a woman, slim, pretty if you admire dark girls, and with her bow usually slung across her back. She wears me n’s clothes.”
“Aping men? The church has not moved against her for that? Or the sheriff?”
“Not in these times, with so many dying of the pestilence and the whole world preparing for the last days. Let any judgment of her be the final one, before God, I say.” “The pardoner shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “Will you take it?”
Geraint glanced at his long fingers wrapped around the feet of the wooden Christ and ignored the warning prickle at the back of his neck. “Seems I already have.”
* * * * *
The following morning, passing the bread and cheese that the sisters had generously given her to a beggar outside the convent walls, Yolande sensed someone watching. She turned, forced to take a rapid backward step as a stranger trod on her shadow. She had not heard his approach.
“You have the advantage, mister. You know my name.” She smiled to take any sting from her words. “May I know yours?”
Greetings and courtesy were important to her. Each gave clues as to character and wishes. She had once known a demon, beautifully polite, who would have ripped the flesh from her bones had she not bound him by his own rules of manners.
The stranger bowed, a good sign. He muttered something in a language she did not know, which was not good. She moved a little closer, ready to boot him in the balls if he did anything unsavory.
“Geraint Welshman, at your service.” He crouched then looked straight at her. “I am just taking something from my pack, if it please you.”
She grinned at him to prove she was unafraid, her body heavy and languid as she itched to go onto the balls of her feet, ready to scrap. A quick stab to those astonishing black-blue eyes, a swipe at his knee and Geraint the Welshman would be groveling in the hard-packed mud.
Which would be a shame for such a glorious face. He bent his head, showing his trust of her, to rummage in his pack. He was a good-looking brute, not too muscled but as lean and wiry as herself. There was a soft jangle of bells within his patched shoulder-pack, revealing him as a wandering entertainer, a less deadly mirror of herself. They were even about the same height.
I entertain the restless dead before I send them on. What must it be like to work for living laughter?
Hard, she guessed, noting his less-than-clean black hair, the scars on his knuckles, his drab motley, missing bits of ribbons and coins. He was darker that she was, tanned by many suns, and with excellent teeth.
Strong, rangy and in no hurry to stick to one place, but a honeyman all the same. She felt a flicker of interest, a few youthful, girlish hopes. She was ten-and-eight these days, young for an exorcist but ripe for marriage. Her father, a remarkable man, had managed both. She missed him, but her time would surely come—maybe with this Welshman.
“The pardoner said you would understand the message with this.” Geraint interrupted her reverie as he laid a crucifix down on the rutted road, on top of his pack to keep it from the dirt.
Yolande stared at it, all hopes forgotten in an instant. She sensed the earth shifting beneath her feet as the blood pounded within her temples, making her convinced the top of her skull might shatter. “Oh, great Maria, already?” she said, unaware she had spoken aloud, crossing herself, making the sign of the cross above the crouching Geraint. The great bow across her shoulders creaked as if in warning.
So soon! I must prepare with care. If this sign is right, there can be no mistakes. Pray that I am ready. It is so soon, so soon…
He saw her face change, becoming as still as a mask. Then she blinked. “I do understand it. My thanks to you, master Geraint. How may I aid you in return? Are you thirsty or hungry?”
“Ale is always welcome,” he answered quickly, “but for now the pleasure of your company on the road will be more than payment.”
She raised her pretty eyebrows at that. The rest of her was pretty too , if such a plain word could be used for such exotic looks. By “dark” he had expected black hair, which Yolande had—long, shimmering waves of the stuff, very clean but caught in a simple clasp at the back of her slender neck as if she had no time for any fuss. Her eyes were either brown or black—he could not be sure—but they were clear and steady as if she looked straight to the heart of things.
To the heart of me, for sure. Geraint liked women, loved their smell and feel and their cockeyed way of looking at the world. For all her man’s clothing, Yolande was very much a woman, and a love worthy of Solomon. Her skin was a beautiful shade of bronze, smooth as polished wood, and her eyelashes were double-lashed. She had a narrow face and elegant bones but there was a strength in her, character and soul together. He could imagine her besting devils.
For the rest…the performer in him knew at once that she should be in bright colors, reds and yellows and blues, not the drab serge of a thatcher. If she was in his company for long—and he intended she would be—he would tempt her into a brighter manner of dress.
For she has the glory of the evening in her. She wins me already and does not know it.
“I do not chatter,” she said, unaware of his inner tumult. “I have a way to go.”
Better still. He admired how she did not admit where she was headed. “For today then?” He lifted his hands, palms up. “To the nearest house of honest folk, who will let you sleep by their hearth and me in their hayloft?”
“You wish to squire me to safety?”
“For the pleasure of—”
“For the pleasure of my company. Yes, Geraint the Welshman, you said that already.” But she was smiling as she spoke and he knew she would agree.
“Shall I carry this?” He motioned to the cross. “You have your bow and bag already, and it will be no trouble.”
After a moment she strode out like a youth, leaving him to catch up. Geraint admired her graceful gait and did not hurry. He wanted their day to last.
By then I may have won another day in her company.
* * * * *
At the end of their day together, Yolande slept with him in the hayloft of a new, nervous reeve in a village called Lower Something-Or-Other. Geraint had missed the name and was not interested in the shabby, defeated place anyway. He had offered to juggle and been told “no,” offered to chop wood and been shown a blunt axe.
Yolande, graceful and self-contained as a cat, apparently oblivious to the villagers’ stares and whispers, had paid for her lodging with gold coin. She had rebuilt the hearth fire too, with permission from the goodwife, and made flat cakes on the hearth—cakes that melted in Geraint’s mouth and exploded with spices on his tongue.
“I had the spices from a cook on London Bridge as a thank you,” she told him when he asked how she had made them. She did not say what she had done for the cook and he knew better than to ask, at least in the hearing of others.
She had surprised him by sleeping in the loft with him, but the reeve had been growing bolder through the evening, taking every chance he could to touch her. Geraint would have punched the fellow or cracked his greasy fingers, but Yolande was content to put herself above such petty gropings. He marveled at her patience.
She slept, her breathing light and soft, and he was glad to hear her slumbering in the stale, sparse hay, only the stretch of a hand away from him. He had not slept and had eased the ladder up into the loft with them. He did not quite trust the reeve, although the fellow was snoring loudly enough to put a sleeping bear to shame.
It was July and in the summer night he could see Yolande, her great bow—which he meant to ask her about, oh yes—laid beside her within easy reach. She lay curled on her side, her hair wound about her long throat, her limbs twitching as she dreamed.
What do you dream of, my lady?
“So many dead, so many restless dead.”
The hair on his scalp rose as if trying to escape. Yolande was sitting up beside him, rigid as a pole. She was sleeping still, though her eyes were open.
Her voice was full of pain. “How can I help them all? This sickness is a plague and we are in the last days.”
Geraint cracked his knuckles together. He did not believe that, not for a moment. While in the monastery, he had heard of a time when men learned that a thousand years had passed since Christ had died . People had thought the world would end then, but it had not.
“Rest, it is nighttime,” he said quietly. He did not want her sleepwalking like a little child, for she would be a danger to herself. “Rest, Yolande.”
She sighed and lay down again. “This place is soaked in the evil of men. Geraint senses it too. I can tell from his scent. And he does not like to touch the crucifix. He could be an exorcist, with training.”
This was news to him but he kept silent. He was startled that she had noticed his reluctance to handle the ancient cross, but could not understand how that was a point in his favor.
“We must leave early. Get away before the others wake. I must gather herbs, sacred herbs. Saint John’s wort and rosemary, lavender and hyssop. “
He agreed with that, grinning as he savored the “we”. He cleared his throat, cutting off her sleepy list. “Sleep now, Yolande. I will help you with the green stuff.”
“What has possessed them?”
He did not know who the “they” were and did not care. “We shall find out. Sleep, Yolande.”
“I would rest in honeyman’s arms, but it would not work. Men want more, want all and I cannot. I cannot give all.” She sank into the hay, leaving him more wakeful than ever.
What a nickname! Even the little you give me, lady, stirs me. “Honey-Man,” he said aloud, and smiled.
She woke him before dawn, just as the birds were stirring. “If you are still with me, we have a long way to travel, and should go,” she whispered. “I will leave more gold by the hearth.”
Swiftly he gathered their things. Whatever she had said in her sleep last night about his senses, his wits were nagging him to leave and leave fast.
She lowered the ladder and, before he could stop her and go first, she vanished into the swirling half-light, her bow rattling softly on her shoulders. He followed by swinging down from the loft, the pack on his shoulders bouncing painfully, the crucifix stabbing into the small of his back.
She was at the door, wrestling with the rope hasp. Figures round the banked fire were sitting up, shouting. There was the glint of a drawn knife.
Geraint scooped up her gold coin from the hearth, ran to the door, cut the rope with his dagger and dragged her outside with him. They pelted through the reeve’s garden in a shower of thrown pebbles and curses, crushing beans and peas, sprinting to outrun the lumbering pursuit.
Yolande ran ahead of him into a field of tall wheat. She hooked him off his feet and dragged him into cover below the bobbing heads of wheat and corncockle.
“Here.” He offered her the coin, but she put a finger to her lips. Silent, they lay in the field, waiting for the searchers and hearing only a skylark high overhead.
“Those people gave up quickly,” she said after a moment.
“No energy for a chase.”
Her eyes narrowed into slits. “I can fight for myself. I am no helpless child.”
Except at night, when you rise and talk in your sleep. “Right. Next time you can open the door.”
She chuckled, her brief anger vanishing like summer fog. “They have gone, have they not?”
“They have never come here,” he replied at once. She was testing him again, seeing what his senses told him. To cover his amusement he jumped up, cut a caper and drew her to her feet. She was light, her fingers warm against his. He wanted to squeeze them a little before he let her go, but wanted to win her trust, so released her at once.
She led the way and, with Geraint content to protect her back and watch her womanly dip and sway as she walked, they set out again.
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