Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur) (5 page)

BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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“That, Lady, is a pilgrim,” he said. “She need pay me nothing.”
The woman snorted. “That, Sieur, is a whore. I imagine you’ve been paid already.”
With that, she turned her party around and led it away from the river.
Solomon looked after her with interest. “Where does she think she’s going?” he asked. “If there were another way across, the line here wouldn’t be so great.”
Hubert shrugged. “With that much arrogance, perhaps she’ll have a floating bridge made just for her, or simply walk across on the water. Still, she has a ready tongue. There aren’t many who could have had the last word in that encounter.”
“Well, I agree with the ferryman,” Eliazar said. “We pay our tolls and so should she.”
“Uncle, we have letters of remission of the tolls from almost every lord from Paris to Narbonne,” Solomon said. “It’s only places like this where we pay.”
“There are too many places like this,” Hubert grumbled.
“You can be sure he’ll add what he’s lost on that pilgrim woman to our fee.”
“Do you think the lady was right about her occupation?” Solomon asked. He couldn’t make out much from under the heavy cloak the woman wore. Really, he was surprised that the lady on horseback could tell the pilgrim was female.
Eliazar gave him a sharp glance. “It makes no difference to you whether she was right or not,” he warned. “The woman’s a Christian, and even if she were a prostitute, it’s evident that she’s reformed. Stay away from her.”
“I was merely speculating, Uncle,” Solomon grinned. “Come along. Our turn to risk drowning.”
“Just be sure the horses are securely tethered to the rings on the side,” Eliazar told him. “All we need is the expense of replacing one in a town that has already doubled the price of everything.”
 
Griselle, widow of Bertran, castellan of Lugny, was perfectly willing to ride fifteen miles farther downriver to a ford rather than give that
avoutre
ferryman a sou. She could well afford the toll for the ferry, but it was a matter of honor. Simply because she had brought along a comb and clean clothing, it did not mean that her dedication to the pilgrimage was less sincere than anyone else’s. Like many of the people on the road to Compostela, she did not expect to survive the journey, but she was determined to live at least long enough to arrive at the shrine of Saint James and, as she told the ferryman, she was not fool enough to think she would be safe traveling alone.
As they approached the town, Griselle wrapped the long widow’s veil around the lower half of her face. She made sure every bit of her hair was covered. Even with the guards along, it was necessary to attract no untoward attention. A whisper of scandal could destroy everything.
“Goswin,” she ordered one of the guards, “find me a bed for the night, in the monastery hostel if possible. Take the packhorses with you. I’m going to the cathedral.”
Motioning the maid and the other guard to come with her, Griselle set out to light the first of many candles and make the
first of many offerings in the hope of convincing one of the saints to grant her heart’s desire.
 
The
jongleur
, Roberto, and his wife, Maruxa, had no expectations of a real bed in a hostel. They carried their beds with them. For blankets, they had their cloaks, and for pillows, each other’s arms. The instruments, their most valuable possessions, slept between them. They fully expected to sing, dance, even juggle, for their meals. The only pilgrimage they were making was home to Astorga, in Spain, but it was good to find such a large and well-protected party to journey with. They had no doubt that they could earn their keep.
The woman on the ferry with them did not appear a likely customer for their music, however. She was swathed in her black cloak, with only her tanned and callused toes peeping out from beneath the hem of her robes. The cowl was pulled well over her face, so that nothing could be seen within. Maruxa shivered every time she looked at it. The
jongleuse
tried to move as far away from her as possible. Who could tell what was inside that shadow? What if the woman were really a leper? Or perhaps she was a wraith, or Death herself, come to lead the procession to the grave.
Maruxa closed her eyes and gripped her prayer beads tightly. She knew too many stories to chill the marrow on long winter nights. She tried to shake the feeling that one of them was sitting beside her on a bright spring afternoon.
There was a stirring from within the cowl. A voice came from its depths, soft and mellifluous.
“Do you know
Jherusalem, grant damage me fais?
” the woman asked. “I’ve always loved that song.”
“We … we know a version of it,” Maruxa answered, flustered to hear a human voice from this mysterious shape.
“Perhaps you would sing it for me tonight,” the woman said. “I can only pay you with my prayers.”
“That will be sufficient,” Maruxa answered. “There will be someone else willing to toss us a coin.”
She waited for a response, but the cowl dipped down again to rest on the woman’s knees.
The ferry hit the opposite shore with a thump and they all stood. Maruxa had assumed that the other three men who had crossed with them were lords of some sort, but when they didn’t immediately strut to the front to be let off first, she revised her opinion. They were all rather dark, like the men of her region, and seemed to be related. But two were bearded after the manner of the Jews, and the third was clean-shaven, with only a week or so of stubble showing. The youngest one had a nice smile as he offered her his arm to steady her jump to the riverbank.
Solomon next reached toward the pilgrim in black, but was rebuffed. The woman steadied herself on the rope stretched across the river to guide the ferry and swung from it to the bank. Her sleeves slipped back to her elbows, revealing strong brown hands and arms. Solomon watched, fascinated, fighting the urge to stretch out his hand and pull back the hood to uncover her face.
Eliazar recalled him to duty. “Let’s get the packs back on the horses,” he said as they led the animals ashore, “then see if we can find a place to shelter us.”
“As soon as that’s done,” Hubert added, “I’m going in search of Catherine.”
“You’d have an easier time if you asked for Edgar,” Solomon suggested. “Not many tall, Saxon-blond men in Le Puy, I’d imagine.”
Hubert made a face. “Edgar. Yes, you’re right. And if I don’t find Catherine with him …”
Solomon laughed. “Don’t imagine impossibilities, Uncle. There’s no place else she would be.”
 
When the abbot of Cluny travels, the entourage is something akin to that of a king. He takes along his own cooks and secretary, a number of lay brothers to see to the animals and the packing and unpacking, several priests, an infirmarian with his herbs and simples for sudden illness, a pair of laundresses, a number of guards, ostlers, friends from among the monks, as well as other prelates. He also takes a treasurer to pay the tolls he can’t bargain away and a cellarer for wine both sacred and
mundane, as well as a steward to be sure the abbatial table is not found wanting. Finally, among the group are several small boys, called
garciones
, who run errands, carry messages and generally get in everyone’s way. For this pilgrimage, there were over sixty people in the abbot’s entourage to attend and be attended to. Brother Rigaud and Brother James had been put in charge of keeping them all organized.
“Have beds been found for everyone?” Brother Rigaud asked on the day of their arrival at Le Puy.
“Sleeping places, at least,” Brother James answered. “The bishop has, of course, provided rooms for Bishop Stephen and Abbot Peter. You and I and the other monks will stay in the monastery dortor. The laundresses and the
garciones
have been given a place with the nuns. The lay brothers will have to make do in the field.”
Brother Rigaud scanned the sky. It was unusually clear for spring. Good news for the brothers tonight, but it didn’t bode well for the rest of the journey. Rigaud didn’t trust missions that started out smoothly. One became complacent and therefore unprepared for the disasters that were sure to come.
Brother James agreed with him. The two were strikingly dissimilar in looks, Rigaud slightly built with a fringe of hair that had once been red, and James of medium height but strong-featured, with a severe tonsure that left only a thin, steel-grey circle around his scalp. But they were one in spirit, each striving to create order in a world he knew was bent on chaos.
Brother Rigaud sighed. “I should check to be certain that the provisions have been properly unloaded. At the last stop, one of the lay brothers stored the holy water and chrism with the cook pots, as if they were some sort of spice for the meat sauce.”
Brother James nodded. “One can never be too vigilant. I shall go and supervise the setting up of the camp for the brothers. The sleeping area should be more centrally placed. I have noticed that a number of the women of these towns have no respect for the brothers’ monastic status. They seem to think that because the lay brothers don’t shave their beards, they have taken no vow of chastity. The temptation offered by such
women might prove spiritually fatal to a man allowed to make his bed too far from the support and guidance of his friends.”
The two men parted, each intent on his own duty. Brother James set out for the field near the monastery that had been allotted to the lay brothers. His thoughts were totally occupied with the organization of the sleeping arrangements in relation to the drainage of the field and other sanitary considerations. He hoped the land would be of a proper slope that he would not have to decide between the health of the men’s souls and that of their bodies.
The woman at first simply passed through his vision without registering on his mind. But something—a gesture, the tilt of her head—made him stop and turn, blessing himself in panic. He saw only the edge of a skirt vanishing around a corner.
Brother James closed his eyes. A ghost, it had to have been, or a trick of the light. She was dead, long ago. Cruelly and horribly slain. It was impossible for her to be here now.
With God all things are possible
, he amended. But he saw no reason for God to have resurrected her. Not her.
No. He took a deep breath. It’s only the pilgrimage, the people, he thought, those old knights who still wore their swords. He’d been in the cloister more than twenty years now. Being once again among the worldly simply brought back too many memories. That was all it was, a memory rooted out from his mind and accidentally rerouted past his eyes.
He blessed himself once again and without realizing it, muttered a charm from his childhood meant to keep away bad dreams. He forced his thoughts and his feet back in the direction of the job at hand.
 
Brother Rigaud was having his own vision from the long-ago. His path had taken him past the pilgrim hostel just as one of the guests was coming out.
“Rigaud!” the pilgrim cried. “Rigaud, you old bastard! I can’t believe it! You here, as well. Saint Patrick’s pulsating purgatory, it’s good to be all together again.”
Rigaud was forced to stop as he was caught in the grip of a
bear hug by a man a head taller than he. Feebly, he tried to push away.

Benedicite
, Gaucher,” he said in resignation. “I take it from the cross on your cloak that you have become a pilgrim. I suppose it’s never too late. And what you mean by ‘all together again,’ I fear to even ask.”
Gaucher ignored his old comrade’s lack of enthusiasm. “The four of us, of course,” he answered. “Now all five! Wait until the others see you.”
“The others?” Rigaud cringed. “Hugh. Rufus. You can’t mean old Norbert is still alive?”
“A lot more so than you!” a voice boomed from behind him. “Look at you, face as smooth as a girl’s and skirts to your ankles. You look a fair
fanfelu!

Rigaud wriggled himself out of Gaucher’s grasp and started to back away. “You can’t say things like that to me anymore, Norbert,” he said evenly. “I have become a man of God, and when you insult me, you insult Him.”
Norbert shook his head. “You never were much sport, Rigaud,” he said sadly. “Come along, hike up your skirts, come in and have a few bowls of ale with us.”
“Yes, come in, Rigaud!” Gaucher slapped him on the back, causing the monk to inhale sharply, swallowing a passing fly.
“I’ll not come in and I don’t want to see the others,” Rigaud insisted when he had stopped coughing. “I have repented my life with you and I fervently wish never to see any of you again, not in this world or the next.”
“Save your wishes for something else, old
compaing
.” Gaucher raised his hand for another backslap, then took pity on his friend. “We’re all going to be together from here to Compostela, and if we reach Saint James, you can be sure we’ll all meet again one day in heaven, our sins washed away.”
Rigaud continued moving away from them. “If Our Lord intends such a thing,” he shouted as he left, “it is a certain proof that His mercy is greater than mine. But I don’t believe that’s where you really intend to go. I know what you’re after! And I won’t be a part of it. I warn you both, stay away from me!”
BOOK: Strong as Death (Catherine LeVendeur)
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