11921024 At Cross Purposes
|At Cross Purposes|
The way in to St Anne's Abbey is through a small door in a high wall, which swings open before Sir Mordake Fitzduncan can bring his fist to it. Snapping over her shoulder -- "Well, how should I know, girl?" -- a nun in the dark blue cloth habit of a lay sister emerges from this narrow portal as though shot from a trebuchet, and then, sighting the proud cross of the Temple directly in her path, veers round it, a hand flying loose from her scapular to chivvy the novice who has paused behind her, arms wrapped round a vast leather bag.
"Your pardon, brother." She nods to him, with brusque courtesy overlaid upon an urgency which has thinned her lips and knitted her greying dark brows; and the sisters pass on, leaving the way open into the courtyard beyond.
The portress is another lay sister, younger and stouter and in a better humour, who claims to have been told to expect a Templar today, and at just this time, too, an hour before Vespers; leaving a junior to bar the postern gate and presumably to guard it against those who are *not* expected, she bustles ahead of him through cloisters silent but for their footfalls and decants him into a tower room briefly glimpsed from the garden below.
The young Templar...youngish,...well, actually, hardly that, responds to his shifting guides and surroundings much as he is ever wont to do - barely at all. If his sullen, black-eyed gaze happens by accident to be barred for more than a moment by one of the azure-habited sisters, it soon enough veers on with stolid indifference. There may exist people, that gaze intimates, whose God-given labour it is to delineate nuns from other nuns, as there are gardeners who must distinguish hedges from hedges, heralds quarterings from quarterings, priests liturgies from heresies. But in the case of nuns, that soldierly impassiveness states quite clearly that this knight and brother does not count himself among such people - and that he regrets the fact but little. There's parchment in his gauntlet, though by the look of him, his was not the quill that set it there; he awaits its sole recipient. The Prioress, whoever she might be.
With an arid late autumn sky visible through open windows at her back, an elderly nun in a habit of heavenly blue silk has paused in the act of writing, and laid down her quill at the portress's knock.
The light upon her silver coronet lends it almost the appearance of a halo; though as she rises from her straight-backed wooden chair (and its three or four embroidered cushions) and comes round the table (upon which books, parchments, and the implements of writing are laid out in a precise and geometric fashion, as though to imply one is never too busy to keep order), she steps into shadow.
She is a tall woman, this nun, no more than an inch or so shorter than her visitor with him in his boots and her in thin slippers, and Time has had sixty years or more to draw her white skin taut over the bones of her face and score deep lines about her mouth and her eyes. Her voice is low in volume, as befits a holy sister; and low also in its tone, deeper than might be expected from such a narrow, gaunt figure. "Good day to you, brother. You will wish to see this, I think?"
From an obscure pocket within her tunic, she withdraws a signet ring of heavy gold; it bears just the engravings which were shown to him not an hour past in a similarly well-appointed chamber within his order's own fortress.
There is also, he may note, laid out upon a low table drawn up to the cushioned window-seats built into the chamber's curving wall, a chess set of ebony and yellowing ivory, its pieces deployed in a configuration he has seen before.
"M'lady pri'ress...ach, ay," the Templar messenger grunts, "ah'd forgot the gee-gaw, in truth. But, ay, 'tis just sae." Many an envoy might have forgotten such an elaborate and unnecessary specification, but few, especially in Outremer, would uphold their 'truth' so bluntly and instinctively as to admit it. Yet the faint measure of discretion is corroborated in some measure by the seal on the parchment, which carries no ensign of the Temple, but rather a complex little charged lion that resembles one of the many significant seals from the royal chancellery. Resembles, but has in fact little meaning in that kind. The Royal House and the sender do, however, have Angevin origins in common. That's a bond that it would seem, from his harsh, obscure burr, this particular courier does not share.
Anyway, once the knight has laid the parchment packet on the desk, he betrays - no, there is nothing to betray for him, just has - no more interest in it. A more exotic array draws his entire attention, and, assuming the prioress is otherwise occupied with her wee errand, he maunders with his heavy iron tread over to the chess board. Soon he has lifted a black knight in the air and is examining his horse with an eye sharpening for the first time during this visit in some real, keen interest...
As the knight's interest in the folded parchment wanes, so does the sister's wax; from the moment it emerges from her visitor's gauntlet her eye never leaves it, though she returns to her chair before reaching out for it with deliberate calm, and breaking the seal as though it couldn't matter less.
"Please, be at your ease," she murmurs ironically. Then: "Do you play?" A touch of surprise, for this strange fellow Robert has sent her certainly hasn't the air or the tongue of one accustomed to civilised amusements.
It is not the place, nor the duty, nor commission, nor desire of Sir Mordake Fitzduncan to be at his ease anywhere, least of all the inner closet of some old blue nun, though the Templar is far too courteous to snort, confining his derision to a visceral arching of his shoulders, his inspection of the ebon cavalier continuing unimpeded...until her next question.
The black knight is slammed back down upon his field's heart, sending half the ivory pawns reeling. "Ah dinna *play*, pri'ress. Naught but *toil*, on the plain o' arms. Our Order and our Cause isna' some game, o' sleekit shufflins and sly-made dispositions." It seems, at least on military matters, the Templar's tongue can embrace the latinate on occasion after all.
An outburst of temper from a well-armed man half her age with whom she is alone in a small chamber draws scarcely a blink from this particular old blue nun; she looks hard into his face with her old blue eyes, and remarks:
"I am sure you'll be good enough to pick up those opponents you have so smartly dispatched, and restore them to their proper ranks. And then perhaps you and I may begin again, with a better will; for we serve the same Lord, and it would hardly please Him for us to be at odds over so small a matter."
"D'y'serve my Grand Master? Why?" The foreign Templar has evidently missed the inflection of the prioress's capital L and H, a tonal trap she had surely laid on purpose. "They had sayed abroad that the bluen sisters drew tithes fra' the Hospital's demesne." So he appears to have some feudal consciousness, for such an uncouth mien, also, as he glowers back down at the chessboard; black and white, for the Hospital, not red and white for the Temple, his suspicious, hard stare at what he still clearly has no inkling is a recreation, not some sinister battle-plan, expresses in unambiguous terms. But he begins to pick up the blanched pieces, though muttering all the while that left in that feeble, thin line they'd lack depth to withstand even an assault of Turkish horse...
One of the ideas contained in this small, distrustful speech appears to take the blue sister's fancy. She exhales a short breath which might, in a lady of lesser dignity, have grown into a laugh: "I was speaking of my fourth husband, not my first. The carpenter from Nazareth..."
"Joiner, was't he?" this northern barbarian sneers with an asperity that suddenly and incongruously reveals in him all the pride of the very highest birth. "Ay, and frae Nazareth? The Poulains and the French lost that fief to the paynim lang syne, lady pri'ress, so ye didna gae far wrang to take the veil. Yer man's most like deid, and be grateful that he willa found hisself braw martyrdom. DEUS LE VULT, we shall win his village back yet, ne'er doubt it." It seems the Templar is unfamiliar with any less recent events at Nazareth. After all, it's fairly clear he arrived in the Holy Land only recently.
As for the implication about the Lady Prioress's first marriage and the Grand Master of the Temple...that is quite lost in the excitement of a fresh campaign considered.
Nothing in the old nun's experience of the world, which it must be said is uncommonly broad for a Benedictine sister, has prepared her for a conversation with an increasingly haughty and heated Sir Mordake Fitzduncan.
She listens, more and more intently -- the letter he has brought her held still in both her claws, yet forgotten for a time while her incisive intelligence is a-digging in the cracks between his bastard langue d'oeuil and her understanding thereof. By and by it dawns upon her that Robert's messenger is every bit as ignorant of the old connexion between them, and of certain facts of local politics, as he is of the religion he is sworn to uphold by his (no doubt considerable) force of arms. How astute of Robert, how tremendously astute...
She rises again; her regal, somewhat ascetic profile is suddenly outlined in bold relief against the last of the day's sunshine. "Ah, but I'm sure reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated," she ripostes, with a grave air.
The hearth itself is cold, as it would be anywhere in Outremer at this season, not just in a house of women vowed ostensibly to poverty; but upon the bare stone before it is an iron brazier containing a handful of dully gleaming coals. The Prioress of St Anne's tears her private correspondence from the Grand Master of the Order of the Temple in half and then in half again, the latter operation a difficult one, for her strength is all in her will and none in her body. Then she stoops to lay the scraps of parchment in the brazier, and watches as they curl in upon themselves and are transmuted slowly into ash.
"I shall delay you not long, sir knight, in composing my reply. But I hope you'll have the kindness to tell me something more of your exploits in defence of the Holy Land... We may see little of the world from within our abbey walls, but we do take an interest."