Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Excerpts

A Scarlet Mantle


CHAPTER ONE
A.D. 909


I was born with the gift of prophecy through my dreams. Most people believe I have a gift, but I believe it is more of a curse. Last night, visions of the future beleaguered my sleep; a maze of symbols open to my uncertain interpretation, but when the tolling of the bells for prime roused me, I could not recall a single detail. All that remained was an unshakable sense that a strange destiny awaited me. Sometimes it is easy to interpret the meanings of my dreams, but at other times, especially if the dreams are sinister in nature, I fear they will become true.

Reluctantly, I pushed away the bed furs and rose from my bed. Through a small crack in the shutter of the window, I saw it was still dark outside. I washed and dressed then hurried to join the line of silent nuns and noblewomen headed to chapel. As I passed through the ironbound doors, a cold waft of air billowed my veil. I made my way to the far end of the nave to stand with the non-ordained women, and then looked for my grandmother, Maud, our Abbess. In deference to her rank, she stood in her usual place closest to the dais of the altar. Torches in sconces along the wall provided light and cast long shadows on the floor.

A rounded oak door at the front of the chapel opened and the priest entered. The hood of his linen over-gown covered his head and his long black vestments trailed behind him.

A cowled monk, his head bowed and hands clasped, followed him into the chapel and stood beside my grandmother. I had never seen this cleric before. He was tall and powerfully built and he advanced with a slight stoop of his shoulders. His walk was so rugged; it reminded me of a bull at full charge. He leaned over and whispered something to my grandmother who whispered back and made a small gesture with her hand in my direction.

The monk straightened and studied the congregation until his eyes stopped on me. He scoured my every feature, his eyes roved over my body from head to toe as if he assessed a breeding mare. My face grew hot and I tore my gaze from his. My shock yielded quickly to fury. He continued to watch me with such intensity, that for the duration of Prime, I could not concentrate on my prayers. Whenever I looked up, his eyes met mine. Once, his lips even turned up into a little smile. I seethed with mounting rage at the impropriety.

Prayers seemed to take longer than usual, and when they ended, I hurried away to the cloister and took refuge on a bench to catch my breath and still my racing heart. I breathed deeply of the fresh air to regain my composure. I had never experienced such scrutiny from any man, much less a monk. Everything about him vexed me.

The fresh air and sunshine helped, and soon, somewhat recovered, I made my way to the anteroom of Grandmother’s private quarters for it was the time of day when we embroidered together. Her assistant, who sat behind a small table in the corridor, gave me a tiny smile of recognition. At my knock, Grandmother bade me to enter.
I expected to find her alone. Instead, a man sat in a chair opposite her. My heart began to race. It was he - the same monk who had stared at me throughout the office of Prime once again beheld me with eyes as blue as a mountain lake. Instead of religious garb, he now wore a richly embroidered over-gown in the color of indigo that enhanced his eyes. Handsome, with an air of confidence about him, he rose to his feet and loomed before me.

Who was he? And why had he earlier dressed as a monk?

Grandmother smiled at me, displaying a few crooked and missing teeth. Although marred with wrinkles, the fading beauty of her youth gave precedence to rich wisdom. Widowhood had brought her to the convent, but goodness had elevated her to the rank of Mother Abbess. Everyone loved her, but no one more than I.

“Come,” Grandmother motioned to me. “I would like to introduce you to Heinrich, the Duke of Thuringia. His father is Duke Otto of Saxony.” She turned to address the duke. “Lord Heinrich, this is my granddaughter, Mechthild of Ringleheim.”
I had heard of the man, but had never seen him before. When I curtsied, he offered me his calloused hand to help me rise.

“I’m honored to meet you.” His voice sounded self-possessed. A glint of interest sparkled in the pools of his eyes.

“He has come here specifically to meet you.”

Confused, I looked first at Grandmother and then at the man.

Grandmother bit her lip and stilled her hands. “He wishes to marry you and your father has approved the match.”

The room became suddenly quiet. My legs became weak. Tongue-tied, I could not speak. He conveyed his interest in me with frequent glances and abundant compliments. My stomach churned with trepidation. I had taken to cloistered life and hadn’t anticipated marriage for many years. The sisters fascinated me. Shrouded in somber colors and wearing a wedding ring that signified their union with Christ, their pious elegance drew me as a cool spring draws God’s creatures. To relinquish my life in this beautiful convent was inconceivable. In accordance with my rank, my father insisted I come here to be educated under his mother’s guidance, to learn to read and write Latin, how to dress, to whom I should give precedence, which person could travel by horse litter, who might mount a horse or a mule or a donkey. All the decisions a noblewoman must make to keep a well run home and reading and writing Latin. I had already learned much, but many more lessons remained.

A knock on the door interrupted us. Sister Ricburg entered with a silver tray upon which sat a decanter of wine, a loaf of bread, and a quarter of cheese. Her veil was closed over her mouth and cheek to cover a large blood-red birthmark that stained her right cheek. I had formed a friendship with Ricburg because of the mark. Many believed it was the mark of Satan, but if one looked closely, they could see it was almost in the shape of a cross and not evil in the least. Sister Ricburg was short with a tendency towards plumpness. She was eighteen years, four years older than I was, and a nun. Not a day passed when I did not seek forgiveness for my envy at her ordination.

Her entrance stopped conversation; a welcome reprieve for it gave me time to think. She served the duke before Grandmother and then peered at me curiously. I declined the refreshments with a tiny shake of my head. The knot in my stomach kept me from eating. Ricburg nodded and left the room.

I gathered my courage. “Please,” I began as I tried to hide the tremor in my hands, but failed dismally.

The duke gave me his full attention, his eyes piercing.

I hid my tightly clenched hands beneath my over-gown. “I am not ready to marry. I hoped to remain here and learn a while longer.”

The duke exchanged a look with Grandmother and I noticed how her face softened when she looked back at me. “You are of marriageable age. It is already decided.”

Heinrich faced me, his look serious. “Your father and I have been in negotiations for quite some time through our envoys. All that remained was for me to meet you. Since I’m already here, I wish to depart with you as my wife. To prove the sincerity of my offer, I ‘ve brought betrothal and wedding gifts.”

His confidence annoyed me, but I understood. Because of his rank, my father would never refuse such a union. My heart ached with defeat at the realization my fate was sealed.

Heinrich turned to face me. “I’ve provided you with lands and people of your own to govern. I’ll give you the means to perform a great many acts of charity. You may continue your reverent service to God, but as a married woman. All you desire will be mine to give you.”

“Why?”

His luminous eyes widened in surprise then gentled with admiration. “For many reasons. I’m the sole remaining son in my family and no longer married. I must wed and beget heirs, but my wife must be of untarnished virtue.” He smiled graciously. “Both your beauty and piety are proclaimed far and wide.”

The sincerity of his words moved me, yet I could not open my heart to him.

“You have my most solemn oath that I will hold you in the highest esteem to my dying breath.” His eyes locked onto mine and therein, I saw gentleness and honesty. My resolve started to crumble and self-doubt crept into my thoughts, but I forced the feelings away.

Grandmother rose to her feet. “My lord, I am certain your journey to Herford has wearied you. I shall have someone show you to your accommodations so that you may refresh yourself before the midday meal. We can speak about this later.” She opened the door and called for her assistant. “Please go to the kitchen and tell the sisters to prepare an extra trencher for the meal. I’ll send Mechthild to help soon.” Grandmother closed the door and returned to where we stood.

Heinrich took a step closer to me. “I’m honored to have met you, my lady. I look forward to your company during the meal.”

The self-assurance in his voice took me aback. I cast him one last look then summoning as much dignity as possible, walked gracefully from the room, suppressing the desire to flee.

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