The door to the courtyard stood ajar and Jeanne
bolted across the solar, hid behind the door and
motioned for Rose to follow. They listened as the old
nun’s voice rose, shrill and uncompromising. “‘Tis
impossible to leave these walls, and on such short
Jeanne winked at her maid, emboldened by the
The nun said, “Perhaps we could be ready in a
Jeanne flinched, stunned by the abbess’ words.
A male voice thundered across the courtyard
and Jeanne peeked around the door. A tall soldier
seemed to be in charge, the tallest man she had ever
seen. His profile looked like one of the Roman gods etched on stones at the bridge. He glanced her way and she drew back, hoping he hadn’t seen her.
His voice reverberated against the courtyard walls. “In a week’s time you will have perished, for the English army is made of mercenaries and thieves, and they’ll be coming through here on their way east. This cloister, and the manor house on the knoll, will be filled with our men by then. Be
thankful King Philip sent an advance regiment to help you relocate.”
Jeanne stared. Who was this man, and why would he make such demands? Empty threats, intended to intimidate us. The thought of soldiers tramping through the manor house, her manor, filled her with loathing. And why did Sister Marie even listen to the man’s absurd proposition?
“He must be their leader,” Jeanne hissed. “He seems used to giving orders.”
Sister Marie’s high-pitched objections continued, a reminder to Jeanne of her last scolding; thankfully the abbess directed her anger at someone else this time. “All the more reason we need time to pray,” the nun said, “for good King Philip’s army, that they are victorious against the English.”
“No, Sister, there’s no time for prayers.” His voice filled the courtyard, forceful and male it was, and Jeanne knew the man behind the voice expected to be obeyed. “We claim the convent for the king’s army. It is a strategic point of defense and we’ve no choice. There’s safe haven for you and your charges in the parish church at Lutrell.”
Jeanne inched forward for a better view of the courtyard. Sister Marie’s gnarled hands clutched the panels of her gray habit and her head bobbed in nervous irritation. “Lutrell! But that’s a good day’s ride away.”
“The king sent some of his best mounts for you
to ride,” the man said, indicating a line of horses onto which soldiers tossed sidesaddles. He glanced toward Jeanne and this time she was sure he’d seen her. No use hiding now.
One of his men tapped him on the shoulder. He looked away and nodded to the soldier.
The nuns crowded around the abbess and mumbled to themselves while they worried the beads at their waists. These men-at-arms demanded they vacate the only home they knew.
Jeanne spotted only three soldiers in the immediate courtyard. The others stood near the gate, evidently waiting for their commander to settle the issue. A few trampled the heliotrope, and Jeanne could only guess what Sister Philipa would say when she discovered the broken flowers.
The abbess cleared her throat and the man in charge turned to face her. “We’ve taken a vote,” Sister Marie said. “We can’t just leave. There are linens and pots to be packed.”
“It’s your duty, to the king and to your countrymen.”
“My only duty is to God,” Sister Marie said.
He whistled for his horse, ignoring her protests, and Jeanne saw a well-muscled black stallion cross the courtyard to his master’s side. “I’ll give you ‘til morning,” he said, “to prepare for the journey. We travel light, so pack only what is necessary.” He removed a leather purse from his
destrier’s saddle. “Here, take this. Coins from the
king, partly for your inconvenience, and—”
“Inconvenience! I should say so.” Sister Marie snatched the coin purse from his hand. She tramped inside followed by the other sisters, their gray robes fluttering across the cobbles like frightened fowl.
The black horse, tempted by grass sprouting from between the stones, foraged near the portal. The soldier in charge strode toward his horse and Jeanne stepped back, waiting for him to leave. She heard his footsteps and guessed he was adjusting the horse’s saddle but when the footsteps stopped, then resumed and came closer, she gripped Rose’s arm.
“You’re hurting me,” Rose protested.
“Shh.” Jeanne put her finger to her lips but it was too late. A shadow fell across the floor and she looked up into dark eyes that held a hint of amusement. He loomed above her like a towering beech tree.
“Well, what have we here?”
Jeanne stood tall, as tall as every inch of her five-foot frame would allow, determined to meet this intruder with assurance. She tilted her head back to see his face and looked into the darkest pair of eyes she’d ever seen. Thick brows obscured their color but she guessed they were indeed black, black as the forest floor where no sun reached.
“How dare you?” she said. “Who are you to come here making such a demand? You’ve frightened the sisters.”
For a moment he looked as if she’d struck him. “I take no pleasure in this assignment, Mademoiselle, but it’s my duty.”
He regained his former composure and she continued, having enjoyed a momentary lapse in his confidence. “Is that a sign of bravery in the king’s army, ordering women around?”
He bowed low, a mocking gesture that made her blood boil. “My name,” he said, straightening to treeheight again, “is Squire Nicholas, of King Philip’s advance army.”
At that moment she vowed he would live to regret his patronizing manner.
“Come, ma’am,” Rose pleaded from behind her. “We’d best be upstairs if Sister Marie comes.” She tugged on Jeanne’s sleeve.
The tunic tightened around Jeanne, and the squire scanned her form from head to toe before moving back to her face.“One of your eyes is green. The other—” he stepped closer, “—seems to be blue. What do they call you?”
“As if it’s your business, you—you trespasser.” Anger gave her voice a breathy quality that made her sound older than her seventeen years. “My name is Jeanne. Jeanne of Clairmonde, and if you have the sense to know where you are, you’ll know you’re on land my father owned.”
He smiled, infuriating her, though in truth the smile crinkled one side of his cheek into an amazingly appealing dimple. She planted both feet in front of him and squared her shoulders. “Such a brave squire you are, threatening women. But I fear you not.”
“Oh, so you heard everything. Then run on, ready yourself for the journey, for I wager you ride not well and will slow down the whole party.”
“I ride better than you, and more honorably, as I take nothing from God’s servants.”
“It’s not for me, but for good King Philip, as you must know, since you were eavesdropping.”
A tense silence enveloped the room. Had she gone too far? Perhaps she could be hung for treason in resisting the king’s appropriation. Her father had told her the land was deeded to his grandfather by a king, and while she wholeheartedly supported King Philip in his resistance to the English, surely there was other land that would serve as well. Let them find it. She swallowed, then plunged on. "You’ll not take me with your silly riding party. Perhaps you
frightened Sister Marie, but Rose and I will stay.” She tilted her chin up, her eyes blazing. “Come, Rose. The smell of animal is in this hall.” She hoped the insult would unnerve him but instead she saw the beginnings of a smile as she turned her back.
Rose gasped, covered both ears, and trotted toward the stone steps, following her mistress.
Jeanne heard the slap of his boots on stone as he
crossed the room and let himself out.
“You are reckless, Jeanne. And now you’ll have to back down, making it worse, for you know we can’t stay without the others—-let alone with an army coming to these walls.”
“Fear not, Rose. I won’t endanger you; neither will I put the goats in danger. They trust me, and I shan’t let them down. Now, let’s finish our list in case Sister Patrice goes to market. There’s some hay left in the granary but not enough to last through the winter. The goats will give no milk unless well fed.”
“But what’s the use, with us leaving, and Sister Patrice won’t be—”
“Never mind, Rose. I’ll think of something.” She picked up the quill, straightened the vellum and completed the list, though she, too, doubted anyone from the convent would be going to weekly market in the village, where one of the vendors saved discarded fruit and vegetables for her goats. The does were picky, and Sister Patrice now insisted on a
list, saying she was tired of walking from the village, balancing baskets of goat food in her makeshift wagon and stopping repeatedly to pick up errant fruit as it rolled across the dirt only to have Jeanne reject it as unsuitable. She pressed the parchment flat with both hands. Sister Patrice just didn’t understand the does; they were selective eaters, that was true, but they supplied the convent with milk and cheese and butter. She remembered how they had managed to climb over a wood barrier to the vegetable garden, eating only the tasty lamb’s ear lettuce. Jeanne had howled with laughter watching Sister Marian chase them away, and it was days before the nun would even acknowledge her when she passed by to fill her trencher at mealtime.
The list was finished and she lifted her head, glanced out the open window, and brushed the feathered end of the quill across her cheek. The sisters were cowered by the squire’s threats, that was plain to see, so it would be up to her. They’d given up without a fight, even though Sister Marie attempted to put up a brave front. After all, the nuns
were used to self-sacrifice and praying, but what had it gotten them? For all their courage in the face of poverty and pain, they were fearful when it came to men. Perhaps it was because they were married to the Church and felt loyalty to the king. Pious he was, for sure, but evidently his charity only extended to his army, not to these sisters. The men’s commander, too, seemed to think it was the nuns’ lot in life to be cast aside, uprooted like saplings in a storm, just
because they were all women.
The booming voice of the enemy resounded in the courtyard and Jeanne stepped to the window just in time to see the last of the men mount their horses. “Ride to Larais,” Squire Nicholas shouted. “We stay at the inn tonight and will return here at sunrise.” He reined his horse and the great black destrier reared on his hind legs, bringing his master
full around to face Jeanne of Clairmonde just before she slammed both shutters closed.