Excerpt: Heaven's Fire
Book 2: Lords of Conquest, The Fairfax Family
November 1161: The Oxfordshire village of Cuxham
“Constance!” Rainulf knelt beside the dead priest’s young mistress, unconscious on the floor of the rectory’s small bedchamber, and pressed his fingertips to her throat. She blazed with fever, but she had a pulse. Carrying her back to bed, he covered her with the quilt and watched uneasily as she tossed her head back and forth on the pillow, murmuring incoherently. Tendrils of inky hair had come loose from her braids, and he brushed them off her face.
She was a strange woman–most decidedly strange. For one thing, she said exactly what was on her mind, without mincing words. Rainulf, accustomed to the complex and obtuse verbal machinations of the academic community, found her candidness both disconcerting and refreshing.
She struck him as amazingly full of life–even in the throes of this horrid disease that blinded and disfigured and killed. Everything seemed to interest and amuse her. Most remarkable was her matter-of-fact acknowledgment of the possibility of her own death–of her place in the cycle of nature. For years Rainulf had engaged in ceaseless and often tiresome debates on the nature of death. He envied Constance her easy acceptance of it.
When she had quieted and seemed to be sleeping peacefully, Rainulf retired to the main room of the rectory–a sizable room, and very cheerful, thanks in large part to the colorfully decorated walls. The whitewashed stone had been painted, all over, with a variety of designs and patterns, often quite flowery and ornate.
Most of the windows were covered with parchment on which an assortment of tiny creatures had been painted. Many were representations of the local fauna–leaping hares, mice stealing cheese, birds with worms in their beaks. Others were imaginary grotesques, such as a cross between a sheep and a stag, or a man with the head of a fish. There were many angels, all with hardy peasant faces and jolly smiles.
Rainulf’s gaze was drawn to a writing desk near the largest window; such a desk was a rare sight outside the walls of a monastery or university. A sheet of parchment, neatly ruled in a double-page grid in preparation for writing, was tacked to its sloping surface. The upper left corners of each of the two pages featured sketches of elaborate capital letters embellished with haloed figures in flowing robes. An oxhorn filled with ink sat snugly in a hole in the desk’s upper right corner; next to it lay several raven’s quill pens, and a penknife. On a nearby table, he saw a large roll of parchment, and next to it–precisely arranged–a stylus, a stick of lead, a piece of pumice, some chunks of chalk, and a row of paint pots. Many priests made their own copies of borrowed books, but from all appearances, Father Osred had taken a rare pleasure in this work.
Rainulf opened a corner cupboard and discovered it filled with more books than he’d ever seen in such a humble place. Most were old and well worn–books of Gospel, lectionaries, a psalter, collections of model sermons, a handbook of parish duties, a manual of the sacraments, and several books of instruction in Latin. It was the handful of newer-looking volumes that most attracted him, though. He pulled one out and saw that it was a missal, flawlessly penned and illuminated. Turning to the last page, he found the scribe’s signature enclosed in a wreath of twisting vines: Constance me fecit.
Rainulf blinked and read the words again, then whispered them out loud. “Constance made me… Constance?” He glanced toward the bedchamber’s leather curtain, beyond which the ever-more-singular Constance lay in a fevered stupor.
“Nay…” Replacing that volume, he slipped out another–a thick little breviary with minuscule writing on tissue-thin parchment–and flipped to the end. Shaking his head in disbelief, he read the words out loud: “Completed by Constance of Cuxham, 18 April 1159.”
The largest of the newer books turned out to be the most unusual. Its wooden boards, rather than being bound in leather, had been covered with fancifully embroidered linen, on which was stitched the title Biblia Pauperum. A Bible for the poor? On the last page he found the legend De una manu, and under it, the English translation: By one hand. Beneath that appeared the twisting vine device, enclosing Constance’s name and a recent date. Clearly she was proud of her work, and why shouldn’t she be? On leafing through the oversize volume, he discovered it to be an elaborately illustrated album of Bible stories, with quotations from the prophets…in English!
Rainulf chuckled incredulously. English. She must have written this one herself. To have conceived of such a project was remarkable. To have actually executed it, in such ambitious fashion…
A moan from beyond the leather curtain interrupted his reverie. Tucking the book back into its slot, he hurried into the bedchamber, to find Constance thrashing and yanking at her bedclothes, her flushed face glazed with perspiration, her eyes wild.
He touched her cheek, and she shook him off, but not before he felt how feverish she’d become. He growled a raw oath and crossed himself. Rushing outside, he drew a bucket of water, found a clean cloth, and returned to bathe her face and throat as he sat on the side of the bed.
After a while, her senses returned. She even smiled. “I can still see,” she said hoarsely, her eyes half-closed. “Father?”
“Would you give me Last Rites?”
Rainulf held the cloth over the bucket and twisted it hard in his fists, wringing out every last drop until his hands trembled.
He drew a deep breath. “Of course,” he said as her eyes drifted closed again. “I’ll get what I need.”
Constance heard her name whispered. Opening her eyes with some effort, she saw Father Rainulf, once again looking every bit the man of God in his white surplice and stole. His flaxen hair glimmered in the warm yellow lantern light, which was the only illumination in the room, night having fallen. On the bedside table she saw, neatly laid out on a linen cloth, the items required for the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Her heart raced, and she felt queasy. She hadn’t thought she was afraid of death, but now that it hovered so close, she wasn’t so sure.
His large, cool hand closed over hers, and he squeezed gently. It aggravated the burning sensation, but felt so comforting that she was loath to ask him to release her. “Are you up to making confession?”
Constance nodded. Summoning all her strength, she confessed in a clear voice to her sinful relationship with Father Osred, but felt obliged to add, “It’s not as if I was sinning all that much. I mean, Father Osred was an old man. And old men…well…” She shrugged.
“I mean, it’s been months since he’s wanted to–“
“Yes. I under–“
“And even before that, it was hardly what you’d even call sinning, if by sinning one means the pleasures of the flesh, because as far as pleasure was concerned–“
“You’re forgiven, Constance. It’s all right.” His ears, Constance noted, had turned bright pink.
Father Rainulf anointed her eyes, ears, lips, and hands with consecrated oil, his expression grave, his touch gentle. At his prompting, she spoke the words, “Into thy hands I commend my soul,” and then he sat her up and supported her while he administered Communion.
“Now sleep,” he said quietly, looking terribly sad.
Rainulf watched helplessly as Constance grappled with her ever-worsening delirium. It was close to midnight, by his guess. Unable to leave her in such condition, he’d decided to spend the night, but his cool compresses and whispered words of comfort seemed to help not in the least. From time to time she regained her senses and spoke to him, as she had while he was giving her Last Rites, but those episodes were becoming shorter and less frequent. He worried that, come dawn, he’d be carrying her to the grave she’d been digging for herself when he came upon her that afternoon.
From his time in the Holy Land, Rainulf knew Moslem physicians to be more educated than their Western counterparts about smallpox. Their theory was that the blood had a natural tendency to ferment, producing waste that must pass through the pores of the skin. Certain atmospheric conditions interfered with this process, resulting in outbreaks of this cursed disease. The treatment of choice in the Levant was to sweat out the excess fermented humors.
Constance groaned and muttered something. Rainulf sat next to her and laid a hand on her forehead. “Shh.”
It grieved him to just stand by and watch her suffer–and in all likelihood die. Perhaps the sweating treatment had some merit; perhaps not. But it was the only remedy he knew of, so he had no choice but to try it.
Bringing the lantern outside, he chopped a great deal of wood and heaped it on one side of the central fire pit in the main room of the rectory. On the other he made a pallet of quilts and blankets, and then he built and lit a sizable fire. He tacked parchment over the windows that were not already sealed with it, so that the only opening in the room was the smoke hole above the fire pit. Returning to the bedchamber, he gathered Constance in her quilt, grabbed her pillow, and settled her on the pallet.
The great fire roared; Rainulf added more wood, flinching at the wall of heat that surrounded the blaze. In no time, the room became an oven, forcing him to shed first his tunic and then his sweat-soaked shirt. Still, perspiration ran in rivulets down his face and body. His damp chausses itched; unfortunately he could not, under the circumstances, dispense with the woollen hose.
Constance, also sweating heavily, grumbled unintelligibly and tried repeatedly to tear off the quilt in which she was wrapped. Weary of wrestling with her, Rainulf finally lay down with her on the pallet and pinioned her body with his. “I know you’re uncomfortable,” he said, although it was doubtful she heard him. “But you have to sweat. That’s why I’ve gone to all this trouble. You have to get better.”
She shivered and moaned, writhing beneath him as her body struggled to expel its scourge. The intimacy of their positions suddenly struck him. It had been eleven years since he had lain atop a woman. The last time had been shortly before taking his vows, when the beguiling Lady Fayette had endeavored one last time to dissuade him from Holy Orders. She’d done a workmanlike job of it, too, he recalled with a smile. The memory of that night, and Constance’s movements beneath him, stirred his loins. He shifted position and chastised himself for entertaining carnal thoughts at such a time.
Fayette had given it her best effort, as had her sister, Petronilla, before her. And then there had been their charming friend, Estelle… But his mind had been made up. All his life he had known that he would become a priest. At one time, his faith had been pure and uncomplicated, his vocation a given. Now…well, now was a very different matter, indeed.
Reflecting on his faith reminded him of the little reliquary in his saddlebag. When Constance finally lapsed into a fitful sleep, he retrieved it and placed it next to her head on the pillow. Then he added more fuel to the fire and lay down beside her in the rushes, thinking to rest his eyes for a moment.
Rainulf awoke with a start, disoriented at first to find himself half-naked in a sweltering inferno, a bleary-eyed young woman lying next to him. Constance.
“Aye,” he said, reclining on an elbow and wiping the sweat that ran into his eyes. “It’s how the Moslems cure smallpox.”
Her gaze lingered on his bare chest for a moment, and then she looked away, blotting her face with the edge of the quilt. “What can infidels possibly know of healing?”
He smiled crookedly. “A great deal more than we do, at times. It’s partly why they call us the infidels.”
That seemed to amuse her, for she laughed tiredly and sat up, the quilt falling around her waist. “What this?” she asked, lifting the reliquary from her pillow and inspecting it closely. Firelight outlined her delicate body through the thin linen of her shift. High, petite breasts with dusky nipples were just visible beneath the drenched fabric.
Rainulf cleared his throat and combed both hands through his sodden hair. “It’s a religious relic. Supposedly some hair from St. Nicaise.” Rising, he tossed two more logs onto the fire.
Little frown lines appeared between her graceful black eyebrows. “St. Nicaise…”
“The patron saint of smallpox sufferers.”
She nodded and ran her fingertips reverently over the pearl-encrusted cross on the lid of the tiny silver casket. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she murmured. “And to think it actually contains the hair of a saint!”
“Well…so they say.”
“You don’t believe it?
He shrugged as he settled cross-legged next to her. “False relics abound.”
“But you’ve no proof that this one is false.”
“Then I choose to believe it’s real. What’s more, I think you believe it, too, in your heart. You brought it here and laid it on my pillow, did you not?”
Rainulf shook his head, defenseless in the face of her particular brand of ingenuous perception.
She held the little token up and regarded it with an expression of awe. “Where did you get it?”
“Queen Eleanor gave it to me when I took up the cross. There’s a great deal of smallpox in the Holy Land, and she’d hoped to keep me safe from it.”
Constance gaped at him. “The queen of England gave you this?”
“She was still the queen of France at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t till after I returned from Crusade and took my vows that she divorced Louis and married Henry.”
“But you know her?” Constance persisted, wide-eyed.
“We’re distant cousins.”
“Truly?” Rainulf nodded. “You’re practically royalty, then.”
He laughed shortly. “Hardly. As for the relic, I’m pleased if you find it comforting, but I’m not quite as convinced of its efficacy. After all, it didn’t keep me from coming down with the pox when I was imprisoned in the Levant.”
“Is that where you had it?” He nodded. She grinned smugly. “But you got better.”
“And you were left without scars.”
“Not everyone ends up with scars.”
“Nor did you go blind.”
“So it worked for you,” she concluded happily, and kissed the little silver box. “And it will work for me, as well. I feel much better already.”
Her smile was rapturous, and more incandescent even than the blazing fire behind her.
“I’m pleased that you feel better,” he said. Reaching out to touch her forehead, he added, “But you’re still burning with fever.” He pulled the quilt up over her shoulders. “You must stay bundled up until it breaks.”
“But I’m sweating so.” She shoved the quilt down.
Seating himself behind her, his long legs flanking her, Rainulf pulled it back up and wrapped his arms around her. “You’re supposed to sweat. Try to go back to sleep.”
“I can’t. My skin feels like it’s on fire.”
Rainulf recalled his own bout with smallpox, and the maddening sensation of flesh that felt as if it would ignite at any moment. “Just try. Lean back and close your eyes.” She settled herself against him. Her plaited hair was soft as silk on his damp chest, and her weight felt wonderful against him. It had been so long since he’d held someone–anyone. He’d forgotten the simple pleasure of it.
“Do you think I’m going to die?” she asked.
He wanted to say, “No, of course not,” but Constance, with her childlike wisdom, would only scoff at such an easy answer. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I don’t think so, but there’s no telling, with this disease. If you are taken, have no doubt that the angels will welcome you into heaven.” He wondered if she could tell how empty those words of comfort really were, for it had been years since heaven had had any real meaning for him.
“Oh, I know I’ll go to heaven,” she said with seemingly complete assurance. “I mean, despite…well, Father Osred and all that…I’ve tried to be good. I think that counts for something with God. And, of course, I’ve just been shriven, so I’ll die in a state of grace. I’m not worried. I’ll go to heaven, and then my soul will be free, and I’ll be at peace.”
Rainulf smiled inwardly. Ah, to have that kind of faith! That was his idea of heaven: no more doubt, no more uncertainty to plague him.
“But,” she added, “I don’t quite like the idea of having to die before I can be free. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?”
“Is anyone ever really free?”
Rainulf just grimaced. If only she knew how wrong she was.
“As are many others,” she continued. “Noblemen and the clergy and merchants are much freer to do as they like than I ever was. That’s all I ever wanted–the freedom to go where I pleased and do as I thought best. I wish I’d been born a man, in some great city. Then I could ply a trade and earn a living and be happy. Instead, I was born female and the property of Roger Foliot of Cuxham, the randy old beast.”
Rainulf suddenly felt chilly, despite the oppressive heat in the room. “Sir Roger…did he force you to–“
“He tried. That’s why I married Sully, and why I took up with Father Osred when Sully died. I had no choice. Sir Roger is…well, he’s little more than a savage, if the truth be told. He beats the women he lies with, and if they run away, he’s got someone he sends after them. Someone even worse than him. They come back… He uses a knife on them, and…”
She shuddered. Rainulf held her closer.
“The only reason he didn’t come for me when Father Osred died was because I’ve got the pox. He hasn’t had it yet, and he doesn’t want to catch it. If I die, at least I’ll be safe from Sir Roger.”
“How will you protect yourself if you live?” Rainulf asked.
She yawned. “I don’t know.” She chuckled sleepily. “John Tanner’s been sniffing around ever since Father Osred took sick. He’s not old, either, and I think he actually wants to marry me.” She curled into Rainulf’s embrace and mumbled, “Only I don’t know as I could take that smell of his day in and day out.”
“Is that your only option?”
She shook her head. “There are two others, besides the tanner…I’d probably have my pick.”
Presently her breathing grew steady, and Rainulf knew she was sleeping. With careful movements he laid her back down on the pallet and made her comfortable. He fetched her Biblia Pauperum from the cabinet and sat with it by the fire, admiring the fanciful illustrations and struggling to decode the English text. Like most Normans, he had little familiarity with the Anglo Saxon tongue in written form, so he couldn’t pass judgment on the quality of the writing, but the pictures were extraordinary.
“Where did you learn to speak English?”
Rainulf looked up to find Constance staring at him, and wondered how long she had been awake. He reached out and stroked her face, still reddened but much cooler to the touch. Perhaps the sweat therapy worked after all!
“I learned it on Crusade,” he said. “After I was captured and imprisoned. One of my cellmates was an Englishman, and he taught it to me. His name was Thorne Falconer. He’s Baron of Blackburn now, and my brother by marriage.”
“The Saxon baron,” she said, sitting up and adjusting the quilt around herself. “Aye, I’ve heard of him. How long were you imprisoned?”
“A year. It was…” He shook his head. How could he possibly describe it? And why, after years of silence about that hellish time, did he want to speak of it to this woman he hardly knew?
Her eyes, shining with curiosity and compassion and native intelligence, searched his. “You must have very sad memories,” she said quietly.
“My memories of the men I killed are far worse than those of imprisonment. I thought of them as infidels, as less than human. I thought ’twas God’s will that they be slain.” He swallowed the bitter reminiscence and shook his head. “I gained my freedom and returned to Paris, but my faith had been undermined. Mother Church had sent me halfway around the world to do an evil thing, and I found I could never more trust her teachings. Nothing was ever the same after that.”
“Yet you took your vows.”
He nodded. “I had been educated for the priesthood, and I thought, perhaps in time, my faith would grow strong again. Instead, it slowly weakened, until…” He took in a lungful of hot air. “I returned to the Holy Land last year as a pilgrim, thinking that would help, but it’s hopeless.”
“All this melancholy because you killed trying to retake the Holy Land?” she asked. “Don’t you think killing is justified sometimes?”
“Nay. Not anymore.”
“How awful to live with such torment,” she said. “And how silly.”
Rainulf let out a disbelieving little laugh. “Silly?”
“You make everything so complicated, so troublesome. You can’t accept anything for what it is.”
“Constance…you really don’t understand.”
She laughed and waved her hand in airy dismissal. “I understand much more than you realize.” Her gaze traveled to the book in his lap. “What do you think of it?”
He closed it and ran his hand over the lavishly embroidered cover. “I think it’s extraordinary. Where did you learn to do such work?”
“Father Osred, of course. He used to copy books for himself, and also some to sell in Oxford. But by the time I came to live with him, his hands had become all gnarly and sore.”
“So he taught you copying and illuminating,” Rainulf finished. “And Latin as well, I take it?”
“Aye. I love making books–the pictures especially.” She nodded toward the Biblia Pauperum. “I’ve just finished that one. It’s my masterwork. If I do die, at least I’ll know I’ve done something special first.”
“It’s very special,” he said, rising to return the book to its cupboard. “‘Twas good of Father Osred to teach you this craft.”
Constance regarded him thoughtfully as he replaced the volume and squatted next to the fire, stirring it up with the poker. She said, “You probably think… You must think I’m a…a common woman. A whore.”
He set the poker aside and wiped his sweaty hands on his chausses. “It’s not my place to pass judgment on you, Constance.”
“Aye, but I know what you think.”
He looked her straight in the eye and said quietly, “No you don’t.” Moving closer to her, he gently tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “Our thoughts are private. And our actions, even if they be sinful, are rarely without cause. God understands this. It’s men who don’t.”
She inspected him with discerning eyes. “You don’t talk like other priests, Father.”
“I’m not like other priests,” he said soberly.
“Do you want to be?”
“Oh, yes. Yes. Very much. I want their easy faith, their unquestioning devotion. But instead, I question ceaselessly.”
“I’m sorry for your troubles,” she said.
“And I’m sorry for yours.” He rested the back of his hand on her forehead and smiled. “Much better. I believe you’re out of danger.”
She took hold of his hand and brought it to her mouth, lightly kissing the palm. The warmth of her lips sent delicious shivers up Rainulf’s arm. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I think you may have saved my life.”