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Or one of them had offended and the other was sent along to keep her company, no nun allowed to go alone outside her cloister.

Giles’ speculation veered toward the lewd. This could be interesting after all. But a clearer look killed his hopes. In those obscuring habits, with wimples tight around their faces, a nun’s age could be hard to judge, but he could tell enough here to guess that whatever these two had done, it had not been out of youthful folly. The smaller of the two might have been gamesome when she was young—there was the possibility of a shapely body under that crow-black gown yet—but Giles judged the taller one had always been too sharp-featured to be worth a man’s bothering with her. Probably they had done nothing worse than talk back to their prioress once too often or maybe slapped another nun when they were quarreling.

What a waste of women nunhood was.

And now Lionel was sending Martyn forward to ask them to join them in the shade. Oh, yes, just what was lacking to make the day more dull—pointless talk with useless women and more delay in being on their way.

Frevisse and Dame Claire stopped where they were and waited while young John Naylor went forward to talk to the man come out from among the travelers under the tree. They looked a prosperous, leisurely group, probably no other than travelers like themselves, but it was always better to be sure and she had come to trust young John’s judgment these past few days. He was nephew to the priory’s steward and only lately come into service at St. Frideswide’s. Frevisse suspected that Domina Alys had chosen him as one of their companions because he was young and likely to be too inexperienced to be much use on the way, but Domina Alys had been wrong in that. Young John was as longheaded and steady as his uncle despite his youth.

Not that Domina Alys probably much cared one way or other, now that she had them actually out of her way. She had agreed readily to the idea of Dame Claire’s penance, just as Thomasine had said she would, and added to it confession in front of the whole house and a few nights spent in penitential prayer in the church before they actually set out. She had accepted the idea of Frevisse going with her with equal ease, and made extra advantage for herself by appointing Father Henry, the priory’s priest, as their other companion, giving her the chance to bring in, even if only temporarily, one of her nephews as priory priest in his place.

She had probably thought that Father Henry would be as little use as young John Naylor along the way, since he was not among the quick of wit, and in that she had been more right than about young John; but Father Henry was a good-humored traveler and that counted for much when traveling together so long and slowly as they were going.

And it was slowly. Frevisse had spent much of her girlhood on the roads with her parents through England, France, the Low Countries, and even once to St. James in Spain. The troubles, habits, and joys of journeying were almost as much a part of her as praying was, and the ways of it came back to her readily whenever there was chance, few and far between as chances had been since she had entered St. Frideswide’s. She expected this small jaunt to give her no particular trouble of mind or body, but it was different with Dame Claire. Her upbringing had been more gentle than Frevisse’s, and she had begun to suffer toward the end of their first day on the road, and suffered worse the next morning when her muscles had had time to stiffen and her feet to swell. But she had her resources, too. The Benedictine Rule required the priory to give shelter and care to travelers, and she had come to know something of the needs of folk afoot and had thought to bring along an ointment that eased soreness when deeply rubbed in on legs and feet. That had helped yesterday, and today had gone fairly well once Dame Claire’s early morning’s stiffness had worn off, though their pace was still slower than Frevisse would have set for herself or in greater need.

But there was no need for hurry. Dame Claire’s penance was as much in the journey as in anything and there was no set day for their return, though that could be trouble as well as benefit. As Dame Claire had pointed out in their first morning on the road, “If we make haste and come back in too short a while, I’ll be told I scanted my penance. But if we take too long at it, I’ll be held to have been dawdling, frivolous with my time.”

“So we had best do simply what feels right as we go along,” Frevisse had said. “Then our consciences will be clear, no matter what she says of us.” Because they were never going to satisfy Domina Alys, no matter what they did or how they did it. And if they were “too long” about it, let Domina Alys take some of the blame herself. It was her doing that they were going well aside from their way, to Minster Lovell instead of straight to Oxford.

To fulfill her vow, Dame Claire was supposed to walk the some thirty miles from the priory to St. Frideswide’s great monastery and shrine in Oxford town, there confess and receive absolution from the prior himself for her sins of pride and contumely against her prioress, and then pray at the shrine before returning home. But there was presently a property trouble in Prior Byfield, the village near the nunnery. Some of it was owned by the nunnery, some by Lord Lovell, and some of it was freehold. The nunnery’s and Lord Lovell’s stewards were usually able to resolve between themselves problems that arose, but there was a matter to hand now that the two men were not agreeing on as fast as Domina Alys was willing to tolerate so she had decided to send copies of what she thought were the relevant documents directly to Lord Lovell. That way he could see what a fool his man was being and decide in the nunnery’s favor. But messengers cost money, and since she had two nuns bound more or less in Lord Lovell’s direction, why pay the cost of a messenger when her nuns could do the task instead?

Frevisse’s uncharitable thought had been that Domina Alys would receive double value for her choice because it would also keep her and Dame Claire that much longer away and give them that much farther to walk.

She would have to confess and do penance for that thought against her prioress, but she did not much care. Away from Domina Alys was exactly where she wanted to be, and the longer away the better. Besides, the journey so far had been pleasurable, the April days warm under lightly clouded skies, the roads dry, with spring bird song and early flowers along the way and reasonably comfortable places to sleep at night. It was fortunate this was not supposed to be a pilgrimage of penance for her at least; she was finding far too much in it to enjoy, including being away from her prioress.

But she was also ready to stop for their midday meal and rest and prayers, and sight of the tall oak’s top ahead of them had promised a goodly place for all of that. It had been a disappointment to find its shade already in use, and the best they could hope for now was, first, to be invited to share it and then that the travelers would shortly go on and leave them.

Young John returned, to bow and say, “It’s a Lionel Knyvet and his folk and some others traveling with them. You’re asked to join them if you’d like.”

“What did you think of them?” Dame Claire asked.

“The man was mannerly. I think it would be right enough if you wish it. They seem honest.”

Frevisse held back from saying, And it’s not as if we have much to offer thieves anyway. The nunnery’s imposed rule of silence had helped her learn to curb her tongue through the years but not always her thoughts, and she was finding now that she was away from the strong hold she had kept on them under Domina Alys’ sway, just how impatient and caustic they tended to be anymore, even when there was no present cause.

Dame Claire was asking her with a look if they should accept the invitation. It was clear she was ready to, and behind them Father Henry, always ready for the chance of new talk with strangers, had nudged his horse closer to hear their choice. There was no real reason to decline so Frevisse nodded agreement.

They were a mixed company. Aside from the servants, there were six men and a woman; but two of the men were clearly yeomen or less, and it was not the oldest of the other men who came to welcome Frevisse, Dame Claire, and Father Henry when they had dismounted but one of the considerably younger men.

He introduced himself with a slight bow and courteous smile. “My ladies, good sir. I’m Lionel Knyvet. My thanks for your joining us this while.”

He was somewhere in his twenties, Frevisse guessed. Tall and not particularly well featured, with long bones and a large jaw. His heavy-lidded eyes made him look as if he were too much given to sleep, but there was an old scar white across his forehead and bridge of his nose as if he had had adventures when he was younger. He had given no title so he was not noble, but the rich cloth and good cut of his clothing and the way he traveled in company and with servants and packhorses showed he was wellborn. Or at least wealthy. And his manners could not have been better.

“Your man said you’re bound for Minster Lovell and so are we.” He included the others behind him with a movement of his hand. “Would you care to join us the few miles more there are to go?”

“That’s kind of you,” Dame Claire said, “and surely your company would be welcome, but I fear we would slow you overmuch, going on foot as we do.”

“A vow?” he asked.

“A vow,” Dame Claire agreed.

Lionel Knyvet accepted that without further question. “Then give me the pleasure of sharing our food?”

“We’ll be grateful for the shade and sitting with you, surely,” Dame Claire said. “But we have food of our own and no need to trouble you.”

“Not trouble but pleasure, my lady. Pray you, let me do you that courtesy.”

His own courtesy was so great, it would have been discourteous to refuse him. Dame Claire smiled. “We’d be pleased of your kindness. Thank you.”

John Naylor had gone aside with the horses to where the others’ mounts were grazing slack-girthed along the hedge. He would join the Knyvet servants for his meal, but Dame Claire, Frevisse, and Father Henry went with Master Knyvet and were introduced to the others, the only woman among them first. “My cousin’s wife, Mistress Knyvet.”

She was very young, not far out of girlhood. Prettiness and health bloomed in her face, unmarred yet by any of life’s heaviness. But for all her prettiness and youth, she was sensibly dressed for travel in a close-sleeved brown linen gown, with a simple white wimple and veil to protect her hair and neck from dust and sun, and she made them a pleasant, smiling curtsy.

“My cousin Giles,” Lionel said.

The family resemblance to Lionel was strongly there in his coloring and face, but his better-proportioned, unscarred features were far closer to handsome than Lionel’s had ever been. He bowed curtly, not bothering to hide his lack of enthusiasm at the introduction, said perfunctorily, “Sir. My ladies,” and sat down again.

Gesturing to the cushions where she had been seated herself, his wife said with far more grace, “Pray you, sit here.” And when Frevisse and Dame Claire gratefully had and she had joined them, Lionel introduced the rest of the company. First the older man. “Master Bernard Geffers, keeping us company this while.”

“A franklin from near Chipping Norton,” Master Geffers added by way of further explanation. “Both pleased and honored to meet you thus.”

Frevisse’s immediate thought was that she did not like his hat. The style he had set for it, with its hood pulled up on top of his head into a coxcomb and its liripipe wrapped around to hold it in place, was much too young a fashion for his years. And so was the flourish he gave to his bow before he likewise sat down and edged a little closer, as if anticipating a good talk as soon as there was chance.

“And Hamon and Will Stenby, on pilgrimage like us to St. Kenelm’s at Minster Lovell,” Lionel said.

Except in age, the two men were so alike to look at that Frevisse readily guessed them to be father and son, the elder somewhat more stooped across his wide shoulders, the younger more firmly fleshed under his tan. They each had an eye crossed toward their nose, the father’s left one, the son’s right, making even their most solemn expressions amusing. Their plain, dun-colored, knee-length pilgrim tunics had seen other journeys, though not on them, Frevisse guessed, judging by the ill fit and the Stenbys’ awkward bows that told how unused they were to meeting strangers. They had probably never been more than a handful of miles from their village until now, and she wondered what vow or penance had set them on their way.

“And Martyn Gravesend,” Lionel said.

The last man took half a step forward and bowed. He was the man who had come to greet them on the road, and by his quiet garb of doubtlet and hose and riding boots he was a servant, so that Frevisse was disconcerted by the introduction. There had been no thought of introducing young John Naylor to anyone. “My steward,” Lionel said.

Frevisse hoped she hid her reaction. But though Martyn Gravesend’s bow had been simply what it should have been, neither falsely humble nor overbold, simply assured and with no pretension to more than he was, the slightest quirk at one corner of his mouth as he stepped back from it told he was neither so grave as his name nor at all unused to Lionel’s impropriety and people’s reaction to it.

Dame Claire and Frevisse made small, stiff movements of their heads to him, acknowledging the introduction as barely as they might. Father Henry hesitated to do even that much, and the moment was saved from further awkwardness by Mistress Knyvet asking, “You’ve walked far today?”

“However many miles it’s been since dawn,” Dame Claire said. “And for two days before then.”

The talk went around to where everyone had come from and where they were going, until a servant brought bread trenchers laid with cheese and cold meat and even a hard-boiled egg.

“I hope this suits, my ladies, sir,” Mistress Knyvet said.

“Very well,” Dame Claire assured her. “My deep thanks.” Frevisse and Father Henry echoed her while another servant poured wine for everyone.

They were all seated now, except for Martyn Gravesend who stood a little behind Lionel’s left shoulder, where he should be but occasionally included by Lionel in the conversation.

BOOK: The Murderer's Tale
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