DISCLAIMER: How do you solve a problem like Miss Xena: Xena, Gabrielle, et al. aren't mine. Just borrowing them w/ no intent to profit. I'll put them back when I'm finished. Promise. The rest is mine, however. If you don't respect my copyright, I'll send a pack of singing nuns to your door. (Or is that 'flying nuns'? Whatever.) How do you catch a cloud and pin it down: Some violence. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. How do you find a word that means Miss Xena: The love that dares not speak its name is spoken of here. By nuns and wanna be PhDs, no less. If you can't handle it, please busy yourself with sewing play clothes out of old drapes and curtains. It's coming back in style, don'tcha know
Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her: A bouquet of Leontopodium alpinum (edelweiss) goes toViv for doin' the beta thing! Sadly, she loses the award for "Best impression of a von Trapp Family Singer". On the bright side, I hear she looks quite fetching in a habit and lederhosen. Thanks also to the group of 'not quite singing', 'not exactly nuns'. To quote 'Dite, "As if
" Heh. Thanks all. Many a thing she ought to understand: I've taken some liberties w/ historical accuracy in this fan fic. The convent, nuns, town, and castle are purely my invention. Some aspects pertaining to Languedoc and its history are based on fact, although characterizations of actual historical figures are fictional. Portrayals of the attitudes and personalities of these historical figures are based purely on imagination and speculation. Yadda yadda. Please note that there'll be an essay exam later in the semester, and I will be handing out a list of secondary sources for your reading enjoyment and edification. But how do you make her stay and listen to all you say: Comments gladly welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By angharad governal
To be in love is to stretch toward heaven through a woman.
Uc de St. Circ, 13th century troubadour, from The Women Troubadours, trans and ed. Meg Bogin
Present day, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
Whatever reasons she thought she had on that day when she joined the Order seemed as muddied to her as the galoshes that she now wore on her feet. A work apron covered her habit and in her gloved hand she held an old shovel-- the wood worn with age, the blade covered in bits of grass and dirt.
The field stretched out before her and from where she stood, she could see the veiled forms of her fellow Sisters working along the trees and small plots that criss-crossed the land within the abbey grounds. She could see the rooftops of Ormarc in the distance, as well as the castle perched upon the hill, and the mountains beyond. She paused from her labor, leaned against the shovel, and wiped the sweat from her face. She stared at the dark figures moving between the rows of trees and felt a pang of uneasiness. It was as if some part of her had fallen asleep-- had been dormant-- and for some unknown reason, had suddenly awakened and wondered why she was there. Her brow furrowed behind her wimple at the sensation. When did that sense of restlessness begin to take root in the quiet of her soul? When did she begin to feel less content? When did the hours seem to stretch and take on the guise of tedium? A vision of a blonde head bent in study flashed through her mind and she tried to push the image aside.
She took a breath; her lungs filled with the scent of newly turned earth and rain. She shook her head, adjusted her heavy work gloves, and thrust the blade deep into the dark, rich soil, hoping that the physical labor would purge her mind. She doubled her efforts, as if the very act of digging and tilling would bury the doubts and questions that crowded her mind, would focus her thoughts to work, to prayer, and to God. Intent on her task, she missed the call to the noon Office and was startled when a fellow religious informed her that the hour of sext was upon them and they must hurry to chapel for prayer.
Present day, a palatial home near the mountains of Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
Well, here goes nothing, she thought as her wet boots squeaked against the wood floor of the front hall. Her gaze locked onto the butler, who walked at a dignified and squeakless pace ahead of her. She felt her stomach clench, sure that she looked more like a nervous drowned rat than a scholar. She tried not to gawk, tried not to appear over-awed as the butler bowed, gestured to a chair, and informed her that the Lady d'Ormarc would join her shortly. She ran a hand through her hair and expelled a soft breath as she looked around the study. It looks almost spartan, in an elegant sort of way. Not exactly what I had pictured. At the far end of the study an enormous fireplace occupied one corner, while books lined a nearby wall and a large bay window occupied the other, revealing a breath-taking view of the nearby mountains and castle.
It had taken weeks to arrange a meeting with Lady Thisbe and she hoped that the afternoon would prove to be fruitful. Take a deep breath. No need to be nervous. She abruptly walked to the window. Please don't let this be some sort of bizarre hoax. There must be some connection between that mystery cathedral, Chrétien d'Ormarc, this Alexandra person, and the troubadour Gabrielle. And where in the world does an ancient Greek woman warrior fit in with all of this? Oh God, I must be going insane. When I tell Lady Thisbe what I've found, she's probably going to throw me out of her house and sue me for slandering her family name--
"Mademoiselle Morrison, permettez-moi de vous présenter La Dame d'Ormarc, La Countesse Thisbe."
She turned and found the butler gesturing to a middle-aged woman slightly taller than herself. The aging butler bowed slightly before leaving the room as the auburn-haired woman walked toward the scholar, a hand outstretched in greeting. "C'est un plaisir de vous finalement rencontrer, Mademoiselle."
Gwen gave a small curtsey and shook the Countess' hand. "C'est tout un honneur de vous rencontrer. Je vous remercie de m'avoir accordé cette chance."
Lady Thisbe gestured to the large desk and chairs by the fireplace. "You mentioned that you had been doing some research at the convent of St. Marie?"
Gwen nodded as she sat down. "Yes. I've been working there for the past few months as well as others places in and around Ormarc--"
Present day, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
She frowned at the book in her hand when she realized that she had forgotten where to place the volume on the shelves. She came to a stop in the middle of the small room that housed the convent's books, stared at the volumes that lined one wall of the brightly lit space, and felt a sense of disembodiment and confusion running through her veiled frame. She stood for several minutes, her eyes straight ahead, but seeing nothing. It was only after hearing her name called from across the room that she finally came to herself. She turned to see the Reverend Mother, a look of concern flashing in her brown eyes, standing by the doorway.
"Reverend Mother." She walked quickly to where the nun stood, bowed her head, took the other woman's right hand, placed a kiss against the woman's knuckles and gently touched the hand against her own forehead. As she moved away from the older woman, Sister Augustine realized that she still held the book in her left hand. She sighed softly as she regarded the older woman. "May I be of help, Reverend Mother?"
The older nun placed her hands inside the billowing black sleeves of her habit as she walked into the room. She remained silent as she made a slow circuit around the room, finally stopping by a small window that yielded a view of the town and mountains. The taller nun stood silently, her head down as she held the book against her chest. The Reverend Mother turned and regarded the other nun. She spoke gently.
"How many years has it been since you came to the Abbey, Augustine?"
"Almost ten years, Reverend Mother. I was twenty when I took my vows."
"And have you been happy here?"
The dark head lifted to regard the older woman by the window and the younger nun's brow furrowed in confusion behind her wimple. "I-- I don't understand, Mother. Have I done something to-- to -- something inappropriate in my service?"
"No--no." The older nun gestured to the air as she turned back to gaze out the window. "You have done nothing wrong, Sister. I'm not here to reprimand you. But I have noticed over the past few weeks that you seemed distracted, unhappy. Is there something wrong? Have you been ill and did not tell me?"
"No, Reverend Mother. I'm fine. I haven't been ill. I-- I--"
The older woman turned to regard the nun. " I do know something of your life before you came to us. Have your thoughts returned to that time? Your family has never contacted you in the entire time you've been here. Is that what troubles you, my child?"
Sister Augustine turned away from the woman by the window. "No, Reverend Mother. I don't expect them to-- to wish-- My mother didn't approve of my vocation and the others no . My life is here. This is my home. I rarely think of that life. My -- my life is here. I am happy here. Perhaps, I've just been tired, fatigued--perhaps it's just the change of seasons, like Sister Matthew's allergies bothering her during the fall harvest."
The Reverend Mother regarded the tall woman quietly. "Yes. Perhaps." She turned to the window and continued to walk around the tiny library. She slowed fractionally as she reached the bookshelves, her eyes tracing the volumes as her fingers quietly ran over the spines of the texts. She spoke haltingly, carefully. "Have you and Dr. Morrison made much progress on her research?"
The younger nun turned, watching as the Reverend Mother ran her fingers along the shelves. Suddenly, her throat felt dry and she tried to clear it discreetly before answering. "Yes. Gwe--Dr. Morrison-- believes that she may have found something. In fact, she's visiting with Lady Thisbe to discuss what she has found."
The older woman stopped as she reached the doorway of the library. She turned to regard Sister Augustine and nodded, as if finally coming to a decision. "Good. I am pleased that you've been a help to her. I also wanted to assure you that if there is something that you wish to speak of, I am here-- not just as the head of the Order, but as your friend. If-- if it is some sort of illness, let me know. We'll send for the doctor or I can give you permission to go into town or permission to travel to Toulouse, if necessary."
Sister Augustine bowed towards the nun by the door. "Thank you, Reverend Mother, for your concern and generosity. I'm sure that it's nothing."
The Reverend Mother nodded softly. "A good afternoon, then Sister Augustine. I'll leave you to your work. God go with you, my child."
The younger nun walked to where the older woman stood and grasped her outstretched right hand, repeating the blessing ritual. "Thank you, Mother. And may God go with you."
Two weeks later, one of the larger hills overlooking the town of Ormarc, (Midi Pyrenees) France
"It was very kind of the Reverend Mother to let you accompany me into the hills, Sister Augustine."
The nun gestured to the surrounding countryside. "The Sisters of my Order know these hills. We gather plants and other materials as dye for the wool we sell in the shops at Ormarc. You can easily become lost if you aren't familiar with the surrounding area."
The scholar chuckled. "Well, in that case, I'm beyond grateful that you're here. I'm afraid that I'm not exactly well known for my keen sense of direction, although my sister was the one who got lost in the Natural History Museum."
"When you were both children?"
Gwen smiled and shook her head. "No, actually I was nineteen. Lilla was twenty-two. I tease her mercilessly about it. I told her to meet me next to the mastodon, but I guess she zigged when she should have zagged. And it was sort of lucky that she did get lost."
Sister Augustine pointed to the right. "Over there, just to the right of us. It's probably the best view of the valley."
Several minutes passed as they walked toward the ridge.
"What do you mean that she was lucky to have gotten lost?"
"It was how she met Joshua. I think he was interning at the museum at the time or had just finished an interview with the curator. I suppose if she hadn't met him, she would still be wandering through the grounds to this day."
Both women trudged on in silence until they reached a summit overlooking the town and valley below. Gwen ran a hand through her hair and expelled a soft breath as her eyes surveyed the view. "Wow, what a climb." She grinned at the nun beside her. "This is perfect, Sister. You can see the town quite clearly."
The nun gestured to the horizon. "Those clouds may move into this area in a few hours. I think it's best if we get started."
Gwen unslung her backpack and took out a camera and telephoto lens. She fiddled with the camera for several minutes, finally looking through the viewfinder. "The ideal situation would have involved riding in a helicopter and getting aerial shots of Ormarc, but I think this may confirm my hunch about our missing cathedral."
"Ow! Oh, for fuck's sake--"
Sister Augustine turned to see the blonde sprawled on the ground clutching her right ankle. She hurried to the injured woman, knelt beside her and gingerly cradled the ankle.
Gwen winced. "I -- ow-- I think I tripped on a root or -- I think it's sprained." And if you were paying ATTENTION to where you were going instead of "Oh no."
Both women looked up at the sky as drops of rain began to fall.
"Put your arms around me."
"Excuse me? " Gwen blinked. I've been fantasizing about you saying something like that, but I never would have pictured this. "Uh, Sister, not that I don't have the utmost faith in your abilities, but I'm not sure you can carry me all the way back to the main road."
Oh. "Oh. Then what are you--" going to do, take me here in the middle of nowhere in the soon-to-be-pouring rain? Gwen groaned softly as the nun helped her from her position on the ground.
"Lean against me. I'll help you walk. The shepherds have emergency sheds in these hills in case they can't make it back to their homes during rainstorms. There's one not far from here. We can probably get there before the worst of the rain hits."
They began to make their way through the small shrubs and clusters of wind-twisted trees that dotted the hillside.
"It's not exactly the Ritz-Carlton, but at least we're dry."
Gwen looked up to see the nun busily preparing a fire in a small hearth at the far corner of the shed. "I think the word 'dry' is a relative term, Sister. Besides, I think you got the worst of it."
The room wasn't much bigger than the cells in the convent dormitory and within minutes, a fire burned cheerily that warmed the small space. Sister Augustine turned to regard the woman sitting in a small chair-- the blonde's right leg was propped up against a wood crate.
"Are you in pain?"
"Uh-- it feels numb, actually. Sort of a dull ache."
The nun walked over and gestured to the crate. "May I?"
Gwen simply nodded and watched as Sister Augustine gently lifted the injured foot, sat on the crate, and placed the foot onto her lap. The nun began to untie her hiking boot.
"Uh, I'm sure it's fine, Sister--"
The nun shook her veiled head. "Let me at least take a look at it and make you more comfortable."
That's what's worrying me. If I get any more "comfortable" we're both gonna be in big trouble. "N-no, really. I'm fine. Besides," Gwen tried to pull her foot from the nun's gentle grasp. "You must be freezing. You're soaked. You need to get out of those wet clothes" --out of the frying pan, Morrison-- "and into something dry. I--I brought a sweater in my backpack. Please, I don't want you to catch pneumonia."
Sister Augustine looked down at the unlaced boot on her lap. "Well, I suppose that it would be of no use if we were both incapacitated in one way or another." She sighed softly, gently placed the injured foot on the wooden crate, and stood up.
"That's my girl--er, I--I --uh-- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so--er -- I --uh--" Gwen blushed and looked down.
Sister Augustine reached for the scholar's backpack. "That's quite all right, Gwen."
Gwen closed her eyes and kept her head down, fighting the urge to peek as Sister Augustine changed into the spare sweater. She heard a soft chuckle and felt a hand lift her injured leg. She finally dared to raise her head and saw Sister Augustine gently removing the hiking boot. The dark blue cardigan was too small for the nun -- her arms stuck out from the too-short sleeves and the fabric clung tightly around the white floor-length short-sleeve tunic that she wore. Gwen cleared her throat. "I-- I guess it's a little snug," the scholar said sheepishly.
Sister Augustine smiled. "It is a little tight. But I haven't worn anything except my habit in a very long time and it's--" The nun shrugged. "Well, my clothes should be dry in an hour or so." Her eyes looked down to the stockinged foot in her lap. "This may hurt a little."
The blonde winced as Sister Augustine carefully removed the sock from her foot. The nun's hand gently went over the slightly swollen ankle.
"So I guess this solves one of the mysteries of the ages then."
The nun's eyebrow shot up. "Oh?"
Gwen's face broke out into a smile as she gestured to Sister Augustine's hair--black, slightly damp tendrils that barely went past the woman's chin.
A mischievous grin fluttered over the nun's features. She touched her bare head. "I trust that you'll take that knowledge with you to the grave."
The scholar nodded solemnly. "Not a word shall pass from these lips."
Sister Augustine's face quirked into a small shy smile. "Good. Well, the ankle doesn't appear to be broken. You may have just bruised it. There's a doctor in the town. When the rain stops, we should drop by his office before we head back to the convent."
Gwen watched as the nun began to tear a rag into long strips.
"I found these near the hearth," Sister Augustine said as she began to bind Gwen's ankle with the strips of cloth. "It may help a bit."
Gwen exhaled softly as the nun finished binding the injury. "Mmm. Feels better."
"So what other mysteries shall we discuss in the meantime?"
Their eyes met.
The scholar swallowed audibly. "Uh--" Mayday, mayday. Houston, we have a problem. "I -- um-- I'm not sure that a shepherd's shed is very conducive to discussing the mysteries of the universe, especially in the middle of a thunderstorm."
The nun laughed softly. "That's too bad. I was about to ask whether, as a medievalist, you had the definitive answer to how many angels would fit onto the head of a pin."
She looked out of the tiny window and pulled at the sleeves that covered her arms. It was still raining. I feel so naked wearing this. She tugged at the cloth and then frowned. I'm destroying Gwen's sweater. Her hands idly caressed the fabric. It's so soft, like a kitten's fur. Of course, anything's better than that rough wool. She frowned again and turned away from the window. Her eyes fell upon the scholar. The woman had taken the camera out of her pack and was now looking through the viewfinder to the small hearth across the room. How the light plays with her hair -- like looking at spun gold. How lovely she is. How very beautiful. She blinked suddenly, jerking her head toward the small hearth.
Gwen raised her head from the camera. "Sister? Are you all right?"
She nodded as she walked to the fire. "Yes, I'm fine." Delay not, O Blesséd Lady, to help me whenever I call on Thee, for, in all my needs, in all my temptations-- Her hands grasped the line where her drying veil, wimple and habit hung by the fire. I shall never cease to call on Thee, ever repeating Thy sacred name--
"Are they dry yet?"
She shook her head, her back towards the blonde. "No, still damp." She closed her eyes. O what consolation, what sweetness, what confidence, what emotion fill my soul when I pronounce Thy sacred name, or even only think of Thee--
"Are you sure you're all right?"
She turned a soft smile on her face, her eyes unreadable. "Yes, I'm fine."
The scholar peered closer. "Are you sure you're not coming down with a fever? You look kinda flushed."
Sister Augustine shook her head and bowed slightly as she grasped her hands together. "Thank you for your concern, Gwen. I'm fine, really. It's just the heat from the fire."
Gwen nodded and motioned to the crate in front of her. "Well, if you're sure you're all right. Please--"
The nun sat down on the wood crate and watched as the woman fiddled with the camera lens.
"I think I may have some film left." Gwen smiled as she moved the camera from her eyes. "Would--would you let me take a picture of you? I promise that the camera won't steal your soul."
She laughed at the feeble joke. The Reverend Mother would never approve. But-- "Yes, all right. Please, go ahead and take my picture." You've already taken my heart, without even knowing it. I didn't know it. Not until today. I would be happy to give you this small part of myself, if only this. I -- I don't know if I can choose, if I'm strong enough to make a choice between you and God, Brangein Gwenhwyfar Morrison-- But I think part of me would give my soul, my life to you if you'd ask.
1226 AD, Week 9 of the siege (Ormarc/Languedoc)
"Tell us! Tell us what we need to know about Chrétien's defenses for the city and castle or we'll do more than just break your fingers, you filthy mongrel cur!"
A hollow laugh rang through the small clearing. The figure lashed onto a makeshift T-shaped post raised a blonde head to stare out at the circle of men and horses before he spat vehemently at the ground. "Go fuck a goat!"
A chainmail glove struck the bound man's face, splitting his lip and cutting a gash near his eyebrow. "God damn you, you backward whoreson! You can't defeat us, you know that? The Pope himself sanctioned this crusade and the nobles of France will rule over this land whether you want it or not. Cooperate. Tell us what we want to know. We are a merciful people."
A nearby horse whinnied anxiously. The prone figure remained silent even as the glove was poised to strike yet another blow.
If Lord Chrétien didn't insist that I needed help accomplishing this mission, this never would have happened. Peter's life is in my hands. I cant' let him die-- I WON'T let him die.
N'Alexandra crouched low behind a cluster of trees by the edge of the wood that bordered near the French encampment. The sun had set and from where she was hiding, she could see the glint of firelight near the post where they had bound the blonde carpenter. She wore a peasant's shirt, a leather jerkin, leggings, and boots. A leather cap hid her dark hair. She held a bow in her hands, a quiver with several arrows was strapped on her back, and a dagger was at her side. She looked like many of the common French soldiers who milled around numerous fires within the camp.
I was barely able to stop Luc from tearing into the French camp like Hercules storming Hades and bringing Cerberus back from the underworld. A rueful smile crossed the dark woman's mouth as she peered from her hiding place. Gabrielle would be pleased with that simile . . . Gabrielle. . . Life would have been easier for the both of us if I were just another Lady at your father's court. But my father raised me like a boy, insisted that just because I was a girl, it didn't mean I couldn't do everything the boys at the court were doing. He was so proud when your father made me his squire. . . Do you remember Gabrielle, when we were children? I used to play at war and you used to bandage all my cuts and bruises. I-- I guess we're still doing that. Only now, it's no longer a game. She straightened her shoulders and looked around once more, making sure that no one saw her emerging from the woods. This WILL work. It HAS to--I hope Luc will be ready when he sees my signal. She walked to where the French kept their horses.
He was hallucinating. That much he knew. But what puzzled him was that in this half-dream state, his old friend Luc kept insisting on calling him "Iolaus." He figured that the blacksmith must have inhaled too much of those horrible fumes that bellowed from his shop when he was smelting iron. It didn't really alarm him, this odd name-calling. What did alarm him was seeing Na Gabrielle in a state of near undress before him -- skin tanned, her breasts practically falling out of a leather top of some sort, a short leather skirt-- and her reddish-blonde hair cut short, like a boy's. He was hoping that she didn't notice that he was becoming rather aroused. A familiar voice was calling him; he turned toward it and saw N'Alexandra, in a black battle dress-- DRESS! It looked more like a, a sleeping shift and now he felt fully aroused. Shame filled him. He knew that Na Gabrielle and N'Alexandra were betrothed, that they were constantly at each other's side, that they were meant to be together, but. . . he couldn't help but feel . . a little jealous. He envied the love he saw in their eyes. In his heart he was happy for them and would gladly lay down his life to protect them and his home. He only wished that N'Alexandra would stop calling him "Iolaus." His name was Peter. She should know that. They've known each other since they were children. Peter. Peter the Carpenter. My name is Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter--
"Peter! Peter!" N'Alexandra whispered urgently to the blonde man lashed onto the post. "It's Alexandra. Peter, can you hear me, understand me?"
N'Alexandra's brow furrowed in confusion. "No, Peter. It's Alexandra. I'm here to help you, to free you."
He looked up to see the hazy figure of N'Alexandra-- dressed like a common soldier? -- before him. This didn't make sense. Why couldn't he see very well? Why was it so dark? Why was she here? To free him? What did the Lady mean when she said that she would free him? And why was he in so much pain? He couldn't concentrate, but he knew that he had to-- that the Lady's insistent voice was telling him something, trying to explain something. . . But he couldn't concentrate. It hurt too much. It hurts so much.
The distraction had worked and they managed to escape. N'Alexandra looked back to the French encampment as men ran to put out the fires Luc had set within the camp, while others scrambled to recapture the horses that ran between the makeshift tents and across the fields. Her legs were buckling as she and the blacksmith struggled to carry the unconscious carpenter away from the camp. Her hands were covered in blood and she tried to push away the images of her hands holding a struggling guard's mouth while she slit his throat with her dagger, and the man's eyes bulging before his body slackened in her arms.
She motioned to Luc to head for a nearby river, hoping that they could lose the men that would surely follow in the flow of water. She desperately wished to plunge into the water-- to wash away the visions now filling her mind. Oh God, Gabrielle, please forgive me for this. I need you to understand, to forgive me. I don't know if I ever can forgive myself. I don't know if I can ever forget-- "Luc, hurry. We need to get back to Ormarc, to the castle. They'll send out others to find us as soon as they discover Peter is missing. We have to hurry. Peter's injuries are serious. He may die if we don't get him to Lord Ezra in time."
Three days later, 1226 AD, the middle of Week 10 of the siege (Ormarc/Languedoc)
A sense of relief flooded through the small, weary group that stood by the entrance of the sickroom.
Ezra Ben Jonah motioned to a bed in the farthest corner of the crowded room and turned to face the tall blacksmith, sadness in his eyes. "Luc, I'm sorry to say that he'll lose part of his left arm. There was too much damage for me to save it-- gangrene had already set. He would have died of the infection had I not cut the diseased limb off. There seems to be no major damage from the blow to his eye. Both his legs were broken, but they will heal and he will walk as before."
The blacksmith's shoulders quivered slightly as he looked toward the bed where his friend lay. "Thank you, En Ben Jonah. Thank you for saving his life."
The physician nodded solemnly. "He sleeps for now, but you are welcome to keep watch at his bedside." Lord Ezra bowed and turned back to the sick room.
Luc turned to face the others in the small group. "With your permission, En Chrétien, Na Gabrielle, N'Alexandra--"
Lord Chrétien nodded. "I'll come sit with you awhile, Luc." He nodded to the women. "Daughter. . . Alexandra."
As both men walked into the sickroom, Lady Gabrielle turned to her taller companion, her hand gently resting against the soldier's chainmailed forearm. "Alexandra?"
The dark-haired woman shook her head, her eyes holding back tears that were ready to fall. Her voice was bitter and hard. "I should have gotten there sooner, Gabrielle. He shouldn't have suffered so-- I should have been able to save him from--"
"Alexandra--" The redhead gently grasped N'Alexandra's chin. "My love, you DID save him. He's alive. He'll live. Because of you."
Lady Alexandra pulled her face from the noblewoman's grasp. "I'm sure that he'll thank me when he wakes to find that he is now one armed, half-blind, and crippled." She turned from Na Gabrielle and the sick room.
Na Gabrielle grasped the knight's arm, trying to keep N'Alexandra from leaving. "Alexandra, please listen--"
The woman turned, her eyes dark, her voice cold, almost dead. "Gabrielle, let me go. I-- I need to be where others are not."
With a soft nod, the noblewoman released the knight and watched silently as the dark woman stormed down the hallway.
Her eyes scanned the horizon as her mind wandered back to the past ten weeks of the siege. One nightmarish vision filled her after another and with each passing moment, her anger grew -- uncontrolled, all-consuming, murderous hate that both frightened and comforted her. She closed her eyes, letting the feeling roll through her frame, letting it bleed through her so she could face what she knew would come with a clear and focused mind. And it would come-- she knew it with a certainty, had counted the minutes and hours after she had cut the blonde carpenter's bound, mangled limbs from the post. The French forces would come and she hoped that they would survive what would surely follow.
One day passed and the eastern city wall was breached.
The French poured into the gap like blood pouring out of a fatal wound -- heavy, fast, never-ending and signaling the coming of death. For it was a sort of death to the small mountain city of Ormarc. Men, women, children, noble and commoner alike struggled zealously and tiredly, as the siege sapped much of their energy. They fought against the invaders with the desperation of the dying.
1226 AD, the last day of the siege (Ormarc/Languedoc)
The men and women of Ormarc had fought a losing battle against the invading army from the north with pitchforks, clubs, rocks -- anything that would delay the seemingly endless supply of soldiers streaming into the gap in the eastern wall. It was slow, tedious -- ground was won and lost by mere inches. N'Alexandra had fought, along with countless other citizens at the eastern wall; she was one of the few of Chrétien's nobles left on horseback. The convent was destroyed and the people fell back to the cathedral; many, including a dozen nobles, stood their ground at the church, determined that the stone sanctuary would not fall.
As the citizens and nobles tried to establish a defensive line at the front of the church, N'Alexandra scrambled to the Cathedral itself, desperately searching for the Lord of Ormarc.
"En Chrétien! My Lord!"
She found him near the northeastern end of the Cathedral, on foot, his horse long dead, fighting a small group of soldiers that had separated from the main army poised on the eastern front of the stone sanctuary. A terrible angry red gash marked his side and his hair and face were matted with blood. She quickly dispatched of the three soldiers that were harassing the wounded Lord of Ormarc, leapt off her horse and ran to En Chrétien's side.
"My Lord!" Tears sprung to her eyes at seeing him up-close, for he was like a second father to her ever since her own father died of a hunting accident when she was only thirteen. "Sire, we must get you back to the castle--"
Whatever else Lord Ormarc was about to say to the knight was cut off due to the sound of explosions and a rain of arrows descending from the air.
She tried to drag the wounded Lord toward the main square, whistling for her steed, as a volley of arrows landed inches from where she stood. She fell forward as the Lord of Ormarc pushed her to the ground and threw himself on top of her. Several minutes passed and N'Alexandra crawled from underneath her Lord, glancing back to see most of the city and Cathedral engulfed in flames.
God help us!
A low groan emitted from En Chrétien and the knight turned and saw him lying on his side, one arrow at his right leg and another piercing the small of his back.
"My Lord!" She rushed to him. "Lord, the castle's not far-- please-- oh my Lord--" Tears were flowing freely from her eyes as she scrambled to lift the injured man onto her horse. She grabbed the reins, and ran along side her steed as they brought En Chrétien d'Ormarc back to his castle.
"Gabrielle! En Ezra!"
N'Alexandra lay the injured man on the floor of the inner courtyard, his head cradled in her chainmail clad lap. She looked up to meet the haggard green eyes of her beloved and the weary brown eyes of the court physician.
"Oh God, no. FATHER!" Na Gabrielle fell to her knees; her hands grasped her father's outstretched ones.
"Gabrielle." N'Alexandra spoke gently. "He saved my life. He threw himself over me when the arrows flew." The warrior shook her head. "Why-- why did he--"
"Gabrielle, Alexandra--" Both women looked up to meet Lord Ezra's grave eyes. "We must get him into the castle--"
"N-n-o-no-" Lord Chrétien gasped painfully. "Too late, too late-- Gabrielle, Alexandra--"
En Chrétien grasped the trembling hands of both women, his own body shaking, his eyes going dim. "Alex-- like the son I lost, like a daughter to my own heart-- son and daughter both. Gabrielle-- my joy, my pride, so much like your mother--" The dying Lord coughed painfully, blood spilling from his mouth. "S-ave--save Ormarc -- for yourselves, for my people, for my grandson--any way you can. Don't let us end here-- the-- the future--"
En Chrétien placed N'Alexandra's gloved hand over his daughter's hand. "My dying wish-- no longer are you N'Alexandra, but En Alexander, Lord of Ormarc, husband to my daughter, fa--father to my grandson."
The Lord of Ormarc coughed violently and then his hands fell away from the kneeling figures as he breathed his last breath.
1226 AD, Ormarc (Languedoc/Occitania)
The city lay in ruin.
She stood at the rampart of the western wall and stared out at the burned rooftops, the setting sun tingeing the smoke-filled air in a wash of red and purple. For a moment, everything faded. Time stood still and she could almost forget all that she had seen. In her heart, she knew that she could not. The events of the past few weeks had changed her, had marked her in ways that went beyond the jagged gash which covered her face from her hairline to her jaw.
The sun was moving into the horizon, slowly sinking, muting the landscape in a veil of darkness. She wondered if its light would ever hold the promise of joy, of life, in her eyes. She wondered if the light would ever hold anything except the deep purple of desolation and destruction.
She watched the dying light as the world that she knew crumbled around her.
A hand tugged at the elaborate tunic that she wore over her chainmail and she looked down to see the soft reddish-blonde curls of a boy, a little more than a year old. The young boy was sucking his thumb. He smiled brightly and held out his hands to the warrior. "Xa--Xa--"
N'Alexandra smiled softly as she lifted the small child to her arms. "Master Chrétien! Who let you out here?"
The small child giggled in joy and grasped at the cloth at the knight's shoulder. "Xa! Xa! Xa!"
She turned to see Na Gabrielle leaning against the doorframe. She smiled, motioning for the redhead to join her. The young boy nestled deeper in the knight's arms, a thumb in his mouth, his other hand reaching for a strand of Na Gabrielle's hair.
The noblewoman leaned against the chainmailed shoulder. "We have no choice, belovéd."
N'Alexandra nodded. "I-- I know. But I wish there was another option, another way. Do our people know the consequences of surrendering? We-- we will lose our freedom, be a conquered people, serve a distant King."
Na Gabrielle placed a gentle kiss against the warrior's mouth. "There are many kinds of freedom, Alexandra. We will live, survive. Our people will go on."
"Still, Gabrielle. I --I -- Is everyone ready? Do they know what must be done? What we--what I-- must do? What I need to become? What we must all do?"
"Yes. They know what must be done, what you and I must do to survive this. They do this because they loved my father and they do this because they respect and honor you. They love Ormarc and would die for it and live for it. No one, save our people who will stand with us in the Great Hall, will ever know the truth. The French will never suspect, my love. They will never know. "
The enormous doors of the Great Hall opened to reveal the remaining citizens of Ormarc, the few who survived the last battle. At the far end stood the representatives of the King of France. N'Alexandra, the boy Chrétien still in her arms, and with Na Gabrielle at her side, stood at the entrance by the open doors.
"Halt!" A guard 's voice echoed through the large chamber. "Who goes there? Be you friend or foe to France? Announce yourself and your intentions to my gracious Lords attending!"
N'Alexandra took a deep breath and answered loudly so that the gathered multitude would hear. " I am En Alexander d'Ormarc, Lord of this realm, husband to Gabrielle, once uncle, now father to young Chrétien. What I do, I do for the sake of my people. . . I come as friend to France, her King, and Lords. May I approach?"
"Approach and lay your life before the Lords of France!"
The three figures walked toward the gathered French nobles at the far end of the Great Hall and once before the French envoys, Na Gabrielle took the child from N'Alexandra's arms and moved to one side. The knight lay down on the floor, hands outstretched as if on a cross, her face to the side.
One of the French Lords drew a sword, tapped N'Alexandra's head, shoulders and hands with the flat edge of the blade, and spoke. " Do you, Alexander of Ormarc, promise fealty and loyalty to his Majesty the King of France? Swear this freely and without reservation in your heart."
"I, Alexander of Ormarc, do swear loyalty and fealty to his Majesty the King of France. I do this freely and without reservation in my heart."
"Then kneel before us and kiss the tip of my blade."
N'Alexandra knelt up and kissed the tip of the envoy's outstretched sword.
The envoy then tapped N'Alexandra's forehead and shoulders with the flat edge of the sword. "Now, rise before us, Alexander of Ormarc, bury your hatred along with your dead and live in peace as a Noble of France."
Present day, a small café in the town of Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
An excerpt from Gwenhwyfar Morrison's journal:
. . . I don't know if having dreams about your doctoral research is considered normal. I know that most people do tend to get a bit obsessive about their research; maybe I'm becoming *too* obsessed with Na Gabrielle d' Ormarc and this "missing" cathedral. I'm almost completely convinced that Na Gabrielle and N'Alexandra were intimately connected -- that this was more than just fin' amors, more than just the literary conventions of courtly love poetry -- the declaration seems too direct, too personal.
The transcribing was finished a few months ago and I've just about finished translating the story into an English edition. Spent almost two months initially combing through the abbey library with S.A's help. The rest of the time has been spent transcribing, translating, and hunting around for clues to what happened here so long ago. I can't believe the year is almost up and that in less than two months, I'll be back States-side.
I've adapted the same title that the author called the story in the prologue -- "Alexandra." The "Alexandra" 's a strange piece -- interesting and I think, unique for its content: the story of a female knight and within it, a story concerning Xena and Gabrielle:
A female knight who defends her kingdom from invaders from the North. The closest in content to other stories I've read (i.e., the presence of a female knight) is Heldris of Cornwall's Silence, and the active female hero has vague inklings of Aucaussin and Nicolette, among a few others. The martial aspect of the female lead is rather unusual -- a rarity in medieval literature. She's a valued member of the court, despite the fact that others openly know she's female. The other characters accept it -- she's a knight and she's a woman. She even has a female lover -- the King's daughter, no less! And it's no big deal? Not one hint of sarcasm or parody at all. Was this read/performed at the court? Or was it a private commission--a collection for Chrétien d'Ormarc's personal library? God, I can't believe I stumbled onto this! This is a find of a lifetime!
And not only that, but two ancient Greek legends show up and as far as I know, they've never been mentioned in any medieval text before now . . . It seems almost unrelated to the rest of the text -- like some sort of bizarre aside that's characteristic in so many other medieval Arthurian romance texts. Is it Arthuriana? Or some sort of chanson de geste?
The inclusion of the "Xena Aside" complicates everything and I don't pretend to know exactly what purpose it serves. The warrior woman Xena and her bard companion Gabrielle defend one of the temples of the Fates, and the warrior woman is transported to an alternate timeline of some sort. It feels like there's something else here. Whoever Gabrielle d'Ormarc was, she seemed clever, intelligent-- she put that story in there for a reason. There must be a reason why that Xena story is in there and I don't know enough about the Xena legends to verify whether this type of telling is characteristic. Must talk to Josh as soon as I get back to LA to confirm. Is there a connection between the two stories? Maybe commenting on the conflict that the female knight feels about her own life? Like some sort of secular exegesis/meta-commentary, maybe?
I feel as if I'm so close to finding something. . . . I know there's something here, that this little town holds some sort of hidden history and that somehow, Gabrielle d'Ormarc and this Alexandra person is tied in with it. Is it coincidental that the character names in the text are the same as the ones in the inscription -- Alexandra and Gabrielle? What is it that you're trying to tell me, Gabrielle d'Ormarc? Is there more here than just a simple story?
I think I should have been an archaeologist -- I keep thinking that what I'm searching for is just in front of my eyes, but I don't recognize it for what it is. . . The castle/hotel holds the key to everything -- I'm sure of it. There must be some sort of crypt or marker somewhere in the bowels of that old place. Earlier, I thought the convent was the key, that there's something there too. I'm still convinced of it, that there is something there. I think I need to ask the Mother Superior if I can make a thorough check of the grounds to see if there's more to this than just a hunch.
Called Lady Thisbe and asked to have another meeting-- permission to skulk around the castle innards. Guess I had better hobble back to the convent tomorrow morning. Maybe I can persuade S.A. to join me when I see Lady Thisbe again.
I did find it both thrilling and disturbing that it was S.A's face I saw -- that the equally mysterious N'Alexandra wore her face in my dream and that I was Na Gabrielle of Ormarc. S.A. -- I can't even spell out her name in a private journal. God, how fucked up is that? The cynical side of me keeps thinking that this is just a ridiculous and very one-sided flirtation on my part -- that it's just mad -- a diversion from the work. My mind keeps flashing back to the line in the remake of, "Shop Around the Corner" that Lilla dragged me to see. What was it the Meg Ryan character said -- "People do really stupid things in foreign countries" or something like that? This may be one of those incredibly stupid things.
But . . . the more time I spend with her, the more I realize that I am completely and utterly in love with her. The irony of it all -- me in love with a nun. The only claim I ever had to the Catholicism that my own family rarely acknowledged, save during Christmastime and Easter, was being a medievalist. And now. . . I'm having fantasies of ravishing a nun on a work table at the abbey library and then asking her to return to LA with me so we could live happily ever after on an associate professor's salary or something perhaps more insane and desperate -- taking the veil just so I could be near her. At this rate, I am probably going end up in Hell. . .
Present day, about one hour before Prime (6 AM), St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc, France
She was dreaming, remembering. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew she was only dreaming. She thought she had finally moved on, had finally gotten past this, had finally stopped dreaming about it. It was the same dream she had during her first two years as a postulant. It was the same dream she had for over a year after she took her final vows. The dream, the terrible angry voice finally stopped and receded three years after she moved from the Daughter house of the Order in Los Angeles to the Mother house in France. She thought it was finally over, that she was finally at peace. But here it was again and she felt a shudder run through her. Her dream self was screaming, pleading. No, God, no, please, not again. I don't want to see this again. . .
It was a week after she graduated from high school. She was planning to enroll part-time at the local community college. She would transfer to a university once she saved enough money. She could escape. She remembered the sun seemed so bright that day, almost a blinding light, even though it was almost seven in the evening. She had arrived home from her job at the grocery store. She dreaded going home, dreaded the scene that she knew would follow. Her mother, sitting on the sofa, drinking, maybe drunk by now. And inevitably, the woman would begin shouting, yelling, until the alcohol finally overwhelmed her and she fell into a drunken stupor. She would carry her mother from the living room and put her to bed. It was always like this, had been like this ever since she could remember.
Why didn't you just leave. You could have just left, so why didn't you? I couldn't. I couldn't leave. She was my mother. I-- I had to stay, despite everything.
And then one day, that bright sunny day a week after she had graduated from high school, something changed. She came home an hour late -- she dropped by the local community college to pick up registration papers and a copy of the classes offered for the summer session that started in July. She planned to enroll in a few night classes. She walked through the door, papers in hand, preoccupied with the thought of school and escape. She didn't see the woman waiting by the door, eyes filled with drunken rage.
"WHERE WERE YOU, YOU WHORE, YOU BITCH! YOU'RE LATE!"
A fist connected with her chest and she reeled back, her lungs temporarily robbed of air. She reached for the door and tried to steady herself as the woman screamed in fury and rained blows on her arms and upper body. She tried to push her drunken mother away from her, but her arms and legs felt like rubber, so she tried her best to protect her face and prayed that her mother would tire out, would finally stop. The thought of overpowering her drunken mother never occurred to her. She could have easily done so, but a feeling of protectiveness toward her mother, even as the woman continued to rain blows upon her, overcame any instinct of self-preservation.
It seemed like an eternity, but finally, her mother did stop. After an hour, she dared to raise her head from her position by the now closed front door. Her mother had succumbed to a drunken stupor and lay quietly on the sofa. She slowly got up, lifted the drunken woman in her arms, and put her to bed.
She spent the next hour tending to the bruises and cuts that covered her arms and torso. She spent a sleepless night sitting in a chair by the front door, praying that her mother would sleep through the night.
Early the next morning, she slipped out the front door and used a telephone from a nearby gas station to call in sick to work. Then she began walking. It was mid-day when she finally stopped, too tired to take another step. Her eyes traveled up the carved doors of St. Vibiana's Cathedral. She walked up the steps, opened one of the side doors, and made her way to one of the smaller side- chapels.
She sat there for hours staring at the statue of the Virgin Mary, the Bléssed Mother. She had always done this. Had come to this chapel to stare at the fading paint of the statue, to mutely pray for strength, to find shelter from her mother's drunken rages. It was only here, she had realized then, that she felt . . .safe, loved.
She didn't remember how she told her mother about her decision. She only remembered what her mother had said, how her mother had reacted to her decision to take the veil.
"Do you think those God damned WHORES will care about you? Do you think that your MOTHER FUCKING GOD will give a damn because you're gonna spend the REST OF YOUR WORTHLESS FUCKING LIFE in a GOD DAMNED FUCKING convent? Then GO, GOD DAMN you! And don't you EVER come back! Do you HEAR me, you WORTHLESS BITCH! Don't you EVER COME BACK!"
A cynical voice rose in her mind. God didn't save you. It was YOUR way of feeling numb. It was your way of running from your life. You couldn't stand it because the only person that was in your life didn't have the capacity to love you back. You didn't become a nun because you had a calling. You became a nun because you were a coward, because you were running away from your life.
She was standing in the abbey library, but something seemed strange. She felt lighter somehow, as if all the things that had happened in her life seemed easier to bear. She felt oddly happy. She felt free.
She realized that she was no longer at the abbey library, but at the tiny hut where she and the scholar had taken shelter several weeks earlier. Xena-- she thought suddenly. Xena? That warrior woman in the manuscript Gwen was deciphering? Who was calling her Xena? And why did it feel -- right -- somehow?
"Xena, sit down. You're making me nervous."
She turned and began to walk toward the blonde, whose leg was propped up on a wooden crate when she realized that her clothing felt -- strange. She looked down and saw that she wore some sort of brass armor over a short leather dress. She blushed suddenly. Oh my, her dream self thought.
She looked up and her face reddened even more as her eyes roamed over her companion seated on a small chair. The woman, wearing a soft brown cloth and leather skirt and a brown bra-like top, smiled at her-- a soft, loving smile that made her own heart beat faster. She cleared her throat. "Gabrielle, how-how's the leg?" Gabrielle. Is that her name? How did I know that? And why does she look like Gwen?
Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I'll live. Thanks to you."
She smiled and knelt down by the chair where the woman sat. "I'm glad."
The blonde leaned forward and ran a hand against her head. She closed her eyes as she felt the woman's fingers explore the contours of her face.
She glanced around the space -- yes, she was still in the same small shed where she had taken shelter with the scholar. She looked down to discover that she only wore her sleeping tunic and Gwen's dark blue cardigan. She lifted her hand and encountered the soft, wet tendrils of her hair. She turned her head, her eyes meeting the blonde's gaze as she felt delicate fingers gently brush her mouth. She spoke softly, a hint of confusion in her voice, "Gwen?"
The woman leaned closer and their faces were inches apart. Her heart was racing in her chest as Gwen's mouth was moving closer to her own, the scholar's fingers gently entangling in her dark wet mop of hair.
The sound of her own heartbeat began to ring loudly in her ears, so loudly that it seemed as if she were hearing it outside of herself.
"Alex, it's the door. I think you'd better answer the door."
She awoke to the sound of gentle knocking at her cell door and Sister Matthew's voice quietly rousing her and the other Sisters to prayer.
"Blessed Be His Holy Name."
She sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, her heart beating at a frantic pace as her mind replayed the image of the blonde's mouth moving closer to her own. She shivered as Sister Matthew rapped gently at the cell door. She cleared her throat and answered in an unsteady voice, "Be-- Be Forever Praised."
Present day, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
"Sister? Um, er, how--how old were you when you entered the convent?" Her eyes never left the grainy photograph in her hand. She looked calm, although her stomach clenched with a nervousness she didn't want to acknowledge. She'll probably never answer, but it's worth a shot. She's hardly said anything to me ever since we were caught in that rainstorm.
"Seventeen." The nun turned, her eyes fixed upon the woman sitting by the large worktable. "I was seventeen when I became a postulant. I took my final vows just before I turned twenty."
"Wow. That's -- you were only seventeen? And you were that sure you were called to be a nun? I--I mean, when I was seventeen the only life-altering decisions I had was trying to figure out what my major would be when I went to college in the fall." The scholar shook her head. "I can't imagine. Wow."
Sister Augustine turned back to the shelves, her shoulders shrugging nonchalantly. "Many people do enter into religious life at around the same age; a few at a much later age. It-- It's just a matter of finally listening to what God is telling you and heeding His call."
"And you never doubted your calling? You were absolutely sure of it? No doubts? No hesitation?" Gwen shook her head. "To be certain of what you were supposed to be when you were that young. I--I guess it's hard for me to fathom it."
The nun turned from the shelves and walked to the worktable where the scholar sat. "I WAS very young when I decided to join the convent, but it was something that I HAD to do. I do admit that I--I had my doubts about my calling even when I was a postulant. I doubted my decision for almost two years after I took my final vows. But, ultimately, it was what God wanted-- it--it was what I wanted." The nun gave a reassuring pat to the scholar's forearm before placing her hands inside the billowing black sleeves of her habit. She turned back towards the shelves at the far corner of the room.
Gwen's eyes focused on the dark figure walking across the room. "Do you still have doubts? Or are you sure that this is your way -- your path? That this is what you were meant to be in this life?"
The nun turned around to face Gwen and answered in a soft, almost halting voice. "I--I think that it's normal for everyone to have doubts -- to question why they chose one thing over another. One of the older nuns always said that God, in His infinite wisdom, will always tell you what He wants for you. You just need to be -- you need to have courage enough to listen."
Their eyes met and several seconds passed before the veiled form bowed hastily toward the scholar. "Please excuse me, Gwen. I-- I must leave for the three o'clock Office. God-- God go with you."
The nun walked toward the front of the small library and hastily turned to bow to the blonde before disappearing down the hall. Gwen's hand lingered where the nun had touched her arm, her eyes focusing on the door where the woman had been seconds earlier. Is-- Is this really happening? Am I going crazy? Did I really see that in your eyes just now? Or did I just want this so much that I'm just seeing something that's not really there? Is it -- is it possible that you might have feelings for me? And what, if anything, am I supposed to do about it?
Later that night, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc, France
She couldn't sleep that night and she stared at the shadows flitting against the ceiling of the cell, her mind reeling with questions and doubts. She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. Her hands glided over the ties under her chin; she slowly traced the string of cloth to the close-fitting cotton sleeping cap that covered her head, her fingers encountering wisps of short, dark hair that escaped from under the white cloth. She turned and stared at the crucifix that hung on the wall above her bed.
A dull stab of pain-- the pressure of unshed tears, of doubt and confusion -- flashed through her chest. It felt as if someone had thrust a spear into her -- the curious mixture of warmth and cold expanding from her heart, the strange pressure moving into her fingers and head. She shut her eyes, willing the pain to stop. She wanted to scream, to curse her own weakness, to rail at God and block out and ignore the growing doubt in her mind. She knew that she had to face it, whatever the consequences would be. But she was angry and unsure -- terrified that she could lose everything that mattered to her.
Gwen's voice echoed in her thoughts: "So-- Do you--do you still have doubts? Or are you sure that this is your way -- your path? That this is what you were meant to be in this life?" Her own voice answered mockingly: "I--I think that it's normal for everyone to have doubts -- to question why they chose one thing over another . . . One of the older nuns always said that God, in His infinite wisdom, will always tell you what He wants for you. You just need to be -- you need to have courage enough to listen."
She opened her eyes, her gaze falling upon the wooden cross. Why? WHY? I gave my life to You. I gave my soul, carried every burden without question, and endured everything for You. . . I--I -- LOVE her. Is that what You want from me? Is that what You want to hear? Quis vult post me sequi deneget se ipsum et tollat crucem suam et sequatur me, You said. Is this a test? And what if I make the wrong choice? I would lose her and I would lose You. And I don't know if I can bear either. . .
Several days later, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc, France
The scholar stopped abruptly and turned to gaze at the tall woman behind her. The nun held a lantern in her left hand that illuminated her features in a soft light, while the rest of her form blended with the dark storage room. "Ducks," she said softly as she made her way in the dark. Her hand gripped tighter against the flashlight as she stared straight ahead, wondering how the conversation turned the way it did.
"Ducks?" the nun repeated softly.
"And rabbits," the blonde said quietly.
The nun grinned. "Just rabbits and ducks or do you have other phobias I should be aware of?"
Gwen sighed and shook her head. "And here I thought nuns were the embodiment of sweetness and light."
Sister Augustine laughed. "You obviously didn't go to Catholic school as a child, did you Gwen?"
The scholar chuckled and continued to the far end of the room. They stopped in front of a large wooden door and the nun took out a set of keys from the depths of her black habit. The scholar closed her eyes briefly as the cloth of Sister Augustine's habit grazed her arms as she moved back to make room for the nun to unlock the door to the underground cellars of the abbey. She opened her eyes as she heard the small click and the door opened with a creak; she looked up to meet Sister Augustine's quiet and steady gaze.
The veiled head angled to the open door as the nun's hand extended to gesture to the inky darkness beyond the wooden frame. "This way."
Several hours had passed since they entered the underground cellars of the abbey. The trek had been uneventful -- they had entered one storage chamber after another and found nothing more than a few rooms that held several oak barrels filled with wine or root vegetables. Gwen was about to give up altogether and head back to the upper abbey rooms when she spotted an ancient door in one of the empty chambers. There was no lock, but it took both their combined efforts to force the large wood and iron reinforced door open.
She stood now at the opening of the passageway, flashlight in hand as she peered into the tunnel. "It looks like it's been hewn out of the rock. I don't suppose you know where this leads to, do you, Sister?" She turned around as the nun stretched a hand to touch the rough surface of the passageway.
Their eyes met as the nun shook her head. "No. I doubt anyone's been here in a very long time. I'm fairly sure that no one in the abbey even knows this tunnel exists." She thrust the lantern into the dark, her eyes swinging from the scholar's upturned face to the tunnel. "Do you wish to go further? See where it leads?"
Gwen leaned against the wood door and smiled. "That's like asking Hitler if he wanted to invade Poland."
The nun laughed softly as she turned to face the empty storage room. "Then I think it's best if we find something that will keep this door open while we investigate the tunnel."
The scholar nodded slightly. "Good idea. I think I spotted some crates in one of the other rooms."
The tunnel stretched out before her, the white beam from her old flashlight doing little good against the darkness beyond the circle of illumination that Sister Augustine's lantern had provided them. They had been walking, she guessed, for about a mile, maybe two, through the small tunnel, which was about seven feet high and could comfortably fit the width of one person. Gwen cast a quick glance behind her, her eyes making out the habited form of Sister Augustine, a few footsteps behind her, an old lantern in her left hand.
"Are you all right, Sister?"
The nun nodded. "Yes, I'm fine. Do you see anything ahead?"
The scholar swung her eyes back to the tunnel as she moved the beam from her flashlight in a semi-arc. "No --I -- wait! I think I see something glinting just a few feet ahead of us."
Both women slowly made their way to the end of the dark passageway.
"Another door." Gwen's hands went over the wood and iron reinforced door. "I don't think it's locked, just stuck like the other one." She looked back to see the nun place the lantern on the floor about a foot from where they stood. "Right," she said softly as she stuffed her flashlight into a pant pocket.
"Is there something we can grab onto so we can force it open?"
"Yeah, I think it's exactly like the other door."
Several minutes later, the wooden door slowly gave way and Gwen scrambled to pull the flashlight from her pocket.
"Here, let me."
Gwen felt a soft touch against her shoulder as Sister Augustine gently nudged her aside. The lantern jutted from the nun's fingers, the flame casting shadows against the floor of the room.
"It's some sort of chamber." Gwen's voiced echoed into the darkness beyond as she switched her flashlight on. The light played against a smooth stone wall. The room was fifteen feet across, semi-circular and surrounded with carved columns. A stone altar, about two feet across, stood flush to the wall on the far side of the chamber. "Look for any sort of marking on the walls, Sister. I'll check out that altar."
The nun nodded and began to make a slow circuit around the chamber, while Gwen began to inspect the stone table.
"I couldn't find any markings." Sister Augustine walked to where Gwen stood before the altar. "There seems to be no other way in or out of this room except through the tunnel we just came from. What do you think this room was used for? Why--" The nun's eyebrow rose behind her wimple as Gwen spread her arms out against the altar. "What are you doing?"
The scholar tiredly shook her head. "I thought there was some writing on the surface of the altar itself, but--" She ran a hand through her short locks. "This is what Geraldo Rivera must have felt like when he opened Al Capone's vault. At least I'm not on live TV and have an audience of millions." She looked around the empty chamber. "I guess this room won't be yielding any secrets anytime soon."
An eyebrow rose behind the nun's habit, the reference lost on her. She was about to ask the scholar what the Depression Era gangster had to do with finding the underground room, but decided it would probably take too long for the blonde to explain. She decided to ignore the remark and cast a long glance at the stone walls instead. "It's an unusual place to put an altar, wouldn't you say? One wonders if it were carved out of the rock face." The nun walked around the large stone table. Her hands lightly trailed against the pinkish colored stone. "It's beautiful work." Sister Augustine stood in front of the column that supported the flat surface of the altar.
Gwen began to pace across the chamber. As she looked around the empty room, she laughed softly. She met the nun's curious gaze. "You know, Sister, I was so disappointed in not finding any kind of significant lead about the troubadour Na Gabrielle, I didn't realize what we did find." The scholar stretched out her arms, as if trying to embrace the stone chamber. "Look at what we've found! It's an incredibly significant bit of nothing, isn't it?"
The veiled woman remained silent. Her eyes followed the scholar as she walked toward the chamber entrance. Gwen walked back to where the nun was standing. In her hand, she carried a large manila envelope taken from her backpack. She sat down next to the nun and took out several neatly folded papers and a stack of photographs. "These are copies of maps of Ormarc," she said as she unfolded several pages and placed them on the stone floor. "This one's a modern map, this one's a copy of one I found at the Hall of Records that dates to about the 1700s, and this final one is a copy of a map Lady Thisbe had of Ormarc which dates to about the 1300s. " Gwen gestured to the small stack of photos. "After I took those shots of Ormarc a few weeks ago, I started to sketch out a rough map of my own. I guess you might say that I'm trying to figure out where our mystery cathedral would have been located."
The scholar knelt up and began to arrange the photographs. "It would have been much better if we took aerial shots of the area, but it did give me a better idea of where the cathedral would have been." She pointed to the maps spread out on the chamber floor. "This is where the abbey is located and as you can see, the map from the Hall of Records placed the convent grounds roughly in the same area -- it's practically in the center -- on one side is the town, while on the other side sits the castle and mountains."
The scholar gestured to yet another drawing. "However, if you look at Lady Thisbe's map," she said as she moved so the nun could see the illuminated broad sheet, "there seems to be another building where the abbey should be." Gwen's fingers flitted across the drawing. "This," she said as she indicated to a cluster of squares, "area here to the right is marked on this map as the abbey grounds." She looked up and met the nun's gaze.
"So you think that this chamber might be the only thing that's left of our mystery cathedral? It was destroyed somehow and St. Marie was built over the remains?" Sister Augustine asked as she knelt down to get a closer look at the maps.
The scholar nodded. "I can't be too sure, but it's possible . . . I've been looking through the accounts of the Inquisitions that happened in the Occitan, in Languedoc, around the 1300s. From what I've read, there seemed to be little or no Cathar activity in Ormarc -- maybe one or two families, but nothing on a grand scale. Nothing that would have merited an invasion from the French, so my reasoning that the cathedral was destroyed by an invading army may just be fanciful conjecture on my part. More than likely, Ormarc was just absorbed into the French system with little or no violence once major cities like Toulouse was finally subjugated and tamed by the Northern forces." Gwen began to gather up the materials that were strewn on the floor of the room.
"But there was a siege here," the nun countered. "It's local lore. Every child who grew up here knows the story. The people of this town fought tooth and nail against the Northern Barons, but the town was overwhelmed. They were ultimately defeated and surrendered to the French forces. They say that hundreds, maybe thousands, died. Ormarc was almost wiped out of existence."
Gwen sighed. "If only we had some sort of written record -- other than the Alexandra text -- of what happened here. " She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "I suppose it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to speculate that the Hundred Years' War may have caused the destruction of the cathedral, but. . . it's not mentioned anywhere. You'd think some curious clerk somewhere would note the disappearance of a landmark like that. Nope. Zilch. Not a blesséd word. And then there's this." The scholar threw her hands up toward the chamber ceiling. "Whatever this is, as well as that legal title asking the Toulousian Bishopric for permission to build a cathedral in Ormarc." Gwen stood up and walked to when her backpack lay, a grin covering her features. "Would you blame me if I thought there was something else here, something more?"
Sister Augustine shook her head as she turned to stare at the altar before her. Her fingers flitted against the stone. " No, I wouldn't begrudge your curiosity. In fact, I--" The nun's features creased in confusion as she moved closer toward the stone shaft supporting the altar. "Gwen, give me your flashlight. I think there's something carved into this pedestal." The nun knelt before the altar. Her hand skimmed along the central column.
Gwen knelt next to the nun, flashlight in hand. "Where? I don't see anything."
Sister Augustine took hold of the scholar's free hand and guided it to where her own hand lay against the stone. "Here. Can you feel that?"
Gwen's fingers briefly intertwined with the nun's as she made contact with the carved surface of the column. She swallowed audibly, her pulse racing as her fingertips gently fluttered against Sister Augustine's skin. "Yes. . . Letters, maybe?" Minutes passed in silence as Gwen's fingers wandered across the engraved surface. Her brows knitted in thought. "Here, hold onto the flashlight. Let me get something out of my pack."
The blonde stood up, grabbed the nun's lantern, and headed for the backpack she had lain next to the chamber entrance. Minutes later, she returned with an old black notebook, a pencil, and a camera. Sister Augustine shot the scholar a questioning look as the woman opened the journal and brought out a folded sheet the color of wax paper. Gwen knelt next to the nun. She took the woman's hand and guided it back to the base of the altar. "I think you were right, Sister. Whatever it is, it's raised from the rest of the column, sort of like a bas-relief sculpture. It seems to run the length of the column from where it supports the altar stone to the floor and stops. "
Gwen opened the black notebook once more and began to scribble furiously. "I'm sketching out how the altar is positioned relative to the door, and then I'll take photographs of the area and that altar," she explained. "And I'm going to use that paper," the scholar gestured to the neatly folded tracing paper before her, "to make a rubbing of the inscription or whatever that is," she remarked as she pointed to the carved column which supported the altar.
The nun peered at the pillar as Gwen finished sketching a rough drawing of the chamber. "I don't think they're letters. It looks more like a--a drawing." She turned around to gaze at the scholar, who sat on the floor before the altar. "A bas-relief sculpture, like you said earlier?"
Gwen moved closer. Her fingers reached out and skimmed across the surface of the stone. "If it is a picture of some sort, it seems to be a very strange place to put it. The carving seems deliberately hidden -- if you don't look at it from the right angle, you'd miss it altogether. I know that it's hard to tell in this light, but I'm sure if we had the right kind of lighting conditions, this thing would be impossible to see. You need to know that it's there." She sighed softly as she picked up the camera. "I hope the photograph and the tracing will help us see the details a little bit better. "
Several days later, L'Occitan Inn, Ormarc, France
She stared at the photograph on the small worktable, her eyes roaming over the ghostly shapes of two figures standing before a large tree, a group of men and women behind them, and a castle dominating the background. It was pastoral scene, like many she had encountered in countless tapestries and illuminated manuscripts that she had studied over the years. The two dominant figures were a man and woman (she guessed from what she was able to discern from the photograph) dressed in rich, ornamental costumes. Their hands were clasped together. Her eyes wandered to the rubbing of the very same scene and finally stopped at her own drawing of the carving she and Sister Augustine had found in the hidden chamber under the abbey grounds a few days earlier. She was almost finished with the sketch. She had spent several hours over the past four days making a meticulous drawing of the carving. It was late in morning and she had forgone the usual breakfast offered by the kindly owners of the small inn, opting to finish her work. She would pick up Sister Augustine in a few hours and together they would head to the castle to meet with Lady Thisbe.
She took out another photograph that was tucked into her journal. It was the picture of Sister Augustine. Gwen's fingertips skimmed over the image, tracing the line of the woman's face and hair. She sighed. What am I doing? A knock at the door startled her and she hastily put the photo away in a nearby dresser drawer.
She was fully expecting the cheery and pleasantly plump features of the owner of the small inn, Madame Jehannot, to greet her at the door, letting her know that if she had changed her mind about the morning meal, there would be cheese, apples, and bread (smelling of the fragrant herbs that grew in the nearby hills) in the kitchens. Instead, she found herself face to face with Sister Augustine carrying a tray laden with the aforementioned items, along with coffee, milk, water, a healthy chunk of yellow butter, and a small bowl of apricot jam. She stood there, the door to her room ajar, her face alight with a mixture of surprise and confusion. "Hi," she said in a daze as she leaned against the doorframe, her stomach suddenly quivering with nervous tension (or hunger, she wasn't quite sure which).
Sister Augustine beamed. "Hi. I hope I'm not disturbing you." The nun motioned her veiled head to the tray she held in her hands. "I accompanied a few of the Sisters to the market today and I thought I would drop by and visit before we go to the castle this afternoon. Madame Jehannot insisted I take a tray up with me. You hadn't eaten, she said."
Gwen snapped out of her shocked stupor and reached for the tray of food. "Oh, of course. Thank you, Sister. Please, come in. Let--let me take that for you." She moved toward the small desk, realizing too late that there was no place to put the tray among the pile of books, loose papers, maps, and laptop.
The nun laughed softly. "Here, let me," she said as she began to tidy up the desk.
Gwen placed the tray onto the desk, motioning Sister Augustine to take a seat on the nearby bed. She, herself, sat in the sole chair which occupied the small room. "Will you share the meal with me?" Gwen asked as she eyed the tray. "There's too much here for one person. " The veiled head dipped in acknowledgement, but seconds later shook in the negative. Gwen ran a hand through her short locks. "Please, Sister? I--I feel kinda silly eating all by myself with you just sitting there. Would you at least take a cup of coffee?" She smiled, trying her best to charm the nun into agreeing to share a meal with her.
"Well, all right."
"Wonderful!" Gwen began to fix a small plate along with the coffee. She handed the items to the nun with a tiny smile. "Well, as long as you're having coffee, I thought you'd like to have a little something else." Sister Augustine accepted the plate brimming with fruit, cheese, and a generous chunk of bread without complaint and the scholar's face broke out in a wide grin. Minutes passed in amicable silence as both women ate.
"So, do you always accompany the others to town on market days?" Gwen eyed the small plate of food that lay on the desk near the nun. It was untouched save for a bit of apple that the nun had nibbled on as the scholar tucked into her own meal.
The nun shook her head as she took her cup from her lips. "Only when they need someone to help carry the heavier baskets of fruits and vegetables." She smiled. "Actually, there was another reason why I decided to stop by and see you. The information from the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail came this morning and I thought you'd like to see it as soon as possible." Sister Augustine reached into a pocket of her voluminous habit, pulled out an envelope, and handed it to the blonde.
"Wow, that was fast. When you said you had connections at the University, you meant it."
"I did study there for a number of years and worked at the library while I was a student."
Gwen nodded. "I remember the Reverend Mother telling me that you took over the administration of the abbey library shortly after you finished your studies." A mischievous grin plastered the scholar's face as she peered at the nun from behind the wall of papers in her hands.
The nun's eyebrow raised from underneath the hood of her habit. "What?"
Gwen shook her head. "Just letting my imagination run away with me, that's all."
"And you're not going to give me a chance to challenge it or even confirm if you have the details right?"
The scholar laughed aloud as she looked at the woman sitting at the foot of her bed. The nun seemed relaxed and thoroughly at ease within the walls of the small inn, despite the odd juxtaposition of her habited form in the rather plain but worldly surroundings of Gwen's room. "I'm picturing Edna O' Brien's 'Sister Imelda' all of a sudden The protagonist wondering if the Sister had some sort of fleeting romance with someone at the University before she took her final vows."
The nun grinned back. "I took my final vows before I went to Le Mirail."
"And the fleeting romance that would haunt you the rest of your days?" The way you'll haunt the rest of my days, Sister Augustine of Ormarc-- romance or no.
The nun took a deep breath, suddenly emboldened by the thought that she would never be alone like this with Gwen again. Her heart was racing and she felt as if the next few minutes would alter the course of her life. "I never gave it much thought, really. Romantic love was one of the things you had to deny, to give up--I-- I never really considered it, never gave it much thought until--until I--" Sister Augustine shook her head, stood up, and gazed out the tiny window of Gwen's room.
Gwen stood up as well and slowly approached the veiled form. She placed a delicate hand against the center of the nun's back, "Sister I'm sorry. I don't mean to tease, really. If it'd make you feel better, you can always do what Lilla did--"
The nun turned to face the blonde; Sister Augustine's face was alit with curiosity, her voice soft. "And what's that?"
"Smack me upside the head and tell me what an idiot I am."
A gentle smile darted over the nun's features as she extended a shaky hand to the blonde's face. The nun's fingers grazed Gwen's mouth and her face moved toward the scholar's. Her eyes bore into the blonde's, her voice barely above a whisper. "Brangein Gwenhwyfar Morrison --" Her breath fluttered against the shorter woman's lips. "---you're an idiot," she murmured softly before her mouth descended upon Gwen's.
She didn't know what possessed her, what emboldened her -- whether it was the feeling of limitless possibility, of freedom, that the inn room seemed to embody or Gwen's gentle teasing and all that it implied-- but as she sat in the passenger seat of the scholar's car as it made its way toward the looming castle beyond, she now felt nervous and unsure of herself. Whatever it was that drove her to make such an audacious move to kiss the woman now seated next to her, had fled her body soon after they left the confines of Gwen's room. Her feelings for the scholar remained the same. In fact, she admitted to herself as she cast a sideways glance at the blonde, it had gained another dimension altogether. Never in her life had she thought a simple kiss would affect her the way it did -- the strange intensity, the odd combination of languid warmth and lightning quick awareness that seized through her body as she felt the softness of Gwen's mouth crushed against her own. She realized with delight and despair that she could literally live on that feeling, dwell on that moment for the rest of her life, and it would be enough. It would have to be enough, she thought miserably. Another thought, a rule, an admonishment given to postulants, priests, and nuns alike loomed in her mind: Repress from particular friendships and fly from them like a mortal plague. A fleeting bit of romance, Gwen had said. As Sister Augustine sat quietly in the scholar's car as it sped along the French countryside, she realized now how prophetic those teasing words the scholar had uttered before their kiss would be.
Gwen, too, felt that same sense of ill ease, her mind ajumble with clashing thoughts of what would happen now that this thing had occurred between them. Behind her romantic streak, she was a pragmatist at heart, and the wild, incredible, wonderful shock of the nun's mouth moving against her own slowly grew to a realization of what happens now that we know we feel this way about each other? Her mind drew a blank and she concentrated on driving the car through the small ribbon of road that cut between the fields filled with the scent of lavender blooms, herbs de provence, and sheep. Her thoughts circled back to the moment after the kiss.
She drew her head away from the veiled form, sure that her face mirrored the surprise, shock, and delight that she saw in Sister Augustine's visage. She grinned. "That is so much more effective than what Lilla does."
The nun began to laugh and the odd, tense moment that had arisen seconds after their lips parted, dissolved. "You have the oddest sense of humor." She felt Sister Augustine's fingers gently tracing her mouth, the veiled woman's face etched with a look of wonder, embarrassment, and a hint of regret. "I--I don't know what possessed me to kiss you, Gwen. I--"
She shook her head. "Please don't question it, Sister." She smiled softly. "You're much braver than I'd ever be." She laughed suddenly, a giddy warmth spreading through her frame, "I don't even know what your given name is, do you realize that?"
The veiled head moved closer. "My name is Alexandra," the nun whispered as her mouth met the scholar's once more.
Gwen's eyes widened in surprise. Alexandra. That can't be a coincidence, can it? The name wrapped itself around her brain, teasing her intellect and making her question her own sanity as her senses were bombarded with the other woman's overwhelming presence: the crush of the rough wool habit against her fingertips, the lingering smell of lavender which clung to the veiled form, and the hint of chicory coffee and apples lingering in Sister Augustine's mouth blending with the nun's own unique flavor made her feel lightheaded.
The alarm that Gwen had set to remind her of the appointment with Lady Thisbe rang moments after their second kiss, jarring them both to the realization that there was a world outside the tiny room. They moved from each other's arms with a mixture of reluctance and relief.
Despite the fact that Gwen realized what her feelings were for the enigmatic nun months earlier, she knew they were merely romantic half-imaginings, theoretical, a vague fantasy. The reality of it, the acknowledgement of it on both their parts, seemed more elusive, more delicate, more complicated than she had ever imagined. I'm not exactly a novice at relationships, but I feel overwhelmed here. I wonder how she's dealing with this. The scholar's eyes glanced at the woman seated beside her. It's one thing to pine for your Lady, to put her on some unattainable height, but quite another to have her stand next to you on the ground and face the world, is it Morrison? The car stopped in front of the castle turned hotel. And it's quite a world you have to face.
Lady Thisbe welcomed the two women at the lobby of the hotel structure with genuine warmth. The noblewoman had obtained blueprints of the renovated castle-hotel and began to point out the layout of the castle to the nun and the scholar. Gwen drew a large manila envelope from the backpack she carried and placed the photos and drawing before the older woman.
"Does this at all look familiar, Lady Thisbe?"
Elegant auburn eyebrows scrunched in thought as the noblewoman examined the items the scholar had placed on the small table where they had gathered around. Gwen began to explain how and where they discovered the carving. Lady Thisbe remained silent, nodding on occasion as the blonde continued to speak.
"I must say that everything you've told me has been a great surprise. The early history of this valley and of my family has been effectively lost over the centuries. We get a place name here, a relative there, but scant little else."
The scholar nodded. "Well, I can't promise anything more than what I've already told you, Lady Thisbe. Searching this castle may find more questions than answers. I appreciate your generosity and willingness to permit me to root around your family tree. Not-- not many people are open to something like this."
"Believe me, Dr. Morrison, it's entirely my pleasure. And I'm happy that Sister Augustine has volunteered to help with your investigations as well." Lady Thisbe turned to the silent nun. "And I'd like to remind you, Sister, that the offer still stands and will continue so in the future."
Gwen's eyebrows rose in question as she turned to face Sister Augustine. "Offer?"
The nun nodded. "Yes. A center is being built to house the books, parchment scrolls, and other items that are in the Abbey library, as well as in Lady Thisbe's private collections. She offered me the chance to help run the library."
The noblewoman smiled. "As usual, Sister Augustine is being rather modest, Doctor. The position I offered her was one of head conservator of the manuscript collections. The position is still yours, Sister, if you wish it."
Sister Augustine bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Thank you, Lady Thisbe. I'll keep that in mind."
The noblewoman looked at Gwen's drawing. An elegant finger traced against the photograph beside it. She tapped the photograph with a slim finger, her brows moving together. "This looks familiar somehow."
"Yes, Doctor. Not the carving per se, but your drawing of it." Lady Thisbe picked up Gwen's sketch, looking at it more closely. "When I was a little girl, my brother and I used to explore the nooks and crannies of this castle. This picture reminds me of something I think I saw all those years ago." The older woman shook her head. "I'm not sure what medium it was -- a tapestry or a carving on a wall or an illustration in a manuscript, but this scene looks familiar."
As the noblewoman pondered the drawing before her, the scholar's gaze drew toward the nun. Gwen shivered as she realized that she could almost read the thoughts running through the nun's mind in their brief glance. "Lady Thisbe," the blonde said softly as she tore her eyes from the nun's steady gaze, "I was going to ask this anyway, but considering what you've just told us, would you like to join us as we explore the castle grounds? Maybe it will trigger a memory of just where you saw that particular scene?"
"Why do I always end up exploring dark basements? It's almost like some sort of weird cliché in a cheap mystery novel." Gwen wondered aloud as she stood before a long flight of stone stairs leading to the lower levels of the castle.
The two women accompanying Gwen laughed. Lady Thisbe, who stood behind the nun, peered down to the lower depths. "Technically, these aren't the basement grounds, Doctor. The basement areas are below these chambers."
They reached the bottom steps and entered a large room filled with crates. The noblewoman gestured to the dozens of wooden boxes that lined the far wall of the chamber. "Shortly before the war, a number of things were packed away: tapestries, books, and other items. Most, if not all of it, is in this room. Before the castle was converted into a hotel, several more crates were added to the ones already here. These boxes are to be catalogued for the Center. The building itself should be finished in about a year's time and the beginnings of the exhibits and collections should be arranged by then as well."
Gwen stared at the row upon row of wooden crates. She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "So, what you're saying is that the answers are in this room, in these crates. That's it, mystery solved?"
"Yes and no."
The scholar gave a puzzled look to the auburn-haired noblewoman as she walked to a nearby shelf filled with binders. Several minutes passed as Lady Thisbe thumbed through numerous folders. She took out several binders and laid them on a nearby table.
"Each of these crates have been numbered and there is a binder that details the contents of each crate."
A huge grin split Gwen's face as she stared at the huge boxes that lined the far walls of the room. "Then it's only a matter of finding the correct binder and matching it with the corresponding crate?"
Sister Augustine opened one of the dusty binders and peered at the page. "It may be more complicated than that, Gwen. Look here." The nun pointed to several entries as the scholar peered over her shoulder. "Some of these entries aren't very descriptive of the contents in the boxes themselves. This one, for instance: Rugs -5, Portrait paintings -3 , lamp - 1." The nun turned to other pages in the folder. "In fact, it seems that the majority of these pages contain nothing more than lists of items. There are no descriptions of a specific nature -- just what it is and how many there are in that specific crate."
"So what you're saying is that the answers may very well be here, but we may never find it in our lifetime?"
"Yes, that's a distinct possibility."
Gwen sighed softly, a feeling of profound disappointment running through her as she took in the sight of the large crates.
"However," Gwen repeated.
"There are pieces in the upper rooms, the private rooms. Those rooms haven't been renovated, haven't been touched for a number of years. . . I'm sure that those rooms may still be in the same condition as they were when I was a girl."
All three women trudged up the stairs leading to the upper rooms of the castle complex, Lady Thisbe leading the way. At the top of a winding staircase, they entered a large hallway that led to several other rooms.
Gwen fumbled with her flashlight as Lady Thisbe opened the door to one of the rooms. "There should be a light switch somewhere," the noblewoman said as her hand moved against the doorframe. "Electrical wires were installed throughout the castle in the 1920s."
Seconds later, the gloom was filled with artificial light from a chandelier in the center of the room and reflected against furnishings draped in white sheets layered with a light coating of dust and cobwebs. The women moved forward into the room and began a tentative exploration of its contents.
Lady Thisbe lifted a sheet from an endtable. "Most of the furnishings, I believe, are from the 17th century, although I suspect there may be older items here as well." Her eyes wandered to where the blonde stood. "The rooms themselves are much older, of course. A few rooms were occupied and used until the 1930s. However, I do know that these rooms haven't been used in at least 50 years."
Gwen nodded as she stopped to look at the mantle above an old fireplace. "Was the fireplace renovated in any way?"
"No, but it hasn't been in use for a very long time." The noblewoman removed another dusty sheet from a large wood desk. "Only a small portion of the castle has been equipped with central air and heat. Most of the old fireplaces are still used in a few of the sitting rooms and the older kitchens." She peered at the tabletop. "Doctor, Sister Augustine you both may want to take a look at this."
The surface of the desk was covered with small elaborate inlaid carvings. One of them contained the very same scene that Gwen had found in the underground chamber.
"Yes. This is where I remembered your carving from, Doctor," Lady Thisbe said as her hand traced over the desktop.
"Do you know how old this desk is?" Gwen peered at the figures that covered the tabletop. Several panels covered the surface of the wood. Each panel contained a miniature scene.
The noblewoman shook her head. "I can have it appraised so we can determine the age. But that would take several weeks, Doctor. I know that you're leaving for the States in two days."
Sister Augustine's hands moved over the dark surface of the table. "It may very well be that this top paneling is older than the rest of the desk."
Gwen nodded. "Or that the inlaid carvings may have been copied from another medium and rendered as this wood desktop. In any case, the scenes themselves appear to be related." The scholar pointed to one portion of the large desk. "In this panel we see a knight mounted on a horse. At the far end stands a walled city. And look here," the blonde pointed to a section of the paneling. "It looks like there's a breach in the wall and other soldiers are entering the city."
Sister Augustine pointed to yet another carving. "And here, it looks like a funeral procession of some sort."
Gwen nodded. "Whoever they're laying to rest must have been important. There are clearly noblemen in the foreground and what looks like regal banners flying in the back."
The noblewoman pointed to the central scene in the wood desktop. "And what of this? An odd scene, wouldn't you say? It seems almost out of place. What do you make of it, Doctor?"
Gwen looked closely at the strange scene. She shook her head. "I--I don't know. This figure here is clearly a noblewoman by the way she's dressed. She's carrying what looks to be shears. The other figure is dressed like a knight and it looks like the noblewoman is cutting his hair. " The scholar looked up to see the puzzled countenance of her companions. "I have no idea why such an incongruous image is featured as the central motif of this entire panel carving or what it could possibly mean."
Several hours later
They sat by the edge of the small cluster of trees in one of the fields of the abbey grounds. Gwen had unfurled a blanket she had carried in her pack. Both women sat and watched the sky turn from the muted orange of sunset to the dark blue of twilight. They had fallen silent as the stars began to dapple the sky.
Gwen sighed suddenly and lay back against the blanket, her eyes drifting shut as the weariness of the day's activity finally caught up with her.
Sister Augustine leaned against the tree next to where they had set up their impromptu camp. Her eyes wandered to where the scholar lay. "That must be profoundly uncomfortable."
"It's not bad, actually, especially if you don't mind having tiny rocks as your pillow." A small smile covered the blonde's placid features, "I don't really mind it."
The nun stretched out and gently patted a black-clad thigh. "Well, seeing you lying there like that is making me feel uncomfortable. I'd rather you use my legs as a pillow."
The scholar opened her eyes and peered at the woman who sat at an arm's length from where she was. "Are you sure? I was only joking about the tiny rocks."
The nun head nodded imperceptibly. "Consider it my good deed for the day. That is unless you feel it's inappropriate --"
Gwen sat up, hesitating for a moment before she propped her head against the nun's leg. "Thank you, Alexandra."
Gwen stared out into the night sky. Her brows furrowed. "Why did I wait until two days before I go home to do this?" She gazed at nun's face as it looked out into the fields. "There isn't a Rule against sleeping out in the open, is there? Something like, 'Thou shalt not be comfortable while thou liest in a field of wildflowers in the moonlight'? If there is one, maybe we can send out a request to suspend that Rule for today. Maybe write up a memo and send it by carrier pigeon. Considering the day we've had, I think we deserve it don't you?" The blonde smiled as eyes traced over the nun's upturned profile. Her eyes drifted shut. "I suppose the day -- the year's-- not a total loss. We did bring Gabrielle d' Ormarc's lost epic poem back from obscurity. Even if we never find out the truth behind what did happen to the cathedral, we came away with an incredible amount of valuable information. We brought a voice back from past."
"And does that make up for not solving the mystery?"
Gwen nodded. "Yes. In the long run, I think it does in a strange sort of way. It's enough."
The nun looked down and stared at the scholar's relaxed features. So what happens now? Do you go back to Los Angeles? You back to your life and I back to mine? Is that what we are going to be to each other? A fleeting moment? A voice from the past? Will the memory of you have to be enough for me? Sister Augustine reached out and put a delicate hand against Gwen's hair, her fingers entangling against short golden locks. Why is it when I look at you, I feel like all the choices I ever made in my life were the wrong ones?
The scholar abruptly opened her eyes. There was a subtle change that rippled through the veiled form before her. Sister Augustine trembled as if a thousand tiny earthquakes erupted across her skin. Gwen's head rose from the nun's lap. "Alexandra? Is there something wrong?"
The nun's hand fluttered against the scholar's chin, fingers slowly tracing against the woman's features. "Gwen, please listen to me. Ever since we were caught in that rainstorm, I realized that your friendship meant a great deal to me -- more than--" The nun sighed softly. "I want to thank you."
The scholar's eyes closed as a feeling of dread seized her chest. A vision of the kiss they shared in her room flashed in her mind's eye. "Thank me for what?"
Sister Augustine's fingers outlined Gwen's lips. "I want to thank you . . . for being my fleeting bit of romance."
Gwen's shook her head softly, her voice threaded with confusion. "Alexandra, what are you trying to tell--"
The nun pulled the blonde's face to hers; lips crushed against the other woman's mouth in a hard, desperate kiss. The veiled head pulled away suddenly and her eyes sought the scholar's eyes. "I love you," she said in a rushed whisper. Sister Augustine's fingers moved against Gwen's face as though the veiled woman was trying to memorize the scholar's features by touch.
Gwen took hold of the nun's hand and pressed the woman's knuckles to her lips. "You love me," she said in a tone filled with wonder. The scholar's fingers tangled with the nun's. A sad smile played against the blonde's face as she looked down at the long, delicate fingers entwined with hers. "But you can't go back to Los Angeles with me."
Sister Augustine met Gwen's melancholy eyes with her own. "Yes and we both know the reasons why." The nun shook her head softly. "I am a nun. I made a vow to serve God and it's not a burden I take lightly. I love you, but I can't just walk away from what God has chosen for me. Please try to understand, Gwen."
Gwen looked out into the fields. The stars twinkled overhead as the moon rose and bathed them in a web of silver light. A gentle breeze rustled through the high grasses and along the leaves of the tress surrounding the abbey. The scholar's eyes turned back to the woman before her. She took a deep breath. "I think I knew it all along, but I hoped that maybe--" Her voice faltered as her own hand brailled across the nun's features. "I won't forget you." She looked out again across the grasses suffused with moonlight. "Will you stay with me tonight, here in this field? I just want to--"
Wordlessly, Sister Augustine leaned back against the tree and opened her arms to the scholar. Gwen leaned back against the habited form as the billowing cloth that covered the nun's arms engulfed her body. She felt Sister Augustine's chin come to rest on her shoulder and the dark veil brushed against her short locks. The nun's arms wound around Gwen's waist and their entwined hands rested against the scholar's lap.
Present day, about a year and a half later, Los Angeles, CA, USA
The sun had already risen above the towering buildings of downtown Los Angeles as she drove along Grand Avenue. Having driven past traffic delays and construction workers, she sped down the street past vacant lots and the old, once glamorous art deco façades of now half-empty office buildings. Her car made a stop at the corner of Jefferson and Grand. Her eyes scanned the street and she made a right on Jefferson. She drove under the freeway overpass and caught sight of the giant neon sign of the old cartoon cat that towered over the Felix car dealership at the corner of Figueroa and Jefferson. Morning, Felix. She made a left into the grounds of the University of Southern California.
After parking in Lot P, she walked towards Taper Hall. It was not quite 8:00 in the morning. Her first class would begin at 9:00 am. She ran up to the fourth floor and entered the mailroom of the English Department.
She looked up to see Minya Hower, the department secretary, carrying a stack of papers in her hand.
"Hey Min. You're here early."
Minya smiled and shook her frizzled soft brown hair. "I could say the same for you. Here." The tall, buxom woman handed the blonde a piece of paper. "Hot off the presses, so to speak. The afternoon meeting's been canceled. Guess you've got an early start to your weekend." The secretary turned and headed for the copy room. "Later, sweetie. I have a date with a toner cartridge."
Minutes later, Gwen opened the door to her office and headed for the phone by the desk. Her hand lingered against the receiver as a wild thread of hope ran through her mind. She stopped before the desk, her eyes glued to the phone as she tried to will the machine to ring. It's been almost a year since you last saw her. Her eyes squeezed tight. Move on, Morrison. If it wasn't painfully clear during that last night in Ormarc, it should have been clear the last time you saw her. The scholar opened her eyes and stared at the phone. You can't compete against God.
About eight months earlier, Los Angeles, CA, USA
It had been a long day. The department meeting had run ten minutes late and Gwen tiredly unlocked the door to her office. Closet sweet closet. She looked around the tiny space. What I wouldn't give for a window. She shook her head as she began to stuff stacks of papers into a leather satchel. It's the start of the weekend and what exciting thing are you planning for this evening, Morrison? You're going to sit in front of the tv for an hour, finish up grading the last of those finals, and eat an In-And-Out Double Double Cheeseburger for dinner. Woo-hoo. Such is the glamorous life of an Associate English professor at good ol' Southern Cal. She pulled out a small photo from her desk drawer and stared at the image. Her fingers skimmed along the lines of the woman's face. She sighed as she remembered another time and place when she had done this same thing. How long has it been since you've seen her, Morrison? Almost eight months? God, it seems like it was a lifetime ago.
A knock on the door startled her and she quickly put the photo in the leather satchel on her desk. A pale eyebrow shot up towards her forehead as she moved around her desk and stood before the closed door of her office. Was there an appointment I forgot about? She checked her watch. 4:50. Hmm.
She opened the door to a familiar face. Her mouth hung agape. Déjà vu, her mind supplied. "A-Alexandra?"
The habited form nodded shyly. "Dr. Morrison. I hope I'm not disturbing you in any way."
Gwen shook her head, unsure of her own voice. Her heart was pounding fiercely in her chest. "Of course not. How--how did you know where I--"
Sister Augustine stepped back and her fingers tapped against two small plaques by the office door. The scholar stuck her head out of her office and swiveled around to glance at the small sign by her door. Her eyes quickly scanned the white print against the dark brown plaques. B. Gwenhwyfar Morrison. Associate Professor, English and Comparative Literature. Office Hours for Fall and Spring Semesters: MW 8-9, 1:30-2:30, T 4-5, F 1-2:30, 4:30-5 and by appt. Phone: (213) 555-6547
"Oh," she said as her eyes met the nun's. She stood straight, opened the door wider, and gestured to the tall woman to enter her office. "Please, Alexandra, come in."
Gwen's hands were shaking as she closed the door behind her. She turned around to face her guest. Suddenly, she leaned back against the door as she felt her legs turn to rubber when she met the nun's gaze. "S-so wh-what brings you to Los Angeles?" she said softly. Sister Augustine moved toward the blonde. The nun raised her left hand and grazed the scholar's forearm with her knuckles. Without a word, Gwen pulled the taller woman into a hug.
The nun let out a shuddering breath as she planted a soft kiss against Gwen's forehead. "I've missed you so much, Gwen." She pulled away from the blonde as she cupped the woman's face in her hand. Her fingers gently caressed the scholar's cheek. "Still so very beautiful," she whispered.
Gwen closed her eyes as her fingers knitted with the nun's. "How long will you be in Los Angeles?"
"My plane leaves early Saturday evening for France."
The blonde sighed. She opened her eyes, turned, grabbed the leather satchel from her desk, and tugged at the nun's hand that was entwined with hers. "Let's get out of here."
Traffic from downtown Los Angeles had been unkind and by the time Gwen and Sister Augustine arrived at the scholar's modest condo in Pasadena, it was nearing 6 o'clock in the evening. As they had walked from her office to the parking lot, Gwen had suggested that they head to 3rd and Fairfax to have a quick dinner in one of the restaurants at the Farmer's Market; Sister Augustine politely demurred the blonde's suggestion. The scholar jokingly asked if the nun would rather go to her flat. A shy smile enveloped the woman's features as the dark head had nodded in agreement.
They sat now in the opposite position that they had spent in the field near the Abbey almost eight months earlier -- Gwen lay back on her sofa as she cradled Sister Augustine's length against her. Their hands were intertwined and rested along the nun's lap as Sister Augustine's voice quietly threaded through the silent room. The scholar nuzzled her face against the cloth that covered the nun's head and listened intently.
"My mother died almost a month ago and I received permission to return to the United States to plan for her burial and take care of her personal effects." The nun paused briefly as she felt the blonde's arms tighten against her.
"Alexandra, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize. I should have been there--"
The nun shook her head softly. "No, Gwen. It's all right. . . I-- I've been in Los Angeles for a few weeks already. I know I should have contacted you sooner, but these last weeks have been such a blur and there were so many things that I needed to take care of. I--"
Gwen made a soft shushing sound and placed a gentle kiss on the nun's temple.
Sister Augustine heaved a heavy sigh before she continued. "My relationship with my mother had always been-- strained. I guess I was shocked when I received a letter informing me that she had died. She never approved of my vocation and there was never any contact between us since the day I became a postulant. I wrote her letters and sent cards, but they always returned unanswered, unopened. Over the past few weeks, I've felt so numb, like I was walking around in a fog. But--"
"But," the blonde urged gently.
"But the fog lifted when you opened the door to your office this afternoon." The nun turned to face the scholar. "I want to thank you for that -- for accepting me back into your life without question. It means a great deal to me knowing that I'll always have your friendship, that I'll always be welcome in your life."
Gwen's fingers moved against the nun's features. "Always, Alexandra. No matter what, I'll always be here for you. I promise that."
They spent the rest of the evening quietly talking, filling in the gaps that they had only guessed and hinted at during their shared year in Ormarc. Eventually a blanket of mutual understanding had covered them both and eased them into a light sleep. Gwen had awakened first. The scholar's fingers gently caressed the rough cloth of the nun's veiled head. Sister Augustine stirred and eventually awoke.
A soft, sleepy smile eased across Sister Augustine's upturned face. "Hi."
"Guess you're gonna spend the night, hmm?"
The nun's eyes blinked. "I wasn't exactly planning on it. What time is it?"
"A little before midnight." Gwen's face mirrored the bashful grin that now plastered the nun's countenance. "I think it'd be best if we find you a more comfortable spot than here."
Sister Augustine moved from Gwen's arms. The scholar quickly stood up, tugged the nun to a standing position, and led the taller woman down the hall.
"Take my room and I'll take the sofa," the blonde said as she opened the door. She let go of the nun's hand and began to prepare the room.
"Gwen, please, you don't have to make such a fuss. I can take the sofa. I don't want to kick you out of your own bed."
The scholar shook her head and laughed as she finished turning down the fresh sheets and blankets. She gathered the old sheets from the floor and walked to a nearby hamper and deposited the bedding materials. "Don't be silly, I'll be more than comfortable on the sofa." She stopped before the nun, pulled the woman's face toward her, and planted a soft kiss on Sister Augustine's forehead. "Stop complaining," she said quietly. "Nuns aren't supposed to complain."
Sister Augustine laughed as she took hold of the scholar's face. "Thank you," the nun said softly.
The two women stood before each other, both unwilling to break the tense silence that had suddenly engulfed the bedroom.
A heartbeat later, the nun broke the quiet. "I suppose I should kiss you goodnight."
A foolish grin erupted across the scholar's face. Gwen assumed that Sister Augustine would give her a light peck on the cheek before sending her from the room, but was unexpectedly shocked when the nun's mouth descended upon her own. The simple kiss lasted minutes and both women were breathing heavily when they finally pulled apart.
A hint of scarlet suffused Gwen's cheeks. Her voice quivered as she tried to move from the nun's embrace. "I--I'd better go before we both regret--"
Sister Augustine placed a delicate finger against the scholar's mouth, effectively silencing the woman. "Gwen," the nun breathed, "please stay with me."
The scholar's eyes went wide. "Alexandra, you don't know what you're ask--"
The nun's fingers brushed against Gwen's mouth in a soft caress that sent shivers down the scholar's spine. Sister Augustine placed her forehead against the blonde's, her eyes closing as her fingers continued to trace against Gwen's mouth. "I know exactly what I'm asking. Please, Gwen. I want it to be you. I've dreamt it would be you."
A shuddering breath escaped the scholar's lips as her gaze met the nun's. She uttered a soft "yes" before Sister Augustine claimed her mouth in a long, heated kiss.
Sunlight filtered into the room as Sister Augustine stared at the figure that lay sleeping on the bed. The bed sheets were sprawled and twisted against Gwen's legs. A blanket pooled around the scholar's waist as the light danced along the naked curve of arms and breasts. Gwen shifted in the bed and her fingers splayed out against the mattress. Sister Augustine suppressed the urge to kneel beside the bed, resisted the sudden desire to map the lines of the scholar's soft hands and fingers with her own callused ones. A shudder of pleasure went up the nun's spine as she recalled how her own fingers, hard and rough from years of labor in the Abbey fields, traced against the scholar's skin, how her mouth moved along the lines of Gwen's body in the moonlight the way her eyes now traveled down the golden form in the early light of morning. A flush rose against the nun's cheeks as she recalled how the blonde had coaxed the pleasure from her body, how Gwen's fingers had entered her at her own desperate urging. I want all of you, Gwen. Please. She shivered as she remembered how the compact form had surged over her own gangly frame, how Gwen had moaned her name in desire.
The nun stood by the window and drew the folds of her habit closer to her body. Even after I've loved you with my body, I can't She closed her eyes. Forgive me, Gwen. She knew that if she did not leave now, her resolve would falter. Sister Augustine quietly turned from the sleeping woman and moved toward the door.
The nun's hand gripped tightly against the doorknob as a dull, cold ache throbbed in her chest. She turned to face the scholar. Eyes the color of late summer grasses met hers.
Gwen's tone was light, but edged with pain. "You weren't going to leave without saying good-bye, were you?"
The veiled form hesitated and then approached the bed. Sister Augustine perched at the edge of the mattress as the scholar sat up and gathered the sheets around her nude form.
The nun looked down at the crumpled sheet beside her black-clad thigh. "What happens now?"
The scholar drew her legs to her chest and edged closer to the nun. Her fingers reached out and drew Sister Augustine's face level with hers. "What do you want to happen?"
The nun's voice trembled. "I--I don't know. I've never--"
"Been with a woman before?" Gwen finished gently even though her heart twisted in pain.
"I've never been with anyone before, Gwen. I don't know the rules. I--"
"There are no rules, Alexandra." The scholar cupped Sister Augustine's face. "We muddle along together and figure things out as they come." Gwen fingers gently caressed Sister Augustine's cheek.
They made love once more. It was a frantic, almost desperate coupling. No words came between them as they lay spent against the bedding. As Gwen held the exhausted woman in her arms, she knew in her heart that she would never see the nun again.
Present day, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Gwen's fingers hovered over the telephone receiver on her desk. She shook her head as the memories of her last night with Sister Augustine ran through her mind. I can't do this anymore. I NEED to move on. I can't live my life in what-should-have-been's. Her fingers punched the keys on the phone by memory as she grabbed a stack of papers from the leather satchel on her desk. As she heard the ringing on the other line, she looked at her watch and realized that she would probably get her sister's voicemail.
"Hey, Lilla, it's me. The afternoon meeting's been canceled. Looks like I can meet you and Sarah at the museum today after all. I'll see you there at the usual place. Bye."
Several hours later, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
She looked away from the diorama of gophers and coyotes as she watched her young niece skip along the exhibition room to where a plate glass window encased a scene of bison wandering through a grassy plain, the white-yellow lights glinting against the stuffed animal's glass eyes making it seem as though it were, somehow, alive. The young girl stopped before the exhibit, curly golden hair swung this way and that as she took in the sight of the brown masses: heads bent, mouths open, bits of grass between their teeth.
"What about that girl I introduced you to last week? She seemed kinda nice. And she was very pretty."
Gwen swung her head to where her sister stood. Lilla's eyes were fixed on her young daughter, who now stood motionless across the room.
Gwen's older sister shook her head as she gave a brief glance at the woman standing next to her. "You heard me, Bran. Come on, what was wrong with her?"
The blonde shrugged. "Nothing, really. It's just--" It's just that even though it's been almost eight months since you laid eyes on Alexandra, you still can't move on. Or you won't. "--I just don't want to date right now, Lilla. It's not a crime, you know." Get over her, Morrison. You're holding a torch for a nun and that, my dear, is beyond pathetic-- it's disturbing and ultimately useless.
Lilla sighed. "I know you better than that, but I won't push when you want me to back off." She gave a quick peck on the scholar's cheek. "I don't know what's wrong exactly, but today you seem . . . You know we're here for you, right? If you ever need to talk--"
Gwen nodded. "Yeah, I know. Thanks, Lilla." She watched as her niece came skipping back and grasped her mother's outstretched hand.
"We're going to the bird exhibit next. Wanna come along?"
"I think I'll just wander around for awhile. I'll meet you guys in an hour at the usual place, ok?" She watched as Sarah tugged at her mother's hand.
"Ok. In a hour. See ya, sis."
She stood staring at the Tyrannosaurus Rex skull as a ten-year old boy began to earnestly explain to his mother and all within earshot the minute details of the dinosaur's hunting and feeding habits. What is it with little kids and dinos? Sarah's starting up on it too and she's only five. Her brow crinkled in thought as she imagined a grown-up Sarah wandering through the Gobi Desert hunting for fossils. She felt a light tap against her shoulder.
"Has it already been an hour, Lilla? I swear that only twenty--" Gwen stopped mid-sentence as her eyes fell upon a ghost from her past.
Familiar blue eyes sparkled at her from a dark mass of hair that was longer than she remembered. The taller woman wore a black polo shirt and black jeans. "Excuse me, miss, do you know where I can find the mastodon exhibit? I seem to be lost."
Gwen stood in shocked surprise and before she could answer, the young lecturer piped up. "It's over there, near the Hall of Mammals, but there are more mammoth and mastodon fossils in the Page Museum at the Tar Pits. They only have one mastodon skeleton on display here."
The electrifying gaze turned briefly from Gwen to acknowledge the small boy. "Thank you, young man."
Gwen felt long, elegant fingers take hold of her hand. "You're not getting away until I have a chance to explain," the vision said as Gwen felt herself being led away in the direction of the Hall of Mammals. They stopped before the mastodon exhibit.
Gwen pulled her hand from the taller woman's grasp and exhaled a soft breath. A part of her felt dizzy with the joy at seeing the nun again, but a feeling of dread lurked in her heart that once again, the enigmatic nun would leave and never return. "Why didn't you try to contact me? Write a letter? Call? Anything?" she said in a fearful whisper.
Alexandra tried to grasp the scholar's hand. "Gwen, I- I couldn't."
Gwen raised her head to gaze at the soft blue eyes that looked at her with such longing, hope, and fear. "What do you mean, you couldn't?"
"When I left you that morning, I felt so confused, so lost. I returned to France, to the Abbey, and went into seclusion. The Mother Superior permitted it at first because she thought it would give me time to grieve for my mother."
The dark-haired woman closed her eyes. " I did grieve, not only for my mother, but for you. When I arrived back at the Abbey that first night, I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life by leaving you and returning to my life as a nun. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think. I didn't know what to do."
Gwen reached up and caressed the woman's cheek. "Alexandra."
Alexandra cradled the blonde's hand in her's. "I stayed in my cell for more than a month, never leaving except for the Divine Office. At the time, I only wanted to be left alone. Then about seven weeks later, I received a visitor. It was Lady Thisbe. She asked if it were possible for me to help with the transfer of texts from the Abbey library to the Center and I agreed to help. A few weeks later, we were alone the Center's document reading rooms and she essentially told me to stop wasting my life, to stop ignoring what was in my heart."
A fair eyebrow raised in question. "I don't understand. You mean that Lady Thisbe knew that--"
"That I was in love with you?" The dark head nodded. "She said that she saw how we were together that day when we searched around the castle grounds. She said it was as plain as day that we cared about one another." Alexandra threaded her fingers with Gwen's as she leaned against the railing of the mastodon exhibit. "She also told me that I was a fool to think that God would want me to live out my life in misery. A nun gives her life to God out of love and joy. The convent wasn't a place of suffering, it wasn't a place to run and hide from life. She said I was a coward for not seeing what God had sent, for not listening to what He wanted for my life. The next day, I asked Mother Superior to release me from my vows."
The scholar shook her head. "But I don't understand why you didn't try to contact me, even when you realized that you were leaving the convent."
Alexandra sighed. "I was afraid, Gwen. I was afraid that you wouldn't want me in your life again, not after I left you for a second time."
Gwen's free hand fluttered against the outline of the woman's face. "I told you a long time ago, Alexandra, that I would always be there for you, no matter what. I meant that. I love you. I waited my whole life for you. And I would have waited for you, Alex. I did."
The former nun leaned down and placed a delicate kiss against the blonde's mouth, oblivious to the amused stares of passers-by. "It took almost seven months for the paperwork to wind its way through the Vatican bureaucracy, but a few days ago, I received the letter that released me from my vows. Before I left Ormarc, I visited Lady Thisbe. She offered me a job as the liaison to the universities of the Southern California area for the Center before I even had a chance to tell her that I was returning to Los Angeles. I accepted."
Alexandra smiled softly as she felt the blonde snuggle against her shoulder. She pointed toward the massive skeleton of the ancient elephant-like creature. "When you told me that story about the time your sister met her future husband, I guess you left out the part about the little museum guide butting in to the conversation, didn't you?"
Laughter erupted from the scholar's mouth as her gaze followed the graceful movement of long tapered fingers as they extended ever so slightly to stretch toward, at least to Gwenhwyfar Morrison's eyes, the expansive vault of the heavens.
[Appendix : The first 24 lines of Gwen's translation of the "Alexandra" w/ two excerpts from the introductory notes to the text.]
Gabrielle d'Ormarc, the author of this thirteenth century romance, stands as unique, even among the women troubadours (or trobairitz as they were called in their own time) of medieval Provençal/Occitania. It is the only romance ever found written by a female troubadour from the Languedoc/Occitania area. No other extended poetic text written by a trobairitz has ever been uncovered until this MS was found in the library of the Abbey of Saint Marie of the Hills, in Ormarc, France. It is also considered a singular work for its unusual content. We know very little about Gabrielle besides her name and her work. She might have been the daughter (or possibly mother) of Chrétien d'Ormarc, himself a troubadour poet in his own right. The Alexandra was composed sometime between 1220 and 1274.
The only extant copy of Alexandra is contained in MS S.M.O 103 now currently housed at the Abbey of St. Marie of the Hills in Ormarc, France. I would like to thank the Countess Thisbe d'Ormarc, Sister Augustine of St. Marie Abbey for her invaluable and able assistance, the Sisters of the Abbey of St. Marie, and the people of Ormarc, France for their kindness and generosity during the year I spent studying and translating the MS. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the staff at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, as well as the staff at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail who showed much courtesy as I examined several unrelated MSS.
B. Gwenhwyfar Morrison
A Thirteenth Century Occitanian Romance
Trans and Ed by Brangein Gwenhwyfar Morrison
Because En Chrétien d'Ormarc wills me
to undertake the making of a romance,
I shall undertake it with great goodwill.
As he instructs, I shall tell a tale of ancient days,
sing the songs of Gabrielle, bard, warrior, wanderer. 
And gladly shall I, Gabrielle,
tell the tales of one, skilled in war and art,
doubly blessed daughter of Potidaea,
friend and companion to the warrior woman,
Xena, of Amphipolis born. 
My Lord presents me with the matter
and I shall endeavor to shape the work.
To please my Lady, the romance shall also be a tale
of valor, honor, and love,
of knights, ladies, and great battles. 
For since first I caught sight of you, Lady,
I've been at your command.
Because merit and beauty exist
in you without pretension,
with great happiness N'Alexandra, 
to you do my stanzas go,
for in you lies my heart.
And so, Gabrielle shall begin the tale of Alexandra,
for the pleasure and joy of her Lord and Lady.
[end of excerpt]
(1) I would like to thank my patient and brilliant beta reader, Vivian Darkbloom, whose valuable input tamed the monster that this XWP uber fic grew to become. Her quick wit, sage writing advice, and sense of humor subdued the wild and decidedly unreadable beast that marks my fan fic writing and pacified it into something that manages to approach the terms, "readable" and "coherent".
(2) When I began to mull over the idea of this uber, I had the grand notion of incorporating the events of the Albigensian Crusades into the medieval period story line. That notion never fully developed and so for expediency's sake, I have only vaguely hinted at those events. For those who would like to know more about the Albigensian Crusades, the Cathars, and the Women Troubadours, I recommend running to your nearest library and borrowing, "The Albigensian Crusades" by Joseph R. Strayer and "The Women Troubadours" by Meg Bogin. Both texts give a wonderful overview of that fascinating and turbulent era in western European history.
For more on the idea of fin amors (or as it is generally called, "courtly love") I recommend the classic study by C. S. Lewis called, "The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition" as well as "Courtly Love: A New Interpretation" by Meg Bogin, which is included in her excellent, "The Women Troubadours" text.
(3) En and Na are respectively "Lord" and "Lady" in medieval Occitan. The N ' form of Na is used when a female name begins with a vowel, in the same fashion that the word de (meaning "of") is shortened to the D ' or d ' form when used before a place name that begins with a vowel, hence: N'Alexandra, Na Gabrielle, d'Ormarc, d' Orange, or de Ventadorn.
(4) The bits of prayer Sister Augustine utters in the shepherd's hut is taken from an actual prayer to the aspect of the Bléssed Mother, the Virgin Mary, as the Mother of Perpetual Help.
(5) The traditional Hours of the Holy or Divine Office (the Canonical Hours when religious perform prayers) are as follows:
PRIME= 6am ; TERCE= 9am ; SEXT=Noon ; NONE= 3pm ; VESPERS= 6pm ; COMPLIN=9pm ; MATIN=Midnight ; LAUDS= 3am
Not all Orders follow a strict adherence to the traditional Hours of the Holy Office. The lives of Catholic religious have changed greatly since the Middle Ages and practices vary from region to region and Order to Order. The times listed here are approximated. The most common Offices performed by many religious are: Prime, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin.
(6) The Latin which Sister Augustine quotes is from the Latin Vulgate of the Bible translated by St. Jerome (http://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/www/Vulgate/). The passage itself is from Mark 8:34 (here taken from the New American Standard Bible [NASB] version used in the [American] Catholic Mass.) : "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me."
The "repress from particular friendships" reference is taken from an actual "Rule" /"Instruction" that was found in the Old English text, the Ancren Riwle (or "Rule for Anchoresses" or "Nun's Rule"). From what I understand, the "particular friendships warning" is still referred to in the "rules" of nuns and postulants even to this day. Hmm. Verrry interesting, wouldn't you say? <g>
For the impact that the Second Vatican Council has made upon the lives of nuns, priests, and other religious, see: "The DECREE ON THE ADAPTATION AND RENEWAL OF RELIGIOUS LIFE PERFECTAE CARITATIS" proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651028_perfectae-caritatis_en.html
(7) I inadvertently placed the mastodon in the wrong museum and am uncertain whether there is a mastodon exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park. The mastodon had no complaints, and seemed to enjoy his new-found home, so I decided to keep the beasty there for the sake of this uber. It's best if you listen to the ten-year old lecturer and head to the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard if you want to see mastodon fossils. <g>
(8) And finally, I'd like to thank all the folk who dropped notes as this story was being posted over the Nov 2000 - June 2001 period. Your comments, observations, and kind words were greatly appreciated. You guys rule! Thank you for reading.
started 09.22. 00 ; 1st posted on web 11.07. 00 ; final post on the web 06.21. 01
angharad governal (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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