They were not. They were human.
"Sister Christina will be here in due course, my lady." A scowling nun, of middle years and pockmarked face, bowed with perfunctory courtesy in Eleanor's direction. Despite the warmth in the crowded chapter house, Sister Ruth's words fell with a chill on the prioress's ear.
Eleanor of Wynethorpe, recently named the new head of Tyndal Priory, sat with stiff spine in her high-backed chair, looked down at the forty-odd wimple-encircled faces in front of her, and knew she was not welcome.
Nor could she blame them. Her appointment to the position of prioress had nothing to do with competence. It had all to do with her father's unwavering loyalty to King Henry III during Simon de Montfort's recent rebellion, her oldest brother's close friendship with Prince Edward, and her mother's devoted support of the queen during a crucial time in the royal marriage. As each one of the nuns sitting in front of her well knew, none of these things meant Eleanor was personally qualified for the high office she now held, only that her family was in favor at court.
After the recent peace settlements, King Henry had had little spare land and even less free coin, thanks to Prince Edward's recent departure on a crusade. Thus the genuinely pious, increasingly ill king had decided that the prayers of many nuns at Eleanor's behest would be of greater benefit to her father than worldly wealth, a conclusion with which the good Baron Adam might have disagreed but which he accepted with appropriate gratitude on his daughter's behalf. In short, her appointment had been convenient and the wishes of the priory itself were set aside.
Although it was not uncommon for kings to honor priories by placing their own choices in superior positions, the royal selections usually carried some important benefit besides the king's fickle favor to sweeten the decision. Sweetening was certainly needed here. Each house in the powerful Order of Fontevraud had always had the absolute right to name its own head. Tyndal had been uniquely thwarted.
"Is Sister Christina habitually late to chapter or is there a special reason she is not here?" Eleanor asked the nun at her side. Perhaps by deferring to this older woman's experience and seeking her advice she might begin to dispel her obvious bitterness.
"She is our infirmarian," the elder nun replied after a silence so cold it felt like ice pressed against Eleanor's heart.
Eleanor swallowed a sharp retort. Last night, at her first private dinner in her new chambers, Brother Rupert had told her that Sister Ruth had been elected to succeed Prioress Felicia, albeit not by an overwhelming vote. This sour-faced nun had been in charge of Tyndal from the death of the former prioress until the announcement of Eleanor's appointment early in the summer. Of course, the woman's disappointment at being so unexpectedly supplanted had been profound, and the elderly monk had also suggested, with the understandable hesitation of one religious telling tales on a fellow, that Sister Ruth's current thoughts about Eleanor might be less than charitable.
"I am aware of Sister Christina's responsibility to the sick," Eleanor replied. "However, she must often absent herself from them for good and proper reasons. Surely she has some reliable lay sister or brother she can leave in charge when her other duties require her attendance?" Eleanor hoped she had succeeded in keeping her voice devoid of the anger she felt at Sister Ruth's insolent manner.
"She is never late for prayer, my lady."
Eleanor bit the inside of her cheek, regretting that there had been nothing, or at least nothing obvious, offered to sweeten her arrival at Tyndal. Indeed, she could list two more good reasons for her charges not to accept her. Having been raised at Amesbury Priory since the age of six, she lacked the secular world experience required of most Fontevraud prioresses; moreover, she was only twenty, very young compared to most of the other nuns here. Each shortcoming, indeed all three, might mean little to a king giving gifts to a loyal lord, but to the women who were quietly studying her, none were trivial. With sharp pain, she felt each one of her deficiencies. Compared to the woman who might have sat in this prioress' seat, but for the grace of kings, Eleanor knew she fell far short in the eyes of those sitting before her.
Copyright Priscilla Royal 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
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