I watched as the horseman rode into the Abbey complex. A fine looking young man, riding proudly, his rank displayed on the polished trimmings of his large black steed. Several of the Abbey community came out despite the steady drizzle, to view the stranger.
“I’m looking for the Lady Elfleda,” he called out. He was clearly used to giving orders. A monk, his cowl pulled up for protection, scurried forward and pointed towards the building next to the infirmary. The horseman swung down and holding the reins out ordered “Look to my horse!” I saw him lift a bundle down from his saddle. There were a few mutterings amongst those gathered as to whom the stranger might be. Important visitors were a regular occurrence at Whitby Abbey, a leading centre of learning and art with a reputation for intricately ornamented manuscripts, erudite texts and instruction of scholarly priests.
I had returned to the table and was reading correspondence from my friend Bishop Wilfred, who was travelling in Europe, when my visitor entered.
“Greetings, my lady, I’m Aldred, one of the Thanes of your brother King Ecgfrith. I come with letters and gifts.” He was unusually tall, his hair was dark and he had a well kept beard.
“You are most welcome my Lord, please warm yourself by the fire. Some refreshment?”
While I made arrangements, he unbuckled the substantial silver clasp of two interwoven circles, the inner one depicting a cross, and removed his cloak. Now I could see the true build of the man. Strong, muscular, with handsome rugged features. Unusually for a man with such dark hair his eyes were pale blue. The gentle blue of rosemary flowers from the herb garden. Pity he did not smell quite as sweet – I tried not to wrinkle my nose. Too many days on horseback. He made himself comfortable by the fire, stretching out his long legs. I watched as the mud started to dry and cake on his boots. He closed his eyes and as if half asleep muttered,
“This is a truly holy place, my lady.”
I remembered the day we had arrived. It was blustery. The wind caught my hem, whipping it around my ankles. I had held Sister Osgith’s hand so tight I thought I heard a murmur. I glanced up for reassurance and she smiled down at me. I did not understand why we had to come to this place. Why had my father sent me here? Then there were only a few wooden huts, no stone church. God couldn’t be here, he would be blown away. A young monk came running over, arms outstretched.
“Welcome, welcome! I give thanks you have arrived safely. I am Brother Sigred.” Sister Osgith inclined her head. Her vow of silence had made our journey tedious and dull. Brother Sigred did not seem to notice. He chatted away about the construction of the new buildings and the vegetables being planted. He was so enthusiastic about everything. He did not see a lonely, windswept cliff top. His sturdy adult body stood firm whereas my slight four year old frame was nearly blown over by one of the huge gusts. He led us to the cell which, for the time being, I was to share with Sister Osgith. While she busied herself arranging our few things inside, Brother Sigred took out from the folds of his habit a small doll. It had a painted wooden head, red hair just like mine and a cloth body dressed in blue. He bent down and whispered in my ear, “For you.”
I stood on tip toe and whispered back, “Thank you, Brother Sigred, I will keep her safe always.” I carefully hid my new friend under my blanket before going outside to explore my new home. I no longer keep the doll under my pillow but I still have her.
“Thank you Sister.” I said. The nun inclined her head as she placed the tray on the table and quietly left the room. Aldred stretched, yawned and came over to the table, picking up one of the silver goblets. He did not drink immediately, but toyed with the exquisite object, admiring its fine craftsmanship.
“Beautiful,” he said. Taking a sip, smiling at me.
“Yes, a present to Abbess Hilda from my father the late king when he convened the Synod here. You said you have brought letters from my brother.”
He took from inside the bundle a small packet wrapped in leather tightly bound with thin straps. I sat down at the table again, broke the wax seal, removed the parchment and spread it out. Aldred watched as I read.
‘To the most beloved and sweetest sister in Christ we send greetings.
Consider carefully, my most cherished sister, and examine diligently lest your modesty and piety blind you to your true duty in Christ…’
The sun had shone for the first time in weeks and the breeze brought the smell of the sea across the cliff. I had a busy morning, it was a relief to be outside. I crossed to greet Brother Sigred in his vegetable garden. He had two young monks to assist him as he found the heavy work difficult these days. They were willing enough but did not have Brother Sigred’s knowledge and I wondered how the community would fare without his knowledge and understanding of the seasons, the soil and the vagaries of the weather. He smiled and beckoned me over.
“I don’t see as much of you my child, as I used to.” he chided.
“I’m kept busy dividing my time between the infirmary and assisting Abbess Hilda.”
“It is important work you do, your father would have been proud of the service you do for God and this community.”
I smiled at the old monk. It was then I saw him. Brother Sigred continued to chatter about this and that but I was only half listening. I was transfixed by the young man’s beauty. He was slim, a long, serious face with a slightly pointed nose. I could not see the colour of his eyes but I imagined they were blue because of the cascade of his flaxen hair.
“Is all well with you my child?” Brother Sigred said.
I did not realise I had been staring.
“I’m quite well. Who is the new goat-herd? I do not recognise him.”
“Ah, yes, um. That is Caedmon, he is embarrassed about singing in church, have you not noticed?”
Over the next few weeks Caedmon and I exchanged greetings, discussed goats, my duties in the community. I would make a point of trying to finish my work for Abbess Hilda early so I could walk along the cliff before Compline. I tried to rationalize my behaviour, clearing my head, preparing for prayer. I took circuitous routes to avoid suspicion. When we were alone, Caedmon would hold my hand, interlocking his fingers with mine. I knew I should not encourage him. I ceased my walks. The weather was bad, that was what I told myself. At church on the next Sunday, he wore a new green tunic and I noticed several of the young girls from the village eyeing him. They giggled and whispered behind their hands. After the service I went to the small side chapel, knelt and bowed my head. I had been given into the service of God by my father, I believed it to be my true calling. I found contentment and peace within the religious life and its community. I heard soft footsteps behind me. I turned and saw Caedmon standing there. An angel in human form illuminated by the sunlight coming through the unshuttered window. He held out his arms and in barely more than a whisper said, “Forgive me, my lady”.
We stood facing each other, our fingers touched. He reached out for my hands. I don’t remember which one of us stepped forward, perhaps we both did. His arms encircled me like protective wings. He held me close. The coarseness of his new tunic rubbed against my arm. With a finger he traced around my lips and then his own. I closed my eyes and tilted my head upwards. He was at first gentle and hesitant. As we became more sure of each other, our lips, our tongues, our mouths explored with excitement and an ever-growing desire. There was a noise – we broke away. I could feel the colour rush to my face and I hung my head till my chin touched my breast. From a dark recess Brother Sigred emerged.
“I think it is time for you to return to your duties with the Abbess my child.”
It was a few days later that Caedmon was blessed by God. He was given a most exquisite voice and the skill to compose songs that truly moved the soul. Abbess Hilda, a learned and wise woman, immediately recognised this gift from God and Caedmon gave up his goats and his green tunic and joined the monastic life. In church I heard his beautiful voice resonate throughout that holy place. He was often summoned by Abbess Hilda to recite his latest verses to her. She would bide me stay and listen. Did she know my torture at being so close to him? Was she testing me? I wanted to stroke his hand, arm, face. All I dared do was smile and nod. I did not trust myself to speak to him in her presence for fear my voice would betray me. Did she realise? I sometimes wondered. She never talked about him to me though we talked of many other things.
I stood with my back to Aldred, my brother’s letter discarded on the table.
“Is what my lord the King writes unclear, my lady?” he enquired.
I did not answer immediately, but walked to the end of the table, picked up a small book, covered in goatskin, ornamentally tooled. I opened the book, found the page and read. The words so familiar to me. I shut my eyes and silently mouthed them to myself. When I finished, I slipped the book into a fold in my robe and turned to face my visitor.
“I thank you for delivering my brother’s message, but I am unworthy, unfit, unable to fulfil his request.”
My visitor looked at me perplexed.
“My Lord’s wishes are clear. You are to take charge of the community following the unhappy death of Abbess Hilda. All this had been planned, worked for and agreed. Come, come. It is some months since the old Abbess was taken to be with God. Surely my lady, you do not still mourn?”
“It has been a bad time for us all. The winter fever took many in our community. We not only mourn our beloved abbess but others much younger.” I turned from Aldred’s perceptive blue eyes “And one with unique gifts from God, he had eyes like yours the colour of rosemary and a voice…”
Aldred broke the silence.
“My lady, the King would be insulted and offended. It is your royal and sacred duty. He would be vexed if you do not do as commanded. Please, see the gifts that he has sent you.”
From the large bundle I extracted a small piece of parchment.
‘To my sweetest and gentlest sister, mindful of your well being we send you these gifts to nourish both body and soul. May Almighty God keep you safe and guide forever.’
Inside the bundle was a blue cloak made from fine wool with gold and silver thread embroidery decorating the front and around the hood. As I picked up the cloak, a small leather pouch fell to the floor. Aldred bent down picked it up and handed it to me. Inside was a filigree gold cross inlaid with garnets, suspended on a long chain. I laid it carefully down on the table beside the two letters. Neither of us noticed Brother Sigred enter the room. He stood for a few moments and then moved slowly towards the table. Without a word he picked up the magnificent cross and placed it over my head, saying.
“Now must we praise the guardian of this heaven on earth. Furnish Abbess Elfleda with judgement and wisdom, Almighty God and Everlasting Lord.”
Aldred firmly nodded.
Together, we walked around the Abbey complex. I pointed out the new construction work, the improved scriptorium, the special imported stained glass for the church. All was noted and would be reported back to my brother. At the boundary of the Abbey complex, I watched as Aldred remounted. I waved farewell before turning back to the peace and sanctuary of my home.