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The Oblate's Tale of the Abbess and the Knight

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I still remember the first time I saw Bele Doette, when I was brought to the abbey as an oblate, as a child to be given to the Church.

"Blanche, have you then suffered for love?" Bele Doette asked me.

It was the ritual question asked of all visitors to the abbey, as it is asked even today. I looked up at the Abbess Doette, as beautiful as a rose or a star, all her motions with a flowing grace to them. She wore, as I would find she always did except for the great feasts, a robe of coarse cloth that on anyone else would have been ugly and churlish, but on her somehow fell in graceful folds.I had never seen anyone so beautiful before, nor so sad.

I had, even then, the ability of sensing emotions, though my parents had feared it and tried to beat it out of me. The beatings could not change what I saw, however, and I was intrigued by the delicate lady with the gentle sadness that clung about her like a cloak. Instead of answering the question, I said to her, with the artlessness of a child, "Why are you so sad?" I was young enough that I had never heard the song, although I heard it enough times in the succeeding years: the song that tells of her love for Count Doon, how he was slain, how she caused the Abbey to be built out of her sorrow and her strength, and how the Feasts of Fidelity were begun.

She blinked, clearly not having expected the question. "My child," she said, placing a hand on my shoulder, "what makes you think I am sad?"

"I see it, it is a grey blanket on you," I said, and then, too late: "Ah! but Maman told me not to speak of what I see, she says it is a curse from the Devil --"

She tightened her fingers around my shoulder; her grip was surprisingly strong. "Dear child," she said, "these gifts are not from the Devil, but from God, although like any other gift they can turn to both good and evil."

I was struck dumb with amazement. That this beautiful lady should tell me my curse was from God! At my silence, the abbess went on. "We will speak further on that. But it is neither magic nor man that endures. These are the things that abide: faith, hope, and love. Do you understand?"

I did not, but I nodded anyway. She smiled at me, and my heart turned over in my chest. "Now, Blanche, let us try again: have you suffered for love?"

"I have," I whispered. For the sweet pain I felt looking into her eyes: was it not love?

Ah, what did I know then of love?

*

Bele Doette is all but a legend now, a beautiful portrait on the wall of the abbey, a romantic song that is sung by the children in the fields as they skip home in the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon sun. She lives on in the stone of the abbey, in the students of the students she taught, the children of those who came to the great feasts. I am one of the last who can tell you of her as she was, and of the knight who came to her at the Feast of Fidelity these fifty years past.

What I am about to relate happened the summer after I began as an oblate in the great abbey, ten years after the building of it was finished. At this time, it was not uncommon for knights and other noble folk to come to the abbey. Some came for prayers and for herbs, or for magic spells. Some came to treat with the abbess; she had been a countess before she became an abbess, and had a great deal of temporal as well as spiritual power in the world. But many, perhaps most, came because the abbey was known far and wide to succor those who suffered for love. Some came for their physical needs: food and drink when they had become faint. Some came for prayers and fasting for the sake of their love. Some came for spiritual guidance, for all knew that Bele Doette had also suffered for love.

Many came for the Feast of Fidelity, the great feast of the abbey held every year on the feast day of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The peculiarity and the magical nature of this feast was this: anyone who had been untrue or who had betrayed love was barred from entry, a magic that Bele Doette herself had wrought as a spell shimmering over the tall carved doors to the great hall of the abbey.

I can see it still, in my mind's eye: the lords and ladies glittering in blazing jewels, garbed in richly-colored clothing; the pageant of knight and lady, duchess and count, bishop and page, prioress and maid, peasant and merchant, nun and sailor: all were welcome, all who had suffered for love. And there are tales of true loves finding each other at this feast, but those are tales for another time.

So when the knight came to the abbey, a week before that year's Feast, this was not an event so strange as to be remarked upon at first, except for me, in my first year at the abbey. The knight was, after all, the first guest we would have for the Feast.

I had somehow caught the rumor of a visitor approaching the abbey, and had pestered Sister Marie to be near the gate: dark-haired, tiny Sister Marie with her sunny smile and mischievous twinkling eyes, who had come to the abbey in the first year of its founding. I was the only oblate at the time, and Sister Marie's task was to herd me into the places I was supposed to be. I can only assume she was given this duty because of her near-infinite capacity for both patience and laughter. Even through her greatest griefs, I always saw a veneer of golden joy around her. But though she laughed more easily than anyone else I have ever known, she was serious as she carefully opened the gate.

The armour of the knight was well-kept but worn, as if it had seen much turmoil. So too seemed its master; the knight's dark hair was streaked with grey, the noble face lined with worry and care. And around the knight I saw a dark shadow, a cloak of the same worry that was echoed in the warrior's face.

"Have you then suffered for love?" asked Sister Marie gently, in the same tones she used to soothe me when I sobbed in the night for my mother.

"I will speak only to the Abbess," the knight returned, in a low voice, and said nothing more, not when Sister Marie repeated the question, nor when she asked any other question.

Sister Marie frowned. "I should not leave a visitor here unattended," she murmured. Her glance settled on me where I was trying, unsuccessfully, to cast a glamour on the gate of the abbey like a miniature version of the spell on the great hall. So far I had succeeded only in producing a far-away, bell-like music. "Blanche, can you find the Abbess and tell her of our visitor?"

"Yes, Sister!" I was immediately off, walking as quickly as I could so as not to risk being accused of running through the abbey, before Sister Marie could change her mind. I finally found the Abbess at prayer. I was, as always, momentarily struck to the heart by her beauty and her sadness; then I recalled why I had come, and I hastily poured out the events that had just occurred.

"And, Abbess," I said quickly, "the shadow over the knight, the dark shadow —"

"My little Blanche who sees the soul," said the Abbess Doette softly to me. She rose. "Well, my dear, let us then go see this strange knight who will speak to no other." She followed me to the gate, where the knight stood stone-still, face bowed and hidden in shadow. Sister Marie, standing in the light of the afternoon sun slanting into the abbey windows with her hands clasped, watched the knight in her turn, while music whispered around them.

Abbess Doette exchanged a nod and a smile with Sister Marie, a pure flute-tone trill murmuring softly. The Abbess then held out a hand to the knight in benediction, saying, "Have you then suffered for love?"

The knight looked up and said quietly, "Most grievously have I suffered for love."

At the sight of the other's face, at the sound of the other's voice, the abbess gasped. "Constance!" And then: "My dear Constance, my very dear one, my soul's sister —"

"Doette, my heart's love—" the knight murmured.

The music stilled. And the abbess and the knight embraced as heart's-friends, soul's-friends; as sisters, as more than sisters.

And yet curled around the knight still was the dark shadow I had seen at first, and I shivered.

*

It was not a coincidence that I was there when the following events occurred. The Knight Constance had intrigued many of the nuns for a time, especially when we found she had been girlhood friends with the Abbess, and rumors swirled around the abbey: that Constance and Doette had sworn undying friendship and love as small children; that Constance was known for having the strength of ten; that her skill at jousting was unparalleled, and that she had wandered through far lands for many years in vain search for someone whose ability might equal her own.

But as other guests for the Feast, some far higher in rank than a single simple knight, started arriving at the abbey, the nuns turned their attention to the upcoming feast.

Except for me. Sister Marie had her vast quantities of long-suffering sorely tried that week, as I daydreamed, spinning illusions and stories instead of performing my temporal, magical, or spiritual duties. It was only that my fancy had been caught and held by the knight who loved our Abbess; and a little, I think, that I was jealous of the woman our Abbess had loved since she was a girl. I dreamed of being a perfect gentle knight like Constance; of saving the Abbess from untold dangers, of laying the hearts of her enemies at her feet. When I saw them together, I would always strain to make out any conversation between them, that I might learn more of both of them. So it was, the day of the feast, as the two of them walked past us in the corridor, I heard her say, "Come, Constance, let us go up to the Feast."

The Feast was not until much later in the day, but the Abbess came to the hall early so as to prepare to lead the chanting of the Grand Procession. Et solis instar, she would sing, like an angel or a seraph robed in dark red, framed in an arch of white and red flowers; and the richly arrayed parade of folk would answer her: sola regnet caritas.

But that would not be until the evening. Meanwhile, I saw my chance: I contrived to slip away while Sister Marie was busy with herbs in the kitchen. And I followed the two women as they made their way to the great hall of the abbey.

"Do you remember," I heard Abbess Doette say as I crept behind them, "when I went to my Count Doon, and you said to me that you would never love another soul more than me? And yet you say you have suffered for love. Why will you not tell me for what cause, my friend?"

"I think I must tell you soon," the knight returned gravely, and with that they were at the great carved doors of the hall, shimmering with the abbess' magic.

There was no one else around. The other nuns were preparing for the feast either temporally or spiritually; and the other guests were preparing for the Grand Procession. So I, and perhaps one other, was the only one to see what followed; and I have never told anyone until now.

The abbess had thrown open the massive doors and was half inside before she realized that her friend was not with her. "Come," she said, beckoning to the knight, "why do you not come inside?"

"I cannot enter," the knight said simply. She laid a finger on the glimmering air between her and the abbess.

The abbess stopped short. She knew what that meant. Even I, who had been at the convent not quite a year, knew it. "You have betrayed love."

"I have."

There was a small silence. The abbess waited, with a curious half-frozen look on her face, as if she both wished for and dreaded to know what her friend would say.

The knight turned her face away from the abbess. "When I left you I journeyed to the courts of other lands. I found that my teacher had taught me well, and that I was skilled; that I could ride against most knights and defeat them." Her voice was calm, but there was an undercurrent of anguish to it.

She closed her eyes and opened them again. "And then I found that my opponent in the tourney would be Count Doon. And another knight I had previously vanquished told me that I could easily unhorse him, that I would have to take special care that I did not hit him too hard."

I drew a breath. The abbess was perfectly still.

"I did not mean to kill him," Constance said softly. "But I knew it could happen, that it was even likely. And I jousted anyway, out of anger and jealousy, that you loved him more than me."

Abbess Doette's face was white, as though she might faint, but she did not.

Constance went on. "I thought of going to you, of flinging myself at your feet and bearing any punishment or penance you might impose. But instead I rode to distant lands, where I would neither see you nor hear your voice, where even your name would be strange and unspoken.

"And yet as far as I fled was not far enough. Even in the far corners of the world, my guilt followed me, and I heard the song of Bele Doette. And so I have come to tell you what I should have many years ago."

Her voice dropped until I could barely hear it.

"Now you know. I betrayed your love twice, my sister, first by slaying the Count, and second by running from you instead of giving you the truth."

And I saw the shadow that had been surrounding the knight loosen with the confession. I drew a breath of relief.

But when I saw the face of the abbess, and saw the darkness settle around her shoulders, my heart became agitated once more. Doette said, her words distorted and slow, "And you thought to enter the feast here, the Feast of Fidelity, though you were untrue."

Constance stretched out a hand to the abbess. "I prayed for forgiveness. I hoped I might be forgiven."

With one fluid motion Bele Doette stepped forward and drew the knight's sword from its sheath, and suddenly I saw her as she must have been in her youth: a delicate flower of a woman, but with fine steel at her core. And I saw also the black anger wrap itself around her a little more, like a cloak of living dark fur.

The knight dropped to one knee on the hard stone of the abbey, bowing her head, and the abbess pointed the tip of the sword at the knight's breast.

"I still remember the sword-fighting lessons you once gave me," she said harshly. "I will strike true."

"I know you have not forgotten."

I was only a girl. What could I know then of the anguish of a heart's love lost, a soul's love betrayed? I knew nothing then of adult pain or grief. I only knew that this must not happen.

"No!" I said, breaking from concealment. Both turned to look at me. "Abbess, this is — is not you —" I waved my arms wildly, almost getting a finger cut by the blade for my pains, and still I could not articulate it: this is the anger speaking, this is the pain acting, you cannot do this thing.

Abbess Doette stared at me with the wide eyes of madness, but she held the sword still.

Another voice broke in from behind me. "The child has faith in you, Abbess," Sister Marie said softly.

I never found out how Sister Marie came to be there, but I think she must have found me missing and had guessed, or deduced, where I would be. She and the Abbess held each other's gaze for a long moment, and in Marie's look were all the love and fidelity I had known from her as well.

And I knew she loved the Abbess as much as I thought I did. More, much more; for they had been nuns together for years before I had even been born.

And Abbess Doette let the sword fall. As it clanged to the ground I saw Constance take her in her arms, and I saw their tears mingle as they wept together.

"Come, child," said Sister Marie, taking my hand and turning me away from the pair.

I protested softly, perhaps as much from being called child as from being asked to leave, but I went with her.

Before she led me away, I saw that the doors were now solely dark wood, finely carved; and I saw the abbess and the knight enter the great hall, together, hand in hand.

*

This is the tale of how the Feast of Fidelity was transformed in glory; from that day onward it has been known as the Feast of Love, which it is still called.

And those who have betrayed love come to repent and ask forgiveness, and are not turned away.

*

I am old now, my fingers little more than curved claws around the quill, and all the others in my story have passed from this earth.

Yes, Bele Doette is long gone, and although we still give the Feast of Love it is not with the pomp and splendor of the old days. But there are other blessings that have come: the school where magic is taught to a number of young girls rather than a single child; the young postulants who smile at me now as I suppose I once smiled at the Abbess Doette, at the Abbess Marie after her.

Remember, my sisters. Faith, hope, and love: these all abide. But the greatest of these is love.