Saving Grace : Chapter 1
Barnslay Monastery, England, 1200
Holy Bishop Hallwick, will you explain to us the hierarchy in heaven and on earth? Who is the most esteemed in God's eyes?" the student asked.
"Don't the apostles stand first in God's good graces?" the second student inquired.
"Nay," replied the wise bishop. "The archangel Gabriel, protector of women and children, our champion of the innocents, stands first above all others."
"Who next then?" the first student asked.
"All the other angels, of course," the bishop answered. "Next stand the apostles, with Peter first among the twelve, and then follow the prophets and miracle workers and those good teachers of God's word on earth. Last in heaven stand all the other saints."
"But who is the most important here on earth, Bishop Hallwick? Who is most blessed in God's eyes here?"
"Man," came the immediate reply. "And the highest and most important among men is our holy pope."
The two students nodded acceptance of that dictate. Thomas, the elder of the two young men, leaned forward on his perch atop the stone wall outside the sanctuary. His brow was wrinkled with concentration. "Next in God's love stand the cardinals and then the other ordained men of God," he interjected.
"That is so," the bishop agreed, pleased with his student's guess.
"But who stands next in importance?" the second student asked.
"Why the rulers of kingdoms here on earth," the bishop explained. He sat down in the center of the wooden bench, spread his ornately decorated black robes, and then added, "Those leaders who fatten the church's treasury are more loved by God, of course, than those who hoard gold for their own pleasure."
Three more young men walked over to listen to their holy leader's lecture. They settled themselves in a half circle at the bishop's feet.
"Do married and then unmarried men stand next?" Thomas asked.
"Aye," the bishop replied. "And they are of the same position as the merchants and the sheriffs but just above the serfs chained to the land."
"Who next, Bishop?" the second student asked.
"The animals, starting with the most loyal, man's dog," the bishop answered, "and ending with the dull-witted oxen. There, I believe I have given you the full hierarchy to repeat to your students once you have taken your vows and are ordained men of God."
Thomas shook his head. "You've forgotten women, Bishop Hallwick. Where do they stand in God's love?"
The bishop rubbed his brow while he considered the question. "I have not forgotten women," he finally said. "They are last in God's love."
"Below dull-witted oxen?" the second student asked.
"Aye, below oxen."
The three young men seated on the ground immediately nodded their agreement.
"Bishop?" Thomas asked.
"What is it, my son?"
"Have you given us God's hierarchy or the church's?"
The bishop was appalled by the question. It smelled blasphemous to him. "They are the same, are they not?"
A great number of men who lived in the early centuries did believe that God's views were always accurately interpreted by the church.
Some women knew better. This is a story about one of them.
The news was going to destroy her.
Kelmet, her faithful steward and senior in charge since Baron Raulf Williamson's hasty departure from England on the king's personal business, was given the responsibility of telling his mistress the god-awful news. The servant didn't put off the dreaded task, for he guessed Lady Johanna would wish to question the two messengers before they returned to London, if his mistress could speak to anyone after she'd heard about her beloved husband.
Aye, he needed to tell the gentle lady as soon as possible. Kelmet understood his duty well enough, and though he believed he was anxious to get it done, his feet still dragged as though mired in knee-deep mud as he made his way to the newly built chapel where Lady Johanna was in afternoon prayers.
Father Peter MacKechnie, a visiting cleric from the Maclaurin holding in the Highlands, was making his way up the steep incline from the lower bailey when Kelmet happened to spot him. The steward let out a quick sigh of relief before shouting a summons to the dour-faced priest.
"I've need of your services, MacKechnie," Kelmet bellowed over the rising wind.
The priest nodded, then scowled. He still hadn't forgiven the steward for his insulting behavior of two days past.
"Are you wanting me to hear your confession?" the priest shouted back, a hint of mockery in his thick brogue.
MacKechnie shook his head. "You've got yourself a black soul, Kelmet."
The steward made no response to the barb but patiently waited until the dark-haired Scot had gained his side. He could see the amusement in the priest's eyes and knew then he was jesting with him.
"There is another matter more important than my confession," Kelmet began. "I've just received word…"
The priest wouldn't let him finish his explanation. "Today's Good Friday," he interrupted. "Nothing could be more important than that. You won't be getting communion from me come Easter morning unless you confess your sins today and beg God's forgiveness. You might begin with the distasteful sin of rudeness, Kelmet. Aye, that would be a proper start."
Kelmet held his patience. "I gave you my apology, Father, but I see that you still haven't forgiven me."
"'Tis the truth I haven't."
The steward frowned. "As I explained yesterday and the day before, I would not allow you entrance into the keep because I was given specific orders by Baron Raulf not to let anyone inside while he was away. I was told even to deny Lady Johanna's brother, Nicholas, entry should he come calling. Father, try to understand. I'm the third steward here in less than one year's time, and I try only to hold onto my position longer than all the others."
MacKechnie snorted. He wasn't quite through baiting the steward. "If Lady Johanna hadn't intervened, I'd still be camped outside the walls, wouldn't I now?"
Kelmet nodded. "Aye, you would," he admitted. "Unless you gave up your vigil and returned home."
"I won't be going anywhere until I've spoken to Baron Raulf and set him straight about the havoc his vassal is causing on Maclaurin land. Plain murder of innocents is going on, Kelmet, but I'm praying your baron doesn't have any idea what an evil, power-hungry man Marshall has turned out to be. I've heard it said Baron Raulf's an honor able man. I hope that praise be true, for he must right this atrocity with all possible haste. Why, even now some of the Maclaurin soldiers are turning to the bastard MacBain for assistance. Once they've given him their pledge of loyalty and named him laird, all hell's going to break free. MacBain will go to war against Marshall and every other Englishman preying on Maclaurin land. The Highland warrior is no stranger to fury or vengeance, and I'd wager my soul even Baron Raulf's hide will be in jeopardy once MacBain sees for himself the rape of the Maclaurin land by the infidels your baron placed in charge."
Kelmet, although not personally involved in the plight of the Scots, was still caught up in the story. There was also the fact that the priest was inadvertently aiding him in putting off his dreaded task. A few more minutes surely wouldn't hurt, Kelmet thought to himself.
"Are you suggesting this MacBain warrior would come to England?"
"I'm not suggesting," the priest countered. "I'm stating fact. Your baron won't have the slightest inkling he's here either until he feels MacBain's blade at his throat. It will be too late then, of course."
The steward shook his head. "Baron Raulf's soldiers would kill him before he even reached the drawbridge."
"They'd never get the chance," MacKechnie announced, his voice firm with conviction.
"You make this warrior sound invincible."
"I'm thinking he could be. 'Tis the truth I've never met another like him. I won't chill you with the tales I've heard about the MacBain. Suffice it to say you don't want his wrath pouring down on this keep."
"None of it matters now, Father," Kelmet whispered, his tone weary.
"Oh, it matters all right," the priest snapped. "I'm going to wait to see your baron for as long as need be. The matter is too grave for impatience to take hold."
Father MacKechnie paused to gather his control. He knew the Maclaurin issue was of no concern to the steward, yet once he started to explain, the anger he'd been carefully guarding inside spilled out and he wasn't able to keep the fury out of his voice. He forced himself to speak in a much calmer voice when he changed the topic.