Alys Clare

The Rose of the World


Early autumn 1210

T hewoman stood by the tiny window, staring out at the mountains. There was no snow yet on their distant, desolate peaks, but soon there would be. People who knew this place better than she did were already muttering ominously about signs and portents, predicting that a savage, bitter winter was on its way.

She sighed. As if there was not sufficient to worry about already, without the hardships, perils and discomforts of snow that endured for months…

Enough, she told herself firmly. She knew she must not allow herself the luxury of a good moan, even in the privacy of her thoughts. They all had to keep cheerful, for in that way they encouraged one another and life did not seem too bad. Their main bulwark was, of course, their faith. It was the reason why they were all there together. The reason for everything that had happened.

Briefly, the woman closed her eyes, detaching from the sparsely-furnished, chilly little room. Very soon her mind soared, up and away, and a slow smile spread over her thin face. It was so easy to find that bliss; to enter in spirit that wonderful realm that was the goal of them all. If she was very lucky — and just occasionally she was — it seemed to her that she could almost catch the vaguest, mistiest glimpse of the heavenly home. More importantly — oh, far more importantly! — once she thought she had heard… Her physical body forgotten, she gave herself up to the joy that never failed.

Some time later, sounds from the narrow alley below the window brought the woman back to herself. Darkness had fallen. The sounds had been made by her neighbour, closing, locking and barring his door for the night. She wondered if she had locked her own door, and, leaving the room, she went down the steep wooden stairs to check. Yes; all was well. It was not her companions that she feared — of course it wasn’t, for those who had endured so much together could never be a threat to one another — but there were other, far greater dangers out there.

They were not yet nearby, or so all those brave spies reported. But one day they would come; of that there was no doubt. If luck were with the community, the painstaking net of eyes and ears that they had created around them would function as it should and those that came hunting would find nothing but empty houses. If luck had turned her back, then…

No. She must not think about that.

It was time for bed. She climbed back up the stairs, a hand in the small of her back. Her bones ached at the end of a long day, and already she was anticipating the pleasure of lying down on the hard, straw-stuffed mattress that barely covered her small bed. Compared with what she had once known, it offered sparse comfort, for in her previous life she had lived in luxury. She had been married to a knight who had not been a poor man, but her wealth had been her own; her family name had been — still was — an important one in the region. Twenty years ago her husband had died, and she had given up all that she had, all that she possessed, running joyfully to embrace the life she had dreamed of.

She stood in her small room, unpinning her veil and removing the close-fitting coif she wore beneath it. She had no looking glass in which to peer at her image, but she was sure her once-dark hair must surely be streaked with silver. The shed hairs she found on her pillow and on her garments told her so. She had been a wife; she had borne a son, and he, she knew, had a son. Perhaps more children had come along by now. She did not know, for news was a long time reaching the lonely little village hidden away on the knees of the mountains. A grandmother, she reflected. It would have been good to have held her son’s child in her arms.

She turned her mind from the thought. She loosened the laces of her black gown and slipped it off, smoothing down the chemise she wore beneath and feeling her bones protruding through her flesh. She was thin: from grief, from hardship, from fasting. It was difficult to recall the woman she once had been, with the curvaceous hips and the full, generous breasts enhanced by the cut of the gorgeous gowns in colours chosen always to flatter, to bring out the green in her eyes. She had been attractive, beautiful, even, if the men who had danced attendance on her were to be believed. She shook her head, smiling, dismissing a past she neither regretted nor wanted back. It was two decades since she had embraced a man or a boy; were a handsome, naked stranger to appear magically in her bed, she wondered if she would even remember what to do.

She lay down, closed her eyes and made herself relax, hoping to return to the sacred realm she had visited in her thoughts before she prepared for bed. But she could not find it now; other images were intruding, horrible images whose brutality did not lessen even though she had seen them in her mind a hundred times. It was more than a year now since that unspeakable day. She wondered, as she lay in the darkness and endured her memories, how long it would be before the agony faded. If it ever did. In addition to her almost physical reaction to what she had seen, there was also guilt because she had survived where so many had not. Thanks to the spy network, some of them had suspected what was going to happen and had not been there on the Magdalene’s feast day. She had been one of them, forewarned and far away when the blow fell. She had tried to make more of her people come away with her, but they had refused to see the danger until it was too late. What a price they had paid. Death by the sword, death by beating, death by burning. Death.

She thought about death. It called to her in sweet, gentle tones, and she wanted very much to answer. Not yet; it was not her time, and such things were not for her to decide.

As if there had been an obligation to recall yet again the awful day when the world had changed, now that she had done so it was easy to let her mind drift. Perhaps it was a reward for enduring her memories and her guilt without protest, for now the horrors had faded away and the blessed realm seemed very close. She gave a deep sigh and gave herself up to the images, dimly making out the angels in their bliss, a vision shot with gold and rose- pink like the sunset. Just for the blink of an eye, she thought she heard the precious, holy sounds…

The vision had gone. Once more she lay alone in a cold, stone-walled room, lit only by the distant stars. She strove as hard as she could to recall those sounds, but it was no good: you had to hear them even as they issued out of the silence, for they would not remain in the mind once they had ceased.

But there used to be a way, the woman reflected. Before the threat had come, there had been books. Not many, for they were priceless and the knowledge they contained was reserved for those who had proved themselves deserving. But the precious books were all far beyond her reach, some lost forever in the flames, some hidden away so deep that they would never see the light of day again.

She lay in silent contemplation for some time. A memory was stirring, and patiently she waited until it had formed.

At long last she turned on her side and, pulling the thin blanket closer around her, prepared for sleep. She knew what she had to do. Tomorrow she would work out how to get a message out of that besieged land.


Abbess Caliste of Hawkenlye Abbey paced to and fro across her room behind a firmly-closed door, doing her utmost to control her fury. Her heart was hammering so hard that she felt light-headed, and her fists were clenched so fiercely that her fingernails had cut into her palms.

How dare they! she thought, clamping her lips together to prevent the anguished cry roaring out of her. As if the abbey and the people we serve were not suffering enough already!

She indulged her anger for a while longer. Then she drew a couple of deep breaths, walked slowly around behind the wide table where she worked and sat down in the throne-like chair. She drew a piece of scrap parchment towards her and dipped her quill into the ink horn. Then she began to write down the details of the information that had just been issued to her.

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