The snow had melted away and the sun was beginning to warm up the days when Ophelia told me she was going to visit a nearby monastery. She invited me to come along. I was not eager to meet new people, but she insisted that I could be of some help to her. After much persuasion, I gave in, but mainly because I dreaded the thought of being left by myself in the cabin. Most of all, I dreaded what it would do to my sanity if she was not there to silence my demons.
So one early morning in late April, we loaded the horse with everything that she had hoarded during the long winter months, and started the journey on foot, guiding the fully packed animal along the long serpentine road that wound down hill.
For the first time since Ophelia had rescued me, I ventured away from the cabin during daytime. Spring had truly taken over from the winter gloom and I was delighted by the dazzling visual spectacle of yellow and purple blooms, just peeking through the fresh spring grass that covered the forest floor. However, when we reached the valley below, the open spaces with flowerbeds became much sparser, and although the rays of the midday sun still shimmered through the canopy of leaves above us, it had much decreased in strength. We were venturing deeper into the forest.
"Are you sure this is the right way?" I asked. One would expect a monastery to be surrounded by fields, and to be close to small villages, or at least a major road. It was not supposed to be lying in the middle of the woods, and to be almost inaccessible except for a more or less invisible track. It was then that my eyes caught sight of a wooden structure, hidden behind a chaotic growth of cedar trees. It was no more than a platform build into the crown of an ancient-looking conifer.
"We are halfway." Ophelia replied, and blew on her two fingers, producing a short high-pitched whistle. A figure dressed in a hooded habit appeared on the platform above us. She waved at him.
"Don't sound the alarm!" She yelled up at the man in the tree tops. "It's me Ophelia."
He seemed to recognize her. "Who is this man?" He asked, pointing down.
"A friend. I brought him along to visit the monastery. I assure you, he can be trusted."
This seemed to be a satisfactory answer. The man returned a slight nod, before disappearing again behind the foliage.
"Who was that man?" I asked Ophelia, confused by our strange encounter.
"He is a monk from the hidden monastery with guard duties."
"Why is he guarding the road? Are there bands of robbers roaming these lands?"
"You could call them that I guess." She replied with a sour smile. "It's for the king's men. He needs to warn the others when he sees them approach."
"The king's men? But they are clergymen, not thieves. There is no need to fear the king's authority."
Ophelia gazed at me in puzzlement. "They are Catholics." She stated, as if that would explain everything.
"Yes, so is the rest of England including the king." I reminded her.
"Is this a joke Richard? Are you pretending to be a time-traveler again?" Ophelia gazed at me as if I had just grown an extra head.
"I am not jesting, why would the king want to harm any of these God-fearing men?"
"Our king has a made decree to dissolute the monasteries. Most of England's abbeys have been plundered. Whole congregations which have existed for centuries were forcefully disassembled."
"That….cannot be true." I muttered, taking it all in with the incredulity of someone who had been just informed that the world had ended while he was taking a short nap in the afternoon, but never mind that inconvenience.
"That is blasphemy!" I called out. It was the world's order turned on its head. I might have been, according to Ophelia and no doubt the rest of England, a villain who had murdered his way up to the crown, but at least during my rather short reign, I had not offended God in such a profound way as Henry's offspring now had. "What does the pope say about this?"
"We are no longer under the pope's rule. Our king is now head of the church. The English church. A new religion for a new age. Apparently, it is no longer enough for tyrants to rule over the hearts of their subjects. They need to rule over their souls as well."
"How could anyone allow this to happen?" I asked, realizing that I was not a man waking up to not only encounter the end of the world, but also the end of sanity.
"How could you not know?" Ophelia responded with round questioning eyes. "They have been persecuting the Catholic monks ever since Thomas Cromwell sent out his first commissioners to do his dirty work for his royal master." Her expression became solemn, anger rang through. "I don't mind that they smashed the statues of the saints or destroyed the stained glass windows, or even that they set fire to the libraries and wiped out centuries of knowledge. What I mind is that they ripped out the heart of countless of communities. It's the common people who are the most affected by the king's actions. They have no longer a place to turn to when they are in need. The poor are left to fend for themselves. The sick are dying in the streets."
The forest suddenly stopped in front of us, revealing a large area of low growth that reached up to a circular brick wall in the not to far distance. It fenced off a complex of buildings. The highest of them was a tower-like structure, narrow of shape and hardly 2 stories tall. Except for that, nothing surpassed the height of the surrounding trees. We entered through the main gate and were greeted by a gathering of monks headed by a bearded man dressed in a long white habit.
"Friar Norbert." Ophelia embraced him. I am happy to see that you are well."
"My dear Ophelia." The friar responded warmly to her greetings. "We have missed you." He told her most affectionately, before fixed his eyes warily on me. "I see you brought a friend."
That I felt awkward and distrustful towards the friars would be an understatement. My previous experiences with any other human being except for Ophelia ever since I returned to this strange life had been utterly disastrous. Standing behind her, I instinctively pulled back a little when friar Norbert walked up to greet me, and was glad that he kept it formal and short.
"How are you managing?" Ophelia asked the friar.
"At least the long winter has finally passed." The friar replied. "Thanks to your last year's donations, we had enough in our larder to keep everybody fed during the harshest months."
He led us across the courtyard to the largest building in the complex. Inside was a great hall that had been turned into a ward, with rows on rows of wooden coffinlike boxes with straw bedding covered with linen sheets. Most, if not all of them were occupied by the sick. There were men and women of all ages, children, and even babes with their mothers. Some of them looked emaciated, gaunt faces struck by starvation with hollow empty eyes. Others were coughing continuously, marking their bed sheets with red spots of blood. A man with a horrible rash on his skin who had lost half his leg was shaking violently, while the friars tried to keep him pinned down as they treated his wounds.
"They keep on coming." The friar lamented. "There are not enough other places left for them to go."
"We are here to help." Ophelia reassured him. "We brought fresh supplies, food and medicine. Potions to treat gangrene, convulsion, and fever."
"I will ask brother Remus to unpack your horse. Thank you for you contributions. We are in such short supply. Nothing is yet growing in the gardens, and even if we were in the midst of summer, we probably could not grow enough to help everyone."
"I know. I promise I shall do what I can to aid you in your good work." Ophelia leaned closer to the friar, so the others may not catch this part of their conversation. "Were there any new cases?"
"Yes I am afraid there were. A young girl who had lost her family during last year's famine, and one of our own brothers who tried to take care of her."
She nodded with a grim expression on her face. "They are quarantined?"
"Yes, we followed your instructions to the letter."
"Could you take me to see them?"
He let us to the entrance of the narrow tower and took us up a winding staircase. A sickly stench came at us when he opened the doorway that led to a narrow space with high vaulted ceiling. There was only enough room for two beds. One was occupied by a young girl, the other by an old man. Both had drenched their clothes and bedsheets in sweat and were barely conscious. My stomach tightened when I saw the tell-tale signs of bubonic plaque: The large bulbous growths that bloomed like grotesque dark mushrooms on the necks and arms of the victims. The old man's jaw so grotesquely swollen that he could no longer close his mouth, causing him to drool incessantly.
Ophelia was about to enter the room when I grabbed her arm. "Don't go near them." I urged.
"Richard, what are you doing? I came here to treat the sick."
"That may be but these two are beyond your help. Look at them. They are dying. If you go near you'll risk getting infected."
"Not if I take the right precautions." She pulled away and took out a piece of cloth, which she folded several times before using it to cover her mouth and nose. "I know what I am doing." She tied the ends behind her head, and went through her hip bag to take out a phial with a honey colored liquid. It was the potion that she had made from our winter harvest of mandrake roots.
"These people have entered the final stage of the disease. If I don't treat them now they are going to die within days."
"You don't even know them Ophelia. Why risk your own life to save two strangers."
"I did not know you when I first found you in the woods. Yet I did what was right. I saved your life." She turned to the friar. "Could you please bring me a burning candle and a thin knife with a sharp end? I need to lance the buboes before cleaning the wounds with the potion." The man nodded solemnly and ventured downstairs. Ophelia then turned back and said in a resolute voice: "If you value your own life so much, just go, but don't prevent me from helping those in need."
She stepped inside the chamber and closed the door behind her. I stood outside in the corridor, not knowing what to do, till my growing resentment against her irrational decision got the better of me and made me leave.
I returned to the ward where, after I watched friar Norbert rush upstairs with the requested implements, I waited for Ophelia to return. The big open space was constantly echoing with the noise of human suffering, but I soon grew immune to it, being too occupied by my own grievances with Ophelia. As the shadows that were cast from the row of pillars in the adjacent corridor grew longer and thinner with every passing hour, I got increasingly frustrated. When she still had not returned by early evening, I contemplated to go back upstairs, but did not do so because I was still too angry to have anything to do with her ridiculous quest for self-destruction. In my view, her saintliness was not merely incomprehensible, but completely absurd. It was the conviction of a fool who had missed the whole point of this cruel world, that bad things happened without moral retribution and that no good deed was ever justly rewarded. The only cautionary tale that was worth telling to your children in this miserable life was that of the fight for survival. It dazzled my mind that from the lowliest worm struggling to slip off a fisherman's hook to the youngest of infants crying for his mother's milk could understand this simple logic, but Ophelia would or could simply not.
Sat in a dark corner, as far away from the others as possible, I leaned back my head against a pillar and observed the ceaseless activities that went on around me. The friars were patrolling the ward, rushing to carry out the thankless tasks of caring for others. Some were cleaning out the rotting maggot-infested wounds of amputees and injured soldiers. Others offered food to the frail, feeding them one half-spoon full at the time with saint-like patience. An elderly monk held on to a dying man's hand who was shaking uncontrollably, caught in his final death throws that was signaled by the emptying of the bowels and bladder. The bleakness and horrors of it all only further darkened my mood.
I finally noticed that friar Norbert had re-entered the ward. He was gazing around, searching through a sea of faces, before he walked over to a woman who was sitting at the bedside of a man, who could be her husband in age. His complexion was corpse-like and his wide-eyed gaze showed an absence of mind, as if he had already left this world. The friar put a hand on the woman's shoulder, and she gazed up at him, her expression dazed with sorrow and exhaustion. The friar pushed something in the palm of her hand and closed her fingers around it, before talking to her for a while. Then the friar nodded in my direction, and they both looked at me briefly.
I swiftly turned around to face the window. The woman reminded me too much of Elizabeth Woodville, my brother Edward's hapless queen. Just seeing her brought back memories of the turbulent days just before my brother's death. Similar to this soon to be widow, Elizabeth had been completely broken by grief. At that time, I had no pity for her sorrow, for she and Edward's children were standing in my way of the Yorkist crown. Her family and herself were a bunch of parasitic leaches that had reaped all the advantage of the great struggles of our house, while Clarence and me were increasingly pushed aside from power by our besotted king brother. As for love, I doubt if lovely and pure Elizabeth would have fallen for Edward if he had not been the monarch of this realm. My naïve brother may have believed in true love at first sight, but I recognize a duped fool and call him for what he is when I see one.
I was startled when the woman walked over and tried to catch my gaze.
"My dear sir." She started hesitantly. "I pray you could spare me a moment."
Up close, her features looked so very much like Elizabeth's, with the same innocent doe-like eyes and warm kindly smile that had captured my brother's heart, that my own skipped a beat. She held a small purse in her hands. Her nervous fingers fiddled with the rope. "I would like to tell you that we thank you wholeheartedly for your charity."
"You have no need to do so." I answered, baffled by her statement. "I have not been charitable to you in any way."
"Forgive me, but Friar Norbert informed me that you have donated a large sum to the monastery to be distributed amongst the poor." She responded with a timid little smile.
"I am sure you are mistaken for I have truly not done such a thing." I replied bluntly, ignoring that her cheeks were now flushed with embarrassment.
"Well, my kind sir, my gratitude to you is justified, even if you would not accept it." There was an alarming shiver in her voice. "You see, without these coins I would not be able to take care of my children, not without my poor husband…" She could not continue, and covered her mouth while tears started to roll down her cheeks.
I wished my heart could be hardened to stone, but her frailty was unsettling and I could not utter another harsh word to her. It might be that Elizabeth and her clan had caused me much aggravation, but perhaps, like this widow's devotion to her husband, Elizabeth's devotion to my brother Edward had been truly genuine. Well at least more so than all the artificial tears that I had shed at the funeral.
I awkwardly took her hand and held it till she had once again composed herself, which took an achingly long while. After she finally went back to her dying husband's side, I caught friar Norbert's eyes for a fleeting moment, and he greeted me with a most sympathetic smile. I returned it with a reluctant courteous nod.
Not long after, Ophelia came down from the room in the tower. I intercepted her just when she rushed by, carrying a washbowl filled with blood and puss soiled linen wrappings.
"It was you, wasn't?" I told her with great resentment. "You gave away the coins that you took from Audemar and Greybeard." I concluded. It did not require much from me to put one and one together.
She gazed back with defiance gleaming in her eyes.
"You also told the friar that I have donated it to the monastery."
Yes, yes I did." She admitted.
"Why? Why did you do such a thing?" I asked, disgusted.
"Because it did came from you." She replied, returning me a meaningful look. "It was money from your two so-called friends who earned it by horribly exploiting you. So it was yours to give. I simply helped you to make the right decision what to do with it. Is that so bad?"
"I don't mind that." I said, telling her the truth. "But why tell them?"
Her look of surprise after the realization what bothered me, quickly turned to cynical amusement. "Is it truly so horrible to receive the gratitude of another human being for once?" She replied, rolling her eyes at me as she walked away.
"Wait." I yelled after her. No we were not done with this conversation, absolutely not! "Where are you going?"
"I need fresh water from the well to bring down the fever of the little girl." She turned and gazed at me. "If you have changed your mind and want to help, you are more then welcome to do so." She halted her steps and waited in the doorway to the outside courtyard, her chin held up high.
I bit on lower lip. With my emotions lost in confusion, I wondered if she had just pulled another her tricks to force me see the world through her eyes.
"Are you coming?" She asked again.
After a moment of hesitation, I finally made up my mind and followed her.