Erin had been doing a lot of walking lately. A great deal of it had been for one purpose and one alone: to forget that she had no more allies on the square, that it was just her and Wulf now. Hours that used to spent in Nicole’s cheery kitchen listening to her friend chatter and shaking her head at the damn cat had to find a new way to occupy themselves. Walking, Erin thought, was a good way. Exercise improved her stamina, always helpful for long rehearsals and back-to-back shows. Besides, she could truly let her mind wander when she walked, and it was amazing the places where it would go.
But her steps still slowed when she passed Nicole’s cottage.
Erin forced herself to stop, to give it a long look. The cottage looked much the same as ever, which was exactly to be expected. There would be no planting for the spring for months yet, and there wasn’t much, other than the gardening, that a tenant could do to the outside of his or her cottage. Erin wondered what the new person would plant, come spring.
Nicole had had a standard vegetable garden, just like everybody else, but it was the beds of different spices and herbs that had made her garden so unique. Erin didn’t hold such high hopes for the new tenant. He was just a man living alone. Though Erin had introduced herself, just to be neighborly — as Nicole had been neighborly to her — she hadn’t dared to linger. A respectable widow woman could bring over a pie or a pot of flowers to a new neighbor, that was acceptable. She could be friendly to him when they passed, say her hellos and how-do-you-dos. But more than that, and the other neighbors — the old biddies especially — would start to think that the widow woman was angling for the new neighbor, and they might not approve.
Or — worse — they might approve wholeheartedly.
Erin allowed herself one sigh, and that was pushing it, considering there could be any number of old biddies who had nothing better to do than gaze out their front windows and gossip. Then she set her shoulders and marched off, away from the square and into the lane.
So, where to today?
The church, Erin decided. She had just enough time to get there and spend a good half-hour wandering up and down the aisles before she had to turn around and walk home so to be there when Wulf arrived. She probably had more if she hustled. Which she would. The wind today tore right through her cloak and gown, and walking quickly would bring the dual benefits of warming her up and getting her out of the wind all the quicker.
So she set off across the fields, buried under so many inches of snow that there was no danger of trodding a hard-working farmer’s crops underfoot: the crops, if they had even been planted yet, were still sleeping under their blanket of earth and coverlet of snow. Some might have kept to the road anyway, given the snow, but hiking through the fields was quicker. The roads were kept as clear of snow as the King’s men could manage, but that meant they turned to mud and stones. The snowy fields were actually easier on Erin’s sturdy leather boots than the road would be, to say nothing of how the frozen ground was much kinder to Erin’s feet than the rocky road could or would be.
So it was not long before she saw the spires of the great cathedral rising up on the horizon, and it was an even shorter time before she pushed the great door open and slipped inside.
The door echoed when it closed behind her, and Erin hesitated for a moment. Her breath emerged in thin clouds, hanging still for a moment before being gently pushed aside by the next breath. Still, though, the church was warmer than it was outside. In the church, at least, there was no biting wind.
She took a few more steps inside, heading for the center aisle, looking about herself. She had heard that in other countries and great cities, the cathedrals were never empty. There were always people about — trading news and information or simply doing trade, gossiping, meeting friends and avoiding enemies. And of course in big cities, there were whole orders of monks or nuns attached to a single cathedral, singing services every hour or two and offering up prayers for the deceased (donors). You’d have a better chance being alone in the town’s busies pub than in a church.
But it was not that way in Albion.
Here in Albion … well, Erin supposed everyone had so much else to do that they didn’t have time to congregate in the church unless they had to for services. Erin was probably one of the only people of her class to have this kind of time in the middle of the day, and she certainly didn’t have it every day. Besides, in order to make the church a sensible congregating-place, you needed a lot of people, at least in this weather. Add another fifty or hundred Sims and the place would warm right up. But now, with only Erin and her thoughts to fill the space, the heat flew off Erin and wherever heat went when it left a Sim — perhaps to the rafters.
Not for the first time, she wondered what had possessed the Brothers of St. Pascal to build — or rather fix up — this great place. You could fit most of the kingdom in here with room to spare. Erin decided that she much preferred the Royal Chapel, where Nicole had been married. It was smaller, more intimate, and the rich decorations somehow managed to be warmer and more inviting than the plain and austere stonework here.
Of course, thinking about Nicole’s wedding led Erin to be not at all surprised when her steps led her up to the altar, and, more importantly, the hand-fasting arch before it. She shook her head, chuckling to herself.
One hand reached out for the side of the arch, the wood rough and frigid under her fingertips. She brought her hand away — but slowly. Nobody needed to know how wedding arches, and her own brief time beneath one, made her feel. Besides, all of that was over, in the past, would never come again.
But she’d be damned if Nicole getting married didn’t bring all of those thoughts right back to the top of her head.
Maybe that was why she had been walking so much. It wasn’t because she missed Nicole — well, it was — but it was because there were too many memories threatening to intrude on the world she had made for herself. And Erin had never dealt well with intruders to the life she wanted for herself. She always ran away — from her parents, or so she had tried, from Walter, and then from the whorehouse when that wasn’t giving her the life she wanted.
But how could she run from her own–
“Can I help you, daughter?”
Erin jumped backward and yelped.
The monk — Brother Tuck! — jumped away and yelped too. “Sorry, sorry!” he gasped, waving both of his arms in her direction. “I didn’t mean to startle you! Sorry!”
Erin turned away, gulping down air, trying to order her heart to stop racing and her breathing to stabilize. Not that it did much good — well, she could control her breathing, that was necessary on stage — her heart certainly wasn’t going to listen. She swallowed once, twice. Then she tossed her head and turned back to Brother Tuck, smiling shakily. “Sorry, s–Brother. I thought I was all alone in here.”
Brother Tuck seemed to take this as an invitation to step closer. “Ah, daughter,” he reproved, his hand floating vaguely in the air between them, “we are never truly alone in the House of Wright.”
It was foolish — incredibly foolish, given who was standing in front of her — but there was no helping what came out of Erin’s mouth next. “Well, Brother, while that’s true — the good Lord don’t go jumpin’ out from behind pillars, as a rule. Or so I’m told.”
Luckily Brother Tuck only chuckled. “Very true, daughter. The Book of Wright tells us that the Lord’s entrances tend to be either extremely subtle — so subtle that the fortunate Sim being favored with his Lord’s presence does not realize it immediately — or else quite … shall we say, unmistakable.”
“Llamas with trumpets an’ all the rest o’ it,” Erin replied, glancing at him sidelong … wondering …
“Indeed,” Brother Tuck nodded, and then Erin knew it, knew that she wasn’t recognized. He wouldn’t be this polite, or at any rate this unserious, with her if he had the least idea who she was. Or who she had been, perhaps, was a better way of putting it. Certainly there were days when Erin the whore and Widow Shepherd didn’t seem to inhabit the same earth, let alone the same body and same head.
“But, daughter,” said Brother Tuck, causing Erin’s attention to whip back onto him, “I noticed — that is, I cannot help but notice — that you often come out here to the cathedral when no one else is here, or at least, it seems that there is no one else here. But you never seem to seek spiritual succor. Tell me, is there aught amiss? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Well, of all the cheek! Did this pompous man really think there was a woman in this kingdom who would turn to him for help? After what he had done to Erin, to Wulf? What woman, what mother, would trust this man to hold her least favorite hankie after that?
So Erin answered truthfully, though in the shortest way possible: “No, sir. Nothin’s wrong. I jest like ter walk here.”
“To … walk here?”
“Aye, Brother. Ain’t no Sims an’ ain’t no wind,” Erin shrugged. “Easier ter think. Now, Brother, if ye’ll be excusin’ me …”
“But, daughter,” replied Brother Tuck, stepping just into Erin’s path, “do you not think it odd that the Lord should bend your steps again and again to his own House? Are you sure there is nothing you would like to discuss with one of the Lord’s own servants?”
Erin’s stomach dropped. When he put it like that … didn’t the Lord move in mysterious ways? Look at her own self. Told she would never have children — then Jean and Wulf, barely a year apart! She gave Jean up because a child was the last thing she ought to have, but when Wulf had come, she had kept him. Surely this was what the Lord wanted.
And then Wulf had gotten taken away, and Erin had managed to pull herself out of her hardscrabble life and into some kind of respectability … and now her old nemesis was standing in front of her, asking if she had something on her mind, something to say.
Maybe she ought to say something.
“Actually, Brother …”
“I’ve been wonderin’ … about somethin’ ye say in yer sermons … or somethin’ ye’re not sayin’, really …”
“Something I am not saying?” asked Brother Tuck, blinking.
“Aye …” Erin bit her lip. Should she go on? Did she dare? If she reminded him too much of who she used to be, what wouldn’t he do?
But what could he do? She had Lord Pellinore. She had Sister Margery now. They would help her stand up for her rights. Of course she’d lose what little reputation she had, but … but maybe it wouldn’t come to that. And maybe, just maybe, for once the Lord wasn’t trying to teach her a lesson, but was using her to teach a lesson to someone else.
“Brother Tuck, ye talk in yer sermons a lot about sin, an’ the need ter repent, an’ penance an’ all that … but ye don’t say much about forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness?” Brother Tuck repeated stupidly.
“Aye — aye, sir — ye see …” Erin passed a hand over her forehead and took a deep breath, “Is it — is it too much ter ask — ter let folks pick themselves up, remake themselves, become someone new an’ move on from their mistakes?”
“Well, for most transgressions, that goes without saying,” replied Brother Tuck. “Indeed, were none of us to forgive others in the hopes of being granted forgiveness ourselves, we should all be in a terrible fix!”
Erin blinked, her jaw falling. That was it? He was agreeing with her? There was no argument to be had? Well, other than one where she tried to convince him to lay off her friends, but that was dead in the water before it got a chance to draw a first breath and probably wasn’t worth bringing up in the first place.
“However,” Brother Tuck went on, waggling his finger in her face as if she was an erring child and he a strict schoolmarm, “you remember, of course, that in order to be forgiven, all Sims must show true repentance, and in order to repent, one must be willing to undergo penance. And some transgressions are so severe –”
“That a Sim has ter be going through penance for the rest o’ her life?” Erin snapped.
Brother Tuck’s jaw opened and closed again. “Her?” he asked. “Who said anything about a woman?”
Erin’s heart skipped a beat. Surely he wouldn’t … surely he couldn’t … but he was giving her a funny look now, as if her face suddenly looked familiar and he was seeking to place it.
“Daughter?” Brother Tuck prodded when Erin didn’t speak at once.
“Well — who says we weren’t talkin’ about a woman? Fer — fer it’s women what will keep talkin’, what won’t ferget. Men will forgive easy, because they do ferget. Women …” Erin shrugged and tried to smile. “Women don’t ferget — maybe because they ain’t got much else better ter do — but since they ain’t fergettin’, they ain’t forgivin’, either.”
“That is as it may be,” replied Brother Tuck, “but the fact remains –”
“Brother Tuck,” came a voice — Mother Julian! — from the very head of the church, “is there a reason why you have cornered one of my parishioners and don’t appear to be letting her go?”
Mother Julian! Erin’s breath whooshed out of her as the older woman strode up the aisle. Surely she would chase Brother Tuck off and then Erin could sneak out of the church, back into the street, and run back home.
An’ we’ll see if I ever come back here not on a Sunday! Lord, if ye want someone ter be the messenger ter Brother Tuck — assumin’ that’s what ye were wantin’ in the first place — ye’ll have ter find someone else ter do that!
“Mother Julian! I protest!” Brother Tuck gasped. “I was hardly refusing to let — I’m sorry, daughter, I did not catch your name?”
It was an innocent enough question, but there was a calculating light in Brother Tuck’s eye. He has his suspicions, that much was certain. And now he wanted to know for sure … Erin barely bit back a whimper as she took a trembling step away from him.
“She looks like she wants out, Brother!” replied Mother Julian. “And that’s enough for me!”
“Still, I was hardly harassing her, and certainly not cornering her, as you seem to think I was,” replied Brother Tuck in a tone just shy of a snap. “Goodwife … I am sorry, madam, but you still have not mentioned your name –”
“Brother Tuck, once again, enough is enough!” Mother Julian replied, seeing his near-snap and raising him a real one. “If you’re not trying to steal — I’m sorry, consolidate the Church funds all into one Sim’s hands — yours — then you’re trying to consolidate our parishioners. Goodness gracious, Tuck! Can you not handle the fact that some Sims will choose to get their confessions somewhere that is not with you?”
“Handle? Of course I can handle it! Good Mother, I pray, think before you speak, lest you come out with another foolish and unfounded accusation!”
“Perhaps what I said was foolish and unfounded,” replied Mother Julian. “But that doesn’t make it wrong.”
“And for the last time, I’ll be asking you to step away from my parishioner, or I shall have no choice but to think the worst of you.” Her eyes twinkled for a bare half of a second — and was it Erin’s imagination, or did Mother Julian nearly wink at her?
Whether she did or no, Brother Tuck had clearly had enough. “Mother,” he replied, “I have come to the conclusion that no matter what I do, you will always think the worst. But what can I say? If you wish to speak with this goodwife, then of course I will not get in your way. Good day, daughter,” he added to Erin, “and may the Lord speed you on this journey of life until we meet again.”
Mother Julian only sniffed, and didn’t look away from Brother Tuck until he had gone past both of them and was halfway down the aisle.
Then her gaze turned to Erin.
Erin scarcely had a moment to quail and try to step back before Mother Julian came up to her and — embraced her. A real motherly embrace, the type Erin could scarcely remember ever receiving, but gave every day. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” Mother Julian whispered in her ear, “he won’t find you. He won’t figure out who you are. I’ll keep him from doing that, and harming Wulf, as long as there’s breath in my body.
“And with any luck,” continued Mother Julian in a slightly lower whisper, “between you and me, the Lord will grant us the opportunity to get the young Brother’s goat good before I’m gone. There has to be justice enough for that.”
As for Erin, she had not the courage to reply aloud, but she always had the courage to send up a prayer in reply. Amen, thought Erin. Amen to that.