Put ye on the amour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil---
Aile stood in the pavilion antechamber, in helm and hauberk, buckler to back and sword on hip, to face the very devil – Odo de Conteville, bishop of Bayeux. And with her, Tìbald and Père Marin as if they do her any good.
The priests had ordered her to appear in that fashion – that she’d need it, in their sarcastic manner, that the very sight of her would do her in. And this, the morning of the second day, the army in a joyous frenzy in song after song, and the Rhone Valley with its surrounding mountains sucking out her breath, and the Lord God above all in majesty – her spine had tingled, so much left behind – a year since the boar and the little girl and Tìbald and his Nothing, months since Rainald’s death . . . She had worn iron for a day, at the end of the Norman column as if anyone would notice. But priests noticed with nothing better to do. If they would leave her alone and deliver the sacraments . . . Is this punishment for the sodomy with Tìbald last night? How they had tumbled flesh to flesh. That he took her like a dog and then she rocked on top of him to finish it off. Despite all their contentions, at least there was sex, much of which was pleasurable. Sin. They were never so much in sync as when in sin---
---For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places---
For certain it is, sodomy was the least of her worries.
Bishop Odo loomed from the dais on his curule chair. Odo the terrible. How could Aile not quake? She did, even with Tìbald beside her, even as she stood stock still, and Odo, old and fat, with half his potency of which could easily lay a man low, this warrior priest. Flesh and blood indeed – the very flesh of flesh and blood, prince of power and wickedness Odo de Conteville, half-brother to William the Bastard now the “Conqueror”. A canvas palace, his pavilion, with its carpets and tapestries, its trunks and cabinets, ill-gotten off the squeeze on seigneurs and merchants, on parishes and neighbouring bishops, even the archbishop of Canterbury himself . . . And then there was the massive bed, a country unto itself, where the great bishop, the Earl of Kent, sprawled and tumbled between this world and next in a dreamy transmigration. A Purgatory, that bed, his life on display and the Saints hectoring him, Saint Michael with sword ready to give him a whack – the bishop who’d planned to march on Rome and be pontiff by force, the most hated man in England – a Herod without qualms in rubbing out entire Saxon villages – William the Bastard’s blunt instrument as both guilty and innocent perished. And just as ruthless with Norman lords, even so much that William imprisoned him for five years. That Odo loved his nephew, Robert Curthose, if Odo could love anything at all, being advisor on all things except spiritual matters. The very idea bread and wine could transubstantiate in those greedy hands . . .
What would he do with Aile?
She was but a fly.
Put on the armour of God – but it was the amour of Aile, which set her on the spot.
He has yellow eyes, her mind darted. Tired yellow eyes. And skin the colour of saffron. Not the same man at Haute Court over Joyeux de Noelle.
She remembered him as sallow complected, with his neck and cheeks beetling red when excited, and always excited when it came to his nephews, Robert Curthose and William Rufus, King of England. Curthose should be king in Odo’s opinion, so much so, the two had rebelled---
Does he drupe, she wondered, or is it the weight pulling him forward?
Either one, she hoped. That he be impatient and desire to be away – away from the nagging priests, away from her and the subject of armour, away from inconsequential articles to be judged this way or that.
See how his fingers work his forearms as if to rid them of something, she thought. A malady or itch. On the skin. In the soul.
In truth, her own forearms itched and would work them if she could in the same manner. That he let her go. O’ Holy Mother, blessed Virgin, that he let her go---
But what’s the worse he could do, her deluded wonder.
Holy Church has right to judge thee and bind thy fate in Heaven – to kill thy body to save thy soul . . .
I am the wife of a seigneur---
“It should not be permitted,” the thin priest began his opening statement.
---in Curthose’s army.
Odo looked Aile up and down, his lips flattening in a veiled smile.
He could fine us – Tìbald out of the corner of her eye. We have no money.
“This woman degrades the Faith in her vanity and arrogance.”
He could send me home. A squeeze on her heart – Sainte Cecilia. That my penance be one of bread and water so long as I can journey on.
“‘Arrogance’?” the other priest’s supportive counter. “Ignorance more likely – to be arrogant, one must first have knowledge.”
“Look at her, like some Valkyrie. It is unlawful to disguise as a man. She tempts the old spirits Christ has vanquished – this silly woman and the husband who keeps her.”
Odo’s yellow eyes narrowed, she noticed and imagined his voice – Valkyrie? More like a child playing soldier.
The priests went on. Such a duo. Each playing off the other, magnifying her sin till the very gates of Hell was shoved up against them.
He’s not having it, Aile thought, as old Odo rested his chin on his fist. Might he yawn? Then a spark of courage and she lifted to her toes. “May I speak, Eminence?”
Tìbald marked her.
“No,” Odo said without heart and nodded to the priests.
“She provokes the demons that harry our race,” the thin one continued. “What appears innocent now, eats at our foundations. And how is this penance – to go parading about?”
Odo turned to her, his countenance questioning. “Daughter, how is this penance?” His voice feeble. “They accuse you of disguise.”
“I am not in disguise,” Aile said, Tìbald dumb next to her. “I have vowed to free the Tomb of Our Lord with the courage of women who stood at the cross while others hid. I seek only to battle Christ’s enemies.”
How bold. Was she worthy of the statement? Was it pure? But why must her statements be pure? Or is it as the thin priest said, even his anger, to his patriarchal threat, in all the harm and hurt, that in her little private vanity, in her self-delusion, she undermines the foundation?
Ponderous Odo now to Tìbald.
“It is as she says,” Tìbald spoke. “She is filled with zeal, as are we all. She means no malice.”
“It’s foolish regardless of her intentions,” the priest said. “Instruct your wife to follow the Holy Mother’s example or the sin is yours.”
“I have instructed her,” Tìbald replied, “but this is between Christ and herself. I cannot rule her and would not try.”
“Nothing is between Christ and self without Holy Church,” the priest said. “This is how heresy spreads. This is why the world is troubled. Our war is of repentance.” He whirled on Père Marin as if a trap had sprung. “You’re her pastor. What is your instruction?”
Odo considered him as a face known before.
“Is it truly unlawful?” Marin’s replied, “There must be other women in armour fighting for our Lord.”
“Fool,” the priest said and then to Odo, “What else could we expect from him, Eminence.”
“Enough,” the old bishop snapped and rubbed his chin, then tracked the parlour for a jug of wine. Upon his dazzling robe, bits of crumbs from a pie he’d just eaten. He shifted in his chair. The hinges squeaked. Behind him, servants at the ready; he could not rise on his own. He gestured to them with an open hand, and they scrambled for wine and cup. His first draw was a gulp.
“Tìbald fil de Goselin and his wife stay. The rest of you leave.”
The three of them alone and Odo on his drink. Tìbald and Aile knelt, their chins bowed and gaze averted.
“You are my nephew’s man,” Odo said to Tìbald, his voice deceptively thin. “Should be him judging this. But your wife has made it a ‘spiritual’ matter. Why would you even argue with these priests? She takes that thing off and puts it away. You know how they are, these reformers, ready to break with anything not in the most extreme form – the most rigid good.”
He took another gulp and held up the cup for refilling. He lingered on pretty Aile. “Daughter, they charge you with inappropriate dress. That you compromise the faith. Are you ‘inappropriate’ child?”
“I am not, Eminence.”
“Is this dress by your husband’s instruction?”
“It is not, Eminence. I have taken the cross to free the Tomb. Isabel de Conches, Sichilgaita of Taranto wore—-”
“You are not Sichilgaita of Taranto who had His Holiness’s personal favour,” Odo instructed. “You are not the Queen of Palermo. You are the wife of a petty seigneur and subject to obedience.”
“Sichilgaita fought against the emperor, Henry, and his anti-pope who tried to usurp the St Peter’s throne. Sichilgaita inspires. You cause discord. In this, the priests are correct. We suffer enough from personal revelations. I do not wish to hear yours even if it instructs you to wear armour.”
“Yes, Eminence.” Aile dipped her chin further. “But I’ve had no revelation. I wear it by choice.”
“Then you may discard it by choice.”
“If I must.”
Odo considered her and said to Tìbald. “Would she discard it by your order?”
“I would not order it,” Tìbald said. “She is . . . better for the armour. Wearing it has done her well. It is a symbol of her commitment.”
“Would she discard it by your order?”
“Yes,” Tìbald answered, not looking at her.
Odo smirked and nodded. “Son of Adam,” he quipped. Then to Aile – “Would you discard it by your husband’s order?”
Her cheeks now glowing as she stared at the floor. “Yes.”
Again, Odo smirked. “Goselin Cou-de-boeuf,” he mentioned Tìbald’s father. “I remember him. A stalwart and loyal fellow. Not one for intrigue---”
Not as yourself, Aile wanted to blurt, but looked at the carpet.
Odo huffed and pondered.
“Wear your armour and fight for Christ,” he said to their surprise. And it hung in a stony silence. “But do not presume to flaunt yourself before this army. Wear it humbly in your husband’s company. Ride next to him and nowhere else. Or take it off and wear it not at all. Make it a symbol of your obedience.”
“Yes, Eminence,” Aile said
“I hold you accountable,” he said to Tìbald. “We’ve enemies enough without battling among ourselves.” That the old rebel had the gall to say this.
“Yes, Eminence,” Tìbald replied.
“If this is brought before me again, I’ll take away the armour myself and order her to shave her head. And you’ll to march to Jerusalem on your knees with her hauberk and arms strapped to your back.” He extended his gloved hand and they kissed his ring. He blessed them. “Now go.”
That the devil turned ally. How quick they left.
The priests were livid, much to Odo’s delight. They shook and threatened. They whispered and glared. “The bishop is old and decrepit, soon he’ll be dead. Then we will deal with them. Pope Urban will appoint a new bishop in the spirit of reform.”
“You could have defended us more vigorously,” Tìbald accused Marin. “Now we’ll have to avoid the bishop’s camp.”
“Do not concern yourself, dómini. These things have a way of resolving themselves.”
“And how is that? This is only the beginning of the journey.”
“People will soon begin dying.”