It is 1535, and in the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII's break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. Catherine, like her adoptive mother, has a gift for healing, and she is widely sought and admired for her knowledge.
Catherine’s hopes for a place at court have been dashed by the king’s divorce, and she has reluctantly taken the veil. In the remote North, the nuns enjoy the freedoms unavailable to other women. England is their home, but the times have changed, and now the few remaining nuns dread the arrival of the priory’s new owner, Robert Overton. When the priory’s costly altarpiece goes missing, Catherine and her friend Ann Smith find themselves under increased suspicion.
King Henry VIII’s soldiers have not had their fill of destruction, and when they return to Mount Grace to destroy the priory, Catherine must choose between the sacred calling of her past and the man who may represent her country’s future.
Book one of The Cross and The Crown Series.
Mount Grace Priory was cold as a crypt, despite the gold-shot tapestries on the stone walls. Sister Catherine gathered the woolen shawl around her shoulders. The candle on the oak infirmary table guttered, and she cupped her hand around the flame. When the light steadied, she stepped to the window and tucked cloths between the shutters. She placed her ear against the wood for a moment. Nothing. It must have been the wind. The soldiers had surely gone to the inn for the night. She had a few hours at least.
Her taper still burned in the infirmary, and Catherine took it up before she stepped softly into the walk again, turning the other way this time. She hurried around the corner to the narrow steps leading up to the reading room. Catherine’s head grazed the low ribs of the vaulted ceiling, and she went straight to her knees, reaching under the scriptor’s desk. Her fingers found the wrapped manuscript, tied tight with string, and she lifted it onto the small table. Her hands were icy, and she trembled as she tested the knots. The parcel was intact and she lifted the candle to go.
At least two of them, right below. Someone seemed to complain, and a wisp of yellow light flickered past the steps. Her scalp prickled. Another door, farther off, at the back of the convent, opened, and the voices faded. Thump of wood against wood, a metal latch coming down. All was blackness now. Her feet went numb, but she squatted without moving. All was silence. She was afraid to show her face at the window, but after an eternity of quiet, she flattened herself to the wall and raised herself to the sill. The interior of the convent seemed at peace. No soldiers in sight. Catherine snatched up a few pigments pots and, balancing them on the pages, teetered down the steps. The door into the church, usually locked, stood open. Fear knotted her limbs, but she clenched the goods and ran back to her infirmary, where she skidded inside and bolted the door, chest thudding like a rabbit in a trap. She pulled the stopper from a bottle of perfume and inhaled. Essence of lily of the valley, said to heal the heart. She let the fragrance fill her, but her ribs still ached.
Catherine had already prepared her egg whites and quills, but when she laid the parchment open, she faltered. Latin or English? English, she decided, but still she postponed the beginning. The page lay before her like creation and she stared into its surface as she had stared up into the clouds as a child, searching for God. Her hand trembled. She must not err. It might be the last document she would write. Her fingers cramped from clutching too tightly in the frigid air, and she laid the tool aside. The sharp nib pointed at the parchment like the lean muzzle of some fiend. Like the point of a soldier’s sword.
The quills continued to deride the young woman. She began again by picking one, but chose instinctively with the left hand and hastily returned it to the jar. No. She must not make a mistake. She selected again, whispered Sweet heart of Mary, strengthen me, and wrote out the page in perfect script with one inkhorn and one penknife, dipping and mending precisely. This is the will and testament of Catherine Havens, twenty years of age, foundling of Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire, England, adopted daughter of Christina Havens, Prioress of this Convent. I have secured Receipt Books written in My Hand under the Seventh Stone from the West Wall of the convent dormitory for their safekeeping. We are to remove from our Home at the order of King Henry VIII and I leave these Goods with intent, God Willing, to return and claim them. I have made and illumined the Books with my Own Hands and have tested the properties of all the Herbs listed therein. I have found them good. I have worked physic as a practice of my gifts from God. I have done this with the Blessing of my prioress and my priest and for the Good of my Immortal Soul.
When the door rattled, Catherine was slumped with her head on her arms, sleeping. The candle had burned down to a puddle, and she jolted awake. The parchment lay dry before her, and she covered it with her arms.