Chapter Twenty-three

A hard fist knocked brusquely on the door.

"The abbot summons Princess Undine," the guard's voice rasped from the hall.

CC and Isabel looked at each other. Isabel nodded.

"Tell him I am coming," CC snapped. Then she whispered to Isabel. "Isn't it ironic? I'm supposed to be royalty, yet he's summoning me. Talk about princess envy."

"You are a princess." Isabel smoothed an invisible wrinkle from the front of CC's dress. "I do not think I have ever told you how lovely you are, and that loveliness comes from more than these jewels or your beautiful gown."

CC felt her eyes fill. "Thank you, Isabel." She hugged the old woman, breathing in her comforting scent, which was a mixture of stew and freshly baked bread. "Your friendship means so much to me."

"As yours does to me, child. You have breathed life into this dreary place, and into me again; do not ever forget that."

CC nodded at her. "Let's get this over with. It's show time."

Isabel looked confused.

"It means it's time for us to start performing." CC

grinned, and almost told her to "break a leg," too, but she didn't think they had time for more explanations.

Isabel's face hardened with resolve. "Show time," she whispered in perfect agreement, and both women stepped into the hall.

"Follow me to the abbot," said the stone-faced squire. "He and Sir Andras will receive you in his antechamber."

CC had no idea what an antechamber was, but she gave the man a curt nod and followed him. Isabel limped behind them. The squire led them through a maze of halls that threaded through a part of the monastery on the opposite side from which CC's little room was located. Just when she was thinking how hopelessly lost she was, the squire stopped in front of a large wooden door. He knocked quickly twice.

"Enter!" The abbot's high-pitched voice carried easily through the door.

CC hesitated only a moment, and then she strode into the room. It was a large chamber, and CC was surprised by how comfortable it appeared at first glance. A fire was burning cheerfully in a hearth that was large enough that four or five men could have stood at full height inside of it. There were several metal candleholders scattered around the room, mostly between groupings of well-upholstered chairs and polished side tables. Something about the walls of the room caught her attention and CC's gaze slid to them, then her eyes widened in disgust. Carved into the rock walls around the circumference of the room were intricate scenes of suffering, much like the carvings that decorated the exterior walls of the chapel. CC forced her eyes from them.

"You may approach, Princess Undine." The abbot made a delicate gesture with one hand.

He sat on a dais in an ornate chair, thronelike in its intricate design. It was placed at the far side of the room, so that it faced the other chairs and the entry way. Andras stood at his right hand, smug and silent. To his left were four monks. Only Abbot William met her eyes.

Ready for battle, CC walked purposefully forward. Isabel stayed inside the room, near the door.

"I was just admiring your lovely furnishings." CC swept a graceful finger at the chairs and sconces. "It pleases me to see such sumptuous things, even if it is a surprise to see them in a monastery."

The abbot's spine straightened at CC's words, and his pale cheeks flushed suddenly red, reflecting the crimson of his robe.

"They are gifts from my benefactor, and though I would be comfortable with less opulent furnishings, it would be rude to refuse them."

"Benefactor?" CC's brows came together in confusion. "I understood that this monastery belonged to Sir Andras's mother, so wouldn't that make her a benefactress?"

The knight spoke up quickly. "The monastery belonged to my mother's family and passed through her to my father at the time of their marriage." His handsome face twisted into a superior sneer. "Women cannot own property. What is a wife's is, by right and by law, always her husband's."

"How very convenient for the husband," CC said without glancing at Andras.

"We are not here to discuss the role of husbands and wives, no matter how badly you are in need of such instruction." Abbot William's voice was sharp. "We are here to solve the problem of your behavior, Princess Undine."

"Then this will be a short visit. I know of no problem with my behavior." CC inclined her head regally. "I hope you have a nice day, Abbot William."

But before she could turn to leave the abbot's voice shot out. The hatred in it chilled CC's blood.

"You will not leave until you have my permission to do so!"

CC froze, her eyes riveted on the abbot's florid face. She thought she could actually see the veins at his temples throbbing in anger. When he continued to speak, he did so through clenched teeth.

"Your behavior has been indiscreet and inappropriate. I believe evidence will come to light that you are a danger to this monastery and to those within it."

"How could that be? By your own standards, I am nothing more than a woman, and even though I am a princess, my function ultimately will be to belong to a man. What possible danger could I represent?" CC spoke quickly, her heart hammering so loudly that she was sure everyone could hear it.

The abbot smiled slyly, like she had just unknowingly stepped into the loop of a trap.

"You are correct that alone a woman is a helpless creature, fashioned only to serve man and to bear his body and his children. But it is that very weak and seductive nature that man must guard against. Remember, it was Eve's original sin that destroyed the paradise that God had created for man!" His voice had risen until the word man came out as a shriek. The monks at his side began to glance nervously around the room, as if looking for an escape or a hiding place. Andras was nodding his head in agreement, completely ignoring his mentor's crazed tone.

The outrage that had been simmering inside of CC for days finally boiled, and she slipped the noose of cordiality, allowing herself to truly speak her mind.

"Where I come from many of us look a little deeper into that particular Biblical story. If I remember correctly, Lucifer, who was described as God's most beautiful creation, tempted Eve. She resisted, but eventually gave in." CC shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, but her eyes challenged the priest. "I think even the strongest among us has something by which he can be tempted, don't you Abbot? Anyway, Eve gave in to Lucifer's temptation. Then she went to Adam and offered him the fruit. And Adam basically said, 'Okay!' He chose the forbidden—no supernatural temptation, and not much resistance; he just automatically did what a woman told him to do. When you look at it logically, as I would think a man would, you come up with a much different conclusion about who committed the greater sin. At least I think most—"

"Silence!" The priest's shriek echoed off the disfigured stone walls. This time the monks literally cringed, and even Andras's eyes widened in surprise at the abbot's loss of control.

"You will not dare to speak such blasphemy in my presence. Your words are proof that you are in league with the Evil One. Since you first passed through our gates, you have brought darkness within. You shall be purged from this holy place, and by thus purging you from our midst, evil will be defeated once more." He pointed a shaking finger at the squire who hovered behind her. 'Take her to her room to await her punishment."

Terror turned her stomach, but she held her chin high and in her most imperious voice she spoke for the first time directly to the knight.

"Sir Andras, please explain to the abbot that harming me would not be your most profitable course of action."

When the abbot started to speak, Andras lay a calming hand on his arm.

"Father," he soothed. "Let us hear her out."

"I have remembered my birthright. Harm me and know that you trifle with the only daughter of King Canute, conqueror and Lord of Vikings." Her voice was strong and filled with pride.

At her proclamation, Andras's body went very still, and the florid color of the abbot's face drained away like dripping wax.

CC's smile was arrogant. "I have already sent my own message to him. The fishermen were right in part of their reports; it's too bad that they were so clouded by superstition that they did not recognize that what they sighted were my people searching for the daughter of their beloved king. Last night they found me, and it was then that my memory returned. You know yourself that you accosted me as I finished my climb from the beach." Her laughter was sharp. "Why else would I be so drawn to the waters? They are my birthright. Soon my father will come for me." The anger in CC's voice filled the room. "If you harm me, he will loose his Berserkirs and they will destroy you."

The room was silent. Andras and the abbot exchanged furtive glances.

"If your father is King Canute and his men did come for you last night, why is it you remain here?" Andras shot the question at her.

CC scoffed indignantly. "A Viking princess does not steal away in the night like a lowly servant. I sent word to my father that I had been rescued and was uninjured. I knew he would want to come for me himself so that he could reward those who treated me well."

And punish those who did not…

The unspoken words Seemed to hang powerfully in the electric air around CC.

"If you don't believe me your solution is simple. Just wait. If I'm telling the truth, my father will appear to claim me, and you will be rewarded. If I'm lying, and I don't have a powerful family, no one will come for me and you can punish me to your heart's content." CC raised one eyebrow at the knight. "And something tells me that you very much need my father's reward money."

The knight and the abbot exchanged another look, and CC was relieved to observe that the priest seemed to have brought himself under control.

"We would, of course, not wish to harm the daughter of a king," Abbot William said. He glanced again at Sir An-dras, who nodded briefly. "We will continue to provide you sanctuary for the amount of time it should require your father to come for you."

"No more than a fortnight," Sir Andras added.

The abbot nodded solemnly. "A fortnight it is. If King Canute has not claimed you as his own within that time, I will have no choice but to put you on trial for heresy and witchcraft."

"I agree," CC retorted.

"Until King Canute comes to Caldei, you will remain in your chamber under guard. We must be certain that no harm befalls such a valuable lady," the priest said.

CC felt panic like a brand. She was going to be locked in her room? Her heart skittered in her chest.

She met the abbot's reptilian gaze. "I am a Viking princess—I demand more freedom than that. If you lock me in my room I will tell my father that you treated me like a prisoner and not a guest. He does not reward jailers."

"Undine." Andras's tone had lost its anger and had returned to being patronizing. "Surely you will agree that your safety is of the utmost concern to us, especially in light of the proclamation of your noble blood."

"Yes—"

Andras cut her off: "Good. Then you will understand that if you choose to leave your chamber you will be accompanied at all times by an armed guard."

CC raised her chin. "Am I so dangerous?"

"You are so protected."

"Oh, do not think that I'm without protection." She narrowed her eyes to slits and was pleased to see Andras's eyes widen in response.

"Enough, witch!" the priest spat. "We may have to tolerate your presence until your heathen father claims you, but we will not tolerate your blasphemous threats."

CC shook her head slowly side to side and gave the abbot a pitying look. "Why do you automatically assume a strong woman is evil? What happened to you to twist you into this?"

Abbot William held up a shaking hand, palm forward like he could ward off her words. "Escort the princess back to her chamber. Now!" he snarled.

Without waiting for the squire, CC turned and strode across the room. As she neared the door, Isabel made a spectacular show of cringing away from her and crossing herself. CC scoffed and made a dismissive wave in her direction. As the squire closed the door behind them, CC could hear Isabel's distinctive voice croaking, "Evil! I knew it from the first day I laid eyes on her! Evil!"

Isabel's performance made CC bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing as the nervous young squire led the way back to her chamber.

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