Fr. Barnard crawled quietly out of the abbey bed and pulled the blanket over the woman who had slept beside him. She mumbled something in her sleep and he smiled, then he gathered up his clothes and slipped out of the room to his own chambers. Once there, he quickly washed and dressed and hurried down the stairs to the church to pray. He had so much on his mind, so many questions, and so many decisions to make. He didn’t notice Sr. Agatha scurrying across the courtyard to the kitchen, her arms full of produce from the local farmer. He hadn’t noticed the extra horses by the stable. He never saw the baker slip quietly past him and enter the church through the main doors as he reached the side entry. His mind preoccupied, he knelt before the altar, crossed himself, buried his head in his hands and began to pray.
Upstairs, Lady Paua entered the room Sr. Agatha had assigned to her. She knelt down to check the contents of her trunk, searching for a shawl. The night at the inn in South March had been sleepless and uncomfortable, and she was glad to be back to the more luxurious suite at the abbey. In the meantime, her cousin, the Cardinal, was preparing to escort her to breakfast and to make his presence known to the priest.
The rumors about the priest – some coming from gossip, others from letters received by post – indicated he was having some kind of breakdown and failing to properly minister to his flock. The Cardinal had decided to visit the remote hamlet and see for himself what was transpiring.
Lady Paua suddenly stiffened as she heard a strange noise coming from the bed. Straightening up, she grabbed a candlestick and turned, prepared to attack. What she saw stopped and confused her. The woman karissa, who had been such a help the day before, was sitting up in the bed and rubbing her eyes. Her clothing was tossed about and she looked as if she’d had a rough night. For a minute, the two women stared at each other.
“Oh,” Karissa said, suddenly, as she gathered up her clothes and slipped behind the screen to dress. “I’m so sorry. I was cleaning and I must have dosed off.”
“Cleaning?” the lady asked, wondering who cleans with their clothes off. She was about to question the girl when a quick knock came at the door.
As Karissa opened the door, making her hasty retreat, she found a tall, older man, with thick white hair and the deep red cassock of a cardinal, standing on the other side, hand poised to knock on the door.
Stunned, Karissa backed up a few steps and turned pale. “What do you know about that?” she asked.
“Did you truly speak to the devil?” he asked again.
“I can’t talk about it. I need, I can’t… ” She started to flee the room when the Cardinal caught her arm. She squirmed. “You wouldn’t believe me anyway. No one believes me except Fr. Barnard. He was there. He saw!”
The Cardinal stretched to his full height and looked down at the trembling woman. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “Let’s go talk to the priest.”
Karissa, now caught between the Cardinal and his high class lady cousin, was escorted to the church where they found Fr. Barnard deep in prayer.
“His Holiness has become aware of certain… inconsistencies, that appear to be a part of this parish,” The Cardinal said in a manner that dismissed small talk. Karissa lowered her eyes as the cardinal continued. “He only wants to correct any problems and offer his support.”
The priest swallowed hard, finding his throat dry. “Just how did the Holy Father learn of these so-called consistencies?” he asked.
“I am not privileged to know that information,” said the cardinal. “I only know that he requested me to make this journey.”
Karissa whispered, “Sr. Agatha.” The cardinal gave the girl a cautious look.
“I’m sure you’ve heard, by now, about the demon attempting to possess this village,” said the priest. He glanced up at Karissa and indicated with his eyes for her to be very quiet.
“The young woman has mentioned such a presence. Have you seen this demon?” Karissa looked at the father with tearful eyes.
“I have,” the priest answered. “He came for her, but I have been protecting her. I have thrown myself physically into his path. I have prayed the prayers of exorcism. I have begged the lady to stay safe in the church and on the grounds.”
“You look unwell,” the cardinal said to Karissa. The priest offered her his hand and guided her to the pew to sit down.
The cardinal stepped closer to the obviously frightened girl. “Don’t be afraid, child. Just tell me what forms these attempts to possess you take.”
“Evil,” Karissa whispered. “Pure evil.” Tears stream down her face. “He – he touched me,” she continued.
“In what way?” The Cardinal asked, offering her a handkerchief.
“He ripped my clothes from my body and molested me,” she sobbed. “He marked me.”
“What kind of mark?” the Cardinal demanded to know., his kindly face much troubled.
Karissa felt the room slowly turning black. Her head started to spin. The priest went down on one knee to steady her, calling her name. The Cardinal looked at Fr. Barnard and shook his head ever so slightly.
The baker woman, who by now had worked her way forward, listened with a look of concern, secretly harboring her pleasure.
Karissa spoke again. “A star , he branded me with a small star and said I would not be harmed, under my left breast.” She blushed deeply.
The priest realized for the first time that Desire was there. He looked up at her, his eyes clear and rational. He nodded to acknowledge her, but his thoughts were on Karissa and the demon.
Desire gasped: “Really? There are demons in this town?”
“It’s dangerous to roam the countryside alone, especially at night,” said the Cardinal. “These abominations can take any form, any at all.”
Karissa, having told her story, felt the blackness wash over her as she fainted. She would have fallen off the pew if the priest had not caught her. As he picked her up, he saw the baker and stiffened, suddenly worried about what she would do or say to the Cardinal after last night’s scene at the brothel. He had no time to find out now. He had to get Karissa to the infirmary where the sisters could tend to her.
When he returned, he found the Cardinal offering to provide confession to the baker. The baker and the priest exchanged hateful glares and he felt his heart sink. If she told the Cardinal about the priest’s drunken and jealous rage outside the brothel the night before, he would surely lose his post. He had to protect himself from her. He turned angrily on his heel and left the church. A few minutes later, he settled down behind his library desk and began to plot.