/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Brother Cadfael's Penance

Ellis Peters


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BROTHER CADFAEL'S PENANCE

Ellis Peters

The Twentieth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael

Digital Edition v2 HTML – February 13, 2003

Copyright © 1994 by Ellis Peters

The right of Ellis Peters to be identified as the Author of the work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

CONTENTS

^

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter One

^ »

The Earl of Leicester’s courier came riding over the bridge that spanned the Severn, and into the town of Shrewsbury, somewhat past noon on a day at the beginning of November, with three months’ news in his saddle-roll.

Much of it would already be known, at least in general outline, but Robert Beaumont’s dispatch service from London was better provided than anything the sheriff of Shropshire could command, and in a single meeting with that young officer the earl had marked him as one of the relatively sane in this mad world of civil war that had crippled England for so many years, and run both factions, king and empress alike, into exhaustion, without, unfortunately, bringing either sharply up against reality. Such able young men as Hugh Beringar, Earl Robert considered, were well worth supplying with information, against the day when reason would finally break through and put an end to such wasteful warfare. And in this year of the Lord, 1145, now drawing towards its close, chaotic events had seemed to be offering promise, however faint as yet, that even the two cousins battling wearily for the throne must despair of force and look round for another way of settling disputes.

The boy who carried the earl’s dispatches had made this journey once before, and knew his way across the bridge and up the curve of the Wyle, and round from the High Cross to the castle gates. The earl’s badge opened the way before him without hindrance. Hugh came out from the armory in the inner ward, dusting his hands, his dark hair tangled by the funneled wind through the archway, to draw the messenger within, and hear his news.

“There’s a small breeze rising,” said the boy, unloading the contents of his satchel upon the table in the anteroom of the gatehouse, “that has my lord snuffing the air. But warily, it’s the first time he’s detected any such stirring, and it could as easily blow itself out. And it has as much to do with what’s happening in the East as with all this ceding of castles in the Thames valley. Ever since Edessa fell to the paynims of Mosul, last year at Christmas, all Christendom has been uneasy about the kingdom of Jerusalem. They’re beginning to talk of a new Crusade, and there are lords on either side, here at home, who are none too happy about things done, and might welcome the Cross as sanctuary for their souls. I’ve brought you his official letters,” he said briskly, mustering them neatly at Hugh’s hand, “but I’ll give you the gist of it before I go, and you can study them at leisure, for there’s no date yet settled. I must return this same day, I have an errand to Coventry on my way back.”

“Then you’d best take food and drink now, while we talk,” said Hugh, and sent out for what was needed. They settled together confidentially to the tangled affairs of England, which had shifted in some disconcerting directions during the summer months, and now, with the shutter of the coming winter about to close down against further action, might at least be disentangled, and open a course that could be pursued with some hope of progress. “You’ll not tell me Robert Beaumont is thinking of taking the Cross? There are some powerful sermons coming out of Clairvaux, I’m told, that will be hard to resist.”

“No,” said the young man, briefly grinning, “my lord’s concerns are all here at home. But this same unease for Christendom is making the bishops turn their thoughts to enforcing some order here, before they make off to settle the affairs of Outremer. They’re talking of one more attempt to bring king and empress together to talk sense, and find a means of breaking out of this deadlock. You’ll have heard that the earl of Chester has sought and got a meeting with King Stephen, and pledged his allegiance? Late in the day, and no easy passage, but the king jumped at it. We knew about it before they ever met at Stamford, a week or so back, for Earl Ranulf has been preparing the ground for some time, making sweet approaches to some of Stephen’s barons who hold grudges for old wrongs, trying to buy acceptance into the fold. There’s land near his castle of Mountsorrel has been in dispute with my lord some years. Chester has made concessions now over that. A man must soften not only the king but all those who hold with the king if he’s to change sides. So Stamford was no surprise, and Chester is reconciled and accepted. And you know all that business of Faringdon and Cricklade, and Philip FitzRobert coming over to Stephen, in despite of father and empress and all, and with a strong castle in either hand.”

“That,” said Hugh flatly, “I shall never understand. He, of all people! Gloucester’s own son, and Gloucester has been the empress’s prop and stay as good as singlehanded throughout, and now his son turns against him and joins the king! And no half-measures, either. By all accounts, he’s righting for Stephen as fiercely as he ever fought for Maud.”

“And bear in mind, Philip’s sister is wife to Ranulf of Chester,” the courier pointed out, “and these two changes of heart chime together. Which of them swept the other away with him, or what else lies behind it, God he knows, not I. But there’s the plain fact of it. The king is the fatter by two new allies and a very respectable handful of castles.”

“And I’d have said, in no mood to make any concessions, even for the bishops,” observed Hugh shrewdly. “Much more likely to be encouraged, all over again, to believe he can win absolute victory. I doubt if they’ll ever get him to the council table.”

“Never underestimate Roger de Clinton,” said Leicester’s squire, and grinned. “He has offered Coventry as the meeting-place, and Stephen has as good as agreed to come and listen. They’re issuing safe conducts already, on both sides. Coventry is a good center for all, Chester can make use of Mountsorrel to offer hospitality and worm his way into friendships, and the priory has housing enough for all. Oh, there’ll be a meeting! Whether much will come of it is another matter. It won’t please everyone, and there’ll be those who’ll do their worst to wreck it. Philip FitzRobert for one. Oh, he’ll come, if only to confront his father and show that he regrets nothing, but he’ll come to destroy, not to placate. Well, my lord wants your voice there, speaking for your shire. Shall he have it? He knows your mind,” said the young man airily, “or thinks he does. You rank somewhere in the list of his hopes. What do you say?’

“Let him send me word of the day,” said Hugh heartily, “and I’ll be there.”

“Good, I’ll tell him so. And for the rest, you’ll know already that it was only the handful of captains, with Brien de Soulis at their head, who sold out Faringdon to the king, and made prisoner all the knights of the garrison who refused to change sides. The king handed them out like prizes to some of his own followers, to profit by their ransom. My lord has got hold from somewhere of a list of those doled out, those among them who have been offered for ransom, and those already bought free. Here he sends you a copy, in case any names among them concern you closely, captors or captives. If anything comes of the meeting at Coventry their case will come up for consideration, and it’s not certain who holds the last of them.”

“I doubt there’ll be any there known to me,” said Hugh, taking up the sealed roll thoughtfully. “All those garrisons along the Thames might as well be a thousand miles from us. We do not even hear when they fall or change sides until a month after the event. But thank Earl Robert for his courtesy, and tell him I’ll trust to see him in the priory of Coventry when the day comes.”

He did not break the seal of Robert Beaumont’s letter until the courier had departed, to make for Coventry and Bishop Roger de Clinton’s presence on his way back to Leicester. In the last few years the bishop had made Coventry the main seat of his diocese, though Lichfield retained its cathedral status, and the see was referred to impartially by either name. The bishop was also titular abbot of the Benedictine monastery in the town, and the head of the household of monks bore the title of prior, but was mitred like an abbot. Only two years previously the peace of the priory had been sadly disturbed, and the monks temporarily turned out of their quarters, but they had been firmly reinstalled before the year ended, and were unlikely to be dispossessed again.

Never underestimate Roger de Clinton, Robert Beaumont’s squire had said, no doubt echoing his formidable patron. Hugh already had a healthy respect for his bishop; and if a prelate of this stature, with the peril of Christendom on his mind, could draw to him a magnate like the Earl of Leicester, and others of similar quality and sense, from either faction or both, then surely in the end some good must come of it. Hugh unrolled the earl’s despatches with a cautiously hopeful mind, and began to read the brief summary within, and the list of resounding names. The sudden and violent breach between Robert, earl of Gloucester, the Empress Maud’s half-brother and loyal champion, and his younger son Philip, in the heat of midsummer, had startled the whole of England, and still remained inadequately explained or understood. In the desultory but dangerous and explosive battlefield of the Thames valley Philip, the empress’s castellan of Cricklade, had been plagued by damaging raids by the king’s men garrisoned in Oxford and Malmesbury, and to ease the load had begged his father to come and choose a site for another castle, to try and disrupt communications between the two royal strongholds, and put them, in turn, on the defensive. And Earl Robert had duly selected his site at Faringdon, built his castle and garrisoned it. But as soon as the king heard of it he came with a strong army and laid siege to the place. Philip in Cricklade had sent plea after plea to his father to send reinforcements at all costs, not to lose this asset barely yet enjoyed, and potentially so valuable to the hard-pressed garrison of his son’s command. But Gloucester had paid no heed, and sent no aid. And suddenly it was the talk of the south that the castellan of Faringdon, Brien de Soulis, and his closest aides within the castle, had made secret compact with the besiegers, unknown to the rest of the garrison, let in the king’s men by night, and delivered over Faringdon to them, with all its fighting men. Those who accepted the fiat joined Stephen’s forces, as most of the ranks did, seeing their leaders had committed them; those who held true to the empress’s salt were disarmed and made prisoner. The victims had been distributed among the king’s followers, to be held to ransom. And no sooner was this completed than Philip FitzRobert, the great earl’s son, in despite of his allegiance and his blood, had handed over Cricklade also to the king, and this time whole, with all its armoury and all its manpower intact. As many considered, it was his will, if not his hand, which had surrendered the keys of Faringdon, for Brien de Soulis was known to be as close to Philip as twin to twin, at all times in his councils. And thereafter Philip had turned to, and fought as ferociously against his father as once he had fought for him.

But as for why, that was hard to understand. He loved his sister, who was married to Earl Ranulf of Chester, and Ranulf was seeking to inveigle himself back into the king’s favour, and would be glad to take another powerful kinsman with him, to assure his welcome. But was that enough? And Philip had asked for Faringdon, and looked forward to the relief it would give his own forces, only to see it left to its fate in spite of his repeated appeals for help. But was even that enough? It takes an appalling load of bitterness, surely, to cause a man, after years of loyalty and devotion, to turn and rend his own flesh and blood.

But he had done it. And here in Hugh’s hand was the tale of his first victims, some thirty young men of quality, knights and squires, parcelled out among the king’s supporters, to pay dearly for their freedom at best, or to rot in captivity unredeemed if they had fallen into the wrong hands, and were sufficiently hated.

Robert Beaumont’s clerk had noted, where it was known, the name of the captor against that of the captive, and marked off those who had already been bought free by their kin. No one else was likely to raise an exorbitant sum for the purchase of a young gentleman in arms, as yet of no particular distinction. One or two of the ambitious young partisans of the empress might be left languishing unfathered and without patron in obscure dungeons, unless this projected conference at Coventry produced some sensible agreement that must, among its details, spare a thought to insist on their liberation.

At the end of the scroll, after many names that were strange to him, Hugh came to one that he knew.

“Known to have been among those overpowered and disarmed, not known who holds him, or where. Has not been offered for ransom. Laurence d’Angers has been enquiring for him without result: Olivier de Bretagne.”

Hugh went down through the town with his news, to confer with Abbot Radulfus over this suddenly presented opportunity to put an end to eight years of civil strife. Whether the bishops would allow an equal voice to the monastic clergy only time would tell; relations between the two arms of the Church were not invariably cordial, though Roger de Clinton certainly valued the abbot of Shrewsbury. But whether invited to the conference or not, when the time came, Radulfus would need to be prepared for either success or failure, and ready to act accordingly. And there was also another person at the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul who had every right to be told the content of Robert Beaumont’s letter.

Brother Cadfael was standing in the middle of his walled herb-garden, looking pensively about him at the autumnal visage of his pleasance, where all things grew gaunt, wiry and sombre. Most of the leaves were fallen, the stems dark and clenched like fleshless fingers holding fast to the remnant of the summer, all the fragrances gathered into one scent of age and decline, still sweet, but with the damp, rotting sweetness of harvest over and decay setting in. It was not yet very cold, the mild melancholy of November still had lingering gold in it, in falling leaves and slanting amber light. All the apples were in the loft, all the corn milled, the hay long stacked, the sheep turned into the stubble fields. A time to pause, to look round, to make sure nothing had been neglected, no fence unrepaired, against the winter.

He had never before been quite so acutely aware of the particular quality and function of November, its ripeness and its hushed sadness. The year proceeds not in a straight line through the seasons, but in a circle that brings the world and man back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, and out of which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin. Old men, thought Cadfael, believe in that new beginning, but experience only the ending. It may be that God is reminding me that I am approaching my November. Well, why regret it? November has beauty, has seen the harvest into the barns, even laid by next year’s seed. No need to fret about not being allowed to stay and sow it, someone else will do that. So go contentedly into the earth with the moist, gentle, skeletal leaves, worn to cobweb fragility, like the skins of very old men, that bruise and stain at the mere brushing of the breeze, and flower into brown blotches as the leaves into rotting gold. The colours of late autumn are the colours of the sunset: the farewell of the year and the farewell of the day. And of the life of man? Well, if it ends in a flourish of gold, that is no bad ending.

Hugh, coming from the abbot’s lodging, between haste to impart what he knew, and reluctance to deliver what could only be disturbing news, found his friend standing thus motionless in the middle of his small, beloved kingdom, staring rather within his own mind than at the straggling, autumnal growth about him. He started back to the outer world only when Hugh laid a hand on his shoulder, and visibly surfaced slowly from some secret place, fathoms deep in the centre of his being.

“God bless the work,” said Hugh, and took him by the arms, “if any’s been done here this afternoon. I thought you had taken root.”

“I was pondering the circular nature of human life,” said Cadfael, almost apologetically, “and the seasons of the year and the hours of the day. I never heard you come. I was not expecting to see you today.”

“Nor would you have seen me, if Robert Bossu’s intelligencers had been a little less busy. Come within,” said Hugh, “and I’ll tell you what’s brewing. There’s matter concerning all good churchmen, and I’ve just come from informing Radulfus. But there’s also an item that will come close home to you. As indeed,” he owned, thrusting the door of Cadfael’s workshop open with a gusty sigh, “it does to me.”

“You’ve heard from Leicester?” Cadfael eyed him thoughtfully from the threshold. “Earl Robert Bossu keeps in touch? He views you as one of his hopefuls, Hugh, if he’s keeping that road open. What’s he about now?”

“Not he, so much, though he’ll be in it to the throat, whether he quite believes in it or not. No, it’s certain of the bishops have made the first move, but there’ll be some voices on either side, like Leicester’s, to back their efforts.”

Hugh sat down with him under the dangling bunches of drying herbs, stirring fragrantly along the beams in the draught from the open door, and told him of the proposed meeting at Coventry, of the safe conducts already being issued on either part, and of such prospects as existed of at any rate partial success.

“God he knows if either of them will so much as shift a foot. Stephen is exalted at having got Chester on his side, and Gloucester’s own son into the bargain, but Maud knows her menfolk have made very sure of Normandy, and that will sway some of our barons who have lands over there to safeguard, as well as here. I can see more and more of the wiser sort paying mouth allegiance still, but making as little move in the martial kind as they can contrive. But by all means let’s make the attempt. Roger de Clinton can be a powerful persuader when he’s in good earnest, and he’s in good earnest now, for his real quarry is the Atabeg Zenghi in Mosul, and his aim the recovery of Edessa. And Henry of Winchester will surely add his weight to the scale. Who knows? I’ve primed the abbot,” said Hugh dubiously, “but I doubt if the bishops will call on the monastic arm, they’d rather keep the reins in their own hands.”

“And how does this, however welcome and however dubious, concern me closely?” Cadfael wondered.

“Wait, there’s more.” He was carrying it carefully, for such news is brittle. He watched Cadfael’s face anxiously as he asked: “You’ll recall what happened in the summer at Robert of Gloucester’s newly built castle of Faringdon? When Gloucester’s younger son turned his coat, and his castellan gave over the castle to the king?”

“I remember,” said Cadfael. “The men-at-arms had no choice but to change sides with him, their captains having sealed the surrender. And Cricklade went over with Philip, intact to a man.”

“But many of the knights in Faringdon,” said Hugh with deliberation, “refused the treason, and were overpowered and disarmed. Stephen handed them out to various of his allies, new and old, but I suspect the new did best out of it, and got the fattest prizes, to fix them gratefully in their new loyalty. Well, Leicester has been employing his agents round Oxford and Malmesbury to good effect, to ferret out the list of those made prisoner, and discover to whom they were given. Some have been bought out already, briskly enough. Some are on offer, and for prices high enough to sell very profitably. But there’s one name, known to have been there, listed with no word of who holds him, and has not been seen or heard of since Faringdon fell. I doubt if the name means anything to Robert Bossu, more than the rest. But it does to me, Cadfael.” He had his friend’s full and wary attention; the tone of his voice, carefully moderate, was a warning rather than a reassurance. “And will to you.”

“Not offered for ransom,” said Cadfael, reckoning the odds with careful moderation in return, “and held very privately. It argues a more than ordinary animosity. That will be a price that comes high. Even if he will take a price.”

“And in order to pay what may be asked,” said Hugh ruefully, “Laurence d’Angers, so Leicester’s agent says, has been enquiring for him everywhere without result. That name would be known to the earl, though not the names of the young men of his following. I am sorry to bring such news. Olivier de Bretagne was in Faringdon. And now Olivier de Bretagne is prisoner, and God knows where.”

After the silence, a shared pause for breath and thought, and the mutual rearrangement of the immediate concerns that troubled them both, Cadfael said simply: “He is a young man like other young men. He knows the risks. He takes them with open eyes. What is there to be said for one more than the rest?”

“But this was a risk, I fancy, that he could not foresee. That Gloucester’s own son should turn against him! And a risk Olivier was least armed to deal with, having so little conception of treachery. I don’t know, Cadfael, how long he had been among the garrison, or what the feeling was among the young knights there. It seems many of them were with Olivier. The castle was barely completed, Philip filled it and wanted it defended well, and when it lay under siege Robert failed to lift a finger to save it. There’s bitterness there. But Leicester will go on trying to find them all, to the last man. And if we’re all to meet soon at Coventry, at least there may be agreement on a release of prisoners on both sides. We shall all be pressing for it, men of goodwill from both factions.”

“Olivier ploughs his own furrow, and cuts his own swathe,” said Cadfael, staring eastward through the timber wall before him, far eastward into drought and sand and sun, and the glittering sea along the shores of the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, now menaced and in arms. The fabled world of Outremer, once familiar to him, where Olivier de Bretagne had grown up to choose, in young manhood, the faith of his unknown father. “I doubt,” said Cadfael slowly, “any prison can hold him long. I am glad you have told me, Hugh. Bring me word if you get any further news.”

But the voice, Hugh thought when he left his friend, was not that of a man fully confident of a good ending, nor the set of the face indicative of one absolute in faith and prepared to sit back and leave all either to Olivier or to God.

When Hugh was gone, with his own cares to keep him fully occupied, and his errand in friendship faithfully discharged, Cadfael damped down his brazier with turves, closed his workshop, and went away to the church. There was an hour yet to Vespers. Brother Winfrid was still methodically digging over a bed cleared of beans, to leave it to the frosts of the coming winter to crumble and refine. A thin veil of yellowed leaves still clung to the trees, and the roses were grown tall and leggy, small, cold buds forming at the tips, buds that would never open.

In the vast, dim quiet of the church Cadfael made amicable obeisance to the altar of Saint Winifred, as to an intimate but revered friend, but for once hesitated to burden her with a charge for another man, and one even she might find hard to understand. True, Olivier was half Welsh, but that, hand in hand with all that was passionately Syrian in his looks and thoughts and principles, might prove even more confusing to her. So the only prayer he made to her was made without words, in the heart, offering affection in a gush of tenderness like the smoke of incense. She had forgiven him so much, and never shut him out. And this same year she had suffered flood and peril and contention, and come back safely to a deserved rest. Why disturb its sweetness with a trouble which belonged all to himself?

So he took his problem rather to the high altar, directly to the source of all strength, all power, all faithfulness, and for once he was not content to kneel, but prostrated himself in a cross on the cold flags, like an offender presenting his propitiatory body at the end of penance, though the offence he contemplated was not yet committed, and with great mercy and understanding on his superior’s part might not be necessary. Nevertheless, he professed his intent now, in stark honesty, and besought rather comprehension than forgiveness. With his forehead chill against the stone he discarded words to present his compulsion, and let thoughts express the need that found him lucid but inarticulate. This I must do, whether with a blessing or a ban. For whether I am blessed or banned is of no consequence, provided what I have to do is done well.

At the end of Vespers he asked audience of Abbot Radulfus, and was admitted. In the private parlour they sat down together.

“Father, I believe Hugh Beringar has acquainted you with all that he has learned in letters from the Earl of Leicester. Has he also told you of the fate of the knights of Faringdon who refused to desert the empress?”

“He has,” said Radulfus. “I have seen the list of names, and I know how they were disposed of. I trust that at this proposed meeting in Coventry some agreement may be reached for a general release of prisoners, even if nothing better can be achieved.”

“Father, I wish I shared your trust, but I fear they are neither of them in any mind to give way. Howbeit, you will have noted the name of Olivier de Bretagne, who has not been located, and of whom nothing is known since Faringdon fell. His lord is willing and anxious to ransom him, but he has not been offered the opportunity. Father, I must tell you certain things concerning this young man, things I know Hugh will not have told you.”

“I have some knowledge of the man myself,” Radulfus reminded him, smiling, “when he came here four years ago at the time of Saint Winifred’s translation, in search of a certain squire missing from his place after the conference in Winchester. I have not forgotten him.”

“But this one thing,” said Cadfael, “is still unknown to you, though it may be that I should have told you long since, when first he touched my life. I had not thought that there was any need, for I did not expect that in any way my commitment to this place could be changed. Nor did I suppose that I should ever meet him again, nor he ever have need of me. But now it seems meet and right that all should be made plain. Father,” said Cadfael simply, “Olivier de Bretagne is my son.”

There was a silence that fell with surprising serenity and gentleness. Men within the pale as without are still men, vulnerable and fallible. Radulfus had the wise man’s distant respect for perfection, but no great expectation of meeting it in the way.

“When first I came to Palestine,” said Cadfael, looking back without regret, “an eighteen-year-old boy, I met with a young widow in Antioch, and loved her. Long years afterwards, when I returned to sail from Saint Symeon on my way home, I met with her again, and lingered with her in kindness until the ship was ready to sail. I left her a son, of whom I knew nothing, until he came looking for two lost children, after the sack of Worcester. And I was glad and proud of him, and with good reason. For a short while, when he came the second time, you knew him. Judge if I was glad of him, or no.”

“You had good reason,” said Radulfus readily. “However he was got, he did honour to his getting. I dare make no reproach. You had taken no vows, you were young and far from home, and humanity is frail. No doubt this was confessed and repented long since.”

“Confessed,” said Cadfael bluntly, “yes, when I knew I had left her with child and unfriended, but that is not long ago. And repented? No, I doubt if ever I repented of loving her, for she was well worth any man’s love. And bear in mind, Father, that I am Welsh, and in Wales there are no bastards but those whose fathers deny their paternity. Judge if I would ever deny my right to that bright, brave creature. The best thing ever I did was to cause him to be brought forth into a world where very few can match him.”

“However admirable the fruit may be,” said the abbot drily, “it does not justify priding oneself on a sin, nor calling a sin by any other name. But neither is there any profit in passing today’s judgement upon a sin some thirty years past. Since your avowal I have very seldom found any fault to chasten in you, beyond the small daily failings in patience or diligence, to which we are all prone. Let us deal, therefore, with what confronts us now. For I think you have somewhat to ask of me or to put to me concerning Olivier de Bretagne.”

“Father,” said Cadfael, choosing his words gravely and with deliberation, “if I presume in supposing that fatherhood imposes a duty upon me, wherever child of mine may be in trouble or misfortune, reprove me. But I do conceive of such a duty, and cannot heave it off my heart. I am bound to go and seek my son, and deliver him when found. I ask your countenance and your leave.”

“And I,” said Radulfus, frowning, but not wholly in displeasure, rather in profound concentration, “put to you the opposing view of what is now your duty. Your vows bind you here. Of your own will you chose to abandon the world and all your ties within it. That cannot be shed like a coat.”

“I took my vows in good faith,” said Cadfael, “not then knowing that there was in the world a being for whose very existence I was responsible. From all other ties my vows absolved me. All other personal relationships my vows severed. Not this one! Whether I would have resigned the world if I had known it contained my living seed, that I cannot answer, nor may you hazard at an answer. But he lives, and it was I engendered him. He suffers captivity and I am free. He may be in peril, and I am safe. Father, can the creator forsake the least of his creatures? Can a man turn away from his own imperilled blood? Is not procreation itself the undertaking of a sacred and inviolable vow? Knowing or unknowing, before I was a brother I was a father.”

This time the silence was chiller and more detached, and lasted longer. Then the abbot said levelly: “Ask what you have come to ask. Let it be plainly said.”

“I ask your leave and blessing,” said Cadfael, “to go with Hugh Beringar and attend this conference at Coventry, there to ask before king and empress where my son is held, and by God’s help and theirs see him delivered free.”

“And then?” said Radulfus. “If there is no help there?”

“Then by whatever means to pursue that same quest, until I do find and set him free.”

The abbot regarded him steadily, recognizing in the voice some echo from far back and far away, with the steel in it that had been blunted and sheathed as long as he had known this elderly brother. The weathered face, brown-browed and strongly boned, and deeply furrowed now by the wear and tear of sixty-five years, gazing back at him from wide-set and wide open eyes of a dark, autumnal brown, let him in honestly to the mind within. After years of willing submission to the claims of community, Cadfael stood suddenly erect and apart, again solitary. Radulfus recognized finality.

“And if I forbid,” he said with certainty, “you will still go.”

“Under God’s eye, and with reverence to you, Father, yes.”

“Then I do not forbid,” said Radulfus. “It is my office to keep all my flock. If one stray, the ninety and nine left are also bereft. I give you leave to go with Hugh, and see this council meet, and I pray some good may come of it. But once they disperse, whether you have learned what you need or no, there your leave of absence ends. Return with Hugh, as you go with Hugh. If you go further and delay longer, then you go as your own man, none of mine. Without my leave or my blessing.”

“Without your prayers?” said Cadfael.

“Have I said so?”

“Father,” said Cadfael, “it is written in the Rule that the brother who by his own wrong choice has left the monastery may be received again, even to the third time, at a price. Even penance ends when you shall say: It is enough!”

Chapter Two

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The day of the council at Coventry was fixed as the last day of November. Before that date there had been certain evidences that the prospect of agreement and peace was by no means universally welcome, and there were powerful interests ready and willing to wreck it. Philip FitzRobert had seized and held prisoner Reginald FitzRoy, another of the empress’s half-brothers and Earl of Cornwall, though the earl was his kinsman, on the empress’s business, and bearing the king’s safe conduct. The fact that Stephen ordered the earl’s release on hearing of it, and was promptly and correctly obeyed, did not lessen the omen. “If that’s his mind,” said Cadfael to Hugh, the day they heard of it, “he’ll never come to Coventry.”

“Ah, but he will,” said Hugh. “He’ll come to drop all manner of caltrops under the feet of all those who talk peace. Better and more effective within than without. And he’ll come, from all that I can make of him, to confront his father brow to brow, since he’s taken so bitter a rage against him. Oh, Philip will be there.” He regarded his friend with searching eyes; a face he could usually read clearly, but its grey gravity made him a little uneasy now. “And you? Do you really intend to go with me? At the risk of trespassing too far for return? You know I would do your errand for you gladly. If there’s word to be had there of Olivier, I will uncover it. No need for you to stake what I know you value as your life itself.”

“Olivier’s life,” said Cadfael, “has more than half its race to run, by God’s grace, and is of higher value than my spent years. And you have a duty of your own, as I have mine. Yes, I will go. He knows it. He promises nothing and threatens nothing. He has said I go as my own man if I go beyond Coventry, but he has not said what he would do, were he in my shoes. And since I go without his bidding, I will go without any providing of his, if you will find me a mount, Hugh, and a cloak, and food in my scrip.”

“And a sword and a pallet in the guardroom afterwards,” said Hugh, shaking off his solemnity, “if the cloister discards you. After we have recovered Olivier, of course.”

The very mention of the name always brought before Cadfael’s eyes the first glimpse he had ever had of his unknown son, seen over a girl’s shoulder through the open wicket of the gate of Bromfield Priory in the snow of a cruel winter. A long, thin but suave face, wide browed, with a scimitar of a nose and a supple bow of a mouth, proud and vivid, with the black and golden eyes of a hawk, and a close, burnished cap of blue-black hair. Olive-gold, cast in fine bronze, very beautiful. Mariam’s son wore Mariam’s face, and did honour to her memory. Fourteen years old when he left Antioch after her funeral rites, and went to Jerusalem to join the faith of his father, whom he had never seen but through Mariam’s eyes. Thirty years old now, or close. Perhaps himself a father, by the girl Ermina Hugonin, whom he had guided through the snow to Bromfield. Her noble kin had seen his worth, and given her to him in marriage. Now she lacked him, she and that possible grandchild. And that was unthinkable, and could not be left to any other to set right.

“Well,” said Hugh, “it will not be the first time you and I have ridden together. Make ready, then, you have three days yet to settle your differences with God and Radulfus. And at least I’ll find you the best of the castle’s stables instead of an abbey mule.”

Within the enclave there were mixed feelings among the brothers concerning Cadfael’s venture, undertaken thus with only partial and limited sanction, and with no promise of submission to the terms set. Prior Robert had made known in chapter the precise provisions laid down for Cadfael’s absence, limited to the duration of the conference at Coventry, and had emphasized that strict injunction as if he had gathered that it was already threatened. Small blame to him, the implication had certainly been there in the abbot’s incomplete instruction to him. As for the reason for this journey to be permitted at all, even grudgingly, there had been no explanation. Cadfael’s confidence was between Cadfael and Radulfus.

Curiosity unsatisfied put the worst interpretation upon such facts as had been made public. There was a sense of shock, grieved eyes turning silently upon a brother already almost renegade. There was dread in the reactions of some who had been monastic from infancy, and jealousy among some come later, and uneasy at times in their confinement. Though Brother Edmund the infirmarer, himself an oblate at four years old, accepted loyally what puzzled him in his brother, and was anxious only at losing his apothecary for a time. And Brother Anselm the precentor, who acknowledged few disruptions other than a note off-key, or a sore throat among his best voices, accepted all other events with utter serenity, assumed the best, wished all men well, and gave over worrying.

Prior Robert disapproved of any departure from the strict Rule, and had for years disapproved of what he considered privileges granted to Brother Cadfael, in his freedom to move among the people of the Foregate and the town when there was illness to be confronted. And time had been when his chaplain, Brother Jerome, would have been assiduous in adding fuel to the prior’s resentment; but Brother Jerome, earlier in the year, had suffered a shattering shock to his satisfaction with his own image, and emerged from a long penance deprived of his office as one of the confessors to the novices, and crushed into surprising humility. For the present, at least, he was much easier to live with, and less vociferous in denouncing the faults of others. In time, no doubt, he would recover his normal sanctimony, but Cadfael was spared any censure from him on this occasion.

So in the end Cadfael’s most challenging contention was with himself. He had indeed taken vows, and he felt the bonds they wound about him tightening when he contemplated leaving this chosen field. He had told only truth in his presentation of his case to the abbot; everything was done and stated openly. But did that absolve him? Brother Edmund and Brother Winfrid between them would now have to supply his place, prepare medicines, provision the leper hospital at Saint Giles, tend the herb-garden, do not only their own work, but also his.

All this, if his defection lasted beyond the time allotted to him. By the very act of contemplating that possibility, he knew he was expecting it. So this decision, before ever he left the gates, had the gravity of life and death in it.

But all the while he knew that he would go.

Hugh came for him on the morning appointed, immediately after Prime, with three of his officers in attendance, all well mounted, and a led horse for Cadfael. Hugh remarked with satisfaction that his friend’s sternly preoccupied eyes perceptibly brightened approvingly at the sight of a tall, handsome roan, almost as lofty as Hugh’s raking grey, with a mettlesome gait and an arrogant eye, and a narrow white blaze down his aristocratic nose. Cloaked and booted and ready, Cadfael buckled his saddlebags before him, and mounted a little stiffly, but with plain pleasure. Considerately, Hugh refrained from offering help. Sixty-five is an age deserving of respect and reverence from the young, but those who have reached it do not always like to be reminded.

There was no one obviously watching as they rode out from the gate, though there may have been eyes on them from the shelter of cloister or infirmary, or even from the abbot’s lodging. Better to pursue the regular routine of the day as though this was merely a day like any other, and nowhere in any mind a doubt that the departing brother would come back at the due time, and resume his duties as before. And if peace came home with him, so much the more welcome.

Once out past Saint Giles, with the town and Foregate behind them, and the hogback of the Wrekin looming ahead, Cadfael’s heart lifted into eased resignation, open without grudging to whatever might come. There were consolations. With December on the doorstep the fields were still green, the weather mild and windless, he had a good horse under him, and riding beside Hugh was a pleasure full of shared memories. The highroad was open and safe, and the way they must take familiar to them both, at least as far as the forest of Chenet, and Hugh had set out three days before the council was due to meet formally.

“For we’ll take it gently along the way,” he said, “and be there early. I could do with a word with Robert Bossu before anything is said in session. We may even run into Ranulf of Chester when we halt overnight at Lichfield. I heard he had some last minute advice to pour into the ears of his half-brother of Lincoln. William is minding the winnings of both of them in the north while Ranulf comes demurely to council in Coventry.”

“He’ll be wise,” said Cadfael thoughtfully, “not to flaunt his successes. There must be a good number of his enemies gathering.”

“Oh, he’ll still be courting. He’s handed out several judicious concessions these last few weeks, to barons he was robbing of lands or privileges only last year. It costs,” said Hugh cynically, “to change sides. The king is only the first he has to charm, and the king is apt to welcome allies with his eyes shut and his arms open, and be the giver rather than the getter. All those who have held by him throughout, and watched Ranulf flout him, won’t come so cheaply. Some of them will take the sweets he offers, but forbear from delivering the goods he thinks he’s buying. If I were Ranulf, I would walk very meekly and humbly for a year or so yet.”

When they rode into the precinct of the diocesan guest-halls at Lichfield, early in the evening, there was certainly a lively bustle to be observed, and several noble devices to be seen among the grooms and servants in the common lodging where Hugh’s men-at-arms rested. But none from Chester. Either Ranulf had taken another route, perhaps straight from his half-brother in Lincoln, or else he was ahead of them, already back in his castle of Mountsorrel, near Leicester, making his plans for the council. For him it was not so much an attempt at making peace as an opportunity to secure his acceptance on what he hoped and calculated would be the winning side in a total victory.

Cadfael went out before Compline into the chill of the dusk, and turned southward from the close to where the burnished surfaces of the minster pools shone with a sullen leaden light in the flat calm, and the newly cleared space where the Saxon church had stood showed as yet like a scar slow to heal. Roger de Clinton, continuing work on foundations begun years before, had approved the choice of a more removed and stable site for a projected weight far greater than Saint Chad, the first bishop, had ever contemplated. Cadfael turned at the edge of the holy ground blessed by the ministry of one of the gentlest and most beloved of prelates, and looked back to the massive bulk of the new stone cathedral, barely yet finished, if indeed there could ever be an end to adorning and enlarging it. The long roof of the nave and the strong, foursquare central tower stood razor-edged against the paler sky. The choir was short, and ended in an apse. The tall windows of the west end caught a few glimpses of slanted light through walls strong as a fortress. Invisible under those walls, the marks of the masons’ lodges and the scars of their stored stone and timber still remained, and a pile of stacked ashlar where the bankers had been cleared away. Now the man who had built this castle to God had Christendom heavy on his mind, and was already away in the spirit to the Holy Land.

Faint glints of lambent light pricked out the edge of the pool as Cadfael turned back to Compline. As he entered the close he was again among men, shadowy figures that passed him on their various occasions and spoke to him courteously in passing, but had no recognizable faces in the gathering dark. Canons, acolytes, choristers, guests from the common lodging and the hall, devout townspeople coming in to the late office, wanting the day completed and crowned. He felt himself compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses, and it mattered not at all that the whole soul of every one of these might be intent upon other anxieties, and utterly unaware of him. So many passionate needs brought together must surely shake the heavens.

Within the great barn of the nave a few spectral figures moved silently in the dimness, about the Church’s evening business. It was early yet, only the constant lamps on the altars glowing like small red eyes, though in the choir a deacon was lighting the candles, flame after steady flame growing tall in the still air.

There was an unmistakably secular young man standing before a side altar where the candles had just been lighted. He bore no weapon here, but the belt he wore showed the fine leather harness for sword and dagger, and his coat, dark-coloured and workmanlike, was none the less of fine cloth and well cut. A square, sturdy young man who stood very still and gazed unwaveringly at the cross, with a regard so earnest and demanding that he was surely praying, and with grave intent. He stood half turned away, so that Cadfael could not see his face, and certainly did not recall that he had ever seen the man before; and yet there seemed something curiously familiar about the compact, neat build, and the thrust of the head upward and forward, as though he jutted his jaw at the God with whom he pleaded and argued, as at an equal of whom he had a right to demand help in a worthy cause.

Cadfael shifted his ground a little to see the fixed profile, and at the same moment one of the candles, the flame reaching some frayed thread, flared suddenly sidelong, and cast an abrupt light on the young man’s face. It lasted only an instant, for he raised a hand and pinched away the fault briskly between finger and thumb, and the flame dimmed and steadied again at once. A strong, bright profile, straight-nosed and well chinned, a young man of birth, and well aware of his value. Cadfael must have made some small movement at the edge of the boy’s vision when the candle flared, for suddenly he turned and showed his full face, still youthfully round of cheek and vulnerable honest of eye, wide-set brown eyes beneath a broad forehead and a thick thatch of brown hair.

The startled glance that took in Cadfael was quickly and courteously withdrawn. In the act of returning to his silent dialogue with his maker the young man as suddenly stiffened, and again turned, this time to stare as candidly and shamelessly as a child. He opened his mouth to speak, breaking into an eager smile, recoiled momentarily into doubt, and then made up his mind.

“Brother Cadfael? It is you?”

Cadfael blinked and peered, and was no wiser.

“You can’t have forgotten,” said the young man blithely, certain of his memorability. “You brought me to Bromfield. It’s six years ago now. Olivier came to fetch me away, Ermina and me. I’m changed, of course I am, but not you—not changed at all!”

And the light of the candles was steady and bright between them, and six years melted away like mist, and Cadfael recognized in this square, sturdy young fellow the square, sturdy child he had first encountered in the forest between Stoke and Bromfield in a bitter December, and helped away with his sister to safety in Gloucester. Thirteen years old then, now almost nineteen, and as trim and assured and bold as he had promised from that first meeting.

“Yves? Yves Hugonin! Ah, now I do see… And you are not so changed after all. But what are you doing here? I thought you were away in the west somewhere, in Gloucester or Bristol.”

“I’ve been on the empress’s errand to Norfolk, to the earl. He’ll be on his way to Coventry by now. She needs all her allies round her, and Hugh Bigod carries more weight than most with the baronage.”

“And you’re joining her party there?” Cadfael drew delighted breath. “We can ride together. You are here alone? Then alone no longer, for it’s a joy to see you again, and in such good fettle. I am here with Hugh, he’ll be as glad to see you as I am.”

“But how,” demanded Yves, glowing, “did you come to be here at all?” He had Cadfael by both hands, wringing them ardently. “I know you were sent out by right, that last time, to salve a damaged man, but what art did you use to be loosed out to a state conference like this one? Though if there were more of you, and all delegates,” he added ruefully, “there might be more hope of accord. God knows I’m happy to see you, but how did you contrive it?”

“I have leave until the conference ends,” said Cadfael.

“On what grounds? Abbots are not too easily persuaded.”

“Mine,” said Cadfael, “allows me limited time, but sets a period to it that I may not infringe. I am given leave to attend at Coventry for one reason, to seek for news of one of the prisoners from Faringdon. Where princes are gathered together I may surely get word of him.”

He had not spoken a name, but the boy had stiffened into an intensity that tightened all the lines of his young, fresh face into a formidable maturity. He was not yet quite at the end of his growing, not fully formed, but the man was already there within, burning through like a stirred fire when some partisan passion probed deep into his heart.

“I think we are on the same quest,” he said. “If you are looking for Olivier de Bretagne, so am I. I know he was in Faringdon, I know as all who know him must know that he would never change his allegiance, and I know he has been hidden away out of reach. He was my champion and saviour once, he is my brother now, my sister carries his child. Closer to me than my skin, and dear as my blood, how can I ever rest,” said Yves, “until I know what they have done with him, and have haled him out of captivity?”

“I was with him,” said Yves, “until they garrisoned Faringdon. I was with him from the time I first bore arms, I would not willingly be parted from him, and he of his kindness kept me close. Father and brother both he has been to me, since he and my sister married. Now Ermina is solitary in Gloucester, and with child.”

They sat together on a bench beneath one of the torches in the guesthall, Hugh and Cadfael and the boy, in the last hush of the evening after Compline, with memories all about them in the dimness where the torchlight could not reach. Yves had pursued his quest alone since the fall of Faringdon had cast his friend into limbo, unransomed, unlisted, God knew where. It was relief now to open his heart and pour out everything he knew or guessed, to these two who valued Olivier de Bretagne as he did. Three together might surely do more than one alone.

“When Faringdon was finished, Robert of Gloucester took his own forces away and left the field to his son, and Philip made Brien de Soulis castellan of Faringdon, and gave him a strong garrison drawn from several bases. Olivier was among them. I was in Gloucester then, or I might have gone with him, but for that while I was on an errand for the empress, and she kept me about her. Most of her household were in Devizes still, she had only a few of us with her. Then we heard that King Stephen had brought a great host to lay siege to the new castle, and ease the pressure on Oxford and Malmesbury. And the next we knew was of Philip sending courier after courier to his father to come with reinforcements and save Faringdon. But he never came. Why?” demanded Yves helplessly. “Why did he not? God knows! Was he ill? Is he still a sick man? Very weary I well understand he may be, but to be inactive then, when most he was needed!”

“From all I heard,” said Hugh, “Faringdon was strongly held. Newly armed, newly provisioned. Even without Robert, surely it could have held out. My king, with all the liking I have for him, is not known for constancy in sieges. He would have sickened of it and moved on elsewhere. It takes a long time to starve out a newly supplied fortress.”

“It could have held,” Yves said bleakly. “There was no need for that surrender, it was done of intent, of malice. Whether Philip was in it then or not, is something no man knows but Philip. For what happened certainly happened without his presence, but whether without his will is another matter. De Soulis is close in his counsels. However it was, there was some connivance between the leaders who had personal forces within, and the besiegers without, and suddenly the garrison was called to witness that all their six captains had come to an agreement to surrender the castle, and their men were shown the agreement inscribed and sealed by all six, and perforce they accepted what their lords decreed. And that left the knights and squires without following, to be disarmed and made prisoner unless they also accepted the fiat. The king’s forces were already within the gates, Thirty young men were doled out like pay to Stephen’s allies, and vanished. Some have reappeared, bought free by their kin and friends. Not Olivier.”

“This we do know,” said Hugh. “The Earl of Leicester has the full list. No one has offered Olivier for ransom. No one has said, though someone must know, who holds him.”

“My Uncle Laurence has been enquiring everywhere,” agreed Yves, “but can learn nothing. And he grows older, and is needed in Devizes, where she mainly keeps her court these days. But in Coventry I intend to bring this matter into the open, and have an answer. They cannot deny me.”

Cadfael, listening in silence, shook his head a little, almost fondly, at such innocent confiding. King and empress, with absolute if imagined victory almost within sight, were less likely to give priority to a matter of simple individual justice than this boy supposed. He was young, candid, born noble, and serenely aware of his rights to fair dealing and courteous consideration. He had some rough awakenings coming to him before he would be fully armoured against the world and the devil.

“And then,” said Yves bitterly, “Philip handed over Cricklade whole and entire to King Stephen, himself, his garrison, arms, armour and all. I can’t for my life imagine why, what drove him to it. I’ve worn my wits out trying to fathom it. Was it a simple calculation that he was labouring more and more on the losing side, and could better his fortunes by the change? In cold blood? Or in very hot blood, bitter against his father for leaving Faringdon to its fate? Or was it he who betrayed Faringdon in the first place? Was it by his orders it was sold? I cannot see into his mind.”

“But you at least have seen him,” said Hugh, “and served with him. I have never set eyes on him. If you cannot account for what he has done now, yet you have worked alongside him, you must have some view of him, as one man of another in the same alliance. How old can he be? Surely barely ten years your elder.”

Yves shook the baffled bewilderment impatiently from him, and took time to think, “Around thirty. Robert’s heir, William, must be a few years past that. A quiet man, Philip—he had dark moods, but a good officer. I would have said I liked him, if ever I had considered to answer that at all. I never would have believed he would change his coat—certainly never for gain or for fear…”

“Let it be,” said Cadfael placatingly, seeing how the boy laboured at the thing he could not understand. “Here are three of us not prepared to let Olivier lie unransomed. Wait for Coventry, and we shall see what we can uncover there.”

They rode into Coventry in mid-afternoon of the following day, a fine, brisk day with gleams of chilly sunshine. The pleasure of the ride had diverted Yves for a while from his obsession, brightened his eyes and stung high colour into his cheeks. Approaching the city from the north, they found Earl Leofric’s old defences still in timber, but sturdy enough, and the tangle of streets within well paved and maintained since the bishops had made this city their main base within the see. Roger de Clinton had continued the practice, though Lichfield was dearer to his own heart, for in these disturbed times Coventry was nearer the seat of dissension, and in more danger from the sporadic raids of rival armies, and he was not a man to steer clear of perils himself while his flock endured them.

And certainly his redoubtable presence had afforded the city a measure of protection, but for all that there were some scars and dilapidations to be seen along the streets, and an occasional raw-edged gap where a house had been stripped down to its foundations and not yet replaced. In a country which for several years now had been disputed in arms between two very uncousinly cousins, it was no wonder if private enemies and equally acquisitive neighbours joined in the plundering for themselves, independently of either faction. Even the Earl of Chester’s small timber castle within the town had its scars to show, and would hardly be suitable for his occupation with the kind of retinue he intended to bring to the conference table, much less for entertaining his newly appeased and reconciled king. He would prefer the discreet distance of Mountsorrel in which to continue his careful wooing.

The city was divided between two lordships, the prior’s half and the earl’s half, and from time to time there was some grumbling and discontent over privileges varying between the two, but there was a shared and acknowledged town moot for all, and by and large they rubbed shoulders with reasonable amity. There were few more prosperous towns in England, and none more resilient and alert to opportunity. It was to be seen in the bustle in the streets. Merchants and tradesmen were busy setting out their wares to the best advantage, to catch the eyes of the assembling nobility. Whether they expected that the gathering would last long or produce any advance towards peace might be doubtful, but trade is trade, and where earls and barons were massing there would be profits to be made.

There were illustrious pennants afloat against the leaning house fronts, and fine liveries passing on horseback towards the gates of the priory and the houses of rest for pilgrims. Coventry possessed the relics of its own Saint Osburg, as well as an arm of Saint Augustine and many minor relics, and had thrived on its pilgrims ever since its founding just over a hundred years previously. This present crop of the wealthy and powerful, thought Cadfael, eyeing the evidences of their presence all about him, could hardly, for reputation’s sake, depart without giving profitable reward for their entertainment and the Church’s hospitality.

They wove their way at an easy walk through the murmur and bustle of the streets, and long before they reached the gateway of Saint Mary’s Priory Yves had begun to flush into eagerness, warmed by the air of excitement and hope that made the town seem welcoming and the possibility of conciliation a little nearer. He named the unfamiliar badges and banneroles they encountered on the way, and exchanged greetings with some of his own faction and status, young men in the service of the empress’s loyal following.

“Hugh Bigod has made haste from Norfolk, he’s here before us… Those are some of his men. And there, you see the man on the black horse yonder? That’s Reginald FitzRoy, half-brother to the empress, the younger one, the one Philip seized not a month ago, and the king made him set him free. I wonder,” said Yves, “how Philip dared touch him, with Robert’s hand always over him, for they do show very brotherly to each other. But give him his due, Stephen does play fair. He’d granted safe conducts, he stood by them.”

They had reached the broad gate of the priory enclave, and turned into a great court alive with colour and quivering with movement. The few habited Benedictine brothers who were doing their best to go about their duties and keep the horarium of the day were totally lost among this throng of visiting magnates and their servitors, some arriving, some riding out to see the town or visit acquaintances, grooms coming and going with horses nervous and edgy in such a crowd, squires unsaddling and unloading their lords’ baggage. Hugh, entering, drew aside to give free passage to a tall horseman, splendid in his dress and well attended, who was just mounting to ride forth.

“Roger of Hereford,” said Yves, glowing, “the new earl. He whose father was killed by mishap, out hunting, a couple of years ago. And the man just looking back from the steps yonder—that’s the empress’s steward, Humphrey de Bohun. She must be already arrived—”

He broke off abruptly, stiffening, his mouth open on the unfinished sentence, his eyes fixed in an incredulous stare. Cadfael, following the direction of the boy’s fixed gaze, beheld a man striding down the stone steps of the guesthall opposite, for once the sole figure on the wide staircase, and in clear sight above the moving throng below. A very personable man, trimly built and moving with an elegant arrogance, his fair head uncovered, a short cloak swinging on one shoulder. Thirty-five years old, perhaps, and well assured of his worth. He reached the cobbles of the court, and the crowd parted to give him passage, as if they accepted him at his own valuation. But nothing there, surely, to cause Yves to check and stare, gathering dark brows into a scowl of animosity.

“He?” said Yves through his teeth. “Dare he show his face here?” And suddenly his ice melted into fire, and with a leap he was out of the saddle and surging forward into the path of the advancing stranger, and his sword was out of the scabbard and held at challenge, spinning grooms and horses aside out of his way. His voice rose loud and hard.

“You, de Soulis! Betrayer of your cause and your comrades. Dare you come among honest men?”

For one shocked instant every other voice within the court was stunned into silence; the next, every voice rose in a clamour of alarm, protest and outrage. And as the first clash had sent people scurrying out of the vortex, so an immediate reaction drew many inward in recoil, to attempt to prevent the threatened conflict. But de Soulis had whirled to confront his challenger, and had his own sword naked in his hand, circling about him to clear ground for his defence. And then they were at it in earnest, steel shrieking against steel.

Chapter Three

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Hugh sprang down, flinging his bridle on his horse’s neck for a groom to retrieve, and plunged into the ring of affrighted people surrounding the contestants, out of range of the flashing swords. Cadfael followed suit, with resigned patience but without haste, since he could hardly do more or better to quiet this disturbance than Hugh would be able to do. It could not go on long enough to be mortal, there were too many powers, both regal and clerical, in residence here to permit anything so unseemly, and by the noise now reverberating on all sides from wall to wall around the court, every one of those powers would be present and voluble within minutes.

Nevertheless, once on his feet he made his way hastily enough into the heaving throng, thrusting through to where he might at least be within reach, should any opportunity offer of catching at a whirling sleeve and hauling one of the combatants back out of danger. If this was indeed de Soulis, the renegade of Faringdon, he had a dozen years the advantage of Yves, and showed all too alert and practised with the sword. Experience tells. Cadfael burrowed sturdily, distantly aware of a great voice bellowing from behind him, somewhere in the gateway, and of a flashing of lustrous colours above him in the doorway of the guesthall, but so intent on breaking through the circle that he missed the most effective intervention of all, until it was launched without warning over his left shoulder, sheering through clean into the circling sword play.

A long staff was thrust powerfully past him, prising bodies apart to shear a way through. A long arm followed it, and a long, lean, vigorous body, and silver flashed at the head of the stave, striking the locked swords strongly upward, bruising the hands that held them. Yves lost his grip, and the blade rang and re-echoed on the cobbles. De Soulis retrieved his hold with a lunge, but the hilt quivered in his hand, and he sprang back out of range of the heavy silver mount crowning the staff now upright between them. A breathless silence fell.

“Put up your weapons,” said Bishop Roger de Clinton, without so much as raising his voice. “Think shame to bare your swords within this precinct. You put your souls in peril. Our intent here is peace.”

The antagonists stood breathing hard, Yves flushed and half rebellious still, de Soulis eyeing his attacker with a chill smile and narrowed eyes.

“My lord,” he said with smooth civility, “I had no thought of offending until this rash young man drew on me. For no sane reason that I know of, for I never set eyes on him before.” He slid his blade coolly into the scabbard, with a deliberately ceremonious gesture of reverence towards the bishop. “He rides in here from the street, stranger to me, and begins to abuse me like a kennel brawler. I drew to keep my head.”

“He well knows,” flashed Yves, burning, “why I call him turncoat, renegade, betrayer of better men. Good knights lie in castle dungeons because of him.”

“Silence!” said the bishop, and was instantly obeyed. “Whatever your quarrels, they have no place within these walls. We are here to dispose of all such divisions between honourable men. Pick up your word. Sheathe it! Do not draw it again on this sacred ground. Not upon any provocation! I so charge you, as for the Church. And here are also those who will lay the same charge on you, as your sovereigns and liege lords.”

The great voice that had bellowed orders on entering the gate upon this unseemly spectacle had advanced upon the suddenly muted circle in the shape of a big, fair, commanding and very angry man. Cadfael knew him at once, from a meeting years past, in his siege camp in Shrewsbury, though the years between had sown some ashen threads in his yellow hair, and seams of anxiety and care in his handsome, open face. King Stephen, soon roused, soon placated, brave, impetuous but inconstant, a good-natured and generous man who had yet spent all the years of his reign in destructive warfare. And that flash of bright colours in the doorway of the guesthall, Cadfael realized at the same moment, was, must be, the other one, the woman who challenged Stephen’s sovereignty. Tall and erect against the dimness within the hall, splendidly apparelled and in her proud prime, there stood old King Henry’s sole surviving legitimate child, Empress Maud by her first marriage, countess of Anjou by her second, the uncrowned Lady of the English.

She did not condescend to come down to them, but stood quite still and viewed the scene with a disinterested and slightly disdainful stare, only inclining her head in acknowledgement of the king’s reverence. She was regally handsome, her hair dark and rich under the gilded net of her coif, her eyes large and direct, as unnerving as the straight stare of a Byzantine saint in a mosaic, and as indifferent. She was past forty, but as durable as marble.

“Say no word, either of you,” said the king, towering over the offenders, even over the bishop, who was tall by most men’s standards, “for we’ll hear none. Here you are in the Church’s discipline, and had best come to terms with it. Keep your quarrels for another time and place, or better still, put them away for ever. They have no place here. My lord bishop, give your orders now as to this matter of bearing arms, and announce it formally when you preside in hall tomorrow. Banish all weapons if you will, or let us have some firm regulation as to their wear, and I will see to it that who ever offends against your rule shall pay his dues in full.”

“I would not presume to deprive any man of the right to bear arms,” said the bishop firmly. “I can, with full justification, take measures to regulate their use within these walls and during these grave discussions. In going about the town, certainly swords may be worn as customary, a man might well feel incomplete without his sword.” His own vigorous form and aquiline face could as well have belonged to a warrior as a bishop. And was it not said of him that his heart was already set on playing more than a passive role in the defence of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem? “Within these walls,” he said with deliberation, “steel must not be drawn. Within the hall in session, not even worn, but laid by in the lodgings. And no weapon must ever be worn to the offices of the Church. Whatever the outcome, no man shall challenge another man in arms, for any reason soever, until we who are met here again separate. If your Grace is content so?”

“I am content,” said Stephen. “This does well. You, gentlemen, bear it in mind, and see to it you keep faith.” His blue, bright gaze swept over them both with the like broad, impersonal warning. Neither face meant anything to him, not even to which faction they belonged. Probably he had never seen either of them before, and would forget their faces as soon as he turned his back on them.

“Then I will put the case also to the lady,” said Roger de Clinton, “and declare terms when we gather tomorrow morning.”

“Do so, with my goodwill!” said the king heartily, and strode away towards the groom who was holding his horse within the gate.

The lady, Cadfael observed when he looked again towards the doorway of the guesthall, had already withdrawn her aloof and disdainful presence from the scene, and retired to her own apartments within.

Yves fumed his way in black silence to their lodging in one of the pilgrim houses within the precinct, half in a boy’s chagrin at being chastened in public, half in a man’s serious rage at having to relinquish his quarrel.

“Why should you fret?” Hugh argued sensibly, humouring the boy but warily considering the man. “De Soulis, if that was de Soulis, has had his ears clipped, too. There’s no denying it was you began it, but he was nothing loth to spit you, if he could have done it. Now you’ve brought about your own deprivation. You might have known the Church would take it badly having swords drawn here on their ground.”

“I did know it,” Yves admitted grudgingly, “if I’d ever stopped to think. But the sight of him, striding around as if in his own castle wards… I never thought he would show here. Good God, what must she feel, seeing him so brazen, and the wrong he has done her! She favoured him, she gave him office!”

“She gave office to Philip no less,” said Hugh hardly. “Will you fly at his throat when he comes into the conference hall?”

“Philip is another matter,” said Yves, flaring. “He gave over Cricklade, yes, that we know, but that whole garrison went willingly. Do you think I do not know there could be good reasons for a man to change his allegiance? Honest reasons? Do you think she is easy to serve? I have seen her turn cold and insolent even to Earl Robert, seen her treat him like a peasant serf when the mood was on her. And he her sole strength, and enduring all for her sake!”

He wrung momentarily at a grief Cadfael had already divined. The Lady of the English was gallant, beautiful, contending for the rights of her young son rather than for her own. All these innocent young men of hers were a little in love with her, wanted her to be perfect, turned indignant backs on all manifestations that she was no such saint, but knew very well in their sore hearts all her arrogance and vindictiveness, and could not escape the pain. This one, at least, had got as far as blurting out the truth of his knowledge of her.

“But this de Soulis,” said Yves, recovering his theme and his animosity, “conspired furtively to let the enemy into Faringdon, and sold into captivity all those honest knights and squires who would not go with him. And among them Olivier! If he had been honest in his own choice he would have allowed them theirs, he would have opened the gates for them, and let them go forth honourably in arms, to fight him again from another base. No, he sold them. He sold Olivier. That I do not forgive.”

“Possess your soul in patience,” said Brother Cadfael, “until we know what we most need to know, where to look for him. Fall out with no one, for who knows which of them here may be able to give us an answer?” And by the time we get that answer, he thought, eyeing Yves’ lowering brows and set jaw tolerantly, revenges may well have gone by the board, no longer of any significance.

“I have no choice now but to keep the peace,” said Yves, resentfully but resignedly. None the less, he was still brooding when a novice of the priory came looking for him, to bid him to the empress’s presence. In all innocence the young brother called her the Countess of Anjou. She would not have liked that. After the death of her first elderly husband she had retained and insisted on her title of empress still; the descent to mere countess by her second husband’s rank had displeased her mightily.

Yves departed in obedience to the summons torn between pleasure and trepidation, half expecting to be taken to task for the unbecoming scene in the great court. She had never yet turned her sharp displeasure on him, but once at least he had witnessed its blistering effect on others. And yet she could charm the bird from the tree when she chose, and he had been thrown the occasional blissful moment during his brief sojourn in her household.

This time one of her ladies was waiting for him on the threshold of the empress’s apartments in the prior’s own guesthouse, a young girl Yves did not know, dark-haired and bright-eyed, a very pretty girl who had picked up traces of her mistress’s self-confidence and boldness. She looked Yves up and down with a rapid, comprehensive glance, and took her time about smiling, as though he had to pass a test before being accepted. But the smile, when it did come, indicated that she found him something a little better than merely acceptable. It was a pity he hardly noticed.

“She is waiting for you. The earl of Norfolk commended you, it seems. Come within.” And crossing the threshold into the presence she lowered her eyes discreetly, and made her deep reverence with practised grace. “Madame, Messire Hugonin!”

The empress was seated in a stall-like chair piled with cushions, her dark hair loosed from its coif and hanging over her shoulder in a heavy, lustrous braid. She wore a loose gown of deep blue velvet, against which her ivory white skin glowed with a live sheen. The light of candles was kind to her, and her carriage was always that of a queen, if an uncrowned queen. Yves bent the knee to her with unaffected fervour, and stood to wait her pleasure.

“Leave us!” said Maud, without so much as a glance at the lingering girl, or the older lady who stood at her shoulder. And when they were gone from the room: “Come closer! Here are all too many stretched ears at too many doors. Closer still! Let me look at you.”

He stood, a little nervously, to be studied long and thoughtfully, and the huge, Byzantine eyes passed over him at leisure, like the first stroking caress of the flaying knife.

“Norfolk says you did your errand well,” she said then. “Like a natural diplomat. It’s true I was in some doubt of him, but he is here. I marked little of the diplomat about you this afternoon in the great court.”

Yves felt himself flushing to the hair, but she hushed any protest or excuse he might have been about to utter with a raised hand and a cool smile. “No, say nothing! I admired your loyalty and your spirit, if I could not quite compliment you on your discretion.”

“I was foolish,” he said. “I am sensible of it.”

“Then that is quickly disposed of,” said the empress, “for at this moment I am, officially, reproving you for the folly, and repeating the bishop’s orders to you, as the aggressor, to curb your resentment hereafter. For the sake of appearances, as no doubt Stephen is chastising the other fool. Well, now you have understood me, and you know you may not offer any open affront or injury to any man within these walls. With that in agreement between us, you may leave me.”

He made his obeisance, somewhat confused in mind, and turned again to the closed door. Behind him the incisive voice, softened and still, said clearly: “All the same, I must confess I should not be greatly grieved to see Brien de Soulis dead at my feet.”

Yves went out in a daze, the soft, feline voice pursuing him until he had closed the door between. And there, standing patiently a few yards away, waiting with folded hands to be summoned back to her mistress, the elder lady turned her thin oval face and dark, incurious eyes upon him, asking nothing, confiding nothing. No doubt she had seen many young men emerge from that imperial presence, in many states of mortification, elation, devotion and despair, and refrained, as she did now, from making them aware how well she could read the signs. He drew his disrupted wits together, and made the best he could of his withdrawal, passing by her with a somewhat stiff reverence. Not until he was out in the darkened court, with the chill of the November twilight about him, did he pause to draw breath, and recall, with frightening clarity, every word that had been said in that brief encounter.

Had the empress’s gentlewoman overheard the valedictory words? Could she have heard them, or any part of them, as the door opened to let him out? And would she, even for an instant, have interpreted them as he had? No, surely impossible! He remembered now who she was, closer than any other to her liege lady: the widow of a knight in the earl of Surrey’s following, and herself born a de Redvers, from a minor branch of the family of Baldwin de Redvers, the empress’s earl of Devon. Impeccably noble, fit to serve an empress. And old enough and wise enough to be a safe repository for an empress’s secrets. Perhaps too wise to hear even what she heard! But if she had caught the last words, how did she read them?

He crossed the court slowly, hearing again the soft, insistent voice. No, it was he who was mangling the sense of her words. Surely she had been doing no more than giving bitter expression to a perfectly natural hatred of a man who had betrayed her. What else could be expected of her? No, she had not been even suggesting a course of action, much less ordering. We say these things in passion, into empty air, not with intent.

And yet she had quite deliberately instructed him: You may not offer any open affront or injury… And then: But all the same, I should not be greatly grieved… And with that you may leave me. Yves Hugonin! You have wit enough to get my meaning.

Impossible! He was doing her great wrong, it was he who had the devious mind, seeing her words twisted and askew. And he must and would put this unworthiness clean out of his mind and his memory.

He said no word to Hugh or to Cadfael, he would have been ashamed to probe the wound openly. He shrugged off Hugh’s teasing: “Well, at any rate she did not eat you!” with an arduous smile, and declined to be drawn. But not even Compline, in solemn state among bishops and magnates in preparation for the next day’s conference, could quite cleanse the disquiet from his mind.

In the chapter-house of Saint Mary’s Priory, after solemn Mass, the sovereignty and nobility of England met in full session. Three bishops presided, Winchester, Ely, and Roger de Clinton of Coventry and Lichfield. All three, inevitably, had partisan inclination towards one or other of the contending parties, but it appeared that they made a genuine effort to put all such interest aside, and concentrate with profound prayer on the attempt to secure agreement. Brother Cadfael, angling for a place outside the open door, where observers might at least glimpse and overhear the exchanges within, took it as a warning against any great optimism that those attending tended to group defensively together with their own kind, the empress and her allies on one side in solid phalanx, King Stephen and his magnates and sheriffs on the other. So marked a tendency to mass as for battle boded no good, however freely friends might come together across the divide once out of the chapter-house. There was Hugh, shoulder to shoulder with the Earl of Leicester and only four or five places from the king’s own seat, and Yves upon the other side, in attendance on Hugh Bigod, earl of Norfolk, who had commended him to the empress for an errand well done. Once loosed from this grave meeting they would come together as naturally as right hand and left on a job to be done; within, they were committed to left and right in opposition.

Cadfael viewed the ranks of the great with intent curiosity, for most of them he had never seen before. Leicester he already knew: Robert Beaumont, secure in his earldom since the age of fourteen, intelligent, witty and wise, one of the few, perhaps, who were truly working behind the scenes towards a just and sensible compromise. Robert Bossu they called him, Robert the Hunchback, by reason of his one misshapen shoulder, though in action the flaw impeded him not at all, and scarcely affected the compact symmetry of his body. Beside him was William Martel, the king’s steward, who had covered Stephen’s retreat a few years back at Wilton, and himself been made prisoner, and bought free by Stephen at the cost of a valuable castle. William of Ypres was beside him, the chief of the king’s Flemings, and beyond him Cadfael, craning and peering in the doorway between the heads of others equally intent, could just see Nigel, Bishop of Ely, newly reconciled to the king after some years of disfavour, and no doubt wishful to keep his recovered place among the approved.

On the other side Cadfael had in full view the man who was the heart and spirit of the empress’s cause, Robert, earl of Gloucester, constant at his half-sister’s side here as he fought her battles in the field. A man of fifty, broad built, plain in his clothing and accoutrements, a lacing of grey in his brown hair, lines of weariness in his comely face. Grey in his short beard, too, accentuating the strong lines of his jaw in two silver streaks. His son and heir, William, stood at his shoulder. The younger son, Philip, if he was present here, would be among those on the opposing side. This one was built sturdily, like his father, and resembled him in the face. Humphrey de Bohun was there beside them, and Roger of Hereford. Beyond that Cadfael could not see.

But he could hear the voices, even identify some whose tones he had heard on rare occasions before. Bishop de Clinton opened the session by welcoming all comers in goodwill to the house of which he was titular abbot as well as bishop, and asserting, as he had promised, the ban on the carrying of weapons either here in hall, or, under any circumstances, when attending the office of the Church, then he handed over the opening argument to Henry of Blois, King Stephen’s younger brother and bishop of Winchester. This high, imperious voice Cadfael had never heard before, though the effects of its utterances had influenced the lives of Englishmen for years, both secular and monastic.

It was not the first time that Henry of Blois had attempted to bring his brother and his cousin to sit down together and work out some compromise that would at least put a stop to active warfare, even if it meant maintaining a divided and guarded realm, for ever in danger of local eruptions. Never yet had he had any success. But he approached this latest endeavour with the same vigour and force, whatever his actual expectations. He drew for his audience the deplorable picture of a country wracked and wasted in senseless contention, through years of struggle without positive gain to either party, and a total loss to the common people. He painted a battle which could neither be won by either party nor lost by either, but would be solved only by some compounding that bound them both. He was eloquent, trenchant, and brief. And they listened; but they had always listened, and either never really heard, never understood, or never believed him. He had sometimes wavered and shifted in his own allegiance, and everyone knew it. Now he challenged both combatants with equal asperity. When he ended, by his rising cadence inviting response, there was a brief silence, but with a curious suggestion in its hush that two jealous presences were manoeuvring for the advantage. No good omen there!

It was the empress who took up the challenge, her voice high and steely, raised to carry. Stephen, thought Cadfael, had left her the opening of the field not out of policy, as might have been supposed, since the first to speak is the first to be forgotten, but out of his incorrigible chivalry towards all women, even this woman. She was declaring, as yet with cautious mildness, her right to be heard in this or any other gathering purporting to speak for England. She was chary of revealing all her keenest weapons at the first assay, and went, for her, very circumspectly, harking back to old King Henry’s lamentable loss of his only remaining legitimate son in the wreck of the White Ship off Barfleur, years previously, leaving her as unchallenged heiress to his kingdom. A status which he had taken care to ensure while he lived, by summoning all his magnates to hear his will and swear fealty to their future queen. As they had done, and afterwards thought better of acknowledging a woman as sovereign, and accepted Stephen without noticeable reluctance, when for once he moved fast and decisively, installed himself, and assumed the crown. The small seed which had proliferated into all this chaos.

They talked, and Cadfael listened. Stephen asserted with his usual vulnerable candour his own right by crowning and coronation, but also refrained as yet from inviting anger. A few voices, forcefully quiet, argued the case of those lower in the hierarchies, who were left to bear the heaviest burden. Robert Bossu, forbearing from this seldom regarded plea, bluntly declared the economic idiocy of further wasting the country’s resources, and a number of his young men, Hugh among them, echoed and reinforced his argument by reference to their own shires. Enough words were launched back and forth to supply a Bible, but not too often mentioning ‘agreement’, ‘compromise’, ‘reason’ or ‘peace’. The session was ending before an unexpected minor matter was raised.

Yves had chosen his time. He waited until Roger de Clinton, scanning the ranks which had fallen silent, rose to declare an end to this first hearing, relieved, perhaps even encouraged, that it had passed without apparent rancour. Yves’ voice rose suddenly but quietly, with deferential mildness; he had himself well in hand this time. Cadfael shifted his position vainly to try and get a glimpse of him, and clasped his hands in a fervent prayer that this calm should survive.

“My lords, your Grace…”

The bishop gave way courteously and let him speak.

“My lords, if I may raise a point, in all humility…”

The last quality the young and impetuous should lay claim to, but at least he was trying.

“There are some outstanding minor matters which might tend to reconciliation, if they could be cleared up now. Even agreement on a detail must surely tend to agreement on greater things. There are prisoners held on both sides. While we are at truce for this good purpose would it not be just and right to declare a general release?”

A murmur arose from partisans of both factions, and grew into a growl. No, neither of them would concede that, to put back into the opposing ranks good fighting men at present disarmed and out of the reckoning. The empress swept the idea aside with a gesture of her hand. “These are matters to be dealt with in the terms of peace,” she said, “not priorities.”

The king, for once in agreement upon not agreeing, said firmly: “We are here first to come to terms upon the main issue. This is a matter to be discussed and negotiated afterwards.”

“My lord bishop,” said Yves, fixing sensibly upon the one ally upon whom he could rely in considering the plight of captives, “if such an exchange must be deferred, at least may I ask for information concerning certain knights and squires made prisoner at Faringdon this past summer. There are some among them held by unnamed captors. Should not their friends and kin, who wish to ransom them, at least be provided that opportunity?”

“If they are held for gain,” said the bishop, with a slight edge of distaste in his voice, “surely the holder will be the first to offer them for his profit. Do you say this has not been done?”

“Not in all cases, my lord. I think,” said Yves clearly, “that some are held not for gain but for hate, in personal revenge for some real or imagined offence. There are many private feuds bred out of faction.”

The king shifted in his chair impatiently, and repeated loudly: “With private feuds we are not concerned. This is irrelevant here. What is one man’s fate beside the fate of the realm?”

“Every man’s fate is the fate of the realm,” cried Yves boldly. “If injustice is done to one, it is one too many. The injury is to all, and the whole realm suffers.”

Over the growing hubbub of many voices busily crying one another down, the bishop raised authoritative hands. “Silence! Whether this is the time and place or no, this young man speaks truth. A fair law should apply to all.” And to Yves, standing his ground apprehensive but determined: “You have, I think, a particular case in mind. One of those made prisoner after Faringdon fell.”

“Yes, my lord. And held in secret. No ransom has been asked, nor do his friends, or my uncle, his lord, know where to enquire for his price. If his Grace would but tell me who holds him…”

“I did not parcel out my prisoners under my own seal,” blared the king, growing louder and more restive, but as much because he wanted his dinner, Cadfael judged, as because he had any real interest in what was delaying him. It was characteristic of him that, having gained a large number of valuable prizes, he should throw the lot of them to his acquisitive supporters and walk away from the bargaining, leaving them to bicker over the distribution of the booty. “I knew few of them, and remember no names. I left them to my castellan to hand out fairly.”

Yves took that up eagerly, before the point could be lost. “Your Grace, your castellan of Faringdon is here present. Be so generous as to let him give me an answer.” And he launched the question before it could be forbidden. “Where is Olivier de Bretagne, and in whose keeping?”

He had kept his voice deliberate and cool, but he hurled the name like a lance for all that, and not at the king, but clean across the open space that divided the factions, into the face of de Soulis. Stephen’s tolerance he needed if he was to get an answer. Stephen could command where no one else could do more than request.

And Stephen’s patience was wearing thin, not so much with the persistent squire as with the whole process of this overlong session.

“It is a reasonable request,” said the bishop, with the sharp edge still on his voice.

“In the name of God,” agreed the king explosively, “tell the fellow what he wants to know, and let us be done with the matter.”

The voice of de Soulis rose in smooth and prompt obedience, from among the king’s unseen minor ranks, well out of Cadfael’s sight, and so modestly retired from prominence that it sounded distant. “Your Grace, I would willingly, if I knew the answer. At Faringdon I made no claim for myself, but withdrew from the council and left it to the knights of the garrison. Those of them who returned to your Grace’s allegiance, of course,” he said with acid sweetness. “I never enquired as to their decisions, and apart from such as have already been offered for ransom and duly redeemed, I have no knowledge of the whereabouts of any. The clerks may have drawn up a list. If so, I have never asked to see it.”

Long before he ended, the deliberate sting against those of the Faringdon garrison who had remained true to their salt had already raised an ominous growl of rage among the empress’s followers, and a ripple of movement along the ranks, that suggested swords might have been half out of scabbards if they had not been forbidden within the hall. Yves’ raised voice striking back in controlled but passionate anger roused a counter roar from the king’s adherents. “He lies, your Grace! He was there every moment, he ordered all. He lies in his teeth!”

Another moment, and there would have been battle, even without weapons, barring the common man’s weapons of fists, feet and teeth. But the Bishop of Winchester had risen in indignant majesty to second Roger de Clinton’s thunderous demand for order and silence, king and empress were both on their feet and flashing menacing lightnings, and the mounting hubbub subsided gradually, though the acrid smell of anger and hatred lingered in the quivering air.

“Let us adjourn this session,” said Bishop de Clinton grimly, when the silence and stillness had held good for uneasy and shaming minutes, “without further hot words that have no place here. We will meet again after noon, and I charge you all that you come in better and more Christian condition, and further, that after that meeting, whatever it brings, you who truly mean in the heart what your mouths have uttered, that you seek peace here, shall attend at Vespers, unarmed, in goodwill to all, in enmity towards none, to pray for that peace.”

Chapter Four

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“He is lying,” repeated Yves, still flushed and scowling over the priory’s frugal board, but eating like a hungry boy nevertheless. “He never left that council for a moment. Can you conceive of him forgoing any prize for himself, or being content with less than the best? He knows very well who has Olivier in hold. But if Stephen cannot force him to speak out—or will not!—how can any other man get at him?”

“Even a liar,” reflected Hugh judicially, “for I grant you he probably is that!—may tell truth now and again. For I tell you this, there seem to be very few, if any, who do know what happened to Oliver. I’ve been probing where I could, but with no success, and I daresay Cadfael has been keeping his ears open among the brothers. Better, I do believe the bishop will be making his own enquiries, having heard what he heard from you this morning.”

“If I were you,” said Cadfael, profoundly pondering, “I would keep the matter out of the chapter-house. It’s certain king and empress will have to declare themselves, and neither will relish being pestered to go straying after the fate of one squire, when their own fortunes are in the balance. Go round about, if there are any others here who were in Faringdon. And I will speak to the prior. Even monastic ears can pick up whatever rumours are passed around, as fast as any, and all the better for being silent themselves.”

But Yves remained blackly brooding, and would not be deflected. “De Soulis knows, and I will have it out with him, if I must carve it out of his treacherous heart. Oh, say no word!” he said, waving away whatever Cadfael might have had on the tip of his tongue. “I know I am hobbled within here, I cannot touch him.”

Now why, thought Cadfael, should he state the obvious with so much lingering emphasis, yet so quietly, as if to remind himself rather than reassure anyone else. And why should his normally wide-eyed, candid gaze turn dubiously inward, looking back, very wearily, on something imperfectly understood and infinitely disquieting?

“But both he and I will have to leave the pale of the Church soon,” said Yves, shaking himself abruptly out of his brooding, “and then nothing hinders but I should meet him in arms, and have the truth out of his flesh.”

Brother Cadfael went out through the crowds in the great court, and made his way into the priory church. The grandees would not yet have left their high table to resume discussions so little likely to produce profitable results; he had time to retire into some quiet corner and put the world away from him for a while. But quiet corners were few, even in the church. Numbers of the lesser partisans had also found it convenient to gather where they could confer without being overheard, and had their heads together in the shelter of altars and in the carrels of the cloister. Visiting clergy were parading nave and choir and studying the dressing of the altars, and a few of the brothers, returning to their duties after the half-hour of rest, threaded their way silently among the strangers.

There was a girl standing before the high altar, with modestly folded hands and lowered eyes. In prayer? Cadfael doubted it. The altar lamp shed a clear, rosy light over her slight, confident smile, and the man who stood close at her shoulder was speaking very discreetly and respectfully into her ear, but with something of the same private smile in the curve of his lips. Ah, well! A young girl here among so many personable young men, and herself virtually the only one of her sex and years in this male assemblage, might well revel in her privileges while they lasted, and exploit her opportunities. Cadfael had seen her before, blithely following the empress to Mass that morning, bearing the imperial prayer-book and a fine wool shawl in case the lady felt the cold in this vast stony cavern before service ended. The niece of the older gentlewoman, he had been told. And those three, one royal, two from the ranks of the baronage, the only women in this precinct among the entire nobility of the land. Enough to turn any girl’s head. Though by her pose and her carriage, and the assurance with which she listened and made no response, Cadfael judged that this one would not lightly make any concessions, or ever lose sight of her real advantages. She would listen and she would smile, and she might even suggest the possibility of going further, but her balance was secure. With a hundred or more young men here to see and admire, and flatter her with enjoyable attentions, the first and boldest was not likely to advance very far until others had shown their paces. She was young enough to take delight in the game, and shrewd enough to survive it untouched.

Now she had recalled the approaching hour and the exigence of her service, and turned to depart, to attend her mistress again to the door of the chapter-house. She moved decisively, walking briskly enough to indicate that she did not care whether her courtier followed her or not, but not so rapidly as to leave him behind. Until that moment Cadfael had not recognized the man. The first and boldest—yes, so he would be. The fair head, the elegant, self-assured stride, the subtle, half-condescending smile of Brien de Soulis followed the girl out of the church with arrogant composure, to all appearances as certain that there was no haste, that she would come his way whenever he chose, as she was certain she could play him and discard him. And which of two such overweening creatures would prevail was a matter for serious speculation.

Cadfael felt curious enough to follow them out into the court. The older gentlewoman had come out from the guesthall looking for her niece. She contemplated the pair of them without any perceptible emotion, her face impassive, and turned to re-enter the hall, looking back for the girl to follow her. De Soulis halted to favour them both with a courtly reverence, and withdrew at leisure towards the chapter-house. And Cadfael turned back into the cloister garth, and paced the bleached wintry sward very thoughtfully.

The empress’s gentlewoman could hardly approve her niece’s dalliance, however restrained, with the empress’s traitor and renegade. She would be concerned to warn the girl against any such foolishness. Or perhaps she knew her own kin better, and saw no reason for concern, being well aware that this was a shrewd young woman who would certainly do nothing to compromise her own promising future in the empress’s household.

Well, he had better be turning his mind to graver matters than the fortunes of young women he had never seen before. It was almost time for the feuding factions to meet yet again in session. And how many of them on either side were genuinely in search of peace? How many in pursuit of total victory with the sword?

When Cadfael manoeuvred his way as close as he could to the doorway of the chapter-house, it seemed that Bishop de Clinton had ceded the presidium on this occasion to the Bishop of Winchester, perhaps hopeful that so powerful a prelate would exert more influence upon obdurate minds, by virtue of his royal blood, and his prestige as recently filling the office of papal legate to the realm of England. Bishop Henry was just rising to call the assembly to order, when hasty footsteps and a brusque but civil demand for passage started the crowding watchers apart, and let through into the centre of the chapter-house a tall newcomer, still cloaked and booted for riding. Behind him in the court a groom led away the horse from which he had just dismounted, the hoofbeats receding slowly towards the stables. Eased to a walk now after a long ride, and the horseman dusty from the wind-dried roads.

The latecomer crossed the open space between the partisans with a long, silent stride, made a deferential obeisance to the presiding bishop, who received it with a questioning frown and the merest severe inclination of his head, and bent to kiss the king’s hand, all without compromising for an instant his own black dignity. The king smiled on him with open favour.

“Your Grace, I ask pardon for coming late. I had work to do before I could leave Malmesbury.” His voice was pitched low, and yet had a clear, keen edge to it. “My lords, forgive my travel-stained appearance, I hoped to come before this assembly with better grace, but am come too late to delay the proceedings longer.”

His manner towards the bishops was meticulously courteous. To the empress he said no word, but made her a bow of such ceremonious civility and with such an aloof countenance that its arrogance was plainly apparent. And his father he had passed by without a glance, and now, turning, confronted with a steady, distant stare, as though he had never seen him before.

For this was certainly Philip FitzRobert, the earl of Gloucester’s younger son. There was even a resemblance, though they were built differently. This man was not compact and foursquare, but long and sinewy, abrupt but graceful of movement and dark of colouring. Above the twin level strokes of his black brows the cliff of forehead rose loftily into thick, waving hair, and below them his eyes were like damped-down fires, muted but alive. Yet the likeness was there, stressed most strongly by the set of long, passionate lips and formidable jaw. It was the image carried one generation further into extremes. What would be called constant in the father would be more truly stubborn in the son.

His coming, it seemed, had cast a curious constraint upon the company, which could not be eased without his initiative. He took pains to release them from the momentary tension, with an apologetic gesture of hand and head in deference to the bishops. “My lords, I beg you’ll proceed, and I’ll withdraw.” And he drew back into the ranks of King Stephen’s men, and melted smoothly through them to the rear. Even so, his presence was almost palpable in the air, stiffening spines, causing ears to prick and hackles to rise in the nape of the neck, all about him. Many there had held that he would not dare to come where his affronted father and his betrayed liege lady were. It appeared, after all, that there was very little this man would not dare, nor much that he could not carry off with steely composure, too commanding to be written off lightly as effrontery.

He had somewhat discomposed even the bishop of Winchester, but the hesitation was only a moment long and the impressive voice rose with authority, calling them peremptorily to prayer, and to the consideration of the grave matters for which they were gathered together.

As yet the principals had done no more than state, with caution, the bases of their claims to sovereignty. It was high time to elicit from them some further consideration of how far they were willing to go, by way of acknowledging each the other’s claim. Bishop Henry approached the empress very circumspectly; he had long experience of trying to manipulate her, and breaking his forehead against the impregnable wall of her obstinacy. Above all, avoid ever referring to her as the countess of Anjou. Accurate enough, that was yet a title she regarded as derogatory to her status as a king’s daughter and an emperor’s consort.

“Madam,” said the bishop weightily, “you know the need and the urgency. This realm has suffered dissension all too long, and without reconciliation there can be no healing. Royal cousins should be able to come together in harmony. I entreat you, search your heart and speak, give a lead to your people as to the way we should take from this day and this place, to put an end to the wastage of life and land.”

“I have given years of consideration already,” said the empress crisply, “to these same matters, and it seems to me that the truth is plain, and no amount of gazing can change it, and no amount of argument make it untrue. It is exactly as it was when my father died. He was king unquestioned, undisputed, and by the loss of a brother, I was left the sole living child of my father by his lawful wife, Matilda, his queen, herself daughter to the king of Scots. There is no man here present who does not know these things. There is no man in England who dare deny them. How then could there be any other heir to this kingdom when the king my father died?”

Not a word, of course, reflected Cadfael, stretching his ears outside the doorway, of the dozen or so children the old king had left behind, scattered about his realm, by other mothers. They did not count, not even the best of them, who stood patient and steadfast at her shoulder, and could have out-royalled both these royal rivals had his pedigree accorded with Norman law and custom. In Wales he would have had his rights, the eldest son of his father, and the most royal.

“Yet to make all sure,” pursued the dominant voice proudly, “my father the king himself broached the matter of succession, at his Christmas court, nine years before his death, and called on all the magnates of his realm to take a solemn oath to receive me, descendant of fourteen kings, as his heiress, and their queen after him. And so they did, every man. My lords bishops, it was William of Corbeil, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who first took the oath. My uncle, the king of Scots, was the second, and the third who swore his allegiance to me,” she said, raising her voice and honing it like a dagger, “was Stephen, my cousin, who now comes here with argument of royalty against me.”

A dozen voices were murmuring by then, deprecatory and anxious on one side, in rumbling anger on the other. The bishop said loudly and firmly: “It is no place here to bring forward all the deeds of the past. There have been enough, not all upon one part. We stand now where these faults and betrayals, from whatever source, have left us, and from where we stand we must proceed, we have no other choice. What is to be done now, to undo such ills as may be undone, is what we have to fathom. Let all be said with that in mind, and not revenges for things long past.”

“I ask only that truth be recognized as truth,” she said inflexibly. “I am lawful queen of England by hereditary right, by my father’s royal decree and by the solemn oaths of all his magnates to accept and acknowledge me. If I wished, I cannot change my status, and as God sees me, I will not. That I am denied my right alters nothing. I have not surrendered it.”

“You cannot surrender what you do not possess,” taunted a voice from the rear ranks of Stephen’s supporters. And instantly there were a dozen on either side crying out provocation, insult and mockery, until Stephen crashed his fist down on the arms of his chair and bellowed for order even above the bishop’s indignant plea.

“My imperial cousin is entitled to her say,” he proclaimed firmly, “and has spoken her mind boldly. Now for my part I have somewhat to say of those symbols which not so much decree or predict sovereignty, but confer it and confirm it. For the countess of Anjou to inherit that crown to which she lays claim by inheritance, it would be needful to deprive me of what I already hold. I hold by coronation, by consecration, by anointing. That acceptance she was promised, I came, I asked for, I won fairly. The oil that consecrated me cannot be washed away. That is the right by which I claim what I hold. And what I hold I will not give up. No part of anything I have won, in any way soever, will I give up. I make no concession, none.”

And with that said, upon either part, the one pleading by blood-right, the other by both secular and clerical acknowledgement and investiture, what point was there in saying anything further? Yet they tried. It was the turn of the moderate voices for a while, and not urging brotherly or cousinly forgiveness and love, but laying down bluntly the brutal facts; for if this stalemate, wrangling and waste continued, said Robert Bossu with cold, clear emphasis, there would eventually be nothing worth annexing or retaining, only a desolation where the victor, if the survivor so considered himself, might sit down in the ashes and moulder. But that, too, was ignored. The empress, confident in her knowledge that her husband and son held all Normandy in their grasp, and most of these English magnates had lands over there to protect, and must cling to what favour they had with the house of Anjou to accomplish that feat, felt certain of eventual victory in England no less. And Stephen, well aware that his star was in the ascendant here in England, what with this year’s glittering gains, was equally sure the rest must fall into his hands, and was willing to risk what might be happening overseas, and leave it to be dealt with later.

The voices of cold reason were talking, as usual, to deaf ears. The bulk of the talk now was little more than an exchange of accusations and counter accusations. Henry of Winchester held the balance gallantly enough, and fended off actual conflict, but could do no better than that. And there were many, Cadfael noted, who listened dourly and said nothing at all. Never a word from Robert of Gloucester, never a word from his son and enemy, Philip FitzRobert. Mutually sceptical, they refrained from waste of breath and effort, in whatever direction.

“Nothing will come of it,” said Robert Bossu resignedly in Hugh Beringar’s ear, when the two monodies had declined at last into one bitter threnody. “Not here. Not yet. This is how it must end at last, and in an even bleaker desolation. But no, there’ll be no end to it yet.”

They were adjured, when the fruitless session finally closed, at least to keep this last evening together in mutual tolerance, and to observe the offices of the Church together at Vespers and Compline before parting the next morning to go their separate ways. A few, not far from home, left the priory this same evening, despairing of further waste of time, and perhaps even well satisfied that nothing had resulted from the hours already wasted. Where most men are still dreaming of total victory, the few who would be content with an economical compromise carry no weight. And yet at the last, as Robert Bossu had said, this was the way it must go, there could be no other ending. Neither side could ever win, neither side lose. And they would sicken at last of wasting their time, their lives and their country.

But not here. Not yet.

Cadfael went out into the stillness of early dusk, and watched the empress sweep across the court towards her lodging, with the slender, elderly figure of Jovetta de Montors at her elbow, and the girl Isabeau demurely following, a pace or two behind them. There was an hour left before Vespers for rest and thought. The lady would probably content herself with the services of her own chaplain instead of attending the offices in the priory church, unless, of course, she saw fit to make a final splendid state appearance in vindication of her legitimate right, before shaking off the very dust of compromise and returning to the battlefield.

For that, Cadfael thought sadly, is where they are all bound, after this regrouping of minds and grudges. There will be more of siege and raid and plunder, they will even have stored up reserves of breath and energy and hatred during this pause. For a while the fires will be refuelled, though the weariness will come back again with the turn of another year. And I am no nearer knowing where my son lies captive, let alone how to conduct the long journey to his deliverance.

He did not look for Yves or for Hugh, but went alone into the church. There were now quiet corners enough within there for every soul who desired a holy solitude and the peopled silence of the presence of God. In entering any other church but his own he missed, for one moment, the small stone altar and the chased reliquary where Saint Winifred was not, and yet was. Just to set eyes on it was to kindle a little living fire within his heart. Here he must forego that particular consolation, and submit to an unfamiliar benediction. Nevertheless, there was an answer here for every need.

He found himself a dim place in a transept corner, on a narrow stone ridge that just provided room to sit, and there composed himself into patient stillness and closed his eyes, the better to conjure up the suave olive face and startling eyes, black within gold, of Mariam’s son. Other men engendered sons, and had the delight of their infancy and childhood, and then the joy of watching them grow into manhood. He had had only the man full grown and marvellous, launched into his ageing life like the descent of an angelic vision, as sudden and as blinding; and that only in two brief glimpses, bestowed and as arbitrarily withdrawn. And he had been glad and grateful for that, as more than his deserving. While Olivier went free and fearless and blessed about the world, his father needed nothing more. But Olivier in captivity, stolen out of the world, hidden from the light, that was not to be borne. The darkened void where he had been was an offence against truth.

He did not know how long he had sat silent and apart, contemplating that aching emptiness, unaware of the few people who came and went in the nave at this hour. It had grown darker in the transept, and his stillness made him invisible to the man who entered from the mild twilight of the cloister into his chosen and shadowy solitude. He had not heard footsteps. It startled him out of his deep withdrawal when a body brushed against him, colliding with arm and knee, and a hand was hurriedly reached to his shoulder to steady them both. There was no exclamation. A moment’s silence while the stranger’s eyes took time to adjust to the dimness within, then a quiet voice said: “I ask pardon, brother, I did not see you.”

“I was willing,” said Cadfael, “not to be seen.”

“There have been times,” agreed the voice, unsurprised, “when I would have welcomed it myself.”

The hand on Cadfael’s shoulder spread long, sinewy fingers strongly into his flesh, and withdrew. He opened his eyes upon a lean, dark figure looming beside him, and a shadowed oval face, high-boned and aquiline, looking down at him impersonally, with a grave and slightly unnerving intelligence. Eyes intent and bright studied him unhurriedly, without reticence, without mercy. Confronted with a mere man, neither ally nor enemy to him, Philip FitzRobert contemplated humanity with a kind of curious but profound perception, hard to evade.

“Are there griefs, brother, even here within the pale?”

“There are griefs everywhere,” said Cadfael, “within as without. There are few hiding-places. It is the nature of this world.”

“I have experienced it,” said Philip, and drew a little aside, but did not go, and did not release him from the illusionless penetration of the black, aloof stare. In his own stark way a handsome man, and young, too young to be quite in control of the formidable mind within. Not yet quite thirty, Olivier’s own age, and thus seen in semi-darkness the clouded mirror image of Olivier.

“May your grief be erased from memory, brother,” said Philip, “when we aliens depart from this place, and leave you at least in peace. As we shall be erased when the last hoofbeat dies.”

“If God wills,” said Cadfael, knowing by then that it would not be so.

Philip turned and went away from him then, into the comparative light of the nave, a lithe, light-stepping youth as soon as the candles shone upon him; round into the choir, up to the high altar. And Cadfael was left wondering why, in this moment of strange fellowship, mistaken, no doubt, for a brother of this house, he had not asked Gloucester’s son, face to face, who held Olivier de Bretagne; wondering also whether he had held his tongue because this was not the time or the place, or because he was afraid of the answer.

Compline, the last office of the day, which should have signified the completion of a cycle of worship, and the acknowledgement of a day’s effort, however flawed, and a day’s achievement, however humble, signified on this night only a final flaunting of pride and display, rival against rival. If they could not triumph on the battlefield, not yet, they would at least try to outdo each other in brilliance and piety. The Church might benefit by the exuberance of their alms. The realm would certainly gain nothing.

The empress, after all, was not content to leave even this final field to her rival. She came in sombre splendour, attended not by her gentlewomen, but by the youngest and handsomest of her household squires, and with all her most powerful barons at her back, leaving the commonalty to crowd in and fill the last obscure corners of the nave. Her dark blue and gold had the sombre, steely sheen of armour, and perhaps that was deliberate, and she had left the women out of her entourage as irrelevant to a battlefield on which she was the equal of any man, and no other woman was fit to match her. She preferred to forget Stephen’s able and heroic queen, dominant without rival in the south-east, holding inviolable the heart and source of her husband’s sovereignty.

And Stephen came, massively striding, carelessly splendid, his lofty fair head bared, to the eye every inch a king. Ranulf of Chester, all complacent smiles, kept his right flank possessively, as if empowered by some newly designed royal appointment specially created for a new and valuable ally. On his left William Martel, his steward, and Robert de Vere, his constable, followed more staidly. Long and proven loyalty needs no sleeve-brushing and hand-kissing. It was some minutes, Cadfael observed from his remote dark corner of the choir, before Philip FitzRobert came forward unhurriedly from wherever he had been waiting and brooding, and took his place among the king’s adherents; nor did he press close, to be certain of royal notice as in correct attendance, but remained among the rearguard. Reticence and withdrawal did not dimmish him.

Cadfael looked for Hugh, and found him among the liegemen of the earl of Leicester, who had collected about him a number of the more stable and reliable young. But Yves he did not find. There were so many crowding into the church by the time the office began that latecomers would be hard put to it to find a corner in nave or porch. Faces receded into a dappled dimness. The windows were darkening, banishing the outer world from the dealings within. And it seemed that the bishops had accepted, with sadness, the failure of their efforts to secure any hope of peace, for there was a valedictory solemnity about the terms in which Roger de Clinton dismissed his congregation.

“And I adjure you, abide this last night before you disperse and turn your faces again to warfare and contention. You were called here to consider on the sickness of the land, and though you have despaired of any present cure, you cannot therefore shake off from your souls the burden of England’s sorrows. Use this night to continue in prayer and thought, and if your hearts are changed, know that it is not too late to speak out and change the hearts of others. You who lead—we also to whom God has committed the wellbeing of souls—not one of us can evade the blame if we despoil and forsake our duties to the people given into our care. Go now and consider these things.”

The final blessing sounded like a warning, and the vault cast back echoes of the bishop’s raised and vehement voice like distant minor thunders of the wrath of God. But neither king nor empress would be greatly impressed. Certainly the reverberations held them motionless in their places until the clergy had almost reached the door of their vestry, but they would forget all warnings once they were out of the church and into the world, with all their men of war about them.

Some of the latecomers had withdrawn quietly to clear the way for the brothers’ orderly recession, and the departure of the princes. They spilled out from the south porch into the deep dusk of the cloister and the chill of nightfall. And somewhere among the first of them, a few yards beyond into the north walk, a sudden sharp cry arose, and the sound of a stumble, recovered just short of the fall. It was not loud enough to carry into the church, merely a startled exclamation, but the shout of alarm and consternation that followed it next moment was heard even in the sanctity of the choir. And then the same voice was raised urgently, calling: “Help here! Bring torches! Someone’s hurt… A man lying here…”

The bishops heard it, and recoiled from their robing-room threshold to stand stockstill for a moment, ears stretched, before bearing down in haste upon the south door. All those nearest to it were already jamming the doorway in their rush to get out, and bursting forth like seeds from a dehiscent pod in all directions as the pressure behind expelled them into the night. But the congestion was miraculously stricken apart like the Red Sea when Stephen came striding through, not even yielding the precedence to the empress, though she was not far behind him, swept along in the momentum of his passage. She emerged charged and indignant, but silent, Stephen loud and peremptory.

“Lights, some of you! Quickly! Are you deaf?” And he was off along the north walk of the cloister, towards the alarm that had now subsided into silence. The dimness under the vault halted him long enough for someone to run with a guttering torch, until a gust of wind, come with the evening chill, cast a sudden lick of flame down to the holder’s fingers, and he dropped it with a yell, to sputter out against the flags.

Brother Cadfael had discarded the idea of candles, aware of the sharp evening wind, but recalled that he had seen a horn lantern in the porch, and carried one of the candlesticks with him to retrieve and light it. One of the brothers was beside him with a torch plucked from its sconce, and one of Leicester’s young men had possessed himself of one of the iron fire-baskets from the outer court, on its long pole. Together they bore down on the congestion in the north walk of the cloister, and thrust a way through to shed light upon the cause of the outcry.

On the bare flags outside the third carrel of the walk a man lay sprawled on his right side, knees slightly drawn up, a thick fell of light brown hair hiding his face, his arms spilled helplessly along the stones. Rich dark clothing marked his status, and a sheathed sword slanted from his left hip, its tip just within the doorway of the carrel, as his toes just brushed the threshold. And stooped over him, just rising from his knees, Yves Hugonin stared up at them with shocked, bewildered eyes and white face.

“I stumbled over him in the dark. He’s wounded…”

He stared at his own hand, and there was blood on his fingers. The man at his feet lay more indifferently still than any living thing should be, with king and empress and half the nobility of the land peering down at him in frozen fascination. Then Stephen stooped and laid a hand on the hunched shoulder, and rolled the body over on to its back, turning up to the light of the torches a face now fixed in blank astonishment, with half-open eyes glaring, and a broad breast marred by a blot of blood that spread and darkened slowly before their eyes.

From behind Stephen’s shoulder issued a muted cry, not loud, but low, tightly controlled and harsh, as brief as it was chilling; and Philip FitzRobert came cleaving through the impeding crowd to kneel over the motionless body, stooping to lay a hand on the still warm flesh at brow and throat, lift one upper eyelid and glare into an eye that showed no reaction to light or darkness, and then as brusquely, almost violently, sweep both lids closed. Over dead Brien de Soulis he looked up to confront Yves with a bleak, glittering stare.

“Through the heart, and he had not even drawn! We all know the hate that you had for him, do we not? You were at his throat the moment you entered here, as I have heard from others who witnessed it. Your rage against him after, that I have seen with my own eyes. Your Grace, you see here murder! Murder, my lords bishops, in a holy place, during the worship of God! Either lay hold on this man for the law to deal with him, or let me take him hence and have his life fairly for this life he has taken!”

Chapter Five

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Yves had recoiled a stumbling pace backward from the whiplash voice and ferocious glare, gaping in blank shock and disbelief In the confident armour of his status and privilege it had not even dawned on him that he had put himself in obvious peril of such suspicions. He stared open-mouthed, fool innocent that he was, he was even tempted into a grin of incredulity, almost into laughter, before the truth hit home, and he blanched whiter than his shirt, and flashed a wild glance round to recognize the same wary conviction in a dozen pairs of eyes, circling him every way. He heaved in breath gustily, and found a voice.

“I? You think that I…? I came from the church this moment. I stumbled over him. He lay here as you see him…”

“There’s blood on your hand,” said Philip through set teeth. “And on your hands by right! Who else? Here you stand over his body, and no man else abroad in the night but you. You, who bore a blood grudge against him, as every soul here knows.”

“I found him so,” protested Yves wildly. “I kneeled to handle him, yes, it was dark, I did not know if he was dead or alive. I cried out when I stumbled over him. You heard me! I called you to come, to bring lights, to help him if help was possible…”

“What better way,” Philip demanded bitterly, “to show as innocent, and bring witnesses running? We were on your heels, you had no time to vanish utterly and leave your dead man lying. This was my man, my officer, I valued him! And I will have his price out of you if there is any justice.”

“I tell you I had but just left the church, and fell over him lying here. I came late, I was just within the door.” He had grasped his dire situation by now, his voice had settled into a strenuous level, reasoning and resolute. “There must be some here who were beside me in the church, latecomers like me. They can bear out that I have but just come forth into the cloister. De Soulis wears a sword. Am I in arms? Use your eyes! No sword, no dagger, no steel on me! Arms are forbidden to all who attend the offices of the Church. I came to Compline, and I left my sword in my lodging. How can I have killed him?”

“You are lying,” said Philip, on his feet now over the body of his friend. “I do not believe you ever were in the church. Who speaks up for you? I hear none. While we were within you had time enough, more than enough, to clean your blade and bestow it in your quarters, while you waited for the office to end, to cry out to us and bring us running to discover him in his blood, and you unarmed and crying murder on some unknown enemy. You, the known enemy! Nothing hinders but this can be, must be, is your work.”

Cadfael, hemmed in among many bodies pressing close, could not thrust a way through towards king and empress, or make himself heard above the clamour of a dozen voices already disputing across the width of the cloister. He could see between the craning heads Philip’s implacable face, sharply lit by the torchlight. Somewhere among the hubbub of partisan excitement and consternation, no doubt, the voices of the bishops were raised imploring reason and silence, but without effect, without even being heard. It took Stephen’s imperious bellow to shear through the noise and cut off all other sound.

“Silence! Hush your noise!”

And the silence fell like a stone, crushingly; for one instant all movement froze, and every breath was held. A moment only, then almost stealthily feet shuffled, sleeves brushed, breath was drawn in gustily, and even comment resumed in hushed undertones and hissing whispers, but Stephen had his field, and bestrode it commandingly.

“Now let us have some room for thought before we accuse or exonerate any man. And before all, let someone who knows his business make good sure that the man is out of reach of help, or we are all guilty of his death. One lad falling over him in the dark, whether he himself struck the blow or not, can hardly give a physician’s verdict. William, do you make sure.”

William Martel, long in experience of death by steel through many campaigns, kneeled beside the body, and turned it by the shoulder to lie flat, exposing to the torchlight the bloody breast, the slit coat, and the narrow, welling wound. He drew wide an eyelid and marked the unmoving stare.

“Dead. Through the heart, surely. Nothing to be done for him.”

“How long?” asked the king shortly.

“No telling. But very recently.”

“During Compline?” The office was not a long one, though on this fateful evening it had been drawn out somewhat beyond its usual time.

“I saw him living,” said Martel, “only minutes before we went in. I thought he had followed us in. I never marked that he wore steel.”

“So if this young man is shown to have been within throughout the office,” said the king practically, “he cannot be guilty of this murder. Not fair fight, for de Soulis never had time to draw. Murder.”

A hand reached softly for Cadfael’s sleeve. Hugh had been worming his way inconspicuously through the press to reach him. In Cadfael’s ear his voice whispered urgently: “Can you speak for him? Was he within? Did you see him?”

“I wish to God I had! He says he came later. I was well forward in the choir. The place was full, the last would be pinned just within the doors.” In corners unlit, and possibly with none or few of their own acquaintance nearby to recognize or speak to them. All too easy not to be noticed, and a convincing reason why Yves should be one of the first to move out into the cloister and clear the way, to stumble over a dead man. The fact that his first cry had been a wordless one of simple alarm when he fell should speak for him. Only a minute later had he cried out the cause.

“No matter, let be!” said Hugh softly. “Stephen has his finger on the right question. Someone surely will know. And if all else fails, the empress will never let Philip FitzRobert lay a finger on any man of hers. Not for the death of a man she loathes? Look at her!”

Cadfael had to crane and shift to do so, for tall though she was, for a woman, she was surrounded by men far taller. But once found, she shone fiercely clear under the torchlight, her handsome face composed and severe, but her large eyes glittering with a suggestion of controlled elation, and the corners of her lips drawn into the austere shadow of an exultant smile. No, she had no reason at all to grieve at the death of the man who had betrayed Faringdon, or to sympathize with the grief and anger of his lord and patron, who had handed over her castle of Cricklade to the enemy. And as Cadfael watched, she turned her head a little, and looked with sharp attention at Yves Hugonin, and the subtle shadows that touched the corners of her lips deepened, and for one instant the smile became apparent. She did not move again, not yet. Let other witnesses do all for her, if that was possible. No need to spend her own efforts until or unless they were needed. She had her half-brother beside her, Roger of Hereford at one shoulder, Hugh Bigod at the other, force enough to prevent any action that might be ventured against any protégé of hers.

“Speak up!” said Stephen, looking round the array of watchful faces, guarded and still now, side-glancing at near neighbours, eyeing the king’s roused countenance. “If any here can say he saw this man within the church throughout Compline, then speak up and declare it, and do him right. He says he came unarmed, in all duty, to the worship of God, and was with us to the end of the office. Who bears him out?”

No one moved, beyond turning to look for reaction from others. No one spoke. There was a silence.

“Your Grace sees,” said Philip at length, breaking the prolonged hush, “there is no one willing to confirm what he says. And there is no one who believes him.”

“That is no proof that he lies,” said Roger de Clinton. “Too often truth can bring no witness with it, and find no belief. I do not say he is proven true, but neither is he proven a liar. We have not here the testimony of every man who came to Compline this night. Even if we had, it would not be proof positive that he is lying. But if one man only can come forward and say: I stood by him close to the door until the last prayer was said, and we went out to leave the doorway clear: then truth would be made manifest. Your Grace, we should pursue this further.”

“There is no time,” said the king, frowning. Tomorrow we leave Coventry. Why linger? Everything has been said.”

Back to the battlefield, thought Cadfael, despairing for a moment of his own kind, and with their fires refuelled by this pause.

“Within these walls,” said Roger de Clinton, roused, “I forbid violence even in return for violence, and even outside these walls I charge you forswear all revenges. If there cannot be proper enquiry after justice, then even the guilty among us must go free.”

“They need not,” said Philip grimly. “I require a blood price for my man. If his Grace wills justice, then let this man be left in fetters here, and let the constables of the city examine him, and hold him for trial. There is the means of justice in the laws of this land, is there not? Then use them! Give him to the law, as surely as death he has broken the law, and owes a death for a death. How can you doubt it? Who else was abroad? Who else had picked so fierce a quarrel with Brien de Soulis, or held so bitter a grudge against him? And we find him standing over the dead man, and barely another soul loose in the night, and you still doubt?”

And indeed it seemed to Cadfael that Philip’s bitter conviction was carrying even the king with him. Stephen had no great cause to believe in an unknown youth’s protestations of innocence against the odds, a youth devoted to the opposing cause, and suspect of robbing him of a useful fighting man who had recently done such signal service. He hesitated, visibly only too willing to shift the burden to other shoulders, and be off about his martial business again. The very suggestion that he was failing to maintain strict law in his own domain prompted him to commit Yves to the secular authorities, and wash his hands of him.

“I have a thing to say to that,” said the empress deliberately, her voice raised to carry clearly. “This conference was convened upon the issue of safe conducts on both sides, that we might come together without fear. Whatever may have happened here, it cannot break that compact. I came here with a certain number of people in my following, and I shall go hence tomorrow with that same number, for all were covered by safe conduct, and against none of them has any wrong been proved, neither this young squire nor any other. Touch him, and you touch him unlawfully. Detain him, and you are forsworn and disgraced. We leave tomorrow as many as we came.”

She moved decisively then, brushing aside those who stood between, and held out her hand imperiously to Yves. Her sleeve brushed disdainfully past Philip’s braced arm as the white-faced boy obeyed her gesture and turned to go with her wherever she directed. The ranks gave back and opened before her. Cadfael saw her turn to smile upon her escort, and marvelled that the boy’s face should gaze back at her so blanched and empty of gratitude, worship or joy.

He came back to their lodging half an hour later. She did not even allow him to walk the short distance between without a guard, for fear Philip or some other aggrieved enemy would attempt revenge while he was here within reach. Though her interest in him, Yves reflected wretchedly, probably would not last long. She would keep him jealously from harm until her whole entourage was safely away on the road back to Gloucester, and then forget him. It was to herself she owed it to demonstrate her power to hold him immune. The debt she owed, or believed she owed to him was thereby amply repaid. He was not of any permanent importance.

And yet the vital touch of her hand on his, leading him contemptuously out of the circle of his enemies, could not but fire his blood. Even though he felt it freeze again as he reminded himself what she believed of him, what she was valuing in him. Of all those who truly believed he had murdered Brien de Soulis, the Empress Maud was the most convinced. The soft voice he recalled, giving subtle orders by roundabout means, haunted him still. A loyal young man, clay in her hands, blindly devoted like all the rest, and nothing she could not ask of him, however circuitously, and he understood and obeyed. And of course he would deny it, even to her. He knew his duty. The death of de Soulis must not be spoken of, must never be acknowledged in any way.

He was short to question, that night, even by his friends; by his friends most of all. They were none too sure of his safety, either, and stayed close beside him, not letting him out of their sight until he should be embarked in the protective company of all the empress’s escort next morning, and bound away for Gloucester.

He put together his few belongings before sleeping. “I must go,” he said, and added nothing to explain the note of reluctance in his voice. “And we are no nearer to finding out what they have done with Olivier.”

“With that matter,” said Cadfael, “I have not finished yet. But for you, best get away from here, and let it lie.”

“And that cloud still over my name?” said Yves bitterly.

“I have not finished with that, either. The truth will be known in the end. Hard to bury truth for ever. Since you certainly did not kill Brien de Soulis, there’s somewhere among us a man who did, and whoever uncovers his name removes the shadow from yours. If, indeed, there is anyone who truly believes you guilty.”

“Oh, yes,” said Yves, with a wry and painful smile. “Yes, there is. One at least!”

But it was the nearest he got to giving that person a name; and Cadfael pressed him no more.

In the morning, group by group, they all departed. Philip FitzRobert was gone, alone as he had come, before ever the bell rang for Prime, making no farewells. King Stephen waited to attend High Mass before gathering all his baronage about him and setting forth briskly for Oxford. Some northern lords left for their own lands to make all secure, before returning their attention to either king or empress. The empress herself mustered for Gloucester in mid-morning, having lingered to be sure her rival was out of the city before her, and not delaying to use even this opportunity for recruiting support behind her back.

Yves had gone alone into the church when the party began to gather, and Cadfael, following at a discreet distance, found him on his knees by a transept altar, shunning notice in his private devotions before departure. It was the stiff unhappiness of the boy’s face that caused Cadfael to discard discretion and draw closer. Yves heard him come, and turned on him a brief, pale smile, and hurriedly raised himself. “I’m ready.”

The hand he leaned upon the prie-dieu wore a ring Cadfael had never seen before. A narrow, twisted gold band, no way spectacular, and so small that it had to be worn on the boy’s little finger. The sort of thing a woman might give to a page as reward for some special service. Yves saw how Cadfael’s eyes rested upon it, and began an instinctive movement to withdraw it from sight, but then thought better of it, and let it lie. He veiled his eyes, himself staring down at the thin band with a motionless face.

“She gave you this?” Cadfael asked, perceiving that he was permitted, even expected, to question.

Half resigned, half grateful, Yves said simply: “Yes.” And then added: “I tried to refuse it.”

“You were not wearing it last night,” said Cadfael.

“No. But now she will expect… I am not brave enough,” said Yves ruefully, “to face her and discard it. Halfway to Gloucester she’ll forget all about me, and then I can give it to some shrine—or a beggar along the way.”

“Why so?” said Cadfael, deliberately probing this manifest wound. “If it was for services rendered?”

Yves turned his head with a sharp motion of pain, and started towards the door. Aside he said, choking on the utterance: “It was unearned.” And again, more gently: “I had not earned it.”

They were gone, the last of the glittering courtiers and the steel captains, the kings and the kingmakers, and the two visiting bishops, Nigel of Ely to his own diocese, Henry of Blois with his royal brother to Oxford, before going beyond, to his see of Winchester. Gone with nothing settled, nothing solved, peace as far away as ever. And one dead man lying in a mortuary chapel here until he could be coffined and disposed of wherever his family, if he had family, desired to bury him. In the great court it was even quieter than normally, since the common traffic between town and priory had not yet resumed after the departure of the double court of a still divided land.

“Stay yet a day or two,” Cadfael begged of Hugh. “Give me so much grace, for if I then return with you I am keeping to terms. God knows I would observe the limits laid on me if I can. Even a day might tell me what I want to know.”

“After king and empress and all their following have denied any knowledge of where Olivier may be?” Hugh pointed out gently.

“Even then. There were some here who did know,” said Cadfael with certainty. “But, Hugh, there is also this matter of Yves. True, the empress has spread her cloak over him and taken him hence in safety, but is that enough? He’ll have no peace until it’s known who did the thing he surely did not do. Give me a few more days, and let me at least give some thought to this death. I have asked the brothers here to let me know of anything they may have heard concerning the surrender of Faringdon, give me time at least to be sure the word has gone round, and to get an answer if any man here has an answer to give me.”

“I can stretch my leave by a day or two,” Hugh allowed doubtfully. “And indeed I’d be loth to go back without you. Let us by all means put the boy’s mind at rest if we can, and lay the blame where it belongs. If,” he added with a grimace, “there should be any great measure of blame for removing de Soulis from the world. No, say nothing! I know! Murder is murder, as much a curse to the slayer as to the slain, and cannot be a matter of indifference, whoever the dead may be. Do you want to look at him again? An accurate stab wound, frontal, no ambush from behind. But it was dark there. A knowledgeable swordsman, if he had been waiting and had his night eyes, would have no difficulty.”

Cadfael considered. “Yes, let’s take another look at the man. And his belongings? Are they still here in the prior’s charge? Could we ask, do you think?”

“The bishop might allow it. He’s no better pleased at having a murderer active within the pale than you are.”

Brien de Soulis lay on the stone slab in the chapel, covered with a linen sheet, but not yet shrouded, and his coffin still in the hands of the carpenters. It seemed money had been left to provide a noble funeral. Was that Philip’s doing?

Cadfael drew down the sheet to uncover the body as far as the wound, a mere thin blue-black slit now, with slightly ribbed edges, a stroke no more than a thumbnail long. The body, otherwise unmarked, was well muscled and comely, the face retained its disdainful good looks, but cold and hard as alabaster.

“It was no sword did that,” said Cadfael positively. “The flow of blood hid all when he was found. But that was made by a dagger, not even a long one, but long enough. It’s not so far into the heart. And fine, very fine. The hilt has not bruised him. It was plunged in and withdrawn quickly, quickly enough for the slayer to draw off clean before ever the bleeding came. No use looking for stained clothing, so fine a slit does not open and gush like a fountain. By the time it was flowing fast the assailant was gone.”

“And never stayed to be sure of his work?” wondered Hugh.

“He was sure of it. Very cool, very resolute, very competent.” Cadfael drew up the sheet again over the stone-still face. “Nothing more here. Shall we consider once again the place where this happened?”

They passed through the south door, and emerged into the north walk of the cloister. Outside the third carrel the body had lain, its toes just trailing across the threshold. There was a faint pink stain, a hand’s length, still visible, where his blood had seeped down under his right side and fouled the flags. Someone had been diligent in cleaning it away, but the shape still showed. “Yes, here,” said Hugh. “The stones will show no marks, even if there was a struggle, but I fancy there was none. He was taken utterly by surprise.”

They sat down together there in the carrel to consider the alignment of this scene.

“He was struck from before,” said Cadfael, “and as the dagger was dragged out he fell forward with it, out of the carrel into the walk. Surely he was the one waiting here within. For someone. He wore sword and dagger himself, so he was not bound for Compline. If he designed to meet someone here in private, it was surely someone he trusted, someone never questioned, or how did he approach so close? Had it been Yves—as we know it was not—de Soulis would have had the sword out of the scabbard before ever the boy got within reach. The open hostility between those two was not the whole story. There must have been fifty souls within these walls who hated the man for what he did at Faringdon. Some who were there, and escaped in time, many others of the empress’s following who were not there, but hold the treason bitterly against him no less. He would be wary of any man fronting him whom he did not know well, and trust, men of his own faction and his own mind.”

“And this one he mistook fatally,” said Hugh.

“How should treason be prepared for counter-treason? He turned in the empress’s hand, now one of his own has turned in his. And he as wholly deceived as she was in him. So it goes.”

“I take it,” said Hugh, eyeing his friend very gravely, “that we can and do accept all that Yves says as truth? I do so willingly only from knowledge of him. But should we not consider how the thing must have looked to others who do not know him?”

“So we may,” said Cadfael sturdily, “and still be certain. True, no one has owned to seeing him among the last who came into the church, but that is well possible. He says he came late and spoke to no one, because the office had already begun. He was in a dark corner just within the door, and hence among the first out, to clear the way at the end. We heard him cry out, the first simply a gasp of surprise as he stumbled, then the alarm. Now if he had indeed avoided Compline, and had time to act at leisure while almost all were within, why cry out at all? Out of cunning, as Philip charged, to win the appearance of innocence? Yves is clever, but certainly has no cunning at all. And if he had the whole cloister at his back, he had time enough to slip away and leave others to find his dead man. He bore no arms, his sword was found, as he said, clean and sheathed in his quarters, and showed no sign of having been blooded. He had had, said Philip, the whole time of Compline to blood it, clean it and restore it to his lodging. But I saw the blade, and I could find no sign of blood. No, if he had had all the time of Compline at his disposal, he would never have sounded the alarm himself, but taken good care to be elsewhere when the dead man was found, and among witnesses, well away from the first outcry.”

“And if he had come forth from the church as he says, then he had no time to encounter and kill, and no sword or dagger on him.”

“Manifestly. And I think you know, as I know, that the death came earlier, though how much earlier it’s hard to tell. He had had time to bleed, you still see there the extent of the pool that gathered under him. No, you need not have any doubts. What you know of our lad you know rightly.”

“And of the rest of this great household,” said Hugh reflectively, “most were in the church. It need not be all, however. And as you say, he had enemies here, one at least more discreet than Yves, and more deadly.”

“And one,” Cadfael elaborated sombrely, “of whom he was no way wary. One who could approach him closely and rouse no suspicion, one he was waiting for, for surely he was standing here, in this carrel, and stepped forth willingly when the other came, and was spitted on the very threshold.”

Hugh retraced in silence the angle of that fall, the way the body had lain, the ominous rim of the bloodstain, and could find no flaw in this account of that encounter. In their well-meant efforts to bring together in reconciliation all the power and force and passion of both sides in the contention, the bishops had succeeded also in bringing within these walls a great cauldron of hatred and malice, and infinite possibilities of further treachery.

“More intrigue, more plotting for advantage,” said Hugh resignedly. “If two were meeting here in secret while the baronage was at worship, then it was surely for mischief. What more can we do here? Did you say you wanted to see what belongings de Soulis left behind him? Come, we’ll have a word with the bishop.”

“The man’s possessions,” said the bishop, “such as he had here with him, are here in my charge, and I await word from his brother in Worcester as to future arrangements for his burial. I have no doubt the brother will be responsible for that. But if you think that examination of his effects can give us any indication as to how he died, yes, certainly we should at least put it to the test. We may not neglect any means of finding out the truth. You are fully convinced,” he added anxiously, “that the young man who called us to the body bears no guilt for the death?”

“My lord,” said Hugh, “from all I know of him, he is as poor a hand at deceit or stealth as ever breathed. You saw him yourself on the day we entered here, how he sprang out of the saddle and made straight for his foe, brow to brow. That is more his way of going about it. Nor had he any weapon about him. You cannot know him as we do, but for my part and Brother Cadfael’s, we are sure of him.”

“In any case,” agreed the bishop heavily, “it can do no harm to see if there is anything, letter or sign of any kind, in the dead man’s baggage that may shed light, on his movements intended on leaving here, or any undertaking he had in hand. Very well! The saddle-bags are here in the vestment room.”

There was a horse in the stables, too, a good horse waiting to be delivered, like all the rest, to the younger de Soulis in Worcester. The bishop unbuckled the straps of the first bag with his own hands, and hoisted it to a bench. “One of the brothers packed them and brought them here from the guesthall where he lodged. You may view them.” He stayed to observe, in duty bound, being now responsible for all that was done with these relics.

Spread out upon the bench before their eyes, handled scrupulously as another man’s property, Brien de Soulis’s equipment showed Spartan and orderly. Changes of shirt and hose, the compact means of a gentleman’s toilet, a well-furnished purse. Plainly he travelled light, and was a man of neat habit. A leather pouch in the second saddlebag yielded a compartmented box with flint and tinder, wax and a seal. A man of property, travelling far, would certainly not be without his personal seal. Hugh held it on his palm for the bishop’s inspection. The device, sharply cut, was a swan with arched neck, facing left, and framed between two wands of willow.

“That is his,” Hugh confirmed. “We saw it on the buckle of his sword-belt when we carried in the body. But embossed and facing the other way, of course. And that is all.”

“No,” said Cadfael, his hand groping along the seams of the empty bag. “Some other small thing is here at the bottom.” He drew it out and held it up to the light. “Also a seal! Now what would a man want with carrying two on a journey?”

What indeed? For to risk carrying both, if two had actually been made, was to risk theft or loss of one, with all the dire possibilities of having it fall into the hands of an enemy or a sharper, and being misused in many and profitable ways, to its owner’s loss.

“It is not the same,” said Hugh sharply, and carried it to the window to examine it more carefully. “A lizard like a little dragon—no, a salamander, for he’s in a nest of little pointed flames. No border but a single line at the rim. Engraved deep—little used. I have never seen this. Do you know it, my lord?”

The bishop studied it, and shook his head. “No, strange to me. For what purpose could one man be carrying another man’s personal seal? Unless it had been confided to him as the owner’s proxy, for attachment to some document in absence?”

“Certainly not here,” said Hugh wryly, “for here there have been no documents to seal, no agreement on any matter, the worse for us all. Cadfael, do you see any significance in this?”

“Of all his possessions,” said Cadfael, “a man would be least likely to be parted from his seal. The thing carries his sanction, his honour, his reputation with it. If he did trust it to a known friend, it would be kept very securely, not dropped into the corner of a saddle-bag, thus disregarded. Yes, Hugh, I should very much like to know whose device this is, and how it came into de Soulis’s possession. His recent history has not shown him as a man to be greatly trusted by his acquaintances, or lightly made proxy for another man’s honour.”

He hesitated, turning the small artifact in his fingers. A circlet measuring as far across as the length of his first thumb joint, its handle of a dark wood polished high, fitting smoothly in the palm. The engraving was skilled and precise, the little conventional flames sharply incised. The head with its open mouth and darting tongue faced left. The positive would face right. Mirror images, the secret faces of real beings, hold terrifying significances. It seemed to Cadfael that the sharp ascending flames of the salamander’s cradling fire were searing the fingers that touched them, and crying out for recognition and understanding.

“My lord bishop,” he said slowly, “may I, on my oath to return it to you unless I find its true owner, borrow this seal? In my deepest conscience I feel the need of it. Or, if that is not permitted, may I make a drawing of it, in every detail, for credentials in its place?”

The bishop gave him a long, penetrating look, and then said with deliberation: “At least in taking the copy there can be no harm. But you will have small opportunity of enquiring further into either this death, or the whereabouts of the prisoners you are seeking, if, as I suppose, you are going home to Shrewsbury now the conference is over.”

“I am not sure, my lord,” said Cadfael, “that I shall be going home.”

Chapter Six

« ^ »

“You know, do you not,” said Hugh very gravely, as they came from one more Compline together in the dusk, “that if you go further, I cannot go with you. I have work of my own to do. If I turn my back upon Madog ap Meredudd many more days he’ll be casting covetous eyes at Oswestry again. He’s never stopped hankering after it. God knows I’d be loth to go back without you. And you know, none better, you’ll be tearing your own life up by the roots if you fail to keep your time.”

“And if I fail to find my son,” said Cadfael, gently and reasonably, “my life is nothing worth. No, never fret for me, Hugh, one alone on this labour can do as much as a company of armed men, and perhaps more. I have failed already to find any trace here, what remains but to go where he served, where he was betrayed and made prisoner? There someone must know what became of him. In Faringdon there will be echoes, footprints, threads to follow, and I will find them.”

He made his drawings with care, on a leaf of vellum from the scriptorium, one to size, with careful precision, one enlarged to show every detail of the salamander seal. There was no motto nor legend, only the slender lizard in its fiery nest. Surely that, too, harked back in some way to the surrender of Faringdon, and had somewhat to say concerning the death of Brien de Soulis, if only its language could be interpreted.

Hugh cast about, without overmuch comfort, for something to contribute to these vexed puzzles that drove his friend into unwilling exile, but there was little of help to be found. He did venture, for want of better: “Have you thought, Cadfael, that of all those who may well have hated de Soulis, there’s none with better reason than the empress? How if she prompted some besotted young man to do away with him? She has a string of raw admirers at her disposal. It could be so.”

“To the best of my supposing,” said Cadfael soberly, “it was so. Do you remember she sent for Yves that first evening, after she had seen the lad show his paces against de Soulis? I fancy she had accepted the omen, and found him a work he could do for her, a trace more privately, perhaps, than at his first attempt.”

“No!” gasped Hugh, stricken, and halted in mid-stride. “Are you telling me that Yves …”

“No, no such matter!” Cadfael assured him chidingly. “Oh, he took her meaning, or I fear he did, though he surely damned himself for ever believing it was meant so. He did not do it, of course not! Even she might have had the wit to refrain, with such an innocent. But stupid he is not! He understood her!”

“Then may she not have singled out a second choice for the work?” suggested Hugh, brightening.

“No, you may forget that possibility. For she is convinced that Yves took the nudge, and rid her of her enemy. No, there’s no solution there.”

“How so?” demanded Hugh, pricked. “How can you know so much?”

“Because she rewarded him with a gold ring. No great prize, but an acknowledgement. He tried to refuse it, but he was not brave enough, small blame to the poor lad. Oh, nothing was ever openly said, and of course he would deny it, she would avoid even having to make him say as much. The child is out of his depth with such women. He’s bent on getting rid of her gift as soon as he safely may. Her gratitude is short, that he knows. But no, she never hired another murderer, she is certain she needed none.”

“That can hardly have added to his happiness,” said Hugh with a sour grimace. “And no help to us in lifting the weight from him, either.”

They had reached the door of their lodging. Overhead the sky was clear and cold, the stars legion but infinitesimal in the early dark. The last night here, for Hugh had duties at home that could not be shelved.

“Cadfael, think well what you are doing. I know what you stake, as well as you know it. This is not simple going and returning. Where you will be meddling a man can vanish, and no return ever. Come back with me, and I will ask Robert Bossu to follow this quest to its ending.”

“There’s no time,” said Cadfael. “I have it in my mind, Hugh, that there are more souls than one, and more lives than my son’s, to be salvaged here, and the time is very short, and the danger very close. And if I turn back now there will be no one to be the pivot at the centre, on whom the wheel of all those fortunes turns, the demon or the angel. But yes, I’ll think well before you leave me. We shall see what the morning will bring.”

What the morning brought, just as the household emerged from Mass, was a dust-stained rider on a lathered horse, cantering wearily in from the street and sliding stiffly and untidily to a clattering stop on the cobbles of the court. The horse stood with drooping head and heaving sides, steaming into the air sharpened with frost, and dripping foam between rolled-back lips into the stones. The rider doubled cramped fists on the pommel, and half clambered, half fell out of the saddle to stiffen collapsing knees and hold himself upright by his mount.

“My lord bishop, pardon…” He could not release his hold to make due reverence, but clung to his prop, bending his head as deep and respectfully as he might. “My mistress sends me to bring you word—the empress—she is safe in Gloucester with all her company, all but one. My lord, there was foul work along the road…”

“Take breath, even evil news can wait,” said Roger de Clinton, and waved an order at whoever chose to obey it. “Bring drink—have wine mulled for him, but bring a draught now. And some of you, help him within, and see to his poor beast, before he founders.”

There was a hand at the dangling bridle in an instant. Someone ran for wine. The bishop himself lent a solid shoulder under the messenger’s right arm, and braced him erect. “Come, let’s have you within, and at rest.”

In the nearest carrel of the cloister the courier leaned back against the wall and drew in breath long and gratefully. Hugh, lissome and young, and mindful of some long, hard rides of his own after Lincoln, dropped to his knees and braced experienced hands to ease off the heavy riding boots.

“My lord, we had remounts at Evesham, and made good time until fairly close to Gloucester, riding well into the dusk to be there by nightfall. Near Deerhurst, in woodland, with the length of our company past—for I was with the rearguard—an armed band rode out at our tail, and cut out one man from among us before ever we were aware, and off with him at speed into the dark.”

“What man was that?” demanded Cadfael, stiffening. “Name him!”

“One of her squires, Yves Hugonin. He that had hard words with de Soulis, who is dead. My lord, there’s nothing surer than some of FitzRobert’s men have seized him, for suspicion of killing de Soulis. They hold him guilty, for all the empress would have him away untouched.”

“And you did not pursue?” asked the bishop, frowning.

“Some little way we did, but they were fresh, and in forest they knew well. We saw no more of them. And when we sent ahead to let our lady know, she would have one of us ride back to bring you word. We were under safe conduct, this was foul work, after such a meeting.”

“We’ll send to the king,” said the bishop firmly. “He will order this man’s release as he did before when FitzRobert seized the Earl of Cornwall. He obeyed then, he will obey again, whatever his own grudge.”

But would he, Cadfael wondered? Would Stephen lift a finger in this case, for a man as to whose guilt he had said neither yea nor nay, but only allowed him to leave under safe conduct at the empress’s insistence. No valuable ally, but an untried boy of the opposing side. No, Yves would be left for the empress to retrieve. He had left here under her wing, it was for her to protect him. And how far would she go on Yves’ behalf? Not so far as to inconvenience herself by the loss of time or advantage. His supposed infamous service to her had been acknowledged and rewarded, she owed him nothing. And he had withdrawn deliberately to the tail end of her cortege, to be out of sight and out of mind.

“I think they had a rider alongside us for some way, in cover,” said the courier, “making sure of their man, before they struck. It was all over in a moment, at a bend in the path where the trees grow close.”

“And close to Deerhurst?” said Cadfael. “Is that already in FitzRobert’s own country? How close are his castles? He left here early, in time to have his ambush ready. He had this in mind from the first, if he was thwarted here.”

“It might be twenty miles or so to Cricklade, more to Faringdon. But closer still there’s his new castle at Greenhamsted, the one he took from Robert Musard a few weeks back. Not ten miles from Gloucester.”

“You are sure,” said Hugh, a little hesitantly and with an anxious eye on Cadfael, “that they did carry him off prisoner?”

“No question,” said the messenger with weary bluntness, “they wanted him whole, it was done very briskly. No, they’re more wary what blood they spill, these days. Men on one side have kin on the other who could still take offence and make trouble. No, be easy for that, there was no killing.”

The courier was gone into the prior’s lodging to eat and rest, the bishop to his own palace to prepare letters to carry the news, notably to Oxford and Malmesbury, in the region where this raid had taken place. Whether Stephen would bestir himself to intervene in this case was doubtful, but someone would surely pass the news on to the boy’s uncle in Devizes, who carried some weight with the empress. At least everything must be tried.

“Now,” said Cadfael, left contemplating Hugh’s bleak and frustrated face through a long silence, “I have two hostages to buy back. If I asked for a sign, I have it. And now there is no doubt in my mind what I must do.”

“And I cannot come with you,” said Hugh.

“You have a shire to keep. Enough for one of us to break faith. But may I keep your good horse, Hugh?”

“If you’ll pledge me to bring him safely back, and yourself in the saddle,” said Hugh.

They said their farewells just within the priory gate, Hugh to return north-west along the same roads by which they had come, with his three men-at-arms at his back, Cadfael bearing south. They embraced briefly before mounting, but when they issued from the gate into the street, and separated, they went briskly, and did not look back. With every yard the fine thread that held them together stretched and thinned, attenuated to breaking point, became a fibre, a hair, a cobweb filament, but did not break.

For the first stages of that journey Cadfael rode steadily, hardly aware of his surroundings, fully absorbed in the effort to come to terms with the breaking of another cord, which had parted as soon as he turned south instead of towards home. It was like the breaking of a tight constriction which had bound his life safely within him, though at the cost of pain; and the abrupt removal of the restriction was mingled relief and terror, both intense. The ease of being loose in the world came first, and only gradually did the horror of the release enter and overwhelm him. For he was recreant, he had exiled himself, knowing well what he was doing. And now his only justification must be the redemption of both Yves and Olivier. If he failed in that he had squandered even his apostasy. Your own man, Radulfus had said, no longer any man of mine. Vows abandoned, brothers forsaken, heaven discarded.

The first need was to recognize that it had happened, the second to accept it. After that he could ride on composedly, and be his own man, as for the former half of his life he had been, and only rarely felt a need beyond, until he found community and completion in surrendering himself. Life could and must be lived on those same terms for this while, perhaps for all the while remaining.

So by that time he could look about him again, pay attention to the way, and turn his mind to the task that lay before him.

Close to Deerhurst they had closed in and cut out Yves from his fellows. And strictly speaking, there was no proof as to who had so abducted him; but Philip FitzRobert, who alone was known to bear a great grudge against the boy, and who was patently a man bent on revenge, had three castles and a strong following in those parts, and could venture such a raid with impunity, secure of his power. Then they would not risk being abroad with their captive, even by night, longer than they must, but have him away into hold in one of the castles, out of sight and out of mind, as quickly and privately as possible. Greenhamsted, said the empress’s courier, was the nearest. Cadfael did not know the region well, but he had questioned the messenger concerning the lie of the land. Deerhurst, a few miles north of Gloucester, Greenhamsted about as far to the south-east. La Musarderie, the courier had called the castle, after the family that had held it since Domesday. At Deerhurst there was an alien priory belonging to St Denis in Paris, and if he lodged there overnight he might be able to elicit some local information. Country people keep a sharp eye on the devious doings of their local lords, especially in time of civil war. For their own preservation they must.

By all accounts there had been a castle there at La Musarderie ever since King William gave the village to Hascoit Musard some time before the Domesday survey was taken. That argued enough time to have built in stone, after the first hurried timber erection to secure a foothold. Faringdon had been thrown up in a few weeks of the summer, and laid under siege almost before it was finished. Earthwork and wood, no other possibility in the time, though evidently care had been taken to make it as strong as possible. And Cricklade, whatever its defensive state might be, was not as close as Greenhamsted to the spot where Yves had been abducted. Well, he could see if anyone at Deerhurst could enlighten him on any of these matters.

He rose steadily, intending to ride late and be well on his way before night. He took no food, and said the office at tierce and sext in the saddle. Once he fell in with a mounted merchant and his packman on the way, and they rode together some miles, to a flow of talk that went in at Cadfael’s left ear and out at the right, punctuated by his amicable but random murmurs of acknowledgement, while all the while his mind was on those as yet unknown fields of enterprise that awaited him in the valley of the Thames, where the lines of battle were drawn. At the approach to Stratford the merchant and his man turned off to make for the town, and Cadfael rode on alone once again, exchanging preoccupied greetings here and there with other travellers on a well-used and relatively safe highway.

In the dusk he came to Evesham, and it fell upon him suddenly with chilling shock that he had been taking for granted his welcome as a brother of the Order, he who now had no right to any privilege here, he who had with deliberation broken his vow of obedience, knowing well what he did. Recreant and self-exiled, he had no right even to the habit he wore, except of charity to cover his nakedness.

He bespoke for himself a pallet in the common hall, on the plea that his journey was penitential, and he was not deserving of entering among the choir monks until it was fully accomplished, which was as near to the truth as he cared to come. The hospitaller, gravely courteous, would not press him beyond what he cared to confide, but let him have his way, offered a confessor should he be in need, and left him to lead his horse to the stables and tend him before taking his own rest. At Vespers and at Compline Cadfael chose for himself an obscure corner of the nave, but one from which he could see the high altar. He was not excommunicate, except by his own judgement. Not yet.

But all through the office he felt within himself an impossible paradox, a void that weighed heavier than stone.

He came through the woodlands flanking the vale of Gloucester during the next afternoon. All these midland shires of England seemed to him richly treed and full of game, one great, lavish hunting chase. And in these particular glades Philip FitzRobert had hunted a man. One more desperate loss to that gallant girl now solitary in Gloucester, and with child.

He had left Tewkesbury aside on his right hand, following the most direct road for Gloucester, as the empress and her train would have done. The forest stretches were on good, broad rides that narrowed only in a few short stretches, making use of level ground. At a bend in the path where the trees grew close, the messenger had said. Hearing her journey’s end, the empress would have quickened her pace to be in before dark, and they had taken fresh horses at Evesham. The rearguard had straggled somewhat; easy enough to close in from both sides and cut out a single man. Somewhere here, and two nights past now, and even the traces left by several riders in haste would be fading.

The thicker woodland opened out on the southern side of the track, letting light through the trees to enrich the grasses and wild ground plants below, and someone had chosen this favourable spot to cut out an assart for himself. The hut lay some yards aside, among the trees, with a low wooden fence round it, and a byre beyond. Cadfael heard a cow lowing, very contentedly, and marked how a small space to one side had been cleared of what larger timber it had carried, to allow of modest coppicing. The man of the house was digging within his enclosure, and straightened his back to stare alertly when he heard the soft thudding of hooves along the ride. Beholding a Benedictine brother, he perceptibly relaxed his braced shoulders, slackened his grip on the spade, and called a greeting across the dozen yards or so between.

“Good day to you, brother!”

“God bless the work!” said Cadfael, and checked his horse, turning in between the trees to draw nearer. The man put down his spade and dusted his hands, willing to interrupt his labours for a gossip with a harmless passerby. A square, compact fellow with a creased brown face like a walnut, and sharp blue eyes, well established in his woodland holding, and apparently solitary, for there was no sound or sign of any other creature about the garden or within the hut. “A right hermitage you have here,” said Cadfael. “Do you not want for company sometimes?”

“Oh, I’ve a mind for quietness. And if I tire of it, I have a son married and settled in Hardwicke, barely a mile off, that way, and the children come round on holy days. I get my times for company, but I like the forest life. Whither bound, brother? You’ll be in the dusk soon.”

“I’ll bide the night over at Deerhurst,” said Cadfael placidly. “So you never have troubles yourself, friend, with wild men also liking the forest life, but for no good reasons like yours?”

“I’m a man of my hands,” said the cottar confidently. “And it’s not modest prey like me the outlaws are after. Richer pickings ride along here often enough. Not that we see much trouble of that kind. Cover here is good, but narrow. There are better hunting-grounds.”

“That depends on the quarry,” said Cadfael, and studied him consideringly. “Two nights back, I think you had a great company through here, on their way to Gloucester. About this time of day, perhaps an hour further into the dark. Did you hear them pass?”

The man had stiffened, and stood regarding Cadfael with narrowed thoughtful eyes, already wary but not, Cadfael thought, of either this enquiry or the enquirer.

“I saw them pass,” he said evenly. “Such a stir a wise man does not miss. I did not know then who came. I know now. The empress, she that was all but queen, she came with her men from the bishops’ court at Coventry, back into Gloucester. Nothing good ever comes to men like me from her skirts brushing by, nor from the edge of King Stephen’s mantle, either. We watch them go by, and thank God when they’re gone.”

“And did they go by in peace?” asked Cadfael. “Or were there others abroad, lying in ambush for them? Was there fighting? Or any manner of alarm that night?”

“Brother,” said the man slowly, “what’s your interest in these matters? I stay within doors when armed men pass by, and let alone all who let me alone. Yes, there was some sort of outcry—not here, a piece back along the way, heard, not seen. Shouting, and sudden crashing about among the trees, but all was over in minutes. And then one man came riding at a gallop after the company, crying news, and later another set off back along the route in haste. Brother, if you know more of all this than I do who heard it, why question me?”

“And next morning, by daylight,” said Cadfael, “did you go to view that place where the attack was made? And what signs did you find there? How many men, would you judge? And which way did they go, afterwards?”

“They had been waiting in hiding,” said the man, “very patiently, most on the southern side of the track, but a few to the north. Their horses had trampled the sward among the trees. I would say at least a dozen in all. And when it was done, whatever was done, they massed and rode at speed, southward. There is a path there. Bushes broken and torn as they crashed through.”

“Due south?” said Cadfael.

“And in a hurry. Men who knew their way well enough to hurry, even in the dark. And now that I’ve told you what I heard and saw—and but for your cloth I would have kept my mouth shut—do you tell me what business you have with such night surprises.”

“To the best of my understanding,” said Cadfael, consenting to a curiosity as practical and urgent as his own, “those who struck at the empress’s rearguard and rode away in haste southward have seized and taken with them into captivity a young man of my close acquaintance, who has done nothing wrong but for incurring the hatred of Philip FitzRobert. And my business is to find where they have taken him, and win him free.”

“Gloucester’s son, is it? In these parts it’s he calls the tune, true enough, and has boltholes everywhere. But, brother,” urged the cottar, appalled, “you’d as well beard the devil himself as walk into La Musarderie and confront Philip FitzRobert.”

“La Musarderie? Is that where he is?” echoed Cadfael.

“So they’re saying. And has a hostage or two in there already, and if there’s one more since that tussle here, you have as much chance of winning him free as of being taken up to heaven living. Think twice and again before you venture.”

“Friend, I will. And do you live safe here from all armed men, and say a prayer now and then for all prisoners and captives, and you’ll be doing your share.”

Here among the trees the light was perceptibly fading. He had best be moving on to Deerhurst. At least he had gleaned a crumb of evidence to help him on his way. A hostage or two in there already. And Philip himself installed there. And where he was, surely he would bring with him his perverse treasure of bitterness and hatred, and hoard up his revenges.

Cadfael was about to turn his horse to the track once more, when he thought of one more thing he most needed to know, and brought out the rolled leaf of vellum from the breast of his habit, and spread it open on his thigh to show the drawings of the salamander seal.

“Have you ever seen this badge, on pennant, or harness, or seal? I am trying to find its owner.”

The man viewed it attentively, but shook his head. “I know nothing of these badges and devices of the gentles, barring the few close hereabouts. No, I never saw it. But if you’re bound for Deerhurst, there’s a brother of the house studies such things, and prides himself on knowing the devices of every earl and baron in the land. He can surely give this one a name.”

He emerged from the dusk of the woodland into the full daylight of the wide water-meadows flanking that same Severn he had left behind at Shrewsbury, but here twice the width and flowing with a heavy dark power. And there gleaming through trees no great way inland from the water was the creamy silver stone of the church tower, solid Saxon work, squat and strong as a castle keep. As he approached, the long line of the nave roof came into view, and an apse at the east end, with a semicircular base and a faceted upper part. An old, old house, centuries old, and refounded and endowed by the Confessor, and bestowed by him upon Saint Denis. The Confessor was always more Norman in his sympathies than English.

Once again Cadfael found himself approaching almost with reluctance the Benedictine ambience that had been home to him for so many years, and feeling that he came unworthily and without rights. But here his conscience must endure its own deception if he was to enquire freely after the knowledge he needed. When all was done, if he survived the doing, he would make amends.

The porter who admitted him into the court was a round and amiable soul in his healthy middle years, proud of his house, and happy to show off the beauties of his church. There was work going on south of the choir, a masons’ lodge shelved out against the wall of the apse, and ashlar stacked for building. Two masons and their labourers were just covering the banker and laying by their tools as the light faded. The porter indicated fondly the foundations of walls outlining the additions to be made to the fabric.

“Here we are building another south-east chapel, and the like to balance it on the northern side. Our master mason is a local man, and the works of the Church are his pride. A good man! He gives work to some unfortunates other masters might find unprofitable. You see the labourer who goes lame of one leg there, from an injury. A man-at-arms until recently, but useless to his lord now, and Master Bernard took him on, and has had no cause to regret it, for the man works hard and well.”

The labourer who went heavily on the left leg, surely after some very ill-knit fracture, was otherwise a fine, sturdy fellow, and very agile for all his disability. Probably about thirty years old, with large, able hands, and a long reach. He stood back civilly to give them passage, and then completed the covering of the stacked timber under the wall, and followed the master-mason towards the outer gate.

As yet there had been nothing harder than mild ground frosts, or building would have ceased already for the winter, and the growing walls been bedded down in turf and heather and straw to sleep until spring.

“There’ll be work within for them when the winter closes in,” said the porter. “Come and see.”

Within Deerhurst’s priory church there was as yet no mark of the Norman style, all was Saxon, and the first walls of the nave centuries old. Not until the porter had shown forth all the curiosities and beauties of his church to the visitor did he hand Cadfael over to the hospitaller, to be furnished with a bed, and welcomed into the community at supper in the frater.

Before Compline he asked after the learned brother who was knowledgeable about the devices and liveries of the noble houses of England, and showed the drawings he had made in Coventry. Brother Eadwin studied them and shook his head. “No, this I have not seen. There are among the baronage some families who use several personal variations among their many members and branches. This is certainly none of the most prominent. I have never seen it before.”

Neither, it seemed, had the prior, or any of the brethren. They studied the drawings, but could not give the badge a family name or a location.

“If it belongs in these parts,” said Brother Eadwin, willing to be helpful, “you may find an answer in the village rather than within here. There are some good but minor families holding manors in this shire, besides those of high rank. How did it come into your hands, brother?”

“It was in the baggage of a dead man,” said Cadfael, “but not his. And the original is in the hands of the bishop of Coventry now, until we can discover its owner and restore it.” He rolled up the leaf of vellum, and retied the cord that bound it. “No matter. The lord bishop will pursue it.”

He went to Compline with the brothers, preoccupied rather with the pain and guilt of his own self-exile from this monastic world than with the responsibility he had voluntarily taken upon himself in the secular world. The office comforted him, and the silence afterwards came gratefully. He put away all thought until the morrow, and rested in the quietness until he fell asleep.

Nevertheless, after Mass next morning, when the builders had again uncovered their stores to make use of one more working day, he remembered the porter’s description of Master Bernard as a local man, and thought it worth the trial to unroll his drawings upon the stacked ashlar and call the mason to study them and give judgement. Masons may be called upon to work upon manors and barns and farmsteads as well as churches, and use brands and signs in their own mysteries, and so may well respect and take note of them elsewhere.

The mason came, gazed briefly, and said at once: “No, I do not know it.” He studied it with detached interest, but shook his head decidedly. “No, this I’ve never seen.”

Two of his workmen, bearing a laden hand-barrow, had checked for a moment in passing to peer in natural curiosity at the leaf which was engaging their master’s interest. The lame man, braced on his good right leg, looked up from the vellum to Cadfael’s face for a long moment, before they moved on, and smiled and shrugged when Cadfael returned the glance directly.

“No local house, then,” said Cafael resignedly.

“None that’s known to me, and I’ve done work for most manors round here.” The mason shook his head again, as Cadfael re-rolled the leaf and put it back securely within his habit. “Is it of importance?”

“It may be. Somewhere it will be known.”

It seemed he had done all that could be done here. What his next move should be he had not considered yet, let alone decided. By all the signs Philip must be in La Musarderie, where most probably his men had taken Yves into captivity, and where, according to the woodsman, he already had another hostage, or more than one, in hold.

Even more convincing it seemed to Cadfael, was the argument that a man of such powerful passions would be where his hatreds anchored him. Beyond doubt Philip believed Yves guilty. Therefore if he could be convinced he was wronging the boy, his intent could and would be changed. He was an intelligent man, not beyond reason.

Cadfael took his problem with him into the church at the hour of tierce, and said the office privately in a quiet corner. He was just opening his eyes and turning to withdraw when a hand was laid softly on his sleeve from behind.

“Brother…”

The lame man, for all his ungainliness, could move silently in his scuffed felt shoes on the floor tiles. His weathered face, under a thatch of thick brown hair, was intent and sombre. “Brother, you are seeking the man who uses a certain seal to his dealings. I saw your picture.” He had a low, constrained voice, well suited to confidences.

“I was so seeking,” agreed Cadfael ruefully, “but it seems no one here can help me. Your master does not recognize it as belonging to any man he knows.”

“No,” said the lame man simply. “But I do.”

Chapter Seven

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Cadfael had opened his mouth to question eagerly, seizing upon this unforeseen chance, but he recalled that the man was at work, and already dependent on his master’s goodwill, and lucky to have found such a patron. “You’ll be missed,” he said quickly. “I can’t bring you into reproof. When are you free?”

“At sext we rest and eat our bit of dinner. Long enough,” said the lame man, and briefly smiled. “I feared you might be for leaving before I could tell you what I know.”

“I would not stir,” said Cadfael fervently. “Where? Here? You name the place, I’ll be waiting.”

“The last carrel of the walk, next to where we’re building.” With the stacked ashlar and all the timber at their backs, Cadfael reflected, and a clear view of anyone who should appear in the cloister. This one, whatever the reason, natural suspicion or well-grounded caution, kept a close watch on his back, and a lock on his tongue.

“No word to any other?” said Cadfael, holding the level grey eyes that met him fairly.

“In these parts too much has happened to make a man loose-mouthed. A word in the wrong ear may be a knife in the wrong back. No offence to your habit, brother. Praise God, there are still good men.” And he turned, and went limping back to the outer world and his labours on God’s work.

In the comparative warmth of noon they sat together in the end carrel of the north walk of the cloister, where they could see down the full length of the walk across the garth. The grass was dry and bleached after an almost rainless autumn, but the sky was overcast and heavy with the foreshowing of change.

“My name,” said the lame man, “is Forthred. I come from Todenham, which is an outlier of this manor of Deerhurst. I took service for the empress under Brien de Soulis, and I was in Faringdon with his force, the few weeks the castle stood for the cause. It’s there I’ve seen the seal you have there in the drawings. Twice I’ve seen it set to documents he witnessed. No mistaking it. The third time I saw it was on the agreement they drew up and sealed when they handed over Faringdon to the king.”

“It was done so solemnly?” said Cadfael, surprised. “I thought they simply let in the besiegers by night.”

“So they did, but they had their agreement ready to show to us, the men of the garrison, proving that all six captains with followings among us had accepted the change, and committed us with them. I doubt they would have carried the day but for that. A nay word from one or two of the best, and their men would have fought, and King Stephen would have paid a stiff price for Faringdon. No, it was planned and connived at beforehand.”

“Six captains with their own companies,” said Cadfael, brooding, “and all under de Soulis’s command?”

“So it was. And some thirty or so new knights or squires without personal following, only their own arms.”

“Of those we know. Most refused to turn their coats, and are prisoners now among the king’s men. But all these six who had companies of their own men were agreed, and set their seals to the surrender?”

“Every one. It would not have been done so easily else. Fealty among the common soldiery is to their own leaders. They go where their captains go. One seal missing from that vellum, and there would have been trouble. One in particular, and there would have been a battle. One who carried the most weight with us, and was the best liked and trusted.”

There was something in his voice as he spoke of this man, elect and valued, that conveyed much more than had been said. Cadfael touched the rolled leaf of vellum.

“This one?”

“The same,” said Forthred, and for a moment volunteered nothing more, but sat mute, gazing along the grass of the garth with eyes that looked inward rather than outward.

“And he, like the rest, set his seal to the surrender?”

“His seal—this seal—was certainly there to be seen. With my own eyes I saw it. I would not have believed it else.”

“And his name?”

“His name is Geoffrey FitzClare, and the Clare whose son he is is Richard de Clare, who was earl of Hertford, and the present earl, Gilbert, is his half-brother. A by-blow of the house of Clare. Sometimes these sons come by astray are better than the true coin. Though Gilbert, for all I know, is a good man, too. At least he and his half-brother have always respected and liked each other, seemingly, although all the Clares are absolute for Stephen, and this chance brother chose the empress. They were raised together, for Earl Richard brought his bastard home almost newborn, and the grandam took him in care, and they did well by him, and set him up in life when he was grown. That is the man whose seal you’re carrying with you, or the picture of it, at least.” He had not asked how Cadfael had come by it, to make the copy.

“And where,” wondered Cadfael, “is this Geoffrey to be found now? If he pledged himself and his men to Stephen along with the rest, is he still with the garrison at Faringdon?”

“At Faringdon he surely is,” said the lame man, his low voice edged like steel, “but not with the garrison. The day after the surrender they brought him into the castle in a litter, after a fall from his horse. He died before night. He is buried in the churchyard at Faringdon. He has no more need now of his seal.”

The silence that fell between them hung suspended, like a held breath, upon Cadfael’s senses, before the echoes began, echoes not of the words which had been spoken, but of those which had not been spoken, and never need be. There was an understanding between them that needed no ritual form. A man certainly had need to keep a lock on his tongue, a man who had perilous things to tell, was already crippled, and had to live all too close, still, to men of power who had things to hide. Forthred had gone far in trusting even the Benedictine habit, and must not be made to utter openly what he had already conveyed clearly enough by implication.

And as yet he did not even know how Cadfael had come by the salamander seal.

“Tell me,” said Cadfael carefully, “about those few days, how events fell out. The timing is all.”

“Why, we were pressed, that was true, and hot summer, and none too well provided with water, seeing we had a strong garrison. And Philip from Cricklade had been sending to his father for relief, time and time again, and no reply. And come that one morning, there were the king’s officers let in by night, and Brien de Soulis calls on us not to resist, and brings before us this sealed agreement, to be seen by all of us, his own seal and all five of the others, the command of the entire garrison but for the young men who brought only their own proficiency in arms to the defence. And those who would not countenance the change of allegiance were made prisoner, as all men know. And the men-at-arms—small choice, seeing our masters had committed us.”

“And Geoffrey’s seal was there with the rest?”

It was there,” said Forthred simply. “He was not.”

No, that had begun to be apparent. But no doubt it had been adequately accounted for.

“They told us he had ridden to Cricklade in the night, to report to Philip FitzRobert what had been done. But before leaving he had set his seal to the agreement. First among equals he had set it there, with his own hand.”

And without it there would have been no such easy passage from empress to king. Lacking his consent, his own men and others would have taken station at his back, and there would have been a battle.

“And the next day?” said Cadfael.

“The next day he did not come back. And they began to seem anxious—as were we all,” said Forthred with level and expressionless voice, “and de Soulis and two who were nearest to him rode out to follow the way he would have ridden. And in the dusk they brought him back in a litter, wrapped in a cloak. Found in the woodland, they said, thrown from his horse and badly hurt, and the beast led back riderless. And in the night he died.”

In the night he died. But which night, thought Cadfael, and felt the same conviction burning and bitter in the man who sat beside him. A dead man can easily be removed to some private place in one night, the night of the betrayal in which he refused to take part, and brought back publicly the next night, lost by tragic accident.

“And he is buried,” said Forthred, “there in Faringdon. They did not show us the body.”

“Had he wife or child?” asked Cadfael.

“No, none. De Soulis sent a courier to tell the Clares of his death, Faringdon being now of their party. They have had masses said for him in all good faith.” With the house of Clare he had no quarrel.

“I have an uneasy thought,” said Cadfael tentatively, “that there is more to tell. So soon thereafter—how did you come by your injuries?”

A dark smile crossed the composed face of the lame man. “A fall. I had a perilous fall. From the keep into the ditch. I did not like my new service as well as the old, but it was not wisdom to show it. How did they know? How do they always know? There was always someone between me and the gate. I was letting myself down from the wall when someone cut the rope.”

And left you there broken and unaided?”

“Why not? Another accident, they come in twos and threes. But I could crawl as far as cover, and there decent poor men found me. It has knit awry, but I am alive.”

There were monstrous debts here to be repaid some day, the worth of a life, the price of a body deliberately and coldly maimed. Cadfael suddenly felt burdened by a debt of his own, since this man had so resolutely trusted and confided in him for no return. One piece of knowledge he had, that after its perverse and inadequate fashion might at least provide proof that justice, however indirect or delayed, is certain in the end.

“I have a thing to tell you, Forthred, that you have not asked me. This seal, that was so used to confirm a betrayal, is now in the hands of my bishop in Coventry. And as to how it came there, it was among the baggage of a man who attended the conference there, and there was killed, no one knows by whose hand. His own seal he had on him, that was nothing strange. But he also had this other, from which I made these drawings. The seal of Geoffrey FitzRichard of Clare travelled from Faringdon to Coventry in the saddlebags of Brien de Soulis, and Brien de Soulis is dead in Coventry with a dagger through his heart.”

At the end of the cloister walk the master-mason passed by returning to his work. Forthred rose slowly to follow, and his smile, bleak but assuaged, shone exultantly for an instant, and then was suppressed and veiled in his normal stony indifference. “God is neither blind nor deaf,” he said, low-voiced, “no, nor forgetful. Praise be!” And he stepped out into the empty walk and crossed the turf of the garth, limping heavily, and Cadfael was left gazing after him.

And now there was no cause to remain here another hour, and no doubt whither he must go. He sought out the hospitaller, and made his farewells, and went to saddle up in the stable yard. As yet he had not given a thought to how he should proceed when he came to Greenhamsted. But there are more ways than one of breaking into a castle, and sometimes the simplest is the best. Especially for a man who has forsworn arms, and taken vows that bar him from both violence and duplicity. Truth is a hard master, and costly to serve, but it simplifies all problems. And even an apostate may find it honourable to keep such vows as are not already broken.

Hugh’s handsome young chestnut roan was glad to be on the move again, and came forth from his stall dancing, the light silvering into lustre the white bloom tempering the brightness of his coat. They set forth from Deerhurst southward. They had some fifteen miles to go, Cadfael judged, and would do well to give Gloucester a wide berth, leaving it on the right hand. There was heavy cloud closing in on the afternoon; it would be a pleasure to ride briskly.

They came up from the broad valley meadows into the edges of the hill country, among the high sheep villages where the wool merchants found some of their finest fleeces. They were already in the fringes of the most active battleground, and local farming had not gone quite unscathed, but most of the fighting was a matter of sporadic raiding by the garrisons of the castles, each faction plaguing the other, in a series of damaging exchanges in which Faringdon had been designed to play the central part for the empress, and now balanced King Stephen’s line and held open communications between Malmesbury and Oxford. Somewhat tired warfare now, Cadfael realized, though still venomous. Earl Robert Bossu was right, in the end they must come to terms, because neither side was capable of inflicting defeat upon the other.

Could that, he wondered, once grasped, be a sound reason for changing sides, and transferring all one’s powers and weapons to the other faction? On the consideration, for instance: I have fought for the empress nine years now, and I know we are not one step nearer winning a victory that can bring back order and government to this land. I wonder if the other party, should I transfer to them and take others with me, could do what we have failed to do, settle the whole score, and put the weapons away. Anything to put an end to this endless waste. Yes, it might even seem worth the trial. But partisanship must have ebbed wholly and horribly away into exhaustion in order to reach the despairing knowledge that any end to the anarchy would be better than none.

Then what could there be beyond that stage, when the new alliance proved as wasteful, incompetent and infuriating as the old? Only total disgust with both factions, and withdrawal to spend the last remaining energies on something better worth.

The road Cadfael was travelling had levelled on the uplands, and stretched before him arrow-straight into distance. Villages here were prosperous from the wool trade, but far between, and tended to lie aside from the highway. He was forced to turn off in order to find a house at which to ask guidance, and the cottar who came out to greet him eyed him with sharp attention when he asked for La Musarderie.

“You’re not from these parts, brother? Likely you don’t know the place has fallen into fresh hands. If your business is with the Musards, you’ll not find them. Robert Musard was taken in an ambush weeks, months back now, and had to give up his castle to the Earl of Gloucester’s son, he that’s declared for King Stephen recently.”

“So I had heard,” said Cadfael. “But I have an errand there I have undertaken and must fulfill. I take it the change is not well thought of hereabouts.”

The man shrugged. “Church and village he lets alone, provided neither priest nor reeve gets in his way. But Musards have been there ever since the first King William gave the manor to this one’s great-grandsire, and no man now expects change to be for the better. So go softly, brother, if you must go. He’ll be ware of any stranger before ever you get close to his walls.”

“He’ll hardly fear any feats of arms from me,” said Cadfael. “And what I have to fear from him I’ll be prepared for. And thanks, friend, for the warning. Now, how must I go?”

“Go back to the road,” he was advised, with a shrug for his probably ill-fated persistence, “and ride on for a mile or more, and there’s a track on the right will bring you to Winstone. Cross the river beyond by the ford, and up through the woodland the other side, and when you come clear of the trees you’ll see the castle ahead of you, it stands high. The village stands higher still, up on the crest beyond,” he said. “Go gently, and come again safely.”

“By God’s favour I hope for it,” said Cadfael, and thanked him, and turned his horse to return to the highroad.

There are more ways than one of getting into a castle, he reasoned as he rode through the village of Winstone. The simplest of all, for a lone man without an army or any means of compulsion, is to ride up to the gate and ask to be let in. I am manifestly not in arms, the day is drawing towards an early and chilly evening, and hospitality is a sacred duty. Especially is it incumbent on the nobility to open roof and board to clerics and monastics in need. Let us see, then, how far Philip FitzRobert’s nobility extends.

And following the same sequence of thought: if you want to have speech with the castellan, the most obvious means is to ask; and the most unshakable story to get you into his presence is the truth. He holds two men —surely by now that is as good as certain!—two men to whom he means no good. You want them released unharmed, and have good reasons to advance why he should reconsider his intent towards them. Nothing could be simpler. Why complicate matters by going roundabout?

Beyond Winstone the road proceeded virtually due west, and gradually dwindled into a track, though a well-made and well-used one. From open, scattered woodland and heath it plunged almost suddenly into thick forest, and began to descend steeply by winding traverses among trees into a deep valley. He heard water flowing below, no great flood but the purling sound of a little river with a stony bed; and presently he came out on a narrow slope of grass on its banks, and a narrower tongue of gravel led out into the water, marking the passage of the ford. On the further side the track rose again almost as steeply as on the side where he had descended, and old, long-established trees hid all that awaited him beyond.

He crossed, and began to climb out of the valley. Light and air showed suddenly between the trees, and he emerged from forest into cleared land, bare even of bushes; and there before and above him, at perhaps a half-mile distance, on a level promontory, stood the castle of La Musarderie.

He had been right, four generations of the same family in unchallenged possession had afforded time to build in local stone, to enlarge and to strengthen. The first hasty palisades thrown up in timber seventy-five years ago, to establish and assure ownership, had vanished long since. This was a massive bulk, a battlemented curtain wall, twin gate-towers, squat and strong, fronting this eastward approach, and the serrated crests of other flanking towers circling a tall keep within. Beyond, the ground continued to rise steeply in complex folds and levels to a long crest above, where Cadfael could just distinguish above the trees the top of a church tower, and the occasional slope of a roof, marking the village of Greenhamsted. A rising causeway, stripped of all cover and dead straight, led up to the castle gates. No one was allowed to approach La Musarderie unseen. All round it the ground had been cleared of cover.

Cadfael embarked on that climb with deliberation, willing to be seen, waiting to be challenged. Philip FitzRobert would not tolerate any inefficient service. They were already alerted, long before he came within hailing distance. He heard a horn call briefly within. The great double doors were closed. It was sufficiently late in the day to have everything secured, but there was a wicket left open, lofty enough and wide enough to let in a mounted man, even a galloping man if he came pursued, and easy and light enough to slam shut after him and bar once he was within. In the twin short towers that flanked the gate there were arrow-slits that could bring to bear a dual field of fire on any pursuers. Cadfael approved, his instincts harking back to encounters long past but not forgotten.

Such a gateway, however innocently open, a man approaches with discretion, keeping both hands in clear view, and neither hastening nor hesitating. Cadfael ambled the last few yards and halted outside, though no one had appeared either to welcome or obstruct. He called through the open wicket: “Peace on all within!” and moved on gently through the opening and into the bailey, without waiting for an answer.

In the dark, vaulted archway of the gate there were men on either side of him, and when he emerged into the ward two more were ready for him, prompt to bridle and stirrup, unhurried and unthreatening, but watchful.

“And on whoever comes in peace,” said the officer of the guard, coming out from the guardroom smiling, if a little narrowly. “As doubtless you do, brother. Your habit speaks for you.”

“It speaks truly,” said Cadfael.

“And what’s your will in these parts?” asked the sergeant. “And where are you bound?”

“Here, to La Musarderie,” said Cadfael directly, “if you’ll afford me houseroom a while, till I speak with your lord. My business is nothing beyond that. I come to beg audience with Philip FitzRobert, and they tell me he’s here within. At your disposal and his, whenever he sees fit. I’ll wait his pleasure as long as need be.”

“You’re messenger for another?” the sergeant questioned, no more than mildly curious. “He’s come back from a clutch of bishops, are you here to speak for yours?”

“After a fashion, yes,” Cadfael conceded. “But for myself also. If you’ll be so good as to carry him my request, no doubt he’ll also speak his mind.”

They surrounded him, but at a tolerant distance, curious and alert, faintly grinning, while their sergeant considered at leisure what to think of him and what to do with him. The bailey was not very large, but the wide clearance of cover all round the castle walls compensated for that. From the guardwalk along the wall the view would be broad enough to give ample warning of any force coming in arms, and provide a murderous field for archers, who almost certainly figured large in the garrison. The encrustation of sheds, stores, armouries and cramped living quarters all round the wall within consisted mainly of timber. Fire, Cadfael considered, might be a threat, but even so a limited one. Hall and keep and towers and curtain wall were all of stone. He wondered why he was studying the place as an objective in battle, a stronghold to be taken. So it might prove to him, but not that way.

“Light down and be welcome, brother,” said the sergeant amiably. “We never turn away men of your cloth. As for our lord, you’ll need to wait a while, for he’s out riding this moment, but he shall hear your asking, never fear. Let Peter here take your horse, and he’ll bring your saddlebags into the lodging for you.”

“I tend my own horse,” said Cadfael placidly, mindful of the precaution of knowing where to find him at need; though the sergeant was so assured of having only a simple monastic courier on his hands that there was no need to suspect him of any deception. “I was a man-at-arms myself, long years ago. Once learned, you never lose the habit.”

“True enough,” said the sergeant indulgently, humouring this old ex-warrior. “Then Peter will show you, and when you’re done, you’ll find someone in hall to see to your needs. If you’ve borne arms yourself you’ll be used to a soldier’s keep.”

“And content with it,” agreed Cadfael heartily, and led his horse away after the groom, well satisfied to be within the wards. Nor did he miss any of the evidences that Philip kept an alert and well-run household here. Recalling the dark and courteous presence encountered so briefly and privately in the priory church at Coventry, he would have expected nothing less. Every castle ward has a multifarious life of its own, that goes on without fuss, in well-house, bakery, armoury, store and workshops, in two parallel disciplines, one military, one domestic. Here in a region of warfare, however desultory the dangers might be, the domestic side of castle life in La Musarderie seemed to have been scaled down to a minimum, and almost womanless. Possibly Philip’s steward had a wife somewhere, in charge of such women servants as might be kept here, but the economy within was starkly military and austerely male, and functioned with a ruthless efficiency that surely stemmed from its lord. Philip was unmarried and without children, wholly absorbed into the demonic conflict that no one seemed able to end. His castle reflected his obsession.

There was human activity enough about the ward and in the stables, men came and went about their proper businesses, without haste but briskly, and the babel of voices was as constant as the buzzing about a beehive. The groom Peter was easy and talkative about helping Cadfael to unsaddle and unload, groom and water the horse and settle him in a stall, and pointed him amiably to the hall when that was done. The steward’s clerk who received him there with no more than momentary surprise and an acquiescent shrug, as though accepting a visitor of an unexpected but harmless kind, offered him a bed as of right, and told him where to find the chapel, for the proper hour of Vespers was past, and he had need of a pause to give thanks for present blessings and invoke help in future contentions. An elderly Benedictine wanting shelter for the night, what was there in that to enlist any man’s interest for more than a moment, even where voluntary guests were few and far between?

The chapel was in the heart of the keep, and he wondered a little that they should let him into it unwatched and solitary. Philip’s garrison had no hesitation in allowing a monastic access to the central defences of the castle, they had even housed him within the keep, and there could be no other reason for such confidence than simple trust in his integrity and reverence for his habit. That caused him to look more closely into his own motives and methods, and confirmed him in the directness of his approach. There was no other way but straight forward, whether to success or ruin.

He paid his belated devotions very gravely, in the chill, stony chapel, on his knees before an altar austerely draped and lit only by one small, steady lamp. The vault above withdrew into darkness, and the cold honed his mind as it stiffened his flesh. Lord God, how must I approach, how can I match, such a man? One who in casting off one coat has stripped himself naked to reproach and condemnation, and in donning another has merely covered his wounds, not healed them. I do not know what to make of this Philip.

He was rising from his knees when he heard, distantly from the outer ward, the brisk clatter of hooves on the cobbles, a small, sharp sound. One horse only; one man only, like himself, not afraid to ride out from a castle or into a castle alone, in a region where castles were prizes to be seized at the least opportunity, and prisons to be avoided at all costs. After a moment Cadfael heard the horse being led away to the stable yard, treading out sober walking paces across the stones, ebbing into silence. He turned to leave the chapel, and went out between the guardrooms and gates of the keep, where the twilight hung pale against the black pillars of the portal. He emerged into what seemed by contrast almost daylight, and found himself crossing the path of Philip FitzRobert, just dismounted after his ride and striding across the ward to his hall, shrugging off his cloak on to one arm as he went. They met and halted, two or three yards between them, mutually at gaze.

The rising wind of evening had ruffled Philip’s black hair, for he had ridden with head uncovered. The short, blown strands laced his high forehead, and caused him to frown as he stared. He went in the plainest of dark gear, independent of any manner of ornament or finery. His own bearing was his distinction. Physically, in motion or in stillness, he had an elongated elegance, and a tension like a strung bow.

“They told me I had a guest,” he said, and narrowed his full, dark brown eyes. “Brother, I think I have seen you before.”

“I was in Coventry,” said Cadfael, “among many others. Though whether you ever noticed me is more than I can say.”

There was a brief silence, and neither of them moved. “You were present,” Philip said then, “close by, but you did not speak. I do remember, you were by when we found de Soulis dead.”

“I was,” said Cadfael.

“And now you come to me. To have speech with me. So they have said. On whose behalf?”

“On behalf of justice and truth,” said Cadfael, “at least in my view. On behalf of myself, and of some for whom I am advocate. And ultimately, perhaps, my lord, even on yours.”

The eyes narrowed to sharpen vision through the fading light studied him in silence for a moment, without, apparently, finding any fault with the boldness of this address.

“I shall have time to listen,” said Philip then, the courteous level of his voice unshaken even by curiosity, “after supper. Come to me after I leave the hall. Any man of the household will show you where to find me. And if you wish, you may assist my chaplain at Compline. I respect your habit.”

“That I cannot,” said Cadfael bluntly. “I am not a priest. Even the full right of this habit I cannot now claim. I am absent without leave from my abbot. I have broken the cord. I am apostate.”

“For cause!” said Philip, and stared upon him steadily for a long moment, his interest both caught and contained within measure. Then he said abruptly: “Nevertheless, come!” and turned and walked away into his hall.

Chapter Eight

« ^ »

In Philip FitzRobert’s hall the service was Spartan, and the company exclusively male. He presided at the high table among his knights, and the young men of his following used him with confident candour, not in awe, but to all appearances in willing duty. He ate sparingly and drank little, talked freely with his equals and courteously with his servants. And Cadfael, from his place beside the chaplain at a lower table, watched him and wondered what went on behind the lofty forehead and the deep brown eyes like slow-burning fires, and all that was mysterious in him, if not ominous.

He rose from the table early, leaving the men of his garrison to continue at their leisure, and after his going there was an easing of manners and further circling of ale and wine, and some who could make music fetched their instruments to enliven the evening. Small doubt there was a strong guard set, and all gates closed and barred. Musard, so the chaplain had reported, had foolishly gone forth hunting, and ridden straight into Philip’s ambush, and been forced to surrender his castle in order to regain his freedom, and possibly also to keep himself man alive; though threats against life in order to gain possession of a fortress were more likely to remain threats than to be put into action, and often met with obstinate defiance even with necks noosed and hangmen ready, in the assurance that they dared not be carried out. Family loyalties and complex intermarriages had baulked a great many such attempts. But Musard, not having a powerful relative on Stephen’s side, of greater importance to the king than Philip himself, had been less confident of his safety, and given in. That was hardly likely ever to happen to Philip. He showed no fear of any man, but neither would he leave gates unbarred, or fail to set good sentries on the walls.

“I am bidden to your lord’s presence,” said Cadfael, “after he withdraws from the hall. Will you point me the way? I think he is not a man to be kept waiting when he has named the time.”

The chaplain was old and experienced, beyond surprise. In any case nothing that their castellan did, nothing he denied, nothing he granted, no princeling he rejected, no humble travelling monastic he welcomed, seemed to occasion surprise here. There would be sufficient reason for all, and whether that reason proved comprehensible or not, it would not be questioned.

The old priest shrugged, and rose obligingly from table to lead the way out from the hall. “He keeps early hours as a rule. So he set you a time, did he? You’re favoured. But he’s hospitable to any who wear your habit, or come in the Church’s name.”

Cadfael forbore from following that lead. It was known here that he came from the conference at Coventry, and probably assumed that he bore some further exhortation from his bishop to insinuate into Philip’s ear. Let them by all means think so; it accounted for him very satisfactorily. As between himself and Philip there could be no pretences.

“In here. He lives almost priestly,” commented the chaplain, “here in the cold of the keep, close to his chapel, none of your cushioned solars.” They were in a narrow stone passage, lit only by a small, smoky torch in a bracket on the wall. The door they approached was narrow, and stood ajar. At the chaplain’s knock a voice from within called: “Come!”

Cadfael entered a small, austere room, high-windowed on a single lancet of naked sky, in which a faint dusting of starlight showed. They were one lofty floor raised, high enough to clear the curtain wall on this sheltered side. Below the window a large, shaded candle burned on a heavy table, and behind the table Philip sat on a broad stool buttressed with massive carved arms, his back against the dark hangings on the wall. He looked up from the book that lay open before him. It was no surprise that he was lettered. Every faculty he had he would push to the limit.

“Come in, brother, and close the door.”

His voice was quiet, and his face, lit sidelong by the candle at his left elbow, showed sharply defined in planes of light and ravines of shadow, deep hollows beneath the high cheekbones and in the ivory settings of dark, thoughtful eyes. Cadfael marvelled again how young he was, Olivier’s own age. Something of Olivier, even, in his clear, fastidious face, fixed at this moment in a searching gravity, that hung upon Cadfael in continued speculation.

“You had something to say to me. Sit, brother, and say it freely. I am listening.”

A motion of his hand indicated the wooden bench against the wall at his right hand, draped with sheepskin. Cadfael would rather have remained standing, facing him directly, but he obeyed the gesture, and the contact of eyes was not broken; Philip had turned with him, maintaining his unwavering regard.

“Now, what is it you want of me?”

“I want,” said Cadfael, “the freedom of two men, two whom, as I believe, you have in close hold.”

“Name them,” said Philip, “and I will tell you if you believe rightly.”

“The name of the first is Olivier de Bretagne. And the name of the second is Yves Hugonin.”

“Yes”, said Philip without hesitation, and without any change in the quiet level of his voice. “I hold them both.”

“Here, in La Musarderie?”

“Yes. They are here. Now tell me why I should release them.”

“There are reasons,” said Cadfael, “why a fairminded man should take my request seriously. Olivier de Bretagne, I judge from all I know of him, would not consider turning his coat with you when you handed over Faringdon to the king. There were several who held with him, and would not go with you. All were overpowered and made prisoner, to be held for ransom by whoever should be given them as largesse by the king. That is known openly. Why, then, has Olivier de Bretagne not been offered for ransom? Why has it not been made known who holds him?”

“I have made it known now to you,” said Philip, with a small, dry smile. “Proceed from there.”

“Very well! It is true I had not asked you until now, and now you have not denied. But it was never published where he was, as it was for the others. Is it fair that his case should be different? There are those who would be glad to buy him free.”

“However high the price asked?” said Philip.

“Name it, and I will see it raised and paid to you.”

There was a long pause, while Philip looked at him with eyes wide and clear, and yet unreadable, so still that not a single hair on his head quivered. “A life, perhaps,” he said then, very softly. “Another life in place of his to rot here solitary as he will rot.”

“Take mine,” said Cadfael.

In the arched lancet of the high window clouds had blotted out the faint starlight, the stones of the wall were now paler than the night without.

“Yours,” said Philip with soft deliberation, not questioning, not exclaiming, only saying over the single word to himself as if to incise it on the steely metal of his mind. “What satisfaction would your life be to me? What grudge have I against you, to give me any pleasure in destroying you?”

“What grudge had you against him? What bitter pleasure will you experience in destroying him? What did he ever do to you, except hold fast to his cause when you deserted yours? Or when he so thought of what you did,” Cadfael corrected himself stoutly, “for I tell you, I do not know how to interpret all that you have done, and he, as I well know, would be less ready to look not once, but twice, thrice and again, before judging.”

No, the protest was pointless. Olivier’s fiery scorn would be enough offence. A match for Philip in his towering pride, blazing forth in unrestrained reproach, as if Philip’s own mirror image cried out against him. Perhaps the only way to put that mortal wound out of mind had been to bury the accuser out of sight and out of memory.

“You valued him!” said Cadfael, enlightened and unwary.

“I valued him,” Philip repeated, and found no fault with the statement. “It is not the first time I have been denied, rejected, misprized, left out of the reckoning, by some I most valued. There is nothing new in that. It takes time to reach the point of cutting off the last of them, and proceeding alone. But now, since you have made me an offer, why should you, why do you, offer me your old bones to moulder in his place? What is Olivier de Bretagne to you?”

“He is my son,” said Cadfael.

In the long, profound silence that followed, Philip released held breath at last in a prolonged soft sigh. The chord that had been sounded between them was complex and painful, and echoed eerily in the mind. For Philip also had a father, severed from him now in mutual rejection, irreconcilable. There was, of course, the elder brother, William, Robert’s heir. Was that where the breakage began? Always close, always loved, always sufficient, and this one passed over, his needs and wants as casually attended to as his pleas for Faringdon had been? That might be a part of Philip’s passion of anger, but surely not the whole. It was not so simple.

“Do fathers owe such regard to their sons?” he said dryly. “Would mine, do you suppose, lift a hand to release me from a prison?”

“For ought that I know or you know,” said Cadfael sturdily, “so he would. You are not in need. Olivier is, and deserves better from you.”

“You are in the common error,” said Philip indifferently. “I did not first abandon him. He abandoned me, and I have accepted the judgement. If that was the measure of resolution on one side, to bring this abominable waste to an end, what is left for a man but to turn and throw his whole weight into the other scale? And if that prove as ineffective, and fail us as bitterly? How much more can this poor land endure?”

He was speaking almost in the same terms as the Earl of Leicester, and yet his remedy was very different. Robert Bossu was trying to bring together all the wisest and most moderate minds from both factions, to force a compromise which would stop the fighting by agreement. Philip saw no possibility but to end the contention with a total victory, and after eight wasteful years cared very little which faction triumphed, provided the triumph brought back some semblance of law and normality to England. And as Philip was branded traitor and turncoat, so, some day, when he withheld his powers from battle to force his king’s hand, would Robert Bossu be branded. But he and his kind might be the saviours of a tormented land, none the less.

“You are speaking now of king and empress,” said Cadfael, “and what you say I understand, better than I did until this moment. But I am speaking of my son Olivier. I am offering you a price for him, the price you named. If you meant it, accept it. I do not think, whatever else I might think of you, that you go back on your bargains, bad or good.”

“Wait!” said Philip, and raised a hand, but very tolerantly. “I said: perhaps a life. I am not committed by so qualified a declaration. And—forgive me, brother! —would you consider yourself fair exchange, old as you are, against his youth and strength? You appealed to me as a fairminded man, so do I turn to you.”

“I see the imbalance,” said Cadfael. Not in age and beauty and vigour, however glaring that discrepancy might be, but in the passion of confident trust and affection that could never be adequately paid by the mild passing liking this man felt now for his challenger. When it came to the extreme of testing, surely those two friends had failed to match minds, and that was a disintegration that could never be forgiven, so absolute had been the expectation of understanding. “Nevertheless, I have offered you what you asked, and it is all that is mine to offer you. I cannot raise my stake. There is no more to give. Now be as honest, and admit to me, it is more than you expected.”

“It is more,” said Philip. “I think, brother, you must allow me time. You come as a surprise to me. How could I know that Olivier had such a father? And if I asked you concerning this so strangely fathered son of yours, I doubt you would not tell me.”

“I think,” said Cadfael, “that I would.”

The dark eyes flared into amused interest. “Do you confide so easily?”

“Not to every man,” said Cadfael, and saw the sparks burn down into a steady glow. And again there was a silence, that lay more lightly on the senses than the previous silences.

“Let us leave this,” said Philip abruptly. “Unresolved, not abandoned. You came on behalf of two men. Speak of the second. You have things to argue for Yves Hugonin,”

“What I have to argue for Yves Hugonin,” said Cadfael, “is that he had no part in the death of Brien de Soulis. Him you have altogether mistaken. First, for I know him, have known him from a child, as arrow-straight for his aim as any living man. I saw him, as you did not, not that time, I saw him when first he rode into the priory gate at Coventry, and saw de Soulis in his boldness, armed, and cried out on him for a turncoat and traitor, and laid hand to hilt against him, yes, but face to face before many witnesses. If he had killed, that would have been his way, not lurking in dark places, in ambush with a bared blade. Now consider the night of the man’s death. Yves Hugonin says that he came late to Compline, when the office had begun, and remained crowded into the last dark corner within the door, and so was first out to clear the way for the princes. He says that he stumbled in the dark over de Soulis’s body, and kneeled to see how bad was the man’s case, and called out to us to bring lights. And so was taken in all men’s sight with bloody hands. All which is patently true, whatever else you attribute to him. For you say he never was in the church, but had killed de Soulis, cleaned his sword and bestowed it safely and innocently in his lodging, where it should be, and returned in good time to cry the alarm in person over a dead man. But if that were true, why call to us at all? Why be there by the body? Why not elsewhere, in full communion with his fellows, surrounded by witnesses to his innocence and ignorance of evil?”

“Yet it could be so,” said Philip relentlessly. “Men with limited time to cover their traces do not always choose the most infallible way. What do you object to my most bitter belief?”

“A number of things. First, that same evening I examined Yves’ sword, which was sheathed and laid by as he had said. It is not easy to cleanse the last traces of blood from a grooved blade, and of such quests I have had experience. I found no blemish there. Second, after you were gone, with the bishop’s leave I examined de Soulis’s body. It was no sword that made that wound, no sword ever was made so lean and fine. A thin, sharp dagger, long enough to reach the heart. And a firm stroke, in deep and out clean before he could bleed. The flow of blood came later as he lay, he left the mark outlined on the flagstones under him. And now, third, tell me how his open enemy can have approached him so close, and de Soulis with sword and poniard ready to hand. He would have had his blade out as soon as he saw his adversary nearing, long before ever he came within dagger range. Is that good sense, or no?”

“Good sense enough,” Philip allowed, “so far as it goes.”

“It goes to the heart of the matter. Brien de Soulis bore arms, he had no mind to be present at Compline, he had another assignation that night. He waited in a carrel of the cloister, and came forth into the walk when he heard and saw his man approaching. A quiet time, with everyone else in the church, a time for private conference with no witnesses. Not with an avowed enemy, but with a friend, someone trusted, someone who could walk up to him confidently, never suspected of any evil intent, and stab him to the heart. And walked away and left him lying, for a foolish young man to stumble over, and yell his discovery to the night, and put his neck in a noose.”