/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Hermit of Eyton Forest

Ellis Peters

antiqueEllisPetersThe Hermit of Eyton Forestencalibre 0.7.4230.1.20113784bf6f-d583-446c-abc6-7454b48bcbff1.0

The Hermit of Eyton Forest

Ellis Peters

The Fourteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael

Digital Edition v2 HTML – January 20, 2003

Copyright © Ellis Peters

First published in Great Britain in 1987 by

Headline Book Publishing



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 One

^ »

It was on the eighteenth day of October of that year 1142 that Richard Ludel, hereditary tenant of the manor of Eaton, died of a debilitating weakness, left after wounds received at the battle of Lincoln, in the service of King Stephen.

The news was duly brought to Hugh Beringar in Shrewsbury castle, since Eaton was one of the many manors in the shire which had been expropriated from William Fitz Alan, after that powerful nobleman took arms on the wrong side in the struggle for the throne, held Shrewsbury for the Empress Maud, and took to flight when Stephen besieged and captured the town. His wide lands, forfeited to the crown, had been placed in the sheriff’s care as overlord, but their tenants of long standing had been left undisturbed, once it was clear that they had wisely accepted the judgement of battle, and pledged their allegiance to the king. Ludel, indeed, had done more than declare his loyalty, he had proved it in arms at Lincoln, and now, it seemed, paid a high price for his fealty, for he was no more than thirty-five years old at his death.

Hugh received the news with the mild regret natural to one who had barely known the man, and whose duties were unlikely to be complicated by any closer contact with the death. There was an heir, and no second son to cloud the issue of inheritance, certainly no need to interfere with the smooth succession. The Ludels were Stephen’s men, and loyal, even if the new incumbent was hardly likely to take arms for his king for many years to come, being, Hugh recalled, about ten years old. The boy was in school at the abbey, placed there by his father when the mother died, most likely, so rumour said, to get him out of the hands of a domineering grandmother, rather than simply to ensure that he learned his letters.

It seemed, therefore, that the abbey, if not the castle, had some unenviable responsibility in the matter, for someone would have to tell young Richard that his father was dead. The funeral rites would not fall to the abbey, Eaton having its own church and parish priest, but the custody of the heir was a matter of importance. And as for me, thought Hugh, I had better make certain how competent a steward Ludel has left to manage the boy’s estate, while he’s not yet of age to manage it himself.

“You have not taken this word to the lord abbot yet?” he asked the groom who had brought the message.

“No, my lord, I came first to you.”

“And have you orders from the lady to speak with the heir himself?”

“No, my lord, and would as soon leave that to those who have the daily care of him.”

“You may well be right there,” Hugh agreed. “I’ll go myself and speak with Abbot Radulfus. He’ll know best how to deal. As to the succession, Dame Dionisia need have no concern, the boy’s title is secure enough.”

In times full of trouble, with cousins contending bitterly for the throne, and opportunist lords changing their coats according to the pendulum fortunes of this desultory war, Hugh was only too glad to be guardian of a shire which had changed hands but once, and settled down doggedly thereafter to keep King Stephen’s title unchallenged and the tide of unrest at bay from its borders, whether the threat came from the empress’s forces, the unpredictable cantrips of the wild Welshmen of Powys to the west, or the calculating ambition of the earl of Chester in the north. Hugh had balanced his relationships with all these perilous neighbours for some years now with fair success, it would have been folly to consider handing over Eaton to another tenant, whatever the possible drawbacks of allowing the succession to pass unbroken to a child. Why upset a family which had remained submissive and loyal, and dug in its heels sturdily to await events when its overlord fled to France? Recent rumour had it that William Fitz Alan was back in England, and had joined the empress in Oxford, and the sense of his presence, even at that distance, might stir older loyalties among his former tenants, but that was a risk to be met when it showed signs of arising. To give Eaton to another tenant might well be to rouse the old allegiance needlessly from its prudent slumber. No, Ludel’s son should have his rights. But it would be well to have a look at the steward, and make sure he could be trusted, both to keep to his late lord’s policies and to take good care of his new lord’s interests and lands.

Hugh rode out unhurriedly through the town, in the fine mid-morning-after the early mist had lifted, gently uphill to the High Cross, steeply downhill again by the winding Wyle to the eastward gate, and across the stone bridge towards the Foregate, where the crossing tower of the abbey church loomed solidly against a pale blue sky. The Severn ran rapid but tranquil under the arches of the bridge, still at its mild summer level, its two small, grassy islands rimmed with a narrow edging of bleached brown which would be covered again when the first heavy rain brought storm-water down from Wales. To the left, where the highroad opened before him, the clustering bushes and trees rising from the riverside just touched the dusty rim of the road, before the small houses and yards and gardens of the Foregate began. To the right the mill-pool stretched away between its grassy banks, a faint bloom of lingering mist blurring its silver surface, and beyond, the wall of the abbey enclave arose, and the arch of the gatehouse.

Hugh dismounted as the porter came out to take his bridle. He was as well known here as any who wore the Benedictine habit and belonged within the walls.

“If you’re wanting Brother Cadfael, my lord,” offered the porter helpfully, “he’s away to Saint Giles to replenish their medicine cupboard. But he’s been gone an hour or so now, he left after chapter. He’ll be back soon, surely, if you’re minded to wait for him.”

“My business is with the lord abbot first,” said Hugh, acknowledging without protest the assumption that his every visit here must inevitably be in search of one close crony. “Though no doubt Cadfael will hear the same word afterwards, if he hasn’t heard it in advance! The winds always seem to blow news his way before they trouble about the rest of us.”

“His duties take him forth, more than most of us ever get the chance,” said the porter good-humouredly. “Come to that, how do the poor afflicted souls at Saint Giles ever come to hear so much of what goes on in the wide world? For he seldom comes back without some piece of gossip that’s amazement to everybody this end of the Foregate. Father Abbot’s down in his own garden. He’s been closeted over accounts with the sacristan for an hour or more, but I saw Brother Benedict leave him a little while ago.” He reached a veined brown hand to caress the horse’s neck, very respectfully, for Hugh’s big, raw-boned grey, as cross-grained as he was strong, had little but contempt for all things human except his master, and even he was regarded rather as an equal, to be respected but kept in his place. “There’s no news from Oxford yet?”

Even within the cloister they could not choose but keep one ear cocked for news of the siege. Success there now might well see the empress a prisoner, and force an end at last to this dissension that tore the land apart.

“Not since the king got his armies through the ford and into the town. We may hear something soon, if some who had time to get out of the city drift up this way. But the garrison will have made sure the castle larders were well filled. I doubt it will drag on for many weeks yet.”

Siege is slow strangulation, and King Stephen had never been noted for patience and tenacity, and might yet find it tedious to sit waiting for his enemies to reach starvation, and take himself off to find brisker action elsewhere. It had happened before, and could happen again.

Hugh shrugged off his liege lord’s shortcomings, and set off down the great court to the abbot’s lodging, to distract Father Radulfus from his cherished if slightly jaded roses.

Brother Cadfael was back from the hospital of Saint Giles and busy in his workshop, sorting beans for next year’s seed, when Hugh came back from the abbot’s lodging and made his way to the herbarium. Recognising the swift, light tread on the gravel, Cadfael greeted him without turning his head.

“Brother Porter told me you’d be here. Business with Father Abbot, he says. What’s in the wind? Nothing new from Oxford?”

“No,” said Hugh, seating himself comfortably on the bench against the timber wall, “nearer home. This is from no farther off than Eaton. Richard Ludel is dead. The dowager sent a groom with the news this morning. You’ve got the boy here at school.”

Cadfael turned then, with one of the clay saucers, full of seed dried on the vine, in his hand. “So we have. Well, so his sire’s gone, is he? We heard he was dwindling. The youngster was no more than five when he was sent here, and they fetch him home very seldom. I think his father thought the child was better here with a few fellows near his own age than kept around a sick man’s bed.”

“And under the rule of a strong-willed grandmother, from all I hear. I don’t know the lady,” said Hugh thoughtfully, “except by reputation. I did know the man, though I’ve seen nothing of him since we got our wounded back from Lincoln. A good fighter and a decent soul, but dour, no talker. What’s the boy like?”

“Sharp venturesome… A very fetching imp, truth to tell, but as often in trouble as out of it. Bright at his letters, but he’d rather be out at play. Paul will have the task of telling him his father’s dead, and himself master of a manor. It may trouble Paul more than it does the boy. He hardly knows his sire. I suppose there’s no question about his tenure?”

“None in the world! I’m all for letting well alone, and Ludel earned his immunity. It’s a good property, too, fat land, and much of it under the plough. Good grazing, water-meadows and woodland, and it’s been well tended, seemingly, for it’s valued higher now than ten years since. But I must get to know the steward, and make sure he’ll do the boy right.”

“John of Longwood,” said Cadfael promptly. “He’s a good man and a good husbandman. We know him well, we’ve had dealings with him, and always found him reasonable and fair. That land falls between the abbey holdings of Eyton-by-Severn on the one side, and Aston-under-Wrekin on the other, and John has always given our forester free access between the two woodlands whenever needed, to save him time and labour. We bring wood out from our part of the Wrekin forest that way. It suits us both very well. Ludel’s part of Eyton forest bites into ours there, it would be folly to fall out. Ludel had left everything to John these last two years, you’ll have no trouble there.”

“The abbot tells me,” said Hugh, nodding satisfaction with this good-neighbourliness, “that Ludel gave the boy as ward into his hands, four years ago, should he himself not live to see his son grown to manhood. It seems he made all possible provision for the future, as if he saw his own death coming towards him.” And he added, somewhat grimly: “As well most of us have no such clear sight, or there’d be some hundreds in Oxford now hurrying to buy Masses for their souls. By this time the king must hold the town. It would fall into his hands of itself once he was over the ford. But the castle could hold out to the year’s end, at a pinch, and there’s no cheap way in there, it’s a matter of starving them out. And if Robert of Gloucester in Normandy has not had word of all this by now, then his intelligencers are less able than I gave them credit for. If he knows how his sister’s pressed, he’ll be on his way home in haste. I’ve known the besiegers become the besieged before now, it could as well happen again.”

“It will take him some time to get back,” Cadfael pointed out comfortably. “And by all accounts no better provided than when he went.”

The empress’s half-brother and best soldier had been sent overseas, much against his inclination, to ask help for the lady from her less than loving husband, but Count Geoffrey of Anjou was credibly reported to be much more interested in his own ambitions in Normandy than in his wife’s in England, and had been astute enough to inveigle Earl Robert into helping him pick off castle after castle in the duchy, instead of rushing to his wife’s side to assist her to the crown of England. As early as June Robert had sailed from Wareham, against his own best judgement but at his sister’s urgent entreaty, and Geoffrey’s insistence, if he was to entertain any ambassador from her at all. And here was September ended, Wareham back in King Stephen’s hands, and Robert still detained in Geoffrey’s thankless service in Normandy. No, it would not be any quick or easy matter for him to come to his sister’s rescue. The iron grip of siege tightened steadily round Oxford castle, and for once Stephen showed no sign of abandoning his purpose. Never yet had he come so close to making his cousin and rival his prisoner, and forcing her acceptance of his sovereignty.

“Does he realise,” wondered Cadfael, closing the lid of a stone jar on his selected seed, “how near he’s come to getting her into his power at last? How would you feel, Hugh, if you were in his shoes, and truly got your hands on her?”

“Heaven forefend!” said Hugh fervently, and grinned at the very thought. “For I shouldn’t know what to do with her! And the devil of it is, neither will Stephen, if ever it comes to that. He could have kept her tight shut into Arundel the day she landed, if he’d had the sense. And what did he do? Gave her an escort, and sent her off to Bristol to join her brother! But if the queen ever gets the lady into her power, that will be another story. If he’s a grand fighter, she’s the better general, and knows how to hold on to her advantages.”

Hugh rose and stretched, and a rising breeze from the open door ruffled his smooth black hair, and rustled the dangling bunches of dried herbs hanging from the roof beams. “Well, there’s no hurrying the siege to an end, we must wait and see. I hear they’ve finally given you a lad to help you in the herb garden, is it true? I noticed your hedge has had a second clipping, was that his work?”

“It was.” Cadfael went out with him along the gravel path between the patterned beds of herbs, grown a little wiry at this end of the growing season. The box hedge at one side had indeed been neatly trimmed of the straggling shoots that come late in the summer. “Brother Winfrid—you’ll see him busy in the patch where we’ve cleared the bean vines, digging in the holms. A big, gangling lad all elbows and knees. Not long out of his novitiate. Willing, but slow. But he’ll do. They sent him to me, I fancy, because he turned out fumble-fisted with either pen or brush, but give him a spade, and that’s more his measure. He’ll do!”

Outside the walled herb garden the vegetable plots extended, and beyond the slight rise on their right the harvested pease fields ran down to the Meole Brook, which was the rear border of the abby enclave. And there was Brother Winfrid in full vigorous action, a big, loose-jointed youth with a shock-head of wiry hair hedging in his shaven crown, his habit kilted to brawny knees, and a broad foot shod in a wooden clog driving the steel-edged spade through the fibrous tangle of bean holms as through blades of grass. He gave them one beaming glance as they passed, and returned to his work without breaking the rhythm. Hugh had one glimpse of a weather-browned country face and round, guileless blue eyes.

“Yes, I should think he might do very well,” he said, impressed and amused, “whether with a spade or a battle-axe. I could do with a dozen such at the castle whenever they care to offer their services.”

“He’d be no use to you,” said Cadfael with certainty. “Like most big men, the gentlest soul breathing. He’d throw his sword away to pick up the man he’d flattened. It’s the little, shrill terriers that bare their teeth.”

They emerged into the band of flowerbeds beyond the kitchen garden, where the rose bushes had grown leggy and begun to shed their leaves. Rounding the corner of the box hedge, they came out into the great court, at this working hour of the morning almost deserted but for one or two travellers coming and going about the guest hall, and a stir of movement down in the stables. Just as they rounded the tall hedge to step into the court, a small figure shot out of the gate of the grange court, where the barns and storage lofts lined three sides of a compact yard, and made off at a run across the narrows of the court into the cloister, to emerge a minute later at the other end at a decorous walk, with eyes lowered in seemly fashion, and plump, childish hands devoutly linked at his belt, the image of innocence. Cadfael halted considerately, with a hand on Hugh’s arm, to avoid confronting the boy too obviously.

The child reached the corner of the infirmary, rounded it, and vanished. There was a distinct impression that as he quit the sight of any watchers in the great court he broke into a run again, for a bare heel flashed suddenly and was gone. Hugh was grinning. Cadfael caught his friend’s eye, and said nothing.

“Let me hazard!” said Hugh, twinkling. “You picked your apples yesterday, and they’re not yet laid up in the trays in the loft. Lucky it was not Prior Robert who saw him at it, and he with the breast of his cotte bulging like a portly dame!”

“Oh, there are some of us have a sort of silent understanding. He’ll have taken the biggest, but only four. He thieves in moderation. Partly from decent obligation, partly because half the sport is to tempt providence again and again.”

Hugh’s agile black eyebrow signalled amused enquiry. “Why four?”

“Because we have but four boys still in school, and if he thieves at all, he thieves for all. There are several novices not very much older, but to them he has no obligation. They must do their own thieving, or go without. And do you know,” asked Cadfael complacently, “who that young limb is?”

“I do not, but you are about to astonish me.”

“I doubt if I am. That is Master Richard Ludel, the new lord of Eaton. Though plainly,” said Cadfael, wryly contemplating shadowed innocence, “he does not yet know it.”

Richard was sitting cross-legged on the grassy bank above the mill-pond, thoughtfully nibbling out the last shreds of white flesh from round his apple core, when one of the novices came looking for him.

“Brother Paul wants you,” announced the messenger, with the austerely complacent face of one aware of his own virtue, and delivering a probably ominous summons to another. “He’s in the parlour. You’d best hurry.”

“Me?” said Richard, round-eyed, looking up from his enjoyment of the stolen apple. No one had any great cause to be afraid of Brother Paul, the master of the novices and the children, who was the gentlest and most patient of men, but even a reproof from him was to be evaded if possible. “What does he want me for?”

“You should best know that,” said the novice, with mildly malicious intent. “It was not likely he’d tell me. Go and find out for yourself, if you truly have no notion.”

Richard committed his denuded core to the pond, and rose slowly from the grass. “In the parlour, you say?” The use of so private and ceremonial a place argued something grave, and though he was unaware of any but the most venial of misdeeds that could be laid to his account during the past weeks, it behoved him to be wary. He went off slowly and thoughtfully, trailing his bare feet in the coolness of the grass, deliberately scuffing hard little soles along the cobbles of the court, and duly presented himself. In the small, dim parlour, where visitors from the outside world might occasionally talk in private with their cloistered sons.

Brother Paul was standing with his back to the single window, rendering the small room even dimmer than it need have been. The straight, close-shorn ring of hair round his polished crown was still black and thick at fifty, and he habitually stood, as indeed he also sat, stooped a little forward, from so many years of dealing with creatures half his size, and desiring to reassure them rather than awe them with his stature and bearing. A kindly, scholarly, indulgent man, but a good teacher for all that, and one who could keep his chicks in order without having to keep them in terror. The oldest remaining oblatus, given to God when he was five years old, and now approaching fifteen and his novitiate, told awful stories of Brother Paul’s predecessor, who had ruled with the rod, and been possessed of an eye that could freeze the blood.

Richard made his small obligatory obeisance, and stood squarely before his master, lifting to the light an impenetrable countenance, lit by two blue-green eyes of radiant innocence. A thin, active child, small for his years but agile and supple as a cat, with a thick, curly crest of light brown hair, and a band of golden freckles over both cheekbones and the bridge of his neat, straight nose. He stood with feet braced sturdily apart, toes gripping the floorboards, and stared up into Brother Paul’s face, dutiful and guileless. Paul was well acquainted with that unblinking gaze.

“Richard,” he said gently, “come, sit down with me. I have something I must tell you.”

That in itself was enough to discount one slight childish unease, only to replace it with another and graver, for the tone was so considerate and indulgent as to prophesy the need for comfort. But what Richard’s sudden flickering frown expressed was simple bewilderment. He allowed himself to be drawn to the bench and seated there within the circle of Brother Paul’s arm, bare toes just touching the floor, and braced there hard. He could be prepared for scolding, but here was surely something for which he was not prepared, and had no idea how to confront.

“You know that your father fought at Lincoln for the king, and was wounded? And that he has since been in poor health.” Secure in robust, well-fed and well-tended youth, Richard hardly knew what poor health might be, except that it was something that happened to the old.

But he said: “Yes, Brother Paul!” in a small, accommodating voice, since it was expected of him.

“Your grandmother sent a groom to the lord sheriff this morning. He has brought a sad message, Richard. Your father has made his last confession and received his Saviour. He is dead, my child. You are his heir, and you must be worthy of him. In life and in death,” said Brother Paul, “he is in the hand of God. So are we all.”

The look of thoughtful bewilderment had not changed. Richard’s toes shoved hard against the floor, and his hands gripped the edge of the bench on which he was perched.

“My father is dead?” he repeated carefully.

“Yes, Richard. Soon or late, it touches us all. Every son must one day step into his father’s place and take up his father’s duties.”

“Then I shall be the lord of Eaton now?”

Brother Paul did not make the mistake of taking this for a simple expression of self-congratulation on a personal gain, rather as an intelligent acceptance of what he himself had just said. The heir must take up the burden and the privilege his sire had laid down.

“Yes, you are the lord of Eaton, or you will be as soon as you are of fit age. You must study to get wisdom, and manage your lands and people well. Your father would expect that of you.”

Still struggling with the practicalities of his new situation, Richard probed back into his memory for a clear vision of this father who was now challenging him to be worthy. In his rare recent visits home at Christmas and Easter he had been admitted on arrival and departure to a sick-room that smelled of herbs and premature aging, and allowed to kiss a grey, austere face and listen to a deep voice, indifferent with weakness, calling him son and exhorting him to study and be virtuous. But there was little more, and even the face had grown dim in his memory. Of what he did remember he went in awe.

They had never been close enough for anything more intimate.

“You loved your father, and did your best to please him, did you not, Richard?” Brother Paul prompted gently. “You must still do what is pleasing to him. And you may say prayers for his soul, which will be a comfort also to you.”

“Shall I have to go home now?” asked Richard, whose mind was on the need for information rather than comfort.

“To your father’s burial, certainly. But not to remain there, not yet. It was your father’s wish that you should learn to read and write, and be properly instructed in figures. And you’re young yet, your steward will take good care of your manor until you come to manhood.”

“My grandmother,” said Richard by way of explanation, “sees no sense in my learning my letters. She was angry when my father sent me here. She says a lettered clerk is all any manor needs, and books are no fit employment for a nobleman.”

“Surely she will comply with your father’s wishes. All the more is that a sacred trust, now that he is dead.”

Richard jutted a doubtful lip. “But my grandmother has other plans for me. She wants to marry me to our neighbour’s daughter, because Hiltrude has no brother, and will be the heiress to both Leighton and Wroxeter. Grandmother will want that more than ever now,” said Richard simply, and looked up ingenuously into Brother Paul’s slightly startled face.

It took a few moments to assimilate this news, and relate it to the boy’s entry into the abbey school when he was barely five years old. The manors of Leighton and Wroxeter lay one on either side of Eaton, and might well be a tempting prospect, but plainly Richard Ludel had not concurred in his mother’s ambitious plans for her grandson, since he had taken steps to place the boy out of the lady’s reach, and a year later had made Abbot Radulfus Richard’s guardian, should he himself have to relinquish the charge too soon. Father Abbot had better know what’s in the wind, thought Brother Paul. For of such a misuse of his ward, thus almost in infancy, he would certainly not approve.

Very warily he said, fronting the boy’s unwavering stare with a grave face: “Your father said nothing of what his plans for you might be, some day when you are fully grown. Such matters must wait their proper time, and that is not yet. You need not trouble your head about any such match for years yet. You are in Father Abbot’s charge, and he will do what is best for you.” And he added cautiously, giving way to natural human curiosity: “Do you know this child—this neighbour’s daughter?”

“She isn’t a child,” Richard stated scornfully. “She’s quite old. She was betrothed once, but her bridegroom died. My grandmother was pleased, because after waiting some years for him, Hiltrude wouldn’t have many suitors, not being even pretty, so she would be left for me.”

Brother Paul’s blood chilled at the implications. ‘Quite old’ probably meant no more than a few years past twenty, but even that was an unacceptable difference. Such marriages, of course, were a commonplace, where there was property and land to be won, but they were certainly not to be encouraged. Abbot Radulfus had long had qualms of conscience about accepting infants committed by their fathers to the cloister, and had resolved to admit no more boys until they were of an age to make the choice for themselves. He would certainly look no more favourably on committing a child to the equally grave and binding discipline of matrimony.

“Well, you may put all such matters out of your mind,” he said very firmly. “Your only concern now and for some years to come must be with your lessons and the pastimes proper to your years. Now you may go back to your fellows, if you wish, or stay here quietly for a while, as you prefer.”

Richard slid out of the supporting arm readily and stood up sturdily from the bench, willing to face the world and his curious fellow pupils at once, and seeing no reason why he should shun the meeting even for a moment. He had yet to comprehend the thing that had happened to him. The fact he could grasp, the implications were slow to reach beyond his intelligence into his heart.

“If there is anything more you wish to ask,” said Brother Paul, eyeing him anxiously, “or if you feel the need for comfort or counsel, come back to me, and we’ll go to Father Abbot. He is wiser than I, and abler to help you through this time.”

So he might be, but a boy in school was hardly likely to submit himself voluntarily to an interview with so awesome a personage. Richard’s solemn face had settled into the brooding frown of one making his way through unfamiliar and thorny paths. He made his parting reverence and went out briskly enough, and Brother Paul, having watched him out of sight from the window, and seen no signs of imminent distress, went to report to the abbot what Dame Dionisia Ludel was said to be planning for her grandson.

Radulfus heard him out with alert attention and a thoughtful frown. To unite Eaton with both its neighbouring manors was an understandable ambition. The resulting property would be a power in the shire, and no doubt the formidable lady considered herself more than capable of ruling it, over the heads of bride, bride’s father and infant bridegroom. Land greed was a strong driving force, and children were possessions expendable for so desirable a profit.

“But we trouble needlessly,” said Radulfus, shaking the matter resolutely from his shoulders. “The boy is in my care, and here he stays. Whatever she may intend, she will not be able to touch him. We can forget the matter. She is no threat to Richard or to us.”

Wise as he might be, this was one occasion when Abbot Radulfus was to find his predictions going far astray.

Chapter Two

« ^ »

They were all at chapter, on the twentieth morning of October, when the steward of the manor of Eaton presented himself, requesting a hearing with a message from his mistress.

John of Longwood was a burly, bearded man of fifty, with a balding crown and neat, deliberate movements. He made a respectful obeisance to the abbot, and delivered his errand bluntly and practically, as one performing a duty but without committing himself to approval or disapproval.

“My lord, Dame Dionisia Ludel sends me to you with her devout greetings, and asks that you will send back to her, in my charge, her grandson Richard, to take up his rightful place as lord of the manor of Eaton in his father’s room.”

Abbot Radulfus leaned back in his stall and regarded the messenger with an impassive face. “Certainly Richard shall attend his father’s funeral. When is that to be?”

“Tomorrow, my lord, before High Mass. But that is not my mistress’s meaning. She wants the young lord to leave his studies here and come to take his proper place as lord of Eaton. I’m to say that Dame Dionisia feels herself to be the proper person to have charge of him, now that he’s come into his inheritance, as she’s assured he shall do, without delay or hindrance. I have orders to bring him back with me.”

“I fear, master steward,” said the abbot with deliberation, “that you may not be able to carry out your orders. Richard Ludel committed the care of his son to me, should he himself die before the boy came to manhood. It was his wish that his son should be properly educated, the better to manage his estate when he came to inherit. I intend to fulfil what I undertook. Richard remains in my care until he comes of age and takes control of his own affairs. Until which time, I am sure, you will serve him as well as you have served his father, and keep his lands in good heart.”

“Very surely I will, my lord,” said John of Longwood, with more warmth than he had shown in delivering his mistress’s message. “My lord Richard has left all to me since Lincoln, and he never had cause to find fault, and neither shall his son ever be the loser by me. On that you may rely.”

“So I do. And therefore we may continue here with easy minds, and take as good care of Richard’s schooling and wellbeing as you do of his estates.”

“And what reply am I to take back to Dame Dionisia?” asked John, without any apparent disappointment or reluctance.

“Say to your lady that I greet her reverently in Christ, and that Richard shall come tomorrow, as is due, properly escorted,” said the abbot with a slightly admonitory emphasis, “but that I have his father’s sacred charge to hold him in wardship myself until he is a man, and by his father’s wishes I shall abide.”

“I will say so, my lord,” said John with a straight, wide stare and a deep reverence, and walked jauntily out of the chapterhouse.

Brother Cadfael and Brother Edmund the infirmarer emerged into the great court just in time to see the messenger from Eaton mount his stocky Welsh cob at the gatehouse and ride unhurriedly out into the Foregate.

“There goes a man, unless I’m much mistaken,” remarked Brother Cadfael sagely, “no way seriously displeased at taking back a flat refusal. Nor at all afraid of delivering it. A man might almost think he’ll savour the moment.”

“He is not dependent on the dame’s good will,” said Brother Edmund. “Only the sheriff as overlord can threaten his tenure, until the boy is his own master, and John knows his worth. And so does she, for that matter, having a shrewd head and proper appreciation of good management. For the sake of peace he’ll do her bidding, he does not have to relish the task, only to keep his mouth shut.”

And John of Longwood was a man of few words at the best of times, it would probably be no hardship to him to contain his dissent and keep a wooden face.

“But this will not be the end of it,” Cadfael warned. “If she has a greedy eye on Wroxeter and Leighton she’ll not give up so easily, and the boy’s her only means of getting her hands on them. We shall yet hear more from Dame Dionisia Ludel.”

Abbot Radulfus had taken the warning seriously. Young Richard was accompanied to Eaton by Brother Paul, Brother Anselm and Brother Cadfael, a bodyguard stout enough to fend off even an attempt at abduction by force, which was unlikely in the extreme. Far more probable that the lady would try using the fond persuasions of affection and the ties of blood to work upon the boy with tears and blandishments, and turn him into a homesick ally in the enemy camp. If she had any such ideas, Cadfael reflected, studying Richard’s face along the way, she was under-estimating the innocent shrewdness of children. The boy was quite capable of weighing up his own interests and making the most of what advantages he had. He was happy enough at school, he had companions of his own age, he would not lightly abandon a known and pleasant life for one as yet strange, devoid of brothers, and threatened with a bride already old in his eyes. No doubt he valued and longed for his inheritance, but his it was, and safe, and whether he stayed at school or came home, he would not yet be allowed to rule it as he wished. No, it would take more than grandmotherly tears and embraces to secure Richard’s alliance, especially tears and embraces from a source never before known to be demonstratively fond.

It was a matter of seven miles or more from the abbey to the manor of Eaton, and for the honour and dignity of the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in attendance on so solemn an occasion, they were sent forth mounted. Dame Dionisia had sent a groom with a stout Welsh pony for her grandson, perhaps as a first move in a campaign to enlist him as her ally, and the gift had been received with greedy pleasure, but it would not therefore necessarily produce a return in kind. A gift is a gift, and children are shrewd enough, and have a sharp enough perception of the motives of their elders, to take what is offered unsolicited, without the least intention of paying for it in the fashion expected of them. Richard sat his new pony proudly and happily, and in the fine, dewy autumn morning and the pleasure of being loosed from school for the day, almost forgot the sombre reason for the ride. The groom, a long-legged boy of sixteen, loped cheerfully beside him, and led the pony as they splashed through the ford at Wroxeter, where centuries back the Romans had crossed the Severn before them. Nothing remained of their sojourn now but a gaunt, broken wall standing russet against the green fields, and a scattering of stones long ago plundered by the villagers for their own building purposes. In the place of what some said had been a city and a fortress there was now a flourishing manor blessed with fat, productive land, and a prosperous church that maintained four canons.

Cadfael viewed it with some interest as they passed, for this was one of the two manors which Dame Dionisia hoped to secure to the Ludel estate by marrying off Richard to the girl Hiltrude Astley. So fine a property was certainly tempting. All this stretch of country on the northern side of the river extended before them in rich water meadows and undulating fields, rising here and there into a gentle hill, and starred with clusters of trees just melting into the first gold of their autumn foliage. The land rose on the skyline into the forested ridge of the Wrekin, a great heaving fleece of woodland that spread downhill to the Severn, and cast a great tress of its dark mane across Ludel land and into the abbey’s woods of Eyton-by-Severn. There was barely a mile between the grange of Eyton, close beside the river, and Richard Ludel’s manor house at Eaton. The very names sprang from the same root, though time had prised them apart, and the Norman passion for order and formulation had fixed and ratified the differences.

As they rode nearer, their view of the long hog-back of forest changed and foreshortened. By the time they reached the manor they were viewing it from its end, and the hill had grown into an abrupt mountain, with a few sheer faces of rock just breaking the dark fell of the trees near the summit. The village sat serenely in the meadows, just short of the foothills, the manor within its long stockade raised over an undercroft, and the small church close beside it. Originally it had been a dependent chapel of the church at its neighbour Leighton, downriver by a couple of miles.

They dismounted within the stockade, and Brother Paul took Richard firmly by the hand as soon as the boy’s foot touched ground, as Dame Dionisia came sweeping down the steps from the hall to meet them, advanced with authority upon her grandson, and stooped to kiss him. Richard lifted his face somewhat warily, and submitted to the salute, but he kept fast hold of Paul’s hand. With one power bidding for his custody he knew where he stood, with the other he could not be sure of his standing.

Cadfael eyed the lady with interest, for though her reputation was known to him, he had never before been in her presence. Dionisia was tall and erect, certainly no more than fifty-five years old, and in vigorous health. She was, moreover, a handsome woman, if in a somewhat daunting fashion, with sharp, clear features and cool grey eyes. But their coolness showed one warning flash of fire as they swept over Richard’s escort, recording the strength of the enemy. The household had come out at her back, the parish priest was at her side. There would be no engagement here. Later, perhaps, when Richard Ludel was safely entombed, and she could open the house in funeral hospitality, she might make a first move. The heir could hardly be kept from his grandmother’s society on this day of all days.

The solemn rites for Richard Ludel took their appointed course. Brother Cadfael made good use of the time to survey the dead man’s household, from John of Longwood to the youngest villein herdsman. There was every indication that the place had thrived well under John’s stewardship, and his men were well content with their lot. Hugh would have good reason to let well alone. There were neighbours present, too, Fulke Astley among them, keeping a weather eye on what he himself might have to gain if the proposed match ever took place. Cadfael had seen him once or twice in Shrewsbury, a gross, self-important man in his late forties, running to fat, ponderous of movement, and surely no match for that restless, active, high-tempered woman standing grim-faced over her son’s hier. She had Richard beside her, a hand possessively rather than protectively on his shoulder. The boy’s eyes had dilated to engulf half his face, solemn as the grave that had been opened for his father, and was now about to be sealed. Distant death is one thing, its actual presence quite another. Not until this minute had Richard fully realised the finality of this deprivation and severance.

The grandmotherly hand did not leave his shoulder as the cortege of mourners wound its way back to the manor, and the funeral meats spread for them in the hall. The long, lean, aging fingers had a firm grip on the cloth of the boy’s best coat, and she guided him with her among guests and neighbours, properly but with notable emphasis making him the man of the house, and presiding figure at his father’s obsequies. That did no harm at all. Richard was fully aware of his position, and well able to resent any infringement of his privilege. Brother Paul watched with some anxiety, and whispered to Cadfael that they had best get the boy away before all the guests departed, or they might fail to get him away at all, for want of witnesses. While the priest was still present, and those few others not of the household, he could hardly be retained by force.

Cadfael had been observing those of the company not well known to him. There were two grey-habited monks from the Savigniac house of Buildwas, a few miles away down-river, to which Ludel had been a generous patron on occasion, and with them, though withdrawn modestly throughout into the background, was a personage less easily identifiable. He wore a monastic gown, rusty black and well worn at the hems, but a head of unshorn dark hair showed within his cowl, and a gleam of reflected light picked out two or three metallic gleams from his shoulder that looked like the medals of more than one pilgrimage. Perhaps a wandering religious about to settle for the cloister. Savigny had been at Buildwas now for some forty years, a foundation of Roger de Clinton, bishop of Lichfield. Good, detached observers surely, these three. Before such reverend guests no violence could be attempted.

Brother Paul approached Dionisia courteously to take a discreet leave and reclaim his charge, but the lady took the wind from his sails with a brief, steely flash of her eyes and a voice deceptively sweet: “Brother, let me plead with you to let me keep Richard overnight. He has had a tiring day and begins to be weary now. He should not leave until tomorrow.” But she did not say that she would send him back on the morrow, and her hand retained its grip on his shoulder. She had spoken loudly enough to be heard by all, a solicitous matron anxious for her young.

“Madam,” said Brother Paul, making the best of a disadvantaged position, “I was about to tell you, sadly, that we must be going. I have no authority to let Richard stay here with you, we are expected back for Vespers. I pray you pardon us.”

The lady’s smile was honey, but her eyes were sharp and cold as knives. She made one more assay, perhaps to establish her own case with those who overheard, rather than with any hope of achieving anything immediately, for she knew the occasion rendered her helpless.

“Surely Abbot Radulfus would understand my desire to have the child to myself one more day. My own flesh and blood, the only one left to me, and I have seen so little of him these last years. You leave me uncomforted if you take him from me so soon.”

“Madam,” said Brother Paul, firm but uneasy, “I grieve to withstand your wish, but I have no choice. I am bound in obedience to my abbot to bring Richard back with me before evening. Come, Richard, we must be going.”

There was an instant while she kept and tightened her hold, tempted to act even thus publicly, but she thought better of it. This was no time to put herself in the wrong, rather to recruit sympathy. She opened her hand, and Richard crept doubtfully away from her to Paul’s side.

“Tell the lord abbot,” said Dionisia, her eyes daggers, but her voice still mellow and sweet, “that I shall seek a meeting with him very soon.”

“Madam, I will tell him so,” said Brother Paul.

She was as good as her word. She rode into the abbey enclave the next day, well attended, bravely mounted, and in her impressive best, to ask audience of the abbot. She was closeted with him for almost an hour, but came forth in a cold blaze of resentment and rage, stormed across the great court like a sudden gale, scattering unoffending novices like blown leaves, and rode away again for home at a pace her staid jennet did not relish, with her grooms trailing mute and awed well in the rear.

“There goes a lady who is used to getting her own way,” remarked Brother Anselm, “but for once, I fancy, she’s met her match.”

“We have not heard the last of it, however,” said Brother Cadfael drily, watching the dust settle after her going.

“I don’t doubt her will,” agreed Anselm, “but what can she do?”

“That,” said Cadfael, not without quickening interest, “no doubt we shall see, all in good time.”

They had but two days to wait. Dame Dionisia’s man of law announced himself ceremoniously at chapter, requesting a hearing. An elderly clerk, meagre of person but brisk of bearing and irascible of feature, bustled into the chapterhouse with a bundle of parchments under his arm, and addressed the assembly with chill, reproachful dignity, in sorrow rather than in anger. He marvelled that a cleric and scholar of the abbot’s known uprightness and benevolence should deny the ties of blood, and refuse to return Richard Ludel to the custody and loving care of his only surviving close kinswoman, now left quite bereft of all her other menfolk, and anxious to help, guide and advise her grandson in his new lordship. A great wrong was being done to both grandmother and child, in the denial of their natural need and the frustration of their mutual affection. And yet once more the clerk put forth the solemn request that the wrong should be set right, and Richard Ludel sent back with him to his manor of Eaton.

Abbot Radulfus sat with a patient and unmoved face and listened to the end of this studied speech very courteously. “I thank you for your errand,” he said then mildly, “it was well done. I cannot well change the answer I gave to your lady. Richard Ludel who is dead committed the care of his son to me, by letter properly drawn and witnessed. I accepted that charge, and I cannot renounce it now. It was the father’s wish that the son should be educated here until he comes to manhood, and takes command of his own life and affairs. That I promised, and that I shall fulfil. The death of the father only makes my obligation the more sacred and binding. Tell your mistress so.”

“My lord,” said the clerk, plainly having expected no other answer, and ready with the next step in his embassage, “in changed circumstances such a private legal document need not be the only argument valid in a court of law. The king’s justices would listen no less to the plea of a matron of rank, widowed and now bereaved of her son, and fully able to provide all her grandson’s needs, besides the natural need she has of the comfort of his presence. My mistress desires to inform you that if you do not give up the boy, she intends to bring suit at law to regain him.”

“Then I can but approve her intention,” said the abbot serenely. “A judicial decision in the king’s court must be satisfying to us both, since it lifts the burden of choice from us. Tell her so, and say that I await the hearing with due submission. But until such a judgement is made, I must hold to my own sworn undertaking. I am glad,” he said with a dry and private smile, “that we are thus agreed.”

There was nothing left for the clerk to do but accept this unexpectedly pliant response at its face value, and bow himself out as gracefully as he could. A slight rustle and stir of curiosity and wonder had rippled round the chapterhouse stalls, but Abbot Radulfus suppressed it with a look, and it was not until the brothers emerged into the great court and dispersed to their work that comment and speculation could break out openly.

“Was he wise to encourage her?” marvelled Brother Edmund, crossing towards the infirmary with Cadfael at his side. “How if she does indeed take us to law? A judge might very well take the part of a lone lady who wants her grandchild home.”

“Be easy,” said Cadfael placidly. “It’s but an empty threat. She knows as well as any that the law is slow and costs dear, at the best of times, and this is none of the best, with the king far away and busy with more urgent matters, and half his kingdom cut off from any manner of justice at all. No, she hoped to make the lord abbot think again and yield ground for fear of long vexation. She had the wrong man. He knows she has no intention of going to law. Far more likely to take law into her own hands and try to steal the boy away. It would take slow law or swift action to snatch him back again, once she had him, and force is further out of the abbot’s reach than it is out of hers.”

“It is to be hoped,” said Brother Edmund, aghast at the suggestion, “that she has not yet used up all her persuasions, if the last resort is to be violence.”

No one could quite determine exactly how young Richard came to know every twist and turn of the contention over his future. He could not have overheard anything of what went on at chapter, nor were the novices present at the daily gatherings, and there was none among the brothers likely to gossip about the matter to the child at the centre of the conflict. Yet it was clear that Richard did know all that went on, and took perverse pleasure in it. Mischief made life more interesting, and here within the enclave he felt quite safe from any real danger, while he could enjoy being fought over.

“He watches the comings and goings from Eaton,” said Brother Paul, confiding his mild anxiety to Cadfael in the peace of the herb garden, “and is sharp enough to be very well aware what they mean. And he understood all too well what went on at his father’s funeral. I could wish him less acute, for his own sake.”

“As well he should have his wits about him,” said Cadfael comfortably. “It’s the knowing innocents that avoid the snares. And the lady’s made no move now for ten days. Maybe she’s grown resigned, and given up the struggle.” But he was by no means convinced of that. Dame Dionisia was not used to being thwarted.

“It may be so,” agreed Paul hopefully, “for I hear she’s taken in some reverend pilgrim, and refurbished the old hermitage in her woodland for his use. She wants his prayers daily for her son’s soul. Edmund was telling us about it when he brought our allowance of venison. We saw the man, Cadfael, at the funeral. He was there with the two brothers from Buildwas. He’d been lodged with them a week, they give him a very saintly report.”

Cadfael straightened up with a grunt from his bed of mint, grown wiry and thin of leaf now in late October. “The fellow who wore the scallop shell? And the medal of Saint James? Yes, I remember noticing him. So he’s settling among us, is he? And chooses a cell and a little square of garden in the woods rather than a grey habit at Buildwas! I never was drawn to the solitary life myself, but I’ve known those who can think and pray the better that way. It’s a long time since that cell was lived in.”

He knew the place, though he seldom passed that way, the abbey’s forester having excellent health, and very little need of herbal remedies. The hermitage, disused now for many years, lay in a thickly wooded dell, a stone-built hut with a square of ground once fenced and cultivated, now overgrown and wild. Here the belt of forest embraced both Eaton ground and the abbey’s woodland of Eyton, and the hermitage occupied a spot where the Ludel border jutted into neighbour territory, close to the forester’s cherished coppice. “He’ll be quiet enough there,” said Cadfael, “if he means to stay. By what name are we to know him?”

“They call him Cuthred. A neighbour saint is a fine thing to have, and it seems they’re already beginning to bring their troubles to him to sort. It may be,” ventured Brother Paul optimistically, “that it’s he who has tamed the lady. He must have a strong influence over her, or she’d never have entreated him to stay. And there’s been no move from her these ten days. It may be we’re all in his debt.”

And indeed, as the soft October days slid away tranquilly one after another, in dim, misty dawns, noondays bright but veiled, and moist green twilights magically still, it seemed that there was to be no further combat over young Richard, that Dame Dionisia had thought better of the threat of law, and resigned herself to submission. She even sent, by her parish priest, a gift of money to pay for Masses in the Lady Chapel for her son’s soul, a gesture which could only be interpreted as a move towards reconciliation. So, at least, Brother Francis, the new custodian of Saint Mary’s altar, considered it.

“Father Andrew tells me,” he reported after the visitor had departed, “that since the Savigniac brothers from Buildwas brought this Cuthred into her house she sets great store by his counsel, and rules herself by his advice and example. The man has won a great report for holiness already. They say he’s taken strict vows in the old way, and never leaves his cell and garden now. But he never refuses help or prayers to any who ask. Father Andrew thinks very highly of him. The anchorite way is not our way,” said Brother Francis with great earnestness, “but it’s no bad thing to have such a holy man living so close, on a neighbouring manor. It cannot but bring a blessing.”

So thought all the countryside, for the possession of so devout a hermit brought great lustre to the manor of Eaton, and the one criticism that ever came to Cadfael’s ears concerning Cuthred was that he was too modest, and at first deprecated, and later forbade, the too lavish sounding of his praises abroad. No matter what minor prodigy he brought about, averting by his prayers a threatened cattle murrain, after one of Dionisia’s herd sickened, sending out his boy to give warning of a coming storm, which by favour of his intercessions passed off without damage, whatever the act of grace, he would not allow any of the merit for it to be ascribed to him, and grew stern and awesomely angry if the attempt was made, threatening the wrath of God on any who disobeyed his ban. Within a month of his coming his discipline counted for more in the manor of Eaton than did either Dionisia’s or Father Andrew’s, and his fame, banned from being spread openly, went about by neighbourly whispers, like a prized secret to be exulted in privately but hidden from the world.

Chapter Three

« ^ »

Eilmund, the forester of Eyton, came now and then to chapter at the abbey to report on work done, or on any difficulties he might have encountered, and extra help he might need. It was not often he had anything but placid progress to report, but in the second week of November he came one morning with a puzzled frown fixed on his brow, and a glum face. It seemed that a curious blight of misfortune had settled upon his woodland.

Eilmund was a thickset, dark, shaggy man past forty, very powerful of body, and sharp enough of mind. He stood squarely in the midst at chapter, solidly braced on his sturdy legs like a wrestler confronting his opponent, and made few words of what he had to tell.

“My lord abbot, there are things happening in my charge that I cannot fathom. A week ago, in that great rainstorm we had, the brook that runs between our coppice and the open forest washed down some loose bushes, and built up such a dam that it overflowed and changed its course, and flooded my newest planting. And no sooner had I cleared the block than I found the flood-water had undercut part of the bank of my ditch, a small way upstream, and the fall of soil had bridged the ditch. By the time I found it the deer had got into the coppice. They’ve eaten off all the young growth from the plot we cropped two years ago. I doubt some of the trees may die, and all will be held back a couple more years at least before they get their growth. It spoils my planning,” complained Eilmund, outraged for the ruin of his cycle of culling, “besides the present loss.”

Cadfael knew the place, Eilmund’s pride, the farmed part of Eyton forest, as neat and well-ditched a coppice as any in the shire, where the regular cutting of six- or seven-year-old wood let in the light at every cropping, so that the wealth of ground cover and wild flowers was always rich and varied. Some trees, like ash, spring anew from the stool of the original trunk, just below the cut. Some, like elm or aspen, from below the ground all round the stump. Some of the stools in Eilmund’s care, several times cropped afresh, had grown into groves of their own, their open centres two good paces across. No grave natural disaster had ever before upset his pride in his skills. No wonder he was so deeply aggrieved. And the loss to the abbey was itself serious, for coppice wood for fuel, charcoal, hafts of tools, carpentry and all manner of uses brought in good income.

“Nor is that the end of it,” went on Eilmund grimly, “for yesterday when I made my rounds on the other side of the copse, where the ditch is dry but deep enough and the bank steep, what should have happened but the sheep from Eaton had broke out of their field by a loose pale, just where Eaton ground touches ours, and sheep, as you know, my lord, make nothing of a bank that will keep out deer, and there’s nothing they like better for grazing than the first tender seedlings of ash. They’ve made short work of much of the new growth before I could get them out. And neither I nor John of Longwood can tell how they got through so narrow a gap, but you know if the matron ewe takes a notion into her head there’s no stopping her, and the others will follow. It seems to me my forest is bewitched.”

“Far more like,” suggested Prior Robert, looking severely down his long nose, “that there has been plain human negligence, either on your part or your neighbour’s.”

“Father Prior,” said Eilmund, with the bluntness of one who knows his value, and knows that it is equally well known to the only superior he needs to satisfy here, “in all my years in the abbey’s service there has never yet been complaint of my work. I have made my rounds daily, yes, and often nightly, too, but I cannot command the rain not to fall, nor can I be everywhere at once. Such a spate of misfortunes in so short a time I’ve never before known. Nor can I blame John of Longwood, who has always been as good a neighbour as any man needs.”

“That is the truth,” said Abbot Radulfus with authority. “We have had cause to be thankful for his good will, and do not doubt it now. Nor do I question your skill and devotion. There has never been need before, and I see none now. Reverses are sent to us so that we may overcome them, and no man can presume to escape such testings for ever. The loss can be borne. Do what you can, Master Eilmund, and if you should feel in need of another helper, you shall have one.”

Eilmund, who had always been equal to his tasks and was proud of his self-sufficiency, said thanks for that somewhat grudgingly, but declined the offer for the time being, and promised to send word if anything further should happen to change his mind. And off he went as briskly as he had come, back to his cottage in the forest, his daughter, and his grievance against fate, since he could not honestly find a human agency to blame.

By some mysterious means young Richard got to know of the unusual purport of Eilmund’s visit, and anything to do with his grandmother, and all those people who had their labour and living about the manor of Eaton, was of absorbing interest to him. However wise and watchful his guardian the abbot might be, however competent his steward, it behoved him to keep an eye on his estate for himself. If there was mischief afoot near Eaton, he itched to know the reason, and he was far more likely than was the Abbot Radulfus to attribute mischief, however incomprehensibly procured, to the perversity or malice of humanity, having so often found himself arraigned as the half-innocent agent of misrule.

If the sheep of Eaton had made their way into the ash coppice of Eyton not by some obscure act of God, but because someone had opened the way for them and started them towards their welcome feast, then Richard wanted to know who, and why. They were, after all, his sheep.

Accordingly, he kept a sharp eye open for any new comings and goings about the hour of chapter each morning, and was curious when he observed, two days after Eilmund’s visit, the arrival at the gatehouse of a young man he had seen but once before, who asked very civilly for permission to appear at chapter with an embassage from his master, Cuthred. He was early, and had to wait, which he did serenely. That suited Richard very well, for he could not play truant from school, but by the time the chapter ended he would be at liberty, and could ambush the visitor and satisfy his curiosity.

Every hermit worth his salt, having taken vows of stability which enjoin him to remain thenceforth within his own cell and closed garden, and having gifts of foresight and a sacred duty to use them for his neighbours’ good, must have a resident boy to run his errands and deliver his admonitions and reproofs. Cuthred’s boy, it seemed, had arrived already in his service, accompanying him in his recent wanderings in search of the place of retirement appointed for him by God. He came into the chapterhouse of the abbey with demure assurance, and stood to be examined by all the curious brothers, not at all discomposed by such an assault of bright, inquisitive eyes.

From the retired stall which he preferred, Cadfael studied the messenger with interest. A more unlikely servitor for an anchorite and popular saint, in the old Celtic sense that took no account of canonisation, he could not well have imagined, though he could not have said on the instant where the incongruity lay. A young fellow of about twenty years, in a rough tunic and hose of brown cloth, patched and faded—nothing exceptional there. He was built on the same light, wiry lines as Hugh Beringar, but stood a hand’s breadth taller, and he was lean and brown and graceful as a fawn, managing his long limbs with the same angular, animal beauty. Even his composed stillness held implications of sudden, fierce movement, like a wild creature motionless in ambush. His running would be swift and silent, his leaping long and lofty as that of a hare. And his face had a similar slightly ominous composure and awareness, under a thick, close-fitted cap of waving hair the colour of copper beeches. A long oval of a face, tall-browed, with a long, straight nose flared at the nostrils, again like a wild thing sensitive to every scent the breeze brought him, a supple, crooked mouth that almost smiled even in repose, as if in secret and slightly disturbing amusement, and long amber eyes that tilted upwards at the outer corners, under oblique copper brows. The burning glow of those eyes he shaded, but did not dim or conceal, beneath round-arched lids and copper lashes long and rich as a woman’s.

What was an antique saint doing with an unnerving fairy thing in his employ?

But the boy, having waited a long moment to be inspected thoroughly, lifted his eyelids and showed to Abott Radulfus a face of candid and childlike innocence, and made him a very charming and respectful reverence.

He would not speak until he was spoken to, but waited to be questioned.

“You come from the hermit of Eyton?” asked the abbot mildly, studying the young, calm, almost smiling face attentively.

“Yes, my lord. The holy Cuthred sends a message by me.” His voice was quiet and clear, pitched a little high, so that it rang bell-like under the vault.

“What is your name?” Radulfus questioned.

“Hyacinth, my lord.”

“I have known a bishop of that name,” said the abbot, and briefly smiled, for the sleek brown creature before him had certainly nothing of the bishop about him. “Were you named for him?”

“No, my lord. I have never heard of him. I was told, once, that there was a youth of that name in an old story, and two gods fell out over him, and the loser killed him. They say flowers grew from his blood. It was a priest who told me,” said the boy innocently, and slanted a sudden brief smile round the chapterhouse, well aware of the slight stir of disquiet he had aroused in these cloistered breasts, though the abbot continued unruffled.

Into that old story, thought Cadfael, studying him with pleasure and interest, you, my lad, fit far better than into the ambit of bishops, and well you know it. Or hermits either, for that matter. Now where in the world did he discover you, and how did he tame you?

“May I speak my message?” asked the boy ingenuously, golden eyes wide and clear and fixed upon the abbot.

“You have learned it by heart?” enquired Radulfus, smiling.

“I must, my lord. There must be no word out of place.”

“A very faithful messenger! Yes, you may speak.”

“I must be my master’s voice, not my own,” said the boy by way of introduction, and forthwith sank his voice several tones below its normal ringing lightness, in a startling piece of mimicry that made Cadfael, at least, look at him more warily and searchingly than ever. “I have heard with much distress,” said the proxy hermit gravely, “both from the steward of Eaton and the forester of Eyton, of the misfortunes suddenly troubling the woodland. I have prayed and meditated, and greatly dread that these are but the warnings of worse to come, unless some false balance or jarring discord between right and wrong can be amended. I know of no such offence hanging over us, unless it be the denial of right to Dame Dionisia Ludel, in witholding her grandchild from her. The father’s wish must indeed be regarded, but the grief of the widow for her young cannot be put away out of mind, and she bereaved and alone. I pray you, my lord abbot, for the love of God, consider whether what you do is well done, for I feel the shadow of evil heavy over us all.”

All this the surprising young man delivered in the sombre and weighty voice which was not his own, and undeniably the trick was impressive, and caused some of the more superstitious young brothers to shift and gape and mutter in awed concern. And having ended his recital, the messenger again raised his amber eyes and smiled, as if the purport of his embassage concerned him not at all.

Abbot Radulfus sat in silence for a long moment, closely eyeing the young man, who gazed back at him unwinking and serene, satisfied at having completed his errand.

“Your master’s own words?”

“Every one, my lord, just as he taught them to me.”

“And he did not commission you to argue further in the matter on his behalf? You do not want to add anything?”

The eyes opened still wider in astonishment. “I, my lord? How could I? I only run his errands.”

Prior Robert said superciliously into the abbot’s ear: “It is not unknown for an anchorite to give shelter and employment to a simpleton. It is an act of charity. This is clearly one such.” His voice was low, but not low enough to escape ears as sharp, and almost as pointed, as those of a fox, for the boy Hyacinth gleamed, and flashed a crooked smile. Cadfael, who had also caught the drift of this comment, doubted very much whether the abbot would agree with it. There seemed to him to be a very sharp intelligence behind the brown faun’s face, even if it suited him to play the fool with it.

“Well,” said Radulfus, “you may go back to your master, Hyacinth, and carry him my thanks for his concern and care, and for his prayers, which I hope he will continue on behalf of us all. Say that I have considered and do consider every side of Dame Dionisia’s complaint against me, and have done and will continue to do what I see to be right. And for the natural misfortunes that give him so much anxiety, mere men cannot control or command them, though faith may overcome them. What we cannot change we must abide. That is all.”

Without another word the boy made him a deep and graceful obeisance, turned, and walked without haste from the chapterhouse, lean and light-footed, and moving with a cat’s almost insolent elegance.

In the great court, almost empty at this hour when all the brothers were at chapter, the visitor was in no hurry to set out back to his master, but lingered to look about him curiously, from the abbot’s lodging in its small rose garden to the guest halls and the infirmary, and so round the circle of buildings to the gatehouse and the long expanse of the south range of the cloister. Richard, who had been lying in wait for him for some minutes, emerged confidently from the arched southern doorway, and advanced into the stranger’s path.

Since the intent was clearly to halt him, Hyacinth obligingly halted, looking down with interest at the solemn, freckled face that studied him just as ardently. “Good morrow, young sir!” he said civilly. “And what might you want with me?”

“I know who you are,” said Richard. “You are the serving-man the hermit brought with him. I heard you say you came with a message from him. Was it about me?”

“That I might better answer,” said Hyacinth reasonably, “if I knew who your lordship might be, and why my master should be concerning himself with such small fry.”

“I am not small fry,” said Richard with dignity. “I am Richard Ludel, the lord of Eaton, and your master’s hermitage is on my land. And you know very well who I am, for you were there among the servants at my father’s funeral. And if you did bring some message that concerns me, I think I have a right to know about it. That’s only fair.” And Richard jutted his small, square chin and stood his ground with bare feet spread apart, challenging justice with unblinking blue-green eyes.

For a long moment Hyacinth returned his gaze with a bright, speculative stare. Then he said in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone, as man to man and quite without mockery: “That’s a true word, and I’m with you, Richard. Now, where can we two talk at ease?”

The middle of the great court was, perhaps, a little too conspicuous for lengthy confidences, and Richard was sufficiently taken with the unmistakably secular stranger to find him a pleasing novelty among these monastic surroundings, and meant to get to know all about him now that he had the opportunity. Moreover, very shortly chapter would be ending, and it would not do to invite Prior Robert’s too close attention in such circumstances, or court Brother Jerome’s busybody interference. With hasty confidence he caught Hyacinth by the hand, and towed him away up the court to the retired wicket that led through the enclave to the mill. There on the grass above the pool they were private, with the wall at their backs and the thick, springy turf under them, and the midday sun still faintly warm on them through the diaphanous veil of haze.

“Now!” said Richard, getting down sternly to the matter in hand. “I need to have a friend who’ll tell me truth, there are so many people ordering my life for me, and can’t agree about it, and how can I take care of myself and be ready for them if there’s no one to warn me what’s in their minds? If you’ll be on my side I shall know how to deal. Will you?”

Hyacinth leaned his back comfortably against the abbey wall, stretched out before him shapely, sinewy legs, and half-closed his sunlit eyes. “I tell you what, Richard, as you can best deal if you know all that’s afoot, so can I be most helpful to you if I know the why and wherefore of it. Now I know the end of this story thus far, and you know the beginning. How if we put the two together, and see what’s to be made of them?”

Richard clapped his hands. “Agreed! So first tell me what was the message you brought from Cuthred today!”

Word for word as he had delivered it in chapter, but without the mimicry, Hyacinth told him.

“I knew it!” said the child, thumping a small fist into the thick grass. “I knew it must be some way about me. So my grandmother has cozened or persuaded even her holy man into arguing her cause for her. I heard about these things that have been happening in the coppice, but such things do happen now and then, who can prevent? You’ll need to warn your master not to be over-persuaded, even if she has made herself his patroness. Tell him the whole tale, for she won’t.”

“So I will,” agreed Hyacinth heartily, “when I know it myself.”

“No one has told you why she wants me home? Not a word from your master?”

“Lad, I just run his errands, he doesn’t confide in me.” And it seemed that the unquestioning servitor was in no hurry about returning from this errand, for he settled his back more easily against the mosses of the wall, and crossed his slim ankles. Richard wriggled a little nearer, and Hyacinth shifted good-naturedly to accommodate the sharp young bones that leaned into his side.

“She wants to marry me off,” said Richard, “to get hold of the manors either side of mine. And not even to a proper bride. Hikrude is old at least twenty-two.”

“A venerable age,” agreed Hyacinth gravely.

“But even if she was young and pretty I don’t want her. I don’t want any woman. I don’t like women. I don’t see any need for them.”

“You’re in the right place to escape them, then,” suggested Hyacinth helpfully, and under his long copper lashes his amber eyes flashed a gleam of laughter. “Become a novice, and be done with the world, you’ll be safe enough here.”

“No, that’s no sport, neither. Listen, I’ll tell you all about it.” And the tale of his threatened marriage, and his grandmother’s plans to enlarge her little palatine came tripping volubly from his tongue. “So will you keep an eye open for me, and let me know what I must be ware of? I need someone who’ll be honest with me, and not keep everything from me, as if I were still a child.”

“I will!” promised Hyacinth contentedly, smiling. “I’ll be your lordship’s liege man in the camp at Eaton, and be eyes and ears for you.”

“And make plain my side of it to Cuthred? I shouldn’t like him to think evil of Father Abbot; he’s only doing what my father wanted for me. And you haven’t told me your name. I must have a name for you.”

“My name is Hyacinth. I’m told there was a bishop so named, but I’m none. Your secrets are safer with a sinner than with a saint, and I’m closer than the confessional, never fear me.”

They had somehow become so content and familiar with each other that only the timely reminder of Richard’s stomach, nudging him that it was time for his dinner, finally roused them to separate. Richard trotted beside his new friend along the path that skirted the enclave wall as far as the Foregate, and there parted from him, and watched the light, erect figure as it swung away along the highroad, before he turned and went dancing gleefully back to the wicket in the enclave wall.

Hyacinth covered the first miles of his return journey at a springy, long-stepping lope, less out of any sense of haste or duty than for pure pleasure in the ease of his own gait, and the power and precision of his body. He crossed the river by the bridge at Attingham, waded the watery meadows of its tributary the Tern, and turned south from Wroxeter towards Eyton. When he came into the fringes of the forest land he slowed to a loitering walk, reluctant to arrive when the way was so pleasant. He had to cross abbey land to reach the hermitage which lay in the narrow, thrusting finger of Ludel land probing into its neighbour woods. He went merrily whistling along the track that skirted the brook, close round the northern rim of Eilmund’s coppice. The bank that rose beyond, protecting the farmed woodland, was high and steep, but well kept and well turfed, never before had it subsided at any point, nor was the brook so large or rapid that it should have undercut the seasoned slope. But so it had, the raw soil showed in a steep dark scar well before he reached the place. He eyed it as he approached, gnawing a thoughtful lip, and then as suddenly shrugged and laughed. “The more mischief the more sport!” he said half-aloud, and passed on to where the bank had been deeply undercut.

He was still some yards back from the worst, when he heard a muted cry that seemed to come from within the earth, and then an indrawn howl of struggle and pain, and a volley of muffled curses. Startled but quick in reaction, he broke into a leaping run, and pulled up as abruptly on the edge of the ditch, no more than placidly filled now with the still muddied stream, but visibly rising. On the other side of the water there had been a fresh fall, and a solitary old willow, its roots partially stripped by the first slip, had heeled over and fallen athwart the brook. Its branches heaved and rustled with the struggles of someone pinned beneath, half in, half out of the water. An arm groped for a hold through the leaves, heaving to shift the incubus, and the effort fetched a great groan. Through the threshing leaves Hyacinth caught a glimpse of Eilmund’s soiled and contorted face.

“Hold still! he shouted. “I’m coming down!”

And down he went, thigh-deep, weaving under the first boughs to get his back beneath their weight and try to lift them enough for the imprisoned forester to drag himself clear. Eilmund, groaning and gasping, doubled both fists grimly into the soil at his back and hauled himself partially free of the bough that held him by the legs. The effort cost him a half-swallowed scream of pain.

“You’re hurt!” Hyacinth took him under the armpits with both hands, arching his supple back strongly beneath the thickest bough, and the tree rocked ponderously. “Now! Heave!”

Eilmund braced himself yet again, Hyacinth hauled with him, fresh slithers of soil rolled down on them both, but the willow shifted and rolled over with a splash, and the forester lay in the raw earth, gasping, his feet just washed by the rim of the brook. Hyacinth, muddy and streaked with green, went on his knees beside him.

“I’ll need to go for help, I can’t get you from here alone. And you’ll not be going on your own two feet for a while. Can you rest so, till I fetch John of Longwood’s men up from the fields? We’ll need more than one, and a hurdle or a shutter to carry you. Is there worse than I can see?” But what he could see was enough, and his brown face was shaken and appalled under the mud stains.

“My leg’s broke.” Eilmund let his great shoulders sink cautiously back into the soft earth, and drew long, deep breaths. “Main lucky for me you came this way, I was pinned fast, and the brook’s building again. I was trying to shore up the bank. Lad,” he said, and grinned ruefully round a groan, “there’s more strength in those shoulders of yours than anyone would think to look at you.”

“Can you bide like that for a little while?” Hyacinth looked up anxiously at the bank above, but only small clods shifted and slid harmlessly, and the rim of impacted turf, herbage and roots at the top looked secure enough. I’ll run. I’ll not be long.”

And run he did, fast and straight for the Eaton fields, and hailed the first Eaton men he sighted. They came in haste, with a hurdle borrowed from the sheep fold, and between them with care and with some suppressed and understandable cursing from the victim, lifted Eilmund on to it, and bore him the half-mile to his forest cottage. Mindful that the man had a daughter at home, Hyacinth took it upon himself to run on before to give her warning and reassurance, and time to prepare the injured man’s couch.

The cottage lay in a cleared assart in the forest, with a neat garden about it, and when Hyacinth reached it the door was standing open, and within the house a girl was singing softly to herself as she worked. Strangely, having run his fastest to get to her, Hyacinth seemed almost reluctant to knock at the door, or enter without knocking, and while he was hesitating on the doorstone her singing ceased, and she came out to see whose fleet footsteps had stirred the small stones of the pathway.

She was small but sturdy, and very trimly made, with a straight blue gaze, the fresh colouring of a wild rose, and smoothly-braided hair of a light brown sheen like the grain of polished oak, and she looked him over with a candid curiosity and friendliness that for once silenced his ready silver tongue. It was she who had to speak first, for all the urgency of his errand.

“You’re looking for my father? He’s away to the coppice, you’ll find him where the bank slid.” And the blue eyes quickened with interest and approval, liking what they saw. “You’re the boy who came with the old dame’s hermit, aren’t you? I saw you working in his garden.”

Hyacinth owned to it, and recalled with a lurch of the heart what he had to tell. “I am, mistress, and my name’s Hyacinth. Your father’s on his way back to you now, sorry I am to say it, after a mishap that will keep him to the house for a while, I fear. I came to let you know before they bring him. Oh, never fret, he’s live and sound, he’ll be his own man again, give him time. But his leg’s broken. There was another slip, it brought down a tree on him in the ditch. He’ll mend, though, no question.”

The quick alarm and blanching of her face had brought no outcry. She took in what he said, shook herself abruptly, and went to work at once setting wide the inner and the outer doors to open the way for the hurdle and its burden, and making ready the couch on which to lay him, and from that to setting on a pot of water at the fire. And as she went she talked to Hyacinth over her shoulder, very practically and calmly.

“Not the first time he’s come by injuries, but never a broken leg before. A tree came down, you say? That old willow. I knew it leaned, but I never thought it could fall. It was you found him? And fetched help for him?” The blue eyes looked round and smiled on him.

“Some of the Eaton men were close, clearing a drainage ditch. They’re carrying him in.” They were approaching the door by then, coming as fast as they could. She went out to meet them, with Hyacinth at her elbow. It seemed that he had something more, something different to say to her, and for the moment had lost his opportunity, for he hovered silently but purposefully on the edge of the scurry of activity, as Eilmund was carried into the house and laid on the couch, and stripped of his wet boots and hose, very carefully but to a muffled accompaniment of groans and curses. His left leg was misshapen below the knee, but not so grossly that the bone had torn through the flesh.

“Above an hour lying there in the brook,” he got out, between gritting his teeth on the pain as they handled him, “and if it hadn’t been for this young fellow I should have been there yet, for I couldn’t shift the weight, and there was no one within call. God’s truth, there’s more muscle in the lad than you’d believe. You should have seen him heft that tree off me.”

Very strangely, Hyacinth’s spare, smooth cheeks flushed red beneath their dark gold sheen. It was a face certainly not given to blushing, but it had not lost the ability. He said with some constraint: “Is there anything more I could be doing for you? I would, gladly! You’ll be needing a skilled hand to set that bone. I’m no use there, but make use of me if you need an errand run. That’s my calling, that I can do.”

The girl turned for an instant from the bed, her blue eyes wide and shining on his face. “Why, so you can, if you’ll be so good and add to our debt. Will you send to the abbey, and ask for Brother Cadfael to come?”

“I will well!” said Hyacinth, as heartily as if she had made him a most acceptable gift. But as she turned back from him he hesitated, and caught her by the sleeve for an instant, and breathed into her ear urgently: “I must talk to you—alone, later, when he’s cared for and resting easy.” And before she could say yes or no, though her eyes certainly were not refusing him, he was off and away through the trees, on the long run back to Shrewsbury.

Chapter Four

« ^ »

Hugh came looking for Brother Cadfael in mid-afternoon, with the first glimmers of news that had found their way out of Oxford since the siege began.

“Robert of Gloucester is back in England,” he said. “I have it from an armourer who took thought in time to get out of the city. A few were lucky and took warning. He says Robert has landed at Wareham in spite of the king’s garrison, brought in all his ships safely and taken the town. Not the castle, though, not yet, but he’s settled down to siege. He got precious little out of Geoffrey, maybe a handful of knights, no more.”

“If he’s safe ashore and holds the town,” said Cadfael reasonably, “what does he want with the castle? I should have thought he’d be hotfoot for Oxford to hale his sister out of the trap.”

“He’d rather lure Stephen to come to him, and draw him off from his own siege. My man says the castle at Wareham’s none too well garrisoned, and they’ve come to a truce agreement, and sent to the king to relieve them by a fixed date, a know-all, but truly well informed, though even he doesn’t know the day appointed—or if he fails them they’ll surrender. That suits Robert. He knows it’s seldom any great feat to lure Stephen off a scent, but I fancy he’ll hold fast this time. When will he get such a chance again? Even he can’t throw it away, surely.”

“There’s no end to the follies any man can commit,” said Cadfael tolerantly. “To give him his due, most of his idiocies are generous, which is more than can be said for the lady. But I could wish this siege at Oxford might be the end of it. If he does take castle and empress and all, she’ll be safe enough of life and limb with him, it’s rather he who may be in danger. What else is new from the south?”

“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from the city, in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads out of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence, too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”

Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?”

The lord of Wallingford was the empress’s most faithful adherent arid companion, next only to the earl, her brother, and had held his castle for her, the most easterly and exposed outpost of her territory, through campaign after campaign and through good fortune and bad, indomitably loyal.

“How comes it he’s not with her in Oxford? He hardly ever leaves her side, or so they say.”

“The king moved so much faster than anyone thought for. And now he’s cut off from her. Moreover, she needs him in Wallingford, for if that’s ever lost she has nothing left but an isolated holding in the west country, and no way out towards London. She may well have sent out to him at the last moment, in so desperate a situation as she’s in now. And rumour down there says, it seems, that Bouchier was carrying treasure to him, less in coin than in jewels. It may well be so, for he needs to pay his men. Loyal for love though they may be, they still have to live and eat, and he’s beggared himself already in her service.”

“There’s been talk, this autumn,” said Cadfael, thoughtfully frowning, “that Bishop Henry of Winchester has been busy trying to lure away Brian to the king’s side. Bishop Henry has money enough to buy whoever’s for sale, but I doubt if even he could bid high enough to move FitzCount. All this time the man has shown as incorruptible. She had no need to try and outbid her enemies for Brian.”

“None. But she may well have thought, when the king’s host closed round her, to send him an earnest of the value she sets on him, while the way was still open, or might at least be attempted by a single brave man. At such a pass, it may even have seemed to her the last chance for such a word ever to pass between them.”

Cadfael thought on that, and acknowledged its truth. King Stephen would never be a threat to his cousin’s life, however bitter their rivalry had been, but if once she was made captive he would be forced to hold her in close ward for his crown’s sake. Nor was she likely ever to relinquish her claim, even in prison, and agree to terms that would lightly release her. Friends and allies thus parted might, in very truth, never see each other again.

“And a single brave man did attempt it,” reflected Cadfael soberly. “And his horse found straying, his harness awry, his saddlebags emptied, and blood on saddle and saddlecloth. So where is Renaud Bourchier? Murdered for what he carried, and buried somewhere in the woods or slung into the river?”

“What else can a man think? They have not found his body yet. Round Oxford men have other things to do this autumn besides scour the woods for a dead man. There are dead men enough to bury after the looting and burning of Oxford town,” said Hugh with dry bitterness, almost resigned to the random slaughters of this capricious civil war.

“I wonder how many within the castle knew of his errand? She would hardly blazon abroad her intent, but someone surely got wind of it.”

“So it seems, and made very ill use of what he knew.” Hugh shook himself, heaving off from his shoulders the distant evils that were out of his writ. “Thanks be to God, I am not sheriff of Oxfordshire! Our troubles here are mild enough, a little family bickering that leads to blows now and then, a bit of thieving, the customary poaching in season. Oh, and of course the bewitchment that seems to have fallen on your woodland of Eyton.” Cadfael had told him what the abbot, perhaps, had not thought important enough to tell, that Dionisia had somehow coaxed her hermit into her quarrel, and that good man had surely taken very seriously her impersonation of a grieving grandam cruelly deprived of the society of her only grandhild. “And he fears worse to come, does he? I wonder what the next news from Eyton will be?”

As it so happened the next news from Eyton was just hurrying towards them round the corner of the tall box hedge, borne by a novice despatched in haste by Prior Robert from the gatehouse. He came at a run, the skirts of his habit billowing, and pulled up with just enough breath to get out his message without waiting to be asked.

“Brother Cadfael, you’re wanted urgently. The hermit’s boy’s come back to say you’re needed at Eilmund’s assart, and Father Abbot says take a horse and go quickly, and bring him back word how the forester does. There’s been another landslip, and a tree came down on him. His leg’s broken.”

They offered Hyacinth rest and a good meal for his trouble, but he would not stay. As long as he could hold the pace he clung by Cadfael’s stirrup leather and ran with him, and even when he was forced to slacken and let Cadfael ride on before at his best speed, the youth trotted doggedly and steadily behind, bent on getting back to the woodland cottage, it seemed, rather than to his master’s cell. He had been a good friend to Eilmund, Cadfael reflected, but he might come in for a lashing with tongue or rod when he at last returned to his sworn duty. Though Cadfael could not, on consideration, picture that wild, unchancy creature submitting tamely to reproof, much less to punishment.

It was about the hour for Vespers when Cadfael dismounted within the low pale of Eilmund’s garden, and the girl flung open the door and came out eagerly to meet him.

“Brother, I hardly expected you for a while yet. Cuthred’s boy must have run like the wind, and all that way! And after he’d soaked himself in the brook getting my father clear! We’ve had good cause to be glad of him and his master this day, there might have been no one else by for hours.”

“How is he?” asked Cadfael, unslinging his scrip and making for the house.

“His leg’s broken below the knee. I’ve made him lie still, and packed it round as well as I could, but it needs your hand to set it. And he lay half in the brook a long time before the young man found him, I fear he’s taken a chill.”

Eilmund lay well covered, and by now grimly reconciled to his helplessness. He submitted stoically to Cadfael’s handling, and gritted his teeth and made no other sound as his leg was straightened and the fractured ends of bone brought into line.

“You might have come off worse,” said Cadfael, relieved. “A good clean break, and small damage to the flesh, though it’s a pity they had to move you.”

“I might have drowned else,” growled Eilmund, “the brook was building. And you’d best tell the lord abbot to get men out here and shift the tree, before we have a lake there again.”

“I will, I will! Now, hold fast! I don’t want to leave you with one leg shorter than the other.” By heel and instep he drew out the broken leg steadily to match its fellow. “Now, Annet, your hands where mine are, and hold it so.”

She had not wasted her time while waiting, but had hunted out straight spars of wood from Eilmund’s store, and had ready sheep’s wool for padding, and rolled linen for bindings. Between them they completed the work neatly, and Eilmund lay back on his brychan and heaved a great breath. His face, weatherbeaten always, nonetheless had a fierce flush over the cheekbones. Cadfael was not quite easy about it.

“Now if you can rest and sleep, so much the better. Leave the lord abbot, and the tree, and everything else that needs to be dealt with here, to me, I’ll see it cared for. I’ll make you a draught that will ease the pain and help you to sleep.” He mixed it and administered it to Eilmund’s scornful denial of the need, but it went down without protest nonetheless.

“And sleep he will,” said Cadfael to the girl, as they withdrew into the outer room. “But make sure he keeps warm and covered through the night, for there may be a slight fever if he’s taken cold. I’ll make certain I get leave to go back and forth for a day or two, till I see all’s well. If he gives you a hard time, bear with him, it will mean he’s taken no great harm.”

She laughed softly, undisturbed. “Oh, he’s mild as milk for me. He growls, but never bites. I know how to manage him.”

It was already beginning to be twilight when she opened the house door. The sky above was still faintly golden with the moist, mysterious afterglow, dripping light between the dark branches of the trees that surrounded the garden. And there in the turf by the gate Hyacinth was sitting motionless, waiting with the timeless patience of the tree against which his straight, supple back was braced. Even so his stillness had the suggestion of a wild thing in ambush. Or perhaps, thought Cadfael, changing his mind, of a hunted wild thing trusting to silence and stillness to be invisible to the hunter.

As soon as he saw the door open he was on his feet in a single lissome movement, though he did not come within the pale.

Twilight or no, Cadfael saw the glance that locked and held fast between the youth and the girl. Hyacinth’s face was still and mute as bronze, but a gleam of the fading light caught the amber brilliance of his eyes, fierce and secret as a cat’s, and a sudden quickening and darkening in their depths that was reflected in the flush and brightness in Annet’s startled countenance. It was no great surprise. The girl was pretty, and the boy undoubtedly attractive, all the more because he had been of invaluable service to her father. And it was natural and human, that that circumstance should endear father and daughter to him, no less than him to them. Nothing is more pleasing and engaging than the sense of having conferred benefits. Not even the gratification of receiving them.

“I’ll be on my way, then,” said Cadfael to the unregarding air, and mounted softly, not to break the spell that held them still. But from the shelter of the trees he looked back, and saw them standing just as he had left them, and heard the boy’s voice clear and solemn in the silence of the dusk, saying: “I must speak to you!”

Annet did not say anything, but she closed the house door softly behind her, and came forward to meet him at the gate. And Cadfael rode back through the woods mildly aware that he was smiling, though he could not be sure, on more sober reflection, that there was anything to smile about in so unlikely an encounter. For what common ground could there be, for those two to meet on, and hold fast for more than a moment: the abbey forester’s daughter, a good match for any lively and promising young man this side the shire, and a beggarly, rootless stranger dependent on charitable patronage, with no land, no craft and no kin?

He went to tend and stable his horse before he sought out Abbot Radulfus to tell him how things stood in Eyton forest. There was a late stir within there, of new guests arrived, and their mounts being accommodated and cared for. Of late there had been little movement about the county; the business of the summer, when so many merchants and tradesmen were constantly on the move, had dwindled gently away into the autumn quiet. Later, as the Christmas feast drew near, the guest halls would again be full with travellers hastening home, and kinsmen visiting kinsmen, but at this easy stage between, there was time to note those who came, and feel the human curiosity that is felt by those who have sworn stability about those who ebb and flow with the tides and seasons. And here just issuing from the stables and crossing the yard in long, lunging strides, the gait of a confident and choleric man, was someone undoubtedly of consequence in his own domain, richly dressed, elegantly booted, and wearing sword and dagger. He surged past Cadfael in the gateway, a big, burly, thrusting man, his face abruptly lit as he swung past the torch fixed at the gate, and then as abruptly darkened. A massive face, fleshy and yet hard, muscled like a wrestler’s arms, handsome in a brutal fashion, the face of a man not in anger at this moment, but always ready to be angry. He was shaven clean, which made the smooth power of his features even more daunting, and the eyes that stared imperiously straight before him looked disproportionately small, though in reality they probably were not, because of the massy flesh in which they were but shallowly set. By the look of him, not a man to cross. He might have been fifty years old, give or take a few years, but time certainly had not softened what must have been granite from the start.

His horse was standing in the stable yard outside an open stall, stripped and gently steaming as if his saddlecloth had only just been removed, and a groom was rubbing him down and hissing to him gently as he worked. A meagre but wiry fellow, turning grey, in faded homespun of a dull brown, and a rubbed leather coat. He slid one sidelong glance at Cadfael and nodded a silent greeting, so inured to being wary of all men that even a Benedictine brother was to be avoided rather than welcomed.

Cadfael gave him good-even cheerfully, and began his own unsaddling. “You’ve ridden far? Was that your lord I met at the gate?”

“It was,” said the man without looking up, and spared no more words.

“A stranger to me. Where are you from? Guests are thin this time of year.”

“From Bosiet it’s a manor the far side of Northampton, some miles south-east of the town. He is Bosiet–Drogo Bosiet. He holds that and a fair bit of the county besides.”

“He’s well away from his home ground,” said Cadfael with interest. “Where’s he bound? We see very few travellers from Northamptonshire in these parts.”

The groom straightened up to take a longer and narrower look at this inquisitive questioner, and visibly his manner eased a little, finding Cadfael amiable and harmless. But he did not on that account grow less morose, nor more voluble.

“He’s hunting,” he said with a grim and private smile.

“But not for deer,” hazarded Cadfael, returning the inspection and caught by the wryness of the smile. “Nor, I dare say, for the beasts of the warren.”

“You dare say well. It’s a man he’s after.”

“A runaway?” Cadfael found it hard to believe. “So far from home? Was a runaway villein worth so much time and expense to him?”

“This one is. He’s valuable and skilled, but that’s not the whole of it,” confided the groom, discarding his suspicion and reticence. “He has a score to settle with this one. One report we got of him, setting out westwards and north, and he’s combed every village and town along all this way, dragging me one road while his son with another groom goes another, and he won’t stop short of the Welsh border. Me? If I did clap eyes on the lad he’s after, I’d be blind. I wouldn’t give him back a dog that ran from him, let alone a man.” His dry voice had gathered sap and passion as he talked, and he turned fully for the first time, so that the torchlight fell on his face. One cheek was marked with a blackening bruise, the corner of his mouth torn and swollen, with the look of a festering infection about it.

“His mark?” asked Cadfael, eyeing the wound.

“His seal, sure enough, and done with a seal ring. I was not quick enough at his stirrup when he mounted, yesterday morning.”

“I can dress that for you,” said Cadfael, “if you’ll wait while I go and make report to my abbot about another matter. You’d best let me, it could take bad ways. By the same token,” he said quietly, “you’re far enough out of his country, and near enough to the border, to do some running of your own, if you’re so minded.”

“Brother,” said the groom with the briefest and harshest of laughs, “I have a wife and children in Bosiet, I’m manacled. But Brand was young and unwed, his heels are lighter than mine. And I’d best get this beast stalled, and be off to wait on my lord, or he’ll be laying the other cheek open for me.”

“Then come out to the guest hall steps,” said Cadfael, recalled as sharply to his own duty, “when he’s in bed and snoring, and I’ll clean that sore for you.”

Abbot Radulfus listened with concern, but also with relief, to Cadfael’s report, promised to send at first light enough helpers to clear away the willow tree, clean out the brook and shore up the bank above, and nodded gravely at the suggestion that Eilmund’s long wait in the water might complicate his recovery, even though the fracture itself was simple and clean.

“I should like,” said Cadfael, “to visit him again tomorrow and make sure he stays in his bed, for there may be a degree of fever, and you know him, Father, it will take more than his daughter’s scolding to keep him tamed. If he has your orders he may take heed. I’ll take his measure for crutches, but not let them near him till I’m sure he’s fit to rise.”

“You have my leave to go and come as you see fit,” said Radulfus, “for as long as he needs your care. Best keep that horse for your use until then. The journey would be too slow on foot, and we shall need you here some part of the day, Brother Winfrid being new to the discipline.”

Cadfael smiled, remembering. “It was no slow journey the young man Hyacinth made of it. Four times today he’s run those miles, back and forth on his master’s errand, and back and forth again for Eilmund. I only hope the hermit did not take it ill that his boy was gone so long.”

It was in Cadfael’s mind that the groom from Bosiet might be too much in fear of his master to venture out by night, even when his lord was sleeping. But come he did, slipping out furtively just as the brothers came out from Compline. Cadfael led him out through the gardens to the workshop in the herbarium, and there kindled a lamp to examine the lacerated wound that marred the man’s face.

The little brazier was turfed down for the night, but not extinguished, evidently Brother Winfrid had been careful to keep it alive in case of need. He was learning steadily, and strangely the delicacy of touch that eluded him with pen or brush showed signs of developing now that he came to deal with herbs and medicines. Cadfael uncovered the fire and blew it into a glow, and put on water to heat.

“He’s safe asleep, is he, your lord? Not likely to wake? Though if he did, he should have no need of you at this hour. But I’ll be as quick as I may.”

The groom sat docile and easy under the ministering hands, turning his face obediently to the light of the lamp. The bruised cheek was fading at the edges from black to yellow, but the tear at the corner of his mouth oozed blood and pus. Cadfael bathed away the encrusted exudations and cleaned the gash with a lotion of water betony and sanicle.

“He’s free with his fists, your lord,” he said ruefully. “I see two blows here.”

“He seldom stops at one,” said the groom grimly. “He does after his kind. There are some worse than him, God help all those who serve them. His son’s another made to the same pattern. What else could we look for, when he’s lived so from birth? In a day or so he’s to join us here, and if he has not got his hands on Brand by then—God forbid!—the hunt will go on.”

“Well, at least if you stay a day or so I can get this gash healed for you. What’s your name, friend?”

“Warin. Yours I know, Brother, from the hospitaller. That feels cool and kind.”

“I should have thought,” said Cadfael, “that your lord would have gone first to the sheriff, if he had a real complaint against this runaway of his. The guildsmen of the town would likely keep their mouths shut, even if they knew anything, a town stands to gain by taking in a good craftsman. But the king’s officers are bound, willing or no, to help a man to his own property.”

“We got here too late, as you saw, to do much in that kind until the morrow. He knows, none so well, that Shrewsbury is a charter borough, and may cheat him of his prey if the lad has got this far. He does intend going to the sheriff. But since he’s lodged here, and reckons the church as well as the law ought to help him to his own, he’s asked to put his case at chapter tomorrow, and after that he’ll be off into the town to seek out the sheriff. There’s no stone he won’t up-end to get at Brand’s hide.”

Cadfael was thinking, though he did not say it, that there might be time in between to send word to Hugh to make himself very hard to find. “What in the world,” he asked, “has the man done, to make your master so vindictive against him?”

“Why, he was for ever on the edge of trouble, being a lad that would stand up for himself, yes, and for others, too, and that’s crime enough for Drogo. I don’t know the rights of what happened that last day, but however it was, I saw Bosiet’s steward, who takes his style from his master, carried into the manor on a shutter, and he was laid up for days. Seemingly something had happened between them, and Brand had laid him flat, for the next we knew, Brand was nowhere, and they were hunting him along all the roads out of Northampton. But they never caught up with him, and here we are still hot on his trail. If ever Drogo lays hands on him he’ll flay him, but he won’t cripple him, he’s too valuable to waste. But he’ll have every morsel of his grudge out of the lad’s skin, and then wring every penny of profit out of his skills lifelong, and make good sure he never gets the chance to run again.”

“Then he had better make a good job of it now,” agreed Cadfael wryly. “If well-wishing can help him, he has it. Now hold still a moment there! And this ointment you can take with you and use as often as you choose. It helps take out the sting and lower the swelling.”

Warin turned the little jar curiously in his hand, and touched a finger to his cheek. “What’s in it, to work such healing?”

“Saint John’s wort and the small daisy, both good for wounds. And if chance offers tomorrow, let me see you again and hear how you do. And keep out of his reach!” said Cadfael warmly, and turned to bed down his brazier again with fresh turves, to smoulder quietly and safely until morning.

Drogo Bosiet duly appeared at chapter next morning, large, loud and authoritative in an assembly where a wiser man would have realised that authority lay with the abbot, and the abbot’s grip on it was absolute, however calm and measured his voice and austere his face. So much the better, thought Cadfael, watching narrowly and somewhat anxiously from his retired stall, Radulfus will know how to weigh the man, and let nothing slip too soon.

“My lord abbot,” said Drogo, straddling the flags of the floor like a bull before the charge, “I am here in search of a malefactor who attacked and injured my steward and fled my lands. He is known to have made for Northampton, my manor, to which he is tied, being several miles south-east of the town, and I have it in mind that he would make for the Welsh border. We have hunted for him all this way, and from Warwick I have taken this road from Shrewsbury, while my son goes on to Stafford, and will join me here from that place. All I ask here is whether any stranger of his years has lately come into these parts.”

“I take it,” said the abbot after a long and thoughtful pause, and steadily eyeing the powerful face and arrogant stance of his visitor, “that this man is your villein.”

“He is.”

“And you do know,” pursued Radulfus mildly, “that since it would seem you have failed to reclaim him within four days, it will be necessary to apply to the courts to regain possession of him legally?”

“My lord,” said Drogo with impatient scorn, “so I can well do, if I can but find him. The man is mine, and I mean to have him. He has been a cause of trouble to me, but he has skills which are valuable, and I do not mean to be robbed of what is mine. The law will give me my rights in the lands where the offence arose.” And so, no doubt, such a law as survived in his own shire would certainly do, at the mere nod of his head.

“If you will tell us what your fugitive is like,” said the abbot reasonably, “Brother Denis can tell you at once whether we have had such a one as guest in our halls.”

“He goes by the name of Brand—twenty years old, dark of hair but reddish, lean and strong, beardless—”

“No,” said Brother Denis the hospitaller without hesitation, “I have had no such young man lodged here, not for five or six weeks back certainly. If he had found work along the way with some trader or merchant carrying goods, such as come with three or four servants, then he might have passed this way. But a young man alone—no, none.”

“As to that,” said the abbot with authority, forestalling reply from any other, though indeed no one but Prior Robert would have ventured to speak before him, “you would do well to take your question to the sheriff at the castle, for his officers are far more likely than we here within the enclave to know of any newcomers entering the town. The pursuit of criminals and offenders such as you describe is their business, and they are thorough and careful about it. The guildsmen of the town are also wary and jealous of their rights, and have good reason to keep their eyes open, and their wits about them. I recommend you to apply to them.”

“So I intend, my lord. But you will bear in mind what I have asked, and if any here should recall anything to the purpose, let me hear of it.”

“This house will do whatever is incumbent upon it in good conscience,” said the abbot with chilly emphasis, and watched with an unrevealing face as Drogo Bosiet, with only the curtest of nods by way of leavetaking, turned on his booted heel and strode out of the chapterhouse. Nor did Radulfus see fit to make any comment or signify any conclusion when the petitioner was gone, as if he felt no need to give any further instruction than he had given by the tone of his replies. And by the time they emerged from chapter, some time later, both Drogo and his groom had saddled and ridden forth, no doubt over the bridge and into the town, to seek out Hugh Beringar at the castle.

Brother Cadfael had intended to pay a quick visit to the herbarium and his workshop, to see all was in order there and set Brother Winfrid to work on what was safest and most suitable for his unsupervised attentions, and then set off at once for Eilmund’s cottage, but events prevented. For there was a death that day among the old, retired brothers in the infirmary, and Brother Edmund, in need of a companion to watch out the time with him after the tired old man had whispered the few almost inaudible words of his last confession and received the final rites, turned first and confidently to his closest friend and associate among the sick. They had done the same service together many times in forty years of a vocation imposed from birth in Edmund’s case, though willingly embraced later, but chosen after half a lifetime in the outer world by Cadfael. They stood at the opposite poles of oblatus and conversus, and they understood each other so well that few words ever needed to pass between them.

The old man’s dying was painless and feather-light, all the substance of his once sharp and vigorous mind gone on before; but it was slow. The fading candle flame did not flicker, only dimmed in perfect stillness second by second, so mysteriously that they missed the moment when the last spark withdrew, and only knew he was gone when they began to realise that the prints of age were smoothing themselves out gently from his face.

“So pass all good men!” said Edmund fervently. “A blessed death as ever I saw! I wonder will God deal as gently with me, when my time comes!”

They cared for the dead man together, and together emerged into the great court to arrange for his body to be carried to the mortuary chapel. And then there was a small matter of Brother Paul’s youngest schoolboy, who had missed his footing in haste on the day stairs and rolled down half the flight, bloodying his knees on the cobbles of the court, and had to be picked up and bathed and bandaged, and despatched to his play with an apple by way of reward for his bravery in denying stoutly that he was hurt. Only then could Cadfael repair to the stable and saddle the horse assigned to him, and by then it was almost time for Vespers.

He was leading his horse across the court to the gatehouse when Drogo Bosiet rode in under the archway, his finery a little jaded and dusty from a day’s frustration and exertion, his face blackly set, and the groom Warin a few yards behind him, warily attentive, alert to obey the least gesture, but anxious meantime to stay out of sight and out of mind. Clearly the hunt had drawn no quarry anywhere, and the hunters came back with the approach of evening empty-handed. Warin would have to stand clear of the length of that powerful arm tonight.

Cadfael went forth through the gate reassured and content, and made good speed towards his patient at Eyton.

Chapter Five

« ^ »

Richard had been out all afternoon with the other boys in the main abbey gardens beside the river, where the last pears were just being harvested. The children were allowed to help, and within reason to sample, though the fruit had still to ripen after gathering. But these, the last, had hung so long on the tree that they were already eatable. It had been a good day, with sun, and freedom, and some dabbling in the river where there were safe shallows, and he was reluctant to go indoors to Vespers at the end of it, and then to supper and bed. He loitered at the end of the procession winding its way along the riverside path, and up the green, bushy slope to the Foregate. In the stillness of late afternoon there were still clouds of midges dancing over the water, and fish rising to them lazily. Under the bridge the flow looked almost motionless though he knew it was fast and deep. There had been a boatmill moored there once, powered by the stream.

Nine-year-old Edwin, his devoted ally, loitered with him, but a little anxiously, casting a glance over his shoulder to see how the distance between them and the tailend of the procession lengthened. He had been praised for his stoicism after his fall, and was in no mind to lose the warm sense of virtue the incident had left with him by being late for Vespers. But neither could he lightly desert his bosom friend. He hovered, rubbing at a bandaged knee that still smarted a little.

“Richard, come on, we mustn’t dawdle. Look, they’re nearly at the highroad.”

“We can easily catch up with them,” said Richard, dabbling his toes in the shallows. “But you go on, if you want to.”

“No, not without you. But I can’t run as fast as you, my knee’s stiff. Do come on, we shall be late.”

“I shan’t, I can be there long before the bell goes, but I forgot you couldn’t run as well as usual. You go on, I’ll overtake you before you reach the gatehouse. I just want to see whose boat this is, coming down towards the bridge.”

Edwin hesitated, weighing his own virtuous peace of mind against desertion, and for once decided in accordance with his own wishes. The last black habit at the end of the procession was just climbing to the level of the highroad, to vanish from sight. No one had looked back to call the loiterers, or scold, they were left to their own consciences. Edwin turned and ran after his fellows as fast as he could for his stiffening knee. From the top of the slope he looked back, but Richard was ankle-deep in his tiny cove, skimming stones expertly across the surface of the water in a dotted line of silvery spray. Edwin decided on virtue, and abandoned him.

It had never been in Richard’s mind to play truant, but his game seduced him as each cast bettered the previous one, and he began to hunt for smoother and flatter pebbles under the bank, ambitious to reach the opposite shore. And then one of the town boys who had been swimming under the green sweep of turf that climbed to the town wall took up the challenge, and began to return the shower of dancing stones, splashing naked in the shallows. So absorbed was Richard in the contest that he forgot all about Vespers, and only the small, distant chime of the bell startled him back to his duty. Then he did drop his stone, abandon the field to his rival, and scramble hastily ashore to snatch up his discarded shoes and run like a hart for the Foregate and the abbey. He had left it too late. The moment he arrived breathless at the gatehouse, and sidled in cautiously by the wicket to avoid notice, he heard the chanting of the first psalm from within the church.

Well, it was not so great a sin to miss a service, but for all that, he did not wish to add it to his score at this time, when he was preoccupied with grave family matters outside the cloister. By good fortune the children of the stewards and the lay servants were also accustomed to attend Vespers, which so conveniently augmented the numbers of the schoolboys that one small truant might not be missed, and if he could slip back into their enveloping ranks as they left the church afterwards it might be assumed that he had been among them all along. It was the best course he could think of. Accordingly he slipped into the cloister, and installed himself in the first carrel of the south walk, curled up in the corner, where he could see the south door of the church, by which brothers, guests and boys would all emerge when the service ended. Once the obedientiaries and choir monks had passed, it should not be difficult to worm his way in among the boys without being noticed.

And here they came at last, Abbot Radulfus, Prior Robert and all the brothers, passing decorously by, and out into the evening on their way to supper; and then the less orderly throng of the abbey young. Richard was sidling along the wall that concealed him, ready to slip out and mingle with them as they passed, when a familiar and censorious voice made itself heard just on the other side of the wall, in the very archway through which the children must pass.

“Silence, there! Let me hear no chattering so soon after divine worship! Is this how you were taught to leave the holy place? Get into line, two and two, and behave with due reverence.”

Richard froze, his back pressed against the chill stone of the wall, and drew back stealthily into the darkest corner of the carrel. Now what had possessed Brother Jerome to let the procession of the choir monks pass by without him, and wait here to hector and scold the unoffending children? For there he stood immovable, harrying them into tidy ranks, and Richard was forced to crouch in hiding and let his best hope of escape dwindle away into the evening air in the great court, leaving him trapped. For of all the brothers, Jerome was the one before whom he would least willingly creep forth ignominiously to be arraigned and lectured. And now the boys were gone, a few abbey guests emerging at leisure from the church, and still Jerome stood there waiting, for Richard could see his meagre shadow on the flags of the floor.

And suddenly it appeared that he had been waiting for one of the guests, for the shadow intercepted and melted into a more substantial shadow. Richard had seen the substance pass, a big, muscular striding man with a face as solid and russet as a sandstone wall, and the rich gown of the middle nobility, short of the baronage or even their chief tenants, but still to be reckoned with.

“I have been waiting, sir,” said Brother Jerome, self-important but respectful, “to speak a word to you. I have been thinking of what you told us at chapter this morning. Will you sit down with me in private for a few moments?”

Richard’s young heart seemed to turn over within him, for there was he crouched on the stone bench by one of Brother Anselm’s aumbries in the carrel right beside them, and he was in terror that they would immediately walk in upon him. But for his own reasons, it seemed, Brother Jerome preferred to be a little more retired, as if he did not want anyone still within the church, perhaps the sacristan, to observe this meeting as he left, for he drew his companion deep into the third carrel, and there sat down with him. Richard could easily have slid round the corner and out of the cloister now that the way was free, but he did not do so. Pure human curiosity kept him mute and still where he was, almost holding his breath, a little pitcher with very long ears.

“This malefactor of whom you spoke,” began Jerome, “he who assaulted your steward and has run from you—how did you say he was called?”

“His name is Brand. Why, have you any word of him?”

“No, certainly none by that name. I do firmly believe,” said Jerome virtuously, “that it is every man’s duty to help you to reclaim your villein if he can. Even more it is the duty of the church, which should always uphold justice and law, and condemn the criminal and lawbreaker. You did tell us this fellow is young, about twenty years? Beardless, reddish dark as to his hair?”

“All that, yes. You know of such a one?” demanded Drogo sharply.

“It may not be the same man, but there is one young man who would answer to such a description, only one to my knowledge who is lately come into these parts. It would be worth asking. He came here with a pilgrim, a holy man who has settled down in a hermitage only a few miles from us, on the manor of Eaton. He serves the hermit. If he is indeed your rogue, he must have imposed on that good soul, who in the kindness of his heart has given him work and shelter. If it is so, then it is only right that his eyes should be opened to the kind of servitor he is harbouring. And if he proves not to be the man, there is no harm done. But indeed I did have my doubts about him, the one time he came here with a message. He has a sort of civil insolence about him that sorts ill with a saint’s service.”

Richard crouched motionless, hugging his knees, his ears stretched to catch every word that passed.

“Where is this hermitage to be found?” demanded Drogo, with the hunger of the manhunt in his voice. “And what is the fellow calling himself?”

“He goes by the name of Hyacinth. The hermit’s name is Cuthred, anyone in Wroxeter or Eaton can show you where he dwells.” And Jerome launched willingly into exact instructions as to the road, which occupied him so happily that even if there had been any small sounds from the neighbouring carrel he probably would not have heard them. But Richard’s small bare feet made no sound on the flags as he slid hastily round into the archway, and fled down the court to the stables, still carrying his shoes. His hard little soles patterned like pebbles on the cobbles of the stableyard, careless of being overheard now that he was safely out of that narrow, darkening carrel, echoing hollowly to the sound of one self-righteous voice and one wolfish one plotting the capture and ruin of Hyacinth, who was young and lively and ranked as a friend. But they should not have him, not if Richard could prevent. No matter how detailed Brother Jerome’s directions, that man who wanted his villein back, and certainly meant him no good if ever he got him, would still have to find his way and sort out the woodland paths as he came to them, but Richard knew every track, and could ride by the shortest way, and fast, if only he could get his pony saddled and smuggled quietly out at the gatehouse before the enemy sent a groom to saddle his own tall horse. For he was hardly likely to do it for himself if he had a servant to do it for him. The thought of the twilit woods did not daunt Richard, his heart rose excitedly to the adventure.

Luck or heaven favoured him, for it was the hour when everyone was at supper, and even the porter at the gatehouse was taking his meal within, and left the gate unwatched while he ate. If he did hear hooves, and come out to see who the rider might be, he came too late to see Richard scramble into the saddle and set off at a round trot along the Foregate towards Saint Giles. He had even forgotten that he was hungry, and felt no pang at going supperless. Besides, he was a favourite with Brother Petrus, the abbot’s cook, and might be able to wheedle something out of him later. As for what was to happen when his absence was discovered, as it surely must be at bedtime even if it passed unremarked at supper, there was no point in giving any thought to that. What mattered was to find Hyacinth, and warn him, if he was indeed this Brand, that he had better get away into hiding as fast as he could, for the hunt was out after him, and close on his heels. After that, let what was bound to happen, happen!

He turned into the forest beyond Wroxeter, on a broad ride which Eilmund had cleared for the passage of his coppice wood and trimmed poles. It led directly to the forester’s cottage, but also provided the quickest way to a side-path which continued to the hermitage, the obvious place to look first for Cuthred’s servant. The forest here was chiefly oak, and old, the ground cover light and low, and the deep layers of the leaves of many autumns made riding silent. Richard had slackened speed among the old trees, and the pony stepped with delicate pleasure in the cushioned mould. But for the hush, the boy would never have heard the voices, for they were low and intent, and manifestly the one was a man’s, the other a girl’s, though their words were too soft to be distinguished, meant only for each other. Then he saw them, aside from the path, very still and very close beside the broad bole of an oak tree. They were not touching, though they had eyes only for each other, and whatever they had to say was earnest and of high importance. The shout Richard launched at sight of them startled them apart like fluttered birds.

“Hyacinth! Hyacinth!”

He rolled and fell from his pony, rather than dismounted, and flew to meet them as they started towards him.

“Hyacinth, you must hide—you must get away quickly! They’re after you, if you’re Brand—are you Brand? There’s a man has come looking for you, he says he’s hunting a runaway villein named Brand…”

Hyacinth, alert and quivering, held him by the shoulders, and dropped to his knees to have him eye to eye. “What like of man? A servant? Or the man himself? And when was this?”

“After Vespers. I heard them talking. Brother Jerome told him there was a young man newly come into this country, who might be the one he’s looking for. He told him where to find you, and he’s coming to look for you at the hermitage now, this very night. An awful man, big and loud-mouthed. I ran to get my pony while they were still talking, I got away before him. But you mustn’t go back to Cuthred, you must get away quickly and hide.”

Hyacinth caught the boy in his arms in a brief, boisterous embrace. “You’re a true and gallant friend as any man could have, and never fear for me, now I’m warned what can harm me? That’s the man himself, no question! Drogo Bosiet thinks highly enough of me to waste time and men and money on hunting me down, and in the end he’ll get nothing for his pains.”

“Then you are Brand? You were his villein?”

“I love you all the more,” said Hyacinth, “for viewing my villeinage as past. Yes, the name they gave me long ago was Brand, I chose Hyacinth for myself. You and I will keep to that name. And now you and I, my friend, must part, for what you must do now is ride back to the abbey quickly, before the light’s gone, and before you’re missed. Come, I’ll see you safe to the edge of the wood.”

“No!” said Richard, outraged. “I’ll go alone, I’m not afraid. You must vanish now, at once!”

The girl had laid her hand on Hyacinth’s shoulder. Richard saw her eyes wide and bright with resolution rather than alarm in the encroaching twilight. “He shall, Richard! I know a place where he’ll be safe.”

“You ought to try to get into Wales,” said Richard anxiously, even somewhat jealously, for this was his friend, and he was the rescuer, and almost he resented it that Hyacinth should owe any part of his salvation to someone else, and a woman, at that.

Hyacinth and Annet looked briefly at each other, and smiled, and the quality of their smiles lit up the woodland. “No, not that,” said Hyacinth gently. “If run I must, I’ll not run far. But you need not fear for me, I shall be safe enough. Now mount, my lord, and be off with you, back where you’ll be safe, or I won’t stir a step.”

That set him in motion briskly enough. Once he looked back to wave, and saw them standing as he had left them, gazing after him. A second time he looked back, before the spot where they stood was quite hidden from him among the trees, but they were gone, vanished, and the forest was silent and still. Richard remembered his own problems ahead, and took the road homeward at an anxious trot.

Drogo Bosiet rode through the early twilight by the ways Brother Jerome had indicated to him, asking peremptorily of the villagers in Wroxeter for confirmation that he was on the best road to the cell of the hermit Cuthred. It seemed that the holy man was held in the kind of unofficial reverence common to the old Celtic eremites, for more than one of those questioned spoke of him as Saint Cuthred.

Drogo entered the forest close to where Eaton land, as the shepherd in the field informed him, bordered Eyton land, and a narrow ride brought him after almost a mile of forest to a small, level clearing ringed round with thick woodland. The stone hut in the centre was stoutly built but small and low-roofed, and showed signs of recent repair after being neglected for years. There was a little square garden enclosure round it, fenced in with a low pale, and part of the ground within had been cleared and planted. Drogo dismounted at the edge of the clearing and advanced to the fence, leading his horse by the bridle.

The evening silence was profound, there might have been no living being within a mile of the place.

But the door of the hut stood open, and from deep within a steady gleam of light showed. Drogo tethered his horse, and strode in through the garden and up to the door, and still hearing no sound, went in. The room into which he stepped was small and dim, and contained little but a pallet bed against the wall, a small table and a bench. The light burned within, in a second room, and through the open doorway, for there was no door between, he saw that this was a chapel. The lamp burned upon a stone altar, before a small silver cross set up on a carved wooden casket reliquary, and on the altar before the cross lay a slender and elegant breviary in a gilded binding. Two silver candlesticks, surely the gifts of the hermit’s patroness, flanked the cross, one on either side.

Before this altar a man was kneeling motionless, a tall man in a rough black habit, with the cowl raised to cover his head. Against the small, steady light the dark figure was impressive, the long, erect back straight as a lance, the head not bowed but raised, the very image of sanctity. Even Drogo held his tongue for a moment, but no longer. His own needs and desires were paramount, a hermit’s prayers could and must yield to them. Evening was rapidly deepening into night, and he had no time to waste.

“You are Cuthred?” he demanded firmly. “They told me at the abbey how to find you.”

The dignified figure did not move, unless he unfolded his unseen hands. But he said in a measured and unstartled voice: “Yes, I am Cuthred. What do you need from me? Come in and speak freely.”

“You have a boy who runs your errands. Where is he? I want to see him. You may well have been cozened into keeping a rogue about you unawares.”

And at that the habited figure did turn, the cowled head reared to face the stranger, and the sidelong light from the altar lamp showed a lean, deep-eyed, bearded face, a long, straight, aristocratic nose, a fell of dark hair within the hood, as Drogo Bosiet and the hermit of Eyton forest looked long and steadily at each other.

Brother Cadfael was sitting by Eilmund’s couch, supping on bread and cheese and apples, since like Richard he had missed his usual supper, and well content with a very discontented patient, when Annet came back from feeding the hens and shutting them in, and milking the one cow she kept for their own use. She had been an unconscionable time about it, and so her disgruntled father told her. All trace of fever had left him, his colour was good, and he was in no great discomfort, but he was in a glum fury with his own helplessness, and impatient to be out and about his business again, distrusting the abbot’s willing but untutored substitutes to take proper care of his forest. The very shortness of his temper was testimony to his sound health. And the offending leg was straight and gave no great pain. Cadfael was well satisfied.

Annet came in demurely, and laughed at her father’s grumbling, no way in awe of him. “I left you in the best of company, and I knew you’d be the better for an hour or so without me, and so would I for an hour without you, such an old bear as you’re become! Why should I hurry back, on such a fine evening? You know Brother Cadfael has taken good care of you, don’t grudge me a breath of air.”

But by the look of her she had enjoyed something more potent than a mere breath of air. There was a brightness and a quivering aliveness about her, as if after strong wine. Her brown hair, always so smoothly banded, had shaken loose a few strands on her shoulders, Cadfael noted, as though she had wound her way through low branches that caught at the braids, and the colour in her cheeks was rosy and roused, to match the brilliance of her eyes. She had brought in a few of the month’s lost leaves on her shoes. True, the byre lay just within the trees at the edge of the clearing, but there were no well-grown oaks there.

“Well, now that you’re back, and I shan’t be leaving him to complain without a listener,” said Cadfael, “I’d best be getting back before it’s full dark. Keep him off his feet for a few days yet, lass, and I’ll let him up on crutches soon if he behaves himself. At least he’s taken no harm from lying fast in the water, that’s a mercy.”

“Thanks to Cuthred’s boy Hyacinth,” Annet reminded them.

She flicked a swift glance at her father, and was pleased when he responded heartily: “And that’s truth if ever there was! He was as good as a son to me that day, and I don’t forget it.”

And was it fancy, or did Annet’s cheeks warm into a deeper rose? As good as a son to a man who had no son to be his right hand, but only this bright, confident, discreet and loving daughter?

“Possess your soul in patience,” advised Cadfael, rising, “and we’ll have you as sound as before. It’s worth waiting for. And don’t fret about the coppice, for Annet here will tell you they’ve made a good job of clearing the brook and shaved off the overhang of the bank. It will hold.” He made fast his scrip to his girdle, and turned to the door.

“I’ll see you to the gate,” said Annet, and came out with him into the deep twilight of the clearing, where his horse was placidly pulling at the turf.

“Girl,” said Cadfael with his foot in the stirrup, “you blossom like a rose tonight.”

She was just taking up the loose tresses in her hands, and smoothing them back into neatness with the rest. She turned and smiled at him. “But I seem to have been through a thorn bush,” she said.

Cadfael leaned from the saddle and delicately picked a sear oak leaf out of her hair. She looked up to see him twirling it gently between his fingers by the stem, and wonderfully she smiled. That was how he left her, roused and braced, and surely having made up her mind to go, undaunted, through all the thorny thickets that might be in the path between her and what she wanted. She was not ready yet to confide even in her father, but it troubled her not at all that Cadfael should guess at what was in the wind, nor had she any fear of a twisted ending. Which did not preclude the possibility that others might have good reason to fear on her account.

Cadfael rode without haste through the darkening wood. The moon was already up, and bright where it could penetrate the thickness of the trees. Compline must be long over by now, and the brothers making ready for sleep. The boys would be in their beds long ago. It was cool and fresh in the green-scented forest, pleasant to ride alone and at leisure, and have time to think of timeless things that could not be accommodated in the bustle of the day, sometimes not even during the holy office or the quiet times of prayer, where by rights they belonged. There was more room for them here under this night sky still faintly luminous round the rims of vision. Cadfael rode in a deep content of mind through the thickest part of the woodland growth, with a glimmer of light from the open fields ahead before him.

It was the rustling movement on his left, among the trees, that startled him out of his muse. Something vaguely pale in the gloom moved alongside him, and he heard the slight jingling of a horse’s bit and bridle. A riderless horse, wandering astray but saddled and bridled, for the small metallic sounds rang clear. He had not been riderless when he set out from his stable. In glimpses of moonlight between the branches the pale shape shone elusively, drawing nearer to the path. Cadfael had seen that light roan hide before, that same afternoon in the great court of the abbey.

He dismounted in haste, and called, advancing to take the slack bridle and run a hand over the dappled forehead. The saddle was still in place, but the straps that had held a small saddle-roll behind it had been sliced through. And where was the rider? And why, indeed, had he set out yet again, after returning empty-handed from a day’s hunting? Had someone provided him a clue to start him off again after his prey, even thus late at night?

Cadfael parted the bushes and turned in from the path, where he had first glimpsed the pale form moving. Here nothing seemed disturbed, the tangle of branches showed no disrupting passage. He worked back a little to emerge again on the path, and there, aside under the bushes in long grass, so hidden that he had ridden past it and seen no sign, he found what he had feared to find.

Drogo Bosiet lay sprawled on his face, sunk deep in the ripe autumnal herbage, and even against the dark colouring of his gown, Cadfael could just distinguish the darker blot that was his blood, welling out under his left shoulder blade, where the dagger that had killed him had plunged and been withdrawn.

Chapter Six

« ^ »

At so late an hour there was small chance of reaching immediate help at either abbey or castle, and none of deriving any knowledge from the darkening scene here in the forest. All Cadfael could do, thus alone, was to kneel beside the mute body and feel for a heartbeat or pulse, and listen for any faint sign of breathing. But though Drogo’s flesh was warm, and yielded pliably to handling, there was no breath in him, and the heart in his great chest, almost certainly pierced by the thrust from behind, was stonily still. He could not have been dead very long, but the gush of blood that had sprung out with the blade had ceased to flow, and was beginning to dry at its edges into a dark crust. More than an hour ago, Cadfael thought, judging by what signs he had, perhaps as much as two hours. And his saddle-roll cut loose and taken. Here, in our woods! When did any man ever hear of footpads so close? Or has some cutthroat from the town heard of Eilmund being laid up at home, and ventured to try his luck here for a chance traveller riding alone?

Delay could not harm Drogo now, and daylight might show at least some trace to lead to his murderer. Best leave him so, and take word to the castle, where there was always a guard waking, and leave a message for Hugh, to be delivered as soon as there was light. At midnight the brothers would rise for Matins, and the same grim news could and should be delivered then to Abbot Radulfus. The dead man was the abbey’s guest, and his son expected within a few days, and to the abbey he must be taken for proper and reverent care.

No, there was nothing more to be done for Drogo Bosiet, but at least he could get the horse back to his stable. Cadfael mounted, and gathered the loose bridle in his left hand, and the horse came with him docilely. There was no haste. He had until midnight. No need to save time, since even if he reached his bed before Matins, sleep would be impossible. Better take care of the horses and then wait for the bell.

Abbot Radulfus came early to the church for Matins, to find Cadfael waiting for him in the south porch as he crossed from his lodging. The bell in the dortoir was only just sounding. It takes but a few moments to say bluntly that a man is dead, and by an act of man, not of God.

Radulfus was never known to waste words in exclamation, and did not do so now at the news that a guest of his house had come to an unlawful end in the abbey’s own forest. The gross affront and grosser wrong he accepted in sombre silence, and the right and duty of retribution, as incumbent now upon the church as on the secular authority, he took up with a deep assenting nod of his head, and a grim tightening of his long, firm lips. In the hush while he thought, they heard the soft, sandalled steps of the brothers descending the night stairs.

“And you have left word for Hugh Beringar?” asked the abbot.

“At his house and at the castle.”

“No man can do more, then, until first light. He must be brought here, for here his son will come. But you—you will be needed, you can lead straight to where he lies. Go now, I excuse you from the office, go and take some rest, and at dawn ride to join the sheriff. Say to him that I will send a party after, to bring the body home.”

In the first hesitant light of a chill morning they stood over Drogo Bosiet’s body, Hugh Beringar and Cadfael, a sergeant of Hugh’s garrison and two men-at-arms, all silent, all with eyes fixed on the great patch of encrusted blood that soaked the back of the rich riding coat. The grass hung as heavy and flattened with dew as if after rain, and the moisture had gathered in great pearls in the woollen pile of the dead man’s clothing, and starred the bushes in a treasury of cobwebs.

“Since he plucked out the dagger from the wound,” said Hugh, “most likely he took it away with him. But we’ll look about for it, in case he discarded it. And you say the straps of the saddle-roll were sliced through? After the slaying—he needed the knife for that. Quicker and easier in the dark to cut it loose than unbuckle it, and whoever he was, he wouldn’t want to linger. Strange, though, that a mounted man should fall victim to such an attack. At the least sound he had only to spur and draw clear, surely.”

“But I think,” said Cadfael, studying how the body lay, “that he was on foot here, and leading the horse. He was a stranger, and the path here is very narrow and the trees crowd close, and it was dark or getting dark. See the leaves that have clung to his boot soles. He never had time to turn, the one stroke was enough. Where he had been I don’t know, but he was on his way back to his lodging in our guest hall when he was struck down. With no struggle and little noise. The horse had taken no great alarm, he strayed only a few yards.”

“Which argues an expert footpad and thief,” said Hugh. “But do you believe in that? In my writ and so close to the town?”

“No. But some secret rogue, perhaps even a sneak thief out of the town, might risk one exploit, knowing Eilmund is laid up at home. But this is guessing,” said Cadfael, shaking his head. “Now and then even a poacher might be tempted to try murder, if he came on a man of substance, alone and at night. But guessing is small use.”

The party sent by Abbot Radulfus to carry Drogo back to the abbey were already winding their way along the path with their litter. Cadfael knelt in the grass, soaking his habit at the knees in the plenteous dew, and carefully turned the stiffening body face upward. The heavy muscling of the cheeks had fallen slack, the eyes, so disproportionately small for the massive countenance, were half open. He looked older and less arrogantly brutal in death, a mortal man like other men, almost piteous. The hand that had lain hidden under his body wore a heavy silver ring.

“Something the thief missed,” said Hugh, looking down with something of startled regret in his face for so much power now powerless.

“Another sign of haste. Or he would have ransacked every garment. And proof enough that the body was not moved. He lies as he fell, facing towards Shrewsbury. It’s as I said, he was on his way home.”

“There’s a son expected, you said? Come,” said Hugh, “we can leave him to your men now, and my fellows will comb the woods all round in case there’s sign or trace to be found, though I doubt it. You and I will be off back to the abbey, and see what the abbot has brought to light at chapter. For someone must surely have put some notion into his mind, to send him out again so late.”

The sun was above the rim of the world, but veiled and pale, as they mounted and turned back along the narrow ride. The spider-draped bushes caught the first gleams that pierced the mist, and flashed in coruscations of diamonds. When they emerged into the open, low-lying fields the horses waded through a shallow lilac-tinted sea of vapour.

“What do you know of this man Bosiet,” asked Hugh, “more than he has told me, or I have gleaned without his telling?”

“Little enough, I expect. He’s lord of several manors in Northamptonshire, and some little while since a villein of his, as like as not for a very good reason, laid his steward flat and put him to bed for some days, and then very wisely took to his heels before they could lay hands on him. Bosiet and his men have been hunting for the fellow ever since. They must have wasted a good while searching the rest of the shire, I fancy, before they got word from someone that he’d made for Northampton and seemed to be heading north and west. And between them they’ve followed this far, making drives in both directions from every halt. He must have cost them far above his value, valuable though they say he is, but it’s his blood they’re after first and foremost, and seemingly they set a higher price on that than on his craft, whatever that may be. There was a very vigorous hate there,” said Cadfael feelingly. “He brought it to chapter with him. Father Abbot was not greatly taken with the notion of helping him to the sort of revenge he’d be likely to take.”

“And shrugged him off on to me,” said Hugh, briefly grinning. “Well, small blame to him. I took your word for it, and stayed out of his way as long as I could. In any case I could give him no help. What else do you know of him?”

“That he has a groom named Warin, the one that rode with him, though not, it seems, on his last ride. Maybe he’d sent his man on some other errand, and couldn’t wait once he got the word, but set off alone. He’s—he was—a man who liked to use his fists freely on his servants, for any offence or none. At least he’d laid Warin’s face open for him, and according to the groom that was no rarity. As for the son, according to Warin he’s much like his father, and just as surely to be avoided. And he’ll be coming from Stafford any day now—”.

“To find he has to coffin his father’s body and take it home for burial,” said Hugh ruefully.

“To find he’s now lord of Bosiet,” said Cadfael. “That’s the reverse of the coin. Who knows which side up it will look to him?”

“You’re grown very cynical, old friend,” remarked Hugh, wryly smiling.

“I’m thinking,” Cadfael owned, “of reasons why men do murder. Greed is one, and might be spawned in a son, waiting impatiently for his inheritance. Hate is another, and a misused servant might entertain it willingly if chance offered. But there are other and stranger reasons, no doubt, like a simple taste for thieving, and a disposition to make sure the victim never blabs. A pity, Hugh, a great pity there should be so much hurrying on of death, when it’s bound to reach every man in its own good time.”

By the time they emerged on to the highroad at Wroxeter the sun was well up, and the mist clearing from its face, though the fields still swam in pearly vapour. They made good speed from there along the road to Shrewsbury, and rode in at the gatehouse after the end of High Mass, when the brothers were dispersing to their work until the hour of the midday meal.

“The lord abbot’s been asking after you,” said the porter, coming out from his lodge at sight of them. “He’s in his parlour, and the prior with him, and asks that you’ll join him there.”

They left their horses to the grooms, and went at once to the abbot’s lodging. In the panelled parlour Radulfus looked up from his desk, and Prior Robert, very erect and austere on a bench beside the window, looked down his nose with a marked suggestion of disapproval and withdrawal. The complexities of law and murder and manhunt had no business to intrude into the monastic domain, and he deplored the necessity to recognise their existence, and the very processes of dealing with them when they did force a breach in the wall. Close to his elbow, unobtrusive in his shadow, stood Brother Jerome, his narrow shoulders hunched, thin lips drawn tight, pale hands folded in his sleeves, the image of virtue assailed and bearing the cross with humility. There was always a strong element of complacency in Jerome’s humility, but this time there was also a faintly defensive quality, as though his rightness had somehow, if only by implication, been questioned.

“Ah, you are back!” said Radulfus. “You have not brought back the body of our guest so quickly?”

“No, Father, not yet, they will be following us, but on foot it will take some time. It is just as Brother Cadfael reported it to you in the night. The man was stabbed in the back, probably as he was leading his horse, the path there being narrow and overgrown. You will know already that his saddle-roll was cut loose and stolen. By what Brother Cadfael observed of the body when he found it, the thing must have been done about the time of Compline, perhaps a little before. There’s nothing to show by whom. By the hour, he must have been on his way back here to your guest hall. By the way he faced as he fell, also, for the body was not moved, or his ring would have been taken, and he still wears it. But as to where he had been in those parts, there’s no knowing.”

“I think,” said the abbot, “we have something to show on that head. Brother Jerome here will tell you what he has now told to Prior Robert and me.”

Jerome was usually only too ready to hear his own voice, whether in sermon, homily or reproof, but it was noticeable that this time he was assembling his words with more than normal care.

“The man was a guest and an upright citizen,” he said, “and had told us at chapter that he was pursuing an offender against the law, one who had committed assault against the person of his steward and done him grievous harm, and then absconded from his master. I took thought afterwards that there was indeed one newcomer in these parts who might well be the man he sought, and I considered it the duty of every one of us to help the cause of justice and law. So I spoke to the lord of Bosiet. I told him that the young man who serves the hermit Cuthred, and who came here with him only a few weeks ago, does answer to the description he gave of his runaway villein Brand, though he calls himself Hyacinth. He is of the right age, his colouring as his master described it. And no one here knows anything about him. I thought it only right to tell him the truth. If the young man proved not to be Brand, there was no harm to him.”

“And you told him, I believe,” said the abbot neutrally, “how to get to the hermit’s cell, where he could find this young man?”

“I did, Father, as was my duty.”

“And he at once set off to ride to that place.”

“Yes, Father. He had sent his groom on an errand into the town, he was obliged to saddle up for himself, but he did not wish to wait, since most of the day was gone.”

“I have spoken to the groom Warin, since we learned of his master’s death,” said the abbot, looking up at Hugh. “He was sent to enquire after any craftsman in fine leather-work in Shrewsbury, for it seems that was the young man’s craft also, and Bosiet thought he might have tried to get work within the borough among those who could use his skills. There is no blame can attach to the servant, by the time he returned his master was long gone. His errand could not wait, it seems, until morning.” His voice was measured and considered, with no inflection of approval or disapproval. “That solves, I think, the problem of where he had been.”

“And where I must follow him,” said Hugh, enlightened. “I’m obliged to you, Father, for pointing me the next step of the road. If he did indeed talk to Cuthred, at least we may learn what passed, and whether he got the answer he wanted—though plainly he was returning alone. Had he been bringing a captive villein with him, he would hardly have left him with free hands and a dagger about him. With your permission, Father, I’ll keep Brother Cadfael with me as witness, rather than take men-at-arms to a hermitage.”

“Do so,” said the abbot willingly. “This unfortunate man was a guest of our house, and we owe him every effort which may lead to the capture of his murderer. And every proper rite and service that can still be paid to his corpse. Robert, will you see to it that the body is reverently received when it comes? And Brother Jerome, you may assist. Your zeal to be of help to him should not be frustrated. You shall keep a night vigil with him in prayers for his soul.”

So there would be two lying side by side in the mortuary chapel tonight, Cadfael thought as they went out together from the parlour: the old man who had closed a long life as gently as a spent flower sheds it petals, and the lord of lands taken abruptly in his malice and hatred, with no warning, and no time to make his peace with man or God. Drogo Bosiet’s soul would be in need of all the prayers it could get.

“And has it yet entered your mind,” asked Hugh abruptly, as they rode out along the Foregate for the second time, “that Brother Jerome in his zeal for justice may have helped Bosiet to his death?”

If it had, Cadfael was not yet minded to entertain the thought. “He was on his way back,” he said cautiously, “and empty-handed. It argues that he was disappointed. The boy is not his lost villein.”

“It could as well argue that he is, and saw his doom bearing down on him in time to vanish. How then? He’s been in the woods there now long enough to know his way about. How if he was the hand that held the dagger?”

No denying that it was a possibility. Who could have better reason for slipping a knife into Drogo Bosiet’s back than the lad he meant to drag back to his own manor court, flay first, and exploit afterwards lifelong? “It’s what will be said,” agreed Cadfael sombrely. “Unless we find Cuthred and his boy sitting peacefully at home minding their own business and meddling with no one else’s. Small use guessing until we hear what happened there.”

They approached the projecting tongue of Eaton land by the same path Drogo had used, and saw the small clearing in thick woodland open before them almost suddenly, as he had seen it, but in full daylight, while he had come in early dusk. Muted sunlight filtering through the branches turned the sombre grey of the stone hut to dull gold. The low pales of the fence that marked out the garden were set far apart, a mere sketched boundary, no bar to beast or man, and the door of the hut stood wide open, so that they saw through into the inner room where the constant lamp on the stone altar showed tiny and dim as a single spark, almost quenched by the light falling from the tiny shutterless window above. Saint Cuthred’s cell, it seemed, stood wide open to all who came.

A part of the enclosed garden was still wild, though the grass and herbage had been cut, and there the hermit himself was at work with mattock and spade, heaving up the matted clods and turning the soil below as he cleared it. They watched him at it as they approached, inexpert but dogged and patient, plainly unused to handling such tools or stooping to such labours as should have fallen to Hyacinth. Who, by the same token, was nowhere to be seen.

A tall man, the hermit, long-legged, long-bodied, lean and straight, his coarse dark habit kilted to his knees, and the cowl flung back on his shoulders. He saw them coming and straightened up from his labours with the mattock still in his hands, and showed them a strong, fleshless face, olive-skinned and deep-eyed, framed in a thick bush of dark hair and beard. He looked from one to the other of them, and acknowledged Hugh’s reverence with a deep inclination of his head, without lowering his eyes.

“If your errand is to Cuthred the hermit,” he said in a deep and resonant voice, and with assured authority, “come in and welcome. I am he.” And to Cadfael, after studying his face for a moment: “I think I saw you at Eaton when the lord Richard was buried. You are a brother of Shrewsbury.”

“I am,” said Cadfael. “I was there in the boy’s escort. And this is Hugh Beringar, sheriff of this shire.”

“The lord sheriff does me honour,” said Cuthred. “Will you enter my cell?” And he loosed his frayed rope girdle and shook down the skirt of his habit to his feet, and led the way within. The thick tangle of his hair brushed the stone above the doorway as he entered. He stood a good head taller than either of his visitors.

In the dim living room there was one narrow window that let in the afternoon light, and a small stir of breeze that brought in the scent of mown herbage and moist autumn leaves. Through the doorless opening into the chapel within they saw all that Drogo had seen, the stone slab of the altar with its carved casket, the silver cross and candlesticks, and the open breviary lying before the small spark of the lamp. The hermit followed Hugh’s glance to the open book and, entering, closed it reverently, and laid it with loving care in accurate alignment with the forward edge of the reliquary. The fine gilt ornament and delicate tooling of the leather binding gleamed in the small light of the lamp.

“And how may I be of service to the lord sheriff?” asked Cuthred, his face still turned towards the altar.

“I need to ask you some few questions,” said Hugh with deliberation, “in the matter of a murdered man.”

That brought the lofty head round in haste, staring aghast and astonished. “Murdered? Here and now? I know of none. Say plainly what you mean, my lord.”

“Last night a certain Drogo Bosiet, a guest at the abbey, set out to visit you, at the prompting of one of the brothers. He came here in search of a runaway villein, a young man of about twenty years, and his intent was to view your boy Hyacinth, being a stranger and of the right age and kind, and see whether he is or is not the bondman who ran away from Bosiet. Did he ever reach you? By the time he had ridden this far it would already be evening.”

“Why, yes, such a man did come,” said Cuthred at once, “though I did not ask his name. But what has this to do with murder? A murdered man, you said.”

“This same Drogo Bosiet, on his way back towards the town and the abbey, was stabbed in the back and left beside the track, a mile or more from here. Brother Cadfael found him dead and his horse wandering loose, last night in the full dark.”

The hermit’s deep-set eyes, flaring reddish in their gaunt sockets, flashed from one face to the other in incredulous questioning. “Hard to believe, that there could be cutthroats and masterless men here, in this well-farmed, well-managed country—within your writ, my lord, and so near the town. Can this be what it seems, or is there worse behind it? Was the man robbed?”

“He was, of his saddle-roll, whatever that may have held. But not of his ring, not of his gown. What was done was done in haste.”

“Masterless men would have stripped him naked,” said Cuthred with certainty. “I do not believe this forest is shelter for outlaws. This is some very different matter.”

“When he came to you,” said Hugh, “what did he have to say? And what followed?”

“He came when I was saying Vespers, here in the chapel. He entered and said that he had come to see the boy who runs my errands, and that I might find I had been deceived into taking a villain into my employ. For he was seeking a runaway serf, and had been told that there was one here of the right age, newly come and a stranger to all, who might well be his man. He told me whence he came, and in what direction he had reason to believe his fugitive had fled. These things, and the time, fitted all too well for my peace of mind with the time and place where first I met and pitied Hyacinth. But it was not put to the test,” said Cuthred simply. “The boy was not here. A good hour earlier I had sent him on an errand to Eaton. He did not come back. He has not come back even today. Now I doubt much if he ever will.”

“You do believe,” said Hugh, “that he is this Brand.”

“I cannot judge. But I saw that he well might be. And when he failed to come back to me last night, then I felt it must be so. It is no part of my duty to give up any man to retribution, that is God’s business. I was glad I could not say yes or no, and glad he was not here to be seen.”

“But if he had simply got wind of the search for him, and kept out of the way,” said Cadfael, “he would have come back to you by now. The man who hunted him had gone away empty-handed, and if another visit threatened, he could do as much again, provided you did not betray him. Where else would he be so safe as with a holy hermit? But still he has not come.”

“But now you tell me,” said Cuthred gravely, “that his master is dead—if this man was indeed his lord. Dead and murdered! Say that my servant Hyacinth had got wind of Bosiet’s coming, and did more than absent himself. Say that he thought it better to lie in ambush and end the search for him once for all! No, I do not think now that I shall ever see Hyacinth again. Wales is not far, and even an incomer without a kinship can find service there, though upon hard terms. No, he will not come back. He will never come back.”

It was a strange moment for Cadfael’s mind to wander, as though some corner of his consciousness had made even more of one remembered moment than he had realised, for he found himself thinking suddenly of Annet coming into her father’s house radiant and roused and mysterious, with an oak leaf in her disordered hair. A little flushed and breathing as though she had been running. And past the hour of Compline, at a time when surely Drogo of Bosiet already lay dead more than a mile away on the track to Shrewsbury. True, Annet had gone out dutifully to shut up the hens and the cow for the night, but she had been a very long time about it, and come back with the high colour and triumphant eyes of a girl returning from her lover. And had she not made occasion to say a good word for Hyacinth, and taken pleasure in hearing her father praise him?

“How did you come upon this young man in the first place?” Hugh was asking. “And why did you take him into your service?”

“I was on my way from St. Edmundsbury, by way of the Augustinian canons at Cambridge, and I lodged two nights over at the Cluniac priory in Northampton. He was among the beggars at the gate. Though he was able-bodied and young he was also shabby and unkempt as if he had been living wild. He told me his father had been dispossessed and was dead, and he had no kin left and no work, and out of compassion I clothed him and took him as my servant. Otherwise he would surely have sunk into thieving and banditry in order to live. And he has been quick and obedient to me, and I thought him grateful, and so perhaps he truly was. But now it may all be in vain.”

“And when was this that you met him there?”

“In the last days of September. I cannot be sure of the exact day.”

Time and place fitted all too well. “I see I have a manhunt on my hands,” said Hugh wryly, “and I’d best be getting back to Shrewsbury, and setting on the hounds at once. For whether the lad’s a murderer or no, I’ve no choice now but to find and take him.”

Chapter Seven

« ^ »

It had always been brother Jerome’s contention, frequently and vociferously expressed, that Brother Paul exercised far too slack an authority over his young charges, both the novices and the children. It was Paul’s way to make his supervision of their days as unobtrusive as possible except when actually teaching, though he was prompt to appear if any of them needed or wanted him. But such routine matters as their ablutions, their orderly behaviour at meals, and their retiring at night and rising in the morning were left to their good consciences and to the sound habits of cleanliness and punctuality they had been taught. Brother Jerome was convinced that no boy under sixteen could be trusted to keep any rule, and that even those who had reached that mature age still had more of the devil in them than of the angels. He would have watched and hounded and corrected their every movement, had he been master of the boys, and made a great deal more use of punishments than ever Paul could be brought to contemplate. It was pleasure to him to be able to say, with truth, that he had always prophesied disaster from such lax stewardship.

Three schoolboys and nine novices, in a range of ages from nine years up to seventeen, are quite enough active youngsters to satisfy the casual eye at breakfast, unless someone has reason to count them, and discover that they fall one short of the right tally. Probably Jerome would have counted them on every occasion, certain that sooner or later there would be defaulters. Brother Paul did not count. And as he was needed at chapter and afterwards that day on specific business concerning his office, he had confided the morning’s schooling to the most responsible of the novices, another policy which Jerome deplored as ruinous to discipline. In church the small fry occupied such insignificant places that one more or less would never be noticed. So it was only late in the afternoon, when Paul mustered his flock again into the schoolroom, and separated the class of novices from the younger boys, that the absence of Richard was at last manifest.

Even then Paul was not at first alarmed or disturbed. The child was simply loitering somewhere, forgetful of time, and would appear at a run at any moment. But time slid by and Richard did not come. Questioned, the three boys remaining shuffled their feet uneasily, shifted a little closer together to have the reassurance of shoulder against shoulder, shook their heads wordlessly, and evaded looking Brother Paul in the eye. The youngest in particular looked less than happy, but they volunteered nothing, which merely convinced Paul that Richard was deliberately playing truant, that they were well aware of it and disapproved but would not let out one word to betray him. That he refrained from threatening them with dire penalties for such refractory silence would only have confirmed Jerome in his black disapproval of such an attitude.

Jerome encouraged tale-bearers. Paul had a sneaking sympathy with the sinful solidarity that would invite penalties to fall on its own head rather than betray a companion. He merely stated firmly that Richard should be called to account for his behaviour later and pay the penalty of his foolishness, and proceeded with the lesson. But he was increasingly aware of his pupils’ inattention and uneasiness, and the guilty glances they slid sidelong at one another over their letters. By the time they were dismissed he felt that the youngest, at any rate, was on the verge of blurting out whatever he knew, and his very distress argued that there was more behind this defection than the mere capricious cutting of a class.

Paul called the child back as they were leaving, half-gratefully, half-fearfully. “Edwin, come here to me!”

Understandably, the other two fled, certain now that the sky was about to fall on them, and in haste to avoid the first shock, whatever followed later. Edwin halted, turned, and slowly trailed his way back across the room, his eyes lowered to the small feet he was dragging reluctantly along the boards of the floor. He stood before Brother Paul, and trembled. One knee was still bandaged, and the linen had slipped awry. Without thinking, Paul unwound it and made it neat again.

“Edwin, what is it you know about Richard? Where is he?”

The child gulped out with utter conviction: “I don’t know!” and burst into tears. Paul drew him close and let him bury his nose in a long-suffering shoulder.

“Tell me! When did you last see him? When did he go?”

Edwin sobbed inarticulately into the rough woollen folds, until Paul held him off and peered into the smudged and woeful face. “Come! Tell me everything you know.”

And it came out in a flood, between hectic sniffs and sobs. “It was yesterday, after Vespers. I saw him, he took his pony and rode out along the Foregate. I thought he’d come back, but he didn’t, and we were frightened—We didn’t want him to be caught, he’d be in such terrible trouble—We didn’t want to tell, we thought he’d come back and no one need know…”

“Do you tell me,” demanded Paul, appalled and for once sounding formidable, “that he did not sleep here in his bed last night? That he’s been gone since yesterday and not a word said?”

A fresh burst of despairing tears distorted Edwin’s round flushed face, and his violently nodding head admitted the impeachment.

“And all of you knew this? You three? Did you never think that he might be hurt somewhere, or in danger? Would he stay out all night willingly? Oh, child, why did you not tell me? All this time we’ve lost!” But the boy was frightened enough already, there was nothing to be done with him but hush and reassure and comfort him, where reassurance and comfort were very hard to find. “Now, tell me—you saw him go, mounted. After Vespers? Did he not say what he intended?”

Edwin, very drearily, gathered what sense he had left and fumbled out the rest of it. “He came too late for Vespers. We were down on the Gaye, by the river, he didn’t want to come in, and when he did run after us it was too late. I think he waited to try and slip in with us when we came out of church, but Brother Jerome was standing talking to—to that man, the one who…”

He began to whimper again, recalling what he should not have seen, but of course had, the bearers of the litter coming in at the gatehouse, the bulky body motionless, the powerful face covered. “I waited at the school door,” whispered the tearful voice, “and I saw Richard come running out and down to the stables, and then he came back with his pony, and led it out at the gate in a great hurry, and rode away. And that’s all I know. I thought he would soon come back,” he wailed hopelessly. “We didn’t want to get him into trouble…”

If they had recoiled from doing that, they had certainly given him ample time and scope to get himself into trouble, deeper than any disloyalty of theirs might have plunged him. Brother Paul resignedly shook and patted his penitent into relative calm.

“You have been very wrong and foolish, and if you’re in disgrace it’s no more than you deserve. But answer everything truthfully now, and we’ll find Richard safe and sound. Go now, at once, and find the other two, and the three of you wait here until you are sent for.”

And Paul was off at a shaken run to take the bad news first to Prior Robert and then to the abbot, and then to confirm that the pony Dame Dionisia had sent as bait to her grandson was indeed gone from his stall. And there was great clamour and running about and turning grange court and barns and guest halls inside out, in case the culprit had not, after all deserted the enclave, or for sounder reasons had returned to it furtively, to try and conceal the fact that he had ever left it. The wretched schoolboys, tongue-lashed by Prior Robert and threatened with worse when anyone had time to perform it, cowered shivering and reduced to tears by the enormity of what had seemed to them good intentions, and having survived the first storm of recriminations, settled down stoically to endure the rest supperless and outcast. Not even Brother Paul had time to offer them any further reassuring words, he was too busy searching through the complex recesses of the mill and nearer alleys of the Foregate.

Into this frenzy of alarm and activity Cadfael came riding in the early evening, after parting from Hugh at the gate. This very night there would be sergeants out dragging the woods from Eyton westward for the fugitive who might or might not be Brand, but must at all costs be captured. Hugh was no fonder of manhunts than was Cadfael, and many a misused serf had been driven at last to flight and outlawry, but murder was murder, and the law could not stomach it. Guilty or innocent, the youth Hyacinth would have to be found. Cadfael dismounted at the gatehouse with his mind full of one vanished youngster, to be met by the spectacle of agitated brothers running hither and thither among all the monastic buildings in search of a second one. While he was gaping in amazement at the sight, Brother Paul came bearing down upon him breathless and hopeful.

“Cadfael, you’ve been in the forest. You haven’t seen hide or hair of young Richard, have you? I’m beginning to think he must have run home…”

“The last place he’d be likely to go,” said Cadfael reasonably, “while he’s wary of his grandmother’s intentions. Why? Do you tell me you’ve mislaid the imp?”

“He’s gone—gone since last night, and we never knew it until an hour ago.” Paul poured out the dismal story in a cascade of guilt and remorse and anxiety. “I am to blame! I have failed in my duty, been too complacent, trusted them too far… But why should he run away? He was happy enough. He never showed signs…”

“Doubtless he had his reasons,” said Cadfael, scrubbing thoughtfully at his blunt brown nose. “But back to the lady? I doubt it! No, if he went off in such haste it was something new and urgent that sent him running. Last night after Vespers, you said?”

“Edwin tells me Richard dawdled too long by the river, and came too late for Vespers, and must have been lurking in the cloister to slip in among the rest of the boys when they came out. But he could not do it because Jerome stood there in the archway, waiting to speak to Bosiet, who had attended among the guests. But when Edwin looked back he saw Richard come running out down to the stables, and then out at the gate in a hurry.”

“Did he so!” said Cadfael, enlightened. “And where was Jerome, then, and Bosiet, that the boy was able to make off undetected?” But he did not wait for an answer. “No, never trouble to guess. We already know what they had to talk about, between the two of them—a small matter, and private. Jerome wanted no other audience, but it seems he had one of whom he knew nothing. Paul, I must leave you to your hunt a little while longer, and ride after Hugh Beringar. He’s already committed to a search for one vanished lad, he may as well make it for two, and drag the coverts but once.”

Hugh, overtaken under the arch of the town gate, reined in abruptly at the news, and turned to stare meditatively at Cadfael. “So you think that’s the way of it!” he said and whistled. “Why should he care about a young fellow he’s barely seen and never spoken to? Or have you reason to think the two of them have had their heads together?”

“No, none that I know of. Nothing but the timing of it, but that links the pair closely enough. Not much doubt what Richard overheard, and none that it sent him hotfoot on some urgent errand. And before Bosiet can get to the hermitage, Hyacinth vanishes.”

“And so does Richard!” Hugh’s black brows drew together, frowning over the implications. “Do you tell me if I find the one I shall have found both?”

“No, that I gravely doubt. The boy surely meant to be back in the fold before bedtime, and all innocence. He’s no fool, and he has no reason to want to leave us. But all the more reason we should be anxious about him now. He would be back with us, surely, if something had not prevented. Whether his pony’s thrown him somewhere, and he’s hurt, or lost—or whether… They’re wondering if he’s run home to Eaton, but that’s rankly impossible. He never would.”

Hugh had grasped the unspoken suggestion which Cadfael himself had hardly had time to contemplate. “No, but he might be taken there! And by God, so he might! If some of Dionisia’s people happened on him alone in the woods, they’d know how to please their lady. Oh, I know the household there are Richard’s people, not hers, but there must be one or two among them would take the chance of present favours if it offered. Cadfael, old friend,” said Hugh heartily, “you go back to your workshop and leave Eaton to me. As soon as I’ve set my men on the hunt, yes, for both, I’ll go myself to Eaton and see what the lady has to say for herself. If she baulks at letting me turn her manor inside out for the one lad, I shall know she has the other hidden away somewhere about the place, and I can force her hand. If Richard’s there, I’ll have him out for you by tomorrow, and back in Brother Paul’s arms,” promised Hugh buoyantly. “Even if it costs the poor imp a whipping,” he reflected with a sympathetic grin, “he may find that preferable to being married off on his grandmother’s terms. At least the sting doesn’t last so long.”

Which was a very perverse blasphemy against marriage, Cadfael thought and said, coming from one who had such excellent reason to consider himself blessed in his wife and proud of his son. Hugh had wheeled his horse towards the steep slope of the Wyle, but he slanted a smiling glance back over his shoulder.

“Come up to the house with me now, and complain of me to Aline. Keep her company while I’m off to the castle to start the hunt.”

And the prospect of sitting for an hour or so in Aline’s company, and playing with his godson Giles, now approaching three years old, was tempting, but Cadfael shook his head, reluctantly but resignedly. “No, I’d best be going back. We’ll all be busy hunting our own coverts and asking along the Foregate until dark. There’s no certainty where he’ll be, we dare miss no corner. But God speed your search, Hugh, for it’s more likely than ours.”

He walked his horse back over the bridge towards the abbey with a slack rein, suddenly aware he had ridden far enough for one day, and looked forward with positive need to the stillness and soul’s quiet of the holy office, and the vast enclosing sanctuary of the church. The thorough search of the forest must be left to Hugh and his officers. No point even in spending time and grief now wondering where the boy would spend the coming night, though an extra prayer for him would not come amiss. And tomorrow, thought Cadfael, I’ll go and visit Eilmund, and take him his crutches, and keep my eyes open on the way. Two missing lads to search for. Find one, find both? No, that was too much to hope for. But if he found one, he might also be a long step forward towards finding the other.

There was a newly-arrived guest standing at the foot of the steps that led up to the door of the guest hall, watching with contained interest the continuing bustle of a search which had now lost its frenetic aspect and settled down grimly into the thorough inspection of every corner of the enclave, besides the parties that were out enquiring along the Foregate. The obsessed activity around him only made his composed stillness the more striking, though his appearance otherwise was ordinary enough. His figure was compact and trim, his bearing modest, and his elderly but well-cared-for boots, dark chausses and good plain cotte cut short below the knee, were the common riding gear of all but the highest and the lowest who travelled the roads. He could as well have been a baron’s sub-tenant on his lord’s business as a prosperous merchant or a minor nobleman on his own. Cadfael noticed him as soon as he dismounted at the gate. The porter came out from his lodge to plump himself down on the stone bench outside with a gusty sigh, blowing out his russet cheeks in mild exasperation.

“No sign of the boy, then?” said Cadfael, though plainly expecting none.

“No, nor likely to be, not within here, seeing he went off pony and all. But make sure first here at home, they say. They’re even talking of dragging the mill-pond. Folly! What would he be doing by the pool, when he went off at a trot along the Foregate—that we do know. Besides, he’ll never drown, he swims like a fish. No, he’s well away out of our reach, whatever trouble he’s got himself into. But they must needs turn out all the straw in the lofts and prod through the stable litter. You’d best hurry and keep a sharp eye on your workshop, or they’ll be turning that inside out.”

Cadfael was watching the quiet dark figure by the guest hall. “Who’s the newcomer?”

“One Rafe of Coventry. A falconer to the earl of Warwick. He has dealings with Gwynedd for young birds to train, so Brother Denis tells me. He came not a quarter of an hour since.”

“I took him at first to be Bosiet’s son,” said Cadfael, “but I see he’s too old—more the father’s own generation.”

“So did I take him for the son. I’ve been keeping a sharp watch for him, for someone has to tell him what’s waiting for him here, and I’d rather it was Prior Robert than take it on myself.”

“I like to see a man,” said Cadfael appreciatively, his eyes still on the stranger, “who can stand stock still in the middle of other people’s turmoil, and ask no questions. Ah, well, I’d better get this fellow unsaddled and into his stall, he’s had a good day’s exercise with all this coming and going. And so have I.”

And tomorrow, he thought, leading the horse at a leisurely walk down the length of the great court towards the stable yard, I must be off again. I may be astray, but at least let’s put it to the test.

He passed close to where Rafe of Coventry stood, passively interested in the bustle for which he asked no explanation, and thinking his own thoughts. At the sound of hooves pacing slowly on the cobbles he turned his head, and meeting Cadfael’s eyes by chance, gave him the brief thaw of a smile and a nod by way of greeting. A strong but uncommunicative face he showed, broad across brow and cheekbones, with a close-trimmed brown beard and wide-set, steady brown eyes, wrinkled at the corners as if he lived chiefly in the open, and was accustomed to peering across distances.

“You’re bound for the stables, Brother? Be my guide there. No reflection on your grooms, but I like to see my own beast cared for.”

“So do I,” said Cadfael warmly, checking to let the stranger fall into step beside him. “It’s a lifetime’s habit. If you learn it young you never lose it.” They matched strides neatly, being of the same modest stature. In the stable yard an abbey groom was rubbing down a tall chestnut horse with a white blaze down his forehead, and hissing gently and contentedly to him as he worked.

“Yours?” said Cadfael, eyeing the beast appreciatively.

“Mine,” said Rafe of Coventry briefly, and himself took the cloth from the groom’s hand. “My thanks, friend! I’ll take him myself now. Where may I stable him?” And he inspected the stall the groom indicated, with a long, comprehensive glance round and a nod of satisfaction. “You keep a good stable here, Brother, I see. No offence that I prefer to do my own grooming. Travellers are not always so well provided, and as you said, it’s habit.”

“You travel alone?” said Cadfael, busy unsaddling but with a sharp eye on his companion all the same. The belt that circled Rafe’s hips was made to carry sword and dagger. No doubt he had shed both in the guest hall with his cloak and gear. A falconer is not easily fitted into a category where travel is concerned. A merchant would have had at least one able-bodied servant with him for protection, probably more. A soldier would be self-sufficient, as this man chose to be, and carry the means of protecting himself.

“I travel fast,” said Rafe simply. “Numbers drag. If a man depends only on himself, there’s no one can let him fall.”

“You’ve ridden far?”

“From Warwick.” A man of few words and no curiosity, this falconer of the earl’s. Or did that quite hold good? Concerning the search for the lost boy he showed no disposition to ask questions, but he was taking a measured interest in the stables and the horses they held. Even after he had satisfied himself of his own beast’s welfare, he still stood looking round him at the rest with a keen professional eye. The mules and the working horses he passed by, but halted at the pale roan that had belonged to Drogo Bosiet. That was understandable enough in a lover of good horseflesh, for the roan was a handsome animal and clearly from stock of excellent quality.

“Can your house afford such bloodstock?” He passed a hand approvingly over the glossy shoulder and stroked between the pricked ears. “Or does this fellow belong to a guest?”

“He did,” said Cadfael, himself sparing of words.

“He did? How is that?” Rafe had turned alertly to stare, and in the unrevealing face the eyes were sharp and intent.

“The man who owned him is dead. He’s lying in our mortuary chapel this moment.” The old brother had gone to his rest in the cemetery that same morning, Drogo had the chapel to himself now.

“What kind of man was that? And how did he die?” On this head he had questions enough to ask, startled out of his detachment and indifference.

“We found him dead in the forest, a few miles from here, with a knife wound in his back. And robbed.” Cadfael was never quite sure why he himself had become so reticent at this point, and why, for instance, he did not simply name the dead man. And had his companion persisted, as would surely have been natural enough, he would have answered freely. But there the questioning stopped. Rafe shrugged off the implied perils of riding alone in the forests of the border shires, and closed the low door of the stall on his contented horse.

“I’ll bear it in mind. Go well armed, I say, or keep to the highroads.”

He dusted his hands and turned towards the gateway of the yard. “Well, I’ll go and make ready for supper.” And he was off at a purposeful walk, but not immediately towards the guest hall. Instead, he crossed to the archway of the cloister, and entered there. Cadfael found something so significant in that arrow-straight progress towards the church that he followed, candidly curious and officiously helpful, and finding Rafe of Coventry standing hesitant by the parish altar, looking round him at the multiplicity of chapels contained in transepts and chevet, directed him with blunt simplicity to the one he was looking for.

“Through here. The arch is low, but you’re my build, no need to stoop your head.”

Rafe made no effort to disguise or disclaim his purpose, or to reject Cadfael’s company. He gave him one calm, considering look, nodded his acknowledgements, and followed. And in the stony chill and dimming light of the chapel he crossed at once to the bier where Drogo Bosiet’s body lay reverently covered, with candles burning at head and feet, and lifted the cloth from the dead face.

Very briefly he studied the fixed and pallid features, and again covered them, and the movements of his hands as they replaced the cloth had lost their urgency and tension. He had time even for simple human awe at the presence of death.

“You don’t, by any chance, know him?” asked Cadfael.

“No, I never saw him before. God rest his soul!” And Rafe straightened up from stooping over the bier, and drew a liberating breath. Whatever his interest in the body had been, it was over.

“A man of property, by the name of Drogo Bosiet, from Northamptonshire. His son is expected here any day now.”

“Do you tell me so? A bleak coming that will be for him.” But the words he used now were coming from the surface of his mind only, and answers concerned him scarcely at all. “Have you many guests at this season? Of my own years and condition, perhaps? I should enjoy a game of chess in the evening, if I can find a partner.”

If he had lost interest in Drogo Bosiet, it seemed he was still concerned to know of any others who might have come here as travellers. Any of his own years and condition!

“Brother Denis could give you a match,” said Cadfael, deliberately obtuse. “No, it’s a quiet time with us. You’ll find the hall half-empty.” They were approaching the steps of the guest hall, side by side and easy together, and the late afternoon light, overcast and still, was beginning to dim into the dove grey of evening.

“This man who was struck down in the forest,” said Rafe of Coventry. “Your sheriff will surely have the hounds out after an outlaw so near the town. Is there suspicion of any man for the deed?”

“There is,” said Cadfael, “though there’s no certainty. A newcomer in these parts, who’s missing from his master’s service since the attack.” And he added, innocently probing without seeming to probe: “A young fellow he is, maybe twenty years old…”

Not of Rafe’s years or condition, no! And of no interest to him, for he merely nodded his acceptance of the information, and by the indifference of his face as promptly discarded it. “Well, God speed their hunting!” he said, dismissing Hyacinth’s guilt or innocence as irrelevant to whatever he had on that closed and armoured mind of his.

At the foot of the guest hall steps he turned in, surely to examine, thought Cadfael, every man of middle years who would come to supper in hall. Looking for one in particular? Whose name, since he did not ask for names, would be unhelpful, because false? One, at any rate, who was not Drogo Bosiet of Northamptonshire!

Chapter Eight

« ^ »

Hugh came to the manor of Eaton early in the morning, with six mounted men at his back, and a dozen more deployed behind him between the river and the highroad, to sweep the expanse of field and forest from Wroxeter to Eyton and beyond. For a fugitive murderer they might have to turn the hunt westward, but Richard must surely be somewhere here in this region, if he had indeed set out to warn Hyacinth of the vengeance bearing down on him. Hugh’s party had followed the direct road from the Abbey Foregate to Wroxeter, an open, fast track, and thence by the most direct path into the forest, to Cuthred’s cell, where Richard would have expected to find Hyacinth. By young Edwin’s account he had been only a few minutes ahead of Bosiet, he would have made all haste and taken the shortest and fastest way. But he had never reached the hermitage.

“The boy Richard?” said the hermit, astonished. “You did not ask me of him yesterday, only of the man. No, Richard did not come. I remember the young lord well, God grant no harm has come to him! I did not know he was lost.”

“And you’ve seen nothing of him since? It’s two nights now he’s been gone.”

“No, I have not seen him. My doors are always open, even by night,” said Cuthred, “and I am always here if any man needs me. Had the child been in any peril or distress within reach of me, he would surely have come running here. But I have not seen him.”

It was simple truth that both doors stood wide, and the sparse furnishings of both living room and chapel were clear to view.

“If you should get any word of him,” said Hugh, “send to me, or to the abbey, or if you should see my men drawing these coverts round you—as you will give them the message.”

“I will do so,” said Cuthred gravely, and stood at the open gateway of his little garden to watch them ride away towards Eaton.

John of Longwood came striding out from one of the long barns lining the stockade, as soon as he heard the dull drumming of many hooves on the beaten earth of the yard. His bare arms and balding crown were the glossy brown of oak timber, for he spent most of his time out and active in all weathers, and there was no task about the holding to which he could not turn his hand. He stared at sight of Hugh’s men riding in purposefully at the gate, but in wonder and curiosity rather than consternation, and came readily to meet them.

“Well, my lord, what’s afoot with you so early?” He had already taken in the significance of their array. No hounds, no hawks, but steel by their sides, and two of them archers shouldering bows. This was another kind of hunt. “We’ve had no trouble hereabouts. What’s the word from Shrewsbury?”

“We’re looking for two defaulters,” said Hugh briskly. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard we have a man murdered between here and the town, two nights ago. And the hermit’s boy is fled, and suspect of being the man’s runaway villein, with good reason to make away with him and run for the second time. That’s the one quarry we’re after.”

“Oh, ay, we’d heard about him,” said John readily, “but I doubt he’s a good few miles from here by this time. We’ve not seen hide or hair of him since late that afternoon, when he was here to fetch some honey cakes our dame had for Cuthred. She was not best pleased with him, neither, I heard her scolding. And for sure he was an impudent rogue. But the start he’s had, I fancy you won’t see him again. I never saw him carry steel, though,” said John by way of a fair-minded afterthought, and frowned over the resultant doubt. “There’s a chance at least that some other put an end to his master. The threat to haul him back to villeinage would be enough to make the lad take to his heels, the faster the better. In unknown country his lord would be hard put to it to track him down. No need, surely, to kill him. Small inducement to stay and take the risk.”

“The fellow’s neither convicted nor charged yet,” said Hugh, “nor can be until he’s taken. But neither can he be cleared until then. And either way I want him. But we’re after another runaway, too, John. Your lady’s grandson, Richard, rode out of the abbey precinct that same evening, and hasn’t come back.”

“The young lord!” echoed John, stricken open-mouthed with astonishment and consternation. “Two nights gone, and only now we get to hear of it? God help us, she’ll run mad! What happened? Who fetched the lad away?”

“No one fetched him. He up and saddled his pony and off he went, alone, of his own will. And what’s befallen him since nobody knows. And since one of the pair I’m seeking may be a murderer, I’m leaving no barn un-ransacked and no house unvisited, and with orders to every man to keep a sharp lookout for Richard, too. Granted you’re a good steward, John, not even you can know what mouse has crept into every byre and sheep fold and storehouse on the manor of Eaton. And that’s what I mean to know, here and everywhere between here and Shrewsbury. Go in and tell Dame Dionisia I’m asking to speak with her.”

John shook his head helplessly, and went. Hugh dismounted, and advanced to the foot of the stairs that led up to the hall door, above the low undercroft, waiting to see how Dionisia would bear herself when she emerged from the broad doorway above. If she really had not heard of the boy’s disappearance until this moment, when her steward would certainly tell her, he could expect a fury, fuelled all the more by genuine dismay and grief. If she had, then she had had time to prepare herself to present a fury, but even so she might let slip something that would betray her. As for John, his honesty was patent. If she had the boy hidden away, John had had no part in it. He was not an instrument she would have used for such a purpose, for he was stubbornly determined to be Richard’s steward rather than hers.

She came surging out from the shadow of the doorway, blue skirts billowing, imperious eyes smouldering.

“What’s this I hear, my lord? It surely cannot be true! Richard missing?”

“It is true, madam,” said Hugh watching her intently, and undisturbed by the fact of having to look up to do it, as indeed he would have had to do even if she had come darting down the steps to his level, for she was taller than he. “Since the night before last he’s been gone from the abbey school.”

She flung up her clenched hands with an indignant cry. “And only now am I told of it! Two nights gone! Is that the care they take of their children? And these are the people who deny me the charge of my own flesh and blood! I hold the abbot responsible for whatever distress or harm has come to my grandson. The guilt is on his head. And what are you doing, my lord, to recover the child? Two days you tell me he’s been lost, and late and laggard you come to let me know of it…”

The momentary hush fell only because she had to stop to draw breath, standing with flashing eyes at the head of the steps, tall and greying fair and formidable, her long patrician face suffused with angry blood. Hugh took ruthless advantage of the lull, while it lasted, for it would not last long.

“Has Richard been here?” he demanded bluntly, challenging her show of furious deprivation and loss.

She caught her breath, standing open-mouthed. “Here! No, he did not come here. Should I be thus distraught if he had?”

“You would have sent word to the abbot, no doubt,” said Hugh guilelessly, “if he had come running home? They are no less anxious about him at the abbey. And he rode away alone, of his own will. Where should we first look for him but here? But you tell me he is not here, has not been here. And his pony has not come wandering home to his old stable?”

“He has not, or I should have been told at once. If he’d come home riderless,” she said, her nostrils flaring, “I would have had every man who is mine scouring the woods for Richard.”

“My men are busy this minute doing that very thing,” said Hugh. “But by all means turn out Richard’s people to add to the number, and welcome. The more the better. Since it seems we’ve drawn blank,” he said, still thoughtfully studying her face, “and after all, he is not here.”

“No,” she blazed, “he is not here! No, he has not been here! Though if he left of his own will, as you claim, perhaps he meant to come home to me. And for whatever has befallen him on the way I hold Radulfus to blame. He is not fit to have charge of a noble child, if he cannot take better care of him.”

“I will tell him so,” said Hugh obligingly, and went on with aggravating mildness: “My present duty is to continue the search, then, both for Richard and for the thief who killed an abbey guest in Eyton forest. You need not fear, madam, that my search will not be thorough. Since I cannot expect you to make daily rounds of every corner of your grandson’s manor, no doubt you’ll be glad to allow me free access everywhere, to do that service for you. You’ll wish to set the example to your tenants and neighbours.”

She gave him a long, long, hostile look, and as suddenly whirled on John of Longwood, who stood impassive and neutral at her elbow. In the gale of her movements her long skirt lashed like the tail of an angry cat.

“Open my doors to these officers. All my doors! Let them satisfy themselves I’m neither harbouring a murderer nor hiding my own flesh and blood here. Let all our tenants know it’s my will they should submit to search as freely as I do. My lord sheriff,” she said, looking down with immense dignity upon Hugh, “enter and search wherever you wish.”

He thanked her with unabashed civility, and if she saw the glint in his eye, that just fell short of becoming an open smile, she scorned to acknowledge it, but turned her straight back and withdrew with a rapid and angry gait into the hall, leaving him to a search he already felt must prove fruitless. But there was no certainty, and if she had calculated that such a rash and sweeping invitation would be taken as proof, and send them away satisfied, even shamefaced, she was much deceived. Hugh set to work to probe every corner of Dionisia’s hall and solar, kitchens and stores, examined every cask and handcart and barrel in the undercroft, every byre and barn and stable that lined the stockade, the smith’s workshop, every loft and larder, and moved outward into the fields and sheep folds, and thence to the huts of every tenant and cotter and villein on Richard’s land. But they did not find Richard.

Brother Cadfael rode for Eilmund’s assart in the middle of the afternoon, with the new crutches Brother Simon had cut to the forester’s measure slung alongside, good, sturdy props to bear a solid weight. The fracture appeared to be knitting well, the leg was straight and not shortened. Eilmund was not accustomed to lying by inactive, and was jealous of any other hands tending his woodlands. Once he got hold of these aids Annet would have trouble keeping him in. It was in Cadfael’s mind that her father’s helplessness had afforded her an unusual measure of freedom to pursue her own feminine ploys, no doubt innocent enough, but what Eilmund would make of them when he found out was another matter.

Approaching the village of Wroxeter, Cadfael met with Hugh riding back towards the town, after a long day in the saddle. Beyond, in fields and woodlands, his officers were still methodically combing every grove and every headland, but Hugh was bound back to the castle alone, to collect together whatever reports had been brought in, and consider how best to cover the remaining ground, and how far the search must be extended if it had not yet borne fruit.

“No,” said Hugh, answering the unasked question almost as soon as they were within hail of each other, “she has not got him. By all the signs she did not even know you’d lost him until I brought the word, though it’s no great trick, I know, for any woman to put on such an exclaiming show. But we’ve parted every stalk of straw in her barns, and what we’ve missed must be too small ever to be found. No black pony in the stables. Not a soul but tells the same story, from John of Longwood down to the smith’s boy. Richard is not there. Not in any cottage or byre in this village. The priest turned out his house for us, and went with us round the manor, and he’s an honest man.”

Cadfael nodded sombre confirmation of his own doubts. “I had a feeling there might be more to it than that. It would be worth trying yonder at Wroxeter, I suppose. Not that I see Fulke Astley as a likely villain he’s too fat and too cautious.”

“I’m just come from there,” said Hugh. “Three of my men are still prodding into the last corners, but I’m satisfied he’s not there, either. We’ll miss no one manor, cottage, assart, all. Of what falls alike on them all none of them can well complain. Though Astley did bristle at letting us in. A matter of his seigneurial dignity, for there was nothing there to find.”

“The pony,” said Cadfael, gnawing a considering lip, “must be shut away somewhere.”

“Unless,” said Hugh sombrely, “the other fugitive has ridden him hard out of the shire, and left the boy in such case that he cannot bear witness even when we find him.”

They stared steadily upon each other, mutely admitting that it was a black and bitter possibility, but one that could not be altogether banished.

“The child ran off to him, if that is indeed what he did,” Hugh pursued doggedly, “without saying a word to any other. How if it was indeed to a rogue and murderer he went, in all innocence? The cob is a sturdy little beast, big for Richard, the hermit’s boy a light weight, and Richard the only witness. I don’t say it is so. I do say such things have happened, and could happen again.”

“True, I would not dispute it,” admitted Cadfael.

There was that in his tone that caused Hugh to say with certainty: “But you do not believe it.” It was something of which Cadfael himself had been less certain until that moment. “Do you feel your thumbs pricking? I know better than to ignore the omen if you do,” said Hugh with a half-reluctant smile.

“No, Hugh.” Cadfael shook his head. “I know nothing that isn’t known to you, I am nobody’s advocate in this matter—except Richard’s—I’ve barely exchanged a word with this boy Hyacinth, never seen him but twice, when he brought Cuthred’s message to chapter and when he came to fetch me to the forester. All I can do is keep my eyes open between here and Eilmund’s house, and that you may be sure I shall do—perhaps even do a little beating of the bushes myself along the way. If I have anything to tell, be sure you’ll hear it before any other. Be it good or ill, but God and Saint Winifred grant us good news!”

On that promise they parted, Hugh riding on to the castle to receive whatever news the watch might have for him thus late in the afternoon, Cadfael moving on through the village towards the edge of the woodland. He was in no hurry. He had much to think about. Strange how the very act of admitting that the worst was possible had so instantly strengthened his conviction that it had not happened and would not happen. Stranger still that as soon as he had stated truthfully that he knew nothing of Hyacinth, and had barely spoken a word to him, he should find himself so strongly persuaded that very soon that lack might be supplied, and he would learn, if not everything, all that he needed to know.

Eilmund had regained his healthy colour, welcomed company eagerly, and could not be restrained from trying out his crutches at once. Four or five days cooped up indoors was a sore test of his temper, but the relief of being able to hurple vigorously out into the garden, and finding himself a fast learner in the art of using his new legs, brought immediate sunny weather with him. When he had satisfied himself of his competence, he sat down willingly, at Annet’s orders, to share a supper with Cadfael.

“Though by rights I ought to be getting back,” said Cadfael, “now I know how well you’re doing. The bone seems to be knitting straight and true as a lance, and you’ll not need me here harrying you every day. And speaking of inconvenient visitors, have you had Hugh Beringar or his men here today searching the woods around? You’ll have heard before now they’re hunting Cuthred’s boy Hyacinth for suspicion of killing his master? And there’s young Richard missing, too.”

“We heard of the both only last night,” said Eilmund. “Yes, they were here this morning, a long line of the garrison men working their way along every yard of the forest between road and river. They even looked in my byre and henhouse. Will Warden grumbled himself it was needless folly, but he had his orders. Why waste time, he says, aggravating a good fellow we all know to be honest, but it’s as much as my skin’s worth to leave out a single hut or let my beaters pass by a solitary bush, with his lordship’s sharp eye on us all. Do you know, have they found the child?”

“No, not yet. He’s not at Eaton, that’s certain. If it’s any comfort, Eilmund, Dame Dionisia had to open her doors to the search, too. Noble and simple, they’ll all fare alike.”

Annet waited upon them in silence, bringing cheese and bread to the table. Her step was as light as always, her face as calm, only at the mention of Richard did her face cloud over in anxious sympathy. There was no knowing what went on behind her composed face, but Cadfael hazarded his own guesses. He took his leave in good time, against Eilmund’s hospitable urgings.

“I’ve been missing too many services, these last days, I’d best get back to my duty, and at least put in an appearance for Compline tonight. I’ll come in and see you the day after tomorrow. You take care how you go. And, Annet, don’t let him stay on his feet too long. If he gives you trouble, take his props away from him.”

She laughed and said that she would, but her mind, Cadfael thought, was only half on what she said, and she had not made any move to second her father’s protest at such an early departure. Nor did she come out to the gate with him this time, but only as far as the door, and there stood to watch him mount, and waved when he looked back before beginning to thread the narrow path between the trees. Only when he had vanished did she turn and go back into the cottage.

Cadfael did not go far. A few hundred yards into the woods there was a hollow of green surrounded by a deep thicket, and there he dismounted and tethered his horse, and made his way back very quietly and circumspectly to a place from which he could see the house door without himself being seen. The light was dimming gently into the soft green of dusk, and the hush was profound, only the last birdsong broke the forest silence.

In a few minutes Annet came out to the door again, and stood for a little while braced and still, her head alertly reared, looking all round the clearing and listening intently. Then, satisfied, she set off briskly out of the fenced garden and round to the rear of the cottage. Cadfael circled with her in the cover of the trees. Her hens were already securely shut in for the night, the cow was in the byre; from these customary evening tasks Annet had come back a good hour ago, while her father was trying out his crutches in the grassy levels of the clearing. It seemed there was one more errand she had to do before the full night came down and the door was closed and barred. And she went to it at a light and joyous run, her hands spread to part the bushes on either side as she reached the edge of the clearing, her light brown hair shaking loose from its coil and dancing on her shoulders, her head tilted back as though she looked up into the trees, darkening now over her head and dropping, silently and moistly, the occasional withered leaf, the tears of the aging year.

She was not going far. No more than a hundred paces into the woods she halted, poised still in the same joyous attitude of flight, under the branches of the first of the ancient oaks, still in full but tarnished leafage. Cadfael, not far behind her in the shelter of the trees, saw her throw back her head and send a high, melodious whistle up into the crown of the tree. From somewhere high above a soft shimmering of leaves answered, dropping through the branches as an acorn might fall, and in a moment the descending shiver of movement reached the ground in the shape of a young man sudden and silent as a cat, who swung by his hands from the lowest bough and dropped lightly on his feet at Annet’s side. As soon as he touched ground they were in each other’s arms.

So he had not been mistaken. The two of them had barely set eyes on each other when they fell to liking, blessed as they were with the good ground of his services to her father. With Eilmund laid up helpless in the house she could go freely about her own secret business of hiding and feeding a fugitive, but what would they do now that the forester was likely to be up and about, however limited his range must remain? Was it fair to present her father with such a problem in loyalties, and he an official involved with law, if only forest law? But there they stood linked, as candidly as children, with such a suggestion of permanence about their embrace that it surely would take more than father or lord or law or king to disentangle them. With her long mane of hair loosed, and her feet bare, and Hyacinth’s classic elegance of shape and movement, and fierce, disquieting beauty, they might have been two creatures bred out of the ancient forest, faun and nymph out of a profane but lovely fable. Not even the gathering twilight could dim their brightness.

Well, thought Cadfael, surrendering to the vision, if this is what we have to deal with, from this we must go on, for there’s no going back. And he stepped rustling out of the bushes, and walked towards them without conceal.

They heard him and sprang round instantly with heads reared, cheek to cheek, like deer scenting danger. They saw him, and Annet flung out her arms and shut Hyacinth behind her against the bole of the tree, her face blanched and sharp as a sword, and as decisively Hyacinth laughed, lifted her bodily aside, and stepped before her.

“As if I needed the proof!” said Cadfael, to afford them whatever reassurance his voice might convey, and he halted without coming too close, though they knew already there was no point in running. “I’m not the law. If you’ve done no wrong you’ve nothing to fear from me.”

“It takes a bolder man than I am,” said Hyacinth’s clear voice softly, “to claim he’s done no wrong.” Even in the dimming light his sudden, unnerving smile shone perceptibly for a moment. “But I’ve done no murder, if that’s what you mean. Brother Cadfael, is it?”

“It is.” He looked from one roused and wary face to the other, and saw that they were breathing a little more easily and every moment less tensed for flight or attack. “Lucky for you they brought no hounds with them this morning. Hugh never likes to hunt a man with hounds. I’m sorry, lad, if my visit tonight kept you fretting longer than you need have done in your nest up there. I hope you spend your nights in better comfort.”

At that they both smiled, still somewhat cautiously and with eyes alert and wild, but they said nothing.

“And where did you hide through the sergeant’s search, that they never got wind of you at all?”

Annet made up her mind, with the same thorough practical resolution with which she did everything. She stirred and shook herself, the glossy cloak of her hair billowing into a pale cloud about her head. She drew breath deeply, and laughed.

“If you must know, he was under the brychans of Father’s bed, while Will Warden sat on the bench opposite drinking ale with us, and his men peered in among my hens and forked through the hay in the loft, outside. You thought, I believe,” she said, coming close to Cadfael and drawing Hyacinth after her by the hand, “that Father was in ignorance of what I was doing. Did you hold that against me, even a little? No need, he knows all, has known it from the beginning, or at least from the moment this manhunt began. And now that you’ve found us out, had we not better all go into the house, and see what our four heads can come up with for the future, to get us all out of this tangle?”

“They’ll not come here again,” said Eilmund comfortably, presiding over this meeting in his house from the throne of his bed, the same bed under which Hyacinth had couched secure in the presence of the hunters. “But if they do, we’ll know of it in time. Never twice the same hiding place.”

“And never once any qualms that you might be hiding a murderer?” asked Cadfael, hopeful of being convinced.

“No need for any! From the start of it I knew I was not. And you shall know it, too. I’m talking of proof positive, Cadfael, not a mere matter of faith, though faith’s no mere matter, come to that. You were here last night, it was on your way back you found the man dead, and dead no more than an hour when you found him. Do you say aye to that?”

“More than willingly, if it helps your proof along.”

“And you left me when Annet here came back from doing the work that keeps her busy in the evening. You’ll call to mind I said she’d been long enough about it, and so she had, well above an hour. For good reason, she’d been meeting with this youngster here, and whatever they were about, they were in no hurry about it, which won’t surprise you greatly, I daresay. In short, these two were together in the woods a mile or so from here from the time she left you and me together, until she came back nigh on two hours later. And there young Richard found them, and this lad she brought back with her here, and ten minutes after you were gone she brought him in to me. No murderer, for all that while he was with her, or me, or the both of us, and in this house he slept that night. He never was near the man who was killed, and we can swear to it.”

“Then why have you not…” Cadfael began, and as hastily caught himself back from the needless question, and held up a hand to ward off the obvious answer. “No, say no word! I see very well why. My wits are grown dull tonight. If you came forward to tell Hugh Beringar he’s after a man proven innocent, true enough you could put that danger away from him. But if one Bosiet is dead, there’s another expected at the abbey any day now he may be there this minute, for all I know. As bad as his sire, so says the groom, and he has good reason to know, he bears the marks of it. No, I see how you’re bound.”

Hyacinth sat in the rushes on the floor at Annet’s feet, hugging his drawn up knees. He said without passion or emphasis, but with the calm finality of absolute resolution: “I am not going back there.”

“No, no more you shall!” said Eilmund heartily. “You’ll understand, Cadfael, that when I took the lad in, there was no question of murder at all. It was a runaway villein I chose to shelter, one with good reason to run, and one that had done me the best of turns any man could do for another. I liked him well, I would not for any cause have sent him back to be misused. And then, when the cry of murder did arise, I had no call to feel any differently, for I knew he had no part in it. It went against the grain not to be able to go out and say so to sheriff and abbot and all, but you see it was impossible. And the upshot of it is, here we are with the lad on our hands, and how are we best to make sure of his safety?”

Chapter Nine

« ^ »

It was already taken for granted by all of them, it seemed, that Cadfael was on their side, and wholeheartedly a party to their conspiracy. How could it be otherwise? Here was absolute proof that the boy was no murderer, proof that could be laid in Hugh Beringar’s hands with confidence in his justice, no question of that. But it could not be done without exposing Hyacinth to the very danger from which he had escaped once, and could hardly hope to escape a second time. Hugh was bound by law as fast as any man, even his gift for turning a blind eye and a deaf ear would not help Hyacinth if once Bosiet got wind of where he was and who was sheltering him.

“Between us,” said Cadfael, though somewhat dubiously, “we might be able to get you away out of the county and into Wales, clean away from pursuit…”

“No,” said Hyacinth firmly, “I won’t run. I’ll hide for as long as I must, but I won’t run any further. It’s what I meant to do, when I set off this way, but I’ve changed my mind.”

“Why?” demanded Cadfael simply.

“For two good reasons. One, because Richard’s lost, and Richard saved my skin for me by bringing warning, and I’m his debtor until I know he’s safe, and back where he should be. And two, because I want my freedom here in England, here in Shrewsbury, and I mean to get work in the town when I can with safety, and earn my living, and take a wife.” He looked up with a bright, challenging flash of his amber eyes at Eilmund, and smiled. “If Annet will have me!”

“You’d best ask my leave about that,” said Eilmund, but with such good humour that it was plain the idea was not entirely new to him, nor necessarily unwelcome.

“So I will, when the time comes, but I would not offer you or her what I am and have now. So let that wait, but don’t forget it,” warned the faun, gleaming. “But Richard I must find, I will find! That’s first!”

“What can you do,” said Eilmund practically, “more than Hugh Beringar and all his men are doing? And you a hunted man yourself, with the hounds close on your tail! You stay quiet like a sensible lad, and hide your head until Bosiet’s hunt for you starts costing him more even than his hatred’s worth. As it will, in the end. He has manors at home now to think about.”

But whether Hyacinth was, by ordinary standards, a sensible lad was a matter for conjecture. He sat very still, in that taut, suggestive way he had, that promised imminent action, the soft glow of Annet’s fire glowing in the subtle planes of his cheeks and brow, turning his bronze to gold. And Annet, beside him on the cushioned bench by the wall, had something of the same quality. Her face was still, but her eyes were sapphire bright. She let them talk about her in her presence, and felt no need to add a word on her own account, nor did she so much as touch Hyacinth’s slender shoulder to confirm her secure tenure. Whoever had doubts about Annet’s claims on the future, Annet had none.

“Richard left you as soon as he’d delivered his warning?” asked Cadfael.

“He did. Hyacinth wanted to go with him to the edge of the wood,” said Annet, “but he wouldn’t have it. He wouldn’t stir unless Hyacinth went into hiding at once, so we promised. And he set off back along the track. And we came back here to Father, as he’s told you, and saw no one else along the way. Richard would not have gone anywhere near Eaton, or I’d have thought his grandmother might have taken him. But he was bent on getting back to his bed.”

“It was what we all thought,” owned Cadfael, “not least Hugh Beringar. But he was there early and turned the place wrong side out, and the boy is not there. I think John of Longwood and half the household beside would have told if he’d been seen there. Dame Dionisia is a formidable lady, but Richard is the lord of Eaton, it’s his bidding they’ll have to do in the future, not hers. If they dared not speak out before her face, they’d have done it softly behind her back. No, he is not there.”

It was long past time for Vespers. Even if he started back now he would be too late for Compline, but still he sat stubbornly going over this whole new situation in his mind, looking for the best way forward, where there seemed to be nothing to be done but wait, and continue to evade the hunt. He was grateful that Hyacinth was no murderer, that at least was a gain. But how to keep him out of the hands of Bosiet was another matter.

“For God’s sake, boy,” he said, sighing, “what was it you did to your overlord, there in Northamptonshire, to get yourself so bitterly hated? Did you indeed assault his steward?”

“I did,” acknowledged Hyacinth with satisfaction, and a red reminiscent spark kindled in his eyes. “It was after the last of the harvest, and there was a girl gleaning in the poor leavings in one of the demesne fields. There never was a girl safe from him if he came on her alone. It was only by chance I was near. He had a staff, and dropped her to swing at my head with it when I came at him. I got a few bruises, but I laid him flat against the stones under the headland, clean out of his wits. So there was nothing I could do but run for it. I’d nothing to leave, no land. Drogo distrained on my father two years before, when he was in his last illness and I had all to do, our fields and Bosiet’s harvest labour, and we ended in debt. He’d been after us a long while, he said I was for ever rousing his villeins against him… Well, if I was it was for their rights. There are laws to defend life and limb even for villeins, but they meant precious little in Bosiet’s manors. He’d have had me half-killed for attacking the steward. He’d have had me hanged if I hadn’t been profitable to him. It was the chance he’d been waiting for.”

“How were you profitable to him?” asked Cadfael.

“I had a turn for fine leather-work belts, harness, pouches, and the like. When he’d made me landless he offered to leave me the toft if I’d bind myself to turn over all my work to him for my keep. I’d no choice, I was still his villein. But I began to do finer tooling and gilding. He wanted to get some favour out of the earl once, and he had me make a book cover to give him as a present. And then the prior of the Augustinian canons at Huntingdon saw it, and ordered a special binding for their great codex, and the sub-prior of Cluny at Northampton wanted his best missal rebound, and so it grew. And they paid well, but I got nothing out of it. Drogo’s done well out of me. That’s the other reason he wanted me back alive. And so will his son Aymer want me.”

“If you have a trade the like of that at your finger-ends,” said Eilmund approvingly, “you can make your way anywhere, once you’re free of these Bosiets. Our abbot might very well put some work your way, and some town merchant would be glad to have you in his employ.”

“Where and how did you meet with Cuthred?” asked Cadfael, curiously.

“That was at the Cluniac priory in Northampton. I lay up for the night there, but I dared not go into the enclave, there were one or two there who knew me. I got food by sitting with the beggars at the gate, and when I was making off before dawn, Cuthred was for starting too, having spent the night in the guest hall.” An abrupt dark smile plucked at the corners of Hyacinth’s eloquent lips. He kept his startling eyes veiled under their high-arched golden lids. “He proposed we should travel together. Out of charity, surely. Or so that I should not have to thieve for my food, and sink into a worse condition even than before.” As abruptly he looked up, unveiling the full brilliance of wide eyes fixed full and solemnly on Eilmund’s face. The smile had vanished.

“It’s time you knew the worst of me, I want no lies among this company. I came this way owing the world nothing, and ripe for any mischief, and a rogue and a vagabond I could be, and a thief I have been at need. Before you shelter me another hour, you should know what cause you have to think better of it. Annet,” he said, his voice soft and assuaged on her name, “already knows what you must know too. You have that right. I told her the truth the night Brother Cadfael was here to set your bone.”

Cadfael remembered the motionless figure sitting patiently outside the cottage, the urgent whisper: “I must speak to you!” And Annet coming out into the dark, and closing the door after her.

“It was I,” said Hyacinth with steely deliberation, “who dammed the brook with bushes so that your seedlings were flooded. It was I who undercut the bank and bridged the ditch so that the deer got into the coppice. It was I who shifted a pale of the Eaton fence to let out the sheep to the ash saplings. I had my orders from Dame Dionisia to be a thorn in the flesh to the abbey until they gave her her grandson back. That was why she set up Cuthred in his hermitage, to put me there as his servant. And I knew nothing then of any of you, and cared less, and I was not going to quarrel with what provided me a comfortable living and a safe refuge until I could do better. It’s my doing, more’s the pity, that the worse thing happened, and the tree came down on you and pinned you in the brook, my doing that you’re lamed and housebound here though that slip came of itself, I didn’t touch it again. So now you know,” said Hyacinth, “and if you see fit to take the skin off my back for it, I won’t lift a hand to prevent, and if you throw me out afterwards, I’ll go.” He reached up a hand to Annet’s hand and added flatly: “But not far!”

There was a long pause while two of them sat staring at him, intently and silently, and Annet watched them no less warily, all of them withholding judgement. No one had exclaimed against him, no one had interrupted this half-defiant confession. Hyacinth’s truth was used like a dagger, and his humility came very close to arrogance. If he was ashamed, it did not show in his face. Yet it could not have been easy to strip himself thus of the consideration and kindness father and daughter had shown him. If he had not spoken, clearly Annet would have said no word. And he had not pleaded, nor attempted any extenuation. He was ready to take what was due without complaint. Doubtful if anyone, however eloquent or terrible a confessor, would ever get this elusive creature nearer to penitence than this.

Eilmund stirred, settling his broad shoulders more easily against the wall, and blew out a great, gusty breath. “Well, if you brought the tree down on me, you also hoisted it off me. And if you think I’d give up a runaway villein to slavery again because he’d played a few foul tricks on me, you’re not well acquainted with my simple sort. I fancy the fright I gave you that day was all the thrashing you needed. And since then you’ve done me no more injury, for from all I hear there’s been quiet in the woods from that day. I doubt if the