The Summer of the Danes
The Eighteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael
Digital Edition v2 HTML – February 6, 2003
Copyright 1991 © by Ellis Peters
All rights reserved
The extraordinary events of that summer of 1144 may properly be said to have begun the previous year, in a tangle of threads both ecclesiastical and secular, a net in which any number of diverse people became enmeshed, clerics, from the archbishop down to Bishop Roger de Clinton’s lowliest deacon, and the laity from the princes of North Wales down to the humblest cottager in the trefs of Arfon. And among the commonalty thus entrammelled, more to the point, an elderly Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.
Brother Cadfael had approached that April in a mood of slightly restless hopefulness, as was usual with him when the birds were nesting, and the meadow flowers just beginning to thrust their buds up through the new grass, and the sun to rise a little higher in the sky every noon. True, there were troubles in the world, as there always had been. The vexed affairs of England, torn in two by two cousins contending for the throne, had still no visible hope of a solution. King Stephen still held his own in the south and most of the east; the Empress Maud, thanks to her loyal half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was securely established in the southwest and maintained her own court unmolested in Devizes. But for some months now there had been very little fighting between them, whether from exhaustion or policy, and a strange calm had settled over the country, almost peace. In the Fens the raging outlaw Geoffrey de Mandeville, every man’s enemy, was still at liberty, but a liberty constricted by the king’s new encircling fortresses, and increasingly vulnerable. All in all, there was room for some cautious optimism, and the very freshness and luster of the spring forbade despondency, even had despondency been among Cadfael’s propensities.
So he came to chapter, on this particular day at the end of April, in the most serene and acquiescent of spirits, full of mild good intentions towards all men, and content that things should continue as bland and uneventful through the summer and into the autumn. He certainly had no premonition of any immediate change in this idyllic condition, much less of the agency by which it was to come.
As though compelled, half fearfully and half gratefully, to the same precarious but welcome quietude, the business at chapter that day was modest and aroused no dispute, there was no one in default, not even a small sin among the novices for Brother Jerome to deplore, and the schoolboys, intoxicated with the spring and the sunshine, seemed to be behaving like the angels they certainly were not. Even the chapter of the Rule, read in the flat, deprecating tones of Brother Francis, was the 34th, gently explaining that the doctrine of equal shares for all could not always be maintained, since the needs of one might exceed the needs of another, and he who received more accordingly must not preen himself on being supplied beyond his brothers, and he that received less but enough must not grudge the extra bestowed on his brothers. And above all, no grumbling, no envy. Everything was placid, conciliatory, moderate. Perhaps, even, a shade on the dull side?
It is a blessed thing, on the whole, to live in slightly dull times, especially after disorder, siege and bitter contention. But there was still a morsel somewhere in Cadfael that itched if the hush continued too long. A little excitement, after all, need not be mischief, and does sound a pleasant counterpoint to the constant order, however much that may be loved and however faithfully served.
They were at the end of routine business, and Cadfael’s attention had wandered away from the details of the cellarer’s accounts, since he himself had no function as an obedientiary, and was content to leave such matters to those who had. Abbot Radulfus was about to close the chapter, with a sweeping glance around him to make sure that no one else was brooding over some demur or reservation, when the lay porter who served at the gatehouse during service or chapter put his head in at the door, in a manner which suggested he had been waiting for this very moment, just out of sight.
“Father Abbot, there is a guest here from Lichfield. Bishop de Clinton has sent him on an errand into Wales, and he asks lodging here for a night or two.”
Anyone of less importance, thought Cadfael, and he would have let it wait until we all emerged, but if the bishop is involved it may well be serious business, and require official consideration before we disperse. He had good memories of Roger de Clinton, a man of decision and solid good sense, with an eye for the genuine and the bogus in other men, and a short way with problems of doctrine. By the spark in the abbot’s eye, though his face remained impassive, Radulfus also recalled the bishop’s last visit with appreciation.
“The bishop’s envoy is very welcome,” he said, “and may lodge here for as long as he wishes. Has he some immediate request of us, before I close this chapter?”
“Father, he would like to make his reverence to you at once, and let you know what his errand is. At your will whether it should be here or in private.”
“Let him come in,” said Radulfus.
The porter vanished, and the small, discreet buzz of curiosity and speculation that went round the chapterhouse like a ripple on a pond ebbed into anticipatory silence as the bishop’s envoy came in and stood among them.
A little man, of slender bones and lean but wiry flesh, diminutive as a sixteen-year-old boy, and looking very much like one, until discerning attention discovered the quality and maturity of the oval, beardless face. A Benedictine like these his brothers, tonsured and habited, he stood erect in the dignity of his office and the humility and simplicity of his nature, as fragile as a child and as durable as a tree. His straw-coloured ring of cropped hair had an unruly spikiness, recalling the child. His grey eyes, formidably direct and clear, confirmed the man.
A small miracle! Cadfael found himself suddenly presented with a gift he had often longed for in the past few years, by its very suddenness and improbability surely miraculous. Roger de Clinton had chosen as his accredited envoy into Wales not some portly canon of imposing presence, from the inner hierarchy of his extensive see, but the youngest and humblest deacon in his household, Brother Mark, sometime of Shrewsbury abbey, and assistant for two fondly remembered years among the herbs and medicines of Cadfael’s workshop.
Brother Mark made a deep reverence to the abbot, dipping his ebullient tonsure with a solemnity which still retained, until he lifted those clear eyes again, the slight echo and charm of absurdity which had always clung about the mute waif Cadfael first recalled. When he stood erect he was again the ambassador; he would always be both man and child from this time forth, until the day when he became priest, which was his passionate desire. And that could not be for some years yet, he was not old enough to be accepted.
“My lord,” he said, “I am sent by my bishop on an errand of goodwill into Wales. He prays you receive and house me for a night or two among you.”
“My son,” said the abbot, smiling, “you need here no credentials but your presence. Did you think we could have forgotten you so soon? You have here as many friends as there are brothers, and in only two days you will find it hard to satisfy them all. And as for your errand, or your lord’s errand, we will do all we can to forward it. Do you wish to speak of it? Here, or in private?”
Brother Mark’s solemn face melted into a delighted smile at being not only remembered, but remembered with obvious pleasure. “It is no long story, Father,” he said, “and I may well declare it here, though later I would entreat your advice and counsel, for such an embassage is new to me, and there is no one could better aid me to perform it faithfully than you. You know that last year the Church chose to restore the bishopric of Saint Asaph, at Llanelwy.”
Radulfus agreed, with an inclination of his head. The fourth Welsh diocese had been in abeyance for some seventy years, very few now living could remember when there had been a bishop on the throne of Saint Kentigern. The location of the see, with a foot either side the border, and all the power of Gwynedd to westward, had always made it difficult to maintain. The cathedral stood on land held by the earl of Chester, but all the Clwyd valley above it was in Owain Gwynedd’s territory. Exactly why Archbishop Theobald had resolved on reviving the diocese at this time was not quite clear to anyone, perhaps not even the archbishop. Mixed motives of Church politics and secular manoeuvring apparently required a firmly English hold on this borderland, for the appointed man was a Norman. There was not much tenderness towards Welsh sensitivities in such a preferment, Cadfael reflected ruefully.
“And after his consecration last year by Archbishop Theobald, at Lambeth, Bishop Gilbert is finally installed in his see, and the archbishop wishes him to receive assurance he has the support of our own bishop, since the pastoral duties in those parts formerly rested in the diocese of Lichfield. I am the bearer of letters and gifts to Llanelwy on my lord’s behalf.”
That made sense, if the whole intent of the Church was to gain a firm foothold well into Welsh land, and demonstrate that it would be preserved and defended. A marvel, Cadfael considered, that any bishop had ever contrived to manage so huge a see as the original bishopric of Mercia, successively shifting its base from Lichfield to Chester, back again to Lichfield, and now to Coventry, in the effort to remain in touch with as diverse a flock as ever shepherd tended. And Roger de Clinton might not be sorry to be quit of those border parishes, whether or not he approved the strategy which deprived him of them.
“The errand that brings you back to us, even for a few days, is dearly welcome,” said Radulfus. “If my time and experience can be of any avail to you, they are yours, though I think you are equipped to acquit yourself well without any help from me or any man.”
“It is a weighty honour to be so trusted,” said Mark very gravely.
“If the bishop has no doubts,” said Radulfus, “neither need you. I take him for a man who can judge very well where to place his trust. If you have ridden from Lichfield you must be in need of some rest and refreshment, for it’s plain you set out early. Is your mount being cared for?”
“Yes, Father.” The old address came back naturally.
“Then come with me to my lodging, and take some ease, and use my time as you may wish. What wisdom I have is at your disposal.” He was already acutely aware, as Cadfael was, that this apparently simple mission to the newly made and alien bishop at Saint Asaph covered a multitude of other calculated risks and questionable issues, and might well send this wise innocent feeling his way foot by foot through a quagmire, with quaking turf on every hand. All the more impressive, then, that Roger de Clinton had placed his faith in the youngest and least of his attendant clerics.
“This chapter is concluded,” said the abbot, and led the way out. As he passed the visitor by, Brother Mark’s grey eyes, at liberty at last to sweep the assembly for other old friends, met Cadfael’s eyes, and returned his smile, before the young man turned and followed his superior. Let Radulfus have him for a while, savor him, get all his news from him, and all the details that might complicate his coming journey, give him the benefit of long experience and unfailing commonsense. Later on, when that was done, Mark would find his own way back to the herb garden.
“The bishop has been very good to me,” said Mark, shaking off firmly the idea of any special preference being shown him in his selection for this mission, “but so he is to all those close about him. There’s more to this than favor to me. Now that he’s set up Bishop Gilbert in Saint Asaph, the archbishop knows very well how shaky his position must be, and wants to make sure his throne is secured by every support possible. It was his wish—indeed his command—that our bishop should pay the new man this complimentary visit, seeing it’s from his diocese most of Gilbert’s new see has been lopped. Let the world see what harmony there is among bishops—even bishops who have had a third of their territory whipped from under their feet. Whatever Bishop Roger may be thinking of the wisdom of planting a Norman, with not a word of Welsh, in a see nine-tenths Welsh, he could hardly refuse the archbishop. But it was left to him how he carried out the order. I think he chose me because he does not wish to make too lavish and flattering a show. His letter is formal and beautifully executed, his gift is more than suitable. But I—I am a judicious half-measure!”
They were gathered in conference in one of the carrels of the north walk, where the spring sunshine still reached slanting fingers of pale gold even in late afternoon, an hour or so before Vespers. Hugh Beringar had ridden down from his house in the town as soon as word of Brother Mark’s arrival had reached him, not because the sheriff had any official business in this clerical embassage, but for the pleasure of seeing again a young man he held in affectionate remembrance, and to whom, in this present instance, he might be able to give some help and advice. Hugh’s relations with North Wales were good. He had a friendly agreement with Owain Gwynedd, since neither of them trusted their mutual neighbour the earl of Chester, and they could accept each other’s word without question. With Madog ap Meredith of Powis the sheriff had a more precarious relationship. The Shropshire border was constantly alert against sporadic and almost playful raids from beyond the dyke, though at this present time all was comparatively quiet. What the conditions of travel were likely to be on this ride to Saint Asaph, Hugh was the most likely man to know.
“I think you are too modest,” he said seriously. “I fancy the bishop knows you well enough by now, if he’s had you constantly about him, to have a very good opinion of your wit, and trusts you to step gently where a weightier ambassador might talk too much and listen too little. Cadfael here will tell you more than I can about Welsh feeling in Church matters, but I know where politics enter into it. You can be sure that Owain Gwynedd has a sharp eye on the doings of Archbishop Theobald in his domain, and Owain is always to be reckoned with. And only four years ago there was a new bishop consecrated in his own home diocese of Bangor, which is totally Welsh. There at least they did sanction a Welshman, one who at first refused to swear fealty to King Stephen or acknowledge the dominance of Canterbury. Meurig was no hero, and did finally give way and do both, and it cost him Owain’s countenance and favour at the time. There was strong resistance to allowing him to take his seat. But they’ve come to terms and made up their differences since then, which means they’ll certainly work together to keep Gwynedd from being wholly subservient to Theobald’s influence. To consecrate a Norman now to Saint Asaph is a challenge to princes as well as prelates, and whoever undertakes a diplomatic mission there will have to keep a sharp eye on both.”
“And Owain at least,” Cadfael added shrewdly, “will be keeping a sharp eye on what his people are feeling, and an ear open to what they are saying. It behoves Gilbert to do the same. Gwynedd has no mind to give way to Canterbury, they have saints and customs and rites of their own.”
“I have heard,” said Mark, “that formerly, a long time ago, St David’s was the metropolitan see of Wales, with its own archbishop not subject to Canterbury. There are some Welsh churchmen now who want that rule restored.”
Cadfael shook his head rather dubiously at that. “Better not to look too closely into the past, we’re hearing more of that claim the more the writ of Canterbury is urged on us. But certainly Owain will be casting his shadow over his new bishop, by way of a reminder he’s in alien territory, and had better mind his manners. I hope he may be a wise man, and go gently with his flock.”
“Our bishop is very much in agreement with you,” said Mark, “and I’m well briefed. I did not tell the whole of my errand in chapter, though I have told it to Father Abbot since. I have yet another letter and gift to deliver. I am to go on to Bangor—oh, no, this is certainly not at Archbishop Theobald’s orders!—and pay the same courtesy to Bishop Meurig as to Bishop Gilbert. If Theobald holds that bishops should stand together, then Roger de Clinton’s text is that the principle applies to Norman and Welsh alike. And we propose to treat them alike.”
The “we”, as applying to Mark in common with his illustrious superior, sounded an echoing chord in Cadfael’s ears. He recalled just as innocent a presumption of partnership some years back, when this boy had been gradually emerging from his well-founded wariness of all men into warmth and affection, and this impulsive loyalty to those he admired and served. His “we”, then, had signified himself and Cadfael, as if they were two venturers keeping each the other’s back against the world.
“More and more,” said Hugh appreciatively, “I warm to this bishop of ours. But he’s sending you even on this longer journey alone?”
“Not quite alone.” Brother Mark’s thin, bright face flashed for an instant into a slightly mischievous smile, as though he had still some mysterious surprise up his sleeve. “But he would not hesitate to ride across Wales alone, and neither would I. He takes it for granted the Church and the cloth will be respected. But of course I shall be glad of any advice you can give me about the best way. You know far better than I or my bishop what conditions hold good in Wales. I thought to go directly by Oswestry and Chirk. What do you think?”
“Things are quiet enough up there,” Hugh agreed. “In any event, Madog, whatever else he may be, is a pious soul where churchmen are concerned, however he may treat the English laity. And for the moment he has all the lesser lads of Powys Fadog on a tight rein. Yes, you’ll be safe enough that way, and it’s your quickest way, though you’ll find some rough upland riding between Dee and Clwyd.”
By the brightness and speculation of Mark’s grey eyes he was looking forward to his adventure. It is a great thing to be trusted with an important errand when you are the latest and least of your lord’s servants, and for all his awareness that his humble status was meant to temper the compliment, he was also aware how much depended on the address with which he discharged his task. He was meant not to flatter, not to exalt, but nevertheless to present in his person the real and formidable solidarity of bishop with bishop.
“Are there things I should know,” he asked, “about affairs in Gwynedd? The politics of the Church must reckon with the politics of state, and I am ignorant about things Welsh. I need to know on what subjects to keep my mouth shut, and when to speak, and what it would be wise to say. All the more as I am to go on to Bangor. What if the court should be there? I may have to account for myself to Owain’s officers. Even to Owain himself!”
“True enough,” said Hugh, “for he usually contrives to know of every stranger who enters his territory. You’ll find him approachable enough if you do encounter him. For that matter, you may give him my greetings and compliments. And Cadfael has met him, twice at least. A large man, every way! Just say no word of brothers! It may still be a sore point with him.”
“Brothers have been the ruin of Welsh princedoms through all ages,” Cadfael observed ruefully. “Welsh princes should have only one son apiece. The father builds up a sound principality and a strong rule, and after his death his three or four or five sons, in and out of wedlock, all demand by right equal shares, and the law says they should have them. Then one picks off another, to enlarge his portion, and it would take more than law to stop the killing. I wonder, sometimes, what will happen when Owain’s gone. He has sons already, and time enough before him to get more. Are they, I wonder, going to undo everything he’s done?”
“Please God,” said Hugh fervently, “Owain’s going may not be for thirty years or more. He’s barely past forty. I can deal with Owain, he keeps his word and he keeps his balance. If Cadwaladr had been the elder and got the dominance we should have had border war along this frontier year in, year out.”
“This Cadwaladr is the brother it’s best not to mention?’ Mark asked. “What has he done that makes him anathema?”
“A number of things over the years. Owain must love him, or he would have let someone rid him of the pest long ago. But this time, murder. Some months ago, in the autumn of last year, a party of his closest men ambushed the prince of Deheubarth and killed him. God knows for what mad reason! The young fellow was in close alliance with him, and betrothed to Owain’s daughter, there was no manner of sense in such an act. And for all Cadwaladr did not appear himself in the deed, Owain for one was in no doubt it was done on his orders. None of them would have dared, not of their own doing.”
Cadfael recalled the shock of the murder, and the swift and thorough retribution. Owain Gwynedd in outraged justice had sent his son Hywel to drive Cadwaladr bodily out of every furlong of land he held in Ceredigion, and burn his castle of Llanbadarn, and the young man, barely past twenty, had accomplished his task with relish and efficiency. Doubtless Cadwaladr had friends and adherents who would give him at least the shelter of a roof, but he remained landless and outcast. Cadfael could not but wonder, not only where the offender was lurking now, but whether he might not end, like Geoffrey of Mandeville in the Fens, gathering the scum of North Wales about him, criminals, malcontents, natural outlaws, and preying on all law-abiding people.
“What became of this Cadwaladr?” asked Mark with understandable curiosity.
“Dispossession. Owain drove him out of every piece of land he had to his name. Not a toehold left to him in Wales.”
“But he’s still at large, somewhere,” Cadfael observed, with some concern, “and by no means the man to take his penalty tamely. There could be mischief yet to pay. I see you’re bound into a perilous labyrinth. I think you should not be going alone.”
Hugh was studying Mark’s face, outwardly impassive, but with a secretive sparkle of fun in the eyes that watched Cadfael so assiduously. “As I recall,” said Hugh mildly, “he said: ‘Not quite alone!’ ”
“So he did!” Cadfael stared into the young face that confronted him so solemnly, but for that betraying gleam in the eyes. “What is it, boy, that you have not told us? Out with it! Who goes with you?”
“But I did tell you,” said Mark, “that I am going on to Bangor. Bishop Gilbert is Norman, and speaks both French and English, but Bishop Meurig is Welsh, and he and many of his people speak no English, and my Latin would serve me only among the clerics. So I am allowed an interpreter. Bishop Roger has no competent Welsh speaker close to him or in his confidence. I offered a name, one he had not forgotten.” The sparkle had grown into a radiance that lit his face, and reflected not only light but enlightenment back into Cadfael’s dazzled eyes. “I have been keeping the best till last,” said Mark, glowing. “I got leave to win my man, if Abbot Radulfus would sanction his absence. I have as good as promised him the loan will be for only ten days or so at the most. So how can I possibly miscarry,” asked Mark reasonably, “if you are coming with me?”
It was a matter of principle, or perhaps of honor, with Brother Cadfael, when a door opened before him suddenly and unexpectedly, to accept the offer and walk through it. He did so with even more alacrity if the door opened on a prospect of Wales; it might even be said that he broke into a trot, in case the door slammed again on that enchanting view. Not merely a brief sally over the border into Powis, this time, but several days of riding, in the very fellowship he would have chosen, right across the coastal regions of Gwynedd, from Saint Asaph to Carnarvon, past Aber of the princes, under the tremendous shoulders of Moel Wnion. Time to talk over every day of the time they had been apart, time to reach the companionable silences when all that needed to be said was said. And all this the gift of Brother Mark. Wonderful what riches a man can bestow who by choice and vocation possesses nothing! The world is full of small, beneficent miracles.
“Son,” said Cadfael heartily, “for such refreshment I’ll be your groom along the way, as well as your interpreter. There’s no way you or any man could have given me more pleasure. And did Radulfus really say I’m free to go?”
“He did,” Mark assured him, “and the choice of a horse from the stables is yours. And you have today and tomorrow to make your preparations with Edmund and Winfrid for the days you’re absent, and to keep the hours of the Office so strictly that even your errant soul shall go protected to Bangor and back.”
“I am wholly virtuous and regenerate,” said Cadfael with immense content. “Has not heaven just shown it by letting me loose into Wales? Do you think I am going to risk disapprobation now?”
Since at least the first part of Mark’s mission was meant to be public and demonstrative, there was no reason why every soul in the enclave should not take an avid interest in it, and there was no lack of gratuitous advice available from all sides as to how it could best be performed, especially from old Brother Dafydd in the infirmary, who had not seen his native cantref of Duffryn Clwyd for forty years, but was still convinced he knew it like the palm of his ancient hand. His pleasure in the revival of the diocese was somewhat soured by the appointment of a Norman, but the mild excitement had given him a new interest in life, and he reverted happily to his own language, and was voluble in counsel when Cadfael visited him. Abbot Radulfus, by contrast, contributed nothing but his blessing. The mission belonged to Mark, and must be left scrupulously in his hands. Prior Robert forebore from comment, though his silence bore a certain overtone of disapproval. An envoy of his dignity and presence would have been more appropriate in the courts of bishops.
Brother Cadfael reviewed his medical supplies, committed his garden confidently to Brother Winfrid, and paid a precautionary visit to Saint Giles to ensure that the hospital cupboards were properly provided, and Brother Oswin in serene command of his flock, before he repaired to the stables to indulge in the pleasure of selecting his mount for the journey. It was there that Hugh found him early in the afternoon, contemplating with pleasure an elegant light roan with a cream-coloured mane, that leaned complacently to his caressing hand.
“Too tall for you,” said Hugh over his shoulder. “You’d need a lift into the saddle, and Mark could never hoist you.”
“I am not yet grown so heavy nor so shrunken with age that I cannot scramble on to a horse,” said Cadfael with dignity. “What brings you here again and looking for me?”
“Why, a good notion Aline had, when I told her what you and Mark are up to. May is on the doorstep already, and in a week or two at the most I should be packing her and Giles off to Maesbury for the summer. He has the run of the manor there, and it’s better for him out of the town.” It was his usual custom to leave his family there until after the wool clip had been taken and the fields gleaned, while he divided his time between home and the business of the shire. Cadfael was familiar with the routine. “She says, why should we not hasten the move by a week, and ride with you tomorrow, to set you on your way as far as Oswestry? The rest of the household can follow later, and we could have one day, at least, of your company, and you could bide the night over with us at Maesbury if you choose. What do you say?”
Cadfael said yes, very heartily, and so, when it was put to him, did Mark, though he declined, with regret, the offer of a night’s lodging. He was bent on reaching Llanelwy in two days, and arriving at a civilised time, at the latest by midafternoon, to allow time for the niceties of hospitality before the evening meal, so he preferred to go beyond Oswestry and well into Wales before halting for the night, to leave an easy stage for the second day. If they could reach the valley of the Dee, they could find lodging with one of the churches there, and cross the river in the early morning.
So it seemed that everything was already accounted for, and there remained nothing to be done but go reverently to Vespers and Compline, and commit this enterprise like all others to the will of God, but perhaps also with a gentle reminder to Saint Winifred that they were bound into her country, and if she felt inclined to let her delicate hand cover them along the way, the gesture would be very much appreciated.
The morning of departure found a little cavalcade of six horses and a pack-pony winding its way over the westward bridge and out of the town, on the road to Oswestry. There was Hugh, on his favorite self-willed grey, with his son on his saddle-bow, Aline, unruffled by the haste of her preparations for leaving town, on her white jennet, her maid and friend Constance pillion behind a groom, a second groom following with the pack-pony on a leading rein, and the two pilgrims to Saint Asaph merrily escorted by this family party. It was the last of April, a morning all green and silver. Cadfael and Mark had left before Prime, to join Hugh and his party in the town. A shower, so fine as to be almost imperceptible in the air, had followed them over the bridge, where the Severn ran full but peaceful, and before they had assembled in Hugh’s courtyard the sun had come out fully, sparkling on the leaves and grasses. The river was gilded in every ripple with capricious, scintillating light. A good day to be setting out, and no great matter why or where.
The sun was high, and the pearly mist of morning all dissolved when they crossed the river at Mont ford. The road was good, some stretches of it with wide grass verges where the going was comfortable and fast, and Giles demanded an occasional canter. He was much too proud to share a mount with anyone but his father. Once established at Maesbury the little pack-pony, sedate and good-humored, would become his riding pony for the summer, and the groom who led it his discreet guardian on his forays, for like most children who have never seen cause to be afraid, he was fearless on horseback—Aline said foolhardy, but hesitated to issue warnings, perhaps for fear of shaking his confidence, or perhaps out of the certainty that they would not be heeded.
They halted at noon under the hill at Ness, where there was a tenant of Hugh’s installed, to rest the horses and take refreshment. Before mid-afternoon they reached Felton, and there Aline and the escort turned aside to take the nearest way home, but Hugh elected to ride on with his friends to the outskirts of Oswestry. Giles was transferred, protesting but obedient, to his mother’s arms.
“Go safely, and return safely!” said Aline, her primrose head pale and bright as the child’s, the gloss of spring on her face and the burnish of sunlight in her smile. And she signed a little cross on the air between them before she wheeled her jennet into the lefthand track.
Delivered of the baggage and the womenfolk, they rode on at a brisker pace the few miles to Whittington, where they halted under the walls of the small timber keep. Oswestry itself lay to their left, on Hugh’s route homeward. Mark and Cadfael must go on northward still, but here they were on the very borderland, country which had been alternately Welsh and English for centuries before ever the Normans came, where the names of hamlets and of men were more likely to be Welsh than English. Hugh lived between the two great dykes the princes of Mercia had constructed long ago, to mark where their holding and writ began, so that no force should easily encroach, and no man who crossed from one side to the other should be in any doubt under which law he stood. The lower barrier lay just to the east of the manor, much battered and leveled now; the greater one had been raised to the west, when Mercian power had been able to thrust further into Wales.
“Here I must leave you,” said Hugh, looking back along the way they had come, and westward towards the town and the castle. “A pity! I could gladly have ridden as far as Saint Asaph with you in such weather, but the king’s officers had best stay out of Church business and avoid the crossfire. I should be loth to tread on Owain’s toes.”
“You have brought us as far as Bishop Gilbert’s writ, at any rate,” said Brother Mark, smiling. “Both this church and yours of Saint Oswald are now in the see of Saint Asaph. Did you realise that? Lichfield has lost a great swathe of parishes here in the northwest. I think it must be Canterbury policy to spread the diocese both sides the border, so that the line between Welsh and English can count for nothing.”
“Owain will have something to say to that, too.” Hugh saluted them with a raised hand, and began to wheel his horse towards the road home. “Go with God, and a good journey! We’ll look to see you again in ten days or so.” And he was some yards distant when he looked back over his shoulder and called after them: “Keep him out of mischief! If you can!” But there was no indication to which of them the plea was addressed, or to which of them the misgiving applied. They could share it between them.
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I am too old,” Brother Cadfael observed complacently, “to embark on such adventures as this.”
“I notice,” said Mark, eyeing him sidelong, “you say nothing of the kind until we’re well clear of Shrewsbury, and there’s no one to take you at your word, poor aged soul, and bid you stay at home.”
“What a fool I should have been!” Cadfael willingly agreed.
“Whenever you begin pleading your age, I know what I have to deal with. A horse full of oats, just let out of his stall, and with the bit between his teeth. We have to do with bishops and canons,” said Mark severely, “and they can be trouble enough. Pray to be spared any worse encounters.” But he did not sound too convinced. The ride had brought colour to his thin, pale face and a sparkle to his eyes. Mark had been raised with farm horses, slaving for the uncle who grudged him house-room and food, and he still rode farm fashion, inelegant but durable, now that the bishop’s stable had provided him a fine tall gelding in place of a plodding farm drudge. The beast was nutbrown, with a lustrous copper sheen to his coat, and buoyantly lively under such a light weight.
They had halted at the crest of the ridge overlooking the lush green valley of the Dee. The sun was westering, and had mellowed from the noon gold into a softer amber light, gleaming down the stream, where the coils of the river alternately glimmered and vanished among its fringes of woodland. Still an upland river here, dancing over a rocky bed and conjuring rainbows out of its sunlit spray. Somewhere down there they would find a night’s lodging.
They set off companionably side by side, down the grassy track wide enough for two. “For all that,” said Cadfael, “I never expected, at my age, to be recruited into such an expedition as this. I owe you more than you know. Shrewsbury is home, and I would not leave it for any place on earth, beyond a visit, but every now and then my feet itch. It’s a fine thing to be heading home, but it’s a fine thing also to be setting out from home, with both the going and the return to look forward to. Well for me that Theobald took thought to recruit allies for his new bishop. And what is it Roger de Clinton’s sending him, apart from his ceremonial letter?” He had not had time to feel curiosity on that score until now. Mark’s saddle-roll was too modest to contain anything of bulk.
“A pectoral cross, blessed at the shrine of Saint Chad. One of the canons made it, he’s a good silversmith.”
“And the same to Meurig at Bangor, with his brotherly prayers and compliments?”
“No, Meurig gets a breviary, a very handsome one. Our best illuminator had as good as finished it when the archbishop issued his orders, so he added a special leaf for a picture of Saint Deiniol, Meurig’s founder and patron. I would rather have the book,” said Mark, winding his way down a steep woodland ride and out into the declining sun towards the valley. “But the cross is meant as the more formal tribute. After all, we had our orders. But it shows, do you not think, that Theobald knows that he’s given Gilbert a very awkward place to fill?”
“I should not relish being in his shoes,” Cadfael admitted. “But who knows, he may delight in the struggle. There are those who thrive on contention. If he meddles too much with Welsh custom he’ll get more than enough of that.”
They emerged into the green, undulating meadows and bushy coverts along the riverside, the Dee beside them reflecting back orange gleams from the west. Beyond the water a great grassy hill soared, crowned with the man-made contours of earthworks raised ages ago, and under the narrow wooden bridge the Dee dashed and danced over a stony bed. Here at the church of Saint Collen they asked and found a lodging for the night with the parish priest.
On the following day they crossed the river, and climbed over the treeless uplands from the valley of the Dee to the valley of the Clwyd, and there followed the stream at ease the length of a bright morning and into an afternoon of soft showers and willful gleams of sun. Through Ruthin, under the outcrop of red sandstone crowned with its squat timber fortress, and into the vale proper, broad, beautiful, and the fresh green of young foliage everywhere. Before the sun had stooped towards setting they came down into the narrowing tongue of land between the Clwyd and the Elwy, before the two rivers met above Rhuddlan, to move on together into tidal water. And there between lay the town of Llanelwy and cathedral of Saint Asaph, comfortably nestled in a green, sheltered valley.
Hardly a town at all, it was so small and compact. The low wooden houses clustered close, the single track led into the heart of them, and disclosed the unmistakable long roof and timber bell-turret of the cathedral at the centre of the village. Modest though it was, it was the largest building to be seen, and the only one walled in stone. A range of other low roofs crowded the precinct, and on most of them some hasty repairs had been done, and on others men were still busily working, for though the church had been in use, the diocese had been dormant for seventy years, and if there were still canons attached to this centre their numbers must have dwindled and their houses fallen into disrepair long ago. It had been founded, many centuries past, by Saint Kentigern, on the monastic principle of the old Celtic clas, a college of canons under a priest-abbot, and with one other priest or more among the members. The Normans despised the clas, and were busy disposing all things religious in Wales to be subject to the Roman rite of Canterbury. Uphill work, but the Normans were persistent people.
But what was astonishing about this remote and rural community was that it seemed to be over-populated to a startling degree. As soon as they approached the precinct they found themselves surrounded by a bustle and purpose that belonged to a prince’s llys rather than a church enclave. Besides the busy carpenters and builders there were men and women scurrying about with pitchers of water, armfuls of bedding, folded hangings, trays of new-baked bread and baskets of food, and one strapping lad hefting a side of pork on his shoulders.
“This is more than a bishop’s household,” said Cadfael, staring at all the activity. “They are feeding an army! Has Gilbert declared war on the valley of Clwyd?”
“I think,” said Mark, gazing beyond the whirlpool of busy people to the gently rising hillside above, “they are entertaining more important guests than us.”
Cadfael followed where Mark was staring, and saw in the shadow of the hills points of colour patterning a high green level above the little town. Bright pavilions and fluttering pennants spread across the green, not the rough and ready tents of a military encampment, but the furnishings of a princely household.
“Not an army,” said Cadfael, “but a court. We’ve strayed into lofty company. Had we not better go quickly and find out if two more are welcome? For there may be business afoot that concerns more than staunch brotherhood among bishops. Though if the prince’s officers are keeping close at Gilbert’s elbow, a reminder from Canterbury may not come amiss. However cool the compliment!”
They moved forward into the precinct and looked about them. The bishop’s palace was a new timber building, hall and chambers, and a number of new small dwellings on either side. It was the better part of a year since Gilbert had been consecrated at Lambeth, and clearly there had been hasty preparations to restore some semblance of a cathedral enclave in order to receive him decently. Cadfael and Mark were dismounting in the court when a young man threaded a brisk way to them through the bustle, and beckoned a groom after him to take their horses.
“Brothers, may I be of service?”
He was young, surely not more than twenty, and certainly not one of Gilbert’s ecclesiastics, rather something of a courtier in his dress, and wore gemstones about a fine, sturdy throat. He moved and spoke with an easy confidence and grace, bright of countenance and fair in colouring, his hair a light, reddish brown. A tall fellow, with something about him that seemed to Cadfael elusively familiar, though he had certainly never seen him before. He had addressed them first in Welsh, but changed easily to English after studying Mark from head to foot in one brilliant glance.
“Men of your habit are always welcome. Have you ridden far?”
“From Lichfield,” said Mark, “with a brotherly letter and gift for Bishop Gilbert from my bishop of Coventry and Lichfield.”
“He will be heartily glad,” said the young man, with surprising candor, “for he may be feeling the need of reinforcements.” His flashing grin was mischievous but amiable. “Here, let me get someone to bring your saddle-rolls after us, and I’ll bring you where you can rest and take refreshment. It will be a while yet to supper.”
A gesture from him brought servants running to unstrap the pack-rolls and follow hard on the visitors’ heels as the young man led them across the court to one of the new cells built out from the hall.
“I am without rights to command here, being a guest myself, but they have got used to me.” It was said with an assured and slightly amused confidence, as if he knew good reason why the bishop’s circle should accommodate him, and was forbearing enough not to presume upon it too far. “Will this suffice?”
The lodging was small but adequate, furnished with beds, bench and table, and full of the scent of seasoned wood freshly tooled. New brychans were piled on the beds, and the smell of good wool mingled with the newness of timber.
“I’ll send someone with water,” said their guide, “and find one of the canons. His lordship has been selecting where he can, but his demands come high. He’s having trouble in filling up his chapter. Be at home here, Brothers, and someone will come to you.”
And he was gone, with his blithe long strides and springing tread, and they were left to settle and stretch at ease after their day in the saddle.
“Water?” said Mark, pondering this first and apparently essential courtesy. “Is that by way of taking salt, here in Wales?”
“No, lad. A people that goes mostly afoot knows the value of feet and the dust and aches of travel. They bring water for us to bathe our feet. It is a graceful way of asking: Are you meaning to bide overnight? If we refuse it, we intend only a brief visit in courtesy. If we accept it, we are guests of the house from that moment.”
“And that young lord? For he’s too fine for a servant, and certainly no cleric. A guest, he said. What sort of an assembly have we blundered into, Cadfael?”
They had left the door wide for the pleasure of the evening light and the animation to be viewed about the court. A girl came threading her way through the purposeful traffic with a long, striding grace in her step, bearing before her a pitcher in a bowl. The water-carrier was tall and vigorous. A braid of glassy blue-black hair thick as her wrist hung over her shoulder, and stray curls blew about her temples in the faint breeze. A pleasure to behold, Cadfael thought, watching her approach. She made them a deep reverence as she entered, and kept her eyes dutifully lowered as she served them, pouring water for them, unlatching their sandals with her own long, shapely hands, no servant but a decorous hostess, so surely in a position of dominance here that she could stoop to serve without at any point abasing herself. The touch of her hands on Mark’s lean ankles and delicate, almost girlish feet brought a fiery blush rising from his throat to his brow, and then, as if she had felt it scorch her forehead, she did look up.
It was the most revealing of glances, though it lasted only a moment. As soon as she raised her eyes, a face hitherto impassive and austere was illuminated with a quicksilver sequence of expressions that came and passed in a flash. She took in Mark in one sweep of her lashes, and his discomfort amused her, and for an instant she considered letting him see her laughter, which would have discomforted him further; but then she relented, indulging an impulse of sympathy for his youth and apparent fragile innocence, and restored the gravity of her oval countenance.
Her eyes were so dark a purple as to appear black in shadow. She could not be more than eighteen years of age. Perhaps less, for her height and her bearing gave her a woman’s confidence. She had brought linen towels over her shoulder, and would have made a deliberate and perhaps mildly teasing grace of drying Mark’s feet with her own hands, but he would not let her. The authority that belonged not in his own small person but in the gravity of his office reached out to take her firmly by the hand and raise her from her knees. She rose obediently, only a momentary flash of her dark eyes compromising her solemnity. Young clerics, Cadfael thought, perceiving that he himself was in no danger, might have trouble with this one. For that matter, so might elderly clerics, if in a slightly different way.
“No,” said Mark firmly. “It is not fitting. Our part in the world is to serve, not to be served. And from all we have seen, outside there, you have more than enough guests on your hands, more demanding than we would wish to be.”
At that she suddenly laughed outright, and clearly not at him, but at whatever thoughts his words had sparked in her mind. Until then she had spoken no word but her murmured greeting on the threshold. Now she broke into bubbling speech in Welsh, in a lilting voice that made dancing poetry of language.
“More than enough for his lordship Bishop Gilbert, and more than he bargained for! Is it true what Hywel said, that you are sent with compliments and gifts from the English bishops? Then you will be the most welcome pair of visitors here in Llanelwy tonight. Our new bishop feels himself in need of all the encouragement he can get. A reminder he has an archbishop behind him will come in very kindly, seeing he’s beset with princes every other way. He’ll make the most of you. You’ll surely find yourselves at the high table in hall tonight.”
“Princes!” Cadfael echoed. “And Hywel? Was that Hywel who spoke with us when we rode in? Hywel ab Owain?”
“Did you not recognize him?” she said, astonished.
“Child, I never saw him before. But his reputation we do know.” So this was the young fellow who had been sent by his father to waft an army across the Aeron and drive Cadwaladr headlong out of North Ceredigion with his castle of Llanbadarn in flames behind him, and had made a most brisk and workmanlike job of it, without, apparently, losing his composure or ruffling his curls. And he looking barely old enough to bear arms at all!
“I thought there was something about him I should know! Owain I have met, we had dealings three years back, over an exchange of prisoners. So he’s sent his son to report on how Bishop Gilbert is setting about his pastoral duties, has he?” Cadfael wondered. Trusted in both secular and clerical matters, it seemed, and probably equally thorough in both.
“Better than that,” said the girl, laughing. “He’s come himself! Did you not see his tents up there in the meadows? For these few days Llanelwy is Owain’s llys, and the court of Gwynedd, no less. It’s an honor Bishop Gilbert could have done without. Not that the prince makes any move to curb or intimidate him, bar his simply being there, forever in the corner of the bishop’s eye, and aware of everything he does or says. The prince of courtesy and consideration! He expects the bishop to house only himself and his son, and provides for the rest himself. But tonight they all sup in hall. You will see, you came very opportunely.”
She had been gathering up the towels over her arm as she talked, and keeping a sharp eye now and then on the comings and goings in the courtyard. Following such a glance, Cadfael observed a big man in a black cassock sailing impressively across the grass towards their lodging.
“I’ll bring you food and mead,” said the girl, returning abruptly to the practical; and she picked up bowl and pitcher, and was out at the door before the tall cleric could reach it. Cadfael saw them meet and pass, with a word from the man, and a mute inclination of the head from the girl. It seemed to him that there was a curious tension between them, constrained on the man’s part, coldly dutiful on the girl’s. His approach had hastened her departure, yet the way he had spoken to her as they met, and in particular the way he halted yet again before reaching the lodging, and turned to look after her, suggested that he was in awe of her rather than the other way round, and she had some grievance she was unwilling to give up. She had not raised her eyes to look at him, nor broken the vehement rhythm of her gait. He came on more slowly, perhaps to reassemble his dignity before entering to the strangers.
“Good day, Brothers, and welcome!” he said from the threshold. “I trust my daughter has looked after your comfort well?”
That established at once the relationship between them. It was stated with considered clarity as if some implied issue was likely to come up for consideration, and it was as well it should be properly understood. Which might well be the case, seeing this man was undoubtedly tonsured, in authority here, and a priest. That, too, he chose to state plainly: “My name is Meirion, I have served this church for many years. Under the new dispensation I am a canon of the chapter. If there is anything wanting, anything we can provide you, during your stay, you have only to speak, I will see it remedied.”
He spoke in formal English, a little hesitantly, for he was obviously Welsh. A burly, muscular man, and handsome in his own black fashion, with sharply cut features and a very erect presence, the ring of his cropped hair barely salted with grey. The girl had her coloring from him, and her dark, brilliant eyes, but in her eyes the spark was of gaiety, even mischief, and in his it gave an impression of faint uneasiness behind the commanding brow. A proud, ambitious man not quite certain of himself and his powers. And perhaps in a delicate situation now that he had become one of the canons attendant on a Norman bishop? It was a possibility. If there was an acknowledged daughter to be accounted for, there must also be a wife. Canterbury would hardly be pleased. They assured him that the lodging provided them was in every way satisfactory, even lavish by monastic principles, and Mark willingly brought out from his saddle-roll Bishop Roger’s sealed letter, beautifully inscribed and superscribed, and the little carved wood casket which held the silver cross. Canon Meirion drew pleased breath, for the Lichfield silversmith was a skilled artist, and the work was beautiful.
“He will be pleased and glad, of that you may be sure. I need not conceal from you, as men of the Church, that his lordship’s situation here is far from easy, and any gesture of support is a help to him. If you will let me suggest it, it would be well if you make your appearance in form, when all are assembled at table, and there deliver your errand publicly. I will bring you into the hall as your herald, and have places left for you at the bishop’s table.” He was quite blunt about it, the utmost advantage must be made of this ceremonious reminder not simply from Lichfield, but from Theobald and Canterbury, that the Roman rite had been accepted and a Norman prelate installed in Saint Asaph. The prince had brought up his own power and chivalry on one side, Canon Meirion meant to deploy Brother Mark, inadequate symbol though he might appear, upon the other.
“And, Brother, although there is no need for translation for the bishop’s benefit, it would be good if you would repeat in Welsh what Deacon Mark may say in hall. The prince knows some English, but few of his chiefs understand it.” And it was Canon Meirion’s determined intent that they should all, to the last man of the guard, be well aware of what passed. “I will tell the bishop beforehand of your coming, but say no word as yet to any other.”
“Hywel ab Owain already knows,” said Cadfael.
“And doubtless will have told his father. But the spectacle will not suffer any diminution by that. Indeed, it’s a happy chance that you came on this of all days, for tomorrow the royal party is leaving to return to Aber.”
“In that case,” said Mark, choosing to be open with a host who was certainly being open with them, “we can ride on among his company, for I am the bearer of a letter also to Bishop Meurig of Bangor.”
The canon received this with a short pause for reflection, and then nodded approvingly. He was, after all, a Welshman himself, even if he was doing his able best to hold on to favour with a Norman superior. “Good! Your bishop is wise. It puts us on a like footing, and will please the prince. As it chances, my daughter Heledd and I will also be of the party. She is to be betrothed to a gentleman in the prince’s service, who holds land in Anglesey, and he will come to meet us at Bangor. We shall be companions along the way.”
“Our pleasure to ride in company,” said Mark.
“I’ll come for you as soon as they take their places at table,” the canon promised, well content, and left them to an hour of rest. Not until he was gone did the girl come back, bearing a dish of honey cakes and a jar of mead. She served them in silence, but made no move to go. After a moment of sullen thought she asked abruptly: “What did he tell you?”
“That he and his daughter are bound for Bangor tomorrow, as we two are. It seems,” said Cadfael equably, and watching her unrevealing face, “that we shall have a prince’s escort as far as Aber.”
“So he does still own he is my father,” she said with a curling lip.
“He does, and why should he not profess it proudly? If you look in your mirror,” said Cadfael candidly, “you will see very good reason why he should boast of it.” That coaxed a reluctant smile out of her. He pursued the small success: “What is it between you two? Is it some threat from the new bishop? If he’s bent on ridding himself of all the married priests in his diocese he has an uphill row to hoe. And your father seems to me an able man, one a new incumbent can ill afford to lose.”
“So he is,” she agreed, warming, “and the bishop wants to keep him. His case would have been much worse, but my mother was in her last illness when Bishop Gilbert arrived, and it seemed she could not last long, so they waited! Can you conceive of it? Waiting for a wife to die, so that he need not part with her husband, who was useful to him! And die she did, last Christmas, and ever since then I have kept his house, cooked and cleaned for him, and thought we could go on so. But no, I am a reminder of a marriage the bishop says was unlawful and sacrilegious. In his eyes I never should have been born! Even if my father remains celibate the rest of his life, I am still here, to call to mind what he wants forgotten. Yes, he, not only the bishop! I stand in the way of his advancement.”
“Surely,” said Mark, shocked, “you do him injustice. I am certain he feels a father’s affection for you, as I do believe you feel a daughter’s for him.”
“It never was tested before,” she said simply. “No one grudged us a proper love. Oh, he wishes me no ill, neither does the bishop. But very heartily they both wish that I may go somewhere else to thrive, so far away I shall trouble them no more.”
“So that is why they’ve planned to match you with a man of Anglesey. As far away,” said Cadfael ruefully, “as a man could get and still be in North Wales. Yes, that would certainly settle the bishop’s mind. But what of yours? Do you know the man they intend for you?”
“No, that was the prince’s doing, and he meant it kindly, and indeed I take it kindly. No, the bishop wanted to send me away to a convent in England, and make a nun of me. Owain Gwynedd said that would be a wicked waste unless it was my wish, and asked me there in front of everyone in the hall if I had any mind to it, and very loudly and clearly I said no. So he proposed this match for me. His man is looking for a wife, and they tell me he’s a fine fellow, not so young but barely past thirty, which is not so old, and good to look at, and well regarded. Better at least,” she said without great enthusiasm, “than being shut up behind a grid in an English nunnery.”
“So it is,” agreed Cadfael heartily, “unless your own heart drives you there, and I doubt that will ever happen to you. Better, too, surely, than living on here and being made to feel an outcast and a burden. You are not wholly set against marriage?”
“No!” she said vehemently.
“And you know of nothing against this man the prince has in mind?”
“Only that I have not chosen him,” she said, and set her red lips in a stubborn line.
“When you see him you may approve him. It would not be the first time,” said Cadfael sagely, “that an intelligent matchmaker got the balance right.”
“Well or ill,” she said, rising with a sigh, “I have no choice but to go. My father goes with me to see that I behave, and Canon Morgant, who is as rigid as the bishop himself, goes with us to see that we both behave. Any further scandal now, and goodbye to any advancement under Gilbert. I could destroy him if I so wished,” she said, dwelling vengefully on something she knew could never be a possibility, for all her anger and disdain. And from the evening light in the doorway she looked back to add: “I can well live without him. Soon or late, I should have gone to a husband. But do you know what most galls me? That he should give me up so lightly, and be so thankful to get rid of me.”
Canon Meirion came for them as he had promised, just as the bustle in the courtyard was settling into competent quietness, building work abandoned for the day, all the domestic preparations for the evening’s feast completed, the small army of servitors mustered into their places, and the household, from princes to grooms, assembled in hall. The light was still bright, but softening into the gilded silence before the sinking of the sun.
Dressed for ceremony, the canon was brushed and immaculate but plain, maintaining the austerity of his office, perhaps, all the more meticulously to smooth away from memory all the years when he had been married to a wife. Time had been, once, long ago in the age of the saints, when celibacy had been demanded of all Celtic priests, just as insistently as it was being demanded now by Bishop Gilbert, by reason of the simple fact that the entire structure of the Celtic Church was built on the monastic ideal, and anything less was a departure from precedent and a decline in sanctity. But long since even the memory of that time had grown faint to vanishing, and there would be just as indignant a reaction to the reimposition of that ideal as there must once have been to its gradual abandonment. For centuries now priests had lived as decent married men and raised families like their parishioners. Even in England, in the more remote country places, there were plenty of humble married priests, and certainly no one thought the worse of them. In Wales it was not unknown for son to follow sire in the cure of a parish, and worse, for the sons of bishops to take it for granted they should succeed their mitred fathers, as though the supreme offices of the Church had been turned into heritable fiefs. Now here came this alien bishop, imposed from without, to denounce all such practices as abominable sin, and clear his diocese of all but the celibate clergy.
And this able and impressive man who came to summon them to the support of his master had no intention of suffering diminution simply because, though he had buried his wife just in time, the survival of a daughter continued to accuse him. Nothing against the girl, and he would see her provided for, but somewhere else, out of sight and mind.
To do him justice, he made no bones about going straight for what he wanted, what would work to his most advantage. He meant to exploit his two visiting monastics and their mission to his bishop’s pleasure and satisfaction.
“They are just seated. There will be silence until princes and bishop are settled. I have seen to it there is a clear space below the high table, where you will be seen and heard by all.”
Do him justice, too, he was no way disappointed or disparaging in contemplating Brother Mark’s smallness of stature and plain Benedictine habit, or the simplicity of his bearing; indeed he looked him over with a nod of satisfied approval, pleased with a plainness that would nevertheless carry its own distinction.
Mark took the illuminated scroll of Roger de Clinton’s letter and the little carved casket that contained the cross in his hands, and they followed their guide across the courtyard to the door of the bishop’s hall. Within, the air was full of the rich scent of seasoned timber and the resiny smoke of torches, and the subdued murmur of voices among the lower tables fell silent as the three of them entered, Canon Meirion leading. Behind the high table at the far end of the hall an array of faces, bright in the torchlight, fixed attentively upon the small procession advancing into the cleared space below the dais. The bishop in the midst, merely a featureless presence at this distance, princes on either side of him, the rest clerics and Welsh noblemen of Owain’s court disposed alternately, and all eyes upon Brother Mark’s small, erect figure, solitary in the open space, for Canon Meirion had stepped aside to give him the floor alone, and Cadfael had remained some paces behind him.
“My lord bishop, here is Deacon Mark, of the household of the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, asking audience.”
“The messenger of my colleague of Lichfield is very welcome,” said the formal voice from the high table.
Mark made his brief address in a clear voice, his eyes fixed on the long, narrow countenance that confronted him. Straight, wiry steel-grey hair about a domed tonsure, a long, thin blade of a nose flaring into wide nostrils, and a proud, tight-lipped mouth that wore its formal smile somewhat unnervingly for lack of practice.
“My lord, Bishop Roger de Clinton bids me greet you reverently in his name, as his brother in Christ and his neighbour in the service of the Church, and wishes you long and fruitful endeavour in the diocese of Saint Asaph. And by my hand he sends you in all brotherly love this letter, and this casket, and begs you accept them in kindness.”
All of which Cadfael took up, after the briefest of pauses for effect, and turned into ringing Welsh that brought an approving stir and murmur from his fellow-countrymen among the assembly.
The bishop had risen from his seat, and made his way round the high table to approach the edge of the dais. Mark went to meet him, and bent his knee to present letter and casket into the large, muscular hands that reached down to receive them.
“We accept our brother’s kindness with joy,” said Bishop Gilbert with considered and gratified grace, for the secular power of Gwynedd was there within earshot, and missing nothing that passed. “And we welcome his messengers no less gladly. Rise, Brother, and make one more honoured guest at our table. And your comrade also. It was considerate indeed of Bishop de Clinton to send a Welsh speaker with you into a Welsh community.”
Cadfael stood well back, and followed only at a distance on to the dais. Let Mark have all the notice and the attention, and be led to a place of honour next to Hywel ab Owain, who sat at the bishop’s left. Was that Canon Meirion’s doing, the bishop’s own decision to make the most of the visit, or had Hywel had a hand in it? He might well be interested in learning more about what other cathedral chapters thought of the resurrection of Saint Kentigern’s throne, and its bestowal on an alien prelate. And probing from him might be expected to find a more guileless response than if it came from his formidable father, and produce a more innocent and lavish crop. A first occasion, it might be, for Mark to say little and listen much.
Cadfael’s own allotted place was much further from the princely centre, near the end of the table, but it gave him an excellent view of all the faces ranged along the seats of honour. On the bishop’s right sat Owain Gwynedd, a big man every way, in body, in breadth of mind, in ability, very tall, exceeding by a head the average of his own people, and flaxen-fair by contrast with their darkness, for his grandmother had been a princess of the Danish kingdom of Dublin, more Norse than Irish, Ragnhild, a granddaughter of King Sitric Silk-Beard, and his mother Angharad had been noted for her golden hair among the dark women of Deheubarth. On the bishop’s left Hywel ab Owain sat at ease, his face turned towards Brother Mark in amiable welcome. The likeness was clear to be seen, though the son was of a darker colouring, and had not the height of the sire. It struck Cadfael as ironic that one so plainly signed with his father’s image should be regarded by the cleric who sat beside him as illegitimate, for he had been born before Owain’s marriage, and his mother, too, was an Irishwoman. To the Welsh a son acknowledged was as much a son as those born in marriage, and Hywel on reaching manhood had been set up honourably in South Ceredigion, and now, after his uncle’s fall, possessed the whole of it. And very well capable, by his showing so far, of holding on to his own. There were three or four more Welshmen of Owain’s party, all arranged turn for turn with Gilbert’s canons and chaplains, secular and clerical perforce rubbing shoulders and exchanging possibly wary conversation, though now they had the open casket and its filigree silver cross as a safe topic, for Gilbert had opened it and set it on the board before him to be admired, and laid de Clinton’s scroll beside it, doubtless to await a ceremonial reading aloud when the meal was drawing to its close.
Meantime, mead and wine were oiling the wheels of diplomacy, and by the rising babel of voices successfully. And Cadfael had better turn his attention to his own part in this social gathering, and begin to do his duty by his neighbours.
On his right hand he had a middle-aged cleric, surely a canon of the cathedral, well-fleshed and portly, but with a countenance of such uncompromising rectitude that Cadfael judged he might well be that Morgant whose future errand it was to see that both father and daughter conducted themselves unexceptionably on the journey to dispose of Heledd to a husband. Just such a thin, fastidious nose seemed suitable to the task, and just such chill, sharp eyes. But his voice when he spoke, and his manner to the guest, were gracious enough. In every situation he would be equal to events, and strike the becoming note, but he did not look as if he would be easy on shortcomings in others.
On Cadfael’s left sat a young man of the prince’s party, of the true Welsh build, sturdy and compact, very trim in his dress, and dark of hair and eye. A very black, intense eye, that focussed on distance, and looked through what lay before his gaze, men and objects alike, rather than at them. Only when he looked along the high table, to where Owain and Hywel sat, did the range of his vision shorten, fix and grow warm in recognition and acknowledgement, and the set of his long lips soften almost into smiling. One devoted follower at least the princes of Gwynedd possessed. Cadfael observed the young man sidewise, with discretion, for he was worth study, very comely in his black and brooding fashion, and tended to a contained and private silence. When he did speak, in courtesy to the new guest, his voice was quiet but resonant, and moved in cadences that seemed to Cadfael to belong elsewhere than in Gwynedd. But the most significant thing about his person did not reveal itself for some time, since he ate and drank little, and used only the right hand that lay easy on the board under Cadfael’s eyes. Only when he turned directly towards his neighbour, and rested his left elbow on the edge of the table, did it appear that the left forearm terminated only a few inches below the joint, and a fine linen cloth was drawn over the stump like a glove, and secured by a thin silver bracelet.
It was impossible not to stare, the revelation came so unexpectedly; but Cadfael withdrew his gaze at once, and forbore from any comment, though he could not resist studying the mutilation covertly when he thought himself unobserved. But his neighbour had lived with his loss long enough to accustom himself to its effect on others.
“You may ask, Brother,” he said, with a wry smile. “I am not ashamed to own where I left it. It was my better hand once, though I could use both, and can still make shift with the one I have left.”
Since curiosity was understood and expected of him, Cadfael made no secret of it, though he was already hazarding a guess at the possible answers. For this young man was almost certainly from South Wales, far from his customary kin here in Gwynedd.
“I am in no doubt,” he said cautiously, “that wherever you may have left it, the occasion did you nothing but honour. But if you are minded to tell me, you should know that I have carried arms in my time, and given and taken injury in the field. Where you admit me, I can follow you, and not as a stranger.”
“I thought,” said the young man, turning black, brilliant eyes on him appraisingly, “you had not altogether the monastic look about you. Follow, then, and welcome. I left my arm lying over my lord’s body, the sword still in my hand.”
“Last year,” said Cadfael slowly, pursuing his own prophetic imaginings,” in Deheubarth.”
“As you have said.”
“My prince and my foster-brother,” said the maimed man. “The stroke, the final stroke, that took his life from him took my arm from me.”
« ^ »
“How many,” asked Cadfael carefully, after a moment of silence, “were with him then?”
“Three of us. On a simple journey and a short, thinking no evil. There were eight of them. I am the only one left who rode with Anarawd that day.” His voice was low and even. He had forgotten nothing and forgiven nothing, but he was in complete command of voice and face.
“I marvel,” said Cadfael, “that you lived to tell the story. It would not take long to bleed to death from such a wound.”
“And even less time to strike again and finish the work,” the young man agreed with a twisted smile. “And so they would have done if some others of our people had not heard the affray and come in haste. Me they left lying when they rode away. I was taken up and tended after his murderers had run. And when Hywel came with his army to avenge the slaying, he brought me back here with him, and Owain has taken me into his own service. A one-armed man is still good for something. And he can still hate.”
“You were close to your prince?”
“I grew up with him. I loved him.” His black eyes rested steadily upon the lively profile of Hywel ab Owain, who surely had taken Anarawd’s place in his loyalty, in so far as one man can ever replace another.
“May I know your name?” asked Cadfael. “And mine is, or in the world it was, Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd, a man of Gwynedd myself, born at Trefriw. And Benedictine though I may be, I have not forgotten my ancestry.”
“Nor should you, in the world or out of it. And my name is Cuhelyn ab Einion, a younger son of my father, and a man of my prince’s guard. In the old days,” he said, darkling, “it was disgrace for a man of the guard to return alive from the field on which his lord was slain. But I had and have good reason for living. Those of the murderers whom I knew I have named to Hywel, and they have paid. But some I did not know. I keep the faces in mind, for the day when I see them again and hear the names that go with the faces.”
“There is also one other, the chief, who has paid only a blood-price in lands,” said Cadfael. “What of him? Is it certain he gave the orders for this ambush?”
“Certain! They would never have dared, otherwise. And Owain Gwynedd has no doubts.”
“And where, do you suppose, is this Cadwaladr now? And has he resigned himself to the loss of everything he possessed?”
The young man shook his head. “Where he is no one seems to know. Nor what mischief he has next in mind. But resigned to his loss? That I doubt! Hywel took hostages from among the lesser chiefs who served under Cadwaladr, and brought them north to ensure there should be no further resistance in Ceredigion. Most of them have been released now, having sworn not to bear arms against Hywel’s rule or offer service again to Cadwaladr, unless at some time to come he should pledge reparation and be restored. There’s one still left captive in Aber, Gwion. He’s given his parole not to attempt escape, but he refuses to forswear his allegiance to Cadwaladr or promise peace to Hywel. A decent enough fellow,” said Cuhelyn tolerantly, “but still devoted to his lord. Can I hold that against a man? But such a lord! He deserves better for his worship.”
“You bear no hatred against him?”
“None, there is no reason. He had no part in the ambush, he is too young and too clean to be taken into such a villainy. After a fashion, I like him as he likes me. We are two of a kind. Could I blame him for holding fast to his allegiance as I hold fast to mine? If he would kill for Cadwaladr’s sake, so would I have done, so I did, for Anarawd. But not by stealth, in double force against light-armed men expecting no danger. Honestly, in open field, that’s another matter.”
The long meal was almost at its end, only the wine and mead still circling, and the hum of voices had mellowed into a low, contented buzzing like a hive of bees drunken and happy among summer meadows. In the centre of the high table Bishop Gilbert had taken up the fine scroll of his letter and broken the seal, and was on his feet with the vellum leaf unrolled in his hands. Roger de Clinton’s salutation was meant to be declaimed in public for its full effect, and had been carefully worded to impress the laity no less than the Celtic clergy, who might be most in need of a cautionary word. Gilbert’s sonorous voice made the most of it. Cadfael, listening, thought that Archbishop Theobald would be highly content with the result of his embassage.
“And now, my lord Owain,” Gilbert pursued, seizing the mellowed moment for which he must have been waiting throughout the feast, “I ask your leave to introduce a petitioner, who comes asking your indulgence for a plea on behalf of another. My appointment here gives me some right, by virtue of my office, to speak for peace, between individual men as between peoples. It is not good that there should be anger between brothers. Just cause there may have been at the outset, but there should be a term to every outlawry, every quarrel. I ask an audience for an ambassador who speaks on behalf of your brother Cadwaladr, that you may be reconciled with him as is fitting, and restore him to his lost place in your favour. May I admit Bledri ap Rhys?”
There was a brief, sharp silence, in which every eye turned upon the prince’s face. Cadfael felt the young man beside him stiffen and quiver in bitter resentment of such a breach of hospitality, for clearly this had been planned deliberately without a word of warning to the prince, without any prior consultation, taking an unfair advantage of the courtesy such a man would undoubtedly show towards the host at whose table he was seated. Even had this audience been sought in private, Cuhelyn would have found it deeply offensive. To precipitate it thus publicly, in hall before the entire household, was a breach of courtesy only possible to an insensitive Norman set up in authority among a people of whom he had no understanding. But if the liberty was as displeasing to Owain as it was to Cuhelyn, he did not allow it to appear. He let the silence lie just long enough to leave the issue in doubt, and perhaps shake Gilbert’s valiant self-assurance, and then he said clearly:
“At your wish, my lord bishop, I will certainly hear Bledri ap Rhys. Every man has the right to ask and to be heard. Without prejudice to the outcome!”
It was plain, as soon as the bishop’s steward brought the petitioner into the hall, that he had not come straight from travel to ask for this audience. Somewhere about the bishop’s enclave he had been waiting at ease for his entry here, and had prepared himself carefully, very fine and impressive in his dress and in his person, every grain of dust from the roads polished away. A tall, broad-shouldered, powerful man, black-haired and black-moustached, with an arrogant beak of a nose, and a bearing truculent rather than conciliatory. He swept with long strides into the centre of the open space fronting the dais, and made an elaborate obeisance in the general direction of prince and bishop. The gesture seemed to Cadfael to tend rather to the performer’s own aggrandizement than to any particular reverence for those saluted. He had everyone’s attention, and meant to retain it.
“My lord prince—my lord bishop, your devout servant! I come as a petitioner here before you.” He did not look the part, nor was his full, confident voice expressive of any such role.
“So I have heard,” said Owain. “You have something to ask of us. Ask it freely.”
“My lord, I was and am in fealty to your brother Cadwaladr, and I dare venture to speak for his right, in that he goes deprived of his lands, and made a stranger and disinherited in his own country. Whatever you may hold him guilty of, I dare to plead that such a penalty is more than he has deserved, and such as brother should not visit upon brother. And I ask of you that measure of generosity and forgiveness that should restore him his own again. He has endured this despoiling a year already, let that be enough, and set him up again in his lands of Ceredigion. The lord bishop will add his voice to mine for reconciliation.”
“The lord bishop has been before you,” said Owain drily, “and equally eloquent. I am not, and never have been, adamant against my brother, whatever follies he has committed, but murder is worse than folly, and requires a measure of penitence before forgiveness is due. The two, separated, are of no value, and where the one is not, I will not waste the other. Did Cadwaladr send you on this errand?”
“No, my lord, and knows nothing of my coming. It is he who suffers deprivation, and I who appeal for his right to be restored. If he has done ill in the past, is that good reason for shutting him out from the possibility of doing well in the future? And what has been done to him is extreme, for he has been made an exile in his own country, without a toehold on his own soil. Is that fair dealing?”
“It is less extreme,” said Owain coldly, “than what was done to Anarawd. Lands can be restored, if restoration is deserved. Life once lost is past restoration.”
“True, my lord, but even homicide may be compounded for a blood-price. To be stripped of all, and for life, is another kind of death.”
“We are not concerned with mere homicide, but with murder,” said Owain, “as well you know.”
At Cadfael’s left hand Cuhelyn sat stiff and motionless in his place, his eyes fixed upon Bledri, their glance lengthened to pierce through him and beyond. His face was white, and his single hand clenched tightly upon the edge of the board, the knuckles sharp and pale as ice. He said no word and made no sound, but his bleak stare never wavered.
“Too harsh a name,” said Bledri fiercely, “for a deed done in heat. Nor did your lordship wait to hear my prince’s side of the quarrel.”
“For a deed done in heat,” said Owain with immovable composure, “this was well planned. Eight men do not lie in wait in cover for four travellers unsuspecting and unarmed, in hot blood. You do your lord’s cause no favor by defending his crime. You said you came to plead. My mind is not closed against reconciliation, civilly sought. It is proof against threats.”
“Yet, Owain,” cried Bledri, flaring like a resinous torch, “it behoves even you to weigh what consequences may follow if you are obdurate. A wise man would know when to unbend, before his own brand burns back into his face.”
Cuhelyn started out of his stillness, quivering, and was half rising to his feet when he regained control, and sank back in his place, again mute and motionless. Hywel had not moved, nor had his face changed. He had his father’s formidable composure. And Owain’s unshaken and unshakable calm subdued in a moment the uneasy stir and murmur that had passed round the high table and started louder echoes down in the floor of the hall.
“Am I to take that as threat, or promise, or a forecast of a doom from heaven?” asked Owain, in the most amiable of voices, but none the less with a razor edge to the tone that gave it piercing sweetness, and caused Bledri to draw back his head a little as if from a possible blow, and for a moment veil the smouldering fire of his black eyes, and abate the savage tightness of his lips. Somewhat more cautiously he responded at last:
“I meant only that enmity and hatred between brothers is unseemly among men, and cannot but be displeasing to God. It cannot bear any but disastrous fruit. I beg you, restore your brother his rights.”
“That,” said Owain thoughtfully, and eyeing the petitioner with a stare that measured and probed beyond the words offered, “I am not yet ready to concede. But perhaps we should consider of this matter at more leisure. Tomorrow morning I and my people set out for Aber and Bangor, together with some of the lord bishop’s household and these visitors from Lichfield. It is in my mind, Bledri ap Rhys, that you should ride with us and be our guest at Aber, and on the way, and there at home in my llys, you may better develop your argument, and I better consider on those consequences of which you make mention. I should not like,” said Owain in tones of honey, “to invite disaster for want of forethought. Say yes to my hospitality, and sit down with us at our host’s table.”
It was entirely plain to Cadfael, as to many another within the hall, that by this time Bledri had small choice in the matter. Owain’s men of the guard had fully understood the nature of the invitation. By his tight smile, so had Bledri, though he accepted it with every evidence of pleasure and satisfaction. No doubt it suited him to continue in the prince’s company, whether as guest or prisoner, and to keep his eyes and ears open on the ride to Aber. All the more if his hint of dire consequences meant more than the foreshadowing of divine disapproval of enmity between brothers. He had said a little too much to be taken at his face value. And as a guest, free or under guard, his own safety was assured. He took the place that was cleared for him at the bishop’s table, and drank to the prince with a discreet countenance and easy smile.
The bishop visibly drew deep breath, relieved that his well-meaning effort at peace-making had at least survived the first skirmish. Whether he had understood the vibrating undertones of what had passed was doubtful. The subtleties of the Welsh were probably wasted on a forthright and devout Norman, Cadfael reflected. The better for him, he could speed his departing guests, thus augmented by one, and console himself that he had done all a man could do to bring about reconciliation. What followed, whatever it might be, was no responsibility of his.
The mead went round amicably, and the prince’s harper sang the greatness and virtues of Owain’s line and the beauty of Gwynedd. And after him, to Cadfael’s respectful surprise, Hywel ab Owain rose and took the harp, and improvised mellifluously on the women of the north. Poet and bard as well as warrior, this was undoubtedly an admirable shoot from that admirable stem. He knew what he was doing with his music. All the tensions of the evening dissolved into amity and song. Or if they survived, at least the bishop, comforted and relaxed, lost all awareness of them.
In the privacy of their own lodging, with the night still drowsily astir outside the half-open door, Brother Mark sat mute and thoughtful on the edge of his bed for some moments, pondering all that had passed, until at last he said, with the conviction of one who has reviewed all circumstances and come to a firm conclusion: “He meant nothing but good. He is a good man.”
“But not a wise one,” said Cadfael from the doorway. The night without was dark, without a moon, but the stars filled it with a distant, blue glimmer that showed where occasional shadows crossed from building to building, making for their rest. The babel of the day was now an almost-silence, now and then quivering to the murmur of low voices tranquilly exchanging goodnights. Rather a tremor on the air than an audible sound. There was no wind. Even the softest of movements vibrated along the cords of the senses, making silence eloquent.
“He trusts too easily,” Mark agreed with a sigh. “Integrity expects integrity.”
“And you find it missing in Bledri ap Rhys?” Cadfael asked respectfully. Brother Mark could still surprise him now and then.
“I doubt him. He comes too brazenly, knowing once received he is safe from any harm or affront. And he feels secure enough in Welsh hospitality to threaten.”
“So he did,” said Cadfael thoughtfully. “And passed it off as a reminder of heaven’s displeasure. And what did you make of that?”
“He drew in his horns,” said Mark positively, “knowing he had gone a step too far. But there was more in that than a pastoral warning. And truly I wonder where this Cadwaladr is now, and what he is up to. For I think that was a plain threat of trouble here and now if Owain refused his brother’s demands. Something is in the planning, and this Bledri knows of it.”
“I fancy,” said Cadfael placidly, “that the prince is of your opinion also, or at least has the possibility well in mind. You heard him. He has given due notice to all his men that Bledri ap Rhys is to remain in the royal retinue here, in Aber, and on the road between. If there’s mischief planned, Bledri, if he can’t be made to betray it, can be prevented from playing any part in it, or letting his master know the prince has taken the warning, and is on his guard. Now I wonder did Bledri read as much into it, and whether he’ll go to the trouble to put it to the test?”
“He did not seem to me to be put out of his stride,” said Mark doubtfully. “If he did understand it so, it did not disquiet him. Can he have provoked it purposely?”
“Who knows? It may suit him to go along with us to Aber, and keep his eyes and ears open along the way and within the llys, if he’s spying out the prince’s dispositions for his master. Or for himself!” Cadfael conceded thoughtfully, “Though what’s the advantage to him, unless it’s to put him safely out of the struggle, I confess I don’t see.” For a prisoner who enjoys officially the status of a guest can come to no harm, whatever the issue. If his own lord wins, he is delivered without reproach, and if his captor is the victor he is immune just as surely, safe from injury in the battle or reprisals after it. “But he did not strike me as a cautious man,” Cadfael owned, rejecting the option, though with some lingering reluctance.
A few threads of shadow still crossed the gathering darkness of the precinct, ripples on a nocturnal lake. The open door of the bishop’s great hall made a rectangle of faint light, most of the torches within already quenched, the fire turfed down but still glowing, distant murmurs of movement and voices a slight quiver on the silence, as the servants cleared away the remnants of the feast and the tables that had borne it.
A tall, dark figure, wide-shouldered and erect against the pale light, appeared in the doorway of the hall, paused for a long moment as though breathing in the cool of the night, and then moved leisurely down the steps, and began to pace the beaten earth of the court, slowly and sinuously, like a man flexing his muscles after being seated a while too long. Cadfael opened the door a little wider, to have the shadowy movements in view.
“Where are you going?” asked Mark at his back, anticipating with alert intelligence.
“Not far,” said Cadfael. “Just far enough to see what rises to our friend Bledri’s bait. And how he takes it!”
He stood motionless outside the door for a long moment, drawing the door to behind him, to accustom his eyes to the night, as doubtless Bledri ap Rhys was also doing as he trailed his coat to and fro, nearer and nearer to the open gate of the precinct. The earth was firm enough to make his crisp, deliberate steps audible, as plainly he meant them to be. But nothing stirred and no one took note of him, not even the few servants drifting away to their beds, until he turned deliberately and walked straight towards the open gate. Cadfael had advanced at leisure along the line of modest canonical houses and guest lodgings, to keep the event in view.
With admirable aplomb two brisk figures heaved up into the gateway from the fields without, amiably wreathed together, collided with Bledri in midpassage, and untwined themselves to embrace him between them.
“What, my lord Bledri!” boomed one blithe Welsh voice. “Is it you? Taking a breath of air before sleeping? And a fine night for it!”
“We’ll bear you company, willingly,” the second voice offered heartily. “It’s early to go to bed yet. And we’ll see you safe to your own brychan, if you lose your way in the dark.”
“I’m none so drunk as to go astray,” Bledri acknowledged without surprise or concern. “And for all the good company there is to be had in Saint Asaph tonight, I think I’ll get to my bed. You gentlemen will be needing your sleep, too, if we’re off with the morn tomorrow.” The smile in his voice was clear to be sensed. He had the answer he had looked for, and it caused him no dismay, rather a measure of amusement, perhaps even satisfaction. “Goodnight to you!” he said, and turned to saunter back towards the hall door, still dimly lighted from within.
Silence hung outside the precinct wall, though the nearest tents of Owain’s camp were not far away. The wall was not so high that it could not be climbed, though wherever a man mounted, there would be someone waiting below on the other side. But in any case Bledri ap Rhys had no intention of removing himself, he had merely been confirming his expectation that any attempt to do so would very simply and neatly be frustrated. Owain’s orders were readily understood even when obliquely stated, and would be efficiently carried out. If Bledri had been in any doubt of that, he knew better now. And as for the two convivial guards, they withdrew again into the night with an absence of pretence which was almost insulting.
And that, on the face of it, was the end of the incident. Yet Cadfael continued immobile and detachedly interested, invisible against the dark bulk of the timber buildings, as if he expected some kind of epilogue to round off the night’s entertainment.
Into the oblong of dim light at the head of the steps came the girl Heledd, unmistakable even in silhouette by the impetuous grace of her carriage and her tall slenderness. Even at the end of an evening of serving the bishop’s guests and the retainers of his household she moved like a fawn. And if Cadfael observed her appearance with impersonal pleasure, so did Bledri ap Rhys, from where he stood just aside from the foot of the steps, with a startled appreciation somewhat less impersonal, having no monastic restraints to hold it in check. He had just confirmed that he was now, willing or otherwise, a member of the prince’s retinue at least as far as Aber, and in all probability he already knew, since he was lodged in the bishop’s own house, that this promising girl was the one who would be riding with the party at dawn. The prospect offered a hope of mild pleasure along the way, to pass the time agreeably. At the very least, here was this moment, to round off an eventful and enjoyable evening. She was descending, with one of the embroidered drapings of the high table rolled up in her arms, on her way to the canonical dwellings across the precinct. Perhaps wine had been spilled on the cloth, or some of the gilt threads been snagged by a belt buckle or the rough setting of a dagger hilt or a bracelet, and she was charged with its repair. He had been about to ascend, but waited aside instead, for the pleasure of watching her at ever closer view as she came down, eyes lowered to be sure of stepping securely. He was so still and she so preoccupied that she had not observed him. And when she had reached the third step from the ground he suddenly reached out and took her by the waist between his hands, very neatly, and swung her round in a half-circle, and so held her suspended, face to face with him and close, for a long moment before he set her quite gently on her feet. He did not, however, relinquish his hold of her.
It was done quite lightly and playfully, and for all Cadfael could see, which was merely a shadow play, Heledd received it without much trace of displeasure, and certainly none of alarm, once the surprise was past. She had uttered one small, startled gasp as he plucked her aloft, but that was all, and once set down she stood looking up at him eye to eye, and made no move to break away. It is not unpleasant to any woman to be admired by a handsome man. She said something to him, the words indistinguishable but the tone light and tolerant to Cadfael’s ear, if not downright encouraging. And something he said in return to her, at the very least with no sign of discouragement. No doubt Bledri ap Rhys had a very good opinion of himself and his attractions, but it was in Cadfael’s mind that Heledd, for all she might enjoy his attentions, was also quite capable of keeping them within decorous bounds. Doubtful if she was considering letting him get very far. But from this pleasurable brush with him she could extricate herself whenever she chose. They were neither of them taking it seriously.
In the event she was not to be given the opportunity to conclude it in her own fashion. For the light from the open doorway above was suddenly darkened by the bulk of a big man’s body, and the abrupt eclipse cast the linked pair below into relative obscurity. Canon Meirion paused for a moment to adjust his vision to the night, and began to descend the steps with his usual selfconscious dignity. With the dwindling of his massive shadow renewed light fell upon Heledd’s glossy hair and the pale oval of her face, and the broad shoulders and arrogant head of Bledri ap Rhys, the pair of them closely linked in what fell little short of an embrace.
It seemed to Brother Cadfael, watching with unashamed interest from his dark corner, that both of them were very well aware of the stormcloud bearing down on them, and neither was disposed to do anything to evade or placate it. Indeed, he perceived that Heledd softened by a hair the stiffness of her stance, and allowed her head to tilt towards the descending light and glitter into a bright and brittle smile, meant rather for her father’s discomfort than for Bledri’s gratification. Let him sweat for his place and his desired advancement! She had said that she could destroy him if she so willed, it was something she would never do, but if he was so crass, and knew so little of her, as to believe her capable of bringing about his ruin, he deserved to pay for his stupidity.
The instant of intense stillness exploded into a flurry of movement, as Canon Meirion recovered his breath and came seething down the steps in a turmoil of clerical black, like a sudden thundercloud, took his daughter by the arm, and wrenched her firmly away from Bledri’s grasp. As firmly and competently she withdrew herself from this new compulsion, and brushed the very touch of his hand from her sleeve. The dagger glances that must have strained through the dimness between sire and daughter were blunted by the night. And Bledri suffered his deprivation gracefully, without stirring a step, and very softly laughed.
“Oh, pardon if I have trespassed on your rights of warren,” he said, deliberately obtuse. “I had not reckoned with a rival of your cloth. Not here in Bishop Gilbert’s household. I see I have undervalued his breadth of mind.”
He was being provocative deliberately, of course. Even if he had had no notion that this indignant elder was the girl’s father, he certainly knew that this intervention could hardly bear the interpretation he was placing upon it. But had not the impulse of mischief originated rather with Heledd? It did not please her that the canon should have so little confidence in her judgement as to suppose she would need help in dealing with a passing piece of impudence from this questionably welcome visitor. And Bledri was quite sufficiently accomplished in the study of women to catch the drift of her mild malice, and play the accomplice, for her gratification as readily as for his own amusement.
“Sir,” said Meirion with weighty and forbidding dignity, curbing his rage, “my daughter is affianced, and shortly to be married. Here in his lordship’s court you will treat her and all other women with respect.” And to Heledd he said brusquely, and with a sharp gesture of his hand towards their lodging under the far wall of the enclave: “Go in, girl! The hour is late already, you should be withindoors.”
Heledd, without haste or discomposure, gave them a slight, curt inclination of her head to share between them, and turned and walked away. The rear view of her as she went was expressive, and disdainful of men in general.
“And a very fine girl, too,” said Bledri approvingly, watching her departure. “You may be proud of your getting, Father. I hope you are marrying her to a man who’ll appreciate beauty. The small courtesy of hefting the lass down the steps to level ground can hardly have blemished his bargain.” His clear, incisive voice had dwelt fondly on the word ‘Father’, well aware of the dual sting. “Well, what the eye has not seen, the heart need not grieve, and I hear the bridegroom is well away in Anglesey. And no doubt you can keep a still tongue where this match is concerned.” The plain implication was there, very sweetly insinuated. No, Canon Meirion was exceedingly unlikely to make any move that could jeopardise his cleansed and celibate and promising future. Bledri ap Rhys was very quick on the uptake, and well informed about the bishop’s clerical reforms. He had even sensed Heledd’s resentment at being so ruthlessly disposed of, and her impulse to take her revenge before departing.
“Sir, you are a guest of prince and bishop, and as such are expected to observe the standards due to their hospitality.” Meirion was stiff as a lance, and his voice thinned and steely as a sword-blade. Within his well-schooled person there was a ferocious Welsh temper under arduous control. “If you do not, you will rue it. Whatever my own situation, I will see to that. Do not approach my daughter, or attempt to have any further ado with her. Your courtesies are unwelcome.”
“Not, I think, to the lady,” said Bledri, with the most complacent of smiles implicit in the very tone of his voice. “She has a tongue, and a palm, and I fancy would have been ready enough to use both if I had caused her any displeasure. I like a lass of spirit. If she grants me occasion, I shall tell her so. Why should she not enjoy the admiration she is entitled to, these few hours on the road to her marriage?”
The brief silence fell like a stone between them; Cadfael felt the air quiver with the tension of their stillness. Then Canon Meirion said, through gritted teeth and from a throat constricted with the effort to contain his rage: “My lord, do not think this cloth I wear will prove any protection to you if you affront my honor, or my daughter’s good name. Be warned, and keep away from her, or you shall have excellent cause to regret it. Though perhaps,” he ended, even lower and more malevolently, “too brief time!”
“Time enough,” said Bledri, not noticeably disturbed by the palpable threat, “for all the regretting I’m likely to do. It’s something I’ve had small practice in. Goodnight to your reverence!” And he passed by Meirion so close their sleeves brushed, perhaps intentionally, and began to climb the steps to the hall door. And the canon, wrenching himself out of his paralysis of rage with an effort, composed his dignity about him as best he could, and stalked away towards his own door.
Cadfael returned to his own quarters very thoughtfully, and recounted the whole of this small incident to Brother Mark, who was lying wakeful and wide-eyed after his prayers, by some private and peculiar sensitivity of his own already aware of turbulent cross-currents trembling on the night air. He listened, unsurprised.
“How much, would you say, Cadfael, is his concern only for his own advancement, how much truly for his daughter? For he does feel guilt towards her. Guilt that he resents her as a burden to his prospects, guilt at loving her less than she loves him. A guilt that makes him all the more anxious to put her out of sight, far away, another man’s charge.”
“Who can decypher any man’s motives?” said Cadfael resignedly. “Much less a woman’s. But I tell you this, she would do well not to drive him too far. The man has a core of violence in him. I would not like to see it let loose. It could be a killing force.”
“And against which of them,” wondered Mark, staring into the dark of the roof above him, “would the lightning be launched, if ever the storm broke?”
« ^ »
The prince’s cortege mustered in the dawn, in a morning hesitant between sullenness and smiles. There was the moisture of a brief shower on the grasses as Cadfael and Mark crossed to the church for prayer before saddling up, but the sun was shimmering on the fine drops, and the sky above was the palest and clearest of blues, but for a few wisps of cloud to eastward, embracing the rising orb of light with stroking fingers. When they emerged again into the courtyard it was already full of bustle and sound, the baggage horses being loaded, the brave city of tents along the hillside above folded and on the move, and even the frail feathers of cloud dissolved into moist and scintillating radiance.
Mark stood gazing before him with pleasure at the preparations for departure, his face flushed and bright, a child embarking on an adventure. Until this moment, Cadfael thought, he had not fully realised the possibilities, the fascinations, even the perils of the journey he had undertaken. To ride with princes was no more than half the tale, somewhere there was a lurking threat, a hostile brother, a prelate bent on reforming a way of life which in the minds of its population needed no reform. And who could guess what might happen between here and Bangor, between bishop and bishop, the stranger and the native?
“I spoke a word in the ear of Saint Winifred,” said Mark, flushing almost guiltily, as though he had appropriated a patroness who by rights belonged to Cadfael. “I thought we must be very close to her here, it seemed only gracious to let her know of our presence and our hopes, and ask her blessing.”
“If we deserve!” said Cadfael, though he had small doubt that so gentle and sensible a saint must look indulgently upon this wise innocent.
“Indeed! How far is it, Cadfael, from here to her holy well?”
“A matter of fourteen miles or so, due east of us.”
“Is it true it never freezes? However hard the winter?”
“It is true. No one has ever known it stilled, it bubbles always in the centre.”
“And Gwytherin, where you took her from the grave?”
“That lies as far south and west of us,” said Cadfael, and refrained from mentioning that he had also restored her to her grave in that same place. “Never try to limit her,” he advised cautiously. “She will be wherever you may call upon her, and present and listening as soon as you cry out your need.”
“That I never doubted,” said Mark simply, and went with a springy and hopeful step to put together his small belongings and saddle his glossy nutbrown gelding. Cadfael lingered a few moments to enjoy the bright bustle before him, and then followed more sedately to the stables. Outside the walls of the enclave Owain’s guards and noblemen were already marshalling, their encampment vanished from the greensward, leaving behind only the paler, flattened patches which would soon spring back into lively green, and erase even the memory of their visitation. Within the wall grooms whistled and called, hooves stamped lively, muffled rhythms in the hard-packed earth, harness jingled, maidservants shrilled to one another above the general babel of male voices, and the faint dust of all this vigorous movement rose into the sunlight and shimmered in gilded mist overhead.
The company gathered as blithely as if they were going maying, and certainly so bright a morning invited to so pleasant a pastime. But there were certain graver reminders to be remarked as they mounted. Heledd made her appearance cloaked and ready, serene and demure of countenance, but with Canon Meirion keeping close on one side of her, with tight lips and downdrawn brows, and Canon Morgant on the other, equally tightlipped but with brows arched into uncompromising severity, and sharp eyes dwelling alternately on father and daughter, and with no very assured approval of either. And for all their precautions, at the last moment Bledri ap Rhys stepped between them and lifted the girl into the saddle with his own large and potentially predatory hands, with a courtesy so elaborate that it glittered into insolence: and, worse, Heledd accepted the service with as gracious an inclination of her head, and a cool, reserved smile, ambiguous between chaste reproof and discreet mischief. To take exception to the behaviour of either party would have been folly, so well had both preserved the appearance of propriety, but both canons perceptibly beheld the incident with raised hackles and darkening frowns if they kept their mouths shut.
Nor was that the only sudden cloud in this clear sky, for Cuhelyn, appearing already mounted in the gateway, too late to have observed any present cause for offence, sat his horse with drawn brows, while his intent eyes ranged the entire company within until he found Bledri, and there settled and brooded, a long-memoried man of intense passions, measuring an enemy. It seemed to Cadfael, surveying the scene with a thoughtful eye, that there would be a considerable weight of ill will and not a few grudges among the rich baggage of this princely party.
The bishop came down into the courtyard to take leave of his royal guests. This first encounter had passed off successfully enough, considering the strain he had put upon it by inviting Cadwaladr’s envoy into conference. He was not so insensitive that he had not felt the momentary tension and displeasure, and no doubt he was drawing relieved breath now at having survived the danger. Whether he had the humility to realize that he owed it to the prince’s forbearance was another matter, Cadfael reflected. And here came Owain side by side with his host, and Hywel at his back. At his coming the whole bright cortege quivered into expectant life, and as he reached for bridle and stirrup, so did they all. Too tall for me, eh, Hugh? Cadfael thought, swinging aloft into the roan’s high saddle, with a buoyancy that set him up in a very gratifying conceit of himself. I’ll show you whether I have lost my appetite for travel and forgotten everything I learned in the east before ever you were born.
And they were away, out of the wide-open gate and heading westward after the prince’s lofty fair head, uncovered to the morning sun. The bishop’s household stood to watch them depart, warily content with one diplomatic encounter successfully accomplished. Such threats as lingered uneasily from last night’s exchanges cast their shadows on these departing guests. Bishop Gilbert, if he had believed in them at all, could let them withdraw unchallenged, for they were no threat to him.
As those within the enclave emerged into the green track without, Owain’s officers from the encampment fell into neat order about them, lining either flank, and Cadfael observed with interest but without surprise that there were archers among them, and two keeping their station a few yards behind Bledri ap Rhys’s left shoulder. Given this particular guest’s undoubted quickness of perception, he was equally aware of them, and just as clearly he had no objection to their presence, for in the first mile he did not let it inhibit him from changing his position two or three times to speak a civil word in Canon Morgant’s ear, or exchange courtesies with Hywel ab Owain, riding close at his father’s back. But he did not make any move to edge his way through the attendant file of guards. If they were keeping him in mind of his virtual captivity, so was he bent on assuring them that he was perfectly content, and had no intention of attempting to remove himself. Indeed, once or twice he looked to left and right to take the measure of the prince’s unobtrusive efficiency, and seemed not unfavorably impressed by what he saw.
All of which was of considerable interest to an inquisitive man, even if at this stage it remained undecipherable. Put it away at the back of the mind, along with everything else of oddity value in this expedition, and the time would come when its meaning would be revealed. Meantime, here was Mark, silent and happy at his elbow, the road westward before him, and the sun bright on Owain’s pennant of bright hair at the head of the column. What more could any man ask on a fine May morning?
They did not, as Mark had expected, bear somewhat northwards towards the sea, but made due west, over softly rolling hills and through well-treed valleys, by green trails sometimes clearly marked, sometimes less defined, but markedly keeping a direct line uphill and down alike, here where the lie of the land was open and the gradients gentle enough for pleasant riding.
“An old, old road,” said Cadfael. “It starts from Chester, and makes straight for the head of Conwy’s tidal water, where once, they say, there was a fort the like of Chester. At low tide, if you know the sands, you can ford the river there, but with the tide boats can ply some way beyond.”
“And after the river crossing?” asked Mark, attentive and glowing.
“Then we climb. To look westward from there, you’d think no track could possibly pass, but pass it does, up and over the mountains, and down at last to the sea. Have you ever seen the sea?”
“No. How could I? Until I joined the bishop’s household I had never been out of the shire, not even ten miles from where I was born.” He was straining his eyes ahead as he rode now, with longing and delight, thirsty for all that he had never seen. “The sea must be a great wonder,” he said on a hushed breath.
“A good friend and a bad enemy,” said Cadfael, beckoned back into old memories. “Respect it, and it will do well by you, but never take liberties.”
The prince had set a steady, easy pace that could be maintained mile by mile in this undulating countryside, green and lush, patterned with hamlets in the valleys, cottages and church snugly huddled together, the fringe of cultivable fields a woven tapestry round them, and here and there solitary, scattered throughout the tref, the households of the free landowners, and no less solitary, somewhere among them, their parish church.
“These men live lonely,” said Mark, taking in the distinction with some wonder.
“These are the freeborn men of the tribe. They own their land, but not to do as they please with it, it descends by strict law of inheritance within the family. The villein villages till the soil among them, and pay their communal dues together, though every man has his dwelling and his cattle and his fair share of the land. We make sure of that by overseeing the distribution every so often. As soon as sons grow to be men they have their portion at the next accounting.”
“So no one there can inherit,” Mark deduced reasonably.
“None but the youngest son, the last to grow into a portion of his own. He inherits his father’s portion and dwelling. His elder brothers by then will have taken wives and built houses of their own.” It seemed to Cadfael, and apparently to Mark also, a fair, if rough and ready, means of assuring every man a living and a place in which to live, a fair share of the work and a fair share of the profit of the land.
“And you?” asked Mark. “Was this where you belonged?”
“Belonged and could not belong,” Cadfael acknowledged, looking back with some surprise at his own origins. “Yes, I was born in just such a villein tref, and coming up to my fourteenth birthday and a slip of land of my own. And would you believe it now?—I did not want it! Good Welsh earth, and I felt nothing for it. When the wool merchant from Shrewsbury took a liking to me, and offered me work that would give me license to see at least a few more miles of the world, I jumped at that open door as I’ve jumped at most others that ever came my way. I had a younger brother, better content to sit on one strip of earth lifelong. I was for off, as far as the road would take me, and it took me half across the world before I understood. Life goes not in a straight line, lad, but in a circle. The first half we spend venturing as far as the world’s end from home and kin and stillness, and the latter half brings us back by roundabout ways but surely, to that state from which we set out. So I end bound by vow to one narrow place, but for the rare chance of going forth on the business of my house, and laboring at a small patch of earth, and in the company of my closest kin. And content,” said Cadfael, drawing satisfied breath.
They came over the crest of a high ridge before noon, and there below them the valley of the Conwy opened, and beyond, the ground rose at first gently and suavely, but above these green levels there towered in the distance the enormous bastions of Eryri, soaring to polished steel peaks against the pale blue of the sky. The river was a winding silver thread, twining a tortuous course through and over shoals of tidal mud and sand on its way northward to the sea, its waters at this hour so spread and diminished that it could be forded without difficulty. And after the crossing, as Cadfael had warned, they climbed.
The first few green and sunny miles gave way to a rising track that kept company with a little tributary river, mounting steeply until the trees fell behind, and they emerged gradually into a lofty world of moorland, furze and heather, open and naked as the sky. No plough had ever broken the soil here, there was no visible movement but the ruffling of the sudden wind among the gorse and low bushes, no inhabitants but the birds that shot up from before the foremost riders, and the hawks that hung almost motionless, high in air. And yet across this desolate but beautiful wilderness marched a perceptible causeway laid with stones and cushioned with rough grass, raised clear of the occasional marshy places, straddling the shallow pools of peat-brown water, making straight for the lofty wall of honed rock that seemed to Brother Mark utterly impenetrable. In places where the firm rock broke through the soil and gave solid footing, the raised sarn remained visible as a trodden pathway needing no ramp of stones, but always maintained its undeviating line ahead.
“Giants made this,” said Brother Mark in awe.
“Men made it,” said Cadfael. It was wide where it was clearly to be seen, wide enough for a column of men marching six abreast, though horsemen had to ride no more than three in line, and Owain’s archers, who knew this territory well, drew off on either flank and left the paved way to the company they guarded. A road, Cadfael thought, made not for pleasure, not for hawking or hunting, but as a means of moving a great number of men from one stronghold to another as quickly as possible. It took small count of gradients, but set its sights straight ahead, deviating only where that headlong line was rankly impossible to maintain, and then only until the obstacle was passed.
“But through that sheer wall,” Mark marveled, staring ahead at the barrier of the mountains, “surely we cannot go.”
“Yes, you will find there’s a gate through, narrow but wide enough, at the pass of Bwlch y Ddeufaen. We thread through those hills, keep this high level three or four more miles, and after that we begin to descend.”
“Towards the sea?”
“Towards the sea,” said Cadfael.
They came to the first decline, the first sheltered valley of bushes and trees, and in the heart of it bubbled a spring that became a lively brook, and accompanied them downhill gradually towards the coast. They had long left behind the rivulets that flowed eastward towards the Conwy; here the streams sprang sparkling into short, precipitous lives, and made headlong for the sea. And down with this most diminutive of its kind went the track, raised to a firm level above the water, at the edge of the cleft of trees. The descent became more gradual, the brook turned somewhat away from the path, and suddenly the view opened wide before them, and there indeed was the sea.
Immediately below them a village lay in its patterned fields, beyond it narrow meadowland melting into salt flats and shingle, and then the wide expanse of sea, and beyond that again, distant but clear in the late afternoon light, the coast of Anglesey stretched out northward, to end in the tiny island of Ynys Lanog. From the shore towards which they moved the shallow water shimmered pale gold overlaid with aquamarine, almost as far as the eye could distinguish color, for Lavan Sands extended the greater part of the way to the island shore, and only there in the distance did the sea darken into the pure, greenish blue of the deep channel. At the sight of this wonder about which he had dreamed and speculated all day long, Mark checked his horse for a moment, and sat staring with flushed cheeks and bright eyes, enchanted by the beauty and diversity of the world.
It happened that Cadfael turned his head to see where someone else had reined in at the same moment, perhaps in the same rapt delight. Between her two guardian canons Heledd had checked and sat staring before her, but her sights were raised beyond the crystal and gold of the shallows, beyond the cobalt channel to the distant shore of Anglesey, and her lips were austerely drawn, and her brows level and unrevealing. She looked towards her bridegroom’s land, the man against whom she knew nothing, of whom she had heard nothing but good; she saw marriage advancing upon her all too rapidly, and there was such a baffled and resentful sadness in her face, and such an obstinate rejection of her fate, that Cadfael marveled no one else felt her burning outrage, and turned in alarm to find the source of this intense disquiet.
Then as suddenly as she had halted she shook the rein, and set her horse to an impatient trot downhill, leaving her black-habited escort behind, and threaded a way deeper into the cavalcade to shake them off at least for a few rebellious moments.
Watching her vehement passage through the ranks of the prince’s retinue, Cadfael absolved her of any deliberate intent in drawing close alongside Bledri’s mount. He was simply there in her way, in a moment she would have passed by him. But there was intent enough in the opportunist alacrity with which Bledri reached a hand to her bridle, and checked her passage knee to knee with him, and in the intimate, assured smile he turned upon her as she yielded to the persuasion. There was, Cadfael thought, one instant when she almost shook him off, almost curled her lip with the tolerant mockery which was all she truly felt for him. Then with perverse deliberation she smiled at him, and consented to fall in beside him, in no hurry to free herself of the muscular hand that detained her. They rode on together in apparent amity, with matched pace and in easy talk together. The rear view of them suggested to Cadfael nothing more than a continuation of a somewhat malicious but enjoyable game on both parts, but when he turned his head cautiously to see what effect the incident had had upon the two canons of Saint Asaph it was all too plain that to them it implied something very different. If Meirion’s drawn brows and rigid lips threatened storms towards Heledd and rage towards Bledri ap Rhys, equally they were stiff with apprehension of what must be going on behind the controlled but ominous rectitude of Morgant’s fleshy countenance.
Ah, well! Two days more, and it should be over. They would be safely in Bangor, the bridegroom would cross the strait to meet them, and Heledd would be rapt away to that mist-blue shore beyond the faint gold and ice-blue of Lavan Sands. And Canon Meirion could draw breath in peace at last.
They came down to the rim of the salt flats and turned westward, with the quivering plane of the shallows reflecting glittering light on their right hand, and the green of field and copse on the left, rising terrace beyond terrace into the hills. Once or twice they plashed through tenuous streams trickling down through the salt marshes to the sea. And within the hour they were riding alongside the high stockade of Owain’s royal seat and tref of Aber, and the porters and guards at the gates had seen the shimmer of their colors nearing, and cried their coming within.
From all the buildings that lined the walls of the great court of Owain’s maenol, from stables and armoury and hall, and the array of guest dwellings, the household came surging to welcome the prince home, and make his visitors welcome. Grooms ran to receive the horses, squires came with pitchers and horns. Hywel ab Owain, who had distributed his hospitable attentions punctiliously during the journey, moving from rider to rider with civilities as his father’s representative, and no doubt taking due note of all the undercurrents that drew taut between them, with his father’s interests in mind, was the first out of the saddle, and went straight to take the prince’s bridle, in an elegant gesture of filial respect, before ceding the charge to the waiting groom, and going to kiss the hand of the lady who had come out from the timber hall to welcome her lord home. Not his own mother! The two young boys who came leaping down the steps from the hall door after her were hers, lithe dark imps of about ten and seven years, shrilling with excitement and with a flurry of dogs wreathing round their feet. Owain’s wife was daughter to a prince of Arwystli, in central Wales, and her lively sons had her rich colouring. But an older youth, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, followed them more circumspectly down the steps, and came with authority and confidence straight to Owain, and was embraced with an affection there was no mistaking. This one had his father’s fair hair deepened into pure gold, and his father’s impressive male comeliness refined into a startling beauty. Tall, erect, with an athlete’s grace of movement, he could not emerge into any company without being noticed, and even at a distance the brilliant northern blue of his eyes was as clear as if an inner sun shone through crystals of sapphire. Brother Mark saw him, and held his breath.
“His son?” he said in an awed whisper.
“But not hers,” said Cadfael. “Another like Hywel.”
“There cannot be many such in this world,” said Mark, staring. Beauty in others he observed with a particular, ungrudging delight, having always felt himself to be the plainest and most insignificant of mortals.
“There is but one such, lad, as you know full well, for there is but one of any man that ever lived, black or fair, And yet,” owned Cadfael, reconsidering the uniqueness of the physical envelope if not of the inhabiting soul, “we go close to duplicating this one, there at home in Shrewsbury. The boy’s name is Rhun. You might look at our Brother Rhun, since Saint Winifred perfected him, and think one or the other a miraculous echo.”
Even to the name! And surely, thought Mark, recalling with pleasure the youngest of those who had been his brothers in Shrewsbury, this is how the pattern of a prince, the son of a prince, should look—and no less, a saint, the protege of a saint. All radiance and clarity, all openness and serenity in the face. No wonder his father, recognizing a prodigy, loves him better than all others.
“I wonder,” said Cadfael half to himself, unwittingly casting a shadow athwart Mark’s contemplation of light, “how her two will look upon him, when they’re all grown.”
“It is impossible,” Mark said firmly, “that they should ever wish him harm, even if land-greed and power-greed have sometimes turned brothers into enemies. This youth no one could hate.”
Close at his shoulder a cool, dry voice observed ruefully: “Brother, I envy your certainty, but I would not for the world share it, the fall is too mortal. There is no one who cannot be hated, against whatever odds. Nor anyone who cannot be loved, against all reason.”
Cuhelyn had approached them unnoticed, threading a way through the stir of men and horses, hounds and servants and children. For all his black intensity, he was a very quiet man, unobtrusive in all his comings and goings. Cadfael turned in response to the unexpected observation, just in time to see the intent glance of the young man’s shrewd eyes, presently fastened with a wry, indulgent warmth upon the boy Rhun, sharpen and chill as another figure passed between, and follow the transit with a fixity that suggested to Cadfael, at first, nothing more than detached interest, and in a matter of seconds froze into composed but indubitable hostility. Perhaps even more than hostility, a measure of restrained but implacable suspicion.
A young man of about Cuhelyn’s years, and by no means unlike him in build and colouring, though thinner in feature and somewhat longer in the reach, had been standing a little apart, watching the bustle all round him, his arms folded and his shoulders leaned against the wall of the undercroft, as though this tumultuous arrival concerned him rather less than the rest of the household. From this detached stance he had moved suddenly, crossing between Cuhelyn and the linked pair, father and son, and cutting off the view of Rhun’s radiant face. Something to be seen here certainly mattered to this young man, after all, someone had been sighted who meant more to him than clerics from Saint Asaph or the young noblemen of Owain’s guard. Cadfael followed his vehement passage through the press, and saw him take one dismounting horseman by the sleeve. The very touch, the very encounter, that had drawn taut all the lines of Cuhelyn’s countenance. Bledri ap Rhys swung about, face to face with the youth who accosted him, visibly recognized an acquaintance, and guardedly acknowledged him. No very exuberant welcome, but on both parts there was one momentary flash of warmth and awareness, before Bledri made his visage formally blank, and the boy accepted the suggestion, and began what seemed to be the most current of court civilities. No need, apparently, to pretend they did not know each other well enough, but every need to keep the acquaintance on merely courteous terms.
Cadfael looked along his shoulder, and briefly, at Cuhelyn’s face, and asked simply: “Gwion?”
“They were close? These two?”
“No. No closer than two must be who hold by the same lord.”
“That might be close enough for mischief,” said Cadfael bluntly. “As you told me, your man has given his word not to attempt escape. He has not pledged himself to give up his allegiance beyond that.”
“Natural enough he should welcome the sight of another liegeman,” said Cuhelyn steadily. “His word he will keep. As for Bledri ap Rhys, the terms of his sojourn with us, I will see kept.” He shook himself briefly, and took each of them by an arm. The prince and his wife and sons were climbing the steps into the hall, the closest of their household following without haste. “Come, Brothers, and let me be your herald here. I’ll bring you to your lodging, and show you the chapel. Use it as you find occasion, and the prince’s chaplain will make himself known to you.”
In the privacy of the lodging allotted to them, backed into the shelter of the maenol wall, Brother Mark sat refreshed and thoughtful, looking back with wide grey eyes at all that had passed during this arrival in Aber. And at length he said: “What most caused me to watch and wonder, was how like they were, those two—the young liegemen of Anarawd and of Cadwaladr. It is no mere matter of the same years, the same manner of body, the same make of face, it is the same passion within them. In Wales, Cadfael, this is another fashion of loyalty even than the bond the Normans hold by, or so it seems to me. They are on opposing sides, your Cuhelyn and this Gwion, and they could be brothers.”
“And as brothers should, and by times do not, they respect and like each other. Which would not prevent them from killing each other,” Cadfael admitted, “if ever it came to a clash between their lords in the field.”
“That is what I feel to be so wrong,” said Mark earnestly. “How could either young man look at the other, and not see himself? All the more now that they have lived together in the same court, and admitted affection?”
“They are like twins, the one born left-handed, the other right-handed, at once doubles and opposites. They could kill without malice, and die without malice. God forbid,” said Cadfael, “it should ever come to that. But one thing is certain. Cuhelyn will be watching every moment his mirror image brushes sleeves with Bledri ap Rhys, and marking every word that passes between them, and every glance. For I think he knows somewhat more of Cadwaladr’s chosen envoy than he has yet told us.”
At supper in Owain’s hall there was good food and plenteous mead and ale, and harp music of the best. Hywel ab Owain sang, improvising upon the beauty of Gwynedd and the splendour of her history, and Cadfael’s recalcitrant heart shed its habit for a half-hour, and followed the verses far into the mountains inland of Aber, and across the pale mirror of Lavan Sands to the royal burial-place of Llanfaes on Anglesey. In youth his adventurings had all looked eastward, now in his elder years eyes and heart turned westward. All heavens, all sanctuaries of the blessed lie to westward, in every legend and every imagination, at least for men of Celtic stock; a suitable meditation for old men. Yet here in the royal llys of Gwynedd Cadfael did not feel old.
Nor did it seem that his senses were in the least dulled or blunted, even as he rejoiced in his dreams, for he was sharp enough to detect the moment when Bledri ap Rhys slid an arm about Heledd’s waist as she served him with mead. Nor did he miss the icy rigidity of Canon Meirion’s face at the sight, or the deliberation with which Heledd, well aware of the same maledictory stare, forbore from freeing herself immediately, and said a smiling word in Bledri’s ear, which might as well have been a curse as a compliment, though there was no doubt how her father interpreted it. Well, if the girl was playing with fire, whose fault was that? She had lived with her sire many loyal, loving years, he should have known her better, well enough to trust her. For Bledri ap Rhys she had no use at all but to take out her grievance on the father who was in such haste to get rid of her.
Nor did it appear, on reflection, that Bledri ap Rhys was seriously interested in Heledd. He made the gesture of admiration and courtship almost absentmindedly, as though by custom it was expected of him, and though he accompanied it with a smiling compliment, he let her go the moment she drew away, and his gaze went back to a certain young man sitting among the noblemen of the guard at a lower table. Gwion, the last obstinate hostage, who would not forswear his absolute fealty to Cadwaladr, sat silent among his peers, and enemies, some of whom, like Cuhelyn, had become his friends. Throughout the feast he kept his own counsel, and guarded his thoughts, and even his eyes. But whenever he looked up at the high table, it was upon Bledri ap Rhys that his glance rested, and twice at least Cadfael saw them exchange a brief and brilliant stare, such as allies might venture to convey worlds of meaning where open speech was impossible.
Those two will somehow get together in private, Cadfael thought, before this night is out. And for what purpose? It is not Bledri who so passionately seeks a meeting, though he has been at liberty and is suspect of having some secret matter to impart. No, it is Gwion who wants, demands, relies upon reaching Bledri’s ear. It is Gwion who has some deep and urgent purpose that needs an ally to reach fulfilment. Gwion who has given his word not to leave Owain’s easy captivity. As Bledri ap Rhys has not done.
Well, Cuhelyn had vouched for Gwion’s good faith, and pledged a constant watch upon Bledri. But it seemed to Cadfael that the llys was large enough and complex enough to provide him with a difficult watch, if those two were resolved to elude him.
The lady had remained with her children in private, and had not dined in hall, and the prince also withdrew to his own apartments early, having been some days absent from his family. He took his most beloved son with him, and left Hywel to preside until his guests chose to retire. With every man now free to change his place, or go out to walk in the fresh air of the late evening, there was considerable movement in the hall, and in the noise of many conversations and the music of the harpers, in the smoke of the torches and the obscurity of the shadowy corners, who was to keep a steady eye upon one man among so many? Cadfael marked the departure of Gwion from among the young men of the household, but still Bledri ap Rhys sat in his modest place towards the foot of the high table, serenely enjoying his mead—but in moderation, Cadfael noted—and narrowly observing everything that passed about him. He appeared to be cautiously impressed by the strength and strict order of the royal household, and the numbers, discipline and confidence of the young men of the guard.
“I think,” said Brother Mark softly into Cadfael’s ear, “we might have the chapel to ourselves if we go now.”
It was about the hour of Compline. Brother Mark would not rest if he neglected the office. Cadfael rose and went with him, out from the doorway of the great hall into the cool and freshness of the night, and across the inner ward to the timber chapel against the outer wall. It was not yet fully dark nor very late, the determined drinkers still in hall would not end their gathering yet, but in the shadowy passages between the buildings of the maenol those who had duties about the place moved without haste, and quietly, going about their usual tasks in the easy languor of the end of a long and satisfactory day.
They were still some yards from the door of the chapel when a man emerged from it, and turned along the row of lodgings that lined the wall of the ward, to disappear into one of the narrow passages behind the great hall. He did not pass them close, and he might have been any one of the taller and elder of the frequenters of Owain’s court. He was in no haste, but going tranquilly and a little wearily to his night’s rest, yet Cadfael’s mind was so persistently running upon Bledri ap Rhys that he was virtually certain of the man’s identity, even in the deepening dusk.
He was quite certain when they entered the chapel, dimly lit by the rosy eye of the constant lamp on the altar, and beheld the shadowy outline of a man kneeling a little aside from the small pool of light. He was not immediately aware of them, or at least seemed not to be, though they had entered without any great care to preserve silence; and when they checked and hung back in stillness to avoid interrupting his prayers he gave no sign, but continued bowed and preoccupied, his face in shadow. At length he stirred, sighed and rose to his feet, and passing them by on his way out, without surprise, he gave them: “Goodnight, Brothers!” in a low voice. The small red eye of the altar lamp drew his profile on the air clearly, but only for a moment; long enough, however, to show plainly the young, intense, brooding features of Gwion.
Compline was long over, and midnight past, and they were peacefully asleep in their small, shared lodging, when the alarm came. The first signs, sudden clamour at the main gate of the maenol, the muted thudding of hooves entering, the agitated exchange of voices between rider and guard, passed dreamlike and distant through Cadfael’s senses without breaking his sleep, but Mark’s younger ear, and mind hypersensitive to the excitement of the day, started him awake even before the murmur of voices rose into loud orders, and the men of the household began to gather in the ward, prompt but drowsy from the rushes of the hall and the many lodgings of the maenol. Then what was left of the night’s repose was shattered brazenly by the blasting of a horn, and Cadfael rolled from his brychan on to his feet, wide-awake and braced for action.
“Someone rode in. In a hurry! Only one horseman!”
“They would not rouse the court for a little thing,” said Cadfael, clawing on his sandals and making for the door. The horn blared again, echoes ricocheting between the buildings of the prince’s llys, and blunting their sharp edges against walls. In the open ward the young men came thronging in arms to the call, and the hum of many voices, still pitched low in awe of the night, swelled into a wordless, muted bellowing like a stormy tide flowing. From every open doorway a thread of light from hastily kindled lamps and candles spilled into the dark, conjuring here and there a recognizable face out of the crowd. A jaded horse, hard-ridden, was being led with drooping head towards the stables, and his rider, heedless of the many hands that reached to arrest him and the many voices that questioned, was thrusting a way through the press towards the great hall. He had barely reached the foot of the steps when the door above him opened, and Owain in his furred bed-gown came out, large and dark against the light from within, the squire who had run to arouse him with news of the coming close at his shoulder.
“Here am I,” said the prince, loud and clear and wide awake. “Who’s come wanting me?” As he moved forward to the edge of the steps the light from within fell upon the messenger’s face, and Owain knew him. “You, is it, Goronwy? From Bangor? What’s your news?”
The messenger scarcely took time to bend his knee. He was known and trusted, and ceremony was waste of precious moments. “My lord, early this evening one came with word from Carnarvon, and I have brought that word here to you as fast as horse can go. About Vespers they sighted ships westward off Abermenai, a great fleet in war order. The seamen say they are Danish ships from the kingdom of Dublin, come to raid Gwynedd and force your hand. And that Cadwaladr, your brother, is with them! He has brought them over to avenge and restore him, in your despite. The fealty he could not keep for love he has bought with promised gold.”
« ^ »
Within Owain’s writ the invasion of disorder might bring about momentary consternation, but could not hope to create disorder in its turn. His mind was too quick and resolute ever to entertain chaos. Before the muted roar of anger and resentment had circled the ward the captain of the prince’s guard was at his elbow, awaiting his orders. They understood each other too well to need many words.
This report is certain?” Owain asked.
“Certain, my lord. The messenger I had it from saw them himself from the dunes. Too distant then to be sure how many ships, but no question whence they come, and small doubt why. It was known he had fled to them. Why come back in such force but for a reckoning?”
“He shall have one,” said Owain composedly. “How long before they come to land?”
“My lord, before morning surely. They were under sail, and the wind is steady from the west.”
For the length of a deep breath Owain considered. Perhaps a quarter of the horses in his stables had been ridden far, though not hard, the previous day, and as many of his armed men had made that journey, and sat merry in hall late into the night. And the ride that faced them now would be urgent and fast.
“Short time,” he said, musing, “to raise even the half of Gwynedd, but we’ll make sure of reserves, and collect every man available between here and Carnarvon as we go. Six couriers I want, one to go before us now, the others to carry my summons through the rest of Arlechwedd and Arfon. Call them to Carnarvon. We may not need them, but no harm in making certain.” His clerks accepted the expected word, and vanished with commendable calm to prepare the sealed writs the couriers would bear to the chieftains of two cantrefs before the night was over. “Now, every man who bears arms,” said Owain, raising his voice to carry to the containing walls and echo back from them, “get to your beds and take what rest you can. We muster at first light.”
Cadfael, listening on the edge of the crowd, approved. Let the couriers, by all means, ride out by night, but to move the disciplined host across country in the dark was waste of time that could better be used in conserving their energy. The fighting men of the household dispersed, if reluctantly; only the captain of Owain’s bodyguard, having assured himself of his men’s strict obedience, returned to his lord’s side.
“Get the women out of our way,” said Owain over his shoulder. His wife and her ladies had remained above in the open doorway of the hall, silent but for an agitated whispering among the younger maids. They departed uneasily and with many a glance behind, rather curious and excited than alarmed, but they departed. The princess had as firm a hold over her own household as Owain over his fighting men. There remained the stewards and elder counsellors, and such menservants as might be needed for any service, from armory, stables, stores, brewhouse and bakehouse. Armed men also had needs, beyond their brands and bows, and the addition of some hundreds to a garrison meant a supply train following.
Among the smaller group now gathered about the prince Cadfael noted Cuhelyn, by the look of him fresh from his bed, if not from sleep, for he had thrown on his clothes in haste, he who was wont to appear rather elegantly presented. And there was Hywel, alert and quiet at his father’s side. And Gwion, attentive and still, standing a little apart, as Cadfael had first seen him, as though he held himself always aloof from the concerns of Owain and Gwynedd, however honorably he acknowledged them. And Canon Meirion and Canon Morgant, for once drawn together in contemplating a crisis which had nothing to do with Heledd, and held no direct threat against either of them. They were onlookers, too, not participators. Their business was to get the reluctant bride safely to Bangor and her bridegroom’s arms, and there were no Danish ships as near as Bangor, nor likely to be. Heledd had been safely disposed of for the night with the princess’s women, and no doubt was gossiping excitedly with them now over what might well seem to her an almost welcome diversion.
“So this,” said Owain into the comparative silence that waited on his decree, “is the dire consequence Bledri ap Rhys had in mind. He knew, none so well, what my brother had planned. He gave me fair warning. Well, let him wait his turn, we have other work to do before morning. If he’s secure in his bed, he’ll keep.”
The chosen couriers to his vassal princes were reappearing cloaked for the night ride, and up from the stables the grooms came leading the horses saddled and ready for them. The leader came almost at a trot, led by the head groom, and the man was in some measured excitement, poured out in a breath before ever he came to a halt.
“My lord, there’s a horse gone from the stables, and harness and gear with him! We checked again, wanting to provide you the best for the morning. A good, young roan, no white on him, and saddle-cloth, saddle, bridle and all belonging to him.”
“And the horse he rode here—Bledri ap Rhys? His own horse that he brought to Saint Asaph with him?” Hywel demanded sharply. “A deep grey, dappled lighter down his flanks? Is he still there?”
“I know the one, my lord. No match for this roan. Still jaded from yesterday. He’s still there. Whoever the thief was, he knew how to choose.”
“And meant good speed!” said Hywel, burning. “He’s gone, surely. He’s gone to join Cadwaladr and his Irish Danes at Abermenai. How the devil did he ever get out of the gates? And with a horse!”
“Go, some of you, and question the watch,” Owain ordered, but without any great concern, and without turning to see who ran to do his bidding. The guards on all the gates of his maenol were men he could trust, as witness the fact that not one of them had come running here from his post, however acute the curiosity he might be feeling about the audible turmoil continuing out of his sight. Only here at the main gate, where the messenger from Bangor had entered, had any man stirred from his duty, and then only the officer of the guard. “There’s no way of locking a man in,” reflected Owain philosophically, “if he has his vigor and is determined to get out. Any wall ever built can be climbed, for a high enough cause. And he is to the last degree my brother’s man.” He turned again to the tired messenger. “In the dark a wise traveler would keep to the roads. Did you meet with any man riding west as you rode east here to us?”
“No, my lord, never a one. Not since I crossed the Cegin, and those were men of our own, known to me, and in no hurry.”
“He’ll be far out of reach now, but let’s at least start Einion off on his tracks with my writ. Who knows? A horse can fall lame, ridden hard in the dark, a man can lose his way in lands not his own. We may halt him yet,” said Owain, and turned to meet the steward who had run to see how watch was kept on the postern gates of the llys. “Well?”
“No man challenged, no man passed. They know him now by sight, stranger though he may be. However he broke loose, it was not by the gates.”
“I never thought it,” the prince agreed sombrely. “They never yet kept any but a thorough watch. Well, send out the couriers, Hywel, and then come to me within, to my private chamber. Cuhelyn, come with us.” He looked round briefly as his messengers mounted. “Gwion, this is no fault nor concern of yours. Go to your bed. And keep your parole in mind still. Or take it back,” he added drily, “and bide under lock and key while we’re absent.”
“I have given it,” said Gwion haughtily, “I shall keep it.”
“And I accepted it,” said the prince, relenting, “and trust to it. There, go, what is there for you to do here?”
What, indeed, Cadfael thought wryly, except grudge us all the freedom he has denied himself? And the instant thought came, that Bledri ap Rhys, that fiery advocate so forward to excuse his lord and threaten in his name, had given no parole, and had, almost certainly, had very private and urgent conference with Gwion in the chapel of the llys only a matter of hours ago, and was now away to rejoin Cadwaladr at Abermenai, with much knowledge of Owain’s movements and forces and defences. Gwion had never promised anything except not to escape. Within the walls he might move at will, perhaps his freedom extended even to the tref that lay outside the gate. For that he had pledged his own consent to detention. No one had promised as much for Bledri ap Rhys. And Gwion had made no pretence of his steely loyalty to Cadwaladr. Could he be blamed as recreant if he had helped his unexpected ally to break out and return to his prince? A nice point! Knowing, if only at second hand from Cuhelyn, Gwion’s stubborn and ferocious loyalty, he might well have warned his captors over and over of the limits he set on his parole, and the fervor with which he would seize any opportunity of serving the master he so obstinately loved, even at this remove.
Gwion had turned, slowly and hesitantly, to accept his dismissal, but then halted, stood with bent head and irresolute step, and in a moment gathered himself abruptly, and strode away instead towards the chapel; from the open door the faint red spark drew him like a lodestone. And what had Gwion to pray for now? A successful landing for Cadwaladr’s Danish mercenaries, and a rapid and bloodless accommodation between brothers rather than a disastrous war? Or some repair to his own peace of mind? Fiercely upright, he might consider even his loyalty a sin where some unavoidable infringement of his oath was concerned. A complicated mind, sensitive to any self-reproach, however venial the sin.
Cuhelyn, who perhaps understood him best, and most resembled him, had watched him go with a thoughtful frown, and even taken a couple of impulsive steps to follow him before thinking better of the notion, and turning back to Owain’s side. Prince and captains and counselors mounted the steps to the great hall and the private apartments, and vanished purposefully within. Cuhelyn followed without another glance behind, and Cadfael and Mark, and a few hovering servants and retainers, were left in an almost empty ward, and the silence came down after clamour, and the dark stillness after a turmoil of movement. Everything was known and understood, everything was in hand, and would be dealt with competently.
“And there is no part in it for us,” Brother Mark said quietly at Cadfael’s shoulder.
“None, except to saddle up tomorrow and ride on to Bangor.”
“Yes, that I must,” Mark agreed. There was a curious note of unease and regret in his voice, as if he found it almost a dereliction of his humanity to remove himself at this crisis in pursuit of his own errand, and leave all things here confounded and incomplete. “I wonder, Cadfael… The watch on the gates, all the gates, were they thought enough? Do you suppose a watch was set on the man himself, even here within, or was it enough that the walls held him? No man stood guard over the door of his lodging, or followed him from hall to his bed?”
“From the chapel to his bed,” Cadfael amended, “if any man had that charge. No, Mark, we watched him go. There was no one treading on his heels.” He looked across the ward, to the alley into which Bledri had vanished when he came from the chapel. “Are we not taking too much for granted, all of us? The prince has more urgent matters on his hands, true, but should not someone confirm what we have all leaped to believe?”
Gwion emerged slowly and silently from the open doorway of the chapel, drawing the door to after him, so that the tiny gleam of red vanished. He came somewhat wearily across the ward, seemingly unaware of the two who stood motionless and mute in the shadows, until Cadfael stepped forward to intercept him, mildly seeking information from one who might be expected to be able to supply it: “A moment! Do you know in which of the many lodgings here this Bledri ap Rhys slept overnight?” And as the young man halted abruptly, turning on him a startled and wary face: “I saw you greet him yesterday when we rode in, I thought you might know. You must have been glad to have some talk with an old acquaintance while he was here.”
For some reason the protracted interval of silence was more eloquent than what was finally said in reply. It would have been natural enough to answer at once: “Why do you want to know? What does it matter now?” seeing that lodging must be empty, if the man who had slept there had fled in the night. The pause made it plain that Gwion knew well enough who had walked in upon him in the chapel, and was well aware that they must have seen Bledri departing. He had time to think before he spoke, and what he said was: “I was glad, to set eyes on a man of my own tribe. I have been here hostage more than half a year. They will have told you as much. The steward had given him one of the lodgings against the north wall. I can show you. But what difference does it make now? He’s gone. Others may blame him,” he said haughtily, “but not I. If I had been free, I would have done as he did. I never made secret of where my fealty lay. And lies still!”
“God forbid anyone should condemn a man for keeping faith,” agreed Cadfael equably. “Did Bledri have his chamber to himself?”
“He did.” Gwion hoisted his shoulders, shrugging off an interest it seemed he did not understand, but accepted as meaning something to these wandering Benedictines if it meant nothing to him. “There was none sharing it with him, to prevent his going, if that is what you mean.”
“I was wondering, rather,” said Cadfael deprecatingly, “whether we are not assuming too much, just because a horse is missing. If his lodging was in a remote corner of the wards, with many a wall between, may he not have slept through this whole uproar, and be still snoring in all innocence? Since he lay alone, there was no one to wake him, if he proved so sound a sleeper.”
Gwion stood staring, eye to eye with him, his thick dark brows raised. “Well, true enough, but for the horn call a man with enough drink in him might have slept through it all. I doubt it, but if you feel the need to see for yourself… It’s not on my way, but I’ll show you.” And without more words he set off into the passage between the rear of the great hall and the long timber range of the storehouse and armory. They followed his brisk figure, shadowy in the dimness, through towards the long line of buildings in the shelter of the outer wall.
“The third door was his.” It stood just ajar, no gleam of light showing in the crack. “Go in, Brothers, and see for yourselves. But by the look of it you’ll find him gone, and all his gear with him.”
The range of small rooms was built in beneath the watch-platform along the outer wall, and shadowed deeply by its overhang. Cadfael had seen only one stairway to the platform, broad and easy of access but in full view of the main gate. Moreover, it would not be easy to descend on the outer side, unless with a long rope, for the fighting gallery projected outward from the wall, and there was a ditch below. Cadfael set a hand to the door and pushed it open upon darkness. His eyes, by this time accustomed to the night and such light as the clear but moonless sky provided, were at once blind again. There was no movement, and no sound within. He set the door wide, and advanced a step or two into the small chamber.
“We should have brought a torch,” said Mark, at his shoulder.
No need for that, it seemed, to show that the room was empty of life. But Gwion, tolerant of these exigent visitors, offered from the threshold: “The brazier will be burning in the guardhouse. I’ll bring a light.”
Cadfael had made another step within, and all but stumbled as his foot tangled soundlessly with some shifting fold of soft material, as though a rumpled brychan had been swept from bed to floor. He stooped and felt forward into the rough weave of cloth, and found something of firmer texture within it. A fistful of sleeve rose to his grip, the warmth and odor of wool stirred on the air, and an articulated weight dangled and swung as he lifted it, solid within the cloth. He let it rest back again gently, and felt down the length of it to a thick hem, and beyond that, the smooth, lax touch of human flesh, cooling but not yet cold. A sleeve indeed, and an arm within it, and a large, sinewy hand at the end of the arm.
“Do that,” he said over his shoulder. “Bring a light. We are going to need all the light we can get.”
“What is it?” asked Mark, intent and still behind him.
“A dead man, by all the signs. A few hours dead. And unless he has grappled with someone who stood in the way of his flight, and left him here to tell the tale, who can this be but Bledri ap Rhys?”
Gwion came running with a torch, and set it in the sconce on the wall, meant only to hold a small lantern. In such confined rooms a torch would never normally be permitted, but this was crisis. The sparse contents of the chamber sprang sharply outlined from the dark, a rumpled bench bed against the rear wall, the brychans spilled over and dangling to the floor, the impression of a long body still discernible indenting the cover of the straw mattress. On a shelf beside the bed-head, convenient to the guest’s hand, a small saucer-lamp stood. Not quenched, for it had burned out and left only a smear of oil and the charred wick. Beneath the shelf, half-unfolded, lay a leather saddle-roll, and dropped carelessly upon it a man’s cotte and chausses and shirt, and the rolled cloak he had not needed on the journey. And in the corner his riding-boots, one overturned and displaced, as if a foot had kicked it aside.
And between the bed and the doorway, sprawled on his back at Cadfael’s feet, arms and legs flung wide, head propped against the timber wall, as though a great blow had lifted and hurled him backwards, Bledri ap Rhys lay with eyes half-open, and lips drawn back from his large, even teeth in a contorted grin. The skirts of his gown billowed about him in disorder, the breast had fallen open wide as he fell, and beneath it he was naked. In the flickering of the torch it was hard to tell whether the darkened blotch on his left jaw and cheek was shadow or bruise, but there was no mistaking the gash over his heart, and the blood that had flowed from it down into the folds of cloth under his side. The dagger that had inflicted the wound had been as quickly withdrawn, and drawn out the life after it.
Cadfael went down on his knees beside the body, and gently turned back the breast of the woollen gown to reveal the wound more clearly to the quivering light. Gwion, behind him in the doorway and hesitant to enter, drew deep breath, and let it out in a gusty sob that caused the flame to flicker wildly, and what seemed a living shudder passed over the dead face.
“Be easy,” said Cadfael tolerantly, and leaned to close the half-open eyes. “For he is easy enough now. Well I know, he was of your allegiance. And I am sorry!”
Mark stood quiet and still, staring down in undismayed compassion. “I wonder had he wife and children,” he said at last. Cadfael marked the first focus of one fledgling priest’s concern, and approved it. Christ’s first instinct might have been much the same. Not: “Unshriven, and in peril!” not even: “When did he last confess and find absolution?” but: “Who will care for his little ones?”
“Both!” said Gwion, very low. “Wife and children he has. I know. I will deal.”
“The prince will give you leave freely,” said Cadfael. He rose from his knees, a little stiffly. “We must go, all, and tell him what has befallen. We are within his writ and guests in his house, all, not least this man, and this is murder. Take the torch, Gwion, and go before, and I will close the door.”
Gwion obeyed this alien voice without question, though it had no authority over him but what he gave of his own free will. On the threshold he stumbled, for all he was holding the light. Mark took his arm until he had his balance again, and as courteously released him as soon as his step was secure. Gwion said no word, made no acknowledgement, as Mark needed none. He went before like a herald, torch in hand, straight to the steps of the great hall, and lit them steadily within.
“We were all in error, my lord,” said Cadfael, “in supposing that Bledri ap Rhys had fled your hospitality. He did not go far, nor did he need a horse for the journey, though it is the longest a man can undertake. He is lying dead in the lodging where your steward housed him. From all we see there, he never intended flight. I will not say he had slept. But he had certainly lain in his bed, and certainly put on his gown over his nakedness when he rose from it, to encounter whoever it may have been who walked in upon his rest. These two with me here have seen what I have seen, and will bear it out.”
“It is so,” said Brother Mark.
“It is so,” said Gwion.
Round Owain’s council table in his private apartment, austerely furnished, the silence lasted long, every man among his captains frozen into stillness, waiting for the prince’s reaction. Hywel, standing at his father’s shoulder, in the act of laying a parchment before him, had halted with the leaf half-unrolled in his hands, his eyes wide and intent upon Cadfael’s face.
Owain said consideringly, rather digesting than questioning the news thus suddenly laid before him: “Dead. Well!” And in a moment more: “And how did this man die?”
“By a dagger in the heart,” said Cadfael with certainty.
“From before? Face to face?”
“We have left him as we found him, my lord. Your own physician may see him just as we saw him. As I think,” said Cadfael, “he was struck a great blow that hurled him back against the wall, so that he fell stunned. Certainly whoever struck him down faced him, this was confrontation, no assault from behind. And no weapon, not then. Someone lashed out with a fist, in great anger. But then he was stabbed as he lay. His blood has run down and gathered in the folds of his gown under his left side. There was no movement. He was out of his senses when he was stabbed. By someone!”
“The same someone?” wondered Owain.
“Who can tell? It is probable. It is not certain. But I doubt he would have lain helpless more than a matter of moments.”
Owain spread his hands upon the table before him, pushing aside the parchments scattered there. “You are saying that Bledri ap Rhys has been murdered. Under my roof. In my charge, however he may have come there, friend or enemy, to all intent he was a guest in my house. This I will not abide.” He looked beyond Cadfael, at Gwion’s sombre face. “You need not fear that I will value my honest enemy’s life at less than any man of my own,” he said in generous reassurance.
“My lord,” said Gwion, very low, “that I never doubted.”
“If I must go after other matters now,” said Owain, “yet he shall have justice, if by any means I can ensure it. Who last saw the man, living?”
“I saw him leave the chapel, late,” said Cadfael, “and cross towards his own lodging. So did Brother Mark, who was with me. Beyond that I cannot say.”
“At that time,” said Gwion, his voice a little hoarse with constraint, “I was in the chapel. I talked with him. I was glad to see a face I knew. But when he left I did not follow.”
“Enquiry shall be made,” said Owain, “of all the servants of the house, who would be the last wakeful about the maenol. See to it, Hywel. If any had occasion to pass there, and saw either Bledri ap Rhys, or any man going or coming late about his door, bring the witness here. We muster at first light, but we have yet a few hours before dawn. If this thing can be resolved before I go to deal with my brother and his Danes, so much the better.”
Hywel departed on the word, laying his leaf of vellum down on the table, and plucking a couple of men out of the council to speed the search. There was to be no rest that night for the menservants, stewards and maids of Owain’s court, none for the members of his bodyguard, or the young men who followed him in arms. Bledri ap Rhys had come to Saint Asaph intending mischief, threatening mischief, and the cost had fallen on his own head, but the echoes would spread outward like ripples from a stone flung into a pool, and scarify the lives of all here until murder was paid for.
“The dagger that was used,” said Owain, returning to his quest like a hawk stooping. “It was not left in the wound?”
“It was not. Nor have I examined the wound so closely that I dare guess what manner of blade it had. Your own men, my lord, will be able to hazard that as well as I. Better,” said Cadfael, “since even daggers change with years, and I am long out of the practice of arms.”
“And the bed, you say, had been slept in. At least lain in. And the man had made no preparation for riding, and left no sign he ever intended flight. It was not so vital a matter that I should set a man to watch him through the night. But there is yet another mystery here,” said the prince. “For if he did not make away with one of our horses, who did? There is no question but the beast is gone.”
It was a point that Cadfael, in his preoccupation with Bledri’s death, had not even considered. Somewhere at the back of his mind he had felt the nagging and elusive misgiving that something else would have to be investigated before the night was over, but in the brief instants when he ventured to turn and attempt to see it clearly, it had vanished from the corner of his eye. Suddenly confronted with the puzzle that had eluded him, he foresaw a lengthy and careful numbering of every soul in the maenol to find the one, the only one, lost without trace. Someone else would have to undertake that, for there could be no delay in the prince’s dawn departure.
“It is in your hands, my lord,” he said, “as are we all.”
Owain flattened a large and shapely hand upon the table before him. “My course is set, and cannot be changed until Cadwaladr’s Dublin Danes are sent back to their own land with clipped ears, if it comes to that. And you, Brothers, have your own way to go, in less haste than my way, but not to be delayed, either. Your bishop is entitled to as strict service as princes expect. Let us by all means consider, in what time we have left, which among us may have done murder. Then, if it must be left behind for another time, yet it shall not be forgotten. Come, I’ll see for myself how this ill matter looks, and then we’ll have the dead cared for, and see due reparation made to his kin. He was no man of mine, but he did me no wrong, and such right as I may I’ll do to him.”
They rejoined the gathering in the council chamber the better part of an hour later. By then the body of Bledri ap Rhys was decently bestowed in the chapel, in the charge of the prince’s chaplain, and there was no more to be learned from the sparse furnishings of the room where he had died. No weapon remained to speak, even the flow of his blood was meagre, and left small trace behind, the stab wound being neat, narrow and precise. It is not difficult to make a clean and exact job of stabbing to the heart a man already laid senseless to your hand. Bledri could scarcely have felt death remove him from the world.
“He was not a man to be greatly loved, I fancy,” Owain said as they crossed once more to the hall. “Many here must have resented him, for he came arrogantly enough. It might take no more than a quarrelsome encounter, after that, to make a man lash out on impulse. But to kill? Would any man of mine take it so far, when I had made him my guest?”
“It would need a very angry man,” Cadfael owned, “to go so far in your despite. But it takes only an instant to strike, and less than an instant to forget all caution. He had made himself a number of enemies, even in the short time we all rode together.” Names were to be suppressed at all cost, but he was thinking of the blackly murderous glare of Canon Meirion, beholding Bledri’s familiarity with his daughter, and the consequent threat to a career the good canon had no intention of risking.
“An open quarrel would be no mystery,” said Owain. “That I could have resolved. Even if it came to a death, a blood price would have paid it, the blame would not have been all one way. He did provoke hatred. But to follow him to his bedchamber and hale him out of his bed? It is a very different matter.”
They passed through the hall and entered the council chamber. Every eye turned upon them as they came in. Mark and Gwion had waited with the rest. They stood close together, silent, as though the very fact of discovering a death together had linked them in a continuing fellowship that set them apart from the captains round the council table. Hywel was back before his father, and had brought with him one of the kitchen servants, a shaggy dark boy a little puffy with sleep, but bright-eyed again with reviving wakefulness now that he knew of a sudden death, and had something, however small, to impart concerning it.
“My lord,” said Hywel, “Meurig here is the latest I could find to pass by the lodgings where Bledri ap Rhys was housed. He will tell you what he saw. He has not yet told it, we waited for you.”
The boy spoke up boldly enough. It seemed to Cadfael that he was not altogether convinced of the importance of what he had to say, though it pleased him well enough to be here declaring it. Its significance he was content to leave to the Princes.
“My lord, it was past midnight before I finished my work, and went through the passage there to my bed. There was no one about then, I was among the last. I did not see a soul until I came by the third door in that range, where they tell me now this Bledri ap Rhys was lodged. There was a man standing in the doorway, looking into the room, with the latch in his hand. When he heard me coming he closed the door, and went away along the alley.”
“In haste?” asked Owain sharply. “Furtively? In the dark he could well slip away unrecognized.”
“No, my lord, no such matter. Simply, he drew the door to, and walked away. I thought nothing of it. And he took no care not to be seen. He said a goodnight to me as he went. As though he had been seeing a guest safe to his bed—one none too steady on his feet, or too sure of his way, it might be.”
“And you answered him?”
“Surely, my lord.”
“Now name him,” said Owain, “for I think you knew him well enough to call him by name then.”
“My lord, I did. Every man in your court of Aber has got to know him and value him by now, though he came as a stranger when first the lord Hywel brought him from Deheubarth. It was Cuhelyn.”
A sharp, indrawn breath hissed round the table. All heads turned, and all eyes fixed upon Cuhelyn, who sat apparently unmoved at finding himself suddenly the centre of marked and loaded attention. His thick dark brows had risen in mild surprise, even a trace of amusement.
“That is true,” he said simply. “That I could have told you, but for all I knew or know now there could have been others there after me. As certainly there was one. The last to see him, living, no question. But that was not I.”
“Yet you offered us no word of this,” the prince pointed out quietly. “Why not?”
“True, I did none too well there. It came a little too close home for comfort,” said Cuhelyn. “I opened my mouth once to say it, and shut it again with nothing said. For sober truth is that I did have the man’s death in mind, and for all I never touched him nor went in to him, when Brother Cadfael told us he lay dead, I felt the finger of guilt cold on my neck. But for solitude, and chance, and this lad coming along when most he was needed, yes, I might have been Bledri’s murderer. But I am not, thanks be to God!”
“Why did you go there, and at that hour?” asked Owain, giving no sign whether he believed or disbelieved.
“I went there to confront him. To kill him in single combat. Why at that hour? Because the hatred had taken hours to come to the boil within me, and only then had I reached the length of killing. Also, I think, because I wished to make it clear past doubt that no other man was drawn into my quarrel, and no other could be accused even of knowing what I did.” Cuhelyn’s level voice remained quiet and composed still, but his face had tightened until pale lines stood clear over the cheekbones and round the lean, strong angle of his jaw.
Hywel said softly, filling and easing the pause: “A one-armed man against a seasoned warrior with two?”
Cuhelyn looked down indifferently at the silver circlet that secured the linen cover over the stump of his left arm. “One arm or two, the end would have been the same. But when I opened his door, there he lay fast asleep. I heard his breathing, long and placid. Is it fair dealing to startle a man out of his sleep and challenge him to the death? And while I stood there in the doorway, Meurig here came along. And I drew the door closed again, and went away, and left Bledri sleeping.
“Not that I gave up my purpose,” he said, rearing his head fiercely. “Had he been living when the morning came, my lord, I meant to challenge him openly of his mortal offence, and call him to battle for his life. And if you gave me countenance, to kill him.”
Owain was staring upon him steadily, and visibly probing the mind that fashioned this bitter speech and gave it such passionate force. With unshaken calm he said: “So far as is known to me, the man had done me no grave offence.”
“Not to you, my lord, beyond his arrogance. But to me, the worst possible. He made one among the eight that set upon us from ambush, and killed my prince at my side. When Anarawd was murdered, and this hand was lopped, Bledri ap Rhys was there in arms. Until he came into the bishop’s hall I did not know his name. His face I have never forgotten. Nor never could have forgotten, until I had got Anarawd’s price out of him in blood. But someone else has done that for me. And I am free of him.”
“Say to me again,” Owain commanded, when Cuhelyn had made an end of this declaration, “that you left the man living, and have no guilt in his death.”
“I did so leave him. I never touched him, his death is no guilt of mine. If you bid me, I will swear it on the altar.”
“For this while,” said the prince gravely, “I am forced to leave this matter unresolved until I come back from Abermenai with a more urgent matter settled and done. But I still need to know who did the thing you did not do, for not all here have your true quarrel against Bledri ap Rhys. And as I for my part take your word, there may be many who still doubt you. If you give your word to return with me, and abide what further may be found out, till all are satisfied, then come with me. I need you as I may need every good man.”
“As God sees me,” said Cuhelyn. “I will not leave you, for any reason, until you bid me go. And the happier, if you never do so bid me.”
The last and most unexpected word of a night of the unexpected lay with Owain’s steward, who entered the council chamber just as the prince was rising to dismiss his officers, sufficiently briefed for the dawn departure. Provision was already made for the rites due to the dead. Gwion would remain at Aber, according to his oath, and had pledged his services to send word to Bledri’s wife in Ceredigion, and conduct such necessary duties for the dead man as she demanded. A melancholy duty, but better from a man of the same allegiance. The morning muster was planned with precision, and order given for the proper provision due to the bishop of Lichfield’s envoy on his way to Bangor, while the prince’s force pursued the more direct road to Carnarvon, the old road that had linked the great forts by which an alien people had kept their footing in Wales, long ago. Latin names still clung to the places they had inhabited, though only priests and scholars used them now; the Welsh knew them by other names. It was all prepared, to the last detail. Except that somehow the missing horse had been lost yet again, slipping through the cracks between greater concerns into limbo. Until Goronwy ab Einion came in with the result of a long and devious enquiry into the total household within the llys.
“My lord, the lord Hywel set me a puzzle, to find the one person who should be here, and is not. Our own household of retainers and servants I thought well to leave aside, why should any among them take to his heels? My lord, the princess’s waiting woman knows the roll of her maids perfectly, and any guests who are women are her charge. There is one girl who came in your train yesterday, my lord, who is gone from the place allotted to her. She came here with her father, a canon of Saint Asaph, and a second canon of that diocese travelled with them. We have not disturbed the father as yet. I waited for your word. But there is no question, the young woman is gone. No one has seen her since the gates were closed.”
“God’s wounds!” swore Owain, between laughter and exasperation. “It was true what they told me! The dark lass that would not be a nun in England—God keep her, why should she, a black Welshwoman as ever was!—and said yes to Ieuan ab Ifor as a blessed relief by comparison—do you tell me she has stolen a horse and made off into the night before the guard shut us in? The devil!” he said, snapping his fingers. “What is the child’s name?”
“Her name is Heledd,” said Brother Cadfael.
« ^ »
No question, Heledd was gone. No hostess here, with duties and status, but perhaps the least among the arriving guests, she had held herself aloof from the princess’s waiting-woman, keeping her own counsel and, as it seemed, waiting her own chance. No more reconciled to the prospect of marriage with the unknown bridegroom from Anglesey than to a conventual cell among strangers in England, Heledd had slipped through the gates of Aber before they closed at night, and gone to look for some future of her own choosing. But how had she abstracted also a horse, saddled and bridled, and a choice and fleet horse into the bargain?
The last that anyone had seen of her was when she left the hall with an empty pitcher, barely halfway through the prince’s feast, leaving all the nobility busy at table, and her father still blackly scowling after her as she swung the screen curtain closed behind her. Perhaps she had truly intended to refill the pitcher and return to resume replenishing the Welsh drinking horns, if only to vex Canon Meirion. But no one had seen her since that moment. And when the first light came, and the prince’s force began to muster in the wards, and the bustle and clamour, however purposeful and moderate, would certainly bring out all the household, who was to tell the good canon that his daughter had taken flight in the darkness from the cloister, from marriage, and from her sire’s very imperfect love and care for her?
Such an unavoidable task Owain chose not to delegate. When the light from the east tipped the outer wall of the maenol, and the ward began to fill with horse and groom and man-at-arms and archer roused and ready, he sent to summon the two canons of Saint Asaph to the gatehouse, where he waited with one shrewd eye on the ranks mustering and mounting, and one on a sky and light that promised good weather for riding. No one had forestalled him with the bad news; so much was plain from Canon Meirion’s serene, assured face as he strode across the ward with a civil good-morning already forming on his lips, and a gracious benediction ready to follow it as soon as the prince should mount and ride. At his back, shorter-legged and more portly and selfconscious of bearing, Canon Morgant hugged his ponderous dignity about him, and kept a noncommittal countenance.
It was not Owain’s way to beat about bushes. Time was short, business urgent, and what mattered was to make such provision as was now possible to repair what had gone awry, both with threats from an obdurate brother and peril to a lost daughter.
“There is news in the night,” said the prince briskly, as soon as the two clerics drew close, “that will not please your reverences, and does not please me.”
Cadfael, watching from beside the gate, could detect no disquiet in Canon Meirion’s face at this opening. No doubt he thought it referred only to the threat of the Danish fleet, and possibly the flight of Bledri ap Rhys, for the two clerics had gone to their beds before that supposed flight changed to a death. But either would come rather as a relief and satisfaction to him, seeing that Bledri and Heledd between them had given him cause to tremble for his future career, with Canon Morgant storing up behind his austere forehead every unbecoming look and wanton word to report back to his bishop. By his present bearing, Meirion knew of nothing worse, nothing in the world to disturb his complacency now, if Bledri was either fled or dead. “My lord,” he began benignly, “we were present to hear of the threat to your coast. It will surely be put off without harm…”
“Not that!” said Owain bluntly. “This concerns yourself. Sir, your daughter has fled in the night. Sorry I am to say it, and to leave you to deal with the case in my absence, but there’s no help. I have given orders to the captain of my garrison here to give you every aid in searching for her. Stay as long as you need to stay, make use of my men and my stables as best serves. I and all who ride with me will be keeping a watch and asking news of her westward direct to Carnarvon. So, I trust, will Deacon Mark and Brother Cadfael on their ride to Bangor. Between us we should cover the country to westward. You ask and search round Aber and eastward, and south if need be, though I think she would not venture the mountains alone. I will return to the search as soon as I may.”
He had proceeded thus far uninterrupted only because Canon Meirion had been struck mute and amazed at the very first utterance, and stood staring with round eyes and parted lips, paling until the peaks of his sharp cheekbones stood out white under the straining skin. Utter consternation stopped the breath in his throat.
“My daughter!” he repeated slowly at last, the words shaped almost without sound. And then in a hoarse wheeze: “Gone? My daughter loose alone, and these sea-raiders abroad in the land?”
At least, thought brother Cadfael approvingly, if she could be here to hear it, she would know that he has some real care for her. His first outcry is for her safety, for once his own advancement is forgotten. If only for a moment!
“Half the width of Wales from here,” said Owain stoutly, “and I’ll see to it they come no nearer. She heard the messenger, she knows better than to ride into their arms. This girl you bred is no fool.”
“But headstrong!” Meirion lamented, his voice recovered and loud with anguish. “Who knows what risk she might not venture? And if she has fled me now, she will still hide from me. This I never foresaw, that she could feel so driven and so beset.”
“I say again,” said Owain firmly, “use my garrison, my stables, my men as you will, send out after news of her, for surely she cannot be far. As for the ways to westward, we will watch for her as we go. But go we must. You well know the need.”
Meirion drew himself back a little, erect at his tallest, and shook his broad shoulders.
“Go with God, my lord, you can do no other. My girl’s life is but one, and many depend upon you. She shall be my care. I dread I have not served her turn lately as well as I have served my own, or she would never have left me so.”
And he turned, with a hasty reverence, and strode away towards the hall, so precipitately that Cadfael could see him clambering fiercely into his boots and marching down to the stable to saddle his horse, and away to question everyone in the village outside the walls, in search of the dark daughter he had gone to some pains to dispatch into distance, and now was all afire to recover. And after him, still silent, stonily expressionless, potentially disapproving, went Canon Morgant, a black recording angel.
They were more than a mile along the coastal track towards Bangor before Brother Mark broke his deep and thoughtful silence. They had parted from the prince’s force on leaving Aber, Owain bearing south-west to take the most direct road to Carnarvon, while Cadfael and Mark kept to the shore, with the shining, pallid plain of the shallows over Lavan Sands reflecting the morning light on their right hand, and the peaks of Fryri soaring one above another on their left, beyond the narrow green lowlands of the coast. Over the deep channel beyond the sands, the shores of Anglesey were bright in sunlight.
“Did he know,” Mark wondered aloud suddenly, “that the man was dead?”
“He? Meirion? Who can tell? He was there among the rest of us when the groom cried out that a horse was missing, and Bledri was held to have taken him and made off to his master. So much he knew. He was not with us when we looked for and found the man dead, nor present in the prince’s counsel. If the pair of them were safe in their beds they cannot have heard the news until this morning. Does it signify? Dead or fled, the man was out of Meirion’s way, and could scandalize Morgant no longer. Small wonder he took it so calmly.”
“That is not what I meant,” said Mark. “Did he know of his own knowledge? Before ever another soul knew it?” And as Cadfael was silent, he pursued hesitantly: “You had not considered it?”
“It had crossed my mind,” Cadfael admitted. “You think him capable of killing?”
“Not in cool blood, not by stealth. But his blood is not cool, but all too readily heated. There are some who bluster and bellow, and rid their bile that way. Not he! He contains it, and it boils within him. It is likelier far to burst forth in action than in noise. Yes, I think him capable of killing. And if he did confront Bledri ap Rhys, he would meet only with provocation and disdain there. Enough to make for a violent end.”
“And could he go from that ending straight to his bed, in such unnerving company, and keep his countenance? Even sleep?”
“Who says that he slept? He had only to be still and quiet. There was nothing to keep Canon Morgant wakeful.”
“I return you another question,” said Cadfael. “Would Cuhelyn lie? He was not ashamed of his purpose. Why, then, should he lie about it when it came to light?”
“The prince believes him,” said Mark, thoughtfully frowning.
“Any man may lie, not even for very grave reason. Even Cuhelyn may. But I do not think he would lie to Owain. Or to Hywel. He has given his second fealty, as absolute as the first. But there is another question to be asked concerning Cuhelyn. No, there are two. Had he told anyone what he knew about Bledri ap Rhys? And if he would not lie to Hywel, who had salved him and brought him to an honorable service, would he lie for him? For if he did tell anyone that he recognized Bledri as one among his prince’s murderers, it would be Hywel. Who had no better reason to love the perpetrators of that ambush than had Cuhelyn himself.”
“Or any man who went with Hywel to drive Cadwaladr out of Ceredigion for Anarawd’s sake,” agreed Cadfael resignedly, “or any who took bitter offence at hearing Bledri so insolent on Cadwaladr’s behalf in hall that night, spitting his threats into Owain’s face. True, a man is dead who was well-hated, living, and took no keep to be anything better than hated. In a crowded court where his very presence was an affront, is it any wonder if he came by a short ending? But the prince will not let it rest.”
“And we can do nothing,” said Mark, and sighed. “We cannot even look for the girl until I have discharged my errand.”
“We can ask,” said Cadfael.
And ask they did, at every hamlet and dwelling along the way, whether a young woman had not ridden past by this road, a dark Welsh girl on a young roan, all of one colour. A horse from the prince’s stables would not go unremarked, especially with a lone girl in the saddle. But the day wore on, and the sky clouded gently and cleared again, and they drew into Bangor by mid-afternoon; but no one could give them word of Heledd, Meirion’s daughter.
Bishop Meurig of Bangor received them as soon as they had threaded their way through the streets of the town to his cathedral enclave, and announced themselves to his archdeacon. It seemed that here everything was to be done briskly and briefly, with small respect to the planned and public ceremony Bishop Gilbert had preferred. For here they were by many miles nearer to the threat of Danish raiders, and very sensibly taking such precautions as were possible to cope with them if they should penetrate so far. Moreover, Meurig was native Welsh, at home here, and had no need of the cautious dispositions Gilbert felt necessary to secure his position. It might be true that he had proved at first a disappointment to his prince, by succumbing to Norman pressure and submitting to Canterbury, but stoutly Welsh he remained, and his resistance, if diverted, must still be proceeding by more subtle ways. At least he did not seem to Cadfael, when they were admitted to his presence in private, the kind of man to compromise his Welshness and his adherence to the ways of the Celtic Church without a long and doughty rearguard action.
The bishop was not at all like his fellow of Saint Asaph. Instead of the tall, dignified Gilbert, self-consciously patrician and austere without, and uneasily insecure within, here was a small, round, bustling cleric in his forties, voluble of speech but very much to the point, rapid of movement and a little disheveled and shaggy, with a sharp eye and a cheerfully bouncing manner, like a boisterous but businesslike hound on a scent. His pleasure in the very fact of their coming on such an errand was made very plain, and outweighed even his delight in the breviary Mark had brought him, though clearly he had an eye for a handsome script, and turned the leaves with lovingly delicate movements of thick, strong fingers.
“You will have heard already, Brothers, of the threat to our shores, so you will understand that here we are looking to our defenses. God grant the Norsemen never get ashore, or no further than the shore, but if they should, we have a town to keep, and churchmen must turn to like the rest. For that reason we observe at present little state or ceremony, but I trust you will be my guests for a day or two before you need return with my letters and compliments to your bishop.”
It was for Mark to respond to this invitation, which was offered warmly enough, but with a vaguely preoccupied look in the bishop’s shrewd eyes. At least a part of his mind was away scanning the waterfront of his town, where the brief mudflat between the tides gave place to the narrowing neck of the strait. Fifteen miles or more to the western end at Abermenai, but the smaller shallow-draught ships, oared by twenty rowers, could cover that distance rapidly. A pity the Welsh had never really taken to the seas! And Bishop Meurig had his flock to consider, and no amenable temper to let them suffer anything his vigor could prevent. He would not be sorry to pack his visitors from England off back to Lichfield, and have his hands free. Hands that looked quite capable of turning to the sword or the bow whenever the need arose.
“My lord,” said Brother Mark, after a brief thoughtful hesitation, “I think we should leave tomorrow, if that does not cause you too much inconvenience. Much as I would like to linger, I have pledged myself to a prompt return. And even beyond that, the party with which we rode from Saint Asaph included a young woman who should have come here to Bangor with us, under Owain Gwynedd’s protection, but now, bereft of that protection, since the prince perforce has hurried on to Carnarvon, she has unwisely ridden out from Aber alone, and somewhere has lost her way. They are seeking for her from Aber. But since we have come as far as Bangor, if I may justify the delay even of one day, or two, I should like to spend them searching for her in these parts also. If you will grant me leave to make use of so short a delay, we will spend it for the lady’s benefit, and you, I know, will be making use of every moment for the better keep of your own people.”
A good speech, Cadfael approved, one that gives nothing away of what lies behind Heledd’s flight, thereby sparing her reputation and this good prelate’s very proper concern. He interpreted it carefully, improvising a little where memory faltered, since Mark had allowed him no pause between the lines. The bishop nodded instant comprehension, and demanded practically: “Did the lady know of this threat from Dublin?”
“No,” said Mark, “the messenger from Carnarvon came only later. She cannot have known.”
“And she is somewhere abroad between Aber and here, and alone? I wish I had more men to send out after her,” said Meurig, frowning, “but we have already sent on to Carnarvon all the fighting men who can be spared, to join the prince there. Such as are left we may need here.”
“We do not know,” Cadfael said, “which way she rode. She may be well behind us to the east, for all we know, and safe enough. But if we can do no more, we can divide on the ride back, and enquire everywhere after her.”
“And if she has by now heard of the peril,” Mark added eagerly, “and very wisely looks for safe shelter, are there in these regions any houses of religious women, where she might take refuge?”
This also Cadfael translated, though he could have given a general answer to it himself, without troubling the bishop. The Church in Wales had never run to nunneries, as even conventual life for men had never been on the same monastic pattern as in England. Instead of the orderly, well-regulated house of sisters, with a recognized authority and a rule, here there might arise, in the most remote and solitary wilderness, a small wattled oratory, with a single, simple saint living within it, a saint in the old dispensation, without benefit of Pope or canonization, who grew a few vegetables and herbs for her food, and gathered berries and wild fruit, and came to loving terms with the small beasts of the warren, so that they ran to hide in her skirts when they were hunted, and neither huntsmen nor horn could urge on the hounds to do the lady affront, or her little visitors harm. Though Cadfael had to admit, on reflection, that the Dublin Danes might not observe a proper respect to such unaccustomed evidences of sanctity.
The bishop shook his head. “Our holy women do not gather in communities, like yours, but set up their cells in the wilds, alone. Such anchoresses would not settle near a town. More likely far to withdraw into the mountains. There is one we know of here, who has her hermitage by this same Menai water, some miles west from here, beyond the narrows. But as soon as we heard of this threat from the sea I sent to warn her, and bring her in here to shelter. And she had the good sense to come, and make no demur about it. God is the first and best defense of lone women, but I see no virtue in leaving all to him. I want no martyrs within my domain, and sanctity is small protection.”
“Then her cell is left empty,” said Mark, and sighed. “But if this girl should have ridden so far, and failed to find a friend at need, where next might she turn?”
“Inland, surely, into the cover of woodland. I know of no defensible holding close by, but these raiders, if they land, would not go far from their ships. Any house in Arfon would take a girl in. Though the nearest and themselves most at risk,” he added simply, “may well have drawn off into the hills themselves. Your fellow here knows how lightly we can vanish at need.”
“I doubt she can have gone far ahead of us,” said Cadfael, pondering possibilities. “And for all we know she may have her own plans, and know very well where to run. At least we can ask wherever we touch on the way back.” There was always the chance, too, that Canon Meirion had already found his daughter, closer to the royal seat at Aber.
“I can have prayers said for her safety,” said the bishop briskly, “but I have sheep of my own to fold, and cannot, however willingly I would, go searching after one stray. At least, Brothers, rest this night over, before you take to the roads again, and may you ride safely and get good word of the young woman you seek.”
Bishop Meurig might be preoccupied with guarding his extended household, but he did not let that interfere with his hospitality. His table was well-supplied, his meat and mead ample and well-prepared, and he did not let his guests depart next morning without rising at dawn to see them off. It was a limpid, moist morning, after some fitful showers in the night, and the sun came up glistening and radiant, gilding the shallows to eastward.
“Go with God!” said the bishop, solid and square in the gateway of his precinct, as though he would hold it single-handed against all comers. His complimentary letters were already bestowed in Mark’s saddle-roll, together with a small flask of gilded glass filled with the cordial he made from his own honey, and Cadfael carried before him a basket with a day’s supply of food for six men rather than two. “Come safely back to your bishop, on whom be God’s blessing, and to your convent, Brother Cadfael, where his grace surely prevails. I trust some day we may meet again.”
Of the peril now threatening he certainly went in no awe. When they looked back from the street he was bustling purposefully across the open court, head foremost and lowered, like a small, determined bull not yet belligerent but certainly not to be trifled with.
They had emerged from the edges of the town on to the highroad, when Mark reined in, and sat his horse mute and thoughtful, looking first back along the road towards Aber, and then westward towards the invisible sinuous curves of the narrow strait that separated Anglesey from Arfon. Cadfael drew in beside him, and waited, knowing what was on his friend’s mind.
“Could she have passed beyond this point? Ought we not to go on westward? She left Aber hours before us. How long, I wonder, before she got word of the coming of the Danes?”
“If she rode through the night,” said Cadfael, “she was not likely to hear of it until morning, there would be no one abroad to warn her. By morning she could be well to the west, and if she intended by her flight to evade her marriage, she would not come near Bangor, for there she was to meet her husband. Yes, you are right, she might by this be well to westward, and into danger. Nor am I sure she would turn back even if she knew of it.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” demanded Mark simply, and turned his horse towards the west.
At the church of Saint Deiniol, several miles south-west from Bangor and perhaps two miles from the strait, they got word of her at last. She must have kept to the old, direct road, the same Owain and his host would take, but hours ahead of them. The only puzzle was why it had taken her so long to reach that point, for when they enquired of the priest there was no hesitation, but yes, she had lighted down here to ask directions only late the previous evening, about Vespers.
“A young woman on a light roan, and all alone. She asked her way to the cell of Nonna. Due west from here it lies, in the trees near the water. I offered her shelter for the night, but she said she would go to the holy woman.”
“She would find the cell deserted,” said Cadfael. “Bishop Meurig feared for the anchoress, and sent to bring her into Bangor. From which direction did the girl ride in?”
“Down out of the forests, from the south. I did not know,” said the priest, distressed, “that she would find the place empty. I wonder, poor child, what she would do? There would still be time enough for her to find refuge in Bangor.”
“That I doubt she would do,” said Cadfael. “If she came to the cell only so late, she might well bide the night over there, rather than risk moving by darkness.” He looked at Mark, in no doubt already what that young man would be thinking. On this journey Mark had the governance, not for the world would Cadfael have robbed him of it by word or act.
“We will go and look for her at the hermitage,” said Mark firmly, “and if she is not there, we will separate and try whatever tracks seem most likely to offer her refuge. In these lowland pastures there must be homesteads she may have tried.”
“Many will have taken advice,” the priest suggested, shaking his head dubiously. “In a few weeks they would have been moving their herds and flocks into the uplands, even without this threat. Some may have moved early, rather than risk being plundered.”
“We can but make the assay,” said Mark stoutly. “If need be, we’ll take to the hills ourselves in search of her.”
And forthwith he made a brisk reverence to their informant, and wheeled his horse and set off due west, straight as an arrow. The priest of Saint Deiniol looked after him with raised brows and an expression half amused and half solicitous, and shook his head doubtfully.
“Would that young man be seeking the girl out of the goodness of his heart? Or for himself?”
“Even for that young man,” Cadfael said cautiously, “I would not presume to say anything is impossible. But it comes as near as makes no matter. Any creature in peril of death or harm, be it man, woman, plough horse, or Saint Melangell’s hare, could draw him through moss or quicksand. I knew I should never get him back to Shrewsbury while Heledd was astray.”
“You are turning back here yourself?” the priest demanded drily.
“Small chance! If he is bound to her, fellow-voyager to his fellow, so am I to him. I’ll get him home!”
“Well, even if his concern for her is purer than dew,” said the priest with conviction, “he had best take heed to his vows when he does find her. For she’s a bonny black maid as ever I saw. I was glad of my evening years when I dared bid her shelter the night over in my house. And thankful when she would not. And that lad is at the best of the morning, tonsure or no tonsure.”
“The more reason I should go after him,” agreed Cadfael. “And my thanks to you for the good word. For all the good words! I’ll see them strictly delivered when I overtake him.”
“Saint Nonna,” said Cadfael didactically, threading the woodland belt that spread more than a mile inland from the strait, “was the mother of Saint David. She has many sacred wells about the country, that give healing, especially to the eyes, even to curing blindness. This holy woman must have chosen to name herself after the saint.”
Brother Mark pursued his determined way along the narrow ride, and said nothing. On either hand the trees glittered in moist sunlight after the early morning showers, mixed woodland sufficiently open to let in the radiance of early afternoon, sufficiently close to be ridden in single file, and all just coming into the first full leaf, young and fresh and full of birds. Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment. It bursts upon a man every year, thought Cadfael, contemplating it with delight in spite of all anxieties, as though it had never happened before, but had just been shown by God how to do it, and tried, and found the impossible possible.
Ahead of him in the worn grass of the ride Mark had halted, staring ahead. Between the trees, here thinning, open light shone before them, at a little distance still, but now not very far, and shimmering with reflected gleams from water. They were nearing the strait. And on Mark’s left hand a narrow footway twined in among the trees to a low-roofed hut some yards aside from the path.
“This is the place.”
“And she was here,” said Cadfael. The wet grass, unshaken on either side by any wind, had retained the soft dew of rain that dimmed its new green to a silver grey, but through it a horse had certainly passed, leaving his darker trail, and brushing before him the tips of new growth, for the passage to the cell was very narrow. The ride in which they had halted was in regular use, they had not thought to examine it as they rode. But here between the encroaching bushes a horse had certainly passed since the rain. And not inward, but outward. A few young shoots had been broken at the tip, leaning towards the open ride, and the longer grasses darkened by hooves clearly showed the direction in which they had been brushed in passing. “And is gone,” said Cadfael, “since the morning.”
They dismounted, and approached the cell on foot. Built little and low, and one room only, for a woman who had almost no needs at all, beyond her small stone-built altar against one wall, and her plain straw pallet against another, and her small cleared space of garden behind for vegetables and herbs. Her door was drawn to, but had no lock to be seen without, and no bar within, only a latch that any wayfarer could lift and enter. The place was empty now. Nonna had obeyed the bishop’s expressed wish, and allowed herself to be escorted into shelter in Bangor, how willingly there was no knowing. If she had had a guest here in her absence, the guest too was gone. But in a patch of clear turf between the trees the grass had been grazed, and hooves had ranged on a long tether, leaving their traces before the rain fell, for drops still hung on the grasses, unshaken. And in one place the beast had left his droppings, fresh and moist still, but already cold.
“She passed the night here,” said Cadfael, “and with the morning she left. After the rain she left. Which way, who knows! She came to Llandeiniolen from inland, out of the hills and through the forest, so the priest said. Had she some place of refuge in mind up there, some kinsman of Meirion’s who might take her in? And did she find that place, too, already deserted, and think of the anchoress as her next hope? It would account for why it took her so long to get here. But as for where she is gone now, how can we tell?”
“She knows by now of the danger from the sea,” said Mark. “Surely she would not go on westward into such a peril? But back towards Bangor and her marriage? She has already risked much to evade it. Would she make her way back to Aber, and her father? That would not deliver her from this marriage, if she is so set against it.”
“She would not do it,” said Cadfael, “in any case. Strange as it may be, she loves her father as much as she hates him. The one is the reflection of the other. She hates him because her love is far stronger than any love he has for her, because he is so ready and willing to give her up, to put her away by any means possible, so that she may no longer cast a cloud over his reputation and his advancement. Very clearly she declared herself once, as I remember.”
“As I remember also,” said Mark.
“Nevertheless, she will do nothing to harm him. The veil she refused. This marriage she accepted only for his sake, as the lesser evil. But when chance offered, she fled that, too, and chose rather to remove herself from blocking his light than to let others scheme to remove her. She has taken her own life into her own hands, prepared to face her own risks and pay her own debts, leaving him free. She will not now go back on that resolve.”
“But he is not free,” said Mark, putting a finger regretfully on the centre of the convoluted core of pain in this seemingly simple relationship of sire and daughter. “He is aware of her now in absence as he never was when she waited on him dutifully every day, present and visible. He will have no peace until he knows she is safe.”
“So,” said Cadfael, “we had better set about finding her.”
Out on the ride, Cadfael looked back through the screen of trees towards the sparks of quivering water beyond which lay the Anglesey shore. A slight breeze had arisen, and fluttered the bright green leaves into a scintillating curtain, but still the fleeting reflections of water flashed brighter still through the folds. And something else, something that appeared and vanished as the branches revealed and hid it again, but remained constant in the same place, only seeming to rock up and down as if afloat and undulating with a tide. A fragment of bright colour, vermilion, changing shape with the movement of its frame of leaves.
“Wait!” said Cadfael, halting. “What is that?” Not a red that was to be found in nature, certainly not in the late spring, when the earth indulges itself only with delicate tones of pale gold and faint purple and white against the virgin green. This red had a hard, impenetrable solidity about it. Cadfael dismounted, and turned back towards it, threading the trees in cover until he came to a raised spot where he could lie warily invisible himself, but see clear through the edge of the woodland three hundred paces or more down to the strait. A green level of pasture and a few fields, one dwelling, no doubt forsaken now, and then the silver-blue glitter of the water, here almost at its narrowest, but still half a mile wide. And beyond, the rich, fertile plain of Anglesey, the cornfield of Wales. The tide was flowing, the stretch of shingle and sand under the opposite coast half exposed. And riding to anchor, close inshore below the bank of trees in which Cadfael stood, a long, lean boat, dragon-headed fore and aft, dipped and rose gently on the tide, central sail lowered, oars shipped, a cluster of vermilion shields draped along its low flank. A lithe serpent of a ship, its mast lowered aft from its steppings, clearing the gaunt body for action, while it swayed gently to its mooring like a sleeping lizard, graceful and harmless. Two of its crew, big, fair-headed, one with plaited braids either side his neck, idled on its narrow rear deck, above the oarsmen’s benches. One, naked, swam lazily in mid-strait. But Cadfael counted what he took to be oar-ports in the third strake of the hull, twelve of them in this steerboard side. Twelve pairs of oars, twenty-four rowers, and more crew beside these three left on guard. The rest could not be far.
Brother Mark had tethered the horses, and made his way down to Cadfael’s shoulder. He saw what Cadfael had seen, and asked no questions.
“That,” said Cadfael, low-voiced, “is a Danish keel from Dublin!”
« ^ »
There was not a word more said between them. By consent they turned and made their way back in haste to the horses, and led them away inland by the woodland track, until they were far enough from the shore to mount and ride. If Heledd, after her night in the hermitage, had seen the coming of this foraging boat with its formidable complement of warriors, small wonder she had made haste to remove herself from their vicinity. And small doubt but she would withdraw inland as quickly and as far as she could, and once at a sufficient distance she would make for the shelter of a town. That, at least, was what any girl in her right senses would do. Here she was midway between Bangor and Carnarvon. Which way would she take?
“One ship alone,” said Mark at last, where the path widened and made it possible for two to ride abreast. “Is that good sense? Might they not be opposed, even captured?”
“So they might at this moment,” Cadfael agreed, “but there’s no one here to attempt it. They came by night past Carnarvon, be sure, and by night they’ll slip out again. This will be one of the smallest and the fastest in their fleet; with more than twenty armed rowers aboard there’s nothing we have could keep them in sight. You saw the building of her, she can be rowed either way, and turn in a flash. The only risk they take is while the most of the company are ashore, foraging, and that they’ll do by rushes, fast ashore and fast afloat again.”
“But why send one small ship out alone? As I have heard tell,” said Mark, “they raid in force, and take slaves as well as plunder. That they cannot do by risking a single vessel.”
“This time,” said Cadfael, considering, “it’s no such matter. If Cadwaladr has brought them over, then he’s promised them a fat fee for their services. They’re here to persuade Owain he would be wise to restore his brother to his lands, and they expect to get well paid for doing it, and if it can be done cheaply by the threat of their presence, without the loss of a man in battle, that’s what they’ll prefer, and Cadwaladr will have no objection, provided the result is the same. Say he gets his way and returns to his lands, he has still to live beside his brother for the future, why make relations between them blacker than they need be? No, there’ll be no random burning and killing, and no call to take bondmen, not unless the bargain turns sour.”
“Then why this foray by a single ship so far along the strait?” Mark demanded reasonably.
“The Danes have to feed their force, and it’s not their way to carry their own provisions when they’re heading for a land they can just as well live off at no cost. They know the Welsh well enough by now to know we live light and travel light, and can shift our families and our stock into the mountains at a few hours’ notice. Yonder little ship has wasted no time in making inland from Abermenai as soon as it touched shore, to reach such hamlets as were late in hearing the news, or slow in rounding up their cattle. They’ll be off back to their fellows tonight with a load of good carcases amidships, and whatever store of flour and grain they’ve been able to lay their hands on. And somewhere along these woods and fields they’re about that very business this moment.”
“And if they meet with a solitary girl?” Mark challenged. “Would they refrain from doing unnecessary offence even then?”
“I would not speak for any man, Dane or Welsh or Norman, in such a case,” Cadfael admitted. “If she were a princess of Gwynedd, why, she’d be worth far more intact and well treated than violated or misused. And if Heledd was not born royal, yet she has a tongue of her own, and can very well make it plain that she is under Owain’s protection, and they’ll be answerable to him if they do her offence. But even so…”
They had reached a place where the woodland track divided, one branch bearing still inland but inclining to the west, the other bearing more directly east.
“We are nearer Carnarvon than Bangor,” Cadfael reckoned, halting where the roads divided. “But would she know it? What now, Mark? East or west?”
“We had best separate,” Mark said, frowning over so blind a decision. “She cannot be very far. She would have to keep in cover. If the ship must return this night, she might find a place to hide safely until they are gone. Do you take one way, and I the other.”
“We cannot afford to lose touch,” Cadfael warned seriously. “If we part here it must be only for some hours, and here we must meet again. We are not free to do altogether as we choose. Go towards Carnarvon, and if you find her, see her safely there. But if not, make your way back here by dusk, and so will I. And if I find her by this lefthand way, I’ll get her into shelter wherever I may, if it means turning back to Bangor. And at Bangor I’ll wait for you, if you fail of meeting me here by sunset. And if I fail you, follow and find me there.” A makeshift affair, but the best they could do, with so limited a time, and an inescapable duty waiting. She had left the cell by the shore only that morning, she would have had to observe caution and keep within the woodland ways, where a horse must go slowly. No, she could not be far. And at this distance from the strait, surely she would keep to a used path, and not wind a laborious way deep in cover. They might yet find and bring her here by nightfall, or conduct her into safety somewhere, rendezvous here free of her, and be off thankfully back to England.
Mark looked at the light and the slight decline of the sun from the zenith. “We have four hours or more,” he said, and turned his horse westward briskly, and was off.
Cadfael’s track turned east on a level traverse for perhaps half a mile, occasionally emerging from woodland into open pasture, and affording glimpses of the strait through the scattered trees below. Then it turned inland and began to climb, though the gradient here was not great, for this belt of land on the mainland side partook to some extent of the rich fertility of the island before it reared aloft into the mountains. He went softly, listening, and halting now and again to listen more intently, but there was no sign of life but for the birds, very busy about their spring occupations and undisturbed by the turmoil among men. The cattle and sheep had been driven up higher into the hills, into guarded folds; the raiders would find only the few stragglers here, and perhaps would venture no further along the strait. The news must be ahead of them now wherever they touched, they would have made their most profitable captures already. If Heledd had turned this way, she might be safe enough from any further danger.
He had crossed an open meadow and entered a higher belt of woodland, bushy and dappled with sunbeams on his left hand, deepening into forest on his right, when a grass snake, like a small flash of silver-green lightning, shot across the path almost under his horse’s hooves to vanish in deeper grass on the other side, and the beast shied for an instant, and let out a muted bellow of alarm. Somewhere off to the right, among the trees, and at no great distance, another horse replied, raising an excited whinny of recognition. Cadfael halted to listen intently, hoping for another call to allow him to take a more precise reading of the direction, but the sound was not repeated. Probably whoever was in refuge there, well aside from the path, had rushed to soothe and cajole his beast into silence. A horse’s neighing could carry all too far along this rising hillside.
Cadfael dismounted, and led his beast in among the trees, taking a winding line towards where he thought the other voyager must be, and halting at every turn to listen again, and presently, when he was already deep among thick growth, he caught the sudden rustling of shaken boughs ahead, quickly stilled. His own movements, however cautious, had certainly been heard. Someone there in close concealment was waiting for him in ambush.
“Heledd!” said Cadfael clearly.
Silence seemed to become even more silent.
“Heledd? Here am I, Brother Cadfael. You can be easy, here are no Dublin Danes. Come forth and show yourself.”
And forth she came, thrusting through the bushes to meet him, Heledd indeed, with a naked dagger ready in her hand, though for the moment she might well have forgotten that she held it. Her gown was creased and soiled a little with the debris of bushes, one cheek was lightly smeared with green from bedding down in moss and grasses, and the mane of her hair was loose round her shoulders, here in shadow quite black, a midnight cloud. But her clear oval face was fiercely composed, just easing from its roused readiness to do battle, and her eyes, enormous in shade, were purple-black. Behind her among the trees he heard her horse shift and stamp, uneasy here in these unknown solitudes.
“It is you,” she said, and let the hand that held the knife slip down to her side with a great, gusty sigh. “How did you find me? And where is Deacon Mark? I thought you would be off home before now.”
“So we would,” agreed Cadfael, highly relieved to find her in such positive possession of herself, “but for you running off into the night. Mark is a mile or more from us on the road to Carnarvon, looking for you. We parted where the roads forked. It was guesswork which way you would take. We came seeking you at Nonna’s cell. The priest told us he’d directed you there.”
“Then you’ve seen the ship,” said Heledd, and hoisted her shoulders in resignation at the unavoidable. “I should have been well aloft into the hills by now to look for my mother’s cousins up among the sheep-huts, the ones I hoped to find still in their lowland homestead, if my horse had not fallen a little lame. I thought best to get into cover and rest him until nightfall. And now we are two,” she said, and her smile flashed in shadow with recovering confidence, “three if we can find your little deacon. And now which way should we make? Come with me over the hills, and you can find a safe way back to the Dee. For I am not going back to my father,” she warned, with a formidable flash of her dark eyes. “He’s rid of me, as he wanted. I mean him no ill, but I have not escaped them all only to go back and be married off to some man I have never seen, nor to dwindle away in a nunnery. You may tell him, or leave word with someone else to let him know, that I am safe with my mother’s kinsmen, and he can be content.”
“You are going into the first safe shelter we can find,” said Cadfael firmly, moved to a degree of indignation he could not have felt if he had found her distressed and in fear. “Afterwards, once this trouble is over, you may have your life and do what you will with it.” It seemed to him, even as he said it, that she was capable of doing with it something original and even admirable, and if it had to be in the world’s despite, that would not stop her. “Can your beast go?”
“I can lead him, and we shall see.”
Cadfael took thought for a moment. They were midway between Bangor and Carnarvon here, but once returned to the westward track by which Mark had set out, the road was more direct to Carnarvon, and by taking it they would eventually rejoin Mark. Whether he had gone on into the town, or turned back to return to the crossroads meeting place by dusk, along that pathway they would meet him. And in a city filled with Owain’s fighting men there would be no danger. A force hired to threaten would not be so mad as to provoke the entire armies of Gwynedd. A little looting, perhaps, pleasant sport carrying off a few stray cattle and a few stray villagers, but they were not such fools as to bring out Owain’s total strength against them in anger.
“Bring him out to the path,” said Cadfael. “You may ride mine, and I’ll walk yours.”
There was nothing in the glittering look she gave him to reassure him that she would do as he said, and nothing to disquiet him with doubts. She hesitated only an instant, in which the silence of the windless afternoon seemed phenomenally intense, then she turned and parted the branches behind her, and vanished, shattering the silence with the rustling and thrashing of her passage through deep cover. In a few moments he heard the horse whinny softly, and then the stirring of the bushes as girl and horse turned to thread a more open course back to him. And then, astonishingly high, wild and outraged, he heard her scream.
The instinctive leap forward he made to go to her never gained him so much as a couple of paces. From either side the bushes thrashed, and hands reached to clutch him by cowl and habit, pin his arms and bring him up erect but helpless, straining against a grip he could not break, but which, curiously, made no move to do him any harm beyond holding him prisoner. Suddenly the tiny open glade was boiling with large, bare-armed, fair-haired, leather-girt men, and out of the thicket facing him erupted an even larger man, a young giant, head and shoulders above Cadfael’s sturdy middle height, laughing so loudly that the hitherto silent woods rang and re-echoed with his mirth, and clutching in his arms a raging Heledd, kicking and struggling with all her might, but making small impression. The one hand she had free had already scored its nails down her captor’s cheek, and was tugging and tearing in his long flaxen hair, until he turned and stooped his head and took her wrist in his teeth and held it. Large, even, white teeth that had shone as he laughed, and now barely dented Heledd’s smooth skin. It was astonishment, neither fear nor pain, that caused her suddenly to lie still in his arms, crooked fingers gradually unfolding in bewilderment. But when he released her to laugh again, she recovered her rage, and struck out at him furiously, pounding her fist vainly against his broad breast.
Behind him came a grinning boy about fifteen years old, leading Heledd’s horse, which went a little tenderly on one foreleg. At sight of a second such prize tethered and shifting uneasily in the fringe of the trees, the boy let out a whoop of pleasure. Indeed, the entire mood of the marauding company seemed good-humoured and ebullient rather than menacing. There were not so many of them as at first they had seemed, by reason of their size and their exuberantly animal presence. Two, barrel-chested and moustached, with hair in straw-coloured braids down either cheek, held Cadfael pinioned by the arms. A third had taken the roan’s bridle, and was fondling the long blazed brow and creamy mane. But somewhere out on the open ride there were others, Cadfael heard them moving and talking as they waited. The marvel was that men so massive could move so softly to close round their quarry. The horses, calling to each other, had alerted the returning foragers, and led them to this unexpected gain. A monastic, a girl, by her mount and dress a girl of quality, and two good horses.
The young giant was surveying his gains very practically over Heledd’s unavailing struggles, and Cadfael noted that though he was casually rough with his captive, he was not brutal. And it seemed that Heledd had realized as much, and gradually abandoned her resistance, knowing it vain, and surprised into quietness by the fact that there was no retaliation.
“Saeson? demanded the giant, eyeing Cadfael with curiosity. He already knew that Heledd was Welsh enough, she had been reviling him in the language until she ran out of breath.
“Welsh!” said Cadfael. “Like the lady. She is daughter to a canon of Saint Asaph, and under the protection of Owain Gwynedd.”
“He keeps wildcats?” said the young man, and laughed again, and set her down on her feet in one lithe movement, but kept a fast hold on the girdle of her gown, twisted in his large fist to tighten and secure it. “And he’ll want this one back without a hair missing? But the lady slipped her leash, seemingly, or what’s she doing here with no bodyguard but a monk of the Benedictines?” He spoke a loose mixture of Erse, Danish and Welsh, very well able to make himself understood in these parts. Not all the centuries of fitful contact between Dublin and Wales had been by way of invasion and rapine, a good many marriages had been made between the princedoms, and a fair measure of honest commerce been profitable to both parties. Probably this youth had a measure of Norman French in his tongue, no less. Even Latin, for very likely Irish monks had had him in school. He was plainly a young man of consequence. Also, happily, of a very open and cheerful humour, by no means inclined to waste what might turn out a valuable asset. “Bring the man,” said the young fellow, returning briskly to business, “and keep him fast. Owain has a respect for the black habit, even if the Celtic clas suits him best. If it comes to bargaining, holiness fetches a good price. I’ll see to the girl.”
They sprang to obey him, as light of heart, it seemed, as their leader, and all in high content with their foraging. When they emerged with their captives into the open ride, the two horses led along behind them, it was easy to see what reason they had for being in high feather. There were four more of them waiting there, all afoot, and burdened with two long poles loaded down with slaughtered carcases and slung sacks, the plunder of scattered folds, stray corners of grazing, and even the forest itself, for there was venison among the booty. A fifth man had improvised a wooden yoke for his shoulders, to carry two balanced wineskins. This must be one of at least two shore parties, Cadfael judged, for the little ship carried twelve pairs of oars aside from other crew. It was guesswork how many the Danish force would muster in full, but they would not go short for a day or so.
He went where he was propelled, not entirely out of the sensible realization that he was no match at all for one of the brawny warriors who held him, let alone two, not even because, though he might break away himself, he could do nothing to take Heledd with him. Wherever they were bound, useful hostages, he might still be able to afford her some protection and companionship. He had already given up any idea that she was likely to come to any great harm. He had done no more than confirm something already understood when he urged that she was valuable; and this was not total war, but a commercial expedition, to achieve the highest profit at the least expenditure.
There was some redistribution of the booty they had amassed, Heledd’s lame horse being called into service to carry a part of the load. They were notably brisk and neat in their movements, balancing the weight and halting short of overburdening a valuable beast. Among themselves they fell back into their own Norse tongue, though the likelihood was that all these young, vigorous warriors had been born in the kingdom of Dublin, and their fathers before them, and had a broad understanding of the Celtic languages that surrounded their enclave, and dealt freely with them in war and peace. At the end of this day of raiding they had an eye to the sun, and but for this foray after the alarm the horses had sounded, they were losing no time.
Cadfael had wondered how their leader would dispose of the one sound horse, and fully expected he would claim the privilege of riding for himself. Instead, the young man ordered the boy into the saddle, the lightest weight among them, and swung Heledd up before him and into arms even at fifteen years brawny enough to make her struggles ineffective once her hands were securely bound by her own girdle. But she had understood by this time that resistance would be both useless and undignified, and suffered herself to be settled against the boy’s broad chest without deigning to struggle. By the set of her face she would be waiting for the first chance of escape, and keeping all her wits and strength in reserve until the moment offered. She had fallen silent, shutting lips and teeth upon anger or fear, and keeping a taut, brooding dignity, but what was brewing behind that still face there was no knowing.
“Brother,” said the young man, turning briskly upon Cadfael, still pinned between his guards, “if you value the lass, you may walk beside her without a hand on you. But I warn you, Torsten will be close behind, and he can throw a lance to split a sapling at fifty paces, so best keep station.” He was grinning as he issued the warning, already assured that Cadfael had no intention of making off and leaving the girl in captivity. “Forward now, and fast,” he said cheerfully, and set the pace, and the entire party fell into file down the ride, and so did Cadfael, close alongside his own roan horse, with a hand at the rider’s stirrup-leather. If Heledd needed the fragile reassurance of his presence, she had it; but Cadfael doubted the need. She had made no move since she was hoisted aloft, except to stir and settle more comfortably on her perch, and the very tension of her face had softened into a thoughtful stillness. Every time Cadfael raised his eyes to take a fresh look at her he found her more at ease in this unforeseen situation. And every time, her eyes were dwelling in speculation upon the fair head that topped all the rest, stalking before them with erected crest and long blond locks stirring in the light breeze.
Downhill at a brisk pace, through woodland and pasture, until the first silvery glints of water winked at them through the last belt of trees. The sun was dipping gently towards the west, gilding the ripples drawn by the breeze along the surface, when they emerged upon the shore of the strait, and the crewmen left on guard launched a shout of welcome, and brought the dragon-ship inshore to take them aboard.
Brother Mark, returning empty-handed from his foray westward to keep the rendezvous at the crossroads before sunset, heard the passing of a company of men, swift and quiet though they were, crossing his track some little way ahead, going downhill towards the shore. He halted in cover until they had passed, and then followed cautiously in the same direction, intending only to make sure they were safely out of sight and earshot before he pushed on to the meeting place. It so happened that the line he followed downhill among the trees inclined towards the course of their open ride, and brought him rapidly closer, so that he drew back and halted again, this time catching glimpses of them between the branches of bushes now almost in full summer leaf. A tall youth, flaxen fair, his head floating past like a blown primrose but high as a three-year spruce, a led horse, loaded, two men with a pole slung on their shoulders, and animal carcases swinging to their stride. Then, unmistakably, he saw Heledd and the boy pass by, a pair entwined and afloat six feet from the ground, the horse beneath them only implied by the rhythm of their passing, for the branches swung impenetrable between at that moment, leaving to view only a trudging tonsure beside them, russet brown almost wholly salted with grey. A very small clue to the man who wore it, but all Mark needed to know Brother Cadfael.
So he had found her, and these much less welcome strangers had found them both, before they could slip away thankfully into some safe refuge. And there was nothing Mark could do about it but follow them, far enough at least to see where they were taken, and how they were handled, and then make sure that the news was carried where there were those who could take their loss into account, and make plans for their recovery.
He dismounted and left his horse tethered, the better to move swiftly and silently among the trees. But the shout that presently came echoing up from the ship caused him to discard caution and emerge into the open, hurrying downhill to find a spot from which he could see the waters of the strait, and the steersman bringing his craft close in beneath the grassy bank, at a spot where it was child’s play to leap aboard over the low rim into the rowers’ benches in the waist of the vessel. Mark saw the tide of fierce, fair men flow inboard, coaxing the loaded packhorse after them, and stowing their booty under the tiny foredeck and in the well between the benches. In with them went Cadfael, perforce, and yet it seemed to Mark that he went blithely where he was persuaded. Small chance to avoid, but another man would have been a shade less apt and adroit about it.
The boy on horseback had kept his firm hold of Heledd until the flaxen-haired young giant, having seen his men embarked, reached up and hoisted her in his arms, as lightly as if she had been a child, and leaped down with her between the rowers’ benches, and setting her down there on her feet, stretched up again to the bridle of Cadfael’s horse, and coaxed him aboard with a soft-spoken cajolery that came up strangely to Mark’s ears. The boy followed, and instantly the steersman pushed off strongly from the bank, the knot of men busy bestowing their plunder dissolved into expert order at the oars, and the lean little dragon-ship surged out into midstream. She was in lunging motion before Mark had recovered his wits, sliding like a snake southwestward towards Carnarvon and Abermenai, where doubtless her companions were now in harbour or moored in the roads outside the dunes. She did not have to turn, even, being double-ended. Her speed could get her out of trouble in any direction; even if she was sighted off the town Owain had nothing that could catch her. The rapidity with which she dwindled silently into a thin, dark fleck upon the water left Mark breathless and amazed.
He turned to make his way back to where his horse was tethered, and set out in resolute haste westward towards Carnarvon.
Plumped aboard into the narrow well between the benches, and there as briskly abandoned, Cadfael took a moment to