/ Language: English / Genre:prose_history

The Pillars Of The Earth

Ken Follett

A story of passion and idealism, which describes a group of men and women in the Middle Ages whose destinies are fatefully linked with the building of a cathedral. In a country torn by civil war, two generations struggle to rise above their primitive circumstances and create something beautiful. *** “KEN FOLLETT TAKES A GIANT STEP!” – San Francisco Chronicle “With this book Follett risks all and comes out a clear winner… a historical novel of gripping readability, authentic atmosphere and memorable characterization… Beginning with a mystery that casts its shadow… the narrative is a seesaw of tension… suspense… impeccable pacing… action, intrigue, violence and passion… ambition, greed, bravery, dedication, revenge and love… A NOVEL THAT ENTERTAINS, INSTRUCTS AND SATISFIES ON A GRAND SCALE.” – Publishers Weekly “An extraordinary epic buttressed by suspense… a mystifying puzzle involving the execution of an innocent man… the erection of a magnificent cathedral… romance, rivalry and spectacle… A MONUMENTAL MASTERPIECE… A TOWERING TRIUMPH FROM A MAJOR TALENT.” – ALA Booklist

Ken Follett

The Pillars Of The Earth

To Marie-Claire, the apple of my eye

On the night of 25 November 1120 the White Ship set out for England and foundered off Barfleur with all hands save one… The vessel was the latest thing in marine transport, fitted with all the devices known to the shipbuilder of the time… The notoriety of this wreck is due to the very large number of distinguished persons on board; beside the king’s son and heir, there were two royal bastards, several earls and barons, and most of the royal household… its historical significance is that it left Henry without an obvious heir… its ultimate result was the disputed succession and the period of anarchy which followed Henry’s death.

– A. L. POOLE,

From Domesday Book to Magna Carta

PROLOGUE

1123

THE SMALL BOYS came early to the hanging.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.

The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.

One of the boys piddled on the base of the scaffold. Another mounted the steps, put his thumbs to his throat and slumped, twisting his face into a grisly parody of strangulation: the others whooped in admiration, and two dogs came running into the marketplace, barking. A very young boy recklessly began to eat an apple, and one of the older ones punched his nose and took his apple. The young boy relieved his feelings by throwing a sharp stone at a dog, sending the animal howling home. Then there was nothing else to do, so they all squatted on the dry pavement in the porch of the big church, waiting for something to happen.

Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray. The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in heavy cloaks of coarse wool, and went shivering down to the river to fetch water.

Soon a group of young men, grooms and laborers and apprentices, swaggered into the marketplace. They turned the small boys out of the church porch with cuffs and kicks, then leaned against the carved stone arches, scratching themselves and spitting on the ground and talking with studied confidence about death by hanging. If he’s lucky, said one, his neck breaks as soon as he falls, a quick death, and painless; but if not he hangs there turning red, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of water, until he chokes to death; and another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile; and a third said it could be worse than that, he had seen one where by the time the man died his neck was a foot long.

The old women formed a group on the opposite side of the marketplace, as far as possible from the young men, who were liable to shout vulgar remarks at their grandmothers. They always woke up early, the old women, even though they no longer had babies and children to worry over; and they were the first to get their fires lit and their hearths swept. Their acknowledged leader, the muscular Widow Brewster, joined them, rolling a barrel of beer as easily as a child rolls a hoop. Before she could get the lid off there was a small crowd of customers waiting with jugs and buckets.

The sheriffs bailiff opened the main gate, admitting the peasants who lived in the suburb, in the lean-to houses against the town wall. Some brought eggs and milk and fresh butter to sell, some came to buy beer or bread, and some stood in the marketplace and waited for the hanging.

Every now and again people would cock their heads, like wary sparrows, and glance up at the castle on the hilltop above the town. They saw smoke rising steadily from the kitchen, and the occasional flare of a torch behind the arrow-slit windows of the stone keep. Then, at about the time the sun must have started to rise behind the thick gray cloud, the mighty wooden doors opened in the gatehouse and a small group came out. The sheriff was first, riding a fine black courser, followed by an ox cart carrying the bound prisoner. Behind the cart rode three men, and although their faces could not be seen at that distance, their clothes revealed that they were a knight, a priest and a monk. Two men-at-arms brought up the rear of the procession.

They had all been at the shire court, held in the nave of the church, the day before. The priest had caught the thief red-handed; the monk had identified the silver chalice as belonging to the monastery; the knight was the thief’s lord, and had identified him as a runaway; and the sheriff had condemned him to death.

While they came slowly down the hill, the rest of the town gathered around the gallows. Among the last to arrive were the leading citizens: the butcher, the baker, two leather tanners, two smiths, the cutler and the fletcher, all with their wives.

The mood of the crowd was odd. Normally they enjoyed a hanging. The prisoner was usually a thief, and they hated thieves with the passion of people whose possessions are hard-earned. But this thief was different. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from. He had not stolen from them, but from a monastery twenty miles away. And he had stolen a jeweled chalice, something whose value was so great that it would be virtually impossible to sell-which was not like stealing a ham or a new knife or a good belt, the loss of which would hurt someone. They could not hate a man for a crime so pointless. There were a few jeers and catcalls as the prisoner entered the marketplace, but the abuse was half-hearted, and only the small boys mocked him with any enthusiasm.

Most of the townspeople had not been in court, for court days were not holidays and they all had to make a living, so this was the first time they had seen the thief. He was quite young, somewhere between twenty and thirty years of age, and of normal height and build, but otherwise his appearance was strange. His skin was as white as the snow on the roofs, he had protuberant eyes of startling bright green, and his hair was the color of a peeled carrot. The maids thought he was ugly; the old women felt sorry for him; and the small boys laughed until they fell down.

The sheriff was a familiar figure, but the other three men who had sealed the thief’s doom were strangers. The knight, a fleshy man with yellow hair, was clearly a person of some importance, for he rode a war-horse, a huge beast that cost as much as a carpenter earned in ten years. The monk was much older, perhaps fifty or more, a tall, thin man who sat slumped in his saddle as if life were a wearisome burden to him. Most striking was the priest, a young man with a sharp nose and lank black hair, wearing black robes and riding a chestnut stallion. He had an alert, dangerous look, like a black cat that could smell a nest of baby mice.

A small boy took careful aim and spat at the prisoner. It was a good shot and caught him between the eyes. He snarled a curse and lunged at the spitter, but he was restrained by the ropes attaching him to the sides of the cart. The incident was not remarkable except that the words he spoke were Norman French, the language of the lords. Was he high-born, then? Or just a long way from home? Nobody knew.

The ox cart stopped beneath the gallows. The sheriff’s bailiff climbed onto the flatbed of the cart with the noose in his hand. The prisoner started to struggle. The boys cheered-they would have been disappointed if the prisoner had remained calm. The man’s movements were restricted by the ropes tied to his wrists and ankles, but he jerked his head from side to side, evading the noose. After a moment the bailiff, a huge man, stepped back and punched the prisoner in the stomach. The man doubled over, winded, and the bailiff slipped the rope over his head and tightened the knot. Then he jumped down to the ground and pulled the rope taut, securing its other end to a hook in the base of the gallows.

This was the turning point. If the prisoner struggled now, he would only die sooner.

The men-at-arms untied the prisoner’s legs and left him standing alone on the bed of the cart, his hands bound behind his back. A hush fell on the crowd.

There was often a disturbance at this point: the prisoner’s mother would have a screaming fit, or his wife would pull out a knife and rush the platform in a last-minute attempt to rescue him. Sometimes the prisoner called upon God for forgiveness or pronounced blood-curdling curses on his executioners. The men-at-arms now stationed themselves on either side of the scaffold, ready to deal with any incident.

That was when the prisoner began to sing.

He had a high tenor voice, very pure. The words were French, but even those who could not understand the language could tell by its plaintive melody that it was a song of sadness and loss.

A lark, caught in a hunter’s net

Sang sweeter then than ever,

As if the falling melody

Might wing and net dissever.

As he sang he looked directly at someone in the crowd. Gradually a space formed around the person, and everyone could see her.

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long dark-brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point on her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden color, so luminous and penetrating that when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

The driver of the cart looked expectantly at the bailiff. The bailiff looked at the sheriff, waiting for the nod. The young priest with the sinister air nudged the sheriff impatiently, but the sheriff took no notice. He let the thief carry on singing. There was a dreadful pause while the ugly man’s lovely voice held death at bay.

At dusk the hunter took his prey,

The lark his freedom never.

All birds and men are sure to die

But songs may live forever.

When the song ended the sheriff looked at the bailiff and nodded. The bailiff shouted “Hup!” and lashed the ox’s flank with a length of rope. The carter cracked his whip at the same time. The ox stepped forward, the prisoner standing in the cart staggered, the ox pulled the cart away, and the prisoner dropped into midair. The rope straightened and the thief’s neck broke with a snap.

There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl.

It was not she who had screamed, but the cutler’s wife beside her. But the girl was the cause of the scream. She had sunk to her knees in front of the gallows, with her arm! stretched out in front of her, the position adopted to utter a curse. The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that some thing was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.

The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest; and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: “I curse you with sickness and sorrow, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony…” As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out a live cockerel. A knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.

While the blood was still spurting from the severed neck she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either side of him. The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.

The girl turned and ran.

The crowd opened in front of her and closed behind her. For a few moments there was pandemonium. At last the sheriff caught the attention of his men-at-arms and angrily told them to chase her. They began to struggle through the crowd, roughly pushing men and women and children out of the way, but the girl was out of sight in a twinkling, and though the sheriff would search for her, he knew he would not find her.

He turned away in disgust. The knight, the monk and the priest had not watched the flight of the girl. They were still staring at the gallows. The sheriff followed their gaze. The dead thief hung at the end of the rope, his pale young face already turning bluish, while beneath his gently swinging corpse the cock, headless but not quite dead, ran around in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.

PART ONE

1135-1136

Chapter 1

I

IN A BROAD VALLEY, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.

The walls were already three feet high and rising fast. The two masons Tom had engaged were working steadily in the sunshine, their trowels going scrape, slap and then tap, tap while their laborer sweated under the weight of the big stone blocks. Tom’s son Alfred was mixing mortar, counting aloud as he scooped sand onto a board. There was also a carpenter, working at the bench beside Tom, carefully shaping a length of beech wood with an adz.

Alfred was fourteen years old, and tall like Tom. Tom was a head higher than most men, and Alfred was only a couple of inches less, and still growing. They looked alike, too: both had light-brown hair and greenish eyes with brown flecks. People said they were a handsome pair. The main difference between them was that Tom had a curly brown beard, whereas Alfred had only a fine blond fluff. The hair on Alfred’s head had been that color once, Tom remembered fondly. Now that Alfred was becoming a man, Tom wished he would take a more intelligent interest in his work, for he had a lot to learn if he was to be a mason like his father; but so far Alfred remained bored and baffled by the principles of building.

When the house was finished it would be the most luxurious home for miles around. The ground floor would be a spacious undercroft, for storage, with a curved vault for a ceiling, so that it would not catch fire. The hall, where people actually lived, would be above, reached by an outside staircase, its height making it hard to attack and easy to defend. Against the hall wall there would be a chimney, to take away the smoke of the fire. This was a radical innovation: Tom had only ever seen one house with a chimney, but it had struck him as such a good idea that he was determined to copy it. At one end of the house, over the hall, there would be a small bedroom, for that was what earls’ daughters demanded nowadays-they were too fine to sleep in the hall with the men and the serving wenches and the hunting dogs. The kitchen would be a separate building, for every kitchen caught fire sooner or later, and there was nothing for it but to build them far away from everything else and put up with lukewarm food.

Tom was making the doorway of the house. The doorposts would be rounded to look like columns-a touch of distinction for the noble newly weds who were to live here. With his eye on the shaped wooden template he was using as a guide, Tom set his iron chisel obliquely against the stone and tapped it gently with the big wooden hammer. A small shower of fragments fell away from the surface, leaving the shape a little rounder. He did it again. Smooth enough for a cathedral.

He had worked on a cathedral once-Exeter. At first he had treated it like any other job. He had been angry and resentful when the master builder had warned him that his work was not quite up to standard: he knew himself to be rather more careful than the average mason. But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good, but perfect. This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally. Tom’s resentment turned to fascination. The combination of a hugely ambitious building with merciless attention to the smallest detail opened Tom’s eyes to the wonder of his craft. He learned from the Exeter master about the importance of proportion, the symbolism of various numbers, and the almost magical formulas for working out the correct width of a wall or the angle of a step in a spiral staircase. Such things captivated him. He was surprised to learn that many masons found them incomprehensible.

After a while Tom had become the master builder’s right-hand man, and that was when he began to see the master’s shortcomings. The man was a great craftsman and an incompetent organizer. He was completely baffled by the problems of obtaining the right quantity of stone to keep pace with the masons, making sure that the blacksmith made enough of the right tools, burning lime and carting sand for the mortar makers, felling trees for the carpenters, and getting enough money from the cathedral chapter to pay for everything.

If Tom had stayed at Exeter until the master builder died, he might have become master himself; but the chapter ran out of money-partly because of the master’s mismanagement-and the craftsmen had to move on, looking for work elsewhere. Tom had been offered the post of builder to the Exeter castellan, repairing and improving the city’s fortifications. It would have been a lifetime job, barring accidents. But Tom had turned it down, for he wanted to build another cathedral.

His wife, Agnes, had never understood that decision. They might have had a good stone house, and servants, and their own stables, and meat on the table every dinnertime; and she had never forgiven Tom for turning down the opportunity. She could not comprehend the irresistible attraction of building a cathedral: the absorbing complexity of organization, the intellectual challenge of the calculations, the sheer size of the walls, and the breathtaking beauty and grandeur of the finished building. Once he had tasted that wine, Tom was never satisfied with anything less.

That had been ten years ago. Since then they had never stayed anywhere for very long. He would design a new chapter house for a monastery, work for a year or two on a castle, or build a town house for a rich merchant; but as soon as he had some money saved he would leave, with his wife and children, and take to the road, looking for another cathedral.

He glanced up from his bench and saw Agnes standing at the edge of the building site, holding a basket of food in one hand and resting a big jug of beer on the opposite hip. It was midday. He looked at her fondly. No one would ever call her pretty, but her face was full of strength: a broad forehead, large brown eyes, a straight nose, a strong jaw. Her dark, wiry hair was parted in the middle and tied behind. She was Tom’s soul mate.

She poured beer for Tom and Alfred. They stood there for a moment, the two big men and the strong woman, drinking beer from wooden cups; and then the fourth member of the family came skipping out of the wheat field: Martha, seven years old and as pretty as a daffodil, but a daffodil with a petal missing, for she had a gap where two milk teeth had fallen out and the new ones had not yet grown. She ran to Tom, kissed his dusty beard, and begged a sip of his beer. He hugged her bony body. “Don’t drink too much, or you’ll fall into a ditch,” he said. She staggered around in a circle, pretending to be drunk.

They all sat down on the woodpile. Agnes handed Tom a hunk of wheat bread, a thick slice of boiled bacon and a small onion. He took a bite of the meat and started to peel the onion. Agnes gave the children food and began to eat her own. Perhaps it was irresponsible, Tom thought, to turn down that dull job in Exeter and go looking for a cathedral to build; but I’ve always been able to feed them all, despite my recklessness.

He took his eating knife from the front pocket of his leather apron, cut a slice off the onion, and ate it with a bite of bread. The onion was sweet and stinging in his mouth. Agnes said: “I’m with child again.”

Tom stopped chewing and stared at her. A thrill of delight took hold of him. Not knowing what to say, he just smiled foolishly at her. After a few moments she blushed, and said: “It isn’t that surprising.”

Tom hugged her. “Well, well,” he said, still grinning with pleasure. “A babe to pull my beard. And I thought the next would be Alfred’s.”

“Don’t get too happy yet,” Agnes cautioned. “It’s bad luck to name the child before it’s born.”

Tom nodded assent. Agnes had had several miscarriages and one stillborn baby, and there had been another little girl, Matilda, who had lived only two years. “I’d like a boy, though,” he said. “Now that Alfred’s so big. When is it due?”

“After Christmas.”

Tom began to calculate. The shell of the house would be finished by first frost, then the stonework would have to be covered with straw to protect it through the winter. The masons would spend the cold months cutting stones for windows, vaults, doorcases and the fireplace, while the carpenter made floorboards and doors and shutters and Tom built the scaffolding for the upstairs work. Then in spring they would vault the undercroft, floor the hall above it, and put on the roof. The job would feed the family until Whitsun, by which time the baby would be half a year old. Then they would move on. “Good,” he said contentedly. “This is good.” He ate another slice of onion.

“I’m too old to bear children,” Agnes said. “This must be my last.”

Tom thought about that. He was not sure how old she was, in numbers, but plenty of women bore children at her time of life. However, it was true they suffered more as they grew older, and the babies were not so strong. No doubt she was right. But how would she make certain that she would not conceive again? he wondered. Then he realized how, and a cloud shadowed his sunny mood.

“I may get a good job, in a town,” he said, trying to mollify her. “A cathedral, or a palace. Then we might have a big house with wood floors, and a maid to help you with the baby.”

Her face hardened, and she said skeptically: “It may be.” She did not like to hear talk of cathedrals. If Tom had never worked on a cathedral, her face said, she might be living in a town house now, with money saved up and buried under the fireplace, and nothing to worry about.

Tom looked away and took another bite of bacon. They had something to celebrate, but they were in disharmony. He felt let down. He chewed the tough meat for a while, then he heard a horse. He cocked his head to listen. The rider was coming through the trees from the direction of the road, taking a short cut and avoiding the village.

A moment later, a young man on a pony trotted up and dismounted. He looked like a squire, a kind of apprentice knight. “Your lord is coming,” he said.

Tom stood up. “You mean Lord Percy?” Percy Hamleigh was one of the most important men in the country. He owned this valley, and many others, and he was paying for the house.

“His son,” said the squire.

“Young William.” Percy’s son, William, was to occupy this house after his marriage. He was engaged to Lady Aliena, the daughter of the earl of Shiring.

“The same,” said the squire. “And in a rage.”

Tom’s heart sank. At the best of times it could be difficult to deal with the owner of a house under construction. An owner in a rage was impossible. “What’s he angry about?”

“His bride rejected him.”

“The earl’s daughter?” said Tom in surprise. He felt a pang of fear: he had just been thinking how secure his future was. “I thought that was settled.”

“So did we all-except the Lady Aliena, it seems,” the squire said. “The moment she met him, she announced that she wouldn’t marry him for all the world and a woodcock.”

Tom frowned worriedly. He did not want this to be true. “But the boy’s not bad-looking, as I recall.”

Agnes said: “As if that made any difference, in her position. If earls’ daughters were allowed to marry whom they please, we’d all be ruled by strolling minstrels and dark-eyed outlaws.”

“The girl may yet change her mind,” Tom said hopefully.

“She will if her mother takes a birch rod to her,” Agnes said.

The squire said: “Her mother’s dead.”

Agnes nodded. “That explains why she doesn’t know the facts of life. But I don’t see why her father can’t compel her.”

The squire said: “It seems he once promised he would never marry her to someone she hated.”

“A foolish pledge!” Tom said angrily. How could a powerful man tie himself to the whim of a girl in that way? Her marriage could affect military alliances, baronial finances… even the building of this house.

The squire said: “She has a brother, so it’s not so important whom she marries.”

“Even so…”

“And the earl is an unbending man,” the squire went on. “He won’t go back on a promise, even one made to a child.” He shrugged. “So they say.”

Tom looked at the low stone walls of the house-to-be. He had not yet saved enough money to keep the family through the winter, he realized with a chill. “Perhaps the lad will find another bride to share this place with him. He’s got the whole county to choose from.”

Alfred spoke in a cracked adolescent voice. “By Christ, I think this is him.” Following his gaze, they all looked across the field. A horse was coming from the village at a gallop, kicking up a cloud of dust and earth from the pathway. Alfred’s oath was prompted by the size as well as the speed of the horse: it was huge. Tom had seen beasts like it before, but perhaps Alfred had not. It was a war-horse, as high at the wither as a man’s chin, and broad in proportion. Such war-horses were not bred in England, but came from overseas, and were enormously costly.

Tom dropped the remains of his bread in the pocket of his apron, then narrowed his eyes against the sun and gazed across the field. The horse had its ears back and nostrils flared, but it seemed to Tom that its head was well up, a sign that it was not completely out of control. Sure enough, as it came closer the rider leaned back, hauling on the reins, and the huge animal seemed to slow a little. Now Tom could feel the drumming of its hooves in the ground beneath his feet. He looked around for Martha, thinking to pick her up and put her out of harm’s way. Agnes had the same thought. But Martha was nowhere to be seen.

“In the wheat,” Agnes said, but Tom had already figured that out and was striding across the site to the edge of the field. He scanned the waving wheat with fear in his heart but he could not see the child.

The only thing he could think of was to try to slow the horse. He stepped into the path and began to walk toward the charging beast, holding his arms wide. The horse saw him, raised its head for a better look, and slowed perceptibly. Then, to Tom’s horror, the rider spurred it on.

“You damned fool!” Tom roared, although the rider could not hear.

That was when Martha stepped out of the field and into the pathway a few yards in front of Tom.

For an instant Tom stood still in a sick panic. Then he leaped forward, shouting and waving his arms; but this was a war-horse, trained to charge at yelling hordes, and it did not flinch. Martha stood in the middle of the narrow path, staring as if transfixed by the huge beast bearing down on her. There was a moment when Tom realized desperately that he could not get to her before the horse did. He swerved to one side, his arm touching the standing wheat; and at the last instant the horse swerved to the other side. The rider’s stirrup brushed Martha’s fine hair; a hoof stamped a round hole in the ground beside her bare foot; then the horse had gone by, spraying them both with dirt, and Tom snatched her up in his arms and held her tight to his pounding heart.

He stood still for a moment, awash with relief, his limbs weak, his insides watery. Then he felt a surge of fury at the recklessness of the stupid youth on his massive war-horse. He looked up angrily. Lord William was slowing the horse now, sitting back in the saddle, with his feet pushed forward in the stirrups, sawing on the reins. The horse swerved to avoid the building site. It tossed its head and then bucked, but William stayed on. He slowed it to a canter and then a trot as he guided it around in a wide circle.

Martha was crying. Tom handed her to Agnes and waited for William. The young lord was a tall, well-built fellow of about twenty years, with yellow hair and narrow eyes which made him look as if he were always peering into the sun. He wore a short black tunic with black hose, and leather shoes with straps crisscrossed up to his knees. He sat well on the horse and did not seem shaken by what had happened. The foolish boy doesn’t even know what he’s done, Tom thought bitterly. I’d like to wring his neck.

William halted the horse in front of the woodpile and looked down at the builders. “Who’s in charge here?” he said.

Tom wanted to say If you had hurt my little girl, I would have killed you, but he suppressed his rage. It was like swallowing a bitter mouthful. He approached the horse and held its bridle. “I’m the master builder,” he said tightly. “My name is Tom.”

“This house is no longer needed,” said William. “Dismiss your men.”

It was what Tom had been dreading. But he held on to the hope that William was being impetuous in his anger, and might be persuaded to change his mind. With an effort, he made his voice friendly and reasonable. “But so much work has been done,” he said. “Why waste what you’ve spent? You’ll need the house one day.”

“Don’t tell me how to manage my affairs, Tom Builder,” said William. “You’re all dismissed.” He twitched a rein, but Tom had hold of the bridle. “Let go of my horse,” William said dangerously.

Tom swallowed. In a moment William would try to get the horse’s head up. Tom felt in his apron pocket and brought out the crust of bread he had been eating. He showed it to the horse, which dipped its head and took a bite. “There’s more to be said, before you leave, my lord,” he said mildly.

William said: “Let my horse go, or I’ll take your head off.” Tom looked directly at him, trying not to show his fear. He was bigger than William, but that would make no difference if the young lord drew his sword.

Agnes muttered fearfully: “Do as the lord says, husband.”

There was dead silence. The other workmen stood as still as statues, watching. Tom knew that the prudent thing would be to give in. But William had nearly trampled Tom’s little girl, and that made Tom mad, so with a racing heart he said: “You have to pay us.”

William pulled on the reins, but Tom held the bridle tight, and the horse was distracted, nuzzling in Tom’s apron pocket for more food. “Apply to my father for your wages!” William said angrily.

Tom heard the carpenter say in a terrified voice: “We’ll do that, my lord, thanking you very much.”

Wretched coward, Tom thought, but he was trembling himself. Nevertheless he forced himself to say: “If you want to dismiss us, you must pay us, according to the custom. Your father’s house is two days’ walk from here, and when we arrive he may not be there.”

“Men have died for less than this,” William said. His cheeks reddened with anger.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw the squire drop his hand to the hilt of his sword. He knew he should give up now, and humble himself, but there was an obstinate knot of anger in his belly, and as scared as he was he could not bring himself to release the bridle. “Pay us first, then kill me,” he said recklessly. “You may hang for it, or you may not; but you’ll die sooner or later, and then I will be in heaven and you will be in hell.”

The sneer froze on William’s face and he paled. Tom was surprised: what had frightened the boy? Not the mention of hanging, surely: it was not really likely that a lord would be hanged for the murder of a craftsman. Was he terrified of hell?

They stared at one another for a few moments. Tom watched with amazement and relief as William’s set expression of anger and contempt melted away, to be replaced by a panicky anxiety. At last William took a leather purse from his belt and tossed it to his squire, saying: “Pay them.”

At that point Tom pushed his luck. When William pulled on the reins again, and the horse lifted its strong head and stepped sideways, Tom moved with the horse and held on to the bridle, and said: “A full week’s wages on dismissal, that is the custom.” He heard a sharp intake of breath from Agnes, just behind him, and he knew she thought he was crazy to prolong the confrontation. But he plowed on. “That’s sixpence for the laborer, twelve for the carpenter and each of the masons, and twenty-four pence for me. Sixty-six pence in all.” He could add pennies faster than anyone he knew.

The squire was looking inquiringly at his master. William said angrily: “Very well.”

Tom released the bridle and stepped back.

William turned the horse and kicked it hard, and it bounded forward onto the path through the wheat field.

Tom sat down suddenly on the woodpile. He wondered what had got into him. It had been mad to defy Lord William like that. He felt lucky to be alive.

The hoofbeats of William’s war-horse faded to a distant thunder, and his squire emptied the purse onto a board. Tom felt a surge of triumph as the silver pennies tumbled out into the sunshine. It had been mad, but it had worked: he had secured just payment for himself and the men working under him. “Even lords ought to follow the customs,” he said, half to himself.

Agnes heard him. “Just hope you’re never in want of work from Lord William,” she said sourly.

Tom smiled at her. He understood that she was churlish because she had been frightened. “Don’t frown too much, or you’ll have nothing but curdled milk in your breasts when that baby is born.”

“I won’t be able to feed any of us unless you find work for the winter.”

“The winter’s a long way off,” said Tom.

II

They stayed at the village through the summer. Later, they came to regard this decision as a terrible mistake, but at the time it seemed sensible enough, for Tom and Agnes and Alfred could each earn a penny a day working in the fields during the harvest. When autumn came, and they had to move on, they had a heavy bag of silver pennies and a fat pig.

They spent the first night in the porch of a village church, but on the second they found a country priory and took advantage of monastic hospitality. On the third day they found themselves in the heart of the Chute Forest, a vast expanse of scrub and rough woodland, on a road not much broader than the width of an ox cart, with the luxuriant growth of summer dying between the oaks on either side.

Tom carried his smaller tools in a satchel and slung his hammers from his belt. He had his cloak in a bundle under his left arm and he carried his iron spike in his right hand, using it as a walking stick. He was happy to be on the road again. His next job might be working on a cathedral. He might become master mason and stay there the rest of his life, and build a church so wonderful it would guarantee that he went to heaven.

Agnes had their few household possessions inside the cooking pot which she carried strapped to her back. Alfred carried the tools they would use to make a new home somewhere: an ax, an adz, a saw, a small hammer, a bradawl for making holes in leather and wood, and a spade. Martha was too small to carry anything but her own bowl and eating knife tied to her belt and her winter cloak strapped to her back. However, she had the duty of driving the pig until they could sell it at a market.

Tom kept a close eye on Agnes as they walked through the endless woods. She was more than halfway through her term now, and carrying a considerable weight in her belly as well as the burden on her back. But she seemed tireless. Alfred, too, was all right: he was at the age when boys have more energy than they know what to do with. Only Martha was tiring. Her thin legs were made for the playful scamper, not the long march, and she dropped behind constantly, so that the others had to stop and wait for her and the pig to catch up.

As he walked Tom thought about the cathedral he would build one day. He began, as always, by picturing an archway. It was very simple: two uprights supporting a semicircle. Then he imagined a second, just the same as the first. He pushed the two together, in his mind, to form one deep archway. Then he added another, and another, then a lot more, until he had a whole row of them, all stuck together, forming a tunnel. This was the essence of a building, for it had a roof to keep the rain off and two walls to hold up the roof. A church was just a tunnel, with refinements.

A tunnel was dark, so the first refinements were windows. If the wall was strong enough, it could have holes in it. The holes would be round at the top, with straight sides and a flat sill-the same shape as the original archway. Using similar shapes for arches and windows and doors was one of the things that made a building beautiful. Regularity was another, and Tom visualized twelve identical windows, evenly spaced, along each wall of the tunnel.

Tom tried to visualize the moldings over the windows, but his concentration kept slipping because he had the feeling that he was being watched. It was a foolish notion, he thought, if only because of course he was being observed by the birds, foxes, cats, squirrels, rats, mice, weasels, stoats and voles which thronged the forest.

They sat down by a stream at midday. They drank the pure water and ate cold bacon and crab apples which they picked up from the forest floor.

In the afternoon Martha was tired. At one point she was a hundred yards behind them. Standing waiting for her to catch up, Tom remembered Alfred at that age. He had been a beautiful, golden-haired boy, sturdy and bold. Fondness mingled with irritation in Tom as he watched Martha scolding the pig for being so slow. Then a figure stepped out of the undergrowth just ahead of her. What happened next was so quick that Tom could hardly believe it. The man who had appeared so suddenly on the road raised a club over his shoulder. A horrified shout rose in Tom’s throat, but before he could utter it the man swung the club at Martha. It struck her full on the side of the head, and Tom heard the sickening sound of the blow connecting. She fell to the ground like a dropped doll.

Tom found himself running back along the road toward them, his feet pounding the hard earth like the hooves of William’s war-horse, willing his legs to carry him faster. As he ran, he watched what was happening, and it was like looking at a picture painted high on a church wall, for he could see it but there was nothing he could do to change it. The attacker was undoubtedly an outlaw. He was a short, thickset man in a brown tunic, with bare feet. For an instant he looked straight at Tom, and Tom could see that the man’s face was hideously mutilated: his lips had been cut off, presumably as a punishment for a crime involving lying, and his mouth was now a repulsive permanent grin surrounded by twisted scar tissue. The horrid sight would have stopped Tom in his tracks, had it not been for the prone body of Martha lying on the ground.

The outlaw looked away from Tom and fixed his gaze on the pig. In a flash he bent down, picked it up, tucked the squirming animal under his arm and darted back into the tangled undergrowth, taking with him Tom’s family’s only valuable possession.

Then Tom was on his knees beside Martha. He put his broad hand on her tiny chest and felt her heartbeat, steady and strong, and his worst fear subsided; but her eyes were closed and there was bright red blood in her blond hair.

Agnes knelt beside him a moment later. She touched Martha’s chest, wrist and forehead, then she gave Tom a hard, level look. “She will live,” she said in a tight voice. “Fetch back that pig.”

Tom quickly unslung his satchel of tools and dropped it on the ground. With his left hand he took his big iron-headed hammer from his belt. He still had his spike in his right. He could see the trampled bushes where the thief had come and gone, and he could hear the pig squealing in the woods. He plunged into the undergrowth.

The trail was easy to follow. The outlaw was a heavily built man, running with a wriggling pig under his arm, and he cut a wide path through the vegetation, flattening flowers and bushes and young trees alike. Tom charged after him, full of a savage desire to get his hands on the man and beat him senseless. He crashed through a thicket of birch saplings, hurtled down a slope, and splashed across a patch of bog to a narrow pathway. There he stopped. The thief might have gone left or right, and now there was no crushed vegetation to show the way; but Tom listened, and heard the pig squealing somewhere to his left. He could also hear someone rushing through the forest behind him-Alfred, presumably. He went after the pig.

The path led him down into a dip, then turned sharply and began to rise. He could hear the pig clearly now. He ran uphill, breathing hard-the years of inhaling stone dust had weakened his lungs. Suddenly the path leveled and he saw the thief, only twenty or thirty yards away, running as if the devil were behind him. Tom put on a spurt and started to gain. He was bound to catch up, if only he could keep going, for a man with a pig cannot run as fast as a man without one. But now his chest hurt. The thief was fifteen yards away, then twelve. Tom raised the spike above his head like a spear. Just a little closer and he would throw it. Eleven yards, ten-

Before the spike left his hand he glimpsed, out of the corner of his eye, a thin face in a green cap emerging from the bushes beside the path. It was too late to swerve. A heavy stick was thrust out in front of him, he stumbled on it as was intended, and he fell to the ground.

He had dropped his spike but he still had hold of the hammer. He rolled over and raised himself on one knee. There were two of them, he saw: the one in the green hat and a bald man with a matted white beard. They ran at Tom.

He stepped to one side and swung his hammer at the green hat. The man dodged, but the big iron hammerhead came down hard on his shoulder and he gave a screech of agony and sank to the ground, holding his arm as if it were broken. Tom did not have time to raise the hammer for another crushing blow before the bald man closed with him, so he thrust the iron head at the man’s face and split his cheek.

Both men backed off clutching their wounds. Tom could see that there was no fight left in either one. He turned around. The thief was still running away along the path. Tom went after him again, ignoring the pain in his chest. But he had covered only a few yards when he heard a shout from behind in a familiar voice.

Alfred.

He stopped and looked back.

Alfred was fighting them both, using his fists and his feet. He punched the one in the green hat about the head three or four times, then kicked the bald man’s shins. But the two men swarmed him, getting inside his reach so that he could no longer punch or kick hard enough to hurt. Tom hesitated, torn between chasing the pig and rescuing his son. Then the bald one got his foot behind Alfred’s leg and tripped him, and as the boy hit the ground the two men fell on him, raining blows on his face and body.

Tom ran back. He charged the bald one bodily, sending the man flying into the bushes, then turned and swung his hammer at the green hat. This man had felt the weight of the hammer once before and was still using only one arm. He dodged the first swing, then turned and dived into the undergrowth before Tom could swing again.

Tom turned and saw the bald man running away down the path. He looked in the opposite direction: the thief with the pig was nowhere in sight. He breathed a bitter, blasphemous curse: that pig represented half of what he had saved this summer. He sank to the ground, breathing hard.

“We beat three of them!” Alfred said excitedly.

Tom looked at him. “But they got our pig,” he said. Anger burned his stomach like sour cider. They had bought the pig in the spring, as soon as they had saved enough pennies, and they had been fattening it all summer. A fat pig could be sold for sixty pence. With a few cabbages and a sack of grain it could feed a family all winter and make a pair of leather shoes and a purse or two. Its loss was a catastrophe.

Tom looked enviously at Alfred, who had already recovered from the chase and the fight, and was waiting impatiently. How long ago was it, Tom thought, when I could run like the wind and hardly feel my heart race? Since I was that age… twenty years. Twenty years. It seemed like yesterday.

He got to his feet.

He put his arm around Alfred’s broad shoulders as they walked back along the path. The boy was still shorter than his father by the span of a man’s hand, but soon he would catch up, and he might grow even bigger. I hope his wit grows too, Tom thought. He said: “Any fool can get into a fight, but a wise man knows how to stay out of them.” Alfred gave him a blank look.

They turned off the path, crossed the boggy patch, and began to climb the slope, following in reverse the trail the thief had made. As they pushed through the birch thicket, Tom thought of Martha, and once again rage curdled in his belly. The outlaw had lashed out at her senselessly, for she had been no threat to him.

Tom quickened his pace, and a moment later he and Alfred emerged onto the road. Martha lay there in the same place, not having moved. Her eyes were closed and the blood was drying in her hair. Agnes knelt beside her-and with them, to Tom’s surprise, were another woman and a boy. The thought struck him that it was no wonder he had felt watched, earlier in the day, for the forest seemed to be teeming with people. He bent down and rested his hand on Martha’s chest again. She was breathing normally.

“She will wake up soon,” said the strange woman in an authoritative voice. “Then she will puke. After that she’ll be all right.”

Tom looked at her curiously. She was kneeling over Martha. She was quite young, perhaps a dozen years younger than Tom. Her short leather tunic revealed lithe brown limbs. She had a pretty face, with dark brown hair that came to a devil’s peak on her forehead. Tom felt a pang of desire. Then she raised her glance to look at him, and he gave a start: she had intense, deep-set eyes of an unusual honey-gold color that gave her whole face a magical look, and he felt sure that she knew what he had been thinking.

He looked away from her to cover his embarrassment, and he caught Agnes’s eye. She was looking resentful. She said: “Where’s the pig?”

“There were two more outlaws,” Tom said.

Alfred said: “We beat them, but the one with the pig got away.”

Agnes looked grim, but said nothing more.

The strange woman said: “We could move the girl into the shade, if we’re gentle.” She stood up, and Tom realized that she was quite small, at least a foot shorter than he. He bent down and picked Martha up carefully. Her childish body was almost weightless in his arms. He carried her a few yards along the road and put her down on a patch of grass in the shadow of an old oak. She was still quite limp.

Alfred was picking up the tools that had been scattered on the road during the fracas. The strange woman’s boy was watching, his eyes wide and his mouth open, not speaking. He was about three years younger than Alfred, and a peculiar-looking child, Tom observed, with none of his mother’s sensual beauty. He had very pale skin, orange-red hair, and blue eyes that bulged slightly. He had the alertly stupid look of a dullard, Tom thought; the kind of child that either dies young or grows up to be the village idiot. Alfred was visibly uncomfortable under his stare.

As Tom watched, the child snatched the saw from Alfred’s hand, without saying anything, and examined it as if it were something amazing. Alfred, offended by the discourtesy, snatched it back, and the child let it go with indifference. The mother said: “Jack! Behave yourself.” She seemed embarrassed.

Tom looked at her. The boy did not resemble her at all. “Are you his mother?” Tom asked.

“Yes. My name is Ellen.”

“Where’s your husband?”

“Dead.”

Tom was surprised. “You’re traveling alone?” he said incredulously. The forest was dangerous enough for a man such as he: a woman alone could hardly hope to survive.

“We’re not traveling,” said Ellen. “We live in the forest.”

Tom was shocked. “You mean you’re-” He stopped, not wanting to offend her.

“Outlaws,” she said. “Yes. Did you think that all outlaws were like Faramond Openmouth, who stole your pig?”

“Yes,” said Tom, although what he wanted to say was I never thought an outlaw might be a beautiful woman. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he asked: “What was your crime?”

“I cursed a priest,” she said, and looked away.

It did not sound like much of a crime to Tom, but perhaps the priest had been very powerful, or very touchy; or perhaps Ellen just did not want to tell the truth.

He looked at Martha. A moment later she opened her eyes. She was confused and a little frightened. Agnes knelt beside her. “You’re safe,” she said. “Everything’s all right.”

Martha sat upright and vomited. Agnes hugged her until the spasms passed. Tom was impressed: Ellen’s prediction had come true. She had also said that Martha would be all right, and presumably that was reliable too. Relief washed over him, and he was a little surprised at the strength of his own emotion. I couldn’t bear to lose my little girl, he thought; and he had to fight back tears. He caught a look of sympathy from Ellen, and once again he felt that her pale gold eyes could see into his heart.

He broke off an oak twig, stripped its leaves, and used them to wipe Martha’s face. She still looked pale.

“She needs to rest,” said Ellen. “Let her lie down for as long as it takes a man to walk three miles.”

Tom glanced at the sun. There was plenty of daylight left. He settled down to wait. Agnes rocked Martha gently in her arms. The boy Jack now switched his attention to Martha, and stared at her with the same idiot intensity. Tom wanted to know more about Ellen. He wondered whether she might be persuaded to tell her story. He did not want her to go away. “How did it all come about?” he asked her vaguely.

She looked into his eyes again, and then she began to talk.

Her father had been a knight, she told them; a big, strong, violent man who wanted sons with whom he could ride and hunt and wrestle, companions to drink and carouse into the night with him. In these matters he was as unlucky as a man could be, for he got Ellen, and then his wife died; and he married again, but his second wife was barren. He came to despise Ellen’s stepmother, and eventually sent her away. He must have been a cruel man, but he never seemed so to Ellen, who adored him and shared his scorn for his second wife. When the stepmother left, Ellen stayed, and grew up in what was almost an all-male household. She cut her hair short and carried a dagger, and learned not to play with kittens or care for blind old dogs. By the time she was Martha’s age she could spit on the ground and eat apple cores and kick a horse in the belly so hard that it would draw in its breath, allowing her to tighten its girth one more notch. She knew that all men who were not part of her father’s band were called cocksuckers and all women who would not go with them were called pigfuckers, although she was not quite sure-and did not much care-what these insults really meant.

Listening to her voice in the mild air of an autumn afternoon, Tom closed his eyes and pictured her as a flat-chested girl with a dirty face, sitting at the long table with her father’s thuggish comrades, drinking strong ale and belching and singing songs about battle and looting and rape, horses and castles and virgins, until she fell asleep with her little cropped head on the rough board.

If only she could have stayed flat-chested forever she would have lived a happy life. But the time came when the men looked at her differently. They no longer laughed uproariously when she said: “Get out of my way or I’ll cut off your balls and feed them to the pigs.” Some of them stared at her when she took off her wool tunic and lay down to sleep in her long linen undershirt. When relieving themselves in the woods, they would turn their backs to her, which they never had before.

One day she saw her father deep in conversation with the parish priest-a rare event-and the two of them kept looking at her, as if they were talking about her. On the following morning her father said to her: “Go with Henry and Everard and do as they tell you.” Then he kissed her forehead. She wondered what on earth had come over him-was he going soft in his old age? She saddled her gray courser-she refused to ride the ladylike palfrey or a child’s pony-and set off with the two men-at-arms.

They took her to a nunnery and left her there.

The whole place rang with her obscene curses as the two men rode away. She knifed the abbess and walked all the way back to her father’s house. He sent her back, bound hand and foot and tied to the saddle of a donkey. They put her in the punishment cell until the abbess’s wound healed. It was cold and damp and as black as the night, and there was water to drink but nothing to eat. When they let her out she walked home again. Her father sent her back again, and this time she was flogged before being put in the cell.

They broke her eventually, of course, and she donned the novice’s habit, obeyed the rules and learned the prayers, even if in her heart she hated the nuns and despised the saints and disbelieved everything anyone told her about God on principle. But she learned to read and write, she mastered music and numbers and drawing, and she added Latin to the French and English she had spoken in her father’s household.

Life in the convent was not so bad, in the end. It was a single-sex community with its own peculiar rules and rituals, and that was exactly what she was used to. All the nuns had to do some physical labor, and Ellen soon got assigned to work with the horses. Before long she was in charge of the stables.

Poverty never worried her. Obedience did not come easily, but it did come, eventually. The third rule, chastity, never troubled her much, although now and again, just to spite the abbess, she would introduce one of the other novice nuns to the pleasures of-

Agnes interrupted Ellen’s tale at this point and, taking Martha with her, went off to find a stream in which to wash the child’s face and clean up her tunic. She took Alfred too, for protection, although she said she would not go out of earshot. Jack got up to follow them, but Agnes told him firmly to stay behind, and he appeared to understand, for he sat down again. Tom noted that Agnes had succeeded in taking her children where they could not hear any more of this impious and indecent story, while leaving Tom chaperoned.

One day, Ellen went on, the abbess’s palfrey went lame when she was several days away from the convent. Kingsbridge Priory happened to be nearby, so the abbess borrowed another horse from the prior there. After she got home, she told Ellen to return the borrowed horse to the priory and bring the lame palfrey back.

There, in the monastery stable within sight of the crumbling old cathedral of Kingsbridge, Ellen met a young man who looked like a whipped puppy. He had the loose-limbed grace of a pup, and the twitching-nosed alertness, but he was cowed and frightened, as if all the playfulness had been beaten out of him. When she spoke to him he did not understand. She tried Latin, but he was not a monk. Finally she said something in French, and his face was suffused with joy and he replied in the same language.

Ellen never went back to the convent.

From that day on she lived in the forest, first in a rough shelter of branches and leaves, later in a dry cave. She had not forgotten the masculine skills she had learned in her father’s house: she could still hunt deer, trap rabbits and shoot swans with a bow; she could gut and clean and cook the meat; and she even knew how to scrape and cure the hides and furs for her clothes. As well as game, she ate wild fruits, nuts and vegetables. Anything else she needed-salt, woolen clothing, an ax or a new knife-she had to steal.

The worst time was when Jack was born…

But what about the Frenchman? Tom wanted to ask. Was he Jack’s father? And if so, when did he die? And how? But he could tell, from her face, that she was not going to talk about that part of the story, and she seemed the type of person who would not be persuaded against her will, so he kept his questions to himself.

By this time her father had died and his band of men had dispersed, so she had no relatives or friends in the world. When Jack was about to be born she built an all-night fire at the mouth of her cave. She had food and water on hand, and her bow and arrows and knives to ward off the wolves and wild dogs; and she even had a heavy red cloak, stolen from a bishop, to wrap the baby in. But she had not been prepared for the pain and fear of childbirth, and for a long time she thought she was going to die. Nevertheless the baby was born healthy and strong, and she survived.

Ellen and Jack lived a simple, frugal life for the next eleven years. The forest gave them all they needed, as long as they were careful to store enough apples and nuts and salted or smoked venison for the winter months. Ellen often thought that if there were no kings and lords and bishops and sheriffs, then everyone could live like this and be perfectly happy.

Tom asked her how she dealt with the other outlaws, men such as Faramond Openmouth. What would happen if they crept up on her at night and tried to rape her? he wondered, and his loins stirred at the thought, although he had never taken a woman against her will, not even his wife.

The other outlaws were afraid of Ellen, she told Tom, looking at him with her luminous pale eyes, and he knew why: they thought she was a witch. As for law-abiding people traveling through the forest, people who knew they could rob and rape and murder an outlaw without fear of punishment-Ellen just hid from them. Why then had she not hidden from Tom? Because she had seen a wounded child, and wanted to help. She had a child herself.

She had taught Jack everything she had learned in her father’s household about weapons and hunting. Then she had taught him all she had learned from the nuns: reading and writing, music and numbers, French and Latin, how to draw, even the Bible stories. Finally, in the long winter evenings, she had passed on the legacy of the Frenchman, who knew more stories and poems and songs than anyone else in the world-

Tom did not believe that the boy Jack could read and write. Tom could write his name, and a handful of words such as pence and yards and bushels; and Agnes, being the daughter of a priest, could do more, although she wrote slowly and laboriously with her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth; but Alfred could not write a word, and could barely recognize his own name; and Martha could not even do that. Was it possible that this half-witted child was more literate than Tom’s whole family?

Ellen told Jack to write something, and he smoothed a patch of earth and scratched letters in it. Tom recognized the first word, Alfred, but not the others, and he felt a fool; then Ellen saved his embarrassment by reading the whole thing aloud: “Alfred is bigger than Jack.” The boy quickly drew two figures, one bigger than the other, and although they were crude, one had broad shoulders and a rather bovine expression and the other was small and grinning. Tom, who himself had a talent for sketching, was astonished at the simplicity and strength of the picture scratched in the dust.

But the child seemed an idiot.

Ellen had lately begun to realize this, she confessed, guessing Tom’s thoughts. Jack had never had the company of other children, or indeed of other human beings except for his mother, and the result was that he was growing up like a wild animal. For all his learning he did not know how to behave with people. That was why he was silent, and stared, and snatched.

As she said this she looked vulnerable for the first time. Her air of impregnable self-sufficiency vanished, and Tom saw her as troubled and rather desperate. For Jack’s sake, she needed to rejoin society; but how? If she had been a man, she might conceivably have persuaded some lord to give her a farm, especially if she had lied convincingly and said she was back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela. There were some women farmers, but they were invariably widows with grown sons. No lord would give a farm to a woman with one small child. Nobody would hire her as a laborer, either in town or country; besides, she had no place to live, and unskilled work rarely came with accommodation provided. She had no identity.

Tom felt for her. She had given her child everything she could, and it was not enough. But he could see no way out of her dilemma. Beautiful, resourceful, and formidable though she was, she was doomed to spend the rest of her days hiding in the forest with her weird son.

Agnes, Martha and Alfred came back. Tom gazed anxiously at Martha, but she looked as if the worst thing that had ever happened to her was having her face scrubbed. For a while Tom had been absorbed in Ellen’s problems, but now he remembered his own plight: he was out of work and his pig had been stolen. The afternoon was wearing on. He began to pick up their remaining possessions.

Ellen said: “Where are you headed?”

“Winchester,” Tom told her. Winchester had a castle, a palace, several monasteries, and-most important of all-a cathedral.

“Salisbury is closer,” Ellen said. “And last time I was there, they were rebuilding the cathedral-making it bigger.”

Tom’s heart leaped. This was what he was looking for. If only he could get a job on a cathedral building project he believed he had the ability to become master builder eventually. “Which way is Salisbury?” he said eagerly.

“Back the way you came, for three or four miles. Do you remember a fork in the road, where you went left?”

“Yes-by a pond of foul water.”

“That’s it. The right fork leads to Salisbury.”

They took their leave. Agnes had not liked Ellen, but managed nevertheless to say graciously: “Thank you for helping me take care of Martha.”

Ellen smiled and looked wistful as they left.

When they had walked along the road for a few minutes Tom looked back. Ellen was still watching them, standing in the road with her legs apart, shading her eyes with her hand, the peculiar boy standing beside her. Tom waved, and she waved back.

“An interesting woman,” he said to Agnes.

Agnes said nothing.

Alfred said: “That boy was strange.”

They walked into the low autumn sun. Tom wondered what Salisbury was like: he had never been there. He felt excited. Of course, his dream was to build a new cathedral from the ground up, but that almost never happened: it was much more common to find an old building being improved or extended, or partly rebuilt. But that would be good enough for him, as long as it offered the prospect of building to his own designs eventually.

Martha said: “Why did the man hit me?”

“Because he wanted to steal our pig,” Agnes told her.

“He should get his own pig,” Martha said indignantly, as if she had only just realized that the outlaw had done something wrong.

Ellen’s problem would have been solved if she had had a craft, Tom reflected. A mason, a carpenter, a weaver or a tanner would not have found himself in her position. He could always go to a town and look for work. There were a few craftswomen, but they were generally the wives or widows of craftsmen. “What she needs,” Tom said aloud, “is a husband.”

Agnes said crisply: “Well, she can’t have mine.”

III

The day they lost the pig was also the last day of mild weather. They spent that night in a barn, and when they came out in the morning the sky was the color of a lead roof, and there was a cold wind with gusts of driving rain. They unbundled their cloaks of thick, felted cloth and put them on, fastening them tight under their chins and pulling the hoods well forward to keep the rain off their faces. They set off in a grim mood, four gloomy ghosts in a rainstorm, their wooden clogs splashing along the puddled, muddy road.

Tom wondered what Salisbury cathedral would be like. A cathedral was a church like any other, in principle: it was simply the church where the bishop had his throne. But in practice cathedral churches were the biggest, richest, grandest and most elaborate. A cathedral was rarely a tunnel with windows. Most were three tunnels, a tall one flanked by two smaller ones in a head-and-shoulders shape, forming a nave with side aisles. The side walls of the central tunnel were reduced to two lines of pillars linked by arches, forming an arcade. The aisles were used for processions-which could be spectacular in cathedral churches-and might also provide space for small side chapels dedicated to particular saints, which attracted important extra donations. Cathedrals were the most costly buildings in the world, far more so than palaces or castles, and they had to earn their keep.

Salisbury was closer than Tom had thought. Around mid-morning they crested a rise, and found the road falling away gently before them in a long curve; and across the rainswept fields, rising out of the flat plain like a boat on a lake, they saw the fortified hill town of Salisbury. Its details were veiled by the rain, but Tom could make out several towers, four or five, soaring high above the city walls. His spirits lifted at the sight of so much stonework.

A cold wind whipped across the plain, freezing their faces and hands as they followed the road toward the east gate. Four roads met at the foot of the hill, amid a scatter of houses spilled over from the town, and there they were joined by other travelers, walking with hunched shoulders and lowered heads, butting through the weather to the shelter of the walls.

On the slope leading to the gate they came up with an ox cart bearing a load of stone-a very hopeful sign for Tom. The carter was bent down behind the crude wooden vehicle, pushing with his shoulder, adding his strength to that of the two oxen as they inched uphill. Tom saw a chance to make a friend. He beckoned to Alfred, and they both put their shoulders to the back of the cart and helped push.

The huge wooden wheels rumbled onto a timber bridge that spanned an enormous dry moat. The earthworks were formidable: digging that moat, and throwing up the soil to form the town wall, must have taken hundreds of men, Tom thought; a much bigger job even than digging the foundations for a cathedral. The bridge that crossed the moat rattled and creaked under the weight of the cart and the two mighty beasts that were pulling it.

The slope leveled and the cart moved more easily as they approached the gateway. The carter straightened up, and Tom and Alfred did likewise. “I thank you kindly,” the carter said.

Tom asked: “What’s the stone for?”

“The new cathedral.”

“New? I heard they were just enlarging the old one.”

The carter nodded. “That’s what they said, ten years ago. But there’s more new than old, now.”

This was further good news. “Who’s the master builder?”

“John of Shaftesbury, though Bishop Roger has a lot to do with the designs.”

That was normal. Bishops rarely left builders alone to do the job. One of the master builder’s problems was often to calm the fevered imaginations of the clerics and set practical limits to their soaring fantasies. But it would be John of Shaftesbury who hired men.

The carter nodded at Tom’s satchel of tools. “Mason?”

“Yes. Looking for work.”

“You may find it,” the carter said neutrally. “If not on the cathedral, perhaps on the castle.”

“And who governs the castle?”

“The same Roger is both bishop and castellan.”

Of course, Tom thought. He had heard of the powerful Roger of Salisbury, who had been close to the king for as long as anyone could remember.

They passed through the gateway into the town. The place was crammed so full of buildings, people and animals that it seemed in danger of bursting its circular ramparts and spilling out into the moat. The wooden houses were jammed together shoulder to shoulder, jostling for space like spectators at a hanging. Every tiny piece of land was used for something. Where two houses had been built with an alleyway between them, someone had put up a half-size dwelling in the alley, with no windows because its door took up almost all the frontage. Wherever a site was too small even for the narrowest of houses, there was a stall on it selling ale or bread or apples; and if there was not even room for that, then there would be a stable, a pigsty, a dunghill or a water barrel.

It was noisy, too. The rain did little to deaden the clamor of craftsmen’s workshops, hawkers calling their wares, people greeting one another and bargaining and quarreling, animals neighing and barking and fighting.

Raising her voice above the noise, Martha said: “What’s that stink?”

Tom smiled. She had not been in a town for a couple of years. “That’s the smell of people,” he told her.

The street was only a little wider than the ox cart, but the carter would not let his beasts stop, for fear they might not start again; so he whipped them on, ignoring all obstacles, and they shouldered their dumb way through the multitude, indiscriminately shoving aside a knight on a war-horse, a forester with a bow, a fat monk on a pony, men-at-arms and beggars and housewives and whores.

The cart came up behind an old shepherd struggling to keep a small flock together. It must be market day, Tom realized. As the cart went by, one of the sheep plunged through the open door of an alehouse, and in a moment the whole flock was in the house, bleating and panicking and upsetting tables and stools and alepots.

The ground underfoot was a sea of mud and rubbish. Tom had an eye for the fall of rain on a roof, and the width of gutter required to take the rain away; and he could see that all the rain falling on all the roofs of this half of the town was draining away through this street. In a bad storm, he thought, you would need a boat to cross the street.

As they approached the castle at the summit of the hill, the street widened. Here there were stone houses, one or two of them in need of a little repair. They belonged to craftsmen and traders, who had their shops and stores on the ground floor and living quarters above. Looking with a practiced eye at what was on sale, Tom could tell that this was a prosperous town. Everyone had to have knives and pots, but only prosperous people bought embroidered shawls, decorated belts and silver clasps.

In front of the castle the carter turned his ox team to the right, and Tom and his family followed. The street led around a quarter-circle, skirting the castle ramparts. Passing through another gate they left the hurly-burly of the town as quickly as they had entered it, and walked into a different kind of maelstrom: the hectic but ordered diversity of a major building site.

They were inside the walled cathedral close, which occupied the entire northwest quarter of the circular town. Tom stood for a moment taking it in. Just seeing and hearing and smelling it gave him a thrill like a sunny day. As they arrived behind the cartload of stone, two more carts were leaving empty. In lean-to sheds all along the side walls of the church, masons could be seen sculpting the stone blocks, with iron chisels and big wooden hammers, into the shapes that would be put together to form plinths, columns, capitals, shafts, buttresses, arches, windows, sills, pinnacles and parapets. In the middle of the close, well away from other buildings, stood the smithy, the glow of its fire visible through the open doorway; and the clang of hammer on anvil carried across the close as the smith made new tools to replace the ones the masons were wearing down. To most people it was a scene of chaos, but Tom saw a large and complex mechanism which he itched to control. He knew what each man was doing and he could see instantly how far the work had progressed. They were building the east facade.

There was a run of scaffolding across the east end at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet. The masons were in the porch, waiting for the rain to ease up, but their laborers were running up and down the ladders with stones on their shoulders. Higher up, on the timber framework of the roof, were the plumbers, like spiders creeping across a giant wooden web, nailing sheets of lead to the struts and installing the drainpipes and gutters.

Tom realized regretfully that the building was almost finished. If he did get hired here the work would not last more than a couple of years-hardly enough time for him to rise to the position of master mason, let alone master builder. Nevertheless he would take the job, if he were offered it, for winter was coming. He and his family could have survived a winter without work if they had still had the pig, but without it Tom had to get a job.

They followed the cart across the close to where the stones were stacked. The oxen gratefully dipped their heads to the water trough. The carter called to a passing mason: “Where’s the master builder?”

“In the castle,” the mason replied.

The carter nodded and turned to Tom. “You’ll find him in the bishop’s palace, I expect.”

“Thanks.”

“Mine to you.”

Tom left the close with Agnes and the children following. They retraced their steps through the thronged, narrow streets to the front of the castle. Here was another dry moat and a second huge earthen rampart surrounding the central stronghold. They walked across the drawbridge. In a guardhouse to one side of the gateway, a thickset man in a leather tunic sat on a stool, looking out at the rain. He was wearing a sword. Tom addressed him. “Good day. I’m called Tom Builder. I want to see the master builder, John of Shaftesbury.”

“With the bishop,” the guard said indifferently.

They went inside. Like most castles, this was a collection of miscellaneous buildings inside a wall of earth. The courtyard was about a hundred yards across. Opposite the gateway, on the far side, was the massive keep, the last stronghold in time of attack, rising high above the ramparts to provide a lookout. On their left was a clutter of low buildings, mostly wooden: a long stable, a kitchen, a bakery and several storehouses. There was a well in the middle. On the right, taking up most of the northern half of the compound, was a large stone house that was obviously the palace. It was built in the same style as the new cathedral, with small round-headed doorways and windows, and it had two stories. It was new-indeed, masons were still working on one corner of it, apparently building a tower. Despite the rain there were plenty of people in the courtyard, coming in and going out or hurrying through the rain from one building to another: men-at-arms, priests, tradesmen, construction workers and palace servants.

Tom could see several doorways in the palace, all open despite the rain. He was not quite sure what to do next. If the master builder was with the bishop, perhaps he ought not to interrupt. On the other hand, a bishop was not a king; and Tom was a free man and a mason on legitimate business, not some groveling serf with a complaint. He decided to be bold. Leaving Agnes and Martha, he walked with Alfred across the muddy courtyard to the palace and went through the nearest door.

They found themselves in a small chapel with a vaulted ceiling and a window in the far end over the altar. Near the doorway a priest sat at a high desk, writing rapidly on vellum. He looked up.

Tom said briskly: “Where’s Master John?”

“In the vestry,” said the priest, jerking his head toward a door in the side wall.

Tom did not ask to see the master. He found that if he acted as if he were expected he was less likely to waste time waiting around. He crossed the little chapel in a couple of strides and entered the vestry.

It was a small, square chamber lit by many candles. Most of the floor space was taken up by a shallow sandpit. The fine sand had been smoothed perfectly level with a rule. There were two men in the room. Both glanced briefly at Tom, then returned their attention to the sand. The bishop, a wrinkled old man with flashing black eyes, was drawing in the sand with a pointed stick. The master builder, wearing a leather apron, watched him with a patient air and a skeptical expression.

Tom waited in anxious silence. He must make a good impression: be courteous but not groveling and show his knowledge without being cocky. A master craftsman wanted his subordinates to be obedient as well as skillful, Tom knew from his own experience of being the hirer.

Bishop Roger was sketching a two-story building with large windows in three sides. He was a good draftsman, making straight lines and true right angles. He drew a plan and a side view of the building. Tom could see that it would never be built.

The bishop finished it and said: “There.”

John turned to Tom and said: “What is it?”

Tom pretended to think he was being asked for his opinion of the drawing. He said: “You can’t have windows that big in an undercroft.”

The bishop looked at him with irritation. “It’s a writing room, not an undercroft.”

“It will fall down just the same.”

John said: “He’s right.”

“But they must have light to write by.”

John shrugged and turned to Tom. “Who are you?”

“My name is Tom and I’m a mason.”

“I guessed that. What brings you here?”

“I’m looking for work.” Tom held his breath.

John shook his head immediately. “I can’t hire you.”

Tom’s heart sank. He felt like turning on his heel, but he waited politely to hear the reasons.

“We’ve been building for ten years here,” John went on. “Most of the masons have houses in the town. We’re coming to the end, and now I have more masons on the site than I really need.”

Tom knew it was hopeless, but he said: “And the palace?”

“Same thing,” said John. “This is where I’m using my surplus men. If it weren’t for this, and Bishop Roger’s other castles, I’d be laying masons off already.”

Tom nodded. In a neutral voice, trying not to sound desperate, he said: “Do you hear of work anywhere?”

“They were building at the monastery in Shaftesbury earlier in the year. Perhaps they still are. It’s a day’s journey away.”

“Thanks.” Tom turned to go.

“I’m sorry,” John called after him. “You seem like a good man.”

Tom went out without replying. He felt let down. He had allowed his hopes to rise too early: there was nothing unusual about being turned down. But he had been excited at the prospect of working on a cathedral again. Now he might have to work on a monotonous town wall or an ugly house for a silversmith.

He squared his shoulders as he walked back across the castle courtyard to where Agnes waited with Martha. He never showed his disappointment to her. He always tried to give the impression that all was well, he was in control of the situation, and it was of no great consequence if there was no work here because there was sure to be something in the next town, or the one after that. He knew that if he showed any sign of distress Agnes would urge him to find a place to settle down, and he did not want to do that, not unless he could settle in a town where there was a cathedral to be built.

“There’s nothing for me here,” he said to Agnes. “Let’s move on.”

She looked crestfallen. “You’d think, with a cathedral and a palace under construction, there would be room for one more mason.”

“Both buildings are almost finished,” Tom explained. “They’ve got more men than they want.”

The family crossed the drawbridge and plunged back into the crowded streets of the town. They had entered Salisbury by the east gate, and they would leave by the west, for that way led to Shaftesbury. Tom turned right, leading them through the part of the town they had not so far seen.

He stopped outside a stone house that looked in dire need of repair. The mortar used in building it had been too weak, and was now crumbling and falling out. Frost had got into the holes, cracking some of the stones. If it were left for another winter the damage would be worse. Tom decided to point this out to the owner.

The ground-floor entrance was a wide arch. The wooden door was open, and in the doorway a craftsman sat with a hammer in his right hand and a bradawl, a small metal tool with a sharp point, in his left. He was carving a complex design on a wooden saddle which sat on the bench before him. In the background Tom could see stores of wood and leather, and a boy with a broom sweeping shavings.

Tom said: “Good day, Master Saddler.”

The saddler looked up, classified Tom as the kind of man who would make his own saddle if he needed one, and gave a curt nod.

“I’m a builder,” Tom went on. “I see you’re in need of my services.”

“Why?”

“Your mortar is crumbling, your stones are cracking and your house may not last another winter.”

The saddler shook his head. “This town is full of masons. Why would I employ a stranger?”

“Very well.” Tom turned away. “God be with you.”

“I hope so,” said the saddler.

“An ill-mannered fellow,” Agnes muttered to Tom as they walked away.

The street led them to a marketplace. Here in a half-acre sea of mud, peasants from the surrounding countryside exchanged what little surplus they might have of meat or grain, milk or eggs, for the things they needed and could not make themselves-pots, plowshares, ropes and salt. Markets were usually colorful and rather boisterous. There was a lot of good-natured haggling, mock rivalry between adjacent stall holders, cheap cakes for the children, sometimes a minstrel or a group of tumblers, lots of painted whores, and perhaps a crippled soldier with tales of eastern deserts and berserk Saracen hordes. Those who made a good bargain often succumbed to the temptation to celebrate, and spent their profit on strong ale, so that there was always a rowdy atmosphere by midday. Others would lose their pennies at dice, and that led to fighting. But now, on a wet day in the morning, with the year’s harvest sold or stored, the market was subdued. Rain-soaked peasants made taciturn bargains with shivering stall holders, and everyone looked forward to going home to a blazing fireplace.

Tom’s family pushed through the disconsolate crowd, ignoring the halfhearted blandishments of the sausage seller and the knife sharpener. They had almost reached the far side of the marketplace when Tom saw his pig.

He was so surprised that at first he could not believe his eyes. Then Agnes hissed: “Tom! Look!” and he knew she had seen it too.

There was no doubt about it: he knew that pig as well as he knew Alfred or Martha. It was being held, in an expert grip, by a man who had the florid complexion and broad girth of one who eats as much meat as he needs and then some more: a butcher, without doubt. Both Tom and Agnes stood and stared at him, and since they blocked his path he could not help but notice them.

“Well?” he said, puzzled by their stares and impatient to get by.

It was Martha who broke the silence. “That’s our pig!” she said excitedly.

“So it is,” said Tom, looking levelly at the butcher.

For an instant a furtive look crossed the man’s face, and Tom realized he knew the pig was stolen. But he said: “I’ve just paid fifty pence for it, and that makes it my pig.”

“Whoever you gave your money to, the pig was not his to sell. No doubt that was why you got it so cheaply. Who did you buy it from?”

“A peasant.”

“One you know?”

“No. Listen, I’m butcher to the garrison. I can’t ask every farmer who sells me a pig or a cow to produce twelve men to swear the animal is his to sell.”

The man turned aside as if to go away, but Tom caught him by the arm and stopped him. For a moment the man looked angry, but then he realized that if he got into a scuffle he would have to drop the pig, and that if one of Tom’s family managed to pick it up, the balance of power would change and it would be the butcher who had to prove ownership. So he restrained himself and said: “If you want to make an accusation, go to the sheriff.”

Tom considered that briefly and dismissed it. He had no proof. Instead he said: “What did he look like-the man who sold you my pig?”

The butcher looked shifty and said: “Like anyone else.”

“Did he keep his mouth covered?”

“Now that I think of it, he did.”

“He was an outlaw, concealing a mutilation,” Tom said bitterly. “I suppose you didn’t think of that.”

“It’s pissing with rain!” the butcher protested. “Everyone’s muffled up.”

“Just tell me how long ago he left you.”

“Just now.”

“And where was he headed?”

“To an alehouse, I’d guess.”

“To spend my money,” Tom said disgustedly. “Go on, clear off. You may be robbed yourself, one day, and then you’ll wish there were not so many people eager to buy a bargain without asking questions.”

The butcher looked angry, and hesitated as if he wanted to make some rejoinder; then he thought better of it and disappeared.

Agnes said: “Why did you let him go?”

“Because he’s known here and I’m not,” Tom said. “If I fight with him I’ll be blamed. And because the pig doesn’t have my name written on its arse, so who is to say whether it is mine or not?”

“But all our savings-”

“We may get the money for the pig, yet,” said Tom. “Shut up and let me think.” The altercation with the butcher had angered him, and it relieved his frustration to speak harshly to Agnes. “Somewhere in this town there is a man with no lips and fifty silver pennies in his pocket. All we have to do is find him and take the money from him.”

“Right,” said Agnes determinedly.

“You walk back the way we’ve come. Go as far as the cathedral close. I’ll walk on, and come to the cathedral from the other direction. Then we’ll return by the next street, and so on. If he’s not on the streets he’s in an alehouse. When you see him, stay by him and send Martha to find me. I’ll take Alfred. Try not to let the outlaw see you.”

“Don’t worry,” Agnes said grimly. “I want that money, to feed my children.”

Tom touched her arm and smiled. “You’re a lion, Agnes.”

She looked into his eyes for a moment, then suddenly stood on her toes and kissed his mouth, briefly but hard. Then she turned and went back across the marketplace with Martha in tow. Tom watched her out of sight, feeling anxious for her despite her courage; then he went in the opposite direction with Alfred.

The thief seemed to think he was perfectly safe. Of course, when he stole the pig, Tom had been heading for Winchester. The thief had gone in the opposite direction, to sell the pig in Salisbury. But the outlaw woman, Ellen, had told Tom that Salisbury cathedral was being rebuilt, and he had changed his plans, and inadvertently caught up with the thief. However, the man thought he would’ never see Tom again, which gave Tom a chance to catch him unawares.

Tom walked slowly along the muddy street, trying to seem casual as he glanced in at open doorways. He wanted to remain unobtrusive, for this episode could end in violence, and he did not want people to remember a tall mason searching the town. Most of the houses were ordinary hovels of wood, mud and thatch, with straw on the floor, a fireplace in the middle, and a few bits of homemade furniture. A barrel and some benches made an alehouse; a bed in the corner with a curtain to screen it meant a whore; a noisy crowd around a single table signified a game of dice.

A woman with red-stained lips bared her breasts to him, and he shook his head and hurried past. He was secretly intrigued by the idea of doing it with a total stranger, in daylight, and paying for it, but in all his life he had never tried it.

He thought again of Ellen, the outlaw woman. There was something intriguing about her, too. She was powerfully attractive, but those deep-set, intense eyes were intimidating. An invitation from a whore made Tom feel discontented for a few moments, but the spell cast by Ellen had not yet worn off, and he had a sudden foolish desire to run back into the forest and find her and fall on her.

He arrived at the cathedral close without seeing the outlaw. He looked at the plumbers nailing the lead to the triangular timber roof over the nave. They had not yet begun to cover the lean-to roofs on the side aisles of the church, and it was still possible to see the supporting half-arches which connected the outside edge of the aisle with the main nave wall, propping up the top half of the church. He pointed them out to Alfred. “Without those supports, the nave wall would bow outward and buckle, because of the weight of the stone vaults inside,” he explained. “See how the half-arches line up with the buttresses in the aisle wall? They also line up with the pillars of the nave arcade inside. And the aisle windows line up with the arches of the arcade. Strong lines up with strong, and weak with weak.” Alfred looked baffled and resentful. Tom sighed.

He saw Agnes coming from the opposite side, and his mind returned to his immediate problem. Agnes’s hood concealed her face, but he recognized her chin-forward, sure-footed walk. Broad-shouldered laborers stepped aside to let her pass. If she were to run into the outlaw, and there was a fight, he thought grimly, it would be a fairly even match.

“Did you see him?” she said.

“No. Obviously you didn’t either.” Tom hoped the thief had not left the town already. Surely he would not go without spending some of his pennies? Money was no use in the forest.

Agnes was thinking the same. “He’s here somewhere. Let’s keep looking.”

“We’ll go back by different streets and meet again in the marketplace.”

Tom and Alfred retraced their steps across the close and went out through the gateway. The rain was soaking through their cloaks now, and Tom thought fleetingly of a pot of beer and a bowl of beef broth beside an alehouse fire. Then he thought how hard he had worked to buy the pig, and he saw again the man with no lips swinging his club at Martha’s innocent head, and his anger warmed him.

It was difficult to search systematically because there was no order to the streets. They wandered here and there, according to where people had built houses, and there were many sharp turns and blind alleys. The only straight street was the one that led from the east gate to the castle drawbridge. On his first sweep Tom had stayed close to the ramparts of the castle. Now he searched the outskirts, zigzagging to the town wall and back into the interior. These were the poorer quarters, with the most ramshackle buildings, the noisiest alehouses and the oldest whores. The edge of the town was downhill from the center, so the refuse from the wealthier neighborhood was washed down the streets to lodge beneath the walls. Something similar seemed to happen to the people, for this district had more than its share of cripples and beggars, hungry children and bruised women and helpless drunks.

But the man with no lips was nowhere to be seen.

Twice Tom spotted a man of about the right build and general appearance, and took a closer look, only to see that the man’s face was normal.

He ended his search at the marketplace, and there was Agnes waiting for him impatiently, her body tense and her eyes gleaming. “I’ve found him!” she hissed.

Tom felt a surge of excitement mingled with apprehension. “Where?”

“He went into a cookshop down by the east gate.”

“Lead me there.”

They circled the castle to the drawbridge, went down the straight street to the east gate, then turned into a maze of alleys beneath the walls. Tom saw the cookshop a moment later. It was not even a house, just a sloping roof on four posts, up against the town wall, with a huge fire at the back over which a sheep turned on a spit and a cauldron bubbled. It was now about noon and the little place was full of people, mostly men. The smell of the meat made Tom’s stomach rumble. He raked the little crowd with his eyes, fearful that the outlaw might have left in the short time it had taken them to get here. He spotted the man immediately, sitting on a stool a little apart from the crowd, eating a bowl of stew with a spoon, holding his scarf in front of his face to hide his mouth.

Tom turned away quickly so that the man should not see him. Now he had to decide how to handle this. He was angry enough to knock the outlaw down and take his purse. But the crowd would not let him walk away. He would have to explain himself, not just to bystanders but to the sheriff. Tom was within his rights, and the fact that the thief was an outlaw meant that he would not have anyone to vouch for his honesty; whereas Tom was evidently a respectable man and a mason. But establishing all that would take time, possibly weeks if the sheriff happened to be away in another part of the county; and there might still be an accusation of breaking the king’s peace, if a brawl should result.

No. It would be wiser to get the thief alone.

The man could not stay in the town overnight, for he had no home here, and he could not get lodgings without establishing himself as a respectable man somehow. Therefore he had to leave before the gates closed at nightfall.

And there were only two gates.

“He’ll probably go back the way he came,” Tom said to Agnes. “I’ll wait outside the east gate. Let Alfred watch the west gate. You stay in the town and see what the thief does. Keep Martha with you, but don’t let him see her. If you need to send a message to me or Alfred, use Martha.”

“Right,” Agnes said tersely.

Alfred said: “What should I do if he comes out my way?” He sounded excited.

“Nothing,” Tom said firmly. “Watch which road he takes, then wait. Martha will fetch me, and we’ll overtake him together.” Alfred looked disappointed, and Tom said: “You do as I say. I don’t want to lose my son as well as my pig.”

Alfred nodded reluctant assent.

“Let’s break up, before he notices us huddling together and plotting. Go.”

Tom left them immediately, not looking back. He could rely on Agnes to carry out the plan. He hurried to the east gate and left the town, crossing the rickety wooden bridge over which he had pushed the ox cart that morning. Directly ahead of him was the Winchester road, going east, dead straight, like a long carpet unrolled over the hills and valleys. To his left, the road by which Tom-and presumably the thief-had come to Salisbury, the Portway, curled up over a hill and disappeared. The thief would almost certainly take the Portway.

Tom went down the hill and through the cluster of houses at the crossroads, then turned onto the Portway. He needed to hide himself. He walked along the road looking for a suitable spot. He went two hundred yards without finding anything. Looking back, he realized that this was too far: he could no longer see the faces of people at the crossroads, so that he would not know if the man with no lips came along and took the Winchester road. He scanned the landscape again. The road was bordered on either side by ditches, which might have offered concealment in dry weather, but today were running with water. Beyond each ditch the land rose in a hump. In the field on the south side of the road a few cows were grazing the stubble. Tom noticed that one of the cows was lying down at the raised edge of the field, overlooking the road, partly concealed by the hump. With a sigh, he retraced his steps. He jumped the ditch and kicked the cow. It got up and went away. Tom lay down in the warm, dry patch it had left. He pulled his hood over his face and settled to wait, wishing he had had the foresight to buy some bread before leaving the town.

He was anxious and a little scared. The outlaw was a smaller man, but he was fast-moving and vicious, as he had shown when he clubbed Martha and stole the pig. Tom was a little afraid of being hurt but much more worried that he might not get his money.

He hoped Agnes and Martha were all right. Agnes could look after herself, he knew; and even if the outlaw spotted her, what could the man do? He would just be on his guard, that was all.

From where he lay Tom could see the towers of the cathedral. He wished he had had a moment to look inside. He was curious about the treatment of the piers of the arcade. These were usually fat pillars, each with arches sprouting from its top: two arches going north and south, to connect with the neighboring pillars in the arcade; and one going east or west, across the side aisle. It was an ugly effect, for there was something not quite right about an arch that sprang from the top of a round column. When Tom built his cathedral each pier would be a cluster of shafts, with an arch springing from the top of each shaft-an elegantly logical arrangement.

He began to visualize the decoration of the arches. Geometric shapes were the commonest forms-it did not take much skill to carve zigzags and lozenges-but Tom liked foliage, which lent softness and a touch of nature to the hard regularity of the stones.

The imaginary cathedral occupied his mind until midafternoon, when he saw the slight figure and blond head of Martha come skipping across the bridge and through the houses. She hesitated at the crossing, then picked the right road. Tom watched her walk toward him, seeing her frown as she began to wonder where he could be. As she drew level with him he called her softly. “Martha.”

She gave a little squeal, then saw him and ran to him, jumping over the ditch. “Mummy sent you this,” she said, and took something from inside her cloak.

It was a hot meat pie. “By the cross, your mother’s a good woman!” said Tom, and took a mammoth bite. It was made with beef and onions, and it tasted heavenly.

Martha squatted beside Tom on the grass. “This is what happened to the man who stole our pig,” she said. She screwed up her nose and concentrated on remembering what she had been told to say. She was so sweet that she took Tom’s breath away. “He came out of the cookshop and met a lady with a painted face, and went to her house. We waited outside.”

While the outlaw spent our money on a whore, Tom thought bitterly. “Go on.”

“He was not long in the lady’s house, and when he came out he went to an alehouse. He’s there now. He doesn’t drink much but he plays at dice.”

“I hope he wins,” Tom said grimly. “Is that it?”

“That’s all.”

“Are you hungry?”

“I had a bun.”

“Have you told Alfred all this?”

“Not yet. I’m to go to him next.”

“Tell him he must try to stay dry.”

“Try to stay dry,” she repeated. “Shall I say that before or after telling him about the man who stole our pig?”

It did not matter, of course. “After,” Tom said, as she wanted a definite answer. He smiled at her. “You’re a clever girl. Off you go.”

“I like this game,” she said. She waved and left, her girlish legs twinkling as she jumped the ditch daintily and ran back toward the town. Tom watched her with love and anger in his heart. He and Agnes had worked hard to get money to feed their children, and he was ready to kill to get back what had been stolen from them.

Perhaps the outlaw would be ready to kill, too. Outlaws were outside the law, as the name implied: they lived in unconstrained violence. This might not be the first time Faramond Openmouth had come up against one of his victims. He was nothing if not dangerous.

The daylight began to fade surprisingly early, as it sometimes did on wet autumn afternoons. Tom started to worry whether he would recognize the thief in the rain. As evening closed in, the traffic to and from the town thinned out, for most visitors had left in time to reach their home villages by nightfall. The lights of candles and lanterns began to flicker in the higher houses of the town and in the suburban hovels. Tom wondered pessimistically if the thief might stay overnight after all. Perhaps he had dishonest friends in the town who would put him up even though they knew he was an outlaw. Perhaps-

Then Tom saw a man with a scarf across his mouth.

He was walking across the wooden bridge close to two other men. It suddenly occurred to Tom that the thief’s two accomplices, the bald one and the man in the green hat, might have come to Salisbury with him. Tom had not seen either of them in the town but the three might have separated for a while and then joined up again for the return journey. Tom cursed under his breath: he did not think he could fight three men. But as they came closer the group separated, and Tom realized with relief that they were not together after all.

The first two were father and son, two peasants with dark, close-set eyes and hooked noses. They took the Portway, and the man with the scarf followed.

He studied the thief’s gait as he came closer. He appeared sober. That was a pity.

Glancing back to the town he saw a woman and a girl emerge onto the bridge: Agnes and Martha. He was dismayed. He had not envisaged their being present when he confronted the thief. However, he realized that he had given no instructions to the contrary.

He tensed as they all came up the road toward him. Tom was so big that most people gave in to him in a confrontation; but outlaws were desperate, and there was no telling what might happen in a fight.

The two peasants went by, mildly merry, talking about horses. Tom took his iron-headed hammer from his belt and hefted it in his right hand. He hated thieves, who did no work but took the bread from good people. He would have no qualms about hitting this one with a hammer.

The thief seemed to slow down as he came near, almost as if he sensed danger. Tom waited until he was four or five yards away-too near to run back, too far to run past. Then Tom rolled over the bank, sprang across the ditch, and stood in his way.

The man stopped dead and stared at him. “What’s this?” he said nervously.

He doesn’t recognize me, Tom thought. He said: “You stole my pig yesterday and sold it to a butcher today.”

“I never-”

“Don’t deny it,” Tom said. “Just give me the money you got for it, and I won’t hurt you.”

For a moment he thought the thief was going to do just that. He felt a sense of anticlimax as the man hesitated. Then the thief turned on his heel and ran-straight into Agnes.

He was not traveling fast enough to knock her over-and she was a woman who took a lot of knocking over-and the two of them staggered from side to side for a moment in a clumsy dance. Then he realized she was deliberately obstructing him, and he pushed her aside. She stuck out her leg as he went past her. Her foot got between his knees and both of them fell down.

Tom’s heart was in his mouth as he raced to her side. The thief was getting up with one knee on her back. Tom grabbed his collar and yanked him off her. He hauled him to the side of the road before he could regain his balance, then threw him into the ditch.

Agnes stood up. Martha ran to her. Tom said rapidly: “All right?”

“Yes,” Agnes answered.

The two peasants had stopped and turned around, and they were staring at the scene, wondering what was going on. The thief was on his knees in the ditch. “He’s an outlaw,” Agnes called out to them, to discourage them from interfering. “He stole our pig.” The peasants made no reply, but waited to see what would happen next.

Tom spoke to the thief again. “Give me my money and I’ll let you go.”

The man came up out of the ditch with a knife in his hand, fast as a rat, and went for Tom’s throat. Agnes screamed. Tom dodged. The knife flashed across his face and he felt a burning pain along his jaw.

He stepped back and swung his hammer as the knife flashed again. The thief jumped back, and both knife and hammer swished through the damp evening air without connecting.

For an instant the two men stood still, facing one another, breathing hard. Tom’s cheek hurt. He realized they were evenly matched, for although Tom was bigger, the thief had a knife, which was a deadlier weapon than a mason’s hammer. He felt the cold grasp of fear as he realized he might be about to die. He suddenly felt he could not breathe.

From the corner of his eye he saw a sudden movement. The thief saw it too, and darted a glance at Agnes, then ducked his head as a stone came flying at him from her hand.

Tom reacted with the speed of a man in fear of his life, and swung his hammer at the thief’s bent head.

It connected just as the man was looking up again. The iron hammer struck his forehead at the hairline. It was a hasty blow, and did not have all of Tom’s considerable strength behind it. The thief staggered but did not fall.

Tom hit him again.

This blow was harder. He had time to lift the hammer above his head and aim it, as the dazed thief tried to focus his eyes. Tom thought of Martha as he swung the hammer down. It struck with all his force, and the thief fell to the ground like a dropped doll.

Tom was wound up too tightly to feel any relief. He knelt beside the thief, searching him. “Where’s his purse? Where’s his purse, damnation!” The limp body was difficult to move. Finally Tom laid him flat on his back and opened his cloak. There was a big leather purse hanging from his belt. Tom undid its clasp. Inside was a soft wool bag with a drawstring. Tom pulled it out. It was light. “Empty!” Tom said. “He must have another.”

He pulled the cloak from under the man and carefully felt it all over. There were no concealed pockets, no hard parts. He pulled off the boots. There was nothing inside them. He drew his eating knife from his belt and slit the soles: nothing.

Impatiently, he slipped his knife inside the neck of the thief’s woolen tunic and ripped it to the hem. There was no hidden money belt.

The thief lay in the middle of the mud road, naked but for his stockings. The two peasants were staring at Tom as if he were mad. Furiously, Tom said to Agnes: “He hasn’t any money!”

“He must have lost it all at dice,” she said bitterly.

“I hope he burns in the fires of hell,” Tom said.

Agnes knelt down and felt the thief’s chest. “That’s where he is now,” she said. “You’ve killed him.”

IV

By Christmas they were starving.

The winter came early, and it was as cold and hard and unyielding as a stonemason’s iron chisel. There were still apples on the trees when the first frost dusted the fields. People called it a cold snap, thinking it would be brief, but it was not. Villages that left the autumn plowing a little late broke their plowshares on the rock-hard earth. The peasants hastened to kill their pigs and salt them for the winter, and the lords slaughtered their cattle, because winter grazing would not support the same number of livestock as summer. But the endless freeze withered the grass, and some of the remaining animals died anyway. Wolves became desperate, and came into villages at dusk to snatch away scraggy chickens and listless children.

On building sites all over the country, as soon as the first frost struck, the walls that had been built that summer were hastily covered with straw and dung to insulate them from the worst cold, because the mortar in them was not yet completely dry, and if it were to freeze it would crack. No further mortar work would be done until spring. Some of the masons had been hired for the summer only, and they went back to their home villages, where they were known as wrights rather than masons, and they would spend the winter making plows, saddles, harness, carts, shovels, doors, and anything else that required a skilled hand with hammer and chisel and saw. The other masons moved into the lean-to lodges on the site and cut stones in intricate shapes all the hours of daylight. But because the frost was early, the work progressed too fast; and because the peasants were starving, the bishops and castellans and lords had less money to spend on building than they had hoped; and so as the winter wore on some of the masons were dismissed.

Tom and his family walked from Salisbury to Shaftesbury, and from there to Sherborne, Wells, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Wallingford and Windsor. Everywhere the fires inside the lodges burned, and the churchyards and castle walls rang with the song of iron on stone, and the master builders made small precise models of arches and vaults with their clever hands encased in fingerless gloves. Some masters were impatient, abrupt or discourteous; others looked sadly at Tom’s thin children and pregnant wife and spoke kindly and regretfully; but they all said the same thing: No, there’s no work for you here.

Whenever they could, they imposed upon the hospitality of monasteries, where travelers could always get a meal of some kind and a place to sleep-strictly for one night only. When the blackberries ripened in the bramble thickets, they lived on those for days on end, like the birds. In the forest, Agnes would light a fire under the iron cooking pot and boil porridge. But still, much of the time, they were obliged to buy bread from bakers and pickled herrings from fishmongers, or to eat in alehouses and cookshops, which was more expensive than preparing their own food; and so their money inexorably drained away.

Martha was naturally skinny but she became even thinner. Alfred was still getting taller, like a weed growing in shallow soil, and he became lanky. Agnes ate sparingly, but the baby growing inside her was greedy, and Tom could see that she was tormented by hunger. Sometimes he ordered her to eat more, and then even her iron will yielded to the combined authority of her husband and her unborn child. Still she did not grow plump and rosy, as she had during other pregnancies. Instead she looked gaunt despite her swollen belly, like a starving child in a famine.

Since leaving Salisbury they had walked around three quarters of a big circle, and by the end of the year they were back in the vast forest that stretched from Windsor to Southampton. They were heading for Winchester. Tom had sold his mason’s tools, and all but a few pennies of that money had been spent: he would have to borrow tools, or the money to buy them, as soon as he found employment. If he did not get work in Winchester he did not know what he would do. He had brothers, back in his hometown; but that was in the north, a journey of several weeks, and the family would starve before they got there. Agnes was an only child and her parents were dead. There was no agricultural work in midwinter. Perhaps Agnes could scrape a few pennies as a scullery maid in a rich house in Winchester. She certainly could not tramp the roads much longer, for her time was near.

But Winchester was three days away and they were hungry now. The blackberries were gone, there was no monastery in prospect, and Agnes had no oats left in the cooking pot which she carried on her back. The previous night they had traded a knife for a loaf of rye bread, four bowls of broth with no meat in it, and a place to sleep by the fire in a peasant’s hovel. They had not seen a village since. But toward the end of the afternoon Tom saw smoke rising above the trees, and they found the home of a solitary verderer, one of the king’s forest police. He gave them a sack of turnips in exchange for Tom’s small ax.

They had walked only three miles farther when Agnes said she was too tired to go on. Tom was surprised. In all their years together he had never known her to say she was too tired for anything.

She sat down in the shelter of a big horse-chestnut tree beside the road. Tom dug a shallow pit for a fire, using a worn wooden shovel-one of the few tools they had left, for nobody would want to buy it. The children gathered twigs and Tom started the fire, then he took the cooking pot and went to find a stream. He returned with the pot full of icy water and set it at the edge of the fire, Agnes sliced some turnips. Martha collected the conkers that had dropped from the tree, and Agnes showed her how to peel them and grind the soft insides into a coarse flour to thicken the turnip soup. Tom sent Alfred to find more firewood, while he himself took a stick and went poking around in the dead leaves on the forest floor, hoping to find a hibernating hedgehog or squirrel to put in the broth. He was unlucky.

He sat down beside Agnes while darkness fell and the soup cooked. “Have we any salt left?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “You’ve been eating porridge without salt for weeks,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed?”

“No.”

“Hunger is the best seasoning.”

“Well, we’ve plenty of that.” Tom was suddenly terribly tired. He felt the crushing burden of the piled-up disappointments of the last four months and he could not be brave any longer. In a defeated voice he said: “What went wrong, Agnes?”

“Everything,” she said. “You had no work last winter. You got a job in the spring; then the earl’s daughter canceled the wedding and Lord William canceled the house. Then we decided to stay and work in the harvest-that was a mistake.”

“For sure it would have been easier for me to find a building job in the summer than it was in the autumn.”

“And the winter came early. And for all that, we would still have been all right, but then our pig was stolen.”

Tom nodded wearily. “My only consolation is knowing that the thief is even now suffering all the torments of hell.”

“I hope so.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“Priests don’t know as much as they pretend to. My father was one, remember.”

Tom remembered very well. One wall of her father’s parish church had crumbled beyond repair, and Tom had been hired to rebuild it. Priests were not allowed to marry, but this priest had a housekeeper, and the housekeeper had a daughter, and it was an open secret in the village that the priest was the father of the girl. Agnes had not been beautiful, even then, but her skin had had a glow of youth, and she had seemed to be bursting with energy. She would talk to Tom while he was working, and sometimes the wind would flatten her dress against her so that Tom could see the curves of her body, even her navel, almost as clearly as if she had been naked. One night she came to the little hut where he slept, and put a hand over his mouth to tell him not to speak, and pulled off her dress so that he could see her nude in the moonlight, and then he took her strong young body in his arms and they made love.

“We were both virgins,” he said aloud.

She knew what he was thinking about. She smiled, then her face saddened again, and she said: “It seems so long ago.”

Martha said: “Can we eat now?”

The smell of the soup was making Tom’s stomach rumble. He dipped his bowl into the bubbling cauldron and brought out a few slices of turnip in a thin gruel. He used the blunt edge of his knife to test the turnip. It was not cooked all the way through, but he decided not to make them wait. He gave a bowlful to each child, then took one to Agnes.

She looked drawn and thoughtful. She blew on her soup to cool it, then raised the bowl to her lips.

The children quickly drained theirs and wanted more. Tom took the pot out of the fire, using the hem of his cloak to avoid burning his hands, and emptied the remaining soup into the children’s bowls.

When he returned to Agnes’s side she said: “What about you?”

“I’ll eat tomorrow,” he said.

She seemed too tired to argue.

Tom and Alfred built the fire high and gathered enough wood to last the night. Then they all rolled up in their cloaks and lay down on the leaves to sleep.

Tom slept lightly, and when Agnes groaned he woke up instantly. “What is it?” he whispered.

She groaned again. Her face was pale and her eyes were closed. After a moment she said: “The baby is coming.”

Tom’s heart missed a beat. Not here, he thought; not here on the frozen ground in the depths of a forest. “But it’s not due,” he said.

“It’s early.”

Tom made his voice calm. “Have the waters broken?”

“Soon after we left the verderer’s hut,” Agnes panted, not opening her eyes.

Tom remembered her suddenly diving into the bushes as if to answer an urgent call of nature. “And the pains?”

“Ever since.”

It was like her to keep quiet about it.

Alfred and Martha were awake. Alfred said: “What’s happening?”

“The baby is coming,” Tom said.

Martha burst into tears.

Tom frowned. “Could you make it back to the verderer’s hut?” he asked Agnes. There they would at least have a roof, and straw to lie on, and someone to help.

Agnes shook her head. “The baby has dropped already.”

“It won’t be long, then!” They were in the most deserted part of the forest. They had not seen a village since morning, and the verderer had said they would not see one all day tomorrow. That meant there was no possibility of finding a woman to act as midwife. Tom would have to deliver the baby himself, in the cold, with only the children to help, and if anything should go wrong he had no medicines, no knowledge…

This is my fault, Tom thought; I got her with child, and I brought her into destitution. She trusted me to provide for her, and now she is giving birth in the open air in the middle of winter. He had always despised men who fathered children and then left them to starve; and now he was no better than they. He felt ashamed.

“I’m so tired,” Agnes said. “I don’t believe I can bring this baby into the world. I want to rest.” Her face glistened, in the firelight, with a thin film of sweat.

Tom realized he must pull himself together. He was going to have to give Agnes strength. “I’ll help you,” he said. There was nothing mysterious or complicated about what was going to happen. He had watched the births of several children. The work was normally done by women, for they knew how the mother felt, and that enabled them to be more helpful; but there was no reason why a man should not do it if necessary. He must first make her comfortable; then find out how far advanced the birth was; then make sensible preparations; then calm her and reassure her while they waited.

“How do you feel?” he asked her.

“Cold,” she replied.

“Come closer to the fire,” he said. He took off his cloak and spread it on the ground a yard from the blaze. Agnes tried to struggle to her feet. Tom lifted her easily, and set her down gently on his cloak.

He knelt beside her. The wool tunic she was wearing underneath her own cloak had buttons all the way down the front. He undid two of them and put his hands inside. Agnes gasped.

“Does it hurt?” he said, surprised and worried.

“No,” she said with a brief smile. “Your hands are cold.”

He felt the outline of her belly. The swelling was higher and more pointed than it had been last night, when the two of them had slept together in the straw on the floor of a peasant’s hovel. Tom pressed a little harder, feeling the shape of the unborn baby. He found one end of the body, just beneath Agnes’s navel; but he could not locate the other end. He said: “I can feel its bottom, but not its head.”

“That’s because it’s on the way out,” she said.

He covered her and tucked her cloak around her. He would need to make his preparations quickly. He looked at the children. Martha was snuffling. Alfred just looked scared. It would be good to give them something to do.

“Alfred, take that cooking pot to the stream. Wash it clean and bring it back full of fresh water. Martha, collect some reeds and make me two lengths of string, each big enough for a necklace. Quick, now. You’re going to have another brother or sister by daybreak.”

They went off. Tom took out his eating knife and a small hard stone and began to sharpen the blade. Agnes groaned again. Tom put down his knife and held her hand.

He had sat with her like this when the others were born: Alfred; then Matilda, who had died after two years; and Martha; and the child who had been born dead, a boy whom Tom had secretly planned to name Harold. But each time there had been someone else to give help and reassurance-Agnes’s mother for Alfred, a village midwife for Matilda and Harold, and the lady of the manor, no less, for Martha. This time he would have to do it alone. But he must not show his anxiety: he must make her feel happy and confident.

She relaxed as the spasm passed. Tom said: “Remember when Martha was born, and the Lady Isabella acted as midwife?”

Agnes smiled. “You were building a chapel for the lord, and you asked her to send her maid to fetch the midwife from the village…”

“And she said: ‘That drunken old witch? I wouldn’t let her deliver a litter of wolfhound pups!’ And she took us to her own chamber, and Lord Robert could not go to bed until Martha was born.”

“She was a good woman.”

“There aren’t many ladies like her.”

Alfred returned with the pot full of cold water. Tom set it down near the fire, not close enough to boil, so there would be warm water. Agnes reached inside her cloak and took out a small linen bag containing clean rags which she had ready.

Martha came back with her hands full of reeds and sat down to plait them. “What do you need strings for?” she asked.

“Something very important, you’ll see,” Tom said. “Make them well.”

Alfred looked restless and embarrassed. “Go and collect more wood,” Tom told him. “Let’s have a bigger fire.” The boy went off, glad to have something to do.

Agnes’s face tautened with strain as she began to bear down again, pushing the baby out of her womb, making a low noise like a tree creaking in a gale. Tom could see that the effort was costing her dear, using up her last reserves of strength; and he wished with all his heart that he could bear down for her, and take the strain himself, to give her some relief. At last the pain seemed to ease, and Tom breathed again. Agnes seemed to drift off into a doze.

Alfred returned with his arms full of sticks.

Agnes became alert again and said: “I’m so cold.”

Tom said: “Alfred, build up the fire. Martha, lie down beside your mother and keep her warm.” They both obeyed with worried looks. Agnes put her arms around Martha and held her close, shivering.

Tom was sick with worry. The fire was roaring, but the air was getting colder. It might be so cold that it would kill the baby with its first breath. It was not unknown for children to be born out-of-doors; in fact it happened often at harvesttime, when everyone was so busy and the women worked up until the last minute; but at harvest the ground was dry and the grass was soft and the air was balmy. He had never heard of a woman giving birth outside in winter.

Agnes raised herself on her elbows and spread her legs wider.

“What is it?” Tom said in a frightened voice.

She was straining too hard to reply.

Tom said: “Alfred, kneel down behind your mother and let her lean on you.”

When Alfred was in position, Tom opened Agnes’s cloak and unbuttoned the skirt of her dress. Kneeling between her legs, he could see that the birth opening was beginning to dilate a little already. “Not long now, my darling,” he murmured, struggling to keep the tremor of fear out of his voice.

She relaxed again, closing her eyes and resting her weight on Alfred. The opening seemed to shrink a little. The forest was silent but for the crackling of the big fire. Suddenly Tom thought of how the outlaw woman, Ellen, had given birth in the forest alone. It must have been terrifying. She had feared that a wolf would come upon her while she was helpless and steal the newborn baby away, she had said. This year the wolves were bolder than usual, people said, but surely they would not attack a group of four people.

Agnes tensed again, and fresh beads of sweat appeared on her contorted face. This is it, thought Tom. He was frightened. He watched the opening widen again, and this time he could see, by the light of the fire, the damp black hair of the baby’s head pushing through. He thought of praying but there was no time now. Agnes began to breathe in short, fast gasps. The opening stretched wider-impossibly wide-and then the head began to come through, face-down. A moment later Tom saw the wrinkled ears flat against the side of the baby’s head; then he saw the folded skin of the neck. He could not yet see whether the baby was normal.

“The head is out,” he said, but Agnes knew that already, of course, for she could feel it; and she had relaxed again. Slowly the baby turned, so that Tom could see the closed eyes and mouth, wet with blood and the slippery fluids of the womb.

Martha cried: “Oh! Look at its little face!”

Agnes heard her and smiled briefly, then began to strain again. Tom leaned forward between her thighs and supported the tiny head with his left hand as the shoulders came out, first one then the other. Then the rest of the body emerged in a rush, and Tom put his right hand under the baby’s hips and held it as the tiny legs slithered into the cold world.

Agnes’s opening immediately started to close around the pulsing blue cord that came from the baby’s navel.

Tom lifted the baby and scrutinized it anxiously. There was a lot of blood, and at first he feared something was terribly wrong; but on closer examination he could see no injury. He looked between its legs. It was a boy.

“It looks horrible!” said Martha.

“He’s perfect,” Tom said, and he felt weak with relief. “A perfect boy.”

The baby opened its mouth and cried.

Tom looked at Agnes. Their eyes met, and they both smiled.

Tom held the tiny baby close to his chest. “Martha, fetch me a bowl of water out of that pot.” She jumped up to do his bidding. “Where are those rags, Agnes?” Agnes pointed to the linen bag lying on the ground beside her shoulder. Alfred passed it to Tom. The boy’s face was running with tears. It was the first time he had seen a child born.

Tom dipped a rag into a bowl of warm water and gently washed the blood and mucus off the baby’s face. Agnes unbuttoned the front of her tunic and Tom put the baby in her arms. He was still squalling. As Tom watched, the blue cord that went from the baby’s belly to Agnes’s groin stopped pulsing and shriveled, turning white.

Tom said to Martha: “Give me those strings you made. Now you’ll see what they’re for.”

She passed him the two lengths of plaited reeds. He tied them around the birth cord in two places, pulling the knots tight. Then he used his knife to cut the cord between the knots.

He sat back on his haunches. They had done it. The worst was over and the baby was well. He felt proud.

Agnes moved the baby so that his face was at her breast. His tiny mouth found her enlarged nipple, and he stopped crying and started to suck.

Martha said in an amazed voice: “How does he know he should do that?”

“It’s a mystery,” said Tom. He handed the bowl to her and said: “Get your mother some fresh water to drink.”

“Oh, yes,” said Agnes gratefully, as if she had just realized she was desperately thirsty. Martha brought the water and Agnes drank the bowl dry. “That was wonderful,” she said. “Thank you.”

She looked down at the suckling baby, then up at Tom. “You’re a good man,” she said quietly. “I love you.”

Tom felt tears come to his eyes. He smiled at her, then dropped his gaze. He saw that she was still bleeding a lot. The shriveled birth cord, which was still slowly coming out, lay curled in a pool of blood on Tom’s cloak between Agnes’s legs.

He looked up again. The baby had stopped sucking and fallen asleep. Agnes pulled her cloak over him, then her own eyes closed.

After a moment, Martha said to Tom: “Are you waiting for something?”

“The afterbirth,” Tom told her.

“What’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

Mother and baby dozed for a while, then Agnes opened her eyes again. Her muscles tensed, her opening dilated a little, and the placenta emerged. Tom picked it up in his hands and looked at it. It was like something on a butcher’s slab. Looking more closely, he saw that it seemed to be torn, as if there were a piece missing. But he had never looked this closely at an afterbirth, and he supposed they were always like this, for they must always have broken away from the womb. He put the thing on the fire. It made an unpleasant smell as it burned, but if he had thrown it away it might have attracted foxes, or even a wolf.

Agnes was still bleeding. Tom remembered that there was always a rush of blood with the afterbirth, but he did not recall so much. He realized that the crisis was not yet over. He felt faint for a moment, from strain and lack of food; but the spell passed and he pulled himself together.

“You’re still bleeding, a little,” he said to Agnes, trying not to sound as worried as he was.

“It will stop soon,” she said. “Cover me.”

Tom buttoned the skirt of her dress, then wrapped her cloak around her legs.

Alfred said: “Can I have a rest now?”

He was still kneeling behind Agnes, supporting her. He must be numb, Tom thought, from staying so long in the same position. “I’ll take your place,” Tom said. Agnes would be more comfortable with the baby if she could stay half-upright, he thought; and also a body behind her would keep her back warm and shield her from the wind. He changed places with Alfred. Alfred grunted with pain as he stretched his young legs. Tom wrapped his arms around Agnes and the baby. “How do you feel?” he asked her.

“Just tired.”

The baby cried. Agnes moved him so that he could find her nipple. As he suckled, she seemed to sleep.

Tom was uneasy. It was normal to be tired, but there was a lethargy about Agnes that bothered him. She was too weak.

The baby slept, and after a while the other two children fell asleep, Martha curled up beside Agnes, and Alfred stretched out on the far side of the fire. Tom held Agnes in his arms, stroking her gently. Every now and again he would kiss the top of her head. He felt her body relax as she fell into a deeper and deeper sleep. It was probably the best thing for her, he decided. He touched her cheek. Her skin was clammy, despite all his efforts to keep her warm. He reached inside her cloak and touched the baby’s chest. The child was warm and his heart was beating strongly. Tom smiled. A tough baby, he thought; a survivor.

Agnes stirred. “Tom?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember the night I came to you, in your lodge, when you were working on my father’s church?”

“Of course,” he said, patting her. “How could I ever forget?”

“I never regretted giving myself to you. Never, for one moment. Every time I think of that night, I feel so glad.”

He smiled. That was good to know. “Me, too,” he said. “I’m glad you did.”

She dozed for a while, then spoke again. “I hope you build your cathedral,” she said.

He was surprised. “I thought you were against it.”

“I was, but I was wrong. You deserve something beautiful.”

He did not know what she meant.

“Build a beautiful cathedral for me,” she said.

She was not making sense. He was glad when she fell asleep again. This time her body went quite limp, and her head leaned sideways. Tom had to support the baby to prevent him falling off her chest.

They lay like that for a long time. Eventually the baby woke again and cried. Agnes did not respond. The crying woke Alfred, and he rolled over and looked at his baby brother.

Tom shook Agnes gently. “Wake up,” he said. “The baby wants to feed.”

“Father!” said Alfred in a scared voice. “Look at her face!”

Tom was filled with foreboding. She had bled too much. “Agnes!” he said. “Wake up!” There was no response. She was unconscious. He got up, easing her back until she lay flat on the ground. Her face was ghastly white.

Dreading what he would see, he unwrapped the folds of the cloak from around her thighs.

There was blood everywhere.

Alfred gasped and turned away.

Tom whispered: “Christ Jesus save us.”

The baby’s crying woke Martha. She saw the blood and began to scream. Tom picked her up and smacked her face. She became silent. “Don’t scream,” he said calmly, and put her down again.

Alfred said: “Is Mother dying?”

Tom put his hand on Agnes’s chest, just underneath her left breast. There was no heartbeat.

No heartbeat.

He pressed harder. Her flesh was warm, and the underside of her heavy breast touched his hand, but she was not breathing, and there was no heartbeat.

A numb coldness settled over Tom like a fog. She was gone. He stared at her face. How could she not be there? He willed her to move, to open her eyes, to draw breath. He kept his hand on her chest. Sometimes a heart might start again, people said-but she had lost so much blood…

He looked at Alfred. “Mother is dead,” he whispered.

Alfred stared at him dumbly. Martha began to cry. The new baby was crying too. I must take care of them, Tom thought. I must be strong for them.

But he wanted to weep, to put his arms around her and hold her body while it cooled, and remember her as a girl, and laughing, and making love. He wanted to sob with rage and shake his fist at the merciless heavens. He hardened his heart. He had to stay controlled, he had to be strong for the children.

No tears came to his eyes.

He thought: What do I do first?

Dig a grave.

I must dig a deep hole, and lay her in it, to keep the wolves off, and preserve her bones until the Day of Judgment; and then say a prayer for her soul. Oh, Agnes, why have you left me alone?

The new baby was still crying. His eyes were screwed tightly shut and his mouth opened and closed rhythmically, as if he could get sustenance from the air. He needed feeding. Agnes’s breasts were full of warm milk. Why not? thought Tom. He shifted the baby toward her breast. The child found a nipple and sucked. Tom pulled Agnes’s cloak tighter around the baby.

Martha was watching, wide-eyed, sucking her thumb. Tom said to her: “Could you hold the baby there, so he doesn’t fall?”

She nodded and knelt beside the dead woman and the baby.

Tom picked up the spade. She had chosen this spot to rest, and she had sat under the branches of the chestnut tree. Let this be her last resting-place, then. He swallowed hard, fighting an urge to sit on the ground and weep. He marked a rectangle on the ground some yards from the trunk of the tree, where there would be no roots near the surface; then he began to dig.

He found it helped. When he concentrated on driving his shovel into the hard ground and lifting the earth, the rest of his mind went blank and he was able to retain his composure. He took turns with Alfred, for he too could take comfort in repetitious physical labor. They dug fast, driving themselves hard, and despite the bitter cold air they both sweated as if it were noon.

A time came when Alfred said: “Isn’t this enough?”

Tom realized that he was standing in a hole almost as deep as he was tall. He did not want the job to be finished. He nodded reluctantly. “It will do,” he said. He clambered out.

Dawn had broken while he was digging. Martha had picked up the baby and was sitting by the fire, rocking it. Tom went to Agnes and knelt down. He wrapped her cloak tightly around her, leaving her face visible, then picked her up. He walked over to the grave and put her down beside it. Then he climbed into the hole.

He lifted her down and laid her gently on the earth. He looked at her for a long moment, kneeling there beside her in her cold grave. He kissed her lips once, softly. Then he closed her eyes.

He climbed out of the grave. “Come here, children,” he said. Alfred and Martha came and stood either side of him, Martha holding the baby. Tom put an arm around each of them. They looked into the grave. Tom said: “Say: ‘God bless Mother.’ ”

They both said: “God bless Mother.”

Martha was sobbing, and there were tears in Alfred’s eyes. Tom hugged them both and swallowed his tears.

He released them and picked up the shovel. Martha screamed when he threw the first shovelful of earth into the grave. Alfred put his arms around his sister. Tom kept on shoveling. He could not bear to throw earth on her face, so he covered her feet, then her legs and body, and piled the earth high so that it formed a mound, and every shovelful slid downward, until at last there was earth on her neck, then over the mouth he had kissed, and finally her face disappeared, never to be seen again.

He filled the grave up quickly.

When it was done he stood looking at the mound. “Goodbye, dear,” he whispered. “You were a good wife, and I love you.”

With an effort he turned away.

His cloak was still on the ground where Agnes had lain on it to give birth. The lower half of it was sodden with congealed and drying blood. He took his knife and roughly cut the cloak in half. He threw the bloodied portion on the fire.

Martha was still holding the baby. “Give him to me,” Tom said. She gazed at him with fear in her eyes. He wrapped the naked baby in the clean half of the cloak and laid it on the grave. The baby cried.

He turned to the children. They were staring at him dumbly. He said: “We have no milk, to keep the baby alive, so he must lie here with his mother.”

Martha said: “But he’ll die!”

“Yes,” Tom said, controlling his voice tightly. “Whatever we do, he will die.” He wished the baby would stop crying.

He collected their possessions and put them in the cooking pot, then strapped the pot to his back the way Agnes always did.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Martha began to sob. Alfred was white-faced. They set off down the road in the gray light of a cold morning. Eventually the sound of the baby crying faded to nothing.

It was no good to stay by the grave, for the children would be unable to sleep there and no purpose would be served by an all-night vigil. Besides, it would do them all good to keep moving.

Tom set a fast pace, but his thoughts were now free, and he could no longer control them. There was nothing to do but walk: no arrangements to make, no jobs to do, nothing to be organized, nothing to look at but the gloomy forest and the shadows fidgeting in the light of the torches. He would think of Agnes, and follow the trail of some memory, and smile to himself, then turn to tell her what he had remembered; then the shock of realizing that she was dead would strike like a physical pain. He felt bewildered, as if something totally incomprehensible had happened, although of course it was the most ordinary thing in the world for a woman of her age to die in childbirth, and for a man of his age to be left a widower. But the sense of loss was like a wound. He had heard that people who had the toes chopped off one foot could not stand up, but fell over constantly until they learned to walk again. He felt like that, as if part of him had been amputated, and he could not get used to the idea that it was gone forever.

He tried not to think about her, but he kept remembering how she had looked before she died. It seemed incredible that she had been alive just a few hours ago, and now she was gone. He pictured her face as she strained to give birth, and then her proud smile as she looked at the baby boy. He recalled what she had said to him afterward: I hope you build your cathedral; and then, Build a beautiful cathedral for me. She had spoken as if she knew she was dying.

As he walked on, he thought more and more about the baby he had left, wrapped in half a cloak, lying on top of a new grave. He was probably still alive, unless a fox had smelled him already. He would die before morning, however. He would cry for a while, then close his eyes, and his life would slip away as he grew cold in his sleep.

Unless a fox smelled him.

There was nothing Tom could do for the baby. He needed milk to survive, and there was none: no villages where Tom could seek a wet-nurse, no sheep or goat or cow that could provide the nearest equivalent. All Tom had to give him were turnips, and they would kill him as surely as the fox.

As the night wore on, it seemed to him more and more dreadful that he had abandoned the baby. It was a common enough thing, he knew: peasants with large families and small farms often exposed babies to die, and sometimes the priest turned a blind eye; but Tom did not belong to that kind of people. He should have carried it in his arms until it died, and then buried it. There was no purpose to that, of course, but all the same it would have been the right thing to do.

He realized that it was daylight.

He stopped suddenly.

The children stood still and stared at him, waiting. They were ready for anything; nothing was normal anymore.

“I shouldn’t have left the baby,” Tom said.

Alfred said: “But we can’t feed him. He’s bound to die.”

“Still I shouldn’t have left him,” Tom said.

Martha said: “Let’s go back.”

Still Tom hesitated. To go back now would be to admit he had done wrong to abandon the baby.

But it was true. He had done wrong.

He turned around. “All right,” he said. “We’ll go back.”

Now all the dangers which he had earlier tried to discount suddenly seemed more probable. For sure a fox had smelled the baby by now, and dragged him off to its lair. Or even a wolf. The wild boars were dangerous, even though they did not eat meat. And what about owls? An owl could not carry off a baby, but it might peck out its eyes-

He walked faster, feeling light-headed with exhaustion and starvation. Martha had to run to keep up with him, but she did not complain.

He dreaded what he might see when he returned to the grave. Predators were merciless, and they could tell when a living creature was helpless.

He was not sure how far they had walked: he had lost his sense of time. The forest on either side looked unfamiliar, even though he had just passed through it. He looked anxiously for the place where the grave was. Surely the fire could not have gone out yet-they had built it so high… He scrutinized the trees, looking for the distinctive leaves of the horse chestnut. They passed a side turning which he did not remember, and he began to wonder crazily whether he could possibly have passed the grave already and not seen it; then he thought he saw a faint orange glow ahead.

His heart seemed to falter. He quickened his step and narrowed his eyes. Yes, it was a fire. He broke into a run. He heard Martha cry out, as if she thought he was leaving her, and he called over his shoulder: “We’re there!” and heard the two children running after him.

He drew level with the horse-chestnut tree, his heart pounding in his chest. The fire was burning merrily. There was the pile of firewood. There was the bloodstained patch of ground where Agnes had bled to death. There was the grave, a mound of freshly dug earth, under which she now lay. And on the grave was-nothing.

Tom looked around frantically, his mind in a turmoil. There was no sign of the baby. Tears of frustration came to Tom’s eyes. Even the half a cloak the baby had been wrapped in had disappeared. Yet the grave was undisturbed-there were no animal tracks in the soft, earth, no blood, no marks to indicate that the baby had been dragged away…

Tom began to feel as if he could not see very clearly. It became difficult to think straight. He knew now that he had done a dreadful thing in leaving the baby while it was still alive. When he knew it was dead he would be able to rest. But it might still be alive somewhere-somewhere nearby. He decided to circle around and look.

Alfred said: “Where are you going?”

“We must search for the baby,” he said, without looking back. He walked around the edge of the little clearing, looking under the bushes, still feeling slightly dizzy and faint. He saw nothing, not even a clue to the direction in which the wolf might have taken the baby. He was now sure it was a wolf. The creature’s lair might be nearby.

“We must circle wider,” he said to the children.

He led them around again, moving farther from the fire, pushing through bushes and undergrowth. He was beginning to feel confused, but he managed to keep his mind focused on one thing, the imperative need to find the baby. He felt no grief now, just a fierce, raging determination, and in the back of his mind the appalling knowledge that all of this was his fault. He blundered through the forest, raking the ground with his eyes, stopping every few paces to listen for the unmistakable wailing monotone of a newborn baby; but when he and the children were quiet, the forest was silent.

He lost track of time. His ever-increasing circles brought him back to the road at intervals for a while, but later he realized that it seemed a long time since they crossed it. At one point he wondered why he had not come across the verderer’s cottage. It occurred to him vaguely that he had lost his way, and might no longer be circling around the grave, but instead wandering through the forest more or less at random; but it did not really matter, so long as he kept searching.

“Father,” Alfred said.

Tom looked at him, irritated by the interruption of his concentration. Alfred was carrying Martha, who appeared to be fast asleep on his back. Tom said: “What?”

“Can we rest?” Alfred said.

Tom hesitated. He did not want to stop, but Alfred looked about to collapse. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “But not for long.”

They were on a slope. There might be a stream at its foot. He was thirsty. He took Martha from Alfred and picked his way down the slope, cradling her in his arms. As he expected, he found a small clear stream, with ice at its edges. He put Martha down on the bank. She did not wake. He and Alfred knelt and scooped up the cold water in their hands.

Alfred lay down next to Martha and closed his eyes. Tom looked around him. He was in a clearing carpeted with fallen leaves. The trees all around were low, stout oaks, their bare branches intertwining overhead. Tom crossed the clearing, thinking of looking for the baby behind the trees, but when he reached the other side his legs went weak and he was obliged to sit down abruptly.

It was full daylight now, but misty, and it seemed no warmer than midnight. He was shivering uncontrollably. He realized he had been walking around wearing only his undertunic. He wondered what had happened to his cloak, but he could not remember. Either the mist thickened, or something strange happened to his vision, for he could not see the children on the far side of the clearing any longer. He wanted to get up and go to them but there was something wrong with his legs.

After a while a weak sun broke through the cloud, and soon after that the angel came.

She walked across the clearing from the east, dressed in a long winter cloak of blanched wool, almost white. He watched her approach without surprise or curiosity. He was beyond wonder or fear. He looked at her with the dull, vacant, emotionless gaze he had bestowed upon the massive trunks of the surrounding oaks. Her oval face was framed with rich dark hair, and her cloak hid her feet, so that she might have been gliding over the dead leaves. She stopped right in front of him, and her pale gold eyes seemed to see into his soul and understand his pain. She looked familiar, as if he might have seen a picture of this very angel in some church he had attended recently. Then she opened her cloak. Underneath it she was naked. She had the body of an earthly woman in her middle twenties, with pale skin and pink nipples. Tom had always assumed angels’ bodies to be immaculately hairless, but this one was not.

She went down on one knee in front of him where he sat cross-legged by the oak tree. Leaning toward him, she kissed his mouth. He was too stunned by previous shocks to feel surprise even at this. She pushed him back gently until he was lying flat, then she opened her cloak and lay on top of him with her naked body pressed against him. He felt the heat of her body through his undertunic. After a few moments he stopped shivering.

She took his bearded face in her hands and kissed him again, thirstily, like someone drinking cool water after a long, dry day. After a moment she ran her hands down his arms to his wrists, then lifted his hands to her breasts. He grasped them reflexively. They were soft and yielding, and her nipples swelled under his fingertips.

In the back of his mind he conceived the idea that he was dead. Heaven was not supposed to be like this, he knew, but he hardly cared. His critical faculties had been disengaged for hours. What little capacity he had left for rational thought vanished, and he let his body take charge. He strained upward, pressing his body against hers, drawing strength from her heat and her nakedness. She opened her mouth and thrust her tongue inside his mouth, seeking his tongue, and he responded eagerly.

She pulled away from him briefly, raising her body off his. He watched, dazed, as she pushed up the skirt of his undertunic until it was around his waist, then she straddled his hips. She looked into his eyes, with her all-seeing gaze, as she lowered herself. There was a tantalizing moment when their bodies touched, and she hesitated; then he felt himself enter her. The sensation was so thrilling he felt he might burst with pleasure. She moved her hips, smiling at him and kissing his face.

After a while she closed her eyes and started to pant, and he understood that she was losing control. He watched in delighted fascination. She uttered small rhythmic cries, moving faster and faster, and her ecstasy moved Tom to the depths of his wounded soul, so that he did not know whether he wanted to weep with despair or shout for joy or laugh hysterically; and then an explosion of delight shook them both like trees in a gale, again and again; until at last their passion subsided, and she slumped on his chest.

They lay like that for a long time. The heat of her body warmed him right through. He drifted into a kind of light sleep. It seemed short, and more like daydreaming than real sleep; but when he opened his eyes his mind was clear.

He looked at the beautiful young woman lying on top of him, and he knew immediately that she was not an angel, but the outlaw woman Ellen, whom he had met in this part of the forest on the day the pig was stolen. She felt him stir and opened her eyes, regarding him with an expression of mingled affection and anxiety. He suddenly thought of his children. He rolled Ellen off him gently and sat up. Alfred and Martha lay on the leaves, wrapped in their cloaks, with the sun shining on their sleeping faces. Then the events of the night came back to him in a rush of horror, and he remembered that Agnes was dead, and the baby-his son!-was gone; and he buried his face in his hands.

He heard Ellen give a strange two-tone whistle. He looked up. A figure emerged from the forest, and Tom recognized her peculiar-looking son, Jack, with his dead-white skin and orange hair and bright bird-like blue eyes. Tom got up, rearranging his clothing, and Ellen stood and closed up her cloak.

The boy was carrying something, and he brought it across and showed it to Tom. Tom recognized it. It was the half of his cloak in which he had wrapped the baby before placing it on Agnes’s grave.

Uncomprehending, Tom stared at the boy and then at Ellen. She took his hands in hers, looked into his eyes, and said: “Your baby is alive.”

Tom did not dare to believe her. It would be too wonderful, too happy for this world. “He can’t be,” he said.

“He is.”

Tom began to hope. “Truly?” he said. “Truly?”

She nodded. “Truly. I will take you to him.”

Tom realized she meant it. A flood of relief and happiness washed over him. He fell to his knees on the ground; and then, at last, like the opening of a floodgate, he wept.

V

“Jack heard the baby cry,” Ellen explained. “He was on his way to the river, to a place north of here where you can kill ducks with stones, if you’re a good shot. He didn’t know what to do, so he ran home to fetch me. But while we were on our way back to the spot, we saw a priest, riding a palfrey, carrying the baby.”

Tom said: “I must find him-”

“Don’t panic,” Ellen said. “I know where he is. He took a side turning, quite near the grave; a path that leads to a little monastery hidden in the forest.”

“The baby needs milk.”

“The monks have goats.”

“Thank God,” Tom said fervently.

“I’ll take you there, after you’ve had something to eat,” she said. “But…” She frowned. “Don’t tell your children about the monastery just yet.”

Tom glanced across the clearing. Alfred and Martha slept on. Jack had drifted across to where they lay, and was staring at them in his vacant way. “Why not?”

“I’m not sure… I just think it might be wiser to wait.”

“But your son will tell them.”

She shook her head. “He saw the priest, but I don’t think he’s worked out the rest of it.”

“All right.” Tom felt solemn. “If I’d known you were nearby, you might have saved my Agnes.”

Ellen shook her head, and her dark hair danced around her face. “There’s nothing to be done, except keep the woman warm, and you did that. When a woman is bleeding inside, either it stops, and she gets better, or it doesn’t, and she dies.” Tears came to Tom’s eyes, and Ellen said: “I’m sorry.”

Tom nodded dumbly.

She said: “But the living must take care of the living, and you need hot food and a new coat.” She stood up.

They woke the children. Tom told them that the baby was all right, that Ellen and Jack had seen a priest carrying him; and that Tom and Ellen were going to go looking for the priest later, but first Ellen was going to give them food. They accepted the startling news calmly: nothing could shock them now. Tom was no less bemused. Life was moving too fast for him to take in all the changes. It was like being on the back of a runaway horse: everything happened so quickly that there was no time to react to events, and all he could do was hold on tightly and try to stay sane. Agnes had given birth in the cold night air; the baby had been born miraculously healthy; everything had seemed all right and then Agnes, Tom’s soul mate, had bled to death in his arms, and he had lost his mind; the baby had been doomed, and left for dead; then they had tried to find it, and failed; then Ellen had appeared, and Tom had taken her for an angel, and they had made love as if in a dream; and she had said the baby was alive and well. Would life ever slow down enough to let Tom think about these awful events?

They set off. Tom had always assumed that outlaws lived in squalor, but there was nothing squalid about Ellen, and Tom wondered what her home would be like. She led them on a zigzag course through the forest. There was no path, but she never hesitated as she stepped over streams, ducked low branches, and negotiated a frozen swamp, a mass of shrubbery, and the enormous trunk of a fallen oak. Finally she walked toward a bramble thicket and seemed to vanish into it. Following her, Tom saw that, contrary to his first impression, there was a narrow passageway winding through the thicket. He followed her. The brambles closed over his head and he found himself in semi-darkness. He stood still, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Gradually he realized he was in a cave.

The air was warm. Ahead of him a fire glowed on a hearth of flat stones. The smoke was going straight upward: there was a natural chimney somewhere. On either side of him were animal skins, a wolf and a deer, fixed to the walls of the cave with wooden pegs. A haunch of smoked venison hung from the roof above him. He saw a homemade box full of crab apples, rushlights on ledges, and dry reeds on the floor. At the edge of the fire was a cooking pot, just as there would be in any ordinary household; and, judging by the smell, it contained the same kind of pottage as everyone else ate-vegetables boiled with meat bones and herbs. Tom was astonished. This was a home more comfortable than those of many serfs.

Beyond the fire were two mattresses made of deerskin and stuffed, presumably, with reeds; and neatly rolled on top of each was a wolf fur. Ellen and Jack would sleep there, with the fire between them and the mouth of the cave. At the back of the cave was a formidable collection of weapons and hunting gear: a bow, some arrows, nets, rabbit traps, several wicked daggers, a carefully made wooden lance with its tip sharpened and fire-hardened; and, among all those primitive implements, three books. Tom was flabbergasted: he had never seen books in a house, let alone a cave; books belonged in church.

The boy Jack picked up a wooden bowl, dipped it into the pot, and began to drink. Alfred and Martha watched him hungrily. Ellen gave Tom an apologetic look and said: “Jack, when there are strangers, we give them food first, before we eat.”

The boy stared at her, mystified. “Why?”

“Because it’s a gentle thing to do. Give the children some pottage.”

Jack was not convinced, but he obeyed his mother. Ellen gave some soup to Tom. He sat down on the floor and drank. It tasted meaty, and warmed him from the inside. Ellen put a fur around his shoulders. When he had drunk the juice he fished out the vegetables and meat with his fingers. It was weeks since he had tasted meat. This seemed to be duck-shot by Jack with stones and a sling, presumably.

They ate until the pot was empty; then Alfred and Martha lay down on the rushes. Before they fell asleep, Tom told them that he and Ellen were going to look for the priest, and Ellen said Jack would stay here and take care of them until the parents returned. The two exhausted children nodded assent and closed their eyes.

Tom and Ellen went out, Tom wearing the fur Ellen had given him draped over his shoulders to keep him warm. As soon as they were out of the bramble thicket, Ellen stopped, turned to Tom, pulled his head down to hers, and kissed his mouth.

“I love you,” she said fiercely. “I loved you from the moment I saw you. I always wanted a man who would be strong and gentle, and I thought there was no such thing. Then I saw you. I wanted you. But I could see you loved your wife. My God, how I envied her. I’m sorry she died, truly sorry, because I can see the grief in your eyes, and all the tears waiting to be shed, and it breaks my heart to see you so sad. But now that she’s gone, I want you for myself.”

Tom did not know what to say. It was hard to believe that a woman so beautiful and resourceful and self-sufficient should have fallen in love with him at first sight; harder still to know how he felt. He was devastated by the loss of Agnes-Ellen was right to say that he had unshed tears, he could feel their weight behind his eyes. But he was also consumed by desire for Ellen, with her wonderful hot body and her golden eyes and her shameless lust. He felt dreadfully guilty about wanting Ellen so badly when Agnes was only hours in her grave.

He stared back at her, and once again her eyes saw into his heart, and she said: “Don’t say anything. You don’t have to feel ashamed. I know you loved her. She knew it too, I could tell. You still love her-of course you do. You always will.”

She had told him not to say anything, and in any case he had nothing to say. He was struck dumb by this extraordinary woman. She seemed to make everything all right. Somehow, the fact that she appeared to know everything that was in his heart made him feel better, as if now he had nothing more to be ashamed of. He sighed.

“That’s better,” she said. She took him by the hand, and they walked away from the cave together.

They pushed through the virgin forest for almost a mile, then came to the road. As they walked along, Tom kept looking at Ellen’s face beside him. He recalled that when he first met her he had thought she fell short of being beautiful, because of her strange eyes. Now he could not understand how he had ever felt that. He now saw those astonishing eyes as the perfect expression of her unique self. Now she seemed absolutely perfect, and the only puzzle was why she was with him.

They walked for three or four miles. Tom was still tired but the pottage had given him strength; and although he trusted Ellen completely he was still anxious to see the baby with his own eyes.

When they could see the monastery through the trees, Ellen said: “Let’s not reveal ourselves to the monks at first.”

Tom was mystified. “Why?”

“You abandoned a baby. It counts as murder. Let’s spy on the place from the woods and see what kind of people they are.”

Tom did not think he was going to be in trouble, given the circumstances, but there was no harm in being cautious, so he nodded assent and followed Ellen into the undergrowth. A few moments later they were lying at the edge of the clearing.

It was a very small monastery. Tom had built monasteries, and he guessed this one must be what they called a cell, a branch or outpost of a large priory or abbey. There were only two stone buildings, the chapel and the dormitory. The rest were made of wood and wattle-and-daub: a kitchen, stables, a barn, and a range of smaller agricultural buildings. The place had a clean, well-kept look, and gave the impression that the monks did as much farming as praying.

There were not many people about. “Most of the monks have gone to work,” Ellen said. “They’re building a barn at the top of the hill.” She glanced up at the sky. “They’ll be back around noon for their dinner.”

Tom scanned the clearing. Over to their right, partly concealed by a small herd of tethered goats, he saw two figures. “Look,” he said, pointing. As they studied the two figures he saw something else. “The man sitting down is a priest, and…”

“And he’s holding something in his lap.”

“Let’s go closer.”

They moved through the woods, skirting the clearing, and emerged at a point close to the goats. Tom’s heart was in his mouth as he looked at the priest sitting on a stool. He had a baby in his lap, and the baby was Tom’s. There was a lump in Tom’s throat. It was true, it really was; the baby had lived. He felt like throwing his arms around the priest and hugging him.

There was a young monk with the priest. Looking closely, Tom saw that the youngster was dipping a rag into a pail of milk-goat’s milk, presumably-and then putting the sodden corner of the rag into the baby’s mouth. That was ingenious.

“Well,” Tom said apprehensively, “I’d better go and own up to what I’ve done, and take my son back.”

Ellen looked at him levelly. “Think for a moment, Tom,” she said. “What are you going to do then?”

He was not sure what she was getting at. “Ask the monks for milk,” he said. “They can see I’m poor. They give alms.”

“And then?”

“Well, I hope they’ll give me enough milk to keep him alive for three days, until I get to Winchester.”

“And after that?” she persisted. “How will you feed the baby then?”

“Well, I’ll look for work-”

“You’ve been looking for work since last time I met you, at the end of the summer,” she said. She seemed to be a little angry with Tom, he could not see why. “You’ve no money and no tools,” she went on. “What will happen to the baby if there’s no work in Winchester?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said. He felt hurt that she should speak so harshly to him. “What am I to do-live like you? I can’t shoot ducks with a stone-I’m a mason.”

“You could leave the baby here,” she said.

Tom was thunderstruck. “Leave him?” he said. “When I’ve only just found him?”

“You’d be sure he’d be warm and fed. You wouldn’t have to carry him while you look for work. And when you do find something, you can come back here and fetch the child.”

Tom’s instinct rebelled against the whole idea. “I don’t know,” he said. “What would the monks think of my abandoning the baby?”

“They already know you did that,” she said impatiently. “It’s just a question of whether you confess now or later.”

“Do monks know how to take care of babies?”

“They know as much about it as you do.”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, they’ve worked out how to feed a newborn who can only suck.”

Tom began to see that she was right. Much as he longed to hold the tiny bundle in his arms, he could not deny that the monks were better able to care for the baby than he was. He had no food and no money and no sure prospect of getting work. “Leave him again,” he said sadly. “I suppose I must.” He stayed where he was, gazing across the clearing at the small figure in the priest’s lap. It had dark hair, like Agnes’s hair. Tom had made up his mind, but now he could not tear himself away.

Then a large group of monks appeared on the far side of the clearing, fifteen or twenty of them, carrying axes and saws, and suddenly there was a danger that Tom and Ellen would be seen. They ducked back into the undergrowth. Now Tom could no longer see the baby.

They crept away through the bushes. When they came to the road they broke into a run. They ran for three or four hundred yards, holding hands; then Tom was exhausted. They were at a safe distance, however. They stepped off the road and found a place to rest out of sight.

They sat down on a grassy bank lit by dappled sunlight. Tom looked at Ellen, lying on her back, breathing hard, her cheeks flushed, her lips smiling up at him. Her robe had fallen open at the neck, revealing her throat and the swell of one breast. Suddenly he felt a compulsion to look at her nakedness again, and the desire was much stronger than the guilt he felt. He leaned over to kiss her, then hesitated, because she was so lovely to look at. When he spoke, it was unpremeditated, and his own words took him by surprise. “Ellen,” he said, “will you be my wife?”

Chapter 2

I

PETER OF WAREHAM was a born troublemaker.

He had been transferred to the little cell in the forest from the mother house at Kingsbridge, and it was easy to see why the prior of Kingsbridge had been anxious to get rid of him. A tall, rangy man in his late twenties, he had a powerful intellect and a scornful manner, and he lived in a permanent state of righteous indignation. When he first arrived and started working in the fields he had set a furious pace and then accused others of laziness. However, to his surprise most of the monks had been able to keep up with him, and eventually the younger ones had tired him out. He had then looked for a vice other than idleness, and his second choice had been gluttony.

He began by eating only half his bread and none of his meat. He drank water from streams during the day, diluted his beer, and refused wine. He reprimanded a healthy young monk who asked for more porridge, and reduced to tears a boy who playfully drank another’s wine.

The monks showed little evidence of gluttony, Prior Philip thought as they walked back from the hilltop to the monastery at dinnertime. The youngsters were lean and muscular, and the older men were sunburned and wiry. Not one of them had the pale, soft roundness that came from having plenty to eat and nothing to do. Philip thought all monks should be thin. Fat monks provoked poor men to envy and hatred of God’s servants.

Characteristically, Peter had disguised his accusation as a confession. “I have been guilty of the sin of gluttony,” he had said this morning, when they were taking a break, sitting on the trees they had felled, eating rye bread and drinking beer. “I have disobeyed the Rule of Saint Benedict, which says that monks must not eat meat nor drink wine.” He looked around at the others, his head high and his dark eyes blazing with pride, and he let his gaze rest finally on Philip. “And every one here is guilty of the same sin,” he finished.

It was very sad that Peter should be like this, Philip thought. The man was dedicated to God’s work, and he had a fine mind and great strength of purpose. But he seemed to have a compelling need to feel special and be noticed by others all the time; and this drove him to create scenes. He was a real nuisance, but Philip loved him as much as any of them, for Philip could see, behind the arrogance and the scorn, a troubled soul who did not really believe that anyone could possibly care for him.

Philip had said: “This gives us an opportunity to recall what Saint Benedict said on this topic. Do you remember his exact words, Peter?”

“He says: ‘All but the sick should abstain from meat,’ and then: ‘Wine is not the drink of monks at all,’ ” Peter replied.

Philip nodded. As he had suspected, Peter did not know the rule as well as Philip. “Almost correct, Peter,” he said. “The saint did not refer to meat, but to ‘the flesh of four-footed animals,’ and even so he made exceptions, not just for the sick, but also for the weak. What did he mean by ‘the weak’? Here in our little community, we take the view that men who have been weakened by strenuous work in the fields may need to eat beef now and then to keep up their strength.”

Peter had listened to this in sullen silence, his brow creased with disapproval, his heavy black eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of his large curved nose, his face a mask of suppressed defiance.

Philip had gone on: “On the subject of wine, the saint says: ‘We read that wine is not the drink of monks at all.’ The use of the words we read implies that he does not wholly endorse the proscription. He also says that a pint of wine a day should be sufficient for anyone. And he warns us not to drink to satiety. It is clear, is it not, that he does not expect monks to abstain totally?”

“But he says that frugality should be maintained in everything,” Peter said.

“And you say we are not frugal here?” Philip asked him.

“I do,” he said in a ringing voice.

“ ‘Let those to whom God gives the gift of abstinence know that they shall receive their proper reward,’ ” Philip quoted. “If you feel that the food here is too generous, you may eat less. But remember what else the saint says. He quotes the first epistle to the Corinthians, in which Saint Paul says: ‘Every one has his proper gift from God, one thus, another thus.’ And then the saint tells us: ‘For this reason, the amount of other people’s food cannot be determined without some misgiving.’ Please remember that, Peter, as you fast and meditate upon the sin of gluttony.”

They had gone back to work then, Peter wearing a martyred air. He was not going to be silenced so easily, Philip realized. Of the monks’ three vows, of poverty, chastity and obedience, the one that gave Peter trouble was obedience.

There were ways of dealing with disobedient monks, of course: solitary confinement, bread and water, flogging, and ultimately excommunication and expulsion from the house. Philip did not normally hesitate to use such punishments, especially when a monk seemed to be testing Philip’s authority. Consequently he was thought of as a tough disciplinarian. But in fact he hated meting out punishment-it brought disharmony into the monastic brotherhood and made everyone unhappy. Anyway, in the case of Peter, punishment would do no good at all-indeed, it would serve to make the man more prideful and unforgiving. Philip had to find a way to control Peter and soften him at the same time. It would not be easy. But then, he thought, if everything were easy, men would not need God’s guidance.

They reached the clearing in the forest where the monastery was. As they walked across the open space, Philip saw Brother John waving energetically at them from the goat pen. He was called Johnny Eightpence, and he was a little soft in the head. Philip wondered what he was excited about now. With Johnny was a man in priest’s robes. He looked vaguely familiar, and Philip hurried toward him.

The priest was a short, compact man in his middle twenties, with close-cropped black hair and bright blue eyes that twinkled with alert intelligence. Looking at him was for Philip like looking in a mirror. The priest, he realized with a shock, was his younger brother Francis.

And Francis was holding a newborn baby.

Philip did not know which was more surprising, Francis or the baby. The monks all crowded around. Francis stood up and handed the baby to Johnny; then Philip embraced him. “What are you doing here?” Philip said delightedly. “And why have you got a baby?”

“I’ll tell you later why I’m here,” Francis said. “As for the baby, I found him in the woods, all alone, lying near a blazing fire.” Francis stopped.

“And…” Philip prompted him.

Francis shrugged. “I can’t tell you any more than that, because that’s all I know. I was hoping to get here last night, but I didn’t quite make it, so I spent the night in a verderer’s hut. I left at dawn this morning, and I was riding along the road when I heard a baby cry. A moment later I saw it. I picked it up and brought it here. That’s the whole tale.”

Philip looked incredulously at the tiny bundle in Johnny’s arms. He reached out a hand tentatively, and lifted a corner of the blanket. He saw a wrinkled pink face, an open toothless mouth and a little bald head-a miniature of an aging monk. He unwrapped the bundle a little more and saw tiny fragile shoulders, waving arms, and tight-clenched fists. He looked closely at the stump of the umbilical cord which hung from the baby’s navel. It was faintly disgusting. Was this natural? Philip wondered. It looked like a wound that was healing well, and would be best left alone. He pulled the blanket down farther still. “A boy,” he said with an embarrassed cough, and covered it up again. One of the novices giggled.

Philip suddenly felt helpless. What on earth am I to do with it? he thought. Feed it?

The baby cried, and the sound tugged at his heartstrings like a well-loved hymn. “It’s hungry,” he said, and he thought in the back of his mind: How did I know that?

One of the monks said: “We can’t feed it.”

Philip was about to say: Why not? Then he realized why not: there were no women for miles.

However, Johnny had already solved that problem, Philip now saw. Johnny sat down on the stool with the baby in his lap. He had in his hand a towel with one corner twisted into a spiral. He dipped the corner into a pail of milk, let the towel soak up some of the liquid, then put the cloth to the baby’s mouth. The baby opened its mouth, sucked on the towel, and swallowed.

Philip felt like cheering. “That was clever, Johnny,” he said in surprise.

Johnny grinned. “I’ve done it before, when a nanny goat died before her kid was weaned,” he said proudly.

All the monks watched intently as Johnny repeated the simple action of dipping the towel and letting the baby suck. As he touched the towel to the baby’s lips, some of the monks would open their own mouths, Philip saw with amusement. It was a slow way of feeding the baby, but no doubt feeding babies was a slow business anyway.

Peter of Wareham, who had succumbed to the general fascination with the baby and consequently had forgotten to be critical of anything for some time, now recovered himself and said: “It would be less trouble to find the child’s mother.”

Francis said: “I doubt it. The mother is probably unmarried, and was overtaken in moral transgression. I imagine she is young. Perhaps she managed to keep her pregnancy secret; then, when her time was near, she came out into the forest, and built a fire; gave birth alone, then abandoned the child to the wolves and went back to wherever she came from. She will make sure she can’t be found.”

The baby had fallen asleep. On impulse, Philip took it from Johnny. He held it to his chest, supporting it with his hand, and rocked it. “The poor thing,” he said. “The poor, poor thing.” The urge to protect and care for the baby suffused him like a flush. He noticed that the monks were staring at him, astonished at his sudden display of tenderness. They had never seen him caress anyone, of course, for physical affection was strictly prohibited in the monastery. Obviously they had thought him incapable of it. Well, he thought, they know the truth now.

Peter of Wareham spoke again. “We’ll have to take the child to Winchester, then, and try to find a foster mother.”

If this had been said by anyone else, Philip might not have been so quick to contradict it; but Peter said it, and Philip spoke hastily, and his life was never quite the same afterward. “We’re not going to give him to a foster mother,” he said decisively. “This child is a gift from God.” He looked around at them all. The monks gazed back at him wide-eyed, hanging on his words. “We’ll take care of him ourselves,” he went on. “We’ll feed him, and teach him, and bring him up in the ways of God. Then, when he is a man, he will become a monk himself, and that way we will give him back to God.”

There was a stunned silence.

Then Peter said angrily: “It’s impossible! A baby cannot be brought up by monks!”

Philip caught his brother’s eye, and they both smiled, sharing memories. When Philip spoke again, his voice was heavy with the weight of the past. “Impossible? No, Peter. On the contrary, I’m quite sure it can be done, and so is my brother. We know from experience. Don’t we, Francis?”

On the day Philip now thought of as the last day, his father had come home wounded.

Philip had been the first to see him, riding up the twisting hillside path to the little hamlet in mountainous North Wales. Six-year-old Philip ran out to meet him, as usual; but this time Da did not swing his little boy up onto the horse in front of him. He was riding slowly, slumped in the saddle, holding the reins in his right hand, his left arm hanging limp. His face was pale and his clothes were splashed with blood. Philip was at once intrigued and scared, for he had never seen his father appear weak.

Da said: “Fetch your mother.”

When they got him into the house, Mam cut off his shirt. Philip was horrified: the sight of his thrifty mother willfully ruining good clothes was more shocking than the blood. “Don’t worry about me now,” Da had said, but his normal bark had weakened to a murmur and nobody took any notice-another shocking event, for normally his word was law. “Leave me, and get everyone up to the monastery,” he said. “The damned English will be here soon.” There was a monastery with a church at the top of the hill, but Philip could not understand why they should go there when it was not even Sunday. Mam said: “If you lose any more blood you won’t be able to go anywhere, ever.” But Auntie Gwen said she would raise the alarm, and went out.

Years later, when he thought about the events that followed, Philip realized that at this moment everyone had forgotten about him and his four-year-old brother, Francis, and nobody thought to take them to the safety of the monastery. People were thinking of their own children, and assumed that Philip and Francis were all right because they were with their parents; but Da was bleeding to death and Mam was trying to save him, and so it happened that the English caught all four of them.

Nothing in Philip’s short experience of life had prepared him for the appearance of the two men-at-arms as they kicked the door open and burst into the one-room house. In other circumstances they would not have been frightening, for they were the kind of big, clumsy adolescents who mocked old women and abused Jews and got into fistfights outside alehouses at midnight. But now (Philip understood years later, when at last he was able to think objectively about that day) the two young men were possessed by bloodlust. They had been in a battle, they had heard men scream in agony and seen friends fall down dead, and they had been scared, literally, out of their wits. But they had won the battle and survived, and now they were in hot pursuit of their enemies, and nothing could satisfy them but more blood, more screaming, more wounds and more death; and all this was written on their twisted faces as they came into the room like foxes into a henhouse.

They moved very fast, but Philip could remember each step forever afterward, as if it had all taken a very long time. Both men wore light armor, just a short vest of chain mail and a leather helmet with iron bands. Both had their swords drawn. One was ugly, with a big bent nose and a squint, and his teeth were bared in a dreadful ape-like grin. The other had a luxuriant beard that was matted with blood-someone else’s, presumably, for he did not seem to be wounded. Both men scanned the room without breaking stride. Their merciless, calculating eyes dismissed Philip and Francis, noted Mam, and focused on Da. They were almost upon him before anyone else could move.

Mam had been bending over him, tying a bandage to his left arm. She straightened up and turned on the intruders, her eyes blazing with hopeless courage. Da sprang to his feet and got his good hand to the hilt of his sword. Philip let out a cry of terror.

The ugly man raised his sword above his head and brought it down hilt-first on Mam’s head, then pushed her aside without stabbing her, probably because he did not want to risk getting his blade stuck in a body while Da was still alive. Philip figured that out years later: at the time he just ran to his mother, not understanding that she could no longer protect him. Mam stumbled, stunned, and the ugly man went by her, raising his sword again. Philip clung to his mother’s skirts as she staggered, dazed; but he could not help looking at his father.

Da got his weapon clear of its scabbard and raised it defensively. The ugly man struck downward and the two blades clashed, ringing like a bell. Like all small boys, Philip thought his father was invincible; and this was the moment when he learned the truth. Da was weak from loss of blood. When the two swords met, his dropped; and the attacker lifted his blade just a little and struck again quickly. The blow landed where the big muscles of Da’s neck grew out of his broad shoulders. Philip began to scream when he saw the sharp blade slice into his father’s body. The ugly man drew his arm back for a stab, and thrust the point of the sword into Da’s belly.

Paralyzed with terror, Philip looked up at his mother. His eyes met hers just as the other man, the bearded one, struck her down. She fell to the floor beside Philip with blood streaming from a head wound. The bearded man changed his grip on his sword, reversing it so that it pointed downward and holding it in both hands; then he raised it high, almost like a man about to stab himself, and brought it down hard. There was a sickening crack of breaking bone as the point entered Mam’s chest. The blade went in deep; so deep (Philip noted, even then when he was consumed by blind hysterical fear) that it must have come through her back and stuck in the ground, fixing her to the floor like a nail.

Philip looked wildly for his father again. He saw him slump forward over the ugly man’s sword and spew out a huge gout of blood. His assailant stepped back and jerked at the sword, trying to disengage it. Da stumbled another step and stayed with him. The ugly man gave a cry of rage and twisted his sword in Da’s belly. This time it came out, Da fell to the floor and his hands went to his open abdomen, as if to cover the gaping wound. Philip had always imagined people’s insides to be more or less solid, and he was mystified and nauseated by the ugly tubes and organs that were falling out of his father. The attacker lifted his sword high, point downward, over Da’s body, as the bearded man had over Mam, and delivered the final blow in the same way.

The two Englishmen looked at one another, and quite unexpectedly Philip read relief on their faces. Together, they turned and looked at him and Francis. One nodded and the other shrugged, and Philip realized they were going to kill him and his brother by cutting them open with those sharp swords, and when he realized how much it was going to hurt, the terror boiled up inside him until he felt as if his head would burst.

The man with blood in his beard stooped swiftly and picked Francis up by one ankle. He held him upside-down in the air while the little boy screamed for his mother, not understanding that she was dead. The ugly man pulled his sword out of Da’s body and brought his arm back ready to stab Francis through the heart.

The blow was never struck. A commanding voice rang out, and the two men froze. The screaming stopped, and Philip realized it was he who had been doing it. He looked at the door and saw Abbot Peter, standing there in his homespun robe, with the wrath of God in his eyes, holding a wooden cross in his hand like a sword.

When Philip relived that day in his nightmares, and woke up sweating and screaming in the dark, he would always be able to calm himself, and eventually relax into sleep again, by bringing to mind that final tableau, and the way the screaming and the wounds had been swept aside by the unarmed man with the cross.

Abbot Peter spoke again. Philip did not understand the language he used-it was English, of course-but the meaning was clear, for the two men looked ashamed, and the bearded one put Francis down quite gently. Still talking, the monk strode confidently into the room. The men-at-arms backed off a step, almost as if they were afraid of him-they with their swords and armor, and him with a wool robe and a cross! He turned his back on them, a gesture of contempt, and crouched to speak to Philip. His voice was matter-of-fact. “What’s your name?”

“Philip.”

“Ah, yes, I remember. And your brother’s?”

“Francis.”

“That’s right.” The abbot looked at the bleeding bodies on the earth floor. “That’s your Mam, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Philip, and he felt panic come over him as he pointed to the mutilated body of his father and said: “And that’s my Da!”

“I know,” the monk said soothingly. “You mustn’t scream anymore, you must answer my questions. Do you understand that they’re dead?”

“I don’t know,” Philip said miserably. He knew what it meant when animals died, but how could that happen to Mam and Da?

Abbot Peter said: “It’s like going to sleep.”

“But their eyes are open!” Philip yelled.

“Hush. We’d better close them, then.”

“Yes,” Philip said. He felt as if that would resolve something.

Abbot Peter stood up, took Philip and Francis by the hand, and led them across the floor to their father’s body. He knelt down and took Philip’s right hand in his. “I’ll show you how,” he said. He moved Philip’s hand over his father’s face, but suddenly Philip was afraid to touch his father, because the body looked so strange, pale and slack and hideously wounded, and he snatched his hand away. Then he looked anxiously at Abbot Peter-a man no one disobeyed-but the abbot was not angry with him. “Come,” he said gently, and took Philip’s hand again. This time Philip did not resist. Holding Philip’s forefinger between his own thumb and finger, the monk made the boy touch his father’s eyelid and bring it down until it covered the dreadfully staring eyeball. Then the abbot released Philip’s hand and said: “Close his other eye.” Unaided now, Philip reached out, touched his father’s eyelid, and closed it. Then he felt better.

Abbot Peter said: “Shall we close your Mam’s eyes, too?”

“Yes.”

They knelt beside her body. The abbot wiped blood off her face with his sleeve. Philip said: “What about Francis?”

“Perhaps he should help, too,” said the abbot.

“Do what I did, Francis,” Philip said to his brother. “Close Mam’s eyes, like I closed Da’s, so she can sleep.”

“Are they asleep?” said Francis.

“No, but it’s like sleeping,” Philip said authoritatively, “so she should have her eyes shut.”

“All right, then,” said Francis, and without hesitation he reached out a chubby hand and carefully closed his mother’s eyes.

Then the abbot picked them both up, one in each arm, and without another glance at the men-at-arms he carried them out of the house and all the way up the steep hillside path to the sanctuary of the monastery.

He fed them in the monastery kitchen; then, so that they should not be left idle with their thoughts, he told them to help the cook prepare the monks’ supper. On the following day he took them to see their parents’ bodies, washed and dressed and with the wounds cleaned and repaired and partly concealed, lying in coffins side by side in the nave of the church. There too were several of their relatives, for not all the villagers had made it to the monastery in time to escape the invading army. Abbot Peter took them to the funeral, and made sure they watched the two coffins being lowered into the single grave. When Philip cried, Francis cried too. Someone hushed them, but Abbot Peter said: “Let them weep.” Only after that, when they had taken to their hearts the knowledge that their parents had really gone and were never coming back, did he at last talk about the future.

Among their relatives there was not a single family left entire: in every case, either the father or the mother had been killed. There were no relations to look after the boys. That left two options. They could be given, or even sold, to a farmer who would use them as slave labor until they grew old enough and big enough to run away. Or they could be given to God.

It was not unknown for small boys to enter a monastery. The usual age was about eleven, and the lower limit around five, for the monks were not set up to cope with babies. Sometimes the boys were orphans, sometimes they had lost just one parent, and sometimes their parents had too many sons. Normally the family would give the monastery a substantial gift along with the child-a farm, a church or even a whole village. In cases of direst poverty the gift might be waived. However, Philip’s father had left a modest hill farm, so the boys were not a charity case. Abbot Peter proposed that the monastery should take over the boys and the farm; the surviving relatives agreed; and the deal was sanctioned by the Prince of Gwynedd, Gruffyd ap Cynan, who was temporarily humbled but not permanently deposed by the invading army of King Henry, which had killed Philip’s father.

The abbot knew a lot about grief, but for all his wisdom he was not prepared for what happened to Philip. After a year or so, when grief had seemed to pass, and the two boys had settled into the life of the monastery, Philip became possessed by a kind of implacable rage. Conditions in the hilltop community were not bad enough to justify his anger: there was food, and clothing, and a fire in the dormitory in winter, and even a little love and affection; and the strict discipline and tedious rituals at least made for order and stability; but Philip began to act as if he had been unjustly imprisoned. He disobeyed orders, subverted the authority of monastic officers at every opportunity, stole food, broke eggs, loosed horses, mocked the infirm and insulted his elders. The one offense he stopped short of was sacrilege, and because of that the abbot forgave him everything else. And in the end he simply grew out of it. One Christmas he looked back over the past twelve months and realized that he had not spent a single night in the punishment cell all year.

There was no single reason for his return to normality. The fact that he got interested in his lessons probably helped. The mathematical theory of music fascinated him, and even the way Latin verbs were conjugated had a certain satisfying logic. He had been put to work helping the cellarer, the monk who had to provide all the supplies the monastery needed, from sandals to seed; and that, too, compelled his interest. He developed a hero-worshiping attachment for Brother John, a handsome, muscular young monk who seemed the epitome of learning, holiness, wisdom and kindness. Either in imitation of John, or from his own inclination, or both, he began to find some kind of solace in the daily round of prayers and services. And so he slipped into adolescence with the organization of the monastery on his mind and the holy harmonies in his ears.

In their studies both Philip and Francis were far ahead of any boys of their own age that they knew, but they assumed this was because they lived in the monastery and had been educated more intensively. At this stage they did not realize they were exceptional. Even when they began to do much of the teaching in the little school, and take their own lessons from the abbot himself instead of the pedantic old novice master, they thought they were ahead only because they had got such an early start.

When he looked back on his youth, it seemed to Philip that there had been a brief Golden Age, a year or perhaps less, between the end of his rebellion and the onslaught of fleshly lust. Then came the agonizing era of impure thoughts, nocturnal emissions, dreadfully embarrassing sessions with his confessor (who was the abbot), endless penances and mortification of the flesh with scourges.

Lust never completely ceased to afflict him, but it did eventually become less important, so that it bothered him only now and again, on the rare occasions when his mind and body were idle; like an old injury that still hurts in wet weather.

Francis had fought this battle a little later, and although he had not confided to Philip on the subject, Philip had the impression that Francis had struggled less bravely against evil desires, and had taken his defeats rather too cheerfully. However, the main thing was that they had both made their peace with the passions that were the greatest enemy of the monastic life.

As Philip worked with the cellarer, so Francis worked for the prior, Abbot Peter’s deputy. When the cellarer died, Philip was twenty-one, and despite his youth he took over the job. And when Francis reached the age of twenty-one the abbot proposed to create a new post for him, that of sub-prior. But this proposal precipitated a crisis. Francis begged to be excused the responsibility, and while he was at it he asked to be released from the monastery. He wanted to be ordained as a priest and serve God in the world outside.

Philip was astonished and horrified. The idea that one of them might leave the monastery had never occurred to him, and now it was as disconcerting as if he had learned that he was the heir to the throne. But, after much hand-wringing and heart-searching, it happened, and Francis went off into the world, before long to become chaplain to the earl of Gloucester.

Before this happened Philip had seen his future very simply, when he had thought of it at all: he would be a monk, live a humble and obedient life, and in his old age, perhaps, become abbot, and strive to live up to the example set by Peter. Now he wondered whether God intended some other destiny for him. He remembered the parable of the talents: God expected his servants to increase his kingdom, not merely to conserve it. With some trepidation he shared these thoughts with Abbot Peter, fully aware that he risked a reprimand for being puffed up with pride.

To his surprise, the abbot said: “I’ve been wondering how long it would take you to realize this. Of course you’re destined for something else. Born within sight of a monastery, orphaned at six, raised by monks, made cellarer at twenty-one-God does not take that much trouble over the formation of a man who is going to spend his life in a small monastery on a bleak hilltop in a remote mountain principality. There isn’t enough scope for you here. You must leave this place.”

Philip was stunned by this, but before leaving the abbot a question occurred to him, and he blurted it out. “If this monastery is so unimportant, why did God put you here?”

Abbot Peter smiled. “Perhaps to take care of you.”

Later that year the abbot went to Canterbury to pay his respects to the archbishop, and when he came back he said to Philip: “I have given you to the prior of Kingsbridge.”

Philip was daunted. Kingsbridge Priory was one of the biggest and most important monasteries in the land. It was a cathedral priory: its church was a cathedral church, the seat of a bishop, and the bishop was technically the abbot of the monastery, although in practice it was ruled by its prior.

“Prior James is an old friend,” Abbot Peter told Philip. “In the last few years he has become rather dispirited, I don’t know why. Anyway, Kingsbridge needs young blood. In particular, James is having trouble with one of his cells, a little place in the forest, and he desperately needs a completely reliable man to take over the cell and set it back on the path of godliness.”

“So I’m to be prior of the cell?” Philip said in surprise.

The abbot nodded. “And if we’re right in thinking that God has much work for you to do, we can expect that he will help you to resolve whatever problems this cell has.”

“And if we’re wrong?”

“You can always come back here and be my cellarer. But we’re not wrong, my son; you’ll see.”

His farewells were tearful. He had spent seventeen years here, and the monks were his family, more real to him now than the parents who had been savagely taken from him. He would probably never see these monks again, and he was sad.

Kingsbridge overawed him at first. The walled monastery was bigger than many villages; the cathedral church was a vast, gloomy cavern; the prior’s house a small palace. But once he got used to its sheer size he saw the signs of that dispiritedness that Abbot Peter had noted in his old friend the prior. The church was visibly in need of major repairs; the prayers were gabbled hastily; the rules of silence were breached constantly; and there were too many servants, more servants than monks. Philip quickly got over being awed and became angry. He wanted to take Prior James by the throat and shake him and say: “How dare you do this? How dare you give hasty prayers to God? How dare you allow novices to play at dice and monks to keep pet dogs? How dare you live in a palace, surrounded by servants, while God’s church is falling into ruin?” He said nothing of the kind, of course. He had a brief, formal interview with Prior James, a tall, thin, stooped man who seemed to have the weight of the world’s troubles on his rounded shoulders. Then he talked to the sub-prior, Remigius. At the start of the conversation Philip hinted that he thought the priory might be overdue for some changes, expecting that its deputy leader would agree wholeheartedly; but Remigius looked down his nose at Philip, as if to say Who do you think you are?, and changed the subject.

Remigius said that the cell of St-John-in-the-Forest had been established three years earlier with some land and property, and it should have been self-supporting by now, but in fact it was still dependent on supplies from the mother house. There were other problems: a deacon who happened to spend the night there had criticized the conduct of services; travelers alleged they had been robbed by monks in that area; there were rumors of impurity… The fact that Remigius was unable or unwilling to give exact details was just another sign of the indolent way the whole organization was being run. Philip left trembling with rage. A monastery was supposed to glorify God. If it failed to do that, it was nothing. Kingsbridge Priory was worse than nothing. It shamed God by its slothfulness. But Philip could do nothing about it. The best he could hope for was to reform one of Kingsbridge’s cells.

On the two-day ride to the cell in the forest he mulled over the scanty information he had been given and prayerfully considered his approach. He would do well to tread softly at first, he decided. Normally a prior was elected by the monks; but in the case of a cell, which was just an outpost of the main monastery, the prior of the mother house might simply choose. So Philip had not been asked to submit himself for election, and that meant he could not count on the goodwill of the monks. He would have to feel his way cautiously. He needed to learn more about the problems afflicting the place before he could decide how best to solve them. He had to win the respect and trust of the monks, especially those who were older than he and who might resent his position. Then, when his information was complete and his leadership secure, he would take firm action.

It did not work out that way.

The light was fading on the second day when he reined in his pony on the edge of a clearing and inspected his new home. There was only one stone building, the chapel, in those days. (Philip had built the new stone dormitory the following year.) The other, wooden buildings looked ramshackle. Philip disapproved: everything made by monks was supposed to last, and that meant pigsties as well as cathedrals. As he looked around he noted further evidence of the kind of laxity that had shocked him at Kingsbridge: there were no fences, the hay was spilling out of the barn door, and there was a dunghill next to the fishpond. He felt his face go tense with suppressed reproof, and he said to himself: Softly, softly.

At first he saw no one. This was as it should be, for it was time for vespers and most of the monks would be in the chapel. He touched the pony’s flank with his whip and crossed the clearing to a hut that looked like a stable. A youth with straw in his hair and a vacant look on his face popped his head over the door and stared at Philip in surprise.

“What’s your name?” Philip said, and then, after a moment’s shyness, he added: “My son.”

“They call me Johnny Eightpence,” the youngster said.

Philip dismounted and handed him the reins. “Well, Johnny Eightpence, you can unsaddle my horse.”

“Yes, Father.” He looped the reins over a rail and moved away.

“Where are you going?” Philip said sharply.

“To tell the brothers that a stranger is here.”

“You must practice obedience, Johnny. Unsaddle my horse. I will tell the brothers that I’m here.”

“Yes, Father.” Looking frightened, Johnny bent to his task.

Philip looked around. In the middle of the clearing was a long building like a great hall. Near it was a small round building with smoke rising from a hole in its roof. That would be the kitchen. He decided to see what was for supper. In strict monasteries only one meal was served each day, dinner at noon; but this was evidently not a strict establishment, and there would be a light supper after vespers, some bread with cheese or salt fish, or perhaps a bowl of barley broth made with herbs. However, as he approached the kitchen he smelled the unmistakable, mouth-watering aroma of roasting meat. He stopped, frowning, then went in.

Two monks and a boy were sitting around the central hearth. As Philip watched, one of the monks passed a jug to the other, who drank from it. The boy was turning a spit, and on the spit was a small pig.

They looked up in surprise as Philip stepped into the light. Without speaking, he took the jug from the monk and sniffed it. Then he said: “Why are you drinking wine?”

“Because it makes my heart glad, stranger,” said the monk. “Have some-drink deep.”

Clearly they had not been warned to expect their new prior. Equally clearly they had no fear of the consequences if a passing monk should report their behavior to Kingsbridge. Philip had an urge to break the wine jug over the man’s head, but he took a deep breath and spoke mildly. “Poor men’s children go hungry to provide meat and drink for us,” he said. “This is done for the glory of God, not to make our hearts glad. No more wine for you tonight.” He turned away, carrying the jug.

As he walked out he heard the monk say: “Who do you think you are?” He made no reply. They would find out soon enough.

He left the jug on the ground outside the kitchen and walked across the clearing toward the chapel, clenching and unclenching his fists, trying to control his anger. Don’t be precipitate, he told himself. Be cautious. Take your time.

He paused for a moment in the little porch of the chapel, calming himself, then softly pushed the big oak door and went silently in.

A dozen or so monks and a few novices stood with their backs to him in ragged rows. Facing them was the sacrist, reading from an open book. He spoke the service rapidly and the monks muttered the responses perfunctorily. Three candles of uneven length sputtered on a dirty altarcloth.

At the back, two young monks were holding a conversation, ignoring the service and discussing something in an animated fashion. As Philip drew level, one said something funny, and the other laughed aloud, drowning the gabbled words of the sacrist. This was the last straw for Philip, and all thought of treading softly disappeared from his mind. He opened his mouth and shouted at the top of his voice: “BE SILENT!”

The laughter was cut off. The sacrist stopped reading. The chapel fell silent, and the monks turned around and stared at Philip.

He reached out to the monk who had laughed and grabbed him by the ear. He was about Philip’s age, and taller, but he was too surprised to resist as Philip pulled his head down. “On your knees!” Philip yelled. For a moment it looked as if the monk might try to struggle free; but he knew he was in the wrong, and, as Philip had anticipated, his resistance was sapped by his guilty conscience; and when Philip tugged harder on his ear the young man knelt.

“All of you,” Philip commanded. “On your knees!”

They had all taken vows of obedience, and the scandalous indiscipline under which they had evidently been living recently was not enough to erase the habit of years. Half the monks and all the novices knelt.

“You’ve all broken your vows,” Philip said, letting his contempt show. “You’re blasphemers, every one.” He looked around, meeting their eyes. “Your repentance begins now,” he said finally.

Slowly they knelt, one by one, until only the sacrist was left standing. He was a fleshy, sleepy-eyed man about twenty years older than Philip. Philip approached him, stepping around the kneeling monks. “Give me the book,” he said.

The sacrist stared defiantly back and said nothing.

Philip reached out and lightly grasped the big volume. The sacrist tightened his grip. Philip hesitated. He had spent two days deciding to be cautious and move slowly, yet here he was, with the dust of the road still on his feet, risking everything in a stand-up confrontation with a man he knew nothing about. “Give me the book, and get down on your knees,” he repeated.

There was the hint of a sneer on the sacrist’s face. “Who are you?” he said.

Philip hesitated again. It was obvious that he was a monk, from his robes and his haircut; and they all must have guessed, from his behavior, that he was in a position of authority; but it was not yet clear whether his rank placed him over the sacrist. All he had to say was I am your new prior, but he did not want to. Suddenly it seemed very important that he should prevail by sheer weight of moral authority.

The sacrist sensed his uncertainty and took advantage of it. “Tell us all, please,” he said with mock courtesy. “Who is it that commands us to kneel in his presence?”

All hesitation left Philip in a rush, and he thought: God is with me, so what am I afraid of? He took a deep breath, and his words came out in a roar that echoed from the paved floor to the stone-vaulted ceiling. “It is God who commands you to kneel in his presence!” he thundered.

The sacrist looked a fraction less confident. Philip seized his chance and snatched the book. The sacrist had lost all authority now, and at last, reluctantly, he knelt.

Hiding his relief, Philip looked around at them all and said: “I am your new prior.”

He made them remain kneeling while he read the service. It took a long time, because he made them repeat the responses again and again until they could speak them in perfect unison. Then he led them in silence out of the chapel and across the clearing to the refectory. He sent the roast pork back to the kitchen and ordered bread and weak beer, and he nominated a monk to read aloud while they ate. As soon as they had finished he led them, still in silence, to the dormitory.

He ordered the prior’s bedding brought in from the separate prior’s house: he would sleep in the same room as the monks. It was the simplest and most effective way to prevent sins of impurity.

He did not sleep at all the first night, but sat up with a candle, praying silently, until it was midnight and time to wake the monks for matins. He went through that service quickly, to let them know he was not completely merciless. They went back to bed, but Philip did not sleep.

He went out at dawn, before they woke, and looked around, thinking about the day ahead. One of the fields had recently been reclaimed from the forest, and right in the middle of it was the huge stump of what must have been a massive oak tree. That gave him an idea.

After the service of prime, and breakfast, he took them all out into the field with ropes and axes, and they spent the morning uprooting the enormous stump, half of them heaving on the ropes while the other half attacked the roots with axes, all saying “He-eeeave” together. When the stump finally came up, Philip gave them all beer, bread, and a slice of the pork he had denied them at supper.

That was not the end of the problems, but it was the beginning of solutions. From the start he refused to ask the mother house for anything but grain for bread and candles for the chapel. The knowledge that they would get no meat other than what they raised or trapped themselves turned the monks into meticulous livestock husbandmen and bird-snarers; and whereas they had previously looked upon the services as a way of escaping work, they now were glad when Philip cut down the hours spent in chapel so that they could have more time in the fields.

After two years they were self-sufficient, and after another two they were supplying Kingsbridge Priory with meat, game, and a cheese made from goat’s milk which became a coveted delicacy. The cell prospered, the services were irreproachable, and the brothers were healthy and happy.

Philip would have been content-but the mother house, Kingsbridge Priory, was going from bad to worse.

It should have been one of the leading religious centers in the kingdom, bustling with activity, its library visited by foreign scholars, its prior consulted by barons, its shrines attracting pilgrims from all over the country, its hospitality renowned by the nobility, its charity famous among the poor. But the church was crumbling, half the monastic buildings were empty, and the priory was in debt to moneylenders. Philip went to Kingsbridge at least once a year, and each time he came back seething with anger at the way in which wealth, which had been given by devout worshipers and increased by dedicated monks, was being dissipated carelessly like the inheritance of the prodigal son.

Part of the problem was the location of the priory. Kingsbridge was a small village on a back road that led nowhere. Since the time of the first King William-who had been called the Conqueror, or the Bastard, depending on who was speaking-most cathedrals had been transferred to large towns; but Kingsbridge had escaped this shake-up. However, that was not an insuperable problem, in Philip’s view: a busy monastery with a cathedral church should be a town in itself.

The real trouble was the lethargy of old Prior James. With a limp hand on the tiller, the ship was blown about at hazard and went nowhere.

And, to Philip’s bitter regret, Kingsbridge Priory would continue to decline while Prior James was still alive.

They wrapped the baby in clean linen and laid him in a large breadbasket for a cradle. With his tiny belly full of goat’s milk he fell asleep. Philip put Johnny Eightpence in charge of him, for despite being somewhat half-witted, Johnny had a gentle touch with creatures that were small and frail.

Philip was agog to know what had brought Francis to the monastery. He dropped hints during dinner, but Francis did not respond, and Philip had to suppress his curiosity.

After dinner it was study hour. They had no proper cloisters here, but the monks could sit in the porch of the chapel and read, or walk up and down the clearing. They were allowed to go into the kitchen from time to time to warm themselves by the fire, as was the custom. Philip and Francis walked around the edge of the clearing, side by side, as they had often walked in the cloisters at the monastery in Wales; and Francis began to speak.

“King Henry has always treated the Church as if it were a subordinate part of his kingdom,” he began. “He has issued orders to bishops, imposed taxes, and prevented the direct exercise of papal authority.”

“I know,” Philip said. “So what?”

“King Henry is dead.”

Philip stopped in his tracks. He had not expected that.

Francis went on: “He died at his hunting lodge at Lyons-la-Forêt, in Normandy, after a meal of lampreys, which he loved, although they always disagreed with him.”

“When?”

“Today is the first day of the year, so it was a month ago exactly.”

Philip was quite shocked. Henry had been king since before Philip was born. He had never lived through the death of a king, but he knew it meant trouble, and possibly war. “What happens now?” he said anxiously.

They resumed walking. Francis said: “The problem is that the king’s heir was killed at sea, many years ago-you may remember it.”

“I do.” Philip had been twelve years old. It was the first event of national importance to penetrate his boyish consciousness, and it had made him aware of the world outside the monastery. The king’s son had died in the wreck of a vessel called the White Ship, just off Cherbourg. Abbot Peter, who told young Philip all this, had been worried that war and anarchy would follow the death of the heir; but in the event, King Henry kept control, and life went on undisturbed for Philip and Francis.

“The king had many other children, of course,” Francis went on. “At least twenty of them, including my own lord, Earl Robert of Gloucester; but as you know, they are all bastards. Despite his rampant fecundity he managed to father only one other legitimate child-and that was a girl, Maud. A bastard can’t inherit the throne, but a woman is almost as bad.”

“Didn’t King Henry nominate an heir?” Philip said.

“Yes, he chose Maud. She has a son, also called Henry. It was the old king’s dearest wish that his grandson should inherit the throne. But the boy is not yet three years old. So the king made the barons swear fealty to Maud.”

Philip was puzzled. “If the king made Maud his heir, and the barons have already sworn loyalty to her… what’s the problem?”

“Court life is never that simple,” Francis said. “Maud is married to Geoffrey of Anjou. Anjou and Normandy have been rivals for generations. Our Norman overlords hate the Angevins. Frankly, it was very optimistic of the old king to expect that a crowd of Anglo-Norman barons would hand over England and Normandy to an Angevin, oath or no oath.”

Philip was somewhat bemused by his younger brother’s knowing and disrespectful attitude to the most important men in the land. “How do you know all this?”

“The barons gathered at Le Neubourg to decide what to do. Needless to say, my own lord, Earl Robert, was there; and I went with him to write his letters.”

Philip looked quizzically at his brother, thinking how different Francis’s life must be from his own. Then he remembered something. “Earl Robert is the eldest son of the old king, isn’t he?”

“Yes, and he is very ambitious; but he accepts the general view, that bastards have to conquer their kingdoms, not inherit them.”

“Who else is there?”

“King Henry had three nephews, the sons of his sister. The eldest is Theobald of Blois; then there is Stephen, much loved by the dead king and endowed by him with vast estates here in England; and the baby of the family, Henry, whom you know as the bishop of Winchester. The barons favored the eldest, Theobald, according to a tradition which you probably think perfectly reasonable.” Francis looked at Philip and grinned.

“Perfectly reasonable,” Philip said with a smile. “So Theobald is our new king?”

Francis shook his head. “He thought he was, but we younger sons have a way of pushing ourselves to the fore.” They reached the farthest corner of the clearing and turned. “While Theobald was graciously accepting the homage of the barons, Stephen crossed the Channel to England and dashed to Winchester, and with the help of baby brother Henry, the bishop, he seized the castle there and-most important of all-the royal treasury.”

Philip was about to say: So Stephen is our new ruler. But he bit his tongue: he had said that about Maud and Theobald and had been wrong both times.

Francis went on: “Stephen needed only one more thing to make his victory secure: the support of the Church. For until he could be crowned at Westminster by the archbishop he would not really be king.”

“But surely that was easy,” Philip said. “His brother Henry is one of the most important priests in the land-bishop of Winchester, abbot of Glastonbury, as rich as Solomon and almost as powerful as the archbishop of Canterbury. And if Bishop Henry wasn’t intending to support him, why had he helped him take Winchester?”

Francis nodded. “I must say that Bishop Henry’s operations throughout this crisis have been brilliant. You see, he wasn’t helping Stephen out of brotherly love.”

“Then what was his motivation?”

“A few minutes ago I reminded you of how the late King Henry had treated the Church as if it were just another part of his kingdom. Bishop Henry wants to ensure that our new king, whoever he may be, will treat the Church better. So before he would guarantee support, Henry made Stephen swear a solemn oath to preserve the rights and privileges of the Church.”

Philip was impressed. Stephen’s relationship with the Church had been defined, right at the start of his reign, on the Church’s terms. But perhaps even more important was the precedent. The Church had to crown kings but until now it had not had the right to lay down conditions. The time might come when no king could come to power without first striking a deal with the Church. “This could mean a lot to us,” Philip said.

“Stephen may break his promises, of course,” Francis said. “But all the same you’re right. He will never be able to be quite as ruthless with the Church as Henry was. But there’s another danger. Two of the barons were bitterly aggrieved by what Stephen did. One was Bartholomew, the earl of Shiring.”

“I know of him. Shiring is only a day’s journey from here. Bartholomew is said to be a devout man.”

“Perhaps he is. All I know is that he is a self-righteous and stiff-necked baron who will not renege on his loyalty oath to Maud, despite the promise of a pardon.”

“And the other discontented baron?”

“My own Robert of Gloucester. I told you he was ambitious. His soul is tormented by the thought that if only he were legitimate, he would be king. He wants to put his half sister on the throne, believing that she will rely so heavily on her brother for guidance and advice that he will be king in everything but name.”

“Is he going to do anything about it?”

“I’m afraid so.” Francis lowered his voice, although there was no one near. “Robert and Bartholomew, together with Maud and her husband, are going to foment a rebellion. They plan to unseat Stephen and put Maud on the throne.”

Philip stopped walking. “Which would undo everything the bishop of Winchester has achieved!” He grasped his brother’s arm. “But, Francis…”

“I know what you’re thinking.” Suddenly all Francis’s cockiness left him, and he looked anxious and frightened. “If Earl Robert knew I’d even told you, he would hang me. He trusts me completely. But my ultimate loyalty is to the Church-it has to be.”

“But what can you do?”

“I thought of seeking an audience with the new king, and telling him everything. Of course, the two rebel earls would deny it all, and I would be hanged for treachery; but the rebellion would be frustrated and I would go to heaven.”

Philip shook his head. “We’re taught that it’s vain to seek martyrdom.”

“And I think God has more work for me to do here on earth. I’m in a position of trust in the household of a great baron, and if I stay there and advance myself by hard work, there’s a lot I could do to promote the rights of the Church and the rule of law.”

“Is there any other way…?”

Francis looked Philip in the eye. “That’s why I’m here.”

Philip felt a shiver of fear. Francis was going to ask him to get involved, of course; there was no other reason for him to reveal this dreadful secret.

Francis went on: “I can’t betray the rebellion, but you can.”

Philip said: “Jesus Christ and all the saints, preserve me.”

“If the plot is uncovered here, in the south, no suspicion will fall on the Gloucester household. Nobody knows I’m here; nobody even knows you’re my brother. You could think of some plausible explanation of how you came by the information: you might have seen men-at-arms assembling, or it might be that someone in Earl Bartholomew’s household revealed the plot while confessing his sins to a priest you know.”

Philip pulled his cloak closer around him, shivering. It seemed to have turned colder suddenly. This was dangerous, very dangerous. They were talking about meddling in royal politics, which regularly killed experienced practitioners. Outsiders such as Philip were foolish to get involved.

But there was so much at stake. Philip could not stand by and see a rebellion against a king chosen by the Church, not when he had a chance to prevent it. And dangerous though it would be for Philip, it would be suicidal for Francis to expose the plot.

Philip said: “What’s the rebels’ plan?”

“Earl Bartholomew is on his way back to Shiring right now. From there he will send out messages to his followers all over the south of England. Earl Robert will arrive in Gloucester a day or two later and muster his forces in the West Country. Finally Brian Fitzcount, who holds Wallingford Castle, will close its gates; and the whole of southwest England will belong to the rebels without a fight.”

“Then it’s almost too late!” Philip said.

“Not really. We’ve got about a week. But you’ll have to act quickly.”

Philip realized with a sinking feeling that he had more or less made up his mind to do it. “I don’t know whom to tell,” he said. “One would normally go to the earl, but in this case he’s the culprit. The sheriff is probably on his side. We have to think of someone who is certain to be on our side.”

“The prior of Kingsbridge?”

“My prior is old and tired. The likelihood is that he would do nothing.”

“There must be someone.”

“There’s the bishop.” Philip had never actually spoken to the bishop of Kingsbridge, but he would be sure to receive Philip and listen to him; he would automatically side with Stephen because Stephen was the Church’s choice; and he was powerful enough to do something about it.

Francis said: “Where does the bishop live?”

“It’s a day and a half from here.”

“You’d better leave today.”

“Yes,” Philip said with a heavy heart.

Francis looked remorseful. “I wish it were someone else.”

“So do I,” Philip said feelingly. “So do I.”

Philip called the monks into the little chapel and told them that the king had died. “We must pray for a peaceful succession and a new king who will love the Church more than the late Henry,” he said. But he did not tell them that the key to a peaceful succession had somehow fallen into his own hands. Instead he said: “There is other news that obliges me to visit our mother house at Kingsbridge. I must leave right away.”

The sub-prior would read the services and the cellarer would run the farm, but neither of them was a match for Peter of Wareham, and Philip was afraid that if he stayed away long Peter might make so much trouble that there would be no monastery left when he returned. He had not been able to think up a way of controlling Peter without bruising his self-esteem, and now there was no time left, so he had to do the best he could.

“Earlier today we talked about gluttony,” he said after a pause. “Brother Peter deserves our thanks for reminding us that when God blesses our farm and gives us wealth, it is not so that we should become fat and comfortable, but for his greater glory. It is part of our holy duty to share our riches with the poor. Until now we have neglected this duty, mainly because here in the forest we don’t have anybody to share with. Brother Peter has reminded us that it’s our duty to go out and seek the poor, so that we may bring them relief.”

The monks were surprised: they had imagined that the subject of gluttony had been closed. Peter himself was looking uncertain. He was pleased to be the center of attention again, but he was wary of what Philip might have up his sleeve-quite rightly.

“I have decided,” Philip went on, “that each week we will give to the poor one penny for every monk in our community. If this means we all have to eat a little less, we will rejoice in the prospect of our heavenly reward. More important, we must make sure that our pennies are well spent. When you give a poor man a penny to buy bread for his family, he may go straight to the alehouse and get drunk, then go home and beat his wife, who would therefore have been better off without your charity. Better to give him the bread; better still to give the bread to his children. Giving alms is a holy task that must be done with as much diligence as healing the sick or educating the young. For this reason, many monastic houses appoint an almoner, to be responsible for almsgiving. We will do the same.”

Philip looked around. They were all alert and interested. Peter wore a gratified look, evidently having decided that this was a victory for him. No one had guessed what was coming.

“The almoner’s job is hard work. He will have to walk to the nearest towns and villages, frequently to Winchester. There he will go among the meanest, dirtiest, ugliest and most vicious classes of people, for such are the poor. He must pray for them when they blaspheme, visit them when they’re sick, and forgive them when they try to cheat and rob him. He will need strength, humility and endless patience. He will miss the comfort of this community, for he will be away more than he is with us.”

He looked around once again. Now they were all wary, for none of them wanted this job. He let his gaze rest on Peter of Wareham. Peter realized what was coming, and his face fell.

“It was Peter who drew our attention to our shortcomings in this area,” Philip said slowly, “so I have decided that it shall be Peter who has the honor of being our almoner.” He smiled. “You can begin today.”

Peter’s face was as black as thunder.

You’ll be away too much to cause trouble, Philip thought; and close contact with the vile, verminous poor of Winchester’s stinking alleyways will temper your scorn of soft living.

However, Peter evidently saw this as a punishment, pure and simple, and he looked at Philip with an expression of such hatred that for a moment Philip quailed.

He tore his gaze away and looked at the others. “After the death of a king there is always danger and uncertainty,” he said. “Pray for me while I’m away.”

II

At noon on the second day of his journey, Prior Philip was within a few miles of the bishop’s palace. His bowels felt watery as he got nearer. He had thought of a story to explain how he came to know of the planned rebellion. But the bishop might not believe his story; or, believing it, he might demand proof. Worse still-and this possibility had not occurred to Philip until after he parted company with Francis-it was conceivable, albeit unlikely, that the bishop was one of the conspirators, and supported the rebellion. He might be a crony of the earl of Shiring. It was not unknown for bishops to put their own interests before those of the Church.

The bishop could torture Philip to make him reveal his source of information. Of course he had no right to, but then he had no right to plot against the king, either. Philip recalled the instruments of torture depicted in paintings of hell. Such paintings were inspired by what went on in the dungeons of barons and bishops. Philip did not feel he had the strength for a martyr’s death.

When he saw a group of travelers on foot in the road ahead of him his first instinct was to rein in to avoid passing them, for he was alone, and there were plenty of footpads who would not scruple to rob a monk. Then he saw that two of the figures were children, and another was a woman. A family group was usually safe. He trotted to catch them.

As he drew nearer he could see them more clearly. They were a tall man, a small woman, a youth almost as big as the man, and two children. They were visibly poor: they carried no little bundles of precious possessions and they were dressed in rags. The man was big-boned, but emaciated, as if he were dying of a wasting disease-or just starving. He looked warily at Philip, and drew the children closer to him with a touch and a murmured word. Philip had at first guessed his age at fifty, but now he saw that the man was in his thirties, although his face was lined with care.

The woman said: “What ho, monk.”

Philip looked sharply at her. It was unusual for a woman to speak before her husband did, and while monk was not exactly impolite, it would have been more respectful to say brother or father. The woman was younger than the man by about ten years, and she had deep-set eyes of an unusual pale gold color that gave her a rather arresting appearance. Philip felt she was dangerous.

“Good day, Father,” the man said, as if to apologize for his wife’s brusqueness.

“God bless you,” said Philip, slowing his mare. “Who are you?”

“Tom, a master builder, seeking work.”

“And not finding any, I’d guess.”

“That’s the truth.”

Philip nodded. It was a common story. Building craftsmen normally wandered in search of work, and sometimes they did not find it, either through bad luck or because not many people were building. Such men often took advantage of the hospitality of monasteries. If they had recently been in work they gave generous donations when they left, although after they had been on the road a while they might have nothing to offer. Giving an equally warm welcome to both kinds was sometimes a trial of monastic charity.

This builder was definitely the penniless kind, although his wife looked well enough. Philip said: “Well, I have food in my saddlebag, and it is dinnertime, and charity is a holy duty; so if you and your family will eat with me, I shall get a reward in heaven, as well as some company while I dine.”

“That’s good of you,” said Tom. He looked at the woman. She gave the slightest of shrugs, then a little nod. Almost without pause the man said: “We’ll accept your charity, and thank you.”

“Thank God, not me,” Philip said automatically.

The woman said: “Thank the peasants whose tithes provided the food.”

Here’s a sharp one, Philip thought; but he said nothing.

They stopped at a small clearing where Philip’s pony could graze the tired winter grass. Philip was secretly glad of the excuse to postpone his arrival at the palace and delay the dreaded interview with the bishop. The builder said that he too was heading for the bishop’s palace, hoping that the bishop might want to make repairs or even build an extension. While they were talking, Philip surreptitiously studied the family. The woman seemed too young to be the mother of the older boy. He was like a calf, strong and awkward and stupid-looking. The other boy was small and odd, with carrot-colored hair, snow-white skin and protuberant bright-blue eyes; and he had a way of staring intently at things, with an absent expression that reminded Philip of poor Johnny Eightpence, except that unlike Johnny this boy would give you a very adult, knowing look when you caught his eye. In his way he was as disturbing as his mother, Philip found. The third child was a girl of about six years. She was crying intermittently, and her father watched her constantly with affectionate concern, and gave her a comforting pat from time to time, although he said nothing to her. He was evidently very fond of her. He also touched his wife, once, and Philip saw a look of lust flash between them when their eyes met.

The woman sent the children to find broad leaves to use as platters. Philip opened his saddlebags. Tom said: “Where is your monastery, Father?”

“In the forest, a day’s journey from here, to the west.” The woman looked up sharply, and Tom raised his eyebrows. “Do you know it?” Philip asked.

For some reason Tom looked awkward. “We must have passed near it on the way from Salisbury,” he said.

“Oh, yes, you would have, but it’s a long way off the main road, so you wouldn’t have seen it, unless you knew where it was and went to find it.”

“Ah, I see,” said Tom, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere.

Philip was struck by a thought. “Tell me something-did you come across a woman on the road? Probably very young, alone, and, ah, with child?”

“No,” said Tom. His tone was casual but Philip had the feeling he was intensely interested. “Why do you ask?”

Philip smiled. “I’ll tell you. Early yesterday a baby was found in the forest and brought to my monastery. It’s a boy, and I don’t think he was even as much as a day old. He must have been born that night. So the mother must have been in the area at the same time as you.”

“We didn’t see anyone,” Tom repeated. “What did you do with the baby?”

“Fed him goat’s milk. He seems to be thriving on it.”

They were both looking at Philip intently. It was, he thought, a story to touch anyone’s heart. After a moment Tom said: “And you’re searching for the mother?”

“Oh, no. My question was casual. If I came across her, of course, I would give the baby back to her; but it’s clear she doesn’t want it, and she’ll make sure she can’t be found.”

“Then what will happen to the boy?”

“We’ll raise him at the monastery. He’ll be a child of God. That’s how I myself was brought up, and my brother too. Our parents were taken from us when we were young, and after that the abbot was our father, and the monks were our family. We were fed, we were warm, and we learned our letters.”

The woman said: “And you both became monks.” She said it with a touch of irony, as if it proved that the monastery’s charity was ultimately self-interested.

Philip was glad to be able to contradict her. “No, my brother left the order.”

The children came back. They had not found any broad leaves-it was not easy in winter-so they would eat without platters. Philip gave them all bread and cheese. They tore into the food like starving animals. “We make this cheese at my monastery,” he said. “Most people like it when it’s new, like this, but it’s even better if you leave it to ripen.” They were too hungry to care. They finished the bread and cheese in no time. Philip had three pears. He fished them out of his bag and gave them to Tom. Tom gave one to each of the children.

Philip got to his feet. “I’ll pray that you find work.”

Tom said: “If you think of it, Father, mention me to the bishop. You know our need, and you’ve found us honest.”

“I will.”

Tom held the horse while Philip mounted. “You’re a good man, father,” he said, and Philip saw to his surprise that there were tears in Tom’s eyes.

“God be with you,” Philip said.

Tom held the horse’s head a moment longer. “The baby you told us about-the foundling.” He spoke softly, as if he did not want the children to hear. “Did you… have you named him yet?”

“Yes. We call him Jonathan, which means a gift from God.”

“Jonathan. I like that.” Tom released the horse.

Philip looked at him curiously for a moment, then kicked his horse and trotted away.

The bishop of Kingsbridge did not live at Kingsbridge. His palace stood on a south-facing hillside in a lush valley a full day’s journey from the cold stone cathedral and its mournful monks. He preferred it this way, for too much churchgoing would get in the way of his other duties of collecting rents, dispensing justice and maneuvering at the royal court. It suited the monks, too, for the farther away the bishop was, the less he interfered with them.

It was cold enough for snow on the afternoon that Philip arrived there. A bitter wind whipped across the bishop’s valley, and low gray clouds frowned on his hillside manor house. It was not a castle, but it was nonetheless well defended. The woodland had been cleared for a hundred yards all around. The house was enclosed by a stout wooden fence the height of a man, with a rainwater ditch outside it. The guard at the gate had a slovenly manner but his sword was heavy.

The palace was a fine stone house built in the shape of the letter E. The ground floor was an undercroft, its stout walls pierced by several heavy doors but no windows. One door was open, and through it Philip could see barrels and sacks in the gloom. The other doors were closed and chained. Philip wondered what was behind them: when the bishop had prisoners, that was where they would languish.

The short stroke of the E was an exterior staircase leading to the living quarters above the undercroft. The main room, the upright stroke of the E, would be the hall. The two rooms forming the head and foot of the E would be a chapel and a bedroom, Philip guessed. There were small shuttered windows like beady eyes looking suspiciously out at the world.

Within the compound were a kitchen and a bakehouse of stone as well as wooden stables and a barn. All the buildings were in good repair-which was unfortunate for Tom Builder, Philip thought.

There were several good horses in the stable, including a couple of chargers, and a handful of men-at-arms were scattered around, killing time. Perhaps the bishop had visitors.

Philip left his horse with a stableboy and climbed the steps with a sense of foreboding. The whole place had a distressingly military feel. Where were the queues of petitioners with grievances, the mothers with babies to be blessed? He was entering an unfamiliar world, and he was in possession of a dangerous secret. It might be a long time before I leave here, he thought fearfully. I wish Francis had not come to me.

He reached the top of the stairs. Such unworthy thoughts, he told himself. Here I have a chance to serve God and the Church, and I react by worrying about my own safety. Some men face danger every day, in battle, at sea, and on hazardous pilgrimages or crusades. Even a monk must suffer a little fear and trembling sometimes.

He took a deep breath and went in.

The hall was dim and smoky. Philip closed the door quickly to keep out the cold air, then peered into the gloom. A big fire blazed on the opposite side of the room. That and the small windows provided the only light. Around the fireplace was a group of men, some in clerical clothes and others in the expensive but well-worn garments of minor gentry. They were involved in a serious discussion, their voices low and businesslike. Their seats were scattered randomly, but they all looked at and spoke to a priest who sat in the middle of the group like a spider at the center of a web. He was a thin man, and the way his long legs were splayed apart and his long arms draped over the arms of the chair made him look as if he were about to spring. He had lank, jet-black hair and a pale face with a sharp nose, and his black clothes made him at once handsome and menacing.

He was not the bishop.

A steward got up from a seat beside the door and said to Philip: “Good day, Father. Who do you want to see?” At the same time a hound lying by the fire raised its head and growled. The man in black looked up quickly, saw Philip, and stopped the conversation instantly with a raised hand. “What is it?” he said brusquely.

“Good day,” Philip said politely. “I’ve come to see the bishop.”

“He’s not here,” the priest said dismissively.

Philip’s heart sank. He had been dreading the interview and its dangers, but now he felt let down. What was he going to do with his awful secret? He said to the priest: “When do you expect him back?”

“We don’t know. What’s your business with him?”

The priest’s tone was a little abrupt, and Philip was stung. “God’s business,” he said sharply. “Who are you?”

The priest raised his eyebrows, as if surprised to be challenged, and the other men became suddenly quiet, like people expecting an explosion; but after a pause he replied mildly enough. “I’m his archdeacon. My name is Waleran Bigod.”

A good name for a priest, Philip thought. He said: “My name is Philip. I’m the prior of the monastery of St-John-in-the-Forest. It’s a cell of Kingsbridge Priory.”

“I’ve heard of you,” said Waleran. “You’re Philip of Gwynedd.”

Philip was surprised. He could not imagine why an actual archdeacon should know the name of someone as lowly as himself. But his rank, modest though it was, was enough to change Waleran’s attitude. The irritated look went from the archdeacon’s face. “Come to the fire,” he said. “You’ll take a draft of hot wine to warm your blood?” He gestured to someone sitting on a bench against the wall, and a ragged figure sprang up to do his bidding.

Philip approached the fire. Waleran said something in a low voice and the other men got to their feet and began to take their leave. Philip sat down and warmed his hands while Waleran went to the door with his guests. Philip wondered what they had been discussing, and why the archdeacon had not closed the meeting with a prayer.

The ragged servant handed him a wooden cup. He sipped hot, spiced wine and considered his next move. If the bishop was not available, whom could Philip turn to? He thought of going to Earl Bartholomew and simply begging him to reconsider his rebellion. The idea was ludicrous: the earl would put him in a dungeon and throw away the key. That left the sheriff, who was in theory the king’s representative in the county. But there was no telling which side the sheriff might take while there was still some doubt about who was going to be king. Still, Philip thought, I might just have to take that risk, in the end. He longed to return to the simple life of the monastery, where his most dangerous enemy was Peter of Wareham.

Waleran’s guests departed, and the door closed on the noise of horses in the yard. Waleran returned to the fireside and pulled up a big chair.

Philip was preoccupied with his problem and did not really want to talk to the archdeacon, but he felt obliged to be civil. “I hope I didn’t break up your meeting,” he said.

Waleran made a deprecatory gesture. “It was due to end,” he said. “These things always go on longer than they need to. We were discussing the renewal of leases of diocesan land-the kind of thing that could be settled in a few moments if only people would be decisive.” He fluttered a bony hand as if to dismiss all diocesan leases and their holders. “Now, I hear you’ve done good work at that little cell in the forest.”

“I’m surprised you know about it,” Philip replied.

“The bishop is ex officio abbot of Kingsbridge, so he’s bound to take an interest.”

Or he has a well-informed archdeacon, Philip thought. He said: “Well, God has blessed us.”

“Indeed.”

They were speaking Norman French, the language Waleran and his guests had been using, the language of government; but something about Waleran’s accent was a little strange, and after a few moments Philip realized that Waleran had the inflections of one who had been brought up to speak English. That meant he was not a Norman aristocrat, but a native who had risen by his own efforts-like Philip.

A moment later this was confirmed when Waleran switched to English to say: “I wish God would confer similar blessings on Kingsbridge Priory.”

Philip was not the only one to be troubled by the state of affairs at Kingsbridge, then. Waleran probably knew more about events there than Philip did. Philip said: “How is Prior James?”

“Sick,” Waleran replied succinctly.

Then he definitely would not be able to do anything about Earl Bartholomew’s insurrection, Philip thought gloomily. He was going to have to go to Shiring and take his chance with the sheriff.

It occurred to him that Waleran was the kind of man who would know everyone of importance in the county. “What is the sheriff of Shiring like?” he asked.

Waleran shrugged. “Ungodly, arrogant, grasping and corrupt. So are all sheriffs. Why do you ask?”

“If I can’t talk to the bishop I probably should go and see the sheriff.”

“I am in the bishop’s confidence, you know,” said Waleran with a little smile. “If I can help…” He made an open-handed gesture, like a man who is being generous but knows he may be refused.

Philip had relaxed a little, thinking that the moment of crisis had been postponed for a day or two, but now he was filled with trepidation again. Could he trust Archdeacon Waleran? Waleran’s nonchalance was studied, he thought: the archdeacon appeared diffident, but in truth he was probably bursting to know what Philip had to say that was so important. However, that was no reason to mistrust him. He seemed a judicious fellow. Was he powerful enough to do anything about the rebellion? If he could not do it himself, he might be able to locate the bishop. It struck Philip that in fact there was a major advantage to the idea of confiding in Waleran; for whereas the bishop might insist on knowing the real source of Philip’s information, the archdeacon did not have the authority to do that, and would have to be content with the story Philip told him, whether he believed it or not.

Waleran gave his little smile again. “If you think about it any longer, I shall begin to believe that you mistrust me!”

Philip felt he understood Waleran. Waleran was a man something like himself: young, well-educated, low-born, and intelligent. He was a little too worldly for Philip’s taste, perhaps, but this was pardonable in a priest who was obliged to spend so much of his time with lords and ladies, and did not have the benefit of a monk’s protected life. Waleran was a devout man at heart, Philip thought. He would do the right thing for the Church.

Philip hesitated on the edge of decision. Until now only he and Francis had known the secret. Once he told a third person, anything could happen. He took a deep breath.

“Three days ago, an injured man came to my monastery in the forest,” he began, silently praying forgiveness for lying. “He was an armed man on a fine, fast horse, and he had taken a fall a mile or two away. He must have been riding hard when he fell, for his arm was broken and his ribs were crushed. We set his arm, but there was nothing we could do about his ribs, and he was coughing blood, a sign of internal damage.” As he spoke, Philip was watching Waleran’s face. So far it showed nothing more than polite interest. “I advised him to confess his sins, for he was in danger of death. He told me a secret.”

He hesitated, not sure how much Waleran might have heard of the political news. “I expect you know that Stephen of Blois has claimed the throne of England with the blessing of the Church.”

Waleran knew more than Philip. “And he was crowned at Westminster three days before Christmas,” he said.

“Already!” Francis had not known that.

“What was the secret?” Waleran said with a touch of impatience.

Philip took the plunge. “Before he died, the horseman told me that his master Bartholomew, earl of Shiring, had conspired with Robert of Gloucester to raise a rebellion against Stephen.” He studied Waleran’s face, holding his breath.

Waleran’s pale cheeks went a shade whiter. He leaned forward in his chair. “Do you think he was telling the truth?” he said urgently.

“A dying man usually tells the truth to his confessor.”

“Perhaps he was repeating a rumor that was current in the earl’s household.”

Philip had not expected Waleran to be skeptical. He improvised hastily. “Oh, no,” he said. “He was a messenger sent by Earl Bartholomew to muster the earl’s forces in Hampshire.”

Waleran’s intelligent eyes raked Philip’s expression. “Did he have the message in writing?”

“No.”

“Any seal, or token of the earl’s authority?”

“Nothing.” Philip began to perspire slightly. “I gathered he was well known, by the people he was going to see, as an authorized representative of the earl.”

“What was his name?”

“Francis,” Philip said stupidly, and wanted to bite his tongue.

“Just that?”

“He didn’t tell me what else he was called.” Philip had the feeling that his story was coming unraveled under Waleran’s interrogation.

“His weapons and his armor may identify him.”

“He had no armor,” Philip said desperately. “We buried his weapons with him-monks have no use for swords. We could dig them up, but I can tell you that they were plain and undistinguished-I don’t think you would find clues there…” He had to divert Waleran from this line of inquiry. “What do you think can be done?”

Waleran frowned. “It’s hard to know what to do without proof. The conspirators can simply deny the charge, and then the accuser stands condemned.” He did not say especially if the story turns out to be false, but Philip guessed that was what he was thinking. Waleran went on: “Have you told anyone else?”

Philip shook his head.

“Where are you going when you leave here?”

“Kingsbridge. I had to invent a reason for leaving the cell, so I said I would visit the priory; and now I must do so, to make the lie true.”

“Don’t speak of this to anyone there.”

“I shan’t.” Philip had not intended to, but he wondered why Waleran was insisting on the point. Perhaps it was self-interest: if he was going to take the risk of exposing the conspiracy, he wanted to be sure to get the credit. He was ambitious. So much the better, for Philip’s purpose.

“Leave this with me.” Waleran was suddenly brusque again, and the contrast with his previous manner made Philip realize that his amiability could be put on and taken off like a coat. Waleran went on: “You’ll go to Kingsbridge Priory now, and forget about the sheriff, won’t you.”

“Yes.” Philip realized it was going to be all right, at least for a while, and a weight rolled off his back. He was not going to be thrown into a dungeon, interrogated by a torturer, or accused of sedition. He had also handed the responsibility to someone else-someone who appeared quite happy to take it on.

He got up and went to the nearest window. It was mid-afternoon, and there was plenty of daylight left. He had an urge to get away from here and leave the secret behind him. “If I go now I can cover eight or ten miles before nightfall,” he said.

Waleran did not press him to stay. “That will take you to the village of Bassingbourn. You’ll find a bed there. If you set out early in the morning you can be at Kingsbridge by midday.”

“Yes.” Philip turned from the window and looked at Waleran. The archdeacon was frowning into the fire, deep in thought. Philip watched him for a moment. Waleran did not share his thoughts. Philip wished he knew what was going on in that clever head. “I’ll go right away,” he said.

Waleran came out of his reverie and grew charming again. He smiled and stood up. “All right,” he said. He walked with Philip to the door and then followed him down the stairs to the yard.

A stableboy brought Philip’s horse and saddled it. Waleran might have said goodbye then and returned to his fire, but he waited. Philip guessed that he wanted to make sure Philip took the road to Kingsbridge, not the road to Shiring.

Philip mounted, feeling happier than he had when he had arrived. He was about to take his leave when he saw Tom Builder come through the gate with his family in tow. Philip said to Waleran: “This man is a builder I met on the road. He seems like an honest fellow fallen on hard times. If you need any repairs you’ll be glad of him.”

Waleran made no reply. He was staring at the family as they walked across the compound. All his poise and composure had deserted him. His mouth was open and his eyes were staring. He looked like a man suffering a shock.

“What is it?” Philip said anxiously.

“That woman!” Waleran’s voice was just above a whisper.

Philip looked at her. “She’s rather beautiful,” he said, realizing it for the first time. “But we’re taught that it is better for a priest to be chaste. Turn your eyes away, Archdeacon.”

Waleran was not listening. “I thought she was dead,” he muttered. He seemed to remember Philip suddenly. He tore his gaze from the woman and looked up at Philip, collecting his wits. “Give my regards to the prior of Kingsbridge,” he said. Then he slapped Philip’s horse’s rump, and the animal sprang forward and trotted out through the gate; and by the time Philip had shortened his reins and got the horse under control he was too far away to say goodbye.

III

Philip came within sight of Kingsbridge at about noon on the following day, as Archdeacon Waleran had forecast. He emerged from a wooded hillside and looked out across a landscape of lifeless, frozen fields relieved only by the occasional bare skeleton of a tree. There were no people to be seen, for in the dead of winter there was no work to do on the land. A couple of miles away across the cold countryside, Kingsbridge Cathedral stood on a rise; a huge, squat building like a tomb on a burial mound.

Philip followed the road into a dip and Kingsbridge disappeared from view. His placid pony picked her way carefully along the frosted ruts. Philip was thinking about Archdeacon Waleran. Waleran was so poised and confident and capable that he made Philip feel young and naive, although there was not much difference in age between them. Waleran had effortlessly controlled the whole meeting: he had got rid of his guests graciously, listened attentively to Philip’s tale, homed in immediately on the crucial problem of lack of evidence, swiftly realized that that line of inquiry was fruitless, and then promptly sent Philip on his way-without, Philip now realized, any guarantee that action would be taken.

Philip grinned ruefully as he saw how well he had been manipulated. Waleran had not even promised to tell the bishop what Philip had reported. But Philip felt confident that the large vein of ambition he detected in Waleran would ensure that the information was used somehow. He even had a notion that Waleran might feel a little indebted to him.

Because he was impressed by Waleran, he was all the more intrigued by the archdeacon’s single sign of weakness-his reaction to the wife of Tom Builder. To Philip she had seemed obscurely dangerous. Apparently Waleran found her desirable-which might amount to the same thing, of course. However, there was more to it than that. Waleran must have met her before, for he had said I thought she was dead. It sounded as if he had sinned with her in the distant past. He certainly had something to feel guilty about, judging by the way he had made sure Philip did not stay around to learn more.

Even this guilty secret did not much reduce Philip’s opinion of Waleran. Waleran was a priest, not a monk. Chastity had always been an essential part of the monastic way of life, but it had never been enforced for priests. Bishops had mistresses and parish priests had housekeepers. Like the prohibition against evil thoughts, clerical celibacy was a law too harsh to be obeyed. If God could not forgive lascivious priests, there would be very few clergy in heaven.

Kingsbridge reappeared as Philip crested the next rise. The landscape was dominated by the massive church, with its roundheaded arches and small, deep windows, just as the village was dominated by the monastery. The west end of the church, which faced Philip, had stubby twin towers, one of which had fallen in a thunderstorm four years ago. It still had not been rebuilt, and the facade had a reproachful look. This view never failed to anger Philip, for the pile of rubble at the entrance of the church was a shameful reminder of the collapse of monastic rectitude at the priory. The monastery buildings, made of the same pale limestone, stood near the church in groups, like conspirators around a throne. Outside the low wall that enclosed the priory was a scatter of ordinary hovels made of timber and mud with thatched roofs, occupied by the peasants who tilled the fields round about and the servants who worked for the monks. A narrow, impatient river hurried across the southwest corner of the village, bringing fresh water to the monastery.

Philip was already feeling bilious as he crossed the river by an old wooden bridge. Kingsbridge Priory brought shame on God’s church and the monastic movement, but there was nothing Philip could do about it; and anger and impotence together turned sour in his stomach.

The priory owned the bridge and charged a toll, and as the woodwork creaked with the weight of Philip and his horse, an elderly monk emerged from a shelter on the opposite bank and came forward to move the willow branch that served as a barrier. He recognized Philip and waved. Philip noticed that he was limping, and said: “What’s wrong with your foot, Brother Paul?”

“Just a chilblain. It will ease when the spring comes.”

He had nothing on his feet but sandals, Philip saw. Paul was a tough old bird but he was too far gone in years to be spending the whole day out-of-doors in this weather. “You should have a fire,” Philip said.

“It would be a mercy,” said Paul. “But Brother Remigius says the fire would cost more money than the toll brings.”

“How much do we charge?”

“A penny for a horse, and a farthing for a man.”

“Do many people use the bridge?”

“Oh, yes, plenty.”

“Then how is it that we can’t afford a fire?”

“Well, the monks don’t pay, of course, nor do the priory servants, nor the villagers. So it’s just a traveling knight or a tinker every day or two. Then on holy days, when people come from all over the country to hear the services in the cathedral, we gather farthings galore.”

“It seems to me we might man the bridge on holy days only, and give you a fire out of the proceeds,” said Philip.

Paul looked anxious. “Don’t say anything to Remigius, will you? If he thinks I’ve been complaining he’ll be displeased.”

“Don’t worry,” said Philip. He kicked his horse on so that Paul should not see the expression on his face. This kind of foolishness infuriated him. Paul had given his life to the service of God and the monastery, and now in his declining years he was made to suffer pain and cold for the sake of a farthing or two a day. It was not just cruel, it was wasteful, for a patient old man such as Paul could be set to work at some productive task-raising chickens, perhaps-and the priory would benefit by much more than a few farthings. But the prior of Kingsbridge was too old and lethargic to see that, and it seemed that the same must be true of Remigius, the sub-prior. It was a grave sin, Philip thought bitterly, to waste so carelessly the human and material assets that had been given to God in loving piety.

He was in an unforgiving mood as he guided his pony through the spaces between the hovels to the priory gate. The priory was a rectangular enclosure with the church in the middle. The buildings were laid out so that everything to the north and west of the church was public, worldly, secular and practical, whereas what was to the south and east was private, spiritual and holy.

The entrance to the close was therefore at the northwest corner of the rectangle. The gate stood open, and the young monk in the gatehouse waved as Philip trotted through. Just inside the gate, up against the west wall of the enclosure, was the stable, a stout wooden structure rather better built than some of the dwellings for people on the other side of the wall. Two stable hands sat inside on bales of straw. They were not monks, but employees of the priory. They got reluctantly to their feet as if they resented a visitor coming to cause them extra work. The acrid air stung Philip’s nostrils, and he could see that the stalls had not been mucked out for three or four weeks. He was not disposed to overlook the negligence of stable lads today. As he handed over the reins he said: “Before you stable my pony you can clean out one of the stalls and put down fresh straw. Then do the same for the other horses. If their litter becomes permanently wet, they get hoof rot. You don’t have so much to do that you can’t keep this stable clean.” They both looked sullen, so he added: “Do as I say, or I’ll make sure you both lose a day’s pay for idleness.” He was about to leave when he remembered something. “There’s a cheese in my saddlebag. Take it to the kitchen and give it to Brother Milius.”

He went out without waiting for a reply. The priory had sixty employees to look after its forty-five monks, a shameful excess of servants in Philip’s opinion. People who did not have enough to do could easily become so lazy that they skimped what little work they did have, as had clearly happened to the two stable hands. It was just another example of Prior James’s slackness.

Philip walked along the west wall of the priory close, past the guesthouse, curious to see whether the priory had any visitors. But the big one-room building was cold and disused, with a windblown drift of last year’s dead leaves covering its threshold. He turned left and started across the broad expanse of sparse grass that separated the guesthouse-which sometimes lodged ungodly people and even women-from the church. He approached the west end of the church, the public entrance. The broken stones of the collapsed tower lay where they had fallen, in a big heap twice the height of a man.

Like most churches, Kingsbridge Cathedral was built in the shape of a cross. The west end opened into the nave, which formed the long stem of the cross. The crosspiece consisted of the two transepts which stuck out to the north and south either side of the altar. Beyond the crossing, the east end of the church was called the chancel, and was mainly reserved for the monks. At the farthest extremity of the east end was the tomb of Saint Adolphus, which still attracted occasional pilgrims.

Philip stepped into the nave and looked down the avenue of round arches and mighty columns. The sight further depressed his mood. It was a dank, gloomy building, and it had deteriorated since he last saw it. The windows in the low aisles either side of the nave were like narrow tunnels in the immensely thick walls. Up in the roof, the larger windows of the clerestory illuminated the painted timber ceiling only to show how badly it was fading, the apostles and saints and prophets growing dim and blending inexorably with their background. Despite the cold air blowing in-for there was no glass in the windows-a faint smell of rotting vestments tainted the atmosphere. From the other end of the church came the sound of the service of high mass, the Latin phrases spoken in a singsong voice, and the chanted responses. Philip walked down the nave. The floor had never been paved, so moss grew on the bare earth in the corners where peasant clogs and monkish sandals rarely trod. The carved spirals and flutes of the massive columns, and the incised chevrons that decorated the arches between them, had once been painted and gilded; but now all that remained were a few flakes of papery gold leaf and a patchwork of stains where the paint had been. The mortar between the stones was crumbling and falling out, and gathering in little heaps by the walls. Philip felt the familiar anger rise in him again. When people came here they were supposed to be awestruck by the majesty of Almighty God. But peasants were simple people who judged by appearances, and coming here they would think that God was a careless, indifferent deity unlikely to appreciate their worship or take note of their sins. In the end the peasants paid for the church with the sweat of their brows, and it was outrageous that they were rewarded with this crumbling mausoleum.

Philip knelt before the altar and stayed there a moment, conscious that righteous indignation was not the appropriate state of mind for a worshiper. When he had cooled down a little he rose and passed on.

The eastern arm of the church, the chancel, was divided into two. Nearest the crossing was the quire, with wooden stalls where the monks sat and stood during the services. Beyond the quire was the sanctuary that housed the tomb of the saint. Philip moved behind the altar, intending to take a place in the quire; then he was brought up short by a coffin.

He stopped, surprised. Nobody had told him that a monk was dead. But, of course, he had spoken to only three people: Paul, who was old and a little absentminded; and the two stable hands, to whom he had given no chance to make conversation. He approached the coffin to see who it was. He looked inside, and his heart missed a beat.

It was Prior James.

Philip stared openmouthed. Now everything was changed. There would be a new prior, new hope-

This jubilation was not the right response to the death of a venerable brother, no matter what his faults had been. Philip composed his face and his mind in an attitude of mourning. He studied the dead man. The prior had been white-haired and thin-faced, and he had had a stoop. Now his perpetually weary expression had gone, and instead of looking troubled and disconsolate, he seemed at peace. As Philip knelt beside the bier and murmured a prayer, he wondered if some great trouble had weighed on the old man’s heart in the latter years of his life: a sin unconfessed, a woman regretted, or a wrong done to an innocent man. Whatever it was, he would not speak of it now until the Day of Judgment.

Despite his resolution Philip could not prevent his mind from turning to the future. Prior James, indecisive, anxious and spineless, had touched the monastery with a dead hand. Now there would be someone new, someone who would discipline the lazy servants, repair the tumbledown church, and harness the great wealth of property, making the priory a powerful force for good. Philip was too excited to stay still. He got up from the coffin and walked, with a new lightness in his step, to the quire and took an empty place at the back of the stalls.

The service was being conducted by the sacrist, Andrew of York, an irascible, red-faced man who seemed permanently on the verge of apoplexy. He was one of the obedientaries, the senior officers of the monastery. His area of responsibility was everything holy: the services, the books, the sacred relics, the vestments and the ornaments, and most of all the fabric of the church building. Working under his orders were a cantor to supervise the music and a treasurer to take care of the jeweled gold and silver candlesticks, chalices and other sacred vessels. There was no one in authority over the sacrist except the prior and the sub-prior, Remigius, who was a great crony of Andrew’s.

Andrew was reading the service in his usual tone of barely controlled ire. Philip’s mind was in a turmoil, and it was some time before he noticed that the service was not proceeding in a seemly way. A group of younger monks were making a noise, talking and laughing. Philip saw that they were making fun of the old novice-master, who had fallen asleep in his place. The young monks-most of whom had been novices under the old master until quite recently, and probably still smarted from the sting of his switch-were flicking pellets of dirt at him. Each time one hit his face he would jerk and move, but would not wake up. Andrew seemed oblivious to what was going on. Philip looked around for the circuitor, the monk responsible for discipline. He was on the far side of the quire, deep in conversation with another monk, taking no notice of the service or the behavior of the youngsters.

Philip watched a moment longer. He had no patience for this kind of thing at the best of times. One of the monks seemed to be a ringleader, a good-looking lad of about twenty-one years with an impish grin. Philip saw him dip the end of his eating knife into the top of a burning candle and flick melted grease at the novice-master’s bald pate. As the hot fat landed on his scalp the old monk woke up with a yelp, and the youngsters dissolved in laughter.

With a sigh, Philip left his place. He approached the lad from behind, took him by the ear and ungently hauled him out of the quire and into the south transept. Andrew looked up from the service book and frowned at Philip as they went: he had not seen any of the commotion.

When they were out of earshot of the other monks, Philip stopped, released the lad’s ear, and said: “Name?”

“William Beauvis.”

“And what devil possessed you during high mass?”

William looked sulky. “I was weary of the service,” he said.

Monks who complained of their lot never got any sympathy from Philip. “Weary?” he said, raising his voice a little. “What have you done today?”

“William said defiantly. “Matins and lauds in the middle of the night, prime before breakfast, then terce, chapter mass, study, and now high mass.”

“And have you eaten?”

“I had breakfast.”

“And you expect to have dinner.”

“Yes.”

“Most people your age do backbreaking work in the fields from sunrise to sunset in order to get their breakfast and their dinner-and still they give some of their bread to you! Do you know why they do this?”

“Yes,” said William, shuffling his feet and looking at the ground.

“Go on.”

“They do it because they want the monks to sing the services for them.”

“Correct. Hardworking peasants give you bread and meat and a stone-built dormitory with a fire in winter-and you are so weary that you will not sit still through high mass for them!”

“I’m sorry, Brother.”

Philip looked at William a moment longer. There was no great harm in him. The real fault lay with his superiors, who were lax enough to permit horseplay in the church. Philip said gently: “If services weary you, why did you become a monk?”

“I’m my father’s fifth son.”

Philip nodded. “And no doubt he gave the priory some land on condition we took you?”

“Yes-a farm.”

It was a common story: a man who had a superfluity of sons gave one to God, ensuring that God would not reject the gift by also giving a piece of property sufficient to support the son in monastic poverty. In that way many men who did not have a vocation became disobedient monks.

Philip said: “If you were moved-to a grange, say, or to my little cell of St-John-in-the-Forest, where there is a good deal of work to be done out-of-doors, and rather less time is spent at worship-do you think that might help you to take part in the services in a proper pious manner?”

William’s face lit up. “Yes, Brother, I think it would!”

“I thought so. I’ll see what can be done. But don’t become too excited-you may have to wait until we have a new prior, and ask him to transfer you.”

“Thank you, anyhow!”

The service ended, and the monks began to leave the church in procession. Philip put a finger to his lips to end the conversation. As the monks filed through the south transept, Philip and William joined the line, and went out into the cloisters, the arcaded quadrangle adjacent to the south side of the nave. There the procession broke up. Philip turned toward the kitchen, but his way was barred by the sacrist, who struck an aggressive pose in front of him, with his feet apart and his hands on his hips. “Brother Philip,” he said.

“Brother Andrew,” Philip said, thinking: What’s got into him?

“What do you mean by disrupting the service of high mass?”

Philip was flabbergasted. “Disrupting the service?” he said incredulously. “The lad was misbehaving. He-”

“I am quite capable of dealing with misbehavior in my own services!” said Andrew in a raised voice. The movement of dispersal among the monks was arrested, and they all stayed near to hear what was said.

Philip could not understand the fuss. Young monks and novices occasionally had to be disciplined by their more senior brothers during the services, and there was no rule to say that only the sacrist could do this. Philip said: “But you didn’t see what was happening-”

“Or perhaps I did see, but decided to deal with it later.”

Philip was quite sure he had not seen anything. “What did you see, then?” he challenged.

“Don’t you presume to question me!” Andrew shouted. His red face became purplish. “You may be prior of a little cell in the forest, but I have been sacrist here for twelve years, and I will conduct the cathedral services as I think fit-without assistance from outsiders half my age!”

Philip began to think that perhaps he really had done wrong-otherwise why was Andrew so furious? But more important, a quarrel in the cloisters was not an edifying spectacle for the other monks, and it must be brought to an end. Philip swallowed his pride, gritted his teeth, and bowed his head submissively. “I stand corrected, brother, and I humbly beg your pardon,” he said.

Andrew was wound up for a shouting match, and this early withdrawal by his opponent was not satisfying. “Don’t let it happen again, then,” he said ungraciously.

Philip made no reply. Andrew would have to have the last word, so any further remark by Philip would only draw another rejoinder. He stood looking at the floor and biting his tongue, while Andrew glared at him for several moments. At last the sacrist turned on his heel and walked away with his head held high.

The other monks were staring at Philip. It irked him to be humiliated by Andrew, but he had to take it, for a proud monk was a bad monk. Without speaking to anyone else he left the cloisters.

The monks’ domestic quarters were to the south of the cloister square, the dormitory on the southeast corner and the refectory on the southwest. Philip went out to the west, passing through the refectory and emerging once more at the public end of the priory close, within view of the guesthouse and the stables. Here in the southwest corner of the close was the kitchen courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the refectory, the kitchen itself, and the bakehouse and brewery. A cart piled high with turnips stood in the yard waiting to be unloaded. Philip climbed the steps to the kitchen door and went in.

The atmosphere struck him like a blow. The air was hot and heavy with the smell of cooking fish, and there was a raucous din of clattering pans and shouted orders. Three cooks, all red with heat and hurry, were preparing the dinner with the aid of six or seven young kitchen hands. There were two vast fireplaces, one at either end of the room, both blazing fiercely, and at each fireplace twenty or more fish were cooking on a spit turned by a perspiring boy. The smell of the fish made Philip’s mouth water. Whole carrots were being boiled in great iron pots of water which hung over the flames. Two young men stood at a chopping block, cutting yard-long loaves of white bread into thick slices to be used as trenchers-edible plates. Overseeing the apparent chaos was one monk: Brother Milius, the kitchener, a man of about Philip’s age. He sat on a high stool, watching the frenetic activity all about him with an unperturbed smile, as if everything were orderly and perfectly organized-which it probably was to his experienced eye. He smiled at Philip and said: “Thank you for the cheese.”

“Ah, yes.” Philip had forgotten about that, so much had happened since he arrived. “It’s made of milk from the morning milking only-you’ll find it tastes subtly different.”

“My mouth is watering already. But you look glum. Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing. I had harsh words with Andrew.” Philip made a deprecatory gesture, as if to wave Andrew away. “May I take a hot stone from your fire?”

“Of course.”

There were always several stones in the kitchen fires, ready to be taken out and used for rapid heating of small amounts of water or soup. Philip explained: “Brother Paul, on the bridge, has a chilblain, and Remigius won’t give him a fire.” He picked up a pair of long-handled tongs and removed a hot stone from the hearth.

Milius opened a cupboard and took out a piece of old leather that had once been some kind of apron. “Here-wrap it in this.”

“Thanks.” Philip put the hot stone in the middle of the leather and picked up the corners gingerly.

“Be quick,” Milius said. “Dinner’s ready.”

Philip left the kitchen with a wave. He crossed the kitchen courtyard and headed for the gate. To his left, just inside the west wall, was the mill. A channel had been dug, upstream of the priory, many years ago, to bring water from the river to the millpond. After driving the mill wheel the water ran by an underground channel to the brewery, the kitchen, the fountain in the cloisters where the monks washed their hands before meals, and finally the latrine next to the dormitory, after which it turned south and rejoined the river. One of the early priors had been an intelligent planner.

There was a pile of dirty straw outside the stable, Philip noted: the hands were following his orders and mucking out the stalls. He went out through the gate and walked through the village toward the bridge.

Was it presumptuous of me to reprove young William Beauvis? he asked himself as he passed among the shacks. He thought not, on reflection. In fact it would have been wrong to ignore such a disruption during the service.

He reached the bridge and put his head inside Paul’s little shelter. “Warm your feet on this,” he said, handing over the hot stone wrapped in leather. “When it cools a bit, take the leather off and put your feet directly on the stone. It should last until nightfall.”

Brother Paul was pathetically grateful. He slipped off his sandals and put his feet on the bundle immediately. “I can feel the pain easing already,” he said.

“If you put the stone back in the kitchen fire tonight it will be hot again by morning,” Philip said.

“Brother Milius won’t mind?” Paul said nervously.

“I guarantee it.”

“You’re very good to me, Brother Philip.”

“It’s nothing.” Philip left before Paul’s thanks became embarrassing. It was only a hot stone.

He returned to the priory. He went into the cloisters and washed his hands in the stone basin in the south walk, then entered the refectory. One of the monks was reading aloud at a lectern. Dinner was supposed to be taken in silence, apart from the reading, but the noise of forty-odd monks eating amounted to a constant undertone, and there was also a good deal of whispering despite the rule. Philip slipped into an empty place at one of the long tables. The monk next to him was eating with enormous relish. He caught Philip’s eye and murmured: “Fresh fish today.”

Philip nodded. He had seen it in the kitchen. His stomach rumbled.

The monk said: “We hear you have fresh fish every day at your cell in the forest.” There was envy in his voice.

Philip shook his head. “Every other day we have poultry,” he whispered.

The monk looked even more envious. “Salt fish here, six times a week.”

A servant placed a thick bread trencher in front of Philip, then put on it a fish fragrant with Brother Milius’s herbs. Philip’s mouth watered. He was about to attack the fish with his eating knife when a monk at the far end of the table stood up and pointed at him. It was the circuitor, the monk responsible for discipline. Philip thought: What now?

The circuitor broke the rule of silence, as was his right. “Brother Philip!”

The other monks stopped eating and the room went quiet.

Philip paused with his knife over the fish and looked up expectantly.

The circuitor said: “The rule is, no dinner for latecomers.”

Philip sighed. It seemed he could do nothing right today. He put away his knife, handed the trencher and the fish back to the servant, and bowed his head to listen to the reading.

During the rest period after dinner Philip went to the storeroom beneath the kitchen to talk to Cuthbert Whitehead, the cellarer. The storeroom was a big, dark cavern with short thick pillars and tiny windows. The air was dry and full of the scents of the stores: hops and honey, old apples and dried herbs, cheese and vinegar. Brother Cuthbert was usually to be found here, for his job did not leave him much time for services, which suited his inclination: he was a clever, down-to-earth fellow with little interest in the spiritual life. The cellarer was the material counterpart of the sacrist: Cuthbert had to provide for all the monks’ practical needs, gathering in the produce of the monastery’s farms and granges and going to market to buy what the monks and their employees could not provide themselves. The job required careful forethought and calculation. Cuthbert did not do it alone: Milius the kitchener was responsible for the preparation of the meals, and there was a chamberlain who took care of the monks’ clothing. These two worked under Cuthbert’s orders, and there were three more officials who were nominally under his control but had a degree of independence: the guest-master; the infirmarer, who looked after old and sick monks in a separate building; and the almoner. Even with people working under him, Cuthbert had a formidable task; yet he kept it all in his head, saying it was a shame to waste parchment and ink. Philip suspected that Cuthbert had never learned to read and write very well. Cuthbert’s hair had been white since he was young, hence the surname Whitehead, but he was now past sixty, and the only hair he had left grew in thick white tufts from his ears and nostrils, as if to compensate for his baldness. As Philip had been a cellarer himself at his first monastery, he understood Cuthbert’s problems and sympathized with his grouches. Consequently Cuthbert was fond of Philip. Now, knowing that Philip had missed his dinner, Cuthbert picked out half a dozen pears from a barrel. They were somewhat shriveled, but tasty, and Philip ate them gratefully while Cuthbert grumbled about the monastery’s finances.

“I can’t understand how the priory can be in debt,” Philip said through a mouthful of fruit.

“It shouldn’t be,” Cuthbert said. “It owns more land, and collects tithes from more parish churches, than ever before.”

“So why aren’t we rich?”

“You know the system we have here-the monastery’s property is mostly divided up among the obedientaries. The sacrist has his lands, I have mine, and there are smaller endowments for the novice-master, the guest-master, the infirmarer and the almoner. The rest belongs to the prior. Each uses the income from his property to fulfill his obligations.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, all this property should be taken care of. For example, suppose we have some land, and we let it for a cash rent. We shouldn’t just give it to the highest bidder and collect the money. We ought to take care to find a good tenant, and supervise him to make sure he farms well; otherwise the pastures become waterlogged, the soil is exhausted, and the tenant is unable to pay the rent so he gives the land back to us in poor condition. Or take a grange, farmed by our employees and managed by monks: if nobody visits the grange except to take away its produce, the monks become slothful and depraved, the employees steal the crops, and the grange produces less and less as the years go by. Even a church needs to be looked after. We shouldn’t just take the tithes. We should put in a good priest who knows the Latin and leads a holy life. Otherwise the people descend into ungodliness, marrying and giving birth and dying without the blessing of the Church, and cheating on their tithes.”

“The obedientaries should manage their property carefully,” Philip said as he finished the last pear.

Cuthbert drew a cup of wine from a barrel. “They should, but they have other things on their minds. Anyway, what does the novice-master know about farming? Why should the infirmarer be a capable estate manager? Of course, a strong prior will force them to husband their resources, to some extent. But we’ve had a weak prior for thirteen years, and now we have no money to repair the cathedral church, and we eat salt fish six days a week, and the school is almost empty of novices, and no one comes to the guesthouse.”

Philip sipped his wine in gloomy silence. He found it difficult to think coolly about such appalling dissipation of God’s assets. He wanted to get hold of whoever was responsible and shake him until he saw sense. But in this case the person responsible was lying in a coffin behind the altar. There, at least, was a glimmer of hope. “Soon we’ll have a new prior,” Philip said. “He ought to put things right.”

Cuthbert shot him a peculiar look. “Remigius? Put things right?”

Philip was not sure what Cuthbert meant. “Remigius isn’t going to be the new prior, is he?”

“It’s likely.”

Philip was dismayed. “But he’s no better than Prior James! Why would the brothers vote for him?”

“Well, they’re suspicious of strangers, so they won’t vote for anyone they don’t know. That means it has to be one of us. And Remigius is the sub-prior, the most senior monk here.”

“But there’s no rule that says we have to choose the most senior monk,” Philip protested. “It could be another one of the obedientaries. It could be you.”

Cuthbert nodded. “I’ve already been asked. I refused.”

“But why?”

“I’m getting old, Philip. The job I have now would defeat me, except that I’m so used to it I can do it automatically. Any more responsibility would be too much. I certainly haven’t got the energy to take a slack monastery and reform it. In the end I’d be no better than Remigius.”

Philip still could not believe it. “There are others-the sacrist, the circuitor, the novice-master…”

“The novice-master is old and more tired than I am. The guest-master is a glutton and a drunkard. And the sacrist and the circuitor are pledged to vote for Remigius. Why? I don’t know, but I’ll guess. I’d say Remigius has promised to promote the sacrist to sub-prior and make the circuitor the sacrist, as a reward for their support.”

Philip slumped back on the sacks of flour that formed his seat. “You’re telling me that Remigius already has the election sewn up.”

Cuthbert did not reply immediately. He stood up and went to the other side of the storeroom, where he had arranged in line a wooden bath full of live eels, a bucket of clean water, and a barrel one-third full of brine. “Help me with this,” he said. He took out a knife. He selected an eel from the bath, banged its head on the stone floor, then gutted it with the knife. He handed the fish, still feebly wriggling, to Philip. “Wash it in the bucket, then drop it in the barrel,” he said. “These will deaden our appetites during Lent.”

Philip rinsed the half-dead eel as carefully as he could in the bucket, then tossed it into the salt water.

Cuthbert gutted another eel and said: “There is one other possibility, a candidate who would be a good reforming prior and whose rank, although below that of the sub-prior, is the same as that of the sacrist or the cellarer.”

Philip plunged the eel into the bucket. “Who?”

“You.”

“Me!” Philip was so surprised he dropped the eel on the floor. He did, technically, rank as an obedientary of the priory, but he never thought of himself as being equal to the sacrist and the others because they were all so much older than he. “I’m too young-”

“Think about it,” Cuthbert said. “You’ve spent your whole life in monasteries. You were a cellarer at the age of twenty-one. You’ve been prior of a small place for four or five years-and you’ve reformed it. It’s clear to everyone that the hand of God is on you.”

Philip retrieved the escaped eel and dropped it into the barrel of brine. “The hand of God is on us all,” he said noncommittally. He was somewhat stunned by Cuthbert’s suggestion. He wanted an energetic new prior for Kingsbridge but he had not thought of himself for the job. “It’s true that I’d make a better prior than Remigius,” he said thoughtfully.

Cuthbert looked satisfied. “If you have a fault, Philip, it’s your innocence.”

Philip did not think of himself as innocent. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t look for base motives in people. Most of us do. For example, the whole monastery already assumes that you’re a candidate and that you’ve come here to solicit their votes.”

Philip was indignant. “On what grounds do they say that?”

“Try to look at your own behavior the way a low suspicious mind would see it. You’ve arrived within days of the death of Prior James, as if you had someone here primed to send you a secret message.”

“But how do they imagine I organized that?”

“They don’t know-but they believe you’re cleverer than they are.” Cuthbert resumed disemboweling eels. “And look how you’ve behaved today. You walked in and ordered the stables mucked out. Then you dealt with that horseplay during high mass. You talked of transferring young William Beauvis to another house, when everyone knows that transferring monks from one place to another is a prior’s privilege. You implicitly criticized Remigius by taking a hot stone out to Brother Paul on the bridge. And finally you brought a delicious cheese to the kitchen, and we all had a morsel after dinner-and although nobody said where it came from, not one of us could mistake the flavor of a cheese from St-John-in-the-Forest.”

Philip was embarrassed to think that his actions had been so misinterpreted. “Anybody might have done those things.”

“Any senior monk might have done one of them. Nobody else would have done them all. You walked in and took charge! You’ve already started reforming the place. And, of course, Remigius’s cronies are already fighting back. That’s why Andrew Sacrist berated you in the cloisters.”

“So that’s the explanation! I wondered what had got into him.” Philip rinsed an eel thoughtfully. “And I suppose that when the circuitor made me forgo my dinner, that was for the same reason.”

“Exactly. A way to humiliate you in front of the monks. I suspect that both moves backfired, by the way: neither reproof was justified, yet you accepted both gracefully. In fact you managed to look quite saintly.”

“I didn’t do it for effect.”

“Nor did the saints. There goes the bell for nones. You’d better leave the rest of the eels to me. After the service it’s study hour, and discussion is permitted in the cloisters. A lot of brothers will want to talk to you.”

“Not so fast!” Philip said anxiously. “Just because people assume I want to be prior doesn’t mean I’m going to stand for election.” He was daunted by the prospect of an electoral contest and not at all sure that he wanted to abandon his well-organized forest cell and take on the formidable problems of Kingsbridge Priory. “I need time to think,” he pleaded.

“I know.” Cuthbert drew himself upright and looked Philip in the eye. “When you’re thinking, please remember this: excessive pride is a familiar sin, but a man may just as easily frustrate the will of God through excessive humility.”

Philip nodded. “I’ll remember. Thank you.”

He left the storeroom and hurried to the cloisters. His mind was in a turmoil as he joined the other monks and filed into the church. He was violently excited at the prospect of becoming prior of Kingsbridge, he realized. He had been angry for years about the disgraceful way the priory was run, and now he had a chance to set all those things right himself. Suddenly he was not sure he could. It was not just a question of seeing what ought to be done and ordering that it should be so. People had to be persuaded, property had to be managed, money had to be found. It was a job for a wise head. The responsibility would be heavy.

The church calmed him, as it always did. After this morning’s misbehavior the monks were quiet and solemn. As he listened to the familiar phrases of the service, and murmured the responses as he had for so many years, he felt able to think clearly once again.

Do I want to be prior of Kingsbridge? he asked himself, and the answer came back immediately: Yes! To take charge of this crumbling church, to repair it and repaint it and fill it with the song of a hundred monks and the voices of a thousand worshipers saying the Our Father-for that alone he wanted the job. Then there was the monastery’s property, to be reorganized and revitalized and made healthy and productive again. He wanted to see a crowd of small boys learning to read and write in a corner of the cloisters. He wanted the guesthouse full of light and warmth, so that barons and bishops would come to visit, and endow the priory with precious gifts before leaving. He wanted to have a special room set aside as a library, and fill it with books of wisdom and beauty. Yes, he wanted to be prior of Kingsbridge.

Are there any other reasons? he asked. When I picture myself as prior, making these improvements for the glory of God, is there any pride in my heart?

Oh, yes.

He could not deceive himself in the cold and holy atmosphere of the church. His aim was the glory of God, but the glory of Philip pleased him too. He liked the idea of giving orders which no one could countermand. He saw himself making decisions, dispensing justice, giving out advice and encouragement, issuing penances and pardons, just as he saw fit. He imagined people saying: “Philip of Gwynedd reformed that place. It was a disgrace until he took over, and just look at it now!”

But I would be good, he thought. God gave me the brains to manage property and the ability to lead groups of men. I’ve proved that, as cellarer in Gwynedd and as prior of St-John-in-the-Forest. And when I run a place the monks are happy. In my priory the old men don’t get chilblains and the young men don’t get frustrated for lack of work. I take care of people.

On the other hand, both Gwynedd and St-John-in-the-Forest were easy by comparison with Kingsbridge Priory. The Gwynedd place was always well run. The forest cell had been in trouble when he took it over, but it was tiny, and easy to control. The reform of Kingsbridge was the challenge of a lifetime. It could take weeks just to find out what its resources were-how much land, and where, and what was on the land, whether forests or pastures or wheat fields. To take control of the scattered properties, to find out what was wrong and put it right, and to knit the parts into a thriving whole would be the work of years. All Philip had done at the forest cell was to make a dozen or so young men work hard in the fields and pray solemnly in church.

All right, he admitted, my motives are tainted and my ability is in doubt. Perhaps I should refuse to stand. At least could be sure to avoid the sin of pride. But what was it that Cuthbert had said? “A man may just as easily frustrate the will of God through excessive humility.”

What does God want? he asked himself finally. Does he want Remigius? Remigius’s abilities are less than mine and his motives are probably no more pure. Is there another candidate? Not at present. Until God reveals a third possibility we must assume that the choice is between me and Remigius. It’s clear that Remigius would run the monastery the way he ran it while Prior James was ill, which is to say that he would be idle and negligent and he would permit its decline to continue. And me? I’m full of pride and my talents are unproved-but I will try to reform the monastery, and if God gives me strength I shall succeed.

All right, then, he said to God as the service came to an end; all right. I’m going to accept nomination, and I’m going to fight with all the strength I have to win the election; and if you don’t want me, for some reason that you’ve chosen not to reveal to me, well, then, you’ll just have to stop me any way you can.

Although Philip had spent twenty-two years in monasteries, he had served under long-lived priors, so he had never known an election. It was a unique event in monastic life, for in casting their votes the brothers were not obliged to be obedient-suddenly they were all equal.

Once upon a time, if the legends were true, the monks had been equal in everything. A group of men would decide to turn their backs on the world of fleshly lust and build a sanctuary in the wilderness where they could live lives of worship and self-denial; and they would take over a patch of barren land, clearing the forest and draining the swamp, and they would till the soil and build their church together. In those days they really had been like brothers. The prior was, as his title implied, only the first among equals, and they swore obedience to the Rule of Saint Benedict, not to monastic officials. But all that was now left of that primitive democracy was the election of the prior and the abbot.

Some of the monks were uncomfortable with their power. They wanted to be told how to vote, or they suggested that the decision be referred to a committee of senior monks. Others abused the privilege and became insolent, or demanded favors in return for their support. Most were simply anxious to make the right decision.

In the cloisters that afternoon, Philip spoke to most of them, singly or in little groups, and told them all candidly that he wanted the job and he felt he could do it better than Remigius despite his youth. He answered their questions, most of which were about rations of food and drink. He ended each conversation by saying: “If each of us makes the decision thoughtfully and prayerfully, God will surely bless the outcome.” It was the prudent thing to say and he also believed it.

“We’re winning,” said Milius the kitchener next morning, as Philip and he took their breakfast of horsebread and small beer while the kitchen hands were stoking the fires.

Philip bit off a hunk of the coarse dark bread and took a mouthful of beer to soften it. Milius was a sharp-witted, ebullient young man, a protégé of Cuthbert’s and an admirer of Philip. He had dark straight hair and a small face with neat, regular features. Like Cuthbert, he was happy to serve God in practical ways and miss most of the services. Philip was suspicious of his optimism. “How do you come to that conclusion?” he asked skeptically.

“All of Cuthbert’s side of the monastery support you-the chamberlain, the infirmarer, the novice-master, myself-because we know you’re a good provider, and provisions are the big problem under the present regime. Many of the ordinary monks will vote for you for a similar reason: they think you will manage the priory’s wealth better, and that will result in more comfort and better food.”

Philip frowned. “I wouldn’t like to mislead anyone. My first priority would be to repair the church and smarten up the services. That comes before food.”

“Quite so, and they know that,” Milius said a little hastily. “That’s why the guest-master and one or two others will still vote for Remigius-they prefer a slack regime and a quiet life. The others who support him are all cronies of his who anticipate special privileges when he’s in charge-the sacrist, the circuitor, the treasurer and so on. The cantor is a friend of the sacrist, but I think he could be won over to our side, especially if you promise to appoint a librarian.”

Philip nodded. The cantor was in charge of the music, and felt he should not have to take care of the books on top of his other duties. “It’s a good idea anyway,” Philip said. “We need a librarian to build up our collection of books.”

Milius got off his stool and began to sharpen a kitchen knife. He had too much energy and had to be doing something with his hands, Philip decided. “There are forty-four monks entitled to vote,” Milius said. There had been forty-five, of course, but one was dead. “My best estimate is that eighteen are with us and ten are with Remigius, leaving sixteen undecided. We need twenty-three for a majority. That means you have to win over five waverers.”

“When you put it that way, it seems easy,” Philip said. “How long have we got?”

“Can’t tell. The brothers call the election, but if we do it too early the bishop may refuse to confirm our choice. And if we delay too long he can order us to call it. He also has the right to nominate a candidate. Right now he probably hasn’t even heard that the old prior is dead.”

“It could be a long time, then.”

“Yes. And as soon as we’re confident of a majority, you must go back to your cell, and stay away from here until it’s all over.”

Philip was puzzled by this proposal. “Why?”

“Familiarity breeds contempt.” Milius waved the sharpened knife enthusiastically. “Forgive me if I sound disrespectful, but you did ask. At the moment you’ve got an aura. You’re a remote, sanctified figure, especially to us younger monks. You worked a miracle at that little cell, reforming it and making it self-sufficient. You’re a tough disciplinarian but you feed your monks well. You’re a born leader but you can bow your head and accept rebuke like the youngest novice. You know the Scriptures and you make the best cheese in the country.”

“And you exaggerate.”

“Not much.”

“I can’t believe people think of me like that-it’s not natural.”

“Indeed it’s not,” Milius acknowledged with another little shrug. “And it won’t last once they get to know you. If you stayed here you’d lose that aura. They’d see you pick your teeth and scratch your arse, they’d hear you snore and fart, they’d find out what you’re like when you’re bad-tempered or your pride is hurt or your head aches. We don’t want them to do that. Let them watch Remigius blunder and bungle from day to day while your image remains shining and perfect in their minds.”

“I don’t like this,” Philip said in a troubled voice. “It has a deceitful feeling to it.”

“There’s nothing dishonest about it,” Milius protested. “It’s a true reflection of how well you would serve God and the monastery if you were prior-and how badly Remigius would rule.”

Philip shook his head. “I refuse to pretend to be an angel. All right, I won’t stay here-I have to go back to the forest anyway. But we must be straightforward with the brothers. We’re asking them to elect a fallible, imperfect man, who will need their help and their prayers.”

“Tell them that!” said Milius enthusiastically. “That’s perfect-they’ll love it.”

He was incorrigible, Philip thought. He changed the subject. “What’s your impression of the waverers-the brothers who haven’t yet made up their minds?”

“They’re conservative,” Milius said without hesitation. “They see Remigius as the older man, the one who will make fewer changes, the predictable one, the man who is effectively in charge at the moment.”

Philip nodded agreement. “And they look at me warily, like a strange dog that may bite.”

The bell rang for chapter. Milius swallowed the last of his beer. “There’ll be some kind of attack on you now, Philip. I can’t forecast what form it will take, but they will be trying to portray you as youthful, inexperienced, headstrong and unreliable. You must appear calm, cautious and judicious, but leave it to me and Cuthbert to defend you.”

Philip began to feel apprehensive. This was a new way of thinking-to weigh his every move and calculate how others would interpret and judge it. A slightly disapproving tone crept into his voice as he said: “Normally, I only think about how God would view my behavior.”

“I know, I know,” Milius said impatiently. “But it’s not a sin to help simpler folk see your actions in the right light.”

Philip frowned. Milius was distressingly plausible.

They left the kitchen and walked through the refectory to the cloisters. Philip was highly anxious. Attack? What did that mean, an attack? Would they tell lies about him? How should he react? If people told lies about him he would be angry. Should he suppress his anger, in order to appear calm and conservative and all the rest? But if he did that, wouldn’t the brothers think the lies were true? He was going to be his normal self, he decided; perhaps just a little more grave and dignified.

The chapter house was a small round building attached to the east walk of the cloisters. It was furnished with benches arranged in concentric rings. There was no fire, and it was cold after the kitchen. The light came from tall windows set above eye level, so there was nothing to look at but the other monks around the room.

Philip did just that. Almost the whole monastery was present. They were all ages from seventeen to seventy; tall and short, dark and fair; all dressed in the coarse homespun robe of unbleached wool and shod in leather sandals. The guest-master was there, his round belly and red nose revealing his vices-vices that might be pardonable, Philip thought, if he ever had any guests. There was the chamberlain, who forced the monks to change their robes and shave at Christmas and Whitsun (a bath at the same time was recommended but not compulsory). Leaning against the far wall was the oldest brother, a slight, thoughtful, unflappable old man whose hair was still gray rather than white; a man who spoke rarely but effectively; a man who probably should have been prior if he had not been so self-effacing. There was Brother Simon, with his furtive look and restless hands, a man who confessed to sins of impurity so often that (as Milius whispered to Philip) it seemed likely that he enjoyed the confession, not the sin. There was William Beauvis, behaving himself; Brother Paul, hardly limping at all; Cuthbert Whitehead looking self-possessed; John Small, the diminutive treasurer; and Pierre, the circuitor, the mean-mouthed man who had denied Philip his dinner yesterday. As Philip looked around he realized they were all looking at him, and he dropped his eyes, embarrassed.

Remigius came in with Andrew, the sacrist, and they sat by John Small and Pierre. So, Philip thought, they’re not going to pretend to be anything other than a faction.

Chapter began with a reading about Simeon Stylites, the saint whose feast day it was. He was a hermit who had spent most of his life on top of a pillar, and while there could be no doubt about his capacity for self-denial, Philip had always harbored a secret doubt about the real value of his testimony. Crowds had flocked to see him, but had they come to be spiritually uplifted, or to look at a freak?

After the prayers came the reading of a chapter of Saint Benedict’s book. It was from this reading of a daily chapter that the meeting, and the little building in which it took place, got their names. Remigius stood up to read, and as he paused with the book in front of him, Philip looked intently at his profile, seeing him for the first time through the eyes of a rival. Remigius had a brisk, efficient manner of moving and speaking which gave him an air of competence entirely at variance with his true character. Closer observation revealed clues to what was beneath the facade: his rather prominent blue eyes shifted about rapidly in an anxious way, his weak-looking mouth worked hesitantly two or three times before he spoke, and his hands clenched and opened repeatedly even though he was otherwise still. What authority he had came from arrogance, petulance and a dismissive way with subordinates.

Philip wondered why he had chosen to read the chapter himself. A moment later he understood. “ ‘The first degree of humility is prompt obedience,’ ” Remigius read. He had chosen Chapter Five, which was about obedience, to remind everyone of his seniority and their subordination. It was a tactic of intimidation. Remigius was nothing if not sly. “ ‘They live not as they themselves will, neither do they obey their own desires and pleasures; but following the command and direction of another and abiding in their monasteries, their desire is to be ruled by an abbot,’ ” he read. “ ‘Without doubt such as these carry out the saying of our Lord, I came not to do my own will, but the will of Him Who sent me.’ ” Remigius was drawing the battle lines in the expected way: in this contest he was to represent established authority.

The chapter was followed by the necrology, and today of course all prayers were for the soul of Prior James. The liveliest part of chapter was kept to the end: discussion of business, confession of faults and accusations of misconduct.

Remigius began by saying: “There was a disturbance during high mass yesterday.”

Philip felt almost relieved. Now he knew how he was going to be attacked. He was not sure that his action yesterday had been right, but he knew why he had done it and he was ready to defend himself.

Remigius went on: “I myself was not present-I was detained in the prior’s house, dealing with urgent business-but the sacrist has told me what occurred.”

He was interrupted by Cuthbert Whitehead. “Don’t reproach yourself on that account, Brother Remigius,” he said in a soothing voice. “We know that, in principle, monastery business should never take precedence over high mass, but we understand that the death of our beloved prior has meant that you have to deal with many matters which are outside your normal competence. I feel sure we all agree that no penance is necessary.”

The wily old fox, Philip thought. Of course, Remigius had had no intention of confessing a fault. Nevertheless, Cuthbert had pardoned him, hereby making everyone feel that a fault had indeed been admitted. Now, even if Philip were to be convicted of an error, it would do no more than put him on the same level as Remigius. In addition, Cuthbert had planted the suggestion that Remigius was having difficulty coping with the prior’s duties. Cuthbert had completely undermined Remigius’s authority with a few kindly-sounding words. Remigius looked furious. Philip felt the thrill of triumph tighten his throat.

Andrew Sacrist glared accusingly at Cuthbert. “I’m sure none of us would wish to criticize our revered sub-prior,” he said. “The disturbance referred to was caused by Brother Philip, who is visiting us from the cell of St-John-in-the-Forest. Philip took young William Beauvis out of his place in the quire, hauled him over to the south transept, and there reprimanded him while I was conducting the service.”

Remigius composed his face in a mask of sorrowful reproof. “We may all agree that Philip should have waited until the end of the service.”

Philip examined the expressions of the other monks. They seemed neither to agree nor disagree with what was being said. They were following the proceedings with the air of spectators at a tournament, in which there is no right or wrong and the only interest is in who will triumph.

Philip wanted to protest If I had waited, the misbehavior would have gone on all through the service, but he remembered Milius’s advice, and remained silent; and Milius spoke up for him. “I too missed high mass, as is frequently my misfortune, for high mass comes just before dinner; so perhaps you could tell me, Brother Andrew, what was happening in the quire before Brother Philip took this action. Was everything orderly and becoming?”

“There was some fidgeting among the youngsters,” the sacrist replied sulkily. “I intended to speak to them about it later.”

“It’s understandable that you should be vague about the details-your mind was on the service,” Milius said charitably. “Fortunately, we have a circuitor whose particular duty it is to attend to misbehavior among us. Tell us, Brother Pierre, what you observed.”

The circuitor looked hostile. “Just what the sacrist has already told you.”

Milius said: “It seems we’ll have to ask Brother Philip himself for the details.”

Milius had been very clever, Philip thought. He had established that neither the sacrist nor the circuitor had seen what the young monks were doing during the service. But although Philip admired Milius’s dialectical skill, he was reluctant to play the game. Choosing a prior was not a contest of wits, it was a matter of seeking to know the will of God. He hesitated. Milius was giving him a look that said Nows your chance! But there was a stubborn streak in Philip, and it showed most clearly when someone tried to push him into a morally dubious position. He looked Milius in the eye and said: “It was as my brothers have described.”

Milius’s face fell. He stared incredulously at Philip. He opened his mouth, but visibly did not know what to say. Philip felt guilty about letting him down. I’ll explain myself to him afterward, he thought, unless he’s too angry.

Remigius was about to press on with the indictment when another voice said: “I would like to confess.”

Everyone looked. It was William Beauvis, the original offender, standing up and looking shamefaced. “I was flicking pellets of mud at the novice-master and laughing,” he said in a low, clear voice. “Brother Philip made me ashamed. I beg God’s forgiveness and ask the brothers to give me a penance.” He sat down abruptly.

Before Remigius could react, another youngster stood up and said: “I have a confession. I did the same. I ask for a penance.” He sat down again. This sudden access of guilty conscience was infectious: a third monk confessed, then a fourth, then a fifth.

The truth was out, despite Philip’s scruples, and he could not help feeling pleased. He saw that Milius was struggling to suppress a triumphant smile. The confession left no doubt that there had been a minor riot going on under the noses of the sacrist and the circuitor.

The culprits were sentenced, by a highly displeased Remigius, to a week of total silence: they were not to speak and no one was to speak to them. It was a harsher punishment than it sounded. Philip had suffered it when he was young. Even for one day the isolation was oppressive, and a whole week of it was utterly miserable.

But Remigius was merely giving vent to his anger at having been outmaneuvered. Once they had confessed he had no option but to punish them, although in punishing them he was conceding that Philip had been right in the first place. His attack on Philip had gone badly wrong, and Philip was triumphant. Despite a guilty pang, he relished the moment.

But Remigius’s humiliation was not yet complete.

Cuthbert spoke again. “There was another disturbance that we ought to discuss. It took place in the cloisters just after high mass.” Philip wondered what on earth was coming next. “Brother Andrew confronted Brother Philip and accused him of misconduct.” Of course he did, Philip was thinking; everyone knows that. Cuthbert went on: “Now, we all know that the time and place for such accusations is here and now, in chapter. And there are good reasons why our forebears ordained it so. Tempers cool overnight, and grievances can be discussed the next morning in an atmosphere of calm and moderation; and the whole community can bring its collective wisdom to bear on the problem. But, I regret to say, Andrew flouted this sensible rule, and made a scene in the cloisters, disturbing everyone and speaking intemperately. To let such misbehavior pass would be unfair on the younger brothers who have been punished for what they have done.”

It was merciless, and it was brilliant, Philip thought happily. The question of whether Philip had been right to take William out of the quire during the service had never actually been discussed. Every attempt to raise it had been turned into an inquiry into the behavior of the accuser. And that was as it should be, for Andrew’s complaint against Philip had been insincere. Between them Cuthbert and Milius had now discredited Remigius and his two main allies, Andrew and Pierre.

Andrew’s normally red face was purple with fury, and Remigius looked almost frightened. Philip was pleased-they deserved it-but now he worried that their humiliation was in danger of going too far. “It’s unseemly for junior brothers to discuss the punishment of their seniors,” he said. “Let the sub-prior deal with this matter privately.” Looking around, he saw that the monks approved of his magnanimity, and he realized that unintentionally he had scored yet another point.

It seemed to be all over. The mood of the meeting was with Philip, and he felt sure he had won over most of the waverers. Then Remigius said: “There is another matter I have to raise.”

Philip studied the sub-prior’s face. He looked desperate. Philip glanced at Andrew Sacrist and Pierre Circuitor and saw that they both looked surprised. This was something unplanned, then. Was Remigius going to plead for the job, perhaps?

“Most of you know that the bishop has a right to nominate candidates for our consideration,” Remigius began. “He may also refuse to confirm our choice. This division of powers can lead to quarreling between bishop and monastery, as some older brothers know from experience. In the end, the bishop cannot force us to accept his candidate, nor can we insist on ours; and where there is conflict, it has to be resolved by negotiation. In that case, the outcome depends a good deal on the determination and unity of the brothers-especially their unity.”

Philip had a bad feeling about this. Remigius had suppressed his rage and was once again calm and haughty. Philip still did not know what was coming, but his triumphant feeling evaporated.

“The reason I mention all this today is that two important items of information have come to my notice,” Remigius went on. “The first is that there may be more than one candidate nominated from among us here in this room.” That didn’t surprise anyone, Philip thought. “The second is that the bishop will also nominate a candidate.”

There was a pregnant pause. This was bad news for both parties. Someone said: “Do you know whom the bishop wants?”

“Yes,” Remigius said, and in that instant Philip felt sure the man was lying. “The bishop’s choice is Brother Osbert of Newbury.”

One or two of the monks gasped. They were all horrified. They knew Osbert, for he had been circuitor at Kingsbridge for a while. He was the bishop’s illegitimate son, and he regarded the Church purely as a means whereby he could live a life of idleness and plenty. He had never made any serious attempt to abide by his vows, but kept up a semi-transparent sham and relied upon his paternity to keep him out of trouble. The prospect of having him as prior was appalling, even to Remigius’s friends. Only the guest-master and one or two of his irredeemably depraved cronies might favor Osbert in anticipation of a regime of slack discipline and slovenly indulgence.

Remigius plowed on. “If we nominate two candidates, brothers, the bishop may say that we are divided and cannot make up our collective mind, so therefore he must decide for us, and we should accept his choice. If we want to resist Osbert, we would do well to put forward one candidate only; and, perhaps I should add, we should make sure that our candidate cannot easily be faulted, for example on grounds of youth or inexperience.”

There was a murmur of assent. Philip was devastated. A moment ago he had been sure of victory, but it had been snatched from his grasp. Now all the monks were with Remigius, seeing him as the safe candidate, the unity candidate, the man to beat Osbert. Philip felt sure Remigius was lying about Osbert, but it would make no difference. The monks were scared now, and they would back Remigius; and that meant more years of decline for Kingsbridge Priory.

Before anyone could comment, Remigius said: “Let us now dismiss, and think and pray about this problem as we do God’s work today.” He stood up and went out, followed by Andrew, Pierre and John Small, these three looking dazed but triumphant.

As soon as they had gone, a buzz of conversation broke out among the others. Milius said to Philip: “I never thought Remigius had it in him to pull a trick like that.”

“He’s lying,” Philip said bitterly. “I’m sure of it.”

Cuthbert joined them and heard Philip’s remark. “It doesn’t really matter if he’s lying, does it?” he said. “The threat is enough.”

“The truth will come out eventually,” Philip said.

“Not necessarily,” Milius replied. “Suppose the bishop doesn’t nominate Osbert. Remigius will just say the bishop yielded before the prospect of a battle with a united priory.”

“I’m not ready to give in,” Philip said stubbornly.

Milius said: “What else will we do?”

“We must find out the truth,” Philip said.

“We can’t,” said Milius.

Philip racked his brains. The frustration was agony. “Why can’t we just ask?” he said.

“Ask? What do you mean?”

“Ask the bishop what his intentions are.”

“How?”

“We could send a message to the bishop’s palace, couldn’t we?” Philip said, thinking aloud. He looked at Cuthbert.

Cuthbert was thoughtful. “Yes. I send messengers out all the time. I can send one to the palace.”

Milius said skeptically: “And ask the bishop what his intentions are?”

Philip frowned. That was the problem.

Cuthbert agreed with Milius. “The bishop won’t tell us,” he said.

Philip was struck by an inspiration. His brow cleared, and he punched his palm excitedly as he saw the solution. “No,” he said. “The bishop won’t tell us. But his archdeacon will.”

That night Philip dreamed about Jonathan, the abandoned baby. In his dream the child was in the porch of the chapel at St-John-in-the-Forest and Philip was inside, reading the service of prime, when a wolf came slinking out of the woods and crossed the field, smooth as a snake, heading for the baby. Philip was afraid to move for fear of causing a disturbance during the service and being reprimanded by Remigius and Andrew, both of whom were there (although in reality neither of them had ever been to the cell). He decided to shout, but although he tried, no sound would come, as often happened in dreams. At last he made such an effort to call out that he woke himself up, and lay in the dark trembling while he listened to the breathing of the sleeping monks all around him and slowly convinced himself that the wolf was not real.

He had hardly thought of the baby since arriving at Kingsbridge. He wondered what he would do with the child if he were to become prior. Everything would be different then. A baby in a little monastery hidden in the forest was of no consequence, however unusual. The same baby at Kingsbridge Priory would cause a stir. On the other hand, what was wrong with that? It was not a sin to give people something to talk about. He would be prior, so he could do as he pleased. He could bring Johnny Eightpence to Kingsbridge to take care of the baby. The idea pleased him inordinately. That’s just what I’ll do, he thought. Then he remembered that in all probability he would not become prior.

He lay awake until dawn, in a fever of impatience. There was nothing he could do now to press his case. It was useless to talk to the monks, for their thinking was dominated by the threat of Osbert. A few of them had even approached Philip and told him they were sorry he had lost, as if the election had already been held. He had resisted the temptation to call them faithless cowards. He just smiled and told them they might yet be surprised. But his own faith was not strong. Archdeacon Waleran might not be at the bishop’s palace; or he might be there but have some reason for not wanting to tell Philip the bishop’s plans; or-most likely of all, given the archdeacon’s character-he might have plans of his own.

Philip got up at dawn with the other monks and went into the church for prime, the first service of the day. Afterward he headed for the refectory, intending to take his breakfast with the others, but Milius intercepted him and beckoned him, with a furtive gesture, to the kitchen. Philip followed him, his nerves wound taut. The messenger must be back: that was quick. He must have got his reply immediately and started back yesterday afternoon. Even so he had been fast. Philip did not know a horse in the priory stable that was capable of doing the journey so rapidly. But what would the answer be?

It was not the messenger who was waiting in the kitchen-it was the archdeacon himself, Waleran Bigod.

Philip stared at him in surprise. The thin, black-draped form of the archdeacon was perched on a stool like a crow on a tree stump. The end of his beaky nose was red with cold. He was warming his bony white hands around a cup of hot spiced wine.

“It’s good of you to come!” Philip blurted out.

“I’m glad you wrote to me,” Waleran said coolly.

“Is it true?” Philip asked impatiently. “Will the bishop nominate Osbert?”

Waleran held up a hand to stop him. “I’ll get to that. Cuthbert here is just telling me of yesterday’s events.”

Philip concealed his disappointment. This was not a straightforward answer. He studied Waleran’s face, trying to read his mind. Waleran did indeed have plans of his own, but Philip could not guess what they were.

Cuthbert-whom Philip had not at first noticed, sitting by the fire dipping his horsebread into his beer to soften it for his elderly teeth-resumed an account of yesterday’s chapter. Philip fidgeted restlessly, trying to guess what Waleran might be up to. He tried a morsel of bread but found he was too tense to swallow. He drank some of the watery beer, just to have something to do with his hands.

“And so,” Cuthbert said at last, “it seemed that our only chance was to try to verify the bishop’s intentions; and fortunately Philip “felt able to presume upon his acquaintanceship with yourself; so we sent you the message.”

Philip said impatiently: “And now will you tell us what we want to know?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you.” Waleran put down his wine untasted. “The bishop would like his son to be prior of Kingsbridge.”

Philip’s heart sank. “So Remigius told the truth.”

Waleran went on: “However, the bishop is not willing to risk a quarrel with the monks.”

Philip frowned. This was more or less what Remigius had forecast-but something was not quite right. Philip said to Waleran: “You didn’t come all this way just to tell us that.”

Waleran shot a look of respect at Philip, and Philip knew he had guessed right. “No,” Waleran said. “The bishop has asked me to test the mood of the monastery. And he has empowered me to make a nomination on his behalf. Indeed, I have with me the bishop’s seal, so that I can write a letter of nomination, to make the matter formal and binding. I have his full authority, you see.”

Philip took a moment to digest that. Waleran was empowered to make a nomination and seal it with the bishop’s seal. That meant the bishop had put the whole matter in Waleran’s hands. He now spoke with the bishop’s authority.

Philip took a deep breath and said: “Do you accept what Cuthbert has told you-that if Osbert were to be nominated, it would cause the quarrel the bishop wants to avoid?”

“Yes, I understand that,” said Waleran.

“Then you won’t nominate Osbert.”

“No.”

Philip felt wound up tight enough to snap. The monks would be so glad to escape the threat of Osbert that they would gratefully vote for whoever Waleran might nominate.

Waleran now had the power to choose the new prior.

Philip said: “Then whom will you nominate?”

Waleran said: “You… or Remigius.”

“Remigius’s ability to run the priory-”

“I know his abilities, and yours,” Waleran interrupted, once again holding up a thin white hand to stop Philip. “I know which of you would make the best prior.” He paused. “But there is another matter.”

What now? wondered Philip. What else was there to consider, other than who would make the best prior? He looked at the others. Milius was also mystified, but old Cuthbert had a slight smile, as if he knew what was coming.

Waleran said: “Like you, I’m anxious that important posts in the Church should go to energetic and capable men, regardless of age, rather than being handed out as rewards for long service to senior men whose holiness may be greater than their administrative ability.”

“Of course,” Philip said impatiently. He did not see the relevance of this lecture.

“We should work together to this end-you three, and me.”

Milius said: “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“I do,” said Cuthbert.

Waleran gave Cuthbert a thin smile, then returned his attention to Philip. “Let me be plain,” he said. “The bishop himself is old. One day he will die, and then we will need a new bishop, just as today we need a new prior. The monks of Kingsbridge have the right to elect the new bishop, for the bishop of Kingsbridge is also the abbot of the priory.”

Philip frowned. All this was irrelevant. They were electing a prior, not a bishop.

But Waleran went on. “Of course, the monks will not be completely free to choose whom they like to be bishop, for the archbishop and the king will have their views; but in the end it is the monks who legitimize the appointment. And when that time comes, you three will have a powerful influence on the decision.”

Cuthbert was nodding as if his guess had turned out to be right, and now Philip, too, had an inkling of what was coming.

Waleran finished: “You want me to make you prior of Kingsbridge. I want you to make me bishop.”

So that was it!

Philip stared in silence at Waleran. It was very simple. The archdeacon wanted to make a deal.

Philip was shocked. It was not quite the same as buying and selling a clerical office, which was known as the sin of simony; but it had an unpleasantly commercial feeling about it.

He tried to think objectively about the proposal. It would mean that Philip would become prior. His heart beat faster at the thought. He was reluctant to quibble with anything that would give him the priory.

It would mean that Waleran would probably become bishop at some point. Would he be a good bishop? He would certainly be competent. He appeared to have no serious vices. He had a rather worldly, practical approach to the service of God, but then so did Philip. Philip sensed that Waleran had a ruthless edge that he himself lacked, but he also sensed that it was based on a genuine determination to protect and nurture the interests of the Church.

Who else might be a candidate, when the bishop eventually died? Probably Osbert. It was not unknown for religious offices to be passed from father to son, despite the official requirement of clerical celibacy. Osbert, of course, would be even more of a liability to the Church as bishop than he would be as prior. It would be worth supporting a much worse candidate than Waleran just to keep Osbert out.

Would anyone else be in the running? It was impossible to guess. It might be years yet before the bishop died.

Cuthbert said to Waleran: “We couldn’t guarantee to get you elected.”

“I know,” said Waleran. “I’m asking only for your nomination. Appropriately, that’s exactly what I have to offer you in return-a nomination.”

Cuthbert nodded. “I’ll agree to that,” he said solemnly.

“So will I,” said Milius.

The archdeacon and the two monks looked at Philip. He hesitated, torn. This was not the way to choose a bishop, he knew; but the priory was within his grasp. It could not be right to barter one holy office for another, like horse traders-but if he refused, the result might be that Remigius became prior and Osbert became bishop!

However, the rational arguments now seemed academic. The desire to be prior was like an irresistible force within him, and he could not refuse, regardless of the pros and cons. He recalled the prayer he had sent up yesterday, telling God that he intended to fight for the job. He raised his eyes now, and sent up another: If you don’t want this to happen, then still my tongue, and paralyze my mouth, and stop my breath in my throat, and prevent me from speaking.

Then he looked at Waleran and said: “I accept.”

The prior’s bed was huge, three times the width of any bed Philip had ever slept in. The wooden base stood half the height of a man, and there was a feather mattress on top of that. It had curtains all around to keep out drafts, and on the curtains biblical scenes had been embroidered by the patient hands of a pious woman. Philip examined it with some misgivings. It seemed to him enough of an extravagance that the prior should have a bedroom all to himself-Philip had never in his life had his own bedroom, and tonight would be the first time he had ever slept alone. The bed was too much. He considered having a straw mattress brought over from the dormitory, and moving the bed into the infirmary, where it would ease an ailing monk’s old bones. But of course the bed was not just for Philip. When the priory had an especially distinguished guest, a bishop or a great lord or even a king, then the guest would have this bedroom and the prior would shift as best he could somewhere else. So Philip could not really get rid of it.

“You’ll sleep soundly tonight,” said Waleran Bigod, not without a hint of envy.

“I suppose I shall,” Philip said dubiously.

Everything had happened very quickly. Waleran had written a letter to the priory, right there in the kitchen, ordering the monks to hold an immediate election and nominating Philip. He had signed the letter with the bishop’s name and sealed it with the bishop’s seal. Then the four of them had gone into chapter.

As soon as Remigius saw them enter he knew the battle was over. Waleran read the letter, and the monks cheered when he got to Philip’s name. Remigius had the wit to dispense with the formality of the vote and concede defeat.

And Philip was prior.

He had conducted the rest of chapter in something of a daze, and then had walked across the lawns to the prior’s house, in the southeast corner of the priory close, to take up residence.

When he saw the bed he realized that his life had changed utterly and irrevocably. He was different, special, set apart from other monks. He had power and privilege. And he had responsibility. He alone had to make sure that this little community of forty-five men survived and prospered. If they starved, it would be his fault; if they became depraved, he would be to blame; if they disgraced God’s Church, God would hold Philip responsible. He had sought this burden, he reminded himself; now he must bear it.

His first duty as prior would be to lead the monks into church for high mass. Today was Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, and a holiday. All the villagers would be at the service, and more people would come from the surrounding district. A good cathedral with a strong body of monks and a reputation for spectacular services could attract a thousand people or more. Even dreary Kingsbridge would draw most of the local gentry, for the service was a social occasion too, when they could meet their neighbors and talk business.

But before the service Philip had something else to discuss with Waleran, now that they were alone at last. “That information I passed you,” he began. “About the earl of Shiring…”

Waleran nodded. “I haven’t forgotten-indeed, that could be more important than the question of who is prior or bishop. Earl Bartholomew has arrived in England already. They expect him at Shiring tomorrow.”

“What are you going to do?” Philip said anxiously.

“I’m going to make use of Sir Percy Hamleigh. In fact, I’m hoping he’ll be in the congregation today.”

“I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never seen him,” Philip said.

“Look for a fat lord with a hideous wife and a handsome son. You can’t miss the wife-she’s an eyesore.”

“What makes you think they will take King Stephen’s side against Earl Bartholomew?”

“They hate the earl passionately.”

“Why?”

“The son, William, was engaged to marry the earl’s daughter, but she took against him, and the marriage was called off, much to the humiliation of the Hamleighs. They’re still smarting from the insult, and they’ll jump at any chance to strike back at Bartholomew.”

Philip nodded, satisfied. He was glad to have shed that responsibility: he had a full quota. Kingsbridge Priory was a big enough problem for him to manage. Waleran could take care of the world outside.

They left the prior’s house and walked back to the cloisters. The monks were waiting. Philip took his place at the head of the line and the procession moved off.

It was a good moment when he walked into the church with the monks singing behind him. He liked it more than he had anticipated. He told himself that his new eminence symbolized the power he now had to do good, and that was why he was so profoundly thrilled. He wished Abbot Peter from Gwynedd could see him-the old man would be so proud.

He led the monks into the quire stalls. A major service such as this one was often taken by the bishop. Today it would be led by the bishop’s deputy, Archdeacon Waleran. As Waleran began, Philip scanned the congregation, looking for the family Waleran had described. There were about a hundred and fifty people standing in the nave, the wealthy in their heavy winter cloaks and leather shoes, the peasants in their rough jackets and felt boots or wooden clogs. Philip had no trouble picking out the Hamleighs. They were near the front, close to the altar. He saw the woman first. Waleran had not exaggerated-she was repulsive. She wore a hood, but most of her face was visible, and he could see that her skin was covered with unsightly boils which she touched nervously all the time. Beside her was a heavy man of about forty years: that would be Percy. His clothes showed him to be a man of considerable wealth and power, but not in the top rank of barons and earls. The son was leaning against one of the massive columns of the nave. He was a fine figure of a man, with very yellow hair and narrow, haughty eyes. A marriage with an earl’s family would have enabled the Hamleighs to cross the line that divided county gentry from the nobility of the kingdom. It was no wonder they were angry about the cancellation of the wedding.

Philip returned his mind to the service. Waleran was going through it a little too fast for Philip’s taste. He wondered again whether he had been right to agree to nominate Waleran as bishop when the present bishop should die. Waleran was a dedicated man, but he appeared to undervalue the importance of worship. The prosperity and power of the Church were only means to an end, after all: the ultimate object was the salvation of souls. Philip decided that he must not worry about Waleran too much. The thing was done, now; and anyway, the bishop would probably frustrate Waleran’s ambition by living another twenty years.

The congregation was noisy. None of them knew the responses, of course; only priests and monks were expected to take part, except in the most familiar prayers and the amens. Some of the congregation watched in reverent silence, but others wandered around, greeting one another and chatting. They’re simple people, Philip thought; you have to do something to keep their attention.

The service drew to a close, and Archdeacon Waleran addressed them. “Most of you know that the beloved prior of Kingsbridge has died. His body, which lies here with us in church, will be laid to rest in the priory graveyard today after dinner. The bishop and the monks have chosen as his successor Brother Philip of Gwynedd, who led us into church this morning.”

He stopped, and Philip stood up to lead the procession out. Then Waleran said: “I have another sad announcement.”

Philip was taken by surprise. He sat down promptly.

“I have just received a message,” Waleran said.

He had received no messages, Philip knew. They had been together all morning. What was the sly archdeacon up to now?

“The message tells me of a loss which will grieve us all deeply.” He paused again.

Someone was dead-but who? Waleran had known about it before he arrived, but he had kept it a secret, and he was going to pretend that he had only just heard the news. Why?

Philip could think of only one possibility-and if Philip’s suspicion were right, Waleran was much more ambitious and unscrupulous than Philip had imagined. Had he really deceived and manipulated them all? Had Philip been a mere pawn in Waleran’s game?

Waleran’s final words confirmed that he had. “Dearly beloved,” he said solemnly, “the bishop of Kingsbridge is dead.”

Chapter 3

I

“THAT BITCH WILL BE THERE,” said William’s mother, “I’m sure she will.”

William looked at the looming facade of Kingsbridge Cathedral with mingled dread and longing. If the Lady Aliena were to be at the Epiphany service it would be painfully embarrassing for them all, but nevertheless his heart quickened at the thought of seeing her again.

They were trotting along the road to Kingsbridge, William and his father on war-horses and his mother on a fine courser, with three knights and three grooms following. They made an impressive and even fearsome party, which pleased William; and the peasants walking on the road scattered before their powerful horses; but Mother was seething.

“They all know, even these wretched serfs,” she said through her teeth. “They even tell jokes about us. ‘When is a bride not a bride? When the groom is Will Hamleigh!’ I had a man flogged for that but it did no good. I’d like to get hold of that bitch, I’d flay her alive, and hang her skin on a nail, and let the birds peck her flesh.”

William wished she would not go on about it. The family had been humiliated, and it had been William’s fault-or so Mother said-and he did not want to be reminded of it.

They clattered over the rickety wooden bridge that led to Kingsbridge village and urged their horses up the sloping main street to the priory. There were already twenty or thirty horses cropping the sparse grass of the graveyard on the north side of the church, but none as fine as those of the Hamleighs. They rode up to the stable and left their mounts with the priory grooms.

They crossed the green in formation, William and his father on either side of Mother, then the knights behind them, and the grooms bringing up the rear. People stood aside for them, but William could see them nudging one another and pointing, and he felt sure they were whispering about the canceled wedding. He risked a glance at Mother, and he could tell by the thunderous look on her face that she thought the same.

They went into the church.

William hated churches. They were cold and dim even in fine weather, and there was always that faintly corrupt smell lingering in the dark corners and the low tunnels of the aisles. Worst of all, churches made him think of the torments of hell, and he was frightened of hell.

He raked the congregation with his eyes. At first he could hardly distinguish people’s faces because of the gloom. After a few moments his eyes adjusted. He could not see Aliena. They progressed up the aisle. She did not seem to be here. He felt both relieved and let down. Then he saw her, and his heart missed a beat.

She was on the south side of the nave near the front, escorted by a knight William did not know, surrounded by men-at-arms and ladies-in-waiting. She had her back to him, but her mass of dark curly hair was unmistakable. As he spotted her she turned, showing a soft curved cheek and a straight, imperious nose. Her eyes, so dark they were almost black, met William’s. He stopped breathing. Those dark eyes, already large, widened when she saw him. He wanted to look past her carelessly, as if he had not seen her, but he could not tear his gaze away. He wanted her to smile at him, even if it was only the merest curving of her full lips, no more than a polite acknowledgment. He inclined his head to her, only slightly-it was more of a nod than a bow. Her face set in stiff lines, and she turned away to face the front.

William winced as if he was in pain. He felt like a dog that had been kicked out of the way, and he wanted to curl up in a corner where no one would notice him. He glanced to either side, wondering whether anyone had seen the exchange of looks. As he walked farther up the aisle with his parents, he realized that people were looking from him to Aliena and back again, nudging one another and whispering. He stared straight ahead to avoid meeting anybody’s eyes. He had to force himself to hold his head high. How has she done this to us? he thought. We’re one of the proudest families in southern England, and she’s made us feel small. The thought infuriated him, and he longed to draw his sword and attack someone, anyone.

The sheriff of Shiring greeted William’s father and they shook hands. People looked away, searching for something new to murmur about. William was still seething. Young noblemen approached Aliena and bowed to her in a constant stream. She was willing to smile at them.

The service began. William wondered how everything had gone so badly wrong. Earl Bartholomew had a son to inherit his title and his fortune, so the only use he had for a daughter was to form an alliance. Aliena was sixteen years old and a virgin, and showed no inclination to become a nun, so it was assumed she would be delighted to marry a healthy nineteen-year-old nobleman. After all, political considerations might just as easily have led her father to marry her to a fat gouty forty-year-old earl or even a balding baron of sixty.

Once the deal had been agreed, William and his parents had not been reticent about it. They had proudly broadcast the news all over the surrounding counties. The meeting between William and Aliena had been considered a formality by everyone-except Aliena, as it turned out.

They were not strangers, of course. He remembered her as a little girl. She had had an impish face with a snub nose then, and her unruly hair had been kept short. She had been bossy, headstrong, pugnacious, and daring. She always organized the children’s games, deciding what they should play, and who should be on which team, adjudicating disputes and keeping score. He had been fascinated by her while at the same time resenting the way she dominated the children’s play. It had always been possible to spoil her games, and make himself the center of attention for a while, simply by starting a fight; but that did not last long, and in the end she would resume control, leaving him feeling baffled, defeated, spurned, angry, and yet enchanted-just as he felt now.

After her mother died she had traveled with her father a lot and William had seen less of her. However, he met her often enough to know that she was growing into a ravishingly beautiful young woman, and he had been delighted when he was told she was to be his bride. He assumed she had to marry him whether she liked him or not, but he went along to meet her intending to do all he could to smooth the path to the altar.

She might be a virgin but he was not. Some of the girls he had charmed were almost as pretty as Aliena, almost, although none of them was as high-born. In his experience a lot of girls were impressed by his fine clothes, his spirited horses, and the casual way he had of spending money on sweet wine and ribbons; and if he could get them alone in a barn they generally submitted to him, more or less willingly, in the end.

His usual approach to girls was a little offhand. At first he would let them think he was not particularly interested in them. But when he found himself alone with Aliena his diffidence deserted him. She was wearing a bright blue silk gown, loose and flowing, but all he could think about was the body underneath it, which he would soon be able to see naked whenever he liked. He had found her reading a book, which was a peculiar occupation for a woman who was not a nun. He had asked her what it was, in an attempt to take his mind off the way her breasts moved under the blue silk.

“It’s called ‘The Romance of Alexander.’ It’s the story of a king called Alexander the Great, and how he conquered wonderful lands in the east where precious stones grow on grapevines and plants can talk.”

William could not imagine why a person would want to waste time on such foolishness, but he had not said so. He had told her about his horses, his dogs, and his achievements in hunting, wrestling and jousting. She had not been as impressed as he had hoped. He had told her about the house his father was building for them, and, to help her prepare for the time when she would be running his household, he gave her an outline of the way he wanted things done. He had felt he was losing her attention, though he could not say why. He sat as close to her as possible, for he wanted to get her in a clinch, and feel her up, and find out whether those tits were as big as he fancied they were; but she leaned away from him, folding her arms and crossing her legs, looking so forbidding that he was reluctantly forced to abandon the idea, and console himself with the thought that soon he would be able to do anything he liked to her.

However, while he was with her she gave no indication of the fuss she was going to make later. She had said, rather quietly, “I don’t think we’re well suited,” but he had taken this for a piece of charming modesty on her part, and had assured her that she would suit him very well. He had no idea that as soon as he was off the premises she would storm in to her father and announce that she would not marry him, nothing would persuade her, she would rather go into a convent, and they could drag her to the altar in chains but she would not speak the vows. The bitch, William thought; the bitch. But he could not summon the kind of venom that Mother spat when she spoke of Aliena. He did not want to flay Aliena alive. He wanted to lie on top of her hot body and kiss her mouth.

The Epiphany service ended with the announcement of the death of the bishop. William hoped this news would at last overshadow the sensation of the canceled marriage. The monks left in procession, and there was a buzz of excited conversation as the congregation headed for the exits. Many of them had material as well as spiritual ties to the bishop-as his tenants, or subtenants, or as employees on his lands-and everyone was interested in the question of who would succeed him, and whether the successor would make any changes. The death of a great lord was always perilous for those ruled by him.

As William followed his parents down the nave he was surprised to see Archdeacon Waleran coming toward them. He moved briskly through the congregation, like a big black dog in a field of cows; and like cows the people looked nervously over their shoulders at him and moved a step or two out of his way. He ignored the peasants, but spoke a few words to each of the gentry. When he reached the Hamleighs he greeted William’s father, ignored William, and turned his attention on Mother. “Such a shame about the marriage,” he said.

William flushed. Did the fool think he was being polite with his commiserations?

Mother was no more keen to talk about it than William was. “I’m not one to bear a grudge,” she lied.

Waleran ignored that. “I’ve heard something about Earl Bartholomew that may interest you,” he said. His voice went quieter, so that he could not be overheard, and William had to strain to catch his words. “It seems the earl will not renege on his vows to the dead king.”

Father said: “Bartholomew always was a stiff-necked hypocrite.”

Waleran looked pained. He wanted them to listen, not comment. “Bartholomew and Earl Robert of Gloucester will not accept King Stephen, who is the choice of the Church and the barons, as you know.”

William wondered why an archdeacon was telling a lord about this routine baronial squabble. Father was thinking the same thought, for he said: “But there’s nothing the earls can do about it.”

Mother shared Waleran’s impatience with Father’s interjected comments. “Listen,” she hissed at him.

Waleran said: “What I hear is that they’re planning to mount a rebellion and make Maud queen.”

William could not believe his ears. Had the archdeacon really made that foolhardy statement, in his quiet, matter-of-fact murmur, right here in the nave of Kingsbridge Cathedral? A man could be hanged for it, true or false.

Father was startled, too, but Mother said thoughtfully: “Robert of Gloucester is the half brother of Maud… It makes sense.”

William wondered how she could be so down-to-earth about such a scandalous piece of news. But she was very clever, and she was almost always right about everything.

Waleran said: “Anyone who could get rid of Earl Bartholomew, and stop the rebellion before it gets started, would earn the eternal gratitude of King Stephen and the Holy Mother Church.”

“Indeed?” said Father in a dazed tone, but Mother was nodding wisely.

“Bartholomew is expected back at home tomorrow.” Waleran looked up as he said this, and caught someone’s eye. He looked back at Mother and said: “I thought you, of all people, would be interested.” Then he moved away and greeted someone else.

William stared after him. Was that really all he was going to say?

William’s parents moved on, and he followed them through the great arched doorway into the open air. All three of them were silent. William had heard a good deal of talk, over the past five weeks, about who would be king, but the matter had seemed to be settled when Stephen was crowned at Westminster Abbey three days before Christmas. Now, if Waleran was right, the matter was an open question once again. But why had Waleran made a point of telling the Hamleighs?

They started across the green to the stables. As soon as they got clear of the crowd outside the church porch, and could no longer be overheard, Father said excitedly: “What a piece of good fortune-the very man who insulted the family, caught out in high treason!”

William did not see why that was such good fortune, but Mother obviously did, for she nodded agreement.

Father went on: “We can arrest him at the point of a sword, and hang him from the nearest tree.”

William had not thought of that, but now he saw it in a flash. If Bartholomew was a traitor, it was all right to kill him. “We can take our revenge,” William burst out. “And instead of being punished for it we’ll get a reward from the king!” They would be able to hold their heads high again, and-

“You stupid fools,” Mother said with sudden viciousness. “You blind, brainless idiots. So you would hang Bartholomew from the nearest tree. Shall I tell you what would happen then?”

Neither of them said anything. It was wiser not to respond to her questions when she was in this frame of mind.

She said: “Robert of Gloucester would deny there had been any plot, and he would embrace King Stephen and swear loyalty; and there would be the end of it, except that you two would be hanged as murderers.”

William shuddered. The idea of being hanged terrified him. He had nightmares about it. However, he could see that Mother was right: the king might believe, or pretend to believe, that no one could have the temerity to rebel against him; and he would think nothing of sacrificing a couple of lives for credibility.

Father said: “You’re right. We’ll truss him up like a pig for the slaughter, and carry him alive to the king at Winchester, and denounce him there, and claim our reward.”

“Why don’t you think?” said Mother contemptuously. She was very tense, and William could see that she was as excited about all this as Father was, but in a different way. “Wouldn’t Archdeacon Waleran like to take a traitor trussed to the king?” she said. “Doesn’t he want a reward for himself-don’t you know that he lusts with all his heart to be bishop of Kingsbridge? Why has he given you the privilege of making the arrest? Why did he contrive to meet us in church, as if by accident, instead of coming to see us at Hamleigh? Why was our conversation so short and indirect?”

She paused rhetorically, as if for an answer, but both William and Father knew that she did not really want one. William recalled that priests were not supposed to see bloodshed, and considered the possibility that perhaps that might be why Waleran did not want to be involved in arresting Bartholomew; but on further reflection he realized that Waleran had no such scruples.

“I’ll tell you why,” Mother went on. “Because he’s not sure that Bartholomew is a traitor. His information is unreliable. I can’t guess where he got it-perhaps he overheard a drunken conversation, or intercepted an ambiguous message, or spoke with an untrustworthy spy. In any case he’s not willing to stick his neck out. He won’t accuse Earl Bartholomew of treason openly, in case the charge should turn out to be false, and Waleran himself be branded a slanderer. He wants someone else to take the risk, and do the dirty work for him; and then when it is over, if treason should be proved, he will step forward and take his share of the credit; but if Bartholomew should turn out to be innocent, Waleran will simply never admit that he said what he said to us today.”

It seemed obvious when she put it like that. But without her, William and his father would have fallen right into Waleran’s trap. They would have willingly acted as Waleran’s agents and taken the risks for him. Mother’s political judgment was acute.

Father said: “Do you mean we must just forget about this?”

“Certainly not.” Her eyes glittered. “It’s still a chance to destroy the people who have humiliated us.” A groom held her horse ready. She took the reins and waved him away, but she did not mount immediately. She stood beside the horse, patting its neck reflectively, and spoke in a low voice. “We need evidence of the conspiracy, so that no one will be able to deny it after we’ve made our accusation. We’ll have to get that evidence by stealth, without revealing what we’re looking for. Then, when we have it, we can arrest Earl Bartholomew and take him to the king. Confronted with proof, Bartholomew will confess, and beg for mercy. Then we ask for our reward.”

“And deny that Waleran helped us,” added Father.

Mother shook her head. “Let him have his share of the glory, and his reward. Then he will be indebted to us. That can’t do us anything but good.”

“But how shall we go about finding evidence of the plot?” said Father anxiously.

“We’ll have to find a way to look around Bartholomew’s castle,” Mother said with a frown. “It won’t be easy. Nobody would credit us making a social call-everyone knows we hate Bartholomew.”

William was struck by a thought. “I could go,” he said.

His parents were both a little startled. Mother said: “You’d arouse less suspicion than your father, I suppose. But what pretext would you have?”

William had thought of that. “I could go to see Aliena,” he said, and his pulse raced at the idea. “I could beg her to reconsider her decision. After all, she doesn’t really know me. She misjudged me when we met. I could make her a good husband. Perhaps she just needs to be wooed a little harder.” He gave what he hoped was a cynical smile, so that they would not know that he meant every word.

“A perfectly credible excuse,” said Mother. She looked hard at William. “By Christ, I wonder whether the boy might have some of his mother’s brains after all.”

William felt optimistic, for the first time in months, when he set out for Earlscastle on the day after Epiphany. It was a clear, cold morning. The north wind stung his ears and the frosted grass crunched under the hooves of his war-horse. He wore a gray cloak of fine Flanders cloth trimmed with rabbit fur over a scarlet tunic.

He was accompanied by Walter, his groom. When William was twelve years old Walter had become his tutor in arms, and had taught him to ride, hunt, fence and wrestle. Now Walter was his groom, companion and bodyguard. He was as tall as William but broader, a formidable barrel of a man. Nine or ten years older than William, he was young enough to go drinking and chasing girls but old enough to keep the boy out of trouble when necessary. He was William’s closest friend.

William was strangely excited by the prospect of seeing Aliena again, even though he knew he faced rejection and humiliation once more. That glimpse of her in Kingsbridge Cathedral, when for an instant he had looked into her dark, dark eyes, had rekindled his desire for her. He looked forward eagerly to talking to her, getting close to her, seeing her mass of curls tumble and shake as she talked, watching her body move under her dress.

At the same time, the opportunity for revenge had sharpened William’s hatred. He was tense with excitement at the thought that now he might wipe out the humiliation he and his family had suffered.

He wished he had a clearer idea of what he was looking for. He was fairly confident he would find out whether Waleran’s story was true, for there would surely be signs of preparation for war at the castle-horses being mustered, weapons being cleaned, food being stockpiled-even though the activity would naturally be masked as something else, preparations for an expedition perhaps, to deceive the casual observer. However, convincing himself of the existence of a plot was not the same as finding proof. William could not think of anything that would count as proof. He planned to keep his eyes open and hope that something would suggest itself. This was not much of a plan, however, and he suffered a nagging worry that the opportunity for revenge might yet slip through his fingers.

As he came nearer he began to feel tense. He wondered whether he might be refused admittance to the castle, and he suffered a moment of panic, until he realized how unlikely it was: the castle was a public place, and for the earl to close it to the local gentry would be as good as an announcement that treachery was afoot.

Earl Bartholomew lived a few miles from the town of Shiring. The castle of Shiring itself was occupied by the sheriff of the county, so the earl had a castle of his own outside the town. The small village that had grown up around the castle walls was known as Earlscastle. William had been there before, but now he looked at it through the eyes of an attacker.

There was a wide, deep moat in the shape of the number eight, with the upper circle smaller than the lower. The earth that had been dug out to form the moat was piled up inside the twin circles, forming ramparts.

At the foot of the eight was a bridge across the moat and a gap in the earth wall, giving admittance to the lower circle. This was the only entrance. There was no way into the upper circle except by going through the lower circle and crossing another bridge over the moat that divided the two circles. The upper circle was the inner sanctum.

As William and Walter trotted across the open fields that surrounded the castle they could see a lot of coming and going. Two men-at-arms crossed the bridge on fast horses and rode off in different directions, and a group of four horsemen preceded William across the bridge as he and Walter entered.

William noted that the last section of the bridge could be drawn up into the massive stone gatehouse that formed the entrance to the castle. There were stone towers at intervals all around the earth wall, so that every part of the perimeter could be covered by defending archers. To take this castle by frontal assault would be a long and bloody business, and the Hamleighs could not muster enough men to be sure of success, William concluded gloomily.

Today, of course, the castle was open for business. William gave his name to the sentry in the gatehouse and was admitted without further ado. Within the lower circle, shielded from the outside world by the earth walls, was the usual range of domestic buildings: stables, kitchens, workshops, a privy tower and a chapel.

A sense of excitement was in the air. The grooms, squires, servants and maids all walked briskly and talked loudly, calling greetings to one another and making jokes. To an unsuspecting mind the excitement and the coming and going might be no more than a normal reaction to the return of the master, but to William it seemed more than that.

He left Walter at the stable with the horses and crossed to the far side of the compound where, exactly opposite the gatehouse, there was a bridge across the moat to the upper circle. When he had crossed the bridge he was challenged by another guard in another gatehouse. This time he was asked his business, and he said: “I’ve come to see the Lady Aliena.”

The guard did not know him, but he looked him up and down, noting his fine cloak and red tunic, and took him at face value, as a hopeful suitor. “You may find the young lady in the great hall,” he said with a smirk.

In the center of the upper circle was a square stone building, three stories high, with thick walls. This was the keep. As usual the ground floor was a store. The great hall was above the store, reached by a wooden exterior staircase which could be drawn up into the building. On the top floor would be the earl’s bedroom, and that was where he would make his last stand when the Hamleighs came to get him.

The whole layout presented a formidable series of obstacles to the attacker. That was the point, of course, but now that William was trying to work out how to get past the obstacles he saw the function of the different elements of the design very clearly. Even if the attackers gained the lower circle, they still had to pass another bridge and another gatehouse, and then assault the sturdy keep. They would have to get to the upper floor somehow-presumably by building their own staircase-and even then there would be yet another fight, in all probability, to get from the hall up the stairs to the earl’s bedroom. The only way to take this castle was by stealth, William realized, and he began to toy with ideas of sneaking in somehow.

He mounted the stairs and entered the hall. It was full of people, but the earl was not among them. In the far left-hand corner was the staircase leading to his bedroom, and fifteen or twenty knights and men-at-arms sat around the foot of the stairs, talking together in low tones. This was unusual. Knights and men-at-arms formed separate social classes. The knights were landowners who supported themselves by rents, whereas the men-at-arms were paid by the day. The two groups became comradely only when the smell of war was in the wind.

William recognized some of them: there was Gilbert Catface, a bad-tempered old fighter with an unfashionable beard and long whiskers, past forty years but still tough; Ralph of Lyme, who spent more on clothes than on a bride, today wearing a blue cloak with a red silk lining; Jack fitz Guillaume, already a knight although hardly older than William; and several others whose faces were vaguely familiar. He nodded in their general direction, but they took little notice of him-he was well known, but he was too young to be important.

He turned and looked around the other side of the hall, and saw Aliena immediately.

She looked quite different today. Yesterday she had been dressed up for the cathedral, in silk and fine wool and linen, with rings and ribbons and pointed boots. Today she wore the short tunic of a peasant woman or a child, and her feet were bare. She was sitting on a bench, studying a game board on which were counters of different colors. As William watched, she hitched up her tunic and crossed her legs, revealing her knees, and then wrinkled her nose in a frown. Yesterday she had been formidably sophisticated; today she was a vulnerable child, and William found her even more desirable. He suddenly felt ashamed that this child had been able to cause him so much distress, and he yearned for some way of showing her that he could master her. It was a feeling almost like lust.

She was playing with a boy three years or so younger than she. He had a restless, impatient look: he did not like the game. William could see a family resemblance between the two players. Indeed, the boy looked like Aliena as William remembered her from childhood, with a snub nose and short hair. This must be her younger brother Richard, the heir to the earldom.

William went closer. Richard glanced up at him, then returned his attention to the board. Aliena was concentrating. Their painted wooden board was shaped like a cross and divided into squares of different colors. The counters appeared to be made of ivory, white and black. The game was obviously a variant of merels, or ninemen’s morris, and probably a gift brought back from Normandy by Aliena’s father. William was more interested in Aliena. When she leaned forward over the board, the neck of her tunic bowed out, and he could see the tops of her breasts. They were as large as he had imagined. His mouth went dry.

Richard moved a counter on the board, and Aliena said: “No, you can’t do that.”

The boy was put out. “Why not?”

“Because it’s against the rules, stupid.”

“I don’t like the rules,” Richard said petulantly.

Aliena flared up. “You have to obey the rules!”

“Why do I?”

“You just do, that’s why!”

“Well, I don’t,” he said, and he tipped the board off the bench onto the floor, sending the counters flying.

Quick as a flash, Aliena slapped his face.

He cried out, his pride as well as his face stung. “You-” He hesitated. “You devil-fucker,” he shouted. He turned and ran away-but after three steps he cannoned into William.

William picked him up by one arm and held him in midair. “Don’t let the priest hear you call your sister such names,” he said.

Richard wriggled and squealed. “You’re hurting me-let me go!”

William held him a little longer. Richard stopped struggling and began to cry. William put him down, and he ran off in tears.

Aliena was staring at William, her game forgotten, a puzzled frown wrinkling her brow. “Why are you here?” she said. Her voice was low and calm, the voice of an older person.

William sat on the bench, feeling rather pleased about the masterful way he had dealt with Richard. “I’ve come to see you,” he said.

A wary look came over her face. “Why?”

William positioned himself so that he could watch the staircase. He saw, coming down into the hall, a man in his forties dressed like a high-ranking servant, in a round cap and a short tunic of fine cloth. The servant gestured to someone, and a knight and a man-at-arms went up the stairs together. William looked at Aliena again. “I want to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“About you and me.” Over her shoulder he saw the servant approaching them. There was something a little effeminate about the man’s walk. In one hand he carried a loaf of sugar, dirty-brown in color and cone-shaped. In his other hand was a twisted root that looked like ginger. The man was obviously the household steward, and he had been to the spice safe, a locked cupboard in the earl’s bedroom, for the day’s supplies of precious ingredients, which he was now taking to the cook: sugar to sweeten a crab-apple tart, perhaps, and ginger to flavor lampreys.

Aliena followed William’s gaze. “Oh, hello, Matthew.”

The steward smiled and broke off a piece of sugar for her. William had a feeling that Matthew was very fond of Aliena. Something in her demeanor must have told him that she was uncomfortable, for his smile turned to a concerned frown and he said: “Is everything all right?” His voice was soft.

“Yes, thank you.”

Matthew looked at William and his face registered surprise. “Young William Hamleigh, isn’t it?”

William was embarrassed to be recognized, even though it was inevitable. “Keep your sugar for the children,” he said, although he had not been offered any. “I don’t care for it.”

“Very well, lord.” Matthew’s look said that he had not got where he was today by making trouble for the sons of the gentry. He turned back to Aliena. “Your father brought back some wonderful soft silk-I’ll show you later.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Matthew went away.

William said: “Effeminate fool.”

Aliena said: “Why were you so rude to him?”

“I don’t let servants call me ‘Young William.’ ” This was not a good way to begin wooing a lady. William realized with a sinking feeling that he had got off to a bad start. He had to be charming. He smiled and said: “If you were my wife, my servants would call you lady.”

“Did you come here to talk about marriage?” she said, and William thought he detected a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know me,” William said in a tone of protest. He was failing to keep this conversation under control, he realized miserably. He had planned a little small talk before getting down to business, but she was so direct and candid that he was forced to blurt out his message. “You misjudged me. I don’t know what I did, last time we met, to make you dislike me; but whatever your reason, you were too hasty.”

She looked away, considering her reply. Behind her, William saw the knight and the man-at-arms come down the stairs and go out through the door, looking purposeful. A moment later a man in clerical robes-presumably the earl’s secretary-appeared from above and beckoned. Two knights got up and went upstairs: Ralph of Lyme, flashing the red lining of his cloak, and an older man with a bald head. Clearly the men waiting in the hall were seeing the earl, in ones and twos, in his chamber. But why?

“After all this time?” Aliena was saying. She was suppressing some emotion. It might have been anger, but William had a sneaking feeling it was laughter. “After all the trouble, and anger, and scandal; just when it’s dying down at last, now you tell me I made a mistake?”

When she put it that way it did seem a bit implausible, William realized. “It hasn’t died down at all-people are still talking about it, my mother is still furious and my father can’t hold his head up in public,” he said wildly. “It’s not over for us.”

“This is all about family honor for you, isn’t it?”

There was a dangerous note in her voice, but William ignored it. He had just realized what the earl must be doing with all these knights and men-at-arms: he was sending messages. “Family honor?” he said distractedly. “Yes.”

“I know I ought to think about honor, and alliances between families, and all that,” Aliena said. “But that’s not all there is to marriage.” She seemed to ponder for a moment, then reach a decision. “Perhaps I should tell you about my mother. She hated my father. My father isn’t a bad man, in fact he’s a great man, and I love him, but he’s dreadfully solemn and strict, and he never understood Mother. She was a happy, lighthearted person who loved to laugh and tell stories and have music, and Father made her miserable.” There were tears in Aliena’s eyes, William noted vaguely, but he was thinking about messages. “That’s why she died-because he wouldn’t let her be happy. I know it. And he knows it too, you see. That’s why he promised he would never make me marry someone I don’t like. Do you understand, now?”

Those messages are orders, William was thinking; orders to Earl Bartholomew’s friends and allies, warning them to get ready to fight. And the messengers are evidence.

He realized Aliena was staring at him. “Marry someone you don’t like?” he said, echoing her final words. “Don’t you like me?”

Her eyes flashed anger. “You haven’t been listening,” she said. “You’re so self-centered that you can’t think about anyone else’s feelings for a moment. Last time you came here, what did you do? You talked and talked about yourself and never asked me one question!”

Her voice had risen to a shout, and when she stopped, William noticed that the men on the other side of the room had fallen silent, listening. He felt embarrassed. “Not so loud,” he said to her.

She took no notice. “You want to know why I don’t like you? All right, I’ll tell you. I don’t like you because you have no refinement. I don’t like you because you can hardly read. I don’t like you because you’re only interested in your dogs and your horses and your self.”

Gilbert Catface and Jack fitz Guillaume were laughing aloud now. William felt his face reddening. Those men were nobodies, they were knights, and they were laughing at him, the son of Lord Percy Hamleigh. He stood up. “All right,” he said urgently, trying to stop Aliena.

It was no good. “I don’t like you because you’re selfish, dull and stupid,” she yelled. All the knights were laughing now. “I dislike you, I despise you, I hate you and I loathe you. And that’s why I won’t marry you!”

The knights cheered and applauded. William cringed inside. Their laughter made him feel small, weak and helpless, like a little boy, and when he was a little boy he had been frightened all the time. He turned away from Aliena, fighting to control his facial expression and hide his feelings. He crossed the room as fast as he could without running, while the laughter grew louder. At last he reached the door, flung it open, and stumbled out. He slammed it behind him and ran down the stairs, choking with shame; and the fading sound of their derisive laughter rang in his ears all the way across the muddy courtyard to the gate.

The path from Earlscastle to Shiring crossed a main road after about a mile. At the crossroads a traveler could turn north, for Gloucester and the Welsh border, or south, for Winchester and the coast. William and Walter turned south.

William’s anguish had turned to rage. He was too furious to speak. He wanted to hurt Aliena and kill all those knights. He would have liked to thrust his sword into each laughing mouth and drive it down each throat. And he had thought of a way to avenge himself on at least one of them. If it worked, he would get the proof he needed at the same time. The prospect gave him savage consolation.

First he had to catch one of them. As soon as the road ran into woodland, William dismounted and began to walk, leading his horse. Walter followed in silence, respecting his mood. William came to a narrower stretch of track and stopped. He turned to Walter and said: “Who’s better with a knife, you or me?”

“Fighting at close quarters, I’m better,” Walter said guardedly. “But you throw more accurately, lord.” They all called him lord when he was angry.

“I suppose you can trip a bolting horse, and make him fall?” William said.

“Yes, with a good stout pole.”

“Go and find a small tree, then, and pull it up and trim it; then you’ll have a good stout pole.”

Walter went off.

William led the two horses through the woods and tied them up in a clearing a good way from the road. He took off their saddles and removed some of the cords and straps from the tack-enough to bind a man hand and foot, with a little over. His plan was crude, but there was no time to devise something more elaborate, so he would have to hope for the best.

On his way back to the road he found a stout piece of oak deadfall, dry and hard, to use as a club.

Walter was waiting with his pole. William selected the place where the groom would lie in wait, behind the broad trunk of a beech tree that grew close to the path. “Don’t shove the pole out too soon, or the horse will jump over it,” he cautioned. “But don’t leave it too late, because you can’t trip him by his back legs. The ideal is to push it between his forelegs. And try to stick the end into the ground so he doesn’t kick it aside.”

Walter nodded. “I’ve seen this done before.”

William walked about thirty yards back toward Earlscastle. His role would be to make sure the horse bolted, so that it would be going too fast to avoid Walter’s pole. He hid himself as close to the road as he could. Sooner or later one of Earl Bartholomew’s messengers would come along. William hoped it would be soon. He was anxious about whether this was going to work, and he was impatient to get it over with.

Those knights had no idea, while they were laughing at me, that I was spying on them, he thought, and it soothed him a little. But one of them is about to find out. And then he’ll be sorry he laughed. Then he’ll wish he had gone down on his knees and kissed my boots, instead of laughing. He’s going to weep and beg and plead with me to forgive him, and I’m just going to hurt him all the more.

He had other consolations. If his plan worked out, it might ultimately bring about the downfall of Earl Bartholomew and the resurrection of the Hamleighs. Then all those who had snickered at the canceled wedding would tremble in fear, and some of them would suffer more than fear.

The downfall of Bartholomew would also be the downfall of Aliena, and that was the best part. Her swollen pride and her superior manner would have to change after her father had been hanged as a traitor. If she wanted soft silk and sugar cones then, she would have to marry William to get them. He imagined her, humble and contrite, bringing him a hot pastry from the kitchen, looking up at him with those big dark eyes, eager to please him, hoping for a caress, her soft mouth slightly open, begging to be kissed.

His fantasy was disturbed by hoofbeats on the winter-hard mud of the road. He drew his knife and hefted it, reminding himself of its weight and balance. At the point, it was sharpened on both sides, for better penetration. He stood upright, flattened his back against the tree that concealed him, held the knife by the blade, and waited, hardly breathing. He was nervous. He was afraid he might miss with the knife, or the horse might not fall, or the rider might kill Walter with a lucky stroke, so that William would have to fight him alone… Something bothered him about the hoofbeats as they came closer. He saw Walter peering at him through the vegetation with a worried frown: he had heard it too. Then William realized what it was. There was more than one horse. He had to make a quick decision. Would they attack two people? That might be too much like a fair fight. He decided to let them go, and wait for a lone rider. It was disappointing, but this was the wisest course. He waved a hand at Walter in a wiping-out gesture. Walter nodded understanding and sank back under cover.

A moment later two horses came into view. William saw a flash of red silk: Ralph of Lyme. Then he saw the bald head of Ralph’s companion. The two men trotted past and disappeared from view.

Despite the sense of anticlimax, William was gratified to have confirmation of his theory that the earl was sending these men out on errands. However, he wondered anxiously whether Bartholomew might have a policy of sending them in pairs. It would be a natural precaution. Everyone traveled in groups when possible, for safety. On the other hand, Bartholomew had a lot of messages and a limited number of men, and he might see it as an extravagance to use two knights to take one message. Furthermore, the knights were violent men who could be relied upon to give the average outlaw a hard fight-a fight from which the outlaw would gain little, because a knight did not have much worth stealing, other than his sword, which was hard to sell without answering awkward questions, and his horse, which was liable to be crippled in the ambush. A knight was safer than most people in the forest.

William scratched his head with the hilt of his knife. It could go either way.

He settled down to wait. The forest was quiet. A feeble winter sun came out, shone fitfully through the dense greenery for a while, and then disappeared. William’s belly reminded him that it was past dinnertime. A deer crossed the path a few yards away, unaware that she was watched by a hungry man. William became impatient.

If another pair of riders came along, he decided, he would have to attack. It was risky, but he had the advantage of surprise, and he had Walter, who was a formidable fighter. Besides, it might be his last chance. He knew he could get killed, and he was afraid, but that might be better than living on in constant humiliation. At least it was an honorable end to die in a fight.

What would be best of all, he thought, would be for Aliena to appear, all alone, cantering on a white pony. She would come crashing off the horse, bruising her arms and legs, and tumble into a bramble thicket. The thorns would scratch her soft skin, drawing blood. William would jump on top of her and pin her to the ground. She would be mortified.

He played with that idea, elaborating her injuries, relishing the way her chest heaved up and down as he sat astride her, and imagining the expression of abject terror on her face when she realized she was completely in his power; and then he heard hoofbeats again.

This time there was only one horse.

He straightened up, took out his knife, pressed his back against the tree, and listened again.

It was a good, fast horse, not a war-horse but probably a solid courser. It was carrying a moderate weight, such as a man with no armor, and coming at a steady all-day trot, not even breathing hard. William caught Walter’s eye and nodded: this was the one, here was the evidence. He raised his right arm, holding the knife by the tip of the blade.

In the distance, William’s own horse whinnied.

The sound carried clearly through the still forest and was perfectly audible over the light tattoo of the approaching horse. The horse heard it, and broke its stride. Its rider said “Whoa,” and slowed it to a walk. William cursed under his breath. The rider would be wary now, and that would make everything more difficult. Too late, William wished he had taken his own horse farther away.

He could not tell how far away the approaching horse was now that it was walking. Everything was going wrong. He resisted the temptation to look out from behind his tree. He listened hard, taut with strain. Suddenly he heard the horse snort, shockingly close, and then it appeared a yard from where he stood. It saw him a moment after he saw it. It shied, and the rider let out a grunt of surprise.

William cursed. He realized instantly that the horse might turn and bolt the wrong way. He ducked back behind the tree and came out on the other side, behind the horse, with his throwing arm raised. He caught a glimpse of the rider, bearded and frowning as he tugged at the reins: it was tough old Gilbert Catface. William threw the knife.

It was a perfect throw. The knife struck the horse’s rump pointfirst and sank an inch or more into its flesh.

The horse seemed to start, as a man does when shocked; then, before Gilbert could react, it broke into a panic-stricken gallop and took off at top speed-heading straight for Walter’s ambush.

William ran after it. The horse covered the distance to where Walter was in a few moments. Gilbert was making no effort to control his mount-he was too busy trying to stay in the saddle. They drew level with Walter’s position, and William thought: Now, Walter, now!

Walter timed his move so finely that William never actually saw the pole shoot out from behind the tree. He just saw the horse’s forelegs crumple, as if all the strength had left them suddenly. Then its hind legs seemed to catch up with its forelegs, so that they all became entangled. Finally its head went down, its hindquarters went up, and it fell heavily.

Gilbert flew through the air. Going after him, William was brought up short by the fallen horse.

Gilbert landed well, rolled over and got to his knees, For a moment William was afraid he might run off and escape. Then Walter came out of the undergrowth, launched himself through the air, and cannoned into Gilbert’s back, knocking him flat.

Both men hit the ground hard. They recovered their balance at the same time, and William saw to his horror that the wily Gilbert had come up with a knife in his hand. William leaped over the fallen horse and swung the oak club at Gilbert just as Gilbert raised his knife. The club hit the side of Gilbert’s head.

Gilbert staggered but got to his feet. William damned him for being so tough. William drew back the club for another swing but Gilbert was faster, and lunged at William with the knife. William was dressed for courting, not fighting, and the sharp blade sliced through his fine wool cloak; but he jumped back quickly enough to save his skin. Gilbert continued coming at him, keeping him off balance so that he could not wield the club. Each time Gilbert lunged, William jumped back; but William never had quite enough time to recover, and Gilbert rapidly closed on him. Suddenly William was afraid for his life. Then Walter came up behind Gilbert and kicked his legs from under him.

William sagged with relief. For a moment there he had thought he was going to die. He thanked God for Walter.

Gilbert tried to get up but Walter kicked him in the face. William hit him with the club twice for good measure, and after that Gilbert lay still.

They rolled him onto his front, and Walter sat on his head while William tied his hands behind his back. Then William took off Gilbert’s long black boots and bound his bare ankles together with a strong piece of leather harness.

He stood up. He grinned at Walter, and Walter smiled. It was a relief to have this slippery old fighter securely tied up.

The next step was to make Gilbert confess.

He was coming round. Walter turned him over. When Gilbert saw William he registered recognition, then surprise, then fear. William was gratified. Gilbert was already regretting his laughter, William thought. In a while he was going to regret it even more.

Gilbert’s horse was on its feet, remarkably. It had run a few yards off, but had stopped and was now looking back, breathing hard and starting every time the wind rustled in the trees. William’s knife had fallen out of its rump. William picked up his knife and Walter went to catch the horse.

William was listening for the sound of riders. Another messenger might come along at any moment. If that happened Gilbert would have to be dragged out of sight and kept quiet. But no riders came, and Walter was able to catch Gilbert’s horse without too much difficulty.

They slung Gilbert across the back of his horse, then led it through the forest to where William had left their own mounts. The other horses became agitated when they smelled the blood seeping from the wound in Gilbert’s horse’s rump, so William tethered it a little way off.

He looked around for a tree suitable to his purpose. He located an elm with a stout branch protruding at a height of eight or nine feet off the ground. He pointed it out to Walter. “I want to suspend Gilbert from this bough,” he said.

Walter grinned sadistically. “What are you going to do to him, lord?”

“You’ll see.”

Gilbert’s leathery face was white with fear. William passed a rope under the man’s armpits, tied it behind his back, and looped it over the branch.

“Lift him,” he said to Walter.

Walter hoisted Gilbert. Gilbert wriggled and got free of Walter’s grasp, falling on the ground. Walter picked up William’s club and beat Gilbert about the head until he was groggy, then picked him up again. William threw the loose end of the rope over the branch several times and pulled it tight. Walter released Gilbert and he swung gently from the branch with his feet a yard off the ground.

“Collect some firewood,” William said.

They built a fire under Gilbert, and William lit it with a spark from a flint. After a few moments the flames began to rise. The heat brought Gilbert out of his daze.

When he realized what was happening to him he began to moan in terror. “Please,” he said. “Please let me down. I’m sorry I laughed at you, please have mercy.”

William was silent. Gilbert’s groveling was very satisfying, but it was not what William was after.

When the heat began to hurt Gilbert’s bare toes, he bent his legs at the knee to take his feet out of the fire. His face was running with sweat, and there was a faint smell of scorching as his clothes got hot. William judged it was time to start the interrogation. He said: “Why did you go to the castle today?”

Gilbert stared wide-eyed at him. “To pay my respects,” he said. “Does it matter?”

“Why did you go to pay your respects?”

“The earl has just returned from Normandy.”

“You weren’t summoned especially?”

“No.”

It might be true, William reflected. Interrogating a prisoner was not as straightforward as he had imagined. He thought again. “What did the earl say to you when you went up to his chamber?”

“He greeted me, and thanked me for coming to welcome him home.”

Was there a look of wary comprehension in Gilbert’s eyes? William was not sure. He said: “What else?”

“He asked after my family and my village.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing. Why do you care what he said?”

“What did he say to you about King Stephen and the Empress Maud?”

“Nothing, I tell you!”

Gilbert could not keep his knees bent any longer, and his feet fell back into the growing flames. After a second, a yell of agony burst from him, and his body convulsed. The spasm took his feet out of the flames momentarily. He realized then that he could ease the pain by swinging to and fro. With each swing, however, he passed through the flames and cried out again.

Once more William wondered whether Gilbert might be telling the truth. There was no way of knowing. At some point, presumably, he would be in so much agony that he would say whatever he thought William wanted him to say, in a desperate attempt to get some relief; so it was important not to give him too clear an idea of what was wanted, William thought worriedly. Who would have thought that torturing people could be so difficult?

He made his voice calm and almost conversational. “Where are you going now?”

Gilbert screamed in pain and frustration: “What does it matter?”

“Where are you going?”

“Home!”

The man was losing his grip. William knew where he lived, and it was north of here. He had been heading in the wrong direction.

“Where are you going?” William said again.

“What do you want from me?”

“I know when you’re lying,” William said. “Just tell me the truth.” He heard Walter give a low grunt of approval, and he thought: I’m getting better at this. “Where are you going?” he said for the fourth time.

Gilbert became too exhausted to swing himself anymore. Groaning in pain, he came to a stop over the fire, and once more bent his legs to take his feet out of the flames. But now the fire was burning high enough to singe his knees. William noticed a smell, vaguely familiar but also slightly sickening; and after a moment he realized it was the smell of burning flesh, and it was familiar because it was like the smell of dinner. The skin of Gilbert’s legs and feet was turning brown and cracking, the hairs on his shins going black; and fat from his flesh dripped into the fire and sizzled. Watching his agony mesmerized William. Every time Gilbert cried out, William felt a profound thrill. He had the power of pain over a man, and it made him feel good. It was a bit like the way he felt when he got a girl alone, in a place where nobody could hear her protest, and pinned her to the ground, pulling her skirts up around her waist, and knew that nothing could now stop him from having her.

Almost reluctantly, he said again: “Where are you going?”

In a voice that was a suppressed scream, Gilbert said: “To Sherborne.”

“Why?”

“Cut me down, for the love of Christ Jesus, and I’ll tell you everything.”

William sensed victory within his grasp. It was deeply satisfying. But he was not quite there yet. He said to Walter: “Just pull his feet out of the fire.”

Walter grabbed Gilbert’s tunic and pulled on it so that his legs were clear of the flames.

“Now,” William said.

“Earl Bartholomew has fifty knights in and around Sherborne,” Gilbert said in a strangled cry. “I am to muster them and bring them to Earlscastle.”

William smiled. All his guesses were proving gratifyingly accurate. “And what is the earl planning to do with these knights?”

“He didn’t say.”

William said to Walter: “Let him burn a little more.”

“No!” Gilbert screamed. “I’ll tell you!”

Walter hesitated.

“Quickly,” William warned.

“They are to fight for the Empress Maud, against Stephen,” Gilbert said at last.

That was it: that was the proof. William savored his success. “And when I ask you this in front of my father, will you answer the same?” he said.

“Yes, yes.”

“And when my father asks you in front of the king, will you still tell the truth?”

“Yes!”

“Swear by the cross.”

“I swear by the cross, I’ll tell the truth!”

“Amen,” William said contentedly, and he began to stamp out the fire.

They tied Gilbert to his saddle and put his horse on a leading rein, then rode on at a walk. The knight was barely able to stay upright, and William did not want him to die, for he was no use dead, so he tried not to treat him too roughly. Next time they passed a stream he threw cold water over the knight’s burned feet. Gilbert screamed in pain, but it probably did him good.

William felt a wonderful sense of triumph mingled with an odd kind of frustration. He had never killed a man, and he wished he could kill Gilbert. Torturing a man without killing him was like stripping a girl naked without raping her. The more he thought about that, the more he felt the need of a woman.

Perhaps when he got home… no, there would be no time. He would have to tell his parents what had happened, and they would want Gilbert to repeat his confession in front of a priest and perhaps some other witnesses; and then they would have to plan the capture of Earl Bartholomew, which would surely have to take place tomorrow, before Bartholomew mustered too many fighting men. And still William had not thought of a way to take that castle by stealth, without a prolonged siege…

He was thinking with frustration that it might be a long time before he even saw an attractive woman when one appeared on the road ahead.

There were five people in a group, walking toward William. One of them was a dark-haired woman of about twenty-five years, not exactly a girl, but young enough. As she came closer William became more interested: she was quite beautiful, with dark brown hair that came to a devil’s peak on her brow, and deep-set eyes of an intense golden color. She had a trim, lithe figure and smooth tanned skin.

“Stay back,” William said to Walter. “Keep the knight behind you while I talk to them.”

The group stopped and looked warily at him. They were a family, obviously: there was a tall man who was presumably the husband, a lad who was full-grown but not yet bearded, and a couple of sprats. The man looked familiar, William realized with a start. “Do I know you?” he said.

“I know you,” the man said. “And I know your horse, for together you almost killed my daughter.”

It began to come back to William. His horse had not touched the child, but it had been close. “You were building my house,” he said. “And when I dismissed you, you demanded payment, and almost threatened me.”

The man looked defiant, and did not deny it.

“You’re not so cocky now,” William said with a sneer. The whole family appeared to be starving. It was turning out to be a good day for settling accounts with people who had offended William Hamleigh. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes, we’re hungry,” said the builder in a tone of sullen anger.

William looked again at the woman. She stood with her feet a little apart and her chin up, staring at him fearlessly. He had been inflamed by Aliena and now he wanted to slake his lust with this one. She would be lively, he felt sure: she would wriggle and scratch. All the better.

“You’re not married to this girl, are you, builder?” he said. “I remember your wife-an ugly cow.”

The shadow of pain crossed the builder’s face, and he said: “My wife died.”

“And you haven’t taken this one to church, have you? You haven’t got a penny to pay the priest.” Behind William, Walter coughed and the horses moved impatiently. “Suppose I give you money for food,” William said to the builder, to tantalize him.

“I’ll accept it gratefully,” the man said, although William could tell it hurt him to be subservient.

“I’m not talking about a gift. I’ll buy your woman.”

The woman herself spoke. “I’m not for sale, boy.”

Her scorn was well directed, and William was angered. I’ll show you whether I’m a man or a boy, he thought, when I get you alone. He spoke to the builder. “I’ll give you a pound of silver for her.”

“She’s not for sale.”

William’s anger grew. It was infuriating to offer a fortune to a starving man and be turned down. He said: “You fool, if you don’t take the money I’ll run you through with my sword and fuck her in front of the children!”

The builder’s arm moved under his cloak. He must have some kind of weapon, William thought. He was also very big, and although he was as thin as a knife he might put up a mean fight to save his woman. The woman moved her cloak aside and rested her hand on the hilt of a surprisingly long dagger at her belt. The older boy was big enough to cause trouble, too.

Walter spoke in a low but carrying voice. “Lord, there’s no time for this.”

William nodded reluctantly. He had to get Gilbert back to the Hamleigh manor house. It was too important to delay with a brawl over a woman. He would just have to suffer.

He looked at the little family of five ragged, hungry people, ready to fight to the finish against two beefy men with horses and swords. He could not understand them. “All right, then, starve to death,” he said. He kicked his horse and trotted on, and a few moments later they were out of sight.

II

When they were a mile or so from the place where they had encountered William Hamleigh, Ellen said: “Can we slow down now?”

Tom realized he had been setting a fierce pace. He had been frightened: for a moment, back there, it had looked as if he and Alfred would have to fight two armed men on horseback. Tom did not even have a weapon. He had reached under his cloak for his mason’s hammer and then remembered, painfully, that he had sold it weeks ago for a sack of oats. He was not sure why William had backed off in the end, but he wanted to put as much distance as possible between them in case the young lord changed his evil little mind.

Tom had failed to find work at the palace of the bishop of Kingsbridge and at every other place he had tried. However, there was a quarry in the vicinity of Shiring, and a quarry-unlike a building site-employed as many men in winter as it did in summer. Of course, Tom’s usual work was more skilled and better paid than quarrying, but he was a long way past caring about that. He just wanted to feed his family. The quarry at Shiring was owned by Earl Bartholomew, and Tom had been told that the earl could be found at his castle a few miles to the west of the town.

Now that he had Ellen he was even more desperate than before. He knew that she had thrown her lot in with him for love, and had not weighed the consequences carefully. In particular, she did not have a clear idea of how difficult it might be for Tom to get work. She had not really confronted the possibility that they might not survive the winter, and Tom had held back from disillusioning her, for he wanted her to stay with him. But a woman was liable to put her child before everything else, in the end, and Tom was afraid Ellen would leave him.

They had been together a week: seven days of despair and seven nights of joy. Every morning Tom woke up feeling happy and optimistic. As the day wore on he would get hungry, the children would tire and Ellen would become morose. Some days they got fed-like the time they met the monk with the cheese-and some days they chewed on strips of sun-dried venison from Ellen’s reserve. It was like eating deer hide but it was better than nothing, just. But when it got dark they would lie down, cold and miserable, and hold one another close for warmth; then after a while they would start stroking and kissing. At first Tom had always wanted to enter her immediately, but she refused him gently: she wanted to play and kiss much longer. He did it her way and was enchanted. He explored her body boldly, caressing her in places where he had never touched Agnes, her armpits and her ears and the cleft of her buttocks. Some nights they giggled together with their heads beneath their cloaks. At other times they felt very tender. One night when they were alone in the guesthouse of a monastery, and the children were in an exhausted sleep, she was dominant and insistent, commanding him to do things to her, showing him how to excite her with his fingers, and he complied, feeling bemused and inflamed by her shamelessness. When it was all over they would fall into a deep, restful sleep, with the day’s fear and anger washed away by love.

It was now midday. Tom judged that William Hamleigh was far away, so he decided to stop for a rest. They had no food other than the dried venison. However, this morning they had begged some bread at a lonely farmhouse, and the woman had given them some ale in a big wooden bottle with no stopper, and told them to keep the bottle. Ellen had saved half the ale for dinner.

Tom sat on the edge of a broad old tree stump and Ellen sat beside him. She took a long draft of the ale and passed it to him. “Do you want some meat as well?” she asked.

He shook his head and drank some ale. He could easily have swallowed it all, but he left some for the children. “Save the meat,” he said to Ellen. “We may get supper at the castle.”

Alfred put the bottle to his mouth and drained it.

Jack looked crestfallen and Martha burst into tears. Alfred gave an odd little grin.

Ellen looked at Tom. After a few moments she said: “You shouldn’t let Alfred get away with that.”

Tom shrugged. “He’s bigger than they are-he needs it more.”

“He always gets a large share anyway. The little ones must have something.”

“It’s a waste of time to interfere in children’s quarrels,” Tom said.

Ellen’s voice became harsh. “You’re saying that Alfred can bully the younger children as much as he likes and you will do nothing about it.”

“He doesn’t bully them,” Tom said. “Children always fight.”

She shook her head, seeming bewildered. “I don’t understand you. In every other way you’re a kind man. But where Alfred is concerned, you’re just blind.”

She was exaggerating, Tom felt, but he did not want to displease her, so he said: “Give the little ones some meat, then.”

Ellen opened her bag. She still looked cross. She cut off a strip of dried venison for Martha and another for Jack. Alfred held out his hand for some, but Ellen ignored him. Tom thought she should have given him some. There was nothing wrong with Alfred. Ellen just did not understand him. He was a big boy, Tom thought proudly, and he had a big appetite and a quick temper, and if that was a sin, then half the adolescent boys in the world were damned.

They rested for a while and then walked on. Jack and Martha went ahead, still chewing the leathery meat. The two young ones got on well, despite the difference in their ages-Martha was six and Jack was probably eleven or twelve. But Martha thought Jack was utterly fascinating, and Jack seemed to be enjoying the novel experience of having another child to play with. It was a pity that Alfred did not like Jack. This surprised Tom: he would have expected that Jack, who was not yet becoming a man, would be beneath Alfred’s contempt; but it was not so. Alfred was the stronger, of course, but little Jack was clever.

Tom refused to worry about it. They were just boys. He had too much on his mind to waste time fretting over children’s squabbles. Sometimes he wondered secretly whether he would ever get work again. He might go on tramping the roads day after day until one by one they died off: a child found cold and lifeless one frosty morning, another too weak to fight off a fever, Ellen ravished and killed by a passing thug like William Hamleigh, and Tom himself becoming thinner and thinner until one day he was too weak to stand up in the morning, and lay on the forest floor until he slipped into unconsciousness.

Ellen would leave him before that happened, of course. She would return to her cave, where there was still a barrel of apples and a sack of nuts, enough to keep two people alive until the spring, but not enough for five. Tom would be heartbroken if she did that.

He wondered how the baby was. The monks had called him Jonathan. Tom liked the name. It meant a gift from God, according to the monk with the cheese. Tom pictured little Jonathan, red and wrinkled and bald, the way he was born. He would be different now: a week was a long time for a newborn baby. He would be bigger already, and his eyes would open wider. Now he would no longer be oblivious to the world around him: a loud noise would make him jump and a lullaby would soothe him. When he needed to burp, his mouth would curl up at the corners. The monks probably would not know that it was wind, and would take it for a real smile.

Tom hoped they were caring for him well. The monk with the cheese had given the impression that they were kindly and capable men. Anyway, they were certainly better able to look after the baby than Tom, who was homeless and penniless. If I ever become master of a really big construction project, and earn forty-eight pence a week plus allowances, I’ll give money to that monastery, he thought.

They emerged from the forest and soon afterward they came within sight of the castle.

Tom’s spirits lifted, but he repressed his enthusiasm fiercely: he had suffered months of disappointment, and he had learned that the more hopeful he was at the start, the more painful was the rejection at the end.

They approached the castle on a path through bare fields. Martha and Jack came upon an injured bird, and they all stopped to look. It was a wren, so small that they might easily have missed it. Martha stooped over it, and it hopped away, apparently unable to fly. She caught it and picked it up, cradling the tiny creature in her cupped hands.

“It’s trembling!” she said. “I can feel it. It must be frightened.”

The bird made no further attempt to escape, but sat still in Martha’s hands, its bright eyes gazing at the people all around. Jack said: “I think it’s got a broken wing.”

Alfred said: “Let me see.” He took the bird from her.

“We could take care of it,” Martha said. “Perhaps it will get better.”

“No, it won’t,” Alfred said. With a quick motion of his big hands he wrung the bird’s neck.

Ellen said: “Oh, for God’s sake.”

Martha burst into tears for the second time that day.

Alfred laughed and dropped the bird on the ground.

Jack picked it up. “Dead,” he said.

Ellen said: “What is wrong with you, Alfred?”

Torn said: “Nothing’s wrong with him. The bird was going to die.”

He walked on, and the others followed. Ellen was angry with Alfred again, and it made Tom cross. Why make a fuss about a damned wren? Tom remembered what it was like to be fourteen years old, a boy with the body of a man: life was frustrating. Ellen had said Where Alfred is concerned, youre just blind, but she did not understand.

The wooden bridge that led over the moat to the gatehouse was flimsy and ramshackle, but that was probably how the earl liked it: a bridge was a means of access for attackers, and the more readily it fell down, the safer the castle was. The perimeter walls were of earth with stone towers at intervals. Ahead of them as they crossed the bridge was a stone gatehouse, like two towers with a connecting walkway. Plenty of stonework here, Torn thought; not one of these castles that are all mud and wood. Tomorrow I could be working. He remembered the feel of good tools in his hands, the scrape of the chisel across a block of stone as he squared its sides and smoothed its face, the dry feel of the dust in his nostrils. Tomorrow night my belly may be full-with food I’ve earned, not begged.

Coming closer, he noticed with his mason’s eye that the battlements on top of the gatehouse were in bad condition. Some of the big stones had fallen, leaving the parapet quite level in parts. There were also loose stones in the arch of the gateway.

There were two sentries at the gate, and both looked alert. Perhaps they were expecting trouble. One of them asked Tom his business.

“Stonemason, hoping to be hired to work in the earl’s quarry,” he replied.

“Look for the earl’s steward,” the sentry said helpfully. “His name is Matthew. You’ll probably find him in the great hall.”

“Thanks,” Tom said. “What kind of a man is he?”

The guard grinned at his colleague and said: “Not much of a man at all,” and they both laughed.

Tom supposed he would soon find out what that meant. He went in, and Ellen and the children followed. The buildings within the walls were mostly wooden, though some were raised on stone skirtings, and there was one built all of stone that was probably the chapel. As they crossed the compound Tom noticed that the towers around the perimeter all had loose stones and damaged battlements. They crossed the second moat to the upper circle, and stopped at the second gatehouse. Tom told the guard he was looking for Matthew Steward. They all went on into the upper compound and approached the square stone keep. The wooden door at ground level clearly opened into the undercroft. They went up the wooden steps to the hall.

Tom saw both the steward and the earl as soon as he went in. He knew who they were by their clothes. Earl Bartholomew wore a long tunic with flared cuffs on the sleeves and embroidery on the hem. Matthew Steward wore a short tunic, in the same style as the one Tom was wearing, but made of a softer cloth, and he had a little round cap. They were near the fireplace, the earl sitting and the steward standing. Tom approached the two men and stood just out of earshot, waiting for them to notice him. Earl Bartholomew was a tall man of over fifty, with white hair and a pale, thin, haughty face. He did not look like a man of generous spirit. The steward was younger. He stood in a way that reminded Tom of the guard’s remark: it looked feminine. Tom was not sure what to make of him.

There were several other people in the hall, but none of them took any notice of Tom. He waited, feeling hopeful and fearful by turns. The earl’s conversation with his steward seemed to take forever. At last it ended, and the steward bowed and turned aside. Tom stepped forward with his heart in his mouth. “Are you Matthew?” he said.

“Yes.”

“My name is Tom. Master mason. I’m a good craftsman, and my children are starving. I hear you have a quarry.” He held his breath.

“We have a quarry, but I don’t think we need any more quarrymen,” Matthew said. He glanced back at the earl, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. “No,” Matthew said. “We can’t hire you.”

It was the speed of the decision that broke Tom’s heart. If people were solemn, and thought hard about it, and rejected him regretfully, he could bear it more easily. Matthew was not a cruel man, Tom could tell, but he was busy, and Tom and his starving family were just another item to be disposed of as quickly as possible.

Tom said desperately: “I could do some repairs here at the castle.”

“We have a wright who does all that kind of work for us,” Matthew said.

A wright was a jack-of-all-trades, usually trained as a carpenter. “I’m a mason,” Tom said. “My walls are strong.”

Matthew was annoyed with him for arguing, and seemed about to say something angry; then he looked at the children and his face softened again. “I’d like to give you work, but we don’t need you.”

Tom nodded. He should now humbly accept what the steward had said, put on a pitiful look, and beg for a meal and a place to sleep for one night. But Ellen was with him, and he was afraid she would leave, so he gave it one more try. He said in a voice loud enough for the earl to hear: “I just hope you’re not expecting to do battle soon.”

The effect was much more dramatic than he had expected. Matthew gave a start, and the earl got to his feet and said sharply: “Why do you say that?”

Tom perceived he had touched a nerve. “Because your defenses are in bad repair,” he said.

“In what way?” the earl said. “Be specific, man!”

Tom took a deep breath. The earl was irritated but attentive. Tom would not get another chance after this. “The mortar in the gatehouse walls has come away in places. This leaves an opening for a crowbar. An enemy could easily pry out a stone or two; and once there’s a hole it’s easy to pull the wall down. Also”-he hurried on breathlessly, before anyone could comment or argue-“also, all your battlements are damaged. They’re level in places. This leaves your archers and knights unprotected from-”

“I know what battlements are for,” the earl interrupted tetchily. “Anything else?”

“Yes. The keep has an undercroft with a wooden door. If I were attacking the keep I’d go through that door and start a fire in the stores.”

“And if you were the earl, how would you prevent that?”

“I’d have a pile of stones, ready shaped, and a supply of sand and lime for mortar, and a mason standing by ready to block up that doorway in times of danger.”

Earl Bartholomew stared at Tom. His pale blue eyes were narrowed and there was a frown on his white forehead. Tom could not read his expression. Was he angry with Tom for being so critical of the castle defenses? You could never tell how a lord would react to criticism. By and large it was best to let them make their own mistakes. But Tom was a desperate man.

At last the earl seemed to reach a conclusion. He turned to Matthew and said: “Hire this man.”

A whoop of jubilation rose in Tom’s throat and he had to choke it back. He could hardly believe it. He looked at Ellen and they both smiled happily. Martha, who did not suffer from adult inhibitions, shouted: “Horray!”

Earl Bartholomew turned away and spoke to a knight standing nearby. Matthew smiled at Tom. “Have you had dinner today?” he said.

Tom swallowed. He was so happy he felt close to tears. “No, we haven’t.”

“I’ll take you to the kitchen.”

Eagerly, they followed the steward out of the hall and across the bridge to the lower compound. The kitchen was a large wood building with a stone skirting. Matthew told them to wait outside. There was a sweet smell in the air: they were baking pastries in there. Tom’s belly rumbled and his mouth watered so much it hurt. After a moment Matthew emerged with a big pot of ale and handed it to Tom. “They’ll bring out some bread and cold bacon in a moment,” he said. He left them.

Tom took a swallow of the ale and passed the pot to Ellen. She gave some to Martha, then took a drink herself and passed it to Jack. Alfred made a grab for it before Jack could drink. Jack turned away, keeping the pot out of Alfred’s reach. Tom did not want another quarrel between the children, not now when everything had turned out all right at last. He was about to intervene-thereby breaking his own rule about interference in children’s squabbles-when Jack turned around again and meekly handed the pot to Alfred.

Alfred put the pot to his mouth and began to drink. Tom had only taken a swallow, and he thought the pot would come around to him again; but Alfred looked set to drain it. Then a strange thing happened. As Alfred upended the pot to drink the last of the ale, something like a small animal fell out onto his face.

Alfred gave a frightened yell and dropped the pot. He brushed the furry thing off his face, jumping back. “What is it?” he screeched. The thing fell to the floor. He stared down at it, white-faced and trembling with disgust.

They all looked. It was the dead wren.

Tom caught Ellen’s eye, and they both looked at Jack. Jack had taken the pot from Ellen, then turned his back for a moment, as if trying to evade Alfred, then handed the pot to Alfred with surprising willingness…

Now he stood quietly, looking at the horrified Alfred with a faint smile of satisfaction on his clever young-old face.

Jack knew he would suffer for that.

Alfred would take his revenge somehow. When the others were not looking, Alfred would punch him in the stomach, perhaps. This was a favorite blow, for it was very painful but left no marks. Jack had seen him do it to Martha several times.

But it had been worth a punch in the stomach just to see the shock and fear on Alfred’s face when the dead bird fell out of his beer.

Alfred hated Jack. This was a new experience for Jack. His mother had always loved him and no one else had had any feelings for him. There was no apparent reason for Alfred’s hostility. He seemed to feel much the same about Martha. He was always pinching her, pulling her hair and tripping her, and he relished any opportunity to spoil something she valued. Jack’s mother saw what was going on, and hated it, but Alfred’s father seemed to think it was all perfectly normal, even though he himself was a kind and gentle man who obviously loved Martha. The whole thing was baffling, but nonetheless fascinating.

Everything was fascinating. Jack had never had such an exciting time in the whole of his life. Despite Alfred, despite feeling hungry most of the time, despite being hurt by the way his mother constantly paid attention to Tom instead of to him, Jack was spellbound by a constant stream of strange phenomena and new experiences.

The castle was the latest in a series of wonders. He had heard about castles: in the long winter evenings in the forest, his mother had taught him to recite chansons, narrative poems in French about knights and magicians, most of them thousands of lines long; and castles featured in those stories as places of refuge and romance. Never having seen a castle, he imagined it would be a slightly larger version of the cave in which he lived. The real thing was amazing: it was so big, with so many buildings and such a host of people, all of them so busy-shoeing horses, drawing water, feeding chickens, baking bread, and carrying things, always carrying things, straw for the floors, wood for the fires, sacks of flour, bales of cloth, swords and saddles and suits of mail. Tom told him that the moat and the wall were not natural parts of the landscape, but had actually been dug and built by dozens of men all working together. Jack did not disbelieve Tom, but he found it impossible to imagine how it had been done.

At the end of the afternoon, when it became too dark to work, all the busy people gravitated to the great hall of the keep. Rushlights were lit and the fire was built higher, and all the dogs came in from the cold. Some of the men and women took boards and trestles from a stack at the side of the room and set up tables in the shape of the letter T, then ranged chairs along the top of the T and benches down the sides. Jack had never seen people working together in large numbers, and he was struck by how much they enjoyed it. They smiled and laughed as they lifted the heavy boards, calling “Hup!” and “To me, to me,” and “Down easy, now.” Jack envied their camaraderie, and wondered whether he might share it one day.

After a while everyone sat on the benches. One of the castle servants distributed big wooden bowls and wooden spoons, counting aloud as he gave them out; then he went around again and put a thick slice of stale brown bread in the bottom of each bowl. Another servant brought wooden cups and filled them with ale from a series of big jugs. Jack and Martha and Alfred, all sitting together at the bottom end of the T, got a cup of ale each, so there was nothing to fight over. Jack picked up his cup, but his mother told him to wait for a moment.

When the ale had been poured the hall went quiet. Jack waited, fascinated as always, to see what would happen next. After a moment Earl Bartholomew appeared on the staircase that led down from his bedroom. He came down into the hall, followed by Matthew Steward, three or four other well-dressed men, a boy, and the most beautiful creature Jack had ever set eyes upon.

It was a girl or a woman, he was not sure which. She was dressed in white, and her tunic had amazing flared sleeves which trailed on the ground behind her as she glided down the stairs. Her hair was a mass of dark curls tumbling around her face, and she had dark, dark eyes. Jack realized that this was what the chansons meant when they referred to a beautiful princess in a castle. No wonder the knights all wept when the princess died.

When she reached the foot of the stairs Jack saw that she was quite young, just a few years older than himself; but she held her head high and walked to the head of the table like a queen. She sat down beside Earl Bartholomew.

“Who is she?” Jack whispered.

Martha replied: “She must be the earl’s daughter.”

“What’s her name?”

Martha shrugged, but a dirty-faced girl sitting next to Jack said: “She’s called Aliena. She’s wonderful.”

The earl raised his cup to Aliena, then looked slowly all around the table, and drank. That was the signal everyone had been waiting for. They all followed suit, raising their cups before drinking.

The supper was brought in in huge steaming cauldrons. The earl was served first; then his daughter, the boy, and the men with them at the head of the table; then everyone else helped themselves. It was salt fish in a spicy stew. Jack filled his bowl and ate it all, then ate the bread trencher at the bottom of the bowl, soaked with oily soup. In between mouthfuls he watched Aliena, riveted by everything she did, from the dainty way she speared bits of fish on the end of her knife and delicately put them between her white teeth, to the commanding voice in which she called servants and gave them orders. They all seemed to like her. They came quickly when she called, smiled when she spoke, and hurried to do her bidding. The young men around the table looked at her a lot, Jack observed, and some of them showed off when they thought she was looking their way. But she was concerned mainly with the older men with her father, making sure they had enough bread and wine, asking them questions and listening attentively to their answers. Jack wondered what it would be like to have a beautiful princess speak to you, then look at you with big dark eyes while you replied.

After supper there was music. Two men and a woman played tunes with sheep bells, a drum, and pipes made from the bones of animals and birds. The earl closed his eyes and seemed to become lost in the music, but Jack did not like the haunting, melancholy tunes they played. He preferred the cheerful songs his mother sang. The other people in the hall seemed to feel the same way, for they fidgeted and shuffled, and there was a general sense of relief when the music ended.

Jack was hoping to get a closer look at Aliena, but to his disappointment she left the room after the music, and went up the stairs. She must have her own bedroom on the top floor, he realized.

The children and some of the adults played chess and ninemen’s morris to while away the evening, and the more industrious people made belts, caps, socks, gloves, bowls, whistles, dice, shovels and horsewhips. Jack played several games of chess, winning them all; but a man-at-arms was angry at being defeated by a child and after that Jack’s mother made him stop playing. He moved around the hall, listening to the different conversations. Some people talked sensibly, he found, about the fields and the animals, or about bishops and kings, while others only teased one another, and boasted, and told funny stories. He found them all equally intriguing.

Eventually the rushlights burned down, the earl retired, and the other sixty or seventy people wrapped their cloaks around them and lay down on the straw-covered floor to sleep.

As usual, his mother and Tom lay down together, under Tom’s big cloak, and she hugged him the way she used to hug Jack when he was small. He watched enviously. He could hear them talking quietly, and his mother gave a low, intimate laugh. After a while their bodies began to move rhythmically under the cloak. The first time he had seen them do this, Jack had been terribly worried, thinking that whatever it was, it must hurt; but they kissed one another while they were doing it, and although sometimes his mother moaned, he could tell it was a moan of pleasure. He was reluctant to ask her about it, he was not sure why. Now, however, as the fire burned lower, he saw another couple doing the same sort of thing, and he was forced to conclude that it must be normal. It was just another mystery, he thought, and soon after that he fell asleep.

* * *

The children were awake early in the morning, but breakfast could not be served until mass had been said, and mass could not be said until the earl got up, so they had to wait. An early-rising servant conscripted them to bring in firewood for the day. The adults started to wake as the cold morning air came in through the door. When the children had finished bringing in the wood, they met Aliena.

She came down the stairs, as she had last night, but now she looked different. She wore a short tunic and felt boots. Her massed curls were tied back with a ribbon, showing the graceful line of her jaw, her small ears and her white neck. Her big dark eyes, which had seemed grave and adult last night, now sparkled with fun, and she was smiling. She was followed by the boy who had sat at the head of the table with her and the earl last night. He looked a year or two older than Jack, but he was not full-grown like Alfred. He looked curiously at Jack, Martha and Alfred, but it was the girl who spoke. “Who are you?” she said.

Alfred replied. “My father is the stonemason who’s going to repair this castle. I’m Alfred. My sister’s name is Martha. That’s Jack.”

When she came close Jack could smell lavender, and he was awestruck. How could a person smell of flowers? “How old are you?” she said to Alfred.

“Fourteen.” Alfred was also overawed by her, Jack could tell. After a moment Alfred blurted: “How old are you?”

“Fifteen. Do you want something to eat?”

“Yes.”

“Come with me:”

They all followed her out of the hall and down the steps. Alfred said: “But they don’t serve breakfast before mass.”

“They do what I tell them,” Aliena said with a toss of her head.

She led them across the bridge to the lower compound and told them to wait outside the kitchen while she went in. Martha whispered to Jack: “Isn’t she pretty?” He nodded dumbly. A few moments later Aliena came out with a pot of beer and a loaf of wheat bread. She broke the bread into hunks and handed it out, then she passed the pot around.

After a while Martha said shyly: “Where’s your mother?”

“My mother died,” Aliena said briskly.

“Aren’t you sad?” Martha said.

“I was, but it was a long time ago.” She indicated the boy beside her with a jerk of her head. “Richard can’t even remember it.”

Richard must be her brother, Jack concluded.

“My mother’s dead, too,” Martha said, and tears came to her eyes.

“When did she die?” Aliena asked.

“Last week.”

Aliena did not seem much moved by Martha’s tears, Jack observed; unless she was being matter-of-fact to hide her own grief. She said abruptly: “Well, who’s that woman with you then?”

Jack said eagerly. “That’s my mother.” He was thrilled to have something to say to her.

She turned to him as if seeing him for the first time. “Well, where’s your father?”

“I haven’t got one,” he said. He felt excited just to have her looking at him.

“Did he die, too?”

“No,” Jack said. “I never had a father.”

There was a moment of silence, then Aliena, Richard and Alfred all burst out laughing. Jack was puzzled, and looked blankly at them; and their laughter increased, until he began to feel mortified. What was so funny about never having had a father? Even Martha was smiling, her tears forgotten.

Alfred said in a jeering tone: “Where did you come from, then, if you didn’t have a father?”

“From my mother-all young things come from their mothers,” Jack said, mystified. “What have fathers got to do with it?”

They all laughed even more. Richard jumped up and down with glee, pointing a mocking finger at Jack. Alfred said to Aliena: “He doesn’t know anything-we found him in the forest.”

Jack’s cheeks burned with shame. He had been so happy to be talking to Aliena, and now she thought he was a complete fool, a forest ignoramus; and the worst of it was he still did not know what he had said wrong. He wanted to cry, and that made it worse. The bread stuck in his throat and he could not swallow. He looked at Aliena, her lovely face alive with amusement, and he could not stand it, so he threw his bread on the ground and walked away.

Not caring where he went, he walked until he came to the bank of the castle wall, and scrambled up the steep slope to the top. There he sat down on the cold earth, looking outward, feeling sorry for himself, hating Alfred and Richard and even Martha and Aliena. Princesses were heartless, he decided.

The bell rang for mass. Religious services were yet another mystery to him. Speaking a language that was neither English nor French, the priests sang and talked to statues, to pictures, and even to beings that were completely invisible. Jack’s mother avoided going to services whenever she could. As the inhabitants of the castle made their way to the chapel, Jack scooted over the top of the wall and sat out of sight on the far side.

The castle was surrounded by flat, bare fields, with woodland in the distance. Two early visitors were walking across the level ground toward the castle. The sky was full of low gray cloud. Jack wondered if it might snow.

Two more early visitors appeared within Jack’s view. These two were on horseback. They rode rapidly to the castle, overtaking the first pair. They walked their horses across the wooden bridge to the gatehouse. All four visitors would have to wait until after mass before they could get on with whatever business brought them here, for everyone attended the service except for the sentries on duty.

A sudden voice close by made Jack jump. “So there you are.” It was his mother. He turned to her, and she saw immediately that he was upset. “What’s the matter?”

He wanted to take comfort from her, but he hardened his heart and said: “Did I have a father?”

“Yes,” she said. “Everyone has a father.” She knelt beside him.

He turned his face away. His humiliation had been her fault, for not telling him about his father. “What happened to him?”

“He died.”

“When I was small?”

“Before you were born.”

“How could he be my father, if he died before I was born?”

“Babies grow from a seed. The seed comes out of a man’s prick and is planted in a woman’s cunny. Then the seed grows into a baby in her belly, and when it’s ready it comes out.”

Jack was silent for a moment, digesting this information. He had a suspicion that it was connected with what they did in the night. “Is Tom going to plant a seed in you?” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Then you’ll have a new baby.”

She nodded. “A brother for you. Would you like that?”

“I don’t care,” he said. “Tom has taken you away from me already. A brother wouldn’t make any difference.”

She put her arm around him and hugged him. “Nobody will ever take me away from you,” she said.

That made him feel a bit better.

They sat together for a while, then she said: “It’s cold here. Let’s go and sit by the fire until breakfast.”

He nodded. They got up and went back over the castle wall, running down the bank into the compound. There was no sign of the four visitors. Perhaps they had gone into the chapel.

As Jack and his mother walked over the bridge to the upper compound, Jack said: “What was my father’s name?”

“Jack, the same as you,” she said. “They called him Jack Shareburg.”

That pleased him. He had the same name as his father. “So, if there’s another Jack, I can tell people that I’m Jack Jackson.”

“You can. People don’t always call you what you want them to, but you can try.”

Jack nodded. He felt better. He would think of himself as Jack Jackson. He was not so ashamed now. At least he knew about fathers, and he knew the name of his own. Jack Shareburg.

They reached the gatehouse of the upper compound. There were no sentries there. Jack’s mother stopped, frowning. “I’ve got the oddest feeling that something strange is going on,” she said. Her voice was calm and even, but there was a note of fear that chilled Jack, and he had a premonition of disaster.

His mother stepped into the small guardroom in the base of the guardhouse. A moment later Jack heard her gasp. He went in behind her. She was standing in an attitude of shock, her hand up to her mouth, staring down at the floor.

The sentry was lying flat on his back, his arms limp at his sides. His throat was cut, there was a pool of fresh blood on the ground beside him, and he was unquestionably dead.

III

William Hamleigh and his father had set off in the middle of the night, with almost a hundred knights and men-at-arms on horseback, and Mother in the rearguard. The torchlit army, their faces muffled against the cold night air, must have terrified the inhabitants of the villages through which they thundered on their way to Earlscastle. They had reached the crossroads while it was still pitch-dark. From there they had walked their horses, to give them a rest and to minimize the noise. As dawn cracked the sky they concealed themselves in the woods across the fields from the castle of Earl Bartholomew.

William had not actually counted the number of fighting men he had seen in the castle-an omission for which Mother had berated him mercilessly, even though, as he had tried to point out, many of the men he saw there were waiting to be sent on errands, and others might have arrived after William left, so a count would not be reliable. But it would have been better than nothing, as Father had said. However, he estimated he had seen about forty men; so if there had been no great change in the few hours since, the Hamleighs would have an advantage of better than two to one.

It was nowhere near enough to besiege the castle, of course. However, they had devised a plan for taking the castle without a siege. The problem was that the attacking army would be seen by lookouts, and the castle would be closed up long before they arrived. The answer was to find some way to keep the castle open for the time it took the army to get there from its place of concealment in the woods.

It had been Mother who solved the problem, of course.

“We need a diversion,” she had said, scratching a boil on her chin. “Something to panic them, so that they don’t notice the army until it’s too late. Like a fire.”

Father said: “If a stranger walks in and starts a fire, that will alert them anyway.”

“It would have to be done on the sly,” William said.

“Of course it would,” said Mother impatiently. “You’ll have to do it while they’re at mass.”

“Me?” William had said.

He had been put in charge of the advance party.

The morning sky lightened with painful slowness. William was nervously impatient. During the night, he and Mother and Father had added refinements to the basic idea, but still there was a great deal that could go wrong: the advance party might not get into the castle for some reason, or they might be viewed with suspicion and be unable to act surreptitiously, or they might be caught before they could achieve anything. Even if the plan worked, there would be a battle, William’s first real fight. Men would be wounded and killed, and William might be one of the unlucky ones. His bowels tightened with fear. Aliena would be there, and she would know if he were vanquished. On the other hand, she would be there to see it if he triumphed. He pictured himself bursting into her bedroom with a bloody sword in his hand. Then she would wish she had not laughed at him.

From the castle came the sound of the bell for morning mass.

William nodded, and two men detached themselves from the group and began to walk across the fields toward the castle. They were Raymond and Ranulf, two hard-faced, hard-muscled men some years older than William. William had picked them himself: his father had given him complete control. Father himself would lead the main assault.

William watched Raymond and Ranulf walk briskly across the frozen fields. Before they reached the castle, he looked at Walter, then kicked his horse, and he and Walter set off across the fields at a trot. The sentries on the battlements would see two separate pairs of people, one on foot and one on horseback, approaching the castle first thing in the morning: it looked perfectly innocent.

William’s timing was good. He and Walter passed Raymond and Ranulf about a hundred yards from the castle. At the bridge they dismounted. William’s heart was in his mouth. If he messed up this part, the whole attack would be ruined.

There were two sentries at the gate. William had a nightmarish suspicion that there would be an ambush, and a dozen men-at-arms would spring out of concealment and hack him to pieces. The sentries looked alert but not anxious. They were not wearing armor. William and Walter had chain mail under their cloaks.

William’s guts seemed to have turned to water. He could not swallow. One of the sentries recognized him. “Hello, Lord William,” he said jovially. “Come courting again, have you?”

William said “Oh, my God,” in a weak voice, then plunged a dagger into the sentry’s belly, jabbing it up under the rib cage to the heart.

The man gasped, sagged, and opened his mouth as if to scream. A noise could spoil everything. Panicking, not knowing what to do, William pulled out the dagger and stuck it into the man’s open mouth, shoving the blade into his throat to shut him up. Instead of a scream, blood flowed out of his mouth. The man’s eyes closed. William pulled the dagger out as the man fell to the ground.

William’s horse had sidestepped away, frightened by the sudden movements. William caught its bridle, then looked at Walter, who had taken the other sentry. Walter had knifed his man more efficiently, slitting his throat, so that he died in silence. I must remember that, William thought, next time I have to silence a man. Then he thought: I’ve done it! I’ve killed a man!

He realized he was no longer scared.

He handed his reins to Walter and ran up the spiral staircase to the gatehouse tower. On the upper level was a winding room for pulling up the drawbridge. With his sword, William hacked at the thick hawser. Two blows were sufficient to sever it. He dropped the loose end out of the window. It fell on the bank and slid softly into the moat, hardly making a splash. Now the drawbridge could not be raised against Father’s attacking force. This was one of the refinements they had thought of last night.

Raymond and Ranulf arrived at the gatehouse just as William reached the foot of the stairs. Their first job was to wreck the huge ironbound oak gates which closed the arch leading from the bridge into the compound. They each took out a wooden hammer and a chisel and began to chip out the mortar surrounding the mighty iron hinges. The striking of hammer on chisel made a dull thud which sounded terribly loud to William.

William dragged the two dead sentries into the guardroom quickly. With everyone at mass, there was a strong chance the bodies would not be seen until it was too late.

He took his reins from Walter and the two of them walked out from under the arch and headed across the compound toward the stable. William forced his legs to move at a normal, unhurried pace, and glanced surreptitiously up at the sentries on the watchtowers. Had one of them seen the drawbridge rope fall into the moat? Were they wondering about the sound of hammering? Some of them were looking at William and Walter, but they did not seem agitated, and the hammering, which was already fading in William’s ears, must have been inaudible from the tops of the towers. William felt relieved. The plan was working.

They reached the stables and went inside. They both draped their horses’ reins loosely over a bar, so the beasts could escape. Then William took out his flint and scraped a spark, setting fire to the straw on the floor. It was soiled and damp in patches, but nevertheless it began to smolder. He lit three more small fires, and Walter did the same. They stood watching for a moment. The horses caught a whiff of smoke, and moved nervously in the stalls. William stayed a moment longer. The fire was under way, and so was the plan.

He and Walter left the stable and went out into the open compound. At the gateway, hidden under the arch, Raymond and Ranulf were still chipping away at the mortar around the hinges. William and Walter turned toward the kitchen, to give the impression that they might be going to get something to eat, which would be natural. There was no one else in the compound: everyone was at mass. Casually looking up at the battlements, William observed that the sentries were not looking into the castle, but out across the fields, as of course they were supposed to. Nevertheless William expected someone to emerge from one of the buildings at any moment and challenge them; and then they would have to kill him right here in the open, and if that were seen the game would be up.

They skirted the kitchen and headed for the bridge leading to the upper compound. They heard the muted sounds of the service as they passed the chapel. Earl Bartholomew was in there, all unsuspecting, William thought with a thrill; he had no idea that there was an army a mile away, four of the enemy were already inside his stronghold, and his stables were on fire. Aliena was in the chapel too, praying on her knees. Soon she’ll be on her knees to me, William thought, and the blood pounded in his head giddily.

They reached the bridge and started across. They had ensured that the first bridge remained passable, by cutting the drawbridge rope and disabling the gate, so that their army could get in. But the earl could still flee across the bridge and take refuge in the upper compound. William’s next task was to prevent this by raising the drawbridge to make the second bridge impassable. The earl would then be isolated and vulnerable in the lower compound.

They reached the second gatehouse and a sentry stepped out of the guardroom. “You’re early,” he said.

William said: “We’ve been summoned to see the earl.” He approached the sentry, but the man stepped back a pace. William did not want him to back away too far, for if he stepped out from under the arch he would be visible to the sentries on the ramparts of the upper circle.

“The earl’s in chapel,” the sentry said.

“We’ll have to wait.” This guard had to be killed quickly and quietly, but William did not know how to get close enough. He glanced at Walter for guidance, but Walter was just waiting patiently, looking imperturbable.

“There’s a fire in the keep,” the guard said. “Go and warm yourselves.” William hesitated, and the guard began to look wary. “What are you waiting for?” he said with a trace of irritation.

William cast around desperately for something to say. “Can we get something to eat?” he said at last.

“Not until after mass,” the sentry said. “Then they’ll serve breakfast in the keep.”

Now William saw that Walter had been edging imperceptibly to one side. If the guard would only turn a little, Walter could get behind him. William took a few casual steps in the opposite direction, going past the sentry, saying, “I’m not impressed by your earl’s hospitality.” The sentry was turning. William said: “We’ve come a long way-”

Then Walter pounced.

He stepped behind the sentry and put his arms over the man’s shoulders. With his left hand he jerked the sentry’s chin back, and with the knife in his right hand he slit the man’s throat. William breathed a sigh of relief. It was done in a moment.

Between them, William and Walter had killed three men before breakfast. William felt a thrilling sense of power. Nobody will laugh at me after today! he thought.

Walter dragged the body into the guardroom. The plan of this gatehouse was exactly the same as that of the first one, with a spiral staircase up to the winding room. William went up the stairs and Walter followed.

William had not reconnoitered this room when he was at the castle yesterday. He had not thought to, but in any case it would have been hard to think of a plausible pretext. He had assumed that there would be a winding wheel, or at least a reel with a handle, for lifting the drawbridge; but now he saw that there was no winding gear at all, just a rope and a capstan. The only way to lift the drawbridge was to heave on the rope. William and Walter grasped it and pulled together, but the bridge did not even creak. It was a task for ten men.

William was puzzled for a moment. The other drawbridge, the one leading to the castle entrance, had a big wheel. He and Walter could have lifted that one. Then he realized that the outer drawbridge would be raised every night, whereas this one was only lifted in an emergency.

There was nothing to be gained by pondering over it, anyway. The question was what to do next. If he could not raise the drawbridge, he could at least close the gates, which would certainly delay the earl.

He ran back down the staircase with Walter close behind. As he reached the foot of the stairs he had a shock. Not everyone was at mass, it seemed. He saw a woman and a child come out of the guardroom.

William’s step faltered. He recognized the woman immediately. She was the builder’s wife, the one he had tried to buy yesterday for a pound. She saw him, and her penetrating honey-colored eyes looked straight through him. William did not even consider pretending to be an innocent visitor waiting for the earl: he knew she would not be deceived. He had to prevent her from giving the alarm. And the way to do that was to kill her, quickly and silently, as they had killed the sentries.

Her all-seeing eyes read his intentions in his face. She grabbed her child’s hand and turned away. William made a grab for her but she was too quick for him. She ran into the compound, heading for the keep. William and Walter ran after her.

She was very light on her feet, and they were wearing chain mail and carrying heavy weapons. She reached the staircase that led up to the great hall. As she ran up the steps, she screamed. William looked up at the ramparts all around. The scream had alerted at least two sentries. The game was up. William stopped running and stood at the foot of the steps, breathing hard. Walter did the same. Two sentries, then three, then four were running down the ramparts into the compound. The woman disappeared into the keep, still hand in hand with the boy. She was no longer important: now that the sentries had been alerted there was no point in killing her.

He and Walter drew their swords and stood side by side, ready to fight for their lives.

The priest was elevating the Host over the altar when Tom realized there was something wrong with the horses. He could hear a lot of neighing and stamping, much more than was normal. A moment later someone interrupted the priest’s quiet Latin chant by saying loudly: “I smell smoke!”

Tom smelled it too, then, and so did everyone else. Tom was taller than the rest and could see out of the chapel windows if he stood on tiptoe. He stepped to the side and looked out. The stables were blazing fiercely.

“Fire!” he said, and before he could say any more his voice was drowned by the shouts of the others. There was a rush for the door. The service was forgotten. Tom held Martha back, for fear she would be hurt in the crush, and told Alfred to stay with them. He wondered where Ellen and Jack were.

A moment later there was no one in the chapel but the three of them and an annoyed priest.

Tom took the children outside. Some people were releasing the horses to save them from harm, and others were drawing water from the well to throw on the flames. Tom could not see Ellen. The freed horses charged around the compound, terrified by the fire and the running, shouting people. The drumming of hooves was tremendous. Tom listened hard for a moment, and frowned: it was really too tremendous-it sounded more like a hundred horses than twenty or thirty. Suddenly he was struck by a frightening apprehension. “Stay right here for a moment, Martha,” he said. “Alfred, you look after her.” He ran up the embankment to the top of the ramparts. It was a steep slope, and he had to slow down before he reached the top. At the summit, breathing hard, he looked out.

His apprehension had been right, and now his heart was seized in the cold grip of fear. An army of horsemen, eighty to a hundred strong, was charging across the brown fields toward the castle. It was a fearsome sight. Tom could see the metallic glint of their chain mail and their drawn swords. The horses were galloping flat out, and a fog of warm breath rose from their nostrils. The riders were hunched in their saddles, grimly purposeful. There was no yelling and screaming, just the deafening thunder of hundreds of pounding hooves.

Tom looked back into the castle compound. Why could nobody else hear the army? Because the sound of the hooves was muffled by the castle walls and merged with the noise of panic in the compound. Why had the sentries seen nothing? Because they had all left their posts to fight the fire. This attack had been masterminded by someone clever. Now it was up to Tom to give the alarm.

And where was Ellen?

His eyes raked the compound as the attackers pounded nearer. Much of it was obscured by thick white smoke from the burning stables. He could not see Ellen.

He spotted Earl Bartholomew, beside the well, trying to organize the carrying of water to the fire. Tom ran down the embankment and rushed across the compound to the well. He grabbed the earl’s shoulder, none too gently, and yelled in his ear to make himself heard above the din. “It’s an attack!”

“What?”

“We’re being attacked!”

The earl was thinking about the fire. “Attacked? Who by?”

“Listen!” Tom yelled. “A hundred horses!”

The earl cocked his head. Tom watched as realization dawned on the pale, aristocratic face. “You’re right-by the cross!” He suddenly looked afraid. “Have you seen them?”

“Yes.”

“Who-Never mind who! A hundred horses?”

“Yes-”

“Peter! Ralph!” The earl turned from Tom and summoned his lieutenants. “It’s a raid-this fire is a diversion-we’re under attack!” Like the earl, they were at first uncomprehending, then they listened, and finally they showed fear. The earl yelled: “Tell the men to get their swords-hurry, hurry!” He turned back to Tom. “Come with me, stonemason-you’re strong, we can close the gates.” He ran off across the compound and Tom followed him. If they could close the gates and raise the drawbridge in time, they could hold off a hundred men.

They reached the gatehouse. They could see the army through the arch. It was less than a mile away now, and spreading out, Tom observed, the faster horses in front and the stragglers behind. “Look at the gates!” the earl yelled.

Tom looked. The two great iron-banded oak gates lay flat on the ground. Their hinges had been chiseled out of the wall, he could see. Some of the enemy had been here earlier, he thought. His stomach churned with fear.

He looked back into the compound, still searching for Ellen. He could not see her. What had become of her? Anything could happen now. He needed to be with her and protect her.

“The drawbridge!” said the earl.

The best way to protect Ellen was to keep the attackers out, Tom realized. The earl ran up the spiral staircase that led to the winding room, and with an effort Tom made himself follow. If they could lift the drawbridge, a few men could hold the gatehouse. But when he reached the winding room his heart sank. The rope had been cut. There was no way to lift the drawbridge.

Earl Bartholomew cursed bitterly. “Whoever planned this is as cunning as Lucifer,” he said.

It struck Tom that whoever had wrecked the gates, cut the drawbridge rope and started the fire must still be inside the castle somewhere, and he looked around fearfully, wondering where the intruders might be.

The earl glanced out of an arrow-slit window. “Dear God, they’re almost here.” He ran down the stairs.

Tom was close on his heels. In the gateway, several knights were hastily buckling their sword belts and putting on helmets. Earl Bartholomew started to give orders. “Ralph and John-drive some loose horses across the bridge to get in the enemy’s way. Richard-Peter-Robin-get some others and make a stand here.” The gateway was narrow, and a few men could hold off the attackers for a little while at least. “You-stonemason-get the servants and children across the bridge to the upper compound.”

Tom was glad to have an excuse to look for Ellen. He ran to the chapel first. Alfred and Martha were where he had left them a few moments earlier, looking scared. “Go to the keep,” he shouted to them. “Any other children or women you pass, tell them to go with you-orders of the earl. Run!” They ran off immediately.

Tom looked around. He would follow them soon: he was determined not to get caught in the lower compound. But he had a few moments to spare in which he could carry out the earl’s order. He ran to the stable, where people were still throwing buckets of water over the flames. “Forget the fire, the castle is being attacked,” he yelled. “Take your children to the keep.”

Smoke got in his eyes and his vision blurred with tears. He rubbed his eyes and ran to a small crowd who were standing watching the fire consume the stables. He repeated his message to them, and to a group of stable hands who had rounded up some of the loose horses. Ellen was nowhere to be seen.

The smoke made him cough. Choking, he ran back across the compound to the bridge that led to the upper circle. He paused there, gasping for air, and looked back. People were streaming across the bridge. He was almost sure that Ellen and Jack must have gone to the keep already, but he was terrified that he might have missed them. He could see a tightly packed knot of knights engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting at the lower gatehouse. Otherwise there was nothing to see but smoke. Suddenly Earl Bartholomew appeared at his side, with blood on his sword and tears on his face from the smoke. “Save yourself!” the earl shouted at Tom. At that moment the attackers burst through the arch of the lower gatehouse, scattering the defending knights. Tom turned and ran across the bridge.

Fifteen or twenty of the earl’s men stood at the second gatehouse, ready to defend the upper compound. They parted to let Tom and the earl through. As their ranks closed again, Tom heard hooves hammering on the wooden bridge behind him. The defenders had no chance now. At the back of his mind Tom realized that this had been a cleverly planned and perfectly executed raid. But his main thought was fear for Ellen and the children. A hundred bloodthirsty armed men were about to burst in on them. He ran across the upper compound to the keep.

Halfway up the wooden steps leading to the great hall he glanced back. The defenders of the second gatehouse were overcome almost immediately by the charging horsemen. Earl Bartholomew was on the steps behind Tom. There was just time for them both to get into the keep and lift the staircase inside. Tom ran the rest of the way up the steps and leaped into the hall-and then he saw that the attackers had been cleverer yet.

The attackers’ advance party, who had wrecked the gates, and cut the rope of the drawbridge, and set fire to the stables, had performed one more task: they had come to the keep and ambushed all who took refuge there.

They were now standing just inside the great hall, four grimfaced men in chain mail. All around them were the bleeding bodies of dead and wounded knights of the earl’s, who had been slaughtered as they stepped inside. And the leader of the advance party, Tom saw with a shock, was William Hamleigh.

Tom stared, stunned by surprise. William’s eyes were wide with bloodlust. Tom thought William was going to kill him, but before he had time to be scared, one of William’s henchmen seized Tom’s arm, pulled him inside and shoved him out of the way.

So it was the Hamleighs who were attacking Earl Bartholomew’s castle. But why?

All the servants and children were in a frightened huddle on the far side of the hall. Only the armed men were being killed, then. Tom scanned the faces in the hall, and, to his overwhelming relief and gratitude, he saw Alfred, Martha, Ellen and Jack, all in a group, looking terrified but alive and apparently unhurt.

Before he could go to them a fight started in the doorway. Earl Bartholomew and two knights charged in and were ambushed by the waiting Hamleigh knights. One of the earl’s men was struck down immediately, but the other protected the earl with his raised sword. Several more of Bartholomew’s knights came in behind the earl, and suddenly there was a tremendous skirmish at close quarters, with knives and fists being used because there was no room to deploy a long sword. For a moment it looked as if the earl’s men would overcome William’s; then some of Bartholomew’s men turned and began to defend themselves from behind: clearly the attacking army had penetrated the upper compound and was now mounting the steps and attacking the keep.

A powerful voice bellowed: “HOLD!”

The men on both sides took defensive positions, and the fighting stopped.

The same voice called: “Bartholomew of Shiring, will you surrender?”

Tom saw the earl turn and look out through the door. Knights stepped aside to get out of his line of vision. “Hamleigh,” the earl murmured in a quietly incredulous tone. Then he raised his voice and said: “Will you leave my family and servants unharmed?”

“Yes.”

“Will you swear it?”

“I swear it, by the cross, if you surrender.”

“I surrender,” said Earl Bartholomew.

There was a great cheer from outside.

Tom turned away. Martha ran across the room to him. He picked her up, then embraced Ellen.

“We’re safe,” Ellen said with tears in her eyes. “All of us-all safe.”

“Safe,” said Tom bitterly, “but destitute again.”

William stopped cheering suddenly. He was the son of Lord Percy, and it was undignified for him to yell and whoop like the men-at-arms. He composed his face in an expression of lordly satisfaction.

They had won. He had carried out the plan, not without some setbacks, but it had worked, and the attack had succeeded largely because of his advance work. He had lost count of the men he had killed and maimed, yet he was unharmed. He was struck by a thought: there was a lot of blood on his face for one who was uninjured. When he wiped it away, more came. It must be his own. He put his hand to his face, then to his head. Some of his hair had gone, and when he touched his scalp it hurt like fire. He had not been wearing a helmet, for that would have looked suspicious. Now that he was aware of the wound it started to hurt. He did not mind. An injury was a badge of courage.

His father came up the steps and confronted Earl Bartholomew in the doorway. Bartholomew held out his sword, hilt first, in a gesture of surrender. Percy took it, and his men cheered again.

As the noise died down William heard Bartholomew say: “Why have you done this?”

Father replied: “You plotted against the king.”

Bartholomew was astonished that Father knew this, and the shock showed on his face. William held his breath, wondering whether Bartholomew, in the despair of defeat, would admit the conspiracy in front of all these people. But he recovered his composure, drew himself upright, and said: “I’ll defend my honor in front of the king, not here.”

Father nodded. “As you wish. Tell your men to lay down their arms and leave the castle.”

The earl murmured a command to his knights, and one by one they approached Father and dropped their swords on the floor in front of him. William enjoyed watching that. Look at them all, humbled before my father, he thought proudly. Father was talking to one of his knights. “Round up the loose horses and put them in the stable. Have some men go around and disarm the dead and wounded.” The weapons and horses of the defeated belonged to the victors, of course: Bartholomew’s knights would disperse unarmed and on foot. The Hamleighs’ men would also empty the castle’s stores. The confiscated horses would be loaded with goods and driven back to Hamleigh, the village from which the family took its name. Father beckoned another knight and said: “Sort out the kitchen staff and have them make dinner. Send the rest of the servants away.” Men were hungry after a battle: now there would be a feast. Earl Bartholomew’s best food and wine would be eaten and drunk here before the army rode home.

A moment later, the knights around Father and Bartholomew divided, making a passage, and Mother swept in.

She looked very small among all the hefty fighting men, but when she unwound the scarf that had covered her face, those who had not seen her before started back, shocked, as people always were, by her disfigurement. She looked at Father. “A great triumph,” she said in a satisfied tone.

William wanted to say: That was because of good advance work, wasn’t it, Mother?

He bit his tongue, but his father spoke for him. “It was William who got us in.”

Mother turned to him, and he waited eagerly for her to congratulate him. “Did he?” she said.

“Yes,” Father said. “The boy did a good job.”

Mother nodded. “Perhaps he did,” she said.

William’s heart was warmed by her praise, and he grinned foolishly.

She looked at Earl Bartholomew. “The earl should bow to me,” she said.

The earl said: “No.”

Mother said: “Fetch the daughter.”

William looked around. For a moment he had forgotten about Aliena. He scanned the faces of the servants and children, and spotted her right away, standing with Matthew, the effeminate household steward. William went to her, took her arm, and brought her to his mother. Matthew followed them.

Mother said: “Cut off her ears.”

Aliena screamed.

William felt a strange stirring in his loins.

Bartholomew’s face turned gray. “You promised you wouldn’t harm her if I surrendered,” he said. “You swore it.”

Mother said: “And our protection will be as complete as your surrender.”

That was clever, William thought.

Still Bartholomew looked defiant.

William wondered who would be chosen to cut off Aliena’s ears. Perhaps Mother would give him the task. The idea was peculiarly exciting.

Mother said to Bartholomew: “Kneel.”

Slowly, Bartholomew went down on one knee and bowed his head.

William felt faintly disappointed.

Mother raised her voice. “Look at this!” she shouted to the assembled company. “Never forget the fate of a man who insults the Hamleighs!” She looked around defiantly, and William’s heart swelled with pride. The family honor was restored.

Mother turned away, and Father took over. “Take him to his bedroom,” he said. “Guard him well.”

Bartholomew got to his feet.

Father said to William: “Take the girl as well.”

William took Aliena’s arm in a hard grip. He liked touching her. He was going to take her up to the bedroom. There was no telling what might happen. If he were left alone with her, he would be able to do anything he wanted to her. He could rip her clothes off and look at her nakedness. He could-

The earl said: “Let Matthew Steward come with us, to take care of my daughter.”

Father glanced at Matthew. “He looks safe enough,” he said with a grin. “All right.”

William looked at Aliena’s face. She was still white, but she was even more beautiful when she was frightened. It was so exciting to see her in this vulnerable state. He wanted to crush her ripe body beneath his, and see the fear in her face as he forced her thighs apart. On impulse, he put his face close to hers and said in a low voice: “I still want to marry you.”

She drew away from him. “Marry?” she said in a loud voice full of scorn. “I’d rather die than marry you, you loathsome puffed-up toad!”

All the knights smiled broadly, and a few of the servants sniggered. William felt his face flush bright red.

Mother took a sudden step forward and slapped Aliena’s face. Bartholomew moved to defend her but the knights restrained him. “Shut up,” Mother said to Aliena. “You’re not a fine lady anymore-you’re the daughter of a traitor, and soon you’ll be destitute and starving. You’re not good enough for my son now. Get out of my sight, and don’t speak another word.”

Aliena turned away. William released her arm, and she followed her father. As he watched her go, William realized that the sweet taste of revenge had turned bitter in his mouth.

She was a real heroine, just like a princess in a poem, Jack thought. He watched, awestruck, as she climbed the stairs with her head held high. The whole room was silent until she disappeared from sight. When she went it was like a lamp going out. Jack stared at the place where she had been.

One of the knights came over and said: “Who’s the cook?”

The cook himself was too wary to volunteer, but someone else pointed him out.

“You’re going to make dinner,” the knight told him. “Take your helpers and go to the kitchen.” The cook picked half a dozen people out of the crowd. The knight raised his voice. “The rest of you-clear off. Get out of the castle. Go quickly and don’t try to take anything that’s not yours, if you value your lives. We’ve all got blood on our swords and a little more won’t show. Get moving!”

They all shuffled through the door. Jack’s mother took his hand and Tom held Martha’s. Alfred stayed close. They were all wearing their cloaks, and they had no possessions other than their clothes and their eating knives. With the crowd they went down the steps, over the bridge, across the lower compound, and through the gatehouse, stepping over the useless gates, leaving the castle without a pause. When they stepped off the bridge onto the field on the far side of the moat, the tension snapped like a cut bowstring, and they all began to talk about their ordeal in loud, excited voices. Jack listened idly as he walked along. Everybody was recalling how brave they had been. He had not been brave-he had simply run away.

Aliena was the only one who had been brave. When she came into the keep and found that instead of being a place of safety it was a trap, she had taken charge of the servants and children, telling them to sit down and keep quiet and stay out of the way of the fighting men, screaming at the Hamleighs’ knights when they were rough with their prisoners or raised their swords against unarmed men and women, acting as if she were completely invulnerable.

His mother ruffled his hair. “What are you thinking about?”

“I was wondering what will happen to the princess.”

She knew what he meant. “The Lady Aliena.”

“She’s like a princess in a poem, living in a castle. But knights aren’t as virtuous as the poems say.”

“That’s true,” Mother said grimly.

“What will become of her?”

She shook her head. “I really don’t know.”

“Her mother’s dead.”

“Then she’ll have a hard time.”

“I thought so.” Jack paused. “She laughed at me because I didn’t know about fathers. But I liked her all the same.”

Mother put her arm around him. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about fathers.”

He touched her hand, accepting her apology. They walked on in silence. From time to time a family would leave the road and head across the fields, making for the home of relatives or friends where they might beg some breakfast and think about what to do next. Most of the crowd stayed together as far as the crossroads, then they split up, some going north or south, some continuing straight on toward the market town of Shiring. Mother detached herself from Jack and put a hand on Tom’s arm, making him stop. “Where shall we go?” she said.

He looked faintly surprised to be asked, as if he expected them all to follow wherever he led without asking questions. Jack had noticed that Mother often brought that surprised look to Tom’s face. Perhaps his previous wife had been a different sort of person.

“We’re going to Kingsbridge Priory,” Tom said.

“Kingsbridge!” Mother seemed shaken. Jack wondered why.

Tom did not notice. “Last night I heard there’s a new prior,” he went on. “Usually a new man wants to make some repairs or alterations to the church.”

“The old prior is dead?”

“Yes.”

For some reason Mother was soothed by that news. She must have known the old prior, Jack thought, and disliked him.

Tom heard the troubled note in her voice at last. “Is there something wrong with Kingsbridge?” he asked her.

“I’ve been there. It’s more than a day’s journey.”

Jack knew that it was not the length of the journey that bothered Mother, but Tom did not. “A little more,” he said. “We can get there by midday tomorrow.”

“All right,”

They walked on.

A little later Jack began to feel a pain in his belly. For a while he wondered what it was. He had not been hurt at the castle and Alfred had not punched him for two days. But eventually he realized what it was.

He was hungry again.

Chapter 4

I

KINGSBRIDGE CATHEDRAL was not a welcoming sight. It was a low, squat, massive structure with thick walls and tiny windows. It had been built long before Tom’s time, in the days when builders had not realized the importance of proportion. Tom’s generation knew that a straight, true wall was stronger than a thick one, and that walls could be pierced with large windows so long as the arch of the window was a perfect half-circle. From a distance the church looked lopsided, and when Tom got closer he saw why: one of the twin towers at the west end had fallen down. He was delighted. The new prior was likely to want it rebuilt. Hope quickened his pace. To have been hired, as he had been at Earlscastle, and then to see his new employer defeated in battle and captured was heartbreaking. He felt he could not take another disappointment like that.

He glanced at Ellen. He was afraid that any day now she would decide that he was not going to find work before they all starved to death, and then she would leave him. She smiled at him, then she frowned again as she looked at the looming hulk of the cathedral. She was always uncomfortable with priests and monks, he had observed. He wondered if she felt guilty because the two of them were not actually married in the eyes of the Church.

The priory close was full of bustle and industry. Tom had seen sleepy monasteries and busy ones, but Kingsbridge was exceptional. It looked as if it were being spring-cleaned three months early. Outside the stable, two monks were grooming horses and a third was cleaning harness while novices mucked out the stalls. More monks were sweeping and scrubbing the guesthouse, which was next to the stable, and a cartload of straw stood outside ready to be strewn on the clean floor.

However, no one was working on the fallen tower. Tom studied the pile of stones that was all that remained of it. The collapse had to have occurred some years ago, for the broken edges of the stones had been blunted by frost and rain, the crushed mortar had been washed away, and the pile of masonry had sunk an inch or two into the soft earth. It was remarkable that the repair had been left undone for so long, for cathedral churches were supposed to be prestigious. The old prior must have been idle or incompetent, or both. Tom had probably arrived just when the monks were planning the rebuilding. He was overdue for some luck.

“No one recognizes me,” Ellen said.

“When were you here?” Tom asked her.

“Thirteen years ago.”

“No wonder they’ve forgotten you.”

As they passed the west front of the church Tom opened one of the big wooden doors and looked inside. The nave was dark and gloomy, with thick columns and an ancient wooden ceiling. However, several monks were whitewashing the walls with longhandled brushes, and others were sweeping the beaten-earth floor. The new prior was evidently getting the whole place smartened up. That was a hopeful sign. Tom closed the door.

Beyond the church, in the kitchen courtyard, a team of novices stood around a trough of filthy water, scraping the accumulated soot and grease off cooking pots and kitchen utensils with sharp stones. Their knuckles were raw and red from constant immersion in the icy water. When they saw Ellen they giggled and looked away.

Tom asked a blushing novice where the cellarer was to be found. Strictly speaking, it was the sacrist he should have asked for, because the fabric of the church was the sacrist’s responsibility; but cellarers as a class were more approachable. In the end the prior would make the decision, anyway. The novice directed him to the undercroft of one of the buildings around the courtyard. Tom went in through an open doorway, and Ellen and the children followed. They all paused inside the door to peer into the gloom.

This building was newer and more soundly constructed than the church, Tom could tell at once. The air was dry and there was no smell of rot. Indeed, the mixed aromas of the stored food gave him painful stomach pangs, for he had not eaten in two days. As his eyes adjusted he saw that the undercroft had a good flagstone floor, short thick pillars, and a tunnel-vaulted ceiling. A moment later he noticed a tall, bald man spooning salt from a barrel into a pot. “Are you the cellarer?” said Tom, but the man held up a hand for silence, and Tom saw that he was counting. They all waited in silence for him to finish. At last he said: “Two score and nineteen, three score,” and put the spoon down.

Tom said: “I’m Tom, master builder, and I’d like to rebuild your northwest tower.”

“I’m Cuthbert, called Whitehead, the cellarer, and I’d like to see it done,” the man replied. “But we’ll have to ask Prior Philip. You’ll have heard that we have a new prior?”

“Yes.” Cuthbert was the friendly sort of monk, Tom decided; worldly and easygoing. He would be happy to chat. “And the new man seems intent on improving the appearance of the monastery.”

Cuthbert nodded. “But he’s not so keen on paying for it. Did you notice that all the work is being done by monks? He won’t hire any workmen-says the priory already has too many servants.”

That was bad news. “How do the monks feel about that?” Tom asked delicately.

Cuthbert laughed, and his wrinkled face creased up even more. “You’re a tactful man, Tom Builder. You’re thinking that you don’t often see monks working so hard. Well, the new prior’s not forcing anyone. But he interprets the Rule of Saint Benedict in such a way that those who do physical labor may eat red meat and drink wine, whereas those who merely study and pray must live on salt fish and weak beer. He can show you an elaborate theoretical justification for it, too, but the upshot is that he has plenty of volunteers for the hard work, especially among the youngsters.” Cuthbert did not seem disapproving, just bemused.

Tom said: “But monks can’t build stone walls, no matter how well they eat.” As he spoke, he heard a baby cry. The sound tugged at his heartstrings. It took him a moment to realize how odd it was that there should be a baby in a monastery.

“We’ll ask the prior,” Cuthbert was saying, but Tom hardly heard. It sounded like the cry of a very small baby, just a week or two old, and it was coming nearer. Tom caught Ellen’s eye. She looked startled too. Then there was a shadow in the door. Tom had a lump in his throat. A monk walked in carrying the baby. Tom looked at its face. It was his child.

Tom swallowed hard. The baby’s face was red, its fists were clenched, and its mouth was open, showing toothless gums. Its cry was not the cry of pain or sickness, just a simple demand for food. It was the healthy, lusty yell of a normal baby, and Tom felt weak with relief to see his son looking so well.

The monk carrying him was a cheerful-looking boy of about twenty years, with unruly hair and a big, rather stupid grin. Unlike most of the monks, he did not react to the presence of a woman. He smiled at everyone and then spoke to Cuthbert. “Jonathan needs more milk.”

Tom wanted to take the child in his arms. He tried to freeze his face so that his expression would not betray his emotions. He threw a furtive glance at the children. All they knew was that the abandoned baby had been found by a traveling priest. They did not even know that the priest had taken him to the little monastery in the forest. Now their faces showed nothing but mild curiosity. They had not connected this baby with the one they had left behind.

Cuthbert picked up a ladle and a small jug, and filled the jug from a bucket of milk. Ellen said to the young monk: “May I hold the baby?” She held out her arms and the monk handed the child to her. Tom envied her. He longed to hold that tiny hot bundle close to his heart. Ellen rocked the baby, and he was quiet for a moment.

Cuthbert looked up and said: “Ah. Johnny Eightpence is a fair nursemaid, but he doesn’t have the woman’s touch.”

Ellen smiled at the boy. “Why do they call you Johnny Eightpence?”

Cuthbert answered for him. “Because he’s only eight pence to the shilling,” he said, tapping the side of his head to indicate that Johnny was half-witted. “But he seems to understand the needs of poor dumb creatures better than us wise folk. All part of God’s wider purpose, I’m sure,” he finished vaguely.

Ellen had edged over to Tom, and now she held the baby out to him. She had read his thoughts. He gave her a look of profound gratitude, and took the tiny child in his big hands. He could feel the baby’s heartbeat through the blanket in which it was wrapped. The material was fine: he wondered briefly where the monks had got such soft wool. He held the baby to his chest and rocked. His technique was not as good as Ellen’s, and the child started to cry again, but Tom did not mind: that loud, insistent yell was music to his ears, for it meant that the child he had abandoned was fit and strong. Hard though it was, he felt he had made the right decision in leaving the baby at the monastery.

Ellen asked Johnny: “Where does he sleep?”

Johnny answered for himself this time. “He has a crib in the dormitory with the rest of us.”

“He must wake you all in the night.”

“We get up at midnight anyway, for matins,” Johnny said.

“Of course! I was forgetting that monks’ nights are as sleepless as mothers’.”

Cuthbert handed Johnny the jug of milk. Johnny took the baby from Tom with a practiced one-arm movement. Tom was not ready to give the baby up, but in the monks’ eyes he had no rights at all, so he had to let him go. A moment later Johnny and the baby were gone, and Tom had to resist the impulse to go after them and say Wait, stop, that’s my son, give him back to me. Ellen stood beside him and squeezed his arm in a discreet gesture of sympathy.

Tom realized he had new reason to hope. If he could get work here, he could see baby Jonathan all the time, and it would be almost as if he had never abandoned him. It seemed almost too good to be true, and he did not dare to wish for it.

Cuthbert was looking shrewdly at Martha and Jack, who had both gone big-eyed at the sight of the jug full of creamy milk that Johnny had taken away. “Would the children like some milk?” he asked.

“Yes, please, Father, they would,” Tom said. He would have liked some himself.

Cuthbert ladled milk into two wooden bowls and gave them to Martha and Jack. They both drank quickly, leaving big white rings around their mouths. “Some more?” Cuthbert offered.

“Yes, please,” they replied in unison. Tom looked at Ellen, knowing that she must feel as he did, deeply thankful to see the little ones fed at last.

As Cuthbert refilled the bowls he said casually: “Where have you folks come from?”

“Earlscastle, near Shiring,” said Tom. “We left there yesterday morning.”

“Have you eaten since?”

“No,” Tom said flatly. He knew that Cuthbert’s inquiry was kindly, but he hated to admit that he had been unable to feed his children himself.

“Have some apples to keep you going until suppertime, then,” Cuthbert said, pointing to the barrel near the door.

Alfred, Ellen and Tom went to the barrel while Martha and Jack were drinking their second bowl of milk. Alfred tried to fill his arms with apples. Tom smacked them out of his hands and said in a low voice: “Just take two or three.” He took three.

Tom ate his apples gratefully, and his belly felt a little better, but he could not help wondering how soon supper would be served. Monks generally ate before dark, to save candles, he recalled happily.

Cuthbert was looking hard at Ellen. “Do I know you?” he said eventually.

She looked uneasy. “I don’t think so.”

“You seem familiar,” he said uncertainly.

“I used to live near here as a child,” she said.

“That would be it,” he said. “That’s why I have this feeling that you look older than you should.”

“You must have a very good memory.”

He frowned at her. “Not quite good enough,” he said. “I’m sure there’s something else… No matter. Why did you leave Earlscastle?”

“It was attacked, yesterday at dawn, and taken,” Tom replied. “Earl Bartholomew is accused of treason.”

Cuthbert was shocked. “Saints preserve us!” he exclaimed, and suddenly he looked like an old maid frightened by a bull. “Treason!”

There was a footstep outside. Tom turned and saw another monk walk in. Cuthbert said: “This is our new prior.”

Tom recognized the prior. It was Philip, the monk they had met on their way to the bishop’s palace, the one who had given them the delicious cheese. Now everything fell into place: the new prior of Kingsbridge was the old prior of the little cell in the forest, and he had brought Jonathan with him when he came here. Tom’s heart leaped with optimism. Philip was a kindly man, and he had seemed to like and trust Tom. Surely he would give him a job.

Philip recognized him. “Hello, Master Builder,” he said. “You didn’t get much work at the bishop’s palace, then?”

“No, Father. The archdeacon wouldn’t hire me, and the bishop wasn’t there.”

“Indeed he wasn’t-he was in heaven, though we didn’t know it at the time.”

“The bishop is dead?”

“Yes.”

“That’s old news,” Cuthbert butted in impatiently. “Tom and his family have just come from Earlscastle. Earl Bartholomew has been captured and his castle overrun!”

Philip was very still. “Already!” he murmured.

“Already?” Cuthbert repeated. “Why do you say ‘already’?” He seemed fond of Philip but wary of him, like a father whose son has been away to war and has come home with a sword in his belt and a slightly dangerous look in his eye. “Did you know this was going to happen?”

Philip was slightly flustered. “No, not exactly,” he said uncertainly. “I had heard a rumor that Earl Bartholomew was opposed to King Stephen.” He recovered his composure. “We can all be thankful for this,” he announced. “Stephen has promised to protect the Church, whereas Maud might have oppressed us as much as her late father did. Yes, indeed. This is good news.” He looked as pleased as if he had done it himself.

Tom did not want to talk about Earl Bartholomew. “It isn’t good news for me,” he said. “The earl had hired me, the day before, to strengthen the castle’s defenses. I didn’t even get a single day’s pay.”

“What a shame,” said Philip. “Who was it that attacked the castle?”

“Lord Percy Hamleigh.”

“Ah.” Philip nodded, and once again Tom felt his news was only confirming Philip’s expectations.

“You’re making some improvements here, then,” Tom said, trying to bring the subject around to his own interest.

“I’m trying,” Philip said.

“You’ll want to rebuild the tower, I’m sure.”

“Rebuild the tower, repair the roof, pave the floor-yes, I want to do all of that. And you want the job, of course,” he added, apparently having just realized why Tom was here. “I wasn’t thinking. I wish I could hire you. But I couldn’t pay you, I’m afraid. This monastery is penniless.”

Tom felt as if he had been struck by a fist. He had been confident of getting work here-everything had pointed to it. He could hardly believe his ears. He stared at Philip. It really was not credible that the priory had no money. The cellarer had said it was monks doing all the extra work, but even so, a monastery could always borrow money from the Jews. Tom felt as if this were the end of the road for him. Whatever it was that had kept him going all winter now seemed to drain out of him, and he felt weak and spineless. I can’t go on, he thought; I’m finished.

Philip saw his distress. “I can offer you supper, and a place to sleep, and some breakfast in the morning,” he said.

Tom felt bitterly angry. “I’ll accept it,” he said, “but I’d rather earn it.”

Philip raised his eyebrows at the note of anger, but he spoke mildly. “Ask God-that’s not begging, it’s prayer.” Then he went out.

The others looked a little scared, and Tom realized that his anger must be showing. Their staring at him annoyed him. He went out of the storeroom a few steps behind Philip, and stood in the courtyard, looking at the big old church, trying to control his feelings.

After a moment Ellen and the children followed him out. Ellen put her arm around his waist in a comforting gesture, which made the novices whisper and nudge one another. Tom ignored them. “I’ll pray,” he said sourly. “I’ll pray for a thunderbolt to strike the church and level it to the ground.”

In the last two days Jack had learned to fear the future.

During his short life he had never had to think farther ahead than tomorrow; but if he had, he would have known what to expect. One day was much like another in the forest, and the seasons changed slowly. Now he did not know, from day to day, where he would be, what he would do or whether he would eat.

The worst part of it was feeling hungry. Jack had been secretly eating grass and leaves, to try to ease the pangs, but they gave him a different kind of stomachache and made him feel peculiar. Martha often cried because she was so hungry. Jack and Martha always walked together. She looked up to him, and nobody had ever done that before. Being helpless to relieve her suffering was worse than his own hunger.

If they had still been living in the cave he would have known where to go to kill ducks, or find nuts, or steal eggs; but in towns and villages, and on the unfamiliar roads between them, he was at a loss. All he knew was that Tom had to find work.

They spent the afternoon in the guesthouse. It was a simple one-room building with a dirt floor and a fireplace in the middle, exactly like the houses peasants lived in, but Jack, who had always lived in a cave, thought it was marvelous. He was curious about how the house was made, and Tom told him. Two young trees had been chopped down, trimmed, and leaned against one another at an angle; then two more had been placed in the same way at four yards distance; and the two triangles thus formed were linked, at their tops, by a ridgepole. Parallel with the ridgepole, light slats were fixed, joining the trees, forming a sloping roof that reached to the ground. Rectangular frames of woven reeds, called hurdles, were laid over the slats, and made waterproof with mud. The gable ends were made of stakes driven into the ground, the chinks between them filled with mud. There was a door in one gable end. There were no windows.

Jack’s mother spread fresh straw on the floor and Jack lit a fire with the flint he always carried. When the others were out of earshot he asked Mother why the prior would not hire Tom, when there was obviously work to be done. “It seems he would rather save his money, so long as the church is still usable,” she said. “If the whole church had fallen down, they would be forced to rebuild it, but as it’s just the tower, they can live with the damage.”

When the daylight began to soften into dusk, a kitchen hand came to the guesthouse with a cauldron of pottage and a loaf as long as a man is tall, all just for them. The pottage was made with vegetables and herbs and meat bones, and its surface glistened with fat. The loaf was horsebread, made with all kinds of grain, rye and barley and oats, plus dried peas and beans; it was the cheapest bread, Alfred said, but to Jack, who had never eaten bread until a few days ago, it was delicious. Jack ate until his belly ached. Alfred ate until there was nothing left.

As they sat by the fire trying to digest their feast, Jack said to Alfred: “Why did the tower fall down, anyway?”

“Probably it was struck by lightning,” said Alfred. “Or there might have been a fire.”

“But there’s nothing to burn,” Jack said. “It’s all made of stone.”

“The roof isn’t stone, stupid,” Alfred said scornfully. “The roof is made of wood.”

Jack thought about that for a moment. “And if the roof burns, does the building always fall down?”

Alfred shrugged. “Sometimes.”

They sat in silence for a while. Tom and Jack’s mother were talking in low voices on the other side of the fireplace. Jack said: “It’s funny about that baby.”

“What’s funny?” Alfred said after a moment.

“Well, your baby was lost in the forest, miles away, and now here’s a baby at the priory.”

Neither Alfred nor Martha seemed to think the coincidence very remarkable, and Jack promptly forgot about it.

The monks all went to bed immediately after supper, and they did not provide candles for the humbler sort of guest, so Tom’s family sat and looked at the fire until it went out, then lay down on the straw.

Jack stayed awake, thinking. It had occurred to him that if the cathedral were to burn down tonight, all their problems would be solved. The prior would hire Tom to rebuild the church, they would all live here in this fine house, and they would have meat-bone pottage and horsebread for ever and ever.

If I were Tom, he thought, I’d set fire to the church myself. I’d get up quietly while everyone else was sleeping, and sneak into the church, and start a fire with my flint, then creep back here while it was spreading, and pretend to be asleep when the alarm was raised. And when the people started throwing buckets of water on the flames, as they did when the stables burned at Earl Bartholomew’s castle, I’d join in with them, as if I wanted to put out the fire just as much as they did.

Alfred and Martha were asleep-Jack could tell by their breathing. Tom and Ellen did what they usually did under Tom’s cloak (Alfred said it was called “fucking”) then they, too, fell asleep. It seemed that Tom was not going to get up and set fire to the cathedral.

But what was he going to do? Would the family walk the roads until they starved to death?

When they were all asleep, and he could hear the four of them breathing in the slow, regular rhythm that indicated deep slumber, it occurred to Jack that he could set the cathedral on fire.

The thought made his heart race with fear.

He would have to get up very quietly. He could probably unbar the door and slip out without waking anyone. The church doors might be locked, but there would surely be a way to get in, especially for someone small.

Once inside, he knew how he would reach the roof. He had learned a lot in two weeks with Tom. Tom talked about buildings all the time, mostly addressing his remarks to Alfred; and although Alfred was not interested, Jack was. He had found out, among other things, that all large churches had staircases built into the walls to give access to the higher parts for repair work. He would find a staircase and climb up to the roof.

He sat up in the dark, listening to the breathing of the others. He could distinguish Tom’s by its slightly chesty wheeze, caused (Mother said) by years of inhaling stone dust. Alfred snored once, loudly, then turned over and was silent again.

Once he had set the fire, he would have to get back to the guesthouse quickly. What would the monks do if they caught him? In Shiring Jack had seen a boy of his own age tied up and flogged for stealing a cone of sugar from a spice shop. The boy had screamed and the springy switch had made his bottom bleed. It had seemed much worse than men killing one another in a battle as they had at Earlscastle, and the vision of the bleeding boy had haunted Jack. He was terrified of the same happening to him.

If I do this, he thought, I’ll never tell a soul.

He lay down again, pulled his cloak around him, and closed his eyes.

He wondered if the church door was locked. If it was, he could get in through the windows. Nobody would see him if he stayed on the north side of the close. The monks’ dormitory was south of the church, masked by the cloisters, and there was nothing on this side except the graveyard.

He decided just to go and have a look, to see if it was possible.

He hesitated a moment longer, then he stood up.

The new straw crunched under his feet. He listened again to the breathing of the four sleeping people. It was very silent: the mice had stopped moving in the straw. He took a step, and listened again. The others slept on. He lost patience and took three rapid steps to the door. When he stopped, the mice had decided they had nothing to fear, and started scrabbling again, but the people slept on.

He touched the door with his fingertips, then ran his hands down to the bar. It was an oak beam resting in paired brackets. He got his hands under it, gripped, and lifted. It was heavier than he had expected, and after lifting it less than an inch he had to drop it. The thud it made when it hit the brackets sounded very loud. He froze, listening. Tom’s wheezy breathing faltered. What will I say if I’m caught? thought Jack desperately. I’ll say I was going outside… going outside… I know, I’ll say I was going to relieve myself. He relaxed now that he had an excuse. He heard Tom turn over, and waited for the deep, dusty voice, but it did not come, and Tom began to breathe evenly again.

The edges of the door were outlined with ghostly silver. There must be a moon, Jack thought. He gripped the bar again, took a deep breath, and strained to lift it. This time he was ready for its weight. He raised it and pulled it toward himself, but he had not lifted it high enough, and it failed to clear the brackets. He raised it an inch more, and it came free. He held it against his chest, relieving the strain on his arms a little; then he slowly went down on one knee, then on both, and lowered the bar to the floor. He stayed in that position for a few moments, trying to quiet his breathing, while the ache in his arms eased. There was no sound from the others except the noises of sleep.

Gingerly, Jack opened the door a crack. Its iron hinge squeaked, and a cold draft came through the opening. He shivered. He wrapped his cloak closer around him and opened the door a little more. He slipped out and closed it behind him.

The cloud was breaking up, and the moon came and went in the restless sky. There was a cold wind. Jack was momentarily tempted to return to the stuffy warmth of the house. The enormous church with its fallen tower loomed over the rest of the priory, silver and black in the moonlight, its mighty walls and tiny windows making it look more like a castle. It was ugly.

All was quiet. Outside the priory walls, in the village, there might be a few people sitting up late, drinking ale by the glow of the fireside or sewing by rushlights, but here nothing moved. Still Jack hesitated, looking at the church. It looked back at him accusingly, as if it knew what was on his mind. He shook off the spooky feeling with a shrug, and walked across the broad green to the west end.

The door was locked.

He walked around to the north side and looked at the cathedral windows. Some church windows had lengths of translucent linen stretched across them, to keep out the cold, but these seemed to have nothing. They were big enough for him to crawl through, but they were too high to reach. He explored the stonework with his fingers, feeling the cracks in the wall where the mortar had worn away, but they were not big enough to give him toeholds. He needed something to use as a ladder.

He considered fetching stones from the fallen tower and constructing an improvised staircase, but the unbroken stones were too heavy, and the broken ones were too uneven. He had a feeling that he had seen something, during the course of the day, that would serve his purpose exactly, and he racked his brains to remember it. It was like trying to see something out of the corner of his eye: it always remained just out of sight. Then he glanced across the moonlit graveyard to the stable, and it came back to him: a little wooden mounting block, with two or three steps, to help short people climb on large horses. One of the monks had been standing on it to comb a horse’s mane.

He made his way across to the stable. It was the kind of thing that might not get put away at night, since it was hardly worth stealing. He walked quietly, but the horses heard him all the same, and one or two of them snorted and coughed. He stopped, frightened. There might be grooms sleeping in the stable. He stood still for a moment, listening for the sound of human movement, but none came, and the horses went quiet.

He could not see the mounting block. Perhaps it was up against the wall. Jack peered into the moon-shadows. It was hard to see anything. Cautiously, he went right up to the stable and walked along its length. The horses heard him again, and now his closeness made them nervous: one of them whinnied. Jack froze. A man’s voice called out: “Quiet, quiet.” As he stood there like a scared statue, he saw the mounting block right under his nose, so close that he would have fallen over it with one more step. He waited a few moments. There was no more noise from the stable. He bent down, picked it up, and hefted it on his shoulder. He turned around and padded back across the grass to the church. The stable was quiet.

When he climbed to the top step of the block he was still not high enough to reach the windows. It was irritating: he could not even look in. He had not finally made up his mind to do the deed, but he did not want to be prevented by practical considerations: he wanted to decide for himself. He wished he were as tall as Alfred.

There was one more thing to try. He stood back, took a short run, jumped one-footed onto the block, then sprang up. He reached the windowsill easily, and got a grip on the stone frame. With a jerk he pulled himself up until he could half-sit on the sill. But when he tried to crawl through the opening he had a surprise. The window was blocked by iron latticework which he had not seen from outside, presumably because it was black. Jack examined it with both hands, kneeling on the sill. There was no way through: it was probably there specifically to prevent people from getting in when the church was shut.

Disappointed, he jumped down to the ground. He picked up the mounting block and carried it back to where he had found it. This time the horses made no noise.

He looked at the fallen northwest tower, on the left-hand side of the main door. He climbed carefully over the stones at the edge of the heap, peering toward the interior of the church, looking for a way through the rubble. When the moon went behind a cloud he waited, shivering, for it to come out again. He was worried that his weight, small though it was, might shift the balance of the stones and cause a landslide, which would wake everyone even if it did not kill him. As the moon reappeared he scanned the pile and decided to risk it. He began to ascend with his heart in his mouth. Most of the stones were firm but one or two wobbled precariously under his weight. It was the kind of climb he would have enjoyed in daylight, with help near at hand and nothing on his conscience; but now he was too anxious, and his normal surefootedness left him. He slipped on a smooth surface and almost fell down; and there he decided to stop.

He was high enough to look down on the roof of the aisle that ran along the north side of the nave. He was hoping that there might be a hole in the roof, or perhaps a gap between the roof and the pile of rubble, but it was not so: the roof continued unbroken into the ruins of the tower, and there appeared to be nowhere to slip through. Jack was half disappointed and half relieved.

He climbed down again, backward, looking over his shoulder to find a foothold. The closer he got to the ground, the better he felt. He jumped the last few feet and landed gratefully on the grass.

He returned to the north side of the church and walked on around. He had seen several churches in the last two weeks and all of them were roughly the same shape. The largest part was the nave, which was always to the west. Then there were two arms, which Tom called transepts, sticking out to the north and south. The east end was called the chancel and it was shorter than the nave. Kingsbridge was individual only in that its west end had two towers, one on each side of the entrance, as it were to match the transepts.

There was a door in the north transept. Jack tried it and found it locked. He walked on, around the east end: no door there at all. He paused to look across the grassed courtyard. In the far southeast corner of the priory close there were two houses, the infirmary and the prior’s house. Both were dark and silent. He went on, around the east end and along the south side of the chancel until he came to the out-jutting south transept. At the end of the transept, like a hand on an arm, was the round building they called the chapter house. Between the transept and the chapter house was a narrow alley leading into the cloisters. Jack went through the alley.

He found himself in a square quadrangle, with a lawn in the middle and a covered walkway all around. The pale stone of the arches was ghostly white in the moonlight, and the shadowed walkway was impenetrably dark. Jack waited a moment to let his eyes adjust.

He had emerged onto the east side of the square. To his left he could make out the door to the chapter house. Farther to his left, at the southern end of the east walk, he could see, facing him, another door, which he thought probably led to the monks’ dormitory. To his right, another door led into the south transept of the church. He tried it. It was locked.

He went along the north walk. There he found a door leading into the nave of the church. It, too, was locked.

On the west walk there was nothing until he came to the southwest corner, where he found the door to the refectory. What a lot of food had to be found, he thought, to feed all those monks every day. Nearby was a fountain with a basin: the monks washed their hands before meals.

He continued along the south walk. Halfway along there was an arch. Jack turned through it and found himself in a little passage, with the refectory on his right and the dormitory on his left. He imagined all the monks fast asleep on the floor just the other side of the stone wall. At the end of the passage there was nothing but a muddy slope leading down to the river. Jack stood there for a moment, looking at the water a hundred yards away. For no particular reason, he remembered a story about a knight who had his head cut off but lived on; and involuntarily he imagined the headless knight coming out of the river and walking up the slope toward him. There was nothing there, but still he was scared. He turned around and hurried back to the cloisters. He felt safer there.

He hesitated under the arch, looking into the moonlit quadrangle. There must be a way to sneak into such a big building, he felt, but he could not think where else to look. In a way he was glad. He had been contemplating doing something appallingly dangerous, and if it turned out to be impossible, so much the better. On the other hand, he dreaded the thought of leaving this priory and taking to the road again in the morning: the endless walking, the hunger, Tom’s disappointment and anger, Martha’s tears. It could all be avoided, just by one little spark from the flint he carried in the little pouch hanging from his belt!

Something moved at the corner of his vision. He started, and his heart beat faster. He turned his head and saw, to his horror, a ghostly figure, carrying a candle, gliding silently along the east walk toward the church. A scream rose in his throat and he fought it down. Another figure followed the first. Jack stepped back into the archway, out of sight, and put his fist in his mouth, biting his skin to stop himself from crying aloud. He heard an eerie moaning sound. He stared in sheer terror. Then realization dawned: what he was seeing was a procession of monks going from the dormitory to the church for the midnight service, singing a hymn as they went. The panicky feeling persisted for a moment, even when he had understood what he was looking at; then relief washed over him, and he began to shake uncontrollably.

The monk at the head of the procession unlocked the door to the church with a huge iron key. The monks filed in. No one turned around to look in Jack’s direction. Most of them appeared to be half asleep. They did not close the church door behind them.

When he had recovered his composure Jack realized that now he could get into the church.

His legs felt too weak to walk.

I could just go in, he thought. I don’t have to do anything when I’m inside. I’ll look and see whether it is possible to get up to the roof. I might not set fire to it. I’ll just take a look.

He took a deep breath, then stepped out of the archway and padded across the quadrangle. He hesitated at the open door and peeped in. There were candles on the altar, and in the quire where the monks stood in their stalls, but the light merely made small pools in the middle of the big empty space, leaving the walls and the aisles in deep gloom. One of the monks was doing something incomprehensible at the altar, and the others would occasionally chant a few phrases of mumbo jumbo. It seemed incredible to Jack that people should get up out of warm beds in the middle of the night to do something like this.

He slipped through the door and stood close to the wall.

He was inside. The darkness concealed him. However, he could not stay right there, for they would see him on their way out. He sidled farther in. The flickering candles threw restless shadows. The monk at the altar might have seen Jack, if he had looked up, but he seemed completely absorbed in what he was doing. Jack moved quickly from the cover of one mighty pillar to the next, pausing in between so that his movements would be irregular, like the shifting of the shadows. The light became brighter as he neared the crossing. He was afraid the monk at the altar would look up suddenly, see him, bound across to the transept, pick him up by the scruff of the neck-

He reached the corner and turned gratefully into the deeper shadows of the nave.

He paused for a moment, feeling relieved. Then he retreated along the aisle toward the west end of the church, still pausing irregularly, as he would if he were stalking a deer. When he was in the farthest, darkest part of the church, he sat down on the plinth of a column to wait for the service to end.

He put his chin down inside his cloak and breathed on his chest to warm himself. His life had changed so much in the last two weeks that it seemed years ago that he had lived contentedly in the forest with his mother. He knew he would never feel as safe again. Now that he knew about hunger, and cold, and danger, and desperation, he would always be afraid of them.

He peeped around the pillar. Above the altar, where the candles were brightest, he could just make out the high wooden ceiling. Newer churches had stone vaults, he knew, but Kingsbridge was old. That wooden ceiling would burn well.

I’m not going to do it, he thought.

Tom would be so happy if the cathedral burned down. Jack was not sure he liked Tom-he was too forceful, commanding and harsh. Jack was used to his mother’s milder ways. But Jack was impressed by Tom, even awestruck. The only other men Jack had come across were outlaws; dangerous, brutish men who respected only violence and cunning, men for whom the ultimate achievement was to knife someone in the back. Tom was a new type of being, proud and fearless even without a weapon. Jack would never forget the way Tom had faced up to William Hamleigh, the time when Lord William had offered to buy Mother for a pound. What struck Jack so vividly was that Lord William had been scared. Jack told his mother that he had never imagined a man could be as brave as Tom was, and she said: “That was why we had to leave the forest. You need a man to look up to.”

Jack was puzzled by that remark, but it was true that he would like to do something to impress Tom. Setting fire to the cathedral was not the thing, though. It would be better if nobody knew about that, at least not for many years. But perhaps a day would come when Jack would say to Tom: “You remember the night Kingsbridge Cathedral burned down, and the prior hired you to rebuild it, and we all had food and shelter and security at last? Well, I’ve got something to tell you about how that fire started…” What a great moment that would be.

But I don’t dare do it, he thought.

The singing stopped, and there was a scuffling sound as the monks left their places. The service was over. Jack shifted his position to stay out of sight while they filed out.

They snuffed the candles in the quire stalls as they went, but they left one burning on the altar. The door banged shut. Jack waited a little longer, in case there was still someone inside. There was no sound for a long time. At last he came out from behind his pillar.

He walked up the nave. It was an odd feeling, to be alone in this big, cold, empty building. This is what it must be like to be a mouse, he thought, hiding in corners when the big people are around and then coming out when they have gone. He reached the altar and took the fat, bright candle, and that made him feel better.

Carrying the candle, he began to inspect the inside of the church. At the corner where the nave met the south transept, the place where he had most feared being spotted by the monk at the altar, there was a door in the wall with a simple latch. He tried the latch. The door opened.

His candle revealed a spiral staircase, so narrow that a fat man could not have passed through it, so low that Tom would have had to bend double. He went up the steps.

He emerged in a narrow gallery. On one side, a row of small arches looked out into the nave. The ceiling sloped from the tops of the arches down to the floor on the other side. The floor itself was not flat, but curved down at either side. It took Jack a moment to realize where he was. He was above the aisle on the south side of the nave. The tunnel-vaulted ceiling of the aisle was the curved floor on which Jack was standing. From the outside of the church the aisle could be seen to have a lean-to roof, and that was the sloping ceiling under which Jack was standing. The aisle was much lower than the nave, so he was still a long way from the main roof of the building.

He walked west along the gallery, exploring. It was quite thrilling, now that the monks had gone and he was no longer in fear of being spotted. It was as if he had climbed a tree and found that at the very top, hidden from view by the lower branches, all the trees were connected, and you could walk around in a secret world a few feet above the earth.

At the end of the gallery was another small door. He went through it and found himself on the inside of the southwest tower, the one that had not fallen down. The space he was in was obviously not meant to be seen, for it was rough and unfinished, and instead of a floor there were rafters with wide gaps between them. However, around the inside of the wall ran a flight of wooden steps, a staircase without a handrail. Jack went up.

Halfway up one wall was a small arched opening. The staircase passed right by it. Jack put his head inside and held up his candle. He was in the roof space, above the timber ceiling and below the lead roof.

At first he could see no pattern in the tangle of wooden beams, but after a moment he perceived the structure. Huge oak timbers, each of them a foot wide and two feet deep, spanned the width of the nave from north to south. Above each beam were two mighty rafters, forming a triangle. The regular row of triangles stretched away beyond the light of the candle. Looking down, between the beams, he could see the back of the painted wooden ceiling of the nave, which was fixed to the lower edges of the crossbeams.

At the edge of the roof space, in the corner at the base of the triangle, was a catwalk. Jack crawled through the little opening and onto the catwalk. There was just enough headroom for him to stand up: a man would have had to stoop. He walked along it a little way. There was enough timber here for a conflagration. He sniffed, trying to identify the odd smell in the air. He decided it was pitch. The roof timbers were tarred. They would burn like straw.

A sudden movement on the floor startled him and made his heart race. He thought of the headless knight in the river and the ghostly monks in the cloisters. Then he thought of mice, and felt better. But when he looked carefully he saw that it was birds: there were nests under the eaves.

The roof space followed the pattern of the church below, branching out over the transepts. Jack went as far as the crossing and stood at the corner. He realized he must be directly above the little spiral staircase that had brought him from ground level up to the gallery. If he had been planning to start a fire, this was where he would do it. From here it could spread four ways: west along the nave, south along the south transept, and through the crossing to the chancel and the north transept.

The main timbers of the roof were made of heart-of-oak, and although they were tarred they might not catch fire from a candle flame. However, under the eaves was a litter of ancient wood chips and shavings, discarded bits of rope and sacking, and abandoned birds’ nests, which would make perfect kindling. All he would have to do would be to collect it and pile it up.

His candle was burning low.

It seemed so easy. Collect up the litter, touch the candle flame to it, and leave. Cross the close like a ghost, slip into the guesthouse, bar the door, curl up in the straw and wait for the alarm.

But if he were seen…

If he should be caught now, he could say he was harmlessly exploring the cathedral, and he would suffer no worse than a spanking. But if they caught him setting fire to the church they would do more than spank him. He remembered the sugar thief in Shiring, and the way his bottom bled. He recalled some of the punishments the outlaws had suffered: Faramond Openmouth had had his lips cut off, Jack Flathat had lost his hand, and Alan Catface had been put in the stocks and stoned and had never been able to talk properly since. Even worse were the stories of those who had not survived their punishments: a murderer who had been tied to a barrel studded with spikes and then rolled downhill so that all the spikes went through his body; a horse thief who had been burned alive; a thieving whore who had been impaled on a pointed stake. What would they do to a boy who set fire to a church?

Thoughtfully, he began to collect the inflammable rubbish from under the eaves and pile it up on the catwalk exactly below one of the mighty rafters.

When he had a pile a foot high he sat down and looked at it.

His candle guttered. In a few moments he would have lost his chance.

With a quick motion he touched the candle flame to a piece of sacking. It caught fire. The flame spread immediately to some wood shavings, then a dried, crumbling bird’s nest; and then the little fire was blazing cheerfully.

I could still put it out, Jack thought.

The kindling was burning a little too quickly: at this rate it would be used up before the roof timber began to smolder. Jack hurriedly collected more rubbish and piled it on. The flames rose higher. I could still put it out, he thought. The pitch with which the beam was coated began to blacken and smoke. The rubbish burned up. I could just let the fire go out, now, he thought. Then he saw that the catwalk itself was burning. I could probably smother the fire with my cloak, still, he thought. Instead he threw more litter onto the fire and watched it burn higher.

The atmosphere became hot and smoky in the little angle of the eaves, even though the freezing night air was only an inch away on the other side of the roof. Some of the smaller timbers, to which the lead sheets of the roof were nailed, began to burn. Then, at last, a small flame flickered up from the massive main beam.

The cathedral was on fire.

It was done now. There was no turning back.

Jack felt scared. Suddenly he wanted to get out fast, and return to the guesthouse. He wanted to be rolled up in his cloak, nestling in a little hollow in the straw, with his eyes shut tight, and the others breathing evenly all around him.

He retreated along the catwalk.

When he reached the end he looked back. The fire was spreading surprisingly quickly, perhaps because of the pitch with which the wood was coated. All the small timbers were ablaze, the main beams were beginning to burn, and the fire was spreading along the catwalk. Jack turned his back on it.

He ducked into the tower and went down the stairs, then ran along the gallery over the aisle and hurried down the spiral staircase to the floor of the nave. He ran to the door by which he had come in.

It was locked.

He realized he had been stupid. The monks had unlocked the door when they came in, so of course they had locked it again as they left.

Fear rose in his throat like bile. He had set the church on fire and now he was locked inside.

He fought down panic and tried to think. He had tried every door from the outside, and found them all locked; but perhaps some of them were fastened with bars, rather than locks, so that they could be opened from the inside.

He hurried across the crossing to the north transept and examined the door in the north porch. It had a lock.

He ran down the dark nave to the west end and tried each of the great public entrances. All three doors were locked with keys. Finally he tried the little door that led into the south aisle from the north walk of the cloister square. That, too, was locked.

Jack wanted to cry, but that would do no good. He looked up at the wooden ceiling. Was it his imagination, or could he see, by the faint moonlight, a little smoke drifting out from the ceiling near the corner of the south transept?

He thought: What am I going to do?

Would the monks wake up, and come rushing in to put out the fire, in such a panic that they hardly noticed one small boy slipping out through the door? Or would they see him immediately, and grab him, screaming accusations? Or would they stay asleep, all unconscious, until the whole building had collapsed, and Jack lay crushed under a huge pile of stones?

Tears came to his eyes, and he wished he had never touched the candle flame to that pile of litter.

He looked around wildly. If he went to a window and screamed, would anybody hear?

There was a crash from above. He looked up and saw that a hole had appeared in the wooden ceiling, where a beam had fallen and poked through. The hole appeared as a patch of red on a black background. A moment later there was another crash, and a huge timber smashed right through the ceiling and fell, turning over once in the air, to hit the ground with a thump that shook the mighty columns of the nave. A shower of sparks and burning embers drifted down after it. Jack listened, waiting for shouts, cries for help, or the ringing of a bell; but nothing happened. The crash had not been heard. And if that had not awakened them, they certainly would not hear him screaming.

I’m going to die here, he thought hysterically; I’m going to burn or be crushed, unless I can think of a way out!

He thought of the fallen tower. He had examined it from the outside, and he had not seen a way in, but then he had been timid, for fear of falling and causing a landslide. Perhaps if he looked again, from the inside this time, he would see something he had missed; and perhaps desperation would help him squeeze through where before he had seen no gap.

He ran to the west end. The glow of the fire coming through the hole in the ceiling, combined with the flames licking up from the beam that had fallen to the floor of the nave, now gave a stronger light than the moon, and the arcade of the nave was edged with gold instead of silver. Jack examined the pile of stones that had once been the northwest tower. They appeared to form a solid wall. There was no way through. Foolishly, he opened his mouth and yelled “Mother!” at the top of his voice, even though he knew she could not hear.

He fought down his panic once again. There was something in the back of his mind about this collapsed tower. He had been able to get inside the other tower, the one that was still standing, by going along the gallery over the south aisle. If he now went along the gallery over the north aisle, he might see a gap in this pile of rubble, a gap that was not visible from ground level.

He ran back to the crossing, staying under the shelter of the north aisle in case more burning beams should come crashing through the ceiling. There should be a little door and a spiral staircase on this side, just as there was on the other. He came to the corner of the nave and the north transept. He could not see the door. He looked around the corner: it was not on the other side either. He could not believe his bad luck. It was crazy: there had to be a way into the gallery!

He thought hard, fighting to stay calm. There was a way into the fallen tower, he just had to find it. I could get back into the roof space, via the good, southwest tower, he thought. I could cross to the other side of the roof space. There should be a little opening on that side, giving access to the collapsed northwest tower. That may provide me with a way out.

He looked up at the ceiling fearfully. The fire would now be an inferno. But he could not think of any alternative.

First he had to cross the nave. He looked up again. As far as he could tell, there was nothing about to come down immediately. He took a deep breath and dashed across to the other side. Nothing fell on him.

In the south aisle, he pulled open the little door and ran up the spiral staircase. When he reached the top and stepped into the gallery he could feel the warmth of the fire above. He ran along the gallery, went through the door into the good tower, and raced up the stairs.

He ducked his head and crawled through the little arch into the roof space. It was full of smoke and heat. All the uppermost timbers were ablaze, and at the far end the biggest beams were burning strongly. The tarry smell made Jack cough. He hesitated only a moment, then stepped onto one of the big beams that spanned the nave and began to walk across. In moments he was wet with perspiration because of the heat, and his eyes began to water so that he could hardly see where he was going. He coughed, and then his foot slipped off the beam and he stumbled sideways. He fell with one foot on the beam and one foot off. His right foot landed on the ceiling, and to his horror it went straight through the rotten wood. A picture flashed into his mind of the height of the nave, and how far he would drop if he fell right through the ceiling; and he screamed as he tumbled forward, putting his arms out in front of him, imagining himself turning over and over in the air as the falling beam had done. But the wood held his weight.

He remained frozen still, shocked, resting on his hands and one knee, with the other leg sticking through the ceiling. Then the fierce heat of the fire brought him out of his shock. Gently he extracted his foot from the hole. He got on his hands and knees and crawled forward.

As he neared the other side, several large beams fell into the nave. The whole building seemed to shake, and the beam under Jack quivered like a bowstring. He stopped and held on tight. The tremor passed. He crawled on, and a moment later he reached the catwalk on the north side.

If his guess turned out to be wrong, and there was no opening from here into the ruins of the northwest tower, he would have to go back.

As he stood upright, he got a breath of cold night air. There must be some kind of gap. But would it be big enough for a small boy?

He took three paces to the west and stopped an instant before he would have stepped out into nothingness.

He found himself looking through a large hole out onto the moonlit ruins of the fallen tower. His knees went weak with relief. He was out of the inferno.

But he was high up, at roof level, and the top of the rubble pile was a long way below him, too far to jump. He could escape the flames now, but could he reach the ground without breaking his neck? Behind him, the flames were rapidly coming closer, and smoke was billowing out of the opening in which he stood.

This tower had once had a staircase around its inner wall, just as the other one still did, but most of this staircase had been destroyed in the collapse. However, where the wooden treads had been set into the wall with mortar, there were stumps of wood sticking out, sometimes just an inch or two long, sometimes more. Jack wondered whether he could climb down the stumps. It would be a precarious descent. He noticed a smell of scorching: his cloak was getting hot. In a moment it would catch fire. He had no choice.

He sat down, reached out for the nearest stump, held on with both hands, then eased one leg down until he found a foothold. Then he put the other foot down. Feeling his way with his feet, he eased himself down one step. The stumps held. He reached down once again, testing the strength of the next stump before putting his weight on it. This one felt a little loose. He trod gingerly, holding on tightly in case he should find himself swinging by his hands. Each perilous step down brought him nearer to the top of the rubble pile. As he descended, the stumps seemed to get smaller, as if the lower ones had suffered more severe damage. He put one foot, in its felt boot, on a stump no wider than his toe; and when he rested his weight on it his foot slipped. His other foot was on a larger stump, but when suddenly he put his full weight on it the other stump broke. He tried to hold on with his hands, but the stumps were so small that he could not grip hard, and he slipped, terrified, from his precarious perch and fell through the air.

He landed hard on his hands and knees on the top of the pile of rubble. For an instant he was so shocked and frightened he thought he must be dead; then he realized that he had been lucky enough to fall well. His hands stung and his knees would be massively bruised, but he was all right.

After a moment he climbed down the pile of rubble and jumped the last few feet to the ground.

He was safe. He felt weak with relief. He wanted to cry again. He had escaped. He felt proud: what an adventure he had had!

But it was not yet over. Out here there was only a whiff of smoke, and the noise of the fire, so deafening inside the roof space, now sounded like a distant wind. Only the reddish glow behind the windows proved that the church was on fire. Nevertheless, those last tremors must have disturbed someone’s sleep, and any moment now a bleary-eyed monk would come stumbling out of the dormitory, wondering whether the earthquake he had felt had been real or only a dream. Jack had set fire to the church-a heinous crime in the eyes of a monk. He had to get away quickly.

He ran across the grass to the guesthouse. All was quiet and still. He stopped outside, panting. If he went in breathing like this he would wake them all. He tried to control his breathing but that seemed to make it worse. He would just have to stay here until it became normal again.

A bell rang, piercing the quiet, and went on, pealing urgently, an unmistakable alarm. Jack froze. If he went inside now they would know. But if he did not-

The door of the guesthouse opened, and Martha came out. Jack just stared at her, terrified.

“Where have you been?” she said softly. “You smell of smoke.”

A plausible lie came into Jack’s head. “I’ve only just stepped out,” he said desperately. “I heard that bell.”

“Liar,” Martha said. “You’ve been gone for ages. I know, I was awake.”

He realized there was no fooling her. “Was anyone else awake?” he said fearfully.

“No, only me.”

“Don’t tell them I was gone. Please?”

She heard the fear in his voice and spoke soothingly. “All right, I’ll keep it a secret. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you!”

At that moment Tom stepped out, scratching his head.

Jack was frightened. What would Tom think?

“What’s going on?” Tom said sleepily. He sniffed. “I smell smoke.”

Jack pointed at the cathedral with a trembling arm. “I think…” he said, and then swallowed. It was going to be all right, he realized, with a grateful sense of relief. Tom would just assume that Jack had got up a moment earlier, as Martha had. Jack spoke again, more confidently this time. “Look at the church,” he said to Tom. “I think it’s on fire,”

II

Philip had not yet got used to sleeping alone. He missed the stuffy air of the dormitory, the sound of other people shifting and snoring, the disturbance when one of the older monks got up to go to the latrine (followed, usually, by the other older ones, a regular procession which always amused the youngsters). Being alone did not bother Philip at nightfall, when he was always dead tired; but in the middle of the night, when he had been thoroughly roused by the service, he now found it difficult to go back to sleep. Instead of getting back into the big soft bed (it was a little embarrassing how quickly he had got used to that), he would build up the fire and read by candlelight, or kneel down and pray, or just sit thinking.

He had plenty to think about. The priory’s finances were worse than he had anticipated. The main reason probably was that the whole organization generated very little cash. It owned vast acreages, but many farms were let at low rents on long leases, and some of them paid rent in kind-so many sacks of flour, so many barrels of apples, so many cartloads of turnips. Those farms that were not rented out were run by monks, but they never seemed to be able to produce a surplus of food for sale. The priory’s other main asset was the churches it owned, and from which it received the tithes. Unfortunately, most of these were under the control of the sacrist, and Philip was having trouble finding out exactly how much he received and how he spent it. There were no written accounts. However, it was clear that the sacrist’s income was too small, or his management of it too bad, to maintain the cathedral church in good repair; although over the years the sacrist had built up an impressive collection of jeweled vessels and ornaments.

Philip could not get all the details until he had time to tour the monastery’s far-flung properties, but the outline was already clear; and the old prior had for some years been borrowing from moneylenders in Winchester and London just to meet everyday expenses. Philip had become quite depressed when he realized how bad it was.

However, as he thought and prayed about it, the solution became clear. Philip had a three-stage plan. He would begin by taking control of the priory’s finances personally. At present, each of the monastic officials controlled parts of the property, and fulfilled his responsibility with the income from that property: the cellarer, the sacrist, the guest-master, the novice-master and the infirmarer all had “their” farms and churches. Naturally, none of them would ever confess to having too much money, and if they had any surplus they took care to spend it, for fear that something would be taken away from them. Philip had decided to appoint a new official, called the purser, whose job it would be to receive all monies due to the priory, with no exceptions, and then give out to each official just what he needed.

The purser would naturally be someone Philip trusted. His first inclination had been to give the job to Cuthbert White-head, the cellarer; but then he had recalled Cuthbert’s aversion to writing things down. That was no good. From now on all income and outgoings were to be written in a great book. Philip had decided to appoint the young kitchener, Brother Milius, as purser. The other monastic officials would not like the idea no matter who got the job, but Philip was the boss, and anyway the majority of monks, who knew or suspected that the priory was in trouble, would support reforms.

When he had control of the money, Philip would implement stage two of his plan.

All the distant farms would be leased for cash rents. This would put an end to expensive transportation of goods across long distances. There was a property of the priory’s in Yorkshire that paid a “rent” of twelve lambs, and faithfully sent them all the way to Kingsbridge each year, even though the cost of transport was more than the value of the lambs, and anyway half of them always died en route. In future, only the nearest farms would produce food for the priory.

He also planned to change the present system under which each farm produced a little of everything-some grain, some meat, some milk and so on. Philip had thought for years that this was wasteful. Every farm managed to produce only enough of each item for its own needs-or perhaps it would be truer to say that every farm always managed to consume just about everything it produced. Philip wanted each farm to concentrate on one thing. All the grain would be grown in a group of villages in Somerset, where the priory also owned several mills. The lush hillsides of Wiltshire would graze cattle for butter and beef. The little cell of St-John-in-the-Forest would breed goats and make cheese.

But Philip’s most important scheme was to convert all the middle-ranking farms-those with poor or indifferent soil, especially the hill properties-to sheep farming.

He had spent his boyhood in a monastery that farmed sheep (everyone farmed sheep in that part of Wales), and he had seen the price of wool rise slowly but steadily, year by year, ever since he could remember, right up to the present. Sheep would solve the priory’s cash problem permanently, in time.

That was stage two of the plan. Stage three was to demolish the cathedral church and build a new one.

The present church was old, ugly and impractical; and the fact that the northwest tower had fallen down was a sign that the whole structure might be weak. Modern churches were taller, longer, and-most important-lighter. They were also designed to display the important tombs and saintly relics that pilgrims came to see. These days, more and more, cathedrals had additional small altars and special chapels dedicated to particular saints. A well-designed church that catered to the multiplying demands of today’s congregations would draw many more worshipers and pilgrims than Kingsbridge could attract at the moment; and by doing so it could pay for itself, in the long run. When Philip had put the priory’s finances on a sound footing, he would build a new church which would symbolize the regeneration of Kingsbridge.

It would be his crowning achievement.

He thought he would have enough money to begin rebuilding in about ten years’ time. It was a rather daunting thought-he would be almost forty! However, within a year or so he hoped to be able to afford a program of repairs which would make the present building respectable, if not impressive, by the Whitsun after next.

Now that he had a plan he felt cheerful and optimistic again. Mulling over the details, he dimly heard a distant bang, like the slamming of a big door. He wondered vaguely whether someone was up and about in the dormitory or the cloisters. He supposed that if there were trouble he would find out about it soon enough, and his thoughts drifted back to rents and tithes. Another important source of wealth for monasteries was gifts from the parents of boys who became novices, but to attract the right sort of novices the monastery needed a flourishing school-

His reflections were interrupted again, this time by a louder bang that actually made his house shake slightly. That was definitely not a door slamming, he thought. Whatever is going on over there? He went to the window and opened the shutter. The cold night blew in, making him shiver. He looked out over the church, the chapter house, the cloisters, the dormitory and the kitchen buildings beyond. They all appeared peaceful in the moonlight. The air was so frosty that his teeth hurt when he breathed. But there was something else about the air. He sniffed. He could smell smoke.

He frowned anxiously, but he could see no fire.

He drew his head into the room and sniffed again, thinking that he might be smelling smoke from his own fireplace, but it was not so.

Mystified and alarmed, he pulled on his boots rapidly, picked up his cloak, and ran out of the house.

The smell of smoke became stronger as he hurried across the green toward the cloisters. There was no doubt that some part of the priory was on fire. His first thought was that it must be the kitchen-nearly all fires started in kitchens. He ran through the passage between the south transept and the chapter house and across the cloister square. In daytime he would have gone through the refectory to the kitchen courtyard, but at night it was locked, so he went out through the arch in the south walk and turned right to the back of the kitchen. There was no sign of fire here, nor in the brewery or the bakehouse, and the smell of smoke now seemed a little less. He ran a little farther, and looked past the corner of the brewery, across the green to the guesthouse and the stables. All seemed quiet over there.

Could the fire be in the dormitory? The dormitory was the only other building with a fireplace. The thought was horrifying. As he ran back into the cloisters he had a grisly vision of all the monks in their beds, overcome by smoke, unconscious as the dormitory blazed. He ran to the dormitory door. As he reached it, it opened, and Cuthbert Whitehead stepped out, carrying a rushlight.

Cuthbert said immediately: “Can you smell it?”

“Yes-are the monks all right?”

“There’s no fire here.”

Philip was relieved. At least his flock was safe. “Where, then?”

“What about the kitchen?” Cuthbert said.

“No-I’ve checked.” Now that he knew nobody was in danger, he began to worry about his property. He had just been thinking about finances, and he knew he could not afford repairs to buildings right now. He looked at the church. Was there a faint red glow behind the windows?

Philip said: “Cuthbert, get the church key from the sacrist.”

Cuthbert was ahead of him. “I have it here.”

“Good man!”

They hurried along the east walk to the door in the south transept. Cuthbert unlocked it hastily. As soon as the door swung open, smoke billowed out.

Philip’s heart missed a beat. How could his church be on fire?

He stepped inside. At first the scene was confusing. On the floor of the church, around the altar and here in the south transept, several huge pieces of wood were burning. Where had they come from? How had they produced so much smoke? And what was the roaring noise that sounded like a much bigger fire?

Cuthbert shouted: “Look up!”

Philip looked up, and his questions were answered. The ceiling was blazing furiously. He stared at it, horrified: it looked like the underside of hell. Most of the painted ceiling had already gone, revealing the timber triangles of the roof, blackened and blazing, the flames and smoke leaping and swirling in a fiendish dance. Philip stood still, shocked into immobility, until his neck started to hurt from looking up; then he gathered his wits.

He ran to the middle of the crossing, stood in front of the altar, and looked around the whole church. The entire roof was ablaze, from the west door to the east end and all across both transepts. For a panicky moment he thought How are we going to get water up there? He imagined a line of monks running along the gallery with buckets, and he realized immediately that it was impossible: even if he had a hundred people for the job, they could not carry up to the roof a quantity of water sufficient to put out this roaring inferno. The whole roof was going to be destroyed, he realized with a sinking heart; and the rain and snow would fall into the church until he could find the money for a new roof.

A crashing sound made him look up. Immediately above him, an enormous timber was moving slowly sideways. It was going to fall on top of him. He dashed back into the south transept, where Cuthbert stood looking scared.

A whole section of the roof, three triangles of beam-and-rafter plus the lead sheets nailed to them, was falling in. Philip and Cuthbert watched, transfixed, quite forgetting their own safety. The roof fell on one of the big round arches of the crossing. The enormous weight of the falling wood and lead cracked the stonework of the arch with a prolonged explosive sound like thunder. Everything happened slowly: the beams fell slowly, the arch broke up slowly, and the smashed masonry fell slowly through the air. More roof beams came free, and then, with a noise like a long slow peal of thunder, a whole section of the north wall of the chancel shuddered and slid sideways into the north transept.

Philip was appalled. The sight of such a mighty building being destroyed was strangely shocking. It was like watching a mountain fall down or a river run dry: he had never really thought it could happen. He could hardly believe his eyes. It made him feel disoriented, and he did not know what to do.

Cuthbert was tugging at his sleeve. “Come out!” he yelled.

Philip could not tear himself away. He remembered that he had been anticipating ten years of austerity and hard work to put the monastery back on a sound financial footing. Now, suddenly, he had to build a new roof and a new north wall, and perhaps more if the destruction went on… This is the devil’s work, he thought. How else could the roof have caught fire on a freezing night in January?

“We’ll be killed!” Cuthbert shouted, and the note of human fear in his voice touched Philip’s heart. He turned away from the blaze, and they both ran out of the church into the cloisters.

The monks had been alerted and were filing out of the dormitory. As they came out they naturally wanted to stop and look at the church. Milius Kitchener was standing at the door hurrying them along to avoid a logjam, directing them away from the church and along the south walk of the cloisters. Halfway along the walk Tom Builder stood, telling them to turn under the arch and escape that way. Philip heard Tom saying: “Go to the guesthouse-stay well clear of the church!”

He was overreacting, Philip thought: surely they would have been safe enough here in the cloisters? But there was no harm done, and perhaps it was a sensible precaution. In fact, he reflected, I probably should have thought of it myself.

But Tom’s caution made him wonder how far the destruction might spread. If the cloisters were not absolutely safe, what about the chapter house? There, in a little side room with thick stone walls and no windows, they kept the iron-bound oak chest containing what little money they had, plus the sacrist’s jeweled vessels and all the priory’s precious charters and deeds of ownership. A moment later he saw Alan the treasurer, a young monk who worked with the sacrist and took care of the ornaments. Philip called him. “The treasure must be taken from the chapter house-where’s the sacrist?”

“He’s gone, Father.”

“Go and find him and get the keys, then take the treasure out of the chapter house and carry it to the guesthouse. Run!”

Alan ran off. Philip turned to Cuthbert. “You’d better make sure he does it.” Cuthbert nodded and followed Alan.

Philip looked back at the church. In the few moments his attention had been elsewhere, the fire had become fiercer, and now the light of the flames shone brightly in all the windows. The sacrist should have thought of the treasure, instead of saving his own skin so hastily. Was there anything else that had been overlooked? Philip found it hard to think systematically when everything was happening so quickly. The monks were moving to safety, the treasury was being taken care of-

He had forgotten the saint.

At the far east end of the church, beyond the bishop’s throne, was the stone tomb of Saint Adolphus, an early English martyr. Inside the tomb was a wooden coffin containing the skeleton of the saint. Periodically the lid of the tomb was lifted to display the coffin. Adolphus was not as popular now as he had once been, but in the old days sick people had been miraculously cured by touching the tomb. A saint’s remains could be a big attraction in a church, promoting worship and pilgrimages. They brought in so much money that, shamefully, it was not unknown for monks actually to steal holy relics from other churches. Philip had planned to revive interest in Adolphus. He had to save the skeleton.

He would need help to lift the lid of the tomb and carry the coffin. The sacrist should have thought about this, too. But he was nowhere to be seen. The next monk to emerge from the dormitory was Remigius, the haughty sub-prior. He would have to do. Philip called him over and said: “Help me rescue the bones of the saint.”

Remigius’s pale green eyes looked fearfully at the burning church, but after a moment’s hesitation he followed Philip along the east walk and through the door.

Philip paused inside. It was only a few moments since he had run out, but the fire had progressed very fast. There was a sting in his nostrils that reminded him of burning tar, and he realized that the roof timbers must have been coated with pitch to prevent their rotting. Despite the flames there seemed to be a cold wind: the smoke was escaping through gaping holes in the roof, and the fire was drawing cold air into the church through the windows. The updraft fanned the blaze. Glowing embers rained down on the church floor, and several larger timbers, burning up in the roof, looked as if they could fall at any time. Until this moment Philip had been worried first about the monks and second about priory property, but now for the first time he was afraid for himself, and he hesitated to go farther into the inferno.

The longer he waited, the greater the risk; and if he thought about it too much he would lose his nerve entirely. He hitched up the skirts of his robe, shouted “Follow me!” and ran into the transept. He dodged around the small bonfires on the floor, expecting at any moment to be flattened by a falling roof beam. He ran with his heart in his mouth, feeling as if he wanted to scream with tension. Then, suddenly, he reached the safety of the aisle on the other side.

He paused there for a moment. The aisles were stone-vaulted and there was no fire here. Remigius was right beside him. Philip panted and coughed as smoke caught in his throat. Crossing the transept had taken only a few moments but it had seemed longer than a midnight mass.

“We shall be killed!” Remigius said.

“God will preserve us,” Philip said. Then he thought: So why am I frightened?

This was no time for theology.

He went along the transept and turned the corner into the chancel, still keeping to the side aisle. He could feel the heat from the wooden stalls, which were burning merrily in the middle of the quire, and he suffered a pang of loss: the stalls had been expensively made and covered with beautiful carvings. He put them out of his mind and concentrated on the task at hand. He ran on up the chancel to the east end.

The tomb of the saint was halfway across the church. It was a big stone box standing on a low plinth. Philip and Remigius would have to raise the stone lid, put it to one side, lift the coffin out of the tomb, and carry it to the aisle, while the roof above them disintegrated. Philip looked at Remigius. The sub-prior’s prominent green eyes were wide with fear. Philip concealed his own dread for Remigius’s sake. “You take that end, I’ll take this,” he said, pointing, and without waiting for agreement he ran to the tomb.

Remigius followed.

They stood at opposite ends and grasped the stone lid. They both heaved.

The lid did not move.

Philip realized he should have brought more monks. He had not paused to think. But it was too late now: if he went out and summoned more help, the transept might be impassable when he tried to return. But he could not leave the saint’s remains here. A beam would fall and smash the tomb; then the wooden coffin would catch fire, and the ashes would be scattered in the wind, a dreadful sacrilege and a terrible loss to the cathedral.

He had an idea. He moved around to the side of the tomb and beckoned Remigius to stand beside him. He knelt down, put both hands to the overhanging edge of the lid, and pushed up with all his might. When Remigius copied him, the lid lifted. Slowly they raised it higher. Philip had to go up on one knee, and Remigius followed suit; then they both stood. When the lid was vertical they gave it one more shove and it toppled over, fell on the floor on the other side of the tomb, and cracked in two.

Philip looked inside the tomb. The coffin was in good condition, its wood still apparently sound and its iron handles only superficially tarnished. Philip stood at one end, leaned in, and grasped two handles. Remigius did the same at the other end. They lifted the coffin a few inches, but it was much heavier than Philip had expected, and after a moment Remigius let his end fall, saying: “I can’t do it-I’m older than you.”

Philip suppressed an angry retort. The coffin was probably lined with lead. But now that they had broken the lid of the tomb, the coffin was even more vulnerable than before. “Come here,” Philip shouted to Remigius. “We’ll try to stand it on end.”

Remigius came around the tomb and stood beside Philip. They each took one protruding iron handle and heaved. The end came up relatively easily. They got it above the level of the top of the tomb, then they both walked forward, one on either side, raising the coffin as they went, until it stood on end. They paused for a moment. Philip realized they had lifted the foot of the coffin, so the saint was now standing on his head. Philip sent him a silent apology. Small pieces of burning wood fell around them constantly. Every time a few sparks landed on Remigius’s robe he would slap at them frantically until they disappeared, and whenever he got the chance he would steal a frightened look at the burning roof. Philip could see that the man’s courage was rapidly running out.

They tipped the coffin so that it was leaning against the inside of the tomb, then pushed a little more. The other end came up off the ground and the coffin seesawed on the edge of the tomb; then they eased it down until the other end hit the ground. They tipped it end-over-end once more, so that it lay on the ground the right way up. The holy bones must be rattling around in there like dice in a cup, Philip thought; this is the closest thing to sacrilege that I’ve ever done, but there’s nothing else for it.

Standing at one end of the coffin, they each took a handle, lifted, and began to drag it across the church toward the relative safety of the aisle. Its iron corners plowed small furrows in the beaten earth. They had almost reached the aisle when a section of the roof, blazing timbers and hot lead, came crashing down right on the saint’s now-empty tomb. The bang was deafening, the floor trembled with the impact, and the stone tomb was smashed to smithereens. A big beam bounced onto the coffin, missing Philip and Remigius by inches and knocking the coffin out of their grasp. It was too much for Remigius. “This is the devil’s work!” he shouted hysterically, and he ran away.

Philip almost followed him. If the devil really were at work in here tonight, there was no telling what might happen. Philip had never seen a fiend but he had heard plenty of tales of people who had. But monks are made to oppose Satan, not flee from him, Philip told himself sternly. He glanced longingly at the shelter of the aisle, then steeled himself, grabbed the coffin handles, and heaved.

He managed to drag it out from under the fallen beam. The wood of the coffin was dented and splintered but not actually broken, remarkably. He dragged it a little farther. A shower of small glowing embers fell around him. He glanced up at the roof. Was that a two-legged figure, dancing a mocking jig up there in the flames, or was it just a wisp of smoke? He looked down again, and saw that the skirt of his robe had caught fire. He knelt down and smacked at the flames with his hands, flattening the burning fabric against the floor, and the flames died instantly; then he heard a noise that was either the screech of tortured wood or the mad mocking laugh of an imp. “Saint Adolphus preserve me,” he gasped, and he took hold of the coffin handles again.

Inch by inch he dragged the coffin across the ground. The devil left him alone for a moment. He did not look up-better not to gaze upon the fiend. At last he reached the shelter of the aisle, and felt a little safer. His aching back forced him to stop and straighten up for a moment.

It was a long way to the nearest door, which was in the south transept. He was not sure he could drag the coffin all that way before the whole roof fell in. Perhaps that was what the devil was counting on. Philip could not stop himself from looking up into the flames again. The smoky two-legged figure darted behind a blackened beam just as Philip caught sight of it. He knows I can’t make it, Philip thought. He looked along the aisle, tempted to abandon the saint and run for his life-and there he saw, coming toward him, Brother Milius, Cuthbert Whitehead, and Tom Builder, three very corporeal forms rushing to his aid. His heart leaped for joy, and suddenly he was not sure there was a fiend in the roof at all.

“Thank God!” he said. “Help me with this,” he added unnecessarily.

Tom Builder took one swift appraising look at the burning roof. He did not appear to see any fiends, but he said: “Let’s make it quick.”

They each took a corner and lifted the coffin onto their shoulders. It was a strain even with four of them. Philip called: “Forward!” They walked along the aisle as fast as they could, bowed down by the heavy burden.

When they reached the south transept, Tom called: “Wait.” The floor was an obstacle course of small fires, and more fragments of burning wood fell continuously. Philip peered across the gap, trying to map a route through the flames. During the few moments that they paused, a rumble began at the west end of the church. Philip looked up, full of dread. The rumble grew to a thunder.

Tom Builder said enigmatically: “It’s weak, like the other one.”

“What is?” Philip shouted.

“The southwest tower.”

“Oh, no!”

The thunder became even louder. Philip looked, horrified, as the entire west end of the church seemed to move forward a yard, as if the hand of God had struck it. Ten or more yards of roof fell down into the nave with the impact of an earthquake. Then the whole of the southwest tower seemed to crumble and fall, like a landslide, into the church.

Philip was paralyzed with shock. His church was disintegrating in front of his eyes. The damage would take years to repair even if he could find the money. What would he do? How would the monastery continue? Was this the end of Kingsbridge Priory?

He was jerked out of his paralysis by the movement of the coffin on his shoulder when the other three men pressed forward. Philip followed where it took him. Tom negotiated a way through the maze of fires. A burning brand fell on top of the coffin but fortunately it slipped to the floor without touching any of them. A moment later they reached the opposite side and passed through the door, out of the church into the cool night air.

Philip was so devastated by the destruction of the church that he felt no relief at his own escape. They hurried around the cloisters to the south arch and passed through. When they were well clear of the buildings Tom said: “This will do.” Thankfully, they lowered the coffin to the frosty ground.

Philip took a few moments to catch his breath. In that pause he realized that this was no time to act stunned. He was the prior, he was in charge here. What should he do next? It might be wise to make sure all the monks had escaped safely. He took one more deep breath, then straightened his shoulders and looked at the other men. “Cuthbert, you stay here and guard the saint’s coffin,” he said. “The rest of you, follow me.”

He led them around the back of the kitchen buildings, passed between the brewery and the mill, and crossed the green to the guesthouse. The monks, Tom’s family, and most of the villagers were standing around in groups, talking in subdued tones and staring wide-eyed at the blazing church. Philip turned to look at it before speaking to them. The sight was painful. The entire west end was a pile of rubble, and huge flames were shooting up from what remained of the roof.

He tore his gaze away. “Is everyone here?” he called out. “If you can think of anyone who’s missing, call out his name.”

Someone said: “Cuthbert Whitehead.”

“He’s guarding the bones of the saint. Anyone else?”

There was no one else.

Philip said to Milius: “Count the monks, to make sure. There should be forty-five including you and me.” Knowing he could trust Milius, he put that out of his mind and turned to Tom Builder. “Is all your family here?”

Tom nodded and pointed. They were standing by the guesthouse wall; the woman, the grown son and the two little ones. The small boy gave Philip a frightened look. This must be a terrifying experience for them, Philip thought.

The sacrist was sitting on the ironbound box that contained the treasure. Philip had forgotten about that: he was relieved to see it safe. He addressed the sacrist. “Brother Andrew, the coffin of Saint Adolphus is behind the refectory. Take some brothers to help you, and carry it…” He thought for a moment. The safest place was probably the prior’s residence. “Take it to my house.”

“To your house?” Andrew said argumentatively. “The relics should be in my care, not yours.”

“Then you should have rescued them from the church!” Philip flared. “Do as I say, without another word!”

The sacrist got up reluctantly, looking furious.

Philip said: “Make haste, man, or I’ll strip you of your office here and now!” He turned his back on Andrew and spoke to Milius. “How many?”

“Forty-four, plus Cuthbert. Eleven novices. Five guests. Everyone is accounted for.”

“That’s a mercy.” Philip looked at the raging fire. It seemed almost miraculous that they were all alive and no one had even been hurt. He realized he was exhausted, but he was too worried to sit down and rest. “Is there anything else of value that we should rescue?” he said. “We have the treasure and the relics…”

Alan, the young treasurer, spoke up. “What about the books?”

Philip groaned. Of course-the books. They were kept in a locked cupboard in the east cloister, next to the door of the chapter house, where the monks could get them during study periods. It would take a dangerously long time to empty the cupboard book by book. Perhaps a few strong youngsters could pick up the whole cupboard and carry it to safety. Philip looked around. The sacrist had chosen half a dozen monks to deal with the coffin, and they were already making their way across the green. Now Philip selected three young monks and three of the older novices, and told them to follow him.

He retraced his steps across the open space in front of the burning church. He was too tired to run. They passed between the mill and the brewery, and went around the back of the kitchen and refectory. Cuthbert Whitehead and the sacrist were organizing the removal of the coffin. Philip led his group along the passage that ran between the refectory and the dormitory and under the south archway into the cloisters.

He could feel the heat of the fire. The big book cupboard had carvings on its doors depicting Moses and the tablets of stone. Philip directed the young men to tip the cupboard forward and hoist it on their shoulders. They carried it around the cloisters to the south archway. There Philip paused and looked back while they went on. His heart filled with grief at the sight of the ruined church. There was less smoke and more flame now. Whole stretches of the roof had disappeared. As he watched, the roof over the crossing seemed to sag, and he realized it was going to go next. There was a thunderous crash, louder than anything that had gone before, and the roof of the south transept fell in. Philip felt a pain that was almost physical, as if his own body were burning. A moment later the wall of the transept seemed to bulge out over the cloisters. God help us, it’s going to fall down, Philip thought. As the stonework began to crumble and scatter he realized it was falling toward him, and he turned to flee; but before he had taken three steps something hit the back of his head and he lost consciousness.

For Tom, the raging fire that was destroying Kingsbridge Cathedral was a beacon of hope.

He looked across the green at the huge flames that leaped high in the air from the ruins of the church, and all he could think was: This means work!

The thought had been hiding in the back of his mind, ever since he had emerged, bleary-eyed, from the guesthouse, and seen the faint red glow in the church windows. All the time he had been hurrying the monks out of danger, and rushing into the burning church to find Prior Philip, and carrying the saint’s coffin out, his heart had been bursting with shameless, happy optimism.

Now that he had a moment to reflect, it occurred to him that he ought not to be happy about the burning of a church; but then, he thought, no one had been hurt, and the priory’s treasure had been saved, and the church was old and crumbling anyway; so why not rejoice?

The young monks came back across the green, carrying the heavy book cupboard. All I have to do now, Tom thought, is make sure that I get the job of rebuilding this church. And the time to speak to Prior Philip about it is now.

However, Philip was not with the monks carrying the book cupboard. They reached the guesthouse and lowered the cupboard to the ground. “Where’s your prior?” Tom said to them.

The eldest of them looked back in surprise. “I don’t know,” he said. “I thought he was behind us.”

Perhaps he had stayed back to watch the blaze, Tom thought; but perhaps he was in trouble.

Without further ado Tom ran across the green and around the back of the kitchen. He hoped Philip was all right, not just because Philip seemed such a good man, but because he was Jonathan’s protector. Without Philip there was no knowing what might happen to the baby.

Tom found Philip in the passage between the refectory and the dormitory. To his relief, the prior was sitting upright, looking dazed but unhurt. Tom helped him to his feet.

“Something hit my head,” Philip said groggily.

Tom looked past him. The south transept had fallen into the cloisters. “You’re fortunate to be alive,” Tom said. “God must have a purpose for you.”

Philip shook his head to clear it. “I passed out for a moment. I’m all right now. Where are the books?”

“They took them to the guesthouse.”

“Let’s go back there.”

Tom took Philip’s arm as they walked. The prior was not badly hurt but he was upset, Tom could see.

By the time they got back to the guesthouse, the fire in the church was past its peak, and the flames were dying down a little; but nevertheless Tom could see people’s faces quite clearly, and -he realized with a little shock that it was daybreak.

Philip started organizing things again. He told Milius Kitchener to make porridge for everyone and authorized Cuthbert Whitehead to open a barrel of strong wine to warm them up in the meantime. He ordered the fire lit in the guesthouse, and the older monks went in out of the cold. It started to rain, wind-driven sheets of water, freezing cold, and the flames in the ruined church faded fast.

When everyone was busy again, Prior Philip walked away from the guesthouse, on his own, and headed for the church. Tom saw him and followed. This was his chance. If he could handle this right he could work here for years.

Philip stood staring at what had been the west end of the church, shaking his head sadly at the wreckage, looking as if it were his life that was in ruins. Tom stood beside him in silence. After a while Philip moved on, walking along the north side of the nave, through the graveyard. Tom walked with him, surveying the damage.

The north wall of the nave was still standing, but the north transept and part of the north wall of the chancel had fallen. The church still had an east end. They turned around the end and looked at the south side. Most of the south wall had come down and the south transept had collapsed into the cloisters. The chapter house was still standing.

They walked to the archway that led into the east walk of the cloisters. There they were halted by the pile of rubble. It looked a mess, but Tom’s trained eye could see that the cloister walks themselves were not badly damaged, just buried under the fallen ruins. He climbed over the broken stones until he could see into the church. Just behind the altar there was a semi-concealed staircase that led down into the crypt. The crypt itself was beneath the quire. Tom peered in, studying the stone floor over the crypt for signs of cracking. He could see none. There was a good chance the crypt had survived intact. He would not tell Philip yet: he would save the news for a crucial moment.

Philip had walked on, around the back of the dormitory. Tom hurried to catch him. They found the dormitory unmarked; Going on, they found the other monastic buildings more or less unharmed: the refectory, the kitchen, the bakehouse and the brewery. Philip might have taken some consolation in that, but his expression remained glum.

They ended up where they had started, in front of the ruined west end, having completed a full circuit of the priory close without speaking a word. Philip sighed heavily and broke the silence. “The devil did this,” he said.

Tom thought: This is my moment. He took a deep breath and said: “It might be God’s work.”

Philip looked up at him in surprise. “How so?”

Tom said carefully: “No one has been hurt. The books, the treasure and the bones of the saint were saved. Only the church has been destroyed. Perhaps God wanted a new church.”

Philip smiled skeptically. “And I suppose God wanted you to build it.” He was not too stunned to see that Tom’s line of thought might be self-interested.

Tom stood his ground. “It may be so,” he said stubbornly. “It was not the devil who sent a master builder here on the night the church burned down.”

Philip looked away. “Well, there will be a new church, but I don’t know when. And what am I to do meanwhile? How can the life of the monastery go on? All we’re here for is worship and study.”

Philip was deep in despair. This was the moment for Tom to offer him new hope. “My boy and I could have the cloisters cleared and ready for use in a week,” he said, making his voice sound more confident than he felt.

Philip was surprised. “Could you?” Then his expression changed once more, and he looked defeated again. “But what will we use for a church?”

“What about the crypt? You can hold services there, couldn’t you?”

“Yes-it would do very well.”

“I’m sure the crypt is not badly damaged,” Tom said. It was almost true: he was almost sure.

Philip was looking at him as if he were the angel of mercy.

“It won’t take long to clear a path through the debris from the cloisters to the crypt stairs,” Tom went on. “Most of the church on that side has been completely destroyed, which is fortunate, oddly enough, because it means there’s no further danger from falling masonry. I’d have to survey the walls that are still standing, and it might be necessary to shore some of them up. Then they should be checked every day for cracks, and even so you ought not to enter the church in a gale.” All of this was important, but Tom could see that Philip was not taking it in. What Philip wanted from Torn now was positive news, something to lift his spirits. And the way to get hired was to give him what he wanted. Tom changed his tone. “With some of your younger monks laboring for me, I could fix things up so that you’re able to resume normal monastic life, after a fashion, within two weeks.”

Philip was staring at him. “Two weeks?”

“Give me food and lodging for my family, and you can pay my wages when you have the money.”

“You could give me back my priory in two weeks?” Philip repeated incredulously.

Tom was not sure he could, but if it took three no one would die of it. “Two weeks,” he said firmly. “After that, we can knock down the remaining walls-that’s a skilled job, mind you, if it’s to be done safely-then clear the rubble, stacking the stones for reuse. Meanwhile we can plan the new cathedral.” Tom held his breath. He had done his best. Surely Philip would hire him now!

Philip nodded, smiling for the first time. “I think God did send you,” he said. “Let’s have some breakfast, then we can start work.”

Tom breathed a shaky sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said. There was a quaver in his voice that he could not quite control, but suddenly he did not care, and with a barely suppressed sob, he said: “I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

After breakfast Philip held an impromptu chapter in Cuthbert’s storeroom beneath the kitchen… The monks were nervously excited. They were men who had chosen, or had reconciled themselves to, a life of security, predictability and tedium, and most of them were badly disoriented. Their bewilderment touched Philip’s heart. He felt more than ever like a shepherd, whose job it is to care for foolish and helpless creatures; except that these were not dumb animals, they were his brothers, and he loved them. The way to comfort them, he had decided, was to tell them what was going to happen, use up their nervous energy in hard work, and return to a semblance of normal routine as soon as possible.

Despite the unusual surroundings, Philip did not abbreviate the ritual of chapter. He ordered the reading of the martyrology for the day, followed by the memorial prayers. This was what monasteries were for: prayer was the justification of their existence. Nevertheless, some of the monks were restive, so he chose Chapter Twenty of Saint Benedict’s Rule, the section called “On Reverence at Prayer.” The necrology followed. The familiar ritual calmed their nerves, and he noticed that the scared look was slowly leaving the faces around him as the monks realized that their world was not coming to an end after all.

At the end Philip rose to address them. “The catastrophe that struck us last night is, after all, only physical,” he began, putting into his voice as much warmth and reassurance as he could. “Our life is spiritual; our work is prayer, worship and contemplation.” He looked all around the room for a moment, catching as many eyes as he could, making sure he had their concentrated attention; then he said: “We will resume that work within a few days, that I promise you.”

He paused to let those words sink in, and the easing of tension in the room was almost tangible. He gave them a moment, then went on. “God in his wisdom sent us a master builder yesterday to help us through this crisis. He has assured me that if we work under his direction we can have the cloisters ready for normal use within a week.”

There was a subdued murmur of pleased surprise.

“I’m afraid our church will never be used for services again-it will have to be built anew, and that will take many years, of course. However, Tom Builder believes the crypt to be undamaged. The crypt is consecrated, so we can hold services there. Tom says he can make it safe within a week after finishing the cloisters. So, you see, we can resume normal worship in time for Quinquagesima Sunday.”

Once again their relief was audible. Philip saw that he had succeeded in soothing and reassuring them. At the beginning of this chapter they had been frightened and confused; now they were calm and hopeful. Philip added: “Brothers who feel themselves too frail to undertake physical labor will be excused. Brothers who work all day with Tom Builder will be allowed red meat and wine.”

Philip sat down. Remigius was the first to speak. “How much will we have to pay this builder?” he asked suspiciously.

You could trust Remigius to try to find fault. “Nothing, yet,” Philip replied. “Tom knows our poverty. He will work for food and lodging for himself and his family, until we can afford his wages.” That was ambiguous, Philip realized: it might mean that Tom would not be entitled to wages until the priory could afford it, whereas the reality was that the priory would owe him wages for every day he worked, starting today. But before Philip could clarify the agreement, Remigius spoke again.

“And where will they lodge?”

“I have given them the guesthouse.”

“They could lodge with one of the village families.”

“Tom has made us a generous offer,” Philip said impatiently. “We’re fortunate to have him. I don’t want to make him sleep crowded in with someone’s goats and pigs when we have a decent house standing empty.”

“There are two women in that family-”

“A woman and a girl,” Philip corrected him.

“One woman, then. We don’t want a woman living in the priory!”

The monks muttered restively: they did not like Remigius’s quibbling. Philip said: “It’s perfectly normal for women to stay in the guesthouse.”

“Not that woman!” Remigius blurted, then he immediately looked as if he regretted it.

Philip frowned. “Do you know the woman, Brother?”

“She once inhabited these parts,” Remigius said reluctantly.

Philip was intrigued. It was the second time something of this sort had happened in connection with the builder’s wife: Waleran Bigod had also been disturbed by the sight of her. Philip said: “What’s wrong with her?”

Before Remigius could answer, Brother Paul, the old monk who kept the bridge, spoke up. “I remember,” he said rather dreamily. “There was a wild forest girl used to live around here-oh, it must be fifteen year ago. That’s who she reminds me of-probably it’s the same girl, grown up.”

“People said she was a witch,” Remigius said. “We can’t have a witch living in the priory!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Brother Paul in the same slow, meditative voice. “Any woman who lives wild gets called a witch sooner or later. People saying a thing doesn’t make it so. I’m content to leave it to Prior Philip to judge, in his wisdom, whether she’s a danger.”

“Wisdom doesn’t come immediately with the assumption of monastic office,” Remigius snapped.