World Without End
Pillars of the Earth, book 2
Part One. 1 November, 1327
Gwenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.
When she opened her eyes she could see nothing, but that was not what scared her. She knew where she was. She was at Kingsbridge Priory, in the long stone building they called the hospital, lying on the floor in a bed of straw. Her mother lay next to her, and Gwenda could tell, by the warm milky smell, that Ma was feeding the new baby, who did not yet have a name. Beside Ma was Pa, and next to him Gwenda’s older brother, Philemon, who was twelve.
The hospital was crowded, and though she could not see the other families lying along the floor, squashed together like sheep in a pen, she could smell the rank odour of their warm bodies. When dawn broke it would be All Hallows, a Sunday this year and therefore an especially holy day. By the same token the night before was All Hallows’ Eve, a dangerous time when evil spirits roamed freely. Hundreds of people had come to Kingsbridge from the surrounding villages, as Gwenda’s family had, to spend Halloween in the sanctified precincts of the priory, and to attend the All Hallows service at daybreak.
Gwenda was wary of evil spirits, like every sensible person; but she was more scared of what she had to do during the service.
She stared into the gloom, trying not to think about what frightened her. She knew that the wall opposite her had an arched window. There was no glass – only the most important buildings had glass windows – but a linen blind kept out the cold autumn air. However, she could not see even a faint patch of grey where the window should be. She was glad. She did not want the morning to come.
She could see nothing, but there was plenty to listen to. The straw that covered the floor whispered constantly as people stirred and shifted in their sleep. A child cried out, as if woken by a dream, and was quickly silenced by a murmured endearment. Now and again someone spoke, uttering the half-formed words of sleep talk. Somewhere there was the sound of two people doing the thing parents did but never spoke of, the thing Gwenda called Grunting because she had no other word for it.
Too soon, there was a light. At the eastern end of the long room, behind the altar, a monk came through the door carrying a single candle. He put the candle down on the altar, lit a taper from it, and went around touching the flame to the wall lamps, his long shadow reaching up the wall each time like a reflection, his taper meeting the shadow taper at the wick of the lamp.
The strengthening light illuminated rows of humped figures on the floor, wrapped in their drab cloaks or huddled up to their neighbours for warmth. Sick people occupied the cots near the altar, where they could get the maximum benefit from the holiness of the place. At the opposite end, a staircase led to the upper floor where there were rooms for aristocratic visitors: the earl of Shiring was there now with some of his family.
The monk leaned over Gwenda to light the lamp above her head. He caught her eye and smiled. She studied his face in the shifting light of the flame and recognized him as Brother Godwyn. He was young and handsome, and last night he had spoken kindly to Philemon.
Beside Gwenda was another family from her village: Samuel, a prosperous peasant with a large landholding, and his wife and two sons, the younger of whom, Wulfric, was an annoying six-year-old who thought that throwing acorns at girls then running away was the funniest thing in the world.
Gwenda’s family was not prosperous. Her father had no land at all, and hired himself out as a labourer to anyone who would pay him. There was always work in the summer but, after the harvest was gathered in and the weather began to turn cold, the family often went hungry.
That was why Gwenda had to steal.
She imagined being caught: a strong hand grabbing her arm, holding her in an unbreakable grip while she wriggled helplessly; a deep, cruel voice saying, “Well, well, a little thief”; the pain and humiliation of a whipping; and then, worst of all, the agony and loss as her hand was chopped off.
Her father had suffered this punishment. At the end of his left arm was a hideous wrinkled stump. He managed well with one hand – he could use a shovel, saddle a horse and even make a net to catch birds – but all the same he was always the last labourer to be hired in the spring, and the first to be laid off in the autumn. He could never leave the village and seek work elsewhere, because the amputation marked him as a thief, so that people would refuse to hire him. When travelling, he tied a stuffed glove to the stump, to avoid being shunned by every stranger he met; but that did not fool people for long.
Gwenda had not witnessed Pa’s punishment – it had happened before she was born – but she had often imagined it, and now she could not help thinking about the same thing happening to her. In her mind she saw the blade of the axe coming down on her wrist, slicing through her skin and her bones, and severing her hand from her arm, so that it could never be reattached; and she had to clamp her teeth together to keep from screaming out loud.
People were standing up, stretching and yawning and rubbing their faces. Gwenda got up and shook out her clothes. All her garments had previously belonged to her older brother. She wore a woollen shift that came down to her knees and a tunic over it, gathered at the waist with a belt made of hemp cord. Her shoes had once been laced, but the eyelets were torn and the laces gone, and she tied them to her feet with plaited straw. When she had tucked her hair into a cap made of squirrel tails, she had finished dressing.
She caught her father’s eye, and he pointed surreptitiously to a family across the way, a couple in middle age with two sons a little older than Gwenda. The man was short and slight, with a curly red beard. He was buckling on a sword, which meant he was a man-at-arms or a knight: ordinary people were not allowed to wear swords. His wife was a thin woman with a brisk manner and a grumpy face. As Gwenda scrutinized them, Brother Godwyn nodded respectfully and said: “Good morning, Sir Gerald, Lady Maud.”
Gwenda saw what had attracted her father’s notice. Sir Gerald had a purse attached to his belt by a leather thong. The purse bulged. It looked as if it contained several hundred of the small, thin silver pennies, halfpennies and farthings that were the English currency – as much money as Pa could earn in a year if he had been able to find employment. It would be more than enough to feed the family until the spring ploughing. The purse might even contain a few foreign gold coins, florins from Florence or ducats from Venice.
Gwenda had a small knife in a wooden sheath hanging from a cord around her neck. The sharp blade would quickly cut the thong and cause the fat purse to fall into her small hand – unless Sir Gerald felt something strange and grabbed her before she could do the deed…
Godwyn raised his voice over the rumble of talk. “For the love of Christ, who teaches us charity, breakfast will be provided after the All Hallows service,” he said. “Meanwhile, there is pure drinking water in the courtyard fountain. Please remember to use the latrines outside – no pissing indoors!”
The monks and nuns were strict about cleanliness. Last night, Godwyn had caught a six-year-old boy peeing in a corner, and had expelled the whole family. Unless they had a penny for a tavern, they would have had to spend the cold October night shivering on the stone floor of the cathedral’s north porch. There was also a ban on animals. Gwenda’s three-legged dog, Hop, had been banished. She wondered where he had spent the night.
When all the lamps were lit, Godwyn opened the big wooden door to the outside. The night air bit sharply at Gwenda’s ears and the tip of her nose. The overnight guests pulled their coats around them and began to shuffle out. When Sir Gerald and his family moved off, Pa and Ma fell into line behind them, and Gwenda and Philemon followed suit.
Philemon had done the stealing until now, but yesterday he had almost been caught, at Kingsbridge Market. He had palmed a small jar of expensive oil from the booth of an Italian merchant, then he had dropped the jar, so that everyone saw it. Mercifully, it had not broken when it hit the ground. He had been forced to pretend that he had accidentally knocked it off the stall.
Until recently Philemon had been small and unobtrusive, like Gwenda, but in the last year he had grown several inches, developed a deep voice, and become awkward and clumsy, as if he could not get used to his new, larger body. Last night, after the incident with the jar of oil, Pa had announced that Philemon was now too big for serious thieving, and henceforth it was Gwenda’s job.
That was why she had lain awake for so much of the night.
Philemon’s name was really Holger. When he was ten years old, he had decided he was going to be a monk, so he told everyone he had changed his name to Philemon, which sounded more religious. Surprisingly, most people had gone along with his wish, though Ma and Pa still called him Holger.
They passed through the door and saw two lines of shivering nuns holding burning torches to light the pathway from the hospital to the great west door of Kingsbridge Cathedral. Shadows flickered at the edges of the torchlight, as if the imps and hobgoblins of the night were cavorting just out of sight, kept at a distance only by the sanctity of the nuns.
Gwenda half expected to see Hop waiting outside, but he was not there. Perhaps he had found somewhere warm to sleep. As they walked to the church, Pa made sure they stayed close to Sir Gerald. From behind, someone tugged painfully at Gwenda’s hair. She squealed, thinking it was a goblin; but when she turned she saw Wulfric, her six-year-old neighbour. He darted out of her reach, laughing. Then his father growled “Behave!” and smacked his head, and the little boy began to cry.
The vast church was a shapeless mass towering above the huddled crowd. Only the lowest parts were distinct, arches and mullions picked out in orange and red by the uncertain torchlight. The procession slowed as it approached the cathedral entrance, and Gwenda could see a group of townspeople coming from the opposite direction. There were hundreds of them, Gwenda thought, maybe thousands, although she was not sure how many people made a thousand, for she could not count that high.
The crowd inched through the vestibule. The restless light of the torches fell on the sculpted figures around the walls, making them dance madly. At the lowest level were demons and monsters. Gwenda stared uneasily at dragons and griffins, a bear with a man’s head, a dog with two bodies and one muzzle. Some of the demons struggled with humans: a devil put a noose around a man’s neck, a fox-like monster dragged a woman by her hair, an eagle with hands speared a naked man. Above these scenes the saints stood in a row under sheltering canopies; over them the apostles sat on thrones; then, in the arch over the main door, St Peter with his key and St Paul with a scroll looked adoringly upwards at Jesus Christ.
Gwenda knew that Jesus was telling her not to sin, or she would be tortured by demons; but humans frightened her more than demons. If she failed to steal Sir Gerald’s purse, she would be whipped by her father. Worse, there would be nothing for the family to eat but soup made with acorns. She and Philemon would be hungry for weeks on end. Ma’s breasts would dry up, and the new baby would die, as the last two had. Pa would disappear for days, and come back with nothing for the pot but a scrawny heron or a couple of squirrels. Being hungry was worse than being whipped – it hurt longer.
She had been taught to pilfer at a young age: an apple from a stall, a new-laid egg from under a neighbour’s hen, a knife dropped carelessly on a tavern table by a drunk. But stealing money was different. If she were caught robbing Sir Gerald it would be no use bursting into tears and hoping to be treated as a naughty child, as she had once after thieving a pair of dainty leather shoes from a soft-hearted nun. Cutting the strings of a knight’s purse was no childish peccadillo, it was a real grown-up crime, and she would be treated accordingly.
She tried not to think about it. She was small and nimble and quick, and she would take the purse stealthily, like a ghost – provided she could keep from trembling.
The wide church was already thronged with people. In the side aisles, hooded monks held torches that cast a restless red glow. The marching pillars of the nave reached up into darkness. Gwenda stayed close to Sir Gerald as the crowd pushed forward towards the altar. The red-bearded knight and his thin wife did not notice her. Their two boys paid no more attention to her than to the stone walls of the cathedral. Gwenda’s family fell back and she lost sight of them.
The nave filled up quickly. Gwenda had never seen so many people in one place: it was busier than the cathedral green on market day. People greeted one another cheerfully, feeling safe from evil spirits in this holy place, and the sound of all their conversations mounted to a roar.
Then the bell tolled, and they fell silent.
Sir Gerald was standing by a family from the town. They all wore cloaks of fine cloth, so they were probably rich wool dealers. Next to the knight stood a girl about ten years old. Gwenda stood behind Sir Gerald and the girl. She tried to make herself inconspicuous but, to her dismay, the girl looked at her and smiled reassuringly, as if to tell her not to be frightened.
Around the edges of the crowd the monks extinguished their torches, one by one, until the great church was in utter darkness.
Gwenda wondered if the rich girl would remember her later. She had not merely glanced at Gwenda then ignored her, as most people did. She had noticed her, had thought about her, had anticipated that she might be scared, and had given her a friendly smile. But there were hundreds of children in the cathedral. She could not have got a very clear impression of Gwenda’s features in the dim light… could she? Gwenda tried to put the worry out of her mind.
Invisible in the darkness, she stepped forward and slipped noiselessly between the two figures, feeling the soft wool of the girl’s cloak on one side and the stiffer fabric of the knight’s old surcoat on the other. Now she was in a position to get at the purse.
She reached into her neckline and took the little knife from its sheath.
The silence was broken by a terrible scream. Gwenda had been expecting it – Ma had explained what was going to happen during the service – but, all the same, she was shocked. It sounded like someone being tortured.
Then there was a harsh drumming sound, as of someone beating on a metal plate. More noises followed: wailing, mad laughter, a hunting horn, a rattle, animal noises, a cracked bell. In the congregation, a child started to cry, and others joined in. Some of the adults laughed nervously. They knew the noises were made by the monks, but all the same it was a hellish cacophony.
This was not the moment to take the purse, Gwenda thought fearfully. Everyone was tense, alert. The knight would be sensitive to any touch.
The devilish noise grew louder, then a new sound intervened: music. At first it was so soft that Gwenda was not sure she had really heard it, then gradually it grew louder. The nuns were singing. Gwenda felt her body flood with tension. The moment was approaching. Moving like a spirit, imperceptible as the air, she turned so that she was facing Sir Gerald.
She knew exactly what he was wearing. He had on a heavy wool robe gathered at the waist by a broad studded belt. His purse was tied to the belt with a leather thong. Over the robe he wore an embroidered surcoat, costly but worn, with yellowing bone buttons down the front. He had done up some of the buttons, but not all, probably out of sleepy laziness, or because the walk from the hospital to the church was so short.
With a touch as light as possible, Gwenda put one small hand on his coat. She imagined her hand was a spider, so weightless that he could not possibly feel it. She ran her spider hand across the front of his coat and found the opening. She slipped her hand under the edge of the coat and along his heavy belt until she came to the purse.
The pandemonium faded as the music grew louder. From the front of the congregation came a murmur of awe. Gwenda could see nothing, but she knew that a lamp had been lit on the altar, illuminating a reliquary, an elaborately carved ivory-and-gold box holding the bones of St Adolphus, that had not been there when the lights went out. The crowd surged forward, everyone trying to get closer to the holy remains. As Gwenda felt herself squashed between Sir Gerald and the man in front of him, she brought up her right hand and put the edge of the knife to the thong of his purse.
The leather was tough, and her first stroke did not cut it. She sawed frantically with the knife, hoping desperately that Sir Gerald was too interested in the scene at the altar to notice what was happening under his nose. She glanced upwards and realized she could just about see the outlines of people around her: the monks and nuns were lighting candles. The light would get brighter every moment. She had no time left.
She gave a fierce yank on the knife, and felt the thong give. Sir Gerald grunted quietly: had he felt something, or was he reacting to the spectacle at the altar? The purse dropped, and landed in her hand; but it was too big for her to grasp easily, and it slipped. For a terrifying moment she thought she was going to drop it and lose it on the floor among the heedless feet of the crowd; then she got a grip on it and held it.
She felt a moment of joyous relief: she had the purse.
But she was still in terrible danger. Her heart was beating so loudly she felt as if everyone must be able to hear it. She turned quickly so that her back was to the knight. In the same movement, she stuffed the heavy purse down the front of her tunic. She could feel that it made a bulge that would be conspicuous, hanging over her belt like an old man’s belly. She shifted it around to her side, where it was partly covered by her arm. It would still be visible when the lights brightened, but she had nowhere else to put it.
She sheathed the knife. Now she had to get away quickly, before Sir Gerald noticed his loss – but the crush of worshippers, which had helped her take the purse unnoticed, now hindered her escape. She tried to step backwards, hoping to force a gap in the bodies behind her, but everyone was still pressing forward to look at the bones of the saint. She was trapped, unable to move, right in front of the man she had robbed.
A voice in her ear said: “Are you all right?”
It was the rich girl. Gwenda fought down panic. She needed to be invisible. A helpful older child was the last thing she wanted. She said nothing.
“Be careful,” the girl said to the people around. “You’re squashing this little girl.”
Gwenda could have screamed. The rich girl’s thoughtfulness would get Gwenda’s hand chopped off.
Desperate to get away, she put her hands on the man in front and shoved, pushing herself backwards. She succeeded only in getting the attention of Sir Gerald. “You can’t see anything down there, can you?” said her victim in a kindly voice; and, to her horror, he grasped her under the arms and lifted her up.
She was helpless. His big hand in her armpit was only an inch from the purse. She faced forward, so that he could see only the back of her head, and looked over the crowd to the altar, where the monks and nuns were lighting more candles and singing to the long-dead saint. Beyond them, a faint light showed through the big rose window at the east end of the building: dawn was breaking, chasing the evil spirits away. The clangour had stopped, now, and the singing swelled. A tall, good-looking monk stepped up to the altar, and Gwenda recognized him as Anthony, the prior of Kingsbridge. Raising his hands in a blessing, he said loudly: “And so, once again, by the grace of Christ Jesus, the evil and darkness of this world are banished by the harmony and light of God’s holy church.”
The congregation gave a triumphant roar, then began to relax. The climax of the ceremony had passed. Gwenda wriggled, and Sir Gerald got the message and put her down. Keeping her face turned away from him, she pushed past him, heading towards the back of the crowd. People were no longer so eager to see the altar, and she was now able to force her way between the bodies. The farther back she went, the easier it became, until at last she found herself by the great west door, and saw her family.
Pa looked expectantly at her, ready to be angry if she had failed. She pulled the purse out of her shirt and thrust it at him, glad to get rid of it. He grabbed it, turned slightly, and furtively looked inside. She saw him grin with delight. Then he passed the purse to Ma, who quickly shoved it into the folds of the blanket that wrapped the baby.
The ordeal was over, but the risk had not yet passed. “A rich girl noticed me,” Gwenda said, and she could hear the shrill fear in her own voice.
Pa’s small, dark eyes flashed anger. “Did she see what you did?”
“No, but she told the others not to squash me, then the knight picked me up so I could see better.”
Ma gave a low groan.
Pa said: “He saw your face, then.”
“I tried to keep it turned away.”
“Still, better if he doesn’t come across you again,” Pa said. “We won’t return to the monks’ hospital. We’ll go to a tavern for our breakfast.”
Ma said: “We can’t hide away all day.”
“No, but we can melt into the crowd.”
Gwenda started to feel better. Pa seemed to think there was no real danger. Anyway, she was reassured just by his being in charge again, and taking the responsibility from her.
“Besides,” he went on, “I fancy bread and meat, instead of the monks’ watery porridge. I can afford it now!”
They went out of the church. The sky was pearly grey with dawn light. Gwenda wanted to hold Ma’s hand, but the baby started to cry, and Ma was distracted. Then she saw a small three-legged dog, white with a black face, come running into the cathedral close with a familiar lopsided stride. “Hop!” she cried, and picked him up and hugged him.
Merthin was eleven, a year older than his brother Ralph; but, to his intense annoyance, Ralph was taller and stronger.
This caused trouble with the parents. Their father, Sir Gerald, was a soldier, and could not conceal his disappointment when Merthin proved unable to lift the heavy lance, or became exhausted before the tree was chopped down, or came home crying after losing a fight. Their mother, Lady Maud, made matters worse, embarrassing Merthin by being over-protective, when what he needed her to do was pretend not to notice. When Father showed his pride in Ralph’s strength, Mother tried to compensate by criticizing Ralph’s stupidity. Ralph was a bit slow on the uptake, but he could not help it, and being nagged about it only made him angry, so that he got into fights with other boys.
Both parents were tetchy on the morning of All Hallows’ Day. Father had not wanted to come to Kingsbridge at all. But he had been compelled. He owed money to the priory, and he could not pay. Mother said they would take away his lands: he was lord of three villages near Kingsbridge. Father reminded her that he was directly descended from the Thomas who became earl of Shiring in the year that Archbishop Becket was murdered by King Henry II. That Earl Thomas had been the son of Jack Builder, the architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral, and Lady Aliena of Shiring – a near-legendary couple whose story was told, on long winter evenings, along with the heroic tales of Charlemagne and Roland. With such ancestry, Sir Gerald could not have his land confiscated by any monk, he bellowed, least of all that old woman Prior Anthony. When he started shouting, a look of tired resignation came over Maud’s face, and she turned away – though Merthin had heard her mutter: “The Lady Aliena had a brother, Richard, who was no good for anything but fighting.”
Prior Anthony might be an old woman, but he had at least been man enough to complain about Sir Gerald’s unpaid debts. He had gone to Gerald’s overlord, the present earl of Shiring, who happened also to be Gerald’s second cousin. Earl Roland had summoned Gerald to Kingsbridge today to meet with the prior and work out some resolution. Hence Father’s bad temper.
Then Father was robbed.
He discovered the loss after the All Hallows service. Merthin had enjoyed the drama: the darkness, the weird noises, the music beginning so quietly and then swelling until it seemed to fill the huge church, and finally the slow illumination of candles. He had also noticed, as the lights began to come on, that some people had been taking advantage of the darkness to commit minor sins for which they could now be forgiven: he had seen two monks hastily stop kissing, and a sly merchant remove his hand from the plump breast of a smiling woman who appeared to be someone else’s wife. Merthin was still in an excited mood when they returned to the hospital.
As they were waiting for the nuns to serve breakfast, a kitchen boy passed through the room and went up the stairs carrying a tray with a big jug of ale and a platter of hot salt beef. Mother said grumpily: “I would think your relative, the earl, might invite us to breakfast with him in his private room. After all, your grandmother was sister to his grandfather.”
Father replied: “If you don’t want porridge, we can go to the tavern.”
Merthin’s ears pricked up. He liked tavern breakfasts of new bread and salt butter. But Mother said: “We can’t afford it.”
“We can,” Father said, feeling for his purse; and that was when he realized it was gone.
At first he looked around the floor, as if it might have fallen; then he noticed the cut ends of the leather thong, and he roared with indignation. Everyone looked at him except Mother, who turned away, and Merthin heard her mutter: “That was all the money we had.”
Father glared accusingly at the other guests in the hospital. The long scar that ran from his right temple to his left eye seemed to darken with rage. The room went quiet with tension: an angry knight was dangerous, even one who was evidently down on his luck.
Then Mother said: “You were robbed in the church, no doubt.”
Merthin guessed that must be right. In the darkness, people had been stealing more than kisses.
“Sacrilege, too!” said Father.
“I expect it happened when you picked up that little girl,” Mother went on. Her face was twisted, as if she had swallowed something bitter. “The thief probably reached around your waist from behind.”
“He must be found!” Father roared.
The young monk called Godwyn spoke up. “I’m very sorry this has happened, Sir Gerald,” he said. “I will go and tell John Constable right away. He can look out for a poor townsman who has suddenly become rich.”
That seemed to Merthin a very unpromising plan. There were thousands of townspeople and hundreds more visitors. The constable could not observe them all.
But Father was slightly mollified. “The rogue shall hang!” he said in a voice a little less loud.
“And, meanwhile, perhaps you and Lady Maud, and your sons, would do us the honour of sitting at the table that is being set up in front of the altar,” Godwyn said smoothly.
Father grunted. He was pleased, Merthin knew, to be accorded higher status than the mass of guests, who would eat sitting on the floor where they had slept.
The moment of potential violence passed, and Merthin relaxed a little; but, as the four of them took their seats, he wondered anxiously what would happen to the family now. His father was a brave soldier – everyone said that. Sir Gerald had fought for the old king at Boroughbridge, where a Lancashire rebel’s sword had given him the scar on his forehead. But he was unlucky. Some knights came home from battle with booty: plundered jewels, a cartload of costly Flemish cloth and Italian silk, or the beloved father of a noble family who could be ransomed for a thousand pounds. Sir Gerald never seemed to get much loot. But he still had to buy weapons, armour, and an expensive warhorse to enable him to do his duty and serve the king; and somehow the rents from his lands were never enough. So, against Mother’s will, he had started to borrow.
The kitchen hands brought in a steaming cauldron. Sir Gerald’s family were served first. The porridge was made with barley and flavoured with rosemary and salt. Ralph, who did not understand the family crisis, started to talk excitedly about the All Hallows service, but the glum silence in which his comments were received shut him up.
When the porridge was eaten, Merthin went to the altar. Behind it he had stashed his bow and arrows. People would hesitate to steal something from an altar. They might overcome their fears, if the reward were tempting enough, but a homemade bow was not much of a prize; and, sure enough, it was still there.
He was proud of it. It was small, of course: to bend a full-size, six-foot bow took all the strength of a grown man. Merthin’s was four foot long, and slender, but in other respects it was just like the standard English longbow that had killed so many Scots mountain men, Welsh rebels, and French knights in armour.
Father had not previously commented on the bow, and now he looked at it as if seeing it for the first time. “Where did you get the stave?” he said. “They’re costly.”
“Not this one – it’s too short. A bowyer gave it me.”
Father nodded. “Apart from that it’s a perfect stave,” he said. “It’s taken from the inside of the yew, where the sapwood meets the heartwood.” He pointed to the two different colours.
“I know,” Merthin said eagerly. He did not often get the chance to impress his father. “The stretchy sapwood is best for the front of the bow, because it pulls back to its original shape; and the hard heartwood is best for the inside of the curve, because it pushes back when the bow is bent inwards.”
“Exactly,” Father said. He handed the bow back. “But remember, this is not a nobleman’s weapon. Knights’ sons do not become archers. Give it to some peasant boy.”
Merthin was crestfallen. “I haven’t even tried it yet!”
Mother intervened. “Let them play,” she said. “They’re only boys.”
“True,” Father said, losing interest. “I wonder if those monks would bring us a jug of ale?”
“Off you go,” Mother said. “Merthin, take care of your brother.”
Father grunted. “More likely to be the other way around.”
Merthin was stung. Father had no idea what went on. Merthin could look after himself, but Ralph on his own would get into fights. However, Merthin knew better than to take issue with his father in this mood, and he left the hospital without saying anything. Ralph trailed behind him.
It was a clear, cold November day, and the sky was roofed with high pale-grey cloud. They left the cathedral close and walked down the main street, passing Fish Lane, Leather Yard and Cookshop Street. At the bottom of the hill they crossed the wooden bridge over the river, leaving the old city for the suburb called Newtown. Here the streets of timber houses ran between pastures and gardens. Merthin led the way to a meadow called Lovers’ Field. There, the town constable and his deputies had set up butts – targets for archery. Shooting practice after church was compulsory for all men, by order of the king.
Enforcement was not much needed: it was no hardship to loose off a few arrows on a Sunday morning, and a hundred or so of the young men of the town were lining up for their turn, watched by women, children, and men who considered themselves too old, or too dignified, to be archers. Some had their own weapons. For those too poor to afford a bow, John Constable had inexpensive practice bows made of ash or hazel.
It was like a feast day. Dick Brewer was selling tankards of ale from a barrel on a cart, and Betty Baxter’s four adolescent daughters were walking around with trays of spiced buns for sale. The wealthier townspeople were done up in fur caps and new shoes, and even the poorer women had dressed their hair and trimmed their cloaks with new braid.
Merthin was the only child carrying a bow, and he immediately attracted the attention of other children. They crowded around him and Ralph, the boys asking envious questions, the girls looking admiring or disdainful according to temperament. One of the girls said: “How did you know how to make it?”
Merthin recognized her: she had stood near him in the cathedral. She was about a year younger than himself, he thought, and she wore a dress and cloak of expensive, close-woven wool. Merthin usually found girls of his own age tiresome: they giggled a lot and refused to take anything seriously. But this one looked at him and his bow with a frank curiosity that he liked. “I just guessed,” he said.
“That’s clever. Does it work?”
“I haven’t tried it. What’s your name?”
“Caris, from the Wooler family. Who are you?”
“Merthin. My father is Sir Gerald.” Merthin pushed back the hood of his cape, reached inside it and took out a coiled bowstring.
“Why do you keep the string in your hat?”
“So it won’t get wet if there’s rain. It’s what the real archers do.” He attached the twine to the notches at either end of the stave, bending the bow slightly so that the tension would hold the string in place.
“Are you going to shoot at the targets?”
Another boy said: “They won’t let you.”
Merthin looked at him. He was about twelve, tall and thin with big hands and feet. Merthin had seen him last night in the priory hospital with his family: his name was Philemon. He had been hanging around the monks, asking questions and helping to serve supper. “Of course they’ll let me,” Merthin told him. “Why shouldn’t they?”
“Because you’re too young.”
“That’s stupid.” Even as he spoke, Merthin knew he should not be so sure: adults often were stupid. But Philemon’s assumption of superior knowledge irritated him, especially after he had shown confidence in front of Caris.
He left the children and walked over to a group of men waiting to use a target. He recognized one of them: an exceptionally tall, broad-shouldered man called Mark Webber. Mark noticed the bow and spoke to Merthin in a slow, amiable voice. “Where did you get that?”
“I made it,” Merthin said proudly.
“Look at this, Elfric,” Mark said to his neighbour. “He’s made a nice job of it.”
Elfric was a brawny man with a sly look. He gave the bow a cursory glance. “It’s too small,” he said dismissively. “That’ll never fire an arrow to penetrate a French knight’s armour.”
“Perhaps not,” Mark said mildly. “But I expect the lad’s got a year or two to go before he has to fight the French.”
John Constable called out: “We’re ready, let’s get started. Mark Webber, you’re first.” The giant stepped up to the line. He picked up a stout bow and tested it, bending the thick wood effortlessly.
The constable noticed Merthin for the first time. “No boys,” he said.
“Why not?” Merthin protested.
“Never mind why not, just get out of the way.”
Merthin heard some of the other children snigger. “There’s no reason for it!” he said indignantly.
“I don’t have to give reasons to children,” John said. “All right, Mark, take your shot.”
Merthin was mortified. The oily Philemon had proved him wrong in front of everyone. He turned away from the targets.
“I told you so,” said Philemon.
“Oh, shut up and go away.”
“You can’t make me go away,” said Philemon, who was six inches taller than Merthin.
Ralph put in: “I could, though.”
Merthin sighed. Ralph was unfailingly loyal, but he did not see that for him to fight Philemon would only make Merthin look like a weakling as well as a fool.
“I’m leaving anyway,” said Philemon. “I’m going to help Brother Godwyn.” He walked off.
The rest of the children began to drift away, seeking other curiosities. Caris said to Merthin: “You could go somewhere else to try the bow.” She was obviously keen to see what would happen.
Merthin looked around. “But where?” If he was seen shooting unsupervised, the bow might be taken from him.
“We could go into the forest.”
Merthin was surprised. Children were forbidden to go into the forest. Outlaws hid there, men and women who lived by stealing. Children might be stripped of their clothes, or made into slaves, and there were worse dangers that parents only hinted at. Even if they escaped such perils, the children were liable to be flogged by their fathers for breaking the rule.
But Caris did not seem to be afraid, and Merthin was reluctant to appear less bold than she. Besides, the constable’s curt dismissal had made him feel defiant. “All right,” he said. “But we’ll have to make sure no one sees us.”
She had the answer to that. “I know a way.”
She walked towards the river. Merthin and Ralph followed. A small three-legged dog tagged along. “What’s your dog’s name?” Merthin asked Caris.
“He’s not mine,” she said. “But I gave him a piece of mouldy bacon, and now I can’t shake him off.”
They walked along the muddy bank of the river, past warehouses and wharves and barges. Merthin covertly studied this girl who had so effortlessly become the leader. She had a square, determined face, neither pretty nor ugly, and there was mischief in her eyes, which were a greenish colour with brown flecks. Her light-brown hair was done in two plaits, as was the fashion among affluent women. Her clothes were costly, but she wore practical leather boots rather than the embroidered fabric shoes preferred by noble ladies.
She turned away from the river and led them through a timber yard, and suddenly they were in scrubby woodland. Merthin felt a pang of unease. Now that he was in the forest, where there might be an outlaw lurking behind any oak tree, he regretted his bravado; but he would be ashamed to back out.
They walked on, looking for a clearing big enough for archery. Suddenly Caris spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “You see that big holly bush?”
“As soon as we’re past it, crouch down with me and keep silent.”
A moment later Merthin, Ralph and Caris squatted behind the bush. The three-legged dog sat with them and looked hopefully at Caris. Ralph began to ask a question, but Caris hushed him.
A minute later a little girl came by. Caris jumped out and grabbed her. The girl screamed.
“Be quiet!” Caris said. “We’re not far from the road, and we don’t want to be heard. Why are you following us?”
“You’ve got my dog, and he won’t come back!” the child sobbed.
“I know you, I met you in church this morning,” Caris said to her in a softer voice. “All right, there’s nothing to cry about, we aren’t going to do you any harm. What’s your name?”
“And the dog?”
“Hop.” Gwenda picked up the dog, and he licked her tears.
“Well, you’ve got him now. You’d better come with us, in case he runs off again. Besides, you might not be able to find your way back to town on your own.”
They went on. Merthin said: “What has eight arms and eleven legs?”
“I give up,” Ralph said immediately. He always did.
“I know,” said Caris with a grin. “It’s us. Four children and the dog.” She laughed. “That’s good.”
Merthin was pleased. People did not always get his jokes; girls almost never did. A moment later he heard Gwenda explaining it to Ralph: “Two arms, and two arms, and two arms, and two arms makes eight,” she said. “Two legs…”
They saw no one, which was good. The small number of people who had legitimate business in the forest – woodcutters, charcoal burners, iron smelters – would not be working today, and it would be unusual to see an aristocratic hunting party on a Sunday. Anyone they met was likely to be an outlaw. But the chances were slim. It was a big forest, stretching for many miles. Merthin had never travelled far enough to see the end of it.
They came to a wide clearing and Merthin said: “This will do.”
There was an oak tree with a broad trunk on the far edge, about fifty feet away. Merthin stood side-on to the target, as he had seen the men do. He took out one of his three arrows and fitted the notched end to the bowstring. The arrows had been as difficult to make as the bow. The wood was ash, and they had goose-feather flights. He had not been able to get iron for the points, so he had simply sharpened the ends then scorched the wood to harden it. He sighted on the tree, then pulled back on the bowstring. It took a great effort. He released the arrow.
It fell to the ground well short of the target. Hop the dog scampered across the clearing to fetch it.
Merthin was taken aback. He had expected the arrow to go winging through the air and embed its point in the tree. He realized that he had not bent the bow sufficiently.
He tried the bow in his right hand and the arrow in his left. He was unusual in this respect, that he was neither right-handed nor left-handed, but a mixture. With the second arrow, he pulled on the bowstring and pushed the bow with all his might, and succeeded in bending them farther than before. This time, the arrow almost reached the tree.
For his third shot he aimed the bow upwards, hoping the arrow would fly through the air in an arc and come down into the trunk. But he overcompensated, and the arrow went into the branches, and fell to the ground amid a flurry of dry brown leaves.
Merthin was embarrassed. Archery was more difficult than he had imagined. The bow was probably all right, he guessed: the problem was his own proficiency, or lack of it.
Once again, Caris seemed not to notice his discomfiture. “Let me have a go,” she said.
“Girls can’t shoot,” Ralph said, and he snatched the bow from Merthin. Standing sideways-on to the target, as Merthin had, he did not shoot straight away, but flexed the bow several times, getting the feel of it. Like Merthin, he found it harder than he had at first expected, but after a few moments he seemed to get the hang of it.
Hop had dropped all three arrows at Gwenda’s feet, and now the little girl picked them up and handed them to Ralph.
He took aim without drawing the bow, sighting the arrow at the tree trunk, while there was no pressure on his arms. Merthin realized he should have done the same. Why did these things come so naturally to Ralph, who could never answer a riddle? Ralph drew the bow, not effortlessly but with a fluid motion, seeming to take the strain with his thighs. He released the arrow and it hit the trunk of the oak tree, sinking an inch or more into the soft outer wood. Ralph laughed triumphantly.
Hop scampered after the arrow. When he reached the tree he stopped, baffled.
Ralph was drawing the bow again. Merthin realized what he was intending to do. “Don’t-” he said, but he was a moment too late. Ralph shot at the dog. The arrow hit the back of its neck and sunk in. Hop fell forward and lay twitching.
Gwenda screamed. Caris said: “Oh, no!” The two girls ran to the dog.
Ralph was grinning. “What about that?” he said proudly.
“You shot her dog!” Merthin said angrily.
“Doesn’t matter – it only had three legs.”
“The little girl was fond of it, you idiot. Look at her crying.”
“You’re just jealous because you can’t shoot.” Something caught Ralph’s eye. With a smooth movement he notched another arrow, swept the bow round in an arc and fired while it was still moving. Merthin did not see what he was shooting at until the arrow met its target, and a fat hare jumped into the air with the shaft sticking deep into its hindquarters.
Merthin could not hide his admiration. Even with practice, not everyone could hit a running hare. Ralph had a natural gift. Merthin was jealous, although he would never admit it. He longed to be a knight, bold and strong, and fight for the king as his father did; and it dismayed him when he turned out to be hopeless at things such as archery.
Ralph found a stone and crushed the hare’s skull, putting it out of its misery.
Merthin knelt beside the two girls and Hop. The dog was not breathing. Caris gently drew the arrow out of its neck and handed it to Merthin. There was no gush of blood: Hop was dead.
For a moment no one spoke. In the silence, they heard a man shout.
Merthin sprang to his feet, heart thudding. He heard another shout, a different voice: there was more than one person. Both sounded aggressive and angry. Some kind of fight was going on. He was terrified, and so were the others. As they stood frozen, listening, they heard another sound, the noise made by a man running headlong through woodland, snapping fallen branches, flattening saplings, trampling dead leaves.
He was coming their way.
Caris spoke first. “The bush,” she said, pointing to a big cluster of evergreen shrubs – probably the home of the hare Ralph had shot, Merthin thought. A moment later she was flat on her belly, crawling into the thicket. Gwenda followed, cradling the body of Hop. Ralph picked up the dead hare and joined them. Merthin was on his knees when he realized that they had left a tell-tale arrow sticking out of the tree trunk. He dashed across the clearing, pulled it out, ran back and dived under the bush.
They heard the man breathing before they saw him. He was panting hard as he ran, drawing in ragged lungfuls of air in a way that suggested he was almost done in. The shouts were coming from his pursuers, calling to each other: “This way – over here!” Merthin recalled that Caris had said they were not far from the road. Was the fleeing man a traveller who had been set upon by thieves?
A moment later he burst into the clearing.
He was a knight in his early twenties, with both a sword and a long dagger attached to his belt. He was well dressed, in a leather travelling tunic and high boots with turned-over tops. He stumbled and fell, rolled over, got up, then stood with his back to the oak tree, gasping for breath, and drew his weapons.
Merthin glanced at his playmates. Caris was white with fear, biting her lip. Gwenda was hugging the corpse of her dog as if that made her feel safer. Ralph looked scared, too, but he was not too frightened to pull the arrow out of the hare’s rump and stuff the dead animal down the front of his tunic.
For a moment the knight seemed to stare at the bush, and Merthin felt, with terror, that he must have seen the hiding children. Or perhaps he had noticed broken branches and crushed leaves where they had pushed through the foliage. Out of the corner of his eye, Merthin saw Ralph notch an arrow to the bow.
Then the pursuers arrived. They were two men-at-arms, strongly built and thuggish-looking, carrying drawn swords. They wore distinctive two-coloured tunics, the left side yellow and the right green. One had a surcoat of cheap brown wool, the other a grubby black cloak. All three men paused, catching their breath. Merthin was sure he was about to see the knight hacked to death, and he suffered a shameful impulse to burst into tears. Then, suddenly, the knight reversed his sword and offered it, hilt first, in a gesture of surrender.
The older man-at-arms, in the black cloak, stepped forward and reached out with his left hand. Warily, he took the proffered sword, handed it to his partner, then accepted the knight’s dagger. Then he said: “It’s not your weapons I want, Thomas Langley.”
“You know me, but I don’t know you,” said Thomas. If he was feeling any fear, he had it well under control. “By your coats, you must be the queen’s men.”
The older man put the point of his sword to Thomas’s throat and pushed him up against the tree. “You’ve got a letter.”
“Instructions from the earl to the sheriff on the subject of taxes. You’re welcome to read it.” This was a joke. The men-at-arms were almost certainly unable to read. Thomas had a cool nerve, Merthin thought, to mock men who seemed ready to kill him.
The second man-at-arms reached under the sword of the first and grasped the wallet attached to Thomas’s belt. Impatiently, he cut the belt with his sword. He threw the belt aside and opened the wallet. He took out a smaller bag made of what appeared to be oiled wool, and drew from that a sheet of parchment, rolled into a scroll and sealed with wax.
Could this fight be about nothing more than a letter? Merthin wondered. If so, what was written on the scroll? It was not likely to be routine instructions about taxes. Some terrible secret must be inscribed there.
“If you kill me,” the knight said, “the murder will be witnessed by whoever is hiding in that bush.”
The tableau froze for a split second. The man in the black cloak kept his sword point pressed to Thomas’s throat and resisted the temptation to look over his shoulder. The one in green hesitated, then looked at the bush.
At that point, Gwenda screamed.
The man in the green surcoat raised his sword and took two long strides across the clearing to the bush. Gwenda stood up and ran, bursting out of the foliage. The man-at-arms leaped after her, reaching out to grab her.
Ralph stood up suddenly, raised the bow and drew it in one fluid motion, and shot an arrow at the man. It went through his eye and sank several inches into his head. His left hand came up, as if to grasp the arrow and pull it out; then he went limp and fell like a dropped sack of grain, hitting the ground with a thump Merthin could feel.
Ralph ran out of the bush and followed Gwenda. At the edge of his vision Merthin perceived Caris going after them. Merthin wanted to flee too, but his feet seemed stuck to the ground.
There was a shout from the other side of the clearing, and Merthin saw that Thomas had knocked aside the sword that threatened him and had drawn, from somewhere about his person, a small knife with a blade as long as a man’s hand. But the man-at-arms in the black cloak was alert, and jumped back out of reach. Then he raised his sword and swung at the knight’s head.
Thomas dodged aside, but not fast enough. The edge of the blade came down on his left forearm, slicing through the leather jerkin and sinking into his flesh. He roared with pain, but did not fall. With a quick motion that seemed extraordinarily graceful, he swung his right hand up and thrust the knife into his opponent’s throat; then, his hand continuing in an arc, he pulled the knife sideways, severing most of the neck.
Blood came like a fountain from the man’s throat. Thomas staggered back, dodging the splash. The man in black fell to the ground, his head hanging from his body by a strip.
Thomas dropped the knife from his right hand and clutched his wounded left arm. He sat on the ground, suddenly looking weak.
Merthin was alone with the wounded knight, two dead men-at-arms, and the corpse of a three-legged dog. He knew he should run after the other children, but his curiosity kept him there. Thomas now seemed harmless, he told himself.
The knight had sharp eyes. “You can come out,” he called. “I’m no danger to you in this state.”
Hesitantly, Merthin got to his feet and pushed his way out of the bush. He crossed the clearing and stopped several feet away from the sitting knight.
Thomas said: “If they find out you’ve been playing in the forest, you’ll be flogged.”
“I’ll keep your secret, if you’ll keep mine.”
Merthin nodded again. In agreeing to the bargain, he was making no concessions. None of the children would tell what they had seen. There would be untold trouble if they did. What would happen to Ralph, who had killed one of the queen’s men?
“Would you be kind enough to help me bind up this wound?” said Thomas. Despite all that had happened, he spoke courteously, Merthin observed. The knight’s poise was remarkable. Merthin felt he wanted to be like that when he was grown up.
At last Merthin’s constricted throat managed to produce a word. “Yes.”
“Pick up that broken belt, then, and wrap it around my arm, if you would.”
Merthin did as he was told. Thomas’s undershirt was soaked with blood, and the flesh of his arm was sliced open like something on a butcher’s slab. Merthin felt a little nauseated, but he forced himself to twist the belt around Thomas’s arm so that it pulled the wound closed and slowed the bleeding. He made a knot, and Thomas used his right hand to pull it tight.
Then Thomas struggled to his feet.
He looked at the dead men. “We can’t bury them,” he said. “I’d bleed to death before the graves were dug.” Glancing at Merthin, he added: “Even with you helping me.” He thought for a moment. “On the other hand, I don’t want them to be discovered by some courting couple looking for a place to… be alone. Let’s lug the guts into that bush where you were hiding. Green coat first.”
They approached the body.
“One leg each,” said Thomas. With his right hand he grasped the dead man’s left ankle. Merthin took the other limp foot in both hands and heaved. Together they hauled the corpse into the shrubbery, next to Hop.
“That will do,” said Thomas. His face was white with pain. After a moment, he bent down and pulled the arrow out of the corpse’s eye. “Yours?” he said with a raised eyebrow.
Merthin took the arrow and wiped it on the ground to get rid of some of the blood and brains adhering to the shaft.
In the same way they dragged the second body across the clearing, its loosely attached head trailing behind, and left it beside the first.
Thomas picked up the two men’s dropped swords and threw them into the bush with the bodies. Then he found his own weapons.
“Now,” said Thomas, “I have a great favour to ask.” He proffered his dagger. “Would you dig me a small hole?”
“All right.” Merthin took the dagger.
“Just here, right in front of the oak tree.”
Thomas picked up the leather wallet that had been attached to his belt. “Big enough to hide this for fifty years.”
Screwing up his courage, Merthin said: “Why?”
“Dig, and I’ll tell you as much of it as I can.”
Merthin scratched a square on the ground and began to loosen the cold earth with the dagger, then scoop it up with his hands.
Thomas picked up the scroll and put it into the wool bag, then fastened the bag inside the wallet. “I was given this letter to deliver to the earl of Shiring,” he said. “But it contains a secret so dangerous that I realized the bearer is sure to be killed, to make certain he can never speak of it. So I needed to disappear. I decided I would take sanctuary in a monastery, become a monk. I’ve had enough of fighting, and I’ve a lot of sins to repent. As soon as I went missing, the people who gave me the letter started to search for me – and I was unlucky. I was spotted in a tavern in Bristol.”
“Why did the queen’s men come after you?”
“She, too, would like to prevent the spread of this secret.”
When Merthin’s hole was eighteen inches deep, Thomas said: “That will do.” He dropped the wallet inside.
Merthin shovelled the earth back into the hole on top of the wallet, and Thomas covered the freshly turned earth with leaves and twigs until it was indistinguishable from the ground around it.
“If you hear that I’ve died,” said Thomas, “I’d like you to dig up this letter and give it to a priest. Would you do that for me?”
“Until that happens, you must tell no one. While they know I’ve got the letter, but they don’t know where it is, they’ll be afraid to do anything. But if you tell the secret, two things will happen. First, they will kill me. Then they will kill you.”
Merthin was aghast. It seemed unfair that he should be in so much danger just because he helped a man by digging a hole.
“I’m sorry to scare you,” said Thomas. “But, then, it’s not entirely my fault. After all, I didn’t ask you to come here.”
“No.” Merthin wished with all his heart that he had obeyed his mother’s orders and stayed out of the forest.
“I’m going to return to the road. Why don’t you go back the way you came? I bet you’ll find your friends waiting somewhere not far from here.”
Merthin turned to go.
“What’s your name?” the knight called after him.
“Merthin, son of Sir Gerald.”
“Really?” Thomas said, as if he knew Father. “Well, not a word, even to him.”
Merthin nodded and left.
When he had gone fifty yards he vomited. After that he felt slightly better.
As Thomas had predicted, the others were waiting for him, right at the edge of the wood, near the timber yard. They crowded around him, touching him as if to make sure he was all right, looking relieved yet ashamed, as if they were guilty about having left him. They were all shaken, even Ralph. “That man,” he said. “The one I shot. Was he badly hurt?”
“He’s dead,” Merthin said. He showed Ralph the arrow, still stained with blood.
“Did you pull it out of his eye?”
Merthin would have liked to say he had, but he decided to tell the truth. “The knight pulled it out.”
“What happened to the other man-at-arms?”
“The knight cut his throat. Then we hid the bodies in the bush.”
“And he just let you go?”
“Yes.” Merthin said nothing about the buried letter.
“We have to keep this secret,” Caris urged. “There will be terrible trouble if anyone finds out.”
Ralph said: “I’ll never tell.”
“We should swear an oath,” Caris said.
They stood in a little ring. Caris stuck out her arm so that her hand was in the centre of the circle. Merthin placed his hand over hers. Her skin was soft and warm. Ralph added his hand, then Gwenda did the same, and they swore by the blood of Jesus.
Then they walked back into the town.
Archery practice was over, and it was time for the midday meal. As they crossed the bridge, Merthin said to Ralph: “When I grow up, I want to be like that knight – always courteous, never frightened, deadly in a fight.”
“Me, too,” said Ralph. “Deadly.”
In the old city, Merthin felt an irrational sense of surprise that normal life was going on all around: the sound of babies crying, the smell of roasting meat, the sight of men drinking ale outside taverns.
Caris stopped outside a big house on the main street, just opposite the entrance to the priory precincts. She put an arm around Gwenda’s shoulders and said: “My dog at home has had puppies. Do you want to see them?”
Gwenda still looked frightened and close to tears, but she nodded emphatically. “Yes, please.”
That was clever as well as kind, Merthin thought. The puppies would be a comfort to the little girl – and a distraction, too. When she returned to her family, she would talk about the puppies and be less likely to speak of going into the forest.
They said goodbye, and the girls went into the house. Merthin found himself wondering when he would see Caris again.
Then his other troubles came back to him. What was his father going to do about his debts? Merthin and Ralph turned into the cathedral close, Ralph still carrying the bow and the dead hare. The place was quiet.
The guest house was empty but for a few sick people. A nun said to them: “Your father is in the church, with the earl of Shiring.”
They went into the great cathedral. Their parents were in the vestibule. Mother was sitting at the foot of a pillar, on the outjutting corner where the round column met the square base. In the cold light that came through the tall windows, her face was still and serene, almost as if she were carved of the same grey stone as the pillar against which she leaned her head. Father stood beside her, his broad shoulders slumped in an attitude of resignation. Earl Roland faced them. He was older than Father, but with his black hair and vigorous manner he seemed more youthful. Prior Anthony stood beside the earl.
The two boys hung back at the door, but Mother beckoned them. “Come here,” she said. “Earl Roland has helped us come to an arrangement with Prior Anthony that solves all our problems.”
Father grunted, as if he was not as grateful as she for what the earl had done. “And the priory gets my lands,” he said. “There’ll be nothing for you two to inherit.”
“We’re going to live here, in Kingsbridge,” Mother went on brightly. “We’ll be corrodiaries of the priory.”
Merthin said: “What’s a corrodiary?”
“It means the monks will provide us with a house to live in and two meals a day, for the rest of our lives. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Merthin could tell that she did not really think it was wonderful. She was pretending to be pleased. Father was clearly ashamed to have lost his lands. There was more than a hint of disgrace in this, Merthin realized.
Father addressed the earl. “What about my boys?”
Earl Roland turned and looked at them. “The big one looks promising,” he said. “Did you kill that hare, lad?”
“Yes, lord,” Ralph said proudly. “Shot it with an arrow.”
“He can come to me as a squire in a few years’ time,” the earl said briskly. “We’ll teach him to be a knight.”
Father looked pleased.
Merthin felt bewildered. Big decisions were being made too quickly. He was outraged that his younger brother should be so favoured while no mention was made of himself. “That’s not fair!” he burst out. “I want to be a knight, too!”
His mother said: “No!”
“But I made the bow!”
Father gave a sigh of exasperation and looked disgusted.
“You made the bow, did you, little one?” the earl said, and his face showed disdain. “In that case, you shall be apprenticed to a carpenter.”
Caris’s home was a luxurious wood-frame building with stone floors and a stone chimney. There were three separate rooms on the ground floor: the hall with the big dining table, the small parlour where Papa could discuss business privately, and the kitchen at the back. When Caris and Gwenda walked in, the house was full of the mouth-watering smell of a ham boiling.
Caris led Gwenda through the hall and up the internal staircase.
“Where are the puppies?” said Gwenda.
“I want to see my mother first,” Caris replied. “She’s ill.”
They went into the front bedroom, where Mama lay on the carved wooden bedstead. She was small and frail: Caris was already the same height. Mama looked paler than usual, and her hair was not yet dressed, so it stuck to her damp cheeks. “How are you feeling?” Caris said.
“A little weak, today.” The effort of speaking made Mama breathless.
Caris felt a familiar, painful jumble of anxiety and helplessness. Her mother had been ill for a year. It had started with pains in her joints. Soon she had ulcers inside her mouth and unaccountable bruises on her body. She had felt too weak to do anything. Last week she had caught a cold. Now she was running a fever, and had trouble in catching her breath.
“Is there anything you need?” Caris asked.
“No, thank you.”
It was the usual answer, but Caris felt maddened by powerlessness each time she heard it. “Should I fetch Mother Cecilia?” The prioress of Kingsbridge was the only person able to bring Mama some comfort. She had an extract of poppies that she mixed with honey and warm wine that eased the pain for a while. Caris regarded Cecilia as better than an angel.
“No need, dear,” Mama said. “How was the All Hallows service?”
Caris noticed how pale her mother’s lips were. “Scary,” she said.
Mama paused, resting, then said: “What have you been doing this morning?”
“Watching the archery.” Caris held her breath, frightened that Mama might guess her guilty secret, as she often did.
But Mama looked at Gwenda. “Who is your little friend?”
“Gwenda. I’ve brought her to see the puppies.”
“That’s lovely.” Mama suddenly looked tired. She closed her eyes and turned her head aside.
The girls crept out quietly.
Gwenda was looking shocked. “What’s wrong with her?”
“A wasting disease.” Caris hated to talk about it. Her mother’s illness gave her the unnerving feeling that nothing was certain, anything could happen, there was no safety in the world. It was even more frightening than the fight they had witnessed in the forest. If she thought about what might happen, and the possibility that her mother might die, she suffered a panicky fluttering sensation in her chest that made her want to scream.
The middle bedroom was used in summer by the Italians, wool buyers from Florence and Prato who came to do business with Papa. Now it was empty. The puppies were in the back bedroom, which belonged to Caris and her sister, Alice. They were seven weeks old, ready to leave their mother, who was growing impatient with them. Gwenda gave a sigh of joy and immediately got down on the floor with them.
Caris picked up the smallest of the litter, a lively female, always going off on her own to explore the world. “This is the one I’m going to keep,” she said. “She’s called Scrap.” Holding the little dog soothed her, and helped her forget about the things that troubled her.
The other four clambered all over Gwenda, sniffing her and chewing her dress. She picked up an ugly brown dog with a long muzzle and eyes set too close together. “I like this one,” she said. The puppy curled up in her lap.
Caris said: “Would you like to keep him?”
Tears came to Gwenda’s eyes. “Could I?”
“We’re allowed to give them away.”
“Papa doesn’t want any more dogs. If you like him, you can have him.”
“Oh, yes,” Gwenda said in a whisper. “Yes, please.”
“What will you name him?”
“Something that reminds me of Hop. Perhaps I’ll call him Skip.”
“That’s a good name.” Skip had already gone to sleep in Gwenda’s lap, Caris saw.
The two girls sat quietly with the dogs. Caris thought about the boys they had met, the little red-haired one with the golden-brown eyes and his tall, handsome younger brother. What had made her take them into the forest? It was not the first time she had yielded to a stupid impulse. It tended to happen when someone in authority ordered her not to do something. Her Aunt Petranilla was a great rule-maker. “Don’t feed that cat, we’ll never get rid of it. No ball games in the house. Stay away from that boy, his family are peasants.” Rules that constrained her behaviour seemed to drive Caris crazy.
But she had never done something this foolish. She felt shaky when she thought of it. Two men had died. But what might have happened was worse. The four children might have been killed too.
She wondered what the fight had been about, and why the men-at-arms had been chasing the knight. Obviously it was not a simple robbery. They had spoken about a letter. But Merthin had said no more about that. Probably he had learned nothing further. It was just another of the mysteries of adult life.
Caris had liked Merthin. His boring brother, Ralph, was just like every other boy in Kingsbridge, boastful and aggressive and stupid, but Merthin seemed different. He had intrigued her right from the start.
Two new friends in one day, she thought, looking at Gwenda. The little girl was not pretty. She had dark brown eyes set close together above a beaky nose. She had picked a dog that looked a bit like her, Caris realized with amusement. Gwenda’s clothes were old, and must have been worn by many children before her. Gwenda was calmer now. She no longer looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment. She, too, had been soothed by the puppies.
There was a familiar lopsided tread in the hall below, and a moment later a voice bellowed: “Bring me a flagon of ale, for the love of the saints, I’ve got a thirst like a carthorse.”
“It’s my father,” Caris said. “Come and meet him.” Seeing that Gwenda looked anxious, she added: “Don’t worry, he always shouts like that, but he’s really nice.”
The girls went downstairs with their puppies. “What’s happened to all my servants?” Papa roared. “Have they run away to join the fairy folk?” He came stomping out of the kitchen, trailing his twisted right leg as always, carrying a big wooden cup slopping over with ale. “Hello, my little buttercup,” he said to Caris in a softer voice. He sat on the big chair at the head of the table and took a long draft from the cup. “That’s better,” he said, wiping his straggly beard with his sleeve. He noticed Gwenda. “A little daisy to go with my buttercup?” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Gwenda, from Wigleigh, my lord,” she said, awestruck.
“I gave her a puppy,” Caris explained.
“That’s a good idea!” Papa said. “Puppies need affection, and no one can love a puppy the way a little girl does.”
On the stool beside the table Caris saw a cloak of scarlet cloth. It had to be imported, for English dyers did not know how to achieve such a bright red. Following her eye, Papa said: “It’s for your mother. She’s always wanted a coat of Italian red. I’m hoping it will encourage her to get well enough to wear it.”
Caris touched it. The wool was soft and close-woven, as only the Italians could make it. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
Aunt Petranilla entered from the street. She bore some resemblance to Papa, but was purse-mouthed where he was hearty. She was more like her other brother Anthony, the prior of Kingsbridge: they were both tall, imposing figures, whereas Papa was short, barrel-chested and lame.
Caris disliked Petranilla. She was clever as well as mean, a deadly combination in an adult: Caris was never able to outwit her. Gwenda sensed Caris’s dislike, and looked apprehensively at the newcomer. Only Papa was pleased to see her. “Come in, sister,” he said. “Where are all my servants?”
“I can’t think why you imagine I should know that, having just come from my own house at the other end of the street, but if I had to guess, Edmund, I should say that your cook is in the henhouse, hoping to find an egg to make you a pudding, and your maid is upstairs, helping your wife to a close-stool, which she generally requires about midday. As for your apprentices, I hope they are both on guard duty at the warehouse by the riverside, making sure that no holiday revellers take it into their drunken heads to light a bonfire within a spark’s fly of your wool store.”
She often spoke like this, giving a little sermon in answer to a simple question. Her manner was supercilious, as always, but Papa did not mind, or pretended not to. “My remarkable sister,” he said. “You’re the one who inherited our father’s wisdom.”
Petranilla turned to the girls. “Our father was descended from Tom Builder, the stepfather and mentor of Jack Builder, architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral,” she said. “Father vowed to give his firstborn to God but, unfortunately, his firstborn was a girl – me. He named me after St Petranilla – who was the daughter of St Peter, as I’m sure you know – and he prayed for a boy next time. But his first son was born deformed, and he did not want to give God a flawed gift, so he brought Edmund up to take over the wool business. Happily, his third child was our brother Anthony, a well-behaved and God-fearing child, who entered the monastery as a boy and is now, we are all proud to say, the prior.”
She would have become a priest, had she been a man, but as it was she had done the next best thing and brought up her son, Godwyn, to be a monk at the priory. Like Grandfather Wooler, she had given a child to God. Caris had always felt sorry for Godwyn, her older cousin, for having Petranilla as a mother.
Petranilla noticed the red coat. “Whose is this?” she said. “It’s the most expensive Italian cloth!”
“I bought it for Rose,” said Papa.
Petranilla stared at him for a moment. Caris could tell she thought he was a fool to buy such a coat for a woman who had not left the house for a year. But all she said was: “You’re very good to her,” which might have been a compliment or not.
Father did not care. “Go up and see her,” he urged. “You’ll cheer her up.”
Caris doubted that, but Petranilla suffered no such misgivings, and she went up the stairs.
Caris’s sister, Alice, came in from the street. She was eleven, a year older than Caris. She stared at Gwenda and said: “Who’s she?”
“My new friend Gwenda,” said Caris. “She’s going to take a puppy.”
“But she’s got the one I wanted!” Alice protested.
She had not said that before. “Ooh – you never picked one!” Caris said, outraged. “You’re just saying that to be mean.”
“Why should she have one of our puppies?”
Papa intervened. “Now, now,” he said. “We’ve got more puppies than we need.”
“Caris should have asked me which one I wanted first!”
“Yes, she should,” Papa said, even though he knew perfectly well that Alice was only making trouble. “Don’t do it again, Caris.”
The cook came in from the kitchen with jugs and cups. When Caris was learning to talk she had called the cook Tutty, no one knew why, but the name had stuck. Papa said: “Thank you, Tutty. Sit at the table, girls.” Gwenda hesitated, not sure if she was invited, but Caris nodded at her, knowing that Papa intended her to be included – he generally asked everyone within his range of vision to come to dinner.
Tutty refilled Papa’s cup with ale, then gave Alice, Caris and Gwenda ale mixed with water. Gwenda drank all of hers immediately, with relish, and Caris guessed she did not often get ale: poor people drank cider made from crab apples.
Next, the cook put in front of each of them a thick slice of rye bread a foot square. Gwenda picked hers up to eat it, and Caris realized she had never dined at a table before. “Wait,” she said quietly, and Gwenda put the bread down again. Tutty brought in the ham on a board and a dish of cabbage. Papa took a big knife and cut slices off the ham, piling it on their bread trenchers. Gwenda stared big-eyed at the quantity of meat she was given. Caris spooned cabbage leaves on top of the ham.
The chambermaid, Elaine, came hurrying down the stairs. “The mistress seems worse,” she said. “Mistress Petranilla says we should send for Mother Cecilia.”
“Then run to the priory and beg her to come,” Papa said.
The maid hurried off.
“Eat up, children,” said Papa, and he speared a slice of hot ham with his knife; but Caris could see that the dinner now had no relish for him, and he seemed to be looking at something far away.
Gwenda ate some cabbage and whispered: “This is food from heaven.” Caris tried it. The cabbage was cooked with ginger. Gwenda had probably never tasted ginger: only rich people could afford it.
Petranilla came down, put some ham on a wooden platter, and took it up for Mama; but she came back a few moments later with the food untouched. She sat at the table to eat it herself, and the cook brought her a bread trencher. “When I was a girl, we were the only family in Kingsbridge who had meat for dinner every day,” she said. “Except on fast days – my father was very devout. He was the first wool merchant in town to deal directly with the Italians. Everyone does now – although my brother Edmund is still the most important.”
Caris had lost her appetite, and she had to chew for a long time before she could swallow. At last Mother Cecilia arrived, a small, vital woman with a reassuringly bossy manner. With her was Sister Juliana, a simple person with a warm heart. Caris felt better as she watched them climb the stairs, a chirpy sparrow with a hen waddling behind. They would wash Mama in rose water to cool her fever, and the fragrance would lift her spirits.
Tutty brought in apples and cheese. Papa peeled an apple absent-mindedly with his knife. Caris remembered how, when she was younger, he used to feed her peeled slices then eat the skin himself.
Sister Juliana came downstairs, a worried look on her podgy face. “The prioress wants Brother Joseph to come and see Mistress Rose,” she said. Joseph was the senior physician at the monastery: he had trained with the masters at Oxford. “I’ll just go and fetch him,” Juliana said, and she ran out through the door to the street.
Papa put his peeled apple down uneaten.
Caris said: “What is going to happen?”
“I don’t know, buttercup. Will it rain? How many sacks of wool do the Florentines need? Will the sheep catch a murrain? Is the baby a girl, or a boy with a twisted leg? We never know, do we? That’s…” He looked away. “That’s what makes it so hard.”
He gave her the apple. Caris gave it to Gwenda, who ate it entire, core and pips too.
Brother Joseph arrived a few minutes later with a young assistant whom Caris recognized as Saul Whitehead, so called because his hair – what little he had left after his monkish haircut – was ash-blond.
Cecilia and Juliana came downstairs, no doubt to make room for the two men in the small bedroom. Cecilia sat at the table, but did not eat. She had a small face with sharp features: a little pointed nose, bright eyes, a chin like the prow of a boat. She looked with curiosity at Gwenda. “Well, now,” she said brightly, “who is this little girl, and does she love Jesus and His Holy Mother?”
Gwenda said: “I’m Gwenda, I’m Caris’s friend.” She looked anxiously at Caris, as if she feared it might have been presumptuous of her to claim friendship.
Caris said: “Will the Virgin Mary make my mama better?”
Cecilia raised her eyebrows. “Such a direct question. I could have guessed you’re Edmund’s daughter.”
“Everyone prays to her, but not everyone gets well,” Caris said.
“And do you know why that is?”
“Perhaps she never helps anyone, and it’s just that the strong people get well and the weak don’t.”
“Now, now, don’t be silly,” said Papa. “Everyone knows the Holy Mother helps us.”
“That’s all right,” Cecilia told him. “It’s normal for children to ask questions – especially the bright ones. Caris, the saints are always powerful, but some prayers are more effective than others. Do you understand that?”
Caris nodded reluctantly, feeling not convinced so much as outwitted.
“She must come to our school,” Cecilia said. The nuns had a school for the daughters of the nobility and of the more prosperous townspeople. The monks ran a separate school for boys.
Papa looked stubborn. “Rose has taught both girls their letters,” he said. “And Caris knows her numbers as well as I do – she helps me in the business.”
“She should learn more than that. Surely you don’t want her to spend her life as your servant?”
Petranilla put in: “She has no need of book learning. She will marry extremely well. There will be crowds of suitors for both sisters. Sons of merchants, even sons of knights, will be eager to marry into this family. But Caris is a wilful child: we must take care she doesn’t throw herself away on some penniless minstrel boy.”
Caris noticed that Petranilla did not anticipate trouble with obedient Alice, who would probably marry whomever they picked for her.
Cecilia said: “God might call Caris to his service.”
Papa said grumpily: “God has already called two from this family – my brother and my nephew. I’d have thought He would be satisfied by now.”
Cecilia looked at Caris. “What do you think?” she said. “Will you be a wool merchant, a knight’s wife, or a nun?”
The idea of being a nun horrified Caris. She would have to obey someone else’s orders every hour of the day. It would be like remaining a child all your life, and having Petranilla for a mother. Being the wife of a knight, or of anyone else, seemed almost as bad, for women had to obey their husbands. Helping Papa, then perhaps taking over the business when he was too old, was the least unattractive option, but on the other hand it was not exactly her dream. “I don’t want to be any of those,” she said.
“Is there something you would like?” Cecilia asked.
There was, although Caris had not told anyone before, in fact had not fully realized it until now; but the ambition seemed fully formed, and suddenly she knew without doubt that it was her destiny. “I’m going to be a doctor,” she said.
There was a moment of silence, then they all laughed.
Caris flushed, not knowing what was so funny.
Papa took pity and said: “Only men can be doctors. Didn’t you know that, buttercup?”
Caris was bewildered. She turned to Cecilia. “But what about you?”
“I’m not a physician,” Cecilia said. “We nuns care for the sick, of course, but we follow the instructions of trained men. The monks who have studied under the masters understand the humours of the body, the way they go out of balance in sickness, and how to bring them back to their correct proportions for good health. They know which vein to bleed for migraine, leprosy or breathlessness; where to cup and cauterize; whether to poultice or bathe.”
“Couldn’t a woman learn those things?”
“Perhaps, but God has ordained it otherwise.”
Caris felt frustrated with the way adults trotted out this truism every time they were stuck for an answer. Before she could say anything, Brother Saul came downstairs with a bowl of blood, and went through the kitchen to the back yard to get rid of it. The sight made Caris feel weepy. All doctors used bloodletting as a cure, so it must be effective, she supposed; but all the same she hated to see her mother’s life force in a bowl to be thrown away.
Saul returned to the sick room, and a few moments later he and Joseph came down. “I’ve done what I can for her,” Joseph said solemnly to Papa. “And she has confessed her sins.”
Confessed her sins! Caris knew what that meant. She began to cry.
Papa took six silver pennies from his purse and gave them to the monk. “Thank you, brother,” he said. His voice was hoarse.
As the monks left, the two nuns went back upstairs.
Alice sat on Papa’s lap and buried her face in his neck. Caris cried and hugged Scrap. Petranilla ordered Tutty to clear the table. Gwenda watched everything with wide eyes. They sat around the table in silence, waiting.
Brother Godwyn was hungry. He had eaten his dinner, a stew of sliced turnips with salt fish, and it had not satisfied him. The monks nearly always had fish and weak ale for dinner, even when it was not a fast day.
Not all the monks, of course: Prior Anthony had a privileged diet. He would dine especially well today, for the prioress, Mother Cecilia, was to be his guest. She was accustomed to rich food. The nuns, who always seemed to have more money than the monks, killed a pig or a sheep every few days and washed it down with Gascon wine.
It was Godwyn’s job to supervise the dinner, a hard task when his own stomach was rumbling. He spoke to the monastery cook, and checked on the fat goose in the oven and the pot of apple sauce bubbling on the fire. He asked the cellarer for a jug of cider from the barrel, and got a loaf of rye bread from the bakery – stale, for there was no baking on Sunday. He took the silver platters and goblets from the locked chest and set them on the table of the hall in the prior’s house.
The prior and prioress dined together once a month. The monastery and the nunnery were separate institutions, with their own premises, and different sources of income. Prior and prioress were independently responsible to the bishop of Kingsbridge. Nevertheless they shared the great cathedral and several other buildings including the hospital, where monks worked as doctors and nuns as nurses. So there were always details to discuss: cathedral services, hospital guests and patients, town politics. Anthony often tried to get Cecilia to pay costs that should, strictly speaking, have been divided equally – glass windows for the chapter house, bedsteads for the hospital, the repainting of the cathedral’s interior – and she usually agreed.
Today, however, the talk was likely to centre on politics. Anthony had returned yesterday from two weeks in Gloucester, where he had assisted at the interment of King Edward II, who had lost his throne in January and his life in September. Mother Cecilia would want to hear the gossip, while pretending to be above it all.
Godwyn had something else on his mind. He wanted to talk to Anthony about his future. He had been anxiously awaiting the right moment ever since the prior returned home. He had rehearsed his speech, but had not yet found the opportunity to deliver it. He hoped to get a chance this afternoon.
Anthony entered the hall as Godwyn was putting a cheese and a bowl of pears on the sideboard. The prior looked like an older version of Godwyn. Both were tall, with regular features and light-brown hair, and like all the family they had greenish eyes with flecks of gold. Anthony stood by the fire – the room was cold and the old building let in freezing draughts. Godwyn poured him a cup of cider. “Father Prior, today is my birthday,” he said as Anthony drank. “I’m twenty-one.”
“So it is,” said Anthony. “I remember your birth very well. I was fourteen years old. My sister Petranilla screamed like a boar with an arrow in its guts as she brought you into the world.” He raised his goblet in a toast, looking fondly at Godwyn. “And now you’re a man.”
Godwyn decided that this was his moment. “I’ve been at the priory ten years,” he said.
“Is it that long?”
“Yes – as schoolboy, novice and monk.”
“I hope I’ve been a credit to my mother and to you.”
“We’re both very proud of you.”
“Thank you.” Godwyn swallowed. “And now I want to go to Oxford.”
The city of Oxford had long been a centre for masters of theology, medicine and law. Priests and monks went there to study and debate with teachers and other students. In the last century the masters had been incorporated into a company, or university, that had royal permission to set examinations and award degrees. Kingsbridge Priory maintained a branch or cell in the city, known as Kingsbridge College, where eight monks could carry on their lives of worship and self-denial while they studied.
“Oxford!” said Anthony, and an expression of anxiety and distaste came over his face. “Why?”
“To study. It’s what monks are supposed to do.”
“I never went to Oxford – and I’m prior.”
It was true, but Anthony was sometimes at a disadvantage with his senior colleagues in consequence. The sacrist, the treasurer and several other monastic officials, or obedientiaries, were graduates of the university, as were all the physicians. They were quick-thinking and skilled in argument, and Anthony sometimes appeared bumbling by comparison, especially in chapter, the daily meeting of all the monks. Godwyn longed to acquire the sharp logic and confident superiority he observed in the Oxford men. He did not want to be like his uncle.
But he could not say that. “I want to learn,” he said.
“Why learn heresy?” Anthony said scornfully. “Oxford students question the teachings of the church!”
“In order to understand them better.”
“Pointless and dangerous.”
Godwyn asked himself why Anthony was making this fuss. The prior had never appeared concerned about heresy before, and Godwyn was not in the least interested in challenging accepted doctrines. He frowned. “I thought you and my mother had ambitions for me,” he said. “Don’t you want me to advance, and become an obedientiary, and perhaps one day prior?”
“Eventually, yes. But you don’t have to leave Kingsbridge to achieve that.”
You don’t want me to advance too fast, in case I outstrip you; and you don’t want me to leave town, in case you lose control of me, Godwyn thought in a flash of insight. He wished he had anticipated this resistance to his plans. “I don’t want to study theology,” he said.
“Medicine. It’s such an important part of our work here.”
Anthony pursed his lips. Godwyn had seen the same disapproving expression on his mother’s face. “The monastery can’t afford to pay for you,” Anthony said. “Do you realize that just one book costs at least fourteen shillings?”
Godwyn was taken by surprise. Students could hire books by the page, he knew; but that was not the main point. “What about the students already there?” he said. “Who pays for them?”
“Two are supported by their families, and one by the nuns. The priory pays for the other three, but we can’t afford any more. In fact there are two places vacant in the college for lack of funds.”
Godwyn knew the priory was in financial difficulties. On the other hand, it had vast resources: thousands of acres of land; mills and fishponds and woodland; and the enormous income from Kingsbridge market. He could not believe his uncle was refusing him the money to go to Oxford. He felt betrayed. Anthony was his mentor as well as a relative. He had always favoured Godwyn over other young monks. But now he was trying to hold Godwyn back.
“Physicians bring money in to the priory,” he argued. “If you don’t train young men, eventually the old ones will die and the priory will be poorer.”
“God will provide.”
This infuriating platitude was always Anthony’s answer. For some years the priory’s income from the annual Fleece Fair had been declining. The townspeople had urged Anthony to invest in better facilities for the wool traders – tents, booths, latrines, even a wool exchange building – but he always refused, pleading poverty. And when his brother, Edmund, told him the fair would eventually decline to nothing, he said: “God will provide.”
Godwyn said: “Well, then, perhaps he will provide the money for me to go to Oxford.”
“Perhaps he will.”
Godwyn felt painfully disappointed. He had an urge to get away from his home town and breathe a different air. At Kingsbridge College he would be subject to the same monastic discipline, of course – but nevertheless he would be far from his uncle and his mother, and that prospect was alluring.
He was not yet ready to give up the argument. “My mother will be very disappointed if I don’t go.”
Anthony looked uneasy. He did not want to incur the wrath of his formidable sister. “Then let her pray for the money to be found.”
“I may be able to get it elsewhere,” Godwyn said, extemporizing.
“How would you do that?”
He cast about for an answer, and found inspiration. “I could do what you do, and ask Mother Cecilia.” It was possible. Cecilia made him nervous – she could be as intimidating as Petranilla – but she was more susceptible to his boyish charm. She might be persuaded to pay for a bright young monk’s education.
The suggestion took Anthony by surprise. Godwyn could see him trying to think of an objection. But he had been arguing as if money were the main consideration, and it was difficult now for him to shift his ground.
While Anthony hesitated, Cecilia came in.
She wore a heavy cloak of fine wool, her only indulgence – she hated to be cold. After greeting the prior, she turned to Godwyn. “Your Aunt Rose is gravely ill,” she said. Her voice was musically precise. “She may not last the night.”
“May God be with her.” Godwyn felt a pang of pity. In a family where everyone was a leader, Rose was the only follower. Her petals seemed the more fragile for being surrounded by brambles. “It’s not a shock,” he added. “But my cousins, Alice and Caris, will be sad.”
“Fortunately, they have your mother to console them.”
“Yes.” Consolation was not Petranilla’s strong point, Godwyn thought – she was better at stiffening your spine and preventing you from backsliding – but he did not correct the prioress. Instead he poured her a goblet of cider. “Is it a little chilly in here, Reverend Mother?”
“Freezing,” she said bluntly.
“I’ll build up the fire.”
Anthony said slyly: “My nephew Godwyn is being attentive because he wants you to pay for him to go to Oxford.”
Godwyn glared furiously at him. Godwyn would have planned a careful speech and chosen the best time to deliver it. Now Anthony had blurted out the request in the most charmless fashion.
Cecilia said: “I don’t think we can afford to finance two more.”
It was Anthony’s turn to be surprised. “Someone else has asked you for money to go to Oxford?”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t say,” Cecilia replied. “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”
“It’s of no consequence,” Anthony said huffily; then he recollected himself and added: “We are always grateful for your generosity.”
Godwyn put more wood on the fire then went out. The prior’s house was on the north side of the cathedral. The cloisters, and all the other priory buildings, were to the south of the church. Godwyn walked shivering across the cathedral green to the monastery kitchen.
He had thought Anthony might quibble about Oxford, saying he should wait until he was older, or until one of the existing students graduated – for Anthony was a quibbler by nature. But he was Anthony’s protege, and he had been confident that in the end his uncle would support him. Anthony’s flat opposition had left him feeling shocked.
He asked himself who else had petitioned the prioress for support. Of the twenty-six monks, six were around Godwyn’s age: it could be any one of them. In the kitchen the sub-cellarer, Theodoric, was helping the cook. Could he be the rival for Cecilia’s money? Godwyn watched him put the goose on a platter with a bowl of apple sauce. Theodoric had brains enough to study. He could be a contender.
Godwyn carried the dinner back to the prior’s house, feeling worried. If Cecilia decided to help Theodoric, he did not know what he would do. He had no fall-back plan.
He wanted to be prior of Kingsbridge one day. He felt sure he could do the job better than Anthony. And if he was a successful prior, he might rise higher: bishop, archbishop, or perhaps a royal official or counsellor. He had only a vague idea of what he would do with such power, but he felt strongly that he belonged in some elevated position in life. However, there were only two routes to such heights. One was aristocratic birth; the other, education. Godwyn came from a family of wool merchants: his only hope was the university. And for that, he was going to need Cecilia’s money.
He put the dinner on the table. Cecilia was saying: “But how did the king die?”
“He suffered a fall,” Anthony said.
Godwyn carved the goose. “May I give you some of the breast, Reverend Mother?”
“Yes, please. A fall?” she said sceptically. “You make the king sound like a doddering old man. He was forty-three!”
“It’s what his jailers say.” Having been deposed, the ex-king had been a prisoner at Berkeley Castle, a couple of days’ ride from Kingsbridge.
“Ah, yes, his jailers,” Cecilia said. “Mortimer’s men.” She disapproved of Roger Mortimer, the earl of March. Not only had he led the rebellion against Edward II, he had also seduced the king’s wife, Queen Isabella.
They began to eat. Godwyn wondered whether there would be any left over.
Anthony said to Cecilia: “You sound as if you suspect something sinister.”
“Of course not – but others do. There has been talk…”
“That he was murdered? I know. But I saw the corpse, naked. There were no marks of violence on the body.”
Godwyn knew he should not interrupt, but he could not resist. “Rumour says that when the king died his screams of agony were heard by everyone in the village of Berkeley.”
Anthony looked censorious. “When a king dies, there are always rumours.”
“This king did not merely die,” Cecilia said. “He was first deposed by Parliament – something that has never happened before.”
Anthony lowered his voice. “The reasons were powerful. There were sins of impurity.”
He was being enigmatic, but Godwyn knew what he meant. Edward had had ‘favourites’ – young men he seemed unnaturally fond of. The first, Peter Gaveston, had been given so much power and privilege that he aroused jealousy and resentment among the barons, and in the end he had been executed for treason. But then there had been others. It was no wonder, people said, that the queen took a lover.
“I cannot believe such a thing,” said Cecilia, who was a passionate royalist. “It may be true that outlaws in the forest give themselves up to such foul practices, but a man of royal blood could never sink so low. Is there any more of that goose?”
“Yes,” Godwyn said, concealing his disappointment. He cut the last of the meat from the bird and gave it to the prioress.
Anthony said: “At least there is now no challenge to the new king.” The son of Edward II and Queen Isabella had been crowned as King Edward III.
“He is fourteen years old, and he has been put on the throne by Mortimer,” said Cecilia. “Who will be the real ruler?”
“The nobles are glad to have stability.”
“Especially those of them who are Mortimer’s cronies.”
“Such as Earl Roland of Shiring, you mean?”
“He seemed ebullient today.”
“You’re not suggesting…”
“That he had something to do with the king’s ‘fall’? Certainly not.” The prioress ate the last of the meat. “Such an idea would be dangerous to speak of, even among friends.”
There was a tap at the door, and Saul Whitehead came in. He was the same age as Godwyn. Could he be the rival? He was intelligent and capable, and he had the great advantage of being a distant relation of the earl of Shiring; but Godwyn doubted whether he had the ambition to go to Oxford. He was devout and shy, the kind of man for whom humility was no virtue because it came naturally. But anything was possible.
“A knight has come into the hospital with a sword wound,” Saul said.
“Interesting,” said Anthony, “but hardly shocking enough to justify interrupting the prior and the prioress at dinner.”
Saul looked scared. “I beg your pardon, Father Prior,” he stammered. “But there is a disagreement about the treatment.”
Anthony sighed. “Well, the goose is all gone,” he said, and he got to his feet.
Cecilia went with him, and Godwyn and Saul followed. They entered the cathedral by the north transept and walked through the crossing, out by the south transept, across the cloisters and into the hospital. The wounded knight lay on the bed nearest the altar, as befitted his rank.
Prior Anthony uttered an involuntary grunt of surprise. For a moment he showed shock and fear. But he recovered his composure quickly, and made his face expressionless.
However, Cecilia missed nothing. “Do you know this man?” she asked Anthony.
“I believe I do. He is Sir Thomas Langley, one of the earl of Monmouth’s men.”
He was a handsome man in his twenties, broad-shouldered and long-legged. He was naked to the waist, showing a muscular torso criss-crossed with the scars of earlier fights. He looked pale and exhausted.
“He was attacked on the road,” Saul explained. “He managed to fight off his assailants, but then he had to drag himself a mile or more to the town. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
The knight’s left forearm was split from elbow to wrist, a clean cut obviously made by a sharp sword.
The monastery’s senior physician, Brother Joseph, stood beside the patient. Joseph was in his thirties, a small man with a big nose and bad teeth. He said: “The wound should be kept open and treated with an ointment to bring on a pus. That way, evil humours will be expelled and the wound will heal from the inside out.”
Anthony nodded. “So where is the disagreement?”
“Matthew Barber has another idea.”
Matthew was a barber-surgeon from the town. He had been standing back deferentially, but now he stepped forward, holding the leather case that contained his expensive, sharp knives. He was a small, thin man with bright blue eyes and a solemn expression.
Anthony did not acknowledge Matthew, but said to Joseph: “What’s he doing here?”
“The knight knows him and sent for him.”
Anthony spoke to Thomas. “If you want to be butchered, why did you come to the priory hospital?”
The ghost of a smile flickered across the knight’s white face, but he seemed too tired to reply.
Matthew spoke up with surprising confidence, apparently undeterred by Anthony’s scorn. “I’ve seen many wounds like this on the battlefield, Father Prior,” he said. “The best treatment is the simplest: wash the wound with warm wine, then stitch it closed and bandage it.” He was not as deferential as he looked.
Mother Cecilia interrupted. “I wonder if our two young monks have opinions on the question?” she asked.
Anthony looked impatient, but Godwyn realized what she was up to. This was a test. Perhaps Saul was the rival for her money.
The answer was easy, so Godwyn got in first. “Brother Joseph has studied the ancient masters,” he said. “He must know best. I don’t suppose Matthew can even read.”
“I can, Brother Godwyn,” Matthew protested. “And I have a book.”
Anthony laughed. The idea of a barber with a book was silly, like a horse with a hat. “What book?”
“The Canon of Avicenna, the great Islamic physician. Translated from Arabic into Latin. I have read it all, slowly.”
“And is your remedy proposed by Avicenna?”
Matthew persisted. “But I learned more about healing by travelling with armies and treating the wounded than I ever did from the book.”
Mother Cecilia said: “Saul, what’s your view?”
Godwyn expected Saul to give the same answer, so that the contest would be indecisive. But, although he looked nervous and shy, Saul contradicted Godwyn. “The barber may be right,” he said. Godwyn was delighted. Saul went on arguing for the wrong side. “The treatment proposed by Brother Joseph might be more suitable for crushing or hammering injuries, such as we get on building sites, where the skin and flesh all around the cut is damaged, and to close the wound prematurely might seal evil humours inside the body. This is a clean cut, and the sooner it is closed the faster it will heal.”
“Nonsense,” said Prior Anthony. “How could a town barber be right and an educated monk be wrong?”
Godwyn smothered a triumphant grin.
The door flew open, and a young man in the robes of a priest strode in. Godwyn recognized Richard of Shiring, the younger of the two sons of Earl Roland. His nod to the prior and prioress was so perfunctory as to be impolite. He went straight to the bedside and spoke to the knight. “What the devil has happened?” he said.
Thomas lifted a weak hand and beckoned Richard closer. The young priest leaned over the patient. Thomas whispered in his ear.
Father Richard drew away as if shocked. “Absolutely not!” he said.
Thomas beckoned again, and the process was repeated: another whisper, another outraged reaction. This time, Richard said: “But why?”
Thomas did not reply.
Richard said: “You are asking for something that is not in our power to give.”
Thomas nodded firmly, as if to say: Yes, it is.
“You’re giving us no choice.”
Thomas shook his head weakly from side to side.
Richard turned to Prior Anthony. “Sir Thomas wishes to become a monk here at the priory.”
There was a moment of surprised silence. Cecilia was the first to react. “But he’s a man of violence!”
“Come on, it’s not unknown,” Richard said impatiently. “A fighting man sometimes decides to abandon his life of warfare and seek forgiveness for his sins.”
“In old age, perhaps,” Cecilia said. “This man is not yet twenty-five. He’s fleeing some danger.” She looked hard at Richard. “Who threatens his life?”
“Curb your curiosity,” Richard said rudely. “He wants to be a monk, not a nun, so you need not inquire further.” It was a shocking way to talk to a prioress, but the sons of earls could get away with such rudeness. He turned to Anthony. “You must admit him.”
Anthony said: “The priory is too poor to take on any more monks – unless there were to be a gift that would pay the costs…”
“It will be arranged.”
“It would have to be adequate to the need-”
“It will be arranged!”
Cecilia was suspicious. She said to Anthony: “Do you know more about this man than you’re telling me?”
“I see no reason to turn him away.”
“What makes you think he’s a genuine penitent?”
Everyone looked at Thomas. His eyes had closed.
Anthony said: “He will have to prove his sincerity during his novitiate, like anyone else.”
She was clearly dissatisfied, but for once Anthony was not asking her for the money, so there was nothing she could do. “We’d better get on with treating this wound,” she said.
Saul said: “He refused Brother Joseph’s treatment. That’s why we had to fetch the Father Prior.”
Anthony leaned over the patient. In a loud voice, as if speaking to someone deaf, he said: “You must have the treatment prescribed by Brother Joseph. He knows best.”
Thomas appeared unconscious.
Anthony turned to Joseph. “He is no longer objecting.”
Matthew Barber said: “He could lose his arm!”
“You’d better leave,” Anthony told him.
Looking angry, Matthew went out.
Anthony said to Richard: “Perhaps you would come to the prior’s house for a cup of cider.”
As they left, Anthony said to Godwyn: “Stay here and help the Mother Prioress. Come to me before Vespers and tell me how the knight is recovering.”
Prior Anthony did not normally worry about the progress of individual patients. Clearly he had a special interest in this one.
Godwyn watched as Brother Joseph applied ointment to the arm of the now-unconscious knight. He thought he had probably ensured Cecilia’s financial support by giving the correct answer to the question, but he was keen to get her explicit agreement. When Brother Joseph had done, and Ceciha was bathing Thomas’s forehead with rose water, he said: “I hope you will consider my request favourably.”
She gave him a sharp look. “I might as well tell you now that I have decided to give the money to Saul.”
Godwyn was shocked. “But I gave the right answer!”
“Surely you didn’t agree with the barber?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I won’t be interrogated by you, Brother Godwyn.”
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “I just don’t understand it.”
If she was going to be enigmatic there was no point in talking to her. Godwyn turned away, shaking with frustration and disappointment. She was giving the money to Saul! Was it because he was related to the earl? Godwyn thought not: she was too independent-minded. It was Saul’s showy piety that had tipped the balance, he decided. But Saul would never be leader of anything. What a waste. Godwyn wondered how he was going to break this news to his mother. She would be furious – but who would she blame? Anthony? Godwyn himself? A familiar feeling of dread came over him as he pictured his mother’s wrath.
As he thought of her, he saw her enter the hospital by the door at the far end, a tall woman with a prominent bust. She caught his eye and stood by the door, waiting for him to come to her. He walked slowly, trying to figure out what to say.
“Your Aunt Rose is dying,” Petranilla said as soon as he was close.
“May God bless her soul. Mother Cecilia told me.”
“You look shocked – but you know how ill she is.”
“It’s not Aunt Rose. I’ve had other bad news.” He swallowed. “I can’t go to Oxford. Uncle Anthony won’t pay for it, and Mother Cecilia turned me down too.”
She did not explode immediately, to his great relief. However, her mouth tightened into a grim line. “But why?” she said.
“He hasn’t got the money, and she is sending Saul.”
“Saul Whitehead? He’ll never amount to anything.”
“Well, at least he’s going to be a physician.”
She looked him in the eye, and he shrivelled. “I think you handled this badly,” she said. “You should have discussed it with me beforehand.”
He had feared she would take this line. “How can you say I mishandled it?” he protested.
“You should have let me speak to Anthony first. I would have softened him.”
“He still might have said no.”
“And before you approached Cecilia, you should have found out whether anyone else had asked her. Then you could have undermined Saul before speaking to her.”
“He must have a weakness. You could have found out what it is, and made sure it was brought to her attention. Then, when she was feeling disillusioned, you could have approached her yourself.”
He saw the sense of what she was saying. “I never thought of that,” he said. He bowed his head.
With controlled anger she said: “You have to plan these things, the way earls plan battles.”
“I see that now,” he said, not meeting her eye. “I’ll never make the same mistake again.”
“I hope not.”
He looked at her, “What am I going to do?”
“I’m not giving up.” A familiar expression of determination came over her face. “I shall provide the money,” she said.
Godwyn felt a surge of hope, but he could not imagine how his mother would fulfil such a promise. “Where will you get it?” he asked.
“I’ll give up my house, and move in with my brother Edmund.”
“Will he have you?” Edmund was a generous man, but he sometimes clashed with his sister.
“I think he will. He’s going to be a widower soon, and he’ll need a housekeeper. Not that Rose was ever very effective in that role.”
Godwyn shook his head. “You’ll still need money.”
“For what? Edmund will give me bed and board, and pay for the few small necessities I may require. In return, I’ll manage his servants and raise his daughters. And you shall have the money I inherited from your father.”
She spoke firmly, but Godwyn could see the bitterness of regret expressed in the twist of her mouth. He knew what a sacrifice this would be for her. She was proud of her independence. She was one of the town’s prominent women, the daughter of a wealthy man and the sister of the leading wool merchant, and she prized that status. She loved to invite the powerful men and women of Kingsbridge to dine with her and drink the best wine. Now she was proposing to move into her brother’s house and live as a poor relation, working as a kind of servant and dependent on him for everything. It would be a terrible comedown. “It’s too much to sacrifice,” Godwyn said. “You can’t do it.”
Her face hardened, and she gave a little shake of the shoulders, as if preparing to take the weight of a heavy burden. “Oh, yes, I can,” she said.
Gwenda told her father everything.
She had sworn on the blood of Jesus that she would keep the secret, so now she was going to hell, but she was more frightened of her father than of hell.
He began by asking her where she got Skip, the new puppy, and she was forced to explain how Hop had died; and in the end the whole story came out.
To her surprise, she was not whipped. In fact Pa seemed pleased. He made her take him to the clearing in the forest where the killings had happened. It was not easy to find the place again, but she got there, and they found the bodies of the two men-at-arms dressed in green-and-yellow livery.
First Pa opened their purses. Both contained twenty or thirty pennies. He was even more pleased with their swords, which were worth more than a few pennies. He began to strip the dead men, which was difficult for him with one hand, so he made Gwenda help him. The lifeless bodies were awkwardly heavy, so strange to touch. Pa made her take off everything they wore, even their muddy hose and their soiled underdrawers.
He wrapped their weapons in the clothing, making what looked like a bundle of rags. Then he and Gwenda dragged the naked corpses back into the evergreen bush.
He was in high spirits as they walked back into Kingsbridge. He took her to Slaughterhouse Ditch, a street near the river, and they went into a large but dirty tavern called the White Horse. He bought Gwenda a cup of ale to drink while he disappeared into the back of the house with the innkeeper, whom he addressed as “Davey boy”. It was the second time Gwenda had drunk ale in one day. Pa reappeared a few minutes later without the bundle.
They returned to the main street and found Ma, Philemon and the baby at the Bell inn, next to the priory gates. Pa winked broadly at Ma and gave her a big handful of money to hide in the baby’s blankets.
It was mid-afternoon, and most visitors had left to return to their villages; but it was too late to set out for Wigleigh, so the family would spend the night at the inn. As Pa kept saying, they could afford it now; although Ma said nervously: “Don’t let people know you’ve got money!”
Gwenda felt weary. She had got up early and walked a long way. She lay down on a bench and quickly fell asleep.
She was awakened by the inn door banging open violently. She looked up, startled, to see two men-at-arms walk in. At first she thought they were the ghosts of the men who had been killed in the forest, and she suffered a moment of sheer terror. Then she realized they were different men wearing the same uniform, yellow on one side and green on the other. The younger of the two carried a familiar-looking bundle of rags.
The older spoke directly to Pa. “You’re Joby from Wigleigh, aren’t you.”
Gwenda instantly felt frightened again. There was a tone of serious menace in the man’s voice. He was not posturing, just determined, but he gave her the impression he would do anything to get his way.
“No,” Pa replied, lying automatically. “You’ve got the wrong man.”
They ignored that. The second man put the bundle on the table and spread it out. It consisted of two yellow-and-green tunics wrapped around two swords and two daggers. He looked at Pa and said: “Where did these come from?”
“I’ve never seen them before, I swear by the Cross.”
He was stupid to deny it, Gwenda thought fearfully: they would get the truth out of him, just as he had got the truth out of her.
The older man-at-arms said: “Davey, the landlord of the White Horse, says he bought these from Joby Wigleigh.” His voice hardened with threat, and the handful of other customers in the room all got up from their seats and quickly slipped out of the inn, leaving only Gwenda’s family.
“Joby left here a while ago,” Pa said desperately.
The man nodded. “With his wife, two children, and a baby.”
The man moved with sudden speed. He grabbed Pa’s tunic in a strong hand and pushed him up against the wall. Ma screamed, and the baby began to cry. Gwenda saw that the man’s right hand bore a padded glove covered with chain-mail. He drew back his arm and punched Pa in the stomach.
Ma shouted: “Help! Murder!” Philemon began to cry.
Pa’s face turned white with pain, and he went limp, but the man held him up against the wall, preventing him from falling, and punched him again, this time in the face. Blood spurted from Pa’s nose and mouth.
Gwenda wanted to scream, and her mouth was open wide, but no noise would come from her throat. She thought her father was all-powerful – even though he often slyly pretended to be weak, or craven, in order to get sympathy, or turn aside anger – and it terrified her to see him so helpless.
The innkeeper appeared in the doorway that led to the back of the house. He was a big man in his thirties. A plump little girl peeped from behind him. “What’s this?” he said in a voice of authority.
The man-at-arms did not look at him. “You keep out of it,” he said, and he punched Pa in the stomach again.
Pa vomited blood.
“Stop that,” said the innkeeper.
The man-at-arms said: “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m Paul Bell, and this is my house.”
“Well, then, Paul Bell, you mind your own business, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I suppose you think you can do what you like, wearing that uniform.” There was contempt in Paul’s voice.
“That’s about right.”
“Whose livery is it, anyway?”
Paul spoke over his shoulder. “Bessie, run and fetch John Constable. If a man is going to be murdered in my tavern, I want the constable to witness it.” The little girl disappeared.
“There’ll be no killing here,” the man-at-arms said. “Joby has changed his mind. He’s decided to lead me to the place where he robbed two dead men – haven’t you, Joby?”
Pa could not speak, but he nodded. The man let him go, and he fell to his knees, coughing and retching.
The man looked at the rest of the family. “And the child that witnessed the fight…?”
Gwenda screamed: “No!”
He nodded in satisfaction. “The rat-faced girl, obviously.”
Gwenda ran to her mother. Ma said: “Mary, Mother of God, save my child.”
The man grabbed Gwenda’s arm and roughly pulled her away from her mother. She cried out. He said harshly: “Shut your noise, or you’ll get the same as your miserable father.”
Gwenda clamped her jaws together to stop herself screaming.
“Get up, Joby.” The man dragged Pa to his feet. “Pull yourself together, you’re going for a ride.”
The second man picked up the clothes and the weapons.
As they left the inn, Ma called out frantically: “Just do everything they ask!”
The men had horses. Gwenda rode in front of the older man, and Pa was mounted in the same position on the other horse. Pa was helpless, groaning, so Gwenda directed them, remembering the way clearly now that she had followed it twice. They made rapid progress on horseback, but all the same the afternoon was darkening when they reached the clearing.
The younger man held on to Gwenda and Pa while the leader pulled the bodies of their comrades out from under the bush.
“That Thomas must be a rare fighter, to kill Harry and Alfred together,” the older man mused, looking at the corpses. Gwenda realized that these men did not know about the other children. She would have confessed that she had not been alone, and that Ralph had killed one of the men, but she was too terrified to speak. “He’s nearly cut Alfred’s head off,” the man went on. He turned and looked at Gwenda. “Was anything said about a letter?”
“I don’t know!” she said, finding her voice. “I had my eyes shut because I was frightened, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying! It’s true, I’d tell you if I knew!”
“If they got the letter from him in the first place, he would have taken it back after he killed them anyway,” the man said to his comrade. He looked at the trees around the clearing, as if the letter might have been hanging among the dying leaves. “He probably has it now, at the priory where we can’t get at him without violating the sanctity of the monastery.”
The second man said: “At least we can report exactly what happened and take the bodies home for a Christian burial.”
There was a sudden commotion. Pa wrenched himself out of the grasp of the second man and dashed across the clearing. His captor moved to go after him, but was stopped by the older man-at-arms. “Let him go – what’s the point in killing him now?”
Gwenda began to cry quietly.
“What about this child?” said the younger man.
They were going to murder her, Gwenda felt sure. She could see nothing through her tears, and she was sobbing too hard to plead for her life. She would die and go to hell. She waited for the end.
“Let her go,” said the older man. “I wasn’t born to kill little girls.”
The younger man released her and gave her a shove. She stumbled and fell to the ground. She got up, wiped her eyes so that she could see, and stumbled off.
“Go on, run away,” the man called after her. “It’s your lucky day!”
Caris could not sleep. She got up from her bed and went into Mama’s room. Papa was sitting on a stool, staring at the still figure in the bed.
Mama’s eyes were closed and her face glistened, in the candlelight, with a film of perspiration. She seemed to be hardly breathing. Caris took her pale hand: it was terribly cold. She held it between her own, trying to warm it.
She said: “Why did they take her blood?”
“They think illness sometimes comes from an excess of one of the humours. They hope to take it away with the blood.”
“But it didn’t make her better.”
“No. In fact, she seems worse.”
Tears came to Caris’s eyes. “Why did you let them do it, then?”
“Priests and monks study the works of the ancient philosophers. They know more than we do.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“It’s hard to know what to believe, little buttercup.”
“If I was a doctor, I’d only do things that made people better.”
Papa was not listening. He was looking more intently at Mama. He leaned forward and slipped his hand under the blanket to touch her chest just below her left breast. Caris could see the shape of his big hand under the fine wool. He made a small choking sound in his throat, then moved his hand and pressed down more firmly. He held it there for a few moments.
He closed his eyes.
He seemed to fall slowly forward, until he was on his knees beside the bed, as if praying, with his big forehead resting on Mama’s thigh, and his hand still on her chest.
She realized he was crying. It was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to her, much more frightening than seeing a man killed in the forest. Children cried, women cried, weak and helpless people cried, but Papa never cried. She felt as if the world was ending.
She had to get help. She let Mama’s cold hand slip out of her own on to the blanket, where it lay motionless. She went back to her bedroom and shook the shoulder of the sleeping Alice. “You’ve got to wake up!” she said.
At first Alice would not open her eyes.
“Papa is crying!” Caris said.
Alice sat upright. “He can’t be,” she said.
Alice got out of bed. Caris took her older sister’s hand and they went together into Mama’s room. Papa was standing up, now, looking down at the still face on the pillow, his face wet with tears. Alice stared at him in shock. Caris whispered: “I told you so.”
On the other side of the bed stood Aunt Petranilla.
Papa saw the girls standing in the doorway. He left his station by the bed and came to them. He put one arm around each of them, drew them both to him, and hugged them. “Your Mama has gone to be with the angels,” he said quietly. “Pray for her soul.”
“Be brave, girls,” said Petranilla. “From now on, I will be your mama.”
Caris wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at her aunt. “Oh, no, you won’t,” she said.
Part Two. 8 to 14 June, 1337
On Whit Sunday in the year that Merthin was twenty-one, a river of rain fell on Kingsbridge Cathedral.
Great globules of water bounced off the slate roof; streams flooded the gutters; fountains gushed from the mouths of gargoyles; sheets of water unfolded down the buttresses; and torrents ran over the arches and down the columns, soaking the statues of the saints. The sky, the great church and the town round about were all shades of wet grey-paint.
Whit Sunday commemorated the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus. The seventh Sunday after Easter, it fell in May or June, soon after most of England’s sheep had been sheared; and so it was always the first day of the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair.
As Merthin splashed through the downpour to the cathedral for the morning service, pulling his hood forward over his brow in a vain attempt to keep his face dry, he had to pass through the fair. On the broad green to the west of the church, hundreds of traders had set out their stalls – then hastily covered them with sheets of oiled sacking or felted cloth to keep the rain off. Wool traders were the key figures in the fair, from the small operators who collected the produce of a few scattered villagers, to the big dealers such as Edmund who had a warehouse full of woolsacks to sell. Around them clustered subsidiary stalls selling just about everything else money could buy: sweet wine from the Rhineland, silk brocade threaded with gold from Lucca, glass bowls from Venice, ginger and pepper from places in the East that few people could even name. And finally there were the workaday tradespeople who supplied visitors and stallholders with their commonplace needs: bakers, brewers, confectioners, fortune-tellers and prostitutes.
The stallholders responded bravely to the rain, joking with one another, trying to create the carnival atmosphere; but the weather would be bad for their profits. Some people had to do business, rain or shine: Italian and Flemish buyers needed soft English wool for thousands of busy looms in Florence and Bruges. But more casual customers would stay at home: a knight’s wife would decide she could manage without nutmeg and cinnamon; a prosperous peasant would make his old coat last another winter; a lawyer would judge that his mistress did not really need a gold bangle.
Merthin was not going to buy anything. He had no money. He was an unpaid apprentice, living with his master, Elfric Builder. He was fed at the family table, he slept on the kitchen floor, and he wore Elfric’s cast-off clothes, but he got no wages. In the long winter evenings he carved ingenious toys that he sold for a few pennies – a jewel box with secret compartments, a cockerel whose tongue poked out when its tail was pressed – but in summer there was no spare time, for craftsmen worked until dark.
However, his apprenticeship was almost over. In less than six months, on the first day of December, he would become a full member of the carpenters’ guild of Kingsbridge, at the age of twenty-one. He could hardly wait.
The great west doors of the cathedral were open to admit the thousands of townspeople and visitors who would attend today’s service. Merthin stepped inside, shaking the rain off his clothes. The stone floor was slippery with water and mud. On a fine day, the interior of the church would be bright with shafts of sunlight, but today it was murky, the stained-glass windows dim, the congregation shrouded in dark, wet clothes.
Where did all the rain go? There were no drainage ditches around the church. The water – thousands and thousands of gallons of it – just soaked into the ground. Did it go on down, farther and farther, until it fell as rain again in hell? No. The cathedral was built on a slope. The water travelled underground, seeping down the hill from north to south. The foundations of large stone buildings were designed to let water flow through, for a build-up was dangerous. All this rain eventually passed into the river on the southern boundary of the priory grounds.
Merthin imagined he could feel the underground rush of the water, its drumming vibration transmitted through the foundations and the tiled floor and sensed by the soles of his feet.
A small black dog scampered up to him, wagging its tail, and greeted him joyfully. “Hello, Scrap,” he said, and patted her. He looked up to see the dog’s mistress, Caris; and his heart skipped a beat.
She wore a cloak of bright scarlet that she had inherited from her mother. It was the only splash of colour in the gloom. Merthin smiled broadly, happy to see her. It was hard to say what made her so beautiful. She had a small round face with neat, regular features; mid-brown hair; and green eyes flecked with gold. She was not so different from a hundred other Kingsbridge girls. But she wore her hat at a jaunty angle, there was a mocking intelligence in her eyes, and she looked at him with a mischievous grin that promised vague but tantalizing delights. He had known her for ten years, but it was only in the last few months that he had realized he loved her.
She drew him behind a pillar and kissed him on the mouth, the tip of her tongue running lightly across his lips.
They kissed every chance they got: in church, in the market place, when they met on the street, and – best of all – when he was at her house and they found themselves alone. He lived for those moments. He thought about kissing her before he went to sleep and again as soon as he woke up.
He visited her house two or three times a week. Her father, Edmund, liked him, though her aunt Petranilla did not. A convivial man, Edmund often invited Merthin to stay for supper, and Merthin accepted gratefully, knowing it would be a better meal than he would get at Elfric’s house. He and Caris would play chess or draughts, or just sit talking. He liked to watch her while she told a story or explained something, her hands drawing pictures in the air, her face expressing amusement or astonishment, acting every part in a pageant. But, most of the time, he was waiting for those moments when he could steal a kiss.
He glanced around the church: no one was looking their way. He slipped his hand inside her coat, and touched her through the soft linen of her dress. Her body was warm. He held her breast in his palm, small and round. He loved the way her flesh yielded to the press of his fingertips. He had never seen her naked, but he knew her breasts intimately.
In his dreams they went farther. Then, they were alone somewhere, a clearing in the woods or the big bedchamber of a castle; and they were both naked. But, strangely, his dreams always ended a moment too soon, just before he entered her; and he would wake up frustrated.
One day, he would think; one day.
They had not yet spoken about marriage. Apprentices could not marry, so he had to wait. Caris must, surely, have asked herself what they were going to do when he finished his term; but she had not voiced those thoughts. She seemed content to take life one day at a time. And he had a superstitious fear of talking about their future together. It was said that pilgrims should not spend too much time planning their journey, for they might learn of so many hazards that they would decide not to go.
A nun walked past, and Merthin withdrew his hand guiltily from Caris’s bosom; but the nun did not notice them. People did all sorts of things in the vast space of the cathedral. Last year Merthin had seen a couple having sexual congress up against the wall of the south aisle, in the darkness of the Christmas Eve service – although they had been thrown out for it. He wondered if he and Caris could stay here throughout the service, dallying discreetly.
But she had other ideas. “Let’s go to the front,” she said. She took his hand and led him through the crowd. He knew many of the people there, though not all: Kingsbridge was one of the larger cities in England, with about seven thousand inhabitants, and no one knew everybody. He followed Caris to the crossing, where the nave met the transepts. There they came up against a wooden barrier blocking entrance to the eastern end, or chancel, which was reserved for clergy.
Merthin found himself standing next to Buonaventura Caroli, the most important of the Italian merchants, a heavy-set man in a richly embroidered coat of thick wool cloth. He came originally from Florence – which he said was the greatest city in the Christian world, more than ten times the size of Kingsbridge – but he now lived in London, managing the large business his family had with English wool producers. The Carolis were so rich they loaned money to kings, but Buonaventura was amiable and unpretentious – though people said that in business he could be implacably hard.
Caris greeted the man in a casually familiar way: he was staying at her house. He gave Merthin a friendly nod, even though he must have guessed, from Merthin’s age and hand-me-down clothing, that he was a mere apprentice.
Buonaventura was looking at the architecture. “I have been coming to Kingsbridge for five years,” he said, making idle conversation, “but until today I have never noticed that the windows of the transepts are much bigger than those in the rest of the church.” He spoke French with an admixture of words from the dialect of the Italian region of Tuscany.
Merthin had no trouble understanding. He had grown up, like most sons of English knights, speaking Norman French to his parents and English to his playmates; and he could guess the meanings of many Italian words because he had learned Latin in the monks’ school. “I can tell you why the windows are like that,” he said.
Buonaventura raised his eyebrows, surprised that an apprentice should claim such knowledge.
“The church was built two hundred years ago, when these narrow lancet windows in the nave and chancel were a revolutionary new design,” Merthin went on. “Then, a hundred years later, the bishop wanted a taller tower, and he rebuilt the transepts at the same time, putting in the bigger windows that had by then come into fashion.”
Buonaventura was impressed. “And how do you happen to know this?”
“In the monastery library there is a history of the priory, called Timothy’s Book, that tells all about the building of the cathedral. Most of it was written in the time of the great Prior Philip, but later writers have added to it. I read it as a boy at the monks’ school.”
Buonaventura looked hard at Merthin for a moment, as if memorizing his face, then he said casually: “It’s a fine building.”
“Are the buildings very different in Italy?” Merthin was fascinated by talk of foreign countries, their life in general and their architecture in particular.
Buonaventura looked thoughtful. “I believe the principles of building are the same everywhere. But in England I have never seen domes.”
“What’s a dome?”
“A round roof, like half a ball.”
Merthin was astonished. “I never heard of such a thing! How is it built?”
Buonaventura laughed. “Young man, I am a wool merchant. I can tell whether a fleece comes from a Cotswold sheep or a Lincoln sheep, just by rubbing the wool between my finger and thumb, but I don’t know how a henhouse is built, let alone a dome.”
Merthin’s master, Elfric, arrived. He was a prosperous man, and he wore expensive clothes, but they always looked as if they belonged to someone else. An habitual sycophant, he ignored Caris and Merthin, but made a deep bow to Buonaventura and said: “Honoured to have you in our city once again, sir.”
Merthin turned away.
“How many languages do you think there are?” Caris said to him.
She was always saying crazy things. “Five,” Merthin replied without thinking.
“No, be serious,” she said. “There’s English, and French, and Latin, that’s three. Then the Florentines and the Venetians speak differently, though they have words in common.”
“You’re right,” he said, entering into the game. “That’s five already. Then there’s Flemish.” Few people could make out the tongue of the traders who came to Kingsbridge from the weaving towns of Flanders: Ypres, Bruges, Ghent.
“The Arabs have their own language and, when they write, they don’t even use the same letters as we do.”
“And Mother Cecilia told me that all the barbarians have their own tongues that no one even knows how to write down – Scots, Welsh, Irish, and probably others. That makes eleven, and there might be people we haven’t even heard of!”
Merthin grinned. Caris was the only person he could do this with. Among their friends of the same age, no one understood the thrill of imagining strange people and different ways of life. She would ask a random question: What is it like to live at the edge of the world? Are the priests wrong about God? How do you know you’re not dreaming, right now? And they would be off on a speculative voyage, competing to come up with the most outlandish notions.
The roar of conversation in the church suddenly quietened, and Merthin saw that the monks and nuns were seating themselves. The choirmaster, Blind Carlus, came in last. Although he could not see, he walked without assistance in the church and the monastic buildings, moving slowly, but as confident as a sighted man, familiar with every pillar and flagstone. Now he sang a note in his rich baritone, and the choir began a hymn.
Merthin was quietly sceptical about the clergy. Priests had power that was not always matched by their knowledge – rather like his employer, Elfric. However, he liked going to church. The services induced a kind of trance in him. The music, the architecture and the Latin incantations enchanted him, and he felt as if he were asleep with his eyes open. Once again he had the fanciful sensation that he could feel the rainwater flowing in torrents far beneath his feet.
His gaze roamed over the three levels of the nave – arcade, gallery and clerestory. He knew that the columns were made by placing one stone on top of another, but they gave a different impression, at least at first glance. The stone blocks were carved so that each column looked like a bundle of shafts. He traced the rise of one of the four giant piers of the crossing, from the huge square foot on which it stood, up to where one shaft branched north to form an arch across the side aisle, on up to the tribune level where another shaft branched west to form the arcade of the gallery, on up to the westward springing of a clerestory arch, until the last remaining shafts separated, like a spray of flowers, and became the curving ribs of the ceiling vault far above. From the central boss at the highest point of the vault, he followed a rib all the way down again to the matching pier on the opposite corner of the crossing.
As he did so, something odd happened. His vision seemed momentarily to blur, and it looked as if the east side of the transept moved.
There was a low rumbling sound, so deep it was almost inaudible, and a tremor underfoot, as if a tree had fallen nearby.
The singing faltered.
In the chancel, a crack appeared in the south wall, right next to the pier Merthin had been looking at.
He found himself turning towards Caris. Out of the corner of his eye he saw masonry falling in the choir and the crossing. Then there was nothing but noise: women screaming, men shouting, and the deafening crash of huge stones hitting the floor. It lasted a long moment. When silence descended, Merthin found he was holding Caris, his left arm around her shoulders pressing her to him, his right arm protectively covering her head, his body interposed between her and the place where a part of the great church lay in ruins.
It was obviously a miracle that no one died.
The worst of the damage was in the south aisle of the chancel, which had been empty of people during the service. The congregation was not admitted to the chancel, and the clergy had all been in the central part, called the choir. Several monks had had narrow escapes, which only heightened the talk of miracles, and others had bad cuts and bruises from flying chips of stone. The congregation suffered no more than a few scratches. Evidently, they had all been supernaturally protected by St Adolphus, whose bones were preserved under the high altar, and whose deeds included many instances of curing the sick and saving people from death. However, it was generally agreed that God had sent the people of Kingsbridge a warning. What he was warning them about was not yet clear.
An hour later, four men were inspecting the damage. Brother Godwyn, the cousin of Caris, was the sacrist, responsible for the church and all its treasures. Under him as matricularius, in charge of building operations and repairs, was Brother Thomas, who had been Sir Thomas Langley ten years ago. The contract for cathedral maintenance was held by Elfric, a carpenter by training and a general builder by trade. And Merthin tagged along as Elfric’s apprentice.
The east end of the church was divided by pillars into four sections, called bays. The collapse had affected the two bays nearest the crossing. The stone vaulting over the south aisle was destroyed completely in the first bay and partially in the second. There were cracks in the tribune gallery, and stone mullions had fallen from the windows of the clerestory.
Elfric said: “Some weakness in the mortar allowed the vault to crumble, and that in turn caused the cracks at higher levels.”
That did not sound right to Merthin, but he lacked an alternative explanation.
Merthin hated his master. He had first been apprenticed to Elfric’s father, Joachim, a builder of wide experience who had worked on churches and bridges in London and Paris. The old man had delighted in explaining to Merthin the lore of the masons – what they called their ‘mysteries’, which were mostly arithmetical formulas for building, such as the ratio between the height of a building and the depth of its foundations. Merthin liked numbers and lapped up everything Joachim could teach him.
Then Joachim died, and Elfric took over. Elfric believed the main thing an apprentice had to learn was obedience. Merthin found this difficult to accept, and Elfric punished him with short rations, thin clothing and outdoor work in frosty weather. To make matters worse, Elfric’s chubby daughter Griselda, the same age as Merthin, was always well fed and warmly dressed.
Three years ago Elfric’s wife had died, and he had married Alice, the older sister of Caris. People thought Alice was the prettier sister, and it was true that she had more regular features, but she lacked Caris’s captivating ways, and Merthin found her dull. Alice had always seemed to like Merthin almost as much as her sister did, and so he had hoped she would make Elfric treat him better. But the reverse happened. Alice seemed to think it was her wifely duty to join with Elfric in tormenting him.
Merthin knew that many other apprentices suffered in the same way, and they all put up with it because apprenticeship was the only way into a well-paid trade. The craft guilds efficiently kept out upstarts. No one could do business in a town without belonging to a guild. Even a priest, a monk or a woman who wanted to deal in wool or brew ale for sale would have to get into a guild. And outside the towns there was little business to be done: peasants built their own houses and sewed their own shirts.
At the end of the apprenticeship, most boys would remain with the master, working as journeymen for a wage. A few would end up partners, taking over the enterprise when the old man died. That would not be Merthin’s destiny. He hated Elfric too much. He would leave the moment he could.
“Let’s look at it from above,” said Godwyn.
They walked towards the east end. Elfric said: “It’s good to see you back from Oxford, Brother Godwyn. But you must miss the company of all those learned people.”
Godwyn nodded. “The masters are truly astonishing.”
“And the other students – they must be remarkable young men, I imagine. Though we hear tales of bad behaviour, too.”
Godwyn looked rueful. “I’m afraid some of those stories are true. When a young priest or monk is away from home for the first time, he may suffer temptation.”
“Still – we’re fortunate to have the benefit of university-trained men here in Kingsbridge.”
“Very kind of you to say so.”
“Oh, but it’s true.”
Merthin wanted to say: Shut up, for pity’s sake. But this was Elfric’s way. He was a poor craftsman, his work inaccurate and his judgement shaky, but he knew how to ingratiate himself. Merthin had watched him do it, time and again – for Elfric could be as charming to people from whom he wanted something as he could be rude to those who had nothing he needed.
Merthin was more surprised at Godwyn. How could an intelligent and educated man fail to see through Elfric? Perhaps it was less obvious to the person who was the object of the compliments.
Godwyn opened a small door and led the way up a narrow spiral staircase concealed in the wall. Merthin felt excited. He loved to enter the hidden passageways of the cathedral. He was also curious about the dramatic collapse, and eager to figure out its cause.
The aisles were single-storey structures that stuck out either side of the main body of the church. They had rib-vaulted stone ceilings. Above the vault, a lean-to roof rose from the outer edge of the aisle up to the base of the clerestory. Under that sloping roof was a triangular void, its floor the hidden side, or extrados, of the aisle’s vaulted ceiling. The four men climbed into this void to look at the damage from above.
It was lit by window openings into the interior of the church, and Thomas had had the foresight to bring an oil lamp. The first thing Merthin noticed was that the vaults, viewed from above, were not exactly the same in each bay. The easternmost formed a slightly flatter curve than its neighbour, and the next one – partly destroyed – looked as though it was different again.
They walked along the extrados, staying close to the edge where the vault was strongest, until they were as near as they dared go to the collapsed portion. The vault was constructed in the same way as the rest of the church, of stones mortared together, except that ceiling stones were very thin and light. The vault was almost vertical at its springing but, as it rose, it leaned inwards, until it met the stonework coming up from the opposite edge.
Elfric said: “Well, the first thing to do is obviously to rebuild the vaulting over the first two bays of the aisle.”
Thomas said: “It’s a long time since anyone in Kingsbridge built rib-vaulting.” He turned to Merthin. “Could you make the formwork?”
Merthin knew what he meant. At the edge of the vault, where the masonry was almost upright, the stones would stay in place by their own weight; but, higher up, as the curve turned towards the horizontal, some support was needed to keep everything in place while the mortar dried. The obvious method was to make a wooden frame, called formwork or centering, and lay the stones on top of that.
It was a challenging job for a carpenter, for the curves had to be just right. Thomas knew the quality of Merthin’s craftsmanship, having closely supervised the work Merthin and Elfric carried out at the cathedral over several years. However, it was tactless of Thomas to address the apprentice rather than the boss, and Elfric reacted quickly. “Under my supervision he can do it, yes,” he said.
“I can make the formwork,” Merthin said, already thinking about how the frame would be supported by the scaffolding, and the platform on which the masons would have to stand. “But these vaults were not built with formwork.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, boy,” Elfric said. “Of course they were. You know nothing about it.”
Merthin knew it was unwise to argue with his employer. On the other hand, in six months he would be competing with Elfric for work, and he needed people such as Brother Godwyn to believe in his competence. Also, he was stung by the scorn in Elfric’s voice, and he felt an irresistible desire to prove his master wrong. “Look at the extrados,” he said indignantly. “Having finished one bay, surely the masons would have re-used the same formwork for the next. In which case, all the vaults would have the same curve. But, in fact, they’re all different.”
“Obviously they didn’t re-use their formwork,” Elfric said irritably.
“Why wouldn’t they?” Merthin persisted. “They must have wanted to save on timber, not to mention the wages of skilled carpenters.”
“Anyway, it’s not possible to build vaulting without formwork.”
“Yes, it is,” Merthin said. “There’s a method-”
“That’s enough,” Elfric said. “You’re here to learn, not teach.”
Godwyn put in: “Just a minute, Elfric. If the boy is right, it could save the priory a lot of money.” He looked at Merthin. “What were you going to say?”
Merthin was half wishing he had not raised this subject. There would be hell to pay later. But he was committed now. If he backed off, they would think he did not know what he was talking about. “It’s described in a book in the monastery library, and it’s very simple,” he said. “As each stone is laid, a rope is draped over it. One end of the rope is tied to the wall, the other weighted with a lump of wood. The rope forms a right angle over the edge of the stone, and keeps it from slipping off its bed of mortar and falling to the ground.”
There was a moment of silence as they all concentrated, trying to visualize the arrangements. Then Thomas nodded. “It could work,” he said.
Elfric looked furious.
Godwyn was intrigued. “What book is this?”
“It’s called Timothy’s Book,” Merthin told him.
“I know of it, but I’ve never studied it. Obviously I should.” Godwyn addressed the others. “Have we seen enough?”
Elfric and Thomas nodded. As the four men left the roof space, Elfric muttered to Merthin: “Do you realize you’ve just talked yourself out of several weeks’ work? You won’t do that when you’re your own master, I’ll bet.”
Merthin had not thought of that. Elfric was right: by proving that formwork was unnecessary, he had also done himself out of a job. But there was something badly wrong with Elfric’s way of thinking. It was unfair to allow someone to spend money unnecessarily, just to keep yourself in work. Merthin did not want to live by cheating people.
They went down the spiral staircase into the chancel. Elfric said to Godwyn: “I’ll come to you tomorrow with a price for the work.”
Elfric turned to Merthin. “You stay here and count the stones in an aisle vault. Bring me the answer at home.”
Elfric and Godwyn left, but Thomas lingered. “I got you into trouble,” he said.
“You were trying to boost me.”
The monk shrugged, and made a what-can-you-do gesture with his right arm. His left arm had been amputated at the elbow ten years ago, after infection set in to the wound he received in the fight Merthin had witnessed.
Merthin hardly ever thought about that strange scene in the forest – he had become used to Thomas in a monk’s robe – but he recalled it now: the men-at-arms, the children hiding in the bush, the bow and arrow, the buried letter. Thomas was always kind to him, and he guessed it was because of what happened that day. “I’ve never told anyone about that letter,” he said quietly.
“I know,” Thomas replied. “If you had, you’d be dead.”
Most large towns were run by a guild merchant, an organization of the leading citizens. Under the guild merchant were numerous craft guilds, each dedicated to a particular trade: masons, carpenters, leather tanners, weavers, tailors. Then there were the parish guilds, small groups centred on local churches, formed to raise money for priestly robes and sacred ornaments, and for the support of widows and orphans.
Cathedral towns were different. Kingsbridge, like St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, was ruled by the monastery, which owned almost all the land in and around the town. The priors had always refused permission for a guild merchant. However, the most important craftsmen and traders belonged to the parish guild of St Adolphus. No doubt this had started out, in the distant past, as a pious group that raised money for the cathedral, but it was now the most important organization in town. It made rules for the conduct of business, and elected an alderman and six wardens to enforce them. In the guild hall were kept the measures that standardized the weight of a woolsack, the width of a bolt of cloth, and the volume of a bushel for all Kingsbridge trade. Nevertheless, the merchants could not hold courts and dispense justice the way they did in borough towns – the Kingsbridge prior retained those powers for himself.
On the afternoon of Whit Sunday, the parish guild gave a banquet at the guild hall for the most important visiting buyers. Edmund Wooler was the alderman, and Caris went with him to be hostess, so Merthin had to amuse himself without her.
Fortunately, Elfric and Alice were also at the banquet, so he could sit in the kitchen, listening to the rain and thinking. The weather was not cold, but there was a small fire for cooking, and its red glow was cheerful.
He could hear Elfric’s daughter, Griselda, moving about upstairs. It was a fine house, although smaller than Edmund’s. There was just a hall and a kitchen downstairs. The staircase led to an open landing, where Griselda slept, and a closed bedroom for the master and his wife. Merthin slept in the kitchen.
There had been a time, three or four years ago, when Merthin had been tormented at night by fantasies of climbing the stairs and slipping under the blankets next to Griselda’s warm, plump body. But she considered herself superior to him, treating him like a servant, and she had never given him the least encouragement.
Sitting on a bench, Merthin looked into the fire and visualized the wooden scaffolding he would build for the masons who would reconstruct the collapsed vaulting in the cathedral. Wood was expensive, and long tree trunks were rare – the owners of woodland usually yielded to the temptation of selling the timber before it was fully mature. So builders tried to minimize the amount of scaffolding. Rather than build it up from floor level, they saved timber by suspending it from the existing walls.
While he was thinking, Griselda came into the kitchen and took a cup of ale from the barrel. “Would you like some?” she said. Merthin accepted, amazed by her courtesy. She surprised him again by sitting on a stool opposite him to drink.
Griselda’s paramour, Thurstan, had disappeared three weeks ago. No doubt she now felt lonely, which would be why she wanted Merthin’s company. The drink warmed his stomach and relaxed him. Searching for something to say, he asked: “What happened to Thurstan?”
She tossed her head like a frisky mare. “I told him I didn’t want to marry him.”
“He’s too young for me.”
That did not sound right to Merthin. Thurstan was seventeen, Griselda twenty, but Griselda was not notably mature. More likely, he thought, Thurstan was too low-class. He had arrived in Kingsbridge from nowhere a couple of years ago, and had worked as an unskilled labourer for several of the town’s craftsmen. He had probably got bored, with Griselda or with Kingsbridge, and simply moved on.
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I should marry someone my own age, someone with a sense of responsibility – perhaps a man who could take over my father’s enterprise one day.”
It occurred to Merthin that she might mean him. Surely not, he thought; she’s always looked down on me. Then she got up from her stool and came and sat on the bench beside him.
“My father is spiteful to you,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”
Merthin was astonished. “Well, it’s taken you long enough to say so – I’ve been living here six and a half years.”
“It’s hard for me to go against my family.”
“Why is he so vile to me, anyway?”
“Because you think you know better than him, and you can’t hide it.”
“Maybe I do know better.”
“See what I mean?”
He laughed. It was the first time she had ever made him laugh.
She shifted closer on the bench, so that her thigh in the woollen dress was pressed against his. He was in his worn linen shirt, which came to mid-thigh, with the undershorts that all men wore, but he could feel the warmth of her body through their clothes. What had brought this on? He looked incredulously at her. She had glossy dark hair and brown eyes. Her face was attractive in a fleshy way. She had a nice mouth for kissing.
She said: “I like being indoors in a rainstorm. It feels cosy.”
He felt himself becoming aroused, and looked away from her. What would Caris think, he asked himself, if she walked in here now? He tried to quell his desire, but that only made it worse.
He looked back at Griselda. Her lips were moist and slightly parted. She leaned towards him. He kissed her. Immediately, she thrust her tongue into his mouth. It was a sudden, shocking intimacy that he found thrilling, and he responded in the same way. This was not like kissing Caris-
That thought arrested him. He tore himself away from Griselda and stood up.
She said: “What’s the matter?”
He did not want to tell her the truth, so he said: “You never seemed to like me.”
She looked annoyed. “I’ve told you, I had to side with my father.”
“You’ve changed very suddenly.”
She stood up and moved towards him. He stepped away until his back was to the wall. She took his hand and pressed it to her bosom. Her breasts were round and heavy, and he could not resist the temptation to feel them. She said: “Have you ever done it – the real thing – with a girl?”
He found he could not speak, but he nodded.
“Have you thought about doing it with me?”
“Yes,” he managed.
“You can do it to me now, if you like, while they’re out. We can go upstairs and lie on my bed.”
She pressed her body to his. “Kissing you has made me go all hot and slippery inside.”
He pushed her away. The shove was rougher than he intended, and she fell backwards, landing on her well-cushioned bottom. “Leave me alone,” he said.
He was not sure he meant it, but she took him at his word. “Go to hell, then,” she swore. She got to her feet and stomped upstairs.
He stayed where he was, panting. Now that he had rejected her, he regretted it.
Apprentices were not very attractive to young women, who did not want to be forced to wait years before marrying. All the same, Merthin had courted several Kingsbridge girls. One, Kate Brown, had been sufficiently fond of him to let him go all the way, one warm summer afternoon a year ago, in her father’s orchard. Then her father had died suddenly, and her mother had taken the family to live in Portsmouth. It was the only time Merthin had lain with a woman. Was he mad to turn down Griselda’s offer?
He told himself he had had a lucky escape. Griselda was a mean-spirited girl who did not really like him. He should be proud of having resisted temptation. He had not followed his instinct like a dumb beast; he had made a decision, like a man.
Then Griselda started to cry.
Her weeping was not loud, but all the same he could hear everything. He went to the back door. Like every house in town, Elfric’s had a long, narrow strip of land at the back with a privy and a rubbish tip. Most householders kept chickens and a pig, and grew vegetables and fruits, but Elfric’s yard was used to store stacks of lumber and stones, coils of rope, buckets and barrows and ladders. Merthin stared at the rain falling on the yard, but Griselda’s sobbing still reached his ears.
He decided to leave the house, and got as far as the front door, but then he could not think where to go. At Caris’s house there was only Petranilla, who would not welcome him. He thought of going to his parents, but they were the last people he wanted to see when he was in this state. He could have talked to his brother, but Ralph was not due to arrive in Kingsbridge until later in the week. Besides, he realized, he could not leave the house without a coat – not because of the rain, he did not mind getting wet, but because of the bulge in front of his clothing that would not subside.
He tried to think of Caris. She would be sipping wine, he thought, and eating roast beef and wheat bread. He asked himself what she was wearing. Her best dress was a soft pinkish-red with a square-cut neckline that showed off the pale skin of her slender neck. But Griselda’s crying kept intruding on his thoughts. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her he was sorry to make her feel spurned, and explain to her that she was an attractive person but they were not right for one another.
He sat down, then stood up again. It was hard to listen to a woman in distress. He could not think about scaffolding while that sound filled the house. Can’t stay, can’t leave, can’t sit still.
He went upstairs.
She was lying face down on the straw-filled palliasse that was her bed. Her dress was rucked up around her chubby thighs. The skin on the back of her legs was very white and looked soft.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I hate you.”
He knelt down and patted her back. “I can’t sit in the kitchen and listen to you crying.”
She rolled over and looked at him, her face wet with tears. “I’m ugly and fat, and you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.” He wiped her wet cheeks with the back of his hand.
She took his wrist and drew him to her. “Don’t you? Truly?”
She put her hand behind his head, pulled him down, and kissed him. He groaned, more aroused than ever. He lay beside her on the mattress. I will leave her in a moment, he told himself. I’ll just comfort her a little more, then I’ll get up and go down the stairs.
She took his hand and pushed it up her skirt, placing it between her legs. He felt the wiry hair, the soft skin beneath, and the moist divide, and he knew he was lost. He stroked her roughly, his finger slipping inside. He felt as if he would burst. “I can’t stop,” he said.
“Quickly,” she said, panting. She pulled up his shirt and pushed down his drawers, and he rolled on to her.
He felt himself losing control as she guided him inside her. The remorse hit him before it was over. “Oh, no,” he said. The explosion began with his first thrust, and in an instant it was finished. He slumped on top of her, his eyes closed. “Oh, God,” he said. “I wish I was dead.”
Buonaventura Caroli made his shock announcement at breakfast on Monday, the day after the big banquet at the guild hall.
Caris felt a little unwell as she took her seat at the oak table in the dining hall of her father’s house. She had a headache and a touch of nausea. She ate a small dish of warm bread-and-milk to settle her stomach. Recalling that she had enjoyed the wine at the banquet, she wondered whether she had drunk too much of it. Was this the morning-after feeling that men and boys joked about when they boasted how much strong drink they could take?
Father and Buonaventura were eating cold mutton, and Aunt Petranilla was telling a story. “When I was fifteen, I was betrothed to a nephew of the earl of Shiring,” she said. “It was considered a good match: his father was a knight of the middling sort, and mine a wealthy wool merchant. Then the earl and his only son both died in Scotland, at the battle of Loudon Hill. My fiance, Roland, became the earl – and broke off the engagement. He is still the earl today. If I had married Roland before the battle, I would now be the countess of Shiring.” She dipped toast in her ale.
“Perhaps it was not the will of God,” said Buonaventura. He threw a bone to Scrap, who pounced on it as if she had not seen food for a week. Then he said to Papa: “My friend, there is something I should tell you before we begin the day’s business.”
Caris felt, from his tone of voice, that he had bad news; and her father must have had the same intuition, for he said: “This sounds ominous.”
“Our trade has been shrinking for the last few years,” Buonaventura went on. “Each year my family sells a little less cloth, each year we buy a little less wool from England.”
“Business is always like that,” said Edmund. “It goes up, it goes down, no one knows why.”
“But now your king has interfered.”
It was true. Edward III had seen the money being made in wool and had decided that more of it must go to the crown. He had introduced a new tax of one pound per woolsack. A sack was standardized at 364 pounds weight, and sold for about four pounds in money; so the extra tax was a quarter of the value of the wool, a huge slice.
Buonaventura went on: “What is worse, he has made it difficult to export wool from England. I have had to pay large bribes.”
“The ban on exports will be lifted shortly,” Edmund said. “The merchants of the Wool Company in London are negotiating with royal officials-”
“I hope you are right,” Buonaventura said. “But, with things as they are, my family feels I no longer need to visit two separate wool fairs in this part of the country.”
“Quite right!” said Edmund. “Come here, and forget about the Shiring Fair.”
The town of Shiring was two days’ travel from Kingsbridge. It was about the same size, and while it did not have a cathedral or a priory, it boasted the sheriff’s castle and the county court. It held a rival Wool Fair once a year.
“I’m afraid I can’t find the range of wool here. You see, the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair seems to be declining. More and more sellers go to Shiring. Their fair offers a greater variety of types and qualities.”
Caris was dismayed. This could be disastrous for her father. She put in: “Why would sellers prefer Shiring?”
Buonaventura shrugged. “The guild merchant there has made the fair attractive. There’s no long queue to enter the city gate; the dealers can hire tents and booths; there’s a wool exchange building where everyone can do business when it rains like this…”
“We could do all that,” she said.
Her father snorted. “If only.”
“Why not, Papa?”
“Shiring is an independent borough, with a royal charter. The merchant guild there has the power to organize things for the benefit of the wool merchants. Kingsbridge belongs to the priory-”
Petranilla put in: “For the glory of God.”
“No doubt,” Edmund said. “But our parish guild can’t do anything without the priory’s approval – and priors are cautious and conservative people, my brother being no exception. The upshot is that most improvement plans get rejected.”
Buonaventura went on: “Because of my family’s long association with you, Edmund, and your father before you, we have continued to come to Kingsbridge; but in hard times we can’t afford to be sentimental.”
“Then let me ask you a small favour, for the sake of that long association,” Edmund said. “Don’t make a final decision yet. Keep an open mind.”
That was clever, Caris thought. She was struck – as she often was – by how shrewd her father could be in a negotiation. He did not argue that Buonaventura should reverse his decision, for that would just make him dig his heels in. The Italian was much more likely to agree not to make the decision final. That committed him to nothing, but left the door open.
Buonaventura found it hard to refuse. “All right, but to what end?”
“I want the chance to improve the fair, and especially that bridge,” Edmund replied. “If we could offer better facilities here at Kingsbridge than they have at Shiring, and attract more sellers, you would continue to visit us, wouldn’t you?”
“Then that’s what we’ll have to do.” He stood up. “I’ll go and see my brother now. Caris, come with me. We’ll show him the queue at the bridge. No, wait, Caris, go and fetch your clever young builder, Merthin. We might need his expertise.”
“He’ll be working.”
Petranilla said: “Just tell his master that the alderman of the parish guild wants the boy.” Petranilla was proud that her brother was alderman, and mentioned it at every opportunity.
But she was right. Elfric would have to release Merthin. “I’ll go and find him,” Caris said.
She put on a cape with a hood and went out. It was still raining, though not as heavily as yesterday. Elfric, like most of the leading citizens, lived on the main street that ran from the bridge up to the priory gates. The broad street was crowded with carts and people heading for the fair, splashing through puddles and streamlets of rain.
She was eager to see Merthin, as always. She had liked him ever since All Hallows’ Day ten years ago, when he had appeared at archery practice with his home-made bow. He was clever and funny. Like her, he knew that the world was a bigger and more fascinating place than most Kingsbridge citizens could conceive. But six months ago they had discovered something that was even more fun than being friends.
Caris had kissed boys before Merthin, though not often: she had never really seen the point. With him it was different, exciting and sexy. He had an impish streak that made everything he did seem mildly wicked. She liked it when he touched her body, too. She wanted to do more – but she tried not to think about that. ‘More’ meant marriage, and a wife had to be subordinate to her husband, who was her master – and Caris hated that idea. Fortunately she was not forced to think about it yet, for Merthin could not marry until his apprenticeship was over, and that was half a year away.
She reached Elfric’s house and stepped inside. Her sister, Alice, was in the front room, at the table, with her stepdaughter, Griselda. They were eating bread with honey. Alice had changed in the three years since she had married Elfric. Her nature had always been harsh, like Petranilla’s, and under the influence of her husband she had become more suspicious, resentful and ungenerous.
But she was pleasant enough today. “Sit down, sister,” she said. “The bread is fresh this morning.”
“I can’t, I’m looking for Merthin.”
Alice looked disapproving. “So early?”
“Father wants him.” Caris went through the kitchen to the back door and looked into the yard. Rain fell on a dismal landscape of builder’s junk. One of Elfric’s labourers was putting wet stones into a barrow. There was no sign of Merthin. She went back inside.
Alice said: “He’s probably at the cathedral. He’s been making a door.”
Caris recalled that Merthin had mentioned this. The door in the north porch had rotted, and Merthin was working on a replacement.
Griselda added: “He’s been carving virgins.” She grinned, then put more bread-and-honey into her mouth.
Caris knew this, too. The old door was decorated with carvings illustrating the story Jesus told on the Mount of Olives, about the wise and foolish virgins, and Merthin had to copy it. But there was something unpleasant about Griselda’s grin, Caris thought; almost as if she were laughing at Caris for being a virgin herself.
“I’ll try the cathedral,” Caris said, and with a perfunctory wave she left.
She climbed the main street and entered the cathedral close. As she threaded her way through the market stalls, it seemed to her that a dismal air hung over the fair. Was she imagining it, because of what Buonaventura had said? She thought not. When she recalled the Fleece Fairs of her childhood, it seemed to her that they had been busier and more crowded. In those days, the priory precincts had not been large enough to contain the fair, and the streets all around had been obstructed by unlicensed stalls – often just a small table covered with trinkets – plus hawkers with trays, jugglers, fortune tellers, musicians, and itinerant friars calling sinners to redemption. Now it seemed to her there might have been room for a few more stalls within the precincts. “Buonaventura must be right,” she said to herself. “The fair is shrinking.” A trader gave her a strange look, and she realized she had spoken her thoughts out loud. It was a bad habit: people thought she was talking to spirits. She had taught herself not to do it, but she sometimes forgot, especially when she was anxious.
She walked around the great church to the north side.
Merthin was working in the porch, a roomy space where people often held meetings. He had the door standing upright in a stout wooden frame that held it still while he carved. Behind the new work, the old door was still in place in the archway, cracked and crumbling. Merthin stood with his back to her, so that the light fell over his shoulders on to the wood in front of him. He did not see her, and the sound of the rain drowned her footsteps, so she was able to study him for a few moments unnoticed.
He was a small man, not much taller than she. He had a large, intelligent head on a wiry body. His small hands moved deftly across the carving, shaving fine curls of wood with a sharp knife as he shaped the images. He had white skin and a lot of bushy red hair. “He’s not very handsome,” Alice had said, with a twist of her lip, when Caris admitted she had fallen in love with him. It was true that Merthin did not have the dashing good looks of his brother, Ralph, but Caris thought his face was quite marvellous: irregular and quirky and wise and full of laughter, just as he was.
“Hello,” she said, and he jumped. She laughed. “It’s not like you to be so easily spooked.”
“You startled me.” He hesitated, then kissed her. He seemed a little awkward, but that sometimes happened when he was concentrating on his work.
She looked at the carving. There were five virgins on each side of the door, the wise ones feasting at the wedding, and the foolish ones outside, holding their lamps upside down to show that they were empty of oil. Merthin had copied the design of the old door, but with subtle changes. The virgins stood in rows, five on one side and five on the other, like the arches in the cathedral; but, in the new door, they were not exactly alike. Merthin had given each girl a sign of individuality. One was pretty, another had curly hair, one wept, another closed one eye in a mischievous wink. He had made them real, and the scene on the old door now looked stiff and lifeless by comparison. “It’s wonderful,” Caris said. “But I wonder what the monks will think.”
“Brother Thomas likes it,” Merthin replied.
“What about Prior Anthony?”
“He hasn’t seen it. But he’ll accept it. He won’t want to pay twice.”
That was true, Caris thought. Her uncle Anthony was unadventurous, but parsimonious too. The mention of the prior reminded her of her errand. “My father wants you to meet him and the prior at the bridge.”
“Did he say why?”
“I think he’s going to ask Anthony to build a new bridge.”
Merthin put his tools into a leather satchel, and quickly swept the floor, brushing sawdust and wood shavings out of the porch. Then he and Caris walked in the rain through the fair and down the main street to the wooden bridge. Caris told him what Buonaventura had said at the breakfast table. Merthin felt, as she did, that recent fairs had not been as bustling as those he remembered from childhood.
Despite that, there was a long queue of people and carts waiting to get into Kingsbridge. At the near end of the bridge was a small gatehouse where a monk sat taking a fee of one penny from every trader who entered the city with goods for sale. The bridge was narrow, so it was not possible for anyone to jump the queue, and in consequence people who did not need to pay – residents of the town, mainly – also had to stand in line. In addition, some of the boards that formed the surface were twisted and broken, so carts had to move slowly as they crossed. The result was that the queue stretched away along the road between the suburban hovels and disappeared into the rain.
The bridge was also too short. Once, no doubt, both its ends had given on to dry land. But either the river had widened or, more likely, the passage of carts and people over decades and centuries had flattened the banks, so that now people had to wade across muddy beaches on both sides.
Caris saw that Merthin was studying its structure. She knew that look in his eyes: he was thinking about how it stayed upright. She often caught him staring at something in that way, usually in the cathedral, but sometimes in front of a house or even something natural, a thorn tree in blossom or a sparrowhawk hovering. He became very still, his gaze bright and sharp, as if he were shining a light into a murky place, trying to make out what was there. If she asked him, he told her he was trying to see the insides of things.
She followed his gaze and strained to imagine what he perceived in the old bridge. It was sixty yards from end to end, the longest bridge she had ever seen. The roadbed was supported by massive oak piers in two rows, like the pillars that marched either side of the nave of the cathedral. There were five pairs of piers. The end ones, where the water was shallow, were quite short, but the three central pairs stood fifteen feet above the water line.
Each pier consisted of four oak beams in a cluster, held together by plank braces. Legend said that the king had given Kingsbridge Priory the twenty-four best oak trees in England to build the three central pairs of piers. The tops were linked by beams in two parallel lines. Shorter beams crossed from one line to the other, forming the roadbed; and longitudinal planks had been laid on top to form the road surface. On each side was a wooden railing that served as a flimsy parapet. Every couple of years a drunk peasant would drive a cart through the rail and kill himself and his horse in the river.
“What are you looking at?” Caris asked Merthin.
“I don’t see any.”
“The timbers on either side of the central pier are splitting. You can see where Elfric has reinforced them with iron braces.”
Now that he pointed them out, Caris could see the flat metal strips nailed across the cracks. “You look worried,” she said to him.
“I don’t know why the timbers cracked in the first place.”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does.”
He was not very talkative this morning. She was about to ask him why, when he said: “Here comes your father.”
She looked along the street. The two brothers made an odd pair. Tall Anthony fastidiously held up the skirts of his monkish robe and stepped gingerly around the puddles, wearing an expression of distaste on his pale indoor face. Edmund, more vigorous despite being the elder, had a red face and a long untidy grey beard, and he walked carelessly, dragging his withered leg through the mud, speaking argumentatively and gesturing extravagantly with both arms. When Caris saw her father at a distance, the way a stranger might see him, she always felt a surge of love.
The dispute was in full swing when they got to the bridge, and they continued without pause. “Look at that queue!” Edmund shouted. “Hundreds of people not trading at the fair because they haven’t got there yet! And you can be sure half of them will meet a buyer or seller while waiting, and conduct their business right then and there, then go home without even entering the city!”
“That’s forestalling, and it’s against the law,” said Anthony.
“You could go and tell them that, if you could get across the bridge, but you can’t, because it’s too narrow! Listen, Anthony. If the Italians pull out, the Fleece Fair will never be the same again. Your prosperity and mine are based on the fair – we must not just let it go!”
“We can’t force Buonaventura to do business here.”
“But we can make our fair more attractive than Shiring’s. We need to announce a big, symbolic project, right now, this week, something to convince them all that the Fleece Fair isn’t finished. We have to tell them we’re going to tear down this old bridge and build a new one, twice as wide.” Without warning, he turned to Merthin. “How long would it take, young lad?”
Merthin looked startled, but he answered. “Finding the trees would be the hard part. You need very long timbers, well seasoned. Then the piers have to be driven into the river bed – that’s tricky, because you’re working in running water. After that it’s just carpentry. You could finish it by Christmas.”
Anthony said: “There’s no certainty the Caroli family will change its plans if we build a new bridge.”
“They will,” Edmund said forcefully. “I guarantee it.”
“Anyway, I can’t afford to build a bridge. I don’t have the money.”
“You can’t afford not to build a bridge,” Edmund shouted. “You’ll ruin yourself as well as the town.”
“It’s out of the question. I don’t even know where I’m going to get the money for the repairs in the south aisle.”
“So what will you do?”
“Trust in God.”
“Those who trust in God and sow a seed may reap a harvest. But you’re not sowing the seed.”
Anthony got irritated. “I know this is difficult for you to understand, Edmund, but Kingsbridge Priory is not a commercial enterprise. We’re here to worship God, not to make money.”
“You won’t worship God for long if you’ve nothing to eat.”
“God will provide.”
Edmund’s red face flushed with anger, turning a purplish colour. “When you were a boy, our father’s business fed you and clothed you and paid for your education. Since you’ve been a monk, the citizens of this town and the peasants of the surrounding countryside have kept you alive by paying you rents, tithes, charges for market stalls, bridge tolls, and a dozen other different fees. All your life you’ve lived like a flea on the backs of hard-working people. And now you have the nerve to tell us that God provides.”
“That’s perilously close to blasphemy.”
“Don’t forget that I’ve known you since you were born, Anthony. You always had a talent for avoiding work.” Edmund’s voice, so often raised in a shout, now dropped – a sign, Caris knew, that he was really furious. “When it was time to empty out the privy, you went off to bed, so that you would be rested for school the next day. Father’s gift to God, you always had the best of everything, and never lifted your hand to earn it. Strengthening food, the warmest bedroom, the best clothes – I was the only boy who wore his younger brother’s cast-off outfits!”
“And you never let me forget it.”
Caris had been waiting for the opportunity to halt the flow, and now she took it. “There ought to be a way around this.”
They both looked at her, surprised to be interrupted.
She went on: “For example, couldn’t the townspeople build a bridge?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Anthony. “The town belongs to the priory. A servant doesn’t furnish his master’s house.”
“But if your permission was sought, you would have no reason to refuse it.”
Anthony did not immediately contradict that, which was encouraging; but Edmund was shaking his head. “I don’t think I could persuade them to put up the money,” he said. “It would be in their interests, long term, of course; but people are very reluctant to think in the long term when being asked to part with their money.”
“Ha!” said Anthony. “Yet you expect me to think long term.”
“You deal with eternal life, don’t you?” Edmund shot back. “You of all people ought to be able to see beyond the end of next week. Besides, you get a penny toll from everyone who crosses the bridge. You’d get your money back and you’d benefit from the improvement in business.”
Caris said: “But Uncle Anthony is a spiritual leader, and he feels it’s not his role.”
“But he owns the town!” Papa protested. “He’s the only one who can do it!” Then he gave her an inquiring look, realizing that she would not have contradicted him without a reason. “What are you thinking?”
“Suppose the townspeople built a bridge, and were repaid out of the penny tolls?”
Edmund opened his mouth to express an objection, but could not think of one.
Caris looked at Anthony.
Anthony said: “When the priory was new, its only income came from that bridge. I can’t give it away.”
“But think what you would gain, if the Fleece Fair and the weekly market began to return to their former size: not just the bridge tolls, but stallholders’ fees, the percentage you take of all transactions at the fair, and gifts to the cathedral too!”
Edmund added: “And the profits on your own sales: wool, grain, hides, books, statues of the saints-”
Anthony said: “You planned this, didn’t you?” He pointed an accusing finger at his older brother. “You told your daughter what to say, and the lad. He would never think up a scheme like this, and she’s just a woman. It has your mark on it. This is all a plot to cheat me of my bridge tolls. Well, it’s failed. Praise God, I’m not that stupid!” He turned away and splashed off through the mud.
Edmund said: “I don’t know how my father ever sired someone with so little sense.” And he, too, stomped off.
Caris turned to Merthin. “Well,” she said, “what did you think of all that?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away, avoiding her eye. “Ed better get back to work.” He went without kissing her.
“Well!” she said when he was out of earshot. “What on earth has got into him?”
The earl of Shiring came to Kingsbridge on the Tuesday of Fleece Fair week. He brought with him both his sons, various other family members, and an entourage of knights and squires. The bridge was cleared by his advance men, and no one was permitted to cross for an hour before his arrival, lest he should suffer the indignity of being made to wait alongside the common people. His followers wore his red-and-black livery, and they all splashed into town with banners flying, their horses’ hooves spattering the citizens with rainwater and mud. Earl Roland had prospered in the last ten years – under Queen Isabella and, later, her son Edward III – and he wanted the world to know it, as rich and powerful men generally did.
In his company was Ralph, son of Sir Gerald and brother of Merthin. At the same time as Merthin had been apprenticed to Elfric’s father, Ralph had become a squire in the household of Earl Roland, and he had been happy ever since. He had been well fed and clothed, he had learned to ride and fight, and he had spent most of his time hunting and playing sports and games. In six and a half years no one had asked him to read or write a word. As he rode behind the earl through the huddled stalls of the Fleece Fair, watched by faces both envious and fearful, he pitied the merchants and tradesmen grubbing for pennies in the mud.
The earl dismounted at the prior’s house, on the north side of the cathedral. His younger son, Richard, did the same. Richard was bishop of Kingsbridge and the cathedral was, theoretically, his church. However, the bishop’s palace was in the county town of Shiring, two days’ journey away. This suited the bishop, whose duties were political as much as religious; and it suited the monks, who preferred not to be too closely supervised.
Richard was only twenty-eight, but his father was a close ally of the king, and that counted for more than seniority.
The rest of the entourage rode to the south end of the cathedral close. The earl’s elder son, William, lord of Caster, told the squires to stable the horses while half a dozen knights settled in to the hospital. Ralph moved quickly to help William’s wife, Lady Philippa, get down from her horse. She was a tall, attractive woman with long legs and deep breasts, and Ralph nurtured a hopeless love for her.
When the horses were settled, Ralph went to visit his mother and father. They lived rent-free in a small house in the south-west quarter of the town, by the river, in a neighbourhood made malodorous by the work of leather tanners. As he approached the house, Ralph felt himself shrivelling with shame inside his red-and-black uniform. He was grateful that Lady Philippa could not see the indignity of his parents’ situation.
He had not seen them for a year, and they seemed older. There was a lot of grey in his mother’s hair, and his father was losing his eyesight. They gave him cider made by the monks and wild strawberries Mother had gathered in the woods. Father admired his livery. “Has the earl made you a knight yet?” he asked eagerly.
It was the ambition of every squire to become a knight, but Ralph felt it more keenly than most. His father had never got over the humiliation, ten years ago, of being degraded to the position of pensioner of the priory. An arrow had pierced Ralph’s heart that day. The pain would not be eased until he had restored the family honour. But not all squires became knights. Nevertheless, Father always talked as if it were only a matter of time for Ralph.
“Not yet,” Ralph said. “But we’re likely to go to war with France before long, and that will be my chance.” He spoke lightly, not wishing to show how badly he yearned for the chance to distinguish himself in battle.
Mother was disgusted. “Why do kings always want war?”
Father laughed. “It’s what men were made for.”
“No, it’s not,” she said sharply. “When I gave birth to Ralph in pain and suffering, I didn’t intend that he should live to have his head cut off by a Frenchman’s sword or his heart pierced by a bolt from a crossbow.”
Father flapped a hand at her in a dismissive gesture and said to Ralph: “What makes you say there will be war?”
“King Philip of France has confiscated Gascony.”
“Ah. We can’t have that.”
English kings had ruled the western French province of Gascony for generations. They had given trade privileges to the merchants of Bordeaux and Bayonne, who did more business with London than with Paris. Still, there was always trouble.
Ralph said: “King Edward has sent ambassadors to Flanders to form alliances.”
“Allies may want money.”
“That’s why Earl Roland has come to Kingsbridge. The king wants a loan from the wool merchants.”
“The talk is of two hundred thousand pounds, nationwide, as an advance against the wool tax.”
Mother said bleakly: “The king should take care not to tax the wool merchants to death.”
Father said: “The merchants have plenty of money – just look at their fine clothes.” There was bitterness in his tone, and Ralph observed that he had on a worn linen undershirt and old shoes. “Anyway, they want us to stop the French navy interfering with their trade.” Over the last year, French ships had raided towns on the south coast of England, sacking the ports and setting fire to ships in the harbours.
“The French attack us, so we attack the French,” said Mother. “What is the sense of it?”
“Women will never understand,” Father replied.
“That’s the truth,” she said crisply.
Ralph changed the subject. “How is my brother?”
“He’s a fine craftsman,” said his father, and he sounded, Ralph thought, like a horse salesman saying that an undersized pony was a good mount for a woman.
Mother said: “He’s smitten with Edmund Wooler’s daughter.”
“Caris?” Ralph smiled. “He always liked her. We played together as children. She was a bossy little minx, but Merthin never seemed to mind. Will he marry her?”
“I expect so,” Mother said. “When he finishes his apprenticeship.”
“He’ll have his hands full.” Ralph got up. “Where do you think he is now?”
“He’s working in the north porch of the cathedral,” Father said. “But he might be having his dinner.”
“I’ll find him.” Ralph kissed them both and went out.
He returned to the priory and wandered through the fair. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining fitfully, glinting in the puddles and raising steam off the stallholders’ wet covers. He saw a familiar profile, and the regular footsteps of his heart faltered. It was the straight nose and strong jaw of Lady Philippa. She was older than Ralph, about twenty-five, he guessed. She was standing at a stall, looking at bolts of silk from Italy, and he drank in the way her light summer dress draped itself lasciviously over the curves of her hips. He made her an unnecessarily elaborate bow.
She glanced up and gave a perfunctory nod.
“Beautiful materials,” he said, trying to open a conversation.
At that moment, a diminutive figure with untidy carrot-coloured hair approached: Merthin. Ralph was delighted to see him. “This is my clever older brother,” he said to Philippa.
Merthin said to Philippa: “Buy the pale green – it matches your eyes.”
Ralph winced. Merthin should not have addressed her in such a familiar way.
However, she did not seem to mind too much. She spoke in a tone of mild reproof, saying: “When I want a boy’s opinion, I’ll ask my son,” but as she said it she gave him a smile that was almost flirtatious.
Ralph said: “This is the Lady Philippa, you fool! I apologize for my brother’s cheek, my lady.”
“What’s his name, anyway?”
“I’m Merthin Fitzgerald, at your service any time you find yourself hesitating over silks.”
Ralph took his arm and led him away before he could say anything else indiscreet. “I don’t know how you do it!” he said, with exasperation and admiration equally mixed. “It matches her eyes, does it? If I said something like that, she’d have me flogged.” He was exaggerating, but it was true that Philippa usually responded sharply to insolence. He did not know whether to be amused or angry that she had been indulgent to Merthin.
“That’s me,” Merthin said. “Every woman’s dream.”
Ralph detected bitterness in his tone. “Is anything wrong?” he said. “How’s Caris?”
“I’ve done something stupid,” Merthin replied. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s look around while the sun’s out.”
Ralph noticed a stall where a monk with ash-blond hair was selling cheese. “Watch this,” he said to Merthin. He approached the stall and said: “This looks tasty, brother – where does it come from?”
“We make it at St-John-in-the-Forest. It’s a small cell, or branch, of Kingsbridge Priory. I’m the prior there – my name is Saul Whitehead.”
“It makes me hungry to look at it. I wish I could buy some – but the earl keeps us squires penniless.”
The monk cut a slice off the wheel of cheese and gave it to Ralph. “Then you shall have some for nothing, in the name of Jesus,” he said.
“Thank you, Brother Saul.”
As they walked away, Ralph grinned at Merthin and said: “See? As easy as taking an apple from a child.”
“And about as admirable,” Merthin said.
“But what a fool, to give his cheese away to anyone with a sob story!”
“He probably thinks it’s better to risk being made a fool of than to deny food to a starving man.”
“You’re a bit sour today. How come you’re allowed to cheek a noblewoman, but I can’t talk a stupid monk into giving me free cheese?”
Merthin surprised him with a grin. “Just like when we were boys, eh?”
“Exactly!” Now Ralph did not know whether to be angry or amused. Before he could make up his mind, a pretty girl approached him with eggs on a tray. She was slim, with a small bust under a homespun dress, and he imagined her breasts to be pale and round like the eggs. He smiled at her: “How much?” he said, though he had no need of eggs.
“A penny for twelve.”
“Are they good?”
She pointed at a nearby stall. “They’re from these hens.”
“And have the hens been well serviced by a healthy rooster?” Ralph saw Merthin roll up his eyes in mock despair at this sally.
However, the girl played along. “Yes, sir,” she said with a smile.
“Lucky hens, eh?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not. A maid understands little of these things.” Ralph scrutinized her. She had fair hair and a turned-up nose. She was about eighteen, he guessed.
She batted her eyelids and said: “Don’t stare at me, please.”
From behind the stall a peasant – no doubt the girl’s father – had called: “Annet! Come here.”
“So your name is Annet,” Ralph said.
She ignored the summons.
Ralph said: “Who is your father?”
“Perkin from Wigleigh.”
“Really? My friend Stephen is lord of Wigleigh. Is Stephen good to you?”
“Lord Stephen is just and merciful,” she said dutifully.
Her father called again. “Annet! You’re wanted here.”
Ralph knew why Perkin was trying to get her away. He would not mind if a squire wanted to marry his daughter: that would be a step up the social ladder for her. But he feared that Ralph wanted to dally with her then discard her. And he was right.
“Don’t go, Annet Wigleigh,” Ralph said.
“Not until you’ve bought what I’m offering.”
Beside them, Merthin groaned: “One is as bad as the other.”
Ralph said: “Why don’t you put down the eggs and come with me. We could stroll along the river bank.” Between the river and the wall of the priory grounds there was a wide bank, covered at this time of year with wild flowers and bushes, where courting couples traditionally went.
But Annet was not that easy. “My father would be displeased,” she said.
“Let’s not worry about him.” There was not much a peasant could do to oppose the will of a squire, especially when the squire was wearing the livery of a great earl. It was an insult to the earl to lay hands on one of his servants. The peasant might try to dissuade his daughter, but it would be risky for him to restrain her forcibly.
However, someone else came to Perkin’s aid. A youthful voice said: “Hello, Annet, is all well?”
Ralph turned to the newcomer. He looked about sixteen, but he was almost as tall as Ralph, with broad shoulders and big hands. He was strikingly handsome, with regular features that might have been carved by a cathedral sculptor. He had thick tawny hair and the beginnings of a beard the same colour.
Ralph said: “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Wulfric from Wigleigh, sir.” Wulfric was deferential, but not afraid. He turned back to Annet and said: “I’ve come to help you sell some eggs.”
The boy’s muscular shoulder came between Ralph and Annet, his stance protecting the girl and at the same time excluding Ralph. It was mildly insolent, and Ralph felt a stirring of anger. “Get out of the way, Wulfric Wigleigh,” he said. “You’re not wanted here.”
Wulfric turned again and gave him a level look. “I’m betrothed to this woman, sir,” he said. Once again, the tone was respectful but the attitude fearless.
Perkin spoke up. “That’s true, sir – they are to be married.”
“Don’t talk to me about your peasant customs,” Ralph said contemptuously. “I don’t care if she’s married to the oaf.” It angered him to be spoken to this way by his inferiors. It was not their place to tell him what to do.
Merthin butted in. “Let’s go, Ralph,” he said. “I’m hungry, and Betty Baxter is selling hot pies.”
“Pies?” Ralph said. “I’m more interested in eggs.” He picked up one of the eggs on her tray and fondled it suggestively, then he put it down and touched her left breast. It was firm to his fingertips, and egg-shaped.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She sounded indignant, but she did not move away.
He squeezed gently, enjoying the sensation. “Examining the goods on offer.”
“Take your hands off me.”
“In a minute.”
Then Wulfric shoved him violently.
Ralph was taken by surprise. He had not expected to be attacked by a peasant. He staggered back, stumbled, and fell to the ground with a thump. He heard someone laugh, and amazement gave way to humiliation. He sprang to his feet, enraged.
He was not wearing his sword, but he had a long dagger at his belt. However, it would be undignified to use weapons on an unarmed peasant: he could lose the respect of the earl’s knights and the other squires. He would have to punish Wulfric with his fists.
Perkin stepped from behind his stall, speaking rapidly. “A clumsy mistake, sir, not intended, the lad is deeply sorry, I assure you-”
However, his daughter seemed unafraid. “Boys, boys!” she said in a tone of mock reprimand, but she seemed more pleased than anything else.
Ralph ignored them both. He took one step towards Wulfric and raised his right fist. Then, when Wulfric lifted both arms to defend his face from the blow, Ralph drove his left fist into the boy’s belly.
It was not as soft as he had expected. All the same, Wulfric bent forward, his face twisted in agony, both hands going to his midriff; whereupon Ralph hit him full in the face with his right fist, catching him high on the cheekbone. The punch hurt his hand but brought joy to his soul.
To his astonishment, Wulfric hit him back.
Instead of crumpling to the floor and lying there waiting to be kicked, the peasant boy came back with a right-handed punch that had all the strength of his shoulders behind it. Ralph’s nose seemed to explode in blood and pain. He roared with anger.
Wulfric stepped back, seeming to realize what a terrible thing he had done, and he dropped both arms, holding his palms upwards.
But it was too late to be sorry. Ralph hit him with both fists on the face and body, a storm of blows that Wulfric feebly tried to ward off by holding up his arms and ducking his head. As he punched him, Ralph wondered vaguely why the boy did not run away, and guessed he was hoping to take his punishment now rather than face worse later. He had guts, Ralph realized; but that made him even angrier. He hit him harder, again and again, and he was filled with an emotion that was both rage and ecstasy. Merthin tried to intervene. “For the love of Christ, enough,” he said, putting a hand on Ralph’s shoulder; but Ralph shook him off.
At last Wulfric’s hands fell to his sides and he staggered, dazed, his handsome face covered in blood, his eyes closing; then he fell down. Ralph started to kick him. Then a burly man in leather trousers appeared and spoke with a voice of authority: “Now then, young Ralph, don’t murder the boy.”
Ralph recognized John, the town constable, and said indignantly: “He attacked me!”
“Well, he’s not attacking you any more, is he, sir? Lying on the ground like that with his eyes shut.” John put himself in front of Ralph. “I’d rather do without the trouble of a coroner’s inquiry.”
People crowded around Wulfric: Perkin; Annet, who was flushed with excitement; the Lady Philippa; and several bystanders.
The ecstatic feeling left Ralph, and his nose hurt like hell. He could breathe only through his mouth. He tasted blood. “That animal punched my nose,” he said, and he sounded like a man with a heavy cold.
“Then he shall be punished,” said John.
Two men who looked like Wulfric appeared: his father and his elder brother, Ralph guessed. They helped Wulfric to his feet, shooting angry glances at Ralph.
Perkin spoke up. He was a fat man with a sly face. “The squire threw the first punch,” he said.
Ralph said: “The peasant deliberately shoved me!”
“The squire insulted Wulfric’s wife-to-be.”
The constable said: “No matter what the squire may have said, Wulfric should know better than to lay hands on a servant of Earl Roland’s. I should think the earl will expect him to be severely dealt with.”
Wulfric’s father spoke up. “Is there a new law, John Constable, that says a man in livery may do what he likes?”
There was a mutter of agreement from the small crowd now gathered. Young squires caused a lot of trouble, and often escaped punishment because they were wearing the colours of some baron; and this was deeply resented by law-abiding tradesmen and peasants.
Lady Philippa intervened. “I’m the earl’s daughter-in-law, and I saw the whole thing,” she said. Her voice was low and melodious, but she spoke with the authority of high rank. Ralph expected her to take his side, but to his dismay she went on: “I’m sorry to say that this was entirely Ralph’s fault. He fondled the girl’s body in a most outrageous way.”
“Thank you, my lady,” John Constable said deferentially. He lowered his voice to confer with her. “But I think the earl might not want the peasant lad to go unpunished.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “We don’t want this to be the start of a lengthy dispute. Put the boy in the stocks for twenty-four hours. It won’t do him much harm, at his age, but everyone will know that justice has been done. That will satisfy the earl – I’ll answer for him.”
John hesitated. Ralph could see that the constable did not like taking orders from anyone but his master, the prior of Kingsbridge. However, Philippa’s decision would surely satisfy all parties. Ralph himself would have liked to see Wulfric flogged, but he was beginning to suspect that he did not come out of this as a hero, and he would look worse if he demanded a harsh punishment. After a moment John said: “Very well, Lady Philippa, if you’re willing to take responsibility.”
“Right.” John took Wulfric by the arm and led him away. The lad had recovered fast, and was able to walk normally. His family followed. Perhaps they would bring him food and drink while he was in the stocks, and make sure he was not pelted.
Merthin said to Ralph: “How are you?”
Ralph felt as if the middle of his face were swelling like an inflated bladder. His vision was blurred, his speech was a nasal honk, and he was in pain. “I’m fine,” he said. “Never better.”
“Let’s get a monk to look at your nose.”
“No.” Ralph was not afraid of fights, but he hated the things physicians did: bleeding and cupping and lancing boils. “All I need is a bottle of strong wine. Take me to the nearest tavern.”
“All right,” Merthin said, but he did not move. He was giving Ralph a queer look.
Ralph said: “What’s the matter with you?”
“You don’t change, do you?”
Ralph shrugged. “Does anyone?”
Godwyn was completely fascinated by Timothy’s Book. It was a history of Kingsbridge Priory and, like most such histories, it began with the creation by God of heaven and earth. But mostly it recounted the era of Prior Philip, two centuries ago, when the cathedral was built – a time now regarded by the monks as a golden age. The author, Brother Timothy, claimed that the legendary Philip had been a stern disciplinarian as well as a man of compassion. Godwyn was not sure how you could be both.
On the Wednesday of Fleece Fair week, in the study hour before the service of Sext, Godwyn sat on a high stool in the monastery library, the book open on a lectern before him. This was his favourite place in the priory: a spacious room, well lit by high windows, with almost a hundred books in a locked cupboard. It was normally hushed, but today he could hear, from the far side of the cathedral, the muffled roar of the fair – a thousand people buying and selling, haggling and quarrelling, calling their wares, and shouting encouragement at cock-fighting and bear-baiting.
At the back of the book, later authors had tracked the descendants of the cathedral builders down to the present day. Godwyn was pleased – and frankly surprised – to find confirmation of his mother’s theory that she was descended from Tom Builder through Tom’s daughter Martha. He wondered what family traits might have come down from Tom. A mason needed to be a shrewd businessman, he supposed, and Godwyn’s grandfather and his uncle Edmund had that quality. His cousin Caris also showed signs of the same flair. Perhaps Tom had also had the green eyes flecked with yellow that they all shared.
Godwyn also read about Tom Builder’s stepson, Jack, the architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral, who had married the Lady Aliena and fathered a dynasty of earls of Shiring. He was the ancestor of Caris’s sweetheart, Merthin Fitzgerald. That made sense: young Merthin was already showing unparalleled ability as a carpenter. Timothy’s Book even mentioned Jack’s red hair, which had been inherited by Sir Gerald and Merthin, though not Ralph.
What interested him most was the book’s chapter on women. It seemed there had been no nuns at Kingsbridge in Prior Philip’s day. Women had been strictly forbidden to enter the monastery buildings. The author, quoting Philip, said that if possible a monk should never look at a female, for his own peace of mind. Philip disapproved of combined monastery-nunneries, saying the advantages of shared facilities were outweighed by the opportunities for the devil to introduce temptation. Where there was a double house, the separation of monks and nuns should be as rigid as possible, he added.
Godwyn felt the thrill of finding authoritative support for a pre-existing conviction. At Oxford he had enjoyed the all-male environment of Kingsbridge College. The university teachers were men, as were the students, without exception. He had hardly spoken to a female for seven years and, if he kept his eyes on the ground as he walked through the city, he could even avoid looking at them. On his return to the priory, he had found it disturbing to see nuns so frequently. Although they had their own cloisters, refectory, kitchen and other buildings, he met them constantly in the church, the hospital, and other communal areas. At this moment there was a pretty young nun called Mair just a few feet away, consulting an illustrated book on medicinal herbs. It was even worse to encounter girls from the town, with their close-fitting clothes and alluring hairstyles, casually walking through the priory grounds on everyday errands, bringing supplies to the kitchen or visiting the hospital.
Clearly, he thought, the priory had fallen from Philip’s high standards – another example of the slackness that had crept in under the rule of Anthony, Godwyn’s uncle. But perhaps there was something he could do about this.
The bell rang for Sext, and he closed the book. Sister Mair did the same, and smiled at him, her red lips forming a sweet curve as she did so. He looked away and hurried out of the room.
The weather was improving, the sun shining fitfully between showers of rain. In the church, the stained-glass windows brightened and faded as patchy clouds blew across the sky. Godwyn’s mind was equally restless, distracted from his prayers by thoughts of how he could best use Timothy’s Book to inspire a revival in the priory. He decided he would raise the subject at chapter, the daily meeting of all the monks.
The builders were getting on quickly with the repairs to the chancel after last Sunday’s collapse, he noted. The rubble had been cleared away and the area had been roped off. There was a growing stack of thin, lightweight stones in the transept. The men did not stop work when the monks began to sing – there were so many services during the course of a normal day that the repairs would have been severely delayed. Merthin Fitzgerald, who had temporarily abandoned his work on the new door, was in the south aisle, constructing an elaborate spider web of ropes, branches and hurdles on which the masons would stand as they rebuilt the vaulted ceiling. Thomas Langley, whose job it was to supervise the builders, was standing in the south transept with Elfric, pointing with his one arm at the collapsed vault, obviously discussing Merthin’s work.
Thomas was effective as matricularius: he was decisive, and he never let things slip. Any morning the builders failed to show up – a frequent irritation – Thomas would go and find them and demand to know why. If he had a fault, it was that he was too independent: he rarely reported progress or asked Godwyn’s opinion, but got on with the work as if he were his own master rather than Godwyn’s subordinate. Godwyn had an annoying suspicion that Thomas doubted his ability. Godwyn was younger, but only slightly: he was thirty-one, Thomas thirty-four. Perhaps Thomas thought that Godwyn had been promoted by Anthony under pressure from Petranilla. However, he showed no other sign of resentment. He just did things his own way.
As Godwyn watched, murmuring the responses of the service automatically, Thomas’s conversation with Elfric was interrupted. Lord William of Caster came striding into the church. He was a tall, black-bearded figure very like his father, and equally harsh, though people said he was sometimes softened by his wife, Philippa. He approached Thomas and waved Elfric away. Thomas turned to William, and something in his stance reminded Godwyn that Thomas had once been a knight, and had first arrived at the priory bleeding from the sword wound that had eventually necessitated the amputation of his left arm at the elbow.
Godwyn wished he could hear what Lord William was saying. William was leaning forward, speaking aggressively, pointing a finger. Thomas, unafraid, answered with equal vigour. Godwyn suddenly remembered Thomas having just such an intense, combative conversation ten years ago, on the day he arrived here. On that occasion, he had been arguing with William’s younger brother, Richard – then a priest, now the bishop of Kingsbridge. Perhaps it was fanciful, but Godwyn imagined they were quarrelling about the same thing today. What could it be? Could there really be an issue between a monk and a noble family that was still a cause of anger after ten years?
Lord William stamped off, evidently unsatisfied, and Thomas turned back to Elfric.
The argument ten years ago had resulted in Thomas’s joining the priory. Godwyn recalled that Richard had promised a donation to secure Thomas’s admittance. Godwyn had never heard any more about that donation. He wondered if it had ever been paid.
In all that time, no one at the priory seemed to have learned much about Thomas’s former life. That was curious: monks gossiped constantly. Living closely together in a small group – there were twenty-six at present – they tended to know almost everything about one another. What lord had Thomas served? Where had he lived? Most knights ruled over a few villages, receiving rents that enabled them to pay for horses, armour and weapons. Had Thomas had a wife and children? If so, what had become of them? No one knew.
Apart from the mystery of his background, Thomas was a good monk, devout and hard-working. It seemed as if this existence suited him better than his life as a knight. Despite his former career of violence, there was something of the woman about him, as there was about many monks. He was very close to Brother Matthias, a sweet-natured man a few years younger than he. But, if they were committing sins of impurity, they were very discreet about it, for no accusation had ever been made.
Towards the end of the service Godwyn glanced into the deep gloom of the nave and saw his mother, Petranilla, standing as still as one of the pillars, a shaft of sunlight illuminating her proud grey head. She was alone. He wondered how long she had been there, watching. Lay people were not encouraged to attend the weekday services, and Godwyn guessed she was here to see him. He felt the familiar mixture of pleasure and apprehension. She would do anything for him, he knew. She had sold her house and become her brother Edmund’s housekeeper just so that he could study at Oxford; when he thought of the sacrifice that entailed for his proud mother, he wanted to weep with gratitude. Yet her presence always made him anxious, as if he were going to be reprimanded for some transgression.
As the monks and nuns filed out, Godwyn peeled off from the procession and approached her. “Good morning, Mama.”
She kissed his forehead. “You look thin,” she said with maternal anxiety. “Aren’t you getting enough to eat?”
“Salt fish and porridge, but there’s plenty of it,” he said.
“What are you so excited about?” She could always read his mood.
He told her about Timothy’s Book. “I could read the passage during chapter,” he said.
“Would others support you?”
“Theodoric and the younger monks would. A lot of them find it disturbing to see women all the time. After all, they have all chosen to live in an all-male community.”
She nodded approvingly. “This casts you in the role of leader. Excellent.”
“Besides, they like me because of the hot stones.”
“I introduced a new rule in the winter. On frosty nights, when we go into church for Matins, each monk is given a hot stone wrapped in a rag. It prevents them getting chilblains in their feet.”
“Very clever. All the same, check your support before you make your move.”
“Of course. But it fits in with what the masters teach at Oxford.”
“Mankind is fallible, so we should not rely on our own reasoning. We cannot hope to understand the world – all we can do is stand amazed at God’s creation. True knowledge comes only from revelation. We should not question received wisdom.”
Mother looked sceptical, as lay people often did when educated men tried to explain high philosophy. “And this is what bishops and cardinals believe?”
“Yes. The University of Paris has actually banned the works of Aristotle and Aquinas because they are based on rationality rather than faith.”
“Will this way of thinking help you find favour with your superiors?”
That was all she really cared about. She wanted her son to be prior, bishop, archbishop, even cardinal. He wanted the same, but he hoped he was not as cynical as she. “I’m sure of it,” he replied.
“Good. But that’s not why I came to see you. Your uncle Edmund has suffered a blow. The Italians are threatening to take their custom to Shiring.”
Godwyn was shocked. “That will ruin his business.” But he was not sure why she had made a special visit to tell him.
“Edmund thinks he can win them back if we improve the Fleece Fair, and in particular if we tear down the old bridge and build a new, wider one.”
“Let me guess: Uncle Anthony refused.”
“But Edmund has not given up.”
“You want me to talk to Anthony?”
She shook her head. “You can’t persuade him. But, if the subject comes up in chapter, you should support the proposal.”
“And go against Uncle Anthony?”
“Whenever a sensible proposal is opposed by the old guard, you must be identified as leader of the reformers.”
Godwyn smiled admiringly. “Mama, how do you know so much about politics?”
“I’ll tell you.” She looked away, her eyes focusing on the great rose window at the east end, her mind in the past. “When my father started to trade with the Italians, he was treated as an upstart by the leading citizens of Kingsbridge. They turned up their noses at him and his family, and did everything they could to prevent him implementing his new ideas. My mother was dead by then, and I was an adolescent, so I became his confidante, and he told me everything.” Her face, normally fixed in an expression of frozen calm, twisted now into a mask of bitterness and resentment: her eyes narrowed, her lip curled, and her cheek flushed with remembered shame. “He decided he would never be free of them until he took control of the parish guild. So that’s what he set out to do, and I helped him.” She drew a deep breath, as if once again gathering her strength for a long war. “We divided the ruling group, set one faction against the other, made alliances then shifted them, ruthlessly undermined our opponents, and used our supporters until it suited us to discard them. It took us ten years and, at the end of it, he was alderman of the guild and the richest man in town.”
She had told him the story of his grandfather before, but never in quite such bluntly honest terms. “So you were his aide, as Caris is to Edmund?”
She gave a short, harsh laugh. “Yes. Except that, by the time Edmund took over, we were the leading citizens. My father and I climbed the mountain, and Edmund just had to walk down the other side.”
They were interrupted by Philemon. He came into the church from the cloisters, a tall, scrawny-necked man of twenty-two, walking like a bird with short, pigeon-toed steps. He carried a broom: he was employed by the priory as a cleaner. He seemed excited. “I’ve been looking for you, Brother Godwyn.”
Petranilla ignored his obvious hurry. “Hello, Philemon, haven’t they made you a monk yet?”
“I can’t raise the necessary donation, Mistress Petranilla. I come from a humble family.”
“But it’s not unknown for the priory to waive the donation in the case of an applicant who shows devotion. And you’ve been a servant of the priory, paid and unpaid, for years.”
“Brother Godwyn has proposed me, but some of the older monks argued against me.”
Godwyn put in: “Blind Carlus hates Philemon – I don’t know why.”
Petranilla said: “I’ll speak to my brother Anthony. He should overrule Carlus. You’re a good friend to my son – I’d like to see you get on.”
“Thank you, mistress.”
“Well, you’re obviously bursting to tell Godwyn something that can’t be said in front of me, so I’ll take my leave.” She kissed Godwyn. “Remember what I said.”
“I will, Mama.”
Godwyn felt relieved, as if a storm cloud had passed overhead and gone on to drench some other town.
As soon as Petranilla was out of earshot, Philemon said: “It’s Bishop Richard!”
Godwyn raised his eyebrows. Philemon had a way of learning people’s secrets. “What have you found out?”
“He’s in the hospital, right now, in one of the private rooms upstairs – with his cousin Margery!”
Margery was a pretty girl of sixteen. Her parents – a younger brother of Earl Roland, and a sister of the countess of Marr – were both dead, and she was Roland’s ward. He had arranged for her to marry a son of the earl of Monmouth, in a political alliance that would greatly strengthen Roland’s position as the leading nobleman of south-west England. “What are they doing?” Godwyn said, though he could guess.
Philemon lowered his voice. “Kissing!”
“How do you know?”
“I’ll show you.”
Philemon led the way out of the church via the south transept, through the monks’ cloisters, and up a flight of steps to the dormitory. It was a plain room with two rows of simple wooden bedsteads, each having a straw mattress. It shared a party wall with the hospital. Philemon went to a large cupboard that contained blankets. With an effort, he pulled it forward. In the wall behind it there was a loose stone. Momentarily Godwyn wondered how Philemon had come across this peephole, and guessed he might have hidden something in the gap. Philemon lifted the stone out, careful to make no noise, and whispered: “Look, quick!”
Godwyn hesitated. In a low voice he said: “How many other guests have you observed from here?”
“All of them,” Philemon replied, as if that should have been obvious.
Godwyn thought he knew what he was going to see, and he did not relish it. Peeping at a misbehaving bishop might be all right for Philemon, but it seemed shamefully underhand. However, his curiosity urged him on. In the end he asked himself what his mother would advise, and knew immediately that she would tell him to look.
The hole in the wall was a little below eye level. He stooped and peeked through.
He was looking into one of the two private guest rooms upstairs at the hospital. In one corner stood a prie-dieu facing a wall painting of the crucifixion. There were two comfortable chairs and a couple of stools. When there was a crowd of important guests, the men took one room and the women the other; and this was clearly the women’s room, for on a small table were several distinctly feminine articles: combs, ribbons, and mysterious small jars and vials.
On the floor were two straw mattresses. Richard and Margery lay on one of them. They were doing more than kissing.
Bishop Richard was an attractive man with wavy mid-brown hair and regular features. Margery was not much more than half his age, a slender girl with white skin and dark eyebrows. They lay side by side. Richard was kissing her face and speaking into her ear. A smile of pleasure played upon his fleshy lips. Margery’s dress was pushed up around her waist. She had beautiful long white legs. His hand was between her thighs, moving with a practised, regular motion: although Godwyn had no experience of women, somehow he knew what Richard was doing. Margery looked at Richard adoringly, her mouth half open, panting with excitement, her face flushed with passion. Perhaps it was mere prejudice, but Godwyn sensed intuitively that Richard saw Margery as a plaything of the moment, whereas Margery believed Richard was the love of her life.
Godwyn stared at them for a horrified moment. Richard moved his hand, and suddenly Godwyn was looking at the triangle of coarse hair between Margery’s thighs, dark against her white skin, like her eyebrows. Quickly, he looked away.
“Let me see,” said Philemon.
Godwyn moved away from the wall. This was shocking, but what should he do about it – if anything?
Philemon looked through the hole and gave a gasp of excitement. “I can see her cunt!” he whispered. “He’s rubbing it!”
“Come away from there,” Godwyn said. “We’ve seen enough – too much.”
Philemon hesitated, fascinated; then, reluctantly, he moved away and replaced the loose stone. “We must expose the bishop’s fornication at once!” he said.
“Shut your mouth and let me think,” Godwyn said. If he did as Philemon suggested he would make enemies of Richard and his powerful family – and to no purpose. But surely there was a way something like this could be turned to advantage? Godwyn tried to think about it as his mother would. If there was nothing to be gained by revealing Richard’s sin, was it possible to make a virtue of concealing it? Perhaps Richard would be grateful to Godwyn for keeping it secret.
That was more promising. But for it to work, Richard had to know that Godwyn was protecting him.
“Come with me,” Godwyn said to Philemon.
Philemon moved the cupboard back into place. Godwyn wondered whether the sound of the wood scraping on the floor was audible in the next room. He doubted it – and, anyway, Richard and Margery were surely too absorbed in what they were doing to notice noises from beyond the wall.
Godwyn led the way down the stairs and through the cloisters. There were two staircases to the private rooms: one led up from the hospital’s ground floor, and the other was outside the building, permitting important guests to come and go without passing through the common people’s quarters. Godwyn hurried up the outside stairs.
He paused outside the room where Richard and Margery were and spoke to Philemon quietly. “Follow me in,” he said. “Do nothing. Say nothing. Leave when I leave.”
Philemon put down his broom.
“No,” Godwyn said. “Carry it.”
Godwyn threw open the door and strode in. “I want this chamber immaculately clean,” he said loudly. “Sweep every corner – oh! I beg your pardon! I thought the room was empty!”
In the time it had taken Godwyn and Philemon to rush from the dormitory to the hospital, the lovers had progressed. Richard now lay on top of Margery, his long clerical robe lifted in front. Her shapely white legs stuck straight up in the air either side of the bishop’s hips. There was no mistaking what they were doing.
Richard ceased his thrusting motion and looked at Godwyn, his expression a mixture of angry frustration and frightened guilt. Margery gave a cry of shock and she, too, stared at Godwyn with fear in her eyes.
Godwyn drew the moment out. “Bishop Richard!” he said, feigning bewilderment. He wanted Richard to be in no doubt that he had been recognized. “But how… and Margery?” He pretended to understand suddenly. “Forgive me!” He spun on his heel. He shouted at Philemon: “Get out! Now!” Philemon scuttled back through the door, still clutching his broom.
Godwyn followed, but he turned at the door, to make sure Richard got a good look at him. The two lovers remained frozen in position, locked in sexual congress, but their faces had changed. Margery’s hand had flown to her mouth in the eternal gesture of surprised guilt. Richard’s expression had become frantically calculating. He wanted to speak but he could not think what to say. Godwyn decided to put them out of their misery. He had done everything he needed to do.
He stepped out – then, before he could close the door, a shock made him stop. A woman was coming up the stairs. He suffered a moment of Panic. It was Philippa, the wife of the earl’s other son.
He realized instantly that Richard’s guilty secret would lose its value if someone else knew it. He had to warn Richard. “Lady Philippa!” he said in a loud voice. “Welcome to Kingsbridge Priory!”
Urgent scuffling noises came from behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Richard leap to his feet.
Luckily, Philippa did not march straight past, but stopped and spoke to Godwyn. “Perhaps you can help me.” From where she stood, she could not quite see into the room, he thought. “I’ve lost a bracelet. It’s not precious, just carved wood, but I’m fond of it.”
“What a shame,” Godwyn said sympathetically. “I’ll ask all the monks and nuns to look out for it.”
Philemon said: “I haven’t seen it.”
Godwyn said to Philippa: “Perhaps it slipped from your wrist.”
She frowned. “The odd thing is, I haven’t actually worn it since I got here. I took it off when I arrived, and put it on the table, and now I can’t find it.”
“Perhaps it rolled into a dark corner. Philemon here will look for it. He cleans the guest rooms.”
Philippa looked at Philemon. “Yes, I saw you as I was leaving, an hour or so ago. You didn’t spot it when you swept the room?”
“I didn’t sweep. Miss Margery came in just as I was getting started.”
Godwyn said: “Philemon has just come back to clean your room, but Miss Margery is -” he looked into the room – “at prayer,” he finished. Margery was kneeling on the prie-dieu, eyes closed – begging forgiveness for her sin, Godwyn hoped. Richard stood behind her, head bowed, hands clasped, lips moving in a murmur.
Godwyn stepped aside to let Philippa enter the room. She gave her brother-in-law a suspicious look. “Hello, Richard,” she said. “It’s not like you to pray on a weekday.”
He put his finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, and pointed to Margery on the prayer stool.
Philippa said briskly: “Margery can pray as much as she likes, but this is the women’s room, and I want you out.”
Richard concealed his relief and left, closing the door on the two women.
He and Godwyn stood face to face in the hallway. Godwyn could tell that Richard did not know what line to take. He might be inclined to say: How dare you burst into a room without knocking? However, he was so badly in the wrong that he probably could not summon up the nerve to bluster. On the other hand, he could hardly beg Godwyn to keep quiet about what he had seen, for that would be to acknowledge himself in Godwyn’s power. It was a moment of painful awkwardness.
While Richard hesitated, Godwyn spoke. “No one shall hear of this from me.”
Richard looked relieved, then glanced at Philemon. “What about him?”
“Philemon wants to be a monk. He is learning the virtue of obedience.”
“I’m in your debt.”
“A man should confess his own sins, not those of others.”
“All the same, I’m grateful, Brother…?”
“Godwyn, the sacrist. I’m the nephew of Prior Anthony.” He wanted Richard to know that he was sufficiently well connected to make serious trouble. But, to take the edge off the threat, he added: “My mother was betrothed to your father, many years ago, before your father became the earl.”
“I’ve heard that story.”
Godwyn wanted to add: And your father spurned my mother, just as you’re planning to spurn the wretched Margery. But instead he said pleasantly: “We might have been brothers.”
The bell rang for dinner. Relieved of their embarrassment, the three men parted company: Richard to Prior Anthony’s house, Godwyn to the monks’ refectory, and Philemon to the kitchen to help serve.
Godwyn was thoughtful as he walked through the cloisters. He was upset by the animal scene he had witnessed, but he felt he had handled it well. At the end, Richard had seemed to trust him.
In the refectory Godwyn sat next to Theodoric, a bright monk a couple of years younger than he. Theodoric had not studied at Oxford, and in consequence he looked up to Godwyn. Godwyn treated him as an equal, which flattered Theodoric. “I’ve just read something that will interest you,” Godwyn said. He summarized what he had read about the revered Prior Philip’s attitude to women in general and nuns in particular. “It’s what you’ve always said,” he finished. In fact, Theodoric had never expressed an opinion on the subject, but he always agreed when Godwyn complained about Prior Anthony’s slackness.
“Of course,” Theodoric said. He had blue eyes and fair skin, and now he flushed with excitement. “How can we have pure thoughts when we are constantly distracted by females?”
“But what can we do about it?”
“We must confront the prior.”
“In chapter, you mean,” Godwyn said, as if it were Theodoric’s idea rather than his own. “Yes, excellent plan. But would others support us?”
“The younger monks would.”
Young men probably agreed with more or less any criticism of their elders, Godwyn thought. But he also knew that many monks shared his own preference for a life in which women were absent or, at least, invisible. “If you talk to anyone between now and chapter, let me know what they say,” he said. That would encourage Theodoric to go around whipping up support.
The dinner arrived, a stew of salt fish and beans. Before Godwyn could begin to eat, he was prevented by Friar Murdo.
Friars were monks who lived among the people instead of secluding themselves in monasteries. They felt that their self-denial was more rigorous than that of institutional monks, whose vow of poverty was compromised by their splendid buildings and extensive landholdings. Traditionally friars had no property, not even churches – although many had slipped from this ideal after pious admirers gave them land and money. Those who still lived by the original principles scrounged their food and slept on kitchen floors. They preached in market places and outside taverns, and were rewarded with pennies. They did not hesitate to sponge on ordinary monks for food and lodging any time it suited their convenience. Not surprisingly, their assumption of superiority was resented.
Friar Murdo was a particularly unpleasant example: fat, dirty, greedy, often drunk, and sometimes seen in the company of prostitutes. But he was also a charismatic preacher who could hold a crowd of hundreds with his colourful, theologically dubious sermons.
Now he stood up, uninvited, and began to pray in a loud voice. “Our Father, bless this food to our foul, corrupt bodies, as full of sin as a dead dog is full of maggots…”
Murdo’s prayers were never short. Godwyn put down his spoon with a sigh.
There was always a reading in chapter – usually from the Rule of St Benedict, but often from the Bible, and occasionally other religious books. As the monks were taking their places on the raked stone benches around the octagonal chapter house, Godwyn sought out the young monk who was due to read today and told him, quietly but firmly, that he, Godwyn, would be reading instead. Then, when the moment came, he read the crucial page from Timothy’s Book.
He felt nervous. He had returned from Oxford a year ago, and he had been quietly talking to people about reforming the priory ever since; but, until this moment, he had not openly confronted Anthony. The prior was weak and lazy, and needed to be shocked out of his lethargy. Furthermore, St Benedict had written: “All must be called to chapter, for the Lord often reveals to a younger member what is best.” Godwyn was perfectly entitled to speak out in chapter and call for stricter compliance with monastic rules. All the same, he suddenly felt he was running a risk, and wished he had taken longer to think about his tactics in using Timothy’s Book.
But it was too late for regrets. He closed the book and said: “My question, to myself and my brethren, is this: Have we slipped below the standards of Prior Philip in the matter of separation between monks and females?” He had learned, in student debates, to put his argument in the form of a question whenever he could, giving his opponent as little as possible to argue against.
The first to reply was Blind Carlus, the sub-prior, Anthony’s deputy. “Some monasteries are located far from any centre of population, on an uninhabited island, or deep in the forest, or perched on a lonely mountain top,” he said. His slow, deliberate speech made Godwyn fidget with impatience. “In such houses, the brothers seclude themselves from all contact with the secular world,” he went on unhurriedly. “Kingsbridge has never been like that. We’re in the heart of a great city, the home of seven thousand souls. We care for one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom. Many of us are physicians, because St Benedict said: ‘Special care must be taken of the sick, so that in very deed they be looked after as if it were Christ himself.’ The luxury of total isolation has not been granted to us. God has given us a different mission.”
Godwyn had expected something like this. Carlus hated furniture to be moved, for then he would stumble over it; and he opposed any other kind of change, out of a parallel anxiety about coping with the unfamiliar.
Theodoric had a quick answer to Carlus. “All the more reason for us to be strict about the rules,” he said. “A man who lives next door to a tavern must be extra careful to avoid drunkenness.”
There was a murmur of pleased agreement: the monks enjoyed a smart riposte. Godwyn gave a nod of approval. The fair-skinned Theodoric blushed with gratification.
Emboldened, a novice called Juley said in a loud whisper: “Women don’t bother Carlus, he can’t see them.” Several monks laughed, though others shook their heads in disapproval.
Godwyn felt it was going well. He seemed to be winning the argument, so far. Then Prior Anthony said: “Exactly what are you proposing, Brother Godwyn?” He had not been to Oxford, but he knew enough to press for his opponent’s real agenda.
Reluctantly, Godwyn put his cards on the table. “We might consider reverting to the position as it was in the time of Prior Philip.”
Anthony persisted: “What do you mean by that, exactly? No nuns?”
“But where would they go?”
“The nunnery could be removed to another location, and become a remote cell of the priory, like Kingsbridge College, or St-John-in-the-Forest.”
That shocked them. There was a clamour of comment, which the prior suppressed with difficulty. The voice that emerged from the hubbub was that of Joseph, the senior physician. He was a clever man, but proud, and Godwyn was wary of him. “How would we run a hospital without nuns?” he said. His bad teeth caused him to slur his sibilants, making him sound drunk, but he spoke with no less authority. “They administer medicines, change dressings, feed the incapable, comb the hair of senile old men-”
Theodoric said: “Monks could do all that.”
“Then what about childbirth?” Joseph said. “We often deal with women who are having difficulty bringing a baby into the world. How could monks help them without nuns to do the actual… handling?”
Several men voiced their agreement, but Godwyn had anticipated this question, and now he said: “Suppose the nuns removed to the old lazar house?” The leper colony – or lazar house – was on a small island in the river on the south side of the town. In the old days it had been full of sufferers, but leprosy seemed to be dying out, and now there were only two occupants, both elderly.
Brother Cuthbert, who was a wit, muttered: “I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Mother Cecilia she’s being moved to a leper colony.” There was a ripple of laughter.
“Women should be ruled by men,” said Theodoric.
Prior Anthony said: “And Mother Cecilia is ruled by Bishop Richard. He would have to make a decision such as this.”
“Heaven forbid that he should,” said a new voice. It was Simeon, the treasurer. A thin man with a long face, he spoke against every proposal that involved spending money. “We could not survive without the nuns,” he said.
Godwyn was taken by surprise. “Why not?” he said.
“We don’t have enough money,” Simeon said promptly. “When the cathedral needs repair, who do you think pays the builders? Not us – we can’t afford it. Mother Cecilia pays. She buys supplies for the hospital, parchment for the scriptorium and fodder for the stables. Anything used communally by both monks and nuns is paid for by her.”
Godwyn was dismayed. “How can this be? Why are we dependent on them?”
Simeon shrugged. “Over the years, many devout women have given the nunnery land and other assets.”
That was not the whole story, Godwyn felt sure. The monks also had extensive resources. They collected rent and other charges from just about every citizen of Kingsbridge, and they held thousands of acres of farmland too. The way the wealth was husbanded must be a factor. But there was no point going into that now. He had lost the argument. Even Theodoric was silent.
Anthony said complacently: “Well, that was a most interesting discussion. Thank you, Godwyn, for asking the question. And now let us pray.”
Godwyn was too angry for prayer. He had gained nothing of what he wanted, and he was unsure where he had gone wrong.
As the monks filed out, Theodoric gave him a frightened look and said: “I didn’t know the nuns paid for so much.”
“None of us knew,” Godwyn said. He realized he was glaring at Theodoric, and made amends hastily, adding: “But you were splendid – you debated better than many an Oxford man.”
It was just the right thing to say, and Theodoric looked happy.
This was the hour for monks to read in the library or walk in the cloisters, meditating, but Godwyn had other plans. Something had been nagging him all through dinner and chapter. He had thrust it to the back of his mind, because more important things had intervened, but now it came back. He thought he knew where Lady Philippa’s bracelet might be.
There were few hiding places in a monastery. The monks lived communally: no one but the prior had a room to himself. Even in the latrine they sat side by side over a trough that was continuously flushed by a stream of piped water. They were not permitted to have personal possessions, so no one had his own cupboard or even box.
But today Godwyn had seen a hiding place.
He went upstairs to the dormitory. It was empty. He pulled the blanket cupboard away from the wall and removed the loose stone, but he did not look through the hole. Instead, he put his hand into the gap, exploring. He felt the top, bottom and sides of the hole. To the right there was a small fissure. Godwyn eased his fingers inside and touched something that was neither stone nor mortar. Scrabbling with his fingertips, he drew the object out.
It was a carved wooden bracelet.
Godwyn held it to the light. It was made of some hard wood, probably oak. The inner surface was smoothly polished, but the outside was carved with an interlocking design of bold squares and diagonals, executed with pleasing precision: Godwyn could see why Lady Philippa was fond of it.
He put it back, restored the loose stone and returned the cupboard to its usual position.
What did Philemon want with such a thing? He might be able to sell it for a penny or two, though that would be dangerous because it was so recognizable. But he certainly could not wear it.
Godwyn left the dormitory and went down the stairs to the cloisters. He was in no mood for study or meditation. He needed to talk over the day’s events. He felt the need to see his mother.
The thought made him apprehensive. She might berate him for his failure in chapter. But she would praise him for his handling of Bishop Richard, he felt sure, and he was eager to tell her the story. He decided to go in search of her.
Strictly speaking, this was not allowed. Monks were not supposed to roam about the streets of the town at will. They needed a reason, and in theory they were supposed to ask the prior’s permission before leaving the precincts. But in practice, the obedientiaries – monastic officials – had dozens of excuses. The priory did business constantly with merchants, buying food, cloth, shoes, parchment, candles, garden tools, tack for horses, all the necessities of everyday life. The monks were landlords, owning almost the entire city. And any one of the physicians might be called to see a patient who was unable to walk to the hospital. So it was common to see monks in the streets, and Godwyn, the sacrist, was not likely to be asked to explain what he was doing out of the monastery.
Nevertheless it was wise to be discreet, and he made sure he was not observed as he left the priory. He passed through the busy fair and went quickly along the main street to his Uncle Edmund’s house.
As he hoped, Edmund and Caris were out doing business, and he found his mother alone but for the servants. “This is a treat for a mother,” she said. “To see you twice in one day! And it gives me a chance to feed you up.” She poured him a big tankard of strong ale and told the cook to bring a plate of cold beef. “What happened in chapter?” she said.
He told her the story. “I was in too much of a hurry,” he said at the end.
She nodded. “My father used to say: Never call a meeting until the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”
Godwyn smiled. “I must remember that.”
“All the same, I don’t think you’ve done any harm.”
That was a relief. She was not going to be angry. “But I lost the argument,” he said.
“You also established your position as leader of the reformist younger group.”
“Even though I made a fool of myself?”
“Better than being a nonentity.”
He was not sure she was right about that but, as usual when he doubted the wisdom of his mother’s advice, he did not challenge her, but resolved to think about it later. “Something very odd happened,” he said, and he told her about Richard and Margery, leaving out the gross physical details.
She was surprised. “Richard must be mad!” she said. “The wedding will be called off if the earl of Monmouth finds out that Margery isn’t a virgin. Earl Roland will be furious. Richard could be unfrocked.”
“But a lot of bishops have mistresses, don’t they?”
“That’s different. A priest may have a ‘housekeeper’ who is his wife in all but name. A bishop may have several. But to take the virginity of a noblewoman shortly before her wedding – even the son of an earl might find it difficult to survive as a clergyman after that.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Nothing. You’ve handled it perfectly so far.” He glowed with pride. She added: “One day this information will be a powerful weapon. Just remember it.”
“There’s one more thing. I wondered how Philemon had come across the loose stone, and it occurred to me that he might have used it initially as a hiding place. I was right – and I found a bracelet that Lady Philippa had lost.”
“Interesting,” she said. “I have a strong feeling that Philemon will be useful to you. He’ll do anything, you see. He has no scruples, no morals. My father had an associate who was always willing to do his dirty work – start rumours, spread poisonous gossip, foment strife. Such men can be invaluable.”
“So you don’t think I should report the theft.”
“Certainly not. Make him give the bracelet back, if you think it’s important – he can just say he found it while sweeping. But don’t expose him. You’ll reap the benefit, I guarantee.”
“So I should protect him?”
“As you would a mad dog that mauls intruders. He’s dangerous, but he’s worth it.”
On Thursday, Merthin completed the door he was carving.
He had finished work in the south aisle, for the present. The scaffolding was in place. There was no need for him to make formwork for the masons, as Godwyn and Thomas were determined to save money by trying Merthin’s method of building without it. So he returned to his carving and realized there was little left to do. He spent an hour improving a wise virgin’s hair, and another on a foolish virgin’s silly smile, but he was not sure he was making them any better. He found it difficult to make decisions, because his mind kept wandering to Caris and Griselda.
He had hardly been able to bring himself to speak to Caris all week. He felt so ashamed of himself. Every time he saw Caris, he thought of how he had embraced Griselda, and kissed her, and done with her the most loving act of human life – a girl he did not like, let alone love. Although he had formerly spent many happy hours imagining the moment when he would do that with Caris, now the prospect was filled with dread. There was nothing wrong with Griselda – well, there was, but that was not what disturbed him. He would have felt the same if it had been any woman other than Caris. He had taken away the meaning of the act by doing it with Griselda. And now he could not face the woman he loved.
While he was staring at his work, trying to stop thinking about Caris and decide whether the door was finished or not, Elizabeth Clerk walked into the north porch. She was a pale, thin beauty of twenty-five with a cloud of fair curls. Her father had been the bishop of Kingsbridge before Richard. He had lived, like Richard, in the bishop’s palace at Shiring, but on his frequent visits to Kingsbridge he had fallen for a serving wench at the Bell – Elizabeth’s mother. Because of her illegitimacy, Elizabeth was sensitive about her social position, alert to the least slight and quick to take offence. But Merthin liked her because she was clever, and because when he was eighteen she had kissed him and let him feel her breasts, which were high on her chest and flat, as if moulded from shallow cups, with nipples that hardened at the gentlest touch. Their romance had ended over something that seemed trivial to him and unforgivable to her – a joke he had made about randy priests – but he still liked her.
She touched his shoulder and looked at the door. Her hand went to her mouth, and she drew in her breath. “They seem alive!” she said.
He was thrilled. Her praise was not lightly given. All the same, he felt an impulse to be modest. “It’s only that I’ve made each one individual. On the old door, the virgins were identical.”
“It’s more than that. They look as if they might step forward and talk to us.”
“But it’s so different from everything else in the cathedral. What will the monks say?”
“Brother Thomas likes it.”
“What about the sacrist?”
“Godwyn? I don’t know what he’ll think. But if there’s a fuss I’ll appeal to Prior Anthony – who won’t want to commission another door and pay twice.”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “the Bible doesn’t say that they were all alike, of course – just that five had the sense to get ready well in advance, and the other five left arrangements until the last minute and ended up missing the party. But what about Elfric?”
“It’s not for him.”
“He’s your master.”
“He only cares about getting the money.”
She was not convinced. “The problem is that you’re a better craftsman than he. That’s been obvious for a couple of years, and everyone knows it. Elfric would never admit it, but that’s why he hates you. He may make you regret this.”
“You always see the black side.”
“Do I?” She was offended. “Well, we’ll see if I’m right. I hope I’m wrong.” She turned to go.
“I’m really pleased you think it’s good.”
She did not reply, but she seemed a bit mollified. She waved goodbye and left.
Merthin decided the door was finished. He wrapped it in coarse sacking. He would have to show it to Elfric, and now was as good a time as any: the rain had stopped, for a while at least.
He got one of the labourers to help him carry the door. The builders had a technique for carrying heavy, awkward objects. They laid two stout poles on the ground, parallel, then placed boards crosswise on the poles in the centre to provide a firm base. They manhandled the object on to the boards. Then they stood between the poles, one man at each end, and lifted. The arrangement was called a stretcher, and it was also used for carrying sick people to the hospital.
Even so, the door was very heavy. However, Merthin was used to difficult lifting. Elfric had never allowed him to make an excuse of his slight stature, and the result was that he had become surprisingly strong.
The two men reached Elfric’s house and carried the door inside. Griselda was sitting in the kitchen. She seemed to be getting more voluptuous by the day – her large breasts appeared to be growing even bigger. Merthin hated to be at odds with people, so he tried to be friendly. “Do you want to see my door?” he said as they passed her.
“Why would I want to look at a door?”
“It’s carved. The story of the wise and foolish virgins.”
She gave a humourless laugh. “Don’t tell me about virgins.”
They carried it through to the yard. Merthin did not understand women. Griselda had been cold to him ever since they had made love. If that was how she felt, why had she done it? She was making it clear she did not want to do it again. He could have reassured her that he felt the same way – in fact he loathed the prospect – but that would be insulting, so he said nothing.
They put down the stretcher and Merthin’s helper left. Elfric was in the yard, his brawny body bent over a stack of timber, counting planks, tapping each beam with a piece of square-cut wood a couple of feet long, sticking his tongue into his cheek as he did whenever he faced a mental challenge. He glared at Merthin and carried on, so Merthin said nothing, but unwrapped the door and stood it up against a pile of stone blocks. He was extraordinarily proud of what he had done. He had followed the traditional pattern but at the same time he had done something original that made people gasp. He could hardly wait to see the door installed in the church.
“Forty-seven,” Elfric said, then he turned to Merthin.
“I finished the door,” Merthin said proudly. “What do you think?”
Elfric looked at the door for a moment. He had a big nose, and his nostrils twitched in surprise. Then, without warning, he hit Merthin across the face with the stick he had been using to count. It was a solid piece of wood and the blow was hard. Merthin cried out in sudden agony, staggered back and fell to the ground.
“You piece of filth!” Elfric yelled. “You defiled my daughter!”
Merthin tried to sputter a protest, but his mouth was full of blood.
“How dare you?” Elfric bellowed.
As if at a signal, Alice appeared from inside the house. “Snake!” she screamed. “You slithered into our home and deflowered our little girl!”
They were pretending to be spontaneous, but they must have planned this, Merthin thought. He spat blood and said: “Deflowered? She was no virgin!”
Elfric lashed out again with his improvised club. Merthin rolled out of the way, but the blow landed painfully on his shoulder.
Alice said: “How could you do this to Caris? My poor sister – when she finds out, it will break her heart.”
Merthin was stung into a response. “And you’ll be sure to tell her, won’t you, you bitch.”
“Well, you’re not going to marry Griselda in secret,” Alice said.
Merthin was astonished. “Marry? I’m not marrying her. She hates me!”
With that, Griselda appeared. “I certainly don’t want to marry you,” she said. “But I’ll have to. I’m pregnant.”
Merthin stared at her. “That’s not possible – we only did it once.”
Elfric laughed harshly. “It only takes once, you young fool.”
“I’m still not marrying her.”
“If you don’t, you’ll be sacked,” Elfric said.
“You can’t do that.”
“I don’t care, I’m not going to marry her.”
Elfric dropped the club and picked up an axe.
Merthin said: “Jesus Christ!”
Alice took a step forward. “Elfric, don’t commit murder.”
“Get out of the way, woman.” Elfric lifted the axe.
Merthin, still on the ground, scooted away, in fear of his life.
Elfric brought the axe down, not on Merthin, but on his door.
Merthin shouted: “No!”
The sharp blade sank into the face of the long-haired virgin and split the wood along the grain.
Merthin yelled: “Stop it!”
Elfric lifted the axe again and brought it down even harder. It split the door in two.
Merthin got to his feet. To his horror, he felt his eyes fill with tears. “You have no right!” He was trying to shout, but his voice came out in a whisper.
Elfric lifted the axe and turned towards him. “Stay back, boy – don’t tempt me.”
Merthin saw a mad light in Elfric’s eye, and backed away.
Elfric brought the axe down on the door again.
Merthin stood and watched with tears pouring down his face.
The two dogs, Skip and Scrap, greeted one another with joyful enthusiasm. They were from the same litter, though they did not look similar: Skip was a brown boy dog and Scrap a small black female. Skip was a typical village dog, lean and suspicious, whereas the city-dwelling Scrap was plump and contented.
It was ten years since Gwenda had picked Skip out of a litter of mongrel puppies, on the floor of Caris’s bedroom in the wool merchant’s big house, the day Caris’s mother died. Since then, Gwenda and Caris had become close friends. They met only two or three times a year, but they shared their secrets. Gwenda felt she could tell Caris everything and the information would never get back to her parents or anyone else in Wigleigh. She assumed Caris felt the same: because Gwenda did not talk to any other Kingsbridge girls, there could be no risk of her letting something slip in a careless moment.
Gwenda arrived in Kingsbridge on the Friday of Fleece Fair week. Her father, Joby, went to the fairground in front of the cathedral to sell the furs of squirrels he had trapped in the forest near Wigleigh. Gwenda went straight to Caris’s house, and the two dogs were reunited.
As always, Gwenda and Caris talked about boys. “Merthin is in a strange mood,” Caris said. “On Sunday he was his normal self, kissing me in church – then, on Monday, he could hardly look me in the eye.”
“He’s feeling guilty about something,” Gwenda said immediately.
“It’s probably connected with Elizabeth Clerk. She’s always had her eye on him, though she’s a cold bitch and much too old for him.”
“Have you and Merthin done it yet?”
“You know… When I was little, I used to call it Grunting, because that was the noise grown-ups made while they were doing it.”
“Oh, that? No, not yet.”
“I don’t know…”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Yes, but… don’t you worry about spending your life doing some man’s bidding?”
Gwenda shrugged. “I don’t like the idea but, on the other hand, I don’t worry about it.”
“What about you? Have you done it yet?”
“Not properly. I said yes to a boy from the next village, years ago, just to see what it was like. It’s a nice warm glow, like drinking wine. That was the only time. But I’d let Wulfric do it any time he liked.”
“Wulfric? This is new!”
“I know. I mean, I’ve known him since we were small, when he used to pull my hair and run away. Then one day, soon after Christmas, I looked at him as he came into church, and I realized he’d become a man. Well, not just a man, but a really gorgeous man. He had snow in his hair and a sort of mustard-coloured scarf around his neck, and he just looked glowing.”
“Do you love him?”
Gwenda sighed. She did not know how to say what she felt. It was not just love. She thought about him all the time, and she did not know how she could live without him. She daydreamed about kidnapping him and locking him up in a hut deep in the forest so that he could never escape from her.
“Well, the look on your face answers my question,” Caris said. “Does he love you?”
Gwenda shook her head. “He never even speaks to me. I wish he’d do something to show that he knows who I am, even if it was only pulling my hair. But he’s in love with Annet, the daughter of Perkin. She’s a selfish cow, but he adores her. Her father and his are the two wealthiest men in the village. Her father raises laying hens and sells them, and his father has fifty acres.”
“You make it sound hopeless.”
“I don’t know. What’s hopeless? Annet might die. Wulfric might suddenly realize he’s always loved me. My father might be made earl and order him to marry me.”
Caris smiled. “You’re right. Love is never hopeless. I’d like to see this boy.”
Gwenda stood up. “I was hoping you’d say that. Let’s go and find him.”
They left the house, the dogs following at their heels. The rainstorms that had lashed the town earlier in the week had given way to occasional showers, but the main street was still a stream of mud. Because of the fair, the mud was mixed with animal droppings, rotten vegetables, and all the litter and filth of a thousand visitors.
As they splashed through the disgusting puddles, Caris asked about Gwenda’s family.
“The cow died,” Gwenda said. “Pa needs to buy another, but I don’t know how he’s going to do it. He only has a few squirrel furs to sell.”
“A cow costs twelve shillings this year,” Caris said with concern. “That’s a hundred and forty-four silver pennies.” Caris always did arithmetic in her head: she had learned Arabic numbers from Buonaventura Caroli, and she said that made it easy.
“For the last few winters that cow has kept us alive – especially the little ones.” The pain of extreme hunger was familiar to Gwenda. Even with the cow to give milk, four of Ma’s babies had died. No wonder Philemon had longed to be a monk, she thought: it was worth almost any sacrifice to have hearty meals provided every day without fail.
Caris said: “What will your father do?”
“Something underhand. It’s difficult to steal a cow – you can’t slip it into your satchel – but he’ll have a crafty scheme.” Gwenda was sounding more confident than she felt. Pa was dishonest, but not clever. He would do anything he could, legal or not, to get another cow, but he might just fail.
They passed through the priory gates into the wide fairground. The traders were wet and miserable on the sixth day of bad weather. They had exposed their stock to the rain and got little in return.
Gwenda felt awkward. She and Caris almost never talked about the disparity in wealth between the two families. Every time Gwenda visited, Caris would quietly give her a present to take home: a cheese, a smoked fish, a bolt of cloth, a jar of honey. Gwenda would thank her – and she was always profoundly grateful – but no more would be said. When Pa tried to make her take advantage of Caris’s trust by stealing from the house, Gwenda would argue that she would then be unable to visit again, whereas this way she came home with something two or three times a year. Even Pa could see the sense of that.
Gwenda looked for the stall where Perkin would be selling his hens. Annet would probably be there and, wherever Annet was, Wulfric would not be far away. Gwenda was right. There was Perkin, fat and sly, greasily polite to his customers, curt to everyone else. Annet was carrying a tray of eggs, smiling coquettishly, the tray pulling her dress tight against her breasts, her fair hair straying from her hat in wisps that played around her pink cheeks and her long neck. And there was Wulfric, looking like an archangel who had lost his way and wandered among humankind by mistake.
“There he is,” Gwenda murmured. “The tall one with-”
“I can tell which one he is,” Caris said. “He looks good enough to eat.”
“You see what I mean.”
“He’s a bit young, isn’t he?”
“Sixteen. I’m eighteen. Annet is eighteen too.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Gwenda said. “He’s too handsome for me.”
“Handsome men never fall for ugly women, do they?”
“You’re not ugly-”
“I’ve seen myself in a glass.” The memory was painful, and Gwenda grimaced. “I cried when I realized what I looked like. I have a big nose and my eyes are too close together. I resemble my father.”
Caris protested: “You have beautiful soft brown eyes, and wonderful thick hair.”
“But I’m not in Wulfric’s class.”
Wulfric was standing side-on to Gwenda and Caris, giving them a good view of his carved profile. They both admired him for a moment – then he turned, and Gwenda gasped. The other side of his face was completely different: bruised and swollen, with one eye closed.
She ran up to him. “What happened to you?” she cried.
He was startled. “Oh, hello, Gwenda. I had a fight.” He half turned away, obviously embarrassed.
“Some squire of the earl’s.”
He looked impatient. “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
He did not understand why she was concerned, of course. Perhaps ne even thought she was revelling in his misfortune. Then Caris spoke. “Which squire?” she said.
Wulfric looked at her with interest, realizing from her dress that she was a wealthy woman. “His name is Ralph Fitzgerald.”
“Oh – Merthin’s brother!” Caris said. “Was he hurt?”
“I broke his nose.” Wulfric looked proud.
“Weren’t you punished?”
“A night in the stocks.”
Gwenda gave a little cry of anguish. “Poor you!”
“It wasn’t so bad. My brother made sure no one pelted me.”
“Even so…” Gwenda was horrified. The idea of being imprisoned in any way seemed to her the worst kind of torture.
Annet finished with a customer and joined in the conversation. “Oh, it’s you, Gwenda,” she said coldly. Wulfric might be oblivious to Gwenda’s feelings, but Annet was not, and she treated Gwenda with a mixture of hostility and scorn. “Wulfric fought a squire who insulted me,” she said, unable to conceal her satisfaction. “He was just like a knight in a ballad.”
Gwenda said sharply: “I wouldn’t want him to get his face hurt for my sake.”
“Fortunately, that’s not very likely, is it?” Annet smiled triumphantly.
Caris said: “One never knows what the future may hold.”
Annet looked at her, startled by the interruption, and showed surprise that Gwenda’s companion was so expensively dressed.
Caris took Gwenda’s arm. “Such a pleasure to meet you Wigleigh folk,” she said graciously. “Goodbye.”
They walked on. Gwenda giggled. “You were terribly condescending to Annet.”
“She annoyed me. Her kind give women a bad name.”
“She was so pleased that Wulfric got beaten up for her sake! I’d like to poke out her eyes.”
Caris said thoughtfully: “Apart from his good looks, what is he actually like?”
“Strong, proud, loyal – just the type to get into a fight on someone else’s behalf. But he’s the kind of man who will provide tirelessly for his family, year in and year out, until the day he drops dead.”
Caris said nothing.
Gwenda said: “He doesn’t appeal to you, does he?”
“You make him sound a bit dull.”
“If you’d grown up with my father, you wouldn’t think a good provider was dull.”
“I know.” Caris squeezed Gwenda’s arm. “I think he’s wonderful for you – and, to prove it, I’m going to help you get him.”
Gwenda was not expecting that. “How?”
“Come with me.”
They left the fairground and walked to the north end of the town. Caris led Gwenda to a small house in a side street near St Mark’s parish church. “A wise woman lives here,” she said. Leaving the dogs outside, they ducked through a low doorway.
The single, narrow downstairs room was divided by a curtain. In the front half were a chair and a bench. The fireplace had to be at the back, Gwenda thought, and she wondered why someone would want to hide whatever went on in the kitchen. The room was clean, and there was a strong smell, herby and slightly acid, hardly a perfume but not unpleasant. Caris called out: “Mattie, it’s me.”
After a moment, a woman of about forty pulled aside the curtain and came through. She had grey hair and pale indoor skin. She smiled when she saw Caris. Then she gave Gwenda a hard look and said: “I see your friend is in love – but the boy hardly speaks to her.”
Gwenda gasped: “How did you know?”
Mattie sat on the chair heavily: she was stout, and short of breath. “People come here for three reasons: sickness, revenge and love. You look healthy, and you’re too young for revenge, so you must be in love. And the boy must be indifferent to you, otherwise you wouldn’t need my help.”
Gwenda glanced at Caris, who looked pleased and said: “I told you she was wise.” The two girls sat on the bench and looked expectantly at the woman.
Mattie went on: “He lives close to you, probably in the same village; but his family are wealthier than yours.”
“All true.” Gwenda was amazed. No doubt Mattie was guessing, but she was so accurate it seemed as if she must have second sight.
“Is he handsome?”
“But he’s in love with the prettiest girl in the village.”
“If you like that type.”
“And her family, too, is wealthier than yours.”
Mattie nodded. “A familiar story. I can help you. But you must understand something. I have nothing to do with the spirit world. Only God can work miracles.”
Gwenda was puzzled. Everyone knew that the spirits of the dead controlled all of life’s hazards. If they were pleased with you, they would guide rabbits to your traps, give you healthy babies, and make the sun shine on your ripening corn. But if you did something to anger them, they could put worms in your apples, cause your cow to give birth to a deformed calf, and make your husband impotent. Even the physicians at the priory admitted that prayers to the saints were more efficacious than their medicines.
Mattie went on: “Don’t despair. I can sell you a love potion.”
“I’m sorry, I have no money.”
“I know. But your friend Caris is extraordinarily fond of you, and she wants you to be happy. She came here prepared to pay for the potion. However, you must administer it correctly. Can you get the boy alone for an hour?”
“I’ll find a way.”
“Put the potion in his drink. Within a short time he will become amorous. That’s when you must be alone with him – if there is another girl in sight he may fall for her instead. So keep him away from other women, and be very sweet to him. He will think you the most desirable woman in the world. Kiss him, tell him he’s wonderful, and – if you want – make love to him. After a while, he will sleep. When he wakes up, he will remember that he spent the happiest hour of his life in your arms, and he’ll want to do it again as soon as he can.”
“But won’t I need another dose?”
“No. The second time, your love and desire and femininity will be enough. A woman can make any man blissfully happy if he gives her the chance.”
The very thought made Gwenda feel lustful. “I can’t wait.”
“Then let’s make up the mixture.” Mattie heaved herself out of the chair. “You can come behind the curtain,” she said. Gwenda and Caris followed her. “It’s only there for the ignorant.”
The kitchen had a clean stone floor and a big fireplace equipped with stands and hooks for cooking and boiling, far more than one woman would need for her own food. There was a heavy old table, stained and scorched but scrubbed clean; a shelf with a row of pottery jars; and a locked cupboard, presumably containing the more precious ingredients used in Mattie’s potions. Hanging on the wall was a large slate with numbers and letters scratched on it, presumably recipes. “Why do you need to hide all this behind a curtain?” Gwenda said.
“A man who makes ointments and medicines is called an apothecary, but a woman who does the same runs the risk of being called a witch. There’s a woman in town called Crazy Nell who goes around shouting about the devil. Friar Murdo has accused her of heresy. Nell is mad, it’s true, but there’s no harm in her. All the same, Murdo is insisting on a trial. Men like to kill a woman, every now and again, and Murdo will give them an excuse, and collect their pennies afterwards as alms. That’s why I always tell people that only God works miracles. I don’t conjure spirits. I just use the herbs of the forest and my powers of observation.”
While Mattie talked, Caris was moving about the kitchen as freely as if she were at home. She put a mixing bowl and a vial on the table. Mattie handed her a key, and she opened the cupboard. “Put three drops of essence of poppies into a spoonful of distilled wine,” Mattie said. “We must be careful not to make the mixture over-strong, or he will go to sleep too soon.”
Gwenda was astonished. “Are you going to make the potion, Caris?”
“I sometimes help Mattie. Don’t say anything to Petranilla, she would disapprove.”
“I wouldn’t tell her if her hair was on fire.” Caris’s aunt disliked Gwenda, probably for the same reason she would disapprove of Mattie: they were both low-class, and such things mattered to Petranilla.
But why was Caris, the daughter of a wealthy man, working like an apprentice in the kitchen of a side-street medicine woman? While Caris made up the mixture, Gwenda recalled that her friend had always been intrigued by illness and cures. As a little girl, Caris had wanted to be a physician, not understanding that only priests were allowed to study medicine. Gwenda remembered her saying, after her mother had died: “But why do people have to fall sick?” Mother Cecilia had told her it was because of sin; Edmund had said that no one really knew. Neither response had satisfied Caris. Perhaps she was still seeking the answer here in Mattie’s kitchen.
Caris poured the liquid into a tiny jar, stoppered it, and bound the stopper tightly with cord, tying the ends in a knot. Then she handed the jar to Gwenda.
Gwenda tucked it into the leather purse attached to her belt. She wondered how on earth she was going to get Wulfric on his own for an hour. She had glibly said that she would find a way but, now that she had the love potion in her possession, the task seemed nearly impossible. He showed signs of restlessness if she merely spoke to him. He wanted to be with Annet any free time he had. What reason would Gwenda give for needing to be alone with him? “I want to show you a place where we can get wild duck eggs.” But why would she show him and not her father? Wulfric was a little naive, but not stupid: he would know she was up to something.
Caris gave Mattie twelve silver pennies – two weeks’ wages for Pa. Gwenda said: “Thank you, Caris. I hope you’ll come to my wedding.”
Caris laughed. “That’s what I like to see – confidence!”
They left Mattie and headed back to the fair. Gwenda decided to begin by finding out where Wulfric was staying. His family were too well off to claim poverty, so they could not stay free at the priory. They would probably be lodging in a tavern. She could just casually ask him, or his brother, and follow up with a question about the standard of accommodation, as if she were interested to know which of the town’s many inns was the best.
A monk passed by, and Gwenda realized with a guilty start that she had not even thought about trying to see her brother, Philemon. Pa would not visit him, for they had hated one another for years; but Gwenda was fond of him. She knew that he was sly, untruthful and malicious, but all the same he loved her. They had been through many hungry winters together. She would seek him out later, she resolved, after she had seen Wulfric again.
But, before she and Caris reached the fairground, they met Gwenda’s father.
Joby was near the priory gates, outside the Bell. With him was a rough-looking man in a yellow tunic, with a pack on his back – and a brown cow.
He waved Gwenda over. “I’ve found a cow,” he said.
Gwenda looked more closely. It was two years old, and thin, with a bad-tempered look, but it appeared healthy. “It seems fine,” she said.
“This is Sim Chapman,” he said, jerking a thumb at the yellow tunic. A chapman travelled from village to village selling small necessities – needles, buckles, hand mirrors, combs. He might have stolen the cow, but that would not bother Pa, if the price was right.
Gwenda said to her father: “Where did you get the money?”
“I’m not paying, exactly,” he replied, looking shifty.
Gwenda had expected him to have some scheme. “What, then?”
“It’s more of a swap.”
“What are you giving him in exchange for the cow?”
“You,” said Pa.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, and then she felt a loop of rope dropped over her head and tightened around her body, pinning her arms to her sides.
She felt bewildered. This could not be happening. She struggled to free herself, but Sim just pulled the rope tighter.
“Now, don’t make a fuss,” Pa said.
She could not believe they were serious. “What do you think you’re doing?” she said incredulously. “You can’t sell me, you fool!”
“Sim needs a woman, and I need a cow,” Pa said. “It’s very simple.”
Sim spoke for the first time. “She’s ugly enough, your daughter.”
“This is ridiculous!” Gwenda said.
Sim smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Gwenda,” he said. “I’ll be good to you, as long as you behave yourself, and do as you’re told.”
They meant it, Gwenda saw. They actually thought they could make this exchange. A cold needle of fear entered her heart as she realized it might even happen.
Caris spoke up. “This joke has gone on long enough,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “Release Gwenda immediately.”
Sim was not intimidated by her air of command. “And who are you, to give orders?”
“My father is alderman of the parish guild.”
“But you’re not,” Sim said. “And even if you were, you’d have no authority over me or my friend Joby.”
“You can’t trade a girl for a cow!”
“Why not?” said Sim. “It’s my cow, and the girl is his daughter.”
Their raised voices attracted the attention of passers-by, who stopped to stare at the girl tied up with a rope. Someone said: “What’s happening?” Another replied: “He’s sold his daughter for a cow.” Gwenda saw a look of panic cross her father’s face. He was wishing he had done this up a quiet alley – but he was not smart enough to have foreseen the public reaction. Gwenda realized the bystanders might be her only hope.
Caris waved to a monk who came out of the priory gates. “Brother Godwyn!” she called. “Come and settle an argument, please.” She looked triumphantly at Sim. “The priory has jurisdiction over all bargains agreed at the Fleece Fair,” she said. “Brother Godwyn is the sacrist. I think you’ll have to accept his authority.”
Godwyn said: “Hello, cousin Caris. What’s the matter?”
Sim grunted with disgust. “Your cousin, is he?”
Godwyn gave him a frosty look. “Whatever the dispute is here, I shall try to give a fair judgement, as a man of God – you can depend on me for that, I hope.”
“And very glad to hear it, sir,” Sim said, becoming obsequious.
Joby was equally oily. “I know you, brother – my son Philemon is devoted to you. You’ve been the soul of kindness to him.”
“All right, enough of that,” Godwyn said. “What’s going on?”
Caris said: “Joby here wants to sell Gwenda for a cow. Tell him he can’t.”
Joby said: “She’s my daughter, sir, and she’s eighteen years old and a maid, so she’s mine to do with what I will.”
Godwyn said: “All the same, it seems a shameful business, selling your children.”
Joby became pathetic. “I wouldn’t do it, sir, only I’ve three more at home, and I’m a landless labourer, with no means to feed the children through the winter, unless I have a cow, and our old one has died.”
There was a sympathetic murmur from the growing crowd. They knew about winter hardship, and the extremes to which a man might have to go to feed his family. Gwenda began to despair.
Sim said: “Shameful you may think it, Brother Godwyn, but is it a sin?” He spoke as if he already knew the answer, and Gwenda guessed he might have had this argument before, in a different place.
With obvious reluctance, Godwyn said: “The Bible does appear to sanction selling your daughter into slavery. The book of Exodus, chapter twenty-one.”
“Well, there you are, then!” said Joby. “It’s a Christian act!”
Caris was outraged. “The book of Exodus!” she said scornfully.
One of the bystanders joined in. “We are not the children of Israel,” she said. She was a small, chunky woman with an underbite that gave her jaw a determined look. Although dressed poorly, she was assertive. Gwenda recognized her as Madge, the wife of Mark Webber. “There is no slavery today,” Madge said.
Sim said: “Then what of apprentices, who get no pay, and may be beaten by their master? Or novice monks and nuns? Or those who skivvy for bed and board in the palaces of the nobility?”
Madge said: “Their life may be hard, but they can’t be bought and sold – can they, Brother Godwyn?”
“I don’t say that the trade is lawful,” Godwyn responded. “I studied medicine at Oxford, not law. But I can find no reason, in Holy Scripture or the teachings of the Church, to say that what these men are doing is a sin.” He looked at Caris and shrugged. “I’m sorry, cousin.”
Madge Webber folded her arms across her chest. “Well, chapman, how are you going to take the girl out of town?”
“At the end of a rope,” he said. “Same way I brought the cow in.”
“Ah, but you didn’t have to get the cow past me and these people.”
Gwenda’s heart leaped with hope. She was not sure how many of the bystanders supported her, but if it came to a fight they were more likely to side with Madge, who was a townswoman, than with Sim, an outsider.
“I’ve dealt with obstinate women before,” Sim said, and his mouth twisted as he spoke. “They’ve never given me much trouble.”
Madge put her hand on the rope. “Perhaps you’ve been lucky.”
He snatched the rope away. “Keep your hands off my property and you won’t get hurt.”
Deliberately, Madge put a hand on Gwenda’s shoulder.
Sim shoved Madge roughly, and she staggered back; but there was a murmur of protest from the crowd.
A bystander said: “You wouldn’t do that if you’d seen her husband.”
There was a ripple of laughter. Gwenda recalled Madge’s husband, Mark, a gentle giant. If only he would show up!
But it was John Constable who arrived, his well-developed nose for trouble bringing him to any crowd almost as soon as it gathered. “We’ll have no shoving,” he said. “Are you causing trouble, chapman?”
Gwenda became hopeful again. Chapmen had a bad reputation, and the constable was assuming Sim was the cause of the trouble.
Sim turned obsequious, something he could obviously do quicker than changing his hat. “Beg pardon, Master Constable,” he said. “But when a man has paid an agreed price for his purchase, he must be allowed to leave Kingsbridge with his goods intact.”
“Ot course.” John had to agree. A market town depended on its reputation for fair dealing. “But what have you bought?”
“Oh.” John looked thoughtful. “Who sold her?”
“I did,” said Joby. “I’m her father.”
Sim went on: “And this woman with the big chin threatened to stop me taking the girl away.”
“So I did,” said Madge. “For I’ve never heard of a woman being bought and sold in Kingsbridge Market, and nor has anyone else around here.”
Joby said: “A man may do as he will with a child of his own.” He looked around the crowd appealingly. “Is there anyone here who will disagree with that?”
Gwenda knew that no one would. Some people treated their children kindly, and some harshly, but all were agreed that the father must have absolute power over the child. She burst out angrily: “You wouldn’t stand there, deaf and dumb, if you had a father like him. How many of you were sold by your parents? How many of you were made to steal, when you were children and had hands small enough to slide into folks’ wallets?”
Joby started to look worried. “She’s raving, now, Master Constable,” he said. “No child of mine ever stole.”
“Never mind that,” said John. “Everyone listen to me. I shall make a ruling on this. Those who disagree with my decision can complain to the prior. If there’s any shoving, by anyone, or any other kind of rough stuff, I shall arrest everyone involved in it. I hope that’s clear.” He looked around belligerently. No one spoke: they were eager to hear his decision. He went on: “I know of no reason why this trade is unlawful, therefore Sim Chapman is allowed to go his way, with the girl.”
Joby said: “I told you so, didn’t-”
“Shut your damn mouth, Joby, you fool,” said the constable. “Sim, get going, and make it quick. Madge Webber, if you raise a hand I’ll put you in the stocks, and your husband won’t stop me either. And not a word from you, Caris Wooler, please – you may complain to your father about me if you wish.”
Before John had finished speaking, Sim jerked hard on the rope. Gwenda was tipped forward, and stuck a foot out in front of her to keep from falling to the ground; then, somehow, she was moving along, stumbling and half running down the street. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Caris alongside her. Then John Constable seized Caris by the arm, she turned to protest to him, and a moment later she disappeared from Gwenda’s sight.
Sim walked quickly down the muddy main street, hauling on the rope, keeping Gwenda just off balance. As they approached the bridge she began to feel desperate. She tried jerking back on the rope, but he responded with an extra strong heave that threw her down in the mud. Her arms were still pinioned, so she could not use her hands to protect herself, and she fell flat, bruising her chest, her face squelching into the ooze. She struggled to her feet, giving up all resistance. Roped like an animal, hurt, frightened and covered in filthy mud, she staggered after her new owner, across the bridge and along the road that led into the forest.
Sim Chapman led Gwenda through the suburb of Newtown to the crossroads known as Gallows Cross, where criminals were hanged. There he took the road south, towards Wigleigh. He tied her rope to his wrist so that she could not break away, even when his attention wandered. Her dog, Skip, followed them, but Sim threw stones at him and, after one hit him full on the nose, he retreated with his tail between his legs.
After several miles, as the sun began to set, Sim turned into the forest. Gwenda had seen no feature beside the road to mark the spot, but Sim seemed to have chosen carefully for, a few hundred paces into the trees, they came upon a pathway. Looking down, Gwenda could see the neat impressions of dozens of small hooves in the earth, and she realized it was a deer path. It would lead to water, she guessed. Sure enough, they came to a little brook, the vegetation on either side trodden into mud.
Sim knelt beside the stream, filled his cupped hands with clear water, and drank. Then he moved the rope so that it was around her neck, freeing her hands, and motioned her to the water.
She washed her hands in the stream then drank thirstily.
“Wash your face,” he ordered. “You’re ugly enough by nature.”
She did as she was told, wondering wearily why he cared how she looked.
The path continued on the farther side of the drinking hole. They walked on. Gwenda was a strong girl, capable of walking all day, but she was defeated and miserable and scared, and that made her feel exhausted. Whatever fate awaited her at their destination, it was probably worse than this, but all the same she yearned to get there so that she could sit down.
Darkness was falling. The deer path wound through trees for a mile then petered out at the foot of a hill. Sim stopped beside a particularly massive oak tree and gave a low whistle.
A few moments later, a figure materialized out of the half-lit woodland and said: “All right, Sim.”
“All right, Jed.”
“What you got there, a fruit tart?”
“You shall have a slice, Jed, same as the others, so long as you’ve got sixpence.”
Gwenda realized what Sim had planned. He was going to prostitute her. The realization hit her like a blow, and she staggered and fell to her knees.
“Sixpence, eh?” Jed’s voice seemed to come from far away, but all the same she could hear the excitement in his voice. “How old is she?”
“Her father claimed she was eighteen.” Sim jerked on the rope. “Stand up, you lazy cow, we’re not there yet.”
Gwenda got to her feet. That’s why he wanted me to wash my face, she thought, and for some reason the realization made her cry.
She wept hopelessly as she stumbled along in Sim’s footsteps until they came to a clearing with a fire in the middle. Through her tears, she perceived fifteen or twenty people lying around the edge of the clearing, most of them wrapped in blankets or cloaks. Almost all those watching her in the firelight were male, but she caught sight of a white female face, hard in expression but smooth-chinned, that stared at her briefly then disappeared back into a bundle of ragged bedding. An upturned wine barrel and a scattering of wooden cups testified to a drunken party.
Gwenda realized that Sim had brought her to a den of outlaws.
She groaned. How many of them would she be forced to submit to?
As soon as she asked herself the question, she knew the answer, all of them.
Sim dragged her across the clearing to a man who was sitting upright, his back against a tree. “All right, Tam,” said Sim.
Gwenda knew instantly who the man must be: the most famous outlaw in the county, he was called Tam Hiding. He had a handsome face, though it was reddened by drink. People said he was noble-born, but they always said that about famous outlaws. Looking at him, Gwenda was surprised by his youth: he was in his mid-twenties. But then, to kill an outlaw was no crime so, in all probability, few lived to be old.
Tam said: “All right, Sim.”
“I traded Alwyn’s cow for a girl.”
“Well done.” Tam’s speech was only slightly slurred.
“We’re going to charge the boys sixpence, but of course you can have a free go. I expect you’d like to be first.”
Tam peered at her with bloodshot eyes. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but she imagined she saw a hint of pity in his look. He said: “No, thanks, Sim. You go ahead and let the boys have a good time. Though you might want to leave it until tomorrow. We got a barrel of good wine from a pair of monks who were taking it to Kingsbridge, and most of the lads are dead drunk now.”
Gwenda’s heart leaped with hope. Perhaps her torture would be postponed.
“I’ll have to consult Alwyn,” Sim said doubtfully. Thanks, Tam.” He turned away, pulling Gwenda behind him.
A few yards away, a broad-shouldered man was struggling to his feet. Sim said: All right, Alwyn.” The phrase seemed to serve the outlaws as a greeting and a recognition code.
Alwyn was at the bad-tempered phase of drunkenness. “What have you got?”
“A fresh young girl.”
Alwyn took Gwenda’s chin in his hand, gripping unnecessarily hard, and turned her face to the firelight. She was forced to look into his eyes. He was young, like Tam Hiding, but with the same unhealthy air of dissipation. His breath smelled of drink. “By Christ, you picked an ugly one,” he said.
For once Gwenda was happy to be thought ugly: perhaps Alwyn would not want to do anything to her.
“I took what I could get,” Sim said testily. “If the man had a beautiful daughter he wouldn’t sell her for a cow, would he? He’d marry her to the son of a rich wool merchant instead.”
The thought of her father made Gwenda angry. He must have known, or suspected, that this would happen. How could he do it to her?
“All right, all right, it doesn’t matter,” Alwyn said to Sim. “With only two women in the group, most of the lads are desperate.”
“Tam said we should wait until tomorrow, because they’re all too drunk tonight – but it’s up to you.”
“Tam’s right. Half of them are asleep already.”
Gwenda’s fear retreated a little. Anything could happen overnight.
“Good,” Sim said. “I’m dog-tired anyway.” He looked at Gwenda. “Lie down, you.” He never called her by her name.
She lay down, and he used the rope to tie her feet together and her hands behind her back. Then he and Alwyn lay down either side of her. In a few moments, both men were asleep.
Gwenda was exhausted, but she had no thought of sleep. With her arms behind her back, every position was painful. She tried to move her wrists within the rope, but Sim had pulled it tight and knotted it well. All she achieved was to break her skin, so that the rope burned her flesh.
Despair turned to helpless rage, and she pictured herself taking revenge on her captors, lashing them all with a whip as they cowered in front of her. It was a pointless fantasy. She turned her mind to practical means of escape.
First she would have to make them untie her. That done, she would have to get away. Ideally, she would somehow ensure they could not follow her and recapture her.
It seemed impossible.
Gwenda was cold when she woke up. It was midsummer, but the weather was cool, and she had no covering but her light dress. The sky was turning from black to grey. She looked around the clearing in the faint light: no one was moving.
She needed to pee. She thought of doing it there, and soaking her dress. If she made herself disgusting, so much the better. Almost as soon as the thought occurred to her she dismissed it. That would be giving up. She was not giving up.
But what was she going to do?
Alwyn was sleeping beside her, with his long dagger in its sheath still attached to his belt, and that gave her the glimmer of an idea. She was not sure she had the nerve to carry out the plan that was forming in her mind. But she refused to think about how scared she was. She just had to do it.
Although her ankles were tied together, she could move her legs. She kicked Alwyn. At first he did not seem to feel it. She kicked him again, and he moved. The third time, he sat upright. “Was that you?” he said blearily.
“I have to pee,” she said.
“Not in the clearing. It’s one of Tam’s rules. Go twenty paces for a piss, fifty for a shit.”
“So, even outlaws live by rules.”
He stared uncomprehendingly at her. The irony escaped him. He was not a clever man, she realized. That was helpful. But he was strong, and mean. She would have to be very cautious.
She said: “I can’t go anywhere tied up.”
Grumbling, he undid the rope around her ankles.
The first part of her plan had worked. Now she was even more frightened.
She struggled to her feet. All the muscles of her legs ached from a night of constriction. She took a step, stumbled, and fell down again. “It’s so hard with my hands tied,” she said.
He ignored that.
The second part of her plan had not worked.
She would have to keep trying.
She got up again and walked into the trees, with Alwyn following her. He was counting paces on his fingers. The first time he got to ten, he started again. The second time, he said: “Far enough.”
She looked at him helplessly. “I can’t lift my dress,” she said.
Would he fall for this?
He stared dumbly at her. She could almost hear his brain working, rumbling like the gears of a water mill. He could lift her dress while she peed, but that was the kind of thing a mother did for a toddler, and he would find it humiliating. Alternatively, he could untie her hands. With hands and feet free, she might make a run for it. But she was small, weary and cramped: there was no way she could outrun a man with long, muscular legs. He must be thinking that the risk was not serious.
He untied the rope around her wrists.
She looked away from him, so that he would not see her look of triumph.
She rubbed her forearms to restore the circulation. She wanted to poke his eyeballs out with her thumbs, but instead she smiled as sweetly as she could and said: “Thank you,” as if he had performed an act of kindness.
He said nothing, but stood watching her, waiting.
She expected him to look away when she hitched up the skirt of her dress and squatted, but he only stared more intensely. She held his gaze, unwilling to act ashamed while she did what was natural. His mouth opened slightly and she could tell he was breathing harder.
Now came the hardest part.
She stood up slowly, letting him get a good look before she dropped her dress. He licked his lips, and she knew she had him.
She went closer and stood in front of him. “Will you be my protector?” she said, using a little-girl voice that did not come naturally to her.
He showed no sign of suspicion. He did not speak, but grasped her breast in his rough hand and squeezed.
She gasped with pain. “Not so hard!” She took his hand in hers. “Be more gentle.” She moved his hand against her breast, rubbing the nipple so that it stood up. “It’s nicer if you’re gentle.”
He grunted, but continued to rub softly. Then he took the neckline of her dress in his left hand and drew his dagger. The knife was a foot long, with a point, and the blade gleamed with recent sharpening. He obviously intended to cut her dress off. That would not do – it would leave her naked.
She took his wrist in a light grip, restraining him momentarily. “You don’t need the knife,” she said. “Look.” She stepped back, undid her belt and, with a quick movement, pulled the dress off over her head. It was her only garment.
She stretched it out on the ground then lay on it. She tried to smile at him. She felt sure the result was a horrible grimace. Then she parted her legs.
He hesitated only for a moment.
Keeping the knife in his right hand, he pushed down his underdrawers and knelt between her thighs. He pointed the dagger at her face and said: “Any trouble, and I’ll slice your cheek open.”
“You won’t need to do that,” she said. She was trying desperately to think what words such a man would like to hear from a woman. “My big, strong protector,” she said.
He showed no reaction to that.
He lay over her, thrusting blindly. “Not so fast,” she said, gritting her teeth against the pain of his clumsy stabs. She reached between her legs and guided him inside, throwing her legs up to make the entrance easier.
He reared over her, taking his weight on his arms. He put the dagger on the grass beside her head, covering the hilt with his right hand. He groaned as he moved inside her. She moved with him, keeping up the pretence of willingness, watching his face, forcing herself not to glance sideways at the dagger, waiting for her moment. She was both scared and disgusted, but a small part of her mind remained calm and calculating.
He closed his eyes and lifted his head like an animal scenting the breeze. His arms were straight, holding him up. She risked a look at the knife. He had moved his hand slightly, so that it only partly covered the hilt. She could grab it now, but how fast would he react?
She looked at his face again. His mouth was twisted in a rictus of concentration. He thrust faster, and she matched his motion.
To her dismay, she felt a glow spread through her loins. She was appalled at herself. The man was a murdering outlaw, little better than a beast, and he was planning to prostitute her for sixpence a time. She was doing this to save her life, not for enjoyment! Yet there was a gush of moisture inside her, and he thrust faster.
She sensed that his moment of climax was near. It was now or never. He gave a groan that sounded like surrender, and she moved.
She snatched the knife from under his hand. There was no change in the expression of ecstasy on his face: he had not noticed her movement. Terrified that he would see what she was doing and stop her at the last moment, she did not hesitate but jabbed upwards, jerking her shoulders up from the lying position as she did so. He sensed her movement and opened his eyes. Shock and fear showed on his face. Stabbing wildly, she stuck the knife into his throat just below the jaw. She cursed, knowing she had missed the most vulnerable parts of the neck – the breathing-pipe and the jugular vein. He roared with pain and rage, but he was not incapacitated, and she knew she was as close to death as she had ever been.
She moved instinctively, without forethought. Using her left arm, she struck at the inside of his elbow. He could not prevent the bending of his arm, and involuntarily he slumped. She pushed harder at the foot-long dagger, and his weight dragged him down on to the blade. As the knife entered his head from below, blood gushed from his open mouth, falling on her face, and she jerked her head aside reflexively; but she kept pushing on the knife. The blade met resistance for a moment, then slipped through, until his eyeball seemed to explode, and she saw the point emerge from the eye socket in a spray of blood and brains. He slumped on top of her, dead or nearly so. His weight knocked the breath out of her. It was like being stuck under a fallen tree. For a moment she was helpless to move.
To her horror, she felt him ejaculate inside her.
She was filled with superstitious terror. He was more frightening like this than when he had threatened her with a knife. Panicking, she wriggled out from under him.
She scrambled to her feet shakily, breathing hard. She had his blood on her breasts and his seed on her thighs. She glanced fearfully towards the outlaws’ camp. Had anyone been awake to hear Alwyn’s shout? If they had all been asleep, had the sound wakened any of them?
Trembling, she pulled her dress over her head and buckled her belt. She had her wallet and her own small knife, mainly used for eating. She hardly dared take her eyes off Alwyn: she had a dreadful feeling he might still be alive. She knew she should finish him off, but she could not bring herself to do it. A sound from the direction of the clearing startled her. She needed to get away fast. She looked around, getting her bearings, then headed in the direction of the road.
There was a sentry near the big oak tree, she recalled with a sudden start of fear. She walked softly through the woods, careful to make no sound, as she approached the tree. Then she saw the sentry – Jed, his name was – fast asleep on the ground. She tiptoed past him. It took all her will power not to break into a mad run. But he did not stir.
She found the deer path and followed it to the brook. It seemed there was no one on her tail. She washed the blood off her face and chest, then splashed cold water on her private parts. She drank deeply, knowing she had a long walk ahead.
Feeling slightly less frantic, she continued along the deer path. As she walked, she listened. How soon would the outlaws find Alwyn? She had not even tried to conceal the body. When they figured out what had happened they would surely come after her, for they had given a cow for her, and that was worth twelve shillings, half a year’s pay for a labourer such as her father.
She reached the road. For a woman travelling alone, the open road was almost as hazardous as a forest track. Tam Hiding’s group were not the only outlaws, and there were plenty of other men – squires, peasant boys, bands of men-at-arms – who might take advantage of a defenceless woman. But her first priority was to get away from Sim Chapman and his cronies, so speed was paramount.
Which direction should she take? If she went home to Wigleigh, Sim might follow her there and claim her back – and there was no telling how her father would deal with that. She needed friends she could trust. Caris would help her.
She set off for Kingsbridge.
It was a clear day, but the road was muddy from many days of rain, and walking was that much more difficult. After a while she reached the top of a hill. Looking back, she could see along the road for about a mile. At the far limit of her vision, she saw a lone figure striding along. He wore a yellow tunic.
She broke into a run.
The case against Crazy Nell was heard in the north transept of the cathedral on Saturday at noon. Bishop Richard presided over the ecclesiastical court, with Prior Anthony on his right and, on his left, his personal assistant, Archdeacon Lloyd, a dour black-haired priest who was said to do all the actual work of the bishopric.
There was a big crowd of townspeople. A heresy trial was good entertainment, and Kingsbridge had not seen one for years. Many craftsmen and labourers finished work at midday on Saturdays. Outside, the Fleece Fair was coming to an end, tradespeople dismantling their stalls and packing up their unsold goods, buyers preparing for the journey home, or arranging to consign their purchases by raft downriver to the sea port of Melcombe.
Waiting for the trial to begin, Caris thought gloomily of Gwenda. What was she doing now? Sim Chapman would force her to have sex with him, for sure – but that might not be the worst thing to happen to her. What else would she have to do as his slave? Caris had no doubt Gwenda would try to escape – but would she succeed? And, if she failed, how would Sim punish her? Caris realized she might never find out.
It had been a strange week. Buonaventura Caroli had not changed his mind: the Florentine buyers would not return to Kingsbridge, at least until the priory improved facilities for the Fleece Fair. Caris’s father and the other leading wool merchants had spent half the week shut up with Earl Roland. Merthin continued in a strange mood, withdrawn and gloomy. And it was raining again.
Nell was dragged into church by John Constable and Friar Murdo. Her only garment was a sleeveless surcoat, fastened at the front but revealing her bony shoulders. She had no hat or shoes. She struggled feebly in the men’s grasp, shouting imprecations.
When they got her quietened down, a series of townspeople came forward to attest that they had heard her call upon the devil. They were telling the truth. Nell threatened people with the devil all the time – for refusing to give her a handout, for standing in her way on the street, for wearing a good coat, or for no reason at all.
Each witness related some misfortune that had followed the curse. A goldsmith’s wife had lost a valuable brooch; an innkeeper’s chickens had all died; a widow developed a painful boil on her bottom – a complaint that caused laughter, but also carried conviction, for witches were known to have a malicious sense of humour.
While this was going on, Merthin appeared beside Caris. “This is so stupid,” Caris said to him indignantly. “Ten times the number of witnesses could come forward to say that Nell cursed them and nothing bad ensued.”
Merthin shrugged. “People just believe what they want to believe.”
“Ordinary people, perhaps. But the bishop and the prior should know better – they are educated.”
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Merthin said.
Caris perked up. Perhaps she was about to learn the reason for his bad mood. She had been looking at him sidelong, but now she turned and saw that he had a huge bruise on the left side of his face. “What happened to you?”
The crowd roared with laughter at some interjection of Nell’s, and Archdeacon Lloyd had to call repeatedly for quiet. When Merthin could be heard again he said: “Not here. Can we go somewhere quiet?”
She almost turned to leave with him, but something stopped her. All week long he had bewildered and wounded her by his coldness. Now, at last, he had decided he was ready to say what was on his mind – and she was expected to jump at his command. Why should he set the timetable? He had made her wait five days – why should she not make him wait an hour or so? “No,” she said. “Not now.”
He looked surprised. “Why not?”
“Because it doesn’t suit my convenience,” she said. “Now let me listen.” As she turned from him, she saw a hurt look cross his face, and straight away she wished she had not been so cold; but it was too late, and she was not going to apologize.
The witnesses had finished. Bishop Richard said: “Woman, do you say that the devil rules the earth?”
Caris was outraged. Heretics worshipped Satan because they believed he had jurisdiction over the earth, and God only ruled heaven. Crazy Nell could not even understand such a sophisticated credo. It was disgraceful that Richard was going along with Friar Murdo’s ridiculous accusation.
Nell shouted back: “You can shove your prick up your arse.”
The crowd laughed, delighted by this coarse insult to the bishop.
Richard said: “If that’s her defence…”
Archdeacon Lloyd intervened. “Someone should speak on her behalf,” he said. He spoke respectfully, but he seemed comfortable correcting his superior. No doubt the lazy Richard relied on Lloyd to remind him of the rules.
Richard looked around the transept. “Who will speak for Nell?” he called out.
Caris waited, but no one volunteered. She could not allow this to happen. Someone must point out how irrational this whole procedure was. When no one else spoke, Caris stood up. “Nell is mad,” she said.
Everyone looked around, wondering who was foolish enough to side with Nell. There was a murmur of recognition – most people knew Caris – but no great sense of surprise, for she had a reputation for doing the unexpected.
Prior Anthony leaned over and said something in the bishop’s ear. Richard said: “Caris, the daughter of Edmund Wooler, tells us that the accused woman is mad. We had reached that conclusion without her assistance.”
Caris was goaded by his cool sarcasm. “Nell has no idea what she is saying! She calls upon the devil, the saints, the moon and the stars. It has no more meaning than the barking of a dog. You might as well hang a horse for neighing at the king.” She could not keep the note of scorn from her voice, though she knew it was unwise to let your contempt show when addressing the nobility.
Some of the crowd murmured agreement. They liked a spirited argument.
Richard said: “But you have heard people testify to the damage done by her curses.”
“I lost a penny yesterday,” Caris rejoined. “I boiled an egg, and it was bad. My father lay awake all night coughing. But no one cursed us. Bad things just happen.”
There was much head-shaking at this. Most people believed there was some malign influence behind every misfortune, great or small. Caris had lost the support of the crowd.
Prior Anthony, her uncle, knew her views, and had argued with her before. Now he leaned forward and said: “Surely you don’t believe that God is responsible for illness and misfortune and loss?”
Caris imitated Anthony’s prissy tone. “Surely you don’t believe that every misfortune in life is the responsibility of either God or Crazy Nell?”
Archdeacon Lloyd said sharply: “Speak respectfully to the prior.” He did not realize Anthony was Caris’s uncle. The townspeople laughed: they knew the prim prior and his independent-minded niece.
Caris finished: “I believe Nell is harmless. Mad, yes, but harmless.”
Suddenly Friar Murdo was on his feet. “My lord bishop, men of Kingsbridge, friends,” he said in his sonorous voice. “The evil one is everywhere among us, tempting us to sin – to lying, greed of food, drunkenness with wine, puffed-up pride and fleshly lust.” The crowd liked this: Murdo’s descriptions of sin called to the imagination delightful scenes of indulgence that were sanctified by his brimstone disapproval. “But he cannot go unobserved,” Murdo went on, his voice rising with excitement. “As the horse presses his hoofprints into the mud, as the kitchen mouse makes dainty tracks across the butter, as the lecher deposits his vile seed to grow in the womb of the deceived maid, so the devil must leave – his mark!”
They shouted their approval. They knew what he meant, and so did Caris.
“The servants of the evil one may be known by the mark he leaves upon them. For he sucks their hot blood as a child sucks the sweet milk from its mother’s swollen breasts. And, like the child, he needs a teat from which to suck – a third nipple!”
He had the audience rapt, Caris observed. He began each sentence in a low, quiet voice, then built it up, piling one emotive phrase on another to his climax; and the crowd responded eagerly, listening in silence while he spoke, then shouting their approval at the end.
“This mark is dark in colour, ridged like a nipple, and rises from the clear skin around it. It may be on any part of the body. Sometimes it lies in the soft valley between a woman’s breasts, the unnatural manifestation cruelly mimicking the natural. But the devil best likes it to be in the secret places of the body: in the groin, on the private parts, especially-”
Bishop Richard said loudly: “Thank you, Friar Murdo, you need go no farther. You are demanding that the woman’s body be examined for the Devil’s Mark.”
“Yes, my lord bishop, for-”
“All right, no need for further argument, your point is well made.” He looked around. “Is Mother Cecilia close by?”
The prioress was sitting on a bench on one side of the court, with Sister Juliana and some of the senior nuns. Crazy Nell’s naked body could not be examined by men, so women would have to do it in private and report back. The nuns were the obvious choice.
Caris did not envy them their task. Most townspeople washed their hands and faces every day, and the smellier parts of their bodies once a week. All-over bathing was at best a twice-a-year ritual, necessary though dangerous to the health. However, Crazy Nell never seemed to wash at all. Her face was grimy, her hands were filthy, and she smelled like a dunghill.
Cecilia stood up. Richard said: “Please take this woman to a private room, remove her clothing, examine her body carefully, and come back to report faithfully what you find.”
The nuns got up immediately and approached Nell. Cecilia spoke soothingly to the mad woman, and took her gently by the arm. But Nell was not fooled. She twisted away, throwing her arms into the air.
At that point, Friar Murdo shouted: “I see it! I see it!”
Four of the nuns managed to hold Nell still.
The friar said: “No need to take off her clothes. Just look under her right arm.” As Nell started to wriggle again, he strode over to her and lifted her arm himself, holding it high above her head. “There!” he said, pointing into her armpit.
The crowd surged forward. “I see it!” someone shouted, and others repeated the cry. Caris could see nothing other than normal armpit hair, and she was unwilling to commit the indignity of peering. She had no doubt that Nell had some kind of blemish or growth there. Lots of people had marks on their skin, especially the elderly.
Archdeacon Lloyd called for order, and John Constable beat the crowd back with a stick. When at last the church was quiet, Richard stood up. “Crazy Nell of Kingsbridge, I find you guilty of heresy,” he said. “You shall now be tied to the back of a cart and whipped through the town, then taken to the place known as Gallows Cross, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you die.”
The crowd cheered. Caris turned away in disgust. With justice like this, no woman was safe. Her eye lit on Merthin, waiting patiently for her. “All right,” she said bad-temperedly. “What is it?”
“It’s stopped raining,” he said. “Come down to the river.”
The priory had a string of ponies for the senior monks and nuns to use when travelling, plus some carthorses for transporting goods. These were kept, along with the mounts of prosperous visitors, in a run of stone stables at the south end of the cathedral close. The nearby kitchen garden was manured with the straw from the stalls.
Ralph was in the stable yard, with the rest of Earl Roland’s entourage. Their horses were saddled ready to begin the two-day journey back to Roland’s residence at Earlscastle, near Shiring. They were waiting only for the earl.
Ralph was holding his horse, a bay called Griff, and talking to his parents. “I don’t know why Stephen was made lord of Wigleigh while I got nothing,” he said. “We’re the same age, and he’s no better than I am at riding or jousting or fencing.”
Every time they met, Sir Gerald asked the same hopeful questions, and Ralph had to give him the same inadequate answers. Ralph could have borne his disappointment more easily had it not been for his father’s pathetic eagerness to see him elevated.
Griff was a young horse. He was a hunter: a mere squire did not merit a costly warhorse. But Ralph liked him. He responded gratifyingly well when Ralph urged him on in the hunt. Griff was excited by all the activity in the yard, and impatient to get going. Ralph murmured in his ear: “Quiet, my lovely lad, you shall stretch your legs later.” The horse calmed down at the sound of his voice.
“Be constantly on the alert for ways to please the earl,” Sir Gerald said. “Then he will remember you when there is a post to be filled.”
That was all very well, Ralph thought, but the real opportunities came only in battle. However, war might be a little nearer today than it had been a week ago. Ralph had not been in on the meetings between the earl and the wool merchants, but he gathered that the merchants were willing to lend money to King Edward. They wanted the king to take some decisive action against France, in retaliation for French attacks on the south coast ports.
Meanwhile, Ralph longed for some way to distinguish himself and begin to win back the honour the family had lost ten years ago – not just for his father, but for his own pride.
Griff stamped and tossed his head. To calm him, Ralph began to walk him up and down, and his father walked with him. His mother stood apart. She was upset about his broken nose.
With Father he walked past Lady Philippa, who was holding the bridle of a spirited courser with a firm hand while she talked to her husband, Lord William. She wore close-fitting clothes, which were suitable for a long ride but also emphasized her full bosom and long legs. Ralph was always on the lookout for excuses to talk to her, but it did him no good: he was just one of her father-in-law’s followers, and she never spoke to him unless she had to.
As Ralph watched, she smiled at her husband and tapped him on the chest with the back of her hand in a gesture of mock reprimand. Ralph was filled with resentment. Why should it not be him with whom she was sharing such a moment of private amusement? No doubt she would if he were lord of forty villages, as William was.
Ralph felt that his life was all aspiration. When would he actually achieve something? He and his father walked the length of the yard then turned and came back.
He saw a one-armed monk come out of the kitchen and cross the yard, and was struck by how familiar the man looked. A moment later, he remembered how he knew the face. This was Thomas Langley, the knight who had killed one of the men-at-arms in the forest ten years ago. Ralph had not seen the man since that day, but his brother Merthin had, for the knight-become-monk was now responsible for supervising repairs to the priory buildings. Thomas wore a drab robe instead of the fine clothes of a knight, and had his head shaved in the monkish tonsure. He was heavier around the waist, but still carried himself like a fighting man.
As Thomas walked past, Ralph said casually to Lord William: “There he goes – the mystery monk.”
William said sharply: “What do you mean?”
“Brother Thomas. He used to be a knight, and no one knows why he joined the monastery.”
“What the devil do you know of him?” William’s tone showed anger, although Ralph had said nothing offensive. Perhaps he was in a bad mood, despite the affectionate smiles of his beautiful wife.
Ralph wished he had not begun the conversation. “I was here the day he came to Kingsbridge,” he said. He hesitated, recalling the oath the children had sworn that afternoon. Because of that, and because of William’s inexplicable annoyance, Ralph did not tell the whole story. “He staggered into town bleeding from a sword wound,” he went on. “A boy remembers such things.”
Philippa said: “How curious.” She looked at her husband. “Do you know what Brother Thomas’s story is?”
“Certainly not,” William snapped. “How would I know a thing like that?”
She shrugged and turned away.
Ralph walked on, glad to get away. “Lord William was lying,” he said to his father in a low voice. “I wonder why?”
“Don’t ask any more questions about that monk,” Father said anxiously. “It’s obviously a touchy subject.”
At last Earl Roland appeared. Prior Anthony was with him. The knights and squires mounted up. Ralph kissed his parents and swung himself into the saddle. Griff danced sideways, eager to be off. The motion made Ralph’s broken nose hurt like fire. He gritted his teeth: there was nothing he could do but endure it.
Roland went up to his horse, Victory, a black stallion with a white patch over one eye. He did not mount, but took the bridle and began to walk, still in conversation with the prior. William called out: “Sir Stephen Wigleigh and Ralph Fitzgerald, ride ahead and clear the bridge.”
Ralph and Stephen rode across the cathedral green. The grass was trampled and the ground muddy from the Fleece Fair. A few stalls were still doing business, but most were closing, and many had already gone. They passed out through the priory gates.
On the main street, Ralph saw the boy who had given him a broken nose. Wulfric, his name was, and he came from Stephen’s village of Wigleigh. The left side of his face was bruised and swollen where Ralph had repeatedly punched him. Wulfric was outside the Bell inn with his father, mother and brother. They appeared to be about to leave.
You’d better hope you never meet me again, Ralph thought.
He tried to think of some insult to shout, but he was distracted by the sound of a crowd.
As he and Stephen rode down the main street, their horses stepping adroitly through the mud, they saw ahead of them a mob of people. Half way down the hill, they were forced to stop.
The street was jammed by hundreds of men, women and children shouting, laughing and jostling for space. They all had their backs to Ralph. He looked over their heads.
At the front of this unruly procession was a cart drawn by an ox. Tied to the back of the cart was a half-naked woman. Ralph had seen this kind of thing before: to be whipped through the town was a common punishment. The woman wore only a skirt of rough wool secured at the waist by a cord. Her face, when he could see it, was begrimed, and her hair was filthy, so that at first he thought she was old. Then he saw her breasts and realized she was only in her twenties.
Her hands were bound together and attached by the same rope to the back end of the cart. She stumbled along behind it, sometimes falling and being dragged writhing through the mud until she managed to get back on her feet. The town constable followed, vigorously lashing her bare back with a bull whip, a strip of leather at the end of a stick.
The crowd, led by a knot of young men, were taunting the woman, shouting insults, laughing, and throwing mud and rubbish. She delighted them by responding, screaming imprecations and spitting at anyone who got near her.
Ralph and Stephen urged their horses into the crowd. Ralph raised his voice. “Clear the way!” he shouted at the top of his voice. “Make way for the earl!”
Stephen did the same.
No one took any notice.
To the south of the priory, the ground sloped steeply down to the river. The bank on that side was rocky, unsuitable for loading barges and rafts, so all the wharves were on the more accessible south side, in the suburb of Newtown. The quiet north side bloomed at this time of year with shrubbery and wild flowers. Merthin and Caris sat on a low bluff overlooking the water.
The river was swollen with rain. It moved faster than it used to, Merthin noticed, and he could see why: the channel was narrower than formerly. That was because of the development of the riverside. When he was a child, most of the south bank had been a wide, muddy beach with a swampy field beyond. The river then had flowed at a stately pace, and as a boy he had floated on his back from one side to the other. But the new wharves, protected from flooding by stone walls, squeezed the same quantity of water into a smaller funnel, through which it hurried as if eager to get past the bridge. Beyond the bridge, the river widened and slowed around Leper Island.
“I’ve done something terrible,” Merthin said to Caris.
Unfortunately, she looked particularly lovely today. She wore a dark red linen dress, and her skin seemed to glow with vitality. She had been angry at the trial of Crazy Nell, but now she just seemed worried, and that gave her a vulnerable look that tugged at Merthin’s heart. She must have noticed how he had been unable to meet her eye all week. But what he had to tell her was probably worse than anything she had imagined.
He had spoken to no one about this since the row with Griselda, Elfric and Alice. No one even knew that his door had been destroyed. He was longing to unburden himself, but he had held back. He did not want to talk to his parents: his mother would be judgemental and his father would just tell him to be a man. He might have talked to Ralph, but there had been a coolness between them since the fight with Wulfric: Merthin thought Ralph had behaved like a bully, and Ralph knew it.
He dreaded telling Caris the truth. For a moment he asked himself why. It was not that he was afraid of what she would do. She might be scornful – she was good at that – but she could not say anything worse than the things he said to himself constantly.
What he truly feared, he realized, was hurting her. He could bear her anger: it was her pain he could not face.
She said: “Do you still love me?”
He was not expecting the question, but he answered without hesitation. “Yes.”
“And I love you. Anything else is just a problem we can solve together.”
He wished she were right. He wished it so badly that tears came to his eyes. He looked away so that she would not see. A mob of people was moving on to the bridge, following a slow-moving cart, and he realized this must be Crazy Nell being whipped through the town on her way to Gallows Cross in Newtown. The bridge was already crowded with departing stallholders and their carts, and the traffic was almost at a standstill.
“What’s the matter?” Caris said. “Are you crying?”
“I lay with Griselda,” Merthin said abruptly.
Caris’s mouth dropped open. “Griselda?” she said unbelievingly.
“I’m so ashamed.”
“I thought it must be Elizabeth Clerk.”
“She’s too proud to offer herself.”
Caris’s reaction to that surprised him. “Oh, so you would have done it with her, too, if she’d suggested it?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Griselda! Dear St Mary, I thought I was worth more than that.”
“Lupa,” she said, using the Latin word for a whore.
“I don’t even like her. I hated it.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? Are you saying you wouldn’t be so sorry if you’d enjoyed it?”
“No!” Merthin was dismayed. Caris seemed determined to misinterpret everything he said.
“Whatever got into you?”
“She was crying.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! Do you do that to every girl you see crying?”
“Of course not! I was just trying to explain to you how it happened even though I really didn’t want it to.”
Her scorn got worse with everything he said. “Don’t talk rubbish,” she said. “If you hadn’t wanted it to happen, it wouldn’t have.”
“Listen to me, please,” he said frustratedly. “She asked me, and I said no. Then she cried, and I put my arm around her to comfort her, then-”
“Oh, spare me the sickening details – I don’t want to know.”
He began to feel resentful. He knew he had done wrong, and he expected her to be angry, but her contempt stung. “All right,” he said, and he shut up.
But silence was not what she wanted. She stared at him in dissatisfaction, then said: “What else?”
He shrugged. “What’s the point in my speaking? You just pour scorn on everything I say.”
“I don’t want to listen to pathetic excuses. But there’s something you haven’t told me – I can feel it.”
He sighed. “She’s pregnant.”
Caris’s reaction surprised him again. All the anger left her. Her face, until now taut with indignation, seemed to collapse. Only sadness remained. “A baby,” she said. “Griselda is going to have your baby.”
“It may not happen,” he said. “Sometimes…”
Caris shook her head. “Griselda is a healthy girl, well fed. There’s no reason she should miscarry.”
“Not that I’d wish it,” he said, though he was not quite sure that was true.
“But what will you do?” she said. “It will be your child. You will love it, even if you hate its mother.”
“I’ve got to marry her.”
Caris gasped. “Marry! But that would be for ever.”
“I’ve fathered a child, so I should take care of it.”
“But to spend your whole life with Griselda!”
“You don’t have to,” she said decisively. “Think. Elizabeth Clerk’s father didn’t marry her mother.”
“He was a bishop.”
“There’s Maud Roberts, in Slaughterhouse Ditch – she has three children, and everyone knows the father is Edward Butcher.”
“He’s already married, and has four other children with his wife.”
“I’m saying they don’t always force people to marry. You could just carry on as you are.”
“No, I couldn’t. Elfric would throw me out.”
She looked thoughtful. “So, you’ve already talked to Elfric?”
“Talked?” Merthin touched his bruised cheek. “I thought he was going to kill me.”
“And his wife – my sister?”
“She screamed at me.”
“So she knows.”
“Yes. She said I have to marry Griselda. She never wanted me to be with you, anyway. I don’t know why.”
Caris muttered: “She wanted you for herself.”
That was news to Merthin. It seemed unlikely that the haughty Alice would be attracted to a lowly apprentice. “I never saw any sign of that.”
Only because you never looked at her. “That’s what made her so cross. She married Elfric in frustration. You broke my sister’s heart – and now you’re breaking mine.”
Merthin looked away. He barely recognized this picture of himself as a heartbreaker. How had things gone so wrong? Caris went quiet. Merthin stared moodily along the river to the bridge.
The crowd had come to a standstill, he saw. A heavy cart loaded with woolsacks was stuck at the southern end, probably with a broken wheel. The can pulling Nell had stopped, unable to pass. The crowd were swarming around both carts, and some people had climbed on to the woolsacks for a better view. Earl Roland was also trying to leave. He was at the town end of the bridge, on horseback, with his entourage; but even they were having trouble getting the citizens to give way. Merthin spotted his brother Ralph on his horse, chestnut-coloured with a black mane and tail. Prior Anthony, who had evidently come to see the earl off, stood wringing his hands with anxiety while Roland’s men forced their horses into the mob, trying in vain to clear a passage.
Merthin’s intuition rang an alarm. Something was badly wrong, he felt sure, though at first he did not know what. He looked more closely at the bridge. He had noticed, on Monday, that the massive oak beams stretching from one piling to another across the length of the bridge were showing cracks on the upstream side; and that the beams had been strengthened with iron braces nailed across the cracks. Merthin had not been involved in this job, which was why he had not previously looked hard at the work. On Monday he had wondered why the beams were cracking. The weakness was not half way between the uprights, as he would have expected if the timbers had simply deteriorated over time. Rather, the cracks were near the central pier, where the strain should have been less.
He had not thought about it since Monday – there was too much else on his mind – but now an explanation occurred to him. It was almost as if that central pier was not supporting the beams, but dragging them down. That would mean that something had undermined the foundation beneath the pier – and, as soon as that thought occurred to him, he realized how it could have happened. It must be the faster flow of the river, scouring the river bed from under the pier.
He remembered walking barefoot on a sandy beach, as a child, and noticing that when he stood at the sea’s edge, letting the water wash over his feet, the outgoing waves would suck the sand from under his toes. That kind of phenomenon had always fascinated him.
If he was right the central pier, with nothing underneath to support it, was now hanging from the bridge – hence the cracks. Elfric’s iron braces had not helped; in fact, they might have worsened the problem, by making it impossible for the bridge to settle slowly into a new, stable position.
Merthin guessed that the other pier of the pair – on the farther, downstream side of the bridge – was still grounded. The current surely spent most of its force on the upstream pier, and attacked the second of the pair with reduced violence. Only one pier was affected; and it seemed that the rest of the structure was knitted together strongly enough for the entire bridge to stay upright – as long as it was not subjected to extraordinary strain.
But the cracks seemed wider today than on Monday. And it was not difficult to guess why. Hundreds of people were on the bridge, a much greater load than it normally took; and there was a heavily laden wool cart, with twenty or thirty people sitting on the sacks of wool to add to the burden.
Fear gripped Merthin’s heart. He did not think the bridge could withstand that level of strain for long.
He was vaguely aware that Caris was speaking, but her meaning did not penetrate his thoughts until she raised her voice and said: “You’re not even listening!”
“There’s going to be a terrible accident,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“We have to get everyone off the bridge.”
“Are you mad? They’re all tormenting Crazy Nell. Even Earl Roland can’t get them to move. They’re not going to listen to you.”
“I think it could collapse.”
“Oh, look!” said Caris, pointing. “Can you see someone running along the road from the forest, approaching the south end of the bridge?”
Merthin wondered what that had to do with anything, but he followed her pointing finger. Sure enough, he saw the figure of a young woman running, her hair flying.
Caris said: “It looks like Gwenda.”
Behind her, in hot pursuit, was a man in a yellow tunic.
Gwenda was more tired than she had ever been in her life.
She knew that the fastest way to cover a long distance was to run twenty paces then walk twenty paces. She had started to do that half a day ago, when she spotted Sim Chapman a mile behind her. For a while she lost sight of him, but when once again the road provided her with a long rearward view, she saw that he, too, was walking and running alternately. As mile succeeded mile and hour followed hour he gained on her. By mid-morning she had known that at this rate he would catch her before she reached Kingsbridge.
In desperation, she had taken to the forest. But she could not stray far from the road for fear of losing her way. Eventually she heard running steps and heavy breathing, and peered through the undergrowth to see Sim go by on the road. She realized that as soon as he came to a long clear stretch he would guess what she had done. Sure enough, some time later she saw him come back.
She had pressed on through the forest, stopping every few minutes to stand in silence and listen. For a long time she had evaded him, and she knew he would have to search the woods on both sides of the road to make sure she was not in hiding. But her progress was also slow, for she had to fight her way through the summer undergrowth, and keep checking that she had not strayed too far from the road.
When she heard the sound of a distant crowd she knew she could not be far from the city, and she thought she was going to escape after all. She made her way to the road and cautiously looked out from a bush. The way was clear in both directions – and, a quarter of a mile to the north, she could see the tower of the cathedral.
She was almost there.
She heard a familiar bark and her dog, Skip, emerged from the bushes at the side of the road. She bent to pat him, and he wagged joyfully, licking her hands. Tears came to her eyes.
Sim was not in sight, so she risked the open road. She wearily resumed her twenty paces of running and twenty of walking, now with Skip trotting happily beside her, thinking this was a new game. Each time she switched, she looked back over her shoulder. The third time she did so, she saw Sim.
He was only a couple of hundred yards behind.
Despair washed over her like a tidal wave. She wanted to lie down and die. But she was in the suburbs, now, and the bridge was only a quarter of a mile away. She forced herself to keep going.
She tried to sprint, but her legs refused to obey orders. A staggering jog was the best she could manage. Her feet hurt. Looking down, she saw blood seeping through the holes in her tattered shoes. As she turned the corner at Gallows Cross, she saw a huge crowd on the bridge ahead of her. They were all looking at something, and no one noticed her running for her life, with Sim Chapman close behind.
She had no weapons other than her eating knife, which would just about cut through a baked hare, but would hardly disable a man. She wished with all her heart that she had had the nerve to pull Alwyn’s long dagger out of his head and bring it away with her. Now she was virtually defenceless.
She had a row of small bouses on one side of her – the suburban homes of people too poor to live in the city – and, on the other side, the pasture called Lovers’ Field, owned by the priory. Sim was so close behind her that she could hear his breathing, harsh and ragged like her own. Terror gave her a last burst of energy. Skip barked, but there was more fear than defiance in his note – he had not forgotten the stone that hit him on the nose.
The approach to the bridge was a swamp of sticky mud, churned up by boots, hooves and cartwheels. Gwenda waded through it, desperately hoping that the heavier Sim would be hampered even more than she.
At last she reached the bridge. She pushed into the crowd, which was less dense at this end. They were all looking the other way, where a heavy cart loaded with wool was blocking the passage of an ox-cart. She had to get to Caris’s house, almost in sight now on the main street. “Let me through!” she screamed, fighting her way forward. Only one person seemed to hear her. A head turned to look, and she saw the face of her brother Philemon. His mouth dropped open in alarm, and he tried to move towards her, but the crowd resisted him as it resisted her.
Gwenda tried to push past the team of oxen drawing the wool cart, but an ox tossed its massive head and knocked her sideways. She lost her footing – and, at that moment, a big hand grasped her arm in a powerful grip, and she knew she was recaptured.
“I’ve got you, you bitch,” Sim gasped. He pulled her to him and slapped her across the face as hard as he could. She had no strength left to resist him. Skip snapped ineffectually at his heels. “You won’t get away from me again,” he said.
Despair engulfed her. It had all been for nothing: seducing Alwyn, murdering him, running for miles. She was back where she had started, the captive of Sim.
Then the bridge seemed to move.
Merthin saw the bridge bend.
Over the central pier on the near side, the entire roadbed sagged like a horse with a broken back. The people tormenting Nell suddenly found the surface beneath their feet unsteady. They staggered, grabbing their neighbours for support. One fell backwards over the parapet into the river; then another, then another. The shouts and catcalls directed at Nell were quickly drowned out by yells of warning and screams of fright.
Merthin said: “Oh, no!”
Caris screamed: “What’s happening?”
All those people, he wanted to say – people we grew up with, women who have been kind to us, men we hate, children who admire us; mothers and sons, uncles and nieces; cruel masters and sworn enemies and panting lovers – they’re going to die. But he could not get any words out.
For a moment – less than a breath – Merthin hoped the structure might stabilize in the new position; but he was disappointed. The bridge sagged again. This time, the interlocked timbers began to tear free of their joints. The longitudinal planks on which the people were standing sprang from their wooden pegs; the transverse joints that supported the roadbed twisted out of their sockets; and the iron braces that Elfric had hammered across the cracks were ripped out of the wood.
The central part of the bridge seemed to lurch downward on the side nearest Merthin, the upstream side. The wool cart tilted, and the spectators standing and sitting on the piled woolsacks were hurled into the river. Great timbers snapped and flew through the air, killing everyone they struck. The insubstantial parapet gave way, and the cart slid slowly off the edge, its helpless oxen lowing in terror. It fell with nightmare slowness through the air and hit the water with a thunderclap. Suddenly there were dozens of people jumping or falling into the river, then scores of them. Those already in the water were struck by the falling bodies of those who came after, and by the disintegrating timbers, some small, some huge. Horses fell, with and without riders, and carts fell on top of them.
Merthin’s first thought was of his parents. Neither of them had gone to the trial of Crazy Nell, and they would not have wanted to watch her punishment: his mother thought such public spectacles beneath her dignity, and his father was not interested when there was no more at stake than the life of a mad woman. Instead, they had gone to the priory to say goodbye to Ralph.
But Ralph was now on the bridge.
Merthin could see his brother fighting to control his horse, Griff, which was rearing and kicking out with its front hooves. “Ralph!” he yelled uselessly. Then the timbers under Griff fell into the water. “No!” Merthin shouted as horse and rider disappeared from view.
Merthin’s gaze flashed to the other end, where Caris had spotted Gwenda, and he saw her struggling with a man in a yellow tunic. Then that part gave way, and both ends of the bridge were dragged into the water by the collapsing middle.
The river was now a mass of writhing people, panicking horses, splintered timbers, smashed carts and bleeding bodies. Merthin realized that Caris was no longer by his side when he saw her hurrying along the bank towards the bridge, clambering over rocks and running along the muddy strand. She looked back at him and yelled: “Hurry up! What are you waiting for? Come and help!”
This must be what a battlefield is like, Ralph thought: the screaming, the random violence, the people falling, the horses mad with fear. It was the last thought he had before the ground dropped away beneath him.
He suffered a moment of sheer terror. He did not understand what had happened. The bridge had been there, under his horse’s hooves, but now it was not, and he and his mount were tumbling through the air. Then he could no longer feel the familiar bulk of Griff between his thighs, and he realized they had separated. An instant later he hit the cold water.
He went under and held his breath. The panic left him. Now he felt scared, but calm. He had played in the sea as a child – a seaside village nad been among his father’s domains – and he knew he would rise to the surface, though it might seem to take a long time. He was weighed down by his thick travelling clothes, now saturated, and by his sword. If he had been wearing armour, he would have sunk to the bottom and stayed there for ever. But at last his head broke the surface and he gasped for breath.
He had swum a good deal as a boy, but that was many years ago. All the same, the technique came back to him, more or less, and he was able to keep his head above water. He began to thrash his way towards the north bank. Beside him, he recognized the chestnut coat and black mane of Griff, doing the same as he was, swimming for the nearest shore.
The horse’s gait changed, and he realized it had found its footing. Ralph let his feet drift down to the river bed and found that he, too, could stand. He waded through the shallows. The sticky mud of the bottom seemed to be trying to suck him back into midstream. Griff hauled himself on to a narrow strip of beach below the priory wall. Ralph did the same.
He turned and looked back. There were several hundred people in the water, many bleeding, many screaming, many dead. Near the edge he saw a figure wearing the red-and-black livery of the earl of Shiring, floating face down. He stepped back into the water, grabbed the man by the belt, and hauled him ashore.
He turned the heavy body over, and his heart lurched with recognition. It was his friend Stephen. The face was unmarked, but Stephen’s chest appeared to have caved in. His eyes were wide open, showing no sign of life. There was no breath. The body was too damaged even for Ralph to feel for a heartbeat. A few minutes ago I was envying him, Ralph thought. Now I’m the lucky one.
Feeling irrationally guilty, he closed Stephen’s eyes.
He thought of his parents. Only a few minutes ago he had left them in the stable yard. Even if they had followed him, they could not have reached the bridge yet. They must be safe.
Where was Lady Philippa? Ralph cast his mind back to the scene on the bridge just before the collapse. Lord William and Philippa had been at the rear of the earl’s procession, and had not yet ridden on to the bridge.
But the earl had.
Ralph could picture the scene quite clearly. Earl Roland had been close behind him, impatiently urging his horse, Victory, forward through the gap in the crowd made by Ralph on Griff. Roland must have fallen close to Ralph.
Ralph heard again his father’s words: “Be constantly on the alert for ways to please the earl.” Perhaps this was the big chance he had been looking for, he thought excitedly. He might not have to wait for a war. He could distinguish himself today. He would save Earl Roland – or even just Victory.
The thought energized him. He scanned the river. The earl had been wearing a distinctive purple robe and a black velvet surcoat. It was hard to pick out an individual in the seething mass of bodies, alive and dead. Then he saw a black stallion with a distinctive white patch over one eye, and his heart leaped: it was Roland’s mount. Victory was thrashing around in the water, apparently unable to swim in a straight line, probably having broken one or more legs.
Floating next to the horse was a tall figure in a purple robe.
This was Ralph’s moment.
He threw off his outer clothing: it would hamper his swimming. Wearing only his underdrawers, he plunged back into the river and swam towards the earl. He had to force his way through a mass of men, women and children. Many of the living grabbed desperately at him, delaying his progress. He fought them off ruthlessly with merciless blows of his fists.
At last he reached Victory. The beast’s struggles were weakening. It was still for a moment, and started to sink; then, when its head dipped into the water, it began to struggle again. “Easy, boy, easy,” Ralph said into its ear; but he felt sure it was going to drown.
Roland was floating on his back, eyes closed, unconscious or dead. One foot was caught in a stirrup, and that seemed to be what was keeping his body from going down. He had lost his hat, and the top of his head was a bloody mess. Ralph could not see how a man could live after such an injury. All the same, he would rescue him. There would surely be some reward just for the corpse, when it was that of an earl.
He tried to pull Roland’s foot from the stirrup, but he found the strap was twisted tight around the ankle. He felt for his knife and realized it was attached to his belt, which he had left on the shore with the rest of his outer clothing. But the earl had weapons. Ralph fumbled Roland’s dagger from its sheath.
Victory’s convulsions made it difficult for Ralph to cut the strap. Each time he caught hold of the stirrup, the dying horse jerked it from his grasp before he could bring the knife to bear on the leather. He cut the back of his own hand in the struggle. Finally he braced himself against the horse’s side with both feet, for stability, and in that position he was able to slice through the stirrup strap.
Now he had to drag the unconscious earl to the bank. Ralph was not a strong swimmer, and he was already panting with exhaustion. To make matters worse, he could not breathe through his broken nose, so his mouth kept filling with river water. He paused for a moment, leaning his weight on the doomed Victory, trying to catch his breath; but the earl’s body, now unsupported, began to sink, and Ralph realized he could not rest.
He grabbed Roland’s ankle in his right hand and started to swim for the shore. He found it harder to keep his head above the surface when he had only one hand free for swimming. He did not look back at Roland: if the earl’s head went under water there was nothing Ralph could do about it. After a few seconds he was gasping for air and his limbs were aching.
He was not used to this. He was young and strong, and his whole life was spent hunting, jousting and fencing. He could ride all day then win a wrestling match the same evening. But now he seemed to be relying on disused muscles. His neck hurt from the effort of keeping his head up. He could not help breathing water in, and that made him cough and choke. He flapped his left arm madly and just managed to keep himself afloat. He heaved at the bulky body of the earl, made heavier by its water-soaked clothing. He approached the shore with agonizing slowness.
At last he was close enough to put his feet on the river bed. Gulping air, he began to wade, still dragging Roland. When the water was thigh-high he turned and picked up the earl in his arms, and carried him the last few steps to the shore.
He put the body on the ground and collapsed beside it, exhausted. With the last of his energy, he felt the chest. There was a strong heartbeat.
Earl Roland was alive.
The collapse of the bridge paralysed Gwenda with fear. Then, an instant later, the sudden immersion in cold water shocked her back to normal.
When her head came above the surface, she found herself surrounded by brawling, yelling people. Some had found a piece of wood to keep them afloat, but every other man tried to keep himself above water by leaning on someone else. Those leaned upon felt themselves being pushed under, and lashed out with their fists to get free. Many of the blows missed. Those that connected were returned. It was like being outside a Kingsbridge tavern at midnight. It would have been comical, except that people were dying.
Gwenda gasped air and went under. She could not swim.
She came up again. To her horror, Sim Chapman was immediately in front of her, blowing water out of his mouth like a fountain. He began to go under, obviously as unable to swim as she was. In desperation, he grabbed her shoulder and tried to use her for support. She immediately sank. Finding her inadequate to keep him on the surface, he let her go.
Under the water, holding her breath, fighting off panic, she thought: I can’t drown now, after all I’ve been through.
Next time she surfaced, she felt herself shoved aside by a heavy body and she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the ox that had knocked her over a moment before the bridge fell apart. It was apparently unharmed and swimming strongly. She reached out, kicking her feet, and managed to get hold of one of its horns. She pulled its head sideways for a moment, then the powerful neck pulled back and its head came upright again.
Gwenda managed to hang on.
Her dog, Skip, appeared beside her, swimming effortlessly, and yelped for joy to see her face.
The ox was heading for the suburban shore. Gwenda clung to its horn, even though her arm felt as if it was about to drop off.
Someone grabbed her, and she looked over her shoulder to see Sim again. Trying to use her to keep himself afloat, he pulled her under. Without letting go of the ox, she pushed Sim off with her free hand. He dropped back, his head close to her feet. Taking careful aim, she kicked him as hard as she could in the face. He gave a cry of pain that was quickly silenced as his head went under.
The ox found its footing and lumbered out of the water, splashing and snorting. Gwenda let go as soon as she could stand on the bottom.
Skip gave a frightened bark, and Gwenda looked around warily. Sim was not on the bank. She scanned the river, looking for the flash of a yellow tunic among the bodies and the floating timbers.
She saw him, keeping himself afloat by holding on to a plank, kicking with his legs and coming straight towards her.
She could not run. She had no strength left, and her dress was waterlogged. On this side of the river, there was no place to hide. And, now that the bridge was down, there was no way to cross to the Kingsbridge side.
But she was not going to let him take her.
She saw that he was struggling, and that gave her hope. The plank would have kept him afloat if he had remained still, but he was kicking for the shore, and his thrashing destabilized him. He would push down on the plank to lift himself up, then kick to swim for shore, and his head would go under again. He might not make it to the bank.
She realized she could make certain of that.
She looked around quickly. The water was full of bits of wood, from huge load-bearing timbers to splinters. Her eye lit on a stout timber about a yard long. She stepped into the water and grabbed it. Then she waded out into the river to meet her owner.
She had the satisfaction of seeing the light of fear in his eyes.
He paused in his paddling. Ahead of him was the woman he had tried to enslave – angry, determined, and wielding a formidable club. Behind him, death by drowning.
He came forward.
Gwenda stood up to her waist in water and waited for her moment.
She saw Sim pause again, and guessed from his movements that he was trying to find the bottom with his feet.
Now or never.
Gwenda raised the wood over her head and stepped forward. Sim saw what she was about to do, and scrabbled desperately to get out of the way; but he was off balance, neither swimming nor wading, and he could not dodge. Gwenda brought the timber down on top of his head with all her might.
Sim’s eyes rolled up and he slumped unconscious.
She reached forward and grabbed him by the yellow tunic. She was not going to let him float away – he might survive. She pulled him to her, then took his head in both hands and pushed it under the water.
It was more difficult than she had imagined to keep a body under, even though he was out cold. His greasy hair was slippery. She had to grasp his head under her arm then lift her feet off the bottom, so that her weight carried them both down.
She began to feel she might have overcome him. How long did it take to drown a man? She had no idea. Sim’s lungs must be filling with water already. How would she know when she could let go?
Suddenly he twisted. She tightened her grip on his head. For a moment she struggled to hold him. She was not sure whether he had come round, or was undergoing an unconscious convulsion. His spasms were strong, but seemed random. Her feet found the bottom again and she braced herself and held on.
She looked around. No one was watching: they were all too busy saving themselves.
After a few moments, Sim’s movements became weaker. Soon he was still. Gradually she relaxed her grip. Sim sank slowly to the bottom.
He did not come up again.
Panting for breath, Gwenda waded to the shore. She sat down heavily on the muddy ground. She felt for the leather purse on her belt: it was still there. The outlaws had not got around to stealing it from her, and she had kept it through all her trials. It contained the precious love potion made by Mattie Wise. She opened the purse to check – and found nothing but shards of pottery. The little vial had been smashed.
She started to cry.
The first person Caris saw doing anything sensible was Merthin’s brother, Ralph. He was wearing nothing but a soaking wet pair of underdrawers. He was uninjured, apart from his red and swollen nose, which he had had before. Ralph pulled the earl of Shiring out of the water and laid him on the shore next to a body in the earl’s livery. The earl had a grisly head injury that might be fatal. Ralph appeared exhausted by his efforts and unsure what to do next. Caris considered what she should tell him.
She looked around. On this side, the river bank consisted of small muddy beaches separated by rocky outcrops. There was not much room to lay out the dead and injured here: they would have to be taken elsewhere.
A few yards away, a flight of stone steps led up from the river to a gate in the priory wall. Caris made a decision. Pointing, she said to Ralph: “Take the earl that way into the priory. Lay him down carefully in the cathedral, then run to the hospital. Tell the first nun you see to fetch Mother Cecilia immediately.”
Ralph seemed glad to have someone decisive to obey, and did as he was told right away.
Merthin started to wade into the water, but Caris stopped him. “Look at that crowd of idiots,” she said, pointing to the city end of the ruined bridge. Dozens of people were standing gawping at the scene of carnage in front of them. “Get all the strong men down here,” she went on. “They can start pulling people out of the water and carrying them to the cathedral.”
He hesitated. “They can’t get down here from there.”
Caris saw his point. They would have to clamber over the wreckage, and that would probably lead to more injuries. But the houses on this side of the main street had gardens that backed up against the priory walls; and the house on the corner, belonging to Ben Wheeler, had a small door in the wall so that he could come to the river directly from his garden.
Merthin was thinking the same. He said: “I’ll bring them through Ben’s house and across his yard.”
He clambered over the rocks, pushed open the door and disappeared.
Caris looked across the water. A tall figure was wading on to the bank nearby, and she recognized Philemon. Gasping, he said: “Have you seen Gwenda?”
“Yes – just before the bridge collapsed,” Caris replied. “She was running from Sim Chapman.”
“I know – but where is she now?”
“I don’t see her. The best thing you can do is start pulling people out of the water.”
“I want to find my sister.”
“If she’s alive, she’ll be among those who need to get out of the river.”
“All right.” Philemon splashed back into the water.
Caris was desperate to find out where her own family were – but there was too much to do here. She promised herself she would look for her father as soon as possible.
Ben Wheeler emerged from his gate. A squat man with big shoulders and a thick neck, he was a carter, and got through life more by the use of his muscles than his brain. He scrambled down to the beach, then looked around, not knowing what to do.
On the ground at Caris’s feet was one of Earl Roland’s men, wearing the red-and-black livery, apparently dead. She said: “Ben, carry this man into the cathedral.”
Ben’s wife, Lib, appeared, carrying a toddler. She was a little brighter than her husband, and she asked: “Shouldn’t we deal with the living first?”
“We have to get them out of the water before we can tell whether they’re dead or alive – and we can’t leave bodies here on the bank because they will get in the way of rescuers. Take him to the church.”
Lib saw the sense of that. “You’d better do as Caris says, Ben,” she said.
Ben picked up the body effortlessly and moved off.
Caris realized they could move the bodies more quickly if they carried them on the kind of stretchers the builders used. The monks could organize those. Where were the monks? She had told Ralph to alert Mother Cecilia, but so far no one had appeared. The injured would need wound dressings, ointments and cleansing fluids: every nun and monk would be needed. Matthew Barber must be summoned: there would be many broken bones to set. And Mattie Wise, to give potions to the injured to ease their pain. Caris needed to raise the alarm, but she was reluctant to leave the riverside before the rescue operation was properly organized. Where was Merthin?
A woman was crawling to the shore. Caris stepped into the water and pulled her to her feet. It was Griselda. Her wet dress clung to her, and Caris could see her full breasts and the swell of her thighs. Knowing that she was pregnant, Caris said anxiously: “Are you all right?”
“I think so.”
“You’re not bleeding?”
“Thank God.” Caris looked around and was grateful to see Merthin coming from Ben Wheeler’s garden at the head of a line of men, some of them wearing the earl’s livery. She called to him: “Take Griselda’s arm. Help her up the steps to the priory. She should sit down and rest for a while.” She added reassuringly: “She’s all right, though.”
Both Merthin and Griselda looked at her strangely, and she realized in a flash how peculiar this situation was. The three of them stood for a moment in a frozen triangle: the mother-to-be, the father of her child, and the woman who loved him.
Then Caris turned away, breaking the spell, and began to give orders to the men.
Gwenda cried for a few moments, then stopped. It was not really the broken vial that made her so sad: Mattie could make up another love potion, and Caris would pay for it, if either of them was still alive. Her tears were for everything she had been through in the last twenty-four hours, from her father’s treachery to her bleeding feet.
She had no regrets about the two men she had killed. Sim and Alwyn had tried to enslave her then prostitute her. They deserved to die. Killing them was not even murder, for it was no crime to do away with an outlaw. All the same, she could not stop her hands shaking. She was exultant that she had beaten her enemies and won her freedom, and at the same time she felt sickened by what she had done. She would never forget the way the dying body of Sim had twitched at the end. And she feared that the vision of Alwyn with the point of his own knife sticking out of his eye socket might appear in her dreams. She could not help trembling in the grip of such strong contradictory feelings.
She tried to put the killings out of her mind. Who else was dead? Her parents had been planning to leave Kingsbridge yesterday. But what about her brother, Philemon? Caris, her greatest friend? Wulfric, the man she loved?
She looked across the river and was immediately reassured about Caris. She was on the far side with Merthin, and they appeared to be organizing a gang of men to pull people out of the water. Gwenda felt a surge of gratitude: at least she had not been left completely alone in the world.
But what about Philemon? He was the last person she had seen before the collapse. He should have fallen near her, all other things being equal; but she could not see him now.
And where was Wulfric? She doubted whether he would have cared to watch the spectacle of a witch being flogged through the town. However, he had been planning to return home to Wigleigh with his family today, and it was possible – God forbid, she thought – that they had been crossing the bridge on their way home when the collapse happened. She scanned the surface frantically, looking for his distinctive tawny hair, praying that she would see him swimming vigorously for the shore, rather than floating face down. But she could not see him at all.
She decided to cross over. She could not swim, but she thought that if she had a sizeable piece of wood to keep her afloat she might be able to kick herself across. She found a plank, pulled it from the water, and walked fifty yards upstream, to get well clear of the mass of bodies. Then she re-entered the water. Skip followed fearlessly. It was more taxing than she had expected, and her wet dress was a drag on progress, but she reached the far shore.
She ran to Caris, and they embraced. Caris said: “What happened?”
“He was an outlaw.”
Caris looked startled.
Gwenda added hastily: “Killed when the bridge collapsed.” She did not want even her best friend to know the exact circumstances. She went on: “Have you seen any of my family?”
“Your parents left town yesterday. I saw Philemon a few moments ago – he’s looking for you.”
“Thank God! What about Wulfric?”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t been brought out of the river. His fiancee left yesterday, but his parents and his brother were in the cathedral this morning, at the trial of Crazy Nell.”
“I have to look for him.”
Gwenda ran up the steps to the priory and across the green. A few of the stallholders were still packing up their effects, and it seemed incredible to her that they could go about their normal business when hundreds of people had just been killed in an accident – until she realized that they probably did not yet know: it had happened only minutes ago, though it felt like hours.
She passed through the priory gates into the main street. Wulfric and his family had been staying at the Bell. She ran inside.
An adolescent boy stood beside the ale barrel, looking frightened.
Gwenda said: “I’m looking for Wulfric Wigleigh.”
“There’s no one here,” the boy said. “I’m the apprentice, they left me to guard the beer.”
Someone had summoned everyone to the riverside, Gwenda guessed.
She ran out again. As she passed through the doorway, Wulfric appeared.
She was so relieved that she threw her arms around him. “You’re alive – thank God!” she cried.
“Someone said the bridge collapsed,” he said. “Is it true, then?”
“Yes – it’s dreadful. Where are the rest of your family?”
“They left a while ago. I stayed behind to collect a debt.” He held up a small leather money bag. “I hope they weren’t on the bridge when it fell.”
“I know how we can find out,” Gwenda said. “Come with me.”
She took his hand. He let her lead him into the priory precincts without withdrawing his hand. She had never touched him for so long. His hand was large, the fingers rough with work, the palm soft. It sent thrills through her, despite all that had happened.
She took him across the green and inside the cathedral. “They’re pulling people out of the river and bringing them here,” she explained.
There were already twenty or thirty bodies on the stone floor of the nave, with more arriving continually. A handful of nuns attended to the injured, dwarfed by the mighty pillars around them. The blind monk who normally led the choir seemed to be in charge. “Put the dead on the north side,” he called out as Gwenda and Wulfric entered the nave. “Wounded to the south.”
Suddenly Wulfric let out a cry of shock and dismay. Gwenda followed his gaze, and saw David, his brother, lying among the wounded. They both knelt beside him on the floor. David was a couple of years older than Wulfric, and the same large build. He was breathing, and his eyes were open, but he seemed not to see them. Wulfric spoke to him. “Dave!” he said in a low, urgent voice. “Dave, it’s me, Wulfric.”
Gwenda felt something sticky, and realized David was lying in a pool of blood.
Wulfric said: “Dave – where are Ma and Pa?”
There was no response.
Gwenda looked around and saw Wulfric’s mother. She was on the far side of the nave, in the north aisle, where Blind Carlus was telling people to put the dead. “Wulfric,” Gwenda said quietly.
He stood up and looked. “Oh, no,” he said.
They crossed the wide church. Wulfric’s mother was lying next to Sir Stephen, the lord of Wigleigh – his equal, now. She was a petite woman – it was amazing that she had given birth to two such big sons. In life she had been wiry and full of energy, but now she looked like a fragile doll, white and thin. Wulfric put his hand on her chest, feeling for a heartbeat. When he pressed down, a trickle of water came from her mouth.
“She drowned,” he whispered.
Gwenda put her arm around his wide shoulders, trying to console him with her touch. She could not tell whether he noticed.
A man-at-arms wearing Earl Roland’s red-and-black livery came up carrying the lifeless body of a big man. Wulfric gasped again: it was his father.
Gwenda said: “Lay him here, next to his wife.”
Wulfric was stunned. He said nothing, seeming unable to take it in. Gwenda herself was bewildered. What could she say to the man she loved in these circumstances? Every phrase that came to mind seemed stupid. She was desperate to give him some kind of comfort, but she did not know how.
As Wulfric stared at the bodies of his mother and father, Gwenda looked across the church at his brother. David seemed very still. She walked quickly to his side. His eyes were staring up blindly, and he was no longer breathing. She felt his chest: no heartbeat.
How could Wulfric bear it?
She wiped tears from her own eyes and returned to him. There was no point in hiding the truth. “David is dead, too,” she said.
Wulfric looked blank, as if he did not understand. The dreadful thought occurred to Gwenda that the shock might have caused him to lose his mind.
But he spoke at last. “All of them,” he said in a whisper. “All three. All dead.” He looked at Gwenda, and she saw tears come to his eyes.
She put her arms around him, and felt his big body shake with helpless sobs. She squeezed him tightly. “Poor Wulfric,” she said. “Poor, beloved Wulfric.”
“Thank God I’ve still got Annet,” he said.
An hour later, the bodies of the dead and wounded covered most of the floor of the nave. Blind Carlus, the sub-prior, stood in the middle of it all with thin-faced Simeon, the treasurer, beside him to be his eyes. Carlus was in charge because Prior Anthony was missing. “Brother Theodoric, is that you?” he said, apparently recognizing the tread of the fair-skinned, blue-eyed monk who had just walked in. “Find the gravedigger. Tell him to get six strong men to help him. We’re going to need at least a hundred new graves, and in this season we don’t want to delay burial.”
“Right away, brother,” said Theodoric.
Caris was impressed by how effectively Carlus could organize things despite his blindness.
Caris had left Merthin efficiently managing the rescue of bodies from the water. She had made sure the nuns and monks were alerted to the disaster, then she had found Matthew Barber and Mattie Wise. Finally she had checked on her own family.
Only Uncle Anthony and Griselda had been on the bridge at the time of the collapse. She had found her father at the guild hall with Buonaventura Caroli. Edmund had said: “They’ll have to build a new bridge now!” Then he had gone limping down to the river bank to help pull people out of the water. The others were safe: Aunt Petranilla had been at home, cooking; Caris’s sister Alice had been with Elfric at the Bell inn; her cousin Godwyn had been in the cathedral, checking on the repairs to the south side of the chancel.
Griselda had now gone home to rest. Anthony was still unaccounted for. Caris was not fond of her uncle, but she would not wish him dead, and she looked anxiously for him every time a new body was brought into the nave from the river.
Mother Cecilia and the nuns were washing wounds, applying honey as an antiseptic, affixing bandages and giving out restorative cups of hot spiced ale. Matthew Barber, the briskly efficient battlefield surgeon, was working with a panting, overweight Mattie Wise, Mattie administering a calming medicine a few minutes before Matthew set the broken arms and legs.
Caris walked to the south transept. There, away from the noise, the bustle and the blood in the nave, the senior physician-monks were clustered around the still-unconscious figure of the earl of Shiring. His wet clothes had been removed, and he had been covered with a heavy blanket. “He’s alive,” said Brother Godwyn. “But his injury is very serious.” He pointed to the back of the head. “Part of his skull has shattered.”
Caris peered over Godwyn’s shoulder. She could see the skull, like a broken pie crust, stained with blood. Through the gaps she could see grey matter underneath. Surely nothing could be done for such a dreadful injury?
Brother Joseph, the oldest of the physicians, felt the same. He rubbed his large nose and spoke through a mouth full of bad teeth. “We must bring the relics of the saint,” he said, slurring his sibilants like a drunk, as always. “They are his best hope for recovery.”
Caris had little faith in the power of the bones of a long-dead saint to heal a living man’s broken head. She said nothing, of course: she knew she was peculiar in this respect, and she kept her views to herself most of the time.
The earl’s sons, Lord William and Bishop Richard, stood looking on. William, with his tall, soldierly figure and black hair, was a younger version of the unconscious man on the table. Richard was fairer and rounder. Merthin’s brother, Ralph, was with them. “I pulled the earl out of the water,” he said. It was the second time Caris had heard him say it.
“Yes, well done,” said William.
William’s wife, Philippa, was as dissatisfied as Caris with Brother Joseph’s pronouncement. “Isn’t there something you can do to help the earl?” she said.
Godwyn replied: “Prayer is the most effective cure.”
The relics were kept in a locked compartment under the high altar. As soon as Godwyn and Joseph left to fetch them, Matthew Barber bent over the earl, peering at the head wound. “It will never heal like that,” he said. “Not even with the help of the saint.”
William said sharply: “What do you mean?” Caris thought he sounded just like his father.
“The skull is a bone like any other,” Matthew answered. “It can mend itself, but the pieces need to be in the right place. Otherwise it will grow back crooked.”
“Do you think you know better than the monks?”
“My lord, the monks know how to call upon the help of the spirit world. I only set broken bones.”
“And where did you get this knowledge?”
“I was surgeon with the king’s armies for many years. I marched alongside your father, the earl, in the Scottish wars. I have seen broken heads before.”
“What would you do for my father now?”
Matthew was nervous under William’s aggressive questioning, Caris felt; but he seemed sure of what he was saying. “I would take the pieces of broken bone out of the brain, clean them, and try to fit them together again.”
Caris gasped. She could hardly imagine such a bold operation. How did Matthew have the nerve to propose it? And what if it went wrong?
William said: “And he would recover?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew replied. “Sometimes a head wound has strange effects, impairing a man’s ability to walk, or speak. All I can do is mend his skull. If you want miracles, ask the saint.”
“So you can’t promise success.”
“Only God is all-powerful. Men must do what they can and hope for the best. But I believe your father will die of this injury if it remains untreated.”
“But Joseph and Godwyn have read the books written by the ancient medical philosophers.”
“And I have seen wounded men die or recover on the battlefield. It’s for you to decide whom to trust.”
William looked at his wife. Philippa said: “Let the barber do what he can, and ask St Adolphus to help him.”
William nodded. “All right,” he said to Matthew. “Go ahead.”
“I want the earl lying on a table,” Matthew said decisively. “Near the window, where a strong light will fall on his injury.”
William snapped his fingers at two novice monks. “Do whatever this man asks,” he ordered.
Matthew said: “All I need is a bowl of warm wine.”
The monks brought a trestle table from the hospital and set it up below the big window in the south transept. Two squires lifted Earl Roland on to the table.
“Face down, please,” said Matthew.
They turned him over.
Matthew had a leather satchel containing the sharp tools from which barbers got their name. He first took out a small pair of scissors. He bent over the earl’s head and began to cut away the hair around the wound. The earl had thick black hair that was naturally oily. Matthew snipped the locks and tossed them aside so that they landed on the floor. When he had clipped a circle around the wound, the damage was more clearly visible.
Brother Godwyn reappeared, carrying the reliquary, the carved ivory-and-gold box containing the skull of St Adolphus and the bones of one arm and a hand. When he saw Matthew operating on Earl Roland, he said indignantly: “What is going on here?”
Matthew looked up. “If you would place the holy relics on the earl’s back, as close as possible to his head, I believe the saint will steady my hands.”
Godwyn hesitated, clearly angry that a mere barber had taken charge.
Lord William said: “Do as he says, brother, or the death of my father may be laid at your door.”
Still Godwyn did not obey. Instead he spoke to Blind Carlus, standing a few yards away. “Brother Carlus, I am ordered by Lord William to-”
“I heard what Lord William said,” Carlus interrupted. “You’d better do as he wishes.”
It was not the answer Godwyn had been hoping for. His face showed angry frustration. With evident distaste, he placed the sacred container on Earl Roland’s broad back.
Matthew picked up a fine pair of forceps. With a delicate touch, he grasped the visible edge of a piece of bone and lifted it, without touching the grey matter beneath. Caris watched, entranced. The bone came right away from the head, with skin and hair attached. Matthew put it gently into the bowl of warm wine.
He did the same with two more small pieces of bone. The noise from the nave – the groans of the wounded and the sobs of the bereaved – seemed to recede into the background. The people watching Matthew stood silent and still in a circle around him and the unconscious earl.
Next, he worked on the shards that remained attached to the rest of the skull. In each case he snipped away the hair, washed the area carefully with a piece of linen dipped in wine, then used the forceps to press the bone gently into what he thought was its original position.
Caris could hardly breathe, the tension was so great. She had never admired anyone as much as she admired Matthew Barber at this moment. He had such courage, such skill, such confidence. And he was performing this inconceivably delicate operation on an earl! If it went wrong they would probably hang him. Yet his hands were as steady as the hands of the angels carved in stone over the cathedral doorway.
Finally he replaced the three detached shards that he had put in the bowl of wine, fitting them together as if he were mending a broken jar.
He pulled the skin of the scalp across the wound and sewed it together with swift, precise stitches.
Now Roland’s skull was complete.
“The earl must sleep for a day and a night,” he said. “If he wakes, give him a strong dose of Mattie Wise’s sleeping draught. Then he must lie still for forty days and forty nights. If necessary, strap him down.”
Then he asked Mother Cecilia to bandage the head.
Godwyn left the cathedral and ran down to the river bank, feeling frustrated and annoyed. There was no firm authority: Carlus was letting everyone do as they wished. Prior Anthony was weak, but he was better than Carlus. He had to be found.
Most of the bodies were out of the water now. Those who were merely bruised and shocked had walked away. Most of the dead and wounded had been carried to the cathedral. Those left were somehow entangled with the wreckage.
Godwyn was both excited and frightened by the thought that Anthony might be dead. He longed for a new regime at the priory: a stricter interpretation of Benedict’s rule, along with meticulous management of the finances. But, at the same time, he knew that Anthony was his patron, and that under another prior he might not continue to be promoted.
Merthin had commandeered a boat. He and two other young men were out in midstream, where most of what had been the bridge was now floating in the water. Wearing only their underdrawers, the three were trying to lift a heavy beam in order to free someone. Merthin was small in stature, but the other two looked strong and well fed, and Godwyn guessed they were squires from the earl’s entourage. Despite their evident fitness, they were finding it difficult to get leverage on the heavy timbers, standing as they were in the well of a small rowing-boat.
Godwyn stood with a crowd of townspeople, watching, torn by fear and hope, as the two squires raised a heavy beam and Merthin pulled a body from beneath it. After a short examination, he called out: “Marguerite Jones – dead.”
Marguerite was an elderly woman of no account. Impatiently, Godwyn shouted out: “Can’t you see Prior Anthony?”
A look passed between the men on the boat, and Godwyn realized he had been too peremptory. But Merthin called back: “I can see a monk’s robe.”
“Then it’s the prior!” Godwyn shouted. Anthony was the only monk still unaccounted for. “Can you tell how he is?”
Merthin leaned over the side of the boat. Apparently unable to get close enough from there, he eased himself into the water. Eventually he called out: “Still breathing.”
Godwyn felt both elated and disappointed. “Then get him out, quickly!” he shouted. “Please,” he added.
There was no acknowledgement of what he said, but he saw Merthin duck under a partly submerged plank, then relay instructions to the other two. They eased the beam they were holding to one side, letting it slip gently into the water, then they leaned over the prow of the little boat to get hold of the plank Merthin was under. Merthin seemed to be struggling to detach Anthony’s clothing from a tangle of boards and splinters.
Godwyn watched, frustrated that he could do nothing to speed the process. He spoke to two of the bystanders. “Go to the priory and get two monks to bring a stretcher. Tell them Godwyn sent you.” The two men went up the steps and into the priory grounds.
At last Merthin managed to pull the unconscious figure from the wreckage. He drew him close, then the other two heaved the prior into the boat. Merthin scrambled in after, and they poled to the bank.
Eager volunteers took Anthony from the boat and put him on the stretcher brought by the monks. Godwyn examined the prior quickly. He was breathing, but his pulse was weak. His eyes were closed and his face was ominously white. His head and chest were only bruised, but his pelvis seemed smashed, and he was bleeding.
The monks picked him up. Godwyn led the way across the priory grounds into the cathedral. “Make way!” he shouted. He took the prior along the nave and into the chancel, the holiest part of the church. He told the monks to lay the body in front of the high altar. The sodden robe clearly outlined Anthony’s hips and legs, which were twisted so far out of shape that only his top half looked human.
Within a few moments, all the monks had gathered around the unconscious body of their prior. Godwyn retrieved the reliquary from Earl Roland and placed it at Anthony’s feet. Joseph placed a jewelled crucifix on his chest and wrapped Anthony’s hands around it.
Mother Cecilia knelt beside Anthony. She wiped his face with a cloth soaked in some soothing liquid. She said to Joseph: “He seems to have broken many bones. Do you want Matthew Barber to look at him?”
Joseph shook his head silently.
Godwyn was glad. The barber would have defiled the holy sanctuary. Better to leave the outcome to God.
Brother Carlus performed the last rites, then led the monks in a hymn.
Godwyn did not know what to hope for. For some years he had been looking forward to the end of Priory Anthony’s rule. But in the last hour he had got a glimpse of what might replace Anthony: joint rule by Carlus and Simeon. They were Anthony’s cronies, and would be no better.
Suddenly he saw Matthew Barber at the edge of the crowd, looking over the monks’ shoulders, studying Anthony’s lower half. Godwyn was about to order him indignantly to leave the chancel, when he gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head and walked away.
Anthony opened his eyes.
Brother Joseph cried: “Praise God!”
The prior seemed to want to speak. Mother Cecilia, who was still kneeling beside him, leaned over his face to catch his words. Godwyn saw Anthony’s mouth move, and wished he could hear. After a moment, the prior fell silent.
Cecilia looked shocked. “Is that true?” she said.
They all stared. Godwyn said: “What did he say, Mother Cecilia?”
She did not answer.
Anthony’s eyes closed. A subtle change came over him. He went very still.
Godwyn bent over his body. There was no breath. He placed a hand over Anthony’s heart, and felt no beat. He grasped the wrist, feeling for a pulse: nothing.
He stood up. “Prior Anthony has left this world,” he said. “May God bless his soul and welcome him into His holy presence.”
All the monks said: “Amen.”
Godwyn thought: Now there will have to be an election.
Part Three. June to December, 1337
Kingsbridge Cathedral was a place of horror. Wounded people groaned in pain and cried out for help to God, or the saints, or their mothers. Every few minutes, someone searching for a loved one would find him or her dead, and would scream with the shock of sudden grief. The living and the dead were grotesquely twisted with broken bones, covered in blood, their clothing ripped and sodden. The stone floor of the church was slippery with water, blood and riverside mud.
In the middle of the horror, a small zone of calm and efficiency was centred on the figure of Mother Cecilia. Like a small quick bird, she went from one horizontal figure to the next. She was followed by a little flock of hooded nuns, among them her long-time assistant, Sister Juliana, now respectfully known as Old Julie. As she examined each patient, she gave orders: for washing, for ointments, for bandages, for herbal medicines. In the more serious cases she would summon Mattie Wise, Matthew Barber or Brother Joseph. She always spoke quietly but clearly, her instructions simple and decisive. She left most patients soothed, and their relatives reassured and hopeful.
It reminded Caris, with dreadful vividness, of the day her mother died. There had been terror and confusion then, though only in her heart. In the same way, Mother Cecilia had seemed to know what to do. Mama had died despite Cecilia’s help, just as many of today’s wounded would die; but there had been an orderliness about the death, a sense that everything possible had been done.
Some people appealed to the Virgin and the saints when someone was sick, but that only made Caris more uncertain and frightened, for there was no way to know if the spirits would help, or even whether they had heard. Mother Cecilia was not as powerful as the saints, the ten-year-old Caris had known; but all the same her assured, practical presence had given Caris both hope and resignation, in a combination that brought peace to her soul.
Now Caris became part of Cecilia’s entourage, without really making a decision or even thinking about it. She followed the commands of the most assertive person in the vicinity, just as people had obeyed her directions at the riverside immediately after the collapse, when no one else seemed to know what to do. Cecilia’s brisk practicality was infectious, and those around her acquired some of the same cool competence. Caris found herself holding a small bowl of vinegar, while a beautiful novice nun called Mair dipped a rag in it and washed the blood from the face of Susanna Chepstow, the timber merchant’s wife.
After that it was non-stop until well after dark. Thanks to the long summer evening, all the floating bodies were retrieved from the river before nightfall – though perhaps no one would ever know how many drowned people had sunk to the bottom or drifted downstream. There was no trace of Crazy Nell, who must have been pulled under by the cart to which she was tied. Unjustly, Friar Murdo had survived, having suffered nothing worse than a twisted ankle, and had limped off to the Bell to recuperate with hot ham and strong ale.
However, the treatment of the injured continued, after nightfall, by candlelight. Some of the nuns became exhausted and had to stop; others were overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy and fell apart, misunderstanding what they were told and becoming clumsy, so that they had to be dismissed; but Caris and a small core group carried on until there was no more to do. It must have been midnight when the last knot was tied in the last bandage, and Caris staggered across the green to her father’s house.
Papa and Petranilla sat together in the dining hall, holding hands, grieving for the death of their brother Anthony. Edmund’s eyes were wet with tears, and Petranilla was crying inconsolably. Caris kissed them both, but she could think of nothing to say. If she had sat down, she would have gone to sleep in the chair; so she climbed the stairs. She got into bed next to Gwenda, who was staying with her, as always. Gwenda was deep in an exhausted sleep, and did not stir.
Caris closed her eyes, her body weary and her heart aching with sorrow.
Her father was mourning one person among the many, but she felt the weight of them all. She thought of her friends, neighbours and acquaintances lying dead on the cold stone floor of the cathedral; and she imagined the sadness of their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters; and the sheer volume of grief overwhelmed her. She sobbed into her pillow. Without speaking, Gwenda put an arm around her and hugged her. After a few moments exhaustion overtook her, and she fell asleep.
She got up again at dawn. Leaving Gwenda still fast asleep, she returned to the cathedral and continued the work. Most of the injured were sent home. Those who still needed to be watched over – such as the still-unconscious Earl Roland – were moved into the hospital. The dead bodies were laid out in neat rows in the chancel, the eastern end of the church, to await burial.
The time flew by, with hardly a moment to rest. Then, late on Sunday afternoon, Mother Cecilia told Caris to take a break. She looked around and realized that most of the work was done. That was when she started to think of the future.
Until that moment she had felt, unconsciously, that ordinary life was over, and she was living in a new world of horror and tragedy. Now she realized that this, like everything else, would pass. The dead would be buried, the injured would heal, and somehow the town would struggle back to normal. And she remembered that, just before the bridge collapsed, there had been another tragedy, violent and devastating in its own way.
She found Merthin down by the river, with Elfric and Thomas Langley, organizing the clean-up with the help of fifty or more volunteers. Merthin’s quarrel with Elfric had clearly been set aside in the emergency. Most of the loose timber had been retrieved from the water and stacked on the bank. But much of the woodwork was still joined together, and a mass of interlocked timber floated on the surface, moving slightly on the rise and fall of the water, with the innocent tranquillity of a great beast after it has killed and eaten.
The men were trying to break up the wreckage into manageable proportions. It was a dangerous job, with a constant risk that the bridge would collapse further and injure the volunteers. They had tied a rope around the central part of the bridge, now partly submerged, and a team of men stood on the bank hauling on the rope. In a boat in midstream were Merthin and giant Mark Webber with an oarsman. When the men on the bank rested, the boat was rowed in close to the wreckage, and Mark, directed by Merthin, attacked the beams with a huge forester’s axe. Then the boat moved to a safe distance, Elfric gave a command, and the rope team pulled again.
As Caris watched, a big section of the bridge came free. Everyone cheered, and the men dragged the tangled woodwork to the shore.
The wives of some of the volunteers arrived with loaves of bread and jugs of ale. Thomas Langley ordered a break. While the men were resting, Caris got Merthin on his own. “You can’t marry Griselda,” she said without preamble.
The sudden assertion did not surprise him. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I keep thinking about it.”
“Will you walk with me?”
They left the crowd at the riverside and went up the main street. After the bustle of the Fleece Fair, the town was graveyard quiet. Everyone was staying indoors, tending the sick or mourning the dead. “There can’t be many families in town that don’t have someone dead or injured,” she said. “There must have been a thousand people on the bridge, either trying to leave town or tormenting Crazy Nell. There are more than a hundred bodies in the church, and we’ve treated about four hundred wounded.”
“And five hundred lucky ones,” Merthin said.
“We could have been on the bridge, or near it. You and I might be lying on the floor of the chancel, now, cold and still. But we’ve been given a gift – the rest of our lives. And we mustn’t waste that gift because of one mistake.”
“It’s not a mistake,” he said sharply. “It’s a baby – a person, with a soul.”
“You’re a person with a soul, too – an exceptional one. Look at what you’ve been doing just now. Three people are in charge down there at the river. One is the town’s most prosperous builder. Another is the matricularius at the priory. And the third is… a mere apprentice, not yet twenty-one. Yet the townsmen obey you as readily as they obey Elfric and Thomas.”
“That doesn’t mean I can shirk my responsibilities.”
They turned into the priory close. The green in front of the cathedral was rutted and trampled by the fair, and there were boggy patches and wide puddles. In the three great west windows of the church Caris could see the reflection of a watery sun and ripped clouds, a picture divided, like a three-sided altarpiece. A bell began to ring for Evensong.
Caris said: “Think how often you’ve talked of going to see the buildings of Paris and Florence. Will you give all that up?”
“I suppose so. A man can’t abandon his wife and child.”
“So you’re already thinking of her as your wife.”
He rounded on her. “I’ll never think of her as my wife,” he said bitterly. “You know who I love.”
For once she could not think of a clever answer. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came to her. Instead, she felt a constriction in her throat. She blinked away tears, and looked down to hide her emotions.
He grasped her arms and pulled her close to him. “You know, don’t you?”
She forced herself to meet his eye. “Do I?” Her vision blurred.
He kissed her mouth. It was a new kind of kiss, different from anything she had experienced before. His lips moved gently but insistently against hers, as if he was determined to remember the moment; and she realized, with dread, that he was thinking this would be their last kiss.
She clung to him, wanting it to go on for ever, but all too soon he drew away.
“I love you,” he said. “But I’m going to marry Griselda.”
Life and death went on. Children were born and old people died. On Sunday Emma Butcher attacked her adulterous husband Edward with his largest cleaver in a fit of jealous rage. On Monday one of Bess Hampton’s chickens went missing, and was found boiling in a pot over Glynnie Thompson’s kitchen fire, whereupon Glynnie was stripped and flogged by Tohn Constable. On Tuesday Howell Tyler was working on the roof of St Mark’s church when a rotten beam gave way beneath him and he fell, crashing through the ceiling to the floor below, and died immediately.
By Wednesday the wreckage of the bridge had been cleared, all but the stumps of two of the main piers, and the timber was stacked on the bank. The waterway was open, and barges and rafts were able to leave Kingsbridge for Melcombe with wool and other goods from the Fleece Fair consigned to Flanders and Italy.
When Caris and Edmund went to the riverside to check on progress, Merthin was using the salvaged timbers to build a raft to ferry people across the river. “It’s better than a boat,” he explained. “Livestock can walk on and off, and carts can be driven on, too.”
Edmund nodded gloomily. “It will have to do, for the weekly market. Fortunately, we should have a new bridge by the time of the next Fleece Fair.”
“I don’t think so,” Merthin said.
“But you told me it would take nearly a year to build a new bridge!”
“A wooden bridge, yes. But if we build another wooden one it, too, will fall down.”
“Let me show you.” Merthin took them to a pile of timber. He pointed to a group of mighty posts. “These formed the piers – they’re probably the famous twenty-four best oak trees in the land, given to the priory by the king. Notice the ends.”
Caris could see that the huge posts had originally been sharpened into points, though their outlines had been softened by years under water.
Merthin said: “A timber bridge has no foundations. The posts are simply driven into the river bed. That’s not good enough.”
“But this bridge has stood for hundreds of years!” Edmund said indignantly. He always sounded quarrelsome when he argued.
Merthin was used to him, and paid no attention to his tone of voice. “And now it has fallen down,” he said patiently. “Something has changed. Wooden piers were once firm enough, but no longer.”
“What can have changed? The river is the river.”
“Well, for one thing you built a barn and a jetty on the bank, and protected the property with a wall. Several other merchants did the same. The old mud beach where I used to play on the south shore has mostly gone. So the river can no longer spread itself into the fields. As a result, the water flows faster than it used to – especially after the kind of heavy rain we’ve had this year.”
“So it will have to be a stone bridge?”
Edmund looked up and saw Elfric standing by, listening. “Merthin says a stone bridge will take three years.”
Elfric nodded. “Three building seasons.”
Most building was done in the warmer months, Caris knew. Merthin had explained to her that stone walls could not be constructed when there was a risk that the mortar might freeze before it had begun to set.
Elfric went on: “One season for the foundations, one for the arches, and one for the roadbed. After each stage, the mortar must be left for three or four months to set hard before the next stage can be laid on top of it.”
“Three years with no bridge,” Edmund said gloomily.
“Four years, unless you get started right away.”
“You’d better prepare an estimate of the cost for the priory.”
“I’ve already started, but it’s a long job. It will take me another two or three days.”
“Quick as you can.”
Edmund and Caris left the riverside and walked up the main street, Edmund with his energetically lopsided stride. He would never lean on anyone’s arm, despite his withered leg. To keep his balance, he swung his arms as if he were sprinting. The townspeople knew to give him plenty of room, especially when he was in a hurry. “Three years!” he said as they walked. “It will do terrible damage to the Fleece Fair. I don’t know how long it will take us to get back to normal. Three years!”
When they got home they found Caris’s sister Alice there. Her hair was tied up in her hat in an elaborate new style copied from Lady Philippa. She was sitting at the table with Aunt Petranilla. Caris knew immediately, from the looks on their faces, that they had been talking about her.
Petranilla went to the kitchen and came back with ale, bread and fresh butter. She filled a cup for Edmund.
Petranilla had cried on Sunday, but since then she had shown little sign of bereavement for her dead brother, Anthony. Surprisingly Edmund, who had never liked Anthony, seemed to grieve more: tears would come to his eyes at unexpected moments during the day, though they would disappear just as quickly.
Now he was full of news of the bridge. Alice was inclined to question Merthin’s judgement, but Edmund dismissed that notion impatiently. “The boy’s a genius,” he said. “He knows more than many master builders, yet he isn’t out of his apprenticeship.”
Caris said bitterly: “All the more shame that he’s going to spend his life with Griselda.”
Alice leaped to the defence of her stepdaughter. “There’s nothing wrong with Griselda.”
“Yes, there is,” Caris said. “She doesn’t love him. She seduced him because her boyfriend left town, that’s all.”
“Is that the story Merthin’s telling you?” Alice laughed sarcastically. “If a man doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t do it – take my word.”
Edmund grunted. “Men can be tempted,” he said.
“Oh, so you’re siding with Caris, are you, Papa?” Alice said. “I shouldn’t be surprised, you usually do.”
“It’s not a question of taking sides,” Edmund replied. “A man may not want to do a thing beforehand, and he may regret it afterwards, yet for a brief moment his wishes may change – especially when a woman uses her wiles.”
“Wiles? Why do you assume that she threw herself at him?”
“I didn’t say that. But I understand it began when she cried, and he comforted her.”
Caris herself had told him this.
Alice made a disgusted sound. “You’ve always had a soft spot for that insubordinate apprentice.”
Caris ate some bread with butter, but she had no appetite. She said: “I suppose they’ll have half a dozen fat children, and Merthin will inherit Elfric’s business, and become just another town tradesman, building houses for merchants and fawning on clergymen for contracts, just like his father-in-law.”
Petranilla said: “And very lucky so to do! He’ll be one of the leading men of the town.”
“He’s worthy of a better destiny.”
“Is he, really?” Petranilla said in mock amazement. “And him the son of a knight who fell from grace and hasn’t a shilling to buy shoes for his wife! What exactly do you believe him to be destined for?”
Caris was stung by this mockery. It was true that Merthin’s parents were poor corrodiaries, dependent on the priory for their food and drink. For him to inherit a successful building business would indeed mean a jump up the social ladder. Yet she still felt he deserved better. She could not say exactly what future she had in mind for him. She just knew that he was different from everyone else in town, and she could not bear the thought of his becoming like the rest.
On Friday, Caris took Gwenda to see Mattie Wise.
Gwenda was still in town because Wulfric was there, attending to the burial of his family. Elaine, Edmund’s housemaid, had dried Gwenda’s dress in front of the fire, and Caris had bandaged her feet and given her an old pair of shoes.
Caris felt that Gwenda was not telling the full truth about her adventure in the forest. She said that Sim had taken her to the outlaws, and she had escaped; he had chased after her, and he had died in the bridge collapse. John Constable was satisfied with that story: outlaws were outside the law, as their name indicated, so there was no question of Sim bequeathing his property. Gwenda was free. But something else had happened in the forest, Caris felt sure; something Gwenda did not want to talk about. Caris did not press her friend. Some things were best buried.
Funerals were the business of the town this week. The extraordinary manner of the deaths made little difference to the rituals of interment. The bodies had to be washed, the shrouds sewn for the poor, the coffins nailed lor the rich, the graves dug and the priests paid. Not all the monks were qualified as priests, but several were, and they worked in shifts, all day, every day, conducting obsequies in the cemetery on the north side of the cathedral. There were half a dozen small parish churches in Kingsbridge, and their priests were also busy.
Gwenda was helping Wulfric with the arrangements, performing the traditional woman’s tasks, washing the bodies and making the shrouds, doing what she could to comfort him. He was in a kind of daze. He managed the details of the burial well enough, but spent hours gazing into space, with a slightly puzzled frown, as if trying to make sense of a massive conundrum.
By Friday the funerals were over, but the acting prior, Carlus, had announced a special service on Sunday for the souls of all those killed, so Wulfric was staying until Monday. Gwenda reported to Caris that he seemed grateful for the company of someone from his own village, but showed animation only when talking about Annet. Caris offered to buy her another love potion.
They found Mattie Wise in her kitchen, brewing medicines. The little house smelled of herbs, oil and wine. “I used just about everything I had on Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “I need to restock.”
“You must have made some money, anyway,” Gwenda said.
“Yes – if I can collect it.”
Caris was shocked. “Do people welsh on you?”
“Some do. I always try to collect the fee in advance, while they’re still in pain. But if they haven’t got the money there and then, it’s hard to refuse them treatment. Most pay up afterwards, but not all.”
Caris felt indignant on behalf of her friend. “What do they say?”
“All sons of things. They can’t afford it, the potion did them no good, they were given it against their will, anything. But don’t worry. There are enough honest people for me to continue. What’s on your mind?”
“Gwenda lost her love potion in the accident.”
“That’s easily remedied. Why don’t you prepare it for her?”
While Caris was making up the mixture she asked Mattie: “How many pregnancies end in a miscarriage?”
Gwenda knew why she was asking. Caris had told her all about Merthin’s dilemma. The two girls had spent most of their time together discussing either Wulfric’s indifference or Merthin’s high principles. Caris had even been tempted to buy a love potion herself, and use it on Merthin; though something held her back.
Mattie gave her a sharp look, but answered noncommittally. “No one knows. Many times, a woman misses one month but comes on again the next. Did she get pregnant and lose the baby, or was there some other reason? It’s impossible to tell.”
“Neither of you is pregnant, though, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Gwenda said quickly: “How do you know?”
“By looking at you. A woman changes almost immediately. Not just her belly and her breasts, but her complexion, her way of moving, her mood. I see these things better than most people – that’s why they call me wise. So who is pregnant?”
“Griselda, Elfric’s daughter.”
“Oh, yes, I’ve seen her. She’s three months gone.”
Caris was astonished. “How long?”
“Three months, or very nearly. Take a look at her. She was never a thin girl, but she’s even more voluptuous now. So why are you so shocked? I suppose it’s Merthin’s baby, is it?”
Mattie always guessed these things.
Gwenda said to Caris: “I thought you told me it happened recently.”
“Merthin didn’t say exactly when, but he gave me the impression it was not long ago, and it only happened once. Now it seems he’s been doing it to her for months!”
Mattie frowned. “Why would he lie?”
“To make himself look not so bad?” Gwenda suggested.
“How could it be worse?”
“Men are peculiar, the way they think.”
“I’m going to ask him,” Caris said. “Right now.” She put down the jar and the measuring spoon.
Gwenda said: “What about my love potion?”
“I’ll finish making it,” Mattie said. “Caris is in too much of a hurry.”
“Thank you,” Caris said, and she went out.
She marched down to the riverside, but for once Merthin was not there. She failed to find him at Elfric’s house either. She decided he must be in the mason’s loft.
In the west front of the cathedral, neatly fitted into one of the towers, was a work room for the master mason. Caris reached it by climbing a narrow spiral staircase in a buttress of the tower. It was a wide room, well lit by tall lancet windows. All along one wall were stacked the beautifully shaped wooden templates used by the original cathedral stone carvers, carefully preserved and used now for repairs.
Underfoot was the tracing floor. The floorboards were covered with a layer of plaster, and the original master mason, Jack Builder, had scratched his plans in the mortar with iron drawing instruments. The marks thus made were white at first, but they faded over time, and new drawings could be scratched on top of the old. When there were so many designs that it became hard to tell the new from the old, a fresh layer of plaster was laid on top, and the process began again.
Parchment, the thin leather on which monks copied out the books of the Bible, was much too expensive to be used for drawings. In Caris’s lifetime a new writing material had appeared, paper, but it came from the Arabs, so monks rejected it as a heathen Muslim invention. Anyway, it had to be imported from Italy and was no cheaper than parchment. And the tracing floor had another advantage: a carpenter could lay a piece of wood on the floor, on top of the drawing, and carve his template exactly to the lines drawn by the master mason.
Merthin was kneeling on the floor, carving a piece of oak in accordance with a drawing, but he was not making a template. He was carving a cog wheel with sixteen teeth. On the floor close by was another, smaller wheel, and Merthin stopped carving for a moment to put the two together and see how well they fitted. Caris had seen such cogs, or gears, in water mills, connecting the mill paddle to the grindstone.
He must have heard her footsteps on the stone staircase, but he was too absorbed in his work to glance up. She regarded him for a second, anger competing with love in her heart. He had the look of total concentration that she knew so well: his slight body bent over his work, his strong hands and dextrous fingers making fine adjustments, his face immobile, his gaze unwavering. He had the perfect grace of a young deer bending its head to drink from a stream. This was what a man looked like, she thought, when he was doing what he was born to do. He was in a state like happiness, but more profound. He was fulfilling his destiny.
She burst out: “Why did you lie to me?”
His chisel slipped. He cried out in pain and looked at his finger. “Christ,” he said, and put his finger in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Caris said. “Are you hurt?”
“Nothing much. When did I lie to you?”
“You gave me the impression that Griselda seduced you one time. The truth is that the two of you have been at it for months.”
“No, we haven’t.” He sucked his bleeding finger.
“She’s three months pregnant.”
“She can’t be, it happened two weeks ago.”
“She is, you can tell by her figure.”
“Mattie Wise told me. Why did you lie?”
He looked her in the eye. “But I didn’t lie,” he said. “It happened on the Sunday of Fleece Fair week. That was the first and only time.”
“Then how could she be sure she’s pregnant, after only two weeks?”
“I don’t know. How soon can women tell, anyway?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I’ve never asked. Anyway, three months ago Griselda was still with…”
“Oh, God!” Caris said. A spark of hope flared in her breast. “She was still with her old boyfriend – Thurstan.” The spark blazed into a flame. “It must be his baby, Thurstan’s – not yours. You’re not the father!”
“Is it possible?” Merthin seemed hardly to dare to hope.
“Of course – it explains everything. If she had suddenly fallen in love with you, she’d be after you every chance she gets. But you said she hardly speaks to you.”
“I thought that was because I was reluctant to marry her.”
“She’s never liked you. She just needed a father for her baby. Thurstan ran away – probably when she told him she was pregnant – and you were right there in the house, and stupid enough to fall for her trick. Oh, thank God!”
“Thank Mattie Wise,” said Merthin.
She caught sight of his left hand. Blood was welling from a finger. “Oh, I made you hurt yourself!” she cried. She took his hand and examined the cut. It was small, but deep. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“But it is,” she said, not knowing whether she was talking about the cut or something else. She kissed his hand, feeling his hot blood on her lips. She put his finger in her mouth, sucking the wound clean. It was so intimate that it felt like a sexual act, and she closed her eyes, feeling ecstatic. She swallowed, tasting his blood, and shuddered with pleasure.
A week after the bridge collapsed, Merthin had built a ferry.
It was ready at dawn on Saturday morning, in time for the weekly Kingsbridge market. He had worked on it by lamplight all Friday night, and Caris guessed he had not had time to speak to Griselda and tell her he knew the baby was Thurstan’s. Caris and her father came down to the riverside to see the new sensation as the first traders arrived – women from the surrounding villages with baskets of eggs, peasants with cartloads of butter and cheese, and shepherds with flocks of lambs.
Caris admired Merthin’s work. The raft was large enough to carry a horse and cart without taking the beast out of the shafts, and it had a firm wooden railing to keep sheep from falling overboard. New wooden platforms at water level on both banks made it easy for carts to roll on and off. Passengers paid a penny, collected by a monk – the ferry, like the bridge, belonged to the priory.
Most ingenious was the system Merthin had devised for moving the raft from one bank to the other. A long rope ran from the south end of the raft across the river, around a post, back across the river, around a drum and back to the raft, where it was attached again at the north end. The drum was connected by wooden gears to a wheel turned by a pacing ox: Caris had seen Merthin carving the gears yesterday. A lever altered the gears so that the drum turned in either direction, depending on whether the raft was going or coming back – and there was no need to take the ox out of its traces and turn it around.
“It’s quite simple,” Merthin said when she marvelled at it – and it was, when she looked closely. The lever simply lifted one large cog wheel up out of the chain and moved into its place two smaller wheels, the effect being to reverse the direction in which the drum turned. All the same, no one in Kingsbridge had seen anything like it.
During the course of the morning, half the town came to look at Merthin’s amazing new machine. Caris was bursting with pride in him. Elfric stood by, explaining the mechanism to anyone who asked, taking the credit for Merthin’s work.
Caris wondered where Elfric got the nerve. He had destroyed Merthin’s door – an act of violence that would have scandalized the town, had it not been overtaken by the greater tragedy of the bridge collapse. He had beaten Merthin with a stick, and Merthin still had the bruise on his face. And he had colluded in a deception intended to make Merthin marry Griselda and raise another man’s child. Merthin had continued to work with him, feeling that the emergency outweighed their quarrel. But Caris did not know how Elfric could continue to hold his head up.
The ferry was brilliant – but inadequate.
Edmund pointed this out. On the far side of the river, carts and traders were queuing all along the road through the suburbs as far as the eye could see.
“It would go faster with two oxen,” Merthin said.
“Twice as fast?”
“Not quite, no. I could build another ferry.”
“There’s already a second one,” Edmund said, pointing. He was right: Ian Boatman was rowing foot passengers across. Ian could not take carts, he refused livestock and he charged two pence. Normally he had trouble scraping a living: he took a monk across to Leper Island twice a day and found little other business. But today he, too, had a queue.
Merthin said: “Well, you’re right. In the end, a ferry is not a bridge.”
“This is a catastrophe,” Edmund said. “Buonaventura’s news was bad enough. But this – this could kill the town.”
“Then you must have a new bridge.”
“It’s not me, it’s the priory. The prior is dead, and there’s no telling how long they will take to elect a new one. We’ll just have to pressure the acting prior to make a decision. I’ll go and see Carlus now. Come with me, Caris.”
They walked up the street and entered the priory. Most visitors had to go to the hospital and tell one of the servants that they wanted to speak to a monk; but Edmund was too important a personage, and too proud, to beg the favour of an audience in that way. The prior was lord of Kingsbridge, but Edmund was alderman of the guild, leader of the merchants who made the town what it was, and he treated the prior as a partner in the governance of the town. Besides, for the last thirteen years the prior had been his younger brother. So he went straight to the prior’s house on the north side of the cathedral.
It was a timber-framed house like Edmund’s, with a hall and a parlour on the ground floor and two bedrooms upstairs. There was no kitchen, for the prior’s meals were prepared in the monastery kitchen. Many bishops and priors lived in palaces – and the bishop of Kingsbridge had a fine place in Shiring – but the prior of Kingsbridge lived modestly. However, the chairs were comfortable, the wall was hung with tapestries of Bible scenes, and there was a big fireplace to keep the house cosy in winter.
Caris and Edmund arrived mid-morning, the time when younger monks were supposed to labour, and their elders to read. Edmund and Caris found Blind Carlus in the hall of the prior’s house, deep in conversation with Simeon, the treasurer. “We must talk about the new bridge,” Edmund said immediately.
“Very well, Edmund,” Carlus said, recognizing him by his voice. The welcome was not warm, Caris noted, and she wondered if they had come at a bad time.
Edmund was just as sensitive as she to atmosphere, but he always blustered through. Now he took a chair and said: “When do you think you’ll hold the election for the new prior?”
“You can sit down too, Caris,” said Carlus. She had no idea how he knew she was there. “No date has been set for the election,” he went on. “Earl Roland has the right to nominate a candidate, but he has not yet recovered consciousness.”
“We can’t wait,” Edmund said. Caris thought he was being too abrupt, but this was his way, so she said nothing. “We have to start work on the new bridge right away,” her father continued. “Timber’s no good, we have to build in stone. It’s going to take three years – four, if we delay.”
“A stone bridge?”
“It’s essential. I’ve been talking to Elfric and Merthin. Another wooden bridge would fall down like the old.”
“But the cost!”
“About two hundred and fifty pounds, depending on the design. That’s Elfric’s calculation.”
Brother Simeon said: “A new wooden bridge would cost fifty pounds, and Prior Anthony rejected that a week ago because of the price.”
“And look at the result! A hundred people dead, many more injured, livestock and carts lost, the prior dead and the earl at death’s door.”
Carlus said stiffly: “I hope you don’t mean to blame all that on the late Prior Anthony.”
“We can’t pretend his decision worked out well.”
“God has punished us for sin.”
Edmund sighed. Caris felt frustrated. Whenever they were in the wrong, monks would bring God into the argument. Edmund said: “It is hard for us mere men to know God’s intentions. But one thing we do know is that, without a bridge, this town will die. We’re already losing out to Shiring. Unless we build a new stone bridge as fast as we possibly can, Kingsbridge will soon become a small village.”
“That may be God’s plan for us.”
Edmund began to show his exasperation. “Is it possible that God is so displeased with you monks? For, believe me, if the Fleece Fair and the Kingsbridge market die, there will not be a priory here with twenty-five monks and forty nuns and fifty employees, and a hospital and a choir and a school. There may not be a cathedral, either. The bishop of Kingsbridge has always lived in Shiring – what if the prosperous merchants there offer to build him a splendid new cathedral in their own town, out of the profits from their ever-growing market? No Kingsbridge market, no town, no cathedral, no priory – is that what you want?”
Carlus looked dismayed. Clearly it had not occurred to him that the long-term consequences of the bridge collapse could actually affect the status of the priory.
But Simeon said: “If the priory can’t afford to build a wooden bridge, there’s certainly no prospect of a stone one.”
“But you must!”
“Will the masons work free?”
“Certainly not. They have to feed their families. But we’ve already explained how the townspeople could raise the money and lend it to the priory against the security of the bridge tolls.”
“And take away our income from the bridge!” Simeon said indignantly. “You’re back to that swindle, are you?”
Caris put in: “You’ve got no bridge tolls at all, now.”
“On the contrary, we’re collecting fares on the ferry.”
“You found the money to pay Elfric for that.”
“A lot less than a bridge – and even so it emptied our coffers.”
“The fares will never amount to much – the ferry is too slow.”
“The time may come, in the future, when the priory is able to build a new bridge. God will send the means, if he wishes it. And then we will still have the tolls.”
Edmund said: “God has already sent the means. He inspired my daughter to dream up a way of raising the money that has never been thought of before.”
Carlus said primly: “Please leave it to us to decide what God has done.”
“Very well.” Edmund stood up, and Caris did the same. “I’m very sorry you’re taking this attitude. It’s a catastrophe for Kingsbridge and everyone who lives here, including the monks.”
“I must be guided by God, not you.”
Edmund and Caris turned to leave.
“One more thing, if I may,” said Carlus.
Edmund turned at the door. “Of course.”
“It’s not acceptable for lay people to enter priory buildings at will. Next time you wish to see me, please come to the hospital, and send a novice or a priory servant to seek me out, in the usual way.”
“I’m alderman of the parish guild!” Edmund protested. “I’ve always had direct access to the prior.”
“No doubt the fact that Prior Anthony was your brother made him reluctant to impose the usual rules. But those days are over.”
Caris looked at her father’s face. He was repressing fury. “Very well,” he said tightly.
“God bless you.”
Edmund went out, and Caris followed.
They walked across the muddy green together, passing a pitifully small cluster of market stalls. Caris felt the weight of her father’s obligations. Most people just worried about feeding their families. Edmund worried about the entire town. She glanced at him and saw that his expression was twisted into an anxious frown. Unlike Carlus, Edmund would not throw his hands in the air and say that God’s will would be done. He was racking his brains for a solution to the problem. She felt a surge of compassion for him, straining to do the right thing with no help from the powerful priory. He never complained of the responsibility, he just took it on. It made her want to weep.
They left the precincts and crossed the main street. As they came to their front door, Caris said: “What are we going to do?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said her father. “We’ve got to make sure Carlus doesn’t get elected prior.”
Godwyn wanted to be prior of Kingsbridge. He longed for it with all his heart. He itched to reform the priory’s finances, tightening up the management of its lands and other assets, so that the monks no longer had to go to Mother Cecilia for money. He yearned for the stricter separation of monks from nuns, and both from townspeople, so that they might all breathe the pure air of sanctity. But as well as these irreproachable motives, there was something else. He lusted for the authority and distinction of the title. At night, in his imagination, he was already prior.
“Clean up that mess in the cloister!” he would say to a monk.
“Yes, Father Prior, right away.”
Godwyn loved the sound of Father Prior.
“Good day, Bishop Richard,” he would say, not obsequiously, but with friendly courtesy.
And Bishop Richard would reply, as one distinguished clergyman to another: “And a good day to you, too, Prior Godwyn.”
“I trust everything is to your satisfaction, archbishop?” he might say, more deferentially this time, but still as a junior colleague of the great man, rather than as an underling.
“Oh, yes, Godwyn, you’ve done extraordinarily well here.”
“Your reverence is very kind.”
And perhaps, one day, strolling in the cloister side by side with a richly dressed potentate: “Your majesty does us great honour to visit our humble priory.”
“Thank you, Father Godwyn, but I come to ask your advice.”
He wanted this position – but he was not sure how to get it. He pondered the question all week, as he supervised a hundred burials, and planned the big Sunday service that would be both Anthony’s funeral and a remembrance for the souls of all the Kingsbridge dead.
Meanwhile, he spoke to no one of his hopes. It was only ten days ago that he had learned the price of being guileless. He had gone to the chapter with Timothy’s Book and a strong argument for reform – and the old guard had turned on him with perfect coordination, as if they had rehearsed it, and squashed him like a frog under a cartwheel.
He would not let that happen again.
On Sunday morning, as the monks were filing into the refectory for breakfast, a novice whispered to Godwyn that his mother would like to see him in the north porch of the cathedral. He slipped away discreetly.
He felt apprehensive as he passed quietly through the cloisters and the church. He could guess what had happened. Something had occurred yesterday to trouble Petranilla. She had lain awake half the night worrying about it. This morning she had woken up at dawn with a plan of action – and he was part of it. She would be at her most impatient and domineering. Her plan would probably be good – but even if it was not she would insist he carried it out.
She stood in the gloom of the porch in a wet cloak – it was raining again. “My brother Edmund came to see Blind Carlus yesterday,” she said. “He tells me Carlus is acting as ii he is already prior, and the election is a mere formality.”
There was an accusing note in her voice as if this was Godwyn’s fault, and he answered defensively. “The old guard swung behind Carlus before Uncle Anthony’s body was cold. They won’t hear talk of rival candidates.”
“Hm. And the youngsters?”
“They want me to run, of course. They liked the way I stood up to Prior Anthony over Timothy’s Book – even though I was overruled. But I’ve said nothing.”
“Any other candidates?”
“Thomas Langley is the outsider. Some disapprove of him because he used to be a knight, and has killed people, by his own admission. But he’s capable, does his job with quiet efficiency, never bullies the novices…”
His mother looked thoughtful. “What’s his story? Why did he become a monk?”
Godwyn’s apprehension began to ease. It seemed she was not going to berate him for inaction. “Thomas just says he always hankered for the sanctified life and, when he came here to get a sword wound attended to, he resolved never to leave.”
“I remember that. It was ten years ago. But I never did hear how he got the wound.”
“Nor I. He doesn’t like to talk about his violent past.”
“Who paid for his admission to the priory?”
“Oddly enough, I don’t know.” Godwyn often marvelled at his mother’s ability to ask the revealing question. She might be tyrannical, but he had to admire her. “It might have been Bishop Richard – I recall him promising the usual gift. But he wouldn’t have had the resources personally – he wasn’t a bishop, then, just a priest. Perhaps he was speaking for Earl Roland.”
Godwyn hesitated. He would have to look through all the charters in the priory’s library. The librarian, Brother Augustine, would not presume to question the sacrist, but someone else might. Then Godwyn would have the awkwardness of inventing a plausible story to explain what he was doing. If the gift had been cash, rather than land or other property – unusual, but possible – he would have to go through the account rolls…
“What’s the matter?” his mother said sharply.
“Nothing. You’re right.” He reminded himself that her domineering attitude was a sign of her love for him, perhaps the only way she knew how to express it. “There must be a record. Come to think of it…”
“A gift like that is usually trumpeted. The prior announces it in church, and calls down blessings on the head of the donor, then preaches a sermon on how people who give lands to the priory are rewarded in heaven. But I don’t remember anything like that happening at the time Thomas came to us.”
“All the more reason to seek out the charter. I think Thomas is a man with a secret. And a secret is always a weakness.”
“I’ll look into it. What do you think I should say to people who want me to stand for election?”
Petranilla smiled slyly. “I think you should tell them you’re not going to be a candidate.”
Breakfast was over by the time Godwyn left his mother.
Latecomers were not allowed to eat, by a longstanding rule. But the kitchener, Brother Reynard, could always find a morsel for someone he liked. Godwyn went to the kitchen and got a slice of cheese and a heel of bread. He ate it standing up, while around him the priory servants brought the breakfast bowls back from the refectory and scrubbed out the iron pot in which the porridge had been cooked.
As he ate he mulled over his mother’s advice. The more he thought about it, the cleverer it seemed. Once he had announced he would not stand for election, everything else he said would carry the authority of a disinterested commentator. He could manipulate the election without being suspected of selfish motives. Then he could make his move at the last moment. He felt a warm glow of loving gratitude for the shrewdness of his mother’s restless brain, and the loyalty of her indomitable heart.
Brother Theodoric found him there. Theodoric’s fair complexion was flushed with indignation. “Brother Simeon spoke to us at breakfast about Carlus becoming prior,” he said. “It was all about continuing the wise traditions of Anthony. He’s not going to change anything!”
That was sly, Godwyn thought. Simeon had taken advantage of Godwyn’s absence to say, with authority, things that Godwyn would have challenged if he had been present. He said sympathetically: “That’s disgraceful.”
“I asked whether the other candidates would be permitted to address the monks at breakfast in the same way.”
Godwyn grinned. “Good for you!”
“Simeon said there was no need for other candidates. ‘We’re not holding an archery contest,’ he said. In his view, the decision has already been made: Prior Anthony chose Carlus as his successor by making him sub-prior.”
“That’s complete rubbish.”
“Exactly. The monks are furious.”
This was very good, Godwyn thought. Carlus had offended even his supporters by trying to take away their right to vote. He was undermining his own candidacy.
Theodoric went on: “I think we should press Carlus to withdraw himself from the contest.”
Godwyn wanted to say: Are you mad? He bit his tongue and tried to look as if he were mulling over what Theodoric had said. “Is that the best way to deal with it?” he asked, as if genuinely unsure.
Theodoric was surprised by the question. “What do you mean?”
“You say the brothers are all furious with Carlus and Simeon. If this goes on, they won’t vote for Carlus. But if Carlus withdraws, the old guard will come up with another candidate. They could make a better choice the second time. It might be someone popular – Brother Joseph, for example.”
Theodoric was thunderstruck. “I never thought of it that way.”
“Perhaps we should hope that Carlus remains the choice of the old guard. Everyone knows he’s against any kind of change. The reason he’s a monk is that he likes to know that every day will be the same: he’ll walk the same paths, sit in the same seats, eat and pray and sleep in the same places. Perhaps it’s because of his blindness, though I suspect he might have been like that anyway. The cause doesn’t matter. He believes that nothing here needs changing. Now, there aren’t many monks who are that contented – which makes Carlus relatively easy to beat. A candidate who represented the old guard but advocated a few minor reforms would be much more likely to win.” Godwyn realized he had forgotten to seem tentative and had started laying down the law. Backtracking quickly, he added: “I don’t know – what do you think?”
“I think you’re a genius,” said Theodoric.
I’m not a genius, Godwyn thought, but I learn fast.
He went to the hospital, where he found Philemon sweeping out the private guest rooms upstairs. Lord William was still here, watching over his father, waiting for him to wake up or die. Lady Philippa was with him. Bishop Richard had returned to his palace in Shiring, but was expected back today for the big funeral service.
Godwyn took Philemon to the library. Philemon could barely read, but he would be useful for getting out the charters.
The priory had more than a hundred charters. Most were deeds to landholdings, the majority near Kingsbridge, some scattered around far parts of England and Wales. Other charters entitled the monks to establish their priory, to build a church, to take stone from a quarry on the earl of Shiring’s land without payment, to parcel the land around the priory into house plots and rent them out, to hold courts, to have a weekly market, to charge a toll for crossing the bridge, to have an annual Fleece Fair, and to ship goods by river to Melcombe without paying taxes to the lords of any of the lands through which the river passed.
The documents were written with pen and ink on parchment, thin leather painstakingly cleaned and scraped and bleached and stretched to form a writing surface. Longer ones were rolled up and tied with a fine leather thong. They were kept in an ironbound chest. The chest was locked, but the key was in the library, in a small carved box.
Godwyn frowned with disapproval when he opened the chest. The charters were not lined up in neat stacks, but tumbled in the box in no apparent order. Some had small rips and frayed edges, and all were covered with dust. They should be kept in date sequence, he thought, each one numbered, and the numbered list fixed to the inside of the lid, so that any particular charter could be quickly located. If I become prior…
Philemon took the charters out one by one, blew off the dust, and laid them on a table for Godwyn. Most people disliked Philemon. One or two of the older monks mistrusted him, but Godwyn did not: it was hard to mistrust someone who treated you like a god. Most of the monks were just used to him – he had been around for so long. Godwyn remembered him as a boy, tall and awkward, always hanging around the priory, asking the monks which saint was best to pray to, and had they ever witnessed a miracle.
Most of the charters had originally been written out twice on a single sheet. The word ‘chirograph’ had been written in large letters between the two copies, then the sheet had been cut in half with a zigzag line through the word. Each of the parties kept half the sheet, and the match between the zigzags was taken as proof that both documents were genuine.
Some of the sheets had holes, probably where the living sheep had been bitten by an insect. Others appeared to have been nibbled, at some point in their history, presumably by mice.
They were written in Latin, of course. The more recent ones were easier to read, but the older style of handwriting was sometimes hard for Godwyn to decipher. He scanned each until he came to a date. He was looking for something written soon after All Hallows’ Day ten years ago.
He examined every sheet and found nothing.
The nearest was a deed dated some weeks later in which Earl Roland gave permission to Sir Gerald to transfer his lands to the ownership of the priory, in exchange for which the priory would forgive Gerald’s debts and support him and his wife for the rest of their lives.
Godwyn was not really disappointed. Rather the contrary. Either Thomas had been admitted without the usual gift – which would in itself be curious – or the charter was kept somewhere else, away from prying eyes. Either way, it seemed increasingly likely that Petranilla’s instinct was right, and Thomas had a secret.
There were not many private places in a monastery. Monks were supposed to have no personal property and no secrets. Although some wealthy monasteries had built private cells for the senior monks, at Kingsbridge they slept in one big room – all except the prior himself. Almost certainly, the charter that had secured Thomas’s admission was in the prior’s house.
Which was now occupied by Carlus.
That made things difficult. Carlus would not let Godwyn search the place. Searching might hardly be necessary: there was probably a box or satchel somewhere in plain sight containing the late Prior Anthony’s personal documents: a notebook from his novice days, a friendly letter from the archbishop, some sermons. Carlus had probably had the contents examined after Anthony died. But he had no reason to permit Godwyn to do the same.
Godwyn frowned, thinking. Could someone else search? Edmund or Petranilla might ask to see their late brother’s possessions, and it would be hard for Carlus to deny such a request. But he might remove any priory documents beforehand. No, the search had to be clandestine.
The bell rang for Terce, the morning office. Godwyn realized that the only time he could be certain Carlus would not be in the prior’s house was during a service in the cathedral.
He would have to skip Terce. He could think up a plausible excuse. It would not be easy – he was the sacrist, the one person who should never skip services. But there was no alternative.
“I want you to come to me in the church,” he said to Philemon.
“All right,” said Philemon, though he looked worried: priory employees were not supposed to enter the chancel during worship.
“Come right after the verse. Whisper in my ear. It doesn’t matter what you say. Take no notice of my reaction, just continue.”
Philemon frowned anxiously, but he nodded assent. He would do anything for Godwyn.
Godwyn left the library and joined the procession into the church. There was only a handful of people standing in the nave: most of the town would come later in the day to attend the mass for the victims or the bridge collapse. The monks took their places in the chancel, and the ritual began. “O God, incline unto mine aid,” Godwyn said along with the rest.
They finished the verse and began the first hymn, and Philemon appeared. All the monks stared at him, as people always did stare at anything out of the ordinary that occurred during a familiar rite. Brother Simeon frowned disapprovingly. Carlus, conducting the singing, sensed a disturbance and looked puzzled. Philemon came to Godwyn’s seat and bent over. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” he whispered.
Godwyn pretended to be surprised, and continued to listen while Philemon recited psalm number one. After a few moments he shook his head vigorously, as if denying a request. Then he listened some more. He was going to have to think up an elaborate story to account for this pantomime. Perhaps he would say that his mother had insisted on speaking to him immediately about the funeral of her brother, Prior Anthony, and that she was threatening to come into the chancel herself unless Philemon took a message to Godwyn. Petranilla’s overbearing personality, combined with family grief, made the story just about credible. As Philemon finished the psalm, Godwyn made a resigned face, and got up and followed Philemon out of the chancel.
They hurried around the cathedral to the prior’s house. A young employee was sweeping the floor. He would not dare to question a monk. He might tell Carlus that Godwyn and Philemon had been here – but it would be too late then.
Godwyn thought the prior’s house was a disgrace. It was smaller than Uncle Edmund’s home in the main street. A prior should have a palace befitting his station, as the bishop did. There was nothing glorious about this building. A few tapestries covered the walls, depicting biblical scenes and keeping out the draughts, but overall the decor was dull and unimaginative – rather like the late Anthony.
They searched the place quickly and soon found what they were looking for. Upstairs in the bedroom, in a chest beside the prie-dieu, was a large wallet. It was made of soft ginger-brown goatskin and beautifully sewn with scarlet thread: Godwyn felt sure it had been a pious gift from one of the town’s leather workers.
Watched intently by Philemon, he opened it.
Inside were about thirty sheets of parchment, laid flat and interleaved with protective linen cloths. Godwyn examined them quickly.
Several bore study notes on the Psalms: Anthony must at some time have contemplated writing a book of commentaries, but the work appeared to have been abandoned. The most surprising was a love poem, in Latin. Headed Virent Oculi, it was addressed to a man with green eyes. Uncle Anthony had green eyes flecked with gold, like all his family.
Godwyn wondered who had written it. Not many women could write Latin well enough to compose a poem. Had a nun loved Anthony? Or was the poem from a man? The parchment was old and yellowing: the love affair, if such it was, had happened in Anthony’s youth. But he had kept the poem. Perhaps he had not been quite as dull as Godwyn had imagined.
Philemon said: “What is it?”
Godwyn felt guilty. He had peeped into a deeply private corner of his uncle’s life, and he wished he had not. “Nothing,” he said. “Just a poem.” He picked up the next sheet – and struck gold.
It was a charter dated Christmas ten years ago. It concerned a landholding of five hundred acres near Lynn, in Norfolk. The lord had recently died. The deed assigned the vacant lordship to Kingsbridge Priory, and specified the annual dues – grain, fleeces, calves and chickens – payable to the priory by the serfs and tenants who farmed the land. It nominated one of the peasants to be a bailiff with the responsibility of delivering the produce to the priory annually. It also assigned money payments that could be offered instead of the actual produce – a practice that was now predominant, especially where the land was many miles from the residence of the lord.
It was a typical charter. Every year, after the harvest, representatives of dozens of similar communities made the pilgrimage to the priory to deliver what they owed. Those from nearby showed up early in the autumn; others came at intervals through the winter, with a few from long distances not arriving until after Christmas.
The deed also specified that the gift was given in consideration of the priory’s accepting Sir Thomas Langley as a monk. That, too, was routine.
But one feature of this document was not commonplace. It was signed by Queen Isabella.
That was interesting. Isabella was the unfaithful wife of King Edward II. She had rebelled against her royal husband and installed, in his place, their fourteen-year-old son. Shortly afterwards the deposed king had died, and Prior Anthony had been present at his burial in Gloucester. Thomas had come to Kingsbridge at around the same time.
For a few years the queen and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had ruled England; but, before long, Edward III had asserted his authority, despite his youth. The new king was now twenty-four and firmly in control. Mortimer was dead and Isabella, now forty-two, lived in opulent retirement at Castle Rising in Norfolk, not far from Lynn.
“This is it!” Godwyn said to Philemon. “It was Queen Isabella who arranged for Thomas to become a monk.”
Philemon frowned. “But why?”
Though uneducated, Philemon was shrewd. “Why indeed?” Godwyn answered. “Presumably she wanted to reward him, or silence him, or perhaps both. And this happened in the year of her coup.”
“He must have performed some service for her.”
Godwyn nodded. “He carried a message, or opened the gates of a castle, or betrayed the king’s plans to her, or secured for her the support of some important baron. But why is it a secret?”
“It’s not,” said Philemon. “The treasurer must know about it. And everyone in Lynn. The bailiff must talk to a few people when he comes here.”
“But no one knows that the whole arrangement was made for the benefit of Thomas – unless they have seen this charter.”
“So that’s the secret – that Queen Isabella made this gift for Thomas’s sake.”
“Exactly.” Godwyn packed up the documents, carefully interleaving the sheets of parchment with linen cloths, and replaced the wallet in the chest.
Philemon asked: “But why is it a secret? There’s nothing dishonest or shameful about such an arrangement – it happens all the time.”
“I don’t know why it’s a secret, and perhaps we don’t need to know. The fact that people want to keep it hidden may be sufficient for our purpose. Let’s get out of this house.”
Godwyn felt satisfied. Thomas had a secret and Godwyn knew about it. That gave Godwyn power. Now he felt confident enough to risk putting Thomas forward as a candidate for prior. He also felt apprehensive: Thomas was no fool.
They returned to the cathedral. The office of Terce ended a few moments later, and Godwyn began to prepare the church for the big funeral service. On his instructions, six monks lifted Anthony’s coffin and placed it on a stand in front of the altar, then surrounded it with candles. Townspeople began to gather in the nave. Godwyn nodded to his cousin Caris, who had covered her everyday headgear in black silk. Then he spotted Thomas, carrying in a large, ornate chair, with the help of a novice. This was the bishop’s throne, or cathedra, that gave the church its special cathedral status.
Godwyn touched Thomas’s arm. “Let Philemon do that.”
Thomas bristled, thinking that Godwyn was offering help because of his missing arm. “I can manage.”
“I know you can. I want a word.”
Thomas was older – he was thirty-four, Godwyn thirty-one – but Godwyn was his superior in the monastic hierarchy. All the same, Godwyn was always a little afraid of Thomas. The matricularius usually showed the appropriate deference to the sacrist, but all the same Godwyn felt he was getting just as much respect as Thomas thought he merited, and no more. Though Thomas conformed in every way to the discipline of St Benedict’s Rule, nevertheless he seemed to have brought into the priory with him a quality of independence and self-sufficiency that he never lost.
It would not be easy to deceive Thomas – but that was exactly what Godwyn planned to do.
Thomas allowed Philemon to take his side of the throne, and Godwyn drew him into the aisle. “They’re talking about you as possibly the next prior,” Godwyn said.
“They’re saying the same about you,” Thomas rejoined.
“I shall refuse to stand.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows. “You surprise me, brother.”
“Two reasons,” Godwyn said. “One, I think you would do a better job.”
Thomas looked more surprised. He probably had not suspected Godwyn of such modesty. He was right: Godwyn was lying.
“Two,” Godwyn continued, “you’re more likely to win.” Now Godwyn was telling the truth. “The youngsters like me, but you’re popular across the range of all ages.”
Thomas’s handsome face looked quizzical. He was waiting for the catch.
“I want to help you,” Godwyn said. “I believe the only important thing is to have a prior who will reform the monastery and improve its finances.”
“I think I could do that. But what do you want in return for your support?”
Godwyn knew better than to ask for nothing. Thomas would not believe that. He invented a plausible lie. “I’d like to be your sub-prior.”
Thomas nodded, but did not immediately consent. “How would you help me?”
“First, by gaining you the support of the townspeople.”
“Just because Edmund Wooler is your uncle?”
“It’s not that simple. The townspeople are worried about the bridge. Carlus won’t say when he’ll begin building, if ever. They’re desperate to stop him becoming prior. If I tell Edmund that you’ll start work on the bridge as soon as you’re elected, you’ll have the whole town behind you.”
“That won’t win me the votes of many monks.”
“Don’t be so sure. Remember, the monks’ choice has to be ratified by the bishop. Most bishops are prudent enough to consult local opinion – and Richard is as keen as anyone to avoid trouble. If the townspeople come out for you, it will make a difference.”
Godwyn could see that Thomas did not trust him. The matricularius studied him, and Godwyn felt a bead of sweat trickle down his spine as he fought to remain expressionless under that keen gaze. But Thomas was listening to his arguments. “There’s no doubt we need a new bridge,” he said. “Carlus is foolish to prevaricate.”
“So you would be promising something you intend to do anyway.”
“You’re very persuasive.”
Godwyn held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “I don’t mean to be. You must do what you feel is God’s will.”
Thomas looked sceptical. He did not believe that Godwyn was so dispassionate. But he said: “All right.” Then he added: “I’ll pray about it.”
Godwyn sensed he would get no stronger commitment out of Thomas today, and it might be counterproductive to push any harder. “So will I,” he said, and he turned away.
Thomas would do exactly what he had promised, and pray about it. He had little in the way of personal desires. If he thought it was God’s will he would stand as prior and, if not, not. Godwyn could do no more with him, for the moment.
There was now a blaze of candles around Anthony’s coffin. The nave was filling with townspeople and peasants from the surrounding villages. Godwyn raked the crowd for the face of Caris, which he had spotted a few minutes earlier. He located her in the south transept, looking at Merthin’s scaffolding in the aisle. He had affectionate memories of Caris as a child, when he had been her all-knowing grown-up cousin.
She had been looking glum since the bridge collapse, he had noticed, but today she seemed cheerful. He was glad: he had a soft spot for her. He touched her elbow. “You look happy.”
“I am.” She smiled. “A romantic knot just came untangled. But you wouldn’t understand.”
“Of course not.” You have no idea, he thought, how many romantic tangles there are among monks. But he said nothing: lay people were best left in ignorance of sins that took place in the priory. He said: “Your father should speak to Bishop Richard about rebuilding the bridge.”
“Really?” she said sceptically. As a child she had hero-worshipped him, but nowadays she was less in awe. “What’s the point? It’s not his bridge.”
“The monks’ choice for prior has to be approved by the bishop. Richard could let it be known that he won’t approve anyone who refuses to rebuild the bridge. Some monks might be defiant, but others will say there’s no point in voting for someone who isn’t going to be ratified.”
“I see. You really think my father could help?”
“Then I’ll suggest it.”
The bell rang. Godwyn slipped out of the church and again joined the procession forming up in the cloisters. It was midday.
He had done a good morning’s work.
Wulfric and Gwenda left Kingsbridge early on Monday morning to walk the long road back to their village of Wigleigh.
Caris and Merthin watched them cross the river on Merthin’s new ferry. Merthin was pleased by how well it was working. The wooden gears would wear out quite quickly, he knew. Iron gears would be better, but-
Caris had other thoughts. “Gwenda is so much in love,” she sighed.
“She has no chance with Wulfric,” Merthin said.
“You never know. She’s a determined girl. Look how she escaped from Sim Chapman.”
“But Wulfric’s engaged to that Annet – who is much prettier.”
“Good looks aren’t everything in a romance.”
“For which I thank God every day.”
She laughed. “I love your funny face.”
“But Wulfric fought my brother over Annet. He must love her.”
“Gwenda’s got a love potion.”
Merthin gave her a disapproving look. “So you think it’s all right for a girl to manoeuvre a man into marrying her when he loves someone else?”
She was struck silent for a moment. The soft skin of her throat turned pink. “I never thought of it that way,” she said. “Is it really the same thing?”
“But she’s not coercing him – she just wants to make him love her.”
“She should try to do that without a potion.”
“Now I feel ashamed of helping her.”
“Too late.” Wulfric and Gwenda were getting off the ferry on the far side. They turned to wave, then headed along the road through the suburbs with Skip, the dog, at their heels.
Merthin and Caris walked back up the main street. Caris said: “You haven’t spoken to Griselda yet.”
“I’m going to do it now. I don’t know whether I’m looking forward to it or dreading it.”
“You’ve got nothing to fear. She’s the one who lied.”
“That’s true.” He touched his face. The bruise had almost healed. “I just hope her father doesn’t get violent again.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
He would have been glad of her support, but he shook his head. “I made this mess, and I have to straighten it out.”
They stopped outside Elfric’s house. Caris said: “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Merthin kissed her lips briefly, resisted the temptation to kiss her again, and walked in.
Elfric was sitting at the table eating bread and cheese. A cup of ale stood in front of him. Beyond him, Merthin could see Alice and the maid in the kitchen. There was no sign of Griselda.
Elfric said: “Where have you been?”
Merthin decided that if he had nothing to fear he had better act fearlessly. He ignored Elfric’s question. “Where’s Griselda?”
“Still in bed.”
Merthin shouted up the stairs: “Griselda! I want to talk to you.”
Elfric said: “No time for that. We’ve got work to do.”
Again Merthin ignored him. “Griselda! You’d better get up now.”
“Hey!” Elfric said. “Who do you think you are, to give orders?”
“You want me to marry her, don’t you?”
“So she’d better get used to doing what her husband tells her.” He raised his voice again. “Get down here now, or you’ll just have to hear what I’ve got to say from someone else.”
She appeared at the top of the stairs. “I’m coming!” she said irritably. “What’s all the fuss about?”
Merthin waited for her to come down, then said: “I’ve found out who the father of the baby is.”
Fear flashed in her eyes. “Don’t be stupid, it’s you.”
“No, it’s Thurstan.”
“I never lay with Thurstan!” She looked at her father. “Honestly I didn’t.”
Elfric said: “She doesn’t lie.”
Alice came out of the kitchen. “That’s right,” she said.
Merthin said: “I lay with Griselda on the Sunday of Fleece Fair week – fifteen days ago. Griselda is three months pregnant.”
Merthin looked hard at Alice. “You knew, didn’t you?” Alice looked away. Merthin went on: “And yet you lied – even to Caris, your own sister.”
Elfric said: “You don’t know how long pregnant she is.”
“Look at her,” Merthin replied. “You can see the bulge in her belly. Not much, but it’s there.”
“What do you know of such things? You’re just a boy.”
“Yes – you were all relying on my ignorance, weren’t you? And it almost worked.”
Elfric wagged his finger. “You lay with Griselda, and now you’ll marry Griselda.”
“Oh no I won’t. She doesn’t love me. She lay with me to get a father for her baby, after Thurstan ran away. I know I did wrong, but I’m not going to punish myself for the rest of my life by marrying her.”
Elfric stood up. “You are, you know.”
“You’ve got to.”
Elfric’s face turned red, and he shouted: “You will marry her!”
Merthin said: “How long do you want me to keep on saying no?”
Elfric realized he was serious. “In that case, you’re dismissed,” he said. “Get out of my house and never come back.”
Merthin had been expecting this, and it came as a relief. It meant the argument was over. “All right.” He tried to step past Elfric.
Elfric blocked his way. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the kitchen, to get my things.”
“Your tools, you mean.”
“They’re not yours. I paid for them.”
“An apprentice is always given his tools at the end of his…” Merthin tailed off.
“You haven’t finished your apprenticeship, so you don’t get your tools.”
Merthin had not expected this. “I’ve done six and a half years!”
“You’re supposed to do seven.”
Without tools Merthin could not earn his living. “That’s unfair. I’ll appeal to the carpenters’ guild.”
“I look forward to it,” Elfric said smugly. “It will be interesting to hear you argue that an apprentice who is sacked for lying with his master’s daughter should be rewarded with a free set of tools. The carpenters in the guild have all got apprentices, and most of them have daughters.
They’ll throw you out on your arse.”
Merthin realized he was right.
Alice said: “There you are, you’re in real trouble now, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Merthin said. “But whatever happens, it won’t be as bad as life with Griselda and her family.”
Later that morning, Merthin went to St Mark’s church for the funeral of Howell Tyler. He attended because he hoped someone there would give him a job.
Looking up at the timber ceiling – the church did not have a stone vault – Merthin could see a man-shaped hole in the painted wood, grim testament to the manner of Howell’s death. Everything up there was rotten, the builders at the funeral said knowingly; but they said it after the accident, their sagacity coming too late to save Howell. It was now clear that the roof was too weak to be repaired, but must be demolished completely and rebuilt from scratch. That meant closing the church.
St Mark’s was a poor church. It had a pitiful endowment, a single farm ten miles away that was kept by the priest’s brother and just about managed to feed the family. The priest, Father Joffroi, had to get his income from the eight or nine hundred citizens of his parish in the poorer north end of town. Those who were not actually destitute generally pretended to be, so their tithes brought in only a modest sum. He made his living by christening, marrying and burying them, charging a lot less than the monks at the cathedral. His parishioners married early, had many children and died young, so there was plenty of work for him, and in the end he did well enough. But if he closed the church his income would dry up – and he would not be able to pay the builders.
Consequently the work on the roof had stopped.
All the town’s builders came to the funeral, including Elfric. Merthin tried to look unashamed as he stood in the church, but it was difficult: most of them knew he had been dismissed. He had been unjustly treated but, unfortunately, he was not completely innocent.
Howell had had a young wife who was friendly with Caris, and now Caris walked in with the widow and the bereaved family. Merthin moved next to Caris and told her what had happened with Elfric.
Father Joffroi conducted the service dressed in an old robe. Merthin thought about the roof. It seemed to him there must be a way to dismantle it without closing the church. The standard approach, when repairs had been postponed too long and the timbers were too badly rotted to bear the weight of workmen, was to build scaffolding around the church and knock the timbers down into the nave. The building was then open to the elements until the new roof was finished and tiled. But it should be possible to build a swivelling hoist, supported by the thick side wall of the church, which would lift the roof timbers up one by one, instead of pushing them down, and swing them across the wall and down into the graveyard. That way, the wooden ceiling could be left intact, and replaced only after the roof had been rebuilt.
At the graveside, he looked at the men one by one, wondering which of them was most likely to employ him. He decided to approach Bill Watkin, the town’s second largest builder and no admirer of Elfric’s. Bill had a bald dome with a fringe of black hair, a natural version of the monkish tonsure. He did most of the house building in Kingsbridge. Like Elfric, he employed a stonemason and a carpenter, a handful of labourers and one or two apprentices.
Howell had not been prosperous, and his body was lowered into the grave in a shroud, without a coffin.
When Father Joffroi had departed, Merthin approached Bill Watkin. “Good day, Master Watkin,” he said formally.
Bill’s response was not warm. “Well, young Merthin?”
“I’ve parted company with Elfric.”
“I know that,” said Bill. “And I know why.”
“You’ve heard Elfric’s side of the story.”
“I’ve heard all I need to hear.”
Elfric had been talking to people before and during the service, Merthin realized. He was sure Elfric had left out of his account the fact that Griselda had tried to make Merthin the substitute father for Thurstan’s baby. But he felt he would do himself no good by making excuses. Better to admit his fault. “I realize I did wrong, and I’m sorry, but I’m still a good carpenter.”
Bill nodded agreement. “The new ferry testifies to that.”
Merthin was encouraged. “Will you hire me?”
“As a carpenter. You said I was a good one.”
“But where are your tools?”
“Elfric wouldn’t give them to me.”
“And he was right – because you haven’t finished your apprenticeship.”
“Then take me on as an apprentice for six months.”
“And give you a new set of tools for nothing at the end of it? I can’t afford that kind of generosity.” Tools were expensive because iron and steel were costly.
“I’ll work as a labourer, and save up to buy my own tools.” It would take a long time, but he was desperate.
“Because I’ve got a daughter too.”
This was outrageous. “I’m not a menace to maidens, you know.”
“You’re an example to apprentices. If you get away with this, what’s to stop the others trying their luck?”
“That is so unjust!”
Bill shrugged. “You might think so. But ask any other master carpenter in town. I think you’ll find they feel as I do.”
“But what am I to do?”
“I don’t know. You should have thought of that before you shagged her.”
“You don’t care about losing a good carpenter?”
Bill shrugged again. “All the more work for the rest of us.”
Merthin turned away. That was the trouble with guilds, he thought bitterly: it was in their interest to exclude people, for good or bad reasons. A shortage of carpenters would just drive up their wages. They had no incentive to be fair.
Howell’s widow left, accompanied by her mother. Caris, liberated from her duty of commiseration, came over to Merthin. “Why do you look unhappy?” she said. “You hardly knew Howell.”
“I may have to leave Kingsbridge,” he said.
She went pale. “Why on earth would you do that?”
He told her what Bill Watkin had said. “So, you see, no one in Kingsbridge will hire me, and I can’t work on my own account for I’ve no tools. I could live with my parents, but I can’t take the food from their mouths. So I’ll have to seek work some place where no one knows about Griselda. In time, perhaps I can save up enough money to buy a hammer and chisel and then move to another town and try to gain admittance to the carpenters’ guild.”
As he explained this to Caris, he began to appreciate the full misery of the situation. He saw her familiar features as if for the first time, and he was enchanted again by her sparkling green eyes, her small, neat nose and the determined set of her jaw. Her mouth, he realized, did not quite fit the rest of her face: it was too wide, and the lips were too full. It unbalanced the regularity of her physiognomy the way her sensual nature subverted her tidy mind. It was a mouth made for sex, and the thought that he might have to go away and never kiss it again filled him with despair.
Caris was furious. “This is iniquitous! They have no right.”
“That’s what I think. But there seems to be nothing I can do about it. I just have to accept it.”
“Wait a minute. Let’s think about this. You can live with your parents, and have your dinner at my house.”
“I don’t want to become a dependant, like my father.”
“Nor should you. You can buy Howell Tyler’s tools – his widow was just telling me she’s asking a pound for them.”
“I haven’t any money.”
“Ask my father for a loan. He’s always liked you, I’m sure he’ll do it.”
“But it’s against the rules for anyone to employ a carpenter who isn’t in the guild.”
“Rules can be broken. There must be someone in town desperate enough to defy the guild.”
Merthin realized he had allowed the old men to quench his spirit, and he was grateful to Caris for refusing to accept defeat. She was right, of course: he should stay in Kingsbridge and fight this unjust ruling. And he knew someone who was in desperate need of his talents. “Father Joffroi,” he said.
“Is he desperate? Why?”
Merthin explained about the roof.
“Let’s go and see him,” Caris said.
The priest lived in a small house next to the church. They found him preparing a dinner of salt fish in a stew with spring greens. Joffroi was in his thirties, built like a soldier, tall with broad shoulders. His manner was brusque, but he had a reputation for sticking up for the poor.
Merthin said: “I can repair your roof without closing your church.”
Joffroi looked wary. “You’re an answer to prayer if you can.”
“I’ll build a hoist that will lift the roof timbers and deposit them in the graveyard.”
“Elfric sacked you.” The priest shot an embarrassed look in Caris’s direction.
She said: “I know what happened, Father.”
Merthin said: “He dismissed me because I would not marry his daughter. But the child she is bearing is not mine.”
Joffroi nodded. “Some say you were treated unjustly. I can believe it. I have no great love for the guilds – their decisions are rarely unselfish. All the same, you haven’t completed your apprenticeship.”
“Can any member of the carpenters’ guild repair your roof without closing your church?”
“I heard you haven’t even got any tools.”
“Leave that problem to me to solve.”
Joffroi looked thoughtful. “How much do you want to be paid?”
Merthin stuck his neck out. “Four pence a day, plus the cost of materials.”
“That’s a journeyman carpenter’s wage.”
“If I don’t have the skill of a qualified carpenter, you shouldn’t hire me.”
“I’m just saying what I can do.”
“Arrogance is not the worst sin in the world. And I can afford four pence a day if I can keep my church open. How long will it take you to build your hoist?”
“Two weeks at the most.”
“I’m not going to pay you until I can be sure it will work.”
Merthin breathed in. He would be penniless, but he could cope with that. He could live with his parents and eat at Edmund Wooler’s table. He would get by. “Pay for the materials, and save my wages up until the first roof timber is removed and safely brought to ground.”
Joffroi hesitated. “I’ll be unpopular… but I have no choice.” He held out his hand.
Merthin shook it.
All the way from Kingsbridge to Wigleigh – a distance of twenty miles, a full day’s walk – Gwenda was hoping for a chance to use the love potion; but she was disappointed.
It was not that Wulfric was wary. On the contrary, he was open and friendly. He talked about his family, and told her how he wept every morning when he woke up and realized their deaths were not a dream. He was considerate, asking whether she was tired and needed to rest. He told her that he felt land was a trust, something a man held for a lifetime then passed to his heirs, and that when he improved his land – by weeding fields, fencing sheepfolds or clearing stones from pasture – he was fulfilling his destiny.
He even patted Skip.
By the end of the day she was more in love with him than ever. Unfortunately, he showed no sign of feeling anything for her more than a kind of camaraderie, caring but not passionate. In the forest with Sim Chapman, she had wished with all her heart that men were not so much like wild beasts; but now she wanted Wulfric to have a bit more of the beast in him. All day she did little things to arouse his interest. As if by accident, she let him see her legs, which were firm and shapely. When the terrain was hilly, she made it an excuse to take deep breaths and stick out her chest. At every opportunity she brushed against him, touched his arm or put a hand on his shoulder. None of it had the least effect. She was not pretty, she knew, but there was something about her that often made men look hard at her and breathe through their mouths – but it was not working on Wulfric.
They stopped for a rest at noon, and ate the bread and cheese they carried with them; but they drank water from a clear stream, using their hands as cups, and she had no opportunity to give him the potion.
All the same, she was happy. She had him all to herself for a whole day. She could look at him, talk to him, make him laugh, sympathize with him, and occasionally touch him. She pretended to herself that she could kiss him any time she liked, but that at the moment she was not so disposed. It was almost like being married. And it was over too soon.
They arrived in Wigleigh early in the evening. The village stood on a rise, its fields sloping away to all sides, and it was always windy. After two weeks in the bustle of Kingsbridge, the familiar place seemed small and quiet, just a scatter of rough dwellings along the road that led to the manor house and the church. The manor was as large as a Kingsbridge merchant’s home, with bedrooms on an upper floor. The priest’s house was also a fine dwelling, and a few of the peasant houses were substantial. But most of the homes were two-room hovels, one room normally being occupied by livestock and the other serving as kitchen and bedroom for all the family. Only the church was built of stone.
The first of the more substantial houses belonged to Wulfric’s family. Its doors and shutters were closed, giving it a desolate look. He walked past it to the second big house, which was where Annet lived with her parents. He gave Gwenda a casual wave of farewell and went inside, smiling in anticipation.
She felt the sharp tug of loss, as if she had just woken out of a delightful dream. She swallowed her discontent and set out across the fields. The early-June rain had been good for the crops, and the wheat and barley were green, but now they needed sunshine to ripen them. Village women were moving along the rows of grain, bent double, pulling up weeds. Some waved to her.
As she approached her home, Gwenda felt a mixture of apprehension and anger. She had not seen her parents since the day her father had sold her to Sim Chapman for a cow. Almost certainly, Pa thought she was still with Sim. Her appearance would come as a shock. What would he say when he saw her? And what was she going to say to the father who had betrayed her trust?
She felt sure her mother knew nothing of the sale. Pa had probably told Ma some story about Gwenda running off with a boy. Ma was going to fly into a fearsome rage.
She felt happy at the prospect of seeing the little ones – Cath, Joanie and Eric. She realized now how much she had missed them.
On the far side of the hundred-acre field, half hidden in the trees at the edge of the forest, was her home. It was even smaller than the peasants’ hovels, having only one room, which was shared with the cow at night. It was made of wattle-and-daub: tree branches stuck upright in the ground, with twigs interwoven basket-fashion, the gaps plugged with a sticky mixture of mud, straw and cow dung. There was a hole in the thatched roof to let out the smoke of the fire in the middle of the earth floor. Such houses lasted only a few years then had to be rebuilt. It now seemed meaner than ever to Gwenda. She was determined not to spend her life in such a place, having babies every year or two, most of whom died for lack of food. She would not live like her mother. She would rather die.
When she was still a hundred yards from the house, she saw her father coming towards her. He was carrying a jug, probably going to buy ale from Peg Perkins, Annet’s mother, who was the village brewster. Pa always had money at this time of year, for there was plenty of work to be had in the fields.
At first he did not see her.
She studied his thin figure as he walked along the narrow gap between two field strips. He wore a long smock that came to his knees, a battered cap and home-made sandals tied to his feet with straw. His gait managed to be both furtive and jaunty: he always looked like a nervous foreigner defiantly pretending to be at home. His eyes were set closely either side of a big nose, and he had a wide jaw with a knob of a chin, so that his face looked like a lumpy triangle: Gwenda knew that she resembled him in that. He glanced sidelong at the women he passed in the field, as if he did not want them to know he was observing them.
As he came close, he threw her one of his sneaky looks, up from under his lowered eyelids. He looked down instantly, then looked up again. She lifted her chin and stared back at him haughtily.
Astonishment spread across his face. “You!” he said. “What happened?”
“Sim Chapman wasn’t a tinker, he was an outlaw.”
“And where is he now?”
“He’s in hell, Pa. You’ll meet him there.”
“Did you kill him?”
“No.” She had long ago decided to lie about this. “God killed him. The bridge at Kingsbridge collapsed while Sim was crossing it. God punished him for his sin. Has he punished you yet?”
“God forgives good Christians.”
“Is that all you have to say to me? That God forgives good Christians?”
“How did you escape?”
“I used my wits.”
A crafty look came over his face. “You’re a good girl,” he said.
She stared at him suspiciously. “What mischief are you planning now?”
“You’re a good girl,” he repeated. “Go in to your mother now. You shall have a cup of ale with your supper.” He walked on.
Gwenda frowned. Pa did not seem afraid of what Ma would say when she learned the truth. Perhaps he thought Gwenda would not tell her, out of shame. Well, he was wrong.
Cath and Joanie were outside the house, playing in the dirt. When they saw Gwenda they jumped up and ran to her. Skip barked hysterically. Gwenda hugged her sisters, remembering how she had thought she would never see them again; and at that moment she was fiercely glad she had stuck a long knife into Alwyn’s head.
She went inside. Ma was sitting on a stool, giving little Eric some milk, helping him hold the cup steady so that he did not spill any. She gave a cry of joy when she saw Gwenda. She put down the cup, stood up and embraced her. Gwenda began to weep.
Once she had started crying it was hard to stop. She cried because Sim had led her out of town on a rope, and because she had let Alwyn fuck her, and for all the people who had died when the bridge collapsed, and because Wulfric loved Annet.
When her sobs subsided enough for her to speak again, she said: “Pa sold me, Ma. He sold me for a cow, and I had to go with outlaws.”
“That was wrong,” her mother said.
“It was worse than wrong! He’s wicked, evil – he’s a devil.”
Ma withdrew from the embrace. “Don’t say such things.”
“He’s your father.”
“A father doesn’t sell his children like livestock. I have no father.”
“He’s fed you for eighteen years.”
Gwenda stared uncomprehendingly. “How can you be so hard? He sold me to outlaws!”
“And he got us a cow. So there’s milk for Eric, even though my breasts have dried up. And you’re here, aren’t you?”
Gwenda was shocked. “You’re defending him!”
“He’s all I’ve got, Gwenda. He’s not a prince. He’s not even a peasant. He’s a landless labourer. But he’s done everything he can for this family for almost twenty-five years. He worked when he could and thieved when he had to. He kept you alive, and your brother, and with a fair wind he’ll do the same for Cath and Joanie and Eric. Whatever his faults, we’d be worse off without him. So don’t you call him a devil.”
Gwenda was struck dumb. She had hardly got used to the idea that her father had betrayed her. Now she had to face the fact that her mother was as bad. She felt disoriented. It was like when the bridge had moved under her feet: she could hardly understand what was happening to her.
Her father came into the house carrying the jug of ale. He seemed not to notice the atmosphere. He took three wooden cups from the shelf over the fireplace. “Now, then,” he said cheerfully. “Let’s drink to the return of our big girl.”
Gwenda was hungry and thirsty after walking all day. She took the cup and drank deeply. But she knew her father in this mood. “What are you planning?” she said.
“Well, now,” he said. “It’s the Shiring Fair next week, isn’t it?”
“Well… we could do it again.”
She could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Do what again?”
“I sell you, you go with the buyer, then you escape and come home. You’re none the worse.”
“None the worse?”
“And we’ve got a cow worth twelve shillings! Why, it takes me near half a year of labouring to earn twelve shillings.”
“And after that? What then?”
“Well, there’s other fairs – Winchester, Gloucester, I don’t know how many.” He refilled her cup from the ale jug. “Why – this could be better than the year you stole Sir Gerald’s purse!”
She did not drink. There was a bitter taste in her mouth, as if she had eaten something corrupt. She thought of arguing with him. Harsh words came to her lips, angry accusations, curses – but she did not speak them. The way she felt was beyond rage. What was the point of having a row? She could never trust her father again. And, because Ma refused to be disloyal to him, Gwenda could not trust her either.
“What am I to do?” she said aloud, but she did not want an answer from anyone in the room: the question was to herself. In this family she had become a commodity, to be sold at city fairs. If she was not prepared to accept that, what could she do?
She could leave.
She realized with a shock that this house was no longer a home to her. The blow shook the foundations of her existence. She had lived here since before she could remember. Now she did not feel safe here. She had to get out.
Not next week, she realized; not even tomorrow morning – she had to go now.
She had nowhere to go, but that made no difference. To stay here, and eat the bread her father put on the table, would be to yield to his authority. She would be accepting his evaluation of her, as a commodity to be sold. She was sorry she had drunk the first cup of ale. Her only chance was to reject him immediately and get out from under his roof.
Gwenda looked at her mother. “You’re wrong,” she said. “He is a devil. And the old stories are right: when you make a bargain with the devil, you end up paying more than you thought.”
Ma looked away.
Gwenda stood up. The refilled cup was still in her hand. She tipped it, pouring the ale on the floor. Skip immediately started to lick it up.
Her father said angrily: “I paid a farthing for this jug of ale!”
“Goodbye,” said Gwenda, and she walked out.
On the following Sunday, Gwenda attended the court hearing that would decide the fate of the man she loved.
The manorial court was held in the church after the service. It was the forum in which the village took collective action. Some of the questions it addressed were disputes – arguments over field boundaries, accusations of theft or rape, quarrels about debts – but more often it made pragmatic decisions, such as when to begin ploughing with the communal eight-ox team.
In theory, the lord of the manor sat in judgement over his serfs. But Norman law – brought to England by invaders from France almost three centuries earlier – compelled lords to follow the customs of their predecessors; and, in order to find out what those customs were, they had to formally consult twelve men of good standing in the village – a jury. So, in practice, the proceedings often became a negotiation between lord and villagers.
On this particular Sunday, Wigleigh had no lord. Sir Stephen had been killed in the collapse of the bridge. Gwenda had brought this news to the village. She also reported that Earl Roland, who had the task of appointing Stephen’s replacement, had been gravely injured. On the day before she left Kingsbridge, the earl had recovered consciousness for the first time – but he had woken into a fever so violent that he was unable to speak a coherent sentence. So there was no prospect of a new lord of Wigleigh yet.
This was not an unusual circumstance. Lords were frequently away: at war, in Parliament, fighting lawsuits, or just attending on their earl or the king. Earl Roland always appointed a deputy, usually one of his sons – but, in this case, he had not been able to do so. In the absence of an overlord, the bailiff had to manage the landholding as best he could.
The job of a bailiff or reeve was, in theory, to carry out the lord’s decisions, but this inevitably gave him a degree of power over his fellows. Exactly how much power depended on the lord’s personal preference: some held tight control, others were lax. Sir Stephen had kept a loose rein, but Earl Roland was notoriously strict.
Nate Reeve had been bailiff to Sir Stephen and to Sir Henry before him, and would presumably be bailiff to whoever came next. He was a hunchback, a small, bent figure, thin and energetic. He was shrewd and greedy, careful to make the most of his limited power by demanding bribes from the villagers at every opportunity.
Gwenda disliked Nate. It was not his greed she objected to: all bailiffs had that vice. But Nate was a man twisted by resentment as much as by his physical defect. His father had been bailiff to the earl of Shiring, but Nate had not inherited that grand position, and he blamed his hump for the fact that he had ended up in the small village of Wigleigh. He seemed to hate all young, strong, handsome people. In his leisure hours he liked to drink wine with Perkin, Annet’s father – who always paid for the liquor.
The question before the court today was what to do about Wulfric’s family’s land.
It was a large holding. Peasants were not all equal, and they did not have equal lands. The standard was a virgate, which was thirty acres in this part of England. In theory a virgate was the area of land one man could farm, and normally yielded enough to feed one family. However, most Wigleigh peasants had a half-virgate, fifteen acres, or thereabouts. They were obliged to find additional means of support for their families: netting birds in the woods, trapping fish in the stream that ran through Brookfield, making belts or sandals from cheap leather offcuts, weaving cloth from yarn for Kingsbridge merchants, or poaching the king’s deer in the forest. A few had more than a virgate. Perkin had a hundred acres, and Wulfric’s father, Samuel, had had ninety. Such wealthy peasants needed help to farm their land, either from their sons and other relatives, or from hired labourers such as Gwenda’s father.
When a serf died, his land might be inherited by his widow, his sons or a married daughter. In any event, the handover had to be licensed by the lord, and a stiff tax, called a heriot, was due. In normal circumstances Samuel’s land would automatically have been inherited by his two sons, and there would have been no need for a court hearing. They would have clubbed together to pay the heriot, then either divided up the land or farmed it together, and made some arrangement for their mother. But one of Samuel’s sons had died with him, which complicated matters.
Every adult in the village attended the court, in general. Gwenda had a particular interest today. Wulfric’s future would be decided, and the fact that he planned to spend that future with another woman did not dampen Gwenda’s concern. Perhaps she should have wished him a miserable life with Annet, she sometimes thought; but she could not. She wanted him to be happy.
When the service was over, a large wooden chair and two benches were brought in from the manor house. Nate took the chair and the jurymen sat on the benches. Everyone else stood.
Wulfric spoke simply. “My father held ninety acres of the lord of Wigleigh,” he said. “Fifty acres were held by his father before him, and forty by his uncle who died ten years ago. As my mother is dead, and so is my brother, and I have no sisters, I am the sole heir.”
“How old are you?” said Nate.
“You can’t even call yourself a man, yet.”
It seemed Nate was going to make things difficult. Gwenda knew why. He wanted a bribe. But Wulfric had no money.
“Years aren’t everything,” Wulfric said. “I’m taller and stronger than most grown men.”
Aaron Appletree, one of the jurors, said: “David Johns inherited from his father when he was eighteen.”
Nate said: “Eighteen isn’t sixteen. I don’t recall an instance where a sixteen-year-old was allowed to inherit.”
David Johns was not a juror, and he was standing next to Gwenda. “I didn’t have no ninety acres, neither,” he said, and there was a ripple of laughter. David had a half-virgate, like most of them.
Another juror spoke. “Ninety acres is too much for one man, let alone a boy. Why, it was farmed by three until now.” The speaker was Billy Howard, a man in his middle twenties who had wooed Annet unsuccessfully – which might be why he wanted to side with Nate in putting obstacles in Wulfric’s way. “I’ve got forty acres, and I have to hire labourers at harvest time.”
Several of the men nodded agreement. Gwenda began to feel pessimistic. It was not going Wulfric’s way.
“I can get help,” Wulfric said.
Nate said: “Have you got money to pay labourers?”
Wulfric looked a bit desperate, and Gwenda’s heart went out to him. “My father’s purse was lost when the bridge collapsed, and I spent what money I had on the funeral,” he said. “But I can offer my labourers a share of the harvest.”
Nate shook his head. “Everyone in the village is already working full time on their own lands, and those who have no land are already employed. And no one is likely to give up a job that pays cash for one that offers a share of an uncertain crop.”
“I will get the harvest in,” Wulfric said with passionate determination. “I can work day and night, if I have to. I’ll prove to you all that I can handle it.”
There was so much yearning on his handsome face that Gwenda wanted to jump up and shout her support for him. But the men were shaking their heads. Everyone knew that one man could not harvest ninety acres on his own.
Nate turned to Perkin. “He’s engaged to your daughter. Can’t you do something for him?”
Perkin looked thoughtful. “Perhaps you should transfer the land to me, for the time being. I could pay the heriot. Then, when he marries Annet, he could take over his land.”
“No!” Wulfric said immediately.
Gwenda knew why he was so against the idea. Perkin was nothing if not sly. He would spend every waking minute between now and the wedding trying to figure out a way of keeping Wulfric’s land for himself.
Nate said to Wulfric: “If you have no money, how will you pay the heriot?”
“I’ll have money when I get the harvest in.”
“If you get the harvest in. And then it may not be enough. Your father paid three pounds for his father’s lands and two pounds for his uncle’s.”
Gwenda gasped. Five pounds was a fortune. It seemed impossible that Wulfric could raise so much money. It would probably have taken all his family’s savings.
Nate went on: “Besides, the heriot is normally paid before the inheritor takes possession – not after the harvest.”
Aaron Appletree said: “In the circumstances, Nate, you might show leniency on that point.”
“Might I? A lord may show leniency, for he holds sway over his own possessions. But if a bailiff shows leniency, he’s giving away someone else’s gold.”
“But we will only be making a recommendation, in any case. Nothing will be final until approved by the new lord of Wigleigh, whoever he may be.”
That was true, strictly speaking, Gwenda thought; but in practice it was unlikely a new lord would overturn an inheritance from father to son.
Wulfric said: “Sir, my father’s heriot was not so much as five pounds.”
“We must check the rolls.” Nate’s response was so quick that Gwenda guessed he had been waiting for Wulfric to challenge the amount. Nate often engineered a pause of some kind in the middle of a hearing, she reflected. She presumed it was to give the parties an opportunity to offer him a bribe. Perhaps he thought Wulfric was concealing some money.
Two jurors brought from the vestry the chest containing the manorial rolls, the record of the manor court’s decisions, written on long strips of parchment rolled into cylinders. Nate could read and write – a bailiff had to be literate, in order to compile accounts for the lord. He searched through the box for the right one.
Gwenda felt that Wulfric was doing badly. His plain speaking and evident honesty were not enough. Nate wanted above all else to make sure he collected the lord’s heriot. Perkin was manoeuvring to get the land for himself. Billy Howard wanted to do Wulfric down out of sheer malice. And Wulfric had no money for a bribe.
He was also guileless. He believed that if he stated his case he would get justice. He had no sense of managing the situation.
Perhaps she could help him. A child of Joby’s could not grow up without learning something about guile.
Wulfric had not appealed to the villagers’ self-interest in his arguments. She would do so for him. She turned to David Johns, standing beside her. “I’m surprised you men aren’t more worried about this,” she said.
He gave her a shrewd look. “What are you getting at, lass?”
“Despite the sudden deaths, this is an inheritance from father to son. If you let Nate quibble about this one, he’ll question them all. He can always dream up some reason for arguing about a legacy. Aren’t you afraid he’ll interfere with your own sons’ rights?”
David looked worried. “You might have a point, there, girl,” he said, and he turned to talk to his neighbour on the other side.
Gwenda also felt it was a mistake for Wulfric to demand a final ruling today. Better to ask for a temporary judgement, which the jurymen would grant more readily. She went to speak to Wulfric. He was arguing with Perkin and Annet. When Gwenda appeared Perkin looked suspicious, and Annet put her nose in the air, but Wulfric was as courteous as ever. “Hello, my travelling companion,” he said. “I heard you left your father’s house.”
“He threatened to sell me.”
“A second time?”
“As many times as I could escape. He thinks he’s found a bottomless purse.”
“Where are you living?”
“Widow Huberts took me in. And I’ve been working for the bailiff, on the lord’s lands. A penny a day, sunrise to sunset – Nate likes his labourers to go home tired. Do you think he’ll give you what you want?”
Wulfric made a face. “He seems reluctant.”
“A woman would handle it so differently.”
He looked surprised. “How so?”
Annet glared at her, but Gwenda ignored the look. “A woman would not demand a ruling, especially when everyone knows that today’s decision isn’t final. She would not risk a No for the chance of a Maybe.”
Wulfric looked thoughtful. “What would she do?”
“She would just ask to be allowed to continue working the land, for now. She would let the binding decision wait until the new lord is appointed. She would know that in the interim everyone would get used to her being in possession, so that when the new lord showed up his approval would seem like a formality. She would gain her objective without giving people much chance to argue about it.”
Wulfric was not sure. “Well…”
“It’s not what you want, but it’s the most you can get today. And how can Nate refuse you, when he has no one else to bring in the harvest?”
Wulfric nodded. He was working out the possibilities. “People would see me reaping the crop, and become accustomed to the idea. After that, it would seem unjust to deny me the inheritance. And I’d be able to pay the heriot, or some of it.”
“You’d be a lot closer to your goal than you are now.”
“Thank you. You’re very wise.” He touched her arm, then turned back to Annet. She said something sharp to him in an undertone. Her father looked annoyed.
Gwenda turned away. Don’t tell me I’m wise, she thought. Tell me I’m… what? Beautiful? Never. The love of your life? That’s Annet. A true friend? To hell with that. So what do I want? Why am I desperate to help you?
She had no answer.
She noticed David Johns speaking emphatically to one of the jurors, Aaron Appletree.
Nate flourished the manor roll. “Wulfric’s father, Samuel, paid thirty shillings to inherit from his father, and a pound to inherit from his uncle.” A shilling was twelve pennies. There was no shilling coin, but everyone talked about shillings just the same. Twenty shillings made a pound. The sum Nate had announced was exactly half what he had originally said.
David Johns spoke up. “A man’s lands should go to his son,” he said. “We don’t want to give our new lord, whoever he may be, the impression that he can pick and choose who shall inherit.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
Wulfric stepped forward. “Bailiff, I know you can’t make a final decision today, and I’m content to wait until the new lord is appointed. All I ask is that I should be allowed to continue to work the land. I will bring in the harvest, I swear it. But nothing is lost to you if I fail. And nothing is promised to me if I succeed. When the new lord comes, I will throw myself on his mercy.”
Nate looked cornered. Gwenda felt sure he had been hoping for some way of making money out of this. Perhaps he had expected a bribe from Perkin, Wulfric’s prospective father-in-law. She watched Nate’s face as he tried to think of a way to refuse Wulfric’s more modest request. As he hesitated, one or two villagers began to mutter, and he realized he was doing himself no good by revealing his reluctance. “Very well,” he said with a show of grace that was not very convincing. “What does the jury say?”
Aaron Appletree conferred briefly with his fellow jurors, then said: “Wulfric’s request is modest and reasonable. He should occupy the lands of his father until the new lord of Wigleigh is appointed.”
Gwenda sighed with relief.
Nate said: “Thank you, jurymen.”
The court broke up and people began to head home for dinner. Most of the villagers could afford to eat meat once a week, and Sunday was the usual day they chose. Even Joby and Ethna could generally manage a stew of squirrel or hedgehog, and at this time of year there were plenty of young rabbits to be caught. Widow Huberts had a neck of mutton in a pot on the fire.
Gwenda caught Wulfric’s eye as they were leaving the church. “Well done,” she said as they strolled out together. “He couldn’t refuse you, though he seemed to want to.”
“It was your idea,” he said admiringly. “You knew exactly what I needed to say. I don’t know how to thank you.”
She resisted the temptation to tell him. They walked through the graveyard. She said: “How will you manage the harvest?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you let me come and labour for you?”
“I’ve no money.”
“I don’t care, I’ll work for food.”
He stopped at the gate, turned and gave her a candid look. “No, Gwenda. I don’t think that would be a good plan. Annet wouldn’t like it and, to be frank, she’d be right.”
Gwenda found herself blushing. There was no doubt what he meant. If he had wanted to reject her because she might be too weak, or something, there would have been no need for the direct look, nor for the mention of his fiancee’s name. He knew, she realized with mortification, that she was in love with him, and he was refusing her offer of help because he did not want to encourage her hopeless passion. “All right,” she whispered, looking down. “Whatever you say.”
He smiled warmly. “But thank you for the offer.”
She made no reply and, after a moment, he turned and walked away.
Gwenda got up while it was still dark.
She slept in the straw on the floor of Widow Huberts’s house. Somehow her sleeping mind knew the time, and woke her just before dawn. The widow, lying next to her, did not stir when Gwenda unwrapped her blanket and stood up. Finding her way by touch, she opened the back door and stepped into the yard. Skip followed her, shaking himself.
She stood still for a moment. There was a fresh breeze, as always in Wigleigh. The night was not totally black, and she could make out vague shapes: the duck house, the privy, the pear tree. She could not see the neighbouring house, which was Wulfric’s; but she heard a low growl from his dog, tethered outside the small sheepfold, and she murmured a quiet phrase so that it would recognize her voice and be reassured.
It was a peaceful time – but nowadays there were too many such moments in her day. All her life she had lived in a tiny house full of babies and children, and at any instant at least one of them was clamouring for food, crying because of a minor hurt, shouting a protest or screaming with helpless infantile rage. She would never have guessed she might miss that. But she did, living with the quiet widow, who chatted amiably enough but was equally comfortable with silence. Sometimes Gwenda longed to hear a child cry, just so that she could pick it up and comfort it.
She found the old wooden bucket and washed her hands and face, then went back inside. She located the table in the dark, opened the bread box and cut a thick slice from the week-old loaf. Then she set out, eating the bread as she walked.
The village was silent: she was the first up. Peasants worked from sunup to sundown, and at this time of year it was a long, weary day. They treasured every moment of rest. Only Gwenda also used the hour between dawn and sunrise, and the hour of twilight at the end of the day.
Dawn broke as she left the houses behind and set out across the fields. Wigleigh had three great fields: Hundredacre, Brookfield and Longfield. Different crops were grown on each in a three-year cycle. Wheat and rye, the most valuable grains, were sown in the first year; then lesser crops such as oats, barley, peas and beans in the second year; and in the third year the field was left fallow. This year, Hundredacre was in wheat and rye, Brookfield in various secondary crops, and Longfield was fallow. Each field was divided into strips of about one acre; and each serf’s land consisted of a number of strips scattered across all three fields.
Gwenda went to Hundredacre and began weeding one of Wulfric’s strips, pulling up the persistent new growth of dockweed, marigolds and dogfennel from between his stalks of wheat. She was happy working on his land, helping him, whether he knew about it or not. Every time she bent down, she was saving his back the same effort; every time she pulled a weed she made his crop greater. It was like giving him presents. As she worked she thought of him, picturing his face when he laughed, hearing his voice, the deep voice of a man yet with the eagerness of a boy. She touched the green shoots of his wheat and imagined she was stroking his hair.
She weeded until sunrise then moved to the demesne lands – those strips farmed by the lord, or his labourers – and worked for pay. Although Sir Stephen was dead, his crops still had to be reaped, and his successor would demand a strict account of what had been done with the proceeds. At sundown, having earned her daily bread, Gwenda would move to another part of Wulfric’s holding and work there until dark – longer, if there was a moon.
She had said nothing to Wulfric. But, in a village of only two hundred people, few things remained secret for long. Widow Huberts had asked her, with gentle curiosity, what she hoped to achieve. “He’s going to marry Perkin’s girl, you know – you can’t prevent that.”
“I just want him to succeed,” Gwenda had replied. “He deserves it. He’s an honest man with a good heart, and he’s willing to work until he drops. I want him to be happy, even if he does marry that bitch.”
Today the demesne workers were in Brookfield, harvesting the lord’s early peas and beans, and Wulfric was nearby, digging a drainage ditch: the land was swampy after the heavy rain of early June. Gwenda watched him working, wearing onl