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Authors: Ellis Peters

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOK: Brother Cadfael's Penance
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