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Authors: Ellis Peters

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It
seemed to Brother Cadfael, watching with unashamed interest from his dark
corner, that both of them were very well aware of the stormcloud bearing down on
them, and neither was disposed to do anything to evade or placate it. Indeed,
he perceived that Heledd softened by a hair the stiffness of her stance, and
allowed her head to tilt towards the descending light and glitter into a bright
and brittle smile, meant rather for her father’s discomfort than for Bledri’s
gratification. Let him sweat for his place and his desired advancement! She had
said that she could destroy him if she so willed, it was something she would
never do, but if he was so crass, and knew so little of her, as to believe her
capable of bringing about his ruin, he deserved to pay for his stupidity. The
instant of intense stillness exploded into a flurry of movement, as Canon
Meirion recovered his breath and came seething down the steps in a turmoil of
clerical black, like a sudden thundercloud, took his daughter by the arm, and
wrenched her firmly away from Bledri’s grasp. As firmly and competently she
withdrew herself from this new compulsion, and brushed the very touch of his
hand from her sleeve. The dagger glances that must have strained through the
dimness between sire and daughter were blunted by the night. And Bledri
suffered his deprivation gracefully, without stirring a step, and very softly
laughed.

“Oh,
pardon if I have trespassed on your rights of warren,” he said, deliberately
obtuse. “I had not reckoned with a rival of your cloth. Not here in Bishop
Gilbert’s household. I see I have undervalued his breadth of mind.”

He
was being provocative deliberately, of course. Even if he had had no notion
that this indignant elder was the girl’s father, he certainly knew that this
intervention could hardly bear the interpretation he was placing upon it. But
had not the impulse of mischief originated rather with Heledd? It did not
please her that the canon should have so little confidence in her judgement as
to suppose she would need help in dealing with a passing piece of impudence
from this questionably welcome visitor. And Bledri was quite sufficiently
accomplished in the study of women to catch the drift of her mild malice, and
play the accomplice, for her gratification as readily as for his own amusement.

“Sir,”
said Meirion with weighty and forbidding dignity, curbing his rage, “my
daughter is affianced, and shortly to be married. Here in his lordship’s court
you will treat her and all other women with respect.” And to Heledd he said
brusquely, and with a sharp gesture of his hand towards their lodging under the
far wall of the enclave: “Go in, girl! The hour is late already, you should be
withindoors.”

Heledd,
without haste or discomposure, gave them a slight, curt inclination of her head
to share between them, and turned and walked away. The rear view of her as she
went was expressive, and disdainful of men in general.

“And
a very fine girl, too,” said Bledri approvingly, watching her departure.

“You
may be proud of your getting, Father. I hope you are marrying her to a man
who’ll appreciate beauty. The small courtesy of hefting the lass down the steps
to level ground can hardly have blemished his bargain.” His clear, incisive
voice had dwelt fondly on the word ‘Father’, well aware of the dual sting.

“Well,
what the eye has not seen, the heart need not grieve, and I hear the bridegroom
is well away in Anglesey. And no doubt you can keep a still tongue where this
match is concerned.” The plain implication was there, very sweetly insinuated.
No, Canon Meirion was exceedingly unlikely to make any move that could
jeopardise his cleansed and celibate and promising future. Bledri ap Rhys was
very quick on the uptake, and well informed about the bishop’s clerical
reforms. He had even sensed Heledd’s resentment at being so ruthlessly disposed
of, and her impulse to take her revenge before departing.

“Sir,
you are a guest of prince and bishop, and as such are expected to observe the
standards due to their hospitality.” Meirion was stiff as a lance, and his
voice thinned and steely as a sword-blade. Within his well-schooled person
there was a ferocious Welsh temper under arduous control. “If you do not, you
will rue it. Whatever my own situation, I will see to that. Do not approach my
daughter, or attempt to have any further ado with her. Your courtesies are
unwelcome.”

“Not,
I think, to the lady,” said Bledri, with the most complacent of smiles implicit
in the very tone of his voice. “She has a tongue, and a palm, and I fancy would
have been ready enough to use both if I had caused her any displeasure. I like
a lass of spirit. If she grants me occasion, I shall tell her so. Why should she
not enjoy the admiration she is entitled to, these few hours on the road to her
marriage?”

The
brief silence fell like a stone between them; Cadfael felt the air quiver with
the tension of their stillness. Then Canon Meirion said, through gritted teeth
and from a throat constricted with the effort to contain his rage: “My lord, do
not think this cloth I wear will prove any protection to you if you affront my
honour, or my daughter’s good name. Be warned, and keep away from her, or you
shall have excellent cause to regret it. Though perhaps,” he ended, even lower
and more malevolently, “too brief time!”

“Time
enough,” said Bledri, not noticeably disturbed by the palpable threat, “for all
the regretting I’m likely to do. It’s something I’ve had small practice in.
Goodnight to your reverence!” And he passed by Meirion so close their sleeves
brushed, perhaps intentionally, and began to climb the steps to the hall door.
And the canon, wrenching himself out of his paralysis of rage with an effort,
composed his dignity about him as best he could, and stalked away towards his
own door.

Cadfael
returned to his own quarters very thoughtfully, and recounted the whole of this
small incident to Brother Mark, who was lying wakeful and wide-eyed after his
prayers, by some private and peculiar sensitivity of his own already aware of
turbulent cross-currents trembling on the night air. He listened, unsurprised.

“How
much, would you say, Cadfael, is his concern only for his own advancement, how
much truly for his daughter? For he does feel guilt towards her. Guilt that he
resents her as a burden to his prospects, guilt at loving her less than she
loves him. A guilt that makes him all the more anxious to put her out of sight,
far away, another man’s charge.”

“Who
can decypher any man’s motives?” said Cadfael resignedly. “Much less a woman’s.
But I tell you this, she would do well not to drive him too far. The man has a
core of violence in him. I would not like to see it let loose. It could be a
killing force.”

“And
against which of them,” wondered Mark, staring into the dark of the roof above
him, “would the lightning be launched, if ever the storm broke?”

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

THE
PRINCE’S CORTEGE MUSTERED IN THE DAWN, in a morning hesitant between sullenness
and smiles. There was the moisture of a brief shower on the grasses as Cadfael
and Mark crossed to the church for prayer before saddling up, but the sun was
shimmering on the fine drops, and the sky above was the palest and clearest of
blues, but for a few wisps of cloud to eastward, embracing the rising orb of
light with stroking fingers. When they emerged again into the courtyard it was
already full of bustle and sound, the baggage horses being loaded, the brave
city of tents along the hillside above folded and on the move, and even the
frail feathers of cloud dissolved into moist and scintillating radiance.

Mark
stood gazing before him with pleasure at the preparations for departure, his
face flushed and bright, a child embarking on an adventure. Until this moment,
Cadfael thought, he had not fully realised the possibilities, the fascinations,
even the perils of the journey he had undertaken. To ride with princes was no
more than half the tale, somewhere there was a lurking threat, a hostile
brother, a prelate bent on reforming a way of life which in the minds of its
population needed no reform. And who could guess what might happen between here
and Bangor, between bishop and bishop, the stranger and the native?

“I
spoke a word in the ear of Saint Winifred,” said Mark, flushing almost
guiltily, as though he had appropriated a patroness who by rights belonged to
Cadfael. “I thought we must be very close to her here, it seemed only gracious
to let her know of our presence and our hopes, and ask her blessing.”

“If
we deserve!” said Cadfael, though he had small doubt that so gentle and
sensible a saint must look indulgently upon this wise innocent.

“Indeed!
How far is it, Cadfael, from here to her holy well?”

“A
matter of fourteen miles or so, due east of us.”

“Is
it true it never freezes? However hard the winter?”

“It
is true. No one has ever known it stilled, it bubbles always in the centre.”

“And
Gwytherin, where you took her from the grave?”

“That
lies as far south and west of us,” said Cadfael, and refrained from mentioning
that he had also restored her to her grave in that same place. “Never try to
limit her,” he advised cautiously. “She will be wherever you may call upon her,
and present and listening as soon as you cry out your need.”

“That
I never doubted,” said Mark simply, and went with a springy and hopeful step to
put together his small belongings and saddle his glossy nutbrown gelding.
Cadfael lingered a few moments to enjoy the bright bustle before him, and then
followed more sedately to the stables. Outside the walls of the enclave Owain’s
guards and noblemen were already marshalling, their encampment vanished from
the greensward, leaving behind only the paler, flattened patches which would
soon spring back into lively green, and erase even the memory of their
visitation. Within the wall grooms whistled and called, hooves stamped lively, muffled
rhythms in the hard-packed earth, harness jingled, maidservants shrilled to one
another above the general babel of male voices, and the faint dust of all this
vigorous movement rose into the sunlight and shimmered in gilded mist overhead.

The
company gathered as blithely as if they were going maying, and certainly so
bright a morning invited to so pleasant a pastime. But there were certain
graver reminders to be remarked as they mounted. Heledd made her appearance
cloaked and ready, serene and demure of countenance, but with Canon Meirion
keeping close on one side of her, with tight lips and downdrawn brows, and
Canon Morgant on the other, equally tightlipped but with brows arched into
uncompromising severity, and sharp eyes dwelling alternately on father and
daughter, and with no very assured approval of either. And for all their
precautions, at the last moment Bledri ap Rhys stepped between them and lifted
the girl into the saddle with his own large and potentially predatory hands,
with a courtesy so elaborate that it glittered into insolence: and, worse,
Heledd accepted the service with as gracious an inclination of her head, and a
cool, reserved smile, ambiguous between chaste reproof and discreet mischief.
To take exception to the behaviour of either party would have been folly, so
well had both preserved the appearance of propriety, but both canons
perceptibly beheld the incident with raised hackles and darkening frowns if
they kept their mouths shut.

Nor
was that the only sudden cloud in this clear sky, for Cuhelyn, appearing
already mounted in the gateway, too late to have observed any present cause for
offence, sat his horse with drawn brows, while his intent eyes ranged the
entire company within until he found Bledri, and there settled and brooded, a
long-memoried man of intense passions, measuring an enemy. It seemed to
Cadfael, surveying the scene with a thoughtful eye, that there would be a
considerable weight of ill will and not a few grudges among the rich baggage of
this princely party.

The
bishop came down into the courtyard to take leave of his royal guests. This
first encounter had passed off successfully enough, considering the strain he
had put upon it by inviting Cadwaladr’s envoy into conference. He was not so
insensitive that he had not felt the momentary tension and displeasure, and no
doubt he was drawing relieved breath now at having survived the danger. Whether
he had the humility to realise that he owed it to the prince’s forbearance was
another matter, Cadfael reflected. And here came Owain side by side with his
host, and Hywel at his back. At his coming the whole bright cortege quivered
into expectant life, and as he reached for bridle and stirrup, so did they all.
Too tall for me, eh, Hugh? Cadfael thought, swinging aloft into the roan’s high
saddle, with a buoyancy that set him up in a very gratifying conceit of
himself. I’ll show you whether I have lost my appetite for travel and forgotten
everything I learned in the east before ever you were born.

And
they were away, out of the wide-open gate and heading westward after the
prince’s lofty fair head, uncovered to the morning sun. The bishop’s household
stood to watch them depart, warily content with one diplomatic encounter
successfully accomplished. Such threats as lingered uneasily from last night’s
exchanges cast their shadows on these departing guests. Bishop Gilbert, if he
had believed in them at all, could let them withdraw unchallenged, for they
were no threat to him.

BOOK: The Summer of the Danes
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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