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Authors: Alys Clare

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BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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     Helewise got up and went to the door. Opening it, she checked that there was nobody nearby, then she shut it firmly and for a few self-indulgent moments, stood in the middle of the floor and gave vent to her feelings, addressing an imaginary King Richard and telling him exactly what she thought of him. ‘It’s your fault your people are going hungry,’ she said in a suppressed but still furious hiss, ‘and it’s this hunger, that
you’ve
brought about by demanding more than they can afford to give you, that’s making them even more susceptible than usual to the maladies of winter. And you’re not even here to witness the results of your own folly! You couldn’t quell that adventurous, crusading, foolhardy spirit of yours, could you? And see what it has led to! Sire,’ she added as an afterthought. Pausing for breath, she went on, more quietly now, ‘Some of them have got nothing left, my lord King. They come here and throw themselves on our mercy, yet we too have had to give more than we can spare, so that now, when we have such need of our emergency supplies, the cupboard is bare.’

     Abruptly her anger faded. With slow, tired steps, she walked round to the far side of her big table and sat down heavily in her chair. Then, drawing towards her the fat ledger in which every item brought into or out of the Abbey was recorded, she once more went through the list of supplies that had to last through the winter. It still amounted to the same result: not enough. Not nearly enough. Already her nuns and monks were on short rations and what she was about to do would not be welcomed by hungry, hard-working people who needed more food than they were currently receiving to get them through each long, arduous day.

     But the decision could not be put off any longer. Acting now, she reasoned, might mean that some of the people at present wondering whether it would be a good plan to make for Hawkenlye while they still had the energy would change their minds and stay at home. Their numbers might be few but even that few could make the crucial difference between the Abbey’s surviving or not.

     Don’t think about
not
, she commanded herself firmly.

     Then she drafted out the order and, a little while later, set about putting it into action.

 

The initial reaction of the Hawkenlye community to being told that their food rations were to be cut by a quarter so that more could be given to the desperate poor was fairly predictable. They might be vowed nuns and monks but they were people too, and people running on far from full bellies at that. But the dismay and the grumbling soon passed; Helewise ordered a special service in the Abbey church and gave thanks to God that a good harvest meant enough food at the Abbey for them to be able to give some away. She made sure not to mention just how much of that good harvest had already disappeared to raise funds towards the King’s ransom; it would not have been the moment and in any case, everybody had a pretty good idea anyway.

     The mercy visits began that same day. Pairs of nuns, usually a fully professed and a novice, went out carrying wicker baskets full of bread, flour, strips of dried meat, one or two apples and some small folded packages containing Sister Tiphaine’s sovereign remedies for the most common winter ailments. They also carried little phials of the precious holy water from the miraculous spring in the Vale; given Hawkenlye’s reputation, which was founded originally on that same healing water, these were perhaps the most beneficial gifts of all.

     Each pair of nuns was accompanied by a couple of the stronger and tougher lay brothers to act as bodyguard; rumour had it that there were ruffians and desperate men lurking in the fringes of the Great Forest and it was not wise to take any chances. Hunger makes beasts of men and someone who was dying of starvation might very well not have the usual scruples about attacking unprotected nuns carrying food to desperate peasants. Josse and Leofgar volunteered their services and Helewise gratefully accepted; the two of them, together with Helewise’s favourite lay brothers, Saul and young Augustus, formed the nucleus of her bodyguard force and made countless excursions each day.

     Josse had begun to think of returning home to New Winnowlands; he was fully recovered from his fever and his would be one less mouth to feed if he left the besieged Abbey. But he realised that the Abbess badly wanted him to stay. For one thing, she suspected – and he had to agree – that they had not yet got to the bottom of the strange events that had brought Leofgar and Rohaise running for the safety of Hawkenlye. The Abbess and Josse had talked over the matter and decided that all they could do was wait on events and hope that either Rohaise or Leofgar would break their silence and confide in someone, hopefully Helewise or Josse. To this end, Josse was spending as much time as he could spare with Leofgar and little Timus, and Helewise made sure that she made room in her busy day for at least one visit to her son and her daughter-in-law.

     The other reason why the Abbess did not want to lose Josse just yet was because his strength was such a boost to the morale of the nuns and lay brothers engaged on the mercy visits. Some of the homes that they visited were little more than hovels and presented a pitiful sight; constant repetition of the experience of misery made even the most courageous souls begin to waver. But then there would be Josse, riding up on Horace at just the right moment, offering a bundle of firewood to a frozen family and leaping down to cut up logs with his powerful arms and a sharp axe. Then he would make them all smile as, with exaggerated delicacy, he gave two tired nuns a leg-up on to Horace’s back, pretending to close his eyes in shock if either showed so much as a bare ankle.

     And, of course, riding out with the bodyguard meant that Josse spent much of each day with Leofgar, which gave him the time to study the younger man without Leofgar noticing. Or so Josse believed.

 

When the mercy visits had been going on for a week – Josse and Brother Saul had discovered that it was possible to extract roach and rudd and sometimes a large pike from the pond in the Vale and now smoked strips of admittedly fairly unappetising fish were going out in the baskets – the Abbey received a visitor who, at first sight, was neither sick, wounded nor starving.

     He was, however, cold and so Helewise took him straight away to warm himself by the small fire that was kept burning in her room. As Gervase de Gifford, lawman of Tonbridge, swept back his fur-lined cloak and removed his heavy leather gauntlets so as to hold his hands to the flames, Helewise summoned a nun and ordered hot, spiced wine, and only when it had arrived and been poured out did she finally ask de Gifford what she could do for him.

     ‘It may be a case of what I may do for you, my lady,’ he replied. ‘Oh, this is good!’ He held up his cup in a silent toast.

     ‘Much watered down, I am afraid,’ she said apologetically. ‘Like everyone else, we have had to draw in our belts.’

     ‘Yes, I have heard of your nuns’ visits to the worst-off families,’ he said. ‘It is what I would have expected of Hawkenlye.’

     She bowed her head. ‘In truth, we do what we do in part for our own sake, in the hope of keeping to manageable proportions the influx of visitors constantly arriving here to seek our help.’

     He nodded his understanding. ‘I have heard too of the way in which your numbers here have swelled.’ He finished his wine and, when she went to refill his mug, shook his head with a smile. ‘No, my lady. Thank you, but I will not have more if you do not join me, and I know full well that you won’t.’

     She smiled and replaced his mug on the tray. There was plenty of wine left in the jug and she was grateful for de Gifford’s forbearance, which would mean that at least two people would later have a drink with their food that they hadn’t been expecting. Then, indicating that he should sit down by the fire and resuming her own seat, she said, ‘Now, tell me why you are here.’

     He paused as if collecting his thoughts and then said, ‘It may be nothing but I can’t stop thinking about it, which is why I’ve come. One of my more sharp-witted officers overheard a conversation yesterday in the tavern in Tonbridge. It was between two men, one of whom is a ruffian well known to my officer, which was why my man was listening in to what the fellow had to say. The ruffian’s companion was a different class of man altogether – better dressed, well spoken, obviously of more substantial means than the other.’ He frowned as if still doubting whether he should be wasting her time telling her this.

     ‘Do go on,’ she prompted. ‘You believe that what your officer overheard concerns us here at Hawkenlye?’

     ‘Perhaps.’ He gave her a wry grin. ‘The two men spoke of a missing person – a man, apparently a friend or possibly a relation of the ruffian. The well-dressed man was telling him not to worry and that the missing man would turn up. The ruffian said no, he wasn’t satisfied with that, he was going
up the hill
’ – here he caught her eye to make sure she appreciated the significance of the words he had emphasised and she nodded that she did – ‘to see if
he
, by which presumably he meant the absent ruffian, had gone where they reckoned he’d been heading.’

     ‘I see,’ she said, working it out as she spoke. ‘Two men are trying to find a third, who has apparently come up here to Hawkenlye.’

     ‘Not necessarily,’ de Gifford said quickly. ‘Other roads lead uphill out of Tonbridge, although I grant you that it’s usually the Abbey that people of the town are referring to when they say up the hill.’

     ‘Yes.’ She was still thinking hard. ‘What I don’t understand is why you felt the necessity to warn us that the ruffian’s friend, or whatever he is, was coming here. Do you think he is dangerous?’

     De Gifford studied her. ‘I mentioned that the ruffian in the tavern was known to my officer.’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘He is also known to me, and so is his usual companion. If it is he who is missing and is the man to whom the other two referred, he’s called Walter Bell and he is the ruffian’s brother.’ De Gifford’s clear green eyes met hers and he added softly, ‘Walter Bell is the more violent of the brothers. He has committed murder, although circumstances were such that he was never put on trial for it. Had he been, I should have done my utmost to see that he hanged.’

     She felt a chilly finger of fear creep up her back. ‘And Walter Bell may be on his way to Hawkenlye,’ she whispered.

     ‘Yes, my lady. Of course, he may not be, but I felt it only right to warn you.’

     ‘Yes, I understand, and I’m grateful. What should we do?’

     He hesitated. ‘Well, it’s difficult because we have no idea why Walter Bell would come to the Abbey. It could simply be that he’s sick, or reckons it would be the best place for a free meal.’

     ‘Not a very substantial one,’ she remarked. De Gifford’s practical and undramatic reasoning was helping her to regain her composure.

     ‘Or on the other hand,’ he was saying, ‘perhaps when Bell’s brother said he was coming to Hawkenlye because that was where they reckoned he’d gone, the
he
in fact meant someone else.’

     Something in his tone warned her and, fearful again, she said, ‘Who might that be?’

     ‘My lady, please do not look so alarmed, for this is but conjecture, but my officer said that Bell’s brother seemed to be furiously angry. It did just occur to me whether the
he
whom he might or might not be following up here to Hawkenlye could be not his brother but the person whom he holds responsible for his brother’s disappearance.’

     He said it is but conjecture, she reminded herself as she waited for her rapid heartbeat to slow a little. Then she said, as calmly as she could, ‘As you are aware, the Abbey is full of people at present. How can we possibly hope to isolate which of them is in danger from this man Bell?’

     ‘His name’s Teb,’ de Gifford supplied. ‘A nickname, presumably, but it is how he is known.’

     ‘Teb,’ she repeated. ‘Teb Bell. Is there any point in asking around, do you think? To see if mention of the name raises a response in anyone here?’

     De Gifford shrugged. ‘Possibly, my lady. It can surely do no harm, and we might be able to warn the man whom Teb Bell is after, if I have reasoned correctly and this whole miserable tale has not caused you needless anxiety.’

     ‘Better safe than sorry,’ she said stoutly.

     He smiled briefly. Then, looking at her with what looked like a slightly awkward expression, he said, ‘Er – I’m wondering, my lady Abbess, if it might be a wise precaution to ask Sir Josse d’Acquin to come over to Hawkenlye, just until this business is cleared up.’

     Now it was her turn to smile and hers was more wholehearted than his. ‘No need,’ she said happily, ‘I’m pleased to say that he’s already here. You have but to wait until he returns from this morning’s second mercy visit, and then you will be able to talk to him yourself and tell him all that you have just told me.’

BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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