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Authors: Ellis Peters

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Hermit of Eyton Forest

BOOK: Hermit of Eyton Forest
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The

Hermit of

 
Eyton Forest

The Fourteenth
Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint
Paul, at Shrewsbury

 

Ellis Peters

 

Chapter
One

Chapter
Two

Chapter
Three

Chapter
Four

Chapter
Five

Chapter
Six

Chapter
Seven

Chapter
Eight

Chapter
Nine

Chapter
Ten

Chapter
Eleven

Chapter
Twelve

Chapter
Thirteen

Chapter
Fourteen

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

IT
WAS ON THE EIGHTEENTH DAY of October of that year 1142 that Richard Ludel,
hereditary tenant of the manor of Eaton, died of a debilitating weakness, left
after wounds received at the battle of Lincoln, in the service of King Stephen.
The news was duly brought to Hugh Beringar in Shrewsbury castle, since Eaton
was one of the many manors in the shire which had been expropriated from
William Fitz Alan, after that powerful nobleman took arms on the wrong side in
the struggle for the throne, held Shrewsbury for the Empress Maud, and took to
flight when Stephen besieged and captured the town. His wide lands, forfeited
to the crown, had been placed in the sheriff’s care as overlord, but their
tenants of long standing had been left undisturbed, once it was clear that they
had wisely accepted the judgement of battle, and pledged their allegiance to
the king. Ludel, indeed, had done more than declare his loyalty, he had proved
it in arms at Lincoln, and now, it seemed, paid a high price for his fealty,
for he was no more than thirty-five years old at his death. Hugh received the
news with the mild regret natural to one who had barely known the man, and
whose duties were unlikely to be complicated by any closer contact with the
death. There was an heir, and no second son to cloud the issue of inheritance,
certainly no need to interfere with the smooth succession. The Ludels were
Stephen’s men, and loyal, even if the new incumbent was hardly likely to take
arms for his king for many years to come, being, Hugh recalled, about ten years
old. The boy was in school at the abbey, placed there by his father when the
mother died, most likely, so rumour said, to get him out of the hands of a
domineering grandmother, rather than simply to ensure that he learned his
letters.

It
seemed, therefore, that the abbey, if not the castle, had some unenviable
responsibility in the matter, for someone would have to tell young Richard that
his father was dead. The funeral rites would not fall to the abbey, Eaton
having its own church and parish priest, but the custody of the heir was a
matter of importance. And as for me, thought Hugh, I had better make certain
how competent a steward Ludel has left to manage the boy’s estate, while he’s
not yet of age to manage it himself.

“You
have not taken this word to the lord abbot yet?” he asked the groom who had
brought the message.

“No,
my lord, I came first to you.”

“And
have you orders from the lady to speak with the heir himself?”

“No,
my lord, and would as soon leave that to those who have the daily care of him.”

“You
may well be right there,” Hugh agreed. “I’ll go myself and speak with Abbot
Radulfus. He’ll know best how to deal. As to the succession, Dame Dionisia need
have no concern, the boy’s title is secure enough.” In times full of trouble,
with cousins contending bitterly for the throne, and opportunist lords changing
their coats according to the pendulum fortunes of this desultory war, Hugh was
only too glad to be guardian of a shire which had changed hands but once, and
settled down doggedly thereafter to keep King Stephen’s title unchallenged and
the tide of unrest at bay from its borders, whether the threat came from the
empress’s forces, the unpredictable cantrips of the wild Welshmen of Powys to
the west, or the calculating ambition of the earl of Chester in the north. Hugh
had balanced his relationships with all these perilous neighbours for some
years now with fair success, it would have been folly to consider handing over
Eaton to another tenant, whatever the possible drawbacks of allowing the
succession to pass unbroken to a child. Why upset a family which had remained
submissive and loyal, and dug in its heels sturdily to await events when its
overlord fled to France? Recent rumour had it that William Fitz Alan was back
in England, and had joined the empress in Oxford, and the sense of his
presence, even at that distance, might stir older loyalties among his former
tenants, but that was a risk to be met when it showed signs of arising. To give
Eaton to another tenant might well be to rouse the old allegiance needlessly
from its prudent slumber. No, Ludel’s son should have his rights. But it would
be well to have a look at the steward, and make sure he could be trusted, both
to keep to his late lord’s policies and to take good care of his new lord’s
interests and lands.

 

Hugh
rode out unhurriedly through the town, in the fine mid-morning—after the early
mist had lifted, gently uphill to the High Cross, steeply downhill again by the
winding Wyle to the eastward gate, and across the stone bridge towards the
Foregate, where the crossing tower of the abbey church loomed solidly against a
pale blue sky. The Severn ran rapid but tranquil under the arches of the
bridge, still at its mild summer level, its two small, grassy islands rimmed
with a narrow edging of bleached brown which would be covered again when the
first heavy rain brought storm-water down from Wales. To the left, where the
highroad opened before him, the clustering bushes and trees rising from the
riverside just touched the dusty rim of the road, before the small houses and
yards and gardens of the Foregate began. To the right the mill-pool stretched
away between its grassy banks, a faint bloom of lingering mist blurring its
silver surface, and beyond, the wall of the abbey enclave arose, and the arch
of the gatehouse.

Hugh
dismounted as the porter came out to take his bridle. He was as well known here
as any who wore the Benedictine habit and belonged within the walls. “If you’re
wanting Brother Cadfael, my lord,” offered the porter helpfully, “he’s away to
Saint Giles to replenish their medicine cupboard. But he’s been gone an hour or
so now, he left after chapter. He’ll be back soon, surely, if you’re minded to
wait for him.”

“My
business is with the lord abbot first,” said Hugh, acknowledging without
protest the assumption that his every visit here must inevitably be in search
of one close crony. “Though no doubt Cadfael will hear the same word
afterwards, if he hasn’t heard it in advance! The winds always seem to blow
news his way before they trouble about the rest of us.”

“His
duties take him forth, more than most of us ever get the chance,” said the
porter good-humouredly. “Come to that, how do the poor afflicted souls at Saint
Giles ever come to hear so much of what goes on in the wide world? For he
seldom comes back without some piece of gossip that’s amazement to everybody
this end of the Foregate. Father Abbot’s down in his own garden. He’s been
closeted over accounts with the sacristan for an hour or more, but I saw
Brother Benedict leave him a little while ago.” He reached a veined brown hand
to caress the horse’s neck, very respectfully, for Hugh’s big, raw-boned grey,
as cross-grained as he was strong, had little but contempt for all things human
except his master, and even he was regarded rather as an equal, to be respected
but kept in his place. “There’s no news from Oxford yet?” Even within the
cloister they could not choose but keep one ear cocked for news of the siege.
Success there now might well see the empress a prisoner, and force an end at
last to this dissension that tore the land apart. “Not since the king got his
armies through the ford and into the town. We may hear something soon, if some
who had time to get out of the city drift up this way. But the garrison will
have made sure the castle larders were well filled. I doubt it will drag on for
many weeks yet.”

Siege
is slow strangulation, and King Stephen had never been noted for patience and
tenacity, and might yet find it tedious to sit waiting for his enemies to reach
starvation, and take himself off to find brisker action elsewhere. It had
happened before, and could happen again.

Hugh
shrugged off his liege lord’s shortcomings, and set off down the great court to
the abbot’s lodging, to distract Father Radulfus from his cherished if slightly
jaded roses.

Brother
Cadfael was back from the hospital of Saint Giles and busy in his workshop,
sorting beans for next year’s seed, when Hugh came back from the abbot’s
lodging and made his way to the herbarium. Recognising the swift, light tread
on the gravel, Cadfael greeted him without turning his head. “Brother Porter
told me you’d be here. Business with Father Abbot, he says.

What’s
in the wind? Nothing new from Oxford?”

“No,”
said Hugh, seating himself comfortably on the bench against the timber wall,
“nearer home. This is from no farther off than Eaton. Richard Ludel is dead.
The dowager sent a groom with the news this morning. You’ve got the boy here at
school.”

Cadfael
turned then, with one of the clay saucers, full of seed dried on the vine, in
his hand. “So we have. Well, so his sire’s gone, is he? We heard he was
dwindling. The youngster was no more than five when he was sent here, and they
fetch him home very seldom. I think his father thought the child was better
here with a few fellows near his own age than kept around a sick man’s bed.”

“And
under the rule of a strong-willed grandmother, from all I hear. I don’t know
the lady,” said Hugh thoughtfully, “except by reputation. I did know the man,
though I’ve seen nothing of him since we got our wounded back from Lincoln. A
good fighter and a decent soul, but dour, no talker. What’s the boy like?”

“Sharp
venturesome… A very fetching imp, truth to tell, but as often in trouble as out
of it. Bright at his letters, but he’d rather be out at play. Paul will have
the task of telling him his father’s dead, and himself master of a manor. It
may trouble Paul more than it does the boy. He hardly knows his sire. I suppose
there’s no question about his tenure?”

“None
in the world! I’m all for letting well alone, and Ludel earned his immunity.
It’s a good property, too, fat land, and much of it under the plough. Good
grazing, water-meadows and woodland, and it’s been well tended, seemingly, for
it’s valued higher now than ten years since. But I must get to know the
steward, and make sure he’ll do the boy right.”

“John
of Longwood,” said Cadfael promptly. “He’s a good man and a good husbandman. We
know him well, we’ve had dealings with him, and always found him reasonable and
fair. That land falls between the abbey holdings of Eyton-by-Severn on the one
side, and Aston-under-Wrekin on the other, and John has always given our
forester free access between the two woodlands whenever needed, to save him
time and labour. We bring wood out from our part of the Wrekin forest that way.
It suits us both very well. Ludel’s part of Eyton forest bites into ours there,
it would be folly to fall out. Ludel had left everything to John these last two
years, you’ll have no trouble there.”

“The
abbot tells me,” said Hugh, nodding satisfaction with this
good-neighbourliness, “that Ludel gave the boy as ward into his hands, four
years ago, should he himself not live to see his son grown to manhood. It seems
he made all possible provision for the future, as if he saw his own death
coming towards him.” And he added, somewhat grimly: “As well most of us have no
such clear sight, or there’d be some hundreds in Oxford now hurrying to buy
Masses for their souls. By this time the king must hold the town. It would fall
into his hands of itself once he was over the ford. But the castle could hold
out to the year’s end, at a pinch, and there’s no cheap way in there, it’s a matter
of starving them out. And if Robert of Gloucester in Normandy has not had word
of all this by now, then his intelligencers are less able than I gave them
credit for. If he knows how his sister’s pressed, he’ll be on his way home in
haste. I’ve known the besiegers become the besieged before now, it could as
well happen again.”

BOOK: Hermit of Eyton Forest
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