Authors: Ellis Peters
Tags: #Herbalists, #Cadfael; Brother (Fictitious Character), #Stephen; 1135-1154, #Mystery & Detective, #Monks, #General, #Shrewsbury (England), #Great Britain, #Historical, #Traditional British, #Large type books, #Fiction, #History
A small, barren space, an old bench against the wall, a heap of discarded fragments of vellum and cloth and wool and wood, and indistinguishable rubbish drifted into one corner, a large ewer with a broken lip, the ancient desk leaning askew, and over all the grime and dust of abandonment, of a place two years disused, and a year sealed and forgotten.
“There was a thief got in this way once,” said Gunnar airily. “They’d have much ado to manage it a second time. But I must make all secure again before I leave it, my master’d have my head if I forgot to shoot every bolt and turn every key.”
“There was a thief tried to get in this way only last night,” said Hugh casually. “Have they not told you?”
Gunnar had turned on him a face fallen open in sheer astonishment.” A thief? Last night? Not one word of this have I heard, or the mistress, either. Who says it’s so?”
“Ask the watchman below, he’ll tell you. One Bertred, a weaver who works for Mistress Perle. Take a look at the sill outside the hatch, Gunnar, you’ll see how it came down with his weight. The hound hunted him into the river,” said Hugh, offhand, gazing musingly all round the neglected room, but well aware of the look on Gunnar’s face. “He drowned.”
The silence that followed was brief but profound. Gunnar stood mute, staring, and all his light assurance had frozen into a steely gravity.
“You’d heard nothing?” marvelled Hugh, his eyes on the dusty floor, on which Gunnar’s vigorous passage had printed the only pattern of footmarks perceptible between door and hatch.
“No, my lord—nothing.” The loud, confident voice had become taut, intent and quiet. “I know the man. Why should he want to steal fleeces? He is very well settled as he is—he was… Dead?
“Drowned, Gunnar. Yes.”
“Sweet Christ have his soul!” said Gunnar, slowly and quietly, to himself rather than to them. “I knew him. I’ve diced with him. God knows neither I nor any that I know of bore Bertred any ill will, or ever wished him harm.”
There was another silence. It was as if Gunnar had left them, and was withdrawn into another place. The ice-blue eyes looked opaque, as if he had drawn a shutter down over them, or turned their gaze within rather than without. In a few moments he stirred, and asked levelly: “Have you done here, my lord? May I close these again?”
“You may,” said Hugh as shortly. “I have done.”
On the way back into the town through the castle gate they were both silent and thoughtful, until Hugh said suddenly: “If ever she was there in that dusty hole, someone has done excellent work wiping out every trace.”
“Bertred thought she was,” said Cadfael. “Though Bertred may have been wrong. Surely he was there to try and set her free, but he may have been guessing, and guessing wrongly. He knew of the room, and knew it was not common knowledge and therefore, with care, might be used for such a purpose. And he knew that young Hynde made a very possible abductor, being vain, persistent and in urgent need of money to maintain his easy life. But was it more than a guess? Did he really discover something that made it a certainty?”
“The very dust!” said Hugh. “No mark of any foot but Gunnar’s, or none that I could see. And the young fellow, the son, this Vivian—he did ride off this morning, out of the town, that I knew already, Will reported it to me. So there’s no one there but the mother now. And would she be lying? Hardly likely he’d tell her if he had a woman hidden away. If he’s taken the girl elsewhere after the night alarm, it would hardly be to his mother. But I’ll pay the house another visit, all the same. I fancy Bertred must have been trying his luck—but that the poor wretch had no luck! No luck with the roses, no luck with the rescue. No luck in any of his schemes.”
Another long silence, while they climbed the gradual slope within the gate, and approached the ramp to the castle entrance. “And he did not know!” said Hugh. “He really did not know!”
“He? And know what?”
“This man Gunnar. I had my doubts about him until then. So confident and assured, light as air, until mention was made of a man’s death. That I am sure came new to him. There was no pretence there. What say you, Cadfael?”
“I say there is a man who could lie and lie, whenever the occasion needed it. But who was not lying then. His very voice changed, no less than his face. No, he did not know. He was shaken to the heart. Whatever mischief he might have a part in, he had not contemplated a death. Let alone Bertred’s death!” They had reached the ramp and halted. “I must get back,” said Cadfael, looking up into a sky just veiled and softened with the approach of twilight. “What more can we do tonight? And what will you do tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” said Hugh with deliberation, “I’ll have Vivian Hynde brought to me as soon as he shows his face in the town gate, and see what’s to be got out of him concerning his father’s old counting-house. From all I’ve heard of him, he should be easier to frighten than his man shows any sign of being. And even if he’s a snow-white innocent, from all accounts a fright will do him no harm.”
“And will you make it public,” Cadfael asked,”that at least Brother Eluric’s murderer is known? And is dead?”
“No, not yet. Perhaps not at all, but at least let the poor woman have what peace she can find until her son’s buried. What point in blazoning forth guilt where there can never be a trial?” Hugh was looking back with a frown, and somewhat regretting that Miles had been present to witness that manifestation in the loom-shed. “If I know the sharp ears and long tongues of Shrewsbury it may yet be common talk by morning without any word from me. Perhaps not, perhaps Coliar will hold his tongue for the mother’s sake. But at any rate they shall have no official declaration to grit their teeth in until we find Judith Perle. As we will, as we must. Let them gossip and speculate. Someone may take fright and make the blunder I’m waiting for.”
“The lord abbot will have to know all that I know,” said Cadfael.
“So he will, but he’s another matter. He has the right and you have the duty. So you’d best be about getting back to him,” said Hugh, sighing, “and I’d best go in and see if any of those men of mine who’ve been out raking the countryside has done any better than I have.”
Upon which impeccably conscientious but none too hopeful note they parted.
Cadfael arrived back at the gatehouse too late for Vespers. The brothers were in the choir, and the office almost over. A great deal had happened in one short afternoon.
“There’s one here been waiting for you,” said the porter, looking out from his lodge as Cadfael stepped through the wicket. “Master Niall the bronzesmith. Come in to him here, we’ve been passing the time of evening together, but he wants to be on his way as soon as may be.”
Niall had heard enough to know who came, and emerged from the gatehouse with a coarse linen bag under his arm. It needed but one glance at Cadfael’s face to show that there was nothing to tell, but he asked, all the same. “No word of her?”
“None that’s new. No, sorry I am to say it. I’m just back from the sheriff himself, but without comfort.”
“I waited,” said Niall, “in case you might bring at least some news. The least trace would be welcome. And I can do nothing! Well, I must be on my way, then.”
“Where are you bound tonight?”
“To my sister and her man at Pulley, to see my little girl. I have a set of harness ornaments to deliver for one of Mortimer’s horses, though that could have waited a few days yet. But the child will be looking for me. This is the evening I usually go to her, else I wouldn’t stir. But I shall not stay overnight. I’ll walk back in the dark. At least to be there with the roses, if I can do nothing better for her.”
“You’ve done more than the rest of us,” said Cadfael ruefully, “for you’ve kept the bush alive. And she’ll be back yet to take the pick of its flowers from your hand, the day after tomorrow.”
“Should I read that as a promise?” asked Niall, with a wry and grudging smile.
“No, as a prayer. The best I can do. With three miles or more to walk to Pulley, and three miles back,” said Cadfael, “you’ll have time for a whole litany. And bear in mind whose festival it will be in two days’ time! Saint Winifred will be listening. Who more likely? She herself stood off an unwanted suitor and kept her virtue, she’ll not forsake a sister.”
“Well… I’d best be off. God with you, Brother.” Niall shouldered his bag of ornamental bronze rosettes and harness buckles for Mortimer’s horse, and strode away along the Foregate, towards the track that led south-west from the bridge, a square, erect figure thrusting briskly into the pearly evening air cooling towards twilight. Cadfael stood looking after him until he turned the corner beyond the mill-pond and vanished from sight.
Not a man for grand gestures or many words, Niall Bronzesmith, but Cadfael was bitterly and painfully aware of the gnawing frustration that eats away at the heart from within, when there is nothing to be done about the one thing in the world of any importance.
Niall set out from Pulley on his return walk to Shrewsbury a little before midnight. Cecily would have had him stay, urging truly enough that if he did go back it would change nothing, and stating bluntly what Cadfael had refrained from stating, that while the woman herself was still safely out of reach there was hardly likely to be any further attack on the rosebush, for any such attack was unnecessary. No one could deliver a rose into the hand of a woman who was missing. If someone was plotting to break the bargain and recover the house in the Foregate, as by now everyone seemed to be agreed, the thing was already done, without taking any further risk.
Niall had said very little about the affair to his sister, and nothing at all about his own deep feelings, but she seemed to know by instinct. The talk of Shrewsbury found its way out here softened and distanced into a kind of folktale, hardly bearing at all on real life. The reality here was the demesne, its fields, its few labourers, the ditched coppice from which the children fended off the goats at pasture, the plough-oxen, and the enshrouding forest. The two little girls, listening round-eyed to the grownups’ talk, must have thought of Judith Perle as of one of the enchanted ladies bewitched by evil magic in old nursery tales. Cecily’s two shock-headed, berry-brown boys, at home in all the woodland skills, had only two or three times in their lives, thus far, set eyes on the distant towers of Shrewsbury castle. Three miles is not so far, but far enough when you have no need to cross it. John Stury came into the town perhaps twice a year to buy, and for the rest the little manor was self-supporting. Sometimes Niall was moved to feel that he must soon remove his daughter and take her back with him to the town, for fear he might lose her forever. To a happy household, a peaceful, simple life and good company, truly, but to his own irrevocable loss and bereavement.
She was asleep long before this hour, in her nest with the other three in the loft, he had laid her there himself, already drowsy. A fair creature, with a bright sheen of gold in her cloud of hair, like her mother before her, and a skin like creamy milk, that glowed in sunny weather with the same gilded gloss. Cecily’s brood were reddish-dark, after their father, with lithe, lean bodies and black eyes. She was rounded and smooth and soft. Almost from birth she had been here with her cousins, it would be hard to take her away.
“You’ll have a dark walk home,” said John, peering out from the doorway. In the summer night the smell of the forest was spicy and strong, heavy in the windless dark. “The moon won’t be up for hours yet.”
“I don’t mind it. I should know the way well enough by now.”
“I’ll come out with you as far as the track,” said Cecily, “and set you on your road. It’s fine and warm still, and I’m wakeful.”
She walked beside him in silence as far as the gate in John’s stockade, and out across the clearing of open grass to the edge of the trees, and there they halted.
“One of these days,” she said, as though she had been listening to all that he had been thinking, “you’ll be taking the little one away from us. It’s only right you should, though we shall grudge her to you. As well we’re not so far away that we can’t borrow her back now and then. It wouldn’t do to leave it too long, Niall. I’ve had the gift of her, and been glad of it, but yours she is, yours and Avota’s, when all’s said, and best she should grow up knowing it and content with it.”
“She’s young yet,” said Niall defensively. “I dread to confuse her too soon.”
“She’s young, but she’s knowing. She begins to ask why you always leave her, and to wonder how you do, alone, and who cooks and washes for you. I reckon you could as well take her on a visit, show her how you live and what you make. She’s hungry to know, you’ll find she’ll drink it in. And much as she joys in playing with my brood, she never likes sharing you with them. That’s a true woman you’ll find there,” said Cecily with conviction. “But for all that, it might be the best thing of all you could do for her, Niall, just now is to give her another mother. One of her own, with no rival childer by. For she’s sharp enough, my dear, to know that I’m none of hers, love her as I may.”
Niall said his good night to her without comment on that, and went off with a rapid stride into the trees. She knew him well enough to expect nothing more, and turned back to the house, when he had vanished from sight, aware that he had listened and been torn. It was time he should give thought to it. The life of a respected town craftsman’s daughter, with property to inherit and social skills to learn, must necessarily be different from that of a country steward’s girl; her betrothal prospects must be sought among a different group of people, her upbringing be aimed at a somewhat different kind of household with a different round of duties. Sharp beyond her years, the child might begin to think that a father who leaves her too long apart from him does not really want her, but visits only out of duty. Yet she was very young, very young to be taken where there was no woman to care for her. Now if only there should be some real hope in this widow woman of whom he had nothing to say! Or, for that matter, any other decent woman with a warm heart and a cool head, and patience enough for two!
Niall walked on along the narrow path between the trees, in dark-green night, full-leaved and heady with scents, with his sister’s voice still in his ears. The woods were thick and well grown here, the ground so shadowed that herbal cover was scant, but the interlacing of boughs above shut out the sky. Sometimes the path emerged for a short way into more open upland where the trees thinned and clearings of heath appeared, for all this stretch of country was the northern fringe of the Long Forest, where men had encroached with their little assarts and their legal or illegal cutting of timber and pasturing of pigs on acorns and beech-mast. But even here settlements were very few. He would not see more than a couple of small, precarious holdings before he came to the hamlet of Brace Meole, nearly half his way home.
On that thought he checked to reconsider, for it might be a little quicker to turn aside to the east on a path he knew, and hit the high road, if such a track through forest could be called a high road, well before the village, instead of staying on the forest path. Every variation on this journey was familiar to him. The path of which he was thinking crossed the one on which he was walking diagonally, striking south-west, and where the ways met there was a small open clearing, the only such space in a belt of thicker woodland. Here he halted for a moment, still undecided, and stood to savour the awesome quietness of the night, just as the hush was mysteriously broken by small, persistent sounds. In such windless silence any sound, however soft, came startlingly upon the ear. Instinctively Niall drew back from the open ground, deep into the cover of the trees, and stood with head up and ears stretched to decipher the signs.
There are always some nocturnal creatures about their business in the dark, but their small rustlings keep low to the ground and furtive, and freeze when a man is scented in the night, since every man is an enemy. These sounds proceeded steadily though softly, and were gradually drawing nearer. The dull, solid but muffled thud of hooves in deep turf, drawing near at a brisk walk from the direction of the road, and a light rustling and swish of pliable twigs brushing a passing bulk. The summer growth was at its height, the trees had reached new and tender shoots just far enough to encroach upon the path with their soft tips.
What was a horseman doing, coming this way at this hour, and by the pace and the sounds heavily laden? Niall stayed where he was, well within the trees and hidden, but looking out into the clearing, where by contrast there was light enough to distinguish shapes and degrees of grey and black. No moon, and a high, faint veil of cloud between the earth and stars, a night for dark undertakings. And though masterless men seldom ventured within ten miles of Shrewsbury, and the worst to be encountered should be only a poacher, yet there was always the possibility of worse. And when did poachers go mounted about their business?
Between the dark woodland walls of the right-hand path a vague pallor appeared. The new foliage whispered along a horse’s barrel and a rider’s arm. A white horse, or a pale dapple-grey or very light roan, for his hide brought with it into the clearing its own lambent gleam. The shape of the man on his back appeared at first squat and monstrously thickset, until some unevenness of the ground set up a swaying movement that showed the mount was carrying not one person, but two. A man before, a woman riding pillion behind. One shadowy bulk, without detail, became clearly two, though still without identity, as horse and riders passed by, crossed the path and continued on their cautious way south-west. The swing of the long skirt showed, there were even points of pallor mysterious in the moving darkness, a hand holding by the horseman’s belt, an oval face raised to the sky, free of the hood that had fallen back on to the woman’s shoulders.
There was nothing clearer to view than that, and yet he knew her. It might have been the poise of the head with its great sheaf of hair, moving against a sky almost as dark, or the erect carriage and balance of her body, or some overstrung cord within his own being that could not but vibrate to her nearness. This woman of all women could not pass by, even in the dark and unaware of him, and he not know.
And what was Judith Perle doing here in the night, three days after vanishing from her rightful place, riding pillion behind a horseman going south-west, and she under no constraint, but going with him willingly?
He stood for so long motionless and silent that the small creatures of the night seemed to have lost all awe of him, or forgotten he was there. Somewhere across the clearing, where the path by which he had come continued, something rustled hastily from one tangle of undergrowth to another, and made off westward into safety and silence. Niall stirred out of his chilled stillness, and turned to follow the sound of the muffled hooves down the grassy ride until they died into the same profound silence.
He could neither believe in nor understand what he had seen. It was not, it could not be, what it seemed. Where she was going, who was her companion, what she intended, these were mysteries, but they were her mysteries, and in her Niall had so strong and unquestioning a faith that no strange night venture could shake it. The one certainty was that by the grace of God he had found her, and now he must not lose her again, and that was enough. If she had no need of him, if she was in no danger or distress, so be it, and he would never trouble her. But he would, he must, follow and be near to see that no harm came to her, until all this dark interlude was over and done, and she vindicated and restored to the light. The conviction was unbearably strong within him that if he lost her now she would be lost forever.
He emerged from his cover and crossed into the path they had taken. There was no danger of losing them; through the thickening forest ahead a horse must hold to the path, especially by night, and in this darkness could not press beyond a walk. A man afoot could have outrun them, provided he knew the woods as Niall knew them. But for his purpose it was enough to recover the sounds that were his guide, and if possible approach close enough to be with her in a moment if anything untoward threatened. This ground was less familiar to him than the various ways to Pulley, having left that hamlet aside on the left, but it was similar country, and he could thread his way among the trees, aside from the path, at a faster speed than the horseman was making. Soon he recovered the small, regular beat of hooves, and the light ring of the bridle as the horse tossed its head at some sudden nocturnal stir, perhaps, in the undergrowth on the other side of the track. Twice he caught that brief, abrupt peal of bells, like a summons to service, reassuring him that he was near, and could close quickly if there should be need.
They were moving steadily south-west, deeper into the recesses of the Long Forest, and here there were fewer places where the cover became more open, and patches of heath and outcrop rock appeared. Surely more than a mile past now, and still the riders pressed on, keeping the same cautious pace. The veiled sky had grown somewhat darker with thickening cloud cover. Looking up, Niall could barely distinguish the shapes of the upper branches against the heavens. He went with hands spread to touch the trees and weave his way between, but still he kept within earshot of the horse’s steady progress, and once he found he had drawn abreast of it, and was aware of movement along the path on his right, by sense rather than by sight. He hung back to let the vague blur of the pale hide draw ahead again, and then took up the patient pursuit with greater care.
He had lost all idea of how long they had been engaged in this nocturnal pilgrimage through the forest, but thought it must be almost an hour, and if the riders had come from the town they must have set out an hour earlier still. As to where they were bound, he had no notion. He knew nothing in this part of the woods, barring perhaps a solitary scratched-out assart hacked recently from the waste. They must be fairly close to the source of the Meole Brook, and riding upstream. From the higher ground on the left two or three tiny tributaries came down and trickled across the path, none of them any barrier, for any one of them could be stepped over dry-shod, at least in summer. The little serpents of water made one more tiny sound, hissing drowsily between the stones. They had gone perhaps three miles, Niall reckoned, since he first began to follow.
Somewhere not too distant on the right the woods rustled and stilled. The rhythm of the horse’s gait was broken, hooves shifted, at check on a harder floor where stone came near the surface, then moved more slowly back to turf and halted. Niall crept closer, feeling his way from tree to tree and putting off the hampering branches with careful quietness. It seemed by the slight easing of the darkness that the path he was approaching had widened into a grassy ride where the sky, if clouded, could at least peer in. Then he saw through the lace of leaves the dim pallor which was the body of the horse, standing still. For the first time there was a voice, a man’s, in a sibilant whisper that carried clearly through the silence.