The year is 1142, and England is in the grip of civil war. Within the cloisters of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, there begins a chain of events no less momentous than the upheavals of the outside world.
It starts with the sad demise of Richard Ludel, Lord of Eyton, whose ten-year-old son and heir, also named Richard, is a pupil at the abbey. The boy refuses to surrender his newly inherited powers to Dionysia, his furious, formidable grandmother. A stranger to the region is the hermit Cuthred, who enjoys the protection of Lady Dionysia, and whose young companion, Hyacinth, befriends Richard. Despite his reputation for holiness, Cuthred’s arrival heralds a series of mishaps for the monks. When a corpse is found in Eyton forest, Brother Cadfael must devote his knowledge of human nature to tracking down a ruthless murderer.
About the Author
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
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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
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1987 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
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."
"It will take him some time to get back," Cadfael pointed out comfortably. "And by all accounts no better provided than when he went."
The empress's half-brother and best soldier had been sent overseas, much against his inclination, to ask help for the lady from her less than loving husband, but Count Geoffrey of Anjou was credibly reported to be much more interested in his own ambitions in Normandy than in his wife's in England, and had been astute enough to inveigle Earl Robert into helping him pick off castle after castle in the duchy, instead of rushing to his wife's side to assist her to the crown of England. As early as June Robert had sailed from Wareham, against his own best judgement but at his sister's urgent entreaty, and Geoffrey's insistence, if he was to entertain any ambassador from her at all. And here was September ended, Wareham back in King Stephen's hands, and Robert still detained in Geoffrey's thankless service in Normandy. No, it would not be any quick or easy matter for him to come to his sister's rescue. The iron grip of siege tightened steadily round Oxford castle, and for once Stephen showed no sign of abandoning his purpose. Never yet had he come so close to making his cousin and rival his prisoner, and forcing her acceptance of his sovereignty.
"Does he realise," wondered Cadfael, closing the lid of a stone jar on his selected seed, "how near he's come to getting her into his power at last? How would you feel, Hugh, if you were in his shoes, and truly got your hands on her?"
"Heaven forefend!" said Hugh fervently, and grinned at the very thought. "For I shouldn't know what to do with her! And the devil of it is, neither will Stephen, if ever it comes to that. He could have kept her tight shut into Arundel the day she landed, if he'd had the sense. And what did he do? Gave her an escort, and sent her off to Bristol to join her brother! But if the queen ever gets the lady into her power, that will be another story. If he's a grand fighter, she's the better general, and knows how to hold on to her advantages."
Hugh rose and stretched, and a rising breeze from the open door ruffled his smooth black hair, and rustled the dangling bunches of dried herbs hanging from the roof beams. "Well, there's no hurrying the siege to an end, we must wait and see. I hear they've finally given you a lad to help you in the herb garden, is it true? I noticed your hedge has had a second clipping, was that his work?"
"It was." Cadfael went out with him along the gravel path between the patterned beds of herbs, grown a little wiry at this end of the growing season. The box hedge at one side had indeed been neatly trimmed of the straggling shoots that come late in the summer. "Brother Winfrid—you'll see him busy in the patch where we've cleared the bean vines, digging in the holms. A big, gangling lad all elbows and knees. Not long out of his novitiate. Willing, but slow. But he'll do. They sent him to me, I fancy, because he turned out fumble-fisted with either pen or brush, but give him a spade, and that's more his measure. He'll do!"
Outside the walled herb garden the vegetable plots extended, and beyond the slight rise on their right the harvested pease fields ran down to the Meole Brook, which was the rear border of the abby enclave. And there was Brother Winfrid in full vigorous action, a big, loose-jointed youth with a shock-head of wiry hair hedging in his shaven crown, his habit kilted to brawny knees, and a broad foot shod in a wooden clog driving the steel-edged spade through the fibrous tangle of bean holms as through blades of grass. He gave them one beaming glance as they passed, and returned to his work without breaking the rhythm. Hugh had one glimpse of a weather-browned country face and round, guileless blue eyes.
"Yes, I should think he might do very well," he said, impressed and amused, "whether with a spade or a battle-axe. I could do with a dozen such at the castle whenever they care to offer their services."
"He'd be no use to you," said Cadfael with certainty. "Like most big men, the gentlest soul breathing. He'd throw his sword away to pick up the man he'd flattened. It's the little, shrill terriers that bare their teeth."
They emerged into the band of flowerbeds beyond the kitchen garden, where the rose bushes had grown leggy and begun to shed their leaves. Rounding the corner of the box hedge, they came out into the great court, at this working hour of the morning almost deserted but for one or two travellers coming and going about the guest hall, and a stir of movement down in the stables. Just as they rounded the tall hedge to step into the court, a small figure shot out of the gate of the grange court, where the barns and storage lofts lined three sides of a compact yard, and made off at a run across the narrows of the court into the cloister, to emerge a minute later at the other end at a decorous walk, with eyes lowered in seemly fashion, and plump, childish hands devoutly linked at his belt, the image of innocence. Cadfael halted considerately, with a hand on Hugh's arm, to avoid confronting the boy too obviously.
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