The winter of 1139 will disrupt Brother Cadfael’s tranquil life in Shrewsbury with the most disturbing of events. Raging civil war has sent refugees fleeing north from Worcester. Among them are two orphans from a noble family, a boy of thirteen and an eighteen-year-old girl of great beauty, and their companion, a young Benedictine nun. The trio never reaches Shrewsbury, having disappeared somewhere in the wild countryside.
Cadfael is afraid for these three lost lambs, but another call for help sends him to the church of Saint Mary. A wounded monk, found naked and bleeding by the roadside, will surely die without Cadfael’s healing arts. Why this holy man has been attacked and what his fevered ravings reveal soon give Brother Cadfael a clue to the fate of the missing travelers. Now Cadfael sets out on a dangerous quest to find them. The road will lead him to a chill and terrible murder and a tale of passion gone awry. And at journey’s end awaits a vision of what is best, and worst, in humankind.
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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 Virgin in the Ice
The Sixth Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1982 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
It was early in November of 1139 that the tide of civil war, lately so sluggish and inactive, rose suddenly to sweep over the city of Worcester, wash away half its livestock, property and women, and send all those of its inhabitants who could get away in time scurrying for their lives northwards away from the marauders, to burrow into hiding wherever there was manor or priory, walled town or castle strong enough to afford them shelter. By the middle of the month a straggle of them had reached Shrewsbury, and subsided thankfully into the hospitable embrace of monastery or town, to lick their wounds and pour out their grievances.
They were not in too bad case, apart from the old or sick, for the winter had not yet begun to bite hard. The weather-wise foretold that there was bitter cold in store, heavy snows and hard and prolonged frosts, but as yet the land lay dour, cloudy and mild, with capricious winds, but clear of frost or snow.
"Thanks be to God!" said Brother Edmund, the infirmarer, devoutly. "Or we should have had more burials on our hands than three, and they all past their three score and ten."
Even so, he was hard put to it to find beds in his hospice for all those who needed them, and there was thick straw laid down in the stone hall for the overflow. They would live to return to their spoiled city before the Christmas feast, but now, exhausted and apathetic with shock, they needed all his care, and the abbey's resources were stretched to their limits. A few fugitives with distant relatives in the town had been taken into the houses of their kin, and were warmly provided. A pregnant woman near her time had been taken, husband and all, into the town house of Hugh Beringar, the deputy sheriff of the shire, at the insistence of his wife, whom he had brought here to the security of the town, complete with her women, midwife, physician and all, because she, too, looked forward to giving birth before the Nativity, and had a welcome for any who came in the same expectation, and in any kind of need.
"Our Lady," remarked Brother Cadfael ruefully to his good friend Hugh, "had no such reception."
"Ah, there is but one of my lady! Aline would take in every homeless dog she saw in the streets, if she could. This poor girl from Worcester will do well enough now, there's nothing amiss with her that rest won't mend. We may yet have two births here for this Christmas, for she can't well be moved until she's safely over her lying-in. But I daresay most of your guests will soon be shrugging off their fears and heading for home."
"A few have left already," said Cadfael, "and more of the hale ones will be off within days. It's natural they should want to get home and repair what they can. They say the king is on his way to Worcester with a strong force. If he leaves the garrison better found, they should be safe over the winter. Though they'll need to draw stores from eastwards, for their own reserves will all have been carried off."
Cadfael knew from old experience the look, the stench, the desolation of a gutted town, having been both soldier and sailor in his young days, and seen service far afield. "And besides wanting to reclaim what's left of their store before Christmas," he said, "there's the spur of the winter coming. If the roads are cleared of bad customs now, at least they can travel dry-shod and warm enough, but another month, another week it may be, and who knows how deep the snow will be?"
"Whether the roads are cleared of bad customs," said Beringar in wary reflection, "is more than I should care to say. We have a pretty firm hold here in Shropshire —thus far! But there's ominous word from east and north, besides this uneasiness along the border. When the king is all too busy in the south, and his mind on where his Flemings' next pay is to come from, and his energy mostly wasted in wavering from one target to another, ambitious men in remoter parts are liable to begin to spread their honors into palatines, and set up kingdoms of their own. And given the example, the lesser fry will follow it."
"In a land at war with itself," agreed Cadfael sombrely, "you may take it as certain that order breaks down, and savagery breaks out."
"Not here, it shall not," said Hugh grimly. "Prestcote has kept a close rein, and in so far as it falls to me as his man, so will I." For Gilbert Prestcote, King Stephen's sheriff of Shropshire, was planning to keep Christmas in the chief manor of his own honor, in the north of the county, and the castle garrison and the rule of law throughout the southern half of the shire would be left in Beringar's hands. This attack on Worcester might be only a foretaste of further such raids. All the border towns were at risk, as well from the precarious loyalties of constables and garrisons as from the enterprise of the enemy. More than one lord in this troubled land had already changed his allegiance, more than one would do so in the future, some, perhaps, for the second or third time. Churchmen, barons and all, they were beginning to look first to their own interests, and place their loyalty where it seemed likely to bring them the greater profit. And it would not be long before some of them came to the conclusion that their interests could be served just as well by flouting both contendants for the crown, and setting up on their own account.
"There was some talk of your castellan in Ludlow being none too reliable," observed Cadfael. "For all King Stephen set him up in the honor of Lacy, and trusted Ludlow castle to him, there have been rumors he was casting his eyes toward the empress. Touch and go with him, as I heard it, if the king had not been close and with a sharp eye on him."
Anything Cadfael had heard, Hugh had certainly heard. There was not a sheriff in the land who had not all his intelligencers alerted, these days, and his own ear to the ground. If Josce de Dinan, in Ludlow, had indeed been contemplating defection, and thought better of it, Hugh was content to accept his present steadfastness, but with reservations, and was watching him still. Distrust was only one of the lesser horrors of civil war, but saddening enough. It was well that there could still be absolute trust between tried friends. In these days there was no man living who might not suddenly have acute need of a steady and stout back braced against his own.
"Ah, well, with King Stephen on his way to Worcester with an army, no one is going to lift finger or show face until he draws off again. But for all that, I never stop listening and watching." Hugh rose from the bench against the wall of Cadfael's workshop, brief refuge from the world. "Now I am going home to my own bed, for once—even if I am banished from my wife's by my own arrogant brat. But what would a devout religious like you know about a father's tribulations!"
What, indeed? "You must all come to it," said Brother Cadfael complacently, "you married men. Third and unwanted where two are lost in admiring each other. I shall go to Compline and say a prayer for you."
He went first, however, to the infirmary, to check with Brother Edmund on one or two patients who were slow in their recovery from their wanderings, being feeble from age or poverty and hunger, and renew the dressing on a knife-wound which was ill to heal, and only then went to Compline, there to pray for many more, besides his friend, his friend's wife, and his friend's child to come, this winter child.
England was already frozen into a winter years long, and he knew it. King Stephen was crowned, and held, however slackly, most of England. The Empress Maud, his rival for the throne, held the west, and came with a claim the equal of Stephen's. Cousins, most uncousinly, they tore each other and tore England between them, and yet life must go on, faith must go on, the stubborn defiance of fortune must go on in the husbandry of the year, season after season, plough and harrow and seed, tillage and harvest. And here in the cloister and the church, the sowing and tillage and harvest of souls. Brother Cadfael had no fear for mankind, whatever became of mere men. Hugh's child would be a new generation, a new beginning, a new affirmation, spring in midwinter.
* * *
It was on the last day of November that Brother Herward, sub-prior of the Benedictine monastery of Worcester, appeared at chapter in the fraternal house of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury, where he had arrived the previous night, and been entertained in Abbot Radulfus' own lodging as a cherished guest. Most of the brothers had no knowledge of his coming, and wondered who this could be, brought in courteously by their own abbot, and seated at his right hand. For once Brother Cadfael knew no more than his fellows.
The abbot and his guest made a sharp contrast. Radulfus was tall, erect, vigorous, with strong, austere features, magisterially calm. When needed, he could blaze, and those scorched drew back advisedly, but his fire was always in control. The man who entered beside him was meager, small and slight of body, grey of tonsure, still tired after his journey, but his ageing eyes were direct of gaze, and his mouth set into lines of patience and endurance.
"Our brother, Sub-Prior Herward of Worcester," said the abbot, "has come to us with an errand in which I have been unable to help him. Since many of you here have been active in serving those unfortunates who came to us from that city, it is possible that you may have heard from them something which may be to the purpose. I have therefore asked him to repeat his request here to all."
The visitor rose, to be better seen and heard by all present. "I am sent to make enquiry after two noble children who were in Benedictine care in our town, and fled from it when the attack fell upon us. They have not returned, and we have traced their steps as far as the borders of this county and there lost them. It was their intention to make for Shrewsbury, and therefore, since our order is responsible for them, I came to find out whether they ever reached here. Father Abbot tells me that to his knowledge they never did, but it may be that some others among the fugitives may have seen them or got word of them in their travels, and spoken of them here among you. I should be grateful for any news that might lead to their safe recovery. And these are their names: the girl Ermina Hugonin, almost eighteen years of age, who was in the care of our sister convent in Worcester, and her brother Yves Hugonin, who was in our charge, and is only thirteen. They are orphaned of both parents, and their uncle and natural guardian has long been overseas in the Holy Land, and is only now returned, to be met by the news of their loss. It will be understood here," said Brother Herward wryly, "that we feel ourselves greatly to blame for having failed in our charge, though to say truth, we are not wholly at fault. As this thing befell, it was taken out of our hands."
"In such confusion and peril," agreed Radulfus ruefully, "it would be much to ask of any man that he should order all successfully. But children of such tender age ..."
Brother Edmund asked hesitantly: "Are we to understand that they left Worcester alone?" He had not meant to sound either incredulous or censorious, but Brother Herward bowed his head meekly to the implied reproach.
"I would not wish to excuse myself or any of my house. Yet it fell out, perhaps, not quite as you suppose. That attack came in the early morning, but on the south side it was held, and we did not hear how grave it showed, or how great the force coming against us, until later, when they came about, and broke in by the north. It so happened that the boy Yves was visiting his sister, and they were quite cut off from us. The Lady Ermina is, dare I say, a headstrong young woman. In such a case, though the sisters thought best to gather in their church and abide the issue there, trusting that even these marauders—for I must tell you many were already drunk and wild—would respect their cloth, and do them no more harm than to steal, perhaps, their more valuable furnishings—the sisters, I say, held that faith required them to remain, but the Lady Ermina thought otherwise, and would slip away out of the town, as so many did, and make away into some safe and distant refuge. And since she would not be dissuaded, and her brother held with her, the young nun who was her tutor there offered that she would go with them, to see them safe into shelter. When all the raiders were gone, and we had put out the fires, and seen to the dead and wounded, only then did we get word that they had escaped out of the city and intended to reach Shrewsbury. They were well provided, though without horses, since all were seized at sight. The girl had her jewels, and store of money, and wit enough not to let them be seen on the way. And sorry I am to say it, it was well that she would go, for these men of Gloucester did not respect the sisters as they had hoped and trusted, but ravaged and burned, stole away some, the youngest and best-favored among the novices, and bitterly misused the prioress who tried to prevent. The girl did well to venture, and I pray she and her brother, and Sister Hilaria with them, are safe in shelter somewhere this moment. But alas, I do not know."
Brother Denis the hospitaller, who knew every soul who came within the gates, said regretfully: "I grieve to have to tell you, but quite surely they never arrived here. We have had no such party. But come with me and speak with every fugitive we are still sheltering here in the guest-hall, and the few in the infirmary, in case they can tell you anything of use. For of course we knew nothing of these young people until now, and therefore have not asked about them."
"Or again it may be," suggested Brother Matthew the cellarer, "that they knew of some kinsman or tenant or old servant here in the town, and therefore have passed us by, and are now within the walls."
"It is possible," agreed Herward, brightening a little. "But I think Sister Hilaria would prefer to bring them here, to our own order for protection."
"If there are none here who can help," said the abbot briskly, "the next move is certainly to consult the sheriff. He will know who has been received within the town. You did mention, brother, that the uncle of this young pair is newly come home from Palestine. There are channels he may use to approach the authorities here. How is it that he is not pursuing this enquiry in person? For surely he cannot cast the blame all on you."
Brother Herward heaved a great sigh that first stiffened his little frame, and then let it collapse dispiritedly into limpness. "The uncle is a knight of Angevin blood—they are his sister's children—by name Laurence d'Angers. Newly home from the Crusade he is, but to Gloucester, to join the forces of the empress. It is also true that he did not arrive there until after this onslaught, and bears no blame for it, as he took no part in it. But no man from Gloucester dare show his face now in our city. The king is there with a great force, and an angry man, like every ruined burgess of the town. The search for these children is deputed to our house, perforce. Nevertheless, this is a quest for creatures absolutely innocent, and I shall so present it to the sheriff."
"And you shall have my voice," Radulfus assured him. "But first, since none here can provide us news ...?" He looked inquiringly round the chapterhouse, and found only shaken heads. "Very well, we must inquire among our guests. The names, the youth of the parties, the presence of the nun, may yield us some useful word."
Nevertheless, Cadfael, filing out from chapter among the rest, could not believe that anything would come of such inquiry. He had spent much of his time, in recent days, helping Brother Edmund house and doctor the exhausted travellers, and never a word had been said of any such trio encountered on the way. Travellers' tales enough there had been, freely spilled for the listening, but none of a Benedictine sister and two noble children loose on the roads with never a man to guard them.
And the uncle, it seemed, was the empress's man, as Gilbert Prestcote was the king's man, to the hilt and bitterness between the factions was flaring up like a torch in tinder over the sack of Worcester. The omens were not good. Abbot Radulfus would lend his own persuasions to the envoy's, and this very day, too, but what countenance the two of them would get for Laurence d'Angers was a dubious speculation.
Excerpted from The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1982 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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