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The messengers arrived during the half hour of chapter, and would not eat, drink or rest, or wash the mud of the roads from their feet, until they had made their way in to the assembly in the chapterhouse, and delivered their charge. If the suppliants failed in zeal, so would the givers.
They stood with every eye upon them, refusing to sit until the message was proclaimed. Sub-Prior Herluin, long in experience and authority, a man of impressive presence, stood fronting the lord abbot, his lean hands folded at his girdle. The young novice who had walked with him all the way from Ramsey stood modestly a pace or two behind, devoutly copying his superior's pose and stillness. Three lay servants of their house, escort on the journey, they had left with the porter at the gatehouse.
"Father Abbot, you know, as all men know, our lamentable history. It is now two months since our house and estates were restored to us. Abbot Walter is now calling back to their vocation all those brothers who were forced to disperse and find shelter wherever they could, when the rebels and outlaws took everything from us, and drove us out at sword-point. Those of us who remained close returned with our abbot as soon as we were permitted. To an utter desolation. By right we were possessed of many manors, but after the dispossession all were handed out to such lawless villains as would support de Mandeville, and to declare them restored to us avails us nothing, since we have no force to recover them from the robber lords except by law, and the law will take years to justify us. Also, such as we do recover will have been plundered and stripped of everything of value, half-ruined, possibly burned. And within the pale ..."
He had a clear, confident voice which had proceeded thus far with considered force, but without passion, but throbbing indignation robbed him of utterance for a moment when he reached the day of the return.
"I was there. I saw what they had made of the holy place. An abomination! A midden! The church defiled, the cloisters an uncleansed stable, dortoir and frater stripped of woodwork to feed fires, all provisions taken away, all those valuables we had no time or warning to remove, stolen. Lead stripped from roofs, rooms left open to the weather, to rain and frost. Not so much as a pot for cooking, or a service book or a slip of vellum. Ruinous walls, an emptiness, a barren void. All this we have undertaken to rebuild and make more glorious than before, but we cannot do it alone. Abbot Walter has even given up much of his own wealth to buy food for the people of our villages, for harvest there has been none. Who could till the fields with death for ever at his heels? Even from the poorest of the poor those malefactors extorted the last wretched possession, and if there was nothing left to steal, they killed."
"We have heard, all too truly, of the terror let loose on all your countryside," said Abbot Radulfus. "With grief we have heard it, and prayed an end to it. Now that that end is come, there is no house of our Order that can refuse all possible help to restore what was despoiled. Ask of us what can best serve Ramsey's needs. For I think you are sent as a brother to brothers, and within this family of ours injury to one is injury to all."
"I am sent to ask help from this house and from any among the laity who may be moved to do a deed of grace, in alms, in skills, if there are any in Shrewsbury experienced in building and willing to work for some weeks far from home, in materials, in whatever aids may avail for our restoration and the benefit of the souls of the generous. For every penny and every prayer Ramsey will be grateful. To that end, I ask leave to preach once here in your church, and once, with the permission of sheriff and clergy, at the High Cross in Shrewsbury, so that every goodman of the town may search his heart and give what he is moved to give."
"We will confer with Father Boniface," said Radulfus, "and he will surely agree to have you speak at a parish service. Of the sympathy of this house you may already be assured."
"On brotherly love," said Herluin graciously, "I knew we could rely. Others, like Brother Tutilo here and myself, have gone forth to pray the aid of other Benedictine houses in other shires. We are charged, also, with carrying the news to all those brothers who were forced to scatter to save their lives when our troubles began, to call them home again, where they are sorely needed. For some of them cannot yet even know that Abbot Walter is back within the enclave, and has need of every son's labour and faith to bring about the great work of restoration. There is one of our number, I believe," he said, earnestly watching the abbot's face, "came here to Shrewsbury, to the home of his family. I must see him, and exhort him to return with me."
"That is true," Radulfus allowed. "Sulien Blount, of the manor of Longner. He came here to us, with Abbot Walter's countenance. The young man had not taken his final vows. He was approaching the end of his novitiate, and was in some doubt of his vocation. He came here upon terms, with his abbot's full leave, to consider on his future. It was his own decision to leave this house, and return to his family, and I absolved him accordingly. In my view he had entered the Order mistakenly. Nevertheless, he must and will answer for himself. I will have one of the brothers show you the way to his elder brother's manor."
"I shall do my best to recall him to his better self," Herluin stated, with a distinct implication in his tone that he would enjoy hounding back to the fold a reluctant but out-argued penitent.
Brother Cadfael, studying this formidable personage from his retired corner, and his long years of secular and monastic experience of all sorts and conditions of men, reflected that the sub-prior would probably make a very good preacher at the High Cross, and exact donations from a great many guilty consciences; for he was voluble enough, even capable of passion in the service of Ramsey. But over his chances of shifting young Sulien Blount's mind, as against the fine girl he was shortly to marry, Cadfael shook his head. If he could do it, he was a miracle-worker, and on his way to sainthood. There were uncomfortable saints in Cadfael's hagiology, whom he personally would have consigned to a less reverend status, but whose aggravating rectitude he could not deny. On the whole, he could even feel a little sorry for Sub-Prior Herluin, who was about to blunt all his weapons against the impregnable shield of love. Try and get Sulien Blount away from Pernel Otmere now! He had learned to know the pair of them too well to be in doubt.
He found that he was not, so far, greatly attracted to Sub-Prior Herluin, though he could respect the man's toughness on this long journey afoot, and his determination to replenish Ramsey's plundered coffers and rebuild its ruined halls. They were a pair very oddly assorted, these itinerant brothers from the Fens. The sub-prior was a big man, long-boned, wide-shouldered, carrying flesh once ample, perhaps even excessive, but shrunken and a little flabby now. Certainly no reproach to him; he had shared, it seemed, the short commons on which the unfortunate fen-dwellers had had to survive during this harvestless year of oppression. His uncovered head showed a pale tonsure encircled with grizzled, springy hair more brown than grey, and a long, lantern face, austere of feature, deep-set and stern of eye, with a long straight stroke of a mouth, almost lipless in repose, as though totally stranger to smiling. Such lines as his countenance had acquired, during a lifetime Cadfael judged at about fifty years, all bore heavily downward, repressed and forbidding.
Not a very amiable companion on a long journey, unless his looks belied him. Brother Tutilo, who stood modestly a little behind his superior, following with rapt attention every word Herluin said, looked about twenty years old, perhaps even less; a lightly-built lad, notably lissome and graceful in movement, a model of disciplined composure in stillness. His crown only just topped Herluin's shoulder, and was ringed with a profusion of light brown curls, the crop grown during a lengthy journey. No doubt they would be clipped austerely close when Herluin got him back to Ramsey, but now they would have done credit to a painted seraph in a missal, though the face beneath this aureole was scarcely seraphic, in spite of its air of radiant devotion. At first glance a lovely innocent, as open as his wide eyes, and with the silken pink and whiteness of a girl, but a more penetrating study revealed that this childlike colouring was imposed upon an oval face of classic symmetry and sharp and incisive moulding. The colouring of roses on those pure marble lines had almost the air of a disguise, behind which an engaging but slightly perilous creature lurked in possibly mischievous ambush.
Tutilo—a strange name for an English youth; for there was nothing of the Norman or the Celtic about this young man. Perhaps the name chosen for him when he entered his novitiate. He must ask Brother Anselm what it signified, and where the authorities in Ramsey could have found it. Cadfael turned his attention once again to what was being discussed between host and guests.
"While you are in these parts," said the abbot, "I take it you may wish to visit other Benedictine houses. We will provide horses, if you so please. The season is not the most favourable for travelling. The rivers are running high, some of the fords will be impassable, you will be better mounted. We will hasten whatever arrangements you may choose to make, confer with Father Boniface about the use of the church, for he has the cure of souls in the parish of Holy Cross, and with Hugh Beringar as sheriff and the provost and Guild Merchant of the town concerning your gathering at the High Cross in Shrewsbury. If there is anything more we can do to be of service, you need but state it."
"We shall be grateful indeed to go mounted a while," agreed Herluin, coming as near to smiling as his features would permit, "for we intend to go on at least to our brothers at Worcester, perhaps also to Evesham and Pershore, and it would be simple to return by Shrewsbury and bring back your horses. Ours were taken, every one, by the outlaws before they departed. But first, even this day if possible, we would wish to go and speak with Brother Sulien."
"As you think best," said Radulfus simply. "Brother Cadfael, I think, is best acquainted with the way, there is a ferry to be crossed—and also with the household of the lord of Longner. It may be well if he accompanies you."
* * *
"Brother Sulien," remarked Cadfael, crossing the court afterwards with Brother Anselm the precentor and librarian, "has not been called by that title for some while, and is hardly likely to take kindly to it again now. And so Radulfus could have told him, for he knows the whole story of that young man as well as I do. But if he had said as much, this Herluin would not have listened, I suppose. 'Brother' means his own brother Eudo now to Sulien. He's in training for arms, and will be one of Hugh's young men of the garrison up there in the castle as soon as his mother dies, and they tell me that's very close now. And a married man, very likely, even before that happens. There'll be no going back to Ramsey."
"If his abbot sent the boy home to come to his own decision," said Anselm reasonably,"the sub-prior can hardly be empowered to bring too severe pressure on him to return. Argue and exhort as he may, he's helpless, and must know it, if the young man stands fast. It may well be," he added drily, "that what he hopes for from that quarter is a conscience fee in silver."
"Likely enough. And he may very well get it, too. There's more than one conscience in that house," agreed Cadfael, "feels a debt towards Ramsey. And what," he asked, "do you make of the other?"
"The young one? An enthusiast, with grace and fervour shining out of his creamy cheeks. Chosen to go with Herluin to temper the chill, would you say?"
"And where did he get that outlandish name of his?"
Tutilo! Yes," said Anselm, musing. "Not at his baptism! There must be a reason why they chose that for him. Tutilo you'll find among the March saints, though we don't pay him much attention here. He was a monk of Saint Gall, two hundred years and more ago since he died, and by all accounts he was a master of all the arts, painter, poet, musician and all. Perhaps we have a gifted lad among us. I must get him to try his hand on rebec or organetto, and see what he can do. We had the roving singer here once, do you remember? The little tumbler who got himself a wife out of the goldsmith's scullery before he left us. I mended his rebec for him. If this one can do better, maybe he has some small claim to the name they've given him. Sound him out, Cadfael, if you're to be their guide out to Longner this afternoon. Herluin will be hot on the heels of his strayed novice. Try your hand with Tutilo."
* * *
The path to the manor of Longner set off northeastward from the lanes of the Foregate, threaded a short, dense patch of woodland, and climbed over a low crest of heath and meadow to look down upon the winding course of the Severn, downstream from the town. The river was running high and turgid, rolling fallen branches and clumps of turf from the banks down in its currents. There had been ample snows in the winter, without any great gales or frosts. The thaw still filled the valleys everywhere with the soft rippling of water, even the meadows by the river and the brook whispered constantly and shimmered with lingering silver among the grass. The ford a short way upstream was already impassable, the island that helped foot traffic across at normal times was under water. But the ferryman poled his passengers across sturdily, so familiar and at ease with his troubled waters that storm, flood and calm were all one to him.
On the further side of the Severn the path threaded wet water-meadows, the river lipping the bleached winter grass a yard inland already. If heavy Spring rains came on the hills of Wales, to follow the thaw-water, there would be flooding under the walls of Shrewsbury, and the Meole Brook and the mill pond would back up strongly and threaten even the nave of the abbey church. It had happened twice since Cadfael entered the Order. And westward the sky hung ponderous and grey, leaning upon the distant mountains.
They skirted the encroaching waters, below the dark ploughland of the Potter's Field, climbed thankfully inland up the gentle slope beyond, into the wellkept woodlands of the manor of Longner, and came to the clearing where the house backed snugly into the hillside, sheltered from the prevailing winds, and surrounded by its high stockade and the encrustation of demesne buildings within.
As they entered at the gate Sulien Blount came out from the stables to cross to the house. He wore leather jerkin and the working cotte and hose becoming a younger brother doing his share on his elder's estate until he could find occasion to carve out his own holding, as surely he would. At the sight of the trio entering he halted, stiffly at gaze, instantly recognizing his former spiritual superior, and startled to see him here so far from home. But at once he came to meet them, with reverent and perhaps slightly apprehensive courtesy. The stresses of the past year had removed him so far from the cloister and the tonsure that the reappearance so close to home of what was past and done seemed for a moment to offer a threat to his new and hard-earned composure, and the future he had chosen. Only for a moment. Sulien was in no doubt now of where he was going.
"Father Herluin, welcome to my home! I rejoice to see you well, and to know that Ramsey is restored to the Order. Will you not come within, and let us know in what particular we of Longner can serve you?"
"You cannot but understand," said Herluin, addressing himself warily to possible battle ahead, "in what state we have regained our abbey. For a year it has been the den of a rogue army, pillaged and stripped of everything burnable, even the walls defiled, where they did not shatter them before they departed. We have need of every son of the house, and every friend to the Order, to make good before God what has been desecrated. It is to you I come, and with you I wish to speak."
"A friend to the Order," said Sulien, "I hope I am. A son of Ramsey and a brother of its brothers I no longer am. Abbot Walter sent me back here, very fairly, to consider my vocation, which he knew to be dubious, and committed my probation to Abbot Radulfus, who has absolved me. But come within, and we can confer as friends. I will listen reverently, Father, and respect all you may have to say."
Excerpted from The Holy Thief by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1992 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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