Read an Excerpt
Praise for the Novels of Ken Follett
World Without End
“[A] well-researched, beautifully detailed portrait of the late Middle Ages…. Follett’s no-frills prose does its job, getting smoothly through more than a thousand pages of outlaws, war, death, sex, and politics to end with an edifice that is as well constructed and solid as Merthin’s bridge. A.”
—The Washington Post
“Follett tells a story that runs the gamut of life in the Middle Ages, and he does so in such a way that we are not only captivated but also educated. What else could you ask for?”
—The Denver Post
“So if historical fiction is your meat, here’s a rare treat. A feast of conflicts and struggles among religious authority, royal governance, the powerful unions (or guilds) of the day, and the peasantry…. With World Without End, Follett proves his Pillars may be a rarity, but it wasn’t a fluke.”
—New York Post
“A work that stands as something of a triumph of industry and professionalism.”
—The Guardian (UK)
“The four well-drawn central characters will captivate readers as they prove to be heroic, depraved, resourceful, or mean. Fans of Follett’s previous medieval epic will be well rewarded.”
—The Union (CA)
“Populated with an immense cast of truly remarkable characters…this is not a book to be devoured in one sitting, tempting though that might be, but one to savor for its drama, depth, and richness.”
“Readers will be captivated.”
Praise for Ken Follett and The Pillars of the Earth
“Follett is a master.”
—The Washington Post
“Enormous and brilliant…crammed with characters unbelievably alive across the great gulf of centuries…touches all human emotion—love and hate, loyalty and treachery, hope and despair. See for yourself. This is truly a novel to get lost in.”
“Wonderful…will fascinate you, surround you.”
“A towering tale…a ripping read…there’s murder, arson, treachery, torture, love, and lust.”
—New York Daily News
“Ken Follett takes a giant step.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“With this book, Follett risks all and comes out a clear winner…a historical novel of gripping readability, authentic atmosphere, and memorable characterization. Beginning with a mystery that casts its shadow, the narrative is a seesaw of tension, suspense, impeccable pacing…action, intrigue, violence, passion, greed, bravery, dedication, revenge, and love. A novel that entertains, instructs, and satisfies on a grand scale.”
“An extraordinary epic buttressed by suspense…a mystifying puzzle involving the execution of an innocent man…the erection of a magnificent cathedral…romance, rivalry, and spectacle. A monumental masterpiece…a towering triumph from a major talent.”
ALSO BY KEN FOLLETT
The Modigliani Scandal
Eye of the Needle
The Key to Rebecca
The Man from St. Petersburg
On Wings of Eagles
Lie Down with Lions
The Pillars of the Earth
Night over Water
A Dangerous Fortune
A Place Called Freedom
The Third Twin
The Hammer of Eden
Code to Zero
A Signet Book
Table of Contents
Gwenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.
When she opened her eyes she could see nothing, but that was not what scared her. She knew where she was. She was lying on the floor in a bed of straw at Kingsbridge Priory, in the long stone building they called the hospital. Her mother lay next to her, and Gwenda could tell, by the warm milky smell, that Ma was feeding the new baby, who did not yet have a name. Beside Ma was Pa, and next to him Gwenda’s older brother, Philemon, who was twelve.
The hospital was crowded, and though she could not see the other families lying along the floor, squashed together like sheep in a pen, she could smell the rank odor of their warm bodies. When dawn broke it would be All Hallows, a Sunday this year and therefore an especially holy day. By the same token the night before was All Hallows Eve, a dangerous time when evil spirits roamed freely. Hundreds of people had come to Kingsbridge from the surrounding villages, as Gwenda’s family had, to spend Halloween in the sanctified precincts of the priory, and to attend the All Hallows service at daybreak.
Gwenda was wary of evil spirits, like every sensible person; but she was more scared of what she had to do during the service.
She stared into the gloom, trying not to think about what frightened her. She knew that the wall opposite her had an arched window. There was no glass—only the most important buildings had glass windows—but a linen blind kept out the cold autumn air. However, she could not even see a faint patch of gray where the window should be. She was glad. She did not want the morning to come.
She could see nothing, but there was plenty to listen to. The straw that covered the floor whispered constantly as people stirred and shifted in their sleep. A child cried out, as if woken by a dream, and was quickly silenced by a murmured endearment. Now and again someone spoke, uttering the half-formed words of sleep talk. Somewhere there was the sound of two people doing the thing parents did but never spoke of—the thing Gwenda called grunting because she had no other word for it.
Too soon, there was a light. At the eastern end of the long room, behind the altar, a monk came through the door carrying a single candle. He put the candle down on the altar, lit a taper from it, and went around touching the flame to the wall lamps, his long shadow reaching up the wall each time like a reflection, his taper meeting the shadow taper at the wick of the lamp.
The strengthening light illuminated on the floor rows of humped figures, wrapped in their drab cloaks or huddled up to their neighbors for warmth. Sick people occupied the cots near the altar, where they could get the maximum benefit from the holiness of the place. At the opposite end, a staircase led to the upper floor, where there were rooms for aristocratic visitors: the earl of Shiring was there now with some of his family.
The monk leaned over Gwenda to light the lamp above her head. He caught her eye and smiled. She studied his face in the shifting light of the flame and recognized him as Brother Godwyn. He was young and handsome, and last night he had spoken kindly to Philemon.
Beside Gwenda was another family from her village: Samuel, a prosperous peasant with a large landholding, and his wife and two sons, the youngest of whom, Wulfric, was an annoying six-year-old who thought that throwing acorns at girls and then running away was the funniest thing in the world.
Gwenda’s family was not prosperous. Her father had no land at all, and hired himself out as a laborer to anyone who would pay him. There was always work in the summer, but after the harvest was gathered in and the weather began to turn cold, the family often went hungry.
That was why Gwenda had to steal.
She imagined being caught: a strong hand grabbing her arm, holding her in an unbreakable grip while she wriggled helplessly; a deep, cruel voice saying, “Well, well, a little thief”; the pain and humiliation of a whipping; and then, worst of all, the agony and loss as her hand was chopped off.
Her father had suffered this punishment. At the end of his left arm was a hideous wrinkled stump. He managed well with one hand—he could use a shovel, saddle a horse, and even make a net to catch birds—but all the same he was always the last laborer to be hired in the spring, and the first to be laid off in the autumn. He could never leave the village and seek work elsewhere, because the amputation marked him as a thief, so people would refuse to hire him. When traveling, he tied a stuffed glove to the stump, to avoid being shunned by every stranger he met; but that did not fool people for long.
Gwenda had not witnessed Pa’s punishment—it had happened before she was born—but she had often imagined it, and now she could not help thinking about the same thing happening to her. In her mind she saw the blade of the ax coming down on her wrist, slicing through her skin and her bones, and severing her hand from her arm so that it could never be reattached; and she had to clamp her teeth together to keep from screaming out loud.
People were standing up, stretching and yawning and rubbing their faces. Gwenda got up and shook out her clothes. All her garments had previously belonged to her older brother. She wore a woolen shift that came down to her knees and a tunic over it, gathered at the waist with a belt made of hemp cord. Her shoes had once been laced, but the eyelets were torn and the laces gone, and she tied them to her feet with plaited straw. When she had tucked her hair into a cap made of squirrel tails, she had finished dressing.
She caught her father’s eye, and he pointed surreptitiously to a family across the way—a couple in middle age with two sons a little older than Gwenda. The man was short and slight, with a curly red beard. He was buckling on a sword, which meant he was a man-at-arms or a knight: ordinary people were not allowed to wear swords. His wife was a thin woman with a brisk manner and a grumpy face. As Gwenda scrutinized them, Brother Godwyn nodded respectfully and said: “Good morning, Sir Gerald, Lady Maud.”
Gwenda saw what had attracted her father’s notice. Sir Gerald had a purse attached to his belt by a leather thong. The purse bulged. It looked as if it contained several hundred of the small, thin silver pennies, halfpennies, and farthings that were the English currency—as much money as Pa could earn in a year if he had been able to find employment. It would be more than enough to feed the family until the spring plowing. The purse might even contain a few foreign gold coins, florins from Florence, or ducats from Venice.
Gwenda had a small knife in a wooden sheath hanging from a cord around her neck. The sharp blade would quickly cut the thong and cause the fat purse to fall into her small hand—unless Sir Gerald felt something strange and grabbed her before she could do the deed….
Godwyn raised his voice over the rumble of talk. “For the love of Christ, who teaches us charity, breakfast will be provided after the All Hallows service,” he said. “Meanwhile, there is pure drinking water in the courtyard fountain. Please remember to use the latrines outside—no pissing indoors!”
The monks and nuns were strict about cleanliness. Last night, Godwyn had caught a six-year-old boy peeing in a corner, and had expelled the whole family. Unless they’d had a penny for a tavern, they would have had to spend the cold October night shivering on the stone floor of the cathedral’s north porch. There was also a ban on animals. Gwenda’s three-legged dog, Hop, had been banished. She wondered where he had spent the night.
When all the lamps were lit, Godwyn opened the big wooden door to the outside. The night air bit sharply at Gwenda’s ears and the tip of her nose. The overnight guests pulled their coats around themselves and began to shuffle out. When Sir Gerald and his family moved off, Pa and Ma fell into line behind them, and Gwenda and Philemon followed suit.
Philemon had done the stealing until now, but yesterday he had almost been caught, at Kingsbridge Market. He had palmed a small jar of expensive oil from the booth of an Italian merchant; then he had dropped the jar, so that everyone saw it. Mercifully, it had not broken when it hit the ground. He had been forced to pretend that he had accidentally knocked it off the stall.
Until recently Philemon had been small and unobtrusive, like Gwenda, but in the last year he had grown several inches, developed a deep voice, and become awkward and clumsy, as if he could not get used to his new, larger body. Last night, after the incident with the jar of oil, Pa had announced that Philemon was now too big for serious thieving, and henceforth it was Gwenda’s job.
That was why she had lain awake for so much of the night.
Philemon’s name was really Holger. When he was ten years old, he had decided he was going to be a monk, so he told everyone he had changed his name to Philemon, which sounded more religious. Surprisingly, most people had gone along with his wish, though Ma and Pa still called him Holger.
The family passed through the door and saw two lines of shivering nuns holding burning torches to light the pathway from the hospital to the great west door of Kingsbridge Cathedral. Shadows flickered at the edges of the torchlight, as if the imps and hobgoblins of the night were cavorting just out of sight, kept at a distance only by the sanctity of the nuns.
Gwenda half expected to see Hop waiting outside, but he was not there. Perhaps he had found somewhere warm to sleep. As they walked to the church, Pa made sure they stayed close to Sir Gerald. From behind, someone tugged painfully at Gwenda’s hair. She squealed, thinking it was a goblin; but when she turned, she saw Wulfric, her six-year-old neighbor. He darted out of her reach, laughing. Then his father growled, “Behave!” and smacked his head, and the little boy began to cry.
The vast church was a shapeless mass towering above the huddled crowd. Only the lowest parts were distinct, arches and mullions picked out in orange and red by the uncertain torchlight. The procession slowed as it approached the cathedral entrance, and Gwenda could see a group of townspeople coming from the opposite direction. There were hundreds of them, Gwenda thought, maybe thousands, although she was not sure how many people made a thousand, for she could not count that high.
The crowd inched through the vestibule. The restless light of the torches fell on the sculpted figures around the walls, making them dance madly. At the lowest level were demons and monsters. Gwenda stared uneasily at dragons and griffins, a bear with a man’s head, a dog with two bodies and one muzzle. Some of the demons struggled with humans: a devil put a noose around a man’s neck; a foxlike monster dragged a woman by her hair; an eagle with hands speared a naked man. Above these scenes the saints stood in a row under sheltering canopies; over them the apostles sat on thrones; then, in the arch over the main door, St. Peter with his key and St. Paul with a scroll looked upward adoringly at Jesus Christ.
Gwenda knew that Jesus was telling her not to sin, or she would be tortured by demons; but humans frightened her more than demons. If she failed to steal Sir Gerald’s purse, she would be whipped by her father. Worse, there would be nothing for the family to eat but soup made with acorns. She and Philemon would be hungry for weeks on end. Ma’s breasts would dry up, and the new baby would die, as the last two had. Pa would disappear for days, and come back with nothing for the pot but a scrawny heron or a couple of squirrels. Being hungry was worse than being whipped—it hurt longer.
She had been taught to pilfer at a young age: an apple from a stall, a new-laid egg from under a neighbor’s hen, a knife dropped carelessly on a tavern table by a drunk. But stealing money was different. If she were caught robbing Sir Gerald, it would be no use bursting into tears and hoping to be treated as a naughty child, as she had once after thieving a pair of dainty leather shoes from a softhearted nun. Cutting the strings of a knight’s purse was no childish peccadillo—it was a real grown-up crime—and she would be treated accordingly.
She tried not to think about it. She was small and nimble and quick, and she would take the purse stealthily, like a ghost—provided she could keep from trembling.
The wide church was already thronged with people. In the side aisles, hooded monks held torches that cast a restless red glow. The marching pillars of the nave reached up into darkness. Gwenda stayed close to Sir Gerald as the crowd pushed forward toward the altar. The red-bearded knight and his thin wife did not notice her. Their two boys paid no more attention to her than to the stone walls of the cathedral. Gwenda’s family fell back and she lost sight of them.
The nave filled up quickly. Gwenda had never seen so many people in one place: it was busier than the cathedral green on market day. People greeted one another cheerfully, feeling safe from evil spirits in this holy place, and the sound of all their conversations mounted to a roar.
Then the bell tolled, and they fell silent.
Sir Gerald was standing by a family from the town who all wore cloaks of fine cloth, so they were probably rich wool dealers. Next to the knight stood a girl about ten years old. Gwenda stood behind Sir Gerald and the girl. She tried to make herself inconspicuous but, to her dismay, the girl looked at her and smiled reassuringly, as if to tell her not to be frightened.
Around the edges of the crowd, the monks extinguished their torches, one by one, until the great church was in utter darkness.
Gwenda wondered if the rich girl would remember her later. She had not merely glanced at Gwenda, then ignored her, as most people did. She had noticed her, had thought about her, had anticipated that she might be scared, and had given her a friendly smile. But there were hundreds of children in the cathedral. She could not have got a very clear impression of Gwenda’s features in the dim light…could she? Gwenda tried to put the worry out of her mind.
Invisible in the darkness, she stepped forward and slipped noiselessly between the two figures, feeling the soft wool of the girl’s cloak on one side and the stiffer fabric of the knight’s old surcoat on the other. Now she was in a position to get at the purse.
She reached into her neckline and took the little knife from its sheath.
The silence was broken by a terrible scream. Gwenda had been expecting it—Ma had explained what was going to happen during the service—but, all the same, she was shocked. It sounded like someone being tortured.
Then there was a harsh drumming sound, as of someone beating on a metal plate. More noises followed: wailing, mad laughter, a hunting horn, a rattle, animal noises, a cracked bell. In the congregation, a child started to cry, and others joined in. Some of the adults laughed nervously. They knew the noises were made by the monks, but all the same it was a hellish cacophony.
This was not the moment to take the purse, Gwenda thought fearfully. Everyone was tense, alert. The knight would be sensitive to any touch.
The devilish noise grew louder; then a new sound intervened: music. At first it was so soft that Gwenda was not sure she had really heard it. Then gradually it grew louder. The nuns were singing. Gwenda felt her body flood with tension. The moment was approaching. Moving like a spirit, imperceptible as the air, she turned so that she was facing Sir Gerald.
She knew exactly what he was wearing. He had on a heavy wool robe gathered at the waist by a broad studded belt. His purse was tied to the belt with a leather thong. Over the robe he wore an embroidered surcoat, costly but worn, with yellowing bone buttons down the front. He had done up some of the buttons, but not all, probably out of sleepy laziness, or because the walk from the hospital to the church was so short.
With a touch as light as possible, Gwenda put one small hand on his coat. She imagined her hand was a spider, so weightless that he could not possibly feel it. She ran her spider hand across the front of his coat and found the opening. She slipped her hand under the edge of the coat and along his heavy belt until she came to the purse.
The pandemonium faded as the music grew louder. From the front of the congregation came a murmur of awe. Gwenda could see nothing, but she knew that a lamp had been lit on the altar, illuminating a reliquary, an elaborately carved ivory-and-gold box holding the bones of St. Adolphus, which had not been there when the lights went out. The crowd surged forward, everyone trying to get closer to the holy remains. As Gwenda felt herself squashed between Sir Gerald and the man in front of him, she brought up her right hand and put the edge of the knife to the thong of his purse.
The leather was tough, and her first stroke did not cut it. She sawed frantically with the knife, hoping desperately that Sir Gerald was too interested in the scene at the altar to notice what was happening under his nose. She glanced upward and realized she could just about see the outlines of people around her: the monks and nuns were lighting candles. The light would get brighter every moment. She had no time left.
She gave a fierce yank on the knife, and felt the thong give. Sir Gerald grunted quietly: had he felt something, or was he reacting to the spectacle at the altar? The purse dropped, and landed in her hand; but it was too big for her to grasp easily, and it slipped. For a terrifying moment she thought she was going to drop it and lose it on the floor among the heedless feet of the crowd; then she got a grip on it and held it.
She felt a moment of joyous relief: she had the purse.
But she was still in terrible danger. Her heart was beating so loudly she felt as if everyone must be able to hear it. She turned quickly so that her back was to the knight. In the same movement, she stuffed the heavy purse down the front of her tunic. She could feel that it made a bulge that would be conspicuous, because it hung over her belt like an old man’s belly. She shifted it around to her side, where it was partly covered by her arm. It would still be visible when the lights brightened, but she had nowhere else to put it.
She sheathed the knife. Now she had to get away quickly, before Sir Gerald noticed his loss—but the crush of worshippers, which had helped her take the purse unnoticed, now hindered her escape. She tried to step backward, hoping to force a gap in the bodies behind her, but everyone was still pressing forward to look at the bones of the saint. She was trapped, unable to move, right in front of the man she had robbed.
A voice in her ear said: “Are you all right?”
It was the rich girl. Gwenda fought down panic. She needed to be invisible. A helpful older child was the last thing she wanted. She said nothing.
“Be careful,” the girl said to the people around. “You’re squashing this little girl.”
Gwenda could have screamed. The rich girl’s thoughtfulness would get Gwenda’s hand chopped off.
Desperate to get away, she put her hands on the man in front and shoved, pushing herself backward. She succeeded only in getting the attention of Sir Gerald. “You can’t see anything down there, can you?” said her victim in a kindly voice; and, to her horror, he grasped her under the arms and lifted her up.
She was helpless. His big hand in her armpit was only an inch from the purse. She faced forward so that he could see only the back of her head, and looked over the crowd to the altar, where the monks and nuns were lighting more candles and singing to the long-dead saint. Beyond them, a faint light showed through the big rose window at the east end of the building: dawn was breaking, chasing the evil spirits away. The clangor had stopped now, and the singing swelled. A tall, good-looking monk stepped up to the altar, and Gwenda recognized him as Anthony, the prior of Kingsbridge. Raising his hands in a blessing, he said loudly: “And so, once again, by the grace of Christ Jesus, the evil and darkness of this world are banished by the harmony and light of God’s holy church.”
The congregation gave a triumphant roar, then began to relax. The climax of the ceremony had passed. Gwenda wriggled, and Sir Gerald got the message and put her down. Keeping her face turned away from him, she pushed past him, heading toward the back of the crowd. People were no longer so eager to see the altar, and she was now able to force her way between the bodies. The farther back she went, the easier it became, until at last she found herself by the great west door, and saw her family.
Pa looked expectantly at her, ready to be angry if she had failed. She pulled the purse out of her shirt and thrust it at him, glad to get rid of it. He grabbed it, turned slightly, and furtively looked inside. She saw him grin with delight. Then he passed the purse to Ma, who quickly shoved it into the folds of the blanket that wrapped the baby.
The ordeal was over, but the risk had not yet passed. “A rich girl noticed me,” Gwenda said, and she could hear the shrill fear in her own voice.
Pa’s small, dark eyes flashed anger. “Did she see what you did?”
“No, but she told the others not to squash me. Then the knight picked me up so I could see better.”
Ma gave a low groan.
Pa said: “He saw your face, then.”
“I tried to keep it turned away.”
“Still, better if he doesn’t come across you again,” Pa said. “We won’t return to the monks’ hospital. We’ll go to a tavern for our breakfast.”
Ma said: “We can’t hide away all day.”
“No, but we can melt into the crowd.”
Gwenda started to feel better. Pa seemed to think there was no real danger. Anyway, she was reassured just by his being in charge again, and taking the responsibility from her.
“Besides,” he went on, “I fancy bread and meat, instead of the monks’ watery porridge. I can afford it now!”
They went out of the church. The sky was pearly gray with dawn light. Gwenda wanted to hold Ma’s hand, but the baby started to cry, and Ma was distracted. Then she saw a small three-legged dog, white with a black face, come running into the cathedral close with a familiar lopsided stride. “Hop!” she cried, picked him up, and hugged him.
Merthin was eleven, a year older than his brother, Ralph; but, to his intense annoyance, Ralph was taller and stronger.
This caused trouble with their parents. Their father, Sir Gerald, was a soldier, and he could not conceal his disappointment when Merthin proved unable to lift the heavy lance, or became exhausted before the tree was chopped down, or came home crying after losing a fight. Their mother, Lady Maud, made matters worse, embarrassing Merthin by being overprotective, when what he needed her to do was pretend not to notice. When Father showed his pride in Ralph’s strength, Mother tried to compensate by criticizing Ralph’s stupidity. Ralph was a bit slow on the uptake, but he could not help it, and being nagged about it only made him angry so that he got into fights with other boys.
Both parents were tetchy on the morning of All Hallows Day. Father had not wanted to come to Kingsbridge at all. But he had been compelled. He owed money to the priory, and he could not pay. Mother said they would take away his lands: he was lord of three villages near Kingsbridge. Father reminded her that he was directly descended from the Thomas who became earl of Shiring in the year that Archbishop Becket was murdered by King Henry II. That Earl Thomas had been the son of Jack Builder, the architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral, and Lady Aliena of Shiring—a near-legendary couple whose story was told, on long winter evenings, along with the heroic tales of Charlemagne and Roland. With such ancestry, Sir Gerald could not have his land confiscated by any monk, he bellowed, least of all that old woman Prior Anthony. When he started shouting, a look of tired resignation came over Maud’s face, and she turned away—though Merthin had heard her mutter: “The Lady Aliena had a brother, Richard, who was no good for anything but fighting.”
Prior Anthony might be an old woman, but he had at least been man enough to complain about Sir Gerald’s unpaid debts. He had gone to Gerald’s overlord, the present earl of Shiring, who happened also to be Gerald’s second cousin. Earl Roland had summoned Gerald to Kingsbridge today to meet with the prior and work out some resolution. Hence Father’s bad temper.
Then Father was robbed.
He discovered the loss after the All Hallows service. Merthin had enjoyed the drama: the darkness, the weird noises, the music beginning so quietly and then swelling until it seemed to fill the huge church, and finally the slow illumination of candles. He had also noticed, as the lights began to come on, that some people had been taking advantage of the darkness to commit minor sins for which they could now be forgiven: he had seen two monks hastily stop kissing, and a sly merchant remove his hand from the plump breast of a smiling woman who appeared to be someone else’s wife. Merthin was still in an excited mood when they returned to the hospital.
As they were waiting for the nuns to serve breakfast, a kitchen boy passed through the room and went up the stairs carrying a tray with a big jug of ale and a platter of hot salt beef. Mother said grumpily: “I would think your relative, the earl, might invite us to breakfast with him in his private room. After all, your grandmother was sister to his grandfather.”
Father replied: “If you don’t want porridge, we can go to the tavern.”
Merthin’s ears pricked up. He liked tavern breakfasts of new bread and salt butter. But Mother said: “We can’t afford it.”
“We can,” Father said, feeling for his purse; and that was when he realized his purse was gone.
At first he looked around the floor, as if it might have fallen; then he noticed the cut ends of the leather thong, and he roared with indignation. Everyone looked at him except Mother, who turned away, and Merthin heard her mutter: “That was all the money we had.”
Father glared accusingly at the other guests in the hospital. The long scar that ran from his right temple to his left eye seemed to darken with rage. The room went quiet with tension: an angry knight was dangerous, even one who was evidently down on his luck.
Then Mother said: “You were robbed in the church, no doubt.”
Merthin guessed that must be right. In the darkness, people had been stealing more than kisses.
“Sacrilege, too!” said Father.
“I expect it happened when you picked up that little girl,” Mother went on. Her face was twisted, as if she had swallowed something bitter. “The thief probably reached around your waist from behind.”
“He must be found!” Father roared.
The young monk called Godwyn spoke up. “I’m very sorry this has happened, Sir Gerald,” he said. “I will go and tell John Constable right away. He can look out for a poor townsman who has suddenly become rich.”
That seemed to Merthin a very unpromising plan. There were thousands of townspeople and hundreds more visitors. The constable could not observe them all.
But Father was slightly mollified. “The rogue shall hang!” he said in a voice a little less loud.
“And, meanwhile, perhaps you and Lady Maud, and your sons, would do us the honor of sitting at the table that is being set up in front of the altar,” Godwyn said smoothly.
Father grunted. He was pleased, Merthin knew, to be accorded higher status than the mass of guests, who would eat sitting on the floor, where they had slept.
The moment of potential violence passed, and Merthin relaxed a little; but, as the four of them took their seats, he wondered anxiously what would happen to the family now. His father was a brave soldier—everyone said that. Sir Gerald had fought for the old king at Boroughbridge, where a Lancashire rebel’s sword had given him the scar on his forehead. But he was unlucky. Some knights came home from battle with booty: plundered jewels, a cartload of costly Flemish cloth and Italian silk, or the beloved father of a noble family who could be ransomed for a thousand pounds. Sir Gerald never seemed to get much loot. But he still had to buy weapons, armor, and an expensive warhorse to enable him to do his duty and serve the king; and somehow the rents from his lands were never enough. So, against Mother’s will, he had started to borrow.
The kitchen hands brought in a steaming cauldron. Sir Gerald’s family was served first. The porridge was made with barley and flavored with rosemary and salt. Ralph, who did not understand the family crisis, started to talk excitedly about the All Hallows service, but the glum silence in which his comments were received shut him up.
When the porridge was eaten, Merthin went to the altar. Behind it he had stashed his bow and arrows. People would hesitate to steal something from an altar. They might overcome their fears, if the reward were tempting enough; but a homemade bow was not much of a prize; and, sure enough, it was still there.
He was proud of it. It was small, of course: to bend a full-size, six-foot bow took all the strength of a grown man. Merthin’s was four feet long, and slender, but in other respects it was just like the standard English longbow that had killed so many Scots mountain men, Welsh rebels, and French knights in armor.
Father had not previously commented on the bow, and now he looked at it as if seeing it for the first time. “Where did you get the stave?” he said. “They’re costly.”
“Not this one—it’s too short. A bowyer gave it me.”
Father nodded. “Apart from that, it’s a perfect stave,” he said. “It’s taken from the inside of the yew, where the sapwood meets the heartwood.” He pointed to the two different colors.
“I know,” Merthin said eagerly. He did not often get the chance to impress his father. “The stretchy sapwood is best for the front of the bow, because it pulls back to its original shape; and the hard heartwood is best for the inside of the curve, because it pushes back when the bow is bent inward.”
“Exactly,” Father said. He handed the bow back. “But remember, this is not a nobleman’s weapon. Knights’ sons do not become archers. Give it to some peasant boy.”
Merthin was crestfallen. “I haven’t even tried it yet!”
Mother intervened. “Let them play,” she said. “They’re only boys.”
“True,” Father said, losing interest. “I wonder if those monks would bring us a jug of ale.”
“Off you go,” Mother said. “Merthin, take care of your brother.”
Father grunted. “More likely to be the other way around.”
Merthin was stung. Father had no idea what went on. Merthin could look after himself, but Ralph on his own would get into fights. However, Merthin knew better than to take issue with his father in this mood, and he left the hospital without saying anything. Ralph trailed behind him.
It was a clear, cold November day, and the sky was roofed with high pale gray cloud. They left the cathedral close and walked down the main street, passing Fish Lane, Leather Yard, and Cookshop Street. At the bottom of the hill they crossed the wooden bridge over the river, leaving the old city for the suburb called Newtown. Here the streets of timber houses ran between pastures and gardens. Merthin led the way to a meadow called Lovers’ Field. There, the town constable and his deputies had set up butts—targets for archery. Shooting practice after church was compulsory for all men, by order of the king.
Enforcement was not much needed: it was no hardship to loose a few arrows on a Sunday morning, and a hundred or so of the young men of the town were lining up for their turns, watched by women, children, and men who considered themselves too old, or too dignified, to be archers. Some had their own weapons. For those too poor to afford a bow, John Constable had inexpensive practice bows made of ash or hazel.
It was like a feast day. Dick Brewer was selling tankards of ale from a barrel on a cart, and Betty Baxter’s four adolescent daughters were walking around with trays of spiced buns for sale. The wealthier townspeople were done up in fur caps and new shoes, and even the poorer women had dressed their hair and trimmed their cloaks with new braid.
Merthin was the only child carrying a bow, and he immediately attracted the attention of other children. They crowded around him and Ralph, the boys asking envious questions, the girls looking admiring or disdainful according to temperament. One of the girls said: “How did you know how to make it?”
Merthin recognized her: she had stood near him in the cathedral. She was about a year younger than himself, he thought, and she wore a dress and cloak of expensive, close-woven wool. Merthin usually found girls of his own age tiresome: they giggled a lot and refused to take anything seriously. But this one looked at him and his bow with a frank curiosity that he liked. “I just guessed,” he said.
“That’s clever. Does it work?”
“I haven’t tried it. What’s your name?”
“Caris, from the Wooler family. Who are you?”
“Merthin. My father is Sir Gerald.” Merthin pushed back the hood of his cape, reached inside it, and took out a coiled bowstring.
“Why do you keep the string in your hat?”
“So it won’t get wet if there’s rain. It’s what the real archers do.” He attached the twine to the notches at either end of the stave, bending the bow slightly so that the tension would hold the string in place.
“Are you going to shoot at the targets?”
Another boy said: “They won’t let you.”
Merthin looked at him. He was about twelve, tall and thin with big hands and feet. Merthin had seen him last night in the priory hospital with his family: his name was Philemon. He had been hanging around the monks, asking questions and helping to serve supper. “Of course they’ll let me,” Merthin told him. “Why shouldn’t they?”
“Because you’re too young.”
“That’s stupid.” Even as he spoke, Merthin knew he should not be so sure: adults often were stupid. But Philemon’s assumption of superior knowledge irritated him, especially after he had shown confidence in front of Caris.
He left the children and walked over to a group of men waiting to use a target. He recognized one of them: an exceptionally tall, broad-shouldered man called Mark Webber. Mark noticed the bow and spoke to Merthin in a slow, amiable voice. “Where did you get that?”
“I made it,” Merthin said proudly.
“Look at this, Elfric,” Mark said to his neighbor. “He’s made a nice job of it.”
Elfric was a brawny man with a sly look. He gave the bow a cursory glance. “It’s too small,” he said dismissively. “That’ll never fire an arrow to penetrate a French knight’s armor.”
“Perhaps not,” Mark said mildly. “But I expect the lad’s got a year or two to go before he has to fight the French.”
John Constable called out: “We’re ready. Let’s get started. Mark Webber, you’re first.” The giant stepped up to the line. He picked up a stout bow and tested it, bending the thick wood effortlessly.
The constable noticed Merthin for the first time. “No boys,” he said.
“Why not?” Merthin protested.
“Never mind why not—just get out of the way.”
Merthin heard some of the other children snigger. “There’s no reason for it!” he said indignantly.
“I don’t have to give reasons to children,” John said. “All right, Mark, take your shot.”
Merthin was mortified. The oily Philemon had proved him wrong in front of everyone. He turned away from the targets.
“I told you so,” said Philemon.
“Oh, shut up and go away.”
“You can’t make me go away,” said Philemon, who was six inches taller than Merthin.
Ralph put in: “I could, though.”
Merthin sighed. Ralph was unfailingly loyal, but he did not see that for him to fight Philemon would only make Merthin look like a weakling as well as a fool.
“I’m leaving anyway,” said Philemon. “I’m going to help Brother Godwyn.” He walked off.
The rest of the children began to drift away, seeking other curiosities. Caris said to Merthin: “You could go somewhere else to try the bow.” She was obviously keen to see what would happen.
Merthin looked around. “But where?” If he was seen shooting unsupervised, the bow might be taken from him.
“We could go into the forest.”
Merthin was surprised. Children were forbidden to go into the forest. Outlaws—men and women who lived by stealing—hid there. Children might be stripped of their clothes, or made into slaves, and there were worse dangers that parents only hinted at. Even if they escaped such perils, the children were liable to be flogged by their fathers for breaking the rule.
But Caris did not seem to be afraid, and Merthin was reluctant to appear less bold than she. Besides, the constable’s curt dismissal had made him feel defiant. “All right,” he said. “But we’ll have to make sure no one sees us.”
She had the answer to that. “I know a way.”
She walked toward the river. Merthin and Ralph followed. A small three-legged dog tagged along. “What’s your dog’s name?” Merthin asked Caris.
“He’s not mine,” she said. “But I gave him a piece of moldy bacon, and now I can’t shake him off.”
They walked along the muddy bank of the river, past warehouses and wharves and barges. Merthin covertly studied this girl, who had so effortlessly become the leader. She had a square, determined face, neither pretty nor ugly, and there was mischief in her eyes, which were a greenish color with brown flecks. Her light brown hair was done in two plaits, as was the fashion among affluent women. Her clothes were costly, but she wore practical leather boots rather than the embroidered fabric shoes preferred by noble ladies.
She turned away from the river and led them through a timber yard, and suddenly they were in scrubby woodland. Merthin felt a pang of unease. Now that he was in the forest, where there might be an outlaw lurking behind any oak tree, he regretted his bravado; but he would be ashamed to back out.
They walked on, looking for a clearing big enough for archery. Suddenly Caris spoke in a conspiratorial voice. “You see that big holly bush?”
“As soon as we’re past it, crouch down with me and keep silent.”
A moment later Merthin, Ralph, and Caris squatted behind the bush. The three-legged dog sat with them and looked hopefully at Caris. Ralph began to ask a question, but Caris hushed him.
A minute later a little girl came by. Caris jumped out and grabbed her. The girl screamed.
“Be quiet!” Caris said. “We’re not far from the road, and we don’t want to be heard. Why are you following us?”
“You’ve got my dog, and he won’t come back!” the child sobbed.
“I know you. I met you in church this morning,” Caris said to her in a softer voice. “All right, there’s nothing to cry about. We aren’t going to do you any harm. What’s your name?”
“And the dog?”
“Hop.” Gwenda picked up the dog, and he licked her tears.
“Well, you’ve got him now. You’d better come with us, in case he runs off again. Besides, you might not be able to find your way back to town on your own.”
They went on. Merthin said: “What has eight arms and eleven legs?”
“I give up,” Ralph said immediately. He always did.
“I know,” said Caris with a grin. “It’s us. Four children and the dog.” She laughed. “That’s good.”
Merthin was pleased. People did not always get his jokes; girls almost never did. A moment later he heard Gwenda explaining it to Ralph: “Two arms, and two arms, and two arms, and two arms makes eight,” she said. “Two legs …”
They saw no one, which was good. The small number of people who had legitimate business in the forest—woodcutters, charcoal burners, iron smelters—would not be working today, and it would be unusual to see an aristocratic hunting party on a Sunday. Anyone they met was likely to be an outlaw. But the chances were slim. It was a big forest, stretching for many miles. Merthin had never traveled far enough to see the end of it.
They came to a wide clearing and Merthin said: “This will do.”
There was an oak tree with a broad trunk on the far edge, about fifty feet away. Merthin stood side on to the target, as he had seen the men do. He took out one of his three arrows and fitted the notched end to the bowstring. The arrows had been as difficult to make as the bow. The wood was ash, and they had goose-feather flights. He had not been able to get iron for the points, so he had simply sharpened the ends, then scorched the wood to harden it. He sighted on the tree, then pulled back on the bowstring. It took a great effort. He released the arrow.
It fell to the ground well short of the target. Hop the dog scampered across the clearing to fetch it.
Merthin was taken aback. He had expected the arrow to go winging through the air and embed its point in the tree. He realized that he had not bent the bow sufficiently.
He tried the bow in his right hand and the arrow in his left. He was unusual in this respect, that he was neither right-handed nor left-handed, but a mixture. With the second arrow, he pulled on the bowstring and pushed the bow with all his might, and succeeded in bending them farther than before. This time, the arrow almost reached the tree.
For his third shot he aimed the bow upward, hoping the arrow would fly through the air in an arc and come down into the trunk. But he overcompensated, and the arrow went into the branches, and fell to the ground amid a flurry of dry brown leaves.
Merthin was embarrassed. Archery was more difficult than he had imagined. The bow was probably all right, he guessed: the problem was his own proficiency, or lack of it.
Once again, Caris seemed not to notice his discomfiture. “Let me have a go,” she said.
“Girls can’t shoot,” Ralph said, and he snatched the bow from Merthin. Standing sideways on to the target, as Merthin had, he did not shoot straightaway, but flexed the bow several times, getting the feel of it. Like Merthin, he found it harder than he had at first expected, but after a few moments, he seemed to get the hang of it.
Hop had dropped all three arrows at Gwenda’s feet, and now the little girl picked them up and handed them to Ralph.
He took aim without drawing the bow, sighting the arrow at the tree trunk, while there was no pressure on his arms. Merthin realized he should have done the same. Why did these things come so naturally to Ralph, who could never answer a riddle? Ralph drew the bow, not effortlessly but with a fluid motion, seeming to take the strain with his thighs. He released the arrow and it hit the trunk of the oak tree, sinking an inch or more into the soft outer wood. Ralph laughed triumphantly.
Hop scampered after the arrow. When he reached the tree, he stopped, baffled.
Ralph was drawing the bow again. Merthin realized what he was intending to do. “Don’t—” he said, but he was a moment too late. Ralph shot at the dog. The arrow hit the back of its neck and sunk in. Hop fell forward and lay twitching.
Gwenda screamed. Caris said: “Oh, no!” The two girls ran to the dog.
Ralph was grinning. “What about that?” he said proudly.
“You shot her dog!” Merthin said angrily.
“Doesn’t matter—it only had three legs.”
“The little girl was fond of it, you idiot. Look at her crying.”
“You’re just jealous because you can’t shoot.” Something caught Ralph’s eye. With a smooth movement he notched another arrow, swept the bow around in an arc, and fired while it was still moving. Merthin did not see what he was shooting at until the arrow met its target, and a fat hare jumped into the air with the shaft sticking deep into its hindquarters.
Merthin could not hide his admiration. Even with practice, not everyone could hit a running hare. Ralph had a natural gift. Merthin was jealous, although he would never admit it. He longed to be a knight, bold and strong, and fight for the king as his father did; and it dismayed him when he turned out to be hopeless at things such as archery.
Ralph found a stone and crushed the hare’s skull, putting it out of its misery.
Merthin knelt beside the two girls and Hop. The dog was not breathing. Caris gently drew the arrow out of its neck and handed it to Merthin. There was no gush of blood: Hop was dead.
For a moment no one spoke. In the silence, they heard a man shout.
Merthin sprang to his feet, heart thudding. He heard another shout, a different voice: there was more than one person. Both sounded aggressive and angry. Some kind of fight was going on. He was terrified, and so were the others. As they stood frozen, listening, they heard the noises made by a man running headlong through woodland, snapping fallen branches, flattening saplings, trampling dead leaves.
He was coming their way.
Caris spoke first. “The bush,” she said, pointing to a big cluster of evergreen shrubs—probably the home of the hare Ralph had shot, Merthin thought. A moment later Caris was flat on her belly, crawling into the thicket. Gwenda followed, cradling the body of Hop. Ralph picked up the dead hare and joined them. Merthin was on his knees when he realized that they had left a telltale arrow sticking out of the tree trunk. He dashed across the clearing, pulled it out, ran back, and dived under the bush.
They heard the man breathing before they saw him. He was panting hard as he ran, drawing in ragged lungfuls of air in a way that suggested he was almost done in. The shouts were coming from his pursuers, calling to each other: “This way—over here!” Merthin recalled that Caris had said they were not far from the road. Was the fleeing man a traveler who had been set upon by thieves?
A moment later he burst into the clearing.
He was a knight in his early twenties, with both a sword and a long dagger attached to his belt. He was well dressed, in a leather traveling tunic and high boots with turned-over tops. He stumbled and fell, rolled over, got up, then stood with his back to the oak tree, gasping for breath, and drew his weapons.
Merthin glanced at his playmates. Caris was white with fear, biting her lip. Gwenda was hugging the corpse of her dog as if that made her feel safer. Ralph looked scared, too, but he was not too frightened to pull the arrow out of the hare’s rump and stuff the dead animal down the front of his tunic.
For a moment the knight seemed to stare at the bush, and Merthin felt, with terror, that he must have seen the hiding children. Or perhaps he had noticed broken branches and crushed leaves where they had pushed through the foliage. Out of the corner of his eye, Merthin saw Ralph notch an arrow to the bow.
Then the pursuers arrived. They were two men-at-arms, strongly built and thuggish-looking, carrying drawn swords. They wore distinctive two-colored tunics, the left side yellow and the right green. One had a surcoat of cheap brown wool, the other a grubby black cloak. All three men paused, catching their breath. Merthin was sure he was about to see the knight hacked to death, and he suffered a shameful impulse to burst into tears. Then, suddenly, the knight reversed his sword and offered it, hilt first, in a gesture of surrender.
The older man-at-arms, in the black cloak, stepped forward and reached out with his left hand. Warily, he took the proffered sword, handed it to his partner, then accepted the knight’s dagger. Then he said: “It’s not your weapons I want, Thomas Langley.”
“You know me, but I don’t know you,” said Thomas. If he was feeling any fear, he had it well under control. “By your coats, you must be the queen’s men.”
The older man put the point of his sword to Thomas’s throat and pushed him up against the tree. “You’ve got a letter.”
“Instructions from the earl to the sheriff on the subject of taxes. You’re welcome to read it.” This was a joke. The men-at-arms were almost certainly unable to read. Thomas had a cool nerve, Merthin thought, to mock men who seemed ready to kill him.
The second man-at-arms reached under the sword of the first and grasped the wallet attached to Thomas’s belt. Impatiently, he cut the belt with his sword. He threw the belt aside and opened the wallet. He took out a smaller bag made of what appeared to be oiled wool, and drew from that a sheet of parchment rolled into a scroll and sealed with wax.
Could this fight be about nothing more than a letter? Merthin wondered. If so, what was written on the scroll? It was not likely to be routine instructions about taxes. Some terrible secret must be inscribed there.
“If you kill me,” the knight said, “the murder will be witnessed by whoever is hiding in that bush.”
The tableau froze for a split second. The man in the black cloak kept his sword point pressed to Thomas’s throat and resisted the temptation to look over his shoulder. The one in green hesitated, then looked at the bush.
At that point, Gwenda screamed.
The man in the green surcoat raised his sword and took two long strides across the clearing to the bush. Gwenda stood up and ran, bursting out of the foliage. The man-at-arms leaped after her, reaching out to grab her.
Ralph stood up suddenly, raised the bow and drew it in one fluid motion, and shot an arrow at the man. It went through his eye and sank several inches into his head. His left hand came up, as if to grasp the arrow and pull it out; then he went limp and fell like a dropped sack of grain, hitting the ground with a thump Merthin could feel.
Ralph ran out of the bush and followed Gwenda. At the edge of his vision Merthin perceived Caris going after them. Merthin wanted to flee too, but his feet seemed stuck to the ground.
There was a shout from the other side of the clearing, and Merthin saw that Thomas had knocked aside the sword that threatened him and had drawn, from somewhere about his person, a small knife with a blade as long as a man’s hand. But the man-at-arms in the black cloak was alert, and jumped back out of reach. Then he raised his sword and swung at the knight’s head.
Thomas dodged aside, but not fast enough. The edge of the blade came down on his left forearm, slicing through the leather jerkin and sinking into his flesh. He roared with pain, but did not fall. With a quick motion that seemed extraordinarily graceful, he swung his right hand up and thrust the knife into his opponent’s throat; then, his hand continuing in an arc, he pulled the knife sideways, severing most of the neck.
Blood came like a fountain from the man’s throat. Thomas staggered back, dodging the splash. The man in black fell to the ground, his head hanging from his body by a strip.
Thomas dropped the knife from his right hand and clutched his wounded left arm. He sat on the ground, suddenly looking weak.
Merthin was alone with the wounded knight, two dead men-at-arms, and the corpse of a three-legged dog. He knew he should run after the other children, but his curiosity kept him there. Thomas now seemed harmless, he told himself.
The knight had sharp eyes. “You can come out,” he called. “I’m no danger to you in this state.”
Hesitantly, Merthin got to his feet and pushed his way out of the bush. He crossed the clearing and stopped several feet away from the sitting knight.
Thomas said: “If they find out you’ve been playing in the forest, you’ll be flogged.”
“I’ll keep your secret, if you’ll keep mine.”
Merthin nodded again. In agreeing to the bargain, he was making no concessions. None of the children would tell what they had seen. There would be untold trouble if they did. What would happen to Ralph, who had killed one of the queen’s men?
“Would you be kind enough to help me bind up this wound?” said Thomas. Despite all that had happened, he spoke courteously, Merthin observed. The knight’s poise was remarkable. Merthin felt he wanted to be like that when he was grown up.
At last Merthin’s constricted throat managed to produce a word. “Yes.”
“Pick up that broken belt, then, and wrap it around my arm, if you would.”
Merthin did as he was told. Thomas’s undershirt was soaked with blood, and the flesh of his arm was sliced open like something on a butcher’s slab. Merthin felt a little nauseated, but he forced himself to twist the belt around Thomas’s arm so that it pulled the wound closed and slowed the bleeding. He made a knot, and Thomas used his right hand to pull it tight.
Then Thomas struggled to his feet.
He looked at the dead men. “We can’t bury them,” he said. “I’d bleed to death before the graves were dug.” Glancing at Merthin, he added: “Even with you helping me.” He thought for a moment. “On the other hand, I don’t want them to be discovered by some courting couple looking for a place to…be alone. Let’s lug the guts into that bush where you were hiding. Green coat first.”
They approached the body.
“One leg each,” said Thomas. With his right hand he grasped the dead man’s left ankle. Merthin took the other limp foot in both hands and heaved. Together they hauled the corpse into the shrubbery, next to Hop.
“That will do,” said Thomas. His face was white with pain. After a moment, he bent down and pulled the arrow out of the corpse’s eye. “Yours?” he said with a raised eyebrow.
Merthin took the arrow and wiped it on the ground to get rid of some of the blood and brains adhering to the shaft.
In the same way they dragged the second body across the clearing, its loosely attached head trailing behind, and left it beside the first.
Thomas picked up the two men’s dropped swords and threw them into the bush with the bodies. Then he found his own weapons.
“Now,” said Thomas, “I have a great favor to ask.” He proffered his dagger. “Would you dig me a small hole?”
“All right.” Merthin took the dagger.
“Just here, right in front of the oak tree.”
Thomas picked up the leather wallet that had been attached to his belt. “Big enough to hide this for fifty years.”
Screwing up his courage, Merthin said: “Why?”
“Dig, and I’ll tell you as much of it as I can.”
Merthin scratched a square on the ground and began to loosen the cold earth with the dagger, then scoop it up with his hands.
Thomas picked up the scroll and put it into the wool bag, then fastened the bag inside the wallet. “I was given this letter to deliver to the earl of Shiring,” he said. “But it contains a secret so dangerous that I realized the bearer was sure to be killed, to make certain he could never speak of it. So I needed to disappear. I decided I would take sanctuary in a monastery, become a monk. I’ve had enough of fighting, and I’ve a lot of sins to repent. As soon as I went missing, the people who gave me the letter started to search for me—and I was unlucky. I was spotted in a tavern in Bristol.”
“Why did the queen’s men come after you?”
“She, too, would like to prevent the spread of this secret.” When Merthin’s hole was eighteen inches deep, Thomas said: “That will do.” He dropped the wallet inside.
Merthin shoveled the earth back into the hole on top of the wallet, and Thomas covered the freshly turned earth with leaves and twigs until it was indistinguishable from the ground around it.
“If you hear that I’ve died,” said Thomas, “I’d like you to dig up this letter and give it to a priest. Would you do that for me?”
“Until that happens, you must tell no one. While they know I’ve got the letter, but they don’t know where it is, they’ll be afraid to do anything. But if you tell the secret, two things will happen. First, they will kill me. Then they will kill you.”
Merthin was aghast. It seemed unfair that he should be in so much danger just because he had helped a man by digging a hole.
“I’m sorry to scare you,” said Thomas. “But, then, it’s not entirely my fault. After all, I didn’t ask you to come here.”
“No.” Merthin wished with all his heart that he had obeyed his mother’s orders and stayed out of the forest.
“I’m going to return to the road. Why don’t you go back the way you came? I bet you’ll find your friends waiting somewhere not far from here.”
Merthin turned to go.
“What’s your name?” the knight called after him.
“Merthin, son of Sir Gerald.”
“Really?” Thomas said, as if he knew Father. “Well, not a word, even to him.”
Merthin nodded and left. When he had gone fifty yards, he vomited. After that he felt slightly better.
As Thomas had predicted, the others were waiting for him, right at the edge of the wood, near the timber yard. They crowded around him, touching him as if to make sure he was all right, looking relieved yet ashamed, as if they were guilty about having left him. They were all shaken, even Ralph. “That man,” he said, “the one I shot—was he badly hurt?”
“He’s dead,” Merthin said. He showed Ralph the arrow, still stained with blood.
“Did you pull it out of his eye?”
Merthin would have liked to say he had, but he decided to tell the truth. “The knight pulled it out.”
“What happened to the other man-at-arms?”
“The knight cut his throat. Then we hid the bodies in the bush.”
“And he just let you go?”
“Yes.” Merthin said nothing about the buried letter.
“We have to keep this secret,” Caris urged. “There will be terrible trouble if anyone finds out.”
Ralph said: “I’ll never tell.”
“We should swear an oath,” Caris said.
They stood in a little ring. Caris stuck out her arm so that her hand was in the center of the circle. Merthin placed his hand over hers. Her skin was soft and warm. Ralph added his hand; then Gwenda did the same, and they swore by the blood of Jesus.
Then they walked back into the town.
Archery practice was over, and it was time for the midday meal. As they crossed the bridge, Merthin said to Ralph: “When I grow up, I want to be like that knight—always courteous, never frightened, deadly in a fight.”
“Me, too,” said Ralph. “Deadly.”
In the old city, Merthin felt an irrational sense of surprise that normal life was going on all around: the sound of babies crying, the smell of roasting meat, the sight of men drinking ale outside taverns.
Caris stopped outside a big house on the main street, just opposite the entrance to the priory precincts. She put an arm around Gwenda’s shoulders and said: “My dog at home has had puppies. Do you want to see them?”
Gwenda still looked frightened and close to tears, but she nodded emphatically. “Yes, please.”
That was clever as well as kind, Merthin thought. The puppies would be a comfort to the little girl—and a distraction, too. When she returned to her family, she would talk about the puppies and be less likely to speak of going into the forest.
They said good-bye, and the girls went into the house. Merthin found himself wondering when he would see Caris again.
Then his other troubles came back to him. What was his father going to do about his debts? Merthin and Ralph turned into the cathedral close, Ralph still carrying the bow and the dead hare. The place was quiet.
The guesthouse was empty but for a few sick people. A nun said to them: “Your father is in the church, with the earl of Shiring.”
They went into the great cathedral. Their parents were in the vestibule. Mother was sitting at the foot of a pillar, on the outjutting corner where the round column met the square base. In the cold light that came through the tall windows, her face was still and serene, almost as if she were carved of the same gray stone as the pillar against which she leaned her head. Father stood beside her, his broad shoulders slumped in an attitude of resignation. Earl Roland faced them. He was older than Father, but with his black hair and vigorous manner, he seemed more youthful. Prior Anthony stood beside the earl.
The two boys hung back at the door, but Mother beckoned them. “Come here,” she said. “Earl Roland has helped us come to an arrangement with Prior Anthony that solves all our problems.”
Father grunted, as if he was not as grateful as she for what the earl had done. “And the priory gets my lands,” he said. “There’ll be nothing for you two to inherit.”
“We’re going to live here, in Kingsbridge,” Mother went on brightly. “We’ll be corrodiaries of the priory.”
Merthin said: “What’s a corrodiary?”
“It means the monks will provide us with a house to live in and two meals a day, for the rest of our lives. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Merthin could tell that she did not really think it was wonderful. She was pretending to be pleased. Father was clearly ashamed to have lost his lands. There was more than a hint of disgrace in this, Merthin realized.
Father addressed the earl. “What about my boys?”
Earl Roland turned and looked at them. “The big one looks promising,” he said. “Did you kill that hare, lad?”
“Yes, Lord,” Ralph said proudly. “Shot it with an arrow.”
“He can come to me as a squire in a few years’ time,” the earl said briskly. “We’ll teach him to be a knight.”
Father looked pleased.
Merthin felt bewildered. Big decisions were being made too quickly. He was outraged that his younger brother should be so favored while no mention was made of himself. “That’s not fair!” he burst out. “I want to be a knight, too!”
His mother said: “No!”
“But I made the bow!”
Father gave a sigh of exasperation and looked disgusted.
“You made the bow, did you, little one?” the earl said, and his face showed disdain. “In that case, you shall be apprenticed to a carpenter.”
Caris’s home was a luxurious wood-frame building with stone floors and a stone chimney. There were three separate rooms on the ground floor: the hall with the big dining table, the small parlor where Papa could discuss business privately, and the kitchen at the back. When Caris and Gwenda walked in, the house was full of the mouthwatering smell of a ham boiling.
Caris led Gwenda through the hall and up the internal staircase.
“Where are the puppies?” said Gwenda.
“I want to see my mother first,” Caris replied. “She’s ill.”
They went into the front bedroom, where Mama lay on the carved wooden bedstead. She was small and frail: Caris was already the same height. Mama looked paler than usual, and her hair was not yet dressed, so it stuck to her damp cheeks. “How are you feeling?” Caris said.
“A little weak, today.” The effort of speaking made Mama breathless.
Caris felt a familiar, painful jumble of anxiety and helplessness. Her mother had been ill for a year. It had started with pains in her joints. Soon she had ulcers inside her mouth and unaccountable bruises on her body. She had felt too weak to do anything. Last week she had caught a cold. Now she was running a fever and had trouble in catching her breath.
“Is there anything you need?” Caris asked.
“No, thank you.”
It was the usual answer, but Caris felt maddened by powerlessness each time she heard it. “Should I fetch Mother Cecilia?” The prioress of Kingsbridge was the only person able to bring Mama some comfort. She had an extract of poppies that she mixed with honey and warm wine that eased the pain for a while. Caris regarded Cecilia as better than an angel.
“No need, dear,” Mama said. “How was the All Hallows service?”
Caris noticed how pale her mother’s lips were. “Scary,” she said.
Mama paused, resting, then said: “What have you been doing this morning?”
“Watching the archery.” Caris held her breath, frightened that Mama might guess her guilty secret, as she often did.
But Mama looked at Gwenda. “Who is your little friend?”
“Gwenda. I’ve brought her to see the puppies.”
“That’s lovely.” Mama suddenly looked tired. She closed her eyes and turned her head aside.
The girls crept out quietly.
Gwenda was looking shocked. “What’s wrong with her?”
“A wasting disease.” Caris hated to talk about it. Her mother’s illness gave her the unnerving feeling that nothing was certain, anything could happen, there was no safety in the world. It was even more frightening than the fight they had witnessed in the forest. If she thought about what might happen, and the possibility that her mother might die, she suffered a panicky fluttering sensation in her chest that made her want to scream.
The middle bedroom was used in summer by the Italians, wool buyers from Florence and Prato who came to do business with Papa. Now it was empty. The puppies were in the back bedroom, which belonged to Caris and her sister, Alice. They were seven weeks old, ready to leave their mother, who was growing impatient with them. Gwenda gave a sigh of joy and immediately got down on the floor with them.
Caris picked up the smallest of the litter, a lively female, always going off on her own to explore the world. “This is the one I’m going to keep,” she said. “She’s called Scrap.” Holding the little dog soothed her, and helped her forget about the things that troubled her.
The other four clambered all over Gwenda, sniffing her and chewing her dress. She picked up an ugly brown dog with a long muzzle and eyes set too close together. “I like this one,” she said. The puppy curled up in her lap.
Caris said: “Would you like to keep him?”
Tears came to Gwenda’s eyes. “Could I?”
“We’re allowed to give them away.”
“Papa doesn’t want any more dogs. If you like him, you can have him.”
“Oh, yes,” Gwenda said in a whisper. “Yes, please.”
“What will you name him?”
“Something that reminds me of Hop. Perhaps I’ll call him Skip.”
“That’s a good name.” Skip had already gone to sleep in Gwenda’s lap, Caris saw.
The two girls sat quietly with the dogs. Caris thought about the boys they had met: the little red-haired one with the golden brown eyes and his tall, handsome younger brother. What had made her take them into the forest? It was not the first time she had yielded to a stupid impulse. It tended to happen when someone in authority ordered her not to do something. Her aunt Petranilla was a great rule maker. “Don’t feed that cat, or we’ll never get rid of it. No ball games in the house. Stay away from that boy—his family are peasants.” Rules that constrained her behavior seemed to drive Caris crazy.
But she had never done something this foolish. She felt shaky when she thought of it. Two men had died. But what might have happened was worse. The four children might have been killed, too.
She wondered what the fight had been about, and why the men-at-arms had been chasing the knight. Obviously it was not a simple robbery. They had spoken about a letter. But Merthin had said no more about that. Probably he had learned nothing further. It was just another of the mysteries of adult life.
Caris had liked Merthin. His boring brother, Ralph, was just like every other boy in Kingsbridge, boastful and aggressive and stupid, but Merthin seemed different. He had intrigued her right from the start.
Two new friends in one day, she thought, looking at Gwenda. The little girl was not pretty. She had dark brown eyes set close together above a beaky nose. She had picked a dog that looked a bit like her, Caris realized with amusement. Gwenda’s clothes were old, and must have been worn by many children before her. Gwenda was calmer now. She no longer looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment. She, too, had been soothed by the puppies.
There was a familiar lopsided tread in the hall below, and a moment later a voice bellowed: “Bring me a flagon of ale, for the love of the saints. I’ve got a thirst like a cart horse’s.”
“It’s my father,” Caris said. “Come and meet him.” Seeing that Gwenda looked anxious, she added: “Don’t worry. He always shouts like that, but he’s really nice.”
The girls went downstairs with their puppies. “What’s happened to all my servants?” Papa roared. “Have they run away to join the fairy folk?” He came stomping out of the kitchen, trailing his twisted right leg as always, carrying a big wooden cup slopping over with ale. “Hello, my little buttercup,” he said to Caris in a softer voice. He sat on the big chair at the head of the table and took a long draft from the cup. “That’s better,” he said, wiping his straggly beard with his sleeve. He noticed Gwenda. “A little daisy to go with my buttercup?” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Gwenda, from Wigleigh, my lord,” she said, awestruck.
“I gave her a puppy,” Caris explained.
“That’s a good idea!” Papa said. “Puppies need affection, and no one can love a puppy the way a little girl does.”
On the stool beside the table, Caris saw a cloak of scarlet cloth. It had to be imported, for English dyers did not know how to achieve such a bright red. Following her eye, Papa said: “It’s for your mother. She’s always wanted a coat of Italian red. I’m hoping it will encourage her to get well enough to wear it.”
Caris touched it. The wool was soft and close-woven, as only the Italians could make it. “It’s beautiful,” she said.
Aunt Petranilla entered from the street. She bore some resemblance to Papa, but was purse-mouthed where he was hearty. She was more like her other brother, Anthony, the prior of Kingsbridge: they were both tall, imposing figures, whereas Papa was short, barrel-chested, and lame.
Caris disliked Petranilla. She was clever as well as mean, a deadly combination in an adult: Caris was never able to outwit her. Gwenda sensed Caris’s dislike, and looked apprehensively at the newcomer. Only Papa was pleased to see her. “Come in, sister,” he said. “Where are all my servants?”
“I can’t think why you imagine I should know that, having just come from my own house at the other end of the street, but if I had to guess, Edmund, I should say that your cook is in the henhouse, hoping to find an egg to make you a pudding, and your maid is upstairs, helping your wife to a close stool, which she generally requires about midday. As for your apprentices, I hope they are both on guard duty at the warehouse by the riverside, making sure that no holiday revelers take it into their drunken heads to light a bonfire within a spark’s fly of your wool store.”
She often spoke like this, giving a little sermon in answer to a simple question. Her manner was supercilious, as always, but Papa did not mind, or pretended not to. “My remarkable sister,” he said, “you’re the one who inherited our father’s wisdom.”
Petranilla turned to the girls. “Our father was descended from Tom Builder, the stepfather and mentor of Jack Builder, architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral,” she said. “Father vowed to give his firstborn to God but, unfortunately, his firstborn was a girl—me. He named me after Saint Petranilla—who was the daughter of Saint Peter, as I’m sure you know—and he prayed for a boy next time. But his first son was born deformed, and he did not want to give God a flawed gift, so he brought Edmund up to take over the wool business. Happily, his third child was our brother, Anthony, a well-behaved and God-fearing child, who entered the monastery as a boy and is now, we are all proud to say, the prior.”
She would have become a priest, had she been a man, but as it was she had done the next best thing and brought up her son, Godwyn, to be a monk at the priory. Like Grandfather Wooler, she had given a child to God. Caris had always felt sorry for Godwyn, her older cousin, for having Petranilla as a mother.
Petranilla noticed the red coat. “Whose is this?” she said. “It’s the most expensive Italian cloth!”
“I bought it for Rose,” said Papa.
Petranilla stared at him for a moment. Caris could tell she thought he was a fool to buy such a coat for a woman who had not left the house for a year. But all she said was: “You’re very good to her,” which might have been a compliment or not.
Father did not care. “Go up and see her,” he urged. “You’ll cheer her up.”
Caris doubted that, but Petranilla suffered no such misgivings, and she went up the stairs.
Caris’s sister, Alice, came in from the street. She was eleven, a year older than Caris. She stared at Gwenda and said: “Who’s she?”
“My new friend, Gwenda,” said Caris. “She’s going to take a puppy.”
“But she’s got the one I wanted!” Alice protested.
She had not said that before. “Ooh—you never picked one!” Caris said, outraged. “You’re just saying that to be mean.”
“Why should she have one of our puppies?”
Papa intervened. “Now, now,” he said. “We’ve got more puppies than we need.”
“Caris should have asked me which one I wanted first!”
“Yes, she should,” Papa said, even though he knew perfectly well that Alice was only making trouble. “Don’t do it again, Caris.”
The cook came in from the kitchen with jugs and cups. When Caris was learning to talk, she had called the cook Tutty, no one knew why, but the name had stuck. Papa said: “Thank you, Tutty. Sit at the table, girls.” Gwenda hesitated, not sure if she was invited, but Caris nodded at her, knowing that Papa intended her to be included—he generally asked everyone within his range of vision to come to dinner.
Tutty refilled Papa’s cup with ale, then gave Alice, Caris, and Gwenda ale mixed with water. Gwenda drank all of hers immediately, with relish, and Caris guessed she did not often get ale: poor people drank cider made from crab apples.
Next, the cook put in front of each of them a thick slice of rye bread a foot square. Gwenda picked hers up to eat it, and Caris realized she had never dined at a table before. “Wait,” she said quietly, and Gwenda put the bread down again. Tutty brought in the ham on a board and a dish of cabbage. Papa took a big knife and cut slices off the ham, piling it on their bread trenchers. Gwenda stared big-eyed at the quantity of meat she was given. Caris spooned cabbage leaves on top of the ham.
The chambermaid, Elaine, came hurrying down the stairs. “The mistress seems worse,” she said. “Mistress Petranilla says we should send for Mother Cecilia.”
“Then run to the priory and beg her to come,” Papa said.
The maid hurried off.
“Eat up, children,” said Papa, and he speared a slice of hot ham with his knife; but Caris could see that the dinner now had no relish for him, and he seemed to be looking at something far away.
Gwenda ate some cabbage and whispered: “This is food from heaven.” Caris tried it. The cabbage was cooked with ginger. Gwenda had probably never tasted ginger: only rich people could afford it.
Petranilla came down, put some ham on a wooden platter, and took it up for Mama; but she came back a few moments later with the food untouched. She sat at the table to eat it herself, and the cook brought her a bread trencher. “When I was a girl, we were the only family in Kingsbridge who had meat for dinner every day,” she said, “except on fast days—my father was very devout. He was the first wool merchant in town to deal directly with the Italians. Everyone does now—although my brother Edmund is still the most important.”
Caris had lost her appetite, and she had to chew for a long time before she could swallow. At last Mother Cecilia arrived; she was a small, vital woman with a reassuringly bossy manner. With her was Sister Juliana, a simple person with a warm heart. Caris felt better as she watched them climb the stairs, a chirpy sparrow with a hen waddling behind. They would wash Mama in rose water to cool her fever, and the fragrance would lift her spirits.
Tutty brought in apples and cheese. Papa peeled an apple absentmindedly with his knife. Caris remembered how, when she was younger, he used to feed her peeled slices, then eat the skin himself.
Sister Juliana came downstairs, a worried look on her pudgy face. “The prioress wants Brother Joseph to come and see Mistress Rose,” she said. Joseph was the senior physician at the monastery: he had trained with the masters at Oxford. “I’ll just go and fetch him,” Juliana said, and she ran out through the door to the street.
Papa put his peeled apple down, uneaten.
Caris said: “What is going to happen?”
“I don’t know, buttercup. Will it rain? How many sacks of wool do the Florentines need? Will the sheep catch a murrain? Is the baby a girl, or a boy with a twisted leg? We never know, do we? That’s”—he looked away—“that’s what makes it so hard.”
He gave her the apple. Caris gave it to Gwenda, who ate it entire, core and pips, too.
Brother Joseph arrived a few minutes later with a young assistant, whom Caris recognized as Saul Whitehead, so called because his hair—what little he had left after his monkish haircut—was ash blond.
Cecilia and Juliana came downstairs, no doubt to make room for the two men in the small bedroom. Cecilia sat at the table, but did not eat. She had a small face with sharp features: a little pointed nose, bright eyes, a chin like the prow of a boat. She looked with curiosity at Gwenda. “Well, now,” she said brightly, “who is this little girl, and does she love Jesus and His Holy Mother?”
Gwenda said: “I’m Gwenda. I’m Caris’s friend.” She looked anxiously at Caris, as if she feared it might have been presumptuous of her to claim friendship.
Caris said: “Will the Virgin Mary make my mama better?”
Cecilia raised her eyebrows. “Such a direct question. I could have guessed you’re Edmund’s daughter.”
“Everyone prays to her, but not everyone gets well,” Caris said.
“And do you know why that is?”
“Perhaps she never helps anyone, and it’s just that the strong people get well and the weak don’t.”
“Now, now, don’t be silly,” said Papa. “Everyone knows the Holy Mother helps us.”
“That’s all right,” Cecilia told him. “It’s normal for children to ask questions—especially the bright ones. Caris, the saints are always powerful, but some prayers are more effective than others. Do you understand that?”
Caris nodded reluctantly, feeling not convinced so much as outwitted.
“She must come to our school,” Cecilia said. The nuns had a school for the daughters of the nobility and of the more prosperous townspeople. The monks ran a separate school for boys.
Papa looked stubborn. “Rose has taught both girls their letters,” he said. “And Caris knows her numbers as well as I do—she helps me in the business.”
“She should learn more than that. Surely you don’t want her to spend her life as your servant?”
Petranilla put in: “She has no need of book learning. She will marry extremely well. There will be crowds of suitors for both sisters. Sons of merchants, even sons of knights will be eager to marry into this family. But Caris is a willful child: we must take care she doesn’t throw herself away on some penniless minstrel boy.”
Caris noticed that Petranilla did not anticipate trouble with obedient Alice, who would probably marry whomever they picked for her.
Cecilia said: “God might call Caris to His service.”
Papa said grumpily: “God has already called two from this family—my brother and my nephew. I’d have thought He would be satisfied by now.”
Cecilia looked at Caris. “What do you think?” she said. “Will you be a wool merchant, a knight’s wife, or a nun?”
The idea of being a nun horrified Caris. She would have to obey someone else’s orders every hour of the day. It would be like remaining a child all your life, and having Petranilla for a mother. Being the wife of a knight, or of anyone else, seemed almost as bad, for women had to obey their husbands. Helping Papa, then perhaps taking over the business when he was too old, was the least unattractive option, but on the other hand, it was not exactly her dream. “I don’t want to be any of those,” she said.
“Is there something you would like?” Cecilia asked.
There was, although Caris had not told anyone before, in fact had not fully realized it until now; but the ambition seemed fully formed, and suddenly she knew without doubt that it was her destiny. “I’m going to be a doctor,” she said.
There was a moment of silence; then they all laughed.
Caris flushed, not knowing what was so funny.
Papa took pity and said: “Only men can be doctors. Didn’t you know that, buttercup?”
Caris was bewildered. She turned to Cecilia. “But what about you?”
“I’m not a physician,” Cecilia said. “We nuns care for the sick, of course, but we follow the instructions of trained men. The monks who have studied under the masters understand the humors of the body, the way they go out of balance in sickness, and how to bring them back to their correct proportions for good health. They know which vein to bleed for migraine, leprosy, or breathlessness; where to cup and cauterize; whether to poultice or bathe.”
“Couldn’t a woman learn those things?”
“Perhaps, but God has ordained it otherwise.”
Caris felt frustrated with the way adults trotted out this truism every time they were stuck for an answer. Before she could say anything, Brother Saul came downstairs with a bowl of blood and went through the kitchen to the backyard to get rid of it. The sight made Caris feel weepy. All doctors used bloodletting as a cure, so it must be effective, she supposed; but all the same she hated to see her mother’s life force in a bowl to be thrown away.
Saul returned to the sick room, and a few moments later, he and Joseph came down. “I’ve done what I can for her,” Joseph said solemnly to Papa. “And she has confessed her sins.”
Confessed her sins! Caris knew what that meant. She began to cry.
Papa took six silver pennies from his purse and gave them to the monk. “Thank you, brother,” he said. His voice was hoarse.
As the monks left, the two nuns went back upstairs.
Alice sat on Papa’s lap and buried her face in his neck. Caris cried and hugged Scrap. Petranilla ordered Tutty to clear the table. Gwenda watched everything with wide eyes. They sat around the table in silence, waiting.
Brother Godwyn was hungry. He had eaten his dinner, a stew of sliced turnips with salt fish, and it had not satisfied him. The monks nearly always had fish and weak ale for dinner, even when it was not a fast day.
Not all the monks, of course: Prior Anthony had a privileged diet. He would dine especially well today, for the prioress, Mother Cecilia, was to be his guest. She was accustomed to rich food. The nuns, who always seemed to have more money than the monks, killed a pig or a sheep every few days and washed it down with Gascony wine.
It was Godwyn’s job to supervise the dinner, a hard task when his own stomach was rumbling. He spoke to the monastery cook, and checked on the fat goose in the oven and the pot of apple sauce bubbling on the fire. He asked the cellarer for a jug of cider from the barrel, and got a loaf of rye bread from the bakery—stale, for there was no baking on Sunday. He took the silver platters and goblets from the locked chest and set them on the table of the hall in the prior’s house.
The prior and prioress dined together once a month. The monastery and the nunnery were separate institutions, with their own premises, and different sources of income. Prior and prioress were independently responsible to the bishop of Kingsbridge. Nevertheless they shared the great cathedral and several other buildings, including the hospital, where monks worked as doctors and nuns as nurses. So there were always details to discuss: cathedral services, hospital guests and patients, town politics. Anthony often tried to get Cecilia to pay costs that should, strictly speaking, have been divided equally—glass windows for the chapter house, bedsteads for the hospital, the repainting of the cathedral’s interior—and she usually agreed.
Today, however, the talk was likely to center on politics. Anthony had returned yesterday from two weeks in Gloucester, where he had assisted at the interment of King Edward II, who had lost his throne in January and his life in September. Mother Cecilia would want to hear the gossip while pretending to be above it all.
Godwyn had something else on his mind. He wanted to talk to Anthony about his future. He had been anxiously awaiting the right moment ever since the prior returned home. He had rehearsed his speech, but had not yet found the opportunity to deliver it. He hoped to get a chance this afternoon.
Anthony entered the hall as Godwyn was putting a cheese and a bowl of pears on the sideboard. The prior looked like an older version of Godwyn. Both were tall, with regular features and light brown hair, and like all the family, they had greenish eyes with flecks of gold. Anthony stood by the fire—the room was cold and the old building let in freezing drafts. Godwyn poured him a cup of cider. “Father Prior, today is my birthday,” he said as Anthony drank. “I’m twenty-one.”
“So it is,” said Anthony. “I remember your birth very well. I was fourteen years old. My sister, Petranilla, screamed like a boar with an arrow in its guts as she brought you into the world.” He raised his goblet in a toast, looking fondly at Godwyn. “And now you’re a man.”
Godwyn decided that this was his moment. “I’ve been at the priory ten years,” he said.
“Is it that long?”
“Yes—as schoolboy, novice, and monk.”
“I hope I’ve been a credit to my mother and to you.”
“We’re both very proud of you.”
“Thank you.” Godwyn swallowed. “And now I want to go to Oxford.”
The city of Oxford had long been a center for masters of theology, medicine, and law. Priests and monks went there to study and debate with teachers and other students. In the last century the masters had been incorporated into a company, or university, that had royal permission to set examinations and award degrees. Kingsbridge Priory maintained a branch or cell in the city, known as Kingsbridge College, where eight monks could carry on their lives of worship and self-denial while they studied.
“Oxford!” said Anthony, and an expression of anxiety and distaste came over his face. “Why?”
“To study. It’s what monks are supposed to do.”
“I never went to Oxford—and I’m prior.”
It was true, but Anthony was sometimes at a disadvantage with his senior colleagues in consequence. The sacrist, the treasurer, and several other monastic officials, or obedientiaries, were graduates of the university, as were all the physicians. They were quick-thinking and skilled in argument, and Anthony sometimes appeared bumbling by comparison, especially in chapter, the daily meeting of all the monks. Godwyn longed to acquire the sharp logic and confident superiority he observed in the Oxford men. He did not want to be like his uncle.
But he could not say that. “I want to learn,” he said.
“Why learn heresy?” Anthony said scornfully. “Oxford students question the teachings of the church!”
“In order to understand them better.”
“Pointless and dangerous.”
Godwyn asked himself why Anthony was making this fuss. The prior had never appeared concerned about heresy before, and Godwyn was not in the least interested in challenging accepted doctrines. He frowned. “I thought you and my mother had ambitions for me,” he said. “Don’t you want me to advance, and become an obedientiary, and perhaps one day prior?”
“Eventually, yes. But you don’t have to leave Kingsbridge to achieve that.”
You don’t want me to advance too fast, in case I outstrip you; and you don’t want me to leave town, in case you lose control of me, Godwyn thought in a flash of insight. He wished he had anticipated this resistance to his plans. “I don’t want to study theology,” he said.
“Medicine. It’s such an important part of our work here.”
Anthony pursed his lips. Godwyn had seen the same disapproving expression on his mother’s face. “The monastery can’t afford to pay for you,” Anthony said. “Do you realize that just one book costs at least fourteen shillings?”
Godwyn was taken by surprise. Students could hire books by the page, he knew; but that was not the main point. “What about the students already there?” he said. “Who pays for them?”
“Two are supported by their families, and one by the nuns. The priory pays for the other three, but we can’t afford any more. In fact there are two places vacant in the college for lack of funds.”
Godwyn knew the priory was in financial difficulties. On the other hand, it had vast resources: thousands of acres of land; mills and fishponds and woodland; and the enormous income from Kingsbridge market. He could not believe his uncle was refusing him the money to go to Oxford. He felt betrayed. Anthony was his mentor as well as a relative. He had always favored Godwyn over other young monks. But now he was trying to hold Godwyn back.
“Physicians bring money into the priory,” he argued. “If you don’t train young men, eventually the old ones will die and the priory will be poorer.”
“God will provide.”
This infuriating platitude was always Anthony’s answer. For some years the priory’s income from the annual Fleece Fair had been declining. The townspeople had urged Anthony to invest in better facilities for the wool traders—tents, booths, latrines, even a wool exchange building—but he always refused, pleading poverty. And when his brother, Edmund, told him the fair would eventually decline to nothing, he said: “God will provide.”
Godwyn said: “Well, then, perhaps He will provide the money for me to go to Oxford.”
“Perhaps He will.”
Godwyn felt painfully disappointed. He had an urge to get away from his hometown and breathe a different air. At Kingsbridge College he would be subject to the same monastic discipline, of course—but nevertheless he would be far from his uncle and his mother, and that prospect was alluring.
He was not yet ready to give up the argument. “My mother will be very disappointed if I don’t go.”
Anthony looked uneasy. He did not want to incur the wrath of his formidable sister. “Then let her pray for the money to be found.”
“I may be able to get it elsewhere,” Godwyn said, extemporizing.
“How would you do that?”
He cast about for an answer, and found inspiration. “I could do what you do, and ask Mother Cecilia.” It was possible. Cecilia made him nervous—she could be as intimidating as Petranilla—but she was more susceptible to his boyish charm. She might be persuaded to pay for a bright young monk’s education.
The suggestion took Anthony by surprise. Godwyn could see him trying to think of an objection. But he had been arguing as if money were the main consideration, and it was difficult now for him to shift his ground.
While Anthony hesitated, Cecilia came in.
She wore a heavy cloak of fine wool, her only indulgence—she hated to be cold. After greeting the prior, she turned to Godwyn. “Your aunt Rose is gravely ill,” she said. Her voice was musically precise. “She may not last the night.”
“May God be with her.” Godwyn felt a pang of pity. In a family where everyone was a leader, Rose was the only follower. Her petals seemed the more fragile for being surrounded by brambles. “It’s not a shock,” he added. “But my cousins, Alice and Caris, will be sad.”
“Fortunately, they have your mother to console them.”
“Yes.” Consolation was not Petranilla’s strong point, Godwyn thought—she was better at stiffening your spine and preventing you from backsliding—but he did not correct the prioress. Instead he poured her a goblet of cider. “Is it a little chilly in here, Reverend Mother?”
“Freezing,” she said bluntly.
“I’ll build up the fire.”
Anthony said slyly: “My nephew, Godwyn, is being attentive because he wants you to pay for him to go to Oxford.”
Godwyn glared furiously at him. Godwyn would have planned a careful speech and chosen the best time to deliver it. Now Anthony had blurted out the request in the most charmless fashion.
Cecilia said: “I don’t think we can afford to finance two more.”
It was Anthony’s turn to be surprised. “Someone else has asked you for money to go to Oxford?”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t say,” Cecilia replied. “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”
“It’s of no consequence,” Anthony said huffily; then he recollected himself and added: “We are always grateful for your generosity.”
Godwyn put more wood on the fire, then went out. The prior’s house was on the north side of the cathedral. The cloisters, and all the other priory buildings, were to the south of the church. Godwyn walked shivering across the cathedral green to the monastery kitchen.
He had thought Anthony might quibble about Oxford, saying he should wait until he was older, or until one of the existing students graduated—for Anthony was a quibbler by nature. But he was Anthony’s protégé, and he had been confident that in the end his uncle would support him. Anthony’s flat opposition had left him feeling shocked.
He asked himself who else had petitioned the prioress for support. Of the twenty-six monks, six were around Godwyn’s age: it could be any one of them. In the kitchen the subcellarer, Theodoric, was helping the cook. Could he be the rival for Cecilia’s money? Godwyn watched him put the goose on a platter with a bowl of apple sauce. Theodoric had brains enough to study. He could be a contender.
Godwyn carried the dinner back to the prior’s house, feeling worried. If Cecilia decided to help Theodoric, he did not know what he would do. He had no fallback plan.
He wanted to be prior of Kingsbridge one day. He felt sure he could do the job better than Anthony. And if he was a successful prior, he might rise higher: bishop, archbishop, or perhaps a royal official or counselor. He had only a vague idea of what he would do with such power, but he felt strongly that he belonged in some elevated position in life. However, there were only two routes to such heights. One was aristocratic birth; the other, education. Godwyn came from a family of wool merchants: his only hope was the university. And for that, he was going to need Cecilia’s money.
He put the dinner on the table. Cecilia was saying: “But how did the king die?”
“He suffered a fall,” Anthony said.
Godwyn carved the goose. “May I give you some of the breast, Reverend Mother?”
“Yes, please. A fall?” she said skeptically. “You make the king sound like a doddering old man. He was forty-three!”
“It’s what his jailers say.” Having been deposed, the ex-king had been a prisoner at Berkeley Castle, a couple of days’ ride from Kingsbridge.
“Ah, yes, his jailers,” Cecilia said. “Mortimer’s men.” She disapproved of Roger Mortimer, the earl of March. Not only had he led the rebellion against Edward II—he had also seduced the king’s wife, Queen Isabella.
They began to eat. Godwyn wondered whether there would be any left over.
Anthony said to Cecilia: “You sound as if you suspect something sinister.”
“Of course not—but others do. There has been talk….”
“That he was murdered? I know. But I saw the corpse, naked. There were no marks of violence on the body.”
Godwyn knew he should not interrupt, but he could not resist. “Rumor says that when the king died his screams of agony were heard by everyone in the village of Berkeley.”
Anthony looked censorious. “When a king dies, there are always rumors.”
“This king did not merely die,” Cecilia said. “He was first deposed by Parliament—something that has never happened before.”
Anthony lowered his voice. “The reasons were powerful. There were sins of impurity.”
He was being enigmatic, but Godwyn knew what he meant. Edward had had “favorites”—young men he seemed unnaturally fond of. The first, Peter Gaveston, had been given so much power and privilege that he aroused jealousy and resentment among the barons, and in the end he had been executed for treason. But then there had been others. It was no wonder, people said, that the queen had taken a lover.
“I cannot believe such a thing,” said Cecilia, who was a passionate royalist. “It may be true that outlaws in the forest give themselves up to such foul practices, but a man of royal blood could never sink so low. Is there any more of that goose?”
“Yes,” Godwyn said, concealing his disappointment. He cut the last of the meat from the bird and gave it to the prioress.
Anthony said: “At least there is now no challenge to the new king.” The son of Edward II and Queen Isabella had been crowned as King Edward III.
“He is fourteen years old, and he has been put on the throne by Mortimer,” said Cecilia. “Who will be the real ruler?”
“The nobles are glad to have stability.”
“Especially those of them who are Mortimer’s cronies.”
“Such as Earl Roland of Shiring, you mean?”
“He seemed ebullient today.”
“You’re not suggesting …”
“That he had something to do with the king’s ‘fall’? Certainly not.” The prioress ate the last of the meat. “Such an idea would be dangerous to speak of, even among friends.”
There was a tap at the door, and Saul Whitehead came in. He was the same age as Godwyn. Could he be the rival? He was intelligent and capable, and he had the great advantage of being a distant relation of the earl of Shiring; but Godwyn doubted whether he had the ambition to go to Oxford. He was devout and shy, the kind of man for whom humility was no virtue because it came naturally. But anything was possible.
“A knight has come into the hospital with a sword wound,” Saul said.
“Interesting,” said Anthony, “but hardly shocking enough to justify interrupting the prior and the prioress at dinner.”
Saul looked scared. “I beg your pardon, Father Prior,” he stammered. “But there is a disagreement about the treatment.”
Anthony sighed. “Well, the goose is all gone,” he said, and he got to his feet.
Cecilia went with him, and Godwyn and Saul followed. They entered the cathedral by the north transept and walked through the crossing, out by the south transept, across the cloisters and into the hospital. The wounded knight lay on the bed nearest the altar, as befitted his rank.
Prior Anthony uttered an involuntary grunt of surprise. For a moment he showed shock and fear. But he recovered his composure quickly, and made his face expressionless.
However, Cecilia missed nothing. “Do you know this man?” she asked Anthony.
“I believe I do. He is Sir Thomas Langley, one of the earl of Monmouth’s men.”
He was a handsome man in his twenties, broad-shouldered and long-legged. He was naked to the waist, showing a muscular torso crisscrossed with the scars of earlier fights. He looked pale and exhausted.
“He was attacked on the road,” Saul explained. “He managed to fight off his assailants, but then he had to drag himself a mile or more to the town. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
The knight’s left forearm was split from elbow to wrist, a clean cut obviously made by a sharp sword.
The monastery’s senior physician, Brother Joseph, stood beside the patient. Joseph was in his thirties, a small man with a big nose and bad teeth. He said: “The wound should be kept open and treated with an ointment to bring on a pus. That way, evil humors will be expelled and the wound will heal from the inside out.”
Anthony nodded. “So where is the disagreement?”
“Matthew Barber has another idea.”
Matthew was a barber-surgeon from the town. He had been standing back deferentially, but now he stepped forward, holding the leather case that contained his expensive, sharp knives. He was a small, thin man with bright blue eyes and a solemn expression.
Anthony did not acknowledge Matthew, but said to Joseph: “What’s he doing here?”
“The knight knows him and sent for him.”
Anthony spoke to Thomas. “If you want to be butchered, why did you come to the priory hospital?”
The ghost of a smile flickered across the knight’s white face, but he seemed too tired to reply.
Matthew spoke up with surprising confidence, apparently undeterred by Anthony’s scorn. “I’ve seen many wounds like this on the battlefield, Father Prior,” he said. “The best treatment is the simplest: wash the wound with warm wine, and then stitch it closed and bandage it.” He was not as deferential as he looked.
Mother Cecilia interrupted. “I wonder if our two young monks have opinions on the question?” she asked.
Anthony looked impatient, but Godwyn realized what she was up to. This was a test. Perhaps Saul was the rival for her money.
The answer was easy, so Godwyn got in first. “Brother Joseph has studied the ancient masters,” he said. “He must know best. I don’t suppose Matthew can even read.”
“I can, Brother Godwyn,” Matthew protested. “And I have a book.”
Anthony laughed. The idea of a barber with a book was silly, like a horse with a hat. “What book?”
“The Canon of Avicenna, the great Islamic physician. Translated from Arabic into Latin. I have read it all, slowly.”
“And is your remedy proposed by Avicenna?”
Matthew persisted. “But I learned more about healing by traveling with armies and treating the wounded than I ever did from the book.”
Mother Cecilia said: “Saul, what’s your view?”
Godwyn expected Saul to give the same answer, so the contest would be indecisive. But, although he looked nervous and shy, Saul contradicted Godwyn. “The barber may be right,” he said. Godwyn was delighted. Saul went on arguing for the wrong side. “The treatment proposed by Brother Joseph might be more suitable for crushing or hammering injuries, such as we get on building sites, where the skin and flesh all around the cut are damaged, and to close the wound prematurely might seal evil humors inside the body. This is a clean cut, and the sooner it is closed, the faster it will heal.”
“Nonsense,” said Prior Anthony. “How could a town barber be right and an educated monk be wrong?”
Godwyn smothered a triumphant grin.
The door flew open, and a young man in the robes of a priest strode in. Godwyn recognized Richard of Shiring, the younger of the two sons of Earl Roland. His nod to the prior and prioress was so perfunctory as to be impolite. He went straight to the bedside and spoke to the knight. “What the devil has happened?” he said.
Thomas lifted a weak hand and beckoned Richard closer. The young priest leaned over the patient. Thomas whispered in his ear.
Father Richard drew away as if shocked. “Absolutely not!” he said.
Thomas beckoned again, and the process was repeated: another whisper, another outraged reaction. This time, Richard said: “But why?”
Thomas did not reply.
Richard said: “You are asking for something that is not in our power to give.”
Thomas nodded firmly, as if to say: Yes, it is.
“You’re giving us no choice.”
Thomas shook his head weakly from side to side.
Richard turned to Prior Anthony. “Sir Thomas wishes to become a monk here at the priory.”
There was a moment of surprised silence. Cecilia was the first to react. “But he’s a man of violence!”
“Come on, it’s not unknown,” Richard said impatiently. “A fighting man sometimes decides to abandon his life of warfare and seek forgiveness for his sins.”
“In old age, perhaps,” Cecilia said. “This man is not yet twenty-five. He’s fleeing some danger.” She looked hard at Richard. “Who threatens his life?”
“Curb your curiosity,” Richard said rudely. “He wants to be a monk, not a nun, so you need not inquire further.” It was a shocking way to talk to a prioress, but the sons of earls could get away with such rudeness. He turned to Anthony. “You must admit him.”
Anthony said: “The priory is too poor to take on any more monks—unless there were to be a gift that would pay the costs….”
“It will be arranged.”
“It would have to be adequate to the need—”
“It will be arranged!”
Cecilia was suspicious. She said to Anthony: “Do you know more about this man than you’re telling me?”
“I see no reason to turn him away.”
“What makes you think he’s a genuine penitent?”
Everyone looked at Thomas. His eyes had closed.
Anthony said: “He will have to prove his sincerity during his novitiate, like anyone else.”
She was clearly dissatisfied, but for once Anthony was not asking her for the money, so there was nothing she could do. “We’d better get on with treating this wound,” she said.
Saul said: “He refused Brother Joseph’s treatment. That’s why we had to fetch the Father Prior.”
Anthony leaned over the patient. In a loud voice, as if speaking to someone deaf, he said: “You must have the treatment prescribed by Brother Joseph. He knows best.”
Thomas appeared unconscious.
Anthony turned to Joseph. “He is no longer objecting.”
Matthew Barber said: “He could lose his arm!”
“You’d better leave,” Anthony told him.
Looking angry, Matthew went out.
Anthony said to Richard: “Perhaps you would come to the prior’s house for a cup of cider.”
As they left, Anthony said to Godwyn: “Stay here and help the Mother Prioress. Come to me before Vespers and tell me how the knight is recovering.”
Prior Anthony did not normally worry about the progress of individual patients. Clearly he had a special interest in this one.
Godwyn watched as Brother Joseph applied ointment to the arm of the now-unconscious knight. He thought he had probably ensured Cecilia’s financial support by giving the correct answer to the question, but he was keen to get her explicit agreement. When Brother Joseph had done, and Cecilia was bathing Thomas’s forehead with rose water, he said: “I hope you will consider my request favorably.”
She gave him a sharp look. “I might as well tell you now that I have decided to give the money to Saul.”
Godwyn was shocked. “But I gave the right answer!”
“Surely you didn’t agree with the barber?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I won’t be interrogated by you, Brother Godwyn.”
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “I just don’t understand it.”
If she was going to be enigmatic, there was no point in talking to her. Godwyn turned away, shaking with frustration and disappointment. She was giving the money to Saul! Was it because he was related to the earl? Godwyn thought not: she was too independent-minded. It was Saul’s showy piety that had tipped the balance, he decided. But Saul would never be leader of anything. What a waste. Godwyn wondered how he was going to break this news to his mother. She would be furious—but whom would she blame? Anthony? Godwyn himself? A familiar feeling of dread came over him as he pictured his mother’s wrath.
As he thought of her, he saw her enter the hospital by the door at the far end, a tall woman with a prominent bust. She caught his eye and stood by the door, waiting for him to come to her. He walked slowly, trying to figure out what to say.
“Your aunt Rose is dying,” Petranilla said as soon as he was close.
“May God bless her soul. Mother Cecilia told me.”
“You look shocked—but you know how ill she is.”
“It’s not Aunt Rose. I’ve had other bad news.” He swallowed. “I can’t go to Oxford. Uncle Anthony won’t pay for it, and Mother Cecilia turned me down, too.”
She did not explode immediately, to his great relief. However, her mouth tightened into a grim line. “But why?” she said.
“He hasn’t got the money, and she is sending Saul.”
“Saul Whitehead? He’ll never amount to anything.”
“Well, at least he’s going to be a physician.”
She looked him in the eye, and he shriveled. “I think you handled this badly,” she said. “You should have discussed it with me beforehand.”
He had feared she would take this line. “How can you say I mishandled it?” he protested.
“You should have let me speak to Anthony first. I would have softened him.”
“He still might have said no.”
“And before you approached Cecilia, you should have found out whether anyone else had asked her. Then you could have undermined Saul before speaking to her.”
“He must have a weakness. You could have found out what it is, and made sure it was brought to her attention. Then, when she was feeling disillusioned, you could have approached her yourself.”
He saw the sense of what she was saying. “I never thought of that,” he said. He bowed his head.
With controlled anger she said: “You have to plan these things, the way earls plan battles.”
“I see that now,” he said, not meeting her eye. “I’ll never make the same mistake again.”
“I hope not.”
He looked at her again. “What am I going to do?”
“I’m not giving up.” A familiar expression of determination came over her face. “I shall provide the money,” she said.
Godwyn felt a surge of hope, but he could not imagine how his mother would fulfill such a promise. “Where will you get it?” he asked.
“I’ll give up my house, and move in with my brother Edmund.”
“Will he have you?” Edmund was a generous man, but he sometimes clashed with his sister.
“I think he will. He’s going to be a widower soon, and he’ll need a housekeeper. Not that Rose was ever very effective in that role.”
Godwyn shook his head. “You’ll still need money.”
“For what? Edmund will give me bed and board, and pay for the few small necessities I may require. In return, I’ll manage his servants and raise his daughters. And you shall have the money I inherited from your father.”
She spoke firmly, but Godwyn could see the bitterness of regret expressed in the twist of her mouth. He knew what a sacrifice this would be for her. She was proud of her independence. She was one of the town’s prominent women, the daughter of a wealthy man and the sister of the leading wool merchant, and she prized that status. She loved to invite the powerful men and women of Kingsbridge to dine with her and drink the best wine. Now she was proposing to move into her brother’s house and live as a poor relation, working as a kind of servant and dependent on him for everything. It would be a terrible comedown. “It’s too much to sacrifice,” Godwyn said. “You can’t do it.”
Her face hardened, and she gave a little shake of the shoulders, as if preparing to take the weight of a heavy burden. “Oh, yes, I can,” she said.
Gwenda told her father everything.
She had sworn on the blood of Jesus that she would keep the secret, so now she was going to hell, but she was more frightened of her father than of hell.
He began by asking her where she got Skip, the new puppy, and she was forced to explain how Hop had died; and in the end the whole story came out.
To her surprise, she was not whipped. In fact Pa seemed pleased. He made her take him to the clearing in the forest where the killings had happened. It was not easy to find the place again, but she got there, and they found the bodies of the two men-at-arms dressed in green-and-yellow livery.
First Pa opened their purses. Both contained twenty or thirty pennies. He was even more pleased with their swords, which were worth more than a few pennies. He began to strip the dead men, which was difficult for him with one hand, so he made Gwenda help him. The lifeless bodies were awkwardly heavy, so strange to touch. Pa made her take off everything they wore, even their muddy hose and their soiled underdrawers.
He wrapped their weapons in the clothing, making what looked like a bundle of rags. Then he and Gwenda dragged the naked corpses back into the evergreen bush.
He was in high spirits as they walked back into Kingsbridge. He took her to Slaughterhouse Ditch, a street near the river, and they went into a large but dirty tavern called the White Horse. He bought Gwenda a cup of ale to drink while he disappeared into the back of the house with the innkeeper, whom he addressed as “Davey boy.” It was the second time Gwenda had drunk ale in one day. Pa reappeared a few minutes later without the bundle.
They returned to the main street and found Ma, Philemon, and the baby at the Bell Inn, next to the priory gates. Pa winked broadly at Ma and gave her a big handful of money to hide in the baby’s blankets.
It was midafternoon, and most visitors had left to return to their villages; but it was too late to set out for Wigleigh, so the family would spend the night at the inn. As Pa kept saying, they could afford it now; although Ma said nervously: “Don’t let people know you’ve got money!”
Gwenda felt weary. She had got up early and walked a long way. She lay down on a bench and quickly fell asleep.
She was awakened by the inn door banging open violently. She looked up, startled, to see two men-at-arms walk in. At first she thought they were the ghosts of the men who had been killed in the forest, and she suffered a moment of sheer terror. Then she realized they were different men wearing the same uniform, yellow on one side and green on the other. The younger of the two carried a familiar-looking bundle of rags.
The older spoke directly to Pa. “You’re Joby from Wigleigh, aren’t you?”
Gwenda instantly felt frightened again. There was a tone of serious menace in the man’s voice. He was not posturing, just determined, but he gave her the impression he would do anything to get his way.
“No,” Pa replied, lying automatically. “You’ve got the wrong man.”
They ignored that. The second man put the bundle on the table and spread it out. It consisted of two yellow-and-green tunics wrapped around two swords and two daggers. He looked at Pa and said: “Where did these come from?”
“I’ve never seen them before, I swear by the Cross.”
He was stupid to deny it, Gwenda thought fearfully: they would get the truth out of him, just as he had got the truth out of her.
The older man-at-arms said: “Davey, the landlord of the White Horse, says he bought these from Joby Wigleigh.” His voice hardened with threat, and the handful of other customers in the room all got up from their seats and quickly slipped out of the inn, leaving only Gwenda’s family.
“Joby left here a while ago,” Pa said desperately.
The man nodded. “With his wife, two children, and a baby.”
The man moved with sudden speed. He grabbed Pa’s tunic in a strong hand and pushed him up against the wall. Ma screamed, and the baby began to cry. Gwenda saw that the man’s right hand bore a padded glove covered with chain mail. He drew back his arm and punched Pa in the stomach.
Ma shouted: “Help! Murder!” Philemon began to cry.
Pa’s face turned white with pain, and he went limp, but the man held him up against the wall, preventing him from falling, and punched him again, this time in the face. Blood spurted from Pa’s nose and mouth.
Gwenda wanted to scream, and her mouth was open wide, but no noise would come from her throat. She thought her father was all-powerful—even though he often slyly pretended to be weak, or craven, in order to get sympathy, or turn aside anger—and it terrified her to see him so helpless.
The innkeeper appeared in the doorway that led to the back of the house. He was a big man in his thirties. A plump little girl peeped from behind him. “What’s this?” he said in a voice of authority.
The man-at-arms did not look at him. “You keep out of it,” he said, and he punched Pa in the stomach again.
Pa vomited blood.
“Stop that,” said the innkeeper.
The man-at-arms said: “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m Paul Bell, and this is my house.”
“Well, then, Paul Bell, you mind your own business, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I suppose you think you can do what you like, wearing that uniform.” There was contempt in Paul’s voice.
“That’s about right.”
“Whose livery is it, anyway?”
Paul spoke over his shoulder. “Bessie, run and fetch John Constable. If a man is going to be murdered in my tavern, I want the constable to witness it.” The little girl disappeared.
“There’ll be no killing here,” the man-at-arms said. “Joby has changed his mind. He’s decided to lead me to the place where he robbed two dead men—haven’t you, Joby?”
Pa could not speak, but he nodded. The man let him go, and he fell to his knees, coughing and retching.
The man looked at the rest of the family. “And the child that witnessed the fight …?”
Gwenda screamed: “No!”
He nodded in satisfaction. “The rat-faced girl, obviously.”
Gwenda ran to her mother. Ma said: “Mary, Mother of God, save my child.”
The man grabbed Gwenda’s arm and roughly pulled her away from her mother. She cried out. He said harshly: “Shut your noise, or you’ll get the same as your miserable father.”
Gwenda clamped her jaws together to stop herself screaming.
“Get up, Joby.” The man dragged Pa to his feet. “Pull yourself together. You’re going for a ride.”
The second man picked up the clothes and the weapons.
As they left the inn, Ma called out frantically: “Just do everything they ask!”
The men had horses. Gwenda rode in front of the older man, and Pa was mounted in the same position on the other horse. Pa was helpless, groaning, so Gwenda directed them, remembering the way clearly now that she had followed it twice. They made rapid progress on horseback, but all the same the afternoon was darkening when they reached the clearing.
The younger man held on to Gwenda and Pa while the leader pulled the bodies of their comrades out from under the bush.
“That Thomas must be a rare fighter, to kill Harry and Alfred together,” the older man mused, looking at the corpses. Gwenda realized that these men did not know about the other children. She would have confessed that she had not been alone, and that Ralph had killed one of the men; but she was too terrified to speak. “He’s nearly cut Alfred’s head off,” the man went on. He turned and looked at Gwenda. “Was anything said about a letter?”
“I don’t know!” she said, finding her voice. “I had my eyes shut because I was frightened, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying! It’s true. I’d tell you if I knew!”
“If they got the letter from him in the first place, he would have taken it back after he killed them anyway,” the man said to his comrade. He looked at the trees around the clearing, as if the letter might have been hanging among the dying leaves. “He probably has it now, at the priory, where we can’t get at him without violating the sanctity of the monastery.”
The second man said: “At least we can report exactly what happened, and take the bodies home for a Christian burial.”
There was a sudden commotion. Pa wrenched himself out of the grasp of the second man and dashed across the clearing. His captor moved to go after him, but was stopped by the older man-at-arms. “Let him go—what’s the point in killing him now?”
Gwenda began to cry quietly.
“What about this child?” said the younger man.
They were going to murder her, Gwenda felt sure. She could see nothing through her tears, and she was sobbing too hard to plead for her life. She would die and go to hell. She waited for the end.
“Let her go,” said the older man. “I wasn’t born to kill little girls.”
The younger man released her and gave her a shove. She stumbled and fell to the ground. She got up, wiped her eyes so that she could see, and stumbled off.
“Go on, run away,” the man called after her. “It’s your lucky day!”
Caris could not sleep. She got up from her bed and went into Mama’s room. Papa was sitting on a stool, staring at the still figure in the bed.
Mama’s eyes were closed and her face glistened, in the candlelight, with a film of perspiration. She seemed to be hardly breathing. Caris took her pale hand: it was terribly cold. She held it between her own, trying to warm it.
She said: “Why did they take her blood?”
“They think illness sometimes comes from an excess of one of the humors. They hope to take it away with the blood.”
“But it didn’t make her better.”
“No. In fact, she seems worse.”
Tears came to Caris’s eyes. “Why did you let them do it, then?”
“Priests and monks study the works of the ancient philosophers. They know more than we do.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“It’s hard to know what to believe, little buttercup.”
“If I was a doctor, I’d only do things that made people better.”
Papa was not listening. He was looking more intently at Mama. He leaned forward and slipped his hand under the blanket to touch her chest just below her left breast. Caris could see the shape of his big hand under the fine wool. He made a small choking sound in his throat, then moved his hand and pressed down more firmly. He held it there for a few moments.
He closed his eyes.
He seemed to fall slowly forward, until he was on his knees beside the bed, as if praying, with his big forehead resting on Mama’s thigh, and his hand still on her chest.
She realized he was crying. It was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to her, much more frightening than seeing a man killed in the forest. Children cried, women cried, weak and helpless people cried, but Papa never cried. She felt as if the world was ending.
She had to get help. She let Mama’s cold hand slip out of her own onto the blanket, where it lay motionless. She went back to her bedroom and shook the shoulder of the sleeping Alice. “You’ve got to wake up!” she said.
At first Alice would not open her eyes.
“Papa is crying!” Caris said.
Alice sat upright. “He can’t be,” she said.
Alice got out of bed. Caris took her older sister’s hand and they went together into Mama’s room. Papa was standing up now, looking down at the still face on the pillow, his face wet with tears. Alice stared at him in shock. Caris whispered: “I told you so.”
On the other side of the bed stood Aunt Petranilla.
Papa saw the girls standing in the doorway. He left his station by the bed and came to them. He put one arm around each of them, drew them both to him, and hugged them. “Your mama has gone to be with the angels,” he said quietly. “Pray for her soul.”
“Be brave, girls,” said Petranilla. “From now on, I will be your mama.”
Caris wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at her aunt. “Oh, no, you won’t,” she said.
June 8 to 14,
On Whitsunday in the year that Merthin was twenty-one, a river of rain fell on Kingsbridge Cathedral.
Great globules of water bounced off the slate roof; streams flooded the gutters; fountains gushed from the mouths of gargoyles; sheets of water unfolded down the buttresses; and torrents ran over the arches and down the columns, soaking the statues of the saints. The sky, the great church, and the town round about were all shades of wet gray paint.
Whitsunday commemorated the moment when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus. The seventh Sunday after Easter, it fell in May or June, soon after most of England’s sheep had been sheared; and so it was always the first day of the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair.
As Merthin splashed through the downpour to the cathedral for the morning service, pulling his hood forward over his brow in a vain attempt to keep his face dry, he had to pass through the fair. On the broad green to the west of the church, hundreds of traders had set out their stalls—then hastily covered them with sheets of oiled sacking or felted cloth to keep the rain off. Wool traders were the key figures in the fair, from the small operators, who collected the produce of a few scattered villagers, to the big dealers such as Edmund, who had a warehouse full of woolsacks to sell. Around them clustered subsidiary stalls selling just about everything else money could buy: sweet wine from the Rhineland, silk brocade threaded with gold from Lucca, glass bowls from Venice, ginger and pepper from places in the East that few people could even name. And finally there were the workaday tradespeople, who supplied visitors and stallholders with their commonplace needs: bakers, brewers, confectioners, fortune-tellers, and prostitutes.
The stallholders responded bravely to the rain, joking with one another, trying to create the carnival atmosphere; but the weather would be bad for their profits. Some people had to do business, rain or shine: Italian and Flemish buyers needed soft English wool for thousands of busy looms in Florence and Bruges. But more casual customers would stay at home: a knight’s wife would decide she could manage without nutmeg and cinnamon; a prosperous peasant would make his old coat last another winter; a lawyer would judge that his mistress did not really need a gold bangle.
Merthin was not going to buy anything. He had no money. He was an unpaid apprentice, living with his master, Elfric Builder. He was fed at the family table, he slept on the kitchen floor, and he wore Elfric’s cast-off clothes, but he got no wages. In the long winter evenings, he carved ingenious toys that he sold for a few pennies—a jewel box with secret compartments, a cockerel whose tongue poked out when its tail was pressed—but in summer there was no spare time, for craftsmen worked until dark.
However, his apprenticeship was almost over. In less than six months, on the first day of December, he would become a full member of the carpenters’ guild of Kingsbridge at the age of twenty-one. He could hardly wait.
The great west doors of the cathedral were open to admit the thousands of townspeople and visitors who would attend today’s service. Merthin stepped inside, shaking the rain off his clothes. The stone floor was slippery with water and mud. On a fine day, the interior of the church would be bright with shafts of sunlight, but today it was murky, the stained-glass windows dim, the congregation shrouded in dark, wet clothes.
Where did all the rain go? There were no drainage ditches around the church. The water—thousands and thousands of gallons of it—just soaked into the ground. Did it go on down, farther and farther, until it fell as rain again in hell? No. The cathedral was built on a slope. The water traveled underground, seeping down the hill from north to south. The foundations of large stone buildings were designed to let water flow through, for a buildup was dangerous. All this rain eventually passed into the river on the southern boundary of the priory grounds.
Merthin imagined he could feel the underground rush of the water, its drumming vibration transmitted through the foundations and the tiled floor and sensed by the soles of his feet.
A small black dog scampered up to him, wagging its tail, and greeted him joyfully. “Hello, Scrap,” he said, and patted her. He looked up to see the dog’s mistress, Caris; and his heart skipped a beat.
She wore a cloak of bright scarlet that she had inherited from her mother. It was the only splash of color in the gloom. Merthin smiled broadly, happy to see her. It was hard to say what made her so beautiful. She had a small square face with neat, regular features; midbrown hair; and green eyes flecked with gold. She was not so different from a hundred other Kingsbridge girls. But she wore her hat at a jaunty angle, there was a mocking intelligence in her eyes, and she looked at him with a mischievous grin that promised vague but tantalizing delights. He had known her for ten years, but it was only in the past few months that he had realized he loved her.
She drew him behind a pillar and kissed him on the mouth, the tip of her tongue running lightly across his lips.
They kissed every chance they got: in church, in the marketplace, when they met on the street, and—best of all—when he was at her house and they found themselves alone. He lived for those moments. He thought about kissing her before he went to sleep and again as soon as he woke up.
He visited her house two or three times a week. Her father, Edmund, liked him, though her aunt Petranilla did not. A convivial man, Edmund often invited Merthin to stay for supper, and Merthin accepted gratefully, knowing it would be a better meal than he would get at Elfric’s house. He and Caris would play chess or checkers, or just sit talking. He liked to watch her while she told a story or explained something, her hands drawing pictures in the air, her face expressing amusement or astonishment, acting every part in a pageant. But, most of the time, he was waiting for those moments when he could steal a kiss.
He glanced around the church: no one was looking their way. He slipped his hand inside her coat and touched her through the soft linen of her dress. Her body was warm. He held her breast in his palm, small and round. He loved the way her flesh yielded to the press of his fingertips. He had never seen her naked, but he knew her breasts intimately.
In his dreams they went farther. Then, they were alone somewhere: a clearing in the woods or the big bedchamber of a castle; and they were both naked. But, strangely, his dreams always ended a moment too soon, just before he entered her; and he would wake up frustrated.
One day, he would think. One day.
They had not yet spoken about marriage. Apprentices could not marry, so he had to wait. Caris must, surely, have asked herself what they were going to do when he finished his term; but she had not voiced those thoughts. She seemed content to take life one day at a time. And he had a superstitious fear of talking about their future together. It was said that pilgrims should not spend too much time planning their journey, for they might learn of so many hazards that they would decide not to go.
A nun walked past, and Merthin withdrew his hand guiltily from Caris’s bosom; but the nun did not notice them. People did all sorts of things in the vast space of the cathedral. Last year Merthin had seen a couple having sexual congress up against the wall of the south aisle, in the darkness of the Christmas Eve service—although they could have been thrown out for it. He wondered if he and Caris could stay here throughout the service, dallying discreetly.
But she had other ideas. “Let’s go to the front,” she said. She took his hand and led him through the crowd. He knew many of the people there, though not all: Kingsbridge was one of the larger cities in England, with about seven thousand inhabitants, and no one knew everybody. He followed Caris to the crossing, where the nave met the transepts. There they came up against a wooden barrier blocking entrance to the eastern end, or chancel, which was reserved for clergy.
Merthin found himself standing next to Buonaventura Caroli, the most important of the Italian merchants, a heavyset man in a richly embroidered coat of thick wool cloth. He came originally from Florence—which he said was the greatest city in the Christian world, more than ten times the size of Kingsbridge—but he now lived in London, managing the large business his family had with English wool producers. The Carolis were so rich they loaned money to kings, but Buonaventura was amiable and unpretentious—though people said that in business he could be implacably hard.
Caris greeted the man in a casually familiar way: he was staying at her house. He gave Merthin a friendly nod, even though he must have guessed, from Merthin’s age and hand-me-down clothing, that he was a mere apprentice.
Buonaventura was looking at the architecture. “I have been coming to Kingsbridge for five years,” he said, making idle conversation, “but until today I have never noticed that the windows of the transepts are much bigger than those in the rest of the church.” He spoke French with an admixture of words from the dialect of the Italian region of Tuscany.
Merthin had no trouble understanding. He had grown up, like most sons of English knights, speaking Norman French to his parents and English to his playmates; and he could guess the meanings of many Italian words because he had learned Latin in the monks’ school. “I can tell you why the windows are like that,” he said.
Buonaventura raised his eyebrows, surprised that an apprentice should claim such knowledge.
“The church was built two hundred years ago, when these narrow lancet windows in the nave and chancel were a revolutionary new design,” Merthin went on. “Then, a hundred years later, the bishop wanted a taller tower, and he rebuilt the transepts at the same time, putting in the bigger windows that had by then come into fashion.”
Buonaventura was impressed. “And how do you happen to know this?”
“In the monastery library there is a history of the priory, called Timothy’s Book, that tells all about the building of the cathedral. Most of it was written in the time of the great Prior Philip, but later writers have added to it. I read it as a boy at the monks’ school.”
Buonaventura looked hard at Merthin for a moment, as if memorizing his face; then he said casually: “It’s a fine building.”
“Are the buildings very different in Italy?” Merthin was fascinated by talk of foreign countries, their life in general and their architecture in particular.
Buonaventura looked thoughtful. “I believe the principles of building are the same everywhere. But in England I have never seen domes.”
“What’s a dome?”
“A round roof, like half a ball.”
Merthin was astonished. “I never heard of such a thing! How is it built?”
Buonaventura laughed. “Young man, I am a wool merchant. I can tell whether a fleece comes from a Cotswold sheep or a Lincoln sheep, just by rubbing the wool between my finger and thumb, but I don’t know how a henhouse is built, let alone a dome.”
Merthin’s master, Elfric, arrived. He was a prosperous man, and he wore expensive clothes, but they always looked as if they belonged to someone else. A habitual sycophant, he ignored Caris and Merthin, but made a deep bow to Buonaventura and said: “Honored to have you in our city once again, sir.”
Merthin turned away.
“How many languages do you think there are?” Caris said to him.
She was always saying crazy things. “Five,” Merthin replied without thinking.
“No, be serious,” she said. “There’s English, and French, and Latin—that’s three. Then the Florentines and the Venetians speak differently, though they have words in common.”
“You’re right,” he said, entering into the game. “That’s five already. Then there’s Flemish.” Few people could make out the tongue of the traders who came to Kingsbridge from the weaving towns of Flanders: Ypres, Bruges, Ghent.
“The Arabs have their own language, and when they write, they don’t even use the same letters as we do.”
“And Mother Cecilia told me that all the barbarians have their own tongues that no one even knows how to write down—Scots, Welsh, Irish, and probably others. That makes eleven, and there might be people we haven’t even heard of!”
Merthin grinned. Caris was the only person he could do this with. Among their friends of the same age, no one understood the thrill of imagining strange people and different ways of life. She would ask a random question: what is it like to live at the edge of the world? Are the priests wrong about God? How do you know you’re not dreaming right now? And they would be off on a speculative voyage, competing to come up with the most outlandish notions.
The roar of conversation in the church suddenly quieted, and Merthin saw that the monks and nuns were seating themselves. The choirmaster, Blind Carlus, came in last. Although he could not see, he walked without assistance in the church and the monastic buildings, moving slowly, but as confident as a sighted man, familiar with every pillar and flagstone. Now he sang a note in his rich baritone, and the choir began a hymn.
Merthin was quietly skeptical about the clergy. Priests had power that was not always matched by their knowledge—rather like his employer, Elfric. However, he liked going to church. The services induced a kind of trance in him. The music, the architecture, and the Latin incantations enchanted him, and he felt as if he were asleep with his eyes open. Once again he had the fanciful sensation that he could feel the rainwater flowing in torrents far beneath his feet.
His gaze roamed over the three levels of the nave—arcade, gallery, and clerestory. He knew that the columns were made by placing one stone on top of another, but they gave a different impression, at least at first glance. The stone blocks were carved so that each column looked like a bundle of shafts. He traced the rise of one of the four giant piers of the crossing, from the huge square foot on which it stood, up to where one shaft branched north to form an arch across the side aisle, on up to the tribune level, where another shaft branched west to form the arcade of the gallery, on up to the westward springing of a clerestory arch, until the last remaining shafts separated, like a spray of flowers, and became the curving ribs of the ceiling vault far above. From the central boss at the highest point of the vault, he followed a rib all the way down again to the matching pier on the opposite corner of the crossing.
As he did so, something odd happened. His vision seemed momentarily to blur, and it looked as if the east side of the transept moved.
There was a low rumbling sound, so deep it was almost inaudible, and a tremor underfoot, as if a tree had fallen nearby.
The singing faltered.
In the chancel, a crack appeared in the south wall, right next to the pier Merthin had been looking at.
He found himself turning toward Caris. Out of the corner of his eye he saw masonry falling in the choir and the crossing. Then there was nothing but noise: women screaming, men shouting, and the deafening crash of huge stones hitting the floor. It lasted a long moment. When silence descended, Merthin found he was holding Caris, his left arm around her shoulders pressing her to him, his right arm protectively covering her head, his body interposed between her and the place where a part of the great church lay in ruins.
It was obviously a miracle that no one died.
The worst of the damage was in the south aisle of the chancel, which had been empty of people during the service. The congregation was not admitted to the chancel, and the clergy had all been in the central part, called the choir. Several monks had had narrow escapes, which only heightened the talk of miracles, and others had bad cuts and bruises from flying chips of stone. The congregation suffered no more than a few scratches. Evidently, they had all been supernaturally protected by St. Adolphus, whose bones were preserved under the high altar, and whose deeds included many instances of curing the sick and saving people from death. However, it was generally agreed that God had sent the people of Kingsbridge a warning. What he was warning them about was not yet clear.
An hour later, four men were inspecting the damage. Brother Godwyn, the cousin of Caris, was the sacrist, responsible for the church and all its treasures. Under him as matricularius, in charge of building operations and repairs, was Brother Thomas, who had been Sir Thomas Langley ten years ago. The contract for cathedral maintenance was held by Elfric, a carpenter by training and a general builder by trade. And Merthin tagged along as Elfric’s apprentice.
The east end of the church was divided by pillars into four sections, called bays. The collapse had affected the two bays nearest the crossing. The stone vaulting over the south aisle was destroyed completely in the first bay and partially in the second. There were cracks in the tribune gallery, and stone mullions had fallen from the windows of the clerestory.
Elfric said: “Some weakness in the mortar allowed the vault to crumble, and that in turn caused the cracks at higher levels.”
That did not sound right to Merthin, but he lacked an alternative explanation.
Merthin hated his master. He had first been apprenticed to Elfric’s father, Joachim, a builder of wide experience who had worked on churches and bridges in London and Paris. The old man had delighted in explaining to Merthin the lore of the masons—what they called their “mysteries,” which were mostly arithmetical formulas for building, such as the ratio between the height of a building and the depth of its foundations. Merthin liked numbers and lapped up everything Joachim could teach him.
Then Joachim died, and Elfric took over. Elfric believed the main thing an apprentice had to learn was obedience. Merthin found this difficult to accept, and Elfric punished him with short rations, thin clothing, and outdoor work in frosty weather. To make matters worse, Elfric’s chubby daughter, Griselda, the same age as Merthin, was always well fed and warmly dressed.
Three years ago Elfric’s wife had died, and he had married Alice, the older sister of Caris. People thought Alice was the prettier sister, and it was true that she had more regular features, but she lacked Caris’s captivating ways, and Merthin found her dull. Alice had always seemed to like Merthin almost as much as her sister did, and so he had hoped she would make Elfric treat him better. But the reverse happened. Alice seemed to think it was her wifely duty to join with Elfric in tormenting him.
Merthin knew that many other apprentices suffered in the same way, and they all put up with it because apprenticeship was the only way into a well-paid trade. The craft guilds efficiently kept out upstarts. No one could do business in a town without belonging to a guild. Even a priest, a monk, or a woman who wanted to deal in wool or brew ale for sale would have to get into a guild. And outside the towns there was little business to be done: peasants built their own houses and sewed their own shirts.
At the end of the apprenticeship, most boys would remain with the master, working as journeymen for a wage. A few would end up partners, taking over the enterprise when the old man died. That would not be Merthin’s destiny. He hated Elfric too much. He would leave the moment he could.
“Let’s look at it from above,” said Godwyn.
They walked toward the east end. Elfric said: “It’s good to see you back from Oxford, Brother Godwyn. But you must miss the company of all those learned people.”
Godwyn nodded. “The masters are truly astonishing.”
“And the other students—they must be remarkable young men, I imagine. Though we hear tales of bad behavior, too.”
Godwyn looked rueful. “I’m afraid some of those stories are true. When a young priest or monk is away from home for the first time, he may suffer temptation.”
“Still—we’re fortunate to have the benefit of university-trained men here in Kingsbridge.”
“Very kind of you to say so.”
“Oh, but it’s true.”
Merthin wanted to say: Shut up, for pity’s sake. But this was Elfric’s way. He was a poor craftsman, his work inaccurate and his judgment shaky, but he knew how to ingratiate himself. Merthin had watched him do it, time and again—for Elfric could be as charming to people from whom he wanted something as he could be rude to those who had nothing he needed.
Merthin was more surprised at Godwyn. How could an intelligent and educated man fail to see through Elfric? Perhaps it was less obvious to the person who was the object of the compliments.
Godwyn opened a small door and led the way up a narrow spiral staircase concealed in the wall. Merthin felt excited. He loved to enter the hidden passageways of the cathedral. He was also curious about the dramatic collapse, and eager to figure out its cause.
The aisles were single-story structures that stuck out either side of the main body of the church. They had rib-vaulted stone ceilings. Above the vault, a lean-to roof rose from the outer edge of the aisle up to the base of the clerestory. Under that sloping roof was a triangular void, its floor the hidden side, or extrados, of the aisle’s vaulted ceiling. The four men climbed into this void to look at the damage from above.
It was lit by window openings into the interior of the church, and Thomas had had the foresight to bring an oil lamp. The first thing Merthin noticed was that the vaults, viewed from above, were not exactly the same in each bay. The easternmost formed a slightly flatter curve than its neighbor, and the next one—partly destroyed—looked as though it was different again.
They walked along the extrados, staying close to the edge where the vault was strongest, until they were as near as they dared go to the collapsed portion. The vault was constructed in the same way as the rest of the church, of stones mortared together, except that ceiling stones were very thin and light. The vault was almost vertical at its springing, but as it rose it leaned inward, until it met the stonework coming up from the opposite edge.
Elfric said: “Well, the first thing to do is obviously to rebuild the vaulting over the first two bays of the aisle.”
Thomas said: “It’s a long time since anyone in Kingsbridge built rib-vaulting.” He turned to Merthin. “Could you make the formwork?”
Merthin knew what he meant. At the edge of the vault, where the masonry was almost upright, the stones would stay in place by their own weight; but, higher up, as the curve turned toward the horizontal, some support was needed to keep everything in place while the mortar dried. The obvious method was to make a wooden frame, called formwork or centering, and lay the stones on top of that.
It was a challenging job for a carpenter, for the curves had to be just right. Thomas knew the quality of Merthin’s craftsmanship, having closely supervised the work Merthin and Elfric carried out at the cathedral over several years. However, it was tactless of Thomas to address the apprentice rather than the boss, and Elfric reacted quickly. “Under my supervision he can do it, yes,” he said.
“I can make the formwork,” Merthin said, already thinking about how the frame would be supported by the scaffolding, and the platform on which the masons would have to stand. “But these vaults were not built with formwork.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, boy,” Elfric said. “Of course they were. You know nothing about it.”
Merthin knew it was unwise to argue with his employer. On the other hand, in six months he would be competing with Elfric for work, and he needed people such as Brother Godwyn to believe in his competence. Also, he was stung by the scorn in Elfric’s voice, and he felt an irresistible desire to prove his master wrong. “Look at the extrados,” he said indignantly. “Having finished one bay, surely the masons would have reused the same formwork for the next. In which case, all the vaults would have the same curve. But, in fact, they’re all different.”
“Obviously they didn’t reuse their formwork,” Elfric said irritably.
“Why wouldn’t they?” Merthin persisted. “They must have wanted to save on timber, not to mention the wages of skilled carpenters.”
“Anyway, it’s not possible to build vaulting without formwork.”
“Yes, it is,” Merthin said. “There’s a method—”
“That’s enough,” Elfric said. “You’re here to learn, not teach.”
Godwyn put in: “Just a minute, Elfric. If the boy is right, it could save the priory a lot of money.” He looked at Merthin. “What were you going to say?”
Merthin was half wishing he had not raised this subject. There would be hell to pay later. But he was committed now. If he backed off, they would think he did not know what he was talking about. “It’s described in a book in the monastery library, and it’s very simple,” he said. “As each stone is laid, a rope is draped over it. One end of the rope is tied to the wall, the other weighted with a lump of wood. The rope forms a right angle over the edge of the stone, and keeps it from slipping off its bed of mortar and falling to the ground.”
There was a moment of silence as they all concentrated, trying to visualize the arrangements. Then Thomas nodded. “It could work,” he said.
Elfric looked furious.
Godwyn was intrigued. “What book is this?”
“It’s called Timothy’s Book,” Merthin told him.
“I know of it, but I’ve never studied it. Obviously I should.” Godwyn addressed the others. “Have we seen enough?”
Elfric and Thomas nodded. As the four men left the roof space, Elfric muttered to Merthin: “Do you realize you’ve just talked yourself out of several weeks’ work? You won’t do that when you’re your own master, I’ll bet.”
Merthin had not thought of that. Elfric was right: by proving that formwork was unnecessary, he had also done himself out of a job. But there was something badly wrong with Elfric’s way of thinking. It was unfair to allow someone to spend money unnecessarily, just to keep yourself in work. Merthin did not want to live by cheating people.
They went down the spiral staircase into the chancel. Elfric said to Godwyn: “I’ll come to you tomorrow with a price for the work.”
Elfric turned to Merthin. “You stay here and count the stones in an aisle vault. Bring me the answer at home.”
Elfric and Godwyn left, but Thomas lingered. “I got you into trouble,” he said.
“You were trying to boost me.”
The monk shrugged and made a what-can-you-do gesture with his right arm. His left arm had been amputated at the elbow ten years ago, after infection set in to the wound he received in the fight Merthin had witnessed.
Merthin hardly ever thought about that strange scene in the forest—he had become used to Thomas in a monk’s robe—but he recalled it now: the men-at-arms, the children hiding in the bush, the bow and arrow, the buried letter. Thomas was always kind to him, and he guessed it was because of what happened that day. “I’ve never told anyone about that letter,” he said quietly.
“I know,” Thomas replied. “If you had, you’d be dead.”
Most large towns were run by a guild merchant, an organization of the leading citizens. Under the guild merchant were numerous craft guilds, each dedicated to a particular trade: masons, carpenters, leather tanners, weavers, tailors. Then there were the parish guilds, small groups centered on local churches, formed to raise money for priestly robes and sacred ornaments, and for the support of widows and orphans.
Cathedral towns were different. Kingsbridge, like St. Albans and Bury St. Edmunds, was ruled by the monastery, which owned almost all the land in and around the town. The priors had always refused permission for a guild merchant. However, the most important craftsmen and traders belonged to the parish guild of St. Adolphus. No doubt this had started out, in the distant past, as a pious group that raised money for the cathedral, but it was now the most important organization in town. It made rules for the conduct of business, and elected an alderman and six wardens to enforce them. In the guildhall were kept the measures that standardized the weight of a woolsack, the width of a bolt of cloth, and the volume of a bushel for all Kingsbridge trade. Nevertheless, the merchants could not hold courts and dispense justice the way they did in borough towns—the Kingsbridge prior retained those powers for himself.
On the afternoon of Whitsunday, the parish guild gave a banquet at the guildhall for the most important visiting buyers. Edmund Wooler was the alderman, and Caris went with him to be hostess, so Merthin had to amuse himself without her.
Fortunately, Elfric and Alice were also at the banquet, so he could sit in the kitchen, listening to the rain and thinking. The weather was not cold, but there was a small fire for cooking, and its red glow was cheerful.
He could hear Elfric’s daughter, Griselda, moving about upstairs. It was a fine house, although smaller than Edmund’s. There was just a hall and a kitchen downstairs. The staircase led to an open landing, where Griselda slept, and a closed bedroom for the master and his wife. Merthin slept in the kitchen.
There had been a time, three or four years ago, when Merthin had been tormented at night by fantasies of climbing the stairs and slipping under the blankets next to Griselda’s warm, plump body. But she considered herself superior to him, treating him like a servant, and she had never given him the least encouragement.
Sitting on a bench, Merthin looked into the fire and visualized the wooden scaffolding he would build for the masons who would reconstruct the collapsed vaulting in the cathedral. Wood was expensive, and long tree trunks were rare—the owners of woodland usually yielded to the temptation of selling the timber before it was fully mature. So builders tried to minimize the amount of scaffolding. Rather than build it up from floor level, they saved timber by suspending it from the existing walls.
While he was thinking, Griselda came into the kitchen and took a cup of ale from the barrel. “Would you like some?” she said. Merthin accepted, amazed by her courtesy. She surprised him again by sitting on a stool opposite him to drink.
Griselda’s paramour, Thurstan, had disappeared three weeks ago. No doubt she now felt lonely, which would be why she wanted Merthin’s company. The drink warmed his stomach and relaxed him. Searching for something to say, he asked: “What happened to Thurstan?”
She tossed her head like a frisky mare. “I told him I didn’t want to marry him.”
“He’s too young for me.”
That did not sound right to Merthin. Thurstan was seventeen, Griselda twenty, but Griselda was not notably mature. More likely, he thought, Thurstan was too low-class. He had arrived in Kingsbridge from nowhere a couple of years ago and had worked as an unskilled laborer for several of the town’s craftsmen. He had probably got bored, with Griselda or with Kingsbridge, and simply moved on.
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I should marry someone my own age, someone with a sense of responsibility—perhaps a man who could take over my father’s enterprise one day.”
It occurred to Merthin that she might mean him. Surely not, he thought. She’s always looked down on me. Then she got up from her stool and came and sat on the bench beside him.
“My father is spiteful to you,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”
Merthin was astonished. “Well, it’s taken you long enough to say so—I’ve been living here six and a half years.”
“It’s hard for me to go against my family.”
“Why is he so vile to me, anyway?”
“Because you think you know better than him, and you can’t hide it.”
“Maybe I do know better.”
“See what I mean?”
He laughed. It was the first time she had ever made him laugh.
She shifted closer on the bench so that her thigh in the woolen dress was pressed against his. He was in his worn linen shirt, which came to midthigh, with the undershorts that all men wore, but he could feel the warmth of her body through their clothes. What had brought this on? He looked incredulously at her. She had glossy dark hair and brown eyes. Her face was attractive in a fleshy way. She had a nice mouth for kissing.
She said: “I like being indoors in a rainstorm. It feels cozy.”
He felt himself becoming aroused, and looked away from her. What would Caris think, he asked himself, if she walked in here now? He tried to quell his desire, but that only made it worse.
He looked back at Griselda. Her lips were moist and slightly parted. She leaned toward him. He kissed her. Immediately, she thrust her tongue into his mouth. It was a sudden, shocking intimacy that he found thrilling, and he responded in the same way. This was not like kissing Caris—
That thought arrested him. He tore himself away from Griselda and stood up.
She said: “What’s the matter?”
He did not want to tell her the truth, so he said: “You never seemed to like me.”
She looked annoyed. “I’ve told you, I had to side with my father.”
“You’ve changed very suddenly.”
She stood up and moved toward him. He stepped away until his back was to the wall. She took his hand and pressed it to her bosom. Her breasts were round and heavy, and he could not resist the temptation to feel them. She said: “Have you ever done it—the real thing—with a girl?”
He found he could not speak, but he nodded.
“Have you thought about doing it with me?”
“Yes,” he managed.
“You can do it to me now, if you like, while they’re out. We can go upstairs and lie on my bed.”
She pressed her body to his. “Kissing you has made me go all hot and slippery inside.”
He pushed her away. The shove was rougher than he intended, and she fell backward, landing on her well-cushioned bottom. “Leave me alone,” he said.
He was not sure he meant it, but she took him at his word. “Go to hell, then,” she swore. She got to her feet and stomped upstairs.
He stayed where he was, panting. Now that he had rejected her, he regretted it.
Apprentices were not very attractive to young women, who did not want to be forced to wait years before marrying. All the same, Merthin had courted several Kingsbridge girls. One, Kate Brown, had been sufficiently fond of him to let him go all the way, one warm summer afternoon a year ago, in her father’s orchard. Then her father had died suddenly, and her mother had taken the family to live in Portsmouth. It was the only time Merthin had lain with a woman. Was he mad to turn down Griselda’s offer?
He told himself he had had a lucky escape. Griselda was a mean-spirited girl who did not really like him. He should be proud of having resisted temptation. He had not followed his instinct like a dumb beast; he had made a decision, like a man.
Then Griselda started to cry.
Her weeping was not loud, but all the same he could hear everything. He went to the back door. Like every house in town, Elfric’s had a long, narrow strip of land at the back with a privy and a rubbish dump. Most householders kept chickens and a pig, and grew vegetables and fruits, but Elfric’s yard was used to store stacks of lumber and stones, coils of rope, buckets and barrows and ladders. Merthin stared at the rain falling on the yard, but Griselda’s sobbing still reached his ears.
He decided to leave the house, and got as far as the front door, but then he could not think where to go. At Caris’s house there was only Petranilla, who would not welcome him. He thought of going to his parents, but they were the last people he wanted to see when he was in this state. He could have talked to his brother, but Ralph was not due to arrive in Kingsbridge until later in the week. Besides, he realized, he could not leave the house without a coat, not because of the rain—he did not mind getting wet—but because of the bulge in front of his clothing that would not subside.
He tried to think of Caris. She would be sipping wine, he thought, and eating roast beef and wheat bread. He asked himself what she was wearing. Her best dress was a soft pinkish red with a square-cut neckline that showed off the pale skin of her slender neck. But Griselda’s crying kept intruding on his thoughts. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her he was sorry to make her feel spurned, and explain to her that she was an attractive person but they were not right for each other.
He sat down, then stood up again. It was hard to listen to a woman in distress. He could not think about scaffolding while that sound filled the house. Can’t stay, can’t leave, can’t sit still.
He went upstairs.
She was lying facedown on the straw-filled palliasse that was her bed. Her dress was rucked up around her chubby thighs. The skin on the back of her legs was very white and looked soft.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I hate you.”
He knelt down and patted her back. “I can’t sit in the kitchen and listen to you crying.”
She rolled over and looked at him, her face wet with tears. “I’m ugly and fat, and you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.” He wiped her wet cheeks with the back of his hand.
She took his wrist and drew him to her. “Don’t you? Truly?”
“No. But …”
She put her hand behind his head, pulled him down, and kissed him. He groaned, more aroused than ever. He lay beside her on the mattress. I will leave her in a moment, he told himself. I’ll just comfort her a little more. Then I’ll get up and go down the stairs.
She took his hand and pushed it up her skirt, placing it between her legs. He felt the wiry hair, the soft skin beneath, and the moist divide, and he knew he was lost. He stroked her roughly, his finger slipping inside. He felt as if he would burst. “I can’t stop,” he said.
“Quickly,” she said, panting. She pulled up his shirt and pushed down his drawers, and he rolled onto her.
He felt himself losing control as she guided him inside her. The remorse hit him before it was over. “Oh, no,” he said. The explosion began with his first thrust, and in an instant it was finished. He slumped on top of her, his eyes closed. “Oh, God,” he said. “I wish I was dead.”
Buonaventura Caroli made his shocking announcement at breakfast on Monday, the day after the big banquet at the guildhall.
Caris felt a little unwell as she took her seat at the oak table in the dining hall of her father’s house. She had a headache and a touch of nausea. She ate a small dish of warm bread and milk to settle her stomach. Recalling that she had enjoyed the wine at the banquet, she wondered whether she had drunk too much of it. Was this the morning-after feeling that men and boys joked about when they boasted how much strong drink they could take?
Father and Buonaventura were eating cold mutton, and Aunt Petranilla was telling a story. “When I was fifteen, I was betrothed to a nephew of the earl of Shiring,” she said. “It was considered a good match: his father was a knight of the middling sort, and mine a wealthy wool merchant. Then the earl and his only son both died in Scotland, at the battle of Loudon Hill. My fiancé, Roland, became the earl—and broke off the engagement. He is still the earl today. If I had married Roland before the battle, I would now be the countess of Shiring.” She dipped toast in her ale.
“Perhaps it was not the will of God,” said Buonaventura. He threw a bone to Scrap, who pounced on it as if she had not seen food for a week. Then he said to Papa: “My friend, there is something I should tell you before we begin the day’s business.”
Caris felt, from his tone of voice, that he had bad news; and her father must have had the same intuition, for he said: “This sounds ominous.”
“Our trade has been shrinking for the last few years,” Buonaventura went on. “Each year my family sells a little less cloth. Each year we buy a little less wool from England.”
“Business is always like that,” said Edmund. “It goes up. It goes down. No one knows why.”
“But now your king has interfered.”
It was true. Edward III had seen the money being made in wool and had decided that more of it must go to the crown. He had introduced a new tax of one pound per woolsack. A sack was standardized at 364 pounds weight and sold for about four pounds in money; so the extra tax was a quarter of the value of the wool, a huge slice.
Buonaventura went on. “What is worse, he has made it difficult to export wool from England. I have had to pay large bribes.”
“The ban on exports will be lifted shortly,” Edmund said. “The merchants of the Wool Company in London are negotiating with royal officials—”
“I hope you are right,” Buonaventura said. “But, with things as they are, my family feels I no longer need to visit two separate wool fairs in this part of the country.”
“Quite right!” said Edmund. “Come here, and forget about the Shiring fair.”
The town of Shiring was two days’ travel from Kingsbridge. It was about the same size, and while it did not have a cathedral or a priory, it boasted the sheriff’s castle and the county court. It held a rival wool fair once a year.
“I’m afraid I can’t find the range of wool here. You see, the Kingsbridge Fleece Fair seems to be declining. More and more sellers go to Shiring. Their fair offers a greater variety of types and qualities.”
Caris was dismayed. This could be disastrous for her father. She put in: “Why would sellers prefer Shiring?”
Buonaventura shrugged. “The guild merchant there has made the fair attractive. There’s no long queue to enter the city gate; the dealers can hire tents and booths; there’s a wool exchange building where everyone can do business when it rains like this….”
“We could do all that,” she said.
Her father snorted. “If only.”
“Why not, Papa?”
“Shiring is an independent borough, with a royal charter. The merchant guild there has the power to organize things for the benefit of the wool merchants. Kingsbridge belongs to the priory—”
Petranilla put in: “For the glory of God.”
“No doubt,” Edmund said. “But our parish guild can’t do anything without the priory’s approval—and priors are cautious and conservative people, my brother being no exception. The upshot is that most improvement plans get rejected.”
Buonaventura went on. “Because of my family’s long association with you, Edmund, and your father before you, we have continued to come to Kingsbridge; but in hard times we can’t afford to be sentimental.”
“Then let me ask you a small favor, for the sake of that long association,” Edmund said. “Don’t make a final decision yet. Keep an open mind.”
That was clever, Caris thought. She was struck—as she often was—by how shrewd her father could be in a negotiation. He did not argue that Buonaventura should reverse his decision, for that would just make him dig his heels in. The Italian was much more likely to agree not to make the decision final. That committed him to nothing, but left the door open.
Buonaventura found it hard to refuse. “All right, but to what end?”
“I want the chance to improve the fair, and especially that bridge,” Edmund replied. “If we could offer better facilities here at Kingsbridge than they have at Shiring, and attract more sellers, you would continue to visit us, wouldn’t you?”
“Then that’s what we’ll have to do.” He stood up. “I’ll go and see my brother now. Caris, come with me. We’ll show him the queue at the bridge. No, wait, Caris. Go and fetch your clever young builder, Merthin. We might need his expertise.”
“He’ll be working.”
Petranilla said: “Just tell his master that the alderman of the parish guild wants the boy.” Petranilla was proud that her brother was alderman, and mentioned it at every opportunity.
But she was right. Elfric would have to release Merthin. “I’ll go and find him,” Caris said.
She put on a cape with a hood and went out. It was still raining, though not as heavily as yesterday. Elfric, like most of the leading citizens, lived on the main street that ran from the bridge up to the priory gates. The broad street was crowded with carts and people heading for the fair, splashing through puddles and streamlets of rain.
She was eager to see Merthin, as always. She had liked him ever since All Hallows Day ten years ago, when he had appeared at archery practice with his homemade bow. He was clever and funny. Like her, he knew that the world was a bigger and more fascinating place than most Kingsbridge citizens could conceive. But six months ago they had discovered something that was even more fun than being friends.
Caris had kissed boys before Merthin, though not often: she had never really seen the point. With him it was different, exciting and sexy. He had an impish streak that made everything he did seem mildly wicked. She liked it when he touched her body, too. She wanted to do more—but she tried not to think about that. “More” meant marriage, and a wife had to be subordinate to her husband, who was her master—and Caris hated that idea. Fortunately she was not forced to think about it yet, for Merthin could not marry until his apprenticeship was over, and that was half a year away.
She reached Elfric’s house and stepped inside. Her sister, Alice, was in the front room, at the table, with her stepdaughter, Griselda. They were eating bread with honey. Alice had changed in the three years since she had married Elfric. Her nature had always been harsh, like Petranilla’s, and under the influence of her husband she had become more suspicious, resentful, and ungenerous.
But she was pleasant enough today. “Sit down, sister,” she said. “The bread is fresh this morning.”
“I can’t. I’m looking for Merthin.”
Alice looked disapproving. “So early?”
“Father wants him.” Caris went through the kitchen to the back door and looked into the yard. Rain fell on a dismal landscape of builder’s junk. One of Elfric’s laborers was putting wet stones into a barrow. There was no sign of Merthin. She went back inside.
Alice said: “He’s probably at the cathedral. He’s been making a door.”
Caris recalled that Merthin had mentioned this. The door in the north porch had rotted, and Merthin was working on a replacement.
Griselda added: “He’s been carving virgins.” She grinned, then put more bread and honey into her mouth.
Caris knew this, too. The old door was decorated with carvings illustrating the story Jesus told on the Mount of Olives, about the wise and foolish virgins, and Merthin had to copy it. But there was something unpleasant about Griselda’s grin, Caris thought, almost as if she were laughing at Caris for being a virgin herself.
“I’ll try the cathedral,” Caris said, and with a perfunctory wave, she left.
She climbed the main street and entered the cathedral close. As she threaded her way through the market stalls, it seemed to her that a dismal air hung over the fair. Was she imagining it, because of what Buonaventura had said? She thought not. When she recalled the fleece fairs of her childhood, it seemed to her that they had been busier and more crowded. In those days, the priory precincts had not been large enough to contain the fair, and the streets all around had been obstructed by unlicensed stalls—often just a small table covered with trinkets—plus hawkers with trays, jugglers, fortune-tellers, musicians, and itinerant friars calling sinners to redemption. Now it seemed to her there might have been room for a few more stalls within the precincts. “Buonaventura must be right,” she said to herself. “The fair is shrinking.” A trader gave her a strange look, and she realized she had spoken her thoughts out loud. It was a bad habit: people thought she was talking to spirits. She had taught herself not to do it, but she sometimes forgot, especially when she was anxious.
She walked around the great church to the north side. Merthin was working in the porch, a roomy space where people often held meetings. He had the door standing upright in a stout wooden frame that held it still while he carved. Behind the new work, the old door was still in place in the archway, cracked and crumbling. Merthin stood with his back to her so that the light fell over his shoulders onto the wood in front of him. He did not see her, and the sound of the rain drowned her footsteps, so she was able to study him for a few moments unnoticed.
He was a small man, not much taller than she. He had a large, intelligent head on a wiry body. His small hands moved deftly across the carving, shaving fine curls of wood with a sharp knife as he shaped the images. He had white skin and a lot of bushy red hair. “He’s not very handsome,” Alice had said, with a twist of her lip, when Caris admitted she had fallen in love with him. It was true that Merthin did not have the dashing good looks of his brother, Ralph, but Caris thought his face was quite marvelous: irregular and quirky and wise and full of laughter, just as he was.
“Hello,” she said, and he jumped. She laughed. “It’s not like you to be so easily spooked.”
“You startled me.” He hesitated, then kissed her. He seemed a little awkward, but that sometimes happened when he was concentrating on his work.
She looked at the carving. There were five virgins on each side of the door, the wise ones feasting at the wedding, and the foolish ones outside, holding their lamps upside down to show that they were empty of oil. Merthin had copied the design of the old door, but with subtle changes. The virgins stood in rows, five on one side and five on the other, like the arches in the cathedral; but, in the new door, they were not exactly alike. Merthin had given each girl a sign of individuality. One was pretty, another had curly hair, one wept, another closed one eye in a mischievous wink. He had made them real, and the scene on the old door now looked stiff and lifeless by comparison. “It’s wonderful,” Caris said. “But I wonder what the monks will think.”
“Brother Thomas likes it,” Merthin replied.
“What about Prior Anthony?”
“He hasn’t seen it. But he’ll accept it. He won’t want to pay twice.”
That was true, Caris thought. Her uncle, Anthony, was unadventurous, but parsimonious, too. The mention of the prior reminded her of her errand. “My father wants you to meet him and the prior at the bridge.”
“Did he say why?”
“I think he’s going to ask Anthony to build a new bridge.”
Merthin put his tools into a leather satchel and quickly swept the floor, brushing sawdust and wood shavings out of the porch. Then he and Caris walked in the rain through the fair and down the main street to the wooden bridge. Caris told him what Buonaventura had said at the breakfast table. Merthin felt, as she did, that recent fairs had not been as bustling as those he remembered from childhood.
Despite that, there was a long queue of people and carts waiting to get into Kingsbridge. At the near end of the bridge was a small gatehouse, where a monk sat taking a fee of one penny from every trader who entered the city with goods for sale. The bridge was narrow, so it was not possible for anyone to jump the queue, and in consequence people who did not need to pay—residents of the town, mainly—also had to stand in line. In addition, some of the boards that formed the surface were twisted and broken, so carts had to move slowly as they crossed. The result was that the queue stretched away along the road between the suburban hovels and disappeared into the rain.
The bridge was also too short. Once, no doubt, both its ends had given on to dry land. But either the river had widened or, more likely, the passage of carts and people over decades and centuries had flattened the banks, so that now people had to wade across muddy beaches on both sides.
Caris saw that Merthin was studying its structure. She knew that look in his eyes: he was thinking about how it stayed upright. She often caught him staring at something in that way, usually in the cathedral, but sometimes in front of a house or even something natural, a thorn tree in blossom or a sparrow hawk hovering. He became very still, his gaze bright and sharp, as if he were shining a light into a murky place, trying to make out what was there. If she asked him, he told her he was trying to see the insides of things.
She followed his gaze and strained to imagine what he perceived in the old bridge. It was sixty yards from end to end, the longest bridge she had ever seen. The roadbed was supported by massive oak piers in two rows, like the pillars that marched either side of the nave of the cathedral. There were five pairs of piers. The end ones, where the water was shallow, were quite short, but the three central pairs stood fifteen feet above the waterline.
Each pier consisted of four oak beams in a cluster, held together by plank braces. Legend said that the king had given Kingsbridge Priory the twenty-four best oak trees in England to build the three central pairs of piers. The tops were linked by beams in two parallel lines. Shorter beams crossed from one line to the other, forming the roadbed; and longitudinal planks had been laid on top to form the road surface. On each side was a wooden railing that served as a flimsy parapet. Every couple of years a drunk peasant would drive a cart through the rail and kill himself and his horse in the river.
“What are you looking at?” Caris asked Merthin.
“I don’t see any.”
“The timbers on either side of the central pier are splitting. You can see where Elfric has reinforced them with iron braces.”
Now that he pointed them out, Caris could see the flat metal strips nailed across the cracks. “You look worried,” she said to him.
“I don’t know why the timbers cracked in the first place.”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does.”
He was not very talkative this morning. She was about to ask him why, when he said: “Here comes your father.”
She looked along the street. The two brothers made an odd pair. Tall Anthony fastidiously held up the skirts of his monkish robe and stepped gingerly around the puddles, wearing an expression of distaste on his pale indoor face. Edmund, more vigorous despite being the elder, had a red face and a long, untidy gray beard, and he walked carelessly, dragging his withered leg through the mud, speaking argumentatively and gesturing extravagantly with both arms. When Caris saw her father at a distance, the way a stranger might see him, she always felt a surge of love.
The dispute was in full swing when they got to the bridge, and they continued without pause. “Look at that queue!” Edmund shouted. “Hundreds of people not trading at the fair because they haven’t got there yet! And you can be sure half of them will meet a buyer or seller while waiting, and conduct their business right then and there, and then go home without even entering the city!”
“That’s forestalling, and it’s against the law,” said Anthony.
“You could go and tell them that, if you could get across the bridge, but you can’t, because it’s too narrow! Listen, Anthony. If the Italians pull out, the Fleece Fair will never be the same again. Your prosperity and mine are based on the fair—we must not just let it go!”
“We can’t force Buonaventura to do business here.”
“But we can make our fair more attractive than Shiring’s. We need to announce a big, symbolic project, right now, this week—something to convince them all that the Fleece Fair isn’t finished. We have to tell them we’re going to tear down this old bridge and build a new one, twice as wide.” Without warning, he turned to Merthin. “How long would it take, young lad?”
Merthin looked startled, but he answered. “Finding the trees would be the hard part. You need very long timbers, well seasoned. Then the piers have to be driven into the riverbed—that’s tricky, because you’re working in running water. After that, it’s just carpentry. You could finish it by Christmas.”
Anthony said: “There’s no certainty the Caroli family will change its plans if we build a new bridge.”
“They will,” Edmund said forcefully. “I guarantee it.”
“Anyway, I can’t afford to build a bridge. I don’t have the money.”
“You can’t afford not to build a bridge,” Edmund shouted. “You’ll ruin yourself as well as the town.”
“It’s out of the question. I don’t even know where I’m going to get the money for the repairs in the south aisle.”
“So what will you do?”
“Trust in God.”
“Those who trust in God and sow a seed may reap a harvest. But you’re not sowing the seed.”
Anthony got irritated. “I know this is difficult for you to understand, Edmund, but Kingsbridge Priory is not a commercial enterprise. We’re here to worship God, not to make money.”
“You won’t worship God for long if you’ve nothing to eat.”
“God will provide.”
Edmund’s red face flushed with anger, turning a purplish color. “When you were a boy, our father’s business fed you and clothed you and paid for your education. Since you’ve been a monk, the citizens of this town and the peasants of the surrounding countryside have kept you alive by paying you rents, tithes, charges for market stalls, bridge tolls, and a dozen other different fees. All your life you’ve lived like a flea on the backs of hardworking people. And now you have the nerve to tell us that God provides.”
“That’s perilously close to blasphemy.”
“Don’t forget that I’ve known you since you were born, Anthony. You always had a talent for avoiding work.” Edmund’s voice, so often raised in a shout, now dropped—a sign, Caris knew, that he was really furious. “When it was time to empty out the privy, you went off to bed so that you would be rested for school the next day. Father’s gift to God, you always had the best of everything, and never lifted your hand to earn it. Strengthening food, the warmest bedroom, the best clothes—I was the only boy who wore his younger brother’s castoff outfits!”
“And you never let me forget it.”
Caris had been waiting for the opportunity to halt the flow, and now she took it. “There ought to be a way around this.”
They both looked at her, surprised to be interrupted.
She went on. “For example, couldn’t the townspeople build a bridge?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Anthony. “The town belongs to the priory. A servant doesn’t furnish his master’s house.”
“But if your permission was sought, you would have no reason to refuse it.”
Anthony did not immediately contradict that, which was encouraging; but Edmund was shaking his head. “I don’t think I could persuade them to put up the money,” he said. “It would be in their interests, long term, of course; but people are very reluctant to think in the long term when being asked to part with their money.”
“Ha!” said Anthony. “Yet you expect me to think long term.”
“You deal with eternal life, don’t you?” Edmund shot back. “You of all people ought to be able to see beyond the end of next week. Besides, you get a penny toll from everyone who crosses the bridge. You’d get your money back and you’d benefit from the improvement in business.”
Caris said: “But Uncle Anthony is a spiritual leader, and he feels it’s not his role.”
“But he owns the town!” Papa protested. “He’s the only one who can do it!” Then he gave her an inquiring look, realizing that she would not have contradicted him without a reason. “What are you thinking?”
“Suppose the townspeople built a bridge, and were repaid out of the penny tolls.”
Edmund opened his mouth to express an objection, but could not think of one.
Caris looked at Anthony.
Anthony said: “When the priory was new, its only income came from that bridge. I can’t give it away.”
“But think what you would gain, if the Fleece Fair and the weekly market began to return to their former size: not just the bridge tolls, but stallholders’ fees, the percentage you take of all transactions at the fair, and gifts to the cathedral, too!”
Edmund added: “And the profits on your own sales: wool, grain, hides, books, statues of the saints—”
Anthony said: “You planned this, didn’t you?” He pointed an accusing finger at his older brother. “You told your daughter what to say, and the lad. He would never think up a scheme like this, and she’s just a woman. It has your mark on it. This is all a plot to cheat me of my bridge tolls. Well, it’s failed. Praise God, I’m not that stupid!” He turned away and splashed off through the mud.
Edmund said: “I don’t know how my father ever sired someone with so little sense.” And he, too, stomped off.
Caris turned to Merthin. “Well,” she said, “what did you think of all that?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away, avoiding her eye. “I’d better get back to work.” He went without kissing her.
“Well!” she said when he was out of earshot. “What on earth has got into him?”
The earl of Shiring came to Kingsbridge on the Tuesday of Fleece Fair week. He brought with him both his sons, various other family members, and an entourage of knights and squires. The bridge was cleared by his advance men, and no one was permitted to cross for an hour before his arrival, lest he should suffer the indignity of being made to wait alongside the common people. His followers wore his red-and-black livery, and they all splashed into town with banners flying, their horses’ hooves spattering the citizens with rainwater and mud. Earl Roland had prospered in the last ten years—under Queen Isabella and, later, her son Edward III—and he wanted the world to know it, as rich and powerful men generally did.
In his company was Ralph, son of Sir Gerald and brother of Merthin. At the same time as Merthin had been apprenticed to Elfric’s father, Ralph had become a squire in the household of Earl Roland, and he had been happy ever since. He had been well fed and clothed, he had learned to ride and fight, and he had spent most of his time hunting and playing sports and games. In six and a half years no one had asked him to read or write a word. As he rode behind the earl through the huddled stalls of the Fleece Fair, watched by faces both envious and fearful, he pitied the merchants and tradesmen grubbing for pennies in the mud.
The earl dismounted at the prior’s house, on the north side of the cathedral. His younger son, Richard, did the same. Richard was bishop of Kingsbridge and the cathedral was, theoretically, his church. However, the bishop’s palace was in the county town of Shiring, two days’ journey away. This suited the bishop, whose duties were political as much as religious; and it suited the monks, who preferred not to be too closely supervised.
Richard was only twenty-eight, but his father was a close ally of the king, and that counted for more than seniority.
The rest of the entourage rode to the south end of the cathedral close. The earl’s elder son, William, lord of Caster, told the squires to stable the horses while half a dozen knights settled in to the hospital. Ralph moved quickly to help William’s wife, Lady Philippa, get down from her horse. She was a tall, attractive woman with long legs and deep breasts, and Ralph nurtured a hopeless love for her.
When the horses were settled, Ralph went to visit his mother and father. They lived rent-free in a small house in the southwest quarter of the town, by the river, in a neighborhood made malodorous by the work of leather tanners. As he approached the house, Ralph felt himself shriveling with shame inside his red-and-black uniform. He was grateful that Lady Philippa could not see the indignity of his parents’ situation.
He had not seen them for a year, and they seemed older. There was a lot of gray in his mother’s hair, and his father was losing his eyesight. They gave him cider made by the monks and wild strawberries Mother had gathered in the woods. Father admired his livery. “Has the earl made you a knight yet?” he asked eagerly.
It was the ambition of every squire to become a knight, but Ralph felt it more keenly than most. His father had never got over the humiliation, ten years ago, of being degraded to the position of pensioner of the priory. An arrow had pierced Ralph’s heart that day. The pain would not be eased until he had restored the family honor. But not all squires became knights. Nevertheless, Father always talked as if it were only a matter of time for Ralph.
“Not yet,” Ralph said. “But we’re likely to go to war with France before long, and that will be my chance.” He spoke lightly, not wishing to show how badly he yearned for the chance to distinguish himself in battle.
Mother was disgusted. “Why do kings always want war?”
Father laughed. “It’s what men were made for.”
“No, it’s not,” she said sharply. “When I gave birth to Ralph in pain and suffering, I didn’t intend that he should live to have his head cut off by a Frenchman’s sword or his heart pierced by a bolt from a crossbow.”
Father flapped a hand at her in a dismissive gesture and said to Ralph: “What makes you say there will be war?”
“King Philip of France has confiscated Gascony.”
“Ah. We can’t have that.”
English kings had ruled the western French province of Gascony for generations. They had given trade privileges to the merchants of Bordeaux and Bayonne, who did more business with London than with Paris. Still, there was always trouble.
Ralph said: “King Edward has sent ambassadors to Flanders to form alliances.”
“Allies may want money.”
“That’s why Earl Roland has come to Kingsbridge. The king wants a loan from the wool merchants.”
“The talk is of two hundred thousands pounds, nationwide, as an advance against the wool tax.”
Mother said bleakly: “The king should take care not to tax the wool merchants to death.”
Father said: “The merchants have plenty of money—just look at their fine clothes.” There was bitterness in his tone, and Ralph observed that he had on a worn linen undershirt and old shoes. “Anyway, they want us to stop the French navy interfering with their trade.” Over the last year, French ships had raided towns on the south coast of England, sacking the ports and setting fire to ships in the harbors.
“The French attack us, so we attack the French,” said Mother. “What is the sense of it?”
“Women will never understand,” Father replied.
“That’s the truth,” she said crisply.
Ralph changed the subject. “How is my brother?”
“He’s a fine craftsman,” said his father, and he sounded, Ralph thought, like a horse salesman saying that an undersize pony was a good mount for a woman.
Mother said: “He’s smitten with Edmund Wooler’s daughter.”
“Caris?” Ralph smiled. “He always liked her. We played together as children. She was a bossy little minx, but Merthin never seemed to mind. Will he marry her?”
“I expect so,” Mother said, “when he finishes his apprenticeship.”
“He’ll have his hands full.” Ralph got up. “Where do you think he is now?”
“He’s working in the north porch of the cathedral,” Father said. “But he might be having his dinner.”
“I’ll find him.” Ralph kissed them both and went out.
He returned to the priory and wandered through the fair. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining fitfully, glinting in the puddles and raising steam off the stallholders’ wet covers. He saw a familiar profile, and the regular footsteps of his heart faltered. It was the straight nose and strong jaw of Lady Philippa. She was older than Ralph, about twenty-five, he guessed. She was standing at a stall, looking at bolts of silk from Italy, and he drank in the way her light summer dress draped itself lasciviously over the curves of her hips. He made her an unnecessarily elaborate bow.
She glanced up and gave a perfunctory nod.
“Beautiful materials,” he said, trying to open a conversation.
At that moment, a diminutive figure with untidy carrot-colored hair approached: Merthin. Ralph was delighted to see him. “This is my clever older brother,” he said to Philippa.
Merthin said to Philippa: “Buy the pale green—it matches your eyes.”
Ralph winced. Merthin should not have addressed her in such a familiar way.
However, she did not seem to mind too much. She spoke in a tone of mild reproof, saying: “When I want a boy’s opinion, I’ll ask my son,” but as she said it she gave him a smile that was almost flirtatious.
Ralph said: “This is the Lady Philippa, you fool! I apologize for my brother’s cheek, my lady.”
“What’s his name, anyway?”
“I’m Merthin Fitzgerald, at your service anytime you find yourself hesitating over silks.”
Ralph took his arm and led him away before he could say anything else indiscreet. “I don’t know how you do it!” he said, with exasperation and admiration equally mixed. “It matches her eyes, does it? If I said something like that, she’d have me flogged.” He was exaggerating, but it was true that Philippa usually responded sharply to insolence. He did not know whether to be amused or angry that she had been indulgent to Merthin.
“That’s me,” Merthin said. “Every woman’s dream.”
Ralph detected bitterness in his tone. “Is anything wrong?” he said. “How’s Caris?”
“I’ve done something stupid,” Merthin replied. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s look around while the sun’s out.”
Ralph noticed a stall where a monk with ash blond hair was selling cheese. “Watch this,” he said to Merthin. He approached the stall and said: “This looks tasty, brother—where does it come from?”
“We make it at St.-John-in-the-Forest. It’s a small cell, or branch, of Kingsbridge Priory. I’m the prior there—my name is Saul Whitehead.”
“It makes me hungry to look at it. I wish I could buy some—but the earl keeps us squires penniless.”
The monk cut a slice off the wheel of cheese and gave it to Ralph. “Then you shall have some for nothing, in the name of Jesus,” he said.
“Thank you, Brother Saul.”
As they walked away, Ralph grinned at Merthin and said: “See? As easy as taking an apple from a child.”
“And about as admirable,” Merthin said.
“But what a fool, to give his cheese away to anyone with a sob story!”
“He probably thinks it’s better to risk being made a fool of than to deny food to a starving man.”
“You’re a bit sour today. How come you’re allowed to cheek a noblewoman, but I can’t talk a stupid monk into giving me free cheese?”
Merthin surprised him with a grin. “Just like when we were boys, eh?”
“Exactly!” Now Ralph did not know whether to be angry or amused. Before he could make up his mind, a pretty girl approached him with eggs on a tray. She was slim, with a small bust under a homespun dress, and he imagined her breasts to be pale and round like the eggs. He smiled at her: “How much?” he said, though he had no need of eggs.
“A penny for twelve.”
“Are they good?”
She pointed at a nearby stall. “They’re from these hens.”
“And have the hens been well serviced by a healthy rooster?” Ralph saw Merthin roll up his eyes in mock despair at this sally.
However, the girl played along. “Yes, sir,” she said with a smile.
“Lucky hens, eh?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not. A maid understands little of these things.” Ralph scrutinized her. She had fair hair and a turned-up nose. She was about eighteen, he guessed.
She batted her eyelids and said: “Don’t stare at me, please.”
From behind the stall a peasant—no doubt the girl’s father—called: “Annet! Come here.”
“So your name is Annet,” Ralph said.
She ignored the summons.
Ralph said: “Who is your father?”
“Perkin from Wigleigh.”
“Really? My friend Stephen is lord of Wigleigh. Is Stephen good to you?”
“Lord Stephen is just and merciful,” she said dutifully.
Her father called again. “Annet! You’re wanted here.”
Ralph knew why Perkin was trying to get her away. He would not mind if a squire wanted to marry his daughter: that would be a step up the social ladder for her. But he feared that Ralph wanted to dally with her, then discard her. And he was right.
“Don’t go, Annet Wigleigh,” Ralph said.
“Not until you’ve bought what I’m offering.”
Beside them, Merthin groaned: “One is as bad as the other.”
Ralph said: “Why don’t you put down the eggs and come with me? We could stroll along the riverbank.” Between the river and the wall of the priory grounds, there was a wide bank, covered at this time of year with wildflowers and bushes, where courting couples traditionally went.
But Annet was not that easy. “My father would be displeased,” she said.
“Let’s not worry about him.” There was not much a peasant could do to oppose the will of a squire, especially when the squire was wearing the livery of a great earl. It was an insult to the earl to lay hands on one of his servants. The peasant might try to dissuade his daughter, but it would be risky for him to restrain her forcibly.
However, someone else came to Perkin’s aid. A youthful voice said: “Hello, Annet. Is all well?”
Ralph turned to the newcomer. He looked about sixteen, but he was almost as tall as Ralph, with broad shoulders and big hands. He was strikingly handsome, with regular features that might have been carved by a cathedral sculptor. He had thick, tawny hair and the beginnings of a beard the same color.
Ralph said: “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Wulfric from Wigleigh, sir.” Wulfric was deferential, but not afraid. He turned back to Annet and said: “I’ve come to help you sell some eggs.”
The boy’s muscular shoulder came between Ralph and Annet, his stance protecting the girl and at the same time excluding Ralph. It was mildly insolent, and Ralph felt a stirring of anger. “Get out of the way, Wulfric Wigleigh,” he said. “You’re not wanted here.”
Wulfric turned again and gave him a level look. “I’m betrothed to this woman, sir,” he said. Once again, the tone was respectful but the attitude fearless.
Perkin spoke up. “That’s true, sir—they are to be married.”
“Don’t talk to me about your peasant customs,” Ralph said contemptuously. “I don’t care if she’s married to the oaf.” It angered him to be spoken to this way by his inferiors. It was not their place to tell him what to do.
Merthin butted in. “Let’s go, Ralph,” he said. “I’m hungry, and Betty Baxter is selling hot pies.”
“Pies?” Ralph said. “I’m more interested in eggs.” He picked up one of the eggs on her tray and fondled it suggestively; then he put it down and touched her left breast. It was firm to his fingertips, and egg-shaped.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She sounded indignant, but she did not move away.
He squeezed gently, enjoying the sensation. “Examining the goods on offer.”
“Take your hands off me.”
“In a minute.”
Then Wulfric shoved him violently.
Ralph was taken by surprise. He had not expected to be attacked by a peasant. He staggered back, stumbled, and fell to the ground with a thump. He heard someone laugh, and amazement gave way to humiliation. He sprang to his feet, enraged.
He was not wearing his sword, but he had a long dagger at his belt. However, it would be undignified to use weapons on an unarmed peasant: he could lose the respect of the earl’s knights and the other squires. He would have to punish Wulfric with his fists.
Perkin stepped from behind his stall, speaking rapidly. “A clumsy mistake, sir, not intended. The lad is deeply sorry, I assure you—”
However, his daughter seemed unafraid. “Boys, boys!” she said in a tone of mock reprimand, but she seemed more pleased than anything else.
Ralph ignored them both. He took one step toward Wulfric and raised his right fist. Then, when Wulfric lifted both arms to defend his face from the blow, Ralph drove his left fist into the boy’s belly.
It was not as soft as he had expected. All the same, Wulfric bent forward, his face twisted in agony, both hands going to his midriff; whereupon Ralph hit him full in the face with his right fist, catching him high on the cheekbone. The punch hurt his hand but brought joy to his soul.
To his astonishment, Wulfric hit him back.
Instead of crumpling to the floor and lying there waiting to be kicked, the peasant boy came back with a right-handed punch that had all the strength of his shoulders behind it. Ralph’s nose seemed to explode in blood and pain. He roared with anger.
Wulfric stepped back, seeming to realize what a terrible thing he had done, and he dropped both arms, holding his palms upward.
But it was too late to be sorry. Ralph hit him with both fists on the face and body, a storm of blows that Wulfric feebly tried to ward off by holding up his arms and ducking his head. As he punched Wulfric, Ralph wondered vaguely why the boy did not run away, and guessed he was hoping to take his punishment now rather than face worse later. He had guts, Ralph realized; but that made him even angrier. He hit him harder, again and again, and he was filled with an emotion that was both rage and ecstasy. Merthin tried to intervene. “For the love of Christ, enough,” he said, putting a hand on Ralph’s shoulder; but Ralph shook him off.
At last Wulfric’s hands fell to his sides and he staggered, dazed, his handsome face covered in blood, his eyes closing; then he fell down. Ralph started to kick him. Then a burly man in leather trousers appeared and spoke with a voice of authority: “Now, then, young Ralph, don’t murder the boy.”
Ralph recognized John, the town constable, and said indignantly: “He attacked me!”
“Well, he’s not attacking you anymore, is he, sir? Lying on the ground like that with his eyes shut.” John put himself in front of Ralph. “I’d rather do without the trouble of a coroner’s inquiry.”
People crowded around Wulfric: Perkin; Annet, who was flushed with excitement; Lady Philippa; and several bystanders.
The ecstatic feeling left Ralph, and his nose hurt like hell. He could breathe only through his mouth. He tasted blood. “That animal punched my nose,” he said, and he sounded like a man with a heavy cold.
“Then he shall be punished,” said John.
Two men who looked like Wulfric appeared: his father and his elder brother, Ralph guessed. They helped Wulfric to his feet, shooting angry glances at Ralph.
Perkin spoke up. He was a fat man with a sly face. “The squire threw the first punch,” he said.
Ralph said: “The peasant deliberately shoved me!”
“The squire insulted Wulfric’s wife-to-be.”
The constable said: “No matter what the squire may have said, Wulfric should know better than to lay hands on a servant of Earl Roland’s. I should think the earl will expect him to be severely dealt with.”
Wulfric’s father spoke up. “Is there a new law, John Constable, that says a man in livery may do what he likes?”
There was a mutter of agreement from the small crowd now gathered. Young squires caused a lot of trouble, and often escaped punishment because they were wearing the colors of some baron; and this was deeply resented by law-abiding tradesmen and peasants.
Lady Philippa intervened. “I’m the earl’s daughter-in-law, and I saw the whole thing,” she said. Her voice was low and melodious, but she spoke with the authority of high rank. Ralph expected her to take his side, but to his dismay she went on: “I’m sorry to say that this was entirely Ralph’s fault. He fondled the girl’s body in a most outrageous way.”
“Thank you, my lady,” John Constable said deferentially. He lowered his voice to confer with her. “But I think the earl might not want the peasant lad to go unpunished.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “We don’t want this to be the start of a lengthy dispute. Put the boy in the stocks for twenty-four hours. It won’t do him much harm, at his age, but everyone will know that justice has been done. That will satisfy the earl—I’ll answer for him.”
John hesitated. Ralph could see that the constable did not like taking orders from anyone but his master, the prior of Kingsbridge. However, Philippa’s decision would surely satisfy all parties. Ralph himself would have liked to see Wulfric flogged, but he was beginning to suspect that he did not come out of this as a hero, and he would look worse if he demanded a harsh punishment. After a moment John said: “Very well, Lady Philippa, if you’re willing to take responsibility.”
“Right.” John took Wulfric by the arm and led him away. The lad had recovered fast, and was able to walk normally. His family followed. Perhaps they would bring him food and drink while he was in the stocks, and make sure he was not pelted.
Merthin said to Ralph: “How are you?”
Ralph felt as if the middle of his face were swelling like an inflated bladder. His vision was blurred, his speech was a nasal honk, and he was in pain. “I’m fine,” he said. “Never better.”
“Let’s get a monk to look at your nose.”
“No.” Ralph was not afraid of fights, but he hated the things physicians did: bleeding and cupping and lancing boils. “All I need is a bottle of strong wine. Take me to the nearest tavern.”
“All right,” Merthin said, but he did not move. He was giving Ralph a queer look.
Ralph said: “What’s the matter with you?”
“You don’t change, do you?”
Ralph shrugged. “Does anyone?”
Godwyn was completely fascinated by Timothy’s Book. It was a history of Kingsbridge Priory, and like most such histories, it began with the creation by God of heaven and earth. But mostly it recounted the era of Prior Philip, two centuries ago, when the cathedral was built—a time now regarded by the monks as a golden age. The author, Brother Timothy, claimed that the legendary Philip had been a stern disciplinarian as well as a man of compassion. Godwyn was not sure how you could be both.
On the Wednesday of Fleece Fair week, in the study hour before the service of Sext, Godwyn sat on a high stool in the monastery library, the book open on a lectern before him. This was his favorite place in the priory: a spacious room, well lit by high windows, with almost a hundred books in a locked cupboard. It was normally hushed, but today he could hear, from the far side of the cathedral, the muffled roar of the fair—a thousand people buying and selling, haggling and quarreling, calling their wares and shouting encouragement at cockfighting and bearbaiting.
At the back of the book, later authors had tracked the descendants of the cathedral builders down to the present day. Godwyn was pleased—and frankly surprised—to find confirmation of his mother’s theory that she was descended from Tom Builder through Tom’s daughter Martha. He wondered what family traits might have come down from Tom. A mason needed to be a shrewd businessman, he supposed, and Godwyn’s grandfather and his uncle Edmund had that quality. His cousin Caris also showed signs of the same flair. Perhaps Tom had also had the green eyes flecked with yellow that they all shared.
Godwyn also read about Tom Builder’s stepson, Jack, the architect of Kingsbridge Cathedral, who had married the Lady Aliena and fathered a dynasty of earls of Shiring. He was the ancestor of Caris’s sweetheart, Merthin Fitzgerald. That made sense: young Merthin was already showing unparalleled ability as a carpenter. Timothy’s Book even mentioned Jack’s red hair, which had been inherited by Sir Gerald and Merthin, though not Ralph.
What interested him most was the book’s chapter on women. It seemed there had been no nuns at Kingsbridge in Prior Philip’s day. Women had been strictly forbidden to enter the monastery buildings. The author, quoting Philip, said that if possible a monk should never look at a female, for his own peace of mind. Philip disapproved of combined monastery-nunneries, saying the advantages of shared facilities were outweighed by the opportunities for the devil to introduce temptation. Where there was a double house, the separation of monks and nuns should be as rigid as possible, he added.
Godwyn felt the thrill of finding authoritative support for a preexisting conviction. At Oxford he had enjoyed the all-male environment of Kingsbridge College. The university teachers were men, as were the students, without exception. He had hardly spoken to a female for seven years and, if he kept his eyes on the ground as he walked through the city, he could even avoid looking at them. On his return to the priory, he had found it disturbing to see nuns so frequently. Although they had their own cloisters, refectory, kitchen, and other buildings, he met them constantly in the church, the hospital, and other communal areas. At this moment there was a pretty young nun called Mair just a few feet away, consulting an illustrated book on medicinal herbs. It was even worse to encounter girls from the town, with their close-fitting clothes and alluring hairstyles, casually walking through the priory grounds on everyday errands, bringing supplies to the kitchen or visiting the hospital.
Clearly, he thought, the priory had fallen from Philip’s high standards—another example of the slackness that had crept in under the rule of Anthony, Godwyn’s uncle. But perhaps there was something he could do about this.
The bell rang for Sext, and he closed the book. Sister Mair did the same, and smiled at him, her red lips forming a sweet curve as she did so. He looked away and hurried out of the room.
The weather was improving, the sun shining fitfully between showers of rain. In the church, the stained-glass windows brightened and faded as patchy clouds blew across the sky. Godwyn’s mind was equally restless, distracted from his prayers by thoughts of how he could best use Timothy’s Book to inspire a revival in the priory. He decided he would raise the subject at chapter, the daily meeting of all the monks.
The builders were getting on quickly with the repairs to the chancel after last Sunday’s collapse, he noted. The rubble had been cleared away and the area had been roped off. There was a growing stack of thin, lightweight stones in the transept. The men did not stop work when the monks began to sing—there were so many services during the course of a normal day that the repairs would have been severely delayed. Merthin Fitzgerald, who had temporarily abandoned his work on the new door, was in the south aisle, constructing an elaborate spiderweb of ropes, branches, and hurdles on which the masons would stand as they rebuilt the vaulted ceiling. Thomas Langley, whose job it was to supervise the builders, was standing in the south transept with Elfric, pointing with his one arm at the collapsed vault, obviously discussing Merthin’s work.
Thomas was effective as matricularius: he was decisive, and he never let things slip. Any morning the builders failed to show up—a frequent irritation—Thomas would go and find them and demand to know why. If he had a fault, it was that he was too independent: he rarely reported progress or asked Godwyn’s opinion, but got on with the work as if he were his own master rather than Godwyn’s subordinate. Godwyn had an annoying suspicion that Thomas doubted his ability. Godwyn was younger, but only slightly: he was thirty-one, Thomas thirty-four. Perhaps Thomas thought that Godwyn had been promoted by Anthony under pressure from Petranilla. However, he showed no other sign of resentment. He just did things his own way.
As Godwyn watched, murmuring the responses of the service automatically, Thomas’s conversation with Elfric was interrupted. Lord William of Caster came striding into the church. He was a tall, black-bearded figure very like his father, and equally harsh, though people said he was sometimes softened by his wife, Philippa. He approached Thomas and waved Elfric away. Thomas turned to William, and something in his stance reminded Godwyn that Thomas had once been a knight, and had first arrived at the priory bleeding from the sword wound that had eventually necessitated the amputation of his left arm at the elbow.
Godwyn wished he could hear what Lord William was saying. William was leaning forward, speaking aggressively, pointing a finger. Thomas, unafraid, answered with equal vigor. Godwyn suddenly remembered Thomas having just such an intense, combative conversation ten years ago, on the day he arrived here. On that occasion, he had been arguing with William’s younger brother, Richard—then a priest, now the bishop of Kingsbridge. Perhaps it was fanciful, but Godwyn imagined they were quarreling about the same thing today. What could it be? Could there really be an issue between a monk and a noble family that was still a cause of anger after ten years?
Lord William stamped off, evidently unsatisfied, and Thomas turned back to Elfric.
The argument ten years ago had resulted in Thomas’s joining the priory. Godwyn recalled that Richard had promised a donation to secure Thomas’s admittance. Godwyn had never heard any more about that donation. He wondered if it had ever been paid.
In all that time, no one at the priory seemed to have learned much about Thomas’s former life. That was curious: monks gossiped constantly. Living closely together in a small group—there were twenty-six at present—they tended to know almost everything about one another. What lord had Thomas served? Where had he lived? Most knights ruled over a few villages, receiving rents that enabled them to pay for horses, armor, and weapons. Had Thomas had a wife and children? If so, what had become of them? No one knew.
Apart from the mystery of his background, Thomas was a good monk, devout and hardworking. It seemed as if this existence suited him better than his life as a knight. Despite his former career of violence, there was something of the woman about him, as there was about many monks. He was very close to Brother Matthias, a sweet-natured man a few years younger than he. But if they were committing sins of impurity, they were very discreet about it, for no accusation had ever been made.
Toward the end of the service Godwyn glanced into the deep gloom of the nave and saw his mother, Petranilla, standing as still as one of the pillars, a shaft of sunlight illuminating her proud gray head. She was alone. He wondered how long she had been there, watching. Laypeople were not encouraged to attend the weekday services, and Godwyn guessed she was here to see him. He felt the familiar mixture of pleasure and apprehension. She would do anything for him, he knew. She had sold her house and become her brother Edmund’s housekeeper just so that he could study at Oxford; and when he thought of the sacrifice that entailed for his proud mother, he wanted to weep with gratitude. Yet her presence always made him anxious, as if he were going to be reprimanded for some transgression.
As the monks and nuns filed out, Godwyn peeled off from the procession and approached her. “Good morning, Mama.”
She kissed his forehead. “You look thin,” she said with maternal anxiety. “Aren’t you getting enough to eat?”
“Salt fish and porridge, but there’s plenty of it,” he said.
“What are you so excited about?” She could always read his mood.
He told her about Timothy’s Book. “I could read the passage during chapter,” he said.
“Would others support you?”
“Theodoric and the younger monks would. A lot of them find it disturbing to see women all the time. After all, they have all chosen to live in an all-male community.”
She nodded approvingly. “This casts you in the role of leader. Excellent.”
“Besides, they like me because of the hot stones.”
“I introduced a new rule in the winter. On frosty nights, when we go into church for Matins, each monk is given a hot stone wrapped in a rag. It prevents them getting chilblains in their feet.”
“Very clever. All the same, check your support before you make your move.”
“Of course. But it fits in with what the masters teach at Oxford.”
“Mankind is fallible, so we should not rely on our own reasoning. We cannot hope to understand the world—all we can do is stand amazed at God’s creation. True knowledge comes only from revelation. We should not question received wisdom.”
Mother looked skeptical, as laypeople often did when educated men tried to explain high philosophy. “And this is what bishops and cardinals believe?”
“Yes. The University of Paris has actually banned the works of Aristotle and Aquinas because they are based on rationality rather than faith.”
“Will this way of thinking help you find favor with your superiors?”
That was all she really cared about. She wanted her son to be prior, bishop, archbishop, even cardinal. He wanted the same, but he hoped he was not as cynical as she. “I’m sure of it,” he replied.
“Good. But that’s not why I came to see you. Your uncle Edmund has suffered a blow. The Italians are threatening to take their custom to Shiring.”
Godwyn was shocked. “That will ruin his business.” But he was not sure why she had made a special visit to tell him.
“Edmund thinks he can win them back if we improve the Fleece Fair, and in particular if we tear down the old bridge and build a new, wider one.”
“Let me guess: Uncle Anthony refused.”
“But Edmund has not given up.”
“You want me to talk to Anthony?”
She shook her head. “You can’t persuade him. But if the subject comes up in chapter, you should support the proposal.”
“And go against Uncle Anthony?”
“Whenever a sensible proposal is opposed by the old guard, you must be identified as leader of the reformers.”
Godwyn smiled admiringly. “Mama, how do you know so much about politics?”
“I’ll tell you.” She looked away, her eyes focusing on the great rose window at the east end, her mind in the past. “When my father started to trade with the Italians, he was treated as an upstart by the leading citizens of Kingsbridge. They turned up their noses at him and his family, and did everything they could to prevent him implementing his new ideas. My mother was dead by then, and I was an adolescent, so I became his confidante, and he told me everything.” Her face, normally fixed in an expression of frozen calm, twisted now into a mask of bitterness and resentment: her eyes narrowed, her lip curled, and her cheek flushed with remembered shame. “He decided he would never be free of them until he took control of the parish guild. So that’s what he set out to do, and I helped him.” She drew a deep breath, as if once again gathering her strength for a long war. “We divided the ruling group, set one faction against the other, made alliances and then shifted them, ruthlessly undermined our opponents, and used our supporters until it suited us to discard them. It took us ten years, and at the end of it, he was alderman of the guild and the richest man in town.”
She had told him the story of his grandfather before, but never in quite such bluntly honest terms. “So you were his aide, as Caris is to Edmund?”
She gave a short, harsh laugh. “Yes. Except that, by the time Edmund took over, we were the leading citizens. My father and I climbed the mountain, and Edmund just had to walk down the other side.”
They were interrupted by Philemon. He came into the church from the cloisters, a tall, scrawny-necked man of twenty-two, walking like a bird, with short, pigeon-toed steps. He carried a broom: he was employed by the priory as a cleaner. He seemed excited. “I’ve been looking for you, Brother Godwyn.”
Petranilla ignored his obvious hurry. “Hello, Philemon. Haven’t they made you a monk yet?”
“I can’t raise the necessary donation, Mistress Petranilla. I come from a humble family.”
“But it’s not unknown for the priory to waive the donation in the case of an applicant who shows devotion. And you’ve been a servant of the priory, paid and unpaid, for years.”
“Brother Godwyn has proposed me, but some of the older monks argued against me.”
Godwyn put in: “Blind Carlus hates Philemon—I don’t know why.”
Petranilla said: “I’ll speak to my brother Anthony. He should overrule Carlus. You’re a good friend to my son—I’d like to see you get on.”
“Thank you, mistress.”
“Well, you’re obviously bursting to tell Godwyn something that can’t be said in front of me, so I’ll take my leave.” She kissed Godwyn. “Remember what I said.”
“I will, Mama.”
Godwyn felt relieved, as if a storm cloud had passed overhead and gone on to drench some other town.
As soon as Petranilla was out of earshot, Philemon said: “It’s Bishop Richard!”
Godwyn raised his eyebrows. Philemon had a way of learning people’s secrets. “What have you found out?”
“He’s in the hospital, right now, in one of the private rooms upstairs—with his cousin Margery!”
Margery was a pretty girl of sixteen. Her parents—a younger brother of Earl Roland and a sister of the countess of Marr—were both dead, and she was Roland’s ward. He had arranged for her to marry a son of the earl of Monmouth, in a political alliance that would greatly strengthen Roland’s position as the leading nobleman of southwest England. “What are they doing?” Godwyn said, though he could guess.
Philemon lowered his voice. “Kissing!”
“How do you know?”
“I’ll show you.”
Philemon led the way out of the church via the south transept, through the monks’ cloisters, and up a flight of steps to the dormitory. It was a plain room with two rows of simple wooden bedsteads, each having a straw mattress. It shared a party wall with the hospital. Philemon went to a large cupboard that contained blankets. With an effort, he pulled it forward. In the wall behind it there was a loose stone. Momentarily Godwyn wondered how Philemon had come across this peephole, and guessed he might have hidden something in the gap. Philemon lifted the stone out, careful to make no noise, and whispered: “Look, quick!”
Godwyn hesitated. In a low voice he said: “How many other guests have you observed from here?”
“All of them,” Philemon replied, as if that should have been obvious.
Godwyn thought he knew what he was going to see, and he did not relish it. Peeping at a misbehaving bishop might be all right for Philemon, but it seemed shamefully underhand. However, his curiosity urged him on. In the end he asked himself what his mother would advise, and knew immediately that she would tell him to look.
The hole in the wall was a little below eye level. He stooped and peeked through.
He was looking into one of the two private guest rooms upstairs at the hospital. In one corner stood a prie-dieu facing a wall painting of the crucifixion. There were two comfortable chairs and a couple of stools. When there was a crowd of important guests, the men took one room and the women the other; and this was clearly the women’s room, for on a small table were several distinctly feminine articles: combs, ribbons, and mysterious small jars and vials.
On the floor were two straw mattresses. Richard and Margery lay on one of them. They were doing more than kissing.
Bishop Richard was an attractive man with wavy midbrown hair and regular features. Margery was not much more than half his age, a slender girl with white skin and dark eyebrows. They lay side by side. Richard was kissing her face and speaking into her ear. A smile of pleasure played upon his fleshy lips. Margery’s dress was pushed up around her waist. She had beautiful long white legs. His hand was between her thighs, moving with a practiced, regular motion: although Godwyn had no experience of women, somehow he knew what Richard was doing. Margery looked at Richard adoringly, her mouth half open, panting with excitement, her face flushed with passion. Perhaps it was mere prejudice, but Godwyn sensed intuitively that Richard saw Margery as a plaything of the moment, whereas Margery believed Richard was the love of her life.
Godwyn stared at them for a horrified moment. Richard moved his hand, and suddenly Godwyn was looking at the triangle of coarse hair between Margery’s thighs, dark against her white skin, like her eyebrows. Quickly, he looked away.
“Let me see,” said Philemon.
Godwyn moved away from the wall. This was shocking, but what should he do about it—if anything?
Philemon looked through the hole and gave a gasp of excitement. “I can see her cunt!” he whispered. “He’s rubbing it!”
“Come away from there,” Godwyn said. “We’ve seen enough—too much.”
Philemon hesitated, fascinated; then, reluctantly, he moved away and replaced the loose stone. “We must expose the bishop’s fornication at once!” he said.
“Shut your mouth and let me think,” Godwyn said. If he did as Philemon suggested, he would make enemies of Richard and his powerful family—and to no purpose. But surely there was a way something like this could be turned to advantage? Godwyn tried to think about it as his mother would. If there was nothing to be gained by revealing Richard’s sin, was it possible to make a virtue of concealing it? Perhaps Richard would be grateful to Godwyn for keeping it secret.
That was more promising. But for it to work, Richard had to know that Godwyn was protecting him.
“Come with me,” Godwyn said to Philemon.
Philemon moved the cupboard back into place. Godwyn wondered whether the sound of the wood scraping on the floor was audible in the next room. He doubted it—and, anyway, Richard and Margery were surely too absorbed in what they were doing to notice noises from beyond the wall.
Godwyn led the way down the stairs and through the cloisters. There were two staircases to the private rooms: one led up from the hospital’s ground floor, and the other was outside the building, permitting important guests to come and go without passing through the common people’s quarters. Godwyn hurried up the outside stairs.
He paused outside the room where Richard and Margery were and spoke to Philemon quietly. “Follow me in,” he said. “Do nothing. Say nothing. Leave when I leave.”
Philemon put down his broom.
“No,” Godwyn said. “Carry it.”
Godwyn threw open the door and strode in. “I want this chamber immaculately clean,” he said loudly. “Sweep every corner—Oh! I beg your pardon! I thought the room was empty!”
In the time it had taken Godwyn and Philemon to rush from the dormitory to the hospital, the lovers had progressed. Richard now lay on top of Margery, his long clerical robe lifted in front. Her shapely white legs stuck straight up in the air either side of the bishop’s hips. There was no mistaking what they were doing.
Richard ceased his thrusting motion and looked at Godwyn, his expression a mixture of angry frustration and frightened guilt. Margery gave a cry of shock and she, too, stared at Godwyn with fear in her eyes.
Godwyn drew the moment out. “Bishop Richard!” he said, feigning bewilderment. He wanted Richard to be in no doubt that he had been recognized. “But how…and Margery?” He pretended to understand suddenly. “Forgive me!” He spun on his heel. He shouted at Philemon: “Get out! Now!” Philemon scuttled back through the door, still clutching his broom.
Godwyn followed, but he turned at the door, to make sure Richard got a good look at him. The two lovers remained frozen in position, locked in sexual congress, but their faces had changed. Margery’s hand had flown to her mouth in the eternal gesture of surprised guilt. Richard’s expression had become frantically calculating. He wanted to speak but he could not think what to say. Godwyn decided to put them out of their misery. He had done everything he needed to do.
He stepped out—then, before he could close the door, a shock made him stop. A woman was coming up the stairs. He suffered a moment of panic. It was Philippa, the wife of the earl’s other son.
He realized instantly that Richard’s guilty secret would lose its value if someone else knew it. He had to warn Richard. “Lady Philippa!” he said in a loud voice. “Welcome to Kingsbridge Priory!”
Urgent scuffling noises came from behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Richard leap to his feet.
Luckily, Philippa did not march straight past, but stopped and spoke to Godwyn. “Perhaps you can help me.” From where she stood, she could not quite see into the room, he thought. “I’ve lost a bracelet. It’s not precious, just carved wood, but I’m fond of it.”
“What a shame,” Godwyn said sympathetically. “I’ll ask all the monks and nuns to look out for it.”
Philemon said: “I haven’t seen it.”
Godwyn said to Philippa: “Perhaps it slipped from your wrist.”
She frowned. “The odd thing is, I haven’t actually worn it since I got here. I took it off when I arrived, and put it on the table, and now I can’t find it.”
“Perhaps it rolled into a dark corner. Philemon here will look for it. He cleans the guest rooms.”
Philippa looked at Philemon. “Yes, I saw you as I was leaving, an hour or so ago. You didn’t spot it when you swept the room?”
“I didn’t sweep. Miss Margery came in just as I was getting started.”
Godwyn said: “Philemon has just come back to clean your room, but Miss Margery is”—he looked into the room—“at prayer,” he finished. Margery was kneeling on the prie-dieu, eyes closed—begging forgiveness for her sin, Godwyn hoped. Richard stood behind her, head bowed, hands clasped, lips moving in a murmur.
Godwyn stepped aside to let Philippa enter the room. She gave her brother-in-law a suspicious look. “Hello, Richard,” she said. “It’s not like you to pray on a weekday.”
He put his finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, and pointed to Margery on the prayer stool.
Philippa said briskly: “Margery can pray as much as she likes, but this is the women’s room, and I want you out.”
Richard concealed his relief and left, closing the door on the two women.
He and Godwyn stood face-to-face in the hallway. Godwyn could tell that Richard did not know what line to take. He might be inclined to say, How dare you burst into a room without knocking? However, he was so badly in the wrong that he probably could not summon up the nerve to bluster. On the other hand, he could hardly beg Godwyn to keep quiet about what he had seen, for that would be to acknowledge himself in Godwyn’s power. It was a moment of painful awkwardness.
While Richard hesitated, Godwyn spoke. “No one shall hear of this from me.”
Richard looked relieved, then glanced at Philemon. “What about him?”
“Philemon wants to be a monk. He is learning the virtue of obedience.”
“I’m in your debt.”
“A man should confess his own sins, not those of others.”
“All the same, I’m grateful, brother….”
“Godwyn, the sacrist. I’m the nephew of Prior Anthony.” He wanted Richard to know that he was sufficiently well connected to make serious trouble. But, to take the edge off the threat, he added: “My mother was betrothed to your father, many years ago, before your father became the earl.”
“I’ve heard that story.”
Godwyn wanted to add: And your father spurned my mother, just as you’re planning to spurn the wretched Margery. But instead he said pleasantly: “We might have been brothers.”
The bell rang for dinner. Relieved of their embarrassment, the three men parted company: Richard to Prior Anthony’s house, Godwyn to the monks’ refectory, and Philemon to the kitchen to help serve.
Godwyn was thoughtful as he walked through the cloisters. He was upset by the animal scene he had witnessed, but he felt he had handled it well. At the end, Richard had seemed to trust him.
In the refectory Godwyn sat next to Theodoric, a bright monk a couple of years younger than he. Theodoric had not studied at Oxford, and in consequence he looked up to Godwyn. Godwyn treated him as an equal, which flattered Theodoric. “I’ve just read something that will interest you,” Godwyn said. He summarized what he had read about the revered Prior Philip’s attitude to women in general and nuns in particular. “It’s what you’ve always said,” he finished. In fact, Theodoric had never expressed an opinion on the subject, but he always agreed when Godwyn complained about Prior Anthony’s slackness.
“Of course,” Theodoric said. He had blue eyes and fair skin, and now he flushed with excitement. “How can we have pure thoughts when we are constantly distracted by females?”
“But what can we do about it?”
“We must confront the prior.”
“In chapter, you mean,” Godwyn said, as if it were Theodoric’s idea rather than his own. “Yes, excellent plan. But would others support us?”
“The younger monks would.”
Young men probably agreed with more or less any criticism of their elders, Godwyn thought. But he also knew that many monks shared his own preference for a life in which women were absent or, at least, invisible. “If you talk to anyone between now and chapter, let me know what they say,” he said. That would encourage Theodoric to go around whipping up support.
The dinner arrived, a stew of salt fish and beans. Before Godwyn could begin to eat, he was prevented by Friar Murdo.
Friars were monks who lived among the people instead of secluding themselves in monasteries. They felt that their self-denial was more rigorous than that of institutional monks, whose vow of poverty was compromised by their splendid buildings and extensive landholdings. Traditionally friars had no property, not even churches—although many had slipped from this ideal after pious admirers gave them land and money. Those who still lived by the original principles scrounged their food and slept on kitchen floors. They preached in marketplaces and outside taverns, and were rewarded with pennies. They did not hesitate to sponge off ordinary monks for food and lodging anytime it suited their convenience. Not surprisingly, their assumption of superiority was resented.
Friar Murdo was a particularly unpleasant example: fat, dirty, greedy, often drunk, and sometimes seen in the company of prostitutes. But he was also a charismatic preacher who could hold a crowd of hundreds with his colorful, theologically dubious sermons.
Now he stood up, uninvited, and began to pray in a loud voice. “Our Father, bless this food to our foul, corrupt bodies, as full of sin as a dead dog is full of maggots….”
Murdo’s prayers were never short. Godwyn put down his spoon with a sigh.
There was always a reading in chapter—usually from the Rule of St. Benedict, but often from the Bible, and occasionally other religious books. As the monks were taking their places on the raked stone benches around the octagonal chapter house, Godwyn sought out the young monk who was due to read today and told him, quietly but firmly, that he, Godwyn, would be reading instead. Then, when the moment came, he read the crucial page from Timothy’s Book.
He felt nervous. He had returned from Oxford a year ago, and he had been quietly talking to people about reforming the priory ever since; but, until this moment, he had not openly confronted Anthony. The prior was weak and lazy, and needed to be shocked out of his lethargy. Furthermore, St. Benedict had written: “All must be called to chapter, for the Lord often reveals to a younger member what is best.” Godwyn was perfectly entitled to speak out in chapter and call for stricter compliance with monastic rules. All the same, he suddenly felt he was running a risk, and wished he had taken longer to think about his tactics in using Timothy’s Book.
But it was too late for regrets. He closed the book and said: “My question, to myself and my brethren, is this: have we slipped below the standards of Prior Philip in the matter of separation between monks and females?” He had learned, in student debates, to put his argument in the form of a question whenever he could, giving his opponent as little as possible to argue against.
The first to reply was Blind Carlus, the subprior, Anthony’s deputy. “Some monasteries are located far from any center of population, on an uninhabited island, or deep in the forest, or perched on a lonely mountaintop,” he said. His slow, deliberate speech made Godwyn fidget with impatience. “In such houses, the brothers seclude themselves from all contact with the secular world,” he went on unhurriedly. “Kingsbridge has never been like that. We’re in the heart of a great city, the home of seven thousand souls. We care for one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom. Many of us are physicians, because St. Benedict said: ‘Special care must be taken of the sick so that in very deed they be looked after as if it were Christ himself.’ The luxury of total isolation has not been granted to us. God has given us a different mission.”
Godwyn had expected something like this. Carlus hated furniture to be moved, for then he would stumble over it; and he opposed any other kind of change, out of a parallel anxiety about coping with the unfamiliar.
Theodoric had a quick answer to Carlus. “All the more reason for us to be strict about the rules,” he said. “A man who lives next door to a tavern must be extracareful to avoid drunkenness.”
There was a murmur of pleased agreement: the monks enjoyed a smart riposte. Godwyn gave a nod of approval. The fair-skinned Theodoric blushed with gratification.
Emboldened, a novice called Juley said in a loud whisper: “Women don’t bother Carlus—he can’t see them.” Several monks laughed, though others shook their heads in disapproval.