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By Sharon Kay Penman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1991 Sharon Kay Penman
All rights reserved.
Evesham Abbey, England
There were no stars. The sky was the color of cinders, and shadows were spilling out of every corner. Brother Damian was truly content with his lot in life, but border winters were brutal, and he sometimes found it hard to reconcile his monk's vow of poverty with his subversive yearning for a woolen mantle luxuriously lined with fox fur. Folklore held that St Hilary's Day was the coldest of the year, but he doubted that it could be as frigid as this first Friday in January, a day that had begun in snow and was ending now in this frozen twilight dusk, in swirling sleet and ice-edged gusting wind, sharp as any blade.
He had reached the dubious shelter of the cloisters when a snowball grazed his cheek, splattered against the nearest pillar. Damian stumbled, slipped on the glazed walkway, and went down. His assailants rushed to his rescue and he was soon encircled by dismayed young faces. With recognition, the boys' apologies became less anxious, more heartfelt, for Damian was a favorite of theirs. They often wished that he, rather than the dour Brother Gerald, was master of the novices, as Damian was young enough himself to wink at their indiscretions, understanding how bumpy was the road from country lad to reluctant scholar. Now he scolded them roundly as they helped him to his feet and retrieved his spilled candles, but his rebuke lacked sting; when he tallied up sins, he found no room on the list for snowball fights.
His duty done, Damian felt free to jest about poor marksmanship before sending them back to their studies. They crowded in, jockeying for position, warming him with their grins, imploring him to tell them again of the great Earl Simon and the battle of Evesham, fought within sight of the abbey's walls. Damian was not deceived, as able as the next man to recognize a delaying tactic. But it was a ploy he could never resist, and when they entreated him to tell the story "just one more time, for Jack," a freckle-faced newcomer to their ranks, he let himself be persuaded.
Five years had passed since the Earl of Leicester had found violent death and martyrdom on a bloody August morn, but his memory was still green. Evesham cherished its own saint, caring naught that Simon de Montfort had not been — and would likely never be — canonized by the Church. No pope or cardinal would antagonize the English Crown by sanctifying the Earl's rebellion as the holy quest he'd believed it to be. It was the English people — craftsmen and widows and village priests and shire gentry — who had declared him blessed, who flocked to his grave in faithful numbers, who defied Church and King to do reverence to a French-born rebel, who did not forget.
Evesham suffered from no dearth of de Montfort partisans. Some of the more knowing of the boys had concluded that if every man who claimed to have fought with the Earl that day had in fact done so, de Montfort would never have lost. But Damian's de Montfort credentials were impeccable, for all knew he had actually engaged the great Earl in conversation before the battle, that he had then dared to make his way alone to Dover Castle, determined to give the Earl's grieving widow an account of his last hours. Damian not only believed in the de Montfort legend, he had lived it, and the boys listened raptly as he shared with them his memories, his remembered pain.
So real was it still to Damian that as he spoke, the cold seemed to ebb away, and the boys began to breathe in humid August air that foretold a coming storm. They saw the Earl and his men ride into the abbey so that the captive King Henry might hear Mass. They experienced the rebel army's joy that salvation was at hand, for the Earl's second son — young Simon, known to friends and foes alike as Bran — was on his way from Kenilworth Castle with a vast army. And they shuddered and groaned when Damian told them that Bran had tarried too long, that through his lack of care, his men were ambushed by the King's son. Flying Bran's captured banners, the Lord Edward had swept down upon Evesham, and by the time Earl Simon discovered the ruse, it was too late. Trapped between Edward's advancing army and the river, he and his men had ridden out to die.
"Earl Simon knew they were doomed, but his faith never faltered. He told his men that their cause was just, that a king should not be accountable only to God. 'The men of England will cherish their liberties all the more,' he said, 'knowing that we died for them.'" Damian's voice trailed off. There was a somber silence, broken at last by one of the younger lads, wanting to know if it was true that the Earl had been hideously maimed by his enemies. It was a question Damian had often been asked, but it was not one he found easy to answer — even now. He hesitated and a young voice came from the shadows.
"They hacked off Earl Simon's head and his private male parts, dispatched them as keepsakes to Roger de Mortimer's wife. His arms and legs were chopped off, too, sent to towns that had favored the Earl, and his mangled corpse was thrown to the dogs. Brother Damian retrieved what was left of the Earl's body, carried it on a ladder into the church, and buried it before the High Altar. But even then the Earl's enemies were not satisfied. They dug his body up, buried him in unhallowed ground. It was only after Simon's son Amaury appealed to the Pope that we were able to give the Earl a decent Christian burial."
It was a grisly account, but none thought to challenge it, for the speaker was another who had reason to be well versed in the de Montfort mythology; Hugh de Whitton's father had died fighting for Simon on that rain-drenched Evesham field.
Damian gave Hugh a grateful glance, then sent them off to wash up before supper. He was not surprised when Hugh lingered, offering to help him carry his candles to the sacristy. Of all the boys who lived at the abbey, both novices and students, none were as generous, as open-hearted as Hugh. Damian was very fond of him, and he grieved for the bleakness of the boy's future. For a lad of fourteen, he'd had more than his share of sorrows. His mother had died giving birth to a stillborn son when he was just four; he'd been but nine at the time of his father's battlefield death, and there were none to redeem his sire's forfeit lands. A cousin was found who'd grudgingly agreed to pay for the boy's education, but now that he was in his fifteenth year, the payments had ceased. Damian knew that the Abbot could not keep the lad on indefinitely. Nor would he stay once he realized his presence had become a charity, for Hugh was as proud as he was impoverished. Damian was by nature an optimist, but even he had few illusions as to what lay ahead for Hugh. Landless orphans did not often prosper, even in the best of times.
As they headed for the church, Hugh shortened his stride to match the monk's. He might lack for earthly possessions, but not for stature; he was already taller than many men, and his long legs, loose-gaited walk, and broadening shoulders gave promise of even more impressive growth to come. Now he studied Damian through long, fair lashes, blue eyes shadowed with sudden doubts.
Nothing he'd heard this eve was unfamiliar; he knew the history of the de Montforts as if they were his own family. The Earl, a highborn lord who'd championed the commons, a legend even in his lifetime, arrogant and gallant and hot-tempered and reckless, a man who'd preferred death to dishonor. His Countess, the Lady Nell, forced to choose between her brother the King and her husband, forced into French exile after Evesham. Their five sons. Harry, who'd died with his father, and Guy, who'd survived only by the grace of God. Bran, who had to live with a guilt beyond anything Hugh could imagine. Amaury, the priest, and Richard, dead in France. Ellen, the only daughter, who was to have wed a Prince.
Hugh felt as if he knew them all. But his thoughts now were not of the beguiling, tragic de Montforts; it was Damian, his friend, for whom he feared. "The old King hated Earl Simon as if he were the veritable Antichrist," he said hesitantly. "And all know how wroth the Lord Edward is that men have taken the Earl's memory so to heart, that they make pilgrimages to his grave and speak of miracles, of children healed and fevers broken. Is it not dangerous, then, Brother Damian, to speak out so plainly? Not even the Lord Edward could deny Earl Simon's courage. But when you talk of his desire for reforms, when you say he was right to seize the government, is there not a risk that evil- minded men might missay you, might even claim you speak treason?"
Damian was touched by the youngster's concern. "There is some truth in what you say, lad. But King Henry is no great threat these days, addled by his age and his failures. And the Lord Edward, whilst undeniably formidable, is absent from the realm. Crusades can last for years; who knows when he might return to England?"
"I was thinking of a danger closer at hand — the Earl of Gloucester. Who hates Earl Simon more than Gloucester? A man always despises one he betrays, does he not?"
Damian gave Hugh an approving smile; the lad was learning fast. "You are right. That Judas Gloucester does indeed harbor great hatred for his former allies, for all who bear the name de Montfort. I may well be foolhardy for speaking out as I do. But I cannot keep silent, Hugh. That is all I can do for Earl Simon now, seek to make sure he is not forgotten."
Ahead loomed the abbey church, a massive silhouette against the darkening sky. The nave was lit only by Damian's lantern, but as they detoured around the rood screen, they could see a glimmer of light coming from the choir. Damian was not surprised to find a man standing before Simon de Montfort's grave stone; rarely a day passed without pilgrims to this illicit shrine.
"I am sorry, but you must go now," he said kindly. "It is nigh on time for Vespers. You may stay for the service if you wish; lay people are permitted in the nave."
The man did not answer. He was uncommonly tall, shrouded in a long, snow-splattered mantle, and there was something disconcerting about his silence, his utter stillness in the shadows. Damian felt a faint prickling of unease. To combat it, he stepped forward boldly, raising his lantern. His candle's flame flared, giving Hugh a glimpse of a dark hawk's face, cheekbones high and hollowed, eyes the shade of smoke, not a face to be forgotten. But then Damian's light faltered; the lantern slipped from fingers suddenly numbed, would have plunged to the ground had Hugh not snatched it up. He turned, wondering, close enough to hear the monk's ragged, indrawn breath.
"My lord Earl!" Damian stumbled backward, groping for his crucifix. The man took a quick step forward, reaching out. Damian recoiled from his touch, then whirled, fled the choir.
Hugh was no less frightened. He believed implicitly in spirits and the supernatural, but had never expected to encounter an apparition himself. He was ready to bolt, too, when the man cried, "Wait!" The voice was low, husky, managed both to command and to entreat. Hugh hesitated; although he did not think the Earl's spectre would do him harm, there was terror in any confrontation with the unknown. He had begun to back away when his lantern spilled light onto the tiles, onto the crimson droplets trickling down Earl Simon's grave stone. It was an eerie sight, fraught with sinister significance, should have triggered headlong flight. But Hugh's superstitions were diluted by a healthy dose of country common sense. Ghosts do not bleed. Unthinkingly, he blurted that out aloud, and the corner of the stranger's mouth twitched.
"No," he said, "they do not ..." Hugh darted forward, catching him as he staggered, sank down upon the altar steps. "The monk," he gasped, "stop him from giving the alarm ..."
"I will," Hugh promised, "I will!" There was blood now upon his own mantle, too. He gently disengaged the other's hold upon his arm. "I'll find him, never fear!"
Damian's panic had taken him only as far as the nave. Once he realized that Hugh had not followed, he was nerving himself to return for the lad when Hugh lurched into the rood screen. "Brother Damian, hurry! He needs our help, is bleeding badly!" Grabbing Damian's sleeve, Hugh tugged urgently, impatiently. "'Tis no ghost, I swear! Not Earl Simon, his son!"
Damian was greatly relieved, but discomfited, too. Flushed and breathless, he bent over the injured man, devoting more attention to "the remarkable resemblance, verily Lord Simon's image" than to the makeshift bandage, the blood welling between Hugh's fingers. Fortunately for Simon's son, Hugh had a cooler head in a crisis. It was he who reminded them that Vespers was nigh, and, at his suggestion, they assisted the wounded man into the sacristy. Damian's embarrassment had yet to fade; it manifested itself now in a reluctance to be alone with his spurious saint, and when Hugh moved back into the choir, he made excuse to follow.
There he found Hugh dipping an altar cloth in the holy-water font. He should have rebuked the boy. Instead, he whispered, "Which son?"
"Bran," Hugh said without hesitation, although he could not have explained how he knew, only that he did. Wringing out the cloth, he hastened back into the sacristy, Damian at his heels.
Bran was slumped upon a wooden bench, eyes closed. He didn't move, even when Hugh began to unwind his bloodied bandage. Much to the boy's relief, the wound he exposed did not appear life-threatening: a jagged sword slash across the ribs. "You've lost a lot of blood, my lord, but the cut should heal well enough as long as no proud flesh forms."
Bran opened his eyes at that. "You are young to be a leech," he said, and smiled.
Hugh blushed, mumbled that he had oft-times aided Brother Mark in the infirmary. Then, realizing that he was being teased, he relaxed somewhat, and ventured to ask how Bran had come to be wounded.
Bran shrugged, winced. "My ship dropped anchor in Bristol harbor three days ago. I had no trouble until I reached Tewkesbury, where I had the bad luck to be recognized by two of Gloucester's knights. I fought my way free, but ..." He shrugged again, then glanced from Hugh to Damian, back to Hugh. "I was more fortunate at Evesham, for here I found friends," he said, and Hugh flushed anew, this time with pleasure.
Damian held up a hand for silence. "I thought I heard footsteps in the nave. My lord, you are in grave danger. By now Gloucester's men will have raised a hue and cry, and it would be easy enough to guess where you were headed. You dare not stay here, lest you be taken."
Bran nodded. "I know. But I had to come ..."
Hugh nodded, too. He understood perfectly why Bran should have taken such a mad risk, and was ready to perform miracles in order to save Simon de Montfort's son. "Mayhap we can hide him in the stables," he implored Damian, but the monk was already shaking his head.
"They'd find him, lad. No, he must get farther away, but I doubt he can ride —"
"I can ride," Bran interrupted, with a grim resolve that carried such conviction that they no longer doubted. "If I can reach the border, I'll be safe enough in Wales."
"For certes, Wales!" Damian marveled he hadn't thought of it, for the powerful Welsh Prince, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, had been Simon de Montfort's most steadfast ally, betrothed to Simon's daughter, Ellen. Llewelyn had disavowed the plight troth after Simon's defeat, for royal marriages were based upon pragmatic considerations of statecraft, not sentiment. But Llewelyn had maintained his friendship with the de Montforts, and Damian was sure he would willingly extend his protection to Simon's son. How could Bran manage so perilous a journey, though, weak as he was?
That had occurred to Hugh, too. "You'll need a guide. Let it be me!"
Bran sat up, studying the boy's eager face. "I accept your offer right gladly, lad, but only if you understand the risks."
Hugh's grin was radiant enough to light the way into Wales. "I do, I swear I do!" Whirling upon Damian when the monk gave a smothered sound of protest: "Brother Damian, do not object, I beg you! A fortnight, that is all I'll be gone!"
Damian knew that to let Hugh go was madness. But when he started to refuse, he found the words wouldn't come. Mayhap this was meant to be. "I shall pray for you both," he said. "May you go with God." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman. Copyright © 1991 Sharon Kay Penman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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