In the gentle Shrewsbury spring of 1140, the midnight matins at the Benedictine abbey suddenly reverberate with an unholy sound—a hunt in full cry. Pursued by a drunken mob, the quarry is running for its life. When the frantic creature bursts into the nave to claim sanctuary, Brother Cadfael finds himself fighting off armed townsmen to save a terrified young man.
Liliwin, a wandering minstrel who performed at the wedding of a local goldsmith’s son, has been accused of robbery and murder. The cold light of morning, however, will show his supposed victim, the miserly craftsman, still lives, although a strongbox lies empty. Brother Cadfael believes Liliwin is innocent, but finding the truth and the treasure before Liliwin’s respite in sanctuary runs out may uncover a deadlier sin than thievery—a desperate love that nothing, not even the threat of hanging, can stop.
The Sanctuary Sparrow is the seventh book in the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, featuring a “wily veteran of the Crusades.” The historical mystery series earned Ellis Peters a Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award—and a legion of devoted fans (Los Angeles Times).
About the Author
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
Read an Excerpt
The Sanctuary Sparrow
The Seventh Chronicle Of Brother Cadfael, Of The Benedictine Abbey Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul, At Shrewsbury
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1983 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
Friday midnight to Saturday morning
It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning. Brother Cadfael had a hare's hearing, readily alerted and sharply focused. He caught the quiver and bay, at this point surely still on the far side of the bridge that crossed Severn from the town, and stiffened into responsive stillness, braced to listen.
It could have been an innocent sound enough, or if not innocent of murderous intent, at any rate natural, the distant voices of hunting owls, and the predatory bark of a dog—fox prowling his nocturnal barony. Certainly the ferocious note of the hunt sounded clearly in it to Cadfael's ear. And even Brother Anselm the precentor, wholly absorbed into his chanting of the office, wavered and slipped off-key for an instant, and took up the cadence jealously, composing his mind sternly to duty.
For there could not be anything in it to trouble the midnight rite of Matins, here in this kindly spring, barely four weeks past Easter of the year of Our Lord 1140, with Shrewsbury and all this region secure within the king's peace, whatever contentions raged farther south between king and empress, cousins at odds for the throne. The winter had been hard indeed, but was blessedly over, the sun had shone on Easter Day, and continued shining ever since, with only light, scattered showers to confirm the blessing. Only westward in Wales had there been heavy spring rains, swelling the river level. The season promised well, the town enjoyed fair rule under a dour but just sheriff, and defended stoutly by a sensible provost and council. In a time of civil war, Shrewsbury and its shire had good cause to thank God and King Stephen for relative order. Not here, surely, should the conventual peace of Matins fear any disruption. And yet Brother Anselm, for one instant, had faltered.
In the dim space of the choir, partially shut off from the nave of the church by the parish altar and lit only by the constant lamp and the candles on the high altar, the brothers in their stalls showed like carven copies, in this twilight without age or youth, comeliness or homeliness, so many matched shadows. The height of the vault, the solid stone of the pillars and walls, took up the sound of Brother Anselm's voice, and made of it a disembodied magic, high in air. Beyond where the candle-light reached and shadows ended, there was darkness, the night within, the night without. A benign night, mild, still and silent.
Not quite silent. The tremor on the air became a faint, persistent murmur. In the dimness under the rood loft, to the right of the entrance to the choir, Abbot Radulfus stirred in his stall. To the left, Prior Robert's habit rustled briefly, with an effect of displeasure and reproof rather than uneasiness. The merest ripple of disquiet shivered along the ranks of the brothers, and again subsided.
But the sound was drawing nearer. Even before it grew so loud as to compel notice there was no mistaking the anger in it, the menace and the dangerous excitement, all the marks of the hunt. It sounded as if the pursuit had reached the point where the van chasseours had run the quarry to exhaustion, and the parfytours were closing in for the kill. Even at this distance it was clear that some creature's life was in peril.
The sound drew nearer now very rapidly, hard to ignore, though the precentor continued valiantly leading his flock in the office, and raised his voice and quickened his tempo to ride over the challenge. The younger brothers and novices were shifting uneasily, even whispering, half stimulated, half affrighted. The murmur had become a ferocious, muted howl, as if gigantic bees were in swarm after an intruder. Even abbot and prior had leaned forward ready to rise from their stalls, and were exchanging questioning looks in the dimness.
With obstinate devotion Brother Anselm lifted the first phrase of Lauds. He got no farther. At the west end of the church the unlatched leaf of the great parish door was suddenly hurled open to crash against the wall, and something unseen came hurtling and scrabbling and gasping down the length of the nave, reeling and fumbling and fending itself off from wall and pillar, heaving at breath as though run to death already.
They were on their feet, every man. The younger ones broke out in frightened exclamation and wonder, nudging and wavering in doubt what to do. Abbot Radulfus in his own domain was hampered by no such hesitation. He moved with speed and force, plucked a candle from the nearest sconce, and went striding out round the parish altar in great, loping strides that sent his gown billowing out behind him. After him went Prior Robert, more tender of his dignity, and therefore slower to reach the scene of need, and after Robert all the brothers in jostling agitation. Before they reached the nave they were met by a great, exultant bellow of triumph, and a rushing and scrambling of dozens of frenzied bodies, as the hunt burst in at the west door after its prey.
Brother Cadfael, once well accustomed to night alarms by land and by sea, had surged out of his stall as soon as the abbot moved, but took time to grasp a double candelabrum to light his way. Prior Robert in full sail was already blocking the right-hand way round the parish altar, too patrician to make enough haste to ruffle his silvery beauty. Cadfael doubled round to the left and emerged into the nave before him, with his light thrust out ahead, as much weapon as illumination.
The hounds were streaming in by then, a quarter of the town, and not the best quarter, though not necessarily the worst either; decent craftsmen, merchants, traders, jostled with the riff-raff always ready for any brawl, and all of them beyond themselves either with drink or excitement or both together, howling for blood. And blood there was, slippery on the tiles of the floor. On the three steps to the parish altar lay sprawled some poor wretch flattened beneath a surge of trampling, battering foes, all hacking away with fist and boot, happily in such a tangle that comparatively few of their kicks and blows got home. All Cadfael could see of the quarry was a thin arm and a fist hardly bigger than a child's, that reached out of the chaos to grip the edge of the altar-cloth with life-and-death desperation.
Abbot Radulfus, all the long, lean, muscular length of him, with his gaunt, authoritative lantern head blazing atop, sailed round the altar, smoky candle in hand, slashed the skirts of his habit like a whip across the stooping beast-faces of the foremost attackers, and with a long bony leg bestrode the fallen creature that clawed at the fringes of the altar.
"Rabble, stand off! Blasphemers, quit this holy place, and be ashamed. Back, before I blast your souls eternally!"
He had no need to raise his voice to a shout, he had only to unsheathe it like a knife, and it sliced through the babble as through cheese. They recoiled as though his nearness seared, but they did not go far, only out of range of the burning. They hopped and hovered and clamoured, indignant, aggrieved, but wary of tempting Heaven. They drew off from a miserable fragment of a man, flat on his face up the altar steps, soiled and crumpled and bloodied, and no bigger than a boy fifteen years old. In the brief, daunted silence before they screamed their charge against him, every soul present could hear how his breath heaved and laboured and clapped in his ribs, toiling for dear life, threatening to break his meagre frame apart. Flaxen hair dabbled with dust and blood spilled against the fringes of the altar-cloth he gripped so frantically. Skinny arms and legs hugged the stone as if his life depended upon the contact. If he could speak, or lift his head, he had too much sense left in him to venture the attempt.
"How dare you so affront the house of God?" demanded the abbot, darkly smouldering. He had not missed the steely flash of reflected light in the hand of one squat fellow who was sliding roundabout to get at his victim privily. Put up that knife or court your soul's damnation!"
The hunters recovered breath and rage together. A dozen at least gave tongue, crying their own justification and the hunted man's offences, so variously that barely a word conveyed any meaning. Radulfus brandished a daunting arm, and their clamour subsided into muttering. Cadfael, observing that the armed man had done no more than slide his weapon out of sight, took his stand firmly between, and advanced his candles with a flourish in the direction of a fine bushy beard.
"Speak one, if you have anything of worth to say," ordered the abbot. "The rest be silent. You, young man, you would seem to put yourself forward ..."
The young man who had taken a pace ahead of his supporters, and whose prior right they seemed to acknowledge, stood forth flushed and important, an unexpected figure enough to be out man-hunting at midnight. He was tall and well-made and assured of manner, a little too well aware of a handsome face, and he was very elegant in festival finery, even if his best cotte was now somewhat crumpled and disordered from the turmoil of pursuit, and his countenance red and slack from the effects of a good deal of wine drunk. Without that induced courage, he would not have faced the lord abbot with quite so much impudence.
"My lord, I will speak for all, I have the right. We mean no disrespect to the abbey or your lordship, but we want that man for murder and robbery done tonight. I accuse him! All here will bear me out. He has struck down my father and plundered his strong-box, and we are come to take him. So if your lordship will allow, we'll rid you of him."
So they would, never a doubt of it. Radulfus kept his place, the brothers crowding close to complete the barrier.
"I had thought to hear you make some amend," said the abbot sharply, "for this intrusion. Whatever this fellow may or may not have done, it is not he who has shed blood and drawn steel here within the church on the very steps of the altar. Violence he may have done elsewhere, but here none, he does but suffer it. The crime of sacrilege is yours, all of you here breaking our peace. You had best be considering on the health of your own souls. And if you have a lawful complaint against this person, where is the law? I see no sergeant here among you. I see no provost, who could at least make a case for the town. I see a rabble, as far at fault in law as robber and murderer can be. Now get hence, and pray that your offence may be pardoned. Whatever charges you have to make, take them to the law."
Some among them were drawing back stealthily by then, sobering and thinking better of their invasion, and only too anxious to sneak away to their homes and beds. But the vagabonds, always ready for mischief, stood their ground with sullen, sly faces, and had no intention of going far, and the more respectable, if they abated their noisy ardour, kept their bitter indignation. Cadfael knew most of them. Perhaps Radulfus himself, though no Shrewsbury man by birth, was better-read in them than they supposed. He kept his place, and bent his steady, menacing brow against them, forbidding action.
"My lord abbot," ventured the fine young man, "if you will let us take him hence we will deliver him up to the law."
To the nearest tree, thought Cadfael. And there were trees in plenty between here and the river. He snipped at the wicks of his candles and let them flare afresh. The beard was still hovering in the shadows.
"That I cannot do," said the abbot crisply. "If the law itself were here, there is no power can now take away this man from the sanctuary he has sought. You should know the right of it as well as I, and the peril, body and soul, to any who dare to breach that sanctuary. Go, take the pollution of your violence out of this holy place. We have duties here which your presence in hatred defiles. Go! Out!"
"But my lord," bleated the angry young man, tossing his curled head but keeping his distance, "you have not heard us as to the crime ..."
"I will hear you," said Radulfus with a snap, "by daylight, when you come with sheriff or sergeant to discuss this matter calmly, and in proper form. But I warn you, this man has claimed sanctuary, and the rights of sanctuary are his, according to custom, and neither you nor any other shall force him away out of these walls until the time of his respite is over."
"And I warn you, my lord," flared the youth, blazing red, "that should he venture a step outside, we shall be waiting for him, and what falls out of your lordship's lordship will be no concern of yours, or the church's." Yes, unquestionably he was moderately drunk, or he would never have gone so far, an ordinary young burgess of the town, if a wealthy one. Even with an evening's wine in him, he blenched at his own daring, and shuffled back a pace or two.
"Or God's?" said the abbot coldly. "Go hence in peace, before his bolt strike you."
They went, shadows edging backwards into shadow, through the open west door and out into the night, but always with their faces turned towards the miserable bundle prostrate clutching the altar-cloth. Mob madness is not so easily subdued, and even if their grievance proved less than justified, it was real enough to them. Murder and robbery were mortal crimes. No, they would not all go away. They would set a watch on the parish door and the gatehouse, with a rope ready.
"Brother Prior," said Radulfus, running an eye over his shaken flock, "and Brother Precentor, will you again begin Lauds? Let the office proceed, and the brothers return to their beds according to the order. The affairs of men require our attention, but the affairs of God may not be subordinated." He looked down at the motionless fugitive, too tensely still not to be aware of everything that passed above him, and again looked up to catch Brother Cadfael's concerned and thoughtful eye. "We two, I think, are enough to take what confession this guest of ours wills to make, and tend his needs. They are gone," said the abbot dispassionately to the prone figure at his feet. "You may get up."
The thin body stirred uneasily, keeping one hand firmly on the fringe of the altar-cloth. He moved as if every flinching movement hurt, as well it might, but it seemed that he had at least escaped broken bones, for he used his free arm to help him up to his knees on the steps, and raised to the light a gaunt, bruised face smeared with blood and sweat and the slime of a running nose. Before their eyes he seemed to dwindle both in years and size. They might have been gazing at some unlucky urchin of the Foregate who had been set upon by a dozen or more of his capricious fellows for some trivial offence, and left howling in a ditch, but for the desperation of fear that emanated from him, and the memory of the pack that had been beaten off from his heels just in time.
A poor little wretch enough to be credited with murder and robbery. On his feet he might perhaps be about as tall as Cadfael, who was below the middle height, but width-ways Cadfael would have made three of him. His cotte and hose were ragged and threadbare, and had several new rents in them now from clawing hands and trampling feet, besides the dust and stains of long use, but originally they had been brightly-coloured in crude red and blue. He had a decent width of shoulder, better feeding might have made a well-proportioned man of him, but as he moved stiffly to look up at them he seemed all gangling limbs, large of elbow and knee, and very low in flesh to cover them. Seventeen or eighteen years old, Cadfael guessed. The eyes raised to them in such desolate entreaty were hollow and evasive, and one of them half-closed and swelling, but in the light of the candles they flared darkly and brilliantly blue as periwinkle flowers.
"Son," said Radulfus, with chill detachment, for murderers come in all shapes, ages and kinds, "you heard what is charged against you by those who surely sought your life. Here you have committed body and soul to the care of the church, and I and all here are bound to keep and succour you. On that you may rely. As at this moment, I offer you only one channel to grace, and ask of you but one question. Whatever the answer, here you are safe as long as the right of sanctuary lasts. I promise it."
Excerpted from The Sanctuary Sparrow by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1983 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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