Author's note : There aren't many Cadfael fanfics on the web, so I thought I would have to write my own. This is the result, and I hope you like it. Huge thanks to Kezya for beta-reading this story, and so much more. Her encouragements helped me keep going, and without her this story would not be half what it is.
Please remember that, although this fanfic was corrected very carefully, mistakes might remain. If you find one, please let me know and I will correct it.
Title : Bad Blood
Main characters : Cadfael, Hugh Beringar
Rating : I'm not familiar with these, so I'll just say the story is a pretty safe read except if the mention of death and blood bothers you.
Disclaimer : Nothing's mine. I don't even lay a claim on original characters. Wish I could keep Hugh Beringar, though.
Historical accuracy : I tried to be consistent with history, as much as possible. I'm not an expert though, so there might be mistakes. Same goes for geography. I used a map of England, but for various reasons a few geographical inaccuracies remain.
Spoilers : A few about Olivier and One Corpse Too Many.
Summary : Everything was going fine for Hugh and Cadfael, until King Stephen sent them on a mission. Then they found themselves with more problems than they cared for. Very slightly AU.
Feedback : Yes please !
It was only by chance that Cadfael came back from visiting Brother Mark at the very moment Hugh Beringar dismounted in the courtyard of the abbey. The deputy sheriff was followed by another man, in his early thirties, with longish black hair, and taller than Hugh - but that was not very surprising, since Hugh was rather short. Cadfael rushed to greet his friend, and he nodded politely to the other man, although there was a hint of wariness in his eyes. These were troubled times, after all, and having been in the outer world for decades before he had taken the cowl, Cadfael had learnt not to trust too easily.
"Brother Cadfael, what a coincidence you're here, when you are the one I wanted to talk to!" Beringar exclaimed.
"Really?" Cadfael glanced at him curiously; for some reason, he had a feeling Hugh was not there just for some friendly gossip.
"Well, you and the Father Abbot," his friend amended. "And - I forget my manners. This is Lord Richard Willoughby, and what he has to say concerns you too. Lord Richard, Brother Cadfael, of whom you've heard a great deal, it seems."
The monk and the lord nodded politely to each other, Cadfael betraying none of his inner thoughts, although he was very much curious as to why a man of such high breeding would be interested in him, who had no fortune, no land, and certainly no influence.
"In that case," Cadfael said, "if you'll let Brother Aymeric take care of your horses, I will take you to the Father Abbot."
He took the lead, and they followed him inside the thick walls of the abbey. Five minutes later, they found themselves in front of the wooden door that led to Father Radulfus' quarters, and Cadfael knocked hard. A muffled voice invited them inside, and the monk opened the door. He let Hugh and Lord Richard go in first, then entered, careful to close the door tightly shut behind him. Obviously, whatever business brought Lord Willoughby there was not for all to hear, and in an abbey closed to the outer world, many brothers were a bit too prone to gossiping.
Father Abbot was a very tall man, with greying black hair and deep, dark eyes that seemed to see more than most men could fathom. Having known him for quite some time now, Cadfael knew that Radulfus was a wise man, quick to listen and slow to punish, although he could also be ruthless when he felt it was needed. His hand was stronger than that of the previous abbot, and he would not hear nonsense. All in all, his coming to Shrewsbury had been a blessing. Especially when the only alternative would have been Prior Robert - Cadfael shuddered at the very thought.
"My lord Beringar," Radulfus nodded formally in greetings, while he kept a curious eye on the other man.
Although the two men were the two most powerful in Shrewsbury - save for Sheriff Prestcote, Hugh being only deputy sheriff - and they met regularly, but were not very close. They did respect each other, however, and had always kept most courteous relations.
"Father Abbot," Hugh answered politely. "This is Lord Richard Willoughby, who's come here a long way to bring orders from the King."
"The King?" Radulfus raised a bushy eyebrow in understandable surprise.
"Allow me to explain, Father Abbot," Willoughby intervened, and Radulfus nodded. "I am here as a messenger from King Stephen, who wants to entrust Brother Cadfael with a mission."
"A mission ? But... why me ?" Cadfael asked in dismay, so surprised that he spoke before he realized he should have waited for the Abbot to answer. Radulfus cast him a scolding glance, but did not comment, to the monk's relief. Willoughby watched them, a small smile playing on his lips.
"Why Brother Cadfael, indeed?" the Abbot asked dryly.
"Don't underestimate the King's memory," Richard replied with amusement. "When he came here, he was impressed with Brother Cadfael's - and Master Beringar's - actions to solve the enigma of the one corpse too many. That's why he thought of you on this occasion."
"You still haven't told us what the mission is," Hugh commented.
Willoughby nodded, unfazed. "Yes, I'm getting to that. We have learnt that Empress Maud is currently in Gloucester, with her court, and many of her most faithful lieutenants and barons - including the Earl of Gloucester, of course. The King thinks she's preparing something, probably an assault on a great scale. Only, he has his hands full with the betrayal of these two lords of the north, and it would be very annoying if Maud chose this moment to attack."
Richard seemed to have a talent for euphemisms.
"That's why he wants to send two men to Gloucester, to make a few enquiries, and try... discreetly... to find out what it is Maud has in mind."
"In one word, you want us to become spies," Cadfael said wryly. The monk had always been one to call things by their name.
"That's a way of putting it, yes," Willoughby admitted. "You understand, naturally, that Stephen cannot send a man the Empress would recognize too easily, so that rules out most of his court ; but he cannot entrust just anyone with such a mission either. He needs someone with wits. That's you."
"I see," Radulfus murmured.
"To you, my lord Beringar, the King sent orders ; to you, Father Abbot, he sent a request to lend us your monk for the next two months or so."
Cadfael looked thoughtfully at the Abbot, fully understanding the difference; Beringar, as a vassal of the King, was not given any choice in the matter, unlike the Abbot. Radulfus could not well refuse such a request, but the King had been diplomatic enough to pretend he was asking a favor, rather than demanding. Radulfus did not look very happy about it, and he pursed his lips, but when he spoke, there was resignation in the Abbot's voice.
"Well, what do you say, my son?" he asked Cadfael. "After all, you should have a say in this."
Surprised that his opinion should be sought, the monk had to give it some thought. On the one hand, he was rather happy in the abbey, living the life he had chosen, sheltered from the outer world. Then again, he did sometimes miss the exhilaration, the adventure, of his more youthful days. But he had never taken sides in the civil war that had wreaked havoc in England for years now, and he did not like the idea.
"I am not a vassal of the King, and my vows keep me in this abbey," he said.
"But Shrewsbury surrendered to the King," Willoughby pointed out. "You live under the King's rule, as much as with his protection, which makes you enemies of the Empress. And King Stephen has asked very little of the abbey."
The message was obvious; he might be asking a great deal more, if his demands were not met. Radulfus' scowl deepened at this way of doing things, very close to blackmail.
"I won't order Brother Cadfael to go," the abbot said dryly. "If he does, it will be his choice only."
But there was not much choice, and they all knew it. The abbey of Shrewsbury was Cadfael's home, and it had been for nearly two decades. He could not, would not let it undergo the King's wrath if he could help it. Even if it meant doing Stephen's bidding.
"I'll go," he sighed. "I couldn't very well leave Hugh on his own, now, could I?" Cadfael refrained from snorting, but only because Father Abbot was present, and he pretended he did not see the deputy sheriff's mock scowl.
"Good!" Richard said with a smile. "Well, no specific orders - the King said he trusted your wits and that you'd do better if you followed your own guidelines - just find out what is going on in Maud's court, if there are military plans, steal them, and bring the informations back to the King's court. Ah - there's one thing, though."
"What?" Cadfael and Hugh asked at the same time, before sharing a smile. Willoughby looked rather amused at their synchronization.
"There's a servant of the Empress you should be wary of; she exposed two of King Stephen's, uh... envoys, and we are not even sure what happened to them. Possibly prisoners, or dead. At any rate, this lady is dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Hugh repeated in disbelief.
Willoughby cast him a wry look. "Oh, yes, that's what I thought as well, when I first heard about her; but the second man she exposed was a friend, and I know for a fact he was no fool. Anyway, her name is Cassilda Grayson. We do not know where she is right now, but she's likely to be at the Empress' court. Well. You should leave as soon as you can - there's no telling how long the Empress will wait before she makes her move, and you must find out about it with enough time left, so the King is forewarned and can take action."
"We shall leave tomorrow morning then," Hugh said. "If that's all right with you, Brother Cadfael?"
"Oh - yes, yes. I'll just have to give Brother Oswin instructions for the tending of a few patients. I'll be ready by tomorrow."
"Then I'll come to fetch you after Prime," the deputy sheriff offered. "And I'll bring a horse, you'll need it for such a long way."
"All right," Cadfael nodded.
Father Radulfus glanced at Richard. "What about you, my lord Willoughby? Do you wish to spend the night here? I can have a room prepared for you, and your horse taken care of."
"Yes, I would appreciate that," Willoughby nodded. "I'll leave soon as well - I must get back to the King's court - but I can take a few days to rest after this ride."
As he had promised, Hugh came right after Prime, and found Cadfael waiting for him with a small bundle. The monk had taken whatever he needed, which was not much; spare clothes, some money the Abbot had given him, a few of his remedies. He fastened the bundle to the saddle of the horse his friend had brought for him, and mounted the chestnut mare with satisfaction. He rarely had the occasion to ride on horseback now, as he used his feet or a mule most of the time, and since he was being forced to travel while winter was not far and the weather already quite cold, he might as much get this small compensation. Cadfael noticed without surprise that Hugh was riding his favourite horse, a nasty grey stallion that would obey no one but his master.
They left in the direction of the south, and thus their travel began. It had snowed recently, and the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow, its whiteness marred by the hoofprints of their horses as they rode ahead. The air was bitingly cold, and Cadfael could not help but shiver slightly in his frock. However, the ride should be enough to warm him up soon.
"You can confess now," Hugh said teasingly. "You're glad to take part in this escapade, aren't you?"
"What makes you say that?" Cadfael asked innocently.
"You didn't protest nearly as much as I would have expected, seeing how you have to leave your warm and quiet abbey to venture in the cold, outer world..."
"Who would argue with an order from the King?"
"As I said. A most convenient explanation, is it not? Besides, I never got the impression you were such a... ah... devoted servant of the King..."
Cadfael shook his head, then laughed. "All right, maybe I'm not as sorry as I ought to be. Then again, others are not as sorry as they ought to be, either. Did you see Prior Robert and Brother Jerome's faces as I was leaving?"
"Tell me about it! You didn't see my sergeant's grin! Your fellow monks are very uncharitably happy to be rid of you, I suppose. Well, Warden is very humanly happy to keep the position of Deputy Sheriff while I'm away. Why do I feel like we are not going to be missed a lot?"
"I know at least two people who will be looking forward to your return..." Cadfael commented, with a teasing gleam in his sparkling blue eyes.
"Who are you... ah, Aline and Giles, you mean. Yes, probably, although sometimes I feel like Aline is happy to have some time just for herself. I'm not always an easy husband to deal with..."
The confession made Cadfael laugh. "If you wanted an absolution, you should have told that to a priest."
After that, they were silent for a while, until Hugh spoke again. "Pity we aren't going east. We could have stopped at Maesbury."
"That wouldn't have been very discreet," Cadfael commented. "Maybe your face isn't very well known, but your name is. Everybody knows that Hugh Beringar of Maesbury is a loyal supporter of King Stephen. Actually, I think it would be best if you didn't use that name at all."
"I tend to agree," Hugh admitted. "I'll find another name to use. John Smith, for instance."
Cadfael sniggered. "My dear Hugh, you're the worst spy I've ever laid eyes on."
"How many spies have you laid your eyes on?" the deputy sheriff retorted.
The monk grimaced, as he had been caught out. "Well, never mind that, no one will believe that John Smith is your name."
"In that case, I sympathise with everyone who is really called John Smith," Hugh grinned. "I'll be, uh... Halsey Roberts, how does that sound ? It's common enough, yet believable."
"Yes, that should do."
"Shouldn't you change your name as well ?" Beringar suggested. "Cadfael isn't so very common a name. Even less so if used by a Benedictine monk."
"I suppose so," Cadfael said without too much enthusiasm. "I shall be Brother Rhys. That is a very common name, in Wales."
"It should do," Hugh nodded.
They kept riding for the whole day, stopping only for a few minutes around midday to quickly eat some bread and meat, and to let the horses drink at a river they had just crossed. By sunset, they reached a small village, called Tinesbury, which was on the border of Hugh's jurisdiction, and Cadfael glanced at his friend.
"What do you say we stop here for the night?" he suggested. "It wouldn't be prudent to travel by night, through a land we don't know very well."
"My opinion exactly," Hugh nodded. "We can knock at the closest house, and whoever lives there won't refuse us a shelter for the night and something warm to eat in exchange for a few coins."
They walked toward the nearest building, a small house with white walls and a wooden door, and Hugh knocked while Cadfael held the horses. Behind the door, there was the sound of footsteps, then it opened and revealed a small boy with straw-like hair and a mistrustful gaze. The boy was possibly seven or eight years old. The deputy sheriff smiled at him - he liked children.
"Greetings, lad," he said. "Is your father here ?"
The boy nodded, and called above his shoulder for the head of the family. Soon enough, a man came to stand behind the child, obviously his father, for he had the same thick blond hair and sharp features. He appeared to be a farmer, probably a free man, for his clothes were of better quality than a serf's would be, and he eyed the two unexpected visitors with the same distrust as his son had. It was not surprising; such a small village, at the border of two shires, was not well protected, and an easy prey for bandits. Yet, Hugh definitely did not look like a thief of any kind - a thief would not wear a sword and such fine clothes, not to mention have such a horse; and Cadfael's monk habits proved he was harmless. Nevertheless, the man remained prudent.
"Greetings, m'lord. I am Jehan, and this is my son, Thomas. How may I be of service?"
"Jehan," Hugh nodded politely, which seemed to confuse the farmer even more. He probably was not used to lords being so civil with him - then again, he probably did not often meet with any lords at all. "I am H... Halsey Roberts, and this is Brother Rhys."
Cadfael noted with relief that Hugh had remembered his assumed name, even though he had had a moment of hesitation before introducing himself. Most likely, Jehan had not noticed, or would not pay attention.
"As it is nightfall, we hoped you would allow us to spend the night here," Cadfael added.
"Oh - Of course, Brother!" Jehan exclaimed at once, seemingly torn between awe and pride. The whole village would probably be talking about it all winter - a lord and a monk who had spent the night at the farmer's house! It would certainly do wonders for Jehan's prestige, Cadfael thought leniently.
The farmer opened his door wide, while calling for the rest of the family.
"My eldest son will take care of your horses, Brother, m'lord. Please enter - it is an honour to have you here."
The two friends followed the man inside, where a fire was crackling, and he introduced them to his wife, his mother, his daughter and his two other sons. The two sons focused their attention mostly on Hugh - in their opinion, a monk was probably just plain boring - much to Beringar's annoyance. Granted, he liked children, but these two were pestering a bit too much for his liking. Fortunately, their father discreetly ushered them to bed before Hugh's patience ran too low.
The most difficult for Cadfael was to remember to use Hugh's false name. Fortunately, both given names started with the same letter, otherwise he might have blundered more than once. Hugh himself just avoided using Cadfael's name as much as possible. However, all in all the supper was rather pleasant. At first the peasants had kept a stiff silence, but after Cadfael had said a few jokes, they eased up, and by the end of the meal they were speaking as though their guests were members of the household.
Stiff and sore after a whole day on horseback, neither Cadfael nor Hugh were willing to stay up very late, especially since they had to get up at dawn to resume their travel. Their host offered them the best beds of the house, in spite of Cadfael's half-hearted protests. Yet the prospect of a good bed for the night was too tempting for the monk to remain adamant very long, and much to Hugh's amusement, he relented quickly enough. Both friends would have to sleep in the same room and to share the one bed, but it was not unusual when travelling. They just took the time to wash their hands and faces, before going to bed, and they were so tired that neither could tell for certain whether the other snored or not.
Cadfael woke up with a start around Lauds time, used as he was to the abbey's tight schedule, and he made a point of chanting a few psalms in his head, before he drifted back to sleep. He woke again, right before Prime, and this time he shook Hugh awake. His friend groaned, still half-asleep, and it took him a few minutes to become totally aware.
"You sleep soundly, I see," Cadfael teased him.
"Well, not everyone gets up every night at impossible hours for Matins," Hugh retorted good-humouredly. "I could never be a monk, if only for that reason."
"A convenient excuse, is it not?" the monk said wickedly, repeating almost word for word what Hugh had told him the previous day. "Staying up didn't seem to bother you when tracking down murderers and the like."
"It's not the same thing. Staying up late, or not going to bed at all, that I can do. But getting up and then going back to bed? Torture."
"Soft soul," Cadfael chuckled. "Come on, let's get something to eat and resume our journey. I have a feeling that by the end of the trip, I will hate the very idea of horse-riding," he added with a mock shiver.
"Your old age catching up?" Hugh suggested, laughter underlaying his voice, and he fled the room quickly to avoid Cadfael's retaliation.
Jehan and his family were already up as well, and about to eat breakfast. Cadfael and Hugh joined them, eating with pleasure the black bread and porridge they were offered, along with some beer, unexpectedly nice for such a remote village. As the monk and the deputy sheriff rose from the table, Jehan's wife gave them a small bag.
"I thought you might like something to eat for midday," she said as an explanation.
"Why, thank you for your thoughtfulness!" Cadfael said as he took the bag.
"We appreciated your hospitality," said Hugh. "Please let me pay you back in whatever way I can." He gave Jehan a few coins, and the farmer accepted them without a fuss.
"Thank you, m'lord," he said simply. "These will come in handy during the winter."
Then he ordered his eldest son to have the guests' horses ready, and a moment later, the two friends were on the road again. The snow had melted during the night, and the sun shone shyly, although the day was not much warmer than the previous one.
They travelled thus for several days, stopping at inns, when there were any, or else asking for the townspeople's hospitality. Hugh knew to be generous, and they never had trouble finding lodgings. However, the weather did not improve much, and after all these days travelling, Cadfael was beginning to get really stiff and sore, although he did his best to hide it. He would not give Hugh the occasion to tease him once again about his "old age". After all, he was only in his late fifties - he had at least twenty years more, he thought optimistically. Besides, Hugh himself looked sore and tired as well.
The fourth day of their ride was even colder, and ominous black clouds kept hovering above the two travellers' heads. The incoming storm would likely break on them before the evening, but they were getting very close to Worcester, and there they could stop at the local abbey, Cadfael thought with satisfaction. Even the idea that he would have to rise at Matins and Lauds instead of staying in bed as he had done lately did not deter him.
Hugh was as anxious as Cadfael to reach Worcester this evening, so by mutual consent they kept riding longer than they usually would have. As a result, they were still on the roads when the night fell. They were both aware that riding in the dark might be dangerous, but there was little they could do, apart from carrying on to Worcester; the last village they had passed was two hours away, and probably farther than Worcester itself.
They had fallen silent a while ago, and just rode together, both exhausted, when Cadfael straightened oin his saddle, watchful. He had heard something, unless his ears were playing tricks on him.
"Can you hear anything, Hugh?" he asked under his breath.
"What? No, nothing," Beringar replied, glancing dubiously at his friend.
"I didn't dream that. Please, Hugh! I'm not quite that old yet..."
Cadfael broke off as he heard the same sound again, like a muffled scream. He shared a glance with Hugh, who this time had heard the sound as well.
"In this direction," he said, pointing to the south-east. "Further on the road, I'd say."
"Let's go, quickly! But silently, for God's sake."
They pushed their horses forward. The road's surface was hard-packed, and the hooves of the mare and the stallion made little sound. A few seconds were enough for them to reach the corner of the path, and there they saw four horses, riderless. On the ground, there was the corpse of a man, probably a traveller, whose two companions were still standing and facing several men, most likely thugs, armed with swords. A woman with long black hair stood behind the two travellers, who seemed to be protecting her. She was holding a dagger, obviously determined to defend herself. But there were five of the bandits, against two men and a woman.
Cadfael and Hugh did not need to consult each other to know what to do; they jumped to the ground and rushed at the ruffians. Hugh unsheathed his sword, while Cadfael drew the dagger he had hidden under his clothes; the attack took the bandits completely by surprise, and before they had time to recover, the deputy sheriff and the monk went into action. Their arrival heartened the two other travellers, and the fight began.
With only a dagger at his disposal, Cadfael found himself in difficulty, and he was forced to step back as his opponent swung his sword violently. The ruffian had no skill whatsoever in swordsmanship, but his weapon gave him a longer reach than Cadfael's, and the monk had to shrink back again and again, until he eventually tripped over the body of the dead man, and fell to the ground. With a victorious grin, the bandit raised his heavy sword above his head, and Cadfael heard Hugh's desperate shout as he saw his foe about to strike.