"And of this you are certain?" Abbot Radulfus asked.
"Yes, Father," The Deputy Sheriff confirmed, "As sure as we can be. Robert FitzGerald was murdered two weeks ago. His murderers have made their way up north and were last seen but twenty miles from here. With the festivities for Saint Winifred close, when there will be so many people travelling through here the circumstances are ideal for them to restock their supplies and make for Wales. Once they are out of our jurisdiction they can make their way to the mainland. There are those in France who would not be as grieved by FitzGerald's untimely departure as his wife and sons undoubtedly are."
"Aye, the poor woman. I trust provisions have been made for her and the boys?"
"Very little, from what I understand," Hugh admitted, "He has long remained neutral in the current conflict and neutrality is not always appreciated. The Empress had barred him from most of his lands, leaving his widow and sons with barely enough to live on. And with David too young to petition for his fathers lands to be returned to him…"
"I shall write to her," the Abbot decided, "and offer to take in and educate the boys here. That should provide some relief. Meanwhile, give the description of the murderers to Brother Porter; he will know to keep an eye out. I assume you will increase the number of guards?"
"By your leave, my Lord, I shall. It is not my intention to disrupt the festivities in any way – the soldiers shall be given strict instructions not to hinder the pilgrims or behave in an unseemly fashion – but a man has been most foully and cowardly slain and no matter where his allegiances, I would see justice done if at all possible."
"On that, I concur," Radulfus nodded, "and inform Brother Cadfael as well. He has an eye for anything abnormal and a tendency to run into mysteries such as these. It would be a shame to waste his talents."
"Or an extra eye, that may go without suspicion where my soldiers and I can't," Hugh nodded, "Do I have your permission then, Father, to call upon Cadfael's skills should the need arise?"
"Inform him he has dispensation from all offices and duties while assisting you in this matter. I shall leave it to his own conscience not to take advantage of this.
"Leave to assist you?" Cadfael smirked as he hang out freshly harvested herbs to dry. "What have you told Father Abbot to get such a carte blanche for me?"
"Merely that I feel strongly about catching these murderers, and I hinted a little strongly perhaps that with your assistance they should be caught all the sooner."
"Very well, very well. It is indeed a most foul deed and I should like to see it resolved. I fear though, that for the present we can do little but keep our eyes open. After all it is likely, but by no means guaranteed that they should pass this way."
"Where else could they be as effectively concealed as here? Playing the part of pilgrims during the feast for the Saint? It would not be the first time, or the last I daresay, that people joined the festivities with less than devout motivation."
The Feast of Saint Winifred this year brought not only the usual pilgrims, but also two monks from an abbey in the south, escorts for three little boys. Cadfael was the first to happen upon them, as he walked from Saint Giles back to the Abbey. A boy ran past him, fell and hurt his knees and hands. Another Benedictine soon hurried towards them just as Cadfael picked up the child to inspect the damage.
"Brother, a good thing you were here. The little one keeps escaping our care…"
The boy, no more than four or perhaps five winters old, blonde and blue-eyed, glared at the monk.
"I want to go find Father, you hided him!" he accused.
The monk sighed. "We did no such thing, child."
Aside to Cadfael he explained, "These are the sons of Robert FitzGerald."
Cadfael nodded in understanding. "Then indeed this Brother has not concealed your father, child. He is with God and His angels."
"God can't have him, he's my father, not God's!" the little heretic exclaimed.
"Aye, child, I imagine you do want him back. Unfortunately that is not for you, or me, or this kind brother to decide. Be assured your father may see you still. After all, who is to know how much the dead are still aware of the happenings on this earth."
He patted the boys head and lifted him in his arms.
"You are a brave child, for not crying when you are obviously hurt. A brave little knight. Come, the Abbey is but a quarter mile from here. In the infirmary I can clean those knees and hands. They'll need salve and bandaging."
"The Abbot informed us we would have new additions to our schoolboys. Brother Paul will have charge of them, and you won't find a better person for the task."
"That is good, they need a kind hand. They saw it, you know. Robert had taken the boys with him when he went to inquire after a horse he considered buying. The boys were the delight of his life and they adored him in return. He was stabbed in the back, with the boys present."
"Truly? That is most unforgivable. The elder, I believe, is named David?"
"Yes. He will be seven soon. The younger you are carrying is Robert, four years old last harvest time. The middle one, who will be six at the feast of the Birth of our Lord, is Gerald."
They reached the Abbey and in the infirmary Cadfael, who had carried the little one in, expertly cleaned and bandaged the scraped knees and hands.
"I will go inform the Abbot of your safe arrival," Cadfael wiped his hands and stood up, "no doubt when he has greeted you, Brother Paul will be taking the boys."
Pilgrims flooded both town and monastery and the monks were hard pressed to find room for them all. The guest quarters were reserved for the important arrivals, the infirmary was overflowing with the sick and disabled. Cadfael and Edmund worked tirelessly to tend to everything from accidents by the road to permanent disabilities.
In between runs to and from his hut, Cadfael kept, as promised, and eye out for the described men. Hugh patrolled wit his men, hidden from direct view but always there.
"Nothing yet?" Cadfael asked, late one afternoon as he took a break from running to and fro.
"Nothing," said Hugh in frustration.
"It is possible they simply did not want to run the risk of discovery here," Cadfael pointed out.
Just then, three blonde boys scampered towards them, one of them dirty and dishevelled.
"What have you boys been up to? Had Brother Paul not told you these courtyards are off limits to the schoolboys for the duration of the festival?"
"He was there," Gerald shuddered, "the man who killed Father."
"I fought with him," David proudly, and grimly relayed, "I tore a button of his tunic and I bit his hand. Here," he showed a small silver button with a flower design.
Hugh and Cadfael stared, excited to finally discover the whereabouts of the fugitives and then flooded with absolute horror as they realized what danger the children had been in.
Cadfael quickly motioned over one of the elder novices while Hugh interrogated the boys.
"Where? When? What does he wear?"
"A green tunic, with buttons like these," David said, "and he has a sword with a green stone in the hilt."
"And you bit his hand, you say. Hard?" Hugh asked.
"I drew blood," David admitted, "He was angry and shook me so I bit him. I don't thin he knew who I was."
"Praise the Lord he didn't," Cadfael said, "or this could have ended in tragedy. Take the boys to Father Abbot. Tell him they must be kept safe with him until the Lord Beringar or myself return. He will understand. Bring them immediately and avoid the areas with pilgrims. Go now, quickly. We will find that man, boys, and now you must obey. Let us deal with him. Do not slip away again."
The four made their way to the Abbot's house. Hugh sent one of his men to find Will Warden and then the two made their way into the infirmary, where they suspected the man would have gone with such a bite.
Cadfael entered first, to warn Edmund. He would not be a suspicious presence, being in the infirmary so often.
Indeed, a man in a green tunic was seen on one of the stools, his hand being cleaned and bandaged by an aid.
"Everything going well here?" Cadfael asked, inspecting the hand, "Oh, that looks nasty. Make sure to put a disinfecting ointment on it."
"Thank you, brother," the man replied.
Cadfael waved it away. "Not at all, not at all. It is our Christian duty to look after our fellow men. Particularly if they are here alone."
"Oh, I am not alone. My brother has come with me – he awaits there, so as not to hinder the good brothers in their task."
"How thoughtful of him," Cadfael surreptiously inspected the tunic. Of the silver buttons, one of the lowest was missing – the height a seven year old could reach.
He stepped back a little and disappeared into the shadows near Hugh.
"It is him. His accomplish, apparently his brother, is standing there. He has his hand in the ointment now and will not be able to draw easily, but the brother may be more dangerous. Be careful, Hugh, there's not much room to avoid a blade."
Will Warden arrived, and informed Hugh in hushed tones that the exits had all been secured. He and Alan would approach the man in green, while Hugh arrested his brother.
Later, Cadfael would know only through his long experience what must have happened as it all went too quick for the naked eye to see.
The injured man was apprehended easily, but the brother reacted strongly, putting a number of injured between himself and Hugh and drawing a dagger, not caring who he might hit. Hugh, of course, did care that he might hit someone. He had to step carefully. For one instant he looked down to secure his footing and in that moment the dagger struck. He moaned, but Alan and Will who had already bound their prey came to his aid, catching and securing the man as Hugh landed a huge blow to his jaw that made him stumble back. Then he sagged down to the floor.
Cadfael was with him in a trice, carefully assessing the damage. Hugh's breath came in short pants and he moaned when Cadfael cut off his tunic. The gash was deep and for a moment Cadfael feared it had sliced the lung. He inspected Hugh's mouth and nose, but there was no blood coming up with his breaths.
Slightly relieved, Cadfael began to examine the wound.
"You foolish, foolish boy," he scolded, "I warned you. Now let me see…no, move your hands."
Edmund came near. "Should we not find him a bed?"
"Take him to my own bed," Cadfael said, "there is little room to work here."
Just as Cadfael was preparing to bandage the wound, the Abbot, having been briefed of the situation by Will Warden, entered the room.
"How is he?" he asked without preamble and a worried frown on his face.
"Well, it is bad, Father. We should thank the Lord that the dagger missed most organs, but the wound is large and deep. I am worried."
"As you should be, he is a close friend," the Abbot lay his hand on Hugh's forehead in silent prayer and blessing, "can he be moved to his home?"
"It is preferable that he does not stay here with the number of sick we have at the moment, but he will need a lot of care – more than Aline can give him."
"Then go with him, Cadfael. Stay in town until he is on the mend. How do you want to move him? I shall find aid for you."
"He must be moved slowly and with as little jarring as possible so the wound is not aggravated. Carefully carried by four strong man on a stretcher would be best. Someone should be sent ahead to notify Aline…"
"It shall be taken care of. Have your novice get whatever you need from your workshop and the infirmary. We shall remember the Lord Beringar in our prayers in the days to come."
"He will need that," Cadfael felt the rapid pulse. Hugh opened his eyes briefly, looking around in confusion.
"Shhhh," the monk soothed in the same tones as he had used but days ago for the four year old, "Rest now. We'll bring you home to Aline soon."
He procured a phial of poppy juice and slowly let his friend sip it. "Sleep. The journey will be difficult no matter how slow we take it and you are better off if you are not awake for it."
He shook his head. "You'll be the death of me yet, boy, with stunts like these."