Author's note : Once again, I cannot thank Kezya enough for the amazing work she's done with this story. She's corrected many mistakes, inaccuracies and anachronisms I would never have noticed, but more than that, she's given me the will to write Crusaders. This story is hers as much as it is mine. Naturally, any mistake that should remain are hers entirely... ah... just kidding !
To Greenleaf's daughter : here it is, and I hope you like it !
Title : Crusaders
Main characters : Hugh Beringar, Brother Cadfael.
Summary : Brother Cadfael thought he could spend the remainder of his life in peace in Shrewsbury Abbey, but the King had other plans for him. With the help of Hugh Beringar, he will have to go back to the land where he spent the best years of his life. Will the protection of his little Welsh saint be enough to keep him safe and out of trouble ?
Spoilers : A few about Olivier, but nothing new if you have read Bad Blood.
Rating : I'm no more familiar with these than I was while writing Bad Blood, but again if the mention of blood, death and injuries don't deter you, it's a pretty safe read.
Disclaimer : Nothing's mine.
Historical accuracy : I tried to remain consistent with what I read of the mid-twelfth century. Same with geography and the time it takes to travel from one point to another, but there's a lot of guesswork in this, too. Overall, it should be mostly accurate, but no guaranty.
Feedback : Yes please !
Nota : I had a little trouble to upload this chapter, so there might be a format problem. It seems fine but if some sentences are written twice or anything of the kind, that's because of this.
Brother Cadfael had seen that man only once before in his life; but the aftermath had been such that seeing him dismount in the courtyard of the abbey was enough to stir up a surge of dread in the monk's chest. The one and only time that King Stephen had entrusted him with a mission, it had been a real nightmare. Not only had Hugh been stabbed and wrongly accused of murder, but to top it all they had been made prisoners by a rogue Welsh prince, and survived the whole ordeal only by some miracle - not to mention it had caused Cadfael to doubt his choice of vocation. So, no more missions, thank you very much.
Yet, he thought grimly, Lord Richard Willoughby had certainly not come just by chance. Did he have sealed orders in his saddlebags, proclaiming the necessity for Cadfael to leave his beloved abbey once again? Or was it just paranoia on the monk's part? The only way to find out was to wait until Willoughby unveiled the reason for his coming, and although Cadfael had always been a little short of patience, he forced himself to watch the visitor walk past him without asking any questions. Brother Prior, a haughty and stiff look plastered on his face as usual, offered to bring Willoughby to the Abbot - that and listen to the conversation that would follow, no doubt. Prior Robert made it a point to know everything and anything going on in the abbey, helped in that regard by Brother Jerome.
However, when, hardly ten minutes later, Cadfael was informed by Prior Robert that the Abbot wished to speak to him, his worst fear seemed to come true. Heaving a sigh that earned him a glare from Brother Prior, Cadfael complied and hurried to the Abbot's study, stopping in front of the door to knock softly. A muffled voice told him to enter, and he pushed the door open to see Radulfus and Willoughby, both seated in chairs and looking expectantly at him.
"Father, Brother Prior told me you asked for me," Cadfael said, as humbly as he could manage.
"Indeed," the Abbot nodded, his dark eyes gleaming under his bushy eyebrows. "But if you have an analytical mind such as Lord Willoughby seems to think, you probably already know why, don't you?"
Cadfael cast his superior a pained look, with the distinct feeling that this last comment was deeply unfair. The Abbot was not making it easy for him - after all, it was not the monk's fault if the King thought fit to give him yet another mission to fulfill. He would go without such honours, if he could.
"Don't be so harsh on him, Father!" Willoughby protested good-naturedly. "The King highly values his expertise."
Radulfus pursed his lips. "Yes, so I noticed. Well, perhaps you should explain the matter to Brother Cadfael."
But Lord Richard shook his head. "With your permission, Father, I would rather wait for Lord Beringar to join us, so I do not need to say it twice."
Cadfael could not help but raise an eyebrow. So Hugh would not be spared either, it seemed. Conflicting thoughts crossed his mind; he was partly sorry for his friend, and partly satisfied that he should not be the only one to suffer through another whim of the King's. In any case, it would be less of a bother if Beringar was with him to carry out the mission - whatever it was. Actually, in spite of his annoyance at being sent away yet once again - for he figured that was what it was all about - Cadfael's curiousity was still getting the better of him, and he could not help but ogle the scroll that lay on the Abbot's desk.
"Your wine is excellent, Father" Willoughby commented in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.
Radulfus' lips thinned some more. "Thank you," he replied dryly.
Trying not to sigh once again, Cadfael was relieved when there was another knock at the door and the Abbot shifted his attention to the newcomers.
A young novice opened the door, letting Hugh Beringar through before closing it discreetly Cadfael idly wondered whether the lad would take the risk to eavesdrop or not.
"Father Abbot," Hugh said politely, sparing a quick glance at his friend. Cadfael gave a small shrug in answer.
"My lord," Radulfus replied amiably. "Thank you for joining us at such short notice."
"My pleasure. As you know, there has not been any ghastly murder cases to solve of late, so I am not too busy."
"I am glad to hear that," Willoughby commented, and Beringar cast him a sidelong glance. "For I am here as a messenger for the King."
Hugh hardly narrowed his eyes. Just like Cadfael, he had been expecting that the moment he saw Lord Richard, and he had not forgotten what had happened the last time either. Obviously disappointed at the lack of notable reaction, Willoughby went on with a small frown.
"The outcome of your last mission was somewhat... unexpected, but the King was pleased with the result, and he is in need of your expertise. Well, mostly Brother Cadfael's, which is why I have stopped at the abbey first. I will not hide that this new mission is crucial and might change the tide of the war."
For a change, Cadfael thought irreverently, although he was wise enough to keep his lips sealed. He wondered what kind of expertise he possessed that Stephen needed so badly - he was just a humble Brother, after all. And he was getting tired of all these preliminaries. Hugh's patience seemed to run as short as the monk's, for he scowled at Lord Richard.
"My lord, I am not too busy but I don't have all day either. Would you please get to the point?"
Fortunately, the King's envoy looked amused rather than disgruntled at this sign of impatience, and Radulfus must have been getting fidgety as well, for he said nothing.
"Yes, yes, I'm getting to that. Tell me, have you heard of a man known as Antony of Thornbury?"
Hugh raised an eyebrow. "No, I can't say I have."
Cadfael shook his head when Willoughby looked at him expectantly.
"Well, I'm not surprised. He left England over ten years ago for the Holy Land, and never came back, leaving his estate in the care of his steward. That was not a problem - until now. You see, he has - or had - a lot of influence. Most people remember him as a man fair, pious and courageous. But more importantly, his lands have become strategically very interesting for both Stephen and Maud. Whoever will manage to rally Lord Thornbury to their cause will have gained a precious ally."
By now, the Abbot was looking through the window with the polite but uninterested look of someone who has already heard the story once, and Hugh had crossed his hands behind his back to stop himself from fidgeting in a most un-lordly manner. As for Cadfael, he was beginning to see where Willoughby was headed, and he did not like it one bit.
"The problem is, of course, that the steward has no authority to make a choice as long as his master is away and did not give him precise instructions; Lord Thornbury never married and left no heir. In two words, we need someone to find Lord Thornbury, and bring him back to England, preferably to rally the King's side. But the Holy Land is vast. We need someone who knows the place, the people and the language. That's you, Brother Cadfael. Of course, the King would not send you on your own, which is why he orders Lord Beringar to join you, especially since the two of you always seem to get results."
The monk wondered whether he should be flattered to be trusted with such an important mission or disgruntled that the King thought him unable to take care of himself - he was only in his late fifties, after all. But in the end, he realized that he was just annoyed at the idea of having to leave yet another time. But what excuse could he claim? He searched, and found none.
"Lord Willoughby..." he began, then searched for his words. "I would be glad to be of help to the King, but the Holy Land is very far and..."
Lord Richard shook his head. "I am afraid you do not have a choice in this, Brother. This time the stakes are too high. We are almost certain that Maud will send someone as well, and we could not afford to have Lord Thornbury choose her side."
This time, Cadfael did not bother to hold back a dispirited sigh, and he could tell from Hugh's dirty glances towards Willoughby that his friend felt the same way. Being loyal to Stephen in England was not a problem for Beringar - after all, it had been his choice. But being loyal to Stephen half a world away from his wife and son, that was another matter entirely. Willoughby's features softened slightly as he considered them and their lack of enthusiasm.
"I know it is a long and dangerous journey, but it is vital for England."
"For England, or for Stephen?" Cadfael asked caustically, then clamped his mouth shut. It had come out without a conscious thought on his part, and a bit too sincerely.
Lord Richard stared at him, a little disgruntled but comprehensive. "I did not hear that," he said.
"I will forget I have, then,", Hugh murmured. Cadfael suspected his friend had thought inwardly what the monk had said out loud, which might be the reason for his leniency.
"In any case, as I said it is a long journey, so you'd better leave as soon as possible. Tomorrow, for instance."
Tomorrow... it seemed so surreal. Less than one hour ago, Cadfael's main worry had been the state of his kitchen garden, and now... the monk closed his eyes, old, sweet and bitter memories of the long years he had spent in Antioch passing through his mind. He was afraid, but not of the dangers that lay ahead. He was frightened of himself, of the exhilaration he felt at the idea to go back. He had thought he had said farewell to the sceneries of his tumultuous youth, but if he went back, he feared he would not want to leave again, ensnared in the ancient appeal of the Holy Land.
Radulfus' voice dragged him back to reality. "I don't really have a say in the matter, I see."
"Well, you could object," Willoughby conceded. "But the King has the means to make that a papal order. And that would not be a good thing, neither for you nor for him. Mostly a waste of time and a sure way to incur Stephen's wrath."
Although the Abbot controlled himself very well, Cadfael could say he wasn't happy, and for the first time the thought occurred to the monk that Radulfus' anger might be directed, not at him but at the King for sending him away once again. Was the Abbot being... protective? But without a doubt, it was regret flickering in his dark eyes when he looked at Cadfael, almost apologetically.
"Then there is nothing I can do," Radulfus said softly. "I am sorry, Brother Cadfael, but you must go."
Cadfael nodded dumbly, still not fully realizing what was going on. He knew he would need time to come to terms with it.
"And so must I, obviously," Hugh muttered unhappily. "Tomorrow, then."
Well, there was at least one person who was even more miserable than Cadfael himself. He left his home behind, but no family. Not exactly... No, he told himself firmly. He had given up any fatherly right he might have had when he had taken the decision to hide the truth from his son; yet even now, he knew he had made the right decision. Olivier did not need him any more, so why burden him with the knowledge?
That did not make the secret easier to live with.
"A ship, the Relentless, is waiting for you at Portsmouth," Willoughby said, then he handed a stack of papers to Beringar. "Here are all the papers you might need, and the backing of the Royal authority should you need it."
Cadfael refrained from snorting. Royal authority would be of little help in the Holy Land, but this time he knew better than to comment on it. Lord Richard's memory might not be so... conveniently deficient the next time it happened.
"Thank you," Hugh said, although he seemed to have as many illusions as Cadfael about the real usefulness of such papers. He still took them without further comments. "I will have many things to take care of, so if you will excuse me..." Beringar gave a curt nod before heading to the door.
Willoughby thoughtfully watched the door close on the deputy sheriff. "I think he does not like me," he observed.
"He does not dislike you as much as the orders you always seem to carry," Cadfael said, then wondered if he had gone too far this time.
"Well, I am just the messenger," Lord Richard pointed out. "It's not my fault."
"Who spoke of logic when it comes down to human feelings?" Radulfus commented rhetorically, and Cadfael had a feeling he was not speaking only of Beringar. "Brother Cadfael, you probably have many things to take care of as well. You are discharged from your other duties for the rest of the day."
It was clearly a dismissal, so Cadfael nodded obediently and left, though not quickly enough not to hear the Abbot's last sentence. "Lord Willoughby, a novice will show you to the best inn of Shrewsbury, and..."
Willoughby was obviously not invited to stay at the abbey tonight... So even Radulfus could be mean and childish, every once in a while.
"Leaving, Brother?" Oswin sounded utterly horrified at the idea, and he looked entreatingly at Cadfael, who gave him a half-hearted smile.
"Only for some time," the monk said reassuringly, but that did not seem to really appease his apprentice.
"But... to the Holy Land?"
Cadfael allowed himself a soft smile. Of course, for a young brother who had never travelled away from Shrewsbury, the Holy Land must seem the end of the world. And in a way, it was. "I have already been there, in former days," he reminded Oswin. "And I have come back."
"But you were..." his apprentice began, before closing his mouth quickly. He had probably been about to say that Cadfael was not so young anymore, but a frown silenced him.
"Oswin, I have no say in this matter, and neither do you. It is the will of the King, we have no choice but to obey. I will probably be back by the end of the year."
The younger monk nodded reluctantly and began to silently help Cadfael gather various things he might need, mostly medicines and a few other things. After a while though, he stopped and hesitated, as if trying to find the courage to say what he wanted to. Cadfael sighed and sat down on the wooden, slightly wobbly bench, before looking expectantly at his apprentice.
"Well, what is it? You know I don't bite."
Oswin nervously bit his lower lip. "Brother, you... I... I mean... it might not be safe for you to travel alone... perhaps I should... you know... come with you?"
Cadfael looked fondly at the young man. It must have required a lot of courage to make such an offer, for he knew that his apprentice was terrified at the idea of leaving the shelter of the abbey for an unknown and faraway place. Oswin might be clumsy and blundering, but he was fiercely loyal and had a heart of gold.
"Of course I wouldn't go alone," he said, and he saw with amusement and affection the slight shiver the young man was unable to refrain. "Hugh Beringar is coming with me. Oswin, I appreciate your offer, but you are needed here. Who would care for the sick if we both left at the same time?"
Oswin half-opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had obviously not thought of that, not to mention that the Abbot would hardly have granted his permission anyway. But there was no need to tell the young monk that - he had been so sincere in his offer that Cadfael wanted him to know how much it truly was appreciated.
"I... I understand, Brother," Oswin said reluctantly. "Of course, I suppose it would be selfish of me to leave when people might need me here."
He looked a bit guilty, and Cadfael knew exactly how he felt; he was relieved he did not have to go, but ashamed because he thought that feeling belittled his sincere offer.
"Oswin," he said comfortingly, while placing a hand on the young man's shoulder. "You are going to do much more good than I by staying here. I would trust no other than you with the life of my patients."
The lad appeared heartened by the thought, and he even cracked a smile at his mentor. "I will do my best, you can count on me, Brother."
"Oh, I do," Cadfael assured him. "Now, I have a few more things to do that can't wait, and I would be grateful if you would go and visit our patients while I take care of it."
Oswin left obediently, although Cadfael had to remind him to take his bag full of medicines with him. When he was alone, the monk seized a quill and a piece of parchment. He dipped the tip of the quill in the dark ink, and began to write, carefully forming the letters to make them as legible as possible. Just in case...
"Faaaather !" Little Giles, somewhat wobbly on his small legs, tugged at Hugh's bliaud, his hands clenched on the fabric.
Beringar's angular features softened as he bent and picked his son up to hold him in his arms. The little boy had inherited Aline's blond hair, but he also had Hugh's dark eyes. It was hard to say what he would look like later, but his father had no doubt he would grow up to become a fine man. He just hoped he could be home more often...
"It's time for him to go to bed," Aline said firmly, and ruefully Hugh allowed Constance to take his son to his bedroom. Then he went to sit in one of the armchairs near the hearth, where a fire crackled happily, orange flames rising high and spreading a comfortable warmth.
Aline joined him a moment later, with a pitcher of wine and two goblets. Her face was still dark, and although she tried not to show it, Hugh knew she was upset. It had not been easy to explain to her he had to leave once again, and for months this time, on another mission. Yet, she understood. She had chosen Stephen's side just as he had, of her own free will, and she understood the meaning of words such as 'duty' perhaps even better than her husband. However, that did not make the parting easier to deal with.
"It will be just for a few months," Hugh murmured. "I'll be back before Giles turns three."
"I hope so," she sighed, and without even thinking about it he rose from his armchair to take her in his arms. It was their last night together for a very long time.
Aline embraced her husband as though she would never let him go, and they stayed thus for a long time, in front of the hearth, entwined together.
The next morning, a little too cold and grey to be really pleasant, found Cadfael up and ready to go, a reasonably small bundle in his hands. The monk had a good deal of experience when it came down to travelling, and he knew better than to burden himself with anything more than the bare minimum. Yet, even the bare necessities took some space, and herbs, balms and potions made up the bulk of his luggage, along with a few spare pieces of clothing.
After Lauds, Cadfael headed to the gates of the abbey, where Hugh would probably meet him soon, but someone held him back.
The monk turned back and was surprised to see it was the Abbot who had stopped him. He bowed his head deferentially.
"You would not leave without my blessing, would you?"
"That's an honour!" Cadfael murmured gratefully. He had not expected that much support from Radulfus, seeing how angry and disgruntled he was the day before - which showed that he had misjudged the Abbot.
"In nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti..." Radulfus blessed the monk more warmly than he had to, and when he was done and Cadfael raised his head, he saw once again this strange gleam he had already noticed in the Abbot's eyes the previous day. Fatherly love? It felt strange, from a man who was younger than Cadfael himself, but somehow it fitted their relationship.
"Thank you, Father," he said humbly.
"I have something else for you - and I hope it will protect you more efficiently than a mere blessing," Radulfus replied evenly, as he drew a small object from his robes and handed it to the monk.
With a slight frown of curiosity, Cadfael took it. It was a small wooden cross, with traces of blue paint and inlaid with a foil of gold. The upper side of the cross had been pierced and a leather cord passed through to make it a pendant.
"This cross was carved from a splinter of wood, taken from St. Winifred's reliquary. I know you have a close bond with our Saint, and I trust she will watch over you," Radulfus confided in a low voice.
Rendered speechless, Cadfael glanced at the small cross with renewed respect. He had never hoped for such a mark of esteem, and he was both thankful and astounded that the Abbot would care enough to do that. It was no small thing.
"You should go, now. Godspeed, Brother," Radulfus concluded, and he walked away before Cadfael had had time to say a word of thanks.
The Abbot obviously disliked lasting farewells as much as Cadfael himself, and respecting his wish the monk hurried to the gates of the abbey. He felt much more confident now, with the protection of his little Welsh saint, and he passed the leather cord around his neck so the small cross would rest against his skin, protected by his thick robes.
As expected, Hugh was already waiting outside, mounted on his grey horse and holding the reins of Cadfael's chestnut mare. Well, it was not his mare, so to speak, but it was the one he always used when he had to ride with Beringar, and he had grown accustomed to her.
"All settled?" Hugh asked the monk with a half-hearted smile - he was as unhappy as Cadfael to leave Shrewsbury.
"As much as I will ever be, I suppose," the monk sighed.
"Then let's go, before I decide to join the Empress' cause."
Cadfael smiled as he laid his bundle in the saddlebags of his mare. "Bad idea. I think she would still hang you, if she got a chance. After all, it was partly your fault that Owain more or less joined Stephen's side."
Hugh grimaced at the thought. "You're right, I've heard she is quite unforgiving. The Holy Land it is, then. Since the journey will be rather long, how about you tell me a few anecdotes about your time there?"
"Anecdotes?" the monk repeated thoughtfully. "Well, there was this time when we were going after a group of Saracens, and they took refuge in a mosque. So we followed their lead, but one of them stood up to us and said, 'you must remove your boots when you enter a holy place'..."