A/N: Gift-fic for Valdhery, and it's about time I get this done, too. :) Crossover with Robin of Sherwood (but that doesn't even come into play until the second chapter). I own neither RoS nor the Cadfael Chronicles, I'm only borrowing them for some fun. Hope you enjoy, and go read Val's fics too, they're awesome!
It was the third week of January in the year of Our Lord 1146, and the winter held as strong as ever. When Hugh Beringar and his three men-at-arms dismounted in the courtyard of the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, their breaths rose like white plumes in the frosty air. The Sheriff of Shropshire left his men to tend to the horses, and made his way across the courtyard to meet with Abbot Radulfus, his footsteps tracing a darker path in the thin layer of fluffy snow that had gathered on the ground despite the best efforts of numerous broom-wielding novices.
It was shortly after Terce, and the abbot was to be found in his lodgings. He received the unexpected visitor with due attention, and frowned slightly as he listened to Beringar's request, but gave no immediate answer, contenting himself with sending an attendant brother to seek out Brother Cadfael, the abbey herbalist.
Brother Cadfael had chosen to spend the morning hours at the infirmary, in helping Brother Edmund to care for the sick, of whom there was never any shortage, particularly now, in this bitter weather. Yet other beds were occupied by brothers whose chief ailment was old age, and the discomforts that it brought – but there were fewer of them now, Cadfael thought sadly as he worked; fewer patient, elderly faces than he remembered seeing here in the past. And there would be fewer still, before the winter ended, for surely not all of these venerable brethren, who had seen the abbey first established, would live to see the coming of the spring.
When Brother Simon arrived at the infirmary to inform him that his presence was requested by the abbot, Cadfael was glad enough to be taken out of his gloomy thoughts, and followed the messenger placidly, in his peculiar, rolling gait of an old seaman. Along the way, he amicably inquired about Father Abbot's purpose in summoning him. Simon presumed that it had something to do with the arrival of the Sheriff and the news he brought, though what news that would be, he did not know. Cadfael thanked him, and frowned. In spite of his long-standing friendship with Hugh Beringar, he was only rarely invited to his meetings with Abbot Radulfus, and never without good cause. A sudden thought gave him pause. In the town, as in the cloister, many had fallen prey to the winter chills. Had Hugh's wife, Aline, or their son, Cadfael's own godson Giles, also succumbed to an illness? Spurred on by this new worry, the aging ex-Crusader trotted across the courtyard at a pace that left the youthful Brother Simon to marvel in his wake.
Cadfael reached Radulfus' lodgings well ahead of the messenger, knocked and entered with great speed, but with much less decorum than was due. Spotting his younger friend seated opposite the abbot, he called, "Giles and Aline – are they well?"
Hugh's face was serious, but his dark eyes glittered with amusement at Cadfael's breathlessness. "Well enough, Brother, and both send you their love." Cadfael sighed with relief, and turned to Abbot Radulfus, to offer a belated and contrite greeting.
If he were facing the silver-haired, patrician Prior Robert instead, he would not have escaped a harsh scolding. But Radulfus, though not a man to be trifled with, knew his herbalist well, even so as to occasionally make some allowances for the waywardness that years behind cloister walls had not been enough to cure. Therefore, although his face and voice were stern, he made no mention of Cadfael's breach of etiquette, passing instead straight to the matter at hand.
"My lord Beringar comes to inform me that Godfrey Deschamps, of Cotteswalde manor east of Shrewsbury, is laid low with an unexpected sickness, and asks for your services as a healer, Brother, since he trusts your skills more than those of any other physician in the area," Radulfus said with furrowed brow. "He sends for you specifically, and promises a most generous donation to the abbey, if I can but spare you for a few days."
"By chance, I have managed to help him with an ailment once before," Cadfael said cautiously. It would not do to appear unduly eager, but he had to confess to himself that something in his soul stirred at the perspective of a journey. "I did not know that the event gave him such faith in my abilities, Father."
"It seems that he was in Jerusalem at the same time as you, Cadfael – or so he's told me once," Hugh hastened to explain. "Perhaps he trusts you all the more for being a fellow Crusader."
"Perhaps, though to my knowledge we never met one another in the Holy Land." And why should they, indeed? One would have been a knight, the other a simple Welsh soldier. What reason would they have to keep company together? But time could well have blurred the old differences in Godfrey's memory, and made Cadfael seem like an old comrade-in-arms. Stranger things had happened, after all!
Abbot Radulfus looked minded to refuse Deschamps's request. He was not easily bribed, as other wealthy landowners had discovered in the past, and he kept his house in strict order. Brother Cadfael enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than was perhaps usual for a Benedictine, yet he was still a cloistered monk, and should not be sent to wander the countryside at any layman's whim.
Beringar saw this, and his face grew even more serious. "Father Abbot, I haven't yet told you Godfrey Deschamps's whole message. He asks for Brother Cadfael's presence, but he also asks for me. He claims he has been poisoned."
Concerned that a man's life might be in danger from a murderer, Radulfus gave Brother Cadfael his permission to leave the abbey for four days, considering it ample time to fulfill this mission of mercy. Cotteswalde could be reached within a half day of travel. Cadfael needed only to pack some of his medicines, which he set out to do in short order. He worked with calm assurance, well used to the task, but he could not quite disregard the familiar excitement that was seeping into his bones. For all his sixty six years, and for all the cold of this harsh winter, still there was something of a vagus left in him.
No, he corrected himself, looking around his domain and breathing in the warm aroma of herbs. Not quite a vagus, for he did not stray. He belonged here, in this herbarium, near the relics of his little Welsh saint, and with his brethren. He might enjoy his occasional ventures into the world, but his true peace lay here.
Hugh Beringar entered, letting in a gust of frosty air and sighing, for the warmth of the hut was much welcome after the cold outside. "Hugh!" Cadfael exclaimed with pleasure. "Is it time to go?"
Beringar sank onto a bench and arched a sardonic eyebrow at his friend. "Why, Cadfael, do you ache for the open road so much? I confess I am in no great hurry to venture out in the snow! We have some time yet. Deschamps's man is with the abbot now; a deed must be signed, if his lord's gift to the abbey is to stand. Then we must also wait for Will Warden to bring you a horse from the castle. Your Prior Robert would not be parted with anything better than a mule, and even that grudgingly!"
"He guards the abbey stables most jealously," Cadfael agreed, handing Beringar a cup of mulled wine. It was accepted gladly. "How many will go with us?"
"Sergeant Warden, five others from the garrison, and Deschamps's man John, who will be our guide."
Cadfael, in the process of pouring a cup for himself, paused and looked at Hugh with surprise. "Six men-at-arms, Hugh?"
Beringar's face was grave. "Yes, and I can only hope that this will prove excessive! But in his letter to me Godfrey Deschamps swears that he has discovered a plot against King Stephen. Treason, Cadfael, a network of spies in the very heart of Shropshire!"
Brother Cadfael sat down next to his friend and took a sip of his own wine. "You mentioned none of that to Father Abbot," he remarked lightly.
Beringar laughed. "No, indeed! I trust his discretion, but where would I be if he decided that such matters were no concern of his, or of yours? I shall have need of your sharp mind, my friend, as much as of your healing skills! But I did not lie to Father Abbot," he added, seeing Cadfael's reproachful look. "According to Deschamps, his sudden illness was indeed an attempt on his life, made by an agent of the Empress. More than that he would not say in his letter."
Cadfael pondered this for a while. "Can his revelations be trusted, do you think?"
"You mean, is he a man who would invent the whole story for some personal gain, or see a spying plot where there was none out of misguided zeal?" He sighed. "Perhaps. I am not well acquainted with him, but he is a rash man by all accounts, stubborn unto obstinacy, and disposed to think very highly of himself. Who knows? But he is also said to be shrewd, and he's always been a loyal supporter of the King. His suspicions deserve to be investigated, at least." Beringar smiled wickedly. "Perhaps I should be asking you questions, not the other way round, Brother. After all, you know each other, and he seems to hold you in high regard – one old Crusader to another!"
"Old?" repeated Cadfael, pretending to be insulted. "You would do well to hold your tongue, you insolent young heathen, if you want to taste any more of this wine!"
Hugh raised his hands in mock surrender. "Pax, Cadfael, I withdraw my words completely. I dare not risk your wrath when so much is at stake!"
He held out his empty cup to Cadfael with a hopeful smile. The monk grunted, but poured him another measure. Beringar never had the chance to drink it, however, for it was then that the door opened for a second time, letting in an unexpected visitor.
The newcomer was a bold young man of no more than twenty summers, with freckled skin and wavy, copper-coloured hair. He was attired like a man-at-arms, but he did not wear the colours of the castle garrison. His voice, when he addressed Hugh, was very respectful, but his quick eyes roamed over the dried herbs, the medicines, and Cadfael himself, taking everything in with unabashed curiosity.
"Forgive me, my lord Sheriff, but the good brothers told me I could find you here. The deed is signed and ready – I brought it with me from Cotteswalde, written down with my lord's own hand. The jewels are now safely installed at the abbey, praise be to God, and Sergeant Warden has returned with the men, and brought a horse for Brother Cadfael."
Hugh nodded briskly and rose to his feet, the wine forgotten. "We can depart now, Cadfael, if you're ready."
Cadfael extinguished the brazier and took a final look at his herbal kingdom. Everything appeared in order, and he knew he could trust Brother Griffin's young but capable hands to keep it so. He slung his bag of medicines over his shoulder.
"I am ready, Hugh."
Brother Cadfael hunched down in his saddle and wrapped the cloak more securely around his shoulders. The ride, seemingly pleasant at first, had soon turned anything but, as the wind whistled in the wide clearings and bit deep, freezing muscle and bone. There was no snowfall, not yet at least, but the heavy leaden clouds hung dangerously low in the sky. Young John of Cotteswalde was worried by them, too, for he turned his freckled face upwards and watched them for some time, then said to Hugh, "'Tis better we should hurry, my lord. Such clouds never bring anything but mischief."
They were not very far from Cotteswalde when the blizzard finally struck, but once it did, it was with such force as if the sky conspired with the roaring wind to bury them all in an avalanche of white. Blinded by the snow, made breathless by the wind, they lost all sight of each other and all sense of direction almost immediately. Pulling down his cowl to shield his eyes as much as possible, Brother Cadfael turned in his saddle and peered into the swirling whiteness, calling out the names of everyone in the party. He thought he heard other voices calling, too, but he could not tell who or where, until a dark shape suddenly appeared on his left.
Hands stiff and unresponsive from the cold, Brother Cadfael managed to untie the cord that served as a girdle to his habit, and threw one end to Hugh Beringar, who caught it and held on fast. They were thus protected from being separated for a second time, but where were all the others? And how could they hope to find their way anywhere in this raging blizzard? Nothing could be seen, not even the trees, which could at least have offered them some cover. Brother Cadfael began to pray, not for his own life, for he was not afraid to die when his time came, but for Hugh and the others, younger than himself and needed by their families.
Then, as if Saint Winifred had heard her servant's prayer, Hugh cried out, "Look, Cadfael! Light!"
Cadfael strained his eyes, and somewhere in the distance there was indeed a light, small but steady, a promise of warmth and safety. The sight filled them with newfound strength, and they made their way towards it, Hugh's favourite raw-boned grey horse clearing a path in the snow for Cadfael's smaller mare. For a long time it seemed that their slow efforts were all for nothing, that the light was as distant as when they had set out. Then, suddenly, it began to grow closer, until they could see its source clearly – a wooden stockade, a gate, and, in front of it, a woman holding a lantern.
Bone-weary, they struggled to reach this welcome apparition. The woman saw them and cried out, less from fear and more from amazement at their sorry state. At her call servants flocked to the gate, so quickly that it was obvious the woman was the mistress of this house. Hugh and Cadfael were helped to dismount and led inside, across the courtyard and into the main hall, where a fire burned and crackled merrily. The woman followed, having entrusted the lantern to a burly servant.
Brother Cadfael took off his sodden cloak and stretched his legs towards the fire, gratefully accepting a much-needed cup of mulled wine. Beside him, Hugh Beringar did the same, pausing only to shake the melting snow from his black hair. Their hostess waited for the wine to work its healing magic, before she spoke, "My lord, good brother. You were fortunate to reach this manor on a day like this. I am called Reynilda Burford, and this is Cotteswalde. Whatever business you have in these parts, you are welcome to rest here and wait out the storm."
She was, they could now see, a mere slip of a girl, no older than sixteen years, but calm and self-assured. She was wrapped up in heavy shawls, some of which she had already had to pull off in the warmth of the hall. Her pretty face, slightly pink from the cold, gave her the appearance of a child, and yet her eyes were heavy with some hidden worry.
Hugh took it upon himself to deliver the explanations. "Mistress Burford, I am Hugh Beringar of Maesbury, the sheriff of this shire." His sharp eyes did not miss the girl's slight start, but he went on as if nothing had happened. "This is Brother Cadfael of the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. We come here to see Master Godfrey Deschamps, at his own request."
Reynilda composed herself with some effort. "My lord," she said, her childish face earnest. "I fear all the troubles you have taken to get here will be for naught. Godfrey Deschamps, my uncle, was murdered in the night."