Title: Vox Angelica
Fandom: Brother Cadfael
Genre: Medieval mystery
Disclaimer: Brother Cadfael and all other characters belong to Ellis Peters, whose talent and knowledge as a medievalist I greatly admire. Only Sister Eata and a few other nuns belong to me.
Summary: The newly-founded nunnery of Farewell receives a generous gift from a local landholder – but not everyone is happy about it. Fortunately, Brother Cadfael is visiting the priory at Bishop de Clinton's request to help with the herb garden, and his inquisitive mind is not that easily distracted.
Author's note: vox angelica is an organ stop, giving a gentle tremolo effect; it means "the voice of the angels".
This story takes place after the sixteenth novel, "The Heretic's Apprentice", but before the seventeenth, "The Potter's Field".
It was early autumn in the 1143rd year of the Lord when the sad but not entirely unexpected tidings of Mother Mariana's parting reached the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury. The elderly prioress of the Benedictine cell at Godric's Ford had finally succumbed to her long, patiently-endured illness and closed her weary eyes on this world to open them on a better one.
Her parting had been a quiet and peaceful one. She had already suffered enough in the years before, thus God, in his unfathomable mercy, spared her a painful agony on the end of her long road. The sisters accepted her death with detached sorrow. They felt the loss keenly but knew she would be in a better place – and without pain – from now on, and for that, they were grateful.
"They will miss her, but not terribly so," said Abbot Radulfus in chapter, after his secretary, Brother Vitalis, had read the note from Godric's Ford to the entire community. "After all, 'tis Sister Magdalen who has held all strings in her capable hands for quite a few years by now. They will barely feel the official shift of power at all."
Prior Robert Pennant, one of the few people who were actually aware of Sister Magdalen's rather… colourful past, wrinkled his fine, patrician nose in distaste.
"Do you truly believe, Father, that she will be elected as Mother Mariana's successor?" he asked, clearly not liking the thought of all. He was a bit inflexible in his ways and didn't like events steer away what he thought to be the right order of things.
Brother Cadfael, on the other hand, also privy to such details, hoped that it would be so. Such a small house would greatly benefit from the leadership of a resolute woman, past or no past. Besides, was it not so that crossing the threshold of a cloister erased one's past, leaving naught else left but the future in devout service? He of all people should know it… although he also knew that things were never quite that easy. Yet even though he also knew that Sister Magdalen's motivation had been slightly… different than his own, who was he to judge others? This was a thing between her and God, and no-one else was entitled to interfere.
Abbot Radulfus, himself a rather world-wise man for a monk, must have had similar thoughts, for he did not react to Prior Robert's apparent disapproval of such a likely choice.
"Succession will likely be negotiated between the sisters at Godric's Ford and the mother house in Polesworth," he said neutrally. "And I assume that Bishop de Clinton, as one of the chief supporters of both Polesworth and its filialia, will have a word to say in the matter."
That seemed likely indeed. After all, Roger de Clinton had been the driving force behind the foundation of the cell at Godric's Ford as well as that of the priory at Farewell, a fledgling house barely five years old. He seemed particularly fond of the latter, making generous grants to the nuns, and urging others to do the same. If the sisters at Godric's Ford wanted to stay in the bishop's good graces, they could not afford to make any important decisions without consulting him first.
Of course, Sister Magdalen would know that, thought Cadfael contently. She was a supremely practical woman, and whatever her motivation to take the veil might have been, no-one could deny that the cell had flourished under her unofficial leadership in those last years. She had a very good chance to get the office, in fact.
That must have been Prior Robert's opinion as well, because he kept pressing on the topic, like a dog that cannot part with a bone.
"But she does have a good chance, doesn't she?" he insisted.
"Indeed, she does," said the abbot placidly. "And why shouldn't she? She has proved her ability to serve the interest of her cell repeatedly. Wasn't she the one organizing their successful defence against the raiding party of Powys, just a few years ago? And that without any outside help?"
That, again, was unquestionably true, but such small matters would not change Prior Robert's opinion about a woman with such questionable past. He was a man of strong principles who preferred to judge and to punish first and spare forgiveness for a later time, when the sinner had already done proper penance. Abbot Radulfus – also a man of strong principles but more lent to understanding all-too-human weakness – was sometimes worried by such inflexibility. He admired perfection, too, in a detached manner, but did not expect it from mere flesh and blood.
"In any case," continued the abbot, "the burial rites will be performed in four days' time, and the sisters, considering the good contacts between our two houses, are asking that we send representatives to the burial. I think it's a request that we should respect."
"If you wish me to go, Father, I shall do so," offered Prior Robert, torn between benevolent willingness to strengthen those poor nuns by his august presence and reluctance to be on the beck and call of that woman. But the abbot shook his head.
"Nay, I believe 'tis better if I go myself," he said. "I was told that Bishop de Clinton would be attending personally – Mother Mariana's family used to be a faithful vassal of the de Clintons – and I'd like to use to opportunity for a… an informal meeting."
Given the current political situation it was a reasonable choice, for what could seem less suspicious than attending to the last rites of a nun who had been suffering like a saint in the last years of her life and finally found peace with God? Of course, Prior Robert did have his objections.
"But surely, Father Abbot, you cannot go all the way without an escort?" he protested, more agitated by the rejection of his generous offer than by the concern about the abbot's welfare. Even though he truly had the best reason for concern, with footpads abroad all over the country, utilizing the general unrest caused by the civil war.
"Of course not," agreed the abbot placidly. "Nor do I intend to ride alone. I shall need Brother Vitalis in any case, should we come to any official agreements with Bishop de Clinton about the delegating of Brother Adrianus as the confessor of the sisters at Farewell; and since Brother Cadfael is already acquaintanted with the sisters there, it seems only proper to take him along as well."
That did not bode particularly well with Prior Robert, who had always begrudged Cadfael the liberties given by both Abbot Radulfus and his predecessor, Heribert. But Radulfus had not asked for his opinion, so he had no other choice than accept the decision.
Cadfael bowed his head obediently, his broad face not revealing any of the joy he felt at that moment. Content as he was in his current home, the vagus still reawakened in him sometimes, and he always embraced every chance to travel. Especially in the company of Abbot Radulfus, whose measured wisdom he greatly respected.
Besides, he truly had fond memories of that little cell and its inhabitants, some of whom he had known from early childhood. So he was looking forward to see them again, even if the circumstances were less than joyous this time.
"Also," continued the abbot, "Bishop de Clinton asked for our help in behalf of the priory at Farwell. As you might know, he's founded that house a mere five years ago, thus the building is still going on. Bishop Robert asked us to lend the sisters Brother Conradin, who's well known beyond these walls as a skilled stone-mason. And he mentioned that the cloister needs a decent herb garden." He looked at Cadfael in askance. "Can you afford to leave for a week or two? This might take some time."
Cadfael nodded contentedly. "We are almost done with the last of the harvest, Father Abbot, and what remains of it, Brother Winfrid will manage without me. I shall bring ample supplies to both the Infirmary and to St. Giles, just to be on the safe side, but I don't doubt that Brother Oswin and Brother Edmund will do just fine in my absence."
"Can you also spare seeds and samples for the sisters?" asked Radulfus.
"Gladly," said Cadfael. "We have enough for both, so that we won't feel the loss. Their Sister Benedicta is a good gardener. I saw her flower garden when we rested with Brother Haluin in their house last winter – it was a thing of beauty. I'm certain that once shown how to do it, she'll do well with the herbs, too."
Abbot Radulfus, who – alone from the rest of the convent – knew all too well who Sister Benedicta had once been, shot Brother Haluin a sharp glance. But Haluin's serene face mirrored naught but a kind of peace few people could ever achieve, not even in a cloister.
"Very well, then," said the abbot. "See that you leave the medicine cupboards well-filled and your assistant well-instructed. 'Tis a long way to Lichfield and back; more so as we need to go to Godric's Ford first."
With Chapter adjourned, Cadfael went to the infirmary first, to check the medicine cupboard and ask Brother Edmund what he might need for his regulars in the following week or two. Some of the older brothers were too frail in body or mind – or both – to remain in the dortoir, so they were given beds in a large, empty room, adjoining to the private chapel where they might pray the offices as well as their constitutions allowed. Those still able to leave their beds sat by the log fire, needing to warm their old bones even on a day as bright and warm as the current one. There they sat and talked between meals and offices and welcome diversions.
But not everyone was so lucky. There was Brother Reginald, old and so deformed in the joints that he could not rise on his own anymore. Every oh-so-slight movement caused him great pain, so that he would need small doses of poppy syrup to be able to sleep at all during his long torturous nights.
Then there was Brother Rhys, Welsh like Cadfael himself, plagued by the usual tearing in his joints and cracks and aches in his ancient bones as well as by the meanderings of his mind. Fortunately, his bed neighbour, Brother Athanasius, was deaf and half-senile and thus not bothered by Rhys' frequent – and quite loud – complaints. And Dafydd and Maurice and Adam and Everard and a few others who all had the heavy burden of aging body and weakening mind to bear. They all had their needs, and Cadfael discussed it as some length with the infirmarer and his helper, Brother Wilfred – a good-natured, soft-speaking man who walked with a sick, being lame from the years of his youth – what and when and in which dosage to give these faithful ancient souls to make the last few yards of their way on this earth as peaceful and painless as possible. As this lasted longer than they would had thought, they prayed Terce together in the little chapel, knowing that their field of work would excuse for their absence from the office in the abbey church.
Accompanied by Brother Wilfred who was to carry additional remedies to the infirmary, Cadfael then returned to the enclosed herb-garden that – as well as the manufactory derived from it – he had supervised for nearly twenty years by now. As always in early September, the days were still warm like in high summer, with many hours of sunshine a day, and thus the heavy fragrance of the herbs lay all over the surrounding lands like a warm blanket, making one's eyelids want to fall closed. Under the eaves of the small timber hut that served as Cadfael's workshop, bunches of drying herbs were dangling and rustling in the barely perceivable, warm breeze, all but sweeping their heads when they entered. It seemed as if the hut itself, dressed with oil against cracking, would breathe out scented warmth.
Not a frequent visitor to this secluded place, Brother Wilfred looked around with great interest, taking in the shelves full of jars, flasks, bottles, small boxes, clay pots and a dozen other things the purpose of which remained a mystery for him, while Cadfael selected the salves and pills and lozenges and whatever else Brother Edmund had requested. Placing everything in Wilfred's scrip, he sent the good brother back to Edmund, turning his attention to the list Brother Oswin had sent from Saint Giles the day before.
Putting together those medicines had taken even longer, for the needs of the hospice – frequented by the rootless people who lived on the road and had no other place to go – were habitually greater than those of the infirmary. Salves and lotions were needed for the various sores, tinctures and poultices for wounds and bruises, herb wines to strengthen wasted bodies driven beyond their strength. Cadfael spent the better half of the morning with this work, attended to Sext dutifully, and thus it was well beyond noon when he finally left the abbey grounds to cross the Foregate for Saint Giles.
The hospice lay more than half a mile away, along the Foregate, at the eastern rim of the suburb. For some time now, Brother Oswin had been in charge, under the nominal supervision of an appointed layman by the name of Fulke Reynold. As the lay supervisor rarely came over from his own house in the Foregate to visit, Brother Oswin could pretty much do what he wanted, though, as long as his books were in order. And while he had not been as good with his numbers as Brother Mark had been, he and Reynold had an amiable relationship, based on the practice that neither of them bothered the other unnecessarily.
Outside the precinct wall, the highway led by the horse-fair, still green, albeit beginning to bleach out with the coming of autumn. The houses here were thinning out, giving room to the fields and woods that almost reached the road on some places. Walking on the wayside, Cadfael soon came to a large, lordly house, encircled by a strong stone wall, with a garden and an orchard behind it. The house lay halfway to Saint Giles and belonged to no lesser person than Roger de Clinton himself, the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, though he rarely used it himself.
This was one of those rare occasions, it seemed. The front gates of the courtyard stood open, and a true bustle of activity could be seen within. Servants and grooms were running back and forth between house and stables, wearing liveries in the colours of the de Clintons. Apparently, the bishop had already arrived and planned to continue his way from here to Godric's Ford, after a short rest.
Perchance he, too, is planning to meet Father Radulfus and hold council with him quietly, thought Cadfael, rounding the bishop's house, behind which he road opened between trees.
He had already left the town well behind and was now approaching the hospice, visible at the fork of roads a bow-shot ahead, behind the wattled fence of its enclosure. The roof of the church, with its small, squat turret, barely rose above the fence. A modest little church it was, with a graveyard behind it – a sad necessity for a shelter like this, as the carven stone cross in the middle reminded everyone who cared to look. Both church and hospice were set discreetly, far enough from both roads leading to the town, as if to spare the sensitivities of those who did not want to be reminded of the existence of need, illness and death.
Entering the courtyard of the hospice, the first person Cadfael saw was Brother Oswin, coming out to the porch to welcome him in his usual exuberant good mood. He had grown into his office admirably, Cadfael admitted, turning into a surprisingly good caretaker, after his first time as a well-meaning but clumsy helper in the herb-garden. Truth be told, those large, helpful hands served better in lifting and poulticing and bandaging and restraining the patients than in the delicate work of rolling pills or filling small vials and flasks.
Greeting Cadfael with honest joy – he was always glad to see his former mentor, which happened every second or third week – Brother Oswin led him directly to the medicine cupboard. They re-checked the remedies still there and filled up the shelves with everything that was needed, before turning the key upon its secrets again, lest some of the inmates came to the idea of helping themselves to something they believed to need; then they crossed the hall to get back to the yard.
Some of the unfortunate denizens – the ones truly plagued by the horrible illness that had no known cure, not even among the Saracen healers who were much more knowledgeable in medicine than anyone in the Christian lands could ever hope to become – were too infirm to move around on their own. These poor souls lay or sat in the hall, where, despite the still pleasantly warm autumn weather, a fire was kept burning, for the most advanced cases were constantly shivering, not so much from the cold than from that terrible weakness the which was the surest thing that the end was close. Those pitiful wretches, Cadfael knew, would never leave this place, unless carried into the churchyard for burial. But at least they would die in relative peace, surrounded by the cheerful care of Brother Oswin, who would make them laugh in their last hour. Oswin was such a friendly, good-natured fellow, never out of temper even with the most difficult and ungrateful of his patients. When it came down to the basic things of true importance, who could have hoped for a better end?
Not all the inmates were suffering from true leprosy, though. Many of them had simply festering wounds, broken bones that had not healed properly and left them with a lasting problem, or just an outbreak of sores, caused by various infections, due to poverty, the lack of proper food or filthy dwelling places. It was never easy to be poor, not even in good times; even less so in a country that had been torn apart by kinstrife for so long. In such times, when so many had lost their meagre belongings through the constant warfare of the rich and the powerful, people tended to be less generous to the even more unfortunate ones than in times of peace and flourish. It was a sad thing, but such was the nature of men.
Some of those with the more mundane illnesses were already on the mend, though, and even willing to help out with the small chores within and around the hospice. Cadfael could see a dozen or so of them out in the orchard, gleaning the latest of the harvest.
"They do help where they can, said Brother Oswin, following the direction of Cadfael's look. "In truth, most of them are glad to have something to do… to be useful. They are good folk, mostly. It is not always their fault that they have ended up in such foul state."
"No," Cadfael agreed. "If only those with power could understand what consequences their greed and constant warfare have for those who have nothing to do with their grievances, perhaps they would consider their next step more carefully. Or not," he added in sorrow, for he had come to learn the ways of men's hearts all too well, both during his years out in the world and in those within the cloister. "The old Greeks believed that mankind was grown from the teeth of a dragon, sown into the fertile ground, and sometimes I truly tend to believe it."
He fell silent for a moment, seeing with almost painful clarity before his inner eye Arianna, the Greek boat-girl, who had taught him that particular legend almost a lifetime ago. How she had stood in her boat, skirts kilted above the knee, her short, dark hair a cloud of loose curls around her laughing face, leaning on her long oar and calling across the water to him. He wondered briefly what might have become of her; if she was still alive, a wrinkled old crone somewhere in a fisherman's cottage, or had got lost in the turmoil of war, trade and other perils that haunted the lands around the midland Sea.
He shook his head to free himself of such speculations. They led nowhere. She belonged to his past; to a life he had left behind a long time ago. There was no use pondering over things beyond his reach, even if with advanced age the memories became something to cherish. He had a life and duties here and now, and the Arianna he had once known was no longer – just like his own youth.
"Well," he said to Brother Oswin soberly, "since it is not in our power to bring the great and the rich to reason, at least we do what we can for those who suffer from the consequences of their lack of care. I wish we could do more, but what we can, we do with all our heart. Take care, Oswin, and should you run out of remedies against all expectations, I have left instructions with Brother Edmund. He might not be a physician, but he is a trained healer who had learned a great deal about illnesses and medication during his long years in the Infirmary. I am reasonably certain that between the two of you, you will manage whatever might happen in my absence."
Brother Oswin nodded in cheerful self-confidence. He might not have the finer skills when it came to fashion the little pills and lozenges, but he was competent enough to administer whatever medicines might be needed, and with Brother Edmund's vast experience to lean on, he did not expect any serious problems.
"How long, do you think, will you be gone?" he asked, more out of curiosity than of concern.
"I am not sure," admitted Cadfael. "Bishop de Clinton wants to visit the new priory in Farewell after the funeral; it might be a week or two… or more. I have taken precautions, in case it should take longer."
"Worry not," said Brother Oswin cheerfully. "You will find everything in the best order upon your return."
Cadfael thought of his current assistant in the herbarium, Brother Winfrid, a hefty, blue-eyed young giant, who – despite his size – proved surprisingly deft and delicate in handling the precious glass vessels and brittle dried herbs, and hoped fervently that it would be so. Brother Winfrid was careful and eager to learn, but new to the task and therefore lacked experience. He would do well if only confronted with the daily tasks, but he was in no way capable to face a crisis alone yet.
Sometimes Cadfael missed Brother Mark fiercely. Even if his loss meant the church would gain an excellent priest one day.
He had missed None due to his visit to St. Giles but got back to the abbey just in time for Collations, after which he returned to his herb garden to give Brother Winfrid his final instructions and to prepare some medicines that could be kept for longer times and might be demanded during his absence. They worked all afternoon in companionable silence, only pausing to attend Vespers, until, about an hour before Compline, Hugh Beringar came to see him.
Cadfael was weeding one of the herb beds – for some reason, weeds appeared to be able and willing to grow in just any weather, unlike the more useful plants, which seemed unjust sometimes but could not be changed – when he heard the familiar, springy steps on the gravel. He smiled in delight, always glad to see his young friend, and sat back on his heels to watch Hugh's approach.
Seeing him on his knees again – a sight that had become increasingly familiar in the five years since they had known each other – Hugh grinned broadly.
"Mediating for absolution for my sins?" he asked teasingly.
"And for my own," replied Cadfael with an exaggerated sigh. "I have it on good authority that both cases require a great deal of work and prayer. Fortunately, we have Saint Winifred to watch over us, or else I would be truly concerned."
They both laughed, and as so often before, Hugh gave him a hand to help him rise; a gesture that, Cadfael admitted ruefully, was becoming more needful and more appreciated with each passing year. He was still in good strength for a man of his age – working in the garden took care of that, but he was not a young man any longer as his aching joints mercilessly reminded him from time to time.
"And what are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought you have returned to the north after the recent excitement with the Lythwoods and Bishop de Clinton's visit."
"I have," replied Hugh, "but I found everything in best order in my own lands – that is why I keep such a capable steward, you see – and as I left Aline and Giles in town, I thought it better to return to them. Which was the right decision, it seems, as now I can listen to all the fresh gossip in peace while I have a drink with you – if you have one to offer to a thirsty man, that is."
"When did I not have one for you?" said Cadfael with a content smile. "There is still some of my own wine in the workshop."
"The same we had when the venerable Canon Gerbert fell over the abbey like the wrath of God?" asked Hugh. "Bring it forth; as I remember, it was quite young but more than fit to drink, as always."
Cadfael shook his head tolerantly but brought a jug of said wine as asked, and they sat down together on the bench against the north wall of the garden, which was their favourite place, to discuss the recent news of church, kingdom and family.
Little of that news could be considered joyous, though. The long, fruitless struggle between King Stephen and the Empress Maud was still going on; both sides were still trying to win the support of Earl Ranulf of Chester, who was still trying to play them both against each other, while secretly building his own private little kingdom on the Welsh border. Currently, he seemed more in favour of the Empress and was still keeping Lincoln Castle in Stephen's spite. Fortunately for the king, he had also an ongoing quarrel with Owain Gwynedd, the king of Wales in all but title, and that still kept him at bay. Hugh, whose lands were close to the Welsh border, was particularly grateful for that, but one could not know how long the truce would hold.
Unless Ranulf decided to defect to Stephen, of course, which – knowing his shifting loyalties – was not entirely out of the question. Not even knowing his long-held grievance against the king over the loss of his lands in Northumbria to King David of Scotland.
"I wish I knew more about the whereabouts and intentions of Owain Gwynedd; especially how big a threat he might prove to Ranulf," Hugh added thoughtfully. "As long as he feels properly threatened by Owain, Ranulf will be more willing to cooperate – until Stephen had dealt with Essex, which is the bigger threat at the moment."
Cadfael thought about that for a moment. Then he nodded regretfully. "No peace to hope for in the near future, then, is there?" he asked.
"It does not seem so," admitted Hugh. "And what is new with the church?"
Cadfael shrugged. "Much the same, I fear. Power struggles between Bishop Henry of Winchester and Archbishop Theobald, as usual. More signs of that unfortunate tendency of seeing heresy in every harmless attempt of a man seeking his own answers… the same thing we have seen from Canon Gerbert little more than a month ago."
"It seems to spread like wildfire, this sort of thinking," said Hugo, concerned. "I do not like it. This can lead to bad things if no-one tries to stop it. To very bad things. As if we would not have enough worries with this war for the throne going on for so long."
"Too long," said Cadfael grimly. "We can call ourselves fortunate to have bishops like Roger de Clinton still. He is of a breed that has become rare in these days… one of the last few. We could use more of his kind."
"He is an honest and intelligent man," Hugh agreed. "Travelling in his company will, no doubt, prove… inspiring. I expect you to come to us and bring me all the gossip upon your return."
"With God's help, I will," said Cadfael with an indulgent smile. "Right now, I must take my leave from you, though. I have already taken some liberties with None today; it would do me no good to miss Compline as well. Prior Robert has had a suspicious eye on me lately."
"I have no worries about you," laughed Hugh. "You have beaten stronger opponents in your time."
Cadfael shook his head. "I am an old man, Hugh. I do not wish for any more confrontations. I have come to the cloister for the peace and the quiet within its walls – alas that I find it lacking those very qualities all too often."
"Someone who is able and willing to ride across the whole diocese on a whim of his heart is not an old man," said Hugh, still laughing.
And Cadfael, despite his sometimes rebellious joints, had to admit that that was indeed very true. He was glad to get out from time to time – just as glad as he would be upon his return.
He took his leave from Hugh and went to attend Compline, with mild excitement in his still adventurous heart. He was looking forward to travelling in the elated company of his abbot and the bishop of Lichfield; to meet the resolute Sister Magdalen again and to see how the priory of Farewell had grown since his visit there. At his age, revisiting well-known places did have its attractions.