The morning chapter on the 24th day of July in the year of our Lord 1142 was enlivened by the appearance of a livery man come as harbinger for his lady. The unaccustomed ring of spurs against the stone floor of the chapter house roused Brother Cadfael from his pleasant half doze behind his pillar and set him leaning forward for a better look at the visitor bowing before Abbot Radulfus.
He was a fine nut-brown fellow, no older than thirty but already weathered and experienced. Not a serving man but a man at arms with leather brigandine beneath a scarlet surcote marked over the left breast with a small white cross. His abiding sin of curiosity, sharply wetted, Cadfael stretched his ears to catch every word of the petition. For he knew that device, long ago he had seen it on banners set upon the towers and battlements of Jerusalem.
"My lord abbot," the man began respectful but in no way diffident. "I come from my lady de Joyeaux to ask the hospitality of this house for herself and her train."
A ripple of excitement passed through the ranks of the watching brothers. Glancing aside toward Radulfus Cadfael saw Prior Robert's silvery beauty brighten perceptibly at the prospect of so notable a guest.
My Lord de Joyeaux had been born second son to a northern baron and like many such sought his fortune in the east, becoming a lord and paladin of Jerusalem and owner of a name and fame that had made the long journey back over half the world to his homeland. The deaths of father and elder brother had brought him after it to take seisin of his hereditary lands in Cheshire and Lancashire, bringing with him a glamorous and exotic wife of eastern origin who had won herself a name of her own in the alarms and excursions of this civil war.
Abbot Radulfus' dark, angular features revealed nothing beyond courtesy as he replied; "This house's hospitality is free to all, regardless of rank."
"My lady knows that, my lord," her man answered stoutly. "But her company is large and your guesthouse like to be crowded as St. Peter's fair approaches. She thought it wise as well as courteous to give due warning that she might seek other accommodation should it prove needful."
Alarm ruffled the fine, patrician serenity of the prior bringing a dew to his ivory brow at the though of loosing so prestigious a guest. "If I may, Father Abbot. The first house beyond the mill pond is commodious, untenanted and most suitable for the accommodation my lady de Joyeaux."
True. The largest of the Abbey's grace houses had been empty and profitless - and a source of pain to Robert - since the loss of the Bonel tenancy nigh on four years ago now.
Radulfus considered briefly, then nodded. "A good thought, Robert." He turned his attention back to the waiting groom. "Say to your lady we are both most willing and well able to entertain her and all she brings with her."
A pleasant sibilance of excitement quivered in the warm air of the great court as the brothers scattered to their duties over and above the happy anticipation usual before the fair. Crossing to the gardens Brother Cadfael saw the Lady de Joyeaux's messenger heading towards the gate, afoot and leading his horse, in deep conversation with Prior Robert. They were followed by a bright faced Brother Jerome hugging himself inside the full sleeves of his gown and all but skipping, showing the exaltation his master was too dignified to reveal. Cadfael smiled to himself. A simple soul indeed their Robert!
His present helper was waiting for Cadfael outside the door to his workshop. Brother Helias was a well set up youngster of twenty, just a little taller than his mentor, with an untidy circlet of tow colored hair crowning a high, square brow and level blue eyes balancing a boldly modeled chin and jaw. He came of high blood, a de Say of Clun no less, and was Prior Robert's pride and joy. Cadfael had not yet ceased to wonder at such a paragon being assigned to him. He had however noted that Helias never spoke of home or family and carried himself as if the world and all it contained had ceased to exist so far as he was concerned. Yet today even he showed roused and interested by news of the coming visit.
"And what do you know of this lady who proposes to guest with us, Helias?" Cadfael asked. For the de Says were equal in rank to de Joyeaux and held lands in the same counties.
"Nothing beyond general report," Helias answered readily enough. "I have never seen her but I hear she is a most pious lady, and a charitable. She and her lord have endowed both churches and hospitals since they returned. And they say the lady tends the sick with her own fair hands, even lepers." Cadfael was impressed in spite himself. The kind of courage that willingly braved infection was far rarer than the simple kind needed for open battle against human foes.
Helias went on, voice warming with enthusiasm. "I hear too that they have enshrined a relic of the True Cross and stones from the Holy Sepulcher in their parish church for the veneration of all men."
"Have they? Father Prior will not welcome the competition," Cadfael said dryly, and got a reproachful look from his assistant.
"Surely Father Robert will be glad to have such a source of Grace near us."
And perhaps he would at that. Was not their own abbey and shrine 'on the road' so to speak to Cheadle, de Joyeaux's seat north of Cheshire? Winifred - and Shrewsbury - might well be the gainers.
"No doubt you are right, son," Cadfael said soothingly
Helias' clouded brow cleared. "Shall I get on with composting the cabbages, Brother?"
"Yes, do so." Cadfael watched the youngster trot away to collect spade and mattock with a considering frown of his own.
He was not quite easy in his mind about this current acolyte of his. Helias was no unbalanced would-be mystic like Columbanus, nor yet forcing himself into a life for which he was totally unsuited like young Meriet. He kept carefully every detail of the rule but without exaggeration, pursued his studies with clear eyed purpose and was an able and willing helper here in the gardens. But Cadfael could find in him no spark of the God given enthusiasm conferred by a vocation and had no doubt that here was yet another younger son persuaded or pressured into the cloister to keep lands whole.
"The church can prove a good career for a gifted young man." Hugh Beringar observed lazily, accepting a beaker from Cadfael and stretching out his legs to lean back against the workshop wall. "Your Brother Helias may rise high, higher than his brother the baron."
"Or be forever imprisoned within walls working at a life for which he was never meant." Cadfael retorted, joining his friend on the shaded bench beneath the eaves. "A grim prospect! The cloister is not meant to provide careers for ambitious youngsters, nor even for honest lads intent on fulfilling every point of what they promise."
"And yet such things are done every day," Hugh said and shrugged. "Your Helias is a grown man who knows very well what he is doing and why. The choice is his, not yours, my Cadfael!"
"I know. But I hope and wish with all my heart that the boy will think the better of it before it's too late - as all to soon it will be. His final vows are set for St. Oswald's day." Two days after the fair. Cadfael sighed. "And what brings you to us this fine afternoon, never say it was just to drink a stoup of my wine!"
Hugh laughed comfortably. "No I've come to confer with my lord abbot over our noble guest."
Cadfael's eyebrows rose. "Our?"
"Oh yes. I've had word from the lady myself, asking quartering for her men at arms at the castle."
"Men at arms?"
"A score all told, or so she says." Hugh answered. "I'd expect no less. I hear she carries a treasure of silks and other luxuries with her wherever she goes."
Cadfael smiled tolerantly. "Ah, well. Our northern lands must seem cold and gray indeed to the poor girl."
"Very likely. They say she's a saracen princess, no less, that Joyeaux took from her kin and converted."
Cadfael snorted his skepticism. "Jongleurs' tales! Paynim princesses are none so easily won I promise you."
"Oh but she looks the part, Cadfael!" Hugh laughed. "I saw the lady at Canterbury."
"Do you tell me so? And what is she like?"
Hugh stared at the dark hedge enclosing them conjuring the image of a lady seen only a few times, and briefly, but who had left a most vivid impression. "A small, bright flame of a woman, for all her dark coloring, with a light foot and proud carriage." He smiled reminiscently. "A skin like honey and great liquid eyes that can suck a man into their depths as surely as a peat pool. Oh, and a red, witching mouth that fairly begs for kisses!"
"What kind of talk is that from a man happily married to the finest, fairest lady in all of England?" Cadfael demanded startled and indignant.
Hugh laughed again. "Oh, no lady living is a match for my Aline! But you will not deny that there are other fine looking women in the world, nor my right to acknowledge the fact?"
"No," Cadfael granted, though perhaps a touch grudgingly. "And why would you guess she chooses now to favor us with her presence?"
"I don't need to guess, her man told me right out. Joyeaux has manors here in Shropshire left unvisited for far too long. His troubles with Chester have kept him up in the north defending the caput of his honour."
Cadfael nodded thoughtfully. "Or perhaps he prefers that his lady be safe out of Ranulf's writ while he himself is with the king at Oxford?"
"Perhaps. But I think my lord earl has learned his lesson and will leave Joyeaux, his lands and his lady well alone in the future." There was open pleasure in Hugh's voice. Any discomfiture suffered by their ambitious neighbor to the north was welcome to the Sheriff of Shropshire.
Ranulf had chosen to celebrate his victory at Lincoln, more than a year ago now, by an attempt my Lord de Joyeaux's very respectable honour north of Cheshire. No doubt he'd thought it easy prey with its lord a prisoner, along with the King, in the south. If so my lady de Joyeaux had showed him his error, defending her own at least as doughtily as her lord himself could have done. A very valiant lady whatever her lineage or weakness for southern luxuries.
"I hear my Lord of Chester has no ear for music," Cadfael said musing. Hugh turned his head, an expressive brow arched in question and Cadfael explained; "If Ranulf had heard the troubadour songs out of Holy Land he might well have thought twice before assailing his new neighbor." He added inconsequentially: "Joyeaux still uses the device of the Castellan of Jerusalem."
"And why not?" Hugh asked. "Surely he has earned the right!"