News of the Lady Joyeaux's visit had spread from the twin centers of Abbey and Castle sending ripples of pleasurable anticipation throughout the town and foregates and even into the nearby countryside. Only the idle or feckless would sacrifice a mornings work to await the spectacle of her arrival but even the virtuously industrious managed to find excuses to be on High street, or the Wyle or Castle way at the right hour.
Appetites had been pleasantly wetted by the passage of my lady's baggage train; two large and well loaded carts, each drawn by a team of five with a driver in scarlet jerkin mounted upon the lead horse. Grooms in the same livery, each riding good blood stock and leading a pack pony, four in all, every one loaded with a pair of large chests covered in scarlet leather. And behind them came a troop of mounted men-servants ranging from a magnificent figure in silk gown and silver chain on a well bred hackney to leather coated grooms on sturdy welsh ponies.
News of them had spread from mouth to mouth and on the very breeze inspiring even those who had so far resisted temptation to drop their work and hurry to see the rest of the pageant. It was this solid wall of happy, roused humanity that had stopped Cadfael and his companions in their tracks.
"Not a chance of getting through short of riding harmless folk down," Henry of Clun told his mother. "We must make the best of it and see the sights with the rest of them."
Cadfael was more than willing to do so. A mounting block in front of a nearby shop raised him above the crowded heads to get a good view of the Wyle sloping down to the bridge. They had not long to wait. A wail of pipe music, eerie and eastern, stirred old memories in Cadfael of days long past. Then a man at arms, mounted and armed cap-a-pie flashed into view, a scarlet banner marked with a white cross streaming above his head. And behind him came the lady herself.
She was a small thing, and slender as a girl but sat with grace and confidence on a tall golden bay whose gracile lines bespoke Arab blood. Her dress was as eastern as the music; a brocaded purple caftan over filmy red-violet skirts, a sash of vivid green and yellow around her tiny waist and a twisted turban of purple and yellow silks with a veil that covered her face to the eyes. She glittered from head to toe with golden ornaments and ropes of milky pearls hung to her waist. This vision of eastern splendor shone only for an instant before being eclipsed behind building and people but left behind a most vivid impression of fiery grace, spirit and beauty.
Cadfael blinked the vision from his eyes. Perhaps she was a saracen princess after all. Certainly she looked the part, even as Hugh had said. Behind her came a bevy of women, a bedazzlement of brilliant silks, filmy muslins and glistening jewels, the smaller figures of children, and finally a half dozen more mounted men at arms.
And then all were past and it was over. After a long moment the crowd remembered to move and breath and hundreds of tongues burst simultaneously into loud expressions of delight and wonder.
Lord Henry, from the back of his tall roan, had seen it all. He looked, eyes on a level, at Cadfael still on his block. "Well-a-day! And who was that?"
"My Lady de Joyeaux of Cheadle come to guest at our abbey, like yourselves," Cadfael replied.
The young man's eye turned inward and his face closed over the news, startled and reassessing. "Of course, I should have known. Thank you, Brother." And he bent to pass the name to his mother in her litter.
Cadfael gazed thoughtfully at the curve of Henry's back. He had not recognized the lady, no, but he had expected her to be here. Interesting.
Brother Porter greeted my lord and lady of Clun respectfully and saw them safe in Brother Denis, the hospitaller's, hands before turning to Cadfael with a twinkle. "Well, Brother, for once you have missed all the excitement."
"That I did not," Cadfael answered. "I saw our illustrious guest pass and her men busy about her house. Where is the lady herself?"
"With the Abbot." Brother Albin shook his head, rueful and amused. "I tell you, Cadfael, I fear for the vocations of our younger brethren! Even I, old and staid as I am had stirrings I have not felt in many a year when that lady unveiled herself."
"We are still men, Albin," Cadfael answered comfortably. "No harm in being reminded of the fact."
"Not perhaps for old sinners like you and me who planted wild oats enough in our misspent youths, but what of the early cloistered who will barely recognize the prickings of the flesh when they feel them?" Albin shrugged the problem aside. "It's well you're back, you're needed at the stable on the Horse-Fair. Our guest's marshal of horse complains of some illness or injury among his pack animals."
"I will go to him directly."
Cadfael elected to cut through the cloister to the rear gate that opened directly across from the Abbey's barns and stable without the walls. He heard Prior Robert's voice holding mellifluously forth before he caught sight on him standing in the sunlite garth and then sight of who he was talking to. Cadfael could not forbear to stop and admire.
The Prior's audience was two ladies, slender and young and very lovely, their dress of eastern silks proclaiming them members of the bevy that had followed my lady Joyeaux, one all in flaming shades of orange, scarlet and tawny; the other cool and serene in tints of green and blue and turquoise.
She in the orange was turned towards Cadfael and even from across the garth he could see the suave modeling of honey gold flesh over fine bones. The lovely line of cheek and brow, the lift of the small chin and proud curve of the long slim throat brought back warm and most un-monastic memories.
Bianca had had such a cheek and chin and throat. His Venetian Bianca, not really beautiful but seeming so with her grace and proud bearing. Bianca of the long dark eyes that flashed rather than melted, as cutting as her sharp and clever tongue.
This girl's eyes were long and dark too, the sunlight finding flecks of gold in their lucent brown, and they did melt as they gazed attentively up at Robert, full red lips curved and receptive, tucked into deep dimples at the corners. Not Bianca's mouth - which had been wide and generous - yet somehow familiar...
She in cool green had her profile to Cadfael showing a nose with just a hint of the aquiline. And she was as fair as the other girl was dark with creamy skin and light eyes of either blue or gray, set off by lines of black kohl just like her sister's. For they could only be sisters so alike were they in feature if not in coloring. There was the same suave modeling of smooth young flesh over elegant bones, the same mouth, lips slightly parted, and the same long almond shape of the eye.
Cadfael looked at Robert and his own mouth curled in a tolerant, almost sympathetic smile. Mature in vocation and genuinely devout Robert was - but not dead! And no living man could fail to expand and preen under such eyes, much less one so naturally vain as the Prior. Ah, poor Robert! Cadfael shook his head and moved on.
The animals of my lady Joyeaux's baggage train had been rubbed down, watered and fed. Cadfael passed down the row of stalls to sounds of contented munching. At the end of the stable the burly figure of a man, stripped business-like to his shirt, nursed the drooping head of a brown pony.
"Here am I, Brother Cadfael, the herbalist here. They tell me you have need of me, Master Marshal?"
A graying head pulled away from the horse to turn a broad, square visage towards Cadfael, mouth agap, eyes wide and wild. "Cadfael?"
He stopped at gaze and studied the face earnestly in the dim half-light, subtracted the effects of the passage of years and recognition dawned. "Sam? Sammel Archer, is it truly you?"
"None other!" And then Cadfael's old friend began to laugh.
He laughed for quite sometime. It was only with difficulty that Cadfael was able to call him back to the business at hand - that is to the ailing horse. Cadfael diagnosed an insect bite rubbed into an open sore over the course of the day's travel and applied a dressing from the medicine chest he kept in the stable. By then Sammel was sober enough to be coherent, though his eyes still sparkled with merriment, and perhaps a touch of mischief as they left the stable together.
"No doubt you are surprised to find me here, in this habit," Cadfael began, a little disgruntled.
But Sam shook his head. "No. No, come to think of it I find that far less startling than finding you settled down as a farmer and family man." He chuckled again. "Ah, I should have known it was a waste of time to seek you in Wales. When did you ever do the expected thing, Sergeant?"
"You have been looking for me?" Cadfael asked, startled as they passed through the wide back gates into the enclosure.
"More keeping an eye peeled. You did say you were going home, and when we chanced to have business in Wales my lady thought to look for you in Trefiw -"
Cadfael stopped him with a hand by the stable-yard pale. "Your lady? Why should she be looking for me?" It was not an entirely honest question. An answer had already occurred to him, but it seemed hardly possible.
Sammel Archer, now Sammel Marshal grinned widely. "And why not? Why shouldn't a lass want to see her father again?"