Title: Sparrows

Author: Soledad

Fandom: Brother Cadfael

Genre: General, with a pinch of angst

Rating: General, suitable for all.

Disclaimer: The characters and settings belong to the wonderful Ellis Peters, whom I greatly admire. I only borrow them for a little while to play in her amazing world. No copyright infringement intended and no money made.

Timeframe: late November 1141, shortly before the events of The Raven in the Foregate.

Summary: After more than a year of living on the road, Liliwin and Rannilt return to Shrewsbury. Alas, it is not the return they have hoped for.

Chapter 01 On Broken Wings

November of the year 1141 of Our Lord was an unusually mild one, with the grass still green on the pastures, the winds gentle and the skies lightly veiled, announcing a similarly mild winter to come. The few surviving roses on the sole rosebush in the widow Boneths small garden had grown tall and spindly, but were still budding, displaying a fragile beauty that somehow managed to touch the otherwise fairly unromantic heart of the widows only son.

John Boneth, a fine-looking young man of twenty and seven years, had been the master locksmith of the town since his tutor, the late Baldwin Peche, had been murdered almost a year and a half ago, for poking that long nose of his a little too enthusiastically into other peoples private business. By then, John had learned everything his skilled but idle master could have taught him, and had been capable of running the business single-handedly.

In fact, he had done so for the last two years already, Master Peche preferring to tread and carry gossip round the ale-houses, leaving the work to John entirely. As his master had been widowed, with no son to inherit the smithy, John had been the evident successor for years and had taken over smoothly, even though a bit earlier than everyone even himself had expected.

Still, there had been no doubt, no question that his master had wanted him to take over. He had been trusted and depended on all those years and as a man who had wanted to make sure that things would go the way of his liking, Baldwin Peche even had a writ entrusted to the Guild Merchants clerk. A writ in which he expressly named John Boneth as his successor. And as both John himself and his work were well-known and well-liked with the Guild Masters, he had been accepted among them without much discussion.

Now, a year and a half later, John Boneth found that he liked to be his own master. He liked to have his own business and to be accepted by the respected craftsmen of the town as an equal. By all due modesty, he knew he deserved it. He might be young, yes, but he was good at his craft, and in the end, that was the only thing that counted.

On this particularly fine day John got up while it was still dark outside. The previous day had been a holiday, celebrating the life and martyrdom of some obscure saint, thus he wanted to begin work early, to catch up with the time he had lost. He trusted that Griffin, who also slept in the shop as a watchman, would already have kindled the fire and made all ready for the days work by the time he would arrive. The boy was always the first up from either household that shared the yard: Johns and that of the Aurifabers although, considering that he did not actually live there, John could hardly call the shop and the currently unused adjoining room as a household. He preferred to stay in his mothers house and just walked over there to work, every day.

Having washed and put on his working clothes, John went to the kitchen, where his mother had already fixed some porridge for him, with a tankard of weak ale and some bread. The bread was from the previous day, but still fresh and tasty wile he still could not afford the fine white cocket or domain bread, having raised to the status of a master of his craft meant that they could do better than buying the horse, an extremely coarse bread, made from the lowest quality flour. John found he liked the brown or black sorts available from the town bakers very much.

Mistress Boneth, a short, well-rounded widow in her middle fifties, sat down on the other side of the kitchen table and admired her sons healthy appetite with maternal pride. She was still a handsome woman for her age, with a broad yet surprisingly finely-featured face, deep-set, observant, grey-blue eyes and a low, gentle voice, her auburn hair pulled back from her face and hidden under a crisp white wimple. Her erect carriage made her appear taller than she actually was, and her dark gown, with its bountiful skirts, gave her the appearance of general largeness that appealed to people and made them obey her at the same time. The boy Griffin certainly went in awe of her, even though she was never aught but kind to him.

Mother and son talked a little about business while John was eating. Mistress Boneth, being lettered and numbered, had once done her husbands books and was now, that he had become his own master, doing those of her son, saving him the necessity to employ a clerk. The business was going well enough, as John was a skilled and hard-working man and friendly to his customers. There could be no doubt that in time he would become a well-to-do craftsman, better than his late father had ever been.

Thus Mistress Boneth felt the need to address again the only thing that often caused mild tension between them: the matter of marriage. To be still unwed at Johns age, when he had a business of his own, was an unusual thing and one a bit frowned upon. People expected their Guild Masters, even the younger ones, to be married and raise a family. Not to mention that a wife with a handsome dowry would be a helpful thing.

You have been your own master for a year and more by now, Mistress Boneth reminded her son. You cannot keep mourning her forever. You are heading towards thirty yourself; tis time to find a suitable bride.

This particular topic was perhaps the only one on Gods earth that could make the good-natured locksmith angry. Her, that had been Susanna Aurifaber, the goldsmiths daughter, her elder by almost five years, and one whom he had admired from the day on that he had begun to work for Baldwin Peche, almost seven years back by now.

Had her greedy father not begrudged her a dowry, she could have been a more than suitable wife for a respected craftsman more so as she had been the mistress of her fathers household for fifteen years, in her ailing grandmothers stead. She had done this calmly and competently, until forced out of her position by her brothers young wife.

John would have taken her even so, without any dowry, for her beauty and competence would have been enough to help him build their own household. But Susanna had never as much as looked at him with aught but cold disinterest. Although they had known each other for five years, living and working next door, she had always remained at the same discreet distance. She had been the landlords daughter, the rich master-craftsmans girl her father would never have found a mere journeyman a worthy match for her. He would not give her the dowry to marry her off to a suitable husband, but would not allow her to take a less suitable, either.

Was it a wonder that such unjust treatment had turned Susanna against her father? That she had sought comfort by someone who had been close and willing to do anything for her? Yes, it was a sad thing hat she had become a thief and a murderer at the end, but had she ever been given a fair chance by her family? They had used her, favouring her young brother in all things, and then discarded her when she was no longer needed, in favour of her brothers young wife.

As that strange nun had said, the one who had come to claim Susannas body, to grant her at least a decent funeral, the root of all evils had been Walter Aurifabers greed. Had he treated his daughter properly, none of those horrible things would have happened.

Yes, John Boneth was still mourning the loss of Susanna Aurifaber, even though he knew he would not have a true chance to win her hand anyway. He was mourning the loss of what she could have become: the respected matron of a large household, even if not that of his own. He had loved her enough to wish her a good life with someone else, too. And he greatly disliked it when people dismissed her memory as something of no true importance. Even if his mother was the one doing so.

I have found a suitable bride, mother, he said through gritted teeth, and I lost her before I could have had her. Now, could you just leave it alone? I shant marry anyone, unless they stir my heart, even if they turn out less than suitable. You better get used to the idea.

He ate the rest of his breakfast in stony silence leaving half-eaten food to go waste was not something that would be tolerated in their house and then he took his cloak and capuchon and stormed off in rarely-displayed black anger.

Mistress Boneth looked after her son and shook her head, sighing and wondering what in Susanna Aurifaber might have captured John so completely. Certainly, she had been a good girl once; but her girlhood had been gone already when John fell for her. Certainly, she had been comely, with those wide-set, cold grey eyes of her, and her wealth of russet hair, braided and bound austerely on her head. But even her smile had always been distant and cold. And she had never cared for John had lain with that Welsh journeyman of her fathers instead, carrying a bastard child from him

What had John ever seen in her?

Like all devoted mothers with an only son, Mistress Boneth believed with all her heart that John deserved better. And for the first time, the thought occurred to her that perhaps a less suitable bride, who at least loved her son, would be better for him. A handsome dowry was good for the business. But a loving wife was good for a mans heart.

John Boneth was approaching the goldsmiths burgage, where he still had his own shop, from the so-called High Street; a street that led to the gateway of the Castle. The neck of land narrowed here, in the northeast part of the town, so that the rear plots of the houses on either side of the street ran down to the town walls. The circle of the town itself, meanwhile, lay to the southwest, in the secure embrace of the River Severn.

The Aurifaber house was known to be one of the largest plots in town, and the goldsmith himself was considered one of the wealthiest men, which made the fact that he had begrudged her only daughter a dowry even more outrageous. But again, was that not the usual way of the rich, to have every penny cut out from under their very hide, rather than giving it up voluntarily? Did malevolent gossip not say that Aurifabers wife had died from starvation after having given birth to an heir, since there had been no more reason to feed her?

The house certainly showed the wealth of its owner. A right-angled house it was, with a wing on the street, and the hall and main dwelling running lengthwise behind clearly too large for a family of only four. Aurifaber must have seen it similarly, for hed found a way to make more money of the part the family had no immediate use for. He had divided off the wing and let it as a shop and dwelling for the late Baldwin Peche, some ten years back. As the locksmith had been a widower in his middle years and without children, he had found it convenient and adequate to his needs.

John Boneth had been of two minds about the solution. On the one hand, moving the shop back to his mothers house where it had originally been, before the untimely death of his father would save him money and he would not be constantly reminded of Susanna and her tragic fate. Not to mention that he would not have to watch Daniel Aurifaber prancing around like a cockerel, and that dough-faced young wife of his puffing herself up as the new mistress of the house.

On the other hand, moving the shop would cost much labour and money, too, for the help would have to be paid. And the customers had grown used to the current location of the shop, which was admittedly a better one than that of the Boneth house, where it had been hidden in one of the small, dark side rooms beside the fact that it was only two streets away. And remembering Susanna did have its good moments, too. Thus, for the time being, John chose to remain there, keeping the right to change his mind later.

When he crossed the narrow passage leading through between the two shops to the open yard behind, John saw Griffin coming from the stone well of said yard, carrying two large buckets of water. Now nearing fifteen of age, the boy was well-grown and comely enough, with the contented nature of most simpletons, and surprisingly good with his hands. He did not mind to work hard, and he would do everything for people who were friendly to him.

John had inherited Griffin from their late master, together with the shop, and both were well content with the arrangement. Griffin had held John second only to their master already, back when Baldwin Peche had still been alive, and welcomed him as the new master of the business. More so as John proved a kind master, one who valued Griffins gift for picking up practical skills almost without any effort, and was more than happy to teach him his craft. The boy might not possess the wit necessary to become a master craftsman of his own, but he more than earned his keep. And he was not as dim-witted as to be unable to pick up the most interesting gossip, so he was entertaining company, too. John liked him a lot.

They greeted each other heartily enough and made themselves ready to begin work, when Griffin, whose wandering interest was piqued by every unusual thing, spotted two small figures approaching from the road that led beyond the Castle to the town gate. The smaller one was clearly supporting the other, who seemed to be either sick or injured.

Who could they be? asked the daft boy in surprise. Why should they be on the road this early? The town gate could barely have been opened yet

John shrugged indifferently. He wanted to be at his work without further delay, but he knew Griffin would be mostly useless til his curiosity was satisfied. There were disadvantages in taking in a dimwit; but since the advantages outweighed by far, John was willing to cut the boy some slack.

Youll see when they are close enough, he said dismissively. In the meantime, do your chores. We have a lot of work and very little time to do it, as in two days time were having another saint whose martyrdom we must celebrate.

He regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. He might not be an overly religious man, but he had good, solid faith and respected the Church and its commandments. It was just so that sometimes such constant interruptions made it hard to have any decent work done in time.

Seeing that his young master was in one of his rare bad moods, Griffin wisely returned to his chores. They prepared the iron tablets for the new keys that needed to be cut for the provosts house, and for the coffins Martin Bellecote had ordered. After that, John intended finish his own strong-box, now that he actually needed one. He had worked on it in his spare time for almost a year by now, but there had always been something more urgent to do, for paying customers, and those had to come first. But even Johns eye wandered to the two small shapes darkening the otherwise empty road from time to time.

Those two were making painfully slow progress, the taller one leaning heavily upon the shorter one for support and lurching forward with visible difficulty. He John could not see his face under that russet hood, but the relative broadness of the shoulders spoke of a man, even though of a fairly slight one must have been either injured or beaten up badly. And now there could be no longer any doubt that the smaller one was a woman.

A skinny little woman, whose thin body was swollen with child.

Master John, said Griffin, who, too, was watching, quietly. That cottee the man is wearing, and the capuchon do they not look familiar to you? It seems to me as if young Master Aurifaber had worn these in his younger years.

Knowing that Griffins observations if not always the conclusions drawn from them were usually fairly accurate, John took a closer look at said pieces of clothing. The cottee was of good, dark-blue cloth, clearly made for some wealthy youth, albeit patched in quite a few places and wearing the dust and the stains of long travels. The caped hood of russet brown was in a worse shape, much-mended, but still good enough for some poor, homeless wretch.

You may be right, said John in surprise. I marvel how they got to this poor man.

Perchance given away in charity? guessed Griffin. Mistress Susanna was known to hand down the outgrown garb of her brother to those in need, even though old Dame Juliana would not.

John nodded. Perhaps so but it must have happened some time ago, for the cottee to get into such a battered shape. Well, since we have stopped working already, we can as well help them. The woman is obviously with child, and the man can barely stay on his feet. Let us bring them in and have them rest for a moment.

Griffin more than agreed with the generous suggestion, and thus they hurried out to the street to offer the weary travellers their support. Those had all but reached the burgage anyway, and accepted the offered help gratefully. They were too exhausted to even speak much, and as the morning light was still low and grey, John could not take a closer look at them before they were helped into his shop and seated on the bench where usually the customers would sit, waiting for small repairs to be finished.

Griffin brought over a small oil lamp, and the man finally pulled back the russet capuchon, wincing in pain as he raised his hand. The light fell at his gaunt, bruised, youthful face, smeared with blood, sweat and the dirt of the road. His lips were split and swollen, too, his nose probably broken, and as he laboriously breathed through a half-open moth, John could see that one of his front teeth was missing, as well. His eyes were of a dark, brilliant blue, like periwinkle flowers, yet hollow and evasive, and one of them swollen almost entirely shut. Yes, there could be no doubt that he had been beaten up badly, probably by several people.

John felt righteous anger rising in his breast. Why would anyone abuse such a waif of man, no matter what he might have done? By the sight of him, he had perchance stolen an egg from under a hen, or a hunk of bread, or something else to eat for himself or, more likely, for the pregnant little woman on his side. His wife perhaps?

Such a slight little body she was, the gown, once made for a taller and better-fed person, hanging on her, although it clearly had been altered to fit better, patched up and stained with the dust of the road and the blood of her man, all great dark eyes in a pale, grubby face and a tangle of dark hair. But those eyes were surprisingly radiant, as she finally looked up at their benefactors, and there was a hidden beauty in that thin face of hers, veiled by the grime of the road and the dried track of tears.

She looked up at them with desperate bravery and utter gratitude and that was when John finally recognized her.

Rannilt, is that you?

She nodded mutely and with a pale, thankful smile for being acknowledged and recognized. Rannilt she was indeed, once the overworked and unconsidered maidservant of the Aurifabers, who had laboured in the smoky kitchen and scrubbed the washing on her knees in the yard, her small yet strong hands sore from the lye. Rannilt, who had fallen in desperate love with the wandering minstrel falsely accused of robbing Master Aurifaber, and risked everything to help him and to be with him. Rannilt, who would not speak ill of her mistress, Susanna Aurifaber, even though she would have killed her.

Rannilt, who, in the end, had left the town with her rehabilitated minstrel, going forth, hopefully and happily, to a new life. To a life that had never promised aught else than hardness and insecurity for there were no grand hopes for a wandering juggler and singer, working at fairs and markets and small manors. And yet they had gone with a spring in their step, heartened by the certainty that in all weathers and at all seasons, at the very least, they would be together.

And now here she was again, by the sight of her weeks, perhaps only days from giving birth. Her husband for John recognized now the gangly young minstrel whom Daniel Aurifabers wedding crowd had nearly lynched for nothing a year and a half earlier beaten up again and perchance for no true reason. They had nothing with them, nothing at all. No scrip with food, no bundle of spare clothes, not even the worn bag in which the juggler had kept his wooden rings and balls. Not the rebec, that John knew from her mother, who knew it from Constance, Lady Beringars maid, who knew it from Lady Beringar herself Brother Anselm of the abbey had so miraculously repaired for him.

What happened to you? asked John, and his heart went out to them, seeing all their hopes shattered so brutally, and their sorry shape. Who did this to you? Why did you come back at all?

Robbed by brigands on the road, whispered Rannilt. Liliwin tried to protect me, and they nearly killed him for it. They took everything we had and left him for dead. I came back for him when they were gone, tried to help him, but I dont know how. So we came back we were not far from the town, and I hoped Mistress Margery would take me in again as a maid. We have to eat; without a patron, the winter would kill us both us and the child.

I am in no shape to work, Liliwin added bitterly, his voice coming hoarsely from a bruised throat, and without my rebec, I cannot even make music for people to dance

Griffin gave him a critical look and shook his head.

You are in no shape for aught else but lie down and have your hurts tended to, he looked at John. I heard that Brother Cadfael, from the abbey, tended to him the last time. Perhaps hed be willing to do so again.

John nodded. Go. Ask the good brother in my name to come and see after him again. I shall see to it that he is comfortable.

He can use my bed, offered Griffin, who had a generous heart. I wont need it during the day.

And off he was, hurrying towards the bridge with his long, purposeful strides.

With Rannilts help, John supported the battered young minstrel into a more or less upright position and led him to the pallet bed in the shops corner that was Griffins resting place. Liliwin, again, winced in pain when he was lowered onto the bed, and there was a slight rasping sound to his breathing that John did not like at all. He feared that the minstrels lungs, too, were hurt in some way, and hoped that Brother Cadfael would arrive, soon. Should a broken rib have punctured a lung, Liliwin would not last very long. And then Rannilt would be left alone, in a hostile, or, at the very best, uncaring world, penniless, and with an unborn child under her heart.

Which reminded John of something she had said earlier.

Do you truly believe that Mistress Margery would take you in? he asked doubtfully. What he had seen of Margery Aurifaber since she had become the unquestioned mistress of the house had not seemed very hopeful.

She was always kind to me, answered Rannilt naïvely.

For all the six or seven days you lived under the same roof, reminded her John, some of which you spent elsewhere as it is. I wouldnt put my hopes too high if I were you.

But Rannilt shook her head decidedly.

The day after her wedding, when Liliwin was kept in the abbey, she gave me some outgrown clothes of Master Daniel, she said, as if that would mean a thing. She pitied Liliwin for his poor clothing and wanted to help. Perhaps she would do so again

I very much doubt it, John hated to crush her child-like hopes, but she needed to face the truth if she was to survive. You will see that she has changed a great deal since she became the mistress of the house. You wont like the changes.

He certainly did not. Granted, Griffin was the one to suffer Margerys bossy manner directly, but even for John, dealing with her was becoming increasingly unpleasant. There was a reason why Daniel Aurifaber would go out most evenings, either to the ale-house, or to gamble with friends, or who knew for what other purpose. Not that he would be the best of husbands, but enduring Margerys endless laments about his lacking in this capacity and John had heard enough arguments between them, however involuntarily, to have an overall idea what it was like must have been tiring.

Rannilt, however, still seemed to believe in the goodness of peoples heart, despite her recent experiences.

If she sees that Im with child, she surely will have pity with me, she said hopefully.

John shook his head. That youre with child would only increase her bitterness, he answered. You see, she has just lost a babe a few weeks ago that you have been more fortunate with yours will not make her any more perceptive for your need. On the contrary. She would envy you bitterly for that which you have been granted and she has not.

Oh, but she will understand my need all the better, said Rannilt eagerly. You see, I lost my first babe, too, in the third month, and a horrible thing it was! She will understand that I would do anything to keep this one. Anything.

She might understand that, answered John slowly, but it wont make her look at you with less bitterness. After all, you are with child again, while she is not. And though Master Arnald examines her regularly and gives her draughts to ensure conception, she has not been so fortunate yet.

That made Rannilt think for a moment. She had known Master Aurifabers personal physician all her life; known how skilled and knowledgeable Master Arnald was, and how much the elder Aurifaber relied on him, even though Dame Juliana had trusted Brother Cadfael more and never allowed anyone else to treat her.

She is getting desperate about the matter, John continued quietly, for she knows she has to give her husband an heir if she wants to keep what little shards of attention he spares for him. Which is the other thing she would bitterly envy you for: that you could leave on your own volition, with a man of your own choosing... a man who has loved you at first sight, and who still loves you, I deem.

I do, with all my heart, Liliwin whispered.

John nodded. And that is it, in the end. Mistress Margery knows all too well that her husband only married her for her money, and she makes sure he remembers whom that money truly belongs. She keeps Daniel on the short leash; in truth, she holds the string of her purse tighter than even old Dame Juliana did. But she also knows that unless she gives the Aurifabers an heir her position in the household would not last long. I would not hope much from her, if I were you. Is there no-one else you could turn to for help?

Devastated, Rannilt wrung her hands. They were rough and chapped, even worse than they had been while she still had been labouring for the Aurifaber house. Life on the road must have been terribly hard on her, John thought.

I cannot think of anyone, she finally whispered, save the Lady Beringar, who was very good to me before we wed. But surely we cannot bother the lady of the deputy sheriff on our behalf!

Actually, Lord Beringar is the sheriff of Shropshire now, John said. Has been since Sheriff Prestcote was mortally wounded in the Battle of Lincoln last February. And yes, you could turn to her for help, were she in town right now, for she is well known for her open heart and generosity. But at it is, shes off to Maesbury, visiting some relatives of Lord Beringars, and not expected back for a while yet.

Rannilts thin shoulders sloped forward in such hopeless resignation it almost broke Johns heart. True, she was not his responsibility, but he simply could not leave her like that, bereft of what little hope she might have had. Not without at least trying to help.

He saw the light going on in the Aurifabers shop, on the opposite side of the passage. He knew Margery would come over, soon, to bring her husbands breakfast. Daniel preferred to eat in the shop, where he could avoid his fathers long-winded preaching about his wasting hard-earned money for things that were not truly needed.

Do you want me to speak with Mistress Margery on your behalf? he offered. He did not hope much from that, but with him, at least Margery would be forced to be civil. He was their paying tenant and a Guild Master of his own.

The tremulous smile Rannilt gave him as an answer was like the pale sunlight filtering through black storm clouds.

Time had not been kind to Margery Aurifaber ne Bele. When she had come to the goldsmiths house, as the newly wed wife of Daniel Aurifaber, she had been a small, round, homely girl of barely twenty years, with fresh, rosy colouring and a great, untidy mass of yellow hair, frightened and lost in an unfamiliar and disrupted household, in awe of Dame Juliana and bitterly envious of Susannas position as the unquestioned mistress of the house.

Now, a year and a half later, she was the unquestioned mistress of the house, having forced her unfaithful husband to stand up for her against his own sister. She had him in her hand, and they both knew that but it did not seem to have made her any happier in her marriage.

Small and round and homely she still was, but that rosy colouring was gone, having given room for a pallid, unhealthy colour. Her hair was now neatly pulled back from her face and tucked away under a matronly white wimple, and there were dark rings under her eyes, making them appear a pale, watery blue not her best features, even on a good day, and she did not look like someone whod had any good days lately.

Yet those round, pale eyes were still wary and attentive, seeing more than most would suspect, and her hand was still steady on the bowl as she sat porridge, bread and ale before her husband. Despite being considerably wealthier than their tenant, the locksmith, the Aurifabers preferred a simple fare on simple days. Or Walter Aurifaber did in any case, and it was said hed found a strong ally in his daughter-in-law. Daniel Aurifaber might have disagreed, but in the double grip of his father and his wife, there was precious little he could do about it.

Indeed, there was some proprietary pride in the manner with which Margery handled the Aurifaber property or her own husband, for that matter. Shed practically owned Daniel since that black day when shed helped him prove his innocence in the murdering of Baldwin Peche; and while she was a loyal and dutiful wife, she was also one who collected her debts. Hers was a privileged place in one of the wealthiest households of the entire town no wonder that she was worried about losing it due to her still childless state.

Those pale, observant eyes of hers turned to John Boneth with mild surprise. Unlike in Susannas times, who would often bring to the locksmiths leftovers that would not serve as another meal on the next day, contacts between the two households had become sparse in the previous year. John might be his own master now, but for the former Margery Bele, the wealthy wool-merchants girl, he was still not an equal.

They greeted each other civilly enough when meeting in the back yard by accident. They perchance even spoke a few words whenever John went into the Aurifaber house to pay his rent, but that was all that there was. For him, to come to Daniel Aurifabers workshop at such an early hour, and uninvited, at that, was fairly unusual indeed. Unusual enough to stir Margerys curiosity, even though she paid little to no attention to the locksmiths business as a rule.

That was quite a ruckus in your shop this morning, she commented lightly, but her eyes remained cool and suspicious. What happened? Have you been robbed?

John shook his head. Nay; all I had were well, still are a couple of unexpected guests. Unlucky ones in great need.

And like the sensible fellow that you are, you took them in, of course, Daniel Aurifaber said with barely veiled irony.

John shrugged. Somebody had to, he replied dryly.

Daniel Aurifaber looked up from his workbench with a smug expression on his handsome face.

You should not let strangers into the house so easily, he said, laying his tools to the side and reaching for his breakfast with a considerable lack of appreciation. They might rob you when you or that daft boy of yours arent looking.

Mayhap so, replied John easily. But these are no strangers, not fully so. After all, Rannilt used to live in this very house all her life. Small wonder she would return here when in need. Tis the only home she has ever known.

The young goldsmith and his wife exchanged looks of surprise.

Rannilt? Daniel finally asked. She has come back? Has that miserable wretch of a husband she left with thrown her over, after all? I always knew he was no good for anything.

And as always, you were very wrong, answered John coldly. He hasnt thrown her over; just as he didnt strike and rob your father on your wedding dinner for which you would have been willing to kill him, you and your drunken friends. Nay, he stayed true to his wife, and nearly got himself killed to protect her from the brigands of the road. He is now lying in my shop, badly injured, waiting for Brother Cadfael to tend to his hurts.

Shrewsbury truly seems to bring bad luck for that poor man, said Margery with cool, detached pity. But what does their harsh fate have to do with us? She chose to leave with him, and we let her go and that at a time when in die need of a maidservant, too. We owe her nothing.

That is true, admitted John. And yet she remembered you kindness towards them, Mistress, and came back in the hope that you would have mercy with her again. Her husband has lost his tools and his instrument when attacked, and they have no patron for the winter. Without a place to stay, they will both die. He still may, roughed up as he is, and as she is with child

Margery Aurifabers expression hardened at once, and John berated himself for not having chosen his words more carefully. Alas, while most people would agree that he was a good, decent man, even he had to admit that subtlety was not his forte. He had not planned to blurt out the truth about Rannilts pregnant state like that, but as often before, hed failed to find the right moment to present it.

Well, not it was out in the open, and he had to make the best of it. Unfortunately for Rannilt, there was very little that could be done. As he had foreseen, the thought about her being with child did naught to ease Mistress Aurifabers feelings towards her.

Our house is not some rich manor where a wandering conjuror could sit out the winter, said Margery coldly. Not that any lord would take him in now that he could not even entertain his patron. And what use would a maidservant be for the household when she might be giving birth any time? Besides we dont need a maidservant. We already have one and one who can value her good fortune and wont leave with the first vagabond who might catch her eye.

John knew the Aurifabers new maidservant, of course, had seen her often enough from the window of his shop. A penniless widow from the Foregate she was, well beyond her first youth, soundly frightened into obedience by her violent husband, whod used to beat her for the slightest failing and used to labouring from dawn till dusk. She would never dare to stand up for herself in the face of her mistress.

The brothers of her late husband had driven her out of their little cottage, and she was eternally grateful to the Aurifabers indeed, for having a roof above her head and a frugal meal each day. She was wiry and durable and a hard worker; twas true that Margery would not need another maidservant as long as she had her. Until she worked her into an early grave, that is.

And yet charity is approved of in Heaven, said John quietly. Or so you say often yourself, Mistress.

That I do, allowed Margery, and I am charitable enough, I think, if I may say so myself. But this is the house of a respected master craftsman, not some shelter for the homeless vagabond of the road. There are places that serve such purpose, though; and since the monks seem to be so fond of Rannilts juggler, Im certain they will allow them to sit out the winter in St. Giles.

Such a cold statement shook even Daniel Aurifaber to the bone, albeit he wasnt the most sensitive soul in town.

But St. Giles is no place to have a child! he protested. Tis a refuge for the crippled, the lepers, the beggars and the infirm all sorts of vagabonds come there to find shelter and help for their sores.

Which makes it exactly the right place for two people who live on the road, retorted Margery coldly. They have no place in a decent burghers house, and I would be grateful, Master Boneth, if you didnt bother me with this unfortunate matter again.

John gave her a long, piercing look.

If charity is approved of in Heaven, he said quietly, I wonder how such coldness of heart would be judged before Our Lords throne. For tis also said that we reap that which weve sown I wish for you, Mistress, that your harvest would be a blessed one even though I do have my doubts about it now.

With that, he turned on his heals and left the Aurifabers alone. There was naught to hope from them for Rannilt and her unfortunate husband just as he had foreseen.

Rannilt was devastated by such bad news, of course. Despite Johns warnings, she had truly believed that Mistress Aurifaber would have mercy with them, after all, and now that her last hope had been shattered, she was despairing. Liliwin, although more used to rejections he had barely known aught else all his life was close to despairing, too.

Tis not myself Im worried for, he whispered. If it were only me, Id gladly go to St. Giles. The brothers who serve there are kind and generous, I heard. But what will become of Rannilt? She cannot raise our child there, among the lepers, the disfigured when I die, what will become of her?

That he said when, not if, clearly showed that hed given up hope already. But John was not ready to give up on them just yet.

Do not lose all hope, the two of you, he chastised them. You still have friends in this town; I know Im not the only one who cares. First we must see that you are cleaned up and your injuries are treated, he added, looking at Liliwin. Hopefully, Brother Cadfael is already on his way.

What good will that do to me to us? asked Liliwin. They would never allow Rannilt to be on my side in their Infirmary

Nor is there need for that, answered John firmly. You can both stay here for the time being. The room in which Master Peche used to live is mostly empty; although I pay for it, I hardly ever use it. You can stay there until you get better. After that, we shall see what might be done for you.

To so much kindness Rannilt couldnt even find the right answer. For a moment, John was afraid shed want to kiss his hand in gratitude; fortunately, her natural shyness prevented her from making such exuberant gestures. There was truly no need for something like that.

Im only doing what all decent people would do, he said, summarily excluding the Aurifabers from the circle of decent people with that statement, without even realizing it. I cannot let you have your child somewhere on the roadside or in some stable, as Our Lady was forced to give birth to the Saviour. Be at peace and rest, you both need it badly. I must get some of my work done in the meantime, but if you need anything, be not afraid to ask.

Rannilt nodded wordlessly, her dark eyes enormous in her thin face and shining with unshed tears. She made herself as comfortable as she could at her husbands bedside, holding Liliwins limp hand, her chapped lips moving in mute prayer.

John returned to his workbench. There was not much he could do, with these two underfoot and Griffin gone to the abbey to fetch Brother Cadfael. This was going to be another long night, working away at the dim light of the oil lamp, to make up for all the lost time, he thought with a suppressed sigh. His mother, always concerned about his well-being, would not be happy.

Perchance the idea of having to feed another two hungry mouths would not appeal to her, either. Not that she would be a greedy person she was the one John had learned how to be generous from, after all but she had a very practical mind. Taking in these two would seem unreasonable to her, while there was St Giles to shelter such people and from the practical point of view, she would even be right. Two more people, and a newborn, soon, would put a strain on their household. They were doing better than they had in the previous years, but they were still far from being wealthy.

And yet John knew he could not have acted differently. Setting out these wounded birds would be cruel, and while he was certainly no saint, deliberate cruelty was not part of his nature. Neither was it part of his mothers nature. She would grumble and would berate him about the matter, but eventually, shed come around, John knew that. In the end, she could never resist pampering those who needed to be pampered.

And who knew, perhaps she would take a liking to Rannilt and take her in as a maidservant for good. They did not truly need one, but as the business was going well enough, they could afford to have one. His mother would do well with less work to do all on her own, and Rannilts immediate future would be secured.

Of course, that still left open the question what to do with Liliwin, should he recover at all. But John decided to worry about that later. Right now, he had a great deal of work to do, and not nearly enough time to get it done.