Title: The Gypsy's Curse

Based on the books by Ellis Peters and the TV show.

Chapter One

The warm July air clung to everyone in Shrewsbury as they went about their daily business. There was a slight breeze, but not enough to cool everyone down. The earth was dry and the grass had turned a golden brown color. It was as normal a day as anyone had seen and it would have remained normal if not for the gypsy family coming into the village. Many of the folks stopped in their tracks and gazed at the passing cart with hate. They hoped the family was just passing by as they did not want their kind around.

There was a man and a woman in the front, driving the team of horses. The man, slightly balding with curly black hair, had an indifferent stare and he looked straight ahead, not giving anyone a passing glance. The woman beside him kept scanning the villagers nervously and she had some of her skirt bunched into her fist. She had an odd habit of twitching her left shoulder and did not look quite right in the head. Pots and pans, hanging from the cart, clanged together creating a loud noise as they were jostled by the movement of the dark bays leading it. Inside the cart were many fine trinkets and among them, peering out, was a young man and girl.

By the look of them any could tell that they were brother and sister. The young man was handsome and had blond curly hair. The girl's hair was just as blond, but straighter. She too was pretty, though not yet in full bloom. If one bothered to look closely, and many of the villagers did, there was one obvious difference in their appearance. The girl, hardly fourteen, smiled at the villagers and waved broadly. She looked extremely happy and did not seem to be bothered by the rude stares of the townspeople. The young man merely scowled back at them as if daring them to do something.

Murmurs could be heard among the people. "Filthy scum."

"Thieves! Now we shall have to watch our valuables more closely."

"Mark my words, there will be a string of crimes around here if they stay."

"We should run them out of town."

The gypsy man stopped the cart and hopped down. Helping his wife step off the cart he hissed quietly in the back, "Conan, I expect you to behave here."

Conan gave him a sullen look. "Yes Father." The young man helped his sister down and would have taken off to look at some of the shops to see if he could find a shoemaker to repair his worn out shoes, but his father grabbed him from behind. He had a fistful of his shirt and some of his skin. "I mean it Conan," Omar whispered. "I don't want anything to happen that will make us leave in the dead of night."

Conan jerked away and stalked off down the road. The villagers parted, letting him pass in peace. Omar moved closer and began bringing out his wares to sell to the villagers. He was very much aware that it would be a tough crowd, but he hoped that they would be a little more receptive than the last village they passed because business was a bit slow.

He was just talking to a nice elderly woman about one of his pots when a middle aged man shouldered his way through the crowd, flanked by two men. "I'm Sheriff Beringer. We don't want any trouble here."

"I don't want any trouble either," Omar answered evenly. "I'm an honest trader. We'll be out of here after trading some of our wares."

The Sheriff glanced at Omar and let his eyes roam the cart before nodding stiffly. "See that you stay out of trouble. We have laws here and I expect you to live by them.

"Yes sir," Omar said respectively. After giving Omar one finally departing glance he moved back the way he came toward the Abby.

"I have made more poppy juice as you have asked, Brother Cadfael," Brother Oswin had finished pouring it in a bottle and held it out for the monk.

"Thank you, Oswin. Now, um, could you get started—" Crash! Cadfael stared at the broken bottle on his work table. The poppy juice was already spreading toward his various other herbs. "Hurry Oswin, clean it up!" Cadfael grabbed some rags and began mopping up the mess.

Oswin, in his haste to get more rags, knocked over some sage and it fell into the pot of Coltsfoot. "Oh, Brother Cadfael! I'm sorry!"

"Never mind that," Cadfael snapped irritably. "Just stand right there and don't move." He tried to save the sage, but most of it had already melted into the pot. Now he would have to start anew. He cleaned up the rest of the poppy juice spill and sighed heavily through his nose.

When he turned to face Oswin he almost laughed. The younger man looked scared and he stood frozen in place. He almost seemed to not be breathing. Cadfael couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Yes, Oswin was clumsy but at least he meant well. "Make the poppy juice again and try not to break anything this time."

"Yes, Brother Cadfael." Oswin moved forward, being very careful where he put his large hands. Cadfael heard the shuffle of feet behind him and turned to look at the door. His friend, Hugh Beringer stood in the doorway, his hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword.

"Ah Hugh! Come in."

Hugh moved closer and surveyed their work. He saw Brother Oswin with his usual wide eyes and stooped shoulders toiling at his current task. He did not miss the fact that Oswin kept glancing at Cadfael with an almost fearful contrite look. A smile tugged at his lips that he did not permit to pass. Apparently he had just missed another one of Oswin's accidents. He would never admit it to Cadfael, but he found it extremely amusing to witness such occasions.

"What can I do for you, Hugh?" Cadfael asked.

"I want you to keep an eye on things for me."

"What kind of things?"

"A gypsy family has come to Shrewsbury and are selling their wares to the villagers. You know that wherever gypsies go, trouble follows."

"Well, I wouldn't say that," Cadfael said. "Not all gypsies are thieves and vagabonds. Some make an honest living. It sounds like this family is certainly trying to."

"I warned them to behave, but I want to make sure they do."

Cadfael searched Hugh's face closely. "Are you saying you want me to prevent a crime before it happens?" he laughed. "That would be impossible and there is always the possibility that nothing will happen."

"Something always happens when they are around."

"That's your prejudice talking."

"Is it?"

"Well, you can't really believe that all gypsies are bad."

"I can and I do," Hugh informed him coldly. "Trouble is brewing. So, don't be surprised if I have need of you to solve a crime." Hugh left, leaving the two brothers alone once more.

"Brother Cadfael," Oswin said timidly. "Do you really think gypsies aren't all bad? Brother Jerome certainly thinks so." Cadfael did not say aloud what he thought of Jerome's way of thinking.

"I imagine there are some gypsies who steal and murder, but not all. I have met many gypsies in my life time and most of them are honest traders who make a living going from village to village to sell their supplies."

"How do you know these gypsies won't steal while they are in Shrewsbury?"

Cadfael glanced at him in surprise. "I don't know that they won't steal, but I do know we shouldn't suspect them of a crime that hasn't even happened."

"But if gypsies have a reputation for stealing shouldn't we keep a close watch on them?"

Cadfael sighed and looked up from stirring the Coltsfoot. "No, Oswin, we shouldn't suspect them of stealing or murdering, because they are people like us. We should treat them as such. Gypsies aren't the only ones who steal. Does that mean we should suspect everyone in Shrewsbury of being up to no good?"

"We might have to," Oswin said earnestly. "Since I've arrived there has been a string of murders." Cadfael chuckled.

"I suppose that means we should suspect you then, eh?" Cadfael pretended to grow stern. "After all, as you said since you arrived there have been several murders." At first Oswin didn't seem to understand what he was implicating and frowned in thought. Then his eyes widened and he sputtered incoherently.

"Brother Cadfael! I would never—"

Cadfael threw back his head and laughed.

"What do you want gypsy?" Horace, the Shoemaker glowered at Conan.

The young man bristled at his tone, but struggled to keep control of his tongue. He hated it when everyone looked down on him for being a gypsy. He used to correct them and say he was a trader. They never listened.

"My shoes have worn thin," he took one off to show him the sole. Three large holes decorated the bottom and the Shoemaker saw bits of paper through the holes to keep the pebbles out. "I have money," Conan hurried to say before the man could tell him he didn't serve their kind. "I'm willing to pay." He produced five shillings. "Will this suffice?" Conan knew that new shoes cost less than this, but one thing he learned that no matter the race, money talks.

Horace examined the coins and bit them to test if they were real. "Yes, I believe this will be enough. Let me measure your feet. I'll have the shoes done tomorrow."

Conan nodded. He let the Shoemaker measure his feet and went on his way to the square. Omar, his father, had a small crowd gathered around him. They listened with rapt attention. That was a gift Omar had. No matter his appearance, he could convince a monk to buy what they considered worldly goods. Conan was not so good with relating to people. Every time he tried he end up fighting them.

Movement out of the corner of his eye caught Conan's attention. He turned his head. The door to the Abbey opened and out stepped two pious looking monks. One was tall and old with many wrinkles on his face. His hair was grayish white and had very little of it. He strode forward with grace and dignity that could only mark him as an Englishman or a Norman. The other was shorter and younger. His nose was stuck so high in the air, Conan thought it was a miracle that he didn't drown when it rained. His hair was curly and as they walked closer, he could see the tonsure on the crown of his head.

The younger monk graced him with a look of distained, before shoving his way to the front of the assembly. "St. Peter's Fair has been over for a fortnight," he said in a loud voice. "Gypsies are not allowed to sell their wares until then."

"We're honest traders, Brother," Omar answered respectfully. "I don't know anything about a St. Peter's Fair. We make our living going from village to village."

"Non the less, you are not permitted to sell in front of the Abbey. Take your goods away from here toward St. Giles. If the townspeople wish to trade with you, then they may do so there," the older monk said. Both of them turned and walked away back to the Abbey. Omar followed them.

"May I speak with the Abbot of this matter?"

Conan found it amusing to watch the old monk sputter. "Abbot Radulfus is in prayer right now."

"Then I will wait for him to finish," Omar said calmly. Both monks huffed, but said no more. Omar followed them into the Abbey. Leaving Conan to watch over his sister and mother. Conan packed the pots and pans away since they couldn't sell anything until Omar talked with the Abbot. He hated them. All priests and monks were the same. He already knew that this Abbot Radulfus would forbid them from selling inside Shrewsbury. Conan didn't know why his father even bothered asking for an audience.

His sister touched his arm lightly. "Smile, Conan," she said. "You'll scare our potential customers away."

Conan scowled and brushed Annabel's hand away. Though not roughly. "You are a dreamer like Father. We will be driven from this town like we were the last one."

Annabel laughed lightly. "We weren't driven away, brother. Father left after you got in another fight. He didn't want—" She stopped, unwilling to continue. Conan nodded grimly. He knew what she was about to say.

"I'm innocent Annabel, you know that."

Annabel covered Conan's hand with her own. "I believe you, but you have to see it from our father's view."

"I know all too well Father's views of me."

"He loves you, Conan." Conan did not say anything in reply. He left Annabel standing by the cart to check on his mother, who had wandered off to watch the blacksmith working.

Abbot Radulfus was not in prayer, but writing a letter to a fellow Abbot in Canterbury. He had a monk that needed quiet meditation and the Abbey in Shrewsbury sound like the perfect place for him. Abbot Radulfus was replying to the Abbot's previous message to tell him they would welcome the new brother with open arms. He wondered why the monk needed to be in a small village, but thought it impolite to ask for details. He would learn soon enough.

A knock resounded at the door. Before he could bade the person to enter, the door opened and the first face he saw was that of a disgruntled Prior Robert. His clerk and alley in everything, Brother Jerome soon entered after him. Abbot Radulfus half expected Brother Cadfael to come in last and for the other two monks to complain about something else the adventurous brother had done. Instead, a middle aged man came in after them and stood with his cap in his hands. The man had a bushy beard and a mop of receding dark curly hair. He nodded respectfully at the Abbot, but carried his head with a proud air. At first glance Abbot Radulfus decided he liked the man. He looked like the honest sort.

"Brother Prior, Brother Jerome," he greeted the often troublesome monks with a nod. To the man he said, "I am Abbot Radulfus."

"I am Omar. I have come to obtain your permission to trade my wares in Shrewsbury for a few days."

"He's a gypsy!" Brother Jerome spat out. "We can not allow gypsies to sell in Shrewsbury. We have told him he could sell near St. Giles."

"Begging your pardon, Father Abbot for intruding, I am an honest trader. My mother was a gypsy, but my father was a Welsh soldier from the Crusades."

"A gypsy and a bastard son," Prior Robert said with finality. The look of disgust plain on features.

Abbot Radulfus did his best not to sigh out loud. He really was not in the mood to settle a dispute. He leaned forward and stared at Omar. He was usually a good judge of character and he was sure he could trust the trader. "I will give you permission to sell in Shrewsbury for two days. After that, I expect you to be on your way."

"Father Abbot—" Prior Robert started to protest. Abbot Radulfus raised his hand to silence him.

"Two days," he said firmly.

"Thank you Father Abbot." Omar inclined his head and hurried out of the room before the monk could change his mind.

"Abbot Radulfus," Prior Robert said. "It is against the law for gypsies to sell in Shrewsbury except on St. Peter's Fair."

"He said he wasn't a gypsy. He claims to be a trader."

"His mother was a gypsy!"

"And his father a Welsh soldier in the Crusades," he replied. "I have been informed by Brother Cadfael that there are no bastards in Wales. Because his father was Welsh that is what he is and I will have no further discussion about this." He picked up his quill pen again and dipped it in the ink. Prior Robert and Brother Jerome looked at each other, and then departed.

Omar collected his family and continued selling his wares. He had had a good feeling about Abbot Radulfus the moment he laid eyes on him. The monk had an honest and strangely curious look about him. He had also looked like he was extremely busy and wanted to end the confrontation quickly, but Omar wasn't going to complain. He cast a glance at his unruly son as he slumped against the cart. If only he could make sure Conan behaved, then the Abbot would have no reason to regret allowing them to stay.

Conan caught his father's meaningful look and glared back at him. He pushed off the cart and murmured to his sister that he was going to explore and ran off toward the edge of town and to St. Giles. He passed a tree with low hanging branches and snapped off one of them, peeling the bark as he walked. He had long gave up trying to make his father like him and he really did try staying out of trouble, but it always followed him like a plague.

The road forked before him and he stopped to consider where he would go next. A crude wooden sign with badly painted letters told him that if he went to the right he would go to St. Giles Leper Hospital. On the left was the Abbey Mill.

Not wishing to talk to any lepers, Conan chose to go left and followed the long narrow river toward the mill. Once the branch he carried was stripped of its bark, he ran his slim fingers around the smooth wood. He wished he hadn't lost his carving knife at the last village as his fingers felt the urge to carve. He was quite good at his hands even if he did say so himself.

Conan did not pay much attention to his surroundings. He knew at some point he had passed the mill and when he glanced up at the sky noticing how dark it was getting, he thought he better head back as he didn't know if Shrewsbury had a curfew.

When he came to the fork in the road it was too dark to see the signs and he couldn't remember which way he had come from. As he stood there wishing the moon would come out from behind the clouds he suddenly realized he was not alone. "Who's there?" he asked struggling to keep his voice calm.

"Who's there?" came the sniggering reply. Conan found himself surrounded by two big boys. They carried lanterns and the light cast off their faces giving them an eerie ghost like appearance.

"Very stupid of the gypsy boy to wander on his own," sneered the tallest and obviously the leader of the two.

"Very," the other agreed and Conan realized he was the one who had mocked him.

"I suppose its our solemn duty to teach him a lesson. What do you think, Alan?" the tall one asked.

"Definitly," Alan agreed eagerly. He pushed Conan who immediately retaliated and punched the boy in the face. He held his nose and regarded him with wild angry eyes. "You're going to pay for that," he hissed.

Alan moved forward and ducked as Conan swung his arm again and successfully trapped his arms behind his back. The other boy punched him hard in the stomach knocking the wind out of him. The next blow landed on his face and Conan screamed at them in rage and then his mouth was muffled by Alan's hand.

Cadfael was walking back to the Abbey at a hurried pace. It was well past midnight and the herbs he had brewed for the lepers at St. Giles had taken longer to distribute than he thought. He could imagine Prior Robert or his clerk, Jerome waiting impatiently by the door to let him in and remind him what time it was. He grimaced at the thought and picked up his pace.

Suddenly his keen ears detected the sound of scuffling and a scream pierced the air that was quickly muffled. Cadfael ran, hoping what ever poor soul was being tortured did not meet their demise before he could get there.

The scene he witnessed was enough to make his Welsh blood boil in wrath. He instantly recognized Alan and Gawain, the sons of the local blacksmith, beating on a young man that he did not know, but surmised he was one of the traders who had come to the village.

Cadfael rushed up to them and pushed Gawain away. "Stop!" he yelled angrily. The brothers froze as they recognized the monk, then hastily took off. Cadfael knelt and examined the boy, observing that he appeared to be unconscious. He had several dark bruises already forming on his face and arms. One of his eyes was swollen shut and blood coated his lips and chin.

Cadfael slipped off the satchel he carried and rummaged though it looking for the right supplies to clean the boy up. He found a clean cloth and some water and set about wiping the blood off his face so he could assess the damage. Next he took out an herb that would help with the swelling and pain.

The boy stirred and then in a panic jerked, shoving the monk away. "Its all right," Cadfael said soothingly. "I am cleaning your wounds."

"I don't need your help!" the boy spat out. "I don't need anyone's help." Some blood from a cut above his right eye trickled down his cheek.

"At least let me take care of that," Cadfael indicated the cut.

"No!" The word exploded from the gypsy's mouth. Almost to no one in particular he added, "They are going to pay for what they did." With that he turned on his heels and ran toward Shrewsbury.

Cadfael stood awkwardly, as his legs had started to fall asleep from kneeling on them, to stare after the boy with a worried and puzzled frown.