The Summer of The Danes.

Ellis Peters.


Chapter One.

THE EXTRAORDINARY events of that summer of 1144 may properly be said to have begun the previous year, in a tangle of threads both ecclesiastical and secular, a net in which any number of diverse people became enmeshed, clerics, from the archbishop down to Bishop Roger de Clinton’s lowliest deacon, and the laity from the princes of North Wales down to the humblest cottager in the trefs of Arfon. And among the commonalty thus entrammelled, more to the point, an elderly Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.

Brother Cadfael had approached that April in a mood of slightly restless hopefulness, as was usual with him when the birds were nesting, and the meadow flowers just beginning to thrust their buds up through the new grass, and the sun to rise a little higher in the sky every noon. True, there were troubles in the world, as there always had been. The vexed affairs of England, torn in two by two cousins contending for the throne, had still no visible hope of a solution. King Stephen still held his own in the south and most of the east; the Empress Maud, thanks to her loyal half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was securely established in the southwest and maintained her own court unmolested in Devizes. But for some months now there had been very little fighting between them, whether from exhaustion or policy, and a strange calm had settled over the country, almost peace. In the Fens the raging outlaw Geoffrey de Mandeville, every man’s enemy, was still at liberty, but a liberty constricted by the king’s new encircling fortresses, and increasingly vulnerable. All in all, there was room for some cautious optimism, and the very freshness and lustre of the spring forbade despondency, even had despondency been among Cadfael’s propensities.

So he came to chapter, on this particular day at the end of April, in the most serene and acquiescent of spirits, full of mild good intentions towards all men, and content that things should continue as bland and uneventful through the summer and into the autumn. He certainly had no premonition of any immediate change in this idyllic condition, much less of the agency by which it was to come.

As though compelled, half fearfully and half gratefully, to the same precarious but welcome quietude, the business at chapter that day was modest and aroused no dispute, there was no one in default, not even a small sin among the novices for Brother Jerome to deplore, and the schoolboys, intoxicated with the spring and the sunshine, seemed to be behaving like the angels they certainly were not. Even the chapter of the Rule, read in the flat, deprecating tones of Brother Francis, was the 34th, gently explaining that the doctrine of equal shares for all could not always be maintained, since the needs of one might exceed the needs of another, and he who received more accordingly must not preen himself on being supplied beyond his brothers, and he that received less but enough must not grudge the extra bestowed on his brothers. And above all, no grumbling, no envy. Everything was placid, conciliatory, moderate. Perhaps, even, a shade on the dull side?

It is a blessed thing, on the whole, to live in slightly dull times, especially after disorder, siege and bitter contention. But there was still a morsel somewhere in Cadfael that itched if the hush continued too long. A little excitement, after all, need not be mischief, and does sound a pleasant counterpoint to the constant order, however much that may be loved and however faithfully served.

They were at the end of routine business, and Cadfael’s attention had wandered away from the details of the cellarer’s accounts, since he himself had no function as an obedientiary, and was content to leave such matters to those who had. Abbot Radulfus was about to close the chapter, with a sweeping glance around him to make sure that no one else was brooding over some demur or reservation, when the lay porter who served at the gatehouse during service or chapter put his head in at the door, in a manner which suggested he had been waiting for this very moment, just out of sight.

“Father Abbot, there is a guest here from Lichfield. Bishop de Clinton has sent him on an errand into Wales, and he asks lodging here for a night or two.”

Anyone of less importance, thought Cadfael, and he would have let it wait until we all emerged, but if the bishop is involved it may well be serious business, and require official consideration before we disperse. He had good memories of Roger de Clinton, a man of decision and solid good sense, with an eye for the genuine and the bogus in other men, and a short way with problems of doctrine. By the spark in the abbot’s eye, though his face remained impassive, Radulfus also recalled the bishop’s last visit with appreciation.

“The bishop’s envoy is very welcome,” he said, “and may lodge here for as long as he wishes. Has he some immediate request of us, before I close this chapter?”.

“Father, he would like to make his reverence to you at once, and let you know what his errand is. At your will whether it should be here or in private.”

“Let him come in,” said Radulfus.

The porter vanished, and the small, discreet buzz of curiosity and speculation that went round the chapterhouse like a ripple on a pond ebbed into anticipatory silence as the bishop’s envoy came in and stood among them.

A little man, of slender bones and lean but wiry flesh, diminutive as a sixteen-year-old boy, and looking very much like one, until discerning attention discovered the quality and maturity of the oval, beardless face. A Benedictine like these his brothers, tonsured and habited, he stood erect in the dignity of his office and the humility and simplicity of his nature, as fragile as a child and as durable as a tree. His straw-coloured ring of cropped hair had an unruly spikiness, recalling the child. His grey eyes, formidably direct and clear, confirmed the man.

A small miracle! Cadfael found himself suddenly presented with a gift he had often longed for in the past few years, by its very suddenness and improbability surely miraculous. Roger de Clinton had chosen as his accredited envoy into Wales not some portly canon of imposing presence, from the inner hierarchy of his extensive see, but the youngest and humblest deacon in his household, Brother Mark, sometime of Shrewsbury abbey, and assistant for two fondly remembered years among the herbs and medicines of Cadfael’s workshop.

Brother Mark made a deep reverence to the abbot, dipping his ebullient tonsure with a solemnity which still retained, until he lifted those clear eyes again, the slight echo and charm of absurdity which had always clung about the mute waif Cadfael first recalled. When he stood erect he was again the ambassador; he would always be both man and child from this time forth, until the day when he became priest, which was his passionate desire. And that could not be for some years yet, he was not old enough to be accepted.

“My lord,” he said, “I am sent by my bishop on an errand of goodwill into Wales. He prays you receive and house me for a night or two among you.”

“My son,” said the abbot, smiling, “you need here no credentials but your presence. Did you think we could

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