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Authors: Ellis Peters

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One Corpse Too Many

BOOK: One Corpse Too Many
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One Corpse

Too Many

The Second Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury

Ellis Peters



Chapter One


BROTHER CADFAEL WAS WORKING IN THE SMALL KITCHEN GARDEN by the abbot’s fishponds when the boy was first brought to him. It was hot August noon, and if he had had his proper quota of helpers they would all have been snoring in the shade at this hour, instead of sweating in the sun; but one of his regular assistants, not yet out of his novitiate, had thought better of the monastic vocation and taken himself off to join his elder brother in arms on King Stephen’s side, in the civil war for the crown of England, and the other had taken fright at the approach of the royal army because his family were of the Empress Maud’s faction, and their manor in Cheshire seemed a far safer place to be than Shrewsbury under siege. Cadfael was left to do everything alone, but he had in his time laboured under far hotter suns than this, and was doggedly determined not to let his domain run wild, whether the outside world fell into chaos or no.

In this early summer of 1138 the fratricidal strife, hitherto somewhat desultory, was already two years old, but never before had it approached Shrewsbury so closely. Now its threat hung over castle and town like the shadow of death. But for all that, Brother Cadfael’s mind was firmly upon life and growth, rather than destruction and war, and certainly he had no suspicion that another manner of killing, simple murder, furtive and unlicensed even in these anarchic times, was soon to disrupt the calm of his chosen life.

August should not, in normal circumstances, have been one of his busiest times in the gardens, but there was more than enough for one man to do properly, and the only relief they had to offer him was Brother Athanasius, who was deaf, half-senile, and not to be relied upon to know a useful herb from a weed, and the offer had been firmly declined. Better by far to manage alone. There was a bed to be prepared for planting out late cabbages for succession, and fresh seed to be sown for the kind that can weather the winter, as well as pease to be gathered, and the dead, dried haulms of the early crop to be cleared away for fodder and litter. And in his wooden work-shed in the herbarium, his own particular pride, he had half a dozen preparations working in glass vessels and mortars on the shelves, all of them needing attention at least once a day, besides the herb wines that bubbled busily on their own at this stage. It was high harvest time among the herbs, and all the medicines for the winter demanding his care.

However, he was not the man to let any part of his kingdom slip out of his control, however wastefully the royal cousins Stephen and Maud contended for the throne of England outside the abbey walls. If he lifted his head from digging compost into the cabbage bed he could see the sluggish plumes of smoke hanging over the abbey roofs and the town and castle beyond, and smell the acrid residue of yesterday’s fires. That shadow and stink had hung like a pall over Shrewsbury for almost a month, while King Stephen stamped and raged in his camp beyond the Castle Foregate, the one dry-foot way into the town unless he could get possession of the bridges, and William FitzAlan within the fortress held on grimly, keeping an anxious eye on his dwindling supplies, and left the thundering of defiance to his incorrigible uncle, Arnulf of Hesdin, who had never learned to temper valour with discretion. The townspeople kept their heads low, locked their doors, shuttered their shops, or, if they could, made off westwards into Wales, to old, friendly enemies less to be feared than Stephen. It suited the Welsh very well that Englishmen should fear Englishmen—if either Maud or Stephen could be regarded as English!—and let Wales alone, and they would not grudge a helping hand to the fleeing casualties, provided the war went on merrily.

Cadfael straightened his back and mopped the sweat from a tonsured scalp burned to the colour of a ripe hazel-nut; and there was Brother Oswald the almoner bustling along the path towards him, with skirts flapping, and propelling before him by the shoulder a boy of about sixteen, in the coarse brown cotte and short summer hose of the countryside, barelegged but very decently shod in leather, and altogether looking carefully scrubbed and neat for a special occasion. The boy went where he was directed, and kept his eyes lowered with nervous meekness. Another family taking care to put its children out of reach of being pressed for either side, thought Cadfael, and small blame to them.

“Brother Cadfael, I think you have need of a helper, and here is a youngster who says he’s not afraid of hard work. A good woman of the town has brought him in to the porter, and asked that he be taken and taught as a lay servant. Her nephew from Hencot, she says, and his parents dead. There’s a year’s endowment with him. Prior Robert has given leave to take him, and there’s room in the boys’ dortoir. He’ll attend school with the novices, but he’ll not take vows unless he himself comes to wish it. What do you say, will you have him?”

Cadfael looked the boy over with interest, but said yes without hesitation, glad enough to be offered someone young, able-bodied and willing. The lad was slenderly built, but vigorous and firm on his feet, and moved with a spring. He looked up warily from under a cropped tangle of brown curls, and his eyes were long-lashed and darkly blue, very shrewd and bright. He was behaving himself meekly and decorously, but he did not look intimidated.

“Very heartily I’ll have you,” said Cadfael, “if you’ll take to this outdoor work with me. And what’s your name, boy?”

“Godric, sir,” said the young thing, in a small, gruff voice, appraising Cadfael just as earnestly as he was being appraised.

“Good, then, Godric, you and I will get on well enough. And first, if you will, walk around the gardens here with me and see what we have in hand, and get used to being within these walls. Strange enough I daresay you’ll find it, but safer than in the town yonder, which I make no doubt is why your good aunt brought you here.”

The blue, bright eyes flashed him one glance and were veiled again.

“See you come to Vespers with Brother Cadfael,” the almoner instructed, “and Brother Paul, the master of the novices, will show you your bed, and tell you your duties after supper. Pay attention to what Brother Cadfael tells you, and be obedient to him as you should.”

“Yes, sir,” said the boy virtuously. Under the meek accents a small bubble of laughter seemed to be trying, though vainly, to burst. When Brother Oswald hurried away, the blue eyes watched him out of sight, and then turned their intent gaze upon Cadfael. A demure, oval face, with a wide, firm mouth shaped properly for laughter, but quick to revert to a very sombre gravity. Even for those meant to be light-hearted, these were grave times.

“Come, see what manner of labour you’re taking on yourself,” said Cadfael cheerfully, and downed his spade to take his new. boy round the enclosed garden, showing him the vegetables, the herbs that made the noon air heady and drunken with fragrance, the fish ponds and the beds of pease that ran down almost to the brook. The early field was already dried and flaxen in the sun, all its harvest gathered, even the later-sown hung heavy and full in pod.

“These we should gather today and tomorrow. In this heat they’ll pass their best in a day. And these spent ones have to be cleared. You can begin that for me. Don’t pull them up, take the sickle and cut them off low to the ground, and the roots we plough in, they’re good food for the soil.” He was talking in an easy, good-humoured flow, to pass off peacefully whatever residue of regret and strangeness there might be in this abrupt change. “How old are you, Godric?”

“Seventeen,” said the husky voice beside him. He was on the small side for seventeen; let him try his hand at digging later on, the ground Cadfael was working was heavy to till. “I can work hard,” said the boy, almost as though he had guessed at the thought, and resented it. “I don’t know much, but I can do whatever you tell me.”

“So you shall, then, and you can begin with the pease. Stack the dry stuff aside here, and it goes to provide stable litter. And the roots go back to the ground.”

“Like humankind,” said Godric unexpectedly.

“Yes, like humankind.” Too many were going back to the earth prematurely now in this fratricidal war. He saw the boy turn his head, almost involuntarily, and look across the abbey grounds and roofs to where the battered towers of the castle loomed in their pall of smoke. “Have you kin within there, child?” asked Cadfael gently.

“No!” said the boy, too quickly. “But I can’t but think of them. They’re saying in the town it can’t last long—that it may fall tomorrow. And surely they’ve done only rightly! Before King Henry died he made his barons acknowledge the Empress Maud as his heir, and they all swore fealty. She was his only living child, she should be queen. And yet when her cousin, Count Stephen, seized the throne and had himself crowned, all too many of them took it meekly and forgot their oaths. That can’t be right. And it can’t be wrong to stand by the empress faithfully. How can they excuse changing sides? How can they justify Count Stephen’s claim?”

“Justify may not be the apt word, but there are those among the lords, more by far than take the opposite view, who would say, better a man for overlord than a woman. And if a man, why, Stephen was as near as any to the throne. He is King William’s grandchild, just as Maud is.”

“But not son to the last king. And in any ease, through his mother, who was a woman like Maud, so where’s the difference?” The young voice had emerged from its guarded undertone, and rang clear and vehement. “But the real difference was that Count Stephen rushed here and took what he wanted, while the empress was far away in Normandy, thinking no evil. And now that half the barons have recollected their oaths and declared for her, after all, it’s late, and what’s to come of it but bloodshed and deaths? It begins here, in Shrewsbury, and this won’t be the end.”

“Child,” said Cadfael mildly, “are you not trusting me to extremes?”

The boy, who had picked up the sickle and was swinging it in a capable, testing hand, turned and looked at him with blue eyes suddenly wide open and unguarded. “Well, so I do,” he said.

“And so you may, for that matter. But keep your lips locked among others. We are in the battlefield here, as sure as in the town, our gates never being closed to any. All manner of men rub shoulders here, and in rough times some may try to buy favour with carrying tales. Some may even be collectors of such tales for their living. Your thoughts are safe in your head, best keep them there.”

The boy drew back a little, and hung his head. Possibly he felt himself reproved. Possibly not! “I’ll pay you trust for trust,” said Cadfael. “In my measure there’s little to choose between two such monarchs, but much to be said for keeping a man’s fealty and word. And now let me see you hard at work, and when I’ve finished my cabbage patch I’ll come and help you.”

He watched the boy set to work, which he did with immense vigour. The coarse tunic was cut very full, turning a lissome body into a bundle of cloth tied at the waist; possibly he had got it from some older and larger relative after the best of the wear was out of it. My friend, thought Cadfael, in this heat you won’t keep up that pace very long, and then we shall see!

By the time he joined his assistant in the rustling field of bleached pea-stems, the boy was red in the face and sweating, and puffing audibly with the strokes of the sickle, but had not relaxed his efforts. Cadfael swept an armful of cut haulms to the edge of the field, and said earnestly: “No need to make a penance of it, lad. Strip off to the waist and be comfortable” And he slid his own frock, already kilted to the knee, down from powerful brown shoulders, and let the folds hang at his middle.

The effect was complex, but by no means decisive. The boy checked momentarily in. his stroke, said: “I’m well enough as I am!” with admirable composure, but several tones above the gruff, young-mannish level of his earlier utterances, and went on resolutely with his labours, at the same time as a distinct wave of red arose from his collar to engulf his slender neck and the curve of his cheek. Did that necessarily mean what it seemed to mean? He might have lied about his age, his voice might be but newly broken and still unstable. And perhaps he wore no shirt beneath the cotte, and was ashamed to reveal his lacks to a new acquaintance. Ah, well, there were other tests. Better make sure at once. If what Cadfael suspected was true, the matter was going to require very serious thought.

“There’s that heron that robs our hatcheries, again!” he cried suddenly, pointing across the Meole brook, where the unsuspecting bird waded, just folding immense wings. “Toss a stone across at him, boy, you’re nearer than I!” The heron was an innocent stranger, but if Cadfael was right he was unlikely to come to any harm.

Godric stared, clawed up a sizeable stone, and heaved it heartily. His arm swung far back, swung forward with his slight weight willingly behind it, and hurled the stone under-arm across the brook and into the shallows, with a splash that sent the heron soaring, certainly, but several feet from where he had been standing.

“Well, well!” said Cadfael silently, and settled down to do some hard thinking.

In his siege camp, deployed across the entire land approach to the Castle Foregate, between broad coils of the river Severn, King Stephen fretted, fumed and feasted, celebrating the few loyal Salopians—loyal to him, that is!—who came to offer him aid, and planning his revenge upon the many disloyal who absented themselves.

He was a big, noisy, handsome, simple-minded man, very fair in colouring, very comely in countenance, and at this stage in his fortunes totally bewildered by the contention between his natural good nature and his smarting sense of injury. He was said to be slow-witted, but when his Uncle Henry had died and left no heir but a daughter, and she handicapped by an Angevin husband and far away in France, no matter how slavishly her father’s vassals had bowed to his will and accepted her as queen, Stephen for once in his life had moved with admirable speed and precision, and surprised his potential subjects into accepting him at his own valuation before they even had time to consider their own interests, much less remember reluctant vows. So why had such a successful coup abruptly turned sour? He would never understand. Why had half of his more influential subjects, apparently stunned into immobility for a time, revived into revolt now? Conscience? Dislike of the king imposed upon them? Superstitious dread of King Henry and his influence with God?

BOOK: One Corpse Too Many
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