Brother Cadfael 16: The Heretic's Apprentice
critical intelligence. His head was uncovered, and wore the tonsure; otherwise Cadfael, who had never seen him before, would have taken him for some baron or earl of the king's court, for his clothing, but for its sombre colours of dark crimson and black, had a lordly splendour about its cut and its ornament, a long, rich gown, full-skirted but slashed almost to the waist before and behind for riding, its gold-hemmed collar open in the summer weather upon a fine linen shirt, and a gold-linked chain and cross that circled a thick, muscular throat. Doubtless there was a body servant or a groom somewhere at hand to relieve him of the necessity of carrying cloak or baggage of any kind, even the gloves he had probably stripped off on dismounting. The pitch of his voice, heard distantly as the two prelates entered the lodging and vanished from sight, was low and measured, and yet held a suggestion of current displeasure.
In a few moments Cadfael saw the possible reason for that. A groom came down the court from the gatehouse leading two horses to the stables, a solid brown cob, most likely his own mount, and a big, handsome black beast with white stockings, richly caparisoned. No need to ask whose. The impressive harness, scarlet saddle-cloth, and ornamented bridle made all plain. Two more men followed with their less decorated horseflesh in hand, and a packhorse into the bargain, well loaded. This was a cleric who did not travel without the comforts to which he was accustomed. But what might well have brought that note of measured irritation into his voice was that the black horse, the only one of the party worthy to do justice to his rider's state, if not the only one fitted to carry his weight, went lame in the left foreleg. Whatever his errand and destination, the abbot's guest would be forced to prolong his stay here for a few days, until that injury healed.
Cadfael finished his clipping and carried away the basket of fading heads into the garden, leaving the hum and activity of the great court behind. The roses had begun to bloom early, by reason of fine, warm weather. Spring rains had brought a good hay crop, and June, ideal conditions for gathering it. The shearing was almost finished, and the wool dealers were reckoning up hopefully the value of their clips. Saint Winifred's modest pilgrims, coming on foot, would have dry traveling and warm lying, even out-of-doors. Her doing, perhaps? Cadfael could well believe that if the Welsh girl smiled, the sun would shine on the borders.
The earlier sown of the two pease fields that sloped down from the rim of the garden to the Meole brook had already ripened and been harvested, ten days of sun bringing on the pods very quickly. Brother Winfrid, a hefty, blue-eyed young giant, was busy digging in the roots to feed the soil, while the haulms, cropped with sickles, lay piled at the edge of the field, drying for fodder and bedding. The hands that wielded the spade were huge and brown, and looked as if they should have been clumsy, but in fact were as deft and delicate in handling Cadfael's precious glass vessels and brittle dried herbs as they were powerful and effective with mattock and spade.
Within the walled herb garden the drowning sweetness hung heavy, spiced and warm. Weeds can enjoy good growing weather no less than the herbs on which they encroach, and there was always work to be done at this season. Cadfael tucked up his habit and set to work on his knees, close to the warm earth, with the heady fragrance disturbed and quivering round him like invisible wings, and the sun caressing his back.
He was still at it, though in a happy languor that made no haste, rather luxuriating in the touch of leaf and root and soil, when Hugh Beringar came looking for him two hours later. Cadfael heard the light, springy step on the gravel, and sat back on his heels to watch his friend's approach. Hugh smiled at seeing him on his knees.
"Am I in your prayers?"
"Constantly," said Cadfael gravely. "A man has to work at it in so stubborn a case."
He crumbled a handful of warm, dark earth between his hands, dusted his palms, and Hugh gave him a hand to help him rise. There was a good deal more steel in the young sheriff's slight body and slender wrist than anyone would suppose. Cadfael had known him for five years only, but drawn nearer to him than to many he had rubbed shoulders with all the twenty-three years of his monastic life. "And what are you doing here?" he demanded
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