Brother Cadfael 18: The Summer of the Danes
selecting his mount for the journey. It was there that Hugh found him early in the afternoon, contemplating with pleasure an elegant light roan with a cream-coloured mane, that leaned complacently to his caressing hand.
"Too tall for you," said Hugh over his shoulder. "You'd need a lift into the saddle, and Mark could never hoist you."
"I am not yet grown so heavy nor so shrunken with age that I cannot scramble on to a horse," said Cadfael with dignity. "What brings you here again and looking for me?"
"Why, a good notion Aline had, when I told her what you and Mark are up to. May is on the doorstep already, and in a week or two at the most I should be packing her and Giles off to Maesbury for the summer. He has the run of the manor there, and it's better for him out of the town." It was his usual custom to leave his family there until after the wool clip had been taken and the fields gleaned, while he divided his time between home and the business of the shire. Cadfael was familiar with the routine. "She says, why should we not hasten the move by a week, and ride with you tomorrow, to set you on your way as far as Oswestry? The rest of the household can follow later, and we could have one day, at least, of your company, and you could bide the night over with us at Maesbury if you choose. What do you say?"
Cadfael said yes, very heartily, and so, when it was put to him, did Mark, though he declined, with regret, the offer of a night's lodging. He was bent on reaching Llanelwy in two days, and arriving at a civilised time, at the latest by midafternoon, to allow time for the niceties of hospitality before the evening meal, so he preferred to go beyond Oswestry and well into Wales before halting for the night, to leave an easy stage for the second day. If they could reach the valley of the Dee, they could find lodging with one of the churches there, and cross the river in the early morning.
So it seemed that everything was already accounted for, and there remained nothing to be done but go reverently to Vespers and Compline, and commit this enterprise like all others to the will of God, but perhaps also with a gentle reminder to Saint Winifred that they were bound into her country, and if she felt inclined to let her delicate hand cover them along the way, the gesture would be very much appreciated.
The morning of departure found a little cavalcade of six horses and a pack-pony winding its way over the westward bridge and out of the town, on the road to Oswestry. There was Hugh, on his favourite self-willed grey, with his son on his saddle-bow, Aline, unruffled by the haste of her preparations for leaving town, on her white jennet, her maid and friend Constance pillion behind a groom, a second groom following with the pack-pony on a leading rein, and the two pilgrims to Saint Asaph merrily escorted by this family party. It was the last of April, a morning all green and silver. Cadfael and Mark had left before Prime, to join Hugh and his party in the town. A shower, so fine as to be almost imperceptible in the air, had followed them over the bridge, where the Severn ran full but peaceful, and before they had assembled in Hugh's courtyard the sun had come out fully, sparkling on the leaves and grasses. The river was gilded in every ripple with capricious, scintillating light. A good day to be setting out, and no great matter why or where.
The sun was high, and the pearly mist of morning all dissolved when they crossed the river at Mont ford. The road was good, some stretches of it with wide grass verges where the going was comfortable and fast, and Giles demanded an occasional canter. He was much too proud to share a mount with anyone but his father. Once established at Maesbury the little pack-pony, sedate and good-humoured, would become his riding pony for the summer, and the groom who led it his discreet guardian on his forays, for like most children who have never seen cause to be afraid, he was fearless on horseback, Aline said foolhardy, but hesitated to issue warnings, perhaps for fear of shaking his confidence, or perhaps out of the certainty that they would not be heeded.
They halted at noon under the hill at Ness, where there was a tenant of Hugh's installed, to rest the horses and take refreshment. Before mid-afternoon they reached Felton, and there Aline and the escort turned aside to take the nearest way home, but Hugh elected to ride on with his friends to the outskirts of Oswestry. Giles was
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