Brother Cadfael 20: Brother Cadfael's Penance
Ellis Peters BROTHER CADFAEL'S PENANCE A Brother Cadfael Mystery
The earl of Leicester's courier came riding over the bridge that spanned the Severn, and into the town of Shrewsbury, somewhat past noon on a day at the beginning of November, with three months' news in his saddle-roll.
Much of it would already be known, at least in general outline, but Robert Beaumont's despatch service from London was better provided than anything the sheriff of Shropshire could command, and in a single meeting with that young officer the earl had marked him as one of the relatively sane in this mad world of civil war that had crippled England for so many years, and run both factions, king and empress alike, into exhaustion, without, unfortunately, bringing either sharply up against reality. Such able young men as Hugh Beringar, Earl Robert considered, were well worth supplying with information, against the day when reason would finally break through and put an end to such wasteful warfare. And in this year of the Lord, 1145, now drawing towards its close, chaotic events had seemed to be offering promise, however faint as yet, that even the two cousins battling wearily for the throne must despair of force and look round for another way of settling disputes.
The boy who carried the earl's dispatches had made this journey once before, and knew his way across the bridge and up the curve of the Wyle, and round from the High Cross to the castle gates. The earl's badge opened the way before him without hindrance. Hugh came out from the armoury in the inner ward, dusting his hands, his dark hair tangled by the funnelled wind through the archway, to draw the messenger within, and hear his news.
"There's a small breeze rising," said the boy, unloading the contents of his satchel upon the table in the anteroom of the gatehouse, "that has my lord snuffing the air. But warily, it's the first time he's detected any such stirring, and it could as easily blow itself out. And it has as much to do with what's happening in the East as with all this ceding of castles in the Thames valley. Ever since Edessa fell to the paynims of Mosul, last year at Christmas, all Christendom has been uneasy about the kingdom of Jerusalem. They're beginning to talk of a new Crusade, and there are lords on either side, here at home, who are none too happy about things done, and might welcome the Cross as sanctuary for their souls. I've brought you his official letters," he said briskly, mustering them neatly at Hugh's hand, "but I'll give you the gist of it before I go, and you can study them at leisure, for there's no date yet settled. I must return this same day, I have an errand to Coventry on my way back."
"Then you'd best take food and drink now, while we talk," said Hugh, and sent out for what was needed. They settled together confidentially to the tangled affairs of England, which had shifted in some disconcerting directions during the summer months, and now, with the shutter of the coming winter about to close down against further action, might at least be disentangled, and open a course that could be pursued with some hope of progress. "You'll not tell me Robert Beaumont is thinking of taking the Cross? There are some powerful sermons coming out of Clairvaux, I'm told, that will be hard to resist."
"No," said the young man, briefly grinning, "my lord's concerns are all here at home. But this same unease for Christendom is making the bishops turn their thoughts to enforcing some order here, before they make off to settle the affairs of Outremer. They're talking of one more attempt to bring king and empress together to talk sense, and find a means of breaking out of this deadlock. You'll have heard that the earl of Chester has sought and got a meeting with King Stephen, and pledged his allegiance? Late in the day, and no easy passage, but the king jumped at it. We knew about it before they ever met at Stamford, a week or so back, for Earl Ranulf has been preparing the ground for some time, making sweet approaches to some of Stephen's barons who hold grudges for old wrongs, trying to buy acceptance into the fold. There's land near his castle of Mountsorrel has been in dispute with my lord some years. Chester has made concessions now over that. A man must soften not only the king but all those who hold with the king if he's to change sides. So Stamford was no surprise, and Chester is reconciled and accepted. And you know all that business of
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