The last crisp leaves of autumn crunched underfoot as the year of Our Lord 1153 faded into winter, and the small group from Shrewsbury Abbey drew near the walls of Winchester.
Brother Cadfael, seventy-five years old, rode at the back. Only a few threads of grizzled nut-brown hair remained among the white of his tonsure, and his shoulders would never quite straighten up out of the stoop that years of digging in the earth had given him. But his eyes were still keen and bright, and he still sat a horse almost as comfortably as he had fifty years before. And he still looked eagerly to the road ahead, for this might be his last chance to travel. There was only One who knew for certain whether it was or no, but even though Cadfael himself thought it likely that he would never leave the abbey’s familiar stone walls again, he could find no bitterness in the knowledge. He was five years past the divine marker of threescore-years-and-ten; every bit longer was an unexpected gift.
And even if this were his last journey, it would be enough; for Cadfael would, God willing, bear witness to the end of the long and terrible war.
King Stephen and Empress Maud had finally agreed to make peace. Stephen had lost his wife a year ago, and his eldest son Eustace several months after: he had no will left to continue the fight. There were many more who wanted peace, as well, and who had been working to bring it about for many months. Shrewd Robert Bossu and his twin brother Waleran. The Archbishop of Canterbury. And Stephen’s brother Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, who had opened his cathedral to the meeting that would decide the terms of the war’s ending.
The first of those terms had already been agreed: Maud’s son would inherit when Stephen’s reign came to its natural end, and England would once again have a King Henry on the throne. The rest remained to be determined – which was why the nobles and clergy had gathered here, each to argue for their own interests, and to get the first glimpses of the new order that was coming to the realm.
Robert Pennant, abbot of Shrewsbury, would be nowhere else but at the center of such a crucial political moment. The abbey had a material stake in the discussion, it was true: some of their land had been donated by nobles who had won it in the war, and the fate of such land would be decided by this great meeting of nobles. But more than that, Abbot Robert always wished to know which way the political winds blew, and the conference at Winchester was the best place to stake a weathercock.
Where Robert went, Jerome went too, of course. The abbot’s secretary was truly humble now, and had been since his deep penance ten years ago for the sin of attempted murder. He was thinner, more bent, and nearly bald, but still as energetic as always in the way that he scampered after Robert, clinging to the abbot as tenaciously as the burrs that dotted Cadfael’s habit in the autumn.
And Cadfael went because he could be spared, and because he wished to go. So it was the three of them: Cadfael, Robert, and Jerome, who rode through the crowded streets of Winchester.
Their goal had been visible even before they passed through the broad arch of West Gate: the massive stone towers of palace and cathedral side by side. As they drew closer, the twin buildings loomed larger and larger, making it plain just how much they dominated the city. It was a telling commentary on the bishop’s power that that for the last twenty years, he had used both castle and cathedral as his own.
Of the smaller houses and buildings that they passed as they made their way westward through the city, some of them must have been newer than others, for much of the city had burned during the tumultuous end of the siege of Winchester near the beginning of the war. And yet even that fiery event was so distant now that it was hard to tell which houses were new and which were old. All around them, the city was full of the sounds of prosperity: the shouts of people selling food to the travelers; the clatter of carts going to and fro bringing in goods from the countryside for market day; the clink of hammer against metal in the forges that huddled close to the castle and cathedral. The city was healing, building, creating.
A little of the city’s din died away as they entered through Thomasesgate into the broad enclosure that encompassed the outskirts of the palace and the cathedral close: a courtyard surrounded by high walls, dotted with outbuildings. There were a few smaller churches within the walls, too, as if the great cathedral were a cat whose kittens huddled at its stony feet.
Just inside the gate, a young man greeted them: probably nineteen or twenty, tall and slim with a mop of sandy curls that fell over his eyes, almost entirely negating the dignified air that his upright posture gave him. “Be welcome to this place, brothers,” he said, giving a smile along with the courteous incline of his head. “I am Gilbert of St. Pol, in the household of the Bishop of Winchester.” Not a cleric himself, clearly not even in minor orders even though he was the bishop’s man: Gilbert’s build and bearing alike spoke of training in arms. Junior enough to be dispatched to a minor duty such as greeting guests; noble enough that the guests would not feel themselves slighted to be greeted by him.
Cadfael could see that Robert was making the same calculations as the abbot replied, “God’s peace to you all, and to your venture here. We are honored to share it. We have come from Shrewsbury.”
“Ah!” Gilbert nodded, mentally crossing a name off of the list of guests that he had been instructed to greet. “You will be lodging with your brothers in St. Swithun’s Priory,” Gilbert explained, gesturing to where it lay on the other side of the close, “but you are welcome to eat with us at the palace if you wish. All are welcome.”
“Thank you,” Robert replied graciously. Cadfael had had no doubt that the abbot would accept the offer. What better place to test the winds?
Others had the same idea: when they arrived at the palace for supper that evening, the hall was filled with nobles and clergy alike. Even though the real work of the peace conference could not begin until the king arrived, there was still plenty of discussion and negotiation to be had ahead of time.
Abbot Robert knew that, of course. Cadfael watched the abbot’s silvery head moving among the nobles, pausing here and there to dip in greeting or bow in blessing. Robert bore himself like a stag striding through the forest: noble, confident, knowing that he was in his own land. This is what Robert had been born to do, and it pleased Cadfael to see it. No matter what had transpired between him and Robert in years past, he could still be glad of seeing a fellow monk fulfilling the purpose that God had given him.
Cadfael could also be glad of the fact that nobody was paying attention to him. With all of the nobles, bishops, and abbots trying to be noticed, and to take the measure of the new political order, who would even notice one lone aged monk? Left alone at the end of one of the long tables, Cadfael could savor a bit of quiet amid the clamor of the feast, and to watch.
Cadfael was not surprised to see Gilbert of St. Pol amid a trio of young men, laughing and talking with the ease of long acquaintance. Perhaps they had all fostered together, or perhaps they were simply friends.
The youngest of the men – more of a boy, still, scarcely seventeen – was Stephen’s younger son William, Count of Boulogne. He was a slight candle compared to the fiery torch that his father had been in his prime: blond, serious, dressed in muted greens and pale blues, coltishly tall but likely not yet grown into his full height. Cadfael’s expert eye could spot the signs of half-hidden pain behind William’s serious eyes and tight lips, and a stiffness in the way he stood. He had heard that William had broken a leg in a riding accident a few months past, and clearly it was not entirely healed.
Those who had their eye on the political currents running through the room kept shooting William curious looks and murmuring among themselves. No wonder that he was a subject of surprise and curiosity: Stephen was about to adopt Henry FitzEmpress as his son and heir over William, his own legitimate son. Like Henry, William of Boulogne was young, vigorous, married to an heiress, and many wondered why he had not been made his father’s heir after his elder brother’s death. Doubtless, too, many wondered why William had not turned away from his father after being passed over. Yet here he was, showing all of the nobles of the realm that he gave his consent to being supplanted by the man who had until now been his enemy.
The third of the young men was the least familiar to Cadfael, a broad-shouldered youth whose raucous laugh carried nearly all the way across the room, and whose finely-made tunic and dark-green capelet marked him as both a noble and as someone who cared about his clothing. He reached over to thump William encouragingly on the shoulder, and the gesture drew the first smile from William that Cadfael had seen. It was so like Stephen’s smile that Cadfael had to shake his head.
Just then, Gilbert caught sight of something across the room, and in an instant, his expression changed, eyes lighting with sudden joy. He leaned over to excuse himself hastily from his fellows and hurried across the room.
It was not what he had seen, but who. Gilbert’s destination was one of the ladies attending the Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, a laughing golden-haired girl even taller than the duchess herself. The girl’s face brightened with a matching spark of joyful recognition as she turned to greet him, and the two fell into talking immediately. The bishop’s man and the duchess’s lady – one step removed from the king and empress themselves – enjoying each other’s company in a way that was unmistakable, and universal among young people. Peace was truly being made in Winchester.
A moment later, the pair disappeared from Cadfael’s view, hidden by another crowd of people coming to cluster around Henry FitzEmpress and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It was not surprising; the Empress’s son and his wife were the ones who would gain the most power, and who were the least known. The future royal couple cut a striking figure: both tall and brightly-garbed, with threads of gold glinting in the fine edging of their garments. Eleanor had some of her own household with her, and the Poitevin ladies put Cadfael in mind of the seeds he had brought back from the Holy Land: some would plant in English soil, and some would never flourish in anything but the summery land where they were born. Eleanor, he thought, as he watched her move with perfect confidence among her husband’s family and foes alike, was one of the former.
There was another plant flourishing in adopted soil as well – dark rather than bright, and standing out even more because of it. But Cadfael’s eye would be drawn towards Olivier de Bretagne even if there were a thousand dark-haired men crowding the room. Cadfael saw his son, and his heart gave a great leap.
This far away, Olivier looked much as he had ten years ago: if there were any more silver threads in the black hair, if there were any lines creasing the smooth brown skin, Cadfael could not see them. In this moment, at least, Cadfael could imagine that time had not touched his son at all. He had hoped, deep in his heart, that Olivier would be here with the Empress’s party, but he had hardly dared to speak those thoughts even to himself. But now Cadfael saw his son, and he rejoiced.
Cadfael’s happy thoughts vanished in a puff as the shriek ripped through the air.
“No! What is he doing here?” It was the golden-haired girl who had screamed. She was staring at one of Stephen’s men with a look that could only be called terrified.
Gilbert stepped halfway between them – perhaps to separate, perhaps to protect, perhaps both. “Julienne, what’s wrong? Vincent Gouet is one of the king’s men.”
“He is a killer!” Julienne cried. “A brute!”
The man – Vincent Gouet, he’d been named – smiled a sharp slice of a grin. “I’ve been in war, girl,” he said simply.
Julienne surged forward around the barrier that Gilbert had made between her and Vincent. “You killed them! You killed them all! You’re a monster!”
Other people were rushing towards the little group now: the Duchess, Stephen’s son William, the third young man who’d been talking to him and Gilbert before. And a golden-haired young man, whom Julienne immediately grabbed. “Fulk, it’s him!” she cried, wheeling to face the newcomer, but only for a second, before she turned her fury back on Vincent – who, for his part, stood with the same smirk that he had had since the beginning. “He killed them!” Julienne said yet again.
To Fulk, the golden-haired man, that clearly meant the same specific thing that it did to Julienne. “Him?” he asked, head whipping about to look at Vincent. “He’s the one who – ?“ Fulk cut off his own question before he finished, shaking his head, and made himself say, “It was a long time ago, Julienne. It was war.”
“I can’t forget it!” Tears were streaking down Julienne’s face now, but it was anger that stood in her eyes, not sorrow. “And I will never forgive him! Never!”
Gilbert’s mouth opened and closed in helpless confusion. He was clearly worried about Julienne, and still patted her arm with the same well-meaning concern, but just as clearly had no idea what was happening. The assurance that the young man had shown earlier, when organizing guests and lodgings, was entirely gone – this was unknown territory.
The Duchess’s confidence was unbroken, though, as she strode into the tense moment with perfect composure. “Come away, Julienne,” Eleanor said, reaching her slender arm to gather the girl towards her. And Julienne did, clinging to the Duchess like a leaf in a summer storm, trembling and gasping.
“Will she be all right?” William asked Gilbert, looking worriedly after the women as they went.
It was the third who answered. “Oh, I’m sure she will,” he said, easy and reassuring. “You know, I would have expected a peace conference to have a bit more peace at it,” he quipped.
“Hush, Michel,” William reprimanded him, and Gilbert glared his own reproach as well.
Fulk was still close enough to hear Michel’s jest, and his face darkened swiftly. “Listen to your friend,” he said. He took a step closer to Michel, arms crossed and chin forward in a challenge – one that only sharpened as he turned on Vincent, who was still smirking nearby. “And you. Stay away from me. Stay away from my cousin.”
Vincent narrowed his eyes. “Or what?” His smirk sliced wider, growing to an unpleasant grin. “Or you’ll let her shout at me?”
Next to him, Michel laughed, half at Vincent’s remark and half at Fulk. “Or are you challenging me?” he asked Fulk.
Vincent snorted. “Who’d challenge you?” He tossed the question at Michel with the casual cruelty of someone swatting a fly.
Michel’s laughter wavered – Vincent’s comment had hit home, and from the way Michel flinched, it looked like this was not the first time that Vincent had said something like that to him. But almost instantly, Michel pushed his grin back up and said, “I don’t know. Do you want to find out?” He took another step closer to Fulk.
“Maybe.” Vincent grinned again. “It’s been a dull feast. It could use a little more excitement.”
“Vincent.” William spoke quietly, but his words cut through the rising voices with all the force of his royal birth. “Good night.” The dismissal was plain.
For a second, Vincent hesitated, held in place by his growing anger – but then he nodded, just once, and spun to go. More than a few people visibly relaxed as he left the room.
“Well!” Michel declared with a grin, turning back to loom over Fulk. “Just one more thing we need to do, and then the air will be clearer here.”
William looked as if he were about to intervene again, but Fulk shook his head. “Not here. Not now.” He ran a hand through his hair, a swift angry gesture. “I won’t break the peace.”
Michel stayed in Fulk’s way just long enough to make sure that Fulk had to jar his shoulder into him as he passed on his way out of the hall.
“He’s right,” William told Michel quietly. “Not here. Not now. This is a place for making peace.”
“He was right about Vincent being a brute, too,” Michel replied with a sharp flash of bitterness. He tugged at his tunic and capelet, arranging himself back into fashionable tidiness. “But you can’t let something like that go unanswered!”
“Who was that?” William asked, more to Gilbert than Michel.
“Julienne’s cousin,” Gilbert answered. “Fulk de Courcy, Do you think I should go after her?” he asked.
“Best to let the duchess see to her,” William decided.
Not everyone thought that was enough, though. Abbot Robert had glided up from somewhere to hover behind Cadfael’s shoulder. “You have herbs that may calm her, do you not?” he interjected. “Go to her.”
“Of course, Father,” was the properly obedient response that a monk gave to his abbot. But Cadfael couldn’t resist adding, “But I fear that I may hinder her more than I may help. If the Duchess already has someone to attend her lady, I would not wish to get in his or her way.” Surely the Duchess would have someone, and did not need an elderly monk poking his nose in. And if Cadfael left now, would he miss his chance to speak to Olivier?
“But Shrewsbury Abbey’s offer of assistance will still be noted,” Robert replied smoothly, and offered a ghost of a smile.
Cadfael sighed. “Of course, Father,” he repeated, and left. He must obey, and must hope that Olivier would be there later.
A quick detour back to their quarters allowed him to collect what herbs he might need, and allowed him time to turn over in his mind what he had seen. Julienne had been terrified by Vincent; clearly she had been nearby when he had killed people in battle. A siege, perhaps? Where else might a young girl have seen that kind of violence? Of course, Cadfael reflected, Vincent Gouet seemed like the sort of man who would cause violence wherever he went: even those of his own party did not show him much warmth. Well, no matter. Cadfael’s duty lay with Julienne, and that was where he would go.
The woman who answered the door in the duchess’s quarters was plainly confused to see him, but she dutifully went to fetch her lady at his request.
“My name is Brother Cadfael, from Shrewsbury Abbey,” he introduced himself, when Eleanor appeared. “I am sent by my abbot to see if your lady needs any assistance. I am skilled in healing and herbs.”
Eleanor arched an eyebrow up.” She was not as tall as Cadfael had believed her to be from afar; much of her height came from the dignity of her bearing. Her hair was covered by a veil of fine silk that swept back from her high forehead and dark brows, and soft fur edged the collar of her deep red gown, protecting her from the chill. Keen blue eyes regarded Cadfael with a gaze of unmistakable intelligence. “Shrewsbury Abbey sends assistance,” she repeated. “Not one of the bishop’s men?”
Ah, so Robert’s political message had succeeded in being heard by her discerning ears. Cadfael hoped he was hiding his smile as he nodded. “My skill is yours, lady.”
Eleanor weighed this for a moment, then nodded. “Come in, then. Julienne may be helped by something more than what we can give.”
The room into which they stepped was sparse, impersonal, made for guests rather than for dwelling, yet the duchess and her ladies had made it their own in some small ways. The rugs and candlesticks did not match the rest of the room, and spoke of comfort brought from elsewhere.
That comfort was not enough for Julienne de Courcy. She sat in one of the inner rooms, trying to sew with still-shaking hands. The repetitive gesture might have calmed her under other circumstances, but not now. Tears still slid down her face, and her breathing was still sharp and irregular. As Cadfael watched, the needle spun out of her fingers. Her face crumpled with angry frustration, but she made no sound – her self-control was back, even though she believed herself to be alone.
“Julienne,” Eleanor said softly. The girl’s head lifted swiftly, emotions chasing each other over her face in quick succession: surprise at being addressed, relief at seeing the duchess; confusion and apprehension at the sight of an unfamiliar face. “This is Brother Cadfael.” The name was unfamiliar on her lips, but she made a better show of it than many did on their first attempt. “He’s skilled in herbs, and he’s brought something to help you feel better.”
For a second, it looked as if the proud girl was going to object, but she closed her eyes and nodded. Cadfael drew closer, and started to set out the herbs he had brought. “This is valerian,” he explained, tipping a small amount into the girl’s cup. “Take this much, but no more. It will give you calm. And sleep,” he added. “I will leave enough for one more night, if you wish.
It was just a guess, that she would need that aid, but a well-aimed one: Julienne visibly relaxed at the mention of peaceful sleep, and nodded quickly to the offer. “Yes,” she whispered. “Thank you. You’re very kind. I – I’m sorry for the way I acted.” She drew herself up a little straighter. “I should not have broken the bishop’s peace.”
Cadfael smiled, touched by the show of bravery. Eleanor was touched, too; her eyes shone with pride as she looked over at Julienne. “You clearly had cause for your actions,” Cadfael said gently. “Would it help to speak of it? To put it further behind you?”
“You don’t have to,” Eleanor put in, swift and protective.
Julienne shook her head. “You should know, Brother. He was – “ She had to stop and start again, drawing shaky breaths in between. The Duchess reached out to clasp Julienne’s hand, and the comfort gave her strength to continue. “He killed my parents. The siege of Winchcombe Castle. I – I was just a child.” A siege, as he had thought. And a child she must have been, indeed, since that castle had been taken by the king’s men nine years ago. “But I remember it. I do!” Her voice strengthened, pushing back against some unheard contradiction – perhaps the challenges that others had given her over the years, questioning her memory of long-ago events. “I got out, but – but I saw it. I saw them die, and I saw Vincent Gouet cut them down.”
“Julienne’s mother and mine were dear friends,” the Duchess explained. “Julienne has been part of my household ever since.”
“It was…a shock to see him again,” Julienne continued. Her hand curled tighter around Eleanor’s, drawing strength from her friend. “But I still should not have acted as I did.”
“As I said,” Cadfael offered gently, “you had cause. Yours is a deep sorrow. I pray that their souls may find peace, and yours as well.”
When Julienne had calmed, Cadfael made his way back down the stairs, slowly and creakily. He still had some time before Compline, he thought; there was no need to rush.
And then all thoughts of prayers vanished from his mind, for at the bottom of the stairs he saw Olivier de Bretagne, grinning broadly. “They said you’d come this way.”
Cadfael felt that he could have flown the last two steps down to his son. Here, with nobody to see, they could show their true joy. For a long long moment, father and son embraced.
Olivier was the first to draw back, and the first to speak. “I thought that someone from your abbey might be here, who could give me news of you. I did not dare to hope that it might be you.”
“I thought the same,” Cadfael replied. “Some of the Empress’s men would be here, so perhaps Laurence d’Angers – but here you are.” He stepped back, drinking in the sight of his son. “You look well, Olivier. Please – tell me of Ermina, and the children! The little one is two, now?”
“All are well,” Olivier confirmed with a proud smile. “Yes, Geoffrey is two. Laurence is ten, and will prove to be a better horseman than I, I think. Marie is eight – growing like a weed, and always singing. Yvette is six, and terribly indignant that she cannot do everything that Marie does.” His paternal affection and pride shone in every word, and Cadfael marveled that this man who never known a father of his own could take so naturally to fatherhood. Mariam (namesake of little Marie, he was sure) had been a marvel herself. Cadfael’s admiration for her renewed itself yet again as he thought of what she must have done to make Olivier the man that he had become. He let Olivier’s words wash over him like a summer rain, refreshing and invigorating.
“And Ermina?” Cadfael asked.
“She is pleased to have a larger household to manage. Not just the children, I mean – you know that Laurence has granted us a manor? Near Peterborough. Ermina has the care of it most of the time, and she is perfectly suited to the task.”
A fine house, rich land, growing children – Olivier’s life was secure now, as long as the peace would hold. What would England be like when these children – his grandchildren! – were Olivier’s age, or his own? What kind of land would this become, ruled by the vigorous new king and queen that it was promised? It did not pain Cadfael quite so much to think that he would never see those days himself, for he knew that when they came, he would be in a place of joy beyond caring about the passage of time. But he still could not help but wonder what the world would be like after he had left it – and even more, could not help but wonder what people his grandchildren would become in that new world.
The hour he spent with Olivier was sweet, but so was the hour he spent at St. Swithun’s Priory praying Compline following it. Even though he had never met most of the monks who gathered to pray at the appointed hour, they did not need to know each other to know how to pray together. They all chanted the same words, words that tied them to each other and to centuries of monks past, and to God. They, like his wondrous grandchildren, were family that he had never met: brothers in spirit.
They gathered again at Matins and at Lauds, wrapped in the same peace of prayer that felt even deeper now that the rest of the world was asleep. But as the sun started to creep over the horizon, the peace was abruptly broken.
“Someone’s hurt! Help! He’s hurt!” someone shouted. Boots pounded across the cathedral close as the world awoke into disarray. There was no time for Cadfael to ask leave – Robert slept in another room, and if there was a person who needed help, Cadfael needed to get there at once.
The tide of people was sweeping towards a narrow alley between two of the buildings along the north wall, close on High Street, where some of the lesser guests had been housed. “May I see?” Cadfael asked, into the press of people. “I have some skill in healing.”
One of the bishop’s men-at-arms noticed him, and shook his head. “I fear you’re too late for that, Brother,” he said, respectful of Cadfael’s tonsure and habit. “But you’re welcome to look.” He stepped back, leaving room for Cadfael to enter.
Vincent Gouet lay on the ground in the alley in a pool of blood, the hilt of a dagger rising from his back.
A moment later, William of Boulogne hurried up, his pale hair in disarray from sleep, but eyes wide and alert. “What has happened?” he asked, with all the dignity that he could command. In his father’s absence, William stood as Vincent’s lord, and that was how he conducted himself now.
But he would not have to do the duty alone, at least: where William was, Michel and Gilbert could not be far behind. Together the three of them stared, stunned to see the body of the man they had all known.
“May I see to him?” Cadfael asked, gentling his tone a bit out of respect for those who had known the dead man.
“Thank you, Brother,” William said, with the same shaky dignity. “Are you also a priest?”
Cadfael shook his head. “I am our abbey’s healer and herbalist.”
“Not much help now,” Michel said, his bravado a thin shell to cover the fact that he was clearly shaken, too. He was even shivering, but that might just have been that he had come out in haste in only a tunic, without so much as a capelet to warm him.
William shot Michel a glare, and tried to express the same thoughts more courteously. “I thank you for the prayers that you can give him, then.”
“Do we know yet when he died?” Cadfael asked. “Or by whose hand?” He looked about at the bishop’s men, who all shook their heads. “Then I would like to examine him. If I may, to see if I can find anything that points to those facts.”
“That’s what the sheriff does,” said one of the men-at-arms.
“But the sheriff’s not here,” pointed out another. “Won’t be back for another week.”
“I have assisted our sheriff back in Shrewsbury,” Cadfael offered, since sheriffs seemed to be the sort of authority that these men would respect.
The first man-at-arms looked to William for his decision. The boy swallowed, still plainly shaken at finding himself in charge when someone he knew was dead. But he nodded, and said, “Yes, Brother. Please, find what you can.”
Cadfael knelt down by Vincent’s body, swallowing back a wince as he bent stiff knees. But soon bodily pain was forgotten, subsumed by the working of his mind. “He died here,” Cadfael mused. “If he had been killed elsewhere and then moved here, there would not be as much blood.” Gently, he explored the body, noting the changes that death had brought to it. “He has been dead more than three hours, but not more than six. So, between Matins and Lauds.”
William’s curiosity had overcome his grief: he was leaning over Cadfael, following the motions of his hands with eyes grown keen. “How can you tell?”
“It is not a pretty thing to speak of,” Cadfael warned. “And this man was a friend of yours.” Hard to look upon of the death of a stranger, harder still to look upon of the death of someone known to you.”
William swallowed, but nodded. “I understand. But I – I want to know.” Not overcoming grief, then, but rather a distraction from grief: he had found a task that could be completed, a question that could be answered.
“Then, here. See how he has just begun to stiffen?” Cadfael prodded the dead man’s hand. “That means that he has been dead more than three hours, but not much more. The blood around him and the color of his face both show that he has lain here the whole time.” Michel and Gilbert were eyeing their friend dubiously, but William remained attentive throughout. As Cadfael leaned closer to point out more, he caught sight of something new: golden hairs, glinting in the rising sun, clinging to the dead man’s garment. “Oh, now look here.”
That caught Michel’s attention. “What’s that?”
Cadfael turned them to and fro, squinting at them. “Hairs. And not his – he is dark, and this is gold. So it may have belonged to the one who slew him.” He leaned back on his heels, then started to push up to his feet, slowly and stiffly. William quickly reached out a hand to assist, and Cadfael gladly took it.
“Golden hair? Like the girl from the feast last night,” said one of the men-at-arms. “The one who shouted at him. She could’ve done it.”
“No!” Gilbert gasped. “Not Julienne! She never would!”
Michel’s expressive face twisted with skepticism. “You think a woman could have done this? Stabbed him like that?”
The man-at-arms considered. “She might. She’s a tall girl. Strong enough to have done it, most likely.”
One of his fellows chimed in, “I thought I saw her last night, wandering about the courtyard.”
“No!” Gilbert protested again, shaking his head in increasingly furious denial. “No! She couldn’t!”
“What about her cousin?” Michel offered – for once, playing the mediator, trying to find an answer that would please both his friend and the bishop’s men. “Fulk hated him almost as much.”
It didn’t work. “That’s no help!” Gilbert cried. “I won’t have Julienne’s cousin called a murderer, either!”
As they debated back and forth, Cadfael spied another thread – dark wool this time, not bright hair – caught on a jutting corner of stone. Had Vincent’s garment torn as he fell? Hard to tell, with so much blood soaking it, but even so, the colors did not look the same. Cadfael plucked the woolen thread and tucked it away, making a note to look at Vincent’s clothing later. Something told him to keep quiet about it: that it would be better to have evidence that was his alone.
Meanwhile, the men-at-arms were still arguing against Gilbert, and against Julienne. “It had to have been the girl,” the first one repeated, and one of his fellows nodded his agreement. “Had to have been,” the second one echoed. “She saw him at the feast, shouted that she hated him, and the next morning he’s found dead. Can’t be much simpler than that.”
When they brought it before the bishop, he saw it that way, too. “Bring me Julienne de Courcy!” the bishop thundered, sending his men-at-arms scattering to find her. “This is a place of peace!” All of his calm composure of the night before was gone, vanished into righteous fury. “A place of God! And the king arrives tomorrow! We cannot have this peace defiled by such a deed.”
It was not just the peace of the cathedral that had been broken. If someone connected to the Empress’s faction had murdered someone connected to the king’s faction, then what did that mean for peace in the realm? Everyone in the room was asking the same question – some quietly, some loudly, some angrily, some sadly.
Olivier sidled through the room until he was standing next to Cadfael. They exchanged a quick glance, each noting and treasuring the other’s presence, but could say or do no more. They stood side by side, next to Robert – Jerome was off praying, as he so often was – and listened. As they did, Cadfael fingered the threads that he had plucked from the stone: good wool, finely spun and closely woven, dyed a deep vivid green. Whose was it?
Just then, another storm of raised voices broke, as the men-at-arms brought Julienne into the room, with Eleanor of Aquitaine and her knights and ladies following close behind. Julienne’s eyes were wide with fear – there was no way that she could not know that her life might be forfeit – but she had not let go of the dignity that she treasured so deeply. She was quiet and composed, marching up towards the bishop under her own full power even though her arms were held behind her by the bishop’s men.
The bishop glared down from his dais, fixing Julienne with the full force of his authoritative gaze. “Julienne de Courcy!” he declared. “You have taken a life and broken God’s peace!”
Julienne did not break under the onslaught – if anything, she held up even more firmly, golden head held high. “I did not,” she declared, voice steeling itself against the tremble of fear that threatened to overtake it as she faced down one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. “I swear to you, I did not do this thing.”
“Indeed, she did not.” The Duchess Eleanor stepped up closer, joining her voice to Gilbert’s in Julienne’s defense. The younger woman’s face betrayed a hint of relief as her lady drew near. “I have known Julienne for years, and she would never kill.”
“Julienne.” The bishop turned his cool gaze back to the young woman, and once more, she met it straight on. “Do you deny that you shouted at Vincent Gouet last night? That you declared your hatred for him?”
Julienne swallowed. “I do not deny either of those things. But I did not kill him.”
The bishop leaned slightly forward, words and gaze pressing harder. “And you left the palace last night?”
A gasp broke out of Gilbert, and a ripple ran through the crowd.
“Then, Duchess, it seems your impression is incorrect,” the bishop declared. “For truly, it seems that she has made good on her wild words.” He waved a hand at the men-at-arms. “Take this woman somewhere that she will do no more harm to anyone.”
“No!” Gilbert burst out. “She’s done no harm!”
It was too late – Julienne was being taken away, despite everyone’s protests. She kept her head held high and her composure gathered around her with desperate valor. Eleanor rushed after them, not willing to let Julienne out of her sight, and a tumult rose up in their wake. Dozens of voices clamored in astonishment and anger and confusion, Gilbert’s still loudest of all. “She’s done no harm!”
“Gilbert!” the bishop snapped. “Remember your place.”
Michel couldn’t resist adding one more sardonic comment. “This time, Gilbert, I think you picked the wrong girl.”
“This is wrong,” Cadfael muttered. “Utterly wrong.”
“What do you mean?” Olivier murmured back.
“Julienne would not have done it.” Cadfael was aware of Robert leaning in to hear, like a bird of prey stalking closer, but he went on: he had no reason to hide this from his abbot. “Why would she admit to being abroad last night? If she could kill, surely she could also lie – why tell the truth about one and not the other? What’s more, she knew that she was the only person who had declared enmity to Vincent Gouet, save for her cousin Fulk. After that had happened, why would she kill him? She could not but realize that the accusation would fall on her or her cousin.”
On the dais, the same debate was still taking place. “Uncle, hear him out!” William was pleading. “He knows Julienne better than any of us. If he says that it’s not in her character - ”
The bishop cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand. “Infatuation clouds his judgment,” he scoffed.
Into this chaos stepped Robert. “If I might,” he offered smoothly, his tall bearing and magisterial voice commanding all eyes to turn towards him. “My brother monk, Cadfael,” and here he nodded towards the man he named, “has some skill in these matters. He has assisted our sheriff on many occasions. If his knowledge can help you, then I offer it to your service.”
Cadfael had had a feeling that this was coming – had been halfway to making the same offer himself, with his examination of the body and the evidence. Of course he wanted to seek the truth; of course he wanted to see justice done. And, truth be told, he wanted to see Julienne proven innocent, for he liked her – although if she was not, he would spare no effort or evidence in proving that as well. But only now did he realize the full meaning of what he was doing. Was he really ready to have the weight of the entire peace – not to mention Julienne’s life – placed upon his aging shoulders?
“Yes!” William accepted the offer before his uncle could speak. “Please. He does know about these things. He’s the one I told you about – the monk who could tell how long Vincent had been dead.” He glanced to the men-at-arms, and they nodded their confirmation as William continued, “And the sheriff is days away. Brother Cadfael is here, right now.”
“Thank you, Abbot.” It was Eleanor who spoke now – she had returned, a stormcloud of bright-flashing anger against the gray stone of the cathedral. “Your offer is generous.”
The bishop was surrounded on all sides: indignant duchess, pleading nephew, courteous abbot. “Very well,” he said finally, through clenched teeth. “Do what you will, brothers. But do it quickly. The king arrives tomorrow. If you find no evidence to the contrary, Julienne de Courcy will pay for her crime.”
Eleanor’s face darkened. Gilbert looked ill. Robert strode out, preening with satisfaction as he went, with Jerome scurrying alongside, and Cadfael trailing after.
As soon as they had passed the threshold, Cadfael began, “Father…”
Robert had expected questions and challenges – he cut off Cadfael almost at once. “I spoke the truth, Cadfael. I do trust your skills, no matter how much they have led you into dishonor and disobedience in the past.” It was the greatest compliment Robert had ever paid him, backhanded though it was. “I believe that you can find the truth of this matter. If the lady Julienne did kill Vincent Gouet, then the bishop will look favorably upon us for proving him correct. If she did not, then the Duchess Eleanor will do the same, for proving her friend innocent.” Robert permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction. “Either way, the real murderer will be found out and justice will be done.”
“Father Abbot!” Eleanor’s voice rang out behind them in the corridor. Robert turned calmly, not seeming to care whether or not Eleanor had heard him speculating about her reactions. “And Brother Cadfael?” She pronounced it perfectly this time. “You truly wish to help?”
Robert inclined his head to Cadfael, giving him permission to speak. “I do,” Cadfael said respectfully. “It seems that those who know Julienne best do not think that she could do such a deed. I trust their judgment. Which is to say, I trust your judgment, lady.”
A smile flared on Eleanor’s face, swift and fierce. “Good. Then whatever aid I can give is yours, Brother.”
Cadfael was on familiar ground now: he knew how to travel down this path of investigation and evidence and proof. Some of the proof he already had: the knowledge of when and where Vincent had been killed; the weapon used to do it. “I will need to see the dagger,” Cadfael began. “If it can be proven to be Julienne’s, it speaks to her guilt; if not, it speaks to her innocence.”
“I will have one of my men obtain it for you.” Eleanor agreed briskly. “What else?”
The energy in her manner brought a faint smile to Cadfael’s face. “May I speak to the lady? If she was abroad last night, perhaps someone can vouch for where she was. If she was seen elsewhere, then she could not have killed Vincent.”
“Very well,” Eleanor replied. “You may come now. Julienne is confined to her chambers,” she explained, with a hint of satisfaction – no doubt it was her influence that had gotten Julienne sent there rather than some chilly cell.
“You have leave,” Robert pronounced, and Cadfael followed the Duchess back to the rooms where they had been the night before.
Julienne was in the same seat where she had been then, too, making the same attempt at sewing. It was hardly more successful – small wonder! But she was still trying to maintain her composure and bravery, as always.
“Brother Cadfael is going to help us again,” Eleanor explained, sweeping over towards Julienne. “It seems that he is not only skilled in herbs, but in puzzles. He is going to find the person who did this awful deed.”
A faint light of hope started to kindle in Julienne’s eyes. “Truly?”
“Truly.” Eleanor sat down next to Julienne, watchful as always, and turned her commanding gaze towards Cadfael.
“Julienne, I am sorry for your troubles,” he began. “I must ask, is there anyone who can vouch for your presence last night?”
Julienne shook her head, miserable but still composed. “To prove I was elsewhere? I wish there were, but there is not. I couldn’t sleep – forgive me, Brother, it was not the fault of your herbs! I tried but I couldn’t. I kept…” She faltered, then pushed ahead. “I kept thinking of my parents. So I went out. I walked about the courtyard, and then went into the little church of St. Maurice. I prayed there for hours. But nobody saw me.” Her mouth twisted apologetically. “I did not want to be seen. And I did not want to wake any of the household either, so nobody saw me go.”
While she spoke, Cadfael looked at the girl’s clothing. Was there anything to match that fine, heavy woolen thread that he had found? No; she seemed to favor paler colors. Not that he believed her to be guilty of the deed, but he still had to look.
“What other points of proof are there?” Eleanor asked. “The time. The dagger. What else?” Cadfael could see her keen mind setting each piece of information in its place, as if she were laying them out on a table to examine.
“There were golden hairs found on the dead man’s body,” Cadfael said. “Not his, plainly, so perhaps the murderer’s.”
Eleanor frowned. “Do you think someone might have put them there on purpose, to make it seem as if Julienne did this crime?”
Julienne’s eyes widened, and she stared at her lady in renewed surprise. “Do you mean that someone wished to hurt me, as well as to hurt Vincent? But why?”
Cadfael said gently, “That is for you to tell me, lady. Have you any enemies? Or, do your family and friends?”
What could someone gain from having Julienne accused of murder? Might someone be trying to hurt Gilbert by discrediting Julienne? But what could anyone gain by hurting a young knight in the bishop’s employ? William might be the target, but that was rather distant – to try to hurt William by accusing the girl that his friend was courting. Or, more likely, might someone be trying to hurt Eleanor, by discrediting one of her household? Eleanor had been the subject of rumor and scandal before, when she went on Crusade with her first husband. Eleanor herself was having the same idea, judging from the distant, thoughtful look in her eyes.
But Julienne shook her head, as Cadfael had expected she would. “I can’t think of anyone.”
“But there might be someone,” Eleanor said. “I will think on it.” Sorting out her own enemies would be a much more complex task. Who might wish to hurt her personally, who might wish to strike at her husband, who might weaken Aquitaine, who might wish to weaken the peace? All were valid questions; any one of them might lead to a murderer. “If the person who did this deed intended you to suffer in their place, Julienne,” she added, steel sliding under her quiet voice, “they will pay even more dearly for their crime.”
“Very well,” Cadfael sighed. “If you think of anything else, send for me.” He offered a kind smile to Julienne. “And try to be easy. I promise to do everything that I can to find the truth.”
Julienne almost managed a smile. “Yes, Brother.”
Eleanor rose to walk with Cadfael to the door, lowering her voice so that Julienne could not hear. “We both know that someone might be trying to dishonor me by dishonoring my friends. They must be found. I will not have innocent people hurt on my account.”
Cadfael nodded. “I will do everything I can,” he promised.
“I know that you will.”
Her confidence was heartening, but he still knew that he had a long road ahead of him.
As Cadfael reached the bottom of the stairs that led away from the duchess’s chambers, he was nearly bowled over by a tall blond figure rushing towards him. Fulk de Courcy reached out to steady him as he staggered, hastily crying, “Brother! Forgive me – I meant no harm – I must – “
“Get to your cousin,” Cadfael finished. “I know. I have just been to see her.”
“Then let me past!” Fulk said, agitated.
“May I have a word first?” Cadfael did not want to think Fulk guilty any more than Julienne, but he could not deny that Fulk had both golden hair and reason to hate Vincent. He needed to ask Fulk questions before Fulk could speak to Julienne or anyone else. “It would help your cousin if I could.”
“All right,” Fulk agreed.
They stepped out of the dim staircase, and Cadfael’s heart sank when the brighter light of the corridor revealed that Fulk wore a deep green tunic and a cloak to match. Had Fulk really done what he claimed he did not wish to do, and taken vengeance for his dead uncle and aunt? “May I ask where you were last night?” Cadfael began. “It would help to know if you saw anything that might help prove your cousin’s whereabouts,” he added quickly.
Fulk shook his head, his mouth twisting in regret. “I slept soundly all night.” Did that proclaim guilt or innocence? A guilty man might claim that, since nobody could disprove it. Or, a guilty man might make certain to have been seen somewhere else. Which was it with Fulk?
“Your cousin had never seen Vincent Gouet since her parents’ death, is that right?” Cadfael continued. “What about you?”
Fulk let out an impatient breath. “No, I did not,” he said shortly. “Brother – forgive my bluntness, but I see what you are asking. No, I did not kill him. I knew that my cousin hated and feared him, and…and, yes, I felt some hatred too,” he admitted, “knowing that he had killed my aunt and uncle. But I did not kill him. Not for myself, and not for Julienne. If he had attacked me or Julienne, of course I would have defended, but he did not.” That, Cadfael believed. But the death was not one of defense; it was stealth, stabbing in the back in the dark. He was starting to be convinced of Fulk’s innocence as well. He, like Julienne, was open about hating Vincent, and too honest and blunt to be the sort of person to sneak through alleys and stick a dagger in someone’s back.
How to explain the golden hairs, then, if neither Fulk nor Julienne did the deed? Doubtless there were other golden-haired people. But there was one more piece of evidence that Cadfael had. “Your cloak,” Cadfael asked. “May I see it?”
Fulk blinked in confusion at the sudden shift, but turned quickly, anxious to get this done with. “Er. All right.”
To Cadfael’s relief, he saw only thickly woven fabric: no tears, no threads out of place, nothing that could have been the source of the thread he found near Vincent’s body. “Thank you. That is all I wanted. Please do not let me delay you further from your cousin. She will be glad of your presence.”
Fulk barely lingered long enough to say, “God be with you, Brother,” before he ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time in his rush to get to Julienne.
Cadfael went next to the one other person whose opinion he knew he could trust: Olivier de Bretagne. “What do you know of Vincent Gouet?”
“You mean, what do I know of Vincent Gouet that might make someone wish to cause him harm?” Olivier’s mouth twisted ruefully, making his face look even more like Mariam’s than usual. “I have been trying to think of that same thing,” he sighed. “He had a great many enemies – even from the little of him that you saw, you must have been able to tell that. And to see why,” he admitted, more ruefully still. “He was brutal in war and peace alike, and there were many who hated him.”
“Julienne de Courcy was one. And with good cause.” Cadfael did not truly suspect her; nor, he thought, did Olivier. But he wanted to speak all of the names out loud, and to go through all of the reasons why each one might have wanted to kill Vincent Gouet.
Olivier understood that, it seemed, for he simply shook his head. “I know Julienne. She hated Vincent, yes, and is strong enough to have struck the blow, but she is no murderer. She would shout at someone face-to-face, as she did, but only that. She would not lie in wait to stab someone in the back. And, as you said, it is known that she left her rooms last night. Why tell the truth about that, if she were doing something that she wished to hide?”
“What of her cousin, then?”
Olivier was less quick to dismiss that possibility. “Fulk de Courcy might have wanted to avenge the deaths of his aunt and uncle,” he said slowly, thinking it through as he spoke. “But he was lodging in the north wing of the palace – he could not have left without being noticed. He would have had to go right past the kitchen, and there were people there all night.”
“Then someone would have seen him, would they not?” Cadfael asked. “That may be easy to prove – although if nobody saw him, then perhaps not, for what can we prove by him not being seen?”
“Would you like me to ask about in the kitchens?” Olivier offered. “Two can work more quickly than one, and it sounds as if you have enough people to speak to already.”
“Yes,” Cadfael said with a smile. “Thank you. There is also the matter of the dagger. The Duchess is having her people obtain it. Can you get it from her, and see if you can find its owner?”
“Of course.” Olivier agreed at once. “And I will look for people with golden hair, as well. Not that there is any lack of those,” he added ruefully. “But if the hair did not belong to Fulk or Julienne, then we must find who it did belong to.”
The two of them had fallen into an easy rhythm, as if they had been conversing this way for years. Both of them sensed it; both gave small smiles as they realized how naturally the conversation flowed.
“And while you do,” Cadfael said, “there is one more thing to look for.” He withdrew the dark green thread and held it out to Olivier. “I found this near the dead man. It may come from the murderer’s garment.” Olivier narrowed his eyes at it in careful scrutiny as he turned it over in his hand. “You are the only one who knows that it exists, besides me.”
Olivier flashed a quick smile as thanks for the trust that Cadfael was placing in him, and handed the thread back. “I will look for anyone who wears this color, or anyone whose clothes are torn.”
“Then while you do that, I will speak to the people who knew the dead man, and those who lodged near Fulk de Courcy.” Cadfael said. “Perhaps one of them saw or heard something that will help.”
Cadfael’s next visit was to someone whose opinion he did not know so definitively, but whose innocence, intelligence, and desire to help he was certain he could trust: Stephen’s son, William of Boulogne. He threaded through the maze of palace corridors to the south wing where William and his friends lodged.
The boy was, as Cadfael had hoped, still sincere in his wish to help, and sincere in his welcome. “Brother, come in. May I send for food? Are you warm enough?”
Cadfael bristled a bit at the solicitous tone. Better for the young to be kind to the old than for them to abandon them, he supposed, but it still stung a bit for Cadfael to realize that he was one of the old, to be fussed over. And yet…it gave him an idea. “Have you a cloak?” he asked.
William was only too happy to oblige. “Of course!” he said at once, and hurried to fetch it. His cloak was exceedingly fine wool, dark gray and closely woven. His other garments were in grays and blues as well; nothing to match the deep green of the thread found near Vincent. Not that Cadfael ever actually suspected William of murder, but the more people’s cloaks he saw, the more he could be certain.
“Brother, thank you,” William said earnestly, as he sat back down. “I want to know who committed this breach of the peace, and who killed one of my father’s men.” Not ‘one of my friends,’ Cadfael noted.
“I will do everything that I can, my lord,” Cadfael replied. “You knew Vincent Gouet – what can you tell me of him? Forgive me, but it seemed that he was a man who did not lack for enemies?”
William’s face twisted in a grimace. “That’s true. He made enemies easily, and friends rarely or not at all. And you’ll have heard how he conducted himself in battle.”
“Most of those who had faced him in battle would have seen him as a harsh enemy, I suppose,” Cadfael agreed. “But another warrior would understand that violence in battle is necessary.” Cadfael saw William’s eyes widen with sudden startlement, and he smiled as he explained, “I was not always a monk. I fought myself, once. I went to Jerusalem. With your grandfather,” he added, remembering that Stephen’s father had been among the leaders of that long-ago Crusade.
A wondering smile came to William’s face, and Cadfael could tell that he was full of questions, but the boy made himself stick to the matter at hand. “The deeds that Vincent did in battle…you’re right, that men kill, and men are killed; that’s the way of things.” He weighed his words with careful thought before giving them away: what words would be true, and what words would be kind? Hard to do both, when speaking of someone like Vincent Gouet.
“But?” Cadfael prompted, hearing the unspoken word behind the boy’s tone.
“But it’s still not right for people to take such joy in it as he did. He…liked to hurt people,” William admitted quietly. “He trained some of us when we were younger - you’ve met Gilbert and Michel, haven’t you? Us, and some others. But he was so harsh that I asked Father to make him stop. Beating for small mistakes, things like that.” William’s eyes shadowed with the memory – even though his status would likely have protected him from the worst of Vincent’s cruelty, he still remembered the pain it had caused his friends.
“Do you know of any who particularly hated him? Others whom he may have wronged, the way he wronged Julienne and Fulk de Courcy?”
The boy gave the questions serious thought, but ended by shaking his head. “Not that I can think of. There were many who disliked him. But that kind of hatred, the kind that would make someone kill? I can’t think of anyone who would have it. Even for Vincent.”
Cadfael sighed. “Easier to have too few names on the list than too many, I suppose. But still, think on it more. If anything else comes to you, please let me know.”
William nodded earnestly. “I will, Brother. I’ll do whatever I can to help you in this.”
“Thank you. I know that you will.” Cadfael stood to go, unfolding the cloak from around his shoulders to give back to William. “My lord, I have not yet had a chance to offer my sympathy for your brother Eustace’s death. He is in our prayers at Shrewsbury.”
“Thank you,” William said quietly. “My father has made sure that he will not lack for prayers.”
There was less bitterness than Cadfael would expect in that statement, considering William’s position – and yet, it seemed that William was not entirely unscathed by being passed over. Eustace’s memory would be maintained, by Stephen and by others, long after he was gone. But who remembered William even now?
Olivier reported back a short while later: nobody in the kitchens had seen Fulk de Courcy pass by between Matins and Lauds. Julienne they had seen, precisely at the time that she had said she went to the church and returned.
“What about the dagger?” Cadfael asked hopefully. “Or the thread?”
Olivier shook his head. “There’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s well-made, but without anything that would identify its maker or owner. I have done what asking I can, but nobody knows its owner. Nor has anyone remarked on someone being without a dagger. Or a cloak,” he added. “I have looked for torn garments, and saw a few among the servants in the kitchen, but not of that color.”
Cadfael went back to the priory with a heavy heart. No proof of Julienne’s innocence, no information that might prove anyone else’s guilt. Save for checking every cloak in the palace, what else could he do?
When he entered their chamber, Robert was writing letters, and Jerome was, as always, on his knees praying. “Well?” Robert asked, eyebrows arched expectantly up as he turned towards Cadfael.
Cadfael shook his head. “I can find nobody who believes Julienne’s guilt, but nobody who can prove her innocence, either, for nobody saw her. Fulk cannot have done it, for he would have been seen passing the kitchen. William says that Vincent had any number of enemies, but none who hated him so much that they would kill him.”
“Julienne?” Jerome repeated, rousing himself out of his pious distraction to blink at the others. “The lady in the Duchess’s household?”
“Yes, that one.” If the question had been asked by anyone but Jerome, Robert might have been dismissive, but with his secretary, the abbot was patient.
“The one who prays in the church of St. Maurice? I saw her there last night,” Jerome said, serenely unaware that this was a question that Cadfael and others had been desperate to answer for hours.
“You saw her?” Cadfael asked, hope rising.
Jerome nodded. “I saw her with my own eyes. She was there all night, I think. Certainly, she was there before Matins, and between Matins and Lauds, and she did not seem to have moved betweentimes.”
“You’ll swear this before the bishop?” Cadfael pressed.
“Of course,” Jerome said confusedly. “It is the truth.”
“Brother.” Robert’s voice was gentler than Cadfael had ever heard it. “You prayed all night? Again?”
Jerome blinked up, uncertain why Robert would ask the question. “Yes, Father.”
“After ten years, you are still doing penance.” The realization softened Robert’s eyes even more, and he shook his head. “Sincere penance is an act of holiness.” Jerome brightened, eager for praise as always. “But do not burden your body or soul any more than it can handle,” Robert continued. “You have done your duty, Brother.” Robert reached out to touch Jerome lightly on the shoulder. “Now go rest.”
Jerome scurried dutifully away.
Robert cleared his throat, drew himself up straighter, and turned back to Cadfael, brisk and composed once more. “So. We now know that Julienne is innocent. The duchess will be happy to hear that.”
“Indeed she will,” Cadfael agreed. “But we still need to find the person who did kill Vincent.”
“I know that you will uncover the truth,” Robert said coolly. “You always do. Somehow.”
When they went before the bishop, Jerome’s testimony was accepted without question, but not without resentment, no matter how much the bishop tried to hide it: he did not like to be proven wrong. Nor did he like that there was still no answer as to who did kill Vincent. “Julienne was seen elsewhere,” the bishop conceded grudgingly, “but what of Fulk? Perhaps he sneaked out. You said that you would find the truth, and I am still waiting. Brothers, this peace must go forward, and for that, we must have the truth.”
For once, Cadfael was in agreement with the bishop: he wished he had the truth.
At least there was some good news that he could give. When he went to tell Julienne of the witness to her innocence, her face lit with joy. “That means that my name is clear?”
“It does,” Cadfael said. “And your cousin, too, although we do not have proof quite so definitive.”
“But what of the evidence?” Eleanor asked. “The dagger, and those golden hairs?”
Cadfael shook his head. “The dagger’s owner has not been found. The murderer may be someone else with golden hair, it is true. But the list of people with blond hair and the list of people who hated Vincent Gouet are both long ones.”
But how could he find that person? What did he have to work with? Vincent and Eleanor had too many enemies; Julienne and Fulk had too few. The palace had too many people with blond hair, and too few with deep green garments. How could Cadfael ever bring those numbers into accord with each other?
Even as, on his way to the priory for Vespers, people congratulated him for the victory he had gained in clearing Julienne – word traveled quickly, it seemed – the unanswered questions continued to chase each other through his mind, tarnishing the joy he felt at having answered one. He chanted the familiar words of the service, but his mind found neither comfort nor rest.
The sun set early enough at this time of year that it had already been full dark before Vespers began, and the nighttime chill had settled in by the time the service ended. More than a few of the guests shivered as they filed out into the courtyard on their way to the palace for supper.
Others were shivering too, Cadfael saw, noting familiar faces along the way. And then his eye caught one particular person who was clad only in a tunic with nothing over it: Michel.
Michel, who had hated Vincent Gouet. Michel, shivering in the evening chill, because he was not wearing his capelet. The capelet he had worn that first night, the one that was dark green. That he was not wearing now – why? Perhaps because it was torn, and he would rather be cold than wear a torn garment. Cadfael was holding the threads.
Cadfael turned away from Robert and Jerome and swam upstream through the column of monks, ignoring Jerome’s startled squawk. “Father – forgive me – “ he called back to Robert.
By the time he broke free of the group, Michel had gone, but Cadfael knew what he had to do. He hurried through the courtyard until he found the first person on his brief list of those he could trust. “William!”
“Brother!” William gave a bright smile. “Gilbert told me about Julienne! That’s wonderful!”
Cadfael shook off the boy’s words – there was no time. “I need you to do something for me.”
“Of course!” the boy replied, confused but obliging.
“Michel’s capelet. The green one,” Cadfael said urgently. William nodded – he still had no idea what was going on, but he would still trust Cadfael’s word. “Go see if it’s torn. Go quickly, and come back to me.”
Which meant, Cadfael realized a moment after he had sent William away, that he couldn’t leave that spot. Which meant that he could not go himself to find any of the others that he trusted. He called to the nearest reliable-looking servant. “Find me Olivier de Bretagne. One of Laurence d’Angers’ knights. Bring him here.”
The servant looked deeply confused at the urgency of the request, but his respect for Cadfael’s age, tonsure, and status as a guest prevented him from saying anything but “Yes, Brother.”
Despite the urgency he felt, Cadfael had longer to wait than he thought. By the time Olivier hurried over to him, William had still not returned.
“What is it?” Olivier asked.
“Michel. The young man who’s friends with Stephen’s son William. He’s missing his capelet.”
Realization came to Olivier in a flash. “Have you told the bishop?”
Cadfael shook his head. “Not yet. Could you – “
“Of course,” Olivier agreed before Cadfael could finish.
That was when William finally ran up. The exertion made him breathless, and made him limp from that not-quite-healed riding injury. “Michel’s gone,” he gasped. “I tried to catch him but he pushed me down and ran.” The confession twisted his face with humiliation as well as pain.
Remorse shot through Cadfael – and fear, too, for Stephen’s son had been endangered on his account! He had never imagined that Michel would be the kind to strike down a friend as well as an enemy. Nor had he thought that Michel would have suspected anything but friendly inquiry from William. Gilbert must have told Michel that Julienne had been cleared, which had made Michel anxious that he might be discovered – and that had made him desperate enough to attack his friend who was the king’s son. “Do you know which way he might have gone?”
“You didn’t see him?” William asked, surprised.
Olivier looked around the courtyard, measuring distances and noting locations. “Out the northwest gate, then,” he decided. “The one by St. Lawrence’s Church. That’s the only gate he could have used from the palace that wouldn’t take him through here.”
“Where would he go after that?” Cadfael pressed, turning back to William.
“If he were leaving the city? I don’t know! No, wait.” The thought came to him after a moment. “West. He has an aunt near Salisbury. That’s where he’d go.”
Gilbert came running up. “William, what’s going on? I saw Michel running – “
“It was him!” William cut his friend off. “Michel killed Vincent. And he knew that we knew, and he ran.”
“Michel did it?” Gilbert gasped. “Why?”
“I don’t know!” William cried, and for a moment, he sounded very very young.
“So he might be trying to get to Salisbury,” Cadfael said, pulling William back from the edge of panic. “How much of a head start does he have? Did he take a horse?”
William stopped, took a breath, and started again. This time, his voice was steady and in control. “Gilbert, go to the stables to see if Michel took a horse. I’ll get some of my uncle’s men.” Gilbert took off running almost before William was finished.
“I’ll do it,” Olivier offered. “And some men from the Duchess, if there’s time.”
William nodded. “Thank you.” Olivier hurried off, leaving William and Cadfael alone. “Brother?” William said more quietly. “Thank you. Thank you for finding the truth.” As much as that truth pained him, he was still honestly grateful for it.
“I had to,” Cadfael replied simply. “I’m sorry it was your friend.”
William gave a weak, sad smile. “So am I.”
Gilbert returned first, racing at full speed to report, “He took a horse. He’s got a lead, but we can still catch him.”
“We always do,” William chimed in.
“He’s a terrible rider,” Gilbert explained, and the boys exchanged a pained, rueful look. They probably jested about Michel’s poor riding all the time, but now he was a murderer, and they were using that knowledge to chase him down.
“So we’ll catch him this time.”
They gathered in the stables a few moments later: Cadfael, Olivier, Gilbert, William, two of the bishop’s men, two of the Duchess’s. They were Poitevins, by the accents that Cadfael heard as they murmured amongst themselves. “You,” Olivier commanded. “What are your names?”
“Guilhem,” the taller spoke up, his voice low and raspy.
“Raymond,” said the other, standing close to his fellow knight.
“Will,” Gilbert said quietly to his friend. “You don’t have to go. If you can’t…” So soon after William’s accident, was his body or his mind ready for a reckless nighttime ride like this?
William thought so. “I can!” William said shortly – and then, a little more softly. “I have to. It’s Michel.”
“You don’t have to go, either,” Olivier told Cadfael, concern showing plainly in his eyes.
Cadfael shook his head, and smiled faintly as he echoed William’s words. “But I do. I have to. I need to see this finished.” The impetuousness of seventeen and the determination of seventy-five both led to the same place.
Olivier’s smile flashed bright in the darkness of the night. “Then I’ll stay with you.”
They all mounted up – Cadfael with Olivier’s help, Guilhem with a hint of awkwardness that surprised Cadfael – and rode out into the night. The people of Winchester scattered aside as the group of armed men came charging down the High Street towards the West Gate.
Busy streets and stone walls gave way quickly to small farms, and then wide open land, and the straight road that ran to Salisbury, and to the west beyond that.
Gilbert charged to the front almost at once, with the Poitevins close behind. William was slow to start, skittish and uncertain – but as soon as they were out on the open road, his confidence and speed picked up. One of the bishop’s men rode in front, and the other kept at William’s side, fulfilling both their duty to catch Michel and their duty to keep the bishop’s nephew safe.
Cadfael could not match the others’ speed or skill of the knights: he dropped to the back almost at once. But Olivier stayed close by his side, just as he had promised. Cadfael was tempted to tell his son to ride up ahead, but thought better of it – even though the moon was bright enough to light their way, two men riding together were safer than one monk alone. And Cadfael could ride by his son’s side – when would this ever happen again?
A few miles out of the city, they saw him: a lone figure, still uncloaked, riding hard towards Salisbury. Michel stole a backwards glance, eyes showing white with fear in the darkness, and spurred his horse faster.
He was no match for his pursuers, though: Gilbert and William had been right. Gilbert and the two Poitevins wheeled around him, hemming him in and forcing him off the road. Thrown off-balance, Michel flung himself off of the horse and started running – but the others were close behind. Gilbert and the two Poitevin knights leaped on him, wrestling him to the ground.
By the time the others caught up and dismounted, the Poitevins had hauled Michel up, Raymond holding one of his arms and Guilhem the other. The harder Michel struggled, the harder Guilhem yanked his arm up his back. “Got you,” Guilhem hissed.
William limped up to stand next to Gilbert, trying to angle around the bishop’s man-at-arms who stuck protectively by him. Together, the two young men faced their friend, twin looks of hurt shock on their faces.
The second of the bishop’s men loomed over the still-struggling Michel. “You have fled from the bishop’s justice,” he pronounced. “And assaulted William. That proclaims your guilt more loudly than any confession. But do you confess? Did you kill Vincent Gouet?”
For a second, Michel hung there. The only sound was his harsh, ragged breathing. Finally, he said, “Yes. I killed him.”
Guilhem hissed. Olivier stepped closer to Cadfael, shielding him against the murderer even though Michel was still firmly caught up by the Poitevins. Gilbert took a step back, shocked betrayal twisting his face.
William didn’t back away, though. He stood where he was, letting one more piece of hurt settle onto him. “Michel, why?” he asked, shaking his head. “I know you hated him, but I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“He was a brute,” Michel spat. “You didn’t see the worst of it, William – he’d never dare to hurt you like the did the rest of us.”
“It was bad,” Gilbert agreed quietly. “But it was over, Michel – you were away from him. Why kill him now? And why let Julienne take the blame?”
The first twinge of remorse crossed Michel’s expressive face. “I’m sorry, Gilbert. I swear, I never thought they’d accuse Julienne. I was hoping they’d blame Fulk.”
Behind him, Guilhem snorted, and yanked harder on Michel’s arm. “It’s Julienne that you should apologize to,” he growled. “She’s the one you wronged.”
“So you planted the gold hairs on him?” Cadfael put in. The sound of his voice startled Michel, and the young man’s shame deepened at the sight of a monk. “And tried to blame Fulk at every turn, looking all of us in the eye and lying to us.”
Michel nodded. “They must have come off of Fulk when he knocked against me at the feast. I thought that if they were found, people would think that Fulk killed Vincent. William, do you remember the time they caught that red-haired thief?” He clung desperately to the shared memory, as if that could still tie him to the friends – and life – that he was so plainly losing. “They found some red hairs nearby. Red-haired, and red-handed?” His jokes fell flat – the only response was another jab from Guilhem.
“But why kill him at all?” William still truly could not understand. “And why did you want Fulk to take the blame?”
“It was for you, William!” Michel burst out. “I wanted you to fight!” His voice held the same vigor, the same encouragement that he had always given his friend, but now it seemed sinister, twisted by what he had done with it. “It’s your right! Your right as the king’s son! How could you give it up? I thought if there was another death to avenge, one of our people killed by one of their people, the peace would break up and you’d keep going. You’d take what was yours!”
“It was never mine, Michel,” William said, very quietly. He had been quiet through Michel’s entire outburst, his young face growing sadder and sadder, weighed down by expectation and resignation and grief. He had lost so much in such a short time: his mother, his brother, his birthright. And now his friend. “The crown isn’t mine, and it won’t ever be. The best thing I could do for this realm is not to fight over it. I won’t do any more harm to the land than has been already done. And I won’t have anyone hurt in my name.”
“But it’s yours!” Michel couldn’t let it go. Not even when the bishop’s men took him from the Poitevins and dragged him away.
The ride back to the palace was slower, and seemed much longer. William and Gilbert rode side by side, lost in silent unhappiness. Until Michel confessed, they had been able to hold out a little hope that they were wrong about his guilt – now, their illusions and friendship alike had been broken.
Back in the stables, Cadfael suppressed a groan as he dismounted. Reckless rides were, perhaps, not something to be undertaken at seventy-five, no matter how just or urgent the cause. Yet despite the creaking pain in his joints, Cadfael could not regret what he had just done – save for one thing. “William,” he said, pausing to speak to the young man on his way out. “Forgive me. I never wanted to send you into danger.”
William shook his head. “It’s all right. If Michel hadn’t hurt me, he might have hurt someone else, and I wouldn’t have wanted that, either. And…I had to see it with my own eyes. What Michel did. All of it. I – I wanted to think the best of him, and I think I always would have doubted if I hadn’t seen it myself. Thank you for finding the truth, Brother.” He offered a small, sad smile, and headed off to join Gilbert.
As William left, Cadfael spied a pair of figures – one tall and slim, one shorter and broader – coming down the aisle of the stables, and he lingered to fall into step beside the two Poitevin knights. They were silent for a few paces until they were out in the chill night air, when Cadfael finally spoke up. “So the true killer has been found,” he said, more to Guilhem than Raymond. “You must be looking forward to telling Julienne.” Guilhem nodded once, silently. “She will be relieved to hear it from one she trusts as much as you. My lady,” he added, with a pointed, deliberate look up.
Raymond tensed, and both Poitevins stopped short. Then Guilhem relaxed, and reached up to tip the hood back just far enough to reveal a pair of keen eyes and a pale brow, and a small smile in the darkness. “How did you know?” Eleanor asked, as she settled the hood in place. There was no betrayal in her gaze, just admiration for the sharp mind that had discerned her secret.
Cadfael met her eyes directly, and smiled. “I was in the world for a long time, my lady, before I was in the cloister. I took the cross and went to Jerusalem, so I know the bearing of a knight. Guilhem did not have it. Nor did he have the air of one accustomed to riding as a knight, yet he clearly was no stranger to horses. And who else cares so much about Julienne de Courcy that they would wish to see her innocence proven with their own eyes? Her cousin? Yes, but why would he not show his face? Gilbert of St. Pol? He was already there. And Guilhem was not tall enough to be Julienne herself. It only left you.”
Eleanor let out a low murmur of a laugh. “Well reasoned, Brother. I should have known better than to think that you would be fooled. And what do you think? That I am corrupt and sinful, for riding like a man?” Her chin lifted slightly, matching the challenge of her words.
“I think, lady,” Cadfael said mildly, “that you love justice and your friends so well that you wish to see with your own eyes that they are protected.”
“And so I do,” she answered, with a fierce smile.
The next morning, Stephen and Maud arrived, and the peace began.
Ten years ago, Stephen would have commanded the room with his very presence. Tonight he sat back in his chair, bright hair gone thin and gray; bright eyes gone dull with grief. It was clear to anyone who looked why the war was ending. Ten years ago, Maud might have taken advantage of her cousin’s weakness, but no more. This was only a partial triumph for her, and she was acute enough to take only the ground conceded to her, no more. She gave Stephen a greeting of quiet courtesy, then withdrew to her own side of the hall.
Yet Cadfael’s eye kept drawing away from the royal cousins and towards their children and retainers. Young William, sad and subdued, and yet once giving that smile that was like enough to his father’s that it made Cadfael blink and look again. Henry FitzEmpress and Eleanor of Aquitaine, with their bright clothes and clusters of knights and ladies around them.
And Julienne and Gilbert, who had somehow managed to find each other and were now standing side by side, Julienne’s bright gold head rising above the crowd.
These were the people to whom the realm was being left. Considering what he had seen of them, Cadfael felt confident that the realm would be in good hands.
Under the watchful eye of the bishop, Henry FitzEmpress knelt to do homage to King Stephen, then rose to exchange the kiss of peace.
“This is my son and heir,” Stephen said to all assembled. “He will reign after me.”
After that, there were negotiations about land and castles, and Robert worked to make certain that the abbey would get what it deserved. When the gathering broke up a few days later, there were surely those who felt that they could have done more, or received more. Some, like Michel, must still have held anger within them. But most, like Cadfael, were satisfied with peace, and knew that the hardest and most important task was to get both sides to want to make peace in the first place. And now the realm would be left to the young to make into what they wished.
As they were getting ready to make the long journey back to Shrewsbury, Abbot Robert allowed that there was one bit of unfinished business. “Cadfael,” he said, quite casually, as they were waiting for their baggage to be loaded. “You have leave to speak to Olivier de Bretagne.”
Cadfael stopped short. Robert knew? Robert was giving him leave? It was hard to say which was the more astonishing. “Thank you, Father,” he said slowly, holding back a dozen more questions.
Robert answered at least one of them without Cadfael having to ask. “Abbot Radulfus told me.” Robert gave Cadfael a faint smile, touched with satisfaction. “There is much that I have been given in confidence as abbot, and it will remain in confidence. But for this you have leave, Brother, because I do not wish you to violate your obedience yet again. Nor,” he added, a bit more gently, “do I wish you to be tempted. And I know that you would be, very much. So, you have leave. Go.”
“Thank you,” Cadfael said once more, swift and heartfelt, and went.
He found Olivier in the stables, overseeing the preparations for Laurence d’Angers’ departure. As soon as Olivier saw him, he turned in happy surprise. “Brother! I was hoping to see you.”
“We’re about to leave,” Cadfael told him, and saw Olivier’s smile fade under the news. “But I have a little while before then.”
Olivier gave a few hurried instructions for what to be done, then walked with Cadfael to a quiet corner where they could sit alone together for those few precious minutes.
“It has been wonderful to see you again,” Olivier said softly. “Truly, it has. If I can ever come near Shrewsbury, I will. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to, but I’ll do my best. We’ve had far too little time!” A deeper urgency had come into Olivier’s words, beyond just the sorrow at having a brief visit coming to an end.
Cadfael shook his head and smiled at his son. “This time has been gift enough,” he said, answering the words both spoken and unspoken. “Working with you, hearing you speak of your children – it’s a blessing that I would never have dared to hope for. It would always be better to have more time, but I am entirely content with the time I have had.”
Olivier nodded, and leaned forward to embrace his father one last time.
“Be well,” Cadfael said softly, holding his son close. “Blessings be on you.”
Under the golden shine of the sun, Cadfael turned towards home: the town where he would hear the sweet sounds of Welsh being spoken, the abbey where his days were measured out in hours and services and songs with his brothers, the shrine to St. Winifred where he still felt her presence, the earth that he had dug for decades. His garden would be covered over for winter by the time he reached Shrewsbury, but he knew that when spring came, the land would start to grow again, in peace.