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Ellis Peters


Chapter One

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 Faringdon and Cricklade, and Philip FitzRobert coming over to Stephen, in despite of father and empress and all, and with a strong castle in either hand.”

“That,” said Hugh flatly, “I shall never understand. He, of all people! Gloucester’s own son, and Gloucester has been the empress’s prop and stay as good as singlehanded throughout, and now his son turns against him and joins the king! And no half-measures, either. By all accounts, he’s righting for Stephen as fiercely as he ever fought for Maud.”

“And bear in mind, Philip’s sister is wife to Ranulf of Chester,” the courier pointed out, “and these two changes of heart chime together. Which of them swept the other away with him, or what else lies behind it, God he knows, not I. But there’s the plain fact of it. The king is the fatter by two new allies and a very respectable handful of castles.”

“And I’d have said, in no mood to make any concessions, even for the bishops,” observed Hugh shrewdly. “Much more likely to be encouraged, all over again, to believe he can win absolute victory. I doubt if they’ll ever get him to the council table.”

“Never underestimate Roger de Clinton,” said Leicester’s squire, and grinned. “He has offered Coventry as the meeting-place, and Stephen has as good as agreed to come and listen. They’re issuing safe conducts already, on both sides. Coventry is a good centre for all, Chester can make use of Mountsorrel to offer hospitality and worm his way into friendships, and the priory has housing enough for all. Oh, there’ll be a meeting! Whether much will come of it is another matter. It won’t please everyone, and there’ll be those who’ll do their worst to wreck it. Philip FitzRobert for one. Oh, he’ll come, if only to confront his father and show that he regrets nothing, but he’ll come to destroy, not to placate. Well, my lord wants your voice there, speaking for your shire. Shall he have it? He knows your mind,” said the young man airily, “or thinks he does. You rank somewhere in the list of his hopes. What do you say?’ “Let him send me word of the day,” said Hugh heartily, “and I’ll be there.”

“Good, I’ll tell him so. And for the rest, you’ll know already that it was only the handful of captains, with Brien de Soulis at their head, who sold out Faringdon to the king, and made prisoner all the knights of the garrison who refused to change sides. The king handed them out like prizes to some of his own followers, to profit by their ransom. My lord has got hold from somewhere of a list of those doled out, those among them who have been offered for ransom, and those already bought free. Here he sends you a copy, in case any names among them concern you closely, captors or captives. If anything comes of the meeting at Coventry their case will come up for consideration, and it’s not certain who holds the last of them.”

“I doubt there’ll be any there known to me,” said Hugh, taking up the sealed roll thoughtfully. “All those garrisons along the Thames might as well be a thousand miles from us. We do not even hear when they fall or change sides until a month after the event. But thank Earl Robert for his courtesy, and tell him I’ll trust to see him in the priory of Coventry when the day comes.”

He did not break the seal of Robert Beaumont’s letter until the courier had departed, to make for Coventry and Bishop Roger de Clinton’s presence on his way back to Leicester. In the last few years the bishop had made Coventry the main seat of his diocese, though Lichfield retained its cathedral status, and the see was referred to impartially by either name. The bishop was also titular abbot of the Benedictine monastery in the town, and the head of the household of monks bore the title of prior, but was mitred like an abbot. Only two years previously the peace of the priory had been sadly disturbed, and the monks temporarily turned out of their quarters, but they had been firmly reinstalled before the year ended, and were unlikely to be dispossessed again.