EVESHAM ABBEY, ENGLAND
THERE were no stars. The sky was the color of cinders, and shadows were spilling out of every corner. Brother Damian was truly content with his lot in life, but border winters were brutal, and he sometimes found it hard to reconcile his monk’s vow of poverty with his subversive yearning for a woolen mantle luxuriously lined with fox fur. Folklore held that St Hilary’s Day was the coldest of the year, but he doubted that it could be as frigid as this first Friday in January, a day that had begun in snow and was ending now in this frozen twilight dusk, in swirling sleet and ice-edged gusting wind, sharp as any blade.
He had reached the dubious shelter of the cloisters when a snowball grazed his cheek, splattered against the nearest pillar. Damian stumbled, slipped on the glazed walkway, and went down. His assailants rushed to his rescue and he was soon encircled by dismayed young faces. With recognition, the boys’ apologies became less anxious, more heartfelt, for Damian was a favorite of theirs. They often wished that he, rather than the dour Brother Gerald, was master of the novices, as Damian was young enough himself to wink at their indiscretions, understanding how bumpy was the road from country lad to reluctant scholar. Now he scolded them roundly as they helped him to his feet and retrieved his spilled candles, but his rebuke lacked sting; when he tallied up sins, he found no room on the list for snowball fights.
His duty done, Damian felt free to jest about poor marksmanship before sending them back to their studies. They crowded in, jockeying for position, warming him with their grins, imploring him to tell them again of the great Earl Simon and the battle of Evesham, fought within sight of the abbey’s walls. Damian was not deceived, as able as the next man to recognize a delaying tactic. But it was a ploy he could never resist, and when they entreated him to tell the story "just one more time, for Jack," a freckle-faced newcomer to their ranks, he let himself be persuaded.
Five years had passed since the Earl of Leicester had found violent death and martyrdom on a bloody August morn, but his memory was still green. Evesham cherished its own saint, caring naught that Simon de Montfort had not been—and would likely never be—canonized by the Church. No pope or cardinal would antagonize the English Crown by sanctifying the Earl’s rebellion as the holy quest he’d believed it to be. It was the English people—craftsmen and widows and village priests and shire gentry—who had declared him blessed, who flocked to his grave in faithful numbers, who defied Church and King to do reverence to a French-born rebel, who did not forget.
Evesham suffered from no dearth of de Montfort partisans. Some of the more knowing of the boys had concluded that if every man who claimed to have fought with the Earl that day had in fact done so, de Montfort would never have lost. But Damian’s de Montfort credentials were impeccable, for all knew he had actually engaged the great Earl in conversation before the battle, that he had then dared to make his way alone to Dover Castle, determined to give the Earl’s grieving widow an account of his last hours. Damian not only believed in the de Montfort legend, he had lived it, and the boys listened raptly as he shared with them his memories, his remembered pain.
So real was it still to Damian that as he spoke, the cold seemed to ebb away, and the boys began to breathe in humid August air that foretold a coming storm. They saw the Earl and his men ride into the abbey so that the captive King Henry might hear Mass. They experienced the rebel army’s joy that salvation was at hand, for the Earl’s second son—young Simon, known to friends and foes alike as Bran—was on his way from Kenilworth Castle with a vast army. And they shuddered and groaned when Damian told them that Bran had tarried too long, that through his lack of care, his men were ambushed by the King’s son. Flying Bran’s captured banners, the Lord Edward had swept down upon Evesham, and by the time Earl Simon discovered the ruse, it was too late. Trapped between Edward’s advancing army and the river, he and his men had ridden out to die.
"Earl Simon knew they were doomed, but his faith never faltered. He told his men that their cause was just, that a king should not be accountable only to God. ‘The men of England will cherish their liberties all the more,’ he said, ‘knowing that we died for them.’ " Damian’s voice trailed off. There was a somber silence, broken at last by one of the younger lads, wanting to know if it was true that the Earl had been hideously maimed by his enemies. It was a question Damian had often been asked, but it was not one he found easy to answer—even now. He hesitated and a young voice came from the shadows.
"They hacked off Earl Simon’s head and his private male parts, dispatched them as keepsakes to Roger de Mortimer’s wife. His arms and legs were chopped off, too, sent to towns that had favored the Earl, and his mangled corpse was thrown to the dogs. Brother Damian retrieved what was left of the Earl’s body, carried it on a ladder into the church, and buried it before the High Altar. But even then the Earl’s enemies were not satisfied. They dug his body up, buried him in unhallowed ground. It was only after Simon’s son Amaury appealed to the Pope that we were able to give the Earl a decent Christian burial."
It was a grisly account, but none thought to challenge it, for the speaker was another who had reason to be well versed in the de Montfort mythology; Hugh de Whitton’s father had died fighting for Simon on that rain-drenched Evesham field.
Damian gave Hugh a grateful glance, then sent them off to wash up before supper. He was not surprised when Hugh lingered, offering to help him carry his candles to the sacristy. Of all the boys who lived at the abbey, both novices and students, none were as generous, as open-hearted as Hugh. Damian was very fond of him, and he grieved for the bleakness of the boy’s future. For a lad of fourteen, he’d had more than his share of sorrows. His mother had died giving birth to a stillborn son when he was just four; he’d been but nine at the time of his father’s battlefield death, and there were none to redeem his sire’s forfeit lands. A cousin was found who’d grudgingly agreed to pay for the boy’s education, but now that he was in his fifteenth year, the payments had ceased. Damian knew that the Abbot could not keep the lad on indefinitely. Nor would he stay once he realized his presence had become a charity, for Hugh was as proud as he was impoverished. Damian was by nature an optimist, but even he had few illusions as to what lay ahead for Hugh. Landless orphans did not often prosper, even in the best of times.
As they headed for the church, Hugh shortened his stride to match the monk’s. He might lack for earthly possessions, but not for stature; he was already taller than many men, and his long legs, loose-gaited walk, and broadening shoulders gave promise of even more impressive growth to come. Now he studied Damian through long, fair lashes, blue eyes shadowed with sudden doubts.
Nothing he’d heard this eve was unfamiliar; he knew the history of the de Montforts as if they were his own family. The Earl, a highborn lord who’d championed the commons, a legend even in his lifetime, arrogant and gallant and hot-tempered and reckless, a man who’d preferred death to dishonor. His Countess, the Lady Nell, forced to choose between her brother the King and her husband, forced into French exile after Evesham. Their five sons. Harry, who’d died with his father, and Guy, who’d survived only by the grace of God. Bran, who had to live with a guilt beyond anything Hugh could imagine. Amaury, the priest, and Richard, dead in France. Ellen, the only daughter, who was to have wed a Prince.
Hugh felt as if he knew them all. But his thoughts now were not of the beguiling, tragic de Montforts; it was Damian, his friend, for whom he feared. "The old King hated Earl Simon as if he were the veritable Antichrist," he said hesitantly. "And all know how wroth the Lord Edward is that men have taken the Earl’s memory so to heart, that they make pilgrimages to his grave and speak of miracles, of children healed and fevers broken. Is it not dangerous, then, Brother Damian, to speak out so plainly? Not even the Lord Edward could deny Earl Simon’s courage. But when you talk of his desire for reforms, when you say he was right to seize the government, is there not a risk that evil-minded men might missay you, might even claim you speak treason?"
Damian was touched by the youngster’s concern. "There is some truth in what you say, lad. But King Henry is no great threat these days, addled by his age and his failures. And the Lord Edward, whilst undeniably formidable, is absent from the realm. Crusades can last for years; who knows when he might return to England?"
"I was thinking of a danger closer at hand—the Earl of Gloucester. Who hates Earl Simon more than Gloucester? A man always despises one he betrays, does he not?"
Damian gave Hugh an approving smile; the lad was learning fast. "You are right. That Judas Gloucester does indeed harbor great hatred for his former allies, for all who bear the name de Montfort. I may well be foolhardy for speaking out as I do. But I cannot keep silent, Hugh. That is all I can do for Earl Simon now, seek to make sure he is not forgotten."
Ahead loomed the abbey church, a massive silhouette against the darkening sky. The nave was lit only by Damian’s lantern, but as they detoured around the rood screen, they could see a glimmer of light coming from the choir. Damian was not surprised to find a man standing before Simon de Montforfs grave stone; rarely a day passed without pilgrims to this illicit shrine.
"I am sorry, but you must go now," he said kindly. "It is nigh on time for Vespers. You may stay for the service if you wish; lay people are permitted in the nave."
The man did not answer. He was uncommonly tall, shrouded in a long, snow-splattered mantle, and there was something disconcerting about his silence, his utter stillness in the shadows. Damian felt a faint prickling of unease. To combat it, he stepped forward boldly, raising his lantern. His candle’s flame flared, giving Hugh a glimpse of a dark hawk’s face, cheekbones high and hollowed, eyes the shade of smoke, not a face to be forgotten. But then Damian’s light faltered; the lantern slipped from fingers suddenly numbed, would have plunged to the ground had Hugh not snatched it up. He turned, wondering, close enough to hear the monk’s ragged, indrawn breath.
"My lord Earl!" Damian stumbled backward, groping for his crucifix. The man took a quick step forward, reaching out. Damian recoiled from his touch, then whirled, fled the choir.
Hugh was no less frightened. He believed implicitly in spirits and the supernatural, but had never expected to encounter an apparition himself. He was ready to bolt, too, when the man cried, "Wait!" The voice was low, husky, managed both to command and to entreat. Hugh hesitated; although he did not think the Earl’s spectre would do him harm, there was terror in any confrontation with the unknown. He had begun to back away when his lantern spilled light onto the tiles, onto the crimson droplets trickling down Earl Simon’s grave stone. It was an eerie sight, fraught with sinister significance, should have triggered headlong flight. But Hugh’s superstitions were diluted by a healthy dose of country common sense. Ghosts do not bleed. Unthinkingly, he blurted that out aloud, and the corner of the stranger’s mouth twitched.
"No," he said, "they do not . . ." Hugh darted forward, catching him as he staggered, sank down upon the altar steps. "The monk," he gasped, "stop him from giving the alarm . . ."
"I will," Hugh promised, "I will!" There was blood now upon his own mantle, too. He gently disengaged the other’s hold upon his arm. "I’ll find him, never fear!"
Damian’s panic had taken him only as far as the nave. Once he realized that Hugh had not followed, he was nerving himself to return for the lad when Hugh lurched into the rood screen. "Brother Damian, hurry! He needs our help, is bleeding badly!" Grabbing Damian’s sleeve, Hugh tugged urgently, impatiently. " ‘Tis no ghost, I swear! Not Earl Simon, his son!"
Damian was greatly relieved, but discomfited, too. Flushed and breathless, he bent over the injured man, devoting more attention to "the remarkable resemblance, verily Lord Simon’s image" than to the makeshift bandage, the blood welling between Hugh’s fingers. Fortunately for Simon’s son, Hugh had a cooler head in a crisis. It was he who reminded them that Vespers was nigh, and, at his suggestion, they assisted the wounded man into the sacristy. Damian’s embarrassment had yet to fade; it manifested itself now in a reluctance to be alone with his spurious saint, and when Hugh moved back into the choir, he made excuse to follow.
There he found Hugh dipping an altar cloth in the holy-water font. He should have rebuked the boy. Instead, he whispered, "Which son?"
"Bran," Hugh said without hesitation, although he could not have explained how he knew, only that he did. Wringing out the cloth, he hastened back into the sacristy, Damian at his heels.
Bran was slumped upon a wooden bench, eyes closed. He didn’t move, even when Hugh began to unwind his bloodied bandage. Much to the boy’s relief, the wound he exposed did not appear life-threatening: a jagged sword slash across the ribs. "You’ve lost a lot of blood, my lord, but the cut should heal well enough as long as no proud flesh forms."
Bran opened his eyes at that. "You are young to be a leech," he said, and smiled.
Hugh blushed, mumbled that he had oft-times aided Brother Mark in the infirmary. Then, realizing that he was being teased, he relaxed somewhat, and ventured to ask how Bran had come to be wounded.
Bran shrugged, winced. "My ship dropped anchor in Bristol harbor three days ago. I had no trouble until I reached Tewkesbury, where I had the bad luck to be recognized by two of Gloucester’s knights. I fought my way free, but . . ." He shrugged again, then glanced from Hugh to Damian, back to Hugh. "I was more fortunate at Evesham, for here I found friends," he said, and Hugh flushed anew, this time with pleasure.
Damian held up a hand for silence. "I thought I heard footsteps in the nave. My lord, you are in grave danger. By now Gloucester’s men will have raised a hue and cry, and it would be easy enough to guess where you were headed. You dare not stay here, lest you be taken."
Bran nodded. "I know. But I had to come . . ."
Hugh nodded, too. He understood perfectly why Bran should have taken such a mad risk, and was ready to perform miracles in order to save Simon de Montfort’s son. "Mayhap we can hide him in the stables," he implored Damian, but the monk was already shaking his head.
"They’d find him, lad. No, he must get farther away, but I doubt he can ride—"
"I can ride," Bran interrupted, with a grim resolve that carried such conviction that they no longer doubted. "If I can reach the border, I’ll be safe enough in Wales."
"For certes, Wales!" Damian marveled he hadn’t thought of it, for the powerful Welsh Prince, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, had been Simon de Montfort’s most steadfast ally, betrothed to Simon’s daughter, Ellen. Llewelyn had disavowed the plight troth after Simon’s defeat, for royal marriages were based upon pragmatic considerations of statecraft, not sentiment. But Llewelyn had maintained his friendship with the de Montforts, and Damian was sure he would willingly extend his protection to Simon’s son. How could Bran manage so perilous a journey, though, weak as he was?
That had occurred to Hugh, too. "You’ll need a guide. Let it be me!"
Bran sat up, studying the boy’s eager face. "I accept your offer right gladly, lad, but only if you understand the risks."
Hugh’s grin was radiant enough to light the way into Wales. "I do, I swear I do!" Whirling upon Damian when the monk gave a smothered sound of protest: "Brother Damian, do not object, I beg you! A fortnight, that is all I’ll be gone!"
Damian knew that to let Hugh go was madness. But when he started to refuse, he found the words wouldn’t come. Mayhap this was meant to be. "I shall pray for you both," he said. "May you go with God."
TWELFTH NIGHT at the court of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd promised to be a memorable one. The Prince of Wales had spared no expense, and the trestle tables in Dolwyddelan’s great hall were heavily laden with highly spiced dishes of venison and swan and salmon; rush lights blazed from every wall sconce, and haunting harp music floated out onto the snow-blinding alpine air. The wind carried its echoes for miles, occasionally interspersed with the distant howling of Welsh wolves. Beyond the castle’s walls a blizzard raged upon the peaks of Eryri, aptly named "Haunt of Eagles" by the Welsh and "Snowdon" by the English. But Dolwyddelan’s great hall was a citadel of cheer, defying nature to do its worst, offering warmth and light and pleasure to all fortunate enough to be sheltered before its open hearths.
The Welsh held poets in high esteem, and as Llygad Gwr approached the dais, he was accorded an enthusiastic reception. He strummed his harp until the audience fell silent, waiting expectantly for his latest composition. They were not disappointed. His song was a lyric tribute to his Prince, and Llewelyn heard himself acclaimed as a "chief of men, who rageth like fire from the flashes of lightning," heard himself lauded as another Arthur, as the Lion of Gwynedd and the Dragon of Arfon. Llygad Gwr concluded with a dramatic flourish, with a final paean to the "lawful King of Wales," and the hall resounded with exuberant applause.
Llygad Gwr was beckoned up onto the dais. People were discussing what they’d just heard, and few paid heed when another bard took center stage, for Llygad Gwr was the star and this man not known to them. His first verse, therefore, was all but drowned out by the clatter of knives and spoons, the clinking of cups. Only gradually did the hall quiet as men began to listen, heads swiveling in astonishment, mouths ajar, for if the bard was unknown to them, his song was not, a tribute penned by Y Prydydd Bychan to Owain ap Gruffydd, Llewelyn’s brother, Llewelyn’s prisoner.
A ruler bold is Owain, resolute
Round him the ravens flock,
All praise him bold in conflict,
From ancient kings descended.
By now there were no sounds to compete with the singer, but rarely had a poet performed in such strange isolation; every eye in the hall was riveted, not upon the bard, but upon the man on the dais. If Llewelyn was as astounded as the audience, it didn’t show upon his face. Whatever his initial reaction, he had his emotions well in hand, and his face was impassive as he listened to this seditious eulogy to his elder brother, imprisoned at Dolbadarn Castle for the past fifteen years.
Men expected Llewelyn to interrupt. He did not, and the bard’s rash assurance began to falter. He rushed through the final verses, no longer meeting his Prince’s cool gaze. Only then did Llewelyn turn away. Ignoring the puppet, he sought the puppeteer, knowing that but one man would have dared such an outrageous affront. Across the width of the hall, his eyes linked with those of his brother Davydd. For a long moment, they looked at each other, and then Davydd slowly, deliberately, raised his wine cup high.
"To the Dragon of Arfon," he said, poisoning Llewelyn’s peace with a smile as dazzling as it was dangerous.
Men followed Davydd’s mocking lead, drank to their Prince’s health. Conversation resumed. It was almost as if the incident had never happened—almost. There were few in the hall who did not understand the significance of what they’d just seen, for there were few who were not familiar with the history of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brothers. Owain had been the firstborn, but in Wales that counted for naught. Unlike the English, Welsh sons shared their patrimony—even a kingdom. In theory, at least; in practice, the ancient Welsh laws fostered fratricide more often than not. Such had been the case for the sons of Gruffydd, the grandsons of Llewelyn Fawr, greatest of the Welsh princes.
Llewelyn Fawr had seen his country too often convulsed by these winner-take-all bloodlettings, had decided there must be a better way, even if that meant emulating their English enemies. He had dreamed of a united Wales, bequeathing that dream to his favorite grandson and namesake. And in time it had come to pass. Llewelyn ap Gruffydd was the first Welsh ruler to claim suzerainty over the realms of Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth, to accept the homage of the other Welsh lords, to be recognized as Prince of Wales by the English Crown.
His was a great accomplishment, achieved at great cost. Owain, underestimating the power of his brother’s dream, had led an army into Llewelyn’s half of Gwynedd, and paid for his folly with his freedom. Rhodri, the youngest brother, prudently kept to the shadows. But Davydd was not one to acknowledge defeat and not one to be overlooked.
Twice Davydd had rebelled against Llewelyn’s dominance. The first time, he was sixteen, riding at Owain’s side. Unlike Owain, he had been forgiven. The second time, he had not. After an abortive alliance with the English King’s son, he had fled into England. His exile was to last four years. But under the terms of the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267, he had been permitted to return. The Lord Edward had insisted upon it, for he saw Davydd—the discontented, the aggrieved—as the Trojan Horse in the Welsh Prince’s camp. Edward, for all his shrewdness, had not yet realized that Davydd did no man’s bidding but his own.
Dancing had begun, and the hall was soon aswirl with color. Llewelyn did not join the carol; he remained on the dais, absently sipping from a brimming cup of hippocras, ignoring the curious stares of his subjects. After a time, he felt a hand touch his elbow. Einion ap Caradog had watched the byplay between the brothers with a sad sense of inevitability. Uncle to them both, their mother’s youngest brother, he had often sought to act as peacemaker, usually to no avail. He understood divided loyalties, understood the danger in loving where there can be no trust, and he knew that Llewelyn did, too. There had always been bad blood between Llewelyn and Owain. But with Davydd, it was different. Theirs was a more complex relationship, one of tangled need and rivalry and wary affection, and Llewelyn bore the scars to prove it. Einion suspected that Davydd did, too, although with Davydd, one could never be sure of anything.
Einion had often thought that Llewelyn seemed alone even in a crowd. He smiled now, but there was a distance in his eyes. Survivor of a turbulent childhood, a war-ravaged youth, he was, at forty-two, a man who’d learned to deal with pain by denying it, a man who shared few secrets of the soul. Einion moved closer, and as soon as no others were within earshot, he said quietly, "I thought you and Davydd were getting along better these days."
"I suppose we are . . . when compared with Cain and Abel." Llewelyn smiled again, briefly, without humor. "After I offered to make Davydd my heir, I thought we’d finally found a path through the marshes and onto secure footing. I told him I did not want to see him shut away from the sun—like Owain. But neither did I want to spend my days wondering how long he’d be loyal this time. And so I held out the promise of a crown. Only Davydd grows impatient. He has never been one for waiting, has he?"
Einion sighed. "You’re not being fair, Llewelyn," he said, and the younger man gave him a quick, searching look.
"You think not?" he asked, and Einion slowly shook his head.
"Davydd is not utterly to blame. You restored to him his former lands, but you have kept a heavy hand on the reins. Knowing Davydd as we do, is it so surprising that he is balking?"
Llewelyn was silent, dark eyes opaque, unrevealing. Einion dared hope he’d planted a seed, but he was not sanguine about it taking root, for he knew that whenever the needs of the Prince came into conflict with those of the brother, the Prince prevailed. Llewelyn always put Wales first. And Davydd always put Davydd first. Was it so surprising, then, that they were once again on a collision course?
"My ears are burning. Might you have been talking about me?" Davydd had appeared without warning; he had a sorcerer’s flair for dramatic entrances and exits, and he grinned now at Llewelyn’s involuntary twitch. "Your nerves are on the raw tonight, Brother. Could it be that the entertainment was not to your liking?"
"On the contrary, Davydd. It never hurts to remind men of the high price of treason."
For a fleeting second, so quickly they might have imagined it, Davydd’s smile seemed to flicker. But then he laughed. "Not very sporting of you, Llewelyn. After I went to so much trouble to vex you, you might at least give me the satisfaction of a scowl or two!"
Llewelyn’s smile was one that Davydd alone seemed to evoke, half-amused, half-angry. But before he could respond, a voice was calling out, "My lord Prince!" The man was one of the gatehouse guards, bundled up against the cold, well-dusted with snow. "Two men seek entry to the castle, my lord."
"For God’s pity, bid them enter. I’d not turn away a stray cur on a night like this."
"We knew that, my lord, admitted them at once. They’re half-frozen, for certes, although one of them is soaked with sweat, too, burning with fever. We thought you should know that he claims to be a highborn lord."
Llewelyn and Davydd exchanged interested glances. "An English lord, I’d wager," Davydd drawled, "for only an Englishman would be crazed enough to venture out in weather like this."
Excerpted from The Reckoning by Sharon kay and Penman.
Copyright 1991 by Sharon kay and Penman.
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.