‘Please close the door, Brother. The wind is blowing the snow in here and it is already cold enough.’
Brother Eadulf turned from where he had been peering in disgust through the half-open door of the inn, out into the dusk at the whirling snowstorm. He reluctantly pushed the door shut and fastened the wooden latch before facing the small, stocky innkeeper. The man, with balding head and cheeks so red that they seemed polished, was regarding him with some sympathy.
‘Are you absolutely sure that there is no available transport to Aldred’s Abbey?’ Eadulf had asked the question several times before. What was the innkeeper’s name? Cynric? Yes, that was it.
The innkeeper stood, wiping his hands against the leather apron that covered his corpulent form.
‘As I have already told you, Brother, you and your companion were lucky to have made it this far before the storm started in earnest. If you had missed this tavern, there is no shelter between here and the River Aide.’
‘The snow was nowhere near as bad as this when we left the river at Mael’s Tun and began to walk here,’ Eadulf agreed, moving away from the door into the warmer interior of the inn.
‘So you came up to Mael’s Tun by the river then?’ the innkeeper asked with that interest all hosts have in the comings and goings of their guests.
‘Aye. We came by barge from the mouth of the Deben. Only after we had left Mael’s Tun did the wind get up and the snow start to fall like a white sheet. It was so dense that you could scarcely see a hand in front of your eyes. By then we were far enough away from the settlement not to contemplate turning back.’
‘Well, you were lucky to strike on my little tavern,’ the innkeeper repeated. ‘The marshlands to the north and east of here are no place to be wandering unless you can see the path before you.’
‘But the abbey is no more than four of five miles from here,’ Brother Eadulf pointed out. ‘We’d be there easily enough if we had a horse.’
‘If you had a horse,’ the innkeeper replied with emphasis. ‘I have one mule and that I need, Brother. And you’d be very lucky to find the abbey even if you had such an animal to transport you. There is no one else on the roads this evening. Look at the snow outside. It is drifting in the valleys and against the hedgerows. The wind is bitter and from the east. No one in their right minds would attempt to travel these roads on such a night.’
Brother Eadulf made a clicking sound with his tongue to express his irritation. The innkeeper continued to regard him with sympathy.
‘Why not seat yourself by the fire? Your companion should join you shortly and I will bring you some refreshment,’ he suggested cheerfully.
Brother Eadulf still hesitated.
‘Tomorrow, the storm may abate and the roads to the abbey may be easier to negotiate,’ the innkeeper added persuasively.
‘I need to be at the abbey this evening because …’ Brother Eadulf hesitated and then shook his head. Why should he explain his reasons to the innkeeper? ‘It is essential that I reach the abbey before midnight.’
‘Well, Brother, you will never make it on foot, even if you knew the roads. What could be so important that the difference of a day might count?’
Brother Eadulf’s brows came together in annoyance.
‘I have my reasons,’ he said stubbornly.
Cynric shook his head sadly. ‘You outlanders are all the same. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Well, you will have to bend before the wind this night for you have no other option.’
‘I am not a stranger in this land, my friend,’ protested Eadulf, irritated at the other’s use of the word ‘outlander’. ‘I am Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham and was the hereditary gerefa of that place before I took the tonsure of St Peter.’
The innkeeper’s eyes widened. A gerefa was a man of local importance, holding the rank of a magistrate.
‘Forgive me, Brother. I thought that you spoke our language too well. But I had assumed, as you travelled in the company of an Irish religieuse, that you were of that nation.’
Eadulf was defensive. ‘I have been in foreign lands for a while. But, Deo adiuvante, with God’s help, I will see Seaxmund’s Ham, my native place, in time for Christ’s Mass.’
‘Four days to go then, Brother. But why stop at Aldred’s Abbey? Why not wait until the storm clears and then go straight on to Seaxmund’s Ham which is only a little distance beyond?’
‘Because … because I have my reasons for doing so,’ Eadulf replied tersely.
The innkeeper pursed his lips at Eadulf’s agitated reticence. He shrugged and went to the fire. The inn was deserted. No one else had managed to make their way to the snowbound crossroads where it was situated. The innkeeper bent to a pile of logs and lifted one, balancing it in his arms for a moment before dumping it on the fire.
‘You will find many things altered in this land, Brother,’ he said as he turned from the hearth. ‘In fact, you have been lucky to reach here in safety.’
‘I’ve seen snows before and travelled through blizzards that would put this’ — Eadulf gestured with his hand towards the door - ‘to shame. What threat in that?’
‘I was not thinking so much of the weather. Man is often more cruel than nature’s elements, my friend. In many places now, the Christian communities are under siege and attack. There is much animosity towards the new faith.’
‘Under siege and attack? From whom?’ demanded Eadulf, reluctantly taking a seat at the side of the fire, while the innkeeper went to draw a tankard of cider from a wooden barrel.
‘From those who have returned to the worship of Woden, who else? In the kingdom of the East Saxons there is civil war between Sigehere, the King, and his own cousin, the Prince Sebbi. Not only do they fight for the kingship, but each represents one of the two beliefs. Surely you must have travelled through the land of the East Saxons to get here? You must have seen something of the conflict?’
Eadulf shook his head and reached forward to take the tankard from Cynric’s hand. He sipped at it cautiously. It was sweet and strong.
‘I did not know that there were such divisions which had caused actual warfare,’ he said, after he had taken another sip. ‘Sigehere and Sebbi were both firmly on the path of Christ when I left this kingdom and there was no animosity between them.’
‘As you say, they were both Christians. But when the Yellow Plague struck among the East Saxons two years ago, Sigehere came to the belief that it was a punishment of the old gods on those who had renounced them and so he turned his back on the new faith and reopened the pagan temples. His cousin, Sebbi, has remained true to the new faith. Both have followers who ravage the countryside, burning the sacred sites of the other’s religion and killing the religious who fall into their hands, whether they be of Christ or of Woden and the old gods.’
Eadulf was shocked. In Canterbury, he had heard some talk about the dissensions among the East Saxons but no one had spoken of actual violence or warfare. He shivered slightly, remembering that he had almost decided to journey from Kent through the kingdom of the East Saxons to get to the land of the South Folk. As the innkeeper had assumed, it would have been the normal route for wayfarers into this land. It was by chance that, having left Canterbury and gone north to join the road at the small port of Hwita’s Staple, Eadulf had encountered an old acquaintance. Stuf, a sea-captain who ran his vessel along the coast of the Saxon kingdoms, had persuaded him to take passage directly to the land of the South Folk. This had cut several days from the journey. Stuf’s vessel had landed Eadulf at the township called St Felix’s Stowe, where the blessed missionary had established an abbey some twenty years before. Thanks to the chance meeting with Stuf, Eadulf had bypassed the volatile kingdom of the East Saxons.
‘It was lucky then, innkeeper, that we came here by way of the sea from the kingdom of Kent,’ he reflected.
‘Ah, so you did not come through the lands of Sigehere and Sebbi?’ Cynric’s puzzled face lightened a little. ‘You were blessed in your choice of route. But even here among the South Folk there is some friction between Christian and pagan. The conflict has spilt over the border and Sigehere is trying to stir up the dissension so that he might find allies among us. Outlaws prowl the marshlands and, of course, we also have to contend with threats of war from our western neighbour, Mercia. They mount constant raids against us.’
‘When was Mercia not a threat to the kingdom of the East Anglians?’ Eadulf smiled with grim cynicism. All through his life, he could remember little else but the continued warfare between the East Anglian kingdom and the Mercians.
‘Our King, Ealdwulf, has recently rejected the King of Mercia’s s demands that East Anglia pay him tribute. Since Ealdwulf’s mother, Hereswith, is a princess of the Northumbrian royal house, we can expect an alliance to keep the Mercian threat in check. We have good prospects before us if King Ealdwulf can keep the internal conflict between pagan and Christian from spreading here. And this is what I warn you of, Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham. Do not assume that everyone will greet you and your companion as friends and respect your cloth. There is much bitterness abroad in our land. Some thanes have even threatened to declare allegiance to Sigehere of the East Saxons unless King Ealdwulf renounces Christianity. There is much trouble brewing, Brother. You have chosen a dangerous time to return home.’
Brother Eadulf sighed deeply. ‘So it seems.’
Cynric placed another log on the fire. At that moment the door on the far side of the room opened, and a tall, red-haired religieuse entered. She smiled quickly at Eadulf.
‘My robes are dry now and I am warmer than when we arrived.’ She spoke in Irish which was the common language between them. ‘I think that I would like some mulled wine to give warmth to the inner body.’
Eadulf returned her smile warmly and gestured to a chair by the fire near him.
‘I doubt that a Saxon inn will have wine, but there is good cider, or mead if you wish.’
‘Cider before mead if there is no wine,’ she replied.
The innkeeper stood patiently during this exchange, not understanding.
‘I don’t suppose you have wine, innkeeper?’ Eadulf asked.
‘You would be wrong if you had supposed it, Brother. Where would I be able to purchase wine, and if I did so who would buy it? The shipments of wine that are landed at Felix’s Stowe go mainly to the abbey there or to some of the other monasteries along the coast. You’ll find wine at Aldred’s Abbey but not here.’
‘Then serve my companion some of your best cider.’
The innkeeper looked at the religieuse and asked Eadulf: ‘Your companion does not speak Saxon, then?’ He was surprised when the tall religieuse turned and spoke to him in a halting fashion.
‘Enough to follow the conversation in general terms, innkeeper. But my knowledge is not good enough to understand all the nuances of your tongue.’
The innkeeper bowed his head a moment in reflection. ‘I’ve heard it said that the people of Ireland are versed in all the languages of the world.’
‘You flatter my people. Our missionaries certainly try to achieve proficiency in several tongues to accomplish their task. Latin, Greek, a little Hebrew, and the languages of our neighbours. But our ability is neither greater nor less than that of others given the same circumstances and opportunities.’
Eadulf nodded approvingly, overlooking one or two small lapses in grammar.
The innkeeper filled another tankard and handed it to her. While Fidelma sipped appreciatively, Eadulf ordered a meat pie, which Cynric told him was a speciality of the inn, for their supper.
‘This innkeeper says that we will not reach Aldred’s Abbey this night,’ Eadulf began, when Cynric had vanished to prepare the meal.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ replied Fidelma solemnly with a glance towards the tiny, snow-blocked window. ‘I have never felt it so cold, or seen snow so like little flecks of ice.’
‘Yet Brother Botulf was specific. He wanted me to arrive at the abbey before midnight tonight. The message he sent to me at Canterbury was underlined at that point.’
‘He must make allowances for the weather,’ rejoined Fidelma, with a shrug. ‘This storm puts the matter entirely out of your hands.’
‘Nevertheless, why did he underline the time and date?’
‘You say that this … Botulf? I find your Saxon names still difficult to pronounce. You say that Botulf is a good friend of yours?’
Eadulf nodded swiftly. ‘We grew up together. He must be in serious trouble, otherwise he would not have written such a message.’
‘But he did not explain anything in the message. He must take your friendship for granted if he presumed that you would leave Canterbury and come rushing to him.’
‘He would guess that if I was at Canterbury, then I would be travelling to my home at Seaxmund’s Ham. He would assume that my path would lie by his door,’ replied Eadulf defensively. ‘My home is only six miles further on from the abbey.’
‘A strange friend, that is all I say,’ sighed Fidelma. ‘Is he the abbot of this abbey?’
Eadulf shook his head. ‘He is the steward. I was told at Canterbury that someone called Cild is the abbot, but I have never heard of him.’
Cynric re-entered, bearing a tray with a hot meat pie on it which he set down at a nearby table.
‘If you will be seated at the table, I shall fetch more cider with which to wash your meal down.’
The pie looked and smelled good and soon the howling wind outside was forgotten as they savoured the meal. Eadulf explained something of what Cynric had told him about the conflict between the Christians and pagans. Sister Fidelma looked at her companion with some sympathy.
‘It must be difficult for you to hear this. However, it is surely balanced against the pleasure of seeing your home again.’
‘It is a long time since I was last at Seaxmund’s Ham. I am indeed looking forward to seeing it again.’ He glanced anxiously at her. ‘I am sorry if I seem selfish, Fidelma.’
Her eyes widened for a moment. She was thinking that she was being selfish. She had suddenly realised just how much she was missing her home in Cashel. This land of the South Folk was bleak, cold and inhospitable. When she had agreed to accompany Eadulf to Canterbury and had left the shores of her homeland, it had not occurred to her that he would want to proceed further and journey on to the place of his birth. But that, she realised, had been a silly and egocentric assumption on her part. Of course, after the time in Rome and then nearly a year in her brother’s kingdom of Muman, it was obvious that Eadulf would want to spend some time at his birthplace.
She tried to suppress the apprehensive feeling that came over her. She hoped that he would not want to spend any great length of time at that place … Seaxmund’s Ham. She felt guilty for the selfish thought. Why should she expect him to want to return to her own country? But she did miss her homeland. She had travelled enough. She wanted to settle down.
She realised that Eadulf was smiling at her across the table.
‘No regrets?’ he asked.
She felt the hot blood in her cheeks.
‘Regrets?’ she parried, knowing full well what he meant.
‘That you came with me to my country?’
‘I have no regrets at being in your company,’ Fidelma replied, choosing her words carefully.
Eadulf examined her keenly. He was still smiling but she saw the shadow cross his eyes. Before he could say anything more, she suddenly reached forward and grasped his hand.
‘Let us live for the moment, Eadulf.’ Her voice was earnest. ‘We have agreed to follow the ancient custom of my people – to be with one another for a year and a day. I have agreed to be your ben charrthach for that time. With that you must be content. Anything more lasting requires much legal consideration.’
Eadulf understood that the people of the five kingdoms of Éireann had a very complicated law system and there were several definitions of what constituted a proper marriage. As Fidelma had explained to him, there were nine distinct types of union in Irish law. The term which Fidelma had used, ben charrthach, literally meant the ‘loved woman’, not yet a legally bound wife but one whose status and rights were recognised under the law of the Cain Lánamnus. It was, in fact, a trial marriage, lasting a year and a day, after which, if unsuccessful, both sides would go their separate ways without incurring penalties or blame.
The decision had been made by Fidelma not because they were members of the religious. It would not have entered her mind that this was a bar to marriage. No religious, neither those who followed the way of Colmcille, nor those who followed the Rule of Rome or any of the other Churches of Christ, regarded celibacy as necessary to the religious calling. However, there was a growing minority who had begun to denounce married clergy and proclaim celibacy as the true path of those who were committed to the new faith. Fidelma, in fact, was more concerned that a marriage with Eadulf would be deemed a marriage of unequals … if her brother, Colgú, King of Muman, even gave his approval for it. Such a marriage, while recognised in law, meant that Eadulf, as a stranger without land in Muman and not of the same princely family rank as Fidelma, would not have equal property rights with his wife. Knowing Eadulf’s character, Fidelma thought it would not be a good prescription for happiness if Eadulf felt less than her equal.
There were other forms of marriage, of course. A man could legally cohabit with a woman at her home with the permission of her family, or she could go away openly with him without the consent of her family and still have rights under the law. The problem was that, having reached the stage of seriously considering marriage to Eadulf, Fidelma was in a quandary about what path to proceed along. Moreover, she had assumed that any future together would be a future in Cashel. The last few weeks with Eadulf in the kingdoms of the Angles and the Saxons had begun to raise doubts in her mind.
She found her thoughts interrupted as Eadulf was speaking again.
‘Did I say that I was not satisfied, Fidelma?’ Eadulf’s smile was a little forced now as he saw the changing expression on her face.
The door opened abruptly with a crash and for a moment it appeared that some strange figure from the netherworld stood framed against the swirling cloud of snow that pushed into the inn. An ice-cold breath of air threatened to blow out the lanterns that lit the main room of the inn. The figure, looking like some gigantic, shaggy bear, turned and had to lean against the door to push it shut against the pressure of the blustery wind. The figure turned again and shook itself, causing cascades of snow to fall from the thick furs which encased the body from head to foot. Then one arm appeared through the furs and began unwrapping part of the head covering. A bearded face emerged from under the wrappings.
‘Mead, Cynric! Mead, for the love of the mother of Balder!’
The figure stamped forward into the inn, showering snow about him from his fur wrappings. He dropped his outer garment unceremoniously on the floor. He wore a leather jerkin over a muscular torso and strips of sacking were wrapped around his giant calves and tied with leather thongs.
‘Mul!’ exclaimed Cynric, the innkeeper, in surprised recognition as he came forward to greet the newcomer. ‘What are you doing abroad and in such inclement weather?’
The man addressed as Mul was of middle age, broad-shouldered, with flaxen hair and a skin that seemed tanned by the elements. He had the build of a farmer or a smith. His thick-set shoulders and arms seemed to bulge through his leather jerkin. He had a coarse, ruddy face with a bushy beard. His features made it seem that he had been beaten about the face and never recovered. His lips were constantly parted and showed gaps in his yellowing teeth. He had piercing bright eyes set close to his beak-like nose, which gave him a permanent look of disapproval.
‘I am on my way home,’ the newcomer grunted. ‘Where should a man be on this night of all nights?’ He suddenly caught sight of Fidelma and Eadulf, seated across the room, and inclined his head in greeting.
‘May the spear of Frig and the Desir be ready to smite your enemies!’ he thundered in the ancient fashion.
‘Deus vobiscum,’ replied Eadulf solemnly with a hint of reproof in his tone.
The man, whom the innkeeper had called Mul, grabbed the tankard of mead from Cynric’s hand and sprawled in a chair near the fire, downing half of it in one great gulp. Then he uttered a loud belch of satisfaction.
Fidelma looked a little shocked but said nothing.
‘God look down on us,’ muttered Eadulf, his face showing his disapproval of the man’s lack of manners.
‘Christians, eh?’ frowned the newcomer, regarding them with curiosity. ‘Well, I am an old dog and cannot be taught new tricks. The gods who protected my father are good enough to protect me. May all and any of the gods protect all travellers this night.’
The innkeeper placed another tankard of mead ready for the newcomer.
‘Shall I prepare a bed for you, Mul?’
The big man shook his head almost violently. The gesture reminded them of a big shaggy dog, shaking itself. His hair and beard seemed to merge into one tangled mane.
‘Woden’s hammer, no!’
‘But your farm is six or more miles from here!’ exclaimed the innkeeper. ‘You’ll not make it in this storm.’
‘I’ll make it,’ the burly farmer said with grim confidence. ‘I would not let a little blow like this prevent me from going home. Anyway, tonight is the Mothernight and I intend to raise a tankard of mead to Frig and the Desir at the appointed hour. I shall be back on my farm before midnight, friend Cynric. Apart from anything else, I have animals to see to. If I am not there to tend to them, then they go without. I have been away all day to sell some cheese at the market at Butta’s Leah.’
Eadulf saw the perplexity on Fidelma’s face and explained in a whisper: ‘Tonight is the Winter Solstice, the start of the old pagan feast of Yule which lasts for twelve days. We celebrate with the feast of the goddess Frig and the Desir, the Fore-Mothers of the race. The main feast is dedicated to Woden, the Yule One.’
Fidelma was just as perplexed as before.
‘It is a time when we are in darkness and must offer gifts to the gods and goddesses to ensure the rebirth of the sun.’
He did not notice Fidelma’s disapproving look, for he had begun to regard the newcomer with some interest.
‘Might I ask, my friend, in what direction is your farm? I heard the innkeeper call you Mul. There was a Mul who used to farm Frig’s Tun before I left on my travels. Are you he?’
The burly farmer examined Eadulf keenly. A frown crossed his brows.
‘Who are you, Christian?’ he demanded.
‘I am Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham, where I was gerefa before I joined the religious.’
‘Eadulf? Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham? I knew of your family. I had heard one of them had converted to the new faith. You are right. I am Mul of Frig’s Tun and, as I told Cynric, I mean to sleep in my own bed this night.’
‘Surely the roads are impassable?’ intervened Cynric the innkeeper.
The farmer laughed harshly. ‘Impassable to people without courage. Another tankard of mead, Cynric, and I will be on my way.’
Fidelma tapped Eadulf on the arm.
‘Virtutis fortuna comes,’ she whispered in Latin. Good luck was, indeed, the companion of courage, but what was meant, and understood by Eadulf, was that one must grasp opportunity when it came one’s way.
Eadulf sought to frame the question in a way which might appeal to Mul.
‘Your journey must lie in the direction of Aldred’s Abbey, must it not?’
Mul paused with his tankard to his lips and regarded Eadulf speculatively.
‘And if it does?’ he countered.
‘My companion and I are anxious to reach the abbey this evening. If there is room on your wagon, then I would make it worth your while to pass the gates of the abbey.’
Cynric, the innkeeper, was disapproving.
‘I advise you against journeying on. It is too dangerous. We have not had a blizzard like this in ten years. Why, the dry snow is being driven by this bitter wind and banking up behind walls and hedges and ditches and filling the hollows. You could even miss the path and fall into a lake or frozen stream; break a leg or worse. And there is the marsh to consider.’
Mul drained his mug and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He fingered his thick, coarse beard for a moment as if in speculation. Then he sighed and turned to the innkeeper.
‘You are an old woman, Cynric. I know the roads like the creases on the palms of my hands.’ He glanced at Eadulf. ‘My path takes me right by the gates of the abbey. May the gods curse that place of evil. If you can pay, I will take you. But I only have an uncomfortable farm wagon drawn by a team of mules.’
Eadulf exchanged a quick glance with Fidelma.
‘I do not approve of your calling a house of the Christian faith a place of evil, friend, nor calling on idolatrous gods to curse it.’
Mul grinned sourly. It made him more ugly than before.
‘It is evident that you do not know Aldred’s Abbey or what it has become these days. But your opinions are no concern of mine.’
Eadulf hesitated and then said: ‘By payment, what had you in mind?’
‘If you decide to come with me, then I am sure that you won’t begrudge me a penny for my labour.’
Eadulf turned to Fidelma who nodded quickly.
‘It is agreed, my pagan friend,’ Eadulf exclaimed in satisfaction.
The farmer rose to his feet, grabbing his fur outer garments.
‘How soon can you be ready?’ he demanded as he began to pull them on.
‘We are ready now.’
‘Then I will go and see to my rig. Join me outside as soon as you are prepared.’
They were already putting on their woollen cloaks before the burly farmer had disappeared through the door.
Cynric regarded them anxiously. ‘Please reconsider. It is a dangerous road. Only an idiot like Mul would attempt the journey. You should know that he is named Mad Mul in these parts. You are much safer waiting to see if the storm breaks tomorrow.’
‘And if it does not?’ smiled Eadulf as he placed some coins in the hands of the innkeeper to pay for the meal. ‘At least we will make the effort this night.’
‘It is only your lives that you risk,’ shrugged the innkeeper, realising when to accept defeat.
Outside, they found Mul already seated in his wagon, with a team of two patient mules in the shafts, heads slightly bowed against the bitter, moaning wind. The winter night had begun but the farmer had lit two storm lanterns which hung on either side of his wagon and there was light enough by the shadowy reflections on the snow to see by. Great banks of snow were piling up in the gusting winds. Eadulf helped Fidelma climb up onto the wagon, then threw up their travelling bags, before climbing up himself.
‘Sit yourselves down there,’ cried Mul, above the howling of the wind, pointing down into the shelter of wagon behind the driver’s seat. ‘Those woollen cloaks will be scant protection against the cold. There’s some furs there. Put them around you and you’ll be out of the worst of it.’
Cynric had come to the door of the inn. He raised his hand in farewell.
‘I think that you are all crazy,’ he called, his voice blurring in the whistling of the blizzard. ‘However, as you insist on going, may God be on every road that you travel.’
‘God be with you, innkeeper,’ replied Eadulf, solemnly, before tucking himself down under the furs beside Fidelma. They heard Mul crack the reins and shout and then, with a jerk, the wagon began to roll forward.
THE HAUNTED ABBOT. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Tremayne.