The Royal Falconer
by Nosbert

Part 6

Chapter Forty-One

The band of Welsh brigands set up camp for the night in the woods at Longnor and some distance from the Earl of Salopsbury’s hunting lodge. A campfire burned within a circle of stones a short distance from a cave that was to be their resting place that night.

As the position of the stars indicated that midnight approached Idwal called Ifor to his side. His language was that of the Welsh Gaels.

‘I go now with Maredudd to our midnight rendezvous at the twentieth milestone marker,’ he said. ‘If perchance we do not return, then kill the Earl’s sister and return with haste to Dolwyddelan. News of such treachery must reach the Lord Llywelyn.’

Ifor nodded his head. He fully understood. The possibility of betrayal had always been present, but they had little choice in the matter. The Lord Llywelyn had negotiated his services for one hundred golden sovereigns and to return to his castle in Wales empty handed was unthinkable.

‘Let us pray that it does’t not come to such treachery,’ he said thoughtfully, then after a short pause he agreed; ‘The deed will be done. If indeed such foul circumstances arise, the Earl’s sister will die. I will do it personally.’

Idwal placed a comforting hand upon Ifor’s shoulder and sighed. ‘Then let us hope for all our sakes that Salopsbury remains true to its word and that one hundred gold sovereigns are forthcoming,’ he said. ‘But if not we hold insurance. We hold the Earl’s sister, and I take with me her letter and signet ring as proof. So I doubt there will be much treachery afoot this night.’

On this point Ifor agreed. ‘It would be foolhardy to think otherwise,’ he said. ‘Captain Clarence, the man you are to meet, would not risk the life of the Earl’s sister. You and Maredudd are safe and will return to camp with the one hundred golden sovereigns. Mark my words.’

Idwal remained pensive. He was not as confident as Ifor. There was something about Captain Clarence that filled him with deep mistrust. ‘I hope you are right Ifor,’ he said, ‘I hope you are right.’

Idwal tested the blade of his sword with a thumb. It was sharp and ready to kill if the need be. He placed the sword back in his belt and called to Maredudd. It was time for the two to leave. They would travel on foot through the woods to the road and the twentieth milestone marker, a distance of some two miles.

Ifor waited for Idwal and Maredudd to be well clear of the camp before collecting a large flask from his bedroll. He offered the flask to Daffyd. ‘It is calvados,’ he told him. ‘A drink of distilled cider and much favoured by the Normans.’

Daffyd took the flask, held it to his mouth and sipped cautiously. He lowered the flask and gasped at the strength of the alcohol. He regained his breath and nodded his approval. ‘It’s good,’ he said, licking his lips and passing the flask to Dewi.

Dewi tested the contents and gave the same choking gasp followed by a nod of approval. Ifor recovered the flask and moved to the campfire. ‘Come, let us sit around the fire and drink.’

It was not long before all were in high spirits, and bawdy camp songs echoed about the campsite.

As the men drank and sang, to the rear of the campfire, tucked away beneath the cavernous overhang, squatted the Abbess of Wistanstow. By her side, propped against the rear cave wall, rested the gilded crucifix taken from the nunnery.

The Abbess, with hands tied behind her back, was not too uncomfortable in her seated position. Mostly she spent the time in prayer and only occasionally would she look up to see what the men were doing. Uttering mostly in Latin, she prayed forgiveness for those that had wronged her, and prayed for the Angel Gabriel to come and deliver her from the hands of her abductors.

With the leaders gone the Abbess came to realise that those remaining were taking little heed of her, and she began to put together a plan of escape. Firstly she could run. Only her hands were tied behind her back. Secondly she knew these woods well. She had spent most of her childhood here. The woods of Longnor had been her playground. So if ever she could get away then she knew exactly what paths to take and where to hide. She made up her mind. She would attempt escape.

Slowly she rose to her feet. From the rear of the cave she looked to the campfire. The men were seated with their backs towards her. They were laughing and joking. Her escape plan was simple. She would edge along the rear wall of the cave until she reached a point where a clear path stretched out in front of her. She would then take off, running as fast as she could past the campfire and out into the blackness beyond. After this she knew what direction to take and places to hide.

Creeping along the rear wall, and keeping one eye on the campfire, she moved off. Her plan was going well for a while, but then disaster struck. Her elbow caught the crucifix and sent it crashing to the ground.

A loud crash came echoing out of the cave and the men seated about the campfire all turned their heads.

The Abbess, realising she had to act quickly, set off running from the cave. Providing she was quick she still had a chance of escape. The men had consumed a lot of alcohol and were unsteady on their feet. All she had to do was get clear of the campfire and keep on running into the blackness beyond. If she managed this they would never find her.

Dewi however saw her coming, and as the Abbess sped past the campfire, he put out a hand and caught an ankle. The contact was just a glance and did not stop the Abbess in her flight. For a few paces beyond the campfire she managed to keep her feet, but at each stride she began to lurch more and more forward.

The Abbess’s full-length and billowing habit proved to be the main hindrance; this coupled with the fact that her hands were tied behind her back, meant she had no way of righting her balance. In the end, and some six paces beyond the campfire, she crashed to the ground. Within seconds Dewi was upon her and holding her down. She turned under his weight and tried to kick him away with her feet, but with little success. Dewi was just too heavy for her.

Ifor arrived on the scene. He was staggering and unsure of his feet, but he still had his senses about him. He was well aware of his duties and under no circumstances was the Abbess to escape. ‘Leave her to me,’ he said; his voice slurred and speaking in the tongue of the Welsh.

Taking hold of the Abbess’s ankles he dragged her feet first back beneath the overhang and dumped her against the rear wall. Then to show his anger he gave a kick to her thigh and issued a stream of verbal abuse. But Ifor’s words meant nothing to the Abbess for they were in a language she did not understand.

She was badly bruised, her face grazed from the fall, and all she wanted to do was put her hands together and pray. But this she could not do with her hands tied firmly behind her back. Cowering against the back wall, and as a second kick struck hard against her pelvis, she dropped her head and prayed; prayed for the Angel Gabriel to swoop down and carry her away.

Chapter Forty-Two

Well before midnight Bardolph returned to the road that passed through the woods at Longnor. He travelled on foot and leading his horse. A full moon and keen eyesight combined to make easy passage through the trees. From the ridge above the lodge to the twentieth milestone marker was a distance of a little under two miles. There was a wide track that led from the lodge to road, but Bardolph chose to stay well clear and remain within the cover of the trees.

Captain Clarence and Sergeant Godfred had a little further to travel; their starting point being the stables at Longnor Lodge. Even though darkness had fallen they chose to wear full armour and ride upon their horses. The track from the stables to the road was navigable with care by the light of the moon, but to assist their passage they carried a lantern held on a long pole that stretched out before the leading horse.

First to reach the road was Bardolph, but not until he had left his horse at a safe distance. The milestone marker lay at a point alongside the road and at the junction with the track from the lodge, and here the clearing was wide and stars twinkled in the heavens. The road through the woods took many turns and at this point ran roughly east-west, with the moon casting shadows upon the southern side and throwing light against the northern edge of a line of trees. Bardolph chose the darkened southern side and settled down behind a thicket of low bushes and young trees.

It was not long before two men arrived on foot from the south. Bardolph heard them coming and ducked low and out of sight as they moved to stand alongside the rendezvous point. They passed within a few paces of him but at no time did they sense the presence of a stranger hiding in the bushes. Their conversation was light and nervous, with only the occasional word spoken. Bardolph however found this interesting, for the men conversed in the language of the Welsh Gaels. He listened to what they had to say, for he spoke many tongues including this one. It appeared they were on edge and apprehensive about their forthcoming tryst. Midnight it seemed was not a good time and neither was the venue. The meeting should have been held out in the open, and in daylight. But they waited all the same.

Either one party was early or the other late, for the wait was considerable. But eventually from the woods to the far side of the road came the sound of horses’ hooves. Two soldiers on horseback emerged from the darkness and out onto the road. The lead rider held before him a lantern on a pole. They were protected by chainmail and wore the light-blue tunics and three yellow snarling lion heads of the House of Salopsbury.

Captain Clarence and Sergeant Godfred dismounted and beckoned Idwal and Maredudd to join them. The two Welsh brigands moved to the centre of the road but retained a reasonable gap between the two parties.

‘You’re late,’ hissed Idwal, speaking now in the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

‘We came as quickly as we could,’ Captain Clarence answered curtly. ‘The track from the lodge is hazardous and in the dark must be ridden with care. But we are here now. So let us talk.’

Idwal looked bemused and shook his head. ‘What is there to talk about?’ he said. ‘We’re here to collect one hundred golden sovereigns. Hand us the money and we go.’

Captain Clarence shook his head. ‘But the deed was not done,’ he reminded Idwal. ‘Lady Adela still lives. Surely you cannot expect to be paid without fulfilling your part of the bargain?’

Idwal clenched his fists. ‘That was not the deal,’ he snapped angrily. ‘We were hired to do your bidding. It was not our fault Lady Adela was arrested and taken to Lodelowe. We fulfilled our part of the bargain. We did what Lord Llywelyn sent us to do.’

Captain Clarence shook his head once more. ‘No action, no golden sovereigns,’ he stated flatly. ‘The deal is off. Go back to Dolwyddelan and explain that to your Lord Llywelyn.’

Idwal put a hand to a pouch attached to his belt. Immediately Captain Clarence withdrew his sword from its scabbard and Sergeant Godfred did likewise.

‘Relax,’ Idwal told them, ‘I’ve something here that might interest you. Let me show you.’ Then slowly and making no sudden movement else it be misinterpreted, he withdrew a folded piece of yellow-stained parchment from his pouch and handed it to Captain Clarence. ‘Read this. It will make you change your mind.’

Captain Clarence stepped to the centre of the road and took the parchment. He unfolded it and moved to the lantern. He began to read. The first few words were in Latin, which he did not understand, but beneath and written in his own Anglo-Saxon tongue was the message;

Brother, I am being held prisoner. Please do as they ask.’ It was signed, ‘Elifabeth’.

The Captain read the message several times before showing it to Sergeant Godfred. Eventually he turned to Idwal stood to the centre of the road. ‘This note is for the Earl?’ he queried. ‘And this is his sister’s hand in writing?’

Idwal nodded his head. ‘The letter is for the Earl,’ he confirmed; ‘and the note is in his sister’s hand.’

Captain Clarence mused for a while before asking; ‘What proof have I that you hold the Earl’s sister?’

Idwal delved once more into his pouch and took out the Abbess’s signet ring. He held it at arms length. ‘This is her ring,’ he said; ‘It bears the crest of the Fitzgerald’s. Take it. The Earl will confirm that this ring belongs to her.’

Captain Clarence moved to Idwal and took the ring. He turned it over and over in his hand. In the moonlight he could see the three lion heads of the Fitzgeralds. This was a turn of events he was not expecting. These Welsh brigands had been too cunning by half. His plan was to slay all five of them, including their horses, either now or on the morrow, and to bury everything deep in the woods. He would say that they had met as arranged and that the one hundred golden sovereigns were handed over, and that his Sergeant was with him to verify the act. Afterwards, when they could not be found, he would suggest they had absconded with the money instead of returning to Dolwyddelan. and who could say differently?

‘And what will happen to the Earl’s sister should we not comply?’ asked Captain Clarence after considering the situation further.

Idwal was quick to respond for this was something he wanted to be known. ‘Then the Earl’s sister will be put to the sword,’ he told Captain Clarence. ‘I have left instructions for this to be done if perchance we do not return. So I think it best you hand over the gold sovereigns and we will be on our way. The Earl’s sister we will leave here by the roadside for you to collect at the break of dawn.’

Captain Clarence considered the demand. ‘I must consult alone with my Sergeant,’ he said. ‘You put unfair demands upon us which were not part of the deal, and we must discuss this between ourselves.’

Idwal was now of the belief that he held the upper hand. Captain Clarence would not risk the life of the Earl’s sister and would hand over the gold. ‘Then be quick about it,’ he snapped, and taking hold of Maredudd he moved away to the edge of the road.

Captain Clarence however had other ideas. With Idwal and Maredudd both out of earshot he moved to Sergeant Godfred. ‘We must kill them both now,’ he whispered. ‘I will bring the leader to my saddlebag. I will tell him the gold is there. When he goes for the saddlebag I will strike with my sword, and you must do the same to the other brigand. Make sure you are close and ready to strike.’

‘But what about the Earl’s sister?’ quizzed Godfred apprehensively; ‘If these brigands do not return to their camp she will be put to the sword? You heard what he said.’

Clarence leered in the dark. He cared little for the life of the Earl’s sister. ‘Her death we will blame upon the brigands,’ he replied coldly. ‘Their camp will be somewhere in these woods. We ride out with the men at first light. We will find them and slay them. And if perchance we discover the body of the Earl’s sister, then we say it came as a shock, for we did not know. And if perchance she is found alive then we will gain praise for her rescue. Either way we cannot lose.’

Sergeant Godfred did not relish his Captain’s words, but nonetheless agreed, for he had little choice in the matter. His share of the brigand’s payment was twenty golden sovereigns, and once having agreed found himself having no alternative other than to go along with his Captain. He gripped the hilt of his sword tightly and nodded his head.

‘Then so be it. I will strike down the other brigand the moment you make your move.’

Captain Clarence placed a hand upon Sergeant Godfred’s shoulder. ‘Then strike swiftly and surely, and on my signal. Death must come quickly,’ he said. ‘We will conceal their bodies in the bushes and return to bury them at first light. We will say we met at midnight as arranged and handed over the golden sovereigns. Other than this we know nothing. We suggest they must have absconded with the money.’

With a final pat to Sergeant Godfred’s shoulder, Captain Clarence beckoned Idwal to come to his horse. ‘Come my friend; we agree,’ he called. ‘The one hundred golden sovereigns are in my saddlebag. Come and collect.’

Idwal moved cautiously towards the horses. At the first sign of trouble they were ready to draw their swords and fight. Whilst stood to one side the two men had worked out a plan of campaign and were prepared for action should anything untoward occur.

Captain Clarence loosened a strap on his saddlebag. ‘Come, the golden sovereigns are in here,’ he called.

Idwal however remained suspicious. Something was not quite right. For one thing Sergeant Godfred was sidling towards them with his sword drawn. Idwal withdrew his dagger and held it to his side. If any treachery was afoot, then he was ready.

He whispered to Maredudd since he had not moved far, to do the same, saying; ‘I will go to the saddlebag, but be ready with your dagger, for treachery may be afoot here.’

Maredudd withdrew his dagger and held it by his side. He stood watching as Idwal moved cautiously towards Captain Clarence’s horse.

The Captain threw open his saddlebag. ‘The money is in here,’ he said. ‘Come, it is yours, take it.’

Idwal edged closer to the saddlebag but remained wary and moved with caution. Captain Clarence had drawn his sword when he had made a move for the Abbess’s letter and the sword was never replaced. He now held it before him with the point to the ground.

Idwal gripped his dagger tightly with one hand whilst raising the other to the saddlebag.

Captain Clarence was an experienced soldier and knew exactly when to strike. As Idwal’s eyes turned to the saddlebag he struck. In one swift action he raised his sword and lunged forward with the blade. The thrust penetrated Idwal’s chest and struck at the heart. He died on the spot.

Captain Clarence’s strike was the signal for Sergeant Godfred to do likewise. But Maredudd was prepared, and as the Sergeant swung his sword he sidestepped and parried with his dagger. Maredudd was a seasoned fighter too and knew that to strike against the body of someone wearing chainmail to be foolhardy and ineffective. As the Sergeant swung his sword for a second time, Maredudd ducked. Then stooping low and with a stabbing action, he aimed his dagger to a point below the hem of the chainmail. As the blade sunk deep into Godfred’s thigh, the soldier yelped with pain and dropped his sword.

As Sergeant Godfred fell to his knees and clutching his leg, Maredudd seized the opportunity. He righted himself, turned and fled, leaving his dagger sunk deep into the Sergeant’s leg. He knew that once he reached the trees he was safe. Men weighted down with armour were no match for the fleet of foot.

Captain Clarence, having disposed of Idwal, put a boot to his chest and withdrew his sword. As he wiped away the blood on the clothes of his victim, a piercing shriek echoed about the woods. He swung around. He was expecting to see Maredudd lying in the road and Sergeant Godfred standing over him. However the sight that greeted him was very different. Instead it was Sergeant Godfred lying on the ground, and Maredudd rapidly disappearing into the dark.

Captain Clarence ran to Sergeant Godfred and to kneel by his side. A dagger was sunk deep into his thigh and blood oozed between clutching fingers. Captain Clarence knew best not to remove the dagger. The leg would only bleed worse. ‘I must get you to the lodge,’ he said. ‘This wound needs a physician to staunch the bleeding.’

Captain Clarence helped Sergeant Godfred to his horse then dragged Idwal’s body to the bushes. He was about to mount his horse when he remembered the Abbess’s letter and ring. These items would only incriminate him if found on his possession. He crumpled the letter about the ring and tossed it into the bushes. His only problem now was the remaining Welsh brigands. Their leader was dead but four remained. He vowed that at first light he would send out his men with instructions to slay them all.

As the two horses moved from the road, Bardolph stretched out a hand and picked up a tightly screwed-up ball of paper. He had listened with interest, and even though he had not heard all that was whispered, he had learnt enough to distrust the Captain. As a result of this man’s treachery one man lay dead and the Earl’s sister stood in mortal danger.

Bardolph unfolded the screwed-up paper. Inside he found a gold signet ring, and by the light of the full moon he could just about make out the three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgeralds. He recalled his encounter with the Abbess as she stood behind the bars of the church and locking the gate to the nunnery. This ring was upon her finger and he recalled commenting on it at the time. He grimaced. So it was true, the brigands held the Abbess captive and the leader was not bluffing.

He turned his attention to the letter. With the lantern gone it was too dark to read, but all the same he found it fascinating. The ink on the paper he could see, and it was a very distinctive pale blue. This set him thinking. He had seen this colour ink before and under very similar circumstances. The ring found within the handmaiden’s shoe had been wrapped in a similar manner, and in the very same yellow parchment, and written in the same distinctive blue ink. He furrowed his brow. Surely this was more than coincidence? And what was equally puzzling, the handmaiden had never visited the abbey, nor had cause to receive any form of communication. Most odd, he was thinking. Most odd!

He pondered for a while then pocketed the ring and letter. He would come back to these later when he had time to think. But now he had far more pressing matters to deal with. He cupped his hands to his face and gave the hoot of an owl. From amongst the trees and at some distance along the road, out trotted a white stallion.

Bardolph climbed upon the saddle and whispered quietly in the horse’s ear; ‘Come Ventalbi, we have a camp to find and a Holy Mother to rescue. Let’s hope we are not too late.’

Chapter Forty-Three

High in the treetops a lone owl hooted, but this was the only sound to be heard. Ifor, Daffyd and Dewi were seated around the campfire. Gone were the bawdy campfire songs and jokes about the English, and gone too was any talk of returning home to the lush green valleys of Deheubarth. All three were subdued and keeping their thoughts to themselves. The fire too was dying, but no one was concerned even though there was a chill to the air.

Dewi sat cross-legged before the dying embers, a flagon on his lap. Ifor, seated next to him, held out a hand and Dewi passed the flagon to him. Swaying unsteadily Ifor placed the flagon to his mouth and tossed his head back. A few drops of Norman cider spirit trickled out. Vigorously he shook the flagon, but could extract no more. In a fit of rage he tossed the flagon away, wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and burped loudly. He decided it was time for sleep and rose to his feet, but his legs buckled and he fell back to his knees. Not bothering to stand he crawled towards his bedroll beneath the overhang.

The flagon struck Daffyd on the shoulder before bouncing harmlessly away. Daffyd stretched out an arm, retrieved the flagon and held it to his mouth. A single drop of spirit touched his lips. He cursed and tossed the flagon away into the darkness. He rose to his feet and swaying from side to side, tottered unsteadily to his bedroll; soon both Ifor and Daffyd were sound asleep.

Seated by the campfire, Dewi watched them go. For him sleep was impossible. He felt sick and moved closer to the fire. His head throbbed. He placed a few broken branches upon the dying embers and slowly the flames returned. Feeling a little warmer he returned to sitting cross-legged before the fire, placed his head in his hands and vomited into the flames. He had never felt this bad before and vowed never again to drink the cider spirit of the Normans.

Dewi’s problems were nothing compared with those of Maredudd. Idwal their leader was slain, and come sunrise Longnor Woods would be swarming with soldiers. Maredudd ran all the way back to camp. He did not stop even though he knew pursuit to be impossible; Captain Clarence and Sergeant Godfred were too heavily armoured and on horseback. To ride through the woods at night would be dangerous, and besides Sergeant Godfred was wounded. He had sunk his dagger deep into the Sergeant’s thigh. If anything he would be returning to the lodge for treatment.

But this did not mean they would not come looking. It only gave Maredudd and the rest of the brigands a short breathing space. By dawn soldiers would be crawling all over these woods, and their only hope of survival was to head for the Welsh border and safety.

Maredudd entered the camp to find both Ifor and Daffyd asleep on their bedrolls. Dewi was awake. He was sat before the fire, but looking worse for wear. Maredudd looked around. With the only light coming from the flickering flames of the fire it was difficult to see into the cave. He strained his eyes, peered deep into the darkened recess and breathed a sigh of relief. The Abbess was still there, sat with her back to the far wall. She had not been put to the sword. This was good. He was now the leader and his plans for her had changed. She would accompany him to Dolwyddelan. He would leave the decision of what best to do with her to the Lord Llywelyn.

Maredudd moved towards Dewi and the fire, and in the darkness tripped upon an empty flagon. He picked it up and sniffed the contents. The smell of alcohol was all too obvious. ‘What’s this stuff you’ve been drinking?’ he snarled angrily at Dewi.

Dewi looked up and grinned childishly. With head rocking loosely upon his shoulders he tried to speak, but nothing more than a few slurred and incomprehensible words issued from his lips.

Maredudd tossed the flagon into the trees and rushed into the cave. He knelt down alongside Ifor and shook him vigorously. ‘Ifor, wake up,’ he shouted. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’

Ifor grunted and rolled over. Maredudd grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet. He shook him again. ‘Get the horses saddled,’ he bellowed. ‘Idwal is dead and soldiers are coming. We have to get out of here.’

The seriousness of the situation brought fresh life to Ifor. He shook his head in an effort to clear away the mist and staggered towards the mouth of the cave.

Daffyd, lying on the adjoining bedroll, remained snoring throughout. Maredudd gave him a kick. ‘Daffyd, get up,’ he bellowed. ‘We’ve got to get out of here. Go and help Ifor saddle the horses.’

Daffyd pulled the bedroll over his head. ‘Go away!’ he moaned.

Maredudd kicked again, this time and with the point of his boot. Daffyd yelped, sat upright and cursed.

Maredudd dragged Daffyd to his feet and shook him vigorously. ‘Go and help Ifor saddle the horses,’ he told him. ‘Soldiers are coming. We have to get out of here. I’ll get the Abbess. She’s coming with us. We are returning to Dolwyddelan.’

Dewi was sat facing the campfire when the first of the arrows flew through the air. Bardolph was stood atop the overhang and looking down upon the campsite when he released the string to his bow. The arrow, aimed straight and true struck Dewi with a dull thud just beneath the shoulder blade and carried on through his chest to pierce the heart. Dewi slumped forward, his face landing in the campfire, and there it stayed, unmoving with hair on fire and flames dancing about his head. Dewi had died even before his face hit the embers.

A few paces beyond the fire Ifor heard the thud of an arrow. His progress towards the horses had been slow and erratic. Unsteady on his feet he stopped and turned around. With the sudden burst of flame from the fire as Dewi’s hair burned, the figure of Ifor stood out in the darkness. It was at this point the second arrow struck home, once again piercing the heart, and Ifor dropped to the ground.

Daffyd too faired little better. Assisted by a shove from Maredudd, he was staggering out of the cave when the first arrow struck. Instinctively Daffyd stuck out a foot to arrest his forward motion. But this proved too little, and far too late. Swaying unsteadily his forward momentum took him one step too far, and this was all that was needed for Bardolph to release his third arrow. The arrow travelled vertically downwards and entered the top of Daffyd’s skull. The arrow sunk deep into his brain. He dropped to his knees, maintained that position for short while then topple face forward to the ground. He too had died almost instantaneously.

The Abbess had no idea of what was happening. Sat to the rear of the cave she bore witness to a frenzy of activity, but was at loss to its meaning. The heated discussions between Maredudd and Ifor, then Maredudd and Daffyd, had all been in a language she did not understand.

Then there came the dull thud of an arrow striking its target. She raised her head and looked outside the cave. A few sparks jumped from the fire and quickly followed by a sudden burst of flames. For a few seconds the figure of a man standing a few paces beyond came into view. There came a second dull thud and this man too fell to the ground. It was difficult to see in the half light, but it looked like he was clutching an arrow to his chest as he fell. Her eyes turned to the two brigands left in the cave. For some time now they had been shouting and arguing and as she turned her gaze one man was being pushed towards the entrance. This time she saw the arrow strike. She screamed as the man dropped to his knees then toppled forward to the ground.

Maredudd was quick to realise the danger. The moment the third arrow struck he retreated to the back of the cave. Knowing the camp to be under attack he moved swiftly to the Abbess. He struck her across the face to stop her screaming and dragged her to her feet. Having lost his own dagger when he sunk it into the Sergeant’s thigh he drew his sword and pressed it hard against the throat. Taking a firm hold of the Abbess he cast her to the front, and using her as a shield, moved cautiously towards the cave entrance.

‘I have the Abbess,’ he called into the darkness. ‘She dies if you enter the cave.’

Maredudd’s words were in the tongue of the Welsh Gaels for he spoke no other language, but Bardolph understood. The languages of the Gaels and Celts, be they spoken in Scotland, Wales or across the sea in Hibernia, all were known to him.

A voice from somewhere out in the darkness answered Maredudd in his own native tongue. ‘Brother, I did’st not realise you were from Wales. You are safe now. I mean you no harm. I am not a soldier.’

Maredudd however remained cautious, knowing this could very well be a trap. Whoever was out there had just killed three of his men, and that spelt danger no matter what language was being spoken. With the Abbess as his shield Maredudd pushed her towards the entrance. ‘Come out of hiding. Show your face. Let me see you,’ he called.

From somewhere beyond the sparks that danced about Dewi’s head, a voice called; ‘But I am out brother. I am out of hiding. I am here, stood by the fire. Can’t you see me? Come brother let us talk. I told you I’m not a soldier. I mean you no harm.’

Maredudd pushed the Abbess closer to the mouth of the cave and peered into the blackness of the night. The only visible light was coming from the dying flames and there was little else to see.

‘I can’t see you,’ he called. ‘Step to one side. Let me see who you are or the Abbess dies.’

The voice returned once more. ‘But I am here,’ it said. ‘Here, out in the open for you to see. Can’t you see me?’

Immediately Maredudd looked to his right, for the voice was now coming from his side. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ he called, the tone of his voice audibly strained.

‘I want you. Don’t move. Drop the sword and release the Abbess,’ said a voice from behind as the point of a sword pressed hard against Maredudd’s back.

Maredudd froze but continued to hold his sword to the Abbess’s throat. The voice had moved again and was now coming from behind his back. The point of the sword gave a little reminder of its presence, and the voice said; ‘Drop your sword and release the Abbess. Make one sudden move and you die.’

Maredudd withdrew the sword, held it out at arms length and let it drop. He then released his hold on the Abbess and pushed her away.

She collapsed to her knees, her arms still tied behind her back. Bending forward and with her forehead resting on the ground she began to pray. She feared for her life and her prayers were for the Angel Gabriel to come and carry her away. Whatever was happening behind her back, and whatever these men were talking about she did not understand. Once more the language spoken was that of the Welsh Gaels and unknown to her.

Maredudd started to turn, but the sword to his back gave another sharp reminder of its presence. ‘Do not turn around,’ said the voice. ‘Just answer my questions and I will let you go.’

‘How did you get behind me, in the cave?’ asked a puzzled Maredudd.

‘You were busy staring into the darkness. It was easy to pass by your side,’ answered the voice. ‘Now you answer me this. What were you doing at the twentieth milestone marker? What is so important that a brigand from across the border should be meeting with soldiers of Salopsbury, and at the midnight hour too? This intrigues me greatly and I want to know the reason.’

Maredudd did not answer the question. Instead he asked; ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’

The sword prodded once more, and the voice said; ‘It is I doing the asking. Now pray do answer my question. What were you doing at the road? Tell me or you too will join your friends on the ground.’

Maredudd, his body trembling, began to explain. ‘We were sent by the Lord Llywelyn,’ he said. ‘Sent to ambush and kill a party of travellers. We came here to collect our money, but we were betrayed. There was never any money.’

‘Ambush and kill who?’ asked the voice.

Maredudd shook his head. ‘I do not know. The travelling party was to be identified to us by soldiers of Salopsbury. But the party never appeared. The money should have been ours and we were here to collect at midnight. But we were betrayed. They killed our leader.’

‘Then why the Abbess, why did you bring her here?’

‘She was our insurance. She is the sister of the Earl of Salopsbury. We took her from the abbey and brought her with us.’

‘So this agreement to ambush and kill a travelling party; this agreement was between the Lord Llywelyn and the Earl of Salopsbury, was it not?’

Maredudd nodded. ‘They met some weeks back, here at the lodge in the woods, and it was all arranged,’ he explained.

‘But you were betrayed and there was no money?’

Maredudd nodded his head once more. ‘Yes, we were betrayed. There was never any money, and as for insurance, it seems the Captain of Salopsbury bears little regard for the life of the Earl’s sister.’

‘You were going to kill her too, if you were betrayed, were you not?’

Maredudd shook his head. ‘No, I was going to take her to the Lord Llywelyn. Her fate is for him to decide. A ransom could still be asked.’

‘Is this all you can tell me?’

Maredudd nodded. ‘This is all I know, except that come the dawn these woods will be crawling with soldiers. They will be out looking for me. If they find you, they will kill you too. They are ruthless and have no honour.’

‘Then you’d best go quickly. I release you. You are free to go. Saddle up your horse and return to the Lord Llywelyn. Explain to him the treachery, but advise him not to cross the border and meddle in the affairs of the Marches. This land belongs to the King of England and best left alone. He decrees that any man of Wales that doth cross into England be slaughtered. So think yourself lucky that I let you go: I do this so that the Lord Llywelyn will’st hear of this night’s treachery, and for no other reason.’

‘You let me go? I’m free to return to Dolwyddelan?’ asked a suspicious Maredudd. ‘I release you. You are free to go. Walk to your horse. Do not look back. Saddle up and ride away. With speed you can be well clear of these woods before the sun rises. Now go, else I have change of mind and do the King’s command.’

Maredudd knew better than look back. As the point of the sword dropped from his back he heard the sound of an arrow being placed in a bow and the string drawing tight. He walked slowly from the cave, stepping over the body of Daffyd in the entrance. He would do as the voice ordered. He would saddle up his horse and go.

Back in the cave the Abbess remained kneeling in prayer. Whatever the men were talking about she did not know. Perhaps they were discussing killing her. Then she heard one man walk away, and this followed a little later by the sound of horse’s hooves riding off into the distance. But even now, with one man gone, she still feared for her life. One man remained in the cave. But no matter how hard she strained her ears, she could not detect his presence.

A knife sliced through the ropes that bound the Abbess’s hands and gentle arms enfolded her and turned her around. And whilst she remained seated upon the ground, those same strong arms comforted her about the shoulders. She opened her eyes and looked up. There was little light save that which came from the dying embers of the campfire. All she could see were feathers held within a quiver upon her saviour’s back. The light was poor and her vision blurred and she thought these to be wings.

She thanked God for answering her prayers. She was safe and in the arms of the Angel Gabriel. She had wished death upon those that had wronged her, and God had answered by sending his messenger to cast them down.

‘Holy Mother, you are safe from danger now,’ the angel told her.

The Abbess of Wistanstow fainted.

Chapter Forty-Four

When the Abbess awoke she found herself resting between two large outstretched roots of an old oak tree. All about her the woods echoed to the sound of the dawn chorus.

For a while she simply lay there, unmoving, in an attempt to collect her thoughts. She knew not where she lay or even how she got there. Nothing about her looked familiar and the traumas of the previous day hung heavily on her mind. She raised her head. A thick horse-blanket dotted with morning dew covered her body. Other than this there was not much else to see. She was in a clearing surrounded by a thicket of trees, the air hung heavily on the ground, and everywhere was veiled in a thin layer of hazy mist. The morning sun, low in the sky, penetrated the canopy high above her head and radiated down in narrow beams to touch the moss covered ground at her feet; and where the heat of the sun did touch the ground, steam rose adding a swirling mist to the already shrouded forest air.

The Abbess felt her wrists. They were bruised and sore, but her hands were no longer bound. She fingered the rope burns about her wrists to remind her that this was no dream. She felt her side where she had been kicked. She was sore and no doubt heavily bruised.

Bardolph shook the Abbess gently by the shoulder and spoke softly. ‘Holy Mother, it is time for us to leave.’

The Abbess gasped and sat upright with a start. To find someone so close had come as a complete surprise. She had not detected another’s presence and considered herself to be alone. She turned her head to see a man kneeling by her side.

Bardolph handed the Abbess a small piece of bread a small wooden bowl filled with water.

‘Holy Mother, pray eat and drink a little,’ he said, ‘Salopsbury is a good three hours ride from here. This will see you through.’

The Abbess gazed towards the tall, elegant stranger kneeling over her; then looked about the glade at her unfamiliar surroundings. The events of the previous evening came flooding back. She was being held captive by a band of brigands from across the border. She considered them to be wicked men and had wished evil upon them. She had prayed for deliverance, and God had answered by sending the Angel Gabriel to smite them down, and the last thing she remembered was being carried away in the arms of an angel.

But this was not the Angel Gabriel knelt beside her. This was a mortal man, dressed in the greens of the forest and offering bread and water. She studied the man’s face and found his looks familiar. She furrowed her brow. ‘I know your face!’ she said. ‘Our paths have crossed before, but where I cannot recall.’

Bardolph pressed the bread and water to her hands. ‘Yes Holy Mother, our paths have crossed. It was at the abbey at Wistanstow. It was there I delivered an injured soldier to your Holy Order. Now pray eat and drink. We must ride.’

Memories of that encounter came flooding back and she nodded her head. Now she remembered. ‘You! You are the King’s Falconer!’ she said.

Bardolph gave a gentle nod and replied; ‘Yes Holy Mother, it was I. I am indeed that very person.’

The Abbess looked about the glade, her eyes wide and staring. Her surroundings were more familiar now. She was in a clearing. The dying embers of a fire rested near the centre and a white horse champed the grasses to the far side. One thing was for certain this was not the brigand’s campsite. There were no rocks or overhang here. Her eyes turned to the old gnarled oak between which roots she rested and she gained comfort from a familiar sight. This oak was hollow and she had hidden here as a child. This tree and this glade were at least two miles from the brigand’s campsite and a good distance from the road.

Feeling more at ease the Abbess returned her gaze to Bardolph. ‘We are in the woods at Longnor!’ she remarked. Then with an apprehensive glance about her, she questioned; ‘But where are the brigands? The Welsh marauders that did’st capture and bring me here?’

Bardolph could see the Abbess remained deeply troubled and tried to put her mind at rest. ‘Fear not, Holy Mother, the brigands from across the border have either been slain or chased away by soldiers of Salopsbury. You are safe now. No harm can befall you.’

The Abbess looked about the glade, her eyes searching for soldiers, but there was no one else, just the King’s Falconer. She furrowed brow and questioned; ‘The Welsh brigands, you say they are either slain or chased away by soldiers of Salopsbury? But where are these soldiers, these men-at-arms? Why are they not here with you?’

Bardolph returned a wry smile. On this point he had quite a tale to tell, but stories of skulduggery and treachery were not for the Abbess or for that matter anyone else. For the time being he was keeping all this to himself. ‘Our paths have never crossed,’ he replied simply.

The Abbess closed her eyes in an attempt to recall the final moments leading to her rescue, but her recollections were vague and confused. There had been mayhem and shouting, this much she remembered, and she recalled the deaths of three brigands shot by arrows. But after this she must have fainted, for all she could remember was being cut free and falling into the arms of the Angel Gabriel.

The voice of the man knelt by her side brought the Abbess back to the present and she opened her eyes.

‘Holy Mother, pray eat and drink for we must be away. It is to Salopsbury we must ride, for I have important despatches to deliver. We must ride together on my horse. If our journey goes well we will be there by noon.’

The Abbess gave thanks to God for sending the Angel Gabriel to rescue her, and delivering her safely into the company of this man from the King’s court at Winchester.

Bardolph riding his white horse, with the Abbess in the saddle before him, rejoined the road to Salopsbury at a point just north of the woods at Longnor. A milestone indicated that there were fifteen miles to go. This was now open countryside, with meadows of grazing sheep and cattle, and the occasional field of golden wheat dotted amongst the rolling hillsides. Trees were few and orchards non-existent. This was north of cider country and a place where good old English ale was still brewed and respected.

Bardolph rode with his arms about the Abbess and holding the reins. For a while they travelled in silence, the white horse moving at a steady canter. The Abbess broke the silence. ‘Tell me good Sire,’ she asked, ‘once your pledge to the fallen herald is fulfilled and the despatches entrusted into your keeping delivered safely to Salopsbury, will’st thou be returning to Lodelowe and standing in judgement at the trial of the Lady Adela?’

Bardolph considered the question. However his answer was simple. He had no intention of standing in judgement against anyone. He was already much delayed and had to be moving south. But he was also intrigued. During their brief encounter at the abbey he had mentioned little. He had talked of the Abbot, saying they were known to each other, but this was about all, and he could not recall ever mentioning Lodelowe or the Lady Adela. Their talk was about her signet ring bearing the crest of the Fitzgeralds, and she had revealed that she was the sister of the new Earl of Salopsbury. He had also mentioned his reason for being at the abbey and his pledge to Corporal Egbert the fallen soldier, but at no time did he mentioned standing in judgement against the handmaiden. Their discussion had been brief and conversation light.

Eventually he replied. ‘Why do you enquire of such things?’ he asked.

The Abbess, sensing she had spoken out of turn, felt an explanation in order. She apologised. ‘Pray forgive me good Sire, for I do not wish to pry,’ she said before going on to explain. ‘After your departure from the abbey, the Abbot did’st come to the church. We meet regularly on either side of the partition to discuss the affairs of the abbey and we talk of many things. On our last occasion he did’st talk of his recent visit to Lodelowe, and that whilst there he did’st stand in judgement against the handmaiden of the Lady Adela; he did’st also mention that by his side sat a Falconer from the King’s court at Winchester. I assumed good Sire this Falconer to be you, and that you would be returning for the forthcoming trial of the Lady Adela. Pray forgive me for talking out of turn. It is not a woman’s concern to pry into the affairs of men. I will do penance for my sins.’

Bardolph understood. ‘Holy Mother, do no penance for my part, for indeed it was I that stood in judgement alongside the Abbot and dignitaries of Lodelowe,’ he confirmed. ‘But as for future trials, the Baron hath exonerated me from further judgement. The road south beckons my call. I have the King’s birds to deliver and I am already much delayed.’

The Abbess placed her hands on Bardolph’s as he held the reins around her waist. ‘Then once more good Sire, pray my forgiveness for prying into your affairs. I will ask no more.’

But Bardolph remained curious. ‘You show much concern for the Lady Adela?’

The Abbess answered the best she could. ‘Lady Adela is kin,’ she said. ‘She was our Countess and a Fitzgerald by marriage. So naturally I show concern.’

‘She may hang for her crimes,’ stated Bardolph matter-of-factly.

‘She may,’ the Abbess replied, ‘but I believe she will not. Her innocence will be proven. I have prayed for her safe deliverance constantly since hearing of her imprisonment. God will save her for I know her to be innocent.’

Bardolph said no more and for the rest of the journey they rode in silence.

At the gatehouse to the bridge that spanned the River Severn they were waved on without challenge; the Abbess being recognised by the guard. Once across the bridge and negotiating the narrow streets of Salopsbury, no one gave them notice, and it was not until the white horse reached the portcullis to the castle did a challenge come.

The guard lowered his pikestaff across the path and in a loud voice called; ‘Halt, who goes there? Who seeks access to the castle of Salopsbury?’

The Abbess, sat to the fore, did the talking. Her voice loud and authoritarian, she told the guard; ‘I am the Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Abbess of Wistanstow and sister to Herbert Fitzgerald, Earl of Salopsbury. Now let us pass.’

On hearing the Abbess’s words the guard raised his pikestaff and stood rigidly to attention. Inwardly he was trembling but he tried no to show it. No one of this importance had ever approached the gates whilst he was on duty.

Bardolph kicked at his horse and moved beneath the portcullis and through to the courtyard beyond. No sooner had they entered the Abbess spoke. ‘Good Sire, pray pull up your horse. I will’st get down here,’ she said.

Bardolph pulled up his horse, dismounted and helped the Abbess to the ground. He looked around. Already from different directions a stable lad and a pageboy were heading to greet them.

To Bardolph’s right, in the near corner of the courtyard, stood the family chapel of the Fitzgeralds. The Abbess pointed towards the chapel. ‘It is to the chapel I must go,’ she told Bardolph. ‘I have a lot to thank God for. As for you, your duties lie elsewhere. Go seek the Earl. Deliver the despatches from Lodelowe and fulfil your pledge to the fallen soldier.’

She raised her hand to Bardolph. He kissed the Abbess lightly upon the knuckles. ‘Then enter the chapel Holy Mother,’ he told her, ‘and may God go with you. Perhaps someday our paths will once again cross, but if this proves not to be our destiny then I will always remember our meeting at Wistanstow and our ride this day to Salopsbury. Fond memories never fade.’

The Abbess curtsied and raised her head. ‘And I too will never forget that I once were privileged to ride with a King’s Falconer,’ she said. ‘This memory too will remain with me forever.’

A pageboy and a stable lad arrived from two different directions almost simultaneously, the stable lad taking the horse’s reins, and the pageboy bowing low before the castle’s visitors. Bardolph smiled and addressed the pageboy. He decided he would introduce himself for what he was; a man travelling under warrant from the King of England. The dispatches from Lodelowe would only be revealed once in the presence of the Earl.

‘The Abbess wishes for solitude,’ he said firstly. ‘She goes to the chapel to pray. But I have important business to conduct with the Earl. Run immediately and inform him that an officer from the Royal Court at Winchester and travelling under warrant from the King hath arrived and seeks an immediate audience.’

The pageboy straightened and set off immediately across the courtyard, continually repeating Bardolph’s message in the hope of not getting it wrong. Bardolph turned to the Abbess. She too was wishing to leave. He smiled and waved her on. She returned the smile, gave a final curtsy, and set off for the chapel. He waited for the pageboy to disappear and the Abbess to enter the chapel before turning to the stable lad.

Collecting the despatches from his saddlebag, he told the boy; ‘Lead my horse to the stables. Feed him fresh hay and water and treat him well.’ He then waited for the pageboy to return and lead him to the Earl.

Chapter Forty-Five

At the best of times news from Lodelowe was slow to reach Salopsbury. Even serious issues such as the abduction of the Abbess were late in coming. So on the morning after the event, as Herbert Fitzgerald sat alone in his chamber, news of his sister’s desperate plight had failed to reach his ears. Similarly, an account of the midnight rendezvous between two of his officers and the leader of the Welsh brigands had as yet not materialised. With noon approaching and the midday sun beating in through the narrow slotted windows of Salopsbury Castle, the only thing on the Earl’s mind was the arrival of a rider bearing despatches from Lodelowe. For only when the herald appeared and his despatches handed over, would he then be seen to act.

The Earl was sat deep in thought, his elbows resting on a table and head in hands, when a small pageboy escorted by a guard entered the chamber and knelt down by his side. The boy was much out of breath and had obviously come running.

The Earl raised his head looked down upon the pageboy. Could this be the news he awaited? Could this be news of the herald? ‘What is it?’ he asked curtly.

The pageboy, not looking up and staring down upon the feet of his master, said in a trembling voice; ‘My Liege, an officer from the Royal Court at Winchester and travelling under warrant from the King, hath arrived. He seeks an immediate audience.’

The Earl sighed. This was not the herald. He shook his head in despair. If only this could wait, but an audience with anyone purporting to be travelling under warrant from the King could not be ignored. He rose to his feet and clapped his hands. A servant appeared as if from nowhere. Striding briskly towards an adjoining chamber, the Earl called; ‘My official robes. I must hold audience with this holder of a King’s Warrant. Get ready the reception hall. A formal greeting is needed. I will hold audience him there.’

Not long afterwards Herbert Fitzgerald took his seat in the reception hall of Salopsbury castle. Grand tapestries adorned the walls, fires blazed in the inglenooks, and more than a hundred candles burned, making the hall both warm and bright.

For the occasion the Earl wore a cloak hemmed in ermine. On his left breast he wore the insignia of an Earl Marshal of the Crown; a pale-blue and red quartered shield bearing the three lion heads of Salopsbury and the three passant lions of the King of England. With a single clap of the hands he summonsed the castle’s royal visitor to his presence.

Bardolph entered the hall and strode briskly across the floor. He came to stand before the Earl and dropped to one knee. The Earl acknowledged the arrival of the royal visitor with a single nod to the head.

‘Greetings o’ bearer of a Royal Warrant,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the house of Salopsbury. Now pray enlighten me, what brings a lone traveller under warrant from the King to my humble castle?’

Bardolph held four documents in his arms. Three were scrolls, sealed with the crest of Lodelowe, the other a folded parchment. Bardolph handed over the folded parchment. It bore the great seal of King Henry III, King of England.

He explained; ‘My name is Bardolph and I hale from the ancient Kingdom of Wessex,’ then indicating the parchment now in the Earl’s hands, he added; ‘This missive and seal will’st explain the authority the King hath invested in me.’

The Earl unfolded the parchment and read the contents. On completion he nodded his head with approval. The man stood before him was a Falconer to the King, a position well thought of in royal circles and always held in high esteem. As Royal Falconer he would ride regularly alongside the King and be regarded as a man of high rank.

The Earl handed back the parchment. ‘Then Bardolph of Wessex, you are most welcome to my castle and the hospitality it may afford,’ he told him. ‘Now pray tell me, what brings a Royal Falconer to Salopsbury?’

It was always Bardolph’s intention to keep his explanation to a minimum. ‘I bring despatches from Lodelowe and the court of Baron de Clancey,’ he told the Earl. ‘Their deliverance was not put in my charge, but I did’st encounter the herald entrusted with their safe delivery. Alas he did meet with an accident; he did’st fall from his horse. I found him lying in a ditch, his leg broken, and I did’st take him to the abbey at Wistanstow. It was there I did’st swear a solemn oath to complete the herald’s journey, and to deliver these despatches to Salopsbury.’

Bardolph handed over the three scrolls. The Earl placed them on his lap and made no effort to read the contents. He was already aware of their contents and would only read them once alone. ‘Then my thanks go to you for the safe deliverance of these despatches,’ he told Bardolph. ‘Now I offer you the hospitality of my castle. I will’st get my servants to prepare a room and a bed, and you must be hungry from your travels. I will’st have a table laid for you.’

Bardolph bowed his head in thanks, but as far as he was concerned a room and a bed were not necessary. ‘Perhaps a little food,’ he told the Earl, ‘for I have not eaten this day, but not a room or bed, for I must be away. I am already much delayed and the King eagerly awaits my return.’

The Earl clapped his hands and beckoned a servant to his side. A servant arrived almost immediately. ‘Go to the kitchens and see to it that a goodly table is laid before this good servant of the King,’ he told him. ‘Offer him my best wine or ale if he prefers, and offer him any other comfort he so desires, for he is a most welcome guest to my castle.’

Bardolph bowed low. ‘My thanks go with you for your most gracious and extended hospitality,’ he said. ‘But my task here at Salopsbury is complete. Lodelowe’s despatches are delivered. Now I must beg of your leave.’

The Earl acknowledged the Falconer’s dismissal with a single wave to his hand. Bardolph rose to his feet, gave a final nod to the head, then turned and walked from the hall with the servant assigned to him following in his wake. His plan for the rest of the day was simple. He would enjoy the few small comforts of the Earl’s kitchen, then once he had partaken of a meal, return as quickly as possible to Ralph and his birds. With what daylight remained he could be halfway back to Onneyditch before nightfall.

A little while later Bardolph wiped away the grease of freshly cooked goose from his mouth and sipped a little more ale from a pewter tankard. He was sat alone at a table in a room above the castle’s kitchen, and before him was spread far more than he could eat. Around him hovered several serving wenches all eager to please. Every time he looked up they would spring to attention ready to serve his every need.

The door opened and a male servant entered. Immediately the serving wenches retreated to stand with their backs to one wall. Even in the kitchens there was a social order and everyone knew their place. The servant approached the table and bowed his head. ‘Sire, there is a lady here that seeks an audience,’ he said. ‘She was the handmaid to the Lady Adela, the late Earl’s second wife, and hearsay tells that you hold word of the Lady Adela and her imprisonment at Lodelowe.’

Bardolph wiped his mouth with a cloth and gave a wry smile. He was a little surprised as to how quickly rumours spread here at Salopsbury. The Earl would only have read the despatches some half an hour ago, and now the entire castle was awash with rumour.

But there was something else that puzzled him and it raised his curiosity. Since arriving at the castle he had not mentioned anything about the Lady Adela or ever having visited Lodelowe. Furthermore he had deliberately introduced himself as a servant of the King, and no more. The scrolls he conveyed were sealed and he could quite easily have met with the stricken herald whilst journeying south to Lodelowe. So how did this woman that now sought an audience learn of such things?

Bardolph nodded his head. He wanted to find out how such rumours began. ‘Yes, bring her to my table,’ he said. ‘I will grant her the audience she seeks.’

An elderly woman, wheezing and much out of breath stood in the open doorway. The servant signalled that all was in order and she entered the room. She came to stand before the table and curtsy the best she could considering her age and condition. She was wearing a green dress very similar to those worn by both the Lady Adela and her handmaiden, and on her head she wore the white bonnet of a serving wench. Most noticeable however was a brooch pinned upon her dress. It was a large green emerald, dew-drop in shape with a gold surround. Bardolph was keen to learn more about the brooch, but formalities needed to be observed first. This woman had asked for an audience and protocol meant that he was obliged to listen firstly to what she had to say.

‘You seek an audience with me?’ enquired Bardolph.

The woman remaining curtsied and looked up. ‘Good Sire,’ she said, ‘my name is Mary and I was handmaid to the Lady Adela whilst she resided within these castle walls. Rumour hath it that my Lady is now held at Lodelowe and that you hold word of her imprisonment. Is it true you have seen her? And is she in good health? Pray good Sire, do tell me, for I am most desperate to learn of my mistress’s grave misfortunes.’

Bardolph detected much discomfort in the woman’s voice, and that her concern for her mistress was real. The problem was, he had not visited the Lady Adela whilst at Lodelowe, and now he wished he had. Their only contact had been at the ford and later in the stables at Onneyditch. On arrival at Lodelowe she had been confined to a room in the north wing and he had no reason to visit her. However, hearsay told him that she was being well looked after and remained in good health.

‘Alas, I did not see the Lady Adela whilst at Lodelowe,’ he said sadly. ‘But I am told she remains in good health. She is held under guard by order of the Baron, but she has a good room with a fire, a comfortable bed on which to rest, and is served wholesome food from the kitchens. She has also been afforded a bible so that she can pray and take comfort from God.’

A look of relief spread across Mary’s face. ‘Then my Lady is safe and not put to any test?’

Bardolph thought this to be an odd question and stroked his beard before answering. ‘Lady Adela is safe and she has not been put to any test,’ he confirmed. ‘It is Baron de Clancey’s wish that she should be treated with all the dignity that doth go with her status of noble birth. So fear not, the Lady Adela will not be put to any test.’

Mary curtsied low and thanked Bardolph. ‘Then good Sire I thank you for granting me this audience,’ she said. ‘I shall not rest easily knowing my mistress’s desperate plight, but I will’st take comfort from knowing that she remains comfortable and enjoys good health.’

Bardolph smiled and watched as Mary took one step backwards towards the door. ‘Wait, one question,’ he said.

Mary stood waiting.

‘Tell me Mary, from where did’st you get that brooch,’ he asked and pointing towards her chest.

Mary looked a little surprised at the question and raised a hand to grasp the brooch. ‘This was a present from my Lady. I was given it as a fond and lasting farewell,’ she explained.

Bardolph mused upon the revelation. He had half expected this answer, but he needed to be sure. On leaving Lodelowe he had seen a brooch very similar to this one pinned to a dress being carried across the courtyard by Sergeant Cuthred. The dew-drop shaped emerald also matched the one worn by the Lady Adela at the ford. He pondered over the significance for quite some time before giving Mary permission to leave.

‘That will be all Mary,’ he told her after a long wait; ‘You may go now.’

Mary curtsied as low as her aging frame would allow, then turned and made for the door.

As the door closed Bardolph stood up and walked to a window. He watched as Mary appeared in the courtyard below and hurried away to the other side. She was heading straight for the Earl’s chambers. He nodded his head. At least now he knew the instigator of the rumours. It could only have been the Earl. This revelation coupled with Mary’s brooch he found most interesting indeed, and he mused upon what he had learnt.

Chapter Forty-Six

Bardolph having partaken of his meal was ready to leave. Thanking the kitchen maids for their services he set off for the stables. The efficiency here pleased him. Nothing seemed too much trouble. News of his departure had already preceded him and he had been informed that his horse was saddled and ready to ride.

The walk to the stables took Bardolph past the small family chapel of the Fitzgeralds. With his saddlebag slung over one shoulder Bardolph hesitated then turned and made for the chapel doors. There was a chance the Abbess would still be there and he had something that belonged to her. A signet ring, tossed away by the Captain and picked up in the woods remained in his possession, and this was his last opportunity to see it returned. Bardolph entered the chapel and closed the doors. He bowed low towards the altar and made the sign of the cross before his chest. The interior was dark and it took time for his eyes to adjust; the light only coming through two small stained glass windows to the rear of the chapel. He looked about him. The Abbess was knelt before a raised tomb set against one side of the chapel. On top of the tomb lay two stone figures; a man and a woman resting side by side and clasping their hands in prayer. The figures were gilded and brightly painted, and the colours were fresh suggesting a recent laying to rest.

Bardolph moved to stand alongside the Abbess. On the side of the tomb, chiselled deeply into the stone and gilded in gold leaf, were the words; Guilliam et Catherine - Concilius et Pacis. There were also the dates ‘1172-1235’ and ‘1174-1230’ beneath each person’s name. Bardolph, well versed in Latin, translated the inscription. In Anglo-Saxon it would read; ‘United and at peace’.

He understood. This was the final resting place of William Fitzgerald, the late Earl of Salopsbury, and also that of his first wife Catherine de Say. Bardolph knelt down beside the Abbess and clasped his hands in prayer. The Abbess acknowledged his arrival and they prayed together, reciting in Latin several thanksgivings. On conclusion Bardolph took out the signet ring from his purse and handed it to the Abbess.

‘Holy Mother, I believe this ring belongs to you,’ he said. ‘I found it in the woods at Longnor. You must have dropped it.’

The Abbess took the ring from Bardolph and kissed it gently. She rose to her feet. Bardolph was expecting a few words of thanks, and even the need of an explanation as to how the ring came into his possession, but nothing was offered nor asked. Instead the Abbess placed the ring next to the hands of Catherine’s stone image resting on top of the tomb.

Ex voto, she told him as she returned to kneel by his side.

Bardolph understood and returned a small nod of approval. The ring was a token offered to Catherine on account of a vow. After a moment of silence and another small prayer the Abbess spoke again. ‘The ring belonged to Catherine when she was alive,’ she explained; ‘It is a family tradition here to pass down heirlooms. The ring was given to me on her death some five years past. It is now returned to its rightful owner. I think she deserves it more than I. A Mother Superior has no need for such refineries, and the nunnery has its own seal for despatches.’

Bardolph nodded his head slowly and thoughtfully. The mention of passing items of jewellery down the family made him think of other possibilities. After a short pause he returned to speaking to the Abbess. ‘Then Holy Mother,’ he replied, ‘it is good, like you say, that the ring be returned to its rightful owner.’

The Abbess turned to Bardolph. She knew the real reason for his coming. The ring could have been left with a servant. This was to be their last encounter, their final farewell. A little tear welled up in the corner of one eye. She desperately wanted to learn more about the handsome young man that had saved her life. But she refrained. It was not a woman’s calling to ask of such things, and certainly not her right to pry into the affairs of men. Bardolph’s business was with her brother the Earl and nothing to do with her.

Her question to Bardolph was therefore simple. ‘You are finally away then? You ride from Salopsbury?’ she enquired of him. ‘You return to Wessex and the King?’

Bardolph nodded his head. ‘Aye Holy Mother, my work here is done,’ he confirmed. ‘Lodelowe’s despatches are delivered, and now the King awaits his birds and I must be away.’

‘Then before you go, is there no favour I can repay?’ asked the Abbess; ‘Money perhaps? The abbey has a small income, and we sell fruit and vegetables, and honey at the market.’

Bardolph shook his head. ‘Nay Holy Mother, I require neither favours nor money,’ he told her; ‘Knowing that you are safe from danger is my reward. I will always treasure these memories.’

The Abbess smiled and held out a hand. ‘Then God speed good servant of the King,’ she said. ‘May you ride safely and may St. Christopher go with you.’

Bardolph took the Abbess’s hand and kissed her lightly upon the knuckles. Together they said a final prayer. ‘Now Holy Mother I must bid you a fond farewell,’ said Bardolph on rising, ‘for the time has come for me to leave.’

The Abbess smiled. ‘Then farewell my Angel Gabriel,’ she replied. ‘You will always be remembered in my prayers. And may God go with you.’

Bardolph rose to his feet, and as he did so he looked down upon a memorial stone set into the floor where had been kneeling. He assumed this to be the resting place of a Fitzgerald since it bore an inscription. However on further inspection he could see this resting place to be a little different from all the others in the chapel, for the stone bore just one date and no name. At the top of the stone was carved the year; ‘1154’ and below in Latin were the words; Illi mens est misera qui ne vivit ultra annus. Bardolph translated the inscription. The words on the gravestone read; ‘A wretched soul is he that does not live beyond a year’.

Bardolph pointed to the memorial stone at to his feet and enquired of the meaning. ‘An unusual inscription,’ he said. ‘Is this the gravestone of a Fitzgerald?’

The Abbess, still kneeling and with hands clasped tightly together in prayer, looked up to Bardolph then down to the tombstone set in the floor. It was strange, but she had not taken notice of this inscription before. She read the Latin and answered him with what little she knew. ‘They are all Fitzgeralds entombed here in this chapel, these and those within the graveyard,’ she said. ‘The body of my dear cousin William, who died some weeks past, is here in this tomb and now lies alongside his first wife Catherine, united at last in heaven. There are places reserved for both my brother and I when the good Lord decides it is time for us to join him. But as for this memorial stone, I am sorry but I know not whose body it holds except to say that it must be kin.’

Bardolph pondered for a while then decided that time was pressing. ‘Then I must tarry no longer, for I must be away to Wessex and the King,’ he told the Abbess.

The Abbess made the sign of the cross before her body. ‘Then farewell good servant of the King,’ she said. ‘Perhaps one day our paths will cross again and perchance under more congenial circumstances.’

Bardolph tossed his saddlebag over one shoulder and bowed a final farewell. But as he turned he saw something that set him thinking; for alongside the tomb of William and Catherine stood another tomb. This was the resting place of Sir Rupert Fitzgerald and his wife Eleanor of Montgomery, and on it an inscription read, Rupert et Eleanor – Semper Paratus. He recalled the name Sir Rupert Fitzgerald. How could he forget it? This was the knight once served in battle by Squire Henry Stokes, the man that had stood in judgement alongside him at the trial of the handmaiden.

This set Bardolph thinking. But it was not the inscription that intrigued Bardolph. It simply translated as, ‘Always Ready’, and probably Rupert’s personal motto. Instead it was a certain year that held his attention. Beneath the word ‘Rupert’ were inscribed the dates ‘1154-1219’. He pondered hard and long. There was something about the year 1154 that seemed important to both the Fitzgeralds and the de Clanceys. Could this be just a coincidence? Or had he stumbled on something far more significant and something that might even save the lives of the Lady Adela and her handmaiden?

Bardolph turned to the Abbess. She remained facing his way and following his departure from the chapel. She waited for him to speak. Sounding much thoughtful Bardolph asked; ‘Holy Mother did’st you not enquire of me whether there is some favour you can repay?’

The Abbess managed a small smile. ‘I did’st my angel’, she replied; ‘and I ask of you again: Is there no favour I can repay?’

Bardolph turned pensive. Was he asking too much of the Abbess? For what he required had to remain a secret from both the Earl and the Abbot. ‘Holy Mother, can’st what I say remain within these four walls of the chapel and not pass beyond?’

The Abbess gave a slight nod to the head in agreement. ‘What is spoken between us this day will not pass from this chapel; may God be my witness,’ she swore and speaking with hands together as if in prayer.

Bardolph was satisfied. The Abbess would be true to her word. He never doubted this, but it had to be said. ‘Then perhaps Holy Mother, there are two small favours I ask of you. Firstly will’st you attend the trial of the Lady Adela and be willing to testify if called upon? And will’st you also take with you Mary, formerly the handmaid of the Lady Adela? Ask her to bring with her the brooch given to her by the Lady Adela on her departure for Normandy, but to keep the brooch concealed and not to show it to anyone. Keep it hidden from all eyes. For I think this brooch may be the saviour of both the Lady Adela and her handmaiden.’

The Abbess held no objections to what was being asked; but why the secretive nature of this action? She was curious. There had to be something else; something more important and most secretive. ‘Gladly I will’st do this small favour for you,’ she said. ‘It is the least I can do. I will’st gladly attend the trial of the Lady Adela, and I will’st take with me Mary the handmaid along with her brooch. It will be my pleasure to return such a small favour after all that you have done for me. But you said two things. What else does’t you require of me that requires such a furtive nature?’

Bardolph looked the Abbess in the eyes. ‘Yes Holy Mother there is one more favour I ask of you,’ he said; ‘And this you must do alone. No one must know. The Abbey at Wistanstow must somewhere retain records of past disputes between Salopsbury and Lodelowe. In particular the resolving of the boundary dispute that took place in the year eleven-hundred and fifty-four, when the boundary was moved from Onneyditch to Marsh Brook.’

The Abbess thought for a while. She did the maths. This was eighty-one years ago and if anything was recorded then it was long forgotten. ‘There are records kept in the vaults,’ she confirmed; ’and I can gain access, I have the keys and can go there alone. What year did you say? Eleven-hundred and fifty-four? I will look and see what I can find.’

Bardolph bowed low. ‘I would be most obliged if you would Holy Mother, for I think I my have stumbled upon the answer to all these riddles,’ he replied. ‘But please, it is important that you tell no one and bring anything you find to the trial.’

‘I will do as you bid. If the records are there I will find them, and I will tell no one,’ she said. She then went on to ask; ‘You think this will save the Lady Adela?’

‘It may well do,’ he replied.

‘Then I will return to the Abbey on the morrow, and this I will do,’ she replied and adding; ‘How else could I repay my Angel Gabriel?’

Bardolph bowed one final time. ‘Then Holy Mother I must hasten away,’ he said. ‘I go next to the Abbey at Wistanstow. For within the abbey walls there does’t reside an injured soldier that eagerly awaits news of the despatches entrusted to my care. I must put his mind at rest. But whilst I am there I will’st pass on news that you are safe at Salopsbury, and that you will’st be returning shortly.’

The Abbess returned a nod of approval. ‘Then God speed to Wistanstow good servant of the King,’ she said, ‘and once again my heart filled thanks, and perchance we will meet again at the trial of Lady Adela?’

Bardolph on this occasion gave no reply. His plans were for him alone. With a final lowering of the head he turned and walked from the chapel. He had no intention of giving away any of his plans, not even to the Abbess of Wistanstow, for he was beginning to learn just how fast rumours spread in this corner of England.

Chapter Forty-Seven

As dawn broke Captain Clarence set out from the lodge at Longnor. With him rode eleven soldiers of Salopsbury; all protected by mail and identifiable by their pale-blue uniforms and three yellow snarling lion heads upon their chests. There was however one man missing from the party. Sergeant Godfred was no longer with them. His leg wound was serious and it would be several weeks before he would be fit to ride again.

The campsite of the brigand’s was not easy to locate. The woods around the lodge were extensive and the layout unfamiliar to those in the party. Captain Clarence knew the brigand’s campsite to be somewhere to the far side of the road, away from the lodge, but its exact whereabouts were unknown to him. For this reason he split his party into three groups of four and sent them off to search left, right and centre. The call of the hunting horn was to be the signal to congregate once more.

In the end it was Captain Clarence’s party that located the campsite and the call of the horn was not used. To begin with it was thought the sound would only alert the brigands. But after observing for several minutes from behind a thicket of trees, and noting the camp lacked any activity, Captain Clarence considered there to be no point in calling the others. All that could be seen were three bodies and five very agitated horses tethered to a nearby tree. One body lay with his face in the remains of a campfire; a second on the ground not far away, and the third slumped in the mouth of a large cave. After sending in two men to check out the campsite, Captain Clarence walked to the centre and with his boot rolled away the body from the ashes. The man’s face and hair were gone, but he recognised the Welsh brigand from the bulkiness of his body. This was the one they called Dewi.

Captain Clarence snapped the arrow from his back and examined the flight. This was a well-crafted arrow. The shaft was straight and true, and the feathers a most distinguishable reddish-brown. He knew these feathers. They were the feathers of the red kite. With the broken arrow in his hand Captain Clarence moved to the body that lay a little way from the fire. Again he rolled the body over with his boot. He recognised this man too. This was the brigand Ifor. There was an arrow in his chest that had pierced his heart. He snapped it away and put the two arrows together in his hand. The Captain moved to the cave entrance and rolled the third body over with his boot. This brigand too he recognised. This was Daffyd, and he had been struck dead by an arrow to the top of his skull.

Standing close to the entrance of the cave, Captain Clarence looked up. The arrow that killed Daffyd would most certainly have come from the top of the overhang. He turned his gaze to the campfire and the body of Dewi. That arrow too would have come from the overhang; as would the one that killed Ifor a short distance beyond. He bent down and examined the arrow embedded in Daffyd’s skull. The shaft and flights were identical to those in his hand. From the evidence he concluded that one man, shooting arrows from above of the overhang, had been responsible for all three deaths.

Captain Clarence rose to his feet and moved into the cave. Against the rear wall rested a large gilded crucifix, and to the centre five bedrolls were laid out upon the floor. Two looked like they had been slept in. The crucifix reminded Captain Clarence of the Abbess and suggested that she too was once here.

Deep in thought Captain Clarence walked back into daylight. His men had no knowledge of the Abbess. This was a secret held between him and Sergeant Godfred. On entering the camp he had been hoping to discover the Abbess’s body and was ready to appear shocked at the discovery. However on finding no Abbess, he concluded that she remained alive and in the hands of either a Welsh brigand or possibly their assailant. He had no way of telling.

However, Captain Clarence did his sums. It was not difficult. Originally the brigands numbered five, and the bedroll count confirmed this. He had personally slain one brigand at their midnight rendezvous and a further three now lay dead here at the campsite; this therefore left just one brigand not accounted for. He recalled all five names and the ones he knew to be dead. He concluded the one still alive would be Maredudd, the brigand’s second in command. He looked to the horses and recalled the time when he first joined up with these men. Their mission back then was to waylay and slaughter the Lady Adela and her party, and the brigands were in possession of six horses, five to ride and one spare. But now only five horses remained, so one was gone and his sums did add up.

From the evidence Captain Clarence concluded that the one remaining brigand must have flown the campsite and taken the Abbess with him. They would be sharing the horse, and in all probability heading for the Welsh border. This left the Captain with a big problem. If the Abbess was to ever reach Dolwyddelan then the Lord Llywelyn would no doubt hold her captive until the one hundred golden sovereigns were handed over. On this point the Earl would certainly want to know the whereabouts of his money, and why it was never handed over.

And there was something else that worried him. A third party was now involved. Someone had been responsible for these men’s deaths and now posed a physical threat. The evidence suggested one man did this, but on this point he could not be certain. There was also the possibility that this man now held the Abbess.

Captain Clarence considered this second option. He looked about the campsite and then to the broken arrows in his hand. Three arrows had been released and all were identical. All were finely crafted, with shafts straight and true, and all with very distinctive reddish-brown kite feathers for flights. So one thing was for certain, whoever did this was a deadly marksman, and he knew of no one from Salopsbury or the surrounding area capable of such deadly accuracy.

The call of the hunting horn was the signal to regroup at the campsite. Once all were gathered Captain Clarence detailed six of his men to gather up the bodies, horses and possessions and take everything to the lodge. The remaining five were then to go with him. But where to go he was not sure. Instinct however told him to leave the woods at Longnor and head for the Welsh border. One thing was for certain, Maredudd, the last of the brigands had to found and killed. As for the Abbess, dead or alive it did not matter. Found alive he would get the praise. Dead, he would blame the brigands.

End of part 6

Copyright© 2012 by Nosbert. All rights reserved.