Excerpt for A Fool's Disciple by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Fool’s Disciple


Donald C. Lee

Edited by Debi Staples

Copyright 2003 by Donald C. Lee

Smashwords Edition

* * * *


I: Escape

II: Monk, Elf and Shepard

III: A Companion

IV: An Ass in a Bearskin

V: An Owl’s Warning

VI: Into the Dragon’s Lair

VII: The Dragon’s Roar

VIII: Dragon-slayer

IX: A Question of Fealty

X: Transformations

XI: Illusions Shattered

XII: A Face in the Bushes

XIII: Neptune

XIV: Crusade…

XV: The Heresy

XVI: Battle

XVII: Captivity

XVIII: Nanette

XIX: Like Jonah and the Whale

XX: Caravan

XXI: Bandits

XXII: Descent into Hades

XXIII: Lord Natasha

XXIV: A Satanic Bargain

XXV: A Voice from the Cave

XXVI: Death at His Heels

XXVII: A Perfect Death

XXVIII: Cutting the Gordian Knot – I

XXIX: Cutting the Gordian Knit – II

XXX: Fog and Snow

XXXI: The Lady of the Spring

XXXII: Challenge

XXXIII: Whom Will Death Take?

XXXIV: An Ounce of Flesh

Historical Persons and Events

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* * * *

To Drusilla Campbell without whose constant

exhortations to show, don’t tell’ and say it better

this book would never have come to be;

and with grateful thanks to Judy Reeves and

Irene Winfield for their criticism and encouragement.

* * * *



It was late Spring in the year of our Lord, 1209, when a pack of mercenaries broke down the monastery doors in the dark of night and drove Anthony upon his quest.

The sixteen-year old novice monk knelt in the dark on the cold stone floor in front of the wooden cross over his bed. He had been praying for the health of the young blacksmith’s son, who had burned his hand upon his father’s forge, and the old peasant woman to whom he had taken Brother Anselm’s healing herbs that day. The shriveled white-haired woman had writhed in pain, wild-eyed and feverish, upon her foul-smelling pile of rags and straw. She had clutched Anthony’s arm in her bony hand as he fed her a broth of willow bark. His eyes filled with tears at the thought that she would die soon, and he was helpless to prevent it. The fear and loneliness in her face still haunted him.

Anthony prayed aloud, “I will take my vows tomorrow and learn everything about healing that Brother Anselm can teach me. Dear Lord, help me ease the sufferings of these poor people.”

He rubbed the hairless spot on the top of his head. He already felt like a monk now that Brother Thomas had tonsured his crown bald after vespers this evening in preparation for the taking of vows. The old monk had even shaved his first scraggly blond hairs that had threatened to become a beard. Anthony remembered how his light brown curls had fallen about his feet like the tattered shreds of his childhood.

Brother Thomas had asked him, “Do I see doubt in those green eyes?”

It had bothered Anthony, for he did not want to admit his doubts even to himself. He curled under his blanket on the hard planks that served as his bed and dreamt that he played hide and seek with his younger brother in the oak grove near the castle that was his childhood home. He wanted to hold on to his dream, but voices shattered it.

He awoke afraid. He opened his eyes and saw the faces of his fellow monks, Melchoir and Luke, distorted by the flickering light of the torches they held.

Melchoir shook him roughly. “Wake up! You must flee at once! Soldiers have forced their way into the monastery and are beating our brothers.”

Luke trembled. “They’re torturing the old Abbot.”

“But it’s you they’re after.” Melchoir tore the blanket off Anthony. “The soldiers are searching everywhere.”

“They’ll be here soon!” Luke’s voice broke. “You must leave the monastery and hide. You have no time to lose!”

“Do you jest?” Anthony thought that this must be another test of his fitness to take holy vows, “What could soldiers want with...”

Luke put a finger to Anthony’s lips. The looks of alarm on his friends’ faces made Anthony shiver with fear. Now he, too, could hear the shouts and foul oaths of soldiers down the hall, and the voices of monks as they pleaded for mercy.

Anthony leapt from his bed and ran to the door of his room. He opened it slowly and peeked around the corner. Twenty feet down the hall, three soldiers pummeled a squirming brown shape with their spear butts.

“Where is the novice named Anthony? Tell us or we will make your silence permanent.”

A soldier kicked the brown shape and it rolled. Anthony saw the face of the elderly and arthritic Brother Sebastian. Blood ran from his mouth. Sebastian’s eyes met Anthony’s. The old man’s arm shook as he raised it and pointed away from Anthony, toward a stairway down to the refectory.

Anthony wanted to protect the old man – to leap on the back of the nearest soldier and grab his sword from its sheath – but Melchoir jerked him back into his cell. Luke quietly closed the door.

“Anthony! The window! You must jump!” Melchoir pulled Anthony’s bed under the window so that Anthony could climb up to the high, narrow opening. He pulled back the wooden shutter and the icy air of the late spring night flowed into the small room. Anthony shivered.

“What do they want with me?”

Luke shrugged. “I don’t know, but I fear that your life is in danger.”

It was a twenty-five foot drop to the stream, and Anthony was not sure whether the water was deep enough to break his fall. Could he jump out far enough to miss the bank? He didn’t know how to swim. And the water would be frigid.

“Must I do this? Why could they be after me? It must be a mistake.”

He slipped into sandals and pulled his woolen cowl over his head. Melchoir thrust a small bag of coins into his hands and helped him tuck it securely under his belt.

“Old Anselm commanded me to tell you that you must stay far away from the Monastery. He’ll meet you in Wainsmarket this Sunday. He’ll instruct you what to do next. Meanwhile,” he crossed himself, “you are released from the rules of the Order until you can rejoin us.” Melchoir gripped Anthony’s shoulders hard with both hands and drew him into an embrace. “Now jump, my friend, and God be with you.”

In his fright, Anthony could not be sure whether he jumped or was pushed, for he did not suppose himself to have had the courage to jump. He lost his breath as he hit the icy water. The shock of the cold sent him into a panic. His arms and legs flailed violently and uselessly. He felt slippery stones under his feet. When he tried to stand, the current pushed him, and he slipped forward, inhaled water, felt suffocated, and gagged. Again he found stones under his feet, and again the stream pushed him, this time into a shallow area where he scraped his shin on a jagged rock.

Anthony crawled onto the bank and coughed and shivered. “I didn’t drown. Thank You, Lord,” he whispered. He looked up at the Monastery silhouetted in the dim moonlight across the water. It had seemed like he was swept miles through the water, but he had ended only thirty feet downstream from his cell. His robe, soaked and muddy and ice-cold, clung to his body. Exhausted, he fell into the bushes and coughed. He hurt everywhere from the bruises and scratches, and his legs stung. When he touched his shin with his finger, it was sticky with blood.

Voices from the Monastery drifted to his ears. A soldier leaned out the window of the little room that had been his cell, holding a torch. He threw his torch across the stream. For an instant, the bank directly in front of Anthony was illuminated. He drew back into the underbrush. A soldier with another torch peered out over the shoulder of the first.

“He must have jumped from this window,” the first soldier’s voice carried in the still night.

“Then he’ll drown and be eaten by fish and we’ll not get our rewards.”

“Perhaps he’s learned to swim.”

“Not likely. Few in these inland parts can swim, and even if he could, he wouldn’t get far in that icy water. We must get more torches and search both sides of the stream. We’ll find him, corpse or quick.”

“Aye, for should we not, we’ll feel our lord’s wrath on our backs. These monks will be sorry they lied and let him escape....”

Their voices faded as they disappeared from the window. Anthony’s stomach shook as much from fear as from cold. I wonder who it might be that’s so eager to capture me, he thought. He turned upstream, since the soldiers would begin by searching downstream where a body would be carried. He stumbled over rocks and logs in the dark, and scratched himself again on clinging branches, but his dread of the soldiers pushed him on through dark woods along the stream bank.

Light from a crescent moon shone intermittently through broken clouds. Great trees arched their branches above, and cast confusing web-like shadows over the ground. Anthony felt like a poor insect who knew that the spider was coming and was struggling to escape the spider’s web. Noises of the night were strange and unfamiliar. Cracking sounds, like someone stepping on fallen twigs, startled him. Could it be wolves, or a bear, or perhaps the soldiers close behind?

Anthony stumbled through thick wet grass. He brushed against chilly moist ferns and mossy damp tree trunks. The frosty night air and frigid raindrops that dripped from the trees penetrated his soaked robe and made him shiver violently.

He staggered on through the rain puddles and mud. A deep desire to stretch out on the soggy earth and grass crept over him. But he was not ready to let the cold worms have their inevitable feast.

He had always feared the cold, the black winter night, the melting winter snow, the chills of illness; yes, especially illness. He had always thought of Hell as a place; not of flames, but of ice and slush. The Devil he pictured as colorless as glass. His horns were icicles and he glowed with a stolen light. Anthony was in his imagined Hell.

A Hell with heat would be no Hell at all. He longed for the caress of sunlight on his skin. He dreamed of bright yellow flowers in a field bathed in sunshine. Was it his mother who held him in her warm arms? That would be Heaven enough. He shook himself awake and pushed himself away from the tree he had been leaning against.

He no longer knew where the stream was when he climbed a slope and walked into a wide field. He looked back. Startled, he saw flames in the distance, beyond the forest through which he had staggered. Were the soldiers burning the Monastery in anger? His stomach knotted at the thought that his friends might suffer because of him. Would they lose their home and their years of labor at translating holy books? Had they been killed? He shouted into the darkness.

“Dear God, no! No! Let it not be.”

He tripped into a haystack just as it began to pour rain, an icy rain. He dug a hole in the mound and put his hands inside. The sweet yellow hay smell and heat radiated out like steam off a cow’s back. He clawed and burrowed like a mouse, dug a tunnel into the hay, and crawled in as far as he could. He shivered and shivered in the slimy warmth deep in the hay. Straw filled his mouth and he spit it out. His rough wool cowl rubbed his cuts and scrapes, and stalks of straw poked his back. He squirmed. But as the glowing yellowness of the hay warmed him, the tension in his stomach relaxed and he breathed more slowly. If he were back in the Monastery it might be time for matins now. But he remembered the flames. He folded his hands in prayer for the safety of his fellow monks. He gave in to his weariness and fell asleep.

Anthony awakened at sunrise. He itched from head to toe. He was hungry and thirsty, and needed to relieve himself. How he wanted to lie still to enjoy the warmth, to go back to sleep, but the pain in his bladder grew until his teeth began to hurt. He had to get up. Outside in the misty morning chill, a slight touch of frost whitened the tips of the grass. His damp cowl felt cold again. He relieved himself and shivered. If I were back in the Monastery now, I would be at morning services, he thought. But I have been released from that life. I’ve been released from all the rules. He felt uneasy not to have the well-ordered day to look forward to, and at a loss what to do. Frightened that the soldiers might see him, he wondered why they sought him. He listened for signs of a search, but could only hear birds. He sniffed for signs of the Monastery fire, but only smelled moldy damp earth from where part of the field had been plowed.

Wounds covered his legs. Hay stuck in the scabs of dried blood. When he picked a stalk out, the scab came off with it and the wound began to bleed again. How pale his freckled arms and legs looked after so much time in the Monastery! They had been brown when he had played outdoors with his brother all day, bow-hunting for rabbits and fighting with wooden swords. He wrapped his arms across his chest and danced around the haystack to warm himself while he thought over his situation.

He longed to go home to his family. Home would be east of the Monastery and the stream flowed from the Welsh mountains to the west. He cupped his hands over his eyes to shield them from the bright morning sun. The road home must be beyond the stream, not far beyond the thin, chartreuse tree line at the far end of the field. It would be a week of travel at best, and he might not recognize the landmarks after all these years. Worse, he would have to pass the monastery again, and soldiers would be watching the road. He pulled his still damp hood over his head against the cold and cinched his belt tighter over an already thin waist against his hunger.

Surely it would be best to meet Anselm in Wainsmarket and find out why soldiers sought him. He crossed the field, away from the Monastery, into a forest of birch and ash with thick underbrush.

He staggered through the brush and felt sorry for himself. His wounds from the night before throbbed with pain. It was some time before he finally emerged from the dense underbrush of the forest onto a muddy cart track. He thought that he might be far enough from the Monastery now to be safe on a road. He set off to find some food.

There were no houses, only fields and forest in all directions. Three men and a donkey came over the crest of a hill. Anthony wondered if they could be soldiers hunting for him. He hid in the bushes beside the road. As they came closer, he saw that they were clad in shabby hemp and wore straw sandals. One had a wooden plow over his shoulder. Peasants. He came out to greet them.

“God bless you, my friends. If you have anything to eat, I have coins to buy it with.”

“What have we here?” A burly red-bearded fellow leered at him. “Could this be the young monk those soldiers were hunting for? Why else would he be on this road this morning? Monks have never before had reason to come here. And he’s hungry. Who ever heard of a hungry monk?”

The tall blond peasant leaned on his plow and grinned. “Perhaps we could take him to the soldiers and gain a reward.”

Anthony swallowed hard and stepped back a pace.

A stooped old man, whose face resembled that of the donkey he led, stroked his dirty beard. “No, the soldiers would only beat us for thanks. What soldier has ever given a peasant anything? They only take. And why should we help those Norman wolves?”

The red-beard spat on the ground. “The only reward we’re likely to get is one we take ourselves.” The man put his hands on his hips and squinted at Anthony. “This green-eyed, freckle-faced monk looks like a Norman.” The expression of a hungry wolf in the man’s face made Anthony step back another pace and wonder how he might escape. His whole body tensed.

“He says he has coins,” the old man said. “It’s unlikely that he will bring the wrath of the law upon us if he flees the law himself. Let’s see these coins.”

They advanced on Anthony. He stumbled backward, turned, and ran. His foot slipped in a puddle, and as he regained his balance, the tall peasant caught up with him and wrapped his arm around Anthony’s neck. They both slipped and sprawled in the mud. Two peasants each grabbed an arm and held Anthony face down in the ooze, while the other searched for his purse. Anthony couldn’t breathe and struggled to pull his face out of the mud.

“Where are these coins?” The red-beard shouted. “Tell us or we’ll break your neck.” They rolled him over and felt under his belt. Anthony writhed and choked back a curse from his childhood that would have been blasphemy for a monk. He kicked the tall blond in the stomach and sent him sprawling. The old man grabbed his legs in a bear hug while the red-beard pinned his hands over his head.

Anthony snorted mud from his nose and panted. “If you... break my neck, I’ll... be able... to tell you nothing.” A bit of monastic logic would salvage his superiority.

The blond sat on his chest, scowled, and beat Anthony’s face with his fist. Anthony’s efforts to fight back exhausted him. The humiliated was worse than the pain. He began to hate the peasants and feel the Christian irony of it at the same time.

“This is a thick, warm robe, a well-made belt, and good sandals. Let’s take them for our trouble.” The old man tugged at Anthony’s sandals. Anthony squirmed and kicked at him, but he tired and they stripped him naked.

“Ah, I’ve found a bag of coins inside the belt – several for each of us.” The old man chortled.

They beat him again for good measure, taking turns, then led the donkey away, and laughed at their good fortune. Anthony sat in the cold dirty puddle, elbows on his knees, hands over his eyes, clad in nothing but bloody cuts, bruises, and mud. His lip bled, his head ached, and he couldn’t open one eye from the swelling. How weak I’ve become in the Monastery, he thought. For the son of a nobleman to be beaten by peasants... His father had told him “men don’t cry” and always threatened to beat him if he kept crying at age seven. His tears had turned to anger at the thought. The cold rain began again.

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* * * *


Monk, Elf, and Shepherd

Anthony tasted the blood on his lips and wiped it from his nose. Feeling helpless, he sat in the mud and rain for a long time, shivering and bleeding, too drained of energy to move. The sky was as dark as his mood. He stared listlessly at the wounds on his shins. If God wanted me to be truly humbled before taking my vows, he thought, He’s succeeded.

Anthony’s cold, thirst, and hunger became stronger than his despair. The rain stopped. He remembered the stream, and trudged, unsteady and stumbling, back toward it. The cold wind chilled his bare skin. Stones bruised and cut his bare feet and his progress was slow. When he reached the tumbling stream, he dropped to his hands and knees, put his face to the water and drank deeply. He had never so appreciated a drink of water. He washed his face and arms in the cold stream. The wounds were many, but none deep. He ached all over. A cut on his arm throbbed and bled. He sucked on it. He washed the mud and straw from his legs. How scrawny my legs are, he thought. The scrape on his shin oozed and stung.

He recognized the young green sprouts of Shepherd’s Purse growing on the stream bank. Brother Anselm had taught him its use to reduce bleeding. He ground the leaves between two stones and spread the mash on all his wounds. His shin stung and he flinched. He looked around him for Comfrey, Agrimony, or Lady’s Mantle to heal the wounds, but remembered that it was too early in the year. He bowed his head and folded his hands.

“Thank You, Lord, that You let Shepherd’s Purse grow almost all year round,” he mumbled. “If only You would help me to find cabbage in the peasants’ fields, that too would help my wounds to heal – and ease my hunger.”

He raised his face to a ray of sunshine that warmed him through a break in the clouds. Despite the chill in the air, Anthony stretched out naked on the grass at the edge of a clearing in the woods. The high grass shielded him from the cold breeze. His skin prickled as he rested his body in the sun’s warmth and let the herb dry on his wounds to stanch the bleeding. He looked at the forest around him. Mosses and ferns grew on the tree branches; clover, dandelion, and wild strawberry carpeted the earth, though it was too early for berries. It was pretty and peaceful here. Sunlight dappled the forest floor and sparkled from raindrops on the leaves. He smelled forest mold and the delicious rot of a fallen tree. Birds were singing, and he wondered if they had only begun to sing, or if they had been singing all the day.

He lay in the grass and thought about his situation. Why would soldiers break into our monastery? Could our medicines have harmed some local lord? But they sought me, not Brother Anselm. I was only his assistant. Anthony heard a twig crack nearby. He sat up quickly and looked in all directions, but neither heard nor saw anything amiss. He collapsed back into the grass. Perhaps the problem has to do with my life before the monastery. Could it be connected with my family’s dispute over the throne?

Anthony remembered that, although it was unusual to send an elder son to the church, Anthony had been the one chosen to serve God. His father had told him, “Your head is filled with useless dreams, Anthony. Our estate would soon be lost to the Norman king if I put it in your hands. Your brother, Garth has the warrior’s temperament and skill to hold it.”

Anthony had been stung, but he had accepted the truth of his father’s words and the wisdom of his decision with only a shadow of bitterness.

Anthony’s father, the Baron of Branwall, claimed to be the closest heir of King Edmund Ironside, and thus the heir to the English throne. Anthony had often heard his father complain that Canute had taken the throne by force...” By foul murder, and so every king since has held the throne illegitimately. The Anglo-Saxon throne should be mine.”

Anthony’s mother had always had a sharp tongue to defend her own opinions. “You’d think the sands of time would have scoured away those bloodstains after almost two hundred years. But the folly of human pride is harder than diamond. You keep the stains fresh ... nay, you make stains where there were none. My family remembers Edmund’s death as natural. There was no murder. Canute was made king justly, by the vote of the Witan.”

The Baron’s anger at his mother had frightened the young Anthony. “Your family of traitors sided with Canute against Edmund. Do you expect me to be taken in by their false witness?”

Anthony’s mother had laughed. “Does it matter who is the rightful heir to the Anglo-Saxon throne, when it has been overthrown by the Normans?”

The Baron pouted like a child. “If my grandfather had been king, the Normans would have been defeated.”

“But your grandfather wasn’t King and the Normans weren’t defeated,” his mother had said, having, as always, the last word.

Anthony remembered that he was ten years old when a rival claimant to the throne challenged his father to a joust in a tournament. The rival’s claim was based on descent from the last Saxon king, Harald. How proud Anthony had been when his father had unseated the rival from his horse! Then he remembered the fear in his mother’s words.

“As stupid as it may be to compete for a throne which no longer exists, and is not likely to again, the matter will not rest with a mere victory at a tournament. The next weapon aimed at your father may be at his back.”

Anthony shuddered at the memory. But a dispute over the non-existent Anglo-Saxon throne was not the only possible source of trouble. Anthony remembered that his father had loved King Richard, and expressed contempt for his successor, King John. Did his father or brother offend King John? Was the Norman King John suspicious of an heir to the Anglo-Saxon throne?

Two clouds floated above Anthony and cast chilling shadows over his body, just as the two threats to his family – from the Anglo-Saxon rivals and the Norman king – had cast over his mood.

The breeze grew colder and stronger, and dark grey clouds pushed away the blue sky. It began to rain again. He stood under some large trees for shelter, huddled and shivered. In desperation, he tore a number of leafy branches and vines off the trees and arranged them about his body. He twined the vines from his shoulders to his waist and back to hold the branches in place. A leafy branch on top of his head bound to his chin by vines served as a hood, and though it did not keep him dry from the rain, it made him feel a bit warmer. But he found nothing to protect his bruised, cut feet. Only his hunger forced him to move on.

Anthony hobbled many miles down the road away from the monastery through a countryside of fields, forests, and squalid villages. Along the way, he added more branches, grass and vines to his costume, and hay as he passed a haystack. The bulk of his costume, along with his cut feet, made it awkward for him to move. The vines kept coming loose and threatening to unravel completely. He had constantly to rewind and tighten them. Occasionally, sunshine came through the clouds and it became a bit less cold. Whenever he saw people or houses, he went around them through the edge of the forest.

By afternoon, the day had become quite warm and sunny and the birds were singing loudly. He came upon a field of cabbage, and picked tender leaves, which he mashed and put on his wounds. It stung, especially his feet, but he knew it would help him to heal. He ate several leaves and turned his hunger into a stomachache.

He saw the tender shoot of an onion and was about to dig it up when the young monk heard sighs, groans, and grunts beyond a low stone wall. He looked around him for a place to hide when he stepped on a tree branch. It broke with a loud snap. He turned to run, but a woman’s scream stopped him. The faces of a thin blond man and a young auburn-haired woman appeared over the top of the wall. They were wide-eyed and their mouths hung open in astonishment as they stared at him. They jumped up, nude. The woman fumbled with a shift that clung to the stone wall and clutched it in her arms in front of her.

“Mother of Jesus, protect us. It’s an elf,” she cried.

“That’s no elf. He’s too big and has no bell on his cap. That’s a... a…” The man picked up his shepherd’s staff and shook it at Anthony.

The woman gasped and tugged at his arm. “No. Leave him be or they’ll kill your sheep. Your wife is a witch, and she has called upon the elves to punish us....”

Anthony started to look behind him to see the elf, but realized it was himself they meant and laughed at the absurdity of how he must look.

“Run before he casts an illness upon us,” she screamed.

The man dropped his staff and the couple ran away, hand in hand, looking back at him several times, wide-eyed with terror. Anthony had never seen a nude woman before. As she ran, Anthony’s eyes were drawn to the shape of her thin waist, her broad white hips, the graceful gait of her slender legs, and the bounce of the wavy auburn hair that flowed down her back. He supposed that they had been committing the sin of adultery, and he envied the man, for Anthony had never known a woman. He felt monkish shame to envy sin, but his shame was nowhere near as great as his envy.

On the other side of the wall, Anthony found two pairs of sandals and two sets of clothing on which the couple had been lying. There was a man’s shift that came to the knees; a hood, a belt, worn leather sandals, and stockings that came up over the knees. A shepherd’s garb. He gagged on the smell of rotten sweat, especially in the armpits and stockings. Perhaps the clothing had not been washed in years. But they wouldn’t dry for days if he washed them now.

He unwrapped his costume of vines, leaves, and hay. When he tried on the clothes, the shift was baggy, but for now he had no other choice than to wear it. The man’s sandals were too large, but the woman’s fit better, and he wore them.

He also found bread and cheese in a bag nearby, enough to satisfy his hunger. He thought that he should not steal their food and clothing; but from what the woman had said, they would expect to be punished for their sins. Anthony would just be an agent of divine purpose. How could he refuse what seemed to be God’s merciful aid at this moment of distress? Or was that self-serving hypocrisy? I will ask for an appropriate penance when I return to the monastery, he thought.

Everything of his former life had been stripped from him, but he had been given a warm place to sleep for the night, food and drink, healing herbs, and clothing. He accepted these gifts gratefully. He also took the stout shepherd’s staff with a crooked end. Anthony had been trained by his father not only in the use of the sword and the lance, he also knew how to wield a staff using both ends. In the future he would be able to defend himself against humiliation.

He knelt as he had been taught in the monastery and gave his thanks to God for His mercy and care, then proceeded on his way, scratching at his newly acquired infestation of lice.

* * * *

In King John’s court, a hook-nosed nobleman searched among the crowd of petitioners who had come to seek the King’s ear. The nobleman found his man – one of the King’s closest advisors, a stooped white-haired elder with a limp – and beckoned him aside to a small chamber where they could speak without being overheard.

“I have urgent news, my lord!” he whispered. “It concerns the young son of the Baron of Branwall. Soldiers broke into his monastery, but he apparently escaped by jumping into the stream below his cell window. His whereabouts are unknown. One of the men you appointed to protect him, the monk Anselm, has been killed. The other, Melchoir, sent us this message, and has set out to find him.”

“Apparently escaped? Apparently!” There was alarm in the great courtier’s voice. “We must send our most trusted men to find him and protect him if he still lives. And whose soldiers dared to defile an English monastery? They cannot be the King’s men, or I would have known of it.”

“I know not, my lord, but I will send spies to find out. If it was an English nobleman, acting in the service of our enemies, whether in this court, or in Paris or Rome, he will pay the price for high treason. My worst fear is that it was that scoundrel, Lord Natasa, for he serves the Pope and has the King’s confidence.”

The great courtier nodded. “You must act most discreetly.” He looked around him to make sure that no one could overhear them. “I will tell the King about the burning of the monastery, and make something of it to the harm of our enemies. We thought our secret to be well guarded, even from the young monk himself. Now we must decide what to tell him when we find him again.” His shoulders dropped. “If we find him. I will consult with our allies and send a message to Count Raymond of Toulouse. You must be off at once!”

* * * *

Anthony had four days until his Sunday appointment with Anselm at Wainsmarket. Several times each day, he prayed. During this time, he learned how to feed himself on mushrooms, cabbage, garlic bulbs, and various roots he scavenged in the forests and peasants’ fields, though the raw food kept his stomach in permanent upset. At least his wounds had healed well.

Wainsmarket was crowded with peasants selling rabbits, ducks, and vegetables from carts as well as merchants with tables of goods under brightly colored awnings. Strong smells of onions and expensive and exotic spices from the East mixed with the odors of half-spoiled meat hawked at grimy butchers’ stalls, unwashed clothes and bodies, human urine on the walls of houses, and dung from donkeys and the sheep and cattle which had been brought to the market to be sold. Anthony brushed away swarms of flies as he watched people buy and sell their goods. He dodged a bucket load of slops and human excrement that a woman with boils on her face threw from a second floor window onto the street.

Losing his monastic robe had turned out to be a blessing. Being dressed in dirty shepherd’s clothing made him less noticeable to the soldiers he passed in Wainsmarket.

Anthony was eager for news about the monastery. Two soldiers stood talking beside a leather merchant’s cart. The merchant eyed Anthony suspiciously as he pretended to look at his wares. He edged close to the two soldiers in order to overhear their conversation, and examined a pair of sandals.

“….or do you believe our lord’s explanation?” one soldier whined. “He claimed that he must lower our wages because the king has increased his taxes. How many times have we heard that feeble excuse? These shameless lords will use any lie to become rich at our expense. I would find another to serve, but, in my experience, they’re all thieves.”

“You’re right, that they’re all thieves, but it’s also true that the king has raised the taxes. Peasants, merchants, and noblemen all complain of it. King John is not half the man his father was....”

“Nor a quarter the man Richard was.”

“He’s losing much of the French territory King Henry won with my father’s blood. This incompetent empties the pockets of his people and still loses the war.”

“Guard your tongue. Several noblemen have been arrested for plotting against the King. The rumors are that the charges have been falsified just so the King could confiscate their wealth to support his war. He offends even the Pope with his...”

The two soldiers walked beyond Anthony’s hearing. He put down the sandals he had been holding and walked toward the church.

Anthony was terrified. Could his family be among those arrested? That would explain why soldiers would seek him out. He sat in the shadows of the church next to the marketplace waiting for Anselm. He dreaded to learn the cause of his predicament, since he feared that it would mean trouble for his family and that he could never return to his peaceful monastic life. However, he was tired of running from an enemy he did not know. He hoped that Anselm would have some information to share. But the church bells had rung to summon worshippers to the last mass, and there was still no sign of the old monk.

His attention was drawn to a crowd gathered at the far end of the market square. He joined the crowd and saw at its center a dark-skinned man with black, curly hair, dressed in a short, tightly fitting tunic of broad red and yellow horizontal stripes, and hose in the same colors. Over the tunic he wore a half-length surcoat of mauve velvet. His hat was red and had a yellow brim that stuck out in front like a beak. Anthony found the effect elegant. The man played a lute skillfully, and sang in a foreign accent.

“I sing of You, Beloved,

I long to see your face.

Why must we be parted?

You’ve gone without a trace.

You are the sun of summer,

Whose milk I need to grow.

I am the rose in winter,

I wilt without your glow.

My thorn is earthly duty

to bleed for Him above.

My bloom, to worship Beauty;

My creed is but to love.

I sing of You, Beloved;

A song of loving grace.

How long must we be parted?

I long for Your embrace.”

The crowd applauded the song with lewd laughter and remarks, but the song struck Anthony with a sad beauty. He could not tell if the minstrel sang of earthly love or love of the divine.

A man shouted, “I’d want to see more than just her face.”

An old woman drew uproarious laughter with her remark, “I know what it was she could make grow and wilt.”

The minstrel laughed with the crowd, but their bawdiness repelled Anthony because it spoiled the beauty of something profound. When the minstrel struck up a lively folk-tune and several young girls began to dance, Anthony went back to his watch for Anselm.

Anthony’s only knowledge of earthly love was what he had been taught in the monastery: that sexual passion was the result of original sin. Love was to be avoided because of its power to overwhelm reason, which was the soul’s divine guide. Sin had entered the world through a woman’s act of disobedience of God’s command, and woman was the source of all lust and wickedness. Anthony had been taught the words of Odon of Cluny - that behind the external beauty of woman lay entrails, slime, gall and excrement. The purity of the Virgin Mary – motherhood without sinful lust –- was to be celebrated. But this minstrel’s song did not seem to be about mere lust or purity; it seemed to be about something so beautiful that it could have no connection with sin. Then why do I feel guilty for liking the song? he wondered. God forgive me for these thoughts.

The sun went behind a cloud low on the horizon. Anthony watched it down the narrow street to the west and felt his spirits sink with it. Anselm did not come. Peasants repacked their unsold grains and vegetables in their carts for the return trip to their hovels. One after another the carts departed, bumping loudly on the cobbles, wheels grinding, oxen lowing and donkeys braying. The sounds faded into the distance. When the last cart disappeared around a turn in the road, the market became quiet. Only the crowd around the singer remained. Still, Anselm failed to appear. Anthony waited and became more and more frightened. Since his escape from the monastery, he had carried one aim in his heart – to meet Anselm. The wise old monk would be able to tell him what he needed to know. Anselm’s absence snuffed out the candle of Anthony’s hope. He hung his head and slouched against the cold stone of the church wall.

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* * * *


A Companion

A chill descended into the streets when the sun set. The town was still but for the singing of the jongleur to the thinning audience across the otherwise empty market square. Shouts arose from the crowd around the singer, and Anthony moved closer to see what was happening. He wove his way near the front of the audience of forty or so, and saw two men in dirty peasant clothing gesture with their fists at the lute player.

One of the peasants, his face pitted from smallpox, bellowed, “You bloody bugger, you dare accuse me of stealing your money? We’ll show you how lying strangers are treated in this village!” He snatched up the singer’s red and yellow hat that lay upside down on the ground between him and the crowd, and turned it upright. Several coins fell out. “There, you see? Your money was still in the hat.” He flung the hat into a pile of wet horse manure. The crowd laughed and applauded.

The singer said, “But there was much more. I saw you dip your hand into the hat.” He gestured toward the townsfolk. “What you have stolen was given by these generous folk in appreciation of my song.” His voice was calm and self-assured. “You have stolen as much from them as from me.” He placed his lute out of harm’s way against a wall.

Murmurs of agreement arose from the crowd.

The peasant swore, “You lie through your arse, and you’ll pay for your insult.”

When the singer stooped to pick up the fallen coins and his hat, the peasant rushed forward and swung his fist at the singer’s head. The singer deflected the blow with his arm. The two stood crouched and snarling at each other. The second peasant, bald and missing half of his right ear, circled behind the singer and kicked at him, but the singer deftly dodged the kick. He stripped off his mauve velvet surcoat, threw it over the lute, and crouched, clad in red and yellow striped silk from neck to light brown leather boots.

Anthony turned to a villager who stood at his elbow and said, “I feel sorry for the singer. Surely he’s been wronged.”

“You’re right.” The villager laughed. “Those two are known thieves.”

“Then why does no one help him?”

“Everyone enjoys a good fight. We want to see who’s the greater fool, the thief for stealing, or the singer for accusing when he can’t prove it. The singer’s a foreigner. No one cares what happens to a foreign popinjay.”

Although the singer seemed more than a match for either man alone, it seemed to Anthony that two against one was unfair. The thief with the pitted face pushed at the singer with both hands on his chest and the singer stepped back. The half-eared thief swung at the side of his head with his fist. The singer ducked and the blow glanced off his temple. At the same time, the pitted one charged and hit the singer in his face with his arm. The singer fell and lay on his back in the dirt a moment, dazed, as they taunted him with foul language and bragged to the crowd of their fighting prowess. The crowd roared its approval with crude cheers and cruel laughter.

Anthony stewed. Would the crowd have laughed and jeered when the three peasants robbed and beat him? Would no one help the singer? Their cruelty angered him.

The singer rolled over, slowly rose to his feet, and suddenly rushed, head first, at the pitted thief. He butted him in the chest like a ram, and drove his fist into his stomach and his knee up into his groin. The thief fell and lay writhing and gasping for breath. The half-eared thief leaped upon the singer and they rolled over and over locked arm in arm in a cloud of dust. They were covered with mud from their sweat. The singer struck him in the throat and left him gasping, just as the pitted one recovered and jumped on him. They tumbled into the wall and knocked over the lute with a loud ringing of its strings.

Anthony’s anger came to a boil slowly. Then, at the remembrance of his own guilt as a thief of clothing and food, his ears felt hot. But that was different, he thought. Or was it? He looked up and mumbled, “Dear Lord, forgive me if I have sinned.”

The half-eared thief reached inside his shirt and pulled out a knife. When Anthony saw this, he shoved his way through the crowd, swung his staff, and knocked the knife out of the thief’s hand. The thief turned to attack and Anthony gave him two blows to the head, right and left. The thief fell, dazed. Anthony knocked the pitted thief to the ground with a strong blow to the back of the head. The crowd applauded. The singer turned, scooped up his hat, surcoat, and the lute, and fled in a blur of red and yellow stripes. Frightened that the two thieves would kill him, Anthony followed.

The singer was fifty yards ahead of Anthony by the time he reached the bridge that marked the edge of town. He looked back at Anthony and slowed down. Anthony caught up and they ran together into the countryside before they slowed to a walk. They looked back to be sure they had not been followed.

Out of breath, the minstrel panted, “I think it... unlikely... that they will follow us... since they still have... the money... they stole. I thank you, my friend... I owe you... a great deal, perhaps even my life... so please, tell me how I can repay my debt to you.”

Anthony noticed the man’s broken front tooth and a badly scarred cheek, but his brown eyes bespoke gentleness. The man’s black and curly hair hung to his shoulder, and his skin was deeply browned and wrinkled from weathering in sun.

Anthony caught his breath and replied, “What I did, I did out of my own foolish anger... and guilt perhaps. I might have gotten us both killed. You owe me nothing – well, on second thought, if you have any food, I would be glad to share it, for I have nothing in the world but this staff and five days of stomachache from eating raw vegetables.”

“That staff has served you well.” The minstrel felt under his belt. “Although I have lost my day’s wages, I still have my singing skills and a small purse that will feed us tonight.” He held out his hand and smiled. “My name is Bertrand.”

Anthony was charmed by Bertrand’s warm friendliness, and shook his hand. “And my name is... David. I… uh… have left home in search of a better employment than herding sheep for a lifetime.”

“A biblical name like David is strange for an English shepherd,” Bertrand replied.

“Oh... yes...” Anthony stammered and his ears grew hot, “My father... er... heard the name... when he... there was a welsh Saint was named after the Scottish King David... my father came from Scotland.” Bertrand raised his eyebrows quizzically and smiled. He inspected his lute in the last dim light of dusk.

“My lute is badly scratched, but not broken. Let us find a village where they do not so crudely take back the wages they have paid. You can be my assistant who passes the hat among the crowd as I sing and tell ancient lore from village to village.”

Anthony took a deep breath, uneasy that his story might not have been believed. He accepted the minstrel’s offer, and was glad for the company. He looked forward to eating better. He could decide later what to do about whoever was chasing him. They walked on in search of a meal and shelter.

When they entered the door of the inn under the sign of the golden ram’s head, they were met by thick smoke mixed with the delicious smell of a mutton and turnip stew that simmered on a roaring hearth fire. The smoke made Anthony’s eyes tear, and the smell of the stew made his month water. He heard men laughing. The sounds stopped as all heads turned to observe the new guests. A fat, cherry-nosed merchant across the dimly lit room motioned to Bertrand and Anthony to join him at a long table where several men, who appeared to be the merchant’s muleteers, devoured bowlfuls of stew, chunks of rye bread, and drank heartily from tankards of ale.

“Come join us, minstrel. Have a good meal, then play a tune for us, if you please.”

“We would fain join you, my good merchant, and be glad for good fare, since you recommend it. I can see that you are a man who knows the quality of food.”

“I do, indeed. It’s good mutton stew, fresh bread, and the richest ale in the region.”

Bertrand gestured with two fingers to the innkeeper, and pointed toward the merchant’s bowl and tankard. In a short time, the innkeeper’s daughter hurried to the table with two more steaming bowls of stew, another loaf of bread, and two tankards of ale. Bertrand and Anthony ate eagerly and listened as the merchant drew raucous laughter with his tales of misadventures with the ladies of Holland and Bavaria. Then Bertrand played several tunes, to everyone’s delight.

Anthony, who had not eaten well or slept in comfort for almost a week, curled in a corner of the room well positioned to catch the warmth of the hearth, and had almost fallen asleep, when the door of the inn opened abruptly. Conversation fell silent as all turned to regard this new intruder into the settled order of the evening.

A dour gaunt man wrapped in a blue velvet hooded cloak entered, peered around the room, squinted into the smoke, and sneered. When he removed his cloak, Anthony could see the rich white vestments embroidered with gold that signified a man high in the hierarchy of the Church. His coachman entered carrying the white and gold mitre of a bishop. On his hand, the Bishop wore several gold rings, one with an immense emerald. Anthony recognized him as someone who had visited his monastery frequently, and knew all the monks well. He was reputed to be a power-seeker in the church hierarchy, who had many political contacts inside and outside the church. Anthony pulled his hood over his face and pretended to sleep. Why do I hide? He wondered. Perhaps the Bishop could tell me about the monastery. Perhaps he could help me.

The Bishop asked for a private chamber; he would not sleep in the common room with everyone else. He ordered that his meal be brought to his chamber. Anthony was relieved. Why don’t I trust the Bishop? But whom should I trust when I don’t know who my enemy might be?

The Bishop left the room, and the conversation turned to gossip about the brothels of London. Anthony, embarrassed that he wanted to hear more, stuck his fingers in his ears to block the voices and watched the shadows from the hearth fire dance on the beam ceiling. He prayed silently and fell into a deep sleep.

* * * *

Bertrand awoke at the first light of dawn. He used the stinking communal bucket to relieve himself of the ale with which the merchant had so generously plied him. Anthony’s cowl had slipped off his head, revealing his tonsure. Bertrand pulled the cowl gently back over his head and wondered if this was the young novice about whom he had been sent to inquire. They hadn’t told him if the one he sought was brown-haired, broad-faced, green-eyed, and freckled like this one. But he’s a tonsured monk, not a novice, he thought. Maybe he can tell me about the novice.

Bertrand found the merchant outside preparing a string of pack mules for departure and bought a thimbleful of linseed oil from him, before he shook his hand heartily and bade him goodbye. The day would be sunny and warm. He sat on a bench outside the door and rubbed the oil into the scratches and gouges in the lute to protect the wood, and wondered why the monk was in disguise, hiding even from the Bishop.

The innkeeper loaned him a whisk broom and he sat on a bench to brush the dirt off his clothing from the previous day’s scuffle. The Bishop shouted impatiently out the door of the inn at his coachman.

“Why aren’t the horses harnessed yet? We must hurry to the monastery.”

Bertrand dared to speak with the Bishop, for he guessed which monastery the Bishop had in mind, and he wanted to find out more about the incident.

“Would it be the Caffrington Monastery you’ll be visiting, Your Excellency?”

The Bishop turned to him with a haughty sneer. “What do you know of Caffrington Monastery, minstrel?”

“I was there, Your Excellency. Half the monastery was destroyed. But the monks are sharing undamaged cells. The refectory is intact. They’ll rebuild soon enough.”

The Bishop looked at Bertrand and his eyes narrowed to a squint. “What business had a troubadour at a Monastery? Are they indulging in frivolity?”

“I was entrusted with a message for one of the monks there, but when I arrived the monastery had been burnt and the monk I sought killed.” Bertrand brushed at the horse manure on his hat.”

The Bishop looked down and carefully broke a loose thread from the gold embroidery of his robe. “Killed? That would be either Brother Sebastian or Brother Anselm, from what I was told.”

“Yes, Brother Anselm.”

The Bishop snatched the brush from Bertrand’s hands and brushed lint and dust from his white velvet shoes. Bertrand grinned to see a yellow stain of horse manure spread across the back of one shoe. The Bishop apparently did not notice it. “Perhaps you could give the message to me, and I will dispose of the matter on his behalf.”

“With all due respect, Your Excellency, it was for his ears alone. But does anyone know why the monastery was attacked, and by whom?” The Bishop glared at Bertrand and handed back the brush. His voice was icy. “That’s what I intend to find out.” The Bishop rushed outside and scolded the coachman about the arrangement of the luggage on top of the coach.

I must learn more of this affair before I can decide what to do, Bertrand thought.

Anthony came through the doorway from the common dormitory, yawned, and stretched. “Good morning, my friend. I’ve slept late.”

“There’s porridge if you’re hungry. I’ll join you for a bowl.”

The Bishop rushed into the room. “That incompetent coachman has left my—” He stopped and stared at Anthony. Anthony quickly turned his back. The Bishop approached him.

“Allow me to inquire of you, my son, are you—”

“Pardon me, Your Excellency, but I have an urgent call of nature.” Anthony scurried out of the room. Bertrand continued to brush his hat and act as if he were not watching as the Bishop spoke to the innkeeper. “Who is that young shepherd? How long has he been here?”

The innkeeper answered him and pointed toward Bertrand. “I don’t know, Your Excellency. He came last night with that minstrel.”

The Bishop hurried to his coach. Bertrand was curious why the shepherd had run out when the Bishop recognized him, and about what the Bishop intended to do about it. He followed and hid behind a corner of the stable to listen. He overheard the Bishop speak with the coachman.

“I’ve changed my plans. We must go to the local sheriff, then return to the Royal Court immediately. You will have to prepare yourself for the long journey across the Channel to deliver a message to Lord Natasa.”

Bertrand wondered if he changed his plans because he saw the monk? We will have to be far away before the Sheriff arrives, and avoid the main roads until we are beyond his reach.

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* * * *


An Ass in a Bearskin

As they walked through forest and over moor to the next shire, avoiding people whenever possible, Anthony wanted to know more about his new companion. He asked, “Why are you, a foreigner, traveling in England?”

Bertrand scratched his neck and cocked his red and yellow hat forward over his eyes. “My father was the court fool in Aragon, and I was his apprentice. One day, my father offered the king advice the royal treasurer didn’t want the king to hear. The treasurer accused my father of the very crime he himself had committed, and my father lost his head on the chopping block. I had to flee, and paid for my escape with this scar and broken tooth.” He pointed to his cheek and mouth. “I used the skills I learned from my father to make my living by singing songs and telling tales to those who would listen.” He smiled and the skin at the corners of his eyes wrinkled. “And why are you, a shepherd, not tending your flocks?”

Anthony smiled. “I am just a poor shepherd who has run away from a cruel father. And now I am a fool’s disciple, if you will teach me.” They laughed.

Bertrand and Anthony went from village to village, where Bertrand sang and Anthony passed the hat for donations. Anthony worried about what he could do to find out why soldiers sought him, and the only answer seemed to be to go to his family. He made suggestions about the direction he and Bertrand should follow, toward the east, and they came closer and closer to his family home of Branwall Castle.

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