Rae stretched and yawned. There was light streaking the walls of their chamber and his limbs were already heavy with the promised heat of a summer morning. He turned to the empty space beside him, finding solace in the coolness of the mattress. He disliked waking without Beau beside him but there were compensations in hot weather.
Beau had risen early, at that point when the world was just becoming visible after its night of hiding. He had moved quietly but Rae had been aware of his desertion. Not sufficiently aware or awake to query or complain, just enough to realise that his partner was getting up.
Beau insisted on daily practice for his men, even at the height of summer. He was determined that they should be a solid fighting force. There were still roaming bands of rebels, and for that matter other landowners who would love to take over du Coudrai's land and especially the castle, now that it was all but finished, proud with gleaming stone and carved wood. To make his men both fit and competent he needed to have them exercise regularly and this was something that was less than sensible once the sun beat down from mid-morning to early evening. They had to learn to wear and move in protective clothing, at least leather, and to carry heavy weapons. Whilst it was perfectly possible that they would have to put their knowledge to good effect in full sunshine Beau was convinced that practice in the coolest hours of the morning was the way to bring them to their full potential. He had no wish to lose a man to heatstroke or have injuries as a result of overexertion.
Hence, the need for early rising.
Rae was aware of the reasons, understood and approved of them. But he couldn't help longing for autumn when they could lie together, intertwined, until it was time to break their fast, when the only sweat would be that brought about by their activities in bed and not the temperature of their surroundings, and when he would face the day as one half of a couple, only just arisen and parted.
This heat enervated him. It deprived him of Beau in the mornings and it made his tasks as castellan harder since all the staff avoided work in the midday sun and he had to watch, cajole, threaten and bribe to get everything done.
Only last week he had welcomed a thunderstorm because it brought rain so heavy the practice field was a sea of mud and the castle was awash with water that ran from the roofs into the gutter channels. Beau had stayed in bed one morning, realising that practice would be impossible. But the storm had not brought the expected cool change. The weather was hot again, and Beau rose just before the sun.
Rae rose now, a little stiff from last night's love making. He stretched some more, uncoiling his muscles and readying himself for the day. They had taken to bringing a pitcher of water and a small bucket to their chamber and when he'd drunk to repletion he poured the remainder into the bucket and splashed his face and arms. No need to dry himself – the drops would soon evaporate and as they did would help him stay cool for the present.
He went downstairs, heading straight for the great hall, grabbing an apple (last year's but still sound and sweet) and a fresh loaf from a serving girl as he passed her. He liked to break his fast with the servants. With the other servants, he corrected himself, because as castellan he was a kind of servant, even while he was brother in law to the lord. The first hours of the day were a time to gauge the temper of the castle's population, to see who was eager for new jobs, who sickening, who tired or lazy.
Today everyone seemed well, and well disposed. He munched his apple as he spoke to some of them, assigning tasks that were both necessary for the smooth running of his domain and suited to the abilities of the men he addressed. Most of the women would take their orders from the kitchens or the laundry and he could safely leave them to his immediate deputies. Apple eaten, he pocketed the core; one of the horses or dogs would enjoy it later. The bread, he finished himself, brushing a few crumbs from his tunic onto the reed strewn floor. They had brought in new reeds recently and the hall smelled pleasantly fresh. Down by the river, the reed beds flourished even in high summer, and although the main 'spring cleaning' came at Easter, he liked the flooring refreshed when he could spare the men to cut and carry the reeds. Giles' castle would, under his castellanship, be the most comfortable place he could imagine.
Now to seek Giles himself, to find out whether anything specific was needed, and to discuss the various enterprises and essentials important to the small world of the castle, the horse about to foal, the current state of stocks of flour and candles, the maintenance of the gates, and the level of water in the well.
He walked briskly back to the stairs that led past his own chamber to the family quarters. On his way he passed a lad leading two mules towards the stables. Visitors? Well, he would find out soon enough. He didn't ask, just nodded to the boy and continued on his way.
As he neared the top of the stairs, Rae could hear voices. Giles and Aelfware he recognised, of course. Then there was a low male voice he didn't know. And an interruption that sounded like Henry. But Henry was in Oxford at the priory. Perhaps young Giles was beginning to sound like his brother.
He didn't knock. They would be expecting him and he was never particularly subservient. Willing to serve Giles, yes, for his own sake and for that of his sister. But always retaining the independence Giles had encouraged him to feel as he was growing up.
Giles was seated near the window. Aelfware was busying herself dressing Adela and taming her hair but was near enough to join the conversation. A young monk or friar, Rae wasn't sure which, stood by Giles, talking animatedly and yes, his ears had not deceived him; Henry was in the middle of the room, playing with the ears of the family's much loved greyhound, the only dog allowed indoors. He was cuffing his younger brother around the head good naturedly.
“Sight knows me. He remembers me. And I him. I haven't been gone that long even if it seems so to you,” he said.
“I only thought to tell you what he likes,” said young Giles, earnestly, ducking a second cuff with the ease of long habit.
The adults all smiled. Then Giles greeted Rae and introduced him to their visitor.
“This is Brother John,” he said. “He has brought Henry on a visit, not for the boy's sake, but to make sure he found his way to us. He’s one of Henry’s tutors and they continue their talk on muleback to further Henry’s education. He has news of the scroll and perhaps of the thing it mentions. But we should wait for Beau before we discuss it all.”
And while he acknowledged Brother John and bade his sister good morning, at the same time watching the boys at play with the dog, Rae was alert, listening for his lover's footsteps on the stairs. The sun was streaming through the window, gilding Giles' hair, so surely the men would be returning to the castle soon. Beau would send them off to appropriate tasks, to help in the stables or the stores once they had divested themselves of their armour. And yes, there he came, bounding up the stairs as if he hadn't spent the last two or three hours in heavy exercise.
“Good morning, all,” he said from the doorway, his eyes lingering slightly longer on Rae than on the rest of the group but settling on Henry and Sight in the middle of the floor. “What have we here?”
And there was a rush of voices to enlighten him
Beau was at the practice ground outside the castle walls, putting his men through their paces before the heat of the day made them cranky and useless, when he caught sight of the two mules making their way through the castle gate, tails swishing in time to the sway of their fat rumps. The momentary distraction cost him dear; a bruised shoulder and ruffled dignity as he sailed over Guustave’s back and landed with a thud on the hard ground. He lay for a minute catching his breath, trying to ignore the mocking comments coming from his men-at-arms, while Guustave stood over him with his hands on his hips and a grin on his face that reminded Beau he was now one down on the never-ending sparing between them that had become a fixture in the morning practice regimen.
Groaning, he accepted the hand Guustave extended and let the big man haul him up, wincing at the comradery slap Guustave delivered to his shoulder as he gained his feet, then dismissed his men, watching as they dispersed to their normal castle duties. Curious as to what manner of visitor had arrived at the castle and knowing he had to report on the morning’s practice to Giles (minus his own besting at the hands of Giles’ former comrade of course, it had been but a friendly joust to end their practice after all) he quickly washed the sweat from his face in the horse trough then made his way to his lord and master’s quarters.
The confusion of voices that greeted his innocent query was led by young Henry, who should by rights have still been at his studies at St Frideswide’s and not sitting on the floor of the chamber with his younger brother and Sight. At least the mystery of the visiting mules was solved and Beau had to grin inwardly at what would no doubt have been Henry’s indignation on having to ride a mule instead of his treasured Fleur, who had remained stabled at the castle whilst Henry was at his studies.
“We found something, Beau, in the scroll.” The boy had leapt to his feet in a rush of words and excitement that transmitted to Sight, setting the hound off as well so that both boy and dog tripped in a tangle of legs and paws.
Bewildered, Beau looked first towards Rae, who seemed as disconcerted by the general hubbub as he was, so he switched his gaze to Giles in hopes of an explanation.
“That’s quite enough, Henry,” Giles quelled the enthusiastic young lad with a hard look. Henry untangled himself from the dog, ignored the tongue that was being poked at him by his brother and sat down next to his mother, subdued for the time being.
Satisfied, Giles turned his attention back to the adults and made a quick introduction of Brother John to Beau. “He and Henry have travelled from the priory with some news about the scroll, we were awaiting your arrival before proceeding,” he told Beau.
Beau nodded, accepting the cup of wine that Rae offered him and taking a deep swallow. Giles indicated that Brother John should take over the conversation.
“First of all,” Brother John started, “a close examination of the scroll has led our scholars at the priory to believe that it is indeed authentic. I have been fortunate to study such ancient parchments myself in the course my travels and have lent my own knowledge to confirming this.”
Beau felt a quickening in his heartbeat. They had thought the scroll that had finally been delivered to the priory of St Frideswide was genuine, but it was good to have confirmation that all the trouble, all the outright lies and deceptions, it had caused both him and Rae in its delivery was worthwhile.
“Tell them about the special passage it contains,” Henry broke in before Brother John could continue. This time it was Aelfware who chastised her son.
“Let Brother John speak,” she said, pausing in the brushing of her daughter’s hair to give Henry a stern but fond look. Beau knew it had been a long winter and spring for Aelfware with the boy gone from the castle. This unexpected return must have seemed a blessing from God.
“As I was saying,” Brother John continued after casting a glance at the fidgeting Henry. “We have authenticated the scroll as a manuscript written by Joseph of Arimathea, possibly penned here after he established the first Christian church in these Isles. It is believed that Joseph and some of his followers took the scroll with them back to Palestine, but beyond that its fate and how it ended up in Genoa can only be surmised. That the scroll has found its way back here, to Britain, after so many centuries is in itself, a miracle.” Brother John gave a little self-conscious cough then and ducked his head, hand to his mouth suppressing a smile. “Speculation on the whys and wherefores of the scroll’s provenance has been subject of many a lively discussion during evening meal.”
Beau felt almost as impatient as Henry now, wishing Brother John would get to the point, the lecturing voice of the Brother was almost putting him to sleep and gave him a fresh admiration for Henry’s fortitude He looked at Rae and saw a similar expression on his face.
As if sensing the general air of expectation Brother John coughed again. “Be that as it may,” he said. “The scroll tells of the difficulties and privations Joseph and his followers experienced in bringing the word of God to the godless Britons. But one particular section near the end, possibly penned in haste before Joseph departed these shores, we think may relate to the Holy Grail he is said to have brought with him on his journey. The friars have provided a translation of the passage.”
He opened the satchel that was slung across his shoulder and withdrew a roll of vellum, which he spread out on the table next to him. They all crowded around, even Aelfware and the children. Henry looked to his father, a question in his eyes. Giles nodded and Henry began to read in a high clear voice.
Now that the Light of Christ is safely delivered to this land of darkness and mist I must travel back to the Holy Land. But before I go the most wondrous of treasures brought with us must be concealed in a place of safety lest it fall into the wrong hands.
This task I have entrusted to Ambrosius of Britannia. He will take the treasure to a place he knows, deep in the cavern where the Romans once worshiped their God, and that lies east of the great high hill. There it will remain until all of these Isles belong to The Lord.
Silence followed Henry’s words, broken finally by Giles. “This is by no means firm evidence that Joseph speaks of the Grail,” he said, pensive.
“But what other treasure would he consider so precious it must be hidden from the world, to be brought out at the appropriate time?” Brother John asked. “The friars are in agreement that it can be no other than the Grail.”
“Perhaps,” Giles responded, although he seemed less positive than the Brother.
“Surely it’s worth investigating?” Rae said, looking down at the translation as if to draw more meaning from the words on the parchment than what Henry had recited.
Beau kept his own council, waiting on Giles’ decision. A glance at Rae showed his partner’s excitement as he too waited for an answer from their overlord, hearing Rae’s gusty breath of relief as Giles spoke.
“It is certainly worth looking into,” Giles said, looking at Brother John. “I gather the good fathers at the Priory wish us to undertake that task?”
“Yes indeed, the Abbott was very keen to have your help in this. If it were not for you and your men we would not have the scroll in the first place. It is fitting that you should be the ones to continue with unravelling its mysteries.”
Beau felt impelled to speak now. If he and Rae were to be sent on this wild chase, and he suspected they would, it would be a kindness to know where exactly they were going. “That’s all well and good, but the words of the scroll are not clear. What is the ‘great high hill’?”
“Joseph was said to bring his ministry to the village of Glastonbury so the hill could be that great tor that stands not far from the village,” Rae suggested.
“Yes, you are indeed correct,” Brother John confirmed. “The friars are certain the tor is what the scroll refers to. The deeper mystery concerns the cavern of the god Mithras. We know of no such place.”
“But we could find it, couldn’t we, father?” Henry pipped in. “It shouldn’t be too hard, should it?”
Giles was about to speak in answer to Henry but Aelfware beat him to it. “If your father decides this … quest is to be undertaken, Henry, it will not be you who embarks upon it. You have only just arrived home!”
“Father!” the boy pleaded. The expression on Henry’s face brought a smile to Beau’s lips. Henry clearly did not wish to be left out of what might be an adventure. But Giles quelled him with a look.
“Having come this far, I don’t think we can do anything other than continue in trying to solve the puzzle,” Giles said. He looked around at the assembled company. “Now we just need to decide who will embark on the quest.”
Henry grinned, Rae gave Beau a self-satisfied smirk and Beau thought here we go again.
The heat had lessened. But Rae, wearing only the lightest of tunics, felt sweat prickling his brow and his shoulders as they rode. He couldn’t imagine how Brother John could bear the heavy woollen robe he wore. And the monk was in loco parentis so far as Henry was concerned; Giles had made that quite clear. So Henry, too, was dressed too warmly for the weather. At least he had been allowed to ride Fleur and Brother John, under protest, had accepted the loan of a horse from the castle stables.
“It is not fitting. I made vows of humility. A mule is adequate.”
“Well,” said Giles, “my men have made no such vow and nor has my son. We need you to be able to keep up with them and talk to Henry on the way. So your humility had better teach you to submit to necessity.” He glared at the monk. “Also,” he said, very firmly, “Fontaine is a solid mare, bred in Normandy. She’s a lively one when she hasn’t had enough exercise, but she’s tough and willing. She will carry you safely and this is my quest as well as your prior’s, so I am in some part responsible. I think obedience goes hand in hand with all that humility, does it not?”
John was silenced. Rae had been amused but also concerned. If the monk was unused to horses they might find him slowing them down. He need not have worried. Brother John, before joining the priory, had been Jean d’Argentan, youngest son of a family that had come to England like Giles, with the Norman Conquest. The d’Argentans had a small castle, little more than an old fashioned motte and bailey, out towards Faringdon, but whilst they were not as rich as Giles, and had not taken part in any crusades, they were keen horse breeders and scions of the family could all ride from an early age.
“The castle’s master builder was a Jean,” said Rae, when he’d heard John’s explanation for his riding ability.
“It’s a common enough Norman name,” said John, “but I’m Brother John now. My father wanted to give at least one of us to the church and the monks usually rename their novices when they take their final vows. So I don’t answer to ‘Jean’ any longer.”
Brother John could not help showing how much he enjoyed his transfer from mule to horseback, and it was clear he instantly loved Fontaine, running his fingers through the sumptuous mane, lighter than the rest of her coat, that gave her her name. The long hairs sprang from her neck like a veritable fountain of pale gold, splashing against her deep cream shoulders. There would be no problem about keeping the little party together, just a possible sadness when Fontaine had to be exchanged for the priory mule on their return. Meanwhile, the mules were enjoying the hospitality of the stables and probably growing fat.
They were travelling in a quartet, Rae, Beau, Henry and Brother John. Cost, and speed, before autumn set in, had made up Giles’ mind, especially when Rae reminded him that there would soon be the harvest to contend with. Giles said he would oversee it himself but couldn’t spare the men to share the night watches with Rae and Beau.
“And you must set watches,” he said. “I want Henry to go with you. He has little opportunity for travel either here or at the priory. It will be an education for him and Brother John can as easily tutor him on the road as anywhere. Then the monk will be on hand to help recognise or authenticate whatever you find. But I want Henry home safe at the end of the adventure so you must be on your guard at all times.” He scowled at Aelfware who had looked inclined, for a moment, to add her opinion to his until he mentioned that safety was paramount.
“We don’t carry anything of value,” said Rae, slowly, “but I suppose robbers do not know that and thieves looking for the scroll or the grail will not care to believe it without proof. We will watch.” He saw the gratitude in Aelfware’s eyes and the mutinous glare in Henry’s. He would watch, and guard, and his nephew would come safely home. Giles suggested taking Sight, too. The dog would happily trot beside the horses for a full day, and could match a faster stride if necessary over a short distance. He would be an extra pair of eyes and ears on guard, and Rae agreed with pleasure.
“Star and Tonnerre are glad to be on the road, I think.” Beau broke into Rae’s recollections. Tonerre shook his head and snorted as if to agree.
“Fleur, too,” said Rae, glancing across at Henry whose grey was picking her way daintily along the verge, stopping to grab a mouthful of long grass whenever she thought her rider would let her get away with it.
“Fontaine has taken to Brother John, as well. It’s a relief he can ride.”
“Yes, and Fontaine’s a high spirited mare. She needs more exercise than I can give her. Fleur is less of a problem. She’s more docile, chosen for Henry because although he’s a good enough rider he’s too small yet to control a very assertive horse. The stable lads don’t mind giving her a daily run, but Fontaine is more than most of them can handle when they don’t have much time to wear her out.” Fleur had been given to Henry before Beau had arrived at the castle.
“And you find it hard enough to give Star the time she deserves.” Beau knew Rae loved his horse but was often too busy about his castellan duties to ride. He, Beau, took Tonnerre out every afternoon, but the warhorse was still glad of an opportunity to stretch his legs properly on a long journey.
They were heading for Brother John’s family home at Farringdon. Their arrival would be a surprise but the monk was certain of their welcome.
“My parents and siblings have not seen me this twelve-month,” he said. “The problem will be in leaving tomorrow.”
And indeed the d’Argentans were delighted with their unexpected guests. Much fuss was made of their youngest son and his given name, Jean, was used. As his mother said, they could not accustom themselves to a religious name after calling him the name they themselves had chosen for so many years. And what could it matter among family? As a rule, they explained, they saw Jean only at the greater feast days when they travelled to Oxford to celebrate there and to visit the priory. Over the last year they had been kept at home by rough weather, hacking coughs and a sick horse. So it was the previous All Saints’ feast when they’d last been in the city, almost a year ago.
They fussed over Henry, too. Sir Ludovi was impressed that his own son had been chosen as tutor to a lad so highly born. It reflected well, he thought, on their careful upbringing and on their piety in giving a son to God.
Rae and Beau were made welcome as Jean’s companions and guards. Sir Ludovi regarded the expedition as being led by his son, and nobody disabused him of the notion, though Rae knew if there were any disagreement about the route or other choices, he was Giles’ designated leader. He was, after all, Henry’s uncle, Giles’ brother in law and castellan, and moreover probably knew more about England and the countryside than Beau, not long arrived from France, or Jean, sequestered with the brethren from his teens.
Jean was right. It was hard to pry him from his parents’ arms the next morning, but one of the grooms was standing with Fontaine ready saddled, and Rae, Beau and Henry had already mounted. The horses settled the matter, whinnying and snorting, anxious to be off, while Sight wound around their feet, equally eager. Brother John allowed himself to be helped onto his horse; his monastic robes did not permit easy vaulting into the saddle. Then he waved until they were well beyond the bailey and needed to keep their eyes on the road.
“Where do we go next?” Henry was excited, as was only natural for a boy of his age. He had not listened hard to the plans for the journey, being too happy at playing with his brother and sister again.
“Swindon, or Sweyn’s Hill, as some call it,” Rae told him. “We’re going in as direct a line as possible. You will enjoy seeing the countryside, I’m certain, but we can’t afford time for extra sightseeing or diversions. Unless there’s a swamp to skirt or a river to ford, of course.”
“Don’t we go by the channel at Bristol? I had hoped to see the sea. I have never seen any huge body of water.”
“It isn’t exactly the sea there,” said Rae, “though it does act as a kind of estuary. You would probably just regard it as a wide river. Think of our rivers and broaden them in your imagination a little. No need to take an extra day or two to see the water itself.”
“It has a royal charter,” said Henry, hopefully but recognised the look in Rae’s eyes.
He was quiet for a while then spoke again. “I had hoped,” he began and then faltered, paying attention to Fleur as she tried to mouth a stand of tall grass.
“What had you hoped, nephew? We may as well hear your flights of fancy now, and either put them to rest or make them real.” Rae was grinning.
“I had heard there might be a witch. Wookey Hole in the Mendips is mentioned in some accounts of travels in the area.” Henry finally got Fleur under control and Rae silently reminded himself that when the boy eventually left the priory and came back to life in the castle he might need some remedial lessons in horse management after a life with the smaller mules. Mules were obstinate, but not big or fast, or usually as strong as the horses bred and ridden by the knights and their people.
“Or if we can’t go in search of the witch,” Henry went on, “there are the standing stones near Avebury which I believe are one of the wonders of the world. Staneges, men name them.”
“They’ll have to continue standing without our presence,” said Rae. “I think we would all like to see them but they’re too far out of our path.”
Henry’s face fell. “Can’t we even go to Warminster?” He put all the pleading a youngster was capable of into the words. “I’ve heard there are lights in the sky at night which even Brother John might like to investigate.”
Rae hardened his heart and shook his head. He, too, would welcome a chance to see wonders, but he also knew he needed to accomplish their mission and get back as quickly and safely as possible with either whatever the scroll led to or with further information.
Brother John, thank goodness, supported him. He had been concerned that the monk might acquiesce and pander to the child’s desires, thinking that some kind of travel news would be welcome back at the priory. But it seemed the good brother was made of sterner stuff and agreed that they should choose their road in a straight line.
“We promised your father we would travel as directly as the crow flies,” he reminded the boy. At that very moment a crow flew overhead, its harsh cry attracting their attention. It seemed an omen, and one Henry accepted. For now, at least.
“But what about Glastonbury? I’m sure Father said we were to go there, and I want to see the summer lands that the tales of Arthur describe. And Brother John will enjoy seeing St Michael’s church,” he finished, with a falsely pious voice that amused his uncle.
“Your luck has turned, Henry. That is indeed our destination. And I’m sure we can spare an hour to see the church before we turn for home or explore other parts of the tor,” he said with a chuckle.
And with that, Henry had to be satisfied.
Swindon came, and went, with nothing exciting to note apart from the number of pigs rooting in the fields. They camped a little way from the township, since Rae was worried about the numbers of his fellow Anglo-Saxons living thereabouts. There would be no way of knowing which were friendly towards a Norman monk, a Norman youth and a French knight who might as well be Norman from an Anglo-Saxon point of view. They found a clearing in the woods and lit a small fire to cook their porridge, a staple they had brought to sustain them on their journey. The oats, mixed with water from a nearby stream then with bits of dried meat and fruit once the concoction was sticky and smooth, made a substantial dinner, and when followed with apples, ensured they went to their bedrolls well satisfied. Rae and Beau took turns on watch, and Sight kept one eye open the entire night.
Their next destination was Frome and they saw the numbers of sheep rise in the countryside to either side as they rode. Frome was an important centre for wool, both spinning and weaving and Rae knew of its size and fame. They had no business to transact there, however, although Brother John said the cloth for the priory’s robes came from the town. Still, he was not there as a trader, but as tutor for Henry and possible researcher for the information they sought. They camped a little way out of town again, and deterred Henry from running off to explore the centre with reminders of what had happened in Oxford.
“But we have nothing important with us this time,” he said, sulking.
“Tell that to whoever is following us,” said Rae.
“But you said we had an undisturbed night at Swindon.”
“And so we did, but Sight has been aware, I think, of someone on our trail, and I have more than once felt eyes on us. In daylight, not at our camp.”
“Perhaps whoever it is wants us to lead them to whatever we are looking for.”
“Perhaps. But they would increase their chances of commanding us to obey them if they had you as hostage.”
“Well, I don’t want to be a hostage,” said Henry. “So I promise not to run into town.”
The adults exchanged looks and sighs of relief before eating, porridge again, this time with the addition of a chopped onion that, as Brother John pointed out, was already growing a green shoot and would not last the entire journey. Beau threw in some herbs he had picked from the surrounding woodland; he was knowledgeable about such things from his time on crusade.
They slept soundly though both Rae and Beau thought they felt watched. Sight was restless but not too anxious so they tried to ignore the feelings.
“Last stretch, today,” said Rae after they’d broken their fast with some hard bread spread with honey then washed the stickiness from their fingers and chins in a small spring. “We’ll be down in the Somerset levels, the Summer Country. And we should see Glastonbury before evening.”
They rode west, enjoying the hot day that had a cool breeze to temper the heat. The horses were still fresh and eager, and the men travelled towards their goal, filled with a kind of hope and excitement. Even Henry seemed happy.
The land flattened until they rode on a plain crossed with brooks and ditches, a plain that might well be a sea in winter. Their road was straight now, like the track of an arrow, built up well above the low lying meadows and clearly a much used and ancient highway.
Then, as the light faded, mist rose from the streams and eddied about the horses, muffling sound. Ahead, a conical hill stood proud above the mist, on its summit a building with a cross silhouetted against the sky. They had come to Glastonbury Tor.
“Is that it?” Henry asked in a quiet breath of wonder, gazing up at the high hill.
“It is,” Rae assured him. “And tomorrow we will explore.”
Henry seemed content with that promise and set about willingly enough to help with the camp preparations while Sight scouted the area, sniffing at the new and exciting smells the ground and bushes had to offer. He raised his head every so often, long ears pricking upwards as he concentrated on something only he could see in the far distance. Whatever he spotted seemed of no particular danger because after a few moments he would lose interest and return to his sniffing.
Rae took the first watch that night, Beau the second. All was quiet, apart from the occasional screech of an owl and rustling of foraging night creatures. When dawn came it was with a brilliant display of colour that gradually faded to a clear blue sky as the sun rose above the horizon. The mist of the night before still clung to the tor.
“They say that the king, Arthur, and his queen lie in rest under the hill,” Brother John was telling an avidly listening Henry as Rae dished up the last of the bread and honey and threw some scraps of dried meat in Sight’s direction.
“Ynys yr Afalon, the Isle of Avalon,” Rae said, looking at the grinning Beau.
“Another one of your grandsire’s stories?” Beau asked.
Rae shrugged and smiled in return before looking out across the moor to where the top of the tor stood ghost-like above the mist, as it had the evening before. “It’s easy to imagine such when you see it.”
Beau had to concede that Rae had a point. The huge hill and its surrounding mist did indeed resemble an island emerging from the stillness of a lake.
“We will need some supplies,” Rae continued as he searched through their bags of provisions, dismissing talk of mysticism. “The tor is big and we have little left in these to see us through the search and the return journey.”
“The township should be able to supply what we need,” Beau suggested.
“Indeed,” Brother John agreed. “The abbey will no doubt be willing to provided sustenance to wandering pilgrims.”
“Is that what we are? Pilgrims?” Henry asked.
“In a way,” Brother John told him. “We seek something that is holy after all.”
“This is as good a place as any to base our campsite while we search the area,” Rae decided. “Brother John, you and I will walk to the abbey. Beau and Henry can remain here and start an exploration of the tor while we’ve gone.” A proposal that seemed to suit Henry very well.
Beau surveyed the camp with satisfaction. Despite Henry’s entreaties he had insisted that they set about tidying up the site and making sure the horses were given fodder then well tethered where there was plenty of grass for them to forage before beginning their exploring. A small stream ran not far from the camp but the ground around them was slightly raised and drier than the marshy soil that surrounded the tor.
There was another reason for Beau’s delay in setting out - the constant twitch between his shoulders made him as sure as Rae that there were unknown eyes following their movements. A quite word between them before Rae set off for the abbey had ensured they both would be keeping a good watch out for their unseen followers. What their intention was Beau could only guess at. They might simply be travellers going in the same direction - although Beau doubted that, the coincidence seemed too … coincidental.
“Well, can we go now?” Henry demanded with some impatience.
Beau took his time to check the area, the twitch was still there but everything was quiet apart from early morning birdsong.
“I don’t see why not,” he responded finally. “We’d get a good view of the meadows from the top of the tor, you game for the climb?”
Henry studied the tor. There was a path of sorts and terraces that wound around the steep hill. The wooden church of St Michael with its wheeled cross stood sentinel at the top.
“We’d see all the way to the town I would think. We might even spot Rae and Brother John on their walk to the abbey, if they haven’t already got there that is,” he said, still chaffing at the delay.
Beau grinned. “Race you to the top,” he said.
The boy returned the grin and left at a run, whistling to Sight. Beau watched them go, Henry’s long legs flashing and the hound leaping joyously by his side. The lad had grown since the days of last autumn when their adventures had led them to Oxford. He would be full grown soon, as tall as his father and expected to take on the duties of eldest son. Beau hoped he would be as wise as his sire, with the same calculating mind that had seen them safely through the crusades and led Beau here to these isles, and to Rae. From what he had seen of Henry since coming to Castle Cowley he thought it would be so.
Henry’s shout broke into Beau’s musings and he realised he was sadly lagging behind because both boy and dog were already at the base of the tor and starting the steep climb upwards along the ancient terraces. Beau put on a burst of speed but they were too far ahead. The climb upwards was hard and Beau stopped halfway to catch his breath before starting off again. Henry had stopped too and was standing with his hands on his knees while Sight chased after a rabbit that was running across the side of the hill. The rabbit suddenly disappeared down a hole and Sight came to an abrupt halt before pacing the area, nose to ground as he tried to uncover the elusive beast.
By the time Beau reached them Henry was sitting on the grass, laughing at his dog’s puzzled expression and his failure to work out where the rabbit had gone. The mist had started to lift under the warmth of the summer sun, leaving only faint swirls that twisted over the ground at their feet. Sight, frustrated by his fruitless search, came to Henry’s call and Beau hauled Henry up so they could continue their upward climb.
The view from the top of the tor was breath-taking, the summer lands below them stretching out to the far hills while Glastonbury abbey’s stone bell tower could be seen in the distance, standing watch over the dwellings of the town.
Beau turned to the church of St Michael and its small hermitage. It seemed almost deserted but the day was still early and the monks would no doubt be at prayer. Later might see more activity, even some pilgrims wending their way to the summit. It would be wise to begin a search for what they sought now, but Beau wasn’t entirely sure where to start.
The thought hardly had a chance to coalesce into action when he was distracted by a shout from Henry. He turned around again in time to see Sight’s ears prick up to half-mast, then rise to full attention before he stalked his way across the ground to where another rabbit was minding its own business, nibbling on some grass. Sight sprang and so did the rabbit, racing away before the dog could catch it. Then suddenly there were rabbits everywhere and Sight was bounding after them all.
Henry pulled up his tunic with both hand and ran screeching after the dog, bare legs flashing. Bordering on adulthood he might be but the child still in the young man brought a smile to Beau’s lips. He watched as they played, chasing after the furiously running rabbits, moving further away and eventually out of sight. Beau waited for them to reappear. When the church bell began to toll several moments later and there was still no sign of boy or dog he began to worry.
Sight chased the rabbits hither and thither, the hound’s long legs streaking towards one before abruptly changing direction to fly after two more going in the opposite direction. Henry chased along, trying to keep up but never having a real hope of doing so. It didn’t matter; the fun was in the exhilaration of the chase.
They played on, going up and down the slopes, getting further away and following the contour of the hill until Henry could no longer see where Beau had stood on the crest watching them. Finally Sight slowed his pace, allowing Henry to catch him up, then abruptly disappeared in the long tufts of grass. Startled, Henry followed, and took his own fateful step into thin air.
Summersaulting head over heels Henry tumbled down what seemed like a rabbit hole. He had time to wonder how big the rabbit must be to make such a hole when he finally hit level ground with a heavy thud. Sight was waiting for him; a tail wagging happy hound who smothered him with wet kisses and who seemed pleased to have led his master to such an excellent place.
“Down, Sight.” Henry pushed the excited dog away and got unsteadily to his feet, testing his limbs for damage. His shoulder hurt where he’d landed on it but he could move it easily enough. Otherwise he seemed uninjured. He looked around, trying to peer through the weak sunlight that filtered through the narrow opening. Gradually his eyes adjusted and he could make out more of his surroundings.
They seemed to be in a cave of sorts, the shaft they’d tumbled down opening out into an entryway. Henry felt his way along the wall. It was smooth, almost like it had been hollowed out of the sandstone. The light decreased the further he went into the cave but he could just make out an arched opening that must be a passage leading further into the tor. He stopped, indecisive, knowing he should be trying to get out of there rather than exploring further; Beau would no doubt be frantically searching for him by now. But the lure of the opening was too much for his adventurous spirit to reject. Even in the dull light Henry could make out swirls and intricate patterns carved into the archway, made no doubt by human hands. He had to know where that passage led, once he found out he could crawl back the way they had come and find Beau, who would no doubt be as entranced as Henry was with his find. That thought decided him and he took a step forward.
Sight had been standing next to him, quiet and watchful. But now he whined and scratched at the ground as Henry moved.
Henry turned to look at him. “It’s alright boy,” he said. “There’s nothing to be worried about, it’s just a bit dark.” But Sight wouldn’t be moved or placated. Instead he backed up, still whining.
“Go to Beau then. Or stay here, silly dog.” Henry turned back to the archway determined to explore. Sight gave a sharp bark but Henry ignored him.
The floor beyond the archway was as smooth as the cave entry had been, as if many feet had flattened a path along the passage and Henry wondered how long the cave and its passage had been there and if it were made by man or nature.
There was a light source further along, a faint glow that drew Henry as a moth to a flame. Could it be another opening in the tor or something else? The something else seemed likely as Henry had no sense of moving either upwards or sideways towards the world outside the tor. As he got nearer to the light he could see that the passage opened up again under another similarly decorated archway. He stepped through.
It was like a church; wide walkways that branched off in different directions and defined by shoulder high rock ledges, columns that reached to the ceiling and recesses cut into the cave walls. The only things missing were the images of the virgin and the Christ; instead the flickering light from the tallow candles set in the niches and recesses cast shadows over the walls revealing reliefs of lion-head figures or men doing battle with bulls.
There were two men standing just beyond the archway, one Henry recognised from when they stopped at the d’Argentan property, a servant called Alberic he thought and wondered why the man was here in this cave and how they had got here.
Both men had swung round in surprise at the sound of Henry’s entry.
“What have we here?” one of the men said studying Henry from head to foot.
“It’s that brat that came with Jean d’Argentan to the house. The little lord the master and mistress fussed over,” Alberic told him.
“Well, isn’t that handy. Maybe we don’t have to keep following them after all. This little man will give us all we need to find out about the treasure they’re after.”
Henry turned, intending to run back the way he had come, but the men were too quick for him and before he knew it his feet had left the ground as he was swung up into a grip that was too strong for him to break. He shouted and kicked, landing a solid thump to his captor’s knee. The man grunted but didn’t let go.
“Keep hold of him, Edgar!”
“I’m trying!” Edgar’s arm was tight around Henry’s chest and Henry’s struggles got weaker as he tried to get breath into his lungs. A low growl came from the darkness of the passage and through swimming eyes Henry saw Sight streak from the archway, his jaws latching onto Edgar’s arm. Edgar screamed and almost let go but Alberic was on Sight, kicking at him. Sight let go and went for Alberic but the man lashed out again and Sight’s yelp was full of pain and injury.
Henry kicked ineffectually at Alberic but it was a mere distraction as Alberic turned and delivered a backhanded slap to Henry’s face.
“Run, Sight. Find Beau,” Henry shouted as the arm around his chest tightened again and he finally lost consciousness.
Rae and his companion took their time, stopping occasionally to admire the scenery. They could see Beau’s head and hear Henry’s cries as he chased after Sight. The dog was silent; greyhounds, sometimes known as sighthounds, were not a breed known for barking though every so often Rae knew Sight would howl at a full moon or growl at a supposed intruder.
“It’s well named the Summer Country,” said Rae. “I can just imagine all this land under water or virtually so in winter, with the Tor like an island in the middle.”
“The monks must feel themselves quite cut off from the world.” Brother John spoke wistfully and Rae wondered if he sometimes regretted choosing a priory in such a busy place as Oxford. It couldn’t be altogether perfect for a contemplative life. But then the monk was a teacher, though that might be by the abbot’s decree and not his own choice.
The path was steep and they continued without talking much, saving their breath for the climb. He hoped the brethren would be welcoming and was suddenly glad he had Brother John to introduce their pilgrimage and make them seem to come as friends. Some monasteries had suffered from both Norman and Anglo-Saxon raids so he was uncertain about their reception even though he meant them not the least harm in the world.
He hadn’t been altogether pleased with the inclusion of the monk in their group. Henry, they could have dealt with, he thought. The lad would sleep soundly, and earlier than the two adults. He and Beau had had no chance on the trip to be together at night and he felt frustrated and tired despite having slept well. But the entire expedition was organised by Giles, and that included the presence of Henry and Henry’s tutor. He sighed. Only in their room in the castle could they truly be themselves, but still, at least they weren’t separated and that was something to be thankful for.
He couldn’t see Beau now, even the top of his lover’s head hidden by the tall grass and hawthorn bushes that covered the hill, and the many dips and folds in the earth. The haws were shining brightly in the sunshine, giving the place a freckled, cheerful look. He glanced at Brother John, expecting to be reminded of the crown of thorns and drops of blood that the monks probably thought were symbolised by the stunted prickly trees with their scarlet berries, but Brother John never seemed to preach and Rae liked him the better for it.
They were nearing the abbey and the breeze brought them the low but definite sound of voices raised in song. A psalm, he thought though he was not sure which. But then there was a shout from the opposite direction, one that chilled him in spite of the warm air.
“Find Rae. Good dog. Find Rae.” He heard the shouts, faint as they were, and knew Brother John did too. Beau was in trouble, or Henry was, or both.
It didn’t take the hound long to reach them in long loping strides that ignored the small tussocks and hollows of the ground. Soon Sight was at their knees, looking up imploringly and whining slightly as he turned, clearly intending to lead them back to Beau.
Rae was not about to let Beau face whatever it was alone, but he glanced at his companion, wondering whether the monk would prefer to continue to the abbey. He should have known better. Jean D’Argentan was a monk second and a man first.
“Henry,” he said, and turned to follow Rae and Sight.
They were not as quick as the dog, and at any other time Rae might have smiled to see Brother John with his robes tucked up into his girdle, clambering downhill with a determined look on his face. Now, however, he merely tried to avoid tripping himself. A twisted ankle would not help Beau in the slightest.
They found Beau crouched behind a gorse bush, staring at a large hole in the ground. Sight joined him, panting at a job well done, and so Rae and Brother John crouched too. There were other bushes and it was possible they were all out of sight of the hole and whatever or whoever Beau expected to emerge. Of Henry, there was no sign whatsoever.
Beau’s fingers were on his lips but it hadn’t needed that gesture to silence Rae. The monk, too, seemed willing to let Beau take the lead in whatever was happening. Then the Frenchman whispered very softly, so softly it could have been the breeze in the grasses.
“Sight disappeared down that hole and Henry followed. Only Sight came back and he wants me to go down but I thought until you knew what was going on I should stay above ground,” he said.
Rae nodded, quietly approving Beau’s choice. Before any of them could make a move or even a decision, something seemed to swell in the hole and then a head emerged. They still waited, not knowing how many they faced. The head became a body and then a whole man who offered an arm to help a companion out and up. Two, at least, then, and maybe more.
“Let him cool his heels in there for a while. They won’t find him, and even if they find the temple or whatever it is, they won’t do anything more than perhaps lead us closer to their treasure. I would bet my horse that’s where it lies.” The voice carried clearly and Brother John startled.
“Alberic, one of my family’s retainers,” he murmured.
Alberic’s friend was frowning. “Where’s that hound?” he said. “I kicked it and it ran but it should lead us back to those we’re tracking. Unless it’s too ashamed to go back to them, of course. It abandoned its young master, after all.”
Rae considered the dog, which had bravely and sensibly sought first Beau and then himself. Giles could be grateful to it and to its dam and sire. By the sound of things, Henry was alive, but somehow hidden. There were no more men appearing from the hole and he looked at Beau, letting the ex-soldier make the final decision. Beau nodded, which was all Rae needed. By now he trusted Brother John to be more help than hindrance and smoothly the men rose from their crouch and advanced on Alberic and the other.
It was almost an anti-climax. Beau was an experienced fighter with a crusade behind him and recent activity training Giles’ men. Rae was fit and had been sparring with his lover for weeks now, practising to perfect and maintain his own abilities. Brother John was a not inconsiderable third combatant, obviously remembering his skills as a teenager before his entry into the priory. They didn’t even need their swords although Rae used his, still sheathed, as a kind of staff. Their skill at unarmed combat was clearly unexpected by the servants turned villains. The fight was very brief and none of them suffered any injury. Beau seemed about to snap Alberic’s neck then his expression said he thought better of it. They needed to know what had happened and why. Sight snapped at the men’s ankles, not hurting them but hindering and worrying them sufficiently to be of help in the tussle.
The two were quickly overpowered and tied, their tunic girdles making excellent ropes, and Brother John identified the other as Edgar, another of his father’s servants. They were grumbling and cursing until Beau threatened quite casually to gag them whereupon they fell silent and simply glared at Brother John as if he, not Beau and Rae, were the source of their troubles.
“And now,” said Beau, “you can talk. But if you do anything but answer our questions, those gags will be waiting. Understand?”
The pair nodded vigorously.
“Where’s Henry?” Brother John got straight to the point.
“Where you won’t find him,” said Alberic, gruffly. “Underground,” he added, when Rae delivered a kick to his ribs.
“That’s hardly a secret,” said Beau, “since he went down and hasn’t come up. I asked where, specifically.”
“In one of the side passages.” Edgar was surly but seemed to hope to avoid a kick. “And no, I have no idea how to direct you, and we shoved a stone across before we left.”
“Side passages? So there’s a whole place under there, not just an enlarged rabbit warren or badger sett?” Rae was curious, not just because of Henry’s possible whereabouts.
“If you’ve hurt him,” Brother John began. But Beau was ahead of him.
“If you’ve hurt him,” he said, “you’ll face the wrath of our Lord Cowley. You will anyway, but if we find him alive and well things might go easier with you.”
“He’s unhurt,” said Alberic, hurriedly. “Shocked, perhaps, and maybe frightened or confused down there, but not injured. We only wanted to use him as leverage to get you to lead us to the treasure.”
“What treasure would that be, then?” Beau’s voice was icy.
“You arrived at the D’Argentan estate with some kind of map,” said Alberic. “A treasure map, we thought. And we want a share. We have little enough and live on the crumbs of your father’s generosity.” This last was directed at Brother John with another glare.
“My parents are generous enough to those who work for their living,” said the monk, emphasising the word ‘work’. “And the treasure we seek may not be of this world. What you thought was a map is a holy document. You have followed us and risked your lives and your positions for what may be nothing.”
While he spoke, Rae headed for the hole in the ground. Sight was eagerly pawing at its edges, no doubt wanting to find Henry and hoping one of the silly humans would join his search. It was becoming clear to Rae that there were no more men to concern them, only a frightened boy to find and still a treasure of some kind to discover. He squeezed in, mildly regretting his broad shoulders but glad of his fitness and flexibility. Then he slid downwards, with no idea of what awaited him but knowing the others had come to no harm.
When man and dog reached the base of the shaft and Rae saw the place, he was astounded. He, like Henry before him, followed the carvings, first by the sunlight then by feel, until he reached the hall with the candles. Alberic might have intended to come back soon, he realised, and certainly the candles were thick enough to burn many hours.
It was a strange place, and put him in mind of things he’d heard about the Roman followers of Mithras, the subterranean sites of worship, and the way the blood of the sacrifice would pour down over the head of a soldier dedicating his life to the god. He glanced up, shivering slightly, but there was only stone, pillars with more carving and a ceiling with faint sparkles in the grey granite. The pillars were rounded and heavy, looming out of the walls. Not all of them were whole pillars; some just protruded from the walls suggesting support that they did not necessarily provide. There were arches, too, some leading nowhere and some framing more passageways. There were half walls with sunken holes in them, just right for thick candles or perhaps oil lamps if the past of the place was what he’d suspected.
He thought for a moment. Why would Alberic and Edgar have brought so many candles? How could they have known the trail would lead underground in such an unexpected fashion and to such a strange place? How had they found it, for that matter? Had they stumbled into the hole, like Sight?
And just what was the chamber’s real purpose? It might be a Roman place, as he imagined, though there would be no followers of Mithras now, and the room was swept, lit and tended. If this was the summer country, why did it show no signs of flooding? Perhaps it was too far up the slope of the Tor to suffer in the winter and perhaps the space led under the Tor itself. There were too many imponderables but he hoped Beau and Brother John would help him make sense of the place.
Meanwhile, the dog was whining again, pawing uselessly at a stone to the side of the chamber. Rae was by the hound’s side in an instant. He could not move the stone and knew he would need one of the others to help, but he felt sure this was the entrance to Henry’s prison.
“Henry.” He shouted and his words echoed around the space. Then from beyond the stone came a hiccupping sob.
“Raedwolf.” The boy sounded relieved, and unharmed.
“I’ll get help to move the stone,” he said. “Those idiots thought we wouldn’t find you but they underestimated Sight.”
He turned on his heel, determined to get at least one of the others to see this place and help shift the barrier. He was intent on reaching Beau and it took him a moment to realise he was staring into the face of a total stranger, and one who didn’t look particularly friendly, at that.
The man was, from his clothes, a villager or farm labourer, and addressed him in the Anglo-Saxon of his childhood.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
The sound of his uncle’s voice brought hope to Henry, a hope he hadn’t felt when he’d woken a short time before with a headache and a sore chest. Confusingly, there was another voice beside Raedwolf’s, one Henry didn’t recognise, but he couldn’t work out what they were saying through the thickness of the stone walls around him. But Rae had shouted that he was getting help to move the stone keeping him prisoner so no doubt he and Beau had taken care of the men who had so ill-used him and whoever was outside now must indeed be a friend.
Feeling better and with nothing else to do than await Raedwolf’s freeing of him, Henry contemplated his prison. He could tell by feeling along the walls that he was in a narrow tunnel rather than a cavern as he, and no doubt his captors, had surmised. Curious, Henry stumbled forward, feeling his way down a long passage. The tunnel turned abruptly after he’d walked several paces then continued on for several more before taking another turn. This time the way ahead was illuminated by a single candle burning in a sconce high on the tunnel wall.
Cautious now, Henry carried on. The tunnel ended in an opening similar to the one he’d been captured in by those ruffians, only much smaller and where the walls of the main chamber were smooth these were rough-hewn. There were no exquisite and carefully carved bas-relief symbols either and instead of the glow of many candles bathing the area in ethereal light and piety there was but one torch throwing a dim glow and sullen, secret shadows across the open space and on the walls.
A ledge jutted out from the far wall with several objects scattered across its top. Henry went forward to see what was there. What he found had him reeling with surprise and exhilaration. Turning, he hurried back along the tunnel he’d come down, shouting out to Rae as he went.
The panic Beau had felt at having mislaid Henry down a rabbit hole had been assuaged by the reappearance of Sight and the knowledge that the ever-loyal hound would know where Henry was; would lead them to him. He’d sent the hound after Rae with a feeling there was more under the ground than a mere home for rabbits. The appearance of Alberic and Edgar, popping up like rabbits themselves from the same hole, had proven him right. Now he caught a glimpse of Rae from the corner of his eye sliding into the ground, the hound following, and cursed under his breath that Rae had not waited for him.
Brother John finished speaking and the two bound men gazed at him sullenly, unconvinced perhaps by the monk’s words in denial of a treasure. Whatever the men thought was of no concern to Beau though - their part in Henry’s disappearance was explained and all that needed to be done now was to secure them both from escaping and causing more mischief, then to follow Rae and find the boy. A search for the so-called grail could come after, although by now Beau would be quite content to abandon all thought of the object; it had already caused more than enough trouble.
There was one question, however, that was bothering Beau. “How did you two know about these underground passages?”
Alberic glanced at Edgar, who shrugged his indifference, so he turned back to Beau. “We watched you set up camp last night and figured you were staying, that the treasure was here somewhere. We stayed on yonder side of the hill but this morning, early, we saw someone, a villager we think it was. He was walking on the hill then he vanished as if the mist had swallowed him. We thought we’d take a look, see where he’d gone and we found another entrance to those tunnels. Been wandering them for a while, we had, when the boy almost fell into our laps. Good thing too ‘cause we thought we’d not find our way out again.”
Beau looked at the pair in withering amusement. “It seems your family holding is now short a couple of idiots, Brother John.” he told the monk. “And we’re wasting our time with them, they have nothing more to give us. We should tie them to the gorse bush so they can’t go far and deal with them later.”
Brother John nodded agreement. “My father will hear of your perfidy,” he told the two men. “You’ll not find work at the d’Argentan lands again, whatever fate is decided for you by my companions once we find young Henry.”
With both men secure Beau followed Rae’s path, Brother John trailing along behind, the curses of the two prisoners ringing in their ears.
They wasted no time in the entry tunnel, Beau pulling Brother John along when he would stop to examine the carved walls. Once at the central cavern Beau felt at a loss, there were so many passages, so many possibilities for the direction Rae would have taken. Brother John was staring agape at the candles and running his fingers over the carved reliefs in the wall.
“Roman most certainly,” he murmured. “The worship of Mithras definitely; the god born from a rock. The cult was popular with Roman soldiers, especially those from the East. There are many temples to the god here in Britain, but I’ve never heard of one like this.”
Beau wasn’t interested in Brother John’s history lesson; he needed to find Rae and Henry. “Quiet,” he said, standing with his head cocked to one side. Brother John gave him a sharp look but Beau ignored him. There was a whisper of sound in the quiet of the cave but the acoustics made it hard to tell what direction it was coming from. He let his gaze wonder over the arched walls and recesses until it rested on a large stone that seemed out of place sitting as it was in one of the many passages radiating from the cavern. Instinct led him to the spot and he was rewarded when the vague sounds coalesced into several voices issuing from a tunnel half hidden behind the stone. Without waiting for Brother John to join him Beau squeezed between the stone and the tunnel opening, following the sound of Henry’s excited urgings for Raedwolf to come quickly and see what he had found.
They were crowded into a narrow space; Rae, Henry, Sight and a wildly gesticulating white cloaked stranger all standing under a high candle that made their shadows leap and jump monster-like against the walls around them.
“I tell you, you have no right to intrude upon our holy ground,” the stranger was saying, the words spoken in Norman although it was obvious it was not the man’s own language. “The boy has been released. Now you must go.”
“What’s going on?”
Sight whined and the three humans turned towards Beau but he ignored two of them, looking directly at Rae. It was Henry, however, who jumped in as usual with an excited answer.
“I’ve found it, Beau, what we’ve been looking for, I’m sure it’s the grail. You have to come, all of you, and see it for yourselves.”
“No, you will go no further.” The stranger took a step to block them off from the rest of the passage but Rae countered the move so that he was beside Henry and the stranger was hedged against the wall. The hound backed him up, ears forward and muscles bunched.
“There is but one of you and four of us. We mean you no harm and I am grateful for your help, but we would seek to look at what Henry has found further down this passage.”
Beau joined them, with Brother John close behind. The stranger took in the semicircle that surrounded him and shrugged.
“So be it. But be warned, those who venture into the sacred grotto might regret what they find.”
The words left a chill feeling down Beau’s back as he kept pace with Rae, following while Henry led them further along the passage.
“What was that all about?” he asked Rae.
“He appeared out of nowhere just after Sight led me to Henry, helped me move the stone, albeit reluctantly. I don’t think he has anything to do with the two who put Henry there in the first place. Other than that I have no idea.”
“Well, he certainly didn’t want us coming down here, whoever he is.”
“All the more reason to take a look.” Rae spoke with the determination Beau was now used to. “And speaking of Henry’s captors,” Rae continued, “what have you done with them?”
“They’re all tied up at the moment and won’t go far,” Beau said with a grin. “We can deal with them later.”
They had reached the chamber and Beau looked around curiously. The cave and passages they had left behind appeared to have been wrought by nature and enhanced by man. But the cavern before them seemed entirely manmade; hewn out of the original tunnel system, the walls rough and uneven. There was a low standing ledge at the far end of the chamber that had the look of an altar. A cloth was draped across it and Beau could see objects placed on top but the light provided by the torch above the altar was too dim for him to make them out. Henry was already there though, reaching out to grasp something.
“Henry!” Beau warned, the stranger’s words still fresh in his mind. But both Rae and Brother John were there with Henry, examining an object he was holding. Henry looked over at Beau with a huge smile on his face.
“Come on, Beau, come look. It has to be the grail,” he urged.
Brother John took the object from Henry’s grasp and held it up, his face enraptured. “Yes, yes. I believe it could be the one.”
He turned the cup this way and that. It looked old, like the shards of pottery that Beau had seen revealed when a field had been ploughed or foundations dug for a new stone building. This pottery was fully formed – round and hollow, used possibly as a cup or bowl – and, Beau suspected, made of agate, the white and tan banding glistening somehow as light from the flaming torch caught it.
Beau went to step forward to join them, as mesmerised as the others by the object and its possibilities but a low growl from Sight made him turn around instead. The stranger who had helped free Henry was now standing at the chamber entrance, and he was not alone. Three other men stood beside him, all dressed similarly in hooded cloaks that varied in shades from white to grey and all with the same determined look about them. The other thing Beau noticed was that they all carried heavy staffs of thick oak.
“Rae,” Beau said quietly. “We have company.”
Rae had turned as well. “Henry, get behind me,” he said, his hand on his sword, but he didn’t draw it. Beau took the same precaution. Unlike when dealing with the two kidnappers, these men were armed, the staffs looking dangerously lethal. Beau thought they might have need of their swords this time if things did not go peacefully. Henry did as he was told and Rae spoke directly to the men, who still hadn’t moved.
“Who are you and what is this place? Are you the ones who use these tunnels, and if so, for what purpose?”
The stranger, who appeared to be the leader of the group, spoke again in Norman but while the words were heavily accented the voice was strong and carrying.
“The tunnels are of no real concern to us, we merely use them to light our way. But this grotto has been under our protection for millennia and will be for many more. It is the sacred place of our people, the entry to the otherworld and we are its guardians. You have no business here but have intruded despite my warning.”
Rae replied in Saxon this time and the man answered but the meaning was beyond Beau’s limited knowledge of the language. He glanced at Rae in enquiry.
“I told him we had intended no intrusion and would leave but first we must know about the cup and its provenance. He told me the holy cup belonged here. It seems to have some connection to their pagan beliefs, the ‘bringer of life’ or some such. I don’t think they will let us take it.”
“But we must! It is surely the blessed chalice of the Lord, we cannot leave without it. I will not let it remain here with these heathens!” So saying Brother John tucked the cup under the neck of his tunic and stood defiant before the hooded men.
“Enough!” the stranger exclaimed. “You have defiled this place and intend to steal what is our sacred duty to protect. Now your fate will be what Annwn decrees.”
The cloaked men were upon them almost before either Rae or Beau had a chance to draw their swords. The crack of metal on wood clashed with the sound of Sight’s furious growls and Brother John’s loud grunt as he dodged under a swinging staff to shoulder the bearer in the midriff. Both went down in a tangle of limbs, the staff spiralling away. Beau feinted at the man coming towards him, making the man dodge away, then pirouetted to strike at the staff that was aimed at his head from behind. Both attackers retreated a few steps then came towards him again with their weapons aimed at his belly.
Brother John was on his feet again, as was his opponent, who had managed to retrieve his staff and was prodding at the friar, forcing him to step back. Beau realised that he too was being forced back. A quick glance around revealed that Rae was in a similar situation, edging backwards as his own opponent advanced with his staff levelled. Beau was surprised to realise that the cloaked men were herding rather than fighting them.
It wasn’t long before they were bunched up against the altar with Henry behind them, held effectively where they were by a barrier of wooden staffs pointing right at them. The men took several steps back and began to chant. Beau felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, then the ground beneath his feet began to shake. He stumbled trying to keep his balance but the earth shook again, becoming more unstable. He looked towards his companions and could see his own shock mirrored there. There was another violent shake and Brother John fell forward onto his knees, the grail he’d taken falling from his tunic and rolling to stop near the feet of the guardians. The ground shook once more and began to crumble. Then there was a monstrous sound of shifting, falling rock and a crack appeared across the ground, widening quickly into a crevasse that separated the two factions by a deep stretch of nothingness.
The grail tethered on the edge of the hole and with a cry Brother John flung himself outwards trying to reach the chasm before the grail could fall but he stood no chance. Beau sheathed his sword, it would be no use to him now, and took a step forward, but knew he’d be too late as Brother John’s body tipped over the edge. Rae was closer, miraculously closing a hand on Brother John’s arm stopping his fall by a hair’s breadth. He swung there, suspended.
“Beau,” Rae gasped. “Help me.”
Beau leant over the edge of the crevice. “Grab my hand,” he shouted to Brother John but the friar looked instead at the grail still wobbling on the other side. He reached out towards it with his free hand, his fingers extended to grab at the cup, almost pulling Rae over the edge and Beau could see the muscles of Rae’s arm and shoulder bulge with the effort of keeping his grip on the man.
“Jean,” Rae said quietly, looking into Brother John’s eyes when the brother turned his head to the sound of his name. “Leave it.”
Brother John looked at the grail again and back to Rae. He squeezed eyes shut then opened them again and swung his other arm to Beau who grabbed hold. Between them they hauled him up and over the edge.
The three of them lay there for a moment gasping, Henry crouched beside them. Sight was giving out small agitated whimpers. Before they could recover there was another almighty roar and the ground below them split open. The last thing Beau saw before he began to fall was the guardians standing tall on the other side of the grotto, silent sentinels unmoved by the ground that was giving way around them.
The falling wasn’t so bad, it was the crash of the landing into the water that was worse. The sudden shock left Beau paralysed and inert, the push of the water that enveloped him tumbling him this way and that so he didn’t know up from down, his breath all but gone from his lungs. Finally, desperate for air, he kicked out and pushed himself in what he hoped was the right direction, gasping to fill his lungs when his head finally cleared the water.
He was in a tunnel, still. He could feel the walls close around him despite the darkness. But it wasn’t completely dark. A bright silver essence rose mist-like from the river (for indeed it was a river that was carrying him along) and left a trail on the tunnel walls where the water splashed and gurgled against them. Beau discovered that the essence clung to his body as well and when he lifted his hands they were covered with silver gloves that shone like pale ghosts. With the river’s glow he could see that the water beneath was dark and red tinged.
He looked frantically around, searching for Rae, and Henry, and Brother John but there was no sign of anyone else. He tried swimming against the flow but the river carried him inexorably forward. So he gave up and let the current take him where it would and tried not to think of Rae and the others, of where they might be; whether they might be dead and he alone had survived. The thought was unbearable so he closed his mind to it.
He was carried on the swift current for what seemed an age but might have been only as long as it takes the sun to cast but a small shadow. Then the flow of the water started to increase and Beau could hear the unmistakable sounds of a waterfall. Before he could react he was falling again, pummelled and tossed by unknown forces until everything faded into a white haze and he lost consciousness.
The song of a bird woke him, and a voice that seemed to come from a great distance, but he couldn’t work out what it was saying. There was light too, that shone against his eyelids and hurt his eyes after the time of darkness. He was being held, crushed by something strong while a soft hand stroked down his face. He tried to concentrate and finally he could work out the words.
“Beau, please, wake up.”
Beau opened his eyes to find Rae’s face hovering close above him, so close he could see the fear written clear there. The kiss Rae delivered to his lips was soft and warm and all too brief before he drew hastily back.
“Thank the Lord!” Rae said. “You’ve been lying there as dead since I found you.”
Beau tried to find his voice. At first it wouldn’t work but on the second try he managed. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. All I can remember is falling and then being caught up in flowing water.”
“The silver river.”
Rae nodded. “I couldn’t see you or the others. Then everything went blank and the next thing I knew I was here.”
“Henry, Brother John,” Beau said, sitting up as he felt panic rising, but Rae just smiled and glanced to the side. Beau followed his gaze.
Brother John was sitting not far away on the river bank. It wasn’t the silver river but another; calm and with a gentle current that was nothing like that other flowing torrent. He’d taken off one of his boots and was holding it up as water poured out. A bit further way Beau could see Henry and Sight, who was shaking his body in the manner of wet dogs everywhere while Henry protested at the droplets that sprayed out and drenched him even more.
“That’s the River Brue I believe,” Rae said. “When I woke I was floating at the edge of it.”
“As was I,” Brother John joined in. He’d put his boot down beside its mate and was looking towards where the Tor stood in the distance, rising sentinel-like from the marshy ground. “Was it all a dream?” he asked. “Did I hold the Holy Grail itself, or were we all bewitched by ghosts and demons?”
“It seemed real enough.” Rae was looking thoughtful. “And how else did we all end up here if it wasn’t the river that brought us?”
Beau was silent. The questions seemed to have no answers, it was as if that mystical river had swallowed them down and then spat them out. But how it had happened he couldn’t fathom, nor could he explain the earth opening beneath them when there was no sign of any such disturbance in the peaceful fields around them. So he didn’t try. One thing was certain though, his body ached as if he had been on the losing end of a fight with Guustave. He stood up, groaning with the effort.
“What about those two who attacked me?” Henry asked. Sight had finished shaking himself dry and lay panting on the grass, Henry lying on his belly beside him.
Beau had forgotten all about Alberic and Edgar. “We can release them on the way to our camp,” he said. “There is nothing to be gained by keeping them prisoner and I for one have no wish to escort them back to Brother John’s family at Farringdon or to Castle Cowley.”
“There’s nothing to be gained by staying here either,” Rae decided, also rising to his feet.
They began the trek back to the Tor, their clothes steaming dry as they went. By the time they reached the Tor the horizon was an orange line in the sky signalling the remains of the day, but when they got to the gorse bush that had held the men there was no sign of them, though it looked as if part of the gorse had been uprooted. The hole in the ground leading to the underground tunnels seemed much as it was when Henry had first fallen down it but by mutual agreement they left well enough alone and continued on to their camp
Rae had worries that nagged at him all the way back to the camp. Alberic and Edgar might easily have looted their belongings and so, for that matter, might their opponents from the cave. He reflected that the two servants might have been somewhat hampered by their ropes and the gorse bush they had to drag along, but the villagers or cult members would have no such hindrances. However, the camp was exactly as they had left it and they settled happily on the ground by their horses and belongings, glad to rest after their exertions and adventure.
“We should move our camp,” said Beau, and Rae agreed readily. No sense in staying where people with possible ill intent knew where to find them.
“And we should at least visit the monks,” said Brother John. And so it was decided. They packed and mounted, taking the trail Rae and Brother John had walked in such a carefree fashion earlier in the day. At last they reached the small church and were greeted by excited monks who had realised there was a commotion at the foot of the Tor, and had, besides, seen Brother John’s initial approach with Raedwolf and wondered what had become of their potential guests. The Abbott calmed all the fussing and got straight to the heart of the matter.
“You need food,” he said, “and a place to spend the night. You can tell us your tale over dinner.” He dispatched some of the younger monks to tell the cooks about the visitors and others to stable the horses. Beau went with them, neither he nor Rae quite trusting others with their mounts.
At last they were all settled in the refractory, bowls of steaming stew in front of them, with huge wedges of crusty bread. There was ale, too, and soon they were replete and very thankful.
“We knew there were tunnels,” said the Abbott when they’d told him about their day. “We had never explored them and we knew there were some villagers who followed some kind of old religion but their paths never crossed ours. The thought that the grail might have been there never occurred to us, despite all the legends attached to this place.” He sighed, visibly upset at the thought that such a precious relic had been so near and was now, presumably, lost beyond recall.
“We have no idea what happened after the floor gave way,” said Rae. “The cult members could have rescued the cup. But I suspect it would not be a good idea to go after it or them.”
The Abbott nodded. “We will leave well alone,” he said. “It is just a legend, after all,” he added, with an apologetic look at Brother John. “Even your scroll does not make it quite clear. And it is not worth risking lives, I think. But we will be more aware of the cult, now, and of the tunnels and possible quakes in the area.”
“Don’t forget two bound men dragging a gorse bush,” said Brother John, grinning, and the Abbott grinned back.
“We will put the word out,” he said. “I don’t think anyone here will help or employ them, even if they manage to free themselves and seek work.”
“If they turn up with the gorse bush they could sweep the courtyards,” said Rae, and the brothers dining with them all laughed.
After that, there was Compline to hear. The monks would be up twice in the night for services and Brother John would no doubt join them but nobody would insist on attendance from the laymen. They were bade a cordial good night and then there were spartan but welcome cells with beds that were at least flat and more comfortable than the ground. If Rae regretted the fact that they each had a separate cell he kept his thoughts to himself. This entire expedition had kept him away from his lover so far, but at least they were together, and knew each other to be safe. And nobody prevented him from dreaming that cells could be for two.
In the morning they found Brother John giving the Abbott all the news from Oxford over a small morning repast. In turn he was memorising details about Glastonbury with which to regale his fellows when he returned to his priory. They were all four well rested, and so were the horses, and especially Sight, who had quickly found favour with some of the novices. He had begged and received treats and petting. The little party was soon wending its way down to the low land, or the levels as the surrounding area was called.
“Which way shall we go home?” The note of longing in Henry’s voice could not be denied, and the boy had been brave and resourceful.
“We’ll go past those stones you set such store by,” said Rae, for once inclined to be a generous uncle.
“Really?” Brother John’s tone told them Henry was not the only one interested.
“It isn’t that much out of our way,” Rae assured them and Beau’s smile said he knew his partner was stretching the truth a little for his nephew’s sake.
They relaxed over the journey. The weather was good and looked set to remain fair. They had no exact date to be home and were less than desperate to relate the failure of their quest. The horses were permitted to forage at the wayside, and Sight was allowed some rabbit chasing, although all of them looked out for rabbit holes that were more than they seemed, and of course the warrens that were on landed estates were out of bounds. They made good progress nevertheless, and soon the standing stones could be seen on the horizon, stark against the sky. Even Rae and Beau had to gasp at the sight.
“Who built it all?” Henry was awed and excited.
“We don’t know,” his tutor told him. “Perhaps early inhabitants of this region, or perhaps giants, as the legends suggest. The stones themselves are from a distant place and there is talk of magic having brought them here though of course that is hardly likely. But we know the circle is not the only one, just the largest, and it may well be it was all connected with some pagan religion. There are circles across the channel in Brittany, too. It’s said to be good luck to watch the dawn from the stones on the summer solstice. Though of course,” he added hastily, “no good Christian would do such a thing.”
Henry was clearly disappointed that the solstice was long past and had to be told more than once that the equinox, which was due, was not the same thing at all. They agreed to camp near the stones and spend time the next day exploring the site. Sight was already doing his own exploring, rushing to and fro and barking occasionally.
The ground was rough, with folds and small hillocks, but they found a flat enough space to tether their horses and set out their sleeping things. A small fire, fed with gorse, dry grass and the remains of a dead thorn tree, let them cook a meal, savoury porridge with onions provided by the monks at the Tor, and followed by apples from their packs, a little wizened, but still sweet.
They slept well, and after breaking their fast on some bread, again courtesy of the monks, Brother John and Henry were raring to set off to the stones. Rae smiled, not sure which of the pair was the most eager.
Beau had another kind of eagerness in his expression and instead of following the friar and the boy, he pulled Rae in the other direction, to a place where a slight rise topped with bushy scrub hid them from the stones.
“I needed to get you alone,” was all he said as he tumbled Rae to the earth which was fortunately free of thistles or gorse. Rae couldn’t but agree.
“It’s been a long journey,” he murmured as Beau kissed him and wrestled impatiently with his clothing. “But make sure they aren’t on their way back. I have no desire to be found like this by either of them.”
Beau muttered something about not caring, but Rae knew he would not want to be discovered any more than he did himself. It was one thing for Cowley and Aelfware to turn a blind eye, but if Henry or Brother John reported their relationship there would be problems ahead.
Their coupling was necessarily brief and almost desperate. They knew each other well enough to ensure pleasure and avoid discomfort, but this was no bed or even a flat floor and Rae thought fleetingly that he might have bruises afterwards. Beau took him lovingly, carefully, but his hip bones were altogether too close to some rocks and his spine was arguing with the lumpy ground. All the same, when his lover entered him, he felt both exhilarated and at peace. He had missed this. Where Beau had secreted the small phial of oil he had no idea, but clearly this opportunity was at least a little pre-planned. Knowing that Beau had looked ahead enough to bring it brought warmth to his heart. He curled his long legs around his lover and sighed as they moved together.
Of course, that was the moment at which Sight found them. Rae saw the dog arrive but of course Beau was not looking upward or to the side and the first intimation of company he had was a lick to his uncovered rear. Rae tried not to giggle but failed. Fortunately, the hound did not bark and just sat panting beside them. Listening, they could hear Henry and Brother John exclaiming over some find or other and their voices were a fair way off. Reluctantly, they disengaged, and adjusted their clothing.
“Thanks for the wash, Sight,” said Beau, seeing the funny side of the encounter. They didn’t say anything to each other. There was no need. Their partnership had been re-established after the few days of abstinence and they were both satisfied even though their lovemaking had been cut short.
They joined the others, who did not seem to have noticed that they hadn’t been there all along. A cursory look around the circle was enough for Rae, though he did think he might like to draw the scene which was both majestic and somehow exotic. However, there was no opportunity and he had no materials.
“You’ve spent enough time looking at stone,” said Beau. “There’s stone near Oxford, too, you know.” The pair looked at him as though he uttered heresy, and Rae thought perhaps in their view he did. Brother John was a strange man of God, not narrow minded like some of his fellows, but always willing to look at and think about new things. He felt suddenly glad that this particular friar was Henry’s tutor.
It was hard to prise Henry away from the stones, but they managed it by the promise of a meal once they reached another campsite.
The rest of their journey was uneventful except when Sight chased some squealing piglets near Swindon and an irate farmer hurled imprecations at them. Beau was all for buying a piglet to quiet him but Rae merely paid him some compensation.
“If you had wanted a pet to mount your horse with you, you could have told me. I’m sure we could have prevailed on one of the castle cats to accompany us,” he said to Beau who merely shrugged.
“It would have made a good dinner,” he pointed out. “The piglet, I mean,” he added hastily.
Henry was shocked, and said that they should always let the animals grow up free and happy before slaughtering them, until Rae reminded him about the sucking pig they had all enjoyed the previous Christmas. After that, he was silent for a short while.
They stayed the night again with the d’Argentans. Their hosts were shocked at the story of their retainers’ treachery. They knew, of course, that the men had disappeared, but thought they had merely sought more lucrative employment elsewhere or gone, perhaps, in search of glory on the continent in a minor war or a crusade. They had taken horses and there had been a search for them, but only locally. It had not been thought worth following them far afield and it had not occurred to anyone that they might have followed their son and his companions on their quest.
“I’d have hanged them if you’d brought them back,” said Brother John’s father.
“I don’t think they’d have arrived in one piece,” said Beau.
“Imagine them dragged after the horses on foot,” said Rae, and the whole group contemplated the idea for a moment or two.
They slept well, as they had on the outward journey, but of course again Rae and Beau had to remain separate. They stayed with some of the other men in the hall, but arranged their bedding so that there was no chance of anyone noticing their closeness.
When they left, they were on the last lap of the journey and soon they would have to answer to Giles for the effective failure of their quest.
“At least we have Henry safe and sound,” said Rae.
“And all four of us can witness to the accuracy of the scroll,” said Beau.
They dropped a little way behind the boy and his tutor. Sight was close to Henry’s horse’s feet – probably too close but he was used to the beasts and would avoid an accidental kick. Brother John was talking earnestly to his young charge, no doubt suddenly recalling his duty to teach him as they rode.
“We’ll have our own room, tonight,” Beau reminded Rae. “I am sincerely tired of not waking with you in my arms.”
And with that thought, they spurred their horses on towards home.
The prickling along the back of Beau’s neck began when they were not all that far from Winterton Cowley, and persisted as they continued the journey. It was an old sensation, one that Beau was familiar with and almost always heralded some sort of danger. It had stood him in good stead during his days as a crusader and he was loath to ignore it. But what could go wrong now? They were nearly home, would see the tower of the castle before too much time had passed. Surely nothing could go awry at this late stage of their journey. He kept his peace though, and his hand on his sword.
They hadn’t gone much further when Beau’s pre-cognisance turned prophetic as several figures emerged from the woods on either side of the path they travelled. They came quickly with obvious ill-intent, six of them in all, shouting and waving and armed with daggers or quarterstaffs - Edgar, minus the gorse bush he and Alberic had been attached to the last time Beau had seen them, in the lead. Beau only had time to assume Alberic was amongst the assailants as well before he had his hands full trying to stay on the startled and rearing Tonnerre. Rae was in the same situation, Star all but dislodging him in wild panic.
Brother John and Henry had been riding a short distance behind and Beau realised there was a strategy to the attack when he saw three of the men rush to cut them off from his and Rae’s protection. Henry was down already, unseated by the frantic Fleur, and rolling on the path, trying to keep out of the way of flailing hooves while Brother John tried to move Fontaine out of the way. Sight was jumping around them giving out excited and concerned yips.
“Rae, they’re going for Henry and Jean,” Beau shouted. Rae nodded, struggling to control Star, trying to turn him in the opposite direction. But the other three assailants were closing in on them, obviously counting on the element of surprise to overwhelm their more battle experienced victims, and there was no time to try to come to Henry or Brother John’s aid.
Beau swore and managed to swing his leg over the front of the saddle and slide to the ground, but he was unbalanced. Rae had finally gained control of Star and he set the horse at the attackers, the steed knocking one of them to the ground and making the other two dodge away, which give Beau a precious moment to steady and draw his sword. He went for the nearest attacker, slashing at him as the man held him off with a quarterstaff, then he had an opening and used it, running the man through with his sword. Rae was off Star now, standing shoulder to shoulder with Beau as they both advanced on the remaining two. The second man had got to his feet, only to go down to a mortal blow from Rae’s sword his blood staining the dirt. The last one, Edgar, turned as if to run, but Beau stopped him with a strike to his shoulder. Edgar screamed and sank to his knees.
Beau was about to finish him off when Henry’s panicked shouting distracted him, making him swing round in time to see that Sight had one attacker on the ground and was worrying at the man’s throat while Brother John lashed out at another with a quarterstaff he must have taken from Sight’s fallen victim. He cracked the man over the head with the staff then stood back and dropped it, startled perhaps at his own bold action. Even as Beau watched Alberic appeared behind the brother, grabbing hold of him around the neck, a knife held to his throat.
“Rae,” Henry shouted. “He’s got Brother John!”
Rae was already moving towards the trio, sword held at the ready. “I know,” he said, then looked to the two men. “Let him go, Alberic.”
“I’ll cut his throat,” Alberic warned, pulling Brother John closer. “Just see if I won’t. Put your swords down and call off the hound.”
Beau shrugged as Rae looked at him. He knew he could take Alberic, but the chances of Brother John not getting his throat cut in the process weren’t good. He lowered his sword and Rae followed suit, calling Sight to heel while gesturing to Henry to move behind them. Sight lifted his eyes towards Rae without immediately releasing his hold. Rae barked the order again and Sight let go after giving his victim a last disdainful sniff. The man staggered to his feet, holding a hand against his bleeding throat.
There were facing off now; Beau, Rae and Henry against Alberic and his companion with Brother John in the middle and Beau had a bad feeling about how it would all end. But just as he was calculating the odds of being able to reach Alberic before Brother John paid the price, the brother made his own move. It was bold, efficient and unbelievably fast - one moment Alberic was looking towards his companion, the next he was flying over Brother John’s shoulder to land with a heavy thump on the ground.
It took Beau a stunned moment to realise it was all over, then he looked to Brother John, who was standing over the fallen Alberic. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Brother John looked up. “Yes. Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“That was quite a feat,” Beau told him. “Not a move I’d exactly expect from a man of the cloth.”
Brother John smiled a little sheepishly. “I have three older brothers,” he said. “I either learnt how to take care of myself or suffered the consequences. Besides, they were good teachers and made sure I learnt well.” He looked around at the carnage from their fight, to where his own victim was lying on the ground, his head split open by the quarterstaff. “I have never killed anyone before though.”
“It was in your own defence,” Rae assured him. “And no wrong to you in the doing of it.”
Brother John nodded, but still looked with some horror at the fallen man.
Rae had hauled Alberic to his feet and was shaking him so roughly Beau could almost hear his teeth rattle. “Why did you do this?” he asked. “What did you hope to gain?”
“The treasure you found in the caves under the tor, of course.” Alberic told him. “Why should you have it all?”
“Then you are a fool,” Beau said. “We found no treasure there, only danger.”
Alberic shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
Rae threw him off with a sound of disgust. “Believe what you will, it is no matter to us. But you have had your friends killed for nothing. Their deaths are on your hands.”
“What do we do with them? Take them back to the castle?” Beau asked, prepared to fall in with whatever Rae decided on the fate of the three remaining villains.
Rae looked at the bodies that littered the ground and the survivors; Edgar with the slash to his shoulder that might yet be the death of him, the man Sight had attacked and whose neck was still bleeding heavily and Alberic, the only one uninjured and still looking daggers at his captors. Brother John was kneeling at the side of the dead, reciting prayers for their redemption Beau supposed.
“Let Alberic take care of his own,” he said. “He can bury the dead and tend to the living as best he can.” He turned to the man in question.
“You might find succour in the village of Winterton Cowley. But I suggest you do not stay there long, and if you come anywhere near the castle you will be punished for the crimes you have committed against the de Coudrai family. Is that understood?”
Alberic nodded, albeit reluctantly.
They waited while Alberic fetched the horses and cart the men had used for transport and loaded their dead, then watched the sorry looking band leave in the direction of the village.
“It’s time for us to be home,” Henry said as they disappeared from sight, subdued and thoughtful for once. “Father will be waiting.”
Beau couldn’t have agreed more as they mounted their own horses and turned them towards the castle. They’d been away for far too long.
Evening sunset bathed the castle of Winterton Cowley in an orange and red glow as they crested the final rise before reaching home. It was a grand sight and Beau for one was pleased that their journey was all but over. He glanced across at Rae and could see his own pleasure at being back reflected there. Facing Giles and admitting their failure was, of course, another matter, one that was not so pleasing.
Henry let out a yell and kicked Fleur into a gallop, racing down the incline, the shouts of Brother John for him to slow down and wait unheeded. Sight chased after them, the dog’s long strides easily keeping pace.
“You’ll not stop him now,” Rae called out to the brother. “You might as well let him go.”
Beau couldn’t blame the boy or the dog for their excitement. It had been a journey full of adventure but now the promise of home, family and a proper bed, not to mention regaling everyone with tales of their travels, must have seemed a fitting end to a long day.
The huge gates of the castle were open in welcome and they went straight to the stables with the intent of tending to their horses before entering the great hall and Beau was pleased to see that Henry was there brushing the unsaddled Fleur while Sight paced impatiently beside them, getting in the way.
They quickly finished off the task of bedding down the horses and filling their feed bins, the allure of food and rest enough inducement for haste. Henry ran ahead – sometimes Beau wondered if the boy ever walked anywhere - as they made their way into the castle proper.
Candles and oil lamps had been lit in the great hall and flames danced and hissed from the fireplace, sending out sparks as well as warmth, while shadows leapt and jumped across the room. Giles and Aelfware were seated at the main table with young Giles and Adela. The household retainers were at their own table eating, playing draughts, or cleaning and polishing their weapons.
Henry was already announcing their arrival, his ringing tones breaking through the general hubbub and clatter. “We’re back.”
“So I see,” Giles said, rising from his seat.
Aelfware had risen too and was hurrying towards the arrivals. Henry dutifully embraced his mother then took up his usual seat at the family table, his expression one of ill-concealed containment, obviously wanting to tell their tale but knowing that was up to the adults.
Giles looked hopefully towards Rae and Beau first, sighing regretfully as they both shook their heads in negation of the success of their mission.
“Come, sit and eat while you tell us what happened,” he said.
They did as he bid; each added their share in the telling of the adventure and by the time they had finished the evening had worn on and Giles had questions for them. Aelfware too looked as if she had much to say but held her peace in the presence of the men, no doubt planning on questioning Henry closer when she had him alone.
“You’re sure the grail could not be retrieved,” Giles asked
“As sure as we can be,” Beau told him, licking the last of the juice of the chicken leg he’d been eating from his fingers. He tossed the bone under the table and Sight snapped it up with a loud crunch. “It seems likely the cup would have ended up in the river the same as we did.”
“We’re not even sure if it was the Holy Grail,” Brother John added. “There was no proof either way at the time. Although …” He looked wistful for a moment, as if remembering the feel of the cup in his hand, but didn’t finish the sentence.
Beau watched as Giles digested the information, clearly not pleased with the situation and looking for some way of turning the failure of the quest into a possible future success. It was Henry who put what Giles might have been thinking into words.
“We could go back, father. See if we can’t find out something more in the tunnels.”
The look Rae gave his nephew made Beau grin. It seemed he wasn’t the only one who had no desire to return to that maze under Glastonbury Tor.
“Henry’s enthusiasm outweighs common sense,” Rae said, making Henry frown. “The area seems unstable and those men we encountered are not to be taken lightly. They certainly seemed to consider the tunnels their own and guard them fiercely enough.”
“Hmm, perhaps the scroll itself will give up more of its secrets as the friars continue to study it,” Giles mused.
“Yes indeed,” Brother John confirmed, his enthusiasm evident. “We are only part the way through a full translation and there is still much to learn from it.”
Giles turned his attention to Rae and Beau again. “What of this man Alberic and his band of villains? Will he pose a danger to the castle or our people?”
Beau shared a look with Rae before answering. “I don’t think so. The two remaining men were badly wounded and if the man himself has any sense he would see the futility in continuing with his quest for quick and easy riches.”
Rae nodded his agreement. “We can send some men into the village in any case, to make sure they have gone on their way.”
That settled, Giles turned to other matters regarding the castle and Henry’s visit. It was agreed that Brother John should remain until Henry was due to return to Oxford so his studies could be continued. Young Giles could also take part in the daily lessons if Brother John was agreeable, which he was, but Henry rolled his eyes. Young Giles also looked put upon, but was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself.
By then the meal was finished and the youngsters were yawning, even Henry, so Aelfware rose and announced it was time for the children to retire. Henry looked about to object but another yawn overtook him. They bid the company goodnight and Beau watched as they left for the family’s private apartments, Sight weaving in and out of their legs. The retainers were putting away their games and weapons and preparing for the night, leaving only Beau, Rae, Brother John and Giles still in discussion at the main table. It was time for Beau to make his excuses also.
“If you will excuse me as well, Giles, I will see that the castle is well secured for the night.” Beau said. “We have been gone long enough for the men to have slackened off.”
Giles nodded. “Yes, go ahead, Beau. Although I think you will find you have trained them well enough to fear your retribution on that score should things have become lax,” he said with some amusement.
“I won’t be long,” Beau told them as he left, but his eyes lingered on Rae and he saw the smile and promise in his eyes.
Beau leaned against the wall of the battlement and contemplated the sky-full of stars laid out before him in the late summer evening. It was majestic, the kind of rare time when there wasn’t a cloud to be seen and the moon shone so bright it lit the castle with an eerie glow. His duties had been done and a final walk taken around the castle walls to ensure all was well, now he could rest.
He almost jumped when an arm slipped around his waist and Rae was there beside him. Beau leaned in to the warm presence.
“Beautiful isn’t it,” Rae said on a quiet breath.
“That it is,” Beau replied. “Such a night will be not be repeated as winter comes.”
“Then we should not waste it,” Rae said and held out his hand. “Come to bed where we can watch the stars through our window.”
There was no one about to see them so Beau took the outstretched hand and let Rae lead him to their own chamber.
Far away from Castle Cowley, beneath the earth of the tall hill a chanting of voices began in a buried cavern, rising and falling in a cadence of worship. Amidst the glow of many candles an altar stood in the middle of the cavern. The altar was of stone, worn by the passage of time until it was flat and flawless. At the centre, in the place of honour, there was a wondrous cup that glowed bright in the unearthly light.
The worshipers continued their secret services well into the night. Outside all was quiet on the tall hill of the summerlands.