The de Lacy Inheritance
Kneeling on the stony ground, his head bowed in prayer and his hands clasped before him Richard FitzEustace tried with all his will not to release a finger to scratch at the persistent itch beside his nose. It was is if the very devil were tormenting him, even as he knelt outside the chapel and listened to Father William reading the Mass of Separation.
“I forbid you to ever enter a church, a monastery, a fair, a mill, a market or an assembly of people.”
How can I live without ever entering a church, thought Richard as his fevered mind translated the Latin words into Norman French. How can I pray to God for forgiveness and for a cure if I am to be denied entry to His house?
“I forbid you to leave your house unless dressed in your recognizable garb and also shod. I forbid you to wash your hands or to launder anything or to drink at any stream or fountain, unless using your own barrel or dipper. I forbid you to touch anything you buy or barter for, until it becomes your own.”
Dear God, prayed Richard silently as his left hand strayed to the side of his face and scratched at the ulcerated skin, give me strength to face this tribulation. Forgive me my sins and restore me to Thy grace and to my health.
“I forbid you to enter any tavern; and if you wish for wine, whether you buy it or it is given to you, have it funnelled into your keg.”
I will live simply and will not ask for wine – only for a spring of clear water where I may pray each day and wash away my sins, if it be Thy will.
“I forbid you to share your house with any woman but your wife.”
I will never touch a woman again, I pledge, if only You will forgive me my sins and cleanse me of this unwholesome disease. She tempted me, Lord. Like the snake tempted the woman, Eve, in the Garden and brought about the downfall of Adam, she has brought me to the devil.
“I command you, if accosted by anyone while travelling on a road, to set yourself down-wind of them before you answer. I forbid you to enter any narrow passage, lest a passer-by bump into you. I forbid you, wherever you go, to touch the rim or the rope of a well without donning your gloves. I forbid you to touch any child or give them anything. I forbid you to drink or eat from any vessel but your own.”
Richard clasped his hands before him once more and though he kept his eyes tightly closed he could still see the redness around the knuckles and feel the incessant itching that plagued him day and night. Itching that tormented him until he wept along with the sores on his body.
The priest touched his shoulder and he was grateful. How long was it since anyone had dared to touch him, even through his clothing? Had she been the last person, he wondered, unable now to erase the image of her dark skinned body from his memory. She had tempted him and he had been weak. Now his punishment was visited upon him. But surely, he thought, God’s mercy was great towards those who had fought alongside King Richard in the Holy War. Surely he could be cured, by the grace of God, through prayer and washing and fasting and repentance. After all hadn’t the Lord Jesus touched the leper and declared him clean? Through prayer, it was possible for him too.
“Will you say goodbye to your family?” asked the priest gently. Richard opened his eyes and looked up at the anxious faces of the women who waited near the chapel door. His mother looked aged, he thought, since the day he had kissed her farewell as he went off to the Crusade. She was weighed down by the burden the Lord had asked her to carry, grieving for his father and anxious too for his brother Roger, who had also left for the Holy Land, leaving his pregnant wife, Maud, in her care. Beside her stood his elder sister Helen, married to Dutton his father’s steward, and his younger sister Johanna. They had all hoped to be kept safe under his patronage, but his return with this plague meant he was unable to stay to care for them, let alone take them in his arms and comfort them.
His grandmother, widowed and deprived of her eldest son and now one if not two of her grandsons, stood resolute. She was in charge of this family now and, as his fingers touched the pouch at his waist containing the letter she had given him the previous night, he vowed that he would accomplish the task she had set for him.
Richard rose slowly, his knees sore and his legs stiff from the prolonged prayers. He hung the wooden bowl and clapper from the thick belt that held the coarse woollen habit to his itching body, then raised the dark hood to conceal his face before pulling the gloves over his reddened, flaking hands. Slowly he approached his family, keeping a distance from them.
“I will pray for you day and night,” said his mother, “and although the priest and laws decree that you should be as dead to me now, I have had my fill of death and I pray that one son at least will be restored to me.”
“Pray hard and fast, mother,” he said. “And I will remember you also in my beseeching, both day and night. I pray that one day my brother will return to hold you close and gladden your heart. Hold fast meanwhile to Helen and Johanna ‒ and to your faith.”
She thrust a leather purse at him, which jingled with the sound of coinage. She was unafraid of touching him but Helen took the bag and tossed it to the ground near his feet, restraining their mother from running forward and taking him in her arms.
With tears stinging his swollen eyes Richard turned away from the women. The sight of his mother clinging to her daughter like a feeble invalid hurt him more than anything else he had endured since his return. But he knew that he must leave them and that a prolonged farewell would only make it harder. Adjusting the hood so that no portion of his face was visible, he bowed his head as the priest crumbled earth at his feet and gave him his blessings.
Then he set out – not to the leper house of St Giles as he had promised his mother ‒ but northwards, to cross the river into the newly named county of Lancashire. His destination, skirting the huge marshlands of Martin Mere to the west, was the township of Cliderhou where he would seek out his grandmother’s cousin, Robert de Lacy.
The mud squelched beneath the unaccustomed shoes that were already rubbing a new sore on the back of his left heel as Richard headed north. He shivered in the chill wind of the ensuing autumn as he walked. In Palestine the sun had been so fierce overhead that, sweltering in his chainmail harness, he had longed for the cold westerly winds of his homeland. But now he longed for the warmth and shelter of his family house – a house denied to him – as he trudged down towards the river crossing.
Richard had resolved not to look back, but the drifting smell of a distant fire caught his nostrils and he turned for one last look at Halton Castle. Near the chapel a plume of smoke rose, and he wondered for a moment what Father William was burning, until he realised that it was all of his own clothes and possessions being consumed by the cleansing flames so that the affliction could not be passed on. On the path that led from the chapel to the main keep his younger sister was helping their grandmother home. Even in the distance he could see that she was leaning heavily on Johanna with every step, and he realised that she was no longer young. He wondered what would happen to them all with no man to protect them.
Beyond the village he saw a string of ponies, laden with salt in panniers coming down the road behind him. They would catch up with him in a little while, he thought – meantime he had to go on. The journey would take several days and he had no idea how he would eat and where he would sleep along the way. He could only put his trust in God.
It seemed only moments later that Richard heard the steady beat of hooves as the ponies came up behind him.
“Get out of my way! You filthy wretch!” Richard stopped and turned to see who was the recipient of the drover’s wrath. “You! Get off the road!” The drover, whom Richard vaguely recognised, waved a stick in his direction. “Get back! Keep away!”
As the ponies passed him on the narrow track one trod on his foot as it went by, adding to the pain and misery already caused by the chafing of his shoe. Richard sank down in pain onto the damp grass bank and watched as the swishing tail of the last pony diminished into the distance and the drover turned to shake the stick at him once more.
“Unpalatable cur,” he muttered as he watched them go. “I remember the time, not that long past, when you would have scraped and bowed in my presence. You mangy upstart!” he called after him. But his voice was lost to the beat of the hooves and the jangling of the bells on the reins as the snorting ponies trotted on towards the ford with their precious loads. And as he watched them go Richard recalled something that the woman had said when he was telling her of his home.
“England is a rich county. You have plenty water; plenty salt.”
Soon he could smell the salt on the air as he approached the tidal waters of the Mersey with some trepidation. It wasn’t the first time he had crossed here and on horseback the ford across the river held no fears, but so many had drowned attempting the perilous crossing on foot that his father had employed a ferryman who, for a few coins, would row travellers across to the far side. But Richard knew that the man would refuse to take a leper like himself. His only way ahead was to wade across to the other bank.
As he approached he saw that the tide was already rising. Glancing up at the sky he also noted that it would be growing dark soon which would add to the danger, but he was determined to cross that night rather than wait for the next morning’s low water. He found it hard to keep a foothold on the stones that littered the steep downhill track and wished that he had had the foresight to bring a knife so that he could have cut himself a staff to support his descent. He glanced around for a loose branch that might serve that purpose, but the trees were thinning as he neared the river and he continued to slip gracelessly as he went down.
The sun was already low on the horizon when he reached the water but, not wanting to wait, Richard sat on a smooth rock and gently eased off the shoes that chafed his feet. As he stepped in, the shocking cold of the water made him gasp and faint clouds of blood swirled and were dispersed by the tidal pull that dragged at his aching legs. The saltwater stung at his wounds and the pebbles struck sharply at the soles of his already painful feet, but as he held up his long cloak around his thighs and waded further into the Mersey, the cold began to numb his feet and legs and provide some relief. He waded into the deepest part of the channel as the sun sank into the sea, creating a swirl of orange and yellow low in the sky. He couldn’t help but pause and stare at God’s wondrous creation until the sucking of the tide almost tipped him off balance and he staggered a little as he faced the far bank, the image of the sinking sun now flashing a black spot in the middle of his vision. Hitching the rough cloth of the leper’s garb even higher he tried to feel a smooth path beneath his feet and raised his prayers to ask that he should not fail in his mission so soon by drowning.
Beyond the river Lancashire appeared as a vast forest and it was almost dark when he stumbled out of the cold river, panting and relieved. The strength of the water had been frightening and he was exhausted.
He left off his shoes and climbed up far enough to avoid the incoming morning tide. Then, having checked that his grandmother’s letter had stayed dry inside its pouch, he settled down under the shelter of some bushes to try to sleep until dawn.
At first Richard welcomed the discomfort of hunger as a trial that would test his endurance and make him stronger. The sensation was not new to him. He had been hungry before, and he knew that once the obsession with bodily needs faded his enhanced mental perceptions would bring him closer to God. After all, hadn’t the Lord Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and forty nights? And God had not abandoned him but, on the contrary, had spoken and clarified what his destiny was to be. Christ had been tempted too, remembered Richard as he walked on. God had tempted him to turn the rocks into bread and assuage his hunger. But he had resisted. He had been strong. Unlike me, thought Richard. I was weak and I strayed from the ways of the Lord – and this is my punishment.
He bent to pick up a rock that was round and flat, like bread, but he knew that even if it was in his power to turn it into food he would resist. To give in to temptation once more would surely condemn him to the flames of everlasting Hell – a far worse fate than that of a rumbling stomach. He threw the stone forcefully into the nearby undergrowth, disturbing a bird which flew with an alarm cry into the clear blue of the afternoon sky.
As night fell once more he found a relatively dry place in the undergrowth, not far from the road, and gathered some grass in an attempt to soften the ground a little. He wasn’t afraid of discomfort though – he had learnt the art of living simply as he’d journeyed with other knights across the unforgiving terrain of the Holy Land. He knelt and made his prayers before quenching his thirst at the nearby stream, remembering to use his dipper so as not to infect the water from the oozing sores around his mouth. As he settled to sleep, with the thick hood of his cloak making an ample pillow, he reflected that he felt the presence of God very close to him. It was as if the Lord walked hand in hand with him, supporting and strengthening him along his way and leading him to the salvation that He promised all those who turned to Him and truly repented.
Richard remembered that when he had arrived in Palestine he had expected to feel closer to God, but often God was lost to him there – amidst the fighting and bloodspill of war. Nor had God seemed that near as he had travelled through France – the land of his ancestors. But here, curled under this English hawthorn, where the thrushes and blackbirds had feasted on the rosy berries, he felt God’s presence nearby, comforting and strengthening him.
A bright crescent moon rose slowly into view as he lay and studied the sky that hid Heaven. It reminded him that the Infidel was still undefeated, and he pulled himself once more to his knees on the uneven ground to pray for the soul of his dear departed father, who had died at Tyre the previous year, and for the safety of his brother, Roger, still fighting on Crusade.
He woke early with the sunrise, and having washed, prayed and drunk ‒ in that order ‒ he set off again on the interminable journey north. Although the hunger was good for his soul it wasn’t so kind to his body and his legs felt almost too heavy to lift as he plodded on. Every incline seemed to be a mountain, and he knew that before long he would have to find something to eat.
There were a few brambles growing near the roadside but nothing of any substance and, as the track and his heightened sense of aroma, led him towards a small settlement he resolved that he must go in and try to buy some bread rather than skirting around it.
The attitude of the drover had hurt him more than he was willing to admit. As the son of a Norman landowner he was used to the locals treating him with respect – at least to his face. But his was a face that was now to be kept hidden. He was nobody, and therefore could not command, nor deserve, respect from anyone. It was a harsh lesson and one with which he was struggling.
Perhaps it is for my pride that I am being punished, he said to himself as he watched one foot after the other step the road in front of him. For is not pride also one of the seven deadly sins?
Richard approached the settlement with some unease. Smoke was rising from the fires and its smell mingled with the familiar aroma of baking bread. He felt the saliva rising in his mouth and he pulled the gloves from where he had tucked them inside his belt and put them on.
He untied the wooden clapper that he must use to warn of his approach and pulled the hood further forward to hide his spoiled face – the face which his mother had caressed when he was a child, the face she had told him would break hearts, the face he had allowed Leila to kiss on those summer nights in his tent in Palestine.
“You are so pale,” she had said. “Even in the sun you do not turn brown – just red, then your skin flakes away. I shall kiss it better.” And she had kissed him, trailing her long, dark hair over his cheeks, his neck, his naked chest until he could resist her no longer and had clasped her close as she laughed and kissed him even more.
A dog barked a warning of his approach, interrupting Richard’s thoughts and making him angry for allowing such memories to surface and torment him. It was bad enough when the Devil used his dreams to plague him with the temptations of the flesh, but to let such feelings take over his mind during the daylight hours was proof indeed of his weakness. He shook the clapper hard to warn the villagers of his approach and as a punishment to himself. It would be only what he deserved if they sent the dogs to chase him away hungry, he thought.
A woman appeared in the doorway of the bakehouse from where the smell of the baking bread emanated. He stopped some distance from her.
“May I buy some bread?” he called in English. “I have money and my hands are covered. I will not approach you, but if you can put some bread on the stone there I will leave the coins for you.”
“You put the money down first, then back off,” she replied. Richard proceeded towards the flat-topped stone that the woman had indicated some distance from the building. His gloved fingers fumbled with the coins and, unsure how much to pay, he placed down a silver penny and then stepped away.
The woman, who had watched him with the corner of her apron held across her nose and mouth, glanced around furtively to ensure she wasn’t overlooked and then hurried to the stone where she scooped up the coin and dropped it into her purse.
“Wait there,” she said.
She returned to the bakehouse and, despite the obvious heat, closed the door firmly behind her. His legs trembling with weariness and emotion Richard sank to the ground to wait, fearing that she would simply take his money and not return. A dog sniffed around him and he was too afraid to kick out at it or throw a stone. A few other villagers watched from a distance, muttering amongst themselves and casting looks of contempt in his direction. He wondered how long he could prevail under their undisguised disgust before he was forced to stand and leave.
He was just contemplating what he should do when the door opened in a cloud of vapour and the woman, sweat running from beneath the cap tied around her hair, emerged with a large loaf of steaming bread held in a cloth.
“Stay back!” she warned, as he struggled to his feet. He waited, still, until she had placed the dark rye loaf on the stone and run back to the door where she watched through an open crack. She reminded him of his mother trying to tame the robins in the courtyard garden of the castle with her crumbs. He walked slowly so as not to alarm anyone and took the bread. He broke off a chunk and pushed it, hot, into his mouth, although it was not usual to eat bread the same day that it was baked.
“Thank you!” he called when the overwhelming hunger pangs had somewhat abated. “God bless you for your kindness to me. I will remember you in my prayers.” Then he turned from the edge of the village to walk around the periphery of the houses and continue northward, lowering his hood once he was out of sight of the village and wrapping the rest of the bread in the cloth to eat later.
Next morning Richard woke early. The rooks in the nearby trees were already awake and arguing with their neighbours as he rolled stiffly onto his back and shielded his sore and sticky eyes from the brightness. It would be another fine day, he thought, once the sun had burnt off the early mist.
He prayed first and then hobbled down to the stream and dipped his cup into the water to fill it. It was cold and fresh, relieving his mouth from the sticky coating of its sleeping hours. He drank again and fumbled for the remains of the bread. It had been rather squashed in his sleep, but at least his lying on it had kept the mice and insects from nibbling a share and as he bit into it and chewed he praised God for the kindness of the woman.
Leaving behind the lowland marshes of the Martin Mere, the ground now rose as Richard headed north easterly towards moorland and the township of Bolton le Moors. As the packhorse route rose and the treeline was left behind, the chilly and damp westerly wind easily found its way through the coarse weave of the leper’s cloak and Richard held the dark cloth tightly to him as he walked onwards, watching as the church of St Peter came slowly nearer. He felt drawn to the stones that housed the place of prayer and wished that he could go in to try to make his peace with God within a holy place, but he knew that he dared not and he would have to trust that God could hear the prayers he offered as he glanced in at the altar through the squint.
Dropping down later on the far side of the hill, he was sheltered a little from the prevailing wind and paused to pick berries from the wayside, although the sharp pangs of hunger had faded to a dull ache of familiarity and the desire to find something to eat was not so sharp now. Instead, his mind was focussed on his journey’s end. He felt an urgency to reach Cliderhou soon.
The route led ever higher over the moorland and, as he paused to catch his breath, Richard gazed at the land that rolled away on either side of him. The mournful baaing of the sheep, the lambs now as full grown as their mothers but still following them hoping for a taste of the ewe’s milk, and the last calls of the curlews before they flew down to the coast for the wintertime were the only sounds ‒ apart from the howling of the wind that he hoped was not the distant howling of wolves. How different it was from the lowland plains of his home.
As he descended, following a river valley towards the woodland that flourished at a lower level, he surmised that by the afternoon he could reach the outskirts of Blackburn – the town after which this hundred was named and where he would find the church of St Mary.
The land here was flatter, and as he walked the track was flanked on either side by beech woods; the fluttering golden leaves cascaded down from the tall trees and some caught at the cloth of his cloak. He stopped to brush one from his shoulder, pausing to scratch at a persistent itch on his lower leg that drew blood as he clawed at it. Shaking his head at his own lack of self control he pressed on towards the town which he could see in the distance. It was the only major settlement for miles around, most of the countryside he had passed consisting only of remote farmsteads with shepherds and other abandoned or burned out villages, fallen victim to either raids by the Scots or his own people, the Normans, who had fought here. For what, he wasn’t sure. There seemed to be nothing but sheep, hundreds if not thousands of sheep for every human being, but then the sheep didn’t run and hide when they saw a black hooded figure, a spectre of the living dead, coming in their direction.
As he approached the town he could hear the shouts and merriment of a market day. Just beyond the church the local Saxon farmers were gathered around the sheep pens as they traded the lambs that had been born in the spring. Below the church, by the side of the road, was an inn where people were drinking the local ale and a sheep was roasting on a spit. The smell of the meat drew Richard nearer, the juices of his ravenous hunger competing with the dripping, sizzling juices of the mutton.
“What do you want? Get away from here, leper!” someone called as he approached.
“I need food. I will not touch anything. See, I am gloved and covered,” he replied, holding out his shrouded hands to reassure the people.
“Get away!” called another man, picking up a stone from the ground and throwing it in his direction.
“Yes,” said another. “He sounds like he’s a Norman anyway, so serves him right.”
“Yes, we don’t want you filthy Normans bringing your diseases here. Go away!”
Another stone hit the ground near him followed by more as the crowd copied the example of the first farmer in their effort to repel him. Richard, his mouth now dry with fear, backed away as one well aimed stone glanced off his shoulder causing him to stagger, lose his balance and fall. The roars of laughter rang in his ears as he tripped over his long cloak in an effort to regain his feet and get away from the malicious crowd. There was at least one blessing, he thought, as he hurried away past them: at least they were too afraid to touch him and it was that alone, he surmised, that saved him from a severe beating at their hands. Though as he felt at the purse of coins hanging from the belt of his tunic he was relieved that he hadn’t pulled it out in their sight; for if the peasants had seen the amount of money he carried they may have even risked the plague to rob him.
Unharmed, except for his bruised shoulder – and he had suffered far worse from the Turks ‒ but hungry and weary he continued along the road towards Wallei where he hoped that the villagers would treat him more kindly.
He had around ten miles to travel and as he wished to arrive before nightfall Richard lengthened his stride as he walked on. The countryside was greener here, more fertile and much of the land had been ploughed and cultivated to bake bread and provide feed for the sheep that were now being herded and brought down from the high hills for the winter.
Ahead of him he could see a hill that rose, he thought, near to his final destination. He kept his eyes fixed on it, willing it to become nearer with every step, but as the light faded it seemed to remain as elusive as ever.
Lost in reverie and prayer it was some moments before he heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching. He turned, blinkered by his hood, and saw a hunting party coming up behind him.
The man who led the way wore a cloak of wolf skin and a matching hat. His horse was not a large destrier of the type that could carry an armed knight but a smaller well bred courser. He studied the animal in the twilight, thinking for a moment that he would very much like to own and ride such a mount on a hunting expedition.
The rider reined up as he passed him and spoke. “Where are you headed, friend, at this late hour?”
“I’m hoping to reach Wallei before the darkness falls completely. Is it far ahead?” asked Richard.
“Not far. It’s where we’re headed,” replied the man. “I take it you were struck down with this affliction whilst doing the Lord’s work?”
“Yes, I was fighting the Holy War, but…” Richard hesitated; this wasn’t the time or place to reveal his story to a stranger.
“I am Robert,” said the man.
“Robert de Lacy?” asked Richard, surprised that he should have found his grandmother’s cousin so quickly on his quest. The man above him shook his head.
“No. I am Robert de Wallei, the Dean,” he explained. “You look tired and hungry,” he went on, “follow us home and I will find you a meal and somewhere to sleep for a night or two. Though I take it that your final destination is the Holy Well?”
“Yes, yes, indeed,” replied Richard after a moment’s hesitation. He hoped that God would forgive him for telling less than the whole truth, but he knew nothing of this Holy Well and though he wished fervently to know its location he felt disinclined to tell this man too much. Although he was obviously well placed, there was something about his gaze, despite his generosity, that Richard found unsettling.
The Dean rode off ahead and Richard followed, quickly overtaken by the other hunters on horseback, including a well dressed young lad of around fifteen or sixteen who he thought might be the Dean’s son.
The huntsman slapped his whip against his leather boot and called the excited hounds to heel. The fresh doe’s carcass dripped blood from a single precise sword wound where the huntsman had killed it after the chase, and the dogs knew that although the Dean and his household would eat venison that night the entrails would be their supper. And limping in their wake, Richard hoped that they would save some for him.
He followed the hunting party as they rode down towards the river and over the wooden bridge. Nearby he saw, in the fading light, the squat stone church and just beyond it a manor house, surrounded by wooden outbuildings and stables, all contained within a stone wall.
As he approached the gateway to the manor he hesitated. He doubted that he would be invited inside the house, but the Dean’s promise of food and shelter had seemed genuine and he was too hungry and tired to wonder if the man had any ulterior motive or was just performing his Godly duty by ministering to the sick.
Whilst leaning heavily against the wall and wondering what to do next he saw the young lad who had ridden with the hunting party coming towards him. He had taken off his hat and Richard could see that he was fair skinned, with a tinge of red in his thick wavy hair, but his eyes were dark brown rather than the penetrating blue of his father’s and they held a warmth that the Dean’s did not. His smile was hospitable as he approached.
“I am Geoffrey, the Dean’s son,” he introduced himself. “Come this way and I will find a dry place for you to sleep in the stables.”
Thankfully, Richard limped after him, past the barely disguised glances from the grooms who were busy unsaddling and brushing mud from the horses. The boy led him to a space where the dogs were being given fresh water and straw bedding by the young apprentices.
“Bring some clean straw over here,” the boy called to one of the children who cared for the dogs. He was an English boy of around nine or ten years old and he regarded Richard’s sore encrusted face with curiosity as he pushed the bedding into sacks to form a mattress. “Bring him some ale too,” Geoffrey said, and Richard noticed that the instructions were given in a kindly voice and he touched the boy’s arm in a gesture of thanks as he spoke.
“I have my own cup,” said Richard when the boy returned with a jug. “Pour it into here,” he said, noticing that his hand shook with fatigue as he held it out. The boy filled it to the brim and Richard drank thirstily as his hosts watched and then held out the cup for more.
“Have you come far?” asked the Dean’s son.
“I have been travelling for several days,” said Richard, reluctant to reveal too much. He had a feeling that the Dean may have sent his son to discover what he could about their visitor, perhaps thinking that he would speak more candidly to the boy. “I’ve been sleeping in the open, but the nights are becoming colder and I am very grateful for some shelter tonight.”
“And have you far to go?”
“Not far I hope.” Richard hesitated and then decided to take the chance. “The Holy Well your father mentioned. Is it far?”
“No, only a few miles farther on at Cliderhou,” he replied.
“And have people been cured there?”
“So I have heard,” replied Geoffrey, “although I have never seen the proof.”
“But you have faith?”
“Yes. I have faith,” said the boy, with an emphasis which made Richard wonder who didn’t. “I will send you some food,” he went on after a moment’s silence.
“God bless you,” said Richard. “You are a generous young man.”
As he rested and waited he watched the dogs and saw that, like the horses, they were fine animals that belonged to an obviously wealthy man. They were a mixed pack he noted, the bloodhounds with their long ears to sniff out the scent of the kill and the swift, lithe greyhounds that could chase a stag or boar until it was exhausted enough for the huntsman to move in for the kill.
A little later, as Richard was dozing on the pallet, listening to the chewing of the hounds and the clatter of dishes, one of the apprentices came with a plate of steaming venison and fresh white bread, which Richard transferred to his own platter to eat. The food filled his stomach with a warmth that gradually spread through his tired body and afterwards he fell into a sleep disturbed only by the snoring and whimpering of the dogs and words muttered in the sleep of the boys who looked after them.
He dreamt of a Holy Well, filled not with water but sweet white wine from French vineyards that could cure any ills, but towards morning the straw bed seemed to intensify the itching of his skin and he woke at dawn to find blood on his hand where he had been scratching at his leg in his sleep.
Close by, the church bell was ringing for Matins and, sad that he could not walk to the church to attend the Mass, Richard rose to his knees and recited the prayers alone. He watched and waited as the boys fed and watered the dogs and let them outside. Then the same young lad as the previous night brought him a simple breakfast of bread and ale.
Afterwards, coming blinking out into the morning sun, rubbing at his sticky eyes Richard almost walked into the Dean.
“Forgive me!” he said, jumping swiftly back. “I am afraid that sometimes I forget my affliction and the responsibilities that it brings.”
“Rest easy, my son,” said the Dean. “Come, walk with me to the riverbank and tell me a little about yourself. You said you have been fighting the Holy War?”
“Yes, I am recently returned from Palestine,” said Richard.
“How does it go?”
“Slowly,” he told the Dean, “though I was there to see the city of Acre surrendered to the king.” But as he described the events to the Dean and the sun rose higher above the trees, its warmth just about penetrating his dark cloak, he saw, in his mind’s eye, not the river sparkling in the English sun, nor the Crusaders falling to their knees on the hot sand to give thanks, but Leila, framed against the entrance to his tent. “Afterwards I was sent home,” he said. “The king did not want me spreading this affliction amongst the men.” Richard almost went on to tell the Dean more about himself. The man was a skilled listener who didn’t ask too many questions but nodded encouragingly as he walked closely by Richard’s side, encouraging an intimacy that had been sparse in his life of late.
“With prayer and fortitude you will find salvation,” said the Dean after a moment’s awkward silence. “I sense that something troubles you, my son, and I am willing to hear your confession when you are ready to make it.”
Richard looked up to meet the Dean’s shrewd and appraising eyes. Could this man see through his outer clothing and tormented skin into the inner reaches of his soul, he wondered.
The Dean smiled. “When you are ready,” he repeated. “Now tell me that you will rest here for a few days to gather your strength before you continue your journey. You look exhausted.”
“I am anxious to reach my destination,” Richard told him.
“The Holy Well,” he blurted out into the ensuing silence and then regretted the words, but this man was so easy to confide in; too easy; maybe dangerous, he wasn’t sure. “I don’t think I am far from it?”
“Not far at all,” agreed the Dean, briskly. “In fact I will ask my son Geoffrey to guide you to it. Tomorrow if you wish?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Richard, surprised at the Dean’s sudden change of tone. It was as if he had suddenly realised that Richard couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him more, not now anyway.
“Then that is settled,” said the Dean with a smile. “Can you find your way back? I have business at the church.”
“Of course,” said Richard and with a brief nod the Dean strode off, away from the river and Richard turned to sit on the fallen branch of a tree and watch the swirling pools as the water ran over rocks hidden beneath the surface, wondering why he had the impression that the Dean knew exactly who he was and why he had come.