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Once the Office was done with, Abbot William dismissed the monks and lay brothers to their respective duties. “Brother Mark, escort our two guests to my lodgings and stay with them until I come,” the Man directed one of the monks, who bowed silently and gestured for the two Elves to follow him. The ellyn gave the abbot their obeisance, taking care to genuflect before the altar before following Brother Mark down the south transept until they came to a door that led into the cloister. Turning right, they traversed two sides to another door which opened onto the grounds of the monastery. The Man continued around the refectory which took up the south side of the cloister, passing between it and the guest-hall that backed upon the mill race and the gardens beyond. Just past the guest-hall was the abbot’s lodging and garden. The lodging was not overly large, but the brothers knew that it would contain not just the abbot’s bedroom but a library and at least one office, perhaps more, where administrative matters concerning the abbey were conducted. There was likely to be a parlor as well where important guests would be entertained.
Brother Mark brought them into the vestibule and silently bade them to seat themselves on a hard bench obviously used by monks or guests waiting to see the abbot on business. They did not have to wait long, perhaps another ten minutes or so, before Abbot William came in along with another.
“Thank you Brother,” Abbot William said with a nod to the monk. “You may return to your duties.” Brother Mark bowed and exited the house, closing the door behind him. Gwyn and Gareth had stood at the abbot’s entrance and waited for him to make the first move. The abbot, for his part, stared at them both, his brown eyes shrewd and knowing. Neither ellon looked away from his gaze. The abbot glanced at his companion, his expression now more amused than anything. The other monk raised a single eyebrow at his superior but otherwise did not offer a comment.
Abbot William gave a snort and started walking down the hall. “Bring them along, Matthias,” he ordered and the other monk gestured for the brothers to follow the abbot, who led them into what was obviously his own office where a large desk dominated the room. He went around and sat behind it, gesturing to a couple of chairs for the brothers to sit in. “Matthias, let’s have some wine. Father Matthias is my prior,” the abbot explained to them. The brothers nodded in understanding. As prior, Father Matthias was the abbot’s second-in-command.
Matthias said nothing but went to a sideboard and poured some wine from a decanter into several cut-glass goblets, handing one to the abbot before giving the brothers theirs. He did not bother to pour any wine for himself, but stood silently next to the abbot. William took a sip or two of the wine before speaking.
“Do you want to tell me what crime you have committed?”
“No crime, my lord abbot,” Gwyn said respectfully. “I will swear before the altar to that, but we were being pursued nonetheless, though I do not know why Lord de la Pole’s men would do so.”
Both Men glanced at one another in surprise. “De la Pole?” the abbot said carefully and some silent communication passed between the two. Matthias nodded and without another word exited the room, leaving the abbot alone with the two brothers. “While Matthias goes to seek the truth of the matter, tell me your story.”
Gwyn hesitated for a moment, glancing at Gareth who seemed more resigned than anything, giving his older brother a slight nod. Gwyn sighed, feeling as if he was about to sign their lives away to servitude once again and who knew for how long this time? And what of their parents waiting for their sons to join them in Abergevenny? It seemed fate was determined to keep them apart for some reason and he suspected the reason was the knife that was hidden in one of their saddlebags sitting innocently near the bench in the vestibule.
Shaking off his morose thoughts he looked at the abbot waiting calmly for one of them to speak. “I am Gwyn ap Tristan ap Hywel and this is my brother, Gareth. I was born in the year of grace ten-fifty-eight and Gareth was born forty-two years later…” He continued telling the abbot their story, ignoring the shocked expression on the Man’s face as the tale unfolded.
“You mean, you just told him the truth?” Alex asked in shock and more than one Elf listening looked equally nonplused.
“Not my first choice,” they all heard Gilvegil mutter.
Gwyn scowled. “Nor mine. Do you think we’re that daft? Do you think we did not know the consequences of revealing ourselves to one who was bound by oaths to uphold the beliefs of the Church which had no room for us save as cautionary tales told by the fireside of fallen angels and demons? But we had asked for and had been given sanctuary. The abbot would not turn us out, not then, and I would not lie to one who had the power to save us or destroy us. The risk of doing so was too high.”
“Did he believe you though?” Derek asked.
Gareth answered, giving the Mortal a cold smile. “He did after we showed him our ears.”
“Oh man.” Alex whistled, his expression one of admiration. “That is… I don’t care what anyone else says about you two, but you have my utmost respect. What you did… that took guts. Crazy guts, but guts nonetheless.”
“Thank you,” Gwyn said somewhat sardonically and then moderated his tone when he saw the hurt look on the Mortal’s face. “It wasn’t guts, Alex, it was desperation, and I vowed after that that I would never allow either Gareth or myself to be in such a desperate situation ever again.”
“And were you able to keep that vow?” Glorfindel asked.
“Yes,” Gwyn said shortly, not looking at anyone.
An awkward silence ensued. Vorondur narrowed his eyes as he watched the brothers. He was as surprised as any of the others at Gwyn telling the abbot the truth but realized that on one level the brothers really had no choice. “Such decisions as you two have had to make down the years do not come easily,” he said quietly. “That you were able to make them and survived is a testament to either your own intelligence or the benevolent interference on the part of our Alien Overlords, as Alex likes to call them.” He flashed a warm smile at the Mortal who blushed slightly while others snickered in amusement. “I would like to say it was due to your own intelligence, and that would be partly true, but I suspect that more was going on. What about the Welsh troops? From what you told us, both the abbot and Father Matthias were surprised at their mention, as if they knew something you did not.”
“Which is true,” Gwyn said. “We later learned that there were no troops. There were only the sheriff’s men. De la Pole had no reason to come to Shrewsbury at that time.”
“Yet you saw them,” Barahir insisted.
“We saw them,” Gwyn said with a nod, “but apparently, no one else did, including the sheriff’s men. So we were later told after Father Matthias did his own investigation.”
“How did the abbot take that?” Glorfindel asked.
“Well, as to that,” Gwyn said, “we were still telling him our tale when Father Matthias returned….”
Gwyn had reached the part in his tale where he was describing their attempt to leave the environs of Shrewsbury only to end up at the abbey when Father Matthias returned, interrupting the flow of the narrative. Abbot William held up a hand and looked at Matthias.
“What did you learn?” he asked as the sub-prior came around to stand beside him.
Matthias glanced at the brothers and then bent down to whisper into the abbot’s ear.
“There is no need to whisper, good Father,” Gwyn said, smiling coldly. “My brother and I can hear you quite well from here.”
The Man straightened, giving them a puzzled look. Abbot William raised an eyebrow at the ellon’s tone but waved Matthias away. “Speak,” he commanded. “What of de la Pole?”
“He is not here,” Matthias answered, glaring at the brothers. “Nor have any of his men been seen. No one I spoke to along the Foregate saw anyone but the sheriff’s men chasing after two young boys who had the look of angels, or so they were described by more than one person.”
“Angels, you say?” William said musingly as he looked at the brothers, who returned his glance with cool stares of their own, refusing to back down. William grimaced slightly. “No. Not angels,” he muttered, then turned to Matthias who stood there looking puzzled. “Anything else?”
The prior shrugged, giving them a sardonic smile. “It is the decided opinion of those to whom I spoke that the day the sheriff needs to run down angels for supposedly committing a crime is the day the world is definitely coming to an end.”
“Indeed,” William said.
“We are not lying,” Gwyn said. “We saw the standard. It was the standard of the House of Mathrafal: or, a lion combatant gules.”
“But Powys ceased to be a principality years ago,” William pointed out.
Both Gwyn and Gareth snorted and Gwyn answered the abbot. “Owain ap Gruffyd ap Gwenwynwyn may have surrendered the principality to Edward and accepted a lesser title from him in recompense, but the people do not forget that the House of Mathrafal once ruled as princes and Lord de la Pole is their hereditary prince whatever title he calls himself by these days. I know what I saw, lord abbot. I do not pretend to understand it, only that all roads were blocked. I do not even know how the sheriff’s men returned to Shrewsbury as quickly as they did. By rights they should have still been on the road from Beistan even if they spent the minimum amount of time enquiring for us at Cenred Beringar’s farm. It feels almost as if we were being deliberately herded here.”
For a long moment, silence reigned as the abbot contemplated Gwyn’s words. Gwyn and Gareth remained still, long used to not fidgeting as they waited for their doom. William glanced up at Matthias standing beside him, the Man staring at the brothers with a frown, as if he were trying to place them in his memory and coming up empty.
“They claim to be Fair Folk,” William said without preamble.
Matthias snorted in derision. “Do they think us to be that credulous? The peasants may put out their saucers of cream to keep the fairies away, but we have God on our side. What have we to do with such superstitious rot?”
“Sometimes the myths are true,” Gwyn said softly and stood, pushing back his hair to reveal his ears. Gareth did the same though he remained seated.
“St. Winifred save us!” Matthias exclaimed, calling upon the abbey’s patron saint as he backed away and crossed himself.
The abbot never moved, though the blood drained from his face.
“Demons! What—?” the sub-prior hissed, regaining some of his composure as the initial shock wore off.
“Matthias,” William said quietly, stemming the Man’s diatribe. The prior clamped his mouth shut and glared at them. The abbot gestured for Gwyn to sit and the ellon complied. “You are not human,” the Man finally said, “and only humans have souls.”
“I cannot give you an answer, lord abbot,” Gwyn said. “I only know that my brother and I are of the Firstborn of the One, whom you call God. There was a time so very long ago that no one now remembers it except as dim legends when the Firstborn and Men fought side-by-side against the demons and Lucifer himself. My brother and I are duly baptized Christians and have been for far longer than either of you have lived. We did not seek sanctuary lightly.”
“It is said that even the Devil can quote scripture,” William said musingly.
“No doubt,” Gwyn replied with a shrug. “When my brother and I were slaves of Saladin” — Matthias startled at that, not having heard their story, but Gwyn ignored him — “he often quoted the bible to us, wishing to engage in a debate about the claims of the Christians versus those of the Muslims. However, it is said that nothing truly evil or soulless can abide holy water, that it would burn them. A simple enough test, wouldn’t you say?” He shot a sardonic look at the abbot, almost as if daring him.
William sat there with his fingers steepled before him, giving them a cold stare, refusing to rise to the bait. “Careful, sirrah. I may decide on a full exorcism instead.”
Both brothers grimaced at that and Gwyn bowed his head in respect.
“But you are correct that it is a simple and effective test,” the abbot said more briskly. “However, I doubt we need to perform it for you. Matthias, I imagine Le Strange will be at our door soon enough demanding his rights. Go to Brother Porter and when the sheriff arrives have him bring the man here.” Matthias bowed and left without a word. “You honestly do not know why Le Strange was after you?”
Both brothers shook their heads. “We have never had any dealings with Sheriff Le Strange or any of his men while we have lived on Beringar’s farm,” Gwyn said, “and we rarely came to the city.”
“Well, I will find out just what his claim on you is,” William said. “Templar spies. I do not know if there are any Templars even living in this area. The nearest Templar stronghold that I know of is in Keele in Staffordshire. I would think Le Strange, as sheriff of Staffordshire and Shropshire, would be concentrating his efforts in rounding up stray Templars there rather than here. Well, we will sort it out eventually, I have no doubt. In the meantime, you should not be far from the altar. I will have someone escort you back to the church. Your meals will be brought to you and I’ll have a couple of pallets set up for you as well.”
“How long will we need to stay here?” Gareth asked.
“At least until this matter is resolved,” the abbot said not unkindly. “Come then, let us see you situated.” He rose and the brothers followed him out and down the hall where they retrieved their bags while the abbot called to one of his assistants who took them back to the church and left them there. The church would be empty for another couple of hours until noon when the Angelus would be sung. Gwyn and Gareth stowed their bags in a corner away from the altar and then sat on the steps before it.
“What do we do now, Gwyn?” Gareth asked. “Mam and Da will be wondering at our delay.”
“I do not know, little brother,” Gwyn said with a sigh.
“Do you think we were herded here, like you said?”
“It seems so to me, looking back.”
“Yet, who were the troops?” Gareth insisted. “Why did no one else admit to seeing them?”
“You are asking the wrong person,” Gwyn retorted. “I have no answers for you.” He sighed and stood to stretch. “Well, we are here, so we had best make the best of it.” He looked around, taking in the view. To one side of the altar was the shrine of St. Winifred, the Welsh lass whom the monks of Shrewsbury had acquired some centuries ago. All knew of her miraculous healings and there were pilgrimages to her every year, though the number of pilgrims had declined of late and he doubted the monks received much coin from them these days.
“We need to hide the knife in case a search is ordered of our bags,” he said. “Abbot William may even insist on it if only to assure himself that we are neither thieves nor spies.”
“It is a good thing you did not speak of the knife,” Gareth said.
Gwyn cast him a sour look. “I may be desperate but I’m not daft. It is enough for him to know that at our first opportunity we fled from the Templars. He may despise us for oathbreakers, but I do not care what he thinks of us so long as he does not turn us over to the sheriff’s men.”
“And we can’t just sneak out of here at night and be halfway to the border before anyone is the wiser either,” Gareth said with a disgusted huff. “I have no doubt Le Strange will have his men posted at every door leading out of here.”
“I wish we had the ability to hide ourselves with glamours as our ancestors were able,” Gwyn said with a nod. “Remember the stories Da would tell? We could use someone like Finrod Felagund right about now to rescue us and see us free of these damn Mortals.”
“So where should we hide it where it can be easily retrieved later?” Gareth asked, rising to stand by his brother as he looked about. “What about St. Winifred’s shrine?”
“We can look. We might also try the Lady Chapel. Bring the knife.”
Gareth went to where their bags were stowed and retrieved the knife and followed Gwyn. The Lady Chapel was closer so they stopped there but they saw no place where the knife could be safely hid so they moved over to St. Winifred’s shrine.
“Do you think her body truly lies inviolate and that she can truly heal?” Gareth whispered as they examined the area for a likely hiding place.
Gwyn shrugged. “Don’t know. Don’t really care. Mortals have fanciful ideas of the powers of these saints, but in the end, even the saints die and I doubt their fëar hang about dispensing miracle cures. They have long since left the Circles of the World if what Da and Mam have said about the fate of Mortals is true. Here. What about here? There seems to be a space that might just be big enough.”
Gareth came over to look, then handed the knife to Gwyn who shoved it into the space between the shrine and the wall. Gareth stepped back. “It’s not visible from any angle. It shouldn’t be noticed by anyone.”
And yet it is close enough to reach if necessary,” Gwyn said with a nod. “Good enough. So now all we have to do is wait for the abbot and the sheriff to decide our doom.”
“Maybe we should pray to St. Winifred just in case,” Gareth said, half seriously. “After all, we’re giving her the knife for safekeeping.”
Gwyn just nodded and moved to kneel before the shrine; Gareth joined him, the two silently pleading to the saint and to Eru for their safe deliverance out of the hands of the Mortals.
When the monks came to sing the next Office, they found the brothers already kneeling before the altar waiting for them. Afterwards, the monks retired to the chapter house to discuss the business of the abbey as was their custom. Abbot William ordered the brothers to join them, which they did, though reluctantly. Once everyone was seated, Abbot William introduced the brothers to the other monks, giving their names and explaining the charges against them.
“Show them,” he said to the brothers and with sighs, they pulled back their hair to reveal their ears. The monks and lay brothers crossed themselves piously and some were heard whispering about demons while others mentioned the Fair Folk. The abbot raised his hand to order silence.
“The sheriff came to me an hour past,” he said, speaking to the brothers. “He showed me the warrant. I pointed out to him that it was sixteen years out of date and no later warrant was ever issued. The description given could fit any number of young lads and even Le Strange admitted it. When I asked him why he thought you two were the subjects of the warrant, all he could tell me was some garbled account given him by his under-sheriff about you two using magic to affect your escape the first time.”
“We know no more of magic than you, my lord abbot,” Gwyn said. “We do believe that our release was a miracle and that God sent an angel to succor us.”
“An angel?” William frowned.
“Is that so hard to believe, sir?” Gwyn retorted. “Or is it that you find it hard to believe that God would bother to rescue us at all?”
“I have managed to convince Le Strange that you are no more Templar spies than I am,” William said instead of answering Gwyn’s accusation, “and that he should be more concerned with the Templars in Staffordshire, which is also his purview. I pointed out to him that while he’s busy chasing after young farm lads such as yourselves, the Templars at Keele are probably flown.”
“Then we are free to leave?” Gareth asked somewhat dubiously.
William shook his head. “No. Not yet. I think it would be wiser for you to remain here a little while longer until Le Strange is no longer interested in you.”
“For how long?” Gwyn demanded angrily. “How long must we be beholden to Mortals once again? Will you demand that we take the tonsure to ensure our safekeeping? I assure you neither of us will permit it and if you try to force us you will regret it.”
“You would do well to temper your ire, sir,” the abbot said coldly. “The Church does not look kindly on threats and neither do I.”
“If the charges have been dropped against us then by rights we should be free to leave here and be on our way,” Gwyn insisted. “I would think you would want us as far from you as possible, Abbot William.”
The Man sighed. “It was a condition that Le Strange demanded for dropping the charges.”
“What? That we take the tonsure, though we have no calling for the cloister?” Gwyn demanded. “Frankly, sir, I, for one, have had my fill of monks after a hundred years of putting up with the Templars.”
“Well, you may find the Benedictines more to your liking,” William said, smiling thinly. “As for taking the tonsure, no, that was not the bargain. The bargain was that you would simply remain within these walls.”
“And again, I ask, for how long?”
“For as long as I deem necessary,” the abbot replied. “You will be lay brothers. I will exact no oath from you other than you will abide by the Rules of the Order and be obedient to my will. I think, in the end, you will find your lives among us not to be too onerous, considering the alternative. Just remember, if who you say you are is true, then ultimately, time is on your side, for in the natural course of this world, Le Strange, the under-sheriff, even I will be dead. Indeed, all of us in this room save you will be dead.”
“And have we no say in this?” one of the older monks asked. “I little care for the idea of housing unnatural beings in our midst for any length of time, though they have the faces of angels.”
“They claim to be duly baptized,” Father Matthias said, “though I have my doubts about that.”
“Well, that’s easily rectified,” the abbot said. “We can just baptize them ourselves if that will make everyone happy.”
“Everyone but us,” Gareth muttered darkly. Gwyn just nodded, already resigned to their fate.
Note on the heraldic standard of the House of Mathrafal: Or, a lion combatant gules: On a gold background, a red lion facing the viewer’s left with its front paws out and one leg up in a fighting stance. Mathrafal was the name of the ancient seat of the princes of Powys.
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