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A routine was established within the abbey. Every morning, after the Office of Prime was sung, the doors of the abbey church were opened and townspeople and others come from Beistan or Thornbury or even further afield streamed in under the watchful eyes of Gwyn and Gareth with the assistance of Edgar and Wilfred. Many of the pilgrims had been waiting since before dawn to have the chance to pray to St. Winifred. The doors were temporarily closed at terce, much to the dismay of the laity, though there was no near riot as there had been on the first day, for the sheriff assigned two of his men to guard the church doors and see to it that the people behaved themselves.
But as the plague continued and more and more people fell victim to it, the mood of the town darkened and fear was a heavy cloud that hung over them and threatened to choke them. Already the air was thick with the smoke of the burnings of the bodies of the dead. Even as the brothers of the abbey were filing into the church to sing the first Office of the day ere the sun rose, wagons were making their way through the town while men shouted, “Bring out your dead”, and those who had survived the night did just that, piling the bodies into the wagons to be taken outside the city walls to a field to the north where they were put to the fire, a fire that was never allowed to go out.
The sheriff, a pragmatic man who was capable of great cruelty if needed, ruled Shrewsbury with an iron fist and even went so far as to have some of the poor unfortunates living in St. Giles, men and women struck down by leprosy, rounded up at sword-point and forced to handle the dead and to stoke the fires. Not that he allowed any of them inside the town to collect the bodies; he was no fool. Instead they stayed in the vicinity of the fires and kept them going.
When Abbot Adam protested, Le Strange just shrugged. “They are already cursed by God with their afflictions, Father Abbot. Better for them to die doing something needful than to rot away in the end anyway.”
Gwyn and Gareth, when they heard of this, sighed as one. “It’s Acre all over again,” Gareth whispered to Gwyn in disgust as they stood at the church doors and looked to the north where the smoke of the fires rose above the town.
“Not quite, but close,” Gwyn corrected.
And then one of the monks came down with the plague.
“Brother Mark,” Gareth told Gwyn when he came to tell him the news.
“I wonder how he contracted it,” Gwyn remarked in puzzlement. “He has had no contact with the outside.”
“Except the other day when Father Abbot sent him into the town with a message for the sheriff. Don’t you remember?”
Gwyn shook his head in sorrow. “He will be the first, but he will not be the last.”
And that prediction proved true, for two days later one of the novices came down with it and while Mark lingered for another three days beyond that, the young novice was dead within by sunset. Abbot Adam grimaced at the sight of the body. In a brief span of time, the abbot had aged and was bent with care. Gwyn volunteered himself and Gareth to handle the bodies of any of the monks who fell victim to the plague.
“We cannot contract it, being who we are,” he told Adam and the abbot only nodded.
Not all plague victims died, of course. A few, a precious few, recovered and people attributed their recovery to St. Winifred, known for her miraculous healing powers, especially when one such victim had been seen praying to the saint only a few days before being struck down and was now recovered. People began bringing their loved ones who were already plague-ridden to the church, intending to lay them before the shrine and ask for the saint to heal them. Abbot Adam called upon the sheriff to prevent them from doing so.
“They are only spreading the plague further,” he said when the sheriff came to see him.
Le Strange agreed. “I will close the town gates if necessary, but I have no way to control those who come from afar seeking the saint’s aid.”
“It is a hopeless situation,” Adam opined wearily. Three more brothers had come down with the plague and two were already dead. They were not a large community and the loss of even one of them made things hard for those who remained. Then two of the novices went missing, presumably running away. Somehow they managed to sneak past Brother Porter who manned the gatehouse to disappear into the countryside, for there was no sign of them in the town when a search was made.
“It is only hopeless when we are all dead, Father,” Le Strange said gruffly as he stood to leave.
Gwyn and Gareth, meanwhile, split their time between keeping a watchful eye on the pilgrims as they prayed before the shrine, making sure that the knife they had hidden there was not found, and caring for the plague victims. There was little they could actually do, except be with them in their final hours and offer them whatever comfort was available, which was little enough.
“I wonder if someone like Master Elrond would have been able to cure people of plague,” Gwyn mused to his brother one day as they wrapped Prior Samuel’s body in a winding sheet in preparation to having him taken to be burned with the other dead.
Gareth had no answer. Instead, he asked, “So when they’re all dead, will that be the sign that tells us we may finally leave here?”
Gwyn scowled but did not reply.
In all that time, they saw nothing of Richard Beringar and assumed that, as one of Le Strange’s chief deputies, his duties kept him in the town. Then, one day, several weeks after the plague first appeared in Shrewsbury, Gwyn and Gareth happened to be in the church together overseeing the pilgrims when a horseman came pounding up to the church doors, scattering the people standing there waiting to enter. It was Richard Beringar and he held in his arms a young girl-child, perhaps four or five years old. Beringar managed to dismount without letting go of the child who lay in his arms as one dead and it was obvious to all that she was a plague victim. Beringar ignored them as he strode up the steps to where Gwyn and Gareth were standing having been alerted to the Man’s arrival.
“Stop, Richard,” Gwyn ordered authoritatively. “You know that you cannot enter, not with the child. You will be in violation of the law which you have sworn to uphold.”
“Please,” the Man pleaded. “My daughter, my Isobel, I have to save her. I have…” He broke down then, falling to his knees as he wept in despair. The child stirred, though she never opened her eyes.
“Papa,” she whispered, her voice barely heard.
“Isobel,” Richard whispered through his tears. “Shh…Papa is here.”
“I… I want… want to see the… angels.”
Beringar looked up at Gwyn and Gareth, eyes full of pleading and hopelessness. Gwyn nodded. “Come,” he said and with a single hand pulled the Man to his feet.
“What do you do, Brother?” Gareth demanded, speaking in Sindarin. “If you bring her inside…”
“She is already dead, Gareth,” Gwyn retorted harshly as he led the Man into the church. “Can you not see? She will not last much longer. Let Richard have this moment with her.” He strode down the nave and made directly for the shrine. People saw them and most stepped away from their approach but several Men, craftsmen by their dress, blocked their path. They were burly Men, used to hard work and a hard life.
“What is this?” one of them demanded loudly. “Why do you bring her here?”
“Out of the way, sir,” Gwyn said softly. “Do not interfere.”
“It’s not right!” the Man shouted. “Who is he that he can flout the sheriff’s law?”
“Step aside,” Gwyn said more forcefully. “All of you.”
“And who will make us?” the Man demanded.
“We will,” Gwyn replied and he let his power shine forth and Gareth followed suit. The Men gasped and stepped away in awe, falling to their knees. Others were doing the same, crying out that angels walked among them, come from heaven to cure them of the plague. Gwyn forced himself not to scowl at that, knowing full well that he and Gareth could do no such thing. He noticed Richard gaping at him and Gareth in wonder and fear. “Come, Richard. There is little time.” He took the Man by the elbow and steered him to the shrine. Those who were already there hastily stepped aside, giving the three room.
Richard gently placed his daughter on the casket that held the saint’s bones, brushing her hair out of her face. She never stirred.
“Pray, Richard,” Gwyn commanded. “Pray and my brother and I will pray with you.” He gestured for Gareth to kneel on Richard’s right while he knelt on the Man’s left. Richard wept, unable to articulate any words. Gwyn wrapped an arm around the Man’s shoulders. “Ave Maria, gratia plena….” He quietly recited the prayer as he continued to hug Richard. Gareth remained quiet, mentally plotting their escape, for he did not doubt that whatever happened, they would be forced to flee. If the child died, they would be blamed, and if the child somehow lived, though he could see that she had mere minutes of life left, others would demand that they heal their loved ones as well.
Lost as he was in his own thoughts while Gwyn attempted to comfort Richard, it took him a moment to realize that something was happening. Light from the stained-glass windows filtered into church, but it was dim and much of the church lay in shadow. Yet, now he could see a kind of glow seemingly emanating from the shrine. Gareth blinked, thinking he was just imagining things, but now he realized the glow was coming from where the knife was hidden.
“Gwyn, the knife is glowing,” he whispered in Sindarin, never taking his eyes from the glow.
Gwyn broke off his praying and looked up in time to see four Men coming at them, all three wearing the sheriff’s livery. Three wielded pikes while a fourth carried a sword. “In the name of the king, you’re all under arrest!” the one with the sword shouted. Gwyn noticed the craftsmen they had encountered earlier standing to one side gloating and he suspected one of them had called forth the sheriff’s men. He had no time to wonder how they dared to enter the church armed.
“Richard! Look out!” he shouted as he pulled the Man toward him with the intent of protecting him. Without hesitating, Gareth leaped to where the knife was hid and pulled it out of its scabbard and, when he did so, the jewel in the hilt blazed forth, blinding them all. People screamed, many of the pilgrims scrabbling away on hands and knees in their fright. The sheriff’s men flung up their arms to shield their faces, dropping their weapons. Neither Gwyn nor Gareth flinched from the light as it seemed to increase in brightness, filling the church so that every dark corner was ablaze. Richard had gone to his daughter, lifting her into his arms.
“Isobel, Isobel, the angels, my love, the angels,” he cried as he rocked her.
“Gareth! Gareth! Are you all right?” Gwyn shouted, blinking into the glare surrounding his brother.
“I… I think so,” Gareth stuttered, his voice full of panic. “I… I can’t move, Gwyn. The jewel… it won’t let me let go.”
“Shh… it’s all right, Brother,” Gwyn said soothingly, stepping carefully toward him. “I’m right here. Give me the knife.” He held out his hand, but Gareth shook his head.
“I cannot. There’s something… It wants me to do something.”
For an answer, Gareth stumbled over to where Richard sat with his back to the shrine, rocking Isobel in his arms, softly humming what sounded like a lullaby. Gwyn followed as Gareth knelt before the Mortals.
“Richard,” Gareth said huskily. “Wake your daughter up. She must touch the jewel if she is to live.”
Richard stopped humming and stared at him uncomprehendingly. “Richard! Wake Isobel up and tell her to touch the jewel.” But when Richard took Isobel’s right hand intending to place it on the knife, Gareth pulled the knife out of his reach. “No, Richard. She must do this of her own free will or it will not work.”
“What will not work?” Gwyn asked quietly as he knelt beside his brother.
Gareth did not look at him, just shaking his head. “I don’t know. I only know what it tells me.”
“Tells you? Do you say the jewel speaks to you?”
“So it seems,” Gareth answered, then addressed Richard again. “You must wake her, Richard, before it’s too late. Wake her and tell her the angels want her to touch the jewel.”
Richard nodded and kissed the child on the temple, smoothing her damp hair out of her face. “Isobel, my sweet, my love, time to wake up. Please wake up for Papa. Please Isobel.”
For a moment the child continued to lie there seemingly in a coma but as Richard continued to stroke her hair and call to her, she stirred and blinked her eyes open. “Papa?” she whispered. “It’s so bright.”
“Yes, yes, my love,” Richard said through tears. “Reach out your hand and touch the jewel. Do you see the jewel, my sweetness? It’s a lovely jewel and Papa would like you to touch it. Can you do that for Papa? Please?”
Gwyn watched as the child continued blinking into the light as she lay in her father’s arms and then slowly, almost achingly so, she reached out. Gareth accommodated her and brought the jewel closer. She managed to touch it with a single finger and the light went incandescent as her body arched and she screamed, reflexively grabbing the knife so her small hand covered the jewel.
“Isobel!” Richard held her as she convulsed. “Make it stop! Make it stop!”
“Whatever you do, Richard, do not let go of your daughter,” Gwyn shouted as he grabbed Gareth and held him by the shoulders, giving him support. How long it lasted, none afterward could say. A time came, though, when the light began to ebb and the glow around the knife ebbed until the jewel became quiescent and the church was filled with shadows once again. Gwyn blinked a couple of times to get his eyes to focus and, looking around, saw the four armed men lying stunned. Many of the other Mortals were also fallen, though most were beginning to stir. Gareth, he saw, was still holding the knife, staring at Richard and Isobel. Richard, for his part, was gaping back, but Isobel, now fully awake, glanced at them and smile.
“Papa, I’m hungry,” she said.
The words shocked Richard out of his stupor and he quickly began examining his daughter’s small body. “They’re gone!” he whispered. “The buboes are all gone. She’s cured. You cured her. You truly are angels.”
“No, Richard,” Gwyn said forcefully. “We are not angels, but I am glad your Isobel is cured. I think you should take a moment to thank St. Winifred for this miracle and then take your daughter home.”
Richard nodded and still cradling his daughter, closed his eyes and, through tears of joy, murmured his thanks to the saint. Gwyn pulled Gareth to his feet. “Grab the scabbard. We need to leave now!” he ordered, speaking in Sindarin.
Gareth nodded and pulled the scabbard from its hiding place, sheathing the knife while Gwyn took in the church. Most of the people were still lying stunned by the light. Gwyn picked up the sword that the sheriff’s man had dropped and, pulling Gareth with him across the nave and down the south transept to the door leading into the cloister. He took a moment to bar the door.
“Where are we going?” Gareth asked as they crossed the cloister and entered the monastery grounds.
“We’re going to see the abbot and then we are leaving,” Gwyn replied.
“Do you think it wise?” Gareth asked.
“What? Speaking to the abbot or leaving?”
Gwyn stopped and shook his head. “We have our sign,” he said. “If we remain here we are dead. This talisman… it will be demanded of us and we cannot surrender it, you know that. No, we need to leave, but we cannot do so until after curfew. No one can come into the grounds from the church, but the abbot needs to be warned so the gatehouse is secured as well as the eastern gate.”
“Then go to him and tell him what has happened, while I go and gather our belongings. I suggest we don’t wait until dark but leave now.”
“How?” Gwyn asked, looking perplexed.
Gareth gave his older brother a smile, glad to be the one to lead the way for once. “Easy enough. We cut through the gardens and wade across the Meole Brook, cross over the Beistan road and make our way into the Long Forest until we reach the road to Bishop’s Castle. From there we head south into Wales. Mam and Da are now back in Caerdyf. We can join them there.”
But Gwyn shook his head. “No, not yet. There is something else we must do first.”
“What? What must we do?”
“We must hide the knife where it can never be found.”
“And where do you think we will find such a place?” Gareth asked skeptically.
“I have a plan,” Gwyn said with a thin smile. “St. Winifred gave us a miracle, did she not? Then where better to hide the talisman than in her safekeeping?”
“You mean hide it in the church again?”
“No. I mean hide it where miracles are reputed to occur in her name.”
Gareth widened his eyes. “You mean… Holywell?”
Gwyn nodded, giving his brother a wide smile. “We head north to Holywell and leave the knife there inside the well and then we will go back home.”
“Yet, if the knife is meant for us to keep, leaving it there… I don’t know, Gwyn. I don’t feel right about that.”
“And would you rather keep it by your side at all times, chance having it glow at the odd moment and revealing itself to Mortals who will not hesitate to kill us for the jewel? No. For now, I think it wiser that we bury it. We can visit it periodically. It may not be the only hiding place. I’m sure over time we will move it even as we ourselves move around, but for now, for now I think we’d both be safer if that knife is no longer in our possession. Now, go and pack while I speak to the abbot.”
With that, Gwyn headed for the abbot’s lodging while Gareth stood there watching after him. He hefted the knife in his hand. “You are more trouble than you are worth,” he hissed and then headed back inside the cloister to the dortoir where he gathered his and Gwyn’s meager belongings and then made his way to the abbot’s lodging where he met Gwyn coming out.
“Well?” he asked as he handed Gwyn his bag.
“He is both unhappy and happy to see us leave,” Gwyn said with a quirk of his lips.
“So do we wait for dark?”
“Yes. In the meantime, we need to change out of these habits. Come on. Let’s go to the herbalry. No one’s there. I took our old clothes and stored them there rather than allowing the monks to give them away to the poor as is their custom. I knew someday we would want to leave and while our cottes are somewhat out of style, I think we can pass unnoticed by most.”
Gareth followed his brother over the bridge spanning the mill race and through the garden, following the path that led to the herb garden. There Gwyn dug through a chest, pulling out hose and tunics. In minutes the two had traded their monk’s habits for lay garb. Pulling cloaks over themselves, they returned the way they had come, meeting no one, for by now the other brothers were in the church for prayer, though neither Gwyn nor Gareth thought that they would get any praying done, given what had happened. They found the east gate barred and locked and they huddled against it as the sun sank below the horizon and darkness fell. They waited another hour before they climbed the wall and leapt down to the other side. Even as the curfew bell was being rung in the town, they were making their way north toward Oswestry and beyond that, Holywell, one of the seven wonders of Wales, and the site of St. Winifred’s martyrdom.
Note: Holywell, Treffynnon in Welsh, is named after St. Winifride’s Well, a holy well surrounded by a chapel. The well has been known since at least the Roman period and has been a sight of pilgrimage since about 660 when Winifred (or Winifride) was beheaded there by Caradog when he attempted to attack her when she refused to marry him, preferring to remain a virgin dedicated to God. Her head was miraculous reattached to her neck and the saint continued to live for many years afterwards until her second and final death. Many pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the Well, which is known as the Lourdes of Wales.
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