Here is an excerpt of our new novel. During the winter months, three members, Steve, James, and myself, of the Edinburgh All Comers Writers Club, are meeting informally at 1pm Monday in a restaurant near my flat. Please e-mail me on email@example.com if you are interested in attending.
KNIGHT OF THE HOSPICE AT SOUTRA
Thomas H. Leonard and Jonathan Stone
CHAPTER 1: TRIANGLES OF LOVE
I, Fortuna, the White Witch of the Esk Burn, am directly descended from my namesake, the Roman Goddess of Chance and Fortune. The Etruscan witches of Lothian originate from Cramond, and their European forbears pre-dated the Roman republic. They worship nature, and collect herbs and spices to cure the animals, the birds, and the people. The Christians persecute us and say bad things about us, because they want to control mankind while abusing nature. I bring you the story of one such Christian, Sir Richard de Liddell, and as to how his life and fortunes were affected by divinely inspired chance in ways that will make your hair bristle in horrence.
'Twas during the wee small hours of St. Achilleus's Day day during September 1436 that Sir Richard de Liddell set off southwards for Soutra Hill from his higgledy-piggledy, curiously designed house on Edinburgh's Causewayside, on his battle horse Xanthos. Sir Richard was accompanied by his French squire Cedric de Porthos who was riding his new pony Augustus with the eagerness of precocious youth. At age twenty-six, sandy-haired Richard was now becoming a touch more brawny and thickset, but he well remembered the Halcyon days when he was as lithe and clean-limbed as black-haired Cedric.
Sir Richard's wife the Lady Ingibiorg, the fulsome breasted, youngest daughter of Sigurd, the Earl of Stromness, blew kisses at both of the riders from the pentagonal window above the copper-plated porch-way, took another sip of her well-heated honey mead, and buttoned up her purple petticoat. Cedric grinned like a Tiree fold cat, and the seven-horned gargoyle grinned back.
“We'll spend the night on the Soutra,” declared Sir Richard, “but we'll return before Vespers the morrow.”
“God bless ye pious man of God!” cried his good wife, cocking a snook.
God has indeed poured blessings upon me, pondered Sir Richard. Ingibiorg is my warrior princess; such a loving wife, and Cedric is the Adonis of my dreams. I love him like Plato admired his pupil Aristotle. But was that an apparition which I saw in my bedchamber the other night? And would I really care if Cedric was an a Lancelot to my Guinevere? Zounds!
As the younger brother of Lord Colin de Liddell of Roslands, Sir Richard occasionally visited Roslands Castle and the extensive family estate outside Duns, but his relationship with Lord Colin had recently become quite strained. His older brother was one of the many Scottish nobles who'd schemed and plotted against the king. Moreover, Richard's ownership of the vast Teutonic mansion in Gifford was now in dispute. His father had left the mansion to him in his will, along with the house in Edinburgh, and the St. Clotilde herb garden which lay in the shadows of Calton Hill. However, Lord Colin had discovered a quirk in an ancient Celtic law of inheritance which, he claimed, gave him the rights to all the family property in the vicinity of the Lammermuirs. The rude and crude behaviour of the lord's yowling eleven year old son Lulach didn't help either.
Sir Richard was nevertheless highly esteemed in Edinburgh. As a Knight of the Sacred Orb of Jerusalem, he'd sided with James the First during the King's continuing struggle against the rebellious nobles, and helped him to arrest the nefarious 'Lords of the Linnhe Loch' and to execute them on the poles at Ballachulish. As a member of the Privy Council, Sir Richard exerted much influence around Scotland, which at times drew retribution on peasants and landowners alike. Moreover, as one of the seven Judges of the Signet Christus, he'd condemned many a witch and more than a few wizards to burn at the stake.
Sir Richard remembered the 'Grief in Crieff' case with particular pride. The three teenage witches who'd undoubtedly poisoned Lord Roderick McCrawley's prize herd of Highland cattle with arsenic had all bobbed to the sewer-ridden surface of Loch Nor when put to the test on the ducking stool. They and the cleverly disembowelled Wizard of Callendar were subsequently all burnt together, with two howling goats, in the same wicker cage. Meanwhile, the much blessed Bishop Hollowdale of Edinburgh polished off the wizard's entrails for supper while imagining that they came from one of his obsequious sheep; his sacristan washed down the wizard's kidneys with a glass of vintage red wine from Confession.
“Delicious, Your Grace,” the sacristan had reportedly said, as the blood spattered the bishop's surplice.
“Devilicious, you mean,” replied Hollowdale, with an inane grin.
During August 1436, King James' credibility had been badly damaged by his abject failure to take Roxburgh Castle, thus leaving the English in control to the south of the Tweed. One of his nobles even attempted to arrest him, he lived in continuous fear of assassination, and he saw a vision of himself being brutally stabbed to death in a cellar after a lady-in-waiting broke her arm trying to defend him. That scenario left Sir Richard somewhat in limbo and he decided to leave his lance and battleaxe in his dovecot until they might once again serve godly purpose.
The rising sun spread its refreshing rays over Blackford Pond as the early morning riders entered the Hermitage of Braid. When they reached the Braid Burn, a bare-breasted girl with the appearance of a ragamuffin leapt from the branch of a Skye flora ash tree, puffed her chest, and declared, “A tonic of beauty potion for a groat, good Masters. My virtues for a penny.”
“Are you a witch?” asked Sir Richard, caustically.
“No Sire,” replied the girl, furtively. “I'm Adaira McTaggart. I'm an orphan from Broughton, where my parents died starving in the Tollbooth. I'm trying to redeem my soul among the wood nymphs.”
“You may sleep in my dovecot tonight then. Present thyself to my wife, the Lady de Liddell at the Saint Hungus House before the clock strikes nine. She enjoys an occasional tumble in the hay with a buxom lass. And here's a groat for your potion.”
“Thank you, kind Sire. I'll nurture you in your dotage, while you piss in your breeks and slaver in your mouth.”
“A mottle-head of hedgehog spines for your cheek!”
“They would be well taken. And a healing potion for your squire's red flush, perchance?”
“That won't be necessary,” said Cedric, blushing all over, “but here's a penny for your virtues, my fine lady.”
“May a thousand blessings rain upon your head, kind youth. Did God endow you with three long legs? A frolic in the burn, perchance?”
Cedric leapt in glee from his pony, and threw off his breeks. “I'll swim you to the bridge,” he declared.
Sir Richard sat on a grassy knoll and sipped his beauty potion while Cedric and Adaira splashed about in the burn, as naked as a buck and a doe.
They're so like Ingibiorg and I when we first met, he mused, though Cedric is a touch sleeker.
“I'm glad you enjoyed your frolic,” said Sir Richard, when Cedric finally remounted his pony, “though I must confess to experiencing a feeling of déjà vu.”
“I don't know why,” said Cedric, looking confused.
“Don't forget your breeks,” said Sir Richard, with a frosty smile.
When the riders emerged from the Hermitage of Braid, Sir Richard got to thinking about his reasons for his trip to Soutra Hill. The monks at the House of the Holy Trinity cared for the sick and the dying. The vast conglomeration of buildings, which included an Iron Age drystone broch, also housed travellers and gave sanctuary to fugitives. Sir Richard was travelling with a his monthly selection of herbs for the sick from the St. Clotilde Garden, which he gladly donated in lieu of alms for the poor. However, he had far deeper reasons for his mission. Friar Francis Philpott would identify the fugitives from justice to him, so that he could report them to the Crown agents in Edinburgh. Many of the traitors seeing sanctuary in the hospice would subsequently mysteriously disappear. There's no peace for the wicked!
Who knows who is right and who is wrong? mused Sir Richard. Truth is whatever you can get away with. Truth is like a hare in a cornfield, as the heretic Peter the Seeker once said. You know it's there but you can't put your arms around it. All you can hope for is to follow its footprints. Heaven knows who is telling the truth in this day and age.
When they reached Cockpen, Sir Richard wondered whether to greet his cousin, Sir Leofric de Liddell in Dalhousie Castle, even though Sir Leofric was rumoured to be opposed to the king. Sir Richard was still ruminating on this possibility when two slovenly men wearing straggly, black cloaks and riding grey mares emerged across the castle drawbridge at a fair gallop. They came to an abrupt halt just in front of the smartly dressed travellers.
“Why, good morrow, De Porthos,” said the man with the strange foreign accent, with a mean look.“Is it this trumped up knight who now employs you as a merkin-licking snoop?”
This vulgar vagabond could be a French or a Teuton agent, thought Sir Richard. His almond-shaped eyes are very distinctive, and I'll certainly be able to remember him from the dirty holes in his front teeth. Maybe the English have tortured him in the Tower of London like they torture all ghastly foreigners.
“How dare you!” spluttered Cedric. “I am Sir Richard's faithful squire, and we are here to see his worthy cousin Sir Leofric de Liddell.”
“We have plans for you, De Porthos,” said the man with the bizarre northern accent, “unless you want to be hung like a nose-less woman with her rags up from a lofty tree, that is. Come to the Grassmarket, you cowardly, half-formed galoot! Saturday, before the clock strikes noon, and while the flayed skins are still wavering in the wind.”
I'm not sure whether he's from Lancashire or Dumfries, pondered Sir Richard, but his face is as swarthy as a cat's nates.
“I'd love to accept your kind invitation,” replied Cedric, gritting his teeth, “were I not on my way to visit my dying grandmother in Kelso.”
“Balderdash! That witch resides in Nantes, along with the rest of you inbred guttersnipes.”
“Excuse me, kind gentlemen,” interjected Sir Richard, “but is my good cousin Sir Leofric in residence?”
“Oui, malfaisant m'sieur, though not wishing to receive any of his heathen kin, Lord Colin of Roslands excepted,” replied the man with almond-shaped eyes. “Why don't you go forth and sizzle in the stench of the Styx while I deflower your shrewish whore of a wife?”
“Kindly present yourselves at my chambers on St. Giles when you next visit Edinburgh,” growled Sir Richard, grasping the silver hilt of his steel sword Vindicta. “You'll burn before you hang, and answer to Beelzebub's pitchfork in your gut for your venomous tongue.”
“Maybe you'll hang from your toes while you burn in Hellfire, pompous nyaff of a knight,” snarled the swarthy horseman, with a flourish of his iron mace, “though I have something more apt in mind.”
“Away with thee, Pimp of Babylon!” roared Sir Richard, spitting snake's venom, as his horse Xanthos reared to a mighty height on its hind legs.
“Away with us, from these gutter rats, to where the air is cleaner,” howled Cedric, and he and his worthy master departed at full gallop.
This could be part of one of Thomas Mallory's sad tales, thought Sir Richard, though that defiler of women is unbearably sanctimonious.
Sir Richard and Cedric paused in the Ratshead Inn for their early morning ale when they reached the tiny village of Gowkshill. A couple of impoverished pilgrims from Dingwall who'd stayed overnight in the dank cellar were drinking water from a pump. But the nobility avoided well water like the plague, and regarded beer as much more healthy for mind and body alike. Sir Richard also ordered a couple of beef steaks from the wart-ridden innkeeper, caramelised with plenty of onions.
“That's Auld Alliance beef rump cordon bleu,” declared the grumpy fellow, leering at Cedric, “It mixes well with stale bread.”
Sir Richard tore a strip off the loaf, and Cedric quivered in his seat.
“So how did you ever come to meet that pair of rogues, callow youth?” inquired Sir Richard.
“In Paris during the English Occupation and two years whence, Master, while I was working for the Burgundians,” replied Cedric, shiftily. “They tried to persuade me to join Henrique Cecilie's dubious spy ring. The dim-witted English rogue said that he was soldier from Carlisle; the mean-faced one was a double agent from Flanders.”
“Spy ring? And on whom were they proposing to spy?”
Cedric trembled in his boots. “They wanted me to spy on the Burgundians and hence to betray my paymasters. I refused, of course.”
“And what were you doing for the evil Burgundians?”
“Just collecting information, Master,” spluttered Cedric. “Just collecting information.”
Sir Richard frowned angrily. “I understand you to a measure, delinquent of Aquitaine! But those vermin were undoubtedly anticipating your arrival in Cockpen. How in St. Joshua's name did they know you were coming?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Master,” whined Cedric. “Did you tell any of your friends or relatives that we were planning to take this curious route this morning? I presume that you were trying to avoid the parishioners of Pathhead after your brouhaha there last month.”
“I have only told my dear Ingibiorg about my carefully plotted route,” replied Sir Richard, irritably. “I sketched it for her during yesterday's midday repast, just before she met for prayers with her enormously fat brother, Father Baldr Sigurdsen from Haddington.”
“The explanation doubtlessly lies therein. Perhaps your horribly flesh-ridden brother-in-law visited your ghastly kinsman in Cockpen during his return home.”
“You rude, uncouth youth!”
“Or Father Baldr could have bumped into the two ugly rascals in some whorehouse or other.”
“How dare you! There must be some other explanation.”
“Perchance we'll never know, Master. These things are sent to test us by the Goddess Fortuna herself.”
“O, not ever waxing, ever oppressing Fortuna! Shame on you!”
“No shame. She controls Yahweh himself.”
“Zounds! It's God Almighty alone who rolls the die, and not that pagan usurper, the evil defiler of Constantinople! I'll have you foot-flogged for the blaspheming infidel you are.”
“Sorry, Master, just a slip of the tongue, Master. Please don't send me to be foot-flogged, Master. Not my feet, Master!”
“Don't forget to wash your feet and trim your toenails.”
“Elijah wept balls of fire! You're pulling my leg!”
“No I'm not, though methinks that it is not your feet which should sweat in dread.”
“No! Mercy! Mercy!”
“Aha! The steak is excellent. It sizzles like a bumble bug.”
“The onions are tastier to my palate,” Cedric miserably replied, throwing his steak at the guard dog. The tawdry mongrel took a sniff, and ran, spluttering, towards the water trough.
“Take care, Cedric de Porthos, or you too will lead the life of dog,” concluded Sir Richard, with his hand on his crucifix.
Sir Richard and his totally sullen-faced squire uttered scarcely a word while they were pursuing a narrow, muddy trail across Lothian as the cattle stared at the turf. However, Cedric cheered up slightly during the late afternoon when they reached the pretty village of Fala, with the green slopes of Soutra Hill in sight to the south. The Lady Fiona McLachlan was sitting astride her white horse Buttermilk outside the Laird's Manse, her bottom resembling two ripe plum peaches, its cleavage enhanced by the sharp curvature of her lavishly designed Clackmannan saddle.
Roughly the same age as Cedric, the Lady Fiona boasted flowing bright red hair, a freckly face, and the protrusive breasts of a Scottish queen. She was indeed directly descended from the tenth century 'Boneless Duke', Fritz Wilhelm of Saxony, and from the erstwhile barbarian chieftain King Malcolm Canmore and his much put upon first queen, Ingibiorg of Orkney, via their ill-fated Celtic heir Duncan the Second and the little known FitzDuncan-FitzWilhelm line. Several of her Saxon ancestors had been born boneless, reportedly because of a sixth century curse.
Cedric sat in his saddle and licked his chops. Sir Richard was quick to perceive his none too delicate eye movements,
He's insatiable, agonized Sir Richard.
“Good morrow, Lady Fiona,” exclaimed the proud knight. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“Your greetings are well received, sacred Knight of the Sacred Orb,” replied Lady Fiona, with a hefty sigh. “I am travelling to the House of the Holy Trinity, though the reason for my mission much grieves me.”
Maybe she's with child, pondered Sir Richard. Lord Kenneth is an irksome fellow who smokes opium with the bizzoms on the Cowgate, and she could be forgiven for seeking her pleasures with one of his brash retainers. Her belly does protrude a mite too much for my comfort.
“In that case, perhaps your would give us the pleasure of riding with us, my fine lady,” he replied. “This wicked miscreant and I are travelling there to deliver herbs for the sick from my delightful garden by Calton Hill.”
“You are far too harsh on your lovely squire, good knight,” said Lady Fiona, with a sorrowful smile. “He is as faithful to you as the day is long.”
“My good Lord will be the judge of that when I pray to Him during Vespers,” said Sir Richard, with a flick of his horse whip, “and our worthy Messiah isn't as forgiving towards those who blaspheme as St. Paul, in all his crassness, would have us believe.”
Cedric shuffled queasily in his saddle. “I too, would enjoy your charming company, my lady,” he added. “The sound of a nightingale is to be much preferred to the squawk of a spot-tailed sparrowhawk.”
“And the tweet of a sparrow pleases me more than than--er-- the screech of a cornered rat,” added Sir Richard, a touch irritably.
To the courteous knight's surprise and his squire's expressions of sadness and alarm, Lady Fiona suddenly burst into a Noah's flood of Egyptian crocodile's tears.
“But woe is me, Sir Richard, eternal woe,” she exclaimed. “My dear husband Lord Kenneth is bestricken with the Leper's Lurge sickness, and Sheriff Crichton bethinks that it is I who poisoned him with the maggot potion. I therewith escaped from Edinburgh in fear of being captured by the sheriff's burly men-at-arms and burnt as a witch. If the good monks on the Soutra do not grant me sanctuary then I will, unless God forbids it, suffer horror and anguish in ever eternal Hellfire, and Merlin's freezing ice for good measure.”
Freezing ice is one of Bishop Hollowdale's fancifully devised, divine punishments, realised Sir Richard. He's hated women ever since he was so ignominiously crushed under that gun carriage at the siege of the Castle of the Hebridean Sirens.
“Becalm yourself, fair lady, and dry your pretty eyes,” replied Sir Richard. “Rufus Crichton frequently finds the wrong end of the donkey. We will accompany you to the Soutra and into Friar Francis Philpott's safe hands, and I will then defend your case for you in Edinburgh.”
“And do give your nose a good blow,” interjected Cedric, proffering the lady his sodden lace handkerchief.
Lady Fiona cleared her nostrils.“Why thank you, kind squire,” she replied. “and a peck on my cheek from an impudent garçon would not go amiss.”
Cedric rode to the brave damsel's side and stuck out his Gallic tongue, like the unsophisticated juvenile he was.
“Here's a kiss on your lips to absolve all your sins,” he cheekily replied. “Maybe it will help you to clear your throat.”
“Coo!---Coo! You make me coo like a cuckoo. Let me lean on your sturdy arm.”
“And I will ask my pony Augustus to protect your white steed well tonight, fair lady.”
“Buttermilk will be well bedded then,” purred the Lady Fiona. “I have a mind to cuddle between them to maintain my good virtue.”
Sir Richard felt peace within himself as they drew near to the northern slopes of the Soutra. When they reached the vast complex which contained the monastery called the House of the Holy Trinity, he, Lady Fiona, and Cedric left the Via Regia and galloped their mounts past the sprawling hospital and through the iron gateway which protected the entrance to the friary. The friary was dominated by a silver dome, and resembled a Moorish mosque.
Cedric jangled the bronze bell which was hanging from a chain by the sturdy oak door. After a few moments, the door creaked open and an immature girl with curly blonde hair peered, cowering, at the travellers.
“Brother Stephanus!” she whined. “We have some noble visitors. Do tidy yourself up, and come to greet them.”
A lassie in a friary! thought Sir Richard. How prepostorous. I feel like giving this holy brother a generous piece of my mind.
“Hold your horses, Kat,” cried a shrill voice. “I be alighting the St. Agnes candles.”
The travellers waited in polite silence until a clownish, rusty-haired monk wearing a white cassock, slightly askew around his neck, appeared at the door holding two candles with burnt wicks and smelling of ale.
“Good morrow, honourable gentlefolk,” said Brother Stephanus, scratching his snout. “Friar Philpott is tending to the chrysanthemums in the Masters House, but you have my holy permission to enter this place of divine sanctity, and await his return. Please shed your muddy clogs; Kat will clean them in the trough like the dutiful scrubber she. Then she will wash your feet in the wooden tub, on pain of God's chastisement if she misses a single speck of sinfulness.”
“God's chastisement comes when it is least expected,” replied Sir Richard, holding his temper, “and who do I have the honour of addressing?”
The boss-eyed monk blinked, and straightened his cassock. “I am Brother Stephanus Le Fleming, recently arrived from Melrose Abbey, and I, like you, Sire, am of noble stock, as I am descended from the Norman Le Flemings of Durham-on-Trent.”
And they were all a bunch of heathen scoundrels, realised Sir Richard. I wouldn't trust this drunken blackguard with a fisherman's pole or a bishop's barge.
“We must be distant cousins then, unless you are in reality a peasant,” he replied. “Indeed, the De Liddells are related to every mischief-maker who's been knighted by a king.”
Sir Richard was familiar with the main hall of the friary. He'd always wondered whether it'd been a haunt of Knights Templar on the run. An elaborate Masonic tracing board was hanging from the wall, and the gargoyles on the ceiling depicted the anguished faces of humans and mythological creatures alike.
Brother Stephanus nodded grudgingly while Kat poured the visitors refreshing glasses of locally fermented wine Soutfast. “The nuns squash the grapes with their well-scrubbed feet,” she explained, “those who bother to wash, I mean. At least they don't piss in it.”
“Lady Fiona McLachlan is here to seek sanctuary in this holy house,” said Sir Richard, taking a cautious sip, “though for a few days only, while I straighten out her concern about her husband in Edinburgh.”
“She is most welcome,” said Brother Stephanus, with a surly smile. “Most of our fugitives sleep in the hay in the broch, where we can bar the door for their safe keeping. The Master is however always glad to accommodate errant ladies of nobility in well-furnished rooms in the St. Celicia's Wing, where they are waited on hand and foot by the peasant novices. However, a gift to God of three gold pieces a month helps us to feed the ladies in the manner to which they are so rightly accustomed.”
Sir Richard pulled six gold pieces from his leather pouch. “I hope that God will bless the Lady Fiona as much for this gift as he blessed the widow in the Temple for handing over her two mites,” he declared.
“She could be plied with rare lampreys for a year for that,” declared Cedric, angrily furrowing his brow. “Zeus is more generous than the God who lives in this pox-ridden place.”
“Blasphemy!” shrieked Brother Stephanus, with a wild glare. “We flog the blasphemous rogues in Melrose for less. Do not violate our holy etiquettes again, paltry squire, or I'll make you a crown of thorns and whip you in the gallows by the white beam bushes until your flesh is red and raw.”
“Beaucoup de regrets,” exclaimed Sir Richard. “My good squire sometimes doesn't know how he speaks, and a more faithful Christian have I never met.”
“Humbug!” howled Cedric, throwing a punch which narrowly missed the monk's ugly nose.
Cedric's dire situation was doubtlessly saved by Fortuna, the Goddess of Chance and Fortune. The striped owl Mordreda hurtled through the window and perched herself on Brother Stephanus's head, and, at that very moment, Friar Francis Philpott scurried into the room carrying a large sack of oranges over his shoulder.
“We must eat these quickly,” announced the good friar. “They have just arrived from Jaffa soaked in spice sherry.”
“Is the skin poisonous?” asked Kat. “May I eat it?”
“Of course not, silly child. We'll boil it up with some honey and turn it into a paste.”
“I'll tell Brother Marmaduke to collect the skins after Evensong,” said Brother Stephanus, as the owl hopped onto his shoulder and took a peck at his right ear.
“Maybe we should call it Marmaduke jelly and serve it with bread and cloves,” said Lady Fiona, with a smirk.
“What a wonderful idea!” exclaimed Friar Philpott. “You are blessed with the wisdom of Queen Esther, and Naomi too. Who is this delicate child, Sir Richard?”
“I am Lady Fiona McLachan of Comely Brook,” replied Fiona, with a pout. “I plan to stay with your nuns until my dear husband Lord Kenneth recovers from his Leper's Lurge and I can return to Edinburgh in good order.”
“A couple of heavy bolsters and a stout pillow would not go amiss. Please accompany Her Ladyship to St. Cecila's Wing, Kat, and pay heed to her every need.”
“Yes, F-F-Friar F-Francis,” stuttered Kat, with a curtsey. “M-May I have a new c-cotton dress for St. Matthew's Day, Your Reverence?”
“Why don't yer wear plaid breeks and clogs?” suggested Brother Stephanus, sardonically. “You'd be prettier to the eye as a mannie rather than a homely lassie.”
Kat promptly kicked the monk in both shins, while Mordreda took a peck at his eyebrow.
“How could you be so ever more cruel?” shrieked Kat. “May Saint Mary Magdalene curse you to your early grave.”
Brother Stephanus grabbed Kat's hair and lifted her off her feet. “How dare you attack me, ignorant daughter of the packsaddle?” he raged. “You'll be boiled as a black witch for your foul behaviour!”
“Brother Stephanus!” exclaimed Friar Philpott. “You have been drinking a muchness of Donkey's Brew again. Retire to your cell immediately, you slovenly mule, and recite two hundred Hail Mary’s!”
The monk let Kat go, and seized Mordreda by her outstretched wings. “Not until I've strangled this God-dammed owl,” he howled. “I wouldn't care if she was La Vièrge Marie herself.”
“What!!” yelled the friar, in utter indignation. “Prepare thyself for self-flagellation during Evensong, foul heretic. We'll sing the Sanctus while you suffer your painful indignities.”
“Un pour tous et tous pour un,” declared Cedric, euphorically.
“Not THAT!” shrieked Brother Stephanus, clutching his crotch.
“Foreign vulgarity!” exclaimed Friar Francis, the blood rising in his neck. “We don't use red hot pincers here. Maybe I'll ask the Papal Inquisitor to bring his sjambok though.”
Their lack of comprehension of the French tongue is utterly laughable! surmised Sir Richard, with a chuckle.
“I'll enjoy every part of it,” snarled the evil monk, fleeing for the door.
I hope that he shreds his sinews, enthused Sir Richard. He transfigures Cedric into a saint.
“May I lend you a helping hand?” asked Cedric, in sarcastic jest. Meanwhile, Mordreda escaped, much befuzzled, through the window.
“I'll be the death of you, French clown!” wailed the monk.
A threat of death, mused Sir Richard. That does not portend well for the karma of the spirit.
“Mes sincère excuses, Madame et Messieurs,” declared Friar Francis, after a full minute of deathly silence. “Stephanus can be a man of God when he is sober, but a chicken's arse when he takes to drink. Notwithstanding his deplorable indiscretions in the Abbey in Melrose, I live in hope that he will become a man of honour, rather than a scheming Iscariot, in this better place.”
“Jesus forgives us all our sins, except when we blaspheme the Holy Spirit,” replied Sir Richard, “though I can scarcely ever fathom when a sin is unpardonable and when it is not.”
“That is for Christ to decide, my son,” said Friar Francis. “If the Jewish liturgies of Yehuda's Way are to be believed, our good Lord did preach that it would be better for an evil-doer who hurts children if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.”
“By our Lady!” exclaimed Kat. “Jesus is a goodly friend to me.”
“The Synoptic Gospels read like well-crafted liturgies to me,” said Sir Richard. “Matthew, Mark, and Luke were among the finest scholars of their age, unlike the pipsqueak John who grew even more confused as he grew older.”
“And the Jewish scholars of the Way were undoubtedly a fine band of revolutionaries who cared much for the poor and sick,” said Cedric, with a nod.
When Kat delivered Lady Fiona to St. Celicia's Wing, they were warmly greeted by the novice nuns. The novices gave the noble lady the room with the goose feather bed and ran in, one after the other, to show off their home-sewn green petticoats. Fiona drank a couple of strong brandies, and joined in the very comical horseplay.
Back in the friary, Francis Philpott was keen to discuss the herbs which Sir Richard had brought with him from St. Clotilde's Garden. Francis was a gaunt and studious man in his early fifties, with a large cauterized hole in his broken left cheek which had been caused by an English arrow during his tempestuous youth.
“The ergot fungus and juniper seeds you brought last time were most generous,” he said. “We have used them to induce the birth of three babies. The ragged wretches from beyond the Tweed had been much too long in labour.”
“Praise the Lord!” exclaimed Sir Richard, as Cedric produced three pouches from under his shirt tails. “Today I have brought you some tormentil for parasites, and watercress for fastening and securing teeth. I hope that the hemlock worked well when mixed with henbane seeds and opium poppy.”
“Extravagantly well. The concoction killed the pain when we amputated an arm and a leg from a peasant from Jedburgh, and it made him considerably comatose.”
“I also have a herb which is not yet well tried by gentlefolk, but which I name lambium. I hear that the white witches call it the 'Spice of the Seven Horned Lamb', and it is said that they once used it to cure a wizard from la maladie de Bradford Beck after the fool had eaten the kidneys of an uncooked sheep.”
“That is most timely! One of our deadly sick visitors is suffering from that malady. We've had to hide our shepherd Duncan Cotter in the St. Mungus Chapel because his black eschar is gross to the eye, his crimson pallor has spread to much of his skin, and the St. Miriam fungus has begun to creep up his legs.”
“Does he suffer from the Cumberland fever?”
“Yes, a fierce fever of a strange sort, for fully three days now. Maybe your lambium will unboil his head.”
“I recommend mixing three large spoonfuls in hot mead. Here, take this pouch. It contains sufficient for ten days further.”
“Thank you, Sir Richard. We'll try this straightaway, and I'll take you and your noble squire to visit poor Duncan after Evensong to see how he's coming along.”
Sir Richard and Cedric sat next to Brother Marmaduke at Evensong. There was enough time to exchange a few words about the possibility of boiling the skins of the oranges from Jaffa with honey. The eagle-eyed brother was very keen on the idea, and wondered whether to sell the new jelly at his market stall in Lauder.
“The peasants could spread it on their bread, to supplement the butter,” he suggested, with a flick of his jet black eyebrows.
Maybe this will become a new fashion, pondered Sir Richard, only to be distracted by a pair of shady characters seating in the next pew. The fair-haired one was wearing a yellow tunic, and the one with the long-nose was attired in wolf skins.
Why to they peer at me? wondered Sir Richard. Zounds! They could be the pair of rascals who escaped hotfooted from Edinburgh with the Spanish Ambassador's jewel box. Methinks they're taking sanctuary here. This should not be allowed!
But before the bold knight could inquire the names of the interlopers, his thoughts were disturbed a hearty rendering of Anima Christi by the assembled monks and clerics:
- Corpus Christi, salva me.
- Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
- Aqua lateris Christi, lava me.
- Passio Christi, conforta me.
- O bone Jesu, exaudi me.
I can see a bit of Jesus in my squire Cedric, realised Sir Richard, which isn't surprising since there is a piece of Him in all who call upon his Holy Name.
After two further similarly inspiring hymns, and a prayer, the Papal Inquisitor, a jolly Highlander from Inverness, strolled towards the altar, wearing his peacock feather hat, followed by Brother Stephanus who was half-naked and wearing only a sheepskin. The Inquisitor handed the blasphemous monk a leather St. Acacius sjambok, which resembled a long, thick, black snake, and nodded sternly, upon which the self-flagellation began to the sounds of the Sanctus:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Gracious me, the Holy brother's rump is turning into a beetroot, thought Sir Richard, licking his chops. Maybe we should take a slice out of it to treat the digestion.
Despite Brother Stephanus's valiant efforts, the Inquisitor must have thought that he was too limp-wristed. When the singing was complete, the jolly Highlander followed up with six crisp strokes of the St. Typasius birch. The evil fellow fainted in fright and agony, and the monks burst out into spontaneous laughter and applause. Cedric guffawed, and split his sides in merriment.
The Inquisitor gave Cedric the evil eye, though apparently in jest, whereupon Friar Francis encouraged the squire and his protective knight to beat a