The Royal Falconer
As darkness had already fallen Bardolph had little choice other than to stay the night at the inn at Onneyditch. He was given the same accommodation as before, a small room to the rear of the inn that overlooked the stables. An hour after settling in, he descended the stairs and crossed the downstairs room to the inglenook. A cauldron filled with meats and vegetables simmered above the fire. In a rocking chair alongside the fire sat Agatha, an ageing crone now in her ninety-third year. As Bardolph moved to ladle pottage into his bowl, he turned to Agatha and out of respect touched his forelock.
‘A goodly evening ma’am,’ he said in greeting.
Agatha set the chair rocking and strained her eyes towards Bardolph. ‘I’ve seen you somewhere before haven’t I?’ she asked quizzically.
Bardolph nodded a response. ‘You have indeed ma’am,’ he replied. ‘It was here but two nights past we did last meet. For then I did’st take a room for the night at this goodly inn and partake of your most agreeable pottage.’
Agatha raised an eyebrow and studied the face of the handsome young man stood between her and the fire. She managed a toothless smile as memories of this man’s visit came flooding back. ‘Yes, I remember you!’ she said. ‘I don’t forget faces! You asked of my age and health.’
Bardolph stopped ladling the pottage into his bowl and turned to the rocking chair. ‘That I did ma’am,’ he answered, ‘and what a remarkable age you are. You told me you were in your ninety-third year, and I think you must hold many a fond memory of Lodelowe and of the family that rules there. For I am led to believe that you did’st once serve within the castle walls.’
Agatha smiled as memories of her younger days came flooding back. She had been a servant to the de Clanceys’ in her youth. ‘Yes, I was at the birth of the present Baron,’ she told Bardolph, ‘and I was also there when the twins Edmund and Edward were born. Edward was the present Baron’s father. But that was a long, long time ago.’
Bardolph recalled the tapestry hanging in the Great Hall of Lodelowe Castle. He had stood next to the Baron looking up at the tapestry when saying farewell. The twins Edmund and Edward were depicted on that tapestry standing to either side of a river with a motte and bailey in the background. A thought came to him. Could the scene on the tapestry be that of Onneyditch? And could the river that flowed alongside this inn be the one in which the twin Edmund drowned? There were a lot of similarities.
‘Ah!’ remarked Bardolph; ‘The twins, Edmund and Edward! Yes, I have this very day gazed upon the Baron’s tapestry in the Great Hall of Lodelowe Castle. Pray tell me, was it here in Onneyditch that the tragedy of Edmund’s death did’st so take place? I recall seeing a river and a motte and bailey on the tapestry, and the raven of the Lord Rhys hovering above the scene.’
Agatha rocked in her chair, swaying vigorously backwards and forwards. ‘I too have seen the tapestry you speak of,’ she told him. ‘It was sewn by the nuns of Wistanstow many years after the event, and mostly on hearsay. The twins were never that grown up. They were just babies. Edmund had not reached his first birthday when the Lord Rhys’s men cast him in the river. But good Sire you are right, it was here at Onneyditch that the tragedy occurred, a raid by the men of the Lord Rhys did’st send mayhem amongst the people of this village. Edmund and Edward became parted in the confusion. Edward was saved and whisked away to Lodelowe, but Edmund was seized and cast into the river.’
Bardolph found the family history of the de Clancey’s most fascinating and wanted to know more. But the dates confused him. ‘Tell me dear lady, what year would the twins be born?’
He doubted whether he would get a true answer. Not an accurate one anyway, but in his mind he was trying to piece together all of the facts. Remarkably however Agatha could pinpoint the year, for the birth of the twins coincided with a very important date in the English calendar. The actual year was unknown to her, but she was able to explain. ‘The twins were born some three to four days following the death of King Stephen,’ she told him. ‘I know this because the news of the King’s death came along with the crier’s announcement of the birth of the twins.’
Bardolph was well aware of the year of King Stephen’s death. The King had died in 1154 and King Henry II had succeeded him to the throne. He did a quick calculation. Agatha, at the age of ninety-three would have been born in the year 1142, and would therefore have been just twelve years old at the time.
Now Bardolph had the year there was something else he could fit into place, for he was aware of other events that occurred about this time. The Lord Rhys, the Welsh overlord who’s symbol the raven was depicted upon the tapestry, succeeded to the throne as the King of Deheubarth in 1155, and this just six months into the new King Henry’s reign. Therefore, if the twins were just under one year old at the time, then this would have been one of Lord Rhys’ first raids into England; a time when he was trying to establish his Welsh supremacy and state his independence from the new King of England.
Bardolph mused upon what he had just heard, then changed the subject, for there was one more thing that puzzled him. The name of this inn, the Golden Lion, seemed inappropriate for Lodelowe, for it bore the coat of arms of the Fitzgerald family. ‘Tell me my dear lady,’ he asked, ‘the name of this goodly inn, the Golden Lion. Is it not the sign of the Fitzgeralds of Salopsbury that hangs above this door?’
Agatha rocked in her chair. ‘The name of this inn goes back to a time when this side of the river did’st belong to the estates of Salopsbury,’ she explained. ‘The River Onney was once the boundary between Lodelowe and Salopsbury. There were many skirmishes and disagreements between the de Clanceys and the Fitzgeralds until a settlement was finally reached. It was agreed that the ford at Marsh Brook, to the north of here, should be the new boundary. It was the Abbey at Wistanstow what had the final say, as most of these lands belong to the church. And to keep the peace it was agreed that the Abbot be appointed by Lodelowe and the Abbess by Salopsbury. And that is how the arms of the Fitzgeralds came to hang above this door. This inn once resided in the estates of the Fitzgeralds and its name has never changed since those early days, and besides anything is better than the ‘Craven Arms’ of the de Clanceys.’
Bardolph could detect bitterness to Agatha’s voice and decided to press the matter no further. Instead he ladled more pottage into his bowl. ‘And about what year would this be?’ he asked; ‘The year when the boundary was moved northwards from here?’
Agatha gave Bardolph’s question some thought. She held many memories of Onneyditch and of Lodelowe, but to fit them all together and in a particular order that made sense, proved most difficult. She answered Bardolph with a touch of uncertainty to her voice. ‘I think it all happened at about the same time; the year Edmund was cast into the river,’ she told him. ‘It was the reason the twins were here in Onneyditch. That much I do know. They were here to celebrate the signing of the treaty between Lodelowe and Salopsbury that resolved the border issue. It was the church that arbitrated in the final agreement and the twins were here to receive a gift of gratitude from the Abbot of Wistanstow.’
Bardolph turned pensive. This happened just over eighty years ago and it would have been a different Abbot then. As would everybody else that took part in this agreement. ‘You talk of a gift. What would that be?’
Agatha shook her head. ‘Kind Sire, I cannot recall. My mind is not what it used to be,’ she said after much deliberation and leaning back in her chair in exhaustion.
Bardolph could see that he was over-taxing Agatha and decided to bring their conversation to an end. He finished filling his bowl with pottage and turned to walk away. ‘Then I bid you a goodly night, dear lady,’ he said. ‘May you sleep well, and may your many fond memories fill you with pleasant dreams this night.’
Agatha cackled. ‘And a goodly night to you too young man,’ she said. ‘For my dreams this night will be sweeter since reminding me of days long past.’ Bardolph moved to a vacant table. As he spooned his pottage he mused upon the things he had just learned. What he had heard would probably bear little or no significance upon his life, but all the same he felt better for knowing a little piece of Lodelowe history.
The nuns of Wistanstow were in a state of deep shock. Sister Anne had sinned and brought disgrace upon the order. The novice had been assigned to the orchards and with summer giving way to autumn, the apples on the trees were almost ripe. Sister Anne’s instructions were implicit. Those apples that had fallen in the recent storms were to be collected, placed in baskets and taken to the kitchens.
But one large rosy apple never reached the kitchens. Instead the apple found its way beneath the habit of Sister Anne to be consumed in her cell that evening. But Sister Maud, much wiser and more devout, spotted the misdemeanour and informed the head of the order. Now, with matins concluded and the sun about to rise, it was time for Sister Anne to confess her sins and suffer whatever punishment the Abbess thought merited such a wicked crime.
The office of the Abbess was austere. Just a heavy wooden table cut from oak yet unstained. On it burned a single candle, a strip of sealing wax, a feathered quill and an inkwell filled with distinctive light blue ink. Beyond the table stood a chair; it was simple in design with straight back and unpolished wood. The candle cast a flickering light about the room. On one wall hung a huge wooden cross with a gilded body of Christ nailed upon it. Against a second wall stood wooden shelves stacked with books, manuscripts and scrolls. These were the records and communications between the abbey and families of the sisters at the nunnery. At the centre of the table rested a solitary rosy-red apple.
On the chair sat Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, sister of the Earl of Salopsbury, but here at the nunnery she went by another title. Here she was the Abbess of Wistanstow, or to use her more accepted title, the nunnery’s Mother Superior. The Abbess was seated at the table, her back straight, fingers drumming on the surface. To the front of her knelt a young novice, her head bowed and her young freckled face hidden beneath her wimple. The Abbess collected the apple from the table and held it aloft. With voice deep with despair she addressed the young novice.
‘Sister Anne you have sinned and brought wicked shame upon this Holy Order,’ she told the novice. ‘So just what am I going to do with you?’
Sister Anne knew that she must not answer. The Abbess was only thinking aloud. Kneeling before the table and running a rosary through her fingers, the young novice could tell from the tone of the Abbess’s voice that whatever punishment she meted out, it would be harsh. There would almost certainly be tasks of scrubbing and cleaning that would wear away the nails from the fingers. There was also the threat of the lash. She dreaded the thought of the lash, but was ready to accept this punishment should the Abbess think it a fit chastisement for her sins. But there was something far worse; something far more dreadful a fate that could befall her, and she hoped it would not come to this. Far worse would be her transfer to the other side of the abbey for correction. Only the most dreadful of sins warranted correction, but deep down she knew that what she had done ranked up there with one of the worst.
The Abbess, deep in shock, shook her head from side to side. ‘Sister Anne you have sinned greatly,’ she told the novice. ‘It has been a long time since a sister of this order hath committed a crime that doth warrant such severe punishment. I can administer my own punishment, and this I will do. But I must also consult with the Abbot and hear his thoughts on the matter. Correction over on the other side may well be in order.’
The Abbess continued to shake her head from side to side. This hurt her as much as it did the young novice. However she could think of no other course of action other than to refer Sister Anne’s misdemeanour to a higher authority. The situation was not ideal, and not what she wanted, but what other option did she have?
With some reluctance she made her decision. ‘Sister Anne,’ she told the novice after a period of deep thought, ‘I personally will administer this nunnery’s punishment. You are to receive twenty-four lashes of the whip; one for every hour of the day. You must return to your cell immediately, remove your novice’s attire and wait there until you are called. I am informed that the Abbot hath returned from his journey to Lodelowe and attends matins as we speak. But as soon as his morning worship is over I will seek an audience. I will send a message across to the other side that I wish to speak with him. I must be guided by his knowledge of the law and by what he has to say on the matters of theft. There is no place in this order for thieves. So go now Sister Anne, return to your cell, prepare yourself and pray. Pray forgiveness and pray to God that he gives you strength.’
Sister Anne rose, and bending low and walking backwards, made her way to the door. The punishment of the whip was inevitable, she accepted this, and already she was praying for strength and forgiveness. However she had no wish to be handed over to the other side for the second part of her punishment. This would be the worst punishment of all. She had heard other nuns of the order; nuns much older and wiser, tell tales of sisters being taken across to the other side of the abbey for correction. And what they did to young nuns filled her with both horror and dread.
Surely any punishment meted out by the Abbot was not for her? Surely the Abbess would not take council from the Abbot and agree to send her across to the other side? She was nothing but a mere novice and as yet unschooled in the teachings of this abbey’s religious order.
As daylight began to break, and facing each other through the high iron-latticed partition that divided the Abbey’s church, the Abbot and Abbess met. After their formal greetings and prayers in Latin, the conversation turned to Sister Anne and her misdemeanour.
Having explained the problem and what punishment the wayward sister was already due to expect, the Abbess queried of the Abbot. ‘Then what more, if any, must be done with our wayward novice?’
The Abbot turned pensive. For a while he closed his eyes and put his chubby hands together in prayer. Eventually he came to a conclusion. ‘You have put to her that she may be handed over to this side of the abbey for correction?’
‘I have told her so,’ confirmed the Abbess.
‘And she agrees?’ returned the Abbot. ‘She gives no objection?’
‘I have told her so and she holds no objection,’ assured the Abbess. ‘She is fully aware of the error of her ways and is deeply repentant.’
The Abbot turned pensive once more. Putting his hands together and bringing to his face in prayer. After a long pause he spoke again. ‘Then correction it must be. God’s will must be done,’ he said eventually. ‘It has been a long time since we had a thief amongst our sacred order. Bring her here to the gate and I will have her collected.’
‘I will organise it,’ returned the Abbess. ‘Sister Anne will be waiting at the gate after matins on the morrow. Today I will administer my own punishment.’
‘Praise be to God,’ responded the Abbot. ‘Send her prepared and I will see to it personally that the devil is purged from her soul, and that she be returned to the Sisterhood a more devout and god-fearing Christian.’
‘Praise be to God,’ echoed the Abbess.
‘Praise be to God’ repeated the Abbot.
And with that the two moved away to kneel before the altar and pray. Both remained close together with only the iron grating that divided the church keeping them apart.
There was nothing more to be said. Sister Anne’s fate was decided. It would start within the hour, when twenty-four lashes would be administered, and conclude the following day with correction over on the other side of the Abbey.
A little later that day, behind the abbey walls, a ceremony was about to take place. Sister Anne was to receive the first of her two punishments. A high latticed fence ran down the middle of the garden to the rear of the church. Against the fence, on the nunnery side of the abbey stood a pear tree. The trunk was tall and straight, and its pruned branches stretched out horizontally to the ground.
Stood around the tree in a semi-circle gathered the nuns of the order. All were assembled for the Abbess had bid that all should attend the nunneries punishment of Sister Anne. Over on the other side of the fence there stood a small line of monks. The Abbot was amongst them. Unlike the nuns the monks were not obliged to attend and some had moved to the church to pray.
Once all were assembled the Abbess called Sister Anne to the garden. The novice was already stripped of her habit and entered the garden wearing nothing more than a sleeveless linen vest. Her head was shaven with only a covering of ginger stubble showing. With head bowed Sister Anne knelt before the tree and, clutching at her rosary and a crucifix, began to pray for forgiveness.
A senior sister of the order moved forward. In her hands she carried a chalice of holy water, a whip and two short lengths of rope. She handed the ropes to the Abbess.
‘Sister Anne, the time has come. Remove your vest and bare your back,’ said the Abbess.
Remaining on her knees and facing the tree, Sister Anne removed the vest and placed it on the ground. Now completely naked she rose to her feet and signalled to the Abbess that she was ready.
The Abbess stepped forward and tied the two ropes to each of Sister Anne’s wrists. She then edged her closer to the tree and lashed her wrists to the horizontal branches so that the novice stood facing the truck with arms outstretched. In one hand she clutched a rosary and in the other she gripped a crucifix. The Abbess, in a final act of preparation, called for the chalice of holy water. She dipped two fingers into the vessel and splashed droplets upon the novice’s freckled back. She repeated this several times and concluded with a little prayer. Now she was ready. She handed back the chalice and in return collected the whip. It was a long thin whip of plaited hide, and to gain a feel she flicked her wrist and listened to the crack. She did it a second time and then a third. Finally she gave a little nod of approval. It was a long time since she had handled a whip, but now she was ready.
Once accustomed to the feel of the whip, she turned to Sister Anne. ‘Sister Anne,’ she said and speaking aloud so all should hear, ‘it is by order of the authority invested in me, and by this most holy and religious order that you are sentenced to receive twenty-four lashes of the whip, one for every hour of the day. We do this in order to amend your ways. Afterwards it has been decreed that you receive further correction from the Abbot personally, and for this you are to be taken to the other side so that your evil ways may once and for all be purged from your body, and that you be returned to the nunnery a more devout and believing Christian.’
Having explained the sentence, the Abbess turned to the sisters of the order. ‘Come sisters let us all kneel and pray for Sister Anne,’ she said. ‘Pray that the evil that is within her be cast away, and that the devil’s presence be driven from this holy place for ever.’
All knelt in prayer, and from the other side of the lattice fence the Abbot began to recite a verse in Latin. The service was long and solemn, and ended with a chant from the handful of monks that elected to attend the ceremony.
A silence descended over both sides of the lattice fence as the Abbess raised the whip and held it high. ‘Are you ready Sister Anne?’ she asked: ‘Ready to receive your punishment?’
From her position facing the tree Sister Anne nodded her head. ‘I am ready Holy Mother,’ she said, biting her bottom lip.
‘Then pray Sister Anne. Pray for God’s forgiveness, and pray loudly so that we all can hear,’ said the Abbess.
The Abbess took a deep breath, raised her whip arm high above her head, braced herself, then swung her arm down and forwards.
Sister Anne screamed as the whip raked across her bare back. Immediately a red welt appeared and began to swell up along the full length of the mark left by the lash. She pulled hard on the ropes that bound her wrists, and with clenched fists grasped her rosary and crucifix and, as she had been instructed, prayed loudly so that all that were gathered about her should hear her call for forgiveness.
As the sound of Sister Anne’s screams faded the monks, observing through the lattice fence, began their intonations. ‘Uno pro Christianis cunctis,’ they chanted. [One for all the Christians.] To conclude the Abbot recited a special little prayer to accompany the chant.
For a while silence descended upon the garden, the only noise coming from Sister Anne as she gulped for air in an effort to regain her breath. However, she knew what was wanted and was determined to play her part. She had been instructed to pray and keep on praying. But to do this she needed to breathe. As the pain eased, but still gasping loudly, she recited a little prayer for forgiveness.
The Abbess remained patient. She held the whip high and waited, and only when Sister Anne’s prayers were concluded did she strike for the second time. As the whip cracked loudly and echoed about the garden, the monks chanted for a second time.
They sang; ‘Duo pro sororibus vanis.’ [Two for the loose sister.]
And so the ceremony went on, a sequence of whip, incantations and blessings.
‘Tres pro penitentibus,’ [Three for the penitent,] chanted the monks after the third stroke.
‘Quatro pro fratribus perversis,’ [Four for the errant brethren,] for the fourth.
‘Quinquies pro vivis.’ [Five for the living.]
‘Sexies pro fidelibus defunctis.’ [Six for the faithful dead.]
And so it went on until all twenty-four strokes had been administered.
On conclusion and with final prayers said, the Abbess led the nuns away, leaving Sister Anne alone and tied to the tree. She would be cut down later and her welts attended to; but not until she had time to reflect on her misdemeanour.
As the door to the nunnery closed, the Abbot handed two keys to a senior monk. Only the Abbot and Abbess held such keys. These were the keys that would gain access to the nunnery, and the only way through was via the church. A route always barred and locked by two gates.
As the senior monk collected the keys, the Abbot spoke his intentions. ‘On the morrow, on conclusion of morning prayers, go to the other side and collect Sister Anne. She will be waiting at the gate,’ he said. ‘Take her to my chamber in the crypt. I will attend to her later in the day and personally administer the second of her corrections.’
Bardolph kicked at his horse and set off from the stables. Dawn was breaking as he emerged from the alleyway that ran alongside the Golden Lion Inn. He was aiming for the coppice that overlooked the abbey at Wistanstow. For here he knew to be a good place to find rabbits, and before he set off home he intended to travel with a plentiful supply of food for his birds.
From the inn it was but a short distance to the high humped-back bridge that spanned the River Onney. As Bardolph reached the bridge he cocked an ear. A horse at a gallop was approaching from the south. As the horse crested the high point of the bridge Bardolph recognised the rider. It was Corporal Egbert. He pulled up his own horse and waited for the rider to arrive.
The Corporal on seeing Bardolph pulled up his horse too and strained hard on the reins. ‘A goodly morning Sire,’ he said and greeting the Falconer; ‘Me thought you would be many miles south of Lodelowe by now.’
Bardolph collected his thoughts. This was a meeting of ill chance and something he could not have foreseen. He thought quickly. He did not want his presence at Onneyditch to be of concern and a simple explanation was required. There should be no mention of Madeline, but he saw no problem in explaining his presence on the road this early in the morning. Most of it was the truth anyway. ‘Last night I did’st return with the lad Ralph to Onneyditch,’ he told Corporal Egbert. ‘For one good favour deserves another. Now, having refreshed myself with a goodly night’s sleep at the inn, I does’t intend to continue on with my journey south. But before I go I must bag myself some rabbits, for my birds are short of fresh meat.’
Egbert readily accepted Bardolph’s explanation. ‘Then I pray Sire that thou does’t hunt well,’ he said, ‘but I must tarry no longer, for my mission is to make Salopsbury before the setting of the sun. I have here in my saddlebag despatches that announce the forthcoming trial of the Lady Adela. It is in my charge to herald these despatches to Salopsbury and to present them to the Earl in person.’
Bardolph was well aware that the journey to Salopsbury was a good twelve hours ride at a steady canter, and twelve hours was about all the daylight available with the month of September now upon them. ‘Then go, pray make the haste you require my friend, and may God and St. Christopher go with you,’ he said and wishing Egbert a safe journey.
Egbert saluted with clenched fist across the chest, then dug his spurs into the horse and set off at a gallop. Bardolph waited until the rider was well out of sight, then at a more leisurely pace, pursued him north along the same road. The road to Wistanstow was nothing but a track, badly maintained and well rutted, and Bardolph saw the danger in galloping. He hoped that Egbert recognised the danger too and would ride warily over the ruts.
With Wistanstow Abbey in sight Bardolph pulled up from a canter. A horse and cart stood in the middle of the road barring his way. Next to the cart there stood two peasants. They were looking down upon ditch. As Bardolph drew close he saw the cause of their concern. A horse and rider lay in the ditch. The rider looked badly hurt, and his horse writhed in agony.
Bardolph dismounted and climbed down into the ditch. ‘Egbert, you have fallen badly!’ he exclaimed. ‘Pray tell me, what damage hath been done?’
Corporal Egbert lay clutching his shin. He grimaced before speaking. ‘It is my lower leg Sire. It is broken below the knee, and my horse, me thinks that he too hath broken a fetlock,’ he told Bardolph.
One of the peasants, calling down, tried to explain. ‘Sire, the soldier did’st come upon us fast,’ he said. ‘To pass us by he rode upon the ditch and his horse did’st stumble. Sire, he gave us no warning. No chance to get out of the way.’
Bardolph stood upright in the ditch and looked about him. The abbey was not far away. The white painted walls could be seen clearly beyond a field of wheat. Bardolph looked up from the ditch and addressed the peasants. ‘I need your cart,’ he told them. ‘I will’st set a splint against his leg, then he must be taken to the abbey. The monks will tend his injuries.’
Bardolph looked about him. To either side of the rutted track the fields danced to a sway of golden wheat. The nearest trees lay some distance away and the only timber suitable enough to make a splint lay upon the cart. Bardolph climbed from the ditch, ripped a plank from the cart and broke it in two with a foot. This would do for a splint.
As Corporal Egbert bit hard on a piece of leather, Bardolph set the broken bone and strapped the planks tightly to either side. ‘There!’ he said as he tied the final knot. ‘This splint will hold the bones in place. I will’st get you to the abbey. The monks will know what to do. But fear not my friend. This break is clean and will heal. Your leg will be straight and fit to walk again within weeks.’
Bardolph moved to inspect the fallen horse. Once more he felt saddened; Corporal Egbert was right, a fetlock was broken. Drawing his longbow he directed an arrow through the eye of the horse and into the brain. As the horse trembled in its death throes, Bardolph collect the saddle and bag and cast them over the back of his own horse.
Bardolph returned to Corporal Egbert and cast an arm about his shoulder. Hopping on one leg and supported by Bardolph, he got to his feet and climbed slowly from the ditch.
‘I will’st get you to the abbey,’ Bardolph told the injured man.
But the Corporal had others ideas. ‘Good Sire, pray lend me your horse, for I must get to Salopsbury this day,’ he said. ‘My despatches must be placed in the hands of the Earl of Salopsbury this very day and before the setting of the sun. I have sworn an oath that this will be done.’
Bardolph shook his head. The Corporal was courageous, but it was obvious he could go no further. For a while Bardolph considered how best to help, and he saw two possibilities. One, he could return to Lodelowe and call for help; and two, he could deliver the despatches himself. Neither option appealed. To return to Lodelowe would alert the Baron’s men to Madeline, and to travel to Salopsbury would delay his journey south by another three, possibly four days. He also had his birds to consider. But thankfully on this score he had Ralph. His birds would remain in safe hands if he were to take the journey north.
Bardolph came to a decision. Of the two options he felt it best not to return to Lodelowe. The two men in the forest, though dressed in civilian clothes, talked and acted like soldiers. And if they were, then news of Madeline’s capture and escape could very well have reached the ears of the Baron by now. And what if his horse or Ralph had been seen at the forest’s edge whilst he was away? Suspicion of his continuing presence may lead them to the stables at Onneyditch. No, all things considered, it was best he did not return to Lodelowe. This option was far too risky. He therefore saw only one choice open to him. He personally would take the Baron’s despatches to Salopsbury.
Bardolph conveyed his intentions to Corporal Egbert. ‘No Egbert, I must take you to the abbey,’ he insisted. ‘The monks will care for you. But do not despair, your despatches will get through, for I personally will take them to Salopsbury, this I does’t solemnly swear.’
Egbert gripped Bardolph’s hand. ‘Then I must thank you good Sire, for I have failed in my duty,’ he said. ‘Look at me, a cripple with a broken leg. News of this accident must reach Captain Osbald. It was he that did’st entrusted me with such an important mission. He must be informed.’
Bardolph squeezed Egbert’s hand in return. ‘On my return from Salopsbury I will revisit the abbey,’ he said. ‘God willing you may ride with me to Lodelowe and tell the good Captain for yourself. For I have treated this break before. With the aid of splints and a goodly few days rest you will be fit to ride again, of this I am certain.’
Two soldiers pulled up from the gallop. Heavy topcoats concealed their uniforms. They were at the top of a rise and Salopsbury was in sight. Unlike Lodelowe with its outer town walls, inner castle and defensive keep, Salopsbury Castle stood aloft and isolated above what was a sprawling shamble of hovels and houses. There was no outer defence to the city other than the river. Here the great sweeping bow of the River Severn protected all that dwelt within, and apart from the castle’s gate to the rear, the only other access to the city was via a stone bridge that spanned the river to the west. This bridge was fortified, with two square block towers and gates that were always locked during the hours of darkness.
Morning was breaking and a thin line of red sky to the east glowed dimly above the ramparts of the castle as the riders moved down from the rise. They had ridden hard through the night and now moved at a gentler pace. After arousing the slumbering overnight guard at the gates, they crossed the bridge and passed on through the narrow streets of the town. Eventually they reached the rise in the ground that led to the castle. At the top of the winding road they passed beneath the castle’s portcullis and into the courtyard beyond.
In the cold morning air the pale-blue banners bearing the three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgeralds hung limply above the ramparts. The flags flew to celebrate the inauguration of the new Earl. With horses still steaming from their overnight run, the two soldiers dismounted, cast their reins towards an awaiting stable lad and sped hurriedly towards the reception hall of the castle.
The Earl was an early riser and normally at this time of day he would be enjoying his first meal. But on hearing news of his men’s arrival he moved quickly to his chambers. With the Earl seated upon his high chair, he dismissed his attendants and summonsed the two soldiers to enter the room. They strode briskly though the doorway, their swords and armour rattling as they moved. Their topcoats were gone and both displayed the blue tunic and three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgeralds. Gold tassels upon the shoulders of one of the soldiers signified a Captain. The other soldier bore the red tassels of a Sergeant. There was also something else. Both wore chain-mail hoods upon their heads to conceal deep gashes in their scalps.
‘Greetings Captain Clarence and Sergeant Godfred,’ the Earl called across the chamber. ‘Come and join me, for I am eager to hear what news thou does’t bring of my late cousin’s pretty little Norman wife.’
Both men dropped to one knee and bowed their heads. The Captain’s message was brief and well rehearsed, but hopefully conveyed all. ‘The news is not good my Liege,’ he said. ‘Lady Adela remains alive. She is a prisoner of Baron de Clancey and is to stand trial for robbery and murder.’
The Earl gripped the arms of his chair. This was not the news he was expecting and he fought hard to control his anger. ‘What!’ he exclaimed; ‘Lady Adela still alive! And a prisoner of Baron de Clancey! Surely this cannot be! What has happened to our plan?’
Captain Clarence was prepared for the Earl’s outburst. Keeping his head lowered so as not to make eye contact, he began to explain the best he could, for he was not fully aware of all the facts. ‘Lady Adela and her companions were waylaid by soldiers of Lodelowe some miles north of the Abbey at Wistanstow. A fight ensued and the men that escorted her were slain. Lady Adela and her handmaiden were then taken under guard to Lodelowe. We did’st rendezvous with the Welsh brigands and had our ambush prepared, but our wait was in vain since they never appeared.’
The Earl thumped the arm of his chair. All his careful planning had come to nothing. He shook his head in disbelief. ‘So Captain, are you telling me that Lady Adela and her party never reached the Abbey at Wistanstow?’
Captain Clarence shook his head. ‘My Liege, our plan was to waylay the party on the morning of their departure from the abbey,’ he explained. ‘The journey south from the abbey passes through the Forest of Wyre, and it was there we lay in wait. We had, like you had arranged, my Liege, met with the men of Lord Llywelyn, and all lay in wait in the forest, but by then and unbeknown to us, Lady Adela was already taken prisoner.’
The Earl sighed and shook his head. This was not the news he had expected. His plan had been foolproof, or so he thought. Lady Adela was to be ambushed by Welsh brigands from across the border. He had dealt directly with the Welsh Lord, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, and negotiated a heavy price for his services.
The Earl for a while sat dumbfounded and gripping hard at the arms of his chair. He could not bring himself to believe that Lady Adela remained alive and was now being held captive at Lodelowe. Furthermore, if what his Captain had said was true then she also stood accused of robbery and murder. The Earl shook his head in disbelief. Surely this could not be so? There had to be some mistake? Lady Adela’s party had clearance from the Council of the Marches. There was no way she could have been arrested, and Baron de Clancey would not be so foolhardy as to do such a thing, since safe passage for all had been decreed throughout all of the Marches.
The Earl shook his head. He wanted to know more. ‘Captain, tell me the rest of the story,’ he said; ‘You said Lady Adela was now a prisoner of the de Clancey’s and that she stands trial for robbery and murder. How can this be? Surely you have heard this wrong?’
Captain Clarence answered the best he could. ‘It appears my Liege that some three weeks back Baron de Clancey’s strongroom was raided, a guard killed and a considerable amount of treasure taken,’ he explained. ‘An item of jewellery found upon Lady Adela was from the strongroom, a necklace that did’st once belonged to the Baron’s father. Then there was another item found, this time in the possession of Lady Adela’s handmaiden. The handmaiden, the kitchen maid chosen by you to accompany Lady Adela, hath already been brought to trial. We were present at the trial. The handmaiden was found guilty of robbery and murder and she is to be hanged.’
The Earl pondered long and hard, and slowly came to the conclusion that perhaps this was not bad news after all. If Lady Adela were to be found guilty then she too would be hanged. But he remained troubled. ‘Then the trial of Lady Adela hath not yet taken place?’
Captain Clarence shook his head. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he said. ‘We rode through the night. A herald follows with the news. Lady Adela’s trial takes place in six days time.’
The Earl stroked his beard and a hint of a smile touched his lips. If Lady Adela were to be found guilty then her secrets would die with her, and Baron de Clancey would have done his dirty work for him. After the hanging her body would be returned with due pomp and ceremony to Salopsbury and laid to rest in the family chapel.
Feeling a little better after seeing things in a different light, the Earl’s thoughts turned to the Lord Llywelyn and the services of his men from across the border, for a little matter of payment remained unresolved. ‘Where are the Welsh brigands now?’ he asked. ‘Have they returned across the border?’
Clarence shook his head. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he replied, ‘on our departure they were insistent on payment. They argued that the money was agreed regardless of the outcome. We have ridden one day ahead of them. On leaving it was agreed we meet again this very night at the twentieth milestone marker set alongside the road deep within the woods at Longnor.’
The Earl recalled his own clandestine meeting with the Lord Llywelyn. They had met at midnight at his hunting lodge at Longnor. They had agreed a price of one hundred gold sovereigns for his services. But nothing had been put down in writing and as far as he could recall failure had not been considered. Both were confident of the outcome. ‘How many brigands did the Lord Llywelyn send to do this deed?’
‘Five my Liege,’ answered Clarence. ‘They considered five enough to overpower three escorts.’
The Earl pondered for a while. ‘Five you say?’ he said. ‘And they will be rendezvousing with you in the woods at Longnor this very night?’
Clarence nodded his head. ‘Aye my Liege, tonight at midnight, at the twentieth milestone marker,’ he confirmed.
The Earl sighed. Even though he hated parting with the money he considered it best to pay up. He had no wish to suffer the Lord Llywelyn’s wrath, which would almost certainly be the case if he reneged on the deal. ‘Then you must meet with these brigands and pay them what is owed. It grieves me that this must be done. But at present Salopsbury enjoys peace with our Gaelic speaking neighbours from across the border and it is best it remains this way. I will order one hundred gold sovereigns to be taken from my strongroom. That is all Captain. You may go.’
Clarence bowed his head and took one step backwards. ‘I will see to it personally that the brigands are paid my Liege,’ he said. ‘I will’st also insist that they return with much haste across the border.’
As the Earl waved a hand of departure, Captain Clarence saluted with clenched fist across his chest. He then turned and walked briskly from the hall, and with Sergeant Godfred following in his wake. But Captain Clarence had a different plan. If five brigands were to disappear and never be seen or heard of again, then who was to know whether they had been paid or not?
The cart carrying Corporal Egbert rumbled to a stop before the abbey gates. Bardolph rode alongside. Brambles of wild roses encased the high outer walls. The gates were closed but not locked, and Bardolph dismounted and opened them. The path inside led directly to the church: To the left stood the monastery, to the right the nunnery. A strict order of internal walls and partitions divided the abbey. Entry to either the monastery or the nunnery was only possible via the church.
Bardolph tethered his horse and climbed the steps to the church. He removed his feathered hat and entered. The interior was dark and lit only by a few candles. Before the altar there knelt several monks in prayer. An iron lattice partition ran down the centre of the church, segregating the monks from the nuns and immediately inside the door there stood another iron partition. To enter the church you had to pass through one of two gates; one leading to the monastery the other to the nunnery. Both gates were locked and behind the entrance door hung a bell. Bardolph rang the bell and waited.
On the monastery side of the church several monks were knelt in prayer. On the nunnery side there knelt but one sister. She was facing the altar but at a distance, kneeling to the back of the church and close to the gate where Bardolph stood.
On hearing the ringing of the bell Brother Dominic rose and walked to the back of the church. Through the bars of the locked gate he addressed the tall and elegant stranger stood to the other side. ‘Good day Sire,’ he said. ‘Pray what brings you to our humble place of worship?’
Bardolph acknowledged with a courteous bow. ‘I am no stranger to the Abbot of Wistanstow,’ he replied; ‘For he knows me both by sight and name. But this is not my plight and not the reason for my coming. There is a man outside with a broken leg and his injury needs attending.’
As Bardolph was speaking two monks entered the church via a door near the altar. Brother Dominic looked around, saw who was coming and nodded his head. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘It seems we have the key by which you may enter. Pray bring in the injured man so that we may tend to his leg.’
Bardolph moved to the church door and from the top of the steps signalled down to Corporal Egbert and the peasants to join him. Behind Bardolph the two approaching monks unlocked firstly the gate to the monastery; then on passing, unlocked the gate to the nunnery.
As the two monks passed through the second gate Bardolph questioned what was going on, for he thought this to be wrong. ‘Brother, does’t not my eyes deceive me?’ he said; ‘Two of your holy order entering the nunnery! Can this be right?’
Brother Dominic nodded his head. ‘A young novice of our order has sinned and is being passed to the Holy Father for correction,’ he explained. ‘She is there now and awaiting their presence.’
Bardolph had little time to ponder upon the explanation. The peasants were already aiding Corporal Egbert up the steps and into the church. With the Corporal’s arms about their shoulders and hopping on his one good leg, he made their task easy. Bardolph ushered Corporal Egbert through to the awaiting Brother Dominic. Like all monks of the order, protocol forbade Brother Dominic from passing out through the gate and into the outside world without the permission of the Abbot.
Not wanting strangers to encroach any further, Brother Dominic held up a hand. ‘Pray leave the injured man here,’ he said. ‘The brethren of this order will tend to his injuries.’
The peasants laid Corporal Egbert down by the gate, for the luxury of chairs did not exist in either half of the church.
Bardolph knelt down by the Corporal’s side and gripped his hand. ‘I must bid you a fond farewell my friend,’ he said. ‘I go now to Salopsbury. For that which you were entrusted to do will be done. I personally will deliver your despatches to the Earl. Of this I give you my oath. In this holy house and before God as witness, I swear that this shall be so.’
Corporal Egbert squeezed Bardolph’s hand. ‘Then God speed my friend,’ he said. ‘And pray do have better luck than me. Ride north to Salopsbury and do what I have failed to do.’
As Bardolph spoke the creaking of an iron gate made him turn and look up. The two monks were returning. Between them they escorted the sister that had been praying on the other side of the gate. She looked in pain and was crying. As the party passed by the sister recognised Corporal Egbert. For a moment she stopped and looked down upon the soldier lying on the floor.
‘Egbert!’ she croaked, her voice strained.
At first Corporal Egbert did not recognise the young novice in her nun’s attire. ‘Anne?’ he questioned.
Sister Anne smiled but could say no more. It was wrong to speak other than in prayer in God’s house. Even to stop momentarily was wrong. Quickly she turned and moved on with her escorts.
Corporal Egbert returned the smile but like Anne said no more. Both he and Bardolph felt concern for the young novice, but knew it to be wrong to question the ways of this Holy Order. The regime in a place such as this was fully dependent on a strict code of conduct. Both sides of the abbey were dedicated to a life of celibacy and religious seclusion, and any young novice would have been made aware of this strict regime before taking her vows.
As Sister Anne and the monks escorting her disappeared from the church, Bardolph queried what he had just witnessed. ‘Pray tell me Egbert, who was that novice?’ he asked. ‘She spoke your name if I am not mistaken.’
The Corporal waited for the door to close before replying. ‘That my dear friend is the daughter of Sergeant Cuthred,’ he said. ‘That is Anne, his one and only child from a marriage that is sadly ended. His wife passed away some two years back, and it was always his daughter’s wish to take up Holy Vows. I did not know that it had been done. But it seems that her wish hath come true. I am pleased for her.’ Then with a deep sigh and sounding much concerned, he added; ‘but pray what is happening to her? Surely to enter this side of the abbey cannot be right?’
Bardolph squeezed Egbert’s hand. ‘I believe that she hath sinned and is to be taken before the Abbot for correction,’ he said. ‘But I know little else. Perhaps with you at the abbey you may be permitted to enquire as to her health and conduct.’
Egbert nodded his head. ‘I will do just that good Sire,’ he said. ‘I have known Anne since she was a child and she hath brought me much pleasure watching her grow up into a fine young lady.’
Brother Dominic intervened, for it was not fitting to have this many intruders within his church. There remained monks at prayer and their devotion to God was paramount. ‘Good Sires, pray leave us now,’ he said. ‘The soldier is in good hands. This Holy Order will look after him and tend to his injury.’ Bardolph rose to his feet. Already the peasants had moved to the exit. Bardolph turned to step through the gate.
‘Then Egbert, I leave you in safe and caring hands,’ he said. ‘I will return in two days time to enquire of your progress. Perchance we may ride together to Lodelowe. Let us wait and see how quickly thou does’t heal.’
Egbert smiled. The splint was tight and the bones held straight. The injury would mend, and quickly he hoped. Egbert called to Bardolph as he passed out through the gate. ‘Good speed to Salopsbury my friend,’ he said; ‘and may God and St. Christopher go with you.’
Brother Dominic pushed the gate shut and enquired of Bardolph. ‘You did’st mention that you were known to the Abbot of this order,’ he said. ‘Then pray whom shall I say delivered this soldier to us?’
Bardolph turned to Brother Dominic. ‘When you see the Abbot, tell him it was Bardolph of Wessex, Royal Falconer to the King of England that did’st call upon your Holy Order. The good Abbot and I did’st serve together at the Court of Baron de Clancey only yesterday. He will know of whom you speak.’
Brother Dominic bowed his head in respect. ‘It is indeed an honour and a privilege to do service to a servant of the King.’
As Bardolph spoke the Abbess of Wistanstow arrived. She carried a large key and was about to lock the gate to the nunnery for it had been left ajar. Bardolph turned and greeted her with a touch to his forelock.
The Abbess acknowledged Bardolph’s greeting by holding up an open hand. She had only heard the end of the conversation, but what she had heard aroused her curiosity. ‘Did’st I not hear you say you are a servant of the King?’ she asked through the bars of the gate.
Bardolph bowed. ‘Holy Mother, I am indeed a servant of the King,’ he told her. ‘My title is Royal Falconer, and my home is in the King’s New Forest in the ancient Kingdom of Wessex. My name is Bardolph, and you, Holy Mother, you must be the Abbess of Wistanstow?’
The Abbess responded with a nod to the head. ‘Pray forgive me good Sire for not introducing myself with the dignity this order requires,’ she said. ‘I spoke out of turn and will do penitence for my sins. But you are right good Sire; I am indeed the Abbess of Wistanstow. That is my title here. This and Mother Superior, for I am indeed the head of this most devout and Holy Order.’
Bardolph raised a hand. ‘A penitence is not required Holy Mother, for no offence was taken,’ he said. Then seeing a signet ring upon her finger, and picking up on something he had heard the Abbot mention at the trial of the handmaiden. He enquired; ‘But when not here at the nunnery, then pray tell me Holy Mother, are you not a Fitzgerald by birth?’
The Abbess furrowed her brow. It had been a long time since she was called a Fitzgerald. She became guarded. ‘Yes, I am indeed a Fitzgerald by birth,’ she replied. ‘But I am married to God now and that name no longer applies. But pray tell me good Sire, how did’st you come by this information? And by what importance do you bear upon this fact?’
Bardolph stroked his small beard. He had not intended his remark to cause upset. He pointed to the ring. ‘Is this not the crest of the Fitzgeralds?’ he asked. ‘These three lion heads I have seen before on the soldiers of the Fitzgerald’s, and it’s just that I go there now, to Salopsbury to seek audience with the Earl. I must do what this poor soldier lying on the ground can no longer do. I am now entrusted with this soldier’s despatches, and I did’st swear upon oath that I would deliver them safely to Salopsbury.’
The Abbess looked through the bars to Egbert lying on the floor. She saw his leg in splints and understood. Her gaze returned to her finger and the ring. ‘You are most observant good Sire,’ she said. ‘This ring does indeed bare the crest of the Fitzgeralds. Pray send my good wishes to the Earl. Tell him that you have received these words from the Abbess of Wistanstow. He will understand, for I am the Earl’s sister. I am Elizabeth Fitzgerald.’
Bardolph bowed his head in respect. ‘Then Holy Mother I will’st do just that,’ he said. ‘I will’st inform the Earl that his sister sends her good wishes from the abbey at Wistanstow.’
The Abbess turned the key in the lock. ‘Then God speed to Salopsbury good servant of the King,’ she said, ‘and may St. Christopher go with you.’
Bardolph bowed and stepped towards the door. ‘Then farewell Holy Mother,’ he said, ‘and God remain with you always.’ He then turned and marched quickly out of the building.
Back in daylight Bardolph donned his feathered hat and for a while stood atop the steps. He sniffed the air and cocked an ear towards the coppice on the hill that overlooked the abbey. It was here he had intended to hunt rabbits, but now horses were there, at least half a dozen. Men could stay silent and out of sight, but horses could not. He wondered what this was all about? Could they be soldiers of Lodelowe out looking for Madeline? Could they be following him in the hope he would lead them to her? On reflection he doubted this, and besides if they were he would be leading them away from Onneyditch. He considered the possibility of Welsh raiders, but dismissed this idea too. The monks and nuns here led a frugal existence and the abbey held little of value.
Bardolph decided to carry on. If the men in the coppice were to follow, then he would soon know. He looked to the sun. Much time had been lost and noon had come and gone. Furthermore he had no intention of making haste and falling into the same trap at Corporal Egbert. The best he could hope was to get within three to four hours journey of Salopsbury.
He descended the steps and called a peasant to his side. He handed him two silver crowns. ‘One of these silver crowns is for you and your friend,’ he said. ‘The other I want you to give to the boy Ralph that tends the stables at Onneyditch. Tell him that I have change of plan and that I now go to Salopsbury, and that he is to tend to my birds until I return. Tell him I will return to Onneyditch in two day’s time. That is all. He will know what to do. He is a capable lad.’
The peasant touched his forelock. His share of the silver crown would feed him and his family for a month. ‘I will do that Sire. I know of the boy Ralph and he will be told,’ he assured the Falconer.
Bardolph transferred the contents of Egbert’s saddlebag to his own and deposited the soldier’s saddle on the steps to the church. There were provisions in the saddlebag as well as despatches. These would see him through the journey to Salopsbury. After taking stock and with one final look around, Bardolph mounted his white horse and set off. His plan was to ride until nightfall and see how far this would get him.
On a hillside overlooking the abbey at Wistanstow, Idwal, the leader of a band of Welsh brigands looked out from the cover of a small coppice. He stood alongside Maredudd, his second in command. He spoke to Maredudd. His language was that of the Welsh Gaels.
‘The visitors to the abbey are leaving. It is time for us to act. Come, let us descend the hill.’
Five men armed with swords and daggers, but wearing no armour, mounted their horses and set off down the hill towards the abbey. Their attire was that of faded Welsh tartan and their hair was long and plaited. They rode in a line with a tethered riderless horse bringing up the rear.
Idwal was a good leader and no fool, and was wary of his midnight tryst with the Captain of Salopsbury. To ride into the woods at Longnor after dark would be fraught with danger. He knew this. However what else could he do? What other choice did he have? To return to Lord Llywelyn’s castle at Dolwyddelan without payment by Salopsbury would prove just as dangerous. Lord Llywelyn was no lover of failure. Idwal therefore needed a safeguard and he had a plan. It was simple in the making and he could foresee no flaws. He planned to kidnap the Abbess of Wistanstow and take her with him to Longnor. He considered it to be fair exchange; the Earl’s sister for one hundred gold sovereigns.
The abbey walls were high, but for Idwal and his band this proved no obstacle. They had scouted earlier and knew that the walls could be scaled easily at many points due to the abundance of trees. Those that grew within the grounds had branches that stretched out beyond the walls, and those on the outside sprouted branches that extended well within the perimeter of the abbey. At one convenient point branches from trees both within the grounds and outside the wall met to form a bridge. It was here, beneath the branches of a large oak, the riders dismounted and looked about them. Hopefully they had not been seen. But at least here on the side furthest away from the road they were out of sight.
Four men scaled the oak using the saddles of their horses to reach the lower branches. A fifth man stayed behind to tend the horses. With Idwal leading they moved along the branches and dropped down into the gardens of the nunnery. A sister, hoeing between rows of vegetables, squealed loudly as four men dropped down from the branches of a tree. She was grabbed immediately and a dagger held to her throat.
‘Take us to the Abbess,’ Idwal demanded as the point his dagger pressed hard against her throat.
The sister had little choice but to obey and set off for the nunnery with the dagger held firmly to her throat. Other sisters in the garden stood rooted to the spot, mostly in shock and too terrified to move. Some dropped to the knees and began to pray, but no one argued or mounted any protest. This was not done in a house of God.
The men were taken into the building and once inside led along several corridors. The sister came to a halt before a door and pointed. She was terrified. ‘This is the Abbess’s room,’ she said trembling.
The men tossed the nun to one side and she crashed against the opposite wall. She was hurt badly, but survival instincts told her to get up and get out of there fast. She made straight for her cell and bolted the door.
The Abbess was seated at her desk when the door burst open. She was about to put quill to paper. She remained calm as four men entered. She reminded them; ‘This is a house of God. Men are forbidden here. What do you want?’
Idwal grinned. ‘Not what, but who; we want you,’ he said as he rounded the desk, produced a dagger and held it before her face.
‘This is a place of worship and we hold nothing of value here. You will not get a ransom,’ she told the man, sounding calm despite the obvious danger. The quill and paper spread before the Abbess gave Idwal an idea. He pressed the dagger firmly to her throat.
‘I want you to write a letter for me,’ he told her, ‘a letter to your brother, the Earl of Salopsbury. I want you to tell him that you are being held prisoner, and unless he hands over the money promised to the Lord Llywelyn, then you are to die.’
Idwal thrust the quill in the Abbess’s hand into the pot of ink. ‘Write,’ he told her.
The Abbess put quill to paper. ‘Frater veni ne me mori facias,’ she wrote in Latin. [Brother, come, do not let me die.]
Idwal saw what was written and pressed his dagger to the Abbess’s throat. A trickle of blood appeared.
‘Write in a language I understand,’ he told her. ‘Write in the language of the Saxons.’
The Abbess, with hand visibly shaking, moved the pen a little further down the page and began to write once more. This time the message read; ‘Brother, I am being held prisoner. Pray do as they ask.’ She then finished with the single word, ‘Elifabeth’.
When she was done Idwal grabbed the Abbess’s hand. A gold signet ring bearing the three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgerald’s rested upon a finger. He tore it away and the Abbess squealed. ‘A little token to prove it is indeed the Earl’s sister, the Abbess of Wistanstow we hold,’ he told her.
As the Abbess rubbed at her bruised finger Idwal withdrew his dagger and stepped aside. ‘Bind her,’ he instructed, and as he spoke he crossed the floor to inspect a large wooden cross with the body of Christ nailed upon it.
The crucifix was of polished and stained wood and of little value, but the body of Christ was gilded in gold. He pointed to the crucifix and instructed one of his men. ‘Take down the cross,’ he told him. ‘We will take it with us. If we take nothing else, then we will return to Dolwyddelan with at least one item of value.’
Maredudd stepped forward with rope and bound the Abbess’s hands behind her back. Idwal, on seeing they were now ready, collected the parchment from the table and turned to the rest of his men. ‘Come, let us go,’ he told them. ‘We must now make haste to the woods at Longnor. We have a meeting there this very night, and we can’t let the Captain of Salopsbury down.’
The brigands departed the nunnery in a more civilised manner. With the use of the Abbess’s keys they left via the church doors where their horses awaited. They mounted quickly, and with the Abbess placed upon the spare horse, they set off at a canter, for they had a long ride ahead. With them went the gilded crucifix, strung to the back of one of the men.
Bardolph pulled up from a canter and looked to the skies. The position of the sun told him that midday had come and gone. He turned his gaze to the ground and the stream that stood before him. He was back at the ford at Marsh Brook where his misfortunes began. He moved on into the water. Caution was no longer needed. The water level had dropped significantly over the past few days and now barely covered his horse’s hooves.
On the opposite bank Bardolph stopped briefly to look at the grave of the three slain soldiers. From the saddle he said a little prayer for lost souls. Before moving on Bardolph turned to the road he had just travelled and cocked an ear to the wind. A light breeze rustled the leaves and high above a buzzard circled the air, but there was nothing amiss. No one was following, or at least not within three to four miles of the ford. He kicked at his horse and set off at a gentle pace. He considered there to be no point in going any faster. Salopsbury was no longer within reach before nightfall. There was also another reason for not rushing. The gates of Salopsbury closed with the setting of the sun and would not reopen until first light on the morrow. Bardolph had therefore long decided that he would ride as far as he could that day, and as darkness descended make camp for the night. He calculated that it would be mid-morning on the morrow before he reached Salopsbury.
From the ford that marked the boundary between the estates of Salopsbury and Lodelowe, Bardolph rode northward without pause until the setting of sun. As daylight faded he found himself on the edge of dense woodland. A milestone indicated that he was some twenty-two miles from Salopsbury. He had no maps and knew not the name of this forest, but had passed this way on his journey south. The road through the woods was some five miles long. He looked to the setting sun. It would be dark before he reached the other side. He kicked at his horse and moved on into the woods. He would find a secluded spot amongst the trees and make camp for the night.
There was a specific reason for moving off road. For the last two hours a band of riders had been slowly catching up on him. He thought back to the coppice that overlooked the abbey. It could very well be the same horses, but he had no way of telling. It was more than likely they were just travellers heading for Salopsbury, and as for several horses, well there was safety in numbers. After all, this was bandit country with the Welsh border not far away.
Deep in the woods and at a good distance from the road Bardolph stopped and cocked an ear. The horses that followed had not yet reached the woods, but all the same they were not far away. He turned in the saddle and listened to what the trees had to say for they spoke a language he could understand. Drifting on the wind, high amongst the branches and issuing from a point much deeper into the woods, he detected the faint sound of horses whinnying, and these were not just several horses, but many times that number. There could be a hundred or more.
With very little daylight remaining Bardolph decided to press on, and it was not long before he came upon the source of all the reverberations. In a clearing about two miles from the road and set deep in a steep sided valley stood a number of wooden buildings. These were stables, with the sound of many horses in their stalls now clearly audible even to the most untrained ears.
One large stone building was also present in the valley. This was a small square fortified Norman tower that stood remote from all the other buildings and was sited upon a small knoll above a stream. A branch of the stream had been channelled to flow through gardens that held beds of flowers, winding paths, bridges, pavilions and a network of pergolas all overgrown with masses of climbing roses. There was even a swing suspended from the branch of a large ash tree. Bardolph had come upon a hunting lodge, and since he was now deep into the estates of Salopsbury, he concluded that this place, with all its buildings and associated stables, belonged to the Fitzgeralds.
From his high vantage point Bardolph looked down on the stables far below. It was getting quite dark and lights flickered from within the many buildings whilst others moved to-and-fro, suggesting lanterns being carried. He could also hear many voices, people calling, and possibly orders being given. He kicked at his horse with the intention of setting off down the slope but pulled up immediately. More horses were approaching and this time from the opposite direction. These were horses at the gallop, and he estimated the number to be at least a dozen.
With riders closing in on him Bardolph moved deeper into the trees and dismounted. This was his environment. They would never find him here, and perhaps for a while it was best he kept out of sight, at least until he had seen these people and found out what they were doing this deep in the woods. Leaving his horse behind, Bardolph made his way on foot towards the edge of a well-worn track. Here he found himself back at the top of the rise and looking down into the valley below. In one direction the track wound its way down the hillside to the lodge, and on the other trailed back into the woods and most probably issuing from a branch in the road. With the sound of approaching hooves almost upon him, Bardolph moved into the trees and waited.
At the top of the rise where the long descent into the valley began, two riders pulled up their horses whilst the others continued on down into the valley below. The two were soon deep in conversation. Concealed behind bushes Bardolph listened to what was being said, and the more he heard the more interested he became. But it was not the content of the speech that aroused his attention, but the voices of the men doing the talking. He had heard these two voices before, and fairly recently too. These were the voices of the men that had tormented Madeline in the Forest of Wyre.
Bardolph edged a little closer. From his new position he could see and hear things more clearly. For a start he could identify the riders. These were soldiers, both wearing the light-blue uniforms with three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgeralds. Bardolph gave a wry smile. He now understood. He had been correct when thinking these men to be soldiers, but wrong in assuming them to be soldiers of Lodelowe. But nevertheless these were the very same men that had tormented Madeline, and the tassels on their shoulders told Bardolph they were a Captain and a Sergeant.
Bardolph listened intently to what was being said. The Captain was doing most of the talking and he heard him say; ‘We alone will rendezvous with the Welsh brigands at midnight this night. They will be waiting in the woods as agreed at the twentieth milestone marker. We will convince them that the gold is here at Longnor and ready to collect. We will arrange for them to visit the lodge at first light. It is then we must lie in wait. There are five of them and all must die.’
As the men set off down the hill Bardolph returned to his horse. He smiled as he walked. His mind was made up and he knew what must be done. Come midnight he would be back at the road and hiding somewhere close to the twentieth milestone marker.
Six riders slowed in pace as they entered the woods at Longnor. They had set their sights on reaching the woods by nightfall and by riding hard their objective had been met.
The party consisted of five men and one woman. As they entered the woods the five men talked of moving well away from the road and making camp for the night. They spoke in a language not of the Anglo-Saxons, or of the Normans, but in an ancient Gaelic tongue unique to the people of Wales. The one woman in their midst wore the habit and headdress of a Mother Superior. This was the Abbess of Wistanstow and she knew nothing of what was being said, for the Welsh language was unknown to her. She rode exhausted, bouncing in the saddle with head bowed and arms tied behind her back. Yet she was familiar with her surroundings. These were the woods at Longnor, and her brother the Earl of Salopsbury kept a hunting lodge not far from here. As a young girl she had resided at the lodge during the summer months, and by day had ventured and played in these woods. By the time she had reached her teens there was not a tree, gulley or stream she could not identify.
The leader of her abductors, apparently the only one amongst them that could speak her tongue, had hinted at the purpose of their incursion into England. It was to meet with the Earl’s representatives. The Abbess had not been told the timing or reason for this meeting, but the venue would most certainly have been pre-arranged. It therefore seemed reasonable for the woods at Longnor to be the rendezvous point. But wherever and whatever she prayed to God that the negotiations went well and that she would be delivered safely into the hands of her brother.
The lead rider moved from the road and set off into the woods. The others followed. They chose the opposite side of the road to the hunting lodge and kept moving until coming upon a rocky sandstone outcrop. Beneath an overhang of dark-red sandstone stood a cave. The cave was large in both width and height, but shallow in depth, and the area outside displayed evidence of previous use. A circle of stones held remains of a fire, and bones from both wild boar and deer lay scattered where they had been tossed aside.
The riders dismounted and set about preparing camp. Dry branches were collected and a fire started. The men were well organised and each to their separate task, and it was not long before a brace of pheasants turned on a spit above the fire.
At the rear of the cave, seated with her back to the rock face, squatted the Abbess of Wistanstow. Her hands remained tied behind her back. Alongside her, resting against the rock face stood the crucifix taken from the abbey.
As darkness descended and with light from the flames of the fire dancing upon the roof of the overhang, the men began to relax. Seated around the fire, and with bedrolls laid out on the ground beneath the overhang, the men began to laugh and joke amongst themselves. If there was any fear of being detected, then it did not show.
Idwal, leader of the brigands moved to kneel alongside the Abbess. He held a knife in his hand. Skewered to the blade was the meat of a pheasant. ‘Here, eat some meat,’ he said, holding the knife to her mouth.
The Abbess wretched and turned her head away in disgust. Whatever meat was being offered, it smelt rancid and revolting. At this time of night she would normally be partaking of a little bread and a cup of water.
‘Come, it is pheasant, hung for a week so that the meat does’t mature and hold in the flavour,’ Idwal told the Abbess and pushing the knife closer to her mouth.
Meat was never served at the nunnery and the smell had turned the Abbess’s stomach. Bread and cake was the nunnery’s mainstay with home grown vegetables from the gardens, and fruits from the bushes and trees as supplements to their meagre diet. The Abbess shook her head. ‘Take it away,’ she said. ‘Your meat disgusts me.’
Idwal rose to his feet and put the knife to his mouth. Chewing on the pheasant he tutted and shook his head. ‘I hope your brother does’t not prove so stubborn,’ he told her, ‘for if perchance this is a family trait, then alas all does’t not bode well for you on the morrow.’
News of the Abbess’s abduction spread quickly. There had been monks at prayer when the brigands passed out through the church. It is doubtful whether the handful of monks present had the courage to prevent the abduction, since these were men of peace, not violence. But with the gates to the Abbey’s side of the church locked they were powerless to do so anyway. All they could do was stand and stare through the bars as the Abbess, with hands tied behind her back, got bundled out of the building.
It was not long before the abduction reached the ears of Corporal Egbert. He was in a cell having fresh splints tied about his leg when the door flew open and a brother rushed in. ‘The Abbess has been abducted; taken by marauders from across the border,’ he said, speaking quickly and in earnest. Having spoken he moved on immediately to the next cell to deliver the same message before continuing on down the row.
The Corporal rose from his pallet and with the aid of a staff made his way to the Abbot’s office. With total disregard for protocol he burst into the office only to find the room empty.
Brother Dominic, the monk that had greeted him on arrival, was hurrying along the corridor. News of the Abbess’s abduction seemed to have sent everyone scurrying to-and-fro like headless chickens. Corporal Egbert blocked Brother Dominic’s path with his staff. ‘Where is the Abbot?’ he demanded and speaking with much urgency. ‘I must speak with him. He must be informed of the Abbess’s abduction.’
Brother Dominic also spoke with a sense of urgency. ‘The Abbot is down in the lower chambers,’ he explained and trying to remove the staff that blocked his path. ‘I go there now to see if I can seek an audience and inform him of this evil deed.’
Corporal Egbert removed the staff. ‘Then go brother, lead the way and I will’st follow the best I can,’ he said. ‘I need a horse. I must ride to Lodelowe. The Baron must be informed straightaway.’
Brother Dominic pointed to a large arched doorway to the far end of the corridor. ‘The lower chambers are through that door,’ he said. ‘There are steps down that lead to the crypt. You will find the Abbot in a chamber that lies beyond the crypt and to the left. I will’st go on ahead for I am quicker. But first I must find a brother to help you down, for the steps are narrow, steep and winding.’
Corporal Egbert did not want help. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ he told the brother. ‘Just go quickly and I will’st follow. My leg is fine. It is strapped tightly. I can walk.’
Brother Dominic sped away, leaving the door to the crypt open. Within seconds he was gone. With the aid of his staff and with splinted leg dragging the ground, Corporal Egbert reached the door a few seconds later. At the top he halted and looked down. The steps were dangerously steep and spiralled away into blackness. He looked for a torch or lighted candle, but there were nothing. Brother Dominic must have taken what was to hand. He considered waiting. The Abbot would surely return the moment he heard of the Abbess’s abduction. But then again, what if he remained and only sent orders?
Corporal Egbert needed to confront the Abbot in person. To do differently would only delay his departure. He wanted a horse and only the Abbot could give permission. He therefore could see no alternative other than to move on. He took one last look down into the darkness and set off.
By the time the Corporal reached the bottom his leg throbbed with pain. He gritted his teeth and carried on. He found himself in a long narrow aisle that stretched away into the distance. The roof was arched and to either side stone caskets rested in alcoves. This was the abbey’s crypt, the resting place of monks that had passed away over the last two centuries. A smell of dampness filled the air, but at least here there were candles burning in niches in the walls.
At the far end of the aisle Egbert came upon another arched doorway. Brother Dominic had left this open too. Dragging his splinted leg, he moved on. As he passed through the door he stopped briefly to look left and right. He was in a new aisle that passed at right angles to the one he had just traversed. The proportions were much same as before, long and narrow and tunnel-like, and each side was lined with caskets, all placed in rows against the walls. There was one big difference however. This aisle was far more ornately decorated. All caskets were brightly painted with Latin inscriptions gilded on the sides. The Corporal understood. This was the final resting place of the more senior dignitaries at the abbey.
Egbert looked to his left and in the distance saw Brother Dominic waiting at a door. He moved to join him, hobbling with aid of his staff. ‘What is it brother?’ he asked on arrival. ‘Is the Abbot beyond this door? Have you spoken?’
Brother Dominic gave a look of resignation. ‘I have spoken to the Abbot and he will be out shortly,’ he said and shaking his head.
‘Is the door locked?’ asked Corporal Egbert and moving a hand towards a large iron ring that turned the latch.
Brother Dominic raised a hand and gripped at the Corporal’s wrist. ‘The door is locked from the inside,’ he said. ‘We must wait for the Abbot to come to us.’
Some minutes later, from the other side of the door, a key turned in the lock. The iron ring moved and the door opened just enough for the face of the Abbot to appear. A look of puzzlement crossed the Abbot’s face. ‘Brother Dominic, can’t you see I am busy doing the Lord’s work,’ he said. ‘What is so important that it cannot wait?’
Brother Dominic was quick to explain. ‘Holy Father, the Abbess has been abducted,’ he said. ‘Welsh brigands have broken into the nunnery and taken her away.’
Egbert spoke immediately, adding his own urgent message. ‘And Lodelowe must be informed,’ he said. ‘I must have a horse.’
The Abbot’s lower jaw dropped. ‘What!’ He exclaimed and stepping out of the chamber. ‘When did this happen? Tell me more,’ he added as he closed the door behind him.
As the Abbot stepped out of the chamber Egbert caught a brief glimpse inside. It was just a fleeting glance, but long enough to arouse his curiosity. If his eyes were not deceiving him, then surely he had caught sight of a naked young girl kneeling inside the chamber. However, as the door closed it was not Egbert’s wish to pry into matters of the church. His thoughts lay elsewhere and with matters far more important. He needed a horse and to ride with much haste to Lodelowe. The Baron had to be informed and his soldiers mustered quickly.
The Abbot moved away from the door and set off down the aisle. ‘Come, come quickly,’ he said. ‘To my office, we must get things done.’
The obese Abbot moved swiftly despite his size, but at a pace easily manageable by Brother Dominic and the monk followed just one pace behind. Egbert moved quickly too, but his own pace was never enough to keep up. He was worried about the ascent of the spiralling stairs. It was awkward coming down, and returning to the top would be twice as difficult.
However as Egbert turned to enter the first crypt he pulled up immediately. The Abbot and Brother Dominic were stood waiting, and two men were racing down the aisle towards them. The two men in question were a monk and a soldier. The soldier was wearing the dark-blue and red halved uniform of Lodelowe, with its three rampant white lions. But this was no ordinary soldier. This man bore gold tassels upon his lapels. This was a high-ranking officer racing down the aisle. This was the Captain of the Guard of Lodelowe. This was Captain Osbald.
Egbert was surprised to see his Captain approaching. ‘Captain, what are you doing here?’ he called. Dragging his leg he moved to stand alongside the Abbot.
Egbert was not the only person surprised by this chance encounter. Captain Osbald too was taken a little aback. His Corporal was meant to be on his way to Salopsbury with important despatches concerning the trial of the Lady Adela. So why was he here? And why was his leg in a splint? And more importantly, where were the despatches? These and many more questions flashed through Captain Osbald’s mind. But protocol demanded that he first address the Abbot.
Captain Osbald arrived and bowed his head before the Abbot. ‘Holy Father I come here with a missive from Baron de Clancey,’ he said. ‘But I arrive to find more devious work afoot. The Abbess has been taken by marauders from across the border.’
The Abbot was quick to respond. ‘Yes Captain, I am aware of this dreadful act and I am on my way to my office,’ he said. ‘I must draft a letter. Lodelowe must be informed without delay.’
The Abbot began to move away but Captain Osbald stopped him. ‘This I have already done,’ he said. ‘As we speak a messenger rides to Onneyditch. There are soldiers there and the message will be relayed to Lodelowe with much urgency. The Baron will be informed within the hour, and I have asked for all available men to assemble here at Wistanstow. We must act quickly if we are to intercept these brigands before they reach the border with Wales.’
The Abbot gave a look of relief. ‘Then we can only pray that the Abbess is safe and that God protects her from the evils of these men,’ he said. Captain Osbald gave thanks, saying; ‘Amen to that Holy Father,’ then turning to Corporal Egbert he questioned; ‘Corporal what brings you here? Where are Salopsbury’s despatches? They were meant to be on their way.’
His Corporal was quick to explain. ‘I did’st fall from my horse and my leg is broken, but the King’s Falconer did’st come my way and rescue me. He brought me here to the abbey and placed me under the care of the monks, and he now rides to Salopsbury with the despatches. They are safe and on their way.’
Captain Osbald remained confused. Corporal Egbert had mentioned a King’s Falconer, so could this be Bardolph? And if so, what was he doing here some several miles north of Lodelowe when he was meant to be heading south? Nothing made sense. But on the other hand he could think of no better person to continue on with the mission. Barring a complete disaster the Baron’s despatches would reach Salopsbury as intended.
‘This King’s Falconer?’ asked Captain Osbald. ‘Perchance could this be Bardolph of Wessex? And is it he that hath taken the Baron’s despatches to Salopsbury?’
Corporal Egbert nodded his head. ‘Yes Captain,’ he replied, ‘the King’s Falconer is indeed Bardolph of Wessex, and it is he that now rides to Salopsbury with the Baron’s despatches.’
Captain Osbald, though not completely satisfied with his Corporal’s explanation, had no time to dwell further upon the matter. If the Baron’s despatches were heading for Salopsbury, then regardless of who the herald might be, then all was well. He turned to the Abbot, for there was a far more pressing matter to deal with.
‘Holy Father,’ he said, ‘I need quill and ink and parchment on which to write. It is my intention to go on ahead and track down these brigands. They cannot have got far. Last reports say they are heading north to the ford at Marsh Brook. I will’st pursue them, but I must leave instructions for my men when they arrive. Can you do this for me?’
The Abbot nodded his head. ‘Yes Captain,’ he replied, ‘come, come to my office. Everything you need is there.’
They set off at pace with Egbert travelling in their wake, but by the time he reached the steps they were gone. He started the long climb but did not get far. Some half a dozen steps later he turned and sat down. He dropped his head in his hands. He could go no further. He was a cripple and of no use to anyone. His mind filled with despair. He had failed in his mission to Salopsbury. He had failed to find a horse, and now he could not even climb a set of steps. He began to sob. Captain Osbald was now in charge and any assistance from him no longer required.
Egbert shuffled his way down to the bottom step and put his head in his hands. He had waited a long time, squatted uncomfortably on the sixth step up, and with splinted leg stuck out before him. His mind was full of questions. Where was everybody? How much longer did he have to wait? Surely they would not leave him alone down here? Somebody was bound to remember and come to his aid. Now he found himself at the bottom and the same questions filled his head. But then he recalled that he was not alone and he raised his head. There was at least one other person down here. He had seen her in the far chamber. So surely someone would arrive if only to see her?
Egbert, supported by his staff rose to his feet and set off down the long aisle, his splinted leg dragging on the flagstones. His movements were laboured and progress slow, but he was a man with a purpose.
He reached the door from which the Abbot had emerged and tested the latch. It was not locked. He knew this. The Abbot in his haste had forgotten to turn the key. As the door opened inwards he strained his eyes and peered into the gloom. The light inside was poor and only illuminated by a few candles spread around the walls. He waited for his eyes to adjust then looked around. Next to the door rested a nun’s habit and wimple. At the centre of the chamber stood a huge wooden cross, and before the cross there kneeled a young girl. She was naked, deep in prayer and with her back to the Corporal.
With the aid of his staff and dragging his splinted leg, Egbert hobbled to the centre of the chamber. The young girl remained kneeling, deep in prayer and looking up at the cross. He looked to her back and was horrified for it was covered in red-raw welts.
Sister Anne had heard someone enter, but had assumed it to be the return of the Abbot. She had been told to pray for forgiveness whilst the Abbot was away, and she was doing this with all her heart.
‘Anne?’ questioned Egbert at a whisper, for he was uncertain. He had only ever seen Sergeant Cuthred’s daughter with long flowing ginger locks, and this girl’s head was shaven, so he could not be sure. But he had seen Sister Anne come this way, and that bundle of clothing next to the door looked like hers.
Asking a little more loudly, he said; ‘Anne! Is this you?’
Egbert’s raised voice caused the girl to stir. She turned to look over one shoulder and on recognising the Corporal a hint of a smile appeared.
‘Egbert! Is this you?’ she asked. ‘You should not be here! The Abbot must not find you here!’
Egbert shook his head. ‘Anne, my dear sweet Anne, what are you doing?’ he said. ‘Where are your clothes? And what has happened to your back? It is raw with welts. This is no state for a young girl. You must have your back treated and clothes to cover your modesty. I will’st get your clothes.’ And with that he turned to hobble back to the door to collect her habit.
Anne shook her head when she saw what Corporal Egbert was about to do, and she called out to stop him. ‘No Egbert! No! Please no! Stop!’ she called in earnest. ‘You must not interfere in the Abbot’s work! It is by my own will that I am here, and the welts were the first of my two punishments. I am here to receive the second and I come of my own free will. When the Abbot returns I am to be tied to the cross and to suffer as Jesus did. And only when my penitence is served can I return to the sisterhood.’
Egbert shook his head. ‘You have agreed to all this?’ he asked. ‘Agreed to suffer so on the cross, because it is your will?’
Anne managed a distorted smile. ‘It is God’s will, not mine that I am here,’ she told him and adding; ‘Egbert, you are a good man. Good and God fearing. But go and leave me to my penitence. I am well, and the Abbot will be returning soon. There is no need to worry. I have sinned against this most Holy Order, and this is to be my final correction.’
Egbert shook his head. ‘Then can I get you something?’ he asked; ‘Water perhaps?’
Anne shook her head. ‘No Egbert,’ she told him. ‘I want nothing but to be left alone with my prayers. The Abbot must not find you here. So please go and close the door. And Egbert, worry not about me. I am fine and will endure this ordeal.’
Egbert’s head dropped. He did not agree but understood. Anne had committed a sin and this was her punishment. He looked her in the face and shook his head. ‘Anne, you are indeed a brave young girl,’ he told her. ‘May God remain with you and help you through your dreadful ordeal.’
Anne managed a smile. ‘Yes, God is here. He is here with me,’ she said. ‘So fear not. I will survive the ordeal and come out of this a better and more devout Christian.’
Egbert bit hard on his bottom lip. He was moved to tears. ‘Then farewell my dear sweet Anne,’ he told her. ‘Be brave and my thoughts will always be with you.’
Using his staff for support, Egbert turned and hobbled from the chamber. At the door he turned to take one last look. Anne was indeed a brave young girl, but like she said, the Abbot must not find him here. He closed the door and set off down the aisle. When the Abbot returned he would find him waiting at the foot of the steps.
End of part 5
Copyright© 2012 by Nosbert. All rights reserved.