I came over Offa’s Dyke, that crumbling line of ancient earthworks that once marked the border between England and Wales. The valley where I had been born twisted below me, a green serpent resting between the bracken-covered slopes of the Black Mountains. A thin trail of smoke rose from the stone chimney of Cewi Glen, my father’s manor. It carried a few bright orange sparks that the rain quickly extinguished.
“Seventy times seven,” a child’s voice spoke in my memory, reminding me why I had come. Forgive, the Bible commanded. Not seven times, but seventy times seven.
“I can’t,” I whispered, though there was none to hear. I had been gone from Honddu Vale for more than a year, my hands stained with my father’s blood. He had lived, though ’twas no fault of mine. I fingered the scar his sword had left on my wrist as the old feelings of inadequacy and resentment closed over me. There was no sound on the mountaintop except the dripping of fine rain on heather and my breath entering and leaving my lungs as my chest heaved with half-forgotten emotions.
I felt frantically in the breast of my tunic for the cup wrapped in old wool. It was there. Safe. I clutched it and murmured a quiet prayer for strength. Slowly my breathing steadied, and I knew what I must do.
“God, help me,” I said and started down the hill.
A sliver of light slipped into the shadowed valley through a gap in the lingering clouds before the sun disappeared behind the western ridge. The man-at-arms standing guard at the gate of Cewi Glen searched the path behind me as if to be certain I was alone. Although the reign of the eighth King Henry was a time of peace, bandits and feuding neighbors still terrorized the Welsh valleys, and anyone with something worth stealing had need of vigilance. The young man’s eyes returned to me, and his face broke into a grin of recognition.
“Master Colin! Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Addoc. Is Sir Stephen within?” I half hoped my father was out and I would have no need to face him yet.
Addoc’s eyes slid toward the house, and he hesitated. “That he be,” he said slowly.
I didn’t wait to hear more, but crossed the stone-paved courtyard to the low door of the hall with long strides. If I lingered, I might lose my resolve. The heavy oak door stood ajar despite the chill of the autumn day. I ducked my head and entered.
“Get back here, you saucy wench!” Sir Stephen’s deep voice was slurred—with drink again, I had no doubt. A woman’s laugh joined his. It sounded oddly forced to my ears. My father was seated on a stool by the fire. His face wore a few days’ stubble, and his once-auburn hair straggled to his shoulders in the fashion of an older generation. He pulled the woman roughly onto his lap. She didn’t resist as he caressed the thin cloth of her bodice with his large hands and covered her face with his kisses. She looked hardly older than my brother Walter had been.
The pair tumbled over and rolled in the dry rushes that covered the floor. My anger and disgust boiled up, and I backed to the door to escape. What kind of fool was I to come? In my haste, I knocked over a brass ewer standing near the way to the kitchens. It crashed to the floor.
The frenzy before the fire ceased. The woman looked up. My father, flat on his back, gazed from beyond the veil of her long, chestnut hair. “Colin? By the rood, what brings the errant pigeon back to the nest?” He pushed the woman roughly off him and jerked his head toward the back of the house. “Go, Belle.” But his hand brushed her hip, and his eyes promised that he was not finished with her yet.
He scrambled to his feet and brushed broken bits of old thresh from his jerkin. The shock of seeing me seemed to have sobered him for the moment. “Don’t stand there like a beef-witted barnacle. Come in, lad. You should have sent word you were coming.”
I unclenched my teeth long enough to say, “Why? So I might have a more seemly welcome?” When Llwyd the minstrel had visited me in Glastonbury, he said Sir Stephen had given up his lecherous ways and was daily seen at Mass since my brother’s death. Evidently the change had been short-lived.
“Aw, come on, lad. Just having a bit of fun. Your mother’s been dead more than a year now.” He had not waited for my mother’s death to have other women. If only he had been content with them.
He turned to the table where two cups of ale stood and raised one as if saluting me. “You can’t expect a virile man to live like a monk.” He drank deeply and swayed slightly as he eyed me. “Then again maybe you do. That’s where you’ve been this year gone, isn’t it?” He spat into the fire. “Living in a plume-plucked monastery?”
He was right. I had fled to the abbey at Glastonbury after trying to kill him, blaming him for my mother’s death. Glastonbury with its two springs, the Red and the White. Glastonbury with its ancient hill, the Tor, rising over the town.
I blinked back the moisture in my eyes and pressed my lips together, not wanting to give way to emotion before the man who had sired me. I clenched my fists at my sides to keep from reaching for the solace of the cup whose shape pressed against my chest.
Sir Stephen laughed. “And now it’s over. The abbeys are gone. No more flap-mouthed monks living in luxury, scaring rich and poor alike with their tales of hellfire and damnation if they don’t give more money.” He took another gulp of ale and staggered toward me. The smell of drink was on his breath, his clothes, his very skin. “No more gore-bellied traitors thinking they can rule their own realms without regard for the king.”
I hauled back my fist and struck him in the jaw.
His mouth jerked open, showing wide gaps between blackened teeth. His yellowed eyes narrowed. I dropped my arm and waited for him to retaliate, but he only ran a hand over the stubble on his chin, opening and closing his jaw a couple times as if to be sure I had done no serious damage. He stared at me through narrowed eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, rubbing my bruised knuckles.
Sir Stephen gave a coarse laugh and turned back to the fire. “Who would have thought a mammering monastery could turn you from a milksop to a man.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the door of the buttery, followed by the crash of a falling tray. “Blessed Mother of God, he’s returned!” Brigit ignored the ale that had splashed on her gown and the broken jug at her feet in her rush to envelop me in her arms.
I smiled for the first time since coming home. “Brigit! How good to see you!” Her hair, which had been gray when I left, was now nearly white, but the lean arms that embraced me seemed as strong as when I was a boy and she my nurse and my brother Walter’s.
“Ah, Colin, my child! I never thought to see you again,” she exclaimed between kisses. “Let me look at you.” She held me at arm’s length and appraised my long legs in their brown hosen and the square shoulders that stretched my quilted jerkin. She reached up and tousled my dark, curly hair. “You’ve grown in your time away—become a man, isn’t it?”
Her eyes flickered from Sir Stephen to me and back again. “Shall I show Colin … to Walter’s old room?”
Sir Stephen cradled his stoneware cup in both hands and made a sound deep in his throat that might have been yes or might have been no. Then he raised the empty mug. “And when you have done, bring me more ale. You spilled it.”
“Yes, Sir Stephen.”
I followed Brigit across the lofty hall and into the narrow corridor beyond. She threw open the door to the chamber beneath my father’s. It was much larger than the closet off the study that I had occupied before I left home. The evening light shone palely through arched windows of leaded glass that looked into the hills.
“I always liked this room,” Brigit said. She fluffed the cushions on the wide, soft bed and straightened the embroidered comforter. My mother’s work. “’Tis right you should have it, you being the heir now.” Her voice was touched with the pain of loss.
“The curtains must be shaken and aired,” she went on briskly. “Here. Give me your cloak. I’ll spread it by the fire to dry. Cold as the tomb, you must be. Get settled now and rest a bit. I will attend to your father.”
She turned back at the door. “I am glad you are home, Colin. You will set everything to rights.” She closed the door behind her and left me wondering what she meant.