April 15, 2013

A Knight in Fountains Abbey

A Knight in Fountains Abbey
Translated by G. K. Werner

From the Clerk of Copmanhurst's first letter: When Empress Maud's son, Henry, came at last to the throne in 1154, he brought an end to the feudal misrule of Stephen, his predecessor, and the blood-drenched anarchy of baronial warfare. Upon the foundation of traditional local law, he built a legal system common to both Norman and Saxon that restored justice to every shire and borough, and protected the rights of free men, if not villiens. He abolished trial by ordeal and trial by combat, introduced trial by jury, and appointed itinerant justices to roam the shires judging infractions and dealing with legalities. His court was constantly on the move. Lion-like, he sprang from task to task, personally involved in the minutest detail concerning his kingdom’s governance. The people of England breathed a sigh of relief, and the Hoods of Wakefield, like other Saxons throughout the land, looked for better times to come with this robust young king on the throne. Little did they suspect that one of their own would…

* * *

The tale:

Fountains Abbey, October 1160

Steel on steel rang in the twilight; an unlikely ringing of a remote Yorkshire Abbey nestled between river’s rush and forest's hush. Had Viking baresarks come as of old to pillage, slay and burn? But the clash and clangor of sword on sword raised nary a tonsured head meditating in the cloisters, sped nary a sanctified heart singing in the choir, paused not a single monkly quill copying in the scriptorium nor unbent a single monkly leg kneeling in the nave. The Abbot himself, deep in chapter house conference with prior and cellarer, heeded not the cry of steel that in a bygone day would have sent his monks fleeing for their lives.

Captain Hood and Brother Michael wielded their long swords with practiced ease, two-handed and shieldless. Blades whirled in cut and parry, cut and parry, feint and lunge, cut and cut and thrust as they danced round and round the secluded outer courtyard merrily striving to disembowel one another. Though younger, shorter, and heavier than Robert Hood, Brother Michael stepped, lunged and struck with smooth, swift self-assurance, his priestly gown’s hem tucked into his belt so as not to trip him, its wide sleeves rolled up to expose muscular arms and legs more than twice the thickness of his opponent's. It was all Robert could do to hold his own against Brother Michael's unpredictable storm.

Both swordsmen ignored the shadow in a shadowed alcove, a gaunt, stone-faced monk whose flinty eyes never missed a sword's flicker or snick—a long-faced monk who watched them like shrouded death silently awaiting the final thrust.

Suddenly, the steel whirlwind ceased, blades obstinately pressed. Robert and Michael glared at one another. Nose to nose, lips furled, they breathed like a pair of bucks, antlers locked.

“Yield!” cried Michael.

“Never!” cried Robert.

“Never?” said Michael. His meaty shoulder butted Robert, sprawling the slimmer man to the ground with a clatter of helm and sword. Casually, he kicked Robert's sword aside and stepped forward placing the point of his blade to Robert's throat. “Yield, I say!”

“Never, I repeat!”

“Then you leave me no choice.” Brother Michael drew back his sword. “I’m off to supper! I'm famished!” He extended Robert a ham-like hand. “Care to join me in a mutton joint or three?”

Brother Michael had grown so stout he hardly resembled the little boy who had arrived at Fountains Abbey years earlier, a Londontown merchant’s youngest son, sacrificed to the Church in expiation for a father’s life of material excess.

Robert retrieved his sword to follow his friend kitchen-ward.

“Hold!” rasped the long-faced monk, stepping from the alcove.

“Hold?” Michael inquired. “How do you say hold, Brother Newman?”

“With resolve, Brother Michael.”

“But shall we hold a trencher(1) or an ale-pot? A banquet perhaps?”

A heavy hammer must have been used to chisel Brother Newman’s perpetual frown. “You will hold your bellies,” he said, “while I assess your wretched swordsmanship!”

The sword lessons were Michael's idea—a tribute to his ingenuity in Fountains peaceful society (as was his girth in Fountain’s spare larder). He had recognized Brother Newman as his father's old acquaintance—Sir Rutherford of Grimsby, an impoverished knight turned dualist. Grimsby had killed many a man in trial by combat, fighting in behalf of wealthy barons who, even if they believed God to be on their side, took the precaution of assisting the Almighty by hiring professional proxies to settle their disputes. Soon after King Henry outlawed trial by combat, Sir Rutherford had been reported dead in a common street brawl.

Imagine my surprise, finding you cloistered away in Yorkshire! Young Michael had exclaimed. A new man!

Brother Newman had regarded Michael in silence that day, his eyes, perched with a falcon’s intensity on the rocky height of his craggy face, neither confirming nor denying the accusation. His grimness had made Robert regret letting Michael talk him into this—their newest monk, clearly a dangerous man.

Safe-guarding the secret of a ghostly(2) brother's unsavory past ought to have its reward, said Michael, recklessly.

A good turn is its own reward, the former dualist riposted.

Ho, ho! A good turn deserves another.

And what will your silence cost me, boy?

Lessons in the sword! said Michael, smiling innocently. For my friend and me.

Brother Newman glanced at Robert, then back at Michael. A guardsman interested in the sword I understand, but a fellow monk?

It is not without precedent(3), said Michael, uncommonly well-educated for a merchant’s son.

But I have repented of my evil ways and taken vows as penance, Brother Newman protested.

For which you have my utmost respect, said Michael. And, I fervently pray, our brethren’s continued respect—meaningfully. Michael and Robert had not known at the time that Brother Newman’s identity was well known to Fountains’ monks.

Perhaps the retired dualist-turned-priest had missed the sword more than he admitted, even to himself. How else to explain his becoming their mentor in the sword, as Father Wilibald had been Robert's in the bow.

Thanks to Brother Newman’s instruction over the past several years, Robert had an edge over the average man-at-arms, though he would never match his friend Michael who showed promise of one day surpassing even their infamous instructor’s skill, a fact Robert was certain secretly pleased the old flint.

“Brother Michael!” rasped Brother Newman. “Shouldering your opponent to the ground? Who taught you that base trick?”

“The heat of the moment, sirrah,” Michael replied easily. Though you would never guess it from his tone, Michael idolized Grinsby, as he called him.

“Heat, Brother Michael? Battle wants a cool head.”

“And a crafty. All's fair in battle.”

“And practice-shortcuts lead to battle-sword-cuts.”

“A good saying,” Michael had to admit.

Robert snorted.

“Captain Hood!” rasped the old monk, rounding on him. “Dropping your sword when you fall? Do you expect your foe to hand it back? That would be stretching an over-rated code of chivalry a bit too far, would it not?”

Robert smiled meekly and opened his mouth to return he knew not what sort of reply when a pounding at the back gate saved him the embarrassment.

“Who could that be?” asked Michael.

“At this hour,” commented the old monk.

“At this gate,” added Robert. Guests always arrived before nightfall, and at the gatehouse by the highroad, not the west gate by a dark wood.

The three stared at the gate through a second set of poundings.

“Shall I call my men?” Robert quietly asked. In such dangerous times, with outlaws on the loose, it was unwise to open a back door to strangers after dark.

“Tosh, man!” Michael loudly replied. “You have your bow nearby, and I my stout blade in hand. Lend your sword to our champion of the sword here, and let us see what man or demon knocks at our gate from the land of twilight.”

Robert hesitated—neither a man to shun risk, nor one to risk an entire abbey to prove his valor.

More pounding, violent enough to make the solid oak jump on its hinges.

Robert turned to Brother Newman. “What say you?”

“Open the gate, you miserable wretches,” roared a leonine voice from the other side.

Brother Newman turned pale as a ghost. “Open it. I know that voice.”

Robert shrugged and sword in hand unlatched the gate—leapt aside as a big boot kicked it wide.

A powerfully built man in the worn leather armor and unmarked tunic of a lesser knight strode in as though he owned the abbey and all it contained. He held a double-headed ax in one hand and a mighty two-handed sword was sheathed at his side. A thick hunting bow hung over his shoulder and four or five arrows were in his belt. His broad freckled face was stained with sweat and dirt, and his short-cropped red hair bristled with twigs and leaves. His eyes blazed with a demon's intensity at each of them in turn.

“What have we here?” he thundered, stabbing a thick index finger at Brother Newman, “Can it be?” He flung himself upon the dismayed monk, dragged him into a bear hug, vigorously clapped his back, pushed him off to arms' length, and looked him over. “Is that you in there, Grimsby? The dead, inhabiting priestly vestments?”

Brother Newman raised an eyebrow.

“So, the rumors be true? From man of the sword to man of the cloth? And back again?” he added, gesturing with his ax toward Robert and Michael's weapons.

“Not I,” countered the monk.

“Oh no! Not likely. Are these men brigands then? Assaulting a defenseless, unarmed monk?” He tapped Brother Newman’s chest with his ax. “Shall I defend you?” He clapped Brother Newman on the shoulder. “Hah! I once saw three men fall to his sword-edge,” he told Robert and Michael, “and one to the point, all in a single motion. It has been a long time, friend Grimsby. I miss your battle prowess.”

“I thank you most humbly, my—ugh!”

A thump to Brother Newman's chest knocked the title off his tongue. “I am here to worship with the monks of Fountain's Abbey,” the knight told Robert and Michael, “and would leave my name and deeds outside these walls, the better to seek the Lord in humble mien, being sorely in need of His mercy and grace. Will you honor this whim of mine?”

Robert and Michael bobbed their heads in agreement. Who was to argue with a square-built, muscle-bulging warrior with double-headed ax in hand? A warrior, furthermore, who even intimidated dour old Grinsby!

“May I bide among you this night, Captain?”

“If it please the Abbot, sir,” replied Robert.

“It will please him,” said Brother Newman. “Brother Michael, run and inform his worship that we have received a late visitor, a man known to me as a most pious knight.”

The knight winced as though pierced by a crossbow's bolt. “Your tongue is as sharp as ever, Grimsby. Where might I wash up a bit before paying my respects to the Abbot and attending mass? I have not missed the last service have I?”

“No, Sir Knight,” replied Robert. “I will take you to the guesthouse and have our washing lavatory prepared.”

* * *

* * *

Word of the knight’s presence spread rapidly. Some monks and lay brothers actually ran to mass.

“Who do you suppose he is?” Michael asked on the way to the nave.

Robert shrugged.

“Think you he flees justice?”

If so, it would be Robert’s responsibility to take him and hand him over to the sheriff in York. No safe task, that! “Well,” said Robert, “Brother Newman has vouched for him.”

“And who might a reformed demon vouch for, eh?” said Michael.

Robert considered this.

“Who is he?” Michael repeated.

“You will know if and when he wills it,” said Brother Newman, appearing at their back.

Michael cleared his throat. “Er, that bit about a reformed—“

“I am surprised he remembers me, one knight among hundreds. But that is like him—never to forget a companion in arms.”

Rounding a corner, they found the knight conversing with their abbot surrounded by a swelling crowd on the steps to the nave’s entrance.

“What led you to our wilderness gate, good sir?” Abbot Fastolf asked. “A knight, unattended?”

“A wild boar the size of a young cow. Nay, I swear by the Good Book. I spurred my steed after it, but my hunting party of knights and squires fell behind in the forest.”

“Not the first time you lost your party, ay?” someone suggested, and Abbot Fastolf glared into the forest of white frocks and homespun tunics.

The knight straightened to his full height, eyeing the abbot, fists on hips. “What is he implying, abbot?”

Abbot and knight scowled at the innocent upturned faces and then burst into laughter. The crowd as well.

Michael elbowed Robert who nodded agreement—here was a well-acquainted pair! They could hardly remember their abbot chuckling, let alone belly-laughing like Michael.

“Tis said,” said the abbot, recovering himself at last, “a man-eating giant boar haunts the woods and forests in these parts. Legend has it the Bleakstone Ogre bred it. Away south in Wakefield there’s even an inn named after it. Was the beast blue?”

“It could have been. But it was certainly the biggest boar I ever laid eyes on. And I’ve been to court.” More laughter. “I chased that boar through forest, field, and fen. Up hill and down dale. And lost it, I'm ashamed to say. But thereby found myself in your pleasant wood, even at your very door.”

“Your loss is our gain,” said Fastolf. “Laudate Dominum!”(4)

The knight bowed. “I have decided to step out of the world for a time,” he said, “that I may meditate and fellowship in your holy community. If you will have me that is.”

“We are honored by your company, Sir Knight.”

Noises of agreement and welcome issued all around. Even Brother Newman nodded vigorously and smiled so broadly Robert half expected his head to crack open.

Did everyone know this knight save themselves? It was like a game, the monks pretending ignorance, the knight smiling and winking, while addressing them as strangers.

“For a knight who would leave name and deeds outside our walls,” said Michael, “our guest is a singular failure.”

* * *

After mass, the monks and lay brothers were sent to their separate refectories for a second meal of the day normally only served in summer months. A kitchen adjacent to both halls served meals in both directions by means of an ingenious turntable Robert much admired. “Who is he?” asked Robert as he and Michael parted.

* * *

“Who is this privileged knight?” said Michael afterward, having joined Robert in Fountain’s library. “Do you know, just as mysteriously as he appeared at our back gate, a huge mutton leg appeared for him in the turntable hatch.”

“A mutton leg?” exclaimed Robert, setting the chessboard for play. A piece of bread and two vegetables—that was the monks’ fare. Barely above subsistence level! Brother Michael often grumbled. Thin milk and the coarsest wheat bread in Creation! Served in stone pots and worn trenchers! The wool trade feeds our coffers to bursting(5) and yet we starve. Who benefits from such wealth? Has it translated into magnificence or even comfort? Oh no! Not here! No colored glass or gold or silver or jeweled alter vessels for the Cistercians. And heaven forefend we should have linen next to our skin, or even fur-lined garments to keep out the cold. Their white habits of coarse, un-dyed wool had given Cistercians the name ‘white monks’ and Michael a rash. Makes him grouchy, Robert would tease. Drafty! Michael would add. And hungry! If I’m to be forbidden clothing, I’ll need more flesh. Robert, his abbey guardsmen and the lay brothers(6) in the lay refectory enjoyed more substantial fare, but even on their trenchers, meat only appeared during high holidays. “A leg of Mutton?” Robert’s mouth was watering despite having finished a second supper.(7)

“And a keg of heavy ale to wash it down!” said Michael. “Our knight chomped his mutton and guzzled his ale so merrily he drowned out the reader(8) who may have chosen gluttony as his text for all I could tell.”

“So much for summum silencium!”(9)

“Exactly,” said Michael.

“Although, you mostly compose nonsense verses while the reader pronounces God’s.”

“I am sorry I ever told you that.”

“Forgive me, Michael. You know the Word better than anyone I’ve ever met, save only my old gaffer,” as Robert had come to fondly name his foster-father, Father Wilibald. Michael had even memorized much of Scripture. In fact, Michael had petitioned the abbot to be put in charged with translating it into their own Saxon tongue. Through Londontown contacts, Michael had even acquired the Venerable Bede’s unfinished translation of John’s gospel and intended to start by finishing it.(10)

Now Michael was scowling down at the chessboard between them—the jolliest lad Robert had ever met looked ready to bite the head off one of the figures.

“Well,” said Robert. “Let us not allow some nameless knight to ruin our nightly game.”

Robert and Michael had first met in this alcove off the cloisters that contained a small collection of books, scrolls and parchments, some musty with age, some bound in iron or half-bindings, others with wooden boards and sewn spines in the newer style, many colorfully rendered in ornate script or ‘illuminated’ with intricately detailed designs and drawings.

How now, Bowman! Michael had boomed, a boy with a mighty wind. I see we permit riff-raff to invade a library’s sanctity these days.

Not really, Robert had softly returned. But, I’ll allow you to stay if you repent and keep the library’s peace from now on.

And a jollier, more scholarly lad Robert had never known. The pair, evenly matched in chess, scholarship and debate, was often alcoved past midnight, huddled over their wooden chess board, embroiled in challenging play and heated debate. Tonight’s topic—a nameless knight.

“Filling his gullet at our expense!” Michael grumbled as Robert opened conservatively with a pawn to king three.

“It’s the Church’s duty to serve,” Robert reminded him playfully.

“We served him right well,” said Michael, mirroring his opening. “And better fare than myself?”

“Ah, now we come to the heart of the matter. Or should I say the belly.”

“Nay good Captain, I’m ready as the next man to feed the poor. Must we also feed the rich?”

“Rich? You wouldn’t know it by his wardrobe.”

“Well he’s stout as a rich man.”

“That would make you wealthier than the king.”

Michael grunted, uncharacteristically failing to take the bait.

Robert gave up and concentrated on the game. Michael’s play was superficial, his ranting so out of character. Something else was on his mind. Or was it all a trick to put Robert off his guard, trap a key figure somehow? “Your queen is in jeopardy, Brother Michael.” A courtesy. Only the king in check required notification.

Michael scowled at the board for a very long time.

“Give up?” asked Robert.

No response.

“Mind if I nap?”

Michael glanced up. “The abbot denied my petition.”

“Oh no!” So that explained his mood. Now Robert frowned also. “When did you find out?”

“Abbot Fastolf was good enough to inform me as we quit the refectory this very eve, on his way to ‘sack(11) and discourse’ with our guest.”

Robert had not expected this. Translating Scripture into their native tongue was a project near and dear to Michael’s heart, and it certainly seemed like a good idea to Robert. Michael had studied Greek at Fountains and planned to help. “Did the abbot give a reason?”

“The sacredness of the task!”


“I am not holy enough it seems.”

“Who is, by that line of reasoning?”

Norman scribes, apparently.”

“Ah! There it is then.”

“Aye,” said Michael. “Yet another means of subjection. Why should common folk trouble themselves studying Scripture, with our Norman friends ready and willing to interpret for us?”

“Fastolf always seemed a fair Norman.”

“It probably wasn’t his decision. Fair or not, he won’t disobey his superiors.”

“You must appeal to Canterbury,” said Robert.

“It would do no good.”

“No good? It is only good you would do in behalf of our folk.”

Michael shook his head. “Power! It is always about power with Normans.”

Robert sat back on his stool and surveyed his friend. “Is this Brother Michael sitting at the chessboard with me? Surrendering before battle?”

Michael sank into himself. His ample face transitioned from rage to perplexity to reflection. Finally, a huge grin appeared. “Surrender? Not I!” he boomed, and the shelving shook. “It occurs to me,” he continued sotto voce, “that, with God’s help, good may be done beyond these walls without troubling the souls within or the Archbishop in Canterbury.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You would flaunt the edict of Norman prelates?”

“With ease! We can work here, nights. We’re never disturbed.”

“What of your vows?”


“Obedience in particular.”

“Obedience to God supercedes obedience to Norman prelates.”

“Do you think so?”

“Indeed I do!”

“You’re a heretic, Michael! Hard to believe you’ve come to an abbey at all!”

“Or that they’d have me!”

They both laughed.

“So you’ll help?” Michael asked.

“I would have helped as scribe, but now perforce as guardsman.”

Michael laughed heartily. “You see! You’re as radical as myself.”

“But only half the size!” said Robert.

A sound at the door cut short their laughter—the scrape of a hob-nailed boot on stone flagging. The oak door sprang open with a whump-squeal. And there stood the knight. Torchlight cast his shadow over them. “So!” he roared. “This is where you hide when not on duty or at devotions.”

“Does your hand ever open a door?” asked Michael.

The knight charged in, and Robert and Michael shot to their feet.

“Sit, sit, my good fellows.” The knight chose to misinterpret their battle stances. “No need to stand on my account.” He cleared a bench of tomes and parchments and sat down. “The most fascinating conversation struck my ears as I passed your door just now.”

Robert and Michael sat, red-faced. “Conversation?” said Robert. “And what conversation might that be, Sir Knight?” said Michael. They could be excommunicated for such talk!

“Come now,” said the knight. “Discourse with your abbot runs a predictable course. I crave controversy, debate on the great issues! How say you?”

Robert and Michael looked at one another. This mysterious knight and their abbot seemed hand in glove. Was he baiting them only to report them later? To what purpose?

“Come, come, sirs,” the knight urged. “I’ll start us off. Are kings God ordained? He stared at them, thick, flame-red eyebrows raised. “What say you?”

Despite their qualms, the knight’s frankness drew Robert and Michael into one controversial discussion after another. His rough exterior disguised a quick and inquisitive mind. Like them, he was well read and possessed a memory for detail. He quoted freely from ancient sources in support of his own contentions, and sprang from issue to issue like a big cat pouncing on prey.

“If you were commanded by the king to do one thing and the Archbishop another, who would you obey?” he asked suddenly.

Robert and Michael shifted uneasily in their seats, both now certain he was trapping them.

“Interesting question,” Michael commented. “Scripture teaches that all authority is God given(12) and we must obey and pray for those in authority over us.(13) Unless they oppose God, and then ‘we ought to obey God, rather than men’ as Peter and the apostles told the Sanhedrin when its high priest ordered them to cease proclaiming the risen Lord.”(14)

“I suppose it would depend upon what I was being asked to do rather than who was doing the asking,” said Robert.

The knight slapped his knees and a fit of laughter rocked his bench back and forth. “Have neither of you respect for King or Archbishop?” He sprang to his feet. “By Saint George and the dragon, there’s more independent thought in this little alcove than all of London. Let us adjourn to the back gate.”

“The back gate, sir?” said Michael.

“For a bit of play.”

“Play, sir?” said Robert.

“Such play as that in which you were engaged when I arrived.”

Robert and Michael looked innocent as babes. “And what play might that be, Sir Knight?” Michael ventured.

“Nothing but swordplay by the clatter I heard through the gate. Father Newman, as you call him, obviously shares his secrets with the pair of you. I’ll test his instruction. Come, come! No further equivocation.” He drew his sword. “To the field!” And dashed out the door as though charging into battle, expecting them to follow.

Which they did!

* * *

* * *

The knight matched swords with Robert first, obviously holding back, sporting with the young man. Then he showed him a few tricks and had him practice them against his own blade.

Next, he matched swords with Brother Michael. Now the knight had to keep his wits about him lest the lad ring his helm or step on his toes or tweak his nose while locking his blade with his hilt (a favorite trick of Michael's); or perform some other miraculous mischief with his blade. But, eventually, the overwhelming strength of the knight’s arm, and the fury of his assaults defeated even Michael’s prodigious arm and unpredictable trickery.

“Ho, ho! You play rough, sirrah,” said Michael.

“And you are rare paradox,” said the knight. “A man of the cloth and a man of the steel.”

Michael’s chest swelled, and his stomach with it. “Had enough?” he asked.

The knight’s thick eyebrows went up. “Not yet!”

Michael missed Nocturn as they plied their swords into the morning hours, Robert spelling Michael now and again.

“I hear,” said the knight as dawn set the nearby wood aglow, “you have some little skill with the bow, Master Robert.”

Little skill?” cried Michael. “Hah! Fetch your bow Robert, and we shall have our vengeance upon this indefatigable swordsman!”

Robert’s longbow intrigued the knight. “Welsh. Rarely have I seen its like. A deadly weapon in the right hands.”

“Or wrong!” quipped Michael.

The bow in Robert’s hand came alive like the sword in Michael’s. Robert won each flight, though the knight was a keen bowman consistently placing his arrows near Robert's, which never failed to strike the pin.

“Never in all my days have I met a finer bowman,” said the knight.

“Father Wilibald taught me when I was a lad.”

“Another weapons-master in the priesthood? What is the church coming to? The clergy used to be men of peace you know.” He laughed heartily at his own jest. “I must meet this paragon among archers.”

“Alas, sir, he went home to the Lord this winter past.”

“Pity,” said the knight.

“He was like a father to me, having lost my own in childhood. But, he lived a full life.”

“And a merry,” said Michael, whose life he had also touched.

The knight laughed. “Well, the pair o’ you made my life merrier this night.”

“Ho, ho! A fine form o’ meditation and fellowship to have received in a holy community,” said Michael, mocking the knight’s earlier request to the abbot.

At Michael’s suggestion, the three merry companions visited the kitchen with its two great cooking-fireplaces and several larders, and then settled into the brew house for brandy and more talk and jests before ending the night-turned-day.

“A toast!” said the knight, lifting his cup. “To the finest swordsman and the finest bowman an abbey ever birthed.”

The abbey bells rang. Michael looked up and leapt to his feet. The abbot stood in the brew house doorway, arms folded across his chest, foot tapping. Michael had missed matins, both prime and terse.

“Stay,” said the knight. “I’ll have a word with him.”

Amazingly, Michael received only a mild rebuke for missed offices and unscheduled meals.

* * *

Robert never did get to bed.

Of all times to have lost a night’s sleep, it was the day for the first keystone to be set in a window-arch for the nave’s expansion presently under construction, and he was in charge of it. A tall wooden frame held the pulley that would hoist the keystone to the arch’s crown. The nearly completed arch, braced with temporary beams, looked like an upper set of teeth with its center tooth missing.

Rough masons’ hammers rang like church bells cutting stones to size, and carpenters’ saws buzzed like giant bees cutting support beams for other windows. But this was his arch! The Master Builder had left its construction entirely in his hands. Robert’s smaller hammer and chisel punctuated the din with carefully chosen cuts, finishing the delicate tracery of flower and cross decorating the huge keystone.

He glanced up again from his work. The knight and Abbot Fastolf still conversed on the far side of the site. The knight had also missed an entire night’s sleep, yet he spoke animatedly, one hand on the abbot’s shoulder, the other periodically gesturing Robert’s way. In contrast, Abbot Fastolf did not look happy. His shoulders slumped as though he would shrug off the knight’s hand if he dared. He hardly spoke and kept shaking his head.

Robert’s mistrust of the nameless knight returned.

“What bee do you suppose buzzes twixt that pair?” said Michael, arriving at his side with bloodshot eyes.

“A bee that stings our abbot, from the looks of things,” said Robert.

“And might well sting us,” Michael agreed.

The knight left Abbot Fastolf’s side and strode toward them. At his back, the abbot bowed his head in prayer.

“How is it,” asked Robert, “that a knight of such apparent renown should take an interest in the pair of us?”

“Speak for yourself, sirrah!” said Michael. “I’m a rare paradox. Cloth and steel, don’t you know?”

“Fountains has grown more than one building since last I visited,” the knight shouted over the hammering and sawing as he joined them.

“With the king’s peace his subjects prosper,” said Michael. “For every unlicensed castle Henry tears down, for every rebel earl and baron’s stronghold he reduces to rubble, a hamlet, town, market place or church sprouts or grows.”

“Our own building program is unmatched anywhere save Ripon,” said Robert.

“And he should know!” said Michael. “With leave to visit Ripon whenever he pleases.”(15)

“The Archbishop Roger of York’s cathedral,” said the knight. “I know it well.”

“So does Robert here,” said Michael. “Did you know it is built on an old Saxon church’s foundation?”

The knight harrumphed loudly.

“Ripon’s architecture is Romanesque,” said Robert, and launched into a description of round arches and vaults, the replacement of columns with clustered vertical piers, and the extensive use of arcades, like the one in Fountains’ refectory. “It’s a new style. Small, slim masses, pointed arches, rib vaulting, and flying buttresses. We should have more of the like here.”

“He’ll bend your ear all day if you let him,” said Michael. “He’s been apprentice wright and rough mason, journeyman and free mason. Presently, he’s the Master Builder’s right hand. Building is his passion.”

“More than the bow?”

“I nearly believe so. His dream is to go to Rome and Athens to study—“

Robert’s chisel jabbed Michael’s ribs.

The knight grinned, and wandered over to a table where Robert’s drawings were held down with rocks.

“Hie lad!” said Robert. “Will you be giving him my life’s story?”

“Only the interesting bits,” said Michael. “It’ll be a brief history.”

“And what do we know of him?”

“Well, he’s a merry fellow.”

“And that’ll suffice?”

“You liked him well enough not many hours ago,” said Michael.

“Not many hours before that you wanted to steal his supper and set him on the road,” said Robert.

“Oh, that was before I knew he’d a sword arm to match my own, and an eye for the grey goose(16) almost the match of yours.”

“Impressive!” said the knight, returning. He held Robert’s sketch of the window-arch with the calculations in Robert’s neat hand. “So, you are a student of architecture, and therefore a mathematician and artist as well as Captain of the Abbey Guard, linguist, and bowman par excellence. Is there no end to your masteries? Why have you not taken Holy Orders?”

Robert shrugged.

“The Church is too political these days for his taste,” said Michael.

Robert could have cracked Michael’s pate,(17) but his crew was ready for the keystone’s placement. Robert gave the process his full concentration. A burly stone mason cranked the pulley. The keystone rose slowly; the heavy ropes trembled with the strain. The wedge-shaped stone truly was key. It alone locked the other pieces in place—but only if successfully placed. It had to be finessed into position. The stress had to be perfectly calculated, perfectly balanced. The question always was—would an arch stand when the support beams were knocked down?

The keystone eased into its prepared place. The men with hammers went to work. No one breathed.

The supports tumbled.

The arch held!

Applause in the courtyard.

“Well done!” cried the knight. “I have a proposition for the pair of you. But I’ll need your answer by nightfall.”

“Nightfall?” said Robert.

“You leave so soon?” said Michael.

“The crown summons me,” said the knight.

“Doesn’t the king ever rest?” asked Robert.

“Not for long,” said the knight.

“And your proposition?” asked Michael.

“Here it is,” said the knight—a proposition that left Robert and Michael speechless.

* * *

* * *

Twilight again. Robert and Michael watched the knight saddle his horse. He yanked the strap tight across its great belly. The war-horse stamped and snorted, eager to run. The knight was leaving under the cover of darkness by the back gate through which he had entered. “I will have your answer, sirrahs,” he said.

“Forgive me, Sir Knight,” said Michael. “But are you certain the king will approve what you offer us?”

“The King and I are closer than sword and hilt. Meet me at Windsor’s archery butts on the last day of May, and a post in the royal guard is yours for the asking, Brother Michael. I also think that our God-ordained king will authorize certain translations, though a hornets’ nest be stirred within Church walls.” And he laughed as though the prospect delighted him.

Michael shook his head. “As enticing as your offer is, Sir Knight…sad to say…I must turn it down. I have chosen the Church, for better or worse, and made my pledge and taken my vows only this past year. She and I may not be a perfect match, but I will not willingly forsake her.”

A heavy silence filled the outer courtyard for many heartbeats before the knight spoke. “And you, Robert Hood? The king has need of skilled engineers, not to mention officers who can shoot and lead men as well. Will I see you in Windsor come May?”

“I will prayerfully consider it, Sir Knight,” said Robert. “Or should I call you Sire?” he added, dropping to one knee before King Henry, for that, as you may have guessed, was the knight's true identity.(18)

Henry laughed, grabbed Robert’s collar, lifted him to his feet and clapped him on the back. “Learned, well read and impudent besides! You will meet me at the butts next year.” He mounted his charger. “I'll not suffer two refusals in a single eve.” He set spurs to its flanks. “Till then!” he shouted as horse and rider sped through the gate into the night.

* * *

The Clerk’s letter:

As the Good Book says: “See thou a man, diligent in his trade? Before kings he shall stand.” Thus, the following May, Robert Hood parted company with abbey life, bade farewell to his young friend, Brother Michael Tuck, and cantered off to London and the court of King Henry the Second, Fitz-Empress.

* * *

Translator's Note: This tale never found its way into balladry, although Gerald of Wales, a 13th century Churchman and historian respected by modern scholars, has also mentioned the night King Henry II spent incognito at a Cistercian abbey after losing his company on a hunting expedition. Perhaps the numerous tales of kings in disguise among the people grew out of this event recorded in the Clerk of Copmanhurst’s earliest letter.

–GKW, Seaford, 2010

* * *

The Clerk’s tale of Robin Hood’s father continues with “A Sword for the King”.


1 trencher: wooden plate

2 ghostly: spiritual—however, a double meaning is certainly implied, given the Clerk’s penchant for punnery throughout his letters

3 Warrior priests were not unknown in medieval Europe, the Templar and Hospitaller knights being among the most famous.

4 Laudate Dominum: Praise the Lord.

5 Thanks to wealthy patrons and sophisticated animal husbandry techniques, Fountains had already become one of England’s wealthiest abbeys in the short time since its founding in 1132.

6 conversi: people from lower classes who wanted to enter monastic life. The Rule of Saint Benedict forbade monks to travel more than a day’s roundtrip beyond the abbey, so the lay brothers tended the abbey’s vast and increasingly widespread flocks.

7 Our clerk-chronicler has much to say in his letters concerning sustenance and the culinary arts. He typically provides his reader with full descriptions of his characters’ meals—recipes and commentary I have mostly excluded from these translations of his tales

8 A monk who sat in the arcaded gallery above their heads, reading from Holy Writ

9 summum silencium: the monastery’s rule of silence at table in the refectories

10 Bede left off with John 6:9b –“but what are these among so many?”

11 sack: sherry imported from Spain

12 Romans 13:1,2

13 I Timothy 2:1-3

14 Acts 5:12

15 Ripon Cathedral is four miles northeast of Fountains Abbey, easily accessible to a determined young man despite 12th century road conditions. Church records and contemporary histories support the Clerk’s history at this point also. Extensive construction was underway at both places in 1160.

16 Feathers from the grey goose were favored as inexpensive arrow fletching in the Clerk’s time.

17 pate: head or skull

18 Historical sources place Henry in Normandy between August, 1158 and January, 1163. The Clerk, whose narratives have otherwise proven historically accurate, contradicts them. However, a secret visit to inspect England’s administration in his absence, which would be much inkeeping with Henry’s personality and hands-on governing style, easily explains the discrepancy.

* * *

G. K. Werner teaches in adult prison education and the martial arts when not writing genre fiction from a Biblical perspective. In addition to Lacuna, his stories have appeared in Tower of Ivory, The Sword Review and Fear and Trembling. He lives in ‘slower lower’ Delaware with his wife (author, poet, songwriter and homemaker Virginia Ann Werner), their cats and collie (who have many tales, but never tell). Visit their blog, Narrow Way Storytellers.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

My subconscious, surprisingly. In recent years, I've collected DVD's of movies and TV shows I loved in childhood. I'm shocked when I see an element or device I subconsciously poached for my fantasy and historical tales. (No copyright infringements thankfully, so no fear of a sheriff hunting me.) Richard Greene's British TV Robin Hood show and the famous Errol Flynn film still hit the mark for great fun and first place as influences on my outlaw tales.