Kinx’s Book Nook Guest Post: A short story from the world of The Fifth Knight, followed by a related post on Aelred of Rievaulx
Brother Cuthbert’s Story
Episcopal Palace, Canterbury Cathedral, England
29 December, 1170
Though the time is close to the holy hour of Vespers, I am no longer wanted. Men of my advanced age, with a voice that quavers and cracks when singing the Divine Office and a mind that can no longer recall the words with ease, are not welcome. Instead, I am asked to do other work. Important work, I am assured. Like lighting the scores of candles in the cathedral, followed by a long trek through the corridors of my Lord Becket’s Palace to illuminate that too.
“Vital, necessary work,” said the Prior, when he came to see me on a special visit. “So vital, we have to give you an assistant. Young Brother Matthew here will be your apprentice.”
I am not a fool. They have given me the young, red-cheeked Matthew, hair like dried straw, to make sure I do not burn the place to the ground. With my unsteady hands and my forgetful ways, I cannot be trusted.
Matthew makes his way behind me along our last section, the high-ceilinged hallway. I know full well he checks that each sconce is steady, that there is no chance the lit pillars of wax will tip over, falling against a priceless tapestry or a carved wood cabinet.
“All perfect as usual, Brother Cuthbert!” comes his cheery call, echoing to me as he follows along with an armful of spare new candles.
My shoulders tighten. A quarter my age, he has been my overseer for, for- it escapes me. A long time. But still he pretends that he is learning from me, his wide, innocent face beaming with gratitude.
“Good.” I spit my resentment on the taper to quench it, and wrench open the door in the far corner of the hallway that leads back to the stores.
A sudden series of thuds halts me. It sounds as if it has come from the closed and locked front door. I look back. Paused, Brother Matthew looks towards the door too.
“A strange way to knock.” Brother Matthew gives me a questioning look.
“Open up, in the name of King Henry!” The muffled male voice from the other side of door has great authority.
“I had better see what this man wants.” Brother Matthew places his pile of candles on a nearby chest with care.
More pounding, another shout. “Open up, I say!”
“Wait, Matthew. We should seek help.” My years give me caution. No, fear. Where once I would have opened the door on a dark evening to Satan himself, now I quail.
Brother Matthew gives me another of his sunny smiles. “Don’t worry, Brother Cuthbert. It sounds like it’s important. And be sure, I’ll send them on their way if not. You carry on back to the stores.”
But I don’t. I don’t know why I stand in the shadows and watch as Matthew slides the thick metal bolt and opens the tall, heavy door.
The light from our lit candles spills out. Standing there is a group of knights, I don’t know how many. All with weapons drawn.
Matthew pulls in a breath, but does not falter, does not step back, does not try to save himself. Instead, he raises a courageous hand. “No. You cannot enter this place.” He gestures for them to stand back.
Then as I hold the door handle, hold it as my legs threaten to give from under me, the biggest one, a monster with a scarred face, pulls back his huge broadsword and plunges it into Matthew.
The blade slices clean through him. It emerges from his back, stained with his blood. He makes no sound, doubles over and falls to the ground as the monster pulls it back out of him. They all surge over him, these demons that have come this night.
The hall echoes under their surging steps. Then one, one with unnatural blue eyes, speeds up. Speeds up towards me as I shudder uselessly in the gloom.
“You there!” His axe is raised.
He stops before me. “Take us to the Archbishop. At once.”
I haul my gaze from the raised weapon to poor Matthew, lying in a pool of his own blood across the threshold.
I cross myself, but whether it is for his soul or for my own, I do not know. “What errand of the devil are you on? We are all men of God in here. No-one will fight you, sir knight.”
My old, foolish voice trembles out, shows my terror. The knight brings the blade to my throat. I feel its keen edge against my quivering flesh and I know he could take my head in an eye-blink. “Take us to Thomas Becket. Now. Or you can join your young friend in Paradise.”
I should have Matthew’s courage, I should. But I don’t. I point a foolish, shaking finger to the passage that leads to the Archbishop’s rooms.
The knight removes his weapon from my pulsing neck, indicates for the others to follow him to my lord Becket.
My breath escapes me, rattling and wheezing in my chest as if it is my last.
Another of the demons, a stocky red-bearded man, yanks me to my tip-toes by the front of my robe.
I stare into his hard eyes, his thick red beard half-concealing his sneer.
“Paradise not so appealing when you think you’re going there, eh?”
He is so close, his spit mists my face. “Please, have mercy.” I beg like a maid.
“Put him down,” comes the order from the blue-eyed one. “We have a task to finish.”
My head meets the red and black tiles. As I open my mouth to cry out in pain, a savage boot lands in my ribs. I feel some go, my thin old bones shattering in agony. I writhe on the ground, trying to breathe but trying not to, as pain overcomes me.
“All yours, Palmer.” Red-beard’s feet move away.
Like a dying fish, I look up at a tall, dark young knight. Dear Christ, his powerful legs and feet could finish me off. I try to jerk away but he simply bows his head and moves on.
They go. They all go, their murderous shouts fading. They will go to do what other evil, I don’t know. But I’m alive.
I try to rise to my feet but the pain grips me harder. I manage to get to my hands and knees. I crawl over to Matthew. The cold tiles under my palms are warm and sticky with his pooled blood as I near him.
I grasp him by one shoulder to turn his face up. He is so heavy, so dreadfully heavy. It is the weight of death. I knew that already but my agonized touch confirms it. His blue eyes, the ones that lit with his easy smile, are blank and empty. His ruddy cheeks, his healthy, placid, kind face now an empty pale mask.
I stroke his hair and my keening cries spark fresh agony in my chest. I do not care. This man, this young man, had only ever offered me his friendship, his spiritual friendship, just as our beloved Aelred says we should do. He gave me his help, but made it seem like I was helping him. And because he was young, I had resented him, despised him. He’d accepted my bad humor with the best of grace, fulfilling his vows in every moment he looked after me.
It should have been me. I should have gone to that door. I should have had courage as he had, faith that whatever happened, was in Christ’s hands. But I didn’t.
And now my old, broken bones live on, while he is no more. My heart is broken too.
# # #
Who was Aelred of Rievaulx?
In The Fifth Knight, we see Sister Theodosia Bertrand (the young nun cloistered in Canterbury Cathedral) draw on the teachings of the great Aelred of Rievaulx for spiritual guidance. He is also of huge importance to Brother Cuthbert, the monk in the book who witnesses the arrival of the knights at Canterbury.
Aelred was one of the great monastic educators and teachers in early medieval times. He was born around 1110 into a good family with aristocratic connections. When he was about fifteen, he was sent to the court of the King of Scots as part of the fosterage system that existed at the time for upper class families. Though Aelred was successful at Court, he still longed to fulfill an emerging vocation to join the Church. He was hugely drawn to the religious life and struggled with this up to his early twenties. While on a mission to York on behalf of the archbishop at the time, Aelred encountered a new monastery at Rievaulx. After a night’s deliberation, he offered himself as a monk at its gates. Aelred’s calling to the religious life was never in doubt. He rose to become Abbot of Rievaulx and doubled it in size. He wrote many important texts on faith and spirituality. He also traveled extensively across Britain and France, supervising the setting up of new monasteries. One of Aelred’s greatest written works is ‘Spiritual Friendship’, where he writes of the value of ‘the love of friendship.’ He insists on the importance of the love of friends, making it as important as the love of God.
This is a remarkable world view for someone who lived over 900 years ago. I believe Brother Matthew in Cuthbert’s story, held it too.
The Fifth Knight by E.M. Powell
To escape a lifetime of poverty, mercenary Sir Benedict Palmer agrees to one final, lucrative job: help King Henry II’s knights seize the traitor Archbishop Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. But what begins as a clandestine arrest ends in cold-blooded murder. And when Fitzurse, the knights’ ringleader, kidnaps Theodosia, a beautiful young nun who witnessed the crime, Palmer can sit silently by no longer. For not only is Theodosia’s virtue at stake, so too is the secret she unknowingly carries—a secret he knows Fitzurse will torture out of her. Now Palmer and Theodosia are on the run, strangers from different worlds forced to rely only on each other as they race to uncover the hidden motive behind Becket’s grisly murder—and the shocking truth that could destroy a kingdom.
About the Author
E. M. Powell was born and raised in Ireland, a descendant of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. At University College, Cork, she discovered a love of Anglo-Saxon and medieval English during her study of literature and geography. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Manchester Irish Writers, the Historical Novel Society, and International Thriller Writers. A reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, she lives today in Manchester, England, with her husband and daughter.