It was October, the time of the year’s dying when cattle were being slaughtered before winter and when the northern winds brought a promise of ice. The chestnut leaves had turned golden, the beeches were trees of flame and the oaks were made from bronze. Thomas of Hookton with his woman, Eleanor, and his friend, Father Hobbe, came to the upland farm at dusk and the farmer refused to open his door, but shouted through the wood that the travellers could sleep in the byre. Rain rattled on the mouldering thatch. Thomas led their one horse under the roof that they shared with a woodpile, six pigs in a stout timber pen and a scattering of feathers where a hen had been plucked and the feathers reminded Father Hobbe that it was Saint Gallus’s day and he told Eleanor how the blessed saint, coming home in a winter’s night, had found a bear stealing his dinner. “He told the animal off!” Father Hobbe said, “he gave it a right talking-to, he did, and then he made it fetch his firewood.”
“I’ve seen a picture of that,” Eleanor said, “and didn’t the bear become his servant?”
“That’s because Gallus was a holy man,” Father Hobbe explained, “bears wouldn’t fetch firewood for just anyone! Only for a holy man.”
“A holy man,” Thomas put in, “who is the patron saint of hens.” Thomas knew all about the saints, more indeed than Father Hobbe. “Why would a chicken want a saint?” he enquired sarcastically.
“Gallus is the patron of hens?” Eleanor asked, confused by Thomas’s tone, “not bears?”
“Of hens,” Father Hobbe confirmed, “indeed of all poultry.”
“But why?” Eleanor wanted to know.
“Because he once expelled a wicked demon from a young girl.” Father Hobbe, broad faced, hair like a stickleback’s spines, peasant-born, stocky, young and eager, liked to tell stories of the blessed saints. “A whole bundle of bishops had tried to drive the demon out,” he went on, “and they had all failed, but the blessed Gallus came along and he cursed the demon, he cursed it! And it screeched in terror,” Father Hobbe waved his hands in the air to imitate the evil spirit’s panic, “and then it fled from her body, it did, and it looked just like a black hen. Just like a pullet. A black pullet.”
“I’ve never seen a picture of that,” Eleanor remarked in her accented English, then gazed out through the byre door, “but I’d like to see a real bear carrying firewood,” she added wistfully.
Thomas sat beside her and stared into the wet dusk that was hazed by a small mist. He was not sure it really was Saint Gallus’s day for he had lost his reckoning while they travelled. Perhaps it was already Saint Audrey’s day? It was October, he knew that, and he knew that one thousand, three hundred and forty six years had passed since Christ had been born, but he was not sure which day it was. It was easy to lose count. His father had once recited all the Sunday services on a Saturday and he had to do them again next day. Thomas surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. He was a priest’s bastard and that was said to bring bad luck. He shivered. There was a heaviness in the air that owed nothing to the setting sun or to the rain clouds or to the mist. God help us, he thought, but there was an evil in this dusk and he made the sign of the cross again and said a silent prayer to Saint Gallus and his obedient bear. There had been a dancing bear in London, its teeth nothing but rotted yellow stumps and its brown flanks matted with blood from its owner’s goad. The street dogs had snarled at it, slunk about it and shrank back when the bear swung on them.
“How far to Durham?” Eleanor asked, this time speaking French, her native language.
“Tomorrow, I think,” Thomas answered, still gazing north to where the heavy dark was shrouding the land. “She asked,” he explained in English to Father Hobbe, “when we would reach Durham.”
“Tomorrow, pray God,” the priest said.
“Tomorrow you can rest,” Thomas promised Eleanor in French. She was pregnant with a child that, God willing, would be born in the springtime. Thomas was not sure how he felt about being a father. It seemed too early for him to become responsible, but Eleanor was happy and he liked to please her and so he told her he was happy as well and, some of the time, that was even true.
“And tomorrow,” Father Hobbe said, “ we shall fetch our answers.”
“Tomorrow,” Thomas corrected him, “we shall ask our questions,”
“God will not let us come this far to be disappointed,” Father Hobbe said, and then, to keep Thomas from arguing, he laid out their meagre supper. “That’s all that’s left of the bread,” he said, “and we should save some of the cheese and an apple for breakfast.” He made the sign of the cross over the food, blessing it, then broke the hard bread into three pieces, “we should eat before nightfall.”
Darkness brought a brittle cold. A brief shower passed and after it the wind dropped. Thomas slept closest to the byre door and sometime after the wind died he woke because there was a light in the northern sky.
He rolled over, sat up and he forgot that he was cold, forgot his hunger, forgot all the small nagging discomforts of life, for he could see the grail. The Holy Grail, the most precious of all Christ’s bequests to man, lost these thousand years and more, and he could see it glowing in the sky like shining blood and about it, bright as the glittering crown of a saint, rays of dazzling shimmer filled the heaven.
Thomas wanted to believe. He wanted the grail to exist. He thought that if the grail were to be found then all the world’s evil would be drained into its belly. He so wanted to believe and that October night he saw the grail like a great burning cup in the north and his eyes filled with tears so that the image blurred, yet he could see it still, and it seemed to him that a vapour boiled from the holy vessel. Beyond it, in ranks rising to the heights of the air, were rows of angels, their wings touched by fire. All the northern sky was smoke and gold and scarlet, glowing in the night as a sign to doubting Thomas. “Oh, Lord,” he said aloud and he threw off his blanket and knelt in the byre’s cold doorway, “oh, Lord.”
“Thomas?’ Eleanor woke beside him. She sat up and stared into the night. “Fire,” she said in French, “c’est un grand incendie,” her voice was awed.
“C’est un incendie?” Thomas asked, then came fully awake and saw there was indeed a great fire on the horizon from where the flames boiled up to light a cup-shaped chasm in the clouds.
“There is an army there,” Eleanor whispered in French. “Look!” She pointed to another glow, farther off. They had seen such lights in the sky in France, flamelight reflected from cloud where England’s army blazed its way across Normandy and Picardy.
Thomas still gazed north, but now in disappointment. It was an army? Not the grail?
“Thomas?” Eleanor was worried.
“It’s just rumour,” he said. He was a priest’s bastard and he had been raised on the sacred scriptures and in Matthew’s gospel it had been promised that at the end of time there would be battles and rumours of battles. The scriptures promised that the world would come to its finish in a welter of war and blood, and in the last village, where the folk had watched them suspiciously, a sullen priest had accused them of being Scottish spies. Father Hobbe had bridled at that, threatening to box his fellow priest’s ears, but Thomas had calmed both men down and spoken with a shepherd who said he had seen smoke in the northern hills. The Scots, the shepherd said, were marching south, though the priest’s woman scoffed at the tale, claiming that the Scottish troops were nothing but cattle raiders. “Bar your door at night,” she advised, “and they’ll leave you alone.”
The far light subsided. It was not the grail.
“Thomas?” Eleanor frowned at him.
“I had a dream,” he said, “just a dream.”
“I felt the child move,” she said, and she touched his shoulder. “Will you and I be married?”
“In Durham,” he promised her. He was a bastard and he wanted no child of his to carry the same taint. “We shall reach the city tomorrow,” he reassured Eleanor, “and you and I will marry in a church and then we shall ask our questions.” And, he prayed, let one of the answers be that the grail did not exist. Let it be a dream, a mere trick of fire and cloud in a night sky, for else Thomas feared it would lead to madness. He wanted to abandon this search, he wanted to give up the grail and return to being what he was and what he wanted to be: an archer of England.
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