It was a cold crisp evening, with rain threatening over the Welsh hills to the west, but Brother Cadfael was not hurrying home to his cosy workshop as usual at this time. He had been out beyond Frankwell to visit the elderly and infirm, delivering ointments of his own devising to guard against the lingering chill of winter, and certain cordials distilled from Shrewsbury barley to which he added cinnamon and ginger root from his store of eastern spices. Having ministered to his patients' physical and mental aches and pains, applying grease for the one and unstoppering bottles for the other, he had been hurrying back to the abbey for vespers when something brought him to a sudden stop. Now he stood, head on one side, in the Abbey Foregate. The disturbed expression on his face was caused by the noises emanating from the inn to his left, noises unlike anything Cadfael had heard since his return from the Holy Land.
The puzzled monk turned slowly on his heel and walked across the cobbles towards the inn. Behind the heavy oak door he found a low, dark and frankly dingy room, redolent with the smell of spilled beer and mouldy straw. As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, Cadfael made out some low tables to his right, a counter of sorts in front of him, and a smouldering grate on the left which was adding its heavy smoke to the dank air without providing any appreciable heat. A bald headed man in a stained apron stared at him in surprise from behind the counter.
"Good evening, Brother. What brings you to us this day? Is the Prior sending for another barrel already?"
Cadfael made a mental note of the question. There had been murmurings recently that Brother Prior had been absent from devotions on too many unexplained occasions: perhaps this was a clue as to the reason for the senior monk's neglect of his religious observances. However, now was not the time to explore that matter, so he ignored the question and instead asked one of his own.
"I am seeking the source of some strange sounds coming from this building just a few moments ago. Can you tell me what might have caused them?"
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"Strange sounds, you say," the bald man replied. "That will be the folk. They're along at the far end of the main room." He pointed to Cadfael's right. "They've only just come in."
Cadfael followed the man's outstretched arm. Through the murk he could make out a few hunched figures. He strode unhurriedly towards them, and saw that they were men and women, roughly dressed, with long matted beards and unshorn hair. They were seated in a horseshoe, facing inwards. As Cadfael approached, an unearthly wailing and crashing suddenly came from the group, many sounds starting almost in unison. The noise lasted for several minutes before ending as suddenly as it had begun.
Peering closely at the now quiet group, Cadfael could see that many of them were holding simple tools, strangely shaped boxes, sticks and pipes, and other items which defied description. He took a step closer, and made out more detail: leather straps, pagan symbols, bones! The noise began again, and it seemed to come from these unfamiliar objects. Some of the men were squeezing wooden boxes, an old crone was beating herself about the body with what looked like wooden spoons, and others were rocking rhythmically to and fro. This was definitely the same disturbing din which had brought Cadfael up short in the Abbey Foregate.
After a while, the strange sounds ceased again and the strange figures became restive. One of them caught sight of the curious monk, and leapt to his feet, knocking over a tankard of beer. There was consternation in the group as the liquid poured across a table and dripped onto the floor. Now half the figures were on their feet, shouting and gesticulating.
"Someone get a towel. Dave's knocked over his pint!"
When the commotion was over and the spillage had been soaked up with rags, Cadfael approached the one whose tankard had been upset and placed a tentative hand on his shoulder.
"Tell me, what do you call this sound? It reminds me of the Moorish trumpets in Jerusalem."
The figure turned a hairy, drink-ravaged face to the monk.
"Well it's a session, like. Folk music. Comes from all over." He grinned a gap-toothed grin, and nodded at the large box which was trapped to his chest. "Melodeons, bitta Cajun, Balkan even."
"Heathen music", Cadfael nodded, crossing himself. "Not good English or Welsh music."
"Well, some's English. More Celtic, Welsh and that."
Cadfael's brow furrowed. He had heard the old Welsh music, songs as sweet and dark as the women he had loved in Lebanon, but this was different. Deeper, earthier, more intoxicating. He longed to hear more. Settling himself on the stone floor beside the group, he drew a large bottle out of his bag, unstoppered it, and took a long pull of the contents. Then he offered it to the one called Dave, who took a drink and passed it on. As the bottle circulated, Cadfael thought to himself that these people were perhaps even more in need of his poppy-seed opiate brew than his frail and sick patients in Frankwell. This session, this heathen music, was a mission which he felt he must accept. Here were souls in torment.
Then the noise began again, and the room began to spin slowly, widdershins. Cadfael prayed he would be strong enough to withstand this hellish assault.
Photo Credits: (1) Abbey Foregate Shrewsbury (by Alex Monaghan); (2) Cathy Jordan (Dervish) (by The Mollis); (3) Shrewsbury Folk Festival, (4) Cadfael - The Complete Collection, (5) Shooglenifty (unknown/website).