A well-dressed man arrives on horseback at a modest estate—Ashby Manor—and wastes no time making it clear he’s a snob and a half. His name’s Peter Clemence, and he’s coolly greeted by Ashby’s proprietor, his cousin, Leoric. Leoric introduces his family: his ward, Isobel, younger son Meriet, and his clearly much favoured older son, Tristan. Tristan’s pretty fiancée, Rosana, strolls over and Peter kind of hits on her before he’s hustled away by Leoric.
At the abbey, Cadfael gets a visit from Hugh Beringar and Sergeant Warden. Beringar’s heading to Westminster to give an accounting of the shire. Cadfael rather unthinkingly asks who’ll be in charge of keeping the peace and Warden’s like, uh, I’m right here? Cadfael’s response is a definite, oh, yeah, well, I guess you’re better than nothing. Though barely. Nice, Cadfael.
Over dinner at Ashby, Peter is practically draping himself over Rosana. Her brother, Janyn, comes over simply to introduce himself and then shuffles off so we can get a bit of an exposition dump: Peter’s a cleric, though not one in habit, and Rosana and Tristan will soon be married at the abbey in Shrewsbury. Also, Peter’s a sort of diplomat and is close buddies with the Bishop of Winchester, whom Peter says is one of the highest men in the land. He’s off to Chester the following day, to see which side the Earl is on in the civil war. While they dine, a beggar peeks in on the company through the window. Inside, Peter proposes a toast to Rosana and kisses her a little grossly on the cheek. Tristan looks about to burst, but Meriet grabs his arm and holds him in his seat.
Later, Rosana escorts Peter to his room, but partway there they take a brief makeout break. And Meriet sees them. Wow, she’s easy. It’s not like Peter’s either good looking or in any way charming.
The following day, Peter gets on the road, blowing Rosana a kiss and making fun of his cousin a bit before leaving. Once he’s out of earshot, Meriet urges Tristan to forget him, and Leoric admits he’s glad to be rid of the man.
Peter rides through the wood, where the beggar’s stuffing his face with some berries, pauses briefly, and continues on his way. Later, we see the beggar again, devouring some recently roasted meat beside a fire and butchering a chicken with a really nice, bejewelled dagger.
Leoric and Meriet arrive at the abbey and are greeted by Cadfael. Leoric coldly informs him that Meriet wants to become a monk, and rides off without a second glance at the young man. Charming. Inside, the monks line up so Meriet, lying prostrate on the ground, can tell the abbot how much he wants to be a monk. The abbot asks some practical questions: is he freeborn, free of disease, and not engaged to be married? He’s good to go, so he’s given a 12 month probationary period. Meriet begs to become a monk immediately but the abbot warns him this is a hard life, and he really needs to do this right, lest he wind up doing something he regrets. Meriet accepts this and promises they won’t find him wanting.
In the middle of the night, the monks are roused from their beds by Meriet screaming. Cadfael rushes to him. Meriet, clearly in the middle of a nightmare, is crying for forgiveness. Cadfael hushes him and lays him back down, where he slips back into deep sleep, having not even woken up entirely. The prior arrives and sends everyone back to bed, but Oswyn wonders if this is daemons. For heaven’s sake, was the notion of a nightmare that foreign? Cadfael shoos him away, but apparently the notion of daemons isn’t so far out of left field that the prior doesn’t consider it.
The next day, Meriet’s once again prostrate before the abbot and the others, with Prior James advising some sort of punishment for…having a bad dream? They had some strange notions of discipline in these places. Cadfael points out that this was just a bloody nightmare, which the abbot seems more willing to accept. Another monk comes running in and announces they have a visitor.
The visitor is Ian McNiece, one of those actors who shows up absolutely everywhere. He’s Eluard, canon to the Bishop of Winchester, and he’s there because Peter’s disappeared. He’s already been to Ashby and questioned everyone there, so now he needs to talk to Meriet. He doesn’t find out much of anything we don’t already know, other than the fact that Peter’s horse was a nice one. He urges the Warden to find it ASAP and then asks Meriet what made him so suddenly decide to join a monastic order. Meriet claims he has a higher calling. Eluard seems to have a pretty finely tuned bullshit meter, but he lets it go for now and just warns Meriet to stay put, in case he has more questions.
Cadfael finds Meriet praying in the church later and advises him to go to bed. He also offers to be a sounding board, if the boy ever needs to talk. Meriet shortly tells him he’s just fine, thanks.
That night, the monks are once again gathered for Nightmare Theatre. This time, there’s less screaming, but Meriet does call for someone named Barbery and whistles, which Oswyn, in a panic, says is something followers of the devil do. Or people calling for pets. Brother Jerome, of course, agrees with Oswyn, who’s in full-on freakout mode, panicking that Meriet will bring the roof down on them. He babbles about Meriet having a charm that he takes to bed with him. Jerome’s all over that, because that’s against the rules. Meriet wakes and wonders what’s up, and Jerome takes the opportunity to search the young man’s bed. He finds a lock of Rosana’s hair and spits that this is close to fornication. Meriet’s enraged that Jerome is going through his things and accuses Jerome of stealing. I hate to say it, but Jerome’s actually in the right here. He’s being a dick about it, but he’s right. Monks gave up all personal property when they entered the cloisters. Jerome burns the hair and Meriet loses his temper and launches himself on him, throttling Jerome until Cadfael manages to pull him off.
Meriet’s punished by being beaten with a whip, as Cadfael flinches slightly. Once the punishment’s over and Meriet’s locked up in a cell, Cadfael pays him a visit with medicines and some tough love. Meriet says this is nothing; that his father was worse. Yowch. Cadfael warns him he could have been excommunicated for assaulting his priest and confessor, though Cadfael himself has wanted to throttle Jerome on more than one occasion. He asks about this red-haired girl, guessing she spurned Meriet. Meriet growls that she’s spoken for. Cadfael lightly tells him to find another, because there are plenty of fish and all that. He comments that he’s never seen someone pursue this vocation with so much passion and so little joy and asks Meriet what’s bothering him so much. Meriet asks what brought Cadfael to the abbey and Cadfael tells him about his time in the crusades and how his life now is a sort of atonement. He admits that obedience is still a tough rule for him.
Cadfael reports to the prior and abbot and tells them Meriet’s suffering from unrequited love, but he’s pretty sure the kid’s not a murderer. Prior James isn’t so sure. Cadfael wants to visit Leoric to see if he can persuade Meriet not to take his vows, because Cadfael’s pretty sure he’s just not suited to the monastic life. He advises Meriet spend the rest of his penance at St Giles, the leper house the monks run. James and the abbot agree. The abbot asks how Jerome’s doing and Cadfael reports that he’s fine, but it’ll be a few weeks before his voice returns. ‘Then even in the worst deed, there is some good,’ the abbot says drily. Ha!
On his way out the door the next day, Warden asks where Cadfael and Meriet are going. Cadfael tells him, and then asks Warden if he needs a hand with something. Warden says nothing, but one of his men walks up to the abbey leading Peter’s horse. Meriet recognizes it immediately—this is Barbery, of course—and confirms that it’s Peter’s. Warden figures this was a robbery/murder, but Cadfael notes that the silver on the harness is intact, and no decent robber would leave that. The horse’s noseband, made of green velvet, is missing though. Strange. Warden warns Meriet not to stray from the lepers.
Cadfael and the boys arrive at St Giles and Oswyn goes in to tell everyone they’ve arrived. Meriet asks for some stats on the place and Cadfael asks if he’s afraid of infection. Meriet is not. Oswyn returns and cheerfully tells them this is one of their appointed days to go into the forest and gather firewood. I know that, personality-wise, Oswyn’s basically a human golden retriever, but it seems a little odd to me that he’s so friendly and perky around Meriet when, just a few scenes ago, he was pretty convinced the man was possessed by the devil. He escorts Meriet off and Cadfael goes on his way, riding a donkey to Ashby, cutting through the woods. Janyn catches him up and asks after Meriet before introducing himself. Since Janyn’s a friend of Meriet’s, Cadfael asks about the family dynamic. Janyn tells him that Tristan’s definitely the favoured son, and Meriet resents it, but he only holds it against his father, not against his brother. Well, that seems fair. It’s his father doing the favouring, after all. Janyn, apparently, would have hated both. He asks if there’s news of Peter Clemence and Cadfael says they found the horse, but not the man. Janyn thinks Peter switched sides in the war and took off. Why would he leave the horse behind, then? Cadfael hadn’t considered that scenario.
Monks and lepers head out to find firewood. Meriet tells them he knows of a spot where they can find charcoal.
Cadfael’s arrived at Ashby, and Leoric clearly has no intention of changing his son’s mind, no matter how much Cadfael tries to cajole and shame him into stepping in. He refuses to have the young man back. Cadfael asks if there’s some reason Meriet shut himself away—did he have something to do with Clemence’s disappearance? He accuses Leoric of concealing the truth of the matter, which is a terrible way to get someone to talk. Sure enough, Leoric shuts right down and tells Cadfael to get lost. As he rides away, he’s observed by Isobel and held up by Tristan and Rosana. Tristan asks after his brother, which is sweet, and Cadfael asks if they know why Meriet joined the abbey. Rosana simperingly says the young man was in the shadow of his amazing older brother, just like all men. Tristan says he wishes Meriet could be back with them, but if this is really what he wants, he hopes Cadfael will help him. Rosana sends Meriet her love and asks Cadfael to sing sweetly at her wedding. Cadfael agrees, as long as this marriage is made in heaven.
He gets back on the road and, while out in the woods, searches around until he finds Barbery’s missing noseband. Well, that’s one mystery solved. He also finds a bit of gold braid, and then an arrow lodges itself in the tree right above his head. Has he unwittingly wandered into the Hunger Games? No, this is Isobel’s way of getting his attention. Isobel, next time, try just saying ‘hi.’ She asks for a word and asks after Meriet and slags off Rosana, whom she hates. She’s also got a thing for Meriet. Cadfael wonders if Meriet took the cowl because he had no inheritance, but that’s not the case. Ashby will actually be his when Leoric dies. There’s another, presumably finer, estate up in the north which will be Tristan’s as soon as he marries. She drops the fact that Tristan and Janyn spend a lot of time there, getting it ready. Cadfael asks if she has any ideas about what happened to Peter. She doesn’t, and she doesn’t care about his disappearance. Nobody liked him, except for Rosana, and that’s just because she likes any man who looks at her twice.
Meriet takes the lepers and Oswyn to a charcoal pit. The burner died the year before, so they can go ahead and help themselves. They start gathering, Oswyn commenting that it’s amazing the smell of burning is still present. While they dig, that beggar watches them. Meriet pulls some charcoal away, and Oswyn, to his horror, sees a man’s boot, and part of a charred leg bone in the pile.
Cadfael and Warden are summoned and quickly surmise the man was tall and straight, probably on the young side. More of the skeleton’s been unearthed, by the way. Cadfael finds an arrowhead in the corpse’s chest, so the man was shot, and then burned. Also, Cadfael’s pretty sure he rode a horse, because the boots are too delicate to walk in. More sifting in the pit unearths some cloth and a bit of braid that miraculously survived being burned. Cadfael compares it to the braid he found in the woods. Warden finds a dagger strap, but no dagger, and Cadfael comes up with a piece of jewellry in the shape of a cross. Warden thinks this is enough to say this body was Peter’s and he all but accuses Meriet of having killed the guy. Cadfael points out that it would be pretty stupid of him to lead Oswyn and the others to the very spot where he burned a body. Unless he was being really clever and this was a way to deflect suspicion, but apparently we’re not supposed to think that. Some of Warden’s men spot the beggar and chase him down. They find the dagger on him and note that it has blood on it.
The beggar’s thrown into prison for questioning. Terrified, he tells Warden he found it at the charcoal pit and killed a chicken, hence the blood. Warden starts to kick him for no reason at all, but fortunately Cadfael shows up and tells him to cease and get lost so he can tend the man’s sores. Warden leaves, reluctantly. Once they’re alone, Cadfael asks the man’s name. It’s Harald, which Cadfael notes is a king’s name. Harald says he’s not a violent man and that he found the dagger. Cadfael guesses the man’s a runaway serf, as he tends to his many wounds and sores. Cadfael reassures him he believes he’s not a murderer but asks if he saw Peter while he was alive. Peter says he did. The man was riding north, wearing wonderful, warm clothes, his cloak held but an enormous brooch with a red stone. Cadfael comments that they haven’t found such a brooch and Harald swears he didn’t steal it.
Isobel finds Cadfael at work in his workshop, and Cadfael asks her if everyone at Ashby is true to the king. She says Leoric certainly is, but she doesn’t seem to know about the others. Cadfael thinks Peter was killed over his task, not so he could be robbed. She doesn’t think Tristan and Janyn have it in them to be political. Cadfael asks her about this brooch of Peter’s and she remembers it. He deputises her to help him find it.
Oswyn brings bread to St Giles, along with news of Harald’s arrest. Meriet immediately rushes off to talk to Cadfael, but trips over a cart and hurts his ankle.
Once he makes it to Cadfael’s, Meriet readily confesses to having killed Peter for making free with Rosana. Slightly hysterical, he begs Cadfael to make sure poor Harald is released. You can’t accuse this kid of not being noble. He says his father gave him the choice of joining the abbey or giving himself over to the law, thus bringing shame upon his entire family. Cadfael urges the boy to officially confess to his priest. That priest being, of course, Brother Jerome. Yeah, this should go well.
Sure enough, Jerome reports to Cadfael that Meriet will not confess. Cadfael’s not surprised, because he knows Meriet can lie to him, but not to his confessor. He’s no more guilty of Peter’s murder than Cadfael is.
Nonetheless, Warden’s summoned and plays bad cop for a bit, not that it’s necessary. Meriet keeps claiming he’s guilty. Cadfael asks about moving the body and Meriet says he dragged it off the road and took it to the charcoal pit. The charcoal burner taught him the method of burning when Meriet was a kid. The young man’s abed with his broken ankle, so Cadfael tells Warden he can’t be moved just now.
At Ashby, they’re all getting ready to head to the abbey for the wedding. Isobel rifles through some trunks, looking for the brooch, but she’s interrupted by Rosana’s arrival.
The party arrives at the abbey and are welcomed by all the monks and the abbot, who blesses them all. Leoric asks after Peter’s bones and the abbot takes him inside.
Cadfael finds the man praying sometime later, apologises for intruding, and tells him about Meriet’s confession and the fact that Cadfael doesn’t believe it. Leoric says he knows what he heard and saw—he apparently came upon Meriet moving the body as he was coming back from a hunting trip and drew his own conclusions. Cadfael asks if Meriet said anything and Leoric said there was nothing to say, because Meriet was too guilty to speak, and Leoric’s feeling pretty guilty too, because he’s the one who actually burned the corpse.
In Rosana’s room in the abbey, Rosana talks about how awesome it’ll be being married to Tristan and partying all the time up in the north. Isobel takes the opportunity to paw through the luggage again and comes up with the brooch. Thank God Rosana’s an idiot.
In Cadfael’s workshop, Leoric confesses to burning the body and running the horse off, not to save Meriet, but to preserve his family’s honour. To his credit (sort of), he apparently feels badly about his incredibly mislaid priorities. Cadfael asks when all this happened and learns it was in the late afternoon, some six hours after Peter left Ashby. He thinks it’s unlikely it took six hours for the guy to only go three miles and points out that Leoric didn’t see Meriet kill anyone, all he saw was the young man moving a dead body. Leoric asks why Meriet wouldn’t say so, if he wasn’t guilty of murder, and Cadfael suggests he’s covering for someone he loves: Tristan. Leoric can’t believe it and Cadfael yells at him for instantly suspecting Meriet but refusing to believe his darling could be guilty. He points out that Meriet does nothing by halves and is truly falling on his sword here, protecting his brother from hanging, Rosana from widowhood, and his undeserving father from heartbreak. This finally seems to get through to the man and, dazed, he murmurs that he has to talk to Warden about this. Cadfael urges him to instead say nothing and go to the abbot’s dinner, because they still don’t know the truth of what’s happened.
Right on cue, Isobel comes rushing in. Her uncle leaves, and she excitedly tells Cadfael she found the brooch.
The next day, Tristan and Rosana wed and are led out of the church by Eluard and the abbot. As they leave, Isobel drapes a cloak, with the brooch on it, over Rosana’s shoulders. Eluard—who seems to have been cued up to what was about to happen here—instantly recognizes it and asks where she got it. Instead of lying and saying she had no idea, Rosana nervously says it was a gift from a kinsman. Eulard tells her it’s one of a kind and he knows it belonged to Peter. He gets more confrontational and demands she tell him who gave him the brooch. She claims it was from Meriet. Leoric asks when this was and she claims it was the day after Peter left Ashby. Leoric calls her out for lying, because he had his son under lock and key that day. She breaks down and confesses that Janyn gave her the brooch.
Janyn, meanwhile, is getting ready to flee. Meriet asks him where he’s going and Janyn stupidly threatens to kill him, adding that one cleric’s much like another. Smooth, Janyn. Meriet, despite his broken ankle, puts up a good fight, and after he’s tossed aside, Oswyn joins in and gives as good as he gets, but a kidney punch soon fells him too. Then Cadfael shows up and gets Janyn in a chokehold until he gets him down on the ground, and sends Oswyn for help. Meriet immediately guesses Janyn killed Peter and asks him why. Cadfael answers for him, saying that Janyn’s on the side of the northern barons, plotting against King Stephen. Tristan and Rosana are in on it too. Meriet’s appalled that Janyn would stoop to murder on the vague promise of future enrichment. Eh, plenty of people have killed for less. Warden arrives and takes control.
Tristan’s singing like a bird for Eluard and the others, telling them he went to the forest to properly dispose of the body, but Meriet found him, drew his own conclusions, and told him to get lost. To his shame, Tristan did. Rosana asks what’s to become of them and Eluard says he’s not moved by a pretty woman’s tears, especially when she helped plot treason and was involved in a murder coverup. However, if there is treason in the north, at least the king can now act upon it, and maybe he’ll be more forgiving than Eluard.
Leoric finds Meriet in the church and goes to make his peace with the boy. He asks Meriet for forgiveness for being a horrible father, and Meriet takes some of the blame for allegedly being an irksome son. They embrace and Leoric begs him to come home. Well, that was an easy erasure of many, many years of emotional neglect and abuse.
Janyn’s taken away in chains and Eluard orders Warden to release Harald. Warden pouts but goes off to do it, and Cadfael thanks Eluard for his humanity.
Later, Meriet, dressed in civvies, finds Cadfael to thank him for all he’s done. They hug and Meriet says things are much better between him and his dad. Isobel wanders up behind him and wishes Cadfael well before walking off with Meriet into the happy sunset.