Previously on World Without End: Merthin and the plague arrived in Kingsbridge, pretty much at the same time. Godwyn ran off to the priory of St John-in-the-Forest, where he immediately slaughtered the prior and gave plague to all the monks. Back home, Caris found herself in charge of the convent after Cecilia’s death, and Petranilla tried some germ warfare out on Roland.
Caris, Thomas, Merthin, and Matthias are on the road to St John-in-the-Forest, wondering if anyone will still be alive when they get there. Around the campfire that night, Caris can’t help but smile at the thought of finally getting her hospice, even if at this point it’s on the backs of a lot of dead people. Merthin mildly calls her out on the proprietary term, because he thinks of it as their hospice, since he’ll design and build it. Thomas reads the energy between them pretty quickly and leaves to go look for Matthias. Once alone, Caris thanks Merthin for coming along and tells him that he’s one of the few people she can trust. He playfully asks if she still trusts him, when they’re all alone, at night, in a forest. She tells him not to tease her and he gets serious, telling her he’s tempting, not teasing. She seems pretty intent on sticking with her vows, though. Girl-on-girl is one thing, but sleeping with a man is wrong, I suppose. One of the horses fusses, so Merthin goes to check it out and sees Thomas and Matthias looking quite friendly, though they’re not actually doing anything racy. He figures out what’s going on and slips away, unknown to the other two men. Back at the campfire, he tells Caris that everything’s just fine and she lays down to sleep. She can’t help but steal a peek at him as he takes off his shirt and starts bathing, though.
At court, Edward’s chief advisor wakes him with bad news: his daughter has died of the plague on her way to be married. Edward bursts into messy tears, the sounds of his grief dramatically echoing down the corridors.
The little party arrives at the now nearly empty priory, where they find a whole lot of dead bodies strewn about. Even after all they’ve seen back in Kingsbridge, they’re horrified. Thomas hears someone in one of the buildings, and there they find Godwyn, of course. God, you just can’t kill this guy. He turns and, now in full-on crazy mode, tells them that the fumes of excrement ward off the disease. Ooookay, then. Thomas asks who the grave outside is for. It’s where the murdered prior now lies. So, I guess he wasn’t so crazy that he didn’t think to engage in a coverup. Caris asks him where the priory’s money has gone and he grins and tells her he ate it. Of course he did.
They go back outside, where suddenly the air seems less fetid, and decide they’ll have to bury the dead decently and then bring Godwyn back to Kingsbridge. They get to work, and Godwyn comes out and asks what they’re doing. Matthias suddenly unearths a gold cup from one of the piles of dirt lying about and Godwyn loses it (even more) and attacks the young monk, biting him in the neck before Merthin manages to wrestle him away.
Edward goes to pay his respects to his daughter, who’s not only unbelievably unmarked by the plague but also very intact for a corpse that had to have been dead for weeks, at least, to make it all the way back to England. He embraces her, weeping some more.
In Kingsbridge, one of Gwenda’s kids has died and is being buried. Her brother’s there as well—when did he show back up?—and ushers her and her older son away as the gravediggers get to work. At the edge of the gravesite, they run into Wulfric, who tells her he’s sorry he went and took off and left her with their children, alone. She tells him there’s nothing he could have done (you know, except be a damn father), but tells him the kid asked for him at the very end. That brings forth the manly tears and the two embrace. Nothing like the loss of your child to heal major marital rifts, right?
Caris and Co are coming back to Kingsbridge, and Caris wonders why nobody’s ploughing the fields. Thomas tells her that too many peasants have died, and she wonders how they’ll all make it through the winter. She also wonders why the lord that owns the fields isn’t doing something and Thomas laughs that the fields belong to the priory of Kingsbridge, so basically Caris is the lord right now. She really should have given at least a little attention to the areas that now fall under her control, but then, she has been pretty busy lately. He suggests she offer local peasants an incentive to work the fields, even though that’ll upset the other local lords.
In the cathedral, she addresses the now somewhat diminished congregation and tells them that they’re reaching a major turning point in history. She’s offering an honest wage to anyone who’ll farm their lands. It sounds pretty basic, but remember that up until this time serfdom was in full force, which kept people tied to a certain lord’s lands for very little or no money, just food and shelter (if even that). So, being offered actual living wage to work somewhere by choice was quite a big deal.
After mass, Gwenda goes to see Caris and tells her she and Wulfric want to get married and work on the priory land. Caris reminds her that Gwenda works for Ralph, so they’ll have to get his permission before they can work her land. Gwenda shrugs and tells her the old laws really aren’t in force anymore, so she’s going to do what she wants.
Thomas conducts the marriage ceremony, but Gwenda refuses to say the vows unless he takes the ‘obey’ part out of it. Thomas complies, and she and Wulfric finally get married. I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t do this earlier. Would they have needed Ralph’s permission or something? Afterward, her brother distracts the kid while she and Wulfric consummate the marriage in the middle of the woods.
In the middle of the night, the family leaves Wigleigh, but not without someone noticing.
Caris arrives at Shiring Castle, having been summoned to tend to Roland, who’s now dying of plague. But as soon as she enters the room, he accuses her of being a witch and tells her to get lost. She hands some herbs off to a servant with some instructions, as Roland gasps for everyone to ignore her. They ignore him, instead.
Thomas goes to visit Matthias, only to find him plagued, fevered, and shaking on the floor of his room.
Down in the infirmary, Petranilla’s giving Godwyn something to drink. Knowing her fairly well, he asks if it’s poison. If only. She tells him she’s a better mother than he is a son, so it’s perfectly safe. He drinks, and Caris returns. Petranilla immediately lays into her for her absence, but Caris tells her she was at Shiring Castle and that Roland died that morning. Petranilla looks a tiny bit sorry about that.
Roland’s buried in a tomb at the cathedral, watched by Ralph and many others. Petranilla sidles up to him and asks why he’s sad, when Roland killed his father and took his title. She tells him this is his chance to win his title back, and she’s there to help him do it. She looks meaningfully at Philippa and whispers that she and Ralph would make a lovely couple.
Thomas is tending sweetly to Matthias, who says he’s glad that his last sight will be of Thomas. Awww! Thomas tells Matthias he’s never loved anyone half as much as him. Man, you guys! Matthias gasps for him to be brave and urges him not to let his secrets die with him. And then he dies and Thomas cries and I kind of start to tear up.
Isabella returns to court, veiled in black, to see her granddaughter. Edward is not pleased to see her and tells her she’s not welcome. She doesn’t care, because she loved little Joan. She promises to clear out in just a couple of days and asks for a moment alone with the child. He cuts her visit short by a day and stomps out.
Caris finds Thomas out in a field, alone with his grief. She tells him how sorry she is and he thanks her, adding that he’s run away from too many things and Matthias loved him, in spite of that. She asks what he means and he says he’s been fleeing his past and the truth.
He tells her that, back when he was guarding King Edward, two men arrived with orders to kill the king. He killed one of them, and now Isabella hates Kingsbridge because Thomas is there and knows that she ordered the execution. He goes on to say that the king was spirited out of the castle and given a new life. Caris is shocked to hear that Edward’s still alive.
Ralph goes to Petranilla’s and immediately asks why she wants to help him. She says he was born to be earl, so she’ll do all she can to make that happen. He still can’t imagine why she cares what happens to him, so she drops the bombshell: she’s his mom, and she gave him to Sir Gerald and Maude (Merthin’s parents) to raise. Ralph refuses to believe it, and he also refuses to believe that Roland was actually his father. He hurries out and gallops out of town, arriving at Merthin’s, where he draws his sword and demands that Merthin tell him if he knew about this secret. Merthin admits that his mother told Caris about it before she died, but he said nothing to Ralph because he didn’t want to hurt him. Proving that these two really don’t have anything in common, not even basic decency, Ralph responds to that by saying he’s the rightful earl of Shiring and Merthin means nothing to him.
Merthin takes the story to Caris, who says she’s really sorry it worked out like this. He thinks he was a fool to return to Kingsbridge, because his life has just kind of gotten crappier since he got back. She asks if he’s not happy to be around her again and he reminds her that the priory comes before him all the time, so why should he stay? She tells him she loves him, and he grabs her and kisses her and then they have sex in front of the fire, so they’re all romantically glowy. Afterwards, she tells him this changes everything. He knows. Neither of them seems all that upset about it, though.
Edward goes into the chapel and asks his mother why she hasn’t left yet. She gets up from the altar and tells him she’s dying of a malignancy. He asks if it’s of the body or soul. She says she’s not expected to last until Christmas. He says he’s sorry, and sounds like he sort of means it. She says she wasn’t really happy about anything in her life, except her son, who’s a much better king and leader than his father, or most others, and she’d like to think she had a hand in that. Clearly feeling bad now, he tells her she can stay a bit longer, and he’ll have his own physicians care for her. She thanks him.
Ralph and a crew of thugs arrive at Wigleigh and are told by that douchebag who makes horrible decisions that the peasants have all left to go work on priory land. Ralph and his toughs gallop off to the priory fields, where Gwenda, Wulfric and the others put down their tools and prepare for a set-to. Ralph announces that they’re breaking the law and they’re all to return to Wigleigh at once. Wulfric tells him they’re not content to work for food alone, so he’d better be prepared to pay up. Ralph asks who’s paying them and Gwenda says it’s Caris. Ralph strolls over to Gwenda’s son and holds a knife to his throat, threatening to kill the boy unless they return to Wigleigh. Wulfric agrees to return, but Ralph’s not done yet. He orders Wulfric to kneel kiss his foot. Wulfric does, reluctantly, and gets a vicious kick in the face for his trouble. Ralph orders his men to bind Wulfric and take him along, so he can make some kind of example of him. He also tells them to grab the boy, but Gwenda urges young Sam to run. He does, and Ralph tells her to bring the boy to the manor house by Sunday if she ever wants to see her husband again.
Caris’s onetime girlfriend comes into Godwyn’s room and, when he mistakes her for Caris, she cheerfully corrects him, dropping the info that Caris is prior now. This sets him off on another insane rage and he attacks her, looking like he’s going to try and rape her, but she manages to throw something in his face that hurts like hell.
Godwyn is dragged to a monk’s cell by four men, who strap him down to a bed. He rages and spits at Caris, calling her a whore, until the men gag him. Merthin, one of them, stands back, satisfied with a day’s work.
Gwenda and her brother arrive at the outskirts of Wigleigh and she tells him she’s not just going to stand by while Wulfric hangs. Later, Wulfric’s in a noose while Ralph tells the assembled peasants that this is what happens to people who defy him. He slowly pulls Wulfric upward, so he begins choking, but then Gwenda appears, telling Ralph he’ll never see her boy, but she’s going to beg the peasants for Wulfric’s life. She turns to them and starts whipping up the crowd, telling them this is wrong and Ralph can’t just kick them off their land and hang them at will. She reminds everyone that they don’t have to live like this, and apparently they agree, because now the crowd’s turned into a mob that begins attacking Ralph’s men at arms. They take out a few, but her brother the sharpshooter starts killing the men at arms while Ralph mounts his horse and flees and Gwenda gets Wulfric down from the gallows. Torch-wielding peasants run Ralph out of town, and Gweda’s brother misses his shot but promises to take it later.
Petranilla comes home and finds Ralph sitting at the fire. She tries to chat with him, but all he wants to know is if Merthin’s his brother at all (no) and how he can know she’s not lying. She says he must secretly know this is true if he’s there. He whines about his peasants acting up and says he plans to gather a larger group of men to go and slaughter everyone and burn Wigleigh to the ground. That would accomplish…exactly nothing, Ralph. Petranilla says as much, though a bit more diplomatically and tells him that a true heir of Earl Roland would turn this little uprising to his advantage.
Ralph goes running to Isabella and tells her about the peasants rising and rejecting all authority, including the crown. And the problem is, there’s no earl around to try and condemn them. But, if he’s made earl, he’ll see they’re brought to justice. He’ll also look after Shiring better than Roland did. Petranilla, hanging in the back, pipes up that he’ll look after the priory better, too. Isabella snaps at her to remember her place, then asks what’s wrong with the priory. Petranilla says that there’s a woman prior, which is so, so wrong. But guess what? The bishop has recently died, and he needs a replacement. How about the recently recovered (allegedly) former prior of Kingsbridge? Oh, Jesus.
Ralph comes skipping into Shiring Castle and presents Philippa with a document that says he’s now Earl of Shiring, and he gets to marry whomever he wants. He eyes both her and her young daughter, creepily, and of course Philippa quickly agrees to marry him instead. Poor woman.
They’re married by the new bishop, Godwyn, who manages to get through the ceremony without trying to rape or fatally bite anyone. Petranilla looks on proudly while Philippa looks like death warmed over. When Ralph kisses her, she clearly tries not to throw up.
Later, Ralph gets ready for the wedding night while Philippa chills in her bath. He goes on and on about how he’s looked forward to this night, but she interrupts and tells him she sent her daughter away. He comes into the dressing room and tells her he only ever wanted her, not the kid, but as he approaches he sees that her bathwater is stained red. She quietly tells him he’ll never have her, raising one hand and dropping a knife over the side of the bath. He yells her name, but she’s gone.