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Merthin was eleven, a year older than his brother Ralph; but, to his intense annoyance, Ralph was taller and stronger.

This caused trouble with the parents. Their father, Sir Gerald, was a soldier, and could not conceal his disappointment when Merthin proved unable to lift the heavy lance, or became exhausted before the tree was chopped down, or came home crying after losing a fight. Their mother, Lady Maud, made matters worse, embarrassing Merthin by being over-protective, when what he needed her to do was pretend not to notice. When Father showed his pride in Ralph's strength, Mother tried to compensate by criticising Ralph's stupidity. Ralph was a bit slow on the uptake, but he could not help it, and being nagged about it only made him angry, so that he got into fights with other boys.

Both parents were tetchy on the morning of All Hallows Day. Father had not wanted to come to Kingsbridge at all. But he had been compelled. He owed money to the priory, and he could not pay. Mother said they would take away his lands: he was lord of three villages near Kingsbridge. Father reminded her that he was directly descended from the Thomas who became earl of Shiring in the year that Archbishop Becket was murdered by King Henry II. That Earl Thomas had been the son of Jack Builder, the architect of Kingsbridge cathedral, and Lady Aliena of Shiring—a near-legendary couple whose story was told, on long winter evenings, along with the heroic tales of Charlemagne and Roland. With such ancestry, Sir Gerald could not have his land confiscated by any monk, he bellowed, least of all that old woman Prior Anthony. When he started shouting, a look of tired resignation came over Maud's face, and she turned away—though Merthin had heard her mutter: "The Lady Aliena had a brother, Richard, who was no good for anything but fighting."

Prior Anthony might be an old woman, but he had at least been man enough to complain about Sir Gerald's unpaid debts. He had gone to Gerald's overlord, the present earl of Shiring, who happened also to be Gerald's second cousin. Earl Roland had summoned Gerald to Kingsbridge today to meet with the prior and work out some resolution. Hence Father's bad temper.

Then Father was robbed.

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