|It was with the greatest of relief that Hugh Beringar rode into
the abbey foregate. January was hardly the best of months to be called
away from Shrewsbury to assist Sheriff Prescott with a land dispute.
He dismounted in a swirl of snow and handed his horse to the lay brother at the gate with full assurance that the animal would be well taken care of. As much he could not say for himself, for he'd espied no light from Brother Cadfael's workshop in the gardens as he approached the abbey. The monks would be at the afternoon offices, and Hugh would have to content himself with the lesser welcome of the guest hall.
However, as he strode through the great court, moving briskly to bring some much needed heat into his limbs, the door to the church opened and a voice called his name. Not, of a certainty, Cadfael's, and who else would be expecting him? Surely no one but Cadfael could have anticipated Hugh's return on this ill-avised night -- and how Cadfael managed his feats of precognition, Hugh couldn't say. A touch of God's hand, perhaps.
"Oswin," Hugh said as he made out the young man scurrying through the snow to meet him.
Oswin blinked against the falling snow, which salted his hair and built drifts in the shelves of his habit. "Lord Beringar, thank God you've come! You've heard, then? No, how could you? No one's been out -- I couldn't get sanction to go beyond the gates."
"I should think not, in weather like this." Familiar with Oswin's excitability, Hugh clapped him on the shoulder. "Best get inside, little brother, your habit isn't suited for snow."
Resisting the gentle pressure, Oswin planted his feet like one of the abbey mules. "Neither is his. And now you've come all unlooked for, and it must be some special providence of God, mustn't it? You've got to find him, Lord Beringar!"
"Find who, Oswin?" But a chill swept through Hugh deeper than any winter.
"Brother Cadfael! He--"
Oswin flinched as the sharp tones of Prior Robert swept down the steps ahead of him. He scuttled around behind Hugh, then stood his ground with the deputy sheriff as bulwark. "Someone has to look for him, Brother Prior."
"What's this about Brother Cadfael?" Hugh asked, diverting Prior Robert's attention from Oswin's uncharacteristic assertiveness.
The Prior looked down his long nose at Hugh, using his height to gain the advantage he desired. It no doubt annoyed him that Hugh refused to be intimidated by either his height or his supercilious manner. There was no love lost between them, not least because of Hugh's friendship with Cadfael. "Brother Cadfael has chosen to absent himself from the abbey. We can spare none of the brothers--" And here he raised his voice to override Oswin. "--to search for one gone astray."
"You mean he's out in this--" Gray, wet and, with night falling, only getting colder. "--and you've done nothing? When did he leave?" he demanded.
"Late morning," Oswin said from behind him. "North," he added before Hugh could ask, ignoring the choler flushing Prior Robert's countenance, "toward Little Dowdle."
"What business could he have in-- Never mind." Hugh swept the question aside, turning on his heel to return to the stables by the gate.
"Oswin!" Prior Robert commanded from behind as he stalked back up the stairs. But Oswin was at Hugh's back when he set about resaddling his horse, the lay brother who'd just finished rubbing the animal down looking on in surprise. He'd pay for his disobediance, but seemed not at the moment to care.
"It was something about horse thieves, or maybe brigands, I don't rightly know," Oswin chattered, shivering even in the warmth of the stall. Hugh tossed a horse blanket over his thin shoulders. "Only there's a man in the infirmary was set upon on the road, and I heard Brother Cadfael tell Will Warden it was no simple robbery."
"Naturally, he didn't believe it." Hugh checked and tightened the saddle girths and snatched up the bridle. "And Cadfael set about finding the truth himself. Open up, Rufus, there's a good boy." The horse took the bit with ill-grace, and succeeded in looking most ill-used.
Hugh took up his saddle-bags and carried them into the lay brother's little chamber adjoining the stables. Quickly, he gathered the man's half-eaten meal -- bread and meat disappearing into the leather bags. "What have you got here that's portable?" The man looked fain to argue, but espying Hugh's expression, shut his mouth with a snap. Quickly, he fetched out some dried apples, another half-loaf of bread, and the frozen carcass of a rabbit -- he'd clearly intended a sumptuous feast. All went into the bags and back to the stables with Hugh, Oswin close on his heels.
"What--?" Oswin asked as Hugh bent to sweep an armful of straw into the saddle-bags.
"I might have to start a fire in a hurry, and there's little enough dry kindling out there." Hugh affixed the bags to his saddle with quick efficiency and led Rufus out of the stall. Still clutching the horse blanket close about him, Oswin followed.
A huddle of black Benedictine habits met him at the stable door. Hugh walked through, and the sea of black parted for him until only Prior Robert and one additional tonsure stood in his way. Hugh looked coldly at the Prior, made his salute to Abbot Radulfus, and vaulted into the saddle.
"My lord Beringar," Radulfus said, grasping the reigns, "this is the first I've heard of this." From the sour look on Prior Robert's face, Hugh could well believe it. And he knew that, in his heart, Robert lay all the blame of his current discomfiture on Cadfael's shoulders. "Do not risk your own life, please," Radulfus continued, "for two lost is no improvement on one. But--" His wise clear eyes captured Hugh's. "If it is in your power, bring him back to us."
"I intend to." Hugh kicked Rufus into a gallop before ever he
reached the gates. The brother on duty barely had time to swing them
open before Lord Beringar passed through, back into the cold arms of
Hold fast, Cadfael. Hold fast. Cadfael.
It seemed his horse's hooves beat out a remnant of prayer. Not to God in heaven, though he ought, if he could but think of what to say, but to the only power on earth that Hugh had wholeheartedly believed in for quite some time.
Hold fast, Cadfael.
Rufus forgot his pique at being thrust back out into the cold, and stretched his legs in fine delight. North Hugh went, into the wind-blown snow, taking it fast at the start, for so close to town he knew he wouldn't find Cadfael. Not where a late-passing townsman would stumble across him, not where he could knock on any door and have shelter and food for the asking. The choice of road, too, was easy -- there was only the one, leading after a handful of wooded miles to Little Dowdle. In the woods he expected to find him -- where the trees gave cover to rogue men, and cover from the snow -- in the woods he must find him.
Snow stung in Hugh's eyes. He blinked away the soft deadly flakes, blinked away burning tears. Bending low over the warmth of his horse's neck, Hugh urged greater speed. His cloak billowed out behind as they flew over white fields.
The first tree rose like a dark sentry before them. A branch lashed Hugh's cheek, drawing hot blood to the surface. Reluctantly, he reigned Rufus in -- here were too many dangers, too many roots to trip the unwary. He couldn't afford to lame his horse.
Snow drifted silently between the trees. Hugh scanned from one side to the other, letting the horse have its head. His sharp eyes missed nothing. Cadfael had often praised those eyes; now was the time to prove his faith. Missing nothing, indeed; for a time, nothing was all he saw. Black trunks, gray branches, white snow. And the sun sinking over all, face obscured by clouds, leaving the wood to the pale radiance of the snow.
Nothing. Nothing. No footprint, no hoofprint, nothing. Perhaps he'd missed it. Surely he had. And it was no use saying go on to Little Dowdle when he was only a bit more than a mile from the place, and the ice in his blood said Cadfael hadn't taken refuge there. No, he was out in the storm.
And then he saw it -- first sign. He was out of the saddle in a moment, frozen joints creaking unheard protest. Well-trained, Rufus stayed where he stood. Hugh stooped to prise the small vial from a cradle of snow near the roots of a large oak. One of Cadfael's surely. He worked the tiny stopper free and inhaled the heady herb scent. Indeed one of Cadfael's.
Hugh put the stopper firmly in place and tucked the vial into the bosom of his cotte as if it were Cadfael himself. He gathered up the reigns and led Rufus on foot.
A drop of frozen red. Just the one, no more. And by it another sign of Cadfael -- a bunch of herbs -- lovingly grown, carefully plucked, and meticulously dried. He tucked it away as well, and followed faster the trace of passage.
These things, the stock of medicines which were Cadfael's trade, Hugh gathered as he came across them, as unable to leave them where they lay as to stop looking for their master. These things, in Cadfael's hands, had done Hugh good and Christian service, healing his hurts. He was half-convinced it was Cadfael's strong sure hands and not these simple herbs which did the most good. But to him, the herbs were Cadfael. They'd not be left behind.
He tracked them through the forest, knowing every step along the path brought him closer to Cadfael. The wind whipped cruelly through the trees, driving snow before it, as he traced back the trail, not thinking beyond reaching its end. Twas not Cadfael who went through here, tossing his medicines about to lay where they landed, but someone coming from him -- not finding in his bulging scrip the riches expected. Though who could expect wealth on a Benedictine, and with what force the scrip was taken, Hugh did not think on.
A clearing, another vial. Rufus nudged Hugh's shoulder with his muzzle, none too gentle. He turned to soothe the horse, and saw it.
Nothing but a black boulder, half-drowned in snow. Nothing but a black Benedictine habit, with a tonsure of snow.
He was on his knees beside the ungainly bundle of cloth with no memory of crossing the clearing. Hugh turned Cadfael into his arms with gentle strength and hesitating heart. Blood froze on the broad brow, but a fog of breath ebbed and flowed before his lips. With a cry, Hugh bent to lay his face against Cadfael's. His tears warmed the pallid skin, and thawed the blood to flow in thin pink streams.
The storm had offered all the grace it was prepared to grant. The wind whipped up, and the trees vanished in a charge of snow. Even Rufus disappeared in the swirl of flakes, identifiable only by his disgruntled snort.
With a whistle, Hugh brought the great beast to his side. It was no easy thing to get Cadfael up on the high back. They were much of a height, and Cadfael the broader of them. But Hugh had more sinew in him than showed, and more desperation. Cadfael's hands and feet were tied, and Hugh regretfully took advantage, and draped him face-down across the saddle. He took the bridle in one hand, the rope between Cadfael's limp hands in the other to steady him.
All was white. Rufus, surefooted as he was, stumbled often. Snow gathered in Hugh's hair, and on Cadfael's broad back. He paused to sweep it off the unresponsive form, and tossed his cloak over Cadfael, drawing it forward to shield the gray head. And led his laden horse onward, with not even an arm to spare to wrap around himself for warmth.
There was no chance of getting back to Shrewsbury, nor of going north into the storm to Little Dowdle. But Hugh Beringar was not deputy sheriff of Shropshire to no purpose, and he knew the lands for which he was responsible. He led Rufus unerringly through the flood of snow -- and if he was never entirely certain of the direction, he nonetheless kept on. In this storm, it could be so easily missed. Yet eventually they fetched up against a sturdy wall, wood weathered gray with time.
A hunting lodge -- well-kept, though currently untenanted. Lord Darnley owned several such, and three manor houses beside, any one of which would be more comfortable than this tiny waystation. Hugh shoved open a door inclined to stick, letting a drift of snow into the dark interior. With some effort, he got Cadfael down off the horse and onto his own strong back, and lugged him inside. The floor was no gentle resting place, but it was, Hugh assured himself, only temporary.
He went out, pulling the door closed behind to keep out the storm, and led Rufus around to the small stable beside the lodge. A single stall only, but the walls were chinked as tight as those of the house, and the place was dry. Quickly, Hugh removed saddle and bridle. He knocked hay from the loft for Rufus to eat, and rubbed him down with a handful. The horse whickered gently when Hugh pushed the door shut and left him there.
Back in the lodge, he dropped the bar across the door, locking out storm and strangers and all. The saddle-bags brought from the stables yielded up the straw, and his flint and steel, and Hugh soon had a fire in the hearth. The wood bin was well stocked -- there he had no fear.
It was not the most elegant of Darnley's lodges -- merely a place to while away a few hours, or a night, before returning to the hunt. There were but two rooms. The small chamber in the back held only a chest stuffed with blankets and a low bed. Hugh dragged the straw-filled tick from the bed and tossed it as near the fire as he dared. His limbs ached, and he shivered with a tenacious chill, but he was gentle as he shifted Cadfael to the pallet.
He took the poniard from the small of his back and cut the ropes that bound his friend. Red-stained they were and he cursed as he worked them free. The habit, more white than black, came next, before proximity to the fire could wet it any further. The broad strong body was free of any injury Hugh could see, aside from wrist and ankles and the cut on his brow. But he didn't shiver, though his flesh was cool to the touch. Hugh bundled Cadfael in the blankets from the chest and built the fire up hotter.
He took thought for his own comfort then. His clothing was no less wet than Cadfael's. He draped the lot near the fire, wrapped himself in a blanket and huddled in an awkward crouch before the flames to take inventory.
The saddle-bags held enough food for a day or two, and there was plenty of wood for light and warmth. The lodge surely housed some dried foodstuffs laid by as carefully as the wood -- perhaps a root cellar. He would have to look once his clothing was dry.
Lastly, Hugh set the small store of medicines he'd gathered in a neat row in front of him. He picked up the vial he'd found first and once more held it uncapped to his nose. Cadfael would know what to do with these things. Something here, surely, would bring the monk rest and healing. Hugh couldn't even begin to guess what. And dared not risk it, for Cadfael's remedies, as had been all too well proven, could as well kill as heal.
With a sigh, he swept them all gently aside and picked up the bowl of snow he'd set by the fire to melt and warm. A corner of his shirt did as well as any, and was soon stained with Cadfael's blood. His wrists and ankles were chafed, but not badly cut, and the place where blood soiled the fine brow was no deep gash to worry and scar, and bled only briefly when cleaned.
Hugh dipped into the warmed water until all was soaked up and spilled down his bare arms. He tenderly washed Cadfael clean of blood and dirt, drawing one limb at a time from the shelter of the blanket. Through all, Cadfael slept without moving.
When he was done, Hugh tucked Cadfael up securely and,
shivering, finally thought to wrap closer the blanket that had slipped
from his own shoulders. Fatigue weighed heavily on him, kept at bay for
a time by fear for his friend, but now demanding its due. He banked the
fire to provide heat through the night, and joined Cadfael on the straw
pallet, burrowing into the blankets until he found skin. Hugh wrapped
his arms about Cadfael's warming body, pushed his nose into the graying
verge of hair, and fell deeply asleep twixt one breath and the next.
"What is it?"
Hugh stirred, knowing without opening his eyes that it was the darkest watch of the night. Outside the blankets was bitter cold, but inside... Hugh clasped warm supple limbs closer to himself, surprised when a strength as great as his own shoved back.
Blinking his eyes open, he recognized Cadfael in the faint red glow of the fire.
"What is it?" Cadfeal's eyes were bright, his face flushed.
"Shh," Hugh said. "Go back to sleep." He bent to kiss lips warm as fire, not thinking until later to ask why he should do so. Or, even then, why it should so calm Cadfael. Hugh rolled to his back, taking Cadfael with him, and guided the man's head to his chest.
He could feel Cadfael's lashes flutter against his skin. In
another few moments, Cadfael's breathing slowed in sleep. Hugh pressed
a kiss to the absurdly vulnerable skin of Cadfael's tonsure and, like
the good soldier he was, dropped back asleep immediately, not knowing
he was to be woken twice more that night.
Hugh rolled carefully out of the blankets and Cadfael's arms at cock's crow, if there'd been one.
The hunting lodge was not so well built that light -- and cold -- didn't come in through chinks in the shutters. Cursing, he hopped about on one foot, then the other, trying to put his hose on and avoid the cold floor simultaneously. When he was half-dressed, at least, against the cold, he knelt to coax back the fire from weakly-glowing coals. Cadfael, thankfully, slept through all. Which was more than could be said for the night.
He'd not been awake long, each time, and had proven himself extremely biddable, but Hugh no more knew what to make of Cadfael's wakefulness than the fact that he seemed not to know his friend. Fever, thought Hugh -- for there was no doubt he burned. All Hugh could do was keep him quiet, and covered, and hope the morning showed improvement.
For now, however, Cadfael slept with all signs of peace, and if Hugh was going to go, it should be soon. He tugged on his clothes and boots and braced himself to the cold as he opened the door. Snow had drifted knee deep against the walls, and deeper elsewhere. Hugh had the misfortune to discover one of the deeper drifts on his way to the stable. He was in no mood to respond to Rufus's welcoming whinny.
Fearful of leaving Cadfael too long, Hugh stayed only to pull down some more hay for Rufus and see to it that the horse had water. He rubbed briskly between the long delicate ears, then left the gelding to his contented munching.
Hugh kept to his own footprints on the way back, and reached the door coated with white only to the waist. Even if Brother Cadfael were well, they'd be going nowhere that day. Or the next, belike. Contemplating the prospect, Hugh was unprepared to find himself yanked inside and slammed up against the wall, his own poniard held to his throat.
"Pwy wy chi?" Cadfael's eyes glittered dangerously, all unknowing of Hugh. "Lle mae hyn? Pwy wy chi?"
"Easy," Hugh said. He swallowed, feeling the knife ride against his Adam's apple, and cursed himself for not stirring to learn more than a smattering of Cadfael's birth tongue. He knew only the few words Cadfael himself had drummed into Hugh's head for surety so near the Welsh border. Hugh licked his lips, seeing Cadfael's eyes focus on the tiny movement, and not understanding the intensity. "Ffrind." Friend.
Cadfael blinked, and the knife pressed less heavily against Hugh's throat. He realized suddenly that the solid body pinning him to the wall was wholly nude, and the door open. Snow drifted around Cadfael's bare feet. Hugh brought his hands slowly up to clasp Cadfael's biceps.
"Ffrind, Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd," he urged, thankful that he had, at least, learned Cadfael's full name.
He set the unresisting man from him then and heaved the door to, dropping the bar with a solid thud. Cadfael watched, his quick eyes glittering with fever. Though he shivered, his skin was dewed with sweat.
"Come," Hugh said and, not knowing the word in Welsh, took Cadfael by the hand. Now that the fight had gone out of him, he leaned heavily on Hugh. He led Cadfael to the fire, gently pushed him down on the pallet, and gathered the blankets about him. "I should never have left you alone," Hugh said softly to the feverish man. Cadfael watched him with wary eyes, but he surrendered the knife without protest when Hugh lifted it lightly from his hand.
Hugh set the poniard, with his sword, on the far side of the room. He stripped off his cloak and sodden hose. Cadfael grinned at him, a wholly feral expression that yet held the seeds of the look Hugh knew intimately: Cadfael on the hunt.
With difficulty, Hugh shrugged off the oddness of the situation, and set about feeding them. A pot of snow hung over the fire to melt; it only remained to fix up something to put in it. Hugh repaired to the other end of the room and used his knife to cut apart the rabbit the lay brother had given him.
Cadfael slept by the time Hugh returned to the fire. Hugh added the rabbit to the water and left it to boil. Shivering, he stood for some time close by the flames, warming his hands and other parts of him by turns.
Cadfael twitched uneasily in his sleep. Hugh knelt to lay one hand on the broad brow. Warm, far too warm. He tucked the blanket closer about Cadfael's neck and settled cross-legged next to him to think. Absently, he picked up the little vial and rolled it between his hands.
He'd seen Cadfael in all moods at one time or another. Or so he thought. But trust as he did in Cadfael's steel-sharp mind, his dogged determination, even his worldly advice, so unexpected in a monk, he'd never particularly thought of Cadfael as deadly. He knew right well that Cadfael had fought in the Crusades, and was not like to forget it as some did. But there was a long cry from a warlike past to a man holding a knife to your throat.
This Cadfael, lost in fever, was the young Welsh soldier. No more vigorous and alive than the Benedictine monk, but far more dangerous.
It would behoove Hugh to remember that, until Cadfael came again to himself.
The rabbit stew was simmering nicely, fragrant of itself and the small store of spices Hugh had found secreted away in the corner of the trunk, and the morning fair advanced, when Cadfael awoke again.
He lay quietly, his eyes fixed on Hugh. He made no effort to wipe the sweat from his brow, or to stop Hugh when he moved to do so. Cadfael closed his eyes in evident pleasure when Hugh soothed his face with a corner of his shirt soaked in cool water.
Hugh kept his lips closed on his tiny store of Welsh, as Cadfael seemed disinclined to speak. He helped Cadfael drink water from a cracked cup, and gave him some pieces of dried apple to eat, the stew still needing time to cook. Cadfael ate only a few bites.
Silence between them was not unknown. They knew each other so thoroughly that words were not necessary. And yet, Hugh wished Cadfael would speak. Even if it was in an unknown tongue.
He stroked the damp cloth over Cadfael's face again, taking Cadfael's wan, thankful smile to heart. Once finished, he bent to kiss the warm forehead, and then the lips.
Cadfael smiled again, and slept.
It wasn't until Cadfael woke again about midday, and in good time for the stew, that Hugh realized he was keeping the offices. Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, he awoke for each of them, though he didn't stay awake long. The order of the day was burned deep in the Benedictine's soul.
Hugh propped Cadfael against his chest and fed him small spoonfuls of stew, like a child. And like a child, Cadfael ate obediently. His silence was broken, but the language was still Welsh, and Hugh could make nothing of it.
He kissed him, when he laid him back down on the pallet, and
Cadfael accepted it with a gentle smile. He tasted of salt, and
himself. And far better than the stew. Disturbed, Hugh shifted away to
sit before the fire, one leg drawn up, chin resting on his knee.
"Must be Nones," Hugh remarked when he saw Cadfael's eyes open again.
He had Cadfael's medicines out again, ranged in a row between him and the sick man, so he could see both without lifting his eyes. It seemed to him that Cadfael was growing weaker. His breathing, labored, came too loudly. Hugh was afraid.
But Hugh was no healer. Oh, he could bind up a wound easily enough -- he had some practice in that, as should any man who would wield a sword. This was beyond him, for all he felt that somewhere in this little clutch of vials and powders was something that would help.
Cadfael rolled his head to look at Hugh, and offered a smile piercing in its sweetness. Without a thought, Hugh traversed his little line of medicines to reach Cadfael's side. He heard the clink as the vial went over and reached without looking to catch it before it broke. With the other hand, he smoothed Cadfael's thick fringe of hair, finding it far softer than expected.
Cadfael's smile broke on a cough, and Hugh wrapped his arms around him, and held him helplessly until the spasm passed. He released Cadfael back to the nest of blankets when he felt the first faint tremor of cold. Hugh only realized he still had the vial in his hand when Cadfael took it from him.
Working loose the stopper, Cadfael inhaled delicately, and smiled. "Horehound."
Of course. The odor had been familiar. Hugh tried to remember what Cadfael might have told him about the plant's properties. He only just noticed in time to stop the vial on its way to Cadfael's lips.
"Are you sure?"
Cadfael said something in Welsh and tried to shift Hugh's hands. Hugh took the vial from Cadfael and brought it to his nose. It smelled pleasant, achingly familiar, as if he'd just stepped into Cadfael's cozily lit workshop to join the monk in a cup of wine before Compline. Hugh closed his lids tightly against the burn of tears.
"Well," he said through a tight throat, "only one way to know for sure." He put the vial to his lips and took a small sip -- enough to test.
The taste was, as with many of Cadfael's specifics, not unpleasant. That alone suggested its safety, as he brewed with an eye toward palatability as much as efficacy. Still, there were some herbs that had a naturally pleasant taste masking unpleasant effects. However, Hugh felt no tingling of the lips or burning in the throat. He opened his eyes and found Cadfael watching him, a line between his brows denoting an emotion Hugh couldn't read. Certainly it wasn't concern, for he reached again for the vial and, even as weak as he was, took it easily from Hugh.
Hugh licked a dew of horehound off his lips and lifted Cadfael's head, and helped him drain off the contents of the vial. It hadnÕt been long enough, he knew, to tell if the contents were deadly -- not all poisons acted quickly. In truth -- and God forgive him for it -- he was less concerned now that he'd drunk it himself.
Hugh wished suddenly that Cadfael was his confessor. He felt certain that Cadfael would far better understand such a thought than old Father Simon. A second later, he was glad Cadfael wasn't the man to whom he should tell all, for he knew without doubt that he would understand far too well and more than Hugh was prepared for.
He settled Cadfael on the pallet, and brought him a cup of
water. And he sat and watched him sleep, unbroken this time by monastic
habit, through the afternoon and far into the night.
It seemed to Hugh, when he woke with the sun, that Cadfael was much improved. The limbs entangled with his own held only a little more warmth than they ought. He smiled, and took the first full breath he had since Oswin told him Cadfael was missing -- a breath in no measure hampered by the weight of Cadfael's head on his chest.
Hugh extracted himself with great care, and dived, shivering, into his clothes. He paused before awakening the fire to make certain that Cadfael was well-covered, and stroke the fringe of hair that was long enough to tousle and far too short to scatter across the brow.
The morning progressed, and Cadfael slept on. Hugh watched placidly, and played a child's game with himself on the hearthstones with the aid of a charred stick. He needed to go out, he knew -- Rufus needed tending, the supply of wood was getting low, and more food must be found. But he didn't like the idea of leaving Cadfael alone. Eventually, however, he had no choice.
Hugh hid his sword in the trunk in the other room, and slipped the poniard into his belt. He rubbed out the markings of his game with the toe of his boot and bent to write a message to Cadfael on the hearthstones with the stick. It would serve well, if he woke alone, and if he wasn't still limited to Welsh.
After some deliberation, Hugh pulled Cadfael's habit on over his clothes. The warmth would be welcome, but he couldn't help but think what a foolish-looking monk he must make. He fastened his cloak over all, tossed the saddle-bags over his shoulder, and lifted the bar on the door. To be sure of Cadfael, Hugh braced the door from outside, penning him in the lodge. He drew the monk's cowl over his head and plowed his way through the snow, praying there'd be no accident with the fire.
When he returned, Hugh had stuffed the saddle-bags full of wood and a plentiful supply of the dried stores he'd found in the root cellar set off away from the stables. He'd an armful of wood as well, and a great deal of difficulty getting the door open. He was wet through to the waist, and he shivered as he pushed the door shut with a shove of his shoulder hard enough to drop the bar into place.
Cadfael was sitting on the pallet, snugly wrapped in blankets, the firelight dancing across his face as he regarded Hugh with a quizzical expression. A vast improvement over a knife to the throat.
"Bore da," Hugh greeted him cheerfully, for Cadfael looked worlds better.
"Bore da," Cadfael automatically replied, and blinked. "When did you take up Welsh, Hugh? For that mater," and his lips stretched in a much-loved smile, "when did you take up the cowl?"
"Cadfael!" Wood and saddle-bags hit the floor with a disregarded crash. Hugh leapt over the mess, fell to his knees, and threw his arms around his friend. "I should have known nothing could keep you down," he muttered into Cadfael's neck as arms that had lost none of their strength clasped him tight.
Cadfael recoiled slightly, then held him all the closer. "Merciful heaven, boy, you're half frozen!"
"Boy?" Hugh drew back to grin at Cadfael and got a mock frown in return.
"When you've the sense to get out of those wet things, I'll change the word."
Hugh accepted the reproof with a dutiful expression and a laughing eye. Enough laughter, it seemed, bubbled inside him to boil over at the top. Reluctantly, he withdrew from Cadfael's arms and began to divest himself of clothing and snow, making shift to see that the ice fell not near Cadfael's blankets. When he'd removed cloak, habit, cotte, shirt, and boots, he stopped, abashed.
"Off with the hose," Cadfael ordered sternly. "They're the wettest things about you."
"I haven't anything other to wear," Hugh said, thinking with embarrassment now of two nights spent naked as a babe under Cadfael's blankets. It was another matter now he was himself.
"Take them off and climb in here," Cadfael said, patting the blankets, almost as if he'd read the thought, "there's a good lad."
"Lad, eh?" Hugh said, attempting levity, still making no move to remove the hose, though they clung, clammy, to his legs. "I suppose that's a step above boy."
"If you want to go higher, you'll have to stop dawdling and get in here."
Hugh knew that look well. God alone could move Cadfael from his course when he looked like that, and even He'd have to shift pretty cleverly to manage it. Hugh removed the offending garment and dove adroitly under the blankets.
"Good man," said Cadfael approvingly, and moved in close to lend his warmth, rubbing his hands briskly over Hugh's skin to coax life back into his chilled limbs. He seemed not to notice how Hugh's laughter dried up under the touch.
"Enough," said Hugh, but gently. He shifted his body away.
"How are you now, Hugh?"
Hugh put on a smile. "Shouldn't I ask you that?" He put his hand to Cadfael's cheek and found it cool. "Better than you have been, I wager."
"Well enough now," Cadfael said, and took Hugh's hand from his face, and kissed the knuckles.
They lay together under the blankets and talked, very much at peace with each other and the world. Though, as Cadfael said, with a rueful touch to the gash over his eye, the world might not be in such peace with them. Soon all was said, and they were silent, as so often they were with each other. Until the fire began to burn low, and a great grumbling announced itself from Cadfael's midsection.
"Fasting is all very well," Cadfael said over Hugh's shout of laughter, "in its place."
They wrapped blankets about themselves, and while Cadfael saw to the fire, Hugh went to retrieve his sword from the other room. He came back and put it and his discarded poniard within reach of the pallet, then set about helping Cadfael clear away the wood he'd left scattered over the floor.
"I'm sorry," Cadfael said after a moment, and Hugh didn't have to ask to know about what.
"Don't be. For a Welsh warrior, you dealt very well with this English lord." He was silent for a time, and did willingly what Cadfael bid him. On returning with the pot full of snow, he stood near the fire to warm his toes and said: "If you want to be sorry, be sorry for setting out alone to take Simon Thatcher."
"What was I to do? Sit back and watch him attempt murder a second time?" His fingers sorted nimbly through the dry stores Hugh had found, popping some of this and a bit of that into the pot with the same deftness with which he brewed medicines. "No, Hugh," he said. "Simon failed to kill Alaric de Quincy by ambush the first time; I couldn't risk the chance he might succeed this time."
"He very nearly did." Hugh stirred the contents of the pot.
"Not so vigorously; you'll spill it into the fire." Cadfael closed his hand over Hugh's, and took the spoon from him. "I'm sorry to cause you worry," he said after a minute.
"Me? Worry!" Hugh threw up his hands before remembering his nakedness under the blanket. Shivering, he clasped it about him again and went to sit on the pallet. "I despair of you, Cadfael," he said, quieter now. "You put yourself too much at risk."
"Not unlike a certain deputy sheriff," Cadfael murmured.
They kept their places, the fire crackling between them. Hugh stirred finally and said, without looking up, "You're newly from your sickbed and the room is not warm. Come and lie down."
"Until the food is ready."
"Until the food is ready." Hugh looked into Cadfael's face and saw his own emotions reflected there. He smiled, and held out his arms. "God forbid I should ever want you to change. Come and warm yourself."
And thus were they reconciled.
"Cadfael," Hugh said sometime later, his belly replete, head resting companionably on Cadfael's brawny shoulder, "what was it Simon wanted from you? He left you to die in the snow. Why take your scrip? What was he looking for?"
"This." Cadfael stretched out an arm to pluck a small bunch of stems from the gathering of medicines Hugh had made.
"A weed," Hugh said as he took it. He'd have passed it as such in his search for Brother Cadfael, if he'd not recognized the strip of cloth that bound it.
"A proof," Cadfael corrected, his voice rumbling through his chest to Hugh's cheek and ear. "Proof that Alaric was not attacked by brigands as all believed, but by a man who worked with the exact materials Simon used to thatch roofs."
"You and your plants," Hugh said.
Cadfael dumped him onto his back and hovered over him on bent elbow. "My plants have more than once found you the right man."
"I don't deny it." Hugh raised a hand to Cadfael's cheek. "You do better service to justice than I, most times. Still, I wish you'd keep safer." He didn't know later if he thought about what he did, or if it was some small measure of habit, or just a little bit of magic. Hugh lifted his head and kissed Cadfael.
And Cadfael kissed him back.
When they parted, breathless, Hugh looked up into Cadfael's face, made ruddy by firelight. In Cadfael's eyes, he found what was in his own heart. The wonder was, so well did they read each other, that he'd not seen it there before, or Cadfael espied it in him. But how, he thought, could Cadfael read the book of Hugh's mind when the writing was unintelligible even to Hugh?
Cadfael's chest moved against Hugh's with every breath, and Hugh could feel even the beating of his heart. He brushed his fingers across the slash of Cadfael's brow and down the curve of his stubbled cheek. "You are," he said, a little unsteadily, "very dear to me."
"And you, me." Cadfael bent to touch his lips to Hugh's.
And Hugh found, first and last, his place in Cadfael's arms.
"Where," Hugh demanded when he finally had some breath back in his body, "did a monk learn to do that?"
"I haven't always been a monk, as you well know," Cadfael said, with fine disregard for the fact that he was breathing as heavily as Hugh. "I was in the world longer than you've been alive, boy."
"Back to boy, are we? I thought I'd proved my manhood."
"So you have, Hugh. Amply."
They lay in silence, chests laboring against one another, their limbs so entwined Hugh couldn't tell where his left off and Cadfael's began. He didn't mind, except there were things he wanted to do to Cadfael's limbs that he didn't see the point of doing to his own.
Distracted with pleasurable contemplation, he missed the more serious tenor of his companion's thoughts, and was wholly startled when Cadfael said, "I'm nearly twice your age, Hugh."
Hugh rolled them neatly over, putting himself atop Cadfael. "Really? I never took particular notice of that." He undulated provocatively, taking note of Cadfael's gasp and other, less... audible, reactions. "Should I?" he asked, his innocent tone of voice quite at odds with the wickedness of his smile. Cadfael's arms tightened about him and he had his answer.
Hugh slept for a time; he thought they both did. Cadfael's broad frame made for an exceedingly comfortable mattress. He awoke to hear Cadfael humming a Te Deum, and it seemed other things awoke in him at the sound.
"What?" Cadfael broke off to ask, his voice shaded for the still hours of the night, his knowledge of Hugh no less sharp for the hour. Hugh opened his eyes to the darkened room, and stared for a time into the ruby heart of the fire.
"I think," said Hugh, carefully, knowing that once spoken the words could not be unsaid, yet unable to see how they might be avoided, "that we have broken several of your vows and God's laws."
"The Church's laws. Don't, Hugh, confuse the one with the other." His arms loosed their clasp on Hugh, whose eyes snapped shut in painful expectation of being turned out. Cadfael splayed one hand against Hugh's back. The other stroked gently through his hair. "God commands us to love one another. The Church decrees how. I know which master I serve. Do you? The laws of man also forbid what we have done, and you're a man of law."
"I'm also a man of my own heart." He turned his head to press his lips to Cadfael's breast.
"And mine," Cadfael said, holding Hugh to his chest. "You have my heart as well."
"A greater treasure doesn't exist in this world."
"Do you think we can get through today?"
Hugh sighed against Cadfael's neck. "I'm afraid we must. They'll be worried."
"Afraid?" He lifted Hugh's head, cradled between his palms, and kissed him, and studied his face by the morning's light.
Hugh smiled, and kissed him back. "I don't want to give this up. But--" He began to extract himself from the nest of blankets and, regretfully, Cadfael's warm bare skin. "--the snow is surely passable now, and if we don't return soon, they'll come looking."
He turned with a quick smile. "Come. Get dressed -- everything's dry and near enough the fire to be a little warm."
He confined his conversation to necessities as they cleaned up and put everything to rights. Before the week was out, he'd make certain the root cellar and stables were replenished of everything they'd taken. When all was ready, he tucked Cadfael's cowl more closely about his face, and kissed him. "Wait here."
Rufus was glad to see him and, if not entirely pleased to leave the warm stall, restless enough not to care overmuch. Hugh saddled him quickly and led him to the door of the lodge.
"Up you go." Unimpressed by Cadfael's claims that his cloth-wrapped feet were quite warm enough in his sandals, Hugh waited stolidly with his hands cupped to hoist Cadfael into the saddle. In this, he proved more stubborn than Cadfael, and the Benedictine was soon astride the horse, his habit tucked about his legs for warmth. Hugh would have put his cloak about Cadfael as well, but was sternly forestalled in the act.
Hugh took the reins and walked Rufus, with his precious
burden, away from the small hunting lodge where events of such great
and terrible beauty had overtaken him.
"Hugh, stop." Cadfael's eyes were turned to one side of the path. "There, between the trees."
Hugh released the reins and went to check on Cadfael's discovery. "A body," he said. And added without looking, "If you get off that horse, I'll tell Prior Robert you ate rabbit during Lent." As he bent to brush snow from the frozen face, he heard Cadfael cluck to the horse. He wasn't surprised to feel the animal blowing down his collar a minute later.
"Simon," Cadfael said.
"It seems that God has dispensed his own justice this time," Hugh said as he straightened. He put a hand over the reins where they lay loose against the horse's neck. "A fitting justice. God takes care of his own, doesn't he brother?"
"Hugh." He grabbed Hugh's hand when he would have turned away. "What foolishness is this?"
"Foolishness?" Unable to retreat, Hugh stepped in close to the warmth of the horse, where his nearness excused his not meeting CadfaelÕs eyes. He stroked the animal's neck absently with his free hand. "Foolish how? You're a monk, Cadfael. We're taking you back to the cloister. And there's an end to it." He patted Rufus and pulled away.
Cadfael stopped him by the simple expedient of grabbing a fistful of hair. He leaned dexterously down from the horse as he reeled Hugh in and kissed him soundly. "I've never known you to give up on something," he said, his cheek against Hugh's.
"Well, you've never seen me with something that really mattered."
Cadfael released him and, drawing himself upright, looked down thoughtfully at Hugh. "Are you saying you'll let this go precisely because it matters to you."
"Some prices are too dear." Hugh took the reins and led Rufus away from the frozen body. The man's death seemed hardly of a moment, but for Hugh's fierce joy at realizing he could do no further hurt to Brother Cadfael. He would send Will Warden back for the body -- fitting penance for doubting Cadfael.
The monk was silent as they forded the snow, his eyes vague and distant. "Some prices are too dear," he repeated after a time. "For you, Hugh, or for me?"
Hugh walked ahead, and pretended he hadn't heard, knowing it wouldn't stop Cadfael. It seemed he'd somehow breathed in a great dagger of ice, and it hurt him terribly.
"You drank first," said Cadfael next. "Oh, I remember quite clearly, for all that. You drank of the medicine first, not knowing if it would do you good or ill. A dear price indeed, had it been poisonous," he mused.
A sharp bark of laughter escaped Hugh. "A dearer price if you'd drunk it," he admitted through a throat rough with loss. "But you give me too much credit. There was no such thing in my thoughts."
"No?" Cadfael took up the reins and pulled Rufus to a stop. "What then?"
"We're almost out of the woods, brother." Hugh forced himself not to turn. "Best get on."
Cadfael disregarded his words, and Hugh could feel that sharp-eyed gaze on him, and struggled for control. "No," the monk said with soft consideration, "you had no such thought. What was it, then, Hugh? What were you thinking when you lifted that little vial to your lips, not knowing if it held life or death?"
Hugh bent his head, feeling tears at the corners of his eyes like tiny embers. "That if it held death, at least it would take us both. And I was glad, Cadfael," he said fiercely, turning on him. "I was glad -- though I didn't know it at the time -- for I'd finally have you all mine." Suddenly weary, he bent his head against Rufus's neck and let the horse whuffle softly in his hair. Then it was no horse's hay-scented breath, but Cadfael's fingers that carded the short strands.
"You do have me, Hugh." He lifted Hugh's face and cupped it in his two hands.
"You have your vows. The sin of it... I'll not imperil your soul."
"Leave my soul and my vows to me." Cadfael's hands shook, and shook Hugh, with his fierceness. "You have me, Hugh. All yours."
There was no less fierceness in his kiss, nor in Hugh's, and Rufus began to stamp restlessly before they were through.
"When will I see you?" Hugh's fingers tightened on Cadfael's sturdy thigh.
"Whenever we can. Father Radulfus is generous with my services beyond the walls, and understanding of the needs which take me into the town."
Hugh laughed. "Not these needs, I think."
"Nonetheless." Cadfael stroked Hugh's hair. "We shall see each other as often as we've always done."
"It will never be enough," Hugh said mournfully. He took up the reins before Rufus could begin dancing with impatience. They came out of the trees into sharp sunlight.
"No," agreed Cadfael.
Dark figures appeared across the fields. Their voices could be only faintly heard across the distance, but their black garments identified them well enough. So too did their movements reveal the relief and excitement they felt on seeing the approach of the prodigals.
They had nearly joined the brothers when Cadfael leaned down and said, "There are always the night stairs."
And then Oswin was clapping him overhard on the back, and the brothers were bustling around them, clucking like a brood of black hens, and Hugh had no chance to say any of the things in his mind and heart.
He looked up at Cadfael, and shared his smile, and knew there would be many opportunities. Later.
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