The first time they met – if indeed it could be called a meeting – was during the fight at Titterstone Clee. It is oddly appropriate, then, that they should see one another again in the midst of fighting, and this time on opposite sides. Hugh is the first to notice Olivier, and the surprise makes him drop his guard, only for a moment, but a moment is enough. When Olivier turns and sees Hugh at last, it is just in time to watch him fall.
He is lost in feverish dreams for a while, and the awakening proves to be little better. Hugh opens his eyes, and discovers he cannot lift his head. The room he finds himself in seems unfamiliar, although he cannot tell for certain – it must be night-time, or else his sight is blurry – or, perhaps, both.
At first he is not sure how he came to be in this place. Then the memories come in short, sharp bursts: the wound; hands under his arms, dragging him away from battle; sitting with his back against a tree (a birch, he recalls with surprising clarity) and watching life escape his body in a brilliant torrent of red. In spite of the pain, he tries to touch his chest.
“Be at ease. You are safe.”
Hugh follows the voice and notices a man in the corner. He guesses him to be Olivier more than he recognises his features.
Olivier sits with him for a while, until Hugh slips back into sleep; and, though neither of them realizes, Hugh's dreams are a little easier after that.
After the first days – weeks, perhaps? His grasp on time is still unsure – Hugh begins to form a more precise idea of his circumstances. He is a prisoner of Laurence d'Angers, not the Empress Maude herself. Olivier saved him on the field of battle, and is now entrusted with his keeping until his health is suitably improved for him to be ransomed – or put in a cell.
Olivier plays this role with good grace. He visits Hugh whenever his duties allow and talks to him about everyday matters. Hugh does not know if Olivier is forbidden to discuss politics with him, or if King Stephen is losing so badly that the silence is meant as a courtesy. Whatever the reason, Olivier does not answer questions about the war beyond the reassurance that Shrewsbury is holding strong, and that he was able to send a message to Aline.
Even so, he is hardly silent. Every day he brings a new tale, usually concerning his young twin daughters and the unexpected mischief they get themselves into. He prefaces each of his stories with, “Once you are back in Shrewsbury, tell Brother Cadfael...” or, even more simply, “Tell my father...”
Hugh listens with pleasure. He is glad to have news about Cadfael's family, and the domestic stories remind him of his own beloved Aline and Giles. But there is another reason, too, one which slowly becomes clearer and clearer.
Hugh Beringar lies to other people, sometimes, if he thinks he really needs to, but he is not the kind of man who would lie to himself. Therefore, and only privately, he admits this much: he enjoys the stories all the more because Olivier is the one telling them.
The change is as sudden as a lightning strike, and, in its own way, perhaps more devastating.
The day is bright. Hugh is able to sit up in bed for the first time in weeks, and he is not in pain, or at least not in so much pain that he cannot stand it. This is making him giddy. Olivier sits by him on the bed. Hugh studies his hawk-like profile, sharply illuminated by light that is almost unbearable in its brightness. Against this golden background, Olivier seems like an effigy of a warrior saint.
(Hugh has no great pretence towards sainthood himself.)
"I would very much like to ask something of you," Hugh says. The words come deceptively easily, like in a dream.
"Ask. If what you want lies within my power, I will do what I can to provide it to you."
Just at this moment, Hugh's next action appears both easy and natural. "Please--pass this on to my wife if you meet her," he says, and kisses the corner of Olivier's mouth.
Olivier's eyes grow wide. For a heartbeat or two, there is no other reaction. Then the spell is broken and Olivier springs to his feet. He backs away for a step, hesitates – his face unreadable – and finally turns away to face the window. There he halts, rigid and silent, and (Hugh thinks) very beautiful.
Hugh Beringar is not the kind of man who would lie to himself, but now he suspects he might be about to start.
The next days suffocate under the weight of courtesy. Olivier does not avoid him, indeed, he is as polite and accommodating as ever, but there is a new distance between the two men. Hugh often regrets giving in to his... curiosity? If that is indeed the right way to describe it. Olivier certainly intrigues him, but in an unexpected way. Beyond that, Hugh does not let himself venture. In any case, he thinks it is too late.
Then, one day, Olivier comes in at a brisk pace, smiling, and suddenly the distance is gone and they are friends again. "You will be released without ransom. Brother Cadfael put his mind to it, and when my father wants something, he will get it, one way or another." He is half-laughing, half-exasperated, and Hugh finds it easy to smile in return.
The story of Brother Cadfael's triumph is told twice, and Hugh still feels that he will have to hear it at least twice more, to do justice to his closest friend and his cunning. They both laugh and marvel at the wily Benedictine, until at last they fall into companionable silence.
Still smiling, Olivier is the first to speak. "Some days ago, you have given me a gift for Lady Aline, yet it seems that you will see her well before I do. I should like to return it."
Hugh has barely enough time to comprehend his meaning, before Olivier kisses him. The kiss is soft and surprising, and all the sweeter for being brief.
"Thank you," Hugh says after they part.
"Give it to Lady Aline when you see her," Olivier answers, briefly covering Hugh's hand with his own. "For it is a gift that grows rather than diminishes with the giving."
That it does, thinks Hugh. Such is its nature. And for this reason, perhaps the unexpected gift is sometimes the sweetest gift of all.