The Hand of a Brother
December arrived, gentle for once, as if God Himself chose to go easy on Hugh Beringar. The land was as close to peace as these times could allow, the warring cousins retired for the winter and the Earl of Chester, so often a bane in the north of Shropshire, stricken to his bed with stroke. None of this gave Hugh any relief, for Aline, his beloved Aline, had died that fall in childbed. Creation held no joy for him anywhere, and winter, spring and summer might as well not come, for everything good and beautiful and right had ended with the fall.
On the morning of the eleventh, Hugh was up before the sun - sleep had only flirted with him since Aline's death. He sat beside his son's bed, watching the boy sleep, wishing Giles were awake to bring some life into the dark house. But Giles grieved his lost mother in his own child way and he spent most of the hours of the day asleep.
He heard sounds in the night, outside his walls, from the direction of St. Mary's Church. Footsteps and voices approached his house and then there was an insistent knock upon his door. Hugh was tempted to fly to the door at once to welcome whatever duty he was summoned to that might take him away from his empty house, but he waited for Constance, Aline's woman, to wake and answer the door. If Hugh were called away, as he prayed he would be, he'd need Constance awake and aware, for Giles's sake.
A blast of winter air, voices in the hall, and Hugh emerged to see his sergeants, two of them holding flickering lanterns.
"Thank you, Constance," Hugh said, and the unhappy servant returned to her room.
"Well, Sergeant, what brings you here on a cold night?" Hugh had no patience for delay.
"Found a man dead in the Severn, sir," he said.
Dead? Hugh regretted his earlier prayer. He didn't wish an untimely end to any creature to serve as relief from his own pain. "Who is it?" he asked in a milder tone.
"Godfrey FitzWilliam, Lord Lacey's squire."
Hugh raised his eyebrows. He knew the man. A Norman, and nobly born.
His sergeant took him to the body, beyond the castle, north of the Gaye. His men had left the body near where they'd found it - obedient to Hugh's standing order that such a scene be left as it was found, or as near to it as might be. He'd learned how useful it could be to closely examine the area around where a man died, but it required daylight. FitzWilliam lay face down in a snow-mud mix on the riverbank. Hugh examined him as closely as he could by lantern and torchlight, weighed the time until dawn against the biting cold and disrespect to the dead, and ordered his men to load the squire onto a litter. The nearest usable facility for daylight examination was the abbey. A ray of light pierced Hugh's personal darkness, for the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul held the only person beside Giles whose company gave him any pleasure.
Father Abbott Radulfus joined Hugh after Prime in the mortuary chapel where the body lay upon a bier. With him came Father Adam, the priest, who performed the sacrament of Extreme Unction over Godfrey FitzWilliam as Hugh and the Abbot bowed their heads.
"Does Lord Lacey know?" the Abbot asked, after the priest had departed.
"I've sent my deputy to the manor," Hugh said. "Someone will have missed him. He had his bow, but there were no tracks from a horse, so he was out hunting on foot."
"You think he fell and drowned?"
"Or froze once the sun set. Father Abbott, may I request -"
"I'll send Brother Cadfael to you."
Brother Cadfael's greeting livened something nearly faded in Hugh. His inquiry, though, "How goes it with you?" was too keen, too laced with obvious meaning when accompanied by Cadfael's worried gaze. It drove Hugh, as such inquiries had for weeks now, into distance and proper replies, away from honesty and pain. He saw Cadfael's sad acceptance of Hugh's detachment. The monk turned to his work; the body on the cold stone.
The mortuary chapel had no extra benches to ease a man's comfort, but the ledge of the windows was necessarily wide, and there Hugh sat watching from his isolation as Brother Oswin and Cadfael undressed the unfortunate squire. Cadfael made langorous, thoughtful movements as he inspected the man's blue hands and lips. He pressed the corpse's rib cage, listening at the open mouth. His blunt fingers trailed gently, reverently over the dead man's body. He dismissed Oswin when the work no longer required two. Hugh found his mind wandering to better times, other times when he and Cadfael had worked together, usually to solve the mystery of some poor soul's murder. Hugh didn't know whether he hoped this dead man would provide him with a murderer to catch or not.
Cadfael frowned as he examined the man in a way Hugh couldn't help but think questionable for a man of the cloth. "Anything wrong?" he asked.
"There's damage here," Cadfael said thoughtfully. "He's been entered, in no natural way."
Startled, Hugh stood, shaken from his reverie. "Rape, was it? Do you think it's murder after all, then?" He'd known soldiers, driven by the Devil's own hate, to rape their captives in order to harm them in the most degrading manner possible.
Cadfael shook his head, and gently turned the corpse onto its back. "It wasn't forced. There's no violence here, just some repeated tearing."
Hugh's thoughts were still weighted with grief and moved slowly. "Are you saying he allowed this?"
Cadfael gave him a rueful smile. "I doubt it has anything to do with the poor man's death. He has water in his chest, but no mark of struggle or fracture to his crown. For once, Hugh, I think your men have found someone who died an accidental death."
"But, he's been sodomized."
"Yes," Cadfael said serenely, but then frowned. "And I fear Prior Robert would deny him burial in consecrated ground. The less said of this, the better." He drew a cloth over the body.
"I'm afraid I can't keep silent. Someone at the manor is committing sodomy. It's a civil crime as well as ecclesiastical."
Cadfael sighed. "You'll do what you must, then, Hugh."
"Don't tell me you don't condemn this, Cadfael."
"The act itself is condemned by natural law. It needs no further perjoration from me." Cadfael smiled. "But love between two of God's children? I have always thought of love as a self-sanctifying force, needing no apology."
Hugh blinked. "Love?" he asked. He stopped himself before demanding to know what Cadfael meant. He would sound like an idiot.
He found himself under close scrutiny of two keen, warm eyes. "Yes, love," Cadfael said, still staring into Hugh's face, his own face alive and intent. "Love is the gift Christ brought to us all, and sanctifies whatever it touches. Men can give the gift to each other for we are all God's creatures."
Hugh almost smiled in amazement, but his face was lately unaccustomed to the act. "You are a most singular monk, Cadfael. I can't believe the Church fathers would approve. Love is a fine thing, yes, but not like this."
Cadfael's countenance lost its luster almost as if he'd pulled his cowl forward on his head, returning to the bland look he normally wore. "It's one manifestation of it. What will you do?"
Hugh pulled his cloak around him. "Now the sun is up, I'll have a look at the riverbank and see if I can follow his steps in the snow, if my men haven't already muddied the trail. Will you come?"
Cadfael's face was now truly in the shadow of his cowl, but Hugh heard the regret in his tone. "I don't have leave from the abbey today, and will not receive it to investigate a death of misfortune, not malice. But come to me when you are done?"
"Gladly," Hugh admitted. He still could not smile.
Hugh stayed out throughout the brief daylight hours. He knew he should return to Alan Herbard, his deputy, to hear what the man had learned at the manor. He knew he should return to his own house to eat, and to the watch-house to supervise his men. He knew when snow began to fall that he was cold and wet and like to become more so. But the cold and solitude isolated him from much that gave him pain, and he was loathe to leave it.
Before the snow fell, he searched all the land along the Severn for tracks from other men. He found FitzWilliam's trail from the manor lands easily, but saw nothing to indicate he'd been followed. No tracks from the road led to the place his life had ended, nor any from the abbey or foregate. From the town he found the trail of his own men, walking their watch, then returning in haste to fetch Hugh. If anyone else had taken that route, there was no way to tell it.
At times his search was cursory, his path unthought. Instead he considered that Cadfael must be right and the young man's death a tragic misstep. He wondered if Cadfael could be right about the other, as well. Could the love of two men be so deep and true that it became physical? If so, then someone at the manor was in dire mourning this day, a mourning Hugh almost understood. It might be Lord Lacey, himself, he thought. The man had found legal ways to put aside two wives without issue, and FitzWilliam was his personal squire.
By the time he turned his tired feet toward the abbey, trees and clouds obscured the sun. Hugh could not feel his hands or feet and the wet snow had set him shivering. Cadfael he found in his workshop, winter work under way in his herbarium. The brazier burned out a red heat that was almost as welcome as Cadfael's greeting.
"Hugh! Come in. Word of heaven, man, where have you been? And look at you. You're as wet as a river rat." Hugh shed his heavy cloak gratefully, and sank onto the nearest hard bench. "Not there," Cadfael chided, sliding one strong hand under Hugh's arm and nearly hauling him to his feet. Cadfael pushed the bench to the wall beside the brazier. "Here, by the fire. Sit." Hugh obeyed, and stretched his feet out. Cadfael knelt swiftly by his feet and gripped one ice-rimmed, dripping boot, as he had when Hugh had returned from the battle of Lincoln.
"You don't have to - ow!" Hugh cried out as the boot was wrenched over a foot he'd thought too cold to feel anything.
"You haven't even any woolens on, Hugh," Cadfael chided, holding the red, swollen foot in his hand. "Let's get the other off."
Hugh gritted his teeth as he suffered his other boot to give him the same pain. Clucking his dismay, Cadfael heated water, poured it into a pail, and filled a second pail with cold water warmed only slightly. "Put your feet in the pail."
"That's cold water," Hugh cried.
"You'll hardly notice. Go on. Then in the warm water and back again into the cold."
Hugh obeyed, lips pressed tightly together to prevent any outcry.
"Now your hands."
Hugh yielded his hands, suddenly liking the idea of having Cadfael hold them. This Cadfael did, with rough gentleness, turning them up and down. "You've been kinder to your hands, I see." He took a glowing coal from the brazier with tongs, wrapped it in damp leaves, and gave it to Hugh to hold. Then he sat on his own stool, across from Hugh's bench and regarded him.
"Thank you," Hugh said, struggling with an unfamiliar craving for human touch. "I didn't intend to trouble you."
"Trouble me, Hugh? A little treatment for frostbite? When you're done with that coal, I've a mullet of spiced wine, here. Medicinal, of course."
"Then I'm done already," Hugh said, setting the hand-warmer down. Cadfael smiled and gave him a mug of heated wine. It felt glorious as it went down, and Hugh began to relax.
"Now tell me," Cadfael said, "did you find anything for your trouble?"
Hugh quaffed the remainder of the wine. "Nothing to say your version of events wasn't correct. Have you told Father Abbot what you found?"
Cadfael's generally guileless gaze clouded. "Father Abbott asked me to assist you in determining the cause of young FitzWilliam's demise. He hasn't asked me for anything further."
So Cadfael had said nothing. Hugh wasn't surprised.
Cadfael looked at him from under his brows. "Have you been to the manor?"
"No." Hugh handed over his cup in mute request. Cadfael refilled it. "I see no need. There may be a crime happening, but I have no way to bring it to light." To his dismay, he felt his face flush.
Cadfael's was kind enough to overlook it. A heaviness seemed to come over him. "And have you thought about this crime of love?"
"Cadfael," Hugh's tone held warning, but then dropped it. "Yes, I've thought about it. There's so much of loss and suffering in life, it's hard to condemn anyone for finding a little joy." He looked down at his reddened hands. He didn't mention how, now that what was unheard-of had become a possibility to him, he ached for some little joy.
To his surprise, Cadfael took his hands again, but gazed into Hugh's face. "Hugh, it will be a spear I carry in my heart until I am cold in the ground that I failed to save Aline."
His words were a sudden spear to Hugh's own heart, and he drew a quick breath, but took care not to pull his hands away. In fact, he gripped Cadfael's with his own, stiff though they were. "It was not your failing, old friend," he said, his voice rough. "But I prayed and I hoped. I've seen you heal others. Even the babe . . ." he ceased talking as tears threatened to betray him. Cadfael held his hands tightly, but cast his gaze down. In a rush Hugh remembered how dear Aline had been to his friend, and through the haze of his own grief, he found the strength to think of another. "It wasn't your fault," he whispered. The two men were hunched forward on their seats, their heads close. "I know you did everything you could, and you know it as well. You'd be the first to say this was God's will for us if anyone else had the doing of it." Cadfael nodded, but didn't look up, and Hugh was convinced he'd see tears if he did.
"Much of love is denied me now," Cadfael said in muffled tones, still averting his gaze, "but not all. Not all. I loved Aline. I loved you both."
"I know it well," Hugh said earnestly. "There may be some love the Church denies you, Cadfael, but I've never known man or woman with a bigger heart than yours." Before he'd given it much thought, Hugh reached across the distance between them and pulled Cadfael's stocky form into an embrace. He'd forgotten how a big heart could be so wounded. Like Aline in that, Cadfael was.
Cadfael returned the embrace ferociously, and together they wept for the woes of their world.