Philip FitzRobert returned to Gloucester in the waning days of the autumn of 1149 and found an England that was scarcely changed, save that there seemed to be little place for him. The ceaseless, senseless struggle for the throne raged on, the mantle of the Empress' cause now borne by her son Henry of Anjou. But Philip had written himself out of that fight, first as a renegade, then in the service of Christ. He could no more return to the cause of Empress or king than he could turn the Severn back in its course or raise his father from the tomb they had laid him in a few short weeks before he had set out to join the host that was mustering in France.
He had thought, when he took the cross, to abjure the quarrels of princes forever. But the quarrels of princes plagued the East as surely as they had ravaged England for the past ten years and more. He had learned the measure of human frailty more fully in the long march across Anatolia and in the fruitless councils of kings and magnates in Acre and Jerusalem than in a decade in arms in the service of English strife. For all the assembled force of Christendom that rode out to the assistance of the Latin kingdoms in the East, the Crusade had achieved nothing. The fierce hand of the Turks still gripped Edessa. Proud Damascus stood unsubmitted, and would never now fall to the might of Christian arms. And Nur al-Din, undefeated, strengthened his position in Syria with his eye on the greatest prize of all, the holy city of Jerusalem itself.
And so, in a world that seemed suddenly drained of purpose and empty but for bitter memories and a host of doubts, Philip took thought for the Benedictine brother of Shrewsbury Abbey who had already once assayed his life and given it back to him with much of the tarnish removed. Cadfael the Welshman, the monk, the former Crusader, altogether remarkable. And linked inextricably with Cadfael in Philip's mind, his even more remarkable son. Golden eyes, suave cheeks, aquiline beauty, never far from Philip's thoughts on his own account. Philip had searched for him in the faces of the Saracens in the Holy Land even as he crossed blades with them. Some of them had been Philip's peers and more, but none of them could match Olivier de Bretagne in prowess, in chivalry, in honor. Here, at least, was one thing the Crusades had wrought that had not turned to evil.
But it was not Olivier who opened the door into the frosty Vespers twilight in answer to Philip's knock. It was Ermina Hugonin, tall and radiant, keys on her girdle and a swaddled infant in her arms. For a moment Philip's eyes, so accustomed now to turning inward to see Olivier, conjured from her dark curls the tendrils of hair that clasped Olivier's forehead and coiled around the nape of his neck, but the illusion passed swiftly. With it fled such words of greeting as Philip might otherwise have been able to gather in his troubled mind. He stood mute and frozen on the threshold, at an unaccustomed loss for words to describe his purpose there. Perhaps he sought absolution, perhaps understanding. Or perhaps some kind of comfort, although he could neither imagine what form it might take nor fathom how he might obtain it.
Ermina gave the infant into the waiting arms of the nurse who had emerged into the passage behind her and turned to usher him inside. "We heard the news of men returning from the East," she said, pulling the door closed behind him. "But your name was never mentioned among them."
To Philip's shame, his voice, when he found it to answer, was not quite steady. "And what welcome could I have expected if my return had been known?"
"Come," said Ermina. "You know better than that where there is a welcome for you, or you would not have come here."
A vision rose unbidden from his memory of a fierce skirmish on a dusty road outside Damascus. He had led his men against a column of reinforcements coming up from Aleppo. These were none of the Turkish archers who had dogged their journey from Constantinople and harried their campaign, but the flower of Syrian chivalry. Their encounter had been long and bloody, young knights from Gloucester and Anjou and warriors of Syria slain alike, their forces matched too well for victory on either side. And then, in the very moment when the few survivors had declared a truce and surveyed the enormity of their losses, the word had come that the lords of the Latin kingdoms had withdrawn from the siege and all was lost. It had been a waste of lives on both sides, and Philip remembered it as if he had cut down his brothers-in-arms with his own hand. How could anyone who had taken part in such a failure of Christian unity and reckless squandering of lives deserve a welcome here?
"Come," said Ermina again. "I expect Olivier will return before the office is out. Make yourself easy here and tell me of your doings as we wait."
Philip shook his head as if to clear it of memories, and followed Ermina out of the passageway and into the chamber beyond. A fire crackled warmly in the hearth and before it, on a fur rug, a sturdy boy was engrossed by a pile of sticks and clay animals. Geoffrey de Bretagne, eldest son and heir of Olivier de Bretagne and Ermina Hugonin, cast a tolerant but uninterested glace over him before returning his attention to his play. There was only a little of Olivier about him, Philip thought, unless it was in the glossy blue-black sheen of his hair, but he bore a marked likeness to Yves Hugonin, and perhaps even had a look of Cadfael himself.
A maidservant brought them wine, and the nurse returned the infant to Ermina's lap. Mother and children formed a scene of peace such as Philip had rarely seen and scarcely considered in all the years of warfare that had formed his adolescence and manhood. It brought a curious stab of longing and envy to his chest. Olivier belonged to this remarkable family. To Ermina, to the boy Geoffrey, to Cadfael, to the child in Ermina's arms. But not to him. Never to him, tainted as he was by his deeds without even the succor of Christendom to redeem them.
"Her name is Mariam," Ermina said, gesturing to the infant she held, maybe in answer to some question she thought she read in Philip's eyes. "After Olivier's mother." She waited, and when he did not answer, added: "Here. Hold her."
Philip did not trust himself to speak, but held out his arms for the warm, compact, little body. Did Ermina understand what she was offering him? No doubt she did, if she was worthy as an equal and a partner for Olivier. Perhaps Philip was seeking absolution, and perhaps he had found it. Perhaps if he was worthy of this small but precious piece of Olivier he would also, in time, be able to cast off some of the weight of Christendom's sins.
Mariam yawned up at Philip with her father's golden eyes, even as he heard approaching footsteps at the door.