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State of Grace

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Thomas was sweating beneath his robes, but he made no move to unfasten or rearrange his clothes in pursuit of greater comfort. He barely felt the runnels of moisture that gathered at chest and back and armpit and groin, and only registered the sweat that pricked at his upper lip when it ran into the corners of his mouth. He tasted it slowly: salt and bitter, it carried with it not the tang of an honest day's labour, but the idleness of thought.

Elsewhere in the garden, two elderly monks wore their habits kilted to the waist as they tended the plants and weeded the earth. They moved without haste, content in the sun of late midsummer. Thomas set his hands on his knees and tried to be still, but he had ever been a man of wilful decision, unaccustomed to sitting long in quietude, and soon his fingers began to twitch. The flash of sunlight on the ring on his left hand gave him pause: on the finger reserved in secular society for the wedding-band was a bishop's ring, bestowed upon him barely two years previously as a sign of the favour in which he was held.

That favour had evaporated as soon as he had lifted the crozier in defence of the Church.

When he had first fled here in the November of 1164, Thomas had likened the sight of Pontigny Abbey to a ship adrift in a sea of green fields. Even in the dull autumn weather, the church had seemed to be a great white-beamed vessel: the rounded, multi-faceted presbytery both rudder and stern, and the arcaded narthex the bow and figurehead. A ship beached in the Burgundian countryside; but it was a ship that would keep him safe while he weathered the storm of Henry's displeasure. Like Noah, Thomas looked every day to the sky for a sign that the heavens were clearing, seeking the approach of the dove. He was unsure if he longed for a message from the king, or from God.

That day he got both, borne by a messenger from England who had travelled post-haste from Calais to seek an audience with the abbot, Hubert de Morency; and it was the abbot who then came to him beyond the shade of the cloister. Thomas was not difficult to find. He had not taken much with him into exile, and so the monks had lent him linens to supplement his own wardrobe. Even after nearly a year in the monastery, they would still eye him askance. He took to turning the bishop's ring inside out, but that only served to draw him even greater attention, and so he decided to dress as his rank dictated. Even in exile, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury; and none could forget it.

Hubert seated himself on the stone bench at the juncture of the paths in the cloister garden, and looked around as if seeing the place for the first time. Thomas hoped that the sight was pleasing, and the abbot nodded vaguely. Thomas wished that it could be that simple for all things: that he could be as satisfied with the English Church; that he could make Henry see sense.

"Why do you sit in the full sunlight?" Hubert began, wiping his brow. "Your brothers prefer the cool interior, or the freshness of the fields. It serves no purpose to sit this way when you could be at your ease... unless you feel that you must do penance."

Thomas gave him a sharp look, but remained silent; and so Hubert continued: "If it is penance you seek, then perhaps it might be wise to unburden your soul first. I may only be a humble abbot, but I am perfectly capable of hearing the confession of an archbishop."

That made him smile. "I am not in need of the confessional, but I thank you for your concern for my well-being."

Hubert tilted his head, his dark eyes shining from the lines of his face. "It is not just concern for you, my lord bishop. Today brings evil news, both from England and from our mother-house at Clairvaux."

"I do not want to hear evil news," Thomas said. "I ask you: is this the place for it?" He gestured around him at the deep green of the foliage and the splashes of gaudy colour that were almost pagan against the startling, dazzling white of the church.

"We are in an oasis of calm," replied Hubert. "There can be no better place to hear news, good or ill; and you must hear it anyway, for it concerns you and your future at this house."

Thomas looked down at his hands on his lap. They seemed untidy there. The abbot's fingers were gnarled with arthritis and calloused by the quill; his own, in contrast, were softer and paler. Years of good living as the Chancellor had not yet been reclaimed by years of obedience to the Church. He doubted that Hubert had ever spilt another man's blood, as he had done, and the thought made him furl his hands together as if prayerfully. The sun glinted from his ring again as reminder of why they were there.

"You must turn me from your doorstep," Thomas said flatly. "I understand. I shall go perhaps to Cteaux..."

Hubert coughed, a gentle rustling sound. "Your king is most insistent. He has forbidden all houses to take you in."

Thomas looked directly at the abbot for the first time in their conversation, and Hubert heard the slight stutter that dogged the archbishop's speech at times of distress: "H-he cannot do that. Does Louis not still rule France?"

"He does, and is kindly disposed towards you... but you are in territory claimed by the English throne, as well you know. Fleeing into Louis' lands will not save you for long," Hubert said gently, "for Henry has issued a threat directly against our Order. With so many houses being founded in England, it would be impolitic for the Cistercians to stand against the English monarch."

"Impolitic," Thomas snapped, allowing his temper to slip, "but not impossible." He rose from the bench, shaking out his robes and executing a half-turn towards the abbot, every inch the courtier. The two old monks stopped their gardening to watch him, and for a moment he felt a surge of pride. Even in defeat, he could still command respect.

Then he saw the expression in Hubert's eyes, and recognised it at once. Thomas, ashamed of his anger, bowed his knee and sank down onto the path, an archbishop humbled before an abbot.

"It is your Christian duty to help those in need," he said softly.

"Indeed it is, and so have we, for nearly a year. It is time someone else shared this burden," Hubert said, but without reproof.

Thomas leaned forwards, taking the abbot's hand so that the warmth of the sun-warmed golden ring pressed against his old flesh. "Your obedience is to the Church," he insisted. "To the Church - and to me."

Hubert withdrew his hand. "God may command me, but you do not."

Thomas winced. He had heard those words spoken differently just over a year ago, when he had been the one to fling them so passionately at his king.

They had been at Clarendon, and Henry had been pushing for the formal acceptance of the avitae consuetudines. Thomas, still concerned about the impact of conceding too much to the secular courts, was fretful and nervous. Henry had rarely seen his friend so disturbed, and attributed it jokingly to his priestly status:

"If I'd chosen a lesser man as Archbishop, he'd have collapsed by now!"

Thomas raised his head from scanning the draft of the reforms. "You should not have chosen me, my lord. I begged you not to, but you would not listen. You appointed me because you thought I would follow you in all things."

"Yes! As you should!" Henry cried heartily. "You are my friend, Thomas!"

Thomas inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Indeed. And you are my friend; but, my lord, the state we enjoy does not prohibit free will, nor does it ensure possession. I would never presume to instruct you -"

"You did. Many times." The king showed his teeth in what sometimes passed as a smile. "And I listened to you, because you were wise - or I thought you to be so."

"I have never given you false counsel. You are the leader that England needs; that she demands. The civil war between your mother and King Stephen brought nothing but discontent, for how can man live in chaos? My late master, God rest his soul, may have erred politically; but he had not the vision to see which way to guide the Church in troubled times." Thomas sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "Now that you are on the throne, the Church is again a force to be reckoned with. You should not fear it, my lord. God loves you."

Henry waved away the speech as if it were an insect that irked him, and then he stood quite still and asked in a strong, strange voice: "And you? Do you love me, Thomas?"

He made no answer at first; then, after a pause deep with silence, he replied, "As my king and my friend, yes."

Henry laughed, a short bark of a sound. "Come, Thomas - we have been comrades-in-arms, hunted and jousted and roistered together! Many's the night we've shared the same bed - remember that time in Anjou when I had the serving-wench with you lying next to us with your face turned away? What a fine night we had!"

"I love demurely and chastely," Thomas said. "You know that."

Henry's expression changed, becoming dark with anger, and he advanced across the room towards Thomas' chair. "Aye. A priest you were by nature, even when you were a free man, when pleasure was not denied you. I often wondered, since you seemed not to like women, if you were of the other persuasion..."

Thomas tried to hide his shock. "My affection for you has never been tainted with sin!"

Henry stopped before the chair and leaned over, contemplating Thomas' face. "Some of the scribes write that you are pleasing to the eye in form and countenance," he said musingly.

"I wouldn't know about that," Thomas stammered, his face aflame.

"I find you pleasing," Henry added, his smile bold. "Intriguing, too, because of your chastity... Strangely, your taking the cloth has made my interest stronger rather than weaker. Perhaps I should do penance for my impure thoughts?"

Thomas shivered as his king reached out and traced a finger thoughtfully, gently, down the side of his face.

"It is said in some quarters," Henry continued, "that your mother was a Saracen. Do you have heathen blood in you, Thomas? A half-Saracen working for the Church. What delicious irony. But it is my right, my Christian duty, to conquer Saracens - even those who are tame..."

Thomas lurched out of the chair and was halfway to the door before he found the courage to blurt out: "I belong to the Church, Henry. I am consecrated to God Himself! You are a great king, but He is far greater. I cannot do as you ask in this, or - or in any other area of your life."

Henry snorted in contempt as he straightened up. "You would set the Church above our friendship?"

"Mortal life is fleeting; God's Will remains forever."

"Then as you value God above all else, including my friendship, may it please you to remove yourself from my presence. No longer will you be able to call yourself favoured by the king. You will have to be content to live in the original state of grace."

Those had been the last words of any civility that Henry had spoken to him in private, and now the echo of those words came back at him, this time spoken by Hubert de Morency. Thomas wondered if he should accept the offer of the confessional and unburden his conscience. Perhaps then he would stop thinking of Henry and what might have been.

"My lord?" Hubert asked solicitously, and Thomas recalled himself to his situation.

"My apologies... Just a stray memory." He sat down again upon the bench and stared at the bishop's ring, twisting it around on his finger. For a moment, its brilliance dazzled him; and when he blinked, he saw vague glimpses of the image floating in his vision, darkening and fading with each passing second.

Within a week, Thomas left Pontigny to continue his exile. He did not see England or Henry for another five years.