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Not Strain'd

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Not Strain'd

The winter crisp glittered cold and stark across Shrewsbury town, a brilliant refraction of light that spilled out through the chilly December night.

On just such a night, thought Brother Cadfael, had the shepherds hurried through Bethlehem town, seeking a stable and a king.

If only his own excursion were so joyous.

The call had come from a lay brother at the gatehouse, just after Vespers - death and sudden sickness in the house of the smith in town, and a need for Cadfael.

"Did you see him?" He asked the journeyman who'd brought the request, Ralf - a solid, Saxon name for a solid Saxon man.

"No. It was my mother roused me and told me to fetch the herbalist brother from the abbey." He was a hefty chunk of a man with his red-rough hands hanging at his sides, showing through cotte and shirt the muscle of his profession and the stolid mind of a man who was not given to thought beyond his own. "But," he added, as though recalling to mind something overheard, "there was talk of Robert feeling tired and breathless before he fell. He finished early today, left the work to Adam and I, and Adam soon soured."

Not a man for detailed observation, Cadfael thought, glancing at the man whose hurried pace was clearly not his common stride. A simple soul, calm and solid, hardworking and unimaginative.

The smith's house was broad-beamed and solid, as befitted a house for the men who worked hot iron in the forge. Cadfael barely glanced at the closed-up smithy shop-front before passing by to the attached dwelling, where a young woman waited anxiously in the door - the smith's daughter.

Cadfael had seen her about Shrewsbury town before, demure and neat, with a practical step and a face that brooked no foolishness, well-dressed and well-spoken. Her coiled chestnut hair held a glint of red by the room's lamplight, and her dark eyes showed both grief and sharp intelligence as she pushed back the door for both men to enter.

"Isabel, Brother Cadfael from the abbey." Ralf sounded relieved to pass his burden of responsibility on to someone else.

"Brother, thank you for coming. It has been--" Her cut-off gesture had agitation to it, the frustration of helplessness. Inaction would not come easily to this one, and Cadfael appreciated it.

"Where is he?"

"Adam is in his chamber." No question which 'he' to her - nothing could be done for the dead, but the living was another matter. Still, from her next words, he gathered that the living were not so far from the dead. "Brother, he is still and cold, barely breathing--" In her voice, Cadfael heard the hitch of terror, carefully mastered. This one was mistress of herself in spite of the deaths that had fallen on her household. "We have entreated him to lie down, but he will not."

"Take me to him."

The front room was laid out as though for dinner, but the food lay in the platters, cold. Here and there, it seemed that someone had picked over the meal but the bulk lay uneaten. Just as well. No telling what had caused the sickness, although the others in the household seemed hale enough.

Ralf hesitated. "Isabel--"

"Your mother is in the kitchen," she said over her shoulder as she led Cadfael out to a back corridor and the chambers of the household behind the main room.

What symptoms and signs were shown before he fell?"

"In father? Or in Adam?" Isabel glanced back, black eyes sharp. Grief had not dulled intelligence; there was spirit there, and wit. "Father fell sick early this afternoon, sometime after the noon meal. Mother tried to persuade him to sit, to rest, but he would continue. It wasn't until he could bear it no longer that he came in to rest. And did so until the evening meal, when he sat down to eat and collapsed at the table."

"And your brother?"

"Adam is no brother of mine," Isabel said, an unguarded flash that surprised Cadfael - a heartfelt protest that was quickly stifled. Now that he recalled it, he remembered that Robert Smith had been widowed some dozen years before taking himself a new wife with a daughter of her own. Two parents and their children, with never a drop of blood shared between them.

The girl continued briskly enough, although a rosy sheen touched her skin, even in the dim torchlight of the corridor. "When father left, he left Adam and Ralf to close up. They took a pot of ale down at Wat's and returned for dinner."

In the chamber, a young man sat on the edge of the bed, his face grey beneath the thatch of light brown hair, his eyes heavy-lidded. Even as Cadfael and the young woman entered, his body swayed.

"Adam!" She was at his side in an instant, her shoulder beneath his arm, her hand trying to lift his head. "Brother Cadfael!"

Cadfael was already kneeling on the floor before him, touching hands and cheeks grown cold. The young man was barely awake, and his hands were like blocks of ice, his skin clammy to the touch. Not just any sickness but one with very specific symptoms.

He lifted the chin to study the man's slack, weak face, then briskly said to the girl, "Lie him down and cover him with blankets."

She did as she was bid, fetching woollen coverings from the press at the foot of the bed, her face ghostly pale by the light of the tallow candle that burned its way down.

"What is wrong with him? What can I do?"

"Bring me wine," Cadfael said, appreciating the addition of the second question. Someone who was willing to act would right now be more helpful than someone who wanted to know. "And hot stones if you have them to warm his feet."

He broke off as the door opened, admitting a handsome woman in her forties, too Saxon-pale to be related to the dark-hued girl hovering by Cadfaels shoulder, and a servant girl carrying a tray with a bowl and a flask on it. Both stopped at the sight of Cadfael and Isabel in the room.

It was the woman who spoke first. "Oh, Isabel, who is this?"

"Brother Cadfael has come to see to Adam, Joan."

Cadfael was reaching into the bag he'd filled from his workshop before leaving the abbey - random choices since he'd known little about the malady. God's blessing that he'd picked this one amidst the many! Within moments, the wine was in his hand and he measured out four drops into the flask. He swirled the flask carefully and put the vial on the bed.

"What can be done for him?" Joan's voice trembled slightly as she groped for comfort, a matronly figure, well-padded and fretting. "It is so terrible. Robert was a good man. Such a dreadful accident..."

Isabel gathered Joan's hands in her own, gripping them to draw her attention and stop her babbling. "It will be well, Joan. We won't lose Adam as well."

"Yes, yes. Of course. Oh, Isabel, your mother - perhaps you should see to your mother--"

"My mother wished for time alone, and I am needed here. Go and look to Ralf, Joan."

Joan was dispatched to Ralf, and Isabel took the tray from the maid, and ordered warmed stones from the kitchen ashes. There was no question of whose authority held sway in this household.

Sitting by his patient, Cadfael began to dribble the doctored wine into the lax, open mouth. "I am giving him something to ease the worst of the symptoms - from there, we shall see how he fares. Did he and his father eat from the same dishes at dinner?"

"I do not believe so," Isabel said as she set the tray down on the press at the foot of the bed. "Was it something they ate?"

Cadfael concentrated on not choking Adam with too much liquid. He seemed to be swallowing without trouble, but his lips barely moved. "It might well have been. His skin is cold and clammy and he is already falling into unconsciousness. This distillation will stimulate the body and bring him back to us."

"So small an amount," marvelled Isabel, her voice both hushed with interest in the process and fear for the patient. "Is it enough? What is it?"

"Nightshade." Cadfael made one careful distillation every year; enough for some situation like this, where a body required stimulation, but no more. It needed only sparing use.

"Isn't that dangerous?"

"Child, many cures are poisons when used wrongly. It is all in the application - to hurt or to heal." Cadfael did not say that he suspected the cause of the smith's death and his son's sickness had been a poison. It was only a surmise as yet, no proof.

He watched the heavy-lidded eyes for a reaction, for a change in the laboured heave of the man's chest. There was no telling how much would be needed, and so he dosed carefully and steadily as the warm stones were brought in, wrapped in cloths and laid around his legs and feet.

Nearly half the wine was gone when the patient's lids fluttered, lifted for a moment. A lucid, grey gaze stared out of them before the lids fell back down again.

"Adam? Can you hear us?"

Isabel's voice seemed to rouse him, for he opened his eyes again, and his chest rose and fell in a great heave of air and and much less effort than had seemed before. His eyes fixed on Cadfael, held and squinted, as though he was trying to see through mist.

"Adam?"

The grey gaze fixed on Isabel's face and now stayed there, fixed and steady, and her gaze met his. Then his lips moved slightly and he exhaled, closing his eyes.

"Adam!"

Her fingers clutched at the blankets, an involuntary grip. But Cadfael touched the man's wrist lightly and felt the flush of warm blood, watched the chest lift and fall with steady, deep breaths.

"I think he will survive," he said to the girl. "He is strong in body and spirit."

She had composed herself again, and her eyes swung between the man in the bed and Cadfael. "What else can be done for him?"

"Keep him warm. If his body falls cold again, heat him with the rocks and dribble a little of the wine into his mouth. And be sure that no-one else drinks of the flask."

Isabel nodded and set both flask and bowl on the tray. "I will see to him myself."

Having seen her concern for her stepbrother, Cadfael did not doubt it. Adam Smith would be in good hands tonight.

"Show me your father."

They had laid him out in the bed where he died, his body stiff and cold among the linens in the unwarmed room. He would be moved before morning, the journeyman and apprentices struggling to heave the body out to a place in the cold where the flesh would be preserved without mortification. There would be no burying until the ground thawed.

His wife sat by the bed, holding the cold hand, her eyes unweeping. Dame Agnes had been a beauty in her youth and had retained that beauty into maturity. She was softer and rounder than Isabel, and by candlelight, her hair was darker, but the bones of her face showed clear in the flickering light of the candle as she looked up upon their entry. "Isabel?"

"Brother Cadfael has looked at Adam."

"He will live?"

"He will thrive, God willing," Cadfael said gently. There was hope there, a thin thread for the woman mourning her husband, stronger in the daughter. He indicated Robert Smith, lying silent and still on the bed. "May I?

The smith had been a big man, lean and brawny with the strength of shoulder and arms, but in death, he seemed smaller. Death shrunk even the largest among men. The burnished skin traditional to his trade had paled with the death-pallor, but it was not wholly gone; and without life in the body, his flesh had fast-cooled.

Cadfael frowned a little. "Was there any forewarning of his illness?"

Dame Agnes had sat silent and still through the examination, still holding her husband's hand. "Robert was never given to complaint, so when he finished early and came in sick, I worried. He felt cold and tired, unable to eat."

"His head pained him," Isabel said from the door. "He was surly when I came in from the markets in the afternoon."

"Did he complain of sickness? An inability to hold down his food?"

Agnes shook her head. "He ate his noon meal heartily enough. It was only at dinner that he collapsed, and there was nothing to be done. Joan tried some herbs on him, but--" She broke off, grief-stricken.

There was an awkward knock in the doorway. Ralf stood there, seeming too big for the space, a big man and apparently a shy one. "My mother sent me to see if you needed anything, Isabel."

Isabel drew up. "I need nothing, Ralf. Thank you. Buf if your mother would keep my mother company tonight, we would all feel the better for it."

"Isabel..."

"Mother, I would not have you left alone. And Adam needs nursing." She shook her head at Ralf, tow-headed and, if not simple, then lacking the complexity to deal with the situation beyond his instructions. "Ralf, you should sleep. The smithy will still need opening tomorrow and father..."

The silence said enough.

"You should sleep," Ralf insisted. "And you, Agnes."

"Mother, go with him to Joan. You can sleep in her chamber tonight, or mine if you prefer."

"And you--?"

"I'll stay with Adam," she said, the fine jaw settling into stubborn determination.

Cadfael admired the presence of mind that could manage a household, even amidst her own loss and concern. "I'll be back in the morning," he told Isabel. "There's nothing more I can do here."

The smith would lie here tonight and be made ready for burial tomorrow, when Martin Bellecote would be called upon to coffin him.

"Thank you, brother." The young woman crossed to her mother, drew her up. "Mother--"

Agnes turned dry eyes on her daughter, then looked beyond at Cadfael. And there was a bewilderment in her eyes and her voice. "Was it God's will that he should die?"

The eternal question of those left behind, the cry of humanity: Why?

"God sees the sparrows where they fall in winter," he said gently. "Your husband is much more than a sparrow."

But as he left the bereaved household, Cadfael wondered if it had been God's will that had sent Robert Smith from the world, or the hand of man.

-oOo-

Cadfael was granted dispensation to check up on his patient after chapter the next morning.

In the cold, grey day, he found both smithy and household busy with the townsfolk, come to commiserate with the family. The men paused out by the smithy where Ralf worked at the forge with the apprentices; presumably the women and children were inside, although the children ran about in the snow, careless of the chidings of their elders, and watched with a lax eye by the men.

Ralf caught sight of Cadfael as he went past, and nodded briefly without ever breaking the pounding rhythm on the anvil.

Inside, Isabel was managing a sea of women with the same calm competence she'd showed late last night, although she seemed tired, the light within her faded. Cadfael saw her mother sitting at her loom of homespun, accepting the condolences of the townswomen, gracious as a queen, while Joan flitted in and out of the sea of women with nervous looks at Agnes and Isabel.

"Brother," she disentangled herself from the clucks and flutters of the women. "He's in the kitchen. He'd be outside if he could stand for himself, the fool."

In spite of the scorn in her words, there was a quaver in her voice, betraying her emotions. Cadfael focused on the intent, sharp-boned face. "There was no concern in the night?"

"None. He slept through, and warm. I have not yet poured away the wine, but it is set aside and away for the moment." She wasn't so sure of him that she would throw out what had healed him. Just as long as no-one got hold of the nightshade-tainted brew.

The kitchen was not so small that the man sitting on the bench was in the way of the maid preparing the midday meal. He sat on the bench with his spine against the wall, shoulders rounded. By the midday light streaming in the open window, Cadfael saw a tall young man, well-made by birth, well-muscled from his work, with a firm jaw and a thoughtful expression. Beneath the ruddy hues of his work the skin was still pale from sickness, but Adam Smith's gaze was black enough as he looked from Isabel to Cadfael.

"Brother," he said in a cool, deep voice, ignoring Isabel entirely, "I understand I have you to thank for my health."

"Only for the initial reviving," Cadfael said, settling down on the bench beside the invalid. "Isabel is the one you should thank for watching over you through the night."

The jaw set in a fierce line. "I'm not in need of pampering. She would have done better to rest herself."

"You had no pampering," said Isabel briskly, undaunted and ignoring the charge to care for herself. "Solid care from Brother Cadfael, and someone to watch over you. Which you needed," she added as he opened his mouth in protest. "And still clearly do since you're too weak to stand long."

"Isabel frets over nothing. I am fine. My father--"

"Is gone beyond fretting and care alike," said Cadfael gently. "He is in God's hands now."

"Is that comfort to those left behind?" Adam was sombre, quiet in his grief. "Only yesterday morning he seemed hale, and in the afternoon he sickened as the light waned."

"He was not the only one."

Adam scowled at her. "We speak of my father, not of me."

Cadfael interrupted before Isabel could speak again. These two struck sparks as surely as flint and iron. "What were the first signs of his sickening?"

"Yesterday?" Adam frowned in memory and set his shoulders against the wall. "It was after the noon meal, towards the late afternoon. He seemed tire more easily than usual, rolled his shoulders often, as though the work was too hard. Once, I saw him put a hand to his head for a moment as though his head ached." One hand lifted to press at his temple as though in memory of his own pain.

From the corner of his eye, Cadfael saw Isabel open her mouth, then close it sharply around whatever she had been going to say. Brother and sister they might have been brought up, but they fenced with the familiarity of a strong-willed couple - and took the same care of each other.

"And you?"

The question gained him a hard look. "I was growing tired when father went inside. It was nothing much." He looked challengingly at Isabel, but she kept her peace. It was Cadfael who spoke what she was doubtless thinking.

"Nothing much that had you later lying like one dead," he said mildly. "Did you and your father share the luncheon meal?"

"We all did - my father, Ralf and I. Bread and a little pottage set aside for when we have time. The shop can grow busy without warning, we rarely go in." He shrugged. "Yesterday, we all ate from the same pot, even Ralf. In fact, he ate the bulk of it, since my father and I were working on a ploughshare." Pale eyes studied Cadfael. "You think there was something in the food?"

"I think it's possible," said Cadfael, cautiously. There was no reason for it, no cause that he could immediately see. "What did you eat yesterday?"

"Bread and pottage for lunch, a cup of ale in the early afternoon, brought by Joan..."

"And another at Wat's with Ralf."

"I was well enough when we closed up shop." Adam spoke pointedly to Cadfael, ignoring her completely. "Ralf and I both. It was father who fell at dinner." He hesitated, his expression grim. "There's no reason anyone would want my father dead."

"Who inherits the shop?"

"I do," Adam said bluntly. "Ralf's older, more experienced, but the trade comes to me, and Ralf's never grudged that. Other things, perhaps." He glanced at Isabel, who flushed and tossed her head.

Cadfael recalled last night's gallantry - such as it was, from a blacksmith - and things became a little clearer.

"Adam had no reason to want father dead," she said, ignoring the clear reference to herself. "And Ralf would not."

There was no room for argument, no space for disagreement - not in either the lift of the pointed chin, nor the hardening of the heat-burned jaw.

Cadfael couldn't find it in him to disagree. Even had those two not been utterly against it, he would not have picked the smith's journeyman for one to plan a murder.

If it had been a murder at all.

"Isabel?" Joan entered the kitchen, her broad face tense with an anxiety that eased only a little when she saw the young woman. "Your mother wishes you out in the front room. Adam, have you been keeping her here? Surely Brother Cadfael does not need her to oversee his work. Is everything well with him, Brother? We have been worried all night."

"Isabel is mistress of her own time," Adam said calmly. "She brought Brother Cadfael to see me and stayed."

The broad face settled into brittle sharpness. "Her mother needs her at such a time," she said.

"Her mother is not the only one to have lost my father." There was a subtle barb to Adam's reply for all that his voice became quieter, more intense. "Agnes may not be the only one who needs Isabel."

"As to that," said Joan sharply, ruffling her feathers like an outraged hen, "you are brother and sister in the eyes of the town!"

Adam shifted, edging his back up the wall to sit a little taller. "Are we not all one family in the eyes of God? I am sure Brother Cadfael would agree."

Amused by the sophistry, Cadfael eyed the young man with a growing respect. "Being Brothers in Christ is not the same thing."

"In the blood of Christ, under the saints. Are not all Christians then related in God?"

This time, Cadfael couldn't help a chuckle. "After a fashion, yes."

He sat there with his hands on the sides of the bench, no small lad, but a quiet one; not a scholarly man, but with an inquiring mind; and he made no threats but his grey eyes fixed unerringly on Joan. "True, we live as siblings now, brother and sister in the same household, but we are not brother and sister in the eyes of the law, and we are not brother and sister in blood. And that, I think, is the only way that matters."

She had turned rosy in anger, and her eyes flashed for a moment before she muttered something that might have been, 'Foolishness!' And left the room.

There was a moment's pause. "I should not have goaded her." But he sounded not at all penitent, which Cadfael appreciated.

"Son, your mind would give a theologian pause, and I am no theologian."

"At one stage, old Father Adam thought I might turn to the cowl," Adam said, smiling. "My questions vexed him greatly."

"A namesake?"

"One of the many in the Foregate before we moved into town. Doubtless father had cause to regret it when I considered the cowl at sixteen." The smile grew tinged with grief. "He always wanted me to follow him in smithing and I never had the vocation. So smithing it was."

"You'll take over the shop?"

"Soon, I think. Ralf was near to his mastery, and there was a call last week for a blacksmith out near Ludlow."

Cadfael judged that his patient needed little care at this moment. "What about his mother?"

"She could go with him or stay with us as she pleased - father wouldn't have turned her out; besides, she's company for Agnes. Ralf was considering it." Adam stared out the window contemplatively. "He probably still is. It's good solid work for a farm."

"And Isabel?"

Adam glanced towards the door through which Isabel had gone through and smiled, the warm amusement of a man who knows his heart is both given and secure. "Isabel makes her own choices." But it was clear that they both knew what her choice would be when it came.

As he left the kitchen and moved back through the house to the front room, Cadfael reflected that if Joan had hoped to match her son with Isabel, she had a fight on her hands.

Three young people in the house, one parent each. Two of them young men, friends and working together, in love with a girl they'd seen grow up alongside them. A father dead and a son sickly.

And a Benedictine brother in the midst of it all, questioning the causes and the reasons, and wondering what he was going to do about this coil. For coil there certainly was.

"Brother." Agnes paused at her loom, now bereft of her company. Either Isabel had shooed them away, or they had gone about their daily business and left the newly-widowed to her work and her family. "Adam is well?"

"Not well, but healing. Let him rest today, he'll want to be up and about tomorrow, whatever his condition."

She nodded. Her eyes were red but she wasn't weeping. She would mourn her husband and she would miss him, but life would go on.

Out in the chill, grey morning, Ralf was still working at the forge when Cadfael passed, the fire warming and lighting the face that slaved intently over his iron, as though he could pound away the pain of his master's death. Sparks flew and the metal cried out with every blow and filled the air with its smoky tang.

He waited until the work was done and quenched in the cooling trough with a fierce sizzle. The apprentices were set to bring in more wood, and the bellows lay still and quiet.

"How is he?" The question came easily, no sullenness or disappointment.

"Still weak, but on the mend. He'll do better for a day's rest." Cadfael surveyed the neatly-laid out smithy. "You'll be taking over here?"

"For the moment. I was to take mastery at the next month. He'll be missed." Ralf wiped sooty, blackened fingers on his leather apron and looked about, momentarily bereft of his master. Cadfael was reminded of Adam, left sitting in the peace of the kitchen, weary and grieving, but stoic, also. "A good master."

"And a smithy now missing him."

"Not for long, if I know Adam. He'll be ready in six months." Ralf spoke easily, without any particular envy. And yet he had worked here for years, done a full journeyman's course under Robert Smith. There were some men who'd resent that the son would now inherit the shop - a later journeyman to oust the first. The hazel eyes turned to Cadfael. "You don't know what it was killed him, sickened Adam?"

"Poison," Cadfael said as Joan rounded the corner, a full cup in her hand.

She stopped in her tracks upon seeing him, her face pale. Then her lips pressed together, as though reminded of Adam's teasing earlier that morning, and Isabel's presence near him, and she stepped around him. "Excuse me, brother." She laid the cup on the shelf beside two empty ones, smiled warmly at her son, then stepped around Cadfael again with nothing more than a nod. Her footsteps trod the path back to the house with never another word.

Ralf took the jug and poured an ale, offering it to Cadfael. "Poison?"

"Accidentally administered, of course," Cadfael shook his head. "Doubtless someone mistook the herbs in your pottage yesterday."

"And the master and Adam fell sick." Ralf tilted the cup thoughtfully, then drank and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. "Why didn't I?"

"You felt no dizziness? No sickness at all?"

The young man frowned. "A few moments, but nothing like Adam."

"It affects some differently to others." And God forgive me for the lie. Cadfael watched Ralf pour another cup of ale. "Smithing would be thirsty work."

"Thirstier for some than others."

Cadfael eyed the pair of cups left sitting on the shelf, wooden with a fine patterned rim so the cups could be differentiated one from the other. "That's an unusual design."

Ralf smiled briefly as he drained his cup and handed it over for Cadfael's scrutiny. "Turned and carved by one of the abbey foresters - a payment for work on his axe and harness. One each."

The wood was heavy, lathe-turned, and solid - as would be needed for anything handled by the blacksmith and his journeymen. "A fine gift for each of you," Cadfael observed, handing it back. "Well, I'd best be off since I have leave to see my godson - young Giles Beringar. I'll leave you to it."

But he hesitated at the corner of the stree, turning back to look at the smithy shop with the coil of smoke curling up from the brick chimney and was rewarded with the glimpse of a figure moving out of sight.

Cadfael continued on to Hugh Beringar's house in town. Shrewsbury's sheriff was in the town for Christmas this year, bringing with him both his wife and son, and giving Cadfael cause to sail forth from the abbey enclave to do his godfatherly duty.

He'd spoken nothing less than the truth - he had Abbot Radulfus' leave to see his godson while in town - but he wished to speak to Hugh as well.

As it turned out, Hugh wasn't at the house. "He went up to the castle earlier," said Aline Beringar, her large blue eyes observing his concerns. "I could send one of the men out--"

"No," Cadfael stayed her hand. "It can wait, dear girl."

He stayed until the nooning and played with young Giles until the toddler tired, but Hugh didn't return for the midday meal.

Cadfael returned to the cloister in the early afternoon, a little troubled but trusting to his own judgment.

-oOo-

The next morning, just before Prime, a lay brother intercepted Cadfael with the news that the young smith's journeyman had come down to the abbey with the news that there was another dead in the smith's household.

For a moment, Cadfael feared the worst. Then he saw the long, lean figure of Adam Smith waiting by the portal gate.

"Who is it?"

"Joan." The large hands twisted, as though in the grip of guilt, and as they turned towards the road, he blurted, "Brother, Isabel said something about poisons - she holds herself at fault for Joan's death because of something you left her."

The flask of nightshade-tainted wine that Isabel had kept in case Adam needed it again. The cold that took Cadfael had little to do with the weather.

"The sickness that took you was stayed by the medicine I left her. But the medicine itself is a poison if drunk unnecessarily." They were crossing the bridge leading past the abbey and into town. "No blame to Isabel, I should have made her pour it out before I left."

But it hadn't been Isabel who'd used the poison against Joan.

At the smithy the doors were closed, neither Adam nor Ralf having the heart for the work. Nothing short of a desperate emergency would have them at their trade today. Behind the shop, the house that had seen two deaths in two days was quiet and bitter with a bereaved air, and the stunned grief of Agnes Smith, bereft of husband one night, and friend only a day later.

"She seemed a little quieter last night," Agnes said as Adam led the way to Joan's room. "I thought it just to be a concern over Ralf, and then this morning Elys went in to wake her and she was cold..."

There was a tremble in her voice, quickly stifled. Agnes had wept for her husband in private, she would do the same for her friend. Her public face was not for open grief.

Cadfael paused on the threshold of the room.

Ralf sat on the edge of his mother's bed, his hand in hers, the set of his shoulders tense and pained. Isabel stood by the wall, her hands pressed into fists and her eyes red with weeping as they turned to the doorway.

Her touch roused Ralf out of something like a dream - or nightmare. "Brother," the light voice was rough. "Poison again?"

"I left a medicine behind for Adam. Those herbs that heal are also given to hurt."

"So Isabel has explained." The journeyman held out a hand to her and she went and gripped it briefly, then stepped back, her eyes to Adam. Ralf turned and had eyes for Cadfael only. "Was there anything that could have helped her?"

If she had drunk the entire brew he had left Isabel, then, "No."

Ralf stood and went out from the room without a further word. He would go away and walk and contemplate his future out in the winter chill. He would return a man with all ties cut but those of friendship and commonality, and go forth to seek his own fortune out by Ludlow, Cadfael had no doubt, and never know what had been done for his sake, the work gone awry.

They looked out after him, the two, and Isabel slipped her hand into Adam's for a moment before there were voices out in the front room - Martin Bellecote and his son come to measure Joan's body for her coffin.

"Was there anything that could have helped her?" Adam asked, and the deep hush of his voice betrayed the understanding of more either Isabel or her mother or Ralf had realised.

"Not after she made her choice," said Cadfael quietly. In envy and jealousy, the resentment against the son of the house - a Hagar who knew her Ishmael would not succeed his master, Joan had chosen not to live with what was. She had chosen to poison the pottage going out to the men while putting a restorative in the cups, knowing which one was her son's and which the smith's son's; and the second to make use of what Cadfael had left behind to end her own life quietly rather than being brought up before the law.

Then there were the carpenters in the room, shaking Adam's hand and commisserating over the bad fortune of his family. Death in the night, no rhyme or reason, was not entirely unknown, and there would be gossip for a while, but it would die down.

It was a few minutes later that Adam came to speak with him, drawing away from the others in the corner where Cadfael contemplated his choices.

"Will you tell the law of it? Despair is a deadly sin."

Cadfael eyed the young man - not so young anymore; master of his own shop, and soon to take his mastery -and wife, if Cadfael was any judge. "She would have killed you."

"God grants mercy to the repentant."

"God may be certain of her repentance - can you be?"

The grey gaze was steady. "No. But I should rather falter on the side of mercy. And there is Ralf to think about. She did it for him as well as herself, but he had no part in it."

For Ralf's sake, Adam would hold Joan's secret, even though it had stripped him of his father.

"I must tell Hugh Beringar," Cadfael said, reluctant yet determined. Hugh should know why death had struck so closely, one upon the other. The story of accidental poisonings might suffice the townsfolk, but those more accustomed to looking at the evils of human nature would not be so content. "But," he interrupted as Adam objected, "in confidence and privacy. Since she is dead, Hugh will not trouble you further." He knew his friend well enough to say that with assurance.

Adam seemed doubtful of this, but Hugh was merely a face and a name to him, not someone known or trusted. After a moment, he shrugged. "As you think it best, brother."

It was left at that, and Adam crossed the room to Isabel, taking her hand in his own as he had already taken her heart, two young lives to twine and grow from this difficult time.

"And only the young smith knows?" Hugh asked, marvelling later at the tale. Aline poured out a goblet of warmed wine for the menfolk and left them to their discussion.

"The son, not the journeyman."

"And shows mercy." He shook his head. "It's more than I could do. Cadfael, I think you lost yourself a fine priest there when he chose to follow his father's way."

"Perhaps," Cadfael considered it differently. "Or gained a fine man of the community when he did. Both are needed in a world made up of both sinners and saints."

"And most of those a little of both," said Hugh, clapping his friend on the shoulder with a broad, easy smile on his dark, saturnine face.

Cadfael left the house before Lauds, pulling the cowl of his hood over his tonsure as the wind scuffed icy fingers across his scalp and he returned to the abbey cloister in heavy reflection. The mercy of man was inexplicable enough in this human coil of loss and love and jealousy and greed, how much more inexplicable the mercy of God upon his creation!

-oOo-

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath...