The crisis comes in the darkest hour of the night, every corner of the Abbey as cold and still as Hugh’s face had been when they had laid him out in the courtyard, frost already forming on lips so blue Cadfael feared for a moment that all their haste truly had been for naught.
The Deputy Sheriff of Shrewsbury had been gone a day before the alarm was raised, another thrice passing swiftly without a single shred of progress in the search.
If pressed, Cadfael might have ventured to place some form of name to the tension that never ceased to flow between himself and Brother Prior. But that name would not have been animosity. Would not have been anger. Would certainly not have been hatred. Not on Cadfael’s part, in any case.
Would not have been.
Watching his young friend struggle for the very breadth of life, each inhale as hard and harsh and harrowing as his own answering exhale, of anxiety, of worry, of sheer, blessed relief, that this time, this breath, had not been his patient’s last.
Poised in the silence in between each of those heart pounding moments, too weary to pray, to exhausted to weep, Cadfael does not allow himself to amend those earlier sentiments, which had been as sincere as they were laudable.
Could not allow himself to do so.
Not and still remain a brother of this Abbey.
“Brother.” No voice could be shrill, not in a house of the Lord. Or so Cadfael had always been told, by brothers and fathers and laymen alike.
Brothers and fathers and laymen alike had clearly never met Brother Jerome.
Cadfael’s hands curled upon the edge of his habit, the material sodden with oil and crusty with blood. A flake of it sheered off from the fabric, and Cadfael forced his eyes to follow its slow, inevitable journey to the harsh, cold stone of the Infirmary floor.
Forced his gaze to remain fixed forward, carefully turned from the knife placed lovingly upon the edge of the bedstead, mere hours earlier.
The knife that would not leave its owner’s side. Even, if the worst should come to pass, this night or another, in the embrace of death.
Cadfael’s voice was utterly blank, when he finally found it. Once, in another time and another place, such a voice had sent shivers down the spine of the most fearsome of warriors.
Those warriors had had the shrewdness of experience and wits to know when standing their ground was not courageous, but foolish.
Brother Jerome had the benefit of neither such quality. Yet even he paused, his tread freezing upon the cold stone at the sheer depth of fury in Cadfael’s eyes, when they pierced his own.
Jerome swallowed, rallied, his newfound courage born from temerity, perhaps, but born all the same. “Matins will soon be upon us.” The next part was clearly as painful for the Brother to repeat as it had doubtless been to hear. “Father Abbot bids you excused from services, until our Lord Beringar is quite recovered from this fever.”
For once, Jerome did not linger to glower down upon Cadfael, his sandals slapping swiftly in the haste of their retreat back across the flagstones.
Cadfael listened to the noise as it faded away.
Matins will soon be upon us.
When they had brought Hugh back to the Abbey, their little procession was hindered as much by driving snow as gathering grief, Sheriff Prestcote as somber as any had ever seen him, even if it was tinged with a philosophical practicality. Such ends were inevitable, when one was reckless with one’s own life, the Sheriff had always maintained.
Men such as Beringar were as like to be buried a hero as they were to be lauded as one, in his view. Cadfael would be saying Hail Mary’s for months to come, for offering his opinion on such wisdom.
Yet he could not fault Father Abbot for his censure, even as Hugh lay silent and still in the slowly falling snow, for the Abbot withheld judgement upon the curses Cadfael had laid on Brother Prior, upon the rescuers, upon all those present, his meager cloak thrown over Hugh’s frozen corpse.
His frozen, bleeding corpse.
In the haste of the moment, the urgency of each precious second, Cadfael no longer recalls all of what he said, all of the rage and grief that had poured forth upon the heads of those who had placed a foolish, foolish errand over the life rapidly slipping away before their very eyes.
Their short-sighted, foolish, damned eyes.
He does recall his parting shot, poised upon the top of the Abbey steps, the wind whistling across the doors of the hall, taking the snow and tossing it from about their shins to around and above their brows, Hugh as cold and still as the dead, cradled against his heart, as if it could beat for the both of them.
“While I can certainly see how a man of your experience and learning may make such a mistake, Brother Prior, it has always been my experience that corpses do not bleed.”
Matins is almost upon us.
In the first moment of respite, of pause, after the fires had been banked, after Hugh had been painstakingly stripped of his stiff, frozen clothing, his body washed of blood and his wounds tended, Abbot Heribert had approached the bed where Hugh lay, swathed almost to his nose in blankets and coverlets.
“Will he recover, Cadfael?” Some considered Heribert a simple man. Straightforward, gentle. Too gentle and simple, perhaps, to be the father of an Abbey such as Shrewsbury. Cadfael kept his own counsel on that point.
But he had never admired Heribert more, than he did in that moment, in the quiet strength it took to utter those words. To pose the question that must be posed.
To demand the answer that must be given.
It was that strength that leant Cadfael the strength in turn, to allow himself the luxury of a sigh, to allow his eyes to clench shut for a moment, even as the image of Hugh utterly still and blue, the memory of those first moments, before the first shattering, shuttering breath broke, burned at the backs of his eyelids.
The moment that would stay with him forever. The moment before he knew whether there was still a chance.
Whether there was still a hope.
Leant him the strength to, in turn, provide some form of answer.
“We’ve done all we can for the moment, Father. It’s up to him now.” Cadfael forced his eyes to meet Heribert’s, his heart shattering anew at finding tears there. Tears to mirror his own.
And that gave him the strength to finish, “We should know by dawn, if...” The words trailed away, leaving only the whistling of the north wind beyond the darkened windows to fill the silence.
“We will pray for our Lord Beringar, then, Brother. We will pray for his soul to be safely delivered back to us, as his body has been.”
Cadfael made no answer. He knew Heribert would forgive him the lapse.
He did not ask for permission to stay. Did not venture to create a lapse that even Heribert, for all his gentleness, could not have permitted himself to forgive.
When the Father had gone, when even the novices had melted away, when they were alone, Cadfael finally allowed his unshed tears to fall.
Finally allowed his fingers to brush sweat damp hair from Hugh’s clammy brow.
Finally pulled back the coverlets and slipped beneath them.
Finally allowed his arms to circle Hugh’s shoulders, to draw his deathly still form down into an embrace, to rest Hugh’s head upon his chest.
Finally allowed himself to weep, great gusts of grief and gasps of ghastly anguish.
Finally allowed himself to surrender to the darkness and stillness of the night.
Outside the Abbey walls, the winter wind howled.
Inside the Infirmary doors, the silence lengthened. Broken only by the breaths that rattled to and fro from Hugh’s lungs.
In the moments between, Cadfael prayed.
And together, they waited for the dawn to break.