Author: Akyra of Gallia PM
Brother Cadfael thought he would live in peace in Shrewsbury Abbey for the remainder of his life. But King Stephen has other plans for him, and with the help of Hugh Beringar he will have to go back to the land where he spent the best years of his life.Rated: Fiction K - English - Mystery/Adventure - Chapters: 11 - Words: 54,241 - Reviews: 18 - Favs: 5 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 02-01-08 - Published: 08-28-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3753706
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Brother Commander Evrard was already waiting at the door of the Temple when the riders led by Olivier returned. He spared hardly a glance to Hugh, whom he had never met before, and his gaze swept over the group, obviously looking for Amaury. Not finding him, he raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Well?" he asked suavely. "Where is my captain? Or did you commit yourself a little too far in your lies, Olivier, and cannot sustain them any longer?"
"I am not lying!" Olivier snapped back.
The young man was usually soft-spoken and well-mannered, respectful of his elders; but he had had a trying day, and it was actually much to his credit that he had only snapped. As for Cadfael himself he hardly could manage to remain in his saddle, and Hugh was not in a much better state. Though his head wound was not serious, the injury had been sufficient to keep the deputy Sheriff unconscious for at least half an hour, and he probably had quite a headache. A good night's sleep was what they both needed, Cadfael decided. And Olivier too, thinking of it.
"Where is Amaury, then?" Evrard asked again.
"He escaped," Hugh informed him crossly. But his anger was probably directed at himself for dropping his guard and letting his prisoner get away.
"And you are?" the commander enquired.
"Hugh Beringar of Maesbury," Hugh introduced himself tiredly.
"Oh, yes," Evrard murmured. "The... ardent young man sent by King Stephen."
Hugh raised an eyebrow but did not comment. He was not really in a position to do so, being of much lower rank than Evrard, even invested in the King's authority as he was.
The Templar commander did not seem to have expected an answer, and he transferred his attention back to Cadfael's son. "You leave me in a bit of a quandary, Olivier," he said, though he sounded more amused than bothered. "You obviously were involved in Amaury and his men's disappearance, but I have no proof as to what might be the truth in this affair. And since Amaury is not here, we cannot even settle that with trial by combat. So what can we do, hmm?"
"I have a suggestion," the young man replied stiffly.
"How impressive," Evrard murmured. "Well, speak up then. I can hardly wait. The anticipation is killing me."
"There is one way to prove my assertions," Olivier explained, his voice steady but his hawkish eyes blazing. "Let's do as Imrahim said, and bring Tahir to him. When he surrenders Amaury's men to us, you'll see we spoke the truth."
Evrard appeared to consider the suggestion for a moment, silently. Respectfully, everybody else kept quiet in the meantime, until the Templar slowly nodded.
"I don't like it," he said curtly, "but it does not seem as though I have much choice in the matter. There is after all a slim chance you might have been telling the truth, and if that is so I cannot leave some of my men prisoners of the Saracens. Very well. We shall ride tomorrow, with Tahir, and we will see then. You three will stay here and benefit from the Temple's hospitality. You will also accompany us tomorrow. For your sake, I hope this Imrahim shows up and that this expedition does not turn out to be only a tremendous waste of time."
"Don't worry, it won't," Olivier said tightly.
Hugh, Cadfael and his son were swiftly escorted to a room - the austerity of which made it look more like a cell, truly - and left there for the night. Nobody seemed to be guarding the door, but Cadfael suspected it would not be easy to leave, should they try. This Evrard looked like a sly, wily and cunning fellow, and without any evidence of his three unexpected guests' innocence or guilt, he certainly would not let them out of his grasp. But truthfully, at the moment the monk could not have cared less. He was so tired his head was spinning, and he sat down wearily on one of the three straw mattress which were more or less the only commodities in the room.
"Well, what do you make of that?" Hugh sighed. He sounded almost as tired as Cadfael himself.
"I don't make anything of it," the old monk replied, already lying down, "but I hope Evrard is not planning on doing anything rash when Imrahim shows up."
"What do you mean?" Olivier asked briskly.
"I am not sure..." Cadfael said slowly, as he closed his eyes. "But Evrard is a strong man and a respected war leader. He has also been taught his whole life that the Saracens are his enemy - only a few days ago he was taking care of these uprisings in the north. He will probably see Imrahim and his men as a threat. Don't you think he might try to take advantage of the occasion and capture them?"
There was a silence, and for a moment Cadfael thought there would be no answer. But as he was falling into a deep slumber, he heard his son say very quietly, "He might..."
For perhaps the first time in decades, Cadfael slept through the whole night without waking up a single time. Being in a religious order, he knew the Templars kept some of the usual offices, but he did not awake for any of them. However, he still felt far from rested when, much too early for his taste, somebody pounded at the door, and entered soon after. Hardly awake, Cadfael blinked at the newcomer, rising wearily to his feet.
"What is it?" Olivier asked brusquely.
Obviously he was not a morning person, and it appeared he had not had enough sleep, either; but that did not seem to deter the intruder, whom Cadfael soon recognized as Alan, the guard they had spoken to the day before.
"Commander Evrard says it's time to go," he informed them. "You are to get up and meet him in the courtyard."
Resigned, the three friends nodded and followed the guard out of the Temple. Cadfael hoped ardently he never had to step inside that building again. The Templar's hospitality left much to be desired, though he had known worse.
Evrard was indeed in the courtyard, with about thirty Knights in full gear; he was not taking any risks. As he approached the Templar commander, Cadfael had a better look at him. Though he had not gone to bed before Cadfael, Hugh and Olivier, and had probably got up much earlier, he looked unfairly fresh and rested.
The three friends' usual mounts were ready for them, and Cadfael felt a little guilty when he realized he had not taken care of his horse the past evening - not even spared it a thought, tired as he was. Thankfully, someone had seen to it, and the monk gently patted the mare's neck. Then he noticed Tahir was present as well, escorted by two Knights. His hands were bound, and the reins of his horse were tied to one of the Templars' saddle; obviously, Evrard had not bothered asking him for his word not to attempt an escape.
"Let's go!" the commander ordered when everybody was mounted and ready.
The small procession set off slowly and followed the now familiar way to Jehoshaphat's Gate. Olivier was up front, giving Evrard directions. Driven by his own curiosity, a trait that Brother Prior had often criticized, Cadfael steered his horse close to Tahir's. There was one question that had not been answered yet, and only the Saracen manservant knew the answer. The two Knights on escort duty gave the monk a dark look but did not protest. The Saracen hardly glanced at Cadfael, though he could not have failed to notice him approaching.
"What do you want?" he asked curtly.
"I have a question to ask," Cadfael said. "If you will allow me."
Obviously surprised at such humility from a Christian man, the Saracen looked at him a little longer, his charcoal-black eyes full of silent enquiries. Eventually, he shrugged.
"Many questions have been asked of me lately, little of which I was able to provide with an answer. You may ask; I do not promise to give you a response."
"That is fair enough," Cadfael acknowledged. "I was curious as to why you came back, after Thornbury died. Why not go back to your people? Your were his prisoner, I gather; why be so loyal to him that you would risk losing your life, with so little to gain, nothing to expect but servitude?"
For a long time Tahir remained silent, and after a while Cadfael thought he would not be given an answer; but then the Saracen spoke.
"That is none of your concern. However, I have nothing to hide, and since you asked, I will tell you my story. If you are willing to listen."
"I am," the monk said meekly.
"Very well. A long time ago, I was a soldier. I was very young then, hardly eighteen. My family rebelled against the law of the Christians, and we fought numerous Knights. We were outnumbered, though, and our rebellion was quickly quelled. In the final battle, which turned out to be my family's last and most bitter defeat, I ended up fighting against a Christian Knight. We fought for a long time; he was a great warrior, I am not ashamed to admit it. Eventually, he was stronger than me, and he defeated me. This scar is a constant reminder of my weakness."
Tahir showed to Cadfael a mark he had already noticed the first time he had seen him in chains, a nasty-looking, thick scar that started at the base of his neck and continued round his throat then down his collarbone.
"By all rights, I should have died," the Saracen continued. "but the battle was over then, and instead of leaving me to my fate, my foe saved my life, thus humiliating me more deeply than I had ever been before. He bound my wound and took care of me until I was better. This man's name was..."
"Antony of Thornbury," Cadfael said quietly.
"Indeed." Tahir gave him a quick, bittersweet smile. "He said I was his prisoner until my family paid a ransom for me, and he asked me my name. I refused to tell him what it was. I was already humiliated beyond words, but having my family buy my freedom back would have made it far worse, when I had been so unworthy of my name. Then Thornbury said that if my family did not buy me back, he would have to keep me as a servant. I think he was only trying to frighten me, but at the time I did not see it like that. However, he had beaten me in a fair fight, and then he had saved me; my life was twice his. I had to repay this debt before I could honorably take my freedom back."
"You were in a difficult situation," Cadfael murmured, unsure what to say.
"It was not easy," Tahir acknowledged. "I had been raised as a nobleman. Being relegated to the rank of servant, no matter the reason, was not easy. But Allah gave me the strength to go on."
"But what of it, after Thornbury was dead?" Cadfael insisted.
Tahir inhaled deeply. "My master was tactless enough to die before I was able to repay my debt. The very least I could do was to make sure his murderer was suitably punished; but if I had fled, I would certainly have been accused of committing the deed, and the true culprit would never have been found out. Coming back and doing my best to ensure the truth was revealed was the only thing I could do."
Cadfael nodded slowly. He could understand Tahir's situation. It was a quiet, discreet form of honour, one that would not be seen, admired or sung by minstrels, but perhaps all the more respectable. The Saracen had chosen the hardest path, and even if he was not fully aware of the consequences at the time, he had been faithful to that choice all along. That, if nothing else, deserved Cadfael's esteem.
"Well, now the truth is about to be revealed," the monk said. "You will be free."
"Not completely," Tahir replied quietly. "If the truth is uncovered, that is only thanks to you and your friends, not me. I still feel indebted. I know Thornbury has a son. I do not know what happened to the child, but if he or his mother ever needed help, I shall provide it. Please tell them that."
"I will, if I get the occasion," Cadfael promised.
Tahir turned his head away, making it clear he did not wish to speak anymore, and Cadfael respected his wishes, steering his horse to the left. The Saracen's last comment brought his mind back to Ayah, and he wondered what would become of her. What did Olivier intend to do? And what of the child, torn between two cultures at war? He decided he would need to speak with his son about that - Olivier was better suited than most to understand Gawain's situation - but now was not the moment.
By then, the party had almost reached the place of the rendezvous, and Evrard raised an imperious hand to stop his men, before shouting an order. Cadfael did not hear what it was - and anyway, he suspected the order had been given in French or some other, incomprehensible language - but he saw the Templars shift a little in their saddles and check their swords were within easy reach. Evrard was getting ready in case there was trouble, Cadfael realized - unless he was getting ready to create trouble himself.
Remembering the words he had exchanged with his friends the previous night, the monk began to feel somewhat uneasy, wondering if what should be a simple exchange would turn into a full-fledged skirmish. He need not have troubled himself, however, for at that moment Imrahim's men appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. More than fifty riders, perhaps up to a hundred, now surrounded Evrard and his men. The odds were so obviously tilted in the Saracens' favour that even the Templar Commander of Jerusalem would not dare attack; and Cadfael knew Imrahim would not attack, either. It was strange that he should so trust a man he had met but twice, yet there it was. Relieved, he urged his mare forward, eager to witness what would happen next.
Escorted by four riders, Imrahim detached himself from the bulk of his small army, and made his way to Evrard. Cadfael saw the Commander tense when Imrahim came close enough for his ravaged face to be visible. In plain daylight, his scars were more hideous than ever. Evrard straightened up in his saddle and crossed his arms in an open act of defiance, showing that he had no fear. Cadfael fervently hoped that the man's arrogance would not lead to disaster.
Imrahim came to a stop, hardly two yards separating him from the Templar Commander, and Cadfael reflected the two men could not have been any more different. One dark-haired with ardent, warm brown eyes, the other fair-haired, his eyes cold and blue; one a disfigured Saracen, the other a handsome Christian. Yet, both had the same stance of controlled pride, the same assurance that marked them as leaders of men.
"I see you have brought our brother back to us," Imrahim said, breaking the heavy silence.
"And I don't see any trace of my men," Evrard answered stiffly, with no little amount of resentment. Gone was the faint amusement he had displayed until now.
A smile twisted Imrahim's lips, which made for a rather scary sight. From where he was, Cadfael could see Evrard's mouth quirk in distaste.
"They're both proud and stubborn," Hugh murmured on Cadfael's left.
"Evrard is outnumbered, and Imrahim's honour won't allow him to attack," the monk replied absent-mindedly. He guessed, more than he saw the amusement shine in his friend's eyes.
"When did you become such a shrewd judge of war-leaders?" Hugh asked teasingly.
"I have always been one," Cadfael shot back without losing countenance. "Did you notice only now?"
"Yes. How careless of me," his friend replied dryly.
"Shhh," Olivier hissed in front of them.
His warning was unneeded; both Evrard and Imrahim were much too focused on each other to pay attention to anything else, short of an earthquake. The Saracen leader raised an arm, and a moment later the six missing Templars were herded in sight of Evrard, whose eyes narrowed until they were mere glowing slits. He glanced quickly at Olivier, clearly unhappy that the young man's information had proven true. Under the circumstances, however, he did not have the upper hand, and the initiative was Imrahim's.
"Let Tahir go," the Saracen said. "When he is with my men, yours will be freed."
"And how do I know that?" Evrard sneered, deliberately insulting. He was a brave man, or a fool, or both, to dare to speak thus when Imrahim's men could slaughter him on a whim of their leader. But then, Cadfael had often found that there was little difference between bravery and foolishness, if any at all.
But Imrahim let the insult slide, disregarding it in such a way that it was insulting in itself, making it clear he cared little for Evrard's pettiness. "You have my word, Lord Evrard," he simply said, "that and the fact that, if I wanted you dead, I could order it at any moment."
To Cadfael's surprised, Evrard suddenly laughed. It was a low, bitter chuckle, but a laugh nonetheless. The monk shook his head briefly. In spite of what he had told Hugh, he did not know what to make of Evrard, though he knew it was not someone whose company he enjoyed particularly, if only because of his behaviour with Olivier. But naturally, he was not acquainted with the man well enough to lay any judgment on him.
"I will yield to your terms," the Templar said, "but remember, should you decide to break your word, that we are Christian Knights and will fight and die as such."
"I never doubted that," Imrahim answered, and a flicker of irony in his dark eyes made Cadfael wonder whether that was intended as a subtle jibe.
Evrard gave a brief order, and Tahir was freed. After a fleeting hesitation, as if he did not know what to do of his freedom now that he had it, after all these years, the manservant heeled his horse on, back to his people. He quickly disappeared in the midst of the Saracen riders, many of whom kept their faces veiled. Imrahim waited for a moment, making it clear he would free his own prisoners when he decided so and not an instant before. Perhaps he hoped to see Evrard ask, but Cadfael knew better than that, even having known the Commander for only a few hours. And indeed, the Templar did not so much as twitch, silently daring Imrahim to break his word.
After a little while, Imrahim gave a curt nod, as though acknowledging the Templar's stubbornness, and the six Knights were freed. They approached meekly, looking sheepishly at their leader, who gave them such an icy glare that, even though it was not directed at him, Cadfael felt a shiver run up his spine.
"Back in line," Evrard hissed in a low voice, his anger all the more frightening as it was so tightly reigned in. The six Knights would probably be given quite an earful, if they suffered no worse fate, but Evrard would not make an exhibition of himself in public.
"I believe this is the end of our transaction," Imrahim said.
"So it is," Evrard acknowledged.
They stared at each other for a moment, and after a fashion Cadfael understood that Imrahim was waiting for the Templars to leave first. It was a subtle form of humiliation, to make them beat a retreat even when there had been no battle fought, but Evrard was shrewd enough to pick it up, and the monk saw his muscles taut in his attempt not to show his rage. Yet, the insult was a compliment in itself, since it inferred the other part was clever enough to understand it. No doubt Evrard had caught on that as well, but it did little to appease him. He abruptly pulled on the reins, steering his horse to the left, and turned away, defiantly showing his back to Imrahim without a single look over his shoulder. Everybody followed, and when Cadfael risked a glance backwards, the Saracens had disappeared as surely as if they had never been there.
The way back was silent, partly due to Evrard's thunderous mood, and Cadfael was relieved when they finally arrived. The Templars dismounted quickly and began to tend to their horses, and Evrard came to Cadfael, Olivier and Hugh.
"It seems you were telling the truth, in the end, Olivier," he said, sounding as though the words chafed his lips.
He would need some time to get over it. Cadfael considered recommending him to drink lime tea, to calm his nerves, then on second thought decided it wiser not to.
"I am not a liar, sir," Olivier replied softly.
"No," Evrard granted grimly, surprising Cadfael at the concession. "You are not. These six will be dealt with. I don't suppose you have any reason to stay, now."
His words were dismissive, yet Cadfael thought he caught a certain longing in his eyes, as though he secretly hoped Olivier would ask to stay longer. But whatever had happened between those two, it must have created too wide a rift, for Cadfael's son merely nodded, warily. An almost inaudible sigh escaped Evrard's lips, and he turned abruptly away, after bestowing Cadfael and Hugh with the barest nod.
"We just need to get our bags from the Hospital of St. John," Cadfael said, "and we can be on our way. Why don't you meet us at David's Gate at noon, Olivier?"
"Of course," the young man agreed. "I will fetch my own belongings and help Ayah get ready."
He disappeared inside the Temple.
"I had forgotten about Ayah," Hugh admitted, as he and Cadfael walked in the now familiar streets of Jerusalem.
"Not me," Cadfael replied grimly. "I have been thinking about her ever since Olivier told us she was with him. What does he intend to do with her?"
Beringar looked somewhat puzzled. "Well, what else could he do? Olivier is an exceedingly honourable young man. He will care for her..."
"That's not what I meant," the monk answered with a frown. "Of course he would not leave her to her own devices. But what kind of life would she have in England?"
"Ah..." Hugh tilted his head, considering. "Yes, I see what you mean. But it's up to her and Olivier."
"I know," Cadfael mumbled. Of course it was none of his business, but he felt concern for Ayah, who would always be treated as an inferior in England, and for Gawain, who would fit nowhere. And most of all, for his son. Knowing him, Olivier would not rest until Thornbury's land were passed on to the lad; and that would never happen, not when the child's mother was a Saracen, even if she had been converted - and definitely not without proof of a proper wedding. No, bringing Ayah and Gawain to England would do no good, and Cadfael was determined to convince his son of that.
He and Hugh stopped only briefly at the Hospital, just long enough to gather their belongings. Cadfael bid Blaise farewell, but cut the goodbyes as short as he could. He knew he would never come back, never see his friend again, and that was the last thing he wanted to dwell on at the moment. Blaise promised that, should he ever return to England, he would stop by at Shrewsbury, but Cadfael doubted very much he would ever leave the Holy Land; he was too well ensnared there.
Olivier, Ayah and her son were waiting as agreed at David's Gate. The young woman smiled at Cadfael and Hugh, apologized humbly for fleeing without warning back in Arsur, and thanked them for solving the mystery of her husband's death. A moment later, the five of them were on their way back to England.
Cadfael waited to the very last moment before raising the issue of Ayah's fate. He did not plan it ahead, but subconsciously shirked the confrontation, all too aware that his son would not like it. But on the morning of their departure, an hour before their ship was to cast off its mooring ropes, he realized he could not delay any longer and had to broach the subject now, or be forever silent.
"Olivier..." he began, then hesitated, unsure how to express his feelings on the matter. "What are your intentions regarding Ayah?"
The young woman was present, but kept silent as she did most of the time. During the whole voyage from Jerusalem to Arsur, she had hardly spoken a few words, letting Olivier interact in her name.
Olivier looked at the monk, some amount of resentment showing in the way he pursed his lips. He was on the defensive, which meant he was going to justify himself. That in itself indicated that he had doubt of his own, whether or not he would acknowledge them, even to himself.
"I intend to bring her back with me to England," he informed his father curtly. "I believe I owe that to Antony, at the very least."
"That you want to care for her is much to your credit," Cadfael probed him warily, "but are you sure that bringing her back to England is the wisest course of action?"
Olivier's hawkish eyes darkened more and more as he listened to the monk. "Of course it is. Where else could they go?"
"Tahir said he felt indebted to Thornbury, and that he would tend to his wife and son's needs," Cadfael reminded him, having related his discussion with the Saracen manservant to his companions some time ago.
"I shall not leave Ayah and Gawain in the care of a complete stranger," Olivier retorted scathingly. "Besides, they must come to England. How else could Gawain reclaim his rightful inheritance?"
That was what Cadfael had feared. Perhaps it was time for some bluntness, to make the unpleasant reality of life more apparent to the young man.
"Gawain will never be allowed to inherit the Thornbury estate, and you know it."
"With my help, he will," Olivier said stubbornly.
"He won't," Cadfael said relentlessly. "Why are you so bent on bringing him to England?"
Until then, Olivier had avoided Cadfael's eyes, but at that point he stared back at him, anger and bitterness showing. "You ask why?" he said, his voice level and dangerously soft. "I will tell you why. I was raised here, in the Holy Land, without a father, without even any heritage of my father's culture. I don't even know the man's name! Not that I would want to know. He abandoned me. I will not allow the same thing to happen to Gawain."
Cadfael felt the blood draw from his face, leaving him ghastly pale, struggling to catch his breath. The blow had been all the more harsh for being unexpected, and it hurt to think that Olivier, unaware of his father's identity, must have been completely sincere in his outburst. It hurt more, because it was not meant to.
Hugh had listened to the discussion without interfering, probably feeling that it was best left to Cadfael's care, but he knew his friend well enough to notice his reaction and, shooting the monk a worried glance, he stepped in.
"Now, Cadfael's arguments are sound, Olivier, perhaps you should consider..."
"You stay out of this, Beringar!" Olivier snapped. "I know perfectly well it would embarrass your king, should Gawain inherit the lands and come to Maud's side. Don't think I can't second-guess your schemes!"
He realized what he had said out of anger at the moment the words left his lips, and he paled, while Hugh's features became stony. Olivier sighed and brought a hand to his forehead. "Accept my apology," he said stiffly. "That was uncalled for, Lord Beringar."
Hugh stared at him for a moment, then tilted his head towards Cadfael. "It is not me you should apologize to, Olivier," he said quietly.
The young man glanced at the monk, and something that looked like remorse appeared on his face for a fleeting moment, but he pursed his lips and looked away.
The subject was not mentioned again, and Ayah and Gawain came on board with the three men.
After that, Cadfael did his best to avoid Olivier, and the young man made no effort to see him. It was not possible for them to remain completely apart in the limited space of the ship, but even when in the presence of each other they endeavoured to pretend they did not see one another. Hugh was distressed to see that Cadfael was obviously hurting, yet refused to confide what the matter was. Olivier was obviously angry because of the disagreement about Ayah's fate, but somehow Hugh suspected the problem went deeper insofar as Cadfael was concerned. He tried relentlessly to pry the answers out of his friend, with no result, and he dared not push too far, for fear the monk might withdraw completely if he did. In desperation, he tried to speak to Olivier and get him to go to Cadfael, but the young man stubbornly refused to take the first step. Yet, he too was worried about Cadfael, though he tried to feign the utmost disinterest. When he thought nobody was looking, Hugh caught him glancing at the monk in concern.
Under such circumstances, the trip was anything but pleasant, and it was a relief when the ship reached the port of Tunis, where it would restock the supplies. Everybody was glad for a chance to escape the heavy tensions for a moment, though Olivier went his own way and Cadfael and Hugh in the other direction, while Ayah chose to stay in her cabin.
The following morning found the ship leaving the coasts of the Holy Land behind, hardly a shadow on the horizon, then not there at all. Hugh began to walk on the deck, enjoying the fresh morning breeze. He was slowly getting used to seafaring, and was no longer sick. Well, not too much.
Olivier was the next to come up, and he looked around the deck in concern. Spotting Hugh, he strode to join him. The deputy Sheriff felt a little resentful, for he was certain Cadfael's low spirits had to do with Olivier, but he did his best to overcome that feeling and greeted the young man politely.
"Have you seen Ayah?" Olivier asked without preamble.
Hugh blinked. "No, not this morning, why?"
Olivier frowned in concern. "She is not in her cabin, and neither is Gawain. When did you last see her?"
"Hum... yesterday afternoon, I think. She can't be very far, anyway."
"I'll look for her."
And so Olivier did, searching thoroughly through the whole ship. Quickly enough, Hugh grew concerned as well, and helped him, but Ayah was nowhere to be found. When Cadfael finally emerged and was made aware of the situation, he looked just as puzzled as everybody else.
"I'll look again in her cabin," Olivier announced, though by then nobody expected Ayah to be found. What had become of her, however, remained a mystery.
Nonetheless, Olivier was not long, and when he came back on the deck he had a strange, pained expression. In his hand he held a slip of paper, which he handed wordlessly to Cadfael. Hugh peered over his friend's shoulder to read. The handwriting was unsteady, but legible.
I can only tell you how grateful I am for your help. I know you will be angry, but I firmly believe my choice is the only sensible one.
Brother Cadfael is right, and I should have realized it sooner. I know how most Christians will look down upon a woman such as myself. It was nothing but a dream to take Gawain to England. I must protect him. I refuse for my son to be a pawn in political games.
I shall go to Tahir and place myself under his protection. I know he will not turn me down. Please do not come after me and make it any harder for the both of us.
Thank you again for your kindness. Please say goodbye to Lord Beringar and Brother Cadfael for me.
Upon reading the letter, the three men remained silent for a moment, all equally astounded. Eventually, Hugh laughed softly.
"We argued about it and you two sulked for days over the issue, and all the while she had taken her own decision..."
"Why did she not tell me?" Olivier murmured, distraught and wounded.
"She probably feared you might try to stop her," Cadfael said, his voice rough after having been almost completely silent for nearly three days.
Olivier brought his hand to his forehead. "I only wanted the best for her and the child..."
"Did you?" Hugh asked sharply. "Are you certain a more personal issue was not at stake?"
Taken aback, Olivier stared at him, then slowly shook his head. "Perhaps. I don't know any longer. Whatever it may be, I beg you, Cadfael, to accept my apology. I should not have shouted when you were only trying to help. Perhaps I was angry. I thought I had come to terms with this... not knowing my father. Obviously, I had not."
"Quite understandable," Cadfael mumbled, looking away. He wore his guilt as a leaden weight.
In the end, it was Olivier's turn to laugh, although it was hollow and more disappointed than amused.
"What is it?" Hugh asked.
"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about this voyage, and what it brought us."
Hugh's eyebrow crept closer to his hairline. "So?" he prompted.
"Nothing," Olivier replied, still laughing. "Absolutely nothing. What a total, complete waste..."
"Nothing?" Cadfael repeated.
Perhaps it was time he stopped feeling sorry for himself and wallowing in self-pity. Olivier was angry with him, quite rightly so. He deserved it. He would just have to live with it.
"Not nothing," he continued. "We brought a criminal to justice - though he fled, he will be captured sooner or later - and we saved an innocent's man life. Wasn't it worth it?"
The three men exchanged a glance.
"Well, perhaps," Olivier conceded.
"Never mind all that," Hugh said. "It was worth it if only for one reason."
"And what would that be?" Cadfael wanted to know.
Hugh grinned. "The satisfaction of getting back home."
I'd like to thank everybody who reviewed, and more particularly Rosemary for Remembrance and Greenfleaf's Daughter for their nice, long comments. Special thanks to Kezya, my beta-reader, who had done an incredible job, not only on this story but on a few other as well. I think I'm giving her a looot of work.
I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing.