Author's note: vox angelica is an organ stop, giving a gentle tremolo effect; it means "the voice of the angels". For disclaimer, rating, etc., see Chapter 1.
This story takes place after the sixteenth novel, "The Heretic's Apprentice", but before the seventeenth, "The Potter's Field".
Two days later the truth about Master Haminch's death had run its circle all across Farewell and tempers were slowly cooling down. The visitors – including Brother Cadfael and Brother Mark – were about to leave for home. Cadfael paid the jovial hermit, Brother Rhodri, a last visit; the two discussed the unfortunate events in detail and then parted in friendship.
Most of the nuns found the time to wish them a safe journey home and to offer their prayers so that it would be so indeed. Old Sister Alphonse gave Cadfael a handful of her oldest, most valued recipes as a parting gift – ones she had learned from her father and grandmother, and also some cuts and seeds for his herb garden. Young Sister Alumna entrusted to him a message for her beloved uncle, Brother Edmund. Sister Anna, mistress of the kitchens, prepared for them a satchel with food, so that they would suffer no need along the way.
Mother Patrice came in person to see them off, with Sister Eata at her elbow. Cadfael wondered briefly whether this meant that the prioress had found a kindred spirit in the strong-willed nun, or simply wanted to keep an eye on her. Perhaps both, to a certain extent.
Alvrich de Quadraria rode with them for the first leg of their journey and offered them the loan of the horses till they would reach Shrewsbury. He could always fetch the good beasts when he paid Hugh Beringar a visit, which he was planning anyway, he explained.
But Cadfael thankfully rejected the generous offer.
"We thank you for having eased a good part of the way for us, my lord," he said, "but it would not be proper for two humble monks to travel as we were of your standing. We are not with the entourage of some great lord or bishop; nor are we in any hurry. We shall continue our journey on foot, as it is fitting for those who consider themselves but pilgrims on this mortal soil."
"That will be a long an arduous walk, though," said the knight.
Cadfael shook his head.
"Not for us; we are used to travel this way. It was but a few years back that I've gone the way from Shrewsbury to Farewell, with several side looks, in the company of Brother Haluin; and he dragging himself on crutches, too, in the cold of November. Compared with that, this journey will be an easy one."
Seeing that he could not change their minds, Alvrich de Quadraria thanked Cadfael for his help with unravelling the murder mystery; then he took his leave from them and turned around to ride home, taking the horses with him. For a knight, with always a few grooms in his entourage, taking care for a few spare beasts did not mean any added burden.
"Lord de Quadraria is very generous and hospitable," commented Brother Mark, when the knight and his men were gone. "But I'm relieved that we're finally among us, Cadfael; and that we're heading home."
"So am I," admitted Cadfael. "It's been an unexpectedly long absence, and I find I miss Shrewsbury. I need to be in my workshop again, in my herb garden… and I want my bed. It seems that the older I get, the better I sleep in my own bed. Even if it isn't half as comfortable as the ones in Farewell's guest hall."
Brother Mark, being of an age in which a young man could sleep on just about any surface and at any time he was allowed to, smiled.
"I do notice, though, that you only ever complain when such a mission is nearing its end," he said fondly. "Never before."
"Of course not!" agreed Cadfael readily. "That would be foolish; and while I might be old, I'm certainly not a fool."
"True; you are not," laughed Brother Mark quietly; then he became thoughtful again. "I wonder what will happen to Dame Astola de Hammerwich now. She was not too eager to return home, was she?"
"Not as long as he feared that her stepson may be found guilty and hanged," said Cadfael. "I had the feeling that she feared to return with only Sweyn as her company. But now that Hamo was proved innocent and can go home with her and protect her from any unwelcome attention, I doubt that she would tarry in Farewell much longer."
"Do you believe that Hamo would be good to her?" asked Brother Mark, a little concerned on the widow's behalf.
Cadfael nodded. "Of that I'm fairly certain. I think she's always got along well with her stepson; she more or less raised the lad, after all. And Hamo would never be able to run the household on his own – a manor like that needs a mistress with a firm hand, and Dame Astola has been that mistress for many years. "Besides," he added, "as the widow of Haminch, she does have her privileges. If Hamo wants to eke out a living for himself, now that half their lands have gone to the nuns, he will need her support."
"So you believe they will arrange themselves?" asked Brother Mark.
Cadfael nodded again. "They might bump shoulders a few times, but they'll find an arrangement that will benefit them both. Dame Astola is a woman of much patience, and she has a remarkable amount of common sense. They will manage. All it will take is a little time."
Back in Farewell, Dame Astola de Hammerwich was entertaining similar thoughts. After having led several lengthy discussions with both her stepson and Mother Patrice, concerning the practical management of their shared property, she found that she had made as good a bargain as it was possible under the circumstances.
The fact that Mother Patrice had been feeling guilty and was thus more inclined to make allowances did help her case. She was fairly content with the results and ready to go home.
There was only one thing she needed to do before she would leave.
She chose the early evening hours just shortly before Vespers, when it was still enough light for everyone to see her entering Brother Godric's garden in plain sight, yet with few people actually around to do so. She was not hiding anything – there was nothing to hide, had never been – but she did not want strangers gawking at the fence, either.
This was a deeply personal matter, after all.
She found the front door of the cell wide open. The hermit was sitting at his desk, using the last rays of the sun to finish copying something. He was so focused on his work that he did not even notice her presence at first; thus she had the chance to look her fill, after all those years.
He had changed a lot during the six years she had not seen him, but she found that the changes served to his advantage. True, he was much thinner than she remembered, and the unruly beard concealed much of the oh-so-familiar features. Had she met him without knowing what he had become, she might not have even recognized him.
He had come to his prime: a well-made young man about thirty, beyond his gangly youth and of wiry strength. But most of all, he seemed at peace. Like someone who had finally found that which he had sought after all his life.
She looked around in the Spartan little room that was so obviously the home of a scholar. Books, scrolls, writing utensils covered every available surface – not that there had been much of that, either. Even the small chapel, with only the altar and the reliquary in its middle, was bigger than the cell where he actually lived. The whole place was rather barren; and despite having grown up in bitter poverty, she doubted that she could live like this. But the young hermit, working at his desk diligently, seemed content enough.
Like someone who had found his right place.
He had finally taken notice of her presence and set his pen aside, rising from behind his desk respectfully.
"Dame Astola; this is… unexpected."
His voice, at least, was as it always had been: low-pitched and just a little bit hoarse. She hurried over to him, taking both his hands in her own.
"Unexpected indeed; for me even more so than for you," she said. "I never knew you lived here."
"That was my intention," he replied with an earnest smile. "I wanted to begin my life anew – and this was the right place to do so."
She held to his hands as if they were her lifeline, and he let her do so… for the moment.
"How are you doing, Garth?" she asked. "I was worried about you, in all these years! I prayed for your safety every single day."
"I am well, as you can see," he replied kindly. "I have everything I need, and I am well content. And it is Brother Godric now," he added. "I have left my old life behind; all of it, even my name."
She understand the hint clearly enough. It hurt, but she knew it could not be changed.
"You're not leaving this place, are you?" she asked, still holding onto his hands for dear life.
He shook his head, slowly, thoughtfully. His grey-blue eyes that had once followed her every step with such reverence, were now staring into a distance she could not see.
"No, my lady. This is the freedom I have always sought for."
"Freedom?" she repeated incredulously. "You are confined to two tiny rooms, where you can barely turn around! You cannot call that freedom!"
"Oh, but I can," he replied, smiling. "And while my body is confined here indeed, my mind can travel to the farthest corners of Creation; and my soul can soar to the throne of God Himself. There is no greater freedom than that."
A freedom he could never share with her. A freedom where she could never follow him. Even now that her husband – his father! – was gone, she still had her obligations. Towards her stepson – his brother! – towards her household, towards their tenants. She was their mistress, but in a way she was as much their servant as they were hers.
He, on the other hand, only belonged to God and to himself.
He would never be hers again. Not even in the chaste, platonic manner they had once belonged to each other. Those times were gone and would never return.
And she would never want any other man in her life. Not if she could not have him.
"I am glad you have found your right place," she said.
There was no use to try changing his mind. He had chosen, years ago, and he would stick to his choice with true Saxon stubbornness. She would only humiliate herself; and she still had enough of her pride left not to do that.
Besides, she did not want his pity. If she could not have his love, she at least wanted his respect.
"Take good care of yourself, Garth," she said, deliberately using his old name, the one he had left behind. For her, he would always remain Garth; even if no-one else would remember the name. "And forget not to pray for me sometimes. You owe me that much."
She lifted one of his hands and kissed it; the first such touch between them, ever – and also the last one, as it seemed.
Then she let go of him trying to make herself believe that her heart was not breaking.
She spent the following years taking care of her late husband's manor and helping her stepson to tend to what lands remained for them. She saw that Hamo found a suitable wife and helped them raise their children, as if they were grandchildren of her own flesh and blood. She lived long enough to see those children grow up and take their lives into their own hands.
But she never returned to Farewell, for the rest of her life.
Soledad Cartwright, 2011-08-06