The Echo of Thunder

It's not the roar of battle Cadfael remembers most. It's the quiet of the battlefield when it's done–of men stunned into silence, hearing birdsong too loud and soft winds too shrill; the stillness as they wait for their sanity to decide: leave or stay.

He remembers the sea-scent of tears, the rain-on-stone smell of fallen weapons, the copper tang of cooling blood.

He thought he'd walked away from it long ago.

But this is the battlefield now.

The Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul has the eerie calm of war's end; but the battle is just beginning, and it will be long and bitter, he knows. He's heard weeping more than once this morning. He's seen his brothers wince at the harshness of birdsong. More than a few have already been on their knees begging for mercy–and, to his shame, he knows what they need mercy for.

Last night Brother Jerome confessed to murder, believing he'd killed the shepherd, Alfred. Today the abbey smells of rain and cooling blood.

Jerome shouldn't be able to move after the lashing he's received, Cadfael thinks, and marvels as he staggers to his feet. He's even more amazed when his own hand reaches out to steady him.

He lowers his gaze as Prior Robert takes Jerome's other arm: like most of the brothers, Cadfael's always thought Jerome would be surprised when he got to Heaven and found out he wasn't God; but he's Robert's favorite, and this is hard on him, too. Cadfael arranges his features into a mask of humility. He will not gloat, will not display the faintest trace of I-told-you-so.

Jerome stays in his cell as ordered, stunned with pain, not knowing he's the cause of the battle raging around him. The monks conduct their daily business in silence, but Cadfael recognizes the white-lipped look of soldiers in combat: struggling with themselves, searching their souls, trying desperately to find compassion for the brother who's shown them so little. And afraid of what it means, that they have to try so hard.

Oswin finds it first.

Cadfael is in Father Abbot's office when a light knock precedes the novice's entry.

"Come in, Brother," Radulphus murmurs. He has that look, too, of wanting to be sorry and finding it hard.

Oswin's bow is brief and awkward, his quick smile for Cadfael warm. "Father, may I please salve Brother Jerome's back and give him some water?"

Radulphus's face mirrors Cadfael's own surprise--Oswin's felt the lash of Jerome's tongue more times than too many–but he nods, and motions for Cadfael to go with him. Cadfael wonders if the Abbot feels as chastened by Oswin's offer as he does himself.

He watches as Oswin tends Jerome, unaware that his kindness stings worse than the whip; knowing that he can't leave his brother alone and hurting, but not that his act of pity will be one of Jerome's most profound humiliations.

There are so many disgraces in war.

The battlefield is quiet now. The rain is done, but the storm's not over. The soldiers

listen to their hearts, and hear the echo of thunder.