Title: Bleak Midwinter
Summary: More than twenty years after civil war, Oswin and Jerome come to an understanding in the most unlikely circumstance.
In the bitter winter of 1168, the monks of Shrewsbury gather for two burials.
Two coffins lie side by side, and if one is by far the more ornate and elaborately formed, the other has obviously been carved with all the more love, all the more care. For today the brothers bury two monks that have served the abbey for near fifty years – Abbot Robert, formerly prior of this house; and Brother Cadfael.
Brother Oswin, by now a fully grown man and beginning to thin on top, dabs at his streaming eyes without shame even as he aids the younger, stronger brothers lower the coffin into the ground. For how could he stand by and watch? Brother Cadfael was there from the moment he first blundered into Shrewsbury Abbey, breaking pots and pans and whatever else you can think of; and now Oswin will stay here, faithful to the last, and bring his brother to pass into the next world. What better service? It is a long time since the days of broken crockery and the intrigue and death of civil war; nearly twenty years since Abbot Radulfus slipped away – so peacefully in his sleep, and the brothers all crossed themselves for he was not an old man, and only Brother Cadfael chuckled sadly and pronounced it a failing of an already weakened heart – but the memories are still as vivid as though it all occurred yesterday. Brother Cadfael, the trusted and beloved, and his often nemesis and occasional ally, Prior Robert. Died within two days of each other – he wouldn't be surprised if Prior Robert died simply out of spite just to check Cadfael isn't causing havoc in the heavens, heretical though the thought may be. Brother Cadfael and Prior Robert.
He will never get used to naming him 'Abbot', not if he lives till he's a hundred.
The snow lies thick on the ground, bringing the brothers to cluster together and huddle from the chill. Brother Petrus, Brother Anselm – blind in both eyes now, but still coaxing sweet hymns to pour forth from all brothers alike – Brother Rhun. Prior Rhun, he should say, for the abbey's most devoted servant never strays from his fervour. Father Mark officiates over the burial. And there in the corner of the graveyard and declining all offer of company, is Brother Jerome.
God bless them both, but he pities Jerome, despite everything he and the prior put him through during his novitiate, for no-one deserves to see their mentor die in such a way in front of their very eyes. Halfway through a loud and heartfelt denouncement of the king and Robert clutches his heart, goes down like a sack of potatoes straight into Jerome's arms. A stroke and a heart attack in very short order, he was dead within the hour, and some of the novices thought it was a sign from God.
So different from Cadfael – his eyes fill again to think of it, Brother Cadfael, his ever-steadfast mentor and friend, still making his way from the abbey whenever the call came for potions and lotions and herbs. Leaning heavily on a staff – for by God! but the man was well past four score years – and puffing a bit whenever he walked, but still doing his duty as he saw it. And then – well, it was a tumour of the brain, they say, that took the little girl, and Brother Cadfael unable to save her; and her father so maddened with grief that his fists were too fierce and too free, he split the skull of that dear, dear man straight open. The new sheriff's men found him lying on the floor of the cottage in a pool of his own blood, and the father weeping over the body of his lass without even the pretence of escape.
A violent death. And yet, Oswin remembers quite clearly for he was there until the very end, a peaceful end. Lying in the infirmary, attended by all, and by the third day he was smiling softly through tears of joy. Three days waiting to die, but by the end his hands were reaching out and his creased face softened, as if he could see heaven's light even here on earth. It's a sin to compare the two deaths, Oswin is sure, but how grateful he is that his beloved teacher never suffered the same agony as the abbot, shaking and dribbling and grasping his accolyte's arm and whimpering like a baby that he didn't want to go, please don't let him die…
Brother Cadfael is at peace, Oswin never doubts it for a second. After a few moments of waiting he crosses himself, and prays that Abbot Robert is too.
The graveyard is pitifully clear of all who might once have been there. The Lord Beringar gone, now given charge of two castles to the north in payment for steadfast loyalty to the new king. Madog of the Dead Boat, dead and buried these past fifteen years. Even Sargent Warden does not arrive to grace the proceedings with his grim air; has long gone to spend more time with three bouncing, bonny grandchildren. There have been missives, messages of sorrow from all across England, from every whichway you turn, from every young lad and lass that Brother Cadfael ever did help, but no visitors. No-one there to see his funeral mass and burial, no-one save the monks that were his brothers these past fifty years.
A shovel of dirt, another shovel. The gravediggers are swift and efficient, within moments both coffins are covered from view.
One last word of sorrowful Latin, the brothers begin to turn back to the shelter of the abbey. Oswin can't help but linger a little longer, staring as the earth begins to form once more over the coffin, covering up as if it were never there. How can he not? He's long grown from the bumbling, shy lad he once was – master of the novices now! and well respected amongst the brothers – and no longer needs the comforting arm of Brother Cadfael to set him straight along the road. And yet, for all that, as he looks down at the cold earth claiming the earthly remains of a truly remarkable man, he can't help but feel lost, cut loose to drift through the world without an anchor.
And then, absurdly, his gaze drifts to the other brother still standing at the other grave, watching with unseeing eyes. He can't help but smile bleakly through his tears; it's a painful irony, after all, that in this strange ending it's Brother Jerome he is left with for company. The other monk is older than he, and not aging well; always small and now shrinking into himself with what sparse flesh the Lord God has granted him. Arthritis of the joints keep his fingers permanently knotted, though he's not yet passed three score years. Never once did he see the monk stray from the protective shadow of his old mentor, not even when the years passed and Robert was forced to walk with two heavy, ebony-wrought canes. And now, for all his years, there's a certain desperation in his gaze as he watches the graves, a look that is all too easy to read. What am I, it pleads, without you?
Without meaning to, he approaches slowly.
"You once told me it was a sin to wish the dead back among us." He doesn't mean it as a reproach, or a mockery; it's truly the first thing that comes to his mind. "That they were at peace and with God, and we could not wish them back from such a place."
In another world Brother Jerome would have fixed him with his most withering stare; now he merely shrugs. "I suppose you are right, Brother."
"You will catch a chill, standing out here in the snow."
The other monk has no cloak to guard him from the cold. Is he wishing to catch his death? "I thank you for your concern, brother, but I am quite well."
He considers leaving. The internal battle struggles within him – He would have had you cast out, the voice goes sternly, more times than once, if he'd had his way. Leave him be to his misery and his pride, and if he freezes to death, good riddance. What compassion does he deserve?
But the moment is fleeting. He's never held a grudge, never felt the need. This is a brother, a brother of the spirit, in need. And Brother Jerome is truly pitiable, truly wretched, standing here alone and staring at a grave as if he wishes it would swallow him up and end this torment.
Besides, they are both old men now, and their battles have long since passed. And old men have no time for bitterness.
"You know, it's always strange to see someone who was such an example to us as a child die, though we may be fully grown even now." A glare, rather weak compared to some of the vehement looks that have been flung his way from Jerome over the years, but he ignores it. He's no longer a child of the world. "No matter how old you are, you're still a child when they go. And – and what then?"
And the words are not just for Jerome but for himself. For a moment he feels that wavering, feels that hesitation of a young boy falter inside him. What am I without you?
"Particularly if they were something of a – " tread carefully now, use the wisdom Cadfael showed every day of his life, "father figure?"
He doesn't dare look across at Jerome, doesn't dare cast his eyes anywhere but at the earth before him.
"We're cast in here as children, our earthly fathers disappear without a trace and our Heavenly Father is so very, very distant. The abbot is a strange, stern creature, and sometimes – " He falters for a moment, remembering it as if it were yesterday – a lad of fifteen, gawky and bewildered, and a kind-faced monk with the voice of a Welshman who spoke kindly to him. And maybe, some years before, another young boy, pale and small and secretly terrified, and the ambitious sub-prior who took him under his wing. "Sometimes someone else fills the gap. And then they go – and you're that same small child with no-one once more."
Oswin glances up, very quickly, and then looks away. Tears run, shivering, down Brother Jerome's cold skin.
"They're at peace," the older brother says hoarsely, voice straining, as if trying to convince himself.
He can't help but smile. It may very well be blasphemy, but he can't help but imagine the two brothers now, sitting one at each side of the Lord Almighty; Abbot Robert wagging his finger over some misdeed of the angels and Brother Cadfael laughing quite merrily and requesting his Father in Heaven to put off Judgement Day for another few years or so and, Good Father, should you like some elderberry wine while you're waiting?
"And watching us. And waiting for us, probably."
The other man looks over, for the first time wrapping his arms around himself to shield from the cold. "I – I think – " The voice croaks briefly, he has to halt several times in his speech simply to get one measly sentence past his lips. "I think, Brother Oswin, you may be wiser than I first credited."
And with that he is a child again, the novice, and a bright smile splits open his mouth.
"And – a-and what now?"
Oswin doesn't pretend to misunderstand. "And now we carry on. And pray for our dear brothers."
It's truly bizarre, and most likely one of God's little jests, that he, Oswin, the blundering and inept, is able to stand on his own two feet; while Brother Jerome has never truly emerged from Robert's domineering shadow. Without thinking, he reaches out one arm, allows the smaller man to lean against him. "Come, lean on me, brother."
Slowly, unevenly, the two brothers make their way back along the frost-bitten path and back toward the shelter of their abbey.
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