A/N: My September entry for the ficmasinjuly contest, which is an awesome year-long effort to inspire new fics. Do me a favour and go to www dot ficmasinjuly dot org, read all entries for September and vote for the one you think is best before the 21st of October 2011.
He looked like a perfectly ordinary monk when asleep, the dark figure mused. His tonsure had just, with some effort, been restored to a proper state, a circle of white hair speckled with some remaining grey surrounding it. The younger monk could still remember when it had all been grey, long ago, before the death of Radulfus.
Radulfus' death had been a great loss, for even those who had little love for him at the very least held a healthy dose of respect.
The sleeping man opened his eyes slowly and blinked. The younger waited for the inevitable frown when he was recognized, but it did not come. Instead, a small smile graced the pale lips.
"Well, brother…have they drawn you into this watch duty, now?" the tone teasing and indulgent, even more so than ever despite the now chronic shortness of breath. Yet Cadfael, for all his exploits, had always been remarkably patient, Jerome had to admit.
"Brother Oswin had to briefly return to St Giles," he reported, "as well as await Father Mark, who is due to arrive today."
The smile deepened, and moved from teasing to honest pleasure. "You have…had word, then?"
"Yesterday," a coughing fit interrupted the short conversation. Without much thought, even though he was singularly unfit to provide much in the way of care and comfort to the sick, Jerome slid an arm around the thin shoulders and held a mug of water to Cadfael's lips.
"The Abbot…could spare you...for so long?"
"Abbot Robert gave me leave," brother Jerome said, a little bitter, "with the new clerk the Lord Bishop sent, he does not need me."
"Ah, yes…Brother Aidan, if memory serves." Jerome nodded.
Cadfael's eyes, though weary, were sharp and shrewd as ever. "You have served him faithfully all these years."
"Served…" Jerome let out an involuntary sigh, "Yes…"
"Nothing wrong with…serving," Cadfael remarked neutrally. Jerome sat back in the chair he had previously occupied.
"Brother Oswin, though he defers to you even now, never served you," he noted.
Cadfael let out a weak chuckle. "No man's master...every man's brother."
"Oswin and Mark are frantic. Hugh Beringar has demanded daily updates on your condition. Your godson Giles has sent messengers thrice already. Even the Lord de Bretagne has sent word he should arrive within the week. Brother Rhun has volunteered to take and respond to all the messages. He even took to posting an update on the church door for all the Foregate and townspeople who wish to be apprised of how you are doing."
"Oh dear," Cadfael leaned back, "I am but…an old man. No need for them…to fuss. Although it will be good…to see them all again."
Jerome bowed his head. "You have countless friends and, well, children. If Brother Infirmarer hadn't forbidden it, the room would not be big enough for all who wish to be by your side."
Cadfael regarded him steadily, not speaking.
"You never liked me, did you?" Jerome finally sighed, "it must be a sad thought for you, that instead of all the people wishing to see you and that you wish to see, it is me who is actually sitting here."
"We have had our…clashes over the years," Cadfael nodded. "You are, however…my brother."
The other did not speak, merely stared at the wall. Cadfael considered him. He had never been able to watch a human being agonizing and hurting without at least attempting to provide some sort of relief.
"What is…troubling you?"
Jerome swallowed. "I hardly know, myself, and I certainly should not bother you. You must rest…"
"I have slept…most of the day. I can listen. If Father Abbot…can spare you a bit longer."
"He never really needed me," Jerome bit his lip. "Do you remember…that unfortunate young man…Aldhelm…whom I killed?" He held his hand as Cadfael made to protest.
"I did not strike the killing blow, that is true, but had I not done what I did, he would have arrived safely at the abbey. I delivered him up to death."
"You spent years…repenting for it," Cadfael reminded him.
"As best I could," Jerome admitted, "but lately I've come to realize that my best is not sufficient. I have always been diligent in what I considered my duty, but…what if I took on the wrong duty?"
"In what…way?" Cadfael questioned. It struck him that in the decades they spent together in the monastery, he had never had any sort of confidential speech with Jerome. Who had? Not even Robert, who tended not to see his aid as a person in his own right, as long as Jerome did his bidding. The closest Jerome had come to any human interaction in his time as a monk was exactly at the moment of his deepest fall, when Rhun had lifted him from despair, holding him and staying with him. And Jerome had never repaid that kindness with friendship of his own. Why not? It could hardly have been sheer embarrassment. Rhun did not inspire shame, he expelled it. Time had only honed his compassionate nature.
"I thought I did my duty then. That I defended what was right! Oh, not in striking down that poor young man who had never been anything but willing to help. I was so sure I was right, then, up until I looked upon his face and realized my folly. I spent years repenting for Aldhelm's death, but not for what I should have repented of – for the zeal that led to it."
This confession made Cadfael raise an eyebrow in surprise. Or would have, if he had not realized that Jerome would likely take it the wrong way.
"That zeal of yours…where did it…come from?" he asked instead, "you must have…given that thought…"
"Much, over the past few years," Jerome admitted, "I was a useless whelp of a child, Brother. Had you encountered me then, you would likely have taken me in as one of those strays that always seem to prosper under your care."
The slight note of jealousy in Jerome's voice was even more surprising. Cadfael kept his silence, inviting through inaction to continue.
"I was born in a place much like the Foregate," Jerome said, "my father was a tradesman, away from home often while my mother kept house and minded the shop. Or so she did, until I was five and she died. My father's sister came to live with us, then, to care for my older brother and myself, and the baby sister whose birth had been the end of our mother. With a motherless babe to tend, there was little time she could spend on us."
"Did the girl…live?" Cadfael asked.
"She did. Three or four neighbourhood women fed her in turns. She was frail, and sickly, for a while, but she lived and grew stronger. My brother likewise, grew strong enough soon to accompany our father on his journeys."
"I was small, timid, and already as a child often dyspeptic," Jerome remarked without much emotion, "he had little use for me, though he was a good man and I believe he intended to do right by me. In the streets the other boys in turn avoided me or bullied me since I could not participate in their games. I only excelled in my studies. Since I was of little use to the business, my father sent me to learn my letters from our priest at an early age."
"What was he…like?" Cadfael feared he already knew the answer from the kind of man Jerome had become, and the way the younger brother would have had the schoolchildren educated, had Brother Paul not stood firm.
"He was a good teacher. He was fluent in Latin, and taught that to those of us who proved willing and eager to study."
"Did he…strike you…often?" Cadfael asked.
"Only when I failed to pay sufficient attention to his lessons and made mistakes as a result," Jerome shrugged, "I worked hard and turned in flawless work. He was satisfied."
"The first…to be." The old monk found this insight in Jerome's childhood enlightening. Often he had wondered at the lack of compassion, the lack of indulgence for common, sinful human beings Jerome displayed. Perhaps he had not been unwilling, but unable.
"He was not a man to approve of our work in so many words," Jerome continued, "but as I got older and more accomplished, he set me over watching the other students. I was to monitor them and report their progress to him, which I did faithfully."
That would not have endeared him to his fellow students, Cadfael contemplated, nor was it wise of this teacher to do so. A word of praise as a reward might have served Jerome, as well as his fellows, a lot better.
"You were…still young, weren't you…when you entered the cloister?"
"Sixteen," Jerome replied, "at my priest's recommendation. My father had entertained thoughts of having me keep the books for his business, but upon learning I had mastered Latin at fourteen, he acknowledged the cloister would suit me better. He gave his permission."
"Did you enter…of your own free will…or did your priest…convince you?"
Jerome for the first time since starting his reminiscence truly looked at him. "Where else would I go?" he simply answered, "my father and brother did not truly need me. My brother had learned his letters from the same priest, well enough to manage the books on his own. My fellow students were cold towards me and generally ignored me. Father Matthew convinced my father that I would do well as a monastic, and I went."
"And did the monastic…life bring you what you hoped for?" Cadfael's eyes began to close.
"No," Jerome softly admitted, "though for all my life I was convinced it had." He looked away. "I have exhausted you – you must rest."
"Just for…a little while…" Cadfael smiled at the younger monk – though even Jerome was nearing sixty now. "I wish to hear more…later."
"Brother? Are you awake?"
Cadfael nodded, turning to face the inquirer. Jerome looked uneasy, somehow, shuffling a bit.
"Brother Mark will be permitted when he arrives tonight to visit you, but I am sure five minutes…"
Hugh Beringar stepped into the room quietly.
"Brother Infirmarer is restocking his supplies," Jerome reported, "he will not be long…"
"I shall be out again within ten minutes, I promise," Hugh gazed at his old friend.
Cadfael smiled and softly squeezed the hand that took his own. He desperately wanted to tease Jerome about undertaking something so out of character as breaking the rules, but he did not want to endanger the fragile trust the other had placed in him.
"Thank you…brother," he said instead.
Jerome nodded curtly and moved into the hallway, presumably to look out for the imposing figure of Brother Infirmarer.
"What have you done to Jerome?" Hugh inquired with a soft chuckle, "he literally smuggled me in."
"I have often, in my life…lacked compassion, I think, Hugh," Cadfael confessed.
"You? You're the most compassionate person I know! How often have I sat with you while you pitied even murderers? Poor Columbanus, you said," Hugh remarked, though lowering his voice at the end.
"Compassion…should be…towards all, especially…" Cadfael struggled to sit up against the pillows a bit more, and Hugh easily assisted him.
"I am glad you are come," the Benedictine clasped his friend's arm, "I have missed you."
"And I, you. As have Aline and Giles and so many others."
"I know. Jerome told me…of all the people…wishing to know my condition. Is it true…Olivier is coming?"
"Yes," Hugh confirmed, "and I will smuggle him in somehow, Cadfael, don't worry."
"He may not be…in time," Cadfael said, without fear or regret, "if he is not, Hugh…tell him…I have loved him…and am proud of him."
"Will it be that soon?" Hugh asked quietly.
"Perhaps…though none but the Lord knows for sure. My time…grows short, Hugh."
Seeing his friend's distress, he patted the arm his hand still rested on. "Do not fret. I lived a long and full life…I think now…in my last days…I have been given a last, best…chance. Pray for an old sinner, Hugh…that he does not fail this time."
Hugh smiled, tears shining in his eyes. "You know I will."
He got up to leave.
"And Hugh…" the old monk called to him as he reached the door, "I have loved…and am proud…of you, too."
"Thank you," Cadfael bestowed a grateful smile on his minder a little later.
"The Lord Beringar has been your friend these twenty years or so. It is only right he should be allowed to…" Jerome faltered.
"Say it," the old monk insisted, "there's no need to fear a death like this. I am glad…you allowed him to come say goodbye. You have been…good to an old man."
He was silent a little while as Jerome, unused to being thought good and certainly not used to having it pointed out to him, sat with his head bowed, red tingeing the top of his ears.
"Forgive me, Brother," Cadfael softly said.
Jerome's head, his neck still pink with his blush, shot up, his eyes wide. "What?"
"Forgive me," eyes that had seen over eighty years of the world bore into his own, apologetic, "I have not…been a good brother to you. I have been…impatient and intolerant…when I should have…shown you kindness. And understanding."
"How could you show understanding when I do not understand myself?" Jerome demanded, his indignity letting slip much more than he ever planned to reveal, "and kindness when I showed none? You have a crowd of people out there to testify to your understanding and kindness. One unworthy recipient does not signify."
"But it does," Cadfael disagreed, "allow me to…make what amends I can…I can still listen…tell me…of your first abbot…if you please."
Jerome seemed torn, his bewildered look actually taking some years off his face, showing Cadfael for the first time the lonely boy he must at one point have been.
"Abbot John. Upon Father Matthew's word, he shortened my noviciate for me. I received the tonsure on my seventeenth birthday. He was a busy man with many responsibilities," Jerome shook his head, "I saw very little of him the first few years. Then the departure of one of my brothers meant he needed a clerk and errand-boy. I was chosen. An honour for a brother of not yet twenty. I served him for five years in this capacity. After that he sent me here, to Shrewsbury."
"Why was that?" Cadfael by now had his own opinion on this priest of Jerome's, this Father Matthew. He recalled another priest, one he had known only a handful of weeks before the man's own harshness and rigid uprightness had led to his demise on a freezing night close to Christmas.
"I do not know," Jerome confessed, and sighed. "Why am I telling you all this?"
"You have searched your…heart, a great deal, lately," Cadfael remarked, "that takes…courage."
"Courage," Jerome mused, "Desperation, perhaps. I am sixty now, a monk for well over forty years. Yet I am no different from that child I was. I do not know what I was looking for, but I have yet to find it. You and Rhun – even Brother Oswin and Father Mark, you all…grew. Loved. Were loved. Rhun has, has not changed in essentials, but he has grown in execution."
"Indeed he has," Cadfael smiled fondly at the thought of the boy – a man in his mid-thirties now.
"You were afraid of what he offered?" the old monk suddenly asked.
"I do not know what he offered, or how to reply," was the honest answer, "or why he bestowed his attention on such an unworthy subject. I had done nothing for him, and likely could do nothing for him."
Yes, Cadfael thought, you have been taught since boyhood that attention must be earned. Your father, your priest, your abbot – they did you no favours. They taught you to serve your superiors, not to make friends among your equals. You merely learned that affection – and what a cold, calculated imitation of affection it has been! – always has a price. Would that you had had a sensible Father Confessor upon entering, you might have learned then what your mother would have taught you in boyhood had she lived.
For the first time it dawned on Cadfael how thoroughly lonely Jerome's life must have been, even surrounded by dozens of his brethren.
"I…it is nearly time for Vespers," Jerome said, "and time for you to sleep. Will you be alright?"
"Brother Infirmarer comes…to sing Vespers for me often," Cadfael assured him, "but ask Rhun to come by…after. If he has such a crowd to keep informed…I shall give him a personal message to pass along."
A small smile played over Brother Jerome's lips. "They would like that, I'm sure. Father Mark will come see you before Compline."
"You must sleep some," Cadfael said, a worried frown on his face, "you get sick…easily and have been here…the past night. You need to take food and rest. Do not concern yourself…with me, Mark will…likely insist on staying. Will you…be able to sit with me a while…tomorrow?"
"If you wish," Jerome inclined his head.
"I do wish," the younger monk watched as his elder brother slipped into an easy sleep, breathing becoming a little less laboured. He hesitated to leave, even though the hour of Vespers was nearly at hand. At long last he tore his gaze away from the figure on the bed, and hurried towards the church.
Cadfael smiled upon the man he still thought of as a boy with great fondness. Rhun, long now an esteemed brother of the house, returned the smile with equal affection.
"You look better."
"I do feel better," Cadfael admitted, "not so short of breath. It is likely but a temporary relief, but a welcome one."
Rhun kept smiling, but his eyes took in Cadfael's expression sharply. "Brother Jerome…"
"I will, of course, give you a message to pass along," Cadfael asserted, "but yes…Brother Jerome. The last act of repentance…the last amends, I will be able to make in this life. And I will not be able to complete them. I will have to rely on you, dear boy."
"You know you always could," Rhun replied.
"I know. I know of the efforts you have made to befriend him."
"He was not ready," Rhun leaned back a little in the chair, "I do not hold that against him. What I offered, I offered freely."
"And to your credit. Yes, he was not ready. But he might be, soon. And when he is…"
"What I offered then, I still offer now. I may have once been crippled and in pain, Brother Cadfael, but thanks to my kind aunt, God rest her soul, and my sister I was never lonely. It pains me to see another that way, and of his own choosing."
"Not entirely of his own choosing, I think," Cadfael gazed past Rhun, his eyes distant, briefly, before once again smiling at the young man. "Now tell me – how is Saint Winifred?"
Rhun gave way to Mark a little while later, carrying a message to everyone awaiting news.
Mark simply stood in the doorway, looking. Cadfael looked back, before he opened his arms.
"Brother Cadfael," Mark knelt by the bed and leaned into the embrace, returning it as firmly as he dared.
"I am not going to break, not tonight, at any rate," Cadfael admonished, amused, "you have timed your arrival well. I am better now than I have been for some time."
He looked at the beloved face again. Still small, still thin. The face was no longer that of a youth, but would more appropriately be called ageless.
He sighed. "I have time still to say goodbye to the others. It is those I cannot bid farewell that are on my mind. Annest and John…Engelard and Sioned…Liliwin, yes, even that rascal Tutilo…all those others."
"Your children, all, even if only one by blood," Mark said softly, "I will make sure any message you wish to send reaches Gwytherin, Cadfael. Liliwin and Rannilt I might be able to trace. But first I am to stay here, sometime."
"Really? I am well pleased," Cadfael leaned back.
"Meriet would not forgive me if I came here and left again without seeing him," Mark remarked, a twinkle in his eye, "far be it from me to incite the wrath of the lord of Aspley."
"Something to be avoided at all costs," Cadfael agreed.
"So your time as protector of those in need is drawing to an end, is it?" Mark said, sadly, "I shall miss you. I shall not begrudge you your rest, but I shall miss you."
"As I have missed you. One last task I have found, even here, that I might still do. Mark, if I may, hear my confession this evening."
When he was done, and absolution given, Mark settled on the foot of the bed, curling up as easily as he had done when still a youngster.
"When I see you tonight I begin to think you might yet recover," he remarked. Cadfael shook his head.
"I have seen it too often to be in any doubt as to what will follow," was his own simple assessment, "it may be hours or days, but a relapse will come. It is alright," he assured, "perhaps it is grace, that we are given that time of improvement, to say what must be said and do what must still be done. I have no fear. My only hope is to see Olivier a last time."
Mark remained in quiet companionship, softly singing the offices for Cadfael during the night before departing shortly after Prime. Brother Jerome returned to take up watch, and so they continued trading off for the next three days.
"I brought some things to read to you, if you wish," Jerome said, awkward, one day, "I do not know what you enjoy hearing."
"Some Gospel readings if you please, Brother," Cadfael requested, "The Beatitudes, perhaps."
Jerome nodded. His voice started, softly, in contrast with his normal harsh tones when delivering a sermon.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
He hesitated, then forced himself to continue. Cadfael's voice joined with him, temporarily free of the struggle for air which left it hard for him to speak a full sentence without pause, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."
Jerome looked up. "I once thought I was righteous."
Cadfael leaned back. "Thinking we are righteous…is generally a good indication we are not."
"It is difficult to know what righteousness is."
"True…the righteousness of our Lord…may differ from ours."
"You grow short of breath again," Jerome noted, concerned, "I shall…"
"Shall do nothing," Cadfael shook his head, "it was…to be expected. When the heart grows weak…breath follows. Brother Infirmarer has…already given me what I need…I can take no more now…or my end will come now rather than…later."
Jerome sank down on the chair, holding his head in his hands. "I don't know anymore. Ever since that day…of the Sortes…I tried to get back into believing I was right. I succeeded for a long time. Pretended that after repenting for it, I could go on as I was. I wished to be righteous, but I do not know what it is."
He looked up. "Laugh now, Brother. I am sixty years of age and I know no more than the freshest novice. Go ahead and laugh."
Cadfael shook his head again. "What is it…the Prophet Micah said? He hath shown thee… O man, what is good…and what doth the Lord require of thee…but to do justly, and to love mercy…and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Jerome snorted. "Are you trying to convince me how much I failed? I have, at last, realized that already."
"No, not to…convince you…of your failings," Cadfael reached out a hand, "you said you did not know…what to do…what righteousness is…"
"Never too late…to start. Harshness…it does not belong. I have been…harsh on you…judging you. For that I am sorry."
"Why do you keep asking my forgiveness? Are you trying to impress my own sin upon me?" Jerome stood abruptly, "YOU have nothing to regret. YOU have a horde of people grieving at the very thought of your demise! Stop pretending to understand, for having perhaps disliked one person in the course of your life!"
He rushed from the room, not caring where he fled, nearly ploughing over Brother Infirmarer on his way out.
His next visitor was a huge surprise to Cadfael.
Abbot Robert entered the small cell where the ailing, aged Benedictine was being cared for.
"Father Abbot," Cadfael acknowledged. He'd always used the full title with Robert. The more intimate 'Father' that he'd used for Heribert and Radulfus somehow never transferred to the former Prior.
"Brother," the Abbot nodded. He fell silent for a moment. "I trust you are well cared for?"
"Indeed I am…Brother Infirmarer…and Brother Jerome…see to my needs."
The Abbot looked with some approval at the reading materials Jerome had left behind. "I see your spiritual needs are as much attended to as your bodily needs."
"Yes…Brother Jerome…was kind enough…to read to me."
Again the Abbot ignored the reference to his clerk. "Is there anything we can provide for you?"
Cadfael interpreted, probably correctly, the use of 'we' as a sign that the Abbot preferred any requests to be made in general, not of him personally. Unfortunately for him, Cadfael had never much cared about preferences.
"Two things…Father Abbot."
The austere head inclined slightly, inviting him to continue.
"I am not…long for this world. If at all possible…if he is still here…I should like Father Mark to…"
"Of course," Abbot Robert agreed instantly, with a small amount of ill-hidden relief that the task of burying Cadfael would be taken out of his hands, "I shall speak to Father Mark regarding the matter, and I feel sure he will agree to stay until such time…"
"Thank you," Cadfael on one hand regretted asking this of Mark, who would likely grieve for his departure. But on the other, this duty would be a comfort to Mark, as the last thing he would be able to do for his friend, as well as a relief to Cadfael now, to know that it would not be the Abbot, struggling to find a few words of approval, who would be leading the proceedings.
"And the second request, brother?" Robert, likewise, had never been quite able to refer to Cadfael as 'son'. He'd stuck to 'brother'.
"Brother Jerome," Cadfael felt his strength waning, and knew he would have to rest soon, "he has…been of service to you…for so long. Be kind…to him…"
How the Abbot reacted to this request he did not know. Sleep overtook him, his eyes closing, and when he opened them again, hours had past and the Abbot had gone. In his stead sat a very sheepish looking brother Jerome.
"Brother Cadfael…" he began, apologetically.
Cadfael held up a weary hand. "Brother…grant me a favour."
Jerome looked up in surprise at this. "What do you wish?"
"I have asked…Father Abbot…that my funeral…Father Mark shall lead it."
Jerome nodded. Now that Mark had arrived, this did not come as a huge surprise to most residents of the monastery. In fact, he was certain that had Cadfael not already made this request, that Mark himself would have asked, nay, demanded.
"It may nevertheless…be difficult for him," Cadfael admitted, "help him, if you please, brother."
"Certainly," Jerome immediately agreed to a request that would be no hardship to him.
"Thank you, Brother. And will you…perhaps…tell me something…of your first years as a monk? Your fellow novices…fellow brothers…who were they?"
"I had little to do with them," Jerome admitted, "the only other novice at the time was full twenty years my senior, a man widowed who was only then learning his letters, and three Oblates not yet in their teens. I helped teach them, but I had little contact with them outside the school room. The man resented me, I think…he did not finish his noviciate, and married a former neighbour of his."
He looked up at Cadfael. "I've never been good at making friends and I have not always understood why, but this I think I understand. I was, even then, fairly well educated. To learn his letters from a boy that could have been his son, must have been galling."
"No doubt," Cadfael agreed, "though his feelings on the matter were…not your responsibility. Both your elders should…have been wiser than to put the two of you…in such a position."
Jerome sighed. "I am not a likeable person, am I?"
Cadfael, for all that he liked being straightforward when necessary, had also never lacked tact and compassion.
"You have not been taught…to be likeable," he finally said, "but this…learning your own heart…trying to chance…is commendable. Daring to be vulnerable…is likeable."
"More frightening," Jerome muttered.
"Indeed. No doubt. Caution…is required…in who we open up to. Choose wisely. I am…honoured…that you have taken me…into your confidence."
Jerome knelt by him, carefully lifting Cadfael's head to let him sip when he saw the other Benedictine struggle to form words.
"Thank you," Cadfael briefly squeezed Jerome's arm.
A dark shadow by the door caught their attention.
"Olivier," Cadfael breathed, "Olivier…"
The olive-skinned man entered with a soft smile, eyes full of concern.
Cadfael turned to Jerome. "You have taken me…into your confidence, brother. Now let me…take you into mine…and introduce you…to my son."
An hour later, the door to Cadfael's small cell opened. Jerome and Hugh Beringar, who had been waiting outside, looked at the two men who quietly exited. Scant ten minutes after Oliviers arrival, Cadfael had taken a turn for the worse and Mark was quickly summoned to perform the last rites.
Now, as the two outside met their eyes, they already read the answer to their questions. Brother Cadfael was no more.
"It was quiet, and painless," Mark assured brother Jerome as Olivier took Hugh Beringar aside, "he just…slipped away from us, at peace and content. We should rejoice at such an end."
But even as he said it, the tears on his face belied his words.
"He shall be missed," Jerome said softly, "by many."
He hesitated. "By me, as well," he then admitted.
"You spoke often, these last days of his life," Mark nodded.
Jerome ran a tired hand across his face. "I have been an unkind man all my life, wishing I were not. Cadfael told me it is never too late…"
With great trepidation, because he did not know how he was to be received nor was he accustomed to it, Jerome put an arm around Mark's shoulders.
"I promised him I would help you with the service," he said, "If…if that is alright. I know no one who loved Saint Winifred more than he, save Brother Rhun. Perhaps…the three of us could hold vigil for him, by her altar."
Later, Mark looked up at the reliquary that he knew did not contain Winifred, but to Cadfael that had never made her less present. As he imagined Cadfael yammering away in Welsh to the Saint, he glanced aside, to Rhun and to Jerome in between the two of them. And he could not help but feel that Cadfael might very well yet succeed at the very last task he had been given.