Brother Tuck was being most foolish. Waiting by the door of the monastery half of the abbey, work undone, sermon unwritten, just because a carter had passed by the cathedral and mentioned that he thought he saw a monk who looked much like Father Hugh entering Albion on a mule. He imagined how he must look to outsiders, hands twisting around each other behind his back, pacing with the long worried strides of an impatient cat —
And he didn’t even like cats!
Tuck heard the breath coming from his nose in forceful gusts and forced himself to calm. Really, even if Father Hugh had been seen coming into Albion that morning, who was to say he would find his way to the abbey by the afternoon? Father Hugh had been through so much … he was probably traveling very slowly, giving himself all the rest he could. Also, the people loved him. Doubtless they would be stopping him, greeting him, exchanging news, asking him to bless them and kiss their babies —
Tuck froze. He heard something — something like the great doors to the abbey opening, something like sandalled feet plodding upon the flagstones —
Tuck threw the door open and flew out.
Then he froze, again. That couldn’t possibly be Father Hugh.
That old man, with the bent shoulders and the gray tonsure? The carter must have been mistaken. This must be some other monk coming to visit Albion. Perhaps Father Hugh had a brother or a cousin —
The monk looked up and smiled at Tuck, and Tuck realized that the carter had been right.
“Father!” He made sure his voice rang through the still abbey, which probably only annoyed Mother Julian, but Father Hugh would have to feel welcome. Whatever had happened to turn all his head gray — to put so many wrinkles around his eyes — to make him sigh and shuffle, he had to know that it couldn’t affect him here. He had to know that he was home.
Tuck jogged up to the older monk and caught him in his arms. “Father!”
“Son.” Father Hugh’s voice was unchanged, and so was his wiry solidity. Thank the Lord. If Tuck had found that his best and oldest friend had declined physically even more than he had, well, there would be hell to pay. From somebody. Once Tuck figured out just who.
“How are you?” the good Father asked, pulling away and surveying Tuck critically. “You look well.”
“Ah, I’m hale and hearty as ever!” Tuck laughed, letting his orator’s voice ring from the chapel to the monastery to the nunnery to the children’s playground. “And you, Father? How did our mother house agree with you?”
Father Hugh smiled a little ruefully. “One does not expect the mother house to agree with one. One endeavors to agree with the mother house.”
Tuck’s face fell. Had there been trouble? Impossible! Father Hugh was a model abbot! Anyone who found fault with him was either mad or had an ax to grind.
He hadn’t told anybody, had he?
“Peace, son,” Father Hugh replied, clapping a heavy hand on Brother Tuck’s shoulder. “I was attempting to jest.” He sighed. “Have I lost the knack of it?”
“No, no, Father! Not at all! Forgive me. I’m overtired, what with everything, and –” Stupid, stupid! Now was not the time to imply that Father Hugh’s leaving had left him overburdened with work — there never would be a time to imply that, however true it might be! “Well, I’m afraid all of us in the kingdom are in a flutter these days. You’ve heard …” He lowered his voice. “You’ve heard of what has happened with Lady Morgause, have you not?”
“The outcome of the trial? Aye. Father Peter and the rest of the monks were most interested in the news, once it came.”
The abbot of our order? Brother Tuck swallowed. “Oh?”
“Aye. Given that it has to do with a high-born, high-ranking witch entangling herself with the authorities in our notably liberal land …” Father Hugh shrugged.
“Indeed.” Even the Pascalians are watching? But of course they’d be watching. If there is anybody who wants Albion to succeed, it’s them … us … “And what did Father Peter have to say about this?” For just this once, Brother Tuck didn’t care if Mother Julian was listening to potentially sensitive information. If even the Pascalians looked ready to turn on Albion after the debacle with Lady Morgause, they truly the land was …
And they would all have much bigger problems than any internecine conflicts within the Church of Albion.
“Ah, Father Peter is a most wise man. He usually does not simply tell men what is on his mind — you understand? He prefers to reflect before he gives his opinion.”
“Of course. Most wise,” Tuck agreed. Wright damn it. He’s not going to tell anybody what he thinks until he writes a bloody treatise on it, will he? Father Peter was their best hope of keeping the rest of the Church from descending upon Albion for its lawlessness and immorality. If he was to be laggard —
But — but, if the King had Lady Morgause executed, as surely was his duty as a monarch, that would probably avert disaster. There were elements in the Church, elements like the Order of the Grunts (Tuck had hosted Brother Lodwicke while he stayed to testify in Lady Morgause’s trial — if he never met another Brother of the Grunts, it would be too soon), that were only too eager to leap upon any excuse to tear Albion to shreds. But if the King executed Lady Morgause … well, then, they would not have that excuse. The King and the nobles would be able to say that, Lady Morgause or no Lady Morgause, their experiment was working. A witch had acted up — but she had been apprehended, tried, found guilty, and duly punished. Yes, of course, magic had been used for evil purposes, but Sims used their hands to steal sometimes, did they not? Would it make any sense to cut off all the Sims’ hands to keep them from stealing?
It wasn’t an argument that would get anywhere with the Grunts — but it would work with the lords of Glasonland and Reme, the ones who controlled the armies and the money. And they were, at the end of the day, the ones who mattered.
“But Father, what am I thinking?” Tuck laughed, or tried to. He slung an arm around Father Hugh’s shoulders. “Come, let’s get inside! You must be exhausted. I’ll fix you some supper.”
Father Hugh was meek enough and they were both walking toward the monastery door within a few seconds. “You know,” Father Hugh mentioned after a moment or so, “you don’t need to fix the supper. I’ve been served at the high table so often of late, I fear I’ll forget how to cook if I don’t reacquaint myself with the kitchen soon.”
“And so you shall — tomorrow night. Allow me to serve my abbot for once, Father.”
Father Hugh smiled. “You are a good son.” And he sighed.
“But — but –” Thinking of all the reasons why Father Hugh might have sighed, Tuck stammered until he could think of something to distract the good Father. “If you are desperate to get reacquainted — perhaps you could keep me company. Though doubtless you could prefer to rest –”
“I shall keep you company.”
“Father, are you sure? The journey, I know, was long and exhausting –”
“Quite sure. Besides …” He paused as Brother Tuck held the door open for him, and only spoke again once they were in and it was safely shut behind them. “I am not … I have spent far too much time alone, of late.”
When he was at Camford, Tuck had been sure to take many classes in the trivium, the better to prepare for speaking and writing sermons. But if any of his professors could have come up with an argument to best Father Hugh’s simple admission, he would have called them all heartless cretins.
“Well, then!” Tuck said as he steered Father Hugh into the kitchen and pulled some fresh fish from the larder. “I shall have to hope that my humble cooking will match that of a high table!”
“I missed your cooking,” was the only reply Father Hugh gave to that.
Oh, Lord, what’s he thinking? But if Tuck turned around to look, then he would show Father Hugh just how worried he was. And that … no, now that would not do. He let his knife chop and his fingers sprinkle the spices while his mind trying to worry over the problem.
Chatter, that was it — he would distract Father Hugh with mindless chatter. At least then his mind could not wander down troubling paths, no? “So, Father, you did mention a high table — did you stay in any great houses on your pilgrimage?”
“Tuck … must we keep up this pretense when it is just us two?”
Tuck winced. Stupid, stupid. He’d spend so long talking about Father Hugh’s pilgrimage that he had almost started to believe the tale himself. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“So am I, for snapping at you. Forgive me, my son?”
Tuck looked over his shoulder and smiled, then put the fish into a pan and the pan onto the stovetop. “You’re already forgiven. I take it was the Abbot’s table you sat at, then?”
The Abbot’s very high table. Here was status undreamt of, even by Tuck. “That’s quite an honor.”
“Apparently it is no more than he does for all abbots of daughter houses — priors, too. Perhaps, if you have cause to journey there as my representative, you may get that honor as well.”
“I doubt I’ll go there again. It’s … not a journey for men with more gray hairs in their beards than black. Or brown, in your case.”
“Hmm.” Tuck forced himself to watch the frying fish and bubbling oil. It was either that or speak, or worse, think upon what Father Hugh had told him. That he did not think to make the journey again … or that he thought Tuck might have to make the journey soon …
Father Hugh began to murmur about Father Peter’s hospitality, which was apparently very gracious, and Tuck let him talk, murmuring encouraging remarks when it seemed necessary. At least Father Hugh had been comfortable while he was at the mother house, or that was the drift he was getting. Half of the Pascalians (like Father Hugh) were the types to forget food, sleep and bathing when in the throes of an idea, but luckily there was another half that were firm believers in mens sano in corpore sano and forced the others to eat. Luckily, it was the latter half that was generally placed in charge of meals.
The fish was soon cooked and Tuck shooed Father Hugh into the refectory so he could plate it. When the fish and the side dishes were ready, he brought it out and set a plate before Father Hugh. Father Hugh reached immediately for his utensils and began to eat — Tuck had to turn around so that Father Hugh would not see his sigh of relief. At least Father Hugh was willing to take care of himself.
“Tuck, might I ask you a question?”
Tuck froze, then forced himself to swallow and then to speak. “Yes, of course.”
Then Tuck waited for it with his best attempt at a calm expression. Which would it be? The probing question about how things had been run in the good Father’s absence? The question about the whores? About their babies?
Or, worst of all, would it be an inquiry about two little abominations in a witch’s castle?
“Do you know what the King intends to do with Lady Morgause?”
Tuck almost slumped in relief — then almost panicked, because if Father Hugh was displaying an interest in politics … “No, Father. The King does not seek me as his spiritual counselor, even when you are gone.”
“I believe he has gone to Sister Margery for confession.” Although why does he want to know?
“Hmm.” Father Hugh sighed. “She would not have advised him on what to do about Lady Morgause.”
“Of course not!” Tuck yelped. “She — she is a humble and meek woman, a good Sister, Father. She would never presume that.”
“I know,” Father Hugh sighed. “That’s the trouble.”
The trouble? “I beg your pardon, Father?”
Father Hugh looked up and smiled ruefully. “I know. You must think me mad, don’t you? When I’m always asking you to scale it back. You see … no, Tuck, I won’t pretend that I’m wiser than I am. Perhaps there is something to be said for saving one’s possible influence for when it will matter … but that is not why I’ve asked you to be discreet and to hold back on your crusades, and I think we both know it.”
Tuck smiled in return. “Aye. You prefer …”
“To not get involved,” Father Hugh replied. “We might as well both admit it, here.”
“But this time …” Father Hugh sighed. “This time, I fear I must get involved.”
Tuck took a deep breath. “It’s Father Peter, isn’t it? And the rest of the Church? They’ll crash down on us like wolves on the fold if the King lets Lady Morgause live.”
“Father Peter … perhaps not,” Father Hugh mused. “No, no, I think not. Hear me, Tuck. As long as Lady Morgause is suitably punished — exiled or imprisoned for life, not pardoned — I think he might be on our side. He is a very deliberate man, and he believes greatly in mercy.”
“What makes you think there’s a but with Father Peter?” Father Hugh blinked.
“Well, perhaps not with Father Peter, exactly,” Tuck shrugged, “but I’m certain there’s some sort of ‘but’ lurking there somewhere …”
“There are multiple ‘buts,'” Father Hugh sighed. “The first ‘but’ is that, as I said, Father Peter is deliberate man — by the time he reasoned it all out …”
“It would be too late for us.”
“Perhaps. The second is that Father Peter’s word, his reasoned, careful, calm word, would probably not be heard in the shouting match that would ensue if the King allowed Lady Morgause to live.”
“You’ve got that right,” Tuck sighed. Sims didn’t tend to listen to the Pascalians until it was all over.
“However, the most important ‘but’ is that … is that, honestly, I did not ask because I am worried about what the Church will do if she is allowed to live. I asked because … Wright forgive me …”
“Wright forgive you?”
Father Hugh managed a half-smile for him. “You’ll see why … well, Tuck, to put it as bluntly as possible … unworthy to judge as I am, that woman does not deserve to live any longer.”
… Did Father Hugh just say that Lady Morgause needs to die?
“You’re shocked,” Father Hugh sighed.
“You — Father, you’re usually not so … I’ve never heard you argue … against mercy.”
“No — no, don’t accuse me of that, son. Believe me, I pray for mercy for Lady Morgause’s soul every day. I pray she sees the light, accepts her penance and is allowed into our good Lord Wright’s presence on Judgment Day.”
If that did happen, Tuck was sure that Lady Morgause would have only Father Hugh’s prayers to thank for it — surely nobody else was praying for that woman.
“But …” Father Hugh rested his forehead on his hand. “I saw that boy — when I was at Lady Morgan’s –”
“You — you saw him? Lord help us! Did he see you?”
“No, no. Worry not. Lady Morgan kept us well separate.”
“But — but –” If you saw him, he could have seen you — if he saw you with child — Wright, he’s barely five years old now! There’s no way he could keep that secret, we —
“I saw him from an upper window, Tuck, when he was playing,” Father Hugh replied, as if he could hear Tuck’s thoughts. “I should doubt very much that he could see me. I only looked the once.”
We think. We hope. We pray.
“But I saw him, Tuck. And — and anyone who could do that to a … a poor, defenseless child …” He covered his face with his hands. “That man — or woman — or witch, or King’s sister, even, does not deserve to live.”
Tuck tried not to gulp. “Well … there’s … there’s not been news of a pardon, or an exile, in the works …”
“Now what makes you think there is a but?” Tuck tried to chuckle.
“I know you.”
“… Point taken. Aye, there is a but. Most men don’t think the King will go through with it. She is his sister. And the waiting … they think the waiting might wear on him.”
“The end of the year — that was when the sentence was to be carried out, was it not?”
“That’s but two days away.”
“Aye. Pray he can hold out that long.”
“Aye,” Father Hugh sighed. “Aye. We shall have to.”
Later that night, Tuck tossed and turned, and thought and pondered, and by the end of it … he had to get up.
In great chapter houses, there were monks who wandered the corridors at night, searching for oblates or young monks out of bed and seeking trouble (or food). In the great chapter houses, where all the hours were rung and the services sung, most monks slept lightly anyway. Thus, for a man to do as Tuck did — to get up and pad down to the Abbot’s bedchamber — would be incredibly difficult, if not entirely impossible.
Yet that was what Tuck did. The cold air whipped through his light sleeping robe and threatened to knock his coif from his head. Tuck cursed himself and wished he had remembered to put some shoes on.
He reached Father Hugh’s door and tried the handle. Unlocked — good. But why would it be otherwise? Father Hugh never had anything to hide, whether in the daylight or the night-time.
Or at least, he hadn’t, until a year ago.
Tuck slipped into the room as silently as possible and looked at the great bed. Father Hugh slept soundly. Thank the Lord.
But how can he?
Before bedtime had come, when he and Father Hugh were sitting in the library with some mead that Bors had donated to the monastery and celebrated, Tuck had allowed himself to relax. Surely, Father Hugh was forgetting all about his trauma! Perhaps it had aged him physically, but was that not to be expected? Father Hugh might never regain the raven of his head, but surely his strength would return and his equilibrium be restored. Everything would be back to normal soon enough, and they could forget about those little abominations.
And then, just as Tuck was taking the goblets into the kitchen to be washed and Father Hugh was preparing to go to bed, Father Hugh had stopped him. “Tuck, stay a moment.”
Tuck turned around.
“Have you seen them? Since — since you baptized them, I mean?”
And when Tuck had been forced to answer, truthfully, in the negative, Father Hugh had looked so crushed, so disappointed …
Lord Wright, help him. Somehow. I don’t care how. Tuck rubbed his hands together as he silently prayed. He’s not forgetting it. He’s bottling it all up inside. And if he doesn’t find some way to let it go … let them go and forget about it …
I don’t want to know what might happen, Lord.
So help him. Please. Because I … I’d do anything, but I don’t know what.