"Brother Alf! Brother Alfred!"
It was meant to be a whisper, but it echoed through the library. Brother Alfred looked up from his book, smiling a little as the novice halted panting within an inch of the table. "What is it now, Jehan?" he asked. "A rescue? The King himself come to drag you off to the wars?"
Jehan groaned. "Heaven help us! I just spent an hour explaining to Dom Morwin why I want to stay here and take vows. Father wrote to him, you see, and said that if I had to be a monk, I'd join the Knights Templar and not disgrace him completely."
Brother Alfred's smile widened. "And what said our good Abbot?"
"That I'm a waste of good muscle." Jehan sighed and hunched his shoulders. It did little good; they were still as broad as the front gate. "Brother Alf, can't anybody but you see what's under it all?"
"Brother Osric says that you will make a tolerable theologian."
"Did he? Well. He told me today that I was a blockhead, and that I'd got to the point where he'd have to turn me over to you."
"In the same breath?"
"Almost. But I'm forgetting. Dom Morwin wants to see you."
Brother Alfred closed his book. "And we've kept him waiting. Someday, Jehan, we must both take vows of silence."
"I could use it. But you? Never. How could you teach?"
"There are ways." Just as Brother Alfred turned to go, he paused. "Tomorrow, don't go to the schoolroom. Meet me here."
Jehan's whoop made no pretense of restraint.
* * *
There was a fire in the Abbot's study, and the Abbot stood in front of it, warming his hands. He did not turn when Brother Alfred entered, but said, "The weather's wild today."
The other sat in a chair nearby. "Fitting," he remarked. "You know what the hill-folk say: On the Day of the Dead, demons ride."
The Abbot crossed himself quickly, with a wry smile. "Oh, it will be a night to conjure in." He sat stiffly and sighed. "My bones feel it. You know, Alf--suddenly I'm old."
There was a silence. Brother Alfred gazed into the fire, seeing a pair of young novices, one small and slight and red as a fox, the other tall and slender and very pale with hair like silver-gilt. They were very industriously stealing apples from the orchard. His lips twitched.
"What are you thinking of?" asked the Abbot.
"Is that all? I was thinking of the time we changed the labels on every bottle, jar, and box of medicine in the infirmary. We almost killed old Brother Anselm when he took one of Brother Herbal's clandestine aphrodisiacs instead of the medicine he needed for his indigestion."
Brother Alfred laughed. "I remember that very well indeed; after Dom Edwin's caning, I couldn't sit for a fortnight. And we had to change the labels back again. In the end we knew Brother Herbal's stores better than he did himself."
"I can still remember. First shelf: dittany, fennel, tansy, rue…Was it really almost sixty years ago?"
"Tempus fugit, with a vengeance." Morwin ran his hands through his hair. A little red still remained; the rest was rusty white. "I've had my threescore years and ten, with three more for good measure. Time to think of what I should have thought of all along if I'd been as good a monk as I liked to think I was."
"Good enough, Morwin. Good enough."
"I could have been much better. I could have refused to let them make me Abbot. You did."
"You know why."
"Foolishness. You could have been a cardinal if you'd cared to try."
"How could I have? You know what I am."
"I know what you think you are. You've had the story of your advent drummed into your head so often, you've come to believe it."
"It's the truth. How it was the winter solstice, and a very storm out of Hell. And in the middle of it, at midnight indeed, a novice, keeping vigil in the chapel, heard a baby's cry. He had the courage to go out, even into that storm, which should have out-howled anything living, and he found a prodigy. A babe of about a season's growth, lying naked in the snow. And yet he was not cold; even as the novice opened the postern, what had been warming him took flight. Three white owls. Our brave lad took a long look, snatched up the child, and bolted for the chapel. When holy water seemed to make no impression, except what one would expect from a baby plunged headlong into an ice-cold bath, he baptized his discovery, named him Alf--Alfred for the Church's sake--and proceeded to make a monk of him. But the novice always swore that the brat had come out of the hollow hills."
"I don't know. I seem to remember, faint and far, like another's memory: fire and shouting, and a girl running with a baby in her arms. Then the girl, cold and dead, and a storm, and three white owls. No one ever found her." Brother Alfred breathed deep. "Maybe that's only a dream, and someone actually exposed me as a changeling. What better place for one? Here on Ynys Witrin, with all its legends and its old magic."
"Or else," said Morwin, "the Fair Folk have turned Christian. Though I've never heard that any of them could bear either holy water or cold iron."
"This one can." Brother Alfred flexed his long fingers and folded them tightly in his lap. "But to take a high place in the Church or in the world…no. Anywhere but here, I would have gone to the stake long ago. Even here, not all the Brothers are sure that I'm not some sort of superior devil."
Morwin bristled. "Who dares to think that?"
"None so bold that he voices his doubts, or even thinks them, often."
"He had better not!"
Alf smiled and shook his head. "You were always too fierce in my defense."
"And a good thing too. I've pulled you out of many a broil, from the first time I saw the other novices make a butt of you."
"So much trouble for a few harmless words."
"Harmless! It was getting down to sticks and stones when I came by."
"They were only trying to frighten me," Alf said. "But that's years past. We must truly be old if we can care so much for what happened so long ago."
"Don't be so kind. It's me, and you know it. I've always been one to bear a grudge--the worse for my soul." Morwin rose and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. "Alf. Someday sooner or later, I'm going to face my Maker. And when I do that, I want to be sure I've left St. Ruan's in good hands." Alf would have spoken, but he shook his head. "I know, Alf. You've refused every office anyone has tried to give you and turned down the abbacy three times. The more fool you; each time, the second choice has been far inferior. I don't want that to happen again."
"Morwin. You know it must."
Brother Alfred stood, paler even than usual, and spread his arms. "Look at me!"
Morwin's jaw set. "I'm looking," he said grimly. "I've looked nearly every day for sixty years."
"What do you see?"
"The one man I'd trust to take the abbacy and to keep it as it should be kept."
"Man, Morwin? Do you think I am a man? Come. You alone can see me as I truly am. If you will."
The Abbot found that he could not look away. His friend stood in front of him, very tall and very pale, his eyes wide with something close to despair. Strange eyes, palest gold like his hair and pupiled like a cat's.
"You see," said Alf. "Remember what else had the novices calling me devil and witch's get. My way with beasts and with men. My little conjuring tricks." He gathered a handful of fire and shadow, plaited it into a long strange-gleaming strand, and tossed it to Morwin. The other caught it reflexively, and it was solid, a length of cord at once shadow-cool and fire-hot. "And finally, Morwin, old friend, how old am I?"
"Two or three years younger than I."
"And how old do I look?"
Morwin scowled and twisted the cord in his hands, and said nothing.
"How old did Earl Rogier think I was when he brought Jehan to St. Ruan's? How old did Bishop Aylmer think I was, he who read my Gloria Dei thirty years ago and looked in vain for me all the while he guested here, only last year? How old did he think me, Morwin? And what was it he said to you? 'That lad has a great future, Dom Morwin. Send him along to me when he grows a little older, and I promise you'll not regret it.' He thought I was not eighteen!"
Still Morwin was silent, although the pain in his friend's face and voice had turned his scowl to an expression of old and bitter sorrow.
Alf dropped back into his seat and covered his face with his hands. "And you would make me swear to accept the election if it came to me again. Morwin, will you never understand that I cannot let myself take any title?"
The other's voice was rough. "There's a limit to humility, Alf. Even in a monk."
"It's not humility. Dear God, no! I have more pride than Lucifer. When I was as young as my body, I exulted in what I thought I was. There were Bishop Aylmers then, too, all too eager to flatter a young monk with a talent for both politics and theology. They told me I was brilliant, and I believed them. I knew I was an enchanter; I thought I might have been the son of an elven prince, or a lord at least, and I told myself tales of his love for my mortal mother and of her determination that I should be a Christian. And of three white owls." His head lifted. "I was even vain, God help me; the more so when I knew the world, and saw myself reflected in women's eyes. Not a one but sighed to see me a monk."
"And not a one managed to move you."
"Is that to my credit? I was proud that I never fell, nor ever even slipped. No, Morwin. What I have is not humility. It's fear. It was in me even when I was young, beneath the pride, fear that I was truly inhuman. It grew as the years passed. When I was thirty and was still mistaken for a boy, I turned my mind from it. At forty I began to recognize the fear. At fifty I knew it fully. At sixty it was open terror. And now, I can hardly bear it. Morwin--Morwin--what if I shall never die?"
Very gently Morwin said, "All things die, Alf."
"Then why do I not grow old? Why am I still exactly as I was the day I took my vows? And--what is immortal--what is elvish--is soulless. To be what I am and to lack a soul…it torments me even to think of it."
Morwin laid a light hand on his shoulder. "Alf. Whatever you are, whatever you become, I cannot believe that God would be so cruel, so unjust, so utterly vindictive, as to let you live without a soul and die with your body. Not after you've loved Him so long and so well."
"Have I? Or is all my worship a mockery? I've even dared to serve at His altar, to say His Mass--I, a shadow, a thing of air and darkness. And you would make me Abbot. Oh, sweet Jesu!"
"Stop it, Alf!" Morwin rapped. "That's the trouble with you. You bottle yourself up so well you get a name for serenity. And when you shatter, the whole world shakes. Spare us for once, will you?"
But Alf was beyond even that strong medicine. With a wordless cry he whirled and fled.
Morwin stared after him, paused, shook his head. Slowly, painfully, he lowered himself into his chair. The cord was still in his hand, fire and darkness, heat and cold. For a long while he sat staring at it, stroking it with trembling fingers. "Poor boy," he whispered. "Poor boy."
Copyright © 1993 by Judith Tarr Judith Tarr is the author of more than twenty widely praised novels, including The Throne of Isis, White Mare's Daughter, and Queen of Swords, as well as five previous volumes in the Avaryan Chronicles: The Hall of the Mountain King, The Lady of Han-Gilen and A Fall of Princes (collected in one volume as Avaryan Rising), Arrows of the Sun, and Spear of Heaven. A graduate of Yale and Cambridge University, Judith Tarr holds degrees in ancient and medieval history, and breeds Lipizzan horses at Dancing Horse Farm, her home in Vail, Arizona.