'You're too late, Father.'

“You’re too late, Father,” Cedric called.

The feet stopped abruptly, and the black robe swung forward and back against the legs like the stroke of a silent bell.

The head did not turn, however. The rain that fell and dripped from every eave made a confusing chorus of mud and puddles, and the fog muffled every sound. Perhaps the ear doubted it had heard.

Perhaps the ear doubted it had heard.

Or perhaps, Cedric thought, the Abbot was simply a man accustomed to hearing still, small voices calling out of nowhere, and he no longer strained his neck peering about in search of angels his eyes could not see.

“I’m in here,” Cedric muttered.

The feet turned and stepped through the arch, into the sooty puddle that was forming in the door of the smithy.

“For what am I too late, Cedric?”

'For what am I too late, Cedric?'

The Abbot was not a man accustomed to making jokes or ironic commentary. He could even dispense with a polite “Good morning” if the “good” would have seemed cruel.

Cedric was grateful it was he and not Brandt or Faelan or Matthew. Nevertheless, he came too late.

“I mean he’s already gone.”

'He's already... gone.'

Suddenly he remembered his manners and scrambled up from behind the barrels.

“The prisoner, Father,” he added stiffly, trying to make himself at least sound businesslike, in spite of the soot and shavings that must have been clinging to his behind.

'The prisoner, Father.'

The Abbot unfolded his hands, crossed himself, and clasped his hands together again – not quickly, but so effortlessly that the gesture flowed over him like a drop of rain streaming down a windowpane, leaving him unchanged.

Nevertheless it did not seem that the gesture had not mattered, but rather that in that instant nothing else had. Cedric felt a despair he could not understand.

“Were you with him?” Aelfden asked.

'Were you with him?'

Cedric hung his head and snorted in self-​​derision. “No. I was hiding in here.”

For a moment the Abbot said nothing. Outside, a splash of water louder than rain rang up from some corner of the court, and Cedric began to imagine horrors, as he had at every mysterious sound that morning.

Perhaps the rain was not falling fast enough, and they were washing the blood away with their buckets. Or perhaps they had been mopping the cell where Tidraed had spent his last night, heedlessly sloshing dirty water over the stones where a man’s last tears had fallen. Or perhaps…

'It does not matter where, Cedric.'

“It does not matter where, Cedric.”

Cedric grunted in surprise and looked up, but Aelfden nodded at the bench.

“Might we sit a moment or two?”

Cedric hurried to brush off the seat, realizing too late that the soot would have done less harm to the Abbot’s coarse black robe than to his own palms, and particularly to his own pants on which he thoughtlessly wiped them.

But the Abbot was not a man accustomed to mocking boys for their awkwardness. He sat, and as soon as his weight was off his legs, a wave of exhaustion rolled over him from head to waist, early though the hour was. Just as abruptly it passed away, leaving him unchanged. Cedric was not certain his eyes had seen.

'I am not too late.'

“I am not too late,” the priest said gently. “Father Faelan saw Tidraed this morning. I am here for the men who executed him.”

Cedric squinted questioningly up at him. He imagined the Abbot coming down from his monastery like Moses from the mountain, smashing the tablets of the law down over this abomination, and giving the guards such a searing sermon on their sin that they and their children would be wailing and gnashing their teeth for generations. The idea pleased Cedric very much.

The idea pleased Cedric very much.

Aelfden’s brows lowered slightly, and his voice dropped a tone. “They are men, too, Cedric. With a father and mother and sisters and brothers, as you have. Some of them with children, as Tidraed had. It is a grave matter to participate in a fellow man’s death, or even to witness it. I am here for them.”

I am here for them.

Cedric blinked widely at him, stunned with shame. He had not realized how proudly he had pitied the murderer until he had been made to see how proudly he had hated these other men.

“I know it’s not their fault, Father,” Cedric said weakly. “They were only following orders.”

“That is so. But there is surprisingly little comfort to be had in knowing one was only following a command.”

There is surprisingly little comfort to be had in knowing one was only following a command.

Somewhere far off, a man with a hammer was pounding nails into wood. Cedric imagined he was closing the lid on the crude coffin they had carried past the smithy. He wondered whether the carpenter held the nails between his lips, as Tidraed had. He wondered whether Jesus had, in the years he had spent as a carpenter. He wondered whether Tidraed had ever thought about the coffin he would be buried in, or whether Christ ever thought about the Cross.

Humbly he added, “Father Brandt says they are only the sword in the hand of God.”

'Father Brandt says they are only the sword in the hand of God.'

Aelfden sighed and roughly rubbed his beard and mouth with his palm. Cedric could see then just how gaunt and graceless the hand was when it was not engaged in sacred business.

The City of God?” he asked wearily.


Aelfden’s hand dropped just soon enough for Cedric to see the last flicker of an ironic smile.

“God does not sign the sentence, Cedric. Not one of those men can rest in the knowledge that he is doing God’s will. And Sigefrith cannot even rest in the knowledge that he is doing the King’s will.”

'And Sigefrith cannot even rest in the knowledge that he is doing the King's will.'

Cedric was stricken with a new terror. There was someone else he had been hating in the throes of his stubborn, self-​​righteous, prideful pity for the condemned man – someone he loved.

“Are you here for Sigefrith too?” he whispered.

Aelfden cocked his head and blinked slowly like a cat. “I shall surely see him.”

Cedric had spent the last days polishing up brilliant, cutting arguments against this moral crime, ready to fling at his beloved lord like fistfuls of knives – and now he was terrified that they were all true – so certain he could feel them cutting into his palms.

He could feel them cutting into his palms.

“We are all of us in the hand of God,” the Abbot said. “Even kings.” After a moment’s thought he added, “And not as swords.”

“As sparrows,” Cedric blurted.

Aelfden inclined his head to the other side in silent agreement. Cedric had time to imagine himself a tiny, shivering ball of feathers and fluff, cupped in the Lord’s palm – himself, and Sigefrith, and Tidraed, and every other man. But the Divine Hand, he thought, was so very large, perhaps they did not know it for what it was.

“And not one of us falls without Him knowing,” he added. His pride was rousing slightly at these signs of his own cleverness with Biblical metaphor.

Aelfden leaned his head close as if to impart a secret. “That is when He picks us up and holds us.”

'That is when He picks us up and holds us.'

He nodded sagely and lifted his head. Cedric smiled up at him. Somehow, he thought, the same unchanging gravity on the Abbot’s face could look at times stern and at others kind.

“Do you think Tidraed is in God’s hand now?”

The Abbot’s face was either kind or stern, and he did not answer straightaway. Cedric began to imagine a fist closing over a tiny ball of fluff and feathers, squeezing it until the tiny bones crackled.

At last Aelfden said, “You knew him better than I. I could tell you what I think, or I could tell you all I know and let you come to your own conclusion. Which would you rather?”

'Which would you rather?'

Cedric was a curious boy, and moreover he did not want to miss an opportunity to hear the revealed wisdom of an abbot: the complicated truth behind the apparent self-​​contradictions of the Bible… the arcane secrets of the ancient texts Cedric could not fathom with his poor Greek and utter lack of Hebrew… the delicate balance between sin and salvation as revealed in the Prince’s penitential…

Cedric’s voice fell into its eager hush of sordid secret-​​swapping between boys. “Tell me what you know, Father.”

'Tell me what you know, Father.'

“God’s love is far greater than His wrath,” Aelfden said humbly. “That is all I know.”

Cedric’s mouth fell open. His disappointment was so sharp that it was almost pain. “That’s all you learn when you become a priest?”

Aelfden gave him one of his rare smiles. “I had to learn such a great many lessons that you ought to be grateful yours only come once a week. And I am called to believe still other things, as a priest and as a Christian. That, as I promised, is the only thing I know.” He gave Cedric one of his even rarer winks. “You weren’t expecting me to teach you everything I learned over all those years in one morning?”

'You weren't expecting me to teach you everything?'

“Noooo,” Cedric said, blushing. “But you could have given me a summary.”

Aelfden snorted and straightened his robe over his legs. “For that matter, perhaps I did.”

Cedric laughed weakly. One was never certain whether the Abbot was joking – the boys were divided on the question of whether he even could.

Cedric laughed weakly.

Aelfden looked thoughtful, but in any case he did not look annoyed. With his eyes turned away, he seemed less formidable, and Cedric found the courage to ask the question he had never dared, through all those weeks of Friday lessons.

“Father,” he asked with girlish softness, “When did you decide to be a priest?”

The Abbot did not flinch. The smoldering fire of the forge burned so evenly that the very light and shadows on his face were still.

The very light and shadows on his face were still.

Outside, the castle and court had fallen into a brief early morning silence, as they did sometimes before the day properly started. There was nothing for Cedric to imagine but rain falling on the graves of the just and the unjust alike.

“When I awoke this morning,” the Abbot said.

Cedric sat a while, politely waiting for him to finish his thought, before he realized that the Abbot had simply been answering his question.

“It was not the answer you were expecting,” Aelfden said, “but it will be more useful to you than knowing whether I was ten or fifteen or twenty.” At last he looked down at Cedric again. “Every day I think: it would be so much easier to be a monk, or even to go out like ordinary men, and have a wife and a baby like ordinary men.” He looked up, as at some distant vision, and now the weariness was real and unfleeting.

Now the weariness was real and unfleeting.

Cedric was struck dumb. He had sometimes seen the Abbot at the very living limit of fatigue – white-​​lipped, wild-​​eyed, and shaking – but it had only seemed the bodily exhaustion of martyrs. He had never before seen such human frailty on the man.

“Every day I must find the strength again,” Aelfden whispered. “Every day I decide: one more day.”

“Is it so hard?” Cedric asked fearfully.

Aelfden seemed to rouse himself and looked Cedric full in the face.

Aelfden seemed to rouse himself and looked Cedric full in the face.

“It is at times. But do not think I do not respect the work of monks and men because mine seems more difficult to me. Marriage is a sacrament, and fatherhood is a grave responsibility, and a lifelong task. And when the young men come to me wondering whether they are called to monastic life, I tell them that there is no single more important thing a man can do than to pray. I thank God we have men who give their entire lives to that sacred work.”

“But… being a priest…” Cedric mumbled.

'But... being a priest...'

Aelfden nodded with his head and shoulders both, as Cedric had seen the monks do as they whispered their prayers over their little prayer books, keeping time.

“Being a priest,” he repeated, “that is something else. I shall not tell you how old I was, but when I was a young monk I had the idea that I needed to do something more than pray. Perhaps it was wrong of me – perhaps I doubted too much in the power of prayer. Perhaps I became a priest because I was a poor monk,” he said with a wry half-​​smile.

“Did you hear a calling?” Cedric asked hopefully. Then he held his breath and cursed the dripping and the splashing of the rain.

“No, I never did,” Aelfden whispered, and the gravity of his face was shattered like a reflection in a rain-​​battered pond.

'No, I never did.'

For a moment the dim fire of the forge cast a brief, bright light onto the sorrow of a faithful lover who had waited a lifetime in vain for a single word or glance from his beloved one. Cedric felt a pain in his chest that was not due only to holding his breath.

Then the strange light went out like a candle carried past, and the gravity reassembled itself into the Abbot’s familiar expression. Cedric was not certain he had seen anything at all.

Cedric was not certain he had seen anything at all.

The Abbot continued softly, “When I would see people in need – a beggar on the side of the road, or hungry children – I would wonder: Should I go back to my cloister and pray harder? Or should I comfort them, and give them something to eat? And because I have always been impatient at the sight of suffering, I would often do the latter, even if it made me late for my prayers. May God forgive me if I was wrong.” He sent a wry half-​​smile up at the ceiling.

“Perhaps some other monk was praying at that moment,” Cedric said, “and so the Lord sent you walking by to do something about it, since He knows how impatient you are.”

Aelfden laughed. “I like that explanation better than mine!”

'I like that explanation better than mine!'

Cedric grinned broadly up at him, more pleased than proud.

As his laughter faded, Aelfden laid his hand on Cedric’s knee and leaned his head close again, as if for another secret.

“I believe you understand what it means to be a priest better than any ‘summary’ I could give you,” he confided.

“I do?” Cedric gasped.

'I do?'

“The good monks pray for our salvation,” Aelfden explained, “and meanwhile the impatient monks roll up their sleeves and become priests and try to do God’s work in the world.”

Cedric laughed, but he warily asked, “Are you joking?”

Aelfden sat up and twined his hands together in his lap. “Yes, but I am serious, too. I told you the one thing I know. The instrument of God’s love, Cedric,” he said gravely. “Not his wrath. That is what I try to be.”

“A– a – ” Cedric began eagerly, but his Biblical metaphors failed him. “A what in the hand of God? Instead of a sword.”

“A nothing,” Aelfden replied. He unfolded his hands and held them up, empty. “Simply the hand of God.”

'Simply the hand of God.'