"Take a seat, Brother, and the Abbot will send for you shortly."
John Sheppard nodded, but remained standing as the monk hesitated, then retreated with a shrug, as though to say, 'I did what I could'.
The anteroom was small and chilly. John was grateful for the thick wool of his cloak, and wrapped it more snugly about himself. "Not even York," he muttered, glaring at the walls. "Another man does as I did, and is awarded lands and gold and the gratitude of --" he smirked faintly, "eager maidens. And here I am, left far in the wilds of Northumbria."
"Where there is a sad lack of maidens," a dry voice said, and he turned. "My Lord."
"My Lord Abbot," John bowed to cover his startlement. He was as edgy as a brace of nesting doves.
"I understand you desire a period of contemplation of your immortal soul with us, my son?" The man's eyes held his steadily, weighing him, and he inclined his head in reply, biting back any other response. The abbot was a short man, with a clear blue gaze, and a bald pate, almost hidden by his cap. A little less fleshy than some princes of the church that he had known, and the man's jaw showed a square strength that suggested John might not wish to cross this man's will.
"Aye, my lord," and damned be the bastards who sent him here.
"Very well. My Lord of Creucy suggests that you should be regarded as another lay brother," he eyed John sharply. John could feel shame burning on his face, and nodded again, curtly. "As you wish. I will pass your care to Father Peter. You will follow his every command as though it were in my voice."
"Aye, my lord," John choked out.
"I will see you at Compline."
John bowed, but the abbot had already turned away, the weight of one disgraced nobleman dismissed without effort.
John had left the abbot's office to come immediately face to face with a lanky, grim looking man, who looked him up and down contemptuously, and said, "God give me strength," and turned on his heel.
God apparently failed to support the priest in his hour of need, and a few moments later he paused without looking back, and said, "Brother John, *if* you would be so kind?"
John flushed angrily, but followed. He kept his eyes on the floor -- stone slabs, then wood, then earth. Outside for a moment, then through the kitchens, and out again, turning again, until he wasn't entirely sure which way was East. As he walked the priest briskly named off the places they walked through.
"Great Hall. You'll have no business here unless asked, or serving guests. The monks live through there," he gestured down a narrow stone corridor. "You'll not be required here either except for night soil duty. You'll take that one turn in ten. Brother Antonius will explain that side of your duties."
"I am no knight, my lord, and here we are both simple men before God. I, however, have had the training and erudition that allows a man to step closer to God, and you will accord me the respect of *that* title, only, you understand?"
Sheppard backed up a step, and nodded. "Yes, Father."
"The kitchens. Do you know how to cook?"
"I can dress boar, deer and coney."
"In other words, no," he huffed. "And you've never pulled a plough or yoked an ox in your life, I'll warrant."
"No, my... no, Father." His chin lifted a little, and then he looked down again as he caught the priest's tilted eyebrow. "I was raised to be a soldier."
Father Peter sighed gustily. "And that I suppose means you've no skills other than hunting, killing and riding. Can you letter?"
"Can I -- yes my -- Father. But I have not in many years, my mother--"
"God be thanked. Not completely useless then. Very well. We will try you in the scriptorium. You will attend drill with the lay brothers in the parish on Wednesdays, against the incursions of the godless Scots. You will attend all services, and from what I understand, spending time in contemplation of the sins of impatience and arrogance might stand you in good stead." He paused for a moment, and then his mouth twitched. "Although I suppose that your time in the scriptorium may well give you room to contemplate these also."
"Where do I sleep?"
"Why, with the lay brothers, John. There is a dormitory the other side of the buildings along the north wall, where the lay brothers sleep." He paused. "All the lay brothers are alike, in that they work for the glory of God and under the will of the Abbot. You are Brother John, no more, and no less." He eyed John's warm clothes, leather boots and woollen cloak. "I think we had best supply you with clothing more appropriate to the work you are undertaking."
John's hand dropped to his sword, and Father Peter shook his head disappointedly. "Particularly not that. It will lie with your chattels and worldly goods until you are ready to leave this place."
John snorted. "As though any of this was my choice," he muttered.
Father Peter stopped and looked at him. "Brother John. You did not have to obey the command that sent you here."
John's back straightened abruptly. "I pledged my word!"
Father Peter smiled at him, "And in that, lies your best hope of redemption. A glimmer of honesty and strength of will. We will fit it to a better use, perhaps."
He turned and walked briskly northwards, and John followed.
Nones was the worst. Matins, sung deep in the dark of the morning, felt almost like being woken for early watch. He could stumble back to bed and doze for awhile but this far north the dawn did not break until after Sextus. Sextus passed in a dream, almost. Nones, though, Nones was the solid reminder of the day begun, and begun ill. Every tenth day, Sextus was followed by his duty removing the nightsoil. It was considerably less unpleasant than similar duties undertaken as a page in my Lord de Creucy's household -- the inhabitants of the monastery did not find it as funny as his fellow pages had. There were one or two, he suspected, that might have indulged their sense of humour had it not been for the vigilant eye of Father Peter, and the mild gaze of the Abbot.
That said, he had found himself settling into the tasks set him almost contentedly. There was no discussion, no latitude, merely do thus, and thus, and thus. There was no further expectation to it and, in return, he was fed, busy, and more soaked in religious life than he had ever thought or wanted. It was ... oddly soothing.
Unless he was in Brother Meredes' tender mercies.
Meredes was an angry man, short of temper, his hair falling away from the heat of his mind. But he was astonishingly learned, a man in whose quick, precise hands and words the most complex text came clear. He lettered Greek books of science taken from Byzantium, Moorish books of mathematics and logic carried from Spain, and Latin texts on the world and the history thereof. In these he was happy, his fingers black with ink, his clothes spotted and rumpled, and his eyes bright with the joy of discovery.
Brother Meredes had another talent, too, although Sheppard did not learn of it for nearly a full month.
The Feast of the Presentation, and the villagers crowded into the church attached to the monastery. John was surprised to see Meredes in the cantor's place, and looked for brother Simon-John, the usual occupant. Simon-John was across from him, sitting with the decani, and that simply didn't make any sense. Not until the moment for the Nunc Dimittis came, and Meredes stood, eyes down, and lifted his voice.
It soared. The words rose as precisely as the immaculate letters of Brother Meredes' illuminations, the notes clear and bell-like, carrying praise upwards, where surely, God must hear and be glad.
Sheppard offered his responses with more interest than he had ever previously managed, and thought to say something to Meredes, but the monk vanished almost before the end of the service, and was nowhere to be found. He was meandering around the scriptorium, hoping he'd missed Meredes the first couple of circuits, when Father Peter touched his elbow.
Even a season in the slow peace of the monastery had not really dulled battle instincts and Sheppard whirled, right hand to left hip as though his sword hung there yet.
Father Peter stepped back and raised his hands peaceably. "You seem ... lost, John. Can I help?" His eyes were shrewd, and Sheppard frowned. He relaxed his hands and forced a smile.
"You startled me, Father," he started.
"So I perceive," Father Peter smiled at him, and John felt his face heat up.
"I was looking for Brother Meredes."
"Ah." Father Peter looked away, contemplating the stone flags of the floor for a long moment before sighing. "Brother Meredes does not sing often."
"But his voice --"
"Is a burden to him. He sang this morning because the Father Abbot asked it, and because of the text."
Sheppard frowned trying to remember the words rather than the voice that had sung them. "I--"
Father Peter chuckled, "I'll let your forgetfulness be a matter between yourself and our confessor."
Sheppard grinned at him, "I'm reasonably sure he'll forgive me when I mention that there will be extra honey with the pottage tomorrow."
"No reasonable man could turn down such an offer, surely," Father Peter grinned back at him, and Sheppard laughed out loud.
"How delightful, a full house," Meredes grouched as he stalked in to throw himself down at his customary desk. Peter grimaced at Sheppard, out of view of Meredes.
"I'll leave you to review the text, John," he said mildly, and clapped a hard hand to Sheppard's shoulder. Hard enough that John stumbled a couple of steps towards Meredes. Father Peter headed briskly for the exit, leaving the two of them in silence.
"If you're not going to do anything useful, you might find another bundle of reeds and light them, it's practically midnight in here."
Sheppard rolled his eyes, "It's nearly noon, Brother, perhaps if you spent more time outside you would recognise the daylight for the source of illumination it is."
"And have the wind gusting through, scattering paper everywhere, eh, genius? I think not," Meredes snapped back at him.
"You could use this little something called a paper weight."
Meredes actually turned around and glared at him at this. "Wonderful. Drop lumps of rock on wet ink. What a splendid idea."
John grinned at him and held out the bundle of tallow-dipped reeds that he'd quietly scooped up. "Thank you," he said cheerfully.
"You cannot be that stupid," Meredes grouched, but took the reeds, carefully setting them in place and lighting one. "I've seen your writing -- you actually understand what you're writing instead of just copying the pretty patterns."
"I spent some time with Master Leonardo Pisano, at the court of King Frederic when I was much younger," John said, not really sure what he expected from that, but Meredes' head snapped up, his eyes round with something that made John profoundly uncomfortable -- surely no simple monk would look so ... hungry.
"Truly? I read the Liber Abaci some years ago; we were asked to make a copy for a new school." Meredes stopped, and sighed. "I worked on it myself, but it was not a text to the glory of God, and should not have taken it solely on myself."
It sounded more like something Meredes thought he should say than something he actually believed.
"My copy of his Liber Quadratorum is in Kent," he said, not quite sure what he was about, but sure he wanted to take that odd look out of Meredes' eyes.
It didn't -- quite -- instead, Meredes stared at him, then reached over and pulled him to sit beside him on the bench.
"How much of it do you remember?" he said hoarsely, and pushed pen and paper towards John.
It was hours later, and the two of them were squinting in the darkness when Father Peter came back into the Scriptorium in time to hear Meredes announce, "Well, perhaps you were dropped on your head as a infant, that's the only explanation I can see for attempting to pass *that* off as a logical extrapolation of any method to approach a Diophantine problem!"
John was shaking his head, "No, no, look, you've missed this stage --"
"I have not, you've missed your *brain*."
"Brother Meredes," Father Peter said softly, and Meredes stopped short, his face flushing bright scarlet. He slumped, and Peter sighed. John, looking from one to the other, wondered what old argument he was missing here -- Meredes was easy enough to read: shame at his enthusiasm, his invective, his distraction from his real work. Peter was far harder -- his expression spoke of pity and sorrow, and an underlying determination. "We've discussed your difficulties with humility."
If John could have dissolved into the cracks in the stones, hidden in the dirt and dust, he would, rather than see the look on Meredes' face.
"Yes, Father," he said softly, and carefully gathered the papers they had written on. "Shall I sand them clean now?"
"You've both missed the noon meal, and missing the evening will not hurt you, either of you," he gathered John in with a glance. "Leave the papers until tomorrow, and take a walk in the herbiary, and I will consider."
Meredes nodded silently, and gently placed the papers back on his desk, then stood. "Brother John," he said hesitantly, "I -- apologise if I was too hasty and spoke unkindly."
Sheppard frowned, but Meredes didn't so much as look up, and Peter was eyeing him expectantly. "I beg your pardon for distracting you from the proper work of the Scriptorium," he said with all the formality he could muster. "The fault was entirely mine, Brother. Father."
Peter raised a quizzical eyebrow at him, and made a small chivvying gesture with his hands, shooing them towards the outside door.
"Your apology is accepted, Brother John," was all he said. Meredes stumbled to his feet, and nodded.
"Yes, thank you," he glanced up briefly, then dropped his eyes resolutely to the ground. "Apology accepted, if, if mine is?"
"Of course, Brother," John said, a little worried. "Shall we?" He gestured broadly to the exit, and kept pace with Meredes. Apart from meals and the chapel this morning he hadn't seen Meredes leave the Scriptorium once. Judging by the way Meredes was huddled into himself perhaps this was not merely a much needed break, but a punishment in itself. The narrow door opened with some difficulty, and then they were outside, stepping cautiously into the mud of the courtyard towards the little garden of medicinals.
Meredes glanced back at the door, his steps slowing apparently unconsciously.
"You don't leave there often, do you?" John said, and got a scowl in response.
"Not often, no," was all Meredes actually said, although judging by the narrowing of his lips and eyes he was thinking far more than he uttered.
"Time you did, then," was all he said in response. He breathed in deep as they came down the path and out into the open. It was overcast, a little damp and had they been out earlier he knew that mist would have been wreathing the ground, lingering in the hollows. Winter was drifting away, but Spring had yet to hold out her hand, and the world hung between the two, waiting. Meredes slipped on the muddy path and John reached to catch him. It wasn't needed; Meredes righted himself, and, grumbling, hitched up his robes into his belt to show hairy knees and pale legs. John looked away, smiling to himself.
"Oh, *what*?" Meredes snapped, but when John looked across the man was half smiling too, and John smiled back.
"You really don't get out much, do you?"
"I work the fields every year, I'll have you know," Meredes said, then seemed to falter a little. Not a good subject; John would bet that the bookish brother was about as eager to plough the fields, sow and reap as he was to take a walk.
"More than I ever did," he said mildly. "I was in and out of the smithy as a child, until my father decided I should take on more knightly pursuits." Like hunting and hawking, swordsmanship, archery... he sighed.
"You miss it, too?" Meredes said, looking surprised.
"Miss the Scriptorium?"
"No!" Meredes rolled his eyes and waved a dismissive hand. "No, being all," he flailed his hands in search of the word, "'knightish'."
"Knightish," Meredes nodded firmly.
He half shrugged, "Maybe." A lot.
"Working with the yeomanry doesn't help?"
"Teaching people how to copy texts helps you?" He winced after he said it, but didn't take it back, didn't look up.
They were both silent, the mud squelching underfoot the only sound until Meredes sighed, and stepped off the path to lean on the low stone wall that divided the monastery's lands from the local lord's.
"He's destroying what little they've got," he said almost absently, peering across the wretched fields, more rock than soil. "He refused to let them lie fallow two years ago, and when the crop failed last year, he blamed the villeins, instead of his own wrongheadedness."
John nodded. It sounded about right for the balding, pudgy man he'd met briefly on several occasions. Lord Richard of Delth was a man uncertain of his place in the world, and so eager to ensure that he didn't lose it. His hands had been unpleasantly sweaty, and his demeanour somewhere between smug superiority and anxiety. John hadn't helped settle the man's fears at all, alluding in one moment to the Frankish court, and a minute later his own lowly position of lay brother in a nameless monastery.
"Idiot," Meredes added, and John laughed. The sound rang out, and he stopped himself hastily, sneaking a quick glance at his friend. Meredes was looking at him as though he didn't know whether to cross himself or break out laughing too. the laughter won, and John chuckled under his breath.
"Has anyone tried to bless that sound out of you?" Meredes said after catching his breath.
John grinned, "I had a mendicant friar once attempt to exorcise the demon from within my throat because my laughter frightened his mule so badly it threw him."
Meredes slapped his hand on the wall, "Oh, ow, don't. He probably flagellated himself half to Canterbury for failing."
John widened his eyes at Meredes, "Who says he thought he failed?" He winked, and they both were completely unable to talk for some minutes, each time one or the other of them caught his breath, he'd flail or choke out some helpless: "demons!", "ego te exorciso!", until they were half propping each other up.
Eventually the laughter died naturally and John sighed. Meredes was warm against his shoulder, and he shoved at him gently. Meredes shoved back, and they leaned against the wall in peaceful harmony.
"What brought you here, then?" Meredes said
"I," he hesitated, "I like it here."
"But that's not why you came," Meredes' eyes were unexpectedly shrewd and John found himself looking away from the too knowledgeable blue to stare at the wilted clumps of herbs and grasses
"No. No, it's not," he agreed stonily and said no more.
"I was a child oblate," Meredes said, some time later. John could feel the tension in his body, sat as close together as they were -- perhaps it was meant as a peace-offering, but John almost wished he wouldn't. "My family could not afford so many mouths, and gave me to the Church as a thanks for the bounty of a overflowing family." He sounded bitter. "I was nine."
When John was nine he'd been running wild with his brothers playing Knights Crusaders versus Saladin, their mother and aunts and ladies perfectly willing to set every ill to rights, loved, petted, the eldest, favoured son.
"We weren't rich, and I was a trial." Meredes shifted, and added uncomfortably, "They did the best they knew how, I suppose."
"You got an education."
Meredes snorted. "I got to see how vast the world was, and how narrow my cage within it."
"But you sing--" John blurted, thinking of that glorious voice, and how it soared, clear and full. Such a voice could not be so constricted.
Meredes snorted, a bitter, unpleasant sound. "My vows are service, and my voice sings his praise forever, amen."
John winced, the sense of something unwittingly damaged before he even knew its fragile beauty almost painful for all its immateriality. Meredes' heart was as clear as fine Venetian glass, and as brittle.
He wondered why he cared. Meredes was difficult; he said it himself. His family had delivered him to the church, his Church had placed him here, on the edges of civilisation, with only his books to exercise the fine, quick mind that lay within that unprepossessing exterior. And John was a soldier, not a man of God. Here only for a term, to consider his transgressions and then, when they had a need for a strong right arm and a straight eye, he would go back.
"I--" he hadn't really meant to say anything and his voice cracked. He hesitated, but he could feel Meredes listening, waiting. "I made a mistake. Disobeyed a direct command to save a man that was already dead."
"Unforgivable," Meredes said, so dry that John felt a smile twitch at his lips, although Michael's death was the last thing he felt like smiling about. "Was he a good friend?"
John nodded, his words exhausted.
"Then I will pray for you both, that he deserved such love, and that you find a more worthy lord. And maybe grow a brain instead of wasting it here."
John couldn't help the sputtered chuckle.
"No, really, I can't imagine how appalling the yokels are with their sticks and pikes," Meredes said.
"There's some good archers," John said mildly.
"Ah, all the better to poach along the borders."
"There might be another Crusade," John said wistfully, and Meredes thumped him. John nearly fell from his perch on the dry stone wall.
"What?" he asked, but Meredes bit his lip and said nothing. "No, really, what?"
"Nothing. If you don't count the utter *idiocy* of running off to die a slave."
"They'd ransom me. I have rich friends," he said lightly.
"*So* not the point."
John wondered what Meredes' point was -- and besides, "What kind of a name is that anyway?"
"The best the idiot monks could do with Maredudd," he muttered.
"My mother was Welsh."
"Welsh mother. Called me Maredudd. Scottish father, Cennedd Mac Aodh. Sometimes, I wish they'd just called me John."
"Nah. At least fifteen people don't stand up when your name is called."
"That's right. No one stands up. And why is that? Because no one ever pronounces it *right*."
"Why didn't you pick a new name when you made final vows?"
Meredes stared at him. "I -- I didn't want them to take away what I had, bastardised as it was."
"Dear God, make it go away."
"Maybe it's not too late. We can find something better: Bob."
"La la la, can't hear youuuu!"
"Aethelstan. Very you."
Meredes thumped him. "Any more and I'll tell Father Peter you felt too shy to ask for more latrine duty as penance."
"That's just cruel. Bert."
The shadows drifted around them, passing unnoticed under the quiet laughter.
That day seemed to permanently change things between them. The dusty still of the scriptorium was now shattered with running arguments which slipped from frivolous to serious to mathematical, sometimes leaving them both fuming, sometimes helpless with what they flatly refused to regard as giggles.
Father Peter seemed to have forgotten to tell them to clean the 'wasted 'paper, and now they wrote in the corners of palimpsests, print so small they could only read it in full daylight. And they talked. A text mentioning eagles led to a discussion of the mountains between Tyrol and Lombardy, the things John had seen, the battles he'd fought in.
Spring came in full force. As the days grew longer, the weather worsened until every step outside was a slog, the mud slick heavy on their heavy wooden pattens, sucking them off their feet given the least opportunity. Meredes walked behind the monastery's ox and plough each time it came around his turn -- his broad shoulders suddenly making sense. The rounded hunch from the scriptorium eased away, and his face darkened with the constant outdoors work.
John had to give up on drilling the yeomen for infantry work, and they practised archery until their fingers bled, cracking and swelling in the damp. The peasants were already accurate -- arrows were too high an investment of time to waste with careless or imprecise shooting -- but their speed improved until they were as fast as lightning, nocking and firing with terrifying rapidity, hitting the heart of the target nine times out of ten.
They were good men. John sat with them for the evening meals, greens and last year's barley supplemented by snared rabbits and hares, as good after a long day. Better than the Lenten fare of gruel as the monastery ran through the last of the year's cellars.
"Stop telling me about it," Meredes grumbled one morning, after John had spent the evening in the local brewer's house sampling the barrels.
"You could come too," he said impulsively. Meredes just looked at him, his face sour.
"Because breaking out of the monastery and spending the night carousing is just how I want to start the violation of my vows," he snapped. John's eyebrows went up and he grinned wickedly.
"Really? So, Brother Meredes, just how *were* you planning on breaking them then?"
For a moment John thought Meredes would explode, and then suddenly he ducked his head, his weathered face seeming to redden.
"We should work on the Annales Romanorum," Meredes said, his voice somewhat stifled.
"Look, it's not my fault not all brothers are as ... committed ... as I am to my vows."
"And, and, I can't be expected to do this all the time, the rest of them -- they don't care. And I do. I did. I--" He dropped his head into his hands, and John cautiously took a perch on the bench next to him.
Meredes shook his head, not looking up. "Nothing. Nothing, you've no idea. This is, I don't even know, impossible, ridiculous. God why did you ever come here?"
"I don't understand," John said helplessly. "Do you -- are you--" he stopped, stymied as to how to even begin. "Meredes, what's wrong?"
"I'm just -- going to miss our arguments," he said a little roughly.
"Well. When you go."
John shook his head, confused. "I'm not going anywhere," he said a little bitterly. The world of the nobility might as well be on the moon for all the contact he'd had. Sir Edward had assured him it would not be long -- there were always skirmishes, and experienced knights were never long exiled. But it had been four months, and nothing. Perhaps they had forgotten him. Perhaps he might as well take vows and travel to Jerusalem, throw his lot in with the Holy Roman Emperor. Go back to Palermo, which took him back to an older conversation.
"Have you heard something?" he said, wondering. Surely someone would have told him, he'd have heard a messenger arriving. He looked up eagerly and Meredes sighed.
"You're halfway gone already. No, no one's come, not yet," he hesitated, then swallowed hard and patted John's knee tentatively, then let it rest there. "I'm sorry." He sounded sorry, perhaps a little envious, but his face was almost impossible to read in the dim light.
"I -- I don't mind being here."
"Even the nightsoil?"
John ducked his head and grinned, "Well, maybe not that." He sighed. "I wouldn't miss the weather though."
Meredes looked at him, and then at the deep shuttered windows where the rain beat down. "It's not -- oh, never mind, I hate the weather, I can't even *lie* to pretend I like it."
John laughed. "You'd love Palermo, Meredes. Sunlight glittering on the sea, nights that are long and warm, and days, days filled with talking to the greatest minds of this generation, chattering like magpies."
"Palermo?" Meredes breathed, his eyes wide, and then it all shut down. "As well talk of travelling to the Moon. I'll never leave this place."
"But -- wasn't that what you meant?"
"No -- was, was *that* what you meant?"
They looked at each other uncertainly. Meredes closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned and met John's eyes squarely before cupping his face, and then he leaned in and pressed his lips against John's.
"Oh." John touched his fingers to his lips, then stared at them, as though some mark lingered there. It seemed one should, because it changed everything. Everything.
"Oh?" Meredes said belligerently, and suddenly he was on his feet, backing away. "*Oh*?"
"If you weren't here, who would you be?" John said slowly. It was too important somehow to risk looking up, too huge to do more than taste his lips again.
"I've always been here."
"No. Just, just," he looked up, "You were *waiting* here. You've always been somewhere else."
"That doesn't make any sense." But he was standing still as John pushed to his feet, and stepped in close. "They'll send for you soon," he added, his eyes running over John, "I don't know why they haven't already. You don't belong here."
"You don't either. Come with me."
Meredes stared at him.
John leaned in and kissed him back. "When they send for me," he whispered, "come with me."
Meredes blinked, once, twice, and looked around the Scriptorium as though dazed, and then back at John. "But I get to pick a different name."
"Whatever you want. Bob."
And then there was no talking at all.
Summary: An AU... Brother Meredes doesn't mind the smallness of his world until a disgraced knight is exiled to his monastery.