Brother Thomas shattered the film of ice in the basin with the edge of his hand, then gingerly splashed the freezing water into his eyes, rubbing them clean of the gritty residue of his sleepless night. Father Anselm, the resident priest of Wynethorpe Castle, whose room he had been invited to share, must have already left to perform Mass, he thought, running his wet hands down his cheeks to soften the thick auburn stubble. He winced with the stinging cold. Although he had always been a fastidious man, today he hated the idea of scraping his flesh clean of beard. The morning had such a piercing chill.
“I am growing soft,” the young monk muttered as he reached for a curved razor. Despite his loathing for the desolation of Tyndal, a priory on the North Sea coast where he had lived since last summer, he had never lacked for warm water there when it came time for his weekly shave. Faced with these more spartan conditions, he realized he had grown quite used to those previously unacknowledged comforts in recent months. With irony-tinged amusement, he found himself longing for Tyndal.
“Fuck!” he said, cutting himself. His penance for missing Mass, he decided, as he grabbed a thin shard of ice from the basin and held it against the wound until the numbing water ran clear of pink blood. With a wry twitch of his mouth, Thomas quietly thanked his Saxon friends from the village near the priory for teaching him some of their more colorful words. His own Anglo-Norman tongue often lacked the hard sound that was so satisfying in such frustrating moments.
Bloodied but clean-shaven, Thomas left the comparative warmth of Father Anselm’s room, walked down the torturously curved stone steps past the great hall, and emerged into the chaos of an early morning in the inner ward of a working castle. As a child, he had spent time in one of his father’s castles, but this godforsaken pile of rock bore no resemblance to that. Wynethorpe was not only cramped for space, it also had the dubious distinction of lying in the wilds along the Welsh border. A primitive place for cert, but Thomas knew he had only himself to blame for being here.
Wynethorpe belonged to his prioress’ father, the Baron Adam, and, when illness in the family demanded that Prioress Eleanor journey back to her secular home, Thomas had agreed to accompany her. At the time he had done so with great eagerness. His spirits had lifted at the thought of new sights, and he was willing to do almost anything to get away from the fogs and fish stench of the East Anglian coast. Had he known he would be exchanging one bleak landscape only for another, he might have hesitated. Then again, perhaps not. At least no scent of dying seaweed filled the air here. He smiled to himself. Perhaps the Wynethorpe family had some partiality for barbaric places like Wales and East Anglia, but he would always long for the more civilized delights of London.
He paused to look around. They had been here only a few days and he had had little time to accustom himself to the place. In such a small fortress, most suited to repelling wild Welshmen, only a fool stumbled around blindly unless he fancied being knocked to the ground by a harried servant or whacked on the head by a soldier swinging a pike. He looked around for a clear path through the turmoil.
Havoc reigned here indeed, he thought as he looked around for a safe path to the kitchen where he might find bread and ale to break his fast. To his left, fires already glowed from the blacksmith’s forge and the clashing of hammers on red-hot iron would soon increase the dissonant and deafening din. Men were herding squealing swine toward the narrow gates and low wooden bridge that led to the woods and acorn forage. On his other side, women maneuvered around beasts and men alike. Some hurried with backs bent from huge armloads of laundry; others walked, fingers white from the cold as they struggled with heavy buckets of well water. A flock of geese, cackling in outraged protest, scattered from under their feet as the women rushed to get out of the cold.
Although snow white as the Virgin’s linen had fallen in the night, the once lacy flakes had since melted into multicolored muck and were mixed with matter of such foul origin that Thomas did not care to think on it. As he stepped cautiously into the open ward, he felt his feet begin to grow numb. The ground was too cold for his thin-soled low shoes. If he did not take care, he would slip and find himself flying into barnyard filth. He would never make a countryman, he decided, as he had oft done since his involuntary exile far away from his beloved city. He shifted from one foot to another, stretched his muscles to bring back some feeling, and yearned for thick leather boots.
The watch shift was changing. Two short lines of common soldiers in quilted, stuffed tunics and kettle-shaped metal helmets passed each other without speaking. A grim-faced, chain mail-clad sergeant accompanied each group. Thomas noted that the men who had finished their shift walked more quickly than those who were heading for the icy walls. Aye, he thought with a smile, those lucky ones could look forward to a hot fire, warm bread to break their fast, and soft straw to lie in, with or without the comfort of some woman beside them. Thomas had never been a military man, but he had grown up with those whose lives were centered in war and thus could judge, with some knowledge and appreciation, how well Baron Adam of Wynethorpe had maintained the discipline of his soldiers.
Methinks my father would approve, he decided as he watched the precision with which the men kept to their lines despite the civilian disorder around them. Briefly he speculated on how well his father might know Baron Adam. With greater brevity he wondered if his father, an earl of some note, knew or even cared that his son was at Wynethorpe. With an abrupt shake of his head, Thomas banished the latter question with customary speed.
Indeed, Baron Adam had done well in maintaining the castle as a working fortress. Apart from keeping the temporarily quiet Welsh in check—a breed most likely to do almost any thing at any time, he thought with a snort—civil strife in England still drew fresh blood. Although it was now 1271 and Simon de Montfort had been dead for over six years, pockets of rebellion still smoldered in secret, sometimes flaring into brief but scorching bonfires. At a time when King Henry III was in failing health and the Lord Edward was off on crusade, it was men like Baron Adam who kept the land calm, however fragile that peace might truly be along the Welsh borderlands or in the heart of England itself.
Thomas slid and struggled to keep upright. As he regained his precarious balance on the frozen ground, he heard loud shouts and the clatter of weapons. From the direction of the gate, where the last of the swine had just disappeared, a pack of barking hounds emerged in a churning pack. Horses massed just behind. A successful hunt, he concluded, catching his breath and watching as the men rode into the open ward, scattering fowl and tradesmen with equal abandon in the pale light of the morning.
Kitchen servants quickly ran to a huntsman who directed them to a skinned and roughly butchered boar as well as several smaller carcasses. As the kill was carried to the kitchen shed, black blood dripped here and there into the brindle slush, adding a pinkish hue.
“You have risen early, brother,” one thick-robed hunter called out as he rode up behind his fellows.
“If you followed the Offices of prayer as I must, Robert, you’d have been awake far earlier.” Thomas grinned as the man slid from his mount.
“On the contrary, good monk. At Matins, I prayed for a fat deer despite the winter snows. By Terce, God had answered me with a boar and several hare.”
Thomas laughed. “Matins, you say? Then you have prayed on horseback while your hounds sang the Office. To find such game when the sun has yet to climb fully above the horizon, you must have been out before dawn!” Although he’d had only brief acquaintance with him, Thomas had quite taken to his prioress’ older brother. Like Prioress Eleanor, Robert was in his early twenties, of short stature, and had gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence and humor. Unlike Prioress Eleanor, he was wiry, muscular, and sported a curly black beard.
“God gave me keen sight in the dark hours. A curse, I am, to the hares in winter,” Robert replied as he walked up to Thomas. Then all brightness faded from his eyes. “How fares my nephew?” he asked, his voice now hoarse with concern.
“All is well. Sister Anne says that God will spare the child.
The crisis has passed, and the boy sleeps well.”
Robert spun around. “Elwyn,” he shouted to a portly man with the red face of one who spends much time sampling his own sauces. “Make sure the best portion of that boar is saved for my nephew.” He gestured at Thomas. “Our good brother tells me Richard is recovering!” When Robert turned back to the monk, his smile was broad and joyous. “God be praised!”
“And Sister Anne. I’ve never known a more skilled hand in the healing arts.” Thomas was about to say more when he noticed a servant tossing aside a branch that had been used to transport the boar. “I need that limb,” he cried out, then turned back to Robert as the man brought him the bough. “Between the rich meat of a lusty boar and a stick sturdy enough for me to make your nephew a hobbyhorse for riding through the passageways at Wynethorpe, I do believe he will be both a healthy and a happy boy.”
“You are a kind man to think of that.” Robert slapped Thomas on the shoulder. “Although we may live to regret your gift. Richard will destroy any peace with his valiant joustings at such imaginary foes as his grandfather’s shadow or my cloak. If you are so fortunate, he may even deem you a good replacement for the Welsh dragon. Your red hair might warrant such a conclusion.” Robert’s look was affectionate, but his gaze was distant. “Despite his youth, he has all the markings of his crusader father.”
“Have you word of your elder brother?”
“Hugh may love his family with a whole heart, but he is not known for the diligence with which he sends us messages. We have heard that he is in good health, however, from those to whom he has given generously—returning soldiers, motley friars, and assorted beggars. We are most fortunate that they remember his kindness well and do bring us word of him. Nonetheless, he will not return home until the Lord Edward comes back to England.”
Thomas wondered in silence about Robert’s future when his elder brother did return. On the way from Tyndal, Prioress Eleanor told him that her father had put this second son in charge of the Wynethorpe lands in Hugh’s absence. Robert had shown both inclination and even greater talent for the work, if a loving sister could be considered a fair judge. With the heir’s return, however, Thomas knew well that a younger son must find another way to earn his meat.
As if he had read the monk’s thoughts, Robert continued. “By the time he does come home, our lord father will have me married off to the Lady Juliana of Lavenham. She comes with enough lands to make me quite rich with her dowry, and those lands are close enough to my father’s that I may continue to watch over his as well until Hugh is ready to choose his own steward.” He clasped Thomas by the shoulder and shook him affectionately. “Fear not! I am not destined to become your new prior at Tyndal. I’d rather study Walter of Henley’s Husbandry than the Venerable Bede’s instructive writings on abbots and saints. Unlike you, neither Hugh nor I is inclined to a contemplative vocation, good monk. A sister already encloistered provides intercession with God and prayers enough on behalf of this family and its sins!”
Thomas smiled at Robert’s assumption that he had entered a cloistered life prompted by any calling whatsoever, but there was no reason to shatter the man’s illusion. “You are betrothed then?”
“Almost as we speak, or so I believe. The lady’s father and Henry, her eldest brother, came to meet with my father on the contract not long after you, my sister, and her sub-infirmarian arrived to care for my nephew. The Lady Juliana accompanied them for a swift courtship and as companion to her father’s wife. Have you not seen the family or passed them in the hall outside your quarters?”
Thomas shook his head.
“How could you not? Lady Juliana has been put in Hugh’s empty chambers while her father and his wife have taken my quarters near the stairs. They are near enough to the room you share with our priest. Henry you might not have seen for he and I rest, if such is possible, in the barracks. There is no other accommodation for us over the dining hall.”
“At the hours I have walked the halls, the wiser among the living are still in bed and the spirits of the dead have long since returned to Hell. Sister Anne, our prioress, and I have all been with Richard day and night, taking turns with his care until the fever broke. Even our meals were taken in his sick room. Most nights I have watched over the boy to allow the women to sleep.”
Robert looked up at the position of the indistinct sun hiding in the graying sky, then motioned toward the great hall. “You will finally meet your fellow guests at today’s dinner, for it appears to be within a couple of hours of noon.”
Thomas nodded. Then, with a less than monkish grin, he returned to his previous subject: “Is she pleasing to you, your lady?”
Robert shrugged. “She will probably please me as much as I do her. She was an agreeable enough child, as I remember from years ago, but I have seen little of her in recent times.” He hesitated. His eyes narrowed. “I know her two brothers better.
I believe she favors her younger brother, in which case we will suit each other well enough. The eldest is a sour, petty-minded man. Henry has done nothing but quarrel with my father over which family shall give what to this happy union.”
Thomas blinked at the barely concealed resentment in Robert’s voice. Before he could question further, both men heard the clatter of more horses’ hooves coming across the wooden bridge and turned toward the dark archway of the entrance gate.
“I do believe that the Lavenham family has just returned from their morning ride,” Robert said, raising his hand in greeting to the lead horseman. Then his countenance hardened. “Yet I fear their ride was not a pleasant one.” His voice dropped to a harsh whisper as he gestured toward the arriving party. “That horse bears a corpse.”