Muddle-headed Kay (mhw) wrote,
Muddle-headed Kay

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[Ranulf]: Getting to Know You

As promised, though delayed.

I'm not so happy with this, but I'm not sure how to remedy it yet. I'll be grateful for suggestions.

Ranulf had just finished eating his lunch, which, though it had been ordinary enough fare, he would cheerfully have sworn was the best that he'd ever eaten, when his attention was caught by the sound of hushed voices coming from behind the door. Uncertain as to whether or not he should call out, he quietly replaced the wooden platter on the tray by his bed, adjusted his blankets and waited to see what would happen.

As he watched, the latch was carefully lifted, and the door slowly pushed open a little, lest the hinges creak. To Ranulf's delight, Giles' brown and tousled head quickly peeked through the narrow gap. He seemed as pleased and as surprised to find Ranulf awake as Ranulf was to see him, but he answered Ranulf's smile of welcome with a shy grin, then ducked his head back out again.

"He's in here! and awake!" his voice came back excitedly, though he tried to keep it soft. Then the door opened a little wider and Giles and another boy squeezed into the room, quickly shutting the door behind them as though they were wary of being apprehended. Ranulf was surprised to see how clean Giles was, his mop of brown hair having been neatly trimmed and the dirt scoured from his skin. Now he seemed a perfectly presentable boy, if somewhat plain of countenance, rather than the sweaty, grimy urchin Ranulf had last seen. Even Giles' clothing had undergone amendment, for, in place of his former rags, he now wore a plain brown robe of homespun cloth, belted at the waist with a white cord, much like the one Jess wore. His companion was similarly dressed, and just as well-scrubbed.

The boy who had entered with Giles was, Ranulf estimated, of his own age or a little older, and perhaps an inch or two taller than him. His hair was glossy and raven-black, with just a suspicion of a curl to it despite its shortness, and his skin was almost as brown as Giles'. He had none of the younger boy's weatherbeaten appearance, though, his skin being as smooth and tawny in complexion as polished bronze, and indeed it had perhaps the faintest trace of the sensuous olive-green shimmer of that metal. He examined Ranulf thoughtfully with almond-shaped eyes of a brown so deep that they seemed almost as black as sloes, set in a narrow, fine-boned face, the nose somewhat aquiline and the lips full and generous, and then he smiled and made a neat bow to Ranulf.

"My apologies," he said, "for gazing upon you so presumptuously. I regret my poor manners." His bearing was dignified but not haughty, his voice sounding sweet and low, not quite yet that of a man, but Ranulf surmised from the faint black down on his top lip that the change in his voice could not be long delayed. There was something a little strange to Ranulf's ears in the way that he spoke; he had heard that people from other parts of the country had different fashions of speech, and he wondered where the stranger might claim as his birthplace. Whoever he was, thought Ranulf, he was evidently well-born and used to being treated, and to treating others, with proper respect.

Ranulf laughed to cover his feeling of awkwardness. "No presumption at all, good sir. For my part, I must have inspected you as closely as you did me, and I heartily pray that you'll forgive any impudence I may have shown thereby." He turned to Giles. "Giles, sweet friend, won't you of your goodness introduce us one to the other?"

That seemed to snap Giles out of some reverie into which he'd fallen. "Oh! oh, yes..." he murmured absently, "I did not think..." He tore his eyes away from Ranulf's face and said simply, "Adam, this is my great friend Ranulf, who saved my life. Ran, this is Adam, who is to study here at Blacktoft with us."

Adam bowed deeply to Ranulf, and Ranulf coloured. "I'd gladly return your courtesy, sir, but I'm as naked as the day I was born," he responded, feeling at a grievous disadvantage, but inclining his head as politely as he could.

"Why all the whispering and creeping about, Giles?" he asked to break the awkwardness of the mood, sitting up and smoothing the blankets so that if one boy took the stool, the other should have a place to sit. Adam seated himself on the stool, and Giles perched on the bed, still glancing nervously from time to time at Ranulf's face. "And what's all this about me saving your life, and why do you keep looking at me like that? I know that I was hurt, but I'm in no way ready to leave this world, you know!"

Adam inclined his head to Giles, letting him have first speech. Giles looked nervously around, then started, his words hesitant.

"Do you remember when those beasts attacked us, Ranulf?" Ranulf nodded, but didn't interrupt. "Well, after Crowe had fallen - and oh, you should have seen that mighty wound in his chest, Ran! I was certain then that he was dead or mortally stricken, and that we all must surely be about to die, despite Rob's doughty defence. So while Rob bought us some little time, hopeless as it might be, I began to commend our souls to Our Lord, and I thought that you must be doing the same. But then all at once you shouted something out. I couldn't make out what it was that you said, over the noise of the fight and the dreadful howling of those creatures, and then suddenly you rushed around Rob, before he could do anything to stay you, and you leaped forward to slash at the beast that threatened Rob most nearly..."

"I remember that," Ranulf said slowly. "And then, like a fool, I dropped the sword, didn't I?"

Giles shrugged and reached for Ranulf's hand, squeezing it affectionately. "If you were a fool, Ran, you were the bravest fool among us. But let me continue, I beg you. I didn't see you drop the sword, of course; I had my eyes shut as I prayed, and Rob was between you and me in any case, so of that I know only what he told me afterwards. But then I had to break off from my prayers, because Rob grabbed hold of me and pulled me back and away from you as hard as he might, and I did see what happened next. One of the creatures had fallen back a way, and was making ready some kind of rope to bind us with, which it seemed to fashion out of its own body as a spider does the silk of its web, you know, and the other was reaching with its claws to take you. As to you - well, Ran, I don't know how to describe it truly, but it seemed that you stood like a statue, as though you'd been frozen like a strayed sheep in winter, even as it came for you, and then... and then you were afire! Golden lights seemed to flock to you out of the dark from everywhere around, hundreds of them, and they covered you like a fiery mantle. I could see, I could smell your hair and your clothes burning, Ran, and I was sure that this was some new deviltry of the creatures, but it didn't seem to pain you at all, for you stood as still as ever. And then... and then..." His voice suddenly shattered, and he curled up on the bed and hid his face from them.

"Hush, hush, Giles," Ranulf murmured, stroking the distraught boy's head, and beckoning to Adam to pour a beaker of ale. "It's all done with now, and from what Jess has told me we're all as well as may be and safe here, so drink this and leave off your tears, there's a good lad." He took the beaker from Adam and gently lifted Giles' head. Giles sat up slowly, knuckling the tears away from his eyes, then sniffled and took the beaker, swallowing the ale in great gulps.

"You must think me a great baby to carry on so," he said, handing back the beaker and wiping his eyes again on the sleeve of his robe, "but I swear by all that's holy that it was a dreadful, dreadful sight. I believe that I shall never forget it, not if I live to be a hundred, and I fear to sleep lest I dream of it. I don't know what it was that you did then, Ran, but of a sudden all the lights sprang from you and covered those two creatures, and though you'd been burned - well, I've never seen the like of what happened next. Those lights, Ran, they devoured the beasts as though they were maggots on a sheep, only a hundred times faster - no, faster than that, for it can have taken only a minute or two. And how they screamed, Ran! It was as though you'd released the very fires of Hell upon them!" He shuddered and averted his face once more for a moment, controlling his emotions, and then turned back to them.

"Rob was on his knees," he continued, his face pale, "gabbling some prayer, I think, though I couldn't tell the tongue. Not English, nor Latin, I think - and I do know a little Latin, at least by the sound of it, for Father Anselm, God rest his soul -" He crossed himself, and Ranulf did the same. "He was the one who taught me my letters," he explained, "and was a good man to all in our village, no matter what anyone else may say. Anyway, Rob was praying, and then when he'd finished he took a little flask from out of his scrip and he held it to Crowe's lips, and Crowe spluttered and sat up and accused Rob of trying to poison him - but, do you know what? That great wound in his chest, Ran, it was healing even as I looked! I don't know whether it was Rob's potion, or some miracle, but if I'd not seen it happen with my own two eyes I'd not have believed it. But then," he sighed, "we looked at you. Oh, Ran, it was terrible! I'd not seen you fall, but there you were, curled up on the ground, your clothes almost burned away, your hair and eyebrows all quite gone, and with great scorches and blisters all over your skin. I was sure that you must be dead, but Crowe looked you over, and said that you still breathed, if only just, but that he held no real hope of your surviving. Then Rob sighed and knelt by you, and he managed to dribble a bit of that cordial of his between your lips - and I don't know why, but Crowe looked at him very strangely for doing so. Anyway, they fashioned a kind of litter for you from Crowe's cloak, and we all carried you as carefully as we might. It was slow going, as you may imagine, but after a long while Crowe stopped and did something that made me so dizzy I thought I should fall over, but - " He shrugged. "I can't explain it. When I opened my eyes again, here we were at Blacktoft, in the inner court, with people making a great commotion, and then they took you away. And ever since then I've been asking after you, but people would say only that I must ask Jess, and all I could ever get out of her was that you were recovering and that nobody was allowed to disturb you." He sniffed and knuckled his eyes again. "I was sure that you were dead and that they were just trying to spare me from knowing it a while."

Adam had been nodding his head in agreement during the latter part of Giles' story, and now he broke in. "He tells you nothing but the truth," he said sombrely. "I was here when they brought you in, and you were sorely burned indeed. I could smell the stink of you from half across the court. Coming from London as I do, where house fires are all too common, I've seen people burned to death and nearly to death, and I'd have wagered good money on you not lasting out the day, not even with medicine and good nursing. In truth, I think that with those injuries you should have been dead, if you'll forgive my saying so. But I was sure that Jess was honest with me when she said that you were recovering, so to reassure Giles I promised him that I'd come to find you - though, to tell truth, I'd expected to find you in a much worse state than you are."

Ranulf smiled at them both to break the mood. "But, my friends, as you see I'm well and whole, thanks to Jess; and if I saved your life, Giles, then you and Rob and Crowe did no less for me, for it would have been easy enough for you to speed your own journey by leaving me to my fate. Still, let us have no more of this grim talk now that we are rejoined! I pray you, friends, satisfy my curiosity, for Jess has told me little enough: she said that I was brought here on Tuesday morning, and that today is Friday; so you, Adam, must have been here before Tuesday, to witness our arrival. Rob said that there were a half-dozen of us to come here, and we here are three. Are the others here yet, and what do you know of them? And what is this place they call Blacktoft?"

Adam laughed and shook his head in mock dismay. "I thought that Giles exaggerated when he said that you said little but asked much, Ranulf, but it seems that he spoke no more than the simple truth. To answer the least matters first: my father's ship, on which I often travel, had business in Hull, where Aylmer, my father's agent, received messages for him, amongst which was one from the Magister calling me to Blacktoft. It was no trouble to them to bring me, when the tide was favourable, by ship's boat the small distance further to Faxfleet landing, where I was met by some of the servants and brought here the last few miles. That was an hour or two before noon on Monday. You two, as you know, came here on Tuesday morning, about the same hour. Now, Giles, when did William and Henry come here? for they were the next to arrive."

"Let me recollect," said Giles, and scratched his head. "You were in seclusion with the Magister, and I was in the kitchen yard feeding the hens when I heard the horses arrive and the drawbridge being let down for them, so I suppose it must have been just after breakfast on Wednesday. I didn't meet them until after lunch, nor did you, I'm sure, because you and the Magister had your lunch brought in to you. Whatever was it that took you and him so long to discuss, Adam? for he's barely had two words to spare for me all this week."

"Oh," Adam said with an airy shrug, "mostly news of how matters fare in London, to tell truth. I believe he'd hoped that my father might have been free to come hither with me, so that they could talk of things which to write of would be indiscreet, but my father has always kept me in his confidence in many matters, and so some of the Magister's questions I could answer in full, and tell him what I did know where I could not."

"Is your father some great lord, then?" asked Ranulf, and Adam chuckled richly.

"A lord? Oh, no, Ranulf, no, no! A merchant only, and not a great merchant either, though his business fares well enough. There'll always be need of spices and amber in this land, and a ready market for good English woolen and leathern goods over the seas, though to know in advance which ports and markets are open to us, and which at any time closed by policy, either ours or theirs, is more difficult than ever. But where there is trade, there is gossip; and where there is gossip, there is information - and people will pay in good coin for good information. Though with Sir Francis lately dead, there's no -" He broke off with a smile at their looks of perplexity. "I speak of Sir Francis Walsingham, our good queen's secretary for many years, and, some would say, her chief intelligencer. Anyway, my friends, let's not talk of politics, for it's always an unhealthy business. Back to our friends Will and Hal, who seem good stout fellows, though I've spoken but little with them. Brothers I think them, by their looks; well-born, by their manners; and, I think, though I'm not greatly knowledgeable in these things, from north of here by their speech, though not Scots..."

"And then there's Thomas," Giles said with a scowl.

"Aye, indeed there's Thomas," Adam agreed, and his brow furrowed somewhat. "Forgive me if what I say prejudices you against him, Ranulf, but there's something I mislike in that boy, and I'd caution you to be wary of him. For a start, he'll have no 'Tom', but always 'Thomas'; he regards everything and everyone about him with condescension in his eye and a curl in his lip, like some petty lord who is mightier in his self-worth than in his honour; and never an 'If it please you' or 'Of your goodness' to be heard on his tongue. As to how he treats young Giles! it's 'Boy, fetch me this,' and 'Bring me that, boy,' as though Giles were his indentured servant."

"I mind it not," Giles said stoutly, though with a betraying sigh afterwards. "I'm pleased to be of use to any. Though..."

"Though nothing," Adam snapped. "You are too mild and complaisant, Giles, and he will eat you whole if you allow him to treat you so. He is no more and no less than you are here, Giles, a pupil among pupils, and the Magister has said that we are to have no rank and privilege one among another. Do you not remember that he told us at supper last night that we are gone from the world while we abide here, and that this place is our only home, those here our only family, and our learning our only occupation until such time as he shall say otherwise? And if it please the Magister that you share a bed with Thomas, then Thomas has no right to cast you out in disdain and make you sleep among the rushes!"

Giles nodded miserably. "I suppose that you are right, my friend. Though I fear that Hal and Will have hardened his heart further against me..."

Ranulf gave Adam an inquiring look, and Adam laughed. "Oh, Ranulf, you should have seen us last night! You see, we six are all to share the same chamber, by the Magister's decree - and a fine and well-appointed chamber it is, too, as you shall see for yourself soon enough, with three good beds. Beds, I swear, more spacious and more comfortable than any that I'm used to at my father's house, or anywhere that I've stayed on our travels, with thick mattresses and good warm blankets. You and I are to have the one nearest the door; Will and Hal, who they tell me have shared a bed since they were babes, the middle one; and Giles and Thomas the third. Now, I admit that in kindness to Giles I let him bed with me these past three nights, for he feared to sleep alone, but with Thomas having arrived yesterday evening, it seemed proper that he and Giles should begin to share their bed, as the Magister wished. But no, Thomas would have none of it; he swore and blustered that he should not share a bed with a common serving-lad - for so in his arrogance he deemed Giles - and he kicked him out upon the rushes. Now Hal and Will, when they heard that, they were greatly angered with him, and heaved Thomas up out of his bed together and put him on the rushes close by Giles, saying that he should share the bed with him, whether on the floor or off it. And several times Thomas climbed back into the bed, but would have none of Giles joining him, and each time they haled him out of it and set him on the floor. Now, I was in my bed, of course, and could see none of what then passed..."

Giles chuckled. "I could!"

Adam reached forward and tousled Giles' curls. "Perhaps, but Will and Hal swore that it was an accident, so I think that it's best to leave it at that. Anyway," he flashed Ranulf a white-toothed grin, "I believe that one of them misplaced his footing in the dark, and trod by mishap heavily upon the tenderer parts of Thomas, and, while he was gasping and gagging, they picked him up from the floor and put him to bed, and Giles alongside him, and we heard no more from him that night except an occasional groan. Oh, I think no great injury was done him, save to his self-esteem, for all that they are solid lads, yet at breakfast I fancy he was walking a little uncomfortably, eh Giles?"

"I wish that I were out of this bed," Ranulf sighed. "I've been awake but a few hours, and yet how the time hangs upon me! I've seen nothing of Blacktoft but what you've described for me. It must be a great place indeed, if it has a drawbridge and an inner court!"

Adam nodded. "We have seen but a little of it, too, so much waits upon our discovery. I have seen somewhat of the outlying lands, the moat and the gatehouse, and the stables and some of the other outbuildings that stand within the outer walls, the great hall and the kitchen, and the chamber where we sleep, and here I now know is the infirmary, and the Magister has mentioned the chapel and the library..."

"It has turrets, Ranulf!" Giles broke in with excitement.

"Aye, it has indeed four turrets, a moat, strong walls, and a troop of men-at-arms and horses to defend us, so we need fear not at all for our safety," Adam agreed with a laugh. "But for the arts of war I care not at all, so..."

And at that the door opened suddenly, and Jess stood there with her hands on her hips and a frown on her forehead. "Are you pestering my charge in his sickbed, boys?" she asked them, though mildly.

Adam and Giles sprang up from their seats, looking somewhat ashamed, and she shook her head at them in reproof. "Did you think you'd not be missed?" she asked. "William and Henry have been looking for you, Adam; and Giles, Agatha tells me that you promised her that straight after lunch you'd be helping her with the fish for supper, and it's an hour after noon already." She cast her eyes about her, then said softly, "Great as this house may seem to you, you are always watched, one way or another, and you will do well to remember that." Then, resuming her usual tone, she added, "Still, he looks none the worse for your importunacy, so I'll suggest that you make haste and be about your business, and not let slip that you've been here before the Magister has had a chance to speak with Ranulf!"

They mumbled their apologies, and bowed themselves humbly out of the room with many declarations of amended behaviour, and then Jess turned to Ranulf with a smile.

"Truly, they have not wearied you?" she asked, and Ranulf shook his head.

"No, Jess, not at all. To tell truth, it's gladdened my heart to see them, and if there's any fault in them, it's that they've made me impatient to be on my feet again instead of lying abed like a sluggard."

She looked at his empty lunch platter and the jug almost emptied of ale and smiled a little. "You ate all and drank all yourself?"

He was about to nod, then remembered the beaker of ale that Adam had given to Giles, and shook his head. "One small draught of ale went to Giles for his restoration, for he was overcome when he told me of the end of our journey, but all the rest I ate and drank before ever they came here."

Jess chuckled. "It's good that you are honest, for I smelled the ale upon him as he came past me, and I should have thought the less of you had you not told me the truth. Oh, I knew that they were here, and I think that I heard all that passed between you, for my chamber lies just to the side of this. You should not rely on the seeming thickness of walls to conceal your conversations, for what may seem to be a wall may be only a door concealed by an arras, and there are other means besides in a place such as this by which you may be overheard when least you expect it. So be warned, Ranulf. Do not carelessly make every man your willy-nilly confidant."

She must have caught the nervousness that her words induced in him, for she smiled comfortingly. "No harm done this time, truly. I heard nothing that I didn't know before, except the 'accidental' damage to young Tom's balls, and I swear that he deserved no less. If he thinks that I shall be rubbing liniment on them to ease the ache, he has another think coming!"

Ranulf and she laughed, and then Ranulf asked, reasonably enough as he thought, "But if Thomas objects so to Giles' company, then why may he and Adam not share a bed, and Giles and I sleep together? for I'd be content enough with Giles. Unless, in truth, Thomas counts himself so fine that he'll not deign to sleep with a merchant's son? for I think he would find me as poor and lacking in gentleness as Giles, if he knew my station."

Jess shook her head vehemently. "No. The Magister has made his decision, and he knows well enough why he decides as he does. Question not his ways, Ranulf. He decides, and we may not require of him his reasons."

"But on such a little thing?" Ranulf knew that he'd misspoken as soon as the words had left his lips, and he would have recalled them if he could, for she looked troubled at his question. She sighed, and looked at him frankly, so that he had no doubt that she told him the truth, as well as she knew it herself.

"Little to you or I perhaps, Ranulf, but not to him. He's no vaunting tyrant, ruling our thoughts on every matter and calling us to account for our every minute - indeed, sometimes getting advice or opinion from him is like milking a bull; great labour and to very little profit. So when he does decide, Ranulf, trust him, trust him better than you trust yourself. Give him your obedience with a whole heart, not because he is without fault, but because he knows his faults better than any of us. If you are well enough to come to supper tonight - and I think that you may be - you will see those who have sworn to him their undying fealty, and you must ask yourself, if such as those have seen it proper to give him their obedience, then can you be wiser than them to withhold yours, if he asks it of you?"

He looked at her drawn expression, and it seemed to him that she said these things to him as much to justify the Magister to herself as to him. Something of that must have shown in his face, for she bit her lip and turned her face from him. "Don't ask me what you truly don't want to know, Ranulf," she whispered. "He gave me a place here without asking over many questions, and, believe me, if I have no place here, I can have none elsewhere. And as for you - don't you think you have enough secrets of your own for now, without looking to discover other folk's?"

"I don't wish to pry," he said. "You're right, Jess, I'm not your confessor. Though," he added shyly," I should be glad to be your friend."

"Well enough," she said, turning back to him with a faint smile and some of her old briskness. "I'll keep the Magister from you until after supper, but then there'll be no holding him back. He's eager for you, Ranulf - every time I see him, he asks after you. I can't tell what you mean to him, but..." She shrugged. "No doubt he'll tell you in his good time. Anyway," she said, pointing across the room at a coffer, "there you'll find shirts and hose. Take what you need. Yours were completely ruined and scarcely of use as rags, but I'm sure that you'll find some to fit in there. Your shoes, such as they are," she sniffed a little, "are patched and mended as well as may be, but you'll need a new pair before Christmas. They're at the foot of your bed. As to your gown, there's a couple of old ones of Michel's in the coffer as well, and he's not much taller than you. Thank goodness that you're not long and lanky like Will and Hal, or ox-shouldered like John."

"I'm to have a gown also?" Ranulf asked, for he'd never thought to wear such good clothing. If it was anything like the ones Adam and Giles had been wearing, it would matter not a jot to him that it was homespun and second-hand. It would be soundly made and the cloth of decent quality, unlike his usual clothing; no matter that his mother was a weaver, her fine work had gone to market, not to dress her family. "Why, I wonder, do you and the rest of us wear them?"

Jess smiled a little. "Oh, practical though they are, they're really nothing more than the Magister's own version of the sumptuary laws. He thinks that our wearing them eliminates marks of worldly rank and gives us a fine scholastic air. To tell truth, I think that he hankers after his memories of university days. So gowns are to be worn by all scholars, consortes and Masters to all lessons, except for those where they would be impractical, and to all meals, and when they go outside the walls - though your duties won't call you outside for a while, I shouldn't think. To be honest, I choose to wear mine most of the time, for it's good and warm, and for all its stout building Blacktoft can be a draughty place, particularly in winter."

"Consortes?" Ranulf looked blank at the unfamiliar word, and Jess laughed.

"Oh, that... that's just another of the Magister's Latin vanities, I think. All that it means is those of us at Blacktoft who aren't masters or pupils - and he'll call you discipuli, not pupils, mind you - and aren't paid servants. I'm a consors, just like Crowe."

"And Rob?"

She drew in her breath at that. "That rather depends on whom you ask. Rob's given no formal oath, so there are some who won't count him. Then again, he claims, he has has no need of doing so, having been of assistance here long before the Magister came here, and having never been found wanting in trust by any. But the Magister treats him as one of us, and that's good enough for me. Anyway, I'll take these away," she said, gathering up the tray on which his lunch had been brought, "and leave you to dress yourself. Oh, and while I'm at it, remember always before meals to wash your face and hands, to scrub your teeth, and to dress yourself neatly. He can't abide anyone showing discourtesy to the servants by presenting themselves slovenly at meals."

He nodded obediently. "And how am I to know the time for supper?"

Jess glanced out of the window. "Supper will be a little after sunset. There's a bell sounded to call us to meals, but you won't be used to hearing it yet. I'll come for you when it's time, and take you down to the hall."


He washed and dressed himself carefully, anxious to give a good impression of himself by his appearance and his manner, though his stomach trembled at what lay ahead. There were so many people whom he didn't know, and he was to dine with them tonight in the hall! Even in his wildest childhood fancies, he'd never thought that anything such as that might be in store for him.

The golden light slowly faded, and he crossed to the window and opened the shutters to watch the light of day leach away from the flat landscape, the only feature still distinct through the thickening mist being the great sweep of a river on which one or two little boats made their way hurriedly for home. There came now and then voices from below, and the sound of feet being stamped, and the occasional neigh of a horse, but apart from that all was peaceful without. Then a sudden longing for home smote him, and he knelt and prayed that God would keep his mother and her little ones safe from harm while he was not there to protect them.

How long he knelt in prayer he could not say, but he was roused from his devotions by a quick rapping at the door. As he stood, smoothing down his gown, Jess opened the door, and golden light streamed into the room from a candlestick in her hands.

"Supper's ready," she said, "and the bell rung. Are you well?"

He nodded, and she beckoned him over to her and set a companionable arm around his shoulder lest he should feel faint. Together they passed through a room whose air was thick with the smell of herbs and spices, and then another stacked with dusty chests and barrels, then down a narrow flight of stairs, and at last, through a passageway filled with smells that made Ranulf's mouth water, into the bright candle-lit hall.

At the far end a fire blazed in the great fireplace, fierce enough that Ranulf could feel its heat from the other end. Two trestle tables were set lengthways down the hall, at which it seemed to Ranulf that there was a great multitude seated, but as the dazzle of the candles lessened he saw that they numbered less than a score. Two places had evidently been left for them at the trestle nearer to the door by which they entered, and at which Ranulf could see Robert Hod and Crowe, and Giles and Adam, along with some other boys he did not know, but he assumed them to be Will and Hal and Thomas. At a quick glance he recognised none of those at the other trestle, but Jess nudged him and whispered, "To your place, Ranulf - there'll be time for gawping later!"

As they entered, a white-bearded and venerable man, robed as they all were in homespun brown, took notice of them and raised a hand in salutation. Then he rapped the table to attract the attention of the assembly and stood, and as he stood they all came to their feet, excepting one who sat at the end of the further trestle.

"Grace before meat, Daniel, if you'll be so good?" he said in a surprisingly strong and clear voice.

The man to his left, much younger and with dark hair and a severe expression nodded and folded his hands.

"Let us lift our eyes toward the sanctuary of heaven and bless the Lord," he intoned. "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and brought forth this food from the earth." At this all present crossed themselves, and he continued, "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen."

"Amen," they all responded, and took their seats.

The food was excellent, at least to Ranulf's palate; he'd rarely tasted one dish so good on a feast day, and here there were several at what seemed to be no more than an ordinary Blacktoft supper. Even the bread was finer than what he'd been used to eat. First there was brought to table a pottage of barley and leeks with sage and pepper, and then herrings in a mustard sauce, accompanied by onions baked with ginger, and after that at last a custard of shrimp spiced with mace. There was little or no conversation during the meal, for it seemed that everyone's attention was, as it properly should be, upon the food; but when the remnants had been removed for distribution to the poor, and stronger ale and cheeses and nuts and fruit brought out, then the talk began to flow in earnest.

Ranulf leaned discreetly across the trestle to Jess, who had seated herself a little to his right and opposite him. "That must have been the Magister who asked for grace, I think," he said as he selected an apple, and she nodded.

"And he who gave thanks for us is Daniel Lyon, who was once his pupil, then left to study at Oxford, but who now works here with him," she said. "Typical of him that he should pray in English rather than in God's good Latin, but he's much inclined to the new reforming ways, and if the queen says that she'll not make windows into men's souls, then why should I? He's learned in the Trivium and in natural philosophy, and makes a valuable secretarius for the Magister, whose eyesight isn't what it used to be. By all accounts, though, he feels himself very much the junior here, and that makes him to smart somewhat and be sterner than he need. And next to him sits William of Pickering, the old man who did not stand, very knowledgeable in theology and the principles of spiritual magic. He was taken with an apoplexy some five years ago, for which I could do little after the fact, and he can now no longer walk or feed himself. He still teaches Peter and Anthony, his students, but more and more they have become his caretakers and interpreters, for he can no longer shape his words, so they must read the signs that he makes with his fingers. He still has a fine a mind as any, though, and if he should choose to teach you, you'll profit much by it."

Ranulf nodded, and began to peel the apple with his knife, though he paid her close attention still.

"On the Magister's right hand," Jess continued, cracking walnuts easily in her fists, "sits Susanna Bartlett, who knows more than I should care to about music, astronomy and the other arithmetical arts, with her student Michel de Blois in front of her."

He looked up and over Rob's shoulder to where the woman sat. At first he had taken her for a man, with her close-cropped iron-grey hair and great beak of a nose in a narrow, severe face, devoid of any powder or paint that he could see; as he looked at her it seemed almost as though she felt his gaze upon her, for she turned in her seat and gazed coolly in his direction, then leaned forward in her seat and said something to the young man who sat opposite her, his fair, almost white, hair easily a foot longer than hers and tied in a bunch. He in turn glanced over and favoured Ranulf with a brief inquiring look softened with a wry smile, then resumed his conversation with the rusty-haired giant who sat next to him.

"She's a clever one," Jess said quietly, "and you'll do well not to draw her attention unnecessarily. As the only woman of any standing within the covenant, she feels society's constraints upon her sex most markedly, whether or not anyone attempts to apply them to her. Which, if they've any sense," she continued, and took a mouthful of ale, "they do not. By all accounts, when she was a girl her parents indulged her appetite for learning to the point where no sane man would wed her - not that I think she's ever had any desire for wifely pleasures, or Michel would perhaps not cast such fond eyes upon John - yes, him with the russet hair and the great shoulders. More of him anon." Then she caught sight of Ranulf's shocked expression, and laughed heartily. "Ranulf, this is a community of men - or are you yet too young to think of such things? Where do you think they can slake their desires - on the servants? the girls from the village? or should they ride to a whorehouse in Hull?"

"Better that than they should burn in Hell for unholy lust!" Ranulf whispered, aghast, and Jess snorted in derision.

"Sentiment's cheap when it costs you nothing, Ranulf," she rebuked him with laughing eyes. "And hasty judgement's the cheapest sentiment of all. But hush now, I say nothing of what they do or what they do not, only that Michel has a strong regard for John, and John for him, and that they enjoy each other's company. Whatever may be between them is their concern and God's, not mine. Nor yours, if you'll be wise. Let Michel sing and play for you, for he has a voice like an angel, but be wary. I think that John would be the jealous type if provoked, and he's stronger than I, if not half so handy with a blade. Anyway, that's Michel and John, and next to John, beyond the Magister, is Daniel's other student, Ned."

Again, Ranulf could see only the back of a head moving in animated discussion, round with straight mid-brown hair, and he nodded to Jess to continue.

"Ned, for that's what you must call him - he says that he's only ever Edward when he's in disgrace - is the newest here, excepting of course you six. Susanna's forever trying to poach him from Daniel, because he reads and writes Spanish and Arabic, but he's content where he is, though I'm not sure that teaching alchemy to one so clumsy is a sensible thing to do... and there we are, back to Peter and Anthony again. Welcome to your new family," she said, her face faintly flushed, "for what it's worth."

Ranulf glanced down to the other end of their trestle. "And at that end are, I think, Will and Hal and Thomas?"

Jess nodded. "Indeed, though there's nothing useful that I can tell you of them, Ranulf; some things you must find out for yourself."

At that, there came a rapping from the other table and Ranulf looked up to see the Magister stand and lean rather heavily on the table in front of him, his face somewhat reddened with ale and the heat of the fire.

"If you will stand for Susanna to give thanks for our food," he said, "and afterwards seat yourselves again, I have something to say to you all."

They stood, and Susanna did as she'd been bidden in crisp and forceful Latin, and then they resumed their seats except for the Magister, who regarded them all with a benevolent complacency for a few moments before beginning.

"Dear friends and colleagues, as I think you all know to some degree or other we have taken under our wing six young men who are to study with us for the next several years. This has not been, I acknowledge, our usual practice, but times are changing and we must adapt to them. They are, of course, not yet bound to us by any oath, and so there are matters which may not be freely discussed in front of them, and yet I ask that you make them feel that they are welcome here.

"I shall be responsible for them in all things, so anything concerning them should be brought to my attention. Daniel, however, will take charge of their education; I know that he has spoken to you already about this. He has asked me to say to our young friends that he will see them all here before breakfast tomorrow to make preliminary arrangements for their studies."

He peered across the hall, shading his eyes from the brightness of the candles, and smiled in Ranulf's direction.

"Ah, Ranulf. Be so good as to remain here when the others leave. I shan't keep you long, but there are a few matters that I really should discuss with you now that you're recovered. Jess, you mustn't scowl at me so; you have my word that I shan't exhaust him.

"Now, all of you - supper's done, and you have your duties to attend to. I shall see you all at breakfast, no doubt."

There was a general scraping of benches as the inhabitants of Blacktoft stood, and then they left in small groups, some casting curious glances at Ranulf as the Magister made his way over to him.

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