Now, do you see what I meant, duranorak? *grin*
Ranulf swallowed in apprehension as the Magister made his way across the hall towards him. The old man didn't seem particularly forbidding, but from the way in which people had spoken of him Ranulf felt sure that some formality must be due. He stood up hastily, his feet catching on the hem of the unfamiliar robe and threatening to trip him, and bowed as deeply as he could.
He'd expected the Magister to say something to him, so after a moment's silence he tilted his head slightly and looked up to see the Magister regarding him with a quizzical expression, half smiling, half melancholy. As their eyes met the Magister sighed, though Ranulf could see no reason for him to do so, and then shook his head.
"Sit down, Ranulf, do," he said, suppressing a belch. "I'm far too full of Agatha's good food and drink to care to stand on ceremony, or on anything else for that matter. And, in God's name, be easy! you look as though you think I'm going to eat you."
Ranulf quickly seated himself again, and the Magister, wheezing a little, lowered himself to the bench opposite him with the care of a man with a full belly. For a few moments neither of them spoke, Ranulf feeling that it was hardly his place to begin, and the Magister, though he gestured several times as though to pluck words from the air, seeming to find it difficult to know how he should start the conversation. The only noise came from the clatter of the servants as they cleared the tables and from the crackling of the logs in the hearth, and it sounded very loud indeed to Ranulf, who felt increasingly awkward as the silence between them dragged itself out. Eventually the Magister coughed, then fixed Ranulf with his watery blue eyes.
"What do you think of Blacktoft, then?" he asked abruptly, picking up a neglected pear and biting firmly into it with teeth that were in surprisingly good condition for a man of his apparent age.
Such a direct question came as a surprise to Ranulf, who hadn't much experience of being asked his opinion, particularly by someone as important as the Magister seemed to be.
"I haven't seen much, sir, to tell you the truth," Ranulf replied. "Only the room where Jess tended me, and a room or two briefly on our way to supper tonight. And the hall, of course, though my attention was mostly on the food."
The Magister chuckled and wiped pear juice from his lips, carelessly throwing down the core of the fruit. "Agatha feeds us very well, as you have just found out. But Ranulf, you know, every time I looked in your direction, your attention seemed to be less on the food than on the rest of the assembly. You and our good Infirmarer seemed to be greatly enjoying yourselves in discussing us." Realising that Ranulf might take his observation as criticism of his behaviour, he gave Ranulf a disarming smile. "Which is no more than to be expected, with your being newly come among so many strangers, and I doubt that you put anyone out of countenance. As to Blacktoft itself, you may feel free to explore, you know; as I told the other lads, you won't be able to pass through any door that's not meant for you. For safety's sake, mostly; a magician's workroom is a dangerous place, particularly for the ignorant, and we value our privacy as much as anyone. Just don't pester the servants, there's a good fellow. It's hard enough to get them to work here without them having to deal with boys running around and poking their noses into everything and asking endless questions." He reached into a pocket in his gown and took out a pair of spectacles, which he perched on his nose to scrutinise Ranulf. "Jess took good care of you," he said, and it was as much a question as a statement.
Ranulf smiled and nodded. "From what Adam and Giles told me, I was in a sorry state when I was brought here, yet now I think I feel as well as I ever have. That's much to her credit, surely."
The Magister seemed pleased enough by his answer. "Indeed, indeed," he said with a nod of satisfaction. "I should have hated to lose..." At that he broke off and coughed quite violently. "Forgive me," he spluttered, then wiped his nose on the sleeve of his gown. "I have a rheum on my chest which is particularly troublesome at this time of year despite our Infirmarer's excellent syrups and plasters. So, Ranulf, I think that you've already been told somewhat of why you and the other lads are here?"
"To study, sir," Ranulf replied, and the Magister nodded approvingly, but seemed to expect more from him. "To learn... about magic?" Ranulf continued, his voice dropping to a whisper on the last word, at which the Magister seemed surprised, then laughed heartily and began to cough once more, his face gradually purpling as he pounded his chest to still the coughing.
"That's... that's one word you need not whisper here," he wheezed when he'd caught his breath again, and he picked up a half-empty jug of ale and drained it, smacking his lips with satisfaction. "Not, at least, if there are no outsiders about. Though you'll learn little enough of anything that most people might call magic at first. We must see to your general education before we go any further, for magic, at least in the forms in which it is studied and practised here, is a scholarly enterprise, and must be based on sound knowledge. As we have all had to," he said with a smile, "you must learn to sit before you crawl, and crawl before you walk, and only when you can walk does it make any sense to think about running. Let alone flying. Do you follow me?"
Ranulf nodded slowly. "I think I do, sir," he said, "but..." Try as he might, he couldn't prevent his face from taking on a doubtful expression. "Isn't it a great sin, sir, even to study such things, let alone to practise them? Our parish priest often used to preach against wizards and those who consorted with spirits, and I never knew him to tell other than the truth..." He trailed off, realising the impoliteness of effectively accusing his host of going against the teachings of the Church.
The Magister pursed his lips and thought for a moment, not taking his eyes from Ranulf's. "I suppose," he said at length, "that that is one way of looking at it. But only one way, and not necessarily the only correct one. I should hate to diminish Father Oswald in your eyes, Ranulf, for he is indeed a man of great virtue, which is to be valued in these times of trouble. I might venture to say, though, that perhaps he judges more from the very particular way in which he has been taught to think than from any direct experience, and I am a great believer in the necessity of experience. Principles and assertions from authorities, whether secular or religious, will carry one only so far. Experienta docet, dear boy; experience teaches...." He paused as he noticed the puzzlement on Ranulf's face and raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You find that troublesome?"
Ranulf was indeed troubled, but not by the Magister's philosophical maxims. "You know Father Oswald, sir?"
That seemed not to be the question that the Magister had been expecting, for he blinked and sat up rather more straight on the bench. "No," he said, stroking his chin. "No, I cannot say that I know him, Ranulf, but I do know of him." He sighed and fixed Ranulf with his gaze. "I think that it is time for me to tell you a few things. Over the years, you see, I have paid a certain amount of attention to you, and to the rest of the boys that have come here this past week. Not closely enough in your case, I fear, from what Robert Hod tells me; believe me, Ranulf, if I'd had any notion of what... of the dreadful things that he tells me were done to you by Jack Carter, I would have intervened most forcefully."
He must have seen the look of remembered pain that flashed across Ranulf's face, for he half-reached across the table to comfort him, but then seemed to think better of it, and dropped his hand. "All that I can offer in my defence, and that to my great shame, Ranulf, is that his crime was skilfully hidden from my knowledge. How that was done, I do not know; though I intend speedily to find out. But I did ensure that that you were well taught: that you learned your letters and your numbers; that you read well enough and knew how to write; that you had some grounding in the Scriptures and in the Latin language, and, all in all, as much was taught you as could be. I had always intended that you should come to Blacktoft, you see," he finished, as though that explained everything, and turned to stare into the fire.
That gave Ranulf an opportunity to ask the question that had been occupying his mind more and more since Robert Hod had come for him on that dark night, less than a week ago. "Sir," he said softly, "if it's not a great impudence to ask - why was I chosen?"
The Magister turned slowly back to him, peered over the top of his spectacles, and chuckled. "That," he said, "is a very good question. Alas, though, it is one that I cannot - no, may not - answer to any great depth at the moment. I suppose, though -" he pulled at his beard and considered. "Do you know what a horoscope is, Ranulf?"
Ranulf shook his head at the unfamiliar word, and the Magister smiled. "Oh, fear not, lad, you'll know about them soon enough when Susanna has taught you about the motions of the heavens," he said. "In brief, the positions of the heavenly bodies at the moment and place of a man's birth, and the relationships of those positions one to another, indicate to those who know how to interpret them his character and what the fates likely have in store for him. Such an analysis is called a horoscope, Ranulf. It was by the examination of horoscopes, among other methods, that I determined that you lads would likely profit greatly from the education you will have here, and use it to your, and our, benefit. So then I made sure, or as sure as I was able, that you were well cared for and raised in such a way that, when it was meet for you to come here, come here you would."
Something in what the old man had said started to fret at Ranulf's mind as he spoke, and he could hardly wait for the Magister to finish. The Magister noticed that Ranulf's attention was no longer wholly on what he was saying, and he chuckled indulgently. "Jess will have my hide if she thinks that I shall over-weary you, lad," he said with a smile. "Do you want to run off to your bed? for remember, Daniel wishes to speak with you all before breakfast, and you're not long out of your sickbed."
"I would ask one more question, sir, if I may," Ranulf said hesitantly. "You said that a horoscope, if I've understood you aright, requires knowledge of the time and place of a man's birth." The Magister nodded quick assent, and Ranulf continued: "But, sir, I was fostered, and I know nothing of when or where I was born, for my foster-mother could tell me nothing - or would not," he admitted, and then the last words came out in a rush. "So then how was I to have a horoscope for you to examine, unless you knew when and where I was born?"
The Magister stared solemnly at him for what seemed like minutes, and then his face eased into a thin smile, though apprehension flickered behind his eyes. "You are a clever one and no mistake, Ranulf. I shall certainly have to watch my words when I'm talking with you, shan't I? Well, you see, a horoscope may be erected approximately, in such cases as the place and time are not quite certain..." He broke off as he met Ranulf's unpersuaded eyes and sighed. "It won't do, will it? Very well, I won't lie to you. Yes, Ranulf, I do know when and where you were born."
Ranulf's eyes widened. "Then do I have a family, sir?"
The Magister grimaced as though he had bitten into something that tasted bad and was uncertain how to get it out of his mouth as discreetly as possible. "In some sense, I suppose, yes, I would have to say that you do, in that you have living kin," he said, choosing his words with deliberation. "I cannot say otherwise than that. Kin to you they are indeed, but not what I should call family. Think, Ranulf; if they had wanted you, you would not have been given to Meg. Dear boy, that part of your life is long gone, and it would be better for all concerned if you were to put all thought of it behind you. I suggest that you think no more on them, any more than they ever think of you." He spoke ever more vehemently, overriding Ranulf as he seemed about to protest. "In nigh on fourteen years, Ranulf, have they sought you out? Have they sent you any token of affection? No, they have not, not once, for all that they could have done so had they wished. I will, if you require it of me, tell your hour and place of birth, but of them..." He shook his head in regretful determination. "Of them I will say nothing. Forget them, Ranulf."
Ranulf had never thought that he could feel such disappointment. To be given a family with one hand, and then moments later to have it snatched from him with the other was more than he could endure. The Magister raised one hand, perhaps as much in defence as in admonition as Ranulf stood, white-faced and trembling.
"You refuse to tell me, then?" Ranulf choked, and the Magister sighed and rubbed at his eyes in weariness.
"Ranulf, it is for your own sake that I refuse. I swear to you, it would do you no good, and possibly great injury, if I were to tell you what I know. I wish heartily that I myself did not know it. But I swear there is no blame to you whatsoever in the circumstances of your birth, only to those who..." He shook his head. "No. No more, Ranulf. Don't ask me again." He looked away, and Ranulf knew that the conversation was at an end.
Ranulf spun on his heel and strode with as much dignity as he could out of the hall, despite the stinging of incipient tears that threatened to blind him.
"I hate you," he whispered as he left the hall, but not so softly that the sharp ears of the Magister could not catch his words.
"I hate myself, Ranulf," he murmured as he stared into the flames, his shoulders hunched with old grief. "More than you'll ever know, I pray."
Ranulf maintained his dignity as best he could until he was out of the hall, and then he ran, bitter tears now freed to scald his eyes and cheeks. Some corner of his mind told him that he knew of nowhere to go unless he could find the room in which Jess had cared for him, but he disregarded it. What drove him was a need to get as far away from the Magister as he could, and anywhere would do.
He pushed at a door chosen at random, and it swung back easily on its hinges, revealing a small, empty and dimly-lit chamber. In the dim light of a single candle burning in its holder on the wall, he could see that a flight of stairs led up from it in a tight spiral. Had he been thinking, he would have realised that these were not the straight steps that he and Jess had descended to reach the hall. Unheeded, the door slammed shut behind him, and he set off up the stairs to find a quiet corner where he could be alone and nurse his grief.
From above came the faint sounds of music, and he stopped to listen. Skilled fingers plucked intricate sequences of notes, and then a voice, bitter enough to suit Ranulf's mood, rose above them:
Gush forth, my tears,
and stay the burning,
either of my poor heart
or his eyes...
Something went askew in the music at that point, and it broke off. Despite the ache in his breast, Ranulf couldn't help smiling as the voice switched from singing to what sounded very much like swearing, though the words were indistinct. The music started once more, and then the voice joined in:
of my poor heart
or her eyes;
choose you whether.
O most peevish fond desire!
For out alas, alas!
My sighs, my sighs
still blow the fire.
Realising now that he had no idea where he was, and that whether he went up or down he would almost certainly still be lost, Ranulf crept quietly up the stairs towards the singing. Two doors stood in his path. The one directly in front of him he pushed at tentatively, and it swung silently open, so easily and smoothly that it seemed almost to open, he thought, before he'd put his hand to it. However, nothing seemed to lie beyond it but more dimly lit stairs, and the music was coming from behind the door to his left. He released the door, and it swung shut with a heavy thump. The music stopped once more, and then a voice shouted cheerfully "Oh, come! I'm not so busy practising that I haven't time for you!"
Ranulf needed no further bidding; after all, hadn't he been invited to enter? He reached for the door, and this time he was sure that it started to swing open just an instant before he touched the handle. Well, why not? he thought after a moment's shock; after all, this is a place of magic, and a door that can open itself is very convenient if your hands are otherwise occupied. He stepped inside the room, ready to bow politely to whoever was within, then stopped in embarrassment. The room beyond was obviously someone's private chamber, sparsely though elegantly appointed, and the person in question was sitting in a window seat, a lute set down by his side. He had evidently just pulled off his shirt and was just beginning to unlace the points of his hose; the only reason that he had not seen that it was Ranulf who entered was that his long fine silvery hair was hanging over his eyes in a moonlight cascade. He tossed his hair back as he lifted his head, showing a handsome face with a hungry grin almost as bright as his brilliant blue eyes - a grin that froze glassily as he saw that his visitor was not the person whom he had evidently been expecting.
"Ranulf, is it not?" he asked after a moment's pause, his voice rich and throaty. He chuckled softly and relaxed just a little. "By the saints, you take me at a disadvantage. But step within, my young friend, for it is late in the year to be letting in the wind with opened doors, particularly when one is somewhat undressed." He occupied himself with reaching lazily for his fine linen shirt and pulling it down over his head and muscular chest until Ranulf had closed the door and turned to face him once more.
"I... I apologise," Ranulf stammered. "I heard your beautiful music, and..." He fidgeted awkwardly. "And, you did invite me in. But I didn't mean to intrude. I should go now..." It was only then that he realised that he knew to whom he was speaking, if only by name. He had seen him at supper, where Jess had pointed him out as Michel. At this close distance, and out of the enveloping brown robes, he was extremely handsome, and Ranulf felt a strange hot shyness run through him as he tried hard not to look at the man's fine-boned face. Perhaps it was no wonder that men as well as women might become enamoured of such a man, he thought, and then pushed the dangerous thought away.
Michel laughed as he casually tied back his hair, though a few strands still hung over one shoulder. "Oh, come, come, Ranulf. I am pleased to have company, even if not the company that I had expected when I heard the turret door close. You have been so kind as to call my music beautiful," he said with a smile, "and I should show myself to be a poor host if I dismissed you without entertaining you." He stood and stretched gracefully, his dignity not a whit marred by the touslement of his hair, the rumpling of his shirt or the dangling laces of his hose, but perhaps even enhanced by them, as though such accidents were ornaments.
"Michel de Blois, at your service," he said, bowing deeply, and his smile lit even more dazzlingly than before.
Ranulf matched his bow as best he could, though he felt woefully awkward. "Ranulf, at yours, sir," he said. "Just Ranulf though, I fear."
That earned him a laugh, and Michel sprang from where he stood by the window and clapped Ranulf around his shoulders. He was only at most a handspan taller than Ranulf, though broad with muscle, and Ranulf could feel the warmth of Michel's breath on his neck. "Just Ranulf is good enough for me," he said as he released Ranulf, and then stepped to one side and gave the boy an inquisitive look. "Tell me, Ranulf, have you any hunger or thirst, or are you yet full of supper? for I have wine, good wine at that, and some apples, so we may make merry if we please. Or would you prefer to hear some more of the music you profess to admire?"
"If I truly am not intruding," Ranulf began, and Michel clasped him round his shoulders again.
"Not at all," he cried. "So, my dear young friend, wine or music? Or have you a mind for other sport?" he asked with a mischievous wink and Ranulf's face flamed.
"No wine for me," he said hastily. "I've had ale aplenty with my food. But I thank you for your kindness, sir. I'd love to hear you play and sing once more."
"Well then, so you shall," said Michel with a laugh, and picked up his lute. "Do you know what this is?"
Ranulf honestly did not. "It looks somewhat like a fiddle, but it sounds not at all like one," he said. "But what its name may be, that I cannot tell."
Michel guffawed. "A fiddle? Oh, these English names! you mean a violon, I think. But no, that is sounded with a bow, whereas this - this is a lute - is sounded with the fingers. It is quite, quite different in the making, the stringing, and the playing." He saw Ranulf look crestfallen, and smiled. "But you did well to try, my friend. I am sure that you know many things of which I am quite ignorant. Here at Blacktoft we are all content to study one from another, are we not?"
"I suppose we are," Ranulf said, admiring the lute's soft wooden shine and intricate carving and feeling much less shy now. "But I've been here hardly any time at all, and I know very little. What will you play for me?"
"Come and sit by me," Michel replied and led him to the window seat, where he arranged the cushions comfortably for two to be seated. "See, the lute is held so, with the left hand to stop the strings, and the right to strike the notes from them." He gave the matter a little thought, and then smiled. "First, I shall play for you, because it is simple and beautiful, a song by my countryman, the famous Josquin. He wrote it to be performed by four singers, though since I have but the one voice I shall make the rest of the music come from the lute, which has many voices. Listen now..."
He struck a chord from the lute, then began to play and sing.
Mille regretz de vous habandonner,
et d'eslonger vostre fache amoureuse...
"It is very beautiful indeed, and the words sound so sad," Ranulf said, hushed and awed as the last notes faded into the night air.
"They are indeed sad, my little one. 'A thousand regrets for abandoning you, and leaving your loving face. I have such great pain and grief, one can see that my days are numbered.'"
Ranulf sniffled and rubbed at his eyes. "That's even more sad. Nobody should abandon someone who loves them, should they?"
Michel set the lute aside and looked at him gravely. "Do you feel that you have been abandoned here, my friend? for I see in your eyes that there have been tears there recently... but no, let me not pry into your heart. You may tell me, as it pleases and when it pleases you. But, I say, to me you shall be always welcome, unless I am so very occupied with my studies. And I promise that I shall not always sing sad songs for you."
"You were singing one when I was outside," Ranulf said almost accusingly, and Michel chuckled, a wry smile on his face.
"That I was, indeed. My friend Master Holborne sent it to me a week ago, and I have been studying it since then. I think that I nearly have it fashioned correctly for my lute, for it was also only for voices when I received it. Perhaps he may have it printed, if his plans to make a book of lute songs bear fruit. Did you like it, unhappy though it is?"
Ranulf cocked his head thoughtfully, then said "I don't know. The one that you sang just now, it sounded truly melancholy, but the other one seemed - oh, I can't tell how to say this aright, but almost as though it was being wilfully sad. Or am I being foolish?"
Michel laughed and patted Ranulf's knee. "No, you have it right. My friend Holborne is so pleased to make such sad, sad songs that I think he delights in being as woeful as he can. Though he can make cheerful songs also, when he has a mind to. Tell me, my young friend, can you sing?"
"Not like you, sir. Not beautifully."
"Shall we try you and see? I know a jolly song by Master Ravenscroft. It has an easy tune, and if you would be pleased to learn it, I should be pleased to teach you. Listen, I shall play it and sing it, and then you shall join in with me when you think that you know it." He picked up the lute again and brushed his fingers across the strings, then sighed. "Oh, this abominable English weather, always so moist! The courses never hold their notes true for long..." He tuned the lute quickly, seemingly almost without giving it any attention, then smiled. "Listen now." He gave Ranulf a wink, then slowly began:
He that will an ale-house keep
must have three things in store:
a chamber and a feather bed,
a chimney and a hey nonny nonny,
hey nonny nonny, hey nonny no,
hey nonny no, hey nonny no.
Ranulf gulped. The tune certainly started out easily, but then it seemed to get complicated very quickly. He tried manfully, though, and soon his treble was matching pace and pitch with Michel's tenor. After they had sung it through together a few times, the last rather more quickly, Michel smiled and set the lute aside.
"Your voice is actually quite good, Ranulf. A little precarious now, perhaps, for you'll soon be a man, but if you take good care of it you may find, when it has finished changing, that you have a voice like mine. And then we shall sing duets, shall we not? The next time we meet, we shall practise it again, and then -" His eyes twinkled. "And then I shall show you what can be done with a simple tune such as that. But now you must sleep, I think, for it grows late, and I hear that you have been ill. Can you find your way to your chamber, or shall I guide you?"
"Nobody has told me where I am to sleep, I fear," Ranulf replied. "Except that I am to share a bed with Adam."
Michel chuckled and patted Ranulf's knee again. "Then Adam is a fortunate young man to have so agreeable a night-time companion. That is the pretty dark-haired boy, yes? He must be lonely for you already. Let me pull on my robe, and I shall take you to your sleeping place, for I know where it is."
Ranulf waited for him to finish dressing, and then Michel led him to a door set into an alcove in the wall opposite the one by which he had entered, picking up a lit candle on the way which he handed to Ranulf. He pushed the door open, and they walked slowly along a wood-paneled corridor and round a corner, stopping in front of another door.
"You know which bed is yours?" Michel whispered, and Ranulf nodded. "Then I shall wish you a good night and many pleasant dreams, my friend. It has been a most delightful evening, and I hope that there shall be many more for us." He took the candle from Ranulf, and Ranulf felt a strange sense of loss as Michel's fingers slowly relinquished his. Suddenly he remembered his foster-mother kissing him goodnight, and his heart ached fiercely.
"Goodnight, sir," Ranulf said softly, but Michel had already left him, returning along the corridor by which they'd come. He pushed open the door and slipped into the room where all six boys were to sleep. It was exactly as Adam had said; as his eyes accustomed themselves to the faint illumination that seeped round the edge of the shutters, he could just discern three large canopied beds, curtains drawn around them to keep the warm air in and the cold out. From the soft snoring that filled the air he deduced that everyone was already asleep. He tiptoed to the bed nearest the door, which he remembered Adam as having told him was theirs. Drawing the curtain gently aside, he peeked through, and was relieved to see Adam's dark head resting on the further pillow.
To avoid offending Adam's modesty he undressed only as far as his shirt, though he knew that he would be warm enough from sharing a bed. He lifted the blanket as carefully as he could and slipped under it. Adam gave a soft grunt and rolled over, and Ranulf held his breath for fear that he should awaken him, but soon enough Adam's breathing was slow and regular again.
He prayed simply, commending himself as he had always done to God's protection, and then, almost before he knew it, he was spiraling down into sleep. He woke only once that night, too comfortable to be disconcerted by Adam's warmth pressing against him, one arm draped companionably over Ranulf's belly, his breath sweet and soft on Ranulf's neck. He sighed contentedly, curled himself a little more into Adam's softness, and let the darkness take him once again.