Monday, February 15, 2010

The Man in the Making - The Forging

Title: The Man in the Making Part 1
Author: Ranger
WARNINGS: Child's perspective of a massacre.


Part 1 The Forging

I suppose it is in the way of children that they remember only what is significant to them at the time. I have a few image memories of Before. The snuffling warmth of a wolfhound which was my pillow in the rushes in front of a blazing hearth. The taste of hot meat and the noise of all the castle at dinner. Someone singing. Possibly my mother, although I suppose it might just as easily have been a wet nurse or a servant or even a minstrel. But they're fragments, the sensory recall of very young things who judge life and time only by full bellies and warmth. To all intents and purposes my life began along with my memory, on the steps before the Great Hall where I stood and struggled with a sword bigger than I was, staring down as the horsemen forced their way through the broken gates.

There were a lot of them. All big. All in leather and part armour, all men. I suppose I must have been used to troops riding through, as I wasn't afraid. Mostly, standing on my steps, I was angry.

There was a lot of talking as the men pulled back the gates, taking their time, clearly in no hurry, although they looked grim and serious. It was several minutes before one of them, a big dark man with an ornate sword in his belt, stopped at the foot of my steps and grinned briefly at my bleak scowl.

"Good morning sir. Where is your mother?"

I didn't reply. He tried the question again in Welsh. I recognized some of the words, but I still didn't respond. Another man came to him, scuffing at the rough dirt of the bailey.

"They're all dead in the guard house too. Not a soul I've seen alive so far. Who's this?"

"Probably a servant's brat. Or a village child." The man looked back at me again. "What's your name lad?"

I lifted my sword as he came closer. Or at least I tried to. The blade scraped on the steps, striking sparks. He merely stepped past me, moving towards the doors of the great hall. I grabbed his legs then, abandoned my sword and worried at him in silent fury like a dog. He caught me up by the back of my belt and carrying me with him like a water bag, pushed the door open into the hall. He was silent at what he saw there. Several of the men who followed swore softly behind us. Then he turned and pushed me at a guard, voice brusque.

"Get him out of here. No child should see this."

Either the man he passed me to was less good with children or he was slower. I wriggled to the ground and grabbed his belt, tearing his knife free. There was a shocked silence as I put my back to the wall, knife out in front of me. The man I'd stolen it from took a step backwards and my invader shook his head with a grunt of exasperation.

"For God's sake Dickon, the brat's barely five years old!"

I saw him coming and slashed at him with all the spite and speed of a cat, but he turned me by the shoulder of my tunic and pulled the blade out of my hand. Then, he knelt in front of me, using my tunic still to hold me, despite my hissing and kicking.

"Who else is here, boy? Your mother? Is anyone here alive?"

He would not let go. I shook my head mutely, angry. He looked grim.

"How did you get in? Show me."

I shook my head again, harder.

"There's Graydon here my lord." Someone said shortly from the far side of the hall. I kicked desperately at my intruder's shins, struggling and snapping until he let me go and I ran to stand in front of the shape the man was bending over. He backed off, face alarmed. The intruder came to see, then jerked his head at his men.

"Search the place, see who's here."

I turned, aghast, but they were already moving, into every passage, into every stairwell, invading, intruding, too many of them to hope to stop. I knew of adult strength, it's ruthless determination to take over, to make right according to their view of right. Remorseless. My intruder picked up a flagon from the table and sniffed it, then jerked his head away from the smell within. The hall was full of flies.

"Where did you come from boy? The village?"

I shook my head. He took a seat on the bench, leaning forward to look at me.

"Whose are you?"

I didn't move. He shook his head and got up, moving slowly around the hall. I knew every face he saw, every sprawl of every body, where they lay, who they were. I'd memorised them all, they were as familiar as the furniture. I suppose as he got to the blue tunicked one I stood by, I tensed, for he stopped and once more looked across to me. And spoke more softly, warily.

"Did you see any of this?"

I nodded, it was a sensible question. He stood where he was for a moment, then slowly crouched to my height.

"Were you here? When it happened?"

I nodded again, more slowly. He swallowed and looked again at the blue tunic on the floor beyond me. I knew it. I had curled against it each night, long after the hearth had gone out and what was left of the ashes went cold.

"Jesu Christ boy- who are you? What's your name?"

I didn't answer, regarding him warily. He waited, still frowning, then tried again.

"Where do you come from? Where do you belong?"

"Here." My voice sounded rusty, even to my own ears. I had no idea how long it had been since there had been someone here to speak to.

"Here?" he questioned, softly as though he'd expected my answer. I gave him a fierce nod, although my eyes were stinging as his men flooded back through my hallways, through my stairwells, moving aside the careful, memorised order I had of what lay where.

"It's mine! MINE, go away!"

"There's not a soul alive in the place." One of the men reported from the foot of a stairwell. He was white faced and sounded grim. "The place stinks like a charnel house, even the women upstairs- there's a babe in one chamber, even that's-"

"For pity's sake Giles, think of the child!" my invader snapped, so loudly that I and many of the men jumped. And looked again at me. I suppose I was not a prepossessing sight. My invader nodded to the men, voice low as he addressed the one he'd called Giles.

"Set up camp in the bailey, scavenge for what food there is. I doubt much, they'll have stripped this place of everything useful. Come to me when it's done."

The men left the hall in silence. My invader once more surveyed me, still squatted in the rushes. His dark hair fell forward into his eyes. His voice was deep and quiet as though he spoke to a spooked horse or a dog.

"What's your name then? What's your name lad?"

I didn't answer. Just stood where I was, I suppose still snarling. Eventually he stood and walked casually out into the sunshine. There was only a little time before I realised the only course I could take was to follow him.

They ate.

They had food with them, all the men within minutes had their hands filled and stood talking in groups, fragments dropping to the bailey dirt. My belly was aching with hunger, it was only a while before I edged closer, keeping my invader in sight. They turned to him as he passed, the other men. They fell silent when he spoke and did his bidding, and his was the lone familiar face in the many men now swarming my bailey.

He was eating a hunk of bread and cheese, and I saw him catch my eye as I slid down the last step, moving down a little at a time on my bottom, shoulders hunched up around me. He took another slow mouthful, then held the rest out to me. I stared at him suspiciously. He waited, shaking it a little to prove it was for me. Then I bolted to it. At the last second he held it out of my reach.

"What's your name?"

Hissing, I retreated. After a moment, shaking his head, he put the bread and cheese down on the stone steps and turned his back, talking to another man by one of the wagons. He didn't look round again. I snatched the bread before anyone saw and curled in the shade of the steps to tear at it.

Maybe he had given orders they were not to approach me, maybe they were used to children running anonymously around keeps where they worked, or maybe they were sickened by what they did, too much to consider me. But they worked all that afternoon in silence, not one of them meeting my eyes. At first they set up fires, fed horses, searched in every room and I knew my small furies wouldn't stop them. Instead I guarded the steps of the great hall instead and they left me there, not trying to pass me. It was at dusk that my invader came once more across to me, voice quiet.

"Come down lad, show me where the river is."

He didn't wait for me. Just turned on his heel and walked away. After a minute, with a quick, suspicious look at the men working around me, I followed. Beyond the gates it was a short walk to the ford where I'd seen women doing the washing at the stones, men watering horses, washing themselves sometimes, shouting to each other and whistling to the women further downstream. My invader stood there for a moment, looking down into the water.

"Clear enough." He observed to himself as much as me. Then looked back to me.

"What's your name lad?"

I looked back at him. He squatted on the bank and scratched the mud in front of him clean, then handed me a small stone.

"Can you write?"

I could. I took it and thought for a moment, then came closer and scratched the letters in the mud.

"Niam?" he said, twisting his head to read the letters. I nodded. He nodded, watching me.


I looked blankly at him. He took the stone from me.

"I'm John Gavrault. Have you ever seen the king, little one?"

I didn't move my eyes. He sighed.

"The king sent me here. And he did try to send us here in time. This wasn't intended to happen, it was only rumour and we didn't truly believe it until we reached the village."

He went on scratching at the mud on the bank, absently.

"Where did you hide? How did they not see you?"

I looked back at him, still blank. He put a hand out towards me and I jerked back. And saw the giveaway flick of his eyes. He grabbed me before I could take a step and held me when I struggled, voice quiet as I stared in horror beyond him at my home.

"They have to move to move them lad, they can't leave them lying there."

They were carrying people down the steps of the great hall, emptying my home. My invader held onto my tunic, pulled me back and once more picked me up by the belt, carrying him with me as he waded across the ford. It was fast flowing at this time of evening, the river was tidal and deepening rapidly- no effort for a tall man but impossible for my short legs. He dumped me fairly kindly on the grass on the other side, evidently expecting me to accept defeat. He grabbed me again, fast as I tried to throw myself into the water, and this time I felt his hesitation- up until now he'd handled me much as he would a squirming puppy, merely lifting me back to safety. Now he tried for a moment to pin my arms as I struggled and kicked, then he pulled me against his chest and sat awkwardly down on the grass, holding me tightly against him. I fought and kicked and bit against his leather tunic but it did nothing to loosen his grip, he held me and when I reached exhaustion we watched together as his men laid out a long line across the bailey.


I don't remember what happened much beyond that. I woke in a cart in the darkness, hearing the crackling of fires. A rough blanket was over me and I was stiff with cold and the rough wood beneath me. I sat up, peering into the darkness towards the leaping flames, and a man by the cart, a guardsman, glanced back. He didn't speak, but I knew he wouldn't let me go any closer. In the light of the fires men were moving, lifting and carrying, and thick smoke and a strange smell filled the air, poisoning every breath. Some way off I could see my intruder, big and shadowy in the darkness, moving between the fires. The guard nudged me and held out a bottle, voice gruff.

"Here lad, try this."

I was thirsty and shaky and took it without thought, expecting water. Whatever it was was heavy and harsh and made me cough, but I gulped several times before I handed it back. He pushed me gently back down on the wood and pulled the blanket back over me, glancing back towards the fire.

"Reckon that ought to make you sleep."

I lay where I was and watched the shoot of flames and sparks into the night sky, breathing smoke and cold and a smell I ever after thought of as the smell of fear.


My intruder was standing on the steps of the great hall in the grey morning when I slid out of the cart, moving stiffly in the cold and the early mist. The place stank of smoke. The huge fires were smouldering now, a lot of the men were lying near them, mostly still asleep. The big man on the steps watched me for a moment, then came down the steps and went to one of the covered wagons, fumbling for a moment before he held out a large piece of dried meat and some cheese. I didn't move. He took a step closer and put it into my hands, tousling my hair roughly.

"It's allright boy, you eat."

I took it from him and chewed at it, trailing at his heels when he moved back towards the great hall. It was different inside. Appallingly different.

Cold, empty, ruthlessly stripped of the broken pieces of furniture, the scattered pieces on the table. The shapes on the floor. I stood at the doorway and growled softly. My intruder glanced back at me and looked for a while, his dark eyes steady. I held them, teeth baring, not giving an inch of ground. He shook his head after a while, eyes flicking away. I relaxed and tore back into my bread.

"You're a little wild animal." He said to the great hall, not to me. "God knows who'd take you for Graydon's cub now. Is there anything you'd wish to take with you from this accursed place?"

He looked back at me again. I had no idea what he was talking about. The sound of his voice was soothing though and I was hungry.

"What of toys?" he said lamely. "You must have had toys?"

I had bread. I had meat. My stomach was empty. I sat down on the step and tore harder at the dried meat, ripping off shreds I could chew. There was coming and going through the morning. Men assembled, covering the wagons again, collecting water, kicking the smouldering fires so they collapsed into themselves. Finally they began to mount up and line up and I must I suppose have known what it meant, have seen other troops march out of that keep. I found my invader standing talking to a group of other men in thick, bright coloured cloaks with jewelled brooches like his, and pulled at his blue cloak until he looked down at me. It was hard to talk, but I could do it if I had to. I pointed at the wagon with food on, forcing the words out.

"Bread. Me."

"Poor half starved little scrap." One of the young men muttered. Another, older, gave my intruder a warning look.

"Careful what you give him Johnny. The child's been starved for days if not weeks, you'll make him sick if you let him stuff himself."

"At least it IS something we can do for him." my intruder said roughly. "God knows there's little else we've done right by him. Here lad."

I caught the half loaf he dropped into my hands and took it back to the steps, guarding it carefully. This would last a while after they left. There was meat on that wagon. Maybe if I got close enough another of the men would give me some of that too. My intruder was watching me with a strange look to his face, then the older man made a rough sound in his throat, a tone I didn't understand, and came towards me.

"No. No lad, you'll not be left here alone. You're safe now."

He was too near my bread. I moved it carefully back out of danger. He crouched on the steps, voice gentle but with that strange bite to the back of it that I didn't know, no adult had ever spoken to me like this and it was wrong.

"Come on lad. We'll take you with us, back to Ayrsford, find you some real food and a warm bed. You'll be safe now."

I knew nothing of Ayrsford. When he reached towards me I waited, waited until his bare wrist came into reach and then sank my teeth into it with all my strength. He pulled back, shaking his hand and cursing, and that gave me enough time to run for the door of the great hall. Once inside I knew a hundred corners, closets, hiding places they would never find. There had been people once who had looked for me here, sometimes laughing, sometimes cross, and I'd waited, curled up in my secret places knowing I was safe.

"Giles, quick." Someone snapped, and a heavy body leapt up onto the steps ahead of me, arms outstretched. I dodged him, turned back towards the older man who made a grab and missed as I ducked under his arm and half ran, half fell down the steps to the courtyard. Once down, I ran under the nearest wagon and fled, down towards the many small buildings on the far side of the keep. Soldiers turned at the shouts behind me, several grabbed, their faces half hidden by their helmets, then I heard heavy footfall behind me, someone swearing, and I was caught up from behind, once more by the belt, and carried, struggling and snarling, back towards the wagons. It was my intruder. He held me too far away from his body to catch him with a kick or bite, I could do nothing but swing uselessly from his hand as he strode back towards the group of men by the steps. The older man was sucking his hand, but the look he gave me wasn't of anger. My intruder paused by the group and jerked his head at the older man, sounding annoyed and helpless.

"Take him for God's sake George, you've got brats of your own."

"I don't know how." The man called George said without rancour. "He'll not sit quietly in a cart back to Ayrsford."

"Well what would you do with your lads in this state?"

George shook his head. "My lads were never left for dead in a charnel house. You'll not tame him back in a few hours."

I swung, trying to find my feet or kick hard enough to reach my intruder's kneecap in hope of being dropped. There was a heavy sigh above me, then a curt command.

"Give me a cloak or tunic then."

They brought him a heavy, grey wool cloak and I was dumped down on my feet, hard enough that for a second or two I was dazed by being so suddenly righted. Then the wool wrapped tightly around me, pinning my arms to my sides, and I was swept up from behind. My intruder swung himself into the saddle of a horse that to me seemed impossibly large, a tall and grey animal that towered above me, then I was passed up into my intruders hands and planted astride the animal's neck, one of my intruder's arms around my tightly wrapped body. There wasn't much I could do about it. I was small enough that I could barely stretch to sit astride the animal and the cloak was so tightly wound that I couldn't free my hands. Around me the other men were mounting. The wagons began to move and my intruder kicked his horse under me, setting into a walk and then a boneshaking trot, heading out of the gates. I suppose I shrieked then, helpless and furious, and his voice came from above me, behind me, the vibrations of his chest against my back.

"They're all dead lad, I'm sorry but they're gone. There's nothing you can do and you can't stay there alone."

I knew nothing else. I knew nowhere else. I had no idea where I was being taken or what would happen to me beyond those gates, and with that stark terror in front of me my bladder involuntarily gave way, soaking me and the cloak. And yet the adult world is ruthless in what it knows is right: the horses moved through the gate, across the ford and onto the moors beyond, leaving nothing but the broken gates and rising smoke behind from my home.


Beyond that I remember very little of the ride. Probably like many young things when afraid and bewildered, I took the one recourse left and hid myself in sleep. I grew cold. It grew dark. When I roused in response to the ringing of horse hooves on stone instead of mud and grass, my intruder's blue cloak was wrapped around us both. A man's voice was shouting to the left, clear in the night's stillness.

"Make way for the guard! Make way for the duke's guard!"

Many horses were clattering around us, and above me torches blazed on holders either side of a huge archway. I sleepily raised my head to look, seeing the pointed blades of the raised portcullis, and above that- I recoiled against my intruder's chest and he followed my glance, then clamped a hand over my eyes, holding it there no matter how I struggled as we passed under the gate. The image of those three heads, decayed and terrible, stayed all too clear in my mind. The horse finally stopped moving beneath me. My eyes were released, my intruder slid to the ground and pulled me down after him, landing me on my feet. I stood where I was put, stiff, sore and exhausted, and looked around me with a growing distance for the sheer unreality of it. Around us other men were dismounting, guards were coming to take the horses, torches lit a bailey far larger and more ornate than I'd ever seen before, and light spilled down from windows and doorways around us. Dogs, some larger than me, poured down the steps and one came to my intruder, leaning hard against his knee. He thumped it's side and rubbed it's ears while he talked to men around him, the gesture absent for all he worked so hard at it. When they moved towards the doorways he glanced down to me, then unwound the wrapping of the grey wool cloak from over my arms. I stood where I was and shivered, with no idea what to do now, no idea where I was, entirely helpless in this strange place. He stooped and picked me up like a rag doll, shifting me higher against his shoulder before he walked up the steepest of the steps, followed by the dog and behind him a stream of the men who'd rode in with us. Men met him in the hallway beyond, taking his cloak, his gloves, one came to take me and I shivered, clutching tighter, but my intruder shook his head and kept hold of me, walking through the stone passage to a door which burst open on a world of light and warmth and people. Huge tables were laid in a line down the centre, men, women and children were seated around them and eating, while others milled around or joined the groups sat at the four huge hearths. A group of musicians created some of the cacophony of sound at one end of the hall. At the other, a dais raised a large table at which sat a group of people, all old people to my eyes. One of these, a man with heavy rings on his fingers, grabbed up a cup and saluted my intruder as he strode up onto the dais, his voice ringing without effort above the noise.

"This is an unexpected pleasure little brother! What on earth have you there?"

"Not here Ned." My intruder's voice was soft and blunt and the older man's face changed instantly. His gaze took me in and too exhausted to care, I stared back. My intruder pulled out a seat beside the man and sat, putting me down between his knees.

"Tallant's get?" the older man said, without his lips moving, in a voice so soft I wondered if I'd heard it.

"Graydon's." my intruder rose and took the offered hand of a woman across the table, bowing over it for a moment before he seated himself again. The woman's eyes caught mine and I saw white hair underneath an ornate head dress, a swirl of scarlet fabrics around a slender and lined throat.

The other men who had followed us in took places at the table, squires surrounded them and filled cups. A boy some years older than me appeared at my intruder's elbow and stared frankly at me. My intruder took the jug from him without ceremony, poured his cup to the brim and pushed the jug back at him.

"Bring ale for the boy."


The boy moved on the word, eyes still on me. My intruder dropped several items from trays onto his plate, pulled several pieces of something that smoked with heat and was making my mouth drip, and put them into my hand. The older man watched me bolt it in silence, then turned to another man at the table and began to talk cheerfully of horses and breedings and terms beyond my understanding. I stood where I was, my chin barely reaching the level of the table, and ate. When I was finished, my intruder glanced down at me and reached for something else on a platter, but the woman's hand on his forestalled him, she pushed instead a cloth at him, folding something from another plate into it.

"Not for a child, Johnny. Wipe his face and give him this."

My intruder's response was swift but accompanied with a wry smile as he accepted both.

"Yes ma mere."

I stood mutely as he inexpertly scrubbed my chin, then put something into my hand that was sweet and bread like. I chewed on it, for the first time in some time, the roar in my belly subsiding. It was hot in the hall. And loud. I leaned against my intruder's knee and closed my eyes briefly, responding to the weight of the lids. The woman across the table rose and several of the men rose with her, bowing.

"I believe I will retire now." She said smoothly. "Johnny, I would like to speak with you as soon as it may be convenient."

"Which means now, immediately, no matter how inconvenient." The older man with the laughing eyes said, nodding at the woman. He alone had not risen, merely nodding from his chair. The woman gave him a cool nod.

"You too please Ned, I believe I'd appreciate your company also."

"Yes ma mere." The older man gave her a smile and drained the rest of his cup, rising as my intruder did, with a nod to the rest of the company.

"Your pardon my lords."

There were a few wry smiles but no comments. My intruder took my wrist as he pushed his chair back and I trailed him, still sleepily chewing on my bread. The corridor they took led up narrow stone stairs and into a side chamber where lavender was strewn with the rushes on the floor- the scent stopped me in the doorway, hitting some far off memory. A girl with a ewer of water filled a bowl at a table, then left, dropping in a deep curtsey as she passed. The older man had brought his refilled cup and waited by the door to shut it as soon as she was out of sight, allowing in only the dog that had trailed my intruder and now made straight for the fire, sinking himself into the rushes with a deep sigh.

The woman swept out her skirts and seated herself, her back ramrod straight, her eyes sweeping me from head to foot where I stood.

"John, what brought you back so soon? And without a messenger? Come here child."

"This is Graydon's child." My intruder gave me a gentle push towards her but I didn't move. "I don't know if he WAS the only child of the family."

"There was a baby, a few months old."

"There is not now." My intruder's voice was grim. "He calls himself Niam this one."

"This is William." The woman held out her hand to me, once more compelling. "Alys wrote to me of my great nephew. Born in January, the winter of the heavy snows."

"Nearly five then." My intruder said shortly. "Go on lad, she won't bite."

"Much." The older man said dryly. "What in God's name did you find there Johnny? What made you ride back like the hounds were after you? Where's Graydon?"

"We found the site of a massacre, not a soul in the place left alive but the child, and he can't tell us why he was spared or how. And it was days old, the village was near deserted but the few we found there put it at more than a week, perhaps two. The castle was stripped of everything useful, down to plates and timbers. They hadn't been prepared to stand an attack either, they were caught unawares. Maybe even at night. We found few enough guardsmen to wonder whether Graydon sent his men off for some reason, or more likely whether some changed sides and let the rebels into the keep. We found Graydon himself. And Tallant. And Favisham."

There was a silence.

"At least we know they remained loyal." The older man said grimly at last.

"And Alys?" the woman said quietly, without expression. My intruder's eyes were apologetic as he looked up.

"I couldn't say ma mere. It was hard enough to identify those I knew well. I barely remember Alys as a child even."

"And this child was shut in amongst the dead all this time?" the woman got up and came towards me, taking my hand and drawing me back with her to the chair. I stood in front of her as she sat, soothed by the quietness of the voices and the sweetness of the bread. She ran a hand over my hair and brushed crumbs from my chin.

"He met us on the steps of the keep." My intruder said softly. "Tried to protect the hall from us. He must have scavenged for what he could eat, he slept in the great hall curled up with the carrion. It took brute force to bring him away with us."

The older man swore softly. My intruder took his cup from him and drank.

"He's like a cornered fox cub. Snapping his teeth and growling, he's bitten when he could. God alone knows what he's seen."

"He has the look of his grandfather." The woman raised her head and looked past me to the two men, who both straightened and gave her their full attention.

"What do you mean to do Ned? For my part I believe this consolidates our plan. I will go tonight to Lord Savisbury and bring back with me those troops."

"I mean to ride on Havilant in the morning." The older man said curtly. "If you can bring back Savisbury and his forces and George can bring his troops in from the north we should find ground for battle by nightfall."

"I'll speak with George now." My intruder handed back the cup and started for the door. "Where do you want me, Ned?"

"Here." The older man said without hesitation. "No, listen to me! I need you here little brother. I must have someone here capable of holding Ayrsford if necessary, someone the troops will trust and someone able to raise more support if needed."

"Then stay and let me take Havilant!" my intruder said hotly. The older man dropped a hand on his shoulder.

"Use your own men and hold Ayrsford, I'll leave it in your hands. Ma mere, I'll see you safe to Barriston when you bring me those troops."

"It would not be the first time I have been on a battle field." His mother said smoothly. Her eldest son snorted.

"Aye, and my father's nerve was stronger than mine. I thank you ma mere, but no. I prefer you and Johnny both better placed if things do go wrong."

"Then I will leave now." The woman rose and put a hand on my head. "Johnny, get this child a bath and a bed before he falls asleep where he stands."

She kissed both the men and left the room, moving at a measured stride which surprised me in a woman. My intruder gave the older man a far rougher hug and the older man paused beside me, looking down with a seriousness that held my gaze.

"A strange kind of welcome little cousin. But I promise you, I shall see to it that your father is well avenged. He was a good man and a good friend."

I stared at him dumbly as he left, without having understood much at all. My intruder, left alone with me, drained what was left in the cup and put it down.

"Come then little one."

I trailed him through hallways into the great hall where suddenly the meal had ended, men were running, women were gathering in tight knots by the walls and talking urgently, some were crying. I whimpered, hanging back in the doorway. My intruder looked back at me, distracted, his stride broken, and his voice was off hand, as if to a puppy.

"Come on then. Come on then, this way."

I couldn't go into the hall. An atmosphere of fear hung there now, the running and bustle was too strange, too foreign to my silent great hall at home where no one and nothing moved but me. His face changed slowly. He came back to me, bent and picked me up, carrying me with him into the noise of the hall. I hid my face and concentrated hard. I was not here. Nothing was happening. I was gone. He spoke to someone else in the hall, a woman with a wide face and an unfamiliar accent who tried to take me from his arms, peeling my fingers when I wouldn't let go. She stepped away, carrying me briskly across the hall and I saw my intruder stride the other way towards the keep. She dropped me when I bit her face. Blood was in my mouth, heat was in my head and my heart hammered as I ran through people who were now frozen or exclaiming and hurled myself at my intruder. This time I clutched his leg with all my strength. He'd stopped at the woman's scream. He swore for a moment. I wound my fingers tighter, shaking all over. If he got from my sight, I would die. I was more than certain of it. He did not move. Then he stooped and picked me up, carrying me with him out into the darkness.


I was vaguely aware of warmth and of the splash of water, more voices, one old, one young and not a little bitter.

"I would have taken him for you my lord."

"You were nowhere to be found when I arrived." My intruder did not sound too pleased by that and the other voice sounded still more sulky.

"The brat stinks."

"As would you if you'd suffered half what he has." The older voice said curtly. "Bring water, warm, and blankets boy, be quick about it."

The younger voice hovered, sounding plaintive. "It can sleep in my room, I'll keep an eye on it."

My intruder sounded unimpressed and he stood me on my feet with a mild thump, letting me stand there, eyes closed and still drowsing as he stripped me of my clothes.

"Thankyou, but I'll keep the child with me tonight, he is my cousin. Water please Mark, then straight to bed with you, you should have gone hours ago."

"I was watching the troops go out with Lord George-"

"I saw you, and I saw who you were with, we'll discuss it in the morning. Water."

"Give him to me my lord." The older voice said softly. "There's water ready for you over there and ale too, you had no time to eat that I saw this evening."

The water was warm when I was put into it, and the heat of the fire played on my arm and face as I was scrubbed, too tired to even protest the soaping of my hair. My intruder's voice was soft and nearby as I was lifted out and wrapped.

"Talk to Margaret, tell her clothes for a four year old boy for morning, begged or borrowed, they'll have to sew clothes for him as she can arrange it."

I struggled upright as I was put down somewhere low and soft. The truckle bed was tiny, designed for child or servant, and the wooden bed towered above me. An old man in a brown tunic was shaking blankets over me and my intruder, his shirt unlaced and his hair damp, was standing at the foot of the bed, drinking from a mug that shone in the firelight.

"It's allright lad." He said when he saw me watching him. I sat where I was, watching while the servant left the room and my intruder paced. However he latched the door, shutting us in- him and me- and that in itself was reassuring. Somewhere in his pacing, I fell asleep.


I thought I was alone in the chamber when I woke. The big dog was asleep in front of the fire and the light through the window was strong. I pushed off the blankets, stood on tiptoe and peered up at the huge bed. It was empty.

"So you're awake." The young man's voice said from the far side of the room. I slipped from the bed at once, heart starting to thump again. The dog lifted his head.

The young man was dark, with a full lower lip that made him look more than slightly bad tempered. I shrank back against the wall and circled it slowly.

"Get dressed," the man said shortly. "I'm to feed you when you're done, and take you to Margaret."

For what he didn't explain. There was no sign of my intruder.

"William." The young man said peremptorily. "Get dressed. Your clothes. THERE."

My clothes were gone: what he indicated was a blue I'd never seen before. I shifted still further to the door. He strode across to me looking irritated, and grabbed my shoulder. Some minutes after I fled naked into the hallway I could still hear his shriek reverberating in my ear.

The hallways were busy with people who stared at me, and some who tried to catch me as I streaked past, growing increasingly panicked by turn after turn of hallway. I finally found stairs and flew down them into what I recognised as the great hall, and from there into the yard. Where there were horses, outside, there I expected to find my intruder. The yard was filled with guardsmen standing listening to a man who was speaking from horse back by the gate. Several glanced at me, then a wave of whispering and nudges moved through the crowd, until the man on horseback glanced down at me and his eyebrows rose. Then he looked across the yard and there, in another open doorway, stood my intruder. I dropped from the stone steps to the filth and cobbles of the yard and fled across to him, clutching his leg. There was a burst of hearty laughter from the guardsmen. The old man from last night appeared on the steps and came down them, crossing stiffly to bow to my intruder.

"Your pardon my lord, Mark was watching him and the boy panicked. I'll take him."

I snarled at the hand outstretched to me. My intruder sounded exasperated.

"Druid's teeth Aelric, can't you and Mark between you manage one small child!"

"He's bitten Mark down to the bone my lord."

The old man didn't sound too sorry either. His voice when he spoke to me was mild and easy, and he came no closer.

"Come along lad. Get you dressed and I'll bring you straight back to Lord John. That's a promise."

I looked up at my intruder. He looked very far from pleased but he nodded assent. I unwillingly released his leg and followed the old man back into the great hall. He didn't touch me as we walked, nor speak, just walked at a steady pace back up the stairs to the chamber I'd slept in over night. The young man was there, sucking at his fist, and he gave me a bitter look over his fingers.

"Whatever his blood that brat's nothing more than an animal!"

"And frightened things snap when grabbed. I've heard Lord John tell you time and again with horses." The old man picked up a tunic and held it for me. "Come on boy. Yes, when you're dressed I'll take you back to him, be quick."

I looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then when he made no other move, suffered him to pull the tunic over my head and belt it at my waist. The hose were a little too big and needed lacing tightly but when that was done he handed me back the familiarity of my boots and I pulled those on, moving straight for the door. He followed me with a comb and I stood impatiently while he pulled it through my hair, then opened the door and led me back down the stairs, through the hall and across the now deserted keep yard to a small group of buildings which smelled strongly of smoke and smelting iron. My intruder had his hands on his hips and was listening to a man in a heavy apron who gestured with a horseshoe and hammer while he talked. I edged around the fire and went to his heels, the old man gave me a smile and left, and I stood, satisfied to have him once more in my sight. He didn't notice me through his conversation, it was only when he turned to leave the smithy and nearly fell over me that his gaze fell on me. And became quizzical.

"Well I'd never have taken you for fair headed beneath all that dirt. Good morning brat. How many of my servants have you sharpened your teeth on today?"

I stared back at him. He waited a moment, then crouched to my level. I ducked my head to avoid his eyes that close to mine. Not still eyes, not blank eyes, but looking. Searching. Seeing.

"Good morning William."

The cobbles here were blue grey and chipped from generations of horses standing and scuffing while they waited to be shod. His finger brushed my tunic and I jerked back.

"You look good in blue."

These weren't my clothes. They were soft though. And too big. He straightened at the sounds of a horse entering the main gate and strode towards the courtyard. I fell in at his heels, trailing him, comfortable again now his eyes were distracted from me. The rider at the gate now surrounded by guardsmen was a young man, his cloak thrown back, his face bright with cold, and he rose in his stirrups and bowed at the sight of my intruder.

"My Lord John, the King sent me two hours since. The battle is met at Havilant, your lady mother is safe and he bids me tell you that my Lord Rutherford has joined his forces with two hundred men, in anger for the murder of Lord Graydon-"

He broke off there, interrupted by the errupting cacophony of the guardsmen's cheers around him. My intruder strode closer through them and I followed, staying close and peering up past the huge hocks of the horse.

"He will send again at nightfall," the messenger went on when he could be heard, bowed again to my intruder, then pulled his horse's head around and kicked it into a canter back through the gate.

"Three cheers for the king!" one of the guardsmen shouted and my intruder joined in as heartily. I shrank closer behind him until one of them caught me up, swung me high into the air.

He too howled when I bit him.

The next few days blurr together in my memory. I clearly remember the taste of the guardsman's hand, the roar of the laughing and the faces as I ran away from him, my intruder's laugh and the brief pressure of a hand on my head. After that I suspect the castle forces stayed at their posts, the back up of what was twenty miles away a fierce and tide turning battle, prepared to defend the town and keep the heartland of the King if his forces should be pressed into retreat. No one slept, there were no formal meals and my intruder rarely went inside, walking the walls with the guardsmen, talking in the courtyard and bailey, messengers clattering in from different points of the royal strongholds in the country around us. I trailed at his heels, understanding little of what was said, instead feeling the clamour and the sensory floods of the world at knee height. A fire was lit in the yard in the darkness and sparks shot high in the air, dancing on the wind. My intruder leaned against walls and stood by the fire, drinking when young Mark brought him wine. Mark always glowered at me and I glowered back. He was there a lot, especially through the night, and several times my intruder told him sharply to get himself to bed and stay there, which brought still more bitter scowls in my direction. Sometimes I leaned against the stone of the steps or my intruder's boot and slept briefly, to be woken by the crash of hooves as another rider came in with fresh news. With hindsight that must have been three days. The rebel forces scattered within four hours of meeting Ned's forces on the fields of Havilant, angry and gathering in number all the time as more and more of the ambivalent lords came to his banner in the name of my father. Beyond that battle those forces pursued the scattered rebels, prisoners were brought back, there were courts held at Barriston and I believe too at Graydon, although it was years afterwards when I heard that. Skirmishes flared across the marshes and the farmland and river banks around Ayrsford all that time, this was the true ending of the civil war that had raged from almost before my birth. At Ayresford my intruder held his troops in readiness, sent out watches and scouts and messengers and waited. Ned's stronghold.

I do remember the night when Aelric came to him with the news that Mark was gone. I was eating what the guards were eating, sitting on a log near the fire while my intruder talked as he talked endlessly with the guardsmen. He knew their names, their wives, their families, their friends, they welcomed him to their fire whenever he came to them. Aelric gave me a peaceful smile as he passed me and bowed to my intruder, his voice as calm as if he mentioned the weather.

"Excuse me my lord, we thought perhaps you should know. It seems that Mark has been missing all afternoon."

"From where?" my intruder said sharply. Aelric sounded still more serene.

"His horse would appear to be gone my lord, as would Lord Rothwell's squire and his horse. It seems most likely to me since we had the news of the skirmish out towards the river flats at noon that he has gone in hope of seeing the battle."

My intruder was silent for a moment. Then with a precision that was more nerve wracking than shouting, turned to his guards.

"Four of you, mount up. You, find Giles Berwick, bring him to me. You, my horse."

"I'm sure it does not need you to go personally my lord." Aelric said mildly. "I believe the King did leave Ayrsford in your-"

"He's my squire, my responsibility and we're in no danger here." My intruder swung his cloak around his shoulders and ran down the steps, pulling his gauntlets from his belt. I scrambled after him, staying close as five horses were led into the yard. My intruder took the reins of one, and finally realising what he intended, terror flooded me. I bolted closer and clutched him with all my strength, too panicked to make a sound. He looked down at me then awkwardly patted my head.

"No lad, stay here. I'll not be more than a few hours. Aelric, take him, keep him with you."

Giles ran down the steps from the Great Hall, looking anxious. My intruder gave him a grim nod.

"We've got two stray squires, one mine. I'll be back in a few hours Giles, you're in charge until then."

He stooped and lifted me, holding me at arms length as I began to thrash and hiss and clutch with all my strength. It took him and Aelric together to prise my fingers off his tunic as my intruder swung onto his horse and led the guardsmen out of the gate, rapidly kicking the horses to a canter. I was handed to Aelric, kicking and screaming and near hysterical, and he held me tightly, voice in my ear as my intruder rode out of the keep.

"He'll come back lad. He'll come back with Mark."

I remember still the sheer void of terror. I was sick with it, over myself and Aelric, again and again until my stomach was empty. Then I fought free of Aelric and bolted, finding my way back to my intruder's chamber more by luck than judgement and hid under the bed.

The bed itself was huge, heavy and large enough that they couldn't shift it. I was in no danger of being reached, although they tried for some time.

Aelric made them leave, and brought food. I suppose until then I'd been hungry enough that food had brought me to him whenever I saw it, but I was waiting, consumed by more terror than I could put words to, and nothing was going to make me move. I gripped the far bedpost with all my strength and ignored him. Eventually he stopped coaxing, sat crosslegged by the bed where I could see him and waited with me.

The commotion when it finally came was enough to bring Aelric from the floor in a hurry where he was sitting, talking in a casual way about the tunic he was mending. My intruder appeared, pushing Mark ahead of him. Mark's face was stiff with outrage and humiliation, and my intruder looked grim. He gave Mark a sharp push towards the door, followed by a cuff across the back of his head.

"Change your clothes, get yourself dry and wait in the hall my lad, I'll come down to you."

Mark flushed scarlet but moved, slowly towards the door. My intruder pulled off his sword belt and handed it to Aelric, casting a quick look around.

"Where's the boy?"

"Under the bed my lord." Aelric took the belt from him. "He's been under there since you left."

Silence. Mark paused in the doorway, I saw his feet halt. There was a creak, then my intruder knelt on the floor, looking at me for a time under the coverlet. Then he held out a hand, voice quiet. An entirely different tone.

"Come on then. Come on lad, I'm here now."

I couldn't move for a time. He spoke quietly, much the same thing over and over, and finally I did scramble towards the hand reaching for me. He drew me the rest of the way, I wound my fingers into his tunic in an iron grip and clung, sinking my teeth into his shoulder with all my strength. I believe I bit him three or four times, once wasn't enough to express the force of fury and terror still raging through me. He didn't protest and he didn't make a sound. Just sat down on the bed and lifted me with him, wrapping his cloak around me. When my jaws began to ache I finally released my teeth and turned my face into his tunic. I held onto him and let the shuddering wash through me.

Mark's face in the doorway was still redder and still more unhappy.

I believe he probably sat some hours with me before I would suffer him to put me down. I remember Aelric bringing him food and him eating where he sat, one arm still tightly around me. I remember too being offered food and turning my head away, back into his tunic. When I still would not let go he carried me with him out into the keep where he walked around the walls, spoke to Giles and to the guards on duty. The fires were noisy in the darkness, a strange roaring in the wind that filled my ears. The Great Hall was quiet by comparison, and Mark was waiting there, hands behind his back, stiff and uncomfortable. My intruder put me down on the table and I sat there, numbed while he jerked his head towards Mark and the steward's door, voice curt.

"Get a switch."

Mark moved, flushing still redder. Around us people carried on as usual. The Great Hall was always filled with people moving through, talking, eating, working. I don't remember being surprised: this was a common enough occurrence, I imagine this was far from the first time I'd witnessed a scene like this. Mark came back with a birch switch in his hand, passed it to my intruder and turned his back, slowly rolling his hose down his hips. When they rested on his thighs, he raised the skirt of his tunic at the back, bent across the table and held on tightly. I saw his face screw up in anticipation. My intruder rested the switch across his buttocks, voice quiet.

"What gained you a whipping Mark?"

"Sneaking out to see the battle." Mark gritted it out between his teeth.

"Dangerous, Mark. A battlefield is no place for a child."

"I'm NOT a child."

Bent, bare behind raised, a switch already laid across it, he was not in a good position to debate that. My intruder shook his head.

"You are STILL a child Mark and there are things you are not yet old enough to see. While I am responsible for you, you WILL do as I say. You will not disobey me and you will NOT leave my protection not matter how interesting an event is taking place near by, is that clear?"

Mark's voice was a notch higher and tighter still. "Yes my lord."

My intruder raised the switch and whipped it down, a deceptively soft sound, but it left a thin red stripe across Mark's bared cheeks and he jumped, clutching the table more tightly. Seven more times, with measured and unhurried accuracy my intruder brought that switch down, and by the third Mark began to stamp and mew. When the stripes reached finally to the top of his thighs my intruder laid the switch on the table and put a hand on Mark's shoulder, drawing him up.

Mark's eyes were blurred and bright and he grabbed for his hose, yanking it up askew and rumpled before he clutched his rump, his hands squeezing and rubbing. My intruder clasped a hand around the back of his neck, saying nothing, and for a minute Mark hissed and gulped, staring stubbornly into the fire. Then he turned and buried his face in my intruder's chest and my intruder hugged him tightly.

He was still holding him, talking into his ear softly enough that I couldn't hear the words, when the door to the keep burst open and the thunder of many horses reached us, amongst cheers and shouts and ragged singing. My intruder clapped Mark on the back and reached for me, accepting my scramble towards his neck without protest.

"Get rid of that switch lad, tell the kitchens and bring wine back with you. Hop to it."

There was a hop in Mark's step allright but he managed a somewhat tearstained smile. My intruder carried me with him towards the steps and I saw the crowd part to let through the man my intruder called Ned, his cloak caught at the shoulder with a brooch of gold that shone as brightly as the circlet around his head. He looked larger than life, his smile reached out and the cheers as people saw him became deafening. He ran up the steps and my intruder gripped his outstretched arm, forearm to forearm as I would always see them shake hands.

Men were following him up the steps, in the Great Hall people dropped at once into deep bows and curtseys as he passed, Mark appeared at the run with wine which he offered with the most humility in his bow I'd seen from him yet. Ned took the cup and let his brother go to rumple my hair, capturing me with his smile.

"Good evening little cousin. I believe you were the most effective weapon I owned in this battle."

I stared dumbly back at him with no idea what he meant.

Several body servants came to him and took his cloak, his sword belt and gloves, the Great Hall filled around us with people, with music, with chatter so noisy I could barely hear what he and his brother said to each other until once more he leaned close to me.

"What does he do up this late Johnny? And why in your arms? The brat's certainly part of our victory tonight but isn't there a woman can take him?"

"He won't leave go of me." My intruder cast around for Mark and found him also close by, still holding the jug. "I had to go out today to find a stray of mine and he nearly died of terror."

"Did he make those holes in your neck too?" the big man looked at me with those laughing eyes, then raised his cup to me. "Congratulations cousin, you've made a conquest."

I didn't answer. My intruder shook his head.

"I've not heard him speak since we left his home, and he would barely speak to me there."

The big man continued to look at me, voice kind. "Do you have any idea who we are lad?"

"Sire, Lord George is returning." someone said at his elbow. He didn't look around. "This is your Lord John, lad. And I am Ned."

"You're his king." My intruder- my Lord John- said in mild protest. The big man laughed, already turning from us as the hall began to fill yet further.

"I'm his cousin, little brother. I have enough men to call me sire."

The celebrations went on for hours.

I fell asleep on the corner of that stage, my head against Lord John's boot while they talked endlessly above me. At some point, very late, I heard that deep voice again, heavy with amusement.

"Call a servant for him little brother, he's fast asleep now and you sent your young Mark to bed hours since."

"He bites like a polecat and he's bitten near half the castle. There's no one but Aelric dares touch him now." My intruder's hands slid under me and I shifted as he lifted me, too weary to open my eyes. "What DO we do with him Ned? He's scarcely more than an infant, at his age he needs a nurse and a home."

"Then provide one." A heavy hand rustled my hair. "He's our blood, God knows he's earned the right to our protection."

"I'm hardly the one to ask to provide it."

"On the contrary little brother, I'm awarding you his guardianship."


"Don't look at me like that Johnny, you've more than earned both the land and the income. There's no one deserves it more."

"There's a child attached to the land!"

"Aye and a child of a blood line with enough land in his rights to give his guardian a serious amount of power over me. Which again little brother is well deserved."

"I'm no choice to take care of a child Ned!"

My big cousin laughed, taking no heed of that whatever. "Find the brat a nurse and a governor and put him out on one of your manors Johnny, you take things too seriously! He'll need nothing more from you for a few years than pennies for sweets at the market and toys for his nursery."

"And what of what's happened to him?"

"At his age? He's a babe still Johnny, if he remembers at all then he'll quickly forget. A safe manor, a garden, what trinkets children need at his age, he'll be happy enough there while he grows. I need those lands in the hands of a man I trust little brother, and no one deserves that reward more than you, it's time you were recognised as my right hand in status as well as action. He's your ward, I'll announce that formally in the morning."


It was Ned gave me the soldiers in his usual, careless way- I liked him for it. No eye contact, no conversation, no conditions, he just rustled my hair one night as he passed me, and put a box into my arms without stooping to my level, his voice cheerful and entirely undemanding.

"These are for you little cousin, I thought they might be to your taste."

He moved on without expecting a response from me. He often swept through my orbit like this, never without pausing to recognise me or greet me with very few demands made for a response.

The wooden box contained thirty little carved soldiers and they were very much to my taste. I played with them constantly.

I suppose children adapt swiftly to change. I don't remember how long I had been at Ayrsford when he gave me those soldiers- only that they became a huge part of my world at that time. And my world was Lord John. Where he went, I trailed after him. Where he sat, I played. Where he slept, I slept, lightly enough that I was at his heels again when he moved. We did not as such speak or interact, more I co existed with him. And through him I knew those most often in his orbit - Aelric, the often scowling, often sullen Mark, and my glittering cousin who seemed to fill any room he was in.

I remember one night when it was very cold outside, playing as close to the fire as I could beside Lord John's big wolf hound, Merlin, who was stretched with his belly to the heat and snoring. Lord John and Mark were seated at the table where Mark was unwillingly learning Latin. His voice stumbled on the words and Lord John's voice was quiet, a soothing rumble whenever he made a mistake. Left in peace, I stood my soldiers up one by one in a line on the stones before the hearth, then reached into the wood basket and chose my logs carefully, building a square fort for them as I often did. It took some time to arrange them all, with the red soldiers on the inside and the blue soldiers on the outside.

"Now." I said to the red soldiers, taking the blue captain to speak over the wall to them. "We're going to come in now and shout and there'll be blood and everyone'll lie down and be asleep until we've finished, and then we're going to go away and you can get up again."

The red soldiers were agreeable to this, and so I took the blue soldiers in through the main gate, spreading them around the fort where they knocked each red soldier over in turn.

"Lie down! Be asleep! You sleep!"

It took a while. Finally the blue soldiers were the only ones standing and the blue captain surveyed the scene with satisfaction.

"Now everyone's asleep." I said for him in his deep, gruff voice.

"Everyone?" Lord John said behind me. He sounded mildly interested. I looked up. He was crouching near the hearth, a cup cradled between two of his long fingers, his free hand scratching at Merlin's upturned belly. Obviously he'd tired of the Latin too. It was clearly horrible stuff, Mark's teeth bared at the word. I marched the blue soldiers into the middle of the fort.

"Everyone. Except him." I indicated my one red soldier who was closest to the wall. "He's just pretending."

"Why is he pretending?" Lord John asked.

"Because he's bad." I got the rebellious soldier out and glared at him. "You should lie down and sleep properly."

"You think he should be asleep?" Lord John sat down where he was on the hearth stones, still petting Merlin.

"He can't go to sleep properly." I put the soldier under a pile of wood chip kindling outside the fort, taking the blue captain of the guard to help with his deep, stern voice.

"You're bad, you stay there until you sleep. No one can wake up while you won't go to sleep."

With the soldier safely gone, the blue captain marched his men out and banged on the fort gates.

"We're going now, you can all wake up."

The red soldiers began to stir themselves, standing back to their posts.

"And they do?" Lord John asked.


"What about him?" Lord John indicated the woodpile. I looked too.

"He did it wrong. They have to take him away."

"Where to?"

"Somewhere. But he can't ever go home again, not ever."

The red soldiers began to mend their gate with fresh kindling.

I fell asleep before the hearth as I did most evenings, either in the solar or the great hall, sometimes in Ned's rooms, wherever Lord John spent his time. I would wake the instant he moved from the room and be ready to dart after him. His voice was familiar while I dozed, a reassurance he was near and remaining near.

"Jesu Ned, you should have heard him. The first time I've heard him speak freely and clearly, I nearly choked when I heard his voice, and then when I listened my blood ran cold."

"Did he show you what happened?" My cousin's voice was soft but unusually alert, like his eyes could be sometimes behind that lazy smile.

Lord John just sounded grim and tired. "Only that everyone was killed. Or asleep as he put it. Do you think he does believe that?"

"It depends on how representational it truly was. With that one poor rejected soul dismissed for not doing it 'properly'."

"And taken away as punishment. Christ Ned. I never thought at the time how it might seem to him, I only wanted him away from that carnage as fast as possible. Maybe he DOES believe once he left that they could wake and carry on."

"More like that's a more comfortable thought than what he knows to be the truth." Ned said softly. "Don't torture yourself little brother."

"But I didn't try to show him or explain to him what had happened. Heaven help me I have no idea how! What can a child this age understand of death?"

"Mayhap with these toys he's working it out for himself."

"I told you of that puppy the other day?"


"He had no idea Ned. No idea at all. He was cradling it and petting it as if it was natural for it to lie limp. I had no idea at first what it was he was playing with."

"Has he shown you any urge to make things dead?" Ned asked shrewdly. I heard Lord John's hiss of shock.

"Ned! He's a child!"

"Have you seen him with live things smaller than him? You're sure he FOUND the pup dead?"

"He's not mad Ned! Disturbed is all and not surprising!"

"Aye, not surprising. But if he doesn't understand death, if he's not sure of what it is or what it means and it's torturing him, then he may try to work it out with more than soldiers."

There was a minute's silence. Then Lord John swore, softly. An oath he usually cuffed Mark for using if he heard him say it.

"No, I'm sure of it. I do remember the stable boy did tell me one of the litter was born dead. And he wouldn't touch the live pups when Mark showed them to him, he's almost afraid of things with too much life."

"Beware he does not think of ways to make them safer to play with. He's seen God only knows what Johnny, we have no way of knowing what he witnessed or what it's tangled into in his mind. I would keep him in your sight and trust him not at all until you're more certain."

Another silence, then Lord John again, quieter.

"If you'd seen him with that pup Ned. I had no idea what to say to him. In the end I said it must go back to it's mother, was too small to be played with, and he let it go without any of the protest you'd expect from a child parted from a favourite pet or toy. The only thing he cares for being kept from at all is me. He still freezes like an animal if I get from his sight and he clings for hours afterwards as if he doesn't trust me not to slip away. I'll tell you something more too. That pup left me remembering how we found Graydon's keep. That babe. His sister. George came and told me that night, how when they found her she'd been placed in her cradle, covered over, there was even food in her mouth, they knew she'd been moved. Handled. He understands so pitifully little of what's happened to him."

From the distance of Ned's voice he'd risen to his feet. A tall man, he stood a head over Lord John. "He already runs at your heels night and day, let him run there, keep him in your sight and give him time."

"You've been repeatedly telling me to send him away to a manor with a nurse."

"That was before I saw how he bit." My cousin said ruefully. "I admit it Johnny, I'm worried too and he IS our blood. But ma mere may well know what do for him when she comes. Winterfest isn't far away."


The keep was large and in the mornings it was busy. Lord John and Mark together were with several of the guardsmen and Mark, looking still more sullen than usual, was struggling with a wooden sword against a guardsman twice his size, trying to follow Lord John's instructions and his demonstrations. The guards used real swords and moved so fast my eyes blurred when I tried to watch them, their parries interspersed with grins and ribald teasing. They'd stripped to the waist despite the chill outside, their breath rose in smoke and I could smell the familiar practice yard smell of leather, steel and sweat. Merlin sniffed around the foot of the wooden buildings, where the leather working, the tanning, the chandling and other daily tasks went on. In another wooden shed further back women chattered as they scrubbed the clothes and linens, and lines beyond the keep held rows of fluttering clothes drying in the wind. Still further was the ring of the hammers on the anvils in the smithy and the stamp of patiently waiting horses on the cobbles outside. I wandered, trailing Merlin. A group of children, my age and some a little older, paused on the grass by the laundry maids and a little girl in a white cap and apron, clutching a rough rag doll under one arm, gave me a smile. Two of the boys beyond held sticks and were inexpertly imitating what they saw on the practice yard. I drifted closer, nodding at the girl's smile and her increasing chatter as I hovered. The boys joined me with no more interest than to demand I took a stick also and joined in the battle. It was the King's battle against the rebels, I heard them talk of it as I followed them higher into the flat grass areas where the linens fluttered all around us, beating the air in the morning wind. They were the King's men and I and the girl and her littler sister who trailed in silence, sucking her thumb, we were the rebels. When they brought battle to me, I fought back with a will with my stick, responding with growing enjoyment to their smiles and laughter as they realised I knew well how to play this game. I suppose once I'd played this with other children, it came naturally enough. There were shouts as we battled up and down the slopes, in between the wet aprons and tunics. The boy I fought lost his footing on the grass and rolled down it, giggling as his body caught speed. He landed with a thud at the foot of the slope and I cast my stick sword down just as a soldier would, stooped over my prisoner and held his neck in my hands.

He struggled and kicked very properly, his face contorting as I remembered. The girl ran down the slope beside us and pulled at me, at first calmly, then she gained the spirit of the game and began to pull and to scream. I was waiting for the boy to go limp as he should when women began to scream too. I looked up, my heart thumping with terror, but there was nothing there- only crowds of them running down the slopes towards me, and in the other direction men were starting to shout and to run up from the practice yard. Terrified I made myself as small as I could. The little girl ran towards a woman, her tears noisy and demanding and Lord John snatched my prisoner from my hands, holding him as he coughed and sobbed. Another of the laundry women, sobbing herself, caught him up and cradled him. There was a minute of confused shouting and shrieking and adults jabbering in an outraged tone around me, several looks towards me that were just as terrifying, then one woman made the evil eye sign and Lord John cut the noise off with a bark loud enough to cut through it all.

"Enough! The lad's more frightened than hurt, their play got out of hand is all."

I clung to his hands as he picked me up, standing me on my feet and I jumped, shocked, as he swatted me. One sound smack across the seat of my tunic that brought tears to my eyes and blazed like a hearth fire. Nor did he let me go. He knelt in front of me, gripping my arms, his face deadly serious and his voice stern as I'd never heard it before.

"William, you do NEVER put your hands around anyone's throat. Not EVER again, do you understand? No matter what you're playing."

There were some mutters of approval, still more as some of the women found their husbands and the men, more tolerant, began to quell their clucking with assertions that all boys fought and a fuss was being made over nothing. Lord John gripped my wrist and led me with him, through the practice yard and across towards the sheep pens where there were several low walls. He put me up on one and sat down beside me, taking no notice of the furore behind us as it gradually fell back into the usual morning patterns of work. I was still shaking with shock from the screams.

"What were you playing lad?" he asked eventually. I looked up at him. He put a hand under my chin for a minute, his eyes were very serious.

"Soldiers? Was that the game?"

I nodded. He nodded in return.

"Did they invite you into the game?"

I nodded again, eyes starting once more to prickle. He held my chin still.

"And that is what soldiers do?"

I didn't answer that, somewhat confused. He was a soldier. He should know. He held my face up to his for a long time, then let my chin go and ran a hand over my head, his voice its usual soft tone again.

"Never anything around ANYONE's throat lad. Never again, you promise me. That's not a thing for little boys, even in play."

I must have heard similar warnings before, since I knew of many other things in this world that were not for little boys according to what I'd been told- fire, wells and swords were among them. I nodded again since that made sense. And my backside smarted hotly beneath my hose. He lifted me down but kept hold of my shoulder as he walked back to the practice ground. There I got one of Mark's narrow, grudging looks combined with something else- it was a look I was to see a lot from that day onwards, often alongside the evil eye sign from the older women in the keep. Mark needn't have worried. After that day the other children in the keep kept a good distance from me, in accordance with their mother's orders.

I sat that evening, lining the blue soldiers around the fort where the red soldiers waited meekly to take their part in the game. Lord John squatted by me to watch as he often did when I played. Sometimes when I gave him a soldier or two he held them obediently, but he let me be the voices and he drifted to the periphery of my awareness, my attention held by the battle in front of me.

The blue soldiers broke through the gates and there a red soldier hit back, knocking over the blue soldier attacking him.

"NO hands round necks, that's BAD. You can't play if you do that."

The blue soldier, suitably shamed, went to stand outside the castle walls.

"What will he do now?" Lord John asked, handing over two blue soldiers he'd been keeping watch with. I used the blue soldiers to go to the remaining red soldier standing.

"Go to sleep!"

The red soldier obediently lay down. I looked over to the exiled blue soldier.

"He'll have to wait if he doesn't know how to play."

"What about this soldier?" Lord John excavated my ever difficult red
soldier from under the rushes where he'd been sent this time for his
ongoing refusal to sleep. "Doesn't he know how to play either?"

I took him and put him back under the rushes.


It was snowing outside and the snow lay thick all around the keep when the woman came back. She arrived in a group of riders, so thickly muffled by her cloak that for a moment I couldn't see who it was. Ned and Lord John together came down the steps and Lord John absently put a hand out to hoist me after him as I slipped on the frosted stone. Ned took the head of her horse, lifted her down and she put her hood back to kiss his cheek.

"Good morning."

"Welcome home ma mere." Ned took her arm, steadying her as she went to kiss Lord John. And then lowered her eyes to me. She was still wearing scarlet, her dress sweeping the ground, tall, stately and with Ned's blue eyes. Except where his danced, hers froze. I slipped behind Lord John's leg.

"Good morning William." She said gravely. I didn't answer.

"He still barely speaks." Lord John said for me. "Only when he plays with those soldiers Ned gave him."

The woman pulled off her gloves and held out a hand to me. "Would you help me up the steps William please?"

I didn't respond. Lord John gave me a push towards her. She was waiting, those eyes still on me. I took her hand unwillingly. She helped me more than I helped her, steadying me from step to step as I climbed, and kept hold of me as we reached the great hall, my hand swallowed up in her cold one. We were promptly surrounded by a large crowd of the people I regarded as the most important and most frequently seen around Ned in the castle. Servants came to take her cloak and gloves and she spoke to several people, surrounded by bows and swept curtseys as she walked, still keeping hold of my hand. I was shaking by the time she led me to the fire, took the most upright of the chairs there and lifted me onto her knee. I fought free as soon as I realised what she was doing, struggled down to the floor and bolted to Lord John and the sturdy safety of his leg. The woman straightened her skirts, regarding me thoughtfully. I hissed at her from behind Lord John. There was something impressive about those blue eyes, she frightened me.

She came with an entourage that seemed to fill the house and take hours to unpack and settle in rooms, and the Great Hall that evening was packed with tables from end to end. Mark and the other boys ate on the floor by the fire, freeing up the benches for the adults and thoroughly enjoying the chance of pushing and shoving and chattering without constant reminders about their manners. I sat under the table against Lord John's leg and shook my head hard whenever he offered me a piece of whatever he was eating. Too many people, too much noise, too much different. Ned was at his most vibrant, the dais where he and Lord John and the woman sat was filled with numerous other men and women, some of whom I knew by sight and some of whom were new. And they all listened and laughed loudly and concentrated hard on Ned, who's eyes met mine sometimes with the glint that he had whenever he was teasing Lord John and trying not to burst out laughing. And on the far side of the table the woman still watched me.

I was dozing in the rushes by the hearth of the solar when the door
opened and Ned's lazy voice interrupted the crackling flames.

"Aha. There you are Johnny, I knew you'd sneak off as soon as you

"The boy hates the noise."

"Don't play the boy off as an excuse to me little brother, I know full well who hates the noise and the dancing and all the rest of the performance." There was the familiar creak of Ned throwing himself down in a chair. Then both he and Lord John rose hastily as the door opened again. The woman sounded as always, politely interested.

"Is this usually how you end your evenings your Majesty? Leaving your guests to their own devices?"

"The ones that are left are too drunk to know who's there." Ned said cheerfully. "Let me get you some wine ma mere."

"I notice you have your father's sleight of hand for drinking." The woman said dryly. "I could have vowed you matched each lord at the table wine for wine- how much did you actually swallow Ned?"

"Less than half a cup." There was the satisfied thud again of Ned sprawled in a chair and his booted feet crossed on the table. "My head's clearer than a bell. Which was not at all to the liking of your sycophants ma mere, several of them had interesting little bargains and requests to put to me when they hoped I was well mellowed. They were all sadly disappointed, I'm sure they'll make their complaints to you."

"I am only the mother of the King," the woman said demurely, "How can I hold his attention or his will?"

There was laughter at that, the shared laughter I was to come to know well of these three who'd plotted and fought together for twenty years. Then the woman's voice again, still politely dry.

"It was actually you Johnny I came to speak to. I'm somewhat distressed to discover that in raising you I did not make clearer to you the difference between a child and a wolfhound."

"You have not yet seen the teeth marks he can leave." Ned said flippantly. The woman did not sound amused.

"He is your cousin, not a puppy. From what I've seen today he trails around at your heels, you feed him with scraps from your plate, he snaps and snarls at anyone who comes too near and he falls asleep on the floor at your feet when he's tired."

"I tried for some time to get him to bed at night ma mere, but he will not stay unless I stay with him." Lord John said peaceably. "He is better than he was. He plays with those soldiers for hours at a time and chatters to himself- and to me sometimes when he's playing with them. He's been badly damaged."

"That I do not deny. But he's our blood, and I will not see my sister's grandchild treated as an animal. Worse, Johnny. You nor Ned would let a dog of yours snap as he does."

"Well I would not." Ned commented, "Johnny always was a lousy dog trainer-"

There was a slop as John jostled his elbow shaking his goblet so it slopped and from Ned's protest, splashed across his tunic.

"Ned." The woman said sternly. "This is no joke."

"We're not joking ma mere." Lord John said calmly, "If you heard him with those soldiers- or that child in the keep he tried to strangle-"

"And you let him do that?"

"No, I swiped his rump and told him he was never to do that again. And his precious soldiers get sent out of his castles nightly for strangling."

"So he can learn and he can understand."

"Ma mere, given time-"

"He's been here nearly three months Johnny. Habits get set in stone with children, and they're far harder to undo."

"After what he's endured the least we can do is let him have time to work out what it is that's happened to him ma mere." Ned said mildly. "He's alarmed by the influx here today, he's usually calm enough around Johnny."

"He trails around behind you and shrinks from any touch." His mother pointed out. Lord John sighed.

"He doesn't know you ma mere. He lets me handle him willingly enough."

"And turns to you for affection?" the woman waited. Then sniffed. "Much as I thought. What have you done when he bites?"

"He only bites when he's frightened."

"Johnny would you let a dog of yours run loose in the keep who snapped and bit? This child is your cousin, he is of our blood. He is of MY blood. He WILL have to be taught that those of our lineage do not bite like animals when afraid, nor drop to the floor and sleep where they are tired. Or growl when they are looked at."

There was a silence. Then Lord John's voice, chillier than I'd ever heard it.

"Perhaps compassion sometimes- just sometimes - outweighs the pride of our blood ma mere. You did not see what he had to see, or what was done to his home and to his family. I did. I have seen every day since his confusion, his terror. I will not beat him into what you deem 'appropriate' family behaviour to please you."

"You might think too of his right to belong." The woman said equally icily. "If he has lost all else, he has our blood and our family, and the right to be a part of us with all of what that means. That IS a future and a home we might give to him."

The silence this time went on longer. From the rustle of skirts the woman had risen and I heard her two sons rise automatically, well trained since childhood in courtesy to her.

"Think on it Johnny."

There was another silence after the door shut, then a wry sigh from Ned.

"She does not lose her edge, ma mere. Johnny don't scowl like that, any fool could see you've done the best by the boy that you're capable of."

"Perhaps she would do better." John said shortly. Ned snorted.

"If she could peel the brat from your leg. He chose you remember?"

"Who am I to raise a child, Ned? What do I know?"

"Johnny there are women to spare in this castle, of every age." Ned's voice was the dry, quiet tone that meant he was in one of his rare moments of seriousness. "Men. Experienced fathers. Grandfathers. The brat attached to you and he's stayed attached to you. You were the one that took him from that hell, you were his rescuer."

Hands slid under me. I forced my eyes open long enough for the face above me to become clear, then flopped over the shoulder I was held against, secure in its familiarity.

"I was just the soldier leading that raid, that was all."

The familiar, flippant tone was back in Ned's voice when he spoke, and I could hear the clank of the wine jug, the slosh of a sarcastic toast in our direction.

"If you do truly believe that Johnny, then you are a fool. And I have never taken you for a fool."


The Great Hall was busy at noon time, but orderly quiet. Most were centred around Ned, who seated on the dais at the far end of the hall was reading through various parchments and speaking quietly to the large crowd waiting around him. Periodically new people would approach him and others retreat backwards, bowing, and periodically there was quiet clapping from the crowd. Lord John was standing near me at the back of the hall, leaning against the table with his arms folded. He'd dismissed Mark who'd vanished with alacrity into the fields with the other squires, and he looked far more interested in my soldiers than he did in what Ned was saying. I passed one back to him to hold and he took it absently, glancing at the fort I was building out of the floor rushes. I set it up carefully, laying the lavender sprigs on top before I set up the soldiers within the fort. The rustle of skirts made me look up, and then move sharply back towards Lord John as the lady they called ma mere knelt on the rushes beside me. Lord John made a movement towards her at once, holding out a hand.

"Ma mere, you can't sit down there-"

She put a hand out, not looking at me or him, and picked up two soldiers who had lost their footing on the fort, standing them up carefully and in the correct positions. Then continued to develop my wall. I frowned at her for a while. Then when she paid no attention, went back to building the wall at the other end. It had stretched nearly the length of the entire hearth when we stopped and took stock. The lady took the red soldiers and began to assemble them on the hearth stones.

"When I fought at Leighton we held a hill like this- a flank here- a flank there, the cavalry was here…"

"They have to come in at night." I told her. She looked at me, pausing in setting up her troops. Lord John stooped and sat beside her, still holding my rebel soldier.

"Do they?"

I marched the red soldiers in to the fort in groups, keeping the flanks the lady had arranged, before I started my methodical circling of the blue troops and their orders.

"Lie down! Everybody lie down and be asleep!"

"Do they go to sleep?" the lady asked me. Lord John answered, showing her the soldier he was holding.

"All except him."

I looked at him. He sighed but leaned forward and put the rebel soldier under the rushes. The lady sat back on her heels, watching my chief of the blue troops check that everyone was properly asleep.

"And always the same?"

"Every time." Lord John said mildly. "It never varies, this repeats by the hour, day after day."

My blue chief was finishing the last of the inspection. The lady leaned over and tapped his head, looking at me.

"William, what does he do if they're not asleep?"

"He's hiding." I said, showing her the one under the rushes. She nodded thoughtfully.

"But what if the one of the others wasn't?"

"They have to go to sleep." I explained again, carefully.

She reached over and picked up a red soldier, standing him on his feet.

"He doesn't want to."

I looked at the second rebel soldier. Then hit out at the fort, flattening it and scattering the soldiers before I started to kick them far and wide. The crowd around Ned looked around and the lady reached out to me, her voice changing.

"William stop that at once. Stop it now I say."

Her hands grasped mine and held on, slender and strong. I remember the velvet and perfume and the softness of her hair, then the deadly silence and her gasp when I sank my teeth into her shoulder. I threw myself down, hit the floor hard and thrashed there, kicking at the soldiers and at her with impartiality. Lord John picked me up by the back of my tunic and carried me out ahead of him into the keep.

Out there a few guards looked around but no one took much notice. Lord John sat on the steps, sat me between his knees and pinned my arms. The lady's voice at the top of the steps was low and distressed and I snarled when I heard she had followed us.

"William I am sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your game-"

Lord John put my on my feet and turned me to face her with a slight shake that made me bare my teeth but drop my hands by my sides. He sounded grim and toneless but he crouched beside me and his hand swatted hard across my rump, one sound and accurate smack that made my eyes sting and my rear blaze like the hearth.

"You do NOT bite. Apologise at once."

"Johnny-" the lady began, sounding distressed, but Lord John rose to his feet and dropped a hand on my shoulder. I burned the smart at her through my eyes but sketched a slight and soundless bow.

"SPEAK." Lord John said sharply.

"Sorry." I muttered.

"I trust that will be to your satisfaction now ma mere?" Lord John said in that same toneless voice, and stepped off the steep side of the stone stairs, landing on his feet on the cobbles and lifting me down after him. Thankful to be anywhere away from her, I ran ahead of him towards the stables.

I spent the afternoon in the yard, scuffing at the fallen leaves while Lord John as he often did, walked the yard talking to the guards on duty. Ned often said he was the castle guard dog. I understood. I liked the space and the freshness of the air, the grey light of Winter, the cleanness of the cold. It was too frosty now for children to be running in the yard, a few hung around the warmth of the smithy and I gave them a wide berth. Since that awful day I hadn't gone near them. Hands around throats were bad. That thought burned hotly and shamefully, I wouldn't be wrong again. If you didn't play properly you had to be taken away. I swallowed on the fear of that and kept on walking past the smithy, keeping my hands clenched so they wouldn't look like they were too near throats. Beyond the smithy lay the animal outbuildings, the herd of sheep and goats and occasional cattle that lived in the vast outer keep, who's noise and smells we lived with day by day and who grazed around the fires and few huts of those who lived against the castle walls. A few of the sheds were filled with hay, with grain, with apples, others were rough floored and used by craftsmen and armourers at times. The racket of sheep drew me to another of them, past the sheep pen itself to the open door where three men, bare armed and leather aproned, were working.

I do remember well standing at that open door. I do not know how long I was there. Nor whether- as I think now perhaps I did - I slipped within, too small to be seen, and touched, and felt as well as looked, for there were plenty laid on the floor. I do know that amongst open eyes, open mouths, lolling tongues, I slipped on the blood on the floor, touched it with my hands and felt the heat leave it as it began to dry and stick, no longer fresh with life. I do remember screams that echoed around the stone of the yard, ringing back from the walls, getting lost in the frosted air over the keep, and that the blood steamed as it rose from the cobbles.


Winterfest reached its peak on Christmas Eve. Wreaths hung over the fireplaces and cloves sweetened the rushes on the floor. The boys of the keep cut armfuls of greenery and dragged them on sledges back from the woods where they were hung over doors and windows. The kitchens smelled of roasted meats and currants, and Ned and his brightly coloured crowd of nobles, rode out daily on the hunt. I hid my eyes behind Lord John's tunic when they returned with the beasts on poles. Rabbits, deer, boar. Ned saw me once and frowned, calling across to Lord John.

"For pity's sake Johnny, should the child be let to see this?"

Lord John crouched and put his arms around me, drawing me close so I could bury my face properly, and rubbed my back, voice soft in my ear.

"Allright lad. Allright, I've got you, you're safe."

It was what he said to me at night now when I woke sweating and screaming.

Ned ran up the steps, pulling off his gloves, and his familiar hand ran over my head.

"MUST he watch this?"

"It's a fact of life, he'll see it somewhere no matter how we protect him. Better he learns to face it now." Lord John straightened, lifting me with him. I kept my face firmly turned into his tunic, shivering. Ned's followers were already flooding up the steps and Lord John stepped back, moving us both away from the crowd. Some murmurs were of pity as he walked, some women's faces in their velvet cowls with soft eyes on me. Others were more curious. Most nights we spent in the solar, him and me and Mark, while he and Mark read from their books and I lay and watched the fire and ran my fingers over my soldiers. Red and blue together, lying in ranks, like I'd seen them. And I fought to keep my eyes open, to put off the threat of impending sleep. I fought sleep for days. Lord John and I walked the keep in the dead of night, Lord John talking to sleepy guards, while I trudged and looked out over the keep walls, telling my eyes to stay open. Mark complained bitterly at being sent to bed while I stayed up, but Lord John paid no attention and made him go.

Christmas Eve he took us both with him to the midnight mass and I stood bleary eyed between him and the woman he called ma mere while the monks sang and mass was served. He attended mass like Ned, perhaps twice a week, and I stood by him while he did it. The Mere woman went daily. This was the first night mass I'd seen, and afterwards there was singing outside in the keep, several jugglers, a fire eater and dancing while musicians played in the stone porch out of the driving snow. Mark darted all over the keep to watch with the other squires. I shrank back from the noise and the strangeness of it. Lord John stooped and picked me up, wrapping his cloak around us both.

"Do you remember Christmas with your mother? Did she take you to mass with her?"

I didn't remember. I didn't even have clear faces in my memory. I just gripped to him as I did most of the time, the solidity and familiarity of him, and turned my head away from the fire.

"Is that child ever out of your arms?" someone demanded, passing us on the steps. "Merry Christmas Johnny- does the brat actually walk?"

"He's a little clinging at present." Lord John sounded neutral. "Understandably Giles."

"He never holds onto you that I see. He hangs in your arms there like a sack of meal." Giles said cheerfully. "I heard he found his way into the slaughter house. George said the screams could be heard in Barrisford, dawned on the poor little tyke what actually happened at-"

"For Christ's sake Giles he's four, not stupid!" Lord John quickened his step, I heard the ring of his boots on stone, then the warmth of the fire in the great hall. As usual in the evenings we made our way towards the solar and there he put me down, watching me settle down in front of my soldiers.

"You'll hear a lot of stupid things from stupid men lad. Hearing it said doesn't make it true. You remember that."

I held out a soldier to him. He crouched and took it from me, cradling it between his big fingers. Then straightened, and took a box from the mantel.

"These are for you. I thought they might make your fort a little easier to build."

The box held brightly painted wooden blocks. I cleared a space in the rushes and began to build them, constructing a wall as big and as high as I could.

"That doesn't look like a fort." Lord John commented, watching. I shook my head.

"It isn't a fort. It's a wall."

"Is it?"

"It's too big and too high for anyone to get past, ever."

"What about your soldiers?"

I shook my head. "They're safe in there. I can keep them all safe, nothing can get past the wall."

There was a long silence while I built, then Lord John sat down on the rushes beside me.

"William, you do know lad, nothing that happened to your family was your fault?"

I looked harder at my wall. "I'm going to build it really high. Nothing could climb over something that high. Or knock it down."

"It would have been really good if there had been a wall like that around your home." Lord John said quietly.

I paused.

"There was a gate. It got broken."

"It would have been good if it was built high like your wall is."

"So they couldn't see anyone. Or if everyone hid."

Lord John tucked his soldiers under the rushes and I leaned across to help him until all the red soldiers were hiding.

"Now no one'll see them." I said, pulling the rushes straight.

"Yes." Lord John straightened my wall. I sat back on my heels, folding my hands to stop them shaking.

"It would have been good if they'd all really hid."

He was watching me, big with that quiet face and those sombre blue eyes.

"Yes lad, it would."

The tears started slowly and silently as I looked at him. His own face twisted and he held out his arms to me, voice soft.

"Come here. William, come here lad."

I stumbled up and wrapped my arms around his neck, feeling his arms fold around me in return and pull me down into his lap. The fire crackled in the hearth, he rocked me slowly and I clung to him until I sobbed myself to sleep.

He was then nineteen years old.


He took me with him into the market on Christmas day, where there were stalls selling apples and bread, herbs and spices, fabrics and pots and glassware. Lord John lifted me up to choose a coloured glass goblet, a most precious trinket, for the woman he called ma mere, and I watched him choose gloves for himself, and talk to the shoe maker about boots for me. My own were getting decidedly tight.

It was on the wood stall that I found it. Bigger than my hand, carved so that every scale was visible, from the turn of his wings to the tip of his tail. His jaws were bared and his teeth were sharply pointed. He was painted, green and black, and he stood poised on the
stall as if ready to launch into flight. It took me a minute to find
Lord John examining belt buckles. He looked down in surprise when I grabbed his hand and towed him, dragging him across the square to the stall where I pointed, desperate for him to see.

"William? What lad? What are you- the dragon?"

I nodded frantically. He looked down into my face for a moment, then crouched beside me to look at it.

"He's a beauty. Fierce."

I growled, showing him my claws like the dragon was clawing. He smiled, nodding.

"Just like that."

"Me?" I said, finding my voice with difficulty. "Please?"

"You want him that badly?" Lord John sounded mildly surprised. I suppose he so rarely heard me talk outside our shared play with the soldiers. I nodded urgently.

"Please. Dragon."

He simply lifted it down into my hands and straightened to pay the stall holder. I held my dragon with trembling hands, feeling his power, his beauty, the fierceness of his snarl. Lord John put a hand on my head, ruffling gently.

"Allright lad?"

I grabbed his hand and hugged it hard.

Ned escaped that evening as he did occasionally, and came to join us in the solar. Lord John was patiently reading through Latin with Mark who was sounding less patient by the minute. I had built my fort beside a sprawled out and snoring Merlin, and was lining my soldiers up inside. Ned nodded to Lord John without interrupting the lesson, unhooked his cloak and flung it over a chair before he took a seat beside me.

"Still busy with defences little cousin?"

"There's an attack coming." I told him, showing him the blue soldiers lined up in the hearth, ready. "It's dark and night time and everyone in the castle is going to bed and asleep, it's raining outside and there's lightening-"

I made the appropriate sounds, showing him how the rain was falling. He nodded, stretching out on one side to see better. I re arranged the red soldiers in their fort.

"They're asleep and in their beds and some of them get up because they hear the lightening and have to hide. Then when it's really dark the soldiers come over the bridge, clip clop clip clop up to the gate-"

There was quiet, the Latin had stopped. Ned nodded, watching the blue soldiers line up on the bridge.

"They're ready for attack."

"Then the dragon comes, who lives in the castle, and HE stands on the gate." I lifted the dragon out of hiding and stood him on the wall, growling as he poised there, claws ready and outstretched.

"And the blue soldiers are so scared they run away, over the bridge and over the hills."

"I'd be scared of the dragon." Ned confirmed. "That would make me run away, and probably my army too."

"You've attacked castles?" I asked. Ned nodded slowly.

"Sometimes. When I've had to."

"And the dragon would make you stop?"

"Oh a dragon that big on the walls, I'd stop. Look how big he is, he'd breathe fire all the way down the valley."

"He'd burn up the trees."

"He'd burn up the wagons. There would be nowhere for soldiers to hide at all." Ned confirmed. I stroked the dragon's fierce head with one finger and subsided back into the rushes beside Ned, rebuilding the wall as the blue soldiers scattered.

"Tell me about when you fought a castle."

"There was one, in Levisham, which had a man in who'd done something dreadful." Ned said, getting comfortable. "Do you know what he'd done? He'd TAKEN ma mere. She was locked up in a tower, and Johnny and I had to find an army and go to get her back."

"What did you do?" I demanded. Ned picked up the blue soldiers.

"Pass me those others and I'll show you. Johnny was over here on this hill, and I was in the valley here……….."

It was some time before Lord John stirred at the table, leaned over and rustled Mark's hair.

"You should be in bed lad. Go on with you."

"HE doesn't have to go." Mark mumbled, getting to his feet.

"HE is still little, and not growing a league a minute." Lord John said cheerfully. "Off with you."

Mark paused before Ned and sketched a sleepy bow.

"Goodnight Sire."

"Goodnight lad." Ned pulled himself to his feet and left me rearranging my fort while he went to pour himself another drink.

"That's the first time I've known him use those soldiers to play instead of re live." Lord John said softly behind me. "You're quite the story teller Ned."

"I've told you a few in my time." Ned said mildly. Lord John smiled.

"Aye. You were always good at stories when we should have been asleep."

Ned indicated the fort with his goblet. "You do realise who that dragon is little brother?"

Lord John frowned.

I replaced my dragon carefully on the wall of the fort. My snarling dragon with the vivid blue eyes.

Copyright Ranger 2010

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Most of the artwork on the blog is by Canadian artist Steve Walker.

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