Monday, February 15, 2010

The Man in the Making – The Tempering

Title: The Man in the Making – The Tempering
Author: Ranger

Part 2 The Tempering

There was shouting in the bailey, men's voices, loud and harsh, and the beginning of screams from below. Not just women screaming either. Then the smash of a door and the voices suddenly became a lot louder. Shadows leapt on the wall in front of me, thrown there from the light of the fire. Huge shadows, spiked and gangly like dragon flies with swords-


I turned automatically and stopped at the familiar weight of the hand on my shoulder. Lord John sat down on the bed, keeping his grip on me.

"Allright lad?"

The room was dark, and the door stood open. It was more than a year since I'd grown too big for the truckle bed in the corner of Lord John's chamber and moved to this adjoining chamber which had stood empty since Mark joined Ned's court at Tavistock. It made no difference whatever to the keenness of Lord John's hearing.

I nodded, pushing the brychan and fur down and wiping the sweat off my forehead. I was still panting as though I'd been running. Lord John leaned over and pulled the bed curtains further back, letting in the grey moonlight and the fresh air from the unglassed window.

"Sorry." I said somewhat shamefacedly. Lord John cupped a hand around my head and gripped, giving me a faint smile in the darkness.

"That fall yesterday most likely shook you as much as me. Are you aching anywhere lad?"

I moved experimentally. My hip and shoulder were sore where a temperamental stallion had hurled me down on the grass yesterday afternoon, but other than having been stunned for a minute or two there had been no damage done.

"Just bruised."

"You bounce like Mark used to. Anyone but you would have broken their neck."

Lord John got up and went into his own chamber, returning a minute later with a heavy silver cup, filled from the jug of spiced hippocras that Aelric left in his room every night. Used to the weak ales and ciders I usually drank, the wine tasted heavy and caught the back of my throat when I swallowed. I took a few deep gulps, knowing from long experience that it would sink me back into a deeper and this time dreamless sleep. The dreams were rare now, Lord John said they were only triggered by things that disturbed or worried me, and they were isolated incidents. Not the night after night after night pattern they had once been. He took the cup back from me and watched me turn over, pulling the covers up over my shoulders.

"Go back to sleep lad. You're safe here, from all but maniac horses."

"What time is it?" I asked sleepily, watching him pause by the window.

"Two or three hours to sunrise."

As if on cue a night watchman shouted from the bailey, his voice distant but clear.

"Three o clock and all's well! God save the King!"

"Were you awake anyway?" I asked. Lord John glanced back to me. His shirt hung open and he wore no tunic, but he was in boots and hose and his hair was not nearly tousled enough to suggest sleep. He didn't sleep much, I knew. As a small child I'd kept him company most nights in his ghosting around the bailey and the walls. I thought as I'd grown older he'd made a more deliberate effort to set me a good example, but his nights were still largely spent reading, writing and walking around his chamber. I was used to falling asleep to candlelight under the crack of the door that separated us. To me it was always reassurance. He was there. Near.

"Just reading. I'll sleep now. Goodnight Will. No more dreams."

He shut the door softly and I turned my face deeper into the pillow, letting the hippocras take me. Next door I could hear the familiar sounds of him clearing his throat, the clink of a jug, the quiet footsteps as he crossed the floor. The sounds I'd slept to through all of what I remembered of my life.

On the chest in my line of vision stood my painted wooden dragon, his blue eyes glinting in the dim light.

Ayrsford was the biggest castle and barracks in the West lands, and guarding the one crossing place at the river Nene for twenty miles. At some points of the river it was so wide that the other side wasn't even visible. A few boatmen worked up and down the river, linking between the scattered villages and carrying passengers and goods, but most of the traders came to Ayrsford market to sell to people on both sides of the river, and travellers and pilgrims followed the road through what had once been just a ford but was now a stone bridge that led through the town gates and into the market place at the gates of the castle itself.

"Why isn't it the river Ayrs if this is Ayrsford?" I had asked Lord John when I was small. "It ought to be Nenesford. Or the river ought to be the river Ayrs."

We had been in the solar at the time and Lord John had opened the heavy chest in the corner and taken out one of his precious maps, unrolling it on the table to show me.

"It's because this has always been land held by the house of Ayrs. We guard the river and all the main roads north from here, this is one of the key tactical strongholdings in the country. My great great Grandfather was the Duke of Ayrs, brother to Edmund Blacksword."

That name I knew from the family tree I'd seen in the great hall downstairs. The first King of our line, who came from the town of Ayrs itself, on the Welsh border.

"He was my great great grandfather too."

"Yes." Lord John rolled the map again, watching me with his quiet blue eyes. "We're all of the house of Ayrs, you, me, Ned, ma Mere. Your father and your mother were both from the house of Ayrs, you have the blood on both sides."

I thought about that.

Sometimes I stood and watched Lord John, the deftness with which he moved when he ran up the steps of the guard house, or the way he stood and talked when he spoke with the guard, the manner he had that made every man I knew listen with trust and with respect. The incline of his head when he listened. The exactness of his hand when he held a sword, a pen or a horse. These were the unique elements that made him Lord John. That made me know him as I did, so even in the dark I knew without seeing how his head was held or how his hands rested while he talked.

Some of those trademarks to him I could see in Ned too, although in Ned every action was broader. Looser and with a casual grace, with more laughter and many more smiles. And Ned was fair too, his bright hair glittered like the crown I'd seen him wear. Where Lord John was dark, his skin darker, his hair nearly black, and his eyes a deeper and more potent blue, and his changes of expression you had to watch for, like the flickers of rainbow trout that swam deep in the river beyond the castle walls.

I had been fair headed too as a child. It hadn't sat well with me- perhaps because Lord John was dark, perhaps because I simply felt darker, a need to be less visible. Less pure looking. I knew still better than any of those who still occasionally made the evil eye sign when I passed, that I was very far from pure. When I was six I tried rubbing ashes into my hair from an empty hearth, ashes and soot until my hair turned a grim grey colour, very far from the black I wanted. It gained me nothing except an immediate bath when I was discovered, and Mark, who at that time was still in early adolescence and furiously jealous when he wasn't regally ignoring or teasing me, gave me a bottle of ink to try instead. That worked far better. My hair was streaked with dark grey for weeks despite all Aelric's scrubbing, several of the old women in the castle began to mutter about demons, and Mark was soundly thrashed when Lord John discovered where the ink had come from. It started a new fashion too. Unlike the other children who ran like puppies through the laundry rooms, through the kitchens and linen rooms and cider presses, playing around the feet of the servants and maids, I was now met with silence and formal disapproval when I ventured from Lord John's heels. If the bread didn't rise, if the butter didn't come, if the milk turned, if the sheets didn't whiten- it was now because That Child was watching and cursing it. On a few occasions I knew, Lord John spoke sternly to the steward and housekeeper about it, and they in turn must have spoken to their underlings, but it quietly continued throughout the castle.

I can't say it was entirely unjustified. Aelric, who as Lord John's body servant had cared for him and me since I was brought to Ayrsford, described me when I asked him once, in his usual blunt terms. Through his eyes I had been a small, undersized child who looked no one in the eye and who's own eyes glanced from the sides and darted around like a wolf's. Who cowered when approached, or growled like a wild animal, who mostly played under hearthstones, in corners or under tables and walked close to the walls to circle a room, avoiding open spaces. Who was mute, and frequently selectively deaf too, and who was given occasionally to wild, screaming tempers, often for reasons no one could see. Except Lord John. At the time, he never gave me to feel for a minute that my behaviour was anything at all unusual for a child my age, or demanded of me explicit changes.  Until I was nearly nine years old I spoke aloud to no one except him, and sometimes Ned.

As I grew older though, through some freak of nature, my hair and my eyes began to darken of themselves, until by the time I was nine my eyes had gone from blue to grey and my hair a unlit sandy colour that looked not unlike the ashes I had once rubbed into it. That pretty much confirmed the opinion of every doubter in the castle that I was in league with something grim, if I could change colour so extremely and so rapidly.

It was ma Mere who put a name for me on the changes when they had progressed enough to be truly noticeable. She was arriving for winterfest, the time of year when the castle teemed with life, a time I still hated as too busy, too noisy and too changeable. She took my hand as she always did to mount the stairs and stood in the great hall with her hand on my shoulder while her entourage and the housekeeper swirled around us, put back her hood and looked down at me, eyebrows lifting.

"Well William. You look ever more like your grandfather young man."

I gave her a sideways look of surprise and she smiled, wryly.

"Yes. Even to the way you twist your mouth when you're thinking. He had that exact same expression."

It was strange- and oddly comforting- to know that someone saw in me familiar traits that marked me as belonging somewhere. I knew every movement and mannerism of Lord John, but I couldn't see those mannerisms in myself. I had no memory of my father's face or my mother's hands to know if I'd inherited them, no one I was clearly stamped as belonging to. I suppose as children do, I picked up a muddle of learned behaviours from the people around me that became m own individual traits, but a part of me still longed to know, if my father were to walk into the great hall at Ayrsford would I see a face that mirrored mine? Would I have any turns of speech or twists of face that would mark me as being his? Would he recognise me?

Oddly I enough I only voiced this once and to Ned, not Lord John. I suppose it was a vague worry that it would hurt him, the man I told everything to and who understood everything about me.

Ned had taken me with him hunting that day, something Lord John took no pleasure in but which Ned excelled at, as he did at everything physical. He'd kept me close to him all day too, sheltering me from the group of nobles and squires who shadowed him everywhere. And he took me aside at the stables when we returned, dropping a hand on my shoulder and steering me down the narrow side alley that led towards the bailey walls. A quick and discreet move that rid him of his followers before they noticed, and a route which surprised me until I remembered that Ned and Lord John had spent part of their childhood at Ayrsford. On a set of rarely used steps that led to one of the watch towers, he let me go and leaned against the stones to face me, deceptively casual as he always was, his blue green eyes good humoured.

"You begged Johnny all evening to let you hunt today, and you've spent all day looking as though you're expecting the last trump to sound this afternoon. Is it truly still so very hard to go a day with me instead of him?"

I shook my head, somewhat embarrassed, although it was true enough. "I enjoyed it, I did want to come."

Ned nodded slowly, still watching me. "Well with you it won't be mischief you're in or trouble you're expecting lad, your reputation is for being alarmingly good."

I glanced up, shocked as to why he'd say that. I wasn't good. The whole castle knew I wasn't good, and I knew it more than anyone. I came from something so black and awful that no one would talk about it, and I didn't even remember it. And I was the only one who'd survived it. Bad. Like the little wooden soldier under the rushes.

Ned ruffled my hair, a kindly gesture, shaking it back out of my eyes.

"So what is it lad? What's worth brooding this much on?"

So I told him. In a few words at first, and then in a stumbling rush. Of what ma Mere had said, of what I thought, that there was no one I resembled. No one here I belonged to.

He listened in silence, letting me talk until I was done, then put a hand on my shoulder, drew me close and pulled the large, ornamental hunting knife from its sheath on his belt. Its wide blade, when he turned it, reflected his face and mine together.

"Just look lad. Both your parents were my cousins, and Rob and I looked a lot like each other. The Ayrs men run to two strains. The gangly, fair ones and the slight, dark ones. Your father and I came from the fair strain, my father and Johnny and your mother too actually, they came from the other. You've got the family blood on both sides and you've got both strains clear in you. You look like me and you look like Johnny, you always will do."

I looked at the reflection on the blade and for the first time I saw it. The line of the eyes, the line of the jaw, his and mine and the way they matched.

"Rob was a kind man." Ned said more gently. "He laughed a lot and he was well liked, people found it very difficult to find anything ill to say of him, even when he was negotiating them into corners. And he was very shrewd at that too, right from when he was a boy. He negotiated me into trouble several times before I'd realised what I'd been talked into. And he was a brave man too. He was a good friend on a battlefield, had the knack of looking at the field and guessing which way things would turn. It saved our necks a few times."

I didn't say anything, but I nodded. Ned looked down at me, then sheathed the knife and pulled me into a rough hug, lifting me off my feet. He was more demonstrative than Lord John or ma Mere, whose gestures of affection tended towards the quiet and subtle. That suited my own way of being too, but on this day I hugged Ned back gladly, breathless when he put me down.

"Ned- you won't tell Lord John?"

Ned gave me an inquiring look. I flushed, shrugging a little. Then he nodded with a somewhat wry smile.

"Aye little cousin, not a word.""


The days at Ayrsford changed very little from year to year. The land was farmed, the market ran in the town, the castle worked through it's daily life, and Lord John went through his seasonal routine of running the west lands with me at his heels. Through harvests, through patrols, through visits to surrounding lands and tenants. And through occasional visits to the grey stoned, mighty abbey at Moulton where he spoke to the Abbot and they continued their agreements over lands and tithes and rents and tenants. And where I ran in the beautiful gardens, through flowers and herbs and orchards, and walked in the quiet courtyards, and several of the monks peaceably sweeping in the cloisters smiled at me and fed me apples, rough bread and cheese from their buttery. They never demanded speech from me, and at that time I was well disposed towards anyone who did not require communication.

The first time I visited, when I was very small and still staying close to Lord John's side, teeth baring at anyone who came too close, the Abbot knelt on the soft grey stones with the ease of the well practised, bringing himself to my height. His eyes were piercing, watchful and very kind.

"This is Graydon's child? William."

"Yes Father."

"We heard the tales." The Abbot put a hand slowly out and touched my face before he rested it on my head, murmuring something I recognized as Latin but didn't understand. There was a good deal of gentleness in the touch, and I neither shied away nor bit as I tended to do at the time to most people who got too close.

"If you ever have need of a safe place for him, we would be glad to keep him for you. And to do what we can for him."

"I know you would Father." Lord John said quietly. "And you'd do well by him too, I know. But things are quiet at present and well settled."

"Long may they stay so." The Abbot straightened and lifted his hand, signing a blessing before Lord John who bowed his head. "God keep you both, John. And our Lord King. His initials are still carved into most of the trees in the orchard, it's a rare distinction to the abbey."

It wasn't until later that Lord John told me of his own childhood, and of the four years he spent in sanctuary with Ned and ma Mere at Moulton Abbey, under the protection of the Abbot. It explained to me the love he had for the place, somewhere he'd been happy and regarded as home, he didn't speak of it but I could sense it from him whenever we rode there. It was contagious: I felt his warmth towards the place and because he loved it, it quickly became somewhere I loved too.


It was in early spring that I paused in mid swing on the training grounds, hearing hoof beats beyond the walls. Over the clash of swords around us it wasn't easy, and as I parried Lord John's last blow, dodged back and jogged towards the gate, it was clear from his surprise that he had heard nothing.

"What?" he called after me. I grinned at him and swung up onto the low wall that hedged the stable yard. A minute later there was the clatter of horses on the bridge, a shout from the soldiers at the gatehouse, and Lord John pulled his gloves off, vaulting over the wall beside me as people began to run from all corners of the keep. Nearly seventy soldiers rode in through the narrow gateway, the horses filling the yard, and at the foot of the steps Ned's heavy grey stamped impatiently, resenting the crowd. He was soothing the big stallion as I followed my Lord John, ducking around the dismounting soldiers. One of the stable boys ran to take his reins, bowing, and Lord John knelt on the steps, his head bent long enough to be acceptably respectful before Ned pulled him up and into a rough embrace. I stayed where I was on one knee, watching Ned's golden head over Lord John's darker one, the taller and the broader, although he was as fit now as he had been at twenty five, the first time I laid eyes on him. He kept hold of his brother as he reached for me, drawing me to my feet and holding my shoulder for a moment, looking me up and down with that lazy half smile I knew so well.

"Taller yet again. You're entirely different every time I lay eyes on you lad."

He pulled me too against him and kept an arm around me, steering us all three up the steps together. Two of his squires had dismounted and followed us. One of them I recognised, and both were older than me- grown men, not boys: the king didn't foster the well bred child squires as family men did - but their presence was a sign this was a purely domestic visit, and the older of the two winked at me as I caught his eye. The servants in the great hall had already scattered, the hall was rapidly clearing, and the steward was hurriedly supervising the wine being brought in flagons to the table. Ned peeled off his gauntlets, flung them down and stretched, cracking his great shoulders noisily.

"That ride does not get easier. Ale, lad." He added to me as I went to pour for him. "Not wine, the day's young enough without a soured stomach."

"You must have left near dawn." My Lord John commented, folding his arms and propping his hips against the table. There was some cynicism in his look. I saw Ned read it and the wry twist of his own lips that answered it.

"Before it."

He took the ale from me and Lord John absently took the wine I passed him, taking my place at his elbow. Early or not, he liked the claret and it had been cold outside. I could see his long, tapered fingers, red from the wind chill as he grasped the cup.

"Inside?" he said briefly, getting up from the table. I saw Ned jerk his head at the two squires, who with the ease of the well practised, moved back towards the fire. Neither he nor Lord John made any such comment to me, and I trailed them as I had always done, following down the halls to the solar, the family room of Ayrsford castle. The door shut behind us and Ned gulped ale, moving to stand before the hearth.

"How does Amy?" Lord John asked, taking his usual chair at the table. I moved silently behind him and perched on the window seat, leaning back against the stone arch. Ned smiled, not looking round.

"Well. Happy. The child is due in the spring I'm told, although from her size I'd wager she was carrying two if not three."

I found that hard to imagine in Ned's slender, pretty little wife.

"So what's wrong?" Lord John said in the same, blunt tone. Ned didn't answer for a moment, then swallowed ale and leaned on the heavy stone hearth, looking down into the flames.

"Wootton. Word did come to me from a private source that he's gathering men at arms Johnny. And there's mutters in his land too that he does have enough royal blood to be considered for a challenge to us should the time ever come."

"Wootton?" Lord John said incredulously. Ned glanced back at him.

"Aye. Have you forgotten the battle at Mansfield? His father and brother both fought against us. And his mother's line goes back to ours if you seek it back far enough."

"Too far back. He's from the Faulks line, they've a distant claim at best." Lord John said, frowning. Ned straightened up.

"Yes. But there is ever some feeling left that the house of Ayrs took the throne from better contenders. The Faulks, and the De Lacys. All three of our houses go back to the royal line. All of them have men at the right age more than ready to stand king if the chance arose."

I had my eye on Lord John and he was leaning forward as he did when deadly earnest, his elbows on his knees, his dark eyes following his brother.

"Ned the south be too well controlled to worry about this. We've seen to it. You spent more than enough time seeing to it that those left from Masefield with a claim had good reason not to pursue it- you left both Wootton and Delapre with their lands intact despite what you could well have called treason!"

"Aye, because it would have been more dangerous to deprive them and provoke the towns on their lands. Unless I wanted to sack and burn half the south."

From Ned's expression at one time that had been a possibility. He took the chair opposite his brother: bigger, squarer than my Lord John, fairer where Lord John was dark, eyes lighter and brighter where my Lord John's were deep, but the faces opposite each other were very much the same.

"Neither of them took the field at Havilant. Whatever part they played there they chose not to show their hand. Wootton is preparing to show his now, Johnny. I'd put money on it. If they're raising troops, if those towns are becoming openly Faulkist as opposed to Ayrian, we'll likely end with a rebellion in the south that'll spread."

There was silence for a moment, then Lord John said bleakly, "What mean you to do? If push come to shove, if enough of the old Faulk and De Lacy allies declared for him he'd have no small army behind him-"

"Aye and I daren't risk provoking that." Ned agreed. "We're going to have to muster up here Johnny. But quietly. Without attracting attention."

"What else do you mean to do?" Lord John demanded, reading his face. "Ned?"

"Bring the court here." Ned said quietly. "Summon to court every possible knight. And lean on as many as we may, including Wootton, including Delapre. I know nothing of him, but if Wootton is mobilising I'll swear he's approached my Lord Delapre knowing he's no lover of us. We need to speak with every lord and baron associated with them. See if the rot can be stopped before it comes to open knowledge. And confirm our bonds with as many towns as we can, see to it that they keep Ayrian loyalties if it comes to choosing."

"I can see to the towns here." Lord John said grimly. Ned nodded.

"Aye. It's very clear in the west whose side they're on, and that's mostly through you holding these lands. George has kept the south west just as well, and the midlands stay mine. It's the far south and the east that are traditionally Faulkist ground, that's where the loyalties will be strained. I mean to bring the court here next week little brother, I know that gives little time to prepare-"

"It can be done." Lord John interrupted shortly. Ned gave him a faint smile.

"And I do need you to gather your own friends and allies, check those bonds. This is no time to neglect old friends or allow ambitious men to feel neglected. Wootton and Delapre will happily offer anything to those we disaffect, especially those who would make us most vulnerable."

Lord John shook his head, teeth baring. "Christ Ned, it's like the days at Masefield again."

"With luck I'm doing no more than over anticipating." Ned said mildly. "But I'd rather not fight another battle like Masefield again- or Havilant."

I sat silently. The battle of Masefield had been fought before I was born, the battle that had made Ned king. But Havilant, what I knew of it, had been the last battle of the civil war, nearly ten years ago. It had been the battle that followed the massacre of my father and his entire household. An unprecedented act of sacking and slaughter of one of Ned's strongholds, my father had been the lord of the south west. Ever a dangerous border land, and lands he'd held on Ned's behalf.

Havilant, I knew, had been the campaign of the house of De Lacy- that blood line stood against ours. This was the first time I'd understood, clearly, that there remained other men, from the house of Faulks, who had tacitly supported that rebellion and who still held their land and their threat.

"Who of the Faulks and De Lacys died at Havilant?" I said from the windowseat, aware my voice sounded hoarse. Lord John's head turned swiftly towards me, followed by a quick frown.

"Not now Will."

Ned, I saw, had been prepared to answer me, but he looked at Lord John and lightened his voice, giving me a faint smile.

"What sort of a fighter are you shaping to be lad? Chances are I'll have need of you before too long."

"Ned don't." Lord John said shortly. Ned shook his head.

"It's the truth Johnny. How does he?"

I did well. I knew it. I'd been officially squire to my Lord John for over two years now and I was well versed in the duties and the training that went with it, especially the battle skills. Lord John gave me another look, unreadable.

"He's able enough for his age. Go call for something to eat Will, Ned has a long ride ahead and the men at arms must be fed too."

I was well aware of that for what it was- a means of rapidly getting me out of the conversation, but squires were not supposed to quibble with their master, nor the king's second in command. I kept my mouth shut and my scowl back, and headed for the kitchen.

Beyond the shut door, I heard Lord John's voice at once, quiet and grim.

"For God's sake Ned, don't lead him to think he has any part to play here yet. He's barely thirteen."

"Aye and he still says precious little, nor gives away much of what he's thinking." Ned said wryly. "And he's still your shadow."

"He talks when he has something to say, that's no bad trait in any man."

"Are the dreams still there?" Ned said more quietly. I heard John sigh, shortly with what sounded more like exasperation than resignation, although I didn't understand why.

"Yes. Very occasionally, if he's strained or upset. He's a hellion of a fighter too, he gets into more fist fights with the other boys in a month than Mark ever did in a year, I've pulled him out of no few. No shouting or threats or bluster like most boys, just silent rages and a lot of accuracy."

"That kind of fighter I can use."

"Ned I mean it." Lord John said sharply. "He's still a child and he has difficulties enough, you know that as well as I do. Don't give him any ideas."

"He's going to get them whether or not they come from us, Johnny." Ned got up, I could hear his footfall as he paced. "Have you thought this through? If it comes to war?"

"He's still a child Ned." Lord John sounded bleak. "I don't want him thinking he has any role to play here."

That did nothing to improve my temper.


While the men at arms were being fed, I was sent back to the practice yard, which I did with as much semblance of good grace as I could muster under the circumstances. There were between six and ten boys of appropriate trainable age at Ayrsford: it varied according to which families and which fosterlings were currently residing here. Between the ages of nine and sixteen, along with another seven or eight youngsters from the village who were men at arms in training, they were working on hand to hand amongst more of our own men at arms in their daily practice sessions. The yard was noisy and busy, and the men at arms had spilt over into the tilt yard for their practice, indicating that the master at arms had no intention of us using it today for it's proper purpose. Which annoyed me. I'd rather spend my afternoons riding and tilting than with the tedious hack hack hack of hand to hand. The master at arms called me over and I stood waiting while he watched two of the younger boys, correcting the pattern of blocks he was teaching them. I was well aware of the glances of the other boys, working in matched pairs near by. Since I was Lord John's squire and ward, I saw little of them beyond training. Lord John taught me himself and had done since I was four since I fought and bit and refused to speak, or to leave him. I'd never joined the schooling from the two friars who were part of the household and who taught all the other boys. And they, along with every other child at Ayrsford, had heard the stories and rumours of me. I liked them as little as they liked me, and worked on having as little to do with them as possible.

The master at arms matched me to one of the young men at arms, a heavy, thick set lad I didn't recognise, and left us to mechanically go through the sequence of exchanging blows, at first slowly while we got the measure of each other, and then at increasing speed. I was sweating and my hair was in my eyes when Ned's voice reached me, lazily approving.

"You're quick enough lad. And accurate."

Around me, men and boys began to bow but Ned shook his head, strolling across at Lord John's side.

"Carry on, I've only come to watch."

"You could do with the practice yourself." Lord John said acerbically. Ned grinned at him, and shook his head as Lord John pulled two of the practice blades from the table in the yard, tossing one to him.

"Like riding a horse little brother, one never forgets."

He feinted at my Lord John and I moved hastily, watching the two of them parry rapidly backwards across the yard at dizzying speed. Less a sparring match than a well practised dance. Lord John, who could get a blade out of my hand inside a minute, was having to work a lot harder with Ned, although his movements were agile and economical where Ned's were rooted in natural speed and grace. I could see the force of the blades striking and the committed interest on both faces. It took several minutes but Ned finally dodged sideways and caught my Lord John a clear strike across the back. Just as fast, Lord John landed an equally sound swipe with the flat of his blade across his side before Ned could get out of range. Ned fell back, laughing, and tossed the wooden blade into the air, flipping it over to catch the handle again.

"You do have a nasty habit of getting back at people Johnny, just when they least expect it. What about you lad?"

His eyes moved to me and Lord John gave me a nod towards him, with a wry glance at his brother.

"Watch his left side Will. He does ever leave it exposed."

Ned laughed and waited for me to square up to him. He was taller than Lord John who I was used to sparring with, and he landed his blows more heavily. I found myself hard pressed for a minute until I caught his rhythm, and found my own speed, and then frank enjoyment began to take over wariness and I let loose my own strength, trying to find the gap in his guard. He was sparring with me, not fighting to win, I knew that and that added to the enjoyment- we were both grinning when Ned retired out of range and dropped his guard.

"You've got him well trained Johnny."

"Aye. If his weight and height didn't change daily he'd get the knack." Lord John gave me an affectionate dig in the ribs. "It'll come in time. Get rid of the blades Will, Ned's riding out now."

I put the wooden blades back and went with them to the bailey, ignoring the somewhat resentful looks of the other boys left to continue with practice. Ned's men at arms, in the white and dark green of Ayrs that all our people wore, were gathered in the yard under Ned's own banner. The de leon couchant. The resting lion. I never saw that symbol without seeing Ned in it: negligent good nature with well hidden claws. He mounted his stallion in the yard, bringing it under control as the two grooms holding it darted out of reach of heavy and wicked hooves.

"I'll see you in a sennight little brother."

Lord John dropped a hand on my shoulder, keeping me back as the troops began to ride out through the gatehouse tower. Ned lifted a hand to me in a nonchalant wave, and we heard the hoof beats fade out of earshot into the streets of the town where several shouts and cheers rose.

"God save the king!"

Here at least, Ned would always be sure of a warm welcome, the house of Ayrs had been born and bred here, this more than anywhere was their home.

"Who did die at Havilant?" I asked later.

We had retired to the solar as we did every night. When not holding court here, Lord John didn't hold formal meals. The household ate in the great hall, in the sittings dictated by Mistress Brackley who ran the household, an ex lady in waiting to ma Mere. We ate in Lord John's waiting chamber where he saw to the business of the day, and in the evenings in the solar, the family room, where he and I settled nightly with books, with the chess board and with any friends or guests currently staying. Tonight it was only the two of us, and I looked up from the rushes where I lay with Merlin, Lord John's now old and greying wolf hound, pausing with my finger half way down the page I was reading aloud. For pleasure: having heard Mark endlessly taught Latin in this room from my early childhood, and ever at my Lord John's heels, a man who read to me and spoke the languages to me when I was small enough to drink the knowledge in without realizing what I learned, I'd read and spoken it fluently before Lord John ever came to teach me formally. My Latin and Greek was as good as his, and we shared his love of books. Unlike most well read men who owned only four or five of the precious things at most, Lord John actually owned a small library of books. Books which I loved to handle and read as much as he did. Histories, tales, most precious of all the Oddessy and the Iliad, which we read together over and over again. Lord John was seated at the table, half listening to me, half writing at what I knew were records of tenants, men at arms, the loyalists around us and their resources. He paused at my question, then laid the quill down.

"The De Lacys. You know that."

"De Lacy himself, the Earl of Southbrook, died on the field." I sat up, nudging Merlin who grunted and stretched himself further out to the heat of the fire. "Who else was taken?"

"The key De Lacy supporters." Lord John said bluntly. "Some on the field, Ned captured three more in Byfield. Another took sanctuary at Bonnington."

"And?" I said just as bluntly. Lord John looked at me, a long and measuring look.

"Trials were held at Byfield and at Graydon. They were all executed."

I sat where I was, crossing my legs on the rushes, one hand on Merlin's slowly rising and falling ribcage. I was aware of my heart thumping.

"Who sacked Graydon?"

I'd never before asked. Lord John didn't break my gaze.

"The Earl of Lindsey. Southbrook's cousin. He was tried by Ned at Graydon, and died there. Not easily either. And Ned took revenge on the De Lacy lands, there were retaliatory raids across the entire border. The debt was more than paid, and rightfully so. Your father was a friend as much as he and your mother were kin."

I didn't answer that.

I still remembered nothing of what happened at Graydon. Nothing more than standing on the steps before the door of the Great Hall, with Lord John riding through the gates. I did not even know how many days after the massacre that had been. Except thinking on it still left a chill in my stomach and a bitterness in my mouth. Lord John held out a hand to me, voice quiet.

"Will. Come here."

I rolled to my feet and went to him, and he drew me against him as he had done ever since I was a little boy, to stand and look with him at the open scrolls on the table.

"Look at these. Every one of these names are men who stood for us at Havilant, Ned went into battle with an army of over fifteen thousand men."

"Because of Graydon." I said grimly. "It was an outrage."

"Yes." Lord John pushed the book away but didn't let me go. "It was the most foolish thing the De Lacys could have done, it won a lot of families to our side. But these are allies now who have fought on the side of Ayrs and lived with the rewards of it. And under nearly ten years of Ayrian peace. That means a lot, that isn't something that will be lightly let go. This isn't like to get to war. Don't fret yourself about it."

I didn't say anything, looking at the book on the table. Lord John's arm tightened around me and released.

"Get the chess board lad, we've time for a game before you need be in bed."

The day after that I had what Aelric referred to as 'one of THOSE days'. Lord John sat and worked in the solar, and for a few hours in the Great Hall, judging the small court of minor and local affairs that was held at Ayrsford each month. Boundaries and livestock and inflated market prices were discussed, and I sat on the rushes by the hearth, arms wrapped around my knees, looking at nothing. Sometimes, sitting there, I rocked slowly, until the voices and the movement around me went away and there WAS nothing.

Nothing ever happened on days like these, and nothing was ever said about them.

When it was dark outside I sat curled up on the hearth in the solar and stared into the fire at Merlin's side. I didn't hear Lord John until he stretched his legs out, bringing his boots into my line of vision, and Merlin with a sigh of comfort shifted his heavy head into Lord John's lap.

"I was five when my father died in battle," Lord John said mildly, scratching Merlin's ears. "He and his brother, who was the king. We lost the battle and we lost the throne all before midmorning. I remember him at Ayrsford before the battle, or I remember his tunic and his voice when he talked. Then the news came back to Ayrsford that we'd lost and our troops were scattering, and everyone in the castle began to scatter too. Ma Mere sent Aelric down to the stables and he stole three horses from the guards who were panicking and taking every rideable beast they could escape on. And he carried me on his horse, and Ned and Ma Mere and he and I rode out to Moulton Abbey."

I rested my head on my arms and turned my face towards the fire. I'd heard this story many times before, and it was vivid in my mind, I knew that fear. I knew what it was like to be small and terrified on another man's horse, riding away from your home.

"Ma Mere took Ned and I," Lord John went on softly, "Held our hands and walked right into the middle of the evening service, and begged sanctuary of the Abbot. He gave us rooms at first in the abbey itself in case we needed protection, then later we had one of the abbey houses out beyond the rose gardens. Ned and I more or less grew up there. I am surprised now that the De Lacys didn't try to take Ned while they held the throne." He paused, considering. "I suppose they felt he was too young to be any real threat. Then when Ned was fifteen my mother's brother came to the abbey and they started their campaign to gain the throne back. Ned was bigger at fifteen than I am now, and clever with it, and there was no trouble in raising the old Ayrs allies. It took years, the three of us travelled all over the country with the army we were raising, and within eighteen months we held the north and the west lands. It was true civil war. Until all armies came to Masefield one morning and we routed the De Lacys for good. Ned was crowned three days later."

I had been a year old when my father fought at the battle of Masefield and took part in that victory. He had stood with Ned and Lord John at that coronation. Lord John's hand rested on my back and rubbed slowly between my shoulders.

"The archbishop had been a De Lacy supporter, which caused no end of trouble, the poor man was shaking like a leaf when we arrived in London-"

I shut my eyes to the warmth of the fire and the emptiness inside me and concentrated instead on that heavy, comforting hand.


The first time I did see Richard Donnewell, he was standing in the practice yard, being berated by the master at arms. And unlike most of the boys who tended beneath that ranting to look either frightened or sullen, he looked frankly bewildered. Bright chestnut hair hung in large, soft brown eyes with startlingly long lashes, and despite that he looked my age if not a little older, he held the wooden practice blade as though it might twist back and bite him.

Throughout that morning while I parried against the young men at arms in training who were at my own level of proficiency, the boy with the large eyes continued to attract the master at arms' sharp tongue and eventually a clout across the back of the head in addition to the numerous swipes of his opponent's practice blade, which even across the padded jackets we all wore I knew still hurt. The boy bore it all with that expression of mild perplexity, as though he'd never before seen a practice yard or tried to participate in this peculiar pantomime. I had no idea who he was, but the household here was a large one and people came and went frequently. Most likely he was someone's squire, although I pitied his master. The boy clearly had no idea what he was doing.

Two days later, crossing the stable yard with Merlin at my heels, I heard jeering and paused to listen for a moment, recognising one of the voices. One of the older squires I had no liking for, with a habit of picking on the younger boys when he thought he was out of sight. I followed the sounds to an empty farm building and sure enough found three of them, surrounding the boy with the long eyelashes who was on the ground and looking more bewildered than ever with his tunic torn and a bruise reddening across one cheek. Merlin, picking up my reaction, snarled quietly beside me. The boys looked around and the two younger ones promptly retreated. Robert, the oldest and a long standing nuisance, gave me an unpleasant stare which I returned, nodding at the yard.

"If you do want a fight, come outside. One at a time, or in a pack, as you please."

It was clear from Robert's face he had no wish at all to take me up on the offer, but before three witnesses he could hardly refuse. A moment later when he was picking himself up from the cobbles with his nose bleeding, the two younger boys fled, and I went to the still dazed looking boy now standing in the doorway of the shed, blinking on the sunlight.

"Be you hurt?"

He looked at me blankly. I pulled him to the horse trough and found a handkerchief, bathing his face before I wrapped the wet linen around my own bruised knuckles. Robert, still bleeding, gave us a sour look and spat in my direction.

"Demon spawn."

I lunged a step and knocked him down again, aiming for his stomach. This time when he got up he said nothing, just took himself slowly off towards the fields beyond the farm buildings where most likely he would sulk until dinner.

"Won't they see your hand?" the boy asked me, watching me tie off the handkerchief. I nodded.

"He'll most likely tell them anyway."

"Won't you be in trouble?"

I thought briefly of Lord John, who tended to accept my periodic battles without protest. He wasn't given to fussing and he would see the logic of this fight clearly.

"No. He had no business cornering you and it's a trick he plays too often. Be you hurt?"

The boy shook his bright head, giving me a questioning look.

"Are you so proficient a fighter that they scatter at the sight of you?"

I winced a little on that. The answer was admittedly partly. Once old enough to be well out of the sight of adult supervision, I'd met my fair share of boys in the household who wanted to test out the rumours for themselves, and I'd learned to deal with it more effectively now than I first had at eight or nine when I'd simply been a whirlwind of fury, intent on doing as much harm as possible.

"I'm Will Graydon."

"So I've heard." The boy said wryly. "Save that I see neither horns nor tail."

I gave him a brief, startled grin and the boy's expressive face suddenly responded like a lantern lighting.

"Richard Donnewell."

I knew the name. Lord George's youngest son. Already, our allies were starting to gather here and their squires and retinues with them, the castle was filling daily.

My first impression of Richard was of milk white skin, long lashes over gentle brown eyes, and curves, not exactly plumpness but a soft curve to his cheek, his arms, his hips, something that made all the women in the castle smile at him. Even at fourteen, eyes followed him, men and women's. He was soft voiced, gentle, absolutely useless on the tournament field or with a sword, and alarmingly clever. Not a book learned cleverness either, although he got into far less trouble with the friars at lessons than he did with the master at arms.

"Who is that lad?" Lord John asked me one morning when Richard was once again standing under the master at arms' tirade with that look of bewildered and faintly sympathetic sweetness that implied he understood the man's difficulty with his temper but didn't altogether approve of it.

"Lord George's son." I followed Lord John into the stable yard, glancing back over my shoulder. Richard was once again trying to follow the strike pattern, slow and clumsy and often awry. I winced for him as the master at arms' practice blade rapidly walloped him in two different and unguarded places.

"Richard Donnewell."

"The lad you got into the fight for?" Lord John paused beside me to watch, wincing too. "I see what you mean. I do wonder if George knows how much he's being walloped on there. Go down and get him lad, before either of them get hurt. We'll take him with us."

I climbed the low wall and down into the practice yard to the master at arms, who unwillingly left Richard alone and nodded to me.

"Lord John sent me," I said, glancing at Richard who was neither out of breath nor looking at all demoralised. "Richard Donnewell is to attend him in the stable yard, immediately."

"It's your lucky day." The master at arms said sardonically to Richard. "Go on, get out of my sight."

"Good afternoon." Richard said politely, and followed me the long way around, up the stairs and through the bailey to the stable yard. Lord John was waiting there, already mounted beside two other waiting horses. I was relieved to see that Richard was a far better horseman than he was a fighter.

"I hope you do not mind having your lesson interrupted." Lord John said dryly as he mounted. Richard gave him a frank smile, neatly gathering up his horse as it sidestepped.

"It's my pleasure your grace."

Lord John grinned and turned his stallion out of the gatehouse without further comment. It was a bright day with blazing sun overhead and we rode through the village, out towards the old fort at Buckby. Once Lord John said there had been a castle. Now there was just a stone shell and buildings within the gates where men at arms were stationed with the watch tower that overlooked the mouth of the river.

We left the horses in the bailey while Lord John spoke with the captain at the fort, and wandered in companionable silence out to the river bank where I picked up stones and sat to shy them. Richard sat on his hands beside me and watched, without comment.

"Why do you annoy the master at arms so much?" I asked in the end, frankly.

"Because he annoys me." Richard said, just as frankly. "All noise and shouting and brute tradition, and not one original idea in his head." He grinned suddenly, a wicked and flashing smile like the sun coming out. "And because I annoyed the master at arms at home until he told my father I was unteachable. It's partly why he brought me here with him."

"To try a different master at arms?"

"To be set I better example I think." Richard glinted at me once more, with mischief rather than malice. "I'm not sure you're the example he meant, I've heard about some of your stranger habits."

I looked back at him in silence, startled. I was not used to children my own age. Or really to conversation beyond with Lord John and Ned, and the men that surrounded them. Richard dug me in the ribs, making me jump.

"Don't look like that sobersides. I was told to be kind to you. The question is, how kind shall I be?"

There was something in that question that I heard but didn't understand. Richard's smile softened.

"Besides. You were definitely kind to me regarding that idiot squire. You do fight rather well and that my father would approve of. He'd be delighted if I went through life with two black eyes and torn fists and attacked every other boy I ran across."

I continued to look at him, still more startled. I DID fight, frequently and hard, and Aelric, who usually washed the worst of my injuries and mended my torn clothes, made very sure I saw it as no virtue. Then I rolled to my feet and picked up a dropped branch from one of the ash trees by the water, searching until I found a suitable second. Richard accepted it when I handed it to him, mouth quirking.

"And what did you have in mind?"

"If you knew the strike pattern you'd get into less trouble."

"Possibly." Richard conceded. "But do I WANT to know the strike pattern, that's the question."

I didn't answer that, waiting for him to get up. Finally he did, making a show of brushing off his tunic, and took a grip on his branch. I pulled him over and corrected it, shaking his fingers into the right place.

"That's not the way." I said shortly. "Here. Hold it like THIS and listen to me. And don't look so vague either, that's what gets you into so much trouble. Head, flank, side, it's very simple."

We practised for some time under the trees, until I heard a familiar whistle from the gates. Lord John was shading his eyes, standing at the fort gates. He dropped an arm around my shoulders as I reached him and looked with interest at Richard who was making his way more slowly across the grass to us.

"Trying some tutoring?"

I shrugged, tipping my head back to see his face. He lifted one eyebrow, watching Richard's saunter.

"Have you heard of the forlorn hope lad?"

I elbowed him in the ribs and he dug his fingers into mine, and we wrestled for a minute in the gateway.

"I came to ask if you two were hungry." He said as Richard reached us. I struggled free of the arm around my neck and dodged out of his reach.


The thought of eating in a guard room as I had done no few times with him was not appealing on a day like today. We ended up sitting on the warm grass by the river bank, eating rough bread and cheese. Lord John lay back on one elbow and threw the last few crumbs to some curious ducks who paused on the river as they passed us. I got up to watch them swim away and looked with interest at the sandbanks in sight under the clear water. Then looked back at Lord John.

"Good place to swim."

He dropped back in the grass with a groan, one arm over his eyes. I sat down and pulled my boots off, stripping rapidly. After a moment he hauled himself up and followed, watching me wade out as far as the sand went. The water was cold but delicious in the heat of the sun. About eight paces away the sand banks shelved and I pushed away, swimming towards the lazy current in the middle. Lord John behind me heeled off his own boots and began to shoulder out of his tunic. A moment later I felt the splash as he dived, entering the water cleanly not far from me. He covered the breadth of the river in a few strong strokes and paused, running the water off his hair with both hands. I struck out after him, copying the stroke if not the strength. He'd taught me to swim years ago, it was something we'd slipped away to do together on warm evenings when I was small and neither of us slept much. Richard was sitting on the bank still, watching us with distaste.

"Well come on then lad!" Lord John called across to him. "You swim don't you?"

I followed his question with a hearty wave of water splashed in Richard's direction and swam back across to him. Richard shook himself under the droplets of water like a cat, but got up, unwillingly starting to undress. He moved tentatively down the bank when he was naked, pausing at the edge of the water. Lord John surfaced beside me and held out a hand to him.

"Do you swim?"

"Yes-" Richard said without enthusiasm. I ducked past Lord John, grabbed Richard's outstretched hand and yanked, hard. He vanished under the water with a yell, and Lord John batted me across the back of the head, pulling himself the few strokes to Richard to pull him back to the surface. He emerged, spluttering and spitting and promptly struck out towards me. I swam away at twice his speed and with half his floundering, and we spent the next hour splashing and racing in the lazy stretch of the river, moving out of the way of the two or three small and slow moving boats that passed us by.

The sun was beginning to turn from mid day to the gold of mid afternoon when Lord John climbed the bank and stood, shaking water out of his hair.

"Will. Come on. Richard."

Richard swam for the bank but I stayed where I was, treading water in the deepest part of the river, looking towards the bend.

"It's only five or six miles home and we follow the river all the way."

"And?" Lord John said quizzically. I shrugged.

"I bet I could swim that distance."

In the event, he and Richard rode and led my horse, and I swam that afternoon, the five miles down river to Ayrsford. The current was with me most of the way which helped, and Lord John walked the horses, taking his time. By the time I reached Ayrsford bridge, where the ford shallowed out and I could stand on shaking knees, I was exhausted and hungry and victorious. Lord John waited on the bank with my clothes, and I dropped on the bank, out of breath and drying rapidly in the sun. The comings and goings from the market went on over the bridge and music in the distance indicated some minstrels playing by the castle gates. I dressed slowly and Lord John pulled me to my feet, tousling my wet hair back out of my eyes. Richard, still seated on his horse and watching me with something between amusement and what looked to me like respect, gave me a wry grin.

"They're all right you know. You ARE mad."


After that we practised hand to hand, Richard and I, whenever there was time. And in the training yard in the mornings he worked with me, and the master at arms stopped growling at the sight of him. If I nagged and pushed for long enough, he was quick and deft, with a faster eye than I had but a streak of laziness he frankly admitted to when he let me win.

"Why SHOULD I?" he said easily when I argued that he'd surrendered rather than lost fairly. "You sweat and struggle enough for both of us. It's not life or death, it's a bright sunny day and a silly exercise, why bother?"

"What if you were fighting a real battle?" I demanded. Richard cocked a brow at me.

"Why would I want to fight in a real battle?"

I cast a quick glance at the grounds around us. There were plenty of men here, grown men as well as the boys, practising daily now. The smiths and the armourers in the small shed buildings under the castle walls were working hard, new armour was being worn, new swords were being cast.

"You may have to." I said bleakly. Richard followed my gaze and his eyes warmed, he slung an arm around my shoulder with the same casual affection Ned did. I'd jumped the first few times he did it but I was getting used to him now.

"It's not likely to get that far Will. My father says this is a minor rebellion at worst."


It was one of THOSE days when Ned rode in at the end of the week, this time with his full entourage. The castle swarmed, there was noise and people everywhere.

Richard came to the solar late afternoon, I heard Lord John answer the knock and his voice warm as he saw who it was.

"Richard. Did you come with a message lad?"

"No your grace, the king's company is still being found rooms-" Richard hesitated. "I was looking for Will all day, My father said that he was here with you-"

"You're welcome to stay for a while if you wish." Lord John said mildly. I was still watching the fire but I heard Richard settle on the rushes next to me.

"I wondered where you were at practise this morning? One of the knights was tilting and smashed his collar bone, the master at arms was furious- Will?"

I flinched away from the hand on my shoulder.

"Will?" Richard said again, less certainly. I turned my face further towards the fire. The sun was bright outside but it felt cold in here unless I was as close to the flames as I could get.

"He's allright lad," Lord John said quietly, "This happens sometimes. He'll be himself again in a day or two."

"What's wrong?" Richard demanded. Lord John sat back to open the chest that contained his precious books and lifted out a volume.

"Have you heard of the Oddessy, Richard?"

I lost myself for hours that day in the turning of the pages and the scratch of Lord John's pen. Somewhere after dark Lord John put the pen down and told Richard to go to bed. Which he did without protest, and with a goodnight to us both. We both sat there a while longer, Lord John moving to the chair nearer the flames, so I sat almost at his feet. It was very late indeed when Ned's voice came from the doorway, wry and comprehending.

"Ah, I see."

"Have they finally gone to bed?" Lord John said, without getting up. Ned snorted.

"Aye, or are too drunk to move. Almost all are here now Johnny, this is where the circus begins. But there's a surprise I have for you."

I knew who it was. I smelled the faint and expensive perfume before I heard the rustle of her skirts. Lord John was out of his chair in a second.

"Ma Mere! When did you arrive? Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"It's been something of a busy day." Ma Mere said crisply. "As you might have noticed had you been in the hall, doing your duty."

She unbent long enough to accept the kiss he gave her and Ned latched the door.

"Johnny never did care for the crowds on a rowdy evening."

"It's important at the moment we show a united front." Ma Mere's
voice was closer. "John, what is this child doing from his bed at this hour? He's asleep where he sits, you might have more pity- William go up to your bed."

"He'll go when I do ma Mere." Lord John said calmly. I heard the clink of a jug and wine pouring. "What can I offer you?"

"William." Ma Mere said more clearly.

"It's one of those days." Ned said, taking the seat on the other side of the fire. It was part of our family language. Ma Mere stood where she was for a moment, then took a seat herself, her irritation apparent in her voice.

"Still? At his age you should be past allowing this, Johnny. Send him up to bed, he's neither simple nor incapable."

"He won't move ma Mere." Ned pointed out. "Johnny and I have both tried, often. And this is hardly wilful, it's not something he can help."

"Call a servant for him."

"He won't go, and if I do insist, he becomes still more distressed." Lord John said quietly. "I don't feel it be worth it. If it gives him peace to stay with me then so be it, and I can see him to bed myself when I go."

"He's past the age where this is at all acceptable." Ma Mere said shortly. "All eyes are on us here, this is no time for evading duty or responsibility, and he's of an age now where people will begin to look at him as Lord Graydon instead of a child. Heaven forbid they should begin to look at him as anything else. Johnny make him go, I wouldn't leave a scullion to nod on the floor like that."

I recoiled from Lord John's arm around my shoulders, but he was strong enough to pull me to my feet and keep me on them, and he'd gained in practice over the years.

"Goodnight William." Ma Mere said clearly. I didn't answer. Ned's hand on my shoulder as I passed was far more understanding.

"Goodnight lad."

I walked where I was steered, up the stairs to the chamber in darkness where he sat me on the edge of the bed to peel me out of my clothes. There was a stir from the bed behind me and I jumped as Richard emerged from under the covers. Lord John was silent for a few seconds himself, then said somewhat sternly,

"What do you do here lad? What's wrong with your own bed?"

"I was turned out of my room your grace, it's needed for guests." Richard said guilelessly. He didn't sound in the least sleepy. "My father has his squires sleeping in his room and it was share his bed or share with William. I hoped Will might not mind."

There was a moment's pause, then I heard the wryness in Lord John's voice.

"Aye, the company might be no bad thing. Come on lad."

I lay where I was put, turning my head to avoid his eyes or Richard's. I didn't want to see eyes on days like this, they looked through me, or else they moved when they shouldn't. Eyes always disturbed me. Lord John paused, a hand still on my shoulder, then brushed my hair back from my eyes.

"It'll look better in the morning Will, go to sleep. Goodnight lad. Goodnight Richard."

"Goodnight your grace."

Lord John drew the bedcurtains around us and I heard the creak of the door, but not the closure. He'd left it ajar as he often did on days like this.

"Will?" Richard said softly. I didn't stir. He hesitated for a moment, raised on one elbow over me, then sighed and lay down, snuggling without reservation against my side. At any other time I would have protested that vigorously. But on these days I did not speak, I did not look, I did not feel nor hear, those were the rules. And the warmth and the soft breathing beside me once I became used to it, was not at all unpleasant.


The following day was a Sunday and Richard woke at the bells ringing
from the abbey, turning over to poke me. I'd been awake for most of
the night and didn't require waking. Wild haired and sleepy, he
looked down at me, then rolled out of bed and padded to the window.

"It's a beautiful day."

I didn't comment. I could hear Aelric moving around Lord John's chamber, and knew Lord John would be gone, his first duty in the early morning was always the guard room, the report from the guard coming off duty. I got up and splashed my face from the heavy stone jug on the table, drank a few handfuls and silently began to pull my clothes on.

Matins was held at eight in the chapel, and while it was usually
attended by everyone not actively on duty in the castle, today the chapel was filled to overflowing with strangers. Knights and their families, the rich robes and jewelled hands of the people who always trailed around Ned in their crowds. Ned himself, stood by the front with ma Mere at his side. I stood in the doorway, watching the two friars lighting the candles in the chancel. Richard, behind me, gave me a nudge.

"Go on then."

I stood for a moment longer, staring, then turned on my heel and stalked away back into the bailey. Richard came after me, had one try at touching my arm and then kept pace with me, crouching on the stone yard when I flung myself down.

"Will? Come on, we'll be late- what is it?"

The bell was starting to peal its last minute warning. Richard rose, looking anxious.

"WILL. Come on, for goodness sake!"

"I'm not coming." I said shortly. Richard hovered from foot to foot, looking behind him.

"Why? Will you can't miss Mass!"

I didn't answer that. Richard hesitated a moment longer, sounding pleading.

"Don't be daft, do move- I'll be whipped if I don't go-"

"So go." I said briefly. He hovered a moment longer, then I heard him start to run.

The bailey was silent and deserted. I got up after a minute and walked to the low wall overlooking the grazing fields that led to the south of the castle. It was some time before I heard Lord John's voice behind me, level and quiet.

"Will, come down here."

I didn't respond for a moment. Then slowly got up and walked down to where he waited for me, wearing one of his good tunics and with the unfamiliar weight of two jewelled rings on his fingers, and a jewelled belt. Rare for him, but with half the nobility of the country now here, it was necessary that he looked like the King's brother.

He put a hand on my shoulder as I reached him, eyes searching.

"Richard said you were here. What's the matter lad? Mass has begun."

"I'm not going." I said bluntly. He didn't argue or order, he never did. Just looked at me for a moment, then said simply,


The reasons why overwhelmed me. Finally I found the words and pulled away from him, folding my arms tightly.

"Because it's pointless. Because there's no REASON."

"No reason in what?" Lord John said patiently. I looked back at him without the words to explain.

Because he and I had stood at Mass for years, twice a week, and prayed and spoken the Latin phrases faithfully. As my father had done. As everyone at Graydon had done. And it had not stopped them dying, it had not halted that atrocity. And war was beginning again now, there were men in that chapel with hostility in their minds and their hearts, still cheerfully speaking those Latin phrases.

Eventually Lord John cupped a hand around my head and shook gently, holding my gaze.

"Allright. Allright lad. I'm going back, and this ONCE you don't need to come with me."

I nodded, thankful for his understanding.

He must have made my excuses for me: no one commented on my absence. When the chapel emptied later, Richard gave me an askance look, searching me for signs of wrath, then shook his head.

"You've got the luck of the devil my boy, I would have died if I tried that."

No few people, including ma Mere, attended Mass daily. Ned and Lord John and most others attended the midweek Mass at Matins on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday morning Richard and I slipped out before dawn and went fishing from the bridge down by the market. Richard, who'd attended with his father and his father's squires yesterday morning, had his conscience clear and didn't protest other than to say to me while we sat on the bridge,

"Will Lord John understand this one too?"

I didn't know.

When I was very small I was afraid of night and the dark- that fear actually lasted for years. At some point during one bad night I decided that stone was the answer. Stone was resiliant. Stone was part of everything that was safe, that stood between Lord John and I and the dark outside. Stone walls surrounded us, with heavy locked gates and guards standing on them by the light of the night fires. I started to bring stones from the bailey and hide them in my bed. When Aelric found them and Lord John insisted they had to go, I began to store them in my clothes. Eventually I began to eat them. When for the third time I was stricken with appalling stomach ache, Lord John sat down with me and inquired until I explained to him the logic behind it. His answer was that I must never eat them again, but that if I wanted I could keep stones under my bed, close enough to touch or to hold.

I wasn't willing to compromise, eating them was a more efficient means of self preservation. That was a difference of opinion that went on for some time. In the end Lord John never let me from his sight and searched my hands and pockets at regular intervals. I still managed to get the occasional stone into my mouth at times when it was particularly necessary, I was apologetic about it but it had to be done.

When we slipped into the chaos of the mid morning meal in the great hall, Lord John gave me a steady and measuring look from his seat by Ned but didn't comment. Ma Mere however met my eyes over the edge of her cup and her expression was anything but accepting.

"William, where were you at Matins?"

"Fishing." I said bluntly.

Ned, at the head of the dais, looked around at me and his eyebrows raised. Ma Mere set down her cup in horror.

I had heard from both Ned and Lord John that when she so chose, ma Mere had a tongue like a knife. By the time she was finished with me, I was willing to swear by it, and most of the people at the tables around us had paused to listen. Lord John cut in as soon as she paused for breath, his face still impassive as he jerked his head at me.

"Up to your chamber lad."

Richard flashed me a look of sympathy as I headed across the hall and up the stairs.

I stayed there alone for the rest of the day, sitting on the windowseat and watching the activity in the bailey below. A hunting party went out, and a while later Ned with a large group of men with hawks. Late afternoon Lord John brought a mug of ale and a plate of pastries in, set them down on the table and took a seat on the bed.

"Come here lad."

I unwillingly got off the windowseat and went to sit beside him. He looked down at me for some time before he spoke.

"You cannot miss another Mass Will. I expect you to attend with me, twice a week, on time."

"Why?" I said bluntly. He raised his eyebrows at me.

"Because it is a mortal sin not to attend at least weekly, and there is not a much more outrageous or disobedient thing you could do. You will see your confessor this evening and you will attend Matins in the morning for the St Mark's day Mass."

I didn't answer for a moment, then looked up at him and shook my head, regretfully but firmly.

"I won't. I won't ever attend Mass again."


Richard came up to bed shortly after dark, and we undressed, drawing the heavy curtains before we burrowed together for warmth under the brychans. Although it was well into spring the nights were still cold. Warm and soft, his silky hair against my shoulder, Richard broke the silence of the room.

"I did watch the King and Lord John and the Queen Mother talk all evening, my father never stops circling the room and speaking to every man he passes. Is anything changing?"

"Ned says it's a long process, gaining loyalty." I said slowly, thinking over several conversations we'd had. "He did tell me it's a game. A dance. You go through the steps with all the charm you can, and you watch, and you listen, and you learn who it is that you can trust, who you can bend, who is lying, who you must watch."

"Why do you call the King 'Ned' while you always call the duke 'Lord John'?" Richard said curiously.

I shrugged. "That was what I called them from a child. Ned is my cousin I suppose, while Lord John is my guardian."

There was silence for a while, then Richard said, with deliberate offhandedness,

"There is Mass in the morning."

I didn't answer. Richard prodded me gently in the ribs.

"Will? Did Lord John speak to you?"


"What did he say?"

I still didn't answer. He waited for a long time, watching me in the dark, then subsided back against me with a sigh.

"If it was me I'd be half dead by now, I heard what the Queen Mother did say to you. I do wish you would bend your stubborn neck. I'd swear Lord John does too."

"I can't." I said shortly.

"You mean you won't." Richard said with rare acerbicism. I turned over and lay face down, turned away from him, my arms around my pillow. Richard sighed again, but lay where he was, pressed against me in companionable silence.

He was asleep some hours later when I saw the candles light under Lord John's door. The voices were faint, very faint but I could pick out Ned's as well as Lord John's, and I knew then it was late- late enough that Ned could escape his circle of attendants and talk privately. I slipped quietly from the bed without disturbing Richard and went to sit by the door where the voices were clearer.

"You've heard them before Johnny." Ned was saying quietly. "How he came to survive that carnage, the only soul left alive."

My stomach chilled as I realised who he was speaking of.

"You mean the one about having bartered his soul for his life?" John snorted. "Aye. At four years old. If he does remember how he lived through that, he's never spoken of it- I don't believe he does remember or ever did. Likely he hid, or was hidden. Or someone thought fast enough to shelter his body with their own. He knew his father's body in the great hall. We didn't recognise his mother's, and he didn't seem to."

"Or he was struck a blow that stunned him." Ned agreed. "But there are the stories, including that child he tried to strangle in the keep when you first brought him home. I know it was a game, he didn't  understand, but over the years in retelling that's become a vicious attack that the boy barely survived, and was hushed up by us. The silences. The rages. The obsession with death. The waking up screaming. The fact he goes away inside himself for hours at a time and not even you can reach him. If you allow him to refuse Mass it'll quickly become yet another rumour that feeds all the others, that he IS bewitched or bedamned."

"He has more reason for doubt than most men have in their lifetime, Ned. He saw his God allow the destruction of his world, and he's old enough now to reason that out for himself. In time he'll decide how it resolves to him."

"And you know that, and I know that, and we know too we need have little fear for his soul, but I do not want to see him an outcast in his home." Ned said patiently.

I heard Lord John's snort. "I've spent years quashing rumours to halt that and little good has it done, he's an isolated soul at the best of times. I thank God he's found young Richard, it's the first boy his own age he's taken to and it's damned good for him."

"Aye. But there's more to it than that." Ned sounded grimmer. "He's Graydon's heir, that's no small title in itself, and he's of the direct line of our house. Two years more from here and he'll be a belted earl. The rumours are already there that he's mad."

"He is NOT mad."

"No." Ned said soberly. "He isn't. But nor is he normal, Johnny. As he is now, would you take him into battle with you? Or send him out in charge of a guard?"

"He's a child still." Lord John said quietly and sharply. "And coming to the most troublesome time for any of us, how easy were you at thirteen? He'll grow out this."

Ned's tone didn't change. "There comes a time where we may have to decide what he is responsible for and what he can and cannot control. A disturbed man cannot take the part that Graydon's son will be expected to take. Already people are watching him and talking, over no more than him refusing to attend Mass."

"He is a child." Lord John said again, still more sharply.

"Aye." Ned said bluntly. "I know and you know, he is a bright lad and a good one, and I know he has his reasons, but he can't be allowed to defy us like this. Ma Mere has a point little brother. Make it a simple obedience issue. He need not agree or embrace the ideals, but he MUST attend and participate when you do. And do not look at me like that, I know full well you've never raised your hand to the lad."

"Beyond a few slaps when he was very small and bent on something dangerous-" John began awkwardly. I stifled a small smile. Exactly twice. Both well deserved, and one of those for his mother's benefit more than mine.

"There's never been need, Ned. He's so quiet, so steady, it's never taken more than a word."

"Then have that word." Ned said bluntly. "And be well prepared to back up those words with a switch if need be, little brother. You'd have been firm enough with Mark if he'd tried this trick."

"With Mark it would have been mischief or laziness." John said with quiet stubbornness. It drew my attention. John was very rarely so set against Ned. "With Will it's a reasoned judgement, he has a mind of his own and he'll have good cause."

"At thirteen he'll follow your judgement to the letter and without a
word, unless his opinion's asked for." Ned said wryly. "It's not for
him to tell you what he will and won't do, Johnny. Train him that way
and he'll be no use to any of us on a battlefield."

"He's neither wilful, nor headstrong. You know that."

Ned sighed and I heard the creak as he sat down. "Aye, I do. He's a good lad. But he IS still a lad and in this he can do himself harm. If he won't understand then he must simply obey you, willing or not, and there's an end to it."

Richard stirred in the bed and murmured, throwing out an arm. I got up and quietly went back to join him, stiff and cold and having heard quite enough.


Richard and I both dressed in silence in suitable clothes for Mass in the morning. Lord John was dressing when we came through his chamber and he paused, nodding to Richard.

"Will, wait please."

I sat on his windowsill while he finished dressing, watching him shave while Aelric waited, towel in hand and his doublet over one arm. He was harder muscled now than he had been when I was a child, his shoulders were stronger and his waist more strongly defined. I watched the flex and shift beneath the skin as he moved, shouldering into his doublet, and the comb he ran through his hair before he dismissed Aelric from the chamber. Alone with him, I slid off the windowsill and he came to stand before me, folding his arms across his chest.

"We will ALL be at Mass this morning. Is that clear?"

I didn't answer, meeting his gaze. He sighed and unfolded his arms, dropping a hand on my shoulder.

"Listen to me lad. This is not the time, nor the place to make this gesture. I understand why you're doing it, but you and I and Ned and all of the family are being watched every hour, and the example and image we set has the power to make or to break loyalties. This is no time to give any foothold for criticism of the family."

Silence. I looked up at his blue eyes, anxious and still kind despite my lack of co operation.

"I don't expect devotion or demand sincerity lad, that's between you and your conscience. I do expect you to attend and to follow Mass this morning. That's an order from me, and from Ned too. He wanted you to know that."

I nodded once and shortly. He squeezed my shoulder and led the way out, down the stairs and into the hall.

We assembled at Chapel before breakfast, much of the household stood in their lines in the great stone hall. On this morning, a saint's day, the Chapel was filled to overflowing, with the front ranks filled with guests and visitors. Ma Mere and Ned stood side by side at the front, alongside my lord Ashby, and George stood on the far side, with Richard at his elbow, beside his two older squires. Giles and his son were standing behind Ned, alongside the Earl of Flore.

The priest appeared more than slightly nervous faced with the crowds, and I saw several of the brothers from Moulton Abbey, as well as the Abbot himself, standing at the far side of the chapel. I stood for some time while the priest spoke the initial words of the mass, casting my eyes over the lines of faces. Some our friends, some our enemies. Stood beneath our roof. Lord Wootton, flanked by his nephew, Lord Beresford, who Ned had officially forgiven for his role in the skirmish against Mark and Giles in December at Eltonham. Neither Wootton nor Beresford had any love for Ned and I knew it. They were here for their own reasons, and their smiles and considered speeches infuriated me. I was watching Lord Wootton's face when the priest signed for the congregation to kneel, and the smug piety I saw there was more than I could tolerate. Around me people knelt and I stood, square, my hands by my sides, and looked directly at the priest. He looked back at me, somewhat surprised. Lord John beside me glanced up and I saw his face darken, then he put a hand on my arm. Not tugging, merely warning with one firm grasp.


I stood firm. One rank across and over, ma Mere's eyes met mine, frankly shocked, then Ned's fair head lifted and turned. For a moment he looked at me, and for the first time in my life I saw the ice in his aquamarine eyes that I'd seen him turn on others bent on defying him. I met his gaze with the same furious determination, not moving an inch. Then Ned rose quietly, put his hand on my shoulder and steered me ahead of him into the aisle. Lord John began to rise too but Ned shook his head at him, and after a long moment, he quietly sank to his knees again. Ned moved silently with me towards the exit as the prayers began behind us, a rustle following as people struggled with the conflict between attention to their prayers and bowing as the King passed by.

Beyond the chapel door, Ned kept his hand on my shoulder and steered me across the courtyard and into the Great Hall. There he released me and I turned to face him, somewhat shaken despite myself to still find that freezing look bent on me. His voice was calm but sardonic, with no trace of his usual humour.

"I see you were determined to have things your way my Lord Graydon."

I shut my mouth, somewhat taken aback. I hadn't heard that title addressed to me before. Ned did not trouble to lower his voice, nor move from our positions, stood in the middle of the usual Great Hall traffic. Nor did I find it easy to look away from that steady, blue green gaze.

"I am not interested in your personal campaigns." He said with blunt clarity. "You received an order, I expect and will have obedience. Whether or not you understand or agree is immaterial. I have no interest in hearing your opinions." He added as I took a breath to defend myself. "You will never challenge me publicly again. And bear in mind that while you choose to present yourself as an ill disciplined child to all witnesses, allies and otherwise, I will see to it that you are guarded as one. Our house cannot afford untrustworthy links in the chain, no matter how close family or how beloved they may be, nor how many men they may command."

I stared back at him, shattered, well aware that he was speaking to me as I'd heard him speak to grown men. And aware too, clearly, that he towered over me, my King as well as my large and usually jovial cousin. And that I was far too old not to have realised my responsibilities. He was waiting, eyes still fixed upon me, and I was aware too of the servants around us, the usual bustle in the hall, the many ears listening. Gossip of this conversation would spread far and wide throughout the household and to the guests via their servants. And Ned fully intended that it would.

"My Lord Graydon." Ned said again, more clearly. "Am I making myself understood?"

Some sense finally came back to me and I bent my head quickly, finding something like my normal voice and not the treble squeak I'd grown out of six months before.

"Yes my liege."

"Then find the steward and collect a switch little cousin."

That brought the blood to my face in one swift rush. And then somehow moved towards the steward's door, bitterly aware of the enormity of what I'd done. I'd seen Mark do this a hundred times, seen plenty of the other squires do this, Richard included. But this was the first time I'd done anything so very stupid as to openly defy not only my cousin but my King. I was sure Richard probably knew where to look for a switch: I had to find the steward and ask. By which time I was so torn between humiliation and fury with myself that I could barely get the words out. The look I got from the steward was less one of derision than of shock: no doubt word had reached the servants quarters of just what I'd had the stubbornness to do this morning.

Ned had not moved in the hall, and he took the switch from me without comment. Hot and cold with shame I turned and loosed my hose, rolled them down and somehow laid myself across the long table that ran the length of the hall, at least trying to show some dignity now, even if it was likely too late.

Ned had a strong arm and a straight eye, the whipping he gave me wasn't severe but it hurt like hell. I straightened with wet eyes and catching my breath, shifting from foot to foot as I drew up my hose, my backside smarting like all the fires of hades. Ned jerked his head towards the stairs, voice still stern.

"Your chamber please my lord, you've made enough of an impression on our guests for one day."

I was still lying face down on my bed, subdued and angry with myself when Richard came up. He took one look at me and sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my hair with a curiously tender touch for a boy his age.

"I did tell you. Was it bad?"

"Bad enough." I admitted. Richard went on stroking, mouth awry with sympathy.

"My heart nearly stood still when the King stood up. You fool Will."

I turned my face back into the pillow.

"I do wonder why it was the King himself?" Richard mused later.

"He's my cousin." I said without moving.

"Aye." Richard tickled the back of my neck, thinking. "But you are Lord John's ward."

"Ned said it was his order I refused and him I shamed the most." I said uncomfortably. And it was true, I knew it.

"I suppose so." Richard said thoughtfully. "But it still seems strange to me."

Aelric brought us food later that day and told us there was a feast to be held that night and we were better where we were, out of the way of the crowds assembling in the Great Hall below. We ate and talked and when it was dark we went to bed, Richard quickly falling asleep. My backside was still uncomfortable from the not a few lines still marked in red across it. I rubbed it tentatively and tried to settle, but I did no more than doze for some hours. I had no idea of the time when the adjoining door creaked.

I'd been listening to Lord John's footfall all my life and I flung myself at him without being able to see more than his dark outline in the doorway. It was in silence, but he knew what I meant, his armsclosed around me and I clung to him in apology and for comfort. After a long time he stroked my hair back and kissed my forehead, his voice low enough not to disturb Richard.

"Back to bed with you lad. It's late, more morning than night."

"What happened?" I said somewhat fearfully.

"More talking, dancing, drinking, diplomacy." Lord John steered me to the bed. "Nothing of import. It's a slow process, it'll be days before we know whether we're making the impression we need."

"I'm sorry." I said miserably, "I'm sorry I gave them reason to gossip-"

"Will you're too young to affect this, it's not your responsibility." Lord John said firmly.

"I make people talk though." I said softly. Lord John hesitated. Then put an arm around my shoulders and took me with him, not to the bed where Richard slept but his own chamber next door, closing the door behind us. The room was candlelit and warm, and deeply familiar to me. Lord John sat down on the bed and pulled me down beside him, watching my face.

"Will, listen to me. You do nothing wrong. You are NOT to blame for what is happening here, these kind of political skirmishes were happening before you or I were born. It's part of being the King of this country, it's part of being the closest allies and supporters of the King. You have not made anything happen."

"I am Lord Graydon." I pointed out.

I shouldn't be. We both knew it. My father should be Lord Graydon, he should be here at Ayrsford, alive and able to do all the things I could not. He had died at Graydon and for some stupid reason I alone had survived. I alone was here.

"No." Lord John said quietly. "No, not yet. You don't have those responsibilities yet Will, they're mine and I'll take them. All you need do is as you're told, there's nothing more for you to worry about. You're safe here, this is nothing you need fret about."

I didn't move, aware I was shaking. He put an arm around me, pulled me close and hugged me hard, hard enough that I uncurled and put my own arms around him in return.

"Want to sleep here with me tonight?" he said lightly into my hair. "You'll likely wake Richard if you go back."

That protected my dignity I knew, and I appreciated it. I was too long now for the truckle bed but I curled gladly into Lord John's own large bed and watched by the candle light as he undressed.

"Did you have to attend all the hours at the abbey when you were there?" I asked when he blew the candles out. He lay down beside me, his weight shifting the bed, his warmth radiating over to me.

"We did most days. Matins and Vespers. And sometimes Compline."

"Every day?"

"It was nice." Lord John said mildly. "There was a real peace to the abbey. If I hadn't been John Gavrault, I might have stayed there."

"Joined the abbey?"

"Aye, I would have thought about it. I doubt I have the vocation, but there was plenty to draw me to it."

But his life was to follow Ned, to be an Ayrs. I turned over, pushing quietly against him and he put an arm around me. Like that, with him there, I could sleep.

Copyright Ranger 2010

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