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Authors: Margaret Frazer

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BOOK: The Hunter’s Tale
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Miles’ mother, much loathed by Sir Ralph and loathing him in return, had lived for another three years, then died, too; and Lady Anneys, with Tom and Hugh and by then a daughter of her own, had taken Miles to herself as if he were another son rather than her stepgrandson. Hugh did not know if she had quarreled with Sir Ralph over that; but then, he had never in his life seen his parents quarrel over anything. What he had equally never seen was Sir Ralph show anything like affection toward Miles. Instead, all the disgust Sir Ralph must have had against his firstborn son and the French wife had turned on Miles. And in return Miles as fully and openly loathed him.


Brigand stood up, turned around and around, and lay down again, this time dropping his head heavily onto Hugh’s stomach. Jarred out of his almost-doze, Hugh ran a hand down a gray, rough-coated shoulder and said at Miles, “You’re going to be in trouble for wandering off, you know.”


‘I didn’t just wander off,“ Miles said lazily. His hands clasped behind his head now, he was gazing idly away at nothing across the clearing. ”If anyone asks, I’ve been to see how the charcoal making is going at the far end of the woods.“


“Is there charcoal making going on at the far end of the woods?”




‘Miles,“ Hugh said with feigned deep weariness, ”that’s careless.“ That it was also a lie was not the matter. Lying to Sir Ralph was simply the safest way to go through life.


‘Old Roaring Ralph won’t find out. He hardly takes enough interest in the manor to know when it’s haying time, let be if there’s charcoal making or not. He won’t know the difference or care what I’m doing, so long as I’m ’earning my keep‘ and not anywhere near him.“


That was all too true. Once, when they were half-grown and hiding in the hayloft nursing beaten backs for some forgotten offense, Miles had said, “He beats you to make sure you obey him. He beats me because he wants me to break.” Had said it flatly, not so much in complaint as merely telling a truth that Hugh had not seen until then.


That they all three—he and Miles and Tom—were now grown too big to be beaten anymore only meant Sir Ralph had other ways of making sure they understood his hand was upper here, and one way was to make use of all of them. Hugh had his houndmaster and huntsman’s duties, seeing to it that hounds and game were ready when Sir Ralph wanted to hunt, while Tom had had writing and arithmetic driven into him so that he could be Sir Ralph’s steward. “And any year you don’t show a profit, you’d better be able to show me the reason why,” Sir Ralph had said. “You’re not so big I can’t take it out of your hide if I want to.”


what’s coming to you,“ Tom had snarled. ”Don’t fear that.“


Sir Ralph had risen from his chair, snarling back, “Don’t loose your lip at me, boy! You haven’t inherited yet. By God’s teeth, you cross me and I’ll leave it all to the Church. I swear I will!”


‘Leave away! The day you do, you lose all hold on me and any of us and we’ll be gone so fast you’ll choke on the dust!“


‘Good riddance to the lot of you then! Maybe I’d have a little peace around here!“


When the two of them set to one of their shouting-matches, like today, everyone who could tried simply to get out of hearing, and one good thing about Tom being steward was that he had to ride out and away to see to Sir Ralph’s other properties, taking him out of shouting range for a few weeks at a time. Miles was not so fortunate. As Woodrim’s forester, overseeing the manor’s forest and Charlbrook Chase for the sake of the hunting and for Sir Ralph’s profit, his duties took him away from the manor, yes, but never far and never for long. It was his business to see to it that the villagers took no more deadwood than they were allowed by right and custom; that timbering and coppicing were done where and when they should be to keep the trees not only from overgrowing but constantly fit for harvesting; and that new plantings were steadily made, to keep both forests fit for all their uses. It was ceaseless work, year-around in all weathers, and Miles did it well, Hugh knew. What he did not know was whether Miles had any actual care for the work or only for the excuse it gave him to be away from the manor and Sir Ralph for hours and sometimes whole days at a time. It was something Hugh had never asked, but he sometimes thought—and shied away from the thought when it came—how they all—he and Miles and Tom and everyone else—despite how much they lived together, lived so much alone, careful behind walls of silence that kept them a little safe from Sir Ralph but also shut away from each other.


So quietly that for a moment Hugh did not take in what he had said, Miles murmured, “The wonder is that one of us hasn’t killed him yet.” And after another moment’s silence, “Or that someone hasn’t, if not one of us. He’s crossed enough men in his life that you’d think somebody would have done for him by now.”


‘Kill him?“ Hugh repeated, still watching the leaves above him.


‘Or beaten him bloody,“ Miles went on, in the same mild voice.


Hugh pushed Brigand’s head aside and propped himself up on one elbow to look at Miles, still gazing away across the clearing. “Miles,” he said. “Don’t.”


Miles rolled his head sideways to meet his gaze. “Don’t say it or don’t do it?”


‘Don’t do either one.“


Miles turned his face away, back to looking across the clearing. “The pity is that I won’t. I just wish someone would. His death is the only way we’ll ever be cut loose from him. You have to know that. His death or ours.”


Hugh lay back down and closed his eyes. Away from Sir Ralph, he did not want even to think about him, let alone pointlessly talk about him; but feigning mildness as deliberately as Miles had, he asked, “What thing worse than usual did he say today?”


He waited through the silence, knowing Miles would answer, and finally Miles did, still low-voiced but now openly bitter. “In the middle of yelling at Tom over the cost of rope—you missed them moving on from ale to rope—he of a sudden pointed at me and said, ‘The only thing around here, Tomkin, more useless than you, is that.”


Hugh, trying for lightness, said, “Which doubtless made Tom no happier than it made you?”


‘I’d guess so, judging by how hard he threw his cup against the wall.“


‘Meaning it was a good thing it was the wooden cups at dinner today?“


‘A very good thing. One of the pewter ones would have holed the wall. The wooden one only broke. While Tom was yelling that Sir Ralph was wrong, the most useless thing on the manor was
and Sir Ralph was yelling back, I left. You don’t suppose today is the day they’ll finally kill each other, do you?“


Hugh doubted it would ever come to killing. They used yelling instead of blows these days. But he looked at Miles again and said, “Just mind
don’t go killing him, that’s all. You’d be caught for it and hanged and he’d rejoice from the grave to know he’d brought you down. You don’t want to make him that happy, do you?”


Miles caught Hugh’s mockery and tossed it back. “Right. I can see me standing on the scaffold with the noose around my neck and him sniggering up at me from Hell. Damn. I’ll have to let him live.”


‘Besides that, if you killed him, you’d go to Hell for it and have to spend eternity with him.“


Miles threw up his hands in surrender. “Then he’s surely safe from me. I’m not about to risk that.”


‘Unless,“ Hugh went on, ”he’s left money in his will for Masses enough to send him to Heaven.“


‘Ha! There aren’t enough priests in the world to say that many Masses before Judgment Day.“


Hugh moved Brigand from his stomach and sat up. “Of course, after you killed him, you could repent of it, and then if you were hanged, you’d save your soul and be safe away to Heaven, leaving him to Hell on his own.”


‘Repent?“ Miles said with huge indignation. He signed himself with a large cross. ”God forgive me if I’m ever
much of a hypocrite!“ And he and Hugh both burst into laughter. He put his hands behind his head again and, still softly chuckling, shifted to stare up into leaves in his turn while Hugh began checking the dogs’ paws for thorns or cuts. A hunting dog’s fate was in their paws, Master Basing had told him often enough, and yesterday he had heard himself saying to young Degory, the present hound-boy, ”A dog that can’t run is good for nothing,“ sounding so much like Master Basing he had almost laughed at himself. The forest’s stillness and their own companionable silence folded around him and Miles again, until the sunlight’s slant through the trees told them they had been gone as long as they safely could be. There was no need to say it. When Hugh stood up, so did Miles. The three dogs rose, too, and mightily shook themselves; and in silence they all started homeward, out of the clearing into the forest path’s thick shade.


Chapter 2


Dame Frevisse awoke in the dark to the whisper of rain along the roof of the nuns’ dorter and smiled to herself with pleasure at the sound. This summer in the year of God’s grace 1448 had thus far been all warm days and clear skies and just rain enough to keep the pastures thick-grassed for the cattle’s grazing and bring the green grain tall in the village fields around St. Frideswide’s nunnery in northern Oxfordshire. In the wider world all rumors of trouble roiling around the king and among his lords were, since spring, faded away into the distance like a thunderstorm disappearing along the horizon, too far off to matter aught to anyone here. That rain was come again to the fields after almost a week without was a greater matter than the doings or not-doings of king and lords.


The rain’s whispering kept Frevisse and St. Frideswide’s eight other nuns company in the thinning darkness toward dawn as they went soft-footed down from the dorter and along the roofed cloister walk to the church for Prime’s prayers and psalms; and the rain was still falling when they finished the Office and passed along the walk again, around the cloister garth to breakfast in the refectory; but by the time they returned to the church for Mass, only a light pattering was left, and by midmorning, after Sext’s prayers, only a dripping off the eaves under a clearing sky.


Frevisse smiled up at the cloud-streaked blue above the cloister roof as she came along the cloister walk from the infirmary with a small pot of freshly made ink. Her hope this morning was for time at her desk before Nones to go a little farther with copying out the book of Breton stories promised to a clothier’s wife in Banbury by Michaelmas in return for enough black woolen cloth to make two nuns’ winter gowns. If she could copy through to the end of Sir Degare’s troubles today…


She was passing the passageway to the cloister’s outer door when a knocking at it brought her to an abrupt stop. St. Frideswide’s was too small a nunnery to need a constant doorkeeper. Whoever was nearest was expected to answer a knock when it came and there was no denying that not only was she nearest but that there was no one else in sight— either nun or servant—and reluctantly she turned and went along the passageway to open the shutter of the door’s small, grilled window and look out, asking, “Yes?”


Old Ela from the guesthall across the courtyard made a short curtsy, bobbing briefly out of view and back again before saying, “My lady, there’s someone come to see Dom-ina Elisabeth. Master Hugh Woderove, if you please.”


‘Kin to Ursula?“ Frevisse asked.


‘Her brother, he says, my lady.“


Careful of the inkpot, Frevisse unlatched the door one-handed and opened it. The cloister was a place men rarely and only briefly came but it was allowed when necessary, and without bothering to take clear look at the young man standing beside Ela, se bowed her head and stood aside to let him enter, thanked Ela, shut the door again, said to him, “This way, please,” and led him into the cloister walk, where she paused to set the inkpot on the low wall between the walk and the cloister garth at its center before leading him away to the stairs up to Domina Elisabeth’s parlor door. There she asked him to wait while she scratched at the door and at Domina Elisabeth’s
went in to say he was here.


Both for courtesy and in matters that could not be done in chapter meetings, the prioress often received important guests or others here, and therefore her parlor was more comfortably provided than any other place in the cloister, having its own fireplace, two chairs, brightly embroidered cushions on the window seat, and a woven Spanish carpet on the table. Besides that, because she shared her nuns’ copying work, Domina Elisabeth had her own slant-topped desk set near the window that overlooked the courtyard and guest-halls, where the light fell well for most of the day. She was there now but looked up from wiping a quill pen’s tip clean to ask as Frevisse entered, “Who is he? Has he said why he wants to see me?” Thereby proving that her copywork had not kept her from looking out the window to see that someone had arrived.


‘He’s Master Hugh Woderove, Ursula’s brother,“ Frevisse answered. ”I don’t know why he’s here.“


‘To visit her, belike.“ Domina Elisabeth rose from the desk’s tall-legged stool and shook out her skirts. ”Bring him in, please, and stay.“ Since no nun should be private with a man.


Frevisse saw Hugh Woderove in and stood aside beside the door, hands folded in front of her and head a little bowed, but not so low she could not take her first clear look at him as he crossed the room. He was a wide-shouldered, brown-haired young man in a short, dark gray houppelande slit at the sides for riding and knee-tall leather boots, well made but with many miles and probably years of use to them. His bow and his “My lady” to Domina Elisabeth were good enough but constrained, as if he were unused to using his manners, and when Domina Elisabeth sat in her own high-backed, carven chair and bade him to the room’s other, he sat uncomfortably forward on the chair’s edge, hands clasped tightly around his black leather riding gloves as he said without other greeting, “By your leave, my lady, I won’t keep you long. I’ve only come to take my sister home.”

BOOK: The Hunter’s Tale
12.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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