Warning: Bare toddler butt
“Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame…”
Imsdyn 7th, 1513 – River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
The early morning light, thin and spiteful, barely scratched at the weathered parchment stretched over the small window. It would be so easy to ignore the light creeping in, to roll over and go back to sleep. Except now that the light had given it’s cue, there were a hundred other minor discomforts that would make pulling the gray fog back over his head like a blanket impossible. There was an errant piece of straw poking up from his mattress, jammed somewhere into his thigh near something he might eventually want to make use of. Something else was informing him it was time to go find the privy. His shoulders and neck were telling him they needed to move if he wanted to use them any time today they needed to be relieved of their own pressures.
Sixteen and already creaky. Wright damn it. And if he were going to sit up and take care of those inconveniences, he might as well get out of bed. The Lord Wright could damn that too. With the soft crinkle-crackle of displaced straw protesting, Darin shoved his way up into a sitting position and cataloged the world around him. Outside, the annoying wuh-kk wuh-kk of the chickens kept in the yard, the soft hiss-scrape of a tree branch against the house, slightly fainter than that, Goody Butcher calling for Frankie to come in for brekky.
Inside the house, however, was silent and still in an eerie sort of way. Memories floated to the surface, reminding him of why the silence was a ghostly hand at the back of his neck, trying to raise the hair there. He shoved them aside with the same motion that pushed him up out of the strawbox and propelled him out of his cubby and into the cottage’s main room.
Nothing stirred, except a few dustmotes kicked up by the curtain that separated his sleeping area from the rest of the house. The pervasive gloom, not at all bothered by the banked fires at either end of the main room, not, if he were to be completely honest bothered even when the room was lit with full fires and candles, was as much a part of the house as the scratched and patched and crumbling stucco that covered the soft brick of the walls. It was like, more or less, a third resident of the house, made up of ghosts and memories and sadness, an unpleasant house-guest, blessedly silent, but always aware.
After answering natures call and a quick, but thorough wash-up, he made his way back into his cubby and dug out the doublet and hosen that made up his school uniform. For a boy far more used to rough canvas and even rougher wool, the linen felt too light under his fingertips. He flipped his blankets up over the bed, scooting the pillow down so he could sit on it, a little more padding between the hosen and the prickly straw of his mattress, as he tied the garters ’round his legs. Loose at first, so he could tie the bow in front then work it around to the back as was the style.
Nevermind that the boys who set that style all had valets to tie their garters and didn’t need to worry about getting the bow straight on the leg. If he tried to make sense of everything his schoolmates did, well, the next thing he’d wear would also be linen–white and provided by the order of St. Betsy when they put him in the tower next to the old man who claimed he was St. Robert reborn and had tried, three times, to walk on the river to prove it.
I’d probably see Sara-Beth more often that way. The traitorous thought floated up before he could quash it. But he shoved it back down. He cocked his head and listened brushing the thick strands of his hair out of his face as if thinking of his step-sister would bring her to his door. Silence was all that greeted him, odd because if he was a cranky old crow in the morning, Sara-Beth was a lark, insisting that the best time was when the world was new and bright.
He walked to her door and tapped, but was only answered by the tap of that branch on the roof in the wind again.
“Sara-Beth?” He asked, pushing the door open to reveal an empty room. Though objectively nicer than his cubby, something about her room, worn rough at the edges contrasting with the brightness of the flowers she kept, that made Darin feel–guilty might be the best word? Like he was holding her back. Like she could be so much more if she just didn’t have to take care of him. It made his hand tug lightly at the hem of the school doublet.
Not for the first, fiftieth, or five-hundredth time he wished that he could just quit school. There was no reason to go to some fancy, rich noblemen’s school, sure, he’d get that education that Sara-Beth touted, but it wasn’t as if he’d go to Camford or do anything with it. What good would all that fancy learning do him when he was mucking out stables for Lord Carico or keeping watch out the back door of some counting house for the guard while his fellows stripped the place of every copper?
He shoved those traitorous thoughts down with their fellow and turned, the soft leather half boots seemed impossibly louder than his normal cat-silent footfalls as he strode across the room, if he didn’t go now–he’d be late for his first class. Out the door and into the morning sunlight, growing stronger with ever heartbeat.
“Mornin’, Darin.” A soft voice broke his reverie of all the things he’d rather do than walk in late to Brother Loki’s class, like crawl through broken glass, a far more pleasant thing to think about than all of the things he could be doing with this perfect early summer day besides being trapped in some dusty hall that smelled of incense, chalk dust, and cologne, pretending he were something other than a gutter rat there on sufferance.
“Glad you didn’t say good.” Eric chuckled, watering the young plants that lined the side of the house. The carpenter felt about mornings about the same way that Darin did.
“There ain’t such a thing.” Darin smirked at the old joke, then added. “They’re the cow-demons of the times of day.”
“Blasphemy and an ain’t, ’tis a good thing I won’t rat you out to your sister.” Eric grinned.
“Yep.” Darin said solemnly. Eric probably had some comment to add to that and Darin might’ve lingered, but an exasperated voice broke in. “John! Johnny!” Raven–Eric’s wife and Sara-Beth’s best friend’s–called for her son from the other side of the house.
Raven rounded the corner, her hair falling out of it’s arrangement, giving her a harried look.
“C’mon, Johnny, come to mama.” She squatted down and held her hands out to the toddler who was watching her, a suspicious look and a pair of braises the only things the boy was wearing. “C’mon, Johnny, we need to put your clothes back on.”
“No! No clothes!” The little boy dashed between his mother’s outstretched hands, shedding the braises with the same ease he broke into a huge grin, flinging the cloth to the side, his naked ass bared for all the street to see.
“Your son!” Raven leveled an accusatory finger at Eric before diving for the little boy. Eric ducked his head to hide a smile as his wife swooped in front of the boy and grabbed him before he could reverse his course. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do with this boy.”
“No clothes!” John protested as Darin moved past the two. “Dary, tell mama no clothes.”
“Sorry, Johnny, smart men don’t argue with your mama.” He called over his shoulder as the boy protested.
Darin was still laughing to himself about Johnny when he rounded the corner and reached The Academy of St. Hugh. The other boys were arriving both in carriages and on horseback, turning the care of the latter over to boys like Darin had been. It was an easy way to make a copper and there was still plenty of time to lead the horses to the stable before they had to be in their seats at their own school. It was, Darin thought, how he’d caught the eye of the monks and been offered the scholarship that was now something of his bane.
He cut quickly around the corner to avoid the press of boys and horses, only to find his path blocked.
“No, I will not authorize you to take those books out of the library, Remi!” Father Valen, the headmaster and abbot of the brothers of St. Hugh snarled at a man in white and silver satin with the short tail that was favored by the religious orders.
“They’re dangerous books, Valen.” His voice reminded Darin of… damn! What was it?
“There is no such thing as a dangerous book, you can’t unmake something by pretending it never existed and you, of all the orders, should know it. I am in charge of that library and I will not let you decide what is fit for the consumption of those here and what is not.” Father Valen punctuated the words-spoken quietly enough that Darin could barely hear and the other boys, over their own noise, would not be able to hear at all-with firm thwacks of his fist into his palm.
“Men often think they’re more clever than they are, Valen. It’s better to take the temptation away before it can lead to harm.” Remi tossed the words over his shoulder, shooting Darin a smug smile that again tugged at some memory.
“Oh, I’ll buy that, Remi. I’ll certainly buy that you’d know all about men who are far less clever than they think they are.” Father Valen hissed, eyes so focused on Remi’s back that he didn’t even seem to register Darin’s presence at all. He turned and wrenched open the heavy, carved wooden door that lead into the school building and headed in and apparently up for he was on the stairs when Darin came in the door moments later.
“Brother Dustin, what are you doing in the broom closet again?” Valen’s voice floated down the stairs.
“I was looking for the broom, father.” Dustin spoke with a faint lisp.
“And–as your hands are empty apparently you didn’t find it?” Valen asked.
“No, father, it wasn’t that important.” The monk was scurrying, there was really no other word, except perhaps scuttle, to describe the quick hurried movement that the monk made as he went toward his classroom and away from his abbot. The third monk in the small hall as Darin crested the stairs, Brother Loki, sauntered toward his classroom, looking somewhat disheveled as well, but sated and with the air of a cat who had just eaten the canary.
“Isn’t–” Valen looked at the broom closet, then closed the door with a slam. “Never mind.” In the next movement, the monk had pulled a small flask out of his sleeve and took a long draw off it. “And they wonder why I drink. Two flasker today.”
If there was one thing that you could say about Brother Loki, it was that if one could at all avoid it, it would be best not to be the sole focus of his attention. (That and that he was in a long, extended catfight with sanity, and Loki was winning. But one digresses) There was something about the flat gray gaze that he turned on everyone, the sharp, angular planes of his face, and the barely contained hostility and driven madness in his gaze, but when Darin entered the classroom only to find it empty, it wasn’t exactly like he could just turn around and walk back out. Brother Loki would definitely notice that and Darin didn’t want to answer for that.
So instead Darin walked to his seat, refusing to scurry as he passed the monk, nose wrinkling unconsciously as he caught the whiff of anger, sex, and blood clinging to Brother Loki like some sort of bizarre incense. Brother Loki said nothing to Darin, just picked up his flint and went about the room lighting the lamps.
Sadly though, Brother Loki smelling like a brawl in a brothel wasn’t even the worst part of the class. No, that strolled in the door a couple of minutes after the monk finished lighting the lamps, as Darin tried to pretend he was terribly interested in what the book on the table said. It–or he rather–sat down in the chair to Darin’s right with a casual, boneless grace that seemed at war with the broadness of his shoulders, the muscles that bunched under his doublet as his hand clenched and unclenched under the edge of the desk and swept a no-more-sane nor any more warm gaze over him.
“Joshua, might I suggest, in the future, if you’re going to bully your schoolmates into doing your classwork for you, that you, at least, copy it into your own writing?” Brother Loki asked before standing up to start the lecture? “Or begin providing your classmates with handwriting samples. After-all who knows when a Lord will need the talents of a forger.”
“Oh, gee, Brother Loki, you caught me. I am appropriately chastised.” Even though Darin wasn’t the recipient of the black gaze that Brother Loki tossed at their table, even though Darin had stared down the man who had killed his father without flinching, it took every bit of strength and will not to cringe in the face of it. Don’t fuck with crazy, Reggie always said.
But if Joshua felt anything in response, he didn’t show it. He simply dipped his quill in the inkwell on the table and looked attentively at the monk with a smile.
By the time that Darin had gotten through his morning classes, through lunch, to his last class of the day, a religion lecture that was given by Father Valen, Darin’s shoulders were so twisted and knotted with tension, what was probably a very good meal sitting in his stomach like a lump of dried brick mortar.
This was the most pointless class that he took. It was intended to prepare students for the religious curriculum at Camford, and if Darin got within a day’s ride of Camford, it would probably be as a wagoner delivering a load of wood or something.
But Father Valen was a good speaker, and it was always interesting to see how drunk the man would be by this point in the day. He was always drunk by this time, but to what degree was the question.
And unlike the other instructors who insisted that they sit in some sort of arranged order, Darin could grab a seat on the bench at the very back, as far away from Joshua and his friends as was simly possible.
A two flasker, Father Valen had said that morning. It meant that to even the unobservant the man was a little off his game. He didn’t slur or stumble, nor did his hands shake as he followed the book with one finger, but the fact that he had to follow the book was telling. No matter how soggy his brain was, he had to be pretty far gone to not remember exactly where he was and exactly what he was saying.
It also meant when the knot of boys surrounding Joshua started getting a little loud and were obviously not paying attention, Father Valen didn’t even try and quiet them. At first, Darin thought that Father Valen didn’t even notice, but the way his eyes flicked up and to the right belied that. For some reason, today, Father Valen just didn’t care.
Darin slipped out in the confusion at the end of the class, and when the door opened again, bringing with it the musky smell of Joshua’s cologne, Darin basically darted straight for the chapel across the hall. It wasn’t guaranteed to save him, not being exactly like the Lord Wright would shoot lightning into the chapel and fry anyone who dared to fight, bully, or antagonize anyone in it. But Joshua seemed reluctant to go in there if he could avoid it.
Maybe bad luck was just with him today, because almost immediately after his butt hit the pew, the door opened again. He slumped down, not because it would hide him but out of resignation.
“If you were one of the other boys,” Father Valen murmured, “I’d tell you about how your mother would lecture me if they knew I let you slump.” He wound his way around the other side of the pew and sat down next to Darin without invitation.
“But you know I don’t have a mother.” Darin said, staring at the cross carved into the paneling over the altar.
“No, that’s not it. And not even in a “you do have a mother, she’s just been taken home to the Lord Wright” sort of way. Your sister is far too busy and practical to take time out of her day to yell at me for something that all boys do.” Father Valen said. “If your sister is going to come yell at me, it’ll be for a good reason. It’s so rarely for a good reason, you know.”
Like Remi? Darin wondered. Whoever he was. “Sorry.” Darin muttered to his feet instead of inquiring.
“For what? The fact that of all of the people I get coming through my office door so many are silly and there for completely ridiculous reasons?” Father Valen. “That certainly isn’t your fault and unlike some others, I don’t look to you for someone to blame. The fact that you’re here on scholarship, or as others would say, sufferance, doesn’t mean that you’re brainless.” He paused for a moment and continued on in a musing tone. “In fact I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean the opposite, half the time, with all the well-born dunces in my class, I’d half imagine the brains have been breed out of the nobility.”
Darin blinked. “But–” He cut himself off by biting his tongue before it followed to aren’t you the cousin of the Duke of Avilion?
“If you’re thinking that I’m a nobleman by birth,” Valen snuck a swig from his flask. “I will point out to you that I am the one who is in charge of all of this mess, which is more a nod to my brainlessness than my overwhelming intelligence. Go on, Darin, enjoy the summer day before it’s over. You’ll have plenty of time to wander these moldering halls, days like this don’t last forever, boy.”