Although snow white as the Virgin's linen had fallen in the night, the once lacy flakes had since melted into multicolored muck and were mixed with matter of such foul origin that Thomas did not care to think on it. As he stepped cautiously into the open ward, he felt his feet begin to grow numb. The ground was too cold for his thin-soled low shoes. If he did not take care, he would slip and find himself flying into barnyard filth. He would never make a countryman, he decided, as he had oft done since his involuntary exile far away from his beloved city. He shifted from one foot to another, stretched his muscles to bring back some feeling, and yearned for thick leather boots.
The watch shift was changing. Two short lines of common soldiers in quilted, stuffed tunics and kettle-shaped metal helmets passed each other without speaking. A grim-faced, chain mail-clad sergeant accompanied each group. Thomas noted that the men who had finished their shift walked more quickly than those who were heading for the icy walls. Aye, he thought with a smile, those lucky ones could look forward to a hot fire, warm bread to break their fast, and soft straw to lie in, with or without the comfort of some woman beside them. Thomas had never been a military man, but he had grown up with those whose lives were centered in war and thus could judge, with some knowledge and appreciation, how well Baron Adam of Wynethorpe had maintained the discipline of his soldiers.
Methinks my father would approve, he decided as he watched the precision with which the men kept to their lines despite the civilian disorder around them. Briefly he speculated on how well his father might know Baron Adam. With greater brevity he wondered if his father, an earl of some note, knew or even cared that his son was at Wynethorpe. With an abrupt shake of his head, Thomas banished the latter question with customary speed.
Indeed, Baron Adam had done well in maintaining the castle as a working fortress. Apart from keeping the temporarily quiet Welsh in checka breed most likely to do almost any thing at any time, he thought with a snortcivil strife in England still drew fresh blood. Although it was now 1271 and Simon de Montfort had been dead for over six years, pockets of rebellion still smoldered in secret, sometimes flaring into brief but scorching bonfires. At a time when King Henry III was in failing health and the Lord Edward was off on crusade, it was men like Baron Adam who kept the land calm, however fragile that peace might truly be along the Welsh borderlands or in the heart of England itself.
Thomas slid and struggled to keep upright. As he regained his precarious balance on the frozen ground, he heard loud shouts and the clatter of weapons. From the direction of the gate, where the last of the swine had just disappeared, a pack of barking hounds emerged in a churning pack. Horses massed just behind. A successful hunt, he concluded, catching his breath and watching as the men rode into the open ward, scattering fowl and tradesmen with equal abandon in the pale light of the morning.
Kitchen servants quickly ran to a huntsman who directed them to a skinned and roughly butchered boar as well as several smaller carcasses. As the kill was carried to the kitchen shed, black blood dripped here and there into the brindle slush, adding a pinkish hue.
"You have risen early, brother," one thick-robed hunter called out as he rode up behind his fellows.
"If you followed the Offices of prayer as I must, Robert, you'd have been awake far earlier." Thomas grinned as the man slid from his mount.
"On the contrary, good monk. At Matins, I prayed for a fat deer despite the winter snows. By Terce, God had answered me with a boar and several hare."
Thomas laughed. "Matins, you say? Then you have prayed on horseback while your hounds sang the Office. To find such game when the sun has yet to climb fully above the horizon, you must have been out before dawn!" Although he'd had only brief acquaintance with him, Thomas had quite taken to his prioress' older brother. Like Prioress Eleanor, Robert was in his early twenties, of short stature, and had gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence and humor. Unlike Prioress Eleanor, he was wiry, muscular, and sported a curly black beard.
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