Brother Thomas shattered the film of ice in the basin with the edge of his hand, then gingerly splashed the freezing water into his eyes, rubbing them clean of the gritty residue of his sleepless night. Father Anselm, the resident priest of Wynethorpe Castle, whose room he had been invited to share, must have already left to perform Mass, he thought, running his wet hands down his cheeks to soften the thick auburn stubble. He winced with the stinging cold. Although he had always been a fastidious man, today he hated the idea of scraping his flesh clean of beard. The morning had such a piercing chill.
"I am growing soft," the young monk muttered as he reached for a curved razor. Despite his loathing for the desolation of Tyndal, a priory on the North Sea coast where he had lived since last summer, he had never lacked for warm water there when it came time for his weekly shave. Faced with these more spartan conditions, he realized he had grown quite used to those previously unacknowledged comforts in recent months. With irony-tinged amusement, he found himself longing for Tyndal.
"Fuck!" he said, cutting himself. His penance for missing Mass, he decided, as he grabbed a thin shard of ice from the basin and held it against the wound until the numbing water ran clear of pink blood. With a wry twitch of his mouth, Thomas quietly thanked his Saxon friends from the village near the priory for teaching him some of their more colorful words. His own Anglo-Norman tongue often lacked the hard sound that was so satisfying in such frustrating moments.
Bloodied but clean-shaven, Thomas left the comparative warmth of Father Anselm's room, walked down the torturously curved stone steps past the great hall, and emerged into the chaos of an early morning in the inner ward of a working castle. As a child, he had spent time in one of his father's castles, but this godforsaken pile of rock bore no resemblance to that. Wynethorpe was not only cramped for space, it also had the dubious distinction of lying in the wilds along the Welsh border. A primitive place for cert, but Thomas knew he had only himself to blame for being here.
Wynethorpe belonged to his prioress' father, the Baron Adam, and, when illness in the family demanded that Prioress Eleanor journey back to her secular home, Thomas had agreed to accompany her. At the time he had done so with great eagerness. His spirits had lifted at the thought of new sights, and he was willing to do almost anything to get away from the fogs and fish stench of the East Anglian coast. Had he known he would be exchanging one bleak landscape only for another, he might have hesitated. Then again, perhaps not. At least no scent of dying seaweed filled the air here. He smiled to himself. Perhaps the Wynethorpe family had some partiality for barbaric places like Wales and East Anglia, but he would always long for the more civilized delights of London.
He paused to look around. They had been here only a few days and he had had little time to accustom himself to the place. In such a small fortress, most suited to repelling wild Welshmen, only a fool stumbled around blindly unless he fancied being knocked to the ground by a harried servant or whacked on the head by a soldier swinging a pike. He looked around for a clear path through the turmoil.
Havoc reigned here indeed, he thought as he looked around for a safe path to the kitchen where he might find bread and ale to break his fast. To his left, fires already glowed from the blacksmith's forge and the clashing of hammers on red-hot iron would soon increase the dissonant and deafening din. Men were herding squealing swine toward the narrow gates and low wooden bridge that led to the woods and acorn forage. On his other side, women maneuvered around beasts and men alike. Some hurried with backs bent from huge armloads of laundry; others walked, fingers white from the cold as they struggled with heavy buckets of well water. A flock of geese, cackling in outraged protest, scattered from under their feet as the women rushed to get out of the cold.
From Tyrant of the Mind by Priscilla Royal. Copyright Priscilla Royal 2004. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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