Tuesday, January 4, 2011

As spring began to slowly return to Yorkshire, Sir Robert packed saddle bags, his secretary, a manservant, a stablehand, and his heir and went off to do a circuit of his lands and properties. Though his heir and his youngest were not yet betrothed, Robert intended to take care of that particularly savory part of business upon their return to Scour. His sister Alice had given him a piece of her mind—very un-nun-like—and even Brother Clement had written him a very well-composed and diplomatic missive, expressing his concern. But, really, what could they do to stop him? Nothing.




So he and Iggy set off from Scour in April, at mid-morning, and rode the five miles to Routh quickly enough. "I own a patch of farmland outside of the village, with a smallholder as my tenant," Robert told Iggy. "And of course, my brother Richard is the squire now."
            The farms in between Routh and Scour were numerous and Iggy did not know when he had left the small village, the only place he knew, and gone into another such hamlet. He rode his gelding with alert eyes, taking in the rolling hills and the turned earth of the fields, some with the stems of crops sprouting out. There would be a farm building or a laborer's thatched cottage here or there.
            Isabel came from this place, Iggy knew. Routh was north of Scour, with the same type of residents, the same rural landscape. Robert guided his horse down a track. Iggy followed. They were slowly riding up a gentle hill. Iggy wondered if Isabel had ever ridden up this track. As far as the eye could see, he saw green fields and small white dots: sheep. The horizon was far away, the sky a spotless blue color.
            The track spat the party into the hamlet, a wider, packed dirt track that was the only true road in Routh. They rode due east, the sun now directly overhead. A few thatched cottages, in a neat row, appeared, followed by two stone buildings—a guildhall and a tavern. Then more green, more trees, a glimpse of a field beyond the main road.
            There was a hedgerow and then Iggy saw the square-topped stone church. Isabel had mentioned All Saints, for her family had attended the church and virtually every important event in their lives had involved All Saints. It was not a large structure, not even as large at St. Osana's, though Brother Clement said St. Osana's Church was not large at all compared to Beverley Minster.
            The stones of All Saints were gray, rained on and snowed on for decades, and the place looked dank. There were no carvings adorning the outside and the church bell, hanging in the square-towered belfry, was small.
            Robert led them further, past a large grassy square in the center of the track, splitting the road in two, and then up to the walls and gates of a stone home.  It was not as new or as harmonious as Collins Hall, for there were additions and amendments that made the building look unbalanced and odd. Iggy looked up and smiled to himself at the sight of the square tower, once present for necessary defense. He wondered if quiet Isabel ever escaped to the tower for a respite, to sew her projects or stitch her sampler when younger. He would have to ask her the next time he was at the priory.
            Robert dismounted. Iggy did the same. Robert's man led the pack horse toward the back of the fortress-like home. A stableboy came forward to take the horses in the back as well.
            When the horses were gone, Iggy saw a bearded man with flint-steel gray eyes come forward from the front door, which stood open. He was taller than Uncle Robert, though not by much, and his shoulders were more slender. The man's clothes were brown, his top hose embellished by dark blue embroidery, and his flat cap, covering his rather plain brown hair, was also a dark blue.
            "Brother," the man's deep voice rang out, as if the voice emerged from his toes up his tall frame. "Well met. I hope your journey went well?"
            "As always," Robert replied. He gestured toward Iggy. "This is Ignatius, our nephew. Nephew, this is your uncle Richard, the Squire of Routh. Make your bow."
            Ignatius bowed. When he rose and dared to dart his eyes toward Richard's, he saw the man's mouth frowning downwards behind the prickly-looking hair of his brown beard, which seemed to grow from his upper lips downward in a steady growth meant to cover his mouth and disguise his expression.
            "Ignatius," Richard said gravely. "Hmm. You have Alice's eyes. Welcome to Routh. Welcome to my home. Come."
            Richard led Robert and Iggy inside, where Iggy felt a prickle of awareness that this was Isabel's home. She had been born here, likely in the main chamber upstairs. She had learned how to sew here, had run and played games within the walls of the house.
            The front doors opened directly upon a long, rather cavernous room. It only had narrow slits for windows, two big hearths, and several colorful tapestries as decoration. Iggy feasted his eyes on the tapestries, looking for hints of Isabel in them. He found one that depicted four maidens in a field blooming with flowers, each of the four blond. The smallest was short and pudgy, in the way toddlers were, and Iggy decided that that was Isabel.
            At the far side of the hall was a raised dais and upon it, a long table with chairs behind it. Iggy had never seen such a thing. The nun and monk assigned to eat with the children did not eat upon a dais, for they were but humble servants of God.
            Richard led his guests toward one of the hearths. Soon after, a parade of children and a woman emerged from one of the doors leading off of the hall.
            "Brother, nephew," Richard said. "My wife Eleanor."
            The woman—Iggy's aunt, he supposed, though it seemed odd to call her such—was younger than Sister Benedicta. She wore a green dress of a near-brownish shade and her skin was perfect. She wore a cumbersome looking hood upon her head, the veil covering her hair utterly.
            She inclined her head. "Brother, nephew, be welcome. May I present our children?"
            The three children were small, the youngest still standing with splayed legs for balance. The eldest was an unbreeched boy, the younger two girls. Each of them had blondish hair.
            "Fine children you have, Richard," Robert said approvingly. The children were sent away to the nursery upstairs and Eleanor herself poured the guests cups of ale to wash away the dust from traveling.
            "How is the planting this year?" Robert asked.
            "Jolly good," Richard replied. "I have earned five percent more through the winter for having the tenants sell off a small portion of their smoked meat."
            "Good business," Robert said with a swallow of his ale.
            "'Tis near time to shear my sheep. That'll bring in a pretty penny," Richard added. "Your parcels are doing well."
            "So I hear," Robert replied. "I am making a circuit of all my property. It'll take me through most of the spring, likely, though it is to Ignatius' benefit."
            Richard's eyes turned toward Iggy. "Ah, yes. Felicitations, nephew. My brother is a shrewd landowner and investor. How is your family, Robert?"
            "Well," Robert replied. "I have plans to marry Margaret to Ignatius here."
            Richard did not seem surprised at all. Iggy's stomach turned. He took a deep swallow of the ale to calm his belly.
            "Is it time to marry her off?" Richard asked.
            "Nearly," Robert replied. "Another year or so, perhaps. They'll be quite young, but then there will be more time for me to train Ignatius in the ways of managing his future enterprises and more time for my lady wife to train Margaret in the ways of running a household. More time for more heirs as well."
            Iggy felt revulsion.
            "I suppose I could wait until Margaret is closer to eighteen or thereabouts," Robert said thoughtfully. "But having decided on my heir…" he glanced at Iggy, "and moved him into Collins Hall, I see no reason to wait beyond her sixteenth birthday."
            "What are Margaret's dower lands?"
            "The ones Mary inherited from our uncle," Robert replied. "Family land from the start and family land they shall remain."
            That night, as the household knelt in All Saints Church for Vespers, Iggy's prayerful serenity was broken by one of those blasted impure thoughts and in his hose, his member began to rise. He concentrated doubly on the responses, ignoring the feeling below. Slowly, slowly, as an exhale, he deflated, though there was a slight ache in his balls.
            Iggy spent the night at Routh House on a small cot wondering what had triggered his hardness.
            The next morning, Robert took him out to inspect his land. Robert's tenants lived in small thatched-roof cottages, a small wooden stable, outhouse and a barn making up the remainder of the structures on the sight. The rest of the parcel was taken up by a few animals—a cow, chickens, a few pigs—and then the land, plowed in neat rows and furrows, each of them showing a stalk that would, come harvesttime, become sheafs of grain.
            "Do you have need of anything?"Robert asked. "Is the plow sufficient?"
            "Aye, sir," the farmer replied, voice deep and guttural with accent. "The grain will grow well and full, I 'cept."
            Robert gave a sharp nod, in approval. There was one more night to spend in Isabel's childhood home. A rather large feast had been planned and it was there, while sitting at one of the trestles in the main hall, that Iggy met Isabel's other sisters.
            Eleanor introduced Iggy to the three sisters. "These are my sisters. Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Welles and Mistress Joan." The first two, who Iggy presumed were already married, shared Eleanor's jowly cheeks and modest veils and hoods, covering their hair. Joan, however, resembled Isabel—Iggy wished he could tell her he had met her sisters, was staying in her old home. In Joan's face, Iggy saw the bright blue eyes and the intelligent forehead, the pretty lips, and the healthy complexion.
            "Hello," he said to all. "I know your younger sister quite well. Isabel."
            "Ah," Eleanor said, clasping her hands. "I pray she has learned obedience at the priory."
            Iggy blinked, wondering where he had gone wrong. "Isabel is a close friend." He put a hand on his hat, which lay beside his plate on the table. "She made me this hat for New Year's."
            Joan grinned. "Her talents have certainly developed." With a flounce, Joan sat opposite him. "I haven't seen Isabel in nearly four years—since she was taken to the priory. Perhaps I shall make the trek to the priory to see her. I miss her greatly. Do tell. How does she fare?"
            "Very well," Iggy grinned. "Her chores are usually to help in the kitchens and watch the very youngest in the orphanage. She does both well."
            "How came you to be friends?"
            "We met, my friend Tom and I, met Isabel on her first day in the orphanage. Sister Benedicta introduced us."
            The other sisters melted away from behind Joan. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Eleanor leading the other two toward the dais. Joan stayed and eagerly asked him, "How doth she fare? Is she healthy? Learned? Pious?"
            "She likes to watch the horses in their exercise ring and she takes at least one walk around the circumference of the priory grounds every day, even in the bitterest cold. Our nuns teach all the lasses how to read and write and figure. How to cook and clean and care for children, how to knit and sew and weave."
            "A comprehensive education. How is her reading?"
            "Excellent. And her hand is beautiful, a work of art, Sister Catherine said."
            Joan smiled in satisfaction.
            "She's also learned some Latin," Iggy went on. "Us lads, the monks tutor us in Latin and Greek. Tom and I have taught Isabel some. And she's learned French from Sister Benedicta."
            "Can she play any instruments?"
            Iggy frowned. "Not that I know of. But as you can see," he gestured toward his hat, "she is accomplished with a needle. She made a hat for Tom as well, with horses embroidered on the brim."
            "I must go and visit her," Joan said. "I feel as if I've neglected her, poor girl. I've written a few letters and she's responded, but to not see her. 'Tis only five miles or so, but since my sister Cate married last year, I have been the dependence of our aunt as she approaches her elder years." Joan folded her hands and leaning forward, asked, "Is she beautiful, my sister?"
            "Yes."
            "Verily?"
            "Verily," Iggy said. "Very wide blue eyes, perfect pale complexion, golden hair."
            "'Tis like a ballad," Joan said, giggling. Iggy grinned in response. He rather liked Joan.
            Before he retired for the night, by the light of a guttering candle, Iggy mixed a small cup of ink, straightened a piece of paper, and sharpened his quill with the knife Tom had given him for New Year's Day. Then in his best handwriting, he wrote:
            Dear Brother Clement,
            I write you in good health and spirits and pray that you receive this in the same. I am currently in Routh, in the squire's home, and will depart tomorrow for the North Riding and Northumberland, there to see my uncle's lands and to visit with his daughters.
            I can assure you that I continue my work on Latin and Greek, especially the grammar, and have brought many a book with me, including those of Plato, Socrates, and Homer's epics to occupy my mind. I shall have a list of questions, I expect, when I return home for your perusal and gentle guidance.
            Salve sis,
            Written at Routh, Yorks.
            Your son,
            Ignatius

Iggy sanded the page and set it aside. He smoothed out another sheet of paper and began writing.
            Written at Routh, Yorks.
            Dearest Isabel,
            I am writing this letter from your childhood home. I met your three other sisters tonight. Joan asked me all sort of questions about you and your life and promised to visit you soon. Your other sisters are married. If it's not impolite to say so, I believe one of them is with child.
            I wondered, upon seeing the tower, how to get up there. I assume there's a ladder or a stair somewhere. It was probably built for defense, but I wondered if you used to sew up there. It faces east. Perhaps the light is good in the tower. Or perhaps you took your exercise in the courtyard.
            My uncle, Sir Robert, owns two parcels of land outside of the village. I heard him tell the story of how he acquired that land tonight, as he was rather guzzling up my uncle Richard's store of French wine. He was in Hull one day and entered a gaming hall. He played dice with a man, who uncle said was quite drunk. The man lost the game to Sir Robert, but the man had no coin, no gold or silver, no jewels—only the deeds to two small parcels of land in Routh. Turns out that that man who gave over the deeds was your uncle, Isabel.
            Tomorrow, we depart your home and are due north. Brother Clement has asked that in addition to my working out Latin and Greek grammar in a notebook he has given me, I am also to record the landscape, fortresses, animals, trees and other sundry details of the places I travel to.
            I pray to see you soon and that you are in good health.
            I remain your friend,
            Iggy

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