East Riding of Yorkshire, early spring 1349
A few spluttering and stinking tallow candles added little light to the meagre glow of smouldering damp logs in the fireplace of the Warren Horesby tavern. A seated figure in coarse travel robes sat with hands tucked in wide sleeves to keep warm. His hood flopped forward, deeply shadowing his eyes. Around him huddled the men of the village, their own eyes and ears alert for signs that he might speak, for this man was different from other travellers: more withdrawn into himself, more sombre than the smiling monks or ebullient pilgrims who occasionally rested on their way north. A few of the men had recently seen his dark, solitary form by the gates of the manor but never before at the tavern.
A pot of drink, heat-sizzled with a poker from the fire, was thumped onto the table in front of him. Freckled, ginger-haired hands emerged from the sleeves. Long, refined fingers curled around the warm pot. Black cuffs showed at the wrists. He nodded his thanks. Eventually, after staring long into the fire, he began to speak with a southern brogue from the depths of his hood. He was on his way to Meaux Abbey, he said, only a few miles away, but the inclement weather had driven him to first take warming sustenance at the tavern. He raised his head and looked under the rim of his hood into the questioning, smoke-reddened eyes of the weary men before him and told a fearful tale: a tale of black flesh and death, of dreadful disease spreading up the country… spreading in the way that spilt ale flows into the crevices of a rough-hewn tavern table, inexorably and uncontrollably.
Motley clouds hovered over Warren Horesby like a giant sheep’s fleece: wet, heavy and mucky from winter. Sodden clumps of grey rolled in a westerly direction obliterating the rising sun and threatening another downpour. Spring was hardly in evidence.
Amalric had heard the early morning church bell across the road while still in bed, but how long ago he couldn’t tell: it could have been a cock’s stride or a deer leap. All he knew was that the rustic clanking had driven into his head like a hammer on nails, forcing him to keep it on the pillow. Now, the dim light gave no clue as to the advancement of the morning. Desperate for fresh air instead of the stifling, stinking air of the sleep room, he staggered into the house, oblivious of things around him. At the doorway he lifted the latch and pulled back the door. Cool, damp air slapped his face. A sharp pain reverberated through his head as, forgetting to duck, he caught his forehead on the low lintel. Cursing, he pushed away a curtain of dark, shoulder-length hair and cupped his hand over a rising bump. Through the pain, he realised the day was not as advanced as he feared: the noisy, lumbering machinery of the mill at the lower end of the village was only just starting up. The steady clatter-clatter marked the beginning of the working day, just as the church bell marked the first prayers of the spiritual day. A heightened stink of animal and human waste nauseously wafted past him as village movement stirred the heavy air. Animals asserted themselves with mooing, baaing, snorting and clucking; tiny children’s high-pitched voices cried out for attention and shutters clattered against wattle and daub.
Amalric found it hard to engage with the day. Last evening had been the first time he had drunk like a man. His day of birth some eighteen, maybe less, years ago had been a feeble excuse for the village men to drink copiously and his own father had been indulgent with him and them. The after-effects of strong ale, he now discovered, were far from pleasant: his dark eyes felt tender, watery; his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth; his head hurt – both outside, as the bump rose, and inside. Overall, he felt at one with the dark, dank, dismal day. The only thing in his accessible consciousness was a jumbled mess of tavern talk and words that had frightened him then and wouldn’t make sense now.
Usually at this time, Amalric would be in his father’s glazing workshop, but with the weather so dull, the coloured glass would not show its full beauty for hours yet. He turned back into the house feeling a little less guilty about his lethargy. The light from the opened door caught the large rectangular shape of Molly the cow standing patiently by the wall, still offering her warmth as she had all night. The crumpled mess of his younger brother slumped over the table. He didn’t bother to explore Edwin’s condition further, suspecting that he had been out with the boys from the manor last evening, unconcerned that his elder brother was celebrating his manly age. Edwin would be in a dark mood, determined not to get involved in daily work, and best left alone.
Amalric closed the door behind himself. The light dimmed, leaving only that coming through open shutters. He saw his tall, slender but large-bosomed mother, Gundred, glancing occasionally with tight-lipped irritation at Edwin. The stockier little Nesta was keeping her eyes on the task of urging the fire into greater life. Its curling smoke from damp vegetation caught Amalric’s dry throat, causing him to cough as he tried to grunt a general greeting. Nesta suppressed a giggle.
‘It still dry out there, son?’ asked his mother sharply.
‘Mm. I’d best be off to the well for right sure it’ll rain again soon. And bein’ first there saves on mindless chatter.’ She pushed a strand of greying hair into her cap and lifted a small pot of ointment from a shelf and handed it to him. ‘Arnica for the bump on your head. You’re taller than you feel.’ She gave a slight tweak of his cheek: it irritated him. He lifted her mantle from a hook, passed it to her and reopened the door. He saw her strong face was flushed. ‘And shut the door to keep the heat in,’ she said routinely, as she wrapped the mantle around herself and picked up her pails.
Amalric watched his mother walk up the road, pails swinging. Despite her preference to avoid mindless chatter, he knew she enjoyed her friends and their daily conversation. The world of women felt complex to him. His mother coped with five children and a husband better than any of the other mothers around. He knew she worried about him: his moods, his lack of confidence, his uncertainty of just about everything. She understood. He put his finger into the salve and at once appreciated the sensation of the smooth texture. Gently, he rubbed it onto the tender area of his forehead and felt it cool as the air passed over it. He sensed his mother’s love so freely given, and loved her in return. He forgot his irritation and turned back into the house.
‘Is Da up?’ he asked of Nesta, by the brightening fire.
‘No. Master Elias is still abed. Mistress says he’s still heavy with ale.’ She stood, wiped her hands on her rough apron and began another task.
Her cheeks were pink with heat, he noticed. ‘Where’s Matilde?’
‘At a birthin’,’ she said pithily, beginning tasks that his elder sister would normally do.
Amalric became aware of other absences. ‘And the twins?’
Feeling both weary and unneeded, Amalric left the house and dropped down onto his haunches to lean against the cool outside wall of his home. The sound of giggling came lilting from the back garden. It came from the twins.
Berta skipped around the corner, her short tunic above plump bare legs, her dark, unruly curls bouncing. ‘Hello, Mally.’
Amalric treasured her nickname of him. ‘Hello, Berts. You may need to help get Molly into the barn. She looks a bit cow-lazy this morning and Nesta has her hands full.’
‘I will, Mally. Bennet can finish the chickens. I’ll see to Molly. “Mally and Molly, they’re ever so jolly”,’ she sang, and skipped indoors.
‘And shut the door to keep the heat in!’
Too young to do much more than take everything in their stride, the twins had been a constant joy to him since their birth eight or nine years ago – he wasn’t exactly sure when they had been born. Their lively chatter and laughter always cheered him.
Amalric loved his home at the lower end of the village, on the edge and close to the road where travellers to and from the south passed. In front of him, across the road was the church. At present, it looked grey and rather forbidding but with sunlight and clement weather, it looked warm and inviting. Most mornings he would see his friend, Father Wilfrid, leaning on the gate after prayers, supping from his beaker, enjoying the first light of the day. But it was now too late – too late to talk about things that really mattered. The priest had no doubt set off on his daily rounds.
Amalric’s reverie was brought to a sudden end by a commotion behind him inside the house. It evidenced a familiar disharmony and despite his instinct to turn away, he knew he had to face whatever was the cause. He sighed, stood and put his hand on the door latch, pushed slowly and bent to avoid hitting his head a second time. He suspected things might be being hurled but it was an angry child’s voice that hit him, not objects. The voice came from Berta. Through the dimness, he could just make out that she was ineffectually pushing the perverse Molly on her rump with all her small might, trying to get her through the internal door into the barn. A steaming pile of dung shone fresh and malodourous on the impacted earth floor. Berta’s dark curls pitched over her forehead as she angrily yelled at her brother Edwin to help. He now sat on a bench at the table more concerned with his fingernails than the rumpus in the room, a smirk playing on his face.
Amalric knew he must intervene to bring an end to the fuss but hesitated and was saved the effort by Bennet, Berta’s twin, appearing through the back door from the garden, taking in the scene immediately. With his high-pitched young voice, he started rebuking Edwin, only to be slapped on the head in return and told to stay out of it. Berta’s temper turned to hysteria and, protecting her brother, she jumped up and clawed at Edwin’s face.
Amid the activity, Molly subsided into panic; mooed, kicked the table leg, knocked the breakfast platters asunder, narrowly missed the central hearth and Nesta, and hurtled into the barn away from the commotion.
Berta, with tears of hurt and frustration streaming down her face and legs streaked with cow dung, ran towards the warmth of the fire for comfort. Bennet followed. Black hair mingled as their heads bent together.
Amalric realised that Nesta had disappeared into the shadows.
Elias emerged from the sleep room, walking stiffly, his white hair tousled. He was forced to press himself against the wall in order to escape being crushed by the distressed Molly. He stood for a moment, shocked. Amalric stared at his father with concern. He saw his stooped back, shoulder and neck muscles taut with the effort of breathing and his deep pink complexion turning purple. His eyes, heavy from the liquor-induced deep sleep, peered through the gloom. All became silent. Amalric’s own heart quickened.
Elias glared at Edwin, who was tense with antagonism, and at Amalric standing helpless and self-conscious by the door. A shake of his head aimed in Amalric’s direction denoting despair was enough to cause his eldest son to feel like sobbing – but it was to Edwin that he gave most of his ire. He glowered at him, straightened his stooping back and moved closer to him. With effort, he puffed a night breath of stale ale and poor teeth into his third child’s pale, handsome face and stared into his eyes.
‘Time has come, Edwin, for you to do your full share round here,’ he said with tight restraint. ‘You’re nothing but a hindrance to what anybody else needs to do. What with your fancy clothes, black tail at the back of your head like an ass’ backside and posh friends with horses to take ’em all over! God knows where you go at night or get money from to mix with ’em. Soon we’ll all have to face somethin’ a lot worse than this endless bickerin’.’ He raised his arm and pointed to the door. ‘Be off out of here: go tend the sheep and their little uns by the sheep barn. They might be stuck in mud.’ He waved his hand through the air in dismissal and relaxed, his vituperation extinguished.
Edwin wiped his hand over the blood oozing on his face, took his woollen cloak and sulkily grabbed a chunk of bread from the table. Amalric stood to the side of the open door and watched him slope out into the morning. But Edwin didn’t head towards the sheep lands: he turned north towards the manor. Amalric decided not to tell this to his father, who looked unwell enough already after the morning’s events. Knowing Edwin had disobeyed him would only add fuel to the flames. Amalric watched his father stamp out the back door, breathing heavily. He knew he had gone to find solace alone in the privy.
The privy was the wonder of the village. Amalric, too, often sought peace there. His grandfather, Old Elias, Elias’ father, had dug a channel from the Ripple Brook which curved in an arc, passing close to and from their home. As a small boy, Amalric had gazed excitedly as foundation stones were set into the ground either side, at the point nearest their home, and a little hut of expensive wood erected on them. Inside, on a throne of wood, family members sat to allow their waste to plop into water and be washed away. It was not as grand as the garderobe he imagined at the manor, nor the nearest towns, but Amalric admired the sheer invention of it. Most other families had earth privies but quite often, people just wandered into a copse nearby. On the oak door of the privy were two beautiful carved, laughing faces – one at adult level and one low down for children. Those faces, it was said within the family, had been modelled on village priests, signifying their veiled concerns over all aspects of life.
‘But Grandpa, why didn’t you make one of them your face?’ Amalric had asked as a very small boy.
‘Because, lad, I have nowt but a bantam’s idea of how I look,’ was the reply. ‘And anyway, tis more fittin’.’
The faces made Amalric feel happier at each visit.
Today, the little stream below the carved oak seat was running full. It may contain some village detritus from up the hill, but the occasional splashing of cold water on warm buttocks would be a blessing, serving to cool his father’s distress. The comment about ‘something a lot worse’ had not escaped Amalric’s clouded mind.
Matilde entered the house, tired from her birthing work. She looked around grimly, realising that something had happened. Silently and belligerently, she tucked her skirt into her belt to keep it off the floor, rolled her long sleeves to her elbows and began to help Nesta clear up.
Amalric smelled the scent of fresh herbs on his sister after cleaning herself from the birth. He wondered if it had been a difficult one, tiredness prompting her annoyance at the obvious commotion. Her exaggerated movements caused her freshly laundered cap, normally well placed to cover her dark curls, to slip. It had been her grandmother’s and evidenced a sewing skill and grandeur of past fortunes. Amalric had, over years, watched her keep up its little repairs with fine stitches.
Essentially, Amalric felt sorry for his older sister. Sometimes when he came upon her alone, he would see a faraway look in her eyes. Occasionally, like today, she would be short-tempered. He had heard his parents discuss marriage for her, but no young man in Warren Horesby or nearby could match her sharp mind. It frightened them away. She, like Amalric, had been educated by monks. Elias had been offered an abbey education for his two eldest boys as a reward for caring for the windows at Meaux Abbey, but Edwin had had no desire to sit at a desk. Matilde had pleaded to be sent instead. Amalric remembered his mother protesting, saying it was not right for a girl to do as much learning as a boy and it was a mother’s place to educate girls. But Elias had given in to his daughter’s insistence and now Gundred blamed him for Matilde’s inability to find a husband – an educated wife being undesirable to the village dolts. Gundred found consolation, however, and more than a little secret pride in her eldest girl’s healing and midwifery role in the village, her understanding of herbs and birthing being second only to Gundred’s own. If marriage and children were not to be, then just being a skilled healer would be sustaining enough, she had said. Amalric was not so sure.
‘I’ll put this mess on the dung heap,’ said Matilde through tight lips, brown eyes flashing as she swept past Amalric and went through the door.
Elias returned from the privy with a calmer demeanour and healthier complexion. Amalric felt bold enough to ask about the previous evening. The image was beginning to clear ever so slightly. Pots of ale had seemed to be everywhere – small rivers of it had run into thin wooden cracks. Faces had been stern. A stranger had talked.
‘Er, Da… what was it that was said last night in the…?’
Elias interrupted him with raised hands, a sigh and a forced smile. ‘How did you enjoy it, lad? Bit too much ale, eh? Best talk about it some other time.’
‘Then come, Father, and instruct me on the day’s doings,’ he said a little flatly.
Elias sat down heavily on the bench beside his son, motivated by his eagerness to work. He was prevented from replying by Nesta, who appeared at his side with a large pan of porridge, ready to scoop a dollop into the wooden bowl in front of him. Amalric felt her presence but would not look at her. He had no need to look; he saw her well enough in his mind’s eye. Her soft, brownish hair and large grey eyes, the black centres in them shining, reminded him of the little mice in the workshop for whom he secretly saved a little of their precious cheese. She was small but her imperfect face was full of character and laughter, with a smile that, when it was aimed at him, took his breath away. He dared not look at her in case his interest became obvious to both her and his father. His feelings were an embarrassment and he didn’t know how to handle them. Nesta showed no emotion but moved to his side with the porridge pan in the crook of her arm, resting on her hip.
‘Now, Am,’ said Elias. ‘What we have to do today is… Am?’
His son’s attention was wandering. Nesta served the porridge to Amalric. The thick mass slopped into his bowl. She did not look him… but the tip of her long plait, pale at the end, fell forward and lightly touched his bare arm. He shivered as romantic thoughts broke through his lingering headache and distracted him: his father’s words barely broke through.
‘Yes, Da,’ he answered automatically.
Elias grew frustrated. ‘Stop daydreaming, Am! You’re my apprentice, don’t forget, and must needs listen.’
His son looked up, his eyes still wide and dreamy.
‘In two days, the day after tomorrow, Am, we will be going to Meaux Abbey. Are you listening?’
‘Er… yes, Da.’ Amalric forced himself to be attentive.
‘So… for this next two days, I want you and Ned to clear the workshop. Get rid of the bits of waste glass from them Manor House windows we’ve just finished, chalk the table afresh an’ so on. Then…’ He straightened and smiled triumphantly. ‘We start somethin’ new. We have to go to Meaux Abbey. I can’t help feelin’ a bit excited, like.’
His eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. Amalric noticed he looked younger.
‘The Meaux monks have come round to thinkin’ they’d like some new windows, ’appen a bit different from their usual ones. It’s alreet to have grisaille patterns, them circles and squares, grey lines in leaf shapes an’ such, but a bit more colour is what they need, in my opinion. Anyway, it’s all down to their beliefs an’ nowt to do with me. I’ve heard tell, though, the abbot is thinking to have some figures – saints and the like. Quite a departure for Cistercians, if I’m not mistaken.’
Elias’ enthusiasm fired Amalric. His eyes focused. ‘That’s great, Da.’
‘We’ll take Ned with us for a bit of a treat. Anyway, we may need his help if more work comes our way – raise him up a bit from workshop drudge to assistant, like.’
Amalric deflated. ‘But the shutters; we wanted Ned to fix them. You know how they stick, especially the one on the window that looks up the street. You know how long he takes to do a job.’
‘Well, he can fettle ’em today and tomorrow. I’m sure between you, you’ll get everything done, son.’ There was a note of impatience in Elias’ voice.
Amalric had to learn to manage the workshop but was finding being masterful a struggle, even with someone as docile as Ned. He found him frustratingly slow. ‘Oh… very well. It’s a good idea to have him with us on the visit,’ agreed Amalric, reluctantly.
At that moment Gundred opened the door and daylight flashed into the room. She put down her pails in the corner, took off her mantle and hung it up. She saw her daughter chopping herbs wearily and touched her arm. In that small gesture, Amalric saw the closeness of women and felt a little pang of jealousy.
‘Hello, love,’ said Elias, looking towards his wife. ‘All well at the well?’ He grinned at Amalric and burped.
‘It’s Lent,’ said Gundred. ‘You should have cut down on your drinking. Had none o’ that strong stuff. That priest across the road is too lax! And you let our Am drink too much – you both staggered home! Most of the village men were the same. Strong ale is a pestilence, if you ask me!’
Amalric knew his mother was grateful for the soured ale she obtained from the tavern to make her copious amounts of medicinal vinegar. He sometimes enjoyed this banter of his parents. On the other hand, today it had a strained edge to it. Something had triggered his mother to mention pestilence.
‘Aye, the pestilence seems to be spreadin’,’ said his father. ‘There was a traveller from down south in the tavern. He didn’t speak like us. Said he’d heard about it killin’ all an’ sundry. He’d not seen it himself, like. He’d come up here to work. Was on his way to Meaux Abbey for a few days. ’Appen was stayin’ at the manor.’
‘Oh, and what was he like?’ said Gundred, sharpness in her voice.
‘Hard to tell because he kept his hood on. He was a mite thin. I suppose he’d come to escape it.’
‘It’ll ’appen come to nowt,’ said Gundred sharply. ‘You don’t want to listen to such tales. We’ve come through all sorts of pestilences afore.’
‘Well,’ responded Elias, ‘they’ve hired a physician at the manor, expectin’ him soon I’ve heard, so it must be bad ’cos you know how much they cost an’ old Lord de Horesby wouldn’t spend money for nowt.’ A flash of realisation crossed Elias’ face. ‘Eh, maybe that was ’im! The physician!’
‘What!’ exclaimed Gundred. ‘A higher-up share drink with you lot in that pokey, stinkin’ tavern? I think not! But old Horesby would spend money to bump him up in society. Having your own physician looks proper. They’re good to have around the table if high-ups come callin’: all dressed in black and lookin’ serious. Anyway, we don’t need a physician round here. There’s enough of us with healing sense to cope. And there’s Father Wilfrid with his prayers. Pity old Horesby didn’t employ somebody with skill enough to pull teeth, deal with farmin’ injuries, stitch folk up and such. If he’d have thought of his tenants, that’s what he would have done.’
‘Aye, well that’s as maybe but I’m getting reet fearful.’
Gundred closed the subject with, ‘Well, what will be will be.’
‘Wives… allus think they know best,’ Elias muttered to Amalric and closed his eyes. His son noticed it with disquiet. There was something here that was not being said. ‘Anyway,’ Elias continued, ‘I’m going up to the tavern again this evenin’… but not you, Am.’
Amalric felt excluded. If only he had been more of a man than a boy in the tavern, held his ale better, he would remember what the stranger alleged. He saw his mother’s eyes narrow. He looked at Matilde but, clearly, she dare not question her mother’s attitude. Anyway, there was the excitement of Meaux Abbey to come. He rose from the table and left the cloying atmosphere of the house for the workshop.
As Amalric entered the workshop, he thought about his grandfather. It was rare to have such a place in a village, but Old Elias had seen possibilities grow for glass windows in religious houses and the nascent curiosity of manorial lords – he had thus seized opportunities. What Amalric loved about the place was the redolence of the old man’s ambition and love of beauty: the carefully ordered storage racks for glass, the large worktable, the little hearth in the corner to heat glass cutters. Amalric’s father had followed on successfully and now Amalric’s own ambition to work with coloured glass burned bright. However, as for everyone else, life had been difficult over the past years and work had fallen off. Now with the prospect of new Meaux Abbey windows, the business might have a resurgence.
Outside, a smart wooden sign, for those who could read, declared Elias Faceby, Glazier. Below it, beside the door, a coloured glass window showed an example of the glazier’s trade. Amalric had made it. It was a source of wonder to him that his father should use his son’s inexperienced work and not his own to declare his glazing business. It seemed to Amalric that it embodied parental trust and confidence and he admired his father for taking the risk.
Amalric had made the window two years previously as his intermediate apprentice piece for the Glaziers’ Guild. It was very small in comparison with the huge coloured ones he had seen in religious buildings, being no taller than his arm was long, and half as wide, but it was just large enough to be a picture. He ran his hand lovingly over the smooth undulations of the glass surface and the dull lead cames and felt a love for his craft. Even now, the dull spring light passing through revealed amber, red, blue and green. In summer, the same colours would splash and smudge against the walls as the sun shone through. He called it his shepherd window.
Amalric wanted to do things with coloured glass. He didn’t want to be simply a craftsman following other peoples’ ideas, but an artist, inspired and inventive. But he wondered if it would ever be possible. Both his grandfather and father, while successful in monetary terms, had nurtured great creative ideas that had been limited by wars, weather, animal plagues and so on. Why should it be different for him? Couldn’t making money also include being really inventive? Amalric’s dreams wouldn’t go away. In his imagination he made a huge coloured window for an important religious building, with scenes that told stories. But as always when moving his hands over his shepherd window, they rested eventually on one particular piece of glass… something always niggled him about this part of the window – and it wasn’t just the clumsiness of inexperience. Why had his father allowed it? He longed to take the piece out of its leaded frame and change it.
An ale-induced stabbing pain in his head was sufficient to return him to the everyday. Two other windows were simply openings in the wall. Both had shutters with crossbars, now swollen with the wet weather. Amalric hoped one day to see clear glass in these windows but it was far too expensive even for glaziers to be profligate with its use. The result was a compromise, particularly at this time of the year: to stay warm and dark with them closed, or cool and light with them open. His father had once instructed him to nail thin woven wool to stop the breezes but the result had been too dim to work in.
Amalric stumbled his way to the back window and braced himself for the cool air that would enter the room as the crossbar slid off its hooks and the shutter reluctantly opened. The resultant view of the garden, which stretched to the brook, was always a pleasure: his mother’s vegetable patch; the good laying chickens; a swill-filled pig in a pen; beehives at the far end; and Molly the cow. Amalric himself had set traps for rabbits, the odd badger and the fat rats that ran menacingly from the brook to invade their home. But best of all were the herbs planted near the back door and picked for cooking and healing. They were in neat rows, tended daily, with attempts made to protect them from the voracious rabbits by little fences. His mother had explained that most were used efficaciously for the four humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Amalric knew nothing of these things, only that they required betony, hyssop, rue, chamomile and more. He loved to squeeze the leaves of sage and thyme, then smell his fingers. Bennet and Berta frequently ran amongst them and covered themselves in perfumes. Gundred always scolded them but with a smile and shining eyes. Away from the precious plantings was a small domed clay kiln for fixing paint on glass.
Amalric moved over to the window on the end wall that gave the view of the road. The crossbar would not budge. He heaved it with irritation. Suddenly, it gave way, shot up and clattered to the floor, catching his right pointing finger as he automatically put out hands to stop it. He saw blood begin to seep from a graze. Anger engulfed him. Ned should have attended to the sticking wood. Cuts were the blight of glaziers and he cursed Ned Tynel for being the cause of this new injury.
As he was sucking the wound, a small piece of glass on the table flashed in the light and distracted him. It was part of the debris from a window made for the solarium of Warren Horesby Manor showing the arms of Lord de Horesby. Amalric had reckoned it a rather boring job because the precise design of the shield offered no chance of invention. But, as always, he had enjoyed the colours. He picked up the piece and held it to the light. Cold from the early morning, it was like a piece of thin sheet ice over deep water; transparent but blue coloured, a deep sapphire. Glass was like jewels. He loved to make precious gems out of small waste pieces and spin tales to the twins, of kings and queens who might have worn them. He loved to watch their dark eyes grow large and their mouths drop open as they became enchanted by the mystery of colour. He peered through the glass to the March sky. The dark, lowering clouds of the north turned a glorious blue and he wondered at the magic needed to turn wood ash, sand and metallic powder into such a material: a material with a sublime smoothness but which, when broken, had the spikey edges that were responsible for most of the scars on his hands.
A sharp breeze suddenly blew. It lifted Amalric’s hair. His dreaming was once more curtailed as the cold air reminded him to instruct Ned to shave some wood off the shutter bars. He baulked at the idea. Ned was two years younger than him but lumbering and slow. It would be easier to do the job himself. But his father was now insisting that with less than two years of his ten-year apprenticeship to go, he had to learn how to manage. Annoyance and fear of responsibility mingled in him, settling on thoughts of his brother Edwin who, like Ned, was two years younger and showed no sign of taking responsibility for anything. He gripped the glass: it pricked his palm. He winced and dropped it.
A whistled tune signalled Ned’s imminent arrival. Amalric looked out of the open window and saw him ambling down the street carefree, the long point of his old-fashioned hood swinging from side to side hiding his straw-coloured, unwashed curls. Samson, his mangy ginger dog, padded as if on springs beside him, his tongue lolling happily over grimy teeth.
Without giving time for Ned to enter the workshop properly, Amalric blurted, ‘Ned, I need you to attend to the shutter bars.’ His exasperation showed as he lifted the bloodied hand in front of Ned’s face. ‘I could barely push them open this morning, they’re so swollen from the wet. Some wood needs shaving off… please.’
Ned ignored the bungled attempt at authority and replied morosely, ‘Aye.’
Amalric became hot and his face reddened. He silently berated himself. ‘Please.’ How could he say that so feebly? He felt slightly queasy.
Next morning, the day was as dull as the previous one. Amalric morosely slouched out of the sleep room. His father’s drink-laden snores had reverberated around the small room, forcing him to get out of bed. His mother, alone in the house, slammed bowls and beakers around without her normal efficiency, putting them down then moving them again absent-mindedly. She wiped the table with a damp cloth several times.
‘Ma, is something wrong? You seem…’
‘I’m sick of hearin’ about the new pestilence. Your father came home last night in a right panic. Drink-sodden again. No doubt he’ll have forgotten about it this mornin’.’
Amalric suspected he wouldn’t.
‘I don’t hold with all this talk. I’ll deal with it if it comes like I always have done – but, to be on the safe side, Nesta and I will do some cleanin’. We’ll wash stuff and clear them droppin’ insects from the thatch. A cockroach fell into your father’s stew yesterday. Thankfully, he didn’t notice it.’
A smile played on Amalric’s lips. ‘Do you think insects spread it, then?’
‘No!’ Gundred stood up straight, putting her hands on her lower back. ‘He’ll be thirsty and grouchy when he wakes. If he must drink too much at the tavern… well! He should know the strength of their special brews by now. If you help me fetch the water, he’ll be able to have a whole bucket full to drink all to himself!’ She laughed without her eyes joining in. ‘Anyway, Am, I need lots of water today and I need you to help me get extra.’
‘But Nesta could…’
‘She’ll be busy, you’ll have to come with me.’
‘I just thought, ’appen I could go with Nesta to save you work.’ Amalric stood, expressionless.
He felt put down. ‘Right. I’ll follow you shortly to help you back with the pails.’
‘You’ll have to run the gauntlet of those gossipin’ women, mind. Tis woman’s work but you needs learn about women. You’re past bein’ a boy and a man needs to know things.’
‘Aye, Ma. Ned is often there helping his mother so I’ll lend you my muscles for a while and feel gallant like a knight.’ He gave an elegant but exaggerated bow.
Gundred responded by giving him a warm-hearted tap on the head with her rough hand.
‘Yes, really low-born Ned may be, and simple, but he is good to his mother… and an honest worker for your father. It’d be a help if your brother Edwin could sometimes lend a hand like that. He’s too old for his years – and as usual, he’s nowhere to be seen at sun-up. We saw nowt of him yesterday.’ She sighed. ‘Anyroad, come by the well in a while. I’ll take four pails. You can carry two back and I’ll carry two with the yoke.’
Amalric was pleased to help his mother. She looked pale these days. After five children and one or two lost before they had chance to live, Amalric knew she had not been without suffering. Recently he had caught whispers between her and Matilde that suggested something about her age and time of life. His father had dismissed them as ‘women’s things’, and Edwin had put his finger to his nose indicating he knew all about such secret things. But it was a mystery area to Amalric. Of course, he knew some things – the reason for the monthly washing of rags, for instance – but Edwin seemed to be aware of so much more.
Amalric opened the door for his mother.
‘Close the door, keep the heat in.’
Again, he watched as she went up the hill. Standing there, he heard other doors slam as women left their homes mindful, like his mother, of keeping in the little heat that was inside. But today he noticed the slamming was more vigorous than usual. He suspected that after a second tavern night, drowsy husbands would annoy their women folk, hence the angry slammings aimed like darts at husbands’ headaches. Yet, most of the village women tolerated their men’s predilection for the tavern beverages. Heaven knows, such comfort kept them sweet, they said… if it wasn’t too often. It all amused him.
Half way up the village road, Amalric saw figures draw in behind his mother. He easily recognised them from their backs as Ned’s mother, Alice Tynel, and her friend, Myrtle Ashe. Myrtle always aroused apprehension within him, knowing as he did that she and his mother were long-time adversaries. With them were Myrtle’s daughters. Amalric’s mind filled with images of them. Constance, the younger, with a scabbed face and vacant look, and Liza, the elder, thirteen years or so. She had recently taken to wearing adult cast-offs which, even so, failed to hide thick ankles. He shuddered at the thought of her curtains of oily hair through which she peered at young men. Amalric himself had been the unwilling recipient of her precocious, lustful looks. The thought discomfited him intensely and he turned away.
It was a relief to look to the sky and assess the weather. There might be a downpour but what did that matter against the present beauty of God’s heavens – grey clouds stretching eastward, ending in a golden contour with a streak of pure blue below – like his favourite blue glass? Obviously, somewhere the sun was shining but he knew it was unlikely to hold a promise for Warren Horesby. Sunshine was rare these days and could not raise the village from the damp place it had become. Had it not been for its nestling on the slopes of a valley, it would have suffered the indignities of frequent floods – as so many other villages had. As it was, only a few strips in the lower fields were sometimes rendered waterlogged and useless for crops or grazing.
‘You look as white as your worktable, my friend. I assume you still have a thick tongue and a heavy head on you from the evening before yesterday.’
The voice broke through his dreaming. Amalric followed the sound of the voice. Father Wilfrid was leaning on the church gate, just across the road from the Faceby home.
It was the priest’s habit after morning prayers, weather permitting, to take his first hot drink of the day in this spot: while warming his arthritic hands on the smooth surface of his beaker, he could look up the hill and view the village and his flock. He himself was inconspicuous in the shade of a gnarled old yew tree and most folk rarely thought of his early morning presence. But not Amalric.
‘Hello, Father Wilfrid. It’s good to see you. I’m afraid I was too late out of bed yesterday to greet you.’
‘Nay, lad. Like you, I’d had a goodly portion of ale the evening before and found it hard to lift my head from my pillow. The pillow’s flat with age and my neck had neither the strength nor the will to lift my head from it in time for prayers. The poor verger had to see to the bell himself and, in fact, he looked no better than myself. We were there last evening as well and feel no better today. How are you feeling? Have you recovered after a day without ale?’
Amalric felt his face become hot. ‘I’m fine.’
The priest tutted and smiled. ‘It’s alright, lad, I like more than a single beaker of ale myself. You’ll soon be a man and will need to hold your drink and know when to stop. Hard times will come. You know you can always talk to me, don’t you? In or out of the confessional. After all, I’ve known you since you gushed into the world, bloody and screaming.’
‘Thank you, Father.’ Amalric wished he could fully remember the evening in the tavern. The priest’s sombre tone was perplexing and he was relieved when his voice took on a lighter edge.
‘Would you like a drink of Adam’s ale fresh from the well, to assuage your morning thirst? Water is no doubt best for you.’ He grinned mischievously then said more seriously, ‘Mind you, it tastes a bit tainted to me.’
Amalric laughed. ‘No, thank you, Father. I’d… I’d better get on. My da’s a bit indisposed, too, he’s not up yet and… there’s work to do and before that I have to help Mother with the pails.’
‘Alright, lad. Off you go. The soul’s enemy is idleness – as I believe St Benedict taught. And you may be wise not to drink; the taste really is poor.’
Amalric smiled his goodbye. He liked to chat to the priest each morning and afterwards watch him waddle down the path until the colour of his long cassock and the limestone walls became one in the shadows of the Saxon porch.
Amalric was grateful for the quiet that walking to the well offered. His thoughts amounted to contemplating his insecurities: the idea that life ahead seemed to be a blank, bleak, empty space; that his desire for romance and love would never be fulfilled; that his dreams of coloured windows would not come to fruition. Since his night in the tavern, his assured future as inheritor of his father’s glazier business had suddenly evaporated like a morning mist but why, he couldn’t remember. He felt afraid, of what, he didn’t know. Only the tiny bright green specks of stoic little early spring flowers seemed to indicate a positive future.
When he arrived at the well, his mother was nowhere to be seen. Feeling thirsty, he lowered the well’s pail deep down, raised it and scooped water into his hand, but it tasted foul. It was unusual. The water was well known for its purity. He tipped it away. The well had originated from a stream trickling out of the valley side. Long before present memory, it had been dug down deep to provide clean, sparkling water in even the worst drought. It probably accounted for the origin of the village. Now it was a deep hole, stone lined and topped with a superstructure of low stone walling and wood, and a flat wooden cover with a hinged section. Amalric hung his head far over the side. There was a foul stink. He looked around. Parts of a well-used pail lay on the ground, shattered into parts. No one had bothered to pick up the pieces for firewood. Under a bush in the nearby copse, he saw two wet, shiny, black objects. One seemed to be a dead bird, the other a large cat-like animal which spilled from a filthy log basket. Both wriggled with maggots and stank. Something had happened here. He looked further away and saw his mother and a couple of other women trudging towards the Manor House.
‘Mother, what happened at the well? Where are you going?’ Amalric asked when he caught up. His mother put down her pails. The other two women carried on.
‘To the manor travellers’ well. The water’ll be clear there. There was devil’s work at the village well.’ She spoke quickly with a raised voice.
Amalric recognised anger in her. ‘Devil’s work?’
‘Aye. And most of it Myrtle Ashe. The well top had been left open an’ a bird had got in, followed by a cat. Both drowned and rotted. The stench was horrible. We must thank the Lord a child had not fallen in. It took Ned with his father’s rope ladder to get ’em out. Caused a right to-do, it did. Myrtle stirred things up by saying the black animal was the devil in disguise an’ the bird its helper. Then she said it was somthin’ to do with pestilence. Well, you can imagine the commotion. Myrtle knew that word would stir things up. Some of the women went mad, throwin’ pails all about, screamin’. I tried to calm things – told ’em it was just a cat an’ a bird, the devil havin’ better things to do. But that Myrtle takes a situation and wrings evil out of it.’
Gundred stopped to take a long breath. Amalric understood her anger.
‘Come, son. Help me get water. I can get some for cleanin’ from the brook behind us but it’s got village waste in it an’ it’s not fit for drinkin’, so we’ll stock up at the manor travellers’ well.’
Amalric arrived at the workshop before Ned Tynel but soon heard the familiar whistle.
‘Mornin’, Master Amalric,’ Ned said as he opened the door, damp after a cursory wash and with a putrid aroma coming off his short tunic. ‘Cool again, int it? It’ll rain. The gardens still look waterlogged. Ma reckons that if the rain don’t stop for a day or two we’ll all die from a surfeit of water.’
‘Mornin’ Ned, you reek! And leave that flea-ridden beast outside.’ Amalric suspected that Samson had had a good sniff, if not a lick, at the black corpses at the well.
‘Aye. Sit there, Samson, outside the door, an’ wait.’ Samson obeyed. ‘I ’ad to go down the well,’ Ned said cheerfully, not realising that his young master knew. ‘Ma made me. A bird an’ a big rottin’ cat was in it. Mistress Ashe said it was the devil in disguise an’ we would rue the day we ignored it.’
Amalric curled his lips.
In the workshop, Ned began to dreamily pare excess wood off one of the crossbars. Amalric suspected that he would take off too much wood and when the hoped-for summer warmth dried it out, there would be rattles when the wind blew. But he hadn’t the will to say something about it; there had been enough conflict today already. He turned to his shepherd window for distraction. He ran his long, thin, grazed finger over the smooth glass surface and traced the lead strips, called cames, which held the coloured pieces of glass together. He put his finger to his nose. It smelled clean, fresh with a metallic tang. In reality, the window lacked the finer skills of a master but, despite that, Amalric was proud of it and grateful for his father’s confidence in him… or at least, he wanted to be.
It illustrated part of the Bible story that Father Wilfrid told every Christmas-time in the church and which the village folk enacted plays about. In it, a white angel hovered in a dark blue sky over two shepherds on a hill and pointed with one hand to a star in the sky and the other to the ground. The shepherds were being instructed to follow the star to find the Christ child, newly born and lying in a stable… but the hand pointing to the ground always bothered Amalric: it shouldn’t be like that. It should point to the shepherds as tradition dictated, the way it was painted on the church walls. But Amalric had been instructed to do it that way by Old Elias, his grandfather, who had been a member of the examining committee of the Glaziers’ Guild: a man who knew how to carve realistic faces on privy doors and make wonderful windows. How could the young Amalric disobey? Even his own father had approved the incongruity. Perversely, the old man had died soon afterwards. Amalric had worried that his chance of gaining his intermediate approval would be lost. However, the Guild had pronounced his window ‘good’, and granted him a pass. But the shame of passing despite creating something that was realistically wrong niggled at his pride and made him long to do something better… totally on his own. And what made it worse, Edwin taunted him, saying how surprised he was that his staid and boring elder brother had needed the help of an old man to pass.
An unexpected clicking of the door catch announced Amalric’s father.
‘I’ve decided to escape the women’s stern faces and join you in here, Am. I don’t know what’s happened up at the well but your mother’s in a reet dudgeon.’
He pulled his cloak tightly around himself and, ignoring Ned, joined his son in front of the coloured window. He put a hand on Amalric’s shoulder and with his other hand also traced a lead came, the one that surrounded the glass piece with the questionable drawing.
‘Eh, lad, your time’ll come. With them Scots and French seen off, there’s a chance for the country to settle at last. With you helping me, there might just be a chance to make some gradely windows for religious houses nearby.’
Amalric was not to be pacified. ‘Aye. But why did I have to do this window Grandfather’s way?’ One day, he would insert a new piece of glass with a repositioned hand.
‘Another time, lad. You’ve a lot to learn yet.’
The door clicked again. Berta popped her dark, curly head round the edge.
‘Ma says come to breakfast.’
Elias turned and Amalric saw his father’s face blanch as he looked at Berta. Something from his tavern evening stirred in Amalric’s memory yet again. He watched as his father stretched out a rough hand and tumbled his little daughter’s dark curls. She smiled and tugged at his jerkin.
‘Come on, Da. Ma’s got one of her angries on.’
‘Bless you, Berta, my grand little girl.’
‘Are you alright, Da?’ said Amalric. Something was wrong.
‘Aye, lad. Just lookin’ at Berta. She’s young, ain’t she?’
‘Yes, Da,’ said Amalric.