1408 Warren Horesby
The coming journey to York
Amalric Faceby settled in his chair. The age-loosened wooden joints shifted slightly, causing it to strain to one side, but he’d learnt to compensate and didn’t mind the familiar bother of it. He adjusted his position to correct the leaning and let the chair hold him with its arms and high back. He felt as one with it; like him, its legs were scarred with burns and it creaked the wear and tear of years. He sighed. Older than his allotted three score years and ten, he felt weary at the mere thought of the journey he was about to take. While it excited him for what he would finally see, it could not be the fulfilment of his dream.
He held his hands in front of the central fire and gazed into flames struggling to circumnavigate a log balanced precariously on a block of peat. The small flames lit up blemishes on his sinewy fingers, the result of handling glass for years. How long had it been, something more than seventy years of working with brittle, transparent colour? Now, bony nodules, stiffness and shaking had finally put paid to the work. The last time he looked in his workshop, it was cold and dusty.
Looking back, when he’d been an idealistic youth apprenticed to his father and excited about the possibilities of glazing with coloured glass, he was secure in this same house, with love and warmth. Then the Great Pestilence had stormed into his life. Loved ones could not be protected. It had changed almost everything he was familiar with.
Yet, despite the hard times, some things had carried him safely through the years: family, friends − and his dogs. Here beside him was one of them, the latest Noah. Amalric put his hand down to his side and felt a soft, silky ear. The dog’s head lifted and he licked the gnarled fingers. Amalric smiled, noting how growing flames intensified the colour of the smooth golden coat, which would soon become shaggy. The discovery of him a year ago slipped easily into Amalric’s memory.
He’d just buried his most recent dog near the churchyard gate, by the side of the huge yew tree. These days he couldn’t recall how many Noahs he’d buried there. Each dog had been so much like the others that they were now all one in his mind. They had been, he assumed, the progeny of Samson, whose master, Ned, the glazing workshop assistant, had been the first villager to die of the Great Pestilence. Samson had drowned in the mill pond, but not before fathering a pup in his image who had sauntered up to Amalric when the disease had retreated, demanding companionship. This had continued; when an old dog passed on, a new dog appeared looking for a master. Amalric had always obliged, naming each one Noah for simplicity – it meant rest, it was biblical – Noah a protector of animals and birds. A dog to keep away foxes and rats, a guardian of chickens. But the death of the last-but-one Noah had been different; no young dog had appeared. For one moon’s passing, Amalric had felt lost and abandoned.
He gazed now at the flames and recalled a certain orange/red sky that had enclosed him when out for an evening stroll. He’d stopped to lean on the church gate opposite his own home, alone, sadly watching the church stone walls change from cream to pale amber, then deep pink, and the flitting bats, like little angels in a hurry. It was then he’d heard a small whimper, otherworldly in the clear air. In the diminishing light, he followed it to a bed of blown leaves and dry grass under the great yew tree. He gently pushed the leaves away. The whimper came again. His heart was pounding – more so than usual, fearing a rat or some such would dart out. His back ached from bending. Then, the last of the sun glinted on two eyes looking up at him. Amalric recalled the effort to push additional leaves away with his hands. It became clear that below the autumn coverlet was a small, trembling bundle of ginger hair. Further behind was the still, slumped, fly-blown carcass of an adult female dog.
Amalric had ached for the little orphan. He scooped up the shivering form into his arms with a gentleness that surprised himself and was unexpectedly enveloped in a feeling of pure love; a warm sense of both giving and taking. He nuzzled his cheek to the little snout. A small piece of wet leaf was transferred from the pup’s nose to Amalric’s own. He rubbed his nose now and recalled the delicious feeling of the puppy’s softness on his flesh as he put him inside his tunic and under his undershirt. He had once done the same with a babe.
Amalric came out of his reverie. ‘Eh, lad. That were a year ago,’ he said, as if the dog had seen into his mind. He glanced around. Istrid was working at her household duties, moving in and out of the barn and the sleep room, both leading from the large room called ‘the house’. Her skirt was pushed into her belt so she could easily climb the ladder to the loft to collect things Amalric couldn’t see what. Even though all the shutters were open, the light didn’t penetrate all corners on such a grey autumnal day. He heard her mutter hopes for better weather for their journey. She descended, then climbed another ladder resting on a rafter above the fire where he sat.
‘No need to move, Da. I just need to get the ham. You’ll be safe there.’
Amalric wasn’t convinced as he visualised a black leg of pig plummeting onto his head.
‘Good, it’s well and truly smoked,’ she said as she descended. ‘At least, it should be, it’s been hanging over the fire for long enough. I’ll lop chunks off so it’ll see us through two to three days on the way to York, especially if we can buy bread on the way. It’ll be a slow journey.’ There was a thump as the joint landed on the table.
‘Now Da, before I carry on with preparing for our journey, I’ve to make food for today. I’ll sit by you and prepare some vegetables.’ She loosened her skirt from her belt. ‘You can tell me what you’ve been dreamin’ of just now.’
‘Oh, nothin’ much.’
‘That’s not true, Da. You’ve nearly let the fire go. Been back in the past again, have you? You’ve a grim look on your face.’
It was true – his dozing and dreaming, remembering times gone by, was his chief occupation these days. Amalric looked up at his daughter from his chair and watched her poke more life into the fire. ‘Well, lass, it was about Noah, but I would’ve got round to your mother, as I often do.’ A slight feeling of guilt nudged his thoughts. ‘I think I could’ve been a better husband.’
‘Nay, Da. She loved you.’
‘Aye. Well, it cheers me to remember our wedding day.’
Istrid took root vegetables from the table, secured them in her apron and lowered herself onto a stool by her father. She began to peel the rough skin off them ready for the pot. Amalric knew by her soft sigh she was humouring him, listening to a tale he’d told many times before.
‘Aye, reet pretty she was. I felt the luckiest of men. On our wedding day she had a fuzz of hawthorn blossom tucked into a plaited coronet of her lovely hair. The spring sun had lightened the ends to the colour of cream. I thought it was a shame that bein’ married she’d have to cover it.’
Istrid touched her own stiff wimple and Amalric noticed annoyance as she scratched her forehead at its rim. She’d spent most of her life without one, having married late.
‘Anyway, the berry juice she’d used to tint her cheeks was unnecessary,’ he went on. ‘She had a glow about her.’ Istrid forced her knife through the tough skin of a parsnip. He saw her mother in her thick arms and strong fingers and her determined facial expression softened by an upturn of nose and a splash of freckles. ‘You favour her.’ Amalric stared into the increasing flames. ‘She carried a bouquet of bluebells. There we were, standing in front of the east window, the one I’d made that gave me my Guild Master’s Certificate in coloured glass. I remember being distracted by the purple-blueness of the flowers and wishing I could find glass of the same colour.’
He clearly saw in his mind the church. Behind himself and Nesta stood his ginger-haired friend Thurston in his cleaned-up physician’s gown, and beside him Amalric’s sister, Matilde, cradling little Beatrix, their adopted daughter. Amalric had felt real joy at the union of his friend and sister after all their troubles of the Great Pestilence. As for his brother, Edwin – always remembered with a sinking feeling − it had been a source of regret that he hadn’t been at the ceremony, but that wasn’t unusual; he could only be relied upon to be unreliable when it came to family doings, usually claiming something important to do at the manor.
Amalric refocused his eyes on Istrid and forced a cheeky grin on his face. ‘Ee, I remember how I looked forward to the night to come…’
‘I know, Da, a crisp, clean bed and fresh herbs on the floor to be crushed by your bare feet and the dried lavender and sweet violets on the bed scattering as you fell onto it, clasped together.’
Amalric grinned mischievously at her.
‘So… there’s still passion in those old bones,’ smiled Istrid.
He felt his cheeky grin delight her, but his memories of Nesta were not all good. ‘Aye, thoughts of your mother still make my heart beat quicker.’
Istrid threw vegetables and the most tender peelings into the family pot for the ongoing stew and gathered the remaining peelings in her apron for the pig. A blast of cool air entered the room before she could dispose of them outside.
Beatrix stood in the doorway. ‘Hello, it’s just me.’
Just me! There was no just about it. Amalric felt a surge of love for his now ageing adopted niece. She was taller and slimmer than the stocky Istrid. She had married Amalric’s own firstborn child, Hendric, Istrid’s brother. They’d had twins: Ava, who he would see tomorrow with her daughter, Erika, and Asa who, like his father, practised physic but somewhere else in England.
He waved a welcome and noted her excited breathlessness.
‘I’ve just popped in to say we’re all set for tomorrow.’
‘Hey, now, Beatrix lass, I reckon that means you’ve sorted the glazier cart for the few days away? It’s stable enough. If you get me a few cushions I’ll manage reet well. It’s a pity these bad old legs of mine’d never cope on a horse.’
‘Well, Uncle, there’s good news. We’ve arranged a princely ride for you. Uncle Edwin has loaned us…’ she smiled broadly, ‘… he’s loaned us Clara’s litter with two horses. Istrid will mount the lead horse.’
Amalric was appalled. Borrowed from his brother! A litter! His wife, Clara’s, litter at that, given to her many years back as a wedding present by her father, Lord de Horesby. He knew almost for certain that it would still have old frippery about it. Clara had ever been a person inclined to daintiness. Her favourite mode of transport had probably lain untouched since she died. Added to which, Amalric didn’t like to feel beholden to his brother. Too much mud had been trampled underfoot over the years for feelings to be good between him and Edwin at this late stage.
‘Ee, lass, I’m not sure about that. It’s a bit – well – old, and probably still fancy.’
‘Oh, come, Uncle. You deserve a comfy ride.’
‘Aye, well, I’m used to the trundle of my old cart and don’t fancy the side to side of a litter. I might be sick. An’ you know how horses can stumble on rutted roads, and I could topple out.’
Undaunted, Beatrix carried on. ‘Now then, Uncle. Nothing of the sort. Your Istrid will make certain it’s comfy and safe for you.’
‘It’ll be overflowing with cushions.’ Istrid’s voice came from smoky shadows.
‘Aye, she’s a good lass, our Istrid,’ said Amalric, forcing himself to be resigned to the gifted litter. ‘Reet capable, like her mother.’
‘She’s repaired the old roof cover. It’ll be like a royal procession from Warren Horesby to York. All the villagers will be there to wave us off. Maybe even Uncle Edwin. He’s being kind.’
Amalric smiled cynically, recognising her goading with the mention of his brother to spark up his thoughts. It had almost become a joke. ‘Aye, reet kind. Now let our lass get my food.’
‘Very well, Uncle. Rest a while before it’s time for Istrid’s thick stew to land in your gut with the weight of a stone!’ Beatrix’s laughter spread through the house. Istrid playfully threw a peeling at her cousin. Amalric was warmed by their good-natured banter born of their different characters: Beatrix, the healer with a creative talent; Istrid, the practical carer and homemaker.
Amalric raised his palms to the central fire, felt the heat and gazed at revived flames.
Peat glowed. The smell, mixed with that of the stew, was intoxicating. His hand went down to his side where he found the soft ears of Noah.
1408 Warren Horesby
Start of the journey
An autumn sun shone through the gaps in the shutters. By the quality of light, Amalric knew a hoar frost would be covering the garden. He rose with a trembling anticipation in his chest.
‘I’m too old for such excitement,’ he said to Noah, as the dog stretched into wakefulness.
Thin drifts of smoke crept into the sleep room from Istrid’s early cooking fire, wafting over clothes laid out for him at the foot of the mattress: his best shirt, leather jerkin, woollen hose. His woollen surcoat hung from a nail. ‘What would I have done all these years without our lass, Istrid?’ he mumbled as he put the clothes on over flesh that had been bathed in warm, herbed water the evening before. He smoothed back his short, thin, white hair and rubbed his hand over his smooth chin, cropped with a specially purchased obsidian blade: volcanic glass, the sharpest, hardest glass he knew, with an impenetrable depth of dark colour.
He walked fully dressed, into the house. Thicker smoke gathered over the pot on the fire and swirled to the roof. Bread was on the table but Istrid was nowhere to be seen. He guessed she would be sorting things for travel. Almost without thinking he went to the front door, opened it and stood in the doorway. His cottage, the largest in the village of Warren Horesby, was the only home he had ever known. Almost every day of his lifetime he’d stood there and looked up, assessing the day’s weather. Weather mattered to a man of glass. Changing light could alter colour tones and the cold make fingers drop the precious material. Winds made the installation of a window hazardous. In this part of the country, they blew cold from the east beyond the sea thrashing the Holderness Plane, desiccating the soil or soddening it, and whipping bog water. From the west and north they blew rain clouds over the dip slopes of the Yorkshire Wolds. It was a delight when they blew more southerly from beyond the Humber Estuary and the marshes where the birds descended in their hundreds and the eels squirmed. Amalric’s work with coloured windows had largely been spent within these windswept boundaries.
He took his cap from a hook by the house door, then his fulled wool cloak and flung it over his shoulders. Istrid had done her best to disguise the fraying edges with fine stitching and it looked good. He then took his two walking sticks that leaned against the wall.
A slight, cool breeze rustled faded, frosted grass. The sky was pale blue with streaks of pink and gold. Distant hills were a warm grey. For him, life always had colour. Sometimes it hit his eye like a dart, sometimes, like this day, it settled on his eye like a feather.
Amalric walked stiffly across the rutted road with Noah padding behind. Warren Horesby’s small church stood resolutely planted in its own long history, while gates and fencing shut off its grounds to troublesome sheep, indicating its more recent past. Just inside this perimeter, the great ancient yew tree quivered slightly. He reached out to the leaves, some shiny and light green with new growth of the past summer, and some dark with old life. He ran his hand over them and felt the odd sensation of both an end and a beginning. In the graveyard beyond lay his family − some of them in the pestilence pits.
In slanting light, the zigzag carving of the Norman arch was in high relief; the porch behind it was untouched by sun and therefore dim; the venerable oak door was darker still. Amalric pushed against the weight of it, anticipating the metallic moan of the black hinges. Inside the church, he lowered his thin backside onto the cold stone ledge that ran around the Saxon nave. Noah, though tense with youth, settled on his master’s feet, warming them with gentle heat.
Amalric felt the mixture of balm and slight contempt that comes with familiarity, yet he was at home here. For some seventy-eight years he’d known this place. He’d even put his own mark on it with two coloured windows. He was, though, not entirely at peace with the once bright frescos that were mellowing into faded uncertainty after a hundred years − a jumble of figures telling the story of the Christian faith – the suffering and the triumph.
He turned his gaze to the west wall, the most recent to be painted and the brightest. It illustrated the Last Judgement – the end of the human story – an admonition to worshippers as they left the service, clearly depicting their fate if they failed to give up their wicked ways and repent. The fresco rose from the floor to the roof. It’s meaning had been horribly heightened when the Great Pestilence was approaching; it was then seen as a timely warning to curb excesses which might, the clergy believed, be the root cause of the disease. High above was a figure of Christ, and below, St Michael, weighing souls on scales, separating goodness from evil. The peasant was there with his dreary short tunic, the rich landowner in furs, the alewife with her apron and huge jug and even a glazier in leather apron and thick-soled boots for protection from glass. It amused Amalric to think it might have been inspired by his own great-grandfather. Bodies of the sinful were seen falling to hell on the left, while the righteous were being hauled up to heaven on the right.
This huge, grim portent of doom was meant to stay in the minds of the congregation, but conversely, the artist had introduced notes of comedy in many of the gestures of figures writhing towards hell, to the extent that hell seemed more interesting than a tedious heaven.
Such things had always confused Amalric. It was here that he had first become aware of life’s contradictions; what ought to be contrasting with what was. A long life had not made things clearer. Even his own favourite saint, King Edmund, on the north wall, had become more identified with the Great Pestilence than his death by Viking invaders, being painted semi-naked in his underhose, with arrows prophetically piercing where the great, angry buboes arose. The saint’s face showed no emotion in his agony: another contradiction.
‘Master Faceby!’ A priest had come through the door and was walking swiftly towards him, a new-looking pale-grey habit swishing about his legs, wafting the clean odour of a monk. He was youthful, stocky and lively. ‘I’m your new priest. Father Everard I’m named now. Here, my friend, let me take your arm lest you fall as you stand.’
Amalric was startled for a moment, but recovered. The face was familiar. Who was this new priest? ‘Same as the others, I expect,’ he thought, with dismay rather than malice.
‘I’ve been so busy settling in I’ve not had time to meet you again. I’ve met only your daughter as I passed your home. She’s a fine, capable woman. Not unlike my own mother was, of course. I believe you’re off to York today. I’m settled as a priest at Meaux Abbey but glad to be released to help the parish of Warren Horesby.’ He chatted rapidly. ‘In fact, I told your daughter of two nuns’ priories on the route. I hope you will find safety and comfort there overnight.’
Father Everard’s chat left Amalric slightly winded. Who was this man? His old mind struggled to identify him.
‘So, what were you doing in church?’ continued the priest as they left. ‘I see from the rushing about of the womenfolk over the road and the mounting sacks of journey provisions by the door that you should perhaps be there rather than here.’
‘Just revisiting the past, Father. I’m of an age when I want to stay in touch with it and remember those buried nearby.’
‘I understand. Come, I’ll see you safely home. I’m eager to hear your many stories, Master Faceby. I’ll look forward to your return. I regret I’ve not visited your home yet since I was last here.’ Father Everard pointed across the road and smiled wistfully. ‘Aye, your old home, looking almost part of the land. I remember the house room in the centre with the welcoming fire, the barn there to the left and your glazier workshop to the right with its glass window.’
Amalric wondered what on earth he was talking about. Last here? When? The question evaporated as Father Everard’s arm wrapped around him. He allowed the young priest to assist him across the narrow road back home as if he was incapable, and bent to rub Noah’s ear with a conspiratorial feeling of a shared jest. But it was true he had a lot of stories to tell.
‘Here we are, then, Master Amalric. Back home.’
He felt as if he was being spoken to like a child. ‘Thank you, Father Everard,’ he said sullenly.
Istrid rushed towards them with unnecessary, excited breathlessness. ‘Come on, Da, it’s time to have breakfast, then go.’ She almost dragged him inside.
‘I hope your journey will be a good one, and safe,’ Father Everard called through the doorway. ‘I hear that in many parts the trees have been cut back to prevent bandits from hiding close to the road edge. God speed.’ He stood as if thinking, then said, ‘The journey can be treacherous, and your party will be small… Mm… Soon, I need to go to the Cistercian monastery in York; there are new manuscripts I need to catch up with. I wonder if I could make the journey with you? The more of us the safer, don’t you agree? Yes… I could pack my bag and be with you as you reach the top of the village.’ His face was all smiles.
‘That would be wonderful,’ said Istrid, then turned to her father. ‘Break your fast quickly, Da.’
Full of food, Amalric emerged outside.
Istrid was brandishing a strip of home-woven cloth as if it was a garrotte. ‘Don’t forget your muffler. These lovely autumn mornings can turn chill later. You might need this sheep’s offerin’ to keep the cold off that thin neck of yours.’
Amalric was now certain that his life was being completely organised by others. Aggravation rose in his throat. He was usually tolerant of his daughter’s fussing but it was irking him today. ‘Thin neck! So what? Do you want to strangle me?’
Istrid ignored the outburst. ‘It’s new, Da. I wove it especially for this journey. See, I know your love of colours.’ Istrid draped the soft, thick cloth around him. The blues, greys, purple, yellow and green colours of Yorkshire moors made him smile despite his mood. He loved the heathers and gorse.
A sound diverted Istrid’s pampering. ‘Oh look, they’re coming,’ she said. A litter swayed down the road with a manor servant leading a horse harnessed to the front, with a second horse to the rear.
Amalric’s mouth gaped. ‘Nay, lass, this litter’s not fittin’.’ He sighed with dismay at the old frill-edged, fabric canopy which would hardly keep off rain, with ribbons of cloth at each corner and abundant colourful cushions beneath. He guessed Istrid had been at the manor the day before adding new finery to make it both comfortable and respectable. He saw her face fall and tried to make amends. ‘Well, it’s reet grand… but no one else in York’ll be so fancy.’
Istrid recovered. ‘Oh, they will. It’s a celebration day for York – and for you it’s really special.’ Her eyes glowed with love.
Ava followed the litter, driving the glazier cart packed with journey essentials – drink, food, bedding and changes of clothing. Her daughter, Erika, tripped at the side, trying to disguise her adolescent excitement with adult poise under a red velvet cloak. Beatrix came next on a small horse.
Istrid’s excitement got the better of her. ‘Oh, Da, doesn’t Beatrix look grand on the palfrey’ They both knew her new long, blue riding surcoat hid swollen knees. ‘And look at Ava! My, how elegantly that dark-grey wool shows off her figure. You’d never guess she’s in her middle years. Beatrix, Ava and Erika – mother, daughter and granddaughter, how well they look.’
Amalric felt a little sad that Istrid herself was dressed inelegantly in coarse-weave brown wool with a wide skirt suitable to straddle the lead horse of the litter.
Finally, mounted on a fine-looking horse, came George, Ava’s husband and Erika’s father. Neither Ava nor Erika paid him any heed. Amalric pushed down a feeling of distaste for him in his fashionable leather and multicoloured woollen clothing but managed a nod of his head.
Further sacks were added to the glazier cart, and with much excitement and laughter, Amalric was then heaved onto the litter and settled onto a bed-like softness of wool and feather cushions. He had not properly settled when George suddenly shouted ‘Ho!’ and the procession began to slowly heave into movement. The litter began to sway a little.
Amalric looked anxiously back at his home. A servant lass and an ageing glazing assistant stood in the doorway. Behind them both, shadowed by the low doorway, with his hands on their shoulders, was the big, rough man who was Istrid’s husband. The Faceby home was in good hands. Amalric’s anxiety transferred to the young dog who stood on the ground in front of them with his head tipped to one side, stepping from front foot to front foot, clearly not knowing what to do.
‘Here, Noah. Come boy,’ called Amalric. ‘Come and join us.’
‘No, Da, not today,’ said Istrid turning round in the saddle, clearly annoyed and refusing to stop. ‘He’ll have fleas! I don’t want fleas in all the cushions and blankets!’
‘Yes, today,’ said Amalric firmly. ‘My dogs have always been faithful to me, and after our trip, they’ll be known long after I’m gone.’
‘Da! Your mind is getting ever more addled. Who will remember your dogs?’ She made a show of being irritated by flapping her skirt as if to rid it already of fleas.
‘Wait and see.’
Beatrix, having heard, smiled at her uncle knowingly.
‘The dog deserves to be with me. See, I’ve treats in my pouch.’ Amalric pulled out a piece of dried meat. ‘Come, Noah. Come, boy.’ The dog trotted forward, wary of the horses, and leapt onto the litter, but was immediately unsettled by the softness. He padded unsteadily towards Amalric and gently took the titbit, swallowed and looked with eyes of joy at his master. It always surprised Amalric that dogs could gain such pleasure from a show of appreciation. He rubbed a velvety ear. It was soft and warm; the dog’s head leaned into the ecstasy of it, then he turned in a circle, padded a cushion and settled with a snuffling noise and his head on his master’s knees.