In the Vales of MerciabyMaxSebastian©
The tiny spiral staircase wound its narrow path ever upward through the southeast tower as the young man climbed steadily towards the high battlements. The steps had been worn by myriads of feet hurrying one way or the other, with grooves and shallow depressions in the stone testifying to the many years Ludlow Castle had stood there, looking through the sleepy hills, standing guard against the barbarians to the west.
It was a wonder the young man didn't stumble, so uneven were the steps, especially since he carried a hefty tray filled with cooked meats. But he had trodden these same stairs on countless occasions since he was a boy, and he knew every contour of every inch of that cold grey stone.
He was no soldier, however, and was no serving boy either, despite that great platter of sizzling flesh resting upon his shoulder. He was dressed well: soft leather shoes stitched to a point, stylish tunic with fine leggings and a long hooded cloak that could keep out all but the stormiest elements spoke of his nobility. His bloodline was as fine as his clothes: his ancestors were all from the finest families of Normandy, who had faced perilous odds to cross the sea and arrive here to claim the crown of England for the rightful representative of God the Almighty Himself, the wisest of kings, William, who was called 'The Conqueror'.
It gave him a little pride, of course, as did the sheer scale of the castle in which he lived: coming out onto the battlements now, he could see for miles and miles as the dying sun shed golden evening light over the beautiful folds of earth that rolled and reeled across the landscape for distances unfathomable. His Great-great-grandfather had built this mighty fortress, perched on the hilltop above the small village of Ludlow.
It had been built at a time when not only was there the barbarous Welsh to contend with, but also unfriendly locals. The Saxons in those days had been actively rebellious, still oblivious of the benefits the Normans were bringing to them. But now, in the days of the good king Henry, the second ruler of that name here, this side of the border was at peace. The Saxons had come to accept the new order of things.
"Master Thomas!" Out on the battlements, a huge soldier came towards him, the beaming smile plastered across a bearded face announcing his jubilation at what was being offered.
"I brought a little sustenance, Anthony, for you and your men," he said, and put the tray down on the stone walkway up next to the low wall running around the top of the great building. Smelling the meat in the still summer air, the other soldiers were drawn over to them, and were soon tucking into chicken, mutton and venison with grateful merriment.
It might have seemed to be a dereliction of duty, abandoning their posts at each side of the great roof, but the chance that they would miss something was very low. The Welsh hadn't attacked in Thomas' own living memory, since his father had crushed them in a famous battle. Since then, his father, the Baron, hadn't even called an army together for over twelve summers.
"The men are very grateful, my Lord," the soldier Anthony said. "So kind of you to forsake your place at the feast merely for our wretched selves."
Thomas smiled and perched himself on top of the wall. "Missing the feast is no loss to me," he said.
"Are you not supposed to be courting, young sir?" a mischievous grin spread across the wise old soldier's mouth.
"Supposed to," he sighed, "but the Lord Craven's daughters are not worth courting in all honesty. Like pigs snuffling in the woods, they are, seeking out my father's wealth through my hand in marriage."
Anthony sat next to the young man on the wall, both of their legs hanging over the edge as they looked out into the wilds of Wales. "One of these days, you'll have to accept someone," the knight said. He was, other than Brother Jonah, who had spent most of his life surrounded by books and manuscripts, the wisest person Thomas knew, and always someone to turn to in times of crisis.
"I still have some time on my side," Thomas said. "My parents don't seem too concerned that I'm not yet married. My mother tells me to make sure I choose a girl I could get to love."
"And your father?"
"My father tells me to make sure I choose someone I could take to bed."
Anthony chuckled, his laugh deep and hearty. "Your father is a great man."
"He used to be a great man," Thomas said, a trifle gloomy, "back in the days before his belly grew outwards and he came to love his wine cellar more than his people."
"You are lucky, though, Master Thomas," and Thomas knew Anthony spoke the truth. "If your father wasn't so wealthy and powerful, you could wager your life that you would be already married to whomever your parents could find quickest."
"I know, I know," he kicked his legs absently against the solid stone of the wall below, looking down towards the deep dark moat full of inky black water. "If my father had a small estate, he would no doubt have found me the ugliest girl in the kingdom, so long as her father was rich."
"Just don't try your father's patience for long, lad," Anthony patted him gently on the back. "He may be a cheerful old soul when there's a tankard of ale in his gut, but if you ever got to five and twenty summers old without a spouse, he might not be so merry."
"I know, I know," Thomas said, "but there's a fair while to go before then. I'm sure I'll be presented with someone suitable soon. I'd just rather wait for the right person – instead of doing what my father does if all the rumours are to be believed."
"Your mother's had it tough," Anthony admitted. "It would be folly for you to marry someone completely unsuitable, that is true enough. But you can't afford to wait long. Not if you want your line to be as successful as possible."
"My line will take care of itself," Thomas said, patting Anthony on the back now in reference to his fatherly concern. "Anyone would think you were nervous, Anthony!"
"Nervous would be underselling it, young Thomas. If your brother's line were ever to become lord here, I feel certain the estate would be in ruins within one lifetime."
"You worry too much," Thomas picked himself up and hopped down to the battlement walkway. "Richard will never gain these lands. My mother has seen to that."
"Don't knock your mother's efforts, master," Anthony was along side him as they wondered past the group of ravenous soldiers munching on the cooked meats. "She may be harbouring you from the wide world, but you'll be safely on you father's chair some day because of it."
"There's no need to cocoon me," Thomas complained. "You know, I've never ever been outside these Castle walls save for the few occasions my mother and myself visited Toby over at St Mark's."
"There's nothing much you've missed."
The sun was perched on the distant hills now, as though resting there on its deathbed, shedding its last golden rays over the countryside. One of the reasons Thomas had loved coming up here since boyhood had been to just sit and gaze out over the walls that virtually imprisoned him, wondering what it was like out there.
"I always wanted an adventure," he said as they slowly walked towards the North-West Tower. "To go out there and see the world, to explore those beautiful hills and valleys and swim in unknown brooks."
"Wait until you are Baron," said Anthony, "and you have your own strong brood of boys growing up ready to fill your place. Then you will find yourself able to take such risks."
"That will be years ahead, Anthony. I just can't wait that long."
They turned, eastwards away from the sun, to where they could see the mottled group of dwelling places where the villagers lived. Thirty or forty houses, it was fairly large as villages went, but that only spoke of the Baron Edward's wealth. There was sufficient manpower here to turn a tidy profit, even with the taxes they paid to the crown.
"You know, I often wish I was a Saxon down there," Thomas said.
"It's a hard life being a Saxon."
"At least you aren't cooped up day after day in a cold, smoky castle with nothing to look forward to but your next lesson from Brother Jonah."
"Brother Jonah is a wise man. The knowledge you are getting from him is thousands of times more than the knowledge all those Saxons have put together. You'd better head back to the feast, young master, else you'll be missed."
"You're right," he let out a sigh. "My mother will no doubt want me to kiss some more hands and try to find some good points in Lord Craven's daughters."
Thomas did not go back down to the feast, however. To say that he would be missed there would be quite wrong: no one would notice his disappearing act, since affairs were already coming to a close and the only ones who hadn't retired for the evening before now would be drunk and care-free.
On his way back down the steps, he stopped at a small door cut into the wall. It was a tiny door, with rusty fittings, but with he turned the handle, it opened. The doorway was too small for a soldier wearing a chain-mail hauberk, but Thomas was a slender young man wearing little but his tunic and cloak. He slid through the opening without trouble. Inside, the place was dark as he slipped through the doorway into his secret little world, where the only light came through the cracks and knotholes in the thin wooden floorboards.
This was where he came on feast nights, when the noblemen and women were preparing for bed. The door led to the rafters: it was a small door that had provided access to those craftsmen who had built the place all those years ago, allowing them to build a sturdy roof to keep out the heavy rain that occurred in these parts. The door had been all but sealed up after the construction of the place, until a certain bored young boy, Thomas, had found it.
He had been coming here for a few years now, at first when he'd taken to exploring every inch of the castle out of sheer frustration from not being permitted outside the castle gates, but of late he'd discovered a different pursuit.
Tip-toeing across the floorboards, he listened for the telltale signs of what he sought. The high-pitched giggle of a young noblewoman alerted him to the right location for the moment. He found the best position complete with a knothole in the oak floorboard and quietly lay down, placing his eye to nature's spy hole. What he saw gave him that warm feeling inside, something he'd discovered while much younger, when he had first looked in on the dormitories below. It was a feeling that he soon found to his liking.
Originally, naturally enough, it had been pure curiosity: he had been exploring as a boy and had noticed that he could see down into the dormitories, and when he heard the strange, joyous noises being produced, he had wanted to know what they were doing. When he had first witnessed a couple making love, his penis had become hard between his legs, in the same way that sometimes it had in dreams at night for completely inexplicable reasons.
Later, curiosity progressed to fascination. On Sundays, the sermon from the castle chaplain often laid out the perils of the seven deadly sins, and Thomas knew well enough that lust was one of them. Looking down into the dormitories had taught him just why lust was so enticing to men's minds, but in his own mind, this wasn't so much lust as education. While he spent time watching lords and ladies from all over England, he was learning many different ways to pleasure a woman.
Watching them, he had often wished that he was married to some of the women down there, who were actually quite attractive. It gave him some idea just how bad the girls his parents were trying to push him into accepting really were. It also made him realise just how wonderful it was hearing the sound of an aroused female, to see her wonderful reaction to a skilful lover and made him crave the ability to produce those same responses in a girl of his own.
With his eye to the hole, he could see down into a single section of the dormitories. The dormitories were an enormous great hall that ran all the way around the building, with a small space around each bed cordoned off by crimson drapes hanging from wooden poles. The beds were large, and the couple down below were taking full advantage of the duck feather mattress, and their passion had torn most of the linen bedclothes and fur bedspread away from the bed already.
He had watched many like this, learning from them, wishing he was taking part, but with someone he could choose for himself. And now, as always, he felt the familiar stiffness between his legs, pressing against the unforgiving floorboard beneath as he spied on the noble couple below.
The woman was a fairly typical Norman lady, with her hair fastened in an intricate braid and grey eyes glinting in the light of the candle that stood by the bedside. Despite having passed her two-decade mark, she was pretty, but she wouldn't be the kind of woman he'd marry because she was older than him. Still, she was desirable, no question about that.
While she was lying on her back, the nobleman was facing downwards, his muscle-bound body covering most of hers, his hands fastened over her breasts as he kissed her neck, his fingers coaxing her sensitive flesh, teasing her hardened nipples.
Thomas watched as the nobleman kissed his way down her smooth skin, around her curvaceous breasts and inwards to take her stiff little buds into his mouth one by one. She reacted favourably to this, emitting beautiful little groans as he fastened his lips over her nipples. But the nobleman soon continued with his journey over her sensual curves, his head moving over her stomach to reveal her delicately rounded breasts to Thomas' eyes. Up on that floorboard, Thomas couldn't help pressing his hips down, squeezing his hardness gently against the solid wood while longing for a girl of his own.
The noblewoman below placed her hands on the long brown hair of her husband as he slowly kissed his way beneath her navel, gently imploring him to continue downwards. Thomas knew what she wanted, what she was urging the nobleman to do, for he had seen it quite a few times. What many women seemed to like beyond all else was what Thomas was now seeing below in the flickering orange candlelight. The nobleman moved down between her legs.
At first, he calmly kissed down her pale inner thighs, and as she parted her legs, urging him to her most sensitive place. But while he teased her, planting soft little kisses down her slender thighs, Thomas had an unhindered view of her womanhood, that delicate pink flower nestled beneath a soft triangle of hair between her legs. It was magnificent, glistening in the flickering light, its soft petals open and ready, at last, to receive her husband's mouth, and though Thomas could not see it from his position, no doubt the husband's tongue, too.
In their drunkenness from the feast, neither of them worried about being overheard – most of the dormitory would have been able to hear as she cried out from the sheer pleasure of her man's mouth exploring her vagina – but then hardly any of the guests had yet left the feast, and those that had were doubtless enjoying the same kind of pursuits as this couple.
Thomas watched, his eyes hardly blinking as he paid attention to the nobleman's actions. In situations like this, he fervently wished he had a girl to explore himself in such a way, and sometimes wondered if it would actually be worth accepting one of his parents' offerings, just to be able to do as this man was doing. He knew that a rash decision would stick with him for the rest of his life, though, and that his choice shouldn't be rushed.
Oh, but what was it like? How did it feel to brush your lips over a woman's skin? What was it like teasing out a sultry moan by stroking her breasts? How did a woman taste when your mouth fastened over her pretty pink flower? His mind was full of questions, questions that could not be answered from hours watching others. One day, he would experience it for himself, he kept this thought foremost in his brain. One day he would make a woman scream like that, make her writhe and shudder.
For once, it wasn't the morning sunshine that woke Thomas up. It was still dark as he was startled into wakefulness, with only the slender orange flame of a bedside candle to reveal Gideon, his pageboy, who had shaken him out of his deep slumber.
"Master Thomas, your father sent me to wake you," the boy had a deeply apologetic expression on his young face.
Gideon was the son of a noble who lived two valleys away, and had been sent to Ludlow Castle to begin his journey to manhood and to the eventual training as a knight. This would have happened to Thomas, had his parents not been so timid about his security. He had often wished he could switch places with Gideon, so that he might one day become a squire, and then a brave knight. But Thomas' parents kept him within the walls of the castle, so that the line of inheritance would never be threatened.
"Whatever for?" Thomas replied, yawning as he rubbed the dust from his eyes. "And what's the old codger doing up at this time?"
"He was up to greet Lord Stokesay, sire," Gideon was already laying out some clothes for Thomas to put on. "He says you're to meet Lord Stokesay's daughter."
"Oh God," Thomas said, but did not move to dress just yet, "this does not sound good. Why's he not just organised a feast for the evening? Why do I have to meet her now?"
"I don't know, sire. But he says Lord Stokesay's daughter wishes to see you now, to discuss marriage. She's in the guest room."
"Damnation." Thomas slowly got out of bed, bowing to the inevitable. "Did you see what she looked like, Gideon? Did you get a look?"
"No sire, I was just told to fetch you…"
"Jesus wept," Thomas said, pausing before he put on his tunic. "My father said he'd never force my choice…I'll bet she's horrendous."
"The Baron was speaking with Lord Stokesay about some kind of allegiance."
"Then he's using me as bargaining power." Much to Gideon's obvious dismay, Thomas began to remove his clothing.
"Sire, you cannot decline your father's wishes…he'll be angry…"
"Gideon, I need your help," Thomas said, the flicker of an idea lighting up his blue eyes.
"Whatever I can do, sire, naturally."
"I want you to take off your clothes and wear these, so that I can wear those."
"Sire?" Gideon was confused. He wasn't the brightest of lads, though strong and steadfastly loyal. He'd make a good knight, and that was essentially all that mattered.
"You will go in my stead, Gideon."
"Sire…I'll be recognised…"
"Nonsense," Thomas said, standing naked as he held out the fine tunic as an indication. "You said yourself: you're to go straight to Lord Stokesay's daughter…what's her name, by the way?"
"Selena will no doubt be there to seduce me – well, you – and persuade me to agree to marry her. You can get to know her for me, know what I mean? Find out what she's like."
"If you wish, sire…"
"And if she's truly hideous, as I'll bet she is, you can try to disgust her to the point at which she'll have no interest in me whatsoever as a potential husband."
"What if I'm discovered?"
"Then you'll say it was all my idea. But trust me, Gideon, it won't fail."
Despite his assurances to Gideon, deep down Thomas was still very nervous about his deception. As the youth left Thomas' curtained enclosure to walk to another part of the dormitory where Baron Edward and Lord Stokesay had obviously readied Selena for a complete seduction, Thomas had butterflies fluttering around inside his stomach.
If the ploy was discovered, Thomas knew for a fact that he did not want to be around. Dressed in the faded brown clothes of a lowly page, he covered his head with the hood of his cloak and slipped down the spiral staircase in the northwest tower. He passed servants along the way down to the great entrance hall, and not one of them granted him the usual bow or curtsey of acknowledgement, so he knew he was safe for a while. It was down to Gideon to keep up the pretence.