Oxford, Winter 1353
It was snowing again. Alysoun danced in from the garden through the kitchen door, the hood of her capuchon sprinkled over like some costly sugar cake, her cheeks rosy with the cold.
‘Boots!’ said Margaret. ‘I do not scrub this floor only to have you bringing in half the snow in the garden to scatter across it.’
Alysoun stood poised on the threshold, her eyes sparkling with delight. Ah, to be a child again, when snow bound winters did not mean worry about a good supply of logs, and the prospect of the well freezing, but only delight in a world transformed into a magical realm, frosted white as some delicate confection on the king’s table.
‘Come and see!’ she pleaded.
Rafe ran for his thick winter cloak and capuchon.
‘Boots!’ Margaret cried again, this time catching Rafe in time to put them on.
I smiled at her. ‘Let them play,’ I said. ‘Best to send them outside while we can, for we may be held fast withindoors before long.’
I fetched my own cloak and hood from the hook in the passage beside the door to Margaret’s stillroom.
As I followed Rafe out to the garden, Margaret raised her eyebrows at me.
‘I am going to see that all is ready in the stable,’ I said.
Fortunately, before the first of the snowfall, the carpenter and his boy had started work building my small stable at the end of the narrow alleyway running down the side of the building which housed both my shop and our home. The roof had been completed the day before the snow began, and for the last two days they had been able to work inside, completing the stall and manger. As dusk was closing in yesterday evening, they had arrived at the door, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers against the cold, to receive their purse of coin for the work, with a little extra in thanks, to buy a hot meal at Tackley’s Inn before they went home.
It had been too dark last night to see the completed stable, so now I tramped my way out through nearly a foot of snow to admire it by daylight. Although small, it could hold two horses, should I ever become rich enough to maintain them, and it was sturdily built, with an oak frame and lath and plaster in-fill. Unlike the house, which was tiled, it had a roof of wooden shingles, but in the summer I would have it thatched, for greater warmth. I opened the door and breathed in the heady scent of new cut timber. I had insisted on oak within, as well as without. It was more costly than a softer wood, but stronger and longer lasting.
I felt a glow of pleasure as I looked around. I had not possessed a stable since leaving my father’s farm at Leighton-under-Wychwood more than eleven years before, and I realised how much I had missed the sweet scent of hay and horse. I had both straw and hay stored ready in the shed where I kept tools for the garden, and I began to carry them to the stable now. Alysoun and Rafe helped with the first load, but soon grew tired of it, and resumed building a snow castle near the hen house. The hens, with more sense than the children, had chosen to stay inside and take their feed from an old tin dish instead of scratching about on the icy ground.
It took me four trips to move all the hay and straw, even using my new small handcart, but it was satisfying to see the straw stored to one side of the stable and the hay piled up on the low half loft. I strewed straw on the dirt floor of the stall – deeply, for the earth below was solid frozen – and I piled the manger with hay. When I filled a bucket from the well, I was relieved to find that there was no sign of it freezing yet.
‘Come and see!’ Rafe tugged at my arm as I emerged from the stable, my preparations complete. ‘Our castle is finished.’
‘It is very fine,’ I said, solemnly admiring a round keep, correctly built on a raised mound of packed snow to represent the motte. ‘Do you plan to build a curtain wall? Else the enemy may find it too easy to attack.’
‘I was going to build a wall,’ Alysoun conceded, ‘but my hands are like to freeze!’ She held them up, clad in sodden woollen mittens which Margaret had knitted only the previous week.
‘I’ll help you,’ I said, ‘then it will soon be done.’
I knelt in the snow and began packing together a ridge of snow around the keep, and the children joined me enthusiastically, forgetting their cold hands. Unfortunately, the spaniel puppy Rowan was eager to help, and must needs be kept away before she knocked everything down, castle, wall, motte, and all. She was a full nine months old now, but showed no signs of maturity yet.
‘There,’ I said, sitting back on my heels. ‘Done.’
‘Nay.’ Alysoun shook her head. ‘We must have a gatehouse, you know. Else how can the people in the castle come and go?’
‘Very well,’ I said, somewhat reluctantly, for I was growing very cold myself now. ‘We will build a gatehouse. Then who wants to come with me to the Mitre?’
This proved to be the solution to building a very simple gatehouse, then we all rushed back into the kitchen, removing our boots before Margaret could chastise us.
While the children hunted for dry mittens and capuchons, and warmed their cold hands and feet near the kitchen fire, I went through to the shop, where Walter and Roger were working. I had set a brazier burning here before they arrived early in the morning, for no scrivener can work with cold hands, and they had been obliged to light a candle each, for although the reflection off the snow threw light into the back of the house, despite the overcast sky, here facing the street the window was too overshadowed by the buildings of the High to benefit much from this mirrored snow light.
‘No customers?’ I said, opening my strong box, and counting out the money I needed.
Walter shook his head. He removed his spectacles, letting them dangle from his ears by the loops of ribbon, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘Never a soul. All the students gone home for Christmas, of course, and most of the townsfolk are keeping warm at home. I doubt we’ll see anyone today.’
‘All the better for getting on with our work,’ Roger said, without looking up.
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘I shall be glad to see nothing of Lady Amilia, for I’ve scarce made a start on finding the songs for her book. The snow may be thanked for keeping her at their country manor.’
The children appeared, warmly dressed again, carrying their boots, and each carrying one of mine. We put them on.
‘We are off to the Mitre,’ I said.
The two men grinned at each other, but said nothing. I knew they thought this was a piece of folly on my part, but I had worked out the figures three times over and reckoned I would be no worse off, and perhaps even a little better.
As the children and I stepped outside into the High Street, we were met by a biting wind in our faces. The snow was heavier now, and the wind tore down the street, unimpeded by walls, as it had been in the garden.
‘Take my hands,’ I said, ‘so we may hold each other up. The cobbles will be slippery under the snow.’
‘Rafe could not hold you up, Papa,’ Alysoun said scornfully.
‘I could!’ he protested. ‘And I am getting stronger all the time. Someday,’ he added, with satisfaction, ‘I shall be much bigger and stronger than you!’
‘Not for years!’
They continued to bicker mildly, but fortunately the walk to the Mitre was quite short, and we stumbled along, heads down against the slap of wind and snow in our faces. Once at the inn, we made our way round to the stableyard and sought the head ostler, who was crouched over the logs in the tack room fireplace, stirring spiced ale warming on a trivet.
‘Ah, Maister Elyot,’ he said, ‘come for yer horse, have ye? He’s ready and tacked up.’ He rose from his stool, leaving the fire with some reluctance. I handed him the purse, and he counted out the coins carefully, then nodded.
‘All fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll hand it to the maister. He said as how I was to deal with all.’ He gave a sharp bark of laughter. ‘Has no wish to leave his fireside, not he!’
We followed him out into the snow of the yard, and then into the stable, where Rufus had his head over the half door of his stall, thoughtfully chewing on his bit. The saddle and bridle were somewhat old and worn from his use as a hired hack, but I had bought them along with the horse, seeing no need to invest in new, while these were still serviceable.
‘I’ve given him a blanket under the saddle,’ the ostler said, ‘for the cold. ’Tis but an old one. Keep it.’
He slid back the bolt on the door and led the gelding out, his hoofs ringing on the cobbled floor of the stable, then softened to a muffled thud in the snow of the yard. He would not be reckoned a gentleman’s horse, but I had found him strong and willing, able to go at a steady pace for hours without tiring, while a more costly animal would have looked handsome over a short gallop, but would flag and tire on any longer ride.
‘What do you think of him?’ I asked the children.
Alysoun glowed with pride, at the thought of possessing our own horse.
‘He’s very handsome, Rufus. Do you think he will like his new stable?’
‘I am sure he will.’
‘I hope he may not miss his friends,’ Rafe said anxiously, looking at the ostler.
The man smiled at him. ‘No need to fear, my young maister. Ye can always bring him a-visiting, for ye live but a pace along the street.’ He winked at me. ‘And he will have ye as a new friend, surely?’
Rafe reached up and patted Rufus’s shoulder. ‘I’ll give him an apple when we are home.’
‘And who is going to ride him there?’ the ostler asked.
‘The children,’ I said.
I lifted Alysoun up into the saddle, then set Rafe on the horse’s withers in front of her.
‘Put your arms around Rafe’s waist, Alysoun, that he may not slip.’
I shortened the stirrups as far as they would go, and she was able to poke the toes of her boots through the leathers, then I gripped the reins close under the horse’s chin and led him out into the street, raising my hand in farewell to the ostler as he turned and hurried to carry the purse into the warmth of the inn.
Walking back to the shop was not as trying as the outward journey, for the wind was now at our backs, although the snow was inclined to swirl about and insinuate itself under the edge of my hood and down my neck.
‘All well, my pet?’ I said, though I had to raise my voice, lest the wind carry it away.
‘Aye,’ Alysoun said. ‘He is a very tall horse, isn’t he?’
She could ride a little, although she had only ridden ponies by herself. She had once ridden Rufus with me, but had soon fallen asleep.
‘And you, Rafe?’
He merely grinned. He had a firm grip of the mane, and his short legs stuck out on either side of the horse’s shoulders.
Back at the shop, I paused for a moment beside the door, so that Walter and Roger could admire the young riders, but we did not linger, because of the cold, then we made our way down the side alleyway. I wished that I had thought to clear it, for in places the wind had blown the snow into drifts which overtopped my boots and soaked my hose.
The new stable was a warm refuge after the snow and wind, even Rufus seemed to appreciate it. He cast a calm eye around the unfamiliar place, but by all appearances was happy to accept it, for in his work as a hired hack from the Mitre he had known many strange stables. Once I had helped the children down, I showed them how to remove the saddle and bridle and hang them high on pegs in the wall, out of reach of any rats who might take a fancy to chewing the leather. Although any rat of sense would be tucked away warmly in this weather.
‘We will give Rufus a quick brush down,’ I said, ‘for he hasn’t come far, but after a long journey you must make a better hand of it. Then we’ll put his blanket on again, and another I have here, before we leave him to settle in his new home.’
The second blanket was an old one from my bed, which Margaret had reshaped and fitted with buckled straps. Rufus seemed glad of the extra warmth. I checked his hoofs for any hard lumps of snow and ice, then we left him in his new stall, after Rafe had run to fetch him an apple. My only worry was that, alone in my stable, Rufus would not have the heat of the other horses to mitigate the cold.
As we were obediently removing our boots at the door, I saw that Jordain had arrived and was making up the kitchen fire for Margaret. No one was left at Hart Hall over the Christmas season, save for Jordain and his cook, now that the students had gone home to their families. Mistrusting how well Jordain might be fed, and knowing the poor fare the cook produced even in term time, Margaret had given him strict orders to take the midday dinner with us each day. Jordain had demurred at first, out of mere politeness, but it had not needed much to persuade him.
‘So-ho!’ he said. ‘You are now a knight errant, Nicholas, possessed of a mighty steed! When shall you be off on some quest, like King Arthur’s men of old?’
Alysoun took his hand and swung on it. ‘Do not be foolish, Uncle Jordain,’ she said severely. ‘Papa has no armour.’
‘Then he must find a great lady to make him her knight, and provide the armour.’ Jordain gave me a knowing smile.
‘That is enough foolishness,’ I said with dignity, draping our wet cloaks and hoods over stools near the fire to dry. ‘Rufus is a good working horse, and no more. It will suit me better to have my own mount, instead of constantly hiring from the Mitre, and never sure what they will provide for me. He’s still quite a young fellow and should serve me well for some years.’
‘I was against it, at first,’ Margaret admitted, ‘but Nicholas has shown me the figures. There was the cost of the stable, of course, but the horse’s keep will come to less than his hire, now that more of our customers live beyond Oxford. Even if they visit the shop to place their orders, Nicholas often needs to ride some miles to deliver their books when they are ready, or even to discuss the finer points. Lady Amilia, for example, lives a good ten miles away when they are not at their house in Oxford, and she is one of his regular customers.’
‘Building up an extensive library,’ I said, lifting the heavy stew pot on to the table, where it rested on a couple of roof tiles, to spare the wood.
Jordain brought the bread and breadknife, and pulled up a stool.
‘And how is her book of troubadour songs progressing? he asked.
I rolled my eyes. ‘Not well. So far I have but three songs complete with words and music, one set of words with no music, and one possible tune with no words.’
‘They will need to be writ very large, then, to fill a book.’
Jordain grinned. He knew that the book of troubadour songs had been a worry to me ever since Lady Amilia has commissioned it.
‘Alysoun,’ Margaret said, ‘run and fetch Walter and Roger. Tell them dinner is on the table.’
Ever since the weather had turned really cold, Margaret had invited the two scriveners to share our midday meal, instead of tramping through the snow to Tackley’s Inn, where they usually ate. Walter had said that they should give up some of their wages in return, but I had told him to keep his coin.
‘We had a good crop of vegetables this year,’ I said. ‘And with a little bacon or dried mutton, Margaret can make a potage go a long way. Or with smoked or salted fish on meatless days. You will not be depriving us.’
Roger, I noticed, looked relieved. He had said nothing, but I thought he was saving what money he could. I suspected there might be a girl in the case.
Alysoun came running back from the shop, with news in her face.
She was followed by three men, not two.
‘Peter Winchingham!’ I exclaimed, jumping up from the table. ‘You have returned from Bruges!’
‘You come most aptly, Master Winchingham,’ said Margaret calmly, ‘for we are about to dine.’
I noticed that she did not order him to remove his snowy boots and smiled to myself, then helped him out of his cloak and capuchon, and put them with the others near the fire.
‘Nay,’ he said, ‘I do not come greedily to your table, Mistress Makepeace, but – I beg your pardon – I thought we had agreed to dispense with formality?’
She gave a slight smile. ‘Very well, Peter, but you cannot come in out of the snow and turn up that nose of yours, rosy from the cold, at the sight and smell of my very good potage.’
He rubbed his nose thoughtfully. ‘Aye, ’tis almost turned to ice. And I would never refuse any meal cooked by you, Margaret, but – see – you have already a full table.’
‘One more cannot hurt,’ she said briskly. ‘Nicholas, fetch a chair from the parlour.’
I did as I was bid, and wasted no time about it, for we did not normally light a fire in the parlour in such cold weather, living instead entirely in the kitchen. The chair itself was cold to the touch.
We arranged ourselves around the table, some on stools and some on chairs, then I spoke a blessing over the meal and ladled out the thick potage into bowls, while Margaret sliced the bread. Once the first hunger pangs were satisfied, Peter sat back contentedly and nibbled a little of the bread.
‘Excellent, as usual,’ he said. ‘You cannot buy bread of this quality in Bruges.’ Then, picking up what I had said earlier, he continued.
‘Aye, I am back now from Bruges, Nicholas. My elder son safely married and settled with his wife in my old house there. We reached Leighton-under-Wychwood a little over a week ago.’
‘You have brought your other children with you?’ Margaret asked.
‘Aye, my daughter Birgit, who is sixteen, and my younger son, Hans. He is but fifteen, but he is a big lad, and looks older. We took ship to Norwich, and hired a carriage for the journey into Oxfordshire, with three carts for our household goods! I had thought to travel lightly, but my daughter could not bring herself to leave behind her favourite pieces of furniture or her lute or her gowns and books. As for my son, there was all his hunting gear to bring. I persuaded him to leave his horse behind, thinking it a cruel journey by sea for a horse at this time of year. He will send for him in the spring.’
He laughed. ‘I must confess to three chests of books myself. We did not travel light.’
‘My father owns a horse now,’ Alysoun said, with assumed carelessness.
Jordain hid his smile behind his hand.
‘Indeed?’ Peter turned to me.
‘No mount of fine bloodstock,’ I said. ‘’Tis the gelding I was forever hiring from the Mitre. I resolved to save money by buying him outright.’
‘And how do you find Leighton Manor,’ Margaret asked, ‘now that you are living there?’
‘Sound and comfortable enough,’ Peter said, ‘but there is work to be done, of course. Birgit does not care for the flamboyance of the last owner’s fripperies, which have come to us along with the house. She is all for changing everything, but the season will not permit. She must content herself with bundling away the worst until we may hire in new workmen in the spring.’
‘I am sure you will find the manor servants and men from the village will be able to undertake most of what you may need,’ I said. ‘I think Gilbert Morden had all the structural work done before he moved there. In the de Veres’ time it was a beautiful house.’
‘Aye.’ A dreamy look came over Margaret’s face. ‘I remember it when I was a young girl. I used to think then that it was the most perfect home.’
‘I hope to make it that way again.’ Peter smiled at her. ‘I hope you will be able to help Birgit restore it to what it once was.’
‘Well, whenever we are next in Leighton . . .’
‘And that is one reason I have come to call. I had some business in Oxford, and your cousin Edmond asked me to bring you a message.’
Margaret and I both looked at him somewhat apprehensively. Our mother had been growing frail in recent months and uncertainty hung over her plan to come to Oxford for the Christmas season. In the autumn it had seemed possible, but the early heavy snow had raised doubts in my mind about her making the journey. I had intended to send word with Geoffrey Carter when next he was in Oxford, advising her against coming.
‘Our mother?’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Your cousin thinks it impossible for her to travel through this weather, even if you fetched her in a covered cart, but she is most anxious to see you all. She fears that it may be the last time, though who knows how God will dispose? Instead, he begs you to bring your family to Leighton for the Christmas season. And,’ he inclined his head to Jordain, ‘extends the invitation to the friends who came for the harvest. I am hoping very much for myself that you will come, to help us celebrate our first Christmas at Leighton with a fine crowd of good friends.’
Once again, Margaret and I exchanged looks, and she gave me a slight nod. Alysoun was bouncing up and down on her stool, and Rafe was grinning broadly.
‘Christmas at Leighton!’ Alysoun cried. Then her face fell. ‘But Juliana and Emma were to spend Christmas with us here in Oxford.’
The same thought had crossed my own mind.
‘Some of our autumn party cannot come,’ I said. ‘Philip Olney, Beatrice, and Stephen have already gone to his father’s manor for the festivities. Away from Oxford with its prying eyes, Beatrice may live without censure as his wife. They are not likely to return until the beginning of the Oxford term.’
Alysoun tugged at my sleeve. ‘But Juliana and Emma?’
‘I do not know, my pet. Mistress Farringdon may not wish to make such a cold winter journey. And Cousin Edmond has invited those who helped with the harvest.’
‘But see!’ she said cunningly. ‘Without Master Olney’s family, and Uncle Jordain’s two students, we shall be five fewer. And Mistress Farringdon and Juliana and Emma and Maysant are but four!’
‘Your reckoning is excellent,’ I said dryly, ‘but we cannot make plans for other folk.’
‘If there is lack of room at your farm,’ Peter said, ‘the manor has an abundance of chambers. There will be no problem with lodgings, should Mistress Farringdon wish to come.’
‘I am loath to spoil their Christmas,’ I said, torn two ways. I could not gainsay my mother’s wish to see the family, but we had also made promises to Mistress Farringdon and the girls.
‘I shall speak to Maud Farringdon.’ Margaret said briskly. ‘She is a country woman herself. Likely she will be happy to celebrate a country Christmas. As for the cold journey, if I can endure it, I am sure so may she. Leave the matter in my hands.’
I nodded. I was relieved to do so. I had been anticipating a joyful Christmas here in Oxford, after fetching my mother from Leighton, but I had been as worried as Edmond when the weather had turned so cold as early as it had. Yet I did not want to lose Emma’s company during one of the happiest times of the year. Margaret, I suspect, would make a better hand of rearranging our plans than I should do.
Dinner over and the scriveners returned to work, Peter Winchingham donned his cloak and capuchon again, saying that he must see to his business in the town before spending the night at the Mitre.
‘I shall set off for home at first light tomorrow,’ he said, as I saw him through the shop and into the High, where the winter light was already seeping from the sky. ‘Do you think you will have word for me by then, how many will come to Leighton?’
Jordain had already happily accepted, for he always spent Christmas with us. He had lost all his family in the Great Pestilence, save for one sister who was married and living in Canterbury, too far to travel in winter. Before leaving to work on his lectures for the following term, he had bid Peter farewell until they should see each other in Leighton.
Margaret, coming up behind us, had heard Peter’s words.
‘I am going now to St Mildred Street to speak to Maud,’ she said. ‘I shall have your answer before you leave, Peter.’
She set off up the High, clutching her hood close about her face against the wind.
‘I remember me,’ Peter said, as he too turned to go. ‘I have another inducement for you to come to Leighton. I think I may have told you that Birgit is a great lover of music. Before we left Bruges, she heard a group of musicians play at a friend’s house, three of them, brother and sister, and the sister’s husband. We engaged them for several evenings ourselves. She has employed them to entertain us over the Christmas period. They had another engagement, so could not travel with us, but they should be here within a week or so. They follow the troubadour tradition. You may mine their repertoire for your book of troubadour songs.’
I grinned at him. ‘That is inducement indeed, though I needed it not to persuade me to Leighton! If I can secure their help, it could save me a great deal of worry over a book I thought I might never be able to complete.’
He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘I hope to see you in the morning, then. And it would be good to see Mistress Farringdon and her family again. I may hope that they agree to come.’
‘And I,’ I said, perhaps more fervently than I intended.
Margaret was an unconscionable time returning home. I spent the afternoon in the shop, first sorting through the student peciae which had fallen into disorder during the last weeks of term. Those that needed mending I set to one side. A few that were past saving, I gave to Roger so that he might make new copies whenever he was not engaged on more profitable work, preparing another copy of the book of tales he had assembled earlier in the year. It was proving popular, for as soon as he completed one copy, it found an eager purchaser. Once the peciae had been sorted, I sat down with Walter to go through the collection he had been making of the stories his mother used to tell when he was a child. He was still nervous and hesitant about handing them over to Emma, so that she could make of them a beautifully illustrated book.
‘I do not know, Nicholas,’ he said doubtfully, fingering the pages of his rough drafts, with all their crossings out and amendments. ‘They are not the grand tales to be found in true books. These are no more than a simple goodwife’s old stories told to her family by firelight. The language is too plain and simple, and even those with a moral do not have the high literary tone.’ He peered at me anxiously over the wooden frame of his spectacles.
‘You have spent too much of your time copying university texts, Walter,’ I said. ‘Those are meant for study and deep thought, for disputation and analysis. Stories by the fireside are what many people truly want. Especially in the dark years since the Great Pestilence. They crave a return to the simple days of their childhood, to the stories told to them by grandam or nurse.’
I paused, thinking about it myself properly for the first time.
‘Ever since those black days, we have all been groping our way forward into a changed world. With half the people of England struck down with the Pestilence and gone, it is difficult to foresee our future. Before . . . well, I suppose we all thought life would continue as it had done in our fathers’ time, and our fathers’ fathers’ time, and back through the ages. We are lost now on a sea of uncertainty, however much we try to live our everyday lives as if the times had not changed. Your mother’s old stories are a link to a past we have lost but do not want to relinquish.’
His head was lowered, as he stared down at the blotted pages.
‘Do you agree?’ I said.
‘Aye.’ He nodded slowly. ‘I suppose you have the right of it.’
He shook himself. ‘I will try to put aside my misgivings. But do you go through them once more with me. I have made some changes since you read them last.’
I fetched more candles, for it was growing dark early, the heavy layer of cloud blotting out any lingering scrap of daylight. Some of Walter’s new amendments were good, but many were mere tinkerings. I saw that in the end I should need to take away his manuscript by force, or he would never cease changing a word here, a sentence there.
‘I think this is ready to pass over to the lady Emma now,’ I said firmly, when we had read through every alteration. Roger was already tidying away his work for the day.
‘I have thought of one more story to add,’ Walter said eagerly.
I laughed. ‘Just one more? Very well. Three more days. Then, will-ye or nill-ye, I shall take your manuscript to the lady Emma, that she may start work. She has been fretting about it.’
What Emma had said to me was that she could not bear to look at the new desk I had had made for her, with no work to be done on it.
‘I am away then, Master Elyot,’ Roger said, donning his patched cloak.
He could afford a new one, I was sure, had he not been hoarding his coin.
‘Watch your feet,’ I said. ‘’Twas slippery enough this morning, with the spare bit of sun on the street. With the dark fallen, ’twill be worse.’
‘Aye, I’ll mind how I go,’ he said.
‘Wait you a minute,’ Walter said. ‘We’ll take a sup of hippocras at Tackley’s before going home. It will warm us for the walk.’
‘Three days!’ I called, as they were closing the door. ‘Mind, I mean it!’
Leaving one candle burning in the shop to light Margaret in when she came at last, I went through to the house. During the afternoon I had checked on the children from time to time, but they had been playing contentedly with some figures Margaret had helped them make in hard baked dough – rough models of people and animals. I had given them some dribbles of old inks which had become too grainy to use, and they had spent a happy time painting them in unlikely colours. I saw, with some guilt, that there were smears on the table as well as on their hands and faces, and sent them to wash, while I put the playthings on the hearth to dry and fetched the solvent we use in cases of disaster with a manuscript. The table was free of paint – although suspiciously shiny in patches – when Margaret came in, shuddering with the cold.
‘I thought you had taken a fancy to walk to Leighton,’ I said mildly, ‘without waiting for the rest of us.’
‘I called in on Mary Coomber first,’ she said, sitting in her cushioned chair by the fire and holding out her feet in their sodden hose to the fire, where they began to steam. Had I done that, she would have warned me about chilblains, but I kept my tongue behind my teeth.
‘I wanted to be sure she could feed our hens, if we are to go to Leighton.’
I fetched an old bucket and poured in some bran and bruised oats, before adding hot water from the pot sitting by the fire.
‘Spoiling that horse already, are you?’ she said.
‘’Tis his first night away from the warmth of the other horses in the Mitre’s stable,’ I said. ‘And a bitter night. I reckon it will do him good.’
Before I could ask how she had fared with Maud Farringdon, the children came clattering down the stairs, eager to show Margaret the painting of their models. Only when these had been duly admired, could I ask my casual question.
‘And what says Maud to the suggestion that they should come with us to Leighton?’ I asked. ‘I mislike breaking our word that they should spend their Christmas with us here in Oxford.’
‘She is not quite sure, Nicholas. Maysant has a winter rheum and a cough. She is not well enough to make a cold winter’s journey.’
I felt a sharp stab of disappointment. Maysant, Maud’s grandchild, was about the same age as Rafe, and had lost both her parents in the Pestilence, as I had lost Rafe’s mother. Unlike Rafe, she was small and delicate. It would certainly not be safe for her to travel if she was ill.
‘So they will not come?’
‘I told her we should not leave for a week at least. Mayhap the child will have recovered by then. While I was there I stepped round to the apothecary’s in Northgate Street, to fetch the herbs and roots for my chest rub and for the infusion for Maysant to inhale. We made them up together and physicked the child. She was looking better by the time I left.’
She drew back her feet from the fire, and spread out her wet skirts to the warmth.
‘Then I stopped at the dairy again. Now that Maud has a few hens of her own, they will need to be fed as well. Mary was kind enough to say she would see to it, when she is taking her milk round the town. If the Farringdons decide to come with us.’
‘Oh, I do hope Maysant will be better!’ Alysoun said. ‘Then we can all go to Leighton together.’
‘Aye,’ Margaret said dryly, ‘and a fine company we should be. Have you thought on it, Nicholas? A gaggle of women and children? You and Jordain will be our only menfolk.’
‘And me,’ Rafe said indignantly.
Margaret was right. When we had travelled to Leighton in the autumn, as well as Jordain and me there had been Philip Olney and Jordain’s two students, all mounted. A sizeable company, enough to deter casual footpads. This time I alone would be mounted, and Jordain would drive the cart, with Margaret’s assistance. In these troubled times, the roads were not always safe. Would the bad weather deter any masterless men prowling on the lookout for travellers to rob? Or would their misery and hunger drive them all the more readily to attack?
‘I am sure we will be safe,’ I said, with more conviction than I felt. ‘Besides, it will make little difference in that case, whether the Farringdons come or not.’
I gave a final stir to the warm bran and oats. It had cooled enough to take out to the horse.
In the stable, Rufus sniffed the bucket with interest, then plunged in as I held it steady. While he gobbled the mixture enthusiastically, I laid my other hand on his shoulder, feeling the ripple of muscles under the skin. I could hardly believe that I now possessed a horse of my own. As a boy I had a pony, but it really belonged to my father. Rufus was wholly and entirely mine. The day had been so crowded, I had barely had time to enjoy the thought.
When the bucket was emptied down to the last scrap, I checked the hay and water, then made sure that the two blankets were held securely in place. I was pleased to discover than there were no draughts finding their way through cracks in the walls or round the door. The carpenter had done good work. The stable was as snug as a cottage. Better, by far, than the dirty hovels up beyond St Peter-in-the-East, in Hammer Hall Lane.
I gave Rufus a final pat, picked up the bucket and my candle lantern, and went out into the night. The heavy clouds of the day had blown away on the wind and the sky was clear, moon and stars sparkling, a bitter cold silver against the black. There would be no snow tonight, but there would be a heavy frost. I could feel it already, on every in-drawn breath. I checked that the bolt was across the gate where the alleyway joined the High Street, then made my way thankfully into the warmth of the kitchen.
Whether the Farringdons were to come with us or not, there were preparations to be made for a winter journey. In the autumn we had been able to cover the distance in one long day’s travel, but we could hardly hope to do the same in December. The daylight hours would be much shorter, so that we would be obliged to start later and stop sooner. As well, with so much snow on the ground, the road might be blocked part of the way. The going would be slow and it might be necessary to dig a way through in places, even though most of our route would lie along roads which were regularly used. In a snow storm, anything might happen.
The next morning, straight after breaking my fast, I called at the Mitre, where I found Peter Winchingham packing his saddle bags for his ride back to Leighton, and explained that, for now, we could not be certain whether Mistress Farringdon and the three girls would come to Leighton or not.
‘Do not concern yourself, Nicholas,’ he said, fastening the last buckles. ‘I will explain all to your cousin. If you have the chance to send word before you leave, well and good. If not, come, however many you are. As I have said, there is room a-plenty at the manor, if there be not enough at the farm. Birgit will enjoy playing hostess in her new domain. I am sorry to hear that the little maid is ill, but children often recover quickly.’
‘How did you find the roads on your way to Oxford?’ I asked, as I walked with him to the yard of the inn, where one of the young stable lads was holding his horse ready.
Peter flung the saddle bags over the horse’s rump and fastened them to the saddle.
‘Quite deep snow,’ he said, ‘but passable. There is a fair amount of coming and going along all the roads between Oxford and Burford. The lane up to Leighton is worse. I thought to speak to your cousin and some others about setting some of the day labourers to clear a way through.’
I nodded. ‘They would be glad of a day or two’s work. There is little enough for them in winter.’
‘Aye, so I thought also.’
‘And no sign of trouble on the road?’
‘I had no trouble, but it may be different for you, with a slow cart. Some might think it full of valuables.’
I laughed. ‘I shall be hiring one of the Mitre’s carts. It will hardly look like some nobleman’s entourage.’
‘To a hungry man, living wild in the woods, even a cart itself might seem valuable plunder,’ he said seriously.
‘Aye, that’s true enough.’
And to tell truth, I was worried about the journey, although I had been trying to hide it from Margaret and the children.
‘You could hire an escort,’ he suggested.
‘I could. It would be costly, but worth it, if it meant a safer journey. But again, if we travel with an escort, it might seem that indeed we are carrying valuables with us.’
‘’Tis a dilemma, I agree.’
He swung himself up on to the horse’s back.
‘Well, I hope you fare safely. When do you look to come?’
‘No sooner than a week,’ I said, ‘to give the child time to recover. If she is not well by then, I think we must come without the other family.’
He nodded. ‘I look to see you then. God go with you, Nicholas.’
‘And with you,’ I said, as he clicked his tongue to the horse and rode out of the stableyard.
I turned back to the inn, to make enquiries about hiring a cart for our journey.
Since few people are foolish enough to undertake journeys in December, I had my pick of all the carts the Mitre had to offer. I chose the largest, in the hope that our numbers would be augmented by the Farringdons and Emma. This was a long vehicle, drawn by two horses, and had the advantage of a canvas cover stretched over hoops to provide a roof, for an open cart would have been deadly for the passengers in this winter weather.
I inspected the cart with care, for we could not risk it breaking down on the journey, leaving us to freeze to death beside the road.
I tapped the wheels doubtfully. They looked somewhat dried out to me, shrunken within their iron rims, as though the spokes might work loose..
‘You must have a wheelwright check these before it will be safe to drive,’ I said to the head ostler, ‘and the axles will need greasing. I think this cart has not been used for some time.’
‘Nay, to be sure, Maister Elyot, it has not.’
I had long had dealings with the man, and knew that he was to be trusted.
‘And the canvas had best be checked over as well. Have you someone who can do that?’
He grimaced, and ran his hands through his hair, forgetting he was wearing a woollen cap, which flew off and landed in the snow. He grunted in annoyance and picked in up, slapping it against his thigh to rid it of the snow.
‘Nay, now, who could see to the canvas? I mind ’twas bought like that, with the cover, and no one has done aught to it since.’
‘Mayhap one of the sail-makers down at the dock on the Thames?’ I said. ‘It will not be their usual work, but they will know if it is sound. And I do not suppose they are much occupied at this time of year.’
‘Aye!’ His face lit up as though I had made some great discovery. ‘I s’all see to it at once, maister. They can mebbe patch it, if ’tis needed.’
‘Good,’ I said.
I climbed up into the cart, to examine the inside. It was clean enough, though a mite dusty. All the planks were sound, and the sides were high, which would provide excellent protection from the weather. We could cover the bottom with a deep layer of straw, then lay blankets on top. With cushions and feather beds, the women and children should be comfortable enough. It would be cold for the driver. I resolved to persuade Jordain to borrow some of my clothes, instead of clinging to his threadbare academic gown, which would be poor protection for him, seated outside in the cold. Perhaps we could also contrive some other way to keep him warm.
We had never made a long journey in such cold weather as this, and I found myself wondering how habitual travellers managed to survive. A brazier inside the cart would provide a welcome warmth, but would be dangerous amongst the straw. Then I remembered how Emma had once travelled in the cart which was also home to a family of candle-makers. She might remember how they had contrived their home in a wheeled cart. I would consult Emma.