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Skulduggery (2nd ed.)
by Paul Rushworth-Brown

Skulduggery" is a gripping historical novel that delves into the struggles and complexities of rural life in a bygone era. With a keen focus on characters and their experiences, the story weaves a tapestry of emotions, hardships, and human connections. Set against the backdrop of a quaint village named Haworth, the novel follows the life of Thomas and his mother Margery as they navigate the challenges of their time. The author paints a vivid picture of the family's daily struggles, from tending to their fields and livestock to dealing with illness and loss. The prose immerses readers in the harsh realities of the period, evoking empathy for the characters and their plight. The story's strength lies in its portrayal of the relationships between characters. Thomas's reminiscences of his father's battle with illness and his mother's unwavering dedication provide a poignant glimpse into the depths of love and sacrifice. The depiction of family dynamics adds a layer of emotional depth

A family of copyholders, live each day in isolation from the village, but an attack on one of their own puts them all in grave danger. This story carefully navigates the backdrop of the English Reformation, populating it with likable and despicable characters, and casting them in a fully realised historical mystery setting. It's a
slice of history that's totally, tterly believable, and unbelievable. The twists will surprise and the ending is totally unexpected even for the most astute of readers. A 16th century who dunnit.

 

  CHAPTER 1

MISSING SPARKS

 

 In the tumultuous year of 1603, England found itself mired in a web of intrigue, where both locals and outsiders engaged in shadowy dealings. The grand era of Good Queen Bess had drawn to a close, and the realm now lay under the rule of King James, who occupied the thrones of England and Scotland. However, King James' reign was far from a tranquil one.

As the eve of his second Parliament approached, a sinister Catholic conspiracy against the monarch was unveiled – an event that would echo through history as the notorious Gunpowder Plot. This revelation sent shockwaves across the nation, igniting sectarian violence and shattering the very foundation of King James' promised religious tolerance.

England, once poised for unity, now stood divided. The rift between the king and his Parliament deepened, plunging the country into an unrelenting state of turmoil. Financial woes and rampant inflation only added to the hardships, bearing down heavily on the populace.

      For the less fortunate, these were times of dire change. Scarce food, pervasive poverty, and the brutal persecution of Catholics for their beliefs defined the daily struggle. In response to this turmoil, Parliament introduced a bill, which sought to outlaw all English adherents of the Catholic Church.

        But it was on the distant moors of Yorkshire, some two hundred miles away from the political machinations of London, where a single family would experience the profound, lasting repercussions of these transformative events. Their story, like so many others in this era, stands as a testament to the resilience and indomitable spirit of those who weathered the storms of 1603.

      The bleak Pennine moors, a beautiful, harsh place close to the sky, rugged and rough, no boundaries except the horizon which in some places went on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills, the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divide the land on one side of the lane and on the other. Sheep with thick wool and dark snout dot the hills and dales. One room cruck cottages were scattered, smoke billow out of some and not others. Dry stone walls divide and fall, a patchwork of green, green and greener. Long grasses whisper while swaying in the chilled wind, waiting for the summer months. As the sun goes down, the silvery beck glistens amongst the ghost-like trees that line the bank. The countryside sings its songs to the beat of the day, a chorus of echoes from the undulating hills. Clouds line the horizon and widen the gap between the blue and the

moor.

         Thomas Rushworth, a man of medium height, and a face weathered by the punishing wind and harsh burning summer sun of the Pennines, the boyish good looks hardened by winter months, invigored and alert. Thick dark brown eyebrows crowned honest, deep-set eyes, a straight nose and chiselled chin.

      A tricorn hat, sweat-stained and tipped slightly, shadowing his relaxed expression. The hat peaked a weathered, leathery countenance and allowed the thickness of the bowl like cut to be seen reaching the nape and covering the top part of the ears. The hat, slightly too big but held down with a worn, sandy coloured broken string at the base of the crown. A shaven shadow, but with a slight nick on his long chin from the old steel straight blade that he used. Long white shirt greyed by frequent washing opened at the top to show bristled chest hair, speckled with grey. It hid his brawny upper arms, born of hours upon hours in the fields, tapering to the wrist and his rough, calloused hands. A pinkish-red tattered sheepskin tunic frayed at the bottom stretched and secured across his chest with two sheepskin ties. A brown jerkin dyed with madder plant dye and mutton sleeves wide at the top. Tight, dirty, cream coloured hose covered both slender legs from hip to waist, stained from the day’s cultivations. The ‘codpiece patch’, a similar colour to the hose, covered the groin area but Thomas did not find the need to advertise his masculinity unlike some others in the village. Dirtied leather and wool shoes tied at the top gathered loosely around the ankles, and the thick sheepskin soles tried their best to keep out the unfriendly earthen chill. Not a tall man but one of confidence which made him seem taller. His bearing was upright, although he walked with care, before putting weight down on the foot lest a stone pierce the thin leather sole.

          It had been a severe winter, and a ten-week deep freeze had made life intolerable for Thomas and his family. Trees split, birds were frozen to death and travellers told stories of the Thames freezing, stopping river traffic and allowing people to walk across it. Thomas remembered the stories his father told him as a boy about the great drought that had brought king and country to its knees and the memories of the summer of the flooding which spoiled crops and decimated food reserves. Thomas was only a youngster then, but he could still remember the feeling of the pangs of hunger that he had felt when his mother had carefully split what little bread and pottage that they had into small portions for their family of six. ‘Better the pangs of hunger than resorting to eating the unimaginable that others in the village had succumbed to,’ his father said. He sat there on the hard-uncompromising wooden stool warmed by the central fire, smoking his clay barrel-shaped pipe and silently staring into the flames.

          The shine of the fire reflected off his face and dried the film of mud that caked his leather and sheepskin foot coverings. The aroma of his manly smells from the day’s labour, made more pungent by the heat of the fire, drifted up his nostrils but was quickly overpowered by the recent release of steamy faeces by the cow that lived in the corner of the one room cottage.

He could feel the breeze sneaking through the gaps in the closed shutters, and it reminded him of the daub and wattle repair needed to the exterior of the far wall. A job for the summer after seeding had been done, he thought. He watched a spark fly out of the fire and briefly ignite a piece of straw, forcing the English Mastiff to reposition itself to a safer distance from the fire. The flame was quickly extinguished by the dampness of the trodden straw and the wet earthen floor, which at times flooded with the Spring rains. All the while Bo, a frisky rat terrier situated himself at one corner of the hearth, one eye on his master and one on the hay crib, his favourite hunting spot where he could be assured of a scratch and pat, a reward for the erasure of a pest.

         His wife silently stirred the pottage in the cauldron, ensuring that added grain didn't stick to the bottom. The gutted rabbit snared last night added a wealthy protein to the mix, a treasured prize.

          The smoke from the fire mixed with the sweet aroma of Thomas’ pipe tobacco, which filled the room that was perpetually smoky. They didn’t have a chimney and it was far too early in the season to open the shutters at night. He wondered one day if he would have a chimney.    

       Bo, hearing a familiar rustle in the hay, pricked up his ears and focused his full attention on the mound of hay currently consoling the cow and one lamb. He lifted himself slightly from the floor, shifting his weight forward he moved slowly yet purposefully toward the sound, but not giving too much away so as not to frighten his quarry.         

           ‘Pssst, what is it dog?’ He said, with a broad Yorkshire accent.

          Bo briefly looked at his master before instinctive focus got the better of him, he wagged his tail in anticipation, lifted his head and bolted towards the slowly moving hump of hay with no thought of the unexpectant lamb who darted clear of the charge to take refuge on the furthest side of the cow who, used to such commotion and unaffected, continued to chew on its cud.

          The English Mastiff, a huge dog which lacked the agility of his tiny friend wagged his tail. He watched Bo run and dive snout first into the mound of hay lunging at the rat. It was almost half his size and almost as long with the tail; seizing it by the mid-spine he flung it out of its cover being careful not to get bitten in the first instance by its razor-sharp yellowed teeth. The rat, sensing its demise, landed awkwardly but recovered to flee along the bottom of the wall. Bo bounced out of the hay and pounced again, but this time biting harder through the spine, cracking the vertebrae, and demobilising his prize as it flew to land with a thud. The English Mastiff barked a sign of support and watched on as Bo tended to his prize.

          ‘REX BEHAVE.’ Yelled Thomas. 

            Rex excitedly wagged his tail but laid on all fours with his head held high in anticipation.  Standing over the wet, limp, bloodstained carcass, Bo watched  for signs of life.   A sudden twitch sent him into a frenzy. Taking the limp carcass by the neck, he savagely thrashed his head from side to side. He lost his grip at the last moment and watched as the rat slammed against the wall. Rex barked again. Bo pounced once more, not biting but sniffing and nudging with his snout to prompt signs of life. He gave his victim one last deep bite on the neck, released and bit again. Satisfied hat he had completed the task, he stood over the rat and lifted his head for approval.      

          His master grabbed its long tail and flung it out the door for the village dogs to consume. Bo tried to follow, but Thomas closed the door quickly in anticipation, then scratched him behind the ears as he returned to his stool beside the fire. Rex took up his position at Thomas’ feet, waiting for a pat of acknowledgement for his part in the hunt. 

          The Mastiff raised his broad skulled head painted with the black mask that was common to the breed. The dog could hear footsteps, but they were recognisable, so he wagged his tail and put his massive head back down on his robust fawn coloured paw. The latch lifted and dropped and lifted again, the door opened sending the smoke from the fire curling and scattering toward the rafters as if to flee the sudden chill in the room.  

        Thomas turned, raising his hand in an impatient gesticulation. ‘PUT THE WOOD IN THE HOLE LAD!’

          Wee Tom came running in, quickly followed by his older sister Margaret., who closed the door quickly so as not to acquire the ire of her father.

          ‘Where have ya’ been lad?’  

          ‘Running on the green.’ Young Tom paused in front of the hearth and looked to find the Mastiff who lifted his head. He let out a slight giggle and ran to where the dog quietly laid. Young Tom sat on the dog’s back and grabbed his ears. The dog lowered his head and patiently grumbled, allowing the young one to have his way. Tom bounced up and down on the dog’s back while a slobbery line of dribble fell from the corner of the dog’s shiny lip and pooled on the dirt floor below him.

          ‘Leave the poor beast, Tom!’      

          Margaret walked over and lifted Tom balancing him on her hip, ‘Come on brother it’s almost suppertime.

It wouldn’t be long before she had one of her own God willing. But who would want ta bring up a child in this world, thought her father. His other daughter had already participated in the naming ceremony and now lived away. He rarely saw her because Haworth wasn’t the most accessible place to get to, especially in winter, but he thought of her often and prayed for her happiness each night.

          Agnes spooned some of the three-day-old pottage, to which she had added grain, peas, beans, and onions from the garden. A piece of dark rye bread was placed on top of the bowl and handed over to the master of the house.

          ‘Ta wife, I could eat the lord’s horse all ta myself,’ he said with a mischievous smile.

          ‘Husband, I don’t think Lord Birkhead would be happy about his missing horse,’ she replied without a pause smiling cheekily.

          ‘Well, if he gets any fatter, the horse will be crushed by his girth so better the beast be used for a grander purpose.’ All who heard laughed at the imagined sight of the horse falling foul to the weight of the lord of the manor. All except Grandma Margery, who sat with her back to the far wall, away from the chill emanating from the door. She was fighting hard to keep her eyes open, the relaxation of the muscles in her neck allowing her chin to drop and be jolted back into contraction less she misses the evening meal.

          She noticed the rest of the household laughing and leant forward ‘What did you say son, I didn’t hear,’ she said with growing impatience and a curious look.

          The poor dear’s hearing is all but gone, thought Agnes, she couldn’t have that much longer left, but she is a wily old wench that one and she sees and hears more than she makes out.

          ‘It’s alright Margery, Thomas were just enlightening us on the health of the lord o’ the manor.’

          The old woman, never backwards in letting her thoughts be known, ‘Lord o’ the manor? That bastard worked thy father to ta grave he did! ‘Without as much as ta muchly for 20 years of service, he couldn’t even pay his respect at his funeral. He knew he had the king’s evil, and he still worked him from dawn to dusk while he wasted away. No royal touch ceremony for him.’ Her face wrinkled in a scowl.

          The excitement had taken its toll, and she began to cough, a chesty rasping cough causing her breathing to labour. She finally cleared her throat and spat the phlegm into the fire. It landed on the hearth rock and started to bubble; the circumference of the red-green blot dried as she sat back to gain back her energy expended during her rant.

          She wiped the remaining spittle from her chin with her sleeve and watched as Thomas broke bread and dipped it into the bowl, quickly stuffing it into his mouth to ensure that no drips were wasted. He retorted and opened his mouth as the steam emanated and his face went red and contorted from the hotness of his first bite. Thomas quickly waved his hand in front of his mouth, fanning, trying hard to cool the hot morsel of soaked bread which burned the roof of his mouth. He could already feel the loose skin forming and he knew it would be a day before he could jostle the loose dead skin from its place with his tongue.

          ‘God wife are you trying to kill me it’s hot enough ta start the blacksmiths forge.’ He declared while taking the clay tankard of ale from Margaret who, smiling, had reacted quickly to her father’s dilemma.

          He guzzled the ale, soothing the roof of his mouth, but the area still stung when he touched it with his tongue.

          ‘Maybe you won’t be in such a hurry ta scoff down thy dinner in the future, son,’ Margery whispered.

          Unperturbed, Agnes stirred the pot and replied, ‘Well ‘usband what did you expect, it came from a hot place. Would you rather it cold?’

          She poured some of the stew into another bowl for wee Tom, blowing on it to cool its intensity.

          Tom ran over to climb up on his father’s lap. His father quickly placed his bowl on the stump beside his stool, grabbed him around the waist lifting him to blow raspberries against the skin on his stomach much to his pleasure. He giggled, so his father did it again before sitting him down on his lap, roughing up his hair tenderly. Agnes handed her husband the wooden spoon and the bowl.

          Agnes looked on contentedly, smiled and then frowned, remembering his sickness as a baby, and she thanked the Lord for his mercy.      

          Agnes served young Margaret, who took the bowl to Mother Margery, who had temporarily dozed off. Her hair covering wimple was lying crooked on her forehead as she leaned her head back against the wall. Her Eyes were closed, mouth open as she breathed a deep chesty breath. A deep, guttural vibration emerged from her throat. Her thick woollen kirtle bunched at her feet, holding a collection of straw attachments.

          Young Margaret touched her on the shoulder, ‘Grandma, you awake? Here’s thy tea ‘n ale.’

          Of course, I’m awake daft lass, did you think I was dead?’ As she tried to nod the grogginess away. ‘Not yet. Soon, but not yet.’ Grandma straightened her wimple, sat up straighter, well as straight as the curve of her back would allow, took the bowl and began to blow on it, coughing again as she did.

          She took her first spoonful, ‘Delicious Agnes, even better than yesterday and the day before that.’ She pro claimed while lifting the wooden spoon to her lips to blow on it before placing it in her mouth.

          With an utterance that only Agnes and Margaret could hear, she mumbled, ‘Might need to stoke the fire a bit prior to serving. Hot pottage keeps the chill away.’ Looking down at the bowl cheekily to erase suspicion from her son.

          Thomas looked over to see Margaret and Agnes smirking at grandma, trying hard to keep a stiff upper lip. He couldn’t hear what she said, but he knew that he was the bane of her muffled colloquy.    

           ‘DON’T GIVE US ANY CHEEK MOTHER OR ELSE I’LL HAVE YA’ SENT TO THE DUCKIN' STOOL!’ Thomas roared in a threatening tone but then became quiet and complacent seeing the humoured sparkle in the eyes of his wife and daughter.

          Margery looked at him, grunted a sound of inconsequence and took another spoonful, winking at young Margaret.

          ‘Dead, she’ll probably outlive us all,’ mumbled Thomas noticing Agnes’ contempt for his lack of respect, judgement and lack of empathy.

          Thomas fixated on his mother as she moved about the dimly lit room, her face an intricate tapestry of life's experiences etched upon her brow, much like the concentric rings of a time-worn tree. Her stories traversed the ages, from the upheaval of the Reformation to the relentless scourge of the Black Death, and she still held unwavering loyalty to the House of Lancaster. Her reverence for the beloved Queen Bess resonated through her words.

          The melodic chime of compline's bell danced through the air, ushering in the evening and a gentle reminder of nightly prayers. Yet, for Thomas, it also signaled the approach of another day filled with labor and responsibilities.

          Little Tommy, perched contentedly on his father's knee, embarked on a culinary adventure with his spoon, though the spoon's contents found alternative routes, dribbling down his chin more often than reaching its intended destination. His father's guiding hand helped him navigate the culinary terrain, and then, with a loving pat on the backside, encouraged the young lad to toddle toward his mother.

          With an air of pride, the father watched as Wee Tommy ventured toward his mother, while Grandma, her wooden bowl and spoon still nestled in her lap, a half-filled tankard of ale precariously tilted, leaned forward in her chair. An air of anticipation lingered in the room, leaving one curious about the family's tales, traditions, and the unspoken histories that bound them together.

  CHAPTER 2

THE OLD WOMAN'S SECRETS

Thomas took a deep breath, shaking off the heavy weight of memories that clung to him like the damp Yorkshire mist. While Agnes fed the wee one, he looked over at his mother, remembering the difficulty she had faced in his father’s last days. Weeding the hide through the day, cooking, washing, and tending to father through the night. She was much younger then, but firm and of high morals and wished no ill of her husband. As a young lad, he often wondered if they loved each other because they never showed any affection outwardly. The question was answered many years later when his father got the sickness; he could hear his mother quietly weeping in the darkness of the night and his father trying to console her between raptures of coughing and wheezing.

       By day he continued to work the fields, often kneeling in the dirt trying to fight against an uncontrollable fit of coughing. You could hear him trudging home through the mud, a constant drizzle making it difficult for him to see. His cold, wet clothes clamped against his feverish skin. Eyes deep in their sockets darkened by rings of tiredness, foreboding and worry, for he knew not what would become of his family once he was gone. He would stagger in out of the weather and collapse on the bed, often spouting delirious ravings as mother undressed him and dried him as best as she could.    

       Often, he wouldn’t get up again and remained there to battle the growing ache in his chest, coughing to try to get some respite from his clogged airways.

      His persistent choking cough was always followed by the splatter of blood in the rag that mother, Margery, continually rinsed and gave back to him. The wakening, delirious ravings and night sweats, the chills, chest pains and shortness of breath and the irreversible weight loss. His mother tried to feed him broth, but most times it would end up coughed over mother and dribbling down his chest. This all ended one night when the coughing stopped, and the wheezing quietened, eventuating in dark, solemn, peaceful silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

      Not much had changed for the grown up Tommy, now called Thomas by all as a sign of respect. He thought back to the times as a youngster. His father and mother had to tend to the fields for the lord from sunrise until sunset, pruning, weeding, scaring birds in spring, harvesting and ploughing in summer and smoking and weaving in autumn. They had to spread manure to prepare the fields for the crops, prune branches, harvest the hay, and cut the wheat. Not to mention collecting the brew from the lord’s favourite cottage to appease his alcoholic tendencies and wash down the pheasant and imported wine.

      As they climbed Sun Street, Thomas couldn't help but reflect on the passage of time. The quaint cottages and merchants' stalls were a stark contrast to their cruck cottage and the grueling days he spent toiling in the fields with his father. Life had a way of moving forward, bringing change even to the quietest corners of Haworth.

      The manor house at the foot of Main Street loomed ahead, with its large cut ashlar gritstone and deeply recessed mullioned windows. A symbol of authority and privilege. Thomas couldn't shake the memories of he and his Da at the manor court, the oaths sworn to Lord Birkhead, and the laborious tasks that came with the copy-hold for the land called Hall Green. Its non-arable soil, demanded his attention and sweat in exchange for the right to live on it.

 As they trudged through the muddy paths, Thomas marveled at the resilience of the Yorkshire landscape. The constant drizzle, the furrowed fields, and the dog barking in the distance were familiar companions. These were the elements that shaped his youth, the backdrop to the story of his family.

       They were good times and bad, happy times and sad. Around harvest time, father would often carry him on his shoulders through the fields on a Sunday after church. He would swing him around by the hands so that his feet acted as a sickle to cut down the wheat. They would play hide and seek in the long wheat stalks. He was always able to sneak up on him, but he knew his father allowed him to, laughing and acting surprised when he did.

      Da never spoke much of his family, saying that they moved up here from Mould Greave when he was a very young lad. He said that his father left for war one day and didn’t return, even though his mother waited and waited. One day she got the sickness and passed, leaving him and his elder brother and sister to fend for themselves.

       The mention of the church tower of Saint Michael and All Angels brought forth memories of his father's final resting place. The solemnity of the burial, the flickering candles, and the shadows dancing on the black cloth seemed to be etched in his mind.

The man he once knew as strong and resilient had succumbed to the merciless grip of illness. Thomas was only seventeen when his father passed, but he could still remember looking through the gap between the black loose-fitting curtain and the wattle wall, put up to separate the living from the dead. His last sight was one of sadness, as his mother Margery and her cousin silently dunked cloths in cold water and gently wiped the soil of a lifetime from his body. Margery was solemn but did not cry as she realised the living hell that had tortured her husband for the previous three months and now she knew he was at peace.

      He laid there outstretched on a makeshift bench put together with some locally sourced planks. He was completely naked except for a loin cloth which covered his more modest parts. The once muscular physique had wasted away and the bones of his ribs protruded through the pale, loose skin. The muscle in his arms had deteriorated, and now unapologetically sagged loosely to the table. His unshaven face was turned slightly, and his hair messed and wet where his mother had wiped the grime from his forehead. Silently, he continued to watch as they wound his body in a winding sheet, covering his face, and tightened by a knot under his chin.

       His mother Margery and her cousin knelt beside the body and clasped their hands together in unison, later joined by relatives, neighbours, and friends who guarded the corpse throughout the night. Two candles flickered, the shadows dancing on the black cloth that donned the walls. There they would remain until the vicar from Saint Michael and All Angels’ chapel arrived to administer last rites and sprinkle holy water.

       They would bury him on the grounds of Saint Michael and All Angels; however, as much of the church’s land had been acquired by the noble right of King Henry VIII, and distributed to the wealthy, ground space was in shortage. An older grave site would be dug up, and there his father would be placed.

      The copy-hold inheritance of the hide would be passed to Thomas being the eldest son; his mother attended the manor court in Haworth with him. All the other freeholders and copyholders tenanted to his lordship would be there also. Here, his tenancy would be accounted for and recorded on the Haworth manor court roll of Martin Birkhead, Esquire, as a proof of the right to the tenancy. He would swear an oath to Lord Birkhead, lord of the manor of Haworth, in exchange for yearly labouring services on his lands to the south-east of Haworth.

      They left after the day’s work, digging in the horse manure and human faeces, made harder by the constant drizzle. This valuable fertilizer had been collected over the course of the winter. They walked through the furrowed fields a dog barked in the distance, past the manor house at the foot of Main Street with its large cut ashlar gritstone and deeply recessed mullioned windows. The manor stood out in all its splendour amongst the nearby cruck houses. They walked up, up, up Sun Street, muddied and slippery underfoot.

      The cottage merchants along the road sold all manner of items, from vegetables to wimples, but they were in the process of packing up for they too had to attend the court. They looked over the expanse of open Pennine countryside and moorlands on one side of the road. The sun was going down and cast shadows from trees on the other. The church tower of Saint Michael and All Angels was a continual reminder of the distance and steepness of the climb to the square.

       Drenched from the drizzle-soaked journey, Thomas and his mother reached the doorstep of their destination. In the air hung the scent of damp earth, and their mud-clad feet betrayed the rugged path they had traversed. Urging Thomas forward, his mother spoke in a hushed tone, "Go on, Thomas. Step inside. We can't risk the wrath of a two-shilling penalty for our absence. Introduce yourself to the steward; let him know you're here to inherit your father's legacy at Hall Green."

      As Thomas stood on the threshold, the weight of his family's history and the responsibility resting on his shoulders was palpable. The intrigue of the impending encounter with the steward, the guardian of lands and lineage. What unfolds inside holds the promise of revelations and challenges, propelling Thomas into uncharted territory. A tale of legacy, duty, and the unknown awaited.

Thomas Rushworth dies of consumption
A picture of Yorkshire Countryside

CHAPTER 3

ROUGH TOUCH

Arriving outside their destination, mother ushered Thomas inside; they were both wet, feet muddied from the road, ‘Go on Thomas, go on inside we don’t wanna get the payne of two shillings for bein’ absent. Let the steward know who you are, and you’re taking your father’s tenure at Hall Green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas ducked his head going through the doorway and was immediately stunned by the sharpness of the smell, urine-soaked straw and rotting food that had been thrown or dropped on the muddy, manure-covered floor. A man stumbled with a toilet bucket spilling more over the sides than what he was putting in. He tried at drunken modesty when he saw Margery, turning toward the wall to save embarrassment.

          Another used a form as a bed, face down, still clinging to the almost empty Jack, lightly held for a future swig before staggering home. The window had no glass and shutters kept out the evening air, which on some nights, depending on the way of the wind, rid the room of the layers of smoke. The shutters also served the purpose of denying the vicar’s representative, that occasionally walked by, to collect notes on the immoral goings on after dark. Three-legged stools and the odd cut barrel were used as a gaming table. Wide, rough planks rested on full size-barrels separating the barkeeper from the clientele and shelves behind housed pewter dishes, leather jacks and the odd pewter tankard for the patron with a more modest income. Most of the light came from the fire in the hearth, but the odd tallow candle chandelier and grease lamp provided enough light for the card games, arguments and political debates. The serving wench tracked backwards and forwards, replacing empty jacks with full ones for the patrons, on occasion disappearing upstairs for more physical pursuits and monetary gain.

          One individual sat almost semi-conscious on his stool, head leaning back against the wall, red wollen hat pushed up. A vomit stain donned his tunic and dripped to the earthen floor. Two others looked on, whispering, and sizing him up, no doubt debating percentages of their share of his winnings, Thomas thought.

          Both wore a black slouch hat which shadowed their face. No doubt strangers as they were dressed more notably than the rest of the patrons. One had a black eye patch, which made him look more mysterious. He had on a red sheepskin doublet done up with a whole row of buttons lined from neck to waist, and a tan overcoat was placed on the stool beside him. A thick black belt wrapped around a sword leant against the wall near where they were sitting. The other, a slightly bigger man, held his sword, instinctively looking at his partner then around the room to try to gain truths from the expressions on the local’s faces.

          They were a ragtag bunch of tinkers, peasants and yeomen in from the weather, hiding from the wrath of their lord and their wives if they knew they weren’t pushing the plough. The steward noticed the young lad and the old wench that walked through the door he assumed they were there to pay the payne, fines or dues.

          The drunkard who they had come to know as John Hargreaves, was a mess and the two strangers were annoyed that he had so easily parted them from the steward's coin. They were even more annoyed that the steward had not told them of the demon dog from Stanbury who had killed so many rats. If they were to be working the territory for him, they would need to ensure better disclosure from the steward in the future. 

          They had met Hargreaves at the rat baiting and although a cheap drunk, had been generous with his celebrations. They watched patiently as he used the steward's coin to purchase half the tavern a round of ale. Fortunately, they were not there to make profit for the steward.

          Margery elbowed him, ‘There he is Thomas, the steward, sitting yonder playing the card game. Nip on over and let him know who you are.’

          ‘No mother not before the manor court,’ replied Thomas nervously not really knowing how to address the situation.

          He had been to the manorial court once before with his father, before he died, but that was some time ago when he was only a young lad. His mother had castigated his father for taking him, saying it was a house of ill-repute and her sons would not be subjected to such a place. He remembered his father shrugging his shoulders and arguing the benefits of the excursion and how it would prepare his sons for future responsibility. His father had been greeted with many silent nods. How he had beamed with pride as he introduced his two sons to those nearby.

          Impatiently, she led Thomas toward the table, ‘Go on now, make thy self-known before someone else gets in before us ‘n takes our hide.’

          The steward, in tight breeches, a short blue waistcoat of desirable fabric with sleeves reaching to just above the elbow. He wore a white ruffled long-sleeved shirt, cravat, and a ribbon dragged over one shoulder. His baggy black coat reached just above the knees and met with the tight stockings and garter. His thick leather shoes were polished and shined in the candlelight. He had an air of dignity, but the hidden importance of his office was not about him as he looked at his cards and the eyes of his companions.

          Straight long black hair framed his face, thinned eyebrows, a thin black moustache and a small, triangular nest of hair sat below his bottom lip which brought nobility to his full face. A man of medium build, but those hands, they hadn’t done a day’s work, almost like marble extensions of his arms. 

          He looked at his cards and tried to read the eyes of his companions but knew of Thomas’ presence and the old wench that accompanied him. He also knew of the drunkard that was going to be left penniless in a ditch that night if he wasn’t careful. He always liked to come to the Kings Arms early to see who was cheating at the games, like these two non-locals were. They probably did the rounds, Keighley, Oakworth, Oxenhope, Stanbury; making a good living from unsuspecting folk who knew no better. They apparently didn’t spend any of their hard-earned winnings on their dress, for they looked ragged and worn, he thought to himself.

          The cards depicted the countries of England and Wales, but he knew that the card’s lime complexion hid the distinguishing mark somewhere in the textual description or inner frame. Nobody, he thought, could be that lucky.

          His recently hired deputies would meet him at eight o’clock and by that time his companions would have won all of his coin and he would have them. He didn’t like outsiders coming to town to take advantage of his people; he liked that monopoly for himself. The steward organised the rat baiting to coincide with the manor court for just that reason.

          The steward had an inkling that the lord knew of his small pastime but allowed him to go unperturbed just as long as it did not cause disharmony among residents of the parish. The steward liked the extra shillings it brought in to supplement his income, primarily when the dog was ‘on’ and the owner, that he brought up from Stanbury, was right in his judgement of the number of rats. Of course, this was all calculated and controlled with the number of dried herbs he put in his feed. He knew that some in the village won and some lost, all that mattered to him was that he was at an advantage.

          ‘I’m terribly sorry, but gentlemen, you are very fortunate tonight. I’m afraid one’s luck is at an end. You have emptied my pocket.’ Said the steward dropping his head disappointedly.

          ‘It’s alright your grace we can take cash or goods. What about your pretty gold ring?’ Replied the other player. Another whispered and smiled with a toothless grin having already raised the stakes and bowed out of the game. They were unlikely men, the steward thought, especially Archie, the one with no teeth. He had an enormous nose that was continually running, which he regularly wiped on his sleeve. A faded red baggy cap tilted slightly, and a continual toothless smile added to his peculiarity. His dirty red, straw-like hair bristled from below his cap. He continually licked his lips and swallowed as if he always had too much saliva, spraying some of it when he tried to enunciate certain words. His companion’s shirt attracted most of the spray, which wet the linen and blossomed into small wet patches that dotted his arm and shoulder.

          The steward heard the call of the nightwatchmen from down the street, ‘Sleep well ta thy locks, fire ‘n thy leet, ‘n God give theur grand night for now the bell rings eight.’ Which was followed by the customary eight rings of the bell.

          It was a chilly spring evening, and the drizzle was constant, keeping the soiled roads muddy and the thatched roofs damp. 

          The sun was setting, and the only light emanated from the candles in the small cottages down Main Street.

          Further away, the night watchmen called out again, then continued down the road. He would be awake most of the night watching for strangers that might carry the sickness from York. If approached, he was under orders to refuse their passage and had the will and the weapons to enforce it. It wouldn’t be the first time that a stranger found himself the lodger of the night watchman and his wife in the lock-up on North Street.       

           ‘You have won many shillings. How about one more hand?’ ‘Goodness me,’ as he took the gold ring from his small finger and placed it on top of the coinage in the middle of the table.

          The toothless one quickly picked up the ring and bit it with one of his last remaining teeth at the side of his mouth. He nodded and placed the ring back on top of the pile, snickering with a foul cackle as he peeked at his companion’s hand.

          ‘Alright then your grace, we will give you one more chance to win thy coin back, but don’t go complaining to the night watchman or the old steward if you lose,’ Archie replied confidently as he looked again at his partner Stuart’s cards.

          The steward wiped a small droplet of spittle that had made its way to the back of his hand, with his handkerchief, ‘Indomitably not, one is a gentleman after all!’      

           The steward placed his cards face up on the top of the half barrel.

           The toothless one’s sadistic smile grew, and he let out another foul cackle as Stuart placed the winning hand down on the surface, ‘Well your grace it seems like the night were ours,’ as he reached over to grab the gold ring.

          The steward slammed his fist down on the top of the poor old boy’s hand, cracking a finger in the process.

          His voice turned deeper, and he stood knocking over his chair, ‘SIMPLETONS, I AM A GENTLEMAN AND THE STEWARD, NOW GET READY TO PAY THY DEBT!’

          The toothless one, with fear and shock in his eyes ran toward the door colliding with Thomas, “GET OUT OF THE WAY FOOL!

          The culprit was knocked backwards over the sleeping man’s form and into the arms of the steward’s deputy who had been lingering near the bar.

          He was a big man and picked his quarry up off the floor by the scruff of the neck. The toothless one’s dirty cloth slippers started running in mid-air, trying to get purchase on the earthen floor. Spittle was firing from his mouth and dribble cascaded down his chin; his hat had fallen off, showing a large bald patch on the top of his head sided by wispy, red hair.

          ‘LET ME GO YOU SOD, LET ME GO, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!’ Said the captive as he struggled to remove the deputy’s hands from the back of his tunic.

          Thomas, albeit stunned by the goings on, remained unharmed and apologetic, believing he had wronged the stranger. He looked for his mother through the mayhem that had occurred. He saw her, lonesome on a stool near the hearth, warmed by the fire she was oblivious to the goings on and worried about the keeping of the hide.

          ‘LET ME GO YOU VERMIN! I HAVN’T DONE ANYTHING!’ Archie yelled, trying to hit the deputy with backward swinging arms that missed and slowed as his collar was squeezed tighter. Then his arms went limp beside him like a rag doll.

          ‘Relax yourself coney-catcher; thy work is done here.’ Said the deputy who had the situation well under control.

          He walked him over to a stool and plonked him down, then bound his hands with shackles roughly while his captive tried to struggle out. The toothless one quickly stood and tried to take a step until the deputy put his rather large hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down onto the stool. He tried to stand again, the deputy slowly losing patience, put his hand on the top of his head and forced him back down unapologetically. He sat there with a glum look on his face, wiping his runny nose on the sleeve of his upper arm. He stared at Thomas, lifted his thumb to his neck and dragged it across his throat. Thomas was shocked by his gesture.

          Some in the room heard the word coney-catcher and whispered the news until everyone knew that there were tricksters thereabout. The crowd started to gather around pointing and calling out obscenities to the two men who looked glum and disappointed.

          The steward sat back down but grabbed Stuart’s wrist as he reached for the winnings, ‘I'll take that, coney-catcher!’

          The other deputy grabbed his wrists and shackled them quickly, shoving him over to sit on the stool beside his partner.

          The steward scraped the rest of the winnings into his money purse, raising his eyebrows with a look of satisfaction, ‘Seems like the night were mine after all.’

          Stuart looked at the steward, hoping for leniency, then down at the ground with a look of despair and regret. Stuart thought of the events that had led to his predicament. He thought of his wife and children back in York and the hardship they had endured these past weeks. He remembered his wife, who had taken ill with the sickness. First there were the pockmarks on the legs, the fever, head pain, and then the lumps in the groin and under the armpits the size of an egg. He didn’t have resources to pay for doctors, then once the body collectors found out, the red ‘X’ was painted on the door, that was the end of it. With sadness in his heart, he covered her with a linen sheet and allowed them to take her away to the mass grave on the outskirts of town. Fearing for his children, he smuggled them out of the house to his brother’s, on the edge of town. Unfortunately, a day later they were bitten with the same symptoms and were also carted away. He knew he wasn’t a bad man, but desperate times called for desperate measures and his toothless acquaintance’s plan to flee the sickness and earn easy coin seemed like a good idea at the time.

          As the steward stood, the publican and his helpers placed tables together for the twelve, the apostles that would determine the fate and future of many on the night.  The steward sat and the twelve jurors approached and took their seats, led by the reeve of the manor who was the intermediary between the villagers and the lord.

          The reeve was from a good family, voted to his position by the villagers each year to represent them and to evenly distribute responsibilities of labour to be carried out on the lord’s demesne.

          Yarns about the coney-catching were the topic of the night, especially what punishment the toothless one and his companion would get for their trickery at cards. The two men sat on their stools, hands shackled, faces forlorn, looking to the floor and quietly whispering ideas for their defence.

          By this time the room was packed, the light from the tallow candles highlighted the layers of smoke which separated the floor to rafters. All eyes were on the two culprits, who sat nervously awaiting the next stage of their ordeal.

          ‘HEAR YEE HEAR YEE, THE HAWORTH MANOR COURT IS NOW IN SESSION. ALL WHO HAVE BUSINESS ON THIS NIGHT COME FORWARD AND BE RECOGNISED!’ Yelled the deputy confidently.

          Thomas looked at his mother who was sitting near the fire.

          Margery gestured for him to walk forward toward the table. Poor lad, having to be burdened with all this at his age. Mmmmm I think he needs a wife to help him, but who?  The women in the village...widows or dirty. Although there was that new pretty young lass at the market, she'd do fine, not like the other's in the village. I wonder who she is? I'll ask about.

         

The steward rose from his chair, an experienced orator, ‘Aye up people of Haworth! The first case involves these cheeky two who thought me a rabbit for their stew. These cony-catchers, these vultures, these fatal harpies that putrefy with their infections in the flourishing estate of England. What say you?’

         The occupants of the room, ale in hands and a touch tipsy, jostled for a good vantage point. They were aroused by the steward’s words and started to yell obscenities. 

          ‘He emptied me pockets this evening, he did, HANG THEM!’ Yelled one disgruntled individual who sparked a call-in unison from many of the others.        

          ‘YEA HANG THE BASTARDS!’ They screamed.        

          ‘Hang the bastards and let no citizen of Haworth fall foul to these two again,’ yelled another.

          The two sat nervously watching and started to worry about their fate,   ‘They can’t hang us, it’s the first time we been caught,’ whispered the toothless one as he wiggled and discreetly tried to free himself from his bonds.         

          Stuart sitting beside him quietly accepted his fate, ‘OH SHUT UP! We should have left when I said so earlier.’ He exclaimed.            

          ‘How was I to know he was the fuckin' steward?’ ‘We’ll plead insanity that’ll get us off it has before.

          ’The steward continued, ‘Even though hanging would be a fitting punishment for these putrid two, they still have their ears and have not been scarred by previous misdeeds. What do you say in thy defence?’ The steward pointed towards the two men.   

          ‘Insanity drove us to do it. Times are tough in York and our little ones have no food. PLEASE HAVE MERCY!’ Yelled Archie looking at his companion for support.

          ‘INSANITY, what say you?’ The steward looked at the twelve jurors who turned to each other and whispered, gesticulating, nodding and shaking their heads in disproval.

          As they hushed, one of the twelve, the reeve from the manor stood representing the group, ‘CAUGHT RED HANDED WITH MARKED CARDS, we say a day on the’ pillory and finally to be released into God’s hands with the lopping of the right ear.’    

          Some patrons cheered as others booed, missing out on a good hanging; however, they knew that even though there would be no hanging, they could still have their retribution while the culprits were on public display.

          ‘NOOOO, NOOOO, PLEASE ‘AVE MERCY, our wee ones starve if we’re absent!’ Screamed Archie. ‘IT WERE HIS IDEA, NOT MINE TAKE HIM’ He stood and pointed to his companion.

          The deputy once again forced his shoulder downward for a seat on the stool. His companion, somewhat shocked, looked up at him silently, then at the crowd who had become even more excited by the thought of the coming punishment.

          The steward rose, and the crowd settled for the verdict, ‘THE FOLK OF HAWORTH HAVE SPOKEN! Take them to the pillory and let the locals decide their fate over the next day. Let it be known that the citizens of Haworth will not be the victims of coney- catchers any longer. TAKE THEM AWAY!’

          The steward could have hanged them, but he knew the difference between punishment for hanging and punishment for thieving and questions would be asked by the justice of the peace if the sentence did not fit the crime.

          The deputies took the scoundrels by their shackles out into the night, followed by the rabble, who lit the way with candles taken from the alehouse, covering them to shield them from the drizzle. They sloshed through the mud of the square to the pillory which was set outside the rocky made steps to Saint Michael and All Angels Church, a reminder to all who might be caught on the wrong side of the law. 

          Hearing the commotion, the vicar and his offsider appeared with a torch, ‘Who goes there?’ He called out as he lifted the torch to get a glimpse of the crowd that disturbed him.

           The mob were not used to seeing the vicar out of his usual Sunday regalia, ‘Putting coney-catchers on the pillory vicar. Caught red-handed they were. Steward has sentenced them to three days,’ said the deputy.

The vicar, not wanting to get involved in the village’s business, lifted his two fingers piously, ‘God save you.’ He turned and hurriedly walked back to the church out of the drizzle.

          In the wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, the toothless one and the player were unceremoniously placed. The deputy forcing their head and hands into curves of the frame, closing, latching and replacing the old, rusted lock. Then the other deputy took a large four-inch nail and placed it at the top of the player’s outstretched ear. He took a wooden handled hammer and struck home four times, sending the nail through the ear deeper and deeper into the wood behind. The small crowd cheered in unison each time the hammer struck the nail. The player screamed, his face contorted with the pain, blood dripping down the side of his face and off the bottom of the frame. He whimpered from the sting as the shock took hold.

          The toothless one continued to plead his innocence, once again trying to divert blame to his companion and promote sympathy for his young ones that had not been fed.

         ‘HAVE MERCY! I will leave Haworth and not return. I SWEAR IT! have mercy—’ His last word was cut short as the deputy made the first blow on the nail head, through the ear cartilage into the timber behind.

          The crowd cheered ‘AYYYYE… AYYYE… AYYYE’   After each stroke of the hammer and then laughed, some hysterically having never witnessed such exciting entertainment before.

          Archie screamed, swallowed and screamed again, tears in his eyes, ‘YOU SON OF A WHORE, I will have all of you one day I swear it. Your wife, your young ones, will never be safe. They will spend their days lookin’ over their shoulder.’ His hands trembled, and his matted, wet hair stuck to his face. Droplets of blood dribbled down the wooden frame and dripped, to be diluted by the constant drizzle on the ground below him.

          The deputy smiled wickedly, walked around the back of the frame and placed a well-aimed kick between his legs, ‘Oh SHUTUP you insignificant fopdoodle!’ He bellowed. He then raised his head to the sky and roared with a deep belly laugh, feeling good about his dealings and insult.

          The crowd cheered and laughed as the toothless one grimaced in pain and shrieked as he felt the pain in his ear as it ripped a little. The discomfort moved from his ear to between his legs, but it was a different type of pain and his breath was knocked from his chest and felt like his testicles would rise into the cavity of his empty stomach.

          Blood mixed with his long dirty reddish coloured hair and started to congeal on the side of his face. ‘COP THAT YOU! That'll teach ya’ not to come diddlin' Haworth grand folk,’ as one of the men stepped forward and spat in his face.

          The ale flavoured phlegm clung to his face and slowly dribbled down his cheek to rest in the corner of his open mouth. His lips quivered as he frustratedly tried to squeeze his hands through the holes in the frame.

          One of the other onlookers picked up a handful of mud, squashed it into a ball, then threw it at Stuart hitting him square in the side of the face. A small blotch of red emanated from his skin from the concealed stone. The crowd cheered as the rain came down harder. Having their fill of insults, they all returned quickly to the alehouse to warm themselves by the fire and leave the toothless one and his companion to the ravages of the night.

          The two were left in the dark to ride the pain and discomfort. The rabble followed the dwindling candles back across the square and back into the Kings Arms to await the next order of business.  

          Archie groaned, ‘They’ll pay for this, I swear, ‘ALL OF ‘EM WILL PAY! ESPECIALLY THE LAD! I’LL GET ‘IM, I SWEAR, BASTARD!’    

          While they were away, the steward had dealt with and fined one who allowed his cattle to stray onto the lord’s demesne. He also dealt with and received payment from a freeman who wanted to dispute the erection of a fence by his neighbour. They both accepted and paid the fine. One for erecting the fence without the lord’s blessing and the other for knocking part of the fence down without the lord’s blessing. The steward also took coin from a man and woman who had engaged in pre- marital sex, and as such, were bound together forever. All monies collected of course went to the lord’s coffers to keep him in the luxury that he was used to. Well, all except a small portion that the steward and the clerk skimmed for themselves.

          The door opened and Thomas and his mother watched the rabble make their way back into the room. They were quick to report what had occurred outside, especially the treatment of the tooth less one at the hands of the big deputy. The deputies returned to the side of the steward who was ready to call business to an end and return to his ale.

          One last time he stood, ‘Is there any more business, if so, say it now or forever hold thy piece.’ Looking around the room he noticed the old wench push Thomas forward through the crowd.

The steward from best selling novel Skulduggery
Thomas Rushworth from Novel Skulduggery standing outside a tavern

CHAPTER 4

TRUTH OF A BOY

The dimly lit hall echoed with the hushed whispers of the gathered crowd as Thomas and his mother faced the stern gaze of the steward. Hat in hand, Thomas hesitated, a novice in the intricacies of court proceedings.

       The steward's impatience hung heavy in the air, pressing Thomas to speak. "What say thee, lad? Time is fleeting, and the court awaits no man's dallying. Speak now or let justice linger until the next moon's turn."

       Thomas, his voice a timid murmur, confessed, "Ah'm sorry, your grace. 'Tis our first court, and my father, who would usually attend, is not here."

      The steward, keen to exploit the situation for additional coin, prodded further, "Where is thy father, then? A fine awaits those who dare defy the court's summons."

      Nervously, Thomas and his mother stood amidst the watchful eyes of the onlookers, whispers of sympathy weaving through the crowd. His father, remembered as a pillar of integrity, had left a void in the community—a helping hand to the needy, a partner in ploughing for destitute families.

       In the midst of this tense atmosphere, the deputy leaned over and murmured a secret into the steward's ear. The steward, his countenance softening, regarded Thomas and his mother with a hint of compassion.

       As Thomas awaited the steward's judgment, he became acutely aware of his disheveled appearance—mud-caked foot coverings, a worn hole near his big toe, a soaked tunic clinging to his back, and sagging hose weighed down by the dampness. In the face of uncertainty, he found himself distracted, fingers idly toying with a piece of straw as he grappled with the impending verdict that could shape the course of their lives.

          ‘I’m sorry to hear about thy father lad, God rest his soul. You are here ta pay the death payment to Lord Birkhead are you not? Pay the shilling to the clerk and let the night’s business be done lad,’ said the steward growing increasingly anxious and although sympathetic had other things on his mind.

          Apologetically, Thomas muttered, ‘We don’t have any coin yer grace, last coin went to pay for the funeral.’

          Starting to lose his patience, the steward retorted,

          ‘Neya coin? Then why are you here, blast us.’

          He looked up the deputy hoping for an explanation; the deputy shrugged his shoulders in earnest, not knowing what to say.

          The steward turned to his clerk, ‘Make a note clerk, the Rushworth family of Hall Green have not paid for the father’s funeral.’

          The clerk sitting on the other side of the table, with a small candle shedding light, took a quill, dipped it in the small jar of ink and wrote on his ledger carefully. He knew how the lord liked to look at his incomings and outgoings on a regular basis and risked a severe scolding if it was not legible.       

           The deputy leaned down again and whispered something in the steward’s ear.

           The steward grunted, nodded and looked at Thomas, ‘My deputy tells me you were of some assistance ta him this evenin’ when the culprit, that currently holds up the pillory with his right ear, tried to escape. In that case, then we are in debt ta thee lad, what is it you want from us?’

           Sheepishly, Thomas looked at his mother then back at the steward ‘Just ta keep our tenancy at Hall Green for his lordship, as did my father, ‘n his father before him.’ 

          The steward looked about the room, which had quietened. He called out to the 12 jurors, ‘Can anybody here about provide any reason why this young man should not continue to be the copyholder on his Lord’s tenancy at Hall Green, if so, speak now!’

          The jurors looked at one another.

          The reeve stood and everybody hushed, ‘I have known young Rushworth since he were a baby still at his mother’s breast. He’s a hard worker like his father was. He'll do a grand service to his lordship.’

          The reeve looked at Thomas proudly, having known the family for many years and still remembered the support of his father when the voting for his position came around each year.

         The steward stood speaking quietly, ‘Reeve, has the family heard the devine service and do they attend regularly?

          ‘They have yer grace.’

          ‘Then it is settled, his lordship will expect a portion of grain from your next harvest and each one after that. As copyholder and tenant of Hall Green you swear oath to Lord Birkhead of Haworth Manor in exchange for yearly labouring services. Make thy mark on the court roll as proof of tenancy.’ He pointed to the clerk.

          Thomas swore his oath on the King James Bible and made an X with the quill pen handed to him. He and his mother bowed then turned toward the door sighing in relief. Thomas pushed his way through the watching crowd, making space for his mother. Respectfully, the crowd parted and allowed Mrs Rushworth and Thomas to walk unheeded.  

           ‘Sorry ta hear about ol’ Thomas Mrs,’ called out one man.    

           ‘Yer, sorry to hear. He was a fine bloke.’ Said another.  It was late, Thomas and his mother made their way out into the night air with an oil rag torch she had left at the door. They walked across the muddy square and down Sun Street. The drizzle had finally abated and Thomas, protectively holding the arm of his mother, who by this time had her share of the penny ale and found the muddy road even more slippery than usual. Down past the roadside cottages they went, eventually reaching the be-speckled candle lights of the manor. The household dogs barked and growled but were tempered by their handler who patrolled the property.

          The dog handler, hearing their footsteps trudging through the mud, called out, ‘Who goes there? Be you bonnie lad or foe, say thy name, as my dog does not care.’

          ‘It is Thomas and Margery Rushworth yer grace, tenants of his lord from Hall Green returning home from manor court.’

          ‘I have heard of the goings on in the court, ‘tis a lousy night. Be careful going home for there’s a foul mist,’ his voice quietened with the parting distance they walked.

          A dog barked across the beck and the moon provided some light to guide them. The wind picked up force across the moorlands, the Pennine all but covered in a ghost- like mist. They walked across the fallow field and made their way up the side of the strip of land they tended from dawn to dusk. Sheep, like white marauders, looked up disinterested as they grazed on land that had once been tenanted by other families like theirs, now divided by dry stone walls.

          They saw him face down in the ditch at the side of the field, one leg bent awkwardly across the other, his shirt sodden from the earlier drizzle and there was no movement. As they drew closer and lowered the torch, Thomas noticed a bloodied gash on the back of his head matted and congealed with blood. There was no sound except the rustling of the heather and a quiet groan coming from the injured man.

          Thomas got closer and lightly placed his hand on the man’s back. Margery warned him not to get involved.

          ‘We can’t leave him mother the beasts will have him through the night, he still breathes.’

          ‘Aye, and if you get the blame for this and end up hanging from a rope, what are we to do?’ She replied worriedly as she looked up at the light coming from their cottage.

          ‘Come on mother, help me get him up, and we'll take him back to ours.’ Thomas passed the torch to his mother.

          'These are dangerous times son, what if he’s Catholic? Leave him be fer God sake’.

          Thomas dragged him out of the ditch, lifted one arm and heaved him onto his shoulder; the stranger groaned. Thomas was unsteady on his feet, so he took the first step carefully. He could feel the mud move underneath his feet; he took another, his mother placed her hand in the small of his back to steady him.

           ‘I can smell spew!’ He exclaimed while grimacing from the smell and the dead weight. 

           Margery walked slightly ahead, lighting the way grumbling as she went. It wasn’t far now, the light from the fire could be seen through the cracks in the shutters. Margery could see that William had already brought the animals in and was probably in bed half asleep.

          ‘WILLIAM HELP US!’ yelled Margery.

          Groggily, William jumped up from his straw mattress. The dogs barked, causing a commotion inside. As Margery got closer to the cottage, the dogs growled and made for the front door. Growling and barking, they paced the width of the door, trying to look underneath to get a glimpse of the unfamiliar scent.

          ‘WILLIAM IT’S US OPEN THE DOOR, we need help, hold the dogs back ‘cause we have a guest.’ Margery yelled.

          ‘GEW WAY DOGS.’ William shooed them away, so they moved to the other side of the hearth. They both stood curious about the scent. One of them started to move closer, the other behind him. They were agitated and alert, tongues protruding, their large black sagging lips drooling in anticipation. Tan, large muscular chest and hindquarters, solidly built with a huge snout and black ears, they were fine specimens. Affectionate and, of course, protective.

          As William opened the door, Thomas came bustling in, exhausted by the weight on his shoulder. The dogs barked and sniffed at the dangling hand. As carefully as he could, he laid the stranger down on the floor and straightened to relieve the pain in his back. The dogs nervously sniffed and retreated as the stranger groaned. Then they returned to continue their investigation, sniffing and then licking the vomit stain on his tunic. One sniffed his crotch; the other stood near his face, looking up toward Thomas, drooling. A line of saliva slowly dangled then dropped onto the stranger’s face.        

          ‘Gew way dog,’ Thomas shooed them away to the back of the room.

          ‘What are you doin’ brother? Bringin’ a corpse to our home,’ said William. ‘Have we not more important things to contend with here.’        

          ‘Quiet William, he's not dead, he fell afoul of the night and needed our help!’        

          ‘Our help? The only help he needed was another ale. Look at the state of him.

          ’The dog’s inquisitiveness, now half abated by familiarity, started to develop again as they sniffed at the stranger’s nether regions. A release of foul stench emanated from his britches and after one inhale the dogs decided they didn't want another and turned away. Still curious, they decided to watch from further away. A wet, steamy shadow started to appear on his codpiece and spread. A pool grew under the cover of the straw meandering along the troughs and cracks of the earthen floor. Margery, smelling the foulness, reached for the wooden bucket of water needed for the families’ night waste and flung it at the stranger’s crotch.

          Thomas turned him on his side and lifted his head, folding a small blanket for it to rest on, while Margery blotted the wound on the back of his head with a wet piece of linen. She washed it so that she could better see the wound. Parting the matted, damp hair, she squeezed the two pieces of skin together. More blood trickled from the wound and meandered its way down through his dark hair onto his neck, discolouring the collar of his undershirt.

          When Margery let go of the wound it opened again and more blood escaped, ‘William bring me my box with the thread and a needle.’ She rinsed the cloth in the wooden bowl and once again blotted the wound to try and stop the flow of blood.

          ‘Give me your knife Thomas.’ She took the knife and cut away at the hair around the wound so that she could see better. She closed one eye and carefully threaded the needle with the thread that she used to mend clothes. She blotted the wound once again and squeezed the two pieces of skin together. Pushing the needle through the skin she trembled with effort as it was resistant. After it pierced, she grabbed the pointed end of the needle, which was halfway through and pulled the thread through tight then repeated the action. Eventually the two pieces of skin started to come together, and the flow of blood slowed. After finishing the last stitch she rinsed the cloth and blotted the wound one last time. Then ripping a strip of linen she tied it around his head.

          ‘We’ll let him rest here tonight and he can be gone in the morning before any suspicions are raised,’ whispered Margery. Thomas turned, ‘William, make a bed for him on the other side of the hearth. We’ll stoke the fire and leave a candle burning in case he wakes during the night. Tomorra’, I will nip on up and see the reeve.’

          ‘No Thomas, tomorrow we will see him on his way in case his further presence curses us,’ said Margery worriedly.

          ‘She’s right Thomas, we could be harbouring a Catholic fugitive fer all we know, said William.’

          With empathy in his eyes Thomas whispered, ‘Mother, would you want to see me or William seen off if we were in a similar situation?’

          Pausing, Margery looked up, ‘Well son, God forbid, I would hope that you wouldn’t be daft enough ta fall foul of the ale and be found face down in a ditch.’

          ‘Let us talk no more about it tonight, let us sleep on it and see what the morning brings,’ exclaimed Thomas as he looked down at the stranger.          

          ‘William, help me get him to the mattress.’

          Margery and Thomas took the stranger’s shoulders and William took the feet, laying him down on the straw mattress on the other side of the hearth as carefully as they could.

          The stranger took shallow breaths and looked pale, his hose muddied and wet, clung to his legs. The dark stain on his tunic from the vomit was still apparent but had started to lighten from the warmth of the fire. The sleeves of his undershirt were wet and soiled.

          ‘I know something for sure, he’s gonna have a rotten headache in the morning,’ said William, smiling.

          The dogs, annoyed by the stranger’s presence at their hearth, took up their positions for the night, head on paws, eyes open, watching for any movement from the stranger.

          Thomas and William climbed the ladder to the loft that hung over the far side of the cottage. The waste bucket was half filled with water and left at the bottom of the ladder where it could be easily found in the darkness of the night. Margery lifted her woollen kirtle, squatted and released a steady stream of steamy urine which flowed into the bucket. She smiled with contentment. As she relaxed her bowels, her flatulence escaped in a deep sounding long-running reverberation. The splash of her faeces could be heard. The dogs lifted their heads from their paws in a quizzical fashion and realising what it was, put their heads back down and returned to their half slumber.

          ‘Better out than in,’ she declared, as she dipped her hand in the clean water bucket beside and wiped the residual. She grabbed the bottom of her kirtle, dried her hands and tiredly ascended the ladder. After she had undressed, she took up her place on the straw mattress between the two boys. William was already reverberating a deep guttural sound from the back of his throat and Thomas was sound asleep.

          Thomas and William stirred with the rooster’s call, woke before the birth of the sun and rose to the sound of their mother’s complaining tone of voice.     

          Margery had already been awake for an hour; she didn’t sleep much at night these days. Quietly, by the glow of the fading fire, she dressed in the kirtle that she had folded and left neatly at the bottom of the straw mattress and made her way down the ladder until she realised her wimple was missing. She climbed carefully back up to the loft, feeling around in the darkness near her mattress. She smiled touching her head, realising that it was still heir apparent. Feeling somewhat groggy from the previous night’s penny ale, she quickly remembered the events that had transpired and looked sharply for evidence of their guest. There he is, hasn’t moved.

          Margery lifted her kirtle and began to squat on the bucket. There he was, hadn’t moved, the dogs still wary and apprehensive about the stranger.

          The male and female English Mastiffs, although still puppies, were still a force to be reckoned with if the stranger had woken to take part in any misdeeds. Margery stoked the fire again and put two pieces of peat on the new flames. She stirred the pottage and opened the door for the dogs to relieve themselves. They hesitated, looking at the open door and then back at the stranger.

          ‘Gew on dogs, he means no harm, go and do thy business.’ She said, shooing them out the door.

          While leading the cow toward the door, it lifted its tail and released a stream of excrement which landed on the floor in the shape of a steaming patty. The cow’s udder was full and needed milking, but she would tend to the water and the pottage first.

          The two sheep and lamb followed through the opening, happy to nibble at the long grass around the cottage. She took the cow to the common green and pegged its long rope to the ground to keep it from wandering onto his lordship’s demesne.

          Thomas was already making his way down the ladder, partly dressed but not ready for the day. Some of his hair stood on end and his eyes were still not fully open. When he got to the bottom, he turned and raised his arms, stretching his muscles and his back to wake and lossen the stiffness. His back cracked, he lowered his arms, reached into his codpiece and gave his right testicle a scratch. He unlatched his codpiece and relieved himself in the bucket, the aroma from Margery’s previous night’s contribution wafting up his nose. He turned his face but too late to save his nostrils from the acrid stench. He gave it a shake and put it back in his codpiece, then called out to William who was still in bed.

          ‘WILLIAM GET OUT OF BED, the day is born and there is work to be done.’     

          William, accustomed to being last out of bed, sat up and started rubbing the sleeping grit from his eyes, ‘I was having a dream, a beautiful dream about a lass, hair of gold, eyes as blue as the sky on a bright spring day.’       

          ‘Yer, well dream about your lass later, we ‘ave work to do.’        

          William, partly dressed, his undershirt a hand-me-down from his brother and way too long, hung down to his knees. Annoyed, he stepped down the ladder slowly so as not to step on his shirt. He slowly pulled on his hose and attached his codpiece then he turned, excited to see the stranger still in the same position where they left him the previous night.

          ‘Do ya’ think he’s alive, brother?’       

          ‘I heard him groan before and he turned his face from the fire.’

          ‘What if he’s a Recusant Catholic, we could get in all types of shite.’

          ‘Watch yer tongue in this house William.  Save thy father a trip back from the grave ta give you a hiding.’

          ‘It’s no business of ours William whether he is or he isn’t, replied Thomas.

          All the time the stranger had been listening with his eyes closed. Who are these people? Where am I? Erggh my head hurts!

          Margery went outside, picked up the yoke, the wooden crosspiece that held the buckets, and placed it on her shoulders to make her way to Bridgehouse Beck about half a mile away. She would make three trips during the day to ensure water for the animals, the waste bucket, the washing of clothes and water for the ale.

          Through the wheat fields she went, past the cottages, across Sun Street, through the trees and down the hill. She could hear the movement of the water cascading down the small waterfall near her favourite collection point. She was careful walking down the bank, still damp from the morning due. The sun had started to rise, and it glistened through the leaves of the trees like glistening diamonds. She put the yoke on the ground and then rubbed her shoulder where the wood had dug into her and made its mark. The pebbles from the beck crunched underfoot as she bent down to fill one bucket, then the other.

          She hitched the two buckets and straightened her back under the weight of the watery load, being careful not to spill any. The journey home was a lot slower. She took her time going up the hill and paused halfway up, out of breath.

          Thomas walked over to the table in the corner under the loft and filled the wooden basin with fresh water from a bucket. He splashed his face, his chest and under his arms, pushing his wet hands through his dark hair, grimacing from the shock of the cold water. Thomas cupped his hand, held in his stomach and poured some water down the inside front of his hose. He quickly washed the front and back of his nether regions, repeating the routine until he was satisfied that all was cleaner, and he had removed the louse and bed bugs that liked to congregate and leave their mark at night-time.

          By this time Margery had returned with the water, she added some corn, wheat and beans to the pottage and stirred and scraped the sides of the cauldron. The aroma filled the room and filled the nostrils of the stranger that started to stir. He groaned, the dogs growled, he lifted his head, opened one eye and collapsed back down onto the straw mattress, the previous night’s events a muddled memory.

          William knelt beside him with a leather jack of ale, ‘Sip this my friend, have the hair of the dog that bit thee.’

          The stranger leant on his elbow and grimaced in pain as he felt the dried knot of blood on the back of his head, ‘Where am I lad? I know not.’

          ‘Hall Green, not far from Haworth manor. We found you in a ditch at the bottom of the hide and brought you home ta sleep it off. We didn’t know if you would wake today,’ replied Thomas. 

          John Hargreaves wasn't to know, but this kind act was to have a profound effect on the rest of his and his family’s future.

          William looked over empathising with the stranger while Margery spooned some pottage into bowls, ‘Leave the poor soul son, let him rest and greet the day in a bit.’

          The stranger groggily sat up from his straw mattress, clutching the back of his head. The dogs stood and growled. 

          ‘SILENCE DOGS, HEEL!’ Yelled Thomas.     

          The dogs dropped to the floor once again, but still maintained a vigilance.

          Margery handed the stranger a bowl of pottage and a wooden spoon, ‘Get that into ya’, give ya’ strength for the journey home.’    

          ‘Do you remember what happened?’ Enquired Thomas.           

          'I remember winning at the rat baiting, I remember celebrating and drinking ale with two men. Not locals, I hadn’t seen them before. The alehouse wench kept fetching more and more ale and I kept buying. The last I remember was walking down the street with my companions on the way home.’ 

          ‘Do you remember what they looked like?’ asked Thomas.     

          ‘They were dressed different. They had swords and one had a patch on his eye.’ ‘I remember them,’ said Thomas excitedly.

          ‘I must be on me way, I thank you for your hospitality. My name is John Hargreaves and I live near Moorehouse Lane toward Oxenhope. I better be off before my wife ‘n daughter Agnes believe I've left this mortal world.

          ‘If there’s anything I can do to repay you, me hide is on the way to Oxenhope. I have neighbours thereabouts and my daughter serves his Lordship at Haworth Manor. I am forever in thy debt, don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come along.’

          ‘Take more pottage and ale before you go Mr Hargreaves,’ Margery said while spooning more pottage into his bowl.

          Sitting on the stool by the fire, taking a sip from his bowl, Thomas swallowed and looked up, ‘Will you report this to the steward Mr Hargreaves?’

          ‘That thieving bastard, he'd probably fine me for being drunk hereabouts. Bad enough I must pay the tithe to the church and the tax to the Lord. I don’t want ta fill his pockets more than I have to, excuse the English, mother,’ said John stubbornly.

          ‘Nothing I haven’t heard before.’ Exclaimed Margery as she took the empty bowls and started to wash them in the bucket of cold water. ‘Right, I must be off then, I have ploughing to start and I’m late. The wife will not be happy, I was only supposed to walk Agnes home from the manor on a wicked night, but got weigh laid by the goings on at manor court.’

          ‘Next you are in the area, call in, think nothing of it,’ said Thomas, shaking his hand as he stepped toward the door.

          ‘Aye ‘n next time, fetch your daughter Agnes with ya’ too, let us meet the lass,’ Margery said sheepishly while winking at Thomas.

          Thomas opened the bottom half of the cattle door, the sun was rising, ‘Safe journey my friend.’

          ‘Tarreur Thomas, remember if there's anything you need.’ John, being a bit disorientated, tried to get his bearings for home.

          He wiped his forehead and tried to forget about the embarrassment from the previous night.

          What a fine family, he thought to himself. He hadn’t been treated so well by their kind before, but he wondered if they would have been so kind if they knew he was Catholic.

          He remembered the problems they had faced before moving to Haworth and how he and his family had been persecuted in the last parish. Masses were banned, Catholic priests went missing presumed to be executed, and they were fined twelve pence each Sunday for not attending the king's Church of England. His wife Marg and his daughter Agnes faced a daily struggle of finger pointing, whispering and humiliation. He sometimes wondered if it was all worth it, especially for poor Agnes who back then, didn’t quite know what was going on and why they didn’t go to church anymore. The poor dear couldn’t understand why the other children wouldn’t play with her and the songs they sang about her hurt.

          He made his way across the ploughed fields to Sun Street past the broken dry wall, cottages on the left, rising hills dotted with sheep, on the right, up the hill he went where it turned into Marsh Lane. It was tough going, a morning chill, the dew made the muddy lane slippery, he could feel the sweat oozing through his pores as he walked. There were green fields on both sides of the road and the sun was rising over his right shoulder; and the light hurt his eyes. He finally reached the top of the hill and let his wobbly legs carry him down the other side. He went past more cottages, most of the families already up and dragging the plough, some with oxen others without. It seemed to take ages in his current state but he was on the homeward stretch now, left on Moorhouse Lane, across the field and there it was, home at last.

          The door was wide open, and his wife Marg was nowhere to be seen. He walked inside and warmed himself by the fire noticing the dark vomited stain on his tunic.  His hose was damp, dirty and stained and his head hurt both inside and out. He took his shirt and hose off and left them in a pile near the fire. He walked to the ceramic water bowl and just as he splashed water on his face, she walked in, having just returned with buckets of water from Bridgehouse Beck.

          She looked at his nakedness as he was bent over the bowl and smiled at his whiteness and knobby knees.

          ‘Oh, there you are ‘usband, Agnes was worried about you. Where have you been? Up to no good I suppose,’ said his wife sarcastically.

          ‘Careful wife, I don’t need cheek this mornin’ my head is split,’ as John turned to show her the back of his head.

          ‘Goodness John, what have you done?’ Asked his wife as she hurried to the kitchen and took a wet cloth to the back of John’s head slowly cleaning it.

          John grimaced in pain, ‘My God wife, do you want ta open it up again? You don’t know what’ll come spilling out if you do.

          Stupid old fool. This is retribution for not going to church, I knew it would start again. 

          No wife, it was footpads, they must have known that I had a purse full of winnings.”

          ‘I went to the Kings Arms for an ale, there were rat-baiting in the basement, so I wagered a shillin’ or two and won.’

          ‘Sounds like you won too much,’ said his wife lifting his tunic from the floor noticing the stain.

          She looked at him curiously, ‘And what may I pray have happened to the winnings?’ 

          ‘Sorry wife, they are long gone. I woke up in a stranger’s house with an empty money purse. I was found in a ditch on their hide and they took me home ta sleep off the wound.’ He said apologetically, remembering the hospitality the Rushworth’s had shown him.

          ‘I’d say you were sleeping off more than the wound ‘n besides did you not think it might have been them that took the winnings.’

          John condemned her accusation, ‘No wife, it wasn’t them, I was assaulted on the way home. If it wasn’t for young Rushworth ‘n his family, who knows what my fate would have been. They tended to the wound ‘n put me near the fire, let me sleep it off while this morning, fed me pottage ‘n gave me ale to wash it down with, no wasn’t them. They are kind folk like us but not of the faith.’

          Margaret looked at him curiously, my goodness, now I’ve 'eard everything!’

          John turned to her, ‘They were different, kind and generous the woman had two handsome lads William and her eldest Thomas about Agnes’ age.

          They didn’t know I was of the faith, but I get the feeling that it wouldn’t have mattered.’

          ‘Husband you don't know that. We must be careful; I don’t want our Agnes to go through all that again. We must be silent and keep our prayers to ourselves. If it gets out that we’re recusants, then it will all start again!’ She sat down, put her face in her hands and sobbed.

          ‘There, there wife we’ll be careful.’ She’s a good woman and I hate to see her like this. I must remain steadfast and follow the true faith.

          John put his hand on Margaret’s shoulder, ‘It’s alright wife, nobody will ever find us and I will continue to pay the fine for not attending church, but I refuse to a pray to a false God and that’s that! Come now wipe yer eyes and lets talk no more about it.’

           In the quietude of their hidden convictions, Margaret and John found themselves entangled in a delicate dance of secrecy. As they navigated the challenges of concealing their devout faith, a chance encounter with a seemingly benevolent family unveiled a world of unexpected connections. The revelation of kindred spirits and the resilience of their beliefs hinted at a tapestry of stories waiting to be unveiled.

 

         

CHAPTER 5

SONS OF HEART

 

          Young Jonathon had brought back the axe that his father used to cut wood in the forest for the lord’s fire. ‘Ayup young Jono, me boy, let me have a look at that blade, if it’s not true you can stay and turn the grinding wheel awhile until it is,’ the reeve said, lifting the axe and looking down the blade to see if there were any imperfections.

          Continuing before Thomas could utter a word, ‘And Thomas, I hear theur didn’t pay the death payment at the manor court so you are in debt to the lord twice. I’d be careful lad, you don’t want thy family thrown off the hide.’

          ‘What work do you want to be done for the lord this week?’ Asked Thomas, knowing that it was customary to work three days for the lord on his demesne.

          Thomas and his father, when he was alive, made the most of working for the lord. It was work, but they didn’t toil as hard as they did on their own land. At times they went fishing together to put trout on the lord’s table; on other occasions they went into the forest and found mushrooms. Occasionally, father would hide a couple in his codpiece, and they would have them in the pottage that night. Another time the reeve asked them to pick apples from the orchard. He remembered his father picking one, looking around to see if anybody was about, shining it on his tunic and then telling him to climb up the ladder into the top of the tree to eat it. Of course, if found out his father would have received a right flogging for it.

          ‘Steward wants another dry bap wall built on the old Smithe hide, you can start that,’ the reeve replied, waking young Thomas from his memories.

          Thomas looked at the reeve angrily, ‘Another pasture soon there won’t be enough land ta feed any of us!’

          ‘Well, if folk like you paid their dues, the lord would keep people rather than sheep.’ Said the reeve smartly. ‘Now be off with ya’ and don’t forget the fine next time I see you or else I’ll come looking for ya,’ said the reeve impatiently. He knew that if the lord or steward found out about his generosity, it would come from his own purse.

          As Thomas and William turned and walked away toward the oxen, the reeve called out, sympathy in his voice, ‘Thomas, William, sorry about thy father, he were a grand man.’

          He lifted the axe again to have another look and left the two lads to tend to the oxen and suhl.

Walking to the barn, Thomas looked across and noticed the steward; he was talking to the two strangers he recognised from the Kings Arms. They were both dressed well, likely men not of this village. 

          Clean mutton sleeves wide at the top tapering to the wrist. Their hose clean, dry and tied at the knee with a garter. Swords hung in a sheath from the waist with a large black belt diagonally securing it. They wore fine leather shoes with a heel and a buckle like the steward.

          Thomas looked at the shoes and then down at his own foot wrappings bunched at the top and covered in mud.

          Thomas lifted his hand to shade the sun from his eyes, ‘William, I recognise those men standing there, I saw them at the manor court they were there when mother and I arrived.’

          ‘So, you should brother, one of them is the lord’s steward.’

          While Thomas was looking over, the steward gave one of the men a small leather coin purse.

          'How long will you be staying?' The steward asked.

          'As long as it takes,' replied the man with the eyepatch.

          The steward grinned, 'Well I can put you to work while you're here and be my guests at the manor. ’He didn’t know them, but they seemed of high station.

           'That is very kind of you your grace.'

          While sharing pleasantries, the steward noticed Thomas and his brother staring at them.

          What are those two looking at, he thought to himself, they should keep out of other's business.

          The steward’s smile turned to a frown. He shook hands with the two men, bid them farewell, and started walking toward Thomas and William.

          William, worriedly, walked quicker toward the tied-up oxen, ‘Christ, now you’ve done it. The stewards coming over here, let’s get.’ 

          Thomas dropped his head and quickened his pace, ‘Let me do the talking brother,’ as he arrived at the stall and started unhitching the oxen.

          The steward approached, ‘Ahh, Rushworth I believe, ‘n what brings you to the manor, dear boy?’ He asked in a demeaning, tone.

          The steward rarely spoke to the common folk unless it involved coin or payne at the manor court, preferring to leave that to the reeve.

          ‘Just getting the oxen for the ploughing, sir,’ Thomas took off his hat in a sign of respect.

          Thomas and William dropped their heads in submission, they couldn’t take their eyes off the steward’s polished and buckled shoes.

          ‘You seemed right interested in my companions before young Thomas. Do you know them? Is there anything you need to tell me?’ Asked the steward.

          Thomas looked nervous and William didn’t look. ‘No, your grace, I were just admiring the manor gardens and thinking what a wonderful place it must be to live here,’ he said.

          At that point, the reeve came out the back door and came running over shouting, ‘LORD WANTS TO SEE YOU YOUR GRACE!’

          The steward turned, ‘What does he want reeve?’

          Thomas winked at William and took advantage of the distraction to lead the ox and head for home.

          ‘STOP!’ Yelled the steward, convincing himself to continue with his questioning. He walked further to take up a position in front of them.

          ‘Thomas, you did not take care of the payne, fines or dues at the manor court.  Your father’s funeral sum is still owing, and I hear you only paid a chicken for use of the oxen and suhl.’

           Thomas took off his hat again and dropped his head in submission. He stood there patiently waiting for the steward’s next words. The steward leant forward so that nobody else, including William, could hear.

          His breath had the aroma of ale, old port, garlic and onions, no doubt a tasty memory of last night’s dinner with the lord, that from the smell, had been repeating on him all morning.

          ‘Young Thomas, you should remember how grand Lord Birkhead has been to thee, allowing you to be a copyholder on his lands.

          You are lucky, and you should be right careful to not put thy nose in business that does not concern thee,’ whispered the steward.

          Worriedly, Thomas raised his head and looked at the steward, being sure not to look in his eyes. He had a look of fear, knowing what power the steward had over him and his family.

          ‘Ah good, hate to see thy mother cast out into the evil of the night. Her old bones couldn’t stand being away from the fire,’ said the steward with a smug, sadistic smile. 

          The steward, pleased with his demonstration of power, walked away, quickening his pace as he neared the back door, fearful of keeping his lordship waiting too long.

          ‘Well, that went well,’ said William, looking at Thomas with a passive look of despair. He led the oxen along the gravel path to the ten-hour day of ploughing.  

          ‘What was all that about?’

           'Nothing,' he realised that he and he alone was responsible for the family’s fortunes, or ill fortune, however God may see fit.   

 

          The deputies returned to the pillory later the next morning; the captives were motionless and filthy from the northern weather. Rotten food and the odd dead rat that had been thrown at them by the locals as they walked by. They opened the lock, and the top of the frame was removed from the pillory. Groggy and semi-unconscious from their ordeal, the two held onto the frame for fear of ripping their ear from its resting place. Their backs stiff, legs trembling, and faces cut from the odd stone thrown at them from playful children that knew of the pillory but not the reason for the punishment. Faeces and urine soaked their putrid hose, and soft leather shoes. The deputy took his knife from the sheath, cutting the ear around the nail leaving a notch. The captives screamed out in pain, which woke them from their comatose state.

          Free at last, they sank to their knees clutching the red, mottled perforation that was left. The corner of their ears left on the frame of the pillory for all to see and a reminder to all that passed. Blood trickled down the side of their face and escaped through the gaps between their fingers. Children on the other side of the square watched, whispered and laughed while others walked past paying no attention,