The boy had run as fast as his shaking legs could carry him to the farthest outbuilding on the manor lands and burrowed as deeply into the hay as he could, but it would not be deep enough, far enough, fast enough. He could run no further, and he could not stay hidden forever. Sooner or later he would be found, tracked down like an animal run to ground, and then he would be punished anew for having fled.
At the very least, there would be new stripes to join those that burned and throbbed across his back. He did not need to see them to know that they had bled -- his tunic was stiff with drying blood, the cloth sticking to his skin and chafing with every movement like a penitent's hairshirt. Even the sweet-smelling hay in which he had sought refuge seemed to be punishing him for his sins, as the sharp edges of the dried grasses scored thin, cruel lines on his hands and face to match the broader ones elsewhere on his body. His attempts to conceal himself within the hay had kicked up clouds of choking dust, and there was grit between his teeth and up his nose and in his eyes. His tears had long since dried, but he could not help the sobs that continued to force their way out of his chest.
All he had wanted was a look -- nothing more.
The private chamber was always kept locked when his lord was not within it, and the only other key hung from the steward's belt, but the boy had been patient and watchful. Eyes open and feet silent, he waited for his chance -- for a cold winter's day when there was much work to be done in preparation for his lord's return from a long journey to the West Country, and the steward might be distracted enough with his other duties to neglect to turn the key in the lock, and it would be possible for a boy to snatch a few scant minutes from his duties for the promise of opening the door to a much wider world than that of hearth and hall.
He would not have touched anything, would not have moved so much as a vellum leaf out of place. It would have been enough to see just one of the marvellous books that his lord kept safe within his private chamber -- not merely works of devotion or scripture or the lives of saints, such as the lord bishop was said to possess in great numbers in his library, but books that told tales of foreign lands and creatures and peoples, books that held wisdom from the far corners of the world, books brought as precious gifts of gratitude by the learned men who often came to consult his lord's vast knowledge and experience in matters of the law and the church. Surely it was not wicked to wish to look at such things?
He had pushed the door open so slowly, so carefully; indeed, he had scarcely dared to breathe as he did so, out of a strange sort of fear that he would somehow profane the room and its contents with his presence. The room was shadowed with the gathering dusk of early afternoon -- it would have been impossible to have a rushlight or taper to hand, but a boy's eyes could see more clearly in dim light than a grown man's could. There was enough light to see sheepskins on the floor and wooden chests against the walls, a sturdy table with two great candlesticks. Just a few more steps, and then --
He had been so focused on remaining silent that he had not heard the steward's approaching footfalls until it was too late.
The steward was not a cruel man. He was fond of his drink and proud of his place, but his wife did not go in fear of him like the head groom's wife did, and he was quicker to lash out with sharp words than with kicks or cuffs. All the same, the boy had not had time to move or even to cry out before the steward was upon him, one massive hand seizing him by the scruff of the neck and shaking him, as a dog would shake a rat, until his teeth rattled in his head. With a string of terrible curses, the man dragged the boy into the kitchens and took hold of the first suitable implement that caught his eye: the stout leather strap that was kept for sharpening the household's knives.
By that point, the boy had recovered from the first shock of his capture. Once he realised what punishment lay in store for him he fought like a demon to free himself from the steward's grasp. His struggles only served to make the steward angrier and less sure of his hand, for when the strap came whistling down with the first blow it did little more than glance off the boy's shoulder, and the cry it provoked was one of alarm, rather than true pain. But the second blow did not miss, and neither did the third. After that, the leather strap seemed to find the mark of its own accord with each successive blow.
The whole kitchen was in an uproar, with the shrieks of a frightened scullery maid and the spluttering of the old one-eyed cook adding to the boy's howls and the repeated dull thwack of leather against cloth and skin. The steward's furious shouts rang out loudest of all -- thief and rogue and whoreson knave, dire promises of a gruesome end on the hangman's rope and the certainty of eternal hellfire beyond it. By the time the man had exhausted both his voice and his arm, the boy's howls had turned to racking sobs. In a last desperate burst of strength, he broke free of the steward's grip and took off in a blind, hobbling run.
No one had made to follow him. Perhaps the steward's mad fury had been spent in the beating, leaving him in no position to raise a hue and cry. Perhaps the man was waiting for him to come slinking back before night fell and it became too cold to remain hidden. Or perhaps he was simply not important enough to bother with any longer, not when there was enough work to be done elsewhere. The boy neither knew nor cared; his sobs were finally slowing, as pain and exhaustion pulled heavily at his limbs. He fell into a hazy twilight stupor, the sweet oblivion of true sleep just beyond his reach.
And then, for the second time that day, he was taken by surprise.
Surrounded by mounds of hay, he had not felt the vibrations of boots treading on packed earth, or heard the rickety wooden door open at another's touch. He slid back into awareness just as a long shadow fell across the floor, and the silence was split by a voice like the first rumble of distant thunder.
Come out, boy.
Hay rustled sharply as the boy shrank back, cringing.
Come out, I said. Another rumble, louder now, and the boy's heart rang in his ears like a wild peal of church bells being raised to chase away the coming storm. Or you will have proper cause to be afraid.
It was useless to hide any longer. The boy crept out of the hay, wincing with every movement. He did not dare to rise from his hands and knees, or even to look up, so all that he saw was a pair of mud-spattered boots and the dusty hem of a travelling cloak. But then there was movement before his eyes, a rustle of cloak, and strong fingers were under his chin and gently but firmly tilting his head up, up, until he had no choice but to scramble upright and sit back on his heels with his hands clenched at his sides.
His lord was surely nearer to his allotted threescore years and ten than any man the boy knew. His face was weathered and craggy, his hair pure white. And yet his dark eyes were not clouded with age -- they were bright and piercing, sharp enough to reduce grown men to silence with a single glance. The boy held still, pinned beneath that keen judging gaze now at eye-level with his own.
You are known as Hawkin, yes? He waited until the boy managed to twitch his head in a jerky nod. Then you will speak truthfully to me, Hawkin, for I will know if you are lying. Why were you in my private chambers, where none are permitted to enter without my express command?
Wanted...w-w-wanted to look, the boy stammered, high and breathless. At…at the books. His fingernails dug into the callused flesh of his palms. Oh, my lord, please forgive --
That was your only reason? To look at the books? His lord seemed to weigh the words with strangely solemn gravity, as though a servant boy's plea demanded the same consideration as that required for settling disputes over land or chattels. Then you have paid a hard price indeed for your curiosity.
Hearing his own words repeated back to him in such calm, dispassionate tones sent a flush of shame burning high on the boy's cheeks. To want to look at the books...oh, it sounded absurd now, even to his own ears. What reason had he to want such things? He was no clerk's son, no scholar's child. Even one of the charity boys at the abbey, who might learn their letters under the stern eye of the master of novices, would have had more right than him. To be so discontent, wanting more than his place deserved...perhaps he would indeed come to a bad end, as the steward had said in his ragings.
Yes, my lord. He could not hang his head; the hand beneath his chin prevented it. I...I know that I d-deserved the p-p-punishment for it.
His lord's eyes narrowed. That was a beating, not a punishment, he said, his voice suddenly low and terrible. You were beaten in the heat of anger, by a grown man more than twice your size. I have not yet determined what punishment you will receive for your disobedience, but I do not punish men, or boys, in anger. And to that I will give you my word, as I would to any man.
Abruptly, the hand beneath his chin was gone, and the travelling cloak billowed out as his lord stood.
Regardless, he continued in a brisk, efficient tone, the punishment will wait. Your wounds will fester if they are not properly tended.
As if in response to his lord's words, the stripes on the boy’s back gave a sympathetic throb.
Come now. It will be dark soon.
The boy blinked, looking up, and saw that hand that had held his chin was now held out to him -- as much in invitation as in command.
Hawkin. More gently now. Will you come with me?
Wordlessly, as if in a dream, the boy took the outstretched hand.