“I love... The Bells of Oxford; on the hour, every hour like a soundtrack. Yeah, I love the Bells of Oxford.”
(James Hathaway, 2.3. Life Born of Fire)
It’s the first snowfall of the season and the tops of the towers are completely obscured from view. It’s almost like the world just... ends, nothing but blurry whiteness where the open sky should be.
James has no time to ponder the weather though; he’s too busy braving it. The cobbles under his feet are slippery, the snow already soaking through his boots as he walks; breath puffing in clouds.
He’s late and the Bells do not wait. Already, the Morning Song is ringing throughout the City; the sound muted by the snow. James hastens his steps, all but skidding though the twisting streets. He hates the idea of Master Lewis having to deal with the Bells on his own this morning. The effort of it is always more strenuous after sleep, and while Master Lewis is more than capable of handling it, he shouldn’t have to do it alone. It is James’ duty as the apprentice to be there to help in any way he can, no matter how inadequate his contribution may still be.
Finally, the gates of the Citadel loom ahead. James slips through the small side door just as the final note of the Bells fades away.
The courtyard is mostly sheltered from the wind and the snowfall is lighter here than outside. James quickly sees his Master, standing still near the central fountain. His bare head is bowed from the effort of Ringing, hair flaked with white.
The snow muffles his steps, but Master Lewis seems to sense his approach anyway, looking up just as James draws near. He doesn’t say anything.
He doesn’t have to.
“I’m so sorry I’m late. The neighbour’s little girl was taken ill and I—”
Master Lewis lifts a hand, effectively cutting off James’ apology. “You should have told them to call for a Healer. It is not your place to interfere.” His head tilts minutely to the side, subtle enough to fool a casual observer.
James is anything but. You don’t get selected as the apprentice of the Bells (and yes, it is ‘the’ not ‘an’ – there is only one apprentice just like there is only one Bell Master) by being dull-witted.
“Of course, Master,” James says with his most respectful voice, bowing deeply. Such formality is not usually required – in fact, it seems to irritate Master Lewis enough that sometimes James does it just to get that little harrumph of fond annoyance it seems to elicit – but at the moment it’s providing James with an opportunity to follow his Master’s hint without being obvious.
It is as he suspected. At the other end of the courtyard a group of councilmen are huddled together, some talking, but some more interested in the show he and his Master are unwittingly putting on.
One of them chuckles and takes a few steps closer, breaking out from the ranks. Bravest of a hyena pack, James thinks bitterly and then immediately feels ashamed. These are the members of the Council he’s talking about, entrusted with the City and all who dwell in it.
But lately James has found himself questioning whether they are worthy of the faith placed in them. These are dangerous thoughts he’s having, the kind of thoughts that could very well land him in the cells if he were to voice them.
More dangerous still, he’s not the only one having them. Very carefully he does not look at his Master. He doesn’t care about his own life so much, but he’s not willing to do anything to jeopardise Master Lewis.
“Having trouble teaching your Apprentice about the fine art of punctuality?” The question is laced with a thinly disguised sneer and effectively interrupts James’ thoughts.
He bristles, ready to defend his Master if not himself, but a flick of Master Lewis’ finger stays the words before they make it out.
“Honoured Councillor is most kind in his offer,” Master Lewis says, inclining his head the smallest possible distance to still appear polite. There’s no change to either his tone or demeanour, but James can tell that he’s more than a little annoyed. “However, during my long years as the Bell Master I have found it best to handle such matters personally.”
It’s a subtle reminder of the position Master Lewis holds and James watches with satisfaction as the dig hits its mark and the obnoxious councilman backs away with a bow and gritted teeth. Serves you right, James thinks and this time there’s no feeling of shame or regret attached to his less than charitable thoughts.
“Come,” Master Lewis says and turns on his heel, heading toward the Eastern corridor.
James’s long stride lets him keep apace easily.
They take the steps in silence; first side by side and when the staircase narrows James drops behind, letting Master Lewis lead the way. Then, when he’s sure he can’t be seen, James lets free the smug smile that has been threatening for a while. With a few well-chosen words Master Lewis had asserted his authority and diffused a potentially ugly situation. James admires that about the man, especially knowing that such composure does not come naturally to his Master.
And sure enough, as soon as they enter the seclusion of the Sun Room Master Lewis starts venting.
“The arrogant, useless, lazy...” The rest of the litany gets stifled by his cloak as he yanks it off and angrily tosses it to the floor.
James adopts his most passive expression, calmly picks up the offending garment and hangs it over a chair. He sets about making tea on the small stove and decides to warm up some of the leftover oatcakes from the previous day. He would be willing to bet his sword and scabbard that Master Lewis had foregone breakfast again.
By the time the annoyed muttering tapers off, James has laid the food and drink on the table by the window. He opens the shutters despite the bitter cold of the winter morning. They both appreciate daylight more than warmth, and for this short moment of rest they can indulge themselves.
“Come, Master. Eat.”
Master Lewis huffs, but sits down. “I’ve told you that you don’t have to call me that in private,” he says.
James nods, but doesn’t comment. His Master has told him that, several times, and while James values that freedom more than he can express, he cannot bring himself to use it. Maybe someday.
After the breakfast James tops up their mugs and they linger over the tea. Normally, Master Lewis would be talking; sharing town gossip, berating any hapless council members failing to meet his high standards of leadership, or simply talking about their craft – teaching without giving a lesson. Today however, he seems content to gaze out of the window in silence.
The wind is still throwing the snowflakes around, creating complex patterns in the air that draw the eye and hypnotise the mind. James feels his own thoughts drifting, lulled by the simple peace of the moment.
The decisive clank of a cup being put down brings his focus back to the present.
“Tell me about your neighbour’s sick child,” Master Lewis asks.
James hesitates; he’s been hoping the topic wouldn’t come up, but of course it has.
“Her name is Martha,” James finally starts. “The girl’s I mean. She’s six. They’re good people, her parents. Hardworking. He’s a blacksmith and she runs the store where they sell the goods he makes. Martha is their only child.”
He laces his fingers around the empty mug and continues: “They came knocking early this morning. Martha was coughing blood.”
“Winter Fever?” Master Lewis asks.
James nods grimly. “It’s been going around the town.” Winter Fever comes every year and claims a harvest of the young, the old and the weak.
“They couldn’t afford one. It was too late anyway, by the morning.” James drops his eyes to the table and doesn’t blink. Maybe Master Lewis will leave it that. Maybe he won’t ask any more about it. Maybe—
“The child is alive though,” Master Lewis says, and it’s not a question.
James’ head snaps up. “How did you...”
“‘Her name is Martha.’ That’s what you said. Is, not was. She’s alive.” Master Lewis regards him quietly for a while, his expression inscrutable. “James,” he says finally, voice low and measured. “What did you do, James?”
James exhales, loud and shuddery as if the breath has been punched right out of his lungs. This is the question he feared, the one he doesn’t want to answer but must.
“I... I rang the Bells,” he says. It’s ridiculous, but it’s the only way he can explain it. “The feeling when I touched her was the same. It felt like Ringing the Bells, like there was a bell inside her its echoes dying and I... I couldn’t let it fall silent.”
He daren’t look Master Lewis in the eye. Surely what he did was wrong, a sacrilege even, and for this he’s going to be dismissed, it’s not what their power is for. He’s ruined it now, his hard-fought and cherished apprenticeship; Master Lewis will tell him to leave and never come back...
Master Lewis sighs. “I really wish you’d drop that when we’re alone.” He gets up, beckons James to follow suit. “I can see you’re working yourself into a state over this. Well, you better stop it and pull yourself together. You have the Midday Song to ring.”
James gets to his feet and trails after his Master. It’s not until halfway to the Bell Tower that the full meaning of the words sinks in.
“Exactly,” Master Lewis says. There’s a smile playing on his lips; amused and fond. “It’s time you did this on your own. What you have just told me...” He pauses at the door at the top of the stairs and pulls out the key from around his neck. “You’re ready, James. Trust me.” He opens the door and they step in. “Trust yourself.
The chamber is nothing more than a plain wooden platform, built around the Bell itself, half-sunken in the middle like a hulk of an alien ship breaching the surface of an ocean.
It is not necessary for them to be within touching distance of it. Master Lewis can Ring the Bells from anywhere within the City walls, but James is still not a match to his level of skill and power so being close to one of the Bells helps.
They kneel on the dusty floorboards, bodies folding easily into the meditation pose; eyes shut, palms open in supplication, ready to receive what is given. This too is unnecessary, simply something to aid concentration, to calm mind and body both. Again James is grateful; this is his first time Ringing the Bells alone, instead just lending his strength to Master Lewis’.
He can feel the Bells easily, all that power gathering, roiling, somewhere just beyond the senses. They seem to vibrate, eager to sing, just waiting for James to provide the momentum.
“Now do what you did this morning with the girl.”
James’ eyes fly open in shock. “What...?”
“You said it felt like there was a bell inside her,” Master Lewis says, only smiling at James’ confused frown.
It’s a rare, beautiful expression that draws crinkles at the corners of his eyes and James doesn’t know what he’s done to please his Master so, but he straightens his back anyway, determined to be worthy of such regard.
“Ay lad,” Master Lewis nods approvingly. “Now find the one inside me.”
If James had ever imagined such a request, he would have expected himself to demur, to hesitate. He does neither of those things. The words have barely faded when James reaches out and lays his hand flat over Master Lewis’ chest.
He looks momentarily surprised, but doesn’t pull away, so James doesn’t either. It’s what he’d done with the neighbours’ child, and like with her he can feel it immediately. Of course, there is no actual bell there, but it’s the best way James can describe it, the only thing that comes even close; as if someone had taken the essence of the Bells and somehow put it inside Martha, and now his Master.
There are differences though, a uniqueness to each that matches the person. Martha’s had felt like wind chimes in a spring breeze, while Master Lewis’ is vast and strong, with power to protect and reassure, to summon with its deep call.
James exhales shakily, the fingers of his hand curling inward at their own volition, clinging to the thin tunic Master Lewis is wearing. The steady rise and fall of his chest is keeping James grounded in dusty Bell Chamber, weak winter sun courting shadows across the walls.
“Good. Find the rest of them now,” Master Lewis urges. “Martha and all the others.”
James does, easy as breathing, like all it took was that one accidental discovery and the door in his mind has been flung open. And all he has to do is reach through it, and there they all are, every inhabitant of Oxford, from a screaming newborn in the shantytown to an old woman selling spices at the market, from the morning’s snooty Councilman to a maid in the kitchens, scrubbing pots several floors below.
They flicker, bright and alive, like flames reflected on polished bell metal. James feels himself tremble, the heat and energy of the people, the barely contained anticipation of the Bells, making his heart peal with joy.
“Ring the Bells, James. All of them.” Master Lewis’ voice seems to come from far away and James gropes blindly for his hand, something to hold onto as he pushes, up and out, sending the Bells swaying. The first clear note comes from the Bell in the Chamber, and then, like an unstoppable chain reaction, the one in the next tower, and then the next, and the next, until the Bells of Oxford are ringing, clear and eternal.
But it’s not just the Bells, but the people too, and James thinks he’s going to burst from the sheer wonder of it, the feeling of unity, of belonging.
When it finally stops, James finds himself slumped in his Master’s arms. There are tear tracks on his face though he doesn’t remember crying.
“Easy now,” Master Lewis says, stroking James’ back in steady rhythm. “The first time is always overwhelming. It gets... easier to handle.”
Master Lewis is right. James Rings the Bells twice more that day and by the end of it he’s exhausted but no longer feeling he could lose himself in the ebb and flow of it, and never find his way back.
After the Evening Song they stand outside, sheltering under the archway. It’s still snowing and the dark has fallen a while ago, winter nights coming early and sudden.
James is too tired to maintain any respectable distance between them. There’s no one here to see and next to him Master Lewis is a warm, solid presence, lending much needed support without James having to ask for it.
“I didn’t know it would be like that,” James admits, whispering the words against his Master’s shoulder like a secret.
“No one ever does.” Master Lewis turns around to look at him, his face half in shadows but his eyes burning with such intensity it takes James’ breath away and ignites his heart.
“The Bells don’t just ring the time, James,” Master Lewis says slowly, willing James to understand, to hear what he’s telling him. What the Bells are telling him. “They ring life.”
“Yes,” James agrees, because it’s the truth, more profound and sacred than any he’s ever known. They are the Bell Ringers of Oxford, he and his Master, and the lives within its walls are theirs to protect and serve. Whatever the cost. “I understand.”
Around them, the snow keeps falling. The night travels inexorably toward the morning, the winter toward the spring, and throughout it, the Bells of Oxford will ring.