The bells were silent. Still full-dark out, the only light in the long gallery room came from the dying embers in the huge hearth. Ignatius FitzClement rolled over, his mattress rustling, and eyed the sliver of the window. No light shone. The rest of the window was covered against the harsh January cold.
Then Iggy heard the sound of singing. It was Latin and he did not understand the words, but knew they were about God and love and light. The monks sang on their way to mark the nine canonical hours. It was either Lauds or Prime.
The monks had surprisingly strong singing voices, though many of them spent their days in silence. They sang in harmony, in unison, none of the voices overpowering any of the others. As they passed under the orphanage windows, Iggy drew his covers closer over his shoulders and ground his head into his pillow. The monks’ early morning songs both woke him and gave him peace for the day.
Iggy flicked his eyes toward the nearest bed. Another boy slept in it, though the monks’ singing did not ever awaken him. Tom was a gangly boy. His foot stuck out from the blankets. It was a bony foot. Someone snorted from further down the gallery.
Iggy waited. Soon, the bells would toll, if it was Lauds and the novice monks would arrive to awaken the little boys. In the other gallery, the nuns would go and awaken the little girls. The orphans, numbering somewhere between twenty and forty, were not all orphans. Some were boarders, given to the priory to be educated and reared by the nuns. Other children were of the village poor and still others were foundlings, with no home or family. Iggy was one of those, as was his closest friend, Tom. Tom had been found on the priory’s doorstep and given a surname, but Iggy had come with one. FitzClement. One of the lads said it was a Norman name.
The children were not allowed to break their fasts until after Prime. Morning was for chores. Afternoons were for lessons. For those curious, Lauds and Prime are early morning prayer services. And wow, did I give too much unnecessary information here.
Iggy’s stomach rumbled. He stood in a line of the other orphanage children, Tom beside him, a head taller, but nodding off as Prior Walter read the daily psalms. Iggy nudged his elbow into Tom’s ribs. The boy’s head popped up and he gave Iggy a subtle nod in thanks. It was bad form to fall asleep during any of the hours or mass. Extra chores came with any misbehavior.
After breaking their fast, the children had chores to perform. Iggy and Tom performed their chores together. Iggy brought in wood for the kitchens, then he and Tom ran to the stables to muck out the stalls and take care of the horses. It was a weekly chore rather than a daily one.
“Good morning, Brother Roger,” Iggy greeted the rather round monk who took care of the horses.
“Hullo, Tom. Hullo, Iggy,” Brother Roger said. “Muck out, eh?” Then he gave the boys their metal rakes.
The priory’s horses were not the stallions that knights rode, but serviceable hacks and friendly mares, with a donkey or two in there as well. The animals nickered when Iggy and Tom walked into the stable, stamping their feet to clear them of mud. The aroma of the stable rose to greet Iggy’s nose, which had turned red after mere minutes in the cold. Hay and horse, a note of manure in the background.
“I’ll muck out Equus’ stall,” Tom said. Equus–possible Daniel Radcliffe reference? Plus, Latin for “horse”. He held his rake with the tongs upward. Tom was a thin lad with a shock of riotous brown curls. “You do Cabullus. On down the line.”
Iggy gave a nod and unlatched Cabullus’ stall. The horse was a hack, used as a pack horse. Cabullus neighed. Brother Roger led the horse out of the stall and into the ring outside for morning exercise. Soon, the stalls were empty and only the sounds of Iggy and Tom opening stall doors and raking out piles and piles of saturated straw echoed through. The stable hands, hired from the village, would bring in new straw and bring in the horses.
Iggy finished Cabullus’ stall and moved on to the next one. A mouse ran from one corner of the stall toward the door. Holding the rake with both hands, Iggy forced the straw out of the back, further out, further out, until it was out in the aisle. Then back in the stall to gather the remaining bits of straw and horse waste. Iggy wrinkled his nose at the odor. How many effing times did I use the word “stall?”
Iggy backed out of the stall, his rake scraping the ground as it moved out the straw and waste.
“Ignatius!” He turned and saw Brother Roger.
“Yes, Brother Roger?” Iggy asked.
“Sister Benedicta wants to see you. Urgent, she said.”
Puzzled, Iggy replied, “Of course, Brother.”
Any manure he may have stepped on in the stables had been rendered away from the sole of his boots by the mud and puddles on the short walk from the stables to the clean, dry nuns’ dormitory. The square building, two stories with gabled upper windows, housed the priory’s forty nuns. A tiny parlor with the barest minimum of furniture—three chairs, a writing desk, and a table—was where the nuns met with desperate villagers, in need of alms, or parents eager to have their children educated. This was the room that Iggy presented himself to.
He inclined his head toward the nun sitting at the writing desk. “You wanted to see me, Sister?”
Sister Benedicta was one of the youngest nuns. Her oval face was framed by her coif, giving her head the disturbing quality of not having any visible ears. She wore a plain habit of brown wool and a veil over the coif, also brown. For some reason, the detail of her not having visible ears pleased me hugely. Dunno what that says about me.
“Yes, Ignatius,” Sister Benedicta spoke. She moved from the writing desk to one of the chairs, her wooden rosary beads clicking against each other. “Sit.” He sat. “Sister Catherine, Sister Bridget and I have conferred and agreed that your capacity for lessons has exceeded our humble ability. So, you will be starting lessons with the monks.” Softly, Benedicta cleared her throat. “With Brother Clement. You’re to meet with him later today.”
Iggy blinked. He was ten years old and up until now, all of his lessons had been given to him by the nuns, many of whom had gained their knowledge from the elder nuns. He’d seen some of the other boys, as they reached their twelfth or thirteenth birthday, be taken out and sent to tutors. But those boys had fathers somewhere.
“You know that as the boys get older, the monks must teach them what they need to know,” Benedicta continued. Though her voice was firm, the tone was clear and kind and her blue eyes were not distressed. “Have you anything to say, Ignatius?”
“Are not—are not the boys who the monks teach older than I?”
“Ah, yes,” Sister Benedicta said. “Many are. But you can already read and write and cipher and speak some French and Latin and ‘tis time to broaden your education into religion and Latin and perhaps some Greek. Brother Clement is a formidable mind.” She rose from her chair. “Finish your chores and present yourself to Brother Clement in the library midday.”
“Yes, Sister,” Iggy said obediently. He gave an awkward bow and rushed out of the parlor toward the stables.
“You’ve two left on your side,” Tom said when Iggy arrived inside the warm stables again and picked up his rake. “What was ‘at about?”
“Sister Benedicta said that I’m to begin my lessons with the monks,” Iggy’s treble voice said. “With Brother Clement. I’m to see him at midday.” He trudged toward the last two stalls, Tom following.
“Brother Inclement?” Tom said fiercely as Iggy set to work on gathering the straw in the stall. “Well, I suppose for all his scowling, he is rather brilliant.”
“I’d much rather have…” Iggy backed out of the stall. “Much rather have Brother John, like you.”
“Brother John goes on long tangents about Sodom and Gomorrah and sin and vice…” Tom rolled his big brown eyes. “Come on, Iggy. Finish up. We can beg some bread from Sister Elizabeth.”
Iggy’s mouth watered at the thought of warm, soft bread rolls. He ran into the last stall, raked out the tuft of used straw, then he and Tom raced to the front of the stables, left their rakes, and ran to the kitchen, two merry, growing boys about to wheedle food out of a kindly old nun.
In the fledgling, fighting sunlight of a January afternoon, Sister Benedicta walked a familiar path. The Priory of St. Osana was a small community of Cistercian monks and nuns in a tiny village in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but it boasted a magnificent cloister. The center was muck at this time of year, but in spring, it would bloom into thick grass and wildflowers. The four paths were laid with paved stones, smoothed over the centuries by other feet. The covered walkways had columns, twelve on each of the four sides. The cloisters were between the monks’ building and the nuns’ building.
Benedicta walked slowly. The unadorned cloisters were meant for contemplation, even the tiny benches inset into tiny alcoves on all sides. Later today, when the weak sun might peek over the thick clouds, Ignatius would meet with Clement and begin his worthy education. It was all that Benedicta had prayed for, for years. For it was true that Clement had a sharp mind, speaking, reading and writing English, Latin, Greek, French and German. He read widely, as his work was largely focused in the library and the manuscripts there. He knew higher mathematics and theology; some of the boys he’d taught in the past had moved on to Oxford University. Ignatius would do well under Clement’s tutelage, of that Benedicta had no doubt.
She had spent the last decade watching Ignatius grow from a round, clumsy toddler to a coltish boy. His hair, which had been red, had darkened slightly to a light brown. That, his pale blue eyes, and freckled pale skin gave Ignatius a ghostly appearance. He was thin, like his father, and would perhaps be as tall as him. There was no denying that as yet, Ignatius was an odd-looking child, with a rounded tip to his otherwise straight nose and puffy lips.
Benedicta reached to touch her lips. Hers were rather puffy. Because of the cold, they were also cracked.
But perhaps Ignatius would turn out like Clement, not an extremely handsome man, but appealing in his own way. Or perhaps Ignatius would take the way of her family: his hair would darken further and his body would become more solid rather than weedy.
For Ignatius FitzClement, orphan at the Priory of St. Osana, was Sister Benedicta’s son. And his father was hidden in plain sight: the frowning intellectual in a habit, Brother Inclement, as some of the lads called him.
Benedicta reached for her rosary and rubbing the ball of her thumb over the wooden beads, she prayed without a specific purpose.