Sunday, 30 September 2012
It was the last hour of darkness, a slight glow along the horizon hinting at the coming dawn. Still too dark to make out any features in the stone cell, but there were few to see even in full daylight when the sun squeezed through the narrow gap that could be a window, or a viewpoint for a keen eyed bowmen to defend the keep.
Breath condensed into huff from the sleeping bodies scattered across the room, each huddle under whatever blankets they could find, grab, steal from their neighbours. Wulf sat huddled under his ragged covering looking up towards the night outside, eyes hardly focused, listening to the sound of his companions.
"last day of fosterling you little rats" Caarg had said as he shut and bolted the heavy doors of the holding room after dishing out the slop that passed as evening meal in the Fosterly Hold.
No-one tried the doors, they were heavy and well bolted from the outside.
"keep you rats safe" Carg would mutter through his broken teeth and half shaved face.
All the fosterlings had tried the door at some time in their years at the Hold, some from babe and others like Wulf for only a few years. But pull, tug, kick, scratch was all the same to the heavy oaken beams.
Tomorrow was the start of his tenth year, or so Caarg told him... all the lads in the room were of an age - some taller, some more thickset, some weak and sickly. All of an age...
He knew that there were other rooms in the Hold, rooms with other children crying themsleves to sleep. Other rooms with children who were younger, but all of an age.
Wulf remembered his first year at the Hold, the wide stone hall they lived in then was more airy than this current room. That was before they separated the girls from the boys..
Tomorrow was his last day of fosterling...
His breath rose from his lips, cold and wispy, and he watched the first glimpses of the dawn in the distant sky...
"Last day I'll be wet-nursing you rats" Caarg had said...
"Thank the Gods for that!!" Gork had muttered, just loud enough for the boys to hear. Carg looked with bleary eyes at the laughing boys and cuffed the nearest lad - Samwell on principle, sure that someone was making fun of him. Samwell took the blow well, falling to the ground, but years in the hold had taught them all how to take a blow, roll and feign enough pain to avoid the second blow... Caarg had seemed satisfied that his authority was intact and shuffled out of the door....
Less than an hour and the door would open again, and each would walk out into a new world.
Less than an hour to the Prentissing.
Gork said that he would be chosen by a great Knight and taken to squire, and one day be a knight himself and lead the warband... Gork was taller than the other boys. Maybe a few months older than most of his companions, certainly a leader amongst the ragged band. Few wanted to challenge him, his fists were tough and he wrestled like a wild animal - biting and gauging. Many a time he had to be pulled from one of the other boys for a suspected insult or believed words spoken behind his back.
Wulf had felt those fists, and had curled into a ball to reduce the impact of the kicks from those bare feet. He was smaller than Gork, but more important he had no wish to step into Gork's place. He did not want to watch every night to see who was trying to take usurp him as leader. He saw no need to challenge - Wulf kept his head down and let the others fight over their place in the pecking order.
But when it came to food, Wulf would stand his ground - he would not starve in the Hold as some of the weaker lads had. The daily scrabble for food was his only battlefield. He had no wish to be top of the pile, but he was quick of foot and swift with his hands. Get in quick and get out safe was his unspoken motto.....Survive!! get through to the end of the week !!
Wulf had no real aspirations for the coming day. He knew from the whispers in the long cold rooms that once a year all the residents of Fosterly Hold who were nearing their 10th birthday would be paraded in the great courtyard of Fosterly Hall. He had peered through the slits that served as windows only a year ago to see the thirty of forty children led out and lined against the wall, so the Great and the Good, the Rich and the Bored, the Wize and the Curious, and a few artisans could examine them without having to stand int he sun. He could still remember the aroma of the roasted pig in the Courtyard as the Prentisses were told to stand, speak, walk, lift iron bars, any act that took the fancy of the Great.
What had happened to those last year he wondered.. Some might find themselves in the big houses, kitchen thrall, the luckier maybe working in the warm, others tilling the fields, most of the girls were probably now working in the brothels - some of the prettier boys as well. All Wulf knew was that Gork would certainly not be a great knight... That was for some Lordling....
Wulf hunched his shoulders, dropping his left slightly so he appeared to have a slight deformity in his spine, and curled his toes on his bare left foot. The pulled foot would soon turn to cramp and give him a more authentic limp. He pulled the blanket closer and blew into the cold air.
Less huff now he thought. The air is warming up out there. It would not be long now he knew... He would not be crying like some of the boys, but his limp and his slight stoop would make him less attractive for the heavy work or the brothel. He did not know how he knew this, but his act had kept him out of most of the beatings and quarrels in the hold....
A jingle of brass keys at the door as the old lock was turned. A creak of the iron hinges as the massive oaken door swung open..
"Right you little Rats - lets be having you" roared Caarg as he swung two large buckets of cold water onto the floor - kicking the door shut behind him.
"Better have clean little rats for the Great and the Good"
Survive thought Wulf - make it through to the end of the day, make it through to the end of the week....one step at a time... He shuffled forward with the others...