The Lord of the Manor
When plague came to the cities, I saw my family perish one by one. With his dying breath, my father begged me leave our home, to seek out relatives living far away. The journey was hard. After several days of walking with blistered feet interspersed with occasional ride on passing carts, I came upon a small village nestled in the shelter of rolling hills. I did not know if my aunt and uncle still lived, but enquiries at the second house yielded a smiling face and warm welcome.
Life was hard then, all food had to be grown or bartered. People made clothes from cloth woven locally from wool, nettles or flax. An extra mouth to feed meant less for everyone else. If I were to stay, permission must be sought from the village Elders at their monthly meeting.
The Elders met in the state room of the Manor House. This ancient building stood in its own grounds hidden from the rest of the village by huge trees. Lush, green lawns swept down to the river meandering through the village. Downstream, the water provided power for the mill and other machines. My uncle accompanied me to the meeting to act as my sponsor. I always carried papers to show I was free from plague but now I must also prove my skills would benefit the village.
We entered the meeting room from a dark entrance hall leading from the massive oak front door. The richly paneled chamber was already half full with villagers waiting to petition the Elders on many issues. My first sight of these leaders was of an imposing group of men and women sitting behind a long, dark table, its polished surface reflecting their serene faces. There were four men and three women, all in their middle years or older except for the man who took the middle chair. I judged him to be in his third decade from the smoothness of his features, but when he looked up to see who was entering the room, I felt I must be mistaken for there were lines of worry about his eyes.
"How do they choose the Elders?" I asked my aunt as she brushed and plaited my long hair that morning.
"The Master always knows who the Elders are," she said. "Some have lived here all their lives as their families have done before them, but others came as you have, seeking us out, offering their wisdom in return for sanctuary from the world outside."
Her words puzzled me, but there was no time for further questions and I was loathe to read her thoughts without permission.
It seems such a strange thing to say - that I could read her thoughts, but it was one of my skills, passed to me by my mother's kin. As a child I thought nothing of talking with invisible playmates living miles away, until my Grandmother sent for me. She taught me rules to keep my abilities safe. It was our secret, hers and mine. I soon learnt to hide behind my wall of shyness, never acknowledging what others might inadvertently show me. When the plague came, the weight of sorrow and misery from everyone around me soon became too much to bear. I stopped up my inner ears to save my own heart from breaking further. It was so long since I opened myself to others, I'd quite forgotten how it used to be until that moment.
My aunt was right, the village was a calm and peaceful place. Even in the few days since my arrival I felt comforted, my grief less raw. More than anything, I wished to stay in this community. My heart pounded with trepidation as I found myself a seat in the second row. My uncle slipped in beside me, greeting his neighbours and introducing me to those I had not met. Soon the buzz of conversation died as one of the Elders rang a small bell before her, to signal they were ready to begin the business of the day. I tried to listen to the introductions, but my stomach was churning. All I could think about was the way the warm spring sunshine sparkled through the large leaded windows, shining dancing figures on my skirt.
Mine was not the only petition for residency that day. After requests for advice from two villagers, a swarthy man in a dark green jacket and shiny black trousers that marked him as a former city dweller, stood up with his sponsor to present his case. I listened hard to the arguments presented for and against him, wondering how the Elders would weigh each answer and whether they would use the same criteria to judge me.
He was asked many questions by every Elder in turn, except for the man in the centre, who sat quietly in his chair, looking thoughtful.
"Who is that?" I whispered to my uncle.
"That's the Lord of the Manor, the Master of the village,"
"Is he a good man?" I asked again, suddenly wanting reassurance that his people thought well of him.
"Aye, niece," my uncle squeezed my hand with his own. "He's a fair judge and he serves us well. We're very lucky to have such a Lord as he."
Although my uncle's words were so softly spoken I had difficulty hearing him, the man sitting at the table suddenly lifted his head, looking straight at us, a slight smile tugging at his lips as if he heard everything. Automatically, I shielded my thoughts and fears, lowering my eyes so I should not be caught staring.
It seemed strange to me, a city girl, for one man to be so powerful. Before the plague, our rulers were many and distant, chosen by five yearly ballot. Afterwards, only the strong survived. In many places, leaders ruled by forced, restricting so many things I was glad to be away from their tyranny of fear and petty squabbles.
"You're safe here, little one," I heard someone say.
"I know." My mental response was immediate and unthinking. Once more, as I lifted my head, I was rewarded with another friendly smile. All around me the questioning continued. I wondered how the Elders would come to a decision and whether the Lord would have the final word when judgement came.
They asked the petitioner to retire to the waiting room while they discussed his case. I thought the room would be cleared, but to my surprise, the Elders sat in silent meditation. My companions in the public gallery whispered amongst themselves but concern over my own fate made me unable to join their conversation. I slipped though a side door to catch my breath in the coolness of the corridor.
"What do you think, Myra?" I heard a voice behind me. I spun round, thinking I would see someone at the end of the corridor, but there was no-one there. I suddenly realised I was hearing the Elders speak to each other. I tried to close my ears, but the voices were too clear to be shut out. I knew I should shield myself lest I be accused of eavesdropping, but it was as if someone wanted me to hear, to understand and perhaps be less afraid.
"He speaks well enough, my Lord, but there is something not quite right about him." a woman's voice answered.
"You caught it too." The first voice was cool and calm, a voice that drew me, made me feel things I'd forgotten it was possible to feel. The voice of someone I wanted to know better, yet I did not know why.
Suddenly a surge of emotion rushed over me, so strong I had to clutch the doorpost to keep from falling to the ground.
"He hates you all!" I cried, for that was the emotion I sensed. I stood for a moment, trying to get my breath, wondering if the shout was with my mind or with my voice. How did I know? So many questions I could not answer, but I knew there was truth in what I said.
"Peace, little one," the first voice soothed me. "All is well. He shall not harm us. I will make sure of that."
I caught my breath, wishing the speaker was there with me, but the corridor was still empty.
"Come back, Katrina," My uncle's anxious face appeared around the door. "The Elders will speak their decision, then it will be your turn.”
Hastily, I returned to my seat. The swarthy man was called back into the room. The Senior Elder, a portly man in his sixties, rose to give their decision.
"Your cousin says you are a hard worker, Ranulph. This village needs men who can work hard and contribute to the common good. We have decided you may stay with us for a year, then apply again for permanent residency if this is still your wish."
I was stunned they accepted him, but I was confident the Lord would keep his word and let no harm befall his people. The swarthy man looked pleased and spoke his thanks eloquently. Too eloquently, I thought, then tried to dismiss him from my mind as they called me to stand before the Elders.
My uncle spoke first, telling them my story. I stood quietly, trying to read their faces, seeing which ones might be hostile and which friendly.
"What skills do you bring with you?" an older woman asked. My mouth went dry, for a moment I could not answer, but my aunt had coached me well, so I was able to tell them of my knowledge of spinning and weaving, of herblore both for dyeing and for medicinal use. The village had a large flock of sheep grazing on the hillside and much of the food was bought with the wool from their backs.
"I can also teach others what I know," I told them, "I have brought my books with me." I picked out two from my bag and passed them to the nearest Elder, who studied them eagerly as if he had not seen new books for a long time.
Without warning, the Lord of the Manor began to question me in several different languages. I was able to respond to most of them, explaining my parents and I had traveled widely before the plague.
"Do you think she'll breed?" A woman's voice sounded in my ears, my face flushing at the impertinence of the question. Did they think me too old to bear children? In truth most women of my twenty-five years had two or more toddlers around their skirts. Everyone was encouraged to replace those souls the plague had ripped from us. There were offers - and sometimes even force! but I found no-one I wished to share my bed, let alone father my children.
I wondered if I should answer the question, but although I searched the faces before me, no-one seemed to own the thought and I was forced to answer a female Elder. She wanted me to describe at length my experience with herbs and my training with the local apothecary in the city. At last the questioning drew to a close; it was my turn to wait outside while they deliberated.
They took me to a small room with black timbered beams framing the whitewashed walls. Books covered two walls and comfortable leather chairs were ranged around for people to sit and read. Between two such chairs stood a glass table upon which large chess pieces ranged, as though the game were still being played. The sight brought a lump to my throat, for my father loved chess and we often played when I was small.
Very soon they called me back. My uncle said with a broad smile, "It's all right, Katrina, you can stay. They want you to teach the children!" Somehow I managed to stammer my thanks to the Elders, leaving the room in a daze of excitement and relief.
So began my life in the village. Each day I taught the children in the one-roomed school. They were few in number, those children born after the plague, but all the more precious for that. I loved my small charges and taught them diligently. It was a happy time.
One evening, as I tended my small plot of land, I noticed someone leaning over the stone wall. He was tall, with dark brown hair and eyes that spoke of sadness and much care. He said nothing, yet when I looked up, I felt he knew everything about me. I smiled and instantly his faced responded, as if the sun had been trapped behind a dark cloud and suddenly broken free.
I recognised the Lord of the Manor but felt too shy to say anything. I picked one of the dark red roses with the deepest perfume, offering it to him. He took it, inhaled the scent, then tucked the long stem into his coat.
"Are you happy here, Katrina?"
"Yes, thank you, Sir."
He smiled again and hesitated for one short moment before turning away. I returned to my weeding.
His presence puzzled me, for I felt he wanted to say more but did not know how.
My life continued and I thought no more about it. Then, one day, when the summer sun was high in the sky and everyone was busy in the fields, I worked too long without a rest and nearly fainted as I stacked my last stook upon the cart.
"You've done enough for now, Katrina," my aunt said. "Go home and rest."
The path from the harvest field led down through the trees past the Manor House. As I walked by, I heard voices coming through an open window, angry voices. I followed the path to the front door and found it open. This seemed strange when I knew the Elders were not in session. The voices grew louder and my curiosity got the better of me.
I slid silently inside, tiptoing towards the sounds of argument. In a large room, a crowd of men stood grouped around something. I craned my neck to see what was happening. A man stood in front of the empty fireplace, the same man who'd been accepted into the village at the same time as I. He looked defiant and there was a sack at his feet. The mouth of the sack drooped open, clearly displaying the body of a dead cat. The man did nothing to interrupt the torrent of angry words coming from the person sitting near the empty fireplace.
The Lord of the Manor was white with rage. Then his voice dropped and I had to strain to hear what he said next.
"Would you like to know what the cat felt as you choked the life out of her?" Ashen faced, the man shook his head
The Lord of the Manor did not move from his seat, but as he watched, the culprit began to choke.
Icy fear ran through me like a winter wind. I hardly recognised the man who had accepted my rose and smiled at me. I saw what he could do. It terrified me. My only thought was to get away from this place before I, too, fell foul of someone who could choke another human being with his mind! Sharing thoughts was one thing; my Grandmother spoke of people who could achieve such feats as this, but I never thought to see it with my own eyes!
I opened the door and fled back along the path towards the village. Most people were still in the fields harvesting. I knew no-one would search for me before nightfall. Soon the last houses were behind me. Over the open meadows I stumbled, across the ford and up the hill, to the shelter of the ancient trees. As I fought my way deeper into the cover through brambles and thorn bushes, I tripped over a broken branch and fell. For a long moment, I lay winded. When I tried to get up, my leg would not move and pain raced through me.
I knew then all was lost. Just beyond the trees lay the parish boundary and a busy road. Once there I could find a cart and be far away where no-one could find me. Now it seemed impossible to move. I lay where I fell and wept.
Time passed. The sun set and the long summer evening began to fade. The pain in my leg grew steadily worse. Even if I were found, the punishment could not be as bad as my current suffering.
Night fell and I watched the moon rise above the trees. It was then I heard the dogs - bloodhounds - baying to their masters they had found a scent. Fear racked my body. I had stumbled across the secret of the village. Their Lord acted as both judge, jury and executioner. He was the law. He would not forgive anyone who saw things they were not meant to see. The dogs were proof. I remembered what happened when hunting packs were loosed within the city. Man or beast, the quarry did not return alive. If the dogs did not get me, the Master himself would cause my end. If I loved life, I had to get away. Now!
I tried to drag myself along the ground, but it was hopeless. I searched frantically for a fallen branch to act as a crutch. I thought I saw something suitable propped against a tree and reached out to grab it. As I did, I felt a hand on mine and a familiar enquiring touch upon my mind. Wrenching my hand away, I crouched against the tree, covered my head with my arms and waited for the blows to fall upon me.
"Please," I begged. "I did not know. I'll say nothing. Please don't!"
No blows came, just a stream of soothing thoughts, calming my fears; urging me to trust my heart if not my mind. When I could stand the strain of waiting no longer, I looked up.
The Lord of the Manor stood leaning against a tree watching me.
"Why did you run?" His eyes were sad, as if somehow he'd failed me.
"I saw you in the house," I choked. "You were killing him!"
He shook his head. "No, Little one. I only gave him a taste of his own medicine. When I felt your fear, I came to reassure you, but you were gone, your mind cloaked with a thousand veils of fog. The bloodhounds only found your scent just now and brought me here. "
Then he noticed my leg. "You hurt yourself?"
"Yet you hid the pain from us all." He crouched beside me, easing me into a more comfortable position. There was no anger in his face, merely compassion for my plight. When he asked my permission to examine me, I nodded, the pain making it nearly impossible to think, let alone speak. My fear suddenly released, I felt giddy and light-headed. I would have toppled to the ground if he had not been there to support me
When his hand touched my knee, the pain suddenly drained away. He held my shin between both hands as warmth spread from him. I could only sit and watch as if the limb were no longer part of me.
"Can you stand?" he asked at last.
I wriggled my toes experimentally and, when the pain did not return, I took his proffered arm and let him help me to my feet. Amazingly, the leg bore my weight. I stared at him in surprise, but he merely smiled and said he thought we should go home.
I looked up at the sky, noticing how the summer moon lit the tiny glade beyond the trees where I had hidden. A wave of tiredness swept over me; I would have stumbled if he had not placed his arm around me for support. I could smell the lingering scent of rose upon his jacket and I yearned to lay my head upon his shoulder and let him take me home. My first thought was that all I wanted was my little bed in my aunt's house, but then another picture filled my mind with a longing I never felt before - to sleep curled in another's arms, his body protecting mine. Blushing, I tried to remove the image from my mind before he saw it there, stammering my thanks and apologies, but he waved them away.
"It is I, who should apologise for frightening you," he said. I suddenly realised the image was not mine alone, but born of us both. He brought my hand to his lips and brushed them lightly against my skin. My whole body tingled. He turned my hand over and dropped a kiss into the palm, opening his mind so I could read his sorrow and his love and the longing he felt for me.
"Will you let me take you home?"
That was many years ago. I still teach the children, our own amongst them. Sometimes, on summer evenings, he will lean upon the stone wall and watch me tend the garden. I pluck a deep red rose and together we enjoy the heady perfume. He smiles and, deep inside, I smile too.
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