O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
- Walter Whitman
The war raged on for two hundred years. And men, thousands of men, plucked from their prime and thrust into a fray of confusion, shed their blood on gritty soil, on sharp and cold steel of swords. For the glory of their land, but more than anything, for their beloved.
When he was five, Tom's father left for the war and never returned. They say the French piled the slain English, every single one of them, of noble and common blood alike, onto a heap, and left them to be eaten by hounds and vultures. Neither the cold comfort of a dug out grave nor the fiery release of a pyre honored their souls. They were left as grotesque reminder, disgraced and humiliated in death.
His mother, a widow, and thereafter a pagan, abhorred everything that the King and the church stood for, for the war was meaningless, and the King a puppet of the pope. She practiced her faith in secret. Not that Tom cared for it.
Not that he cared about anything, really, other than keeping her happy. And himself, too.
He was a cheerful young boy, free and wild and a handful for his mother. She hacked and piled and sold firewood for a living. He lay in the sun and hay until his eyes warmed to a shade of amber. His laugh was as carefree as the larks. The tall grass, the nettle and the dandelions caressed his quick feet, and the white clouds and the endless blue sky made him think of this life and the life after. He dwelled on them not broodingly, but as happy dreams and hopes.
As the years passed, he grew into a young man who cared for his mother; herded the sheep or lent a hand as a stable boy, while his mates in the shire learnt to read and write and cipher. Some read Latin, some read Greek. He stayed in the shire, as the rest went to town, as apprentices to men of law, to men of letters, to men of God, to serve the royal household.
He, he was of simpler spirits. He loved truly and he loved without fear. For every woman he loved though he was left with a broken heart. He took desertion though without malice and with no slight upon himself.
It was a May afternoon as bright as any, and Tom was bent over the stables, hurling pails of water on the boards before the horses were brought back in. It seemed like the least likely day for anything to go wrong.
Kit, a fellow who works by his side at the stable, came rushing in from the doorway. Tom looked up at him to see his ashen face.
"Forgot to change the waters again?" quipped Tom offhandedly.
"Didn't you hear it? Something terrible is happening, something very terrible."
"Didn't you hear? That was all the talk at the tavern last night."
"I did not stay back. Perhaps you were too drunk to remember." chuckled Tom. His expression then clouded over. "I don't stay ever since mother's taken to bed."
Kit remained in the same state of dull terror. "Seems like soon enough everyone will be taking to bed. It's this devilry that's been sweeping in from the east shores. Came from the ships, they say. Some say its dark magic. Been wiping clean Scarborough and Hull, and now it's headed straight to us."
"What, a storm?"
"Do ships carry storms?" said Kit, snorting in disbelief at Tom's apparent disinterest. "And were it a storm, it would have been far easier to weather. Perhaps a year of bad harvest and starvation. No, this is much worse. People are dying by the score. Some form of devilish sickness that takes one swiftly. They say it turns the skin black as coal, and one dies foaming and convulsing like a rabid hound."
"That is the most unnatural thing I have ever heard."
"Oh, these pagans." muttered Kit, and spat out the toothpick he had been chewing on. "Bloody bane of existence, curse of heaven and earth."
Tom held in a stab of anger. Not that Kit knew where his mother's faith lay. Not that anyone knew anything.
"The French are in bed with them." said Kit. "I bet they have sought their help to wreak havoc here."
"What do we know?" snorted Tom. "Could be anything from Jupiter farting to the King's plan of overthrowing the church." He couldn't care less about these things.
"Whatever it may be, the common herd are done for, as is usual." Kit then gave him a quick onceover. "The severity of the situation hasn't seemed to sink in you yet." He turned his back and left the stable, thudding down the wooden steps.
Tom shook his head, and hurled another pail of water on the floor. Some vigorous drunk tavern talk it might have been.