“Uncle Devlin’s Bedtime Stories"
Uncle Devlin’s Bedtime Stories
An Excerpt from Endover
Brother Proteus shivered and clung to Nick’s arm as they struggled through the downpour. The friar’s cloak and cassock were wet through, and his back bent with the weight of sodden wool. Nick squinted and blinked away the raindrops that pelted his eyes, his lean face pale and gaunt with fatigue and hunger.
“The light seems brighter now, Brother … it cannot be much farther.”
“Ye’ve said that for a mile, ye pup … and I misdoubt the light’s but a phantom.”
“Come … have faith.”
“Faith have I, but no strength … and I must rest these old bones.”
Nick looked around. “But where, Brother? The fields are all mud and the ditches o’er teem their banks. Perhaps we shall come upon high ground and shelter, even before we reach the light.”
Proteus sputtered and wiped his mouth. “The impetuosity of youth … ’twill be my downfall yet.” He moaned and forced his feet to move. “Would to God I had not lost the way to Wiggenbury … we should be dry and home now.”
“’Tis all one … yonder light bespeaks warmth and a roof … mayhap a morsel and sup for the weary.”
“The weary and the wet … will this infernal rain never cease?”
The boy shrugged and they plodded on.
Sparks flew from the watch fire when the sentry dropped a handful of twigs into the iron basket. Rain clicked the tin cowl that protected the flame while the sentry cowered from the gale inside a wall niche. None had been in or out the gate all the morning, if morning it could be called in such dankness and gloom. The sentry drowsed, lulled by the incessant spatter of raindrops, but movement on the road caught her eye and she grasped her halberd with both glaived hands.
Nick all but carried Proteus the final hundred yards, then the old man bestirred himself when his sandals left the muddy road and struck the planks of the drawbridge.
“Halt! Who comes?”
Proteus stopped and raised his head. “A wet and weary friar and his novice. Be there shelter for a holy man within these walls?”
The sentry smirked. “I reckon as one more can’t hurt … come ahead.” She pulled open a small door beside the heavy portcullis, went through, and cupped a hand to her mouth. “Captain of the guard … main gate!”
Nick looked wide-eyed at the old man. “Is that a woman, Brother?”
“So it would seem … or a man with a woman’s voice.”
“But how shall a woman be a …?”
“On, lad … I’ve not time nor temper for guessing games.”
They stopped in the door and leaned against the sill, out of the rain, while a figure clad all in chain mail and with a plumed helm strode toward them.
“Good day to you, Brother.” The helmet cocked upward an inch, then wagged back and forth. “Or perhaps not so good. Be that as it may, come with me.”
“Many thanks, kind … er … thank you.”
Proteus frowned and followed the helmed figure along narrow cobblestone streets, and kept to the shelter of cottage and shop awnings until they came to a large market square. Only a handful of folk were out and about, and those few bent beneath the storm and hurried upon their errands. Two massive structures faced the square on the right and left, and the guard captain led them toward the one at the left. Proteus sighed as he shakily mounted the steps to the tall, arched doorway, relieved to be at long last so near the warmth and fellowship of his brethren, and also to their kitchen and refectory table.
One of the double doors swung open, and the guard captain bowed and then turned away. Nick followed Proteus inside and the heavy door boomed shut behind them. Proteus pushed back his hood and looked up at the magnificently frescoed ceiling, then shook water from his cloak as he gazed in admiration at the rich tapestries and gold candlesticks that adorned the entry hall.
“Splendid, Brother, simply ….” His mouth fell open as he turned. “I mean … Sisters.”
Three women smiled, clasped their hands and bowed, and then bustled about him and Nick, taking his cloak, his sandals, and Nick’s thin linen cape and shoes, but then Nick squeaked and clutched his tunic when one of the women began to unlace it.
Big blue eyes widened and the nun dipped a curtsey. “Begging pardon, young man … but you will take your death of the ague lest you doff this raiment.”
Proteus almost smiled, then gasped when delicate fingers untied the cassock belt. “Sister!”
“Mary Beatrice, Brother … and how are you called?” Her hands moved more quickly than he could fend them off.
“I … my name is … Sister, please!”
The woman laughed, a musical trill that echoed against the frescoes. “That is an odd name, Brother Sister Please.”
He scowled and held tight to his clothes. “I am Brother Proteus, and I insist you leave off ….”
Two more nuns rushed toward them, white woolen robes draped over their arms, bright, sweet smiles on their lips. Nick and Proteus moved their heads slowly side to side, stunned to immobility by the cherubic faces that surrounded them.
“Have you an odd name as well, young man?” Mary Beatrice deftly unlaced Nick’s tunic while he gaped.
“Nick … Greenly. P-p-postulant to the Order of Saint ….”
“There now … just lift your feet so Sister Mary Elizabeth can remove your hose.” She laughed as Nick stumbled. “Only one foot at the time, if you will … unless they teach the art of levitation in your order.”
“N-no but … S-Sister, that’s my under tunic!”
“So it is … and quite as drenched as the over tunic. Arms up so I can take it away.”
He glanced at Proteus, who stared at nothing while two nuns dragged away his sopping cassock and another slipped a robe over his substantial nakedness. Mary Beatrice pulled off Nick’s under tunic, then glanced down and licked her lips.
“His robe please, Mary Elizabeth.”
“Certainly, Sister.” She guided the sleeves to his hands and snugged the soft linen at his shoulders, then reached round to tie the belt. He gasped when soft fingers dipped below his waist to touch, for the briefest of brief instants, that which no nun ever should touch. “I hope and pray you are warmer now, Postulant Nick Greenly.”
Her whisper tickled his ear, and he swallowed in a dry throat as he quickly adjusted the robe to hide his unseemly reaction.
“I … I thank thee heartily, S-sister, I … I am quite … er … warm, th-thank you … Sister.”
She covered her mouth and giggled, then turned and bent to collect wet clothes. The sisters wore black habits of fine wool, as light as linen, with a belt of plaited black leather tied round slender waists, and Nick’s eyes burned when he beheld Mary Elizabeth’s backside clearly outlined by the skirt’s delicate drape.
Mary Beatrice clapped her hands lightly. “Away now, and hang their raiment to dry.” She turned to Proteus, whose eyes remained fixed and glazed. “Would you eat, Brother Proteus?”
“Hm? Oh … oh yes indeed … thank you… anything at all. We have had no food since … er ….” He looked at Nick.
“Yesterday … or day before, mayhap.”
“Come then … follow me.”
A log fire blazed on the refectory hearth, and two roasted capons steamed on the table. Nick’s mouth watered at the heady aroma of hot sage and leeks, but sat quietly while two heartbreakingly adorable novitiates put big bowls of lintel soup before them. Proteus clasped his hands and offered thanks, quite briefly, then crossed himself, very quickly, and they fell to the soup while Mary Beatrice cut the fowl into quarters and loaded the pieces onto trenchers. One of the novitiates set sharp, shiny daggers next to the trenchers, and chewed her lip as she watched Nick devour his soup.
Mary Beatrice frowned at the girl. “Where is their drink, Belinda?”
She clapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh! I forgot, Sister.”
The nun shook her head. “Very well … Roxanne, fetch the wine please.” She untied her belt as the second novitiate scurried off. “Belinda … up behind.”
Belinda’s chin quivered and tears pooled in pale gray eyes as she turned. Quivery fingers furled light blue wool, and Nick and Proteus dropped their spoons as the girl bent at the waist, her bare backside pink with blush and all aglow in the firelight. White woolen hose reached halfway up slender thighs, gartered with black ribbon, and delicate knees quaked as Mary Beatrice doubled the belt and strode quickly toward her. She stood at the girl’s left, crossed herself and bowed her head.
“For what you are about to receive may the Lord make you truly thankful.”
“Ah-amen.” The word whimpered from Belinda’s lips, then she squealed in anguish when Mary Beatrice slapped her plump mounds with the belt.
Roxanne gazed straight on as she carried a salver to the table, poured wine from a silver flagon into silver chalices, and set the cups next to the trenchers. Nick and Proteus glanced at each other, then quickly resumed their wide-eyed stare at the unbelievable scene that played before them.
Mary Beatrice gave Belinda six hard strokes while the girl wailed, then retied the belt round her waist and gently rubbed the bright red stripes.
“I am most heartily sorry for my fault and most humbly grateful for thy willingness to show me the error of my way.”
“Come then.” A tiny smile played on the nun’s lips as the girl straightened and turned, and the skirt fell to cover her soft, red behind. “Remember this in thy confession, and thou shalt be cleansed.” She folded Belinda in her arms and kissed her mouth, then wiped tears from her face. “Go about your duties.”
Belinda nodded and hurried away. Mary Beatrice looked at Proteus and Nick, and her under lip pushed out.
“Brothers? The food is not to your likes?”
“No … that is … yes … quite.” Proteus grabbed his spoon and nudged Nick, and the boy blinked and did the same. “Er … mayhap you could tell me where we are … what town this is.”
Mary Beatrice cocked her head and leaned against the table next to him while he shoveled the last of the soup into his mouth and reached for a trencher. “You have journeyed many leagues out of your way, Brother.”
“Oh?” He chewed a mouthful of juicy capon and shook his head. “And how might you know what way that is, Sister?”
“Because only the lost or misguided find the path to Endover.”
……………… Find the rest of this tale in “Uncle Devlin’s Bedtime Stories,” available from Chimera Books UK.