St. Asaph Monastery, North Wales
Three months I had lived at St. Asaph, and every Monday afternoon, the abbot called me to his little cottage on the monastery grounds for the same purpose. I hated this meeting and yet never shrank from it. The abbot was going to beat the sin out of me, and I suppose someone had to. My dealings with Master Eadward had left me feeling soiled and sinful, and if the abbot chose to cleanse me, then perhaps I should encourage him.
The old monk who lived with the abbot and waited on him showed me into the parlor where I stood in silence by the door, my head bowed. Sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his chair, the abbot said, "Brother Robin, how are you finding life at St. Asaph?" He always asked the same questions, and my answers never differed from week to week.
"As I have found it these last three months, Father, very peaceful, thank you."
"And do you enjoy your work in the infirmary with Brother Damien?"
Brother Damien was a nasty, petty man who made my life miserable at every turn. "Yes, Father. I like to help people. I am learning a good deal about herb lore and caring for the sick."
"I am glad you like to help others. So do I." His face a hard mask of arrogance, the abbot asked, "Do you find your mind wandering to unsavory topics such as the reason my Lord Mossley sent you to us?"
I met his small, dark eyes. "Yes, Father." I always answered the same, and his reply followed upon it like dawn follows night.
Placing both hands flat on the desk, he pushed himself upright. The abbot was a big, verbose man who suspected everyone around him of foul thoughts and sins of the flesh. "If you taint the monks of St. Asaph with your lust for sodomy, I will report you to the appropriate authorities despite your father's generous endowment to the monastery. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Father." There was no point in arguing with the man and no point in telling him that the brothers did not need me to corrupt them. The assignations between some of the monks had been apparent from my first day. I had been approached more than once by Brother Abelard, who wanted me to walk the prayer garden with him after dark. Each time I declined, his frustration grew.
"On whom do your lustful thoughts center, Brother?" The abbot snatched up the thick birch rod that stood in the corner near his desk. Tapping the rod against his palm, just as Master Eadward had done, he strode to the middle of the small parlor, his hawkish gaze upon me.
In truth I had had no lustful thoughts concerning anyone at St. Asaph. But I might as well make him happy, since he would beat me anyway. "Father, I have lusted after the farrier who comes up from the village to collect his mother's medicine." The farrier was a handsome young man, but he was also stupid, which appealed to me not at all.
"I knew it! The farrier is a robust young man. You must let Brother Damien serve him from now on." Triumph tilted the corner of his sneering mouth and he pointed at the leather-padded prayer stool.
The day I arrived at the monastery, I had been handed an old monk's robe, a rope for the waist, and a pair of sandals. My own rich clothing had been left with the abbot. Without pause or argument, I unfastened the rope about my waist, dropped it on the floor, and pulled off the coarse, brown robe that had rubbed my nipples raw for the first few weeks. Naked, I knelt on the prayer stool and bowed my head. The embarrassment I had experienced the very first time he had beaten me like this had never returned. I felt nothing.
"You have not been flagellating yourself," the abbot accused me. "There is not a raw mark on your shoulders." He raised the birch rod high in the air and brought it down across my shoulders with such speed that I felt the rush of air before the pain and heard the familiar hissing sound that had so aroused me in the first couple of years with Master Eadward.
With this mean old man, I felt no arousal and bore my penance in silence, though I suspected he wished to make me cry out. Five strokes and he was done. I rose and dressed quickly. My hand was on the large iron ring of the door when the abbot stopped me. "Brother Robin."
I faced him again, longing to leave and yet knowing he would keep me as long as he pleased. "Yes, Father?"
"You have the scars of a birch rod on your backside." The beatings I had endured--and wanted--from Master Eadward had taken their toll over the years, and I was permanently marked.
"Did Lord Mossley need to thrash you so often and so hard that he marked you?"
"My sire only rarely thrashed us boys and never the girls, Father. Those marks are the work of Master Eadward, the man whom my father hired to teach my brothers and sisters and me."
"No doubt he caught you at your devilish practices and was forced to punish you," the abbot said.
"No, Father. Master Eadward was the man who led me into those practices."
Approaching me until he was no more than a foot from me, the abbot looked ready to strike me again. "Are you saying your father was misled in his judgment of a man's character?"
"He was, Father."
The abbot struck me a stinging blow across the cheek with his hand. "If that was the case, Lord Mossley would have told me. Since he did not, I believe you are lying and maligning your teacher and your father. Lord Mossley merely said you had a taste for sodomy. Evil boy!"
"My father sent Master Eadward packing the same day he sent me here, Father. Make of that what you will."
"Get out!" he said.
Relieved to escape the dark, confined cottage and the malignant presence of the abbot, I hurried through the awakening gardens back to the monastery. On the first two or three occasions, my shoulders had ached from my thrashing, but that was no longer the case, and I could go back to my work in the infirmary with no trouble.
Brother Damien had been shocked when he discovered my ease at reading, but my talents benefitted us both. After my first day in the herbarium, he had handed me his precious book with the receipts for the various compounds written in it and ordered me to make medicines for the people from the village who came to the monks with their ills. Brother Damien need not waste time instructing me, and I was spared his company while I worked.
At the large table in the center of the room, I took the mortar and pestle and began to grind wolfsbane into a paste. Quietly I hummed to myself, since Brother Damien was out in the garden tending the newly planted herbs. If he were present, he would shut me up at once.
The snorting of horses and raised voices outside in the courtyard drew me to the window, and at the sight of men and a horse-drawn cart, I ran outside to see if I could help.
Several men, knights by the looks of their fine clothes, stood around a cart where a tall man lay unmoving, still in his armor and covered in mud and horse manure. Brother Damien was already there, shoving the men aside to look at the knight. "Could you not at least have got him out of that heavy armor?" he complained. "Get it off him now." He looked at me. "Brother, bring a stretcher."
It took a long time to get the knight out of his armor and into the infirmary, and while he moaned a few times at his rough handling, the man never opened his eyes. When at last he lay, still unconscious, on a narrow cot in a wooden walled cubicle, Brother Damien turned to the men who stood around the bed, worried looks on their faces, and at the boy kneeling beside the knight, sobbing.
"Who is this man? What mischief did he get into?" Brother Damien hated outsiders, especially men he considered godless.
A heavyset man spoke for them, his meaty hand smoothing his auburn beard nervously. "He is Sir Benedict Childerley. The most popular knight in the joust."
"Joust indeed! The joust is for men with nothing better to do with their time. Who are you all?"
"I am Sir Nicholas," the man said. "I also work the tournaments." He pointed at a younger man. "He is my squire, and that boy crying his eyes out is Sir Ben's squire, young Perkin." He introduced two other knights and squires of their company and a couple of very young pages. The small room was crowded with their presence, so I stood quietly in a corner awaiting instruction.
"You must all leave." Brother Damien pointed at the mud they had tracked onto the spotless slate stones of the infirmary floor. "If you wish to stay on the monastery grounds, you must see the abbot to make arrangements. Otherwise you had better get on your way."
The men obeyed, but Perkin stayed his ground, holding tight to his knight's hand. "I'll not leave him. I must stay to serve him and care for him." Fervently he kissed the large, calloused hand. Sir Nicholas grabbed the boy by the arms and dragged him to his feet, before cuffing him around his ear.
"You've been crying like a damsel from the moment Sir Ben relinquished his horse and flew over the tilt. Behave yourself, boy."
From my corner, I watched them go, impressed at their devotion which said much about Sir Benedict. Perkin halted in the doorway and looked again at his knight before Sir Nicholas dragged him from the cubicle.
"Good riddance," Brother Damien said, leaning over the knight to press his ear to his chest. "From the way he is breathing I'll wager he has several broken ribs, but the lungs have not collapsed. Get him cleaned up. He stinks."
From the kitchen, I fetched a bucket of hot water, and soap and linens from the supply cupboard. Sir Benedict had not moved in my absence, but remained flat on his back, muddy and smelling foul as if he had landed in horse manure after his flight over the tilt. I took a cloth and dipped it into the water, rubbed some soap into it, and began to gently wash his face. The skin under the mud was smooth and golden from the sun, and with a few careful wipes, a handsome face, strong and manly, emerged from under the dirt. With great care, I wiped the mud from around his eyes and ears.
"His helmet flew off when he hit the ground," a small voice behind me said. Sir Benedict's squire, a lad of no more than fifteen years, had crept back and stood in the doorway watching me. "Don't let Sir Ben die, Brother. I love him."
"Sir Ben won't die," I said with a smile to reassure the lad.
Sir Ben. The name was pleasing and very masculine. I found I liked the feel of it on my tongue. It encompassed a sweetness and a strength that were opposites and yet somehow not at odds with one another at all. "Brother Damien is well versed in healing. He will see him well and on his way before you know it." I took a fresh cloth, soaked and soaped it, and rubbed it over the knight's sweaty golden brown hair. "Since you are still here, Perkin, you can help me get his shirt and hose off."
Between us we stripped Sir Ben naked while I held my breath and tried to focus my thoughts on helping the man. His figure was handsome beyond words, muscled from hard labor and evenly sunbrowned from time spent outdoors. I judged his age at no more than seven and twenty.
Without my leave or control, my cock responded to him. I glanced down quickly. Such things were easier to hide when wearing a loose robe, and the squire was too distracted to notice, thank God.
Taking the soapy cloth again, I washed Sir Ben's hairless chest, wishing my hand, not the cloth, was touching his beautiful skin. The tiny pink nipples puckered, stimulated by the movement of my cloth. I pretended not to notice and carried on down the length of his body. The knight's cock and balls lay limp against his strong thighs. I tried not to look at them, looking instead at the squire who sat beside Sir Ben's head, gazing into his sleeping face.
"How long have you been his squire, Perkin?" I asked.
With his hand, the boy brushed Sir Ben's overly long hair back from his forehead. "I was his page from the age of eight, and I became his squire last year. But Sir Ben no longer fights in the wars. He works the tournaments now. He has done so for the last five years because he wants to get rich. Winning tournaments can make a man rich, and Sir Ben always wins."
The pride in the youngster's voice made me smile. As I looked at this fresh-faced innocent, I felt older than my eighteen years. Regardless of my own failure as a knight's page, I had once been like this boy, longing for life and love. Master Eadward had beaten it out of me, not just with his cane but by manipulating my heart.
"Is he not a firstborn? Won't he inherit his father's estates?" I asked.
His face growing still more serious, the boy seemed anxious to share his knowledge of his knight. "Before he took to the tournaments, Sir Ben fought for the king and did his family name proud, but he's not..."
"Shut up, Perkin." We both looked at Sir Ben, whose eyes fluttered open.
"Sir Ben, you're alive." The boy fell on his chest, hugging him.
"Good God!" Sir Ben cried out.
I lunged for the boy, pulling him away. "Be careful! His ribs are broken."
Perkin sat up quickly. "Sir Ben, did I hurt you?"
"I am hurting all over." The knight's voice was weak and strained with pain. "But I am not dead. Did you think a mere fall from a horse would kill a man like me?" He tried to smile but fell just short.
"No, Sir Ben, but you did not merely fall. You flew over the tilt at least five horses' lengths. You looked as if you had wings."
"I felt as if I had wings until I hit the sod like a dead Frenchman." Perkin laughed, and this time Sir Ben's eyes squinted with mirth--and then quickly with pain. "But I beg you, do not tell me that that useless cur Sir Reynald unseated me?"
"Not before you unseated him, Sir Ben. It was a comedy the way it played out. You knocked him off his horse. The crowd began to cheer. He flew across the tilt and into you, knocking you from your horse. Then you flew."
"But I won the match?" Sir Ben's lovely brown eyes looked anxious.
"You always win." Perkin grinned. "Sir Nicholas collected your prize for you."
"Then it was worth a couple of broken ribs." His eyes drifted shut, and Sir Ben's voice was weak from talking. "Go now, boy, and let the monk take care of me. While I'm here, you must obey Sir Nicholas."
"As you wish, Sir Ben. But if you need me, you must send for me. I'll be awaiting your orders."
Sir Ben fell back into a fitful sleep, and with difficulty I managed to turn him onto his side to wash his back and bottom. The knight was far bigger and heavier than I, but in the course of my work in the infirmary, I had been taught how to turn sick people who offered no help. For the most part, the patients were monks, many of them elderly and fat--not easy to turn.
I washed Sir Ben's back and then carefully cleaned his backside and legs. Brother Damien walked in just as I rolled Sir Ben onto his back once more. The monk looked at the naked man, then at me. "He is handsome and of a manly build. Perhaps another monk should tend him."
"Whatever you wish, Brother," I said, praying he would not order me away. I took the rough linen blanket and spread it over Sir Ben to cover him from the waist down.
Through narrowed eyes, Brother Damien looked slyly at me. I suspect he had been wanting to confront me for a long time and took the opportunity now. "I know why your father sent you here. The abbot informed me of your unnatural lusts so I could protect myself from you."
Brother Damien had likely never been an attractive man, not even in the full bloom of his distant youth. His face was as sour as his manner. I took in his paunchy belly and receding chin. "I hope you do not think yourself in danger from me, Brother, because I assure you, you are not."
Brother Damien seemed to despise physical contact of any kind unless it was to strike someone. Indeed I had noticed many times that he would even avoid touching the patients when he could. And when the abbot had flogged one of the young monks last month for some small contact with a dairy maid from the village, he had ranted all day about the sins of the flesh. Yet I swore he looked insulted when I told him he was safe from my lusts.
Now he threw me a scathing look and leaned over the knight, feeling his ribs, tapping here and there, listening with his ear to the chest. "Stand there," he ordered. I came to the other side of the bed. Brother Damien pointed at Sir Ben's chest just below his left nipple. "Put your ear there and listen." I obeyed. "What do you hear?"
Hear? I heard nothing immediately because I was so overwhelmed by the feel of my cheek against the knight's skin. It was warm and smelled of the oatmeal soap I had used to wash him. But there was more, a subtle, masculine scent that was uniquely Sir Benedict's.
"What do you hear?" Brother Damien was impatient.
"The man's heart, Brother." I tried to concentrate. "The rhythm is even, and the beat is strong."
I kept my head close to Sir Ben's chest and allowed my gaze to travel down the flat belly to the line of soft blond hair that led to his cock. "Brother, the internal organs are not hurt, and there is no bleeding inside the body."
"Correct." Brother Damien never praised and barely acknowledged an accurate response, but he was quick to punish a mistake. "Listen to his breathing."
Straightening up, I leaned over the patient once more, and just as my face neared his, he opened his eyes. "I am going to listen to your breathing," I whispered, unable to articulate any louder.
"Do not speak to him. Get on with it," Brother Damien said.
I leaned down very close until my ear was an inch above Sir Ben's mouth. "His breath is fast but even, Brother."
"So is yours," Sir Ben whispered in my ear.
Startled, I stood up. "I believe he will mend completely, Brother."
"So do I. It remains only to bandage his ribs and let him recover, and if he wants to return to the field in pursuit of fame and fortune instead of fighting for God and king, then he is an idiot and deserves all he gets. Now go and fetch bandages and the pot of comfrey poultice for the broken ribs."
When I returned with the medicaments, I found Sir Ben sitting up on the side of the narrow bed and Brother Damien looking at him with that disgust I had seen on his face before. The blanket lay discarded at the foot of the bed, and Sir Ben was naked. Perhaps Brother Damien too lusted after men and fought a battle every day against it. That would be enough to make a man angry. The knight was in pain from moving and seemed unaware of the monk's look. He sat up straight, his hands gripping the thin straw mattress until his knuckles turned white. "Apply the poultice and bandages. Do a careful job. I will return later to see that you have."
With that, Brother Damien left us alone.
"Can you stand on your feet, Sir Ben? It will be easier for me to bandage you. If not, I can do it while you sit."
"I can stand." Slowly and with great difficulty, he pushed himself to his feet, his face contorted with pain.
On his feet, Sir Ben stood half a foot taller than I and much broader. Even wounded and weak, he was as knightly as any man I had seen in my father's service. In my rough, brown monk's robe, still as slender as a young boy, I felt small and insignificant.
Placing the earthenware crock of poultice on the stool beside the bed, I laid out the bandages. "I am going to put the poultice on your ribs, Sir Benedict. It's warm and comforting. If you keep very still, it will keep the pain at bay."
I took a handful of the warm comfrey paste and spread it over Sir Ben's ribs, avoiding his eyes and concentrating on my work. The poultice needed to be evenly spread and thick enough to be effective. If my hands shook, Sir Ben did not comment on it but remained unwavering and silent, though his pain must be great.
"I'm going to bandage you now, Sir Ben. I must bandage you tightly to keep the ribs supported. Will you lift your arms?"
Gingerly, the knight raised his arms, standing quietly and passively while I circled him, wrapping his chest tightly. Though he was still and well behaved for me, I suspected that when he was in good health, Sir Ben was never still for long.
"God's teeth," he groaned when I gave the bandage a final tug and tied it off.
Terrified I had hurt him, I stepped back. "Sir, I'm sorry. I did not mean to cause you more pain."
"No, it is not your fault, boy. Calm yourself. You are doing a grand task of piecing me back together." He smiled, making his eyes crinkle at the corners.
Seeing his need to lie down, I said, "Let me help you back onto your cot, Sir Benedict."
With great care, I assisted the knight to lie down and once more covered his naked body with the rough blankets, grateful to have it out of my sight. "I must go back to my work now, sir. A brother will come in a little while with food. It is almost time for the evening meal."
"I want you to bring my food, and I will need help eating it." Sir Ben, comfortable again now he was lying down, managed a grin. I bowed my head, knowing I was being teased. He must have overheard Brother Damien's remarks, and if he knew my thoughts as I tended him, I would be the one lying on the cot with broken ribs.
"Brother Abelard makes the food and brings it to the infirmary," I said quietly. "Though I do help him sometimes."
"What is your name, Brother?"
"Robin, Sir Benedict."
"Your eyes are as blue as a robin's egg." He paused as if contemplating something great, and I knew he was teasing me again. "No, not a robin's egg but more like the sky in midsummer."
Turning away abruptly, I left him alone, remembering a man in my father's guard last year who had flattered me and toyed with me on the practice field one day. He was handsome and much younger than Master Eadward, who was perhaps thirty-six or -seven years old. When at last I had responded to his advances and touched his hand, he had drawn back, threatening to tell my father about me. Then he had crossed the field to join his fellows, and they had broken into raucous laughter. He had played with me on purpose to draw me in, obviously on a bet that he had won.
It was dark when I returned to the infirmary to look in on the patients. Carrying a single candle, I went first to Brother Boniface, the oldest monk in the monastery, who had not left his bed this last fortnight and who had been kind to me from my first day there. When I drew the blankets up closer under his chin against the cool night, the old monk grasped my hand. "Good boy, Robin. You are such a sweet boy. You have been very tender with me these last months." I smiled down at him. His consistent kindness meant much to me.
"It is my pleasure, Brother," I said, and it truly was.
"Won't you kiss me? Just a little kiss."
The old man had never made an improper move toward me nor spoken a word that was not paternal and kind. Tenderly I kissed him very briefly on the lips, then rested my cheek against his weathered face for a long moment. "Follow your heart, Robin. There are more ways to reach God than fasting and beating yourself. God wants us to be happy," the old monk whispered, releasing my hand.
"You are always so kind to me. Good night, Brother," I said, disturbed and yet touched by the encounter.
"God go with you, boy."
I looked in quickly on the other monks and then went to Sir Ben. Inside the cubicle, I placed my candle carefully on the wide stone sill. The knight lay asleep, his head to one side on the bolster, the blanket pulled up to his chin. The air in the room was cold, and so I hurried to the supply cupboard and returned with another blanket. With great care, I covered him and tucked in the blanket around the straw-filled mattress to preserve the warmth. Even in summer, the stone walls kept the monastery cool, especially at night. I dreaded the winter ahead, and yet I had no desire to go home to Holt House.
On the low stool beside the bed I sat to watch him for a moment, since I knew Brother Damien had gone to his cell.
A sudden light draft blew out the candle, but the moonlight from the high arched window was enough to see by. It shone on Sir Ben's face, catching the gold in his hair. I looked closely, listening to his even breathing. He was sound asleep and as handsome in repose as he was by day. The concern in the eyes of his men and the devotion of young Perkin told me he had their respect and love. What kind of man engendered that response?
If only I had been sent as a youngster to serve a knight like this I might have done better than I did serving my father's youngest brother. Sir Reginald had had no patience with my shyness and no interest in me. He had quickly passed me off to a lesser knight in his service who had used me as nothing better than a servant, teaching me naught, until eventually I was sent home in disgrace barely two years later.
Would you have been kind to me, Sir Ben? Would you have made me a better boy? I would give much to serve you.
A madness encouraged by the beautiful face and strong body of the knight took possession of me then. Watching his face for any sign he would wake up, I lifted the blankets and slid my hand underneath. A warm, hairy thigh, solid as stone, was the first thing I touched. I ran my hand over it toward his groin, wanting urgently to feel the warmth and weight of his organ in my hand. My eyes remained fast on Sir Ben's sleeping face while my hand sought out his cock. As if reaching for a prize, I grasped it in my palm and felt it harden immediately. Sir Ben was a lusty man, and even in sleep, he could not resist the urges of a hand on his member. If he woke up just now, I knew I would breathe my last, because as patient and benevolent a master as he may be, he would not care for my kind.
I released his thick cock and slid my hand between his warm, hairy thighs and over his balls. They were hot to the touch and felt large and heavy inside their delicate skin. I hefted them in my hand like two sweet plums. The desire to eat them like plums was almost overwhelming, and I wondered how his cock would feel in my mouth. My eyes never leaving Sir Ben's face, alert for any sign that he would awaken, I rolled his balls around on my palm, wishing I could take them in my mouth and suck on them. I released them and again grasped the thick cock, now so rigid it made a tent in the blanket.
Squeezing his cock hard in my hand, I pumped it several times, then ran my palm up and down the shaft, feeling the ridges. A deep moan rumbled from Sir Ben's throat. Terrified, I snatched my hand back only to find my wrist gripped hard.
The golden brown eyes, dark in the moonlight, flew open. I was so afraid I feared my bowels might open where I sat. This man could, and probably would, kill me for taking such a liberty. I tried to speak, but my mouth was suddenly so dry my tongue stuck to the roof. My breath came sharp and heavy. I was afraid and humiliated at being caught touching a sleeping man. My future flew before my eyes, and in it I saw myself pilloried before a laughing crowd, or at the very least publicly thrashed in the chapel.
"Don't stop," Sir Ben said.