Relative Strangers
Author: Polly Spencer
Disclaimer: If you recognise any of the characters, chances are they belong to Gil Grant and the writers and whoever else owns them for Covington Cross. If you don't recognise any, then they're most likely mine (though I think there's only two - I'm a bear of very little brain). I'm not getting any money out of this, and in fact, out of life. Sue me, things can't get worse! g
Rating: PG if that (I'm not sure what US ratings are but I think this one is pretty standard).
Note: This is my first time at a CC fic so this may not be my forte - please bear with me!

It was a warm, close, afternoon at Covington Cross and the air held the scent of freshly cut grass and summer flowers. As the servants and tenants of Sir Thomas' estate went about their daily routines in as organised a hub-ub as possibile, a far less serene event was taking place in the main courtyard.
"Give that back!" Cedric Gray yelled, grasping futiley at thin air for the object in question. "I mean it, Richard! I'm not joking." What had started out as an amsuing prank, was suddenly becoming much more serious for the young cleric who was desperately struggling not to lose face in the company of his entire collection of miserable siblings. For at that moment, they were all becoming miserable to him. Richard was the main, villainous perpetrator, with occasional jibes from William, and Eleanor, whilst not strictly aiding and abetting the deed, was not exactly helping him, leaning casually against the fence-post with an expression of mild curiousity in her eyes.
Richard waved the offending roll of parchment just out of Cedirc's desperate reach. "All I want to know, little brother, is what you are so avidly concealing from us in this letter? Perhaps you are a spy. Hmm? Reporting our deepest, darkest secrets to Baron Mullens? This could reveal a treacherous ploy to bring down the Gray family."

"It's nothing of the sort, you incompetant oaf and if you had half a brain about you then you would realise that!" Cedric replied,looking decidedly flustered and red-faced. Eleanor rolled her eyes heavenward in exasperation. "Come on, Richard. It was funny at first, but now just let him have it. The imp is quickly becoming annoying." Cedric shot her a sour look, and one not devoid of hurt - after all, he was used to his older brothers joining sides against him, but his older sister usually showed him more support. Still, at least she was aiming for the desired effect, he mused. And to her credit, it appeared to be working. Richard lowered his arm and brought the roll of parchment back down to Cedric's reach, stepping closer to him as he did so, an expression of amused defeat on his face.

"All right, little brother. Take your parchment of life-saving proportions and go about your day with a skip in your step and a song in your heart!" Cedric was not amused at the sarcasm but was too relieved at reobtaining his letter, so he didn't bother to come up with a suitable rebuff. However, just as his fingers grazed the edge of the letter, Richard snatched it quickly out of his grasp and opened it, reading the first line out aloud.

"My dear Lily, it has been so long since.." - Cedric launched himself at him, knocking him to the ground in an attempt to stop his brother from reading any further. Richard, however, was easily evading him and managed to climb back up to his feet whilst Cedric was still piled ungaimly on the ground. Richard was no longer reading however, but was instead laughing hysterically, so much so in fact, that he appeared to be having trouble breathing.
"Good!" Cedric spat at him, "I hope you burst a lung and....and, any thing else that might happen to an idiot who can't stop laughing at something which isn't funny in the least!"

Richard gasped for air, managing to get out, "A love letter? This is the big secret? Why Cedric - I wouldn't have guessed you had it in you."
Cedric looked aghast at all his siblings and was dismayed to see that even Eleanor had the hint of a smile on her lips. "Honestly, Cedric", she attempted to console, "it's not like you needed to be ashamed of it. We all know of your amorous dispositions around here."

Cedric, however did not look amused as he finally scrambled to his feet. He no longer made any attempt to take the letter from Richard and when William noticed that his younger brother no longer had the will to fight, he quickly realised that the jest had gone too far, immediately becoming protective of his baby brother.
"All right, Richard. That's enough now. Let him have his letter back. We all write personal letters of some kind and no one wants those spread about. At least," he said, smugly, with a sidewise glance at Richard, "those of us who do actually write."
"Your attempts at wit are almost as amusing as Cedric's letters, brother, but I will concede your point as is fitting to my good grace and intelligence." He ignored the snort of disbelief from his siblings and graciously handed Cedric back his letter, which he then tucked safely beneath his shirt. In an attempt to regain some lost dignity, he squared his shoulders evenly and began to scrumptiously straighten his clothing, making it clear that he was still annoyed at Richard, yet too big a man to let the whole situation ruffle him. Richard noticed these attempts and decided that it couldn't hurt to mend some bridges and humour his brother.

"I'm sorry Cedric. Honestly, I didn't mean any harm. If I ever compose a sonet of my own, you will be the first person who will get to hear it, I give you my word." He held his hand for Cedric to shake and, though Cedric doubted the complete sincerity of that statement, he begrudgingly took the proffered hand. "Right then." William exclaimed, suddenly, "now that we're all friends again, I'm going to do a check on the inventory."
"Again?" Eleanor asked. "You did one this morning. You know I'm certain you boys just lay around the fields when you claim that you are off working. Cedric and I are most likely the only people who do any real work in this castle."
"I beg to differ, sister most dear, but what exactly do you do all day that is so strenuous? That lute must tire your fingers so." Richard folded his arms across his chest, clearly waiting for another good argument to begin. She didn't dissapoint him. "You arrogant pig!" she exclaimed, though a smile was clearly playing on her lips. "I catch and skin half the animals that you feed your belly with on the table every day."

"Well women are supposed to prepare the meals - what's special in that? Besides, hunting only requires a good aim. What William and I do, requires a great deal of strength as well as skill and finese."
"A great deal of strength?!" Eleanor repeated with a laugh. "They're sheep, Richard - not oxen!" "Yes", he replied, "but you are forgetting that there is a great deal of heavy lifting involved."
"Yes I don't doubt it." Cedric said joined in with mock sincerity, "I hear the pints at the Magpie's Nest have doubled in size and weight since Eleanor and I last found time to go in there." Cedric was never too downtrodden to join in a good argument between his siblings. Richard shot him a sour look whilst William just rolled his eyes and began to make his way towards the paddocks. "Keep that up, little brother", said Richard, evenly, "and I might just be forced to tell father all about the occasion when you 'last found time' to visit the Magpie's Nest. When was it exactly? During the summer festival riots when father had strictly forbidden you or Eleanor to leave the castle grounds? Yes, I think that was it - my memory is coming back to me with an inexplicable rush of enthusiasm."

Cedric narrowed his eyes, suspiciously, not entirely certian whether his brother was joking or not. Eleanor, too, now that she had been drawn into this again, came forward from her place by the fence to stand almost toe to toe with Richard, Cedric next to her like two opposing armies poised to stike. "I would hope, Richard for your sake, that you are joking.", she replied, sweetly. "After all, I think father would also like to know who cruelly abandoned us at the tavern, leaving us all defencless and alone, whilst he dallyed in the back meadows with Susanah the bar maid." She smiled brightly at him as he pretended to size her up carefully. Finally he broke into a grin himself. "I guess we're all locked to secrecy till the day we die, then."

"That seems the best course of action." Cedric hastily agreed.
"Come on, my young and defencless siblings - I think those were my ribs, Eleanor - you should watch your ungaimly arm-swinging you'll never get a husband at that rate - let us go and observe the master at work with the sheep. He really does seem to excell himself with bovines." So, draping an arm casually around his brother and sister, they began to follow William to the pastures.

Out of the summer haze, however, came the hastily advancing form of what soon became recognizable as the Friar. Cedric turned and seeing him making for them in some haste, groaned audibly. "I can't believe he found me again! Does that man never cease?" They all stopped and waited for the Friar to catch up with them, although Cedric would dearly loved to have made a run for it. It wouldn't have been any good, though. He would have to make it back up to the school room eventually. Eleanor and Richard, once again relaxed into the comforting scenario of watching their little brother squirm his way out of an uncomfortable situation. It was so common place that it had become reassuringly familiar. "You know, Cedric", Richard said mildly, "for the right price, William and I could show you how to lock the Friar in the privy with much greater efficiency than what you seem to have accomplished."

"William! Cedric! I...I must speak with you!" the Friar called as he tried to catch his breath. Finally reaching them, the Friar stood there for a moment, doubled over and panting for breath, before he finally spoke. "Your father wants you all to come into the Great Hall at once. He has something very important to tell you all."
"What is it?" Eleanor asked, her curiosity piqued.
"Don't get your hopes up, Eleanor." Richard cut in, "it's most likely another trader who is stopping by for us to entertain."
"I don't believe so Master Richard - I believe it is family business. Is Master William nearby? I must tell him as well."
"Yes, Friar. He should be in the pastures. If he's not there, could you let us know because
I'm sure that woild be worth a drink or two down the tavern if he knew that we knew." Eleanor asked eagerly, already envisaging her idle brother's face when he was caught sleeping by a hay-stack. Though slightly perplexed by her request, the Friar acknowleged it duly, his mind too preoccupied with completing his task to give it much thought.
"Well, thank-you for the message, Friar." Richard said as he began to head off towards the castle. "Yes", Cedric agreed, quickly following his brother's lead, "very kind." The Friar fixed him with a meaningful glare. "You needn't think that I've forgotten, Cedric - and neither has your father. Who do you think had to free me from the privy in order to send me on this errand?" Again, Cedric groaned inwardly as Eleanor tried unsuccessfully to cover a smirk, pulling her little brother back towards the castle.

Sir Thomas paced the floor of the Great Hall excitedly, waiting for his children to arrive. He read and re-read the roll of paper in his hand, every now and then, giving it a sharp, triumphant tap, as if he succeeded in solving a puzzle every time he looked at it. It had all been so long, he thought to himself, wistfully. Too long in his opinion. Things should have been sorted out long ago, fifteen years ago to be exact but somehow, even with Anne's death, the time had never seemed right. Now, however, with this latest development it seemed that an opportunity had been given to him to rebuild the past, and he wasn't about to turn it down. After what seeemed like an age and a day, the door to the Hall flung open and three of his brood sauntered into the room. The last of the motly crew was no where to be seen, but Sir Thomas had always surmised that his third oldest was the most concientious worker of his children. He was doubtless away managing some distant part of the estate.

"What is it, Father?" Richard asked as they entered the room.
"I'm glad you're all here, but I really should wait for William."
"Oh please, Father. Tell us what's going on - we're dying to know.", Eleanor pleaded.
"If you could just hold your attention for a few minutes more, Eleanor", their father replied, somewhat sarcastically.
"I'm baiting my breath as we speak, Father.", she replied as sweetly as possible. So Eleanor, Richard and Cedric sat themselves down in the Hall, whilst their father continued a slightly calmer version of his previous pacing, until presently, the door opened again and William strode through, his face clearly showing that he considered some great business deal was about to be dropped in their laps.

"Ah, William - good. If you'll take a seat with your sister and brothers, then we may begin." He didn't say anything, but curiously took his seat, as instructed.
"Now," Sir Thomas began, "as you all may be aware, I have some exciting news - some very good news, in fact." He paused to ensure that he had their undivided attention - somewhat like a child about to perform a recital of some kind. They were, indeed, undivided, so he continued, "Your Great Uncle Peter, has died!" A noticable silence filled the Hall for a moment. Cedric lent forward slightly, his brow furrowed in confusion, "And I take it we don't like this ..great uncle...Peter?"
"Oh, no no", Thomas amended quickly, "No he was a decent enough fellow - never really knew the man much myself, but the point is, that he was a very wealthy man, with no surviving relatives, except for our line of the family."
"You mean there's an inheritance?" Richard asked eagerly.
"Yes!" said his father, triumphantly.
"Bags I get a new cross-bow!" Eleanor put in, enthusiastically.
"No", said Richard, defensively, "I am in urgent need of a new horse! As I'm the eldest, my knightly needs should come first."
"You're both wrong!" Cedric protested, "this money could ensure that I be allowed to become a Knight - a far more worthy cause, I think father will agree." The bickering had the potential to carry on for an eternity, but William succeeded in cutting it short.
"So how much do you get?" he asked, calmly.
"Not a penny!" cried Sir Thomas with great excitement.
Again, silence reigned supreme for a few awkward moments as the three children struggled to make some sense of this.

"Forgive us, Father", Eleanor said eventually, "but we are failing to reach the levels of enthusiasm which seem to have been bestowed upon you."
"Quite, Father", Richard agreed. "If you are not enitled to any of it, then why tell us about it at all?"
"It's a mean, dirty trick, that's what it is..." Cedric mumbled to himself, ignored by all.
"The good news, children, is that the inheritance should go to my older brother, Charles."
They all appeared slightly shocked at the latest developments.
"But Father," William said, "I didn't know you had an older brother."
"Oh yes," Sir Thomas replied, the earlier hint of sadness returning to his eyes momentarily, but then it was gone. "He left a long time ago. I'm sure only Armus might remember him, but even he would have been a very little boy at the time."
"So where is Uncle Charles now?" Eleanor asked.
"Well I'm not entirely certian, but I have a feeling that he is either in France or the Low Countries. He doesn't know about the inheritance yet, of course."
"Then what's the problem?" Cedric exclaimed, happily. "He never has to know!" William elbowed Cedric in the ribs, none too gently.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, "what was that for?"
"Father wouldn't cheat his own brother, Cedric!"
"Well I wouldn't think twice if it was you!" Cedric retorted.
"Enough, children!" Sir Thomas called, raising his hands for peace. "I am most anxious to resume contact with your uncle and when he arrives here, I hope that you will not only show him the curteousy which I know you are all capable of, but will also grow to accept him as one of the family."

"Of course, Father." Eleanor agreed, quickly. She rose and gave her father a peck on the cheek. "I'm looking forward to meeting him already." She smiled one of her sincere smiles, to let him know that she was serious. "Thank you, Eleanor. I may always count on you for your kindness and understanding." He sighed, somewhat affectionately, "You have so many of your mother's qualities about you." She looked at him with a mixture of surprise and appreciation, before her embarrassment at her obviously gentile behavoir in front of her brothers, won out and she gracefully excused herself, leaving the room quickly.
"When do you think he will arrive, Father?" William asked, also rising.
"I'm hoping that he will be in England within the next few weeks. I am so looking forward to this meeting. It has been too long and too negligent of me."
"Well he could have made the move to contact you first." Richard pointed out.
"True" Thomas agreed. "Perhaps the burden should be equal."
"But why have we never heard of him?" Cedric protested. Richard shot him a look to tactfully silence him.
"What?!" Cedric demanded, angrily. "I only want to know why we never seem to talk about our own families! Father can't hate his brother that much, surely?"
"Come along, Cedric", William said, hastily, "you can help us with the sheep." He and Richard began to drag the protesting Cedric out of the Hall, whilst Sir Thomas just watched them go, not quite sure what to make of all of it.

"I don't want to help you with the bloody sheep - I just want to know why nobody is answering my questions!" Cedric exclaimed in annoyance as his brothers finally released him once safely out of the castle. "Because, little brother!" William replied, sternly, "The topic of the rift between father and his brother, is obviously still painful to him."
"He didn't seem pained to me", Cedric pointed out.
"He did to those who know how to read him." Richard insisted. Cedric felt a little hurt by the implication that he wasn't connected to his own father, but he decided not to continue this argument any further. "Well you two can think what you like! I have more important things to worry about."
"You're right there," William agreed mildly, "From the sound of the Friar and father's voices in there, I think he's just remembered where you were meant to be today."
"Oh God's teeth!" Cedric groaned, "If either of them ask - you didn't see me." He didn't bother checking to see whether his brothers were going to comply or not, but made a hasty retreat to the orchards.
William and Richard watched him go, shaking their heads in amusement. "You hear that, Richard? If father asks us where the foul-mouthed little man of the Cloth is, then we've no idea."
"Yes", Richard agreed, "absolutely no idea that the little blaspheemer has headed straight to the orchards and that they could catch up with him if they just kept a steady pace."
"He's headed straight to Hell, more like, with language like that." William added. "So do you want to do a live-stock inventory?"
"Might as well. Race you to the pastures."
"Richard, that is far too childish, I am above such things - you scurvy cheat! You started without me!!! I'll beat you there, Richard so don't even try."....

Cedric wandered aimlessly through the orchards, the smell of the fruit tempting him with every step he took. Finally, his hunger over-powered him and picking out a ripe apple, he began to munch slowly on it. So far the day had been an eventful one, but not entirely pleasant. He didn't really care about the loss of the inheritance - it wasn't as if they were in need of it, after all - but he was generally upset over his whole family. They treated him like he wasn't even there at times and when they did acknowledge him lately, it was only to tease him or rebuff him for something he had said or done. 'I reckon that I could dissappear off the face of this Earth, and they wouldn't even notice I'd gone', he thought, ruefully in a pleasant moment of self-pity. He lay down on the grass, apple in hand and closed his eyes, imagining the horror-struck look on his brothers' faces if he were to be declared missing and the hell his father would put them through until he decided to turn up safely again.
"You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders", came a soft, kind voice from behind him. His eyes shot open and he turned on one elbow to see the lady who owned that beautiful voice.
"Nan!" he exclaimed, happily.
"Hello Cedric. How have you been?" He stood up to greet her properly.
"Terrible. I was trying to find you this morning but I got way laid. I wanted to talk to you about something. Do you have time to sit and talk?" he asked hopefully.

"I'm sure I can manage it, Cedric.", she replied, smiling. Cedric had always held the belief that she had one of the most beautiful smiles he had ever seen - it was filled with compassion, and understanding, love and humour and just a tinge of sadness that he couldn't place, but was somehow comfortingly familiar. Her face was soft and pale, framed by a wavey head of dark curls which fell loosely over her shoulders. Her blue eyes were a perfect match for her sky blue dress and when she spoke and moved, it was with the smooth mixture of the intelligence and grace of an older woman, and a capacity and enthusiasm for fun - the kind small children harness with ease.
She sat down on the soft grass and Cedric followed suit. "So tell me your worries, Cedric.", she said, patiently, "why were you trying to find me this morning?"
"Oh", Cedric said dismissively with a slight wave of his hand, "it was nothing really, you remember that girl I was telling you about?" Nan pretended to narrow her eyes in deep concentration, "Now..which one would that have been?"
"You know!" Cedric protested with mock indignation - somehow her teasing was always kind and gentle and never bothered him like his family's did. "Lily.", he informed her, anyway.
"Ah yes! The infamous Lily. I remember now - please go on."
"Well, I wrote that poem, as you suggested, and well.."he broke off, sheepishly,
"I would like to look at it, if I may?" Nan offered, kindly.
"Oh," Cedric said, relieved, "well, yes - if you want to look at it and, maybe tell me what you think, then please feel free." He handed her the parchment from under his shirt and studied the ground intently whilst she read it carefully. As her keen eyes darted over the page, a look of sorrow clouded her eyes, even as a gentle smile curled her lips. Finally she looked up from the page and turned her gaze on the rather nervous young man before her.

"It is truly wonderful, Cedric.", she assured him, handing him back the letter.
"Are you sure?" he asked, uncertainly, apparently still unconvinced. "I mean I looked at the works of the poets you suggested but when I read mine after I had completed it, it didn't seem to have the same type of words, or styles...or any kind of eloquance what so ever."
"That doesn't matter, Cedric. What matters is what is in your heart. I could dictate to you, entire sonets by some of the greatest poets of our times, but if you didn't truly mean the words you wrote, then they in turn would mean nothing to Lily. What you have done is far more effective."
"So you think its worthy of giving to Lily?"
"I only hope that Lily is worthy of recieving it.", she insisted, warmly. Cedric appeared happy at last, and tucked the letter back beneath his shirt, a feeling of weight lifting from his chest.
"Is this all that was troubling you?" Nan asked, perceptively. He looked away for a moment.
"You know you can tell me anything.", she prodded, gently. He sighed rather heavily.
"It's my family - that's all."
"That seems to me to be quite a large worry to deal with. Do you mean all of them?"
"Well, my brothers and sister mainly, I suppose. They treat me like an infant! Or an imbecile, but neither is pleasant." She gave him a sympathetic nod.
"I am certain that they do not mean to be cruel.", she replied, soothingly, "perhaps you need to tell them how you are feeling?" Cedric laughed derivesly.
"Come now, Cedric!" she chided, gently, "they can not be such monsters."
"You've never met them!" he retorted jokingly. "All right", he conceded, "I suppose you're right, but if talking doesn't work then I think I should pour buckets of water in their beds one night."
"What ever you think best, Cedric.", she conceded, wisely. He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully.
"Nan?" He waited for her response to go on. "Why do we always have to meet like this?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, kindly.
"Well, I mean, just randomly - out and about, in the gardens, in the kitchens?"
She looked at him intently for a moment. "Am I not here when you need to see me?" Though ostensibly calm, Cedric could detect an inner desperation of kinds inside her and so quickly allayed her fears, "No, not at all! In fact, you always seem to be around when I need you, but - don't you want to meet my family at all?"
"From the way you talk about them, I feel like I already know them.", she answered, lightly.
"Oh they're not as bad as I make out, if that's what is discouraging you.", he assured her. She laughed, "No, I don't suppose that they are. Oh Cedric, you know I care for you very much and I am sure, if I ever met them, that I would care for your family too, but I've told you before that it is not possible."
"But why?" he persisted. She gave an almost imperceptible sigh.
"Family difficulties.", was all she said by way of answer. Cedric could see that this was making her feel uneasy and he didn't want to drive her away. He smoothly tried to draw her off the topic. "Families are funny things, aren't they? I thought I knew mine and then today I learn that I have an uncle I never even knew existed!"

Nan looked up, almost sharply from the flower she was studying. Cedric was momentarily afraid that he had offended her, but her expression and demeanor relaxed immediately. "Tell me about him.", she said. He shrugged. "I don't think there's much to tell - at least I don't know much about him. Father says that he's been out of the country my whole life - in France or something. I'm sure we'll find out when he arrives."
"He's coming to Covington Cross, then?" she asked with polite interest.
"Apparently so. An old relation of ours died, and uncle Charles is due for the inheritance."
"When do you expect him?"
"Father says a few weeks." Nan got smoothly to her feet. "Wait!" Cedric protested, "where are you going? Can't you stay a bit longer today?" She shook her head, kindly. "I'm afraid not, Cedric but I will be back, I promise and you must be sure to tell me how Lily received your poem."
"I will", Cedric assured her, hastily, following her to the edge of the orchard and the begining of the forest edge. "And remember, Cedric", she said as she reached the edge of the forest and turned back to look at him, "speak of our meetings to no one - not even your family. I know this seems strange to you, but you must trust me that this is something which cannot be spoken of - not yet. Do I have your word?"
"Yes, of course - you know you do, but you're right - I don't understand this."
"You will in time.", she called as she dissappeared into the growth of the forest. For a moment Cedric was tempted to follow her and see where she went, but he had long ago promised never to do that, and he considered himself a man of his word.

Three weeks passed at Covington Cross without incident. The siblings continued to jibe one another, the estate ran smoothly, Cedric's relationship with Lily ran its natural course and ended as swiftly as it began and Sir Thomas spent his spare hours preparing for the arrival of Charles Gray. His room was constantly kept up by the house-keeping staff on the off-chance of a sudden entry into England, despite the assurances that Sir Thomas was getting from his scouting agents, that Charles was steadily making his way home and they would inform Thomas of every update on his brother's activities.

Finally, a messenger came riding swiftly to the castle to inform everyone of the arrival of Charles Gray within the hour. Sir Thomas erupted into a flurry of action. The cooks were instructed to prepare a hearty meal, the maids to double check the guest room and messengers were sent to retrieve William and Richard from the fields. Thomas removed a much delighted Cedric from his latin lesson and charged him with the task of locating and returning Eleanor from her hunting expedition. An hour flew by like no time at all.

Sir Thomas once again resumed pacing the Great Hall. "Thomas will you please be calm?" Lady Elizabeth pleaded, placing a gentle, restraining hand on his arm as he crossed her path. He stopped abruptly, as if suddenly realising his agitated behaviour. He sighed, "Oh, I am sorry Elizabeth. It's just that we didn't part on the best of terms as you know. What if he doesn't want to mend the past? What if he's here for the inheritance and nothing else? I don't think I could stand another rift between us."
"Thomas, you have nothing to worry about", she said, coaxingly. "If I remember Charles rightly, then he was too full of the spirit of life to let anything weigh him down long."

Thomas looked at her pointedly, "It's been fifteen years, Elizabeth - that seem long enough to me."
"But not too long to break a blood tie - you'll see. It will be all right." Finally, he seemed to relax for a moment. "Thank-you Elizabeth. I cannot tell you how glad I am that you were here today when the message arrived. I can just imagine Charles coming home to find me a nervous wreck on the floor!"
"More's the pity, brother - you know how I find these fan-fares and banquets such a bore, but then you never did have a flare for the dramatic entertainment." Thomas spun around at the sound of the almost long-forgotten voice. A man, in his early fifties, stood in the entrance way to the Hall, watching the scene before him with some amusement. His slightly unkempt black hair was protruding from beneath his travelling hat, his full beard streaked with silver-grey. He would not immediately have been taken for a brother of Sir Thomas', despite their being the same build and height but there was something about him - some essence of life, which marked him out to be a member of the Gary clan.

"Charles!" Thomas exclaimed, softly, a smile spreading over his face as he moved forward to greet his brother. "My God! It is you - it's really you. I almost cannot believe it." Charles chuckled quietly, holding his hand for Thomas to take. "Yes, Thomas, it is I - in the flesh. And it has been too long."
"Indeed it has", Thomas agreed, gravely, shaking Charles' hand in earnest, "and we have much to discuss."
"So we have, brother - but later, hmm? First, I wish to reacquaint myself with your family and with Covington Cross."
"Of course!" Sir Thomas agreed, releasing Charles with one last pat on the back. "My family should be with us at any moment. Come, take a seat at the table - you must be weary after all that travelling." He led Charles to the table and pulled out a chair for him to sit down.
"If you insist, Thomas, but I should point out that I spent this travelling sitting in a carriage, not hiking up the mountains."
"Naturally," Thomas amended, "but it does not hurt to be hospitable - my goodness I have been so rude!" he exclaimed, suddenly, seeing Lady Elizabeth patiently waiting by the table, an amused expression on her face. Charles rose immediately and crossed to greet Elizabeth. "No need for introduction, Thomas. I can clearly surmise that you must be Lady Elizabeth. I fail to see how Thomas has once again attracted such a marvel as this kind lady." She smiled and offered him her hand, which he duly kissed lightly. "The pleasure is mine, Charles, I can assure you.", she replied graciously. "I must confess, however that I was not sure if you would remember me."

"How could one forget you? And now, Thomas - what of your merry brood? I remember them too, you know."
"Of course, of course. They are certainly around the castle somewhere. Richard and William have just returned from the fields and Cedric and Eleanor should be on their way back as well."
"And what of Armus?" Charles asked. At the mention of his eldest son's name, Sir Thomas' face fell, his brow furrowed. "Armus is away fighting for the King in the crusades. We pray always for his safety and his swift return." Charles' jovial expression at once became serious, "As will I, brother - you may count on that. I only wish that I could have offered you more support when he first went away." They had time to exchange a brief smile before the door burst open and Richard and William hurried into the room.

"Is he here yet?" Richard asked as he entered.
"Well what does it look like, Richard?" William replied, sarcastically.
"My, Thomas, they haven't changed a bit." Charles remarked, dryly, a twinkle in his eye.
"Richard, William - I want you to come over here and meet your uncle Charles." Thomas said, beckoning them over excitedly. They approached quickly. "It's good to meet you", William said.
"How was your journey?" Richard asked, shaking the hand he was offered.
"My journey was fine - thank-you for asking, my boy. So you two are Richard and William? Will it cause you great offence to tell you that the last time I saw you, you were both near knee-high, if that?" Richard and William exchanged amused and embarrassed glances.

"Er, normally, 'yes' but I suppose we can let you have that one." Richard said, merrily.
"Richard!" their father remonstrated, lightly.
"Oh not at all, Thomas." Charles exclaimed, "it's good to see you've raised two honest and forthright boys." Thomas muttered a remark which could have been to the affirmative or not, but William and Richard just grinned guilessley. They were beginning to like Charles Grey.
"So, what have you been doing for fifteen years, Uncle Charles?" Richard asked, curiously.
"Expanding my business mainly. I concentrate my efforts mainly in the cloth market though my other industries such as sheep rearing and farming are also doing well. I hear you boys were in the fields when I arrived. I take you both more for knights than shepherds."
"Oh, well that's William's idea mainly." Richard put in. "He likes to involve himself in the labourers' trade and I supervise him mostly." William shot his brother a very sour look. "Well that's good." Charles said, mildly. "Idle hands, eh Thomas?"
"Quite.", their father agreed, casting Richard a warning look as he did so.

"I found her, father and you wouldn't believe where she was!" Cedric called as he stumbled into the Great Hall, laughing heavily as Eleanor raced in hot on his heals. "You liar!" she challenged, also out of breath and giggling. "I was hunting a stag - don't let him tell you otherwise!" A throat cleared in front of them. They stopped abruptly, mid-way through a pretend wrestling match, and looked up at the group assembled before them.

Richard and William were unsuccessfully covering a smirk and their father stood there watching them expectantly, arms folded across his chest. However, their focus came to rest on the gentleman standing to the left of their father. He was looking at them intently, his expression unreadable, but with a glimmer in his eyes. Hastily, they got up from the floor and hurried over to the assembled group. Thomas did not appear too impressed and they both had the feeling that they would hear more on that particular topic later.
"Charles", Thomas began, moving forward to take Eleanor's hand, "you remember my daughter, Eleanor." He gave a glance over her hunting trousers, shirt and leather jerkin, finally resting on the cross-bow and dagger which hung by her side. He cast a look at Cedric who had the good sense to appear a little guilty, as Thomas said through clenched teeth. "Cedric, I thought you were going to ask your sister to change before you came to greet us?"
"Ah, yes - I was, wasn't I? Well, you see we were going to go upstairs and change in just a moment, but we had kind of lost track of time.", he admitted, glancing down at the ground.

"We're sorry father." Eleanor added, "we didn't know Uncle Charles was here yet." However, Charles cut off anything Thomas might have said in reply. He stepped forward and gently took Eleanor's hand, his expression one of tenderness and wonder. "So here you are, Eleanor," he said, almost to himself. "You were but a babe when I saw you last, and my, you have turned out most wonderfully." She blushed slightly at his remarks. "You're very kind. I did mean to change though - this is just my...well my casual clothes.", she explained, awkwardly. Normally she cared nothing for what others thought of her masculine past-times, but for some reason, she felt the need live up to whatever image he might have built up of her over the years.

"There's no need to explain, Eleanor. I had a suspicion from the moment you rejected the dolls your relatives tried to give to you, that you would grow up with your brothers, not apart from them. And", he added, "that you would in turn, grow to excel at many of your pursuits. May I take it from that fine cross-bow at your hip, that you are a keen huntress?"
"I have a stag already delivered to the kitchens this very day!" she said, proudly.
"Then I shall never have tasted a meal so fine, I am sure.", he assured her, smiling broadly.
"And this", Thomas said, moving on to his youngest son, "is my youngest child, Cedric. I don't believe you have ever met him before." Cedric felt decidedly uncomfortable at that moment, especially now that he was the last one and all eyes were rested upon him. Charles appeared to be scrutinising him carefully, more so than he had done for any of the others and Cedric could not quite understand why. "Ah, yes", Charles replied, softly, more to Thomas than Cedric, "our little Cedric. I have often wondered about him." Then he turned his comments to Cedric himself. "I regret that you are the only one of your siblings whom I did not hold as an infant nor watch you grow. However! I am not here to embarrass you with tales of the past. Instead let us concentrate on the present and the future as I am certain to know all of you better in due course!" Cedric smiled graciously along with his uncle and the rest of his family, although inside he was still bridling over being referred to as 'our little Cedric'.
"And is Cedric a knight, like his brothers?" Charles asked Thomas.
"No", Thomas replied, "Cedric is studying to be a cleric. It was Anne's last wish that he join the Church."
"Really? Then perhaps he will be the intellect of the family, as his brothers are the strength?"
"Yes, very intellectual." Thomas agreed, chuckling.

"Quite so", Cedric agreed lightly, a tight smile plastered on his face, "So educated I can read, write and even talk for myself in conversations." Charles' smile faded from his face ever so slightly. "Uh, of course Cedric - my apologies." Cedric gave a small smile back in acceptance, unsure of how to react to an apology from his elders. Swiftly, Thomas broke the uneasy tension in the room. "Well, everyone! I am certain that supper must nearly be ready. Why do we all not sit down and have some wine in the mean time?" Glad of the change of direction, everyone quickly took their seats around the table as the servants moved from the back of the room, to fetch the wine. When Charles was out of ear-shot, Thomas took Cedric aside for the talk the young man knew was coming. "Cedric, I expect you to keep a civil tongue in your head whilst your uncle is here. Is that understood?"
"But father, he was treating me like I wasn't even there.", he protested, quietly.
"He simply did not know how to act around you - he certainly meant no offence. Now I trust I can expect no more rudeness from you?" It was more a statement than a question, and Cedric wisely decided to treat it as such. "Yes father."
"Good then. Let's rejoin the others." They both moved to their seats at the table as the servants hurried back in with the wine jars.

Supper was a quiet and pleasant affair. Obviously there were still questions on everybody's minds which were left unanswered but the topics of conversation were never strained or contrived. William discussed the politics of the realm, Richard spun marvellous tales of his knightly deeds which Eleanor proceeded to disrepute, and Cedric decided that despite his earlier first impression, his Uncle Charles was actually quite likeable.

It was late in the day before the meal was finally over and the discussions had begun to die down. The sun had set hours ago and fatigue had washed over the table's occupants.
"Come Charles. I have had the servants take your belongings up to your room. I will show you the way there - you look exhausted." Thomas stood and stretched the knots out of his back and neck. Charles followed suit, as the children continued to hotly debate amongst themselves, not paying the adults any heed.
"Charles, I shall say goodnight as well, though it was lovely meeting you again. Thomas, your hospitality has been most gracious, as always." Elizabeth smiled and rose from the table, Thomas moving to escort her to the door.
"Elizabeth, must you go now?" Thomas asked.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. As we have already said, it is late and I must ride back tonight." There was a noticeable silence between them which Charles was not oblivious to.
"Elizabeth", he said, taking her other hand, "it has been my honour to be reacquainted with you. I hope I shall be seeing you again soon?"
"You may depend on it, Charles. Good night." Thomas and Charles both walked Lady Elizabeth to her carriage, where her driver was waiting.

"Will you let it go, Eleanor?" Cedric groaned, his head cradled on his arms, "you and William are equal at riding!"
"That's not what he says!" she protested, "Father will support me, won't you -" She looked up at the head of the table where her father and uncle had been sitting. "Oh", she said in surprise - "they're gone. Must be seeing the wench off. Pity.", she said, sweetly.
Richard sighed, "Father is going to skin you alive one of these days if he hears you calling her that."
"Humph! If Cedric can get away with his jibe to Uncle Charles today, then I should be given freedom to say what I like about 'Lady of the Night' Elizabeth - after all, I have much more cause to do so then Cedric had with Charles."
"So what do you think of Uncle Charles?" William cut in, anxious to change the topic.
"He seems like a good man." Richard commented.
"Hmm, I like him." Eleanor agreed. "He said he would help me to master jousting while he was here."
"Yes", Cedric added, "and he told me he would teach me sword-work when he had the time."
"He was humouring you, little brother - no one has time enough to teach you fighting skills." Richard replied.
"They'd be harder pushed to teach you manners, Richard." Eleanor teased.

At that moment, Thomas and Charles re-entered the room. "Are you four still arguing?" Thomas asked in exasperation. They all stopped their conversation and looked to the newcomers. "Not at all, father", Eleanor replied, "just straightening out a few truths."
"Really? Well how is this for an indisputable truth? It is time for bed - all of you." He was met with the chorus of groans he had expected. He turned to Charles. "You see what mutiny I am faced with on a daily basis, brother?"
"I do, Thomas, and with only the lovely Lady Elizabeth to offer you support!" he teased, implicitly. They both missed Eleanor's scowl. Thomas laughed good-naturdely at his brother's jest. "At least you and I agree that she is lovely! That is more than we ever agreed on as children."
"Ah, do you fear I have intentions for your lady friends again, Thomas?" he asked, a wicked glint in his eye.
"Not at all, Charles, " Thomas replied smoothly, "As I recall you always had more intentions for my lady friend's younger sisters than for themselves. I imagine Anne was most offended that Mary received all of your attention!"

"What? So now I have an Aunt Mary that I knew nothing about as well!" Cedric exclaimed in exasperation. An uncomfortable silence shuffled into the room as Thomas and Charles gave each other an awkward glance, long-buried memories, clearly surfacing again. The children did not believe that they had seen Charles look quite so sombre as he did at that moment. Quickly Thomas cleared his throat and moved the conversation in a different direction.
"Come now - I said retire and I meant it. Busy day on the morrow." Hastily, they all rose and, excusing themselves, left the room.

Once they were safely upstairs, Eleanor turned to her brothers. "So what was all that about?"
"I believe it was Cedric displaying his usual level of tact and diplomacy!" said William, sarcastically. Eleanor groaned. "Oh, I haven't the energy to start another argument now. I'm going to bed." With that, she wandered off to her own room.
"I'm going too." Richard said, yawning.
"Wait!" Cedric protested, "I want to know what happened down there? You two must know something!"
"Why should we know?" William asked, somewhat indignantly.
"Because you always claim to know everything!" Cedric challenged back. William and Richard exchanged a long glance, obviously deciding whether or not to say anything. Finally William said. "If we tell you what we know, you have to promise to employ a little more intelligence in revealing it when-ever and to whom-ever you chose."
"Agreed!" Cedric assured them quickly.
"Well, it's not absolute fact, but Richard and I have done some investigating into the time when Uncle Charles was last at Covington Cross."
"Talked to old servants - the usual thing." Richard put in.
"Yes. Anyway, from what we can gather, Mother had a younger sister named Mary. This sister had a romance of sorts with Uncle Charles, only I think he was more infatuated with her. Anyway, it didn't work out because one night Mary eloped."
"Seriously?" Cedric asked in amazement.
"Yes. She left secretly, hurting all the family she left behind, especially Uncle Charles."
"Is that why he left?" Cedric asked curiously.
"Well, I'm not sure for certain," William continued, "but when Mary left, she disgraced the family. Most of them disowned her then and there - never even tried to contact her again."
"Even father and mother?" Cedric asked in amazement. Richard and William nodded, wordlessly. "Mother didn't want to, of course but she didn't want to go against Father. And Father...well, you know how he can get about right and wrong, law and justice and so on."
"Well she was in the wrong." Richard pointed out.
"Of course", William agreed, "But Uncle Charles didn't see it that way. He hated the family for the way they'd treated Mary. Rallied to have her brought back and into the protection of the Grays again. When Father wouldn't help him, he left England shortly afterwards. It was most likely in connection with the rift between them."
Cedric took all this in, thoughtfully. There was so much about his family that he didn't know.
"Don't think too much about it now, Cedric," Richard advised, "No doubt Father will speak to you about your latest brilliant outburst, tomorrow - you can ask him for all the details then. Now, if you will both excuse me, I am going to bed." Cedric sighed, and decided to follow his brother's example lest he should add failing to follow his father's instructions to the many other items on the list of faults against him.

Charles Gray slept for the majority of the following morning, during which Cedric received his second warning about choosing his words carefully, in as many days. That done however, life returned to normal at Covington Cross. Well, not quite normal: Charles proved to be a very entertaining guest for all. True to his word, Eleanor began her very first jousting lessons later in the week and discovered that she had a natural talent for it. Charles refused her request to allow her to pit herself against Richard and William, not entirely trusting the motivations on either side. Cedric also began instruction for sword-play, though Thomas was quick to point out that it was for recreational purposes only. Any delusions of Knighthood (though not so cruelly worded) were to be banished from thought. Charles was a good teacher and a good encourager when it counted. Thomas and Charles also spent much time alone together, working hard to rebuild whatever was previously lost in their relationship. One day, three weeks after Charles' arrival, Elizabeth entered the study in time to see Charles and Thomas exchange a warm, brotherly embrace. She left as silently and as unnoticed as she had entered and missed the conversation which ensued. "Let us never part on such ugly terms again, Charles", Thomas entreated earnestly. "Quite so, brother", Charles agreed, "you have my word on it. We were all different people then, and I see now that it is wrong for the past to chain us any longer." And so all was mended.

A few days later, Charles found himself wandering the main courtyard of his former home of many years ago. Hearing voices in the outer yard, he ambled over to investigate, suspecting that it sounded like his rambunctious nephews and niece, though which of the boys it was, he couldn't be too sure. On arrival he was met with the sight of Richard earnestly giving personal pointers to Cedric and Eleanor on their jousting techniques. He watched the exchange with interest, impressed with Richard's care of his younger siblings which occasionally showed itself. "That's right, Eleanor, keep your arm up. That's it! Well done."

"Can I try again, Richard?" Cedric asked, keenly. Richard eyed him suspiciously whilst still trying to simultaneously watch over Eleanor who was happily trotting her horse round for another round. "I don't know, Cedric", he said, cautiously. "Do you promise not to lunge at me again?" "I didn't mean to the first time!", Cedric protested sheepishly. " I just got turned around a little." Richard raised an eyebrow at the relative understatement his little brother had just uttered, but said nothing for a moment. Finally he sighed and relented. "All right, Cedric. But you have to promise to be careful and for God's Sake, whatever you do, don't injure yourself or father will string me up! Just remember you're banned from ever learning jousting after that fiasco with Betty the cow, last year." "That wasn't my fault", Cedric mumbled to himself but his expression soon turned brighter as it dawned on him that he was about to get another turn. "All right, Eleanor - that's much improved but come down now and let Cedric try again." Richard called. Eleanor slowed her horse and looked round at her brothers in dismay. "But I'm in the mood for it now! And I wanted to show Uncle how much I'd improved before our next lesson." "That's all well and good, Sister, but it's time for Cedric to try his hand again, and let's face it, he needs a good deal more practice than you!" Cedric didn't bother to take any insult at the jibe. He was too excited at getting another stab at it (poor choice of words, though they were) and besides, it was perfectly true - he was hopeless at it. "Oh come on Richard! He'll never improve in the few hours we have left before supper.", she insisted. "I'll have you know, that you are talking to the master trainer, here. What I can't teach, can't be learnt!" Richard returned.

"William swears he's better than you." Eleanor pointed out.
"A likely lie - I taught him myself."
"He says Father taught him."
"Another lie.", he insisted, firmly.
"On the very day Father took him to see the King whilst you were home in bed with a cold." Cedric piped up, adding his penny's worth.
"And yet still more!" Richard exclaimed, shaking his head in shock at his brother's audacity.
"Seriously, Richard - just a while yet, please." Eleanor begged.

"I think I may have a solution to your problems, children", came a deep voice from behind them. They all turned (Eleanor rather awkwardly in her saddle) to see Charles watching them, hands on hips. "Uncle Charles!" Richard remarked in surprise. "I didn't hear you approach."
"I'm not surprised, given that you were intent on a hot debate at the time. You must always keep aware, Richard - a lesson you should be teaching to the other two", he remonstrated, lightly. Richard felt his cheeks flush at the slight correction and strove to conceal his embarrassment. "Richard's been teaching us very well", Eleanor pointed out, usually delighted to see her older brother taken down a peg or two, but in this instance, unexpectedly dismayed at her uncle's remark. "Yes". Cedric added. "It's remarkable. Every now and then, we discover a use for him." "Thank-you, little brother", Richard answered a little snidely. "I'm sure you do, at that", their uncle agreed. "But for now I have a way to alleviate your problem. I propose that I take Cedric to continue with his sword-work, allowing Eleanor to continue her jousting under Richard's expert tutelage." Eleanor all but beamed at the suggestion though Cedric seemed somewhat downcast at proposal. "What a truly wonderful idea, Uncle Charles. How clever of you!" she remarked, cheerily. "I thought you might approve", Charles remarked, knowingly. "But Uncle," Cedric protested, "I'm sure I can get the hang of it if I'm just given the chance! It's not fair that I only have one try."

"Life is not about fairness!" Charles corrected, sharply, slightly shocking the three of them. Then he continued more gently. "We must all learn to persevere with things in life, Cedric - even if we find them unpleasant. It is the measure of a true man. In any rate, I am sure I heard Richard remark that you were banned from jousting and I will not have your father's wishes flaunted." He finished, firmly, in a tone which broached no argument. Cedric and Richard had the sense to appear abashed at this statement, and glanced down at the ground, momentarily. When they dared glance up again, they saw that their uncle's stern expression had been replaced by a benign smile which they couldn't help but return - partly in relief that they were safe from their father's wrath for another day.
"Come then, Cedric", his uncle said, kindly. "I believe I have a sword here that you can use."

With that, he led the quieted Cedric through to the main courtyard. After locating a sword for Cedric to use, they commenced their lesson with a little more vigour than Cedric felt up to using. "Keep up, boy! Mind your feet! Remember to block and guard, Cedric - what's the matter with you?!" Charles kept up this barrage of remarks until Cedric's arms had begun to ache and his co-ordination had almost abandoned him completely, causing him to stumble over his own feet whilst attempting to circle his uncle. Finally, with a great sigh of frustration, his uncle called a halt to their practice as the exhausted (and much relieved) Cedric, leant against a wall to catch his breath.

"What was all that about, Cedric?" Charles demanded. Cedric glanced up at him, ashamedly. "I don't know, Uncle. I tried my best but I kept wearing down." "Well you would not have been so tired if you had cut out all of that ridiculous thrusting and extravagant movements!" Charles declared in annoyance. He could not tolerate a poor performance from a pupil who knew better, especially one whom he had taught himself. "Look at your sword!" he continued, gesturing to where a good deal of the edge of Cedric's sword had been badly blunted during the fight. Cedric guiltily examined the blunted edge in question, wishing like anything that he could disappear into the ground rather than face this humiliation. He would even have preferred his scripture lessons at that time. He cursed himself, inwardly: he had wanted to please his uncle, very much. The man was the only person at Covington Cross who actually took his training seriously and Cedric had been determined not to let him down. "Well? What on Earth came over you today?" his uncle insisted, pulling Cedric's thoughts back to the situation at hand. His stomach was rolling over inside and he knew his cheeks were flaming. Still, he mumbled a reply - the truthful answer to the best of his knowledge. "Well, Richard was teaching me how to fight offensively. He said that it was common to try to fool your opponents with moves you don't intend to make..." he trailed off, awkwardly. He glanced up at Charles and was dismayed to see anger building in his black eyes.

"You take the advice of a child who has never seen battle?!" he demanded, enraged. "You take that advice over mine? What, pray tell, have I been doing teaching you all these weeks? Have I been wasting my time? Clearly I have if you dismiss my words so easily! I try to train you to be the best, Cedric, but maybe your father was right: go back to your books!" Cedric cried out in dismay: "No, Uncle - please! I do listen to what you say and I CAN train to be a knight! The moves were working earlier when Richard showed them to me, it's just that you - " he stopped himself before he could say any more, but not in time enough to evade his uncle's returning question. "I what, Cedric?" The young man swallowed before mumbling: "Well, it's just that you were attacking a little harder than Richard was." Try a lot harder than Richard was, he wanted to add, but dared not. "And you expect your enemies to be so lenient on you when you go to battle, hmm? You expect the French to act with courtesy and chivalry?" Charles demanded, forcing Cedric's chin up to make the boy look at him. Cedric met him squarely in the eyes, determined not to appear a coward.

A boot scuffed the hard ground behind them. Charles released Cedric and turned to see the source of the interruption. When he had moved aside, Cedric almost groaned to see who it was standing there, looking rather upset if truth be told, and more than a little curious. Richard had begun to hear the commotion from the outer yard and when he realised that the voices were not kind or constructive, but rather angry and bitter he had immediately left Eleanor to her manoeuvres and gone to investigate. The sight of his uncle, heatedly berating Cedric (for what, he was not quite sure), was not a pleasing one to Richard who felt he alone was permitted to make Cedric feel uncomfortable. He was determined not to go in there on the offensive and to control his temper until he had learned what was going on (a very difficult thing for him to do, in any event). After all, it was quite possible that his little brother deserved the lecture and this was his father's brother, after all - not a stranger.

Charles' anger did not seem to dissolve with the arrival of Richard; instead it seemed to change focus slightly. "What's going on, Uncle?" Richard asked, as mildly as possible. Cedric cut in as hastily as he could, hoping that Richard would accept his explanation and go away. Quickly, before their uncle decided to turn his anger on Richard as well. "I wasn't performing as well as I should have been in my sword-play." he explained, silently begging Richard to leave it at that. Naturally, things could never have been that easy. Richard bristled at the treatment of his baby brother. "Cedric was doing very well this morning", he insisted, just a touch of hardness in his voice. "I've been helping him myself and I thought he was making good progress." Of all the wrong things, at the wrong times to say, Richard had them both mastered. "If he progressed at all, it was into a spectacle at a fair-ground!" Charles, barked, turning to face Richard, squarely. "You had no business to interfere, boy!"
"And you have no business chiding him like that!" Richard spat back, his temper fully riled, now. "Please, Richard!" Cedric pleaded, "it really doesn't matter now. Please just leave it. Uncle", he said, turning to address Charles, "Richard was only trying to be kind, not to replace what you were teaching me. Please can we forget this?" Richard knew when Cedric would really prefer to have the subject drop and so reluctantly, he complied. Charles, too calmed down and began to back off from the tension. "Very well, Cedric. Richard, I trust we may also put this matter to rest? Your intentions were well-meant, as I assure you, were mine." Richard nodded slightly and smiled as sincerely as he could. "Of course. I ...apologise, Uncle.", he managed to get out. Cedric shot him an appreciative look which he didn't miss.

"Right then!" Charles began again, his mood now abruptly lighter, "you must replace that sword, Cedric and now that you are rested, we will resume our lesson." "Yes, Uncle", he agreed hastily, glad that they were all on friendly terms again. "You can borrow one of mine, Cedric", Richard offered. Charles smiled slightly. "That is very generous, but I feel that for the time being, Cedric should not perhaps use a sword of particularly...." he trailed off, not wanting to appear tactless. Finally he came up with "of particularly great value. I am sure there are some older varieties about the castle?" He looked at Cedric's crestfallen expression. "Now Cedric, Richard will tell you that we all have used older swords for training at one time in our lives. Besides, I want you to practice with the heavier weapons - it will be good practice for your balance and stamina." Cedric saw that Richard was genuinely agreeing with his uncle and so brightened up a little. "Good!" his uncle said, approvingly. "Now where might these be around the castle?" He looked to Cedric expectantly, who was beginning to look rather uncomfortable again. He muttered something so quietly that Charles was forced to exclaim: "Speak up, boy! I can barely hear you." Cedric repeated himself, a little louder this time. "There's some which the guards keep in the dungeons." "Splendid! Go down and fetch one and return to me immediately. We have an hour till supper and I am sure to make you the finest swordsman in the kingdom before that time." Cedric shot an apprehensive glance towards the low windows in the castle wall, which gave what little illumination could be offered on the dark passages down to the castle's dungeons. Still, he remained where he was, nervously rocking from ball to heel and back again. Richard understood immediately.

"Cedric doesn't like the dungeons", he explained, quietly to Charles, "he never has. I'll go."
"Nonsense", Charles said, holding a hand out in front of Richard to stop his exit. "Fears are meant to be overcome and we cannot have a man who would be a knight, hindered by such childhood fears, can we?" Cedric was not sure if it was meant to be a rhetorical question or not, but past experience had taught him that it was always wise to assume the latter. "No, Uncle", he agreed, quietly. "Right then. You will please go down and fetch up a sword so that we may begin again. I do believe we have already been delayed a deal already." And who's fault was THAT? Richard thought, irritably. Still, Charles was beaming at Cedric's response, and despite his misgivings about dank and horrible dungeons, Cedric could not help but feel pleased and proud at the reaction he had elicited from his uncle. "Good man! We'll make a knight out of you yet! Chain you to those books, indeed - we'll have that father of yours seeing sense in no time!" Cedric smiled shyly in response to the praise and then headed off to the stone stairs that would lead him down into the setting of many a personal nightmare.

He had begun taking deep breaths the moment the stale air of the cells had assaulted his senses. Quickly realising that this was not an appropriate method to calm himself with considering the source of agitation, he changed to short, shallow breaths and instead considered just closing his eyes against the semi-darkness. Again, not a practical solution unless he wanted to feel his way along walls where anything could be growing or crawling , (an irrational fear as the dungeons at Covington Cross were surprisingly well kept up). Finally, he just settled on not thinking of what could be lurking down here, or more to the point, trying to ignore whatever it was that chilled him to the bone whenever he was forced to come down here.

All the cells were empty (as they usually were) and he could see the pile of old armoury against the end wall, not far in the distance. But it was something about the end cell which had always frightened him the most: of all the places for the cursed swords to be! He stood, planted to the ground, his legs not obeying the rather feeble command his head was giving them to move forwards. "This is ridiculous", he said aloud, hoping that the sound of his own voice would comfort him. It didn't - it only made him alarmingly aware of how alone and quiet it was down there. Maybe his uncle had been right the first time, maybe he should just stick to his books if he was that much of a coward? A sudden noise behind him made him spin blindly in the near darkness. "Who's there?!" he cried out, a small part of his mind telling him that it would most likely only be a rat. It was no rat. Or at least he wouldn't define it as such on this particular occasion. "Relax, Cedric - it's only me." Richard assured him, calmingly. Cedric let out a great sigh of relief. "Thank God - you have no idea what I've been imagining down here. What are you doing here?" "What do you think? It was unfair of uncle to get you to come down here in the first place. I'm just keeping you company."

"It wasn't unfair to try to make me stop acting like a pathetic child!" Cedric complained, bitterly. "Well, I say it was. Everyone has things they don't like. Except him, apparently. Well I'd like to see him tested on an ultimate fear and see how well he fared in the face of adversity." Cedric had never seen his brother quite so rallied to any cause of his, but he wasn't about to reject him. Instead he just contented himself with the company and let the issue with their uncle drop.

"I see the swords over there", Richard pointed out, indicating the pile by the wall.
"Yes." Cedric agreed as they carefully made their way towards them. They looked a little worse for wear and very dulled, but they seemed in generally good condition. Even some of the handles almost looked like the original metals they were made with, not a match for the greenish-grey of the stone wall they leant against. He examined them as quickly as he could, before retracting one close to the surface of the heap and moving away hastily. "This will do", he exclaimed with as much conviction as he could muster. Richard cast an appraising eye over it. "Are you sure this will hold together?" he asked uncertainly.

"Yes!" Cedric returned, defensively, eager to leave that place. Frankly he didn't care if the blade was attached to the handle by twine as long as they could examine it in the warm light of the sun. This place was oppressing to him to say the least. Richard sighed in understanding. "Alright, Cedric - let's go back. This will have to do. What use these will ever be if there is a riot down here, I'll never know." "At least they'd be harmless if the prisoners ever got hold of them", Cedric joked, nervously. "I suppose so. Cedric, I've never understood what you don't like about this place. It's really not that bad."

"It's dank, dark, horrible and full of decay!" Cedric protested. Richard considered his remarks and had to concede to at least a couple of his points. "True, I suppose, but they aren't all in such bad condition. See," he said, pointing to a lighter patch in the wall of the end cell, "this one's even been repaired. Now how many dungeons have that homely care?"
Cedric looked at him, almost incredulously. "It's only so the prisoners trapped in there can't escape." "Again, you may have a point. But don't forget that he probably was chained to the wall in any event, so a gaping hole in the side would only have been a bitter irony." He draped a casual arm around his little brother's shoulders as he turned them round and led them back up to the uneven stone steps. "Oh, thank-you, Richard!" Cedric shot back, irritably.
"In fact", Richard continued, clearly enjoying this new turn in the conversation, "I believe that some of them would have had their feet removed when they first came in." "Remind me again why you came down here?" Cedric demanded as Richard began chuckling. One can only have so much sweetness, he considered mildly.

The rest of practice had been blissfully uneventful. However, by the time they had finished, Cedric was thoroughly exhausted - battling personal demons and his uncle all on the same day, could take a lot out of him. It was with great relief, therefore when he finally sat down to supper that evening - a fine spread of mutton and assorted dishes which were crowed into the middle of the table and causing every occupant's mouth to water. Thomas, however would not say Grace and allow them to start. Richard and William tried regardless and were rewarded with a sharp verbal reprimand. They wisely did not try again. The reason for this most irritating delay it seemed, was the absence of Charles whom Thomas would not begin without. Several long moments had passed since they had been seated and several more fingers had scrumptiously inched their way towards the food, when Thomas decided to take action, rather than sit and wait. "Perhaps he has forgotten the time? Cedric, you were last with him - did he give any indication where he was going?"

"After Cedric's sword-practice?" William cut in, "probably drowning his sorrows in despair."
"That's not funny, William", Richard said quietly, surprising his brother who was usually the one to tell Richard to back off from teasing the baby of the family. Thomas paid him no heed, instead continuing to look at Cedric for an answer. "Uh, he didn't really mention anything specifically. Perhaps he is just resting?" Thomas considered this for a moment. "Maybe. See if you can fetch him, Cedric - and hurry or this food will quickly go cold." The young man sighed wearily but rose to his feet (aching though they were) and went in search of his uncle, all the while wondering why William, who had been wearing out nothing more strenuous than his fingers that day, could not have been sent in his place.

Carefully, he climbed the winding steps up to the turret rooms where his uncle was temporarily lodged. He had never really frequented this part of the castle, but Charles had often played in this part as a boy and so Thomas had decided that he might like to stay there for his duration at Covington Cross. Charles seemed to like his solitude at times and this suited him perfectly, as even now few people rarely came this way. Now that he thought of it, he was fairly happy about the situation himself, given that he would rather avoid bumping into his uncle for the time being. The lesson that day had ended well, but Cedric could not help but feel that there were times when his uncle did not seem quite himself, and to be honest, he was a little afraid of that man. As he reached the top of the flight of steps, it opened out onto a fairly small circular landing with two oak doors in front of him. Torches were mounted on the walls above his head, imperative for negotiating those stairs at night lest one should trip and break their necks, but standing idle and unlit since the warm summer sun rendered them temporarily useless.

The air held a stillness up there that he wasn't used to in the usually hectic but warm rooms of the main castle. It unnerved him, he decided, almost as much as the dungeons had and he hastily set about ascertaining whether his uncle was in his room or not. As he took a step forward however, the slit window caught his eye. He moved towards it, leaning as far over as he could on the sloping sill to survey the grounds beneath him. He was at a side of the castle, rarely visited and the grounds the window looked out over were also rarely trodden. That is why he was surprised to see a solitary figure moving quickly and quietly across the grounds and towards the forest's edge. His pace and movements seemed agitated and his back was towards him, a hood obscuring his face, regardless. That is if it was even a man - Cedric couldn't be sure what the gender was but he didn't recognise the height or build as anyone from Covington Cross - servant or otherwise. The figure stole into the depths of the forest - parts so dense with overhanging trees, that the sun barely shone through and the rain which sometimes poured at night, left the grounds almost marshy.

He wondered what this stranger could have been doing and whether perhaps he should tell anyone of what he had seen. The rumble of his stomach told him otherwise and reminded him that there were four other people waiting downstairs who were more than likely becoming increasingly fed up. A hungry Richard was not a happy Richard, he mused. He strode to the door and rapped on it firmly. No reply was forthcoming so he tried again and called out this time, for good measure. "Uncle? Are you in there? Father has sent me to fetch you for supper." He knew Charles usually always kept his door bolted, but he tentatively tried it anyway. He was right, it didn't budge. He felt very frustrated at that moment. Turning around, he lent against the door and considered where to try next. As his thoughts began to drift to stables and fields, his gaze came to rest on the smaller oak door opposite. As far as he knew, it led only up to some storage rooms which were sometimes utilised for barrels of wine. Not for a very long time, though - not since Richard had locked William up there as children and then not been able to unlock the door. It had been over a day before he had eventually escaped (half of the time spent in there was due to neither boy wanting to confess what they'd done to their father and trying desperately to solve the situation themselves). Since then, the room, like much of the turret, had become disused but what Cedric noticed now, was that the dust on the iron ringed handle had been dislodged and the floor beneath the door held the signs of recent use. Curiously, he moved towards it, taking the rusty iron handle in both hands. Even as he turned the handle and leaned his weight backwards, he didn't expect any result and almost yelped in surprise when the door slowly but surely creaked open.

Forgetting his uncle for the moment, forgetting even his irate family impatiently waiting downstairs, Cedric ever so cautiously made his way up this second flight of steps, one by one. This staircase was less than half the width of the first one (if such a thing were possible) and at one point, he almost feared that he would get stuck between both walls. As it was, he could not see how barrels of wine were ever transported up here. There were no windows up here, and therefore the darkness was almost pure pitch and the air was heavy and musty. He felt his way in the darkness, wishing he could see just a little way in front of him, all the while leaning heavily on the left hand wall and feeling for any kind of guiding rope or rail on either side. From what he could feel of the occasional small iron ring along the walls, there undoubtedly was once a rope threaded along and all the way up, but that was either wasted away, or had been purposefully removed - perhaps by his father, though he couldn't see why. One thing he was sure of, though, whoever was using this room must know these stairs by heart, for some were treacherously uneven and he swore to himself this would be the only journey up here he would make.

The occupants of the dining hall shuffled restlessly on their seats. The bickering was becoming almost violent and Thomas had already moved Eleanor to the other side of Richard in an attempt to break the fight between her and William. It had worked too, and now Richard had successfully taken his brother's place in the argument. "How long does it take?!" William said, suddenly miserably kicking the table leg which caused another glare from Thomas. "Patience all of you", Thomas replied, tightly, though his own was wearing thin, "he has probably had to venture out of doors." "Knowing Cedric he's gotten lost", William muttered as they resumed kicking the table and drumming their fingers.

The steps seemed to go on forever, though Cedric surmised that that could just be his imagination but either way he was soon becoming sick of his ascent. He didn't even know Covington Cross went up this high and without a window he couldn't even gauge how high he was. His mind was just turning to heading back when without warning, his raised foot did not come down on a higher level but came to rest on the same level as its companion, stubbing itself rudely against a door in the process. Cedric was suddenly filled with dismay: another door! He hadn't even considered that and if that one was locked, then he had climbed all that way (however far that may be) for nothing! If it was unlocked, did the door open outwards or in? He didn't feel balanced enough to lean any of his weight backwards in case he should fall down. Down: that notion was suddenly very depressing, either climbing or falling. Deciding that he would not come all that way for a wasted journey, he twisted the ring handle and (hoping it was the correct way) pushed as hard as he dared. At first nothing happened - the door remained stubbornly in place, almost taunting him. However Cedric was beginning to learn that giving up easily did not always bring the most fruitful rewards. He made sure his feet were as firmly planted on the narrow top step as they could be, then braced his shoulder against the door and with as much strength as he could muster, he leant his weight (insignificant as it may have been) into the frame. With a heave and a fair amount of protesting, the door finally pushed open to the utter astonishment and great relief, of Cedric. As it did so, however and he peered into the gloom, his eyes fighting to adjust to the light, it occurred to him that the one thing he had failed to consider on his laborious climb, was what was awaiting him inside.

As caution of the unknown overcame him, his heart began to race ever so slightly. He waited to hear whether anyone was inside, listening for any sound that would have given the occupant away: breathing, rustling, footsteps. As his vision adjusted and his ears gave him no reason to think differently, he came to the conclusion that he was indeed alone up there. Not wanting to stand so precariously at the top of the steps, he carefully ventured into the turret room. Though cobwebs hung from the ceiling and corners like macabre festoons, and a layer of thick dust coated the floor, he could tell that the room had been occupied and recently. The lock appeared newly fitted as if the occupier cared a great deal about keeping this room sealed. He wondered what had happened that day that had caused this person to leave so hastily that they forgot to lock both doors.

The room itself was incredibly small and cramped. A slight window in the far wall let in a surprisingly small amount of sunshine. It was only when Cedric took a good look at the outside that it dawned on him how late it had become and how long he had been away from the table. He considered that he wouldn't be at all amazed if he came downstairs to a bloodbath at the table, Grays scattered everywhere. However, he simply could not obey his conscience and leave just yet - this was his reward for his inquisitiveness and he was going to enjoy it as much as he could. Despite his curiosity though, he discovered that there wasn't a great deal to see. It appeared to be a storage room of rather odd and miscellancious items.
A large wooden chest with dulled bronze hinges and locks stood alone in the far left hand corner of the room. It looked almost impenetrable and he didn't think it was even worth trying that. Small, low tables ran along both walls on either side of the room, bare and uncovered except for the assorted boxes and leather and cloth purses which contained he knew not what, that were scattered in an attempt at order over their surfaces. He could just about make out items such as jewellery poking out from some of them. Paintings and tapestries, covered and rolled up, stood against the right hand wall and lay at the base of the left hand one. If Cedric was any judge, they looked expensive and he wondered why they would be shut away up here.

As he continued to walk about the room exploring, he came across what looked like women's articles of clothing though they appeared older than the current fashion seemed to be, at least as far as he had noticed and he admitted that he never really gave the matter much thought - it was usually what was in the dress that caught his attention. As he finished his circle of the small room, he was disappointed that nothing had particularly grabbed his interest. He walked slowly up the left hand wall, running his fingers lightly over the boxes on the tables. As he got to the end box however, he stopped and picked up what he saw lying there. Rolls of parchment had been protruding through the lid of a small chest and the words almost leapt out at him from the page, though at first he couldn't think why. Now that he had the parchment in hand and was holding it as close to whatever light there was, as possible, he could see that while he didn't recognise it, the writing style was familiar. The words too, now struck a sudden cord of recognition. They were the very same quotes which he had thought of writing for Lily, what seemed like ages ago. Nan had certainly showed him where to find the most passionate and sincere love poetry that he had ever read.

The letters were tied in a bundle and hastily, he began to ease the knot of the binding twine open. Suddenly and without warning, he yelped in surprise as sharp hands snatched the letters away from him. Spinning around he saw Charles standing in front of him, arms folded and glowering at him. "What do you think you are doing in here?" he asked, slowly and dangerously. Cedric's heart was still racing but he gulped and answered, "I..I was sent to look for you. Supper..supper's ready", he trailed off, hopelessly. "Is that so?" Charles remarked, coldly.

"What is all this?" Cedric asked, nervously.
"Storage space." Charles answered, shortly. "Surely you can't expect a man to fit all of his belongings in that tiny room downstairs?" Cedric quickly shook his head in agreement. He tried desperately to change the topic. "Uh, your feet are muddy, Uncle", he pointed out, noticing the thick layer of mud which coated his soles. "I'm sure father has a pair that you could borrow for supper." "What does it concern you about my feet?" Charles asked sharply. "No reason", Cedric amended, hastily. "I just saw someone.." he trailed off, feeling foolish and squirmed under the sharp look that Charles gave him. "Saw what?" he demanded, quickly. Cedric began to feel quite afraid though he told himself it was irrationally so. This was his own family after all. Still, he could not help but feel that Charles' reaction to his invasion of privacy was a little too heart-felt. Carefully, Charles replaced the letters in the chest.

"This is my property", he said, "I would appreciate it if you stayed out of it." "Of course! I only looked at it because I recognised it - well not the letter, but the poetry." Again Charles' look that he gave him was so severe that it made Cedric back up a step. "Where did you see it, Cedric? Who showed them to you?" he asked, much calmer now. Cedric could sense however that this abrupt serenity was merely floating precariously on the surface of his uncles' question. He did not know why, but the shift within his uncle had been startlingly pronounced and though his fa├žade was once again friendly, something had forever changed in Charles Gray; something remaining under the surface, deeply buried yet forever in some level, present in the eyes of Cedric. He weighed his answer carefully. He had promised Nan never to reveal her to anyone and something was telling him that now was not a time to go breaking his word. "No one", he replied at length, "I had some spare time in my lessons whilst the Friar was called away. The books were in the library and I just started reading." Charles' expression was soft and jovial but his eyes told a different story. Still Cedric was immensely glad that they were back on friendly terms again as Charles once again became his usual self.
"If we do not hurry I suppose, supper will be all but ruined! I will take your fine suggestion and borrow a pair of your father's boots for dinner. What would we do without you here, eh Cedric?"

Thomas leant back in his chair in the Great Hall and pushed the haphazard pile of papers that scattered his desk, away from him. He had been working at the accounts all morning and was no nearer to balancing the finances then he was when he had begun. Not that they were in any financial difficulties, but things could be a little smoother. He glanced up as the main door opened and William strode through. "Ah, good morning, William. Tell me, how goes the wool contract with the Blackwoods? Do they appear to favour us yet?"
"Not yet, but I have good hopes. It will be a hard sale but not one that I am not capable of closing." "Splendid. We could do with the extra insurance. Do we have anything which he is particularly interested in?" William considered for a moment. "He liked Eleanor", he said finally. "I don't know why," he added.
"Pig!" she called from the other end of the room.
"Wench!" he shot back, just as calmly, not even batting an eyelid.
"William!" Sir Thomas remonstrated. "Don't call your sister a wench!"
"She called me a pig," he protested.
"Well, maybe but that, that is not the issue," he insisted.
"Yes -toad!"
"Yes, William!"

"Ah - the sweet harmony discord! Good morning family." Richard sauntered merrily into the room from the courtyard. They all stopped the flying accusations and turned to see the owner of the voice. "Ah, Richard, I'm glad you're here", Sir Thomas started, forgetting the earlier conversation. "Have you seen your brother today?" He interrupted sharply as he saw Richard's mouth open for the obvious reply, "the other one!" Richard shut his mouth again and thought for a moment, "Yes, he's hiding from the Friar."
"Splendid! Well, not splendid but it will do for the moment. We don't by any chance know where, do we?" Richard thought again. "In the stables, I believe."
"Good, good. Would you be so kind as to fetch him? That is if you have nothing more pressing to take care of?" "Yes, brother," William cut in, "such as helping me with the Blackwood sale. Fortunately for you though, I could run this business single-handedly."
"Yes, that's enough William." Thomas put in before another argument began, "Richard, please tell him to come to the main hall immediately." "Yes, Father." Richard agreed before sauntering back out again.

If he hadn't already known that Cedric was hiding in the stables, the sound of giggling young girls, was always a sure giveaway. Just follow the trail, he thought to himself. He stood outside the stable entranceway and found that he just couldn't help himself. "It's all right, Friar! He's over here!" he called to no one in particular, "Oh - you want to go in and fetch him? Well if you insist." That did the trick. With a squeal (presumably from the girl) and a deal of rustling, one dishevelled young maiden came scrambling out of the hay, barely even glancing at Richard as she brushed past him in her haste to escape. Richard quickly ran around to the back entrance to the stable and was promptly rewarded by a panicked Cedric running straight into him as he stood there, arms folded across his chest, grinning from ear to ear. With a startled cry, Cedric had stopped short at the collision, still looking nervously about in search of his supposed pursuer. Richard's grin told him otherwise. "That's not funny!" he protested, vehemently scowling his darkest scowl. "I was really getting along with Melinda!"

"I was merely saving your soul, Cedric. You can thank me later. Right now, Father wants you to come to the main hall immediately." "What for?" he asked, forgetting to remain angry with him. "Don't know. You'll have to ask him, won't you? And come up with another excuse" he added as he turned to leave. Cedric sighed: this wasn't going to be the best of days, he could tell. He was also uncannily correct.

He pushed open the main door tentatively and walked inside. Thomas was there, sitting at the table, still shuffling papers in an agitated manner. He looked pleased to see him when he walked in, however, if perhaps a little distracted. "Cedric - good, I'm glad you are here. I have some news for you." "Yes, Father?" Cedric asked hopefully, glad it was not a lecture and his curiosity piqued. Thomas continued, "Do you remember some weeks ago, your uncle had some news that he might need to travel to Chester to settle some old business affairs?" He waited for Cedric to indicate the affirmative which he did with a slight nod. "Well he has since heard that he will indeed have to visit for a few days and process some old debts owed and so forth, in the courts. He proposed that the visit would be a very beneficial and educational one for you, too and I have agreed. Therefore you leave for Chester this very day." Cedric couldn't help but grin at the news. He was finally going to get out of Covington Cross to somewhere farther than the local village! And it appeared his uncle must value him greater than he thought, if he wanted Cedric around on matters of politics. "When do I leave?" he asked excitedly. "Around noon", his father replied, pleased at seeing his youngest so happy. "Be sure to be packed in time", he reminded him, just in time too, as Cedric had practically spun on his heel and raced out of the room.

Cedric couldn't contain his excitement as he raced in search of the Friar to inform him of his legitimate excuse for abandoning his lessons yet again. He found him at prayer in the chapel and had the good grace to wait respectively by the entrance way until presently, the Friar crossed himself, rose and made for the exit, bowing to the altar as he passed it. The Friar, who had missed nothing, had heard Cedric enter and without even looking round, had known that it was him. Now he approached the young man patiently but with a sense of wariness. He was rarely sought after by Cedric for anything, after all. "Friar! Wonderful news", he proclaimed happily. "Really?"

"I am to go to Chester with my uncle. He has great use of me in political affairs. He says I'm his right-hand man." The Friar could not bring himself to dampen his young pupil's mood in any way, though it was apparent that yet more of his studies would be missed. He sighed, but more in exasperation than unkindly. "I am glad for you, Cedric. I just worry that at this rate, we will never progress past Book 4 of the Aenied. If you seem to remember, we have been laboriously working on this for the better part of a year." Cedric smiled dismissively, giving the Friar a reassuring pat on the back. "Don't worry, Friar, I've already figured out what happens. He marries Dido, they raise a family, and he lives with her as King to her Queen for the rest of the book", he explained, happily. The Friar shook his head in mild dismay. "Cedric, do not assume everything in life is as black and white as you would like it to be. If we delve a little deeper into things we discover that they are not nearly as we first imagined them." He could see he was losing this particular point on Cedric at the moment and so he gave in to the boy's enthusiasm. "Very well, Cedric. Thank you for venturing to tell me of your pending absence. Have a safe journey." "I will, Friar, and don't worry - 'The Aenied' will wait," he grinned as he headed out of the chapel. "It will have to", the Friar remarked to the silence of the exiting boy, "for youth certainly waits for no man."

After regaling William and Richard with tales of his approaching expedition, he hurried upstairs to pack, leaving his two brothers somewhat envious but gallantly trying to conceal it. He threw a few items of clothing randomly into a travelling overnight bag. He wasn't sure if he would be required to dress formally but if they were going into courts then there was a chance he would have to. He was a little dismayed at this. He was sure that he had the appropriate clothing somewhere, but he had no idea what it may be. He was so rarely involved in business like this, that his father had never really bothered trying to instruct him before. He thought back to those times when he had watched his older brothers leave for important business but he had never paid their attire close attention. He could always ask his father or brothers, he supposed, but a stubborn part of him was determined to do this on his own - prove that he was as mature as his uncle obviously thought him. He began to wonder if Lady Elizabeth was about the castle that day. She was frequently amongst the heights of fashion and she was very well informed on up to date matters of etiquette. He set off from his room, wandering around in a half-hearted attempt to find her.

As he left the immediate grounds of the castle and found himself strolling the more distant areas of the estate, he was interrupted from his thoughts, by the feeling of a presence near him, as if he were being watched intently. Trees and undergrowth lined one side of his path and on the other, flowed a bubbling spring, running alongside another stretch of forest. He stopped short and waited for a moment, listening intently. Sure enough, the noise stopped with him. He waited with baited breath for any form of wildlife to appear scuttling from the shrubbery. None were forthcoming and his heart began to announce its presence a little more noticeably in his chest. He continued walking a few paces more and the noise began again - a rustling and murmuring, or it could have been breathing - controlled and measured, purposeful as though from a creature who was there for a determined reason. He had wandered far from the grounds and at this juncture, he was most certainly alone. No one was around to hear him call, even if he could manage to find his voice. With a last ditch effort to persuade himself that everything was in his imagination, he continued on his way, a little more hastily than he had begun his amble. If anything, the noise became worse, more urgent as whatever was there, picked up its pace and its desperation. Cedric could positively feel this thing's eyes boring into him and at the definite sound of a branch snapping in the undergrowth to the side of him, he finally called out, with more bravado than he was feeling, "Who's there?" There was no answer as everything suddenly became eerily still and quiet - even the birds. "If that's either of you Richard or William, then you're not scaring me at all. In fact this is very old and unoriginal of you."

He sincerely hoped he was just talking to himself, and had actually managed to convince himself that he must be going mad when he heard the unmistakable sound of a foot step behind him. Before he could react, he felt a hand hover above his shoulder and at that point, he found his senses again. With a sharp intake of breath, he spun around, his heart in his throat, ready to defend himself as best he could. He stopped short at the sight before him. There stood Nan, quite alone and defenceless, regarding him with a very worried expression.

"Cedric. What's wrong?" she asked, earnestly. Cedric let out the breath he'd been holding, but he didn't relax and instead began scouring the bushes. "Be careful, Nan", he warned, moving in front of her slightly in an effort to protect her from he knew not what. "You didn't see any one in the bushes over there, did you?" he continued. She looked at him in alarm. "No, no one. Are you sure you did not simply hear my approach? I noticed you from across the river and crossed over at the nearest bridge." Cedric shook his head, though somewhat uncertainly, "No, I was sure it was someone else. Not an animal, either. That's what Richard or William would have said, but I do know the difference between a man and an animal and this was definitely a man." "Who do you think it could have been?" she asked him, sincerely, concern shining through her bright eyes. "I don't know", he admitted. Then he noticed her agitated manner and was suddenly dismayed that he had upset her. It had been over a month since he had last seen her - not since that day in the orchards, and he did not want to drive her away again. "I could be wrong, of course. I have been known to be so", he joked, weakly. She smiled slightly at him, clearly not happy with letting the matter drop. "Honestly", he assured her, "if it was any one, then it was one of my brothers. I'll find out when I get back to the castle. Oh yes!" he exclaimed in sudden memory, "I almost forgot what I had wanted to tell you. Well, ask you really, I just wasn't sure if I would find you today." Nan looked at him patiently, amused by his enthusiasm. "I am finally to leave Covington Cross on official business! My uncle has asked me to accompany him to the shire courts to settle his old debts."

Her expression altered immediately, her pallor growing even paler than usual and her eyes about two shades darker. The transformation was positively alarming and her fear was almost infectious. For a moment, Cedric was afraid that she was dreadfully overcome with illness. "Nan! What's the matter?! Please tell me - are you ill? Should I take you back to the castle? We can send for a physician?" She shook her head quickly and wordlessly, holding one hand up to stay off his concerned advances. "Nothing is wrong with me, Cedric", she answered, almost tonelessly. However he could not relax at this for her eyes still bore into him with an intenseness he hadn't known she was capable of and the fear still remained embedded in that gaze. "You said you were leaving the grounds of Covington Cross?" she asked, sharply. He seemed a little confused at her line of questioning but decided to go along with her until he knew if she really needed help or not. "Yes", he answered. "We're going to Chester."
"Who exactly?" she demanded, causing Cedric to squirm, rather uncomfortably under the pressure of her interrogation. "Just my Uncle Charles and I. He needs me there - thinks it will be good for my education. Father agrees."
"Why not your brothers?" Cedric tried hard not to show his disappointment. Even Nan, of all people, doubted that he should be important or apt enough to concern himself with anything other than his school work. He had been sure she would have been thrilled for him after all the years he had been pouring his heart out to her. He became aware that she was still waiting for an answer and so, begrudgingly, gave her one. "I assumed that he did not need them there," he said, quietly, "I assumed that he only wanted me. You think I was wrong." It was a statement, not a question: he was feeling too crushed to question anything at that moment.

Nan seemed too distracted to notice. "No, I think you are right, but for all the wrong reasons," she muttered causing Cedric to show a little curiosity instead of despondency. Before he could question her she continued quickly, "You must not leave the castle grounds, Cedric - promise me that you will stay here." His confusion was openly obvious now, "I don't understand, Nan. What are you worried about? I am only going with my uncle."
"And what do you know of him?!" she demanded, vehemently. He was taken aback for a moment. "Enough", he replied, a little defensively. "He is my father's brother and a good man." "You know that do you?" She was angry now and nothing like the woman he once knew. "I have seen enough to know that, yes!" Cedric returned, adamantly.
"You know nothing, Cedric", she insisted and inwardly he recoiled as if he had been slapped. "A man appears from your past and you ask him no questions - even about the parts of his past that you know about!"

Cedric felt truly crushed, but he summoned the will to continue with Nan's tirade. "Father tells me it is impolite to ask so many questions", he replied defensively. Nan scoffed openly at this. "Impolite! Foolish more like it. You did not think there were some questions which needed to be asked?" Despite his anger and growing despair, Cedric could not help but be compelled to hear what she had to say. "What questions?" he asked, carefully. Seeing that she had his interest, she continued, earnestly. "Everything. What of Mary?"
"Mary?" he repeated, uncertain of how Nan even knew these things.
"Did anyone ever question?" she asked, almost begged, her eyes imploring him but for what, he couldn't tell. "I don't understand where this is coming from, Nan", he said, honestly. She sighed in frustration, though she had regained control of her temper. "I expected more, Cedric but he's right - you do only see in black and white!" He opened his mouth to protest but she silenced him with a gentle hand gesture. "Sometimes we must delve deeper into things, Cedric. But what ever you do, I beg you not to leave this place. You are safe here, under your father's protection." "Safe from what?" he questioned, alarm and curiosity beginning to set in side by side. She regarded him sadly for a moment, brushing a strand of hair away from his face, "I am not entirely certain. Perhaps nothing", she admitted, "but promise me that you will stay aware and that you will remain within the grounds - whatever you do." All her anger was gone now, only her original fear and desperation remained and despite her words causing him so much pain, previously, Cedric could feel nothing but sympathy for her now. He almost surprised himself when he assented to her request, nodding silently. She appeared satisfied with this, but remained uncertain about something. Suddenly a cry was heard in the distance: someone was headed this way. Nan looked around her, quickly. "It's all right, Nan," Cedric assured her, "I think it's only one of the servants." Still, she would not relax. "I must go now, Cedric," she said as she hastily gathered her skirts above her ankles and made for the forest edge. She paused and turned before she entered, "Please forgive me for anything I have said that has hurt you today. It was never my intention, but do remember our discussion." And with that last entreaty, she disappeared again. Cedric stood there for a few moments, trying to take in all that had happened. Then he remembered his earlier feeling of unease in that place and decided to make haste back towards the main castle grounds.

When he eventually arrived back, his conversation with Nan was already beginning to fade from his thoughts - at least the urgency was wearing down. Besides, the closer he got to the castle, the more his thoughts turned to his trip to court. Granted it wasn't the king's court - not yet, anyway but he would work his way up to that. As he arrived at the courtyard, he saw a newly arrived carriage waiting by the entrance to the castle, the magnificent white horses, pulling at their restraints and stamping their feet impatiently at their desire to be on their way. At that moment, Cedric knew exactly how they felt and could only assume that this grand carriage was meant for his uncle and himself.