Title: Colors in Winter
Character: Kit Marlowe
Word Count 979
Cambridge, January 1580
They were supposed to wash every morning, and put on clean shirts. But Kit spent each night curled in the center of his bed, shivering to sleep and back.
He wore his shirt and stockings to bed. He dressed under the covers. This was not modesty, it was just marginally warmer that way. Kit washed himself in the evening. The cold gritty water served to startle his mind, and he was able to force just that much more into it before he was yawning again.
His bed was nearest the window, next to the wall, furthest from the fire too. He was the new boy. The others had been there longer. In theory the cost of wood was covered. In practice, not quite enough. The fire was meager-- they could not purchase extra wood.
Mornings the boys ran in circles, in their dark robes, like crows, in the weak dawn, round and round. They sucked in the clean air, blowing it out like smoke. It got the blood moving. Some students had dogs. The dogs pranced along, delightedly getting in the way. Dogs did not mind the cold-- well they had fur. Kit, at 16, had very little fur-- just a disappointing tawny patch which did nothing make him any warmer. His feet tingled and itched as as he ran. By the time he stopped, chest heaving, they felt like his own again. After the run came prayers, and breakfast, and then straight into lectures. Inattention was punished. And yawning. All the rest of the day he had to hold still, and the stones were cold, and the bench hard under his thin backside. Inevitably, slowly, his feet went numb again. By midday his bottom was numb, and he was aching to move.
He wiggled his toes. Mostly he let his mind do all the stretching. His brain was creaking. By days end he was bursting full, torpid with mental indigestion. Prayers again, a spare meal. Weak ale, and tough lamb. That was well enough, his teeth were sharp, and he was always hungry.
Punishments were Wednesday afternoon, outdoors, bare-arse beatings as at any school. Nothing surprising there-- only that the older boys were-- older. He could not help noticing that. Still they cried out in pain, like all boys. He watched. He was supposed to watch. This was coldness too, saving it all up for one afternoon. It was worse somehow than striking at the moment of transgression. That would not have troubled Kit as much. He was used to making recitation to the sound of sobs and shrieks.
Nick and Geoff shared his room. They had the two beds nearer the fire. Kit had the space left. They were older, already friends with each other. Gentleman. They had brought extra blankets from home, he had not. They did not offer to share. They were not cruel, just-- puzzled by him. A cobbler's son up close and shivering was something to gape at, like a talking mule.
February came, and Kit's birthday. He was 17. The trees were coated in ice. Boys slid as they ran, laughing. One of the sizers fell and broke his arm. He served at table, slowly, with his arm in a sling.
They were warned again to stay away from the river. Some years back a fool had fallen in and drowned. Kit shivered, thinking of the dark water closing overhead. In dawn light the river was a dark curve cut into a world of plate silver. Kit tried to imagine it in summer, how it would be to lie indolent on the sunny bank, to listen to the small birds. He pictured laughing, splashing, swimming. The dogs would go down to lie in the cool mud. It would be delightful underfoot. Of course it was forbidden. He thought this even as his mind supplied the image of warm sloth. Thoughts of forbidden things were themselves forbidden-- but it would be good to be warm.
February was sputtering out. He was confident in his Greek now. Geoff asked him for help, loaned him a copy of Holinshed.
He knew all the faces now. He knew who had a cough, a fear, a secret. He knew who could answer readily upon requiring.
He saw them every day. Same, every day.
Until the morning in March, when the stranger came.
He was not a student. He was just perhaps too old. No, nor a master either. He was too young. And anyway everything about him was wrong for that. The stranger did not move to sit on the long bench, he did not go to the front to speak. He slouched against the wall, silently watching. He did not wear the sadd cloth of the scholar.
He was colors. Kit's heart contracted painfully at the sight. He had missed colors, had not known it. Now he looked, and looking was like drinking after terrible thirst. The man's doublet was deep green velvet, slashed to show pink silk beneath. His boots were soft, well worn, but not worn out. Kit knew boots. The man's skin was pale, his hair was fair and very clean. His hands were clean too. Kit could almost see the underside of the man's hand. There would be a callous at the base of the thumb, where the reins rested. It would be--
“Mr Marlowe-- the lesson is at the front of the room.”
“Your pardon sir.”
“Granted, now let us commence...”
The lesson unfolded. He faced forward. He would allow himself to look again in half an hour. He would hear the bell, then, and he would look then, not until then. This he thought, and this he did. But long before the clock spoke, he felt the stranger's gaze on him.