March 27, 1655, (Wednesday),Harper-- age 10;
Blackman-- age 11;
"Stop the whispering and get on with your work," Kettle said sternly, a forbidding expression in his eyes.
The dark eyed boy scowled at the austere teacher but the ten year old with the long, chestnut curls kept his eyes down and away from the instructor's faded blue ones.
"Have you something to say to me, Master Blackman?"
Blackman glanced quickly at the switch hanging on the wall and murmured, "No, Sir."
"Aye, I thought not. Go to the board and finish the problem. Jackson, you may re-turn to your seat now." The fair haired lad at the chalk-board returned the piece of chalk gratefully back into the trough and hurried back to his seat. Blackman's walk to the board was slow, reluctant.
"We do not have the whole day, sir. Kindly cease your lagging."
Blackman glowered at the math problem; Harper could have done it, one, two, three, but the dark hair youngster, though proficient at sports (and fighting when the need arose), was not very skilled at advanced mathematics.
"Are you memorizing it?" Kettle demanded.
"I can't do it, " Blackman admitted. His jaws grew taut.
"No, I can't."
"Blackman, I say you can. Stop listening to your heart and pay attention to your brains. You are capable of following through with the solving; Now do it."
Blackman, body tense, picked up the chalk and studied the board with mutinous eyes. Shock came moments later when he realized he could do it. His hand moved feverishly across the black surface. He turned in triumph and stared in delight at the slim teacher. "I did it!"
"Aye, Blackman, that's a good lad. Now return to your seat."
Blackman scrunched up his eyes. He stood for a moment, wanting more praise from the man but when it was not forthcoming, he retired back to his desk.
"I did it!" he whispered to his best friend and constant companion.
"I knew you could, " Harper whispered back.
Blackman viewed him with astonishment. "But how ... "
"I will have silence, " Kettle informed them in a hard voice. "Take out your spellers and practice the words on page one-fifty-three."
Blackman's eyes drifted out the window to alight on the dark castle that loomed both threatening and enticing on the hillside.
"Master Blackman, did I direct different instructions to you?"
"No, sir." The young boy tugged his speller from inside his desk and opened it up. Page one-fifty-three: archery ... artifice ... aversion ...
He definitely had an aversion to being in school on a day like this.
He turned his gaze back outside, back to the strange castle.
'They say it's haunted; They say Lord Hemispot is a warlock. I wonder if he is?' Blackman yelped in pain as Kettle's thin, switch came whistling down on his unprotected hand. Blackman drew up, hugged it tight to his chest. He hated the tears that sprang to his blue eyes. They were a sign of weakness to him.
"Your eyes should be focused on the page, Blackman, not on the castle. Next time, I'll use the strap. Do you comprehend?"
"Yes, sir." The young boy bit his lip to keep any further words from escaping but they yelled in his head.
"Aye, I thought you would." Kettle continued his stroll down the aisle.
"I hate him, " Blackman grumbled-bled as he and Harper walked home from school later.
"Who? Mr. Kettle?"
"No, your da! Of course I mean him. I don't like being hit!"
Bitterness twisted the young features. "I get hit at home; I get hit at school! I'm tired of it, Ray!"
"I know." He gripped his friend's arm in compassion and total understanding. Blackman's da was a mean man.
"You don't know, Ray, what I...what he ... " Blackman choked on the words. "You just don't know what's it like." The pain, the tribulation, in his life rose like bile into his throat.
The tone in his friend's voice made Harper feel uncomfortable. "What is it, Billy?"
"No." How sad he sounded, how bleakly accepting. "Never mind; It's my problem." Blackman's eyes shifted up toward the dark house on the hill. They lingered there thought-fully. "I wonder if Lord Hemispot really is a warlock like they say."
"He's just a strange, old man. You know how people are; They enjoy making mountains out of dung heaps."
"I wouldn't mind having that power." There was an earnest, wishful sound in his voice.
"He doesn't have any power, not really. He's just real good at fooling people."
"No one tells him what to do. Can you imagine having that much domination?"
"No one wishes him a good morrow either, Billy."
"No one wants to work for him. They're all afraid of him. I wish ... " Blackman turned sorrowful eyes toward his friend. "I wish people were afraid of me!"
"You wouldn't have any friends!"
"I wouldn't have anyone hurting me either!" He crossed his arms across his chest and hugged himself tight. "No one would touch me, not ever again."
Harper didn't know how to answer that one; He changed the subject slightly. "Can you imagine how dirty his house is?"
Blackman half smiled, completely understanding. "He has Adle working for him."
"Still, one man can't possibly keep that huge place clean. It's his fault though; If he wouldn't pretend he's some type of magician ... "
"Warlock, " Blackman corrected.
"Warlock ... if he wouldn't go around pretending to be one, he could have dozens of servants taking care of him."
"Adle can't talk."
"They say Lord Hemispot became enraged at his servant and placed a curse on him."
Harper argued logically, "People say a lot but it doesn't mean it's the truth."
"No, but Mrs. Cardle swears she saw him do it."
"Mrs. Cardle drinks; you know that. No one believes anything she says, not even her husband. My da told me."
"I'm going to go up there one day and find out for sure."
"You would be wasting your time."
Blackman shrugged. Hesitantly, a little fearfully as well, he admitted in a low voice, "Ray, I'm going to run away to sea. I know they'll take me! I'm eleven and I'm big and I'm strong."
"You can't! Billy ... "
"What have I got to keep me here? School? My da? This town? I can read and write and do sums. That's all I need. All he knows is a fist and a kick. He told me I could go to school until I was twelve, but he's already talking about taking me out and making me work with him. What kind of life would I have here? Should I stay and be a woodcutter like my da? Should I work from dawn till dusk, risking life and limb cutting down trees? There's nothing here, Ray, nothing."
"I'm here. We're blood brothers, remember the oath? Remember how we shared our blood last year. We're brothers!"
"Yes, I know; I haven't forgotten, but you'll go off to school in London to study when you're older. You know you will. We both heard your parents talking to the old Cow."
He kicked viciously at a rock. "I can wait until Da goes off to cut wood Saturday and then I can hitch a ride with the peddler. Bundy's going to Liverpool that day. He'll let me ride in his cart; He's already said he would. He'd take me right to the waterfront in Liverpool. He knows a couple of seamen from the taverns he goes to. He'll introduce me; I can sign on as a cabin boy."
"Maybe you should think about this, Billy; Once you're on a ship, out to sea ... " Distress made it hard to breathe, made him feel cold inside.
"I have thought about it." Suddenly, without warning, Blackman clenched his friend's arms with tight fingers. "Don't you say anything to anyone, you hear me! Don't you tell my Da! Don't you tell Kettle! Promise me!" He shook Harper. "Promise me!"
"I...prom...ise! Stop...shak...ing...me!" Blackman released him. "I'm not stupid, Billy. If I told your Da, he'd beat you and then keep you locked up. If I told Mr. Kettle, he'd tell your da, and you'd be in trouble. I wouldn't do that you! You're my friend. I won't say anything to anyone, I promise, but I wish you wouldn't go."
"There's nothing for me here, Ray, nothing."
"Just think about it a couple of days, until Monday, please. That's all I ask. You might not feel this way next week, but if you do, if you still want to go off, well, the peddler comes back in a month, doesn't he?"
"I'll think about it." But his face was closed, distant, and that worried Harper, made him feel strange inside. "Come on. We better go. If Da gets home before I do ... "
Harper only nodded; He did not have to say anything. He knew what Mr. Blackman would do to his son. Everyone in the village knew ... and no one did anything about it. He tried once more, "We're blood brothers; blood brothers don't lie to each other." The young Blackman shrugged and left the other boy, running through the woods towards the hut he called home.
'Life is unfair,' he thought as they half ran the rest of the way to the fork where Blackman would leave him. 'Billy shouldn't have such a father.' He told himself all the way home that Blackman wouldn't follow through with his plans to run off to sea. Blackman had never lied to him.
To be continued.