Twelve-year-old Will hurried through the stony fields of the English countryside, driving his sheep against the bitter wind. But when a crippled ewe slowed down again, he stopped and lugged her, puffing and panting, down to the fold where Cyr the shepherd waited.
Will had dallied too long with Brother Gregory again today, and he wondered what excuse he could give the master shepherd this time. Still, he had learned three new letters today! He could hardly wait for another meeting with the shepherd-monk. Brother Gregory seemed eager to hear what Will could tell him about life at the castle—where the great hall and the count’s chambers were and about the rich fur-trimmed robes the count wore. All these splendors impressed the monk, for in the monastery the brothers knew poverty and lived simply. Will didn’t think of Brother Gregory as he did the solemn monks he had seen before. He was witty and wise and a good friend.
“Late again, lad,” Cyr grumbled as Will eased the animal to the ground.
“The ewe has a bad leg, and I can’t leave her alone tomorrow. It looks like I’ll not be sharing in the Christmastide feasting.”
The older shepherd smiled, “I’ll tend the ewe, lad,” he offered. “I’ve seen many a Christmas feast, and if I’m lucky, I’ll see one or two yet. Besides, I’m waiting to hear more news of the Duke of Wormsley from the castle guard,” the older man added with a sly grin, as though he were keeping a great secret.
“What news?” asked Will, curious.
“He’s burned two outlying huts as a warning to Count Hector. You mark my words, there’ll be battle between the two lords over their inheritance.”
The following evening Will glanced about the great hall. Surrounding Count Hector, Lady Ursula, and other nobles at the large raised table were tables for lesser folks—wandering priests and lute-playing minstrels and traveling merchants and adventuring knights. Beneath these the peasants were gathered, Will among them. Attendants carried salvers heaped with food, and children scurried about underfoot. Dogs growled and snarled under the long trestle tables, waiting for choice scraps. Huge meat pies were served and peacocks and fragrant new bread, washed down by tankards of mead.
Suddenly, Will stared in disbelief. In his black hood and cassock, Brother Gregory sat gaily chatting with the guests around his table. But when he rose slightly to scoop up a second helping of meat pie, Will glimpsed a sharp glinting beneath the folds of the monk’s robes.
Beads of sweat broke out on the boy’s upper lip when he realized that Brother Gregory was carrying a dagger! Will knew that true monks did not go to Christmas festivals, nor did they carry daggers. The monk is an imposter!
Anxious about what might happen, Will slipped from his place into the kitchen. Attendants were hurrying in and out, and the place smelled hot and steamy. A cook motioned to a huge meat pastry and said gruffly, “You, boy. Take this in to the count.”
Will obediently grabbed the pie and hefted it to a corner of the busy kitchen. Then grasping a butcher knife, he quickly scratched into the crust the words BLACK HOOD in the same large block letters that the false monk had taught him. His eyes blurred from the steam and he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He wondered if Brother Gregory had seen him too.
Holding the huge pastry high to shield his face, Will bore it in to the great hall and set it directly before the count. The lord and his group were laughing and talking, but when Count Hector leaned forward to grasp his goblet, he spied the words. Peering at Will, and then around the tables, he spotted the only black hood in the hall. Before Will could blink, Brother Gregory had whipped the dagger from the folds of his black robe. It zinged past Will’s ear just as the count ducked to one side. As the imposter raced for the door, an alert guard grabbed him around the neck and forced him down.
The week after the Christmas holiday was over, Will was silently packing a poultice on the ewe’s bad leg. Cyr watched admiringly with weary eyes. “I think you’ll do well as a shepherd, lad. It would be wise to be content in your place.” He shook his head. “I know that idea is painful to you now, Will, since your friend Brother Gregory disappointed you. It’s too bad he turned out to be a spy of the wicked Duke of Wormsley.”
Will shrank from the words and stared at the sheep’s festered leg, his eyes burning. Now that it was known that he had been used by the imposter-monk to gain information about the castle and its lord, he felt he would be shamed forever.
As Cyr went out of the fold for a moment, a page beckoned Will from the doorway. “The count wants to see you, lad,” he rasped.
A few minutes later Will sat on a stool in the count’s chambers, afraid to look at the man who had summoned him. After what seemed a terribly long silence, the count finally spoke, “The whole castle knows of your association with the Duke of Wormsley’s spy, lad, but I believe you meant no harm.” He paused. “Did he teach you to make those letters?”
“Yes, my lord,” Will whispered.
The count leaned forward and his bright eyes pierced through the boy like a knife. “Those letters you wrote saved my life!”
At the fervor in the count’s voice, Will looked up. Count Hector settled back in his chair and continued, “The monastery is without a shepherd these past days, and the abbot tells me that if I consent to let you tend their sheep, they’ll teach you more letters and such that the imposter began. He tells me that if this arrangement is made, in a few years I would have a new scribe to copy books,” Count Hector concluded. Will sat in stunned silence, hardly able to believe what he was hearing. The count snapped his fingers impatiently. “Well, boy?” he demanded.
“I—I think the plan is excellent, my lord!” breathed Will, his eyes bright. “Thank you, my lord. Thank you!”