Authors: Michael Jecks
‘Look over there, in the wrapping,’ David said at last, thrusting the blank into a quench. The hissing and bubbling was deafening.
Baldwin walked to the table at which the smith had pointed, and found the package. Slowly, with care, he unwrapped the waxed material to reveal a new sword.
He held it joyfully. It was a perfect blue, polished to a mirror-like perfection, with a fuller that ran for some two thirds of the blade. ‘You have created a marvel, David. This is beautiful.’
The smith had joined him, rubbing his hands on the old leather apron that covered the front of his body. It was blackened and scarred in many places, where sparks had caught and flared. The mere sight was enough to make Baldwin feel queasy. In the last days of Acre, when he was young, fires had been started by the Moorish siege engines, hurling boulders and flaming bales designed to cause infernos all over the city. He could recall the screams of people burning. Some ran to rescue those trapped in buildings, and their clothes were pocked and marked like this.
Baldwin swallowed and turned away. Death by fire was hideous.
‘I’ve not had time to finish the surface as I’d have liked,’ David said grimly. ‘I need another few weeks for that.’
Baldwin hefted the sword in his hand. He had ordered this in December, when he first returned to Exeter after the trials of the last year. The smith had made the blade, while an armourer Baldwin knew, who worked with David quite often, had provided the cross and the grip, and had wound the fine leather about the hilts, fitting them together with the sword and then riveting the heavy round pommel in place.
‘This is proof that you are a master of your art.’ Inset into the blade on one side, Baldwin saw the letters picked out in fine gold script:
Beate Omnipotensque Angeli Christi
: Blessed and Omnipotent are the Angels of Christ). On the reverse, in memory of his friends in the Order, he had a small circle, and within it was a Templar cross.
‘Not perfect. I missed a little dint down there – see? I had my apprentice polish it up, and he failed there.’
‘No, I do not see,’ Baldwin said, smiling. ‘You are a man who is determined upon perfection, my friend.’
‘I don’t know why you were in such a hurry for it, anyway,’ the smith complained. He took the sword back and began to wipe a cloth smeared in fat all over it, rubbing quickly, and peering along its length to make sure that it was all uniformly covered. ‘The land should be calming, now we have a new King.’
Baldwin took his sword. He would buy a scabbard from a shop farther along the street. It would be easy to find one that fitted.
‘The land should be calmer,’ he agreed. But as he left the smithy, he knew very well that the kingdom’s troubles were far from over.
The King had been deposed and the Crown had passed on, but although many sought to uphold the succession, even if it was unorthodox, there were others who preferred to make as much profit as they could from the situation. Sir Roger Mortimer, his lover the Queen, and the under-age King Edward III ruling in a three-way council, was no recipe for peace. Baldwin suspected that the realm would suffer more dramatic shocks before long.
He was determined to be prepared for them.
Two Sundays before the Feast of the Annunciation
It was the middle of his second day in the town before Dolwyn managed to enter the castle. He had not expected it to be so easy.
The sun shone brightly, and without rain to wash away the ordure, the streets were becoming more noisome by the day.
He sat outside an inn and enjoyed a strong ale while he watched passers-by: men-at-arms, women with baskets offering flowers or trinkets, urchins calling for coins, pestering any who looked wealthy until sent on their way with a cuff about the ear. It was hours until the scavengers would come to clean the street of dung, scraping up dog mess for the tanners, that of the horse and cattle for the dungheaps, sweeping away piles of shit where the butchers voided the bowels of their carcasses.
It was the same in all vills and towns up and down the kingdom, he thought. Wherever men lived, there was filth to be cleaned. In a way, he was a scavenger too, tidying up the unpleasant little problems the Bardi family preferred to keep hidden. Once he had worked for Matteo alone, but now he was henchman to the bank itself.
He couldn’t complain. His post was well paid, and he needed the job. Since losing his wife and daughter, working was the only thing that kept him moderately sane.
In the yard behind the tavern, a cockfight was about to start, and the audience was gathering. At one side of the pit were men-at-arms from the castle, while a sprinkling of locals watched sullenly from the other side.
‘There is bad feeling,’ Dolwyn commented to a neighbour.
‘What do you expect? Those prickles take everything they can, even our women. Whatever we do, they elbow their way in.’
‘It must be difficult when they’re all over the town,’ Dolwyn said sympathetically.
There was a bellow of laughter from the yard, and Dolwyn turned to see one of the castle’s men grabbing at a cockerel in the pit, and wringing its neck. The body he flung carelessly to one side, while another pair of birds were brought and armed with the vicious spurs, teased and tormented by their handlers to the point where they could not be held. Then, in a flash of feathers the two sprang into the air, trying to rake each other with spurs and talons.
‘See that squire? He’s porter of the castle, he is. A right devil. All he cares about is money.’ Dolwyn’s neighbour indicated the man who had killed the cock.
Dolwyn studied the fellow. Thick-set, short in the neck, but with an impressive breadth of shoulder, he was dark-skinned, and wore a thin beard with plenty of ginger in it. His dark eyebrows almost met over his nose, and his equally dark eyes seemed very knowing. He looked across and met Dolwyn’s stare without interest, as a man might survey a slug, before returning to the contest.
‘What money?’ Dolwyn asked.
‘He’ll take anything he can,’ the man said.
Dolwyn nodded, and finished his ale. He bought another and wandered back out to the yard, watching the men at the pit. He enjoyed cockfighting.
Feathers were flying about, and one cockerel was weakening, his head hanging a little, while blood dripped from his comb and beak. An eye was gone, and his left wing was twisted and useless. Enfeebled, he watched from his good eye as his opponent circled closer, and waited for the final assault.
There was a loud squawking. The fresher cock leaped up high, and it seemed impossible for the other to defend himself . . . but then he darted to the side, and as the other came down, in a somewhat ungainly manner, he jumped just high enough, and a barb caught the other cockerel in the back of the neck. There was a sudden spit of blood, and the one-eyed bird was the victor.
Both birds were soon dead, their bodies thrown to a boy, who sat plucking them. The porter stood, wiping his hands on a cloth, but when he saw Dolwyn again, his eyes narrowed. Dolwyn was about to walk away when the porter accosted him.
‘Hey, you. You’re a stranger,’ he said.
‘Yes. I am a traveller.’
‘Where are you going,
‘I am on my way to Warwick from Leeds for my lord, the Earl of Chester,’ Dolwyn said mildly. Earl of Chester was King Edward III’s first title, granted long before he was made Duke.
The man studied him with his head on one side. ‘And what do you want at Warwick?’
‘The message I carry is secret,’ Dolwyn said. He did not make a move toward his sword, but was ready to defend himself. Although he had no idea what was in the message, he daren’t display it. He suspected that it would be dangerous.
It appeared that his confidence was enough to convince. ‘So you say. That is good. Is there news from the north?’
Dolwyn did not relax his posture, but nodded slightly. ‘That which all know. The Scots are attacking again, and their armies are ravaging the north. Lord Percy . . . I can tell you this: he has been negotiating with the Bruce for the last month or more, but the Scots won’t listen to reason. There will be war.’
‘I see.’ It was evident that the man was persuaded by Dolwyn’s story. ‘So, you have a safe conduct?’
Dolwyn opened his purse and took out the parchment with its seal, but he did not pass it to the porter. ‘You are?’
‘I am Bernard of Oxford, Esquire. And you are?’
Dolwyn pushed the note back into his purse. ‘Travelling without attracting attention, Squire. Now, I require food enough to last me to Warwick.’
‘If you have a safe conduct, I would see it.’ Squire Bernard snapped.
‘Then you will have to kill me. This document was given to me by Lord Percy’s own man.’
‘Oh.’ The squire looked askance at Dolwyn.
‘Yes. You know what happened to Andrew Harclay when his negotiations went awry with the Scottish. He was executed. I have secret communications here which I must take urgently, or our business with the Scots may fail. Delay me, and incur the King’s displeasure. So, will you aid me, or defy me?’
In less time than it had taken for the second cock-fight to finish, Dolwyn was in the castle’s hall. He looked about him with interest as a page fetched meats and cheese and a loaf of bread. He was given a well-carved bread trencher, and a thickened stew was doled into a bowl. With the bread he soaked up as much of the gravy as possible, before attacking the meats on the trencher. The hard cheese he stuffed into his satchel, along with half the loaf.
The room was all but deserted – the men would be arriving later for their second meal of the day – and he took advantage of the quiet to look about the place. It was a newer chamber, but the fire was still placed in the middle of the floor, to his relief. He did not like fires set at the wall. They never seemed as effective, and in any case he missed the smell of the smoke.
‘This is a quiet castle,’ he commented, ‘for so many men in the garrison.’
‘The knight doesn’t like noise,’ the page said.
‘There’s only one here we call that – Sir Edward of Caernarfon. The King’s father.’
Dolwyn pretended astonishment. ‘Him? You say
‘Aye, sir. And a more kindly gentleman you could never meet.’
Dolwyn said nothing, but scraped at his trencher and sucked the juicy bread from his spoon. ‘I’ve heard he is that,’ he lied. He licked the back of his spoon clean before carefully stowing it away in his satchel. ‘It must be an honour to have him in the castle.’
‘It’s a lot of work,’ the boy said.
‘But he’s held in a room here, not a cell?’
‘We couldn’t keep the King’s father in gaol like some common churl!’ the boy scoffed.
‘I would hope not! A man of his estate should be treated with all respect,’ Dolwyn said fervently. ‘Tell me, boy, would you like a penny?’
‘Just to know where Sir Edward is held. Nothing more. I am carrying a message for his son, and I’m sure the young King would like to know his father was being held without discomfort.’
‘Twopence?’ the page demanded, and then, when Dolwyn nodded, he considered and then nodded. ‘Follow me.’
They walked over to the door, and the boy pointed across the ward to a small block of rooms. Inside, said the page, the King had two chambers, one above the other and both well-appointed. ‘And he can ride and hunt whenever he wishes. You can tell the King we see to all his father desires – even the stranger foods he wishes. In fact, we have purveyors riding all over Warwickshire for his delight.’
Dolwyn studied the building. He watched as a middle-aged woman left a chamber by the gates: from the baskets she bore on a yoke about her neck, and the steam that emanated from the room she had left, he guessed that this must be a laundress. There would be few women allowed in a castle, but she was one of the exceptions.
His eyes took in the layout of the place, and when he was satisfied that he had committed the yard to memory, he passed two pennies to the page, before striding back to the hall and fetching his satchel. He must plan how to get the message to Sir Edward. After all, there might be a reward for making contact with the old King. With luck, just the act of taking messages from him could mean a purse of gold in gratitude.
He walked outside, and stared once more at the building across the castle yard. Yes, there must be guards, but there was no obvious activity.
It was worth a chance.
He took a quick look about the court, and then marched firmly over the hard-packed earth to the room where Sir Edward was held.
House of Bardi, London
Matteo Bardi stood stiffly and stretched. The chamber was chilly today, and he wore a heavy coat against the cold. At his fireplace, he held out his hands to the flames, idly dreaming of Florence. At this time of year, all his friends would be starting to eat outside in the bright sunshine, not cowering indoors. This land truly was abominable.
His back had healed. The scar would remain, proof of his part in the overthrow of King Edward II, and already a prostitute had commented upon it, as though he was a bold warrior, rather than a clever sifter of information. All he knew was, he was fortunate to be alive.
He could not speak to anyone about Benedetto. The idea that his own brother could have given him that blow was appalling. Such ruthlessness was unforgivable, but his brother had spent so much time in Florence learning the ways of politics and banking, that a little of the more forthright methods there of ensuring mercantile success must have rubbed off on him.
There was one thought uppermost in Matteo’s mind: whether Dolwyn could have been bought by Benedetto. It was possible. Dolwyn was willing to take a life for money, he knew, but his henchman had been too far away by the time Matteo was stabbed. And if Dolwyn had wished to kill him, Matteo knew he would be dead. If not in the road, then later at Alured’s home.
No, surely Dolwyn was innocent of that crime. He would not kill his own master.