Authors: Michael Jecks
‘He won’t have to go very much further,’ Stephen said. ‘It’s only a league or more to the castle. We are halfway there, from Warwick.’
Luke glanced over at the horse. ‘He has done well to bring us here so swiftly.’ He saw the old beast droop his head towards the grass. He seemed hardly able to rip the grass from the verge.
Stephen looked at the sun. ‘Don’t worry. You can rest him a while here. We don’t have to move off again yet.’
They had set off late the previous afternoon, and Alured still resented the way that he had been imperiously called into service. It was not the sort of job he had ever considered for himself, being a personal bodyguard to a banker.
It was lunchtime when they saw the little bush bound to a pole over a cottage’s door, denoting an ale-house, and Alured went in to ask about food and drink while Matteo Bardi and the three servants with him waited outside. The old woman inside was content to let them share her food when she was promised payment, but even now, with food in his belly, Alured continued to eye his new master with suspicion.
He knew that Matteo was hiding something. The man had regularly thrashed around and cried out in his sleep during the time when he was at Alured’s house, and the constable had a shrewd suspicion that he was petrified of someone close to him.
There were many who looked at Alured askance when he mentioned his intuitions, but he had been involved with people all his life, and knew how to read a man’s thoughts. Fear was easy to spot; and he was getting the distinct impression of fear from Matteo Bardi.
When they were riding on again, he broached the subject while out of earshot of the other henchmen.
‘Master, do you have reason to be fearful about this journey?’
Matteo turned to him with such a startled look that Alured had to stifle a grin. ‘Scared? Me?’
‘Look, I was ordered by the city to come with you whether I like it or not, and I will do as I’m told. But if there’s some reason for your alarm, I’d like to know it. Then at least I can prepare for it.’
‘There is nothing. Nothing!’
‘All right,’ Alured said, and jogged onwards.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because you’re on edge, master. It’s to do with your dreams, I reckon.’ Alured snorted, hawked and spat into the roadway. ‘When you were in your fever, you kept calling out to your brother – the one who died.’
‘You knew he was going to die that day.’
Matteo shot him a look with wide, alarmed eyes. ‘I told him not to ride his horse. The mob were grabbing anyone on horseback. He didn’t have a chance!’
‘Then there was nothing you could do. It wasn’t your fault he died, master. He was a grown man, and too cocky, that’s all. He went off up there, assuming that everyone would back down when they saw him – that’s what Bill told me. And he was proved wrong. Not your fault.’
‘And then they got you too.’
Matteo nodded, then muttered, ‘But I have my own suspicions about that.’
Alured heard him. ‘What do you mean?’
In a low, conspiratorial voice, Matteo confided how scared he was of Benedetto. The brother who, he thought, had tried to kill him.
‘He will try again,’ he finished.
‘Your own brother?’ Alured said. But he knew there were many in London who had gained advancement by stepping into a dead man’s shoes. And often a man would hate his own brother far more than any other enemy.
‘He was there when it happened. He lives up towards Saint Benet Fink.’
Alured felt as though his heart had stopped. ‘Where?’
‘Saint Benet Fink. Why?’
Alured said nothing. But in his mind he saw again that alleyway with the two young bodies lying in it. The very same alley that led to St Benet Fink and Benedetto’s house.
Woods near Kenilworth
Father Luke was relieved to be moving again when they left the tavern. Soon he would see the castle in which the King was held, and so could pass over the box of florins. He wanted nothing more to do with any of it. But he also longed to reach the castle, simply so he could sit at a hot fire and drink spiced cider or ale.
Not many men would so willingly relinquish such wealth, but for Father Luke the trepidation which he had felt since hearing of Despenser’s death had steadily increased over time, as if the weight of the cash was dragging on his very soul. A hundred and fifty pounds! The box contained more than the value of Father Luke’s entire parish.
He wondered what reception he could expect at the castle. The men there would naturally be suspicious and might not let him see Sir Edward – in which case it was possible that someone there might actually steal the box. And if they did, what could he do to stop them? It was unlikely they’d take it and say, ‘Thanks, this will help pay for our garrison’s Easter feast!’ More probably they’d take it, promise to pass it on, and then the poor imprisoned King would never get to see it.
He was mulling this over, when there came a low whistle from ahead.
The purveyor turned and said brusquely: ‘Don’t worry, carter. These are friends of mine.’
Luke shot a look at Ham, and saw he was concerned. Ham cast an eye over his shoulder as though estimating the chances of turning his cart and fleeing, but of course it was too late. Luke gazed ahead and felt a sudden surprise on seeing John of Shulton and Paul of Bircheston.
The two men were on large horses, and as Dunheved came closer to them, they rode forward and slapped him on the back, laughing and chattering.
‘Thought you’d got lost until I saw you in that tavern,’ John was saying. ‘I was trying to find you.’
‘I didn’t want us to stand there chatting.’ The purveyor appeared to be less enthusiastic than the other two. ‘I need to be off out of here as soon as I can.’
‘Don’t worry yourself,’ John said. ‘This won’t take long.’ His grin was infectious, and the priest found himself smiling in return. The fellow really was attractive in a roguish way, and Luke felt he would be an excellent companion in a tavern. He would be the first to begin to sing or tell saucy jokes, and generally make any evening an event to remember.
As if reading his mind, the fellow began to whistle and then sing, a silly tale about a woman who was trying to sue a man for the paternity of her child, while the man refused to listen, and instead boasted about the other women he had bedded, and why he wouldn’t touch an old trout like her. Which was amusing enough – but the last verse told of how she was, unknown to him, the wealthiest woman in the county, and since he had rejected her and caused her son to be known as a bastard, she would marry the man’s servant instead, and elevate him to a position of significance in the land.
A fine song it was, and John managed to use different voices as he sang, with occasional lewd and bawdy gestures. It was all Luke could do not to laugh aloud at his antics.
But the joy in his heart was stopped when Paul and John moved to the back of the cart, and began to move things about.
Ham was the first to protest. ‘Hoi, don’t meddle with that stuff! It’s the purveyor’s, and I don’t want it—’
Paul stopped and stood before Ham, smiling, but with his hand on his sword’s hilt. ‘Shut up, carter.’
The purveyor called, ‘Carter, this is all right. There’s nothing to worry about. They are making room for additional stores, that’s all.’
Luke was watching John, though, as he peered at the casket on the bed of the cart. He pulled it towards him, then tested the lid. Seeing it was locked, he tried to pick it up, then made a face at the weight.
Luke felt as though the blood was rushing to his face. John of Shulton had the look of a fellow who would slit a priest’s throat for twenty shillings, and in that box, as Luke knew, there were many pounds. He swallowed, anxious, but even as he did so, Paul walked over to John and began passing him the new cargo for the cart. Luke’s eyes widened.
They were all weapons.
Near Kenilworth Castle
Dolwyn did not dare to stay in the town that night. Instead he left the castle, and then set off in an easterly direction until he came to a small farming hamlet, where he bought some ale and eggs fried with a spot of grease from a pot of bacon fat. It was delicious, and when he asked, he was permitted to make use of their little hayloft, where he slept the night in warm comfort, unworried by the rats and beetles that scurried about him.
All was well; better than well. He had seen the contents of the letter – and had hoped for some small reward for delivering it to Sir Edward. How naïve he had been! For now he saw how much more he could make by helping the man. While Edward’s position was not as good as once it had been, at least Dolwyn had won his confidence. And if the grateful Sir Edward of Caernarfon was ever brought back to power, Dolwyn knew that he would personally be granted a good posting himself. Perhaps become a sergeant in a royal castle, or land some cushy job in the Tower of London – something like that, something without hard work. Ideally in a place like Barnard Castle, where there wouldn’t be too many others to keep an eye on him. Then he could copy Jack the Irishman, and cream as much money as he liked off the local peasants. As a King’s official, they would have no way to refuse any demands he made.
Life, he reflected, could be sweet.
Now that Edward knew that he had the support of the Bardi, he had said he must think about how to effect his escape from this prison. It was terrible, to think that all Dolwyn’s future dreams depended upon the former King’s escape, but better that than for Edward to remain in gaol and for Dolwyn never to see the fruits of his efforts.
He would help Edward escape, he swore to himself now, and as a result, he would be elevated to a position of importance.
All that remained was to work out
this escape could be effected. That, he knew, would take some thought.
They were close now. Stephen Dunheved could feel his excitement growing as they passed up the road near to Kenilworth, his eyes roving about the trees that lay at either side of the road watching for any signs of ambush – a half-concealed figure, a glint of steel.
He was riding his own sturdy pony, but his urgency to reach the castle was such that even his mount was behaving like a destrier, prancing skittishly as they proceeded over the rough roadway.
This was not the first time he had set out on a journey that would end in danger. In the last months he and his companions had forged a reputation for ruthless determination. Only two weeks ago, he and others with Sir Edmund Gascelin had stolen horses, oxen and cows, as well as a thousand sheep, from villages in Gloucester, and then they had gone on to Shilton near Coventry and taken more. The beasts were good for barter, but also for food, and the men needed food, God knew.
At the castle approached, he offered up a short prayer for success. They would need all God’s help if they were to succeed. It was a fool’s errand, this. They could only summon a tiny number of their men at such short notice, and the plan depended upon their arrival as the gates were being closed. That was when the whole castle would be thinking of rest and not the possibility of attack. He prayed again that he was not too late. The light would be fading soon, and he knew that the gates would be closed as soon as the bells rang for the curfew. He wouldn’t want to be stuck out here in the dark, easy prey, while the others all remained inside.
‘Can’t you hurry the beast?’ he shot at Ham.
Ham threw him an anxious look. ‘I’m sorry, master. The poor old nag can’t go any faster, not with this load.’ He was worried by Stephen’s snappishness, and by John and Paul riding along behind them all.
Stephen cursed to himself under his breath, avoiding the eye of the damned priest. Luke had not been overly troublesome on the way here, but he had a habit of pursing his lips every time he heard even a mild curse that was intensely irritating to a man like Stephen. Since they had collected the weapons, he had pursed his lips more and more often, and he had a wild look in his eye; he could be a risk – he could give their plot away. Perhaps he ought to be left here, and not taken on. But the trouble was, Stephen daren’t leave him unguarded, and the mere fact of his presence at the gates would reduce suspicion, surely. That was how his brother had got inside – hopefully. The others were supposed to have infiltrated the castle with the stores over the day, and with luck were in there waiting even now for Stephen and the weapons to arrive.
Until today they had made good time. Damn his stupidity! He’d thought that they would be too early, so it had been his choice to rest a while at that inn, the decision that had left them so late. He had underestimated the amount of time it would take to get here after meeting John and Paul, and that complacency could mean disaster. The others would all be ready, waiting in position. While it would have been hazardous to arrive too early, to be too late could be catastrophic.
He fretted, chewing at his lip. The cart was rolling along at a steady pace, but up ahead there was the castle, a red, square keep with a fearsome glow about it now in the light of the sinking sun, and it was still too far. They wouldn’t make it in time.
Stephen felt the excitement and frustration growing at the same time, anxious that he might make another poor decision. Should he carry on here, hoping to make it in time, or . . .
‘The pox on them!’ he suddenly blurted out. ‘John, Paul, I’m going to ride on and make sure they don’t shut the gates. You stay with the cart!’
He set his face at the castle, then, taking his rein-end, he lashed hard at his beast’s rump while raking at the animal’s flanks with his spurs. Stung into action, the beast jolted, startled, and then sprang forward. Stephen urged it on, kicking and swearing at the brute, but the pony was already gaining speed. At a gallop, his mount bore him past the little cemetery of a chapel, past the fringes of a tiny village, and up to the bridge over the lakes. At the far end of this was the gatehouse to the castle itself, a great building in its own right, with a small tower at either side of the causeway.