Authors: Michael Jecks
‘I was sure of that already,’ Harry said drily.
‘I was taking provisions to Kenilworth with a purveyor, but there was a fight when we arrived, and he ran off. I had to hurry to ride away myself, too, and all the load remained. It must have been his, I suppose,’ Dolwyn said, still confused, thinking,
What was that carter doing with a box of money?
Their journey had been a lengthy one, but they were making good time, Edgar thought as he jogged along behind Sir Baldwin.
They were approaching the abbey of Llantony–next-Gloucester, which was where they intended staying for the night after two days of steady riding. Edgar was wary whenever he was riding about country he did not know – and today he had a firm conviction that they were entering a place of danger. It was not the location that was threatening: it was the fact that all those in the party guarding Sir Edward felt so secure. The guards were confident that no one would try to attack them while inside an abbey, and that meant they were unconscious of the potential dangers. Because of this, Edgar experienced a nervous tension that he had not known since the days when he and Sir Baldwin had been in flight in France after the arrest of their companions in the Templar Order.
Llantony-next-Gloucester was a small abbey that nestled to the south of the great city of Gloucester, a daughter-house of the priory in Wales, and one in which Edgar felt sure they must be moderately safe, but it was this last stage before reaching it that made him anxious. The houses began to crowd in upon them, and instead of the broad swathe of open verge, where he felt secure from all but a crossbow bolt, now they were riding in among buildings that overlooked the road. Assassins in those jettied rooms would find it easy to brain any number of the men in Sir Edward’s guard.
Not that Edgar himself was fretting. His tension came from an appreciation of dangers, not a terror of them – unlike Sir Edward himself. All had seen how the man who had once been their King was bowed down with troubles.
Edgar had seen a man like that before, and for the last day or two he had tried to bring the man’s face or name to mind, but there was nothing to spark a connection, until he saw Edward glance around at a sudden crash. The noise was caused by a horse slipping on a wet cobblestone, but in Edward’s eyes Edgar saw a sudden terror mingled with a kind of hope, as though this could at last be the end. That was what Edgar saw in his eyes: a longing for it to be over.
Baldwin was nearby. ‘What is it, Edgar? Something wrong?’
‘No, I was just reminded of the servant who stole the bread at Acre.’
Baldwin winced at the memory.
It had been a dreadful siege. Although the Christians held on, all knew that they would not be able to keep the Mameluke forces at bay for ever.
And then the lad – what was his name? Balian or something similar, a lad of some seventeen years like Edgar and Baldwin themselves – had given in. He tried to steal a crust of mouldy bread, and when he was seen, he drew his knife in a frenzy of hunger, and slew the owner.
Yes. Sir Edward wore the same look as Balian had as he was dragged away to execution: a look of mingled terror and relief. Terror to be slain, but relief to know that at last the long wait was over.
But Sir Edward’s torment was
Senchet Garcie had spent many years of his life travelling. Originally from Gascony, from the English territories that had been recently stolen by deceit from the English crown, he had spent most of his life on the road, so when he found a comfortable billet, he tried to remain there for as long as possible, making the most of regular meals and drinks. A warrior’s life suited him, there was no doubting that, but times of peace were also welcome. And the break here had done him and Harry good.
‘Well?’ Harry said, finding Senchet sitting on a log in the yard.
‘We should be getting on our way.’
‘Aye,’ Harry said. He sniffed, hawked and spat. ‘And?’
Senchet smiled at him with the easiness of a man fully rested. ‘And when we’re on our way, we can ask him more about this money. Where it came from, and where it was going
Harry gave a slow nod. ‘He’s ready to travel?’
‘He’ll live. For a while longer.’
Senchet and Harry exchanged a look, and then both rose and went to the horse and began to prepare for the journey.
Riding into the abbey grounds, John looked about him with nervousness tinged with relief. Here he felt safe, for he was protected by the Abbot.
It was the purest good fortune that he had not been spotted yet. He had pulled his hood low over his head and intentionally kept far from Sir Jevan, but his best protection was that no one would believe that one of the attackers of the castle could be so foolish as to join the men guarding Sir Edward.
Llantony-next-Gloucester was a simple Augustinian abbey. Ahead was the church and cloisters, while to his left were the stables and farm area. He could see the fishpond over to the right, two lay brothers standing with their robes rolled up and bound about their knees, holding a net.
He left his horse in the hands of a groom, and took his saddle-bags, throwing them over his shoulder with his blanket and cloak, before walking off to the open pasture outside the cloisters. There were already forty or more men-at-arms and servants milling about, preparing tents and lighting their cook fires. John dumped his belongings before wandering off to find a drink.
His legs were stiff and his backside felt as though it had been pummelled by a stave of wood. It seemed to be one enormous bruise. More concerning to him was his flank, which was still sore and painful, and he put his hand to it as he walked, wincing.
‘My friend, are you in pain?’
The man who asked was a tall, thin monk, who eyed him slightly askance.
‘Are you Brother Anselm?’
‘No, my name is Michael. And you are with the King’s men.’
‘I am for the King,’ John said, and felt the relief flood his body at hearing the passwords confirmed.
Brother Michael glanced at him. ‘Your side, it is giving you pain?’
‘Come with me. Let us see if we can give you some comfort.’ The monk led the way along the side of the cloisters to a small room.
‘I am glad to meet you,’ John said.
Michael held a finger to his lips and walked about the chamber, looking under the tables and peering through the shutters on the window. He beckoned John to the back of the chamber, and spoke in a hushed voice.
‘There are many places here where a man could listen. You must speak very quietly.’
‘Do you know when the attack will come?’ John whispered.
‘It has taken time to gather the men, especially since Kenilworth, as they are spread all over the shires. But they
‘That is good,’ John said.
‘You sound unconvinced?’
John pulled a grimace. ‘The men at Berkeley will be waiting. They have already foiled one attack at Kenilworth. They’ll expect us to try again.’
‘There will be news soon that will distract them,’ Michael said knowingly.
‘Will there be many with us?’
‘As many as the Dunheveds can gather,’ the monk said. ‘It is not an easy task, for since Mortimer captured the King, many went into hiding.’
John nodded. He knew most of his own companions had themselves disappeared. There were too many among Sir Roger Mortimer’s forces who had grievances against those from the old regime. He tried to put aside a vision of men scaling ladders, arrows, war-hammers cracking skulls. Men dying, heaped at the foot of the walls . . .
‘That is good,’ he said, trying to smile. ‘The sooner we can release him, the better for all.’
There came a tap at the door, and Brother Michael put a finger to his lips again, and then walked to the door. He opened it, and a slim, dark, sallow-faced man slipped in quickly.
John gazed from one to the other, and then he grabbed for his sword. The monk shook his head, but the other man stood with his arms held high, palms towards John.
‘I’m no enemy. I’m with you!’ he said.
The sun had been dreadfully hot today, and Matteo was relieved to ride within the cool shadow of the priory’s gatehouse. On their journey here the heat had been overwhelming, but he didn’t care. Even the thick dust that rose and clogged his throat was a cause for a prayer of thanks.
Since delivering the note to Lord Berkeley, he had felt an increasing sense of joy. He was aware of the weather and the little delights that greeted him every day – the sight of flowers, of tall trees, of rolling green hills.
He had heard that others who had come close to death often described it as a meaningful, almost religious event. They spoke of falling into a pit, and then being pulled back. One man said he had felt that he was being drawn upwards to the sun, to a land that flowed with milk and honey, in which angels flew and sang, and where a multitude waited to greet him. And then he was made to understand that he was not to come here yet, and returned to earth and life with a reluctance that now coloured all his remaining days. He could not wait to go back to that heavenly land, he said.
It had not been so for Matteo. He had limped homewards from the brink without any memory of a glorious light or singing. All he had was a terrible headache that made him sick, and a ferocious pain in his back. The fever had nearly carried him off. And then, he had been so riven by doubts and fears that his miraculous survival had not struck him.
It must be this ride. Perhaps it was the sheer act of journeying that had helped clear his mind. If so, he could see the merit in pilgrimage. Because in truth, he felt as though he was entirely renewed.
Alured was still at his side. He was the only man whom Matteo entirely trusted. After all, Alured had saved his life. Benedetto must have tried to bribe him, but Alured had not accepted.
‘Alured . . .’ he began.
Matteo dropped from his horse and passed the reins to a groom. ‘When I lay dying, I was very fortunate because you found me.’
Alured caught his serious tone and looked at him. ‘I know.’
‘There is always someone who benefits from a murder. Only one man could have benefited from my death: my brother Benedetto.’
‘As you said before.’
‘If he could, he would have finished me off.’
‘No, master. I didn’t tell you before, because I thought it would worry you, but when you were unwell, he visited you. He could have killed you then, while you were fevered and weak. I left him with you at least twice. It would have taken no effort for him to finish you.’
‘Did he offer you money?’ Matteo damanded. How could Alured have left him alone with Benedetto?
‘For your keep, master. That was all.’
‘He said, “Take this. You will be doing me a service.
my brother for me”,’ he sneered.
‘Nothing like that,’ Alured protested, and frowned. ‘Really He was being kind and offering to pay us for your food and cleaning. He was generous.’
‘My brother is a clever, clever man,’ Matteo said. ‘I don’t think he ever makes a simple request. He may still be at Berkeley, Alured. When we reach it, I want you to swear to me that you will watch over me all the more carefully.’
‘Very well. I swear it,’ Alured said, but he did not believe there was any need. Benedetto struck him as a pleasant soul.
John was not of a mind to be convinced by a statement. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am William atte Hull,’ the man said. ‘Nephew to Michael here.’
‘He is telling the truth,’ Brother Michael said urgently. ‘You have to trust him, as you trusted me.’
John felt his resolution waver. His flank was hurting abominably, and he was confused and lost without Paul. If Paul were here, he would be able to understand better what he should do for the best. Now, on his own, he was unsure about everything.
‘I was sorry to hear of your companion’s death,’ William said. ‘I heard about the attack. It must have been terrible to see so many good men die.’
‘Paul was indeed a good man. He and I rode together for many years,’ John said. He looked from one to the other, and made a decision. If these two were enemies of his, he was already lost. They need only shout and half the escort would come in here to take him. Sighing, he thrust his sword back in the sheath. ‘He was the sort of man in whom you could place your trust. Not perfect, because he had his faults like all of us, but he was yet a kindly man. Honourable and courteous.’
‘I know. I met him a few times,’ the monk said, ‘when he was here with the King.’
‘He and I used to travel with our lord, Despenser, and the King quite regularly. They knew that they could count upon us. But he died after the adventure at Kenilworth.’
‘What actually happened there, John?’ William asked.
‘We were sorely beaten,’ he said shortly. As if in sympathy, his wound flared again, and he had to put a hand to his side with the pain.
‘I forgot your injury!’ Brother Michael castigated himself. ‘You are in pain. Come over here and let me see to it. I have some skill with curing ailments.’
John disliked the idea of taking his mail off, but the notion that this kindly-looking old monk might be seeking to hurt him was on the face of it ludicrous.
He began to tell them about the attack, while William helped him to remove his tunic and mail, setting them on a nearby bench until John was down to his braies. He had spoken to no one of that awful day since the meeting in the tavern, and to be able to unburden himself felt good.
‘We’d stopped earlier to pass the weapons to Stephen, as was agreed, but by the time he got to us, the rest would have been in the castle some hours, all of them waiting for us and the cart. God knows what he was thinking of, but he stopped at an ale-house, and that delayed us all. So when we reached the castle, the gatekeeper was already bellowing to have the gate locked. Stephen rode on ahead to try to delay that, because without the cart of weapons, we could achieve nothing. Paul and I went to assist, and suddenly all hell was let loose. A man in the gateway was preventing us from getting in, and there were arrows everywhere . . .’ He broke off, remembering. ‘I was stabbed in the flank here by a man with a lance or something. The same fellow managed to strike Paul in the throat.’ He swallowed. ‘There was nothing I could do.’