Authors: Michael Jecks
‘Drop your sword-belt and any knives about you.’
There was the sound of approaching hooves. An order came from behind him, and Sir Jevan turned to see the chief guard of Edward of Caernafon.
Dieu ou diable?
’ Senchet muttered. ‘Sieur Gilbert?’
‘You haven’t hanged yet then, friend Senchet?’
Near Berkeley Castle
It was the bad fortune of the age, John reflected. He was unlucky enough to have been born in a period when no man could live an honourable life, free of fear. Everything conspired always to swyve the best plans possible.
He fretted on his horse, staring ahead at the huddle of men, and it was all he could do not to shout and demand that they get moving again. He had to keep his head down below the back of the man in front so that Sir Jevan would not see him, but even so, he flinched every time Sir Jevan glanced in his direction.
‘Why have we stopped?’ a man asked him, and it was all he could do not to punch him for his stupidity.
He spoke with frigid precision. ‘There is a cart in the road. Perhaps it is the cart of a local farmer, eh? But what if this wagon is the property of a man who has a desire to kill Sir Edward of Caernarfon? There are many about who have cause to hate him, are there not?’
John could see Sir Baldwin talking to the three who stood by the cart, but from here it was impossible to discover what they were saying. Lord Thomas de Berkeley gave a command to Sir John Maltravers, he saw, and Sir John rode forward at a fast trot, four of his own guards riding with him – which left only a handful of men-at-arms guarding Sir Edward of Caernarfon.
Almost without thinking, he kicked his horse into motion and rode towards Sir Edward. Gilbert was ahead of him. The man was turning in his saddle: he looked as though he was going to say something, but then, as he came closer, John saw that there were only a couple of men between him and Edward.
There was a rushing in his ears. It would be the work of a moment to trot forward, right alongside the prisoner, draw a knife and cut his throat. And then – no more fighting, no more strife. No more deaths like Paul’s.
‘In God’s name,’ he prayed to himself, and would have spurred his beast, but then he felt a hand at his knee, stilling him.
‘Not now, my friend.’ It was William. ‘You could not grab the King and ride three-score paces with him before someone would bring you down. Look about you, at all the men here. There are plans already to rescue him. Do not risk yourself.’
‘I wanted to—’
‘I understand,’ William hissed. ‘I do, truly. But there will be better moments, believe me. For now it is better by far that we wait. Trust me, John. If not, all is lost! He
John nodded, but as he drew the reins, about to return to the rear guard, he cast a final look at Sir Edward.
He had not meant to rescue him.
He had meant to kill him.
‘Hah! This is more like it, Sir Baldwin, eh? A good castle with beef to eat and strong ale to drink – I swear I shall rest well tonight, no matter that the French King’s host should come knocking on the door!’
Baldwin smiled thinly. It was ever the same when a large household arrived at a stop-over, whether it was a large inn or a castle: first there would be the dawdling about while the senior people were escorted to their rooms and made comfortable, their beasts taken aside to the better stabling and cared for, their baggage all taken up to their chambers ready for them, while maids and servants darted hither and thither with trenchers and platters and mugs and drinking horns. By the time all their needs were catered for, the last poor devils were allowed in to take up any spare room for their horses, and then finally try to locate any space where they themselves might collapse and sleep.
‘Perhaps, Sir Richard,’ he nodded. ‘However, it may be troublesome to find space for so many people tonight, including ourselves, do you not think?’
‘Don’t see why, sir! No, we shall soon be accommodated, I’m sure. First,
At that moment, a young maid went scurrying past. She had thick, curly black hair under her coif, and her grey eyes were panicky.
Sir Richard put on a kindly smile. ‘Maid!
She almost fell to the ground before his bellow. ‘Sir—’
‘My dear, you are busy, I appreciate that, but I have need of ale, food and a spot for me bed. Now, where can I find all these?’
‘Sir, I am sorry, I have been ordered to take these to . . .’
Sir Richard was already gazing down at the tray she bore with every sign of satisfaction. ‘That looks perfect.’
‘It is for the guard with Sir Edward.’
‘But, Sir Knight, you can’t just take it,’ she pleaded.
‘Is there more where this came from?’ he asked.
‘You tell them that Sir Richard de Welles forced you to give it up – that he was most brutal and demanding, and you feared for your life. Because you would, wouldn’t you, if I was to threaten you?’
She looked at his kindly eyes set in that round face with the thick beard. A smile broke out on her face. ‘No.’
‘You don’t think me terrifying?’
‘Not really. So, sir, I will take these to the men who ordered them.’ She slipped around him, and then paused. ‘But if you were to wait over there, by the stable, I may not be able to get round you again,’ she said with a little smile, before disappearing on her errand.
Baldwin scowled. ‘How do you manage that?’ he wondered. ‘You’re old enough to be her grandfather, and yet you have her simpering like a maid with her swain.’
‘Don’t know what you mean,’ Sir Richard said innocently. ‘Only asked her for some help, that’s all.’
‘Yes,’ Baldwin said, and glanced at Simon, who burst out laughing. The two followed after the knight as he made his way to the place she had pointed out.
Matteo eyed the castle with interest. Its age was evident. Ancient-looking stone was scarred with white where pigeons had roosted. Mortar between stones had been pecked away by generations of sparrows. There were three or four holes in the wall of the keep itself which he could see, and he decided to avoid standing beneath the castle’s walls or the towers. To be struck by one of those lumps of red-gold stone would be to die instantly. He needed no second brush with death.
Whole sections of wall had been demolished. A pile of rubble lay at the base of one tower, and this made him frown in concern. The castle was not so strong as it appeared from without.
Matteo did not care for heights. While labourers climbed up and down ladders with their hods full of mortar, some apprentices scampered about like monkeys on the narrowest of walkways, defying death at every leap and sending Matteo’s heart into his mouth.
The men-at-arms shouted and swore as their horses were taken by grooms and led away, and there was a rush of bodies towards the buildings as they ran to lay claim to beds, palliasses or even sections of filthy floor. Only then did Matteo see the cart again, with the three men found on the way here. It was clear that the three were viewed with suspicion, because they were kept apart from all the others, and a man with a long polearm stood watching them with his weapon at the ready.
Matteo saw Dolwyn’s eyes move towards him, and quickly averted his gaze.
‘Brother mine, I am pleased to see you,’ Benedetto called. He was standing at the door to the hall, but hurried to meet Matteo, offering a helpful hand from his horse.
It was irritating, this patronising solicitude which Benedetto displayed towards his younger brother, but that was not why Matteo almost rejected his aid. It was the thought that this hand might have held the knife that stabbed him. Or paid the assassin who wielded it.
He took Benedetto’s hand.
Throughout his life, Manuele or Benedetto had always been at Matteo’s side, and while he often resented their casual treatment of him, he knew they needed him. Without Matteo and his network of informers, the House of Bardi would have lost a vast sum in recent years.
Alured slipped from his horse as Matteo and Benedetto began to stroll together. He followed them.
‘Are you well, brother? You look tired,’ Benedetto said.
‘It has been a weary journey. I had to see Sir Roger Mortimer.’ Matteo explained about his journey to Wales, and the delivery of the indenture to Kenilworth.
‘Tell me, do you recognise any of those men there?’ Benedetto asked, staring at the three by the cart.
Matteo felt his heart lurch. He looked at Harry, Senchet and Dolwyn, and saw Dolwyn’s eyes glitter. The two beside him saw Matteo and Benedetto at the same moment, and Harry looked as though he was about step forward to speak with him, when the polearm dropped before him. Harry gave the guard a look of poisonous contempt.
‘They are the two who came to see us in our house in London,’ Matteo said quickly. ‘On the day Manuele was murdered.’
‘Perhaps they are here to finish us off?’
‘Why?’ Matteo scoffed. ‘Because Manuele held back? I do not think so. They were angry with him, but it was the mob which caught him and pulled him from his horse.’
‘True, I suppose. But I will ask Lord Thomas who they say they are,’ Benedetto said. ‘Even if they did not kill Manuele, if they were the men who attacked you, they should be made to pay.’
Matteo said nothing. Benedetto was right that the three men were dangerous, but he had no idea just what shocking information Dolwyn could give him.
Or did he? Matteo wondered again whether Dolwyn had been responsible for his wound. Benedetto could afford an expensive assassin. Dolwyn was bearded and filthy, so it was understandable Benedetto might not have recognised him, but if Dolwyn was
hireling, he would pretend not to know him. The possibilities made his head ache.
‘Lord Berkeley will know what to do with them,’ Matteo said at last.
‘If you are sure,’ his brother said. ‘So,’ he continued as they walked towards the castle’s hall, ‘you came from Kenilworth with Sir Edward of Caernarfon. How is he?’
‘Sad,’ Matteo said.
‘A good thing we supported the Queen then, eh? Have you news from Sir Roger Mortimer?’
‘None that he intends you to have,’ Matteo said with a thin smile. ‘He seeks to strengthen his grip on the country, but dare not alienate any. Especially now, with war brewing in the north.’
‘Does he want war?’
‘It has been forced on him. The Bruce demands that King Edward III renounce his claim to Scotland, that the first act of his government should be to relinquish his Scottish territories. Preparations for war are under way, and Bruce is ravaging the north. King Edward and Sir Roger must march before too long.’
There was more news to be relayed, and Benedetto listened carefully as Matteo spoke. He asked a few questions, then sought the advice which only Matteo could give. Soon they were finished for the present, and Matteo could find a chamber in which to rest.
He lay back and closed his eyes. It was a blessed relief to lie on a good bed, but as soon as his back touched the mattress, his wound hurt. It was inflamed after all the journeying, and he grunted, ‘Benedetto, it was you, wasn’t it?’ as he rolled over.
Benedetto had wanted to position the bank wholeheartedly behind the Queen and her son. He hadn’t wanted Matteo to stir up confusion by supporting the old King.
There was no man alive so ruthless, Matteo thought before he fell asleep, as a man of money seeking to protect his wealth.
In the court, Alured had listened with astonishment to the brothers talking. If
had suspected a man of knifing him, especially his brother, he would never have been able to walk with the bastard. It would have turned his stomach.
Meanwhile, it was interesting to know that those two scruffy scrotes with Dolwyn were in London when the murders happened and Matteo got wounded. He surreptitiously glanced at their boots, but whatever they may have looked like five or six months ago, they were now so scratched and covered in mud that they could have been a hundred years old.
He should stop this. There was no point in trying to find a murderer from so long ago. Also, it was ridiculous to believe the evidence of a witness who was drunk at the time, and could well be dead by now. There was nothing to say that the ‘knight’ he saw with the red Cordova boots was actually the killer, and not merely a man who had run along the alley to escape the crowds, and when he found the bodies, fled.
But Alured couldn’t stop. The thought of those two youngsters slain for no purpose, stuck in his mind like a fishbone in a man’s throat, and no matter how he struggled he could not shift it.
When they had finally managed to sort themselves out, the chambers at the castle were already gone. The King had a large room to himself, along with Gilbert and some few guards, as well as a friar, but the rest of the men must make shift to accommodate themselves as best they could. The men of the castle garrison made it plain that their additional protection was unnecessary here in the King’s room, and Baldwin and Sir Ralph were removed from the main chamber in a polite, but implacable manner.
The pair had gone with Simon and their servants to the main castle building, but it was quickly apparent that they would not succeed in winning a space in the great hall itself. There would be no sleep for the poor devils who crowded about that room. Simon hoped that Baldwin and Sir Richard would exercise their rights as knights and demand a spot near the fire, but instead, to his consternation, they walked back out through the screen and along the passage to the main courtyard. There Sir Richard stood, his thumbs in his sword-belt, waiting, with a smile set on his face, eyeing the servants and porters milling about the inner ward.
‘What’s he up to?’ Simon demanded.
Baldwin shrugged. ‘There are some men, Simon, who go through life hoping that they will be granted that which they deserve, and there are others who
that they will receive, no matter what. Sir Richard is one such. He believes he will receive better treatment, and few would dare to deny him what he expects.’