Authors: Michael Jecks
Simon thought this sounded bizarre. From hard-learned experience, he knew full well that the best place always was as close to the fire as possible. It was lunacy to be out here, he thought, and pulled his cloak about him.
Hugh was grimly studying the walls about the inner ward. ‘So, shall we get the horses saddled and find an inn, or go back inside?’
‘Ah!’ Sir Richard said, and nodded towards the kitchen. The same young maid was standing outside. She noticed Sir Richard, and wiped her hands clean on her apron, before rolling her eyes and walking towards them.
‘You hungry still?’ she asked.
‘My dear young woman, the food was good, the ale excellent, and the company still better,’ Sir Richard said heartily. ‘But there is one last problem with which we must contend. We find that the whole of the guard party for the old King must contest a few meagre feet of cold stone floor.’
‘There is a stable with a hayloft,’ she said.
‘Ah. Is there?’ enquired the knight, smiling.
‘You want me to show you to it?’
‘Would a man with my trained physique be able to climb the ladder?’
She eyed him with a chuckle. ‘Oh, follow me, then. There’s a small chamber at the side.’
The wench had brought them all here, to a small shed set into the wall. It had a hearth at the wall itself, and a hole above to let the smoke out. Someone had used it for storage, and the floor was littered with pieces of wood and twigs. For the men, it was fine. Edgar began to clear the space nearest the fire, while Hugh set himself to fetching all their belongings, and soon they had their packs and blankets arranged neatly, with a fire roaring, and its cheery light illuminating the room.
‘That is better,’ Baldwin said. He looked about the chamber. ‘Where is Sir Richard?’
Edgar cleared his throat. ‘I think the maid felt he needed more comfort, Sir Baldwin.’
Baldwin gave him a look of baffled horror. ‘She took him?’
‘What I do not understand,’ Simon said, ‘is how he gets away with it. A man half his age, and more handsome, more polite and courteous, would not have half the luck of Sir Richard. Still, for my part, I don’t care. For once I can sleep without the noise of his snoring to disturb me, and that is a wonderful prospect.’
From outside, in the hall, there came a loud cheer, then singing and some shouting. A celebration, it seemed, was underway.
A short while later, Sir Ralph entered their room, gazing about him with the look of a man who was grateful for any comforts which the world could offer.
‘Sir Ralph, you are very welcome,’ Baldwin said. Aside to Simon, he added, ‘I trust you do not mind that I invited another to share our good fortune? This is Sir Ralph of Evesham, Simon. Sir Ralph, my old friend Simon Puttock.’
‘Of course,’ Simon said, offering his hand. ‘You were with Baldwin when Sir Edward of Caernarfon was captured.’
‘That is so,’ Sir Ralph said a little stiffly.
‘My apologies,’ Simon said hurriedly. ‘It was not my intention to upset you with unfortunate memories.’
‘No, you do not upset me, but you will understand that those days were not my happiest,’ Sir Ralph said.
‘Of course. Please, be seated,’ Simon said, and plied him with wine.
‘You must be very competent looters to have gathered together so vast a store of provisions already,’ Sir Ralph said, eyeing their food.
‘One of our party is,’ Baldwin laughed. ‘Do you know Sir Richard de Welles?’
‘Ah, so he is with you? That would explain much,’ Sir Ralph chuckled.
Simon refilled Sir Ralph’s mazer with wine. The man had already drained the first in a single gulp. ‘I am most grateful,’ Sir Ralph said, and gave a dry cough. ‘My throat feels as if it’s been scoured with rough stone. The dust on that journey was unbelievable.’
Simon nodded. His eyes felt the same. ‘And soon we shall have to endure the long ride homewards, eh, Baldwin?’
Baldwin looked at Sir Ralph. ‘What do you think, Sir Ralph?’
The knight shrugged and pulled a face. ‘I think we shall not be here for very much longer. If all I have heard is right, soon we shall be ordered to muster for the march north with all our men and equipment.’
Baldwin nodded. ‘This unhappy realm.’
Simon felt his pleasure at finding such a good billet fade away. ‘You think they’ll want us to join them?’ he said to Baldwin.
‘This is to be a long, hard war against the Scottish,’ Baldwin guessed. ‘The new King will wish to impose his will on the Bruce. Bruce is a cunning old devil, but there are tales that he is dying. He wishes to leave a firm inheritance for his family, I estimate. That is why he has begun to ravage the north again. It is a ploy of his, to destabilise the young King’s realm so that Bruce can rule in peace in Scotland. But King Edward III is not made of the same fibres as his father. You remember how his grandfather, Edward I, was named the “Hammer of the Scots”? I have heard it said before that often one strong man will beget a feeble son, but that sometimes in the third generation the early strength and determination will reappear, and often with renewed vigour. Perhaps it will be so with our new King. He appears a determined and competent young man, from all I have seen.’
‘He’ll want the strongest army he can gather,’ Sir Ralph said, adding quietly, ‘if only to ensure that Sir Roger Mortimer is held in check.’
Baldwin gave a dry smile. ‘I personally would not wish to trust him without an army at my back.’
‘Well, at least we can return home first,’ Simon said. ‘I don’t want to be up here any longer than necessary.’
‘Quite so,’ Baldwin agreed.
‘Yes,’ Sir Ralph said. ‘As soon as we are confident that Sir Edward of Caernarfon is safe here, then we may leave.’
Simon saw Sir Ralph and his friend exchange a look at that, and his heart sank. No matter what they said to his face, it could be some little while before they would be able to leave.
Senchet and Harry watched the cart being taken away to the stables. Senchet wanted to keep close to all that lovely money in the chest, but even as he watched, two men lifted it down. There was a low stone building near the entrance of the castle, and the men hauled the chest over to it between them. There a man with keys, presumably the keeper, opened the door. The two carried the box inside, and a moment later they were out and the door was again locked.
Senchet felt utter despair at the thought of that lost fortune.
Matteo could smell the smoke, he could hear the screams and shouts, see his brother’s horse rearing, Manuele flailing about him with his riding crop, while the mob attempted to pull him down, some with knives and hatchets, a butcher with his two-handed cleaver. Matteo tried to run towards him, but the throng was too thick, and his legs moved as if through treacle . . . and then he felt the grip of men’s hands on his arms, tugging him away, back from the mob and their bonfire, backwards to safety.
And then he heard the shouts, the sudden pattering of feet, the bellow from old Andrew, his bodyguard, followed by the thud of stones landing all about him. And he felt the stone that clubbed him on the back of the head, slamming him to the ground, seeing the cobblestones rise up to meet his face – and his men running to save their own skins, leaving him to die in the dust.
He felt the single, quick stab in his back, and he screamed . . .
. . . and woke, sweating, the wound inflamed once more. He rolled over on to his belly, knowing it was only a dream, that the mares would bring the same visions to him night after night, that he would never be free of this horror.
It was a long time before he dared close his eyes again.
Tuesday after Palm Sunday
John had slept moderately well, and woke hoping that his growing beard would protect him from recognition.
The castle was stirring as he rose from his blanket near the wall in the main hall. He walked outside with his blankets and set the bundle on his saddle where he had left it, before studying the yard without enthusiasm. The land around was boggy. It would be astonishingly difficult for any party to storm the place. Still more so to achieve that and reach Edward.
‘You are worried, my friend?’ William atte Hull was at his side already, and he smiled to see John’s startled expression. ‘Don’t panic. It is a skill, walking quietly, which poachers round my home learn when they are young.’
John whispered earnestly, ‘The Dunheveds will not be able to take this place. It is too well protected.’
‘You mean men?’
‘Men, yes. There are too many here. If there were only a small garrison perhaps it could be attempted, but with
force? No. No one could get in here.’
‘Perhaps not usually,’ William atte Hull said. ‘But with men inside the castle to ensure that the gate opened, and then helping us from within, then it would be different.’
‘Not with so many guards,’ John said bleakly. He looked about him at the men up on the walls, more men down in the yard, and even as he watched, a party of men rode in through the gates. ‘And even without them, the land about here is too marshy for a force to reach the place. They would have to come along the road, and that would make them too obvious.’
‘There may be another way,’ his companion said. ‘And we shall discover it.’
‘If you say so. But I am doubtful, friend.’
‘There is always hope.’
There was a loud shout from the gate, and John turned to stare as a pair of shabby peasants approached from the mists.
‘Who are they?’ John asked.
William atte Hull looked up without interest. ‘Beggars, perhaps? Either that or a priest and woman petitioning the Lord de Berkeley for some slight, real or imagined.’
John nodded. He felt as though he was in great danger all the time that he remained here in the castle. ‘Sir Jevan saw me, you know, at the gate at Kenilworth.’
‘If he sees you here, tell me,’ William said. His gaze moved back to the two bedraggled figures at the gate. ‘We may have to do something about him.’
Agatha felt the weight of the place as she stepped under the gatehouse. This castle was built, it seemed to her, of men’s dreams and ambitions. And they were crushing.
‘We are here to speak to the Lord de Berkeley,’ Father Luke said to the porter at the gate.
The man looked the Father up and down, and kept his hand on his sword. Giving a whistle over his shoulder, he kept half an eye on the priest and Agatha, while peering out towards the roadway beyond them. Soon a small group of men-at-arms was gathered about them, and the porter could devote his entire attention to them. ‘Where you from?’
‘Willersey. It is—’
‘I know where it is. Why’re you here?’
‘I said, to speak with—’
‘Yeah. You said.’ The man scratched at his armpit, gazing at Agatha. ‘What’s she want?’
‘To speak with—’
‘My Lord de Berkeley, yeah. Why?’
Agatha felt her indomitable spirit returning in the face of this petty official. ‘I’ll tell the lord himself, not his meanest servant,’ she snapped.
‘Meanest, eh?’ the porter said, taking in her black garb. ‘A widow are you, then? All in your weeds. So you’re here to demand help from his lordship, I suppose? Perhaps some money to compensate you? You just go home to your donkey, mistress and—’
!’ Simon, Baldwin and Sir Richard de Welles had overheard this conversation from where they sat on a bench near the armourers’ rooms.
‘Let them in. I would speak with them.’
‘Sir, they are . . .’
Sir Richard de Welles was unused to being denied his whims. Hearing the porter attempt to refuse him, he smiled and nodded.
The porter felt a vague unease, but continued nonetheless. ‘Sir, I have been ordered to prevent any suspicious characters from entering.’
Aye. Very sensible.’
Anybody who is not known must be refused admission. Because of the prisoner.’
‘So I cannot let these in.’
‘Suspicious characters, eh?’
The porter looked at the large knight’s face and felt a sinking in his belly. ‘Sir, I . . .’
‘The priest, eh? You think he’s dangerous? He carries a poisoned crucifix, I suppose?’
‘The widow? You think she carries a siege engine upon her person?’
The porter wisely chose to remain silent.
‘Let them enter,’ Sir Richard boomed. ‘If there’s any danger it’ll be to me, and I think I’ll be safe enough, but if they overpower me, you have my permission to take any action you see fit.’
The man subsided reluctantly, muttering to himself about guests taking over the place, and curtly waved away his guards as he marched back to the gatehouse, Then Sir Richard beckoned Agatha and Luke to join them.
‘Now, mistress,’ Sir Richard said, looking at Agatha. ‘What’re you here for, eh?’
‘My husband is dead. The man who killed him stole our cart and horse, and I want them back,’ she glowered.
‘Aye, I’m sure ye do,’ Sir Richard said heartily. ‘What of it?’
‘I thought that the Lord de Berkeley would help me. I am one of his serfs,’ she said.
‘And you, priest?’
‘I am Father Luke of St Peter’s, Willersey, where this good woman comes from.’
‘Oh.’ Sir Richard looked at Agatha again. ‘So, why do you think that the Lord de Berkeley will have time to help you?’
‘It was all we had, that old horse and cart. The horse wasn’t even a good one, but at least he was reliable. He drew goods all the way to Kenilworth, and then—’
‘Kenilworth?’ interrupted Sir Richard. ‘When?’
Agatha shot a look at Luke, and in her heart there was horror at her betrayal. She hadn’t meant to speak of that, and certainly not to bring Father Luke into her story so swiftly.
Father Luke smiled gently. ‘Do not worry, Agatha, I am sure that this good knight will understand.’
Sir Ralph and Baldwin were leaning forward now.
Baldwin spoke softly. ‘Madam, are you saying that you were there at the attack?’
‘No, it was me,’ said Luke. He shook his head. ‘So many dead men, and all for nothing.’