Authors: Michael Jecks
There was a shriek in the street, a clattering of weapons, and the men all started.
Manuele read the parchment, then, taking up a reed, he slowly wrote his name at the bottom in ink. ‘For the House of Bardi,’ he muttered to himself as he sprinkled some sand over the wet ink. Removing his seal ring, he melted a little wax in a candle-flame, and sealed the document, setting it aside to cool on the table.
‘I will see that it reaches the King’s friends,’ Matteo said, feeling the warm glow of success. With this letter the House was safe again, and with fortune, he would soon control it.
A sudden pounding on the front door interrupted their discussions. Matteo was relieved. He had feared that the visitors might have been waylaid. ‘Let them in,’ he called.
There were four men-at-arms in the party, all wearing mail and coats of plates and, from the way that they held themselves, it was clear that they had been expecting trouble on their way here.
Matteo introduced the men. ‘Stephen Dunheved, John of Shulton, Harry le Cur, and Senchet Garcie. These gentlemen are here to listen to our position regarding the King.’
‘Not only that,’ Stephen Dunheved said, ‘we are here to have your absolute declaration of loyalty to the King of England, my lord Edward II. He demands your obedience, else he will have all your House closed in England, your funds sequestered and all loans cancelled.’
Matteo reached for the signed document, but before his hand could touch it, Manuele had removed it. ‘Brother?’
‘Quiet, Matteo.’ Manuele stood slowly, the parchment in his hand. ‘You come to my house to threaten me?’ he demanded of Dunheved. ‘Do you know who I am?’
Matteo swore under his breath. He had won the day already, and if these men would only show a little respect due to Manuele, they would win all they wanted. But he could see Manuele was having second thoughts: if one of these men were a traitor who had already turned his coat to support the Queen, he dared not talk of the parchment nor ask any of these to take it to the King. The risk of betrayal was too great.
Dunheved, a weatherbeaten man with the build of a fighter, took a step forward, his hand on his sword, but before he could pull it more than half-free, there was a rush and clatter of steel, and Manuele’s servants had their own weapons drawn and ready. Three held swords at Dunheved’s throat.
‘So this is your answer, then? Betrayal and deceit?’ Dunheved hissed.
Manuele walked to him and studied him for a moment. ‘No, it is not. I will consider how best to aid your master, but I will not be treated as a churl in my own home. You will leave, and we shall speak no more of this. When I am ready, I will invite you back to discuss this with me. Perhaps.’
‘It will be too late! The Queen knows you have maintained the King. And remember that you denied her money when she was in Paris. You think she will forget that and reward you? She will ruin your House, and impoverish you!’
‘She may try,’ Manuele said suavely. He walked to his sideboard, the parchment still in his hand, and picked up a goblet of wine. Sipping, he gazed at the rich gold and enamel about the bowl. ‘You realise that my House is more wealthy than your King’s? I have more money at my disposal than he – which is why he sends to me to beg for gold. Well, I am of a mind to answer his call. But not yet.’
As though to emphasise his words, just then a rock the size of a man’s fist flew through the window, narrowly missing Benedetto.
he snarled, his hand on his sword.
Manuele walked to the stone and peered at it. ‘It would seem that your mob is interested in meeting with us, too.’ he said. Then, more seriously: ‘Your King will have my answer in a few days. But this city is dangerous just now. You may leave.’
Dunheved set his jaw and would have spoken further, but the man called Senchet called quietly, ‘Stephen, you escaped death once before, my friend. I think we should depart while it is still a possibility.’
‘Very well,’ Dunheved said. ‘You will find us at the House of the Lion near the Black Friars.’
He turned, jerked his head to his companions, and they were gone. The servants of the house walked with them, and soon there was a bellowing from the front of the hall.
‘I think,’ Manuele said with a small smile, ‘that the people there wish to talk to our friends.’
‘And what of the letter?’ Matteo demanded.
‘Your letter is good. It will suffice,’ Manuele said. ‘Send it as we agreed, by a safe messenger.’
‘We should leave,’ Benedetto said urgently. ‘The mob is enraged, and they may well attack us. Let us go by the back gates!’
‘Very well,’ Manuele said absently.
Matteo led the way to the rear of the house, past the kitchen and gawping servants, and out to the gate at the back. There was a short alley here, which gave onto Cornhulle. When sure that the road was safe, he called the others to follow.
Manuele was last to leave. He insisted on his taking his palfrey, and stood tapping his toe until his groom brought the beast.
Matteo protested, ‘There are gangs all about the city – a man on horseback is an easy target for their rage and enmity.’
‘I am not slim like you. If I meet with a mob, I need a means to escape,’ Manuele said with a smile. ‘At least on a horse I am more fleet than the London mob.’
As Manuele trotted off into the distance, his two henchmen with him, Matteo watched anxiously. He saw a mass of men erupt from the side streets and envelop his elder brother. A thin scream of terror came from Manuele, and then Matteo too was running away, pounding for his life up a side street with his own two remaining guards.
He only managed a few paces when his legs were knocked from beneath him, and he fell on the cobbles. Something clubbed the back of his head, before the blade slid into his flesh and he toppled into a vast emptiness.
Sir Jevan de Bromfield ran along the roadway at full tilt, and seeing an alleyway, he hurtled into it, hiding in a little corner and gripping his sword tightly.
The mass of feet went thundering on along the main road, and he slowly began to relax. Risking a glance around the corner, he saw the alley was clear.
But then there was a step behind him. He knew that it must be one of his pursuers who had outflanked him to get behind and slip a knife between his shoulderblades while he stared back towards the road like a fool.
He would not die like this!
Whirling like a berserker from a Viking ship, he slashed with his sword and felt it slither into soft flesh. The dragging of meat on his blade was enough to slow his movement, and he had time to gaze upon the young woman’s face as his blade sliced deep into her neck. And then his blade was through the bone, and with a gush of blood, her head flew away.
Behind her, the young man who was her swain stood with his mouth wide in horror, so shocked that even as her torso collapsed and the blood besmottered his face and shirt, he could not speak or cry out.
Without hesitation, Sir Jevan reversed his blade and stabbed twice quickly before the lad could call, both wounds in the fellow’s breast. One at least punctured his heart, for he died without speaking, the two bodies entangled in death.
Sir Jevan cursed quietly under his breath, then wiped his blade on the young woman’s skirts. Her face was pretty, he thought, studying her dispassionately. He regretted their deaths, but for him, a man who had been declared outlaw and exiled by the King, it was better to take no chances. The couple should not have crept up behind him like that.
He moved up the alley away from the road, hoping to avoid any other embarrassments. All he wanted now was to get away from this God-forsaken city and out to the safe, open countryside. But first he had to attend to the Queen’s business.
Reaching the end of the alley, he made his way westwards again until he saw the building he sought. Heavy stone walls and small, slit-like windows gave it a grim appearance, but in times like this, it was a welcome sight. Sir Jevan rapped smartly on the door.
A small peephole snapped open and he saw an eye peer at him, then behind and around him.
‘You know me,’ he said. ‘I am here to see
The bolts were drawn back, and the door pulled open to reveal a narrow passage.
Sir Jevan walked inside, but was pulled up short by the sight of two swords pointed at his throat and belly: one held by Benedetto, one by a servant. ‘What is this? You mean to betray us and our cause? Your deaths will be sealed if you harm me!’ he hissed.
Benedetto’s sword wavered. ‘I’m not betraying you,’ he whispered. ‘I’m betraying my family . . . and the King.’
‘A pox on your family, and the King. He betrayed us all,’ Sir Jevan sneered. ‘He’d sell the kingdom if he thought it a pretty enough bauble for his darling Despenser!’
‘It is agreed, then?’
‘You keep up your side of the bargain, Master Benedetto, and yes, Her Royal Highness will be pleased to make use of your money.’ Sir Jevan moved forwards, slapping away both swords. ‘I have details with me of where to deliver it. You are sure you can provide it? Your brothers won’t cause trouble?’
‘I can promise it,’ Benedetto said. There was an edge in his voice that did not go unnoticed.
‘Good,’ Sir Jevan said. ‘Don’t fail us. The Queen may be forgiving, but by the Gospel, I swear Sir Roger Mortimer is not – and neither am I.’ He turned with a feline grace, drawing his dagger and pulling the banker off-balance. His blade rested on Benedetto’s throat as he warned, ‘And next time you hold a sword to my guts, man, you had best be ready to use it. I don’t take kindly to such a reception!’
Alured the cooper had never known a time like this.
He was a hoary old man now, almost fifty years old, and he’d seen enough of death in his life. Clad in a strong leather jerkin over a padded jack, wearing the three items he considered most essential for his office – a dagger, a horn and a heavy oaken staff – he listened carefully for danger as he patrolled the streets.
London was his home. As a boy he had run about these streets, breaking windows, banging on doors, almost turning to crime himself, but then something happened to change his whole outlook on life. He had killed a man who was trying to rob him, out near the Austin Friars, and for the first time, Alured discovered what it was to wish to protect his own property from those who would steal it. When later he was elected as a constable for his parish, he took to the role with relish.
The law had to be upheld, that was his belief. But no one was bothering to serve the law today.
There were more than enough men in the Tower to calm the mob – so where were they? It wasn’t the whole city on the rampage, in God’s name, just some foolish hotheads – apprentices, clerks and the like. There may have been some bad apples in among them, but most were simple, harmless folk who saw that with the King gone, the city was theirs for a while. Well, Alured would exert what authority he could – alone, if need be.
He came across small groups as he did his rounds. For the most part they were content to make way for him. Only a few hundred yards from Cornhulle he met three lads, and sent them packing. Then there were two more boys gawping at a fire, who cleared off quickly enough, and finally he saw a mob of twelve, rampaging along one of the streets that led south from Cornhulle itself, all of them drunk and full of the courage that comes from ale. Observing them from the protection of a doorway, Alured soon identified the two troublemakers amongst them, and nodded grimly to himself. Christ alive, not one of them was more than eighteen years. If he couldn’t cow lads of that sort of age, he didn’t deserve to see his fiftieth birthday.
The two ringleaders were hurling missiles at the windows of a large house, and when Alured could see it clearly through the smoke of a bonfire that raged somewhere nearby, he recognised it as the Bardis’ place.
He himself didn’t care for bankers. To his mind, they were a shameful bunch, lining their pockets at the expense of decent men who laboured long hours, afraid to get their own hands dirty. Still, they were not lawbreakers, so far as he knew, and he was an officer of the law.
When the two had flung their stones, and had set to prising cobbles from the road as missiles, Alured stepped out from the doorway. Wearing an amiable smile, he nodded at the youths about him until he reached the two ringleaders. Once a little behind and between them both, he moved his staff in his hands, holding it half-staff, and struck both men smartly on the back of the head: one-two, right first, then left. The two collapsed like pole-axed cattle.
‘You’ve had your fun, boys. Now bugger off,’ he said, facing the others.
There was one on the left who scowled belligerently and took a half-pace forward. ‘What’d you wanna do that for? They’re only lads. You shouldn’t have hit them!’
From the others there came some expressions of agreement, but as yet no one else moved forward. Alured was tempted to take up a defensive stance, but instead he set his staff on the ground and leaned on it. ‘They may only be boys, but if you don’t clear off, and take this heap of garbage with you, I’ll break your pate too. Understand me?’
‘Your mother was a whore, and your father—’
The fellow choked off as the staff’s tip struck his Adam’s apple. It was not a hard blow, not enough to break his neck, but it was firm enough to make him fall back, clutching at his throat, and now Alured held the staff like a lance, quarter-staff, the tip waving gently from side to side.
‘Lads, I’ve been to war. I’ve killed. You don’t scare me, because I’ve got a staff, and you can’t reach me without I hurt you. Now pick up these three dog turds and go home. If anyone else tries something stupid, I’ll stick this pole right up your arse!’
As he had thought, the three on the ground were the leaders; the nine remaining were the sheep who followed. There were some muttered oaths, and more comments on his parentage, but he stood by with his affable smile fixed to his face and waited. Soon they had gone. Alured watched them leave with satisfaction. He felt he’d handled them well.