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Authors: Michael Jecks

30 - King's Gold (7 page)

BOOK: 30 - King's Gold
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Matteo took a sip of his wine and peered at Dolwyn. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘did you see anything of a man near me on the day I was attacked?’

‘No, master. I was away from you, you remember?’

‘Yes. And I was running from that mob,’ Matteo said, feeling at his scalp. The hair had been clipped away. After prodding his skull and checking his urine, the physician declared he should live: his injuries were superficial. ‘You have a hard head, master,’ he had declared.

The day was creeping on as Dolwyn looked down at him, and Matteo felt uneasy. The growing shadows gave him an oddly evil appearance.

‘There are messages for you,’ Alured said, stepping over to the bed. Then: ‘Are you well, master?’

Matteo gestured irritably. ‘Just a little tired, no more.’

It was a firm belief of Alured that work was a great healer. ‘These have all arrived in the last few days.’

Matteo eyed the pile of sealed notes without enthusiasm. ‘So many?’

‘Your clerk brings more every day.’

Matteo sighed and held out his hand. For the rest of the day, he lay back, absorbing snippets of information from the messages: one from the servant of Sir Roger Mortimer, one from the Abbot of Winchester, three from a merchant who traded between London and York, and then, after thirty or more notes of minor importance, he came across a little scrawled parchment. It was from a disreputable coroner in Bristol whom he had engaged some years before. He had never liked the man, but an intelligencer did not need to like his contacts. It was enough that they were reliable.

A comment at the bottom took his attention. He sat up in his bed, frowning.

‘Something wrong, master?’ Alured enquired.

‘I don’t know,’ Matteo muttered.

The note told him that the servants of the Queen were delighted to have had confirmation of the Bardi brothers’ support. It was still more gratifying, he read, that the Bardis had sworn not to have any dealings with the King – that in future, all their efforts would be concentrated on the Queen, her son the Duke of Aquitaine, and their supporters.

Matteo stared at it. During the meeting with his brothers, they had agreed that they would make an offer of financial assistance to the Queen, but also send a similar letter to the King. This stated that the Bardis had sworn
to aid him. If news of this were to get out and the King heard, it would be impossible to recover, were Edward II to return to his throne.

That fool Benedetto had over-reached himself! Matteo swore under his breath at the thought of his carefully nuanced work, all ruined by this one act. Unless he could somehow retrieve the situation . . .

Then Matteo accepted that he had been here for a month now, lying in his bed, wracked by fever. Perhaps he was not so well-informed as Benedetto. The position could have changed.

And then the memory of Benedetto’s shrewd face came to mind. Benedetto was schooled in Florentine politics and business, where it was desirable always to remove a competitor. Now that Manuele was dead, Matteo was Benedetto’s sole competitor for running the bank. And since his stabbing, Benedetto had been quick to take over the reins of power. Very quick.

Almost like a man who had planned for the eventuality.

‘Dolwyn,’ he said, ‘I have a task for you. I need you to go to Bristol and learn what you may from this man. But you must be very careful that you are not followed. You understand me?’

Matteo felt enormous thankfulness as Dolwyn nodded once, listened to his instructions, and then left.

Staring down at the parchments before him, Matteo rose with a grunt of pain, and shuffled to the fire. There he took out the letter which Manuele had signed just before his death. He read it, and was about to hold it to the flames when he hesitated. This letter could still be useful. It could be shown to the King, if he ever did return to authority, to prove that the Bardi
been on his side. He may not have received this letter, but its existence demonstrated that the bank had been willing to help him.

After a moment’s thought, he shoved the letter into his chemise, next to his flesh, before going back to the bed and lying down with a grunt.

He fell asleep, hoping that Dolwyn would bring useful news from Bristol.


Third Wednesday after the Feast of St Martin

St Peter’s, Willersey

Panic did not fully overwhelm him until later, when he heard of the death of Sir Hugh le Despenser, and went to open the chest hidden in his undercroft. Only then did he comprehend the full horror of his situation, and Father Luke cried out, gazing about him as though all the fiends of hell were encircling him, lurid in the gloomy light, watching to tempt him.

Because inside the chest, gleaming in the candlelight, was more gold coin than he had ever seen before.

Before the men appeared, that day had been much like any other. Calm, orderly, unexceptional.

Father Luke of St Peter’s Church, Willersey, was unaccustomed to shocks. His had been an exemplary life. He had lived here in Willersey for eleven happy years, and now, in his middle thirties, his paunch attested to the wealth of the area. The crow’s feet at his smiling blue eyes showed him for what he was, a contented, affable priest. His living was good, the tithes more than adequate for his limited needs, and the local peasants were willing to supplement his resources when he needed more food or wine. There was no doubt about it: since he had first arrived and seen the great church of St Peter’s with its tall spire, he had thought he was privileged to serve God here.

He was a man of learning, who had early discovered that there was a lot of sense in the stern injunctions against amatory adventures. All too often he had seen his peers humbled as their little misdemeanours came to light. For Father Luke, it was better by far to accept his position and enjoy serving the souls of his vill than to indulge his natural desires with the women of the area.

His was a round, ruddy-complexioned face, with full lips and heavy jowls – a face made for smiling, while slightly protuberant eyes viewed the world with an amiable fascination. He was that rare creature: a priest who genuinely liked his fellows. His slight pomposity made him human, in the eyes of the folks about him, and endeared him to them, while his irritation at their gambling in his churchyard on Sundays did not make them angry, only bemused when he railed at them for their ungodly behaviour. His was a figure designed to inspire jollity and companionship, rather than stern respect.

It had been an unexpected interruption when the horses arrived this morning – and a disturbing reminder of Despenser’s men’s appearance almost six weeks ago.

Earlier today, Father Luke had been at the base of the tower, idly studying the tympanum within the arch. The stone held a series of rich carvings: circles on either side with a flower inside them, a chequerboard strip beneath with a cross at either side, also set inside circles. In the middle, between the two flower shapes, was another circle, with four more set within, and a fifth as a hub between them all.

A strange design, this, which had always intrigued him. He wondered who the mason was, and what had urged him to make these patterns. Father Luke would have expected simpler devices, perhaps an angel’s face, rather than these long-forgotten symbols that had been here for perhaps two hundred years.

The sound of hooves pulled him back from his reverie, and he walked to his door and peered out, watching as two men reined in weary-looking beasts. The men were sodden, from their hoods and cowls to their booted feet. One wore a russet woollen cloak drawn about him, but the fabric was so soaked that the water dripped steadily from the dangling corner. The other had a leather cloak that had once been waxed, but this too had given up under the rain’s assault.

They wore no armour, but both had the stolid appearance of fighting men. Luke had to fight the compulsion to step away from them – there were too many stories of churches broken into and their priests knocked down for him to be entirely at his ease. For all that, he did not get the impression that they were dangerous, only desperate.

‘God be with you,’ he said firmly, making the sign of the cross.

‘Father, God bless you and your vill,’ said the taller one as they swung stiffly from their saddles.

‘You look exhausted, my sons. Would you stop a while and take a little refreshment? Wherever you are going, you will be more likely to reach it with a full belly and rested head.’

The two men exchanged a glance. In both faces there was a desire to ease tired limbs, if only for a short while.

‘Gentles, those brutes are as tired as you. They should be rested. Come, I have spiced cider and oatcakes.’

At the mention of hot cider both wavered, but oatcakes as well was too much temptation for men drenched by rain and mud. Before long they were sitting at Father Luke’s little fire, while the horses were rubbed down and fed by Peter, the smith’s son. Luke saw Jen, Ham and Agatha’s girl, and asked her to fetch her mother. Agatha often cooked for Luke. It got her out of her house and that was always a relief to her, Luke knew. She was unhappy in her marriage to Ham.

‘You’ve ridden far?’ Luke asked as Agatha bustled about preparing drinks and tearing at a plump, cooked pigeon.

The taller man nodded. He was named Paul of Bircheston, he said. He had a well–featured face, although his dark eyes met Father Luke’s unwillingly, as if he harboured a secret shame. The other, John of Shulton, was more confident, and more warlike, from the way that he settled and immediately drew his sword to dry it and smear grease over it to protect it from the rain.

He gave a grin and lifted an eyebrow as he glanced at the priest. ‘News is slow around here, eh? It must be good to see strangers ride past.’

‘Better to see them stop and talk,’ Father Luke chuckled, leaning aside to allow Agatha to reach the fire.

Aye, we’ve ridden far. And there are evil tidings and to spare,’ Paul said, staring into the fire gloomily.

‘Why, my friend?’

‘The King is captured. That whining cur Lancaster has him, and is taking King Edward to Kenilworth.’

‘Good God!’ Father Luke exclaimed, clutching at the cross about his neck. ‘But how? There was no news . . . Are you sure, my friend? Surely God would not see His crowned King brought so low?’

‘We were there,’ Paul stated baldly. ‘The King was captured near Caerphilly with all those who remained loyal to him. There were few enough of them.’

‘What will become of him?’

‘He’ll be at the mercy of Mortimer and the Queen. What they will do . . .’ He broke off, clenching his jaw.

‘Come, Paul,’ John said. ‘There’s no need to torment yourself. We’ve done our duty.’

‘You shock me,’ Father Luke muttered. ‘This is dreadful news. If a man raises his hand against God’s anointed, He must punish the kingdom, surely.’

‘Our King must be freed.’

It was John of Shulton who spoke, stroking a hone along his sword’s edge. There was a faraway look in his eyes, but Father Luke saw the glitter in them, and the sight made him shudder.

Agatha sat beside Luke’s fire and took up his old stone, setting it on the fire while she mixed the oatmeal. Luke had done this when he was young, when he was a boy near Durham. Oat was a staple still in the north, as it was here, but many considered it suitable only for horses and cattle. More fool them – for it made a good, solid base in the belly for a cold man, Father Luke reckoned. The action of mixing it and forming a paste with a little milk and water had always been enough to distract him. Now, he saw that Agatha was listening, open-mouthed to their tale, the cakes forgotten. Luke gave a click of his tongue, and she renewed her mixing.

The men drank deeply of their cider, and while their cloaks and jacks dripped on the floor, they watched Agatha dropping rounds onto the hot stone, moving them deftly with her fingers before they could stick. Soon there were fifteen little cakes, and while they cooled on the priest’s single wooden trencher, Luke himself fetched a little cheese and some leaves from his garden. They had been badly attacked by slugs, and this late in the year they were tough, but any salad was good.

‘Are you well, Father?’ John of Shulton said, sucking a pigeon bone.

‘I suppose I am . . . distracted by this news.’

Paul said, ‘We were servants of Sir Hugh le Despenser. To think our lord could be . . . But while I have breath in my body and strength in my arm, I won’t accept my King being held.’

‘Paul,’ John said warningly.

‘I will do all in my power to release the King,’ Paul said firmly. ‘I don’t care who hears it.’

‘Oh?’ Luke said.

It was then that he had the thought: if these two were Despenser’s men, then perhaps they could take his chest with them. But dare he entrust it to two such desperate men? No, he decided reluctantly. Whatever was inside must be valuable. Maybe he should open it and take a look inside.

By early afternoon they were gone, and he was beneath the tower staring with terror at the money.

‘Despenser’s dead,’ he muttered.

‘What, Father?’

‘Nothing, Agatha,’ he said.

She had returned after the evening service to bring him some bread. Now she set her mouth into a prim line, as she turned to leave.

‘I know,’ Luke said. ‘It is shocking to think that our King—’

‘It was his wife saw to it,’ she said grimly, ‘That’s treason of the worst sort.’

‘Er, well, yes,’ he agreed, watching as she made her way from his house. Women were beyond him, but he thought he could detect a hint of jealousy. Perhaps she was thinking of her own marriage.

He walked along the grassy path to his church, and crossed himself with a little water from the stoup, before kneeling on the hard tiles before the altar.

He could not keep it. That was certain. Those coins would be a magnet for every outlaw and drawlatch in Gloucestershire.

He took a deep sigh and gazed at the cross, seeking answers. Yes, he must send the money away . . . but to whom? The owner was dead, his heir held with his father’s remaining retainers in a Welsh castle from which he might never escape. There must be someone who could take it, but at least it was safe here for now. No one knew of it but him.

BOOK: 30 - King's Gold
9.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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