Authors: Michael Jecks
In short, if Sir Edward received it, he would be assured of the bank’s efforts to aid him, but if it was found by Mortimer’s men, Matteo could explain the mistake.
Two Saturdays before the Feast of the Annunciation, first year of the reign of King Edward III
Matins was over for another day. Father Luke smiled at young Jen and her mother Agatha as he wiped the chalice clean and began to tidy away the silver.
It was easy to smile at Jen. Small, like so many of the children after the winter, she had the fair hair and blue eyes of her mother, and the quick alertness of a hawk. The way that she set her head to one side and considered the priest while he spoke was utterly entrancing. If he had not taken the vow of chastity, he could have wished for no more appealing child as his own.
‘I didn’t see your husband here today,’ he remarked to Agatha.
‘The fool took a job delivering ale and food to the castle,’ she said. ‘A purveyor arrived last night demanding a cart, and Ham agreed a good price for his time.’
‘No. The farther one: Kenilworth.’
‘Ouch!’ Father Luke said. Warwick itself was more than twenty miles, and Kenilworth must be a deal further. ‘That is a long way. I have never been that far since I came to the parish myself. Has he already left?’
‘Fat chance of that!’ Agatha sneered. ‘You think my Ham would be up at this time of day and out on the road?’
‘Father is seeing to the animals,’ Jen said.
‘There is always much for a man to do,’ Father Luke agreed. ‘Who will look after the beasts when he is gone?’
‘I think I will,’ said Jen. For all that she was a child of only seven summers, she sometimes had the manner of a mature woman. The effect of living with her parents, Luke told himself sadly. She shot a look at her mother now, he saw, as though nervous of a buffet about the head for speaking out of turn.
Father Luke gave her a reassuring smile as he set all the church valuables inside the chest and locked it. Agatha was already sweeping the floor while Jen watched.
The priest knew Ham quite well. Ham was a happy-go-lucky fellow who enjoyed his ale and cider, as did Father Luke. However, he did suffer from his wife’s nagging. She was convinced he could improve their lot by working harder, although he was already up before the dawn to feed his animals, weeding and toiling at his garden, and generally keeping out from under his wife’s feet.
In her opinion, she should have married a man with better prospects. One of her friends, so Luke had heard, had wed a man from Warwick who went on to become one of the richest merchants in that great city. Whereas Ham remained a farmer. The idea that she should be stuck here in this vill, while her friend led the life of a wealthy burgess, had soured her. She was peevish, no matter how often Luke tried to show her she had plenty to be grateful for.
‘Why would he be taking food so far?’ Luke wondered. ‘Surely there are suppliers nearer the castle?’
Agatha shrugged. ‘The purveyor said there was a guest who had a liking for lampreys and good perry, so I suppose it’s for him.’
‘So your husband will be taking his cart to Kenilworth?’ Father Luke said, and suddenly he had an idea so brilliant it took his breath away.
‘Yes. The useless prickle will have a week’s holiday, while Jen and me have to work double. Not that it’ll make much difference – he’s so idle. We usually have to feed the beasts and all, while he lays on the mattress snoring. He’d best bring back some coin for his effort, that’s all I can say,’ Agatha grumbled as she swept.
Father Luke paid her no heed. He was busy thinking. The money was Despenser’s, and the person who should receive it was his heir; however, the Despenser family was from the Welsh Marches, which was a terrible long way away. But at Kenilworth, as everyone knew, was the old King, Sir Edward of Caernarfon.
If he were to take the money there, Luke would have fulfilled his responsibility by passing the money on to the correct person, and no one could complain. The priest was delighted at the thought of disposing of the money at long last. It was such a burden on his soul. And it would be up to Sir Edward, what he did with it.
It was dry, and that was good, Stephen Dunheved thought to himself as he waited at the inn. It was a relief to see so much clear blue sky. Not that you could depend on it. In his experience, the weather in these parts could change too quickly for comfort.
Seeing the woman and her child approaching, he nodded courteously enough. That Agatha was a vicious witch, he reckoned. Fair, blue-eyed, but with the tongue of a snake. Stephen himself would not have married her for all the gold in the Tower – but then, when she was younger and less twisted by fate, perhaps she had been more comely. Trouble was, like everyone else in the kingdom, she had suffered: wars, disease and famine had all taken their toll.
It was enough to make a man weep, to think of the devastation which had been visited upon the realm in the last decade. The King had done all he might for his impoverished little kingdom, but there was never enough treasure for so many people. And with that oafish stupidity so common to the peasant, the people of the country blamed him – as though it was
fault that the crops couldn’t grow!
The barons were more culpable than their King. Their avarice and jealousy of each other meant that they were forever battling for personal advantage. Men stole their neighbours’ cattle and flocks, they bickered, and rode out with their retainers to fight over the smallest dispute. Such matters were better suited to lawyers. At least in court, these disputes rarely led to bloodshed.
He watched the woman and her daughter pass by. She did look better when viewed in a more kindly spirit, he told himself, as he enquired, ‘Mistress, is your man ready yet?’
‘What do you think?’ Agatha said rudely. ‘Do you see him with me?’
Stephen’s opinion of her returned to simple contempt. ‘Where do you think he may be?’
Jen called out, ‘Seeing to the pigs.’
‘Thank you, maid.’
It was already an hour past daybreak, and Stephen was keen to be off. There were many long miles to cover. Ten leagues or more, in fact. With a cart, that would take at least two days, what with rivers to cross and the poor state of the roads. A cart would rarely manage ten miles in a day. Still, he was paying for fifteen miles a day, and he would make it, come what may.
A shiver ran through his frame, and he gave a little grin, thinking that his brother Thomas would have said it was someone walking over his grave. Stephen reckoned that was being overly optimistic. The prospect of his dying naturally and being placed in a coffin with weeping maids and children all about was nice to dream of, but highly unlikely.
He gave the sky another look, and tipped the drinking horn upwards, emptying it, before crossing to the wall where his horse was tethered to a large ring. Pulling the reins free, he led his pony along the road towards Ham’s house.
Time to go.
‘My friend, please!’ called Father Luke. He had seen the man rise and walk from the inn even as he himself hurried towards Ham’s house.
‘Father?’ The man stopped and waited for the priest.
The fellow had the clear features and open, bright eyes of a man in his prime – but as Luke drew nearer, he saw that he had the wrinkles of someone ten years older. What’s more, his dark eyes were watchful, as though he did not entirely trust even a priest.
‘My son, I have heard that you are a purveyor, and that you have asked our Ham to accompany you to Kenilworth?’
‘What of it?’
‘Nothing, except I have a chest I need to take there and wondered if I could join you.’
‘Why would you want to join me?’
Father Luke blinked. ‘I would not wish to travel so far alone, that is all. It is a great distance to Kenilworth, and such journeys can prove hazardous.’
‘That’s true enough.’
To Father Luke’s dismay, the man demonstrated little enthusiasm. It was discourteous in the extreme, the way that he was frowning at his priestly robes. ‘Very well. If you do not want company—’ he began, hurt.
‘No, Father, I would be happy with your companionship for the journey. I was only wondering whether you would not prefer to find a more comfortable means of travelling.’
‘I am perfectly capable of walking that distance!’
‘Then I should be most glad to have your company,’ Stephen said.
‘How many carts are there?’
‘Only the one.’
‘All that way, and there’s only one cart?’
Stephen said nothing, but merely stood with a thin smile on his face.
‘Oh,’ Father Luke said.
‘We leave shortly. You need to bring food and drink for the journey.’
‘Not only that. I have a chest, as I said. Ham will need to come to my church to collect it. It is very heavy,’ Father Luke fretted.
‘Then get him to go with you to fetch it,’ the purveyor said. ‘
Many miles to the south, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill walked amidst the din and smoke of the local smithies.
Sir Baldwin was a tall knight, strong in the arm, with a neck thick and muscled from long years of wearing a heavy steel helmet. The neat beard that traced the edge of his jaw had less black in it now, and was thickly salted with white, while the hair on his head was turning grey all over.
His was a face marked by experience. At his cheek was a long scar from the Siege of Acre in the Holy Land, but that was less prominent than the creases that passed over his brow and down at either side of his mouth, showing the pain he had endured in his long life.
He was tired. The last year had seen such unrivalled madness that he was weary to remember it. From the invasion of the Queen and her lover, their swift progress across the kingdom, snapping up towns as they went, the revolt in London, the slaughter of Bishop Walter II of Blessed Memory, the King’s capture, the executions . . . All had happened in so short a space of time it was a miracle the realm had not collapsed.
To have forced the King to resign was a deplorable act. Baldwin had done his duty: he had remained at the King’s side through those long weeks when Edward was forced to ride from Bristol ever farther into the Welsh countryside. Not until the day that the King’s party was captured did Baldwin leave him. It was a matter of honour.
But honour was dead. The kingdom had once been God-fearing, with knights who believed in the chivalric ideals of piety and honour. He had himself proved his own religious dedication by joining the pilgrims who sailed to the Holy Land to fight in its defence. The Fall of Acre nearly saw his own death. It was the Templars who rescued him.
In gratitude, Baldwin had joined the
Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon
, the Knights Templar, and served them until the dreadful day of Friday, 13 October 1307, when all were arrested by King Philippe IV of France.
The King, who coveted the Templars’ wealth, had set in motion a plot to deprive them of their riches, their properties, and ultimately their lives. He laid at their feet accusations so appalling that all over France, men and women viewed them with horror. The Order was disbanded, the Knights harried and tortured. Baldwin himself escaped, and he made his way gradually to Devon, to his family’s lands, where he had hoped to live peacefully as a rural knight.
Baldwin had been happy here. He had won a reputation as a fair judge of character, and been given the job of Keeper of the King’s Peace, and his life had continued in its orderly manner until the recent civil strife.
Good God, he was tired. The kingdom was in a state of chaos, and men like him – those who were supposed to enforce the King’s Peace – had been overwhelmed with work. In times of trouble, lawlessness increased – which was why he was here, in this place. Sir Baldwin needed a more reliable sword.
In Exeter there were many smiths and armourers of varying quality, but Baldwin knew one man who was capable of producing the very finest work.
Years of swinging heavy hammers had given David Smith’s fingers a grip which rivalled that of the metal he bent and twisted to his will. He had a brown beard shot through with silver, and dark brows hooding suspicious grey eyes. His skin was like old leather, worn and blackened by his work. By nature, he was rude, morose, and prone to flashes of anger. He was also the most expensive of all the smiths in Exeter – and the best.
Until the last summer Baldwin had owned a beautiful sword. Its blade was as blue as a peacock’s feathers, and although moderately short, it had a perfect balance. But during a skirmish at sea, he had lost it and ever since had been forced to rely on a cheap weapon that had all the balance of a sack of turnips. It was high time to replace it.
‘Sir,’ the smith grunted as Baldwin entered his little chamber. He was bent over a curving bar of glowing metal, beating it with his hammer.
‘Master Smith, I hope I find you well?’
‘Well as any man can be when he’s been fleeced by the taxman again,’ David Smith said angrily. ‘They take all our money and then expect us to thank them! Thieving scrotes.’
‘Is my weapon ready?’
‘I said it would be, didn’t I? Have you known me lie before?’
‘Master Smith, I am keen to see it,’ Baldwin said testily. This politeness in response to the gruff smith was wearing, no matter how good the man was.
David Smith gazed at him. ‘You want to take over this?’ he demanded, thrusting his curved metal into the forge. He watched as the metal began to glow, then gradually spit little sparks, before pulling it out and placing it carefully on his anvil once more, this time beating the curve down until it was almost flat again.
Baldwin had seen this process often enough before. Drawing out the metal took an age. Only when the shape was roughly formed would the smith begin to put some definition into his work.
He waited patiently. It was always the same when he came here. David was ever crotchety and difficult – but he could afford to be, knowing he was the best.