Saturday 3rd of March 1470
Tom’s eyes opened in total darkness. Where was he?
It was a confined space. The close atmosphere, amplifying a man’s least stir and most intimate noises, suggested something like a tiny prison, where captives could be kennelled while decisions about life and death were settled somewhere else. The angular jut of someone’s knee, lying on Tom’s right, felt familiar: Easy. Someone else lay snuggling up on Tom’s left side, exuding the faint whiff of foreign perfume: Peter. Timber walls were within comfortable reach of exploring fingertips.
It was a box bed in the Mandeville house.
Tom leaned over Easy and slid the door open. Flames were stretching and yawning in a nearby fireplace, roused by a middle-aged woman introduced to him last night as Cook—her name or her title? She was soon prowling about one of the kitchen’s darker corners, getting things ready for the day, and he had just started dozing off again when some distant bells tolled four, five, six times, marking hours of the clock. Many other bells began chiming soon after, these ones in the irregular rhythm of church towers. The rest of the staff began stirring, rising from makeshift beds. One was a man Tom had first encountered on the journey south, the Mandevilles’ ancient retainer, Old Will; two were junior servants, too low in the household hierarchy for names as yet; and three were hired labourers, engaged in some kind of repairs to a nearby church. Cook helped them to a quick ale and they gradually headed off to their various tasks and errands, leaving Tom, Peter and Easy still keeping warm in their bed opposite the fire, while Wakefield dozed on the floor nearby.
There are worse jobs than loafing about as sergeant-at-arms for two shillings a day but Tom couldn’t get comfortable again. An overcrowded bed didn’t help, and neither did his surroundings, powerfully reminiscent of his worst fear: water. This house—home to Aquarius, Cancer and Pisces—was once a warehouse for the fishing fleet. Noah’s menagerie and a wrecked boat were moored out in the hall, just a few lanes from the mighty river Thames, whose enormous tides loitered between the city and the sea, coming and going like a giant’s breath. He sat up and furiously scratched his head, coming to terms with his predicament. Events were moving quickly, he recalled. The horrors of yesterday’s dance were still fresh in memory, and the horrors of the Friendship Tour were due to get started tomorrow. That didn’t leave much time to escape. His broken fingers still ached and he looked at his bed-mates to see how they were faring. The fire was bright enough now to shed light on them. Only one of Peter’s eyes was closed, the other being swollen shut by yesterday’s punch. Easy looked to be in a blissful state between asleep and awake, eyelids slowly opening and closing like a stationary butterfly’s wings. Tom gave him a prod.
“It’s getting late.”
Easy was paid sixpence a day out of Tom’s wages. It was a fraction of what a skilled archer might earn anywhere else but Tom couldn’t afford more, having wasted most of his income on Peter’s education abroad, and on the family’s estate, crumbling under the management of their drunken eldest brother, Ebbtide George. Fortunately, Easy was like the wood of the longbow: though stubborn by nature, he was pliant in the right hands. He rose from his slumbers with barely a murmur of complaint, and dressed himself for all the little errands and chores no day could start without. Meanwhile Peter was making fretful, little noises. He had been dreaming of heroic martyrdom yesterday, the king dead at his feet, thrust through with the pointy end of a candlestick. The discomfort of a black eye gave him other things to dream about this morning. Tom gave him a nudge, and the would-be assassin sat up with a start, as if he had been assaulted.
“What did you do that for?” he complained, resting a sheltering hand on the swollen eye.
“Now. Yesterday. Always.”
“Just bringing you to your senses.”
“Leave me alone.”
He lay down again so as to resume his dreams. Tom half dragged him from bed and soon they were fully clothed and sitting on opposite sides of the kitchen table, getting used to the sight of each other again after six years on opposite sides of the North Sea. Nothing more was said about their dispute yesterday. Peter had never been one to hold grudges for long, unless they were political, and Tom wasn’t inclined to apologise. A fool like Peter needs a firm hand, and there could be no relaxation in discipline till they were safe out of the king’s reach.
Where was safe out of the king’s reach?
The Mandeville house was safe for the moment, or at least as safe as a prison. Easy had reported seeing armed men taking up billets in the neighbourhood yesterday. Their numbers, armaments and deployments still had to be ascertained but, just supposing three fugitives managed to escape whistling arrows, bristling swords and thundering hooves here in Southwark—where next? Home was the Wharfe Valley, whose woods and meadows must be brightening with the year’s first wildflowers about now, but there could be no safety even amid those tranquil scenes if, as Tom suspected, the so-called Friendship Tour was the king’s plot to avenge himself on rebels for last year’s humiliating defeat.
What about Scotland or France? Enemies of an English king have often taken refuge in those lands, but finding a path or a ship not watched by the king’s agents or not overrun by villains was a hazardous enterprise. Besides, Scotland was a frozen wilderness and even France set Tom’s teeth on edge, thinking of all the water in between. He soon began to feel hot, however, remembering all the wasted letters of credit he had shipped there for Peter’s education. What angered him most wasn’t the loss of money, paid out of his own savings; it wasn’t even the fact that Peter had deceived him for years with elaborate letters detailing university life in Paris; what made his blood boil was the betrayal by old allies, the Lancastrian exiles who had intercepted Peter’s money, spending it on themselves and their lodgings in Lorraine. But why be surprised! The rebel cause had always been littered with betrayals.
Betrayal wasn’t unique to the Lancastrians. The Yorkists were just as addicted to it. If the duke of Clarence and earl of Warwick betrayed the king this year, same as last year, the Friendship Tour could end up another victory for the rebels, and then Tom might once again have the satisfaction of escorting His Yorkist Majesty to prison, hopefully for a longer term of confinement than last time, though a short trip to the scaffold might be just as satisfying. War however is seldom so tidy. If the rebels ever overran the Yorkist camp, they might mistake Tom and Peter for the king’s friends indeed, and butcher them as traitors. Somehow Tom must get word to them, explaining his predicament: he was only the king’s friend because Peter was the king’s hostage.
Meanwhile what about the Mandevilles? Surely Farthings was aware of the dangers to his daughter up north, if the rebels ever caught her in the king’s retinue. Maybe Tom could work on the fears natural to a father and talk him into leaving her behind. She was such a rabid Yorkist, her knack of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time was so uncanny, she was the very last person Tom wanted hanging about while trying to engineer an escape with his daft-arsed brother. Only a woman born to be a nuisance could have managed to fight a stray goshawk just as Tom was walking past in search of it, and only a pest, destined to cause trouble, would have visited the ruins of Huntingdon Castle on the very night he had chanced to be a guest there! What business was it of hers, dancing with the king just when Tom happened to be dancing with his brother, and what right did she have to cast doubts on Peter’s other dancing partner, the scriptorium candle, even before Tom himself had understood its real significance! What further opportunities to be in the wrong place at the worst time would that fault-finding busybody create for herself during the Friendship Tour? If anyone foiled their escape, it was that creature.
There were footsteps on the floorboards overhead. Hers? It was difficult to think of her waking like other people. Tom could imagine her rising every morning like a marsh mist, the mattress dank with condensed spite. According to information Easy had obtained yesterday, their box bed, so conveniently located near the fireplace, used to be shared by the previous sergeant-at-arms and the head carpenter, but they had resigned with half a dozen others as soon as they had learned of her imminent return from Bourne. She had the Plague’s talent for creating vacancies but was there some way to be friends with her?
Or was there some way to be friends with her, enough at least to buy some peace for a while, or even an uneasy truce? She had struck Tom in the face twice now, first with a slap in her aunt’s house and yesterday with a closed fist. That wasn’t good progress so far. On the other hand, she had seemed to accept his presence in the house last night. It was in the suspicious but measured way a cat accepts the arrival of a collared watchdog but could it be the beginning of something friendlier?
Lord Hastings wanted her trained. What exactly did this entail? Tom was too experienced a warrior to act on vague orders that could end in disgrace. Orders like those leave a warrior to take all the blame when things go horribly wrong or, worse still, horribly right. Should he warn her about the Lord Chamberlain? Would she be grateful? It was best to tell her nothing. If she went on the Friendship Tour as entertainment for some priapic Yorkists, those Yorkists would have less time for the serious business of war. And it would serve them all right.
The sound of approaching footsteps drew Tom’s eyes to the passage from the hall. It was Square, the melancholy brother, and he treated Tom to a bow that would have done justice to a duke.
“Good day to you, oh Knight of the Lost Sabaton!”
A legend gets used to being greeted with exaggerated respect, though not quite like this, and Tom managed a courteous nod in reply. The brother was clearly a bit crazy but that was no reason to despise him. In fact, he had the look and manner of some of Tom’s most trusted comrades: his stolid jaw, his chronic air of gloomy patience, his occasional air of enthusiasm and wild hope—it was a very Lancastrian look these days, after long years of empty promises, betrayals and defeats. No doubt he had suffered all that at the hands of his sister and father, and maybe he was as close to an ally as Tom could hope for in a house such as this. Or was Square getting too close? He had begun making friends with Peter yesterday.
Unlike his domineering sister, Square was no admirer of the Yorkist king. She must have starved him of political discussions or he wouldn’t have swallowed all Peter’s prattle last night. Peter was always happy to talk politics, especially now that he was no longer an Italian dance instructor, and Square had quickly forgiven him for the earlier pretence, just as he had forgiven Tom for the false beard. Their talk yesterday had outlasted the fire, edging so close to blatant treason that Tom had finally told them both to shut up so that everyone could get some sleep. Now Square was already awake and so eager to continue their friendship that he volunteered to help Easy organise poultices for Peter’s black eye and Tom’s broken fingers. The pantry supplied the ingredients, mainly herbs, rendered sticky with butter. Easy was bandaging the concoction around Tom’s hand, and Square was packing it around Peter’s swollen eye, when conversation already began to grow careless.
“You would make a good physician, My Friend,” said Peter, looking comfortable in spite of his buttered black eye. “You have the healing touch.”
“I have enough trouble just being a carpenter,” Square responded, gingerly poking mint leaves and groundsel under the would-be assassin’s eyebrow. “I was working on Noah the other day, when the chisel slipped and I broke off his nose. I couldn’t see my way to fixing it, so I cut the head off and replaced it. Now the new head looks to be turning out even worse. It just won’t sit right.”
“Then your Noah is like our England,” said Peter, tilting his face backwards to stop the butter sliding off. “The new head has turned out even worse than the old one. Put the old one back, God willing, and you’ll soon see an improvement.”
They were lucky nobody else was listening. Cook was near enough to overhear but too busy punching dough to detect political innuendo, and maybe politics never bothered her. Their luck couldn’t last, so Tom gave Peter a cautionary glare, and yet that didn’t stop him and his new chum once again airing treason as openly as if it were mint and groundsel.
“I often include our old king in my prayers,” Square revealed as he tied a bandage around Peter’s head, clamping a flock of wool to the swollen eye, “and then I think maybe an angel will unlock the Tower someday, so that he might walk out a free man once more.”
“It is our duty as Englishmen to release him ourselves, not wait for miracles!” declared Peter, banging a Lancastrian fist on the table. “God expects courage, My Friend, not wishful thinking.”
More steps were making themselves audible overhead, so Tom gave Peter a sharp kick under the table, in case the sister was getting ready to join them. Her suspicious mind hadn’t missed the treasonable significance of yesterday’s candlestick, and she would have no trouble detecting sedition brewing in her own kitchen. The next one downstairs however turned out to be the fancy maid, Matilda, dressed as elegantly as if she were the real lady of the house, but soused in so much perfume, it was as if Spring and Summer had arrived all at once. Easy had spent a lot of time in her company yesterday and his efforts were already bearing fruit. Here was another pair getting too close for comfort.
“Is that a buttered poultice I smell?” she opined as she drifted around the kitchen. Her perfume drowned out every other odour in the vicinity yet she would have been blind to miss the visible evidence still on the table, or the bandages on Peter’s face and Tom’s hand. “Is someone hurt? I cannot abide another’s pain, poor, gentle woman that I am.”
She rested a hand against her poor bosom, emphasizing and exaggerating its gentle swell.
“A woman’s nature is like her body: all softness,” Easy cooed, happy to take the bait. “Make me a poultice for my broken heart!”
“You look respectable enough this morning, minus your devilish helmet,” was her coy reply, “and I might suffer your impertinence to continue, if you leave it off.”
“I have a salve for anything that ails you, Sweet Rose, if you will let me take off more than just my helmet,” he continued lewdly.
“Come here!” Tom ordered him.
He led Easy out to the privacy of the hall, midway between the boat, awaiting repairs, and the Ark, still awaiting a complete Noah.
“I can’t help it, Squire,” Easy pleaded when they turned to face each other. “What is a man without a woman?”
“Someone without baggage.”
“I’m not getting any younger.”
“A bit of fun before Lent? Forget it.”
“I really like this one. She’s hot for a romp and we could go a long way together.”
“Quit the drivel. It’s time to prepare our escape, so start scouting around the neighbourhood. Find out who is keeping watch and how many.”
He lent Easy his own bonnet to hide the tell-tale baldness, and the reluctant scout went off in the dapper manner of a man about town. He was no sooner out the door than Farthings appeared at the top of the hall stairs, limping but smiling.
“My daughter kicked me in the shins yesterday,” he revealed with a grimace of discomfort, gingerly taking a step down. “I think it could be infected but no matter. Everything is looking up. Friends to His Majesty! He’ll soon be the master of Lincolnshire, and there’ll be deals aplenty just begging to be made once those rebels are driven out.”
Here was a topic Tom was ready to explore.
“The Friendship Tour could get a little too friendly, if your daughter isn’t careful.”
“I am not sure what you mean by that.”
“Respectable women don’t traipse after kings, especially not this one.”
“Your job is protecting our bodies, not out morals.”
“Her body is more easily protected if she stays home.”
“You’re getting a bit above yourself, aren’t you?”
“I am your sergeant-at-arms. It is my job to speak plainly.”
Farthings grimaced again.
“I never discourage initiative in an employee,” he declared, meanwhile leaning on Tom’s shoulder, the better to support his injured leg. “So, here is what you can do: prepare me a plan, detailing how best to defend ourselves, not just against rebels, but also against the likes of Will Terrumber and his friends here in Southwark. You can brief me on it later this morning. Meanwhile, what preparations are you making for tomorrow’s departure?”
“For myself, not much, but Peter needs to pick up some things from his Italian boss. I’ll go with him later today, if that’s alright.”
“Signor Antonio Della Bosca owes me eightpence for the hire of the hall. Frighten him, if you have to.”
Tom helped Farthings into the kitchen, and Square assembled another poultice. By the time it had been tied to the father’s leg, they were all helping themselves to a rare treat. The pantry was overstocked for a household on the eve of Lent, especially with so many departures scheduled for tomorrow, and Cook had brought out a hearty breakfast of bacon rolls and buttered wastrel bread, all chased down with malmsey wine. The mood became quite cheerful—despite the broken fingers, the blackened eye and the wounded shin—and even Wakefield shared in the fun, Tom throwing some of the breakfast on the floor for him. The dog still hadn’t finished bolting it down when a noise of wooden pattens brought a chill to the festivities.
“That isn’t your dog,” said the daughter as she came into view around Tom’s shoulder, “so stop feeding it.”
“It wasn’t my bacon,’ he responded with a shrug.
“You will return Dog to the boy you stole it from, as soon as we reach Lincolnshire.”
“You said he belonged to a poacher and I could keep him,” Tom reminded her.
“Learn to speak proper English or don’t bother speaking,” she decreed before disappearing into the pantry.
“A dumb statue would make a poor sergeant-at-arms, My Girl,” Farthings pleaded when she came back out. “Sit down and join us.”
“I hope he chokes on his Yorkshire accent. Meanwhile I have better things to do.”
“She’s off to feed her donkey,” her father explained as she departed with a handful of dried herbs. “We keep it in the bishop’s stables.”
“The white one,” Tom recalled. “It’s a mule.”
“Mules are working animals. Lady Lorna is a pet.”
“So that turns her into a donkey?”
“What My Girl wants, My Girl gets.”
Her arrival had irked Tom but her departure soon began to irk him even more.
“Does she always go off like this?” he couldn’t help wondering. “No respectable woman leaves home without an escort—especially not in a neighbourhood like this.”
“That’s conversation for another day. We leave tomorrow.”
“A proper father wouldn’t allow it.”
“That is a disloyal thing to say,” Farthings complained.
“A dumb statue would make a poor sergeant-at-arms,” Tom reminded him, meanwhile reaching for the pitcher of wine.
“This is not the first time this morning you have spoken out of turn,” Farthings protested, grabbing the pitcher from Tom’s fingers and pulling it nearer himself. “I asked you to prepare a plan: a safer future and a safer family—safer for our bodies. Inspecting the house might be a good place to start. So, don’t just sit here. Get on with your duties.”
A man’s home is his castle and it wasn’t in Tom’s nature to be disrespectful, especially in front of his brother, unless it happened to be important. This was important. It was time to assert his independence, before Farthings got into the habit of interfering so often that it spoiled their escape plans later.
“I have already started my duties here in the kitchen,” he said then grabbed the pitcher back, helping himself to the last of the wine.
Farthings rewarded him with an indignant stare, a statue dumb with outrage. Cook’s mouth gaped like the holes she had been punching in her dough, and Square flushed with embarrassment. Not everyone was shocked at Tom’s insolence and he soon received a sly kick under the table. Peter claimed credit for it with a conspiratorial smirk and a wink of his good eye. This must have been his answer to the kick Tom had handed out earlier, as if his treasonable talk and Tom’s strategic insolence were in any way comparable! Tom chose to ignore him, and meanwhile Farthings chose to ignore Tom.
“Cook!” said the merchant, getting to his feet. “Lock the pantry door.”
He departed with a dignified limp. Awkward silence dominated the kitchen for a short time and then Square got to his feet, announcing his intention of visiting the local church. Peter offered to go with him but Tom shook his head against it.
“You don’t trust your own brother?” was Peter’s wry response.
Tom bit back an ironic rejoinder. Some measure of trust was necessary if they were ever to manage an escape together, and they had to start sometime.
“Alright but get back early,” Tom cautioned him, “and don’t do anything stupid! The king is holding me responsible for your behaviour.”
The two friends—if they could be called friends, when Peter had been a foreigner up until yesterday afternoon—departed for church, leaving Tom alone with Cook. She was in no mood to talk, being too busy with her duties, or too offended by Tom’s disrespect to her lord and master, so he decided he might as well inspect the rest of the house, starting from the top. This turned out to be a mysterious loft, the door opening onto a bright set of glass windows, including a casement. The casement in turn opened onto sweeping views of the local manors, the river and the city beyond. Expensive windows like these were more appropriate to a nobleman’s solarium than a merchant’s loft, yet the place still evoked its origins as a warehouse, the floor being crowded with timber frames, canvass sheets and broken lumps of plaster, the walls festooned with pageant masks, paintings and sketches in various stages of completion. These included a portrait that Tom had seen already, peeping at him from Lady Lorna’s panniers on the road between Stamford and Fotheringhay Castle—a boy without a face. The loft must be the shrew’s personal space. He resisted the temptation to slam the door behind him, and calmly proceeded down to the next floor. This was the location of Farthings’ office, which Tom had already visited a few days ago and which he decided to bypass now, since the merchant could be heard inside, shuffling papers. The remaining rooms on that side of the corridor were all locked, probably storerooms. The opposite side was reserved for bedrooms. The one furthest from the stairs included a bed almost buried under merchandise and bric-a-brac: obviously the father’s. The room next to it was a gloomy space overshadowed by a life-size crucifix, towering over the bed in an imperious but menacing fashion, thankfully minus Jesus. Obviously the brother’s. The room nearest the stairs must be hers, and it turned out to be a large, well-organised space that nevertheless seemed dwarfed by Matilda and her perfume, the maid brushing her hair by the light of a little mirror. Thankfully minus Pisces.
By the time Tom returned downstairs, Easy had already returned from scouting the neighbourhood. Maybe he was in a hurry to resume flirting with the shrew’s oversexed and overly perfumed maid.
“Back already?” Tom wondered. “Look smart and let’s hear it!”
Easy handed back the bonnet, gave a military-style nod of the head and then proceeded with his report.
“Mission accomplished!” he explained. “You made it simple for me, Squire, sending your brother off to church. The neighbourhood guards all followed on his heels, and then I counted them as a shepherd counts sheep. There were forty-seven, five of them archers. Murderer and the Red Knight were leading them. You’ll be dancing with those two for some days yet.”
This news wasn’t unexpected but still came as a heavy blow. The Red Knight even on his own was more trouble than Tom could manage in a fair fight, and so was Murderer. Together, with many other eyes and hands to do their bidding, they were as inescapable as an iron chain bolted to a dungeon wall.
“All the guards?” he wondered after some thought. “They all followed Peter?”
“You aren’t going anywhere without him, and they know it.”
“A smart use of resources! But how did he react?”
“I don’t think he even noticed.”
“He’s only got one good eye.”
“His new best friend didn’t notice anything either. Two infants after burping wouldn’t be as daft as that pair.”
“We’ll escape somehow.”
Tom was still brooding over Easy’s report when Farthings appeared on the balcony above them, wearing a disapproving look, like a merchant who thinks he isn’t getting good value for money. Tom mollified him with the news that he had now formulated a plan for a safer household, and then it was his own turn to give a report. This was a familiar routine. His fame as a warrior had long made him an authority on architecture.
“First, the bad news” he declared boldly after Farthings had come downstairs to be briefed. “I have already seen the manor’s own defences. They’re useless. This house isn’t much better but it has potential, if you spend big fixing it. Brick out front looks nice but so does silk. Replace it with dressed stone. All access points must be reinforced. External doors, front and back, require three layers of oak. Put arrow slits around and above them, and get rid of the porch: it shelters attackers. Internal doorways are best low and narrow: intruders are easier to kill that way. The weakest structure of all is the loft window: it can be reached from the neighbouring roof with just a rope and grappling hook. Remove and replace it with oak shutters. This hall is your best feature. A single archer can dominate it from the balconies. Keep some crossbows up there, ready to shoot at short notice. Finally, all members of the household need training in the use of weapons, with a clear strategy for co-operative defence.”
He thought Farthings was his only audience but the daughter suddenly appeared at his elbow, muddy pattens in hand.
“Listen to him!” she cried, waving the pattens about in annoyance. “This is our family home, not some castle in the Scottish Marches.”
“His ideas are challenging,” Farthings conceded, meanwhile brush- ing a lump of mud off his shoulder, “but some training in weapons wouldn’t hurt. Let’s do that now.”
“I can defend myself without training from him,” she snarled.
“England’s foremost warrior? It’s too good a chance to let slip.”
“I’ll introduce you to the crossbow,” Tom offered.
Tom had given the same crossbow lesson to raw recruits many times over the years and he could manage it even in his sleep. It involved a brief lecture, long since committed to memory, a simultaneous demonstration, preferably by an assistant, and a practice session, whose length depended on the numbers and abilities of his students. It was too formal an arrangement for the small group he was coaching today but the Mandevilles were certain to be difficult, a familiar routine might be helpful, and the usual assistant was already on hand: Easy.
They began with four students, all scheduled to join the Friendship Tour: the shrew, her father, her maid and Old Will. However, Old Will was clearly too old for archery, and Tom ordered him back to his household chores. The balcony was the best place for an archer to defend the hall and that was the obvious place to practise from, so the front door was bolted shut, then trestle tables were upended as a kind of barricade, shielding it and the adjacent wall from stray shots. The target was the responsibility of the daughter and her maid. They stuffed a tattered old doublet with firewood and set it on a dilapidated chair in front of the tables. A wooden sphere, about the size of a hedgehog, served for a head, the target now resembling a small guest rather than an intruder. Someone had to stay below to guard against servants straying into the line of fire, and Farthings volunteered, since he already had some other business with Cook. That left only two students for the first round of instructions. Easy collected his loading belt, crossbow and a bolt from their baggage in the kitchen. Tom reminded him to adjust the string—an underpowered bow is usual for beginners—and then the class assembled on the balcony.
“The archer has three primary tasks,” said Tom, immediately settling into the flat tones of the familiar routine. “Firstly: ensuring no obstacles or hindrances interfere with a clear shot. Secondly, arming the bow with its projectile. Thirdly, taking aim and firing. Now let us attend to the first task.”
Easy removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves then waved his hands in clear space, emphasising the absence of obstacles and hindrances.
“The arms of a Samson!” said the maid.
“Delilah will never cut off these flowing locks,” came the reply, Easy passing a hand over his balding scalp.
Banter between Easy and students was nothing unusual and Tom rarely discouraged it, because Easy was a seasoned man-at-arms, never letting the fun interfere with the safety and education of the group. If anything happened to be unusual this time, it was the gender of the two students.
“Now let’s proceed to the second task,” Tom resumed: “arming the bow. Today we will be practising with the crossbow, a weapon soon mastered even by a beginner, yet it is important to understand how it differs from the longbow, ordinarily a superior weapon. Watch and listen while we demonstrate, first, how we arm the longbow, and next the crossbow.”
“Longbow?” queried the shrew.
“They didn’t bring one,” observed the maid, glancing around the balcony and peering over the rail.
“I always mime this bit,” Easy explained.
There were two good reasons why Easy always mimed the longbow
during crossbow lessons. Firstly, the English longbow is too glamorous for raw recruits to handle, since they always imagine themselves at Agincourt, famously annihilating the French with a storm of arrows, when they should instead focus all their ambitions on mastering the humbler weapon. The shrew spotted the second reason.
“He doesn’t have enough fingers to pull the string,” she advised her maid.
“Ha!” came the maid’s response. “A man lacks his natural gifts, so a woman must use her imagination instead?”
This sounded like a lewd comment. Tom wondered if his authority was being challenged. Afterall he was the man in charge. However, she wasn’t his servant and he already had enough to do, just training women in archery, without also correcting the sluttish ways of a Southwark household, so he let it pass without rebuke.
“Arming the longbow requires exceptional strength,” he continued, quickly slotting back into the usual routine, “because the power of the longbow rests in the stubborn nature of the bow itself: the archer must overcome its strength with his own, pushing against the wood with one hand, pulling back the string with the other, simultaneously thrusting his body between wood and string to achieve the full spread, when the arrow may be released with maximum force. Only after many years of training does an archer build strength enough and stamina enough to arm the longbow with the rapidity and frequency needed in battle.”
During this speech, Easy flexed his prodigious biceps, notched an imaginary arrow to an imaginary string, then thrust his body into the imagined gap between the string and wood, at which point he departed from the usual routine and continued the thrusting movement with his hips several more times before finally releasing the supposed shaft.
“It looks real to me,” said Matilda.
“Now observe the crossbow in action!” Tom hurried to say, since the disturbing image that Easy had just planted in everyone’s mind was best put behind them as soon as possible. “Arming this weapon is a slower and more cumbersome routine than the one we have just seen, yet anyone can manage it—thanks to an extra piece of equipment, which we call the loading belt.” He paused while Easy began strapping on his loading belt. “Now observe the stirrup at the front end of the crossbow, which the archer rests on the ground, and into which he inserts his foot. Note next how he draws back the metal arms, using a hook and rope attached to the belt, taking the strain with his thighs, until the bowstring reaches its locking position.”
Easy set one foot in the stirrup of his crossbow then suggestively dangled the rope between his legs. Bending his knees, he engaged the hook with the bowstring, taking the strain with his thighs, gradually rising with a broadening smile as the metal arms slowly bent upwards. Reaching the locking position, he sighed with satisfaction.
“There are such things as locking positions?” Matilda wondered.
The smut didn’t look like ending anytime soon, but at least the shrew seemed not to have noticed, and Tom decided not to notice either, in case he merely drew attention to it.
“The arrow in this instance is called a bolt, and he is now ready to insert it into the appropriate groove,” he went on, “at which point we have reached the archer’s final task: aiming and firing. This is where things get really dangerous, so listen carefully. The fingers on the foregrip must be placed with particular care—below the level of the string—otherwise the archer could lose them.”
Easy demonstrated the danger by holding up the stubs of his missing fingers. It was a dramatic gesture and it had always made a powerful impression on students, but not today.
“You didn’t lose those on the crossbow,” the maid objected. “You lost them using your hand as a shield. That’s what you said at Ware.”
“He had the other hand on the front end a moment ago,” noted her mistress. “He swapped them over just now.”
“I’m good with both hands,” was the smug rejoinder.
“The crossbow is usually fired from the shoulder, Tom continued, “the archer keeping it up long enough to concentrate on a target or, if strength is lacking, he may fire from the chest or hip, or from some position of rest, such as a parapet.”
“Keeping it up is no problem for me,” Easy added.
“Cut out the damned smut and just concentrate on the lesson!’ Tom snapped.
Easy hung his head in shame, or the travesty of shame. He licked his lips and slowly, indecently slid the bolt into its groove. He should then have demonstrated the proper stance, resting the crossbow against his shoulder, or propping it on the balcony rail, but he suspended the weapon over the rail one-handed, glued his eyes on Matilda, winked and simultaneously squeezed the trigger. The tense, metal arms released their explosive power with a sharp twang, which was immediately followed by a loud thud and crash in the hall below, the bolt splitting the wooden sphere in two, simultaneously shattering the edge of an upturned table, where it continued hanging amid a tangle of splinters. Matilda shrieked for glee and clapped her hands. Yes, it was a brilliant stunt but this was a lesson for beginners, no time for foolery, and Tom grabbed the crossbow in a fit of annoyance. Easy didn’t stop for a tongue-lashing, instead hurrying downstairs to help Farthings get the target back in order. Matilda hitched up her gown and followed close on his heels, an unfortunate move since it left Tom alone on the balcony with her mistress.
The last time they had been alone together was late afternoon at Huntingdon Castle, on the rampart overlooking the river. The balcony wasn’t a rampart, and afternoon was still a long way off, but somehow it reminded Tom of that awkward moment, made all the more awkward by the fact that he was now her sergeant-at-arms. The lewd meanings Easy had put on the crossbow still lingered in the mind, as unignorable as Matilda’s perfume, so he began inspecting some timber posts and studs in the adjacent wall, even testing the wood with his fingernails, looking for he hardly knew what, anything to avoid conversation. However, the shrew chose this moment to be curious.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s a good place to stick a few pegs,” he decided as he half-turned to face her. “We can hang some crossbows here later.”
“You are not to touch this house.”
“I’ll drill the holes myself with the lend of an auger. It’s no problem.”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing of you, your ideas or your existence is to remain in this house after you leave here tomorrow.”
“I’m not coming back?”
“Don’t make any special effort on my account.”
“This household is not my kind of outfit,” he conceded. “It lacks self-discipline.”
“Dis ousehowd is not mah kin of ahtfit,” she scoffed, sounding remarkably like a Yorkshire lass. “Who do you think you are—after your man has just treated us to such a lewd display—lecturing us about discipline?”
“Your woman started it.”
“He started it.”
“She made a play for him in the kitchen first thing this morning.”
“He was already at it in Ware a week ago.”
“A bit late to complain now.”
“That’s your excuse for him?”
There was no time for further banter. Farthing was already limping up the stairs, bringing the retrieved bolt and Easy’s loading belt. Nobody was following him and the target was still in disarray from the last shot.
“Where ...” Tom wondered.
“They won’t be long,” said Farthings. “They have gone to the kitchen for more bolts.”
Tom and Easy had left their horse, mule and riding gear in the Smithfield stables, but all their other things were now stored in and around the box bed, including armour and weapons. However, they already had the only bolt they needed. Whatever attraction awaited the two servants in the kitchen, it had nothing to do with archery. The Mandevilles seemed not to suspect the worst, however, and Tom decided not to make a fuss either. He was well versed in the discipline of the front rank—when one man falls, another man steps up to take his place—so he strapped on the loading belt, determined to continue the lesson as before.
“The archer places one foot in the stirrup at the end of the cross- bow,” he declared, acting out the lesson for Farthings. “Next he draws back the metal arms—”
“We have already been through this,” the daughter objected.
“Not with me,” her father reminded her.
“I’ll keep it short,” Tom promised, inserting the bolt already.
“It is my turn,” she said, reaching for the weapon.
“Not till I say,” he insisted, keeping it out of her reach.
“I can show Papa without your help!” she cried and next somehow managed to get a hand on the weapon.
Not to be denied, she wrenched the crossbow from his bandaged fingers. He still held onto the stock with his good hand but lost control of the trigger. There was another loud twang and another loud thud and this time the bolt buried itself deep in the floorboards, midway between Tom’s feet. Safety had always been his number one priority in weapons training, his own not least of all, but it mattered little to her.
“Close enough!” was all she said by way of apology, before withdrawing to her nearby room and slamming the door shut.
“She has always been highly strung,” Farthings observed. “Fortunately, this is a carpenter’s house, so no lasting harm done.”
It looked lasting to Tom, the bolt being stuck in the floor as fast as a rivet. However, his employer had the skills, the men and tools needed for the job, so Tom left him to it and took himself down to the kitchen, determined to give Easy some barrack’s discipline. It was long overdue. He had been insubordinate and difficult almost since the day they had left Lincolnshire, always questioning Tom’s decisions, always wanting to go back north, always dragging his heels, always balking at obstacles, always lacking initiative—except now, when he was flirting with the very woman he had been ordered to forget! Yet he wasn’t in the kitchen, and neither was Matilda. Cook was still on hand, her preparations for tomorrow’s feast momentarily forgotten while she stood with a plucked duck in hand, gazing in embarrassment at the rear door. It had been left wide open, like the mouth of an astonished witness. They must have left in a hurry. Tom inspected Easy’s belongings, stored with his own things, under and above the box bed. Everything looked to be in order. Easy wouldn’t be going far and there was nothing to be done about his poor discipline till he got back.
By the time Tom returned to the hall, Farthings was raiding a box of tools near the wrecked boat, adding a chisel to the mallet and pincers already nursed in one arm. The bolt’s removal from the balcony floor was going to take a while yet, and Tom decided he might as well tidy up the target. The damage to the upturned table was unfortunate and he reproached himself for not checking Easy’s adjustments to the bow—it had functioned at full power—meanwhile pulling off some larger splinters. He patted down some other splinters and then began a search for the wooden sphere. Half of it had rolled under the stairs. The other half had shot off under the bench, where Noah’s Ark and its cargo of animals were on display. Reuniting the two halves produced a human head that Tom found shockingly lifelike. It lacked only a nose. Square’s conversation that morning left little doubt whose face was staring from his hands.
Tom wasn’t a particularly devout man but using Noah’s severed head for target practice, only two weeks out from the annual commemoration of the Flood, seemed to be just asking for trouble, maybe even another deluge. He had had enough of the Mandevilles for one morning, he decided, so he respectfully rested the two hemispheres on the bench, between a pair of horses and a pair of rabbits, then pulled a trestle table from the door, drew back the bolt and quietly left, taking his dog with him.
Tom went in search of Peter and had no trouble finding him, the local church being as big as a cathedral, now ringed by armed guards watching every door, buttress and gargoyle. The hymns for Sext had finished and the former Italian was helping Square and some lay brothers sweep out an aisle when Tom grabbed his arm and led him towards the door.
“Where are we going?”
“Signor Whatever’s apartment for your things.”
“Why the hurry?”
“Who says I am in a hurry?”
“You just interrupted my conversation with Square.”
“Yes, he’s a Mandeville. Have as little to do with him as you can.” “He thinks well of you.”
“Compared with the people he has to live with?”
“This has something to do with his sister.”
“She nearly skewered me to the floor with a crossbow bolt just now!”
Tom explained, because it was his first time alone with Peter in years and he could do with a bit of brotherly sympathy.
“Can you blame her?”
“Can I have my arm back?”
“No dawdling,” Tom warned him before releasing his hold. “Square has just told me everything about you and his sister,” Peter explained as they stepped from the church porch. “You kissed her when you were at Huntingdon. The result: uproar! Lord Hastings ended up getting involved, you ended up in a cell, Square ended up at a chapel dedicated to King Arthur, and that was how you ended up indentured to the Mandevilles, or you would still be locked up. A woman like that will defend her chastity to the death, so anything you suffer at her hands is all your own fault, Tom, isn’t it! You should never have kissed her.”
“I didn’t kiss her. She kissed me.”
“You don’t fool me with that story.”
“It happens to be the truth.”
“Oh yes, and what about your fiancé, Alice?”
“Alice? What about her?”
“Did she get herself pregnant? Your lechery was to blame for that, and it caused another uproar, didn’t it, because you never married her—you were imprisoned at Middleham Castle—and that was how you ended up indentured to the earl of Warwick, the most untrustworthy man in England, just so you could get yourself out of prison again. But by then it was too late, because she was dead. You might as well have killed her yourself. Really Tom, you should have learned your lesson by now.”
“I suppose there is some similarity,” Tom realised, “except the Mandeville girl isn’t my fiancé, she isn’t pregnant and she certainly isn’t dead. She almost killed me.”
“Lechery is what causes these problems. Acknowledge the sin and then forgiveness can follow.”
Among Peter’s many faults was a sanctimonious streak that might have fitted him for a career in the Church, if he hadn’t squandered all the money Tom had sent abroad for his education. However, nobody is perfect, and Tom was ready for some mutual tolerance.
“Alice was a long time ago.”
“Even a thousand years ago is only a moment in God’s memory. It is our duty to keep ourselves pure in body and in spirit.”
“There are no women in France?”
“If the Lord had wanted us to be lechers, he would have given us the wings of flies.”
“More prude than assassin!” Tom observed.
“More knave than knight!” came the retort.
They continued on in silence for a short time. Peter’s company was usually best enjoyed in silence but they might have few chances to be alone together in the coming days, and some confidential talk was essential. They were hardly alone even now. Easy’s forty-seven sheep were flocking after them, through and around the church, some almost running to catch up. Tom decided to glean important information as soon as possible, while they still enjoyed some privacy.
“Were you acting on your own initiative yesterday,” he asked as he grabbed Peter by the arm again, “or do you have friends here who can be relied on to help us?”
“Yes and No, and No.”
“Quit playing stupid games and just answer the damned question!”
“You asked two questions and I answered them both. Yes and No, I was acting on my own initiative, but No, there is nobody to help us. You are hurting me again, Tom.”
“So, supposing you killed the king yesterday,” Tom responded, tightening his grip some more, “what did you think was going to happen next? Your ascension to Heaven, with choirs of angels singing Hallelujah?”
“I believe it is normal, in acts of courage, not to consider the personal consequences of one’s own actions,” came the noble reply, “but if I had to consider the outcome for me personally, I am certain things would have turned out just as the queen and her entourage said they would during our discussions at Lorraine. Their reasoning was sound, or I would not have agreed to act for them.”
“How did they think your courage would end?”
“Let go of my arm first.”
“Keep talking,” Tom insisted, after releasing his grip once more.
“It is all quite logical, once you accept two premises: first, when a king is assassinated, the assassin must be kept alive for interrogation, and second, another king must replace the dead one as soon as possible, for the sake of good order. Now consider this fact: another king is already available, locked in the Tower. Conclusion: he must be released and returned to the throne. Corollary: I am now a liberator and must be released also. Indeed, if I had to consider the personal consequences, Tom, I might even say I would be mad not to risk everything for such a windfall as would certainly have come my way, if I had assassinated the Yorkist usurper, as indeed I would have done, if you had not interfered yesterday. His Majesty’s gratitude, once released from the Tower, would have been boundless. I am already friends with his son. The prince has been my daily companion in Lorraine these past six years, always urging me to attempt something great. So, even if I had died yesterday, at least I would have done my duty to God and to England, as you yourself acknowledged just now; and if I had succeeded ...”
He left Tom to imagine the life of a successful assassin while they made their way through a mob of beggars, all offering themselves as guides to any visitors heading for London. Tom in particular seemed to catch their attention, maybe because he felt more than ever like a stranger, not just to London but even to his own brother.
“Then this is where all your talent leads, and what all our family’s faith in you has come to at last!” he raged as soon as they had brushed aside the beggars. “Murder! Because that is what assassination amounts to. And killing a man is not like doing sums, you fool. It’s an ugly business even for a proper man-at-arms. You left that out of your logic.”
“No, I gave it a lot of thought. Our Lord is earnest in his commandment not to kill. Then again, it would be spiritual pride to think God always spoke to one personally, so I was prepared to break that particular commandment, in the conviction that He has reserved me for a higher purpose.”
“I am not talking about the ethics of killing, but the practicality of it.”
“Oh that. I am not a complete idiot, Tom. I rehearsed with candlesticks against straw effigies of the king countless times, even before I left Lorraine. And it wasn’t just candlesticks. There are some other bits of furniture that will do just as well, once you get to know them all.”
“You are trying to frighten me,” Tom concluded. “Take my advice: killing is best left to men who have had some experience of it.”
“Men like you.”
“Or the ones following us.”
The Red Knight, Murderer and their company were barging a path through the beggars. Tom indicated them with a nod and Peter’s Italian swarthiness grew pale.
“What do they want?” he wondered. “Do they mean to kill us?”
“They’re just following us for now, but the one out front, with the longbow and stalking manners—his name is Murderer. He’ll put an arrow through your blackened eye from a hundred yards without even trying. His friend with the Red Hand calls himself Red Knight. He’s no knight. He reminds me of myself a few years ago, when I was hungry for glory, except he’s faster, stronger and more skilful than I ever was. The rest of them are just ordinary cut-throats, straight off the shelf.”
“If this is your attempt to frighten me, you have nearly succeeded.”
“You are safe for now,” Tom assured him. “We’ll try to give them the slip in the next few days. Our chances aren’t bad. The archer must be the far side of forty: too long in the tooth to be drawing the longbow. The Red Knight is not much older than you, which is too young to be giving cheek to your elders, you damned ingrate. We can out-run and out-think the pair of them, and all their companions, if we are lucky—if you do as I say.”
“What are your plans?”
“A career in the Church is no longer an option now that you’ve thrown away the education I was paying for. But at least now there is nothing to stop you getting married. A wife might even do you some good, if we can find someone suitable. Meanwhile wealthy households are always looking for teachers and clerks—I know some important families that will give you that chance—and there you can advance yourself little by little, using the brains you were born with.”
“A safe existence,” Peter observed. “But what are your plans for our escape?”
“I’ll let you know when I think of one.”
Arriving at the bridge, Tom paused to gather his nerve for the crossing. The Thames had haunted his dreams and surprised him with unwanted glimpses for too many days now, and he would dearly love to put it behind him forever. Now he must somehow find the courage to cross it at least twice again today and one last time tomorrow. The Heart was no good to him here, so he pulled out the pendant with the river pebbles in it and tried drawing strength from that.
“The Beast of Ferrybridge still terrified of water!” Peter marvelled.
“Everything terrifies me, Peter. That’s what has made me the Beast of Ferrybridge.”
“I almost drowned in the Wharfe too, you know, but you don’t see me cowering like you do at every puddle you come to. Have faith in God, Tom, and then everything else follows naturally.”
“Do you know what your worst fault is, Peter?”
“For a man of such little faith as you? My faith!”
“It is your damned cheerfulness, and maybe that’s the same thing. It makes you brave when you shouldn’t be, and it leaves you blind to human frailty, your own and everyone else’s. All your lessons were learned from books, so of course you never grew up. Until you do, you are a burden I must simply bear as best I can.”
Having got that off his chest, Tom felt ready to cross the Thames. He put the pendant away and led his brother into the great tide of bodies streaming in and out of the city. Arriving at the other side, it was Peter’s turn to lead, since he knew the shortest way to Signor Whatever’s apartment. It happened to be in Cripplegate, the same ward where Tom and Easy had lodged.
“No wonder I had trouble recognising you!” Tom said as he followed Peter into a narrow lane, meanwhile admiring his broad shoulders. “You look like a man these days.”
“You mean my moustache,” Peter supposed, speaking over his shoulder. “My Italian was never good enough to fool real Italians, so it was decided I should be half Italian on my mother’s side, and half Spanish-Sicilian on my father’s.”
“That explains the dark complexion.”
“No, I only dyed my skin and hair when I arrived in England, after somebody recognised me up in Lincolnshire.”
“I heard about that. An old acquaintance of mine: Midge Mason. He remembered you from Bamburg Castle, though he didn’t say anything about a moustache, or the extra muscles either.”
“The exiles put me to work in the gardens around their chateaux, growing food,” Peter explained over his other shoulder. They are poor in everything but noble resolve.”
“Watch where you’re going or you’ll trip over your own feet. But can you un-dye your skin and hair in a hurry?”
“You are thinking about our escape,” Peter concluded. “I used tanner’s dye for my skin, and that doesn’t come out even with a good scrub, though it will fade in time. My hair is treated with crushed charcoal and resin, diluted with cider, and that should come out with a wash, though I haven’t tried it yet.”
“Don’t wash till I say.”
Tom took the opportunity to glance back over his shoulder. The Red Knight had quickened his stride so as to reach the lane ahead of Murderer. Obstructing an archer is the sort of mistake trained warriors never make yet it was typical of this braggart’s swaggering self-confidence. Tom wondered if it could be significant, or if he was just clutching at straws.
The lane opened onto the cobbles of a handsome square, where locals loitered and played Saturday games. It was here that Signor Whatever had his second-floor apartment. He was at home but he refused to unlock the door. Tom banged on it with his good fist and shouted through the keyhole, advising him that he had come for Peter’s belongings, Peter’s wages and Farthings’ rent. If these weren’t soon forthcoming, he would personally take Signor Whatever’s door and insert it up his Venetian gondola, if he had one. Whatever replied through the door that he wasn’t a Venetian, and Tom assured him that he would soon turn him into one, if he delayed much longer. He then returned downstairs with Peter, giving the dance master time to collect all the said items, while they watched the windows to prevent his escape. They had not been waiting in the street long when some shutters were flung open and Whatever stuck his head out.
“Hey Pietro!” he called down. “You wanna your things? Then-a catch!”
Items of clothing began wafting out the window, and coins dropped like hailstones. Peter rushed to claim his clothes and Tom hurried to the money. They were too slow for one bold thief, who snatched a cloak out of the air and plucked some coins from the cobbles before haring off towards the lane, almost blocked by Murderer, Red Knight and their men.
“Holla thief!” Tom shouted, raising the hue and cry.
“Holla thief!” the neighbourhood immediately resounded, whereupon two bystanders attempted pursuit.
Tom had supposed there could be no brazen thieves in London, only sneaking ones, because the hue and cry in a city this big should have made escape nearly impossible. This brazen thief however had two things in his favour. One was the Red Knight, Murderer and their men, all laughing too heartily to prevent him slipping through their ranks, and the other was Tom’s dog. Wakefield nipped and darted at the heels of the two pursuers. The thief got clean away but the men chasing him were sent sprawling over the cobbles, before Wakefield finally returned to Tom, wagging his tail.
“An unusual dog,” Peter observed.
“He used to belong to a poacher,” Tom recalled.
“Trained to stop lawful pursuit! How quaint. Except he has cost me a good cloak and some money too.”
“It could cost us a lot more if we don’t get moving,” Tom added, because Wakefield’s antics had aroused the neighbourhood’s resentment and suspicion, with dark looks multiplying on all sides. “But what’s the matter, Peter?”
Peter was turning surprisingly pale again.
“There was a letter of introduction sewn in the cloak,” he whispered. “I was to present it to anyone I thought could assist me in my mission.”
“Is your name on either of them?”
“No, but the exiled queen signed the letter.”
“Then you are better off without it.”