‘‘But They’ve Got Guns’’
A short story
‘‘Beg pardon, me lord.’’
Sir Giles Fitz Warren was a tall, narrow man with a tall, narrow face from which his hawk-like nose jutted aggressively. Apart from an old sword-slash to his upper lip that he had long ago grown a moustache to hide, his rather sallow face was quite free of the tracery of battle-scars that disfigured the faces of so many of his generation. His wiry mop of black hair needed cutting and flopped over his eyes when he moved. There was a scattering of grey appearing at the sides, something his wife viewed with a certain wryness.
He looked up wearily from the sheet of closely written vellum of which he was trying to make sense. All about him, the big oak table was covered in rolls and sheets of the stuff, piled in untidy heaps. Some were dusty and rather dog-eared, others tied with bits of woollen thread of different colours into dishevelled cylinders. Hovering around him, hands filled with yet more of the things was Alcquin, his clerk.
It was fast approaching the quarter day and Giles had no wish to repeat the rather unpleasant time he’d spent before Christmas when the king’s tax inspector arrived to find him dozing with his feet in the fire place and a puppy up his sleeve.
‘‘What is it now?’’
‘‘Peter the Piss-Taker is in the courtyard me lord. He’s brought the saltpetre to offer you as custom requires.’’
Giles was tempted to tell Peter the Piss-Taker to take a long walk off a short branch, but perhaps he’d better see him. It was a damned sight more expensive to buy saltpetre outside the estate than off Peter’s cart.
‘‘Right. Send him straight in.’’ He turned to Alcquin. ‘‘This will only take a moment: slide off and get me a swift half of ale, there’s a good fellow.’’
A strong smell of ancient urine announced the impending arrival of Peter, his familiar nail-shod boots loud on the stone flags of the corridor. But here was a new Peter, resplendent in bright red hose, a blue - blue, for God’s sake - tunic and a bright green cloak that swirled about him expensively. The glaring ensemble was topped off with an orange broad-brimmed floppy felt hat that sat uneasily on top of his ears - and it wasn’t him that smelled of urine, either. A shifty looking man preceded Peter, glancing appraisingly about him. You could almost hear him counting, assessing the market value of everything in sight. All he lacked was a scaly tail as he bore a striking resemblance to a rather underweight rat. Giles took an instant dislike to him.
It was this fellow that emitted the rank odour that wafted around looking for noses, as he scribbled on a wax-board with a scriber. A clerk, eh? Things must be looking up in the piss-taking department.
‘‘Good morning, Sir Giles. I come to offer you the saltpetre I’ve collected from your estate’s piss-corners as custom requires - at the going rate, of course.’’
’’ ‘Morning, Piss-Taker. You must have had a good season, one might even hear you coming now’’ but the dry humour was wasted on him.
Alcquin reappeared with the ale, a delicate line of froth decorating his top lip.
Giles ignored it. ‘‘What was the going rate for a cart load of saltpetre last season, Alcquin?’’
The clerk stared for a moment at the glowing figure below them and blinked twice.
‘‘Um, six pence, Sir Giles. Allowing for tax at source and a quarter’s inflation, seven pence should do it.’’
Peter looked at his spotless nails and shook his head, smiling.
‘‘Sorry, my lord: the custom is the going rate and the going rate has gone up.’’
An odour of rodent overbore the smell of pee: no mean feat, either. The clerk smiled, exposing blackened stumps of teeth.
‘‘Well, well, what a surprise. New clothes must come from somewhere after all. Come along then, tell me the bad news.’’
‘‘Fifty silver pence for a cart load now, Sir Giles - it’s the arms dealers, you see.’’
‘‘That’s it, Sir Giles. I’d be slitting me own purse to take less.’’ The smile was actually insolent and Giles mastered an urge to wipe it off with the back of his hand.
‘‘Fifty is beyond all reason - hang on, did you say arms dealers?’’
‘‘Certainly did, me lord. They can’t get enough of it. Saltpetre, sulphur and hard-wood charcoal. They’ll pay you just about anything you want to ask down at Flaesher & Wulf Powder Mill Lane. One of the reps actually came from the main factory to see me at the old cottage a few months ago. Brought a flagon of the good stuff and a vellum for me to make me mark on.’’ Peter looked cunning. ‘‘But my uncle Jack over Redmar way is in the trade too and I’d been told already. Anyway, not being able to read tiny writing like what was writ on it, I got the priest to read it for me. It’s a good job he’s a real old fashioned scholar, it being in Greek an’ all.’’
‘‘Aye. Brother John said he’d never seen anything like it since he was at University in Ashcans’’.
‘‘Ashcans. Where the University is that Brother John went to.’’
‘‘Ah. I think it might be Athens that he went to - ah, that he attended.’’
Peter sniffed and looked doubtful. ‘‘Right. Anyway, he said not to sign it, so it’s mine to sell. Do you want this cart load of piss-crystals, or do I have to make a run north to the factory tomorrow?’’
Alcquin breathed in Sir Giles’ ear. ‘‘We don’t really need it my lord. We have plenty of horse dung.’’
Giles nodded brusquely. ‘‘On your way, Piss-Taker. If you can make fifty bloody pence a load for a two-day walk, I’d do it while you have feet that will bear you.’’
The implied threat was more for form’s sake than anything else, but it had the desired effect and the cocky smile faded, the feet reversing smartly out of the door as it did so. Ratty the Clerk was totally under-impressed as he made a note, nodded to Sir Giles, turned his back and walked away. Behind Giles a spear leaned against the wall and the temptation to pin the cheeky bastard to the wall with it was very hard to resist.
‘‘God’s tits, Alcquin, fifty bloody pence a load! Next thing we know it’ll be hard to buy charcoal.’’
‘‘It already is, Sir Giles. I had the smith whining at me this very morning that he couldn’t find enough to smelt iron and he had to buy it in. Most of that was brown-ends.’’
The big oak chair scraped backwards. ‘‘I’ve had enough of this. ROBERT!’’
After a moment a fresh-faced young squire appeared. Sir Giles noted that he was nowhere near as well dressed as the Piss-Taker, a sign of the times if ever there was one.
‘‘Saddle my horse and one for yourself. Get ten grim-looking men into war-gear and mounted. I’ll see you at the castle gate as soon as I’ve armed up.’’
The rising spire of the smouldering ash-wood could be seen a great way off as it rose vertically into the still air. When Sir Giles came into the clearing, he was unexpected and unannounced as all the charcoal burners were busy building a new clamp, watchfully prowling around the burn that was in progress, clearing last night’s produce from another or bagging up from the pile. Never in his life had he seen charcoal burners actually working purposefully, it being much more common to find them drunk and their sole clamp a collapsed pile of burnt ends with ash in the middle. But this had been a good burn, attended to by attentive, sober, wakeful men. There must be nigh on a ton of it in the clearing and it was good stuff too, big black lumpy bits, not the poor thin brown stuff they normally brought to the castle. This was the combined efforts of many men over long days and nights. Giles smiled - it was all his, too.
Robert coughed twice before the first man looked up, his widening eyes taking in the mailed men and the glint of weapons.
Giles leaned off his horse and looked into the stolid face below him. His voice was quiet and friendly, oil dripping from his tongue as venom might from an Adder’s fangs.
‘‘Godwin. Nice to see you hard at it. And my smith said he was having trouble getting charcoal - very good of you to react to market forces so swiftly. I can expect it at the castle tomorrow, yes?’’
Godwin shifted his feet and admired them.
‘‘Well, um, actually, my Lord, this lot’s going to the ....’’
‘‘To the arms dealers down at Flaesher & Wulf in Powder Mill Lane perhaps?’’ The voice was calm, but Godwin wasn’t fooled. He’d served with Sir Giles in the Marches and his father before him. This was not a man to cross idly, a man well known to dislike guns, things that went bang, the smell of gunsmoke and the whole impedimenta of modern warfare.
‘‘Well, um, actually ........’’
‘‘You said that.’’
Godwin looked from left to right, but there was no escaping his lord’s stare. ‘‘You see, Sir Giles, they’ve paid for this lot in advance, so I shall have to deliver it to them, shan’t I?’’
‘‘No, Godwin, you will not have to deliver it to them, for, do you see, it’s my charcoal.’’
‘‘But my lord!......’’
‘‘But me no buts, Godwin, just answer the following questions with a simple yes or no.’’ Robert waved his arm and the grim-faced men dismounted and spread out across the clearing.
‘‘Is this my woodland?’’
‘‘Yes, but ......’’
Giles shifted in his saddle and hitched his sword around a little. ‘‘Now you’ll recall I said no buts, Right? Right. Do you work for me?’’
Godwin could see the way this was all going and there was absolutely sod all he could do about it. He looked truculent.
‘‘So, just to recap, all this woodland belongs to me, you work for me and owe me service and fealty?’’
‘‘So, working in my time, you’ve cut down my ash-tree coppice with axes that I supplied and turned it into charcoal in clamps made from soil and clay that also belong me.’’ Giles sat upright and grinned cheerfully around him. This was going better than he had expected.
‘‘I think that any reasonable man would say that, given the circumstances, it was my bloody charcoal, wouldn’t you, Godwin?’’
A tow-headed young man appeared at Godwin’s elbow. His son, Giles recalled.
‘‘Look, my lord, my father is allowed to cut lumber in the common wood ......’’
‘‘Yes, lad. For his own use.’’
‘‘No, my lord, without disrespect, not necessarily for his own use. The custom is’’ (Giles could hear the quotes in his voice) ‘‘'To Do With As He Will.' Godwin has cut the wood as allowed to him and turned it into charcoal. This he has sold to the arms dealers Flaesher & Wulf in Powder Mill Lane.’’
‘‘Edwin isn’t it? Very well Edwin, as you correctly say, your father has the right to cut timber in my wood to do with as he will.’’ He turned to Godwin. ‘‘How much Godwin? How much wood can you rightly take?’’
The burly charcoal-burner sighed. ‘‘One cart-load per year my lord, although you have never seen fit to limit me before.’’
‘‘No, Godwin, I’ve not - but never before have you cleared nearly a hide of coppice and turned it into charcoal in a week! By the beard of Christ, Godwin, I can see Penny Hassett through the trees, and I’ve not seen it from here since my grandfather’s day. What do you take me for, a damned fool?’’ He was into his stride now and his voice had risen steadily in volume as he spoke. A faint echo faded into a very heavy silence.
‘‘No, my lord, of course not.’’ Godwin looked nervous, Edwin was looking about him for a gap to bolt through and the blood had drained from all the grubby faces around him. The grim-faced men loomed over the civilians in a satisfactory way.
Giles was enjoying this. He was tempted to indulge in a bit of good old fashioned repression, trump up some charge and sling them all in his donjon to contemplate their navels. But soon or late the Shire Reeve would turn up with a terse letter from the king and he’d have to turn them all loose again. Time to be nice again.
‘‘Right, here’s what we’ll do. It’s late in the day now, but tomorrow, before the sun has risen fully, you will bring all this charcoal - all of it, mark you - to the castle. There I will choose what I want and you shall have a brimming cartload To Do With As You Will, as Edwin put it. Right?’’
Godwin brightened. It would not satisfy the arms dealers, but they were keen to be friendly and might give him a week or two to fulfil the rest of the order. With Sir Giles back in his castle, many things were possible.
‘‘Thank you, Sir Giles, that is very fair, your father would be proud of you.’’
Giles smiled wryly. ‘‘My father, Godwin, would have hung you up by your thumbs over that smouldering clamp over there - or possibly by some of your more delicate bits - but I’m a reasonable man. I’ll see you around first light.’’ He turned to Robert. ‘‘The workers here must be tired. Detail three of the men to remain here overnight so that they can sleep. Charcoal is a valuable commodity these days and we wouldn’t want some miserable bastard to sneak in here overnight and steal any, would we?’’
Alquin met his lord in the courtyard as he clattered in.
‘‘How did it go, Sir Giles?’’
‘‘Pretty good, I’d say. Old Godwin has cleared the greater part of a hide of coppice and produced some of the best charcoal I’ve seen in ages.’’
‘‘What, on his own?’’
Giles walked across to the smithy, taking off his riding gloves. ‘‘Christ no. There must be fifteen men hard at it down there. He must have hired them in from somewhere. Anyway, he couldn’t say a lot as I’d caught him at it. He’s bringing it all here tomorrow at sun-up.’’
‘‘Really? All of it?’’
‘‘I left him some grim-faces to help him. They’ll be even grimmer after a sleepless night in the woods with no cover.’’
It was gloomy in the smithy and they walked through to the little yard behind. The smith was in the act of moving his anvil stand, a huge section of oak tree about four feet high and the same wide. He held it high in his arms, his face concealed.
‘‘Ah, John, just the man. You’ve had to buy in some charcoal I hear and it was not all that one might desire?’’
John peered at his lord around his bit of tree, but made no attempt to put it down. ‘‘Yar. Brown-ends is all. I’d ‘ave ‘em, I would.’’
‘‘Hmmmm, no doubt you would. Get it all onto a cart, clear out every bit of dust and scrap and pile it on. Make sure the best bits are on top, brown-ends downward. Have it ready to move out of the gate at sunrise. Yes?’’
The slow wheels turned in John’s brain and the three men stood silent. ‘‘What, all of it?’’
Giles sighed to himself, another uphill struggle against a rising tide of dull stupidity. ‘‘Every scrap. You will need all the space you can find to put the new load in that will arrive just after first light. Right?’’
John’s brow wrinkled and the tree-stump shifted in his arms. ‘‘Everything?’’
‘‘Just the charcoal, John, just the charcoal.’’
Pause. ‘‘By sunrise?’’
The massive head nodded slowly, the furrow vanishing.
‘‘Just the charcoal, but all of it. Right you are, Sir Giles, by sunrise.’’
Giles grinned at his clerk. ‘‘Let’s see how the arms dealers like brown-ends for a change.’’
Bronwyn was fighting with her husband’s boots. They were pretty, but too damned tight and a swine to get off.
‘‘I’m not sure this is a good idea, Giles, these arms dealers have powerful friends.’’
He twisted and turned in his chair, the boot slowly coming off. ‘‘So have I. I’m lord of this manor and I’ll make sure they know it. Damned cheek, suborning my people, pushing up the price of saltpetre - and for what? To make bloody gunpowder, that’s what.’’ The last boot came off with a slight plop and Bronwyn sat down with a thump. Her husband massaged his feet, the room filling with the smell of ripe cheese.
‘‘Why in God’s name anyone wants guns I shall never understand. It takes tons of iron to make one, skilled men bashing out strips of the stuff with water-hammers, binding them together with yet more valuable iron. Massive oaks are cut down to make carriages, tens upon tens of men to drag them about the country side, ships are made ungainly so they can get them across to France, more bloody dragging through the mud and special supply lines set up just to make sure the powder and shot can reach them.’’
Bronwyn sighed to herself. Here we go again, why couldn’t she keep her big mouth shut?
‘‘And for what? Six out of ten guns blow up in the first week of use, usually killing their crews. They’ve got a range of about thirty paces and do they hit what you point them at? Do they buggery!’’
Warming to his theme, the frustrated Sir Giles started striding about the solar in his bare feet, waving his arms.
‘‘And all this time we have the bow and arrow, a springy stick and a piece of string that will fling another iron-shod stick TWO HUNDRED paces with the most devastating accuracy and kill eleven men a minute. I just don’t get it. What the Hell is wrong with everybody? It’s not as though it’s all rumour after all, I’ve seen it myself, Bronwyn. Last year our archers stood on a French hill and put down twenty-eight arrows in every square yard. There were French bodies piled higher than a man and what did the Captain of Archers come up to me and say?’’
She nodded wisely. He wouldn’t stop now until he’d finished.
‘‘I’ll tell you what he said. Grinning all over his face, he was, like a bloody kid on a treat. ‘‘We’ve captured their guns, my lord, all seven of them and the powder and shot, too. Now we’ve got guns.’’ ’’ He shook his head, anguish in his face.
‘‘Three hundred archers shoot down four thousand Frenchmen, all of whom are armed to the teeth and have seven well-served and supplied guns. Does that say anything to you? It damn well did to me! The Captain of Archers looked at me as though I’d taken leave of my senses when I told him to stuff all the powder into the guns and blow the lot sky-high. He was all for taking them with us and training his men to use them for God’s sake!’’
Giles wrung his hands behind his back, his pacing growing more agitated. ‘‘I pointed out to him that our archers could shoot TEN TIMES further than the best gun, that it took eleven men to use one, all of whom could be shot down by just one of our average archers before they could even reload the bloody thing. He had nothing to say to that, looked at his feet and eventually said that if they had guns, then we should have them too! They just will not see it. Why, Bronwyn? Why do they all want guns?’’
Bronwyn had had just about enough of this. Barely an evening went by without the same tirade. She rounded on him.
‘‘Because, my love, they are big children. The French have got guns, so the English have to have them. The Burgundians have guns, so the Swiss have to have them as well. Have you heard the men talking about the campaign last year? I have. What do they talk about? The mud? The dysentery? The foot-rot? How many of them lie rotting in holes in French fields? No. They laugh excitedly and rattle on about how they got to fire a French gun, the flash and the bang and the smell of the powder smoke. And these damned arms dealers play up to them, letting them bang away with little ones on the practice range behind the Flaesher & Wulf Powder Mill. The archery’s gone to crap during the winter because they don’t practice as they should, but keep sneaking off to play with guns because it’s more fun.’’
She shook her head, her red hair catching the last rays of the setting sun.
‘‘I agree with you, but, dearest husband, bending my ear about it as the sun sets each day will not help. You must go to the king and convince him to stop all this nonsense. If ever there was a dyed-in-the-wool archer, it’s our beloved liege lord.’’
Sir Giles looked at her aghast and squeaked ‘‘What, me? Go to the king?’’
‘‘Yes. Who more eloquent than a believer?’’
Giles was cornered. He knew she was right but somehow did not fancy telling the king his business. Many men had tried it and many men had met interesting and inventive ends. He shifted his feet and his mouth moved but no sound came out.
‘‘So. Will you go tomorrow?’’
He shook his head. ‘‘No, not tomorrow. I want to see old Godwin’s face when I send him away with a cart-load of scrappy charcoal to destined for Flaesher & Wulf of Powder Mill Lane. They’ll not be happy, oh dear me, no.’’ He laughed at the thought.
‘‘But you are right, I must go to the King and see if we can’t stop this business. He’s the one that makes the law, after all.’’
‘‘When, dearest husband, when will you go to the King?’’
Giles raised his arms in an expansive gesture. He looked slow and easy, rubbing his eyes and yawning to heighten the effect. He was killing time as he thought, his mind racing.
Bronwyn was not fooled and they both knew it. He must come up with a convincing reason - and quickly. Something that was irrefutable and of completely unassailable logic. Something that would mean that someone (anyone!) other than himself had to go to the King and try to persuade him that guns were not a good idea. But as his mind turned the thought over, a nagging voice spoke in his inner ear. Not, perhaps, the Light on the Damascus Road, but certainly a lamp in a dark corner. Damn.
Bronwyn smiled to herself and picked up her embroidery. How he did struggle poor man, his face giving away everything, lips moving slightly, his eyes unfocusing and focusing. In the end, he would come up with a solution of interminable complexity, a sound and excellent reason why he should not travel to the Court, why he should not put himself in the way of a bit of unpleasantness. It was rather like the time a year or so ago that he was fooling around with one of her maids. Giles was not good at deceit and thought up ever more complex reasons why he should not be available at a particular time, eyes wandering, mouth gasping, brain lumbering to remember what he’d said last week.
Bronwyn did not really care if Giles scattered his seed about like a sower in spring. The murmur was that the surrounding countryside was littered with his bastards, some nearly her age. She had what she wanted, wealth, power, responsibility and an unassailable social position. If her husband wanted to fumble this maid or that and lie down in the bracken on a summer’s afternoon with another man’s wife, it did not disturb her at all. She was not of a particularly libidinous nature herself, but knew that others were. Good luck to them, let them grunt sweatily at each other if it pleased them. Giles was speaking.
’’ ............. and so when I’ve seen Godwin off, I’ll put a retinue together. I can’t see that I’ll be able to be away before noon, but it’s only just after midsummer, so we should be able to make the abbey at Littleton by dusk. Perhaps you’d like to see that the right clothes are packed for me to wear at court. Nothing flashy, Bronwyn, please.’’
She kept her face down to hide the climbing eyebrows. Well! He was capable of surprising her still. Looking up, she cut her wool off short on her broken tooth.
‘‘So you’re going, then?’’
Giles sighed and scratched at himself. ‘‘Yes. I cannot avoid my duty and it is past time that someone spoke to him frankly.’’
Bronwyn nodded thoughtfully. Duty. That was it, then. If he thought it was his duty, nothing would stop him but death itself, why had she not thought of it? Ah, well. Better perhaps that he’d thought of it himself.
‘‘Certainly, my dear. I’ll see to it now.’’
The outer bailey was full of purposeful movement in the pre-dawn light, men in travelling clothes putting boxes and sacks on horses, giving each other orders, women running about with high pitched shouts, children underfoot for the fun of it.
It was into this confusion that the wagons laden with charcoal came, an hour’s solemn walk from the coppice. The grim-faces sighed to themselves, got some food down and tried to avoid helping as much as possible.
Godwin was bewildered. He thought Robert and a sleepy Sir Giles might meet him, but he had not been prepared for a sharp-set Robert, Giles and John the Smith to fall upon him as he actually emerged from the gatehouse. A small crowd of grumpy men, ordered to stay in the castle overnight so that they would be on hand in the morning, jumped to their feet and started to swiftly unload the carts.
Godwin pulled one of them to one side.
‘‘What’s going on? What’s the rush?’’
‘‘Let me go, Godwin. The sooner we’ve got this lot into store, the sooner we can get off home. I’ve lain on straw this night and on short commons, too. I’m not a happy stoat.’’
‘‘I can see that, but what’s all the commotion?’’
‘‘Dunno. Not a clue, but I understand Sir Giles is off to court.’’
‘‘Court? What, as in king? When?’’
He pulled himself out of Godwin’s grasp. ‘‘How the Hell should I know? He’s your Lord too, why not bloody ask him?’’
Sir Giles appeared out of the gloom. He was dressed for travelling, boots to his ears and gauntlets to his elbows.
‘‘Godwin. Glad you could make it. This is all of it then, Every last scrap?’’
Godwin made a face in the grey light. ‘‘Yes, Sir Giles, the clearing is as empty of charcoal as it was - was - ’’ he was lost for a simile, but Giles found him one.
‘‘As empty of charcoal as it used to be before charcoal got pricey?’’ Godwin had the grace to look uncomfortable and stayed silent.
‘‘Anyway, I’ll not detain you Godwin, I’m sure you’ve got another clamp going in an out of the way spot and we mustn’t let it flare up, must we?’’ He waved away Godwin’s protests and led him round a corner. ‘‘Here is the cartload of charcoal I promised you. As you see, it is all loaded up and ready to travel and I’d like you to note that I’ve done more than I said, as it is actually piled high and not a flat load.’’
Godwin was not a suspicious man by nature, but the readiness of the load, Sir Giles’ oily good humour at such an ungodly time of the morning all set his mind racing.
‘‘Ah, um, might I ask, well, um ........... ’’
‘‘Where it came from? Certainly, Godwin. This is 'Bought In' charcoal, purchased by Alcquin at a ridiculous price when we were getting low. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, myself. I prefer to burn my own crop where I can and now you have been so good as to provide me with such a quantity of the very best that skilled men can produce, I felt it would be churlish to send some of it off to the arms dealers. So they can have the Bought In stuff, isn’t that a nice thought.’’
Godwin opened his mouth, but Giles was before him, his hand insistently leading him along by the elbow.
‘‘No, I won’t hear a word of it, I can understand your reticence that the arms dealer’s getting a load of the excellent Bought In stuff we’ve been using here and I thank you kindly for your concern, but I insist.’’ He raised his flat hand. ‘‘Not another word, Godwin, shift the team to this cart and you’d better be off. It’s not far to Flaesher & Wulf of Powder Mill Lane and you might well be first in the queue if you hurry. Can you find your way in this dim light?’’
Godwin and Sir Giles stared at each other in the growing morning. Sir Giles had won. He’d made no concessions, sought his pot to its bottom and got it, roasting Godwin to a nice shade of brown in the process. The last cart through the gate had the best stuff on it and he’d thought to turn it round and go again, but he’d been out-manoeuvred. No doubt the cart load of 'Bought In' stuff was crappy and full of brown ends, but at least Sir Giles was offering him a gentleman’s way out. If he could get this load down to the arms dealers as fast as he could whip the team along, there was some chance he’d be able to get it past them. He grinned despite himself.
‘‘Alright, Sir Giles. No-one could say it wasn’t just. I’ll be off then.’’ He waved his arm. ‘‘What’s all the commotion?’’
‘‘I’m off to court today, I thought you knew. It’s been arranged for weeks. That’s why I wanted the carts here early, so that I could see to you before I went. And now I have.’’ And he grinned too, perhaps a little wolfishly.
Godwin nodded, still smiling wryly and started to unhitch the team. ‘‘Go with God, Sir Giles. Steer clear of foreign women.’’
‘‘Why, Godwin, I can’t imagine what you mean, I’m a married man.’’
Sir Giles reined in the big bay stallion, a deep sense of foreboding filling his soul. Last time he’d been at court - what, a year ago? - the buildings had been tinted with the worn golden patina of passing centuries. Cared for, mended, added to, extended - but rather old and comfortable. Now, it was hardly recognisable.
Perhaps half the palace had been swept away, new foundations dug and brash new sandstone walls climbed in amongst the spider-web of scaffolding. There were men everywhere, hundreds of them and all of them working like the very Devil. Huge barges formed an orderly parade down the river as far as the eye could see, some loaded with more stone blocks, more wood for more scaffolding and more harsh red tiles for the spreading roof. Groups of well-dressed men with a foreign air were in earnest conversation, arms pointing and waving, their odd felt hats stuck on the back of their heads. Thick-set competent masons oversaw gangs of men moving, cutting and slicing stone.
Robert spoke first.
‘‘Someone’s got a lot of money to fling about, Sir Giles.’’
‘‘Yes. And I can just imagine who. He’s been got at.’’
‘‘What will you do?’’
‘‘Shame him if I can, blame him if I must. Pro bono publico, Robert.’’
Robert looked dubious.
‘‘You’ve got to get in to see him first.’’
Actually, getting to see the king wasn’t much of a problem as it turned out. The old boy was getting desperate to see a face he could put a name to, as the court seemed full of people that he didn’t know. Each morning, his oily retainer would put out fresh clothes, see to his needs, splash perfume all over him, oversee his dressers and wheel him out into the public rooms. A fanfare of trumpets would blow, the retiring curtain would fall away - and there were a whole new lot of over-dressed visitors for him to meet.
True, it was gratifying that they were all so keen to thrust ever greater sums into his hands as they grinned and bobbed at him. His chancellor would mutter a name and title into his ear and away they went, reversing away from him towards the back of the room.
As he was a hereditary Marcher Lord, Giles had a right to enter the court. Several minions - each in turn somewhat better dressed than Sir Giles - tried to be obstructive, but when Robert ran through his names and titles they became thoughtful and started to smile a lot. Eventually, they joined the press of men in the main room.
‘‘The king was receiving’’ they were told, and ‘‘it might be possible to speak with him towards the end of the day’’.
Fitz Warren stood with Robert somewhat to one side, feeling rather shabby and provincial amidst all the splendour of gold and velvet. An eddy in the moving throng pushed him into a sunbeam slanting into the room, and, being underdressed and a head taller than most men there, the king noticed him.
‘‘William, that tall man by the window, surely that’s Giles Fitz Warren?’’
His chancellor stopped in mid flow and stared where the king pointed.
‘‘Yes, my lord, I believe you are right. Now, the Earl of Derby wishes ...........’’
‘‘Bring Fitz Warren over here, will you Eustace?’’
The Earl of Derby gazed obligingly about him, but as he needed steps to put on riding boots, so to speak, he was at a disadvantage.
‘‘Here, lad, come up here. There, in the light from the window. He’s dressed rather severely, tall with an old fashioned hair-cut. See him?’’
‘‘Uh, yes, my lord king.’’
‘‘Good. Go and bring him here, there’s a good fellow.’’
The chancellor kept a straight face, but his eyes rolled slowly towards the vivid ceiling. How in God’s name would he fit everybody in now, the whole schedule was thrown out. He avoided the eye of the next in the line, but he could feel the glare from under the heavy brow from here. A thin line of sweat appeared on his carefully powdered brow, at this rate people would want their presents back.
‘‘It is you! Sir Giles Fitz Warren. Well, well, it’s been a few years, Giles, how nice to see you at court. What brings you all this way?’’
Giles remained upon his knee as none had told him to rise and this particular courtesy was not lost upon the king. It had become the custom to bob up and down as the chancellor rattled out the name, title, business and muttered the required response in the king’s right ear and the king was rather touched by this old-fashioned display.
‘‘Get up, do, Giles, we are both too old to be kneeling about for long. Now, how is Bronwyn?’’
He clearly remembered the darkly pretty Welsh girl with the flashing eyes that Giles had so proudly presented to him - what, twenty years ago? God’s teeth, where did the time go?
‘‘She is well, my liege, and sends her best love and submissions to you.’’
The conversation and reminiscence drifted on for a while as the line gained in length, men joining the back of the queue at the time appointed to them, even though it no longer moved. Before half an hour had elapsed, the big room of studiously arranged disorder had reformed into a snake of men in a rather obvious queue. Aristocrats - particularly rich, arrogant aristocrats that had seen a lot of military service, long used to getting their own way without question - do not take kindly to the democratic ideal of the queue. They were also constrained by the fact that they must not show their back to their king, so they all faced the same way.
It became difficult to decide just who followed whom and an edgy silence fell, each looking sidelong at his nearest neighbour.
Suddenly the king noticed and looked up.
‘‘What, nothing to say to each other? That makes a change! I think it’s time for a break. We’ll resume after lunch, see to it, William.’’
He rose and came down the three steps to the level of more ordinary mortals, gripped Giles’ elbow with his bony hand and swept the two of them through the parting, bowing throng. He didn’t look back, so he never saw the sweat-streaked ashy face of his chancellor as every eye fell upon him.
Henry cast off his heavy robe of state and flung it into a chair. It landed with a heavy thud and the chair moved a little on the beeswaxed floor: the crown followed it.
‘‘God, that’s better, I hate audience days, I never see a friendly face.’’ He looked at Giles for a moment.
‘‘There must be some pressing reason to drag you out of the Border country that you love so. Is Belaime encroaching on your land again?’’
‘‘No, my lord king, nothing so simple.’’ He admired his old fashioned court shoes while he looked for the right words, but there didn’t seem to be any.
Henry glanced at the servants and the guards. This might be important news of a conspiracy or something.
‘‘Clear the room, out, all of you. I wish to be alone with Sir Giles.’’
An aging courtier apologetically removed Giles’ sword and dagger, leaving him feeling curiously lopsided. The heavy oak doors closed softly behind the last face.
‘‘Now. What is it?’’
‘‘You will not like it my liege, but I have come to tell you of my great distress at the way things are going in England.’’
I was right, thought Henry, it’s conspiracy. His heart thumped in his chest and his stomach sank. All his life he had feared it and now it was here, the stiffening of the face after the poisoned cup, the terrible pain of the knife in the darkened room, the gush of life’s blood following the speeding arrow. He shivered and looked at the doors.
‘‘Who is it? Derby? My brother? Who? You will want for nothing, I promise.’’
Long away from court, Giles had forgotten the paranoia of kingship and looked at Henry with amazement.
‘‘What? .......’’ Then realisation came and he laughed aloud.
Henry drew his court sword, heavy and unhandy with gold and jewels. It was worse than he’d feared if this man he’d judged to be an old friend openly laughed at his impending death.
The sunlight glistered off the gleaming steel, stopping the laugh in Giles’ throat. He fell to his knees, his face aghast as fear gave him the courage to be frank.
‘‘No, my liege, you misunderstand, I came to try to make you stop buying guns. All this bribery and corruption is ruining England. The price of piss-crystals, sulphur and charcoal are getting beyond the reach of ordinary men, archery is going to hell in a bucket of pig-shit and we are loosing our grip of England’s finances. I beg you my lord king, if you value me as an honest man, stop these arms dealers before they own us all.’’
Henry stared. This was it? Giles’ eyes never wavered from his and there was nothing in that lined face but honesty, fear and earnest duty. He put his sword away, a thin trickle of sweat running between his shoulder blades. To hide the fact that he was shaken, he turned away and poured them both a cup of wine.
‘‘Get up, Giles, it doesn’t suit you, grovelling.’’ He held out the silver cup, his hand remarkably steady, considering.
He shook his head slowly and walked over to the window.
‘‘It can’t be done, Giles. I tried it a few years ago before it got as bad as this. I refused to commission any more guns, attempted to buy up the few that came back from France that year and looked at ways of getting more bows into our archer’s hands.’’
He sipped reflectively from his cup. ‘‘I nearly had a revolt on my hands within weeks. Suddenly, the court was full of Barons, Dukes and Earls all clamouring for guns. 'Progress', they all said, 'you can’t stop it. If we are not munitions literate by the end of the decade, then where will we be?'
‘‘I’ll tell you where’’, says Norfolk, ‘‘I’ll tell you where. At the bottom of the international heap, that’s where. If they’ve got guns, then we have to have them too.’’ And this was in open Privy Council, too.’’
He grimaced and poured himself and Giles some more wine.
‘‘I did my best, Giles, but when it came down to it, I was helpless. Perhaps if we’d all realised years ago, it might have been different.’’ He laughed to himself. ‘‘Do you remember that French gun we saw go up? That monstrous great thing? Remember the Frenchies flying through the air end over end?’’ He laughed at the memory.
‘‘And still everybody wants them. Still, if you can’t beat ‘em, you’d better join them, I say, so here we are with more money than the state has had in centuries, nice new palaces, bigger ships, better roads, bigger horses. Roll with it Giles or it will roll over you.’’
Robert silently passed the match to Sir Giles.
‘‘You do it.’’
‘‘I think not.’’
‘‘Well, someone had better set the thing off before the French arrive to do it for us. The archers can’t keep them pinned down for much longer.’’
Giles stuck his jaw out and glared around him. ‘‘No, and why? Because we didn’t bring enough arrows, that’s why. Six more trucks and we’d have them in that wood until nightfall, whereupon they’d all creep away like sensible fellows.’’
‘‘We needed the horses to draw the guns and there wasn’t enough room on the ship for the arrows.’’
‘‘Look, Sir Giles, it’s only the first shot, after that the gun crew will handle it. Just stick the glowing end in the touch hole.’’
‘‘Oh, for God’s sake give me the bloody thing.’’ He strode up to the gun, arm outstretched. Sir Giles touched the fuse with the burning match; there was a fizz. But the gun did not go off. ‘‘Are you sure this thing is loaded? ’’ he asked pointedly.
‘‘Oh yes Sir Giles and with the finest powder too, ’’ Robert said holding up a barrel of Flaesher & Wulf of Powder Mill Lane's finest. ‘‘Wouldn't even surprise me if they had used some of our charcoal to make it either! ’’
The Genoese cross-bowman saw the English knight lean over the gun emplacement and peer into the gun's barrel. He smiled as he laid his cheek to the stock and carefully squeezed the trigger, sending the heavy bolt across a hundred and fifty yards of churned up mud in about a second and a half. He saw it strike and the armoured figure fall back out of sight, but he could never knew the great irony of frustration that accompanied Sir Giles Fitz Warren to his death.
7,265 words. J. Kim Siddorn. 13 November 1994