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Blasted Broken Bows

 

By

Grimm Wendlewulf

 

Slivers of midsummer sun entered the arrow-slit windows of the tower room and pooled their light on the flagstone floor. A gentle breeze caused the flames from the candles that supplemented the scant sunlight to dance and flicker. Sir Alan de Buxhall, Knight of the Garter, King’s Councillor and Constable of the Tower of London, sipped his goblet of Bordeaux wine and listened to his visitor.

‘His Grace the King,’ continued the rotund man as he eased himself into an inadequate chair, ‘does not know of the matter.’ The chair groaned and then resigned itself to his weight. ‘The enquiries would therefore need to be discreet.’

Sir Alan rolled his wine around his mouth before easing it over his tongue and down his throat. He observed his guest. ‘I assume his Grace of Lancaster is aware of the problem?’

‘Indeed.’

‘I would send the report to him or yourself?’

‘Myself of course. His Grace of Lancaster is very busy at present and asked me to handle the matter.’ The chair gave another groan.

Sir Alan gave one of his cold, enigmatic smiles. ‘Of course.’

The guest sipped his Bordeaux appreciatively, then returned the smile. ‘You have someone in mind for the job?’

‘I do.’ Sir Alan placed his now-empty goblet on the plain wooden table by his side. ‘I have a trusted retainer who has been with me a long time whom I tend to use for “discreet” missions.’

The guest chuckled. ‘Not old mad one-eyed Gef?’

Sir Alan smiled again.

‘Do you use him because he is good at the job or because he is a relative of yours? Is it because he always gets results or because he is cheap? Do you use him because he is exceptionally proficient or because he is expendable? He is, after all, well past the age when he should be doing no more than dandling grandchildren on his knee.’ The chair gave a groan of relief as the visitor eased himself up and placed his drained goblet on the table next to Sir Alan’s.

The Constable of the Tower of London raised his right eyebrow in what may have been a question or an act of amusement.

‘Sir Alan?’ The guest went to sit back in his chair, but it shewed its reluctance to comply by sliding backwards on the polished surface of the flagstone floor.

‘Trust me: I know what I am doing.’

Before Sir Alan’s guest could respond, there was a knock at the door.

Sir Alan turned towards the sound. ‘Yes?’

The door eased open and a tall slender man with a shaven head and a patch over his left eye slipped quietly in. ‘You asked to see me Sir Alan? Hakon said it was important.’ The man’s voice had an accent that blended soft country with lazy London.

‘Ah Geffrey đe Wulf; just the man. We have just spoken of you.’

‘Speak of the devil and lo he appears,’ muttered the plump guest to himself. ‘Well, Sir Alan, I must be off; things to do, things to do.’ He inclined his head towards the Constable and took his leave, closing behind him the door on its well-oiled hinges.

‘Drink, dear cuz?’ The Constable nodded his head towards the table with its goblets and wine-ewer.

Geffrey Wulf sniffed as he picked up a goblet, rejected it when he saw that it had been used, then selected a clean one. ‘No beer or cider then? I suppose I can make do with the red ink you tend to drink.’

‘Geffrey, dear cuz.’ Sir Alan refilled his own goblet.

‘Oh oh.’ Wulf gave the wine a cautious sip. ‘What are you up to now, cuz? Something risky if you are greasing me up.’

‘Cousin, you are so untrusting.’

‘When it gets down to “dear cuz” and being plied with wine that smells expensive, I do tend to be “untrusting”, and with good reason.’

‘Humph.’ Then Sir Alan broke into an amused smile and gave a short barking laugh. ‘We have known each other too long.’

‘Almost since birth. So what is up?’

‘A small mission, nothing too complicated for someone of your ilk.’

‘You are greasing again cuz.’

‘True. In fact it is a bit complicated. It is a bit risky. It is a bit mysterious. That and it has to be “discreet” and in fact it is a bit “secret”.’ Sir Alan drank from his goblet and watched Wulf over the rim. Seeing no reaction, he lowered the goblet and gave a bland smile. ‘In fact it is a bit like the sort of thing you like to be involved in.’

‘Secret?’

‘Well, yes.’ Sir Alan kept the fixed smile on his face. ‘Certainly secret from the Court and preferably from the King.’

‘His Grace of Lancaster?’

‘Indeed his Grace has done the asking, though it is in the national interest rather than his own.’

‘Makes a change.’

‘Geffrey!’ Sir Alan exclaimed in mock horror.

Wulf took another cautious sip of his wine.

‘No, honestly: national interest,’ Sir Alan assured him. ‘It is just that his Grace the King is rather young and has been known to be indiscreet when talking to foreign envoys.’

‘And servants.’

‘True: he likes to project himself as a lover of the ordinary folk.’

‘He does? No, never mind. So Lancaster needs a dirty or dodgy job done.’ Wulf flicked his head towards the now closed door. ‘Was that his messenger?’

‘In a way, yes.’ The Constable ran a finger around the goblet’s rim. ‘A fellow member of the King’s Council.’

‘To which you also belong?’

‘There are Councils within Councils.’

‘Something from not so much the King’s Council as Lancaster’s own Council and a task so dirty or dodgy his Grace wants to be one link in the chain away from the action in case it goes wrong and thus he can avoid getting the blame?’

‘You really are so distrusting.’ Sir Alan returned to drinking his wine.

‘I have been there and done that before. So,’ Wulf took a final sip of the wine before gritting his teeth and putting the still half-full goblet down, ‘who was your guest?’

Emrys Tyder, a baron of something or other. A small island in or near Wales.’

‘He didn’t sound very Welsh.’

‘Few of his rank do. Most have more Norman, Flemish or English blood in them than Welsh. He has only recently become a Court baron and the King has taken quite a fancy to him.’

‘Ah of course: all that inbreeding the nobility and the gentry indulge in. Marriage for advantage not love.’

‘One has to protect one’s interests. And marriage for love can also have its risks, yes? But I refuse to let you sidetrack me, Gef.’

‘And how does his Grace of Lancaster feel about a minor Welsh baron being on the King’s Council?’

‘His Grace raises his eyebrow!’

‘And uses him as a messenger boy for plots that may go wrong and which he doesn’t want to be seen running.’

Tisk, Geffrey.’

‘Yes I know: I am so untrusting.’ Wulf toyed with a goblet, running its bottom edge on the tabletop in a speculative manner. He looked up at his distant or something-or-other cousin. ‘I take it I won’t be carrying a warrant that starts: “The King to all his faithful subjects.” And ends: “Know you that whatever he has done; he has done for the good of the Crown and the safety of the Kingdom”?’

Eerr: no.’

‘The pay had better be good then.’

‘I am sure his Grace of Lancaster will be generous on the successful completion of the mission.’

‘Like my reward for the Scottish Campaign when, for pay, all I got was a hostage whose father never paid his ransom and who has been eating me out of house and home ever since?’

‘You did get to keep him as a thrall.’

‘I hear, via Friends, that his father has bred more sons on the basis that it was cheaper than paying me get his eldest back,’ Wulf snorted in disgust. ‘And said Scot is no longer my thrall.’

‘It was your decision to promote him to serf, wasn’t it?’

‘He had been working well. Though that seems to have gone by the board since my niece started giving him the eye. He now seems to spend more time mooning around after her than doing honest work. I hate to think what my brother Robert makes of it all. She can’t marry someone who is unfree, even if he is a Laird’s son.’

‘Never mind family problems. His Grace of Lancaster’s problem is more important.’

‘Right. So what is it all about?’

‘You, like me, are familiar with the sightseeing tours of France our nobility like to indulge in,’ Sir Alan stated.

‘A shove-a-shay.’

‘Geffrey: you used a French word that almost sounded as if it were French! Yes, a chevauchee. My Lord Thomas, Earl of Buckingham, has set out from Calais, with a band of fellow travellers, to visit Duke John of Brittany, who is in dispute with the French King over just who runs the Duchy. Naturally, the Earl is going via various interesting and wealthy French towns, both on the way and out of the way.’

Wulf narrowed his remaining working eye. ‘I trust he has someone of military worth with him.’

‘Sir Robert Knollys. A good man but it seems the French won’t fight …’

Wulf snorted derisively. ‘Just because they know they will lose.’

‘True, but they have started to lay waste the land before we can, which means his nibs and his army are getting hungry.’

‘So they needed supplies sent to them.’

Sir Alan smiled, ‘Well done cuz. Well, one of our supply trains near the Normandy/Brittany border got ambushed. The escort was wiped out and the supplies taken. Then two weeks ago the same happened again, only this time there was a survivor: one of the archers played dead and managed to get away after dark.’

‘Supply trains are always vulnerable, especially when in woods or gullies.’

‘That’s the thing Gef, neither was: they were on an open heath.’

‘Cavalry cut them up before they could circle the wains?’

‘No. That was the strange thing. You see not only was it an attack in an open space, where one is best able to defend a wagon train, but the cavalry just stood to one side until the French infantry arrived. Our men, of course, circled the wagons, removed the horses to the middle, upped the shafts and manned the gaps with archers.’

‘Normal practice; usually the Frogs move off after they have lost too many men to the archers. So what went wrong?’

‘Bows broke.’

‘Bows often break.’

‘All of them new issue?’

Wulf picked up his abandoned wine goblet and downed the content in one gulp. ‘Hell’s bells.’

Sir Alan went over to his chair and slumped down; it didn’t groan. ‘The first supply train lost we didn’t get any information about, but when the survivor of the second came back and reported to his garrison commander – fortunately one of Lancaster’s knights bannerette – we sent men to go over the site of both fights and there were the broken bows, as well as what was left of our men after the French peasants had plundered and pillaged them and the local wildlife had eaten their fill.’

Wulf frowned. ‘This survivor – won’t he talk?’

Sir Alan gave one of his bland smiles: ‘He can talk as much as he likes. It will take a long time for word to filter back from the remote garrison on the Scottish border where he is now based after being promoted to a Captain of Archers.’

Wulf gave a satisfied grunt. ‘So why did the bows break?’

‘That’s what I would like you to find out. That, and who told the French it was going to happen. Their confidence in the attacks shews that they knew what was going to happen.’

Wulf lifted the wine ewer, filled his own goblet and then poured a refill for Sir Alan. ‘Looks like I might have to cross the waves to that land of horrible food and bad beer to see if I can find out what is going on before any more of our brave lads get killed.’

‘You had best take someone with you who speaks French.’ Sir Alan inhaled the bouquet of his wine and then took a sip.

‘Why? I have never had a problem in the past getting Frogs to understand me.’ Wulf swilled the contents of his goblet around before then downing it all in a gulp, wincing as he did so.

Gef: speaking English in a loud voice and emphasising each word spoken by poking said Frogs in the chest with your stub of an index finger does not constitute good communications with his Grace’s French subjects.’

Wulf shrugged. ‘Worked well in the past.’

‘Yes cuz, but this is to be a “discreet” mission. You are not interrogating prisoners this time, nor intimidating French peasants who are behind in their payment of “insurance premiums”.’

‘You mean the money you got from the protection racket you ran whilst Captain and Commander of St Savvers in Normandy?’

‘Call it what you will, it gave them assurance that my garrison would not extract unfair demands of them or their womenfolk. Besides, you got your cut.’

‘Gareth speaks some Latin,’ Wulf said, ignoring the implications of what Sir Alan had said.

‘No: French.’

‘I believe my Scottish serf may speak some French; the Scots and French are allies after all.’

‘You would trust him?’

‘Call it a test of his loyalty. If he passes, I give him his freedom so he can marry my niece Gwen. If it even looks like he is wavering … he dies.’

‘You would kill him.’ Sir Alan made it a statement not question.

‘Either I or Gareth.’

‘So you are still taking the boy.’

Wulf gave a lopsided smile. ‘I can’t take any of my own sons can I? John is needed on the farm and the younger two are back in Gascony on garrison duty. Besides, Gareth amuses me, and as well as Latin he seems to have picked up smatterings of other foreign tongues, so who knows, maybe he can speak a bit of Froggy.’

‘What you really mean is that you need Gareth to see for you in the dark, and listen for you now that you are going deaf?’

Wulf just stared back at the Constable.

Sir Alan gave a gentle cough before continuing. ‘Normally I would lend you Mark the Archer of Plymouth – he speaks Jčrriais, which is sort of French – but he is off elsewhere at present. There is the Irishman …’ Sir Alan screwed up his face trying to recall the young man’s name. ‘Ari … Ari … Ari-whatsit,’ he decided. ‘He speaks bits of this and that. Maybe you should take him instead of the boy.’

‘You can afford an archer’s active-service pay plus danger money? Plus the worry that he will spend more time asleep than keeping watch? Besides, Gareth is family and he knows when to keep his trap shut. He spends enough time with Mark Archer, so I think he may have learnt some of that Jerry from him.’

A shrewd look came into Sir Alan’s eye. ‘So just what will it cost me for young Gareth’s services?’

‘Welshman’s garrison pay whilst on the job and the promise of an archer’s position in the Tower’s garrison as soon as he gets to sixteen.’

‘Done.’

‘I knew you’d say that. Just as I know you will charge him out to his Grace of Lancaster at a mounted English archer’s active-service rate.’

‘Geffrey! Dear cuz!’

Geffrey đe Wulf sauntered to the chamber door and opened it. ‘I’d best arrange shipping, Sir Alan. Any information and instructions can be sent to me at Half Farthing manor.’ The door closed as silently as it had opened.

Sir Alan smiled, and this time he smiled in earnest as he thought of the inflated costs he could charge John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, via his envoy Emrys Tyder.

 

***

 

Geffrey đe Wulf stood in the bow of the sturdy cog as it ploughed through the choppy waters of the English Channel. At his side stood a tall slim sandy-haired man. They both had their cloaks pulled tight across their bodies to keep the flying sea-spray at bay. Wulf pulled his hood further over his face before turning to his bare-headed companion.

‘It was good of you, Edward, to arrange our passage at such short notice.’

Edward Braythwayte, craftsman and trader, smiled, and the movement caused a fine trickle of water to run down his face and drip off his chin before the breeze caught it and whipped it over his shoulder. ‘It is always a pleasure to have dealings with the Wulfing household.’ His voice betrayed an accent that was part London and part Danish. ‘Besides, you have helped my wife Elizabeth and me by looking after little Eirik when we have to be away on business overseas.’

Wulf looked to where little Eirik, now not a boy but a young man almost as tall as his father, huddled under the shelter of the gunwales trying to stay dry. ‘He is a helpful lad, especially at haymaking and harvest. He is always welcome at Half Farthing; good company for young Gareth.’ Wulf looked to his nephew who was hanging onto a green-looking, tall, skinny, ginger-haired young man who appeared to be trying to fall over the side of the ship. Lachlan McLachlan, Master of Lachlan, son of Lachlan McLachlan, Laird of Lachlan, from Lachlan in Scotland, serf and one-time thrall of Geffrey đe Wulf, having lost all his food to the fishes was now trying to send his intestines the same way. Wulf shook his head in wonderment.

‘So Gef, what’s the trip for?’ Edward shouted across the sound of the choppy waves hitting the cog’s bow.

Wulf smiled at Edward and slowly shook his head.

Braythwayte wiped from his brow water which was threatening to drip into his eyes. ‘Right, so something on behalf of that crafty something-cousin of yours at the Tower then.’

Wulf smiled even more: ‘You might think that: I couldn’t possibly comment.’

‘And because of the risk of disappearing without trace next time I’m in London I won’t press you.’

Wulf smiled again: Sir Alan’s reputation was worse than the reality, but he never disillusioned anyone about the fact. ‘Soon be at Cheeryburg and then we will be out of your hair.’ Wulf took another glance at Lachlan, who had now been pulled below the gunwales by Gareth and who lay in a pool of water with a complexion near to that of seaweed.

Edward followed the line of Wulf’s sight. ‘I’m surprised you have decided to take your serf with you; all this wet weather and seawater will make his iron collar all rusty.’

Wulf acknowledged Edward’s joke with a short grunt.

‘And won’t he try and run away?’ the trader continued.

‘Not if he wants to marry my niece he won’t.’

‘Ah: it has got that serious has it? Hmm; bit of a worry, a yeoman’s daughter wanting to marry a serf.’

Wulf continued his scrutiny of his prostrate serf, who had now started shivering and bubbling at the mouth. ‘If he lives that long that is.’

‘Well,’ Edward said cheerfully, ‘if he survives don’t forget to make sure my family and I get invited to the wedding.’

Having poked Lachlan to see if he lived, and been rewarded with a whining sound that may or may not have been words, Gareth made his way cautiously towards his uncle. An especially strong wave sent the youth stumbling into Wulf. ‘Sorry Uncle.’

‘You would have been if you had made me fall, boy.’

Gareth steadied himself by pulling on Wulf’s cloak, whilst his uncle grimaced at the strain the material placed on his neck. Finally upright and his with his feet splayed appropriately to allow him to roll with the ship’s movement, Gareth raised his head and sniffed. ‘What’s that horrid smell?’

Wulf nodded his head knowingly. ‘France, boy; that is the stench of France.’

‘And,’ added Eirik, who had joined the others in the bow, ‘that is English France. Wait till you get to smell French France.’

 

***

 

Lachlan came out of the blacksmith’s workshop running his finger along the callous on his neck where his serf’s iron collar had been. He looked to his master with a wan smile.

‘Don’t get any ideas about getting above your station, my little porridge-eater.’ Wulf tossed the collar into the pile of scrap metal at the smithy door.

‘Oh aye, porridge. I’d kill tae get some scran tae scoff. Ahh gav me last feed tae my cuz Hughie.’

Wulf looked from his serf to his nephew Gareth for a translation.

‘He says he’s hungry now that he has recovered from the seasickness,’ Gareth chirpily informed Wulf.

Hmmph: one day I will get him to talk English instead of Garlic.’

‘Gaelic, Uncle, and it is not Gaelic he was speaking but English.’

‘You could have fooled me, boy. But getting some food isn’t a bad idea.’

‘Food!’ The ever hungry boy exclaimed, his face lightening up into a beaming smile.

‘He,’ Wulf jerked his thumb at Lachlan, ‘he gets the food, you get us some horses. Go to the garrison and have a word with the head ostler. I know old Albert at Lambeth; tell him I sent you. Ask where to get three decent horses and tell him I know what a horse is worth in a garrison town when the pay is twenty weeks in arrears.’

Gareth started off in the direction of the castle, muttering about being hungry and kicking any pile of horse dung that was on his way.

‘And Gareth.’

The youth stopped and sulkily turned round, glaring at his uncle under a lowered brow. ‘Yes Uncle Wulf,’ he shouted with little grace.

‘Make sure mine is a decent sized horse,’ Wulf called back, ignoring his nephew’s bad attitude.

‘In other words a short one,’ Gareth snorted to himself.

‘Do that and I’ll make sure you get well fed when you get back, boy.’

Gareth gave a half smile and started off at a jog in order to get his job completed and subsequently his stomach filled.

Wulf turned his attention to his serf. ‘Lachlan: food: you get now.’ The old archer pointed to a cook shop opposite. ‘You speakee French?’

The ginger-haired young man nodded.

‘Off you go then; just make sure no garlic is in it.’

Frenchee food with nae garlic? Man ye’ve asked frae too much.’

‘That’s right: no garlic,’ Wulf confirmed, assuming that was what his serf had said.

Lachlan approached a fat, oily man with a dirty apron and even dirtier hands who was busy turning pies out of a dish. ‘I say old chap, those look top-hole pies what? What sort of moolah are we thinking of? Eh? What what?’

The fat man’s eyes opened wide as he surveyed the tall youth whose rather tatty clothes belied his very upper-class French accent. ‘Well, my Lord, normally they would be expensive, as I am the premier pie-maker of Cherbourg and people flock for miles to queue up to buy them, but you do seem to be rather down on your luck.’ The man gestured with both hands at Lachlan’s threadbare and patched clothes.

Ah yes old boy: prisoner of the English for some time don’t you know.’ Lachlan confided, tapping the side of his nose.

‘The English.’ The man spat on the ground, missing the serf’s foot by an inch. ‘The English: no money and no appreciation of decent food. Do you know,’ the man caught hold of the tall youth’s over-shirt by the neck and pulled him down so that he could whisper in his ear, ‘they even insist I leave out the garlic!’

‘Ah yes,Lachlan agreed, taking care not to breathe in and be overcome by the French cook’s garlic laden breath. ‘They do lack finesse, what?’ He eased the fat man’s fingers from his shirt so that he could raise his head above the Frenchman’s foul miasma. ‘Actually that chappie over there,’ he indicated Wulf with his head. ‘That chappie over there is taking me back home: getting me ransom and all that. He might have some money then but as for now …’ He gave a very Gallic shrug.

The pie maker returned the Gallic shrug: ‘You have my sympathy, my Lord. By the looks of you, you have been too long in English hands, for you lack a weighty presence. Some good French food will soon put that right.’

‘And your pies look just the ticket, what?’

‘Indeed my Lord.’

‘So a reasonable price? If I take six of them?’

‘The best price I can offer without beggaring my wife and ten children.’

Lachlan gave a disbelieving look.

Well, maybe only five children, but the price will stay the same.’

‘Wonderful: just make two of them non-garlic ones. The pies that is, not your sprogs of course.’

The Frenchman scornfully shook his head: ‘Cooking without garlic cannot be done.’

‘Oh well, old chap: I suppose he won’t be able to say I didn’t try.’

Lachlan,’ bellowed Wulf. ‘You got that Froggy to give you food yet?’ He fingered the dagger dangling at the front of his war harness. ‘Do you need my help?’

‘Ach noo, Mastre Wuulf. I’ve sorted the scran wi’ the wee mannie.’ To make sure his master understood, Lachlan shook his head. He turned to the shop owner, held out some small coins and offered them. ‘About the right price given the lack of people queuing up to buy them don’t ya think? Hmm? What what?’

The Frenchman looked disgusted at the amount being offered, but took the money anyway. ‘Oh well, toodly pip, old chap.’ Lachlan lifted the hem of his over-shirt to make a pouch and gathered the pies into it.

 

***

 

Lachlan stood holding the reins of the short-legged and sturdy cob his master, Geffrey đe Wulf, rode. He looked to Gareth, who sat astride a much more impressive beast. ‘Ist this they fifth or sixth time Mastre Wuulf has had thee skitters then?’

‘French, Scots boy: French,’ Gareth reminded the serf.

‘Oh I say: what a ninny I am; forgetting just who I am and all that.’ Lachlan was now dressed in clothes which, although definitely second-hand and shabby, fitted his assumed status of a young lordling about to be released from ransom far better than his previous decrepit farm-wear. He glanced towards the bushes as Wulf re-emerged making a final adjustment of his hosen as he came.

Oi serf: you sure there wasn’t any garlic in them pies? My bum’s as red as a ripe strawberry.’

Och, I tried a get ye that, but nay Frenchie food has nay garlic: all has a wee smidgen of it.’

Wulf looked to Gareth for a translation of the Lalan Scots dialect that Lachlan spoke.

‘He says,’ Gareth informed, as he leaned to pat his magnificent horse’s neck, ‘that as the Frogs always use garlic, even non-garlic pies may have a trace.’

Wulf put his foot into his pony’s stirrup, shrugged away Lachlan’s proffered assistance, and eased himself up and into his saddle. He worked his rather small buttocks to try and provide as much padding as possible from the saddle’s hard surface. ‘Yes, well. Dirty buggers the French; I doubt that cook’s hands or his knife ever get washed.’ He gave a wince and a short gasp as his inflamed bum pressed down on the saddle. After a few deep breaths he regained his composure. ‘We had best get moving. It is a long way across land that is held by the French till we get to where the second wagon train got wiped out.’

 

***

Lachlan stood holding the reins of Wulf’s short-legged and sturdy cob, and his own somewhat slender beast.

Wulf squatted, and as he moved the medicinal smell of the ointment that coated his nether regions wafted back to Gareth, who stood behind him. The boy twitched his nose at the fumes. ‘Have you finished squatting down there, Uncle?’

Wulf straightened his back. ‘Yes Gareth I have, and stop acting as if I stink like a midden: you should smell your own stench. All that French food is killing you, boy; you can smell the rot on your breath and in your sweat.’

Lachlan and I can’t refuse the food the monks give us, Uncle; it would be rude.’

‘You could stick to bread, cheese and fruit like I do boy: far better for your bowels.’

‘When in Rome …’

‘We are not in Rome. We are in stinking, smelly France looking at what is left of an English military escort.’ Wulf stood up and surveyed the scatter of bones and shreds of cloth strewn across the dried grass of the heath. He sighed.

‘Same as last time, Uncle?’

‘Same as last time, Gareth. Chewed-up grass, and the English dead left to be pillaged, eaten and rotted with no decent burial; God damn the French.’

Gareth eased himself in the saddle. ‘I saw you looking at a few broken bows.’

‘A few, not as many as there were archers; the French must have cleared the other bows up, together with any blades the men carried.’ Wulf sighed again. ‘God-damned French.’

‘Ach, if ye are gespraecen bout they Froggies here come say noo,’ Lachlan offered.

Wulf carefully remounted his pony and waited as three riders left the rutted roadway that ran across the heath and trotted to Wulf and his party.

‘I say, how pleasant to meet with fellow travellers, what?’ Lachlan chirped to the newcomers in his posh French.

‘Pleasant indeed,’ replied a tall, well dressed man with long, curled, fair hair. ‘Your friend,’ he indicated with his crop towards Wulf, who had withdrawn within his hood, ‘– he seems rather interested in what has happened here.’

‘Oh, you mean my man? Well, old boy, he’s my huntsman, always trying to work things out from natural signs and all that. Keeps the chap amused.’

The tall man looked Wulf over and then Gareth. ‘Huntsman!’ he called out. ‘What do you think you have found?’

Gareth leant towards Wulf and whispered the question to him. Wulf whispered his answer back. The youth looked at the tall Frenchman. Pleaseth you, my Lord, he doth say a big fight hast happeneth here, perhaps even a battle. Forasmuch as the evidence appeareth to him, those whose mortal remains doth carpet the swath are God-damns.’

‘My squire is from Jersey,’ Lachlan hastily explained.

Jersey you say?’ the Frenchman commented. ‘That would explain the speech. Yes, your huntsman is right: the English were here and they died here. Dangerous times.’ He looked at Wulf, who in his shabby, faded green outfit looked the very part of a huntsman. ‘Why the whispering?’

‘Ah, yes, old chap.’ Lachlan looked at Wulf and sadly shook his head before turning his attention back to the fancy-haired Frenchman. ‘Sad story, old boy: bad whack on the old bonce.’ He leant forward on his horse and added, in a stage whisper, ‘He’s an old man and was getting deaf anyway. Quite sad.’ He straightened in the saddle. ‘Hasn’t affected his tracking skills though; the whack that is. What what?’

The Frenchman gave an inquisitive look at Wulf, as if trying to determine the truth of what he had been told. Wulf returned the look from the depths of his hood, a trickle of saliva escaping the left side of his slack mouth. The tall man turned his attention back to Lachlan. ‘I’m sorry: I didn’t catch your name?’

‘You what?’ Lachlan’s voice rose in pitch as well as in volume. ‘I say, what a bad lapse of manners. On your part not mine, my man! From your dress you are but bourgeois! How dare you question one of your betters and demand his name.’

The Frenchman went a shade of red, less from the dressing down and more for being shewn up in front of his two servants. ‘My Lord, my apologies.’ He inclined his head. ‘Your clothes misled me.’

‘Ah yes, well that’s all right then.’ Lachlan managed to sound mollified. ‘Daddy said best to dress down when on the road, what with God-damns on the prowl and all that. So my man: your name is?’

‘I am Phillipe le Strange, clerk of the wardrobe to Jourdain Taisson, who holds Saint Sauveur Le Vicomte from Bureau de la Riviere, chamberlain to King Charles.’

‘God saveth the King,’ Gareth shouted.

‘Amen!’ responded the others, except Wulf, who croaked instead.

‘In our hands now then? Saint Sauveur? Bit out of touch, yer see; thought the English still had it,’ Lachlan explained.

‘No, no, you are well out of touch my Lord. We waited till that thieving, devious bastard Sir Aleyne Boxhull,’ the Frenchman paused to drag spit into his mouth and gob it to the ground with vehemence. Wulf, having caught his relative’s name and understanding the common word “bastard”, smothered a chuckle with a minor coughing fit. ‘That cunning, crafty Boxhull went to England and then we took the place.’ One of the servants muttered something quietly. ‘Yes, yes, it took ages and we had to pay the thief Boxhull had left in charge – Carenton or Katrington – I can never get my tongue around those English names. We had to pay him thirty thousand francs to leave even then. But, yes, it is in our hands again, at last, and the God-damns had done a passable job of strengthening the castle, so I suppose the money could be looked on as payment for that.’

‘Well, my man,’ Lachlan’s tone had become quite condescending. ‘Mustn’t keep you, seeing as you must be about a task your betters have given you to do. We, ourselves, must be orf too. Going ter stay with me uncle in jolly old Nantes.’

Nantes?’

‘Yes, Uncle is a Nantes boy.’

Take care my Lord.’ Phillipe turned his horse’s head as he prepared to leave. ‘The God-damns are to the south of us and headed towards your destination. They are not the only danger: burning the crops and land ahead of them has upset the peasantry and many have formed bands of Jacquerie.’

‘Ah, well, Daddy was right with his suggestion on the shabby clothes then.’

‘Watch your accent when speaking to peasants, my Lord; they won’t be fooled by clothes alone,’ Phillipe called back as he and his two servants rode back to the track.

‘What was that about the Jackies?’ Wulf asked Lachlan in a quiet voice.

‘Oh aye, he says the Jackies are aboot and tae watch our sen.’

‘The peasants are revolting, Uncle,’ Gareth translated.

‘So are all the French, ugly buggers. As for their trustworthiness! Our own French excepted of course, though even then I have doubts.’

The three watched the French party until it disappeared heading eastward over the heath. ‘I heard that crook Carrington’s name mentioned; tell me more,’ Wulf insisted as they set off in the opposite direction.

 

***

 

Once out of view of the other party, Phillipe pulled his horse to a halt. ‘Rene.’ The shorter of his two servants edged his horse closer. ‘Rene, follow them for a couple of days. Louis and I will go back to town and see what we can find out about our friends. I mean, a shabby noble who didn’t remember his rank until I tried to get his name out of him, travelling towards an English army to stay with an unnamed uncle in a town on the path of the God-damns’ advance. A squire who looks too young for the role and speaks only Jersey French. A huntsman who speaks not at all and keeps his face well shaded and is interested in a skirmish the English have lost.’ Phillipe shook his head in amusement and disbelief and they all laughed. ‘All too questionable by half.’ He put a hand out and caught the reins of Rene’s horse. ‘Just don’t get too close to them: you must not give yourself away; and two days, just two, and then report back. With your information and my own inquiries we should have a better idea of who and what that mismatched trio are.’

 

***

 

Gareth edged closer to the sleeping man, who was wrapped in a dark horse-cloak. The youth raised his sword-length branch higher before bringing it down with a resounding crack on his victim’s head. The man groaned and moved slightly. Gareth gave him another hard whack to the head and then sat back on his heels to see if he had done his job properly.

‘Can we came oot o’ tha shilpit?’ Lachlan called out in what he thought was a hushed voice, but was in fact one that carried all around the forest clearing.

‘Ach aye: I mean: “yes”,’ Gareth replied. ‘Just make sure you let Uncle Wulf hang onto your belt as you come through the undergrowth as he doesn’t see too well in the dark these days.’

Lachlan, with Wulf in tow, emerged from the stunted bushes that edged the clearing.

‘Should I hit him again, Uncle? He is still alive.’

‘No, boy.’ Wulf let go of Lachlan’s belt and knelt by the unconscious man at his feet. He examined him and paid especial attention to the man’s head wounds. ‘He should live and with as much sense as any Frenchman ever had.’

‘Why didn’t you want him killed Uncle? I thought you told me that the only way to make sure someone didn’t raise an alarum was to make sure they were well and truly dead.’

‘Because, in this case I want him to take his tale back. We have behaved normally for the two days he has been tracking us. Now I want us to stop sleeping rough and go to a town and try and find out where our army is. If we kill him,’ Wulf moved the man about with an indifferent hand, ‘they will know we are up to no good. This way, he will go back and say what good boys we have been, and the Jackies will get the blame for robbing him. If it had been us that did for him we would have killed him, being spies, see? Now strip him and get his stuff on his horse. Leave him just his pourpoints, brais and hosen. Don’t want him catching a cold now, do we?’

Lachlan joined Gareth in stripping Rene. ‘It’s a shame it’s him; I’d ’a’ preferr’ed it if it had been that glaikit stumph wi’ the perfume and curls. He had some nice kit.’ He examined a small gold ring he had pulled off the man’s finger. ‘Ya wee nyaff. I’ll get nay a wee bawby frae this.’

‘You’ll get nothing for it.’ Wulf confiscated the ring.

Gareth looked at his uncle in bewilderment. ‘I thought you couldn’t understand Lachlan’s English?’

‘Money speaks its own language. Now hurry up and get him stripped and poor. We have to be off. And Gareth?’

‘Yes Uncle Wulf?’

‘Give him another tap before we go; just don’t kill him.’

‘Yes, Uncle Wulf,’ the boy reluctantly agreed as he took to removing Rene’s boots.

 

***

 

Wulf looked up from undoing the hobbles on the stolen horse, which had been hidden in a copse some way outside the town. ‘Well?’

‘Well,’ Gareth squatted down alongside his uncle. ‘The food at the tavern was good, though you wouldn’t have liked it.’ He picked random pieces of straw off Wulf’s back where they had woven themselves into his patched woollen cloak. ‘The bed was comfortable and I only had to share it with Lachlan and one other.’

Wulf stood and massaged his lower back. ‘At least you had a bed. This poor “huntsman” had to kip down in the stables on straw.’

Gareth stood also and continued to pick the straw off. ‘At least the straw didn’t have bed bugs in it. I got bitten once or twice but poor Lachlan has as many bites as he has freckles.’

Hmmph: that’s saying something.’

‘Indeed. He has been rubbing cold porridge onto them ever he got up.’

‘But, young man, all that information is very, very interesting, but it is not what I am enquiring about and you know that.’

Gareth ignored the sarcasm. ‘The English are about a day’s ride ahead to the south-east. The land is all destroyed and they are starving. They are down to eating their horses and nonessentials are being dumped along the way.’

Wulf pulled his hood back and ran a hand over his face. ‘Must be desperate if they are abandoning booty.’

‘And the lovely horses, Uncle. You have no thought for the horses?’

‘Transport and food boy, they are just transport and food.’

‘You would eat Jesse, your old mare back at Half Farthing?’

‘She’d be too tough to eat.’ The old archer placed the bit in the stolen horse’s mouth. ‘What shall we call you then? Snack or Dinner?’

‘Uncle!’ Gareth almost screamed.

Wulf fitted and adjusted the horse’s bridle. ‘I’ll call him Supper then.’ He gave a mocking smile to Gareth and walked back to his own mount, laughing to himself.

 

***

 

‘Excuse me, my Lord?’ The Captain of the Guard stood respectfully at the elbow of Thomas, Earl of Buckingham.

Buckingham looked up from the table where his clerk had been explaining to him details on the scroll that covered most of the table’s surface, held down at the corners by a dagger, a mace, a small rock, and an eating knife decorated with smears of cheese. ‘Yes?’

His tone made the Captain wince.

‘Well?’ asked the Earl, in a more moderate tone.

‘A man, my Lord.’

‘We have lots of men, albeit fewer than the five thousand and sixty we started off with.’

‘This one is not one of ours.’

‘Ah.’ The Earl’s voice lightened and his eyes opened wide with anticipated pleasure. ‘A French spy to interrogate!’

‘Afraid not, my Lord.’

‘Oh.’ Buckingham’s voice shewed his disappointment.

‘One of ours, but not one of ours, if you catch my meaning my Lord.’

‘What?’

‘He’s English and so is one of his companions. Not sure about the other, he could be Scots I think, or maybe Welsh; foreign anyway.’

‘Right.’ Buckingham realised he was not going to get anywhere with the conversation unless he put some effort into it. ‘So we have an Englishman, another who you think is also English, and another person of indeterminate origin.’

‘He has ginger hair.’

‘Who does?’

‘The foreign one, of course.’

‘That’s all right then; we can’t have any Englishmen having ginger hair now can we?’

‘Wulf.’

‘Sorry, Captain; did you bark?’

Er, no my Lord. His name, the English one, his name is Wulf. Geffrey đe Wulf.’

‘Never heard of him.’ Buckingham turned back to the table.

‘He says he is from Sir Alan de Buxhall.’

‘That upstart scoundrel,’ the Earl called across his shoulder. ‘Still not interested.’

‘This Wulf man, he says Sir Alan told him to say to you that he has found the pearl you lost at Mistress Jenny’s whilst hunting.’

‘Shit,’ Buckingham muttered to himself. ‘The old bastard has found out about my visits to Pearl at Southwark in Jenny Diver’s stew. Shit.’ He turned round and beamed at the Captain of the Guard. ‘Well, why didn’t you say so? Bring him in, bring him in. Though best leave the other two outside and watch the Johnny Foreigner. Can’t have him going round stealing things.’

‘You have things left to steal, my Lord?’ Wulf pulled back his hood as he entered the pavilion.

The Earl of Buckingham surveyed the tall slim man, who had the unbalanced look of a professional archer, who stood in front of him. He took in the shaven head, now somewhat stubbled. His eyes glanced over the leather patch on the left eye, and the white scar from forehead to chin which the patch interrupted. ‘You! Never knew your name but who could forget that look. Relation of Buxhall’s, ain’t you?’ Wulf gave a slow nod. ‘Recognise the arrogance anywhere; family trait I think.’ Buckingham turned round and picked up a discarded pewter goblet from the ground. He walked over to his clerk and shoved the goblet into his hand. ‘Go see if you can find me anything stronger than water to go in this, and call out before you come back in.’ He waited till the man had left before beckoning Wulf into the middle of the tent, where he felt they wouldn’t be overheard by those outside. ‘Well? What’s he want? Money for his silence? Money so he doesn’t tell my wife? Not that she’d care.’

‘No money, my Lord.’

‘Didn’t think so somehow. It’s a long way to send his familiar to collect a few coins. So what’s he after? Information?’

‘Yes, my Lord: information and co-operation.’

‘Information on whom? Who is the poor soul he wants leverage over now?”

‘Not that sort of information, my Lord. Not this time anyway.’

‘Then what sort of information does he want?’

‘Bows, my Lord.’

‘Bows?’ Buckingham shook his head and allowed a slight smile to cross his lips. ‘Into fashion now, is he? Following the foolish ways of my nephew King Richard’s effeminate Court? I do hear that yellow bows on the end of the long-toed shoes are in.’ The Earl’s voice was mocking. ‘Been a few months since I left London for these blighted lands, so maybe the bows are now pink, or green, or maybe they are out altogether and have been replaced by bells.’

‘Not that type of bow, my Lord,’ Wulf replied in an even voice. ‘War bows.’

‘War bows? What of them? I have …’ Buckingham ran his finger down the list on the scroll that lay on the table. ‘I have spares in a wagon that started out with ten boxes and ten bows per box. I am now down to …’ He checked the list again. ‘I am now down to two boxes; that’s low.’ He frowned before continuing, ‘And each archer of course has his own.’ He looked up and gave a mock apologetic smile to Wulf. ‘Can’t get the number of surviving archers till my clerk gets back, as only he knows where in this mess the payrolls are. Haven’t had to use them for quite a while, seeing as no money has been sent for a long time.’

‘Broken bows, my Lord.’

‘Oh, you want a replacement one? Why didn’t you say so. I’ll get my clerk to give you a chit for one.’

‘No my Lord,’ said Wulf in a patient voice. ‘Have you had many break?’

‘More than usual, looking at the tally sheet. Must have been the weather; too dry perhaps. In fact we have been expecting a re-supply of bows along with dried fish and other victuals for sometime, but nothing has arrived.’

‘They were ambushed, my Lord. That is one of the reasons I am here. I need to talk to the archers, and then get back and make sure you get the supplies you need.’

‘Oh, right then! Wulf? Yes, Wulf.’ The Earl gave a smile of relief. ‘That’s it then? Talk to archers about bows and find out what supplies we that need? Nothing to do with my …’

‘Need to bathe in a stew? No, my Lord. I was only told that its use would be my best passport to get to see you.’

‘Right: off you go then, and if you see my clerk chase him up for my drink, will you?’

 

***

 

‘How’s tricks?’ Wulf asked one of the Captains of Archers, as he passed him a blackjack of well-watered ale.

The man snorted and then sipped his ale. ‘Dear God, this stuff is weak enough to be Welsh ale.’ Despite his comment, he supped some more before giving his attention to Wulf. ‘Things are not right. Normally I look forward to these little jaunts through the French countryside. You know: a bit of fun, an element of danger, good pay and a chance to pick up some nice trinkets to take home for the wife. This time though,’ he shook his head despondently. ‘This time the damned Frogs have already done to the land what we would normally do as we pass through, so there is no food, no money and no booty. There is nothing but empty paddocks, ruined crops and burnt buildings.’ He took a sip from his now half-empty jack and shook his head again. ‘We can’t even liven things up by duffing up the Frogs.’

‘They are there, aren’t they?’ Wulf asked him.

‘Oh yes, they are there all right, but they won’t fight. The most they do is try and pick off our foraging parties. It is as if they are waiting for something to happen.’

‘Or they are scared shitless of us archers?’ Wulf prompted.

‘Well, maybe they have learnt their lesson about taking us on. I mean, they seem to have learnt about how to stuff up our living off the land when on a shove-a-shay.’ The Captain swilled the watery remains of flat ale around the jack.

‘Back to archers,’ Wulf prompted. ‘No problems are there? Archers up to scratch with at least 12 a minute? Enough arrows of the best quality? No bows breaking unexpectedly?’

‘Archers and arrows are fine, but it is funny you should mention the bows.’ The Captain tapped the side of his jack in a seemingly absentminded manner.

Wulf pulled up his leather drinking bottle and poured a small amount of twice brewed ale into the other man’s jack.

The Captain looked hopefully at Wulf, but no more was provided. ‘We have had a few more bows break than usual. Not so many that we would panic, but more than usual.’ He sipped his ale before continuing. ‘Snapped in half: that was the unusual thing, ’cos, as you know, bows break in all sorts of ways; but these snapped in half, all of them.’

‘Dangerous for the boys,’ Wulf commented. ‘When they snap in half the bits of wood from the stave fly everywhere – I’ve known men blinded by a bow breaking like that.’

‘Well that was the blessing you see, all those that snapped had those fancy leather handgrips in the middle. You’ve seen them: nobles with more money than sense have them embossed with their arms and give them to their household men for when they are on parade, same as they give them arrows fletched with peacock feathers.’

‘So what were squaddies doing with flash gear like that?’

‘Oh, some Gascons in Calais were selling them cheap; no embossing, see. No embossing, but they had them in all sorts of fancy colours. They said it was all the rage back in London.’

‘Not that I saw,’ Wulf said as he poured a little more ale into the Captain’s blackjack. ‘But then, I never did follow fashion. Thanks for that. Maybe I should get one for my bow, just in case it breaks.’

‘Good luck then: the Gascons did say they were in Calais for just a short while before going back to London. They said they had an appointment at the Tower where they were going to try and sell these handgrips on a bigger scale. They said they had been trying out some new bright colours in Calais, selling them to the garrison there and other archers coming through to test the market.’

Wulf gave a nod of thanks, and left. Walking quickly, he found Gareth at the horse lines admiring Buckingham’s war horse. Wulf caught the boy by the elbow. ‘Gareth, find Lachlan then get our horses ready to move. We are out of here,’ he said urgently.

Gareth eased his uncle’s hand off his elbow. ‘Don’t worry, Uncle: it is the pack mules they are eating – they are not down to the horses yet, so our noble steeds are quite safe.’

Wulf gave a hard stare with his one eye. ‘No joking boy. We leave now. We have to get to Calais fast and I need to check something on the way. Something that caught my eye earlier.’

 

***

 

Wulf squatted at the site of the second ambushed supply train and looked carefully at the piece of broken bow he held. He turned it this way and that, then sniffed the broken edges of the shattered stave. He held it up to Gareth who was standing at his side. ‘Same as the others at the first ambush?’

The youth closely examined the remains of the bow. He nodded agreement. ‘Yes: slight discolouration of the wood up from the break, which is at the bow’s belly. Also,’ Gareth rolled the piece of bow stave under his nose, ‘a strange smell where the wood is discoloured.’

‘The smell must have been a lot stronger when it broke over a month ago.’

‘Uncle …?’

‘What, boy?’ Wulf responded.

‘The way in which these bows have broken … do you think …’

‘It’s my job to think, not yours,’ Wulf replied gruffly.

Gareth pouted slightly, and scowled. ‘I suppose you think I’m not old enough to think,’ he sulked.

‘All to do with what is safe for you to know. Or to think.’ Wulf stood up. Lachlan? Bring them horses over lad, it is time we were gone before your perfumed French friends turn up again.’

 

***

 

Baron John Devereux, Captain of Calais, stood at the gate of the Castle and watched the disappearing figures of Geffrey đe Wulf and Gareth Robertson as they walked into Calais town. He turned to his garrison commander, who stood at his side. ‘Make sure they get any assistance they need, Peter.’

‘You have been most generous with them already, my Lord.

‘When dealing with a minion of our gracious Constable of the Tower of London, King’s Councillor, and creature of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one tends to be generous: one never knows what Sir Alan knows about you, nor how he may use any information he has.’

The garrison commander gave a polite grunt.

‘Come, Peter, we have better things to do than watch those two, or even that Scot of Wulf’s – the ginger-haired youth with the out-of-date court clothes.’

‘Pages to beat, sentries to harry, squaddies to drill for no good reason …’

‘And all the other pleasures in life,’ Devereux added. ‘Besides, I have a butt of sack that needs testing before we allow a shipload of the stuff to be exported to London.’

 

***

 

Geoffrey đe Wulf strode with his usual long-legged, rolling swagger. He was resplendent in green and white parti-colour. Apart from the fact that the green was slightly the wrong shade, and the livery badge on his breast was that of a seated and chained unicorn rather than a seated and chained white hart, he was wearing the livery of one of King Richard’s Cheshire archer bodyguards. His nephew, Gareth Robertson, had his arm linked into that of his uncle’s as he endeavored to make his shorter legs try and match his uncle’s stride. Gareth was fitted out in a page’s outfit in the diagonal blue and white livery of Baron John Devereux. Apart from being a bit too large for him, it was an excellent fit, and its newness was spoilt only by the splatter of gravy stains that befreckled his chest.

The reason why the physically ill-matched pair had their arms linked was to prevent them from being separated in the crowed streets of Calais. Although the garrison’s pay was twenty weeks in arrears, which was better than the six months in arrears that most of the army was, there seemed to be enough money in circulation from the civilian population to keep the traders and makers of the English outpost more than busy.

Gareth pulled on his uncle’s arm in a hope to slow him down. ‘Uncle –’ he pulled hard again on Wulf’s arm. ‘Uncle, slow down please, or else you will end up dragging me along.’

‘Just step it out boy,’ Wulf replied gruffly, whilst slowing down a mite.

After catching his breath, the youth felt capable of talking again. ‘Uncle Wulf –’ he took another gulp of air. ‘Uncle, where are we going?’

Wulf came to a stop, almost causing his nephew to trip over his own feet. ‘That bow I bought you, boy?’

‘Lovely bow, Uncle, and I am really looking forward to using it.’

‘Not yet you won’t, boy; you won’t use it till we get back to London.’

‘But Uncle –!’ Gareth started to whine.

‘No buts, boy. Push the issue and you lose the bow.’

Gareth pushed out his bottom lip and glowered under his eyebrows. ‘Yes, Uncle Wulf.’

‘As I was saying …’ Wulf started walking again, as the pair had proved to be an island around which Calais’ population swirled and eddied. ‘That bow of yours: you like the nice bright handgrip on it?’

‘Oh yes, Uncle. Especially as it is both green and yellow in bands and they are my favourite colours.’

‘As you made me only too aware when I bought it.’

‘You asked me what colours I wanted,’ the youth protested.

Wulf grunted; it was a grunt that could have meant anything from acknowledgement to disagreement.

‘I was just surprised that they had the colours I wanted, especially as most were only one colour.’

‘True,’ Wulf agreed. ‘Well, seeing as them leather handgrips are proving so popular over here, I thought I’d try and find out who was making them and how.’

‘You want to get them made in London don’t you and try and undercut the others and make money from it all!’

Wulf gave a blank look to his now excited nephew. ‘You have a wicked mind, boy.’

Gareth smiled to himself, believing he had hit the mark.

With his free hand, Wulf pulled a piece of parchment from his belt, and squinted at it. Working from the directions on the parchment, he and his nephew finally made it to the leatherworkers’ district.

Here Wulf sauntered along the stalls asking about this and that, never mentioning the leather handgrips designed for war bows, yet always gaining the information he desired by indirect means. Eventually, after mentally sifting all the information he had gathered, Wulf entered the workshop of Jan van Dunkirk, self-proclaimed master tanner and leatherworker. The old archer observed the men and apprentices working in the odorous interior, before approaching a barrel-chested man with a beard that was a blend of light-brown and grey, and which reached halfway down the barrel chest.

‘Mine Herr van Dunkirk I presume?’

Gareth’s jaw dropped to find that his uncle, whom he had always assumed monoglot, was actually speaking Flemish.

‘And who wants to know?’ the bear of a Flem replied.

‘Emmanuel’s Friend.’

This was so close to English that Gareth understood that Wulf had used the Lollard code-words.

‘What can I do for you, Friend?’ Jan indicated with his hand that they should leave the workshop and head into the yard at the rear. ‘By your accent you are from Ghent.’

‘London, actually, or near enough.’

‘You speak our tongue well, although, as you know, it varies a great deal from region to region, which was why I said Ghent.’

‘English is no different.’

‘You prefer we switch to English?’

‘Your workmen?’

‘Flemish to a man.’

‘Then English, though no doubt they understand that language too.’

‘In varying degrees, though I doubt you are here about the variances in the northern tongues.’

Wulf turned to his nephew. ‘Idle by the door, boy: you can do that with ease.’ Gareth gave Wulf a hurt look. ‘Idle by the door and make sure Jan and I are not overheard.’

Having spent years acting as an innocent-looking lookout for Lollard worship meetings, Gareth understood his role, and sauntered off nonchalantly, whistling a folk tune

‘He is a good boy?’ Jan asked, his English bearing an accent more of Newcastle than of Flanders.

‘He’s my nephew,’ Wulf replied, believing no more need be added.

‘So; I still don’t know your name?’

Gef of Surrey.’

Jan gave a disbelieving snort. ‘Well, Gef of Surrey, what can I do for a fellow Friend?’

‘For once it is nothing to do with Emmanuel’s Friends.’

‘Ah.’ Jan looked again at Wulf’s garb. ‘King’s business?’

‘You may think that.’

‘I do think that.’ Jan wiped his now sweating hands down his leather apron. ‘What can I do to help King Richard?’

‘I understand you have had dealings with the men who were making good money from the Calais garrison and any other English archer passing this way, selling them leather handgrips for their bows.’

Gascons, two of them, well at least I only ever dealt with two of them. I just sold them leather.’

‘Fully tanned leather?’

‘Actually no, cured but not tanned. That was unusual. It is not what I normally sell. I mean, why not get hold of raw hides direct from a slaughterhouse? All right, so you may have problems from the Leatherworkers and Tanners Guild,’ Jan conceded. ‘I found out later what they were doing with the hides. Very pretty colours: I wish I knew how they did it. It is not from the usual dyes we use; too vibrant. I could make a lot of money from such colours.’

‘Can you think of a reason why they might have chosen you to buy from?’ Wulf eased the patch over his left eye and edged sweat away from the bottom edge with his index finger.

‘Not really; the only difference between me and the other leatherworkers of Calais is that I am Flemish and they English.’

‘And you follow the Lollard way?’

‘There are others who are Emmanuel’s Friends.’

‘So it was just your “foreignness”?’

Calais is in Flanders: it is the English who are the foreigners here.’

‘True, but it was the French we took it from.’

Jan turned his head and spat. ‘Bloody French and their Walloon brothers. They should all get out of Flanders!’

‘Jan,’ Wulf got the Flem’s attention again. ‘Where would they get the chemicals for the colouring? I assume the basic tanning materials such as oak tannin, dogs’ turds, and urine would be easy enough to get hold of.’

‘Yes, normal tanning stuff is easily got hold of, but the colouring? If I only knew! You could ask Piers Peters the apothecary, a fellow Friend; he might have an idea.’

‘Thanks.’ Wulf turned to the doorway where his nephew was loitering with intent. ‘GARETH!’ Jan almost fell over with the shock of the volume Wulf used to summon the boy.

As soon as he recovered, Jan approached Wulf, and, switching back to Flemish, confidentially offered him some advice. Gef of Surrey, if you get into trouble, it will be from the French your king has foolishly allowed back into this town. If the French or the Walloons give you trouble, yell out for help in Flemish or English and the Flems will be only too happy to help you.’

‘God be with you, brother.’

‘And with you.’

 

***

 

‘No.’

Wulf turned his head more sideways so that he could better see Piers in his remaining eye. ‘Definitely no?’

‘Brother Gef of Surrey, as enjoined by scripture, my “yea” be yea, and my “nay” be nay.’

Wulf acknowledged the quote with a dip of his head.

‘I was not approached but Pierre was.’

Pierre?’

‘The only French apothecary in town. The Flems accuse him of being Walloon, though just what the difference is, I have no idea.’

‘I can understand Gascons seeking out fellow French, especially ones supposedly on our side, but why would this Pierre tell you they had been around?’

Piers turned and took the top off a large pottery jar, rummaged around and pulled out some dried twigs of aromatic wood. He offered them to Gareth, who had been taking great interest in the labels on the many jars and carboys within the shop part of the two storey house that was Pier’s emporium of chemicals, drugs, herbs and spices. ‘Spanish wood; very tasty.’

‘I trust what you have proffered my nephew is harmless.’

‘Of course, though he may not suffer from constipation for a while.’ Piers put the lid back on the jar and returned to giving Wulf his full attention. ‘Of course the Frog didn’t tell me. He no more trusts English or Flem than we trust him. No, it was the fact that they had cleaned him out of various items. He was clever enough to ask each of us in the Guild for no more than a small amount of a single item. But … well, it was so unusual for him to even talk to us, let alone ask for help, that the Guild members just seemed to want to mention it to each other.’

Wulf sauntered over to Gareth and sniffed the Spanish wood the boy had been chewing on and found it smelt a bit like liquorice. He came back to Piers. ‘These items: exotic stuff? Dangerous stuff?’

‘Not particularly; though, seeing as word was that they were involved in the leather trade, unusual.’ He looked across at Gareth. ‘Young man, when the flavour has all gone, spit it out, but in the street and not in my shop.’

‘Would they be useful in curing leather?’

‘What?’ Piers turned back to Wulf. ‘Oh, tanning? No, not normally.’

‘Dying leather?’

‘No, at least I think not. Maybe. Who knows what they use in Gascony? Maybe they have found new properties that no one else thought the chemicals had? When people find these things out they tend to keep them to themselves.’

‘Chemicals?’

‘Yes,’ Piers confirmed. ‘Not drugs or spices. Chemicals and not ones in general use, which is why Pierre the Frog was so easily cleared of his stock.’

Wulf rubbed his chin in thought. ‘What were they?’ he eventually asked.

‘I won’t bother giving you the names. Rare stuff that only has a complex Latin name and no common English one that you would know.’

‘Corrosive?’

‘Not really: more hardening than corrosive, which made it unusual for leatherworkers to be wanting. Leather needs to be soft and flexible, unless you want it for armour, and then the best thing is to just boil it in oil. It was the fact that it seemed so wrong for leatherworkers to be buying that made it stick in my mind.’

‘Thank you Brother: most helpful.’ Wulf opened his purse, being careful not to let Piers see just how heavy it was or what its contents were. ‘Whilst I am here I think I will buy some spices from you to take home as a gift for my wife; she likes her food more exotic than I do; she can use them next time I am away from home.’

 

***

 

Wulf nudged Gareth gently with his elbow and then, as inconspicuously as possible, undid the peace ribbons on his short sword and eased his left hand into the lanyard that hung from the centre grip of his buckler. ‘Be ready boy, we are being followed,’ he cautioned quietly.

Gareth slowly looked left and right, taking in as much of the deserted narrow street as he could without being too obvious, whilst at the same time mimicking his uncle’s movements. ‘Are you sure?’ he hissed.

‘In my waters, boy, it is in my waters.’

‘If you say so Uncle.’

Just as the words left the youth’s mouth, two men stepped out of a shop front and blocked the way. Wulf sensed rather than heard two more step out behind them. In a regularly practised and well rehearsed movement both Gareth and Wulf lifted the bucklers from the hilts of their sheathed swords with their left hands and drew their blades with their right, whilst Wulf spun 360 degrees and Gareth 180 leaving them both armed and back to back.

Two more men then appeared, one to the pair’s left and one to the right.

‘ENGLISH AND FLEMS TO ME, TO ME. WALLOON ATTACK – WALLOON ATTACK. ENGLISH AND FLEMS TO ME,’ Wulf yelled at the top of his voice.

One of the men to Wulf’s front laughed. ‘Shout all you like, God-dam-me: this is the French Quarter.’

‘I think, Uncle, we are in trouble,’ Gareth called over his shoulder.

‘Nephew, I think you are right.’ Wulf changed his stance from a hanging guard into a more aggressive high guard with his sword pointed directly over the back of his shoulder. Whilst Wulf started to weave his head and eased onto the balls of his feet, Gareth stood rock steady in his original hanging guard with his blade pointing down over the face of his buckler.

The men from either side attacked first. Wulf spun, and blocked the incoming sword using the bottom of his blade to lever against the top of his opponent’s blade, using the advantageous leverage to bring the opposing blade down whilst he smashed the boss of his buckler into the Frenchman’s face. Gareth turned slightly and waited till his foe got close and made a sweep at his leg, before thrusting forward to bind the opposing blade and buckler. He then rocked his head back before bringing it forward to land his forehead on the bridge of his opponent’s nose.

Spinning back to their original direction, they were rushed in a flurry of blades from the two men each faced. Just as it seemed they would go under in a storm of steel, a high pitched voice screamed, ‘Ha’way ye baastards. I’m a gonna banjo ye!’

Lachlan, wielding a long staff, brought the weapon in a long sweep, letting it slide though his hands till he held only enough wood to keep it in his hands. The staff hit the head of the man to Wulf’s right and smashed it into the head of the man to Wulf’s left. Whilst Lachlan proceeded to stomp up and down on the two now prostrate men, Wulf turned to help his hard-pressed nephew. Smashing his buckler into the ribs of the man on Gareth’s left, Wulf followed it up with a stab that went under the ribs and into the man’s lungs. Gareth used the distraction to make a swipe at his remaining opponent’s head; he missed, but reversed the sweep and brought the blade down into the Frenchman’s neck, causing blood to fountain up and spray both Wulf and his fallen victim.

A crunch of breaking bones made both Wulf and Gareth spin round, expecting to face the two men who had started the attack. Instead they found one wheezing his breath away from the smashed ribs that Lachlan’s staff had staved in. The remaining attacker stood with his back to a wall, blood streaming down his face from the nose Gareth had smashed.

‘See you here,’ Lachlan threatened him. ‘I know you.’ He waved the end of his staff threateningly under the man’s chin. ‘I ginna gae dig a hole frae ye.’

‘Easy Lachlan, easy.’ Wulf stood at his serf’s elbow. ‘Don’t kill him, not yet; we may get some information from him. Just tap him on the head, don’t kill him. Not yet – after we have had a chance to have a quiet word with him back at the castle.’

‘Well, Uncle …’ Gareth, having slit the throats of those French not already dead, stood up from cleaning his blade of blood on the torn shirt of one of them. ‘I suppose that answers the question of Lachlan’s loyalty.’

‘True.’ Wulf patted Lachlan’s back as the Scotsman bent to tie the hands of the now unconscious remaining French assassin.  As he walked away Wulf leant down to speak into his nephew’s ear. ‘Till now I had my doubts, which is why I didn’t bring him with us today. But he has saved our bacon, so he has earned his freedom.’

‘And the right to marry my sister?’

‘That, nephew, is up to your father, not me.’

 

***

 

‘Well?’

‘Well what?’

‘You know what!’

‘I do?’

Gef! Stop playing the teenaged coquette who hasn’t been kissed, yet wants to be.’

‘Have you ever thought, cuz, that you alone are the one teenaged coquettes don’t want to kiss?’

Sir Alan de Buxhall, Constable of the Tower of London, gave a hiss of exasperation. ‘If I offered you a jug of decent English ale would you then tell me?’

‘Ah, now you are talking. Even Calais ale is but poor stuff to London ale. As for French beer …’

‘Yes I thought so: the way to an English archer’s heart and tongue is through his gullet.’

Wulf smiled.

Sir Alan muttered to himself as he strode across the polished flagstone floor of his private chamber to a wall cupboard. He opened the cupboard door and removed a large brown jug and two earthenware goblets.

Wulf watched him from the wall against which he was slouched. ‘I don’t know why you make such a fuss, cuz: you knew I would want some decent ale before I spoke, else you wouldn’t have had that little brown jug in the cupboard instead a flagon of that red ink you try to pass off as wine.’

Sir Alan had the courtesy to give a sly smile. He poured the foaming brew into the goblets and passed one to Wulf.

Wulf smelt, sniffed and then swilled the ale around his mouth appreciatively. ‘Twice-brewed lanted ale from The Ram Brewery, Wandsworth, if I am not mistaken.’ He took another mouthful. ‘From the top of the barrel too, not at all oxygenated. You really do want me to be helpful, don’t you, supplying my favourite brew in the best condition.’

Sir Alan gave an enigmatic smile of the type for which he was well known. ‘Well?’

Wulf finished his goblet and held it out for a refill. ‘Well: I think I know what is happening. I am sure I know how it is done. I am confident I know who is doing it, though not their names. What I don’t know is where said miscreants are or how I am going to stop them; their motives are immaterial.’

Sir Alan half-filled Wulf’s goblet: ‘You think you can complete the task? Discreetly?’

Wulf slowly nodded his head. Sir Alan completed the filling of the goblet. Wulf took another appreciative inhalation of the ale’s bouquet. ‘If I need help to conclude the matter, would help be available?’

‘Impossible!’ the Constable exclaimed. ‘No Tower garrison troops would be allowed to take part in such a matter.’ He then gave a sly smile. ‘Mind, what they got up to when not on duty …’ He left the rest of the sentence hanging.

‘And duty rosters could be amended at short notice?’

Sir Alan gave another of his famous smiles.

Wulf smiled back, downed his ale, licked his lips, and smiled again. ‘Something else, cuz.’

‘Yes?’

‘Saint Savvers.’

‘Cursed place that was taken as soon as my back was turned, thus depriving me of a good revenue stream. What about it?’

‘The man you left in charge: Carrington. How much was he paid by the Frogs to vacate?’

‘Twenty thousand Francs, of which I got my fifteen fourtieths.’

‘Try thirty thousand.’

‘Was it now? Hmm: interesting.’ The Constable tapped the rim of his almost empty goblet against his front teeth. ‘I think I know people who might be interested in having a word with him over the discrepancy. A Parliament is to be called later this month. I shall drop words in the right ears.’ This time Sir Alan’s smile had a distinctly savage twist to it.

Geffrey Wulf inclined his head, and left via the door on its well oiled, silent hinges.

 

***

 

‘Hey young Seb!’ Wulf hailed a youngster with dark hair who appeared to have his clothes a mite too small for him. ‘When are you going to stop growing? You almost look me in the eye these days.’

Sebastian Wulfson, son of Mark Wulfson, an armourer at the Tower of London, gave a short laugh. ‘Master Wulf! Long time no see.’

‘I’ve been busy, lad.’ Wulf put a friendly arm on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Is dad in his workshop?’

‘Yes. Is Gareth here?’

‘Down at the Tower butts trying out his new bow.’

‘Brilliant! I’ll grab mine and join him.’

Wulf affectionately patted Seb on the shoulder and let him go. He cast an eye around the green before heading into the armoury workshop with its heat and steam. Once inside, he looked around until he saw Mark Wulfson stacking a brown bill he had been sharpening on a grindstone against a wall.

Mark spotted Wulf and held up a hand in greeting. ‘Wulf, good to see you. Have you been away?’

‘Here and there Friend. Here and there.’

Mark took Wulf’s elbow and guided him out of the workshop. ‘I am sure you haven’t sought me out just to pass the time of day.’

‘True: you know me so well.’

‘So what can I do for you, now that we are away from the noise, bustle and twitching ears of the workshop?’

Wulf took a casual look around the green and its enclosing buildings before replying. ‘Have you seen or heard of any Gascons selling leather handgrips for bows?’

‘Funny you should ask.’ Mark walked to a nearby water barrel and dipped its tethered cup into the water. ‘A week or so ago the Master Bowyer of the Tower, Dick Scrope, bought a whole swag of them from two Frenchies. Apparently they had approached the King through Guienne Herald. His Grace took a fancy to having his Cheshire archers have green and white handgrips on their bows to match their livery. Scrope is pushing for all archers in England to have bows fitted with them as he says it will help prevent bows moving in their hands when shooting.’

‘I bet Dick the Scrote is; he will be on a cut of the profits if I know him. His family has always been bent and on the make.’

‘If he gets his way it will be a big contract.’ Mark slurped down water from the pewter cup.

Wulf thought for a while before continuing. ‘Any idea where the Frogs are now?’

‘Last I heard they were headed for York, but Scrope has been buying stuff up on credit, so I suspect he is expecting to be paid out soon, so maybe they are still around.’ Mark leant over and tapped Wulf gently on the chest. ‘You should get your two-legged bloodhounds sniffing around the taverns in the city to see if they can pick up their trail.’

Before Wulf could reply, a distraught Gareth came running over, with Seb in his trail.

‘Uncle Wulf! My new bow has broken in two!’

The boy was horrified when, instead of commiseration, Wulf smiled.

‘Master Wulf,’ Sebastian exclaimed. ‘Master Wulf you shouldn’t smile. It is not funny. Gareth is very upset.’

Wulf held out his hands to Gareth and took the broken bow. It had broken in the middle, and the broken wood was that part of the bow that the leather handgrip had covered. He smiled again. ‘I’ve been expecting this.’

‘But, Uncle Wulf, I warmed myself up first on my lighter bow, and then warmed the new bow up by dry drawing it and then letting the tension off gently before taking it to full draw. I did all that I should to ensure that my first arrow on the new bow was a good one.’

‘Not your fault, boy. I have been expecting this and it confirms my suspicions.’

Gareth raised an eyebrow. ‘What?’

‘The reason the bows break is that something in the leather handgrip is drying out and hardening the wood, making it brittle.’

‘Oh.’ Gareth looked downcast. Then he frowned. ‘The smell on those broken bows that we found in France – that’s what my bow smells like now.’ His eyes lit up as they met his Uncle’s knowing gaze. ‘Ohhh …’ he breathed slowly, but said nothing more.

Wulf patted his nephew’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, lad, Sir Alan will buy you a new bow.’

Gareth smiled.

‘Not that he knows that yet,’ Wulf added.

 

***

 

Gareth Robertson, son of the miller at Waddon, sat on the hard ground in front of his Uncle Wulf’s cottage. He was cutting and fitting new wooden tines into a garden rake; it was part of a deal he had struck with his uncle in order to get some second-hand, but in good condition, ex-Tower war-arrows. Yesterday he had used the last of the long summer evening to cut off and knock out the old tines before reaming the holes in the rake-head clean. Now he was doing the precision work that appealed to his very precise nature.

Wulf sat nearby enjoying the morning sun. His seat consisted of four rounds of firewood waiting to be split. He had his back against the cottage wall and his head slumped on his chest. Gareth was on his left, so could only see his uncle’s leather-patched eye, but he suspected that his uncle was asleep as he seemed oblivious to the fact that Gifu the goat was gently chewing the edge of Wulf’s old work-shirt.

Across the farm’s garth, Lachlan and one of Wulf’s freemen were mucking out the pigsties, which is why Wulf and Gareth had chosen to sit outside the cottage, rather than in Wulf’s preferred spot outside the barn; the barn being downwind of the sties, and the cottage upwind.

After carefully checking that the latest tine was as near perfect a shape as its already fitted neighbours, Gareth tapped it into place. He held it up to the blue sky and decided it needed just a single, gentle shave on one side to get the perfection he sought. He took his sharp work-knife and started to feather the wooden tine.

Haversham, you said,’ Wulf exclaimed in a voice so loud that Gareth gave a start and took a heavier sliver of wood off the tine than he had intended.

The boy sighed, for now he faced the dilemma of either rejecting the tine, and putting himself behind a promised deadline, or handing over a less than perfect product. ‘Uncle, you have ruined it: it is no longer perfect!’

‘No such thing as perfection this side of Glory: says so in scripture.’

‘Yes, Uncle Wulf, so you often tell me.’

‘Now, young Gareth, answer my question. You did say Haversham?’

‘That’s what Dad told me to tell you. He had it from Dusty Miller when he was gossiping at the tavern after the market at Corn Hill.’

‘Dusty Miller? All millers are called “Dusty”, and for good reason lad.’

‘Yes, Uncle Wulf.’ Gareth’s tone told that he heard that information on more occasions than he could recall. ‘Dusty Miller from Haversham in Essex. I think his real name is Thomas – or is it George?’

‘No matter boy: Dusty will do.’

‘Well.’ Gareth looked at the rake head one more time before shaking his head and putting the rake down on the ground. ‘Dad says that Dusty had it from George of The Dragon tavern in Haversham.’ The youth stopped suddenly. ‘Or is it Thomas of The Dragon and George is the miller?’

‘Gareth!’

‘Oh, right, well anyway, the tavern keeper had been talking to Dusty, who may or may not be Thomas.’ Wulf gave his nephew a withering look. The boy continued. ‘Dusty told Dad that the tavern keeper had some Frenchies staying there: Gascons.’

‘Nothing unusual in that, boy; damned country is full of Frogs, mostly Gascons too.’

‘Ah, but the thing is, the keeper was charging them for the whole top floor, as the smell of their leather goods was so strong, no one else would stay there.’ Gareth, having now accepted that he would need to keep the blemished tine in the rake head, picked up the next wooden peg and started to shape it into a tine. ‘They didn’t seem worried about the extra cost. He has had customers with strong-smelling goods before and they were always happy to rent one of his sheds out back to store them in, but these Gascons didn’t want to let their stuff out of their sight, so rented the whole top floor. Normally he can sleep twelve there in three beds, but these three Gascons were willing to pay for twelve just so they could be alone with their odorous leather.’

‘Three?’

‘Three: he definitely said three.’

‘One more than in Calais. I wonder if the extra one is a bodyguard or their London agent?

‘Am I expected to answer that Uncle?’ Gareth paused in his task of shaving the peg.

‘No; just thinking aloud.’ Wulf suddenly became aware of Gifu’s eating habit and tugged his now sodden and somewhat frayed-edged shirt away from the goat, who looked at him in an offended manner. ‘Haversham is interesting, because Dick the Scrote is a Haversham man. I shall have to have him watched; and watched by someone he hasn’t seen around the Tower.’ Wulf stood up. ‘Gareth, when Aunt Lucy asks for me, as she inevitably will, tell her I have business in Fulham seeing a Friend, and won’t be back till suppertime.’

 

***

 

Wulf sat on the edge of a clearing in the Hainaught Forest and watched as two dark shadows flitted along the tree line towards him. He turned to his nephew Gareth. ‘I think there is movement.’

‘Yes: two, and headed this way,’ the boy, who often acted as his uncle’s night-time eyes, replied.

‘Mark the Archer of Plymouth, and Lachlan?’

‘Too far to see, but one is solid built so that could be Mark. The other is tall and slight, so that could be Lachlan.’

A dark being behind them leant forward and whispered in Gareth’s ear, ‘Yes, Mark and Lachlan, clear as a bell.’

‘Thank you, Hakon the Falcon; I have no doubt you are right as usual.’

Hakon pulled back with a smile, then thought about Gareth’s words and wondered if they were complimentary or sarcastic. He turned to make a comment to Airka, but found that his fellow archer was sound asleep.

‘Wulf?’ the first shadow asked.

‘Mark?’

‘Well it isn’t Lachlan, ’cos you could understand me!’ Mark answered in his soft Devon accent.

Wulf gave a grunt of acknowledgement.

‘Ach Mastre Wuulf hae we got same news frae yew!’ Lachlan contributed.

Wulf beckoned the two newcomers to follow him deeper into the woods, hooked his hand into Gareth’s belt, and stealthily crept towards a clump of fern guarded by the tall gangling Lyulf.

Gareth tapped Wulf’s wrist to warn him that they would stop. Wulf let go of his nephew’s belt, and felt with his hand for obstacles on the ground before sitting down. ‘Well, Mark, what’s happening?’

Mark also sat down. ‘As Lachlan said: some news.’

‘Was that what he said?’

Gareth sighed. ‘You know it was, Uncle. I’m sure you only pretend that you don’t understand Lachlan’s Laland Scots.’

Wulf gave the boy a hard look, trusting that Gareth would perceive it more clearly than Wulf could perceive his nephew, before turning back to Mark. ‘What news then?’

‘As ordered, Lachlan has been spending an inordinate amount of time in The Dragon Tavern. God alone knows how he manages to stay sober.’

‘Or spend so much money staying sober,’ Wulf muttered.

‘Today the three Gascons met with a fourth man. Now he too was French, but whereas they speak Guienne French he spoke the French of the Isle de Paris, or posh French if you like.’

‘Ah,’ Lyulf interrupted. ‘The French the Gascons speak is langue de oc, which is nearer to the language spoken by the Catalans of Spain than to the various Germanic-influenced French dialects spoken in the north, which, lumped together, are known as langue de oil …’

‘Later, Lyulf, later,’ Wulf requested. ‘Mark: you were saying?’

‘There is a meeting in the Forest near here with a man they say is their “contact of importance” in the Tower.’

‘When?’

‘Tomorrow night.’ Mark Archer eased his buttocks on the hard ground. ‘Your serf has done well for you Gef. I trust you will reward him?’

‘If it comes off, Mark, then, and only then, will he get his reward.’ Wulf held out his hand for Gareth to pull him up and guide him to the bivouac that would be their shelter for the night.

 

***

 

Shafts of moonlight cut the dark gloom of Hainaught Forest. Wulf and his party huddled down behind ferns and scrub and strained their ears trying to make out what was being said by the others ahead of them amongst the trees.

A rustle of ferns indicated Gareth’s return. ‘Uncle, it is Dick Scrope from the Tower: I recognised him. I’m not completely sure of what was said as my standard French isn’t the best, but it seems the posh Frenchman is an agent of the French King. He is here to pay off Scrope for getting our King Richard to order all English archers to have the Gascons’ leather handgrips fitted to their bows.’

‘Right.’ Wulf tapped the wrists of his marksmen, Hakon and Mark. ‘Take out the Frogs. Leave the Scrote; I want him alive.’

Cloud covered the moon, plunging the trees into darkness.

Unworried by the stygian black, the marksmen edged forward and then, as the moonlight just started to break through the clouds, they stood up. Their first arrows hissed through the air followed by two more. Four soft thumps told that they had hit soft flesh. Dick Scrope screamed and then ran. Lyulf and Airka took off after him.

‘Uncle?’ Gareth asked. ‘It is dark, so dark, even the eagle-eyed Hakon couldn’t have seen their targets, surely. How come they still shot?’

‘And got four men with four arrows,’ the exultant Hakon reminded Gareth.

‘An old English archers’ trick,’ Mark of Plymouth supplied, as he joined Gareth and Wulf.

‘Eh?’ Gareth’s puzzlement was etched on his face and visible to all, now that they were bathed in moonlight again.

Wulf chuckled at his nephew’s bewilderment. ‘Smell, lad: they shot not by light but by smell! You can smell a Frenchman’s position by his stink of garlic, cheap perfume and stale urine.’

‘What was that?’ asked Airka, holding a struggling Dick Scrope by the scruff of his neck.

‘Shooting by smell,’ explained Hakon.

‘Oh that.’ Lyulf kicked Scrope in the back of the knees, forcing the man to crash to the ground. ‘The only way to kill French sentries at night.’

Airka placed his leg across Scrope’s neck whilst he tied the fallen man’s hands behind his back. ‘I thought everyone knew that.’ Checking Gareth couldn’t see him he winked at Wulf.

‘Uncle!’ Gareth’s temper flared. ‘Uncle!’

Wulf sighed. ‘Gareth, you are not shooting Frenchmen yet, in fact you have yet to be employed as an archer. You would have been told but only when you needed to know. We don’t want the Frogs knowing our secrets, now, do we?’

‘No, well, I suppose not.’ Gareth’s voice sounded pacified, but his look wasn’t.

Wulf walked over to Scrope. He flicked his head at Airka, who dragged the man to his feet. ‘Dick the Scrote, Master Bowyer of the Tower of London, England’s prime armoury, you are responsible not only for making bows for our armies, but for inspecting a random selection of bows made by others. By your dealings with these French and accepting their bribes you have identified with those who have caused the death of many good men of this nation. Your planed actions, if carried out, would have caused the death of many more. I hereby find you guilty of treason and sentence you to hang.’

Scrope tried hard to speak, mouthing for some time before words could come out. ‘You have no right,’ he finally managed.

Wulf pulled out a piece of parchment and proceeded to read to the condemned man: ‘The King to all his faithful subjects.

‘Know you that Geffrey đe Wulf of Half Farthing is a faithful servant of the Crown, a retainer of our true and trusted Councillor Sir Alan de Buxhall Knight of the Garter.

‘Know you that whatever he has done; he has done for the good of the Crown and the safety of the Kingdom.’ He smiled. ‘In other words, Dick the Scrote, I can do whatever I like and there is no consequence.’ Wulf walked behind Scrope and threw a bowstring round his neck. Airka, Hakon and Mark grabbed the condemned man and lifted him high whilst Lyulf climbed a low branch of an oak tree and secured the other end of the bowstring around it.

Wulf waited for Lyulf to nod that the string was attached. He looked at the now frantically struggling Scrope’s face with no emotion. ‘Turn him loose.’ The retainers stepped away and the Master Bowyer commenced his dance of death as the bowstring cut into his throat.

Gareth looked away and swallowed. ‘Uncle, I thought you told me that Sir Alan had said that you wouldn’t have the King’s warrant?’

Wulf passed the parchment to his nephew: it was blank.

 

***

 

‘So that was how it was done?’ Sir Alan passed an earthen goblet of best ale to Wulf.

Wulf took it and nursed it in his hand to warm the ale, which was still at cellar temperature. ‘I’m still not sure of what chemicals they used or how they mixed them, but yes, I know what the mixture soaked into the handgrips did to the wood of the bows.’

‘But Dick Scrope? Gascons – well, I am always warning his Grace the King about them and the fact that they are loyal to him all the time it serves their purpose, but that when it does not they will turn to the false French King instead.’ The Constable shook his head.  ‘But Scrope, our Master Bowyer …’

‘Blood will out. I remember old family stories about his lot on the Welsh Marches at the time of Willie Bastard.’

‘That was three hundred years ago Gef!’

‘Blood will out. A money-greedy family is always a money-greedy family.’

‘Talking of money, dear cuz.’

‘His Grace of Lancaster isn’t going to pay me any?’

‘He had rather hoped to reward you from anything taken when the guilty parties’ property was seized.’

‘So you haven’t told him about me giving you Scrote’s bribe from the French agent?’

Sir Alan de Buxhall gave his signature bland smile. ‘He would have underpaid you, whereas I, after allowing for expenses and disbursements to others involved, have passed a handsome portion of the money taken on to you.’

‘His Grace got nothing of the French money?’

‘Nothing was asked for. His Grace believes that our traitorous bowyer hanged himself out of remorse. He has, of course, confiscated the dead man’s goods, but the bribe was still in French hands at the time of Scrope’s death, so not part of the confiscation. His Grace seems unaware of the bribe.’

Wulf looked questioningly at Sir Alan.

‘Don’t look at me like that, Gef. Something must have got lost in the transmission of the news of your success. Don’t forget that what you told me got to his Grace via his Welsh emissary, Baron Emrys – and you know how the Welsh often get our language mixed up.’

Wulf shook his head in disbelief. He decided not to push the matter. ‘And the leather handgrips on the bows?’

Sir Alan looked thoughtful for a while, then smiled again. ‘Parliament, I am sure, after hints from his Grace of Lancaster, will pass a bill insisting that all such items be made in England and supplied only by trusted and licensed makers.’

‘And as Constable of the Tower of London, the country’s primary armoury, you will be the license issuer and thus in line for small considerations of money in exchange for said license?’

Sir Alan smiled, broadly this time. ‘I will have expenses, cuz.’

‘What about the ones already issued to the Cheshire archers?’

This time Sir Alan’s smile almost split his face. ‘I have heard that the King of Scots is to raise a body of archers as his personal bodyguard, in imitation of our glorious King Richard. He is said to be having problems sourcing good yew bows. Following on from your investigations, I have not been inactive, and have found we have a slightly bent storeman at the Tower, who, if words were dropped in his ear by a Scotsman of noble bearing …’

‘Such as Lachlan?’ Wulf hinted.

‘Such as Lachlan,’ Sir Alan agreed. ‘If words were dropped in his corrupt ear, he might be tempted to make an informal, unrecorded transfer of the contaminated bows to Berwick, where they might, if circumstances allowed, be “acquired” by the Scots.’

‘And if the bows break?’

‘One less corrupt storeman, courtesy of the Scots, who no doubt will want revenge.’

‘And no-one asking for their money back.’

Sir Alan smiled at Wulf, his something-cousin. ‘With this new traitor’s goods confiscated.’

Wulf gave a grunt. ‘One more thing cuz.’

‘Yes Gef.’

‘Mark the Archer of Plymouth. He tells me that when you thought I had been so long in France without sending you word, you wondered if something may have happened to me, and at that point you had started to prime him to start making the same enquiries I was sent on.’

‘Well, I was worried something had happened to you, dear cuz.’

‘So worried you didn’t send someone looking for me in case I was in trouble, but rather was going to send someone to complete the task you had sent me on.’

Sir Alan smiled again. ‘You are an archer, Gef: you know it pays to always carry a spare bowstring, just in case.’

 

***

 

‘Just hold her steady, Gef,’ requested Robert, Wulf’s younger brother.

Geffrey đe Wulf laid his shoulder into Robert’s milch cow and held her bridle tight, at the same time whispering reassuring words into the animal’s flicking ear.

Robert ran his hand across Buttercup’s bloated stomach area until he was sure he had the right place, then, in a strong straight movement, plunged a sharp two-edged dagger into the cow’s belly. Buttercup sagged as the gas came out. Robert staggered as the stench hit him. Wulf turned his face into the wobbly cow’s neck as the animal went down on her knees.

‘How come she had bloat this time of year Robert?’ Wulf’s voice was muffled by a lump of rag he now held close to his face to keep out the dispersing smell of cow belch.

‘Who knows? She has been eating something she shouldn’t have,’ replied his brother, who now also had rag held firmly across his nose and mouth. ‘I spend too much time at Waddon Mill and not enough time here at Wallington. It is all getting a bit much, and likely to get worse if my son Robert decides to go back to France with the army.’

Seeing that Buttercup the cow had now recovered her feet and had started to search the barn for some dry fodder to eat, Wulf indicated that they should leave the byre and get out into the fresh air. ‘I could give you Lachlan to help out. Gwyn has been asking me.’

Robert chuckled. ‘I think her wanting Lachlan here has very little to do with keeping an eye on Buttercup and the other stock.’

‘True,’ Wulf conceded after taking a good lungful of fresh air. ‘You object?’

‘He is a good lad and can be hard working.’

‘When his mind is not on Gwyn?’

Robert chuckled again. ‘And these days she is all he seems to be thinking about, to my observation.’

‘And Gwyn?’

‘You tell me,’ stated Robert, as he indicated that he and his brother should remove to the small wooden cottage that was his home. ‘Gwyn seems to spend more time at Half Farthing than here: if she spent half as much time keeping an eye on Buttercup as she does at your place keeping an eye on Lachlan, my old milch cow wouldn’t have got bloat, I’ll wager.’

‘You’d let them marry?’

‘Ah.’ Robert halted. ‘He is unfree, albeit a Scottish Laird’s son.’

‘And if I were to free him?’ Wulf asked.

‘Would you though?’

Wulf took his brother’s elbow and took him back on the route to the cottage. ‘He saved my life and your son Gareth’s life whilst we were in Calais. I still didn’t fully trust him at that stage and had sent him off with a few coins to have a drink and a meal. He heard something at the tavern he was in and suspected we might be in trouble: his knowledge of French – very handy.’

Robert opened the door, and they stepped into the cool darkness of the living room. Seeing Gwyn in the back of the room preparing a lunch, he held his finger to his lips to ensure Wulf’s silence.

The slim maid tripped over to them with a platter of bread and cheese. As the men sat down at the wooden table, Gwyn returned with wooden goblets and a stone crock that had condensation on its outside. ‘Elderflower wine, chilled in the well.’ She smiled becomingly and went outside.

‘She is greasing us up.’ Robert poured the wine into the goblets. ‘Normally this stuff is only given out on high feast days!’

‘So, if Lachlan was free, they would be allowed to marry?’

‘Money.’

‘Ah.’ Wulf sipped the superb wine, which had been made by his niece’s own fair hand. ‘You know I accept scripture’s ruling that all men are equal before God!’

‘Money,’ Robert insisted.

‘And to meet scripture’s injunction, I have no serfs on my manor, bar Lachlan and that only because his father failed to pay his ransom. Those who were there when I took the lease I allowed to keep any money they made from their labours in their own time.’

‘Less your fifteen fourtieths,’ Robert interrupted.

‘As their owner, I could have claimed it all.’ Wulf picked up the loaf of bread and started to cut slices off it with his fighting dagger, Mildred. ‘But I let them keep most of what they made and then allowed them to buy their freedom, which is more than many are doing in these days when labour is hard to get, what with disease and all that.’

‘So Lachlan has money then?’

‘More than he will admit to, I am sure; him being Scots and all that. In fact I know he has a passable sum.’

‘He shewed you?’ Robert pared cheese with the same blade he had used on Buttercup.

‘No: after the stoush in Calais, I let him rifle the purses of those we killed and take their blades to sell.’ He refused the cheese that Robert offered him, and cut his own using Mildred.

‘Still may not be enough for my daughter’s dowry.’ Robert put the rejected slice of cheese into his own mouth and started to munch it.

‘He then got a cut of the money we took from the French agent.’

‘Did he now?’ Robert picked up a slice of bread and commenced to pare another slice of cheese to go with it.

‘And he may have also got some from Sir Alan.’

Gef, you don’t mean to say that our cousin Sir Alan de Skinflint-Buxhall is paying him from his own purse?’

Wulf gave a sly smile. ‘Sir Alan is paying him from the French agent’s money.’

Robert looked at Wulf sideways. ‘Which you had already taken money from!’

‘Brother!’ Wulf gave a mock hurt look. ‘I gave Sir Alan the whole purse, less expenses and disbursements of course.’

Robert finished his mouthful of food whilst studying his brother’s face. ‘All of it?’ he asked.

‘Less my finder’s fee of course.’

‘Of course,’ Robert smiled. ‘You had me worried there for a while, Gef; going against your nature and all that.’

‘So, given that I will reward Lachlan for saving my life and your son Gareth’s life by granting him his freedom, and given that, one way and another, he has a goodly sum of money behind him … will you let them marry?’

Robert picked up his half-finished food, took up his wooden goblet of wine, and stood by the door.

Wulf ate what food he wanted and then joined his brother.

Robert looked at the barn, where Gwyn and Lachlan were bringing out Buttercup. ‘As I said earlier, my Robert is hankering after going to France for some garrison duty – says he thinks he has more chance of earning some decent money there than here at the mill.’

‘A “Sir Alan” type protection scheme for oppressed French peasants?’

‘No doubt he has something like that in mind, though he be only a yeoman archer and not a Captain and Commander.’ Robert eased his back against the door’s lintel. ‘If he goes, I will need a new leading hand at the mill.’ He watched Lachlan bring Buttercup out of the bryre on her lead-rope.

As Lachlan headed towards the pasture, Gwyn ran to join him; he took her hand in his free one.

Wulf laughed and pointed. ‘Well Lachlan looks like he is a leading hand already!’

Robert smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

As Lachlan, with Buttercup and Gwyn in tow, left the holding’s garth, the girl began to sing in her high melodious voice:

‘I like to rise when the sun she rises

So early in the morning;

I like to hear them small birds singing

Merrily on the lea land.

It’s huzzah for the life of a country boy

And to go rambling in the new-mown hay.’

Wulf toasted them with the last of his elderflower wine. ‘Scot free, that Scot; I let him go scot free.’

 

 

***

 

Footnotes

 

English possessions in France at the time of this story

In addition to their lands in Gascony, the English held the towns and surrounding lands of Calais, Cherbourg, and Brest.

 

Buckingham’s Chevauchee

In July 1380, Thomas, Earl of Buckingham, son of King Edward III, led a chevauchee with Sir Robert Knollys and 5,060 men from English-held Calais to support Duke John of Brittany in his dispute with King Charles V of France over the said king’s authority in the semi-independent county.

The English were confronted by the Duke of Burgundy at Troys, but the French refused to engage in open battle.

The new French tactic was to operate a scorched-earth policy in front of the English army, to shadow and harass foraging parties, and to retire to fortified towns when challenged: the English having no siege train with which to take any town with more than scant fortifications.

As a result of the French tactics, the English army was constantly short of supplies and often had to rely on relief supply-trains reaching them.

The campaign ended in September with the siege of Nantes.

Whilst Buckingham was besieging Nantes, King Charles V of France died. In November, the siege of Nantes broke up after Duke John of Brittany reconciled with the new French King and agreed to pay Buckingham and the remains of his army 50,000 francs to go home.

 

St Sauveur le Vicomte, Normandy

The castle had been held by either the English or their supporters since the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Following the battle of Auray, Sir Alan de Buxhall was installed as Captain & Commander. Such were the excesses that he and his garrison imposed on the local population that, in 1374, whilst Sir Alan was in England, King Charles V of France moved against the castle by land and sea in a campaign overseen by Sir Jean Vienne and supported by nobles and knights of both Normandy and Brittany.

The man left in charge – who was called either Carenton or Katrington – had been left with but five knights and a reduced garrison of mainly archers. By May 1375, the English still held out, but supplies were running low. As was normal in these matters, a day was set in July and if by that time no relief force had arrived the garrison would vacate. Seeing as, by this time, the treaty of Bruges was in place and the English and French were under a general truce, a large sum was to be paid to Carenton as a consideration for him and the garrison to vacate.

At a later date, Carenton was charged with treason by the family of Sir John Chandos, who had been Commander of St Sauveur before Sir Alan. Carenton denied the charge, and King Richard II agreed to let him settle the matter in a trial by combat.

In the duel, Carenton received fatal wounds.

 

Scot: a payment; an assessed contribution; a fee; a form of tax. ‘Scot free’ – escaping without paying, or escaping blame.

The Domesday book contains the phrase: “Scoetfre and gauelfre, on scire and on hundrede.”

This is easily translatable into modern English on knowing that a ‘gavel’ was a tax or tribute and a ‘hundred’ was a subdivision of a county or shire.

 

Lollard: a proto-Protestant. Lollards are often said to be followers of John Wycliffe, but they are better thought of as being “inspired” by Wycliffe.

John Wycliffe made or oversaw the first translation of the Bible into English since Anglo-Saxon times. His disciples at Oxford University not only helped with the translation, but they helped to distribute parts of the scriptures to others, often to “hedge priests” who disguised themselves as friars and who passed on or copied and distributed other copies. There was no formal organisation, and it was rather an underground movement of like-minded folk. It could be said that Wycliffe provided an ability  to read the bible and provided theological grounding for much of the already prevalent anti-clericalism of the period.

Whilst there were some Lollard knights, most Lollards were from the yeoman and mercantile classes; they were a literate middle class.

Just how much the misnamed Peasants’ Revolt was influenced by Lollard ideology is open to debate.

 

Pourpoint: a waistcoat-type undergarment to which hosen could be attached.

 

Braise: underpants.

 

Hosen: leggings that served as trousers. Whilst later they were a one-piece garment, at the time of the story they tended to be single-legged and attached to either pourpoints or a soft belt.

 

Double Brewed: after original fermentation more malt is added to an ale or beer to restart the fermentation and increase its alcohol content.

 

Lant: to add urine to ale or beer to strengthen it.