Scared Saltpetre Suppliers
By Peter Longmire
The air was stale with the aroma of slow-roasting meats and the clanging of tankards; the atmosphere of London on Christmas Eve was one of gay joy and flowing drink before the morning Mass. But atop the stone battlements of the Tower, a lone archer stood shivering against the bitter cold. The night carried a light dusting of snow and ice that clung to any ledge or shoulder. The archer steadied his grip on his longbow and looked forlornly at the other soldiers in the barracks warming themselves around a brazier large enough for an obese witch.
Down in the city below he could hear the merrymaking of its inhabitants, the verbose cries of drunkards and the infuriated insults of their wives. To the archer the repetition became little more than ambiance to an otherwise repetitious task.
Another archer, taller than the first and wrapped in a thick cloak, stepped out of the nearest watchtower. He inhaled the frozen air and reluctantly made his way across the icy battlements, each step threatening to sweep him off into the bailey below. He stopped beside the first and they stood in a moment’s silence.
“They’ve finished another barrel of French wine,” the tall one said.
“Thank you, Lyulf,” Hakon breathed.
“A pity, Hakon, that you’re on duty today ...” Lyulf said. “I brought you a drink.”
Hakon took the outstretched tankard and drank greedily. “Thank you,” he said. Then, watching lights moving down by the river, he said, “Has the Irishman returned yet?”
“He was supposed to get back before the people had too much. ... You remember the previous year?”
“Of course! Who could forget a burning cart being pushed into the river?”
As the lights became closer, they could see three figures moving with a horse and cart through the streets; two led while the other fought back the hordes of drunks who seemed determined to add cart-tipping to the night’s itinerary. The man on the cart using superfluous violence was very clearly of Airka’s build even at this distance.
A large stave was in his hands. Memories of the Pale flooded back to him like drink at an Irish tavern. An opposing figure loomed before him, a clay jug of alcohol in its grasp. Without warning, the Irishman swung and struck the man down with a heavy blow to the skull. Ten more stormed into the street, eager to replace the fallen man. Airka swung again, driving off the hordes of drunkards trying to swarm them and disrupt their precious cargo.
A man in the crowd, unable to stand without leaning on the building he was currently soiling, shouted out to them. “Hey! Piss-men! Did ya ... Dis da wants som of mine?” A blunt object struck him in the head.
The two leading the horse and cart watched with horror as their escort pounded the liquor out of any merrymaker that even looked at them funny. They only thanked God that the Constable had forcibly taken the Irishman’s arms for the night, as, Heaven forbid, what might have happened if he had been given steel.
The saltpetreman, at the head of the horse and cart, tried to interrupt. “Is this all absolutely ness...?” The Irishman’s intent stare, now firmly focussed on him, stopped him.
It took several minutes before they reached the Tower. Hakon and Lyulf descended from the battlements to help receive the cargo. Leading the horse and cart, the saltpetreman and his apprentice entered the Tower’s bailey with their courage wrung. The saltpetreman stopped in front of Lyulf muttering about the ‘whites of his eyes’ and continued onwards, apparently oblivious to the world around him. His apprentice was equally traumatised.
The two retainers observed them carry on, and then looked towards Airka kicking an already submissive man before the Tower gate, a stolen leg of roast in his free hand. Tidying his tunic and spreading oils from the fabric, Airka entered the Tower bailey and smiled at his fellows.
“Good night?” asked Hakon.
“Filled the cart up all the way even through the constant attacks upon my person and the King’s property!” Airka replied. “The bastards, trying to take the piss out of me like that.”
Hakon and Lyulf glanced at each other.
“Right,” Lyulf said, “Irishman, there’s drink in the barracks; the Constable shouted.”
“Very kind of him,” Airka said, beaming. He took a bite from the roast that he carried in his nitrate-soaked hands. “Are you joining us, Hakon?”
“Duty,” Hakon replied.
He was regretful that he was not going to see Airka embarrass himself again during this year’s celebrations. Last year the Irishman had boasted that he could escape from any restraint, and had stayed in chains for several days after his fellows forgot about him, failing to live up to his claimed exploits.
“Oh, well,” Airka said, handing Hakon what remained of the roast and following Lyulf to the barracks.
Hakon stood there for a few minutes staring at the piece of nitre-soaked meat before hurling it into the darkness. The muffled cry of the saltpetreman broke the snowy silence. Until the Irishman’s boasts began.